Monday, January 26, 2009

From Beautiful Legs to Apples of Light

Bellagamba, meaning "beautiful leg," and also the name of our new favorite bar in Buenos Aires. Tucked into a cozy room on Rivadavia in the Congresso neighborhood, this bar is lit by colored lamps remniscient of 1960s design that also brings to mind shag carpeting. Thankfully, the bar is not clothed in shag carpeting, but rather hardwood floors and tables made from old-fashioned, foot-pedaled sewing machines, making for a quaint and retro atmosphere. The ceiling is lined with shelves holding empty, antique looking beer and wine bottles, and the music that plays is all Argentine rock, with the occasional U2 smash hit thrown in there. It is lively without being overwhelming, and the perfect place to meet friends for a drink...If you live in Buenos Aires, or are visiting, I definitely recommend Bellgamba...On the 2100 block of Rivadavia. You will be smitten!

This weekend was one of the best, and included a trip to Bellagamba with Leonor and Elsa. Our cozy drinks at Bellagamba were precluded by a delicious Peruvian dinner off the corner of Rivadavia on Calle Matheu. Dinner was at an unnamed lively restaurant that played regaton loudly as you ate your spicy Peruvian cuisine and drank from cold Quilmes liters as you sweated through the 36 degree Celsius humidity. It is impossible to beat the heat these days, but cold Quilmes definitely helps take the edge off...And Peruvian is so good it helps to make any discomfort bearable! I think Peruvian food is one of my favorite discoveries of this time in Buenos Aires...From corazon de vaca (cow heart) to spicy broths poured over fresh seafood to plump papas fritas with crispy pollo...It doesn't get much better than that. Again to the Argentine traveller, make sure to go to the corner of Rivadavia and Matheu for a tasty insight into Peruvian cuisine.

Saturday also opened up a world we have not yet seen in Buenos Aires: an outdoor concert in Vincente Lopez, a beautiful suburb just outside the city limits. There we sat as the sun set, stretched out on the grass listening to Kevin Johansen, an Argentine and North American singer who switches without accent between Spanish and English, making the audience laugh with his jokes and his goofy plays on words in his lyrics. He had the audience dancing, and the people in the crowd ranged from elderly couples clapping along, to dads dancing with their toddlers bouncing on their shoulders, to young groups of friends moving in groups, and everyone in-between. Our friend Laura brought thermoses of screw drivers, and we sipped strawberry vodka and orange juice from plastic cups as we clapped along with the rhythms.

Finally, on Sunday, we became tourists again, taking a guided walk through the Manzanas de las Luces, which literally means "Apples of Light." However, "manzana" is the word for apple, but also the old-fashioned term for "blocks," so the conotation of this term is a metaphor for blocks of intellectual light, as it is the old Jesuit-established College of Argentina, a highly-esteemed center of education visited by everyone from Albert Einstein to Carlos Gardel, Argentina's most famous tango singer.

The tour was in Spanish, so it was all we could do to catch a few words, but it was a great language lesson, and also an exciting tour. The blocks are old buildings constructed in the 1600s, and have been used as Jesuit residences, markets for flour and produce, houses for orphans, military headquarters, and now, the National College. Most remarkable is that underneath the buildings stretch a winding web of tunnels, originally built by the Jesuits, but added onto by Presidents such as Juan Peron as an attempt to create an escape-route in case of a coup (yikes!). The tunnels now stretch to the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, just in case. I wonder if the Jesuits ever thought their tunnels would be used for such a thing...

After the Manzanas de las Luces tour, we walked over to the San Martin tomb and cathedral, a place we visited on our second day in Buenos Aires, when we were wide-eyed new arrivals. We entered the cathedral with such a different feeling this time, with a more intimate relationship with the city and all it houses, and a better sense of the history that is preserved in this place. It felt so good to delve into the history and the culture behind the walls erected downtown, to gain a deeper insight into this place...Sometimes I feel we could be here forever and still scramble to see all there is to see! It is a wonderful feeling to take advantage of your time and visit places that offer you insight into the place that is your temporary home.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's all Happening at the Zoo!

In the words of Simon and Garfunkel:

Someone told me
Its all happening at the zoo.

I do believe it,
I do believe its true.

Its a light and tumble journey
From the east side to the park;
Just a fine and fancy ramble
To the zoo.

But you can take the crosstown bus
If its raining or its cold,
And the animals will love it
If you do.

Somethin tells me
Its all happening at the zoo.

The monkeys stand for honesty,
Giraffes are insincere,
And the elephants are kindly but
Theyre dumb.
Orangutans are skeptical
Of changes in their cages,
And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

Zebras are reactionaries,
Antelopes are missionaries,
Pigeons plot in secrecy,
And hamsters turn on frequently.
What a gas! you gotta come and see
At the zoo.


And is it ever all happening at the zoo...


Aprovechar: to make good use of; the mantra of 2009.

Our friends Jenny and Elise decided to start their new year with a promise to aprovechar, and Nick and I wanted to follow suit. We have all had some really hard times in BA, from being robbed, to being over-worked and under-paid and over-charged, to simply being part of the chaotic daily grind of a commuter searching for work in the over-populated capital of Argentina. But we are all here, which is somewhere we worked hard to be, and somewhere that begins our path to finding whatever it is that we are searching for. All of us forget this at times, times when we have been on the bus for five hours in one day and we are filthy from the pollution and the heat, and we are furious because a language institute forgot to tell us that classes are less expensive in the summer, which means we will get paid hundreds of pesos less than we expected. But then we come home, and Nick and I come home to each other, and we have to remind ourselves that we did this, we are doing this, and that we have an exotic continent at our fingertips, and that despite the slowness, we are beginning to grasp another language, and that suddenly we have close friends that we didn't know a mere 90 days ago. We have to remember that certain miracles have popped up along the way reminding us that yes, with hard work, your dreams can come true. And so 2009 became the year to aprovechar.

We are all trying to that in our own way. Nick and Brenna are moving to Patagonia, Chile in one month to begin a new job and a new life in the pristine environment of the south of the world...Jenny has begun a PR internship with one of her favorite restaurants in Buenos Aires--Pura Vida ( Elise has begun a job as the promoter of a pub crawl through the hippest part of the city for North American tourists (email me if you are interested!), something that is fun, exciting, and allows her to show off the city she is living in. Nick and I are taking steps to change our lives by finding freelance work and striving towards making a move to Corodoba in May, and hopefully after that, a "travelling wilbury" life through so many of the places in Argentina and South America that we are dying to see. And in the interim, we are all aprovecharing Buenos Aires, this city that to all of us represents dreams fulfilled dancing a tango with fears created (and faced!), but no matter what has given each of us a better and deeper sense of self and that will always hold a very sacred part in all our hearts.

Today, Brenna and I aprovechared Buenos Aires by going to the zoo. So simple and maybe boring to some, but it was honestly lovely. It was filled with people, but it wasn't chaotic, and sometimes that in and of itself is a blessing. The day was perfect--upper 70's and sunny. And to see animals!! We are in this concrete web of what feels like a mega-city, and to see animals and their squishy, cute faces, their fur that looks so pettable, ah, it was so much fun. Brenna said she felt like it was her first time at the zoo, and I was certainly snapping pictures like it was my first time, too. Giraffes, camels, ancient-looking tortoises, parrots, monkeys, polar bears, prairie dogs, gorillas, leopards, cheetahs, and lions. All of them were there, prancing around their miniature kingdom. To wander across the zoo's little bridges; to walk past its domed buildings, the paint peeling but regal nonetheless; to sit and eat salty french fries and drink cold water next to a river with cute little turtles paddling across; it all made for the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the city. Aprovechar here we come! In the words of one of the most special people I have ever met, of our Buenos Aires miracle-maker, "When you are open to the universe, the universe opens to you."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Chacarera and Choripan

Imagine a grill, a giant grill, equipped with its own chimney and resting atop un monton de carbon--a mountain of coal. Imagine a patio dimly lit, a plastic table holding soda, wine, bread and cheese. The smells of choripan and proveleta--grilled provolone cheese--are wafting to the table, making everyone's mouth water. Imagine the sound of an acoustic guitar finger-picked in a snapping rhythm, and the sound of clapping in accompaniment.

It is a calm night in Ciudadela, a town in the province of Buenos Aires. Here we sit on Eduardo and Paula's patio, our magical intercambio pals. We have played Scrabble--once in English and once in Spanish-- and 20 Questions, munched our way through Pringles and peanuts, and now we wait for the good stuff--the asado.

While we wait, Eduardo plays chacarera songs on his guitar. Tango is the music of the Capital and chacarera is the music of la provincia. It is the first time we have heard Chacarera--it sounds rustic and flavorful. Eduardo hands out lyrics he printed out for us, and this is how they read:

Anda con la cola al viento
Corre para todos lados
Le hablo mi perro hambriente
Que me tiene preocupado...

He goes with his tail to the wind
He runs to all sides
I speak of my hungry dog
That has me worried...

Such a simple story, with such a crisp beat. The music breaks up the stillness of the night and we all sing along.


We didn't get home that night til after four in the morning. We laugh about how a night in Ciudadela is our big night out--and really it is. But we are so happy with that. Sometimes we can not believe how open and warm people have been to us here. There we were on Saturday with people who were strangers a mere month ago. And now they have opened up their home to us, shared an asado with us, and taught us the songs of the province. These are memories to be collected.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Little Bit of Japanese Culture

Sometimes with all the running around and having our normal lives here in Buenos Aires, I forget to stop and smell the flowers...It's been ages since I opened up my Frommer's Buenos Aires travel book and took a look at descriptions of places I have yet to visit. So, this week, I realized it was time to put a stop to that ignorant nonsense. I opened up my trusty travel paperback, found a page dog-eared from ages ago: page 174 and the description of the Japanese Gardens deep in the heart of leafy Palermo. And here is what the write-up read:

"Special landscaping, rock islands, and small red bowed bridges give the feeling of being in Japan as soon as you step through the gates here. Carp swim in the large central lake, a delight for children as well as adults. Beyond the lake lies the Cultural Center, with a small museum and art exhibitions...A simple restaurant offers tea, pastries, sandwiches, and a few Japanese dishes. Open daily 10-6."

And, I wanted to step through those gates immediately. So, on Sunday, I arranged to meet Brenna at the nearest subway so we could have a stroll through the gardens. Was it ever lovely...Gated off from the main street, as soon as you do step through the entrance, the noise of Avenida Libertador is hushed, and you are free to meander upon the stone and dirt paths in tranquil quiet. True to its description, huge and colorful carp swim through the park lakes, and vendors sell fish food so that park-frolickers can feed the fishies from the bridge. The fish swim over each other and fish-kiss the air in hopes of being the recipients of the free food. The bridges are perfectly arched and painted a crisp fire-engine red. Native Japanese pines dot the landscape, and stone statues depicting samurai's hide amidst the tree's shadows. Park benches languish in the shade, and are perfect for sitting and enjoying a cup of mate, and people watching the park passers-by. Two wooden geisha cut-outs with empty faces stand just waiting to be posed in (how could Brenna and I resist?). A traditional Japanese style building houses a collection of cultural artwork, while a classy yet quaint restaurant on the grounds offers tea and sushi. It is lovely.

Brenna and I walked across each bridge and down each dirt pathway, eventually finding our way to a park bench, where we shared cup after cup of mate and of course, a bottle of white wine. We sat there for hours, munching on granola bars and fruit salad, passing back and forth a cup of mate and eventually making sangria with our fruit and wine. To sit in such a refuge in the middle of Palermo was such a peaceful and perfect way to while away the Sunday afternoon...And it was a perfect reminder for me to open up my guidebook more often!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Villa 31

On Thursday evening after work, Nick sat down and read the following article in the Economist: "Misery in their midst: a fight over an iconic shantytown" ( Sometimes we get frustrated because it seems hard to find news about Argentina in international news sources, even though it is a place that is never short of newsworthy headlines. So, we were excited to find an article about Buenos Aires, and about the poverty-stricken side of Buenos Aires at that, in such a widely-read magazine. The article is specifically focused on Villa 31, a slum in the heart of Buenos Aires, next to the very busy Retiro train station. This is a neighborhood that almost every commuter in Capital frequents at some point during the week, and the slum that sprawls along its tracks is very well-known. The life filled with misery that these slum-dwellers face is a stark reality inside the city, and it is a very important subject to be investigated and reported upon.

However, after reading the article, both Nick and I were shocked by the over-simplified tone the author took with the situation. The writer spoke about the slum's origins as a place built by Italian and Polish immigrants that had come to seek jobs in Buenos Aires during the Great Depression and settled near Retiro for its proximity to the port and downtown, and the jobs offered in both venues. The writer spoke about how that is still true today, except that the immigrants are now largely Bolivian instead of Polish and Italian, but they have come to Villa 31 for the same reasons as their predecessors--for "its proximity to downtown schools, hospitals, entertainment and jobs."

The author went on to characterize the legal situation of Villa 31 of that of a wealthy mayor versus a socialist government, with the people of Villa 31, a tight-knit community, caught in-between and fighting for survival. He wrote that "The settlement has become the focus of hostilities between Mauricio Macri, the conservative city mayor, and the left-leaning national government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner." All of this dramatic struggle was simplified in one page of text, ignoring huge details that significantly change the meaning of the situation.

Nick immediately went onto the homepage of the Economist to find out how to write a letter to the editor, and subsequently drafted a response to this article. This is what he said:
"As a commuter who frequently passes through the Retiro district in Buenos Aires, I took particular interest to your article on housing in Argentina ("Misery In Their Midst", January 8th). However, I was struck at how your article over-simplified the situation between Villa 31 and the interested parties of the city and federal government. You seemed to boil the situation down to a few brave and noble citizens defending their historic working class neighborhood against the aspirations of the greedy property developer in Mr Macri. While Mr Macri is known for gentrifying historic neighborhoods, Villa 31 is a far cry from such a community. With a population of over 40,000, Villa 31 is an overcrowded lawless slum, characterized by violence, drugs, and sexual abuse. You mentioned that Villa 31's inhabitants "prize its proximity to downtown schools, hospitals, entertainment, and jobs." However, the majority of these people do not attend school, cannot afford entertainment, and their so-called "jobs" consist of humiliatingly selling trinkets to passersby. So while gentrifying the shantytown is not desirable, preserving Villa 31 as is would be irresponsible."

I really hope that what Nick wrote gets published in the Letters to the Editor section of the magazine. I don't hope this because I think we have more insight to shed on the situation than an obviously very-accredited journalist, but rather because I think that over-simplifying facts is a very dangerous thing to do in writing. From reading this article, I know that had I read it in the States before coming to Argentina, I would have thought of Mayor Macri as a greedy "capitalist" out to benefit the rich and hurt the poor. I would have taken this journalist's words that the Kirchnerista administration was by the people and for the people. And I would have pictured Villa 31 as, yes, out of place within perhaps ritzy-Retiro, but respectable and communal.

And such an image is innapropriate. I want to ask this journalist, What about the Kirchners is left-leaning? The fact that they nationalized pensions? Well, wouldn't they have to redistribute the wealth for that to be considered leftist? And they didn't. Instead, Cristina is off meeting foreign leaders such as French President Sarkozy, spending $15,000 on a pair of earrings in one day, spending millions of American dollars on her wardrobe, while her people spin lower and lower into economic deprivation. Are they leftist because they proclaim they are Peronistas, descendants of Juan Peron's party? Well, not even the Peronist Party can be said to be leftist anymore. Take Menem, the infamous Peronista of the 1990's, from the so-called "People's Peronist Party." And take a look at his legacy: the privatization of everything from the utilities, to the post office, to the national oil company; his country's dependance on foreign credit; and its shocking fall from grace in 2001.

Most Argentines would say that all politicians here are corrupt, and there is certainly evidence to fit the accusation: Menem has been found guilty for illegal arms-sales, but is currently unable to be indicted as he is currently an acting Senator (and no acting Senator can be indicted); Nestor Kirchner is being tried for acts of corruption during his presidency; Cristina Kirchner is currently under suspicion for campaign money that can be traced back to drug-dealers. The corruption does not seem to cease, and it is not fair to sum up Nestor and Cristina Kirchner as left-leaning socialists who use their time in office to fight for their people.

As for Macri, it is also unfair to characterize him as just a conservative roadblock to the country's socialist leaders. He is certainly no angel--while he is embarking on a number of campaigns to clean up the city in a progressive direction, such as starting recycling initiatives, the middle and upper classes readily confess that he benefits them more than he does the poor. He is guilty of wide-spread gentrification, polishing up neighborhoods like San Telmo without offering better locals for the original inhabitants there. Such gentrification makes the neighborhood dangerous as the locals bitterly look at the foreigners and trendy portenos who now take up residence on their blocks, making for an uncomfortable and sometimes violent clash in socio-economic status. If his plans for restoration of Retiro involve simply pushing out the slum-dwellers without helping to create a new home for them, that is inappropriate and irresponsible, and neither Nick nor I would ever advocate for such a thing.

However, just as Nick wrote in his letter to the editor, it would be equally irresponsible in the Kirchnerista method, preserving Villa 31 as is. Villa 31 is not a tight-knit working class neighborhood characterized by an under-privileged but respectable life. It is a sprawling, poverty-stricken mass of makeshift lodging quarters. Often a family of five lives in a home the size of a bedroom; sexual abuse is rampant, even within families; children do not go to school but instead spend their days outside of the train station selling useless trinkets to commuters. At night, street violence and drug abuse are the laws of the land; and currently a drug supposedly more addictive than crack is making its way into the crevices of the villas. It is populated by thousands of Argentines and migrants, many from Bolivia, who came to Buenos Aires searching for a better life. I think the arms of the villa in which they now find themselves is far from the life they sought.

To sustain the status quo of Villa 31 is to say that it is acceptable for a large part of a city's population to live in squalor, as second or third or fourth class citizens. Many, perhaps most, of the residents of Villa 31 are undocumented people, without records to their existence. They are residents that don't exist, and by keeping them in the slum that is their home, their Buenos Aires, it is allowing them to keep not-existing. And that way the Kirchners get to keep alive their image of fanning the flame of the companeros without having to lift a finger. Why don't the so-called Kirchner leftists put their money where their mouth is, redistribute the wealth they've seemingly stolen in broad daylight. Let's see some subsidized housing and national programs addressing sexual education, abuse rehabilitation, drug addiction, and education, like a real progressive, like a real Peronista. The corruption in Argentina is heart-breaking, but displays like these in which a government disguises its apathy as a fight for its people is nauseating.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Angel of the Villa

"Les gustaria una tarjeta del Dia de San Valentin?" Would you like a Valentine? she asked, her round, brown face poking out of the TBA train window. Her eyes were playful and excited, despite the un-childlike tasks she had been charged with.
"No, gracias," we smiled at her and kept walking down the platform. We needed all the change we had for the bus ride home.
"Espera! Espera!" Wait, wait! she shouted. She bent down, out of site for a moment, only to pop up a second later, her black bob bouncing.
"Aqua!" Here! and with that she flung a valentine out the window at us, just as the train started moving down the tracks.
We laughed and shouted gracias, waving our thanks. She waved back and we watched as her little face and hand became littler and littler, until it was just a small dot in the distance.
We looked down at the valentine. It was just like the playing card-size notes we all handed out with candy sweethearts in the first grade. It had three swooning fairies encircled by puffy red hearts, each fairy accompanied by a love-dovey thought bubble. My favorite fairy had purple hair, blue eyes the size of a Disney character, and a pink dress. Her thought bubble mused that "Nuestro amor. Es sentimiento presente en cada rincon de nuestros corazones." Our love. It is a sentiment present in each corner of our hearts. We smiled and tucked the card into my purse. A sweet memento from a sweet little cherub of the TBA train.
Later on and into the next day, I kept wondering about this little girl. How did she keep smiling? Her sun-browned face was smudged with dirt; her knees were black with grime. She had no more than five years to her name and she was forced to sell trinkets on a commuter train when she should be have been playing in a sandbox. And yet, she seemed unscathed by this reality, by the lack of fairness that characterized her life.
As Nick and I were riding the train from the province back into the city, I couldn't stop watching this little girl. She simply set her goods down on each train rider's lap, giving each person a chance to consider her wares. When all the cards had been passed out, she would run from one side of the train to the other, giggling the whole way. When she went to collect the cards, she didn't seem frustrated or sad when people returned them without purchasing. She simply acted as if it were all a game between friends, a game without expectations of proof of purchase from a family in the shadows.
When the process was all over and all the cards had been delivered and re-collected, the little girl simply went and plopped down on her father's lap in the back end of the train car. How could her father allow her to do such a task, and do it alone? Why couldn't he at least hold her hand the whole time? And yet, she seemed happy as a clam.
I imagined her at home, smiling away despite the ramshackle dilapidation sweeping through the slum where she most likely lived. A villa (veejah) as they call the slums here, in the province or along the train tracks in the city. A villa where meals are eaten over-shadowed by the worry of where the next meal will come from. A villa characterized by street violence and persistent illnesses that come with poverty. A villa where thousands sleep when they are not sleeping on dirty mattresses on the busy city streets where they make their living selling objects like plastic angels and rubber figurines. A villa where children have children and the cycle continues.
And yet, here she was, this little valentine messenger, this little cherub, smiling in the face of such despair. How? Did she have someone that looked after her and taught her that she would rise above this? Or did she simply have an inner voice that told her this? Or was she purely innocent of the injustice of her situation? Who can know. But this is where the hope lays, in a child whose pure innocence and happiness is stronger than the violent poverty that she was born into, our little angel of the villa. Let us place our hope with her and the others like her. "There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle."