Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some Deets on the Digs

I'm sure I have a few burning questions to address, ones that are burning a veritable hole in the pockets of your brain. So:
1. First things first. You're in the Southern Hemisphere-- we know it's winter right now, but more importantly, does your toilet flush in the opposite direction?

      Despite me forgetting to take a video of a toilet flushing while I was still up above the Equator, I haven't quite noticed much of a difference, mostly because many Argentinian toilets flush directly down instead of swirlying about. This whole snippet of "clockwise or counter" is supposedly due to something called the Coriolis Force, which is after all the physics, and the math something quite negligible when you get down to the scale of a bathroom sink or a toilet. Thanks, Sr. Google. Sorry, readers.

2. What are you eating over there? What produce is produced? What meat is met, masticated in your mouth? (Allow me the alliteration)

       Empanadas!! But when I'm not eating those, sweets and meats. Which is not to say sweetmeats, even though those are available.
      As for the former, let me first say that not growing up with dulce de leche probably saved me from early onset diabetes and a good deal of obesity/cavities. But now that I've discovered it in the form of... everything, especially alfajores, I am taking a brisk eating pace, and will probably catch up. Alfajores are something that can range from the size of a small macaroon to a... pretty big macaroon or a Moon Pie (for our Asian supermarket going friends). With DDL inside two pieces of scrumptious shortbread-- it something not too different from heaven. With some Earl Grey tea, or black coffee-- it is a gorgeous gustatory pairing. And I am eating up.
         The latter-- the meat. The parilla tradition in Argentina is like none other. Possibly like crawfish boils are to Louisianans, and a braai in South Africa though I'd have to do a little more ethnographic research on that one.  Meat grilling is practically a religious experience. It consists of mostly beef but Argentines like Chinese tend to be equal opportunity eaters. The beef in Argentina, as I'm sure you've been told is quite incredible. Vocabulary time! Rare: Crudo  Medium Rare: Jugoso  Medium: Puntado and the rest... is just not worth eating. Historically, I haven't had too much luck at steak places in that they constantly overcook the cut, so I've taken to saying "vivo" with the rationale that you can't uncook meat.   Not as much fish to my chagrin, but much to my dining delight, a multitude of places for "queso y crudo". The word "crudo" refers to jamon crudo, which is pretty much cured meats to the idea of prosciutto.  In essence, a deli. Which utterly thrills me.

Regarding vegetables: an Argentinian friend said very poignantly as we sat down to parilla one day, "An Argentine vegetarian is someone who has salad with their steak". Yet, there are places (one) where we found a gem of a culinary saving grace--- a vegetarian buffet. Best thing is that they are Taiwanese immigrants, and as a consequence are not afraid to use tofu. On Saturday I discovered a farmer's market full of beautiful produce right close to the apartment. Joyous!
 And fruit: Every day at work there is a great big pile of fruit for snacking on. Apples, pears, bananas, oranges, and even grapefruit. I love grapefruit. It is an immensely fulfilling for a public health student (read: nerdface) to see break rooms/office kitchens without those awful vending machines so ubiquitous in the US. Instead, there are water coolers, and tea. I smell an intervention!

So: bakeries, grills, delis, vegetables and fruits. YAY.
3. Of course the next logical question: What are you drinking?

     Something utterly wonderful is that water from the tap (canilla) is potable, and I have been making good use of it with tea, and coffee. But you want to know about the alcohol. I find that the tragos (mixed drinks) to be rather unremarkable and usually a bit too sugary for my taste. A local beer here is called Quilmes, named of course for where the brewery is. Stella is very popular here. Why, I don't really know.  What many Argentinians love is the Italian originated Fernet. Usually done with Coke, it tastes to me like a... taste I'm still acquiring.  A licorice meets Chinese medicine type of taste which to the right palate apparently is heavenly. Perhaps I'm not one of those chosen.  

        But really, what you want to know about is mate. Luckily, the kind people at wikipedia have made it easy to get an idea of what to expect from the taste and the culture surrounding it.  Tons of marketplace stalls selling the accouterments and last week I finally purchased a gourd (also called a mate) as well as a bombilla (the straw).  Limiting reagent is the yerba itself, but that soon will be in order as well and I will be sipping at work like the rest of them.

        That's for a later post.

Lagniappe notes:
Spanish here if you didn't know, has got the castellano tendency. Those from Spain pronounce it "cahs-theh-yawn-oh", the Argentines say "cahs-teh-shawn-oh". So think of all the words with a "y" sound and say them with a "sh" instead. There are a few in this post: canilla, bombilla, parilla, smell, (hah!) yerba, Fun, right? Its a different taste of a sound swishing about in your palate: a bit challenging to catch sometimes, especially since the Argentine speech patterns are so fast, but it is beautiful and wispy, like a dream you had that you are dying to remember.     

Monday, June 11, 2012

Getting to the Good Airs

That day of travel to Buenos Aires was one where I was a witness to more small miracles than perhaps many see in months, or rather, allow themselves to.  And while I usually make it a point to look for tidbits of giddy, this whole entire Tuesday to Wednesday in the air and on the ground really took care to show me a good time, from the manner in which the 405 and the 101 did the math perfectly to allow my arrival at the airport, to the kindness and laughter, yes laughter at LAX. And somehow thereafter, it just got better. From conversations, to the movies I saw on the the flight, things just fit. Vague? I know, but I suppose what Im trying to say, is that the world, or the universe, the community at large or at small really was protective of me, and that makes me feel joyful. 
This was the first flight where I witnessed a sun set and followed it as it rose, with stars in my path on the way between. I felt momentous, and miraculous, and humbled.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Some Reflecting

After two vodka tonics, and a most delicious Bloody Mary, I touched my flip flopped feet back down into New York's 30 degree weather, nearly freezing my newly painted toes off. Was told I looked like a Spanish girl by a JFK security man, and didn't know what to think of it, but told him thank you, and happy holidays. After a comedy of errors with the Amarula I brought back duty-but-certainly-not-trouble-free for my parents, a doll at Delta made my very day. After a ridiculous missed flight, rescheduling of a flight, chipping nails, checking and re-checking of baggage, I finally got back on my LA bound plane. I'm glad to know that my general good sense of humor remained with me throughout the whole ordeal.

At the risk of sounding self indulgent, and narcissistic, (but really who are we kidding, this is a blog), I am learning to be in love with myself, and the journey. Which is to say, the territory (such as airport security, and diarrhea) that comes with. On the way back, I heard for the first time Oscar Peterson's rendition of If I Were a Bell. It is an exuberant, stomach fluttering song about falling in love. And love, I think, is what makes you do crazy things, amazing things, like time traveling, hurtling through air, the underground, the parking lots we call freeways in Los Angeles.

And goodbyes? Weren't too hard, really, since I said see-you-soons.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Africa Part 13

Remember when I said I had few qualms about trying food that is local and might put me at risk for... nausea and vomiting? First day in Assin Kruwa, I was hungry. The caution that I threw to the wind, should have been put right back in my pocket. Ate a little something called grasscutter, a large rodent also called a "cane rat" with some fufu. Foul. The closest thing to rotted flesh I have ever tasted. The next day, I wished I didn't. Arjun blames Togo, but I think it was more along the lines of a shigella, or salmonella. Either way, I am going to term it "Ghana-rea" :)

We walked to about 6 churches to tell folks about the Village Bicycle Project, where we target women to teach them how to ride bikes. Worship is such an interesting thing-- some do it with dance, some murmur, some shout. Interestingly at Disco Jesus Church (I know), they didn't show weekly screenings of Saturday Night Fever. Anyway. Back to the bikes. Yes. I helped to teach them. With a shitty bike to learn on, and a considerable language barrier, (even though one day, all the kids of the village huddled around me to teach me Twi), it was quite a challenge, but seeing progress was definitely worth the flailing and gesturing, but mostly the histrionics from wanting to communicate SO badly.
I got to know the latrine pretty well. After my 4-5 days of expelling matter from my body, I wasted no time in replenishing. I had this disgusting oral rehydration solution, (like Gatorade, only disgusting), but also this delicious corn porridge. Creamy, savory, and a-maize-ing! Hahah!! The tomatoes are of a strange shape here, but also delicious. And on the drinking: Guinness here is a special "foreign extra" brew. A little more bitter, and more sour, even. Not so sure that I like it. But Alvaro, I like. This is a mindblowing passionfruit soda, about which I am QUITE passionate. Other beers, tend all to be one syllabled. Club. Star. Stone. Lamp. (Actually not Lamp, but thought that was funny).
Cape Coast found me feeling guilty, but marveling at the beauty unseen by those enslaved. Saw both the Elmina and Cape Coast slave castles, and have a lot of feelings on that still undeveloped but brewing. Will pour it out, at some point.
My last days in Africa were spent in Accra, with friends old and new. Friends that I had met in college, on planes, and through other friends. Fun-derful. What do I remember? The most amazing breakfast, of plaintains, jollof rice, fried chicken and salad. The DuBois Center. Getting my hair braided, and loving the company so much I got my fingers and toenails painted too. (electric blue and blood orange, respectively). Gorgeous batiks, and smiles even more beautiful.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Africa Part 12

On Thanksgiving during the day, I was in Accra, sorely missing the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It is the first year of volunteering at that gig that I've missed in 12 years, and what a lot of thanks giving. It seemed fitting that on that day in Ghana, I worked on my personal statement for school. At night, I joined Arjun and his Peace Corps squad, renamed ourselves Team Latrine (potty mouths that we are), and managed to snag 3rd place in trivia night. (Even across an ocean, I am still a fiend for bar quizzes). That the win-two-pitchers-of-beer round was "Name that musical" found me nothing but helpful. We won that beer. Learned a lot that I otherwise would have been clueless about as well: what USB stands for, and what "the ashes" are in terms of cricket. Trivia night might be well said to be the equivalent of speed dating in knowledge. I'll think about that more and develop it at some point.

Day after, we walked to Togo. The Ghanaian border town Aflao is so close to the Togolese border, and a three hour tro-tro ride from Accra. Crossed over with considerable ease, and was happy to see the ocean again. West Africa. Is. Sweltering. Not speaking Francais in a Francophone type country was a bit of a toughie, but 1) this presents a new goal to aspire to, and 2) we'll see how good my theatrics can get. The Grande Marche was quite a sight to see, a flooding of wares and food items. I tend to throw caution to the wind for better or worse when it comes to food. What's a little diarrhea and vomiting, really? Had fried cheese cubes, and baguette, grapefruit juice type shenanigans and a darned good time in Lome.

A bit on transportation: In Ghana, there is something called the "tro-tro". Van bus type vehicles which are usually beyond the point of repair, they are the primary form of transportation for those sans their own car. i.e., most people. Depending on where they're going the "mate" or person who rallies people into their tro, flashes a gang sign of a hand symbol. They seem to all have the same voice. Usually 20 seatered (I think) there's a clown-car-effect where you really always have quite a few more than that. I think there's something kind of nice about it, despite the heat, and sweat, and what not, that for a portion of life, you are with complete strangers who are going the same direction. And that's something in common, so maybe you aren't such strangers after all. In Togo, the main mode of transportation are moto-taxis. And what I've learned about transportation in West Africa is that if it will go wrong, if it can. It did. But not that badly. Morale was high as we began the journey to Togoville, toward Aneho. Not as high when we realized we actually were supposed to be in Agbodrafo, 10km earlier. Just great. But adventuring we went! After a leg of those 10km on the back of a mototaxi with one of the most humorless men Id ever met, his bike broke, and while he was off fixing it, I became the third person on the moto with Arjun and his driver. Fantastic. So after being ripped off repeatedly (once again, the French language thing, but also the looking Chinese thing), we proceeded to yet another form of transportation. Pirogue. Which is a canoe. And ours, ferried by Antoine, our Charon of Lake Togo, slowly leaked water. :) Yup.

We left Togo after one last night dancing in Lome, at numerous dance club type places. My first time being pulled over in West Africa transpired as we were happily gallivanting that night, as well. Grazing in the gravel down Rue de 13 Janvier, I was indulging in the Celine Dion/Barbra Streisand ballad Tell Him, until we were stopped by the po. It had NOTHING to do with my singing, and everything to do with the fact that these officers were drunk and wanted some bribe money. 40 minutes and some freakin CFA later, we were back on our way. Inebriated, armed people with a frighteningly enlarged sense of entitlement are extremely troubling to me. But on with the dance, says Lord Byron, and we did go on.

Back on the Ghana side, I met a man who spoke amazing Mandarin, and was better traveled in China than I was. It was wonderful to hear the language. Apparently there are quite a few Chinese folks in Ghana. There are grocery stores, and restaurants, and my beloved fried dace with black beans, which I havent been able to find in America! Overjoyed. And off to Cape Coast we went.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Africa Part 11

Taught poetry at Thusanang Trust as a continuing education program for preschool teachers. The unit was on communication, and I hope I communicated the emotional reservoirs that are poems, and poets and people. We read Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden, and if I had my way I would have assigned them poems to write about their parents as well, following our discussions. How beautiful that morning was, wondrous and humming with life.

How fast its been, 3 months that sprinted by. I had one last Sundowners with a Franschhoek merlot up in the clouds on my flight. Parting and its sweet sorrow made my heart heavy, especially when Tani, the lady who runs the little goodies shop across from Bjatladi Youth Center, pressed into my hands a little cake. "For the road." So I meet to part, and part to meet, and am reminded of that Kerouac quote: "But no matter, the road is life"
Life life life. I seem to have used the word quite a bit in all these postings, but most obviously in this one. Recently as I was about to leave, I felt the appropriateness of S&G-funk's line, "I'm empty and aching and I dont know why"-- But I think now I do. It could be that with the end of this time in SA, I felt that I couldn't change these kids' lives, but they have changed mine more than they may know. What I have done I suppose is change their days, challenged them with anatomy lessons and dance: a departure from doing nothing. And a day qualifies as life, I suppose. For this I feel a little..."remorseful" isnt the right word. "Bad" is too elementary. "Guilty"? Maybe. But really, what I am is grateful.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Africa Part 10

This weekend, I slept under Orion's belt, sword, and other belongings, twinkling in the pitch. Waking up in the middle of the night was wondrous--I had always known intellectually that the stars moved, but 3 hours later, discovering that really they had, was an awakening. If nothing else, being in South Africa has fired up a desire to camp and hike, and invite myself outdoors much more. Hiked up Blouberg Mountain today, and I must say the experience has been trying and triumphant, exhausting and exonerating. Probably obvious is the former word in each set, but freeing in the sense that I had never spent a night outside like this before, and that I helped welcome the sun with salutations at dawn. The gushes of wind atop the rock were strong enough to lift the hair off my shoulders and back-- making me feel lighter.

I can't imagine not writing in journals, blogs, on napkins and receipts. Looking for ways to aptly describe the shades of green and terra cotta on this mountain--depending on time of day-- is a mental challenge that engages me as much as hiking, and rock climbing. The latter-- almost like a dance, negotiation and placement of weight, speed.. I'll definitely do it more when I'm back. The day long hike on our 2nd day on the mountain ended with a breath-arresting sunset, but before then a view that practically went into Zimbabwe. And what else do I remember?
-butterflies like white confetti on and about the cliffs.
-the mindfulness of hiking
-seeing from the top villages where it was cloudy that day, and villages where it was not, so high up that the clouds seemed attainable. Where does the sky begin? Meaning, how high up is considered sky? I think we were there.

Sometimes during these hikes I would wonder where all the balance I garnered from tango went. I am not a fast, nor graceful hiker, but I enjoyed it. Even falling flat on my backside was strangely comforting to me, in tat I didnt care how good I was supposed to look. It was freeing even, to be able to just slip and sit on the ground, like a child.

I think really what I love about hiking and camping, is that the whole time is a big grand opportunity to take care of those around you, in different ways, or the best way you know how to. Some of us cooked, and cleaned, others made tea, and campfires. Sometimes it's really just waiting for someone on the trail, or lighting their way during a night walk. It is just so human.