Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chicagoans and Quilmes Bottles in the Rain Forest

After two exciting days at Iguazu Falls, it was time for us to enter the rain forest just outside of the national park so I climbed on for the second horseback ride of my trip to South America. Excited to encounter native Guarani people residing in the forests, to come face to face with tropical animals, and to explore the hidden depths of the unknown, we entered the woods...

AND, prepared for anything, the first living creatures that we came across were not indigenous people or poisonous snakes or tropical birds but rather fellow Chicagoans. That's right. We were in the middle of the rain forest in South America, and the only other four people on our tour happened to be from Oak Park, Illinois. After marvelling at the coincidence for awhile, we continued on our trek. At the entrance of the rainforest was the sign pictured above this post. The saying on the sign, "Aujevéte," means "welcome, enjoy your stay, and pleasant travels."

The truth is that we never did encounter any wild tropical animals, but we did get to visit a Guarani village. There, we saw huts where the Guarani people live (such as the one pictured at left), as well as their school and their place of worship. We also got a chance to get off our horses and admire (and purchase) some of the arts and crafts that the Guarani people had created and sell to tourists at extremely prices. Our tour guide showed us some of the hunting techniques employed by the Guarani people as well. In the picture below, right, our guide is demonstrating a contraption that the Guarani use to catch medium-sized ground animals.

Although the Guarani people live in relative harmony with Iguazu residents and tourists alike, they are certainly not without their problems. One major problem that the Guarani natives have is an alcohol problem. Our tour guide explained to us that, although the people work very hard throughout the week, nearly every single weekend, nearly every person (men and women included) gets drunk and remains drunk for the entire weekend. For this reason, it is often difficult to even enter their territory without provoking them into some sort of confrontation, and we were very lucky to get the opportunity. When one of the other women on the tour heard this, she told her daughter that the reason why the indigenous people drink so much is that it's "in their blood." According to her, in some way, these people are destined to become drunkards as a result of the genes they carry at birth. It's really amazing how ignorant some people are...

Anyway, the Guarani people have also been adversely affected by modern societies. Believe it or not, even though the Guarani people did not have plumbing, roads, or any of the normal modern conveniences we take for granted, they did have a cable line coming into the middle of the rainforest to allow them to watch their favorite soap operas and knock off reality shows. As our guide explained, this influx of modern media has destroyed much of the culture of indigenous peoples throughout the region and throughout the world. The elders no longer pass on old cultural rituals and traditions to the younger generations in the same way that they used to, and a vital part of our heritage as human beings is being lost in the process.

Another problem that is arising with the Guarani and other groups of indigenous people is the problem of litter. These people are not familiar with trash collection and recycling techniques. Consequently, after downing a Quilmes (the national beer of Argentina), they will simply throw the bottle over their shoulders without a second thought. The result, as we witnessed, is forest floors covered with beer bottles, discarded food items, and other miscellaneous trash. Besides being an eye sore and a health risk, there is a chance that such litter will affect the Guaranis' ability to hunt effectively and to grow crops for consumption and sale. Our guide told us that a group of students from abroad is trying to develop a program whereby they can teach the Guarani people to take better care of their land, but the chances of success remain unknown. Only time will tell...

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Poor Niagra"

When former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Iguazu Falls, she exclaimed, "Poor Niagra!" Having now seen Iguazu Falls myself, I could not agree more. I have traveled to most of the major national parks in the United States including the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and others; yet nothing that I have ever seen could even compare to Iguazu Falls.

Located in northeastern Argentina on the border between Argentina and Brazil, the falls are the most awesome natural wonder that I have ever experienced in my life and consist of approximately 270 discreet falls and large islands. My trip began last Thursday night (6/18/09) with a long distance bus ride aboard a "micro" from Buenos Aires to Iguazu. The trip lasted approximately 17.5 hours, and I was glad to be in the company of a good friend of mine from UNC, Chris. Still, the bus ride was incredibly comfortable (unlike the Greyhounds in the US). This bus had incredibly comfortable seats that recline almost a full 180 degrees and each passenger gets a prepackaged blanket and pillow as well. Two meals (one of which is a hot meal) are served aboard the bus, along with as much wine or beer as you can handle. Then, just when you think you've had enough and you are about to go to sleep, they break out the dessert champaign to make the rest that much easier!

When we arrived in Iguazu, we checked into our hostel, Puerto Iguazu, where we enjoyed a fine stay for only approximately $10 / night. From there, we were off to the park. On Friday, we traversed the upper falls, and got some excellent views of the falls from above like the one pictured here at right. We also visited the Sheraton hotel, which is actually located INSIDE the national park and which has many rooms that provide views of the falls.

Then, on Saturday, we hit the lower falls trail and took a boat over to San Martin Island (an island located in the middle of the outer circle of the falls which provides spectacular panoramic views of all sides). The lower falls trail and San Martin Island provided the most spectacular views, in my opinion, and it is from these locations that most of the pictures displayed here were taken. As the mist rolled off the falls and into my face and as I gazed up at fall after fall after fall, I could not help but feel happy to be alive! I knew I was witnessing something great, and I couldn't imagine what the first person to gaze upon these falls must have thought.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, we visited La Garganta del Diablo (The Throat of the Devil)--the biggest and (arguably) most breathtaking fall of them all, pictured at right. Visitors to this site are sure to get drenched in the constant spray of water coming off the fall, and we were not exceptions. In fact, it was hard to take clear pictures without the lens getting wet, but I managed to snap a few displayed here. Unfortunately, we were not able to view La Garganta del Diablo or the other falls from the Brazilian side of the border because we did not want to spend over $100 to get the necessary visa just to cross the border that Brazil requires of US citizens (because the US charges a similar fee for Brazilian citizens to enter the US). Still, the views that we were enjoyed were more than enough, and we certainly did not feel like we were missing anything by not being able to see the falls from the Brazilian side.

As I conclude this post, I realize that neither words nor pictures can do justice to the falls. You really need to be there, to feel the mist in your face and to gaze up as sheets of water come crashing down around you in order to appreciate what the experience is all about. Iguazu made the short-list to be one of the New7Wonders of Nature by the Seven Wonders of the World Foundation, but it didn't quite make the cut. After visiting the falls myself, I cannot imagine what must have been going through the committee's mind when they slighted this incredibly beautiful and transformative site...


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Welcome to the World

Today I am working with the Harvard people who recently joined our organization as interns as well. They often try to avoid having to sit with the rest of us interns by intentionally moving to another room if we enter or by seeking out their own private room. They also refuse to eat lunch with the other interns when we all go out together. Still, I was not prepared for what they said today. We were having a conversation about the Swine Flu in Argentina, and I mentioned that the United States government sent an e-mail out to all Americans in Argentina warning them about the danger of the swine flu. They said they had not received the e-mail, and one of the two of them (the guy) said that must be because Harvard is a different country. The girl laughed at that. Then, to my horror, the guy went on to explain that Harvard has a larger endowment (more money) than many countries, and both of them chuckled aloud as though I wasn’t even in the room…

I am surprised now, looking back at the incident, at how terribly hurt and shocked I felt. I know I would have disapproved of this even before my experiences during my last two summers, but I’m not sure I would have felt the same way as I do hearing it now. I questioned why these two students would come down here to volunteer in Argentina if they really have such a naïve and elitist view of the world. Is this just a résumé-padder for them? What good is a Harvard education if you never learn how to feel? What good is a diploma from a “top” university in the world if you never learn how to be a PART of the world?

Countries such as the ones that the two Harvard students referred to are not abstract places removed from the everyday world. They are the world. They are real. People living in developing countries (of which Argentina is considered one) have hopes and dreams and fears just like all the rest of us. When Americans such as the Harvard students I work with make careless statements like that, they embarrass their school and their country, and, more importantly, they demean human life.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Art, Leather, and . . . Patriotism???

On Monday, June 15th, the entire country of Argentina took a day off from work to celebrate “El Día de la Bandera” (Flag Day).

Actually, that statement isn’t exactly true. Saturday, June 20th was actually Flag Day, and so Friday, June 19th should have been the day off, but the government decided to change the date of Flag Day this year because having a Monday off is better for businesses and tourists than having a Friday off. The government can do things like that here, just like it can change the date of a national election by four months (more on that in a later post).

The second part of the statement I started with really wasn’t true either. Nobody was actually celebrating everything. In fact, walking around the streets of Recoleta that are normally bustling with people and cars and noise, I found the area almost completely deserted. Perfect! How beautiful this city could be if it didn’t have all the people and taxis and buses and pollution!

A couple of friends and I took advantage of the opportunity to explore some parts of the city that we had never visited before. Our first stop of the day was El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts). The museum, which is FREE for all to visit, featured more traditional artwork by such famed artists as Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and van Gogh. An example of one of my favorite pieces from the museum is pictured at the top of this post. Another is pictured here at left. After about an hour and a half in the museum, though, the three of us were all ready to leave. Our next stop was Murillo Street in

After navigating through the labyrinth of bus routes, we arrived at our destination: the leather capital of the world. We gazed on, fixated at approximately 6-8 city blocks of almost nothing but leather stores. Unfortunately, all of them except for a few were closed for the great big celebration of the Argentine flag. And those that were open, in general, did not have jackets that were long enough for someone of my size. Dejected, we found a café for lunch before proceeding on to our next stop of the day.

Unfortunately, El Museo de Evita Perón Museum was also closed. (Who ever knew Argentineans were so patriotic?) Fortunately, we met with better success at the MALBA (el Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires). In contrast to the first art museum of the day, the MALBA featured more abstract and modern artwork. In general, I tend to prefer the former type of art, but MALBA was an exception. The vibrant colors, nontraditional styles, and sometimes downright crazy displays really captured my attention. Perhaps the most interesting work in the museum was one that served a double purpose. It was a bench (that one could sit on), but the planks of the bench extended out and over the hand railing, dipping and gliding across multiple levels of the museum in the atrium and seeming to stretch endlessly up into the ceiling. In addition to seeing the works of some of the more recent, “up and coming” artists in Latin America, we also saw pieces by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Fernando Botero (the artist who paints the fat people!).

Finally, after a long day of WALKING, sightseeing, and MORE WALKING, we gave in and took a cab home—exhausted and spent but also content!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


As I sensed the feeling of wind blowing through my hair and the horse's body bumping up and down under my body, I knew that I was no longer in the city of Buenos Aires. In fact, I had come out to a rural town of Argentina called Capilla del Señor to spend the weekend with a couple of friends at an estancia named El Cencerro. Estancias are large, family-owned working farms in the Argentine countryside region known as The Pampas. These farms used to be the main source of food production for the country as guachos (the equivalent of US cowboys) rode through the fields on horseback rounding up cows for slaughter to be turned into the finest steaks in the world. For more information about gauchos, see:

Today, gauchos still exist, and estancias still operate, sending food products to markets around the world, but gauchos and estancias no longer occupy the same prominent spot that they used to in world agriculture. In any case, if nothing else, they make for a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires for locals and tourists alike!

Our trip got off to an ominous start, as many of my best adventures have here in South America. We showed up for our shuttle (which would have taken us directly to Capilla del Señor) literally 3 minutes late and missed it. As a result, we had to take a taxi to the bus depot, take a long-distance bus from Buenos Aires to San Antonio de Areco (a larger town about 45 minutes away from Capilla), and then hire a remise (for the equivalent of about $32) to take us to Capilla.

Upon arrival at the bus station in San Antonio, I was pleasantly surprised to find that things had changed drastically from the surroundings I was used to. For one thing, I looked out the window of the bus as we approached the station, and I didn't see any pharmacies, street vendors, or smog. Nope--this clearly wasn't Buenos Airs. After we got off the bus, I purchased a very nice deli sandwich from an old man who had a total of three sandwiches, a few drinks, and a bunch of candy and other smaller items for sale in a box for a total of only 6 pesos ($1.59)! And what's better yet, I didn't even get sick! Then, when we got in the remise (long-distance taxi), I told the driver that we knew the name of the town we were going to but didn't know the address of the estancia because it actually (believe it or not) did not HAVE an address. Not to worry, said the pleasant Argentine driver, we can just ask someone where it is when we get to town. 45 minutes later, we were pulling over and asking for directions every few minutes, and each time, each of the kindly pedestrians responded very positively and excitedly (though sometimes incorrectly). An hour later, we were there!

To sum things up, life was clearly more, "tranquilo."

Out from the ranch house came the owners of the estancia, Eduardo and Lili, to greet us. They showed us around the 500+ acres of their property, gave us a tour of their lovely home that we would be staying in, and brought us to our rooms. Then, after asking us if we were hungry for some lunch, they served up empanadas and a delicious meat dish for us to enjoy. After our tasty meal, the three of us went for a stroll along the creek that runs in the back of El Cencerro. Just sitting in the dirt bank and looking out at the beautiful rays of the sun as they struck the grass, the trees, and the water, was everything I had hoped for in my escape from Buenos Aires, and more than I had expected.

After our leisurely stroll, it was time for a ride around the property on horseback led by a 12-year-old boy who works on the farm with the rest of his family. The boy was certainly a bit of a show-off, showing us how he could ride backward on the horse, how he could chase the other animals away with his horse, and bragging about how he was a better rider than his siblings, but the tour he gave was superb. It has been about 8 years since I had last ridden horseback, but I had a good time with "Llamame," my horse pictured here.

After our ride, it was time for afternoon tea and coffee with pastries, followed up by games of a modified version of Pictionary and Egyptian Ratscrew before and after dinner, respectively. Milanese was served for dinner (an Argentine classic) along with dulce de leche for dessert (definitely my favorite Argentine food item), and then it was time for some evening reading. As I walked down the hall to my room to go to bed, I noticed that the fire in the hallway furnace had gone out, but the fireplace in my room was still crackling, alive. I buried myself away under layers and layers of blankets (there was no heat in the home except the fireplaces in the rooms and miniature furnaces in the hallways, along with some space heaters), and I fell asleep.

The following morning, I arose to a breakfast of tea and coffee with pastries. Then, it was time to explore the historic town of Capilla del Señor. How would we get there? I suggested that we bike, and one of the employees helped us get three old, banged up bikes out of the garage and prepared for the ride. I asked if they had a lock that we could borrow, and they practically laughed! Just drop your bikes by the service station, they said, and there would be no problem. And there wasn't!

As we road through the unpaved gravel roads to the heart of town, we were pursued the entire way by two of the family's dogs trotting alongside our bikes at a comfortable gallop. I couldn't help thinking to myself, "I can't believe I'm here. In South America. In Argentina. On a country road. Riding a bike with the company of two of my friends and two dogs." This was just one of so many experiences that I have had this summer that I never would have dreamed possible before going to college, but it struck me particularly strongly at this time. Once we got to the town, we visited a museum, a historic church, a couple of historic houses, and a few other sites of interest. The town had a certain charm to it that only a place untouched by time can have. Unfortunately, one of the two dogs left us when we went into the Tourist Information Office, and we were never able to find him. As of when we left the estancia later that day, he had not yet returned home, and we all felt terrible about the loss...

When we returned from town, I read for awhile in the hammock and then watched as some of the workers prepared the asado by first building a big fire, then warming stones in the fire, and finally placing the stones under the grill to cook up the steak (which included the intestines, the tastiest part to me!). Everything was absolutely delicious, and it was made even better by the fact that we got to enjoy it with our two gracious hosts who talked to us about everything from politics and current events to dogs to our lives and our work. I would HIGHLY recommend staying at El Cencerro to anybody visiting Argentina!

Finally (and sadly) it was time to return to Buenos Aires. I should have known my good luck would come to an end. I mean this is me and Argentina after all, and if you have been reading any of my previous posts, you will know that I haven't always had the best luck. This time, the form of bad luck came first in not having enough coins for the bus, which would not except bills. The next bus out of Capilla was not going to leave for another hour, and we thought we were stuck! But then, some of the nicest people I have ever met came to our rescue. A man leaned out the window of the bus, hearing our conversation, and said he wasn't sure how much we needed but that he had a single one peso coin left and that he would be happy to give it to us to help us out. I returned to my friends, grateful to get the coin, only to find out that another gentleman had offered them over 9 pesos in bus fair on his card. The warmth and kindness that we received from all the people we encountered in the countryside stood out in stark contrast to what I have encountered in the city, and it served as a nice reminder of the true heart and soul of Argentinians.

Still, more bad luck was to come. About 40 minutes out of Capilla, our bus broke down (pictured above, right). We were stranded on the side of the highway for about 20 minutes before another bus picked us up and finally carried us home to Buenos Aires. Still, I had a great conversation (in Spanish) with another rider during the time that we were waiting for the new bus to come. A part of me wished that they wouldn't have been able to get another bus and that we would have had to return to Capilla for another night at Eduardo's and Lili's home. I guess it was not in the cards. . . . I guess it was just my bad luck again!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"El Fantasma de la Ópera Está Ahí" en Buenos Aires!

Who needs to go to Broadway when you can go to Avenida Corrientes? That’s the question I was asking myself as a group of friends and I strolled down the theater district of Buenos Aires. As we made our way to Teatro Opera to watch El Fantasma de la Ópera (The Phantom of the Opera), we passed by theater after theater and big shiny sign after big shiny sign just beckoning to us to come in. When we got to the intersection of Avenida Corrientes and Avenida 9 de Julio (the main center of town), we felt like we were in Times Square (see picture at left).

The show itself was truly spectacular. I had just seen The Phantom of the Opera about four weeks beforehand on Broadway, and I must say that there was very little difference between the two productions. Well…except for the fact that one cost approximately $75 and the other one cost approximately $17. Can you guess which one was which? And the other difference, of course, was that one was in Spanish and the other one was in English. I was amazed at how well they were able to make the words match the score without changing the overall meaning of the lyrics though. Having just seen the play in English certainly helped me understand it when I saw it in Spanish, but the experience also made me realize how much of the emotion and spirit of a show is conveyed in the visual aspects that are unrelated to the verbal aspects.

Although there were some problems with the audio in the theater, the visual special effects came through nicely. They didn’t have the same pyrotechnic equipment here as on Broadway, but I felt that the set, lighting, costumes and other aspects of the design and appearance were just as superb as their counterparts in New York.

After the show was over, we hung around outside the door to take a group picture (which is displayed at left). While we were there, we noticed a well-dressed and attractive woman being interviewed by some sort of television crew. We assumed that she must have been an actress from the show so we quickly opened our playbills and realized that she had played the role of Christina, one of the three principle characters. But how did she get out of the dressing room so quickly?

Anyway, I didn’t have much time to think about this if I was going to make a move so I quickly approached her and asked her for her autograph on my playbill and told her that I thought she did a very fine job. She personalized the autograph for me and even wrote “con amor” (with love) and drew a heart at the end, acting extremely kind the entire time. By the time I got back to my group of friends, they had figured out that she was not Christina. Not only that, but she didn’t even have a role in the play. Rather, she was Sofia Zamolo, the top model for the entire country of Argentina! Please note the photograph that I was able to snap of her here at right.

So the stunningly attractive and world famous Sofia Zamolo is in love with me! Not bad…

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Mouth of the City

La Boca is the equivalent of New York’s Bronx or Chicago’s South Side. It is the part of the city that you want to avoid at all costs when the sun goes down, when you’re alone, when you’re a woman, and when you’re not feeling confident in your ability to talk your way out of a robbery. When I toured La Boca last Wednesday with a group of about 7 people and our tour guide, it was before the sun went down, my tour guide was not alone, and my tour guide was not a woman, but he was still robbed right in front of us. Apparently he wasn’t feeling confident in his ability to talk his way out of the robbery because he handed over the money immediately. Later, they tried to take my backpack but were unsuccessful, as I talked about in my previous post on June 4th. I didn’t get a chance to talk about La Boca though so that is what this post is for.

The name La Boca means "the mouth" in Spanish, and in many ways, the name is fitting. La Boca has a lot of ugliness on the inside where the plaque corrects and cavities occassionally develop, but it looks beautiful at first glance, just like a nice pair of lips conceal the depths of the mouth. In reality, though, La Boca is probably actually the most recognized part of Buenos Aires because of the touristy section (pictured above this post) that appears on the cover of nearly every Buenos Aires tourist book. Personally, when I picked up my copy of Frommer’s and saw the photo, it was one of the parts of Buenos Aires that excited me the most. For some reason, they don’t show pictures like the one displayed here at left. Perhaps it’s because that layer of darkened water you see at the front is actually a mixture of oil, tar, and general waste products from one of the most polluted towns in the entire world. Argentina does not have as many strictly enforced pollution restrictions as many other countries, and the result is that you have blackened cesspits and murky shores of the Rio de la Plata (despite the fact that Uruguay’s side is clear). The scary part? According to the tour guide, many Argentines used to swim in bodies of water like this. Who knows where those people are now and/or how many fingers and toes they may have?

In contrast, the distinguishing thing about the part of town that you’ll find on the cover of your Frommer’s is the vast amount of COLORS that you see throughout the main streets. The reason for the great breadth of colors (even on a single building) is really quite funny. When the buildings were originally painted, there was never enough paint to go around, and people never knew what colors of paint would be brought in on the next trading vessel. As a result, they painted their buildings with whatever colors they had, and then completed them with whatever colors were included in the next paint shipment. Since then, the variety of colors has been preserved to allow La Boca to retain its original character (and probably also to ensure that the guidebooks have a good front page for the tourists who are more than willing to pour their money into this otherwise neglected part of town).

One of the main attractions in La Boca is La Bombonera where the Boca Juniors soccer team plays. The name for the stadium comes from the Spanish word for candy box, supposedly because the fans' singing reverberates as it would inside a candy tin. We did not get to actually go into La Bombonera and visit its museum because the robbery detained us and our tour guide did not feel comfortable proceeding on, but we did get a view of it from afar, as you can see from the picture, above-right. We also got to see some soccer being played at a slightly less professional level near one of the street markets (displayed here at right). This is not an uncommon sight throughout Buenos Aires.

La Boca is also known for its arts and crafts vendors. You can find a very fine artist’s store in many parts of the city, but I noticed that it is very hard to find paintings and drawings in most parts of Buenos Aires. Artists’ specialties normally include sculptures, leatherworks, and a special type of oil painting called “fileteado.” (You can find more information and pictures of this style of artwork here: But, in contrast, La Boca is home to many painters and drawers and their works are displayed out on the streets of the touristy parts of town (as shown here at left).

Later on in the tour, we went to San Telmo and Puerto Madero, two parts of town that I had already been to but which were even more fascinating to visit with a porteño to explain their historical significance. San Telmo is the older part of town I described in a previous post. It is the place where tango is said to have originated. Specifically, thisw it apparently came about: families rented rooms in a common building such as the one di is hosplayed here at right. (In fact, this is the EXACT LOCATION OF THE EXACT BUILDING where tango is said to have originated.) The problem was that each family had very little room because approximately 5-7 family members were routinely cramped into a single, small living space. As a result, they would crowd around in the common area and out in the streets, and they each contributed their own dance styles unique to their own, diverse ethnic backgrounds to a common dance that we now call “tango.”

Puerto Madero is the exact opposite of San Telmo. Whereas San Telmo has become antiquated, less populated, and somewhat unsafe at night, Puerto Madero is the part of town where all the young executives and wealthy residents are now moving. Located on the shore, this part of town is comprised of many high-rises, as in the picture at left. Some of the finest restaurants in town can be found here, though I have yet to try any in this part. There is also a bridge across the water connecting Puerto Madero to the main part of the city that is considered an engineering masterpiece (pictured below). Look at the shape of the bridge very carefully and see if it reminds you of anything in particular. Actually, you probably have to get a sideview like this one: to be able to see it fully. Anyway, the bridge's design is supposed to depict a couple dancing tango. With the woman leaning backward in the arms of the man. The idea is that two people become one when the dance tango because they are so synchronized with each other's movements that they essentially become one entity.

In a way, it is fitting to see this bridge connect the old and new parts of the city that we saw today. Many aspects of the city have changed, as was evident from our tour, but tango has remained a constant. The dance, important for both cultural and entertainment reasons, is a mainstay of Argentina. In fact, I have begun tango lessons three times per week, but that is another story that I will have to save for another blog post...

"Hijo de Puta!"

You may have heard about South American soccer matches -- about the fans trying to jump on the field, about crazy individuals trying to throw flaming torches at players and referees, and about the general pandemonium that supposedly makes up each and every soccer match in many Latin American countries. I had heard about all this as well, yet nothing prepared me for the actual experience of witnessing a World Cup qualifier soccer match between Argentina and Colombia.

Nothing prepared me for the experience because, whereas I had imagined that I would witness some of the best soccer of my life and some of the most intense and downright wild fans in the world, what I got was exactly what a typical American might expect out of a soccer game: boredom. There were, of course, many differences between an Argentine sporting event and a US sporting event, but I sat through much of the game utterly bored out of my mind. It didn't help that there was no scoreboard in use to show the score of the game or even how much time was left--some crucial knowledge that could have kept me at least mildly interested enough to know how much longer it would be until I could get home to by delicious meal (which would be sure to have at least one or two different types of red meat) which I knew would be awaiting me.

Still, there were some rather crazy occurrences that took place at the game. When we first entered the stadium, we scoured around for our seats and finally found them. Only to find out that they were filled. We were about to ask the people to move when someone else in the stands told us to just take whatever seats we could find. Apparently, the meaning of assigned seating is different in Argentina then in the US, and as a result, our group had to be split up into multiple factions. Also, the word "seat" is a misnomer--it's really simply standing room that they sell because the only time you actually use the simple little bench, which is pressing up behind you on the back of your legs so tantalizingly, is at the half. I have posted a video here below to demonstrate what the atmosphere was like after Argentina scored the only goal of the game, but besides the excitement after the goal, there were the cheers.

"Hijo de puta" (son of a bitch) or simply "puto" (bitch) were clearly the most popular cheers among fans of both Argentina and Colombia. It's easy to understand that phrase's usefulness when you think about it. For example, here are a few situations in which it can be utilized:
  • To refer to a visiting team's player who injured the home team's player
  • To refer to a home team's player who was injured because he was too wussy to fight off the attack
  • To refer to a visiting team's player for making a shot on goal
  • To refer to a home team's player for failing to block a shot on goal
  • To refer to a visiting team's fan who insists on calling you "puto"
  • To refer to a home team's fan sitting right next to you who insists on calling everybody else "puto" in a voice so loud that you'll be lucky just to be ABLE to hear the final whistle
  • To refer to the referee
  • To refer to the referee's mom
Please note: these are only a few of the almost INFINITE amount of possible uses of the phrase.

It should also be noted that the Colombia fans were FAR more intense than the Argentina fans, and we happened to be sitting in the section in front of them. The picture at left shows one of the MANY fireworks that Colombian fans ignited throughout the game. When the game ended, with Argentina coming out on top by a "thrilling" score of 1-0, there was almost no applause or excitement among Argentina fans. In contrast, Colombia fans started shouting and cheering, and I literally had to ask myself if I might have missed a Colombian goal or two and if I was wrong about who the victors were in the game. But I was correct. The Colombian fans just had over-inflated pride in their team that had failed to score even a single goal. When we exited the stadium, we had to go out a gate under the Colombia section. As I approached the gate, I became a little worried when I saw Colombia fans dumping their drinks on Argentina fans and fans from both sides throwing garbage at each other. Still, I made it out okay and lived to tell the tale!

During the game, however, from our 10th row seats (which we purchased for approximately $22), we could see the barbed wire fence which extend the entire way around the stand and which suggested that not all games are as "tranquilo" as the one that we attended. After returning from the game and talking to a number of Argentinians, I found out that the game was almost universally considered to be a bore. I breathed a sigh of relief to know that I was not too Americanized (aka "uncultured" and "imperialistic" in my sports taste) to be unable to appreciate the most popular sport worldwide. Even though Argentina won, they did not demonstrate very much talent and one of their best players, Messi, did not play very well. (With the bad luck that I have been having this summer, I wouldn't be surprised if the fact that I wore Messi's jersey to the game wasn't what CAUSED him to have an off-day.) If you've been reading my blog, then you know what I'm talking about... In any case, domestic games between various cities within Argentina or even within different parts of Buenos Aires (like the Boca vs. River game each year) are supposedly more intense because of the mixed allegiances of the fans. After all, when nearly everybody supports the same team, what is there to get thrown in jail or to end a marriage over?

Still, I am glad I got a chance to see an international soccer game for the first time in my life. Even though it wasn't quite what I was expecting it to be, I still had a great time with some of my good friends there and learned a little about soccer in the process. As a big sports fan, I firmly believe that athletics are a major part of a people's culture and that there is much to learn from attending sporting events. Argentine soccer games are definitely different than US sports games. It seems to me that Argentinians view sporting events as a way to take out their stress and anger. According to my Spanish instructor, they use the games to swear and to complain and to argue because it's not always socially acceptable to do this in everyday life. I believe there's some truth to this. We all have some pent up anger inside of us, and we each have our own way of diffusing that anger and unwinding. Why not do it at a soccer game, with your fellow countrymen? There's something unifying about the experience, as is reflected in the sign in the picture below, which says, "Somos Argentina" or "We are Argentina."

So the game wasn't quite what I was expecting it to be. But I must say that, even if I didn't get to see a referee torched or a crazed streaker, I did learn how to say "son of a bitch" in Spanish!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Liberty or Death!

Uruguay's motto ("Libertad o muerte") is well-suited for how I felt on Sunday when I took a trip to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. The last week in Buenos Aires had been a tough one, and I needed to leave the city for a bit. I needed a little freedom. I needed a little liberty. And I got both in the wonderful and charming little town of Colonia that I visited with Robyn and Andrew--two friends from back at school at UNC and Duke, respectively.

At the beginning of our tour, our guide began with a greeting that went something like this: "I want to welcome you to the best country in South America--Uruguay--MY COUNTRY! And I want to welcome you to the best town in Uruguay--Colonia!" I did not see or experience anything on my visit that would be evidence to the contrary. Colonia is, in almost every way, the opposite of Buenos Aires. Whereas Buenos Aires is a bustling city of millions, Colonia is a quiet little town of approximately 22,000 of the nicest people you will ever meet in the world. Whereas you literally have to be constantly holding your wallet in Buenos Aires, you'd have to visit the police station in order to figure out when the last violent crime occurred in Colonia. "Muy tranquilo," as they would say here. Literally every time we stopped to ask for directions or were shown a new part of town by our Uruguayan tour guide, the incredible hospitality, gentleness, and welcoming disposition of the people was striking.

Colonia's gentle disposition stands in stark contrast to its dynamic and, at times, violent history. Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, the town is Uruguay's oldest European settlement. It went through periods of both Portuguese and Spanish control and the difference in architectural styles is evident when one walks through the city. In fact, in the old historic section of the city, it seems as though almost nothing has changed since the 17th century. This part of town is so antiquated and so well-preserved that it has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Of course, most of the buildings have had to be restored, but they have kept the original structures and architecture largely intact.

Our visit began with a visit to an artisan market in town. Although nearly every single store and many restaurants in town were closed, local artists and merchants had come to the market to display their goods for sale. Nearly all of the products were made my hand, and the three of us were overwhelmed by the beauty and craftsmanship that went into each one. Whereas we had previously thought that Argentine prices were cheap, we came to have a whole new understanding of price in Uruguay. The Uruguayan peso echanges for 23 US dollars or 6 Argentine pesos, and prices in Colonia are cheap---DIRT cheap and most merchants accept US dollars and Argentine pesos in addition to Uruguayan pesos. Here are some examples of prices
  • Steak dinner: $6
  • Sneakers: $40 (payable in four monthly payments of $10 each)
  • Leather jacket: $80
  • Keychain: $0.40
  • Coca-Cola (HIGHLY popular throughout both Colonia and Uruguay): $0.80

After doing some shopping, we began our guided tour of the town. To the left is a picture of Robyn, Andrew, and me on one of the oldest streets in the town. The area where we are standing was originally part of the red light district in town, and, although you will not find too many prostitutes hanging out in the town of Colonia, prostitution is still legal in Uruguay. Perhaps that's why so many Argentinians venture across the Río de la Plata each day... (In fact, thinking about it, the three of us did notice one sketchy older man reading some sort of pornography magazine right out in the open on the boat on the way over to Uruguay. I suppose people are less conservative regarding what they're willing to do in public in South America.)

Another stop on our trip was the Iglesia Matriz – the oldest church in Uruguay, dating from 1695-99. Although the building was restored relatively recently, much of the structure of the original church remains intact even today. We also visited the Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos, an abandoned bull ring located a couple of miles out from the main part of the city, as well as two of the main museums in the city. The Municipal Museum exhibits artifacts and documents from the city's different periods and cultures while the Casa de Nacarello is an old 18th century Portuguese house that visitors can now walk though.

We also saw the lighthouse (from which the picture at the end of this post was taken) and very near (and somewhat attached) to the lighthouse were the convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco and from there it was only about a two-block walk to the Portón de Campo (the City Gate), pictured to the right.

After seeing many of the historic sites in town, the three of us were ready to relax for a little while so we walked down to the water to watch the sunset over the Río de la Plata (pictured at left). Not too far away, a group of Uruguayans were drinking mate together--a social ritual common throughout South America that I will talk about in more depth in a later post. It was almost time to catch our boat back to Buenos Aires, and we grabbed some hot chocolate along the way. Unlike hot chocolate I am used to in the United States, this hot chocolate was made with actual bars of chocolate melted in the liquid, and the reward for making it to the bottom of the cup is the opportunity to savour the thick chocolate that has collected at the bottom.

As we sipped our steaming hot drinks and made our way back to the port, I asked my friends what they thought about changing our ticket and staying for the night in Colonia. I was only half joking...

Nevertheless, we got on the bus, which would take us back to the port. As our bus pulled up to customs, the tour guide wished us safe and happy travels back to wherever our homes were. She ended by saying to us, "If you ever want to return to Uruguay, our ports will forever be open to you." Perhaps one day I shall...

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Third Time's A Charm

Last night I was robbed. I was at a club here in Buenos Aires when my cell phone was stolen from me. That's right, this occurred only two days after the day in which two separate groups of people attempted to rob me two separate times.

Unfortunately, this was my US cell phone (not my cheap Argentina one). Just the day before, I had unlocked my US cell phone for use here in Argentina and transferred my Argentina SIM card to it. Just in time for it to be stolen. When I was talking to the family that I am staying with about this, they were very sympathetic but not the slightest bit surprised. One of the brothers, Ian, told me that he has had three cell phones stolen at clubs.

It is a different world here. I don't know what to make of it, and I don't know how much more of it I can take. I was taking every precaution I could, but honestly, you have to carry a cell phone with you. The part that is hardest for me to accept about all of this, is that it's entirely out of my control at a certain point. You can take every precaution in the book, but that doesn't mean you will emerge from a foreign country with all of your valuables intact. Hell, you can even get robbed three times in a three day period. I am living proof of that.

I figure that this is the low point of my stay here in Buenos Aires. I know it can get substantially worse than this, but I sure hope that it does not. It is very different living in a city like this with such narrow sidewalks that people often have to walk in the streets. The city simply is just not big enough for the population. Sometimes, you have to wait for three subte trains because they're so packed to the brim. When there are this many people in a place this small, people are bound to bump into each other and cause problems for one another. I just hope that my share of those problems are in the past now...

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Day of Two Robberies

Yesterday, June 3rd, there were at least two attempted robberies in the town of Buenos Aires. They were both of me. They were each committed by separate groups of robbers in separate parts of the town. And they were both committed in broad daylight!

Let me preface the story by saying that, upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I was told by many people that crime was a problem in many parts of the city, that criminals tend to pick on tourists, and all of the normal warnings that you hear when you visit a large city. I have only been in Buenos Aires for two weeks, but I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have already been robbed. I know more who have very narrowly avoided robberies. Fortunately, I fall into the LATTER category.

The first incident happened when I was on la Calle Florida, a very popular and crowded civilian street (closed to traffic) in the shopping district in downtown Buenos Aires. A picture I took of La Calle Florida shortly before the incident is pictured here at left. Basically, I was pulled from the main downtown street into a shady storefront area less than a block away, and forced to pay for what I had in my wallet. After giving them the money, I immediately called the Buenos Aires police. Luckily, I knew enough Spanish to convey my problem to them, and they were actually able to enter the place where I had been held and recover all of my money!! Incredible! I thought I would have to go through some sort of complex bureaucratic process to recover anything, but all they needed was my name and address. (This robbery was actually a bit more complicated than this, but I don't want to explain it all here so ask me if you're really interested...)

The second robbery of the day occurred when I was on a tour (with a group of about 7 people and the tour guide) in La Boca (another post on La Boca will be forthcoming). La Boca is known to be one of the most dangerous parts of the city, particularly at night and in the non-touristy parts of the town. Our tour guide took us out of the touristy area because he said he wanted us to have an "authentic" La Boca experience. I guess we did... Two men approached our group, and said something to our guide which I couldn't make out. The next thing I knew, he was handing them cash from his pocket and telling us to leave as quickly as we could. As we were walking away, one of the men tried to grab my backpack from me. I kept walking away quickly, though, and, seeing that he was not able to get the bag easily, he gave up, and I emerged unscathed once again!


When you hear stories about robberies and theft when travelling, you never figure that it will happen to you. One of my friends told me that he keeps two wallets on him: a fake one with very little money (to give to robbers if they approach him) and a real one (with the majority of his money and important credit cards and information). I thought he was crazy. I have recently had a change of heart...

Still, it is important to keep in mind that these thieves represent only a small part of the porteños here in the city. After these two incidents occurred, needless to say, I was a little down on Buenos Aires. But then, the day improved. I went to the gym, and ended up having a very nice conversation with an exceptionally friendly porteño there. On my way home, I stopped at a kiosko (small, jam-packed stores that sell everything from cigarettes to food to phone cards and which proliferate nearly every city block). The woman working there was also very kind to me and went out of her way to make sure I understood what I was buying. Finally, when I arrived home, the family I am living with was there to greet me with open arms and a steaming hot dinner.

It is sad to think that a few bad apples can sour the bunch, but yesterday I gained some perspective on porteños, on Buenos Aires, and on life in general. It's hard to say that you're ever glad that people tried to rob you, but I must say that I think I am a better person for it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My First Parilla!

Tuesday night, my Spanish school hosted a dinner at El Desnivel, a typical Argentina parilla (steakhouse). I went with a couple of other people from Road. Because it was my first parilla in Argentina, I decided to splurge and not worry about the cost whatsoever. I ordered the FINEST steak on the menu (loma), along with a nice side item and a drink. Including the tip, the approximate grand total came to a whopping $17. That's right--17 US dollars. I could have ordered a medium cut of steak for about $7 if I had wanted to. And El Desnivel is not atypical. Food (particularly beef) is VERY cheap in Argentina. Most restaurants average about $5-$7 for main plates. A typical alcoholic drink like a daiquiri or margarita will cost $3 or $4, and only a 10% tip is expected. What all this adds up to is a very UNHEALTHY summer of MASSIVE QUANTITIES of eating for me!

We also got to do a little exploring of the area of San Telmo, where El Desnivel is located. Although the area did not seem to be the safest, we were glad that we got to see this historic part of town where tango originated in Buenos Aires. Among the attractions we saw were the narrowest building (pictured at left). Also, on the walk from the subte over to the restaurant, we got a nice view of the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada at night (pictured below).