Tuesday, September 27, 2011

El frío patagónico

On the first official day of spring, I found myself in the dead of winter in the south of Argentina.  Getting off the bus in Puerto Piramides, the cold ran through me as if I were in upstate New York in the middle of January.  I thought Maria was going to cry.

Getting to that point was a challenge.  Tuesday night we missed our first bus and had to leave an hour later than planned, pushing our arrival time in Madryn closer to 4:00 pm, at which time the shuttle leaves to Piramides out on the Peninsula.  We actually arrived at exactly 4:00, hopping off our bus with just enough time to buy tickets and hop on the other.  Unfortunately what we didn't have time to do was buy our tickets for Saturday to get back to Buenos Aires, which would later become a problem.  But before it did, we proceeded to have an absolutely incredible week.

We got to Piramides and sprinted up to the hostel-- not far since Piramides has basically 2 streets and they aren't very long-- with two French girls who had gotten off the same bus.  Diva, the fantastic old woman who we had pestered with questions and estimates and help planning our trip, greeted us.

Look at her.  She's awesome.

We were a little nervous that night when they told us that the sea had been rough and we might not be able to do the water-based excursions (whale watch, snorkeling) that we had planned on.  With some free time, we got a bit of studying done and then went and had an excellent seafood dinner at a really cool little restaurant called La Estacion.  And we slept well that night, thanks to a bounty of heavy blankets and beds more comfortable than the ones we have here at the Resi.

The next day we woke up early for breakfast, which each morning was personally served to us, instead of there being a self-serve buffet like most hostels.  Diva sets a place for each of her guests and makes sure they have everything they need.  A little before noon we went down to the Bottazzi excursions office for our whale watch.
It went well.

Whales are HUGE...and awesome.
The guide (who we later came to know as Miguel Bottazzi) kept saying what luck we were having on this watch, because we saw a whole lot of whales.  There were several mothers with their babies, since it was the start of spring.  They came up close to the boat, rolling around in the water, bobbing their heads up and waving their tails at us.  Despite the cold wind and the constant need to kneel, then stand up, then kneel, every time a whale appeared on one side of the boat or the other (so that everyone could see), it was an absolutely fantastic experience.

When we got back to shore, we stopped at the little market and bought some bread, cheese, wine, sauce, and pizza crusts, having decided to cook for ourselves in the hostel.  We made a really excellent pizza and enjoyed the wine.  Staying at this hostel was sort of like being at someone's house, most likely a grandmother.  It was cozy and relaxed and homey.  I loved it.

The next day, while sitting outside Bottazzi, waiting to head out on our land excursion across the Peninsula, Miguel, the guide from the whale watch, saw us and came over to chat.  He asked us if we were on the whale watch the previous day, and we said yes.  He asked if we were staying in Piramides, and we said yes.  Then he invited us to an asado that night, to which we undoubtedly said yes.  This was just after we had been invited out for drinks by the adorable kiosco boy across the street.  We ended up missing that opportunity, but it didn't matter, because the asado was one of the best nights I've had since I've been here.  We arrived and realized we were the only outsiders there.  Everyone else was either a Bottazzi employee or a local business owner.  It was like we had been invited to hang out with the cool kids.  I'm not sure why we were the only tourists welcomed into this inner circle, but I'm glad we were.  We were with the core of the Piramides social scene.  These people were the life of the party.  After we finished a delicious meal, we went across the way to a little bar where we sat and drank and chatted well into the night.  They didn't let us pay for a thing.  I think my favorite character-- because these people were really characters; I think a movie should be made about this town-- was the ship captain, a wizened old guy who got really drunk and started whispering life's secrets to Maria, then later told me I was an angel with soft hands.  They all seemed to be calling him Nene, which is an affectionate term that means little boy.  He was hilarious.  They all were so much fun; I hated to see that night end.
The bar we went to
The next day, our final day in Piramides, we did the most exciting and expensive excursion yet.  We donned wetsuits, hopped on a little boat, and went out to snorkel with the sea lions.  I don't know if I can put into words how excited I was or how incredible the experience was.  We went out on a private excursion, with Juan, who has thirty years of experience doing this.  Although most of the sea lions weren't really interested in us, four or five hopped in and swam around us.  The image that sticks in my head is the sea lion (lobo marino in Spanish) lying on the floor of the gulf, staring up at me curiously.  None of them wanted to play with us; they just wanted to check us out (and their apparent disinterest knocked fifty pesos off the price), but I was not disappointed by the experience at all.

Let's roooooll

A sea lion wandering the beach at Punta Norte

After the snorkeling expedition, we paid, changed, said goodbye to Diva and, at 6:00pm, got on the colectivo back to Puerto Madryn.  We had been calling the bus services for nearly two straight days with no answer, so we were hoping to be able to buy tickets to Buenos Aires for that same night, once we got there.  That did not happen.  All of the guys at the ticket windows looked at us in disbelief when we asked for a bus that night.  They didn't have to check their computers; they knew there was no way we were getting out of town that night.  In disbelief, we literally asked every different company and they all said the same thing.  Without really grasping our situation, we bought tickets for the 2:00pm bus the next day and found ourselves a hostel for that night.  We both had the blues, thinking that if we were going to be stuck down here for another night, we'd have liked to at least still be in Piramides, instead of stupid Puerto Madryn.  (It's not a bad town, really, we were just bummed and in shock).  At the hostel that night, a drunk guy offered us free dinner and gave us a bottle of Fernet.  We drank, we ate, we finally got on the computer-- since Diva's hostel hadn't had reliable WiFi-- and we went to sleep.  The next day we got on the bus, and twenty hours later arrived back in this beautiful city, where it had to have been nearly eighty degrees.  It felt like a homecoming, which I guess it sort of was.  Though this is obviously not home (I'm noticing more lately the absence of the little comforts of home that I'll go without for six more weeks), it's a home base for the time I'm here.  And I love it.

Here are some things we saw on our land excursions...

The beach in Piramides

A mother elephant seal and her pup

Magellanic penguins

Male elephant seal

The view on the 5km walk to see some sea lions

Punta Norte and the elephant seals

Punta Norte

So, in sum:

  • Days away from Bs As: 5
  • Nights in hostels: 4
  • Nights on buses: 2
  • Hostels stayed in: 2
  • Mind-blowing meals: 3
  • Nights where we got free food and alcohol: 2
  • Nature excursions: 3

This week begins the part of the semester where I actually have to do work.  But next weekend is Mar del Plata, the weekend after is Eric Clapton, and who knows what I'll be up to in the last two weeks of October. I'll be sure to write about it.  Chau!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A conocer mi ciudad...

Who knew Buenos Aires had a Chinatown?  Well, it really doesn't.  What it does have is "el barrio chino," which is about two blocks long and full of odd little novelty shops and a few markets.  But they do have the big archway.  I went there with Katia and two girls from the Resi (Martina and Josefina) on Saturday to do a little shopping.  Jose studies design and fashion and all that artistic sort of stuff, so she wanted to hit these little shops that have all the random things that you can't find anywhere else.
Bienvenidos al barrio chino de Buenos Aires! Yeah, you can pretty much see all of it in this picture.

Katia, Jose, y yo :)
The rest of the day I spent watching TV and drinking mate with Katia and Marilina.  Something about spending downtime in the Resi this weekend made me feel so at home.  Of course I start to feel at home now that it's half over.  I know I'll probably mention this in every single post I write from now on, but HOLY CRAP I have such little time left.  I just looked at my calendar.  A week from Tuesday we go to Puerto Madryn/Puerto Piramides for almost a week, then I have two papers due that week, and an exam the following week.  That weekend we go to Mar del Plata.  The following weekend we see Eric Clapton.  The week after that, another exam.  The week after that?  THE END OF OCTOBER.  You know what that means?  The beginning of November.  You know what that means?  Back to the U.S.  I'm never going to be able to reconcile the extreme happiness and the extreme sorrow of going home and leaving here.  That's exactly it.  I do want to be home with my family and friends, but I don't want to leave Buenos Aires.  Hmm...which to transplant, my life or a major South American metropolis?

Off to bed.  Lots of homework this week...probably since up to this point I haven't really done any.
Besos!! Chau!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Karps Abroad

Not even a full week after I returned from Cordoba, my parents arrived in Buenos Aires.  I can't really describe how incredible it was the day they arrived.  Once I got word that they had landed, and spoke to my mom (via Katia's MagicJack phone contraption), I made my way to their hotel immediately.  I was shaking as I walked to the stop, boarded the bus, watched for my stop, and got off directly in front of the Marriott Plaza Hotel.  I was already smiling when I got in the elevator.  I knocked on the door of their room and waited.  As soon as my dad opened the door, I burst into tears.  Skype is great, and Facebook, and every other type of technology that lets us keep in touch across oceans and time zones, but you realize what a joke it all is when you finally see the people you love in person.  Skype, ooVoo, all types of videochatting-- they're super impressive and I would be miserable without them, but they're just...they're just nothing.  They're a Band-Aid, they're the best we can do for now, but really?  They're nothing.

So despite the fact that they had been traveling for days and were exhausted, we jumped right in and walked from their hotel in Retiro to the Recoleta market.  I kept them going at a quick pace all week; we saw (and ate in) all of the major barrios: Recoleta, Puerto Madero, Palermo, San Telmo, el Centro, and La Boca.  They even made it out to Colonia in Uruguay by themselves on a day I had class.  I was so proud.

On the balcony of their hotel room

Of course, I introduced them to mate...


El Caminito

Puente de la Mujer

View out the porthole of the ship-museum in Puerto Madero

Flamenco show in San Telmo

It was sort of a parent-child role reversal the entire week: since neither of them speaks the language or knows the city, I was leading them around, teaching them vocabulary and Argentine history, and telling them where we were going and what we were doing.  By the end of the week, I was happily exhausted.  They were exhausting only because we had to cram in a run-through of the entire city in only a few days.  It's the kind of place you know you might never come back to, so we didn't want to waste time.  We did, however, take a break every afternoon to relax and share some Malbec-- after the majority of our activities but before dinner. They had a little trouble adjusting to the Argentine dinner hour: no earlier than 9:00 and often as late as 11:00. When we ate at a steakhouse in Puerto Madero, we left the restaurant at 1:00 a.m. and there were still plenty of people there eating.

On Friday, we left the city-- people in my family are generally more inclined toward the suburban or rural lifestyle (although my mom insists she wants to move to a city when they retire)-- to spend a relaxing day in the countryside of San Antonio de Areco.  We participated in the "Dia del Campo" at an estancia called La Portena.  It was beautiful, and the perfect escape from the city's insanity (which, as I have admitted before and will never deny, I am in love with).  We learned about gaucho customs, ate asado, rode horses, and, most importantly, got to play with the dogs that lived there.  God, I miss my dogs.

Gaucho music

Gaucho skills
 The above picture is from the gaucho skills exhibition.  The gaucho rides full-speed toward the...um, goal post thing, where there's a small silver ring that he has to hook onto a wooden pencil sort of tool.  If he can hook the ring and hang onto it, he wins.  He then presents the ring to a woman.  Traditionally, if the woman accepted the ring with a kiss, the two became a couple.  These days, though, many female visitors to the estancia receive rings and leave without a new boyfriend.

My mom conquers her horse fears

A lovely carriage ride

Those lambs were only a day old!

I saw this guy on the radio!

It was a really great week.  I was sad to see them go (tears again, of course) but I'll be home in less than two months!  I can hardly believe it.  The two major things left on the agenda are Puerto Madryn and Mar del Plata.  Also on my list are: show at the Teatro Colon, futbol game, Montevideo in Uruguay, possibly La Plata and/or Tigre, and, perhaps most importantly, one of these Thursdays I want to go down to San Telmo to see the Grandmothers and Mothers of the Disappeared.

As always, exciting times on the horizon.  Stay tuned.


Wow.  The weeks just fly by.  It's been over two weeks since my trip to Cordoba, and FINALLY I'm writing about it.

It was Thursday, the 18th of August.  Maria and I took a bus from Retiro at 10:40 p.m.  It was supposed to take between nine and ten hours to get up to the city of Cordoba, so we were projected to arrive around 8:00 a.m.  Before sunrise, we were woken up by the driver shouting, "Cordoba!"  I haven't been so disoriented in a really long time (my roommates will recall EVERY TIME I fell asleep studying and woke up confused).  My first question?  Of course: "What time is it?"  6:30 a.m., friends.  Maria and I looked at each other.  We wondered if we had gotten off at the wrong stop.  Was this really Cordoba?  Could we have arrived an hour and a half early?  How was that even possible, when no bus ever left on time EVER?  But it was Cordoba.  We walked to the tourist information center in the bus terminal, which was, of course, closed.  We stared at the map for a while before we just asked a security guard how to get to our hostel.

We arrived at the doorstep of the hostel and rang the bell.  I recall being overly delighted at the sound of it.  It was like a ringtone...and I was deliriously tired.  After a few minutes, a guy came to the door, barefoot and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.  "Si?" was all he said to us.  We told him we had reservations and he let us in.  We checked in and he informed us that since there was another girl in the room we would be staying in, he couldn't let us in and risk disturbing her (although he proceeded to do that the next night when we were sleeping there.  Totally cool).  He led us into the common room.  On the couch was a pillow and blanket, and his shoes were on the floor nearby.  He pointed to two strange but comfortable-looking chairs, and we sat down, eventually falling asleep, not to wake up again until about 10:00 a.m.

At that time we were able to get into our room.  We put down our bags, changed our clothes and freshened up, then promptly headed out to explore the city.  That first day we spent a lot of time on the pedestrian shopping streets, but we also saw several churches (this city is absolutely full of them) and this really cool underground museum that was an old Jesuit crypt.


So that was all the Jesuit crypt.  Get ready for a series of churches....

Cabildo Historico

Cabildo Historico....at night!

Pretty sure this was the Jesuit church...on the Jesuit block

This foreboding Gothic church that Maria was obsessed with

And that's not even all of the churches this city had.  They love their church, man.  That day we also saw a photo exhibition by an Italian photographer as well as a museum dedicated to the memory of the Desaparecidos from the era of Argentina's last military dictatorship.  The museum was in a building that was used as a sort of concentration camp for those "subversive" ones who opposed the government.  It was haunting, to say the least.  I don't have pictures of it.  I think what's most chilling about the Desaparecidos (disappeared ones) is how recently it took place.  We can't look at it and say, "Oh, that was fifty/sixty/a hundred years ago; we've progressed since then."  It was the late 70s, early 80s.  As a species, we haven't really progressed that much.  When it comes to money, power, and control, humanity gets put on the back burner.  What desperation those leaders must've felt that they found it necessary to torture and kill everyone that opposed them.  Walking through the place, you could read commentaries from survivors.  You'd be walking up these stairs and along the wall would be a placard talking about how the prisoners had been dragged up the steps or thrown down them or whatever the case.  I was sort of afraid to touch anything.  I couldn't really fathom the terrible things that had happened in the same place where I was standing.  Overall, the museum was really well done.

After all the museums, churches, and shopping (I finally found the perfect little gift for my nephew here!), Maria and I went to dinner and headed back to the hostel.  This hostel (Turning Point Hostel) was really cool, and all the people were friendly and nice, but the place was partially outdoors and it was absolutely frigid that weekend.  Our room was unbearable.  Luckily, by our second night we had acquired not only extra blankets but a space heater.  The next morning Katia arrived.  She had classes on Friday and had been unable to come with Maria and me, so she took a bus Friday night.  She arrived at an ungodly hour of the morning, just as we had, so when we went out to breakfast, we found her sleeping in the living room.  We ate, Katia moved into the room, and we all got ready and headed out.  That day we were meeting up with Katia's friend Gabriela, a friend from Nicaragua who's studying at the university in Cordoba.  We got lunch, visited the Paseo del Buen Pastor and the Gothic church, then went to the Bicentennial Park for a while before checking out the art museum.

That night they were having an asado at the hostel!  We bundled up and sat out on what was essentially a screened-in porch while Nill, one of the hostel employees, served up round after round of excellent Argentinean meat and we enjoyed bread, wine, and the company of people from France, Haiti, Argentina, and the U.S.-- and Nicaragua, of course!  Every time I eat at an asado, people leave the table uncomfortably full, unable to fathom eating for at least several hours.  But I generally leave the table still a little bit peckish.  So a little while later, we decided to head out for dessert.  Cordoba, as it turns out, is not like Buenos Aires.  Places aren't open late, not even on Saturday nights.  We ended up at the one restaurant that had what we were looking for: the same restaurant Maria and I had eaten at the night before.

The next day we took it easy.  Most of the shopping places were closed and we'd already seen all the churches, so we pretty much did this:

Maria in Parque Sarmiento

One of the best wines I've ever tasted...you just can't go wrong with a Malbec

My first really good milanesa

We headed home Sunday night.  Maria and Katia had both fallen in love with Cordoba's tranquility, but I still love the chaos and absurdity of Buenos Aires.  I think I love it more because it is so big and messy and loud.  Cordoba was lovely, very lovely, but I felt no attachment to it.  As far as cities go, Buenos Aires is my one true love.