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!)

1 comment:

AmberAnda said...

Good job maximizing your weekend out of the big city! I haven't had breakfast yet and all your talk and photos of Beatriz's food made me hungry. Suerte on your last few days back in the city, I'm excited to hear about your first fifteener at the beach house!