Sunday, June 30, 2013

Halfway Over?!

It's hard to believe I arrived here four weeks ago today. The time has gone by so quickly! I'm happy that I still have a lot to look forward to.

This week, especially, went by in a flash. Monday I had to go straight to work from the bus station immediately after returning from Mendoza. A crazy rush! I spent most of the day in the office writing introductory pieces about Mendoza and Córdoba— my first opportunity to spend time writing in the office.

Tuesday was the best day of work I've had thus far. I slept in, finished up the Córdoba piece from home, took a free tour of the largest Islamic cultural center in Latin America, visited the city's first public burial ground (Recoleta Cemetery), and peeked in at a colonial Spanish church next door. All in a day of work. The photos are for blog posts that I'm going to write for the company website.

Recoleta Cemetery

Most afternoons this week I spent running and Skyping. I went out to dinner with friends a couple of times, and met Léa for coffee once to plan our next trip. For the second half of the week, work was somewhat of a combination between Monday and Tuesday, with both writing in the office and heading out to take photos of landmarks and places of interest nearby. I'm still doing the tedious formatting work on old Rio blog posts, but if that's a required part of the entire package, I won't complain.

Friday during work I walked down Avenida de Mayo, the heartline of Buenos Aires, from one to the other and back, taking photos of landmarks along the way. Immediately after work, I went to a Spanish tutor because my language skills still suck. Then I met with the program coordinator from Connect123, the organization that set up my internship, for a mid-summer check-in. Then I ate fried rice in Chinatown.

Saturday I slept in and then shared a fantastic brunch with my Duke and UNC friends. That afternoon we went to El Caminito, a touristy spot with colorful houses and professional tango dancers performing in the streets for spare change. I didn't take my camera, but you can click the link if you want an idea of what it looks like. Later we went to Puerto Madero, a different neighborhood of the city, home to the modern and beautiful Puente de la Mujer, or Woman's Bridge. I shared a late dinner with my housemates plus a couple more friends, before crashing in bed!

P.S. Sorry for the lack of pictures! Not sure where the problem actually stems from, but often my blog platform or my computer refuses to upload my photos :(

Saturday, June 29, 2013

El Rancho

(That's actually how you say "The Ranch" in Spanish.)

When Léa and I woke up on Sunday morning, we once again didn't know what to expect, since it had been dark when we arrived. The ranch, we found to our delight, was absolutely magnificent.

After sleeping in and snagging a leisurely breakfast of coffee and toast, we joined our new friends in saddling up the horses for a ride around the property.

The family owns a dozen or so horses who live in a corral near the house, as well as a shed full of beautiful gaucho-style saddles. The group that went out included Léa, two guys around our age, the adorable little sister of one of those guys, and me. It was the most refreshing and scenic few hours I've had since I got to Argentina.

One thing that I haven't gotten used to in Buenos Aires is the dirty urban feel of it. I've never lived in a big city before (I'm now realizing that New Orleans isn't actually big). The tall buildings lining narrow streets choke the sky, exhaust fumes from vehicles choke the air, throngs of people choke the sidewalks... It's a sort of suffocating feeling for me, to be honest.

One reason why I loved Mendoza so much was the prevalence of wide, tree-lined avenues. Another thing I loved was that the streets felt clean. Buenos Aires is virtually covered in graffiti, which is celebrated as "street art," but still gives the city a look of restlessness and discontent. It makes you wonder, why exactly do these people feel pushed to express themselves by spraying paint on every available facade?

I didn't see graffiti in Mendoza, nor did I see poop on the sidewalks. It seems that a requirement of living in Buenos Aires is owning a dog, and there are clearly no laws about cleaning up after that dog.

Now that I think of it, when I walk in the streets, I walk with my head down for three reasons:
1. To avoid stepping in poop.
2. To avoid tripping on the broken sidewalks (equally common).
3. To avoid making eye contact with anyone. It's standard for men to catcall at women on the street, making my jeans and boots feel like stripper-wear. The worst is when someone is walking by you in the opposite direction, and just as you're passing each other, he turns his head towards you muttering anything from "Que hermosa" to words I'm glad I don't understand. The best form of defense I've come up with is just keeping my head down, trying to ignore it all. But it's something that got really old really fast, and hasn't decreased at all.

So part of why I loved Mendoza was that it seemed to be free of all those things. And the ranch, that beautiful day on the ranch, was the most free of all. For the first time in a long time, I felt 100% safe and comfortable. Every breath was refreshing. And everywhere I looked! The horizon was mind-blowingly huge. The ranch was actually a farm, growing a handful of crops such as grapes, onion and garlic. Since it's winter, the fields were empty and brown, but still the entire picture was gorgeous. With the Andes in the background, the river running beside us, the horses comfortably under us, and all that fresh air and space around us... it couldn't have been more perfect.

 I spent an equally lovely afternoon sitting in the sun in the backyard. One of the guys cooked up an asado (barbecue), and about eight of us sat around a table in the backyard to share a late lunch. I love how leisurely meals are here. It puts the emphasis on the food, and on enjoying each other's company: no rush. Even at restaurants, waiters don't bring the check until you flag them down and ask for it.

Later in the afternoon we piled into the back of a pickup truck and drove around the property. We were in awe at the dark purple cloud hanging over the middle of the sky, setting off the strip of bright blue edge still visible over the horizon. The dogs ran beside the truck, the weather was perfect, and Léa and I could not have been more content.

They drove us to the bus station in Mendoza, where we sadly departed for the long ride back to Buenos Aires.

I wish there was a way I could thank all those incredibly welcoming, generous, friendly Argentinians we met on that ranch. Being the only Argentinian people I actually know personally, they've certainly created a high expectation in my head of the people of this beautiful country.

The Andes Mountains

Saturday was yet another early morning. We jumped into a van that picked us up from the hostel at 7:30 a.m., and we drove two hours west, into the Andes Mountains. All along the way, our tour guides narrated the journey with geology lessons and explanations of our surroundings.

In the foothills, we stopped at a breathtakingly beautiful lake.

The next stop was a cool natural rock bridge over a stream covered with snow. I can't post pictures of that because my iPhone died and I had forgotten to bring my big camera. I bought a disposable camera, so I'm looking forward to seeing how those photos turn out.

Though I of course was aching to be snowboarding and wishing I was dressed appropriately to make snow angels and go sledding, just the thought of my location was incredible. I visited the tallest mountain in the Americas! So epic. I really hope to come back some day and explore on foot the wilderness of Argentina, this wild and beautiful land of which I've only gotten glimpses.

Lunch, of course, took several hours. We ate at an overpriced parilla (Argentina grill), where the menu options were meat or pasta, as per usual at Argentine restaurants. Randomly there was a cheese omlette as well, so I chose that. I really do miss well-prepared vegetable dishes. But the company was good, and I was in no rush.

Late lunch after the Alta Montaña excursion

Today's special: meat on meat on meat (with a side of potatoes)

Overall it was a fun day with spectacular scenery.

That night, we followed up on the invitation from Isabel's friend to spend a day at his ranch outside Mendoza. We took an hour-long bus to a village, where the friends picked us up. Not knowing what to expect, we were a little nervous that we'd be intruding. But the house was full of friendly young people who were incredibly kind to us. After a quick shower, Léa and I joined the group, a dozen or so friends from the Mendoza area, and chatted over wine until dinner was ready (after 11 p.m.). Everyone ate around a huge dining room table, and then gathered in the living room around the crackling fireplace for more drinks and talking later. By far one of my favorite parts of the trip to Argentina, in general!


After another overnight bus, Léa and I arrived in Mendoza early Friday morning. Me encanta Mendoza! There are five central plazas, each beautiful in a unique way, from intricately tiled benches and murals to leaping fountains to tall, leafy trees. Where are these plazas in Buenos Aires? The most beautiful fountain I've seen in Buenos Aires, in front of the Congress building, is fenced off and dry, with no visible efforts of repair. Que lastima. 

Tiled bench and beautiful trees in Plaza España

Tiled bench in Plaza España

Plaza Italia
Plaza de la Independencia

After visiting each of the plazas, we walked to the aquarium, which was new and tiny. I loved it. They had a giant sea turtle rescued just before it froze to death in the waters off the coast of the Buenos Aires province. They also had crocodiles living with turtles, all of whom were surprisingly entertaining to watch.
My friend the Argentine sea turtle
Well that's one way to hitch a ride...
We visited the ruins of a fountain underneath another, modern and functioning fountain. I didn't really understand why because the tour was in Spanish and I'm not good at following long monologues. Above ground, on the plaza where the modern fountain is, was a museum built over the remains of the earthquake-destroyed Cabildo (original town hall). Inside there was a series of dioramas depicting the history of mankind as if it climaxed with the city of Mendoza.

That afternoon, we did a wine tour that took us to two bodegas (wineries), one industrial-sized and one artisanal, as well as an olive oil factory. All three places had tastings, my favorite being the olive oil (pieces of bread dipped in various kinds of oil, of course. Originally I was a little disgusted, imagining us trying to sip olive oil from a wineglass). All three places were educational and delicious. And the six-year-old Argentinian girl on the tour with her mom and aunt was adorable, although it was a little humbling to realize her Spanish was better than mine.

A tour of industrial wine-making in Mendoza

If only it were full, and a souvenir 

Wine tasting at an artisanal bodega in Mendoza. Léa and I each a bottle at a crazy low price.
Olive oil factory

After an incredible dinner of steak and paella (guess who chose what...) and Malbec, we turned in for another early night, ready for another early morning!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Over the mountains and through the plateaus...

Léa's host mom, Isabel, picked us up from our hostel in Córdoba early in the morning. We then embarked on what felt like a cross-country driving trip, though I honestly have no idea how far we went. We drove all day, stopping regularly in pueblos (villages) along the way.
The landscape of central Argentina

The first pueblo was having a Flag Day celebration outside a historic fort, but we were still able to enter the fort and check out the museum-like rooms inside. Somehow related to the Flag Day holiday, we also landed free hot chocolate!

Flag Day celebration in a small village of central Argentina

Las Presidentas de Alta Gracia?
 As we were walking back to the car, we came across a group of high school boys selling locro, a local type of stew, as a class fundraiser. People were lining up with pots to fill and take home, but Léa and I snuck through the crowd to see the cooking process and take pictures— and sample!

This picture doesn't do justice to the size of that pot

Sampling locro, a local type of stew
High school boys making locro as a class fundraiser
Neighbors waiting to buy the locro
Later we tried having a picnic lunch on the plateau, but it was too cold and windy. We stuck it out just long enough for a couple photos...

The plateau
Léa and her host mom
We got to Isabel's vacation house mid-afternoon, and spent a happy hour or so taking turns riding the family's horse on a slow walk.

Bella Negra = Black Beauty
Isabel's friends were renting the house for the weekend, so a crowd of seven or eight of them were already there, chatting over tea and cookies in the living room. Léa and I joined them, and enjoyed the friendly conversation until we had to go.

We drove to yet another pueblo, looked around in a couple of cute stores, and then went to the home of Isabel's friends, an older couple who had just moved there for some peace and quiet. They were as friendly and welcoming as they could be, and served us a wonderful dinner of wine and cheese, homemade empanadas, and homemade pizza. We lingered, chatting, until it was time for Isabel to drive Léa and me to the bus station for our next overnight bus... to Mendoza!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Léa and I arrived in Córdoba early Wednesday morning. We went straight from the bus station to the hostel, which turned out to be a really cute place run by a British guy who fell for an Argentine girl.
The kitchen of our hostel in Córdoba
As we were checking in, we heard loud booms and shouts from somewhere nearby outside. Worried, we asked the guy at the desk if it was safe for us to go out.

"Oh sure, that's just a protest. Happens nearly every day," he told us nonchalantly.

So we set out a little warily, especially since the noises were coming from the direction we wanted to go, the center of town. But he was totally right: it was a loud but peaceful march in the street. Léa and I couldn't make out what exactly it was about, but I get the impression that Argentines like to protest just because they can. Which makes sense, considering their recent political history. From the military dictatorship of the 70s to the government corruption that is still rampant today, Argentina's citizens have a lot to complain about. And they don't take for granted their right to voice those complaints. When I tell people here that I study journalism, they always react with a deep nod of approval, and often a smile of admiration or appreciation. They recognize a crucial need for honest journalism.
A protest march in Buenos Aires
Our day in Córdoba was a pretty standard tourist visit, checking out cathedrals and art museums and historic buildings and an old Jesuit crypt. We spent the whole day with a French guy our age who was traveling alone and staying in our hostel, which was fun. One highlight of the day, as I mentioned in my last post, was a random exclusive tour we somehow landed in the city's congress building, from a super nice woman who worked there and was willing to show us around. It was a gorgeous building, and we got to see the province's legislative session in progress!

We couldn't exit through the front door because the protesters had gathered there (quite noisily), so we slipped out through a side door.
Protestors blocking the front door of the congress building
Next, our impromptu guide walked us to an archive down the road where every issue of the local paper since 1911 was preserved! Needless to say, I thought that was super cool. 

Later in the day, we walked to Argentina's oldest university, which is coincidentally abbreviated UNC (Universidad Nacional de Córdoba) to see the campus. A big crowd tipped us off that there was something going on. We asked around and found out that none other than Argentine President Cristina Kirchner was about to arrive! So we pushed through the crowd to the front and waited until she arrived. We saw her walk across the stage and wave, but there were several performances and speeches before hers, so we left before she addressed the crowd. 
Students gathering for the arrival of Argentina's president

Back at the hostel, Léa and I napped until dinnertime (11pm) and then went to bed, since both of us had a little cold. And we had to be up early the next morning for the next adventure!

Cathedral ceiling in Córdoba

Jesuit Crypt

Detention center turned museum in memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who "disappeared" during Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s 

Another gorgeous cathedral in Córdoba

Trash art! I find that efforts like this make cities that much more charming.