Adventure #3

En bicicleta

This was the best adventure of all.

On my third-to-last day in La Rioja, a Thursday, two friends and I took off on a bicycle adventure for what turned out to be possibly the coolest day in La Rioja. The two friends are Ann and Raúl. Both work work in the university kitchen under the Chinese chef, where I was working. Ann is a foreigner like myself - a Colombian. Raúl is from Argentina (from the Iguazú region, actually.)

Che Guevera, an Argentine, once left his native Córdoba to trek though South America on motorcycle. My father, a Yanqui like me, once left from California to trek across the USA on bicycle. Our adventure would be in the sprit of Che Guevera or Gordon Pitt, we hoped.

We actually wanted to do an overnight camping-bicycle tour. But we didn't have it together enough to organize that. Instead, we squeezed our tour into a Thursday afternoon. But it was still great! First of all, we got free wine. For real. We finished cleaning up the university kitchen after the lunch shift, and all of the sudden Martín (the chinese professor and owner of the kitchen) says "let's take out the wine!" He never did this before. I still don't know why he did that day, but heck, I ain't complaining. The four of us: Raúl, Ann, Martín, and I, get a nice big glass of fine red wine with our spicy beef-and-vegetable stew. Cool guy, Martín.

At 3:00PM we say goodbye to Martín take off on our bicycles. Mid June is the southern hemisphere's late autumn, so even warm La Rioja is starting to feel a chilly. It's cold enough for sweatshirts.

La Rioja is not the most aesthetically pleasing location. It's pretty much a flat, dusty desert with no green. BUT, less than a half hour bikeride away is a beautiful mountain range that makes up for all of the city's ugliness. This is where the three of us are heading. Our goal is to get to the top of a mountain Raúl knows, where there's a view of the entire city.

First we have to get to La Rioja's reservoir, about 15km into the mountains. The road leading to the reservoir is marvelous. It runs right through a section of town called la quebrada -"the gorge"-, where all the rich politicians live. Biking through la quebrada makes something very apparent; In Argentina there are only three social classes: dirt poor, lower-middle class, and politician. The politicians are disgustingly more wealthy than the rest of the population. They effectively steal all the country's tax money and build themselves mansions in places like la quebrada. It's really horrible actually, when you see the poverty that many live in only 10km away. But it does makes for a gorgeous bikeride to the reservoir! Huge villas with beautiful gardens, perfectly kept expansive green lawns, marble fountains and statues, elegant patios and private vineyards, all tactfully built into the mountain backdrop. Its a sight to see, especially in rural Argentina some 800 miles from Buenos Aires.

The ride to get to the reservoir is a climb, but it's not too hard. Except for the fact that Raúl's chain keeps locking up. But Raúl never gets frustrated; he's a very chill kid; I like that about him. He keeps calm. "The chain falls off when I put too much force on the pedal. If I don't press too hard it won't happen again." Raúl is also our guide. Ann and I know enough to get to the reservoir, but Raúl knows about a path behind the La Rioja Fishing Club that takes you to the top of the mountain.

Now the bikeride get's hard. The path behind the reservoir is unpaved and steep. We have to walk our bikes at points. And the path is not short at all. Ann and I were expecting a twenty minute bike/hike after the reservoir. It turned out to be two hours. But Ann, like Raúl, is a chill kid. Never complained once.

Ann is attractive. But not romantically attractive. Does that make sense? She's the kind of attractive that makes you want to be good friends with her. She is very pretty; dark skin, thick black hair, and compelling eyes; but she's not coquettish or flirty at all. She has an Appalachian Trail hiker look to her. She's someone you want to go hiking with. Very mature and serious-- Raúl too. The two of them never act like children, never make stupid fart jokes or nudge you when a girl with big boobs walks by. Raúl is very attractive too, now that I think of it. Tall and dark skinned, with black-rimmed glasses and a well-formed face. They are cool people; and very cool to go adventuring with.

On our climb we see three or four mountainbikers bombing down the slopes, on a trail even less paved than the one we're on. They're wearing full motocross armor and standing over their bikes on a ledge. One by one, they take off from where they are standing and continue their plummet. We see the first one take off and (of course) hit a rock, fly over his handlebars, and crash to the ground several feet away. Let me explain that these mountains are not the Appalachian. They're steeper, rockier, and more menacing. Instead of soft bushes and leaves on the ground, you have jagged rocks and cacti. Not a place you want to fall off your bike. For a few moments the wipeout victim doesn't move; his friends are calling his name "¿Pucho? ¿Estás bien?" We see Pucho sort of gesture that he's alive, and his friends start walking down towards him. I try to explain to Ann and Raúl the english term "wipeout."

"That's a wipeout" seems to be a good enough definition.

Finally, after two hours, we make it to the top. I would love to say "When we finally made it to the summit, it was worth all the struggle to get there." But that wouldn't be accurate. It was the struggle I liked. The hike to the top with Ann and Raúl was way cooler that standing at the top of the mountain. It was a classic case of 'the journey is more important than the destination'. I have to admit though, the view from the summit is pretty cool. You could see the entire city of La Rioja; the university, the huge radio tower, the bus terminal, the barrios (neighborhoods) laid out in grids, the cathedrals and tall buildings, everything. But even better is the view of the mountains. This I wasn't expecting. I turn 180º away from the city and see the sun was setting behind the sierra. Breathtaking. I watched the sky fill up with reds and oranges and purples, and saw the shadows of the farther mountains bend and stretch over the nearer ones. For about thirty seconds, I really wanted to be an impressionist painter with a canvas and acrylics on hand.

The sun is setting. Wait. That's a problem, isn't it? The moon is rising and the stars are starting to come out, and we're miles from the nearest road. This would also be a good time to mention that the rear brake on my bike doesn't work, at all. And Ann has a flat. It seemed like a really good time to panicking. But maybe the chillness of Raúl and Ann was rubbing off on me because we just hopped on our bikes and went, practically without a word. Ann has a flat, Raúl can't put pressure on the pedal, and I have a defunct rear brake. When the sun really sets, it's dark! My cellphone has a flashlight feature; I light it, hoping to illuminate the path at least a bit. Turns out that when I stick it in my mouth like a cigarette, I can sort of see where I'm going.

The descent. Significantly easier than the climb. Though my left hand (front brake) is starting to ache from doing 100% the breaking. We descend for a quite a while. I start to realize just how much distance we covered climbing up. We went really damn far! By the time we reach the reservoir again it's pitch black.

From the reservoir the road is well-enough lit by streetlights that I can turn my cigarette-phone off. And we're coasting downhill anyway so we hardly have to pedal. Before I know it we reach the fork in the road where I go one way, and Ann and Raúl go another. Over like that. Five-and-a-half hours (it's almost 9:00PM now), but it passed like a flash. Suddenly I'm saying my final farewell to my fellow cooks/adventurers. What a bummer. These are some really cool cats. I'll miss them a lot.

It was a super cool last day to spend with some of the coolest people I met in Argentina.

Adventure #2

[8.31.09] Yes, here it is, two months after I arrived home in NJ, the post about my last weeks in Argentina. The blog must be collecting electronic data's equivalent of dust and cobwebs. But I want to publish this final post anyway for some sense of completion. Know what I mean? I've gotta finish this blog up. Anyway, if you want to skip ahead right to adventure #3, It's a better story. Or maybe not a better story; it was just a better adventure.


Adventure #2 - Iguazú Falls

This is it? Iguazú National Park?

I don't know, when I think of a National Park, especially in South America, I envision a wild overgrown jungle with dirt paths and Yellow Fever mosquitos flying around. I expect a wilderness adventure. But what do I get? an over-developed little with park with paved sidewalks and hand rails, and cute overpriced gift shops at every corner. I was expecting the Grand Canyon and I got something more like Disney World. Go figure.

There are a ton of foreigners here. More blond heads than usual, and people speaking German, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Indian, English, and probably a bunch of other languages too. A sizable amount of East Asians and Indians here. There's something interesting about seeing Indians (like, the kind from India) in South America; the Indian skin tone sort of matches with the native south american skin tone. They don't necessarily look similar. The facial structure and the hair is different, and the language is different, but the skin tone sort of matches. Maybe Colombus was on to something.

So once I'm inside Igazú park with Angelo and Oliver, first thing a bunch of park employees offer us guided tours. But we decide to walk on our own. It was a much better idea: the park was surprisingly small, you could easily walk all the (paved) trails in less than a day. That's basically what we did.

It was not a wilderness adventure. Not enough wilderness for that. I wound up going on an adventure I wasn't expecting: an adventure through old memories.

This kind of surprised me. In La Rioja, I was in the desert for four months seeing cactuses and dusty plains. It was four months that my brain just could not form visual associations with any environments I had lived in in my past. When I found myself in the green and forested surroundings of Iguazú park after four months of desert, a trigger went off in my brain and a flood of memories gushed forth. My mind warped five years and ten thousand miles away to the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. (I'm still kind of surprised at that association. I don't think Iguazú really looks much like the Blue Ridge. Maybe it was just the concept of hiking that was the trigger.) Wow! My feet are in South America on the border of Argentina and Brasil, but mentally I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail as thirteen-year-old Dave at summer camp. It was a really strong sensation. An adventure down memory lane.

But back to real time. The main attraction at Iguazú is a huge, Niagara-caliber cascade called La Garganta del Diablo ("Devil's Throat Falls"). But to get there you have to go through a bunch of smaller, less impressive falls. That's where we have just arrived now, at the first of the smaller falls. Iguazú park is small and a little over-developed, but I realize it's no less beautiful for it. It's cute.

Ollie takes out the map and pinpoints exactly where we're standing. If there's one thing Ollie loves to do it's plan things out. He planned every single day of his six months in Argentina with an extensive itinerary on an Excel spreadsheet. He is definitely in his element right now holding and analyzing the map. I watch him study the Iguazú guide, calculate carefully, and then trace with his index finger the optimum walking tour for the day.

Our morning is aesthetically pleasing. When you see pictures, you'll know what I mean. You have two views of the falls: From the sendero superior (upper path) and the sendero inferior (lower path). From the upper path you're level with the top of the falls and you can look over the edge. From the lower path you can walk underneath the falls and get wet. From both angles you can see tons of rainbows. (I'm trying to imagine how many rainbows are in one ton, based of the average weight of rainbows. It's probably a lot.) Rainbows are really cool. I noticed for the first time that they form perfect circles, except they're incomplete because they run into some obstacle like the ground or a cliff or whatever; but if the bow were to keep going, it would eventually reach the starting point again. That's the type of thing a physics teacher would tell you, I think. I would believe him now because I could sort of see it. They're nice to look at, those rainbows.

Next Ollie, Angelo and I take a ferryboat to a little island to eat our lunch. Buying lunch in Iguazú park would have been something like $15 (USD) each, which is expensive for USA but unthinkable for Argentina. So we packed sandwich materials in Ollie's bag.

Something I must clarify: Ollie is from the United Kingdom, and he is also white. "White" in this context is not a question of skin color. Angelo (from La Rioja) is just as fair skinned as Ollie but Angelo is not white. Being white, I leaned, is a question of how you make a sandwich. Allow me to elaborate. First of all, Ollie packed whole-wheat bread. That right there is enough to classify him as caucasian. But it gets worse- he packed fresh lettuce and tomato, "for the fiber". But the icing on the cake is when he leaves his sandwich open-faced, with no bread on top. Angelo, digging into a white-bread-ham-mayo sandwich, is confused. "Why don't you have bread on top, dude?" Ollie's answer: "That would be a bunch of extra carbs that I really don't need if I want to have a balanced meal." The whitest response you could hope for.

I had to explain to Angelo that open-faced sandwiches are extremely white. Angelo had been referring to Ollie as "pussy boy," which I guess is accurate enough. In Angelo's vocabulary open-faced sandwiches are "pussy food". It's the right idea.

After our gourmet paper-bag sandwiches, we follow pussy boy's exquisitely well planned route to Devil's Throat Falls. Iguazú park is beautiful, but tourists from all over the would would not visit just because the park is beautiful. They come because Devil's Throat Falls is incredible; it's among the 7 (or 8?) wonders of the natural world. Impresionante. That's the spanish word. It litereally translates as "impressive," but it conveys a little more. It's something that leaves an impression. It's something powerful enough to be impression-leaving. And that's what Devil's Throat Falls is, impresionante. When you first see it, -even when you first hear it- you feel tiny. There is so much water, and so much force, it kind of makes you feel like a potato chip under a marching band. I tried to fix my eyesight on one area at the middle of the waterfall; but I couldn't. The falling of the water literally pulls your eyesight down with the cascade. It's as if the sheer force of the water has a sort of visual gravity of its own, like a black hole. Impresionante.

Twenty gaping-mouthed minutes later Ollie, Angelo and I walk off feeling impressioned, all the way to the exit of the park. From there, pussy boy takes to planning the rest of our evening. First, we stop at a grocery store to buy vodka and coke -much cheaper alcohol than what you could buy at the hostel- and whole-wheat pasta. At the hostel we cook ourselves an Italian dinner, partly with our own food and partly with leftover stuff in the hostel fridge. The rest of the evening we spend at the computer, essentially. Ollie and Angelo are revising and re-revising their itinerary, and I play Super Mario. What a great game.

Yay for Igazú, I guess. Ciudad del Este was way cooler.


The Transition


There is a reason why I called the last post "Adventure #1". Adventure #2 and Adventure #3 are on the way, really. I already wrote #3, but I have to finish up #2 and post that one first, for chronology's sake.

But in this moment, Sunday June 28, I'm in a hostel in Buenos Aires. [well, now that I'm posting it's actually July 1. I'm in my house] Both adventures are long since over. My flight home is today. That's right. I'll be home tomorrow. The Argentina thing is over, like that!

The time passed flying, as everyone told me it would. I have a strange, sort of surreal sense of being in transition again, similar to what I felt when left home on February. "I'm leaving. I won't be back soon. This part of the world will be gone from me." But even when my feet will be back on North American soil, I don't think it's time to put away the blog. First of all, I have stories yet to be written and posted. For the past months I've been so busy living in Argentina I haven't had time to reflect and write. Now I'll be forced to reflect. Also, I think I will start realizing more things about Argentine once I'm in the United States again. I will be going through my second culture shock. The first culture shock was coming to Argentina as a North American. The second, coming to the USA as an Argentine. There should be plenty more to write about.

And if not, this blog might subtly transform away from a discussion of Argentina and more towards a discussion culture in general, or of adventures in general, or of being a teenager in general, or something. I'm done with Argentina, but I'm not done with this blog.

[Oh, and its good to be home.]


Adventure #1

Ciudad del Este

Igauzú is on the border of Argentina, Brasil, and Paraguay. Due to bizarre tax rules, a Playstation 3 consoles cost about $200 less in Paraguay than in Argentina. Before we even think about Iguazú Falls, Angelo insists on going to Paraguay to buy a PS3. (Angelo is the kid from La Rioja on our adventure. He's a friend of the British kid Ollie. The three of us form a crowd of english speakers all with different accents.)

Going to Paraguay is totally illegal for me. It's no problem for Ollie or Angelo (Great Britain and Argentina), but for a US citizen it's almost impossible to travel without visas. I don't know about the legal standing between USA and Paraguay, but I'm pretty sure I need a visa to enter, which I don't have. By entering, I am possibly breaking international law. I am sure about the legal standing with Brasil - it's absolutely prohibited for me to enter without a visa. I don't have a visa for Brasil either, and by entering I am definitely breaking international law. And of course, as is always my luck, the only way to get to Paraguay is to go through Brasil.

Since Angelo, Ollie, and myself are all under the age 25 and relatively stupid, we decided to go for it. We hop on a bus destined for Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, and hope for the best.

The bus ticket, which takes us through Argentina, Brasil, and Paraguay, costs $1.50 pesos. That's ridiculous!! Forty-one cents of a US dollar to travel between three countries. Nice!

We catch our bus. The very first stop is the aduanas - the customs office. Everyone gets off the bus to have their passport stamped before they climb back on. You walk into the office from Argentina, and walk out to Brasil. Ollie, Angelo and I exchange glances. "Maybe they won't check?" We get in line. Ollie and Angelo get their stamp and wait. I hand over my US passport. The customs official leafs through it, checks my Argentine visa, looks at the ID page, confusedly examines the front and back covers a few times, and then gets out her stamp.

What a beautiful noise. Tap TAP. I'm in Brasil.

For a few fleeting seconds, I have my feet planted on forbidden soil. I get back on the bus, and the next time I step off I am in Paraguay. Ha ha haha ha.

Paraguay! Ciudad del Este! This is a nutty city. I don't know exactly how to describe it. You come in though a big three lane highway, and on either side of you are tall buildings. But before the tall buildings are four or five rows of sidewalk tents full of street vendors. On the road you're diving on are yet more vendors, peddling their wares on bicycle. You're first impression is that it's a city of street markets. It turns out to be a pretty accurate impression.

Angelo doesn't waste any time. We go immediately towards the buildings, and lo and behold are dozens of electronics stores. Some you can tell are official suppliers; others look like they obtained their merchandise by marauding the streets with baseball bats; others are somewhere inbetween. The hunt for a PS3 begins.

It's a difficult hunt. A lot of the vendors are charging the Argentine price, or more. Others are willing to haggle, but make complicated deals like "you have to buy a camcorder too." Others have intricate procedures, "Yes, I have a PS3 for you, but it's at another shop. If you go at four in the afternoon I'll meet you there, I can buy it directly from him and pass it on to you. I'll take $50, but in the end you get a cheaper price." We spend most of the day jumping from store to store. Angelo just isn't having any luck.

Of course there are other vendors besides electronics. We've got clothing vendors, plastic-toy vendors, DVD vendors, and various food peddlers. Pringles® are a huge deal for some reason. Tons of vendors are selling Pringles and mock-Pringles. I realized that day that I haven't seen a single pack of Pringles my entire four months in Argentina. I guess they're a precious item. It's also fun that people speak Spanish, Portuguese, and English; and accept money in Paraguayan pesos, Argentine pesos, Brasilian reales, US dollars, and sometimes Euros. There are some Argentines in Ciudad del Este, but there are a LOT of Brasilians.

At the end of the day, I walked out with the best deal. I bought a kilo and a half of bananas for two Argentine pesos (US 53¢). I also got my change in Brasilian reales, which is a unexpected but cool souvenir from Paraguay.

At six or so in the afternoon Angelo still didn't have a Playstation, but we decided it was time to leave. Half the hassle is trying to sneak a PS3 across the boarder; it's a complicated trick involving a taxi that would cost another $50USD anyway. We head back to the big highway that brought us here. We have no idea how to get home.

Supposedly the same bus that took us here can take us back, but it's kind of late and maybe the bus stops running at 5:30. A taxi would cost a lot, a price you'd only want to pay if you're smuggling electronics. I'm two countries separated from a location where I have a legal visa. What do we do?

Angelo walks over to a Pringles vendor and like a Deus-ex-machina he reveals that our bus will pass by our exact location in less than 10 minutes. Saved. Before long we are passing through the customs office again, and another confused customs official gives me another stamp. We're smuggling nothing except bananas and Brasilian reales. Angelo is disappointed, but I think it was a great day. Then again, I was the only person who managed to do something illegal.


The Escape 2

Well hello there, blog. It's been a while now, hasn't it?

I'll tell you, I haven't written for so long because I've been in La Rioja for weeks, pretty much doing the same old thing. I've escaped. Now I'm on a bus. The bus is going to Córdoba. In Córdoba I will get on another bus. That but will go to Puerto Iguazú, the home of Argentina's famous super-waterfalls. These waterfalls supposedly so super, they have earned the name "Niagara on Viagra".

That's impressive.

I'm traveling with a kid from England (Ollie), and a kid from La Rioja (Angelo). I just met them. I hope that by the end of this week I will have some crazy story to write about them.

Oh yeah! This trip is almost a week long. That's a long time! Wednesday just ended, it's 12:09AM on Thursday and we just got on the bus. I arrive back in La Rioja next Tuesday, six days later. This is kind of bad news because I'm leaving for Buenos Aires almost immediately after. And after that, I'm coming home. All in all, I have THREE MORE DAYS in La Rioja. The whole Argentina thing is coming to a rapid close and there's a lot of things I still want to do.

But back to the bus. To get to Córdoba is six hours. To get from Córdoba to Puerto Iguazú is twenty-two hours. What the hell and I going to do with twenty-two hours?? I ask you: Imagine yourself in the busiest part of your year. You're losing your hair trying to find time to do everything you need to do. And suddenly a bizarrre pink-haird fairy descends from the ceiling and grants you a free twenty-two hours to do whatever you what. What would you do?

Maybe you'd finish a research project that's due on Monday. Maybe you'd finally memorize your lines for the Musical, or learn your notes for Marching Band. Maybe you'd catch up on sleep. Maybe organize that bookshelf that's been such a mess for months, or finish up a home-imporvement project that's been suspended for ages. Or maybe you'd just chill, and watch the entire Lord of the Rings movie series... two and a half times in a row. Or all seven Harry Potter movies consecutively (3 hours x 7 movies = 21 outrageous hours of British wizardry). Or you could play the entire game of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time from start to finish, I dare you. You could watch fourty-four episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or if you're from La Rioja you could sit in a park and do nothing for twenty-two hours straight.

But for all these miraculous possibilities, I honestly don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow on the bus for twenty-two hours.

[Twenty Two hours later]


So looking out the window I realized, "Oh look! Argentina actually has a nice countryside!" Things were green and nice to look at. It was something of a surprise; I've been in a dry dusty desert for four months. Why the hell did AFS send me to La Rioja, with all this beautiful country to choose from? Whatever.

Now we're in a youth hostel, which isn't too bad! We're paying $45 pesos a night (that's $12.03 USD); the 6-man dorm is filled with foul-smelling bunk beds, but the bathroom is nice. We have free wifi and computers with internet access, a spacious dining room with free breakfast, a decently-equipped kitchen for whoever wants to use it, and a room full of things to do when you're drunk (fuseball, pool table, pingpong, and big TV screens). Alcohol is an integral part of the youth hostel experience.

Tomorrow we hit up Iguazú falls. Either we'll have a super cool adventure and I'll write an exciting blog entry when I get back, or it'll be kind of unexciting and I'll just show you pictures when I get home. More on that later.



I´ve got some pictures up on Facebook.
Incase somebody doesn´t have my page, the username is David Pitt and the email address is uberchester004@gmail.com
Incase somebody doesn´t have Facebook, wow. Use somebody elses.


The Country

When I think of the country, I think of dirty houses, hot dusty weather, flies buzzing around in a shabby corner store, and intense boredom. (This is my prejudice as a kid from the suburbs I guess.) Well, one poor schmuck from Bangkok Thailand wound up out in the country for his exchange-student experience, in backwater town called Ulapes, five hours from my little La Rioja. He's stranded in a house with no internet, a school of 150, and absolutely nothing to do on weekends.
Mention the idea of living in Ulapes to any kid from La Rioja and he will put his fingers to his temples in a gesture of suicide.

Well, I came out to visit this kid for a weekend. Jett is his name, short for Jethaana. I'm writing from Ulapes on my laptop - I'm lucky to have found an electrical outlet. I've been here two days, which is quite enough for me. Jett's host family invited me for much more time, but I told them I had an obligation at the university (Academic obligation? In Argentina? Yeah right!). There is really nothing to do in Ulapes. Tomorrow I'll get on my escape bus for La Rioja, which I suddenly view as a thriving urban metropolis.

While my brief stay in Ulapes confirmed many of my general prejudices about country life (it being hot, dirty, and incredibly boring), I have a newfound appreciation for people who live there. Jett's host parents - Jorge and Mercedes - live the most perfect idyllic country life I can imagine. They are not rich, but they own a comfortably large house and an old (but decent) pickup truck. Jorge is a tall muscular 47-year-old who works most of the day in the grocery market he owns, attached to the house. In the evenings he drives out about three miles in his pickup truck to tend to his small ranch. In his spare time he plays cards with his amigos out on the back porch. Mercedes is his humble country housewife. She teaches math in Ulapes's tiny school. She is a very devout catholic, a loving mother of two, and a pleasant person to sit down with and talk about your day. I never hear her complain, she only gives thanks for what God has given her.

I can hardly describe what a admirable life they live - they are so happy in their rustic lifestyle. Mercedes always explains to me how grateful they are to live in the country, "It's quiet here. We know everybody and everybody knows us, they're all our friends. We leave the doors and windows open because we know no one will steal from us." Jorge explained to me, "It's great. In the city, you have to commute back and forth from work and there's no time to cook, so you eat from a can. No, here we walk home from work in three minutes. And we eat fresh cooked food, with fresh meat and fresh eggs, fresh bread. There's no other way to do it!"

At about 7:00PM last night Jorge was loading crates of scrap meat into his truck. "Gotta slop the pigs." He invited me along to see his ranch. We rode out a few miles in his rusty pickup until we arrived at a large field surrounded by a fence made of wire and tree branches. "This is it." He dumped the old meat into the pigpen with a grunt. This is what struck me: To him, working with his animals didn't seem like a tedious chore. Quite contrary, he seemed to love it. In some way, his work was an affirmation of his strong masculine identity. His work was a man's work. He was a man wielding power and control over his animals, a man bringing food to his family. He seemed proud. Not arrogant, just proud. Content, satisfied. "See the balls on that pig? I'll cut them off later this month. Meat from a pig with balls is always tough. Three years castrated, the pork will be perfect."

Out beyond the fence was a beautiful white horse. "She's old now, almost 13. But oh, she was a beaut when she was younger. Like a woman when she's 25," he kissed his thumb and forefinger like a chef who has just perfected his sauce. "Pure racing breed. She even won a few races in her day. And won't hurt you for anything, she's the most tranquil thing there is." A few other horses came galloping over, Jorge was doling out the fodder. "But it isn't worth it for her to have babies. With this breed, they need attention around the clock. You'd have to prop up the babe every 20 minutes or so to suck the tit, attention like that for months" You could tell without any words that he loved his horses.

Next he invited me into the cow pen. "Don't be afraid, if they're not hungry they won't do anything to you, and I keep them well fed." The troughs were almost empty though, so he called over his farmhand. "Give 'em some more feed." "But I already gave them double today." "It don't matter, if they're hungry give 'em food." So the farmhand he lumbered off to get more fodder. Jorge continued, "See these little ones? They'll make a fine steak. That's a cow for an asado. But those bigger fat ones, no. The meat's tougher and just not as good. I'll grind them up into hamburger or sausage. Nothing goes to waste."

On the ride back to the house he was explaining to me more about meats. He knew his stuff. I guess that's what comes from both raising with the animals and selling the meat as a butcher. As we pulled into the driveway he said "On the weekends my sons like to use the truck. They don't want to bring their girls into the house, they'd be ashamed. So they take 'em out to the field." He gave me a strong look, and something that resembled like a wink. It was as if to say, That's just how you do it in the country.

So while I could never live out here, and while I pity the kid from Thailand, I have to admire the people that do live here. It is hot, dusty, and boring; that stereotype remains. But if I had stereotypes about country folk - redneck, hick, or hillbilly stereotypes - they have been thoroughly dispelled. The people I met are some incredible people. Mercedes, gratefully tending the house and family. Jorge, proudly managing his animals and his shop. And their two sons, taking their girls out to the field in the pickup truck.

Fútbol: a dance with death

If you've ever watched the World Cup or any other soccer tournament, you know how cool soccer is. People jump ten feet in the air in half backflips to slam the ball into the goal, and other cool stuff like that. Playing soccer with kids in Argentina was cool because it was like watching the World Cup, except terrifying because I was actually there on the field.
When I say it was like the World Cup, I mean that these kids knew how to play soccer. I wasn't expecting it. I had called up Chen, an exchange student from China, to ask him if he wanted to do anything that afternoon. He invited me to play soccer with his classmates.
When the game started my jaw dropped. It was like watching Criss Angel. I kept asking myself "how did they do that?" The ball was moving 50mph, but somehow three people could coordinate a series of flawless passes that put the ball in the goal. What?
And the ball was harder than a cinderblock. It actually hurt your foot when you kicked it. This just increased my amazement.

So at any rate, when the game started these kids started playing like the guys on TV. I spent most of my time running to the opposite end of the field in attempt to keep maximum distance from the ball. One reason was that I'm so bad at soccer that if I tried to kick the ball I'd end up helping the other team. The other reason what that I was scared for my life.
And with reason. Within two minutes of the game, the injuries started coming with a vengeance. Soccer is a dance with death.
One kid was pegged in the back in the lull after scoring a goal. He was taken totally unaware and wound up limping the rest of the game. Another kids was pegged in the leg. The hit to the leg hurt me to watch - the impact looked like it could have impaled. I mean, I was envisioning a soccerball-sized cylindrical gap right through his thigh. The victim lifted up his shorts, the ball had scraped away the skin to reveal the bright red flesh underneath. What amazed me was that, after chanting "hijo de puta" a few times, he simply continued playing. Later in the game, he would fall down and hurl all his weight on the same leg. That made him sit out for a few minutes.
I also witnessed some faceplants. It's a simple mechanism: When there are two players and only one soccer ball in the air, one player escapes with the ball, and the other digs his face into the ground. When only one player makes a jump for a flying ball, you can expect a different injury: the backplant. One kid fell to the ground with a nasty thud and had the wind totally knocked out of him. We're not talking about nice soft grass - we're talking about hard, brown, 100% La Rioja Dirt. Yet after a second he got up and continued playing as if nothing had happened.
As fate would have it I took a hit to the face, square on the left cheekbone. The ball (filled with iron instead of air?) Whizzed towards me much faster than a North American could possibly react. And, well, I'd love to have this be the climax of the story, in which I loose consciousness, wake up to be surrounded by the faces of my peers with blood gushing out my nose, have to be carried on the shoulders of the others to my terrified host mother, and then somehow turn the near-fatal injury into a lifechanging experience.
But unfortunately the ball didn't hit me that hard. My face stung pretty bad for a few minutes, and we continued playing as normal. The injuries continued as normal as well. Two other kids (at least) took direct hits to the face, with this ball that could have been used for shot put.
Needless to say, next time I'll ask Chen if we can play basketball.
For so long I was baffled at how young people in La Rioja can do nothing for such a long time. They don't care about school, they don't work or desire to find a job, on Saturdays they're not short on time because of band practice or homework... and they never seek an activity to kill the time. It's like a super-human laziness that I couldn't achieve if I tried. What do they do? What is their passion?
But as soon as they're on a soccer field I realized, they come alive. There is a passion as strong as I've ever seen, if not stronger. When the ball comes towards them, the game is the only thing that exists. A long-dormant force is suddenly unleashed. All their soul becomes dedicated to the soccer ball; all resources - brute force, speed, and intelligence - are focused on two posts and a net. And it's not just one enthusiastic player, but the whole team. There's a whole energy Network between players, and the bond between teammates is profound.
One skinny kid, Franco, was particularly passionate. Every time he came near me he was out of breath, but never stopped sprinting. Injuries meant nothing to him, of course. He was so engaged with the game as to be detatched from the real world. If the sun exploded me might not have noticed. If I have a strange passion for analyzing linguistic patterns or going on obsessional ten-mile runs, Franco has a strange passion for fútbol.
My energy on the soccer field was bit different. To the others, the soccer ball represented a sphere of energy that charged them more and more as it approached. To me, the ball was a small round missile that might detonate if I got too close. My team was fighting to the death for the ball; I was fleeing the ball for my life.

But the point is, now I can understand better the kids that seem to do nothing. It's clear to me. With that much energy invested in the game, once you're off the field what is there?


Stuff and Junk

So when there's not really anything to talk about and you want to kill and awkward silence, you talk about the weather, right? I guess I'll do that.

We're in the middle of fall here in La Rioja but it's still as hot as summer. Well, for the most part, anyway. For a few days we had a cold snap. Generally when thinking about hot latina girls, you envision a dark skinned babe in an agreeably revealing T-shirt, or perhaps a provocatively short skirt, no? (Or for those who prefer men, a dark muscular guy in a white guinny-t and baseball cap). Well, when the weather gets a little colder, all the hot latinas (and latinos) put on tight sweatshirts and jeans, or trendy sweaters or full length athletic pants. And manage to remain incredibly sexy. I am really digging these girls with long sleeves. In fact, I almost feel it's a shame that Latin America is not a colder region of the world, because latinos in fall/winter clothing are stunningly attractive.

And now for some other stuff and junk.

I started working as an assistant cook. This is worth mentioning because I'm in the middle of the desert in rural South America, and I'm preparing authentic, home-cooked chinese food. I guarantee you that this is the only chinese food that exists in La Rioja. As it turns out, there's a pretty large group of chinese students, maybe 30 or 40, attending UNLaR (Universidad Nacional de La Rioja) to learn spanish. What the heck? Anyway, I started helping out in the kitchen where the Chinese professor's wife prepares food for the group. It's Lilian the head cook, a few (Riojan) college kid, myself, and whatever Chinese kids pop in or out. Communication takes place in a fun mix of chinese and spanish, with words of english thrown in from time to time. I learn a few new words in chinese, translated for me into spanish, for which I have to consult my dictionary at times to find the word in english. qie means cut (cortar) like cut vegetables. chao means sauté (saltear), as is chao fan - sautéed rice (Chow Fun?), and chao mian - sauteéd noodles (Chow Mein?). In case you were wondering.
Oh, and the food is really good. Especially a treat in spicy-food-deprived La Rioja.

I discovered another thing that doesn't change with culture: petty bickering between married couples. Everyone knows what I'm referring to. Proof that this exists in the US can be found on any American sitcom. The bickering exists in La Rioja equally - my host parents love eachother very much, but my host mother never fails to point out that my host father has put on a few pounds since last year. My host father is ready to pull my host mother's hair out when she tells him not to put so much salt on his milanesa, which, he mentions, she didn't cook well enough. He likes to address her with the nickname la gorda (fatty) - which she pretends not to hear.
As an extra layer of proof, the bickering occurs between the chinese professor and his spouse at the University. Every day professor Martin Yao tells his wife Lilian "You use too much oil in the chao mian. Don't use so much oil. David, she uses too much oil, don't you think?" It wouldn't matter if she cooked without a drop of oil, Martin would still say she uses too much. She points out, in a completely non-accusing voice, that it's been how many weeks since he helped out in the kitchen? And that he bought the wrong kind of carrots at Walmart.

I'm going to sponsor a contest. Who's parents (or spouses) bicker about the absolutely most retarded thing ever? I'll wait for emails from my readers. Please describe the topic over which they bicker, and include their ethnicities (Italian, Indian, Koran, Irish, etc). If I get a really good reply, I'll include it in one of my posts - I promise to protect your privacy. No names will be mentioned. (or, if you don't want it published, tell me and I won't post it.)
I'm expecting reports of arguments over really stupid things. For example, couples arguing over which paper is better to buy for the printer, B1130J or M3220K? or arguments over which side of the dishwasher to put glass cups in.

Email your responses to uberchester004@gmail.com. The winner will receive a surprise gift from Argentina.

The Hardest Language to Learn

The Hardest Language to Learn

If this post strikes you as boring, forgive me. I'm an aspiring linguist and these things are interesting to me.

When I was learning spanish in the United States I often asked myself, which language is harder to learn? English or spanish? I tried to think about it objectively - can the english language which is so accessible to me be as complicated as the spanish I was struggling to learn?

I always figured that english was harder. Think about verbs that make no sense: the past tense of eat is ate, why not eated? Why are there so many consonants in the word thought, or through? Other hard things to learn: The t in 'creation' is pronounced like as sh. The t's in 'bottle' are pronounced like d's. You farted, did you fart, and have you farted all have essentially the same meaning, but have to be used in specific contexts. Don't even get me started on the verb to be. I pitied the fool that had to learn english as a second language.

Spanish, meanwhile, seemed to have more order to it. Conjugations had a specific pattern that was almost always followed - and irregulars had an understandable pattern of their own. You always pronounce words the same as they're written. Obviously learning a second language is always hard, but I felt grateful to be learning the orderly spanish language rather than the messy english language.

But then I arrived in Argentina and people always told me, "Wow, it must be hard for you here because spanish is such a difficult language to learn." "More difficult to learn than english?" "Definitely."


Well, I gave it some thought. In spanish there really are many more verb forms than necessary. (English: I ran, you ran, he ran, she ran, we ran, they ran. Spanish: yo corré, vos corriste, el corrió, ella corrió, nosotros corrimos, ellos corrieron - and you have to get it right every single time or you sound stupid). There are a lot of annoying synonyms. You have to match up el and la with -o and -a. You have to add s's to adjectives in the plural, not just nouns.

So both languages are annoying and complicated. Why did I assume english was harder? The truth is, when I was in spanish class I didn't know the language well enough. There was a wall of ignorance, and I assumed that behind the wall might lie simplicity. Now that I'm over the wall, I see that things aren't so simple and orderly as I thought. Meanwhile I was blinded to english because of its ubiquity. I couldn't see whether it was easy or difficult because I grew up with it, and so the technicalities of the grammar and morphology were always invisible to me. In its invisibility, I assumed complexity. Now that I see how a native spanish speaker views english, I see that there is more order and simplicity that I thought. I'm beginning to admit that english might be an easier language to learn than spanish.

Crazy, huh?

Does anyone want to do some research for me to find out what scientist say about the hardest language to learn? I'd be interested in what factors they use to make their judgement.



When I first showed up in Argentina español was nonstop mental stimulation: I had to think double - listening in spanish and translating into english. The changes in schedule had me confused round the clock trying to figure out what would come next (It's 10:30PM... am I going to get dinner soon??). Just getting to know a new family and a new town is challenging enough, forget about cultural differences. The first few week were stressful and exciting - a high energy combination that didn't leave me much time to think.

But after a few weeks (it's been six now, I think) the novelty wears off, things slow down, and I start to settle down in this place I'll be living for the next several months. In that moment the homesickness can really hit.

A sense of loneliness hit me the hardest. In New Jersey I have a whole slew of friends, my family, and teachers who I love to talk to. Here I don't have those people. And, as it always goes, I realize how valuable those people are to me now that I'm separated from them.

When I hopped off the plane, I had zero friends in Argentina, only my host family. Yet I was never alone, so to speak, because Argentines are very friendly and eager to welcome you to social events. There was never a weekend when I wasn't invited to a party or a disco. But the discos got repetitive fast (dance, drink, and act like a fool until 6 in the morning. Next week? Dance, drink, and act like a fool until 6 in the morning). And after three weeks or so of the same discos, they actually started getting boring. I started opting to hang out instead with a group of kids from the university's Arts School (the Arts School is where I finally wound up in terms of classes. I am studying theatre). I wound up enjoying my time much more chilling out with these artsy kids than dancing at the clubs. And then I realized, "Oh, these people are my friends! Like, friends!"

That was a wonderful thing to realize. There's a difference between "Hey David, let's go party" friends and "Hey David, is everything going alright?" friends. I needed the latter. If you want to survive ten thousand kilometers away from home for five months, you absolutely need the latter.

Culture differences exist in almost every aspect of life here: the food, the schedule, the way you greet old people, what time of day you wear jeans, teacher-student interaction, what music you play when friends are visiting, the list goes on. But I've discovered two things that are constant: B.O. and friendship. When you go to the gym, people stink, in every country on the planet. Likewise unchanging is the concept of friendship. And I mean real friendship, as opposed to daily social interaction with your buds (which does change with culture). True Argentine friendship feels the same as true North American friendship. It doesn't matter USA, Paraguay, or Thailand - I've decided that the concept of true friendship knows no cultural boundaries.

To those of you who know me (and really know me, not just know me) it should make some sense why I wound up with the artsy kids as my core group of friends. They're sort of a variation on my core group of friends at home. Our preferred activity is sitting on a rooftop talking about philosophy and artistic expression. One night we got together, dressed up in costumes, mixed experimental techno music on a turntable, and collectively painted a nonrepresentational mural of sorts on a huge canvas. More than half of them play in one band or another (Always rock music, they detest cumbia, the more popular music in La Rioja), and at least half of them are homosexual. One time the band played at a political demonstration in the central plaza. Spectators were waving red flags with images of Che Guevara, and there were my friends rocking out on the guitar and bass.

They could be artists, scientists, or strippers. The point is, they're my friends. They are people who talk to me and want to know how I'm doing. The want me to feel at home and comfortable. They are people who I won't remember as "Argentine people I met in Argentina," but rather as "friends." As much my friends as my friends who I call my friends in the United States.

That's important.



Note: To sound like a real argentino, say /COR-do-ba/, not /cor-DO-ba/.
My first impression of Córdoba was This is the Philadelphia of Argentina.

Córdoba is a big city. With a population of over 1.3 million, it's a far cry from my little La Rioja (less than 350,000 inhabitants). A quick geography lesson: Buenos Aires is on the east cost of Argentina, and slightly north of the latitudinal center. La Rioja is tucked into the far north and west. Córdoba is about in the geographical center of the country, if not slightly northwest. The other big city is Mendoza, which is in the west and slightly north of Buenos Aires. I am still mostly ignorant about the souther half of Argentina.
It surprised me how completely modern and developed a city Córdoba was. La Rioja seems to less developed than a typical country town in the US. Naturally, I expected Córdoba to be less developed than a typical US city. Bur Córdoba struck me more developed than a US city, at least the section I visited (Nueva Córdoba, a fast-growing neighborhood where most of the city's university students live. It is also home to the central mall and the numerous disco clubs). Maybe developed isn't exactly the right word. What I mean is, the streets are wide and clean, everyone has a car (instead of a motorcycle), the signs on the shops and restaurants are all professional and well designed (as opposed to a typical kiosco in La Rioja, with a sign simply painted on the wall... freehand. Storefronts in La Rioja are reminiscent of an old western movie). In Córdoba there are rows of shops of expensive cloths with prestigious brand names. The parks have pristine sidewalks and elegant fountains. Everyone gathers in the green, well kept park El Paseo del Buen Pastor at about 7:00PM to lie down in the grass and enjoy mate and snacks. The city does not feel congested like New York or Philli. No shop looks like it's trying to cram itself in between two others. There's plenty of space for shopping districts, parks, and cultural centers (museums, theatres, concert halls). There seemed to me many less cars and pedestrians on the street, but that could be because I missed rush hour.

I came here with my host brother Mauricio who came to visit his girlfriend Juliana who studies at a university here. Universities! that's another notable aspect of Córdoba, it's full of universities. The public and private institutions of Córdoba are renowned as the best in the country. Juliana studies law at a private institute and lives in an apartment with some girl friends. The apartments! They're really nice! At least Juliana's was. It was spacious, clean, and had a beautiful view of the cañada (the [clean] gully that runs through the middle of the city). The elevator was really small. Only two people could possibly squeeze in, I've never seen an elevator that small. Bad news for claustrophobics in Córdoba.

Anyway, Mauri and I show up in Corboda at 6:00AM on Saturday. (We got on the bus in La Rioja ten minutes past midnight on Friday). We meet up with Juliana and eat breakfast in her apartment. As I'm sure I have mentioned, I hate breakfast in Argentina. It's bread, sometimes a croissant ("medialuna"), and that's all you get. After "breakfast," which I will hereafter refer to disparagingly as breadbite, Marui and I go to our hotel. What a dump. A few dirty mattresses with yellow sheets, a shower with no curtain, and a toilet with no flush handle (ie. - you have to reach into the tank to flush manually). That's was you get for $90 pesos (about $24 USD) in Córdoba; I guess we were asking for it. Anyway, Mauri and I crash in the hotel for a few hours and then go to lunch with Juliana at the famous central mall Patio Olmos. Nice mall! Three stories, with trendy modern architecture on the roof. At the food court, Marui and Juliana get McDonalds (there's no McDonalds in La Rioja); I get a garden salad from a hippie-vegetarian salad bar (which earned me some ridicule from Marui and Juliana, but the truth is there's virtually no salad in La Rioja either). Then I got the city tour.

The tour brief: famous cathedral (la Iglesia de los Capuchinos - easy to remember because the church is the same color as cappuccino), an art museum, El Paseo del Buen Pastor city park, and the pleasant shady walkways inbetween. I fell in love with Córdoba. This would be a really cool city to live in. I really want to show you guys pictures, but with the internet situation here loading pictures is a nightmare. I'll do my best, but no guarantees.
I'm personally and art junkie, so I liked the museum best of all. Córdoba's Museo
superior de bellas artes Evita met my high standards for a good museum. It featured all types of genres from impressionism to postmodernism. A good portion of the works were painted by artists from Córdoba. A scholarship program allows painters from Córdoba to study in Europe, and the artists return must send their best paintings back to the museum. Admission cost three pesos (80¢), half the price of a large coke.

Later that evening, I learned that the night time schedule in Córdoba is about the same as in La Rioja. The fun starts a little after midnight, and doesn't stop until seven in the morning. Mauri, Juliana and I went to a folklore (fo-KLO-ray) concert. Folklore is a famously Argentine musical style played with guitars, little guitars, and wind pipes. It's got an upbeat, folksy, cowboy, and native american (native south american) feel to it. It's pretty fun!

On Sunday we did nothing. For almost 7 hours straight! Argentines are experts at doing nothing for prolonged periods of time. I thought maybe it was just in La Rioja were people did nothing, because it's out in the country, but the big city is just the same. Mauri and I woke up at about 12:30PM, too late to eat breadbite, So after a 1:00PM lunch we sat down in a park and talked about nothing for four hours. Then we ate a snack, went to another park, and talked about nothing again for another three hours. Wow!
We finished our weekend of fun by jumping on a bus at midnight, and now I'm back in little La Rioja. However, before I left I threw a coin in the fountain at El Paseo del Buen Pastor. According to the superstition, throwing a coin in the fountain means you will return to Córdoba again. I'll personally see to it that that superstition holds true.

Words you didn't learn in spanish class

Parental Advisory: Explicit Content
This post has bad words and is not intended for parents
If you are a parent, don't read this post
If you have parents, don't tell them you read this post

A key aspect of any world culture is the colloquial language. In this post I will share what I have learned about common idioms and phrases.

It's noteworthy that the words used with greatest frequency in colloquial language are the words not taught in spanish class. I learned these words relatively quickly and am now happy to share them with you.

This word is used with incredible versatility
Puto (m) means gay or asshole.
Puta (f) means gay, and also bitch or slut
Hijo de puta, a very common phrase, means son of a bitch. It is used endearingly as well as offensively.
Él es puto - he is homosexual
Duele como la puta madre - it hurts like a bitch

¿Qué mierda? (lit. 'what shit?') means WTF?
Se fue a la mierda (lit. 'he left to the shit') means he disappeared

¡Joder hombre! translates as fuck man!

To fuck.
Culeador - fucker, ie. 'one who fucks'.
¡Vamos a culear las putas! - let's go fuck bitches

Tiene tremendo culo - She has a tremendous ass
Cara a culo - Assface, this describes an unpleasant appearance
Huele a culo - (lit. smells like butt). I believe the meaning is similar to 'Se fue a la mierda' (It's disappeared), to be used when something goes missing.

Idiot, moron.
¡Vos sos pelotudo! - You're such an idiot
(etym. - originally denoting 'big balls' or pelotas)

Dummy, less offensive and more lighthearted than pelotudo
¡Que boludo! - You big dummy!
(etym. - possible derived from bola meaning 'cock')
Synonyms: tarado, imbécil, estupido, sonso, tonto, idiota, energúmeno

Pene - penis (Note: not slang; this is the word a doctor would use)
Bola - easy to remember because it sounds like balls
Palo - lit. rod


- lit. whistle




- lit. 'this one'

Vagina - no translation necessary
- conch
Tuna -
nothing to do with the fish. According to my dictionary, tuna means prickly pear, a desert cactus that bears an edible red fruit.

To drink (alcohol), usually in excess.
¡A chupar! - Let's get bombed! In La Rioja you hear this frequently on Friday and Saturday nights.
The verb chupar literally means "suck." Eg.:
Chupa dedos - suck your fingers (after eating).
Chupa pecho - breastfeeding.
Chupacabra - goatsucker.
¡Chupame la pija! - suck my balls! Used frequently by my younger brother Nacho.

Chapar (not to be confused with chupar)
To make out; to hook up.
¡A chapar! - We're gonna kiss some girls(/boys) tonight!
(Note: often used in conjunction with '¡A chupar!')
Un/una chapista - a man/woman who hooks up with numerous partners.

Borracho, Chupado, and En pedo (lit. - in a fart) are all synonyms for drunk


To help me adjust to the language, my host brothers have been speaking in English as much as they are able. A sampling of a typical conversation:

David (18 y.o.): Hola, Mauricio
Mauricio (17): Hello, bitch!
Joaquín (9): Hey Deivid, fuck you man! you're fuckin bitch!
Nacho (13): Hey Deivid, ¡Chupame la pija!
David: Hey Nacho. Nacho!
Nacho: Yea?
David: Shut the fuck up.
Nacho: Ooooh yeah. Fuck you man. You're the best bitch. You're the king of bitch. You're the queen of bitch. You're the bitch of bitch. You'--
Mauricio: Che Deivid, ¡prestame el fucking iPod! (give me the fucking iPod)
David: Fuck you, chango (ie. - dude, man, homeboy)
Nacho: Hey Deivid. You see this shirt? It's the best! This shirt the best bitch. You're shirt? You're shirt is not bitch. It's the worst bitch. Yeeaaaah. ¡Todo piola chango! (It's all good, homeboy)


A Critical review of the food in Argentina

21 Marzo 2009

It's a mixed bag.

The meat is incredible, as I have mentioned. The beef and sausage here can't be beat.
Also incredible are the tomatoes. In USA tomatoes taste like water. Here they are extremely flavorful. I am wont to eat three or four tomatoes strait from the fridge as if they were apples.
But looking at the overall picture, I'd say the food here is not as good as in New Jersey.

There's a lot of repetition. Argentines don't like to experiment with new dishes. Once you've tasted one asado (barbecue), you've tasted them all. There's a lot of disappointing plain bread with plain cheese, and plain spaghetti with plain cheese. Sandwiches are eaten very frequently, and usually consist of nothing except bread, a thin slice of ham, and a thin slice of cheese. Nothing is spicy. Nothing.
There is certainly a lack (for better or for worse) of "gourmet" food. More popular are food that don't involve forks; hotdogs and pizza. The pizza I don't dig too much - maybe just because I'm so used to NY/NJ pizza. Pizza here is made without mozzarella cheese (I don't know the name of the cheese they use), and too little tomato sauce.
Mediocre foods include empanadas (not as good as colombian empanadas, and never spicy) and tartas (pies sort of like a quiche - cheese, egg, onion, corn, etc.). Apples are mushy, and there's not enough variety of fruit.

Of course there are exceptions to the mediocre-food rule. For example, Lomito (a regional special) is one of the best sandwiches I have ever tasted. Lomito is similar to a burger. Two toasted pieces of bread, meat (lomo), lettuce, tomato, cheese, mayo, and fried egg. Egg on a burger sounds weird I know, but trust me it is delicious. If you are vegetarian in Argentina you will suffer. If you're vegan you'll die.
Another exception: A friend of my host mother, a woman named Adriana, invites me to eat with her and her elderly friends on Thursday nights. We all gather at a nice summer house in la quebrada ('the gorge' - an area near the mountains where the weather is cooler and the town is quieter) and Adrinana's elderly lady friends cook for everyone. One night they cooked pizza. I was upset, because I was expecting the usual lousy Riojano pizza. But their pizza transcends the standards of La Rioja and even of New York. The pizza came to the table with onion and tomato, another with egg, olive, and oil, another with sausages and a medley of herbs. The cuisine was accompanied by fine red wine and black beer, and afterwards we enjoyed a elegant fruit pastry with cream.
Those ladies can cook. No matter what plans I have on Thursday night, I cancel them to go eat at la quebrada.

About the sweets I can actually say "It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different." The operative difference is dulce de leche. Yes, the same dulce de leche you learned about in Spanish class. It's a sweet paste with a consistency between nutella and grape jelly, and a flavor that's just.... sweet. It's pretty good, if not a bit too sweet for my liking. Oreos here have a dulce de leche center. Cakes have dulce de leche fillings (and frostings). Icecream tubs come in "chocolate, vanilla, and dulce de leche." If you like the flavor of dulce de leche, you will be happy in Argentina. Right now Mauricio (my host brother, 17-years-old) is constructing a layered cake of chocolate cookies dunked in coffee and dulce de leche.
People rave about the alfajor, but I'm not a big fan. Alfajor a cookie-dulce de leche sandwich that's famously Argentine. All I can say is, "...Eh."

Overall, I miss the food from home more than I enjoy the food here.
Now I will lament things I miss most: peanut butter, Chinese food, Indian food, Vietnamese food, Japanese food, Mexican food, Thai food, Indonesian food, sweet potatoes, chocolate, soymilk, cliff bars, M&Ms, tabasco sauce, any fish or seafood, salsa (yes, I'm in Latin America and I miss salsa. There's none here), breakfast cereal, and of course, my mother's cooking (well... some of my mother´s cooking anyway).

I'll eat double asado for the sake of everyone in my country. For me, you guys enjoy the many flavors of USA that don't exist here.


The little things

This post is kind of long. If you don't like reading a lot, you won't like this post.


There's something very charming about a country that's not fully developed. The easiest example I can think of is the gym. In Morristown, the gym is clean, spacious, carpeted, and all the weights have comfortable rubber grips. In La Rioja there are wights all over the floor, sweaty young people have to squeeze by each-other on the staircase, and there are no cushiony blue mats for situps. The dusty wood floor is all dented and scratched, and the equipment is rusty and requires some strength to just set up. Isn't that how a gym is supposed to be? If I were making a film that involved a gym, I would definitely use the gym in La Rioja over the gym in Morristown.

The little differences present themselves everywhere. At the kiosko (corner deli) you can buy a snack worth 3 pesos, pay 2, and bring the final peso mañana. And it's not something that you only do once because you forgot your wallet at home. You just go to the store with the two pesos because it's easier than going upstairs to get the third peso out of your wallet. Could you do that in USA? The nametagged employee would probably give you a hard time. But in La Rioja the employee is not some anonymous face- he or she is a friend that knows your name and asks how things are going.

All the drinks come in 3L glass bottles, not plastic. I even bought a glass bottle of gatorade, sabor a manzana (apple flavor - something I never saw in the states). When buying a drink, no one buys a drink for himself. A group of three or four share one big bottle of soda, and split the tab. If you buy a drink for yourself only, other people will drink it anyway.

Every public building isn't air conditioned. Instead, they keep the doors open and fan on overhead, and the clerk wears a T-shirt. You don't see pristine glass windows on every corner, but rather blotchy glass and smudged walls. The lettering on windows or storefronts isn't elegantly printed or engraved, but stenciled in with paint. There is graffiti everywhere, even on the inside of my drawer at home.

The roads and sidewalks aren't designed for maximum transit efficiency. Houses run right up to the edge of the street, and the streets are only wide enough for one-way traffic. Any given street has an uneven apperance, because fancy elegant villas stand right next to broken-down shanties. The mix is somehow refreshing. The town doesn't look like it was bottled and packed by McDonald's, with everything modernized and pasteurized.

Clean modern SUVs will follow rusty little jalopies, and once in a while you see a farmer's truck that looks like it was made in the 1930s. The roads don't discriminate. Every car, weather a sputtering farm vehicle or a ferrari, drives on the same street. Cars share the road with motorcycles, which are much more numerous and show just as great a variety in quality and age. You also see four-wheel motorized ATVs on the streets. Motorcycles are the vehicle of choice because they are cheaper, easier to park, cooler in the hot weather, and capable of driving on dirt paths that cars can't access.

Vehicles don't follow modern standards of safety. If the cars have seatbelts, no one wears them. You see a helmet on a cyclist only once in a while. Some streets do have traffic lights, but most leave the decision to the driver when to stop and go. I am amazed I haven't seen a car crash yet. On a street only 100ft. long, drivers will switch gears rapidly to try to hit 60mph before the next intersection. Pedestrians are just as reckless, racing to cross the street between two speeding cars. All the while motorcycles are weaving through traffic, ignoring stoplights completely. The vehicles are like people: impatient, pushy, selfish, and disobedient. If it looks drivable, then it is driven on. It's not like the USA where cars, at least to some extent, are quelled into speed limits and fettered to double yellow lines.

There really is no police force that could regulate the traffic, or anything else. Police exist, but they are like the teachers at the high schools; they don't do anything. With no vigilant eye of the law upon them kids go ahead and get drunk in the streets at night, accompanied by whatever elicit activity/substance suits their fancy. No one stops by the house to turn down the stereo at 4:00AM, so throughout the Friday and Saturday night music is blasting at every corner.

Something about this place feels more organic than a modern American city. Yet the feeling isn't Latin American, it is distinctly European. The central plaza is filled with stone and bronze statues, and covered with shady trees. Cafés fill the sidewalks with quaint tables umbrellas. You see a lot of classical architecture with concrete and arches and pillars, and huge stone cathedrals tower over all.

The streets and the buildings are really magical. And I mean it, they're really have a magical touch about them. But the town itself is 1%. It's the people here and the attitudes that make the experience. For all it's worth, and it's worth a lot, I'd say the town is 1% of the magic.

A view from the top floor of the gym.
More photos pending.


La Chaya


Sand, flour, mud, meat, paint, and wine.
What more could you need?

On my first day in La Rioja, Argentina - Sunday March 1 - I got to experienced the deadly combination of the six substances listed above. The chaos is called La Chaya and it happens only in La Rioja.

Actually, it's not accurate to associate meat with La Chaya, because there's meat everywhere. Just a few hours after I arrived in my new Argentine home I was at a table covered with heaping plates of beef and sausage. (Every Sunday Argentines eat asado - a sort of barbecue on steroids. Some 20 family members and friends come over to eat and chat for the entire afternoon). Anyway, I stuffed my face with the best meat I ever tasted and then fell asleep instantly, as is the Argentine custom. When I woke up - or rather when some friends dragged me out of bed - we went into the streets for the Chaya.

The Chaya is a summer festival that lasts most of February. People gather in the streets armed with garden hoses, buckets of water, sand, paint, handfuls of mud, and flour, and something like a food fight ensues. In less than 30 seconds you will be filthy, but so is everyone else so it doesn't matter. Everyone drinks heartily and you can just walk up to any stranger holding a big cup of wine to have a sip. Big grills on the sidewalk are cooking up cow heads. I actually ate brain of cow on bread. Either huge speakers or live bands will fill the streets with folklore - fun upbeat guitar music. Admittedly, I couldn't understand half of what was said to me, but I had a damn good time.

Oh yeah, at dusk they blow up scarecrows. Like, they actually blow them up with explosives.

after la chaya

. . . . . asado

On the bus

8:05PM (20:05Hs)
Its true what they said about Argentine busses (or colectivos): better than first class on the airplane. I have a huge leather seat, plenty of leg room, curtains like old trains in the movies, and a knit red blanket to keep me warm. I'll be on this bus for the next 13 hours as I travel from Buenos Aires to my destination city La Rioja, so I guess I'll take some time to reflect on my first few days in Buenos Aires.

In three words: warm, beautiful, welcoming. Warm refers to the weather. Beautiful refers to the people and the weather. Welcoming refers to the attitudes, the people, and the weather. A warm beautiful welcoming bus attendant just gave me a candy.
When plane actually landed in Buenos Aires, the first chunk of hours was spent with Americans and other international students. Let me glaze over that and skip ahead to meeting the argentinos. You have to envision this location: an old catholic convento with marble staircases, huge open courtyards, and majestic stone arches (This is where we had our "orientation." How AFS managed to reserve this location, I don't know). Every room and hallway was immaculately clean. Every second felt like being in a movie, or a dream. In one of these courtyards is where I sit down with some of the AFS Argentina volunteers. The first thing I notice is a variety of skin tones and a strong accent. They are chatting with each-other about the diversity of kids in the program (Thai, German, New Zealand, Austrian, Japanese, Norwegian, Swiss, and US). As soon as I sit down they invite me into the conversation; me with in messy Spanish. They make fun of my pronunciation slapping me on the back, and throw back some words in messy English. In less than 15 seconds I am sharing mate with them (a bitter herbal tea, drunk through a silver straw called a 'bombilla') and joking about the monks walking around the other side of the courtyard. What's notable here is that even though they hardly knew me, they were treating me like an old friend. I never felt the division between their being staff and my being student.
And that's apparently the culture of Argentina, they explained to us at the orientation. Argentines are friendly to everyone. You can stop by at a friends house uninvited at 4:00 in the afternoon, and you will be welcomed in, fed, given mate and wind up spending the whole evening there. People do it all the time and no one questions it.

Now to list some details you might find interesting. Busses seem to be the major transit system, and the BsAs bus station is comparable to NY Penn Station. Out my window I just saw a guy poking at a bonfire right by the side of the road. Dinner is served between 21:00-22:00 (9 and 10 pm) and the earliest, and breakfast is a measly piece of bread in the morning. People kiss on the cheeks like in France, and talk over each-other at the table like Italians. They say che as in Che Guevara. The accent is ridiculous. Lluvia turns into shuvia and La Rioja turns into La Shrioja. Oh, and they just decided to make a verb form that doesn't exist ('vos').

That's just about I have to say about Argentina so far. It's about 9:30 now. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to play Doom for 11 1/2 hours.

el convento
el colectivo



To my loyal readers (all four or five of you):
I have more stories to post, but I can´t publish them until I can connect my laptop to the internet. Supposedly there are some wifi hotspots in downtown La Rioja, so I´ll have more posts up soon!


David Pitt's guide to international visas

1. Mail passport and visa request to Chinese consulate. ($20.00 visa fee, $1.40 postage)
2. Receive visa.
Total Time: 4-7 days
Total Cost: $21.40


1. Obtain special "long form" birth certificate from your state. ($15.00)
2. Have birth certificate notarized. ($5.00)
3. Obtain birth certificate official translation. ($75.00)
4. Obtain notarized certificate of accurate translation. ($15.00)
5. Obtain international Apostille seal for birth certificate. ($25.00, $1.40 postage)
6. Obtain police record from municipality of residence. ($10)
7. Have police record notarized. ($5.00)
8. Obtain police record official translation. ($75.00)
9. Obtain notarized certificate of accurate translation. ($15.00)
10. Obtain international Apostille seal for police record. ($25.00, $1.40 postage)
11. Obtain visa request form from Argentine Consulate.
12. Obtain parental consent to travel form.
13. Have parental consent form notarized. ($5.00)
14. Obtain international Apostille seal for parental consent form. ($25.00, $1.40 postage)
15. Obtain school acceptance letter from institution in Argentina.
16. Obtain travel itinerary with all international flight information.
17. Obtain valid bank statement.
18. Pay immigration tax. ($85)
19. Pay visa processing fee. ($40)
20. Provide proof of Spanish proficiency.
21. Assemble all required documents with cover letter.
22. Bring passport and all required documents in person to Argentina consulate.
23. Return after 7-10 days to receive visa.
Total Time: 2 months - 4 years.
Total Cost: $424.20


Am I bitter? No, I wasn´t...
until I got to customs in Buenos Aires and they didn´t even check.