Here’s to Hoping for a Less Ashy 2012: A Tribute to the Power of La Pachamama.

Ever since climbing Machu Picchu in 2007, and after years of studying the Spanish language, I walked away from the Incan Empire with my new favorite word in the entire Spanish language: La Pachamama.  Not only is it a fun word to say, but it’s also a word that simultaneously commands respect and instills fear in only 4 bouncy syllables.

Fast forward to today, February 16, 2012. After two and a half months here, in Villa La Angostura (VLA), Argentina, I woke up this morning, half dreaming that I was back in Boston teaching.  I have a cloudy memory of hearing the sound of plow trucks beep-beep-beeping, and scraping against the city streets, which always means one thing: a snow day for sure! Back to sleep…

When I finally oriented myself that I was in fact on the other side of the equator, realizing that it’s summer here in VLA, I remembered those plow trucks I heard in my dreamlike state only mean one thing here:  Volcanic Ash, and lots of it.

Do I live next to a construction site? Or is this what it's like to clean up a town after 40 centimeters of volcanic ash fell from the sky?

Rewind to June 4, 2011: Just a mere thirty-eight kilometers away over the Andes Mountains in Chile, is Volcano Puyehue (said with argentine accent: pooshjayway). Ask any locals here in VLA about that date and their eyes sulk so quickly to the ground that the sadness and frustration of living in a town built on tourism, now covered in ash, is tangible.  Puyehue went off on June 4th and with a lot of help from La Pachamama and with the Patagonian Wind Gods in Chile’s favor, it began to rain pumice stone on the Argentine side of the mountains at 3:30 in the afternoon. By nightfall, pumice stone turned to raining ash and which continued well into the morning of June 5th. 

Puyehue, one of many active volcanos in the Andes Range (curteousy of google images)

This is "Nati" who works at the B & B we live at. These are the pumice stones that fell for hours on June 4th.

The day after: This region of Patagonia, dubbed "The Lakes District" would have to rethink their tourism industry for trout fishing, kayaking, and boating.

I was in Crete still when I was first notified about an “ash situation” that was possibly going to affect our bike trips. Being in a dry, mediterranean island, I pushed those emails aside, having no idea how to begin to conceptualize what a town covered in ash might look like. If only someone had said, “Imagine the worst Nor’Easter whipping through your small town in NH–one that would leave snow on all of your belongings nine months later, reminding you every single day that La Pachamama never really sleeps.”  And that is exactly what happened here. Nine months later, this dumping station outside our hostal is as busy with plow trucks as the volcanic activity over there in Chile…

Snow day, or Ash day? 9 months later, the town of VLA continues with around the clock clean up efforts.

Today I went for a run and my normal running route turned into a video game of dodging ash mountains and mini-bulldozers:

Daily reminders that La Pachamama rules all things beautiful and catastrophic.

 The problem with Puyehue is that instead of exploding all at once, it has decided it would rather slowly pump out ash over time.  In late December, I was on a bus to Chile with my co-worker and vacation buddy, Jason. From the bus window, he snapped this picture which gives you a good idea of why people from VLA talk about the weather here now more than anyone does in New England.

The local newspaper here has a new section now called "Como esta el Volcan hoy?" or "How is the Volcano doing today?". When the wind is not in our favor, we can't see a single mountain range outside our windows. If the wind picks up, beware of the blizzard of ash coming straight for you.

Every week when we bring our guests through our town for two days on our biking trip, I learn more and more about what happened on that day and what the repercussions have been for people, like our local guides who weren’t sure if they’d make it through the winter and summer season in a ghost town.  I hear new answers to “What did you do with all the ash on your property?”,  “Where did you start to clean up first?”,  “Is it a health hazard for little babies?”,  “Has the press done anything to help increase tourism here after this natural disaster?” , “Where were you on June 4th and what was it like when it rained sand on your house and all your belongings?”.  The list goes on…

Now, we are able to joke and make light of the ash here, even with locals. At some point you just have to laugh about this difficult situation. The locals who have stuck around through this tough season with no tourists, are here for the long haul.  Here are some of the more comical things that Volcano Puyehue has transpired here:

  • When you look up the weather for Villa La Angostura on your Iphone you may see a hazy sun and written below it is “Today’s weather: Volcanic Ash”.  That’s a new one for me. 
  • You never thought your boogers and ear wax could be so black, until you get beat up by some volcanic ash on a windy day…a true testament that your body’s ability to filter outside elements is working.  At least I’ve got that going for me…
  • I joke that the nutrient rich ash is making my hair smoother than a Pantene-ProV commercial. 
  • I somehow still get a kick out of receiving work emails from California that say, “How ashy is it today?”. 
  • The owner of our hostal, Mono has many Chileans come to stay at his hostal. One day I looked outside and one of the guests was collecting ash in a plastic bottle to bring home as a souvenir. I shot Mono a quizzical look and he said, “If only every guest from Chile did that, the ash would be gone! “. 
  • Something on my bucket list here is to jump into one of the lakes that has a huge layer of pumice stone still floating on it and take a picture of just my head popping out of the stone, as if I was up to my neck in quick sand. I mean, wouldn’t that be one sweet photo?
  • The other day a bartender over-poured my rum and coke and I made a joke that it was “Puyehue exploding”. He laughed and then said I was a very bad girl for making that comment. You win some, you lose some.

While it will be years before VLA looks as green as it used to, the town of 11,000 is slowly but surely rising to the top, with a new heightened sense of what it means to be a community.  For any of you who have studied spanish but have not yet learned the word for “ash”, just come to Villa La Angostura and the word “Ceniza” will be permanently routed to your long-term memory within minutes.  

All in all, I’d prefer living in a place that wouldn’t require me to wipe a thin layer of ash off of all my belongings like electronics and books every time I use them, this has been an incredibly unique travel experience to add to the books and another great reminder about the power of La Pachamama.

"Just like that nutrient-rich ash is making Hanna's hair smoother, I can assure you eating this ash covered grass makes me taste even better!"

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A Top 10 Countdown of a Truly Never-Ending Summer 2011

Thankfully the topic of my last blog entry did not set the tone for my entire summer, that being the unfortunate, yet hilarious vandalism that happened on June 25th. While the phrase “Poop Fart” continues to make an appearance in conversation amongst friends in the Backroads community, things only seemed to get better, and better making this year a summer that I’ll truly never forget.

I figure the only way to kick off this post is by means of photos to try and summarize what it’s been like to chase summer on three different continents in six months.

#10: Having the opportunity to be in Maine this summer, living in downtown Portland, with family so close by made it really convenient to be able to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday and my 27th, as we share the same birthday. I had some much needed visits from friends in Boston, beach and farmer’s markets dates with cousins, and a best buddy from Boston, Julia who moved to Colorado a few years ago spent July in Portland for her fiances medical rotation. Needless to say, I was spoiled by social activity with friends and family in my free time.

Andrea, Julie, and Alison brought Boston to the Old-Port for the night!

#9 Fortunately, the guests over the summer were just as amazing! In my first family camping trip we presented our first of many lavish Backroads picnic spreads. Right then, I overheard one of the boys say to his cousin, “See dude, I told you there’d be crispy lettuce and fresh tomatoes.”  And so the phrase stuck for the rest of the week….

"CRISPY LETTUCE & FRESH TOMATOES!"

Then came a private group in Maine of 19 mormon family members. The grandparents wanted to take their children and 9 grandchildren who live all over the U.S on a family vacation in Maine. I have never had a better time on a trip nor experienced such gracious guests and would’ve gladly spent the rest of my summer leading the entire family around. A high light was the surprise “show” the kids put on in the middle of Acadia National Park.

A highlight of summer: Watching 9 kids hip-hop dance to "I Whip My Hair Back and Forth" for their grandma's 70th!

Couldn't help but put this cute one in of rock climbing. I was so tired, they caught me pounding a "5 hour energy" and lunged at me in their harnesses yelling, "Noooo Hanna! That's not FDA approved!"

#8  During another week off in July, I was finally able to do a mini-biking trip with a soccer and biking afficionado friend, Q!  I have Q to thank for helping me transition from urban single gear biking, to all day road biking last spring, when I accepted my job with Backroads.  We embarked on the boat from Boston Harbor to Provincetown and planned a three day bicycle trip down  Cape Cod and back home to Boston.  Not only were we able to crash in Brewster at family friends’ homes, but Andrea had won a lottery at her work to stay in her boss’ cape home for the week.  I was able to walk down memory lane of summer after summer in the Cape with my mom and sister, and also live it up on our last overnight with good friends, wine, and outdoor jacuzzis.

Our distance for day 2 of biking: Brewster to Cautamet, MA!

Q and I visiting Sheep Pond on day 2, the place where my cousins and I all properly learned how to dive off a raft.

Bike by day and wine with friends by night? Dulce Vita!

We had to get off the Cape somehow! 80 mile day, back to Boston via the Bourne Bridge.

#7  Being in Maine on a trip in August and receiving a phone call about a potential schedule change.  I was supposed to go to Jackson Hole for a few weeks and then back to Maine in the fall.  I had fifteen minutes to be dressed and ready to bring guests to dinner.  As I was applying make up with one hand and haphazardly drying my hair with the other, I let out the most unprofessional scream over speakerphone to my manager in Berkeley, indicating that I would of course accept my schedule change and be ready to lead biking trips in Crete, Greece for the fall season.  Unfortunately I have no photos to capture this moment.

#6  So there I went, leaving behind the land of lobsterman, with Cretans on my mind, but all of a sudden landing in Jackson Hole to hang with the cowboys for a week and lead a family trip in the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.

I showed up and was told this year our leader house was a 1.8 million dollar ranch house that was for sale. This is the backyard and I woke up to horses running around outside my window every morning! Could've stayed there for longer than 10 days!

3 leaders for 10 guests = leaders feeling like they're on vacation. Here we are singing our hearts out to Meatloaf's "I would do anything for love" in the back of the trailer.

One of the best parts of the trip that I don’t have pictures of is an elk scat presentation I planned for one of our hikes.  All the kids fell for it! As I was chewing on rolled and squished brownie bits, they thought I was scientifically deciding the gender of the elk by tasting it’s scat! Ha!

The kids on this trip were fabulous. One of them was even the 12 yr old national champion of trampoline!

#6   As quick as I had to say goodbye to the cowboys of Wyoming, I was whisked away to our European headquarters in southern France to pack up a van and trailer and drive with my co-worker Devin through France, Italy and two ferries later arrive to the land of the Cretans!

Outside our villa in France. The entire property smelled of thyme and lavender. It was a dream land!

Bike rides in southern france: hopping between fig trees, chateaux's, and vineyards!

I think we are still on the Cote d' Azure here, with Monaco off in the distance. I lost a sandal at a toll booth, and I had no AC in my van, but an Aux cord to play Adel's album as loud as I wanted...

My first time in Italy. Proper pizza on the beach.

There are no words to describe the ferry loading and unloading situation. Old men yelling at your in Greek to spin the wheel left and right and around and back around to do something so simple as to back into a space. It's a crazy trucking and cargo world going on underneath those cabins!

We made it! Arriving at 4 am and watched the sun come up at our home in Chania, Crete for two months. Ocean view every single day!

# 5  Did I mention that a day after arriving in Crete, I flew from Crete to Athens to Paris to Boston and drove to Connecticut for Lauren’s  epic and most fabulous wedding?

All of us girls from our freshman year at Northeastern, floor 3 of stetson east to be exact, were reunited at Lauren's wedding!

#4  Any of you who knew me in college new I was obsessed with Greece since my summer study in Thessaloniki in 2004.  Leading in Crete, a rather touristy island, we were away from the daily, grave situation going on in mainland Athens.  I was yet again exposed to the best bits of culture, food, dance, bike rides, beaches, and landscapes. On top of that all, I had the best group of co-workers with me who stood by one another’s side as we had to take another potent free shot of the after dinner burn-your-throat-homemade raki that was served to you in small, but frequent doses.  One night after too much raki, we all ended up bringing a litter of 7 puppies that lived in the entry way to our rooms, to the bar for the night.

Best Co-workers!

Best Street Food! Gyropitas!

Best Biking and fantastic guests.

Best Dance Parties. Those Cretans really know how to have a good time while high kicking.

Chair tricks and dancing around fire circles. Standard weekly events.

Biking up and down Crete's mountains all the way until the Libyan Sea!

Just an old man picking olives outside a Ceramics shop. For the record, Cretan olive oil trumps Italy's!

It would not be a complete biking trip in Crete without a picnic on the beach!

#3  I’ve got three words for my # 3 spot in the countdown: THE FISH SPA.  The pictures below depict very well what this experience was like for me as those live fish nibble away at your dead skin.  These “spas” are found on ever other city block on the island.

The moment the fish swarmed at my feet I screamed "THIS IS MY NIGHTMARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Erin thought this was funny. For me, I never knew what it really meant to feel tense until this moment.

# 2  Nannying in Norway for a week for Fredrik (9), Henriette (12) and Christine (14).  Picking the kids up from school, going to spin class, getting dinner on the table, just a normal week stop over in Oslo!  I have been so lucky with this job to be able to pass through Europe via Oslo on an annual basis now since I met the Fougner and Witzoe families in 2009.

Make homemade mac n' cheese in any country and the kids will come to dinner and bring their friends from the nieghborhood!

We danced every night in the living room. Disco ball and strobe light inlcuded.

We played the Oreo challenge.

We took jumping pictures...probably should've had them jump off something other than the living room furniture.

We went to their cousin's Lauritz's 3rd birthday party. Fredrik adorned himself in a suit and red sox hat.

# 1   And the coveted #1 spot in the Top-10 countdown!  Drum roll please….I was getting ready to go to bed for the night in Crete at a restored Venetian palace, and I quickly checked my email and to my absolute surprise found out that I’d be sent to the Lake District of Argentina in Northern Patagonia to lead mountain biking trips for December to March.  In some ways it feels like I just got home from living in Buenos Aires. Talk about a full-circle kind of a year, and in addition I’ve lived “in summer” since February.  Oh 2011, you have been so good to me.

How else would one try and get two 70 lb bike boxes from one place to another? One piece of twine goes a long way...

A view of the Llao Llao Peninsula in Bariloche, our home for two nights of the bike trip.

Tough Research! We've clearly got some great bike rides ahead of us!

This is our home in Villa La Angostura, and one of my favorite running routes so far.

When You Know You’re Really “From Away”: Another Day in Maine

I was born at Portland, Maine Medical Center, the port city where my parents met and fell in love.  My grandmother left Norway to eventually settle in Scarborough, and all but two of my extended families live in Portland and the greater area of Maine: Harrison, Cape Elizabeth, and Kennebunkport to name a few.  One of my uncles owned a most fabulous and popular Italian restaurant “The Impastable Dream” in Ogunquit. For the past 27 years, we’ve been vacationing on Popham Beach, a slice of coastal heaven where I’ve been witness to how every inch of that beach changes after a proper, harsh New England winter. I know the nooks and crannies of Matinicus Island, the most eastern inhabited island of the North Atlantic Coast and our family has a camp on Sebago Lake where I used to pick wild Maine blueberries and watch the Songo River Queen go by. I knew what Reny’s was when I could talk. Sometimes in my bones I feel more Mainer than New Hampshire, where I technically have spent all my life, just a half hour shot over the Piscataqua Bridge from the Maine border.

One of my favorite parts about being a hiking and biking guide for my second season in Maine is being able to tell guests all about my experiences here in Maine, to the point where I convince myself that I really am from here.  Best way to deflate my credibility and make me feel like I might as well have come from California? Ask a born and raised Mainer, and they’d say, “Dahlin’ahm tellin’ ya just cuz yas bohn in Pawtland, doesn’t make ya from heah.  Yourh from away.”  From Away puts me on a level with annoying tourists who clog up the Park Loop Road on Mount Desert Island in Acadia in the summer, or who take pictures of all things lobster related but don’t know the first thing about how to eat it.  Mainahs just lump every visitor into one category and call us all “from away”. If I’m lucky, maybe I could aim for the “Southernah Summah Visitah” title (which would sadly put me in the mix with all those “Massachusetts people” too).

Which brings me to my point of all this banter: When do you know
you’re really, and I mean, really from away?  For me, it was the moment that my high level of expertise in wild-blueberry picking, hard shell lobster cracking, and sand dollar searching was crushed by this alarming welcome to Portland in my first 24 hours:

Okay Jr. High kids walking around at night with permanent markers in your pocket. We get it! We're not from here!

I know what you're thinking. It's partly funny and mostly sick vandalism.

While I understand that is basically impossible to ever cross that unwavering threshold of “from away” to bona fide Mainiac, I now especially understand that it’s not going to help my case to try and win any local’s hearts this summah  in a 15 passenger van with Utah plates and a 1-800 number on it!

Notes on Coming Home

I am sure my mother and father are tired of me starting or finishing every other sentence for the past couple of weeks with, “But in Argentina the veggies and beer only costs this much”, “But in Argentina I wouldn’t be eating dinner until 10:30”, “But in Argentina I had free health insurance…”.  But every disgruntled pessimistic comment I spit out about returning to the U.S was equally matched by cultural frustrations like these: “But in the U.S, the police actually enforce laws and don’t accept cash bribes”, “But in the U.S we recycle” , “But in the U.S people respect the bike lanes made for cyclists only”, “But in the U.S there aren’t about 10 steps to go through to sign up for a 10k and then trek across the city to realize you never actually signed up anyway” (clearly something I’m still getting over).

In March I had compiled a list of my impressions of “the bueno y malo” of living in Argentina that you can revisit here but today’s post is a list of the little and big things I miss since landing on U.S soil three weeks ago, and of course the things I will never miss after living 5,352 miles away from home.

Let me preface this theme regarding reverse culture shock by saying this post is specifically dedicated to every single expat who has been living in Argentina for infinitely more time than me.  I’ll point out the obvious by saying that culture shock and the reverse, happens regardless of the amount of time spent in a foreign place, and manifests in each of us in different ways. I met bunches of American friends who not only purchased one way tickets, but who also made my three months stay look like a bite-size couple of weeks in contrast with the super-sized years they have spent living in Buenos Aires.

To My fellow expat community (read: soccer/bike tour gang): this list only begins to address the change you might feel when coming home, or the moments that trigger reverse culture shock, down to smelling the laundry detergent on your clothes when you unpack your bags.  You’ll see, as soon as you purchase that return ticket home.  The nostalgia that just one smell can create for a place will then trigger trips down memory lane and inevitably make you question why you are staring at maple and oak trees instead of palm trees, or why a grill has a not only a cover, but also a gas source.  After smelling the yummy detergent on my clothes, I came up with the following laundry lists:

Extrañaré ( I will miss):

  • Kiosks. On almost every block of the 77 square mile city, there are kiosks to buy anything you might need while you’re on the run, including 40’s of beer (the typical and most common size sold).  I will really miss these itty bitty glass bottles of coca-cola that contained the ideal amount of coca cola without taking in the 240 calories and 70 grams of the standard individual size bottle of coke in the U.S.
  • Greetings: Watching two straight men greet and say good bye with a kiss on the left cheek. Equally, for me, I will miss the warmth that giving kisses creates, like kissing 12 sweaty cheeks after playing soccer games, instead of shaking hands with the other team.   Shaking hands just seems lame now.
  • Activities/Available Resouces: Availability of resources are high (doesn’t mean you may have to wait hours in line for something!) because of living amongst 13 million people in the 2nd largest metropolitan city in South America after Sao Paolo.  This means amenities such as pharmacies on every corner, free doctors, dentists (I should’ve gone for a cleaning), free exercise classes in the parks, language classes, and even easy access to places like a Buddhist Meditation Center, where Roberta took me for my first time a few weeks ago.  Additionally, transportation, not only 24 hours a day, but so many bus routes, trains and subway lines that one never has to walk more than a few blocks to find a route to take you to from your front door to your final destination.
  • Local/Regional Dialect: Speaking Spanish, and more particularly Argentine Spanish which I am obsessed with. Forget every swear word I’ve learned in Castellano—the purest form of Spanish hailing from Spain, or the names for every vegetable or clothing item, because Argentina has its OWN words for those things, including their own pronunciation rules. I started compiling my culture shock list a few weeks ago
    and what I wrote down pretty much sums this up: NOT READY TO TRANSITION TO ENGLISH YET (and I’m still not–yes, I’m asking for you to feel bad for me).
  • $$$: 4 to 1 exchange rate with dollars and pesos.  $10 pedicures and $8 Pilates Reformer classes. Need I say more?
  • Chilled-out schedules: Not rushing people and their schedules.  Time is almost always on your side in Argentina.  I really do enjoy having dinner after 9 pm because one is able to accomplish all those daily errands after work that we can’t get done oftentimes working a 9-5 in the States, with dinner on the table by 7:00.  I loved the feeling of a long day, every day in Argentina. After all, “You get somewhere, when you get there”, right?
  • Simplicity: Thoreau once said, “Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplify, Simplify”.  Tiny kitchens, lighting a gas tank in order
    to have hot water to shower, not putting plastic wrap on every item in the fridge, or living off the same clothes for three months, isn’t so bad or weird.  Every time I travel outside the U.S I am reminded again and again how much “stuff” I have and how materialistic we are as a nation. Gross.
  • Where’s the fat people?:  I can’t even imagine what people must think when they visit our country and see the presence of obesity or begin to see what it takes for a nation to be so gluttonous that  1/3 of its children are obese. It’s something I notice immediately after I leave the U.S for extended amounts of time.  These types of observations only confirm an outsider’s opinion that we all live off of McDonalds.

Nunca voy a extrañar: (I am never going to miss)

  • Second hand smoke: After washing my hair twice one weekend, I went to work on Monday with my blonde locks still smelling like cigarettes! I do not miss being the only one in a group of 8-10 people that wasn’t smoking or dancing until the sun comes up in a closed space, inhaling smoke for hours, while you’re trying to burn some empanada calories on the dance floor.  I am still happy to say I have never tried it, and probably will never ever understand it.
  • Upside-down Etiquette: More specifically about the lack of consideration when using escalators. It’s a rare occasion when Argentines actually walk up a moving escalator simultaneously, which means that imaginary lane to the left that is usually used for people in a rush does not exist.  Cue uncontrollable American mentality: “Don’t you people have anywhere to get to right now?!”
  • Machismo:  The look on every man’s face that screams, “You’re a girl and you play soccer? Like, soccer soccer?” followed by an action of them lightly kicking an imaginary soccer ball with their instep, while their eyebrows raise past their forehead and into their hairline, showing their surprise and unfortunately, skepticism as you continue to nod and say “Sí, Sí, Sí since I was 4 or 5. It’s normal to start at that age for women in the U.S.”  These weekly conversations were frustrating for me.
  • Argentine Plumbing: Throwing used toilet paper in trash cans because the plumbing isn’t so first world? Check. I’ve done this in other countries like Greece, Peru, and Costa Rica, but in poor or rural areas.  One could be out at a pretty nice place to eat or a decent bar in Buenos Aires and still have to plug your nose when entering the bathroom stall because of the used toilet paper overflowing the trash bin that permeates the air and makes your nose hairs get all defensive. I feel so bad for the person who has to empty/clean those bins. Argentina tries to be like Madrid but sometimes it ends up like Mexico City. This is an example of its Mexico city side of life.
  • Wierd Tampons: If the above bullet was “Too Much Information” than skip this next feminine based product point I have.  I think it’s completely worth printing and this is the kind of info that should be found in the section of guide books in the “female travelers” section.  Ladies—there are no tampons with applicators to be found in Argentina. If there are, they are really expensive and extremely difficult to hunt down.  This brings me to a cultural phenomenon that one does not find out unless talking with other lady friends about this subject matter.  Culturally, on the whole, Argentine women only use pads. Should I even address the humidity that exists in the summer months in Buenos Aires? No I shouldn’t. Talk about adult diapers. Qué Asco!!!! I’m going to allow myself to get on my “North American High Horse” here and say, “Ladies of Argentina, You are officially living in the dark ages and REALLY missing out!”
  • Napkins:—No I’m not talking about the bullet point above. I’m talking ‘bout the kind in dispensers on restaurant tables. These opaque plastic-like little origami squares, that look like a piece of computer paper that had greasy Lays chips rubbed all over it, and then you’re supposed to wipe your hands with it.  These napkins are similar to the kind of material that cosmetic companies sell so people can wipe oil from their pores at the end of the day.  Flimsy, non-absorbent wastes of squares. I missed the quicker-thicker-picker-upper: Bounty.
  • Crime: In Buenos Aires there is crime in ever neighborhood. Maybe I sound naïve since “crime can happen everywhere” but I know there are no kids pulling out knives and robbing kids as they walk to school on Beacon Hill in Boston.  Of course robberies, petty theft or grand theft are ubiquitous, but regardless of which neighborhood I was in, I had to be careful every day, at all times.  Backpacks are always worn on the front when you’re on the metro. Bags/purses? Never let them leave your lap when you are out to eat at a restaurant.  Stopped at a red traffic light? Look out, because if you’re bag is on the passenger seat, you’re asking for it.  My friends from Sao Paolo said Buenos Aires is safe because in Sao Paolo the same types of crime happen but always with a knife or a gun.  CD players swiped from cars at red lights. Talking on the phone while walking down the street? Ciao cell phone! In Buenos Aires these ladrones usually “just” beat you up or are so smooth you don’t even notice your pesos are gone when you go to buy your next cafe con leche.  To imagine my Brazilian friends saying Buenos Aires was safer, only made me eternally thankful for being able to bike or walk home in Boston at 2 am, as a young female without having fear for my life. In the middle of the day, while giving a bike tour solo, a group of 12 year old punks in “La Boca” (a some-what ghetto) tried shoving a long wooden stick through my bike wheels so I’d fall and they could rob my bike or the equipment bag and my Nextel phone.  The number of stories I heard from friends and strangers or read in the daily paper just kept growing and each time seemed to sound worse. I never knew PhDs in theft existed until living in South America.
  • Slums: It would be more appropriate to say that I won’t miss the outcomes that having slums surrounding a city of 13 million people produces.  Not everyone realizes that Buenos Aires, dubbed “the most European city of South America” has shanty towns built around its outskirts, with some neighboring the most affluent neighborhoods.  The biggest and subsequently most dangerous shanty town is Villa 31, with a whopping 26,000 people living without plumbing and under piece of tin.  Villa (pronounced “Veeesssshhhha”) is the word for slum.  Do not be fooled and think it means “Villa” as in, “I docked my yacht in St. Tropez so my chauffeur could bring me to my billion dollar Villa.”  Oh contraire my friends.  Having over 2 million people live in slums means the amount of children sleeping on the street is a problem the government may never be able to control.     My heart sank daily when stepping over teens sharing a mattress outside a store front when I walked home at night, or watching a 5 year old jump on each metro car to do a juggling presentation to collect monedas when he should be in school.   And if you were lucky enough to get a seat on the metro, your thighs would soon be covered in scissors, mirrors, gum, calendars, or any other piece of junk that someone trying to make ends meet desperately tries to sell to you. When I worked the bike tours, I saw the same homeless mom with about 5 kids all under the age of five crying, screaming, begging, every day on the same corner.  Apparently there were never this many kids out in the street before the 2001 infamous, economic crash in Argentina.
  • Lack of variety in foods: In particular, good, fresh, seafood! I have been eating the freshest haddock, tuna, and sushi practically every single night for the past couple of weeks. For every incredibly tender, juicy, flavorful piece of red meat I ate in Argentina, I am eating the same amount in fish here now.  I missed the presence of seafood in my diet for 90 days!

Something I can’t decide if I miss or don’t miss at all:  Depending on the generation, being called “Hanna Montana” or for those older than 40 calling me “Hanna(h) and her Sisters” from the 1986 Woody Allen movie.  This happened to me when I ran the marathon and I had NO clue what people were referencing. People kept shouting “Hanna! Where are your sisters?!” “Go Hanna and her sisters!” It all makes sense now.

Something I miss that I had no idea I would if you had asked me 3 months ago: I am fully embarrassed to admit that prior to traveling to Buenos Aires, I had promised myself that I would not interact with other “yanquis” because I not only didn’t want to speak English, but also  wanted my experience to be “authentic”.  I remember thinking, “I’ll just play soccer on Wednesday nights with these American girls and that’s it.”  I did not want to associate with the other 60,000 American expats sharing the city with me.  I have never been more wrong in my life, and realized it the moment I showed up for my first soccer game and listened to the advice and stories of every single one of the girls about living in the city. Not only were these girls my source of connections to jobs and social activity, but they became my rock—often being able to sympathize over things like the lists I described above.  I never understood the expatriate community that people speak of in other countries, but befriending my gringa group south of the equator was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.  I miss all of you!

My going away dinner with my fabulous soccer crew!

My Last soccer game in Buenos Aires (for now!)

In conclusion:  I really only can generate one solution to keep this ying & yang going in my life, and that would be to happily lead hiking and biking trips in fabulous destinations like Maine, Napa Valley or Europe in the summer and return to Buenos Aires in the winter!  Now, who’s with me?!

My friend's and family make it pretty easy for me to come home, with an empanada and malbec wine party for my first meal. Thanks Alison for organizing! I clearly have the best friends around the world.

2 Yanquis (x) + 1 Gerardo (y) = ? (z)

Z = a Sandwich de Yanquis?  Nah!  That’s too obvious!  One little hint: Gerardo is the new Saint of all young north american female travelers…

A few weeks into my three months of Livin’ La Vida Loca-Latin Dream in Buenos Aires, my inbox was blessed with the presence of a confirmation email from Alison that she would be spending her April break from teaching to visit me in Argentina.  I have traveled and studied in places with friends from home before, and I have met friends in new international destinations, like when my NU girls met me in Barcelona when I was in studying in Sevilla for six months, but I have never been able to be a off-duty tour guide for my closest friends and family, trying to share and transmit every ounce of expertise possible to  explain an entire country, culture, and the life and rhythm as a foreigner in another location.  I always wanted show my parents my Andalucian life in Spain, and feel what it was like to have your own parents dependent on you for all communication, or for friends or family to visit when I lived in Jackson Hole last summer, but having Alison here for 10 days was the perfect way to round out my last weeks living in la Capital Federal!  Before enjoying the photo journal below, and discovering the answer to my bizarre algebraic equation, for the record, while Alison was here we super-humanly changed the amount of hours in a day from 24 to 30 (I don’t have the scientific formula to prove this miracle).

After the best airport meet and greet, I whisked Alison away to have lunch at my apartment and plan our first full day in the city.  A history buff, Alison chose to take advantage of seeing the weekly “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” marching at 3:30 in the main square.

These mothers lost children and spouses during the dictatorships from '76 to '83. They are known as the "desaparecidos"--or, the disappeared. The mothers still march today to ask for answers.

What else did Alison do on her first day in a major South American metropolis, in the warm weather, away from her stressful teaching life?  She made a PowerPoint with me about what it’s like to go to college in the United States!  That’s right, for two hours we put together a presentation that we presented on Friday morning to Maria, the language director of the bilingual program at the private school I visited in February in San Isidro.  Yes, that means on the 2nd day of Alison’s teaching vacation, I took her to a school.  All jokes aside, we had a blast presenting photos, talking about Northeastern, talking about the $$$$ it costs, but the opportunities we have during and after university years.

We're in the back! The students were so surprised at how much college shapes our lives by living on campus and leaving home at 18. When asked if college was like what they see in the movies, we answered, YES! (and then some!).

Little elementary classroom. Kid picking their nose, another flexing, another treating his rolling bag like a bike, I'd say pretty standard behavior across North and South America

Phew. Alison could really be on vacation now, which included racing from the train stop in San Isidro, to make it downtown for my afternoon bike tour.  This time I was working, and Alison joined in for the fun with 7 other passengers, 2 from Norway! She did such a good job with the most urban of all urban bike tours, that she was rewarded with her first dulce de leche ice cream:

It's life changing. I promise. Willy Wonka would have to give away platinum tickets for this recipe!

And then we had cultural experiences in the wide-spread supermarket chain, Coto:

This actually isn't an every day shopping item

After all that power-point presenting, 4 hour bike touring, dulce de leche ice cream, saran-wrapped pig hunting, we were tuckered out!  But I rsvp’d both of us to a swanky little celebratory party at a bar downtown for my soccer friend Becky who had a role in a big screen movie here….this was one of those days we fit 30 hours into 24.  Becky rented the bar out for nearly 80 of us from midnight to 6 am.  Alison wanted to know how this sort of life functions here.  Close your eyes at 9 pm and nap until about 11 pm! And start your engines, because the energy and nightlife on the streets and in the bars and boliches (clubs) doesn’t allow one to feel sleepy.

A great shot of "the girls" around 3 or 4 am...

Alison had a lot of "firsts" this week: Including being out until about 7:30 am. This is the pizza shop at 6:16 am, as warm croissants are being served, or pizza for the boliche goers.

You guessed it. Of course we put those hard, metal shades down in my room so we could sleep until about 1 or 2 pm the next day. Before packing our bags to leave for our flight to the North Western corner of Argentina, Luisina, another soccer buddy, had Alison and I over her house in Belgrano, where I used to live with Javier, to teach us how to make empanadas!  Kari has already found a place in East Boston at one of the local Latin markets that sells the dough I need to replicate these petite, gourmet, variety of hot pockets of deliciousness!

Lou, a teacher in training, held a workshop for gringas on how to make ham & cheese, and meat empanadas, and how to make the perfect little braid on the edge of the dough! Look at her teacher finger!

Absolute divine perfection. Lou and her fiance Charlie couldn't have made our smiles any bigger!

Coming home from Lou and Charlie’s house at about 2 am, we excitedly packed our bags, as well as two exhausted zombies with fried brains from the weekends activities, could do.  A two-hour flight towards the Chilean and Bolivian border, surrounded by mountains and about every type of terrain possible from jungle cloud forests to cactus deserts, we arrived in “Salta, La Linda” or Salta: The beautiful.  Using Salta as our base, we made a big southern loop and then a northern loop for 6 days, in our little VW golf.  This was when my tour guiding really kicked in because I had done this trip, more or less, with Eugenio in 2006. I put that car in 5th gear and Alison and I were off to the wine region of Cafayate, via route 68 through the Quebrada (gorge/range) de las Conchas, a widespread land of brightly colored geological rock formations.

This entire trip that overstimulated us with picturesque landscape, made me want to enroll in a photography course, asap!

First Activity? A Bike to Hike! The wine comes later!

A local, 16 yr old boy Marcelo, brought us up a winding route crossing the "Rio Colorado" numerous times in Cafayate.

We met a family with two kids (pictured) who hiked with us in steep and slippery conditions in flip-flops, carrying a 2 liter of Sprite. Love you Argentina.

Biking at high altitude to hike up rivers and find vineyards? Check

Cafayate is known for its torrontes, a sweeter but very smooth white wine.  Cafayate also happens to be the perfect conditions for harvesting the best grapes in the world: altitude, solar intensity, dry and pure air, and a cool temperature at night!

After translating a 2 hour wine tour at Finca de las Nubes, Alison and I had ourselves a little post hike treat!

We zig zaggedly returned (luckily downhill) from the vineyard to the itty bitty center of town and weren’t sure if we were imagining this llama house?

I'll buy it!

We polished off our evening with a dinner with a fabulous couple who we met at the vineyard, from Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Martin and Guda are traveling for many months together in South America! We had a blast talking over bottles of torrontes and malbecs.

Is it that time to drive on unpaved roads for hours again? To Route 40 we go–

It's a national law to have your car lights on at all times

passing the entire “Ruta del vinos” dozens of vineyards until Cachi, to capture the infamous shot of all the red peppers drying to make paprika.  We were supposed to leave early for a long drive back to Salta, with Paprika land being our mid-day rest stop, but in small town Cafayate, we had to wait for the local gas station to fill its tanks down below for an hour…Argentina, I love you.

Cachi Adentro! Alison adorns herself with soon to be paprika earings...as the sun goes down and we don't realize what the evening holds...

Besides Paprika, I will always remember Cachi for the gift we were given at Cafe Oliver on the little main square.  We learned the hard way, not to rely on an “auxiliary cord” connection to plug-in iPods to play music in rental cars in Argentina.  We were left with spotty radio and a cd player, and no cd’s.  I asked our waitress if we might be able to find some cd’s somewhere (preferably not of the high-pitched local wind-pipe-bamboo-reed-flute music which is nice in outdoor plazas, not in cars) and she returned with an mp3 cd from the cafe that her boss said we could have.  First 10 songs? Aretha Franklin.  First song? Chain of fools.  We were GOLDEN.

But we didn’t know we’d soon crack the code to this mysterious algebraic equation.

Route 33: Cuesta del Obispo: Heaven or Hell?

We bombed down the one lane flat roads with the most expansive, massive land surrounding us, with not a single other car on the road.  We were playing chase with sundown, and comfortably cruising in 5th gear.  Brakes. 1st Gear. Process the view in front of us.  What. Is. That?  “Did we just drive straight into heaven?” I asked Alison.  We stopped, took photos, sat in awe at how I’ve been in plenty of cloud forests before, but never one like this.  I wanted to kayak on top of them, scoop the clouds up and make ice cream cones for the entire continent, and mostly just take in deep breaths to acknowledge the beauty that we drove straight into.

Unfortunately and fortunately, we have no photos of what happened for the next 4 hours.  That little fun game of chase with sun wasn’t fun anymore. Mother nature always wins.  In first and 2nd gear, I began to descend the most curvy, steepest route–the kind meant for two cars to pass each other in the width of one car lane–with my head completely outside my window, defrost on, and no windshield wiper fluid.  Neither of us spoke. We both knew we were a little scared in our heads, and a lot scared in our intestines (perhaps I’m speaking for myself), as dusk turned to complete darkness, and pavement turned to loose dirt, with not a single other car on the road for over an hour of us continuing to round each and every corner.

Palms sweaty, we hear something. A waterfall? But from where? Alison gets out of the car and says, “Nope. We’re not doing this anymore.”  Water crashes down from the mountain, is gushing over the road and falling off the cliff at a velocity high enough to generate some energy to Cachi “Paprika” land, two and a half hours away.  Dios Mio–we are literally supposed to cross a waterfall that we could hear before we even saw it.

A 16 point turn later between mountain and an abyss, we turned around, deciding that we’d have to change our next day and return to Cachi instead of make it to Salta. I was frustrated, tired, stressed, and mad that we tried doing all of our driving in the day time and the one time we failed, we failed miserably.  X, 2 yanquis see lights, the first sign of a car descending…I signaled for them to stop and I couldn’t decide whether I should warn them not to go on, or ask for help.  Enter Y: Gerardo (+ a little travel karma).  I happened to stop a little truck filled with passengers that was a taxi service from Cachi to Salta every day. The driver assured me that I’d be okay to cross the waters if I did it slow and to just follow him signaling with his blinker, every curve we had to maneuver.  Another 16 point turn to now return down the valley.  We crossed the first waterfall.  Cloud forest fog turned to drizzling rain. I couldn’t see a thing outside my windshield. The driver jumps out, sees the new wrinkles I’ve acquired in my face in the past two hours and tells me that one of his passengers is going to drive my car the rest of the way.  Gerardo, a 5o something year old man chatted our ears off for the rest of the ride, easing both our nerves, crossing even deeper water holes and waterfalls, and explaining that the entire route is closed in January and February because the rain destroys the route, making it impossible to pass.  Apparently Route 33 is one of the most beautiful roads to experience driving on in Argentina, and we were a few hours off.  So what is Z?  2 ridiculous yanquis + an angel sent to us in a moment of fear and stress = surviving what felt like a near death experience.   Tomorrow is a new day!

Sleep a few hours in Salta and hit Route 9 to the north to start our adventure in the opposite direction! First stop Humahuaca, a fun town to say out loud (remembering that “h’s” are silent), and your quintessential northern adobe hut town filled with artisan crafts and Andean culture.  I was still a little jittery from our previous day’s adventure, so I relaxed by jump roping with some girls in the town square:

I was clearly in my element, reliving the 90's.

We didn’t leave Humahuaca without buying some more cd’s!  Best of the Beatles, Beyonce, and a random mix of Boliche and Cumbia music.  New music, Alison serving up Yerba Mate, and cruising (IN THE DAY TIME) through the Quebrada de Humahuaca valley, watching the sun change the valley at every possible angle.

We aren't 2 Yanquis anymore!

On our way to Purmamarca we had to stop in Tilcara for gas, which was kind of out of the way.  We stumbled upon 3 hitchhikers from France that have hitch-hiked over a year in South America (as noted in the state of their luggage, shoes, clothes, and hair).  They stuffed accordions, and about three guitars and their personal luggage in our little VW and we dropped them in Tilcara where they were spending the night.  I am talking, serious modern day gipsy kind of stuff!

They said 1 night in Brasil they slept in the back of a man's truck for transporting fish, he closed and locked the door and there were no windows...

A sigh of relief. We made it to my favorite town in all of Argentina: Purmamarca. Picturesque. Perfect. Built into the mountains and valley called, “Quebrada de los 7 colores” or “7 colors”  It’s certainly no misnomer!

Our Hostal la Posta

A little hike behind our hostal in Purmamarca. Breathtaking

A delicious meal with traditional tamales, empanadas from the north, and a bottle of reserve wine from the vineyard we had been at days before, for $30 I may add, we slept like babies for our Route 52 early wake up call to the Salinas Grandes Salt Flats!

The empanada doesn't look so good in the pic, but the Tamales are delicate little gifts of potato, corn, and ground meat inside

Rise and shine! I’ve been waiting since 2006 to return to my favorite adult playground: The Salt Flats that spread for kilometers and kilometers that still aren’t even as big as Uyuni Flats in Bolivia.  Word of advice: Be sure to have sun glasses (and a camera with automatic timer!). I couldn’t wait to bring Alison there. Out of probably 100 shots, here’s some of my favorites:

Climbing Rt 52 for over an hour, but nothing like the cloud forests of Rt 33!

The surface is incredibly hard and sharp, so gymnastics are done at your own risk!

This worker has no sun glasses, and digs each of these huge square blocks about a meter deep for the entire day.

Automatic timer means we've got this entire salt flat just for us!

Leaving the salt flats behind and heading three more hours back to Salta to explore, only to find everything was closed for Semana Santa except for the churches, meant that we could rest up for our 2 hour Friday night flight home.  Resting meant that we were definitely going to end Alison’s Argentine vacation the same way we started it.  Arrive back to Buenos Aires 11pm. Shower, get ready, and meet friends out at a bar known amongst the ex-pat community at 1 am.  We entered and Alison’s face dropped because there were her babies on the tv screen: The Red Sox.  After such a beautiful trip with incredible bonding time with La Pachamama or “Mother Earth”, I find it fitting to end this entire entry with another photo taken around 4 am, with a final return home at about 7:30 am.

Another Yanqui sandwich, but this time with my friend Laura from Colombia, at El Alamo

I’m finishing this entry at about 3 am myself and will sleep well remembering my first week as a tour guide for a best friend visiting a place I’ve called home for 85 days.   We sat on Alison’s bag to zip it shut as it was busting with alfajores, yerba mate, malbec wine, and empanada recipes.  I think it’s safe to say: Mission accomplished!

Picos, Picos, and then some more Picos

Must. Get. A. Hold. Of. Life.         Now.  Life has been a hustlin’ bustlin’ blur since my “1 month anniversary” when I last reported and I mean that all in the most amazing, unhealthy, glamorous, exhaustive way possible.  Is that all even possible?  In Buenos Aires, my heart is still ticking somehow, and the smile on my face remains intact 24 hours a day, even during those few hours when I find the time to sleep…

I had an experience in mid-March that was the catalyst for the blurred couple of weeks that have ensued—the very fault for me neglecting my blog.

If only I could remember exactly what it was?  Was it that I am starting to get to a point in my stay here when I miss the variety of food we have at home? How the pizza here, despite the millions of Italian immigrants is probably some of the worst and simple pizza I’ve ever had?  Or the numerous trips I made to about 6 different locations to get all the ingredients to make Chicken Curry and Indian Spiced carrots for Roberta one night?  Red Onion is practically nonexistent here.  Ask an Argentine where to find a red onion and the common answer is, “There’s such a thing as red onions?”

No, that’s not it.  Maybe I was going to share the fact that I feel like an absolute Diva here, covering the entire spectrum from Marilyn Monroe to Beyoncé, when I walk down my red carpet (aka, any street in Buenos Aires) and from piripos (horny street men) to professional business men, I hear: “Vos sos una Diosaaa” “You’re a Goddess!” , “Sos una reina”  “You’re a queen!” , “Que chica más Hermosa…”  “You’re the most beautiful girl!” or “Que bellezaaaaaaaaaaa” “Sooo beautiful!!!.” I know I can complain about machismo here, but who wouldn’t want a little bit of, 1 part creepy, 1 part romantic comments to put a little hop in your step while running errands or waiting to catch the bus?  Those kinds of moments are the very ones that pick you up when you are down after trying to find shorts or jeans in a woman’s clothing store and you ask for the biggest size possible and then want to cry  in the dressing room when the waist makes it just over your knee caps before coming to an abrupt stop…

But that’s clearly not my earth shattering big news.  Was it that since I moved from Javier’s place in Belgrano to Plaza Italia, I have cut my commute to work in half and also get to take advantage of the new fabulous bike paths for my entire ride to work? And that despite my incredibly brisk 25 minute bike ride to work in the microcentro, followed by 4 hours riding a cruiser bike, I have not lost a single pound because I have this really loyal, faithful relationship with a scrumptious invention that is the argentine empanada….(and meat, and wine, and cheap beer, and fiber one…).

What was that important news flash I was going to write about? It definitely had nothing to do with the fact that I wish I had a video camera to capture the looks from Argentines as they look at my legs in shorts every day, sometimes with a look of absolute confusion and surprise which always makes me laugh inside and think, “I am suchhhhhhhh a foreigner to them! I see them staring. I wonder what they are thinking.” My question was answered when my Norwegian thighs became a topic of conversation, in a shoe store when I went to buy crocs (so my foot infection could be ventilated but covered when I started the bike job—people wear crocs like crazy down here?! I guess it’s the New England dansko clog?) and then before I even realized, the shoe man was poking my thighs with a few of his fingers, and looked at me in disbelief and said, “Wow, Look at your legs, they are big and strong, and then look at mine (he rolls up his jean shorts and begins to flex his quadriceps and compare our thighs) but—what sports do you do? Are you German?” Ha. Ha. I think that could’ve all been a law suit brewing in the U.S, but I took it in stride and decided as long as it’s all positive energy, I’ll add it to my list of Diva comments.  And the shoe man—whose only dream is to see a Bruce Springsteen concert—closed a shoe sale.

 Perhaps I wanted to report on the conversations I have with my American friends here that primarily revolve around the phenomenon of the male fanny pack (my friend Sis: “I mean guys have to carry stuff too”), and the absolute passion for rollerblading that exists here—to the point where the parks are filled with rollerblading coaches and colored cones are strategically set up all over the paved roads in the parks for practicing all types of maneuvers.  Or the free amazing modern opera I saw at the famous, historical Teatro Colon on Wednesday night, followed by another free concert with the Magnetic Zeros opening for Jane’s Addiction on Thursday night? Or that I randomly run into my Argentine friends here in the subway or street corners, and help people who are lost, or find the right bus, which makes me feel like I couldn’t be more integrated into the city here!  Can’t wait to show Alison around in approximately 1.5 weeks!

El Gran Macabro Modern Opera--in the incredible Teatro Colon

Hold up.  Picos. It had something to do with Picos.  Ay Dios Mio.  That’s it!  March 18th, 2011—a day that I continue to describe as potentially one of the most dangerous days of my life and also one of the highest points in my life.  It was a day when I decided to sign up for a double Friday shift of bike tours, thinking that our large afternoon reservation would result in $$$$$. 

Enter my life altering experience30 Large and in Charge and handsome Brazilian Rugby Players from Sao Paolo. 

No, I did not photo shop me in there.

They arrived at our main plaza like an army but their intimidation factor sizzled as they marched closer (everything a little in slow motion for me), once I was able to read their matching jerseys, “Buenos Aires Rugby Drinking Tour 2011”.  Oh boy. Or should I say, boys. What did I just sign myself up for?  My heart was pounding thinking, “someone is going to die today, surely” and it was also pounding, “I might be the luckiest single female tour guide in the whole world right now”.  Before I could say my name, while one of them held a video camera straight from the 80’s over his shoulder like a boom box and proceeded to film everything, I was interrupted by the synchronization of 30 deep manly voices chanting, “Picccco Picccco Picco Pico, Piccco Picco Pico Pico…” and it only took me about 30 seconds to learn my first Portuguese word:  Kiss.  Oh boy(s).

It gets better and worse, all depending on how you look at it.  These boys weren’t even on the bikes yet.  But once they were, the entire city and its neighboring provinces could’ve heard the smashing of tires on the tiled plaza floor as the team jumped up and down on their old, clunky cruisers chanting in Portuguese and never ever stopped ringing their high pitched silver bells.  I found myself crossing intersections and looking at innocent bystanders for the next four hours on the street saying, “Disculpa!” “Excuse me!” “Perdón!” “So sorry!” 

We had flat tires. We had 10 of them get lost. There were ones who needed Portuguese translations, others who wanted English, others Spanish, there was one in particular who kept riding next to me and while doing the “eye brow move” would say in a little accent, “We meet again”.  I would nervously giggle and pedal on. Or I was about to break into some historical fact in front of some sacred monument and I’d hear “What is your telephone number!!!!!!!!???” to which I’d joke, “I haven’t remembered it yet! (which was true!)”.  With all jokes aside, it was almost easier maneuvering a group of 30 in matching jerseys on bikes because then all the inconsiderate selfish drivers here actually stopped because they kind of had no choice.  I was nervous because our tour is a veryyyy urban, traffic filled, rush hour kind of chaos sometimes, but it proved to be advantageous to go in such a large group. 

Four hours later, we arrive to my fancy office, also known as a parking garage and I ran and got my camera to document this day and also to build some credibility, because who would really believe I spent my afternoon with 30 male Brazilians?  I asked for a group photo, and in the blink of an eye and an “I dream of Genie” wiggle of the nose, I was tightly surrounded by the entire team and I was sure that within seconds I’d be airlifted and crowd surfing, but instead I blushed, feet semi planted on the sidewalk, as they all chanted nonstop “Pico Pico Pico Pico Pico (X100)” and in that same time I ended up with a wet ear and a bunch of wide-eyed business professionals stopping on their commute home from work to see what on earth was going on. 

“Okay, bye everyone! Thank you so much! Good luck in your Rugby Game tomorrow!” as some of them frantically began to explain where they were playing the following day and made it clear that I was invited.  One of the macho leaders, stopped me with his broad shoulders and massive arms and said, “Hanna, it is a tradition to learn all of our names before you can go.”

Ohhhhh Boy(s).

“Huh? What?! 30 of them?” Okay, I was a teacher, I learned 80+ names on the first day of school every September. I can rock this!  Actually, it was quite the opposite.  The boys jumped into a single file line, which still meant they blocked the entire sidewalk and began to approach me in my greasy-bike-uniform get-up and stare at me, say their name (beautiful names, but very Portuguese and half the time I had a hard time repeating them back) and then present me with two picos on each cheek, and sometimes more.  They made it all through the line and I was just about was ready to faint.  Weak in the knees, I thought, “Okay they will all head home now”.  The leader, “Okay Hanna, do you remember our names?”  I was able to produce ONE. Leandro—the easiest for me to understand, but I even called the wrong guy Leandro, and my odds should’ve been good because there were two Leandro’s!   

Joao, a total character!

Don't know his name, but happy to hear it again...

They line up again, and wait patiently as 30 men continue to individually say goodbye to me.  They approached the second time looking at me and giving me at least 10 seconds of silence to see if I could produce their name and with a sliver of hidden disappointment in their facial expressions, they’d repeat their name again and get back in the end of the line.

Israel, a patient gentleman waiting for me to say his name for the 4th time!

Leandro 1

Leandro 2

My mind was a blank slate.  I think this went on for about 4 whole rotations. Complete embarrassment on my part.  We finally said our goodbyes and I thought that was the end of that…

Until the next morning when I found myself calling a few rugby centers in Buenos Aires to track down a Brazilian Rugby Team.  I never made it to the game, but I will say I had about 6 girlfriends ready to jump on the train and go with me at any moment.  I decided it was only natural to leave my number at the hostal they were staying at to see if we could all meet up over the weekend.  That’s when the blur really started. From meeting five of them in the city center and being invited to an asado restaurant,

Siga La Vaca Lunch with my new rugby friends!

to  Sunday night and Monday night, coming home at 6 am and heading to work practically without sleeping.

Pub Crawls on Monday nights are kind of normal?

Tuesday day, invite the remaining Brazilians to my new pool at Roberta’s place.

Joao living it up on a humid Tuesday at my pool!

  Wednesday night, play soccer until midnight and all go get food and drink until 4 a.m, most of us in a funky little bar in our sweaty soccer outfits…going to bed at 5 am on a Wednesday night? Really?!

So I guess the real news update is: I am alive and well.  And that I have 30 houses to visit in Brazil, complete with tour guides, and that I’d be lying if I said I haven’t already looked up how much flights are to Sao Paolo.  And that I tried to change my ticket to stay here for a few more weeks in May because I really can’t begin to prepare my mind for returning yet, but the changing ticket fee is a whopping minimum of $250 Benjamin’s—so looks like May 4th with a May 5th arrival in Boston it is…followed by 5.5 day drive from Salt Lake City to Portland, Maine in mid June to kick off my Backroads leading season again.  Getting paid to kayak and eat lobster? What a nice exchange for my life in South America!

Peace and lots of Picos, 

Yours truly—Hanna Montana

*If you’ve made it this far in my entry and you are some of my friends and fam without facebook (Lauren!), here’s the link to my crazy life here thus far: I am not ready to go home just yet…

Happy Anniversary—to Me!

I can’t believe a fast month has gone by since I touched down at Ezeiza International Airport in early February.  I remember taxi’s and people in stores asking me how long I had been here and it really feels like yesterday when I was able to say, “3 days, a week, a little more than a week”…and now my answer is more along the lines of, “I only have two more months left!”

So much has happened since my awful foot infection entry—and all for the better! Javier had invited me for an extra long weekend to Posadas, right near the famous Iguazú falls that I have yet to see, for his grandmothers 90th birthday party. This past Monday AND Tuesday were holidays for “Carnaval” even though it’s really all in Brazil.  I had just landed my bike guiding job and was ready to get started and not delay the training any longer, so I decided not to go away and stayed for the long weekend.  This city swallows Boston with its 14 million people.  This weekend broke a record for the amount of Porteños who left the city for the beaches and other destinations, thus experiencing what it’s like when an international city is literally abandoned for 5 days and one does not have to fight for space on the bus or subway or train.  Walking around my neighborhood, I felt like I could’ve been transplanted to Newmarket, NH over night.    

Friday I started training, against doctor’s orders, and after attending the BBQ (Asado) at Jenn’s apartment, I met Carina, a 27 year old fabulous chica, and we automatically found ourselves swapping numbers and planning to hang out over the long weekend. This resulted in meeting up with some of her friends on Saturday night and then on Tuesday night hearing about an amazing event on the 21st floor roof top of a chic hotel in the city, with free drinks and music all evening to watch the sun go down. 

Palermo Hollywood with Carina on another fabulous Tuesday night in the city!

Our buddies who all call me Hanna Montana and think I speak like I'm straight from Spain.

I arrived late, but it was a fabulous party that kept me up until 2:30 in the morning, with an 8 hour bike shift to work the next day, followed by soccer at 10:30 at night.  Today—Friday is my first day off in a while and with my body aching everywhere, I am completely taking advantage of my day off! (Plus the guys at the café I always use for internet saw me walking home yesterday and were wondering what happened to me since I practically lived there for the first 2 weeks of my stay here—I’ll have to go pay a visit today!)

 I continued to train on Saturday and learn more of our 3 tours we offer, one to the north of the city (rich/exclusive neighborhoods), one to the south of the city (tango district, working class), and one 5.5 hour tour (it really is more like 7) to the rich suburbs of the city with a combo of the commuter rail and bike.  It’s a lot of information and a bit of hustle to remember each turn, but since this long weekend, I have worked two double shifts, two days in a row, at about 4 hours per tour each, in about 90 degree humidity. 

Florencia weaving in and out of traffic with our passengers!

"Woman's bridge" also meant to be a couple tango dancing, and a professional dog walker passing by.

Florencia explaining the origins of Tango in La Boca neighborhood!

I now have our South tour completely memorized, but remain overwhelmed at the amount of information that comes along with a 4 hour tour—especially being a North American, trying to explain all the history about Argentina!  Normally the tours are in English, but my first tour alone was a woman from Chile and her friend from California and a young grad student from D.C who really didn’t speak any Spanish.  The Chile woman asked for the tour in Spanish and so for 4 hours I would explain everything I could in Spanish and then make sure the young grad student understood everything and then I got a little lost but found my way around the Tango district–La Boca (the ghetto at night), and finally we finished, and my first solo tour was finally behind me!

Saturday and Sunday welcomed me with two very exciting Skype dates: 1 with my parents and sister, for the first time since I left Boston, and another from Andres, my buddy in Boston who I first met by staying in his place in Madrid in 2009 (through my friend Travis—I’ll leave it at that, it’s a connection to long to explain!).  Since January Andres has been going through the rigorous Backroads application process that I got to know very well last year.  He had his hiring event in California on Thursday and by Saturday night over Skype he was able to call me and tell me that we were going to be co-workers starting in May!  I am beyond ecstatic for him, as he speaks fluent Spanish and Italian and will train in France with Backroads and I assume be sent straight to Sicily, where he lived for some time.  It was thrilling to be able to help him through the process and re-live what I went through last year.  I told him he should tell Backroads that he can only lead in Europe if his partner in crime (that’s me!) can come with him. =) 

I thought after living in the city for a month, save for some weekend side trips, that it’d be appropriate to point out “lo bueno y lo malo” of Argentine life and it’s idiosyncrasies that I have observed thus far.

Lo bueno: Every time you order a coffee, or glass of wine, it is always accompanied by a little shot of soda water or orange juice, or both, and little crackers or a sweet treat.  It’s like a little glamorous package that you never expect when you sit down and order a coffee.

Little table of perfection

Lo malo:  There is very very little awareness of recycling here and even less awareness or rules over picking up your dog’s poop, thus having to always watch your step on every block of every side walk—it’s really a shame.

Lo bueno:  Argentines are definitely known for being more on the liberal side compared to their conservative neighbors in Chile.  This can be interpreted in many different degrees, as in it kind of justifies the amount of making out in public parks and spaces that you can observe at any hour, and any day.

Lo malo:  The Argentines joke that they “give away babies here”—as in, there is noticeably low awareness around safe sex.   

Lo bueno:  Since I had the T.V remote control all to myself for 5 days, I discovered that Glee, Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men, and many other hilarious sitcoms are on the T.V here, as well as many movies channels.

Lo malo:  I work for about $3 an hour, with no guarantee of tips.  Time to start trying to teach English!

Lo bueno:  Every single guide in the company is your ideal co-worker—funny, nice, patient, generous, hardworking, and outgoing, and with many being from Argentina, they are always teaching me so much about their history and the neat facts that only natives would know.

Lo bueno: Everywhere you go, whether it’s standing in line at the pharmacy (with my foot troubles, I had quite the experience in this), standing on the metro, or getting on a bus, if a pregnant woman is around, everyone allows her to go first and everyone is quick to give up their seat and join the crowd of sardines on public transportation.

Lo malo:  The way in which expecting mothers are given the royal treatment, does not mean that women are definitely treated as equals in other aspects of Argentine life.

Lo bueno:  Argentina’s president is a female, Cristina Kirshner.

Lo bueno:  Busses, subway, and trains are about 30 cents to ride across the entire city—and there are hundreds of bus lines to get you anywhere you need to go.

Lo malo:  Every morning I head to the center of the city, I literally arrive sweating and suffocated by the feeling that all 14 million inhabitants of the city were all shoved on my one subway car or bus.  Yesterday I attempted to take the local commuter rail, thinking it would be much more comfortable arriving to work, actually feeling like I had showered, and instead the train was so full and late, I couldn’t get on, and had to pay for a taxi to bring me across my neighborhood to the other commuter rail line and then fight for space on that train.  I have exhausted all options for commuting in to the city! I think I will have to try a bike route now that Roberta and I cleaned up her bikes and I have one to use for the next 2 months.

Lo bueno:  Every day I talk to someone new, a door man, a taxi driver, a server in a café, that always asks where I’m from and then begins to have a conversation with me that lasts at least a half hour.  The kindness amongst city dwellers here always makes me smile.

Lo malo:  Some things are so backwards here, as in some of the ways in which business is done.  I was talking to Ana—soccer pal and bike guide about things I would change within the bike company and her response was, “I know. Argentina is like the land of missed economic opportunity.” 

Lo malo:  There is a large lack of fiber in the Argentine diet here.  You have to go out of your way to make sure you are giving your body the nutrients it needs!

Lo gracioso (funny):  I thought it was just my job that has a 20% bonus per month when we are paid for punctuality and attendance, until I went to dinner with my friend Luisina last night and she said it’s somewhat common and her work has it too.  I suppose it makes sense when it’s typical to stay out on weeknights past midnight and have to be at work by 8 or 9 in the morning! Since when did full grown employees need incentives to show up to work on time? This makes me laugh.

Mi favorito:  Playing soccer on Wednesdays nights (especially after taking a break with my foot infection) until 12:30 at night with Brazilians, Americans, and Argentines, shouting in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. 

Only half our team on Wednesday! Someone has been injured every week so I never could get a proper photo! (Clearly I have a sweating problem: a flashback to Erica's wedding day...)

There are a lot of aspects of daily living here that I always forget to write down and remember to report on, but there’s a start.  Above everything, I love what my daily experiences bring me every day here and look forward to 2 more months of adjusting to a different culture, in all its good, bad, strange, and inexplicable ways.