Tuesday, December 25, 2012

¡Felices fiestas!

After five months apart, New Jersey and I have had a highly anticipated reunion...and just in time for Christmas! I endured fifteen hours of flying, little sleep, and a chilly plane to arrive at JFK Airport bright and early Sunday morning. It's chilly here, yet warm. It's gray and barren compared to summery Buenos Aires, yet bright. It's great to be home with my family.

It was certainly bittersweet to bid farewell to Buenos Aires. I enjoyed a final, tasty lunch with Alice and youngest brother, Tommy, and it was a gorgeous day to walk around and pass by the parts of Recoleta that became a part of my life. During the week, I bid farewell to new friends and completed my Buenos Aires bucket list. When 2pm on Saturday came, I was ready and happy to leave with the sun shining, a tear in my eye, and a smile on my face. 

My time in Argentina has concluded, but my reflections of the experience have stirred up a three-ring circus of thoughts in my head. Mentally, my Spanish-thinking brain is still in Argentina, but physically, I have been trying to adapt to home again. I continue to be surprised by the simplest things, such as my bedroom, the washing machine, chocolate chip pancakes and bagels! I created a new "normal" for me in Argentina, so I continue to pull out the files I have on memory of my "NJ norm."

Surprisingly, home is practically the same; it still feels pretty normal (especially since everything in the US was foreign to me after Germany). This time, the transition has been much less traumatic. For the past two days, I have been relaxing at home and sleeping off the jet lag. The radio full of Christmas songs have brought only joy as I wrapped presents. After church, there was a fresh, thin layer of snow outside to make a 'White Christmas' possible. All-in-all, I had a rejuvenating Christmas Eve!

I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas! ¡Feliz Navidad! and/or Frohe Weihnachten! Whether it may bring new experiences or celebrate old traditions, may you be blessed on this wonderful day.

¡Felices fiestas!
Abrazo,
Matt

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ya me voy.

Whoa! I survived the end of the world, and in a few hours, I will boarding a plane to return to the United States. I wonder where the time went, but then I reflect on my memories (with the help of this blog) that I fully took advantage of each opportunity. It has been a turbulent five months for me - a lot has happened in my life here as well as at home in New Jersey. I had a plethora of positive and wonderful experiences, and also several challenging, life-growth experiences that nearly side-swiped me at times. I feel like I learned something about myself everyday.

Despite my mixed feelings, I am surprised and happy to say with confident that I am leaving Argentina on a high note. In the end, I found many people who I will miss and also a few special locations that will remain dear to my heart. I think it is best said in German that "ich verlasse Argentinien mit einem lachenden und einem weinenden Auge." (Translation: I'm leaving Argentina with a tear in one eye and a smile in the other. Fun Fact: Science shows that we truly smile with our eyes!) With packing, the approaching holidays, and a few blog posts that I have yet to post, I will need some time to further develop and reflect on my thoughts about this semester in a concluding post (some time before New Year's). My reactions to these types of transition are unexpected and heartfelt. So as I land in New York, I anticipate an emotional mess of excitement, fear, nostalgia, and joy - you know, once again, it has been a life-changing time for me.

Nevertheless, I would like to provide you with a glimpse of my final week in Buenos Aires. (I will backtrack by posting my entries about my travels to Mendoza and Chile in the next few days, once I am home.) Naturally, I had times of reflection and farewells, but the week felt so distant. For the past few years, transition has been a constant factor in my life (MMLA, study abroad, International House, classes, etc.) Therefore, I feel it has become a habit for me to enjoy the moments that I share with the amazing people I have fortunate to meet; to hold the memories in a fond regard; and lastly, to acknowledge that it is time to move on. I see it with a positive outlook because I do not have the umph to wallow in a melancholy sulk that another chapter in my young life has concluded. Why should I? It was a blessing!

Friday, December 14th:

  • Up early after a two-week trip, I scurried over to the Teatro Colón to obtain tickets for Sunday's performance - the final show of the year.
  • Visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Art Museum) during the final day of the Caravaggio exhibition. It is obvious that the artistic ability and precision of each painting was thought-provoking and brillant...however, the artwork did not "speak to me," per se. 
  • Return to the Recoleta Cemetery. I went with the sole intention of seeing Evita Perón's mausoleum. It was a peaceful scavenger hunt, which ended in success, finding the resting site of this Argentine icon. 
  • My final grades were posted. I finished the semester with a B+ average (8 out of 10). I could not be more excited!
  • Fiesta de egresados de UdeSA - End of semester celebrations with the Universidad de San Andrés. We partied from dusk to dawn - it was a energizing, yet exhausting to dance with the sunrise.
Saturday, December 15th
  • I realized my "photographer's dream of Buenos Aires" when I photographed the sunset and nighttime skyline of Puerto Madero, kindly accompanied by Germain.
  • My acceptance letter to Universität Leipzig (Germany) arrived. It's finally official after a 13-month application process! :)
  •  
  • Puerto Madero

Sunday, December 16th
  • Presentation of the Buenos Aires Instrumental Orchestra. I acquired two, FREE tickets to this performance at the Teatro Colón, acoustically considered one of the top five theaters in the world. It was purely magical! The sounds enveloped me as I listened to the music with closed eyes. My imagination flew to the music of Mozart and other composers.
  • My farewell asado with the swim team was cancelled. Although I did not find out until I arrived at the house, I turned lemons into lemonade by enjoying some ice cream with Germain at our favorite ice cream shop in Martínez (in San Isidro).
  • Arnaldo Ice Cream Shop - Martínez, Provincia of Buenos Aires
Monday, December 17th
  • I finalized my Christmas shopping. (Yay presents!)
  • A wonderful, reflective farewell lunch with Julia (fellow exchange student from the first family) that extended into dinner time. 
Tuesday, December 18th
Evita Perón
  • Visit to Museo Evita Perón (Evita Perón Museum). This opportunity offered an insightful glimpse into the live of this dynamic woman, who moved a population and perished at the young of 33. I went with my cultural partner, Santi, who provided some background information to provide a better context.
  • Following the museum, we made our way to Avenida Corrientes for some typical, Argentine pizza. It was delicious! And I saw how the Argentines treat pizza as fast food.
  • Pizzería Güerrin - established in 1932
  • Lastly, we strolled through Recoleta. I have come to love this neighborhood with its French archictecture and old Buenos Aires charm.
Thursday, December 20th
  • I returned to Arnaldo's (favorite ice cream joint in Martínez) with Carla - friend from my gender course. We laughed until our final farewell.
  • Happy Hour at Kansas Restaurant. To make up for the cancelled asado, a few swimmers met up for one last meeting. We laughed and I continued to learn more Argentine slang. I am sad to be leaving the swim team so soon, but the thought of them still puts an automatic smile on my face.
Friday, December 21st
  • I spent my final day as I wished: in Puerto Madero (my favorite place in Buenos Aires). Germain and I had lunch overlooking the water.
  • We got ice cream in San Telmo and drinks in Cafe Tortoni.
  • I had the opportunity to enjoy one last time walking through the main sites of Buenos Aires that interested me in the city to begin with...I guess, I went full circle in a way. 
  • A relaxing evening with Martin and a few other students, during which we shared our recent travel stories and adventures.
For my final week, I made a "Buenos Aires Bucket List." I completed the list and even threw in a few spontaneous surprises. I have finally found the bright side to Buenos Aires and am relieved to leave on a positive note. I have exhausted myself out, and I feel now that I am ready to return to cold, Christmasy New Jersey. I do not feel like I'm in the Christmas spirit due to the summer, humid weather. Yes, the decorations and holiday songs are the same...but shorts and sweat do not logically equate to Santa Claus and Nativity sets for me. I'm curious to see if I have the same opinion when I arrive at the other end.

Christmas at Alto Palermo Shopping Center (above) and Plaza de Mayo (below)

I will do my best to post another update promptly, but please take into account my jetlag and the Christmas celebrations.

¡Felices fiestas!
Abrazo,
Matt


Friday, December 21, 2012

La vida en el Mitre

In Argentina, I have not had access to a car. For that, I am grateful because the Argentines (not all, but most porteños) make drivers in the New York tri-state area seem overly cautious and attentive. Street lights and signs are merely suggestions in Buenos Aires, and the larger vehicle always has the right of way (bus > car > bike > human/dog). Once you accept these rules, you still feel that you are risking your life each time you cross the street. Contrary to common sense, I have chosen to embrace public transportation in order to move around Buenos Aires and Zona Norte. To say the least, I feel a bit more comfortable in the buses and trains than on the street because I relinquish my power to a driver who is more accustomed to the chaos.

For starters, the public transportation system does not have the best reputation. It is unreliable and impunctual; there are frequent strikes; there are accidents with trains and buses on a weekly basis; the government subsidizes the costs of public transportation, but apparently this has only resulted in a lower-quality service. 

It literally has a life of its own in Buenos Aires, including both the Federal Capital and the Province. In San Isidro, I often waited for my desired bus that were few and far between. As I moved to Recoleta, the abundant options I had for public buses seemed unlimited, not to mention my access to activities by subway (subte), by train, or by foot. Since then, I don’t believe I have waited more than ten minutes for a bus. Moreover, I never knew exactly which bus I would be taking, until it showed up at the stop. In a matter of weeks, I had memorized all bus routes that passed by Recoleta and played the role of Google Maps to calculate how I could arrive quickest to my destination. Talk about a way to develop some critical thinking skills!

The bus situation is pretty straightforward in Buenos Aires – you must know which bus you need, you inform the driver of your destination, and you pay with a prepaid bus card or in coins. (Due to the coin shortage in Argentina, I obtained a SUBE bus card in my first week here.) The buses are usually packed during peak hours of traffic, but you will almost always be able to squeeze your way in – you see, Argentines all have this innate clown-car-fitting ability, which comes in handy during these times. I would like to see them go for a world record of how many people can fit in one public bus, since it is a daily practice (except on Sunday when the city sleeps and recovers from Saturday night). However, for the majority of the time, the buses work fine and are not crammed.

If you wish to talk about transportation in Buenos Aires, it is inevitable that trains will take the spotlight of the conversation. Apparently when I arrived in July, the TBA (Transporte Buenos Aires) trains took a turn for the worst. I am told that until 2012, the trains were well-managed, punctual, air-conditioned, and you could be sure that you would arrive to work or any appointment worry-free. To me, that sounds nice, but from my perspective, the trains are on their way (or have already arrived) to hell in a hand basket. There have been several accidents and deaths after the trains have derailed from the century-old tracks. The trains have simply broken down, been delayed by rainy or windy weather conditions, and more gravely, caught fire. Sound scary, eh? Well, if you have to take the train everyday to work, or in my case to school, you try not to think about it. 

Yet, amidst from this lively chaos, there is subculture on the train that I wish to tell you a bit about. 

This subculture starts before you enter the train. Argentines form organized lines at points on the platform that line up with the doors of the train. This is done in a quiet manner, but if you cut the line, expect someone to say something. Pregnant women, women with young children, or senior citizens (gente de tercera edad) have the unspoken permission to skip to the front of the line, which guarantees them a seat. 

Train at Retiro Station

An example in the street: people lining up for the bus (bus stop behind the flower stand)

People lined up in an organized fashion before entering the train.

This is a calm process until the doors open. In horse racing, each horse dashes out of its portal to vie for a front position in the pack - imagine it the other way around when entering the train. Instead, there are dozens of people trying to squeeze through a door to vie for a seat, some of which have already been occupied by certain individuals who out of respect have an automatic bid. In a matter of seconds, the seats are taken, the spacious corners are claimed, and the remaining train riders grab onto a handle or bar as they have to stand. Like any train or bus, they have the challenge of swaying and finding an equilibrium with constant changes in velocity and breaking.
People selecting their seats (less chaotic during off-peak hours)

As the train leaves the Retiro station, there are people who start to move about the different cars calling out for the attention of the other travellers. Would they be the train conductors who check that all passengers have purchased valid tickets? (Before you think, this is Argentina...HINT: they are more entertaining and/or have something you want...) These trains do not have conductors that check tickets - in fact, in five months my train ticket has never been thoroughly checked/examined. Rather, those individuals are vendors and entertainers. Vendors sell a wide variety of products: from gum to books, to pastries to tooth brushes. If you get lucky, you can do all of your (Christmas) shopping while comfortably seated enroute to your destination. The other possibility would be entertainers, mostly musicians who play guitar, accordion, wind instruments and/or sing. Some are better than others, which you notice by the applause they receive and then, the tips thrown into the hat they pass around. These individuals are usually respectful and they do not pester the commuters who ignore them.
Musician performing for tips on the Subte

An Argentine train would not be the same without some unique characters. These usually consist of beggars and political speakers, who appear less often than the regular vendors or performers. The political speakers usually complain about the government or a certain religious belief. The beggars just ask for money to help them in their current living situation. Additionally, they display some sort of physical disability, such as blindness, lost or maimed limbs, or extensive burns.

Once you get accustomed to this hustle and bustle, the train does not have many more surprises. A few tricks are to be sure you know when your stop is coming up, to hold onto your bag or items you are carrying with you, and to avoid eye contact or staring at any certain individual - simple train etiquette.

Unfortunately, there is not much to add about the subway (Subte). It is more reliable than the train, but for that, the toll is more than double - $2.50 AR (53¢ USD) for the subte vs. $1.10 AR (23¢ USD) for the average train ride. It is also nice that the train avoids the traffic of the hectic streets. The subte usually is the most packed transportation option, so the rules of personal space are ignored in this environment. Yes, you may have someone's sweat tripping on you, if it is not the exhaust from the air-conditioning unit directly above. This can also happen on the trains, which lack windows that open for air circulation. A few times I almost couldn't exit the train or subway because I could not slip through the squished people.

A packed train.




In this train ride from UdeSA to Recoleta, I did not have a single inch of wiggle room. The train swayed, the pressure of fifteen people crushed me. I was pressed against the other door, which did not feel too sturdy the entire way. I'm going to re-think how I would like to commute to work someday...


The doors did not close in this instance on my way to swim practice.

This entry has been a work-in-progress for the past few weeks. It took a while to collect the photos, but travelling throughout Buenos Aires can be smooth-sailing or complete madness. In my experiences, there does not seem to be much in between. It has been a big part of my experience living in Capital Federal and studying in Zona Norte - a 90-minute commute each way. For the most part, I have enjoyed it because it was new and interesting. I imagine it's not too exciting after a few months of the same uncertainty, so I consider myself lucky the experience was short-lived. 

Suerte,
Matt


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Asado con Natación...y el final

My final week of the semester has concluded. I finished classes last Wednesday, but this time has been for final exam and paper preparation...Of course, life is hardly ever dull in Buenos Aires, so I'd like to share the highlights.

Monday was a national holiday (SHOCKER!) and the swim team had an asado, or Argentine BBQ, for the end of the swim season/semester. This was a fun day of chilling and eating with some of my favorite Argentines. The BBQ includes a plethora of meat, some veggies, and bread. As I thought it would be the final get-together, I brought my camera to capture a memory with the people that helped make my experience interesting and very memorable. Fortunately, we have planned another asado a few days before my departure. Nevertheless, this asado was just very special to me because it was a wonderful day that pleasantly surprised me with laughter, many lessons about Argentine Spanish, and genuine people.

Meat on the Parrilla (Grill)

Coach (Oscar) cutting the meat

UdeSA Swim Team - including current and retired swimmers



We spared the dishes and silverware, and instead prepared little sandwiches with lettuce, a variety of vegetables and of course, the meat.

A few swimmers smoke, and I was fascinated by the health warning on the package of cigarettes, basically stating "Cigarettes harm your sex life." It was a hilarious conversation topic because I did not notice the innuendo at first.

On Wednesday, Buenos Aires hosted an event at the Planetarium to spot Jupiter and the full moon. Unfortunately, Mother Nature forgot to cancel scattered clouds for the night, so we did not see the large, red planet. Nevertheless, I listened to an interesting lecture about the rarity of such a sighting (about every fifteen years) and learned more about the solar system. Afterwards, I went to get pizza at the Kentucky Pizza chain with Pei and Nadine. The pizza was tasty, but still I do not see a connection between Kentucky and pizza. I also made a quick stop at the Book Fair in Plaza Italia to purchase a book for my upcoming trip. With a few long bus rides ahead, I figured it was a good idea to go with some reading materials...so why not read the autobiography of Evita Perón...or better known as Elvita by some of my loved ones.

Plaza Italia Book Market

Buenos Aires Planetarium. They included an animation to show us what we would have seen, had the clouds not blocked the view.
On Thursday, I had a beer with a friend from my gender class, Carla. Afterwards we walked around the botanical garden near Plaza Italia, and it was just a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city...a moment that calmed my sensory overload. Following that, I went to a tango course at La Viruta in Palermo with Pei and Nadine. It was more challenging to follow than at the UdeSA tango course, but it was worthwhile. It was difficult to communicate as we had to switch partners frequently.
Jardín Botánico (Botanical Garden)

Today I took my last exam. It was a stressful day as I woke up to find out that I was supposed to be on campus already. I misunderstood the time of the exam, and I arrived with twenty minutes left in the exam period. By a stroke of luck, I completed the exam in that time frame (the written part required only a paragraph). The oral exam was nerve-racking, but I believe I passed. I handed in my gender paper earlier in the week, so I am very relieved to be done with my work. I expect to get my grades in the upcoming week. I'm still in disbelief that the semester is complete. Time flies! I have started to bid farewell to several friends from UdeSA as everyone will be traveling in different directions in the next few weeks. It is certainly bittersweet - glad to have had the experience with them, but said to say farewell or take care.

Once again, I will be off traveling to another part of Argentina and beyond, this time to Mendoza (Argentine wine country) and Chile (Santiago and Valparaíso). This is my final trip of the semester as I enjoy the remaining weeks in my semester in Argentina. Don't cry for me, because another exciting adventure is just around the corner! You can expect to hear from me in two weeks or so. :)

¡Qué disfruten del comienzo de diciembre!
Abrazo grande,
Matt

Montevideo, Uruguay: mi tranquilidad

Still energized by the Tigre game, it was time for Montevideo at dawn the following morning. I had an eventful trip to the ferry terminal involving a bus and confused taxi driver, but otherwise the trip to Montevideo was very relaxing. I headed to the capital of Uruguay with Germain, which involved a ferry to Colonia, Uruguay (which I visited in September) and a bus to Montevideo. The landscape was an endless highway of rolling hills - a complete change from Buenos Aires.
It was a peaceful ride to Montevideo. After leaving the bus station, the city felt like a smaller version of Buenos Aires. I heard good times about Montevideo from others, so I kept my eyes open. The hostel was very creative and cozy, with bright murals and large hang-out spaces. They were very helpful in suggesting what to do.

The first area on the agenda was the Old City (Ciudad Vieja). It was as barren as you see in the photos. It was eerie at first, but it was a perfect opportunity for photos with the sunny day (plus no one, except Germain, to photo bomb - or walk into the photo). The older buildings displayed colorful attributes of distinct eras of architecture in these few blocks. Unfortunately, the Old City is not very safe at night, so we meandered over to the waterfront before it got too late.

There was a wide range of murals that enhance the beauty of the city, in my opinion.

Me in the Old City (the only part where there were people).

Recently, I have enjoyed photographing doors, and the Old City had a nice assortment.


While heading back to the hostel, we stopped at the Cathedral in the Plaza de la Constitución. Germain explained the history behind the unique traditions of various Saints in the Catholic Church, which for once, made me understand what I was observing. Usually, I'm simply impressed by the architecture.
La Puerta de la Ciudadela. The Old City used to be a citadel with a huge wall that surrounded it. The door of the citadel is all that stands today. Interestingly enough, the extravagant side of the entrance faces inward.
Uruguayan flag in the Plaza Independencia

For a quick geography lesson, Uruguay and Argentina are divided by the River Plate (Río de la Plata). This body of water can appear to be a muddy ocean, often stirred up by the wind. Naturally, it was very windy as Germain and I walked along the waterfront before dinner. For me, this was just blissful to hear the water, uninterrupted by the bustling cars or hoards of people. 


Dinner tonight was the traditional Uruguayen Chivito. It is a thinly-sliced burger of beef and ham topped with lettuce, tomato, egg, and sauce. It was tasty, but not as mouth-watering as the one I had in Colonia.
While walking around after dinner, we walked by a concert demonstration promoting the legalization of marijuana and abortion. It's interesting to think on the other side of the river, the protests demand social justice and safety in the streets. Different country, different concerns, I suppose. We did not stick around though. After walking for a solid hour and not coming across anything appealing, we stopped for ice cream, chatted for a bit back at the hostel, and called it a night.

Saturday morning was bright and blue. It was a great day for biking. We walked through the downtown center in search of the Tourist Information Office, who led us to an inexpensive bike rental place. The bikes were 20 UYU (20 Uruguayen pesos = $1 USD) per hour. Such a deal, Germain and I did a 20 kilometer bike ride along the coast to the beachy part of Montevideo. That is where we foudn all the people, who were missing from the Old City and Downtown area. There was a nice breeze that coasted me along the bike path, and we assured for a few breaks along the way to enjoy the gorgeous day.
A Fountain of Locks represents the eternal love of each couple the engraves their name and closes the lock on the fountain. This reminded me of the Bridge of Locks in Köln/Cologne, Germany.

View of Montevideo Downtown Area
Holocaust Memorial along the path
All the Uruguayans were soaking up the sun at the beach.

Biking in style!

Graffiti along the bike ride...I think it added some life to the wall.

Antiques Market. (Mercado de Antigüedades) It was highly recommended but was just a weekly flea market. I would consider the San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires to be more exciting.

Germain and I

After returning the bikes and paying a whole $3.50 USD for nearly 4 hours of biking, we headed back towards the Old City for lunch. Also, I had a few extra pesos, so there was another market there, where I though I could spend the money. 
Since the weather was so nice, of course, we opted to eat outside. As Germain and I were finishing our meals, a cloud came overhead. Germain said, "It looks like it's about to rain." And that is exactly what happened. Not a light drizzle, but torrential downpour! The day went from as you see above to the photo below in an instant. Soon after, it instantly started to HAIL! By then, we had to take shelter indoors. The check was so wet, the waitress had to analyze it for several moments before we could pay. It was such a rapid and extreme change of weather, I could only laugh about the situation...eating lunch outside while being pelted by hail. Lucky for us, the rain stopped as quickly as it started. I managed to wisely spend the remainder of my Uruguayen pesos and enjoy the rest of the time taking in the sights of the Old City, once again.


Döner, my favorite food in Germany. The store was closed, so I still look forward to my next Döner.

Solis Theater

The ride home was restful, except for the windy, wavy, and rocky boat ride back to Buenos Aires, which felt like an amusement park ride the whole way. By the time I made it home safely, I was exhausted after two full days of constantly being on-the-go. Overall, Montevideo, Uruguay was an excellent weekend escape from Buenos Aires. It was relatively inexpensive - the hostel was $10 USD per night and the food was also very reasonable. The city was very clean, free of litter and dog poop; the plazas and streets were well-groomed and cared for. In my opinion, the graffiti and the architecture blended well. I found everyone (particularly the waiters we had) to be friendly in Uruguay, which the Argentines admit as well. Montevideo did not really have anything super special or unique. In turn, that is why I loved it so much. It was nice to visit a modest, compact city. There was no chaos, plenty of fresh air, and not a worry in my mind. Biking along the coast was my favorite part. Photographing the Old City is a close second. 

I'm certainly pleased to say I had a great time visiting country #24 yet again. 

¡Qué tengan Uds. un buen fin de semana!
Todo tranquilo,
Matt