Un Techo Para Mi País

15 Oct

Since starting school we have had 3 or 4 long, holiday weekends- Argentines have a holiday for everything.  Since arriving, we have celebrated Kid’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Boss Day, Labor Day, San Martin Day, Independence Day and, my personal favorite, Secretary Day.  This past Monday was the “Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity” (I’ll take it), so we had another wonderful long weekend.

I spent my time working with an organization called Un Techo Para Mi País or “A Roof for my Country”.  On Friday evening I was assigned a neighborhood and team.  Along with about 50 other people, we took a 2 hour bus ride to La Plata.  On Saturday morning, our team of 6 met Maria and her family.  Maria is a single mom with six children.  Her oldest daughter also has a 9 month old baby.  Here you can see the house where they were/are living.  It only has two beds and 8 people!  And it is falling apart.  The roof was essentially made up of tarps stapled together and each time it rained all their belongings got soaked.

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On the first day we put the posts that support the house in the ground.  We had to break through some concrete, but it wasn’t anything too difficult.  This project also confirmed to me that I could never be an engineer: our group leaders were perfectionists (thankfully) when it came to measurements.  If it was up to me, I would have said “close enough” and the house would have collapsed by now.

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On Sunday we put the floor and walls up.  Unfortunately, we did not have any power tools.  Shortly after we began nailing things together, it became clear that I was one of two people that knew how to use a hammer.  I kept extremely busy and by the end of the day I thought my wrist was broken from nailing so many things together.

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On Monday we put installed the insulation, windows and door, put the roof on and painted the house.  This was by far the busiest day.  Luckily, Maria’s family came to help and all the kids painted the house.  Even the 6 year old had a tiny brush in her hand, painting the planks at the bottom of the house.

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The best part about the whole experience was getting to know the family.  Even though they have practically nothing, they were all so happy.  The live in a pretty filthy place- at one point we looked out to the road and saw some neighbor kids playing with a dead bird.  They had a string tied around it neck and took turns tossing it up in the air and yelling “VUEEEELLAAA” (IT’S FLYINNNGG).  After nailing the roof down and walking inside to see the finished product, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty; the house was one room, about the size of my own dining room (which we rarely use).  It didn’t have plumbing or electricity hookups.  It really was just a dry, clean place to sleep.

But then, as we were painting, we asked Maria why they chose the color green.  She said there had been a debate between multiple colors but that Lujan, her 8 year old daughter, had made the most convincing argument.  “On a traffic light,” she explained, “the color green means move forward.”  Interacting with this family, learning their names and playing with the kids put a face on poverty.  In Buenos Aires, it is easy to forget that many parts of this country are impoverished.  My guilt dissipated into happiness as we packed up our tools and left the family to move into their new house.  On this holiday weekend, we all had something to celebrate: a new home for a deserving family.

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Colonia and Cowboys

8 Oct

Originally, I thought the last month of my trip would involve studying for finals and spending warm days wandering through familiar territory.  On the contrary: the next few weeks will probably be the busiest of the whole semester.  But I am definitely not complaining.  The past two weekends my Solmates and I had some great experiences.

Two weekends ago, we ventured across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia, Uruguay.  Colonia is a small town that the Spanish and Portuguese fought to control for hundreds of years.  The tiny streets are all cobblestone and the casas are like something out of House Hunters International (HGTV anyone?).  Perhaps most interesting was that various sections of town constructed by the Spanish and Portuguese  looked completely different.  Each time I turned down a new street the houses were built in a unique style. Even the roads were constructed differently.

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Of course, we also had to partake in some traditional Uruguayan food.  We all had a chivito- which literally means little goat.  Unlike the name suggests, there was no goat meat involved- only a delicious piece of thin steak topped with egg, tomato and some of other yumminess all squished between two pieces of bread.  I still don’t understand why we have to name foods after tiny animals (burrito = little donkey).  It is confusing and I do not like thinking about eating baby animals.  Besides its name, I would have to say I am a fan.

Unlike the Argentine side of the river, Colonia has a quiet beach.  We even walked to the top of an old lighthouse (“faro” in Spanish) and had a great view of the town.

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The next weekend we went to a gaucho ranch or “estancia” as we like to call them down here.  The gaucho is the Argentine equivalent to our western cowboy- a gaucho roams the wild plains of Argentina, sweeps women off their feet, shoots guns and rides horses.  Although unlike John Wayne, they wear barrettes and gaucho pants.  Now that I think about it, I owned a pair of gaucho pants in the 7th grade and I had no idea what the word gaucho meant.

We rode horses, watched a gaucho dance the “chacarera” and explored the estancia.  Of course, we also ate steak (so much red meat).  Later, the gauchos put on a show.

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My padres will be visiting me in exactly one month and I can’t wait.  I will keep you all updated on my last, hectic weeks.  Until then, enjoy this photo of me in a gaucho hat.

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“This Post Office is a Living Hell”

13 Sep

While I was in South Africa I got a pretty good feel for how the government functioned because I was working for an NGO.  In Buenos Aires, I don’t have direct contact with government agencies like I did in Cape Town.  However, going throughout my “daily life” (if I dare call it that) I have had several experiences that accurately portray how the Argentine state functions.

My favorite story probably comes from my visit to the central post office.  My wonderful grandma sent a package full of delicious food to my home address in Buenos Aires.  But before I could get my hands on some baked goods, a note was delivered to my house saying that I had to go to the central post office to pick up the package.  Teresa told me that it would be really busy and that I should go early.  When I googled its street address, I saw someone had left a comment under the location that said something like “This post office is a living hell.  No place like this should ever exist”.  Luckily I live very close the office in Retiro and I got there five minutes before it opened.  Not so luckily, I was the 85th person in line.

Once I took a number, I waited about 15 minutes to be called to the front desk where they stamped the note that I brought from my house.  Then the man handed me a six digit number and told me to go wait in another room.  In the next room they were calling out numbers over a loud speaker.  When you heard your number you were supposed to get up and go into another room to get your package.  I immediately got stressed out when the man over the loud speaker started rapid-fire yelling random numbers.  Let’s keep in mind that this is all happening in Spanish.  I just kept telling myself, if it starts with an “ocho” and ends with a “tres” get up and walk into the other room.  I even wrote out what my number would sound like in Spanish and practiced saying it (sometimes I embarrass myself).  It also didn’t help that the man calling out numbers had seemingly borrowed the Walmart PA system- I can’t even understand those Walmart people half the time and they are speaking English.

After 45 minutes in room number two, I finally heard my number.  I went into room number three and saw my package come down a conveyor belt.  I had to sign for it, but then I was allowed to leave.  Later, I was accosted by Teresa when she saw the contents of my package- she still thinks that I told my grandma to send me food because I am being starved.  Teresa claims that she should have sent me a t-shirt (I have no idea why).

My hour and a half spent at the post office is a solid representation of “how things work around here”.  While I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was a “living hell”, it wasn’t my favorite place.  I am still confused about why they couldn’t simply deliver the package to my apartment.  It seems like simple tasks are often made more difficult than they should be.  In other ways, Argentina has mastered elements that many US cities lack.  For example, I am still in awe of how efficient the bus system is.  But even most bus routes can be very confusing.  Bus lines change their routes on the weekends.  And the same line often splits and goes in two different directions at an unspecified point in the route.

Like any country, Argentina has its problems and inefficiencies.  But that is part of learning to live in a new place- adapting to its eccentricities, waiting in long lines and struggling to fill out post office forms.  It makes cookies from halfway around the world taste even sweeter.

The Past Five Weeks…in a (small and nondescriptive) Nutshell

31 Aug

I have done an absolutely awful job of updating everyone on what I have been doing lately in the city.  That may be because I haven’t been on any big trips lately and am starting to settle into a semblance of routine.  Either way, I apologize.

Winter break ended about five weeks ago and classes at my university, Universidad de Belgrano, picked back up.  Before that, I had a week off between a month long, intensive grammar class.  I had trouble accepting that classes really were beginning.  I thought that the workload might be different or that classes might be taught differently.  In other words, I was naively hoping that there would be less homework and that all professors would fill class time with games.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened since the first grade.  So, while everyone at home was still posting pictures of themselves laying poolside, I packed up my mochila and went to class.

Most classes at school don’t even start until 1.  I have discovered that nothing serious or important in Buenos Aires ever begins before 11:00 AM.  On a normal day, I don’t finish class until after 5:30 so there is not a lot of time to do things in the evenings.  Fortunately, we only have classes Monday-Thursday so I have had the opportunity to see some different things in the city.

I don’t have a cohesive, witty way to tell you about what I have been doing, so I am just going to make a nice list of my recent experiences.

  • We had a holiday weekend to celebrate General San Martin, the Argentine equivalent of our George Washington.  Since I live on Plaza San Martin, there was a lot going on.  Oddly enough, there was a Japanese Festival, parade and delicious sushi.
  • I have been doing a lot of sitting in/running through/frolicking about parks lately.  I live about five blocks from a street called Avenida Libertador.  On this street there is a string of gorgeous parks.  On the weekends there are always people drinking mate, playing guitar or sitting in the sun and I love to just hang out here.  Last weekend some friends and I went to Parque Rosedal or the rose garden park.  There is a great lake close by and I can’t wait to see all the roses bloom here (spring is just around the corner!).  Tomorrow we have plans to play a game of American football (in honor of the beginning of college football season) in the park.
  •  Food!  My Solmates and I usually go out to eat on the weekends.  We have been trying different types of food that the big city has to offer.  We couldn’t resist going to a Mexican restaurant- we were all in desperate need of spicy food.  Unfortunately, Argentines actually detest spice and everything is relatively bland (but not in a bad way).  On my list of things to try are Spanish and Peruvian cuisine.
  • The Primaries in Argentina were held a couple weeks ago.  My professor at home connected me with a colleague and I was able to go to what I can only describe as a “results show”.  Essentially, I went to the place where all the votes were being counted.  There was a huge room filled with hundreds of people on computers entering and checking data.  All of the media was there and it was cool to watch all the reporters live on camera.  Argentina votes in a very different way than the US.  Every citizen in required by law to vote and there are lots of different political parties.  But I won’t go too much into that!  It was cool to see the electoral process from the inside (considering I haven’t even done something like that in the US).  And I got a very official looking name tag.
  • I also participated in a Tango Performance, which was equal parts hilarious and embarrassing.  I am taking a Tango dance class at school and we performed at International Student Night.  Tango is a lot more complex than any other dance I have learned- even the basic eight step isn’t simple.  Nonetheless, my partner and I got through it and, reflecting back on it, it was pretty fun.
  • One of my classes, about the history of Buenos Aires through the eyes of various authors, requires that I visit a new neighborhood every two weeks.  Thus far I have ventured to Parque Centenario, a park near a residential neighborhood, as well as Once, the Jewish/Korean/textile neighborhood.

I know that this list doesn’t seem extremely exciting, but I am staying extremely busy.  Some day I even feel like I am starting to get a handle on the local lunfardo (slang).  I am in awe that we only have 10 weeks of school left, so I am going to try to take advantage of all the time I have left.  Next up on the list of activities includes trips to Uruguay, las cataratas (the waterfalls in Misiones), and a ranch!

“Do you smell that? Yah, it’s the Subte” and other Public Transportation Woes

31 Jul

In Kentucky, public transportation is practically nonexistent.  At school I ride the bus to class, but all the other passengers are students too.  Subways and trains are not popular either- unless you want to hop on a CSX 1930’s style, sleep in a boxcar and head on up to Cincinnati.  Until now, I haven’t really had an extended encounter with public transport.  Learning to move around the city has been my biggest BUT most interesting challenge yet.

Buenos Aires has a pretty complex but reliable bus system that will take you just about anywhere you need to go.  Learning to use the buses/find the stops can be a little tricky, but if you are moving around the same two or three neighborhoods, you get the hang of it relatively quickly.  My only word of caution: never take a bus or “colectivo” during rush hour.  You are probably better off walking.

The Subway system or “Subte” is a whole other beast.  There are a few main lines that run close to where I live.  Most of the time I use the C line (which drops me off right near my house) and the D line.  I have learned so much about Argentina just from using the subway everyday.

When I first began riding the subte to school, I couldn’t help but feel that everyone in the car was looking at me.  I was told that Buenos Aires was an extremely “European city” and thought I would be able to blend in- at least better than I did in Africa.  Unfortunately, blond hair is still fairly uncommon here (as are blue eyes).  People sitting next to me on the subte sometimes ask where I am from.  Some forward men prefer yelling things like “barbie” or “rubia” (blondie).  Initially, I was intimidated.  I started wearing a hat and tucking my hair up into it when I was riding alone.  However, now that I have overcome the fear of creepy men, walking alone and being mugged at any moment, I feel relatively comfortable.  I seriously doubt everyone was looking at me- reflecting back on it, I can’t help but laugh a little.

The subte is crowded at almost every hour of the day.  This means that finding a seat requires strategy, wit and speed.   I have discovered the key to getting a spot is walking to the head of the train.  Most people end up running into the cars at the last second (near the back or the middle) leaving the front cars less crowded.  Additionally, using eye contact when someone is about to get up from their seat is key.  I usually stare at them really hard, use my body to prevent anyone from slipping into the space in front of the seat that is about to be left unoccupied, quickly do a 180 and plop down.  If you do not get a seat, you are forced to use ninja like balance to prevent yourself from falling each time the subte stops.  If it is extremely crowded, all sense of personal space is disregarded.  I once stood with my face approximately four inches from the interlocked lips of a very passionate couple.  I forgot to mention, subte PDA is all the rage.

If you want to blend in on the subte you should do one or more of the following things: listen to music on your blackberry, sleep/snore, read trashy novels, look tired and a little pissed off, make out with your significant other, and sweat.

The subte does have its redeeming qualities.  For example, a lot of musicians just hop on the cars and play a few songs (while the train is moving).  After they finishing performing, the whole car always claps.  People seem genuinely entertained and interested.  There are also a lot of beggars on the subte and Argentines are always giving them 5 or 10 pesos.  I also admire the fact that all porteños are extremely willing give up their seat to an older person or small child.  Although it often doesn’t seem like it, or smell like it, the subte can be an okay place.  Public transportation isn’t all bad, as long as you learn to enjoy the ride.

Winter Break Part I: Jujuy

28 Jul

I can’t believe that my first month in Buenos Aires has already come to a close.  In between summer class and the beginning of the semester, the 29th, Belgrano gave us a week off.  I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with my time until Alison, a friend from school, suggested that we head north to explore a few different provinces.  I am so glad that I agreed to this!

Last Sunday I got on a bus to Jujuy, a province or state in the Northwest corner of Argentina. The bus trip was about 20 hours and I was anticipating a pretty long, uncomfortable ride.  However, since most people utilize buses (and not airplanes) to move throughout the country, Argentines have perfected this form of travel.  My seat transformed into a bed and I was able to sleep for about 8 hours.  I even watched Wreck it Ralph in Spanish on my own little TV (Ralph El Demoledor).

After finding our hostel (which is not in fact spelled HOSTILE), Alison, Kelsea, Cameron and I explored the city.  We ventured through a small art fair and soon came to find that the Northern provinces are very proud of the fact that raise llamas.  Thus, you can buy anything you ever wanted/imagined made of llama wool.  Jujuy is a pretty small town and most of the sight-seeing involves driving into “el campo” or the countryside.

One day we hired a guide to drive us to two small pueblos: Purmamarca and Humahuaca.  In Purmamarca you will find El Cerro de Siete Colores or the Hill of Seven Colors.


In Humahuaca we had a traditional lunch that included locro (a type of soup made with beef and corn) as well as llama milanesa.  I was not very thrilled about eating llama, but I thought I had to give it a try.  Humahuaca is one of the oldest pueblos in the province of Jujuy.  It used to be a stopping point for travelers.  Now, it just seems to be a popular tourist spot with lots of artisans.

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Also this puppy with a scarf is from Humahuaca and I really liked him.

We also stopped to see a huge sun dial/monument that marked the location of the Tropic of Capricorn.  I didn’t really know what the Tropic marked, only that it was a line on every map.  Actually, the Tropic of Capricorn marks  the southernmost latitude where the sun can be directly overhead.  So there you go.  Also I got that from wikipedia.

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I don’t want this post to get too long so I will expand more on what happened in Salta soon!  While I really enjoyed my time there, I don’t think going to Jujuy was particularly necessary and we probably could have done all the same things if we had stayed in Salta for a week.  However, the mountains around Jujuy are pretty beautiful and looked amazing when it snowed there for the first time in 5 years (just our luck).

Photo creds to Cameron

Photo creds to Cameron

A New Neighborhood

7 Jul

This weekend was really low key because most of my group went on a trip to Iguazu Falls and I stayed in the city.  I will get to see the falls or cataratas in October and hopefully the weather will be even nicer then.  While my group was away my host sister took me out to a place called “The Alamo” to celebrate the Fourth of July.  I thought that was kind of appropriate.  But being the only American in a group of Argentines on your country’s national day of independence isn’t quite the same as eating a hot dog and watching fireworks (in America).

I took a little walk around my neighborhood so I could post some pictures and give my readers (AKA mom and dad) a sense of where I live.  I live in Recoleta which is in the northeast part of Buenos Aires.  It is relatively close to the river and there is a lot of “old money” here.  This may explain why I thought the average age of a Porteño was 65 until I began regularly leaving my neighborhood.

I live right on la Plaza de San Martín or San Martin Square.  I was a little scared to whip my camera out while I was alone so these are not amazing photographs by any means.  The Subte stop is on the plaza as well.  If you look at the top picture (in the photo collage), you might even be able to see the blue sign on the bottom right hand corner.

Plaza de San Martin

I seem to live around all the different embassies.  Within a few blocks of my house are the embassies of Colombia, Vatican City, Liberia, Switzerland, Guatemala, and Romania.  There is also a giant palace that houses the Argentine equivalent of the state department (from what I can discern).  It is one of prettiest buildings I have seen since I have been here and it is HUGE.  It sits right on the plaza.

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My neighborhood is relatively residential but one block away you can find the main drag- Santa Fe street.  Here there is a Farmacity (like a CVS or Walgreens) as well as different Kioskos.  Kioskos are like gas stations but without the gas.  There are a lot of flower vendors on the streets.  Also, people don’t believe in picking up their dog’s poop here.  But they do strongly believe in PDA.  Now, you have a snapshot of what it like to walk up and down my street, sort of.  If you’re still a little foggy, then you should come visit me.