Sunday, September 28, 2008

Save your coins!

Another wash day in our little apartment, but this time we rigged the bathroom to be more entertainment-oriented (it takes awhile to handwash and rinse all of our clothing). You know how, at home, the washing machines tend to mysteriously "eat" socks? Well, somehow, when we've handwashed on our travels, our socks seem to have multiplied! Makes you wonder...

Each country has its own little ideosynchracies concerning money, and a prevalent one in Buenos Aires is the shortage of coins. Take last week when we tried to come home from Koreatown. We had forgotten our spare change, and the buses will not take bills at all. No problem, right? I just went into a store and tried to change a bill. "No hay monedas!" (We don't have coins) said the storekeeper strictly.

Odd, I thought, but went to another little convenience store. "No hay monedas!"
And a bakery... "No hay monedas!"

It's not like I had a huge bill. I had a 2 peso note (60 cents) and simply needed it in coins. So, I decided to give in and went to a supermarket where I attempted to buy some cookies that I didn't really want, just to get change. The storegirl rang it up, but when I tried to pay, she refused to give me change because she said she didn't have any. It was true (I looked in her drawer). It was beginning to get ridiculous because we were a good eight miles from home and were lugging around a heavy bucket of kim-chi.

FINALLY, I begged and begged an overpriced gas station lady and she cracked down and gave me change after I bought some crackers (where she got it from, I don't know... I was beginning to believe the great Coin Rapture had just taken place).

The highlight of our past few days was our recent shoe shopping trip. Tango dancing, as with certain other dances, requires special shoes, especially for the girl. We visited a wide range of shops until we each found the perfect pair for us (which just happened to match). Joo special ordered hers by combining two pairs of shoes (she liked the design of one and the fit of another) and here are mine...

to make the whole experience even more perfect, we received a string of translation jobs within the next two days that allowed us to earn back everything we had spent on the shoes. The budget is going quite well, but it's always a bit uncertain since we have no control over how many jobs get sent to us. South America tends to average about $25 a day per person at the level we've traveled ($30-$35 on travel days and $15-$20 on stationary days).

A bit more than the $15 average I had through Asia a few years ago, but that's also partly because of the dollar's crash. So, there are some days when we're in a translation drought and I momentarily desire to be in a salaried job, but then I start to think of what Life is all about and I'm so glad that I have this bundle of free time to spend with Joo (and ironically, more time with family and friends too thanks to blogs, email, skype, etc.). After all, we have the next 30 years of our lives to worry about salaries, a home, etc.

It's been a wonderful honeymoon so far and the recent dancing lessons have injected it with even more passion and excitement :)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Confusion and our common day


I used to understand language. Sure, math was my strong point, but I always enjoyed writing papers and reading good literature. Now, my day job consists of proofreading things like this...

"...compared with delta line spectral pairs (LSP) VQ, which correlates with the state-of-the-art split vector quantizer (SVQ) commonly used in both EVRC-B and EVRC-WB, demonstrating dramatic reduction in spectral distortion (SD)..." Spanish practice has come through reading my friend Carlos' book that often spits out colloquial like this (by the way, assuming you don't speak any Spanish, this is strange even for people who DO speak Spanish):

"¿Quién so'vo' y que queré' acá adentro, forro? La'sapatiyas se las di a este boludo..."

...and my current passion, tango, is based on a whole new body language I can't even begin to express in words. Incidentally, it is NOT the same body language that is used in salsa as Joo so delicately suggested to me after a week of crushing her muscles into an awkwardly incorrect frame.

But of course it's a pleasurable chaos where I feel free to take my time getting lost, wander around in all the confusion, and relax with Joo for a good meal to ground myself. Our daily schedule goes something like this...

11:00 am (or whenever my bladder wakes me) - I descend from our loft, turn the computer on to check if we have any translation assignments, turn the heater on, boil some water for my mate and JooYeon's Patagonian fruit tea (in the rare case that she's awake), and begin working on my proofediting while I munch on some wholegrain bread and dulce de leche (like caramel).

2:00 pm - Joo wakes up and comes down. If I'm working, she makes me breakfast and if I'm not, I prepare breakfast for her. Either way, she takes a chunk out of the big white bucket of kim-chi in the fridge. Then we map out the day's schedule and half-watch some CSI or Law and Order while we try to build our Spanish by reading subtitles.

3:00 pm - Joo starts on her translation, and if it's a difficult one, we do it together. Some times this takes us fairly late into the evening and other times, there's no job to work on. In that case, we go out to walk around, shop for groceries, get Joo's cafe con leche at her favorite cornershop, and occasionally go to a far corner of Buenos Aires (like Koreatown). Some times I take a nap to compensate for waking up early (10:30, for instance).

6:00 pm - Tango time. We try to average about one 2-hour class per day, although there are evenings when we just stay home, throw in our "La Cumparsita" Tango CD, and combine YouTube tutorials with all the instructions dancing around in our heads from various teachers.

8:30 pm - Lunch. This varies from picking up some Middle Eastern Schwarmas in the downtown Florida strip to sizzling up a steak and veggies or whatever Joo whips up at home to our favorite pizza place where large muzzarellas go for $3 apiece.

10:00 pm - We finish up any translation work either of us may have abandoned from earlier in the day, then relax with some TV, a movie, or occasionally an online word game. I work on our blog, Joo writes emails and surfs, some times we Skype a friend or relative.

1:00 am - A light dinner. And then lots of late night silly time filled with more tango practice, conversations, cleaning, drinking large glasses of chilled agua con gas y Terma Serrano (carboned water with Argentinian herbs), jacuzzi, researching our plans for next year, etc.

3:00 am - Lights out, but not bedtime. We still have about 30 minutes to lay in bed and reflect on the day, our friends and family, our life back in Korea, the honeymoon so far, ponder finances, plans for the future, etc.

There's a lot more little stuff here and there, but that should give you a pretty accurate overall view of what our life looks like here in Buenos Aires (note that it's significantly different from when we're on the move with our backpacks of course). Who says plane tickets are expensive? We just bought our tickets back to the US finally... for $185 each, taxes included!!! December 9th. Yes, there is the slight catch that the departure is from San José, Costa Rica, a couple thousand miles north, but that will work out perfectly for us to be able to spend some time in some wonderful countries as we gradually head north in November-early December! If anyone has a few extra days around Thanksgiving, let us know and we can meet up in Colombia...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The rookies enter the dance floor

"Bueno, izquierda, derecha, izquierda, piso, piso, da una vuelta! No, una vuelta! Esperate, 'perate, 'perate! Otra vez, otra vez... izquierda, no, no, NO! IZQUIERDA!"

These kind of instructions are becoming quite commonplace to Joo and me recently. It took us a couple weeks to get settled into San Telmo and find our groove with the daily life, cooking, Spanish, translating, etc., but we finally got around to pursuing one of our main goals in Argentina... the tango. The tango is a very sensual, beautiful dance centered around synchronization and creativity. You may have seen good Argentinian tango in particular in movies like Evita, Scent of a Woman, Save the Last Dance, or Mr. and Mrs. Smith. You may have seen Joo and I's level of Argentinian tango if you've ever watched college football.

Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires. Yet, it still took us about a week to actually find a class because most places are filled with dancers who have been doing this their entire lives, or at least a few years. We eventually emailed 30 different teachers and sorted through the responses to find some in a good price range that would take beginners in their classes.

Our first class was in the basement of a club. There were about ten other couples there, most of them quite a bit older, and all of them much more experienced. Alberto, the male teacher, began by leading some steps and I tried to follow him as best as I could. Then I grabbed Joo and started swinging her around hopelessly until Alberto walked over laughing and said, "No, no, no. Básico. Básico."

Since then, we've had another public class with Alberto and Fernanda. We basically stumble around playing tango dodgeball as I yank Joo in all directions to avoid the other dancers flying at us. To sharpen us up a bit, we had a private lesson with a dancer named Patricia. In Korea, I never hired a private teacher because they charged $200 an hour. Patricia was only $26 for the hour and she helped us out significantly with the basics (even though there was no way we could remember the entire list of things we were apparently doing wrong!)

We're both very thrilled about the experience overall though, even if we are both quite clumsy at the moment. Learning to dance together with a soulmate has been a dream of both of ours for a long time, and to have it come true in the city where tango was born is euphoric. The only regret I have from the past few years is that I stopped taking salsa classes in Korea when I got too busy. I had taken lessons for about six months and was more confident, in shape, and happy than I had been in quite awhile from all the salsa adrenaline. But I've lost most of it. So the plan now is to learn tango in Argentina, and then relearn salsa on the way back North to the U.S.

In order to get our apartment floor ready for dancing, Joo and I (okay, it was basically only Joo) gave it a thorough cleaning. We even washed Vicky for the first time. Vicky is short for Vicuña, which is the blanket that has been Joo's salvation ever since Peru. She folds it over her like a pancake wherever we stay to give her a millimeter barrier from potential bedbugs.

On a complete tangent, although the steaks in Argentina are mouthwatering, I'm pretty sure there is at least one brand that might not be the biggest hit in the U.S. ...

So, as the stone boys continue to guard the streets of San Telmo, we feel more and more at home here every day (don't worry Mom, we still fully intend to return for Christmas!) and I hope that by the time we return home, we'll be good enough to give free tango lessons to any of you who so desire!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

As if clogging millions of arteries wasn't enough...

Can you guess which one is real? I'm not sure if you remember the counterfeit 5 sol we received in Peru which had an appropriate ending in the hands of a corrupt taxi driver, but this was a bit more frustrating because it was worth about US$17... quite a significant amount on a backpacker's budget. We traced its origins to a McDonalds we had stopped in on the first day, but by the time we realized it, we had no proof. So, until another corrupt taxi driver overcharges us by 50 pesos, JooYeon has devised her own little revenge strategy... whenever we're out and about in the city and she needs to go to the bathroom, she just uses McDonalds without purchasing anything. If she continues to do so once a week for the next ten years, it should actually work out! By the way, the counterfeit one is the top one... the ink is a slight bit wider and the paper itself feels a little different (but man, the likeness is impressive...)

Luckily, we're able to find ways to save other pesos here and there to compensate... for instance, did you ever realize how convenient a jacuzi is for washing clothes? We've also been able to do enough translation jobs to almost break even for our time here in Buenos Aires, so the budget is going well.

Another positive break came tonight when there was a happy ending to the Niagara falls hotel fiasco four months ago. (You can read the story by going to May archives, and then reading the blog, "the Thought that Counts") At that time, I accidentally reserved a hotel room in Canada and they refused to give me a refund, but did allow me to postpone the date. I had just chosen an arbitrary date, knowing full well that Joo and I would be in South America. Since that date is approaching soon, I posted it on craigslist and tonight Sally, a friendly lady from California, purchased it for four of her friends who will be going to Niagara Falls soon.

We really don't go to international food chains often (despite the several mentionings of McDonalds), but we did have to stop in a Starbucks the other day as we hadn't seen one in months and JooYeon was having an intense Frappuccino craving. It must have been one of the first in Argentina, because they couldn't keep up with demand - people were lined up well past the door. It worked great for me because they kept bringing free samples of cakes and gourmet drinks to us in line as we waited. And at least the change they gave me wasn't counterfeit. But even Starbucks can't compare at all to the corner cafe three blocks from our apartment. Despite the crowds of university students flocking the place Joo merely has to nod her head to the owner and he whips her up the usual in no time... a grande cafe con leche with cream on top for $1.15!

What is this next picture? Chapstick taped to a stone table? Much more than that... it's a symbol of true love. Joo knows that I'm rather addicted to using carmex after showers and brushing my teeth, and she also knows that I'm quite prone to losing the little tins, so she cleverly taped the carmex to the bathroom counter. What a wife!

As Joo and I were recently beginning to discuss whether we will stay here in BA for another month or move on in October, I found myself doing some of my typical Daniel Showalter life questioning. I seem to have a real need to justify my travels since they do come at the price of delaying education, a home, a family, a career, retirement funds, etc. And usually this is quite easy to do - seeing new places, new foods, new languages, meeting people, solving daily challenges, controlling emotions, building life experiences - all contribute to keeping me rather productively occupied.

But recently I noticed that something was missing in our three weeks in BA so far... community. Joo and I have had no regular contacts for this time since the boys left and I think it's the longest I've ever gone without a community of some sorts. And regardless of how introverted certain female adults from Ingleside might claim I am, I've found that community does give me a sense of purpose. I think I could be a monk, but I would have to live in a monastic community (and of course I'd need to have secret daily visits with Joo in a nunnery nearby). When I told this to Joo, I was feeling about 95% happy with our time in BA, and she told me she was 100% happy. But after sharing our feelings, she dropped significantly because she perceived me as unhappy, and I went up even higher because I realized how happy she was. Happiness is a strange creature... especially when you base it on someone else's happiness and they base theirs on yours. But I guess this is just one of the fun new lands of exploration we'll encounter on our yearlong honeymoon!

As my thoughts row across the sea and back...

Since getting married, there have been a few changes in my life and one has been the fading of my need for absolute privacy. A few years ago, I would have put very little of my real thoughts onto an online journal that anyone could read, but now it's becoming increasingly appealing. (Although I suppose I'll have to be careful once I'm a teacher again). It somehow feels more connected to my readers than a mass email, maybe because a mass email is like forcing something upon a person, whether they want to read it or not, and the blog is only seen by those who voluntarily visit. Or maybe over time as it begins to tell my history, and the history of JooYeon, filled with pictures of loved ones and memories, I'm just becoming more attached to it, a feeling I rarely had with mass emails.

The point is that I'd like to start sharing more of my thoughts here, although any very private dialogues on these thoughts can still be held in personal emailing-calls. For starters, one thing on my mind lately has been the tribal area in India where my friend Wes and I lived for five months (by the way, all pictures in this entry are his). Despite the fact that it was very unpopulated and a random area deep in the mountains, it has become the center of a massacre in recent weeks. An outspoken Hindu leader was murdered and, even though it was claimed by the Naxalites, a Maoist guerrilla group, the Hindus attacked the Christians with full force. More specifically, the dalit Christians who used to be untouchables, or members of the lowest caste in the Hindu system. That was three weeks ago. Since then, the official death count is at 25, but local Christians say that it's much higher with hundreds injured, thousands fleeing, and churches, homes, and schools torched, water poisoned, raping of nuns, burning people alive, etc. Google "violence in Orissa" or anything like that if you want to read more about it.

I realize this is a desensitized concept these days with so much publicity on the horrors of Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. and that these numbers from India are much lower, but this was our little safe home in India. We lived with Simon Digal (shown above as he rides in from a work day), the village chief, and because the town well was at his house, all the villagers came and went daily while making cheery talk with the family. Grandma Phuseli would wake up each morning before sunrise to start the cooking fires and then Mommy (pictured above) would whip us up some red tea with rice krispies to start off the chilly winter mornings. As the sun started to warm things up, we would get some work done around the house, like here where we were threshing the rice by walking around on it until it separated (even though we usually ended up dancing or playing circle tag because it was fun and got the job done more quickly!)

The older girl, Tiki, was away at school most of the time while we played with the three youngest kids and exchanged languages. Simon would come home from work each evening and use his limited English to help sort out any communication walls we had run into during the day, and we would all laugh together at the difference between reality and what we THOUGHT the other person had meant. At night, Wes and I would often stand out on the meadow behind our house and hold conversations while gazing at the endless field of stars, unobstructed by electricity or lights. Even after we left, we stayed in contact - Wes returned a couple years later, and Jim, a man from my home church set up a fund that raised over $5,000 to put all four girls (now five) through higher education instead of losing them to the dowry system.
But now, according to a contact Wes has in a nearby town, half of Simon's little village has been burned. Neither of us have been able to contact anyone we knew from the village since there are no phones and Simon only gets on the internet when he goes into the city, which is a couple times a year. So now most of this area looks more like this...

Half of me reads the stories and looks at the pictures with that "slightly sympathetic, but not really affected personally" way that I always read over war stories. Another quarter of me feels more deeply emotional but still distanced, like how I felt after watching Hotel Rwanda. But a small part of my mind flashes back over the faces of the Digals and the other people we knew in the Raikia area, Hindus, Christians, and tribals, and I wonder what they're doing, if Simon is in trouble because of his pastoral work (he had been jumped by a Hindu gang before but had fought his way out), how they're moving ahead with their life, if they're sleeping in fear, how the girls' world view is changing...

And then of course, selfish guy that I am, I'm warped back to MY life in Buenos Aires by a meal, or washing some clothes, or picking up a book I want to read. It's hard to truly stay connected to someone on the other side of the world for any sustained period of time. Realizing that just inspires me even more to make this blog an authentic expression of how I'm doing to at least maintain an occasional deep bond with some of my friends and family around the world (and the guy in Manchester, U.K. who stumbled across the blog accidentally by googling "child-eating monster")

With Love,


Monday, September 15, 2008

Are you disponible?

I am a forgetful person. Which tends to haunt me in a variety of refreshing ways as I find myself in different locations around the world. In America, I've often forgotten to turn my car lights off. In India, I occasionally forgot to boil my water. In Russia, I forgot to get a legal visa. In Finland, I forgot my coat. In Korea, I forgot to bring my face mask a couple times during the yellow dust. And in Argentina, I keep forgetting the wise words of Alejandro.
Our apartment is owned by a French man named Kristoffe, but since he is in France, he has hired a local manager named Alejandro. Alejandro is a gay manicurist who upholds the Argentinian rules of hospitality to a tee. A simple phone call may easily take 10 minutes because 90% of it consists of polite words like...

Ale: So, I'm sorry about the electricity (that story later).
Me: No problem at all.
Ale: It was really unfortunate.
Me: It's okay, it wasn't that big of a deal.
Ale: Still, I apologize for it profusely.
Me: Don't worry about it.
Ale: If there's anything else I can do for you, just call me.
Me: Okay, I will.
Ale: If that ever happens again, just let me know and I'll take care of it.
Me: Okey dokey.
Ale: I mean, I'm really sorry about it.
Me: That's okay, it wasn't your fault.
Ale: But still, it was an inconvenience for you, and for that, I apologize.
Me: It's okay.
Ale: Whatever problems you have, just call me.
Me: I'll do that.
Ale: Are there any problems now?
Me: Nope, I think everything's fine.
Ale: Well, if there are, just call me.
Me: Will do.
Ale: And again, sorry about what happened...

And so on. There's a great spanish word to describe people like Alejandro, and in fact one that he uses often. Disponible. "Dis" means not. "Poner" means to put or place. For someone to say "Estoy disponible" literally means that they are not fixed anywhere, or in other words, that they are always flexible enough to be able to change their schedule to help you with anything you need. Alejandro is disponible.

And back to the electrical problem... we woke up a couple days ago and had just turned the lights and computer on and it all went out. I threw the breaker in our apartment, but to no avail. I then called disponible Alejandro and he told me to talk with the Upstairs Lady. The Upstairs Lady is quite scary. She's the type that always answers the door with her hair all in curlers and a look in her eyes that immediately transfers you back to nightmares of whatever elementary teacher happened to scold you the most. I don't have a picture of Upstairs Lady in here because frankly, I'm too scared to take one. And I don't know her name because I'm too scared to ask.

So, I cautiously crept upstairs and swallowed a few times before ringing the doorbell. She opened up and had about 100 Spanish words in the air before the door was even fully open. After trying to catch even a tenth of what she was saying, I just decided to give up and explain our situation. I think I effectively communicated it, but that didn't really help as I understood very little of her advice that followed. I hesitated and then repeated back what I thought she might have said. Wrong. So she unleashed the advice a second time, this time faster and longer. Unwilling to venture another guess, I just said, "Okay. Si, si, si. Comprendo."
I called Alejandro again, who was in the middle of a manicure, and he told me to call a certain repairman, but neglected to give me the exact number. When that turned out to be a dead end, I just went to a shop where the guys looked like they would know a number for an electrician. And they did. That's how I found Jose.

Jose was also the disponible type, even if he did charge money for his services. He worked on the breaker in our room and then asked me if I knew where the main service room was for the building. I did. He asked me if I knew someone with keys to the service room. I did. He asked me if I could get that person. I just looked at him for awhile and sipped my mate. For you see, the only person I knew who had keys was Upstairs Lady. And to make matters worse, I was pretty sure that getting Jose was NOT following the advice she had given me twice.

But I got her eventually, took a long scolding (hiring Jose had indeed been far from whatever she had told me to do), and Jose fixed it all up. Alejandro called afterwards which resulted in the long conversation you already read a small portion of. The best part about his call was that I understood 95% of his redundant Spanish which was quite therapeutic after my failure with Upstairs Lady.

Back to the original forgetfulness problem. Alejandro had told me to be sure to put the trash out between 7 and 8 every evening, or that I needed to wait until the next day. And that the trash didn't go on Saturdays. I forgot on Friday, couldn't put it out Saturday, and forgot on Sunday again, bringing us to a current total of four days. Now, I know what you're thinking. Four days trash... big deal... my trashman only collects once a week. But (assuming you are reading this from Korea, America, or Europe), there is one big difference. You have a decent plumbing system.

Do you see the basket I'm holding? Well, if you've been to Latin America, you can probably guess what it is, and if you haven't, just know that you're not allowed to flush toilet paper down the toilet. I've used this system often, but this is my first time ever actually being responsible for the changing of the basket. Point is, that responsibility should be executed daily. Enough said.

So, after some translation work to offset our apartment cost, Joo did some delicious cooking while I sipped my mate and tried to become more disponible...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Home at Last!

Well, you remember that "very non-decent apartment" in the "area I wouldn't want to spend a month in for safety reasons" that had been "deserted by the wealthy after being ravaged by yellow fever and other infectious diseases"? Funny how things work out.

As I mentioned, our second day hunting for an apartment yielded no results (actually we did visit several real estate offices and even saw one apartment, but lets just consider that "no results"). On our third day, we successfully juggled six visits with six different agencies/owners around the city but they were all either over $800/month and simply "decent" or were a bit less but for good reason. By the end of the day, as we scrambled to finish our daily translations before the internet cafe closed, I was tired and Joo was beyond tired. So we simply decided to call the second place from our first day of searching. It had been a bit pricey and without a computer, but it was clean, cute and in a good area. So after 30 minutes of debate and growing excitement about how the place was actually quite a beautiful apartment, I called Sandra (the agent for that place) who lamentably told me another person had already reserved it.

Things got a bit gnarly at this point, but I won't go into the gritty details. Neither of us really wanted to shell out a lot of money for an apartment we were only halfhearted about and so JooYeon told me to email a French guy about that previously mentioned non-decent apartment. If we weren´t going to find our dream apartment for a month or two, at least we would avoid financial regrets by securing a cheap base (Kristoffe's place is only $500 a month).

So, here we are, in our bohemian loft in the middle of San Telmo, Buenos Aires. It's all a matter of perspective. When we compare this to my Nakseongdae apartment I had while dating Joo in Seoul, it's a huge step up. Yes, it's a bit dusty but Nakseongdae had dust so thick and moist it had created a type of dust fudge. Sure, it may have just a bit of a funky smell (which incidentally I can't even smell, making me wonder if I AM the funky smell), but there was a sewage accumulation one floor below our bathroom in Nakseongdae whose odors seeped through the vents two weeks out of every month. And in terms of floor space, the 50 square meters completely dwarf the space of Nakseongdae (which was literally about 2 square meters after subtracting for the bed and toilet, our only furniture). As for the infectious diseases, the rats hopefully scurried away long ago!

In all actuality, it's quite a perfect resting spot for us for the next month. It came equipped with more than any other apartment we looked at - DVD, TV with cable, PC, jacuzi, sound system, coffee maker, patio, fridge, stove, heater (remember it's winter here), and everything else we could possibly need for the next month.

And it came just in time for our Paniversary! Pan means across in Greek (I think) and since September 12 was our first date and September 10 was our first marriage, September 11 is our paniversary :) I left the apartment early to get Joo a nice warm croissant breakfast, flowers and her favorite cafe con leche, and she slaved away in the evening, cooking me up a delicious curry dinner.

So, we´ve settled in... Joo´s first task was to arrange all the sugar packets...
And then we went shopping in Koreatown for Korean food, and the local Carefour for all our comfort food and cooking stuff, finished off by a neighborhood kiosk to pick up any local spices and vegetables. We've already had a couple translating jobs since we moved in, so our hope is that they will continue to roll in and help us cover our living costs for our month or two as portenos (residents of Buenos Aires). Ciao ciao!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Take me to Kansas, Toto!

"There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home." While I could certainly go for some of my mom's cooking and I'm sure JooYeon wouldn't mind a clean bed and washing machine, we'd both gladly just settle for an apartment right now. We've been back in Buenos Aires for three days now, searching for a nice, clean, reasonably priced pad where we can hanker down and do some translating, cooking, etc. Our first day was mildly successful with a decent option (after a very non-decent option), but upon awakening the next day JooYeon felt much less excited about it. So we reserved a cheap little hostel in San Telmo and geared up for a long searching process.

San Telmo is the artsy sector of BA which was originally the stronghold for the wealthy until yellow fever and some other diseases ravaged the area 100-150 years ago. Then they moved Northwards towards areas like Recoleta and Palermo (where we are searching for apartments since they are the safest, cleanest, greenest areas). Since then, the area has maintained its artsy, cultural feel but with a more bohemian crowd. I don´t think it would be the best place for us to live for a month or two (safety reasons), but it has been fun to be around the energy for a couple days as we do apartment-searching. The markets are lively and colorful...

And, especially on Sundays, the cobblestone streets are lined with people, vendors, musicians, etc.
I was particularly fascinated by this little guy whose street puppet show was impressively meaningful and heartfelt. His 5 minute drama portrayed a man drinking in the streets who then realized the error of his ways and struggled to get inside, but it was too late. And so he passed away and drifted upwards to heaven, all to a poignant opera song.

But we can´t have too much fun and entertainment... not when we´re engaged in a serious house-searching process...

Our second day apartment-searching was quite a failure and consisted mostly of emailing, phone-calling, and answering machines. In fact, despite our long day, we didn´t manage to see a single place. We were quite tired by the end and luckily found a huge tree where we could eat our stuffed tomato and rest.

Tomorrow, we have six visits lined up, all in decent areas, so hopefully the next blog will hold pictures of our apartment!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mate Mythology 101

Our final day here in Uruguay and I had planned a spectacular mate shoot where I'd cruise the whole city taking pictures of a wide range of mate drinkers - police, kids, beggars, businessmen, drivers (while driving), etc. Unfortunately, the rainy season began today in Montevideo so my promised mate blog fell far short of my desired anticipations. Nevertheless, here it is and remember, as the guy said tonight while he was cooking up chorizos for Joo and me, "If you don´t drink mate, then you surely aren´t Uruguayan."

The basic rules of mate are very simple. Once you´ve loaded your mate (gourd or other drinking apparatus) with yerba (the actual herb, a relative of holly), you pour...

and drink...

and repeat the process continuously until either your thermos is empty or the world ends. Those are the basic rules of course. The real culture goes much deeper. If you add fruits to your mate, you´d be welcomed in Argentina, but scorned as a heretic in Uruguay. Drinking alone also seems to be more acceptable in Argentina, whereas Uruguayans tend to see it as a communal event. If you do choose to participate in communal mate, the servidor (server) initiates it by offering the mate to the person on his right. That person drinks it completely and passes it back to the server, who refills it and moves counterclockwise around the circle. The server will continually pour drinks to each person in turn until they say gracias (although apparently Joo´s Korean head nod is an acceptable substitute). The drinkers can enjoy as long as they desire until this point, as long as they don´t touch the bombilla (metal siphoning straw).

Hmm... you must be thinking... this eternal refill gives the drinkers unlimited power! Not so fast. The server wields more subtle weapons like the -shudder- WASHED mate. A mate is considered lavado or washed when it has been through too many refills and the server refuses to either rotate or change the mate. A sure sign that the ceremony is over. But not near as bad as the OVERFLOW. You´d think being handed an overflowing mate would be a welcoming sign, but as it turns out, it basically means, "Go away, you´re not welcome at this mate fiesta."

Thankfully, Joo and I experienced nothing but flavorful, hot, appropriately full mates from our first servidor Emilio...

But, despite the rain, I was determined to nail down some mate pictures for our blog since I had promised you, the reader... so I finally said my "gracias" to Emilio and Joo and I set out in search of drinkers. At first, we had people pose...

But that was rather unnatural. So we decided to stalk people from an upstairs McDonalds window. This was also rather unsuccessful, but we did have a couple that turned out enough for you to be able to witness the elegant "cradle" where the Uruguayans manage to hold their thermos AND mate in one hand, leaving the other free for cigarettes, umbrellas, etc.

There is an entire mythology built around the miraculous powers of mate - anti-carcinogous, stimulating like coffee but easier on the stomach, weight loss, and brain power. I´m not sure how they would hold up in scientific testing, but I believe the brain power one at least. Joo and I saw a trash can catch on fire near a busy street this evening...

Within seconds, the homeless man across the street who had been curled up in newspapers (sipping his mate?) rushed over and used the fire to light his cigarette. Now that´s quick thinking...

So, as we leave the friendly land of Uruguay, the final question on my mind is... "If Mom were to visit Uruguay, would she drink mate or tea?"