Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh How I Miss High Altitude

Living at high altitude in the Andes could certainly make things difficult, but you have to give credit where it’s due and admit that made life pretty interesting at times. So walking up the stairs could often be draining and beers often exploded for no reason, but that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. For a few days you would go down to sea level and realize just how much effect the elevation had on you. Suddenly you could run longer and faster and blow away your friends, or simply feel better.

I didn’t start out running when I got to Cuenca, but after a few months of walking everywhere and then realizing that I felt fine after running around, I started to get into it. I also had the time to do so, working only 20 hours a week. But by the end of the year in Ecuador, I had run in a 10k and a 15k. Both at high altitude. Not bad for a guy who never used to run.

Upon my arrival in the United States for a 3 week vacation, I continued to run and enjoyed the effects of high altitude training for about 2 weeks until they wore off. I was able to run more for an extended period of time than I ever had before, and if it wasn’t for my legs getting tired, my lungs could have kept going. Reading about different cities or hiking route altitudes, I judge it off my own experiences. 4,000 feet and under=a baby hill, 5,000-7,000 feet=off to a good start, 8,000-10,000 feet=Ok, that’s pretty sweet, and 11,000 feet+=balls to the wall, dude.

But now, living in Buenos Aires, I’m at sea level again. Life is just so boring at sea level. It’s all so regular. Back in Quito, we used to say that anything that happens can be blamed on the altitude. How do you blame a spilled beer at sea level? Simple, you’re an idiot. And it’s not just that. Even when I wasn’t running in Cuenca I was still getting exercise. Walking was good enough, and just simple things amounted to more work for the heart than it would normally get. This helped me lose all of the weight that I did throughout the year there.

So far in Argentina I haven’t gone for a run. Time has been tight, especially now that I work over 40 hours a week, and it’s tough finding a good park in the center. Running on the streets would be madness unless it was late night or early morning. There are definitely parks here, of that I’m sure. And I’ve read that Palermo is known for their parks, but so far I haven’t been to them. But once I get settled I would like to try to get some sort of schedule going.

However, this city is too large for me to be able to take a daily run. I would have to rush to the Subte, get up to Palermo, get to the park, run, and come back with the same process. We’re talking close to 2 hours in total probably, after a 9 hour work day. It’s just not feasible. But maybe I can pull that off once or twice a weekend, or during the week as well in the summer when there is more daylight.

I still walk to work—about 25 minutes or so—but it’s not the same kind of exercise it was in Cuenca because it’s at sea level. Though it does beat standing on a bus for 40 minutes in rush hour traffic. I do miss running, and I miss being able to feel like no matter what else happens in the day, you’ve already accomplished something. I don’t know if I’ll ever live at high altitude again, but I’ll always be able to think back to when I used to run around with ease at almost 9,000 feet above sea level.

Above: Quito, over 9,000 feet above sea level

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Buenos Aires?

One of the most popular tourist destinations in South America, Buenos Aires has long been a city high on the list of travelers. But why exactly is that? Since I’ve been down here, I guess I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. I know why I’m here—trying to learn more about the country that my mother came from, as well as learning more about international relations and improving my Spanish. But why do other people want to come here?

This question was posed to me and a friend by my Argentinian roommate on Sunday night over dinner. ‘’What do tourists think about Buenos Aires?’’ she asked us, hoping for some insight into her own city. She wanted to know why people want to come here, because in her opinion, it’s not that great of a city. There are cracked streets with dog crap everywhere, buildings with graffiti all over there, corruption, protests, transit problems, etc. Basically, it’s got more in common with other cities in South America than with other cities in Europe, as it’s often referred to.

And she’s not exactly far off from her thoughts. After all, she has lived in Europe for four years, so she’s not basing this off of nothing. She comes from the south, however, and hasn’t spent her whole life in Buenos Aires. But the question remains. Why do people come here? Is it because they want to visit South America but prefer the city that is referred to as European? Or maybe the allure of the beef and wine culture?

In terms of culture, Argentina is certainly unique. But it’s a mix of many others as well, whether it is Italian, French, German, or English. I find myself looking at people’s last names and wondering where their ancestry is from, much like in the United States. But this isn’t the most "South American" city you can find. If you’re looking for the true pre-Columbian societies, you could head to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, etc. While indigenous cultures still exist in Argentina, they were mostly wiped out during the unification of the country.

I myself am still trying to figure out whether or not I really like this city. It’s certainly got charm, and if you can afford it, you can live pretty well and enjoy your surroundings. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to eat steak dinners with great wine every night, and sitting at a café every day is really something for a person with time to kill, despite what a guide book might suggest. I’m not totally in love with it yet, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m waiting to see what will happen, and as every day goes by, I’m getting more and more comfortable here. It’s just something that takes time to develop and truly feel at home in a big city in another country.

Above: The Microcentro, Buenos Aires

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dealing With "Vos"

People often comment how it's pretty difficult to understand Argentinians when they first arrive here. I never really had that problem. Maybe because I've been around in the Spanish-speaking world and have heard many accents, or because I myself grew up hearing that accent. But either way, you always encounter some people who speak very clearly, and others who mumble and use too much slang.

One reason people have so much trouble here is because of the grammar form of "Vos." Vos is an archaic form of speech that hardly any cultures use. Usually, it is used in very intimate situations and mainly with family members only. Otherwise, it can be almost insulting. My mother has made this mistake when speaking with Latinos from other countries at work. Even in Ecuador they use Vos in the Sierra, but only in place of "Tu." However, in Argentina, Tu is not used, and Vos has its own unique conjugation.

In all honesty, I'm still learning Vos as I go, but I think it's the easiest form to figure out. There are no irregulars, and you simply change the ending of a verb. For example, take the verb "Comer," meaning "To Eat." Normally, you conjugate it in the 2nd person as "Comes", or You eat. In Vos, it is simply "Comés", with the accent on the last syllable. The same goes for endings in -ar and -ir.

*I understand this might be confusing for those who don't speak Spanish, but stick with me, I'm going somewhere with this.

Anyway, the commands are a bit different, with the emphasis staying on the last syllable, but without irregulars. Example: Poder = To Be Able To. Conjugated with Tu, it is "Tu puedes". In Vos, it is "Vos podés". You don't have to worry about conjugating the 2nd person form. It is much simpler.

So the whole point of this is that if you want to learn Spanish, I think it might actually be easier to come to Argentina and try to study here. No one outside of the Argentinian world will really speak this way, but they'll all understand it. As you get more accustomed to Spanish, you can pick up Tu easily enough. But if you're frustrated in Spain or don't understand Mexican Spanish, give Argentina a shot. You might find it to be a lot easier to learn a form with no irregular verbs.

For more information on conjugating Vos, follow this guide.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Left On Red? Nah, Just Kidding, There Are No Reds

Congratulations, Buenos Aires! You've done it again. Another significant title has been awarded to you. Previous honors include the "Paris of South America," "Most Metropolitan City in the Continent", and "Beef Capital of the World." Well, on behalf of, me, I'm giving this great city another crowning title. Are you ready? Ahem...

Buenos Aires is the most dangerous city in the world for pedestrians. Yeah, I said it. Sorry, Porteños. Cry your hearts out, but it's just true. I'll say it again. Buenos Aires Is The Most Dangerous City In The World For Pedestrians. I am basing this off of the cities that I have visited and lived in, of course. I will always leave the door open for a new contender. But for now, after the many horizons I have crossed, I am set on a current champion. Let's discuss how the judges came to the final decision.

As the title suggests, there are no such things as red lights. Sure, they technically exist, and are even obeyed from time to time, but in terms of safety for the person crossing the street, there is none. You wait your turn patiently on the sidewalk because you know how crazy the drivers are, and finally the little man turns from orange to white, telling you and the 30 other people to start crossing the street. But there should be a "Walk With Extreme Caution" sign underneath.

As soon as you make the leap of faith, no less than 5 cars will turn right into you, as if you're the jerk crossing traffic at the wrong time. They slow down but don't exactly give you right of way, nudging you to hurry the hell up or become a stat. They call this place the "Paris of South America," and sometimes it feels like that. You stand waiting for the light to change and you hear the ever familiar sounds of a siren. WEE-YOOO WEE-YOUU WEE-YOUU. That kind of siren, reminiscent of a Parisian horn, is probably on the way to pick up someone who just got flattened.

Down in these parts, they claim that Avenida 9 de julio is the widest street in the world, though others say not quite. That doesn't matter, as it's still a huge street, and when all is said and done, you've just crossed about 17 lanes of traffic. I cross that street no less than two times a day, and each time I wonder if I'll make it to the other side. A game of Frogger is only fun when you can hit Restart. There's just no rhyme or reason to the road laws here in Argentina. How can it be that cars continue to drive as hordes of people cross the street? There has to be a traffic cop out there stuffing his face with an alfajor, not paying attention.

But to make matters worse, the sidewalks aren't exactly a safe haven either. If you have managed to dodge the ubiquitous pile of dog crap, successfully avoided the umpteenth pothole, and swerved around the people walking erratically, then you'll sometimes find yourself fleeing motorcycles. Because sometimes it just saves a bike rider time to hop onto the sidewalk, whether or not it's filled with people. It's like the last day of high school when kids are doing donuts in the parking lot and because everyone is going crazy, the cops can't even control the situation, so they just sit back and make sure no one kills themselves. Just total lawlessness.

I have the fear. On the streets, I'm not so much worried about getting mugged as I am being clipped by a car or motorcycle. In Ecuador, I thought I saw some of the worst drivers. Crossing the streets in Quito was once a scary situation. Now, looking back, that seems like a walk in the park. There's no way to avoid walking long distances in this city, crossing many streets in the process where drivers pay no heed to the people in their way. You just have to continue dodging traffic as best you can. So I'm sorry, Buenos Aires, but as cool as you are, you get this dirty honor.

Above: Avenida 9 de julio, the widest street in the world?

Like A Fine Wine

Since I've started my job, I've been fortunate enough to be reading up entirely on Wine Country, the many wine vineyards in Argentina, and how to taste and appreciate wine, among other things. There's a whole world and culture when it comes to wine, and as 2 weeks of 9 hours a day will prove to you, there's much more than you could possibly imagine.

So much goes into wine. Beyond the grapes. Beyond the soil. Beyond the oak barrels and bottling. There are the little things like elevation and humidity, temperature, latitude. All of these things play a part in the texture and eventual taste of a wine. When you walk down the wine aisle at the liquor store, there's really so much more that should be going through your head than "Red? White? Price?"

There are so many wineries specializing in so many different things. Everyone thinks they have found the best land and are using the latest methods. Others prefer to say they are using traditional methods. It wasn't until the 1970s that wine production in Argentina changed from mass quantity to a domestic market to better quality to an international market. They might make less wine to sort out the better grapes, but every year new wineries open up, and the competition rises with the numbers.

I've been reading, as part of my job, how to properly taste wine. And I've tried practicing it myself. Put your nose close to the glass, but wait. Then put your nose in and smell it. You should detect something. Put a little bit of wine in your mouth, but don't swallow. Swish it around, blow in some air, open your mouth, breath out of your nose. I guess if you're a sommelier, there's some taste party going on in your mouth. For most people, it's not as intense.

Watch for the legs as they drip down the glass. Hold the glass up to a white surface, or your hand if need be, and look for the color of the wine. Swivel it around and let it oxidize. Sip again. Detect the age, how it was bottled, what impurities it has, or if you're lucky, doesn't have. This is a delicious yet complex game. And you must really be skilled to see it all. Like some genius chess whiz-kid, some people got it, and some don't. It's not just grape in there, my friend. Strawberry, blueberry, gooseberry (which I didn't even know about), damp straw, dirt, oak--these are all the flavors you should notice.

Or, if you're like me, you taste one thing: Booze.

Above: Just living the dream

Welcome to Americatown, Fatty!

On Monday night I attended my first meeting with a writing circle here in Buenos Aires. The group, which is composed mainly of expat women, used to meet at a café every week, but now bounces around from people’s apartments. It’s a good way for me to meet more people in the city, as well as improve some of my own writing and see other styles out there. But the thing the meeting made me think of the most wasn’t necessarily writing.

Afterward, maybe the next day even, I started to think about American expats in general. We are totally unlike other immigrants who come to the United States. Maybe because we really aren’t immigrants at all, and we’re just floating around the world on a vacation of sorts. But those who come to the United States generally come to find work and a better life. Many expats are looking to escape from something or to learn about themselves. That’s a luxury most don’t have.

But other cultures stick together in ways that Americans do not. You can go to almost any city in the world and find a Chinatown. There are countless Little Italy’s, Koreatowns, and Russian neighborhoods. It even gets broken down into religion, with neighborhoods like Once in Buenos Aires, that is traditionally known as a Jewish neighborhood.

Yet overseas, there is no Americatown. There is no semblance of a community or feeling of pride in our culture while we live overseas, unless we are looking for a reason to celebrate Halloween or July 4th. And the only time you’ll find us together in mass numbers are at gringo/expat bars. So really, the only time Americans get together to feel at home again is when we drink.

How many Americans have said that after being abroad for a long time, they finally had to give in and get McDonald’s or Starbucks when loneliness and homesickness was too much? I can’t imagine any French expat breaking down and going to the nearest Au Bon Pan, or an Italian immigrant going to the Olive Garden for a taste of home. Maybe it’s because our food isn’t really all that special. I’m not sure.

Those who choose to live abroad have the luxury of coming for 3 or 6 months, 1 or 2 years, and then floating on to the next country or going home. It’s usually not an issue about moving up to a better life, but merely moving sideways. Aside from a few closer expat friends, we shy away from large groups of Americans, and generally tend to look with disdain upon the tourists who rush in and rush out without getting the true feeling of our new home. More so than not, we try so hard to immerse ourselves in the culture and learn about where we are, that we forget about where we’re from. On the other hand, immigrants from other cultures always brought something of theirs to the new home, whether it be cooking or humor. And I try to stress, I mean these things about people who choose to live abroad, not those who are assigned to work overseas for a year or two.

But I do think that if there was an Americatown, it would be some kind of crazy place. In a way, some do exist for sure in the Middle East, where contracting companies place American families in compounds for safety. You can find everything you need there—supermarkets, movie theaters, sports arenas, schools, etc. So the lucky folks living abroad would never even have to leave the barbed wire walls unless they wanted to, which they probably don’t very often. Who would want to leave the comfort of a 12x12 U.S.A. with extra security?

For those of us that choose the other route, living alone or with new friends or random strangers in foreign lands, it’s a different experience altogether. And unless a mass migration starts heading out of the United States, you can be sure that there won’t be any Americatowns any time soon. And that’s fine with those of us who choose to be here. We’ll be at the bar, right after the writing group finishes talking about the Emmy’s from last night.

Above: McDonald's in Morocco

The Latinization of Jon

No matter how much time I spend in Latin America, I’ll always be an American and always revert back to the culture that I was raised in. For many obviously reasons, I’ll never be truly Latino, but after spending over a year in Latin America, I feel like I’m slowly changing a bit, and I’m definitely not the same American I was before leaving.

It’s always the little things that you notice. Take for example, my attitude on things happening that aren’t according the plan. Before leaving Ecuador I was suddenly bumped from the flight without my consent. An older version of me might have gotten really angry or freaked out in a way, but after so many months living in South America, there was a certain calm over me. I joked around with the guy behind the counter, tried to be his friend, and in no time he was helping me out and making sure I was taken care of. Another American girl next to me who obviously hadn’t spent much time down here was yelling about how ridiculous it was and getting no where.

Before coming to Latin America I would have been pretty frightened by the thought of being robbed. Now when I hear people tell stories about being robbed, I am not surprised at all. ‘Sometimes you just get robbed.’ It’s kind of the mentality you have to take, no matter where you live down here. If you accept that at some point you will be robbed, it makes it easier to deal with it when it happens. That, and you realize you shouldn’t be carrying too many valuables with you at any given time.

It’s not just bad things, though. I never used to dance at all. But after a year in Ecuador, I got to the point where I was looking forward to going to a club and dancing Salsa. Going back home for a vacation, I saw just how boring the bars were, with the drinkers simply standing around. No one was doing anything, and it was way too loud to talk. A few people were grinding in the center, but that’s such a tasteless dance. At least with Salsa, you get the same effect, but you’re moving in time and it actually takes some patience and skill to impress the girl. That’s worth it in the end.

You just start to accept things without much question after living in Latin America for a while. You talk about corruption as if it’s accepted, and not a shock. You realizing that lining up for things is nearly pointless. Dodging dog crap and potholes in the sidewalks is just part of the walk. A slew of other things combine into this Latinization.

But I’m not completely there yet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get places late. I have left my apartment later than I wanted to on purpose because I knew my friend would be late, so I timed it to arrive around the same time. Yet somehow, without realizing it, I must have picked up the pace, arriving right on the dot of when we agreed to meet. And like an idiot, I had to wait there 10 minutes for my friend to arrive. How could I possibly be so time conscious? Work is the same way, and I find myself arriving before anyone else, even though I try to be 5 minutes ‘late’. But when it’s time to leave, everyone is ready to go.

This Latinization has its pros and its cons. As much as my attitude towards disaster has relaxed, I’m sure that at some point that can be a bad thing as well. But until that happens, I’m probably going to continue changing and becoming more and more like my neighbors, if for nothing else than to be able to poke fun at myself later on.

Author's Note: The picture is actually two years ago from Spain, but hey, close enough.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Video of Iguazú Falls

Here is the video of Iguazú Falls. It shows clips of the falls, as well as gives some information about the history and traveling there. Enjoy.

Not Quite Elevator Music

<br />Photo by <a href=fedepo18

Last night I was riding the Subte (subway) headed towards Belgrano. The subway would be a great way to get around in Buenos Aires, except for the fact that they didn't put much thought into it when they built it. Realistically, it serves only the centro, and the second you get farther out the lines end. To make matters worse, it stops running around 11 pm, and at 10 pm on weekends. In a city that never sleeps. But it only costs $1.10 ARG, so if you can get it to where you're going, it's a good deal.

The ride started off like you would expect--people rush in to find seats, the rest stand. The tracks bend and send passengers lurching into the walls. With not much else to do you look at people, the floor, and your eyes race from right to left as you look at the outside world as the train slows down at each stop. The noise of the tracks only interrupted by the occasional kid trying to sell something.

Suddenly two performers began to play, but it wasn't the standard garbage cans or harmonica, whatever someone might usually play on a subway. Instead, it was classical guitar and a violin. I'm not going to lie and say I am knowledgeable in talent when it comes to the violin. But it sounded damn good to me. Accompanied by the classical guitar, it created a really nice sound and pleasurable ride on the subway, which as anyone who's ever ridden one knows, they aren't the best places to be.

So I wondered why these two performers, who to me it seemed had some talent, be playing on the subway for loose change rather than in a concert hall, a theater, or at the very least a cafe or club. Surely there's some cafe out there that wouldn't mind having the violin played while its guests drank coffee. Could it be that this city is so overflowing with musical talent that even skilled musicians simply have to work on the subway to get by? And the violin isn't exactly an instrument that someone can just pick up on their own as a hobby. It takes years of practice and persistence to be good at it, which costs money. Belgrano is a more expensive neighborhood where rich people live, and I thought it was telling how the subway heading in that direction also came with classical music.

As nice as it was to hear the music on the train, it was a bit sad that it should come to that, playing a beautiful instrument like the violin on the subway. I hope those musicians can find a steadier place to perform and find success in their trip. I got off the subway at my stop and walked into the cold night trying to find my bearings. I was shivering and grinding my teeth, but the tune of the song was still in my head. At least they reached one person.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Movin' On Up

Today I moved into my new apartment in the Microcentro of Buenos Aires. While I'm still kind of getting settled in, I now feel that I've finally got most of my things unpacked an in some kind of order that I can figure out. I can already tell that I'm really going to like living here. It's right in the center, which can be a bit much at times, but it means that I'm closer to my job. Obviously, that means less time in transit and more time to relax or sleep in. I'm also closer to cafes, restaurants, and other interesting things to do. In addition, it puts me closer to subway stops and buses that will run all over the city. It's a pretty sweet location, in other words.

The apartment itself is really nice and set up very well. I'm living with one other roommate, an Argentinian artist who has put her own work up around the house, putting a real "home" feeling to it, rather than just some posters here and there or empty wall space. I even have three of her own works in my room, which is a nice touch I wasn't expecting. I have the upstairs to myself. It's kind of like a loft, and I have to climb these tiny little stairs to get up, which could be a problem if I've had too much wine, but I'll just adapt and crawl or something.

So for the next few days, maybe weeks, I'll be acquainting myself with the new neighborhood, figuring out where everything is. I already know that just outside the door is a barber shop and a block down is a laundromat. And since this is the center, restaurants and cafes are everywhere. Not that I plan on eating out all the time, but it's nice to keep in mind. There's also a sushi restaurant a block down. Whenever I pull together a little money, I'm going to check it out. It might just be a hidden gem in Buenos Aires.

Tonight is the second night of celebrations for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. I didn't do anything last night, but tonight I'm heading to the Hillel house in the Belgrano neighborhood. I'm hopeful that this will be another avenue to meet other young Argentinians, or at the very least some international students. I haven't been to Belgrano yet, but I hear that it's a rich neighborhood, so I'm interested to see the differences from the other neighborhoods of the city that I've already seen. For now, I need to get a few things for the new apartment, mainly some food for tomorrow, so I'm off. Pictures of the new place will follow soon.

Friday, September 18, 2009

All Growns Up

Today I finished my first week of work at the travel agency. I don't really have anything to do with the planning end of the business, so I don't receive any phone calls or emails. I'm kind of like a behind the scenes person there. What I do is go through all of the information they have on hotels, wineries, estancias, and other places. These are called, "Write Ups." Since they were all written by Argentinians, the English isn't perfect. My job is to go through them and correct any mistakes I find, as well as update the information if it has changed. Also, if there are new Write Ups that need to be done, I take care of it.

The job is going well so far, and as this is my first time working in an office, it's a different feel from the rest of the ones I've held down. Since I turned 16 I have been working in some form or another. Everything from retail to stadium events, to being a theater usher, travel writer, even working in a warehouse. And, of course, as a volunteer teacher. I've never been lazy about finding jobs. This one is different from all the others though. I dress up a bit and then sit in front of a computer most of the day. There isn't a whole lot of interaction with my co-workers, which could just simply be aided by the fact that we're from different places and they don't really feel like opening up yet.

But it's a different side of the world too, and I don't just mean geographically. In the other jobs I've had, I also had the mentality of someone who had the temporary job. Working in retail as a 17 year old, you don't really care if the company does well or how many shirts get folded. You just want your paycheck. And if it becomes a real mess or you can't do it anymore, you just quit. Move on and find a new job--it's that easy. But that's not the case anymore. I want to do a good job so that I can maybe attract new clients to the company, which might wind up getting me a little more money or job security. Because while I'm new to Argentina, I want to be able to stay for a while, and I'd rather live comfortably than unsure of how long the checks will come in.

It's also a different environment. I work in the downtown business center, and all day long business suits and skirts rush by on cell phones and trying to catch the bus or metro. People bump into you and don't say sorry, just keep on moving quickly. No one has any time. There's always something that can be done. It's a different world than I'm used to being in. It's interesting, though. I wouldn't say I'm totally turned off by it, but it's a totally different thing altogether. Then again, I'm one week in, and instead of having time to stroll around the city and take my time, I'm now waking up early, spending time in rush hour traffic, sitting in the office for 9 hours, and then rushing home again. Making the transition from volunteer working 20 hours a week to full time in the business district is a tough one.

A famous street in Buenos Aires is Calle Florida. This is a pedestrian street with performers and lots of shops. It's pretty touristy, and it's worth checking out once or twice. Then it just becomes a hassle. But my office is right by this street, so I naturally have to walk it once or twice a day, and I've very quickly grown to hate it. Thousands of people fight to walk by, everyone bumping into you or trying to hand you some flier. It's as miserable a street as you can imagine when you walk it everyday. It's almost better to take your chances with the cars on another street.

The street is like the situation with work. The first couple times at it, you haven't got a care and it seems pretty cool. But after a while you realize that it's just like everything else, and can be aggravating at times. People work because they have to, and you only walk down that street if you're from Buenos Aires if you have to. The good news is that I'm moving tomorrow to a new apartment in the Microcentro, which is much closer to my office. It's also on the other side of it, meaning I won't have to walk down Calle Florida anymore. I'm going to try to enjoy the weekend as much as I can, and then it's back to work on Monday.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Article Posted on WorldTeach

I was recently asked by my former organization, WorldTeach, to write an article about my experience in Ecuador. You can now read that article on the WorldTeach Web site. Here's the link, where you can also find other articles written by other volunteers, past and present.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First Video from Argentina

Though I haven't compiled a ton of video from my time in Argentina yet, I've made a short video on some of the things I did in my first week or so in the country. Here's the video.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Night at the Boliche

Everyone knows that Buenos Aires has a thriving night life scene, and most people who come to visit try to experience it at least once in one way or another before leaving. Previously, with my friend Kristine here, we went out, but in a more relaxed way, enjoying the bar scene in San Telmo. With her leaving though, I got to know one of my roommates from England, Rachel. Yesterday we went out and met up with some of her co-workers to go to a boliche, or dance club.

As is the custom in Argentina, people don't even go out until around 1 am. By 9 pm I was feeling pretty tired after a full day of walking around the city, but we headed out, aware that we couldn't even go to the club until 1. A few of us met up for some drinks around 11 pm, not leaving the bar until about 1:30 am or so. The guys are working for an English language newspaper down here and their paper had a deal that they could get into the club for free between 1-3 am. Instead of going to the club, however, we moved on to a house party near by for a few minutes to meet up with more of their co-workers.

We rushed through a cheap bottle of wine and then headed to the club, realizing that it was getting late. We got into the club with just minutes to spare a little before 3 am, and the place was packed and loud with Reggaeton. Drinks were passed around as I soon started smelling like a tobacco factory, surrounded by heavy smokers. The music was deafening and there were actually three floors, with the top floor playing different music. Eventually a few of us got onto the dance floor, and I was happy to hear that it suddenly switched to Salsa music. I showed off my skills until they switched back to electronic music.

Time continued to go by, and by 5 am I was sitting in the booth waiting to leave. Yet the place was still bumping as if it was only midnight. I'm not exactly an old man, but this city can make you feel that way sometimes. Finally around 6 am we had come to the conclusion that it was time to leave, but the club was still packed with people. We were far away from home, and knew that a taxi would cost a fortune (by our standards). Luckily the buses in this city run 24 hours a day, so we got on the 24 packed in with other people leaving clubs or heading to work and took the long ride home.

With the sun rising, we opened the door to our apartment a few minutes before 7 am, and to our chagrin could hear our downstairs neighbors still blasting their own music and shouting. Even in my own room it still sounded like a club, but I was so tired I just fell right asleep. Of course, there has to be a downside, and that will be the exhaustion I feel all day. I'll just take it easy, watch some football games, and get ready for my first day of work tomorrow. The boliche scene could be cool once in a while, but it's definitely a game for a person with more energy than me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Photos of Córdoba

Sunset in Córdoba

La Manzana Jesuítica, The Jesuit Block

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

A cathedral in a college town

Friday, September 11, 2009

Alone in Buenos Aires

Now that Kristine has left, I feel like I'm back to the basics here in Buenos Aires. I started off down here alone, but I had her visit to look forward to. I also only had to wait a few days, which were mostly filled with getting to know the city, an interview, and trying to get my papers in order. And then, almost instantly, she was here, and it was great.

Together, we did a lot of things, and for two weeks life was going well here in Argentina. She's gone now, and I feel the sadness that you get when you've been left behind. As happens sometimes, I saw this coming and started to feel the pinch a couple of days ago, when we returned to Buenos Aires from our traveling. I could sense that we were at the end. Even during the last couple of days in the city, we'd pretty much done it all and were just killing time.

My job doesn't start until Monday and I still don't really know anyone. For two weeks I had a great friend with me, exploring places and having great conversations and jokes. So it's no surprise to me that I feel totally lost again with her departure. It was almost a tease to have her here, so early in my stay. Yet it was still a great boost for me, and really made the transition easier. Once in a while we would see a person sitting alone at a bar or restaurant and feel bad for them. Now I'm that guy, at least for the time being.

I've felt this way before, in Cuenca and elsewhere. The feeling that you're totally alone in the world. Even in Buenos Aires, a city of some 13 million people, I feel alone. It's actually more isolating with the more people there because you just realize how insignificant and irrelevant you are to the community. I still need to get myself through this weekend before I can start getting myself into my work, which will at least keep me busy and hopefully get me to meet some people as well. But now, having experienced a fun side of Buenos Aires with Kristine and other travelers we met, I feel a let down. Back to the reality that I'm a newcomer to this city with no connections. The problem with making friends with travelers when you live in that place is that they always leave.

She left this morning, and is still flying right now, not even arriving in Quito until late tonight. But it will feel weird for a while after that. This will be a new part of the experience in this country, and I'll just have to get used to it.

Above: Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

Dancing Some Tango

Last night was my friend Kristine's final night in Argentina, and we tried to send her off the right way. In the hostel she was staying in free Tango lessons were offered, and since I had been over there so many times recently and the staff was so friendly, they let me participate as well. Starting late (of course) after 10 pm, 6 people plus the teacher stood around a small room upstairs, which in the mornings serves as the breakfast nook.

The lesson started out with some relaxing exercise, just walking around in a circle in different speeds, trying to think about how you walk. The next phase was trying to move in a rhythm to the music while walking. Tango is all about feeling the music and moving with the beat, but you're basically always walking in one way or another. Differing from Salsa or Merengue, you don't really move your hips much or do many steps. That made it pretty confusing for me once we finally got a partner and I was basically dancing Salsa. It became necessary to try to forget all of the Salsa I had learned in the year spent in Ecuador. Tango isn't even that popular really. It's not like in Ecuador or Colombia where everyone dances Salsa and it's important to do the same. Only about 10% of Argentinians dance Tango.

Changing partners and getting a bit more advanced throughout the hour lesson, we also heard different styles of Tango music. It was a bit hard for me to hear the beats that we were supposed to move to, especially since you could just make it up yourself as you wanted. You also had to be mindful of the other dancers, who also didn't exactly know what they were doing. One of the hardest parts was simply getting the partner to follow your lead. In Tango, the partner has to totally trust the leader, and if they don't they will start to make their own movements and both dancers will be off step. This happened to me several times, but then again, my own movements were often off the mark.

Once the hour was up, we went along with the instructor to a Milonga, or Tango dance hall. There you can choose to dance it up if you want or simply sit in the back and watch or talk with friends. I had no intention of trying to dance, so I just sat and watched for a bit, also talking with other guests from the hostel and the instructor. It was soon past 1 am and Kristine and I were tired. She had to wake up early to catch her flight back to Ecuador, so we headed out. Now Kristine is gone and I'm on my own again. But on Monday I'll be starting my new job and keeping plenty busy. But in all of the activities that I do, I really don't think I'll be doing all that much Tango dancing. I'll leave that to the professionals.

Photos of Iguazú Falls

A sunny day in Iguazú National Park

La Garganta del Diablo

A long view of the falls

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Send Off For a Friend

Today is Kristine's last day here in Argentina. Tomorrow she will fly away to Quito via Panama, but you can't really count that as a day since she's going to the airport early in the morning. We've pretty much covered all of the bases here in Buenos Aires, mostly because so many museums are closed either for repairs or due to Swine Flu. Yet we still have some things to do.

She was going to surprise me with a gift, but she wanted to know what kind of Mate gourd I would like, so now we have to go in search of one. Mate is the typical tea everyone drinks here, and though it's bitter and hot the first few tries, eventually you get used to it. I was planning on buying my own eventually, but Kristine insists on getting me something. We walked around a while yesterday trying to find the right one, but all we found were touristy ones with intricate designs, and I just want a regular one that locals have.

After talking to some people we were advised to go to Once, the neighborhood that my mother once lived in, to find a regular Mate gourd. So this morning we will head to Once and try our luck. After that we'll come back to my apartment so she can pick up the rest of her luggage, drop that off at her hostel, and then get some work done. By work done, I mean Kristine will go to a beauty salon for an hour or so and I'll get a 5 minute hair cut, then sit around.

Other plans for the day include meeting up with her boyfriends' sister, who lives in Buenos Aires, to bring some things back to Ecuador with her. We also want to try eating at a restaurant called Siga La Vaca, which is an all you can eat steak house where they also serve you a liter of wine, beer, or soda. It might be a little expensive by our standards here, but after all, you get all you can eat Argentinian steak and wine. Not too bad.

Three things we had planned on doing constantly on this trip were eating steak, drinking wine, and watching or dancing Tango. The first two were done very well, but we never found a Tango show. Kristine's hostel actually gives free lessons on Thursdays, so we're going to participate in that tonight, then head out with the hostel group to a Milonga, a place where you can see a Tango show and then dance too. So without trying to get all of the last sites crammed in, we're simply going to have a nice little day together and then go our separate ways. I'm going to be sad to see her go.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

21 Hours On a Bus

Hour 1

In preparation for our 21 hour bus trip from Córdoba to Puerto Iguazú, Kristine and I took a series of three photos. The first photo is us on the bus at the start of the trip, Hour 1. The second picture is halfway through, around Hour 10. And the last photo is at the end of the trip, in Hour 21. It's pretty funny to see how we fell apart.

Hour 10

Hour 21

A Whirlwind Tour of Argentina

Since leaving Mendoza, Kristine and I have been pretty busy. At this point, I feel like it would be overkill to try to recount everything we've done, and it would be boring to the reader as well. Instead, I'm just going to give a quick run down of how we spent the last week.

Upon leaving Maipú and Mendoza, we took a 12 hour bus to Córdoba, the historic university town in a valley by the Sierra Córdoba. We stayed at a great hotel, the Azur Real Hotel Boutique, which just opened last month. The hotel was actually once a high school where Ernesto "Che" Guevara went to school. Our day in Córdoba was spent at Estancia El Colibri, about an hour outside of the city, and later on walking around the city itself in the Jesuit Block. This part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The next afternoon we took off on a 21 hour bus trip up to Puerto Iguazú. The trip wasn't as horrible as we thought, and with 5 movies on in a row, we soon found ourselves ready for sleep after wine and champagne. Once we got in to Iguazú we were tired but found a hostel, changed, and went to the national park. It was a long trip, but we only had a day. The weather was perfect, and as we neared the waterfalls we could start to hear it and see the mist in the distance. Once in plain sight, we could see just why it was so amazing. I've never seen Niagara Falls, but I'd have to imagine that Iguazú beats them on any day.

Just when you think you've seen the last of the falls, there's another place you can turn and find a rush of water flowing over the sides, destroying anything in its path except for the few strong plants that have learned to survive. Our thoughts were to try getting into the Brazilian side the next morning, but once we realized how expensive it would be we were unsure. That night the rains came in, bringing torrential downpours and bitterly cold weather in a region that seems more like Amazonian jungle than the image you usually get when thinking of Argentina. The bad weather sealed the deal, and we prepared yesterday for an 18 hour bus trip back to Buenos Aires.

We arrived this morning, and so after the week of traveling, we spent 65 hours on buses and saw 3 major tourist sites that Argentina has to offer. Not too shabby. Obviously, it would always be better to spend more time in each place, but for what we were trying to do, it was a good fit. When we started the trip we were amazed at how nice the buses were, especially in comparison with those in Ecuador. By the last bus ride we were comparing different companies and wondering why we weren't offered a second glass of champagne. We realized how spoiled we'd become with the buses in the last few days.

Still, with the expenses of a trip like this, we kept it as low as we could while trying to make up for some of the creature comforts of a long bus trip like a seat that folds to a 180* angle. Sometimes you just need to spoil yourself a little. Kristine leaves for Ecuador on Friday, and I'll be sad to see her go. It not only has allowed me to see more of the city with another friend here, but as been a good transition into a new place. While she was here I toured the city, as well as the country, got a job, and found a new apartment that I'll be moving into in a week or so.

And on Monday I'll be starting my new job with the travel agency, so things will be changing up a bit. But continue to check in on the blog and see what's happening down in Buenos Aires.

Above: Pictures from Córdoba and Iguazú Falls.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Wine Tasting in Maipú (Mendoza)

I didn't really have any fear about taking the night bus last night from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. With past experience taking the bus in Chile and Peru, I knew that it was a totally different story from Ecuador, and I did not expect my experience to be replicated in Argentina. The worst thing I was looking at was the length of the trip. as 14 hours can drag on and on, especially if you can't sleep.

When Kristine and I got to the terminal for our "7:20 pm" bus we discovered that it was really leaving at 7, and we had made it just in time. Things moved more smoothly here, with actual security checking bags with a metal detector before getting on the bus, and we took off promptly. The bus was nearly empty, and aside from a few other stops to pick up a passenger or two, we had the top floor almost entirely to ourselves. We sat in shock at how luxurious the bus was, with plus, comfy seats that reclined far back. With a front row view, it was like watching an IMAX as we moved out in the dark to the west.

After a lousy movie and a dinner of fried country steak, some other sides, and 3 servings of cheap wine in a Styrofoam cup, the lights were turned off. At first we both fell asleep easily, but even being in the higher class doesn't change the fact that you're on a bus. You hit bumps, make sudden jolts, and have street lights coming into your face. Around 4 am we discovered that we could extend the seats all the way to a 180* angle, and from then on we slept a little better, though we were cold and under dressed. We were surprised to be woken up for breakfast and quickly there after arriving in Mendoza. It was the quickest 14 hour bus trip ever. We actually got in a little early.

The travel agency I work for arranged a taxi to pick us up and take us to Club Tapiz, the hotel we are staying in tonight in the small town just outside of Mendoza called Maipú. Maipú is known for its many wine vineyards and olive oil factories. We showered and changed, checked out the grounds, and then headed out in complimentary bikes from the hotel to tour some of the vineyards.

Together we biked around 10 kilometers, stopping along the side of the road for some cheap ham sandwiches and olives. The people were very friendly, and after talking to them for a bit they offered us some wine for free and gave us a discount on the food, giving us the olives for practically nothing. It was cold and overcast, but the day was going great so far.

Continuing on we went to the first vineyard recommended to us, Carinae. Carinae is a French influenced wine that is rich in taste, but isn't generally available in the United States. After a short tour for 15 pesos we sampled three types of wine and moved across the street to the Olivicola Laur, an olive oil company where 10 pesos got us a short 10 minute tour and then a large plate of bread with different types of olive oil and condiments.

We were tired but continued on to Familia di Tommasso, the oldest vineyard in the area. There for 10 pesos we had a tour of the facilities and were given four samples of different kinds of wine. We liked the Malbec so much that we got our own bottle for 18 pesos and will enjoy it tonight from the jacuzzi in the hotel. Tomorrow we'll be moving on to more vineyards and a different hotel, then getting ready to leave Mendoza for the mountains of Córdoba.

Above: Touring wine vineyards in Maipú

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back on the Road

Yesterday was a good day. I got a job working with a travel agency here in Buenos Aires, doing something I really enjoy. Not only will the job give me the opportunity to travel and get more familiar with the country, but I'll be writing as well. My basic duties will be to update the information on destinations around the country and write content for the agency's Web site in English. With that being said, I'm headed out on the road tonight to get more familiar with Argentina.

Kristine and I will be taking a night bus to Mendoza, arriving tomorrow morning. Night buses in Argentina are very different from those in Ecuador, and I've heard it's a first class experience that is in many ways better than flying. I've seen the huge, double decker buses driving through the city, and I'm excited to see what it's like on the inside. Kristine wanted to spring for a full bed seat, so we paid a little extra, but will also be on the top floor in the seats facing the windshield, giving us a good view when the sun does rise again tomorrow morning in the western part of the country.

We'll be in Mendoza and the surrounding wine vineyards for a couple of nights before moving on to Córdoba, a historic university city, which is still about 10 hours away from Mendoza. We'll also be spending a couple of nights in that area and then moving on to Iguazu Falls in the northeast corner of the country, bordering Brazil and Paraguay. We won't be able to enter Brazil because we don't have visas, but we might be able to enter Paraguay for the day if the visa isn't too expensive. We'll figure that all out when we get there.

Yesterday was a rainy and cold day. But things were going well, and as I walked with Kristine through the park explaining what I'll be doing and how I was happy to have the job, a bird pooped on my head. It's something that just had to be laughed off, from me to Kristine to the guy who watched from a distance. The universe was evened out again. I'm bringing my lap top with me to be able to continue blogging and adding pictures from out trip, so check in to the blog to see what's happening on the other side of the country.

On another note, you'll notice on the left side that my pictures have changed. Since I'm no longer in Ecuador and I've been taking many pictures of Buenos Aires, the photos featured will now be of Buenos Aires, and eventually Mendoza, Córdoba, and Iguazu. I'm still trying to work with the photo option to add as many photos as possible for the enjoyment of the reader. So take a look at some of the things I've seen so far.

Above: Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires