Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tigre and Tango


On Saturday morning I woke up early to meet up with my friends Valerie, Dan, and Alaina to go for a river boat tour of the Tigre Delta. Tigre is a city about 35 kilometers (16 miles) north of Buenos Aires. It once was a weekend retreat for the wealthy upper class of the city, and though it no longer carries that image, it's definitely a place where the wealthy can show off their sailboats, jet skis, and speedboats. This is a place for water sports, for sure. We took Sturla Viajes on a two hour tour up the Río de la Plata and into the Tigre Delta's muddy and dark waters.

As the city faded away, the landscape changed pretty quickly, and once we got near Tigre it was subtropical. The day started off overcast, but soon the sun broke through and it was a warm and clear day. Houses on stilts presented themselves as boats zoomed past with weekend retreaters. Once we got to Tigre we disembarked and walked through the quiet town to the Fruit Market, which is known for having all kinds of goods to buy. Tigre also has Argentina's largest theme park, which seemed almost out of place with large roller coasters in the distance.


Throw in the random waffle houses and Swiss architecture, and Tigre seemed like a pretty eclectic city. It was clear that it was peaceful and would make a night or two away from the city very relaxing. To truly make use of the fun in Tigre, though, you must have some kind of boat access. Tigre gets its name from the jaguars that once inhabited the region, yet now all you'll find are the friendly locals and tourists coming in. As the boats pass by, everyone waves. Dan said it reminded him of his image of the bayou in Louisiana or somewhere in the south, and I agreed that it reminded me of the Florida Keys.

We got on the 4 pm boat back through the delta and the Río de la Plata, all while dodging heavy boat traffic. There was literally a navy of sailboats to get through, along with kayakers, jet skiers, windsurfers, tubers, and on and on. I don't know how there wasn't an accident, but at one point a catamaran cut in front of our boat and we nearly hit them. Sitting on the back deck of the boat, the sun burn continued and by the time we reached Puerto Madero I was a lobster.


I had to rush home because I had tickets to for dinner and a tango show at Esquina Carlos Gardel, a famous tango show in the Abasto neighborhood. This tango show is a bit more traditional, and in a large theater which holds more guests, making it less intimate than the experience in El Viejo Almacén. Nonetheless, the dinner was delicious, and my steak went well with the read wine and flan with dulce de leche for dessert. I had a booth on the upper floor, which gave a good view of the stage and band which hovered above the dancers.

Unfortunately, just before leaving I heard some bad news. My good friend Lauren from my volunteer time in Cuenca, had rushed home to be at her brother's side because he was ill with swine flu and pneumonia. On Friday night, Chris Patterson lost his battle and passed away. Though I never knew him, it affected me just the same, and I was in no mood for a tango show. So while everyone was cheering and getting into the show, I was elsewhere. Even with my mind on other things, I could still attest that it was a good show and worth seeing if you are in the city.


After the show I met up with my friend Kristian, who will be returning home to Norway this week, and we went out to celebrate. Following up with a lack of solid sleep, I went to La Casa Rosada (the presidential palace) today for a free tour of the inside. I can honestly say that it's pretty unimpressive on the inside, and you can see paint chipping off the walls, drab colors, and over the top rooms designed to look like European castles. It's a lot nicer from the outside, for sure. So another weekend went by, but I was able to take full advantage of it and do some touristic things. Up for next week, another tango show and possibly a bike tour.

Dedicated to Chris Patterson

Above: Photos of the Tigre River Delta, Esquina Carlos Gardel, Casa Rosada

Friday, November 27, 2009

Minus the Turkey: Thanksgiving a la Porteña

I guess I would best describe it as May. Though it would be May in New York, not in Boston, because anyone who is from either city can tell you that a spring in Massachusetts is quite different from a spring in New York, and no two springs are alike. Every year it seems as though May is a wash out in New England, yet people are always surprised. It’s supposed to be nice, but of course it’s not. That’s exactly what I’m experiencing now in Buenos Aires. But the only difference is that it’s late November.

After going through your entire life with an expectation that the weather will be a certain way during a certain month, it’s hard to accept what your eyes see and your senses feel. I am sweating in this humidity, but the date on the calendar says November 27th. An error message is popping up in my brain, telling me to reboot. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, giving a totally different perspective on the holiday.

All I can think of in terms of this day is the crisp air outside a boiling hot apartment in Brooklyn, the golden-brown-red leaves dangling from trees like a child’s teeth as their body pushes them out to make way for the new guys. The deep blue sky of impending winter and the looming storm front that inevitably comes, just in time for some cocoa, a fireplace, and a football game that puts you to sleep after stuffing your face with, well stuffing. Turkey, cranberry sauce, pie, more turkey, coffee, more pie, and finally a late night shwarma and beer if you have nothing else to do and just need to get out of that stinking hot apartment with no cable. This is the Thanksgiving I grew up with, yet in the humid spring of Buenos Aires, it was another world and another age.

I was pretty sure I was going to spend the holiday alone, frying up a steak and looking through pictures while listening to music—a standard night. But in the morning my new friend Tami said she was going to take care of everything. She called up a few friends and invited me over to her house for a Thanksgiving dinner, a la porteña, at 9 pm. A little late by most accounts, but since it wasn’t a holiday here, we all had to work a full day anyway.

Traditionally Argentinian, I showed up a bit late and found that the table was filled for a feast, though there were only five of us; Tami, her sister, and two other friends joined me in an American holiday. This would be their first Thanksgiving, and I explained a bit of what we normally do, such as eat, talk, watch football, and pass out. This was more than I could have hoped for, and I am still in a bit of shock that someone could be so friendly and throw together a feast like that out of no where. I just met her last week, after all.

Everything you could want was there. Minus the turkey. That was all that was missing, and though it’s the main ingredient in a Thanksgiving feast, the most important thing is just having people to share it with. The girls had prepared potatoes, Spanish rice, eggs that no one even touched, and to make it truly Argentinian, milanesa de carne, which is like a breaded meat. Somehow they even found cranberries, and though it wasn’t in sauce form, it went perfectly with the milanesa. We wound up not even eating half of the food, there was so much.

In continuing with the Argentinianization of the holiday, the conversation went late into the night, passing beyond 12:30 am. I kept thinking at some point someone would say it’s time to go home, but eventually Tami saw me yawning continuously and told me this could go on for hours. So she called up a taxi and I said my goodbyes. I don’t know when, if ever, porteños sleep, but they’ve found a way to function without it. I, on the other hand, still love my minimum 7-8 hours a night.

So passed my Thanksgiving in Argentina, but I don’t think it was just for my benefit. It was their first Thanksgiving too, and if anything it helped to spread a little bit of understanding between two cultures. We aren’t so different, but there are always things that will be unknown until they are introduced into the marketplace of conversation and experience. That’s what I love the most about traveling—the sharing and mixing of cultures and traditions. It’s something you have to witness and take part in to really understand.

My high school 5 year reunion is tonight, and instead of catching up with old friends who I haven’t seen in years, I am on another continent on the other side of the world. But I’m thankful that I’ve been able to make some new friends here. I’ll take that and call it a day.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Be Thankful

I just read this incredible essay from the New York Times. The essay is written by Afghanistan War veteran Erik Malmstrom, who is currently studying at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. The essay, which reflects on loss in the war, is written simply and eloquently. Read this article, and be thankful for what you have this Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No Turkey Day for Jon

thanksgiving spread by Joits.












While I could list in detail all the ways in which this year is different than last year, I won’t. Previous writings have already shown the differences, and it would be redundant to go through it all again. But instead, let’s just focus on a single point. Thanksgiving is coming up tomorrow, and I think I’m going to feel pretty homesick on this occasion. It’s not that Thanksgiving was ever a particularly important holiday in my family, but just the idea of doing something very American and being with family, or friends, is something to be desired.

For years we would pile into a car and drive down to Brooklyn, beating the traffic if we were lucky and arriving hours too early. We didn’t even have a traditional big turkey, because for some reason my grandma always wanted to cut it up the night before, causing it to dry out hours before it was ready. And in the last couple of years that I was home, my dad would take my brother and sister and a couple of cousins out to a bar and for shwarma in the Village later at night.

Last year was my first Thanksgiving away from home, but it really wasn’t all that bad. On Thanksgiving day I was actually climbing Chimborazo volcano with a friend, heading up with the last iceman of Chimborazo. I didn’t even realize it was Thanksgiving until later that day after we had come back down the mountain. I went back to Cuenca the next day, and that following Saturday my friend Lauren hosted a feast at her host sisters’ apartment, along with several Ecuadorians and a few gringos in the mix. It was also the night I met my good friend Jamie, which I can use as a bookmark later events throughout the year.

I was away from home but it didn’t really matter much because I formed a group of volunteers who were also away from home. So we at least had each other in that regard. And obviously I am now alone in Buenos Aires. I know a handful of expats here, but they are either English or vegetarians, and no one has even mentioned Thanksgiving. Even if someone had, I don’t know what we could do. It’s hard enough to find just sliced turkey breast at the supermarket, let alone a giant turkey fit for a holiday meal.

I don’t generally get homesick, and I try not to think about being at home so that I can enjoy myself in the moment. But I will definitely be missing being at home tomorrow afternoon. While I’m at work, dodging the humidity, everyone back home will be rubbing their bellies and picking their teeth while plopping down on the couch to watch a terrible football game (most likely involving the Lions). I don’t even have a couch, nor can I watch football games at home anymore.

So after work is over I’ll most likely come home and fry up a steak, to enjoy Thanksgiving in the Argentinian fashion. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the best I can do with what I’ve got.

Above: Photo by Joits

Get Your Own Culture!

How does one truly describe what culture is? You can go across the sea, visit museums, drink different wines and eat different foods, all in an attempt to get some culture. Listen to classical music, watch a foreign film, or see a play. Whatever it is that makes you think differently, well, that might just be on the right path. In my time overseas I’ve often had to explain that the United States doesn’t really have a culture of its own, partly because it’s such a young country and because it has borrowed from others because of the immigrants who settled there. Many Americans feel the same way. We are a “melting pot”, so they say. I haven't really believed in the whole "melting pot" idea since high school, but I at least thought that we had an eclectic gathering. However, as of last night, my thoughts on this have changed.


I was fortunate enough to get free tickets to dinner and a tango show at El Viejo Almacén, the oldest tango club in the city, founded in 1969. It’s also considered one of the best tango clubs around. I’ve been sort of a naysayer about tango since I got here, seeing only the street performers, and viewing it as a show put on only for the tourists. Not many Argentinians actually dance it, taking away from the authenticity of it in my eyes. But on Sunday at the San Telmo fair I heard a street band perform, and I could actually hear the pain in the songs. I was intrigued. Then I saw the show last night.

I’ve converted now. I wouldn’t say I love tango, but I appreciate it as an art, and just watching the dancers spinning and flying through the air proves that it takes work and dedication. I still think it’s for the tourists, especially after the show when a singer said good night in 15 languages, but there’s a clear difference between street performers and club performers. They deserve the high prices that are charged on the tickets.


Anyway, there are three main things that come to my mind when I think of Argentinian culture: steak, wine, and tango. You can also throw in soccer, hand gestures, etc, but before coming down here while planning a trip with my friend Kristine, we agreed on those three things over and over. Tango is a big part of Argentinian culture, so last night during the show I started thinking. Why does Argentina have such a rich and obvious culture, while the United States doesn’t? Both countries were built up by immigrants, and Argentina is younger than the U.S. The U.S. doesn’t have “typical” food, perhaps, but Argentina has just as many pizza shops, Chinese restaurants, and other international food options as well.

I can no longer say that the U.S. has no definable culture because I think the truth is that we have one that is clear cut, but we simply do not like it and thus close our eyes to it. Some cultures involve late night dinners and all night dancing, others include famous dances or folk songs. Ours is a more plastic culture. We have fast food, malls, long work schedules, and reality TV. Our culture is one that creates contempt in people around the globe because it lacks any significant contribution to the world, and when we can’t understand why they don’t like our culture, we assume it must be that they are jealous of our successes.

We don’t limit ourselves to borrowing from other cultures, but we impose ours on others. On Avenida 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, right by Avenida Corrientes, there is a giant McDonald’s. Just down the street there is a big Burger King. And just a few doors down from that Burger King, is another McDonald’s. My only guess could be that the 2nd McDonald’s is a back up in case too many fat people try to leave the first at the same time and get lodged in the door frame. This is what foreigners see as our culture. Some like it, others don’t.

But if we are to expect that other cultures are founded on dances, songs, and lifestyles, then we must accept that ours is defined by the same characteristics. It might not be glamorous, but ours is a castle built on greasy food, hard work, and cheap television programming. And how long will those pillars hold?

Above: El Viejo Almacén

Canary in the Coal Mine

This following story was written by my friend Lewis ‘Lucho’ Wheelwright. I met Lucho in Cuenca, where he has been working for the last year as a study abroad program coordinator. He writes about some of the very sentiments that I have written on in the past, and presents a really nice and reflective voice on his perceptions of his place in Cuenca. So I offered to publish his story on Travel Guy, so that more people would be able to read it. Take a look, and leave some comments so he can get some feedback on his writing, which I think shows a lot of potential, considering he just started.

I think that every traveller at heart feels restless. It’s the kind of feeling which originates from passion, and is driven by unrelenting desire. It grabs you, lets you know it’s there, and shakes you by the shoulders as if to tell you to return yourself to the unknown. It is a time when majestic photos of sprawling white mountain ranges, every word of Kerouac or Thoreau speaking of the great vastness and the “ success unexpected in common hours,” and every leathery  sun-worn local face leaves us with a deep and inexplicable aching of the soul. The feeling from the gut, much as if jumping unknowingly from a plane, giving one the mentally confused, sensory overloaded, stomach dropping feeling which slaps you into a stupor. The legs bounce and a primordial voice whispering “move.” The heart beats, and then it passes until subconsciously stimulated again.


I am not a stagnant individual, nor am I one who is willing to settle. I would not fall, even though I might wish, under the category of “mochilero” or backpacking vagabond. Although I dream of the worn travellers shoes, with toes ignobly poking out, a road-weathered face only broken by the circular 1950s goggle shape from too much foreign road dust. No, no such nomadic meanderings have I completed, yet I would describe myself as itinerant; rather, ‘pata caliente’ or literally, hot-footed and restlessly adventurous, but stable for periods at a time.  

It is when the internal sands stop moving that this inner goliath grabs you and screams for something new. It burns to be let out of its comfort zone and begs to be placed on the wire. If to be just running for a bus, wide-eyed and nervous. The only real answer is to feed its insatiable hunger for something. Perhaps just a lick of burned earth wafting through a window, a lazy, loosely connected ceiling fan blowing in rank humid city air, or the jittery feeling of unfamiliar streets is that prescription which kills the voracious beast. Perhaps just a new type of frosty brew, maybe one like Ecuador’s Pilsener, which is Ecuatorianamente Refrescante, or “Ecuadorianally Refreshing” might cure all that ails.


Last week I completed my first full year here in Ecuador. A milestone in my book of international living. This day seemed to touch a nerve or re-awaken something sleeping. Now, the big elephant of a question that sits in the small room in my head, who normally is at peace, has decided to move into a fragile antique shop of my memories. It blithers non-stop about my past adventures, weighing in on the shoulds and should nots, asking “Where next?” and “How?” threatening to bring up every last great memory I had.  It comes on fast like a badly poured beer, rushing to the top while you unsuccessfully struggle to sip off the excess froth before running out of breath. Too much, too fast and you find yourself more confused than before.

If I have realized anything throughout my last year here, it’s that the simple things in life are what I miss. Although, I might go so far as to say that it’s the simple things in life that keep me here as well. True, a brilliant, colorful fall will never been seen in Ecuador,  but  the pace of life, the fingertips of the wild creeping at the city’s edges, and the forever lasting summer is one of the things that makes this second home so appealing. 


I frequently wonder why I left the amenities of my New England life behind. Perhaps I love being able to play with the Spanish language and to see a shocked face when I speak the local lingo, or it might be that I see people on the street, and they recognize me as if I at were home. Maybe I wait for my South American epiphany—Kerouac style—breaking through the clouds to provide momentous clarity on life. Or perhaps I am still waiting to take my Che Guevara motorcycle ride through the Andes, hoping for my moment of soul searching amongst the Incan ruins, travelling the dusty road, my thoughts vividly transposed into experiential writings.


Even as I wait for these possibly unattainable desires I realize that perhaps this is not the goal. There is ample time down here on the equator, plenty of warm faces, as well as rich communities and history in which I can peaceably pass my time. Yet I am feeling my feet itch and I am no longer passing my time peaceably. It’s as if to have a great urge to use the bathroom on a bumpy road, jammed between 5 non-English speaking passengers in a hot and overcrowded car. Uncomfortable at best. So the true question that lies at the heart of all of this is how to pass this feeling. The truth really is that I am living it in this moment, and my thoughts of returning to my homeland, moving to another country, or just a simple vacation are all running through my head. Which one will calm the urge, and tame the beast I do not know. I feel that this is a point which many arrive to, can perhaps delay for a while, but must eventually face. The challenge is with what, and more importantly, when will our “hot-feet” cool down, and allow us peace and tranquillity in being comfortable somewhere. Or better yet, do we want this?  

By Lewis Wheelwright 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Touristing


Thursday was a good day. One of those days you wish could be repeated. The weather was beautiful and I spent the afternoon out of the office visiting a few locations with a client. I was going to El Zanjón, a system of ancient tunnels and facilities from the original settlement of Buenos Aires, so that I could write some information about it. These facilities were restored privately over 24 years, and now serve as a museum and function hall. After getting a private tour of the facilities, I tagged along to visit some other sites in Buenos Aires with the client, including El Viejo Almacen, the oldest tango club in the city, Circular Militar, and Museo Evita.

Getting out of the office was great and really gave me a better view on parts of the city I hadn't yet seen, allowing me to do my job better. Even with a lousy weekend (weather-wise) I kept up with the touristy things. On little sleep Saturday, I went with some friends to MALBA, or the Museo Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, to get a little culture. The main draw was the Andy Warhol exhibit, which is on display there from October to February, showing his famous work, including the cans of soup.


It cost $15 pesos to get in, which we debated on the value of. Yet the Warhol exhibit was still worthwhile. The museum features art from all over Latin America, and even a few from else where. I had to write about the museum last week for work, so I was curious to finally see it. A light mist was falling outside, and it was the perfect place to be on such a day. If you are traveling through Buenos Aires from now through February, you should check out the exhibit. No pictures are allowed at the museum, which is the reason you won't see any from me.

Today I went back to El Zanjón to get a more comprehensive tour, as I was invited back by my guide (and new friend) Tami. After touring through the facilities again, we walked around San Telmo's street fair, seeing tango performances and a tango band perform modern songs. Though it's extremely touristy and I've only been there 2 or 3 times for that reason, it was interesting being there today. Again, the weather was weird and gray, but altogether pleasant. We wrapped up San Telmo with some good pizza at Sr. Telmo, then headed up north to Tami's neighborhood.

The neighborhood was very residential--green with trees everywhere, parks, and a few cafes, it was a place that no tourist will ever go. Some ambassadors live there, and mansions line the streets. We sat in the park as a drizzle started to fall, and it was hard to imagine that it was still Buenos Aires. I really need to get out of the center more often. I think that to date, that neighborhood was one of my favorite places in the city. But I'm sorry, I'm not going to say where it is. I'd prefer, selfishly, to keep it a secret so that it doesn't become clogged with tourists. Not that I'm so egotistical as to imagine that this blog holds any serious power, but sometimes there is a special corner that you just want to keep like a secret. This one stays with me, and maybe a few good friends.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Has Technology Ruined Us (Me)? or: Damn Math Part 2

Only One Movie Per Theater by thelightgatherer.


I don’t know if I’m alone on that one. Has technology totally done us in? People can’t even figure out tips anymore unless their cell phone has an option for it. I think about going to the movies. I love going to a theater to watch a new movie. There’s something so exciting and special about it that I’ve felt since I was a kid. You walk into this room in the dark, look for a seat as your shoes squeak off the sticky floor, and wait patiently. There’s the key—patience. The movie plays at its convenience, not yours, meaning you have to actually want to see it, not just put on a movie at any time because you are in front of the TV.

Maybe you’ve got some snacks or popcorn, an enormous soda. The screen goes a bit to the side and people yell, but it gets fixed. The noise of the projector at the back of the room, and the imperfect sound. These minor things that retain the human element, and remind you that you are in fact, simply watching something, but not involved. We used to have trivia to entertain us as we waited, though now it’s commercials, and they keep coming up with more complex food and ways to make you feel like you’re at home. But if ask me, I want to feel like I’m out and doing something. If I’m watching the movie at home, I’ll pause it and go to the bathroom. At the theater, I wait until the end.

But going to the movies isn’t such a simple thing anymore, mainly because of the technology. I imagine in the 1930s, people would pack movie theaters and watch the news reels before the show, talking of FDR and the New Deal, why you should buy government bonds, and how the Germans were preparing for war as the crowds grumbled. Cinemas were packed because it was a special evening out, and you weren’t able to go see a movie at home after leaving. It was a treat.

Now, you don’t even have to leave your house. Who can blame you? Movies cost $10.50, or whatever they are by now. You have to deal with 10 commercials before the previews, which used to be the best part because it gave you a reason to come back. But you don’t have to anymore. Blue Ray and On Demand killed the DVD and rental store which killed the VHS which killed the cinema which killed Vaudeville which killed plays and the opera which had been performed since Ancient Greece. You no longer have to use your imagination because the studio tells you exactly what Outer Space is like. For 2 hours in your living room while watching Apollo 13, you are in Space, or whatever they say it is.


I had Slingbox for a couple of months until the new software update somehow backfired and no longer will allow me access to TV from the United States. Slingbox used to let me watch shows and movies from my lap top in bed, a comfort which has totally taken away the allure of going out for a new show. It’s broken now which is certainly disappointing, but on the other hand, it will get me to look for something else to do again. I read so many books in Ecuador when I had no TV. There’s always something to see in Buenos Aires. And I might just take myself down to the movie theater to see what’s playing.

Above: Photo by thelightgatherer

Has Technology Ruined Us (Me)? or: Damn Math Part 1

In the 10th grade I started getting math tutors when it became obvious that I sucked at equations. I was fine in other areas like English, history, etc. But math just continued to get harder and harder, and I wasn’t improving. Initially, I was pretty good at math, and I even got a 100 on a test in the 2nd grade (still proud of it). Once we hit division, however, it was a downward spiral. I hated the fact that I had to have classes after classes, and I resisted with all of my power. Calculator love by NintendoChick.


Ms. Van Dyke would come for an hour a week at 7 pm, and being a brat, I’d hardly show interest. Once I even heard her tell my mom that she knew I didn’t want the lessons and resented her. The same kind of thing went on throughout high school with two other tutors, though I was trying to at least understand the math as time went on, at least to improve my grades. Even with strict determination, an extra hour a week wasn’t enough to truly help me understand the material, maybe just finish my homework with some assistance.

Then as a senior, my friendly teacher Mrs. Goodman, who did her best to just pass me through, warned me that I should avoid taking math in college. It was pretty clear what she was saying: You suck at math and numbers should have a restraining order against you, do not go within 100 feet of a protractor. One math course my first semester in college and I was done, finished forever. All of the nonsensical equations I had learned throughout my youth floated out of my head, and any time I needed to do some dreaded math, I trusted the calculator or a smarter friend.

That is until recently, when I had to delve back into my arch enemy’s territory for the GRE. It seems so unfair that I should be tested on material I haven’t looked at in 5 years, especially when it will have NOTHING to do with what I want to study a Masters degree in. It’s just not right, and the grades on the prep book tests show that any lingering memories of algebraic basic knowledge have long since left with so many other brain cells that I parted ways with in college. But a friend who used to teach math at Sylvan Learning Centers in the U.S. for a few years offered to help last night.

We spent a little over an hour going through problems and brushing up on basic math skills. Though they were still a bit beyond reach, I could remember having done these things at some point, and as the hour went on it made more sense. But there was still that fog in my brain, the kind you have when thinking of a dream the next morning. It was hard enough to focus with a math tutor in high school after being out of class for a few hours, but this lesson was after a long day at work, well after exhaustion set in.

This time I really wanted to focus, and I strained my brain to understand it. But my eyes went out of focus and started thinking about how I would eventually write about this. (Damn you, literary mind!). Much for the same reason I simply understand the way a sentence should sound, or if a word should be cut, my friend Justin can do complex math problems with ease. He’s got a right brain, I’ve got a left. But there’s no section on the GRE for writing creatively. I guess individual skill, rather than generic, isn't that important to the folks at ETS (administrators of the GRE).

But I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t rely on my calculator. If I actually had to retain some of the math skills learned way back in the day. Would life be simpler or more difficult? Short run—more difficult, long run—simpler, I think. I just don’t have the time to relearn all of these equations or theorems. 

To Be Continued...Right Now


Above: Photo by NintendoChick

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kidnap and Rescue in Ecuador

I’ve written in the past about the security issues that still plague Ecuador, and I’ve also mentioned that I still get email updates from the U.S. Embassy from time to time. The email updates, which no longer apply to me as a resident, still affect me as a person concerned with the region. I have friends there, and I’d like to go back some day. Previously, I’d written about a man being killed in an ambush on the way to the bank with $44,000 US Dollars on him.

Today I got this email:

The U.S. Embassy in Quito and Consulate General in Guayaquil wish to
remind American citizens visiting or resident in Ecuador of the need to
be vigilant about their personal security in light of the October 17
kidnapping for ransom of an American citizen traveling in the northern
province
of Carchi. While the victim was rescued and one of the
kidnappers was arrested, American citizens are reminded to maintain good
overseas security practices in their day-to-day activities and to be
vigilant at all times.


Well, at least it all ended well. The Embassy goes on to list ways in which you can try to stay out of trouble.

  • Maintain a habitual state of alertness.
  • Keep a low personal profile by not doing anything that draws
    attention to you.
  • Become familiar with your surroundings - it will become
    easier to identify suspicious or out of place people and items.
  • Check the interior and exterior of your vehicle prior to
    getting into your vehicle.
  • Check the street near your residence before you go out each
    day.
  • Remember, people are generally most vulnerable in the morning
    when departing for work.
  • Vary your times and routes to and from work.
  • Tell your household staff and family members to note
    descriptions and license numbers of suspicious vehicles seen near your
    residence.
  • Your colleagues and family should be aware of your daily
    plans and how to reach you.
  • Keep emergency numbers readily available; provide your family
    with emergency numbers.
  • If possible, limit the amount of personal information that
    you share with doormen, maids, vendors, temporary workers, etc.
  • If possible, limit the amount of access to your residence
    that you provide to doormen, vendors, temporary workers, etc.

These are just some of the ways in which you can keep yourself safe, but again, there are always other measures you can take. Change your route frequently, avoid flashing excessive wealth, etc. And maybe one day these events will stop popping up in my Inbox.

La Vida Idealist Is Looking for New Writers

As I’ve written about before on this blog, I’m also a blogger with La Vida Idealist, which is a Latin American based blog on volunteer opportunities from Idealist.org. The topic that I focus my posts on are life after volunteering and trying to find new employment opportunities/move on after long term volunteering, etc.

Well, at some point I’m going to have to pass the reigns off to someone else, and that time is nearly upon us. Today our editor, Celeste Hamilton, sent out an email saying that the blog has reached over 10,000 page views, and they are looking to expand its content. There are a handful of writers involved in it currently, representing different countries in Latin America, as well as different view points. We are now looking to expand to more countries and writers.

You can find information on the Idealist Web site, and see how you can apply to be a writer for La Vida Idealist. The main requirements are that you can post once a week or so and be involved in volunteering or non-profit work in Latin America in some way. Check out the blog for ideas on what kinds of stories are covered and the style that is preferred. Good luck.

Monday, November 16, 2009

To All My Peeps in Cuenca


I keep in touch with my friends back in Cuenca pretty frequently, and the big news in Ecuador has been the severe drought that has been plaguing the sierras. There are two rainy months in Cuenca: October and April. This is when the majority of the rain falls, and it does so consistently every day. Farmers depend on this rain for their crops, and citizens rely on it for drinking, plumbing, etc. But there has been a serious drought, and throughout the month of October there was almost no rain.

It’s a similar story around the country, and since Ecuador relies heavily on hydro-electric power, there have been blackouts all across the country. City planners have had to schedule periods throughout the day when certain parts of a city will simply go without power for a few hours. My friends told me they even had to go down to the river one day and stock up on whatever water there was in the event that the toilets would no longer flush.

I remember last year that from time to time service on the toilets would unexpectedly be cut, and you were unable to go to the bathroom for hours, sometimes all day. And once or twice, news didn’t reach the bathroom until it was too late. I feel badly for my friends and the other residents of Ecuador who now have to deal with this problem. We think of certain things as staples of life: food, water, electricity, and on and on. But these kinds of things do prove to you that they are in fact luxuries. You can’t survive on soda if the rains just won’t come.


Every day I used to walk by the Río Tomebamba on my way to work, and I was always captivated by it. When it rained in Cajas National Park outside of the city you would know because the water was muddy brown. At times the water would rush in with white water force and I was sure it would spill over the low banks. Other times it got so low that all of the rocks and boulders were exposed. But now it has apparently disappeared, leaving the river bed dry. That is the source for water for so many people. Now it’s gone.

Apparently people are mad at the government, but presidents don’t make it rain. Many are now starting to suggest that yes, global warming does have an effect after all. In a city that’s so polluted, I would hope that people would finally pay some attention. Some of my friends in Quito now have to teach their night classes by candlelight. Ecuador isn’t the only country experiencing black outs. Venezuela, a nation so rich in energy sources, has been dealing with black outs as well, years after energy became cheap and accessible. Brazil had some black outs last week, though that was blamed on a different cause.

I’m glad I don’t have to be going through that, though a part of me does wonder what it would be like to live through a period of consistent black outs, and how that would change you. No doubt you would become less hooked on technology, which isn’t a bad thing. But of course, things are difficult in Ecuador right now, and so, to my friends in Ecuador, I feel for ya. Keep your heads up.


Above: Río Tomebamba, sort of low on water; dying of thirst

Weekend Tourist

I’ve been having kind of a tough time lately. What with working, studying, and still trying to adapt to this culture, it has been a bit frustrating. Another problem is that it’s been pretty hard for me to find a good group of local friends. The problem with having expat friends is that at some point they go home. But even with the few that I know, we can’t hang out all the time because of differing schedules, and it leaves me to scramble to find things to do on the weekend.

But I remind myself frequently that things were not easy in Ecuador for a long time, and it took me months and months to really get comfortable and make more friends, though by the end I had given up on meeting new Ecuadorians, and instead was hanging out more frequently with other expats. Yet Argentinians still remain stand-offish and seemingly unwilling to befriend any foreigner, at least in general any way.

So I’ve been thinking of what I can do to improve my mood. One of the things that makes me happy the most is traveling. It’s freeing to have an afternoon beer at a café while touring some new land with a few friends. But short of that, you can at least experience something new. I don’t really have the chance to travel far away, but Buenos Aires is a huge city with lots more to see than the average traveler gets in.

I planned out some spots worth checking out that I’ve been too busy to see so far. Instead of just hanging out on the weekends I’m going to make an effort to go to these places, camera in hand, as if I’m a tourist. So even if I live here, it will at least be something new and interesting worth seeing. Next month I’m taking the GRE, and once that’s finally over with I can breath easily. But until then, I’m going to stop going out late on the weekends to prepare better. So that means during the day I won’t have to worry about feeling lousy and can wander around the city more, all as the weather gets better.

This upcoming weekend I’m going to try to head out to Tigre, a town north of the city known for its muddy water ways and houses on stilts. It used to be a weekend retreat for the rich and elite, and also the place where my grandparents spent their honeymoon. I was told to wait until the weather is nice for a visit there, and it couldn’t be any better at this point in time. Other than that, there are some museums and cultural sights that I’m going to check out. And hopefully this will help me feel better, and maybe meet some other people that way too.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A First-Timer's Trip to a Polo Match


On Friday afternoon, just moments before I was getting ready to wrap up my work and head home, my boss offered tickets to anyone in the office for the polo match for Saturday. I had no plans and had never seen a real match before (the other match I "saw" was when I was working) so I asked for them and was given a pair of tickets for Saturday and Sunday's game, just in case in rained on Saturday. So great, I'd finally get to see some of this famous Argentinian polo I hear so much about.

My boss was pretty excited about it, and another co-worker told me that it was the season opener for the 116th Argentinian Polo Open. He said there would be parades and music and all, so it'd be worth going to. My only problem was that on such short notice, not knowing too many people in this city, it was going to be hard to find someone to go with me. I'm sure there are tons of people who would have liked a ticket, but I just don't know them.


I tried as hard as I could, but no one was available or wanted to go. Finally, I got in touch with a friend of a friend, and she said she would go with me, but only for a few hours. We met up outside of the fields, El Campo Argentino de Polo, at 2:30 pm and went in. It was her first time at a match as well, so she wasn't able to tell me much about the sport. Outside of the main field was a walkway filled with vendors selling polo-related merchandise, the highest quality wines, and luxury cars. This was a rich crowd, for sure. To the side was a warm up field where an exhibition match was getting underway.

We walked around for a while looking at what was for sale, and eventually worked over to the practice game. One thing I've noticed is that from a distance, it looks like tiny people riding giant dogs. Depending on the action, they can be right up in your face with little separating you, or they can be way down the field, nearly out of sight. The field is just that big.


Shortly after sitting down I got bored, and we began joking around. It's probably better to have someone who knows what they're talking about to explain it to you. As the exhibition game ended, my friend had to leave, so I followed the crowd into the main stadium, where an usher brought me to the wrong side of the stadium, but it wound up not mattering. I sat next to two girls who were big fans, and they were able to explain what was going on to me. Meanwhile, the guy behind us yelled cheers throughout the entire game, really loving the action. At one point he was angry because people weren't applauding enough.

It's striking to me that everyone applauds for both teams, and there's absolutely no booing at all. There is no real side, as teams switch back and forth who scores on each end, and at the end of the day, it's just a friendly match. That doesn't mean that the jockey's don't scream and play hard, nearly ramming their horses into each other. At one point a player smashed his mallet into the forearm of an opponent. The player screamed in pain and yelled some swears I haven't even heard of yet, dismounted, and continued to scream.

Immediately an ambulance had rushed out onto the field, which was almost laughable when you consider that it takes 5 minutes or more for a golf cart to get onto a football field when a player could have neck damage. The game stopped for a few minutes as they checked him out, and then he mounted up again and continued. Though the sun was out and I was burning, the field is close to the river and the winds are strong. I was shivering with a jacket on by the end of the match as the sun was setting. It was a close game, but I left with one minute left when it was clear that it was over.

It was a good experience to see a new sport, even if it's a very elitist game. There were no parades, and I'm not sure how I missed that, or if it was just a bad translation. I don't know if I'll go back on my own dime any time soon, but if another pair of free tickets come my way, I'm sure I'll take the opportunity.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Leave Italy?

Recently I’ve become interested in learning more about Italian immigration. I keep reading information on wineries, and the history is so often about an Italian immigrant coming over, getting a small plot of land, and years later turning it into a respected staple of Argentinian wine. In Argentina, you can’t turn 10 feet without seeing some signs of Italian influence. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous pizza shop, the hand gestures, or the names like “Federico” or “Di Napoli.” It’s pretty obvious that Italian immigration to countries like Argentina and the United States played a part in shaping these cultures, and there are just as many examples like this in the U.S.

Yet this all go me wondering why so many Italians chose to immigrate. I’ve been to Italy a few times, and I love it there. The small town built into hills that shine golden at sunset, the animated characters who make you laugh even as you don’t fully understand what they’re saying, and the discovery of some other ancient artifact around every corner. And hey, let’s not forget the food, wine, and women. It’s a historian/oenophile/culinary/dude’s heaven. Who would ever want to leave such a place?

So I started doing some research, just to get an idea of what caused so many millions of Italians to leave their homes for the great unknown, in search of a “better life.” I found a comprehensive university paper written by Alessandra Venturini for the Department of Economics at the University of Turin. This paper titled, Italian Migration, was written in November, 2003, but the facts haven’t changed. Here’s what the author had to say in this 49 page dossier.

During the period of 1861-1976, over 26 million people emigrated from Italy, with half of them going to other European countries and the rest going to countries in North and South America. Two-fifths of all emigrations were from regions in southern Italy. Based off of multiple sources, Venturini asserts that the main cause for mass emigration was due to the slow and difficult economic development in Italy following unification, as well as the economic expansion in other countries occurring at the same time.

So basically, as one might imagine, poorer people left their homes in search of more opportunity. What American doesn’t know that? The obvious might have been stated, but I still find it interesting from time to time, thinking of a situation being so rotten that you would leave a country like Italy for the rest of your life. To leave behind all of your friends and family, everything familiar, and just start over. Maybe it’s more relevant to me because immigration has been a big part of my life, and though I have been living abroad for over a year, I’m not an immigrant, and I plan to go home at some point.

The document had some other interesting information as well. Between 1875-1928 emigration from Italy reached its peak, with about 17 million emigrants abroad. Eventually, the government started to get worried about losing so many citizens and had to put into effect restrictions on leaving the country. After World War II, emigration was mostly to Europe, and especially to Germany. In the 1970’s there was a switch, however, as the economic situation improved, and the country became a place of immigration, rather than emigration. Today, Italy sees immigrants arriving for work opportunities from other European nations, Africa, and Asia. The majority of those who leave Italy now are specialized and skilled in a field, or go for a short period of time and return.


An equation was even created to describe what would cause someone to emigrate.


M(iod) = f (W d– Wo - C) f>0


The individual decision to emigrate (Mi) from the area of origin (o) to the area of
destination (d) is a positive function of the expected income differential in countries of
destination (Wd) and origin (Wo), net of migration costs (C). Thus, the larger the income
expected benefit from migration, the more likely the move.


If you ask me, that seems a bit over the top. I don’t think immigrants are sitting around scratching their heads and doing the math.


I hope that this information doesn’t seem too confusing or use too much jargon. The point that I’m trying to make is simply that even if you live in a beautiful country, economic situations can cause you to take a leap of faith and try for something better. Many Argentinians, as well as Americans, trace their roots to Italy. The mass migrations have stopped coming out of Italy for now, but who knows where the next wave will be from, and for how long that will last.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Is "Tourist" a Dirty Word?


I deal in a world of tourism. It started as an interest and hobby, grew into a project with my writing, and now is my profession. I work in travel and tourism, yet I hate the word tourist. I hate the word because it conjures up so many negative images and stereotypes. The out of place dad with knee-high white socks and sandals, a camera around the neck, map sticking out of the back pocket, and guidebook in one hand while another points up at some landmark, holding up pedestrian traffic. No one really wears those I ♥ NY shirts anymore, but the same sentiment is felt in wearing the jersey of the national team or the local beer company.


The more that I’ve traveled, the less and less I’ve wanted to be associated as a tourist. Though it’s impossible for me to blend in as a local everywhere, I still try to at least make it less obvious that I am there on vacation, both for security and convenience reasons. Nothing is worse than walking down a busy pedestrian street with 30 vendors trying to get you into their restaurants or to see a “special tango show.” So I take a picture quickly and sneakily, and then I put the camera away. Or I act as if I know where I’m going or have a meeting to catch, even if I’m lost or just killing time. But that’s just me.

Yet as a part of my job, I write information for tourists. In one of the guides I was writing, I found myself replacing the word “tourist” with “guests” or “group members.” Maybe it’s because to me, the word “tourist” almost sounds like an insult. You can hear it being used in so many negative sentences. “Traveler” seems to have a much nicer ring to it. A traveler goes to a place to experience something or to open up cultural understanding. A tourist just shows up for a few days to drop some coin and pull away some souvenirs. I wrote about similar sentiments while still in Cuenca in July, noting the differences seen in the gringos that passed through the towns. A lot of expats feel the same way, and as my friend Amy put it, the reason we hate them is because we see a reflection of ourselves never truly being able to blend in. So really, we hate ourselves.


No matter where I am when I’m traveling, I hate the idea of being a tourist, even though it’s basically what I am. There’s no escaping from it, because even if you don’t feel like that stereotypical tourist, in the eyes of the local, that is exactly what you are. It’s kind of ironic then, that I should be writing about traveling, working at a travel agency, and love to travel. A love/hate relationship, in a way.

I can’t say for sure if at some point the word itself took on a new meaning, or if it’s always seemed kind of rotten. Anywhere in the world at any time period, I’m sure, locals have resented visitors for being able to just show up and leave freely, and visitors have resented locals for hiking up their prices and acting superior. There are examples all over the world where this is not the case, but the larger the city you go to, the more obvious it is. Yet go to a small town in the mountains in Ecuador, for example, and everyone will treat you like a friend. It just depends on the situation.


Some people like me though continue to bear the title of tourist as a mark of shame. We are seemingly always trying to run away from it, attempting to blend in more and learn as much about the culture as possible to demonstrate that we really are different. Sometimes the locals see that and appreciate it. Other times not so much. And if not, well then all we can do is wait until we are home and back to being a local. Then we can finally be the ones to mock those damn tourists.

Above: Being tourists

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What You Leave Behind

What do you gain when you spend so much time away from home, living abroad in some wild expat dream or traveling? Often enough, you wind up losing more than you think you're gaining. Ask yourself, do the long term potential benefits of leaving home really outweigh the short term actual benefits of staying in a place already familiar to you?

I'm in a weird place right now, and really I have been for a couple of months. Maybe I have been for a couple of years. When you start out traveling, everything is so new and fresh, and it's all just incredible to you. You can actually be somewhat understood in a language that isn't your own! But after you've been around enough, the novelty starts to wear off, and while it's still a terrific thing to do, you have lost that initial thrill it once gave you. Slightly, anyway.

I think of my insatiable dream to come visit Argentina, and eventually live here. It was an unreachable dream for a long time, then it seemed like more of a reality, and finally I was planning it out and ready to do it. But if you've followed along in my time here, you'll see that it hasn't been love at first sight. It's been a hard struggle with what I expected and what I found. In many ways, this has tarnished the dream I once had, and I'm left to wonder.

I wonder if I ever should have toyed with the idea in the first place, and merely left it as a dream, so that I could at least look at it and have that special corner to go to. To imagine what it would be like. You can picture living on a tropical island as perfect, but stay there long enough and the truth emerges. Tropical disease, famine, floods, monsoons, tribal issues. No place is perfect. So maybe leaving something to the imagination isn't a bad thing.

I've always wanted to travel as much as I can while I can, to see the whole world. Last year I read "The Alchemist" by Paulo Cuelho, and though I read it in Spanish, I understood it pretty well. One of the characters always dreamed of going to Mecca, but when given the chance to go, preferred to stay at home and not make the trip. His reasoning was that if he got there and it wasn't that great, his image would be ruined, and he would have nothing left to live for or look forward to. I understand that point so much better now.

However, I still want to travel to every corner of the world. But it makes me think about why. Every new place I see just takes me farther away from home, and you never truly get back. Even with Ecuador, which became my home after long enough, I wonder if I should have stayed there. I left behind some things, and some people, all of which were very important to me. Sometimes you leave a Saturday tradition, which you miss for the sentimental purposes. Other times you leave behind a person which for one reason or another you love, and know that you've blown any chance at anything ever developing or continuing. That's much worse, and it's selfish in so many ways, to take away that potential relationship from both people.

Maybe the correct answer is that once you've traveled long enough, you don't really belong anywhere, yet are uncomfortable staying still. It's an isolating state of mind, where nothing is ever good enough, and what you've already seen was so much better. What a horror.

Is Violence On the Rise in Argentina?

The question of security continues to rise here in Argentina, with more fervor in the last few weeks as a string of violent crimes have shocked the nation. Last week, former national soccer team player Fernando Cáceres was shot in the eye while teenagers tried to steal his car. An Argentinian actress’ home was recently broken into, and when the invaders saw her and recognized her, they apologized but said they had to eat. Two police officers were killed this week, and a public prosecutors house was broken into in the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta in Buenos Aires. According to the Buenos Aires Herald, 14 policemen have been killed since the beginning of the year.

The situation looks pretty bad, and when you throw in the fact that subway and tram employees have been on strike and disrupting transportation in the city, and protests in one form or another seem to be occurring all the time, you might think the country is on the bring of collapse. Many Argentinians think their country is dangerous, but in my eyes, it’s not devolved so badly just yet. I imagine that eventually we'll get to a point like in the movie "PCU" with Jeremy Piven and the anti-protesters protesting, "We're not gonna protest, WE'RE NOT GONNA PROTEST, WE'RE NOT GONNA PR..." You get the idea.
 


Obviously with my experience in Ecuador, I have a slightly different look on security than most people. Especially travelers who are merely passing through for a few days and only hitting up the touristic areas. And it would be wrong of me to say that Buenos Aires is totally safe, but in that same breath, what city doesn’t have violence and crime? Every time I check the Boston Globe there is an article about some kind of violence or trial based on violence that previously happened.

When talking to Argentinians and telling them that Ecuador is pretty dangerous, they are surprised and ask if it’s more dangerous than here. I tell them absolutely yes, and they are still surprised. Maybe it’s a narrow mindset that makes them think only their country could be dangerous, but they really have no idea. While walking down a street in Buenos Aires, I might be able to sense that it’s not the safest area, but I don’t have nearly the same amount of alarm that I would in Quito or Guayaquil. Not a chance. The trick is to not let my guard down too much, because it’s once you get too comfortable in a place that you get lazy and don’t pay attention to clear signs. And I still know people here who have been robbed at knife point.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on this situation and see if the country responds to the increasing crime or if it sinks further with it. It’s certain that the citizens are at least outraged from the thought of it getting any worse, and looking for someone to reverse the trends. Either way, I’ll be here reporting on it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ruba Guides

I was contacted tonight by a member of Ruba Guides, a fairly new Web site that is kind of like TripAdvisor in the sense that they work off of user reviews. I used to write for TripAdvisor when they had first started their Inside Pages section, and was on the team of freelance journalists who got the ball rolling on that. This seems pretty similar. The reviews are focused around different locations and activities around the world. Ruba Guides is looking for contributors to add helpful information and tips to their site. It looks like a pretty interesting project, and I'm glad to begin working with them as a contributing writer. Here is the first post I've written, focused around a day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia, Uruguay.



Sunday, November 8, 2009

Llapingachos, Baby!

llapingachos or Ecuadorian potato patties One day in Cuenca I went to my friend's apartment and he offered me some llapingachos. I couldn't remember having them before, though they are traditional Ecuadorian food. They were good. Damn good. And I set out a personal goal to try to cook it some day. Well, that day came today. Keeping with the Ecuadorian themed weekend, I invited my friends Valerie and Dan over to watch some football and cook what didn't exactly look like what's pictured above.

Llapingachos are pretty simple, but ultimately a bit tricky to make. They are potato pancakes stuffed with mozzarella cheese, topped with tomatoes, fried egg, onion, or basically whatever you want. My friend Lucho, who gave me the idea in the first place, also told me to check out Laylita's Recipes for the llapingachos. It was a life saver. All you really need is potatoes, onions, and cheese. Everything else is a bit extra, though you can obviously read through the explanation and recipe for better information.

Hungoverly, I picked up the ingredients and waited for my friends to arrive. Once here, Valerie was kind enough to do most of the work, and prepared the goods while Dan and I watched the Patriots game. Dan and Valerie are from Utah, but Dan has Tom Brady on his fantasy team, so that makes him a fan. Valerie peeled and chopped up the potatoes, boiled and mashed them, and diced up the onions and tomatoes to prepare a mixture with the mashed potatoes. We then had to wait for an hour as they cooled.

After an hour I pitched in my part, and rolled the dough into golf ball sized balls. They kept breaking up so to counter that, I made the balls bigger with more potato. Yes, my balls were big. Next, I pushed a little hole into each ball and packed them with the mozzarella. I wasn't sure of the next step, but I combined two balls and mushed them until they were fat patties. This left me with 7 fat patties of llapingachos.
Llapingachos



They spent some time in the oven and I flipped them once, most of them breaking apart as I did this. It was a delicate game to play. I had the aji from the Ecuadorian restaurant out and couldn't stop smelling it, so excited for some spice. A Spanish friend of Valerie's came over as well, and Dan helped cut up the avocado, which it turns out was far from ripe and went uneaten. Dan had also cooked homemade empanadas before coming over, so once we took out the llapingachos he warmed up them up, and voila. We were ready to eat.

I sprinkled diced tomatoes on the llapingachos and we sat down to a traditional Ecuadorian/Argentinian dinner. Everything came out well, though I seem to remember the llapingachos tasting better in Lucho's apartment. Really, they are a side dish, though they can be turned into a meal with a fried egg, or emapanadas like we did. It was a fitting way to end an Ecuadorian weekend. Salsa, almuerzo, Ecuanapping, and llapingachos. I think next time I'll try patacones or ceviche. ¡Chévere, Boludo!

Above: Photos courtesy of Laylita's Recipes

Ecuadorian, Argentinian Style

I won't lie. I've been craving the old Ecuador lately. Lots of things are different here, and something about the adventure of life in Ecuador is to be desired. So I asked a friend in Cuenca who lived in Buenos Aires for a year if he knew of an Ecuadorian restaurant here. He gave me the address--a literal hole in the wall on Avenida Corrientes y, get this, Calle Ecuador. Perfect.

I finally got myself over there yesterday. It's in Once, the neighborhood known for Jewish, Peruvian, and Korean citizens. I think Once reminds me of the rest of Latin America more than any other place in Argentina, and maybe that's why I like it. Vendors selling everything and shouting anything in the streets, the hustle, the grime. I love it. I wound my way around the streets to find the place, but it didn't help that it was on Calle Ecuador. Every time I asked someone if they knew of the Ecuadorian restaurant, they thought I meant any restaurant on this street.

At a Peruvian restaurant I asked a man who said he didn't know, but as I walked past he whistled at me and pointed at a door. Just a random door that looked like someone's house. He motioned for me to go in. Awkwardly I pushed open the door and the first thing I saw was the Ecuadorian flag hanging proudly. The salsa music was blasting, and the few diners there looked up at me. I was at home again.


A group of friends took turns taking pictures by the hanging picture of President Correa, and the waitress showed me what they had. Unfortunately, they had no ceviche, encebollado, or Pilsener. Though they had Brahma, which is close enough. This was an Ecuadorian restaurant but with Argentinian prices. I ordered the seco de pollo, at a hefty $18 ARG pesos. It was worth the treat. They even had some green aji, which wasn't the hottest I've had, but it was the best I've found so far here in Argentina.

The meal came out and, surprise surprise, there was a mountain of white rice next to my chicken. It was so welcoming, and I loaded on the aji just like the old days. It was more of a relief to have this food again, listening to that music, surrounded by other Ecuadorians. It felt familiar. I wouldn't say the food in Ecuador was great, but I will say that Ecuadorian food cooked in Argentina is good. I was happy with the meal, and once I was finished a guy at the table across from me invited me over to talk.

He was from Quito and has been living here for 6 years studying, and his friend was from Argentina. We shared some beer and talked about how I knew of the place and Ecuador. And then, in typical Ecuadorian fashion, he invited me to join them at his apartment in Recoleta for a beer. Before leaving I paid up, $28 pesos for the meal and a liter of beer. That works out to about $7.30 USD, and a meal like that in Ecuador would normally cost $2. But what can you do?

We went to the apartment with a Heineken and from the terrace on the roof looked out over the city with no clouds or noise at all. It was high up but not outrageous, yet in this neighborhood the noises of the city were far away. It was good to talk to the guys, and in more traditional Ecuadorian (Ecuanapping) we went out to a free symphony performance put on by the Law Faculty of the Universidad de Buenos Aires. The performance was well done, and after the intermission we went back up top and sat down on the stairs.

The next thing I knew, my new friends had ditched me. I turned around and they were gone. How bizarre. Why would they buy me beer, coffee, and invite me to a show just to ditch me? It was head-scratching material, so I slipped out and started off for home. Later I met up with a couple of other guys and we went to a birthday party at a bar in Palermo. The birthday girl had paid for 20 bottles of champagne, and so sitting next to the water bucket, I drank a fair share of champagne. Once the 20 free bottles were gone I even bought another.

No surprise here, a hangover was in store for the day. But the day was not to be a wash...

Steakhouse, Buenos Aires

For a while I was concerned that some of my coworkers hated me. There are two sides of the office, one being younger and more talkative, the other a bit older and quieter. I'm on the quiet side, and for the most part, no one spoke to me for 6 weeks. Suddenly on Monday I was invited to have coffee at the end of the day with the other guys on my side of the office, which I take as a sign that the haze is now over. For one reason or another, maybe it was just a test.

During the conversation the guys asked me all about steak and what I've eaten. I haven't had much experience with the Argentinian grilling, and they invited me out for lunch on Friday to try different kinds of meat. They go out to eat lunch together every day while I eat at my desk, so I was pretty happy that I was invited. We went to a parilla that was packed with business suits and skirts. So packed, in fact, that we had to sit at the bar.

One of my coworkers spoke quickly to the waiter and ordered four different kinds of meat that I had never heard of. I explained that while we have different cuts of meat in the U.S., it's nothing like down here, and I couldn't match up the different names with my own personal knowledge. The first dish brought out was a sausage and some grilled cheese--provolone I think. I'm not a culinary whiz, but I know good food when I eat it, and this food was above good.

There were three kinds of sauces: chimichurri, which is about the only thing put on steak here, if something is put on, a red sauce that tasted similar to the aji I used to get at La Viña restaurant in Cuenca, and a tangy tomato and onion sauce. They warned me that the red sauce was spicy, but Argentinians don't know anything about spice, so I piled it on as they watched and expected water to form from my eyes. Of course it was mild as mayonnaise, and they seemed impressed. The interesting thing is that the only way for that sauce to taste the way it did would be to have tomate de arbol, or tree tomato. But that doesn't grow here, and as far as I know it only grows in Ecuador.

The next plate that came out was an enormous platter with enough steak to feed four grown men, which it did. Everyone got a fair share as they put a different kind of each on my plate and explained what it was, as well as where on the cow it came from. They all definitely had different tastes, that's for sure. But I just don't know how to explain it. There's a clear difference between ground beef and Filet Mignon, but with these different cuts, I couldn't say which was better or what the taste was. One of the other guys was able to clearly distinguish and name every cut of steak.

On top of all the steak, we also had two plates of steak fries. I don't know why, but for some reason fries just taste better as steak fries. They go together so well. Once the food was finished we had espresso to wake us up--full bellies of steak make you sleepy and are not conducive of going back to work. A coworker paid for all of us and I thanked him graciously as we stepped into the drizzle and back to the office, where we joked around and eased into the weekend.

So So Salsa

On Friday night I went back to the salsa club Cuba Mia in San Telmo. This time I was meeting up with a couple of Colombians that I had met at a party a few weeks ago. I was definitely tired from the week, but excited nonetheless to dance. The boyfriend wasn't actually much of a dancer, but his girlfriend studied dance and was obviously very good. He actually asked me to dance with her for a while because he said I was better than him and he wanted her to be happy.

But this second experience in this salsa club was different than last weeks. Honestly, I didn't like it as much as before, and I'm not sure if I'll go back. First, it's too expensive. You pay $30 ARG to get in which includes a drink, which is standard club price in Buenos Aires. But if I'm paying that much for a salsa club, I only want to hear salsa, or maybe a few songs of merengue, bachata, or cumbia mixed in. But they kept mixing it up with reggaeton, which I do not like.

I guess I never noticed it before, but there's no way to be a very good salsa dancer and be humble out it. The dance just doesn't allow it. There are only two types of people who go to that club. Excellent dancers and people who don't know how to dance salsa at all. I'm pretty much the only middle ground. There's just something annoying about watching someone show off their moves. It's obviously the only place they would be able to show the talent, but I just don't want to sit and watch people do it.

So instead of impressing Argentinians who don't know how to dance, I faded into the background as Cubans, Venezuelans, and Colombians rocked the floor. Not that I need the attention though. It's actually a relief to just be there and not be questioned why. I might try to find another salsa club at some point, but as for Cuba Mia, I think I'm going to put it on hold for a while.