Tuesday, October 13, 2009

DC Through the Eyes of a Wannabe Tourist

I think that a year as foreigners in Argentina taught us to keep our eyes opened anywhere we go, and so it is with a visitor's vision that we are trying to greet our home in Washington, DC. We both loved this city immensely before we left for Argentina, but approaching the city "as a tourist," so to speak, really gives us renewed excitement and wonder at our home. We have filled these two months with "the best of DC," from DC United soccer games to National Portrait Gallery exhibits to the literary musings of the National Book Festival. Sometimes I am totally over-whelmed at the sheer number of options, like how at the National Book Festival, two of my favorite authors--Sue Monk Kidd and Julia Alvarez--were speaking at the same time. How to choose between all of these wonderful opportunities? I suppose that conflict is a pretty ideal dilemma to have. :-)

Some really wonderful highlights about the past two months in DC are as follows:

1. Meeting one of my all-time heroines, Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I Have Been Silent About. After her fiery and inspiring speech at the Book Festival (where she shouted, "Who is going to bail out the poets??!! Who is going to bail out imagination??!!), I waited in line for an hour to have my copy of Things I Have Been Silent About signed by her truly. As I finally approached her, I became so shy, but as Ms. Nafisi signed by book, I mustered up the courage to tell her how her books have impacted my life. :-)

~Images from the author's official website~

2. President Obama's Health Care Rally at College Park. To be in the midst of thousands of cheering people advocating for reform and to see the President up close & personal speaking his heart out on behalf of the welfare of his paisanos...It was a rally to remember, that is for sure. Tea-baggers, take that!

~image from the Baltimore Sun~

3. The Equal Rights March and Rally on the Capitol. Walking with thousands of others in support of our generation's civil rights struggle was a moving honor (no pun intended). It was beautiful to see the number of families, the number of loving and devoted and monogamous couples out asking for their equal rights and recognitions. And, I'll never forget the chants, such as, "Obama, let Mama marry Mama!" and "I'm not queer, but I'm here!" Who could forget such sayings?!

4. Regina Spektor's concert at the Daughters of Revolution Constitution Hall. Accompanied by a cellist, a violinist, a drummer, and her ever-loyal piano keys, Regina filled up the hall with her emotion-filled voice and chilling lyrics. I think it's safe to say the audience was forever-swayed by the lovely Ms. Spektor, and all her Soviet-Kitsch :-)

~from the Regina Spektor website~

5. Living with the Cunninghams. When else are we going to get a chance to live with one of the fams?! And, who can beat the home-cooked meals, an always-filled cookie jar, Ctrain in the next room over, and Dr. Who references by the dozen?! :-)

6. FRIENDS! From Ro's happenin'-home-comin', to Thievery (Corporation)-filled Baltimore excursions with Mike, to cozy dinners at Jess & Matt's, to Labor Day sessions of "Loaded Questions" with the 3 M's, it's all been absolutely amazing.

And, of course, there's so much more, but I don't need to bore you with all the details. My point being, of course, is just that, when you open your eyes enough, home can be just as exciting as traveling. :-)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Two Months Later

Nick and I have now been home for a little over two months. At times it feels like Argentina was years ago, and at times it feels like we are FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). Surprisingly, the transition back home was relatively seamless. In other words, no culture shock to speak of. After all, it's home.

It feels really good to be home. To feel comfortable in Washington, DC, the city we have both come to love so much and come to think of as our home together--to navigate its streets, metros, neighborhoods, and buses without thinking twice--feels like a luxury. And to be surrounded by loved ones...This is something that I am still reveling in daily, because in reality, life on the road and in a foreign country is often plagued with spells of loneliness. So, to suddenly be in the thick of friends and family is revitalizing and wonderful.

It's funny how a year in Argentina changed us, made us less worried about, well, everything. I feel in so many ways that we are a bit slower, calmer in our ways, as if we are not afraid of what we are missing. We are struggling to find full-time jobs (I am temping now and Nick is interviewing like a mad-man), and while this is a bit frightening and a tad stressful, after our employment debacles in Argentina, we are confident that the right thing will reveal itself at the right time. (Being unemployed in the cozy confines of one's parents' house is infinitely different than being unemployed in a house that's falling apart in a neighborhood that you're not quite sure about that sits a sweltering hour-long bus ride from any job opportunities--that's for sure!) So, we're calmer now, and more appreciative of time spent with those we love, soaking up as much of it as we can.

But, we think of Argentina everyday in so many ways. As irreplaceable and as constant as home is, traveling makes you forever cognizant of how much is out there, how much there is to learn (sort of like how I feel about books--so MANY and not enough time to read them ALL!). I suppose traveling instills in you the oxymoronic itch to learn lEaRn LEARN coupled with the peaceful calm in knowing that home is truly where the heart is...

So while we feel at peace and deeply grateful to be reunited with those we love so much, we miss so much of our Argentine lives. We still try and shop at farmers' markets and support local food initiatives, although financial realities and time constraints lead us to Giant and Safeway more often than not. (We dearly miss the corner fruit and vegetable markets dotting nearly every street!) And because wine is no longer $2 a bottle, we've had to put the cork on that habit, so to speak. And, of course, we miss paying 6 pesos for a kilo of delicious, free range, juicy carne.

We miss these little things, but we also miss the over-arching themes that enveloped us in Argentina. We miss the sense of adventure and the sense of the exotic that followed our every move. We miss being able to hop on a bus on a whim and go see Che Gueverra's birthplace, or world-famous waterfalls, or the snowy Andean caps. We miss the freedom and the constant wonder at the world that followed us like a shadow wherever we went.

So it's funny...We're back, and we couldn't be happier to be back. But we feel that Argentina changed us deeply, and irreversibly unleashed a deep hunger for adventure. As I type, Nick is looking at graduate schools with potential summer study abroad programs, and we still hover around the travel guide section at the library more often than not...

However, the best gift from Argentina is our ensuing decision to get married. We decided on our very last day in Argentina, as we sat in a Mendozan plaza, to leave the country recognizing the bond that had come from our South American year. So now I wear a hundred peso ring on my finger (that is invaluable sentimentally) and we are greeting this new chapter in our lives preparing to be husband & wife, prepared to be partners that commit ourselves and support one another through our individual and paired callings, calling upon the lessons we first learned in Argentina. So, here's to you, Argentina. Thanks for everything.

PS: The beautiful painting at the top of the post is done by the beautiful Laura Eppinger

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Alas, A Complete Circle

So as it turns out, we just couldn't hack it on the farm. Maybe we are wimps, and maybe it was just time to come on home. Or maybe a little of both. :-) All in all, we worked on the farm for 10 days, and it was honestly a really amazing learning experience. We learned how to build fences, construct gates, dig irrigation ditches, plant garden beds for aloe plants, dig holes for composted bathroom waste (yikes!! I know, but pretty cool if you think about your waste actually going to good use), heat our shower water over a fire, cook stew over a fire, and some other pretty cool lessons to store away.

But, we were pretty exhausted and I think that we just realized that we were also a little bit (maybe a lotta bit) homesick. At first we worried that it would be an emotionally taxing experience as we were met with a little bit of seemingly-hostile judgment, but as the days wore on, everyone warmed up. It was amazing to see how at first the Argentines on the farm seemed distrustful and hesitant toward us, and how by the end of a week and a half, we were all eating breakfast together around a fire and chatting way past dinner time! I guess that is really the beauty of close-quarter, intense situations, like volunteering. From our experience, we honestly learned to remember the importance of living simply, eating locally AND seasonally, and of knowing where and how to cultivate food, all lessons we are going to really REALLY strive to embrace in our new chapter back in the good ol´ USA.

The biggest blessing of our stay on the farm were the friends we met--Owen and Shoshana, two amazing newly-weds who made the stay at the farm absolutely incredible. They showed up on the Monday after we had arrived, and we bonded so much with them. I am honestly so thankful to have met them, and so thankful for the intense quarters that made us feel like we had known each other so much longer than a week (I guess that's what happens when you all sleep in the same room and you all go number 2 in the same plastic bucket). Owen and Shoshana left with us last Sunday, and together we went and explored the Mendoza province, to really go out of Argentina with a bang. We stayed with O & S for three days in an adorable little town called Tupungato. We drank wine, became carnivores again, biked our butts off, and even went on a horseback ride up into the Andes. It was so beautiful. Then we parted ways, O & S headed back to the States, and Nick and I headed further into the Andes to a small ski town called Los Penitentes. There, Nick re-taught me how to ski (best ski instructor ever--I hadn't been skiing in 8 years!) and he was so patient with me as together we cruised down the slopes. It was a blast, and I am sufficiently bruised up as a reminder of the good falls I had. :-) Finally, we hopped on a night bus to Mendoza city Friday evening, and it is here that we have spent the weekend, enjoying this lovely city with all its lovely plazas, restaurants, wines, and parks.

This evening we are boarding an over-night bus to Buenos Aires, from where we will fly to Mexico City and then onto Chicago tomorrow. A real circle, seeing as we came last summer from Chicago to Mexico City and finally to Buenos Aires. We can not believe our Argentine year has come to a close...In a way we are sad to leave behind this chapter that has been so free, so adventurous, and filled with so many great new friends and new life lessons. But most of all, we feel really really excited to go home. A year is a long time, and there hasn't been a day that has gone by where we didn't miss everyone we love so much at home. So, we are promising ourselves not to forget these life-lessons and not to loose touch with the amazing people who have made our stay here...

Chau chau, Argentina. Thank you endlessly for everything!!

PS: When we get home, we will post all of our pictures from our adventures these last 2.5 weeks!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Week One on the Farm!

Oh man are we sore! Our fingers and arms are tic-tac-toed with scratches and we now understand where the term ¨farmer's tan¨ comes from. After an 11 hour bus ride Wednesday night and a 2 hour bus ride Thursday morning, we finally arrived at the Madre Tierra farm and promptly jumped right into work. We were handed shovels and taught how to uproot trees from the forest and replant them next to the man-made ditches lining the property. We breaked for lunch and then spent the afternoon building fences surrounding the land. At sundown we brought the horses into the stable after they had spent the day grazing, and then we prepared dinner. By 9:30 pm we were exhausted and fell into our sleeping bags. We are sleeping in a cubby above the other volunteer's bedroom that is cozy and perfect for us, but it gets COLD up there! During the night the temperature drops below freezing and Nick and I are sharing one twin-bed instead of a full-bed mattress to conserve warmth through body heat. Often we have a few guests crawl in during the night and share in the wealth of warmth--the farm cats! At times there are three of them cuddled up beside us inside our sleeping bag!

Our second and third days passed much the same as our first. We hear the roosters crow at 7 am and we get up more or less an hour later. We don't have to work until 10 am, but the morning hours are perfect for Nick to study for the GRE's and for me to read and write. And it really is something to look outside and see the morning clouds pass over the Andes that loom snow-caped in the distance...

However, although we like the work and love what we are learning, the truth is it has been a bit of a lonely experience so far. We have experienced a lot of anti-US sentiment and feel that we have been unfairly associated with everything bad our government has done. It is the first time I have felt really out-rightly judged for something I feel I am unfairly accused of. It is strange because we are automatically tagged with certain labels, and it seems that because of that, even small talk isn't something that some people want to engage in with us. It is strange and a bit lonely, and for sure something pretty new to us.

But, if anything, we are learning how fortunate we are to have each other. At the end of the day, we can turn to one another with these feelings and I think it allows us to each other in a truer, clearer light and become closer. So for that, it is only a positive, and I am thankful for that outcome. Also, we are learning the importance of living free of judgment. We are experiencing first-hand what it is like to be judged for something we have no control over, and we are learning the importance of open arms and an open heart.

And in the end, we are learning what we set out to learn--how to build and how to grow. And that knowledge is priceless, and something we will lovingly apply to our future!

I will post pictures later when we have more time on the Internet, but for now I will leave you with this list of the Top Five Craziest Things About This Farm Life:

1. We take 2 showers per week, and rapid lightening fire showers at that!
2. We go to the bathroom in a composting toilet!
3. Our alarm clock is a rooster...That in itself sounds pretty badass...Maybe it's all worth it for that story!
4. For dinner, we make soups right over a wood-burning fire, cooking pumpkin fresh from the patch and garlic hot off the vine.
5. We haven't looked at a clock for days, going completely in-tune with the sun and our bodies.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Last Minute Cordobesa Discoveries--Read with Caution if You are a Vegetarian!

As Nick and I pack up the Cordoba chapter of our Argentina journey, we are enearthing the most delicious surprises of the city. Among these discoveries is the Mercado Norte, the warehouse of stalls and vendors offering Argentine goodies from spicy Colorado sausage to cheeses fresh from the campo. Today we went and wandered the halls, looking in the butchers' windows and seeing every kind of meat you could imagine--from the normal cuts to pieces you can't believe are edible, including cow brains! Check them out:

We saw whole (deceased) goats hanging from meat hooks, and the same goes for some poor little piggies (sorry to the vegetarians who are reading this!). We saw rabbit sausage, tripe, liver, and mountains of fish fresh from the river. Spice merchants sold packets of powder for everything from paella to goulasch. A coffee and tea shop sold dried fruits and vegetables...And fruit loops, randomly! We walked and snapped photos of every vendor, feeling shy when the butchers caught us stealing a photo when they were going about their business. But they didn't seem to mind--they just smiled before the flash came. We left the market with fresh cilantro, ginger, and cherry tomatoes...And (again, sorry to you peaceful vegetarians) a leg of lamb, because we are making a feast tonight for Ale & Maria, our amazing hosts for the past two months. Buen provecho !

Another amazing discovery we have come across is a small circle of wonderful friends. We didn't expect to meet many people in Cordoba; working from home doesn't afford many opportunities to meet people. But, we were happy & thankful because we were living with a sweet family that we ate dinner with every night, and we were also lucky enough to have a couple of visitors--some friends from Buenos Aires and my parents! But the unexpected blessing happened, and we did end up meeting some very nice people that we will really miss. It is such a small world, but one of the volunteers who went to the Enchanting Challenge-owned farm in Chile actually lives in Cordoba. When he returned from the farm, he contacted Nick, and we met up with him and his lovely girlfriend. They turned out to be so incredibly nice, and they introduced us to some of their other friends. For the past two weeks we have been spending time with these new-found friends, and really enjoying every second of it. They have introduced us to some lovely Cordobesa festivities, such as the Paseo de los Artes, a quaint arts and crafts fair in a quite bohemian-esque neighborhood that hosts artists selling their hand-made wares. It's so much fun to wander through and take in their work--and its especially fun when the vendors are selling edible goods, such as the delicious manzana torta and vanilla cake that I can't resist!

We are really thankful for our time here in Cordoba. It has given us such good moments, and we will really cherish these memories...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lightning Fast Changes: Drafting a Plan B on the Open Road

Two weeks ago Nick and I were certain that we were headed to our employer's organic farm, Ulaa, for the month of July, to work on the farm and to help out in drafting long-term plans for recruiting volunteers. And after that, we were certain that in August we were headed west to Mendoza, to work with a foundation that was partnered with our employer, again to help out and to help draft some long-term plans.

But then we found out that our employers had to put a hold on their volunteer programs due to financial problems (damn Swine Flu!)! Which means, as coordinators of the volunteer programs, we're outta work, so to speak. So two weeks ago we learned that we had to really put the pedal to the metal and draft a plan B for the open road we're riding here in Argentina until December.

And you know what? We found a plan B: using WWOOF, we found a farm 80 km outside of Mendoza city that will take us in for the month of July for 30 pesos a week. The farm is called Madre Tierra and it is run by a family with two young children. It's a bit of a hippy commune you might say---no meat, and no alcohol allowed, so that we can all be in harmony and dedicated to our farm work! :-) The father teaches yoga daily at the farm, and the mother is a nutrionist. Farm work is done everyday Monday-Friday, Saturday is for chores, and Sunday is the day of rest. So it will be quite a challenge, but one we are really looking forward to! (This is my one chance to get flaca! Let's see if I can pull it off! :-) ) It's going to be cold and a bit snowy probably, so this will be quite an experience! But a good one, we really think...We fell in love with Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle earlier this year, and we're really excited for an opportunity to learn more about getting back to nature. And, hell, we may never have the chance again...

But all in all, I think this change was a good lesson to us. Though at first it seemed like an unlucky thing to be out of work, it actually turns out to be quite lucky--now we have an opportunity to do something kind of crazy and get some life skills (like farming) under our belt. PLUS, more importantly, it reminds us how lucky we are: we are so, so incredibly fortunate to be in a situation where we have earned decent money in the past couple of months and are living in a relatively inexpensive place. Therefore, we don't feel the pressure like so many people unfortunately are experiencing right now during the crisis...So it reminds us to keep things in perspective and be GRATEFUL!

So that's all. A week from today we'll head on out to Madre Tierra, and then in August, we'll head to another farm in Mendoza province, and we'll find our way like that, month-by-month, until we come home in December...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iguazu Part II: Hiking Through the Jungle

As the title hints at, the second part of our adventures in Iguazu involved a jungle hike. Okay, that sounds a little dramatic...But it was a dirt path through jungle-like terrain--wet, red-brown earth; creeks winding their way along the path; trees growing within trees; exotic birds and animals I couldn't identify peeping their heads out from the brush; and MONKEYS! I felt like I had stumbled upon the set of Gorillas in the Mist (a version with a happy ending) when we came upon a bundle of tall trees linked together with vines and branches, and nuts and berries began to hurtle down at us from the monkeys looming in the branches above. There were two young women studying the monkeys, taking notes and silently observing. Nick and I looked up and watched these funny little creatures move around in their natural setting. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't in Woodley Park at the zoo--I was seeing these little guys in their home! They were adorable, but we read in the Park brochures that their innocence is all a facade if there is food involved; thus we kept our packed sandwiches hidden in our backpacks and watched them, hoping they wouldn't catch on to the scent of ham and cheese goodies we had tucked away. Luckily, the monkeys never found out we had food on us and they let us watch them as they did their daily thing: hop from branch-to-branch, occasionally make a squeal, nibble away at the branches, and throw down unwanted nuts. They were so cute...When we were quiet and watching them, we heard twigs cracking and other noises coming from the forest. Our imaginations wandered and we wondered what was in there making those noises...We had read of the jaguars that prowl this jungle at night, and of the rare times when they did make day-time appearances. I tried to imagine how I would act if we did encounter a jaguar, tried to think if I could follow the guidebook's advice and NOT betray my fright...Somehow I didn't think I could pull it off... Luckily, we never had to find out if I would be tough enough to pull it off in front of a jaguar; they seemed to all be sleeping that day. Nick and I finished the hike unscathed--3 km into the jungle. At the end, we celebrated at the base of a miniature waterfall. This little guy shot down from about 30 feet into a small basin of water surrounded by large rocks/small boulders. It was like a scene from Now & Then, or Stand by Me, or any other feel-good movie where little kids are having the time of their lives in the outdoors. Nick and I ate our ham sandwiches sitting on top of one of the aforementioned rock-boulders. I took off my shoes and dipped my toes into the water. I briefly flirted with the idea of swimming in the pool before I whipped my freezing extremities from the water. But Nick had a different, doable, and adventureous idea--to climb atop the circle of rocks so that we stood next to the waterfall. We took turns and it was a blast. Over one rock and onto the next, being careful not to slip, getting our tennis shoes soaking wet, and hopping over little streams that wound their way through the stone. Finally, we stood underneath the falling water, getting sprayed with offshoots, freezing, and laughing so much. We were all alone in that magic little spot, and I think that also helped to make it feel like a movie; our own private little waterfall. It was too much fun... But alas, as Nelly Furtado says, all good things must come to an end...We packed ourselves up and hiked the 3 km back out of the forest...Bye-bye to the baby waterfall, and bye-bye to the squeaking monkeys. But all the better from it, that's for sure. :-)