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. :-)

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Devil's Throat: Humbled (Again) by Nature

As Nick & I stood atop Cerro Uriturco in Capilla del Monte, I thought (of course not for the first time) how man-made wonders seem always to pale in comparison to the wonders made by nature. Well, that thought was magnified tenfold as I stood last week in front of The Devil's Throat waterfall at Iguazu Falls. Never in my life had I seen something that took my breath away quite as sharply...It's one of those things that I even feel funny writing about because no words could aptly express the feeling. But on the flip-side, I feel funny not writing about it because I think it deserves praise. Oh, the plight, the constant catch-22 of an aspiring writer! Poor me. :-) Well I guess I will have to settle for doing my best to appropriately attribute the right words to something so beautiful...

As you know from my last post, on our first day in Missiones, Argentina, we took an ever-unforgettable voyage into Paraguay...And on the second day, we hit the waterfall park. Awaking bright and early, at 7 am we could see our breath, but we dressed in shorts, knowing the sun would come and we would break lots of sweat as we hiked the paths in-between the waterfalls. So we shivered our way on the bus to the Parque Nacional Iguazu, paid our fare to enter, and set about our explorations.

First came La Garganta del Diablo, or The Devil's Throat, a giant waterfall that you reach via catwalk over some twists and turns of the Rio Igaucu. You can hear The Devil's Throat long before you can see it, its roars reaching your ears when all seems just peaceful and shallow river water streaming underneath. But then the mist comes, arising from the crashing of the water, and enwrapping the whole area in a mysterioius foggy shield. And then you know your close.

But neither the noise nor the mist can prepare you for the actuality of The Devil's Throat. As you reach the look-out point and stare out over, you can't believe that something so foreful, something so powerful, is constantly in this beautiful motion, naturally. A perfect ecosystem of unbelievable power and beauty formed seemlessly. Nothing made by us humans could compare.

Just before The Devil's Throat, the water from the Rio Igaucu moves slowly and surely like a normal river, seemingly making its way to the river's basin. But then the earth drops down without warning, and the water drops with it, gathering momentum as it travels to the valley below. So much water pouring forth, gathering momentum together, until it becomes a collective fall of water joined together in freefall motion. The falling droplets become gathered clouds of froth, spraying mist in every direction, hitting the rocks below with crashing force and crashing noise. The rocks break their fall, calm them, and they continue their journey onto the basin, recovered and rejuvenated from their fall. And again and again it happens with constantly renewed droplets.

To watch this process is to be mesmerized. It was truly hypnotizing. I could have stood there on that old over-pass on that old catwalk, watching new water fall for hours upon hours (if only there weren't so many tourists, wanting my fought-for look-out spot!). I imagined everything--the explorer (Senor Nunez) that discovered these mighty falls (and how did he manage to not fall himself?!), the tourists that at times have taken too many risks and fallen themselves, the fish that must somehow survive such a fall, the lush earth around this fall that is green, green, green, constantly watered from the tons of mist spit forth from this devil's throat...What a wonder...

Eventually, the new tourists got their way, and I gave up my perch. Nick snapped photo after photo, trying to capture this all-too-brief moment in a small way forever. We took one more gawk, and moved on. Afterall, there were many more falls to see! Their story comes next...

The sky pours out biblical rain
Then days so still the beauty gives you pain
The heatwave kills the green and she remains unseen
But colors up my dream with all things blooming

~Indigo Girls~

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Citizen Journalism: Deeply Rooted Corruption

On Thursday, Nick and I hopped aboard a 23 hour-long bus ride to Iguazu Falls, in the north of Argentina, snuggled up against the Brazilian and Paraguayan borders. The point of this journey was two-fold: first and foremost we went to experience the waterfalls, of course. But secondly, we had some business to take care of--we needed to renew our tourist visas and figured that with the easy access to Paraguay from Iguazu, a trip to the Falls was a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone.

SIDE NOTE: Nick and I arrived in Argentina on a tourist visa, good for three months. To renew it, when we were in Buenos Aires, we simply took a day-trip across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay. We would be stamped out of Argentina, stamped into Uruguay, stamped out of Uruguay, and stamped back into Argentina, and alotted another three months, all in a day. Being in Cordoba makes our semi-legal racket a bit more difficult, since we're sandwiched inside the country. What happens if we overstay our tourist visa? Probably not much. At minimum, it's a $50 fine, but we don't want to get caught in a situation where we've broken the law in a foreign country, so we don't risk it. Thus, to Paraguay we went, and just in the nick of time. Our last tourist visa was set to expire June 7th, and it was already June 5th. So on we went across the border...

It turns out that getting to Paraguay from Iguazu was fairly straight forward. We just headed to the major depot in town, where we were told that a bus to Paraguay came every 45 minutes. Sure enough, a half-hour later, a yellow bus came crawling around the corner, a sign reading PARAGUAY standing upright in its windshield. We hopped on the bus and paid the fare--3 pesos each.

The bus soon filled and we took off. After a tiny stretch of highway, we arrived at Argentine immigration, where we hopped off and got our passports stamped to mark our timely exit from the country. Back on the bus, we cruised away from Argentina and onto a Brazilian strip of highway. Soon enough we came upon an arrow directing us left to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay and right to Igaucu, Brazil. The driver veered to the left. (We would have loved to go to Brazil, but the visa costs $100 a person...Someday we'll get there!)

The moment when the highway stopped belonging to Brazil and started belonging to Paraguay was shockingly obvious. As Nick said, you could literally see the line where the resources stopped. The Brazilian highway was well-paved and well-painted, with neat and trim vegetation on both sides. The Paraguayan side was not so. The road was bumpy, with cars and buses stopping and going according to their own whims, not according to traffic rules. Half-built ramshackle buildings crumbled on the side of the road and people were everywhere. The bus stopped at the immigration office and Nick and I hopped out.

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The immigration office looked more like a hang-out pad than an official port of entry. People were wandering around--there were no lines, no uniforms, no official-ness. One attendant waved us over.

He had greased hair, a white-collar shirt tucked into jeans. He didn't smile at us. He took our passports, saw the US emblem, seemed to pause in thought, and then opened the booklets up to stamp. Just before stamping them, he seemed to regain his thought. He motioned Nick in.

Nick cocked his head to listen to the attendant, but the man was speaking so quietly that Nick had to bend his head under the glass (which was quite awkward and quite low) to hear the man.

He was telling Nick that there was a visa. Which we knew very well that there wasn't. He tried to scare us by saying that we could only stay for 20 hours without a visa. We responded that we were just going to do some shopping and head back. He looked disgruntled but he stamped us anyways.

Just when we thought we were in the clear, he closed our passports and set them aside on his desk, looking as if he had no intention of giving them back. He motioned me forward.

It seems he just remembered that there was a "transportation visa" that we needed to pay. 100 pesos each. Again he was speaking so quietly, it was so hard to hear. I couldn't aruge; he has our passports and I don't speak enough Spanish to confidently and convincingly aruge. We handed over dearly-earned 200 pesos and in exchange got our passports. What a crapshoot, we thought!

We left the immigration office and stepped out into the bright bustle of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. It was overwhelming. Nick and I couldn't have sood out more, and in every direction someone was offering us something--a ride in a van, a taxi ride, a motorcycle ride, a tourist bus, street food, contraband...It was too much. We clung to the little money we had left, and ran to the bus stop across the street, back to Argentina.

Luckily, the bus came right away. When we hopped on, we saw that it was filled to the brim with people and their over-flowing shopping bags. Paraguay is the place to go for the cheapest of the cheap goods, so Argentines love to stock up across the border. But cheap goods mean sweat shops galore, and the sight of that injustice on top of having just witnessed such blatant corruption made us sad for Paraguay. How difficult it must be to simply make it, let alone get ahead, in a system where palms need to be greased every which way and a good-paying decent job is replaced by the unbeatable competitiveness of the sweat shop? We thought about the Paraguyan domestic workers we had known in Buenos Aires, and how they probably had thought that Buenos Aires would be a world class change...And now they are stuck working in the black for people who so often take advantage of them. And to think of the bribes they must surely be coerced into paying when they return to Paraguay and immigration officials see that they have been working in the much-more lucrative country of Argentina...

A government weighed down with corruption damns the society it represents. If the government takes advantage of its constituents, there is no protection and assurance anywhere, and thus so many of the people can not develop to become the creators, innovators, thinkers, and workers they all have the potential to be...

I want to leave this post with the most beautiful poem (sent to me from the most beautiful Laura Eppinger!) about the country of all our dreams, that we can all create over time if we all put our hearts and minds to it (the English translation is below)...

En el país un mejor conocimiento
-- Alberto Blanco

una piedra que canta la alabanza de su peso
una rosa que llora al alba su propio rocío
un gallo iluminado por el sol desde adentro
y un ser humano reconciliado consigo mismo

en el país de un mejor conocimiento
hay un estanque lleno de sirenas transparentes
hay un barco resplandeciendo a la medianoche
hay un cerro que piensa cosas marvillosas
hay una ventana abierta al fondo del mar
hay una balanza de innumerables brazos
hay un circo y su carpa en el cielo
hay un perro que es su propio amo
hay un ajedrez sin adversarios
hay una torre sobre la brisa
hay un mantel junto al río
hay un sombrero con alas

una barranca que se abre y se cierra
según el vértigo de quien la mira
una fruta tropical que a veces crece
dentro de las piedras preciosas

una planta con bellas cartas de amor
escritas en cada una de sus hojas
y coronado por las nubes de colores
un árbol inmenso en medio del mar

un alcatraz que se aparece
cuando se cruzan dos miradas
y un pino sobre el acantilado
haciéndole cosquillas a la luna
un yunque donde se forjan
redondos minutos de cristal
y un amanecer que sobrevive
a un atardecer interminable

en el país un mejor conocimiento
existe Dios más allá de todo numbro y todo forma
y viven viejos que son sabios somo los niños
existe un camino que va a donde quiere
y cuatro poemas dentro del corazón
existe un amor correspondido
hay una idea perfecta
hay un silencio


In the country of higher knowledge

a stone that sings the praises of its weight
a rose that at dawn weeps its own dew
a cock illuminated by an inner sun
and a human being reconciled with himself

in the country of a higher knowledged
there’s a lake full of transparent mermaids
there’s a boat glittering at midnight
there’s a hill thinking marvelous things
there’s a window opening onto the bottom of the sea
there’s a scale with countless arms
there’s a circus with its tent in the sky
there’s a dog that’s its own master
there’s a chess game without adversaries
there’s a tower above the breeze
there’s a tablecloth alongside the river
there’s a hat with wings

a ravine that spreads out and closes up
depending on the onlooker’s vertigo
a tropical fruit that sometimes grows
with precious stones

a plant with beautiful love letters
inscribed on each one of its leaves
and crowned with multi-colored clouds
an enormous tree in the middle of the ocean

a calla lily that appears
when two glances intersect
and a pine atop the cliff
tickling the moon
a forge that shapes
rounded crystal minutes
and a dawn that outlives
an interminable dark

in the country of a higher knowledge
God exists farther off from every name and every form
and old people live as wise as children
a road exists that goes wherever it likes
and four poems inside the heart
a requited love exists
there’s a perfect idea
there’s a silence

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Citizen Journalism

Through Idealist.org (the website of my heart) I recently discovered the organization, SalaamGarage. SalaamGarage promotes service projects in parts of the world that are normally not trekked by tourists. The organization has intimate in's with locals in their destinations, and they connect participants with these locals and help them to work together to create a service project that the community would benefit from.

I was really taken with SalaamGarage, with their initiatives and endeavors. But the thing that caught my attention most was what the organization calls, "citizen journalism." Citizen journalism is the name SalaamGarage gives to the way that their volunteers project their messages learned from their service projects. They urge all their volunteers to either write blogs, take videos, use Twitter or Facebook, or use any other chosen method of social media to get their unique & creative message out to the world about their project. They stress that everyone can be a journalist in their own unique way and every traveler and volunteer has their own unique message that the world can benefit from.

I really loved this message and I really want to try and use this blog at times as a platform for citizen journalism, as a place where I can talk about some things that strike us in Argentina. My ultimate goal is that readers will comment on these posts (i.e., tell me how much I don't know! lol!) and shed their light on the situation. I want to together create a dialogue that can analyze and interpret some of the complicated things happening in Argentina (and elsewhere when we get there!).

One thing that I would like to bring up is the topic of Argentina's upcoming elections. Like any country, Argentina's politics are a web of interwoven complications. In a country with very little history of democracy, their freely elected government seems somewhat fragile. Please, if anyone reading this knows more than I do, please correct me if I am wrong because I am certainly no expert. But, if I have done my homework right, I think that in the 20th century, Argentina had only 4 democratically elected leaders--Hippolito Yrigoyen in the early 1900's (who served close to 2 terms, before being overthrown); Juan Peron in the late 1940's (who again served close to 2 terms before being overthrown) and again after his exile in the 1970's (where he served part of 1 term before passing away, and was succeeded by his wife Isabel who was then overthrown); Raul Alfonsin in the 1980's who came after the infamous Dirty War; and Carlos Menem after Alfonsin. The rest of the years were characterized by military regimes.

What's more is that the democratic regimes that seem to show up as candle light through the darkness of dictatorships haven't always seemed to be very "for the people and by the people," so to speak. Pro-Peronists give Peron credit for accomplishing much for his country, but his opponents criticize him of being a Fascist and of using scare tactics to get what he wanted. However, Alfonsin does truly seem to be Argentina's honest Father of Democracy, and for that we can draw gratitude and aspirations for the future. But his successor, Menem, appears to have had some very un-democratic tendencies, with Mafia-like tendencies and connections coming out the ears.

No half-witted summary of mine can give can give due credit to the tragedies the Argentine people have suffered at the hands of their government. But I think even these few measly sentences can help to show that if Argentines appear cyncial of their government, they certainly have reason to feel so jaded.

The current administration under Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is wildly unpopular. The wife of the former president, Nestor Kirchner, came to office with high approval ratings on the heels of her husband's popular administration that was given credit for Argentina's rapid economic growth during the years of 2004-2007. However, it didn't take long for Cristina's popularity to plummet. By the time Nick and I arrived in late August, the President was coasting along on 23% approval ratings, and based on the buzz on the street, I don't think they've risen much in the past 9 months.

As I said before, I'm certainly no expert, but the tid-bits that I do catch about Cristina Kirchner seem infuriating. The poverty rate has been scarily creeping up-and-up in Argentina, as has the inflation rate. Despite this type of suffering plaguing her country, Cristina is often in the news for such expenditures as buying a pair of $15,000 earrings while visiting France. She pretends to be a champion of the poor, rallying behind political fights such as arguing in favor of allowing the slum in the center of Buenos Aires to exist, although she has done very little if anything at all to help its residents. Her tactics seem all talk, no walk, and the irresponsibility and irreverence shown to the actual people that suffer due to her negligence seems tragic.

But the good news is that Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner does not seem untouchable. Her seemingly frivolous behavior is not going unnoticed, as is reflected in opinion polls and in the splintering of her own party. Last summer, her own vice president cast the deciding vote against her attempts to further tax farmers' exports. Rising oppositionist voices, such as Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, are increasingly gaining attention and support. News circulates of slandering headlines, such as Spanish journalists calling her the "Botox Queen."

Of course, Cristina notices this shake-up in her hold over the country. As an attempt to salvage her power, she rescheduled congressional elections for June, moving them up three months from the previously planned October date. This finagling is an obvious attempt to cling to a last chance of retaining her party's power in the Congress. Her reasoning: economic projections don't look too good for the end of 2009; therefore, the sooner the elections are held in 2009, the better, as Cristina still has a chance to curry favor before the going gets too tough (which she fears it would be in October). So, rescheduling elections is an obvious ploy to gather votes when things are still good (enough).

Not only is this an obvious ploy to pull the bag over people's heads, but it's also quite ironic: the election date was officially set in October by her husband when he was president. Why? To keep politicians from doing exactly what his own wife is now doing: to finagle election dates to cash in on timely favor.

But the irony doesn't stop there--Nestor Kirchner himself appears on the ballot, as a senatorial candidate for Buenos Aires province. So not only has his wife dismantled an anti-corruption law he put in place, but he himself has waggled his way onto a powerful ticket. It seems to me as if the Kirchners are trying to establish themselves more firmly at the seat of power. And this may be their only chance, before inflation runs away and so do jobs as affects of the crisis trickle through the country (not to mention their massive loan payments due at the end of the year).

It makes me so sad to think of Argentina's leadership dooping the country. I can't bear to think about politicians going to slums and bribing residents with a coke and a hot-dog in exchange for a vote. It seems unbearably manipulative that leaders are deceiving, and intentionally hurting their constituents, under the guise of protecting them.

But here's where the hope comes in: Nestor Kirchner isn't doing as well as expected in the polls. He definitely has a shot at losing, which would prove to the leadership that the people are refusing to be swindled. What a wonderful message that would send: that despite the corruption, despite the military dictatorships, despite being cheated out of a democratic government again and again, the people are not giving up hope, are demading an honest system, honest representation. Until the end of the month with the moment of truth, let's all hope for that power to come from the people...

For a good and way more professional summary of the logic behind the elections read this Economist article.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Trekking with UFO's

As I've mentioned in my previous posts, the little towns dotting the Cordoba hills have stolen my heart. Nick and I spent the better part of last week tooling around more of these little gems with my parents, who came all the way from Madison, Wisconsin (bearing 4 flights!) to visit us! And they of course were captured by Cordoba's charm, just like us...

In a shiny Fiat rental car, my dad and Nick navigated through the winding, hilly, provincial roads and led us to towns with names like La Cumbre, Capilla del Monte, and Villa General Belgrano (maybe it's because I'm infatuated already, but even the names seem to ring with loveliness...). Each town had its own flavor (like Villa General Belgrano's deliciously orange-flavored micro-brewskis), but perhaps the most intriguing flavor of all was the slight hint of a UFO presence in Capilla del Monte. Let me explain.

Here is what Lonely Planet writes about Capilla del Monte:
It's not just the freaks and hippies. Even normal-looking people in Capilla del Monte have stories about strange lights appearing in formation in the night skies over nearby Cerro Uritorco [a near-by large hill/small mountain]...[One time] 300 people witnessed a ship, which left a burn mark 42 meters in diameter. And in 1991, another burn mark was found. This one measured 12 meters in diameter, with a temperature of 340 degrees Celcius. Geologists were called in and they claimed that nearby rocks had recently been heated to a temperature of 3000 degree Celcius.

Now, however you explain it, I think we can all agree that is some freakish activity. As I'm sure you can imagine, there are some prettty interesting explanations for these occurrences. One theory is that Cerro Uritorco holds the Holy Grail. Another explanation is that a hidden city called "Erks" rests underneath the mountain. And this isn't just any city. No, Erks is rumored to be the very place where "the future regeneration of the human species will take place," according to Lonely Planet. This is all pretty heady stuff, wouldn't you agree? Well, Nick and I certainly thought so, and there was only one way to confront such heady stuff: hike up Cerro Uritorco.

So that we did, with glee, on a gorgeous day last week. We rolled up our jeans, Nick bared his pecks, we armed ourselves with bottles of water, and finally we began our ascent. The sun was shining beautifully that day, and as we climbed higher and higher, we had the most magnificent views of the towns and valleys laying below. The path was narrow and we felt pretty hard-core as we manouvered over rocks and over steep inclines. I have to admit, I got pretty darn winded at times, but Nick keeping just a few steps ahead of me was great motivation to keep up. And, finally, 2 and 1/2 hours later, we made it to the peak of Cerro Uritorco.

I feel like I am letting down a great legend when I say I didn't feel any special energy, despite a guide stopping us on the way up to warn us into paying attention to the vibes emanating from the earth there on those slopes. But, alas, the only energy I felt was the excitement from having ascended a really big hill/a pretty small mountain. My legs were toast, but my heart was beating with the enthusiasm that comes after doing something a bit out of character and a bit challenging. But, hey, that energy was enough for me! I was pumped up to be on this great peak looking out from so far up over such beautiful countryside. (And let's face it, I'm just probably not in-tune enough to pick up on those other-wordly vibes!)

So, the lack of UFO vibes didn't get me down. Rather, at the top of Uritorco, I was happy as a clam. Nick and I were smiling away, eating our pack-lunches atop a rock on the peak when all the sudden we heard, "Sarah Maxwell!" Now, what the heck--we were on top of a hill/mountain in the middle of Cordoba. Who the heck was calling my name? Well, it was none other than Laura C., our friend from Buenos Aires! What are the chances? Okay, I have to admit, it's not THE most outrageous thing--I knew that Laura was in the Cordoba province that week, but I did not know she was in Capilla del Monte on that particular day, on the top of Cerro Uritorco at that particular hour. So perhaps the UFO rumors are true... :-)

Minutes after seeing Laura and finishing our much-needed lunches, we rose again and stretched out our semi-shaking legs. After some mental prep, we started down on our weakened legs, slow and steady, paying attention to each step and taking care not to twist our ankles on the moving rocks. Almost 3 hours later, we made it, back to the base, back to where we had started, a little enlightened by the Cordobesa UFO's...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mother Nature Takin' Over

'Cause it's the new Mother Nature takin' over
It's the new splendid lady come to call
It's the new Mother Nature takin' over
She's gettin' us all
She's gettin' us all

Oh yeah, that's right, I'm shamelessly quoting The Guess Who. But you know, it just really fits my mood right now. Why? Because Cordoba is filled with nature. Buenos Aires may be majestic in its man-made concrete wilderness (FLASHBACK: standing on top of the Palacio Barolo and looking out over the MAZE that is Buenos Aires, realizing that everyday millions of people some how make their way through all of that). But Cordoba is majestic in its divinely natural splendor.

Cordoba city sits like the hub of a wheel, the epicenter of a dozen spokes leading to country towns scattered throughout the hills. These country towns are indeed tiny. Their city centers can be tracked in 20 minutes tops. Their paths around the surrounding hills can be easily found, and the must-see tourist sites uniquely boasted by each town can be seen and enjoyed within an afternoon. These little towns make for short-and-sweet day trips, mini-vacations that give you respite from the urban hustle-bustle. They are truly lovely. So far, we have visited three of these hidden gems: Jesus Maria, Alto Gracia, and Villa Carlos Paz. I've already regaled you with the tales of Jesus Maria, so I'll bypass that verbal tour and skip straight ahead to Alto Gracia and Villa Carlos Paz.

First, Alto Gracia. This is where you go for a walk down Revolutionary Road. Che Guevara's childhood home is all the rage in this tiny town, and it is a definite must-see. Converted into a museum, it houses the famed motorcyle, as well as the lesser-known bicycle that Che pedalled through 14 Argentine provinces before he embarked on his pan-South American motorbike tour. The house is decorated with framed photographs of the Guevara family and preserved relics from their past. You leave the museum with a sense that the revolution lives on. I can't quite pinpoint exactly what leaves you with this feeling, but perhaps it's the room devoted to documenting Fidel and Hugo's joint visit to the house/museum in 2006. Their photographs, quotes, and signatures cover the walls in that final room, leaving you with a definite sense of...Wonder? I'm not quite sure what to call it, but it was definitely an interesting peek into a revolutionary and a revolutionary culture!

Outside the museum the town is very sleepy. There are delicious pastries to be eaten in the city center, a beautiful Jesuit mission that gives you a wonderful sense of pervading calm, and a stream and hills waiting for your playing feet. Our day in Alto Gracia was indeed a day well-spent!

Alright, now it's time to move on to Villa Carlos Paz. Though this town has decidedly less to offer than a Che museum, it certainly does have its own brand of charm. It truly is nestled into the sierras, and as you walk along you see those dusty, rustic hills on all sides of you. The lake of Villa Carlos Paz is the central point, and there are paddle boats just waiting for you to jump in and whirl around the lake! A little ways away from the lake is a ski lift that will take you up and into the sierras, giving you an amazing view (I am sure of that, although it was closed when we were there and we couldn't try it!).

But, really nothing in Villa Carlos Paz beats the Reloj Cu Cu, or the Cuckoo Clock. The Reloj Cu Cu was built in 1958 to promote tourism in the town. Located in the city center, it is a wooden structure, literally, an over-sized wooden cuckoo clock. It is very charming in a kitschy way, but unfortunately, we couldn't see the cuckoo bird chirp the time--the cuckoo bird was apparently stolen about a year ago, believe it or not. Oh, Dear Lord, I would LOVE to see the footage of that--a conman on the run with a wooden cuckoo tucked under his arm, slipping through the unsuspecting streets of Villa Carlos Paz. Well! It all just goes to show that there is always an adventure waiting for you in the Cordoba province.