Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Peering Through the Beans

The time it was cloudy for FIVE DAYS in Mendoza. My host mom almost didn't make it.
I have officially outsmarted my first encounter with an attempted thief without actually meaning to. About two weeks ago, my good friend Katie and I were sitting contently next to a window inside a classic Mendocino café, sipping tea and using the wifi internet, as neither of us had access in our houses until recently. A boy of about 15, possibly less, walked into the café and directly to me next to the window, fanned out some pamphlets for a restaurant and hovered his outstretched pamphlet hand over my watch, which I had taken off and set to my side on the table. He said nothing, just held his hand out and looked at me. I stared him right back and started to talk to him--“Qué tal? Qué pasó? Qué es esto?” I’d forgotten about my watch, but knew that one of my possessions—I thought it was my phone—was now out of my sight and to my right, so as I babbled on to the unresponsive kid, I reached under his hand, took my watch, and put it in my lap. He continued to stare at me. I took a pamphlet, now starting to ask him about the restaurant and why he was still standing there. After a pause of continued staring, he turned around and bolted from the restaurant with a glance to the register counter, not attempting his grab on anyone else. It wasn’t until this point that we realized how textbook the whole interaction had been, even if completely out of the blue inside of a café.
El micro (bus): always a life-risking but fun adventure
A calm reminder to stay on your toes at all times as anyone can be and probably is watching you, even when everything seems fine. I am lucky: others have had attempted bag snatches on the street and one student has been held at gunpoint a block away from his house upon returning in the early morning after a night at the boliches (nightclubs). He was lucky and had a fake wallet, but they also took his phone and his shoes. This is why I keeping my walking alone at night to a minimum of a block or two before meeting friends.


Eating carrots in unacceptable places such as cafés and cines.
In other news, I have started classes! Technically. Barely. Not really. It certainly doesn’t feel like it… why? Well, classes in both Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (UNCuyo) and Universidad de Congreso (UC) were arranged to start last Monday, 18 March. I had one class that day, Dibujo III (Drawing), at UNCuyo so three other intercambio students and I walked to class, got there on time, and were all super excited to draw and meet some Argentinians. The entire building was deserted, but for two attendants at the front desk who were shocked to hear that we didn’t know about the paro—all of our professors were on strike, so there were no classes for the week. Well. Lovely. We still had our Spanish class for my study abroad program and UC will always have classes as it is the private university. With so much free time, we were hoping to quit the city and go camping for a surprise four-day weekend, but I unfortunately got an absolutely killer cold for the rest of the week and a few others were sick as well. Upon getting home Monday evening from learning about the cancelled classes, I did not emerge from my apartment again until Friday morning to finally see the light of day and go to my first class at UC.
We cooked all of this. It was absolutely amazing.
Team 3: Empanada-making champions.
This class was super interesting—Ecología de las zonas áridas, or essentially Desert Ecology. Since UC is a private school of only about 2,000 students, this class felt like a Spanish class at Wheaton with maybe about 20 students, but all being phenomenal at speaking Spanish apart from Katie and I (the two rather silent intercambio students in the class). Still the professor was very understanding and engaging, the students have interesting viewpoints, and it was great to meet our classmates. Only drawback? This class is once a week from 6-10pm on FRIDAY. Yes, I voluntarily chose class until 10pm on a Friday. It actually works out perfectly with the Argentine schedule as dinner is only starting at 10, so you go home and eat with your family and then out, or just go straight to the bars with your classmates—built-in way to meet people! The one other class I have had is Dibujo III which I successfully went to Monday of this week. The Monday class is a solid four hours of figure drawing right off the bat on the first day and I love it. It is so exciting to be back in an art class, and this is barely a class. What I gather so far is it’s basically just a studio to practice what you already do best: the models are there, the professors roam around but don’t really comment on what you do, you are just encouraged to challenge yourself and improve naturally. I am SO excited. Tuesday and Wednesday were paro (protest, strike) again, right before having no class for about a week starting on Thursday for Semana Santa (Easter). My next class isn't until Ecología again next Friday night. Good deal!
After 10 weeks on the continent, I figured I've earned my own maté.

One of these days, I will actually go to all of my classes, but for now it is just a list. I am lined up to take:
-       Ecología de las zonas áridas (UC)
-       Dibujo III (UNCuyo)
-       Modelado y Color Cerámica
     (UNCuyo, Ceramics)
-       Español
     (IFSA Butler, study abroad program)
-       Lenguajes Artísticos Guitarra
      (UC, Guitar lessons, evidently with singing lessons thrown in. Oh boy.)
I feel like I’m taking nothing at all, but that’s a solid 17 credit courseload that I have already had the syllabi approved by the Department of Hispanic Studies back at Wheaton through email, so I’m set to go! I don’t know if I’m going to be able to throw myself back into reality at Wheaton, but I do miss math and I’m actually wicked excited for the schedule masterpiece I’ve miraculously pulled together for next semester. Nevertheless, I’m pumped for a semester abroad of beautiful classes I never let myself take otherwise.
You can't exactly tell, but pub #2 of the St. Patrick's pub crawl was overflowing into the street.
Our personal serenade from our neighbors during St. Patrick's festivities.
In other news, life is going smoothly: plenty of picnics in the plazas with maté and watermelon, Argentine cooking classes in a beautiful vineyard in Maípu, constant searches for carrots, sleeping for four days solid thanks to dying of the plague, St. Patrick’s Day festivities with surprisingly many redhead-wigged Argentines and drunken guitar serenades from strangers, bumbling around the streets of Mendoza, trying out as many wines as our wallets allow, sketchy methods of acquiring money for AR$7.6 to the dollar rather than AR$5.2, and some very serious consideration of running the Maratón International Mendoza. Stay tuned for that.

Picnic in Plaza Independencia: 4 people vs. 6 kilos o' watermelon.
 Still, the most exciting event for me right now is that in T-minus 16 HOURS my beloved PARENTS are arriving in Mendoza!!! I am seriously so outrageously excited. I’m one of those children who couldn’t stand being the only child for four years of high school after Anne and Tom left for college, but now regard my parents as some of coolest people on the planet. They arrived in Buenos Aires on Monday morning and embark on a 13-hour bus ride to Mendoza this evening, to be greeted by a very enthusiastic Emily-tackle tomorrow at 9am in the bus terminal.

Much love from the maté gods,
Testing the Mendocino vino... still are very much so not pros.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mail and Panoramas

I have finally gotten around to stitching together a handful of panoramas shot during my time in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, plus two of my favorites from the lovely Nuevo México. Feel free to click on each image for a better view of it, and enjoy!

Photos courtesy of Sarah Hamilton, stitched by yours truly. Those specks on the rock are Kate Gruel and myself.
Same view from the rock. Mouth of Valle Bader looking across the park to the south. February 10, 2013.
Apologies, this was a rough panorama to stitch and this is only half. Basin below las Torres del Paine. January 21, 2013.
Below Cerro Almirante Nieto, 5km west of base camp. February 9, 2013.
Sunrise following Perseids meteor shower, Kiwanis meadow east side of the Sandia Crest, New Mexico. August 11, 2012.
A personal tradition and my favorite perch on this planet:
Sunset on Sandia Mountains after snowstorm, foothills near La Luz trailhead, Albuquerque, New Mexico. January 12, 2013.
All of these copies are in the low-dimension versions in order to be loaded here on the blogmabob. I use Hugin Panorama photo stitcher, a great open source software. The Hugin-2010.2.0 version worked great for me for years until I switched cameras which gave issue for some reason. After some trouble-shooting with Karl Horak and finally caving to upgrade to the latest 2012 version, all was well! I absolutely recommend it.

In other news, I am living in one solid place from now until July with only brief breaks out of the city, which means I have a mailing address!

Emilia Baldwin C/O Jose Mostafa
Rivadavia 122
5500 - Mendoza

I love mail. Hearing from you in written form will easily make my week. I also love sending mail even more, so if I don't have your mailing address (especially if you are friend who is also abroad), I would love to have it!

Much love,

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Weekend in San Rafael

San Rafael, southern region of the Mendoza province
Probably one of the hardest things to drill into my brain in these last few weeks has been that I should be engaging settle-down mode. I’m still in the antsy-traveling mode characterized by constant worry over bus price changes and hording food for subconscious fear of not knowing when or where the next meal will come. Antsy-traveling mode happens to be second nature for me, thanks to being on a plane at least once every four months for the past three years. Nevertheless, the gringo train had a pretty awesome weekend on our main organized trip of the semester to San Rafael in the southern region of the Mendoza province. This was definitely the most of a genuine restful vacation I’ve had within all my travels in the past few months: it was hard to return to Mendoza, so that’s definitely saying something.

The next-door restaurant for each meal
Outrageously early on Saturday morning, we piled onto a bus yet again to drive a few hours south, through arid desert as the sun rose opposite the Andes cordillera to the west. Arriving in San Rafael was a shock; I was expecting tents but instead we were greeted by gorgeous little cabanas brightly painted with overflowing window planters, surrounded by an oasis of pools, ponds, and roses amongst tall rock faces in a desert canyon. After an immediate swim in the freezing pool, we headed next door for the classic several-course Argentinean lunch with some of the best vegetables I have had thus far. I have seriously never been quite so excited for a salad bar as I was every meal at this open-air restaurant.

Don Gato the cat, who happily joined us for each meal
Instead of a siesta, we were carted off up the canyon to take a catamaran across a reservoir lake to a beach for the afternoon. This was GREAT. I cannot even remember the last time I was on a beach, so I was pretty thrilled to have as much swimming as we packed in as we did this weekend. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to swimming or paddling around the surprisingly nice lake in canoes and attempting to pull off handstands in the burning sand. Thanks to my desert childhood, I will forever be a bit befuddled by water, but this was still so much fun.

The lake from the cliffs above
After late dinner at the next-door restaurant again, a majority of us all ended up sprawling out across a grassy area away from the light of the cabanas to look at the impressive expanse of stars. It wasn’t a match to Patagonia, but the southern hemisphere stars are nevertheless so gorgeous in areas this far away from mass civilization. Caitlin happens to work at her school’s observatory, so she whipped out her official laser for pointing out stars and gave us a great evening of constellation stories and facts—it was SO much fun. To those astronomy friends of mine, I have happily seen the Southern Cross, now straight from Patagonia and from the Central Andes as well. The Milky Way and its depth from the dust clouds within it, along with the Magellanic galaxies, will never get old. The rest of the evening was filled by several card games in various cabanas spent with great company.

Hiking the canyons of San Rafael
The next morning we headed back into the mountains for a short morning hike through the canyons, complete with a super friendly guide and a few adorable dogs. I cannot even begin to explain how eerily similar this entire landscape is to New Mexico—I honestly feel completely at home hiking through these hills. We ended the quick hike with one of the highlights of my entire time in Argentina: dune running! Finishing off at the top of a rather tall dune obscured by plant growth, we were encouraged to sprint the full way down and try our best not to completely face plant. It was so simple but SO FUN, plus the half-kilo of sand stuck in our shoes as souvenir afterwards.

Welcome to the land of steaks
This whole day ended up being a marathon of activity, since we barely had time for the most gigantic lunch I’ve had here in Argentina before being thrown onto a raft for an afternoon of white-water. Argentina is obviously known for the steak, but I have had exceedingly little while here due to having a vegetarian host mom. In fact, I’ve essentially stopped eating meat in the last few years of cooking for myself since it’s just ridiculous to buy and grill an entire steak for one small person such as myself. Therefore, Argentina and its steaks are overwhelming at best, but I’m excited to give it a shot outside of my home meals. Still, this mountain of meat was a bit much for me, apart from the chorizo, which was delicious. I’m still going to admit I was far more excited for the salad bar than the asado, but I’m expecting to experiment with better steak over my time here in Argentina. I still haven’t experienced the two steaks a day phenomenon, but oho, I will.
Smidgebit of sand in the shoes
Our raft guide was a woman from Maine who had come down to South America after graduating from college to intern in Peru, went on a white-water raft trip in class IV and V rapids in Colombia, and never left. She’s now worked all over Latin America either interning with NGOs or guiding for white-water raft companies and loves every bit of it. She’s ended up with a crazy mix of Spanish dialects and some Quechua thrown in from living in so many countries: she says she gets laughed at for her Spanish mezcla, but she gets to laugh at the Argentinians for pronouncing “kayak” as “kah-zyAHk”. (Just imagine: “kahzyahkeestah” = “kayakista.” Ham it up). The more time I spend away from the computers of cubicles and outside surrounded by Spanish, the less I consider coming back and returning to the life track of a software engineer: meeting people like this raft guide and just about everyone in Patagonia is dangerous.

Gorgeously painted cabana

Nevertheless, we had to come back to Mendoza, “la tierra del sol y buen vino.” Bummer. BUT word is that it’s only about US$10 for a bus to San Rafael, so I’d say it’s not out of the question to take the three-hour bus ride just to camp, climb, and hike for a weekend sometime. Too bad my tent is very much so still broken and useless, therefore keeping me grounded. I’m afraid I’m going a bit stir crazy in the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, and it’s only the third week. I’ve been in search of rock climbers and fellow hikers this entire time and I think I may be close to finding some Mendocino mountain gurus. Ojala!

Much love from the Argentine steaks,

P.S. – My professor got absolutely bombarded with text messages halfway through class yesterday until he finally caved and checked his phone—the new Pope is from Argentina! And people have been honking ceaselessly all day long in celebration (they usually do this when someone gets married). A new Pope from Argentina is an endless honking affair and I imagine Buenos Aires is one hell of a party right about now. My host mom thinks this is all incredibly foolish.

Kathryn, Katie, and me with some super attractive PFDs on the catamaran en route the lake beach

Friday, March 8, 2013

Reverse Culture Void Shock

The view from the dining room balcony
After about two weeks, I am now settled and content in my long-term yet temporary home of Mendoza, Argentina. Luckily, my Latin American travel this time around was more successful than my first go—I even managed to pull off three times the normal snack amount on my Puerto Montt to Santiago flight! Ah, the wonders of being a friendly, Spanish-speaking gringa. Arriving in Buenos Aires one day late to study abroad orientation was a bit of a rush and definitely a more difficult change than the United States to Chile transition, and for completely different reasons.

Iglesia and market in Buenos Aires
After getting some strange looks from fellow passengers at how excited I was to see my checked bag, I successfully and safely navigated the post-customs taxi barrage and was off into the city. Turns out Buenos Aires is absolutely gigantic. Seeing concrete after building after concrete from the taxi was a derailing change at best from the mountains I’ve been living with for the last few weeks. Arriving at the hotel and settling into the study abroad program went smoothly, but one aspect was still incredibly jarring—I was now absolutely surrounded by Americans. Nervous Americans getting used to a new country and speaking very rapid English, nonetheless. This on top of how ridiculously many people there are in
Cemetery cats to keep the mice population at bay
Buenos Aires versus how very few trees was a bit too much for me, and within my less than 24 hours in the city, I was already overwhelmed. I was quite seriously convinced that I could feel my blood pressure rising just by being in this environment versus the laid-back Patagonian lifestyle I’ve grown to adore. I even managed to get minorly hit by a car reversing from a driveway the moment we first left the hotel for dinner. I instinctively slapped the car and immediately regretted it for fear of retaliation from the driver. He didn't care at all, but I still think Buenos Aires didn't really work for me from the get-go. I’m afraid I prefer my disastrous-but-wonderful solo travelling experience to the sometimes cattle-herding nature of study abroad, but things have gotten better from that first day and my program is indeed fantastically well-done.

Host mom Patri and hermanito Simón
Needless to say, it was a welcome change to leave Buenos Aires for Mendoza and meet my host family: I was much more comfortable immediately upon getting into my host mom’s car and commencing rapid Spanish about mountains again. It turns out she loves mountains just about as much as I do, so my first day was spent about 25 km south of the city bumbling around the mountain town of Potrenillos with my host mom, Patricia, and six-year-old host brother, Simón. It was absolutely beautiful and a great way to get to know them and see the area. I was hiking again! Hallelujah!

Katie, Shawny, Mega and me on Cerro de la Gloria
Getting to know Mendoza itself has been quite a bit of fun and my body weight in ice cream consumed over the last two weeks. I’ve somehow ended up in the Boulder, Colorado, of Argentina, as luck would have it. The city is even physically arranged the same way: mountains in the west, major cross streets easily translated to Boulder’s Broadway and Boulder Creek Path (by bike, of course), and there is even a Pearl Street Mall equivalent next to the main Plaza Independencia. My favorite part is Parque San Martin, the gigantic park at the base of the mountains. I spend time there every day in search of fabled slacklining Argentinians and even better: the main school I take classes at, Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, is in the park.

Plaza Italia during the festivies

I live in an apartment directly next to Plaza Italia, one of the four smaller plazas, and walking distance to just about anywhere in the entire city that I want to be. This also earned me a prime seat for the Italia Festa during my first few days in Mendoza. The Italian descendants of the city had their annual three-day party in the Plaza Italia, complete with food and music all day and all night. I fell asleep to accordions and fireworks every night, a rather drastic change from my life in a tent, but it was still a great start to Mendoza.

The elaborate Vendimia stage
In fact, this seems to be the season of festivities, in particular Vendimia, the wine festival of the grape harvest. The full week-long celebration starts off with a weekend of parades, reinas (queens) from each departamento of the Mendoza provincia, throwing of fruit to (or at) the parade audiences, gauchos riding in the streets of Mendoza, and the main Vendimia performance attended on Sunday by the study abroad group, or el tren de los gringos, as I affectionately call it. I would sum it up as Miss America meets the Olympic Opening Ceremony, complete with coronation, a beautiful outdoor venue surrounded by the hills, and some pretty incredible dancing. If I had just been considering taking tango classes before, the tango at Vendimia sealed the deal.

Helado all day errday.
I’ve mostly settled into daily life here, although it is still strange to not be in Chile and especially not be in Torres del Paine anymore. Transitioning from complete and utter paradise is rather rough, but it’s quite a bit easier when you’re changing to the different form of paradise that is Mendoza. My good friends, Katie and Shawny, and I have boiled down to a system for each day after Spanish class: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we run in Parque San Martin. Tuesday and Thursday, we try a new heladaría (ice cream shop). Life is beautiful. As is helado. On a completely different not that I don’t have space to write on, feel free to ask me anytime about the latest protests complete with tire fires, and catching baby geckos in my Spanish class. I’m getting used to living with my small and lovely host family, which is surprisingly difficult to find my cultural place in. I’m being broken of my hard-earned habit of washing the dishes, as my host mom beats me away from them every time I try. Plus, after years of cooking for myself at school, returning to a family eating system (especially on the Argentinian schedule) takes some relearning. I really do miss cooking, but I can handle a change for a semester.

Katie, Shawny, and me at the first Música y Vino
I have been surprisingly exhausted, so most of my time has been spent recuperating from sleeping in a tent for two months. Still, I’m working my way up to the Mendozan nightlife and I am so excited for all of the salsa and tango action here. A usual weekend night starts with dinner at 10pm and goes from bar to baile to breakfast at 8am. Hence my taking my time to work up to that from living in a national park. Completely different life, much? So far, the best discovery we have made is the "Música y Vino en las alturas" night followed by the Cineclub Stocco: free wine served on a rooftop terrace at sunset with live music, followed by a free movie. This week was classic tango guitar, vocals, and flute, and Alfred Hitchcock’s "La Soga" (Rope, en inglés). Absolutely my kind of Thursday night, every Thursday. Class selection is coming up very quickly (well, it is March) and I’m looking at a line-up of almost entirely art, dance, and music classes and possibly some ecology. Mountains, Spanish, wine, helado, art? I may never go back to Wheaton, at this rate.
Not too shabby for a first day in Mendoza

Much love from the Mendocinas,