Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Week 2 in Argentina: Villa Maria and Cardoba

26 June 2007
8:15 p.m.

Well, my time in Villa Maria has officially come to an end.  The first two and a half weeks of my stay in Argentina (minus four days in the hills of Cordoba) have been spent here in the small city of Villa Maria, which is located in the province of Cordoba.  Argentina has 23 provinces and Cordoba lies at the center of the country, much I have been told as Kansas lies at the center of our country.  In any case, this missive covers the past week and a half, which began with a short road trip.

This trip, which later became known as the trip from hell, began promisingly enough.  We all boarded a bus at 8 a.m. to travel to the city of Cordoba, about a three hour bus ride (not too long when compared to our previous 12-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires).  We went on a tour of the city, visited a shopping mall (why on earth when visiting a city in a foreign country these people would choose to visit a shopping mall, I have no idea, but that's where we ended up for lunch and to do some shopping  I couldn't even find a bookstore in this so-called mall, so I generally considered that trip to be a complete waste.)

Eventually we left the mall and found a bookstore, where I promptly bought a trashy romance novel in Spanish (hey, you never know when the words "sexy" and "biceps" might come in handy), and a children's novel I recognized (Artemis Fowl).  Trust me, if you had to settle for reading books in a foreign language, you wouldn’t buy Lord of the Rings either.  

After the bookstore, we headed for an artisan fair, where I promptly bought items that I have no idea how on earth I will be getting them home.  Really they were so far outside the realm of realistic, I don't know what I was thinking.  (No, I did not buy a dining room table.)  However, they might as well have been tables and chairs for the amount of difficulty I'll be having in transporting them.  Thank god I packed a suitcase inside a suitcase.  Basically, I bought artwork for my house and it's awesome but too big to be believed and too heavy for shipping and WHAT WAS I THINKING?  Why can't we have amazingly cool artists willing to sell their gorgeous artwork for a song in the United States, where I could just load my car and drive home?

Anyway, that pretty much sums up the extent of the trip that was reasonable or enjoyable.  We returned to our hotel room, by which point I was not feeling so great and promptly went to bed.  When I woke up the next morning, I had no voice.  And we had to travel.  And so I packed, loaded the FREEZING COLD bus and we hit the road.

We went to an Estancia (a Jesuit plantation) where we saw very cool things and beautiful scenery that I could not appreciate because I was too busy freezing my buttooockus off and hacking up a lung.  Eventually we got back into the freezing cold bus and headed to Ascochinga where we checked into the hotel from HELL.

The original plan was to visit a second estancia, go to dinner and check into the hotel later that night, but because I was obviously miserable, we went to the hotel first and everyone unloaded their luggage, took a restroom break then left me at the hotel while they headed off to visit some other estancia.
I feel it necessary to insert in here that I use the term "hotel" loosely.

Perhaps if I had been feeling better, I might rhapsodize here about the beautiful scenery surrounding the gorgeous cabin in the woods, the rustic feel to the cabin, the wonderfully authentic feel of it all.  

Unfortunately, I was so sick, I was unable to appreciate these aspects of our stay.  Instead, I could only focus on the following:
  1. The temperature outside the cabin was approximately 2 degrees.  The temperature inside the cabin was approximately 20 below zero.  The management had failed to turn on the heat before we arrived and so the cabin was ice cold upon arrival.  After 24 hours of solid heating (and again, I use this vocabulary term loosely), the temperature in the cabin had not risen at all.  I would simply like it noted that central heating should in no way refer to scary-looking radiators that put off enough heat to burn you if you got too close but not enough heat to raise the temperature of the room more than 2.9 degrees.
  2. The first time I attempted to use the toilet was a disaster.  First, finding the handle to flush a toilet in Latin America can often be an adventure.  Handles as we know them do not exist in Argentina.  Instead, there are usually buttons (very well-hidden) or occasionally a cord hanging above one's head.  It took me a while to find the cord, but find it I did.  Sadly, when I pulled it, the damn thing broke apart in my hand.  This necessitated standing upon the bedet to reach above my head to re-attach the damn thing.  After many excruciating moments of reaching above my head trying to tie the two pieces of the cord back together again so that I could flush the damn toilet, I finally met with success.  The stupid thing was back together.  Sadly, the damn toilet would not flush, so I had to climb back up on the bedet and manually flush the stupid thing, which was practically impossible to do without pitching headfirst into the toilet.  I promptly decided the next time I needed to use the toilet I would use one from someone else's room.  Sadly, upon exploration later in the day, I discovered everyone had locked their doors.  The closest restroom necessitated a hike. 
  3. The first time I took a shower, the water sprayed me in the face with the sting of a thousand ice blades.  There were only two settings in the shower:  scalding hot and freezing cold.  I chose scalding hot because I froze the rest of the time.
  4. It was freezing.
  5. The damn toilet didn't work.
  6. I had a headache and I couldn't breathe, I was hacking up two lungs, and it was FREEZING.
  7. The damn toilet didn't work.
This was pretty much my life for the next two days, as everyone else went off to climb mountains of mammoth proportions, leaving me behind to fight the toilet and shiver under a mountain of covers (I raided other people's beds while they were out mountain climbing so that when they came home, they usually found a sheet and that was all).

Eventually after a day of misery, Samuel (the leader of our humble group) brought me some antibiotics he purchased over-the-counter (it's a different world down here) and I spent the next seven days downing pills the size of a horse.

My fellow teachers trooped in on the second night covered in mud and fairly exhausted.  They told tales of scaling mountains the size of Everest and falling down giant slopes into muddy water.  They scoffed at Sammy's leadership abilities, rolling their eyes at the stories of him "leading" them to a point of no return where they had to continue forward even when this would leave them wet and exhausted and ready to mutiny.

I suppose I should give my thanks for the convenience of an illness, but I endured my own form of hell, huddled under my covers, watching my breath swirl around the trashy romance novel I tried to read between each nerve-wracking shiver.  And I was assured by all the weary travelers trooping into our rooms that night that "dear god, it was a lot warmer outside than in this icebox!"
By our final night in this Argentine igloo, the majority of our group had dragged their "mattresses" (or what we might commonly refer to as giant flimsy pillows) into the hallway, where they huddled around various radiators, desperately seeking warmth.

Finally, it was time to move on, so, hacking and coughing, I packed up my things, dragged my weary body to the bus, and huddled under my blankets as we ventured down the road to the next town.  We visited another estancia (their third, my second, and I must admit, having already seen one, I sighed at the thought of enduring another).  However, despite not feeling well, I have to admit the scenery was quite beautiful.

We then went to Che Guevara's childhood home.  It was very interesting learning of his early life.  I had to wonder how a child who grew up so privileged managed to develop such a strong sense of injustice.  It's interesting because in some ways, though his methods for protesting injustice were vastly different from those of Martin Luther King, Che is as great a hero for many Latin American citizens as Martin Luther King is for North American ones.

Eventually we arrived back in Villa Maria, where we settled back in with our host families and continued our rounds to elementary and secondary schools.  We had a chance to observe the Argentine flag ceremony at various schools on June 20 and participate in a few folkloric dancing lessons (I don't think these people understand that I have no rhythm). 

I had a chance to observe in several elementary school classrooms on Friday, both by myself and with another teacher named Tom.  Tom's wife is pregnant and due in August, AND was accepted to participate in this program but chose not to come due to the pregnancy, so I'm thinking he was very brave to come on this program (I know if I were married and my husband abandoned me, he'd probably never survive the trip home, which would probably be one of the many reasons I never plan to marry!)  In any case, we had a lot of fun with the students, quizzing them in English and giving them prizes if they could answer appropriately (prizes were from Kansas like a bookmark, pencil, that sort of thing). 

The most bizarre thing I've seen in a school so far though has to be the video shown as part of a sixth grade presentation.  It involved very loud and ominous music, incomprehensible words (even if they had been in English, they still would have been incomprehensible), fleeting war-like images, etc.  They took us through the history of the man who created the Argentine flag (his name escapes me at the moment) and his very important role in history, but in such a bizarre, disturbing fashion I'm surprised the children didn't all have nightmares.  If I showed something like that to my students, I'd undoubtedly get fired (though this was presented by sixth graders, all primary students attended the presentation, so yes, there were 1st and 2nd graders there).

Our last Sunday in Villa Maria, we had a dinner / talent show for the families.  By talent show, I really mean a non-talent show.  My contribution was to put together a slide show of a collection of our photographs to share with the families.  I even inserted background music (all appropriate Spanish songs) and everything.  It was lovely, except for the whole non-working sound system which meant the Spanish songs I slaved over were barely audible.  Then, and don't ask me how this happened, I got roped into singing Yankee Doodle Dandy (like I even know the words) and Home on the Range.

THEN, as if things weren't already bad enough, we danced the Cha Cha Slide and the Chicken Dance, all to practically non-existent music, at which point, we decided we'd shown enough non-talent, and ended with a giant bonfire and S'Mores, which were a big hit (thank god - we needed something to redeem us from tripping over each other while doing the reverse during the cha-cha slide).  Overall, it went well, and hopefully those video tapes of me singing and dancing will meet some unfortunate and tragic end.

We ended our school visits in Villa Maria at Escuela Granja, a school that specializes in teaching boys who have been working in the streets of Villa Maria.  Each of us brought activities to do with these boys and we had a wonderful time, drawing, painting, sewing, playing dodgeball and cooking S'Mores.  The kids LOVED the activities, and the S'Mores were a big hit, once again, with both staff and students.  Note to self:  when traveling to a foreign country, ingredients for S'Mores are a must-have.  With these in hand, I am guaranteed to be loved and remembered for all the days of my long and graceless life.

One of the things I noticed the most in traveling from school to school is that it really didn't matter whether we were in a private school, public school or some combination of the two, heating was non-existent.  Students and teachers alike were bundled in layers, completing their work and teaching while draped in scarves, hats, gloves and heavy outerwear.  At some of the poorer schools, like La Granja and a school that served the children of migrant workers from Bolivia, children also came to school dressed in the same outfits day after day, and were often covered in dirt and sweat.  Many children worked at home or in the fields or at some other place of employment before arriving at school.  A number of boys were seen washing windows and completing other odd jobs around town, while still more were reported to work at a brickyard completing masonry work.  These boys ranged in age from 9 to 15.  Every last one of them broke my heart and filled me with a bittersweet hope for their future.  With so much going on in their lives, the fact that these children still make it to school on a fairly regular basis is an amazing accomplishment, and is a tribute to the teachers who work so hard to make sure these students know that they are missed when they do not show up for school.  The dedication of these teachers becomes even more apparent when one learns that an average teacher's salary here is typically 900 pesos (or 300 U.S. dollars) a month.

I suppose that sums up our Villa Maria experiences:  families, friends, schools, teachers, students and real moments filled with real teaching and real life.  Ultimately, we had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs, plus a few embarrassing moments as well (like when a fellow unnamed, and no it wasn't me, teacher mentioned at a school, in front of a number of teachers, the principal and 20 high school students, that the U.S. might actually beat Argentina in the soccer match since it was on our home turf and stranger things have happened, only instead of saying home turf which is "cancha" she said "concha" which is slang for pussy).  Yeah, things have definitely been interesting.

And it's time for me to wrap things up here for I'm leaving my host family's home in a few moments to catch a bus north.  We're heading into the foothills of the Andes next.  Life is definitely on fire right about now.  

More later!


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Week 1 in Argentina

Buen di­a, amigos!

Well, I have survived my first week in Argentina and what a week it has been!  I feel like I have been here a month (or more) so much has happened.  First, the trip here was unbelievably long.  We were delayed leaving Kansas City by several hours (due to the threat of thunderstorms) and were concerned we were going to miss our flight to Buenos Aires as a result.  Luckily, the flight to Buenos Aires was also delayed (as we arrived in Atlanta, Georgia a full forty minutes AFTER our international flight was scheduled to depart).  Once we boarded the plane in Atlanta, we waited so long to take off we had to return to the terminal to be refueled.  Then we had the lovely overnight ten hour flight from hell.  Once we arrived in Buenos Aires, we were forced to circle the airport for almost an hour due to fog in the city.  We finally landed, gathered our luggage, went through customs, and immediately caught a bus for a twelve hour trip to the interior of the country.  To give you an idea of how long we had been traveling, I left my house in Kansas City at noon on Thursday afternoon.  We did not arrive in Villa Maria until 10:30 Friday night.  We were utterly and completely exhausted by then.

My host family greeted me at the bus stop.  They are a family of four - Leticia (or Leti) the mom, Eduardo (or Edu) the dad, Leila who is 12 and Elin who is 9.  I was so excited to be placed in a family with children again (children always make the experience so much more enjoyable) and they are truly a lovely family.  Leticia and Eduardo have gone out of their way to make the most wonderful vegetarian meals for me - they have made the most unbelievable vegetable tartas (the best I can compare them to is a vegetable pie, some like a pot pie and some more like a pizza).  And speaking of pizza, Eduardo has made some incredible vegetable pizzas.  Not to mention the salads and postres (desserts that are absolutely to die for).  I'm eating VERY well here, most definitely better than I eat at home.

The girls are thrilled with the gifts I brought for them - the three Sandra Boynton CD/book collections from Kohl's.  This is a very musical family, so the gift was very much appreciated.  Leila has already learned the words to one of the songs from Dog Train AND has learned to play it on the piano as well (as the music scores are included at the back of each book).

As for my experiences in Villa Maria, we have been on the go from the day we arrived, visiting schools, speaking with students and teachers, and attending lectures.  All of the schools have welcomed us with open arms, usually offering providing some form of refreshments and often giving us a gift as well.  Today we visited a vocational school (a lecheria where students participate in processing of dairy products) and were given a gift bag with a block of goat cheese and a jar of dulce de leche (a sweet caramel-like substance that is found in many of their desserts).

And what is Argentina like you might be asking (seeing as I'm rambling about food and schools, but am not really saying anything of particular interest).  Well, first and foremost, Argentina is currently very COLD.  It seems even colder due to the lack of central heating.  Some of you may be thinking that I'm probably exaggerating since I hate the cold, but trust me, when they said winter, they meant winter.  Luckily, Leticia had an extra winter coat she was able to loan me, because otherwise, I'd be utterly miserable.  Of course, my body is having a riot trying to understand why it went from summer to winter so quickly and I have a terrible cold to go with the wacky change in seasons.

What else can I tell you about my experiences here?  The people here in Villa Maria are by far some of the kindest people I have met anywhere.  When you enter their store or restaurant or business, they are thrilled to greet you.  They welcome you with a kindness that never feels artificial and are willing to spend as much time with you as needed, patiently wading through our sometimes limited Spanish.  I can also say most sincerely that all of the people here on this trip with me are wonderful.  Everyone is so concerned about everyone else, sharing medicine and ideas and clothing so that each person has what he or she needs.

Of course, things here are not perfect.  Life in Argentina moves along at its own pace.  No one is in a hurry; things happen when they happen.  I've visited a local travel agency every day for four days in a row, trying to arrange hostel stays in Buenos Aires and Foz do Iguacu, and each day, after a lovely, meandering conversation about everything we can possibly think of, all of it in Spanish; Mariana tells me that she is still waiting to hear from the hostel in Buenos Aires, is working on arrangements for Iguacu, and should have more information for me the next day.  And so I return the following day, to indulge in another lovely conversation and to receive the same information again.

It's impossible to become upset because Mariana is so kind and because she is doing the best she can, waiting on others to respond to her attempts to contact them, etc.  It is quite simply a different pace and in most aspects, it's very nice not to be rushed and stressed and watching the clock all the time.  On the other hand, when it's freezing out and all I want to do is buy a warmer pair of socks, but can't because all the shops are closed for siesta (which lasts four HOURS), I have to wonder which is better - the laidback, relaxed society where I can't buy a pair of socks to save my life, or the extremely time-conscious society that will have me popping pills for stress before the age of 40 but with a hundred pairs of socks all neatly arranged in my dresser drawers.

I've also had to get used to the whole no seatbelt thing again.  I honestly don't know which is worse -  sitting in the front seat of a remis, seatbelt securely fastened but with a birds eye view of the insanity of Argentine drivers or sitting in the backseat where no seatbelts can be found at all, but a little further away from the disaster of a cab driver.  Either way, your life typically flashes before your eyes while you hold on for dear life.

I have almost had a heart attack more than once as our remis barrels through an intersection at top speed (apparently the government of Argentina has decided that stop signs and stop lights are unnecessary expenses and instead chooses to rely on the fast reflexes of its insane citizens).  Indeed, there are very few stop lights to be found anywhere and I have yet to see a stop sign at all.  Most intersections are considered a free-for-all, so as cars approach the intersection, an interesting sort of dance occurs.  Whoever reaches the intersection first gets the dubious pleasure of barreling on through.  Whoever arrives in second place taps the brakes enough to skate through the intersection at a slightly slower speed than that of a rocket, narrowly missing the bumper of the first vehicle.  Individuals riding bikes and motorcycles tend to hurtle through these intersections as well, showing little regard for their own safety.  I have been disturbed on numerous occasions by the sight of a child sandwiched between its parents on the back of a motorcycle (I wouldn't take a child for a ride on a motorcycle in the middle of the country with only cows around to get in my way, let alone in the middle of an Argentine city populated by kindness and crazy driving).

And let's just say that pedestrians are taking their lives into their own hands when choosing to cross a street.  In Argentina it might be better to choose a particular turn to make and stick to it (i.e., when leaving the house, take a right and continue taking rights at every intersection, thus negating the necessity to ever cross a street.  Sure you'll probably end up walking in circles, but it beats getting hit by a car!)

I am certain there is much more to share about my first week in Argentina - like being interviewed by a local newspaper and quite innocently stating that we were here to have fun, and to learn about the culture and history of Argentina.  This seemed an honest statement to me, but divertirnos (to have fun) in Spanish apparently gave the impression that we were party chicas and only here for the quilmes (local beer).

In any case, it is time to wrap this up as I have a 7:30 a.m. bus to catch headed for Cordoba, and I need to get some sleep before then.  So let me just end by saying that:

Argentina es de lindo!