Friday, January 30, 2009

A Crisis of Character

I have been waiting to fall in love with Buenos Aires. In the past when I travel to new and exotic locations, I’m overwhelmed with excitement. Every time I got to a new city I thought: yes, this is a city I would want to live in! This place is perfect! This place is amazing! And, normally if I had the chance to be there for an extended period of time, the excitement would wear down a bit.

However, for Buenos Aires, this hasn’t happened for me. I was shocked during the days leading up to my trip that I wasn’t more excited. I didn’t bother doing much research or looking for jobs…I figured that once I’d arrive, then everything would be different and I would catch that buzz of energy from being in a new place.

Well, the first day I was overwhelmed by the city. The size, the noise, the crowds, everything was so much so fast! My initial culture shock did wane after a day or two, but I never fell in love.

Each day I made a plan to visit somewhere new – normally the daytime variety of activities like coffee, museums, parks, walks, etc. And, each day I found something special to appreciate about Buenos Aires. Each day I learned something new. And, each day had its good and bad points.

But, where was the love?

Sometimes I felt so grateful that it was nighttime and I could sleep and not have to worry about being in the city. I’ve actually spent more time trying to connect with people from home via email and chatting than I expected. Most of my thoughts, when I’m not sightseeing, are about how much I miss home.

The whole time I’ve been here I’ve felt this sort of resistance to being here, even temporarily. One day earlier this week I was taking a walk through the San Telmo neighborhood and while I was sitting in the park I thought: what if I just go home? Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with excitement and agitation. Yes, what if? I could do so many things I was putting off before my trip due to my trip. Things like settling down with Robert, getting kittens, getting a dog, getting a gym membership! These things, from the grand to the mundane filled me with the thrill I had been waiting for Buenos Aires to fill me with.

Then I got startled.

I was more excited to go home than to stay? That couldn’t be…I’m a traveler. Sure, I expected to miss home, but I made arrangements so home will still be there when I’m ready. I thought, maybe Buenos Aires wasn’t that great, so what about the plan to backpack through other parts of South America? All it took was maybe 30 minutes of flipping through the guidebook to feel totally miserable. I was completely disinterested in seeing some of the things that have filled my imagination for years! What???? Who am I?

I got online and luckily found some folks to chat with and hopefully come to a better understanding of my current quandary. How can I, a traveler, want to go home after only a week? How can I, a traveler, not want to explore the beauty of South America? How can I, a traveler, be more interesting in training kittens in Kirkland than seeing the Andes??????????

Well, it took a lot of processing, even still, but I’m learning a bit about myself. What I used to be, I’m not, anymore. At least not totally. While a few years ago, Africa inspired me to see other more exotic locations and a TESL certificate along with my BA gave me the opportunity to work abroad as a teacher, now my interests have changed. I feel a longing for a home and all that it means – a family of pets, my good and trusted friends nearby, frequent visits with family, and Robert.

And then I started to think that maybe the best part of traveling was not so much the places I went, but the people I went with. Would Europe have been the same without Stephanie and Justin? Would Africa have been the same without Juliana? It’s true that traveling alone presents a wonderful opportunity to meet new people, but I was confounded that the people I wanted around me most were my old people.

So, I’ve decided to cut my trip short. This was a hard decision to come to, but I know it’s the right one. I still plan to make the most of my trip here in Argentina – exploring, reflecting, writing—but I also plan to go home in early March. Before I go home, Robert is also planning to visit for a few weeks so he can see what Buenos Aires is all about.

Another thing I’ve learned from this experience is how difficult it is to know what you want and what will make you happy. Happiness can be complicated!

Embrace your inner tourist

It is a rainy day here in Buenos Aires. Rain showers tend to be scattered but very heavy when they do fall. For a good chunk of time this early afternoon I sat in a café watching people scurry around in the rain while I drank a hot cup of coffee. Eventually, I took a chance between showers, but got drenched before I was even close to my intended destination and retreated back home. Which is just as well, I didn’t have wildly ambitious plans today. The rain is a perfect excuse to stay indoors and catch up on my blogging!

So, I’ve done a bit more sight-seeing this week and am very proud of my adventures and accomplishments.

On Wednesday I went to Palermo and had a lovely day of walking through the parks and gardens as well as visiting three art museums. I was particularly impressed with a small museum near the rose gardens. Not only did it have a picturesque location and some gorgeous Argentine works, but it was also free! I also treated myself to a hot chocolate, which was awkward because it was pretty hot outside, but in the café I was right under the air conditioner and actually quite cold (for a change!)

I then walked to the large art museum which is free on Wednesdays. This was a brightly lit extravaganza of art. They also had a pretty nice exhibit on old Argentine films, but since I’m not an old-movie buff and really not an old-international-movie buff, this exhibit was wasted on me.

The third museum I saw was teeny and if you’d blink at the wrong time, you’d miss it. They had some nice old paintings and some neat exhibits of gaucho tools and clothes.

I wound down my day in the botanical gardens. Argentina has actually seen a bit of a drought lately, so while much of the gardens were lush, there were other parts that were obviously hurting from lack of water. Even though the gardens are right in the middle of the hub-bub of Palermo, they were very tranquil and a nice break from the busy streets. I wrote in my journal and went cat-crazy. This is apparently a popular hang out for cats, either abandoned by their owners or just outdoor animals. They aren’t like wild cats: dirty, mangy, and skittish, they’re actually friendly and reasonably clean and smooth. However, I could only manage to pet one for about thirty seconds before it got restless and wanted to nap in the bushes.

Yesterday, I was supremely proud of myself. There’s a major tourist destination here called: El Caminito. It’s a brightly colored set of houses that were once home to the early Italian immigrants. However, it is located in the neighborhood called La Boca, which is known for being a little sketchy. I think this is strange that such a hot tourist destination would be smack dab in the middle of such a poor place, but people warn you not to stray far from the tourist areas and to keep an eye on your purse. So, not only is it too far to walk, it’s also a walk through a neighborhood you shouldn’t walk through, so I had to take the bus.

Now, I hate taking buses. They make me nervous because they go so fast and far that I often lose my sense of direction. Also, Buenos Aires is full of one-way streets, so sometimes the way back is different than the way there. I really didn’t want to take a bus. But, I really wanted to visit El Caminito. So, I figured out a few bus routes and went on the first one I found. I did ask for help from a few helpful Argentine ladies – which saved me from getting on the right bus in the wrong direction. I also got some help from a well-to-do Bolivian family who was also going in that direction. Their teenage daughter studied English in North Carolina and was eager to practice her language skills.

So, I arrived! Success! And boy, it was touristy! It is probably the most thoroughly touristy place I’ve seen in Buenos Aires. There are souvenir shops everywhere, tango dancers and folk dancers perform on the street and offer to pose in pictures with tourists for tips, and all sorts of vendors compete for attention. What could I do? I went with the tourist thing. I tipped the dancers and snapped a few photos. Also, I visited the fine arts museum, which impressed me. There were nice paintings, a roof top view, and even an exhibit of old bowsprits (the carved parts in the front of boats, normally big busted ladies).

I even treated myself to an indulgent steak for lunch. It was such a big portion, but I managed to cram it all in somehow. The restaurant had a live band, live singers, and live tango dancers, so I figured about $20 for a nice meal and entertainment was well worth it. I felt a little silly because it was so touristy and a bit ridiculous though. But, sometimes you just have to go for the tourist trap to full enjoy being a tourist.

Also, I wanted to buy myself something to commemorate the special day. I felt like I had made a pretty good achievement by using a bus, walking around Caminito, and also just for my general exploration of Buenos Aires. Plus, I’ve been pinching my pennies, so I thought this would be the time to splurge. I went into a shop and bought myself a lovely shawl. The sales lady was very talented, otherwise I maybe wouldn’t have found such an extravagant souvenir.

All in all, I’m continuing to be a busy little sight-seer here in Buenos Aires. Not every day has been wonderful and perfect, but I have had some very lovely adventures and fortunate excursions. I think also being forced into such self sufficiency has really helped me grow and learn a lot. I’ve definitely gotten over the shame factor of speaking Spanish poorly and have embraced many opportunities to speak it and very rarely converse in English.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gracefully Crumbling and Reconditioning

People in Buenos Aires are very interesting. They stroll around slowly on the sidewalks, but get them to a street with a no walk image flashing, and they will speed up to get across it. The avid jaywalking is kind of fun though, it's a ncie way to observe and partake in the ebb and flow of life here. The city is so incredibly crowded, people and vehicles have to move together like waves. It's structures, and yet it's not at all. At first I had a hard time picking up the tempo of moving around town, but after a few days, I think I have it!

The cityscape is also very interesting. It’s a vivid mixture of old, decorative, and dignified European style buildings from the colonial era with detailed engravings. These grandiose buildings sit right next to modern high-rises and older dilapidated buildings from less fortunate times in Buenos Aires’ past. Buenos Aires is crowded with a little bit of everything and the jumbled and crumbling aesthetic of the city streets is fascinating. I tried to capture this in a variety of pictures.

So far one o
f my favorite things that I’ve experienced has been the lazy Sunday. Almost everything is closed and there is significantly less traffic. Most people seem to go to the park, and I saw multitudes of families just sitting around enjoying the shade, each others company, and sharing gourds of mate (a kind of tea here). They seem like a very laidback people as well, it seems very much an anything goes sort of culture…letting it all hang out…well, maybe that’s just the effect of a hot summer though. It was fun to share in the cultural experience of lounging in the park and taking slow walks along some of the less urban parts of the city. It helped me get ready for another coming week of sightseeing, navigating the streets, and beginning to look for teaching jobs.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dias Tres y Quatro

Day Three: Recoleta

So, I started my day wanting to explore a new neighborhood. This is supposed to be one of the nicer parts of the city, and I wasn’t disappointed. The way Recoleta looked better matched what I expected all of Buenos Aires to be like.

I’ve never seen anything quite like the Cemetery in Recoleta.

It is a huge walled area full of family tombs. Not just any families though, only the top notch persons in Argentina are allowed to rest here, and not just any tombs, only the nicest monuments with embellishments and plaques are suitable for the fashionable homes of the dead. The sepulchers are locked up with chains or large doors; some are even encased in glass and you can see coffins inside or little stairways leading down to the tomb. The monuments themselves are incredible and the actual size of the place and density of the monuments makes it quite a sight to see. Some parts are overwhelmed by tourists, but it is possible to wind away through the different aisles to places that were quite somber and adequately creepy. I didn’t buy a map and go on a hunt of finding the most famous people in the cemetery; that might be a fun activity for me and any Buenos Aires guests I may have.

Oh, another creepy factor is all the feral cats strutting around and napping in the heat…must be good hunting for mice and rats. Eek! I think Edgar Allen Poe would have loved this place!

After having a coffee and snack at a nice little outdoor cafe, I made my way to the Museum of Fine Arts. Like the cemetery, I didn’t spend a great deal of time investigating the paintings and artists. I just strolled through the rooms and admired to beautiful museum and fine exhibitions. I was mainly grateful to be out of the sun and in the air conditioning.

Just a short way from the museum was a large metal statue of a flower. Apparently, it closes at night, but I doubt I’ll ever be in this area in the evening. A curiosity though, and I got my daytime snap of it.
My next destination was the central library. It’s a hideous building, but apparently it has great panoramic views of the city from the top floor.

Unfortunately, it’s closed until February. But, at least I could rest well knowing Seattle isn’t the only place with an unfortunate library building.

At this point in the day it was only 3pm. Even though my feet were killing me, I knew it was too early to head back to my room. So, I decided to broach a new field of study: the subway and a new neighborhood called Palermo. The subway was easy to use, fast, comfortable, and uneventful. Oh, one fun fact is that I got asked for directions again! Gosh, I love this strange superpower! By the time I got to Palermo and walked around for oh, 5 seconds, I discovered I was totally wrecked and overly exerted. I stumbled around totally disregarding street names and where I was going. (I generally maintained good direction though.) Finally, I staggered to a nice café, sat outside on a beautiful, quiet, tree-lined street, and drank a beer and ate a delicious caprese salad. I was wise enough at this point to head home, which was great because due to losing myself in the neighborhood and having a long and leisurely meal, it really was time to get home, shower, and relax! This excursion really ruined my feet though and I was worrying about which shoes I could bear to wear the next day.

Day Four: Puerto Madero

I wore my good old sneakers to Puerto Madero. This is an interesting and developing part of the city. It’s where a bunch of skyscrapers stand about ¾ of the way done…hinting and the potential of a brave new skyline for Buenos Aires.

This fancy area lines the river (slow, brown, and not too pretty) and boasts some of the high life for Buenos Aires like a palatial Hilton, Mercedes Benz dealership, and probably many more that I didn’t even notice.

I was mainly walking in this direction to find the Ecological Reserve. It was a lovely walk towards the entrance of the reserve and there were many families, singles, and couples strolling along as well. Lining the walk were parillas (or barbecues -- see the yellow stand in the background and all the smoke? Yum!)where they sold many things I had never heard of (variations of pieces of cow though.) I took a safe bet and got a big fat sausage and globbed some of the mystery sauces on there. Delicious! I even sprung for a cheap ice cream bar. When I finally got to the entrance of the ecological preserve though…it was hot, stuffy, dry, and I was full of some rich food and just wanted to sleep. Here's a bit of a view of the city from the walkway in the reserve: I might give this area another chance on another day. I just ended up sitting down in a park to gain the energy to walk back on the subway and get home. All in all though, it wasn't a bad way to spend a lazy Buenos Aires Sunday.

Homesick but Resilient

It’s kind of an odd relief to look at the clock and realize it’s 9:00pm, and I made it through another day. It can be stressful to travel to a new place and be overwhelmed by all the things to look at, explore, and a weird sort of dread that something important may be missed! But, by sticking to a bit of a routine, I’ve been able to calm myself while still making sense of the city. Buenos Aires has definitely overwhelmed me. My first thoughts as soon as I got here were: Get me out! I’ll be on the next flight back to Seattle! Ahh! Help! It’s no joke, I was actually all kinds of hysterical that first dreadfully long day. I can’t remember ever reacting to a city in this way.

Since then, I’ve tried to organize my life one day at a time. Each day I’ve set one particular goal to accomplish. So far these goals are about getting to know the city. My routine:

· Decide on a few destinations
· Look at the map and plan a general route
· Go on my route
· Relax, enjoy, look around, eat a little something, drink a little something and head back after a few hours
· When I get home I’m normally an exhausted and sweaty mess
· Shower and stretch
· Re-trace my steps on my map (since the route I actually take normally differs from my previously planned one)
· By this point, it’s normally 8 or 9. I haven’t been hungry lately, but if I am, I’ll grab a quick bite to eat. I might also spend a little time with my fellow guests in the house. Also, I’ve made it a point to check my email frequently and listen to music on my computer, which makes me feel really good and relaxed.
. Brush teeth, wash face, last stretches, time for sleep.

Still, my mind is mixed over what I really think about the city and what my final plans will be. Those first day anxieties haven’t completely dissipated. Sometimes, despite my pleasant little routine, I get disoriented, exhausted, and hopeless that I’ll ever feel at home in this city. Really, this isn’t a total vacation, it’s also a self-imposed challenge. I want to make sure that I remember that, especially when things are hard. Yes, I am homesick and I really miss my lifestyle, friends, and family in the US. It’s hard to have to re-invent all that stuff!

I knew that I was making this challenge (teach English abroad) more difficult by picking South America. I could have gone to Taiwan with a guaranteed place to stay and a job and only have to worry about teaching and learning a new culture. Argentina meant everything was going to be from scratch (expect the language, more or less). Now, this isn’t to say that miserable or not, I’m going to torture myself for the remainder of my trip if things don't go well, but it does mean that I’m not going to give up easily. So far I’ve been able to achieve an incredible amount of things, and I’ve only been here for a few days.

Dias Uno y Dos

I spent my first day processing my new location. I got money from the bank, which actually turned out to be quite the time-consuming pain in the a**. There are (small) limits to how much you can pull out of the ATM at one time, long lines, and broken machines. I explored my neighborhood briefly and was a bit disappointed to see that a bunch of construction is happening right outside my window. So, when I first got into my room, it was full of loud jackhammering! Also, it didn’t help that my room also faces a very busy street full of honking horns, sirens, and people walking around shouting. This all added to my uncomfortable and shocking first day. On the upside, when I get off at the subway stop and forget which direction to go, I just look for all the construction regalia outside my apartment.

I also live in a less than elegant neighborhood, and while the first day I was a bit perplexed about how I might enjoy this part of Buenos Aires, each day I like my room and neighborhood more and more. I snapped this picture today and it was the first time I actually observed my current home from the outside – it’s a kind of cool looking building!

I bought some fruit for snacking and plug adaptor for my laptop. On a side note, on the way to buy fruit, I’m proud to say that a woman asked me for directions. I think I have this strange superpower that I always appear to know where I’m going. It’s useful for traveling.

Also, on my first day I tried to go out with some Australians who are staying here for a beer. Unfortunately, the recycled airplane air and the hot Buenos Aires weather created an unstoppable nosebleed that embarassingly cut our night short.

Day Two: The City Center

I first went to the main plaza of the city, Plaza de Mayo. This is an amazing area with elegant old buildings in spectacular condition. – The primary plaza in the city. I was amazed by all the elegant, old buildings, most in this area are in great condition. I need to make sure to go there next Thursday for the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. These women still

protest for a full account about the people who were disappeared (particularly the kidnapped children) during the Dirty War 1976-1983. Apparently there are other activists in the plaza who protest this or that about the government or life in general. When I took my pictures, it was a lazy Sunday without these kinds of activities. And when I was there I didn't pay close enough attention to the protesters.

The Casa Rosada in the plaza has been the site of many important speeches, and Madonna singing Don’t Cry for me Argentina….

Also in the plaza is the Museo del Cabildon. The former town center and former jail is a little mixed up museum with a lot of old stuff thrown together. See the white building on the right in this picture?

I've also spent some time gawking but not shoping along Florida Avenue. This is a long street with beautiful stores, street vendors, performers and all kinds of shoppers! It was too hot to shop for me though!

At the end of Aveneda Florida is a very elegant mall, Galerias Pacificos. Spectacular! Take that Bel-Square!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

So much to say!

So, I've been working on my first blog from Argentina and I have so much to say...things I've done, things I've thought, things I've was starting to get quite lengthy. So, I've decided to split my first blog into three parts. It may seem overwhelming that three (probably pretty long) posts will spring up in one day with different labels, but at the moment, this format for recording my observations made the most sense to me! I'm still fine-tuning them, but expect to see a boon to my posts soon!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Everyone Needs Some Good Back-up Divas

Wouldn’t it be nice to have an instant fan base, like an instant entourage of back-up divas? A group of people who follow you and say (just at the right time): “Wow, that Cassie sure is cool” and other gratifying and sincere boosters. I’m not too insecure to admit my own insecurity, because I imagine it’s not all that unique. Anyways, I think everyone could use some back-up divas.

Presently, I’m in the midst of a lot of goodbyes. Each goodbye and each day brings me closer to an adventure that doesn’t always fill me with optimism and excitement. I’m actually a bit nervous and incredulous that I’m actually doing it.

But, my back-up divas aren’t letting me down. Friends, family, coworkers, students, and random coffee baristas are keeping me going. Going past overly sentimental goodbyes, overly considered doubts, and overly planned shoe packing, until I find myself all the way in Buenos Aires.


Also, thank goodness I’m keeping up on my pre-trip to do list. Robert and I beat Bioshock and I’m almost through with Season 2 of 30 Rock! Phew!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Self Esteem and Vanity

So, I’m still in Seattle trying to somewhat plan for my trip to Argentina. My primary concern is to find a place to stay. I’ve been emailing several hostels and guesthouses and using the Lonely Planet guidebook to help me select one. I have what I consider to be a frugal but comfortable budget and am looking for something in the $400-$600 USD range for monthly rent. At least this is my idea as a newbie set out for a new city and surfing the net; when I arrive, I may be able to find better deals. So far I’ve hit a few dead ends and disappointments, which is unavoidable when working on a budget. Other than accommodation, of course the concern is: what shoes do I pack??

It’s strange to look out on the gray and raining day and think that in a week and a half I’ll be sweating in the summer sun. And by strange I mean totally awesome! In all seriousness though, this is possibly the worst part about taking a trip: the pre-trip. It’s all about paperwork, packing, saying goodbye, worrying about international bureaucracies, airports, etc.

However, I’ve done this before, and I’m kinda prepared and experienced. Kinda. This is a different sort of trip though, I’m going to Buenos Aires to live and try to establish a sort of lifestyle for a minimum of four months and a maximum of a year. It’s kind of a strange challenge I set for myself and makes this trip stand out against my other two long-term international jaunts.

So, why the obsession about going to South American now? Why this strange challenge? I’m fairly happy where I am right now. I have a great boyfriend, comfortable place to live, my job is OK, (though it leaves something to be desired) but all in all I’m pretty cozy with my current lifestyle. Why change? Well, I’m looking at dates and years and the way they pile up to mark the passage of time, and I came to the realization: I’m going to be 30 in 5.5 years. That’s a long time, and that’s no time at all! Plus, I have in mind to do a lot before I turn 30. Living in South American is one of those goals, so I feel like I need to grab this opportunity while it’s available.

This whole passage of time is kind of a scary thought that’s only recently started to encroach on my life. Normally, I fret over how to spend my free hours and I have to sometimes strive to think of things to do, especially during inclement winters. But, now I realize that time is starting to push me around. It’s suddenly very relevant to start doing big, important things before it’s too late.
Maybe this sounds a little high strung and even borderline panicky. Those who know me won’t be surprised by this hyperactive thinking though. I’m a very goal oriented person who is prone to depression and anxiety during any lapse in goal orientation. This trip frankly had to happen or I would regret it and lose faith in myself.