Month: July 2015

I Touched The Water

I went to Colonia, Uruguay, for the day with another student taking lessons at Vamos Spanish. Because, why not go to another country if you can, right? Especially if it is only an hour ferry ride away.

Other reasons we were told we should go:

  1. It is a cute, historic town and strolling the streets is fun.
  2. One can get US dollars, which are important to have here because of the blue market (you can read about it in a detailed explanation or short explanation).
  3. One gets a new 90-day tourist visa for Argentina.

How this turned out:

1. The town: While Colonia is a cute town, it turns out there isn’t a whole lot to do there. We took a walking tour to learn more about the history of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Short summary: Founded by the Portuguese in 1680. Because it is strategically located, disputed ownership with Spain for a century until Spain won. Only major city in the area not designed in a grid as required by the town planning section of Spain’s “Laws of the Indies.”)

Chivito platter for two

Chivito platter for two

We did get to eat chivito for lunch, a traditional Uruguayan sandwich. Chivito means “little goat,” which has nothing to do with the sandwich contents: sliced steak, ham, cheese, and mayonnaise topped with a fried egg. Ours also may have had bacon. It was served over french fries instead of on bread, and came with lettuce, tomatoes, hearts of palm and a very mayonnaisey potato salad on the side. I could not finish my half.

After lunch we wanted to go to museums, especially because the day got colder as it went on, but learned that unlike every other business in Colonia, including the street vendors selling jewelry, t-shirts, etc, they only accept local currency. Oh, and it was 2:40 and all of the museums closed at 4:00. Skip that.

Instead we climbed the lighthouse and then went to touch the water of the Rio de la Plata. This is the furthest south I’ve ever touched water. It was cold and wet. Of course. Photos below.

2. The money: We spent about an hour trying to get dollars from various ATMs. At the first, we learned that the maximum withdrawal was only $300. Maybe we could have gotten $300 from multiple machines, but we could not find a machine that would dispense any dollars. The generic “We are unable to process your request” messages left me unclear why we could not get money. My friend had what I thought was a brilliant idea of trying inside the casino, but they just directed us to the bank across the street.

3. The visa: The other reason for me to go is that I needed a new visa at some point. Tourists from the U.S. usually get a 90- day visa for Argentina upon arrival, which I did. But I am going to be here a total of 93 days (because I used points to buy my ticket I had to fly when flights were available). So I knew I needed to leave and reenter the country at some point, or else go to some office here and deal with paperwork to get a new visa. Mission accomplished.

In what turned out to be a cold, windy, grey day, we did have some fun taking photos. So here you go.

From the top of the lighthouse

From the top of the lighthouse

View from the lighthouse

View from the lighthouse

Southern water!

Southern water!

It's tiring running everywhere

It is tiring running everywhere

Second First Impressions Of Buenos Aires

Here are some of my other initial impressions of Buenos Aires—two are sort of personal, two are sort of general. If you missed it, my first impression was “What A Shitty City.”

1. It would be really easy to gain a lot of weight here. There are bakeries on almost every block in the areas where I spend most of my time with incredibly tempting window displays. And, from my experience so far, the tastes live up to the advertising.

Options at Heladeria Jauja

Ice creams at Jauja

Add to this the fact that there are ice cream shops every four blocks selling creamy, intensely flavored deliciousness. Most places offer an amazing range of 30-40 flavors. Most shops offer a “cuarto,” which is a size that allows for three flavors. It is a little large, but I have managed it. Last week, I may have had ice cream four days in a row at four different places. They all were so good that I would not be able to pick a favorite without further testing.

2. I am too old for this. I heard a lot about how late everything happens in Buenos Aires before I got here. Experiencing it is a whole different thing. On my first night in town, I met friends from DC who now live in Bs As. We went to dinner. At 9.00 pm. And the restaurant was only 25% full. When we left about two hours later, every table was full, and more than one included children under the age of 10. Most restaurants do not even open for dinner until 8.00 or 9.00 pm, and they do not really want you to arrive that early.

This week, I left my house after 10.00 pm to meet someone for dinner and drinks. When I arrived, we had the whole lounge area to ourselves (there were diners and people at the bar). It got busy around midnight. I arrived home at 1:30 am. Me! The early bird! (P.S. I had a very hard time in class the next day.)

Although I have not experienced it yet, this is how typical Saturday nights work. People meet for dinner around 10 pm. When they finish, they go to someone’s apartment for “la previa,” which is drinks, talking, and maybe a card game or something. No one leaves for a club before 2.00 am, and it is normal to get home at sunrise. If I ever manage to pull this off, I will let you know.

From what I can tell, businesses do not open that much later here to accommodate for the fact that people stay up so much later. Basically, I think people here are just exhausted all of the time.

3. Crossing the street is dangerous. In Bogotá, crossing the street was dangerous because I could not see the traffic light to know what color it was. Buenos Aires takes this to a whole different level. I do not have to cannot worry about seeing the traffic lights because often there are not any. As in, there are numerous intersections that have no traffic guidance. At all. No traffic lights. No stop signs.

This means that cars and people both are risking bodily harm when they venture into the intersection. I honestly do not understand how cars are supposed to know who has the right of way. I have stood on some corners watching the traffic, and while cars slow down as they approach, they do not come close to a complete stop before looking to see if it safe to proceed. Somehow it seems to work most of the time, but I don’t trust it.

4. People love their locks. In a way that is dangerous. 

The situation: You are always locked in or out. People here lock their apartment doors from the inside. With keys. After they locked themselves inside their buildings. With locks that require the use of a key to get out. I believe that in the US, most states require that exit doors open without a key.

Safe deadbolts

Safe deadbolts

In Colombia, my three-week homestay also had us locked into the house and into the property with a padlocked gate. I moved to an apartment where the deadbolt operated with a thumb turn on the inside (phew).

However, we were locked into the building. The only keys were held by the three “porteros” (doormen), who were on duty 24 hours. We could get in or out at any time (unless the portero was opening the garage gates or in the bathroom). None of us had keys to the front door, so if there had been an emergency, I sure hope he would have unlocked the door before running. Porteros do not seem to be as common in Bs As so I have a key to the front door of my building. I am not sure which is safer.

The reasoning(?): It was explained to me that people do this for security. I also have been told that since most buildings in both countries are made of concrete, fires are rare and I should not worry. Oh, ok.

Inconvenience: There is a huge inconvenience factor. When a visitor comes, you cannot buzz them in. You physically have to go downstairs to let them in, and physically go downstairs to let them out. If you are meeting up with someone at their apartment before heading out, they would rather not do this up-and-down game so you are left standing on the street while they finish getting ready and come down to meet you. This also means you cannot dash inside to use their bathroom before heading out. (Not that I know this from personal experience or anything.)

Typical Argentine keys

Typical keys in Bs As

Awkward and dangerous situations: What about going on a date? The idea of going to someone’s apartment and relying on them to let me out is uncomfortable. Even more so, this set up is dangerous for anyone who is suffering physical abuse in the home. Through working with domestic violence survivors I have learned how difficult it can be to walk away from an abusive relationship. Here, there is an extra physical barrier to leaving. I think of clients who escaped a violent episode by leaving their apartments or homes and seeking at a neighbor’s who now would be trapped. I also think about other physical abuse that happens in homes towards children and the elderly and their physical inability to get to safety.

Small bright side: In Bs As, at least the keys are interesting.

Fútbol!

I made it to a live fútbol match (that’s soccer for all you US readers). Argentines are very into their domestic fútbol teams. Buenos Aires has two leading teams, and people in the city—and around the country—feel very strongly about whichever one they support. I think the divide is similar to Yankees and Mets fans. The rivalry between River Plate and Boca Juniors has an interesting history that was summed up nicely by Buzzfeed. Even the US Embassy here weighed in (in Spanish) before the 2013 match.

Vamos River

Vamos, Vamos River!

This is the first time I have not stood out in a crowd while wearing my bright red jacket. River’s official team color is actually an even brighter red. Before the match, two other students from my Spanish school and I practiced making the “Vamos River” gesture

The experience was not over the top crazy, although the rules about what you can bring into the stadium are. No one told me in advance that I could not bring in lipstick. I tried hiding it in my shoe (too big) and my bra (they pat down every person), and ended up rolling it inside my money in my wallet, which worked. I still do not understand what threat lipstick poses.*

Barbed-wire section

Barbed-wire section

The Monumental (River’s stadium) holds about 65,000 people. There’s open seating, and some people choose to sit in the barbed wire section. This is where fans from visiting teams used to sit. However, after a policeman shot and killed a visiting-team fan before a match (at another stadium) in June 2013, no visiting-team fans have been allowed into Argentina’s stadiums, except during international matches.

The only time the crowd really went crazy was when River scored its only goal. If you have ever watched an international fútbol match, you probably have seen the crowd reaction to a goal: a lot of jumping, screaming, and singing. River scored late in the first half. Just a few minutes later, Temperley tied the game and then came back from the half-time break much stronger.

Tickets are plastic like credit cards

Tickets are plastic like credit cards

We could feel the energy in the stadium decrease more and more as the game went on. Everyone (at least all of the River fans) assumed River would win, so a tie was pretty awful for them and the stadium was pretty quiet when the game ended. I cannot image what it would have been like if River had lost.

One difference in fan behavior from the US is that here, whistles are used to mock the opposing team. Fans whistled insanely loudly when the other team stopped a shot on their goal, when they scored a goal, and even when a player was injured and left the game.

River’s barra brava (non-literal translation: super fans or hooligans, depending upon who you ask) are the Los Borrachos del Tablón (The Drunks of the Stands) with their own sordid history. The LBDT includes a drum corps, which led the crowd in various cheers and songs during almost every minute of the game. (You can see the LBDT section across the field to the left, where there are banners and ribbons covering the upper deck.) I only picked up the very simple, “Vamos, vamos, vamos River.”

My red jacket is perfect

My red jacket is perfect

I was often distracted by the airplanes flying very close to the stadium to land at the small airport not far away. If you watch this short video, you can hear the fans singing one of the many team songs. 

Between Colombia’s success in Copa America while I was there, Argentina’s appearance in the final, and now this game, I have watched more fútbol in the past few weeks than in the past few years combined. I am not becoming an avid fan, but my appreciation of the game definitely has increased. 

* I later learned that the police controlling entry to the stadium can confiscate any item they think could pose a threat to the players. Lipstick could be a dangerous projectile.

Fishbowl of the whole stadium

Fishbowl of The Monumental

TOL: What A Shitty City

My first impression of Buenos Aires?

What a shitty city. Literally. A city full of dog poop.

The sidewalks are covered in it. I walked A LOT during my first few days here and it is only because of vigilance that my shoes are still clean. I’m sure it is only a matter of time until I make a misstep.

More than once, I have caught myself singing (silently, in my head) this part of Old McDonald with the lyrics, “Here a shit. There a shit. Everywhere a shit, shit.” It’s seriously that bad.

Amazingly, I have been told that it used to be a lot worse.

I also have been told that this is a reflection of the culture in different ways. One person said that people here are very selfish and only think of themselves. Another explained it as a sign of the general feeling of resignation after years of a bad economy.

I have not been here long enough to evaluate either claim. However, since I like to walk, this is one part of “normal life” that I need to adjust to, like it or not!

UPDATE: A few weeks after posting this, I was talking to a local about this problem. He told me about an additional problem posed by all of the dogs: falling street lamps and trees. Apparently so many dogs pee on the street lamps and trees that the acid in the urine weakens the structure of each. Storms then blow them over easily.

P.S. Instead of posting a photo of the offending poop, I am posting a photo of this dog walking group I saw my first morning here. There were a few large groups like this in my neighborhood in Bogotá as well. The walkers, paseadores de perros, usually are conscientious, so it is unlikely that these dogs are littering the sidewalks.

Common sized dog walking group in BsAs and Bogotá; the walkers pick up after these dogs

Common to see big dog walking groups in Bs As and Bogotá

 

A Few More Things The US Should Import

While reflecting on my time in Colombia, I realized there are a few more things I saw in Bogotá that it would be great for the US to adopt. (I also wrote a post about things Colombia should import.)

This list is “Things The US Should Import: The Green Edition.”

Plant walls: I saw many buildings in Bogotá covered in plants. They are visually interesting and beautiful. The photos show the outside of an office building and the inside of a restaurant. Bogotá gets pretty cold at night in the “winter” (which is in quotes because Colombia does not really have distinct seasons), so I know we could do this in many parts of the US.

An office building

An office building

Close up

Office building close up

Inside a restaurant

Inside a restaurant

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plant arches: These are from a long, narrow park near where I lived in during my first three weeks in Bogotá. I appreciated walking through them every day on my way to—and especially on my way home from—the TransMilenio station. My Spanish school also had a few to the side of the building.

In a small park

In a small park

Public bicycle parking areas: The photo shows only half of the bicycle parking area at a large mall. It is located on the second floor of the parking garage. (Pushing my bike up the ramp with the cars was a little nerve wracking.) Best part? It is free. There are attendants on duty who park the bicycles, and you can only retrieve your bicycle with a ticket. Very safe.

Bike parking at the mall

Bike parking at the mall

Motion sensitive lights: This one is pretty self explanatory. Specifically, almost every apartment building I visited has motion sensitive lighting in the hallways. I know this exists in the US, but it seems to be more widely used in Bogotá.

 

Midterm Progress Report (I Ate Ants!)

I am slightly more than halfway through Phase II of post-law firm life: my Fauxbatical, Pseudotirement, Funemployment, Eat, Pray, Love life, whatever you call it. While in the airport waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires, I took some time to write a progress report tsd set some new goals.

A Review of the Goals: Overall grade: B-.

1. Being uncomfortable (B-/C+): My biggest discomfort is still with speaking Spanish when I’m not sure of how to say what I’m thinking. There were some times when I pushed myself to do it anyway; most of the time, I did not.

Paragliding!

Paragliding!

My Spanish has improved significantly, but has not come as far as I think it should have by now. This is entirely my fault. I found a wonderful living situation, but we spoke English in the apartment, so I was not forced to speak Spanish as much as I might have been in another living situation. Also, I listened to NPR every morning to keep up with the news at home instead of listening to Colombian radio.

For physical discomfort, I went paragliding. Like being on the trapeze, it was slightly terrifying at first. Then it was zen.

A disc in a frog's mouth earns the most points

A disc in a frog’s mouth earns the most points

2. Experience the culture (A): My original homestay was nice, but was not exposing me to much culture. After three weeks, I moved into the guest bedroom of a married couple, G & T, which I found through AirBnB. This was great. T is Colombian and her parents have a finca in a pueblo a few hours from Bogotá. I spent a weekend there with them doing very typical things such as drinking a beer while watching the people in the main plaza, taking a hike, and playing rana (rana means frog; this is another Colombian game in which you try to throw small metal things into holes, including the frog’s mouths, to score points while drinking beer—unlike tejo, this does not involve explosions).

In addition, T & G are very active in Colombia’s chapter of United World Colleges, a network of boarding high schools in 14 countries offering an IB program to an international student body. We hosted students who had traveled to Bogotá to attend a ceremony welcoming new students and celebrating the recent high school graduates. That is something I never would have come across on my own. Some of these students come from poor families and UWC is a huge opportunity that likely will change their life’s trajectory.

Ants and chicha (fermented corn drink)

Ants and chicha

Other cultural endeavors:

  • The salsa classes I attended on a few Wednesday nights had more Colombians than extranjeros.
  • I rode public transportation everywhere.
  • I ate local foods, including ants and chicha de maíz, a fermented corn drink (I didn’t really like either very much, but the drink was better than the snacks).

3. Shake things up (A): I’m here!

4. Go to a play (D-): I am not giving myself an F because I watched a short play for children at La Feria Internaciónal del Libro de Bogotá (the Bogotá Book Fair) in April, and understood most of it. But this was not the type of play I had in mind when I set this goal. I definitely need to do this in Argentina.

 

A Review of the Predictions: Not many as expected

1. Clothes: My clothes were not as out of place as I feared. I think I am going to stick out as unfashionable more in Buenos Aires.

2. Being overcharged: I did not buy many things besides food, and I mostly shopped at stores with posted prices. I did buy my straw hat for the Galápagos on the street, but I paid $7 for it. If that was too much, I can live with it.

3. Lost in translation: I regularly said the wrong thing (on my last day in Bogotá asked for food “to arrive” instead of “to go”), but never in a way that was mortifying.

4. Poor decision because of limited understanding: It turns out that my transportation problems came not from my lack of understanding, but from my inability to be understood. During my first few weeks, I had more than one incident in which taxis took me to the wrong place because they did not understand where I was asking to go.

 

Other reflections:

I discovered—or maybe confirmed is more accurate—that I like routines. I liked getting up and going to school every day, going out to lunch with other students, and taking salsa class on Wednesday nights or joining the cooking plans at home. Going into this phase, I was pretty sure that I did not want to travel continuously and move to a new place every few days; I’ve now confirmed that. I liked having a place to come “home” to where I could share stories of my travels, cook dinner, and do the laundry.

With G & T watching Copa America

With G & T watching Copa America

I did not fall in love with Colombia as a country (nor did I fall in love with anyone in the country). There are many things about it I like, but I do not feel compelled to relocate there, at least not at the moment.

In a total cliché, what I’m going to miss most are the people. I made some very good friends during my 3.5 months there and continued to meet new people even during my last weekend here. I am confident that had I remained in Colombia, many of these people would be the base of my friends.

 

Resolutions for Argentina:

1. Live more in Spanish. I am going to make sure I find a living situation that will demand more Spanish. I’m not sure I can give up my morning NPR, but I will find a way to listen to more Spanish media.

2. Go to more cultural events. I had an image of going to book talks or lectures or things like that, which also would help my language skills. I did not do any of this in Bogotá, even though I know the opportunities where there.

3. Plan my travel better. There are many places across Argentina to see and if I don’t put some dates on the calendar now, I will probably miss out on some of them. I waited too long in Colombia to make travel plans and as a result, did not travel to some of the most recommended cities.

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