Archive for June, 2009


Over the past two months of travel, we’ve made our way west to east: across the Andes from Chile, into Mendoza, then Cordoba, and most recently spent three weeks in the capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires, taking Spanish classes and exploring New York’s Latin American sister city. And now we find ourselves in the northern region of Salta, surrounded once again by the immense Andes.

Here they express themselves in millions of colors and formations. The earth turns clay red, a few curves of the road later a peak has multicolored layers of green, red, white and purple. Some of the mountains look like hot chocolate drippings, while others like razor sharp blades. These are the youngest mountains in the world, and while mostly imperceptible to us, shift and move yearly, limiting the construction of tall buildings in Salta due to the high likelihood of a terimoto (earthquake).

Striated Rocks of Valles Calchaques

Striated Rocks of Valles Calchaques

On a drive from the city to Cachi, a tiny pueblo soaring more than 2,000 meters above sea level in the Valles Calchaquíes, we spotted guanacos in the far distance of the antiplano (high flat lands), and condors gliding between some of the taller peaks, in search of dead cattle. At the highest point in the drive, a sea of clouds gently bobbed below, made even more beautiful by Valle Encantado, which sat in the middle. An old Incan outpost, it is now a nationally protected zone. Fields of Cordones, tall cacti with a wooden core, soon emerged, and I couldn´t help but run around and gawk at their impressive size and presence in the dessert-like environment.

At Parque Nacional Los Cordones (the big cacti)

At Parque Nacional Los Cordones (the big cacti)

The area was used by the Incas to connect its various occupied territories, from Lima, Peru, to Mendoza, Argentina. Once up on the antiplano, the road uncoiled to a perfect straight line, and continued about 15 km until Cachi. While newly paved, it has been in existence for hundreds of years, originally built by Incan engineers. They ensured its straightness by creating fires in the shroud of night, interspersed every few meters. The road´s straightness was maintained by checking that a fire was perfectly aligned to its neighbor. Even more impressively, the Incas were knowledgeable about plate tectonics, and avoided building on the region´s active plate boundaries.

In the morning our guide insisted on stopping by a deli in Salta and asked that we purchase coca leaves. Yes, the same ones used to make cocaine. Here they are used very sensibly to prevent altitude sickness, fatigue while working, and with appetite suppression. Mountain climbers use them whenever possible to avoid the headaches associate with altitude, and bus drivers who don´t chew the leaves are considered quite reckless. The leaves are green, about 1.5 inches long, and fresh, not dry. You break off the hard stem, and put about 15-25 of them between your lower teeth and cheek. I found the taste to be quite bitter, and had to spit them out after 30 minutes, instead of the preferred 45. Nothing crazy happened– no pink elephants or even a post coffee buzz. I can say, however, that I did not feel ill from the high elevation, and was indeed a bit more alert. The preferred method is to take them with bica (baking soda), which helps with salivation which in turn helps release the leaves´juice, and baggies can be purchased at almost any deli for about $.50-$1.00.

In general, Salta is known for being the country´s largest tobacco producer. You ain´t seen nothin´until you peak at row upon row of 3 foot long tobacco leaves drying in the sun. The area also does not fault itself for bucking national anti-smoking laws, and permits its denizens to smoke just about anywhere (cafes, schools, hospitals…). Then again, it is their main source of revenue, so perhaps its not so stupid to have the producers double up as avid consumers. I´m not sure how it works in the U.S., but here it takes an ungodly 90 workers per sq. km to tend to the plants, and besides the required 3 week drying period, 14 chemical processes are added to make your common pre-packaged cigarettes. If your wondering, this part is exactly the same the world over. Something about international laws mandating the addition of tar and nicotine.

On a non-addictive note, the city is a gem set amongst the mountains, and its other noteable tradition is folklore music. The recent video of Laura´s houseguest playing on the guitar? Yup, that was folklore: songs that dredge up the singer´s inner heart´s secrets and wash the listener over with the beautiful strums of guitar.

Parting Photo of a Llama. Enjoy.

Parting Photo of a Llama. Enjoy.


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bye bye BA

Our sendoff meal was a mountain of lasagna, cooked up by none other than Mendoza Danielle, the curly haird Italian guy. The weather was crap for the past few days, rain and clouds, which prevented us from doing anything remotely ourdoorsy, so we instead finally made it to the Museum of Bellas Artes, where I marveled at the increible collection of 20th century modern art on the second floor, with Argnetine surrealists, cubists, and abtractionists that I´d never heard of (MoMa, you have failed me).

The last week of Spanish class was hard. We started on the subjunctive case, which is HARD, and I was growing a uneasy about separating from my classmated. There is Alana– a shy Baltimore native with bright red curly hair and a body full of tattoos, which the season´s cold weather hid from view most days. We went out together on a few occasions, and I felt privileged to be one of the few she chose as friends. Camilla was a tall and thin incredibly congenial and funny Londoner, with a past more international than most anyone I know. Her father had family in Kenya and Dubai, which she had visited may times, and had lived in Colombia and India over the past year, were she got a very beautiful blue scarf she wore to class. Creston was from Texas, and spoke very well, which he attributed to growing up in Al Paso. There was sophistaced, but barely 24 year old Merve, who a new yorker, but grew up in Turkey, and of course our teacher, Diego– a red Doc Martin wearing, chain smoking anarchist, Gogol Bordello loving, 32 year old fiction writer by night and separated father of two. He is hysterical and has an off penchant for explaining tiny nuances of grammar and language, and had me rapt for every minute of every day.

My Spanish Class

My Spanish Class

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Backtracking to Cordoba..

The two weeks we spent in Cordoba were fairly intense (initially, 4 hours a day of language classes makes your mind turn into a pretzel), but also a lot of fun. It was completely amazing to me how much more effective small, immersion-type classes are when compared to the traditional way of learning I went through back in school. I met quite a few people who started with nothing and after 4 weeks of classes, spoke way better Spanish than I did after 5 years in high school. Now it´s not really that surprising though.. memorization and exercises are OK when you are first learning the material, but in order to be able apply it without thinking, being pushed to speak is the only way.

While in Cordoba, we arranged a home stay through our school and were put up by Laura, a very friendly Cordobese who hosts students in an awesome penthouse-type room on the second floor of her apartment. Our last day, Laura hosted a small party with a bunch of her musician friends (some of whom had apparently been up all night attending other functions.. but that´s really not that hard here since parties only start at 2am). After only half an hour of empanadas and wine, the guitars came out… being there was one of the best parts of this trip.

Here are some videos – be sure to watch these with the sound on!

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Last weekend, I finally had the chance to experience a classico, a soccer game between two of Buenos Aires major futbol clubs, Boca Jrs. (Maradona´s old club team) and Racing.

Although this was supposed to be a relatively laid-back match, getting off the bus near Racing´s stadium, felt like going into a warzone. The place was surrounded by barricades and police in riot gear (which in Argentina includes shotguns). We were quickly whisked past the crowds by our three very capable tour guides, who were all sporting Racing´s blue and white colors, despite,  as we learned later, being die hard Boca fans (one of them was proudly showing off his Boca tattoo during the bus ride back).

The first thing that struck me upon entering the stadium was the lack of commercialism – here it was really all about watching the game. The only type of food for sale were hamburgers and peanuts and the only drink available was Coca Cola (the last thing Argentine sports fans need is beer). There were only two type of seats: bolted down backless plastic thingies and stairs on which people could theoretically sit, although that appeared difficult given that the stairs section looked like a giant moshpit with a marching band (organized by fans) playing in the middle of it.

The stadium was divided into 12 or so sections, of which nine were taken up by fans of the home team, and only one was allocated for Boca fans. The sections on either side of the Boca fans were left as empty ¨buffer zones¨ and had more guys with shotguns posted on either side. The field itself was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and a deep water-filled moat ostencibly to prevent crazed fans from rushing the field.

Although it was still a few hours before kick-off, the stadium was already getting filled with folks coming out a bit early to catch the clubs´ B-teams go at it.  Since we were sitting way up top, I could also peak outside where more marching bands and murga-type carnival dancers were doing their thing.

The build up continued for some time, until finally the players appeared on the field accompanied by some rather basic confetti being shot out onto the field (and immediately cleaned up by guys with rakes and trash bags) and rolls of blue and white plastic bags attached to the top of the stadium and unrolled down onto the heads of the hapless fans below announced that the time for kick-off was approaching.  Although these effects were not the most sophisticated, when combined with the fireworks and exploding smoke bombs snuck into the stadium by the fans, the sum total was pretty exciting.

The game was pretty awesome – especially for those in the Racing section, and especially after their team scored a few goals.  Not sure if you can see this in the videos, but during the really exciting parts, the crowd would start jumping up and down making the (supposedly concrete) stadium waver in a pretty scary but awesome way.  Also, I got to learn some highly colorful spanish which is definitely not taught in any classes and generally only comes out at soccer games.  Good times..

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And we`re back folks! After a few weeks on the road and one more getting settled in Buenos Aires,  I can finally share some stories.

This post goes out to my girl Yelena because GnR`s ”I Used to Love Her” just came on.  (Hi Lenchick!)

So….as I mentioned Dim and I happen to find ourselves in chilly Buenos Aires at the moment. Its the capital of Argentina. Its filled with super hip people who wear leather boots,  smoke many cigarettes, and constantly sound like they´re shushing me because they substitute the `y´ sound in Spanish for `sh´ (shammar, instead of yamar for call).  There are lots of European looking buildings and Avenida 9 de Julio, which is the width of a New York block- the widest street in the world. Yeah! BA is also the capital of tango music and dance.  Yesterday we set out to visit a show, but after confronting an empty hall, decided to go home and try a more happening night later in the week. After walking through some sketchy blocks towards the subway,  Dim and I reconsidered, and flagged down a taxi. The driver turned out to be a big tango enthusiast, and offered to take us to a few other places.  We were a bit put off by the pricey entry fees: roughly $50US, but hey, when the taxi driver tells you that some things in life are worth it, you have to take him at his word.   La Ventana (the window) is a subterranean restaurant with a wine cellar feel, and supposedly one of the best tango bars in the city. It was filled with very well dressed spectators from Argentina,  Asia, Brazil, and who knows where else. Not bad for a Monday night. After drinking our allocated bottle of vino and munching on some jamon crudo and queso, the dancers came on. Or should I say the show started. There was an 8 piece orchestra, 4 tango couples, 2 singers, and an incredible group of native muscians & single dancer from the Peruvian/Argentinian antiplano who´s skillz made my head explode.

Long story short, its really awesome to be living here. My language school is in an old 4 story Baroque style ex-private residence of some wealthy person back in the 1800´s and very literally has golden toilets. Dmitry is taking private classes nearby, also in the center. In the afternoons we´ve been exploring the city´s many neighborhoods by foot,  checking out the museums,  and doing some window shopping. We live in a really fu hostel in the SoHo-like Palermo neighborhood. Whee! More soon…I leave you with some sexy moves. Tonight we´re taking a Tango class, so don´t freak out if I flop my legs around next time I see you.

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