Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Plans, Plans, Plans

So, I’ve finally gotten around to writing the last chapter of my Argentina trip.

After Iguazu Falls, we took it easy and tried to recuperate from the long (20 hours) bus ride. But Robert and I both had ideas on how to keep busy…

Robert mentioned that he really wanted to go to a soccer game, and I said I would go with him as long as he did all the work. So, one morning he went with the other American guy, who was staying at the guesthouse, to buy some tickets for the weekly Boca Juniors game (a local BA club team). Robert and John came back a little confused and worried that they were sold “the dangerous seats.” I was even more reluctant to go, but a deal is a deal. So, we headed out early to figure things out at the stadium. Talk to a scalper for better tickets? Sell the tickets and just go home (yay!)? Well, we ended up talking our way into the safer section of the popular section (in other words cheapest), and as fortune would have it, these turned out to be the best seats in the stadium, in my opinion. We were safely under the overhang of the upper level of seats, so we didn’t get soaking wet from the rain. Also, we were at the upper tier of the cement bleachers, so there was more access to the exit and maybe slightly less shoving. Plus, we had an excellent view of the field and were still amidst the passionate crowd. There was singing, dancing, jumping, shouting, flag waving, unfair refereeing, bored riot police, and a ton of rain. All in all, an authentic and different experience for me. I can’t say I’d go to another soccer game, I don’t understand and have a hard time appreciating all the passion and energy that goes into something I find so pointless. That said I cheered along for Boca’s smashing victory!

The next day we had an early appointment to visit a nearby estancia (ranch). This is a fairly popular tourist endeavor – go to a ranch, watch the gauchos, eat barbecue, ride horses, and other such things. Robert was very instrumental in making this happen, and I was glad he thought of it. It was hard waking up early in the morning after getting home from a soccer game after 1AM, and it was expensive to spend the day at the estancia, but it was definitely worth it. The air was fresh out in the country, and it was wonderful to have some space and quiet. As a side note, there were these funny little owls that lived in holes they dug in the ground -- very silly little things! We rode horses for about an hour and a half, ate some wonderful barbecued beef, swam in a swimming pool, rode horses for a few more hours, and went home full and utterly exhausted.

The next day my whole body had rebelled against the abuse of the past few days (sitting on cement bleachers, standing for long hours, riding horses, etc) and I felt like warmed over death. My back ached, my legs ached, my head ached, and my fever struck mercilessly. I was a horrible wreck. Robert was in slightly better shape, but only slightly.

After some rest and relaxation, and eating a bunch from the take out Italian restaurant down the street, we managed to do a few more touristy things. We visited the modern art museum in Palermo and got completely drenched by rain on the way there; we visited Caminito on a very lucky and rare (during Robert’s time in BA) sunny day; we saw a tango show. A pretty good lineup, but I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed that due to our weakened health and especially due to the poor weather, we didn’t do all that I had planned. These last few days in BA seemed a little blurry, fast and difficult.

Getting back to Seattle didn’t immediately boost my energy, and I wasn’t able to accomplish all that I had in mind. I still had a bit of jetlag, fever, and general disorientation to work through. If this late final blog entry wasn’t indication enough, I was beset with lethargy and sluggishness during the first week. Despite my elegant to do lists, I accomplished very little. This week I’ve been less disappointed with myself and am working on cleaning the apartment, unpacking, catching up with friends and family, and beginning to look for a new job. It’s been fun and relaxing.

Argentina was an interesting trip for me and I ended up learning quite a bit, despite the relative brevity of my stay in Buenos Aires. I’m glad to be home and do not regret leaving so shortly. This is cliché, but it feels like a new chapter is starting for me now.My original plans maybe didn't go exactly according to plan, but I'm feeling open minded about other plans. Horray!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Photos from Iguazu

I have organized an online photo album via I've forwarded it to several people, but let me know if I left anyone out who wants to see a huge collection of waterfall pictures.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Romance, Adventure, and the 4 Essential Food Groups

Being on vacation with Robert in Buenos Aires has been a lot of fun. As I suspected, it’s been great showing him some of my favorite places and discovering new favorites together. We’ve spent some good time walking around the city, hanging out at the house, and of course eating a well balanced diet. Robert is very keen on eating well during our vacation here. Most meals are presented with the 4 essential food groups: chicken, pig, cow, and mayonnaise. This may well be the reason that despite all the walking and sweating in the summer sun, my pants still fit very snuggly.

As I was on the way to the airport to find Robbie, I was on pins and needles. The inexpensive public bus takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to get to the airport. It’s not as though the airport is tremendously far from the city center, but the bus takes a comically meandering route. At one point, I saw a sign that said we were 3 km from the airport and then the bus started heading the opposite direction for more stops. Ah, Argentine efficiency at its finest. Finally, finally, finally, there he was, walking out of customs and we were hugging. By the way, this was quite a modest display of public affection as most people are eager to gratuitously make out and suck face. Anytime. Anywhere.

Robert didn’t forget to bring presents from Seattle. Not only did I receive a belated Valentine’s Day box of See’s chocolates, but I also received (as did the rest of Buenos Aires) a hearty dose of Seattle style rain on the day Robert arrived. It rained heartily his first three days and was relatively cool outside.

We spent our first night together at a small bar near my apartment. There was an open mic for tango singers, and we ate a light meal as we listened to the singers. Some were immensely talented. The walls of the bar were decorated with paintings of tango dancers, cityscapes, and photos of famous singers and dancers. Our waitress had strict attention to detail, and although our meal consisted of a small salad and a few empanadas, it was delivered with perfection. All in all, with the music, food, atmosphere, and easy-going crowd of locals, it was a very romantic evening.

Following those first rainy days, we headed north to Iguazu. The bus ride was just under 20 hours, but the buses here strive for luxury. The seats were wide and reclined deeply. There were also movies and food service -- about on par with airplane quality. We arrived in Puerto Iguazu and got settled in our hostel.

The next day, we prepared for waterfall mania! The entrance fee to the national park was pretty steep for non-Argentineans, but for such a carefully planned and maintained park, it was worth the expense. The trails were gorgeous, and short “train” rides connected the more remote parts of the park. The waterfalls themselves were abundant, strong, and varied! The largest waterfall goes by the moniker: Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo) and is a huge cascade of water surrounded by smaller waterfalls, lush plant life, and rocky cliffs. Throughout the rest of the park, we explored the trails circling around the smaller waterfalls. Again, they were well-planned trails that led to impressive viewpoints and were maintained well enough so that nearly the whole park could be wheelchair accessible. On our second day in the park, we splurged and got on a motorboat that drove right into some of the falls. We were soaked, through and through for the rest of the day. The water was strong and blindingly white. Quite the experience!

There was also the wildlife that kept us entertained for a large portion of our time in the park. (well, maybe I was more entertained than Robert) The coati reminded me of friendly raccoons who were eager for a bite of your sandwich, though sometimes a little too eager. Robert saw one jump on a table and steal someone’s sandwich. I always knew when we were coming close to a restaurant area by the sharp increase in coatis meandering around. Also, we both went a little crazy for all the brilliantly colored butterflies and tried our best for close-up photos. On the last day as we were heading out of the park, we stumbled upon a whole mess of monkeys in the trees. They were incredibly difficult to photograph, and most of my attempts look like this:

But they were a lot of fun to watch and a great memory for this animal lover!

We spent two days admiring the waterfalls, flora and fauna, and even that didn’t seem like enough.

In the evenings, we headed into Puerto Iguazu for food and souvenir browsing. We ordered a steak every night. One night we stumbled upon a sort of buffet. They offered 8 salad samples and all the barbequed meat you could eat. The meat comes hot off the large grill, served on your own personal grill to keep it piping hot and fresh. The salads were OK, but three of them were meat based (pork rolls, beef tongue, and fried rice) and most of the rest were covered in mayonnaise (remember the 4 essential food groups?) The beef tongue had an interesting texture and taste, I actually tried it before knowing what it was and had to ask the waitress when I couldn’t figure it out. My favorite that evening were the pork ribs grilled to perfection.

I think due to the heavy, meat-based diet with large portions, I got a little sick during this leg of the trip. Also, we always woke up early to get the most out of our days at the park. I’m still feeling a little worn out and lethargic from all the excitement of the past week.

So, this morning Robert got up early to buy tickets to a soccer game tonight and I went to a café for coffee-fortification so I could publish this blog. Right outside the café was a large political gathering. Buses unloaded crowds of people banging drums and holding up signs. I asked a few people what the occasion was, but struggled to understand exactly what was happening. Something about the president, the workers’ party, and congress. I was impressed by the turn out on a usually quiet Sunday morning. This city is always ready with energy and surprises!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beer, Pizza, French Fries, and the Easy Life

Things are getting under control. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I’ll be home in a few weeks, and by the end of this week Robert will be with me. Also, I’ve seen a lot of the city and feel good about my accomplishments and overcoming certain challenges. I've been taking the time to slow down and enjoy the city. Sip cold beer and gobble down cheesey pizza.

I spent some time last week exploring some of the cultural centers here. These are great! There are several scattered around the city and they offer classes, galleries of local artists, films, plays, discussions, debates, lectures, and various other exhibitions and activities.

I’m continually amazed by how much free art is in the city. Most of the galleries are free, not to mention to street artists, creative (and sometimes not so creative) graffiti, and so on. I’ve tried my best to take full advantage of the arts here. I was very impressed by two exhibits in particular at the Recoleta Cultural Center. One was “Echos of Tibet” by Alicia Fernandez. You can see her website here, but it unfortunately doesn’t have images of these current works. I think they’re amazing and show a great deal of talent. I particularly like the vivid colors and details she incorporates. However, I’m not a huge fan of all of her earlier works displayed on the website. Also, there was a display of photographs of Buenos Aires in the past. Some of the elegant buildings that are now crammed in the urban sprawl of restaurants, boutiques, and apartment buildings, used to actually stand regally on their own.

American movies are everywhere too. I’ve succumbed on a few lazy evenings to watching old movies or sitcoms on the TV either with Spanish subtitles or dubbed. Also, with some of my spare time on unambitious, hot days I’ve gone to a few movies here at the theatre. I watched Che: El Argentino, from Benicio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh. That film was almost completely in Spanish and almost completely incomprehensible to me. Partially, this was due to: presumably poor sound quality in the theatre where even the English voices sounded muffled and unclear, Steven Soderberg sucking, a non-linear plot line, and yes, my own struggles with the language. I’ve also seen Doubt (in it’s original English with Spanish subtitles). I wasn’t expecting to like this movie much, but actually I was very impressed. In my opinion, the Oscar goes to Meryl Streep, sorry Kate! I could totally empathize with and understand Streep’s character – a conservative, strict, old nun. Now, that’s acting! Just the other day, I also saw Benjamin Button which was a total waste of time, overly sentimental, and more closely resembled the piles of stinking, cakey, smudgey dog mess on the streets here than something that is Oscar worthy. The wrath that I feel for this movie knows few bounds, probably because I had high expectations. Hated it! ….but, it could just be me. It’s gotten some solid reviews and some people in the theatre even clapped at the end. I also went to a cultural center to see an Argentine movie: The Tango of my Life. This was a great little documentary about a local tango singing competition. Luckily, it had subtitles so I could understand some of the nuances and poetry of the songs.

I also visited another museum that happens to be in a fairly inconvenient location, which is why I’ve avoided it. The Immigration Museum was a fascinating collection of stories, articles, and old relics, but by the time I actually found it I was totally worn out. I just breezed through the old building where immigrants used to come through and read bits and pieces of the stories and looked through the old photographs.

Sidenote: on the way to the museum I spotted the Microsoft headquarters here and a Starbucks on the way home.

I’ve also been keeping up with social activities, which can be a bit challenging for me due to my introverted tendencies. Pretty much every Friday and Saturday night I can plan on a fiesta of some sort hosted by the Colombians. I’m getting fairly familiar with their international circle of friends and feel warmly accepted by them. This last Saturday was the Dips Fiesta where everyone brought a dip inspired by a recipe in their home country. Everyone brought tasty dishes, and I was impressed and overfed myself. I made a blue cheese dip with carrots on the side. Well, it was fairly invented by me and not quite the traditional style, but people really liked the ‘spiciness’ of the raw garlic and raw onions I chopped up for it, mixed with the strong flavor of the blue cheese and the sweet crunchiness of the carrots. I’d say it was a hit, but so was everything else there. I left the party at 2:30, which was early since it ended up going until 8:00am.

So all in all I’ve felt fairly confident here with my easy-going lifestyle. Well, except in Palermo, in which I always seem to get turned around and confused! Bah! I did eventually find the Japanese Gardens and managed to have some relaxation in the middle of feeling lost nearly all day.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Buenos Aires: The Buffet of too Much

When it comes right down to it, I think Buenos Aires has a little too much of everything. It seems like the city bounces from one extreme to the next. When it rains here, it pours, literally. When it’s hot and sunny, put on some thick sunscreen and stick to the shade when you can. The luxury is elegant and graceful, while the poverty is gritty and immense. The buildings are an extreme jumble of different eras crowded in and out with people. There are lines of people everywhere all the time waiting for something, from McDonalds to the Post Office to the fruit vendors. It makes day to day activities a daunting task of negotiating broken sidewalks, abandoned dog poo, stray animals, crowds of people going in every direction at once, while trying to find your own direction. That’s why sometimes I still have to work up a bit of extra energy to do simple day-to-day things.

Although, it’s gotten easier. Now that I know a bit more about life here, things can be a bit more predictable. I think I’m getting the hang of the lifestyle here.

Still, I find myself walking old familiar routs as though they were brand new. There is always some detail that I missed before, such as a new bakery or an interesting molding on a building. I can cross the street fearlessly and follow the ebb and flow of traffic, bicycles, motorcycles, and pedestrians.

My favorite days often include a lengthy stay at a café. Here the café culture is strong. Waiters don’t raise an eyebrow to people loitering around for hours with a newspaper, book, or just staring out the window. There’s something slow and easy about having a cup of coffee. One side note, they almost always serve coffee with a cup of water, which I think is such a pleasant courtesy. After a cup of coffee, sometimes a drink of water is wonderfully refreshing. Also, indoor smoking seems to be banned everywhere, which makes the sidewalks packed with grumpy smokers, but the cafes, bars, and restaurants pretty pleasant.

People read here all the time. In restaurants, cafes, buses, subways, parks, etc. I always see people, even the apparently homeless, checking up on the news or reading through a book. This hearty readership is also encouraged by frequent bookstores. On nearly every block is a bookstore. Being a strong proponent of reading and a cantankerous literature snob, I find this to be one of the most cosmopolitan aspects of Buenos Aires. I stumbled upon one bookstore in a renovated theatre house and talk about unexpected glamour. It was fabulous! Unfortunately, I found it when I didn’t have my camera.

So lately, I’ve been most thoroughly contented by being in Buenos Aires. I don’t have detailed daily agendas like I did those first several days. I mainly just stroll around and admire. It’s been a more or less tranquil week in a city I first found less than tranquil.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Solace for the Homeless?

This trip has been beset by homesickness. It’s funny how your mind will practice selective amnesia. When I first started to feel homesick I was full of wonder: I’ve never felt this before. Well, there was that one time in summer camp…oh and I remember once in Granada, Spain I felt so alone…oh and wasn’t it Cape Town where I just couldn’t wait to get home and spent the last day studying my watch? Oh, riiiight. I have felt homesick before. Each situation had it’s own particular reasons and nuances, but it’s not so brand-spankin-new for me to miss home severely.

One of the feelings I dislike most is the lethargy and resistance to enjoying myself. It’s like a very stubborn and grumpy version of myself that randomly decides: Today I won’t have the attention span for Spanish dialogue and I won’t have any patience for the crowded roads. It can even feel like a physical resistance, immobilization, and stiffening to the culture here: Hey, screw you Buenos Aires! I kinda hate you!

Luckily, I’ve had enough composure to work myself through these sorts of feelings. Sometimes it’s a matter of counting backwards from 100 in my bed, and sometimes it’s a matter of finding a quiet café for a coffee and a snack, and sometimes it’s a matter of sitting in a park to re-group. Recently, I even compiled a list of things that are awesome about my trip, which really helped put things in perspective.

Another tendency, probably not as healthy, has been to daydream about home. Sure, there’s still selective amnesia going on (um, didn’t it snow the other day in Seattle?) and things aren’t going to be perfect in Seattle. But, all things considered, wow, it’s fun to think about going home! It’s a sweet luxury.

Then I got to thinking: what about those people who can’t go home? I just finished reading Three Cups of Tea (not a bad read once I got into it) and there are some stories of refugees that made an impression on me. People who were forced out of their homes and can’t go back because the place they once considered theirs is owned by other people or destroyed. This happens all over the world, again and again. Of course. But, the idea really got me thinking. I felt sick thinking about what it must be like longing for a home you can no longer have and people you can no longer see.

I really started to marvel at the luxury of being able to leave home and come back to more or less the same place. Also, I marveled at the luxury of leaving home and then deciding you’d much rather return and then just doing it. So simple. I can walk around town and devise a million things to keep myself busy or return to my room and study or chat online. All the while, I can feel fairly certain that I’m going to my home sweet home soon enough; it's just a matter of filling the time until then.

Where does the solace and hope come from for displaced people with little chance of reestablishing the home they once cherished?

I guess accepting the inevitable changes of the world is part of life. And, I guess it comes down to fortitude and resilience in the face of heartbreak. And, I guess it comes down to finding a way to survive, even if that means reinventing home and reinventing yourself.

Like a Careless Pigeon or Over-Heated Kitty

Actually, it’s not so hard to stay busy in Buenos Aires. Even though I don’t have much of a schedule or routine, every day seems relatively full of possibilities. It seems that every day I manage to discover something new and charming. Just today, while casually walking around my neighborhood, (curses, without a camera because I thought I photographed enough) I stumbled upon a palace. Sheesh! A palace. What an amazing city! I mean, of course, the fact that this is such a big, bustling city is one of the reasons I feel so claustrophobic and overwhelmed here, but it is fascinating to be in a place with so much…stuff!

This do it yourself and keep busy mentality might have a bit to do with my childhood as well. Not only did my mom tell me to clean my room when I dared to whine that I was bored, but she frequently reminded me that: A) “There is no maid service in this house” and B) “I am not your entertainment committee.” Due to the advanced age of my siblings, I was raised like an only child and had to learn how to keep myself busy and entertained.

So, what have I been up to lately to keep myself busy in the big city? Lots. And nothing.

I spent one very hot day last week walking around my neighborhood. I looked at all the small shops with cheap clothes (luckily I was sweaty and definitely not in a “let’s try that on” mood). I ventured to a huge mall, the Abasto and loitered in the air conditioning to get a break from the heat. I also located the block dedicated to a famous tango singer, Carlos Gardel. Then I made my way on a very long and disorienting walk to the Natural History Museum. Like most Natural History Museums, it was a little quirky and a little creepy. Even though they are kind of gross, I have a weird interest in Natural History Museums.

This past weekend I spent some time at some of the local markets. The markets are pretty packed with repetitive souvenirs and little crafts, although sometimes you can see stuff with real creativity and talent. The biggest market is every Sunday in San Telmo, the antiques district. There are tons of stalls with very expen$ive antiques, most of them with off the wall prices that I can’t even begin to think about bartering down: “Um, how about I pay about 10% of what you just quoted me, you outrageous %*#^!” But anyways, I got myself a delicious freshly squeezed glass of orange juice and wound down my day in the park.

Check out this picture. I love how even the cats and pigeons are too lazy and disinterested to pick fights with each other!

Sometimes I feel this same way in the city. Just idly passing the time away, either reading quietly in the house or people watching from a cafe. It's easy to be a little lazy here and just watch the time pass.

In my private room, I keep myself busy with studying. I spend a little time studying and practicing Spanish grammar, writing in my journal, and researching the history, arts, and literature of Argentina. This helps me feel a little more concretely productive each day and it seems like a relevant way to pass some of my free time (especially at night when I don’t want to deal with the hassle of going out).

I’m literally (and a little pathetically) counting the days until Robert gets here. Not only am I excited to show him around the city and point out some of the little secrets and special things I’ve found, I hope to discover more with him. Now, if only I could get him to read this blog….