Tag Archives: ecuador

An American Thanksgiving

23 Nov

Tomorrow will be the first time in four years that I celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. The last three were spent in South America–first in 2008 at 16,000 feet above sea level on an extinct volcano in central Ecuador, later in 2009 with some Argentine milanesas at a new friend’s house, and lastly in 2010 at a pot luck dinner filled with expats and a few Argentinians. I remember the first year abroad, winding down the day alone at the hotel and realizing that it was Thanksgiving. At first it hadn’t even dawned on me, and with no media reminding me of the date, and no family or friends around who were also celebrating it, I simply went along as if it was a normal day. Later in the week a few of the volunteers got together and made a dinner, making up for the lack of family.

The next year I was in Argentina as a newbie, and though I’d just met a girl named Tamara, she invited me over to her house with her sister and friends for dinner. They made what they knew best–milanesas, as well as some other vegetables and fixings. We had some wine and because it was a beautiful spring night, we sat outside late into the night, something I’d never thought possible on Thanksgiving. I still had to work that day and it was depressing being on GChat while no one else was, so the day dragged on until the dinner. I still had work in the morning, so I had to bow out of the conversation around 12:30 am, while everyone else was still going strong.

The next year an American friend invited me to a coworker’s apartment for a joint pot luck dinner, where foreigners from all over the world (and even a few Argentinians) were meeting up. Everyone was in their mid-20’s-30’s and it was a refreshing mix of familiar accents and stories. This year I’m finally back in the U.S. and I’m thankful to be with family and old traditions. Like so many Thanksgivings past, we’ll be waking up at the crack of dawn to drive down to Brooklyn, New York and my grandma’s apartment. Later on we’ll probably head in to Manhattan with my dad and cousins to go out in the Village. I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving too.

Sunday is Family Day

17 Jul

My first year in Latin America was spent in Ecuador, and nearly every Sunday was a day of suffering, in which the fact that I was so far away and estranged from my family was only emphasized by the other families all together and having fun. Sunday in Latin America is a family day, and the streets can often be found empty, with only tourists and potential thieves walking around looking for trouble. People have big family lunches or head out as a group, and as a lonely foreigner, it can be a difficult and boring day. Not much is open and without other friends in similar situations, it gets you down.

Buenos Aires was different because it was such a large city that you could always find something going on. Likewise, there are many transplants living there, not only from the interior of the country, but from all over the world as well. Therefore, the last two years in Latin America weren’t defined by depressing Sundays. On the contrary, it was just another day in the week–one which had to be appreciated as a day off, even though Monday would loom in the shadows. However, the idea of family would always be present on that day, and I did my best with a weekly Sunday night Skype phone call with my parents. Though I was usually tired and in no mood for a phone call by Sunday night, it was a little tradition that we had, and if my brother and sister were around they would say hello as well.

There were only a handful of times in the last three years when we didn’t have a Sunday night Skype call, and that would usually be because one of us was out of town. Rarely would I cancel because I was out doing something else, and in fact I most often would have the phone call define my day. No matter what I was doing I would tell my friends that I’d have to be back later on for the call. Vero would often ask me on a Monday if I spoke to my parents and as always they would have told me to say hello for them. Once in a blue moon we would be off on our times and make up for a call the following Monday or Tuesday, but that was wishy washy, just like the signal we would usually have. If I was in a certain corner of the apartment the call could be dropped or we would have a delay.

Yesterday my old friends from high school and college came over for a welcome home barbecue, and it was great to see them all again. But today was family day, and for the first time in nearly two years I was home for it. Nothing special happened–with just my parents we checked out a new shopping complex a few towns over. Even though the country is in a recession, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the brand new stores popping up everywhere and the shopaholics throwing away their green bills. My dad tells me that’s more of a development in the last year, however.

For once I was able to just be with the family and not have to worry about finding a friend to hang out with today, just searching for a way to kill the spare time between Saturday night and work on Monday morning. So you often take the good with the bad, and if reverse culture shock is a symptom of coming home, at least I can also take a simple day with the family as par for the course. After three years of gallivanting around South America, I’m okay with that.

Time In

22 Jun

I’ve broken down the numbers on how long I’ve been here for. Within the three year period of living abroad, since my arrival to Buenos Aires on August 22, 2009* to my eventual departure date of July 11, 2011, I will have spent 689 days in Argentina (not counting vacation outside of the country). I put an asterisk because initially I left home on August 20, 2009, but because I missed my connection I had to spend 24 hours in Washington D.C.

Going even further back, from August 30, 2008*, which was the day I landed in Quito, Ecuador, to July 11, 2011, I will have spent 1,046 days in Latin America since leaving home. This doesn’t take into account the three weeks of vacation I had between Argentina and Ecuador, and in reality I left home on August 29, 2008, but spent the night in Miami before waking up early to go to Quito.

It’s been a long time. And no, I had nothing better to do today.

Remembering My Latin American Life

21 Jun

When I first got to Argentina with Kristine

When I get a few minutes of free time and I can sit and think, I lately find that my mind tries to reach back for some distant memory of the last two years in Argentina that I haven’t touched on in so long. But these memories are so far gone, so foreign to me after all that I’ve been a part of, that it’s like reading about someone else’s life. It doesn’t seem like me. It another time, or another part of the world for sure, but most definitely not now or who I am. It’s even worse when I try to think of Ecuador almost three years ago.

I think of specific details when they’re available to me, like my arrival on a cold and overcast morning in August, 2009. Going on the highway from Ezeiza International Airport we pulled into La Boca, and I thought to myself, “For this I could have stayed in Ecuador.” Things got off to a rough start, but soon my friend Kristine visited after just one week, and everything was looking up.

I think back to how we wandered around San Telmo getting to know the streets, perhaps unwisely walking around Constitución at night and then back to La Boca well into the night by myself. We met a Spanish girl named Iris and went to Colonia, Uruguay where we argued about whether the Río de la Plata was a river or part of the ocean. I was wrong, fooled by the way the sun set to the west of the river which I knew to be on the eastern side of the city.

The first time I made empanadas

I try to think of every place I lived in (5 different apartments) and how each place was odd and a new thing at first. Soon they became my home and a small sense of reality and sense in my abnormal life. What did I do as a newcomer who lived in the Microcenter? How did I spend my weekends living alone and practically friendless in Plaza Italia? What did I do after work in Recoleta? I try to reach back for these day to day memories which amount to nothing much priceless reminiscence and though would be boring to a friend, made up what was my life in Buenos Aires. Those little things which no one will ever touch or know.

I reflect on my life in a sort of before and after, using my current home base as the after, when things started looking up. I was saving more money on cheaper rent, loving the new apartment and area, and joining a running team that kept me busy after work and introduced me to new friends and challenges (the good kind). And soon these last 6 months will also be in the before time. I can’t go back and change the bad memories though I try in my head all the time, wondering what would have happened if I said or did something differently or if I took that job or lived in a different part of the city. In the end it gets me no where but back to where I started, confused and trying to remember what I’m doing here in the first place.

And then I go back to the little details of my bedrooms in Ecuador, or my morning routine before work. Again, it’s like reading a book about someone else and I think that this isn’t me. This couldn’t have been something that I did because it’s a thinner person who’s more sensitive to other cultures, and it’s not in Sharon, Massachusetts or with the people I grew up with all my life. But there are actual pictures and articles published, and of course a blog which has documented it all along. So though I feel as if it’s a parlor trick, I know that it’s real and these things did happen. I existed here.

I feel so strange to be going back home and the combination with lousy weather has me in a sort of funk—not happy, not sad, but indifferent. I’d like to combine both worlds but unless I get some kind of amazing job which gives me 6 months here and 6 months there, it’s unlikely. Yet I’ll still take the memories with me until my brain starts to fail me, and the knowledge that at one point in my life I lived out my dream of living abroad in South America.

The Power of an Asado

5 Jun

One of the most traditional and fun things that you can do while in Argentina is attend an asado, or barbecue. You always see those typical grills anytime you walk down a street, and giant slabs of meet slowly cooked over low heat charcoals waft deliciousness through the air. The only thing is, and this might be hard to believe, but I’ve never had success in finding invitations to these events, even while other foreigners always boast about theirs. You have to first know someone who has a grill in the city, which can be tough, and then know someone who has a grill who’s nice enough to invite you. Try as I have in the past to be invited to asados, invitations have been few and far between, leaving me with a feeling of rejection, or what have you. But last night I was invited to maybe my second or third asado while here. Oddly enough, no one there was Argentinian.

Maria del Mar and Nick are two friends who I met a year ago while watching the U.S. and England play in the World Cup. Maria del Mar is from Guayaquil, Ecuador and Nick is from a village in England, and while Maria and I could talk about Ecuador (Nick as well lived there), Nick and I can enjoy English conversations. We don’t get to meet up too much, but this week Maria invited me to an asado, and I had interpreted it as being a lunch time affair. I wound up waiting around all day for the message on what time to go, finally being told it was at 7-8 pm. I was starved by 4 pm. I did my best to show up fashionably late and at 8 o’clock rang the bell to find that I was the first one there, even before Maria del Mar and Nick. The girl who was hosting us, Stephi (another girl from Guayaquil) had been napping until 7:30 pm. You just never know what “on time” is.

Nick got right to work on firing up the grill, starting by piling up the charcoal in the back left corner and lighting newspaper and cardboard to get it hot. With no lighter fluid, he simply fanned the flames until the coals became hot enough, and once we had a good and consistent temperature, he flattened them across the grill bottom. I noted how in the United States people are usually in such a rush to eat that they douse the coals with lighter fluid and then light it up before it can even soak in. This simply burns the fluid and the coals soon expire. I’d even go so far as to say the lighter fluid changes the taste of the food for the worse.

In command all night, Nick piled on the ridiculous amount of meat while the girls brought out cubes of cheese, and with our drinks we tried to stay warm. Last night was one of the first truly bitter cold nights we’ve had in Buenos Aires, a horrible preview of things to come. Standing directly in front of the parrilla, we chatted as more people showed up, though together we consisted of an odd group. There were the girls from Guayaquil, plus another guy from Guayaquil who’s dad was German. He looked like no Ecuadorian I’d ever seen, and had lived in Germany for a part of his life, giving him a German accent on his English. His girlfriend was from Brazil, and a couple from England were joined by another couple from Australia. More people were supposed to come, but we found ourselves happy with the food we had before us.

Though I didn’t know most of the people there and was the odd man out by coming alone, we had no trouble in mixing it up and getting to know each other while waiting for the food to cook. I’d been told once that a tradition of an asado is the other guys standing around always make fun of the person cooking. I guess it’s a preemptive bashing before they need to give thanks for the great meal. Eager and hungry, our eyes fixed back on the grill at least every three seconds, as if willing it would cook it faster. And eventually the meat was ready, with Nick announcing it proudly as the girls brought out a couple of trays.

Choripan with chimichurri and three cuts of meat were available, and after Nick cut out pieces directly on the grill we would stand up and eat straight off the bone with our hands. It was so natural and carnivorous, it made me feel like a caveman sitting around a fire eating red meat with the juices running down my mouth, but in a good way. We each helped ourselves to about four helpings of steak and at the end, had to be forced to finish off what was left. All together it was only $23 pesos per person which is a total steal when you consider the value of that meal.

Long after the food was finished we sat around talking in the cold night, and it made me want more of these experiences. I’m quite certain that if I had worked more asados into my experience here, it would be one of the things I’d miss most. No matter where you come from or what you do, everyone can be joined together in their desire to stand around and eat some meat, save the vegetarians. And that’s a pretty sweet thing.

Breathing in Bolivia, Even When There’s Hardly Any Oxygen

9 May

Snow capped volcanoes

As we sped past the convoy of other 4x4s on the narrow dirt road, the three girls and I began to look at each other nervously and joke around that we were about to die. To each side of the road was a sharp drop into jagged rocks, and at the speed we were going, no seat belt would ever do any good. I was warned the night earlier at the hostel to be careful with the drivers by two Israelis. Apparently just a couple of weeks before three other Israelis had died when their trucks rolled over on a tour.

“Is it really necessary to pass the other cars?” I yelled to our driver Gonzalo from the back of the Toyota Highlander.

“Yes,” is all he replied, continuing to take hairpin turns with the grace of a rally driver who had grown up in these parts.

Sunset from San Antonio de Lípez

We held our breaths and hoped for the best, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was rested assure that he was too busy chewing coca to be on a suicide mission, and that if he was speeding it was because he generally thought he needed to. Fast forward to the end of the day and we realized that with no refuge reservations, the first trucks into town had dibs on lodging, so in essence, yes, he had to speed up to beat everyone else. Even after taking the lead from dead last out of Tupiza, we pushed on ahead of the group and had to wait around for our wingman truck. You always go out in groups of at least two for safety, because you’ll probably encounter some kind of trouble along the way.

Let’s get cliche for just a moment: I don’t know what was more breathtaking, the scenery or the altitude. The first time we passed a snow capped volcano we stared at it with wonder and admiration. Naively, a couple of us tried to snap photos from the rapidly moving truck, thinking we would have no better opportunity to steal a memory. But we were foolish for thinking that. Soon volcanoes popped up on all sides, and neither the right nor left flanks were clear. Giants lurked with soft and inviting tones. I thought of a number of things, but rarely considered the extreme altitude we faced. It was partly because the numbers I was given were in meters, rather than feet.

Looking back on it, we passed through heights of over 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level on average. Because I had lived at high altitude in Ecuador and am a young runner, I assumed that I was impervious to the affects of altitude sickness. Yet the places where I lived in Ecuador (Quito, 2,800 meters/9,200 feet; Cuenca, 2,500 meters/8,360 feet) were much lower in comparison, and I was not well acclimated. One of our highest elevations was over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). On the first night we stayed in a bare bones refuge in San Antonio de Lípez (4,200 meters above sea level). It was there where the effects of high altitude got the worst of me.

4,690 meters (15,387 feet) above sea level

After settling in we had a nice dinner under two dim light bulbs. There was no heating, though we were given three blankets each (and I rented a sleeping bag), and one bathroom for about 15 people to share. As usual in Bolivia, no toilet paper was provided. After our dinner we walked into the frigid night for just a few minutes to catch the millions of stars in the sky. With no light pollution, we could easily see the Milky Way, Southern Cross, Orion, etc. With a 4:30 am wake up time, we were in bed by 8:30 pm. Yet once I lay in the bed resting on a stone frame, I was unable to breath.

I tossed and turned all night, struggling for freedom in the tight North Face sleeping bag. On my side I could feel my heart beating double time, as if I had just been running for a long time. Deep and drawn out breaths brought me nothing, and I felt as if I were drowning. It was a horrible feeling, to reach back as far as I could and still have no air to breath. Throughout the night I could hear the girls in the room also struggling to breath, and a look at the travel alarm clock showed me that it was only 1:30 am. There were moments were if I didn’t mentally think to myself, “breath in, breath out”, then I was suddenly gasping for air as if I had been holding it without noticing.

By the time the alarm went off my mouth was as dry as sand paper. I sat up in bed and felt what must be the sensation during a migraine, because it was the worst headache I’ve ever experienced. While the others ate a breakfast of tea and bread I rocked forward feeling like vomiting, and after finishing my coca tea excused myself. I never came to the point of vomiting, and once I took some ibuprofen I felt better, but the uneasiness stayed until the sun rose. On the second night, staying at even higher altitude, the effects continued, though by this point I had at least gotten somewhat more used to it. And by the third night of the excursion I felt slightly normal.

Red mountains

You see, that’s the thing about Bolivia. It can knock you out and push you around, but still leave you wanting more. You get sick from the altitude, the food, the water, whatever else might be out there trying to kill you, and you selfishly keep coming back for more. Those monster mountains on each side of the truck call to you, and at the end of the day, it’s worth a few deep breaths.

A Visit to the Mataderos Sunday Fair

10 Apr

Mataderos Fair

A year and a half ago I met a tourist here who had visited the Mataderos Fair in the southwestern edge of the city of Buenos Aires (in the Mataderos neighborhood), and she told me it was an interesting experience that most tourists don’t check out. “I’ll get to it at some point,” I said to myself. Time came and went, as I was advised to avoid going in the winter and summer to miss the extreme weather. My plan to go with friends from work in the spring was thwarted by laziness, and finally we had a set date for the fall so that I wouldn’t miss out. Today we finally made it happen.

The Mataderos Fair is sort of similar to the San Telmo Fair, where you can find antiques and artistic crafts, though much less touristy and more local, with a certain focus on the gaucho and provincial culture. Mataderos is right on the edge of the city and gets its name from the market where the majority of the cattle in Buenos Aires have traditionally passed through on their last graze (mataderos means butchers). Ranchers still go into the market and from a catwalk can look down and pick out their cows. Our visit today was a bit less gruesome, though it involved a ton of food just the same. I jumped on the 34 bus in Palermo in the morning (grab it from Avenida Santa Fe and Darregeyra), taking it to the end of the line at the Liniers Station. This ride costs you $1.25 and was fairly fast, going straight across the city on Avenida Juan B. Justo, avoiding traffic on a Sunday morning. By 40 minutes in I got off in pure Latin America.

Carriages Crossing Through

My friend and boss Matías met me at the station and first showed me around Liniers and “Little Bolivia” where for better or worse, we were at a low altitude La Paz. Every thing was “Hair Saloon Bolivia,” “Super Chicken Bolivia,” or “Bolivian Travel Agency”. This was a far call from Recoleta and Palermo, though I felt right at home from my experience in Ecuador. Delicious looking street food was tantalizing and the clothes looked cheap enough to do some serious hunting, but we had other business. We took the 80 bus next ($1.20) to Mataderos, getting off by the Skate Park and walking by some stalls until reaching the fair.

For some reason I had thought that the fair was in a covered warehouse, but it’s just spread out in stalls over a couple of blocks, making use of a small square as well. First we walked around a bit and bought some inflated corn which reminded me of a less-sweet version of Corn Pops. Next I set my eyes on a long wafer filled with homemade dulce de leche, and for $1, I had no choice but to buy it. With all of the meat cooking and wafting in the air, our next obvious choice was to get a choripan (spicy sausage sandwich) which is always a starter to a big barbecue. As we walked around some more we saw that on sale were the typical things–giant gaucho knives, leather goods, fileteado paintings (typical Buenos Aires design), sweets and regional foods, and a number of other interesting knick knacks.

Vero and her boyfriend Tano arrived a little after we had finished the choripan and together, the four of us found a restaurant with an open table outside to eat some lunch. We settled on various cuts of meat, including mollejas (cow throat glands), which I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed. With the sun strong and burning me quickly, we filled up and moved on to watch typical folkloric dancing and gaucho games like the Carrera de Sortija, which I’d seen once before at an estancia. This is a game in which a gaucho will race on his horse to a post where a small ring hangs from a string. Using their bombilla (the straw for mate) they must catch the ring cleanly. It looks incredibly difficult but those who succeed do it with grace.

Folkloric Dancing

Content again, we moved on to buy candy and sweets that my friends remembered from their childhood. I was treated to a sugary lolly pop that I patiently worked on for about 25 minutes before I could take no more. It just wouldn’t disappear and required biting. Thinking of the cavities awaiting, I let it go and we walked around a bit longer until leaving. We enjoyed some mate as the sun set, and then it was time to head back home to the other side of the city. I had a really good time today because while I usually don’t go for the markets and fairs, especially as touristy as they come with San Telmo, there was a genuine authentic feel to this place. It was clear that I was one of the few foreigners there, and the market was laid back and family friendly.

If you’ve been in Buenos Aires for a while and are thinking of something new to do, or just don’t want to deal with the crowds at the San Telmo Fair, think about heading down to Mataderos, which is worth a visit.

Meat, Meat, and More Meat

2.5 Years In and Down

23 Feb

Now that I’ve passed the year and a half mark in Argentina, and two and a half years in Latin America, I’m on a most definite downward slide. I’m finding this new .5 year marker to be a bit difficult. Last night I was looking over old pictures from college and when I first started out in Ecuador, and I almost didn’t recognize myself. Not only because I’ve lost so much weight, but because my face seems to have aged, not necessarily badly, but in a way that I wouldn’t have expected, maybe because I never thought about it before.

Today my buddy Goldberg told me to just come home already and the day was shot after that. Homesickness sank in and all I could think about was getting on the next flight to Boston. A quick check showed me that round trip was roughly $1,300, so another search for Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina, was about $900 ARS. So I booked my vacation to Salta and Bolivia, finally, for the end of April and early May. But that’s another post.

I told Goldberg that my work wasn’t done yet, but I had to think about what I still had left to do. Realistically, I’ve accomplished all of the goals I set for myself. I arrived to Argentina essentially with nothing, got a job at a respected agency and built up a network of friends, though it often changes and is sometimes difficult to see how close those friendships are because, unlike what I was used to in the United States, we simply can’t all meet up all the time. I’m not perfect in Spanish and never will be, yet I’ve mastered it from a foreigners aspect so much so that I’m told I speak just like a porteño, and sometimes people are unaware that I’m a foreigner until I say so, either intentionally or by saying something odd.

Just recently I was invited to a close friend’s birthday party and realized that only a few of his closest friends were invited. And so it dawned on me that while it’s incredibly hard to break into a circle of friends as a foreigner here, at least in one I have been invited in. No way can you ever tell me that I failed at my experience in Buenos Aires. I’m in tune with cultural references from the 80s and put the correct emphasis on the harshest swear words (¡qué la chupe!, conchuda, por ejemplo).

But two and a half years away from home is a really, really, really long time. It’s been over a year and a half since I stepped on U.S. soil. Many long term expats go home periodically, and I think that helps make the difference in being content with your new home. I’m certain that if I went home tomorrow for a couple of weeks I would come back refreshed and ready to go. But I don’t have a month of vacation time, nor the extra few thousand bucks lying around to pick up whenever I feel like. So this little anniversary of sorts is not one that I relish, nor one which I care to think of as a memorable milestone. It’s simply a reminder of how far I’ve gone since I was once a young and naive college grad who loved to travel and speak Spanish.