Caminar por la Avenida Santa Fe es navegar por un laberinto recto. Nunca doblo pero todo gira. Paso por las mismas tiendas una y otra vez con un ritmo predefinido. Siete cuadras adelante cruzaré la misma Clona que pasé hace quince minutos. Colecciono un plenitud de conos a seis pesos de dulce de leche vendidos en las ventanillas de postre de McDonalds. Los chiquitos kioscos innumerables cubren la vereda con azulejos morados hechos de barras de chocolate Milka.
Las otras caras de la Avenida me pasan sin mirarme. Camino por esta calle todos los santos días, pero cada rostro que me presenta es puramente nuevo, y nunca nos vamos a encontrar más. Aquellos sonámbulos ajenos que sólo existen como un parte del fondo infinito perdurarán para siempre en la Avenida Santa Fe.
Apago el pucho justo antes de desaparecerme debajo las escaleras que crecen desde la vereda. Se oculta el sol y empiezan a parpadear las luces fluorescentes. No sé porque corro sobre las escaleras pero todos lo hacen. Giro las esquinas sin mirar alrededor. Ya conozco el camino perfectamente: a la derecha, otra escalera, a la izquierda, a la derecha de nuevo. Pienso en comprar una gaseosa o unas golosinas en el kiosco de vibrantes colores que ocupa el rincón eternamente pero nunca las compro.
Al fin, llego a mi destino, jadeante de mi carrera sola a través de los túneles. Las luces brillan aún más fuerte en el andén infinito. Escucho la presión del aire desde el túnel lúgubre antes de ver el cuerpo amarillo surgiendo de la boca de oscura piedra manchada. Los rostros y el pelo de los prisioneros atrapados a dentro cesan de difuminar durante los doce segundos que los miro fijamente. Abre la boca de la imponente pared amarilla enfrente de mí, y me uno a los demás mientras me cierran las puertas y me traga el subte.
That I am now incredibly accustomed to...
The majority of my time studying abroad has consisted of doing things I never would have considered before. That's not to say that I have been taking every absurd and dangerous risk set before me--;)--but rather that I have the opportunity to do things I never would have imagined.
On our plane ride to Rio de Janeiro, my friend Bonnie and I tossed around the idea of visiting one of the city's notorious favelas (slums). I suggested going at the end of the week, so as to not "dampen" our spring break vacation...My expectation of the favela could not have been more off the mark.
Our visit into the Rocinha favela was an unforgettable, eye-opening experience. Most people are familiar with the images of sadness and violence in the favelas thanks to movies like City of God. The truth is a much more complex situation that defies all expectations.
We opted to forego the awkward Jeep rides that show tourists the favelas at a "safe" distance from locals, and instead chose to take a walking visit with a long-time favela resident. Our guide, Zezinho, gave us a straightforward look into life in the favelas. He showed us the behind-the-scenes workings of everything from community standards, infrastructure, water, energy, social services, transportation, police-resident relations, to the role of drug trade in the favelas. Every detail was more surprising than the last. For instance, we learned that crimes like theft, sexual assault, and non-drug related killings are exceptionally rare within the community due to the eye-for-an-eye punishment policy enforced by the residents. Also, services such as public transportation, medical clinics, and commerce all exist within the slums, and in fact, function quite nicely. Most importantly, we learned that only a scarce amount of government funds end up in the favelas, despite their high density of residents. Instead, favela residents fund, build, and maintain their communities semi-autonomously. They build their own homes, paint their buildings, and pave their own sidewalks. Zezinho suggested that this is where Rocinha's residents get their sincere respect for their community.
This is not to say that the favelas are perfect--they certainly have their struggles like any community. Zezinho clearly explained to us what the upgrades the community needs and wants: safer infrastructure, cleaner/safer sewage systems, and more spaces to come together as a community to enjoy activities like sports, music, arts, and learning. Through seeing what obstacles exist within the favelas--as well as those that don't--I feel much more prepared to help in efforts to provide the residents with what they need and want.
Support an effort to paint an entire favela in Rio de Janeiro--
I figured it's time to discuss a study abroad taboo topic: class. Yes, it happens to all of us when we study abroad. It's that ever-present, yet oh-so-easily forgotten obligation that is our one requirement to flee the States for five months without becoming a college drop-out.
In Buenos Aires I've had the bittersweet opportunity to take classes at local universities with, well, locals. I knew studying in a foreign country in a foreign language would be an interesting challenge, but I was clueless as to exactly how different it proved to be...
The first two weeks of the class "shopping" period consisted of meandering the streets of Buenos Aires in the general vicinity of campus, searching for any building with the university's name on it. After squeezing through crowds of boisterous Argentines smoking, shouting, and eating alfajores, I began the process of finding a class: Arrive to the wrong place at the wrong time, settle to select a random class from the list, go to what I think is the right classroom, and find out I'm wrong again. So I ask the closest Argentine what class they're going to. If it sounds interesting, I go and listen to a lecture I halfway understand.
Once that fun is over, it's time to spend weeks attending classes without doing any homework because I have no idea how to locate the fotocopias. (I like using this excuse because it makes me feel better about the fact that I wouldn't have read them anyway...). The real fun of studying at an Argentine university is the fervor with which the students argue with the professors, mixed with the casual ease with which everyone--professors included--enters and leaves the classroom at their will. More fun comes from working on projects with a group of Peruvians for marketing class. This means getting together at their apartment to eat, drink, and watch music videos, with bits of work sprinkled in between. Better yet, Argentine education means I get to pretend that I sincerely don't understand Spanish in order to convince the professor that I won't be writing the 30-page final paper. I've learned some useful skills here ;)
"We did Mendoza right" was the general consensus by the end of our four-day stay.
Bonnie and I left Buenos Aires with plans to meet up with one friend, try some wine, and maybe hike around the mountains a bit. We left with more friends than intended and some off-the-beaten-path adventures that lead us to the conclusion that we got the best experience out of Mendoza.
Our first day, we were lucky enough to get a personal tour around the city from a local Mendocino, my home-stay mom's nephew. Bonnie and I had few expectations, but we ended up laughing for hours as our two new Mendocino friends grew accustomed to our quirky American ways and broken Spanish.
Back in the hostel, we experienced our first chance encounter with fellow Californians since arriving in Argentina. Blessed with little plans for the remainder of the trip, it worked out quite perfectly for the five of us to explore Mendoza together. Our first goal: go wine tasting in a few of Mendoza's hundred wineries without breaking the bank. Solution: ditch the tours and figure it out. This included hopping on a local city bus to take us to a family-owned bike rental shop in the Maipu wine region. There, Mr. Hugo equipped us with some very basic bicycles, a map of the nearby wineries, and a couple discounts on tastings. Let's just say the wineries, big and small, did not disappoint. From lavish establishments that provided us full bottles of expensive vino to the mom-and-pop shops that had us taste their homemade absinthe, we enjoyed every stop on our self-guided tour.
After such a great time wine tasting, it only made sense to travel again together the following day. This time, we really chose to do things the unconventional way. Once again forgoing the pricey tours, the five of us chipped in for a car rental with the idea of driving to the Argentine-Chilean border through the Andes. The rapidly changing landscape during the 10,500-ft ascent left us astounded and wondering where on Earth we could be to experience such breathtaking nature. Aside from the stunning scenery, we ended up with tears in our eyes from laughter due to the many self-timed photos gone awry, our confusing run-in with Argentine customs officers, and love-tapping a pole in our rental car. Overall, bike cruising through the vineyards, hitting the open road in the Andes, and spending time with locals made for a unique and unforgettable trip to Mendoza.
Thanks to a lovely school schedule with classes only on Mondays, Tuesdays, & Wednesdays plus a national holiday, I've got a six day weekend (does that count as a weekend?). Only issue is, I'm the only one here with such a sweet schedule, so what am I do to? To solve this predicament I buy a bus ticket for a trip to Salta in northern Argentina, sola.
With a backpack, a one-night reservation at a hostel, and a loose idea of how to spend the next five days, I boarded the bus in Buenos Aires for the 23-hour drive.
Lesson one: when traveling solo always stay at the most populated, "party" hostel in order to meet people and potential travel partners. Success. My first evening at the hostel proved ideal for both purposes: the place was packed for a party in the common room until we all headed to Salta's boliches. I found that there are few things more fun than partying and dancing to cumbia music with a hodgepodge of travelers who haven't been home in months mixed with native salteños. From the hostel owners, to their friends, to the travelers from Argentina, France, Israel, and beyond, there was an unlimited supply of buena onda (good vibes) and laughter to last through the night -- and convince me to turn my one-night reservation into a four night stay.
Lesson two: when you have no plans and someone invites you to do something with them the next day, say yes. I was lucky enough to share a room with an awesome pair of porteña girls who were vacationing in the north for two weeks. I'm not exactly sure what inspired them to invite me along with them to tour around Salta, but damn I'm glad they did. We ended up spending the bulk of our next five days together: walking, shopping, and eating around the city, touring to Cafayete for wine tasting, and taking buses around Salta to pueblitos and nature excursions. The buena onda from these two girls kept going the whole trip. We laughed uncontrollably over parilla as they taught me some very useful Argentine slang and then informed me that I had just eaten cow intestines (I had a funny feeling I was eating something weird). All in all, I left Salta with a new pair of Argentine friends with plans to meet up back in Buenos Aires for parilla, English-Spanish lessons, and a host of other activities. Nuevas amis for sure!
Lesson three: when another group of people from the hostel invites you to go with them to do something, again say yes. By doing this, I met another group of Argentines from Rosario & Buenos Aires plus some people from Israel. Buena onda once again when we went to an authentic peña (old homes turned into restaurants where people congregate to play music) for parilla, live folklore music, coca leaf chewing, and gaucho kissing. After eating a full cow's worth of meat, the video camera came out to record our uproar of laughter as we taught each other phrases in Spanish, English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
Lesson four: always bring a coat on the bus rides to/from Buenos Aires, because you never know when you'll have to stop and wait for an hour at midnight at a random outdoor bus terminal in the middle of Argentina. Just saying.
At times, it's hard to recognize the Latin American setting of the metropolitan center of Buenos Aires. The strong Western influence on the architecture, food, culture, and people of the city can often make it feel like some transplanted European city in the middle of South America. Pasta, cappuccinos, and posh fashion sense are ubiquitous, while the indigenous cultures than many associate with the region seem all but a distant memory. Coupled with the decidedly monochromatic porteño (Buenos Aires) population, sometimes the only thing that reminds me that I'm in South America is the Spanish language.
Regardless, I'm starting to feel the Latino-ness of the city.
"Well, remember that this is South America, after all "
That was how my home-stay mom responded to my surprise as she described the nature of gender relations here in Argentina. After reminding me of this, I saw how everything she had explained was no different from what I had learned about the region in school. (Male privilege, females living with their parents until marriage with certain expectations of comportment that makes most American girls seem uncivilized by comparison). Some of these more traditional gender values seem at odds with the progressive attitude of Buenos Aires, until I considered the entire context of where I am.
Later that night, my friends and I were happy to go to our first boliche that played more music in Spanish than in English. Although there's always going to be the fair share of imported North American & British pop, the bumping reggaeton and salsa music reminded us why Latin American dance clubs are so much fun.
On Saturday, friends and I decided to check out the weekly feria [outdoor market] in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires. There, we marveled at stand after stand of traditional artisan goods like silver, mates, art, and jewelry. The smell of leather goods and roasting meat--Argentina's two biggest exports--filled the air while we browsed rows of ponchos and sheep furs. Around the market, street performers and musicians played and danced to traditional South American genres while pesos filled their hats.
The past 48 hours have been a rapid crash course to living in Buenos Aires. If it were a college class it would be called Advanced Intro to Buenos Aires.
As soon as the group of seven American students from my flight touched foot on Argentine soil, we were faced with customs officials and taxi drivers speaking at us in rapid, heavily-accented Spanish. Then, after 18 hours of travel, I couldn't believe how comforting it felt to be welcomed into a stranger's swanky Palermo apartment and call it home.
After a home-cooked meal and a long awaited nap, two other American students and I decided we were ready to check out what Palermo (the neighborhood we live in) has to offer. We quickly learned that going to a restaurant at 9:30 in Argentina is the equivalent of going to eat dinner at 4:00 in the States. We were greeted by lots of weird looks until our broken Spanish proved that we were foreigners. But being American in Buenos Aires isn't all bad, we did get two free rounds of champagne from the bartender. Salud!
After feeling the Argentine generosity, we decided to see what the boliches (nightclubs) were like. What started out as a quick stop to check out the scene somehow turned into staying out until 6am. Well, when in Buenos Aires, do as the porteños (people from BsAs) do.
The next "morning" my home stay mom kindly woke me up at 1:00pm to make sure I didn't miss my city tour with my abroad program.
The sensory overload paired with information overload of the tour didn't make it any less beautiful. We explored around some of the biggest sights in Buenos Aires for four hours, and all I can say is that I need to go back to all of them to spend more time there. There's that much to see in the city, and the photos really don't do it justice. What really brings the sights alive are the people. Everywhere we went, we saw how the Argentines use their public spaces to host exciting and diverse events. From protests to markets to a giant party celebrating the end of winter vacation, we saw it all.
Exhausted and hungry from the tour, I decided it was time to rest in a cafe and try my first Argentine empanadas. Those delicious pieces of meat and cheese wrapped in warm, fluffy dough do not disappoint. (Sorry for the lack of photo, but there was no time to waste getting out my camera before biting into that baby).
All in all, my crash course has included learning far more about what not to do than what to do, getting stared at for speaking English, learning by failing, and falling quickly in love with Buenos Aires.
The rest of the photos are coming soon... =)