Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hello, Estados Unidos

Leaving Buenos Aires was made as easy as possible by a shockingly cooperative real estate agent who didn't even check the apartment and gave me a full refund on my deposit (and also didn't ask for the last two months of internet I technically owed that the landlady cancelled out from under me a half dozen times) as well as by Sol, who graciously drove me to the airport and waited as I checked in and requested my tax-free refund (which randomly was put straight onto my credit card). We both put on good faces but I suspect she cried in the car, as I did in the terminal.

My flight to Santiago was totally uneventful, while my three hours in the Santiago airport was just enough to remind me why I left Chile in the first place (suffice to say I had a less than savory dining experience). The overnight to LA was less pleasant as a very selfish mother had wedged her baby's carrier in the seat behind me in such a way that I could not recline (despite my and the flight attendants' requests that she adjust it), and then did not put the baby in the carrier once during the entire 11 hours. I was very happy to arrive in LA. Customs was a breeze other than the physical force I had to exert to heft my giant suitcases onto the x-ray machines (though by the grace of God I was not charged for an extra bag OR extra weight!) and they even took my bags right back from me so I didn't have to check them in with Alaska.

I was fortunate to arrive in Seattle on Saturday at noon - as did my bags, proving LA customs really did have their sh** together - since several hours later the snow started again and airlines started cancelling flights left and right. Several of my friends were stranded in other parts of the country, and the news showed horror stories at the airport every day and night. I was grateful to walk into the very familiar setting of my parents' house, and then I didn't leave it... for four days straight. It's amazing how snow can shut a city down! Here's my home:
In a way it was a very comfortable way to ease back into American life. I only saw my family; I haven't driven a car yet; I only just left the house yesterday to go to the bank, the grocery store, and to dinner with a few friends; in short, my real life has not yet started up again here. I mentioned to my family that my time back has been like the movie Groundhog Day: every day I wake up and it's the exact same day. I go to bed early since it gets dark at 4 pm instead of 9 like I was used to, and wake up reasonably early. I check my e-mail, eat breakfast (how much delicious food I've rediscovered for breakfast! Waffles and peanutbutter! English muffins and smoked salmon! Hot chocolate with coffee! Homemade sugary breads!) and then spend the rest of the day watching TV and playing Scrabble with my mom and sister (eating all the while, of course). I sometimes break it up by letting the dogs out to frolick in the snow, and very occasionally frolicking with them. I even made a snowman:
Doesn't he look straight out of a Tim Burton movie? His face is rotten apples and his boutonniere is a dead hydrangea. He's also sort of a raindeer hybrid, complete with tail:
My favorite image from the snowscape is by far the little snow-capped apples which you can see in the picture above. You'd think they would have fallen off by now!

A few observations on coming back / differences from what I had gotten used to:
1) I now put all toilet paper directly into the toilet, which still feels a bit strange.
2) Any stranger will talk to you for any reason, as I rediscovered in the grocery store yesterday when no fewer than 3 strangers talked to me in a span of 30 minutes.
3) I can talk freely on my cell phone without getting charged a dollar a minute (well, a peso).
4) Hot water comes out of the tap in public places.
5) It is SILENT at night when I go to sleep.

All in all it feels very normal to be back. I know you'll all have the urge to ask if I was sad to leave and happy to come home, and the answer to both is yes, so now we've gotten that out of the way! I start my real life again on January 5 - my birthday - and I think I'll be ready once I can get a good shopping trip to H&M in (glorious H&M is now in my city!) and if all the snow is gone by then. Otherwise I may be working from home...

On a side note, I would like to give mad props to my mom. Although she claims to kill indoor plants, she not only kept the four plants I left behind alive, but also helped them thrive. It was such a welcome sight to see a very few of my originally giant collection of plants alive and well! I can't wait to visit the jade and the lipstick plant at Adam and Jeremy's, though of course I'm more anxious to see THEM, and all my other friends as well. Extra mad props to Brandi, David, and Evan for coming to dinner last night! Mexican has never tasted so good.

I hope everyone has a very merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and all that jazz. 2009, here we come!

Friday, December 19, 2008

So Long, Argentina

Well, I didn't exactly get around to those last two blogs but I'll start with this one and maybe I'll do some more writing from the various airports I'll temporarily inhabit during the next 26 hours.

I'll start with a recap of my last few weeks. First, I became friendly with one of my neighbors, which is normal for me: I always find out I have a cool neighbor when I'm on the verge of moving out. Anyway, he very kindly agreed to do all sorts of touristy stuff with me. First, we went to Caminito in the La Boca neighborhood, quite possibly the most overtly touristy thing I did during my entire stay here. I hope to never go back as they practically try to charge you for the air you breathe there. Here we are in one of those photo-ops. The guy charged me double since we took two pictures, I kid you not.
Later that week we went to Costanera Sur, this time on a weekend so we could rent bikes to do the full circuit of the park. We brought mate like true locals and enjoyed a few cups next to the river. From there we walked the 3 kilometers home, which was no small feat in 90 degree weather. We did stop to tour one of the historical boats in Puerto Madero, free that day since they were having mass open to the public. We also walked by a giant parade/protest of sorts, and figured that it was in celebration of the 25-year anniversary of Argentina's (concurrent - they were democratic before the dictatorship madness) democracy.

One day last week I went to the opening day of a tennis match, the Peugeot Cup, with Flor (who got us in for free) and Sol. Per usual, we ate a lot and they talked at inappropriate times. It was the first time I went to a tennis match and probably the last; vaguely interesting, not really my sport. I'm embarrassed to say that in all my 10 months here I never once went to a soccer match. Next time...

Sol also hosted a rad event last week which was a blind dinner. You're led into a pitch-black room by also-blind waiters to a table, where a mystery five-course meal awaits your fingertips. There was also a reallly entertaining show with a beautiful singer (the voice, not the person - how could I tell??) and smells and sounds used to transport the sightless audience to other locations in the world. It was a really fun experience and I can see such a new fad catching on in the U.S. Here's what we found out the meal looked like after the fact:
Kirsten, the only Yanqui I befriended here in BsAs, left two days before I did. On Monday we went to a fancy dinner at Roof in Palermo, and on Tuesday we had her despedida, or good-bye party, at Aca Bar, also in Palermo. I love this spot because of its board games (see previous refernces to Jenga) and we had a good time.
Wednesday night was my own despedida. We started it at a happening 'after office' spot called Opera Town, even more booming than normal due to the end of the year parties most offices are having this week. From there we moved on to the floating casino, where Flor, Nico, and Diego watched, Sol broke even playing blackjack, and I won about 50 pesos ($15) from the original 90 I put in. Finally, we made a last stop by Costanera Sur to eat those devilishly delicious sandwiches. We also got some dancing in.
Thursday I did relatively little (though Thursday night I did fit in a movie with Marcos, the new Guy Ritchie flick, only because the new Bond had already started) after dealing with the frustrating drama of having my flight to Santiago cancelled, changing two reservations, and spending more than I ultimately needed to but not too much and I've made my peace. So today, instead of a 12 hour layover in Santiago in which I was going to trek into the city to see my friends, I'll only have 3 hours before getting on a plane to LA. I land in LA at 6 am and then in Seattle at noon, weather permitting. There have been buckets of snow, very unusual for Seattle, but apparently Saturday is suppose d to be clear. If not, my LA relatives may get an unpleasantly early phone call begging them to pick me up.

By this morning I was all packed and the apartment was semi-cleaned, which technically wasn't necessary but I hate leaving a mess. The real estate agent came at noon, didn't look at a thing (so I got away with the marks I left on the wall from hanging a map with extra-sticky tape), didn't ask about the internet (meaning I also got away with not paying for the internet the landlady tried so hard to cancel out from underneath me, a fair trade), and gave me back my depost in dollars. I'm rich! Until I land and hand it over to my parents, that is.

Now I'm sitting at Sol's kitchen table, full from an incredibly delicious last lunch of homemade, cheese-stuffed gnocchi courtesy of mama Lydia (easily the best gnocchi I ate while here, which if you read the last blog know that that's saying a lot) and a bit exhausted from the stress, physical and emotional, of leaving yet another place. I have another two hours to relax in the sun here before we have to head to the airport and the very long process of arriving stateside begins. Hopefully there's no drama with my having two suitcases in this era of 'only one for free,' or the fact that they're probably both over 50 pounds.

There should be new pictures on Picasa soon, internet connection willing. The next time I write I'll be in a winter wonderland, I hope! Speaking of, the holiday displays here continued to strike me as odd in the hot weather. This was by far the most emblematic, erected next to the famous obelisk (much prettier when lit up at night, though).
Merry Christmas if I don't blog before then! Can't wait to see so many of you, so soon.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

At (Ridiculously) Long Last: The Food Post

Introduction

I've been promising this particular post since just after I arrived in Argentina nearly four months ago, and have actually been writing it that long as well. Sorry about the delay, but at least it's complete with all my food experiences and not just a few weeks' worth. Not surprisingly, it's ridiculously long.

To start, there aren’t many interesting or unusual ingredients here that are strictly Argentinean. They don't have much spicy food (indeed, even the tiniest spice sends people reeling here) and imported foods are incredibly expensive: a 6 oz jar of peanut butter costs the equivalent of $12 U.S. Suffice to say, the cuisine in Buenos Aires isn't what one might call adventuresome; that said, it's generally very good. Although I often yearn for the ethnic diversity of U.S. cities' eateries, I've been quite content eating my way through the city.

(A note on ethnic foods: it's not that they don't exist here. In fact, Buenos Aires has the best Chinese food of any South American country I've tried (including Chile, Bolivia, and Peru) and the sushi, though dominated by pink salmon, is always fresh and well-made. There is of course tons of Italian and also French, Spanish, and German food to be had, all of which are delicious. The most notable failure of South America in general is, sadly, with Mexican food: I have nothing but disappointment in that department. Otherwise, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and most other ethnic foods are almost completely absent. I have a lot of ethnic catching up to do once I arrive state-side!)

Savory

When I first arrived, I noticed that one thing Argentina has in common with Chile is the abundance of empanadas. The difference is that here they are smaller and come in a wider variety. At first I favored the Chilean version, but now I'm a die-hard Argentinean empanada over. My favorites are eggplant, spicy beef, cheesen and onion, and “vegetable” which always means spinach. There is a great place just two blocks from my apartment called La Americana that serves famous empanadas and pizzas, and I always get a spicy empanada and a piece of spinach pizza, which is topped with this amazingly creamy, bubbly cheese. One day my neighbor Fede made homemade empanadas for me and I almost died they were so amazing. He made them 'criolla' style with hunks of tender beef, peas, potatoes, and just the right amount of spiciness, all deep fried in a pot of oil.

Due to a high volume of Italian immigration in the not-so-distant past, the food here is influenced a lot by Italian culture. To that end, they have amazing pasta in Argentina. Fresh pasta is available in little stores on every corner, and every single menu - no matter what kind of restaurant - has at least one pasta dish, which will always be made in-house: store-bought pasta is like blasphemy here. Specifically good is the gnocchi. I have had a lot of mushy gnocchi in my life, which makes me ever hesitant to order it in a restaurant, but this is a country well reared in the art of potato pasta making. I've had gnocchi myriad times at distinct restaurants with varying prices, and all of them have been impressively cooked in creative sauces. My friend Kirsten and I joke about what we'll order when we go to lunch, since almost always at least one of us will order gnocchi and the other will eat off her plate.

Also thanks to the Italians there is a pizza place on every block. The pizza here is as famous as its pasta and tasty too, though they have an odd practice of putting whole green olives on top of every pizza, no matter the toppings. (Olives and hard-boiled eggs go in just about everything, including empanadas.) I know it's low-brow, but I have to admit I often crave a Papa John's pepperoni and pineapple pizza with garlic butter sauce. I eat pasta much more often than pizza, with one notable exception: there is a chain called Ugi's with a store a half block from my apartment. They only sell one thing: cheese pizzas, Italian-style. Hand-tossed dough, simple yet delicious tomato sauce, and fresh slices - not grated! - of parmesan cheese make up these irresistible pies. For 10 pesos (about $3) I get a "large" (aka a U.S. medium) pizza fresh out of the oven, which I will usually eat over the course of two days. They cover it in oregano for you at the store, and when I get home I add my own topping: red pepper flakes, sent by my mom months ago to Chile.

Of course, you can't write about the food in Argentina without mentioning the beef. In the U.S. I don't eat a lot of red meat, and in Chile I didn't either. In fact, even during my first two months here in Buenos Aires I hardly ate any, sticking instead to pasta. However, I have to say that I have probably eaten more red meat in the last two months than in the last two years combined. I blame this on the nice weather, since in Argentina the Sunday asado (barbecue) is an old and beloved tradition, as long as it isn't raining. I know I've written about the asados before so I won't go into too much detail, but it should be noted that the beef here really is freaking amazing. It's also way cheaper than chicken or pork. I'm grateful to have tried every cut of beef and then some. I am also a huge fan of chorizo (beef sausage) morcilla (blood sausage). At first the consistency of the latter threw me but then I learned to spread it on a piece of bread and oh man, is it heavenly. I don't think I'll miss the red meat once I'm back in the states - in fact, I look forward to introducing more vegetarian dishes back into my diet - but I'll definitely forever appreciate the quality of meat I've been able to ingest while here.

One dominant ingredient in the Argentinean cuisine palate is pumpkin, which serves me just fine since 1) I love pumpkin and 2) it’s one of the new ‘superfoods’ and therefore good for you. Interestingly enough, they don't use pumpkin as a sweet ingredient like we do, but rather in savory dishes. A very common use is simple, mashed pumpkin, usually served alongside mashed potatoes. Hunks of pumpkin are included in soups and stews. Also, there is an incredible dish (to which Katharine can testify) of puréed pumpkin and tender pork pieces topped with bubbly cheese that is seriously heaven for the mouth. Pasta is often stuffed with pumpkin or pumpkin is added to the dough itself, in both fresh and store-bought varieties.

Sweet

Moving on from the salty, sweets are huge in this country. Argentina is famous for its ice cream (again, Italian influence is hard at work), and it’s no exaggeration to say there is an ice cream shop on every corner. The best part is that even the smallest cone includes two flavors, and I have yet to meet a flavor I haven’t liked. My favorites are banana split and dulce de leche, which is NOTHING like the dulce de leche we have in the U.S.

They are also into small baked goods called facturas (which is also randomly the same word for 'receipt.') The most famous is the medialuna, which are delicious little crossaints. and come in two versions: manteca (butter) which are fatter and have a sweet glaze on them, or grasa (fat) which are skinny and savory.

The dulce de leche variations are addictive here. Other than pastries with globs of the stuff filling and topping them (among my favorite facturas!), there’s a soft candy I buy frequently (thanks to Sol) called Vaquita, and I plan on bringing about 100 of them home. There’s also a cookie called an alfajor which is dulce de leche sandwiched between two cake-like cookies and covered in chocolate. These varieties and many more, including delicious cakes and torts and cookies and bread baked fresh hourly, can be found in any bakery, which can also be found on any corner. So, to revisit: every block has a bakery, an ice cream shop and a pizza spot (plus usually a cheap place where they'll do your laundry for you, but that's unrelated).

Another thing they sell in bakeries here - and going back to the salty for a moment - is a very common sandwich called a miga, which is usually ham and cheese and mayo between two pieces of white bread with the crust cut off. Other variations might have salami, tuna, hard-boiled egg, or vegetables. At first I was very anti-miga, but now I enjoy them as an afternoon snack just like the rest of the city's inhabitants. (And, for those of you gasping to yourselves at the thought of me eating mayo, it's true; I'll ingest it, but I still don't like it.)

Beverages

Like in Chile, fizzy drinks - carbonated water or soda, usually Coke - are the most common with meals. It's also not unusual to have a glass of wine with lunch (or a bottle at dinner) and for good reason - Argentina produces some of the best wines in the world, which are sold at a fraction of the cost in-country compared with the exported prices. It's also much more common at a bar to drink beer than a mixed drink, probably because it's way cheaper, but you can find any mixed drink here that exists in the U.S. In terms of water, people come down on both sides of the bottled debate. I drink from the tap here, though many foreign guidebooks would chastise me for this.

One quintessential drink that is synonymous with Argentina is yerba mate (mah-tey). Mate is as much a community event as it is a reason to ingest a stimulating drink (it has a lot of caffeine but does not produce a jittery effect; also, it dulls hunger). Yerba is the tea itself, which is poured loosely into the mate, generally a specially-prepared gourd but also made of wood, metal, or glass. Then the straw or bombilla is inserted, which is filtered so you don't suck up the mate itself. If desired, sugar is added on top, though most people argue that to drink mate the 'authentic' way it must be amargo, or bitter. Finally, hot water is poured on top and consumed immediately, even if near-boiling - they have very tough mouths here, I've surmised. An entire mate can be consumed in just a few pulls of the straw, and then it is filled with water again and passed to the next person. The leaves can be recycled for several cups' worth before it becomes lavado, or washed, at which point they are changed and it starts over. Even in a large group, everyone shares one mate (and one straw), so it is very much a community experience. I have grown to love and even crave mate, and I always enjoy the experience of sharing it with friends or my neighbors. It's extremely common to take mate to a park or a plaza, and there is a large industry for hot-water thermoses and special leather or cloth bags to hold all the accoutrement.

For other caffeine fixes, the coffee here is typically instant in the home but brewed or, better, pulled fresh from an espresso machine if ordering in a restaurant or cafe. The cafe con leche (coffee with milk) here is excellent, though many U.S. citizens, obviously missing their 32-ounce lattes, complain about the relatively small size of such drinks. For me, they are perfect. Also, they always come with two tiny cookies and a small cup of soda water which I think is a fantastic bonus, because I love free things.

Dining Out

Although I may have dissed on the ethnic options available, it has to be said that Buenos Aires has some of the coolest restaurants I've ever been to. Mostly located in the chic area known as Palermo, this cosmopolitan city certainly knows how to show its people a good meal in a classy setting. One of my favorite elements of said restaurants is that many include outdoor seating, often on elaborately designed and decorated patios and rooftop decks, perfect for enjoying the hot springtime weather of late (though I imagine once summer hits people cling closely to the air conditioning unints). The social atmosphere and importance of restaurants here cannot be understated, and I've done my best to visit a wide cross-section of them while here.

Standards of service are varied. It's most common to enter a restaurant and seat yourself at whichever table sparks your fancy, though if you arrive in the time between breakfast and lunch it's best to sit at a table designated for whichever you want: for breakfast, sit at a table without a tablecloth or place settings; otherwise they will (unnecessarily in my opinion) remove everything from the table if all you want is a coffee and a few medialunas.

Lunch is typically chosen from the daily menu, a price fixe meal that generally includes a drink, an entrée, and a dessert or a coffee. The most common menu includes a milanesa, which is a breaded and fried cut of meat, usually chicken or beef but occasionally fish as well. This is generally served with half mashed potatoes and half mashed pumpkin. On the 29th of each month, every restaurant will offer gnocchi for its lunch menu, eaten to bring good luck in the next month.

Service is typically slow and, as in most Spanish-speaking countries, the bill will never be brought to the table until it is requested. However, the service does not tend to be negligent, waiters are often very friendly, and I usually feel as if the tip (10%) has been earned when I leave it.

Everywhere you go serves bread, no matter what. The cheaper places serve you bread without butter or oil, and seem to recycle the bread that isn’t used to the next customer. This seems to be generally accepted by customers, who always take the first piece of bread they touch and will then set the bread on the table or a plate if provided, but never back into the basket. The nicer places usually serve bread with butter, oil, or some kind of sauce, paté, or topping. One thing that is consistent is the amount: you are guaranteed to get an absurd number of rolls. For instance, at lunch one day I counted that I, a solo diner, was served TWELVE rolls. Twelve? Really? I did appreciate that this particular restaurant seemed to bake their own bread and it was hot out of the oven in three different varieties of white, wheat, and something deliciously orange, but I ate two of them and felt guilty for that.

One thing I do miss is the ability to send something back that I’m unhappy with; although technically I’m able to do so, it’s just not that common here. If something arrives cold, you eat it cold. This especially drives me mad when ordering empanadas or pastry pies, since they are often cold in the middle. Even asking for it ‘extra hot’ doesn’t provide desired results. (One reason La Americana has a leg up on everyone else – their goods are always piping hot!)

Conclusion

I'm sure I'm leaving out a ton of things but it's impossible to describe everything edible in a city as large as this one. I hope I've given you a reasonable overview and that you now know what kinds of food might be awaiting you should you make the trek to Argentina yourself.

Stay tuned for (what I hope are, we'll see if I get them both written) my last two blogs, one on my final days (I'm packing a lot in!) and another on Argentinean customs and differences before I head back to Yanquilandia this Friday.

p.s. This is my 50th blog, which feels like a milestone somehow, so, hooray for the 50th!

p.p.s. For those of you who are dismayed that I wrote an entire post without a single picture of food: there are plenty of examples of empanadas, asados, and other delectable delights posted in my Picasa albums.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thanksgiving, a visitor, and beyond

My friend Katharine arrived November 23rd - a Sunday afternoon - from Philadelphia via JFK without any complications other than a creepy man on the plane. She certainly chose a good time of year to visit: the spring is filled with colorful flowers, as you can see below.

Her first day we headed to the famous San Telmo antique fair and went out for a fantastic open-air parrilla (grilled meat) dinner with Sol and Kirsten from Buenos Aires and Sarah and Susanna who I met in Puerto Madryn and were in Buenos Aires for a few days. We ate every part of the cow possible, from entrails to brains to blood. I liked it all, but Katharine wasn't down with the brain.

The next day, Monday, Katharine wasn’t feeling so hot so we didn’t do much. On Tuesday we met Sarah and Susanna again for a walking tour of the swanky area of town called Recoleta, and then Wednesday morning we met them again for ANOTHER walking tour of the historical areas of town. It was so hot on Wednesday that many areas of town lost power – us included. From Wednesday night to Thursday afternoon we were without power, and then lost power yet again on Friday. Fun times.

Thursday was Thanksgiving. I’d been preparing for it for several months, and all the pieces came together perfectly. We went to Sol’s house in the afternoon where I made a pie crust from scratch (based on my aunt Kathy’s famous recipe), without measuring, and it turned out deliciously because I used extra butter just in case. Katharine made the pumpkin filling, also from scratch, also without measuring and using odd ingredients (sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated), but that also turned out really well. I made homemade stuffing with chopped almonds and apples, and green bean casserole with fresh vegetables and fried onions that Katharine smuggled into the country.

I had wanted a 9 kilo turkey - about 20 pounds - to serve what I thought would be 14 people, but a mix-up at the butcher's left us with 5 kilos for 12 people, which was actually more than enough since it was 95 degrees out, and easier to cook to boot. I started the turkey at about 6:30 pm – I made the bacon-covered version again, always a hit! - and had to guess about the temperature since the ovens here don’t have degrees, they have settings from 1 to 9. Luckily it was ready at about 10:30. I also made a fantastic gravy with the drippings and am still salivating over it. So often gravies turn out badly and we didn’t have any jarred back-ups, so that was a relief.

As I said it was really, really hot that day and we set up a gorgeous table outside. The guest list included me and Katharine, Sol, her mom Lydia and her mom’s friend; her sister Cielo and her boyfriend Alan; Kirsten and her two friends who had arrived from the U.S. that day (who brought canned black olives and cranberries, two must-haves), plus two of her friends from Buenos Aires. Kirsten made two delicious pecan pies and a refreshing Waldorf salad. We also made two kinds of mashed potatoes, one with just garlic and the other with garlic and bleu cheese. Definitely a traditional meal and it all turned out really well. Here's a shot of the table just after we brought the turkey out:
We went around the table and all said things we were thankful for. I’m used to this part either not happening or not being taken very seriously, but people got really into it and some of us even cried. (Despite being a crier, I was not among them, but I was definitely emotional. I think I was too hot to cry.) The food was a hit and the rain held off until we were ready for dessert. We quickly moved everything inside when the lightning started and had pie and ice cream and home-made whipped cream inside before everyone took off at around 2 a.m. I left the leftovers behind because those are always my favorite part and I wanted Sol and her family to have the full Thanksgiving experience, though the next day I was definitely craving some cold turkey and pie.

Friday we wandered around Palermo and Saturday was back to Recoleta for the famous cemetery, weekly fair, and the fine arts museum. It started absolutely DUMPING rain and we got stuck hiding in the parking entrance to the Ecuadorian embassy while lightning flashed around us and thunder literally shook the nearby buildings. I love spring storms, but I love them more when I’m watching them from my own house. In Seattle it rains but we rarely get thunder and lightning, while here rain is ALWAYS preceeded by a lightning show, which is great.

Sunday Katharine went back to the antiques fair. Monday we toured one of the coolest buildings I've yet to see, Palacio Barolo, which was built by two Italian brothers back in the day with a Dante's Inferno theme. The building was originaly built to house Dante's ashes but Italy refused to let them out of the country once the palace was complete. Some of its specs: it's 100 meters high to represent the 100 cantos (songs) of the inferno, with 22 stories to represent the 22 strophes I believe, divided into hell (floors 1-4), purgatory (floors 5-14), and paradise (floors 15-22). There are a bunch of other interesting factors that were designed into the building including something having to do with the number pi that I sort of didn't understand but surely had to do with the many mathematical allusions within the Divine Comedy itself. You can read a shaky translation that explains the building's references to Dante here. Here's the building from the outside:
The palace itself reminded me of the Smith tower in Seattle on the inside - they were built around the same time - and at one point it was also the tallest building in South America (the Smith tower was once the tallest building west of the Mississippi). Once we got to the top it reminded me of Philadelphia's city hall since it had an incredible view of the city and looks straight down the Plaza de Congreso much like the Phila view is of the avenue leading to the art museum with Love park and Logan fountain in the middle. Also, I can see Palacio Barolo from my apartment and could see my ugly apartment building quite well from the palace, both things which were also true of my apartment in Phila. All in all one of my favorite experiences so far in the city. Here's the view:
Tuesday was Katharine's last full day and we spent part of it at this awesome park called Costanera Sur that used to be a landfill and was then appropriated for development, but like so much in Argentina development was slow to start and once they were ready it was a green space and people protested construction so now it's a huge park with tons of bird and plant species with a cool view of both the city and the world's widet estuary, Río de le Plata. That evening I put Katharine in a cab with specific instructions to the cabbie about where to go and what the price would be, and the next day she was safe and sound back in Philadelphia.

Since then I've been checking other things off my "to do" list, including a trip to the tiny Chinatown (literally one street), a visit to a nearby town on the Delta called Tigre with Sol and Flor, and multiple celebrations of Sol's birthday including an evening of bowling (a first for me in many, many years) and an all-day party at her house. I have Christmas shopping to do and lots of restaurants left to try, plenty to pack in in my remaining 10 days here.

There are new photos on Picasa with detailed captions as always, though I can't take credit for most of the pictures taken while Katharine was here - she was doing such a thorough job I left my camera at home the whole week. Enjoy, and don't go too far - plenty more to come before I leave the southern hemisphere!

p.s. It finally started raining after two hot, humid days, and there's a double rainbow outside my window as I type. Just thought that was a fun thing to share.

p.p.s. In a horrifying twist to my holiday weekend of over-indulgence (aka non-stop eating [and Monday was the Day of the Virgin for those of you wondering]), after I got up to give an elderly man my seat on the bus last night, he turned to me with a concerned look on his face and said, "But if you're pregnant you should keep the seat!" I didn't realize that things like this actually happened, nor that I appeared so round and motherly, but when I got home my very sweet and very wise neighbor was quick to refute this old man by saying, "don't worry, he was probably mostly blind." And, if he wasn't, please don't be shocked when I come home.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Vacation: Week Two

Here is the second installment. A little delayed but I hope you enjoy it! (New photos are also posted on Picasa.)

My second week of vacation was really wonderful. I arrived at the national airport at noon on Monday, November 17 only to find that the travel agency hadn’t made my reservation, but luckily there were still seats left and it ended up being cheaper than I would have paid the agent. A quick flight landed me in the world-famous region of Patagonia in the rapidly growing town of Puerto Madryn. The area has exploded in the last few years due to an aluminum factory as well as tourism (thanks partly to an UNESCO classification) and there is construction everywhere. I walked around a bit in the sun and wind and found an agency through which I booked two separate day tours. Later that night I had dinner with a Canadian couple I met at the airport. She found out she was pregnant just before they left and hasn’t had the easiest time of traveling but was a very good sport.

The first full day, Tuesday, started with a 7:30 a.m. pickup by our soon-to-be-dear guide Eloy. This day was just me plus three other women, an older lady from Spain and a traveling duo I would spend the next day with as well, Sarah from the UK and Susanna from New Zealand. The first stop was a river-to-open ocean boat trip to see tonina dolphins, and they did not disappoint!

Before the dolphins we headed up-river just a bit for a glimpse at a few flamingoes that were migrating; it’s rather unusual for them to be there and our boat captain was nice enough to share them with us. I’ve been on a constant quest for flamingos and was grateful for the chance to see a group of them flying in formation in an unexpected place.

Tonina dolphins are pretty small, black and white, fast and playful. The water was really clear and we could see them perfectly, and they also obliged us with lots of jumping out of water. Sometimes they’d be alone and other times as many as six or seven would be swimming together. They liked to ride the nose of the boat as well as the waves, which were pretty high that day due to the wind. I took a few decent shots, but Sarah got some excellent pictures that she has promised to send me. Here's one I took:

From there we headed to Punto Tombo, home to the world´s largest Magellenic penguin population during half of the year. Considering all my penguin knowledge was based on a particularly famous documentary on the topic, it was weird to see how these particular penguins live on this barren Patagonia beach. We could see penguins dotting the landscape all around us, Every year the males arrive first to ‘clean house,’ which means finding their old hole in the ground and digging out the debris that has accumulated over the past half year. Then the ladies arrive and head to the same hole – apparently, they mate for life. Two eggs are laid, one for “back-up” we were told, so many couples will have two chicks. The babies were just starting to hatch and we were lucky to see some of their tiny, furry gray heads - as well as hear their insistent peeps. The parents take turns sitting on the eggs/watching the chicks and going to the ocean to eat. Here is a shot of some of them filing back from the ocean to relieve their partners:

They walked among us and were really fun to watch waddle around, but we were warned not to touch or provoke them since inside their cute little beaks they have a sharp hook that can drive a hole through your hand and give you a nasty “I’m still digesting fish” infection. They didn’t seem to irritable, however, and even crossed our path several times. We had a great time watching them.

On the way back to Madryn we dropped the Spanish lady off at the airport and the four of us proceeded to a famous hotel bar in Trelew called the Touring Bar where Butch Cassidy used to hang out. Then we dragged Eloy out to dinner with us after begging his boss to let him be our tour guide again tomorrow.

Wednesday was an even earlier day, and Valeria knocked on the hostel door at 7 a.m. sharp. I was sad that our request to have Eloy as a repeat guide wasn’t fulfilled but Valeria was great. This day we were 20 instead of 4, but I still got a window seat and was able to save Sarah and Susanna seats next to me so I was happy.

The Valdés peninsula is the largest in the Atlantic ocean, and we spent Wednesday touring it. Here is an image of the peninsula:

We arrived at Puerto Pirámides, a small bay at the base of the peninsula, at about 9:00 am for the privilege of being the first whale-watching boat of the day. This turned out to be very lucky as we were only about 20 people on the boat, while other boats were packed to capacity at 50-60. We had tons of room to move around and see the whales from all angles, including a high perch that afforded a really lovely view of the whole whale under water.

It’s the end of the season for these southern right whales. They arrive in the bay every July or August to mate, during which time there is a lot of jumping and tail slapping I’m told. By November the males have gone and it’s only mothers with their babies left, and they’ll head out soon, too. Since the moms haven’t eaten since July, they aren’t doing much jumping these days, but I was able to see some babies learning to jump (the next day, not on this tour) and that was quite fun. There was an orphan calf who was being passed around from mother to mother which we all thought was very sweet.

A mother will nurse for two years. We learned that a whale’s milk is actually excreted from her body into the water and is thick like butter so it doesn’t dissolve; the calf will then move in and suck in the milk from the water. During these two years the pair will make the journey several times between the bay at Pirámides and the south of Argentina where they feed so the calf learns what to do once on his own. After that they separate and the mother gets knocked up again; no living in families for these whales. Hopefully one mom steps up and takes the orphan calf on full-time once they move on, otherwise he’s pretty much done for.

Among the many mother-calf pairs we saw, there was also an albino calf! Apparently a few are born each year. Their skin is translucent and the fat you can see through their skin is white. In time their skin will turn grey and then black and it doesn’t seem to be bad for the baby in any way, but it was certainly cool for us to see. It was so easy to make him out under the water. The mother – who was hosting the orphan at this time, too – gave us tail after tail out of water, which really never stopped being beautiful to watch. They are huge and yet so graceful. Here is the mother and her albino calf:

After the boat ride ended we got back into the van and spent the next several hours on a gravel road through the desolate Patagonian landscape to see the rest of the peninsula. We made three more stops, one to see a much smaller penguin colony than the day before, and the other two to see sea elephants and sea lions and the chance to spot an orca. I admit I was stumped to tell the difference between the two even after it was explained to me many times. The sea elephants live in the ocean but come to the beach once a year to shed their skin, while the sea lions live there year-round (I think – I may also be getting these backwards).

On the road we saw tons of sheep, recently sheared by the local gauchos. There is so little rain and therefore so little life on the peninsula that the sheep are allowed to roam freely to feed, only getting rounded up once a year for their fur. Each sheep is marked so there’s no funny business, and there is a law that says you may shoot a man if you find him stealing your sheep. We also saw many guanacos, a member of the Cameliad family (which I mentioned in my posts on Bolivia and Peru). We saw several pairs and packs of emus, always running away from the noise of the van, and were lucky to catch a glimpse of a strange animal called a mara, which looks like a giant bunny crossed with a dog.

There were two no-shows in terms of wildlife. The one we were promised we’d see were armadillos. I never had an interest in them until I thought I’d see one, but sadly they were on strike that day. The second one was very unlikely to see but nevertheless I was disappointed: orcas! The peninsula is one of the few places in the world where orcas will beach themselves to chase sea elephants and sea lions. It’s not high season for them yet but people had been seeing them in the water in the days before. One interesting thing I learned is that orcas are a type of dolphin, not a whale.

At the end of the tour I had them drop me off in Pirámides instead of going back to Madryn. Pirámides is quite possibly the most perfect little beach town ever invented. I could live there easily and not-so-secretly started plotting my return. It has one road that runs through it that forks off to the beach. There is an ATM and wireless internet, yet no dock junking up the bay. Boats are put in and pulled back out by trailers attached to tractors. Only 400 people live there and there are strict building codes since it’s technically part of a national reserve. People are friendly and largely relocated from the blur of Buenos Aires for a quieter, simpler life.

I had made a reservation in the one hostel in this tiny little beach town and quickly discovered the major problem they face as a community: housing. My 12-bed dorm room had more like 20, and half of the beds were occupied by people living there. To make a top bunk my own I had to remove someone else’s clothes and stash them among the rest of her worldly belongings scattered about.

As soon as I had checked in and claimed a bed I made the short walk to the beach. Within two sandy steps I realized I was about to traipse over the outline of a court of some kind and quickly stepped back. The two boys playing greeted me amicably and offered to teach me how to play what I can only describe as beach shuffleboard. One was a chef and the other worked at the swanky hotel on the water. Suddenly I had friends in town, and the housing crisis was made even more apparent by the shared house they live in: two rooms, one for living, cooking, and eating, and the other with five beds packed in tight. Still, it was obvious they were all happy in the pristine setting and I didn’t see any signs of roommate angst among them.

That night we went for a long stroll on the beach, the pitch-black moonless sky a perfect backdrop for millions of stars. I noticed that some constellations were upside down, and then I noticed that the waves seemed to be glowing. I went to the water’s edge and noticed that my favorite natural phenomenon was occurring, and strongly, this night: glittery phosphorescence. I spent a long time playing with it, throwing handfuls of pebbles into the water and carving outlines in the sand. It was the strongest I’ve ever seen it save one night on Shaw Island several years ago. We could also hear the whales out in the dark water exhaling from their two blowholes (apparently, if it isn’t windy, this makes a rather cool V shape).

The next day, Thursday, I lounged on a chaise in front of the fancy hotel, drank grapefruit soda, ate calamari, and read an entire book. I was supposed to catch the one bus of the day at 6 p.m. back to Madryn and spend another night there before my flight the next afternoon, but my new friends found me a ride the next morning and I stayed on another night. A second night walk to the beach revealed that the phosphorescence had already gone. Its replacement was a swarm of what seemed to be migrating beetles, small and light brown and inoffensive except for their obnoxious quantity. The next morning while I drank coffee and waited for my ride I noticed that they had all seemingly died in the sun – hundreds of tiny beetle corpses littered every exposed surface.

I arrived to Madryn and subsequently to Buenos Aires on Friday without any complication, other than riding in what was surely the oldest plane still in service. That night was Sol’s monthly wine tour, a fantastic event of walking to posh stores and drinking different wines inside of each. I had Saturday to decompress and then my friend Katharine arrived from Philadelphia Sunday afternoon.

Stay tuned for a blog about her week here and our fantastic Thanksgiving. My time here is quickly wrapping up… less than three weeks before I’m back in Seattle!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Vacation: Week One

Warning: this is a long post, to be followed shortly by another long post. Sorry.

Colonia, Uruguay

The weekend before I left for the waterfalls I spent in Colonia, Uruguay with Sol and Flor, which was incredibly fun. The boat ride across the river is about an hour and they stamp you into and out of each country on the same side, which is unlike any other border I’ve ever crossed. The first day we wandered the historic area – about a six block radius – and climbed up the old lighthouse before drinking a fruit-filled white wine beverage while watching a beautiful sunset. (It should be noted that most of the time we were eating or drinking. We also ate chivitos for both lunches, a typical beef dish in Uruguay.) Here are the lovelies on a typical street in the historical district with the river in the background.

That night we played Truth or Dare, a first for Sol and something I haven’t done in at least a decade. (My dare was to kiss the pizza deliveryman, a normal yet intimate greeting.) The second day we rented a golf cart, the first motorized vehicle I had driven in 9 months. We puttered out of the city and up the coast to the old Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring) and took a picture in front of the Shipwreck Museum (deciding not to pay the entrance fee or deal with the OCD woman running it) before heading to the surprisingly ocean-like beach (technically, Río de la Plata is the world’s largest estuary, so it isn’t so odd that there were shells and sand and the water was semi-salty). I went swimming while they took pictures of me from the shore. Both Sol and Flor are persistent photo-takers and I actually stopped taking my own in the face of their certain coverage of any possible image I may want to remember.

Misiones, Argentina (Iguazú falls)

My trip to Iguazú falls, situated in the uppermost part of the country and bordering Paraguay and Brasil, was amazing. After an 18 hour bus ride there, wherein I discovered that a ‘bed bus’ does not necessarily mean that the seat is flat but rather wider and cushier than a ‘semi-bed bus,’ I arrived at the insanely large yet lush Hostel-Inn Iguazú and was in the pool within 10 minutes. Since I had gone straight from the boat from Uruguay to the bus, I was still covered in the sand, sunscreen, and sweat from the day before. Luckily I had no one sitting next to me on the bus. Suffice to say the pool was a welcome relief.

The hostel itself was pretty cool. It was much bigger than I realized, 200 beds, but the pool was great and there were always lounge chairs to be had. They also organized lots of events and I attended two delicious asados (barbecues) while there, each of which had a dance show (tango and samba, with real Brasilian Amazonian ladies who shook their mostly-bare butts in mortified tourists’ faces). My room had 6 (comfortable!) beds, one of which was occupied by an older Argentinean lady who had been there for two weeks, kept the room shockingly cold, and snored. She was very sweet, even tucking me in one night, and I was grateful for the wax earplugs I remembered to buy.

I arrived on the afternoon of November 10, a Monday. On Tuesday morning, I hopped the yellow bus that makes the circuit between Puerto Iguazú (the main town), the hostel (5 kilometers from town), and the park entrance (another 5 kilometers). The Argentinean area is enclosed by a national park that has fantastic infrastructure; it was much like I imagine Disney would run government property if they were asked. I didn’t go to the Brasilian side even though it was allegedly possible to evade the $150 visa fee (after my near-deportation from Bolivia I’m playing it safe at borders these says). The view is more panoramic because almost all the falls are on the Argentinean side, but I got a pretty wide view from the boat and didn’t feel like I missed that much.

It’s cliché, but the waterfalls itself were breathtaking. The river was really high, so the crush of the water was deafening when you got close. Luckily the river was a bit lower than the week before since they closed the metallic walkways that cross over the river and to the biggest of the falls, Garganta del Diablo (throat of the devil), since they were essentially underwater, which is considered unsafe for some reason (joking). This particular fall was indescribable, a near-circle of fierce brown water tumbling to an invisible bottom. Here is a video I took, sideways - sorry, I can't figure out how to edit it. (I have many such videos and hope to bug one of my knowledgeable friends to edit them together for me for everyone's viewing enjoyment.)

video
I have to admit it was terrifying, since the whole time all I could think about was, what if I fell in? What if the walkway collapses and we ALL fall in? How long would it take to die? How long until they found my body? Etc, etc. I felt sort of grotesque for this until I talked to other people and pretty much every single person, regardless of nationality or gender, had the same issue. In addition to getting scared, I also got incredibly wet, and my camera was a real trooper (and continued to be for the next two weeks as I exposed it to fresh water, salt water, sand, sunscreen, and several unfortunate impacts).

By far the best part of the falls was the boat ride that literally stuck us UNDER one of the falls, an incredible experience I screamed through. Being in the front-most seat I definitely took the brunt and I have no complaints. At the end I had the opportunity to buy a DVD of said screaming for a shocking 90 pesos ($30). I declined. Here's a view from the boat:


It was high butterfly season and it was seriously shocking how many butterflies there were. I took a video of one of the many literal swarms I saw. My mom knows very well that I do not like it when these lovely creatures land on me, and there was one type (incidentally, the largest) that was determined to do so. I actually went running and yelping like a little girl on a few occasions and I know I drew some odd stares. Incidentally, my ‘safari’ guide told me that they land on human skin to lick the salt off of us, which I thought was interesting. I also saw huge tiger ants whose bite is apparently like a bee sting, and any number of other bugs I couldn’t identify but enjoyed watching. I made an interesting discovery about myself this way: in their natural habitat, bugs don’t really bother me, but in MY natural habitat, i.e. my apartment, they gross me out. (I will not bore you with my cockroach updates, but I have found a lethal gel and now they greet me belly-up rather than scurrying away, which is still gross but at least doesn't involve me spending 45 minutes working up the nerve to kill them.)

There are many varieties of birds in the park since it’s a sub-tropical jungle, and I even saw a toucan. Apparently there are macaws as well. There are also two species of monkeys, but I saw neither. Otherwise I saw tons of lizards, a few of which were huge iguanas, but only managed to get a picture of a cluster of three, by far the smallest ones saw all day.

I also saw two coatis, which are like raccoons. There are signs everywhere telling you to stay away and not to feed them; apparently they are mean and can bite. I saw tons of bunnies jumping out of the way of the train tracks (there is a free, eco-friendly train that moves through the park) and I was temporarily disappointed to find such a common animal in such an exotic place. Then I reminded myself that bunnies are adorable and have just as much right to be there as the cooler animals.

By the end of my day there the sky was starting to turn, and as I was leaving the park it started dumping rain. The power kept going on and off in the little stores at the front of the park, which resulted in some confusion with the ATM since people's transactions were cut off. Luckily I was able to use it with no problems, avoiding an unnecessary trip into town. I haven't gotten that wet in a long time, and the instant I arrived at the hostel the sun came back out.

That night the sky was mostly clear I managed to take a full moon tour, which was lucky since of the four nights I was there, it stormed – hard – for two of them. I met a girl from Spain on this tour and she managed to take some pretty rad pictures with her much more advanced camera, and has promised to email them to me when she gets home. I’ll share them with you once I get them.

The next day (Wednesday) I booked a tour to see more of the Misiones area, the northernmost region of Argentina. The first stop was at Minas de Wanda (pronounced Vanda), named after a Polish princess who killed herself rather than marrying an enemy prince in hopes of repairing relations. Apparently the Polish immigrants who settled the area were sentimental about the story. These mines are special since they produce a variety of stones, including several types of quartz, amethyst, and some others I forget. I bought a lot of rocks here.

Next we went to the Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio, which were gorgeous. I pulled a fairly idiot move in not bringing my camera charger and the battery died at the mines, but luckily I did the circuit with another solo traveler, a Peruvian who has lived in Santa Barbara for 10 years. He took some great photos and has promised to send them to me. The area the ruins encompass is huge, and apparently several thousand people lived and worked there back in the day. One of my favorite things about Misiones is the high iron content in the soil, rendering everything in the area a bright, beautiful red. (Once we were behind a truck of cut trees that looked shockingly like redwoods, but were just pine that had been reddened from exposure.) The ruins consisted of many complexes of red brick buildings surrounded by wide fields punctuated with shady trees. There was a bright blue sky with lovely clouds, and I lay in the grass nearly an hour, content with my surroundings. From there it was about 3 hours back to the hostel where an asado and a fantastic lightning storm were waiting for me.

I decided to come home a day early (Thursday evening instead of Friday) since I had done everything I wanted to and still had almost a full day (Thursday) to just lay by the pool. I changed my bus ride without any problems (except I got a much less cool seat in the back of the bus instead of the front-most one I had reserved on the upper level) and 18 hours and a thorough drug search later (apparently being so close to the Paraguay and Brasil borders is worrisome for Argentina, much to the terror of the German couple who were strip-searched since they had stayed at a notorious drug-user’s hotel) I was back in Buenos Aires.

Weekend in Buenos Aires

I packed a lot in to my three day weekend back in Buenos Aires, including going to a nightclub opening on Friday, eating a great brunch and seeing Benicio del Toro in part 1 of Che: El Argentino (I guess in the states they released all four hours of it at once!) on Saturday, going to the Noche de Museos on Saturday night, and spending Sunday at an asado at Sol’s. I have to say, she cooks a mean barbecue and rivals any of my U.S. friends and family for top honors.

Back to the Noche de Museos: it’s one night a year from 7 pm to 2 am when all the museums are open and free to the public. There were over 100 participating places with open-air art installations and performances, free busses that moved people from one spot to another, and long lines snaking from block to block. I finally saw the inside of the Congress building which is only 2 blocks from my house but almost never open to the public, and it was a delight. There was an orchestra playing and visitors had access to every room including the congressional and senate chambers. The same was not true for the Casa Rosada where I met Kirsten and her friends. The presidents used to live and now presumably work there, and the line was twice as long yet only gave access to the tiny museum that is open every day. I abandoned that claustrophobic space for El Cabildo where the Argentinean revolution was planned, and then Sol met me at 1 am to see the Manzana de las Luces (block of lights), a series of underground tunnels that used to stretch the entire city and were used at various times for communication between churches and monasteries, as well as for many types of smuggling and trafficking. It got its name since the tunnels were also used at one point to share scientific ideas that were otherwise considered blasphemous or dangerous. Overall a very fun night and it was fun to see so many old people in the streets at 2 am. Here we are waiting to get in to the tunnels:

Phew! This has been week one of the last two weeks of vacations I’ve been on. Stay tuned for part two, a truly incredible visit to the northern part of Patagonia. Also, there are new pictures on Picasa, so, enjoy!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Culture and Vacation

Culture

I’ve been rather cultural over the past two weeks. Sol and Flor both get a lot of invitations and free tickets and have been kind enough to invite la yanqui to experience them. I hope to do a sporting event tour - also hopefully with free tickets - but so far I've been sticking to the arts.

It started with an invitation to see the opening night of an opera/modern dance called Carmina Burana at the teatro Opera here. It was only an hour long, and it started and ended really well (the final scene featured a giant piece of gold fabric that stretched across the entire stage that then enveloped a character as he descended into "hell" aka a trap door; very cool effect), but the middle was sort of repetitive. It didn’t help that I had no idea what it was about, but later research told me it was based on 12th century Austrian verses about the vices of life. To illustrate a key cultural aspect of Argentina, you should know that at this opening there was free wine, but no programs for the show. It was hosted by Teatro Colon, one of the most famous theaters in the world that has unfortunately been closed for ‘renovations’ for several years and shows no sign of opening in the near future. It also featured a famous national dancer, Iñaki Urlezaga. We were pretty high up in the balcony so I didn't get a good look at his face, but his moves were pretty sweet.

Two Saturdays ago I went to the San Telmo district to catch a show at the Museo de Títere, or puppet museum. The museum itself is two rooms filled with cool puppets from around the world, and is run by two old ladies who have clearly been friends forever, both of whom seem to be relatively famous as puppeteering goes. Here is one of them:
They have daily shows for kids, but Saturdays at 9:00 are ‘adult puppet shows.’ I was so curious about what that might be that I decided to go even in the absence of anyone else willing to accompany me. For 15 pesos I was treated to an hour-and-a-half show in a long, narrow room filled with plastic deck chairs facing a tiny stage, upon which two talented tango dancers/singers/actors played out a semi-biographical story about tango in the 1920s, occasionally using those creepy, androgynous wooden dolls to represent different sides of their characters. Seeing wooden dolls dancing the tango was interesting, and it was a very sweet experience overall, but definitely not what I would call a puppet show.

Last night I went to two events in one night, first taking the subway to the end of the line in Barracas to the opening of a modern art exhibit at the Centro Cultural Moca. Sol, Flor and I enjoyed a free glass of champagne while giggling and gawking at the art installations. I'm not much for modern art and apparently, neither are they. The weirdest piece was called "In contempation of Agnus" and was a nearly full-scale human replica in the cobra yoga position, covered in a sort of cottony substance with only her bare feet and face showing; she was set in a creepy forest scene surrounded by dead and dying - real - roses. The creepy part was that there was some sort of lung apparatus that made it appear is if she were breathing.

We spent a total of 15 minutes there before booking it across town - a mere 10 blocks from my house, no less - to our next event, a concert at the Teatro Metropolitan II on Avenida Corrientes in the theater district. I should note that I also drank free booze here, a popular national drink called Fernet that they mix with Coca Cola. It's not that great but not terrible either. Do we have Fernet in the U.S.?

Anyway, the concert: there was a three piece male band consisting of drums, cello, and (mostly flamenco) guitar, and they were all fantastic. The focus was a female singer called La Shica (who we later found out was married to the drummer). They are all from Spain and it was her first time in "America." It was fun to hear the Spanish lisp again! The concert itself was... odd. The concert postcard advertised it as a mix of flamenco, hip hop, baile, copla, and funky. I never really caught any hip hop but it was certainly funky. The most outrageous song was about a woman who has anonymous sex in dressing rooms, which she sang wearing red flashing heart-shaped sunglasses while gyrating around the stage. Her voice was beautiful, but it was distracting watching her dance. We left before the encore.

I also want to take in a showing of Eva, El Gran Musical Argentino, based on the life of the very popular Argentinean figure Eva or Evita Peron. (If you don't know who she is, especially after she was popularized by Madonna, well... shame on you.) The role of Eva is played by a very famous actress named Nacha Guevara. Eva died when she was 33 years old; Nacha is 68. Talk about long in the tooth, but apparently she looks damn good for her age. (Note that she also played Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" on stage...) I know this is photoshopped, but still:
She is revising this role, first played in 1986. It runs until just before I leave, which is good since I won't have a chance to see it for a few weeks, because...

Vacation

...I'm going on vacation! I know, I know, my life is so difficult that I clearly need a break from it. It starts tomorrow morning when I head to Colonia, Uruguay with Sol and Flor for an overnight. It's supposed to be a sweet town with a nice beach, and even though I am obligated to leave the country to renew my tourist visa I'm still looking forward to seeing a new place. Then on Sunday night I head to Iguazú falls in the north of Argentina. I have about 4 days there which includes a full moon boat tour. Should be amazing!

I get home Saturday morning and plan on attending Noche de los Museos that night (November 15). One night a year, a bunch of museums stay open until 2 am and have various exhibits and films. Then everyone parties in the streets. (This is almost as cool as the city-wide pillow fight).

That Monday, November 17, I get on a plane to Puerto Madryn in the middle/south-ish of the country. I will head to Península Valdés from there to see the Atlantic wildlife, including a huge colony of Magellanic penguins and hopefully right whales, with their babies no less! It's supposed to be a beautiful area. Here are the very penguins I will see:

I will not make it to El Calafate to see the glacier, nor Ushuaia to see the Beagle Channel and everything else the "southernmost city of the world" has to offer. (In quotes since technically Puerto Williams in Chile is further south, though often overlooked since it is so tiny. This is where my extreme friend Clare studied birds for many months.) Ultimately I had to make a decision and it was easiest to get to Puerto Madryn and gives me the best chance to see what I want to see on a limited schedule. Plus, Clare has offered to take me hiking on a glacier in Washington - I told you she was extreme. (Did you know that WA state has more glaciers than any state other than Alaska? And that Mount Rainier has more glacial ice than all the Cascades combined? Yeah, me neither. Don't worry, that won't last long.)

I get back on Friday, November 21, just in time for Sol's monthly Wine Tour, a shi-shi event in hip Palermo where you walk around to different boutique stores and they serve you delicious wine. Saturday is the biennial pillow fight (warning - Spanish link). Then on Sunday Katharine comes from Philadelphia to spend Thanksgiving week with me - she isn't going to know what hit her, I have so many plans for us. After that I'm already into December! I know my remaining time is going to fly, but I plan to enjoy every day of it.

Special shout out to my dad for turning a year older yesterday. I love you, Dad!

p.s. I am once again reiterating my request for comments. I know you're reading, people. Throw your two cents in!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes We Did

Well, it's over. This election cycle has finally ended, and for the first time in my voting life, it has ended with the candidate of my choice.

My night was pretty anticlimatic. Argentina sprang ahead and the U.S. fell back, so I'm now 6 hours ahead of the west coast, which means that when Washington state polls clossed it was already 2 am here.

At 10 - my time - I went to the official Democrats Abroad party:
It was nearly 90 degrees here today (no joke!) and the humidity ensured that the heat stuck around after nightfall. Much to my dismay, there was no air conditioning in the very packed bar. Plus, for some reason, they were letting people smoke inside. So, I quickly abandoned that party (thought not before getting interviewed yet again, this time by a newspaper) and headed for another one a few blocks away, which was even more crowded and even less air conditioned:
I was sort of depressed at this point, since I realized that, other than being in an uncomfortably hot bar, I was sharing it with the type of people I generally try to avoid socializing with in the U.S.; why would I want to spend such an important night with them abroad? Why not conform this historic event to my Argentinean realities? So, I quit that party faster than the first one and got on a bus to Sol's house to watch with her family:
They fed me empanadas and we watched CNN en español as the breeze from the patio doors brought the smell of night jasmine inside; clearly I had chosen correctly.

At 1:30 I decided if I headed out then I'd get home in time to see the west coast polls close (all the news channels here were, and still are, covering the election). Sometime during my bus ride home, Obama was declared the winner. When I walked in to my apartment and turned on the TV, McCain was walking on stage to give his concession speech. I could tell he was incredibly gracious, even through the Spanish dubbing, and I think he's a good person I just happen to disagree with on a lot of issues.

I didn't have much of an emotional reaction at this point; I pretty much knew Obama would win, and it's hard to get excited without other people stoking those flames. I saw a headline on The Stranger's website that read: "Whatever happens, don't be alone on election night." Reading this actually made my heart ache for a moment; I wish I could have been at Adam and Jeremy's in Columbia city enjoying the moment with a large group of friends, or on Capitol hill with Justin screaming with the crowd, or in New York with Jacob G watching the city explode into fireworks and festivities. But instead I was here, isolated in my apartment in a foreign country, migrating between my computer in the living room and my television in the bedroom, trying to force myself to realize the importance of the moment.

And then, Obama spoke.
Live dubbing still lets you listen to the actual words, albeit faintly, and his eloquence yet again struck me (once I got past my initial "What in the hell is Michelle wearing?" reaction). He didn't say anything that was necessarily new or exciting; I know his message so well, as do all of his supporters, that any one of us could have given the speech. But just listening to him speak is thrilling, now more than ever, especially since I've spent the last 8 years frantically turning off the television any time G.W. Bush appears since his voice literally makes me shiver. I admit, I cried during the speech. I saw Jesse Jackson and Oprah crying in the crowd too, and I'd like to think that, despite their high visibility, they were crying for the same reasons I was.

Then I noticed that he was standing behind a discreet glass fortress. "Is that BULLET-PROOF glass??" I thought with horror. The terrifying image of someone taking a shot at him during his presidential nomination acceptance speech made my heart race in fear, and I silently implored any would-be assassins to please reconsider or get caught. Then I reminded myself that maybe it isn't bullet-proof glass after all, and just there to ensure that any one of the nearly million supporters present didn't jump on stage for a photo op. I convinced myself that this was the case, and tried to focus on his speech again, but the seed had been planted.

So now we just have to see what happens. (With his presidency, not with assassination attempts - can we please try not to think about that?) It's encouraging that Democrats are winning such wide-sweeping victories, hopefully allowing him to get more of his policies enacted, and quickly. I'm excited to see who he chooses for his cabinet, and what he does with those highly emphasized first 100 days. If he can deliver even half of what he's promised, it will have been well worth the struggle to get him elected. And, for my Republican readers, I want to say I really am sorry for how you're feeling right now. It's a feeling I know well. But I want to assure you that Obama's tax plan will save you more than McCain's would have - there are a variety of independent studies that verify this! Just give him a chance. Maybe you'll like him.

It's after 4:00 am here, which in my normal life would be late but in my alternative, living-abroad life is a pretty standard bedtime. Still, it will be hard to sleep tonight. I imagine Obama waking up tomorrow; you just know the first through through his head will be, "Holy Sh**. I am the next president of the United States."

Monday, November 03, 2008

Halloween Weekend

Argentina does not traditionally celebrate Halloween; however, over the last few years it has slowly taken hold and there are more and more celebrations each year. Since I can't remember a single year of my life where I haven't dressed up, I certainly wasn't going to miss this opportunity to spread Halloween cheer and convinced some of my friends to participate. Sol took it one step further and convinced a bunch of HER friends to also dress up, and we had a fantastic pre-party at her house to eat, drink, be merry, and get ready together. Sol's sister Cielo even carved two pumpkins! I was blown away by their enthusiasm.

My particular costume, as I explained before, was Snow, in honor of my many winters this year. Although they tend to interpret costumes a bit more literally here, I assured my fellow partiers that abstract concepts and weather patterns were totally acceptable as costumes. This is me pre-glitter, as I was trying to spare Sol's house:


After we were all ready we decided to head to a club just around the corner, which actually ended up being a combination flogger/gay club. Floggers are a growing cultural oddity here, mostly angsty teenagers who have very deliberate hairdos and post pictures of themselves online (i.e. keep 'photo logs' hence the name). The most famous one is a teenage lesbian named Cumbio and is actually paid to make appearances at clubs and such. Here's a picture of a group of floggers - they famously hang out at the Abasto mall every Sunday. I fully plan to go one day and get a picture with Cumbio. Until then:

Anyhoo, it's safe to say that my particular costume was a bit out of place among the dark outfits within the club; the floggers gave me dirty looks and the gays stopped to kiss me on the cheek and make adoring comments about my outfit. It made me realize just how much I miss the gay scene in Seattle, since here they are mostly confined to very specific spaces (though I later found out that this weekend was, in fact, Gay Pride weekend, and even caught a bit of the parade that went a mere block past my house).

The club itself was hosting a rad Halloween party with a Tim Burton theme - amazing! They were projecting Ed Wood on two huge screens, and at one point a group of exquisitely costumed dancers performed on stage for about an hour. The get-ups included characters from Mars Attacks, the Joker, Beetlejuice, and a few others that were indistinguishable yet well-done. By far the two best were Edward Scissorhands and Willy Wonka. I would kill to get my hands on pictures from within the club. (Sol, did your friends take any??)

We danced for a few hours like crazy high school kids with me throwing glitter into the air any time someone complimented my costume, and often for no reason at all, resulting in a smattering of glitter bits on anyone near me (which some people loved and others were not so pleased about). Now, three days and three showers later (which kills me, a devoted infrequent showerer) I am STILL covered in glitter; my scalp is veritably glowing with it. My apartment is equally coated, as is my bed and a fair amount of my clothes. I guess I'll just celebrate Halloween all month.

There are more pictures from the evening on Picasa so just click on the link to the right. The next big Yankee holiday to introduce them to is Thanksgiving, which will also be hosted at Sol's house, and I can't wait!

As you all can't help but knowing due to the inundation of ads and e-mails, tomorrow is Election Day. No matter how you feel, get out and vote! It is your greatest right and responsiblity as a member of a democratic society, plus wearing that little sticker all day is a perfect way to feel smug in the face of non-voters. Remember, your office has to grant you at least an hour to vote, so take advantage of that paid time off, vote for 5 minutes and have a few drinks for the other 55, knowing you've accomplished your duty and are now stoking the economy with your consumptive habits. Cheers to that!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Local politics and miscellany

I had an interesting lunchtime conversation today with the old man sitting next to me (who didn’t think he was too old to ask me out for tomorrow, but that’s beside the point). Some background: Recently, Argentina’s president Christina Kirchner – wife of the last president if that rings any bells – announced her intent to take the equivalent of $23 billion from PRIVATE pension funds to pay off government debt, which is virtually 100% of said pensions. This announcement sparked the drop of the peso to its lowest worth in 6 years, hovering between 3.36-3.44 pesos to U.S. $1 (normal is around 3.10 to 1). Living next to the congress building I am privy to each and every protest, and yesterday there was a huge demonstration against what would be an essential robbery of private funds.

Anyway, this very knowledgeable man and I started talking politics, and if ever I thought the U.S. had cornered the corruption market, now I think we’re just taking a page from Argentina’s well-greased systematic trickery. (It isn’t just this conversation that has me feeling this way; virtually every Argentinean I’ve spoken with thinks their country is crooked, things move slowly because people are too busy figuring out how to rob or cheat the system than make it work, and in general consider their compatriots lazy, liars, or both.)

So, according to my lunchtime compañero, the majority of the people I saw yesterday and see in all the protests are paid to be there by opposition forces, often within the government itself. Disheartening if true! I was always so moved by the latino willingness to protest.

We then got onto the subject of Kirchner herself, who is rapidly becoming a very unpopular pick. Not that she was every popular, according to Ricardo – there was widespread fraud to get her elected. For instance, some 15,000 illegal immigrants were given Argentinean residency (and the documents to prove it) so they would vote for her. Can you imagine if someone tried to pull that in the U.S.? Also, paper ballots are routinely robbed or tampered with, but they refuse to switch to the electronic system for fear of even more extensive voter fraud. I explained with some irony that we’re fighting FOR a paper trail to avoid the very same. He was talking fast and I forget a few other points he made (something about promising specific regions specific things if a certain percentage voted for Christina and even giving bribes like electronics and cars to buy votes, etc.) but all in all it sounds like there are some shady dealings here in my temporary adoptive country. Someone pointed out to me that it’s taken 6+ years to build two additional stops on a particular subway line because those working on the project can’t be bothered to actually work, and those administering the funds can’t be bothered to monitor the work since they’re so busy covering their embezzlement. Paranoid and cynical, perhaps, but it seems there’s some truth to their pessimism.

In other, happier Argentina-related news, I’ve officially booked my trip north to the world’s largest waterfalls, Iguazú. They sit on the border of four countries and are supposed to be incredible! I’ll be there from November 10-14 which includes a full moon, something I planned intentionally so I can catch a nighttime riverboat trip only offered the two days before and during a full moon. Marcos booked my fancy "executive suite bed" bus seat since he gets a discount; apparently the busses here are very lux and include hot meals and booze. Good thing since it's 16 hours each way, but the scenery is supposed to be incredible. I’m also in the process of planning one or possibly two trips to the south and am having a hard time deciding what to do. I’ve had to accept that there are some places I thought I’d see that now I won’t, such as Chiloe and the south in general in Chile. I’d like to go to Puerto Madryn to see penguins and whales and other marine life, El Calafate to see the world's largest glacier, and Ushuaia to say I've been really, really far south and toured the Beagle channel, but time and funds are limited. I’m waiting to hear back from a travel agent to see what kind of airfare he found for me… details to follow as I know them.

This Friday as you all know is Halloween. I've been forcing the idea down my friends' throats here and I hope they've taken me seriously enough that they have thought about costumes and are prepared to go to one of the few, trendy parties (it's sort of a new concept to celebrate Halloween here, done mostly among North Americans living abroad and very hip locals). I plan on going as Snow to celebrate my year of eternal winter, somewhat ironic since it will be my first hot Halloween ever: they're forecasting 81 degrees (88 for Saturday).

In a last "it's two a.m. and this post is already random" subject, I decided to change my hair color for the first time in 6 years, mostly because they don't sell "Very Rich Auburn" down here. So, I opted for "Copper Blonde" and this was the result:

Keep in mind that blonde here means light brown and up, and when put on top of my already dark hair, the result was... Very Rich Auburn. Luckily I stuck with it so long because it's a color I like!

Off to bed, but before I go, I'd like to officially recognize and celebrate the fantastic Phillies victory tonight in the World Series of baseball. I watched the first 6 innings from a bar on Monday and the last 3 from my home tonight (bless international cable) and couldn't be more thrilled for the team, the fans, and the city in general. It's been a long time since Philly had a winning sports team and I think they needed something to bring them together during what's been sort of a rough patch. I hope they dress William Penn in a giant jersey tomorrow. Go Phillies! Now if only the Eagles could pull it together... not to mention the Seahawks for that matter.