Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Baila con llamas

For some time I have fancied the cow. While roaming about India with my sister ages ago, we discovered the secret language of "moo" and I communed with many holy beasts. Something about their painted horns and that je ne sais quoi in their faces just draws me to them. That and they're darned tasty sliced, diced, and grilled. My apologies my love, but I have found another.

I encountered my first llama in the altiplano of Bolivia. Instantly in my head the song began, "could this be love? could this be love that I'm looking for?" Running around trying to hug a llama is a difficult feat anywhere, 15000 feet makes it a delirious challenge. While a sexy beast, she is sadly rather elusive as well. Those bobby tails just kept slipping from my grasp, their tricycle streamered ears twitching in confounding mockery of my desires, "I just want to love you!" Well, I never hugged one, but I got the second best thing; last night, I ate one, and it was good.

It has been a blessing for me getting out of BsAs. As far as cities go, it really does have a lot going for it, but I am not made for the hustle and bustle of such a place. Cordoba seemed a more manageable place, for the day I was there. There is also a huge difference, for me, in the people outside of BsAs. More relaxed, more open, I suppose the same could be said for most of the world's cities.

It truly did surprise me, the degree of difference between the people of BsAs and those of northern Argentina. One would almost assume either BsAs is another country, or the north isn't Argentina. I suppose coming from the States, where there is a fairly similar distribution of appearance ( some people are going to have issue with that statement ) I am accustomed to driving 40 hours and looking around and seeing "Americans." But it amazes me that the people I considered "Argentines" ( upper class Porteños ) don't exist outside of BsAs. I always noted riding the subway from San Telmo or other southern Barrios to the north the difference in the people, and you rarely saw the northern barrio folks in the south. Apparently, they don't go out of the city either ( another "superior" comment I suppose, but well, whatever, it's easier to be absolute about things and backpedal later ). Point is, I liked the difference, it exposed me to another side of Argentina, flushed out the country's character for me a touch. And they have spicy food in the north, thank god! Sadly, I haven't had a decent steak in weeks.

The one change I am reeling from is being back on the gringo trail full force. I am currently sitting in a line of American, Israeli, Australian, and possibly Scandinavian interneters. For the past four days in the Salar, the only Bolivians I've encountered were tour drivers. It was beautiful, but definitely not the way I am used to travelling. I suppose if I had more time, I could have wandered mindlessly lost for a month on my own, but places to be, things to do.

Other than that, I crossed the bridge into Bolivia with a flood of shuffling workers, each grandmother easily carrying 3 times my baggage at twice my speed. "Vamos gringo!!" was a common mantra for these folks, hmm, I wonder who they were talking to.

Been having some trouble sticking to a budget and avoiding altitude sickness. It's just so darned rewarding to splurge here, and whiskey tastes so good at 15000 ft in a thermal pool. The next day wandering around with your brain swabbed in cotton isn't as pleasant, but how do you make the sacrifice, please tell me? Bloody Lonely Planet advises "abstain from alcohol" well, I never was a fan of Bush's ABC's.

Curious to go to La Paz, see how it differs from BsAs. Bolivia is interesting, the little I have seen of it. The ability to maintain a conversation with people has really enhanced my experience here so far. It is, and is not, what I expected. It's poor I suppose, but not as desperate as I had thought. Perhaps it will be worse in the big city, but as of yet, everyone has been awfully friendly.

Sometimes I think India really jaded me to the world, or at least made me very very suspicious of everyone and everything. Our guide asked if we wanted to stay in one of the salt hotels in the Salar, and I immediately wondered where the scam was. Turns out it was a lovely place, and I nearly licked my way through a wall, mmm, llama and salt. Today I drove our group across the Salar, felt very useful and it was a pleasure to drive after five months of abstinence. In the meantime, taught our guide some Bob Marley songs, thus propagating the truth that he really is everywhere.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Farewell mi amor, I never ate anything so tasty

I have left Buenos Aires. In four months I did many things. I picked up a smattering of Spanish, a bit of a panza, some good friends, some people I will need to avoid should I return, and a healthy respect for city life. I never went here, nor here, and really to any number of touristic places in the city of BsAs. However, I did manage to go to a healthy number of places listed here, and that's really what I think this city is all about.

Now that I'm out of there, I can say some things liberally. Porteños are some kind of people. First, all people that live in BsAs are technically porteños, but for me, there are the people that live in the city, and then there are porteños. They typically live in the northern barrios, will often ask you what barrio you live in, a sort of meter of judgement, think Mar Del Plata is the greatest place on earth, well, Miami, and then Punta Del Este, but unfortunately times are tough, and Argentina is a third world country.

Now, I'm a bit cynical towards this as for me, this is third world, and not so much this. But I taught many accountants, and I know all the economic statistics point to Argentina's third world status. It's just a tough thing to accept. That aside, porteños are a nice bunch, rather arrogant though. The difference between Argentina and Buenos Aires really becomes apparent the moment you leave the city. I really spent the majority of my time only in Buenos Aires, and now with my remaining days in this country, am seeing just how nice it can be. This is all heavily biased with the fact that I don't like cities, BA was an experiment for me, and I doubt I'll live in a large city again, but who knows.

Negative things out of the way, I really am sad to leave. It took a while, but I finally started to make a life there. Frustrations abound from living in another language. I never felt like any of my strictly spanish-speaking friends knew who I was, and could never be certain that my understanding of them was complete or sufficient. With charm and wit, you can always make friends, keeping them after the third or fourth conversation is the challenge. The folks I knew had a mountain of patience with me, and lord knows why, but often took me out and showed me around even when I rarely said a word.

I was fortunate to see many sides to that massive place, high falooting snobsters, and dumpster divers. In the upper middle class world of my english classes, I saw a very different reality of Argentina than that which existed just blocks away. Their concerns, their interests, all so disparate from that which took place on the very streets they walk. As I thought about this, it is not so great of a difference from that of the States, or even European countries. It just so happens we have better programs at moving problems out of sight, out of mind.

I was having a conversation in Spanish with a French expat once, and he pointed out perhaps one of the best things, at least for me, about Argentina. He had lived in Perú for a year, and while it was beautiful, incredible, all those apellations, it faulted a few things. The first being of course he couldn't make enough to scratch by there, the second, after a certain time, there was always a gap between him and Peruvian friends he made, generally economic. Whereas Argentine's, perhaps because of their pride, are much easier to be friends with.

Yes there still remains an economic disparity, and in cases a grand one, but they'll never hit you up for a dollar. Well, the folks on the street surely will, even though they have a sandwich and are well dressed, they'll happily casually put their hand out. But your average Argentine, or at least Porteño, doesn't view extrañjeros as that much different. Which is a blessing if you've been through some Asian countries. I could walk around anonymous, occasionally even asked for directions, which I could give! Cultural differences are interesting to look at, but in comparison, I would at times be too exhausted to leave my room in India, but here, it's a shame to stay inside, you might make a new friend out there.

Just don't say you're from the States. Two more times, these girls were from Paraguay, one even said I had "la boca linda," thanks to my dentista! Regardless, we get to the "donde sos" part, and they take off! It's obvious I'm not Argentine, 6'3" on a good day, blonde hair down to my shoulders, blue eyes and white enough to blind yours, but damn, I need to avoid the "donde sos" question. Oh well, maybe I'll be from Icelandia from now on.

I'll miss you Buenos Aires, and I'll probably be back. All your crazy Argentine idiosyncrasies, just keep the meat cheap, the sacacorcho nearby, and a pair of bigass fancy shades to cover the late night's festivities.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Que cheto!

I went to an event the other night, Vinos y Rouge, a promotional thing to bring women and wine together, like makeup and clothes(seriously, that was the moniker). Because for too wine has been the territory of the man, and now it is time for the woman to come into her own. There is a word here, cheto, very sheik, top, maybe snobby, and that's what it was. Models, free drinks and food, fashion, black ties and gowns, and funky fashion wear, lots of nice cars, free drinks and food, all held at the local Hippodromo, or horse track. Needless to say, my friend and I were the only ones to show up on foot, and we strolled right past the waiting security checking VIP invites. Sometimes it is a blessing to be a foreigner, especially a white english speaking one.

However, I can't say I fit in perfectly, my attire was slightly less than posh that evening, my friend at least had a button down shirt. Regardless, I mingled easily. Chatted up these old ladies, both widowers, that now breed horses (hey ho sugar mama!!). I imagine their plastic surgeon has enough money now to breed horses as well, however he should be fired for they were not great works of art. I kept worrying that one of the lady's eyes was going to fall down. We were given a lot discourse on the advantages of joining the local elite wine and cubano's club, once a year they go to Havana for cigars and drinks. Had to break Roberto's heart and say we wouldn't be joining today, but would be happy to take his business card.
I was there about three hours, and with at least two dozen booths serving wine, champagne, and beer, I rolled out when they closed the place down. I don't believe I caused too much of a scene, but in these situations, it's rather difficult to be sure.

The night before, I went to an art gallery, the artist being the father of a friend of my cousin's. I strolled over with the same friend to the barrio known as Belgrano, a rather fancy part of town. Allow me to paint a picture, I was in flip flops, jeans, my Rolling Stones t-shirt, "Pierde tus sueños, quizás pierdas la razón" with a button down shirt Helen P. made with birds on the back (they look like splotches of white paint at first glance). The man at the door asked my name for the list (there's a list?), and I bumbled about saying how I was friends with the artist's family and we were all very important people, yadda yadda, I'm white, I speak miserable spanish, adelante, go forward! Of course the place was filled with more high-art types, all moderately older in suits or nice dresses, clean shaven generally, and I'd say a fair smattering of plastic surgery in the mix. We stuck out, however, the great equalizer in these sorts of functions, booze and snacks, made me feel right at home. That is until I put my foot in my mouth when I told my cousin's friend that I liked the paintings of her father in the other room more than the one's we were standing near. Those were not her father's paintings.

I went to the Cataratas de Iguazú for the weekend. Sometimes I don't make very wise decisions. Taking a 15 hour bus ride for a weekend trip could fall under that category. However, the buses here are incredibly comfortable, it's more like a moving living room. Your seat is something like a lazyboy, and they show delightfully awful movies for the majority of the journey. The one whiskey per seat rule really needs to be banned ( but as with everything, I find if you ask real nice, you can find a little leeway ). I also did not appreciate being woken up at 6 for breakfast when there were 6 hours still remaining of the journey. Crazy Argentines.

For those of you that have done a little youthful travel, you may be versed on the subject of hostels. If not, allow me to shed some light on the subject, in my completely unbiased, objective manner. I hate hostels. They're generally dingy, it's reminiscent of some kind of bad summer camp, filled with kids that just want to move their party to some other locale without actually feeling like they are someplace else. (Political correctness is about to be defenestrated), in addition they are almost always filled with a certain type of foreign youth. Now I like just about everybody ( sometimes ). However, groups of single nationalities are just bad.

The British and their Commonwealth associates (australians, kiwis, south africans, to a lesser extent canadians) drink a great deal, make a lot of noise, lose all their dignified composure, and get upset when little old ladies in foreign countries don't understand English. All these kids go to hostels and do their there. The Israelis do a lot of drugs, rarely have composure, and get upset with little old ladies that try and make a living selling things by turning a profit. They also fill hostels. In my "vacations", I think I've stayed roughly 4 or 5 nights in a hostel, one was okay, but that was a beach in Uruguay, there were only a few Uruguayans there, and an Italian. You may get the impression that I paint Americans in a favorable light, no worries, I dislike them as well, but we only go on package tours and get shuttled from our hotel to a designated safe for tourism zone, we're pretty German in that sense. Just to put aside any thoughts that I have general animosity towards these groups, the majority of friend's I've made on the road are Israeli or Commonwealther. It's just that there are different types of people, and the hostel ones, Dave no likey.

So, I was close to being forced to stay in a hostel in Puerto Iguazú. Luckily, a fat shirtless man watering his flowers and I started chatting. We agreed on the loathesome nature of hostels, and he told me his sister rents private rooms on the same "manzana" (literally apple, but in this context, block). Same price as a bunkbed, my own room and bath. Super!! (Sidenote, if you've been travelling for a while, finding a nice place to stay is really a highlight of your day).

Took a nap, then went wandering about the town. Made friends with the artesaniales in the plaza. These people are everywhere in Argentina. Latinos that have given up their roots, and roam about selling handmade knicknacks. They are generally very friendly, occasionally violent, and at the least interesting. They share everything, but the devil with that is they want you to share as well, and I lost half my sandwich to two of them and didn't have money to buy another. Got schooled by old man in chess, but at least I loss with grace and took the majority of his kingdom down with me.

The next day went to the Parque, did some touristy stuff. The Falls really are incredible, and the engineering in placing catwalks right up to their edge, 100s of yards out in the river, is pretty neat. However, the throngs of Brazilians and Argentine package tourists (see I don't discriminate, latinos can be just as bad), made me feel a little claustrophobic. So I wandered off down a jungle trail to a more secluded waterfall, swam a little bit, hung out with a cook from the Sheraton Internacional, she snuck me out some food from the hotel and my hunger was sated once more.

The next day headed down to the Tres Fronteras, the border of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, situated on the confluence of the rios Paraná and Iguazú. Odd thing about this place is, they have poles for the flags of Paraguay and Brazil, but no flags. Same goes for the other two, which you can see across the water. One might be moved to imagine issues between the friendly countries, or I've spent too much time near disputed border zones and am always looking for something more scintillating than watching a ferry chug along.

Returned to BsAs via yet another 15 hour journey, this one with military checks! Since I've recently quit work, I have a whole lot more time to do whatever the devil I want. One of the things I've wanted to do is a choripan comparison test. There is a beautiful park near where I live, La Reserva Ecológica. I often go run and wander about. In front of this park there is a long avenue. Typically, this sort of location would be developed with shishi cafes and the like, but this is Argentina! Instead there are roughly two dozen mobile parilla huts, all selling the same goods. The most popular, the choripan. Choripan is mix of two words, chorizo (sausage) and pan (bread). I have always wanted to eat as many different choripans as possible, simply for the sake of bettering my knowledge of this city. Tuesday, I did this. After my second, I felt a sharp pain down my right arm, I wrote this off since generally the symptom of a heart attack is down your left side. However, after my fourth, I was done. Looking back, after two days of subsequent digestive issues, I am rather disappointed in my performance. Perhaps I should have followed
Takeru Kobayashi's championship strategy of soaking my buns in water first, but would that really have been the same thing?

Yup, my life here is pretty tough.