Monday, October 22, 2012

La Vida en Capital Federal

I mentioned a few blog posts back that I hit the ground running upon my return to Buenos Aires. Well, I'm not joking that I did, with my bags and all. 

My living situation in San Isidro quickly went south in the week leading up to my trip to Córdoba, Salta, and Jujuy. To keep the explanation simple, I found living conditions to be rather strict, to the point that I could not tolerate them for the remainder of the semester. I felt stressed and uncomfortable in that I felt sick when I was there...After discussion with some trustworthy people, the most appropriate decision was to move. I informed the family in San Isidro the night before my departure for Córdoba that I would be leaving within three weeks. The timing of my trip could not have been better because we were able to go about our lives separately in this transitional period.

Despite my luck with the first family (strangely in both Germany and Argentina), I was hopeful that a host family change would make the difference. I corresponded with a housing coordinator while I was on my trip by e-mail. She found a family for me in Recoleta, a neighborhood in Capital Federal (the proper city of Buenos Aires.) By the time I was back from Salta, I was ready to move. I arrived on Sunday and moved in to my new family on Monday (afternoon). Although it was just 24 hours, it felt like an eternity. I greatly appreciate the time spent with my friend, Germain, and speaking with my parents to help the time go by.

I felt much more comfortable with my new family almost instantly. My host mom/new Argentine mother, Alice, welcomed me at the door and I met my Argentine siblings throughout the day. There are 8 siblings in total, but four still live at home, while they work and study at university. We live in an apartment, in a building that is over 100 years old. One can notice simple nuances of French architecture throughout. Similar to the building, my Argentine family is full of kind, optimistic, and vibrant characters. Of Irish descent, we have found a common bond in our Irish heritage. In the midst of this, they assimilated me as a member of the family, and so far, my experience has been a world of a difference!

Life in the city is blissful and amazing. Everything is around the corner, or "de la vuelta" in Spanish. There is always something going on, and it is much easier to meet up with friends (who also live in Capital). I still walk around with my mouth open in shock of everything there is nearby...and I've been here for two weeks now. 

Don't get me wrong: there has been an exhausting learning curve involved in getting used to life here. For example, my commute to UdeSA has tripled to 90 minutes each way. Thanks to my schedule, I avoid the rush hour times, so I've been able to enjoy the ride. Life did not stop when I moved; rather, it sped up! I am now formally preparing for a tango performance with my tango class at UdeSA for mid-November. I'm still swimming. In my spare time, I've enjoyed wandering the streets to better acquaint myself with Recoleta. I met my cultural partner/buddy, Santiago, who will be studying at NYU next semester. 

Some of the highlights from these turbulent two weeks include: 
  • I passed my mid-term exams in Spanish and Linguistics.
  • Several visits to Puerto Madero.
    • On Friday (the 12th of October), I met up with Inbal (from Isreal, with whom I went to Oktoberfest) and a new acquaintance, Lior. We toured the ecological park in Puerto Madero for the day, and I returned home to find myself pretty sunburnt.
    • The following day, Germain and I paid another visit meandering the familiar sights of Puerto Madero. We visited the Fragata Armada Argentina, an old naval ship that was converted into a museum at sea.
  • I met my anfitrión, Santiago (similar to the Cultural Partner program at TCNJ's I-House) during the week on campus. The following Sunday, we went to the Malba (a modern art museum in Capital).                                 
  • This past week, my linguistics professor called in sick, but I did not receive the message until I arrived to campus. Yup, that long trip in the rain was a bite, but I still had a productive day. Plus, I got to sleep in the following day because class was cancelled for the week.
In this time I was also reunited with my former housemates - Julia, Chris, and Will. It was nice to see them also content with their new living situations.

I attended a conference at UdeSA this past weekend. The Student Management International Conference selected 70 students from all over Europe and Latin America to discuss crisis management in the workplace. Minus a student from Puerto Rico, I was the only American from the continental 48 states present. It was an honor to be selected. In fact, I was interviewed and featured as a "person of interest" in the Facebook page leading up to the event. This is the blurb below: 
Source: SMIC Facebook Page

There was a variety of interactive workshops, all very well-organized. It was a pleasure to meet some many diverse young professionals. I was also in denial that I was placed in what I would consider such a prestigious category. Many kindly complimented my Spanish, and it was nice to share my perspectives when I could. But more importantly, I took a lot from just listening. (Language Dork Sidenote: Being intrigued by the different Spanish accents, I took a particular interest in noticing certain pronunciation patterns that participants from other countries had.)
Source: SMIC Facebook Page

Enjoying lunch with my fellow SMICkers. (Get the reference to the candy, Snickers?)
Source: SMIC Facebook Page
Source: SMIC Facebook Page
All the SMICkers at a very successful conference!

The conference concluded with a fiesta that ended the three days of chats, ideas, and debate on a high note. The following day (Sunday, October 21) was Mother's Day here in Argentina. The whole family gathered for tea to celebrate Alice. It was a very nice day to honor Alice, despite the rain. For me, it was a day of recovery. I also got the opportunity to meet the remainder of my Argentine siblings who I had not met before. The Atlantic City Salta Water Taffy was a hit, as everyone tried the different flavors. However, it is quite contradictory to call something sweet if it has "salt" in the name.

All in all, life has simply gotten better here in Argentina. Life is always a challenging in times of transition, but everything going on has continued to teach me something everyday. 

Now that you are up-to-date, I will be going to the end of the world, or also known as Patagonia, until next week! ¡Hasta luego!

Saludos y un abrazo enorme,

¡A las nubes...a pie, en bici y en tren!

Source: Google Maps
Point A - San Antonio de los Cobres (highest town in Argentina - 4,220m above sea level)

After a few days of being constantly on the move through Jujuy and northern Salta, it was nice to be back at home base (a.k.a. Salta). Friday (the day following Iruya and Humahuaca) was dedicated to the city of Salta. Julia, Milena, Facundo, and I did a variety of activities that offered a nice experience. First, we went to the Virgen del Cerro (Virgen of the Hill). Julia, a weekly church-goer, wanted to visit the saint, so we all made the hike up. It was a reflective time for me as well, plus we earned a wonderful view from the top, overlooking Salta. 
Virgen del Cerro - Salta

View from Virgen del Cerro overlooking Salta

We did the hike in half the time. In order to fill the time we gained, we made our way over to San Lorenzo, a ritzy suburb of Salta with a castle and a jungle reserve. It turns out that the castle was converted into a hotel, so it is not a formal tourist attraction anymore. We asked to take a look around, so one of the workers was kind enough to show us around and provide a bit of history to the structure. Following that, we walked along a stream that led up to a reserve. Unsure of what there was to do, we hopped back in the car and went to the Teleférico. This time, we drove up instead of taking the gondola/lift.

Castle of San Lorenzo (now a hotel and restaurant)
A street performer we encountered on the way to the Teleférico

The views at the Teleférico were similar to those from the Virgen del Cerro. The souvenior stands attracted the attention of Julia and Milena, while Facundo and I noticed an offering of San Bernando mountain bike tours (the ride downhill from the top of the Teleférico). We all agreed to do the tour. There was paperwork to be filled out, and then we got a deal: 4 people for the price of 3. (Dad, you must be so proud.) We biked through the woods a bit and a part that was recently burnt by a natural fire, before returning to the main road for an easy coast down. It was not really an adventure because the tour lasted about forty minutes. The amusing part was being transported back up the hill in the bed of the pick-up truck with the bikes. 

After the bike ride, it was time to return the car. I opted to go to the MAAM - Museo Arqueológico de Alta Montaña, while the others rested in the hostel. I walked around Salta to see the main sites by day before reaching the museum. The MAAM contains the perfectly perserved bodies of three Incan children that were sacrificed to the Incan gods over five centuries ago. The minerals and temperature of the location in the mountain, where they were found in a National Geographic excavation, provided the ideal circumstances to prevent the bodies from decaying. The museum was very insightful to the life of the Incas and by the time I got to view the body, it was hard for me to believe that he had lived over 500 years ago! At first, to me it didn't seem real. Simply amazing to be preserved by nature for so long (now by modern science)!
MAAM - Plaza 9 de Julio
Churches/Cathedrals - Salta is a very religious province

Salta Capital at sunset

During the evening, I met back up with Facundo, Julia, and Milena, and we went to a peña in Calle Balcarce. I enjoyed the typical Salteño food: tamales and empanadas. Like most peñas, we attended a show that encouraged audience participation. I took advantage of the opportunity to learn the chacarera, a northern Argentine dance. I performed with the professional female dancer, who directed me through the steps so I didn't look like a complete fool. Following our dinner and a show, we returned to the main Plaza 9 de Julio, where there was a concert of several young bands.
Peña - Calle Balcarce (performing the chacarera)

It was an early night for me following the peña because I had to be up at 5:30am for the Train to the Clouds (Tren a las Nubes). This is a day-long tourist train that travels through the mountains to provide the passenger with stunning views of the landscapes leading up to the highest town in Argentina, San Antonio de los Cobres. Julia, Milena, and Facundo left for Córdoba and the Oktoberfest celebrations while I was in the train; they gave me a few tips, since they went on the train earlier in the week, when I was in Iruya. 

 Sitting comfortably on the left side of the train with the guide, Cecelia.

We left the station in Salta before the sun was up (a little after 7am), and the ride was very slow. I was not content with my seat (Julia suggested I get on the left side of the train, and my assigned seat was on the right.) In search of a seat on the left side, I found a spot open next to our train's cabin guide/assistant. She was EXTREMELY friendly and let me stay there for the rest of the trip...I was a happy camper. The tour guide pointed out certain points of interest along the way as we traveled through the Valle (Valley) de Lerma, Quebrada del Toro (Gorge of the Bull), and la puna She also explained some of the manuevers that train had to perform to reach an altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level and put in videos or music to entertain/inform us in the downtime. I was very concentrated on the views, but for many it was easy to fall asleep...the ride was very comfortable. I think the pictures will describe the views better than words (since a picture is worth a thousand words...)

Ceibo - Argentina's National Flower
Riding through the Puna - a part of the Andes Mountains

Entertainment on the train even included a peña singer.

The engine train pushed from behind as we crossed the viaduct.
(It was cool to watch the preparation process as we stopped
 briefly - without getting out - at San Antonio de los Cobres.)

I mentioned that the train ride was the whole day, right? We arrived to San Antonio de los Cobres in the mid-afternoon. But first, we drove passed the town to La Polvorilla, an Argentine bridge that is an engineering marvel - a curved viaduct, technically.  
Smile for the picture! (Then briskly return to the safety of your seat, Matt)

La Polvorilla (Curved viaduct)

It was neat experience to ride the third highest railroad in the world! Again, we were reminded to take it slow due to the altitude. We stopped for about twenty minutes to take pictures of the viaduct and purchase the local artesan's handy crafts. The locals did not seem to be bothered that they were a tourist spectacle. Unlike other places I've visited, everyone (locals and tourists) were respectful of one another. To earn money, some were dressed in their native, traditional dress for photo opportunities.

After saluting the Argentine flag during the playing of the national anthem, every found their seats in the train, and we returned to San Antonio de los Cobres. There wasn't really anything to this town. Like I mentioned, it is the highest town in Argentina, but we stopped where there were only more craft vendors. It's a shame we didn't have the chance to walk around, but at the same time, I was feeling the altitude was ready to get closer to sea level.

More artisan vendors

Instead of returning to Salta in the train, everyone was transported back by bus. Coca leaves helped my headache go away as we travelled down. (Yes, coca leaves are the ones you use to make cocaine...they help with altitude sickness by increasing the circulation of oxygen in your brain. The amount of leaves I purchased wouldn't even get an ant high.) 
Coca leaves (Hojas de coca)

I spent a bit extra for the "off-road adventure." It ended up including an additional stop at a the Sitio Arqueológico Tastil (Tastil Archaeological Site), which offered the most spectacular views of the day. The site was home to a musical civilization that communicated through sounds they made using specific rocks. The mystery is who they has yet to be determined. 

Piece of Volcanic Rock

On the way back to Salta, we stopped for a toast with champagne and cheese. It was a nice time to get better acquainted with my fellow travelers. They were quite interested in what I was doing in Salta (like most Argentines, who are curious about what I'm up to in Argentina). It was a nice conclusion to this much anticipated excursion. 

I returned to the hostel, hopeful that I would have the room to myself, but instead encountered Hannah (from my birthday night in Salta and Tilcara) in the room. A pleasant surprise, it was a treat to end the trip, reflecting about the time with a newly found friend. We got Salta's best ice cream, and it was such a good banana split, I can't remember having a better one. I enjoyed the company and the good conversation.

I can certainly say that I had many pleasant surprises from the beginning to the end of this trip. It was truly a blessing (at times, in disguise). Although I was nervous about traveling on my own (especially after being robbed less than two weeks prior), everything could not have worked out better! I honestly loved every moment, and I hope I managed to portray my enjoyment for this trip to you.

By 9am on Sunday, I was back to the hustle-and-bustle of Buenos Aires - a drastic change from the sunny, northern region of Argentina.

Un abrazo fuerte,

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Iruya increíble y Humahuaca humilde

Source: Google Maps
Point A - Humahuaca, Jujuy, Argentina
Point B - Iruya, Salta, Argentina
*The white line is the border with Bolivia and Argentina.

As Milena, Julia, and Facundo explored Humahuaca, I made my way over to the bus station to purchase a ticket to Iruya. Due to a few delays in the original itinerary, I figured I would look around Humahuaca after returning from Iruya (because there is only a bus from Humahuaca to Iruya and back, I knew I would be back). Described as a "magical town in the mountains," I was very eager to find out for myself what Iruya was like. "Coincidentially" at the bus station, I encountered Ariane (from Holland) for the second time that day. She asked what my plans were, and I said where I was headed. "Oh, I hear it's magical there," she said... Now, I really wanted to see the magic. Ariane purchased a bus ticket too and an hour later, we were off to Iruya.
Bus driver tying luggage on top of the bus

The bus ride to Iruya was the most memorable and frightening bus trip of my life. It is only about 60 kilometers (36 miles) from Humahuaca to Iruya, yet the ride was just over three hours. We started on a highway leaving Humahuaca, but about twenty minutes in, we hooked a right onto a windy, gravel, mountainous road, which we took all the way to Iruya. It was the local bus, so there was a stop every few miles. Some people got off the bus, and I did not see a sign of civilization within made me wonder where they were heading. Also, the bus was absolutely packed to the point that I sat sideways in my seat. There were two teenagers flirting and the girl's hip was suffocating my shoulder. Personal space was tied up on the roof with the luggage and bags. 

I guess because of the dust from the road and the wind, the windows were tied shut, so it was like an oven, until the last half hour it was freezing. As the bus started to cool, the windows started to fog. There was an assistant to the driver who checked tickets and cleaned the windshield. As our visibility was minimized, we drove into a cloud. It's cool in a plane, not so much in a bus. It was concerning to know there was a long way down, even though I could not see six inches outside the bus. After several prayers, deep breaths and talking with Ariane, the fog lightened up. I was more at ease that I could see the the side; in front, there were views of the mountains as we kept going around the bends. Some of the locals were kind enough to point out the wildlife we passed by on this eternal trek uphill. 

Heading into the cloud. 

From my perspective, the bus driver was a master (although the fog is probably nothing out of the ordinary for him.) Note the ZERO VISIBILITY in the photo below.
The ride was a very long three hours. I was relieved when we finally arrived to Iruya at 4,000 meters above sea level. The sun had already set, and the clouds showed signs of imminent rain. The true darkness over the mountains, minus a few flickering lights, was absolutely peaceful. I was swarmed by locals offering housing as I got off the bus, but I politely declined as I already booked a hostel. Ariane chose to stay at a local's house, although she was a bit disappointed to find out her host was from Perú, since she thought he was from Iruya. (He moved to Iruya when he married his wife, a local from Iruya - so technically, he's been adopted into the community.) I lucked out at the hostel with a private room. It was only me and another family of three staying there for the night.

After settling in a bit, Ariane and I hung out at the main square, where we awaited the start of the annual pet parade. It was quite chilly outside (less than 40ºF), so most of my energy was concentrated on staying warm. Fortunately enough, it did not rain. In honor of the Patron Saint Roque, the youngest members of the community walked around and presented their fuzzy friends, which ranged from dogs and rabbits, to birds. The kids had some cute answers to the questions they were asked about their pets by the host. This little show was part of series of events leading up to the Fesitval of St. Rosario, which was the upcoming weekend. Ariane and I were exhausted from the trip, so we did not stay to find out who won. Rather, we opted to rest and get an early start in the morning.

Up at dawn, Ariane and I headed up to the Mirador, an overlook point of the town below. It was amazing to see as the sun rose over the mountains - the sunlight hitting the colorful mountains made it look different every five minutes.
Overlooking Iruya in the Mountains at Dawn

Cross at El Mirador

After taking a superfluous amount of photos, Ariane and I headed downhill to my hostel for breakfast. We had a few encounters with very friendly dogs and donkey that was free to roam the streets. After breakfast, I checked out. We hiked most of our remaining time in Iruya. We passed a point where three rivers intersect. Like the other rivers in the region, it was mostly dried up. The views on the trail were remarkable, and the variety of colors were unlike anything I've observed in other parts of the world. We had to take it slow on the hike due to the altitude; it was easy to lose your breath.
Ariane and I even got a friendly four-legged tour guide. The dog (seen above) accompanied us from  Iruya, so Ariane suggested we name him. We agreed on Pablo (formally, Pablo III), and after a few attempts, he started to respond to the name! Pablo was a charming and very interesting addition to the hike. Since I'm not too much of a dog person, he took a particular liking to Ariane.
Pablo III, Ariane, and Me
Pablo protecting us from the harmless donkeys

The main chapel in Iruya, at the start of the 
street up to El Mirador (Cross in upper left corner)

With about an hour left before the bus back to Humahuaca, I wanted to appreciate more of the views from Iruya. The town is divided into two main parts, split by the river in between. Since I spent my time on the main side, I wanted to cross the bridge for the view of the main side with the yellow chapel. When I wandered the streets of the other side, it was clear to me that this side was less touristy. I was simply in awe of the views. Looking out at the mountains, the colors, the sky, the river, and the people going about their lives, I had a strong sense of calm come over me like I did in Iguazú Falls. That sensation for me solidified the fact that Iruya is magical. Also, it could have been partially due to the lack of oxygen reaching my brain. Nevertheless, Iruya was easily my favorite stop on this trip - the simplicity of this town is humbling.
The principal view of Iruya, with the yellow chapel

Final glimpse of Iruya before getting on the bus back to Humahuaca. 
(I walked back underneath the bridge to check out the set up going on for the upcoming festival that weekend.)

The bus ride back was a thousand times more comfortable. There were about six people on the bus, so everyone had quite a bit of room. The sky was crystal clear, so the views were even more spectacular on the way back. Plus, you could open up the windows for air flow this time! 

Technology, even in the middle of nowhere
Yes, this is a real place. Bus ride from Iruya to Humahuaca.

Before returning to Salta Capital for the evening, we had a two hour window of time to explore Humahuaca. To be honest, it was comparable to Tilcara and Pumamarca. It was nice to stroll around, although it felt like déjà vu. I felt more of the altitude here than I did in Iruya. That could have also been due to fatigue. Another picturesque town, it had the most vendors and side streets that offered a unique pizazz to the experience. Ariane and I stopped at a café before getting on the bus for the four-hour trip to Salta.
Main walking area (above: Cabildo; below: cool sidestreet)

View of Humahuaca
Overlooking Humahuaca from the Monument to the Heroes of the Independence 
(Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia)
Heading back to Salta La Linda on Ruta 9!

I purchased a "direct" ticket back to Salta. However, I interpreted direct differently than the bus company. They failed to mention that Ariane and I would have to switch buses in San Salvador de Jujuy. When I spoke to a bus employee, I didn't understand a thing she said (the only time on this trip that happened to me). Fortunately another passenger clarified what we had to do. I'm glad we skipped San Salvador de Jujuy because it was not the nicest place to have to switch buses. We made it on the right bus! Exhausted and altitude-lagged, I arrived to Salta, said farewell to my wonderful travel companion, Ariane, and was reunited with Facundo, Milena, and Julia. There wasn't much left to do that evening but to rest up for the next day.

One more entry to go in this trip of a lifetime!