Browsing Date

June 2009

Destinations, South America

When is it time to go home?

June 16, 2009 • By

Before I tell everyone about my adventures over the last week, I thought I would share what I am feeling as I booked my flight to return to the US (I’m not sharing the date).  I’ve been asking myself the following question the last few weeks and possibly the last few months.  When is it time to return home?  I’ve decided it’s better to come home for the right reasons rather than the wrong and I’m happy to report it’s not because of a lack of funds(although that is part of it), job loss or tragedy.  I am coming home because I am ready.  I’ve accomplished all I set out to accomplish minus the husband, the dream job and maybe a few other fantasies I built up along the way.  It’s true those things would have been nice but for me it’s always about the people I meet and the beauty I encounter. It’s about learning.  Travel is an education you cannot obtain in textbooks especially since it is difficult to teach someone about acceptance and culture.

I’ve tramped through two continents from the oceans to the mountains from the churches to the mosques and synagogues from the museums to the open-air marvels eating and drinking along the way.  I might not remember everything I’ve seen or heard but I’ve engrained visual memories in my mind.  The clouds blanketing Table Mountain in South Africa, the pristine lands of Botswana, the magic of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the richness of the land in Ethiopia, the power of nature to name a few things.  The stories of a nation torn apart by war, the quest of parents in every village, city and country to provide for their children.  The amazing people who have changed my life forever.  The one thing that stands out most for me that I continue to reflect on daily is that we are all the same. What divides us also brings us together.  It’s a powerful feeling to know my country isn’t that much different than the next but that I enjoy certain freedoms and a special way of life that many of us in the United States take for granted.

Living in Buenos Aires has been my study abroad, my cultural immersion and my dream all wrapped up in a vino tinta and slab of beef.  Each day I need to remind myself I am still only a tourist.  I cannot survive on what I consider a blessed way of life on 20 pesos a day($5).  I like Starbucks, I like the fancy gym, I like manicures and pedicures, I like eating out and more than anything I love traveling. At the beginning of this journey, I didn’t think I could survive a month let alone seven without partaking in my frivolous behavior.  These are typical things we add to our everyday life because we can.  The truth is I don’t NEED expensive haircuts, shopping extravaganzas, the Four Seasons and Starbucks.  I used to believe my life was better because I could afford a weekly pampering or because I could order the $25 bottle of wine rather than the $7.  It isn’t.  I’ve learned to live simply and to appreciate each bite of food, each sunrise and sunset and more importantly to live my days taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a beautiful world.  I am thankful my parents raised me to believe in myself; to take chances in life; and to be proud of the person I am when I look in that mirror.  I am not perfect.  I make mistakes every single day but it doesn’t matter because that is who I am that is who we all are.  I will be returning home soon enough (Patrick you better clear out that “spare” room quickly) and I will continue to have many stories to share but no one can take away my experiences of the last 7 months.

…And now let me take you back to my week in Buenos Aires…

This week was full of surprises.  I met a new friend from my Spanglish outing for dinner at a restaurant in Palermo.  He is an Israeli/Brit and recently moved to Buenos Aires for a change of pace and more business opportunities outside of the US and Europe.  Being the same age(yes there are many of us life break folks down here), we shared similar concerns and I appreciated his zest for life and his candor about my travels.  We had a great night chatting about politics, jobs, the world and of course movies.  It was nice to be out and enjoy a normal conversation.

I woke up feeling a bit under the weather but nothing unusual until 3 pm Wednesday when I started getting aches and pains.  I texted Landra and asked if she was ok (we often eat together) and she was fine.  About 2 hours later, my stomach started revolting against me and I truly believed a demon had occupied my insides.  We all know I am not good at being sick and I am even worse when I am alone in a foreign country.  I sent some emails and texts indicating I was dying to a few people and no one seemed to care except for Joyce who decided it would be a good idea to CALL my landline 2 times.  Here I am in Argentina, three rooms away from the phone, curled up in a ball with a headache and my abdominal muscles playing a fabulous game of boxing and Joyce stalking me.  When I didn’t answer, she then sent frantic emails asking if I was ok.  I WOULD BE OK IF YOU STOPPED CALLING ME AND LET ME TRY TO SLEEP.   Oh mothers!  It took 3 days to get back to normal but I am once again devouring the Argentinean food I so adore.  They call it food poisoning in the US but the Spanish translation fits much better “comida intoxica.”  On the list of things I prefer never to try again, it’s at the top.

Landra had a dinner party on Friday and her host mother helped her cook an incredible meal.  I wasn’t exactly 100 percent healthy so I was careful to eat only the rice and crackers.  Of course, I deemed the wine a necessity since it would kill off any remaining traces of bacteria in my body.  What a treat to have a real life dinner party in Buenos Aires complete with conversation in Spanish.  You know it’s a good time had by all, when the conversation heats up and the English language makes it way to the table.  When tensions rise, the native tongue always comes to the forefront.  It’s impossible to express emotions with ease in intermediate Spanish.  I guess our classmate Christian, a Swiss, felt pretty strongly about the direction in which the European Union was heading.  Do I see a future politician?  Gosh I sure hope he is smarter than that!

Saturday, my school visited the Tigre an area about 45 minutes from Buenos Aires that lies on the Parana Delta.  The town sits on an island created by several small streams that swirl around other tiny islands.  The downtown area reminded me of a German or Swiss village but when I mentioned that to my classmates the Europeans in our group all started arguing about which country.  I give up.  I’ve decided in some ways Europe is still at war.  They get along for the sake of getting along but Europe has a long history and many things are not easily forgotten.  There is written history and then there are the stories passed on from generation to generation.  Ironically, Europeans came to the Tigre/Delta to farm the rich land and stayed.  It wasn’t worth even explaining that factoid.

After walking through the town, we made our way to one of the channels where we boarded a boat and toured one of the waterways to another island.  We had a lovely lunch in the sun and then hiked along the Delta.  It wasn’t the peaceful hike I was hoping for as the sun started setting and we had to hurry back but this is how they do things in Latin America…backwards.  We dined for 3 hours and hiked for an hour.  Typical!  It was a beautiful day and I was happy to have the chance to see a new city.

The rest of the weekend I spent relaxing, shopping and watching movies.  I highly recommend seeing UP.  It’s not just for kids and beware of the tearjerker ending.  Landra and I celebrated FLAG DAY, (another stinking Argentinean holiday), seeing the flick and enjoying the popcorn con azucar.  Instead of butter, they spray some caramel coating over the kernels.  It worked for me.  Tomorrow, I begin the last two weeks of my Spanish class and I am determined to make the most of daytime studying and nighttime partying.  This weekend Landra and I met another fellow 35-year-old who quit his job and is traveling for a year.  He is a crazy Brit and he inspired us to shake it up a bit.  I mean if he can party until 6 am and still make it to 9 am class why can’t we?  I let the Irish in me take a 4-year-hiatus but watch out Buenos Aires.

Oh and if you really must know why I decided to book my flight today, let me share a short story.  At the gym yesterday, I was weighing my pros and cons about staying in Buenos Aires and then I headed to my local Starbucks.  While fumbling over some Spanish words, a fellow American stepped ahead of the line and told me not to worry about my language skills.  She had been in Buenos Aires for a year-and-half and was still struggling. Then she informed me she was 35-years-old too; that she desperately needed a place to get a good wax and manicure and that she was living with 3 roommates in order to survive.  That was my version of the nail in the coffin.  I thought it was fitting that it all went down at Starbucks.

Destinations, South America

Even Real Life Has a Little Bit of Foreshadowing

June 9, 2009 • By

Every now and then it’s best to travel off the beaten path if you really want discover the heart of a city.  My weekend adventure included an Italian night of culture and a visit to an Estancia(ranch) and I’m confident someone somewhere is sending me signs from above but I’m still alive after facing down a truckload of pigs so I’ll take that as a positive.  Oh where to begin…

Landra and I joined her two friends from the States at an Italian restaurant in San Telmo.  The changing neighborhood is a mix of yuppies, immigrants, lower to middle class and more recently upper class families.  There are cobble-stoned streets, cultural centers, restaurants, antique shops and the tango is commonplace.  At night, San Telmo fringes on unsafe but that’s more or less because it’s not as populated as other neighborhoods.  You get the sense you are in a Charles Dickens plot with old street lanterns and dark walkways.  When we arrived at the family-owned restaurant around 9 pm, we had no idea what to expect.  Moments later a series of events unfolded.  We were treated to a dynamic opera and accordion performance, a painter creating depictions of Rome and Venice, and traditional Italian dances performed by a family dressed in what reminded me of 1700 European dress (very Heidiesque).  As I’ve mentioned in the past, many Argentineans descended from Italian roots and it’s apparent in their clothing, music and food.  Our night of culture proved to be one of my favorite nights in Argentina.  We met the owner Martino who shared family stories with us.  (Thankfully, Landra and her friends Kat and Zack translated a bit for me. Natives speak too fast.)  After all the performances, Kat and Zack tried to bargain with the artist for one of his paintings but the negotiations led to an auction where Kat successfully picked her own number anyway.   It’s not often a traveler can say I spent the night with locals enjoying delicious homemade pasta and authentic music.

My trip to the Estancia or ranch was quite a different story.  When I booked the trip, it took me several attempts to spell my name for the booking agent.  I tried in English and in Spanish but decided the woman had my credit card number so what did I care.  Landra and I were to meet at the Marriott at 9:30 am for pick up and transport to the Estancia.  A young woman arrived and called out two names.  A group of US college students answered and began walking with the woman who barely waited 5 seconds for anyone else to respond.  As I was rethinking the spelling of my name, it dawned on me that the name she shouted could be it so I got up and ran after her.  I asked to see the listing on her roster.  There it was in bold print for pick up at the Marriott Keory Gweoyn (2) USA.  It didn’t take much for me to put two and two together that KG and USA was probably me.  After all, this bus was the only one in the city going to the Estancia I booked.  Landra and I boarded the bus and sort of half thought shit this might not even be right place but let’s wing it anyway.  Hours later we enjoyed horses, empanadas, gauchos(real life cowboys), meat, more meat, and even more meat and then later a folkloric performance where the highlight proved to be a barely walking 2-year-old darling girl mimicking the real life performers.

Our group sat at one long table and Landra and I were sandwiched between four American college students and a delightful Chinese-American couple, Agnes and George, who have lived in Texas for 40 years.  When I realized we weren’t going to drink our bottle of wine, I gave it to the Columbians, who traveled with us on our bus to the Estancia.  They were visiting Buenos Aires because of the World Cup qualifying match between Argentina and Columbia.  (Argentina won).  Of course, I thought nothing of my kind gesture at the time (hint, hint), since they were the only people at the table drinking.   Landra and I spent the afternoon chatting with our new friends Agnes and George about their children and travels and we shared stories of our own.  We meandered around the grounds taking photos and enjoying the beautiful fall day.  It was a relaxing break from the crowded city.

When we boarded the bus for our return trip to Buenos Aires, the Columbians seemed a bit liquored up and already quite loud and obnoxious.  They came armed with even more bottles of wine and Landra said to me I guess we won’t be getting a nap on the way home.  Little did we know a sleepless ride was the least of our problems.

About a mile outside of the Estancia, the bus driver pulled over and went ballistic on the Columbians telling them they could not drink and they needed to put away their wine bottles.  Keep in mind we are talking about 15-20 Columbians probably ages 35-45+.  These were not kids.  What ensued is a bit of a blur but basically we had a bus driver watching the passengers more than the road, drunk Columbians singing songs, drinking wine (despite the driver’s rants) and standing up on the bus, a 20-year-old tour director with no control and about eight Americans wishing they boarded another bus.  The very distracted driver pulled over a few times to scream and carrying on about the noise and wine and each time five or so Columbians would get off the bus to use nature’s bathroom.

The last straw for me and for Landra occurred when the bus driver nearly crashed into a truckload of pigs.  We literally saw it happening.  Landra said ahhh.  I screamed DESPACIO (slow) and then the driver slammed on the breaks and halted the bus.  When the Columbians realized what happened, they started yelling, “peligroso,” which means dangerous and they jumped into the driver’s face.  It was a bad scene and I thought for sure I was about to witness a brawl.  Instead, the very drunk Columbians started hugging the bus driver saying, “tranquilo,” while a few slightly more sober folks tore him a part.  Tranquilo means calm and at this point Landra and I were anything but calm.  In our frantic state, we didn’t know what to say in Spanish or whether or not we should risk our lives on this bus or get off and be stuck in the middle of nowhere an hour and a half away from Buenos Aires.  Our Chinese American friends were in the front row and looked terrified.  Landra somehow bonded with one of the Columbians and told him someone needed to take control.  There were several women who accompanied their husbands/boyfriends but none of them did a thing.  We were wondering if it had something to do with Latino culture.  We even pleaded with the young tour director but she was hopeless.  The situation didn’t get any better and between the Columbians hugging and talking to the driver and the passengers acting completely unruly it proved to be a miracle we arrived home safely.  Once we landed on solid ground in Buenos Aires, Landra and I headed to a café for dessert and dulce de leche to calm our nerves.  We were both pretty fired up and in disbelief of what occurred.  It was then that Landra reminded me I gave the Columbians our bottle of wine during lunch.  Nothing like aiding and abetting but in my defense I would like to point out of the 14 or so bottles the Columbians consumed I highly doubt our bottle was the one that pushed them over the edge.

One last update…My Canadian friend returned my credit card after Landra stalked him all weekend via Facebook and text.  We even tracked him down last night after our nightmare excursion but to no avail.  Today, we happened to be at the same restaurant at the same time and my card is a go.  YEAH!!!!!  First time for everything right?