Sunday, January 31, 2010

First edited video for your viewing pleasure

Well, I finally did it. I was going to see Avatar this afternoon but all the screenings were sold out until 10:30 tonight (I cannot believe it is still so popular after weeks in the theater). So, with a full and rainy afternoon (not that I'm complaining - today was the first day it was cool enough to enjoy a cup of hot tea) and nothing interesting to do, I sat myself down in front of my computer, opened the video editing software that came with my rad and tiny Panasonic video camera, and got to work editing the first videos I shot.

I have to be honest, it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Which is not to say that the video I am about to subject you all to is in any way good. No, no, no. These are among the very first videos I have taken in my adult life (when I was younger my family had one of those awesome brick cameras that held an entire VHS tape and I remember shooting some pretty fine school projects with it) and it's also the first editing job of my adult life so it's hilariously amateurish. The videos are semi boring, I do some random tilt-action to see if the picture adjusts itself (it does not), and one scene is partially blocked by my finger. The editing is an experiment in scene transitions - I really like fade black and 'mix' as you will see if you make it all 4 minutes 28 seconds through.

A few things I couldn't figure out: 1) how to put music to it. 2) How to put text on scenes other than just the title. Anyone have any experience working with VideoCam Suite for Panasonic? I will keep messing with it but I'm afraid it's so basic it doesn't actually have these features. Any recommendations for free or reasonably priced video editing software? Also, the load time on YouTube is really slow and it's fuzzier than it was on my computer. Any and all video editing and/or YouTube advice greatly appreciated.

I would have loved to label where we are in each scene but instead I'll just tell you here. Special thanks to Renée for being an unwitting participant in this experiment.

1) Lobby of my first apartment. 2) Waiting for the A line subway at station Acoyte (after the subway we walked to each location shown). 3) Pedestrian walkway on Florida street near Plaza de Mayo. 4) Puerto Madero, the new "it" neighborhood surrounded by condo construction. 5) Puente de la mujer aka "Bridge of the woman" which has won some architectural awards. 6) A random Frida Khalo exhibit, not in a museum. 7) Costanera Sur, an ecological reserve. 8) The many, many food carts which line the Costanera Sur selling barbecued meat sandwiches.

Here is a map of the city, marked with where we went. Click on it for a larger image.

And finally, here is the video itself. Enjoy, if possible! I will continue on my editing spree and hopefully have some more interesting videos to share from my recent vacation.

p.s. Totally coincidentally, I am wearing the same purple dress editing as I did taking these videos.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sweat and Silks


It's hot here. People who know me know that I do not handle heat well. I was raised in a mild climate and for me, 75 degrees and breezy is the ideal day. I love the pouring rain and would rather be cold than overheated. So, these last few days have been hard for me. Here is/was this week's weather. I particularly like today's (Friday's) description (click on it for a larger view):

It's not only hot, it's humid, which makes it feel about 10 degrees worse than it is. I can't stop thinking about the "fat man on your back" analogy that a friend used to explain the summers to me in the bliss of November. I know, I know, I shouldn't complain about my perpetual summer. Especially since it's 15 degrees in Philadelphia right now. (Though WTF Canada, how are you ever going to host the winter Olympics without snow??) But, I'm going to complain just a little more anyway.

For the most part the heat was enjoyable during November and December and even the first part of January, because we'd get 1-2 nice days and then it would rain, wiping the slate and the city clean. But the heat this past week has been relentless. Every day it just gets hotter and more humid, and it's like each day builds on the last in terms of irritability, though today I'm sort of lethargically resigned to it.

The worst part is that it's impossible to get cool. Our apartment has fans but no air conditioning, and my room doesn't have a cross breeze. I wake up each day already hot and uncomfortable. Amy and I spend most of the day moving as little as possible and wearing as little as possible (thank heavens for girl roommates) and occasionally mustering up the energy to say something witty like, "I'm so hot." (Did I say witty? I meant whiny.) I can't even take a cold shower since the water tanks are on the roof; the best I get is lukewarm. The cat is also hot and as a result extremely lazy until all of a sudden he's attacking your feet and like a crazed animal. Then he remembers he's hot and passes out again, usually inside a paper bag. What's up with cats and bags?

On Wednesday I had a 4-hour self-induced debacle at the international post office - which was shockingly air-conditioned - that sent me running back to my house and then back to the post office like a hot mess. It all worked out in the end (thanks to Katie for my awesome birthday in a box!) but the subway ride home was unbearable. Sweat was pouring down my back, down my legs, down my face. I never even thought of myself as a sweater until I saw how little Latinos perspire. When I got in my building's elevator I saw the view people has behind me on the subway: a giant sweat spot on my brown dress just above my butt. It took me almost 2 full minutes to peel the damn thing off. I then chugged two glasses of water - staying hydrated is impossible! - took a lukewarm shower, and said a quiet thanks that Amy and our one-night houseguest were not at home so I could decompress without snapping at someone. Bless their souls, they knew I'd had a rough afternoon and came back with fruit and cold white wine.

So, yeah. It's hot. End rant.


Last night was my fourth acrobatic silks class. Yes, I finally started! The first two classes were really hard and I spent the whole week after being sore. I also got pretty frustrated that I wasn't very strong and then worried since wherever the silk was wrapped around my body hurt like the dickens. I nearly didn't go the third week - it was hot and I was worried I couldn't cut it - but I'm so grateful that I mustered up the will to shame myself into attendance because I did my first trick that day!

The pain wasn't as bad - an even distribution of bodyweight helped the pressure of the silk around my foot a lot - and I learned how to do the murcielaga or "bat" pose. This involves wrapping part of the silk around my right foot with my left which is known as a "foot lock," lowering myself down and crossing my legs over it to secure the silk in place, and then LEANING ALL THE WAY BACK and extending my arms downward like a bat. Scary as hell and very fun. This is what it looks like, more or less:

The whole class clapped for me. I am the only beginner and they've all been really supportive once we got past the initial "new girl" treatment of generally ignoring me and chatting amiably among themselves. Turns out that's a universal experience, but I was friendly and remembered all their names and by class 2 was being included in the chatter.

I nearly didn't go last night either because it was so hot and the building is not air conditioned. But I did, and of course I was glad I did. It was a lot harder for me to climb yesterday - everyone was affected by the heat, not just me, phew! - and I only got a little further on my next trick, called baby, but I was proud that I didn't flake. Also, a friend of mine showed up at my apartment right as I was about to leave which made me a bit late. I've never been so glad of tardiness in my life. I walked in and was greeted with a genuine happiness to see me - they thought I was going to drop out and they'd never see me again! It was really touching and I exchanged information with one woman who said they'd start inviting me to their weekend get-togethers in local parks to practice.

No classes in February unless I can find a place that offers them at the beach, but I hope to exercise and get my muscles built up in time to start again in March. Encouragement greatly appreciated!

Speaking of the beach, I leave on Tuesday and a smattering of visitors will follow suit during the whole month. Details to follow, suffice to say I am very excited to excape this infernal heat.

Special shout-out to Amber who is my most faithful commenter and also sent me a wonderful package of goodies not too long ago. (Amber, I'm still hoarding one of the salted Fran's chocolates.) She's going to Korea for a year to teach English; I invite you to follow her via her blog which is posted in my links to the right.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Weekend in Olavarría

Last weekend I visited my friend Claudio in his hometown of Olavarría. Claudio studies architecture in Buenos Aires and we met as neighbors when I was here last year. It's summer vacation right now which means the city has emptied out - students are home and people are vacationing. So I decided to take advantage of a friend in the province and see what life outside the big city is like.

I went from Friday night to Monday morning to maximize my time there. Here, vacations are divided by quinceañas, or "fifteeners" meaning 15 days. So, January 1-15, January 15-31, February 1-15, and February 15-28 are normal vacation periods. Houses and apartments are rented by quinceañas, so since I rented for a month I rented for both fifteeners in February. This also means that on these particular days, there is a whole heck of a lot of coming and going in buses, cars, and airplanes, so it's chaotic and trafficky to the max. I failed to realize that I had decided to travel on a Friday afternoon on the change of a fifteener until I was already at the bus stop and couldn't figure out why it was so freaking busy. Luckily my bus wasn't going to a normal vacation spot so it wasn't even full and we got out of the terminal with no problem and out of the city with only a little bit of traffic.

Once on the open road I started to doze. It's a 6 hour trip and the bus was "semi-cama" which means the seats are big and comfy and recline a reasonable distance back, on top of which there is an angled foot/leg rest. I happened to open my eyes just in time to see the sun setting over a massive field of huge, fully blooming sunflowers. I took it as a good omen. Turns out sunflowers are grown to make oil here and they are crazy abundant in this particular part of the country. Since they're such a common crop, sunflowers just pop up everywhere on the side of roads and in people's yards.

I got to Olavarría at about 11:30 and Claudio was waiting to drive me around for my initial tour of the city - they do a lot of walking around and sitting in the main park at all hours of all days, so much so that people bring out tables and chairs and set up camp - and then to take me to the house where his mom had dinner ready for us. I cannot say enough amazing things about his mom, Beatriz. As far as I can tell she is a fairly typical example of the Argentinean mother who has dedicated her life to taking care of her family. She was quiet but warmed up to me and did everything in her power to make me as comfortable and welcome as possible while I was there.

After we ate and I got settled into Claudio's awesome en-suite room, having displaced him to a twin bed in his brother's bedroom downstairs, we went out to hit the town with Gustavo, his younger brother, and Paula, his brother's 15-year-old girlfriend. She was a very sweet girl but still acted quite young, and many times throughout the weekend I had disturbing thoughts like "Biologically speaking, I could be your mother."

There are only so many places underage kids can get into so we ended up playing pool at a fabulous dive just outside the center. I'm pretty sure I'm the only Yanqui who had ever picked up a cue in that joint - I loved the feeling of being the only foreigner in town!

The next morning I wandered downstairs and Beatriz immediately put fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and homemade alfajores (pronounced al-fah-hor-ehs, delicious shortbread cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche) in front of me. Then Claudio and I drove to a quinta, which is the word for an estate that can range from a big house with a pool to a small farm, so I could buy some fresh, local produce. When I say fresh I mean they literally were cutting things off the plants for me. Even though it meant I had to haul it all back on the bus with me to Capital, I bought about 15 pounds of incredible-tasting tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini, and garlic for about the price 2 pounds costs me here. We also went to a local store that makes - and I'm not exagerating, every Argentinean who tries it agrees - the WORLD'S BEST DULCE DE LECHE. I bought 2 kilos.

When we got back to the house a full-on asado was underway. Claudio and I walked his two dogs to a nearby park and let them play in the river, which does not mean that leashes were involved. Leashes and dog training are two concepts that have not arrived to the province of Buenos Aires. Everyone has a dog and most of them are on the loose, happy to bark at anything that moves, causing a chain reaction of insistent barking throughout the neighborhood.

Claudio's dad Antonio owns a remis or private taxi company, so he was called away a lot. Unfortunately he got a call right as we were ready to eat and the beautiful asado he had spent all morning preparing was devoured without him. The night before a group of neighbors had gone in on a whole, live lamb (which poor Antonio ALSO missed) so among our delicious platter of meat was freshly slaughtered, perfectly cooked leg of lamb. We also had green salad, potato salad, and for dessert: a homemade lemon pie that I had watched Beatriz make earlier that day. HEAVEN.

That afternoon we joined forces with Claudio's good friend, also named Gustavo but everyone calls him Pupi, and the five of us drove outside the city to a yearly weekend camping party at a park that includes a sectioned-off portion of the river for swimming. The water was brown from the silt but refreshing and we had a lot of fun swimming around and lazing by the shore, even though it got pretty windy at one point. Here is my weekend group, from left: Paula, Pupi, Gustavo, Claudio:

We hung out there for a few hours, drinking mate, eating more homemade alfajores, playing soccer and volleyball, and people watching. Claudio hasn't lived in Olavarría for a long time so he and I were in the same boat, but for Pupi, Gustavo, and Paula it was an afternoon of seeing familiar faces like can only happen at a large public gathering in a small city.

As we wound our way back to town we made a pitstop at the top of a hill to get the surrounding views. It was like being in a painting:
That evening I tried to nap unsuccessfully because every time I came close, somewhere a dog would start barking and spur 5 others to join his cause. When I came downstairs Beatriz was busy making homemade empanadas. I happened to mention the day before how much I love empanadas and there she was making them for dinner. I wanted to kiss her but instead I took this photo:
Claudio and I didn't make it out that night. Instead we watched Casino. I always forget what a long movie that is.

The next day was an early wake-up call for the event of the weekend: FISHING! Of course Beatriz was already awake, making breakfast and packing us lunch for the day. Poles and tackle were gathered, bait was purchased - which to my temporary horror turned out to be feeder fish - coolers were packed and the 5 of us were on our way once again out of the city. This time it was about an hour-long drive, partly along an idyllic country road passing fields of corn and sunflowers and leaving a trail of dirt in our wake.

The fishing hole was along the same river (I think...) that we had been swimming in the day before, and it was also surrounded by campers, but campers with a united goal: pescar. I had a 'duh' moment when asking at what point a pez (live fish) becomes a pescado (caught fish or fish for eating) and Pupi very non-condescendingly replied, "As soon as it's caught" which in Spanish was "Una vez que está pescado."

The day was hot. Really, really hot. Almost 100 degrees hot. The mosquitoes were out in full force but we were equipped with Off which didn't do much except make us feel like we were doing something about it. Province mosquitoes are BIG and MEAN. I came back covered in swollen red bites.

Over the course of many hours, no one caught anything except Paula who caught two carp but only one legitimately since by sheer fluke she nabbed one of them in the neck when casting a line. To add insult to injury, a group of people just down the way from us were pulling fish out of the water like hotcakes. We even changed our bait method to a polenta paste they were selling but still no luck. Tons of nibbles all day but we just couldn't reel any of them in. Still, it was fun. I hadn't been fishing since I was a kid and I forgot how lazy and relaxing it can be to just stare at a nylon line stretched out from the end of a fishing pole, waiting for the telling bend or jiggle that means a fish is biting.

That afternoon as we were ready to leave we made a pitstop at a very nearby lake to take a swim. This lake was quite large but the novelty of it was that it never got deeper than about 2 feet. You could walk from one side to the other and never have the water above your thighs. It's hard to see but the people in the middle of the lake in this picture are not swimming, they're sitting down:

On such a hot day in the middle of the summer you can imagine that 2 feet of water is not the icy cold experience you are looking for, but if you sat down - which you could with your head still comfortably above the water - the bottom layer of water was still quite cool and it was a pleasant sensation having two layers of warm and cool water surrounding the body.

The bottom of the lake was covered in a thick mud and it wasn't long before we were flinging it at each other. This went on for quite a while with Paula screaming basta! (enough!) almost the entire time, probably more annoying than a fistful of well-launched murky dirt stinging my back.
Here's a group photo we managed with my camera's timer:
I spent most of the car ride back in a sort of heat-stroke-induced-fainty-sleep which translated into another hour of laying comatose on the couch, but not before eating more lemon pie and several pieces of an amazing orange cake with a flaky, sugary frosting.

After lots of lounging and driving Pupi home, dinner wasn't soon after: roasted chicken. It was 100 degrees and this woman was roasting a chicken! It goes without saying that it was delicious.

On Sunday nights downtown Olavarría - centered around a main plaza - shuts the streets down to cars and opens it up to the people. There were groups of musicians playing to larger groups of dancers, one of which was the standard tango but another of which was more free-style and ended with "Rock Around the Clock." I felt equal parts fascination and nostalgia watching several Argentinean couples twisting their hearts out on the street! What were the odds? Sadly I forgot to bring my camera.

We met up with Pupi in the square and wandered around like everyone else. Claudio mentioned that it would make a lot more sense if stores stayed open and if there were more street vendors, but I pointed out that that was his city side talking. Commericalism isn't a goal of these Sunday gatherings; it's just being with friends and family, taking it easy and enjoying the night air. Still, as a street food savant I would have enjoyed their presence, but I did buy 3 pairs of hand-painted earrings made from the dried skin of some kind of squash which I've gotten many compliments on.

Later on we found a really cool bar that had recently opened. We started at a table on the sidewalk with strawberry daquiris and then moved inside to modern but comfortable white vinyl couches and chairs to listen to an overly charismatic lounge singer taking requests. I won his CD by guessing the singer to "Como la flor" which of course is Selena, though at first I yelled "Jennifer Lopez!" since she played Selena in the movie. Oops.

The next morning my bus left at 7 which means I had a send-off breakfast at 6:30 a.m. I thanked Beatriz profusely at the house and gave Claudio a good squeeze at the station and I was once again on my way to Buenos Aires to rejoin city life after a very relaxing and enjoyable peek into life in Buenos Aires province. (Photos on Picasa!)

Monday, January 18, 2010

We're gonna party like it's [my] birthday

Actual Birthday

My 28th birthday was on a Tuesday, but despite it being a work day I still fit some fun in. I made pancakes in a wok for breakfast since it was the best option available. (Would that make them wokcakes?) Amy has a stash of maple syrup, a true luxury here, and although they were a bit dense they were still highly enjoyable.

That night I went to dinner at my favorite Peruvian restaurant, Inka Si Señor. It’s a great name and the food is fabulous, the portions are huge and it’s cheap. Despite their relative proximity, Argentineans are not in the habit of eating Peruvian food as a general rule, so it was very adventuresome of my friends Fay and Nico to join Beth, Amy, and me at dinner. Here we are:

After we had eaten most of our food, all of a sudden a scratchy musical recording came on. It was a pre-recorded version of happy birthday, accompanied by one of Argentina’s delicious cakes (dulce de leche frosting AND filling, obviously) that Beth kindly picked up for me, plus the most amazing birthday candle I have ever seen. It was a firework on top of a cake! I was so in awe I forgot to blow it out. The recording was quite long, I think it played happy birthday three times in three different styles, but everyone in the restaurant – waiters and other customers the same – were singing and clapping along.

Turns out it was one of the waiter's birthdays as well. Apparently in Peru it’s customary to throw eggs at the birthday boy (not sure if girls are included in this custom) so there was a lot of hooplah in the back of the restaurant as he tried to escape. Yes, they were throwing raw eggs inside a restaurant. No, it did not surprise or offend us in the least. Then he got his own cake complete with firework candle and scratchy recording and we all sang and clapped along. I gave him a piece of my cake and he gave me a piece of his and we were all in a jolly mood. It was a great energy and totally fun and unexpected.


Saturday night we threw a party at our apartment. For the first time I got to experience what it was like to have a summer birthday: it was hot and half my friends were out of town. Luckily Amy invited her friends, and all of mine that were still in town invited some of their friends, so we had a pretty good turnout. Here's Amy with some of the boys she plays soccer with, rocking the hats that someone gave me at 8 am on New Year's Day as I walked home:

I really wanted to make French bread pizza but couldn’t find French bread, so we switched at the last minute to pre-made crusts which ended up being a very smart and delicious choice. I also made my now-famous bleu cheese dip (salad dressing is a scarce and expensive import here so I just crumble bleu cheese into cream and add salt, pepper, and lemon juice – voila!) with cut vegetables for dipping. This is the beginning of the party:
We had some drinks but it’s normal here for people to bring drinks to a party, and bring them they did. Everyone did their best to finish it all off but at the end of the party we had: two half bottles of gin, a half bottle of vodka, a half bottle of scotch, three bottles of red wine, two of white, and one of champagne. Suffice to say we are set for the foreseeable future.

Another key player of my party was the cake. My sister Anne is an incredible cook AND baker (a rare combination) and for the past few years has made me Malted Milk Ball cupcakes. She wasn’t here to make them for me but she did the next best thing: sent all the ingredients and the recipe in my Christmas box. Amy and I had a lot of fun making it, largely because we had to substitute a very literal translation of ‘hand mixer’ i.e. use our hands. Also because we ate more of the chocolate chips than we put into the batter, since hey, they don't exist down here and we couldn't resist.
We didn't have cupcake pans so we made it as a cake, and the frosting could have been fluffier since me beating it with a wooden spoon was not quite up to snuff with the whirring power of two beaters, but it was still INCREDIBLE. (For an amazing photo of Amy's hand-beater hands and other birthday photos, check out Picasa.) Here I am shortly after licking the bowl:
After we lit the candles and sang, I told everyone the story of the cake as it was being served and that they were in for a real American treat. It was a hit, of course. Then I hid the cake away and when someone asked me later if there was any left I said no. I hoarded it for about 5 days and even on the last day as Amy and I split the last two bites it was still delicious. See how excited I am to cut into this cake??

Side note: Did you know that in Argentina you get THREE birthday wishes, not just one? That is a custom I fully plan on bringing back with me. I spread them out over a few days and a few cakes.

Like I said, it was hot. A lot of people spent the majority of time on the balcony or directly under the fan.

I tried my best to get a dance party going but there were two warring factions of music taste, one of which was composed of one very aggressive dude who was convinced it was in everyone’s best interest to listen to hard-core techno music. Every time someone changed the music, he changed it back. It was pretty funny but slightly annoying so I wasn’t too bummed when he left to go dancing at – you guessed it – a techno club.

There was another individual who was very set on singing karaoke, so we you-tubed a variety of songs plus the word karaoke so the lyrics would show up. This went on for a good hour and there was an enthusiastic group of about 7 of us who belted out some standards like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Gloria Gayner’s “I Will Surive.” There is video but I'm not sure how it turned out.
The aforementioned gentleman serenaded us with a song from Rent called "Glory," I believe, which had some pretty high notes. We all very politely listened to with straight faces. However, I couldn’t help but crack a smile when he told me shortly after that once everyone left he would sing me “Bésame mucho.” I weaseled my way out of that one even though he was among the last to leave. Luckily one of Amy’s friends took pity on me and helped me shoo him out the door. Speaking of Amy, here we are toward the end of the night:
The last partiers left at around 6 am – sounds crazy to us U.S. folk but I assure you it’s quite standard here – and Amy and I decided we were hungry. We didn’t want to reheat the leftover pizza for some reason, so we made one last pizza with all the leftover toppings - we each did our own half - and I cleaned while it baked.

This was also when we finally found the cat who at some point went missing. We figured he was curled up in a safe, quiet place somewhere but there are only so many places to hide. So Amy went looking for him and found him at the top of the stairs 3 floors up, terrified in a dark corner and ready to pounce. The next day he developed an eye infection, probably due to stress, but at least he didn't fall off the balcony. He's also not all that interested in escaping any more, so it was a valuable lesson learned.
Cat rescued, pizza eaten, and house mostly cleaned, I slept from about 7:30 to 5 pm the next day, woke up, watched two movies, and went back to bed around 11.

All in all, it was a successful birthday. Except for the fact that all my friends here seem to be in the 20-24 range, so I am officially the "old" friend. Awesome.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Vacation Part III: Bariloche

Sorry for the delay and the length of this one. I just had to get it all out! I considered doing it in two different posts but it wasn't going to make the total reading any shorter so you'll just have to forge through or forgo it. I did include lots of pictures to keep you interested though.

Speaking of, note that vacation photos with detailed captions are available here on Picasa for the abridged version.

Special update: I have just this moment finished both this ridiculously long post AND finished the last of the Chex mix. I still have the taste of garlic powder and peanuts in my mouth. Mmmmm. Ok, back to the vacation.

Tuesday December 22: Welcome to Bariloche

We arrived in Bariloche from El Calafate in the evening and were met by a very amicable remis (private taxi) driver named Ernesto. He explained many local features, flora, and fauna on our way to the hotel. For instance, he pointed out the broom (non native and invasive, says Ernesto, but creates an amazing yellow landscape) and lupine blooming everywhere.

We also gave a ride to another couple we had done the Big Ice trek with, who happened to be on our flight, and who totally randomly had reservations at the same hotel. When you consider that 80% of the businesses in Bariloche are lodging-based this was a pretty big coincidence.

The hotel was nice enough, amazing views and our room opened right onto the lake and was a stone’s throw to the heated pool. The room itself was a bit dated and we suspect that the other half of the hotel was recently remodeled while our half was still waiting for an update, but it was right next to the lake and we fell asleep to the sound of waves hitting the shore. Here is the view from our room:
In order to get to the reception/restaurant area, we had to go outside. Since it poured rain and howled wind most of the time we were there, this was not always the most pleasant walk.

The service was pretty hit or miss but that was part of its charm… kind of. If you’ve ever seen the Seinfeld episode when he dates a woman who is either quite lovely or quite hideous, seemingly without explanation, then you have a decent idea about what we experienced service-wise. We were checked in by a very nice lady (who gave us and the couple adjoining rooms which apparently creeped out the Ice Princess – she was a bit cold – and they switched rooms right away) and once in the room had a variety of needs: massage appointments, extra pillows, TV didn’t work. All of these were resolved quickly and pleasantly. We got massages the very evening we arrived and then we wanted to go into town for dinner so the receptionist called us a remis. (We naively ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Dias de Zapata which was hands down the worst meal we had the entire trip. Will I ever learn to stop trying to eat Mexican food in the southern cone??)

By the time we got back to the hotel, Ugly Service had emerged. We turned down our beds to find that they were made with a single sheet, no blanket. I opened the closet and found just one blanket. The room was well heated but the wind was so strong it came in through the windows and a blanket was necessary. So I called reception and got a lot of attitude for such a simple request, including “there’s no one to bring it to you.” I gave some sass back and 15 minutes later a confused-looking boy knocked on the door handed Beth a blanket.

The rest of the trip was more or less back-and-forth service-wise, but we slept well that first night and all the nights after and overall really enjoyed our stay.

Wednesday, December 23: Rain, rain, here to stay

Any cab driver I asked about the weather was spot-on. Ernesto had told us that the next day would be windy and rainy, but by the evening it should clear and then be nice for two days. I got the same forecast from our driver Tuesday night, and that is exactly what happened. I asked almost every driver we had about the weather and they were always right. So, Wednesday was ugly.

We woke up around ten, headed to the restaurant for our free buffet breakfast which was almost entirely composed of sugary, bready items, and then caught a bus into town (the road is measured in kilometers from the Obelisk in the city center, I believe, and the hotel was on kilometer 7.8). We had to pay for our white water rafting trip and then planned on checking out the town and trying to book some other day tours. We arranged for a short tour that afternoon that included a quick hike to a waterfall, a paleontological museum, and a tour of a trout hatchery. Here's a shot of Bariloche's main square. It has a very Swiss chalet feel.

We also booked a boat trip for Christmas day (which ended up being a big fat lie and the sleazy tour guide didn’t refund us the correct amount) and then set to work finding the Perfect Restaurant. But what had once been a sprinkling turned into a dousing of rain and after unsuccessfully looking for a place that had been recommended to us we took refuge in the first decent place we found, called La Marca. It was almost entirely empty but the food was decent and the service was attentive. Beth ordered trout no doubt caught in the very lake we could hear from our room, and I ordered venison, a local specialty. Here's Beth walking into the restaurant; you have to imagine the rain but I promise you it was ever-present.

Our afternoon tour was shared with two women from Argentina and what we think were their husbands, one from Mexico and the other from Venezuela. Finally we had met people more ill-prepared for the weather than we were! But they were pleasant and our driver/tour guide was a gem of a man named Esteban, who was very enthusiastic about his job, his city, and life in general.

We drove into some higher kilometer marks and turned onto an unpaved road to access part of the ginormous park (2 million acres) that surrounds Bariloche, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. The largest lake inside it (on which our hotel sat) is also named Nahuel Huapi, which means “Tiger Island” for some reason that I now forget.
Recreational motor boats are not allowed – the only motorized boats are those that leave Puerto Pañuelo for Isla Victoria, which I will explain when I get to Saturday – and all the water within the park is potable. The city draws all of its water from the lake and sewage is treated at a plant far removed from the shores. This results in the same fierce protectiveness of the natural resources that we saw in El Calafate and El Chalten, and there are signs everywhere shaming people into not polluting. ("Do you know how long it takes [fill in litter item here] to decompose? Respect our parks!")

We got out of the van and took a short walk through a forest that could have been plucked right from the Pacific Northwest. Honestly, Bariloche looks like the San Juan islands, and the rainy climate contributed to my feeling right at home.

We walked until we got to a small but sweet waterfall, dawdled for a bit, and then turned around. It was raining after all.

From there we went to the paleontology museum which was actually really cool. It was TINY yet somehow managed to house over 10,000 items: rocks and gems, a meteorite, taxidermied animals, fossils, and mixed in was the occasional plastic figurine or dinosaur poster.

The place had an eccentric personality, as did the awesome archeologist who runs it. We spent a lot of time in that tiny museum and then went next door for some hot chocolate and churros.

Now, at this point I was starting to feel sick and we were both frustrated that the café service was taking so long. Also, the sun had finally broken out of the clouds and yet we were stuck inside. It also seemed pretty obvious to both of us that the trout hatchery tour was now for some reason not going to happen, though I think Beth was more disappointed by this than I was. All this added up to us getting back into the van a bit grumpy, a bit tired, and in my case a bit sick, ready to get back to the hotel.

However, not long after we started someone asked if he would drive us up to Cerro Catedral, one of the largest mountains in the area and one of South America’s hottest ski resort destinations. This is not a very common ‘tour’ to take in the off season so there was no way we would have seen it otherwise, and Esteban amicably agreed as long as we promised not to tell anyone at the company he had done so.

Our moods changed. We climbed in altitude and started seeing obscenely expensive houses and hotels, many of which are under construction. And just as we got to the look-out point for the mountain itself the clouds cleared for a few seconds and we had a view of the top.

The snow on that mountain is from the day before when it was pouring rain! There was speculation the whole time that it would snow in the city itself. After this shot he drove us into the ski town itself, completely abandoned the other 8 months of the year. It was eerie but cool. Finally on the way back down we made a stop to take this photo. I will never forget hearing one of the Argentinean women say ‘what a privilege this view is.”

That night we were tired and knew we had rafting the next day, so we ordered room service (taking advantage of a loophole in which they won’t deliver normal items off the menu – there is a special room service menu that we weren’t interested in – unless those items are vegetarian. Bingo! We had soup, salad, and ravioli with tomato sauce.) We also watched Iron Man, what an awesome flick! I hope they make a sequel. Unfortunately by the end of the night I felt quite a bit worse - the cold that wouldn't go away - and one of my eyes was pretty swollen. I was afraid I would wake up with pink eye and not be able to go the next day.

Thursday, December 24: Christmas Eve on the River

Finally, some sun! Just in time for our big day of white water rafting. When I first saw that Bariloche offered this adventure I tentatively asked Beth if she’d be interested. Turns out she’s been rafting all over the world and was stoked on it. She was even more excited when she found out it would be my first time.

When we woke up the first thing Beth said was, "How's your eye??" I said, "I don't know, how does it look?" and she said "It looks normal, thank heavens." So no conjunctivitis and I felt OK so rafting was still on. We were picked up in the morning and quickly started talking with a young couple who lives in West Seattle. I mentioned that my sister lives there and about an hour later the girl said to me, "I'm sorry, but is your last name Archer?" Turns out she used to work with my sister Anne! Small world. (For those of us who don't know us by sight: my sister and I could almost be twins.)

The drive to the river is largely along unpaved roads, and though it is through beautiful country I had a hard time appreciating it because I was trying not to pee my pants. We arrived at the farm where we get our equipment and eat breakfast not a moment too soon, and after bolting for the facilities I was able to take in the surrounding beauty of the area. Check out the ever-present lupine:

Soon we were all clad in head-to-toe wetsuits and back in the van heading for Rio Manso. We got a quick but thorough training and were split into two boats.

My biggest fear was that we were uncoordinated as a boat since we had to use English as a common language among English, Spanish, and Israeli speakers, and Beth was the only one besides our guide who had done this before. But we pulled it together and ended up being ok.
The trip was advertised as up to class IV rapids which we were both stoked on. I was secretly hoping to get flung from the boat. And although I did my fair share of screaming, it was never really that scary and Beth thinks it topped out at III. Also, the ride was quite short. The river was high and fast which also contributed to reduced rapids and we were only on the water for about an hour and a half.

But it was a lot of fun, the price was very reasonable especially considering the equipment was in excellent condition, all transportation was included, plus they fed us an asado at the end.
Once we got off the river it didn't take long to peel our wetsuits off and stand in our bathing suits in the glorious sun before climbing back into the van to go back to the farm for our lunch. Afterward we looked at all the pictures (which you can see some of on Picasa) and lazed around in the sun before heading back to Bariloche.
Once back we went to "Argentina's best ice cream," Jauja, with Robin and Jake the West Seattle couple. It was good but it certainly wasn't the best I've ever had in Argentina so that has been debunked. Then Beth and I split up to buy Christmas gifts for each other, went back to the hotel an hour later, took a swim in the heated pool, had a nap, and then had plans to go out for a night on the town with the other locals celebrating Christmas Eve. This last part did not happen.

We woke up at 11 and called the front desk to see if they could call us a remis. "Umm.... I can try?" was his dubious response. Turns out we should have reserved our ride earlier in the day and much like New Year's Eve at 2 am there was no way we were getting one. We were stranded. Unfortunately we were also starving and they were only serving the special Christmas dinner at the hotel, which was for all intents and purposes over. We called the kitchen and begged them to feed us. "Ok, come into the restaurant" they said. Perfect.

So we wandered into the restaurant where everyone else was finishing their meal with a champagne toast and were immediately handed two glasses of champagne and kisses on the cheek by our two waiters. They then proceeded to serve us the full three-course menu with champagne, wine, and a dessert buffet. We seriously wanted a plate of pasta or something fast and easy but hey, we were at their mercy. And although the dinner really wasn't very good, it was a memorable hour.
Other than a few dawdling guests we were by far the last ones there and everything was cleaned up and ready for breakfast the next morning by the time we finished. Our waiters could not have been nicer, so attentive and patient, didn't rush us at all and seemed more than happy to chit chat with us. At one point one of them offered to arrange a ride into town for us with one of the staff, but we were over it by then.

Here's the real kicker: the whole dinner was supposed to be $200 pesos, or about $50, each. But since we came late and had a 'reduced quality of service and a lessened experience' (which we absolutely didn't agree with) they only charged us $70 pesos each! We tipped very well, went back to our room, and watched New Moon, the vampire movie that has captivated pre-teens across the world and was filmed in my neck of the woods. I have to admit I really, really liked it.

Friday, December 25: Strange Christmas
As soon as we woke up Beth said to me, "Want to open your present?" I have to give her all kinds of credit for Christmas. She's Jewish and doesn't celebrate, but was committed to making sure my day was as good as it could possibly be. I warned her that it was going to be weird for me - it was my first Christmas away from home - and from the very start she said we could do whatever I wanted. I was vaguely depressed that morning, so despite the fact that it was one of two sunny days we were granted in Bariloche and although many things were closed we could have gone on a hike up a local mountain, she did not say boo when I decided that what I wanted to do that morning was lay in bed and watch Sense and Sensibility.
Later that afternoon we caught a bus into town and sat at a cafe playing rummy, eating pizza and french fries, and drinking whiskey (me) and beer (her) for about 4 hours. At some point in those 4 hours I experienced what my brother unknowingly dubbed a "Christmas mugging." Turns out that one of the 3 or 4 groups of tourists that occupied the table behind us during our stint there reached into my purse (hanging on my chair, zipped up and covered by my coat), pulled out my wallet, emptied it of the cash, and put the wallet - complete with a copy of my passport that would have been mixed up with the cash and a credit card - back into my bag. I didn't notice for hours since Beth paid for the meal.

I've always wanted to go a church service in Spanish and Bariloche has a lovely cathedral.

I thought it might help me feel closer to my family so Beth very, VERY amicably agreed to go with me to the 7 pm service. Unfortunately it was pretty depressing. My favorite thing about Christmas mass is the music, and not only did they not sing Christmas songs (despite their presence in the songbook) but the "choir" was a raspy recording that no one sang along with. The priest was old and discombobulated, and his sermon was uninspired. I noticed I had been robbed of my 400 pesos - about $100 - when I opened my wallet to contribute an offering.
I grabbed 2 pesos out of Beth's purse instead and we bolted out of there before communion. At first we thought maybe I had accidentally left my cash in the room since I was sort of mopey and distracted when we left, but no. It was stolen. It was much more Christmas-y than the last one though, since 1) it was nonviolent, and 2) they ONLY took cash instead of the whole bag. I was a good egg about it. It's just money.

From church I called my family and spoke to everyone for at least a few minutes each in what should have been a much more awkward/painful call considering I made it in a very public and loud internet cafe. I tried my hardest not to cry and succeeded.
Then we went to the next logical place: the casino. We played blackjack and met two dudes who had just arrived and were starting a biking trip the next day. From there we went to an Irish bar and met two girls who were also travelling and who ended up on our flight to Buenos Aires a few days later. At midnight I officially gave up my rights to call the shots for the day and Beth graciously said nothing. (I had been making jokes the whole day about how Santa and Jesus were on my side.) We made plans with our 4 new friends to meet at the Irish bar the next day at 1o pm and all went our merry ways.

I will definitely be in Seattle for Christmas next year.

Saturday, December 26: Bambi’s Forest

My friend John, who had also spent a Christmas in Bariloche some years back, recommended we see "Bambi's forest." I thought he was crazy but it turns out he was right.
For Saturday, we signed up for a lake tour that stops at Isla Victoria and then goes to a peninsula where Bambi's forest can be found. (The same tour we thought we had arranged for Christmas day.) It was rainy but we were used to it by then. Here is a shot of me at the port, with hotel Llao Llao behind me (see Sunday.)

The boat was packed which would have been fine except they insisted that every person be in a seat for docking. There was an outdoor area which was fun for taking pictures and getting whipped up by the wind. I'm telling you, it was like being on a boat in the San Juan Islands.
The first stop was Isla Victoria. We were hungry so we had a bite in the cafe and then wandered through a stark but beautiful pine forest. I took a few minutes to be by myself there. It's been so long since I've had access to a full-on forest that I almost forgot just how tranquil and healing time with nature can be.
Then we all piled back onto the boat and it was time for the peninsula. The Arrayan tree is native only to Chile and Argentina and is usually very small and crowded out by other species. However, for some reason - they speculate it's because it gets so much rainfall - there is a forest on this peninsula with a high density of unusually large Arrayanes. They are a beautiful orange color with white spots where bark has peeled off. Rumor has it that Walt Disney came to this forest and designed the forest in Bambi after it.

I loved this tour! It was crowded but I was able to fall back and take it in on my own terms. (Despite a very obnoxious guide who kept urging us along before finally giving up and going on ahead. I mean, we had a set time to be back at the boat; I wanted to tell her, I'm an adult. Leave me alone.) The trees were beautiful and the simple walkways they constructed out of pine stained orange to match helped contribute to the experience. There were birds calling to each other and even some native orchids blooming under one of the trees. This was one of my favorite parts of the entire vacation.

That was our last night and we went back into town as promised to meet up with our friends from the night before. The girls bailed but the boys showed and the four of us went to El Boliche del Alberto, a famous (though in my opinion overrated) parrilla aka grill restaurant. We had to wait over an hour but once we sat down the food came quickly and we had a lot of fun just shooting the breeze. We briefly considered going dancing but, like all the other nights we had considered it ended up opting for a cab back to the hotel and some late-night TV watching instead.

Sunday, December 27: Classing it up before saying goodbye

We had made lunch reservations for our very last day of vacation at the fanciest place around, Hotel Llao Llao. It’s hundreds or thousands of dollars a night and is allegedly booked through 2012. My favorite part about that is that llao llao is the native word for a tree fungus. Awesome.
We checked out of our hotel (not a moment too soon - they were having plumbing issues and our bathroom had started to flood), left our baggage at the front desk, caught a remis and arrived at the hotel 20 minutes later.

The hotel sits on top of a hill and has amazing and varied views in all directions. We were immediately scolded, first for wandering on a patch of grass that apparently we weren’t supposed to be on, and then for video recording the lobby of the hotel. Clearly we did not fit in. Here is a view from the hotel:
Our lunch reservations ended up being at the less fancy of the two restaurants inside the hotel, but it was still a delightful meal. We had a beautiful view, the waiters were great, and we enjoyed observing the tourists around us. I ordered a lamb burger which came with real Heinz ketchup – Oh, the ecstasy! – and Beth had a delicious tomato soup and a decent salad.

The weather was iffy but we decided to risk it and trekked to the bottom of the hill en route to a local series of hikes along a small lake. It never started raining and we enjoyed a pleasant nature walk through bamboo groves.
We soon came to another, smaller Arrayan forest.

Then we made a quick stop at the lake to take photos of the hotel in the distance.

We started back for the hotel and tried to hitchhike for the third time during the trip. It may sound strange but my biggest disappointment was that in 3 attempts on 3 different days, not a single car stopped to pick us up. I think that says a lot about the culture of the area and the type of people that frequent it. To me, hitchhiking in a small city is a sign of the strength of the community, and it made me sad to see what a closed-off, snobby community Bariloche seems to breed.

Suffice to say we made it back to the hotel on foot and settled into a lobby table to play rummy, have our last hot chocolate of the trip, and wait for our ride. Although it took awhile to come it was worth the wait – the chocolate was thick and rich and the whipped cream was fresh and fluffy.
About halfway through we noticed two people dressed in what seemed to be Renaissance-era costumes parade through the lobby and up to a piano. We would be regaled with live music! Unfortunately, after the initial charm wore off it ended up being more distracting than anything. They were singing and playing very strange music and the man’s voice was doing very, very weird things. We tried not to laugh because all artists deserve respect even if you don’t like their particular brand of art.

We had arranged for Ernesto (our original remis driver) to pick us up at Llao Llao at 5 pm and take us back for our luggage and then to the airport. He was right on time, came into the lobby, and good naturedly watched the weird musicians while we finished paying our bill and ran to the bathroom. Once outside he proudly opened his trunk to display our luggage. Now, he does work with the hotel so it’s not like a stranger walked in and asked for our bags, but we still had to have one of those “that would never have happened in the U.S.!" moments.

He took us on a scenic route to the airport and explained more local flora and fauna and answered some last-minute questions we had about the place. We arrived pretty early and had lots of time to finish our rummy tournament. The flight was uneventful, our bags made it without a hitch, and we both caught cabs on the street outside the airport, refusing to wait in the ridiculously long taxi queue. One man waiting in the line who saw us bolt for the street called to us, “No, you can’t do that.” I called back, “It’s fine, we live here!” and he smiled and seemed placated, waving us on. It was good to be back “home.”


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Christmas box, Cat, Cumpleaños

I am taking a breather from writing vacation part 3 but never fear, it will be posted soon. In the meantime I wanted to do a quick write-up on 3 different notable events.

1) Christmas box

My family sent me a huge Christmas box. We're talking thirteen pounds worth of holiday cheer! It arrived while I was on vacation, and by 'arrived' I mean 'was sent to the post office across town for me to pick up because it was so insanely huge.' So last Tuesday my roommate and I (who also had a package waiting) trudged down to Retiro, ready to wait up to 3 hours first for them to call our number (they love to take numbers here), then for them to assign us a new number, then to wait in the sitting area straining to hear the 6 numbers being called in rapidfire Spanish. Imagine our delight when a mere 1.5 hours later we were on our way out the door, giant boxes in hand!

I then made plans with my family to do a video chat on Thursday afternoon. Wouldn't you know it, the internet went kaput an hour before the call and I scurried over to an obliging friend's house a few blocks away, computer and presents in tow, to steal his wifi. Of course, I had opened the box itself beforehand, only to discover the following unwrapped items:

  • A box of Cheezits (heaven but being hoarded until I finish the:)
  • Two pounds of homemade Chex Mix (No one makes Chex Mix like the Archers! After consuming about a quarter of it in one sitting, I have since allowed myself a medium-sized bowl every day)
  • All of the necessary ingredients (well, almost - not eggs or water, duh) for Malted Milk Ball cupcakes for my birthday (Anne that was so thoughtful and will be SO DELICIOUS)
  • Various other joys like candy canes, gum, wire-formed book marks, and so on
(The Archer secret: Cheeto puffs! They are crucial. I cut them in half so they last longer in the mix. We also like to put it in the freezer for 20 minutes before we eat it, yum.)

Ok so on Thursday I tied the obligatory ribbon in my hair (I don't know when I started it but every Christmas I tie ribbons from presents in my hair, this year I saved the ribbon from my official present which was the gorgeous, sleek video camera I so adore), started the video chat, and began ripping presents open only to find that it was a THEMED Christmas box! Seriously, whose family puts in so much thought as to create an entire theme just for you and ship it halfway across the world? Mine, and specifically my little sister who mastermined the whole thing.

The theme was Alice in Wonderland. You may or may not know that I hold a special place in my heart for this inquisitive and brave heroine (NOT the bratty Disney version of her). I dressed as her for Halloween and have read the book many times; it was actually the first book I read in Spanish in 2003.

Alice's gifts included:

  • A pendant of her consuming something suspiciously marked "drink me"
  • A charm bracelet filled with images of her in various scenes, plus little charms like a rabbit, a diaper pin, and a spoon, among others
  • A journal with her on the cover (ALL of these gifts are old-school illustrations and images, none of the Disney iconography, how well they know me)
  • A 1923 hardcover book in PERFECT CONDITION that smells like old book which I love and has all my favorite illustrations in it
As if that weren't enough, I also got:
  • A handheld Brookstone supercharged fan for this wretched humidity and heat
  • New headphones for Skype-ing
  • Specially imported Betty Boop bath products from Hong Kong (for my birthday)
  • The most delicous lip gloss ever and a Tide pen (again, how well they know me...)
  • MY VIDEO CAMERA! (A combined Christmas/birthday gift)

I was very moved by the whole thing and just wanted to publicly laud my incredible family for making Christmas a special event from so far away.

2) Cat

This will come as a giant shock to anyone who knows me and my non-affinity for cats, but two nights ago my roommate adopted a cat and since I'm the one who is home all day, I agreed to be part-owner until I leave. As long as I know a cat from his kittendom I generally like him better, and he's friendly and hilarious so so far so good.

We named him Fernet Trago Nacional (Fernet, National Drink) because Fernet (pronounced furnet with the T, not furnay) is black and so is he, and it seemed appropriate to give him an Argentina-inspired name.

He's super cute, very skinny with HUGE ears, and shockingly chill (for a kitten). Right now he is lounging on the couch next to me ripping newspaper to shreds. I anticipate that in about 2 minutes he will pass out on that pile. He also really loves ribbon and Christmas ornaments. We take him to the vet tomorrow so hopefully he only has the normal gamut of worms and needs vaccinations and nothing crazy.

You can read the full story on Amy's blog here.

3) Cumpleaños

Today is my birthday! I am 28. I don't feel old but like Christmas it does feel WEIRD to be here for some reason. Maybe because I've never had a hot birthday in my life, except for that one freak day in Philadelphia (2008 I think?) when it was 72 degrees and the Mummer's parade had been rescheduled for that day and we wandered around the city in short sleeves and bare legs saying, "This just isn't right."

I have a full day of work ahead of me (yes I should probably get started on that) and then dinner tonight with some friends at my favorite Peruvian restaurant called Inka Si Señor (who wouldn't love a place with a name like that??). Then on Saturday we're having a little party at our apartment. Amy has semi-willingly agreed to arm the cupcakes for Saturday, so hopefully tonight someone brings something with a candle in it!

Vacation Part 3 coming later this week, I promise.