Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Argentina: Merry Christmas From Buenos Aires

Here`s sending warm and merry wishes to all for Christmas! One of the best presents we got from Santa was a visit from Eric`s parents to come help us deck the halls in Argentina. Bill and Leah left snowy conditions in Minnesota to land in nearly 100 degree heat in Buenos Aires, and they didn`t skip a beat. Even when we told them it was a cultural faux pas to wear shorts. Impressive! (And embarassing when we realized that actually, Argentines do wear shorts.)

We had a wonderful time sharing the city (and many laughs) with them. Best yet, they kindly shlepped over loads of essentials for us (favorite deodorants, guidebooks, and yummy homemade mint chocolate chip meringue cookies)! As luck would have it, our toilet broke the day before their arrival (!). Thank goodness for the hardware store on the corner, and Eric`s mastery of the mechanics.

Christmas traditions are a bit different here. People usually gather with their family for a Christmas Eve dinner at 9pm, then at midnight everyone sets off fireworks. They even stock a fireworks store outside the mall for easy access! Around 1am, the younger generation goes out to meet friends at bars and club and stays out all night. We don´t know how anyone gets any sleep in this country! Rest assured, we have a large supply of ear plugs. But when in Rome....

We joined our neighborhood locals at a corner restaurant to celebrate Christmas Eve. We arrived at 9pm, and of course we were nearly the first people there. Dinner was a long drawn-out affair that included popping champagne corks at midnight. As we walked back to our apartment, the sky was ringing with the boom of firecrackers and the din of all the car alarms they`d set off. We joined in the melee with sparklers on our deck. The night ended with a rendition of the Night Before Christmas written by Kathleen´s dad that had been specially delivered. It was a tear-jerker both in terms of laughter and sentiment. He`s clever that one! We were in a good position to spot Santa, as we were sleeping on the fold out couch in the living room (right next to the tree), but he was so quick and quiet that we missed seeing him again. He arrived with stockings full of goodies and little presents from home. It was perfect! Santa always gets it right.

On Christmas morning, we enjoyed Pan Dulce (somehow, Argentine fruit cake manages to be delicious!) and scrambled eggs followed by Eric´s family tradition of watching movies. For our Christmas dinner, we were a bit more challenged. Our oven seems to only have an on/off switch with no temperature control, so cooking a turkey seemed dubious at best. We opted instead for salmon and pasta with a dulce-de-leche cream pie. Kathleen was Leah`s souf-chef as she whipped together a delicious meal, and the gentleman did an admirable job with the dishes.

It`s funny the things you notice when you`re not at home for the holidays. Christmas is not nearly as commercialized in Buenos Aires, and you aren`t inundated with tunes, decor, and a shopping frenzy like you are at home. This is nice in many ways, as it feels more like a family holiday rather than a nonstop buying spree, but there were definitely a few things we missed. While usually we`re sick of musak Christmas tunes that begin right after Thanksiving, we missed hearing Christmas songs. There were none on the radio, and we found ourselves warbling them off-key ourselves while we trimmed our tree. We also yearned for the scent of a real Christmas tree. Here, they are all plastic and two-feet tall. More like a Charlie Brown Christmas. Also, Kathleen is sheepish to confess that she missed eggnog lattes, and we both missed the potluck season and music and book swaps. But mostly, we wished that ALL of our family and friends could be there. You were sorely missed.

As an interesting holiday aside, the friday after Christmas we met the gentleman who has been responsible for finding the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center for the last 25 years. Evidently he flies around New England in a helicopter scoping out the perfect specimen. Funny that.

Happy holidays to all!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Argentina: Home Sweet Buenos Aires

Touching down in Buenos Aires, we scrambled to find an apartment, Spanish classes, and some sleep. For fear that we`ll always be a month or two behind in our blog if we try and capture all of the great things about Buenos Aires, we are instead doing a Greatest Hits album of our month in the city.

The food: After eating a lot of peanut butter and tomato sandwiches in Africa and a lot of french fries and steak in Brazil, it felt like there wasn`t nearly enough time to try and sample the huge bonanza of stylish, fun, restaurants in Buenos Aires. But we gave it a try. Japanese, Thai, Scandinavian, French, Italian, Indian, fusion and, of course, the classic Argentine parilla (barbecue). All washed down with loads of red wine. Although, we weren`t above making our own caipirinhas at home. And there was a fresh fruit stand on every corner. Plus, we loved the hours. Finally a city made for night owls! Most restaurants don`t even open until 9pm. And you can walk home at 3am and still find your favorite ice-cream store serving up dulce-de-leche cones. Bliss! We need to leave soon or buy bigger pants.

The people: They are beautiful. And they should be, with the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world and a hair stylist on ever corner. But despite this, they are also wonderfully friendly. Sometimes they even give out free hugs (abrazos gratis)! With our unstylish backpacking duds and lack of tango shoes, we worried we would be frequently turned away. But instead, we felt warmly welcomed nearly everywhere, and we were encouraged to bust out our Spanish. Speaking of which, we found a fantastic school (Oh! Espagnol, we highly recommend it), and we both adored our teachers. Super nice folks who not only helped us navigate the Argentine accent (which can sound like drunken Italians trying to speak Spanish), but also clued us into great places to eat, hear music, and soak up more culture. Including the ubiquitous mate (seen in Eric´s hand). As an aside, we grew enamored with mate, the bitter yerba mate drink that every Argentine drinks. What`s interesting is that you basically can`t buy it in a restaurant, it`s a homegrown affair. But every local hanging out in a park has a thermos and their mate gourd with them. What we especially loved about it, is that it`s a shared ritual. You pass the gourd, and there`s all sorts of etiquette and ritual as to the drinking and serving. Very cool. We picked one up and look forward to indoctrinating friends and family when we get home. As a final note on the people of Buenos Aires, we have to mention our local video store clerk. Normally, we associate video store employees with disgruntled teens who kind of ignore you. But Fabian was fabulous. He helped us find Argentine movies with English subtitles and would always slow down his speech to help us with the language. Going to the videostore usually meant a good 20 minutes of chatting. Made us feel like locals. And everyone should see Valentin, our favorite Argentine flick thus far..

The beauty: From the amazing architecture that always draws European comparisons to the dramatic colors of La Boca (where we had a flat tire on our bike tour), Buenos Aires is a visual treat. From the graffiti to the murals (and the odd pingpong game), we loved getting lost in neighborhoods. Each barrio has a distinct flavor, and our apartment was in Palermo, known for its bevy of restaurants and bars and leafy green parks. Rest assured, however, that we did study sometimes! Eric has mastered the present tense, which he says is all he needs for his new zen ´living in the moment´way of life. Perhaps this means he`s done studying?

One of our favorite spots was the Recoleta cemetery, which we explored with Eric`s parents when they came to visit. It is truly a city of the dead, with a jaw-dropping array of sarcophagy and monuments neatly arranged along streets among leafy trees. Even the scores of tourists lining up to see Eva Peron`s grave (yes, we were among them), couldn`t mar the tranquility of the spot.

Warning: gruesome story to follow. One of the more beautiful graves (in photo) has a horrific story behind it. Evidently a woman was accidentally buried alive in the early 1900s (most likely they mistook her coma for a death). Several days after her burial, workers heard screams coming from her grave. When they opened up her tomb, they found scratch marks attesting to her attempt to escape. Truly awful. Her parents then commissioned her current tomb as a memorial to their daughter, and it has become a symbol of the cemetery. Eerie but true.

The music: The music scene here is absolutely incredible. Every night it seems there`s something to listen to, and there are always great live street bands playing at the outdoor markets. On Mondays, there´s a wild all percussion outdoor event called La Bombe de Tiempo. Buenos Aire`s bohemian crowd stands outside drinking beer in the street and selling homemade pan relleno, an amazingly delicious bread stuffed with anything from corn and carrots to ham and cheese. It`s like being in a Grateful Dead parking lot. And then every Wednesday you can catch a band called Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, where four dreadlocked acordion players, a stand up bass, a piano player, and a singer, and horns pound out this fantastic music that`s part tango, part rock, and completely addictive. Just down the street from our apartment is a fabulous jazz bar called Thelonius, where we caught a band playing jazz that sounded like the soundtrack to a chase scene in an edgy film noir. And you can dance ALL NIGHT (literally) at various clubs that mix dancehall, reggae, cumbia and American classics. But you need to prepare, as clubs don`t even open until after 1am, and the cool kids don`t show until after 3am. Unbelievable.

And that`s not even including the tango. The classic, of course, is just that...classic. Beautiful, elegant, and still enjoying immense popularity in milongas across town, where you can practice your moves, take classes, or simply watch. Just be careful not to make eye contact with a potential partner unless you know what you`re doing. Inexperienced dancers can be kicked off the floor at some of the more serious milongas. But tango is also evolving, with groups like the Gotan Project and BajoFundo Tango Club exploding the electrotango scene. We checked out one of the more alternative milongas called La Catedral to find an enormous papiermaiche heart (of the anatomical kind) looming over industrial chic art in a dark old warehouse while 20- and 30-somethings glided across the dancefloor.

And lastly there are penas, the home to Argentina`s folkcloric music scene, where all the young granola-types go to play guitar and sing along to the music. We hit a few in our neighborhood, ordered a bottle of $3 wine and clapped along until 3am. We don`t know how people work in this town.

The animals: We finally saw the last of the Big Five! Turns out the rhino, which had eluded us on our African safaris, was hanging out in Buenos Aires listening to tango and drinking wine all this time! We caught a glimpse of him when we were walking down the street by the zoo. Maybe we can photoshop him into our pictures at the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania? Our other favorite bestial sight was all the dog walkers in Buenos Aires. It is not uncommon to see 20 dogs with a walker, all happily wagging their tales and smiling in the sunshine. The only downside is the unfortunate sidewalk droppings that result from their wanderings. These are a serious hazard.

The Contrast: While tourist books praise Buenos Aires as the city where a dollar is still a dollar, and it`s easy to think that artsy restaurants and stylish boutiques mean everyone`s flush with pesos, there is still a darker side to the city`s financial state following the economic crash of 2001. It`s hard to believe it`s only been a mere six years since over 50% of Argentina`s population plunged below the poverty line, with unemployment skyrocketing and homelessness rapidly following suit. Progress has certainly been rapid, but there are still pockets of desperation that are reminders of instability. Most visible were the cartoneros, the people (often families) that pick through the garbage each night to sort out recyclables that they can sell. Far from being an illict job, the government sometimes provides a train for these poor workers to come from the outskirts into the city to do this much-needed work. But they don`t provide a salary, benefits, or healthcare, and it`s heartbreaking to see parents and kids sorting through the trash at 3am when you`re walking home from a bar or club. Another sobering reminder of hard times are the shantytowns that line the no-mans-land between La Boca and Puerto Madero. Here, families from neighboring impoverished countries squat in shacks, and it`s clear that not everyone is drinking Malbec and eating steak. We were also fascinated by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, mothers who have been gathering every Thursday since 1977 to seek justice for their children who disappeared during the military dictatorship. In some cases, they are searching for their grown children who were taken from them to be `adopted` by military families and their friends. They refuse to be ignored until justice is served and reparations are made, and it`s quite powerful to see these women silently walking with photos of their children in the busy downtown plaza.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Haircuts Around The World: Buenos Aires Redux

My parents came to visit us in Buenos Aires for Christmas, so I had to clean myself up. As you my recall, my last cut in Buenos Aires was okay but nothing to write home about (although I did anyway), so we were looking for a different kind of atmosphere this time around. Just down the street from where we were taking Spanish classes was the perfect place -- Mostacho. I have one of those...and it needs a trim.

I was suited up with a nice red cape with Mostacho on the front (I wanted to buy one). The clean cut and professional barber took to the task quickly and efficiently. He used new platinum laced razer blades (quality gear -- bonus points). He handled the beard well, living up to expectations and their advertising. He followed some of the same techniques that I saw for the first time in Brazil but managed to do it in half the time (he was also half the age of my last barber).
Overall, I would give it a 7 out of 10 (notice the smile).

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Haircuts Around The World: Brazil

It was our last day in Brazil before heading back to Buenos Aires when we walked by this place. It looked perfect. Notice the guy sleeping in the chair in the picture to the left and ¨my guy¨ is half asleep in the foreground. These looked like two gentlemen who have been cutting hair for decades and may have seen a beard or two in their day. Were they cutting hair when Pelé helped Brazil win the World Cup in 1962, or when he scored his 1,000th goal (O Milésimo) in 1969? Could they...would they tell me stories!? Oh yeah, I don´t speak any Portuguese. I began to think about the last time I was at a men´s barber shop back in the United States. I think I was in the 4th grade. I always went to the barber shop that had the great red and white (and sometimes blue) swirling poll out front. But on that fateful day the barber practically shaved my head, and I got no end of teasing about it the next day at school. From then on I went to either the same place my mom used or a generic unisex budget hair cutting place. It was time for my homecoming, and what better place to do it than São Luís, Brazil with two 70 plus year old hair cutting brothers. The trim on my head was straight forward and easy. No worries there, and he used the straight edge to clean up the back and around the ears (bonus points). Then he turned to my beard and proceeded to spend a good 30 minutes carefully working on making it perfect. I looked like a million bucks! No Tupac posters (Tanzania) and no head massage (Uganda), but plenty of charm and style of its own. Overall, I would give it an 8 out of 10.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Brazil: The Bumpy Road to Sao Luis

First an editorial aside. Please excuse us for not including the appropriate accents in our blog. Internet cafe computers with variable keyboards leaves us with little recourse. Plus, truthfully, we probably really don`t know where they all go.

And since we`re off topic, here`s another general Brazil comment. This is by far the most diverse country we`ve ever traveled through. The people of Brazil are such an amazing amalgam of the many cultures and peoples that have tread upon their shores. It would be impossible to say what a typical Brazilian looked like---there is a fabulous range of skin tone, height, and hair color. The only commonality seems that by and large they tend to love wearing tight pants and making out in public. Okay, back to our travels.

Fearing that if we stayed in Jeri any longer, we may never leave at all, we embarked on a hilariously ambitious overland journey to Sao Luis. Eschewing package tour options, we decided to try and do it independently. A noble, if slightly misguided, decision given that it was off-season. But at least we had no one to blame but ourselves for mishaps. And there were a few....

Our journey began in the back of a 4wd truck that raced along sand dunes and navigated two river car ferries before landing in the town of Camocin. Here we transfered to a rattletrap mini-van that trundled on for another four hours in the heat, with the door kept shut by shoving a balled up wad of paper in the door jamb. We finally arrived in Parnaiba and set to work trying to buy tickets for the local commuter ferry up the delta. Instead, we spent the afternoon wheeling and dealing for a private boat when we learned that the cheap local ferry sank a year ago. Doh! Maybe this is where package tours come in handy. That being said, we couldn`t really complain when we set off on the Lima do Rio, our imminently sea-worthy chariot. Once we got over the fact that we had to pay more, we had to admit that slowly motoring up the delta in hammocks with cold beer and fresh mango wasn`t all that bad. It`s the only delta in the Americas that faces the open sea, and it is a moving picture of mangroves, sand dunes, and lagoons. Quite beautiful.
Landing in Tutoia, we awaited another 4wd transfer to the town of Barreirinhas. This is when we made a real rookie maneuver. In our butchered Portuguese, we inquired as to when the next truck was leaving. We thought he said IN four hours, when really he said AT four o`clock. And we stupidly didn`t even think about the potential confusion. So when we showed up four hours later, after killing time sweating profusely in an un-air-conditioned internet cafe, and were told the truck left at 4pm, we had a low moment. Lower still when we checked into a dreary room in the long-distance truckers motel, where drivers sling up hammocks in the hallway and the music starts blaring in the wee hours of the morning. Lower even still when we realized that all of the restaurants are closed and the town seemed to be inhabited only by school uniformed teenagers. Not even a cold beer was to be found, a rarity in Brazil!

Up at dawn (determined not to miss a ride again!) we hopped in the back of another 4wd outfitted with wood slat bench seats. This photo was taken before the truck filled to the gills with people, new toilet bowls, rebar, potato chips, and other construction materials. Off we rumbled for 1.5 hours of sandy bumpy craziness. Switching trucks in a petrol station, we had two hours of hold-on-or-be-bounced-completely-off-your-seat transit. It felt like being driven around Death Valley with a drunken relative at the wheel doing donuts in the sand. We can`t believe this is a daily public transit route. We bounced our way through stark desert scenery, past mummified cow carcasses, and slipped between sand dunes past donkeys before screeching to a dusty stop in town. Our arms were completely exhausted.

Our main reason for visiting this area was to go to the Parque Nacional dos Lencois Maranhenses, an otherwordly stretch of massive sand dunes (said to look like bed linens, hence the name lencois meaning sheets). This is another Brazilian area vying for inclusion in the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World. We actually went to a promotional campaign for this in Sao Luis, where they plied us with free food and more Amazonian fruit juice than you could shake a stick at, provided we logged onto one of their computers to vote. But that`s another story...

Running a bit behind schedule because of our mix-up in Tutoia, we raced to join a trip out to the dunes. Unfortunately, however, they only had room for one more person. Kathleen couldn`t enjoy her padded seat as we traveled 45 minutes over bumps, because she worried about Eric hanging off the back of the truck for dear life as he alternated between cracking his head on the metal bar above him and his bum on the bar below. Happily once we arrived, it was a true sugar-fine dune paradise, interspersed with fresh-water lagoons. We spent time making goofy videos of ourselves cartwheeling and rolling down the dunes, while a Brazilian couple did a sexy swimsuit pictorial. I believe this is where our cultural differences seemed greatest. Eric did, however, spend some time hanging out in hammocks with nekkid Brazilian ladies on our boat trip out to Cabure to further explore the National Park.

We eventually made our way to Sao Luis, a UNESCO world heritage site resplendent with azulejos tilework, and coincidentally, the reggae capital of Brazil. We spent two days admiring the architecture and enjoying the music before saying Tchau to Brazil.