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.