Adventures in Argentina, continued…

March 30, 2010

I suppose I took a blogging hiatus on account of nothing in particular.  Perhaps the novelty of sending my thoughts into the great void wore off somewhat.  I apologize for those of you that follow my blog (meaning basically, my Dad…thanks Daddy) for taking so long to complete my Argentina entry. 


After living in Buenos Aires for several weeks and diligently (ok…sporadically) studying Spanish, we began to feel more comfortable venturing out without feeling like completely incompetent Americans.  I will confess that it took several weeks before I was brave enough to venture out without Joe (other than the occasional trip to El Supermercado, which still gave me anxiety).  Eventually, however, I would go out exploring on my own to do a little shopping, go for a run, or just sit in a café and pretend I was writing the great American novel, when really I was on Facebook.  As I mentioned before, Argentine Spanish is particularly difficult to understand and to learn.  We met several Expats that were fluent in Spanish before arriving and even they struggled to learn the differences. 


 Daily life was leisurely…we would sleep in (probably WAY too late), go to the café next door for breakfast pastries and coffee, eat together then spend time reading, playing online, practicing Spanish, or working out until I went to work.  I would work for a few hours, and then we would go to a café for a snack, go to a park or often just walk around enjoying the city.  At night we would drink wine and cook dinner (I use the term “cook” verrrry loosely) or meet up with friends for drinks or food.  Hard life, I know. 


 Cultural differences:  Argentina is on a much different schedule from America.  We had read that appointments were “a suggestion” but coming from the laid-back land of Hawaii, we were used to things running a little more casually.  We quickly learned that Argentines take it to a whole new level.  Even with an appointment it wasn’t uncommon for your party to arrive up to an hour late, without even an acknowledgment or apology.  Work and school began at 9am for most, and lunches were long and unhurried.  I am not making note of these or any other cultural differences as complaints, just observations…I actually found the relaxed atmosphere refreshing for the most part.  Americans are in such a damn hurry all of the time.  One example that jumps to mind is on airplanes.  When the plane lands and the seatbelt light turns off, American passengers quite literally JUMP into action – immediately standing up, getting their bags and stepping over one another before anyone begins exiting the plane.  This never fails to irritate me.  I can’t help but think that Argentines would simply yawn and stay seated, calmly waiting their turn.  The most difficult thing connected to this issue for me was adjusting to the service industry.  Going out for food or drink could be a very long process.  Waiters and waitresses don’t get tipped much (usually 7-10%) and just don’t have incentive to be attentive to customers.  If you needed a refill or your check you had to flag someone down.  In America that would be considered very poor service, but not in Argentina.  In fact, I got the feeling that they considered hovering to be a nuisance and even slightly rude.  Even though this was frustrating if you were in ANY kind of hurry, it was also nice to be able to sit at a table for over 3 hours with friends; laughing, drinking and talking without feeling pushed out or like you needed to vacate. 


 Another thing we immediately observed: Argentina is an extremely caffeinated culture.  They drink incredibly strong coffee and an herbal tea called maté, all day long.  There are coffee shops on every corner…in fact on our street block alone there were 5.  This may be due to lack of sleep.  Like many large cities, things operate on a later schedule.  It’s not uncommon to eat dinner in New York at 9pm…but yet again, Buenos Aires takes this to a whole new level.  Dinner was extraordinarily late at night…sometimes as late as 11pm or 12am.  Many restaurants would not even open until 10pm.  It wasn’t uncommon to see young children eating dinner with their parents on a Friday night near midnight.  In the entire time we lived there, I did NOT get used to this.  I was always starving by 8pm, despite trying to have a snack mid-day.  If you were to go out clubbing, you had better not leave the bar or your house until midnight at the earliest. 


Clubs would often not get busy until 2am and would stay open until 9am.  I will admit that we pulled a few 7am-ers in our time there (I mean, when in Argentina, right?) but despite our best efforts, we almost always had to spend all day in bed recovering.  Almost all homes and apartments are equipped with black-out shutters over windows and doors which completely eliminate all light and turn your dwelling into a glorious black cave.  Due to all of these things, I concluded that this is precisely why they need so much caffeine. 



I think the caffeine addiction also contributes to a thin population.  We all know America is overweight, but it shocked me to see how thin Argentines were.  They eat late at night, drink a ton of wine and subsist on bread, stew and pasta.  How is this possible???  Portion sizes were certainly smaller and because you are in a large city, you are forced to walk often and everywhere…but again, I contribute some of this to caffeine.  And though they are definitely thin, they are not often what we would consider “in shape”.  Sure, you could see people running every now and then and the occasional gym, but most people don’t include exercise as a daily habit.  Most of the time I was stared at as if I had two heads while running down the street…it just isn’t that common. 


Caldwells playin’



Buenos Aires has a reputation with other cities and towns in Argentina as being elitist and snobby…and while we did run across some rather rude characters, the whole of the people we met were kind, patient with our poor Spanish and willing to help us.  A smile and a healthy dose of friendliness seem to go a long way in any language. 


What else?  The city was family-friendly, with plenty of hip, young parents living in the city and raising their children.  It was very spread out and unlike American cities with that kind of population; there were not very many skyscrapers.  Buildings tended to be about 5-12 stories.  There’s an extensive transportation system in place, with an underground subway, an intricate and reliable bus line and very affordable taxi service.  Taking a taxi even as long as 20 minutes would often only be about $4USD.  Quite a switch from Honolulu!  Buenos Aires is on the water, but doesn’t have a proper beach.  In fact, they call the ocean along the city, the “river” because it is so brown and polluted.  There are a few man-made beaches in the Reserva Ecologica, but believe me…you don’t want to swim. 


After residing in BA for 90 days, we were forced to leave the country to renew our visitor’s visa.  While this is often a hassle in other countries, Argentina is (unsurprisingly) relaxed about the whole process.  You can simply pay $150USD or cross the border for 24 hours to renew.  We chose to ferry/bus in to Uruguay.  We spent a few nights in the capitol, Montevideo.  We chose Montevideo because it is on the coast and has a decent beach…something we really missed!  Uruguayan Spanish was MUCH easier to understand, so we got in some good practice.  We were somewhat unimpressed with Montevideo…it was a smaller, dirtier and probably less safe version of Buenos Aires.  Had we not come from such a huge, fascinating city, we might have been more taken with it.   After a few days at an adorable little hotel, we went on to Colonia, a gorgeous little town right on the coast.  It was incredibly scenic and charming…full of little shops, yummy food, cobblestone streets.  I would highly recommend it to anyone staying in the area.  It also has a small beach that attracts residents of Buenos Aires, since the ferry ride is just a short hour-long trip. 



The only traveling we were able to do within Argentina, was a short trip up north to Iguazu Falls.  Iguazu is one of the longest waterfall chains in the world.  We learned that flying in Argentina was especially expensive, so we hopped on a bus for 17 hours!  However, this is not your normal greyhound equivalent.  Argentina busses are fancy-schmancy.  They have completely reclining seats; provide you with drinks, pillows, blankets and entertainment (even in English!).  It’s very similar to flying first class on an American airline.  They even have bus attendants that assist you as you travel – a very interesting experience.  Iguazu is a small town, but very touristy because of the Falls.  We went with our friends Aaron and Caitlan and had a blast!  We stayed in a pretty junky hostel; but ate well, drank a lot, and got to hike the falls and swim in a waterfall.  It was a grand time!  Thanks to Aaron and Caitlan for making it such an amazing trip!  We miss you guys…



The rest of our time was spent playing, hanging (read: drinking and eating) with friends, and reconnecting with each other.  Living abroad was a great experience, and one I would like to repeat!  I think the Caldwells might become expatriates again down the road.  While it was incredibly challenging, it was also really fulfilling, fun and interesting.  If you ever find yourself considering traveling in South America, DON’T leave out Argentina – it’s fabulous!     



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