Friday, February 19, 2010

A Snapshot of Villa Gesell

Having a computer with no internet has done wonders for my documentation. I’ve labeled photos, edited almost all of the videos I’ve taken since I got the camera in October, written numerous and lengthy journal entries, spent two full days writing every recipe and cooking tip I always wanted to but never did, plus several hours writing my life’s timeline. What a fun way to challenge the mind and conjure long-forgotten memories!

I’ve also read 3 books and gotten a reasonable amount of 'real' i.e. 'job' work done. How wonderful to be able to really focus in on each discrete task without the distractions of the city.

My routine has been to work in the morning, take beach time in the afternoon, work again in the late afternoon, then go back to the beach for a walk or to bed for a nap before figuring out to do with the evening, which is generally limited to walking around near the apartment or heading into the center and finding a place to eat dinner, or cooking here. This routine hasn’t changed much even with the revolving door of visitors I’ve been hosting. Here's the guest bedroom aka living room:

Since I don’t have internet in the apartment I have to find a public space with wifi twice a day to work. I’ve been to many of them but now frequent the three most reliable: a balneario right next door called Popeye with rude service but a strong connection and good food; a restaurant called Pizza Gesell with outdoor tables and delicious pizza and empanadas; and an ice cream shop that stays open during the afternoon break when everything else closes which has lovely employees and amazing ice cream. Their wifi never works but it’s right next to Pizza Gesell and therefore included in their hotspot.

I tried to give a taste of what it’s like here via last week’s video uploads but as you all know I am a slave to the written word, so here it is, your “a picture is worth a 1,000 words so here’s more than 1,000 because I’m wordy” snapshot of this particular beach. (I threw in some actual snapshots, too.)

Villa Gesell (pronounced with an Argentinean accent as “Veejah Hehsell) is a small town on the Atlantic coast about 5 hours south of Buenos Aires. Unlike Mar de Plata, its more famous and much larger neighbor 100 kilometers to the south - which makes up for most of why Buenos Aires is empty during January and February (I wouldn’t be caught dead there; the mere thought of it makes me claustrophobic) - Villa Gesell has a genuine, small-town, beachy feel. Most roads are unpaved sand-streets and the locals couldn’t be nicer. One merchant told me that back in the day it was a hippie haven, long gone now but with shreds of evidence that make it believable and help explain why I like it so much.

My apartment is right next to the beach on the Costanera, which I guess would be most closely translated as “Coastal road.” Walking 3 blocks takes me to Avenida 3. This is the main drag and the 15 blocks that separate my apartment from the center proper are rife with the usual for Argentina: bakeries (which specialize in churros, a beach favorite), butcheries, ice cream shops, and small supermarkets, plus the added beach standards of video arcades (one complete with go-kart!) and general goods stores selling anything you could possibly need on the shore. The eating options are limited: pizzerias, empanaderias, and asaderos (grills). Along the way there is an outdoor circus which I saw and was delighted by recently, plus a nighttime market filled with remarkably well made and useful or desirably decorative artisan products. I’ve bought my fair share and so have all my visitors.

The center itself becomes a pedestrian walkway at a certain point and is filled with more of the same, plus delightful side-street markets with names like “Spain’s Patio.” There are street performers to spare and plenty of teeth-rotting foods being vended. My favorite place to eat is called Carlitos, Rey de los Hamburguesas y Panqueques. They’re really into crepes on the beach for some reason, but I go for the incredible homemade hamburgers which come with bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a fried egg. In the U.S. my dad calls this a Fat Burger. Don't worry, the onion rings (fried in crepe batter) were shared.

Although it has gotten significantly less crowded with the changing of the quinceana (the second half of February is the least common time to take vacation), the summertime inhabitants are primarily families from other parts of Argentina, i.e. NOT the city of Buenos Aires. I happen to love this for a few reasons. 1) Families keep things clean, literally - the trash is not nearly as bad as I would have expected since there aren't strong anti-littering campaigns in early education, it's not an important value of the culture to not litter. 2) They're also cleaner figuratively: hardly any making out or groping in public! Hallelujah. 3) People who aren’t from Capital have a different vibe and, in my experience, tend to be nicer. 4) The older I get the more patient with and curious about children I become. Just the other day we built an elaborate sandscape and before long had several young helpers who I taught how to make drip trees. What a fabulous aunt I plan on making.

Speaking of inhabitants, when I say they are mostly from other parts of Argentina I mean it. I have yet to meet a single foreigner, let alone an English-speaking one. It makes sense I suppose – the beach is nice but not so nice you’d travel very far to get to it. My very unlikely presence has been the start of no small number of conversations, and since you tend to see the same people day in and day out on your small swath of beach (why go farther than you have to?) and at the establishments closest to where you are staying (ditto to above), you could say that I am a known entity around these parts, the Yanqui girl who is staying a whole month and can be seen with her laptop or on the beach next to the volleyball court on any given day. Having a ground-floor apartment has helped my establishment on the scene, since when I’m home I tend to raise the shades and open the door for all to look in and hear what’s going on inside. Every passerby looks in curiously, some people say hello, and one time a small boy ran in, inspected each room, and then ran back out yelling “Ma!”

On to the real reason I came. The beach is crowded but not so bad you can’t always find a spot, and it makes for interesting people watching. Vendors circulate announcing their offerings in repetitive calls, ranging from fizzy drinks and beer to corn on the cob and fruit salad to sandwiches and pan relleno (stuffed bread) to ice cream and churros. There are also locals who sell cheaply made clothes and kites, and a group of mainly Nigerian and Senegalese men (not hard to divine from their t-shirts that Nigeria and Senegal) who sell jewelry and sunglasses. Here's an ice-cream vendor in front of a moving bikini stand.

The world tilts in such a way that a lot of the air pollution gathers over the southern cone, resulting in a gnarly ozone hole above us. Result? A very strong sun. I have been vigilante with sunscreen and am slowly turning a light brown, but every visitor so far has scorched herself in the name of tanning. (Side note: one girl brought orange beta carotene pills which taste like carrots and apparently help the tanning process. I've been taking them every day since then but can't tell if they work yet. Has anyone else heard of this?)

Although I haven’t made it into the ocean every day, I have done a lot of swimming and the water temperature and waves are, for me, ideal. It’s cold but not so cold you don’t feel great the instant your whole body is immersed, and the waves are big enough to be fun but no so big they scare you. Hardly an undertow most days and it’s generally pure, smooth sand, though sometimes the tide brings a smattering of crushed shells that don’t hurt to walk on.

One strange observation is that this place seems almost wholly devoid of sea life. No crabs or even sand fleas occupy the space by your feet – not even at night – and I can count on my fingers the number of seagulls I’ve seen. No dolphins pass in the morning, nothing jumps out of the water, no birds go fishing, and I’ve seen a total of 2 boats in 2 weeks. The one creature I do see are jellyfish, which come for a day at a time every week or so. They are mostly tiny, transparent balls that wash ashore but I have spotted larger ones in the water, including one I didn’t spot that gave me my first sting ever. It makes me sad to think that human presence has scared away everything else, so I tell myself that maybe it was always lifeless.

I like the beach best from 7-8 pm, the last hour of daylight. Most people have packed up for the day and boys play soccer while families play paddle ball with the extra space. Although kites fly all day, it’s only during this time at night that the trick kite flyers can really show their stuff without fear of bombarding a small child. Although almost all of them are men, the best one I have seen by far was the sole woman – she could dip her kite so low I was sure it would crash but then it zoomed back up again. I watched her, entranced, for a solid 5 minutes.

The best evenings are hot with warm gusts. The wind whitecaps the water in such a beautiful way, the waves dissolving on top of one another and then onto the beach itself, all framed by a grey-blue sky with long, streaky, pink clouds. There is a dock nearby that fills with would-be fishermen using a very non-violent contraption. They raise and lower large wire mesh nets from cords attached to giant bamboo poles into the crashing waves. I have yet to see a single person catch anything and don’t even know what they’re fishing for.

On one evening walk I came upon a group of lifeguards doing training exercises and watched them rescue each other from the water. I have decided something about lifeguards: they look the same the world over. They all have the same type of muscular body, they all trend toward blonde (even if not naturally, a summers’ worth of sun will do that to just about anyone – my mom commented that even I look blonder), and they are, for the most part, gorgeous. After watching a rescue exercise I commented to no one in particular out of a group of 6 that I felt ‘very safe’ and one of them winked at me. Is it possible Argentinean lifeguards are especially gorgeous, with their dark tans and bright blue eyes?

The sun rises instead of sets over the Atlantic so sunsets just turn the clouds a light pink. Although I would argue that sunrises are more beautiful, sunsets are more accessible. I will force myself to wake up at least one morning at 5 a.m. to watch the sun rise, but I would have preferred a month of 8 p.m. sunsets instead.

Possibly my least favorite element are the bright night lights. To me, a beach in the dark of night is one of the most special, sacred places in the world. The sky lights up with stars and if you’re lucky, the sand and waves glitter with phosphorescent algae. No such luck here as every 50 meters there is an obnoxious strobe light that causes squinting even from a distance. Sometimes I wish electricity had never been discovered; I have recently come to the conclusion that I have a strong aversion to artificial light. But the strobes haven’t stopped me from taking nightly visits anyway, touching the water in the hopes of glimmery phosphorescence and then retreating into the relative darkness of a bank of trees from which I can make out more stars than I can in Buenos Aires, at least. Here is a photo Amy took of the moonlit beach one night:

Always, always in the background is the sound of the ocean and, more often than not, of strong wind.

And there it is, gentle readers, your snapshot. The next entry will be an account of my myriad visitors and highlights from each visit, complete with more photos. In the meantime, this pretty much sums it all up:

p.s. Would anyone like to offer me their favorite Olympic moment so far? I am starved for some connection to the games taking place 2 hours from my hometown and though I was lucky enough to catch the Opening Ceremonies one sleepless night at 4 a.m., they’ve shown nary a highlight since then.


AmberAnda said...

Thanks for the snapshot! Sounds like it's been a thoroughly enjoyable beach stay so far. Glad you haven't gotten sunburned!

Anne said...

I haven't been watching much of the Olympics (except for ice skating if I'm out at mom and dad's, natch), but I did catch Shaun White winning his second gold medal for the half-pipe. He actually won it BEFORE he took his second run, since no one had scored more points than him, and he was the last to ride. So he got to do whatever he wanted in that last run, knowing he'd won gold. It was pretty cool -- here's a link to it, if you want to see: