Monday, June 11, 2012

Sick today (and other interesting happenings)

Today I stayed home sick from the nasty cold I developed over the weekend. On the flight back to BsAs my ears couldn't pop properly so I couldn't hear out of my left ear unless my head was tilted parallel to the floor. My nose is sore as is my throat. You would think that would make for a boring day in bed, and for the most part you would be correct. My host family has been very sweet, making me tea and checking in on me.

This morning I was awakened by the usual obnoxious howling of the neighborhood dogs, but then I was awoken again by the sound of many, many people walking through the house and talking. Because I was doped up on Benadryll to help me sleep, I ignored it and continued resting. I was occasionally roused by the sound of man shouting "Silencio, por favor!" (Silence please!). My host sister came in and asked if I needed anything since they had guests over.

Hmm, this is all very strange, I thought. What could they be doing? A class? A group therapy session? A gathering of a hippy comune?

Eventually I did wander down because I needed to go get some lunch, but I was stopped by a man on the stairs who pantomimed SHHH and STOP/TIME OUT to me. Apparently silencio had been requested. When I was allowed to go downstairs, I saw there was a film crew in the livingroom. Women in headscarves were sitting on the "set". I walked outside to discover more people with equipment peering through the window. It was all very strange. When I came back, they were upstairs, filming in my house mate's room. Luckily they didn't want to film in my contaminated room. I don't think the trashcan full of tissues would make a great prop. My host mom later told me they were indeed filming a movie in her house today and tomorrow, and were also filming in other parts of BsAs. I didn't understand what the movie title was, but D later told me it will be a movie about an Indian girl moving to BsAs.

Just goes to show there's never a dull day while studying abroad, even when you're home sick!

Trip to northern Argentina

This weekend CEA took us on an excursion to northern Argentina to visit an estancia/mate processing farm, to see las Cataratas de Iguazu (Iguazu falls) and to visit a reservation of the Guaraní people.

Before I describe the trip, a quick note: This is where the program you chose is important. There are no less than 4 different programs and some independent students in my class, so the education you receive is equal. The excursions, the Iguazu trip in particular, are differentiating. Some programs don't bring you to Iguazu, some bring you there but don't guide your trip, another had problems booking flights and several peoples trips got canceled. Not every program plans something Friday-Sunday and covers most expenses. I only had to pay out-of-pocket for one lunch and some snacks on the trip that we took, and a boat ride which was optional.

We left Thursday evening and took an overnight, 13-hour bus ride to Iguazu. That was probably the nicest bus I've ever seen and was more comfortable than most of the planes I've been in. All the seats were like business class on a plane, with leg rests and seats that reclined way back. The food, however, was barely palatable and the second movie choice was poor (Little Man. Really?). The bus included free drinks which started with whisky on the rocks (not for me), then soda or beer, and finally champagne. I did not lie when I said it was a nice bus. The only bad thing about the bus ride was a I somehow managed to rip a HUGE hole in the butt of the only pair of jeans I brought to Argentina. Luckily I brought khakis and a pair of sweats, or I would have been severely out of luck later in the trip.

When we arrived at the bus station we got on another smaller, private bus and drove to the mate farm. We walked around the farm and saw how they processed mate. Then we just relaxed in the sun while they prepared an asado for us. If it had been warmer there was a pool we could have swam in. There were piles of meat roasted over coals for at least 2 hours. We had choripan for sure, chorizo sausage on bread, and other meats I don't know the names of but they were good too. Then we snacked on fresh from the tree mandarine oranges and tea, and for dessert a mandarine orange cake with mate. Wow, can you say spoiled?! After all that we got back on the bus and drove 4 more hours to Puerto Iguazu and our hotel.

We arrived at the hotel just in time for dinner, a buffet with a pasta bar that was delicious. I could eat the tortellini verduras con pesto y hongos (spinach tortellinis with pesto and mushrooms) for a week and be happy about it. A few of us decided to check out the late night scene, but it was early when we went out and nothing much was going on. Supposedly it picks up around 2AM, but since we had to be up at 830 I just called it a night instead of waiting to find out.

Saturday morning we went to Iguazu Falls, the highlight of the trip and the big excursion of the program. The falls are simply amazing, it is impossible to describe their power and beauty. I took over 200 pictures though, so that is worth about 200,000 words, right? We hiked most of the day absorbing beautiful scenery, getting soaked by the spray of the falls, and getting harassed by coati. Coati are like the raccoons of the jungle, but they are cute and fearless of humans. I gave one an orange in the hopes that I'd get to see him peel it, but I almost started a fight instead. Oops! One (or two?) stole half a sandwich from Allie by distracting her when they got another girl to spill her fries everywhere!

After lunch we hiked the lower trails which also include an area for a boat ride through the falls. Seven of us girls decided we were ok with getting soaked to the bone for the experience of getting up close and personal with the falls. We rode so close to them we were practically underneath. I couldn't see anything when we were that close, but the view of the falls from the bottom was awesome.

Shortly after leaving the falls, the cold adrenaline had been subduing came back to kick me in the ass. Even though it was an early and chill night (which included a nap), I still felt sick on Sunday when we went to visit the reservation. I am never sure how I feel about trips like that. On one hand, I think it is important for the Guarani people to be able to share their culture, on the other hand, I felt like I was watching a spectacle at a zoo some of the visit. Their lives are a bizarre mix of the traditional and the modern, and the result looks like abject poverty, not a throwback to a simpler time. Some had electricity, but our guide's son had died of being electrocuted. They had land, but can't hunt because they are afraid hunters with guns will accidentally shoot them. The traps they showed us were just for educational purposes. Children sang for us in Guaraní, which was adorable, then we were offered a little market of handmade crafts. Most of the people in the village work from home making souvenirs for tourist, and they sell a CD of kids singing. Its a difficult topic to tackle, how to improve the lives of indigenous people without totally losing their culture, or making them a spectacle, or reliant on welfare and cramped into tiny reserves. It is uncomfortable in the US and in South America, so we don't talk about it. I must admit, I was happy to leave.

A little about my classes

Some of my readers are from SIUE and considering studying abroad. Despite the challenges and setbacks you may face, it is a great experience and a wonderful way to get to know yourself and your limits. When I was getting ready to study abroad, I was mostly worried about cost, value, and the experience I would get with excursions and activities. The classes were secondary as I imagined that the language learning would come naturally while immersing myself in a Spanish speaking country. I mostly wanted my classes to not interfere with my experiencing the city.

This has not turned out to be entirely true. I do get to speak Spanish daily with my host family, who are wonderful, and with bus drivers, store clerks, etc. But you don't really hang out and have conversations with native speakers unless you truly seek out the opportunities to do so (more on that later). In reality, you will spend 90% of your time with other English speakers with varying levels of Spanish skills. So, classes are important.

I really do enjoy my class, but it is very similar to classes you will take in the US. You get out of it what you put in, and if you don't want to talk in class you probably won't improve. Grammar and written exercises are fine and good, and I can read and write Spanish pretty well, but my oral comprehension is slow and my speaking skills laughable. The only way to improve is to talk. I need to remind myself that daily because it is so painfully embarrassing to be unable to communicate. I think it is worsened because I consider myself fairly well-spoken in English and is extremely difficult to be a beginner. Just keep in mind that you don't gain anything if you don't risk something, and that something may just need to be your pride for a few weeks.

On that note, a few amusing anecdotes from class, in which pride was definitely sacrificed in the name of learning:

The other day we were practicing speaking in the past tense, and my teacher asked if I had any pets as a child. I said yes, we had 8 cats, and I wanted to explain why. I wanted to say my parents fed them, so I said, "Mis padres se comían". My teacher, without skipping a beat, just said, "Oh really, how interesting!" Now, around this time some others were looking shocked and I realized I had just said my parents eat cats! The verb I should have used was alimentar. Noted. My teacher said she just thought we were really poor :S

Last week, we had to partner up and pretend to have just run into an old friend after several years and have a conversation catching up. Two guys in my class were talking when one of them said, "Yo miré los niños". The whole class busted up laughing for a good two minutes because he said he "watched little boys". He also said "Yo lo" something, which another classmate explained means You Only Live Once and just made the watching little boys confusion even more hilarious. The verb he should have used was cuidar, to care for.

So there you have it. Yes, you will make mistakes, and yes you will probably get laughed at. But someone else will make a mistake too and you will laugh at them and then it will all be even!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Oh it's winter here

Yesterday was one of the first days I felt genuinely cold, and today was the second. I'm very glad I finally bought a jacket yesterday! This weather makes me miss Illinois' steamy hot summers.

Well its been an eventful few days since I last wrote. I learned how to drink mate, a local tea that is extremely popular here, and have eaten more empanadas than I ever thought I would in my life. I also avoided getting pick-pocketed by being late to a pub crawl and not knowing where to meet the group, so that was a success in my book!

Friday las chicas went to a club (boliche) called Crobar that was absolutely insane. There were girls dancing on platforms, smoke being blasted into the crowd and confetti. Needless to say it was a lot of fun. I think the clubs are where the men here earn their pushy reputations, although as was pointed out to us the next day, what do the girls expect when they are grinding on a guys crotch. I must retort, however, that I was not grinding on crotches and still got asked if I was "feeling horny tonight". Um, no, thanks. Luckily my terrible white-girl dancing skills scared off few touchy men. No one wants to get "accidentally" knocked in the face while trying to cop a feel.

Somehow we managed to stay out until about 530AM, and when we got a cab outside the club (stupid, I know) we got ripped off by the cab drivers who were bumping up the fare two or three times at every light. As annoying as it was, they really only stole about US$10 from us total. The transportation here is really cheap so even a crook can't get away with too much, unless you give him a 100 peso bill. In the end, we all made it home in one piece with [most] of our money and all of our possession intact.

Saturday we went to the Tigre Delta on very little sleep. Tigre is really lovely, with a lot of rivers (hence why its a delta), and green grass. Its pretty much the opposite of BsAs and it was a nice change of pace. We went on a boat tour that took us around to some of the main attractions and by a house in a glass box in which Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an Argentina president, once lived. He is the president that made education free and universal and has a street and holiday marking the day of his death, 11 de Septiembre. They encased his house in glass because it was cheaper than repainting it every year in the humidity of the region. I didn't go out Saturday night because I was so exhausted I took a "nap" that was over 12 hours. Oops.

Sunday a few of us when to the Feria de San Telmo, which is a huge market which starts at Plaza de Mayo and goes all the way down Defensa. We didn't even reach the end by the time it closed at 5PM. We did have a late start though, in part because we fed pigeons for about 30 minutes. They sell corn at Plaza de Mayo and you can feed the birds from your hand. Some of them will even land on your arm and you can be like a human birdfeeder. A little gross, yes, but it was cool at the same time. Lots of hand sanitizer followed. I finally bought a jacket at the market because it was so chilly, and I'm really glad I did or I would be out of luck today.

Today I had class, which is going well. Most of it is review of grammar for me, but apparently I needed it since I didn't place higher. My teacher is very nice and energetic, so even a 5 hour class doesn't seem too bad. I was thinking about going to Villa Crespo, which has a ton of outlets and leather stores, but it has been so cold and icky today I think I might stay in instead!


Monday, May 28, 2012

Activities during the first few days

I know most of my friends back home aren't considering travelling to BA and don't care about my recommendations for a homestay, so here is what I've been up to!

The first day here, Friday, I was really tired, overwhelmed, and kind of wondering why the hell I came to Argentina. But, I did venture out of my room and met my housemate D, who is also in a CEA program. He's been staying in Chacarita (our neighborhood of BA) since January, so he was kind enough to show me around a bit and even invited me out with him and his friends.

We went to this really cool closed door bar called Frank's Bar. I had read about it in my BA research and was really excited to check it out. I took my first ride on a collectivo (thanks again to D, because I didn't have monedas/change for the bus) and we headed out to Palermo to meet his friends and walk to the bar. When we got there we had to wait awhile to get in, but once inside the first door there is just a telephone booth. Customers have to enter a secret code into the number pad of the phone and hidden door pops open to this really posh bar. It has nice wood bar with crystal chandeliers and comfy lounge areas. And there's even a sex shop as you leave in case all the expensive drinks and low lights have you feeling frisky on the way out. Definitely not a bumping boliche, but considering I just flew in that morning it was just what I needed to help me acclimate a bit.

The next day, Saturday, we had the CEA arranged city tour, and I rode the subway and a taxi for the first time with my host mom. We talked about the city and met everyone in our program then walked around a bit to a nice place to eat called La Dorita. I took pictures of everything along the way and the inside of the restaurant because it had really cool chandeliers made of recycled bottles. When we were done, we took a private van around the city, and one of the CEA coordinators, Pamela, who explained all the sites in Spanish. We got an overview of the main neighborhoods: Belgrano, Palermo, Recoleta, San Telmo, La Boca, and Puerto Madero (notice Chacarita wasn't on the tour?). The city is full of beautiful European style architecture, cool street art, and other neat things like statues and tributes to Los Desaparecidos, those who were abducted and likely killed during the "Dirty War".

We stopped in La Boca after admiring the stadium, La Bombonera, wear the fútbol team Boca Juniors play. Fans are nuts there and are called the "12th player" because the Boca Juniors couldn't win without them. Then we walked around "Caminito", a small street with a lot of shops and cafes. Its a bit of a tourist trap and is a little shady in the evenings, which I think is why they brought us as a large group with an escort. It's a very artsy neighborhood with a lot of character, although I wouldn't want to be anywhere near it after a Boca Juniors match.

When we were done with the tour we all parted ways and napped like crazy. It is very exhausting trying to absorb all that knowledge being thrown at you in another language, and we did a fair amount of walking too. Later my friend A, also from Southern IL, and I met up and had a "date" at a very delicious pizza joint we happened across while exploring her neighborhood. It was very romantic even if she disagrees (:P). It was interesting ordering without a program assistant to help interpret, luckily our waiter was very patient and amused with us.

Sunday was an off day for the program, a day to relax and rest before the placement exam today. A and I planned to meet up at the university and then go to the San Telmo feria which happens every Sunday. Somehow we managed to miss each other; she got lost coming to the university while I went looking for her, and then I got lost going back to the university as she headed home. I decided to walk home and am still regretting it as my feet haven't quite recovered. I don't even know how far I walked but it took at least an hour. When I got home and conversed with A about our mishap, she asked if I wanted to come back to explore with her more knowledgable roomie, C. Equivalent to my D, C has been in BA for about 4 months already. So of course I did, I can't pass up a chance to soak up someone's knowledge when they're just handing it out. We ended up in Chinatown and then went to see Hombres en Negro 3. That was a trip, because when the cashier asked us, "3D or regular", none of us knew what she was saying. Luckily A & C's host mom came with us, and was able to save the day. She also helped me find my bus stop and ran from one side of the crosswalk to the other with me, so you know she's good people.

Today we had a placement test for Spanish and tomorrow I start my classes from 10AM to 3 PM. We also toured around the university and Belgrano with Nahuel and grabbed some tasty lunch at a nearby mall. A mall here seems to pretty much mean a building with all the really pricey shops in it. After the tour split up, the girls split into groups, some going to get cell phones, others went home, but A and I went shopping! I'm happy with my purchases and the exchange rate on my credit card, but I need to do some more. 

I have a ton of pictures but they are taking forever to load to they might need to be posted State-side.

I don't know yet what tomorrow will hold, but I think my feet might need a break! Buenos Aires is tough on the feet, I will need a pedicure before all is said and done!

(Also, I'm not Not talking about my host family & A's host mom with names and details because I'm rude, I just want to protect their privacy. The CEA people's information is available online so no secrets there.)

First impressions of Buenos Aires

Well, I've been in Buenos Aires a few days now, and I have a few impressions, some original, some not so much.

First of all, the dog poop on the sidewalks isn't THAT bad. It may be because its fall here that it doesn't seem so unbearable, but I think its because the insane about of goose poo that litters my school has given me great feces-avoidance practice. (For those who don't know, there is no pooper-scooper law in BA and a LOT of dogs).

Second, you do need to live and breathe the Guia-T or you will spend all your money on taxis, which is horrible. For example, the other day I took a taxi home rather than take a late night bus ride by myself, and my taxi driver had absolutely no idea where the intersection I asked for was. He radioed the office, stopped another taxi driver, and asked some random people on the street, but STILL was only able to find my street but several blocks away from my corner. My advice is to know a landmark near you, like a busy intersection or a subway station that is within walking distance. You shouldn't give the taxi driver your exact address anyway.

Lastly, Buenos Aires is not all cosmopolitan and crazy night life. I live in a almost totally residential area in a neighborhood called Chacarita, where the streets are quite and empty at night (hence the taxi home). If you go with a program like CEA and want to be in a homestay, request that you be in at least Belgrano, if not Palermo. My host mom and family are great, but CEA was out of their minds to place me a homestay that is so isolated from everyone else in my program.

I'm going to write another post about what I've been up to because I don't want this one to be too long, but keep this in mind if you are considering a study abroad to BA!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Primero dia en Argentina


I am listening to my host family laughing and singing and it is making me a bit homesick. My host mom only speaks Spanish, which is great, but its a little overwhelming.

Now that I've arrived and gotten some proper sleep, I need to venture out and find an ATM and some food, but I feel very weird in someone else's house. I feel like I should creep around like bulgar. I know they do this all the time and everyone has been very friendly, but I've never even had a roommate so living with others is a totally new experience. It feels much safer in my room but I will not get to experience BA like that.

Just a word (ok, vent) about my flight before I go exploring:

I had a pretty uneventful flight, but I don't recommend flying through Dallas if you will have a layover of any length. They have a great selection of food, but you cannot convince me that an airport that busy can't afford free wifi and a outlets scattered about. They have a few "charging stations" with uncomfortable little stools that are packed but not a single outlet in the comfort lounge.