Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Smoke on the water, if you will

It's been a pretty interesting week, it always seems like there's something going on in Buenos Aires, and you never know what you're going to wake up to every day. Last week waking up everyday consisted of the smell and cloudy views of horrible thick smoke. It started last Monday, and wasn't terrible, but definitely got better Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday and Friday, however, were absolutely miserable. The smoke Friday morning was so thick that visibility couldn't have been more than about 200 feet. Consequentially, the local airport shut down as well as many of the charter busses out of town and some ports.

What exactly is this smoke? Lovely, that's what. There was no escaping it; it invaded the apartments, and now I think all of my clothes have that dreaded, impossible to escape smoky stench to them. Really though, it started with the farmers in the Provencia, the area right outside greater Buenos Aires, burning off the weeds on the soy crops. I lead a pretty uniformed life here I feel like, and I probably should change that, but that's the basic story as I understand. The fires were meant to just burn of the weeds and crops in preparation to replant (though I don't think you have to replant soy? So I'm not entirely sure its soy), and in the process of these controlled fires they got out of control, which tends to happen when it's really dry, as it is here. The smoke made it very hard to breathe and altogether unpleasant to be outside. At one point though, I have to admit, it smelled a little bit like a barbecue pit with smoked meat. Made me pretty hungry. The smoke has also made for some pretty bright red and orange sunsets, which I've gotten a few interesting pics out of.

Last Thursday one of my friends invited me to go to Punta del Este, Uruguay, which is a pretty famous beach resort 2 hours east of Montevideo. A lot of Argentines own apartments and condos there and it's a HUGE resort spot during the summer months, but now that it's getting more into winter, its' pretty much vacated. Considering how miserable life was with the smoke and the hope of escaping its presence, I decided last minute to tag along with the two that were going, Tamarinda and Star. We went and bought tickets about 30 minutes after I decided and left Friday afternoon. I got my student visa on Friday morning, kind of cool, but it helps a bit when travelling.

We left Buenos Aires Friday at around 230 in the afternoon on a bus to Tigre to catch the boat which we thought was going to Montevideo. We had our mate and yerba (I'll explain that culture in a bit) all packed up and ready for the journey and got on the boat. We met a couple of Argentines from Córdoba and hung out with them on the boat for a while and they helped us perfect our mate making abilities. The boat ended up docking in Carmelo, Uruguay around 8:30 and we had to take a 3 hour bus trip to Montevideo. Our Argentine friends ended up on the same bus and we figured out that we had reservations in the same hostel that night in Montevideo. We took the three hour bus ride to Montevideo and arrived around 12-1215 A.M. We were having trouble deciding rather it was worth it to make it out to the hostel in Montevideo because we wanted to catch a bus at 5 in the morning, which would mean less than 3 hours of sleep, which we would still have to pay a whole night for. Luckily, we found a bus that left out of Montevideo at 1 A.M. and bought tickets. We ate McDonalds with our friends in the bus station because it was the only thing that was open and we hadn't eaten since we left Buenos Aires and then went our separate ways. We got into Punta del Este around 4 A.M. and made our way to our hostel, called 1949 Hostel. The hostel was closed, but for some reason there was a girl on a computer downstairs, and she let us in. God only knows why she let three people in to a hostel at 4 A.M. in the morning in South America, but I'm pretty thankful she did. Turns out she was from Houston, but not a whole lot of fun to talk to, kind of a bummer. We ended up finding the person on duty in the hostel to check us in and we slept until about 10 in the morning. It's one of the first times I've ever just gone somewhere without definite plans on the mode of transportation and there were a few moments when I thought we would be sleeping in the bus station or spending all night at a bar, just as a place to stay, but it ended up being all good memories and I'm glad it worked out.

Punta del Este was absolutely gorgeous. We spent a lot of our time on the beach, and Star and Tamarinda both surf, so they rented boards both days. I tried to a little bit but it just wasn't working out for me. I caught a couple of waves but there was no way I was even close to getting up, so it was a little bit more like boogie boarding. The hostel was really cool too and we met a couple of people from Australia who were travelling all over South America. It seems to be a trend among the Australians and United Kingdom folk, I've met more than a couple everywhere I've been who are taking off time from school and work just to travel. It's a pretty awesome idea, and I'm not really sure why that hasn't caught on in the States. Anyhow, Tamarinda, Starr and I decided to have a bonfire on the beach Saturday night so we went and bought a ton of wood and beer and invited our Australian friends to go with us. Only one of them decided to go, but we trekked back out to the beach and dug our pit and started our fire. I think we sat out there for like 4 or 5 hours starting at around 11:30 P.M. and just talked about everything and enjoyed the cool ocean breeze and the warm fire. It was a pretty amazing night, and something I'd yet to have experienced, that being pretty much only the 3rd or 4th time I'd ever even been to a beach.

We spent the whole weekend just trying to find waves and enjoying ourselves on the beach and drinking tons and tons of yerba mate. The only kind of downer thing to happen was that the smoke from stupid Argentina started to invade the air of Punta del Este. It wasn't overwhelming, but made things hazy and ruined a lot of good picture taking opportunities. I saw a paper in Punta with a headline saying something along the lines of "Montevideo and Uruguay suffer from the Argentine disaster." The wording in Spanish cracked me up; it was definitely very accusing of Argentina.

Overall, it was an incredibly weekend and I'm really glad I decided to go. Uruguay seems a lot more relaxed than Argentina, and Montevideo is definitely more chill than Buenos Aires, but also like 1/14 the size. Punta del Este just feels a lot more secure and you don't have to be AS cautious when you go out. Overall I really like Uruguay, and I definitely need to try to make it back to Montevideo just to do the tourist thing since I was unable to. I ended up coming back by myself because I thought I could make one of my classes tonight at 6, and the others wanted to stay and try to get some more waves yesterday, since everyone was telling us that yesterday (Monday) would be the best day for waves. I left around 7:30 A.M. from Punta del Este and got back to Buenos Aires at 6 and figured I would rather be late than absent to my class. I made it to the school exactly an hour late only to find an empty classroom and realize class had been cancelled. It was a bit of a bummer, considering I don't have class until 4:30 on Tuesdays and I definitely could've stayed another day, but what can you do.

On the whole mate culture: Mate (pronounced mah-tay) is like the official drink of the Rio de la Plata region, and I think they drink it a lot in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay as well. I think I talked a little bit about it in an earlier post, but it's basically a tea that you buy in huge packs like you would coffee. Basically you have three main components: the leaves, or yerba (pron. jerba with a soft j), the mate (which is the gourd that you drink the yerba out of), and the bombilla (pron. bom-bee-sha). The bombilla is basically a metal straw with a kind of strainer on the end to keep the leaves in the gourd. To prepare the mate, you have to put a little bit of the leaves in the gourd and add very hot water, letting the leaves soak it up. You put the bombilla in and add more mate, basically repeating the process of pouring just a little bit of water and letting it soak in, until it looks about right. Typically mate is shared amongst a group of friends, and you have one person who prepares and serves the drink. They fill it up with water, drink it all, refill it and then pass it to the next person. Each person drinks all of the water in the gourd and passes it back to the server who refills it for the next person. It's a pretty social event and I think like something like 80% of Argentines drink it almost daily. I tried it for the first time this weekend, and I think I'm already addicted. We had semi-sweet mate, as it's typically VERY bitter, but I definitely am a huge fan and will probably try to work into the more bitter stuff later on, at least to try it. We took our mate, yerba and thermos of hot water everywhere with us this weekend and drank an incredible amount of the stuff. I think it has a lot of caffeine in it, which might be part of the whole addiction process, but I think my addiction to caffeine is nothing new.

I'll try to edit this post within the next couple of days when I upload the pics to facebook with a public link so everyone can see them, so check back soon.

UPDATE: heres the link:



Sunday, April 13, 2008

La antorcha olímpica y mi cumple

Birthday Friday, and also the day the torch made its way to Buenos Aires, its only stop in a Spanish speaking country on its way back to the other side of the world. Even though I for sure don't support that they're giving China the Olympics this year, the running of the torch was still an event that I felt was necessary to see, but I'll get into that a little further later.

A couple friends (Emily and Esteban) and I headed out to Puerto Madero, where we were told the running of the torch was supposed to begin. We had absolutely no plans for the day and truly had no idea what was going on and where to see it. One of the universities we take classes at (UCA) is located in Puerto Madero so we just went there as a reference point to venture out. When we got to UCA we saw a ton of people and busses with Olympic stickers and all that good stuff on them, so we naturally followed like sheep to see what was going on. When we got inside the main building of UCA we realized it was a congregation of all the torch carriers for the day and it was really cool to see all of them, ranging from businessmen who have had a positive influence on business between different countries, to Olympic athletes who have represented Argentina to special Olympic athletes. As things started to break up, we noticed one of the carriers was right in front of us. My friend Emily, who will talk to ANYBODY, tapped on his shoulder and we asked him a few questions and took pictures. Turns out he's a three time Argentine Olympic cyclist (1988, 1996 & 2000), named Gabriel Curuchet. We talked to him as long as we could and he ended up trying to get us tickets to the after party at the very end of the relay, but time didn't allow, and he actually ended up giving us his email address to send him the pics we took from the day, pretty cool experience.

After Gabriel got on the bus, we went to the Plaza de Mayo to see what was going on, and as usual, it was definitely a hot spot. There were tons of people with Chinese flags, but also tons with "Free Tibet," and other sayings for human rights, and "El regimen comunista Chino: encarcela a periodistas" (The Communistic Chinese system: imprison journalists). There was also another torch called "La antorcha de derechos humanos" or the human rights torch, which was pretty interesting. We stayed in Plaza de Mayo and just watched everything that was going on and finally the torch came by. It was pretty anti-climactic, but still really cool to see. You could tell the torch bearers were incredibly honored to have such an experience. My friends saw people with huge buckets of water trying to put it out, but I don't think anyone was successful at any point along the 13 kilometer run.

After we watched the torch, we followed it to the obelisk and it was pretty intense. People were throwing shredded paper out of windows and there were thousands of people walking down Avenida 9 de Julio, which is supposed to be the largest street in the world, which was pretty cool to see. After that whole charade we split our separate ways to go home and change because it's actually gotten a little bit cold in Buenos Aires, with the plans of meeting up later to try to get into the after party/ceremony on the other side of town.

We met up a couple hours later and got on a colectivo and tried to find our way over there. We accidentally got off way too early and had to spend our last monedas to get back on the bus (People are INCREDIBLY stingy with coins here, which are the only way to pay on the bus, because a lot of people think there's a shortage of them right now ). We got back on the bus and finally arrived to the event as it was becoming dark. When we got up there we realized that the event was ending and everyone was going home. We kind of stood around for a minute trying to figure out what to do, but found some people giving away free t-shirts, which we of course took advantage of. As we were about to head home, we saw Gabriel walking out of the gates where the press conferences were and we (and by we, I mean Emily) yelled his name to get his attention. He came over to us, and showed us what he had received as gifts, an Olympic torch, and cards and hand-made crafts from China with messages from students in China written on the back. I'm not sure if the torch was the one he carried lit, but he let us hold it and take pictures with it and it ended up being absolutely amazing. He explained the symbolism of the torch and was absolutely amazingly nice to us. It ended up being one of the greatest experiences I've had in a looong time.

On the whole topic of the Olympic torch, we talked to a couple of the runners just randomly at the end of the day, one being Gabriel, and another very old man and a pretty young kid, who looked younger than us. Each of them was overflowing with joy and emotion of having the honor to carry the torch, and the symbolism it has as a uniting force around the world. All of them said things along the lines of it being one of the most exciting experiences of their life to have the opportunity to carry the torch, and the older man (who was carrying the torch because he was a businessman who had some part in strengthening relations with the government in Argentina and indigenous tribes here, not entirely sure about all the details) called it "el sueño de la paz," or the dream for peace. It made me realize that the protests that have been going on around the world against the torch are against what the Olympics represent in itself. I think it's wrong the way the Chinese government functions, especially with all the occurrences in Tibet, but the Olympics are about uniting the world not dividing it. It's sad to think that people are attacking the running of the torch, which in effect is one of the biggest days of many of the lives of those who have the opportunity to carry the torch. Gabriel was overflowing with emotion and honor at being able to carry the torch, and made a comment about how this day was just as important to him as having had the opportunity to PARTICIPATE in the Olympics. To him he was having the honor to show his love and nationalism for Argentina. In all I feel the protest against the torch are disrespectful in many ways and are extremely tacky; we shouldn't be protesting the torch which represents the unity that is the Olympics but rather the protests should be aimed at the government of China, not the Olympics which embody the exact opposite. I realize and understand the counterarguments, but that's the way I felt after conversing and seeing this take place in front of my eyes.

Anyway, last night we went out for my birthday to a restaurant called Kansas. I invited a few people and only expected like maybe 10 to show up max, and it ended up being 18 of us, and it was really fun. I had a full rack of barbeque ribs and coleslaw and french fries, and it was AMAZING. I miss barbeque! And Mexican food. And spicy things. And peanut butter. Don't get me wrong though, the food here is really good, but bife de lomo (pretty much steak) and pasta tends to get a little old after a while. After the restaurant we went to a couple bars and just hung out, it was a really fun time and I'm glad everyone came out to celebrate.

My host mother also made me an apple pie type thing for my birthday too and it was pretty much amazing. She also gave me a little wooden compass sundial. It's really cool, and she's way too nice to me; I totally wasn't expecting a gift.

Anyway, that was an EXTREMELY long entry about just one day, sorry about the length, but thanks if you took the time to read it all. Thanks also to everyone that sent me emails/facebook comments/comments here wishing me a happy birthday!!!

Everything is going really well and it's hard to believe that I've already been here for almost two months now. Only three to go, scary…

Here's a link to the pics from the torch and the birthday festivities:

Click here.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Puro Tango

Not a whole lot has been going on lately, just getting down to the grind of things and all that fun stuff. We finished up the final two tango lessons this week and last night went to a tango dance hall or Milonga to dance the tango and milonga (milonga is pretty much tango to a faster beat). I'm not entirely sure the tango hall is called a Milonga, I'm still a little bit confused about what they're actually called. I'm not one to take dance lessons, but I'm really glad I took advantage of this. It was a ton of fun and honestly, there's no way I could've studied and lived in Buenos Aires without taking tango lessons. Our instructors, Florencia y Nicolás, were amazing and really cool and funny, which made it a lot more fun. The Milonga was an experience, too. It was basically a huge room with a ton of tables and chairs facing a huge dance floor. We kind of jumped right in and started dancing our amateur tango steps, but no one seemed to care too much. The majority of the Argentines there were pretty old and it seems like the tango is a dying culture, sadly. We stayed there for about 3 hours dancing and watching others dance, and it was probably one of the more enjoyable nights I've had in the last few weeks. Completely surprised me because I usually hate the whole idea of having to dance and all that business, but I guess I needed something to open my eyes, haha. I would really like to take more lessons, but I'd have to find a few other kids to take them with so they would be cheaper, so we'll see.

I pulled the whole Argentine night thing and I've been out 'til between 6 and 6:30 AM the last three nights in a row, I'm a little worn out, but here's what else has been going on.

This last Wednesday was the memorial day for the veterans and fallen in the Falkland Island War (Guerra de las Islas Malvinas). We didn't have school and they played the memorial service on t.v. all day, which pretty much involved a bunch of speakers, including the now even less popular president, Cristina Kirchner. I wouldn't include this as it's not a really huge deal, but I think it portrays a lot of how the Porteños view things; I'm not entirely sure on the exact words, but I'm pretty sure she made a comment along the lines of how the Falkland Islands will one day belong to Argentina again, or that they should be Argentina's. I'm not going to go into how ridiculous I think that whole situation was, but I thought that was an absolutely incredible, if not ludicrous, thing to say. I'll get off that subject though so I don't make a really ill-informed statement, more so than I may have already done.

The farmer's strike is now on a thirty day break as of last Monday, but the repercussions of the whole situation are still being felt. Last Monday thousands of people in "support" of the government marched in Plaza de Mayo with their signs in support of the government. I had to take a bus through the Plaza that day to get to class, but luckily it took another route, though it added an extra twenty minutes to the ride. People tell me that the government pays these people a set amount to march in support of the government which, as I stated before, I have no trouble believing. The people don't all look like they're from Buenos Aires and a lot of them look like they were probably in need of the money. Now though, I think the government has blocked all exportation of meat and dairy, or at least greatly limited what can be exported. There was an article in La Nacion talking about how many grocery stores are having a hard time keeping their shelves full and the meat that is actually on the shelves is of really bad quality and pretty fatty. It also reports the prices in many stores have gone up, in some cases up to 20%. We haven't been eating a whole lot of meat in the house lately and the meat I've had outside is pretty bad. It's not a life changing ordeal, but it's still interesting to see the effects and after-effects of an oppressive government tariff and how the farmer's decided to handle it. Good old economics in action.

I came home from class the other day and the porter on duty was freaking out and running around and made me use the back elevator. He was speaking really fast to me in Spanish and I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but I went ahead and went up the back elevator, instead of the main one like I normally do. I got back into the apartment and Rafaela, our live-in maid, was standing by the door to main elevator and informed me that my host mother and her friend were stuck in the elevator. They ended up only being stuck for about five minutes, and it was a pretty funny thing in the end, but I've been crossing my fingers since, hoping that I don't get stuck. The elevator isn't even old, it's like a normal elevator you would find in the States, with automatic doors, a rarity here (the norm: the ones you have to open and close the doors yourself). Glad I wasn't the one that got stuck though.

I have a set schedule now, which a huge relief. It's not OFFICIAL yet, but it will be after I turn in my form to the COPA office, but here it is

  • Economía del Desarrollo (UCA)
  • Historia Argentina (USAL)
  • Literatura Argentina y Latinoamericana (COPA)
  • Castellano: Música Urbana (required Spanish course through COPA); should be really cool, we got access to like 300 Argentine rock songs to listen to for free
  • Marketing Táctico y Operativo (USAL)

All of the classes except for the UCA one meet once a week for three hours, and the UCA one meets twice for an hour and a half on Monday and Tuesday. I don't have class on Friday's so hopefully that will allow me to do a little travelling. So far I like all of my classes and they shouldn't be too terribly hard, though I will have to read a lot for all of them. Should be fun.

Don't have a whole lot planned for this week, just class and hanging out, probably watching the NCAA national championship tomorrow night at the American bar. Friday the Olympic torch is supposed to be in Buenos Aires, so I think a few of us are going to go try to catch that event and then maybe go out to eat that night for my birthday, at least that's the plan right now.

Chappy and Chris, thanks for bringing your classic conversations to the blog comment area, it made me feel like I was back in Georgetown, haha