From Costa Rica and beyond

Friday, May 11, 2012

May in BA

It has been weeks since I last posted an article on my blog. In some ways, I am a bit disappointed that more has not happened. The opportunity to work at a hotel fell through without a word from its owners. It has been hard to find volunteering opportunities. Such opportunities for foreigners usually comes with a price tag (but I am making progress here). Making friends has also not been a piece of cake. Thankfully I have had Stafford MacKay and his partner, Fernando, to help me and give me company from day one.

Nevertheless, things are good here in Buenos Aires. My explorations of this city continue - and there is a LOT to explore and observe.

Walk through Buenos Aires on a nice, sunny, weekend day or holiday and you will see people walking with friends and family, sitting at nice cafes, or chilling out with their kids and dogs and sipping yerba maté (a traditional green tea). That´s what I did on May Day. At the time, I was reading Pamuk´s My Name is Red, and would sit and relax in the sun while half reading and half people-watching. In a grassy neighborhood park I was pleased to see people frolicking and extremely good-natured dogs running around, sniffing each other and sniffing the ground.

On this day I was headed for the Ateneo, a spectacular book store in the affluent Palermo district. But after walking at least 1.5 hours, I found the workers of this biblioteca were also celebrating their day. No worries. I know that bus #39 can take me from Avenida Santa Fe right to my apartment. Any time I am out late at night (as was the case last Saturday - until 2:30am), if I don´t know how to get home, I can simply hoof it over to Avenida Santa Fe and catch this bus. At night, some of these buses have red curtains and blue lights and (typically) 80s music playing (Boy George, Queen, Duran Duran). I was surprised to see even the fire extinguisher replaced by a decoration - a mini statue of the Virgin Mary. The Catholics in this country probably figure that the latter is just as likely to save lives as the former.

What else have I found in the last few weeks? In the Almagro district I stopped at a cafe across from the Italian Hospital (there is also a German one, a British one, and probably more) and found not only really good coffee, but the best cheesecake I have had since leaving the US. What a great surprise! Not far away is a shopping mall made out of an old marketplace. The building is enormous, composed of three parallel arched spaces (the middle one being the highest, not unlike the nave of a cathedral). For me, the highlights of this place were found in the upper levels. There are two McDonalds in this mall, but one is truly unique - it is kosher! The menu is not as expansive as at other franchises, but the lines were still plenty long. There is also a carnival for kids upstairs. Neverland is the name and offers a swinging pirate ship, a mini roller coaster, and an elegant Ferris wheel fitted snugly in the arch of the central hall. It was a crowded place on that rainy day.

Buenos Aires is not without poverty. I still have not happened upon a slum (although I have been told there are slums and warned to stay away at night), but one walk brought me to Plaza Miserere, a sadly apt name for a city square. An enormous mausoleum for Bernardino Rivadavia, Argentina´s first head of state, sets the mood. The homeless and their makeshift tents and beds perpetuate the sadness. Tragically, the adjacent train station is where well over one hundred people died a couple months back when a typically overfilled train´s brakes failed.

One new friend is Valeria (as a friend of mine asked, yes it is pronounced like ´malaria´). We spent one evening walking from art venue to art venue on one of BA´s Open Gallery Nights. Coincidentally, that day was the anniversary of the Guernica Bombing during the Spanish Civil War. There are quite a few ethnic Basque in Argentina. It seemed somehow fitting that there were a number of pieces that were reminiscent of Picasso´s cubist and collage periods. While not one of the better exhibits, the exhibit that most hit home was a gallery full of embellished motorcycle helmets. The message was that every rider should wear one (Shame on you Michigan!! All The Gear, All The Time - ATGATT). Seven million Argentines ride 4.5 million motorcycles and accidents on these bikes are the number one killer of people between 15 and 19 years. It is estimated that 80% of those deaths would be prevented by properly wearing a helmet. Later, Val and I went to a bar called Dada. I doubt Duchamp and his rebellious Dadaists would have approved of this rather bourgeois hangout using their name. But at least the food was good. I don´t think I would like Dada food.

My Spanish continues to progress, albeit slowly. The day of the open galleries, I received an email from Valeria. I was surprised to see that it was addressed to "Dale, ..." I figured she must have another American friend named Dale and just had a little brain cramp. Later that night, I asked her about it. She pointed out that "Dale" (pronounced doll a) means ¨Let´s go.¨

Politics are ubiquitous in BA. Protests (whether for farmers, marijuana legalization, or any sort or subgroup of workers) are commonplace in front of the Congresso or the Casa Rosada. Just a couple hours ago, I was on the subway and a handful of young people were beating their drums in a station. A most likely homeless woman who was panhandling in my train car made a number of people laugh when she good-naturedly joked about how there is never a day without some protest in BA. Political graffiti can be seen everywhere, even in nice neighborhoods. Statements like "El pueblo por Christina" are reminders of the populist Peronist President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner´s popularity. She has been giving Argentines, journalists, and the world a lot to think about lately. Her expropriation and nationalization of the oil company YPF has angered Spain (whose Repsol previously owned YPF) and made international investors nervous about investing in Argentina. For me, this news was at least an interesting distraction from the Malvinas/Falklands issue, which is in itself a distraction from looming inflation and international debt crisis. I worry about this lovely country. Its economy is in danger of imploding and its president does not strike me as a steady and wise leader. A couple days ago she debuted a commercial for TV on the Malvinas issue. I can´t think of a democracy where the executive branch has run an advertisement on a foreign affairs issue (I bet someone is going to find an American example to prove me wrong on this!). For Argentines, many of them stoked by jingoistic propaganda, this issue is a no-brainer, but I don´t think many of them realize just how complicated it is historically and in terms of international law (not to mention the question of the islanders themselves who are loyal to the UK).

I have at last found a place where I can volunteer. Stafford asked a friend of his, Majo, if she had any ideas for me. Last week she took me to a home for teenage girls. I worked on a little English with one sweet 14 year old and helped a learning impaired young woman with a little very basic reading and writing. When Majo and I were done, it was time for dinner at this home of about 23 young women. We joined Padre Pablo (also a volunteer) and a bunch of the kids while others served the meatloaf and fries. It was a fun meal that kept me on my toes trying to communicate in Spanish. Volunteers at this facility are arranged through an NGO called Siloé. This seems to be a great organization. If you are going to spend a couple months in BA and want to volunteer, you should contact them.

Slowly but surely, the trees are growing bear and the temperature is dropping. I have taken my sleeping bag out of the stuff sack and have even put my water bottle filled with hot water in my bed to help me stay warm on a couple occasions. I like this weather though and the sense of change. Plus, I know that I will soon be enjoying this year´s third summer when I arrive in Miami on June 27.

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