Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Traveler's Slump

Buenos Aires, Argentina 
This post is a mix of writing that I did over a month ago. I seem to be a big fan of writing little bits of stories and never the whole thing. However, given that I haven't posted a blog since I was living in Cordoba (two months ago) I figure I'd better post whatever I have even despite its still being rough and insufficiently edited. Oh well. More coming soon... (but for real this time.)
End of August (más o menos)

Yesterday Phoebe and I decided to visit the Botanical Gardens in the Palermo Barrio. We’ve been planning on making this trip for a while but have been putting it off until the weather improved a bit. Yesterday, despite the cloudy sky was warm and the wind was only strong in contrast to its usual vicious so Phoebe skyped to let me know that I should look sharp for an afternoon trip to the gardens. Now I know it may come as a surprise to anyone who knows me even a little bit, but I wasn’t feeling very excited about going to the botanical gardens. It’s true that I’m generally very happy that Phoebe keeps on me to get out and see new parts of the city on the weekends and also that the botanical gardens have been my most anticipated tourist destination. That said, when I woke up on Sunday, I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to make breakfast (not even my favorite- plain yogurt with a whole banana, apple and granola), I didn’t want to skype with my friend, didn’t want to hand wash all my undergarments, and I most certainly didn’t want to get all the way to the Botanical gardens. This, my friends, is what I’ve elected to call the traveler’s slump.

Now for anyone that reads Phoebe’s blog, it’s old news that we did end up going to the botanical gardens and even spending the whole day with a computer programmer from Mexico who asked me directions on my way to meet Phoebe. The day was incredible, and apart from stabbing myself in the hand with a pocket knife, turned out way better than I could have anticipated.

There are so many wonderful things about this trip. I love the picnics in the park with Phoebe, the people we meet on the street, and the totally unanticipated adventures. Still the inevitable frustrations also occur. One of the things I was looking forward to the most about this trip was the opportunity to immerse myself in Argentine culture. I realize that the phrase “the opportunity to immerse yourself in a foreign culture” is probably the most abused slogan in the business of international travel and even more overused with study abroad and exchange programs. Still, cliques are cliques for a reason, and this stilted mantra was still a big motivator for studying abroad. Sadly, it seems that meeting Argentines and getting away from American popular culture and people is a lot more difficult than we ever expected. Our classes are all taught in Spanish, but the percentage of Spanish speakers in them is very small and none of these people are from Argentina. Instead, the vast majority of my encounters with hispanohablantes have been completely accidental. I’ve met these people at bars, looking for bars, asking directions, giving directions (yay), or crammed on the subway. With these people I’ve played Spanish card games, gone to cafes, discussed LA politics, had picnics, and attended the Buenos Aires Fashion week. Each time, no matter the topic of conversation, I always leave with a lovely feeling of accomplishment. It’s amazing how in English a conversation that hit the basic small talk topics can make me fall asleep, while an identical, if somewhat sloppier, one in Spanish can fill me with a bubble of satisfaction so big I could burst. The problem is, these conversions, the ones that last over 20 minutes and can make me so gosh darn happy, don’t happen very often. Additionally, when they do, they are generally one time events where after a nice talk the stranger needs to fly to Mexico, head back to their house on the outskirts of BA, or back off because they’ve gotten the wrong idea of what it means when an American girl has a conversation with them....

Don't worry, I'll post again much sooner, with the happy news that I've left the traveler's slump. Whoop whoop!

Monday, July 11, 2011

a weekday chronicle

Cordóba, Argentina

I lectured my parents the other day about the type of home update I like to receive. I told them that when I’m far away for long periods of time I have very little interest in the timeline version of their lives. Getting and giving updates to people from home can feel a lot like those first days of fall in high school. On those days, friends and acquaintances feel obligated to ask one another about the events of their summer. This conversation generally follows:
 “Well, I went camping in the Grand Canyon with my family for a few days at the beginning of July, but I spent most of the summer working in the Beanery.”
“Wow. I’ve heard it’s really difficult to get a reservation to camp in the Grand Canyon! You must have had that trip planned for a long time.”
“Yep, almost a year.”
“Well how was it?”
“Great! Really beautiful.”
“Oh really? Cool.”
Then we switch roles…
          “Oh fishing? I’ve heard you need a license for that.”
          “Yeah we’ve been planning it for a while.”
“Well how was it?”
“Great! Really beautiful.”
“Oh really? Cool.”

What I’ve learned from this trip is that the things I want to know most from home are the mundane details that let me imagine what ya’ll are really experiencing, and feel at some level a little more connected.
An excerpt from one of my favorite emails I received from my father (copied here without his permission):
"I did manage to get the rest of my tomatoes into the ground, plus some cucumbers and eggplant.  Now that I'm ready to plant, Lewie's tiller has been abused enough that it's not working again.  (OK, in more NVC language, my needs for ease weren't met when I noticed that again this year, when I was ready to till, the tiller wasn't.)  So, I got to dig and mix some soil with a long handled spading fork.  I was very glad not to have to use a short handled one."

 I have no idea if my preference is a universal one, and I know that it was silly for me to spend time philosophizing when I haven’t posted in over three weeks, but I wanted to explain why I’m not trying to cover all the major plot points.

Instead, a typical day on the ranch:

We wake up at 8:00 to a VERY cold room. It some ways it’s definitely better that we don’t have a thermometer, although in reality I don’t know what temperature readings in Celsius really mean anyway. However, before the math and science buffs come to my rescue you should know that my father has already provided me with what I’m sure will be a very convenient conversion method after my tiny math brain puts in some substantial practice time. In response to the cold, we regularly enlist many of the well-practiced frostbite prevention techniques we learned in 8house. We both sleep with our clothes and I occasionally wake up a few minutes early to turn on the space heater.

If we successfully haul ourselves out of our matching twin beds, we change our bottom layers of clothing and replace the now-perpetually worn top layers. Since both Phoebe and I refused to believe that we would voluntarily leave summer for winter, we came ill prepared for the weather. I truly believe that the women at work suspect that we never change clothes since our outer layers make daily appearances.

Our breakfast was originally criollos, a layered biscuit-like pastry, and fruit. However, after a couple of tactful hints (in Spanish, huzzah!) our host mother caught on that we would enjoy plain yogurt to eat for breakfast.
The conversation went something like this:

“What do Argentines usually eat for breakfast?”
“Usually bread, sweet bread, criollos, or pastries. I know that in the US people eat large breakfasts with eggs and toast and other things.”
            “Well Phoebe and I aren’t very normal Americans, but we really like to eat plain yogurt with apples and granola for breakfast. I don’t know if they have plain yogurt here, you know yogurt that doesn’t have any sugar, or any flavoring. Just yogurt. Phoebe and I really liked to eat this for breakfast. Just plain yogurt…”

I’m not sure how she got the idea that we might want yogurt for breakfast after I was so tactful and indirect, but this development has greatly improved our spirits and energy in the morning.

We leave for the Colectivo at 9:10 and wait, often shivering and complaining, at the bus stop. The buses in Cordoba do not run on a schedule, so this wait can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes. Since neither Phoebe nor I particularly enjoy being cold and bored, this is generally not our favorite time of day. However, as my parents often reminded me as an impatient child, boredom is a great generator of creativity. It has been for us. There have been innumerable times when we have almost missed the bus because of a warmth game or hand puppet story that I, to the chagrin and secret enjoyment of Phoebe, have created.

After a harrowing Coletivo experience, Phoebe and I hurry to catch our second bus, which often arrives only minutes after the first. Generally we can walk briskly towards the stop but occasionally Phoebe, who is generally more aware of these things, sees our bus stopped at the light a block behind us and we run pell-mell through crowds of people getting well deserved looks of -crazy gringos- and indiscriminately plowing through everything in our path.

When we arrive at the hogar de niños we ring the doorbell and wait on the street. I’m generally paranoid about getting mugged, which feels somewhat out of character for me, so I stand with my back to the door and cast dark looks at the motos that speed by.

When I arrive in the morning, there are typically one or two kids that I haven’t met before in my sala. The new ones will, without fail, say something incomprehensible that prompts Laura, one of the hogar mujeres, to say “yes, she is very tall.”
She also uses me as evidence that the kids have the potential to get very large if they eat all of their lunch. I’m very pleased that the words alta, montaña and elefante are in my vocabulary as they allow me to catch a little more of these conversations.

Phoebs and I work for a couple of hours and then eat lunch and the hogar. This food is not usually particularly visually appetizing but is generally well seasoned and plentiful.  Last week we had polenta with beef, spaghetti with beef, and Locro (beef stew). Apart from picking around the larger beef hunks that still contained bone, we obediently ate what they put in front of us. Nonetheless, I still wish I could have seen Phoebe’s face when they served it.

After lunch we work for a few more hours, and during this time I often glue together snowmen or decorate cards and drink tea while watching the kids with Vela, a German Volunteer. She has been here five months, came with no Spanish, and is now practically fluent (not only in Spanish but also in English). Last week she found some extra fabric and made a doll for the kids. She finished in one hour hand stitching and with two kids on her lap. When I asked her where she learned to make dolls she said she made it up. Suffice it to say I find her both very impressive and very intimidating.

After work we do the inverse of our bus trip to the hogar (unless we choose the wrong bus in which case our 1 hr journey can quickly become an epic adventure).

When we get home we hang out for a little while, sometimes just huddling by the heater and talking.

Generally our host mother leaves dinner waiting for us in the microwave (Argentines don’t appear to believe too strongly in refrigeration) which we eat in front of the heater unless Phoebe is having one of her all to frequent civilized days during which she forces me to sit down at the table to eat. Sometimes Esther joins us but our 6:00 cena is much to early for most Argentines who don’t generally start dinner until 9:30 or 10 and often don’t finish until after midnight.

Like old ladies the three of us sit at the table after dinner and play SET or simply talk. I love this part of the day. Sometimes Phoebe and I leave the table with whole lists of new words, words for maternity –craving, desire, or vegetables – strawberry, eggplant, peach…
Our favorite is when Esther’s friend Miguel stops by.  Our new South American Michael jokes with us and challenges our comprehension of Castilian Spanish with his idioms and sarcasm. It is with our two 60+ friends that we took our first shots in Latin America (dulce de leche liquor…eww).

After our tepid to cold showers, we huddle in front of our space heater or jump straight into bed. Unsurprisingly through our incessant complaining, we have developed an excellent capacity to talk about heat, heaters, and cold in Spanish.

While cultural differences make for entertaining and sometimes hilarious diversions, our trip has largely consisted of the same mix of emotions that generally accompany life. Obviously, in a place without friends or family, these emotions can seem more overwhelming and powerful, but we’re still bored, excited, lonely, and peaceful in the same ways that we are at home. Often our most wonderful moments are very mundane: a long conversation in Spanish, a beautiful mountain, a warm criollo, or even a skype with home…
But like somebody said and now lots of other people say:
often, the beauty is in the details. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

lessons in probability

Cordóba, Argentina

One of the interesting things about being in a foreign country where the people speak a different language is that even small things can be a struggle. Our first day here it took Kehala and I fifteen minutes to figure out how to lock our front door.

It turned out that the front door was a bit sticky to begin with as we had substantially less trouble with the front gate. Nonetheless, after ten minutes of unsuccessfully attempting to leave the house for our first venture into the wide world of Argentina, Kehala was literally on the ground laughing at our ineptness. When we finally did lock the gate behind us, it was a taste of victory.

Two days later, we encountered another obstacle: the colectivo (as buses are called here). After a few significant failures, Kehala and I think we are very slowly beginning to understand Córdoba’s bus system, which it turns out, is very different from any American bus system I have encountered (although both of us have limited experience with these as well). Every morning we ride two colectivos to get to work, stopping downtown to change buses. Immediately we learned that colectiveros (bus drivers) take a very lax approach to obeying traffic laws and it is common for buses to come within a foot of other buses, cars, cyclists, pedestrians, or one of the cities many stray dogs. Last week, something large and very sharp punctured the bottom of our bus making a loud noise and startling even the Córdobese passengers who are generally unperturbed by what Kehala and I consider near-collisions. The wood on the bottom of the bus was actually broken, with shards pointed into the air. However, our driver merely stopped the bus, peered underneath, nodded his head, and with a curt “nada,” continued on as normal.

Buses in Córdoba have both a letter and a number designating their route, for example to get to work we take N5 and C1. Our volunteer coordinator instructed us that all N buses go on Avenida Nuñez, a large avenue only about five blocks from our house. Therefore, he said, we could take any N bus to get home. A few days ago, Kehala and I walked to the Plaza de San Martín to catch our second bus heading home. As we approached the bus stop, we saw that an N bus was at the stop and people were boarding. We ran to catch it, and I hopped on. However, the bus driver, not noticing or not caring that I was halfway on the bus, closed the door (forcing me to squeeze the rest of the way in and leaving Kehala baffled and alone on the sidewalk). This was an unexpected turn of events, but not a huge problem since I assumed she would just catch the next bus and we would meet up at home (we didn’t have phones). The bus eventually hit Nuñez, but after only a block turned off onto a side street. After awhile it went by a grocery store I remembered visiting with my host mom (but had no idea how far it was from home). I kept hoping it would turn back onto Nuñez but instead it wound its way through unfamiliar neighborhoods, skirting the area I knew and eventually turning onto a dirt road. There were a few skinny horses grazing in dried up fields, run-down shacks, and children playing on a mound of dirt with a deflated soccer ball. It was very clear that this was not where I was supposed to be—Kehala and I live in the Argentinean equivalent of a gated community. People trickled off until all of the sudden I came to the disturbing realization that I was the last person on the bus.

My one consoling thought up to that point had been that buses go in circles, so this bus would eventually head back to Nuñez, or at least back downtown and I could catch another bus home from there. Mostly I was concerned that Kehala had made it home like normal, and was worrying about me. I went up to talk to the bus driver, who asked me why I was not getting off. I explained that I was lost, I was American, and I needed to get to Nuñez.

“Nuñez?” he asked. “This bus doesn’t go to Nuñez.” Then he informed me that this was the last stop for this bus, and I needed to get off. He did tell me that there was a bus stop for an N2 bus nearby that would take me back to Nuñez. I got off, and headed in the direction he had pointed.

After asking a man in the street, I found the bus stop (a number and letter spray painted onto a electrical pole) and stood there waiting. Eventually, a young woman came up and stood next to me at the bus stop. I asked her if she had a cell phone, wanting to call my host mother and tell her that I was on my way home. Her phone did not have minutes but she did assure me that I was in the right place and we got to talking (in Spanish!). She told me about her love for Shania Twain (and showed me the biography she was carrying), and that she was a geography student at the university. Eventually, two buses approached. As the first bus (an N of a different number) passed without stopping, a surprised face peered at me from the window: Kehala!

Somehow, she had also ended up on an N4 and landed herself in the same neighborhood! She had also found herself alone on the bus, but her bus driver had taken her to the station with him and put her on a different bus that would go by Nuñez. It was an incredible moment: somehow in this city of over a million people, she had looked out from the bus and seen me standing on a street corner on a dirt road in a neighborhood that to this day I would have no way of finding on a map.

I got on the next bus with the young woman, and we chatted until we got back to an area I recognized. An hour and a half after we had set out from the Plaza de San Martín, wandering a bit confusedly about my neighborhood, I was asking an old woman for directions when I saw Kehala coming towards me (unlike me, she knew the way home from there). I have no way to calculate the probability of encountering her twice on our improbable journeys home, but suffice it to say that we were pleased to see each other.

Two days later, we had another lesson: not only do not all N buses go by Nuñez, not even our neighborhood bus, N5, will always take us home. Both Kehala and I left our first bus adventure feeling tired and hungry but mostly proud of our Spanish skills in a time of need and grateful for the help and companionship of strangers. This time, we got on an N5 bus downtown (although not at our usual stop). However, although we didn’t notice for quite some time (it’s difficult to tell because many of the streets look similar), this bus headed off in a completely different direction. Forty minutes later, the bus driver asked us what we were doing and informed us that the N5 route that goes by our house is a different route altogether. In the end, we had to buy another ticket and ride the bus all the way back downtown and then in the other direction towards home. This time we did not have fun. This time we just felt frustrated with our lack of information, we had headaches, and we were tired and hungry. But now we know: not all buses go in circles and it is important to always ask where your bus is headed!

This weekend, however, we had a more positive bus experience. Kehala and I went to Salta for four days and we took overnight buses there and back. These buses are much more cushy than any American or European bus I have experienced. The cama (bed) buses have seats that recline to a bit less than 180 degrees. Although I don’t generally enjoy transportation of any kind, overnight busing is definitely preferable to day busing because it’s so much easier to sleep. I won’t say that I slept well, but 11 hours each way on the bus definitely went a lot faster than heading off nausea by staring straight ahead.

While it’s true that seemingly simple things can become exponentially more complicated in a foreign country, it’s also true that even small things can seem like victories. After two bus mishaps, we made it home in a reasonable manner three days in a row! This we think, is cause for celebration.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

a vegetarian in a strange land

Cordóba, Argentina
Two weeks into our time in Argentina Kehala and I have finally gotten around to actually writing a blog post. Hopefully we’ll get better at this. Because we are living and working together for the first month of our time here, we’ll write about different things and post them on both of our blogs. So, for those of you reading both blogs, we’ll have the same stuff on each so until July 22…pick it and stick it.
Given my generally food-obsessed nature, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I sat down to write, the thing I most wanted to write about was food.
Having been a vegetarian for all twenty years of my life, eating in Argentina is a strange experience. When planning a trip it’s always hard to know what parts of the stereotypes about a given place are actually true, but with regards to Argentinean food, I think that they are largely accurate. Argentineans love meat, most especially beef but all kinds of meat are acceptable! Ham and chicken especially. I very quickly abandoned any notion of attempting vegetarianism here (especially as the term only connotes that a person does not eat beef rather than meat in general). Instead, Kehala and I have become adept at eating whatever is put in from of us and exclaiming “Que rico!”(or “how delicious!”). The other major components of the Argentinean diet (at least according to my somewhat limited experience) are bread and sugar, both of which are consumed in large quantities. As the daughter of a health nut, I keep wondering how it is possible that the entirety of the Argentinean population is not overweight. When I asked however, a number of Argentineans assured me that they like vegetables too.
Kehala and I both crave vegetables with regularity, although our host mom has very kindly tried to accommodate our tastes. We went through my iPhoto yesterday and salivated while looking at all the pictures of food we cooked last year…I knew there would be some use for those photos! Nonetheless, our host mom is a good cook and the food is generally very tasty. She has made us chop suey (which she said was Chinese, but tasted more Italian than anything…again, the stereotype that Argentineans do not like spicy food appears to be very true), spinach pie, tortilla de papas (a savory potato cake-like thing), rice with beef, pizza with ham, chicken tart and pasta among other things. She also very kindly found us plain yogurt (which she finds very strange), so now we can enjoy our habitual breakfast of plain yogurt with fruit and granola. Before this, we would eat criollos (a biscuit-like bread that has a flaky texture and is the one food that, at this point, I will miss when I return home) and bananas for breakfast every morning. Even with the switch to yogurt, Kehala and I are becoming infamous for our liking for criollos, which our host mother buys in large quantities and we consume mostly while huddling next to the heater, leaving a large pile of crumbs in our wake.
We eat lunch daily at the guadaría, or daycare, where we volunteer. The food here is not as good as our host mother’s but again it is generally well seasoned. It is here that I have eaten beef stew in various forms, rice with beef and other 2-3 year old friendly meaty things!
On Thursday night, we experienced our first asada. Miguel, a friend of our host mother, cooked beef, a few types of sausage, and a variety of vegetables on the parilla (or grill). Kehala and I tried not to laugh as we dutifully took our first bites of carne asada, a totally new experience for me. I did not enjoy it very much, but the sausages were a bit better and everything was edible with enough bread! The vegetables were excellent, particularly the grilled peppers and overall it was not a bad experience.
I have also learned in my two weeks here that Argentineans love drinks—coke, incredibly sweet juice, and other fizzy (or not fizzy) sweet concoctions. On our first trip to the grocery store, we saw an entire section of an aisle, probably about 50 feet long and 10 feet high, filled entirely with coke. The rest of the drinks were elsewhere. The most astonishing drink-related moment for me was when, at a party at the guardaría, the women served 2 and 3 year olds coke in sippy cups! Even more astonishing was when later Kehala and I expressed our surprise to a friend who cast us a confused look and asked us what was strange about kids drinking coke.
Overall, we are adjusting slowly to Argentinean food. There have been some rough patches as our stomachs become accustomed to a new diet, but we hope this will improve with time. Both of us miss salads a lot, especially when we think about all the delicious summer produce in Oregon but we sneak raw carrots from the fridge, mandarin oranges from our host mother’s tree and consume more bananas and bread than I ever have in my life! 

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Corvallis Oregon, Los Estados Unidos

Well ya'll know that I'm notoriously bad at staying in touch long-distance, so in an effort to get slightly less crap for not speaking to any of you for 6 months, I'm going to endeavor to keep everyone up to date this way.

That said, I'd like to apologize in advance for both the quality of my future posts and for their regularity ;) But think of it this way- if I'm not posting, I'm probably just having too much fun to remember to talk about it!

After a three day struggle with the airlines, (I hate orbitz and all other travel sites) I finally have a ticket for Cordoba for the 17th of June. I had been carefully avoiding looking at the date until this morning, when I realized not only that it is the 11th of June, but also that the 11th and the 17th are less than seven days apart. AHHH.

I have now proceeded to manifest my panic into lists! At current count, I now possess:  -8 lists of things to do before the 17th
               -2 growing packing lists
               -10 firefox tabs on Argentina information
               -Assorted excel spreadsheets.

I probably won't post again until we're in-country and I've been able to buy an adapter for my computer charger (guess I should learn how to say "adapter" and "computer charger" in spanish).

Until then....