The guitar strumming began and my new friends broke into song. Effortless but chord-perfect they picked their way through a repertoire that ran the full gamut from the Beatles to local folk. The impromptu gig was punctuated with banter and wit; conversation was lively and thought-provoking; songs alternated between deeply familiar and wholly foreign. One struck a particular chord and has never left me; an intangible reminder of that strange and unexpected encounter.
I’d met my new friends just a few hours earlier in a local steak joint. Friendly and undaunted by the gauche timidity of my teenage self, they accepted me readily and easily. I can still picture the strip lights of the restaurant rendering hiding impossible. Everything seemed new and exciting, and though there was nothing unusual about the place, I struggled to take it all in. It was no wonder then that, a few hours later, in the living room of a strange house, I should feel such a thrill. Who were these strange new friends? And why were they interested in me? Questions traded with discovery and the hours melted away. The night ended in the hour before dawn as I learned the Cumbia dance, feeling uncoordinated and embarrassed; exposed and exhilarated. Heading back to the hotel room, everything looked the same as before; everything was as we had left it. And yet something had changed; I’d had a glimpse of strange new territory and something had shifted.
The next day we headed to a gathering with our new friends. En route, they took a detour to a pretty lakeside region in the mountains. Autumn leaves were falling but the sun was brilliant in the bright blue sky. They led the way and we chatted like the best of friends. The truth is that I barely knew these people – but they were interested; they were generous; they had depth and joie de vivre.
A few hours later we arrived at the gathering where large groups of strangers clustered in the garden. Their insouciant body language hinted at people among good friends. And yet there were so many of them: thirty or forty easily. I found myself alone and wished I could have stayed with my new friends in the mountains of Carlos Paz. As I brooded, a girl made her way over, and picking my way through the exchange in broken Spanish, I was once again struck by interest, warmth and sincerity. I confided in her about my concerns for the trip; my fear of meeting new people; and my reluctance to break away from the old. “All experiences are good experiences in the end,” she told me. “Even a bad experience is eventually a good experience. It’s always better to have had the experience than to have not had the experience.” Her words were so profound for me in that moment that I have never forgotten them, even 11 years on. I don’t know her name and I have no recollection of her face but her gentle encouragement has always stayed with me.
As I boarded the coach and took the 12-hour journey back to Mendoza, I had time enough to reflect. And I think it’s then that I realised that home is a feeling not a place, and that I may have found mine in Argentina.