Thanks for the memories

For the first time in 162 days, I have plugged my laptop into an electrical outlet without needing an adapter, spoken Spanish while being surrounded by primarily English-speakers rather than the reverse, and seen the sky north of the Equator. Yes, I am back in the United States and have already been swarmed by the family I love and have only seen via Skype since February 11th. It’s so surreal, and I’m sure that I’ll still be processing this abrupt change in the weeks to come!

My return date came upon me in a flash, without my even realizing it, and during my last two days in Córdoba, I made some really hurried goodbyes to the people in Argentina who had become some of my best friends. I want to mention them here, because my experience abroad would not have been the same without them!

Tim

I joined my dance partner of four months in the Plaza de la Intendencia at 8:00 p.m. in the freezing cold to share one last salsa and one last bachata. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks, due to finals and my independent trip to Peru and Chile, but we fell into our rhythm with relative ease. It was like reliving a memory, the way that his hands found mine and we twirled in both carefully-learned and spontaneous movements. I found my eyes closing and my muscles relaxing, in spite of the cold. Until we both decided that the cold was too much to tolerate and we wandered into a restaurant in Barrio Güemes to enjoy empanadas and wine.

It was actually a difficult goodbye for me, as I admitted to Tim that it would’ve been easier for me to “forget” to get back in touch and not go through the official farewell process. Imagine the happiness in my heart when he told me that he was glad I had decided to see him one more time!

Tim, you have been an amazing friend and companion through it all: from our dance sessions to hiking Los Gigantes to sharing a coffee during brief breaks in our busy schedules. I hope that you revel in your biking trip in Bolivia and find a new place to dance when you move back to Germany! Nos vemos, seriously.

Oscar and Ingvil

Monday morning, I met my wonderful speaking partner and his girlfriend at the Starbucks at Avenida Colón and the cañada, where we swapped stories from the past few weeks and shared our dreams for the future. Oscar is in the process of applying for a visa to live in Norway, where Ingvil is from, and thanks to him, I might just catch the travel bug again and try my hand at an internship in Brazil (conveniently in time for the World Cup, of course)! It was one of those moments when nothing profound needed to said but we all earnestly meant it when we offered our homes to each other and hoped to find each other again one day, whether in Argentina, Peru, Norway, or my home in South Carolina.

Oscar, thanks for putting up with such a dramatic yanqui this semester and treating me to some amazing nights out (and for lifting me up when heels failed me!). Ingvil, thanks for sharing some dates and delicious pancakes with me. Take care, both of you!

Ally

Although so many of my blog posts have featured my adventures with Sasha, Ally is definitely a true friend and kindred spirit that I encountered on my trip to Córdoba. She was the first to welcome me back from Peru and Chile, as we dined on delicious empanadas at restaurant La Vieja Esquina (The Old Corner), and my last hug after she made the journey with me in taxi to the airport. I will never forget all the beautiful memories we made together: sharing inside jokes and “practicing Spanish” during class, the infamous sneeze, performing at English night with a great mix of people, eating ice cream or facturas and coffee and talking about boys. I’m especially grateful for her ability to read my emotions in any moment and knowing exactly the right thing to do or say; I’ll never forget the way she pulled me aside to pray together right before I left.

Ally, thank you for everything, for being an amazing friend and sister in Christ. I’m so inspired by your optimism, dedication, and this faith journey that you’ve begun since we met. Please stay in touch and stay open to sharing your thoughts and ideas, even when others are afraid to do the same. My door is open anytime. Love you!

I have a few other friends to thank, as well:

Sasha, for all of our wonderful adventures and being a steadfast friend all semester.

Megan, Jenna, Lala, Cherokee, and Anthony, for going beyond the role of classmates and making my experience in PECLA much more enjoyable.

Jessica y mis compañeros de Traducción Periodística, por cuidarme y guiarme por todo el curso y nunca tratarme como extranjera aparte de averiguar aspectos culturas y idiomáticas conmigo en clase (Jessica and my classmates from News Translation, for taking care of me and guiding me throughout the course and never treating me like a foreigner aside from verifying cultural and lingual aspects with me in class).

Cynthia, Mariano, Gaby, José y todo mi equipo de los dos laboratorios, por enseñarme e invitarme a compartir una experiencia relinda a través de mi practicanato (Cynthia, Mariano, Gaby, José, and my team from both laboratories, for teaching me and inviting me to share a really beautiful experience throughout my internship).

Ignacio, Natalia y todos L@s Tanguer@s, por ser muy buenos compañeros en nuestros esfuerzos de aprender el tango (Ignacio, Natalia, and all of “The Tango Dancers”, for being great companions in our efforts to learn the tango).

Pablo y Sandy, por enseñarme salsa y bachata y Guillermo, por enseñarme el tango (Pablo and Sandy, for teaching me salsa and bachata, and Guillermo, for teaching me tango).

Jonatán, aunque no nos vimos mucho en las últimas semanas, por compartir conmigo charlas increíbles sobre nuestra fe (Jonatán, even though we didn’t see each other much in the last weeks, for sharing incredible conversations about our faith with me).

Silvina, por abrir tu casa a mí tres veces a fines de mi viaje (Silvina, for opening your house to me three times at the end of my trip).

Alejandra y Vicky, por organizar un programa maravilloso y apoyarme en cada aspecto de mi viaje (Alejandra and Vicky, for organizing an amazing program and supporting me in every aspect of my trip).

I’m sure there are people in Argentina that I’ve missed, and to all of you, I say THANK YOU, MUCHÍSIMAS GRACIAS, for a five months that I will never forget!!!

So, now what? you may ask. Have you adjusted to life back in Greenville, South Carolina, yet?

Well, how about I share with you a few things I’ve done since coming home:

  • eaten Chick-fil-a for lunch
  • run two loads of laundry
  • driven my own car
  • hugged my family A LOT
  • drunk mate cocido
  • picked up a new driver’s license and debit card
  • listened to the local Hispanic radio station
  • listened to Pandora (yessssss)
  • gone to the chiropractor
  • sat outside enjoying SUMMER
  • practiced Spanish conversations with myself
  • made alfajores
Might seem a little boring, right? Honestly, I’m kinda glad that the pace has been slow and the patterns, normal. Because one moment, I’ll be retracing a road that I know instinctively after years of living in Greenville, and then the next, I start thinking about how different South Carolina is from Argentina, and I have to remind myself that everything is okay. The longer I wonder about my adjustment, the more surreal it seems; in some ways, it’s easier just to live in the present and not let myself evaluate this sudden transition. But, as you might have noticed, not everything in South Carolina is the same, either. Besides the traffic light that’s appeared close to my school and the remodel of Red Lobster that completely threw me off during my first drive home, aspects of Argentina have seeped into my everyday life: my need to drink mate close to 6:00 every afternoon, accidentally speaking Spanish or thinking of the Spanish equivalent and having to translate during an English conversation — seriously, “me conviene” instead of “is convenient” –, frequently typing the wrong symbol on the keyboard because it’s in a different location on Spanish keyboards, bringing back the alfajores de maicena. I cried just as often on my flight home from missing Argentina as I did anticipating my first view of South Carolina. But somewhere in my heart, I know it’s supposed to be this way. I was supposed to change and come home with a new perspective and grasp on my own reality. And I think that, by the time school starts again and I’m a senior — which is its own crazy adjustment –, I’ll be reminded of why I came back instead of staying and be more familiar with the life I was making for myself here.
Until that moment comes, I’ll say it again: thanks for the memories, Argentina. Thanks for the good, the bad, and the simply memorable. Te voy a extrañar mucho, pero nos conoceremos de nuevo, algún día.
(I’ll miss you a lot, but we’ll meet again, someday.)

Cynthia, Mariano, and me

My research team from the organic chemistry laboratory

 

One of my tango groups, Guillermo (beside me) and Ignacio (behind me)

 

Megan, Sasha, Ally, Jenna, and me enjoying a sushi night

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When it isn’t what you expect

Since my last blog entry, my travels have been beyond amazing! After a full day of enjoyment at the host family’s spa, my brother Greg and I hopped on a Thursday night bus to Huaráz, a region of Peru about eight hours away and definitely not a big city like Lima. We met up on Friday morning with two girl friends from Greg’s program, Michelle and Kelsey, for two days of exploring the mountainsides, lagunas, and small towns close to Huaráz. I would compare the experience to my trip to Jujuy because of all the dust and bare landscape that we saw that weekend, but it was also similar to Bariloche in the snow-capped mountains in the background and beautiful, turquoise-colored lagunas that we hiked around.

The horses from our four-hour excursion on Saturday

Bonding with my brother Greg in Huaráz

We came home — well, back to his host parents’ house — on Sunday, just in time for his host dad’s birthday! The party started at 2:0o in the afternoon and didn’t finish for at least six hours. For me, it was a uniquely comforting experience. I was welcomed in by the spa staff and members of the family that I’d never met before, and then, as we toasted to Eduar’s health with some of the best wine I’d ever tasted, Eduar stopped to announce the arrival of a new member of the family: me, their linda hijita (beautiful little daughter). I hadn’t expected to be put on the spot, and I had hoped to share my appreciation for the family in a more private moment, but as everyone applauded and the ladies on either side of me wrapped me in side-arm hugs, I felt the tears well up and the urge to say something. In more broken Spanish than I’d like to admit, I thanked them for opening their home to me and loving me so freely in such a short space of time. Eduar gestured me forward, and we hugged to everyone’s cheers.

The party was much less sentimental after that. Luz, the woman who painted my nails, starting teaching me to dance “real” salsa (which is much more sensual than what I had learned in class!), and before I knew it, I was pulled into dance after dance with girl friends, family members, and of course Eduar. I had the time of my life and spent the rest of the night thinking to myself, why was I leaving for Chile the next day, right when I was starting to feel like part of the family?

That’s when the trip stopped resembling the image I had in my head.

I arrived in Santiago without fanfare or trouble, calmly caught an airport van to the nearest bus terminal, bought a ticket to Viña del Mar, and retraced a familiar 20 blocks on foot to my first host family’s home. The doorman of the apartment even recognized me as he let me in and reminded me which apartment belonged to my family. I rang the bell, and there they were: my host brothers Felipe and Raimundo! We hugged and eagerly caught up in the living room with my host dad, Pato, for about the next three hours (I barely noticed the time passing). It was so beautiful to see them again that I could barely react when Jeannie, my host mom, came home and told me that there must’ve been a miscommunication and I couldn’t stay with them this week. I was completely in shock.

I handled things well, considering my lack of preparation. My family graciously let me stay the night, and as soon as I awoke the next morning, I packed my things and headed for a hostel that Jeannie had found online. It was a great location and a great price, so I tucked in for what I expected to be a five-day stint in Viña del Mar, with my last day being a short excursion to a botanical garden with my host family and their new host student.

That’s when the next ball dropped: due to family circumstances that I won’t discuss here, I needed to return to Córdoba as soon as possible.

That was almost more shocking than my living situation. I had only just arrived, spent a beautiful day on the beaches of Viña del Mar and Reñaca, and I was already going home to Argentina? Apparently so, because I write this entry from the airport in Buenos Aires, waiting for my connecting flight to Córdoba later this evening.

I wasn’t sure how to react at first. I had spent a lot of time and money planning this trip to Chile to have to leave so soon. I didn’t have the opportunity to say good-bye to my host family again because the boys were at school and my host parents were in Santiago for a surgery. There were more places I wanted to see and explore, had been looking forward to since my first trip to Chile two years ago, and I would have to postpone them yet again. Where was the good in all of this?

Regardless of how I felt, I realized quickly that I had only one day left in Chile and needed to make the most of it, not sit around moping in my hostel. So the next morning, just like the morning before, I woke up early and caught a micro (public bus) to Valparaíso for a walking tour.

Tours 4 Tips, the agency that provided the tour

Tours 4 Tips is exactly what it sounds like: I showed up at 10:00 in the morning, found my tour guide Fernanda, or “Wally”, dressed in a red and white striped shirt, and took essentially a free, three-hour tour through Valparaíso with her and a couple from New Zealand. I had seen Valparaíso before, but what we saw on this tour was chaotically excellent. The ascensores (elevators), the port, the main square, the once-richest street in Latin America during the Gold Rush, the first Protestant church, artisan alfajores (Argentina’s are better), Pablo Neruda’s house La Sebastiana, bus “O” that took us through the winding streets above the city to the port below, cheap and delicious sushi, street art…it was all so stunning! I bought a painting to add to my collection and captured the other images of the city in my memory (since I still don’t have a camera). Fernanda also received an excellent tip from me, because she did a fantastic job!

The rest of the night was low-key, as was my first flight today. But you know what? It’s okay. Tonight, I’ll be back in Córdoba again, and in the morning, I’ll see my wonderful friend Ally and celebrate her birthday a couple of days late in some delicious café in the city. It’s not how I would’ve planned this particular adventure, but it’s how it happened, and when it isn’t what you expect, you just have to turn it into something spectacular.

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Girls day

Peru welcomed me with open arms a few nights ago, and I have been enjoying an incredible experience! My brother, his host brother and host cousin met me at the airport in Lima and brought me to their home in Lince: a very spacious, two-story house on a colorful street that seems to always have people running in and out, greeting the family, joining us for tea. Eduar, the host dad, is an exuberant man that expresses himself without reserve and has already taken me salsa dancing this week. Doris, the host mom, loves to love on us and has told me on many occasions how much she relishes having a “daughter” for the first time.

The family owns a spa in Lince, so when I casually mentioned that I was planning to cut my hair when I got back to the States, Doris very eagerly invited me to have my hair cut there. I agreed the first day out of politeness, but when day two came and I still hadn’t gone, and she anxiously asked again if I still wanted to go, I decided to truly take her up on the offer.

As we walked the eight or so blocks to her spa, Doris shared with me the story of how it came to be. It was once a simple peluquería (hair salon) with three staff in a small space that Doris rented twenty-six years ago. Later, it expanded to a slightly larger rented shop — still only one floor — and welcomed two nail experts to the staff. Now, it’s a bustling family business that Eduar quit his bank job to help run: one floor boasts a staff of about twelve hair stylists, manicurists and pedicurists, with a beautiful fountain in the back and complimentary coffee during an appointment; another floor offers massage, sauna, waxing, chiropractic care, and colon cleaning. This is an impressive venture! As I sat with Eduar after having my hair cut into lovely layers and my nails styled in a French manicure with tiny, intricate daisies painted onto each one, he proudly showed me a photo album documenting their years growing with the spa, which bears the name Jeldec: José Luis, their first son; César Enrique, their second; Eduar; and Doris. All of their initials are included in the name of a family legacy. (It’s also adorable and beautiful to mention that, every time a picture of Doris appeared in the photo album, Eduar would pause to point to her and say, “And see? There’s Doris. Doesn’t she look beautiful?” This is after thirty-one years of marriage — how often do you see such contentment?)

It was a happy day for Doris, introducing me to the women and men that work with her and seeing the smile on my face throughout the afternoon. I wouldn’t normally have chosen a spa when I had all of Lima waiting for me, but this family opened their home to me, and I wanted to show my support and share something unique with them, and it was definitely worth it.

Beautiful nails, compliments of Jeldec spa

A photo with a few members of the staff

With my brother’s host parents, Doris and Eduar

This might be revisiting an old topic, but that idea of the journey being not just about the places to discover but the people to spend the journey with? That has absolutely defined my experience here in Lima. Sure, I’ve been to Miraflores once and visited a popular shopping center called Polvos Azules (blue dust), but most of my time here has been spent with the family, sharing my culture and my dreams with them, letting them serve me more food than I could possibly eat, and passing an afternoon at the family spa.

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Of wine and poison

It occurred to me that I haven’t recounted any travel adventures since my great epiphany following Bariloche, so it seems appropriate that I invite all of you to experience Mendoza: a province of lovely plazas, trees galore, rivers, mountains, and hot springs, and, of course, las bodegas (vineyards).  As Sasha and I packed our bags for a three-day excursion to Mendoza capital, I think we were both imagining a somewhat finer, classier, more luxurious journey than any others previous.

We were absolutely right.

We arrived the morning of Thursday, June 20th, in the frigid cold and made our first touristy decision since the Casa Rosada: we hailed a taxi rather than taking the colectivo.  In our defense, it was so early in the day that the kioscos that sold Red Bus cards weren’t open yet, and we preferred to find our hostel early and have more time in the day to explore. (Honestly, I was just ready for central heating!)  As luck would have it, taxis cost much less in Mendoza than in Córdoba — plus side number one.

Our hostel turned out to be a very clean, warm, and colorful place one block away from the Plaza San Martín.  (Aka, the location was awesome!)  We balked a little at the cost at first — AR$95 (US$19) per night rather than our usual AR$60 (US$12) — but the accommodations and connection with a local travel agency convinced us to stay.  It was a good thing we did, because I hadn’t realized how tired I was from the overnight trip and promptly fell into a deep nap in the bed closest to the heater.  (Contented sigh.)

When I woke up, I found that Sasha had been much  more productive and already bought ingredients for lunch and dinner.  I also discovered our Canadian roommate Antoine, who had been traveling the Americas until he met a certain young woman in Mendoza and decided to stay.  He didn’t have plans for the day, since it was a holiday and his girlfriend had to work extra hours at a hotel, so he offered to accompany us to Parque General San Martín and take some photos.

It was a beautiful afternoon!  We walked to the park from our hostel, noting the Museo Popular Callejero (Popular Street Museum) in our route, and enjoyed the brisk air and slow pace of the city.  Upon arriving, we were confronted by an impressive gated entrance — apparently a gift from France — and an expansive green-space with bike trails, fountains, a lake, and an artisans fair, all designed by the same architect of Córdoba’s own Parque Sarmiento, a favorite park close to the university.  The park was perfect just for wandering and enjoying the nature all around us.  Eventually, after hiking through a forest trail, we found ourselves close to the park’s zoo and a hill called Cerro de la Gloria (Hill of Glory), which we climbed to catch an overhead glimpse of the surrounding valley on one side and the city on the other.  The top of the hill was full of tourists who had taken a bus or car instead of hiking on foot, but the statue that they were all flocking to was definitely a sight to see.  It portrayed the revolution that José de San Martín had fought in the 1800′s, complete with soldiers, horses, and an impressive angel guarding them from above.  I was equally impressed by a war monument farther down with a carving of a condor as its centerpiece.

Statue portraying the revolution

War monument featuring a condor engraving

View of the valley from above

It was an exhausting adventure, so we returned straight to the hostel afterwards and dined as only Sasha and I can do.  (We recycled the potato, sausage, and vegetables recipe from Tilcara.)  In my free time, I asked the receptionist about any guided excursions being offered to some vineyards the next day.  Come to find out, there was a trip to Maipú (still in Mendoza province) to two vineyards and an olive oil factory for only AR$110 (US$22)!  We booked the excursion immediately, and it was with excitement that we got ready for bed so we’d be energetic the next day.

The next morning featured an amazing breakfast of medialunas, biscuits with jam, and coffee, and a leisurely walk to the Plaza Independencia, which had one of the most beautiful fountains I’d ever seen in a city park.  That afternoon was our excursion to Maipú.  In one word: breathtaking.  First, the van stopped by our hostel to pick us up and then followed a zigzag route to collect the rest of the passengers.  Next, at the olive oil factory, we learned about the process of separating the olive juice from the pulp and water used to purify it, which was essentially an organic chemistry experiment that made my experience on the trip that much more fun!  Samples of their various oil products followed; we even tried pasas de uva en chocolate (raisins dipped in chocolate), which were quite delicious.

After that were our two vineyards: a small artisan plot that specialized in vinos tintos (red wines) and an industrial plot that produced tintos and blancos (white wines), especially vinos de postre (dessert wines).  An animated tour guide shared the history of each vineyard and led us through the tasting at the end of each tour.  In the first vineyard, there was a special sub-business dedicated to preparing wines al roble (in a wooden barrel) to create a distinct taste; the flavor was excellent!  The second featured an expanse of large pools and an assembly line for the quicker and larger-scale production of wine in comparison with the other.  Both were interesting to see and provided a great selection of wines to sample.  (I bought a traditional Argentine wine, Malbec, for my host family.)

The most interesting part, though, would have to be the fact that Sasha and I were the only guests under thirty on the tour (besides one couple’s toddler).  We were also the only extranjeras (foreigners), so we received a lot of curious but overall positive attention.  Some guests tried to speak English with us, but after nearly five months in Argentina, our Spanish was more developed than their English.  We felt very refined as we sniffed the contents of our glasses, swirled the liquid, and drank.

That’s essentially where the luxurious part of our adventure ended.

Saturday morning, after a nice breakfast and equally nice shower, I returned to the room to find Sasha lying on her bed after throwing up in the bathroom.  She was gracious and told me to see the city a little while she rested, but I felt guilty staying out for much longer than an hour.  I bought some crackers and Gatorade and came back to the hostel just in time to find her in the lobby, asking the hostel manager to call a doctor.  Her symptoms matched those of food poisoning, and she was having trouble keeping down even water.  Once the doctor came and prescribed a medication, Sasha and I chatted while she tried to eat, and then she took a nap until we left for the bus terminal.  It wasn’t necessarily the most ideal way to spend our last day in Mendoza, but we did have some quality time talking with each other, and I actually enjoyed the opportunity to care for my best friend while she was feeling sick.  The trip reminded me that it’s not only about the journey but the people you share it with.

So I guess it’s at this point that I change the tone of this post.  On July 5th, just days ago, Sasha returned home to the United States.  We shared a traditional Argentine meal of empanadas and locro before she left, but now that she’s gone, I feel as though an era has ended.  Sasha was my best friend and an amazing travel partner throughout the semester.  Nearly every trip that I’ve taken outside of Córdoba — the only exception that comes to mind is Los Gigantes with Tim and his German friends — has been with her.  We’ve cooked together, shared our dreams and our secrets, enjoyed the beautiful views, essentially fallen into this pattern that worked so well for us.  Now, she’s home in Pennsylvania, and I’m headed in the morning to Peru and Chile for the next 16 days, without her.  It feels strange, but I know that Sasha is one of the true friends that I will never forget and hopefully will see again soon.

Buen viaje, mi linda amiga!

Sasha and me at the top of Cerro de la Gloria.

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“Cookie” doesn’t begin to describe it

I know what some of you are thinking.

I’ve been to La Rioja and San Luis to visit three famous geological landmarks (where the skeleton of a native Argentine dinosaur was discovered), I spent three fantastic days in Buenos Aires (where the culture is more cosmopolitan and international and historical than I ever imagined), and I threw myself out of a plane on Saturday (for recreational purposes, of course).

Why would I dedicate an entire blog post to one cookie?

Behold:

Alfajores de maicena

Again, I know what you’re thinking. What the heck is that?!?!

I could go into its Arabian and Spanish origins, but let’s stick to Argentina.  An alfajor (pronounced “alpha whore”, for lack of a better guide) is any confectionary consisting of two or three cookies with a creamy filling between the layers.  The cookies tend to be soft and baked with almidón de maíz (corn starch), which creates a unique flavor, and the filling is usually dulce de leche, although some artesans prefer to use jam.  It’s also possible to coat an alfajor with melted chocolate (alfajor blanco or alfajor negro) or with a light sugary glaze (alfajor de nieve).  Overall, cordobeses prefer the alfajor de maicena: two cookies baked with corn starch, with dulce de leche as the filling, dusted with coco rayado (shredded coconut).

Lest anyone be skeptical, the alfajor de maicena is delicious!  This cookie puts the chip-wich to shame and redefines the possibilities of baking from scratch.  This is the cookie that I buy for a snack AT LEAST three times a week and that I celebrate with a happy dance when my host mom leaves a plate of three with my breakfast.  The street vendors here are always selling alfajores caseros (homemade alfajores), every kiosco and panadería offers them, and Argentina as a country consumes 6 million alfajores per day.

But still, a blog post for one local delicacy?

Here’s my answer: the alfajor has starred in a lot of good moments during my time in Argentina.  At the end of a school day, it’s not uncommon for me to share an alfajor and coffee with one of my friends at the university café.  After spending all day hiking Los Gigantes, a range within Las Sierras, my friend Tim and I split three alfajores to boost our energy before the drive home.  I’ve enjoyed a number of good conversations with my host mom as she prepared alfajores either for a church event or my family’s pleasure. (It was a beautiful day when I found the Tupper of alfajores in the pantry as I was making afternoon tea.)  But probably the best of all, my love for the alfajor has been an opportunity for Sasha and me to hang out after school and practice making them from scratch.

All of you should know by now that Sasha and I love to cook together.  So, one afternoon, I walked half an hour from my internship to meet my best friend at the grocery store.  We very eagerly perused the shelves for all the necessary ingredients:

  • 150 g harina (flour)
  • 100 g almidón de maíz (corn starch)
  • 100 g azúcar (sugar)
  • 150 g manteca (butter)
  • 2 huevos (egg)
  • 1/2 cdta. bicarbonato de sodio (baking soda)
  • 1 cdta. esencia de vainilla (vanilla)
  • dulce de leche
  • coco rayado (shredded coconut)

From there, the baking aspect — oven temperature, amount of flour necessary to remove the stickiness, thickness and circumference of the cookies — was essentially trial and error.  But that afternoon and yesterday afternoon, when we repeated the process with more optimal results, we hung out like cordobesas.  We took mate as we worked, listened to Latin music, and spoke primarily in Spanish.  A simple activity, but no less meaningless, because we were able to relax and get to know each other’s host families.  I found that I really enjoyed showing Sasha around my neighborhood when we realized we had forgotten to buy butter and needed to run to a maxikiosco.  I definitely loved introducing her to my host family and sharing a dinner of milanesa de pollo (chicken milanesa), puré de papa y calabaza (mashed potatoes and pumpkin), and peras (pears) for dessert.  They were beyond hospitable to Sasha, and my host dad even watched from the door as we left to hail a taxi for her later that night.  All under the premise of making alfajores on a free afternoon.

We now consider ourselves experts on baking the cookie from scratch — I still need to learn to make my own dulce de leche — so I will be accepting requests for alfajores as I return to the United States.  Until then, ¡buen provecho!  (Hope you enjoy it!)

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Living the dream

With the end of May close at hand, this blog post ought to be my last entry about April so that I can actually talk about May and usher in June with a clean slate and no further struggles to remember EVERYTHING that I’ve experienced in the last two months.

Of course, when your homework is obligatory, you put it off in favor of assignments that aren’t due for at least another week. I’ve had an idea playing in my head since mid-April, one that I meant to save as a closing entry: my final thesis, as it were, of how Argentina has changed me. Because it’s the question everyone asks, isn’t it? “Did Argentina/France/India/China absolutely change your life?” The expected response is yes, every time. And it wouldn’t be a lie to answer yes. But lest anyone be fooled, Argentina has not impacted me in such a radical and (sorry) life-changing way that I have suddenly, miraculously, become a new person that will move mountains and affect dramatic social change in the United States when I return. I’m certainly more confident in my vision and my capabilities, I’ve certainly grown in important ways, and Argentina has certainly provided me the opportunity to escape from my normal sphere of understanding and influence to evaluate exactly why I came to Argentina in the first place. These are all important, but has my life truly changed? Did it need to?

I could expand on a number of revelations and profundities that have struck me over the last nearly four months of my stay here, but I’ll narrow it down to one idea that should be simple yet has confronted me weekly if not daily:

“Living the dream” is an individual endeavor.

Maybe this is a better way to say it: “Living the dream” is not the same concept for every person.

So, to start, what is the dream of every foreign exchange student? Well, according to the brochures and every student travel blog, you’re going to arrive and be immersed in this culture unlike any you’ve experienced before. It’ll be rough at first — don’t forget to mention the inevitable culture shock that will result in important self-evaluation and processing of new information — but pretty soon, you’ll feel right at home in this new world and open yourself to a diversity of cultural exchanges that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else. After that, there may be some language acquisition (it depends on the purpose of your program, but your fluency is sure to skyrocket in a short period of time) and the much-awaited periods of free travel. Stay at hostels, take trains or buses instead of planes, talk to everyone around you, take so many photographs that you can’t fit all of them into one Facebook album! And at the end of your adventure, you’ll be so in love with your host country that you’ll never want to return home, because it was there that you became you.

This is not to knock on foreign exchange programs in any respect. I’m part of one such program right now, and I loved being able to show up in an unfamiliar city and immediately be introduced to basic cultural aspects, important landmarks in Córdoba, and necessary information just to make it to class every day. In that first month, I did experience my share of culture shock and my share of excitement at the newness all around me. I traveled by bus and spent the night in hostels. I stayed out until 5:00 a.m. on weekends to experience Argentine nightlife. I went to every event possible while also organizing a chemistry internship and my one integrated university course in translation.

Let me tell you, by the end of March, I was tired. I’m still tired. I haven’t taken a day trip to Las Sierras since April or hit up a boliche since March. I haven’t seen Buenos Aires, or Mendoza, or Iguazú, or Tierra del Fuego (yet, I hope). I haven’t created even one Facebook album — and since my iPhone was stolen, I haven’t taken any pictures. There are plenty of days that I work in the lab, go to class, and then head straight home to enjoy hot tea and a brief respite before tackling homework and connecting with my friends in the United States because, what do you know?, I miss them desperately.

Could this possibly mean that I’m not taking advantage of my time in Argentina? Could I be missing out on “the dream”?

I’ve been here for almost four months. I’ve grown and experienced and embraced and will continue to do so until my plane leaves on July 31st. I love Argentina and have this fierce hope of returning one day to see it all over again, with older, wiser eyes and without the obligation of attending class every week.

But you know what? I have accomplished nearly every goal that I brought with me to Argentina, and if I haven’t yet, then it’s in the works.

  • Improve my fluency in Spanish, check!
  • Develop a good relationship with my host family, check!
  • Develop meaningful friendships, both in my program and out, check!
  • Take the opportunity to travel throughout Argentina, check!
  • Fulfill a chemistry internship to enhance my professional experience, check!
  • Enroll in a university course to meet local students, check!
  • Learn Latin dance, check!

The only things left on my “list” are a few more Argentine regions, visiting my brother in Peru and my first host family in Chile come July, and learning how to make alfajores. I’ve experienced more than I could possibly have imagined and still have two months to go!

So what if I didn’t go out every night? So what if I didn’t buy an impressive camera the moment mine was stolen so that I could document every single experience? (That’s why you bring friends with cameras with you.) So what if I have friends and family members that I connect with every week when I could be drinking mate with my friends here? So what if I can’t say at the end of this trip that I saw it all?

I discovered part of my dream during my first month here: to improve my Spanish to a level that would be useful and effective in a Spanish-speaking community in the United States, wherever I may end up living. To have the capability of bringing positive change and support to people who need it. To use my language skills in ministry and in professional environments. Through lots of self-evaluation and confirmation from my companions here and there, I know that I am much more prepared to live this dream than I was before.

I also know that I’m not going to suddenly change my major to translation or immigration law or international relations. Because something else that I’ve realized about dreams is that they don’t have to be extravagant. Argentina definitely qualifies as larger-than-life, but I don’t need to justify it with magazine-worthy pictures or come home as a drastically better version of myself. I don’t need to be recognized as the model foreign exchange student to be confident that I lived my dream and that my dream was even worth living.

Let me tell you all about a dream come true. After my experience in Salta, I knew that I wanted to travel again and have Sasha as my primary travel companion. I was wary, though, of traveling just the two of us, especially if we wanted to head south to Patagonia (and I really wanted to see Patagonia!). After asking around a bit, just to get a feel for my classmates’ plans for fall break, I found two girls, Megan and Jenna, that were thinking about traveling to Bariloche for the week. Sasha and I expressed interest in combining trips, and after two weeks of planning and two Friday nights of amazing food together — sushi one night, American breakfast the next! — the four of us, now much better friends, set out on our 24-hour bus ride south.

Being honest, not everything proceeded as we’d planned, but the good far exceeded what we had initially imagined. “Memorable” would be a great word to apply to the trip. The adventure started on Sunday around 2:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before our bus left, when Megan and Jenna realized that they had misread the time on their tickets and had to catch a taxi that very moment and hope to arrive on time! It’s a good thing this incident transpired in our third month here and not our first, because Sasha and I managed to convince the chofer (driver) to wait an extra ten minutes, and when Megan had arrived but Jenna was still on the way, our pleading and cajoling prompted him to compromise and meet Jenna at a landmark only about five minutes into the journey. Thank goodness, Jenna gave the new destination to her taxi driver, our bus hit every stop light between the terminal and Plaza España, and we were able to pick her up and not have to wait an extra day to travel! The rest of our bus ride was pretty tranquil after that.

As for Bariloche itself, stunning. Magnificent. Breathtakingly beautiful. The four of us found ourselves at Hostel Pudu that first day, home to travel writers, an incredible view of lakes and snow-capped mountains, and the most delicious breakfasts I’ve ever had! People praise Bariloche for its chocolate, but no one told us about the JAM. On French bread. With amazing coffee. Every morning. Add hot water and the cutest cat ever, and Hostel Pudu was a paradise!

Day two, we biked 27 kilometers (about 17 miles) in the Circuito Chico (Little Circuit) and enjoyed similar lovely views and a picnic lunch at the lakeside. Day three, we visited Villa La Angostura about one hour away and walked 13 kilometers (8 miles) through a beautiful wooded area to Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes. This natural park is a refuge of sorts for these beautiful, thin, red trees in various contortions. We didn’t get to stay in the park for long, since we arrived late afternoon and the last boat was leaving for the village at 4:15, but it was worth taking the ride back after a long day of walking! We experienced the same scenery without the trees obstructing our view, the boat staff provided hot chocolate, and we met three Chilean women who offered to take group pictures and shared their facturas (pastries) with us. One of them even gave me her beautiful artisan scarf after I complimented her! As much as I loved the Circuito Chico, our day in Villa La Angostura was hard to top.

Day four, we had planned to hike the Cerro Catedral, one of the longest trails in Bariloche and highly recommended, but a rainy day put a halt to those plans. Instead, we visited the municipal artisan’s fair, where each of us bought gifts for friends and family back home, and then tried chocolate at every cholatería (chocolate shop) on Mitre street. And when I say every, I really do mean every chocolatería. I’m pretty sure we received at least fifteen free samples in a two-hour period…and then we bought some…for our host families, of course. Day five was our return trip to Córdoba.

Of course, no trip with Sasha and me would be complete without home-cooked food. Since there were four of us, we switched off cooking nights, but everyone contributed to the supermarket bill. Here’s an idea of our menu:

  • Monday. Fideos (noodles) with sausage, onion, green pepper, red pepper, tomato, and cucumber. Side: pan casero (homemade bread).
  • Tuesday. Hamburgers with lettuce and tomato. Side: potatoes with onion, green pepper, carrot, tomato, and peppercorn.
  • Wednesday. Homemade pizza. Pizza no. 1: Vegetarian (onion, green pepper, tomato, spinach). Pizza no. 2: Ground beef and mushrooms.
  • Thursday. Spaghetti with tomato paste, onion, green pepper, tomato, and cucumber. Side: garlic toast. Dessert: BROWNIES.

Every day for lunch, we made sandwiches with salami, cheese, spinach, and tomato. We stayed very healthy and well-within budget. I love that fresh vegetables are so cheap in Argentina!

After a trip like this one, it’s nearly impossible to think that it could get any better. But the questions continue to surface: Why didn’t you stay for longer than four days? Why didn’t you go ahead and hike in the rain? Why didn’t you go to Chile or Brazil when you had more time? People ask these questions, and this is what I want to say in response:

Look at these pictures, see how happy we were, and then tell us that we didn’t live a little piece of our dreams.

This isn’t a criticism but rather an encouragement: dare to create your own dream, one that brings you fulfillment and doesn’t have to adhere to pre-conceived expectations, and then live it. It’s the only way to have an experience and not feel regret after. I may not have as many glossy 3×5’s to post on my bulletin board after this trip, but I have all my memories and the knowledge that I participated in something special. Nor does the journey have to end now. I’m here until July 31st, aren’t I?

The journey is just beginning…

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A little Latin dancing

So we’re calling this entry Córdoba in April: Part Two. It’s a fun topic that I’m excited to write about because of all my pastimes, this might be the one I’m most passionate about!

But before that, I’d like to take a short moment to acknowledge that I HAVE BEEN HERE FOR THREE MONTHS. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling – yesterday, there was a moment that I stood up from my table, glanced around, and truly believed that I had lived here my whole life. I’ve reached a point in my journey here that I’m tranquil overall and looking forward with great anticipation to the viajes ahead, but I’m also very aware that July 31st will be a day that I accept with a smile. (Not a ginormous, thank-goodness-you’re-finally-here smile, but a content smile, nonetheless.) I know that I’ll be just as ready to return home and finish out my last year at Wofford as I was to embark on a life-changing experience on February 10th, an experience that will stay with me forever.

What I’m not ready for are the good-bye’s, and I had my first of many last night. Like I mentioned in my last post, Cynthia leaves for Paraguay today. I celebrated Cynthia’s adventure in Córdoba with her and her fellow apartment-mates Thursday night at a traditional Argentine restaurant called La Alfonsina (pictures hopefully to come!), and honestly thought at the end of the night that I wouldn’t be too affected by her departure. Then she, our chemistry professor, and I shared coffee and medialunas after work yesterday…and I accompanied her to her apartment…where she gave me the most beautiful Paraguayan bag to remember her by…

I completely lost it. Without realizing it, Cynthia had become one of my most significant friends in Argentina, and I’m envisioning the rest of my time in the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas with trepidation. It has nothing to do with the other girls in the group and everything to do with the fact that a friendship forged in two short months is being separated so soon. I enjoyed the routine that we developed together and the easy way we exchanged conversations and cultures. We didn’t always say much, but there was always consolation in shared company. I’m already imagining the possibility of visiting her in Asunción once July arrives.

I’m also incredibly wary of the first week of July taking the rest of my new friends away from me.

Hello’s are less painful than good-bye’s, I’ve found, which is why I can smile at July 31st and the family and friends waiting for me in South Carolina. But I’m much more aware of the countdown now, and I expect that May will be even more filled with fun relational experiences and really trying to immerse myself in Argentina when I’m outside of my bedroom.

Argentine flag that everyone from Casa Colón (plus me!) signed as Cynthia’s going-away gift.

Anyway, on to the fun stuff!

Hopefully the majority of you know how much I love to dance. You may also remember from my last blog the two women at the hostel in Tilcara who took me by the waist and gave me an impromptu dance lesson on the terrace. Since then, I have taken five salsa and bachata lessons and greatly improved my basic step and hip-manipulating technique!

But before I get into those details, I need to share about one of my other best friends here in Córdoba. I met Tim, an exchange student from Germany, completely por casualidad (by coincidence) in a meeting with the international director of the Facultad de Lenguas (Department of Languages). We discovered quickly that we were each looking for a salsa partner to take formal dance classes, so after a ten-minute colectivo ride back to campus, we exchanged numbers and agreed to research possibilities. The rest, as they say, is history.

What was originally intended to be a once-a-week reunion has transformed into a truly beautiful friendship. We’ve made it a point to see each other at least one other afternoon on campus, since our buildings are situated next door to each other, and Thursday night dance classes have turned into a highly anticipated event at the Casa Colón. (Told you in the last post we’d made it back here!) We’ve developed a special routine: I take a colectivo and he bikes to Plaza San Martín, we walk the remaining three blocks to Avenida Colón together, we cook dinner in his apartment, and then we dance the night away!

It’s truly amazing that we even found a salsa and bachata class, because we literally stumbled across it after staggering out of another salsa lesson that was far beyond our expert level. We were just meandering back to Tim’s apartment when we overheard salsa music and saw a guy inviting any passersby to try out the salsa and bachata class he was offering. Out of curiosity, we wandered over and found out that we could attend the first night for free and then decide the next week if we were interested in continuing. We had nothing to lose, so we hung around to discover that we LOVED this class! Pablo and Sandy, our instructors, are two of the friendliest and most energetic people I’ve ever met and do teach really well. Every week, we review what we’ve learned from previous weeks before slowly going through the new set of steps and rotating partners, since we’re seven girls and three guys! The movements occasionally feel basic to me, but I make up for that by focusing on my hips, since most of the girls in the class have this natural, rhythmic sway that feels ridiculous when I attempt it.

Also, since the class covers the Cuban style of salsa, we participate in a group dance every week called la reuda (the wheel). As I understand it, the dance is meant to imitate the phases of the sugar harvest, because beyond the normal moves and changing of partners as we “turn the wheel”, or simply travel in a circle, there are also some motions and sounds that we make toward the center: cosecha (harvest), tirar agua (throw water), and ¡azúcar! (sugar!), among others. It’s a neat exercise and a fun way to de-stress after learning so many new steps.

There are two things that, beyond the fact that I get to learn Latin dance on Thursday nights, I’ve really treasured about this experience. The first is the culture that we experience simply interacting with the other students in our class. Tim and I are the only non-Argentines that attend the workshop, so the others – especially the women – show a lot of affection for us and seem amused by how hard we try every week to learn the steps. (One of the guys, an elderly gentleman, also comments frequently that I dance well for a gringa.) Our instructors also demonstrate a certain preoccupation for our well-being, as evidenced by Sandy’s hug of concern the week after I missed class due to feeling sick. Overall, every night that we gather, there’s the common but nonetheless significant exchange of kisses in greeting and sometimes squeezing hands or elbows to show extra care, and it’s affirming to be embraced by these people every week.

Second, I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending time at the Casa Colón. I’ve mentioned this apartment a number of times in the last few blogs, so now I will explain. Casa Colón is a student residence owned by the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba but located off-campus. The majority of the students – perhaps all of them – aren’t originally from Argentina. There’s Tim and a few other Germans, Cynthia from Paraguay, and students from Spain, Brazil, Chile, and more, bringing the number up to a solid thirty. These thirty students share bedrooms for two, bathrooms, kitchen, and outdoor patio space, and with so many international youth living in one apartment floor, it’s definitely a happening scene!

Just some highlights:

  • A Brazilian girl who occasionally sings American country music (I kid you not)
  • Learning birthday songs from every represented country, in every represented language
  • Authentic German and Mexican food (YUM!)
  • A fiesta de disfraz (costume party) that I, unfortunately, missed while I was sick
  • Going salsa dancing together at the Plaza de la Intendencia
  • Being invited on apartment trips and excursions

And, my favorite, the conversation that I experience every time I meet someone new. (This doesn’t occur only at the Casa Colón by the way.)

“Disculpe, ¿me podés contar la hora / indicar aquel lugar?” (Excuse me, do you have the time / know where such and such place is?”)

“Por supuesto, son las… / Disculpe, no podría decirte.” (“Of course, it is… / Sorry, I couldn’t tell you.”)

“Che, vos no sos de acá, ¿verdad?” (“Hey, you’re not from here, right?”)

“No, no soy.” (“No, no I’m not.” In my mind: “Duh.”)

“¿Entonces sos de Alemania?” (“So are you from Germany?”)

Every time. Without fail. And they’re always so surprised when I say that I’m from the United States after that. I guess that’s what I get for being blonde, blue-eyed, and persistently pale even after three months of Argentine sun!

Well, this concludes part two of my April series. I’ll give you a teaser about my upcoming week: in the spirit of Latin dance, I start a tango workshop on Tuesday night! I couldn’t be more excited to add this new experience to my growing list. ¡Que anden bien hasta la próxima vez! And for my Wofford friends that are graduating very soon: ¡Felicitades, y que tengan experiencias inolvidables por todas sus vidas!

 

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Worth the effort

So April turns into May…

How the time has flown by! I recently sat down and had that errant thought: When was the last time I blogged? I’m ashamed that it’s been over a month already, but now I’ll certainly have a wealth of beautiful experiences to share with all of you! It has been a month of trying new things and embracing the friends and activities that are defining my cultural growth here. I wouldn’t trade my days here for anything, because it’s through this unique period of travel that I am fully realizing some important character traits in myself and living a life that I may never have again.

Because I’ve had a diversity of experiences this month that would make this blog post ridiculously long, I hope to publish a series of entries over the next few days to document the month. (Probably what I should’ve been doing all along, but better late than never!)

So without further ado, what has this negrita been up to for the last month?!

(I should explain: “negrita” is a common endearment that literally means “little black girl” but refers more to how tan one’s skin is. I have achieved full cordobesa status!)

A chemistry internship

Yes, you read that right. What nerdy chemistry major wouldn’t study abroad and willingly devote 120 hours of her semester to atmospheric chemistry research?

It’s actually a fun story, my foray into research conducted in my second language. Up until the middle of March, I was hopeful but not convinced that I would be eligible for an internship experience. In Argentina, it’s not that common for undergraduate students to perform research until their fifth year of college – the university system operates in five years rather than four – so my director told me quite plainly at the beginning of the semester that finding a professor or company to host me would be next to impossible. Imagine my surprise when I received an email from her informing me that I had an internship and needed to be in my professor’s office the very next day!

My meeting with Dr. Mariano Teruel was scheduled for 6:00 on a Wednesday night. Due to my deeply ingrained Wofford habits, I arrived at 5:40; in true Argentine fashion, Mariano didn’t show until 6:10. The moment he arrived, he invited me to an international chemistry student conference that was in progress upstairs, and we entered the conference room in time to catch the last ten minutes of a student presenting about his semester studying chemistry in Spain. I noted with a smile that I was currently on the other side of the equation. I also noticed that I felt rejuvenated and comforted in a way that I hadn’t realized I was missing. Let’s be honest: as a chemistry major, I spend an inordinate amount of time in Milliken, but half the time that I go there, it’s to soothe my nerves with a hot coffee and good company in Great Oaks Hall or the chemistry suite. Merely being in the same space with undergraduate students that share my passion and knowledge base brought me contentment in an unexpected but certainly welcomed way.

Perhaps Mariano sensed my enthusiasm, because as the next student began her presentation about the University of Texas at Austin, he invited me – well, obligated me – to introduce myself to the group and explain what I was doing in Córdoba! I was scared out of my mind, since my Spanish wasn’t to a level that I felt comfortable using in such a large group and we hadn’t had even a casual conversation about my project yet, but I rose to the challenge and apparently made a strong impression on the group. I was even mentioned in a short article on the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas (Department of Chemical Sciences) website!

After that moment, my responsibilities were much lower-key. I spent the next two days learning about the project and observing the experimental method to replicate on my own time. Essentially, my research group is studying the impacts of pollutants in the atmosphere when they undergo oxidation reactions promoted by the sun’s rays. To simulate this process and determine rates of reaction, we fill a large collapsible Teflon reaction bag with a chemical with unknown velocity constants (our substrate), a chemical with known constants (our reference), and either hydrogen peroxide or chlorine (our oxidant). The filling process involves a lot of glass pipes, valves, reaching certain pressures, and letting nitrogen carry the gases into the bag, but after two weeks of following my co-workers, I pretty well got the hang out it! Once the bag is full and the gases mixed more or less homogeneously, we test the mixture twice in a gas chromatograph to determine the retention times of both the substrate and the reference. After that, the bag is placed in a chamber of UV lamps (meant to represent the sun) and photolyzed at least five times, with a GC scan between each photolysis. The areas under each curve generated in the chromatogram are tabulated and used to form a linear curve, from which we can use the slope of the line and the known velocity constant to calculate the velocity constant of the substrate.

WHEW!

Before some of you get worried that I’m missing out on Argentina by spending too much time in the laboratory, I have gained some incredibly valuable social interactions through this process. For one thing, I’m practicing technical vocabulary and professional relationships IN SPANISH every day. I’ve had to learn how to ask questions and verify concepts in my second language, as well as know the equivalents of new concepts in English to help my team translate their papers from Spanish for publication. For another, I’ve made some amazing friends! The girl that I spend the most time with is a graduate student from Paraguay named Cynthia, and from the start, she’s been just as interested in befriending me as guiding me in the lab. During each of our experimental runs – which involve about twenty minutes of simply watching a screen, and then repeat – we share stories, cultural backgrounds, and sleeves of cookies to pass the time. I’ve even spent a couple of afternoons in the park or at her apartment, Casa Colón, to drink mate together. (I will be coming back to Casa Colón later!) She’s fantastic and, unfortunately, going home this Saturday, so we’ll be having a going-away party for her either Thursday or Friday of this week.

Other girls in the group that I’ve spent a significant amount of time with are Carmen and Elizabeth. Carmen is a graduate student from El Salvador, and her glowing characteristic is her incessant questions. When she’s not asking me about my family and university life in the States, she’s verifying that I understand the theory behind the methodology and testing my observation and hypothesis skills – I learn a lot about the project in a very short time! Elizabeth, also from Paraguay, is quieter but very curious about English phrasings and the differences between cultures. All of us girls spend a good deal of time drinking tea in the office and swapping stories until the next experiment.

Overall, it has been an amazing experience working in a laboratory in South America. It has its differences and occasional challenges, certainly, but I get to maintain my practical skills while building my lingual and relational skills at the same time. I’m very grateful for this opportunity!

The basic setup of glass pipes, nitrogen tank, and Teflon reaction bag.

Photolysis chamber.

Yes, I was obligated to buy a lab coat (or “guardapolvos”). I have achieved full nerd status.

 

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Beautiful

I am sitting tiredly at my computer after one of the most amazing weekends of my life. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and it could have gone any number of directions. But however cliche it sounds, what made this weekend beautiful was the journey rather than the destination. It was waking up each morning with hair tangled and body covered with dust but spirit ready for the next view. It was walking rather than driving three kilometers in order to better take in the scenery and commit it to memory (since both of us lost our cameras). It was making new friends at a happenstance camping hostel and then unexpectedly reuniting with them in the next pueblo.

Sasha and I spent five days in Salta, Purmamarca, and Tilcara, and I will do my best to share the highlights of our trip in journal-like fashion.

Salta

After a twelve-hour ride in a semi-cama ómnibus (half-bed bus), Sasha and I caught a glimpse of our first destination from above the city skyline. Salta doesn’t boast many tall buildings, and it isn’t nearly as expansive as Córdoba, but for just a day trip, we found plenty of sites to keep us occupied!

But first, to business. Our first two goals were to purchase boletos (tickets) to Purmamarca for the next day (check!) and find our hostel, Salta Por Siempre (not so much). After about an hour and four different sets of directions, we stumbled into one of the loveliest hostels we had ever seen. We were given a private room and made quick work of settling in and exploring the area. I wish that we had been able to stay for one more night, because the hostel boasted an open terrace with flowers on vines and plenty of tables and chairs, an open kitchen, and a bar and lounge area on the second floor.

At any rate, we decided to first find a market nearby to make lunch. Luckily, there was a kiosco-verdulería just half a block away that had everything we needed.

Food Checkpoint: Lunch

  • Pasta noodles
  • Tomato puré (for the sauce)
  • One cucumber, diced
  • One tomato, diced
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Total cost: AR$14 (US$2.80)

We also bought sliced bread for about AR$6 (US$1.20) to use for breakfast and lunch in the upcoming days.

After lunch, the sweet woman who managed the hostel recommended that we climb the 1070 stairs at Cerro San Bernardo. A half-hour to hour walk through downtown Salta, which included three beautiful cathedrals and the Plaza 9 de Julio, we reached an impressive statue of General Güemes mounted on horseback and gazing intently at the mountains to his right.

A landmark for the city, located in a greenspace open to artisans and families enjoying an afternoon mate.

Further up the hill, behind the general, begin the stone stairs up the mountain. The stairs wind in a zigzag pattern up and across, and every few twists in the trail is a Station of the Cross, a small chapel-like structure with a painted image depicting one scene of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. At the beginning are paintings of the Last Supper and the betrayal; closer to the top are the empty tomb and the Ascension.

The ninth Station of the Cross: Jesus bearing his cross to Calvary.

The hike to the top couldn’t have taken more than an hour, but the view valió la pena (was worth the trouble). At the crest of the hill, we found a beautiful (albeit touristy) garden, with lots of green plants, artificial waterfalls, and a panorama view of the city. There was even a cable lift that we could have taken to reach the top instead of taking the hike (again, touristy). We paused for a moment to enjoy the view and a quick ice cream, strolled through the small artisans fair on the other side of the garden, and then reluctantly made our way back down the hill.

Gorgeous view of Salta from above.

It seems that we were right to be reluctant. I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that both of us lost our cameras. That was only slightly true. Sasha lost hers in Córdoba. Mine — my iPhone, actually — was forcefully taken in Salta.

On the walk back to our hostel, the sun had just begun to set, and I had my iPhone in my hand because we had taken a picture of a local church two blocks back. Without warning, I felt a pressure on my hand and found myself struggling with a boy about my age for possession of the phone. I can’t remember much about the incident, not even the boy’s face; it all happened so fast. After only ten seconds of screaming and pulling, he pushed me to the ground and ran away with the iPhone. We might have been able to catch him — the police even picked us up in their car — but he escaped on the back of a friend’s motorcycle and it quickly became too dark outside to see anything.

That moment is easily the most memorable part of the trip, although certainly not our favorite. The important part is that none of us was hurt. The boy was only after my phone; honestly, if my phone hadn’t been out, he might have gone for my whole backpack — we were already targets just for being foreigners. The sad part is that all of our pictures from the first part of the trip are inaccessible now. (Yes, every picture up to this point was stolen from a tourist website.)

But enough of the upsetting stuff. That night, Sasha and I decided to splurge a little for dinner. We took a taxi to a suggested peña, a restaurant that serves local cuisine and plays folklore music throughout the meal. The wait to be seated was about an hour, but again, definitely valió la pena. We stood with about ten other travelers, a few of whom we ran into over the next couple of days, and admired the strong and clear voice of a folklore performer named Rodrigo. The fun part about having nothing to entertain us but the music was observing the reactions of the audience. There were two older women at a table nearby who knew every song and accompanied Rodrigo with gusto, and nearly every guest paused their eating and talking to clap along with the rhythm of the chorus.

When we were finally seated near the back of the restaurant, away from the main action, we took advantage of the time to share easy conversation after a rough day and savor the local flavor. We each ordered two empanadas and split a liter of house wine; Sasha tried papas amplayas (dressed-up French fries), and I tried locro (a local soup with corn and steak). So delicious!

Locro. My meal came in the more traditional wooden bowl.

We arrived at the peña at 10:00 and sat down around 11:00. Near midnight, a group of performers set up a circle of chairs right in front of our table, and for the next half hour, we partook in what was essentially Salta’s version of a night out. Everyone shared drinks, sang along, beat rhythms on the tables — the bands in different rooms even competed for volume at times. I’m sad that we were too tired to stay, but I can safely say that we loved every minute of our time at the restaurant and would definitely go back for round two!

We slept well that night, enjoyed a breakfast of coffee and medialunas the next morning, and began our walk to the bus station for our next trip.

Purmamarca

A bus ride of just over three hours left us on the side of the road just three kilometers outside of Purmamarca. Of course, we were left astounded by the mountains looming on either side of us.

Paleta de la Pintura. (The Painter’s Pallet)

This picture is of only one specific region of the mountains, but every rock face around us hosted a vast array of colors: gray, purple, mint green, burgundy, gold. According to an informational sign that we found just a hundred meters from the main pueblo, the rocks are different colors because the area was once completely submerged in water, thus there are different kinds of sea rock and stages of erosion that took place.

We could have stared at the mountains for days. Actually, that’s essentially what we did, because every time we turned our heads, we had to just gaze up at them in awe and delight. (It was even worse when we got to Tilcara!)

Unfortunately, we were pressed for time once we reached the pueblo. We hadn’t made any hostel reservations for that night, and the last bus out of Purmamarca was leaving in just an hour. A bit frantically, we wound through the dusty streets asking for alojamiento (shelter) in any hostel, hotel, residencial that we could find. Everywhere, the answer was the same: “Está completo.” (“We’re full.”)

We had reached the end of another street, and I was starting to lose hope. But next, we wandered into a camp yard called La Reliquía and finally got a yes! It was with somewhat desperate relief that we agreed to the host’s offer: a shared room for eight, shared bathrooms outside, breakfast included for AR$80 (US$16). After that, we did some quick shopping for the night’s dinner and then struck out for the mountains!

This is the part that absolutely stuns me: we saw a large group of people standing on a hill just on the edge of town, taking photos of the town below. We decided that it might be nice to start there, since it was a short climb, before taking the more intense hike into the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Mountain/Hill of the Seven Colors). We found the entrance to the hill easily enough, but a security guard wanted to charge AR$10 for us to climb it. Disenchanted, we turned around and sought out a different hike that would be free. It only took about two minutes to find a steep dirt path that a few other travelers had taken. When we reached the top of the path, there was an incredible expanse of walking/driving trail and mountain ahead of us, AND we had a better view, from higher up, of the pueblo behind us!

Why, we wondered, would people willingly pay US$2 for a mediocre view when they had the whole range ahead of them, for FREE?

One view of Cerro de los Siete Colores. The colors are astonishing as one moves along the mountainside!

We easily spent about two hours on the trail admiring the colors and overall tranquility of our walk. The one exception to our uninterrupted hike occurred when we agreed to snap a picture of an Argentine couple on the trail and ended up chatting with them for 20-ish minutes about the United States. Honestly, though, there was no way to be annoyed or bothered by these kinds of encounters. We had no plan besides getting out of Córdoba to see another side of Argentina, and isn’t part of the journey the relationships that we share? It was fun to swap stories with a couple that didn’t mind our sometimes halted Spanish and receive suggestions and sympathy (when we shared our anecdote about the iPhone). We stayed outside until the wind brought a cold chill and we felt like showering and warming up inside.

After our shower, we felt like taking one last stroll through the city before dark, so we walked to the nearest plaza. It was surrounded by artisans and their crafts, mostly wool sweaters and jewelry. Though we didn’t buy any clothes, we did pick up some postcards to document the experience in place of pictures. I also garnered some ideas for gifts to bring my friends back home….

Unfortunately, with the chill and the altitude, I developed a migraine that didn’t abate until the following morning. BUT we did share a great home-cooked dinner before I headed to bed, and Sasha got to meet the three people that would be our companions for the next couple of days: Antonio, Alan, and Paulina.

Food Checkpoint: Dinner

  • 500 grams wild rice
  • One onion, diced
  • One tomato, diced
  • One red pepper, diced
  • Four fried eggs
  • Total cost: AR$26 (US$5.20)

Yes, sauteed vegetables and fried egg over rice — delightful!

Over a breakfast of coffee and criollos (biscuits) with dulce de leche the next morning, we conversed with the three students living in Buenos Aires about our plans for the rest of the weekend. They were headed to Las Salinas, an area that looks like desert but is composed of salt instead of sand, before traveling to Tilcara the next day. We exchanged cell phone numbers with the hope that we might meet up on a hike in Tilcara.

Two hours later, it was on to the next colectivo.

Tilcara

Out of the three towns that we visited on our vacation, Tilcara was by far the least stressful. We found Hostel Waira without much ado and immediately fell in love with the setup and our hosts. All of the rooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and reception were situated in a half-circle around a patio area, with plenty of tables and chairs, foosball, and ping pong. On the incomplete side of the half-circle, a few tents were already set up for the camping option also offered at the hostel.

One view of Hostel Waira from the front of the terrace. Our room was on the top floor of the building photographed.

We spent a leisurely afternoon catching up on journaling and resting. Around mid-afternoon, I wandered outside to listen to the music and saw two couples dancing salsa and bachata in the tiled entryway. Not wanting to intrude but incredibly fascinated, I found a perch near their dance floor to sit and watch. My attempts at being subtle were for naught, however, because they caught me swaying to the music and one of the women took my hands and began teaching me to dance. (They also gave me tips for practicing my hip motion in front of the mirror…I was not born for the fluidity that they had!) Next thing I knew, I was spinning with relative grace and then joining them for ice cream and charla (conversation). It was a relaxing way to spend the early afternoon and a nice way to ease into the hostel atmosphere.

After our rest, Sasha and I opted for a walk to a local pond instead of the more strenuous hike we had planned to do earlier. The trail took us to some farm land outside of the city, with gardens, horses, and even more views of the mountains across the way. On our way back, we stopped at a local market to stock up on food for the evening. We decided to cook as soon as we returned, even though it was only about 6:30 and the hour for merienda (snack) instead of formal dinner. It seemed a better idea to use the kitchen while it was vacant and have the leisure of taking turns cooking while the other showered.

Food Checkpoint: Dinner

  • Three potatoes, diced
  • One onion, diced
  • One tomato, diced
  • Eight spinach leaves
  • Two sausage links, chopped
  • Total cost: AR$34 (US$6.80)

Although the sausage ended up being more ground than in fine slices, this was easily the best home-cooked meal that we prepared on our adventure! The combination of flavors was perfect. (And after a day without meat, I was grateful for the sausage!) We cooked enough to each eat two servings, and a couple hours later, we savored a dessert of instant cinnamon oatmeal with fresh peach slices, AR$4 (US$0.80). YUM!

It turns out that cooking early didn’t stop other guests from beginning their dinner preparations in the kitchen or simply peeking in to chat with the strange girls who were ready to eat at 8:00. Among the guests, we met one guy who had been traveling on his own for two months and prepared his own grain-and-oatmeal bread (also had an interesting fascination with the color of my eyes); a couple from Córdoba who met as neighbors and had been dating for only about a month before leaving on an extended trip together; two cousins and their mom who were attempting to learn English and practiced a little with us; and a group of five from Spain and France who also study at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and want to meet up at one of the city’s many international student events later on. It was a great time to practice our Spanish and see some interesting characters, which I’ve now come to expect from hostel culture!

The next morning dawned beautiful, with a perfect view of the mountains unhindered by city structures or even clouds and a breakfast of biscuits and dulce de leche waiting for us. Sasha and I needed to run a few errands into the town, so we left early to buy bus tickets for the next day and enough fruit and vegetables to last us the rest of the day’s meals. Once we returned to the hostel, we packed our backpacks and prepared a picnic lunch of sandwiches for our hike to a highly recommended trail, La Garganta del Diablo (The Throat of the Devil). Might I also add that we performed this hike on Easter Sunday?

Food Checkpoint: Lunch

  • French bread
  • One tomato, sliced
  • Six spinach leaves
  • Two apples
  • Total cost: AR$8 (US$1.60)

To actually arrive at the trail, we walked about ten minutes to a trail heading and scaled four kilometers of sandy mountain. We had to stop every few footfalls to admire the scenery around us.

One view of the mountains behind us from the trail.

The trail and blue sky ahead of us.

Before you ask, these are pictures that we took ourselves! When we were preparing to leave the hostel, our host reminded us to bring sunscreen, water, and a camera. This led to the inevitable retelling of our robbery story. The host was appalled and insisted that we borrow a camera that another guest had left behind. He promised that we could extract the memory card and upload our photos on the hostel computer once we returned. We were so grateful to have even a temporary fix for our problem!

The four kilometers lasted a little over an hour. Once we reached La Garganta, it was AR$5 (US$1) to enter and a second walk of about twenty minutes to reach the advertised waterfall ahead. We hiked through this bed of loose rocks with a small stream running through the middle, occasionally jumping or crossing rocks from one side to the other when the walk was too narrow. For awhile, it didn’t seem like we would find anything spectacular. Then, out of nowhere, we rounded the corner to find ourselves in an oasis in the dry and barren canyon.

Sasha and me standing by the waterfall in La Garganta del Diablo.

We eagerly selected a nearby rock to sit down and eat our picnic lunch, after which we rested for an hour just enjoying the sunlight, the cool spray of the waterfall, and the sounds of nature around us. It was well worth the hike; we were prepared to revel in our surroundings. Where did we have to be?

We made our way back more quickly than before to hike another short trail in La Garganta. Without warning, the best surprise approached us from around the corner: Antonio, Alan, and Paulina! We greeted each other with the traditional kisses and even hugs; we were so happy to have found each other again! Antonio and Alan led us two girls (Paulina stayed behind) to the end of the next trail, where we conversed easily for about half an hour and took “studio shots” with Alan’s highly advanced camera. (Hopefully, those pictures will be on Facebook soon to share with everyone.) The fun part about reuniting with them is that the guys mentioned our names to the owners of the hostel, and the owners very enthusiastically revealed that we would be sharing the same room of bunk beds that night! We would never have thought it possible, but we were able to spend the next day and part of the next morning as companions once more.

The rest of the day passed smoothly and easily for Sasha and me. I uploaded our photos from the hike to Dropbox, showered, and rested until we felt ready to make dinner (which we prepared early again…). Dinner was a strange mix of whatever vegetables — potato, tomato, pepper, spinach — and rice that we had left over, yet still tasty. We also prepared the same oatmeal and peach dessert from the night before and ended up explaining our interesting choices to our travel companions when they joined us for dinner.

That night and next morning were full of easygoing charla and a sense of peace and community. We were happy to chat in the kitchen and to play foosball in the hostel courtyard. (Alan and I won!) It was a sad moment when we had to part with them and the beautiful mountains of Tilcara to catch our ómnibus back to Salta, but Sasha and I are hopeful to meet them again in Buenos Aires a few weekends from now and exchange even more traditions with them. (Paulina is interested to taste our version of pancakes.)

Salta Again

Though we had only four hours to kill between arriving in Salta and leaving again for Córdoba, Sasha and I made good use of our time. We found a sidewalk restaurant in the Paseo de San Martín right next to the largest artisans fair in the area. After a late lunch of milanesa (for me) and lasagna (for her), we wound our way through the aisles of booths in search of gifts for our friends back home. I was happy to find gifts for three of my friends as well as a pair of striped pants and a new wallet for myself.

Outside of the Paseo, as we strolled toward downtown Salta again, we ran into a sidewalk of secondhand book vendors. For only AR$100 (US$20), I selected El Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (so excited!), Inés del Alma Mía (Inés of My Soul) by Isabel Allende (one of my favorite Latin American authors), and Martín Fierro by José Hernández (an Argentine epic poem for my literature course). It’s a good thing that Sasha shares my love for books, because we spent a good twenty minutes simply fingering the volumes and enjoying the feel of the old paper against our skin.

The walk to Plaza 9 de Julio in downtown was short, but we found a vacant bench and took turns walking through the plaza and stretching our legs without the weight of our backpacks on our shoulders. Once darkness was approaching, we began the trek back. We even ran into another friend we had made at the hostel in Tilcara! A brief reunion, the short walk to return to the terminal, and it was another thirteen hours to return to Córdoba.

Córdoba

Now that I’ve had a day of rest (and a real shower), it’s nice to think back on this short journey that Sasha and I embarked on together. Maybe spending half the day on a bus and half the day on a hiking trail isn’t the ideal vacation for everyone, but we absolutely loved being away from the city for a few days. We had the chance to expand our horizons, both physically and personally. We witnessed incredible beauty that surrounded us at every moment.

Most of the time that we hiked together, we weren’t discussing anything in particular or moving forward with clear purpose. It wasn’t that we tired of each other’s company, by any means. Words simply weren’t necessary. There was this entire new world that absorbed our emotions and expelled them into the open, that stirred excitement in our hearts yet shrouded us with tranquility. Our outward appearances didn’t matter; our spirits were glowing. There were times that one of us would tentatively verify that the other was alright, and the answer was always the same.

Sí, estoy contenta. Estoy muy emocionada de estar acá.”

(“Yes, I’m happy. I’m so excited to be here.”)

It’s now April, and we’ve been here for nearly two months. July 31 seems at once so far away and far too close. I’m sure that I won’t know all of Argentina by the time I leave. At the beginning of my trip, that fact would have bothered me. But now, after my last two trips to La Cumbrecita and Salta, I know that I am making the most of my time here and accepting what comes my way. I will live the next three months in relative peace and leave this place with the same sense of peace. There is a time for everything, an appropriate season. And it’s all so right. It’s all so beautiful.

The beauty of Tilcara.

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The calm after the storm

Anyone who has kept tabs on my Facebook page knows that I went through a short struggle last Tuesday with losing my wallet and all of its contents (including my debit card).  I also endured final exams and found a woman trapped in an elevator within the same span of two days.  After all the bustle and business of the first half of the week, I needed a descanso from the norm that weekend.

What better way to destress from the intensive period than to pack a duffel bag and leave town for La Cumbrecita?

So Thursday afternoon, this lovely lady, Sasha, and I hopped onto a colectivo and rode an hour-and-a-half to Villa General Belgrano, a tourist town with German influences near the base of Las Sierras and on the way to La Cumbrecita.  It’s a good thing that both of us were looking for a relaxing weekend with no real plan or schedule, because we missed the last colectivo to our destination and ended up spending the night there!  We checked into a very comfortable hostel with a private bathroom and two rooms…all for $22…not too shabby.  The owner of the hostel gave us a dinner suggestion, and since it was still fairly early, we decided to walk the main street and visit some of the artisan shops to pass the time.  Some of the artwork was beautiful (and the Toms-like flats that we found were especially tempting!).  Dinner consisted of a strange blend of Argentine and German food at a buffet-style restaurant, where we paid based on the weight in kilograms of our plate.  Finally, to end the night, bought some chocolate chip cookies at the only open kiosk and watched Definitely, Maybe in Spanish on the hostel television.

 

The next morning dawned bright and early.  We left the hostel around 10:00 to stop at a panadería called Café del Sol and grab a coffee and media luna (“half-moon”), a warm croissant drizzled in honey, on the go.  We reached the bus terminal just in time to catch the next colectivo to La Cumbrecita.  The scenery we saw on the way was absolutely stunning:

 

 

Once in La Cumbrecita, we hiked a narrow trail to Hostel Planeta and met our fellow guests, four guys in their late twenties.  The rest of the morning was spent walking the streets as we had done in Villa General Belgrano.  The town is beautiful and has the same German feel.

View of the fresh market and some shops from the other side of the river.

After lunch, Sasha and I pulled out our map to find a hiking trail.  Our tentative plan was to walk to La Cascada Grande (“the big waterfall”) via a dirt path instead of taking the road there; what happened instead was an accidental excursion into Paseo Alto (“high pass”) for the next three-ish hours.  It was absolutely worth it.  Within the hour, we had a panorama view of the town and surrounding mountains and could hear next to nothing of the usual city sounds.  After two hours, we were up so high that the scenery was shrouded in an ethereal fog that stopped us in our tracks multiple times just to admire the creation around us.  Both of us had mixed sentiments throughout our hike – at one moment, all I could do was run ahead and excitedly climb the highest rock in the vicinity to just soak in the immensity of it all.  At another, we each claimed a rock and just stared in silence for about ten minutes.  It was like being in another world, surrounded by green and water and tranquility…

I don’t think either of us really cared that it had started to rain and we could only see the ground in front of our feet.  We would have continued on forever if we hadn’t run into a few friends on the mountain:

Just in case you can’t tell, there are two cows in this picture. It was two different ones about two hundred feet away that stopped us from continuing.

More striking were the wild horses a hundred feet away as we started our descent. We moved quietly, so as not to startle them, but our silence felt more reverent than cautious.

There really isn’t a lot more to say.  La Cumbrecita soothed my worries about the wallet incident and reinforced the feelings of peace and joy that I had discovered the week before.  That night, we dried our clothes by a wood stove and hashed out life philosophy — in Spanish — with the other guests at the hostel over a few rounds of mate.  Sasha and I walked to a convenience store and bought the remaining nine empanadas and a jar of peaches to eat for dinner.  Halfway through dinner, the hostel owner changed the music playlist to Johnny Cash, and I taught one of the guests how to waltz.  Being honest, this weekend felt more like todo fluja than any other experience I’ve had thus far.  I enjoyed every minute of it and relished in the freedom to unwind and simply admire the beautiful naturaleza around us.  I know that I will be returning before my five months are over.

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