Thursday, 19 November 2009

Of bean and table-top mesas

These updates have become a bit of a rarity these days, although with my tendency to write small novels each time perhaps you're all grateful rather than sad? Maybe you're still digesting the last one. Well, clear your palate with a bit of mental sorbet (pear and mint is supposed to be a good combination, so think really hard about juicy pears and minty freshness), because here comes the next in the series.

As many of you already know, Joel and I are expecting an addition to our family of the baby variety! I clarify that it will be a human baby (in as far as both its parents are), because what with our track history of adopting baby animals you could be forgiven for thinking that it might be another furry quadrupedal orphan. We have in fact just acquired a little black kitten, sex unknown, who we found in a carpark... It was all sad and crying and lost and wee and fluffy and so now it lives at our house. The dogs LOVE it. They think it smells just divine. Bonny just likes to sniff it, but Aquilito likes to fit the whole kitten in his mouth at once. He doesn't bite down, and is just playing, but the poor little cat comes out drenched in dog slobber, and protests vociferously. Benjamin has named it Pelusa, which means 'fluff', like the weird balls of fluffy dusty kind of stuff that accumulate on wooden or tiled floors, in corners and under beds; or the fluffy pollen that flies about in spring. I have been expressly forbidden to hold or touch or pat or be anywhere near the cat, because of the risk of toxoplasmosis (which can cause a miscarriage), but it is so little and cute, and if I don't feed it who will? A friend who is a vet said it is unlikely that such a small kitten would have toxoplasmosis as it is contracted by eating raw meat, like dead rats, mice, pigeons etc, and such a wee kitten is unlikely to have come into contact with contaminated beasties. I hope not, because what's the point of having a kitten you can't play with? I am definitely the only cat person here, so who else is going to show the poor thing some love? But no, I get told off.

I also got told off the other day for going rock climbing and risking my life and the life of my unborn bean. (I know, very unorthodox and not very dignified to call the baby a bean, but lets face it, that's about the size and shape it is right now. I have promised solemnly to give it a more dignified and gender-appropriate name when it is born, but for now it is the bean.) Joel and I went with his good friend Ivan and his girlfriend Paola to a nearby mesa in the desert, the same place we went the summer before last when we were here. The excursion involves a hike through the spiny, prickly, thorny, unfriendly (and did I mention spiky?) scrub that is the vegetation in this part of the world. Luckily there is not enough water or nutrients in the sand for them to grow too close together, and we managed to push through with just a few scratches. Next you come to a narrow pass, which is exactly like something you would see in an old western movie. The walls of the pass are high and rocky, and the path you have to walk takes a few twists and turns, so you can't see the the exits when you are in the middle. There is only one entrance and one exit, and you can just see the indians blocking them, and appearing from behind the scrub up high on the rocky slopes, to rain down arrows on the hapless pilgrims. The walls of this cut are particularly interesting though, because the strata are all turned on their side, and some of the layers are pure fossil. Millions and millions of little dead sea-beasties. Joel says that while it is plain as day that the area was once under water, scientists are finding it hard to say when and how come - it apparently doesn't add up in the Pangea theory that this particular area was under sea. Who knows, all I know is that with the quantity of fossils scattered around in the sand, and cemented in the rock, there is no doubt whatosever that it was once sea-bed.
Once we had come out of the little canyon, hale and hearty and not scalped by indians (Joel looks native, they probably thought we were neighbours) the land starts sloping up towards the vertical walls of the mesa. First the slope is gradual, then rather more extreme, and all the while I am thinking that the reason there is a slope here in the first place is that rocks and sand are falling down off the mesa. And by standing on these fallen rocks we are just encouraging them to do what they have a natural inclination to do... But we got up (and obviously down, or I wouldn't be writing this) without incident, and found ourselves at the narrow and vertical cleft in the rock face that is the only way up to the top. Ivan and Paola had stayed down on the flat after the canyon, collecting fossils, so it was Joel and me and our trusty canine companions. Bonny decided she was tired halfway up the slope and Joel had to keep lifting her up the hard bits - Aquilito climbed up no problem, but later on the way down he froze in terror and I had to carry him. Poor thing, he had his head buried in my shoulder as if saying 'don't look down, don't look down'! We left the dogs tied to a rock on an outcrop below the cleft we were to climb, and to the sound of their whimpers and whines we climbed to the top. The trick is to brace your back on one wall of the cleft and your knees and feet against the other, and using outward pressure to gain traction, shimmy your way up. I made it a bit further than halfway up when, deciding that my life was worth more than my pride, I accepted Joel's hand from above to aid me in the last bit of the climb. It always surprises me how strong he is for such a small person, he had no trouble hoisting me up. The view at the top is worth the effort and the heart-in-mouth, because you can see forever in every direction. The Andes, stretched out along the whole western horizon, the endless desert plains, perforated here and there by the path of a river, and studded with hills and mesas, but mostly flat, flat flat... Buzzards circling up above waiting for us or that little juicy brindled dog to fall and die, and beetles the size of your thumb trundling about their business in the sand (probably also waiting for us to fall and die, what do I know about their eating habits?).

The wind up top was pretty strong though, and the flat top is completely exposed, so as there was a real risk that I could be blown off the hill, we made our way down. Down is so much easier than up, and to the ecstatic yelps of our canine chorus we made our way back to the outcrop and down to the flat again. Aquilito would have jumped for joy, but he had hobbled himself quite effectively with his leash and was trussed like a pig on his side. Possibly he was tying himself firmly to the rock after taking a look over the edge, so as not to fall. Perhaps he is not as dumb as I thought? I otherwise think he was starved for oxygen in the womb, because he is a bit of a doofus. Well, seven puppies does make for a crowded womb, I guess. One of them was bound to miss out on some vital nutrients... On the walk back to the car we saw a couple of drovers on horseback rounding up their cattle and goats for the evening, and the sky was starting to turn pretty colours as we headed home - all in all a really lovely afternoon. Well worth the telling-off I got when we got home and Graciela found out I had exposed the bean to mortal danger. I think the bean would have enjoyed it though, had it been conscious, and will one day be proud to say it climbed big rocks when it was just a bean. It will be a hybrid super-baby anyway, everyone knows about hybrid vigour, right?

I am now embarking on the adventure that is the health care system in Argentina. Here in Zapala the best medical care is found at the hospital (as opposed to private clinics), where it also happens to be free. Everything I need, including medication, is covered by something called Plan Natal - even though I am foreign. For a country with issues, they sure do get a lot right. The problem is that you have to wait a goodly while in queues. Specifically, you have to queue on Thursdays to make an appointment to see a doctor the following week, and it pays to be there early, because otherwise all of the times for the doctor you want to see might be gone. And then you either have to see someone else, or wait another week. To take a blood test I have to be at the hospital at 6.30 on Tuseday morning! I blanched, stated outright that no, this was not going to happen and she grumbled that as long as I was there before 8am they would take the blood. I have an ultrasound on Thursday, to see that everything is progressing normally and how many weeks the bean is at (I'm not too sure, somewhere around six or seven is my guess), and then back to see a gynaecologist on Friday with all of the results for interpretation. I am a little paranoid though, because the doctor gave my belly a bit of a prod at my first check-up, and it hurt a bit. He frowned, got out a little machine that make clicky noises and passed it over my belly and frowned some more. Then he said we'll have to wait for the ultrasound because neither his prodding nor his clicky machine had told him anything. And now I'm all worried that the bean is ectopic or has too many limbs or something worse. But I'm sure the bean is fine, and it is just first time nerves.

Well, that's all for this November instalment. If you count the random five photos that's two in one month! Not a feat I have managed often... Well, til next time, y'all!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Puppyfest: little dog number four

Yeah, I know. The situation is getting slightly ridiculous. Every time we go for a walk it seems that we come home with another dog. There is a disconcerting trend in this city to dump unwanted female puppies,
and we just happen to always walk by the little crying and shivering bundle of fur and uncoordinated legs when it is at its most pitiful. I don't know whether I should harden my heart or stop going for walks... This could be the long sought-after proof that exercise is dangerous. But I really can't just ignore them! They are too cute and helpless, and now we have four dogs.

Bonny was foundling number one, and she has turned out to be a real pearler of a dog. In contrast to the other two abandonees, she wasn't feeling sorry for herself, she was out exploring when we found her, and it was definitely her choice to come home with us. Since then she has ruled the roost, and at the tender age of five months is now the matron of the house. Negrita ("little blackie") was foundling number two, and causes so much trouble within the ranks that she now lives in seclusion in front of the house, instead of with the other dogs in the
yard. She is a loyal little soul, who follows me to work, and waits for me (no matter how many hours I might stay) and then walks me home. I have decided to dub her Dora The Explorer, as she is intrepid when it comes to following me everywhere, and investigating everything in our path. Then there is Socks, who we found yesterday. She is a cute
wee thing of about two months, entirely black with four white feet (hence the original name). I am trying to find a home for the two little girls, but no one wants females. I am seriously thinking about calling the radio to complain about the irresponsible people who have puppies and then dump them. Speying a female dog is FREE if you go via the council, so there is no excuse for dumping puppies. The only thing stopping me is the need for tact and diplomacy when telling the local populace that they are all idiots and wankers, and my Spanish is more rudimentary than that. I tend to 'thou' people when I should 'you' them, and vice versa. And last but not least there is Aquilito ("little Achilles") - the son of the famous German Shepherd Aquiles, of Neuquen fame - who is the only dog we actually sought out. He cries a lot, and bites people ankles, but we have high hopes for him based on the
greatness of his progenitor. He has such a dopey look on his face though, it is hard to take him seriously. Ah, bless their wee whiskery noses and cute puppy tushies.

I took a break from my animal shelter of a house (all we need is a couple of cats and a goat to be classified a charity...) and spent last Friday in a town called Bariloche, in the neighbouring province of Rio Negro, attending a seminar aimed at teachers of English. The course content was, um, random. I had high hopes that were at times
left wanting, but came away with copious notes that I will surely never read again and a really cute book bag that reads: I will not yell in class, I will not throw things in class, I will not get mad and hit people in class, I will not have a temper tantrum in class, and will always be good because I am the teacher, I am the teacher, I

am the teacher... That, and the wonderful scenery are my best memories of the trip. The city is situated on the shores of a great big lake, surrounded by mountains, and reminiscent of Queenstown, NZ. It is very touristy, and expensive, and famous for adventure sports. The streets are narrow and hilly, the architecture reminds me of resort towns and the skiiing and snowboarding is apparently amazing, though I have to earn a bit more before I can vouch for that personally. I can however vouch for 2 for 1 happy hour at a brewery called Antres, where the beer was very nice and the peanuts were free. Highly recommended.

In other news, I am five days (count 'em, FIVE) away from turning 30, and I am having a crisis. By 30, surely you are meant to have a house, a car and a good job? Money in the bank, holidays in Fiji (or in my case, maybe the Caribbean, what with it being closer and all), and possibly even ankle-biters of the human kind? All I have is dogs. I feel like I have lived my life on the go, and never stopped long enough in any one place to build anything. Joel is the same (well, at least I have the marriage box checked), neither of us have roots anywhere. 30! Irrevocably, irreversibly, undeniably grown-up. Aaarrgh! This is where you all say 'no, no, you don't look a day over 25', and 'life begins at 30!' (paradoxical advice I know, but hey, you're the one giving it, and I am in no position to think rationally anyway). But yeah, having a 30 crisis, in a foreign country far far away from family and friends... *sniff*

Well, going to wake Benjamin up from his nap, or he won't sleep tonight. I have hit upon the perfect way to wake him without tantrums - put his portable DVD player next to his head and press play. After a groggy 'huh, who? what movie?' he is awake and happy as the proverbial Larry. A few minutes later he is amenable to putting clothes on and
doing his homework. Genius.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Monday, 21 September 2009

The first day of spring!

Oh the irony. The Last week has been gorgeous - glorious sunshine, temperature in the mid-20s (but not in the shade, and not when the wind blows... but hey, who's being picky?), and on the first official day of spring, winter came back to remind us that we are at the fickle whims of the weather gods. But I was out in shorts and tee-shirt and jandals last week, and gone a slightly more beigey shade of milk on my arms. I am caramelising. Mmmmm, sun. Who says people don't photosynthesise?
We got tired of waiting for Telefonica to get their A's into G and connect our internet, so we bought a little modem through Movistar, a cellphone company, and now have internet of sorts in the house. It is very slow during the day unless you mickey around with the settings a bit, as it happens that the phone companies are upgrading all their lines and the 3G isn't working properly until the end of the month - but it is internet! and in honour I have composed a little song:

Internet, internet, internet!
O how I love thee.
Internet, internet internet!
You make me feel so free!

I can chat to my dad and to my mum,
Find recipes to fill my tum,
My friends will know I'm not lost and gone,
All I have to do is turn it on!

Intenet, internet, INTERNET!
O how I love thee!

Sung to what ever tune you like best. In my head it has lots of horns and a good solid marching beat. :)

We are all boxing on. Progress is slow but solid, and I now have all of three classes a week at the aptly named Wellington House. I teach conversation classes to adults and teens, all of whom have pretty decent English, so it is really just an opportunity for them to speak with a native, and rework the grammar and vocabulary they learn in their other classes. Early next month I am going on a teacher-training seminar in Bariloche (the Argentinean equivalent of Queenstown) which I am very much looking forward to, both for the course content and the location.

Joel has submitted all of the paperwork he needs to be offered a contract at the local department of the ministry of transportation - he will be surveying and planning for roads and other developments in the area that require topography and a knowledge of databasing and being outside in the dirt digging. The contract just needs to be signed by the Governor, and when it is sent back here to Zapala he'll be able to start. He's also registered as a provider to the state within his field, and is in the process of registering with the federal police to be recognised as a forensic archaeologist. All of the lists and registries mean that people can look him up to offer him work as and when they need someone, and since he is technically self-employed, he can take short contracts whenever they come up. Fingers crossed that he gets lots of great offers. Neither of us have ruled out working at universities or studying further, and are investigating these options too. I might take a paper or two to make my degree more widely recognised here - maybe a teaching qualification to ensure that my degree is recognised in the public school system too. Who knows!?

In terms of wedding round two, we have made significantly less progress... We wanted it to be in November, but with our current financial situation being as it is (I currently earn a whopping 440 pesos a month. Steady now, breath in a bag if you have to) we will have to postpone. To those who are visiting in November, or had planned to, come anyway, I say. Summer here is long and hot, and even if we can't travel as much as we had wished, we will have a bit of time off to go on adventures. Our accommodation situation will have to be revised though, because there are also less houses at our disposal than last time I was here... What with Joel's brother Jeremias permanently occupying the apartment in Buenos Aires, and us permanently occupying the big and formerly empty house in Zapala, that is a few less people we can house... So to Matt, Bruce, Ben and whoever else had the urge to come to South America, you are welcome as always, but please be in touch so we can discuss and plan a bit. :)

Our new - slightly trepid - forecast for wedding date is around March next year. I am going to need the time to get in shape again if I want to wear my dress anyways... I have my doubts about it fitting at the moment but I am too scared to try in case I am right. Nothing more depressing than being three weeks away from 30 and finding out that your wedding dress doesn't fit. Really, three weeks away from turning 30 is bad enough! Sigh. Bit of a crisis. But anyways, wedding numero dos, around about March. Don't hold us to it though... We'll give you all plenty of notice! Well, as much notice as we give ourselves, how about that.

Little dog is getting bigger and bigger, but still maintains her delightfully comical shape - short stout legs, long body and waggly tail. :) She is a constant source of entertainment, and also frustration at not learning anything useful and doggy. She only comes when you call if she doesn't have anything better to do, and digs up the backyard to bury bones all the time. She gets really nervous with her bones because she thinks some other dog is going to take them off her (she can hear them barking, she knows they're out there!), so she runs laps of the backyard with the bone in her mouth, whining pitifully. Finally she will find a good hiding place, and bury it, juicy meaty bits and all, to dig up later when it is 'safer'. She forgets where she puts them though, and when she finally does dig them up they have, um, aged a bit. Then I don't let her lick my hand for a wee while... Every time I take her for a walk, the whole world goes all gooey over her. Aww, sooo cute!!! And she laps it up. It's even funnier when I am walking with Benjamin (my four-year-old brother in law), because he wants to hold the leash but that implies Bonny running around tangling everyone in the rope. So I hold the leash in the middle, keeping Bonny and Benja one on each side - the comments range from "so cute, you have them both on the same leash!" to "how practical, you can take them both for a walk at the same time!". I laugh. :)

We went for a walk with some friends on Sunday, after a delicious BBQ (or rather, asado) at their house, which took us past a little lake in the middle of the sand and scrub. This little laguna was home to some angry, hissy, shouty geese, a bajillion little black ducks (or similar...) and flamingos! It was such a strange sight to see flamingos in the desert - I thought they were more tropical birds. I had fun throwing Bonny in the water, and she had fun shaking herself dry all over us, and giving people jumpy, smelly, wet-dog hugs. A good time was had by all.

Well folks, that's it from me for the present. I have just put Benjamin to bed for a nap, and now is the perfect time to get some actual work done. I have to plan for my classes, few though they may be, My students are far too bright to just wing it, they know if I am not prepared. So I leave you with this lovely image of mountains and lake, and hope that you are all well and happy.
Til next time!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Snow! And Puppy! And Gainful Employment!

Finally, after almost three months of searching, we have both been offered work. Woohoo! Nothing straight forward of course, because nothing is ever easy, but suffice to say that Joel will be self-employed and contracted by a branch of the council to do esoteric topographical and archaeological thingies, and I will be teaching English to ungrateful youths again. Or maybe grateful, which would be a nice change. I am in a cafe with wi-fi, trying to prepare for my chat with the Principal this evening (ok, so I got distracted) and poor Joel is running around like a headless chook trying to get all the paperwork for something that translates roughly as 'sole-operator and provider to the state' done so he can start his contract as soon as possible. Cue the Argentinean Bureaucracy Polka, Maestro!

You put your right foot in,
you run all across town,
you put your right foot in and then you tear your hair out,
you stand for hours in the queue to find they close at 12.00,
and that's what it's all about! Hey!

Watch this space for more developments, we should have more news by about the time when we can get internet at the new house. Fingers crossed on both counts!

We have moved to Zapala, closer to the Andes and further from civilisation. The reasons for the move were many and varied, but the top three are (in no particular order): Joel has many friends here; we have many 'big fish, small pond' type advantages; and his mum and little half-brother live here. He's only four, and a bit of a handful, so it is really good for his mum to have us here, helping about the house and looking after the little one when need be. It is a really nice town as well, and we have all moved into Joel's grandparents' house (they live up north, but have a house here too), which is big and comfy and has nice memories attached. Just waiting on a phone line and internet... We're looking into acquiring a piece of land too, and building something of our own. We like the idea of a few chalet-style cabins, so we can live in one, and rent out the others - like a B&B, with the option of planning activities in the area if the guests want. We'll have horses and take the punters for treks around the desert, and I'll have llamas for the cute and comical factor. The department of land (for want of a better translation) will give - yep, give - us a piece of land, a couple of hectares or so, provided we supply them with a project outlining briefly what we intend to do with it. As long as they are happy that we intend to develop it, we get a piece of Patagonia for free. We've looked at a couple of places, one has an amazing view of the mountains, and the other is in a sheltered valley. Tough choice... On one of these trips to see dirt and scrub (but it will be my dirt and scrub!) out from amongst the weeds and rubbish appeared the most adorable little rascal of a puppy. In the time-honoured tradition of 'she followed me home, can I keep her?' - although in this case, she followed me to the car - we took her home. She is brindle and white, has a barrel chest and stout legs, the cutest face ever, and she loves to bound around in the snow like a little pudgy plough.

It snowed for all of two days! And at least 20 cm fell all up, I reckon. While we were moving house, which was not quite so wonderful, but this little desert outpost was covered in a lovely blanket of pure white, and it looked so clean! The Andes, when they are not shrouded in cloud, are spectacular. On a clear day you can see mountains stretching all the way along the western horizon. It is pretty amazing.

Anyhow, I have to go pick up my four year old brother-in-law in 10 mins, so here are some photos and I'll be back online as soon as I can to relate more! Hugs to all!

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Cough! Splutter! Hack! Gasp!

That was me, surfacing finally from the depths of internet depravation and obscurity. Technology to us frontier housewives means hand-operated meat mincers and electric sewing machines. Even the most handy of us balk at hand-sewing curtains for a whole house. We have been staying in the new house in Neuquen, as I have mentioned, and while it has such luxuries as underfloor heating, it does not have internet - yet. It is a work in progress, almost finished but not quite. And in return for food and board and not having spent a cent since I got here (other than for immigration purposes), I have been very busy sewing curtains, and growing as a person. I now know how to make soymilk from scratch, use the residue from the soymilk-making process to bake moist and delicious cakes and savouries, build doghouses from scrap wood (the dogs are extremely grateful and thank me by jumping all over me and putting dusty paw-prints all over my clean clothes) and sew roman blinds. I have also improved my Spanish out of sheer necessity to communicate and have started reading books in Spanish with no great difficulty. Joel has an interview with someone from the cultural heritage board to present a project he has drafted, fingers crossed it will be funded and he will have work in his field... Once he has work I know it is only a matter of looking around, making a few calls and knocking on a few doors and I will have work too. It all sounds very promising, but I am finding it a bit hard to come to terms with giving up my life of busy and rewarding domesticity...

Before you exclaim loudly out of pure indignation at such a statement, let me explain. I get up at the very reasonable hour of 8am, walk the dogs around the neighbourhood (always an adventure, I will explain in depth later), get home and have a shower, then get to work on the curtains. At about 2pm we stop for lunch, which is the main meal of the day here. A decent meal, a glass of wine, perhaps a siesta, then back to work. When the natural light runs out (around 7pm at this time of year, lucky this isn't summer...), I pack up my sewing kit, usually with a new curtain hung and applauded by the general populace (if they knew how easy it was, they would probably not appreciate me so much, so I keep strategically quiet), and then I eat a light dinner and read a book, or watch a movie, or play Freecell on my computer. I had a 100% win rate until I pressed exit instead of save by accident! Now only 98%! I was totally gutted. Anyway. There is music, there are other people working around me on various things, when I get tired I chat to others, help measure or cut some wood for something, go out and play with the dogs, or make myself a snack, or bake a cake (I like cake, and it's not like I can just buy it with all my intolerances, so I make it. If other people happen to eat most of it because they like it so much then bonus). Sometimes in order to bake the cake I have to first make the soymilk and so forth, but it is all a process and I have learned so much about living cheap and doing things myself that I feel rewarded rather than domesticated.
But soon it will all come to an end. The curtains will be done and hung, the house will be occupied by the people who actually own it (Martin - Joel's dad - and Silvia, his partner), we will have our own room but it's not the same as having a place to yourselves, and we will have jobs which will require us to either have a car or live in town - or both. The new neighbourhood is on what was farmland (such as the farmland is in the Patagonian desert), and is situated outside of the dodgy neighbourhood which grew up outside of the industrial area outside of town... So yeah, we are kind of isolated with no car and no phone and no internet... Anyhow, I am making the most of this idyll while it lasts, and using the time to recharge my batteries, which were much depleted after a stressful few months in the home country.

The dogs are both a frustration and a delight, and deserve a paragraph of their own. The alsation Achilles and the mixed-breed and limpy Petrona (traffic accident, I believe, before she came to live with us, which left her with a dislocated hip and limited use of one hind leg) are the most loveable and wonderful dogs you have ever met. They obey when you say come, sit, outside, stop biting her you silly mutt etc etc, and bark loudly at strange cars, motorbokes, byciclists, dogs and small fluffy things that scrabble about in the grass. But they have let burglars enter the premises at least twice, and they are more likely to jump all over an intruder in an exuberant and desperate display of affection than they are to bite or chase. I call them my trepid explorers, because they love to go for walks with me, but stay glued to my legs when they feel insecure. I tell them what good dogs they are for protecting me so well. A new puppy is about to arrive on the scene though - we are hoping that in her training she will influence the other dogs to mistrust strangers until properly introduced, because this is definitly a country in which you need guard dogs, and hopefully they will teach her how to be so lovely. To be continued...

[Postscript: new puppy is gorgeous! And bitey and playful and friendly and cute and I luff her. And Petrona looks suspiciously round bellied, so maybe more puppies soon! Aw, aint nature wonderful?]

In other news, there is a national pandemic of swine flu, the wrong people won the election and things are getting more and more expensive... but there is still the possibility in some places of buying a hectare of land for 200 NZD, and getting a well-paid job, so all is not lost. For a third world country there is an abundance of opportunities.

I am being pressured to finish so we can leave the cyber place. I will try to upload photos as soon as possible, of house, curtains and puppies. Much love, happiness and prosperity to all. Congratulations on new babies and all the best to all of you fighters for justice, equality and the right to build whatever you like. Much love!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Gentle Patagonian breezes...

... Or so said the author of an article we read on the bus from Buenos Aires to Neuquen, about two weeks ago. Joel and I looked at each other. Um, has that person ever been to Patagonia? Two weeks later and I am, as they say here, engripado. I have the flu, or the worst cold ever, and I lay a hefty portion of the blame on the gentle Patagonian breezes.

Neuquen province is very dry, but Neuquen city is tucked up in the confluence (is that a word in English?) of two rivers, and therefore a bit warmer and more humid than the desert at the doorstep. Zapala is a small city of around 50,000 people, about 180km away, out in the arid plains, at the foothills of the Andes and about 1100km above sea level. We have just spent a bit more than a week there visiting Joel's mum and little brother, investigating work opportunities and catching up with Joel's friends from way back. He knows a lot of people there, and a lot of people are ready to help us with whatever they can. It's a nice place, if a bit frontier-town - isolated, starkly beautiful surroundings, no internet at the house, patches of no cellphone reception... But it seems as though there are some real options for us that we just have to investigate further once we have my residency sorted. And whether or not broadband is available is one such option...

So the progression went like this: NZ-Buenos Aires (23 degrees when we landed, 13 when we left) - Neuquen (frosty mornings, warm sunny days) - Zapala (water freezes solid in the afternoons, and evenings are well below zero, snow has already fallen this year, and it's only just officially winter...) - Neuquen (where the heating system in this apartment is so efficient that I feel waaaay too hot) . And add to that a sprinkle of gale force breezes and jet lag and partying like it´s 1999 one night with Joel's friends in Zapala and I think it's only par for the course that I am now suffering in the throes of the lurgy. Joel had it bad a few days ago, but of course he had man-flu and nothing I have could compete with how bad he felt. I merely have a cold. Hmm.

But after more than a week at the frontier of civilisation, in the communications black hole of Zapala in the Patagonian desert, we are now back in Neuquen city to finish my residency application and see what our options are here. Joel is off talking to some important person or other, a legislative official of some kind who also happens to be a friend of the family. It is all about who you know and this family knows some good people. I am remembering how much fun internet is, and even though the only mail I ever get is from Onecard and some travel spam, I missed it! I am also going to try to unlock my cellphone today, so I can finally be upwardly mobile again. Although the cellphone networks here are so complex... within your network you dial this number without the prefix, but if you want to call someone on your network in Buenos Aires you have to dial this prefix between the area code and the number, and if you want to send a message, well, you can´t because it costs too much. Oh, and forget sending messages to and from other countries... Any questions? But I am sure I will get the hang of it and be contactable in no time.

*Inexplicable yet inescapable passage of time...*
It is now Friday and I started this post on Monday. Where did the days go? Well, in the intervening time I have learned how to make soy milk, and made several litres; I have started building a dog house out of the scrap wood at the new house site (have I even mentioned the new house before? There is a new house... More later); I have baked several edible delicacies of both the sweet and the savoury kind which have all been eaten with great gusto; oh, and I have managed, finally, after much running around and photocopying of papers, to achieve a Certificado de Residencia Precaria - or Certificate of Provisional Residency. I prefer to refer to it as my precarious residency. Precarious because it runs out in three months, in which time I have to have translated three papers that I already had translated in New Zealand and paid good money for, and the completed application has to be sent to Buenos Aires to be processed on a pile of god-knows-how-many Bolivian, Paraguayan, and assorted other applications then sent back... I have done so many laps, photocopied so many papers, I have had my fingerprints taken and sent to Interpol (there go my hopes of borrowing lots and lots of money here then moving to a tax haven and changing my identity) - and everytime I think I have finally got it all together I have to go and photocopy something else and have some other thing translated. Is a passport not an international document? Why does it need translating? Why does the translation done by the Argentinean Embasy not count in Argentina?

The upshot of all this though, is that I have made some contacts. The translator I called on a whim and a prayer happens to be a really lovely woman, a little bit older than me, with friends in the right places. And I must have made a decent impression on her also, because she invited me to have a coffee at her place when I pick up the translations. She knows those who run multilingual schools, where I may be able to learn Spanish and teach English at the same time. And It would be really nice to make a friend who speaks both languages. I hope to meet her again at the beginning of next week.

A brief word about living conditions and then I will let you all off the hook. We are staying with Martin (Joel's dad) and Silvia, (Martin's partner) in Silvia's apartment in Neuquén. They have just finished building a new and palatial house in a gated suburb a little bit out of town, and are just waiting for the finishing touches to be applied before moving in. Finishing touches include the garden, some light switches, toilet seats and shelving in the wardrobes - and curtains, of which I have inexplicably become responsible. I happened to naively mention how much I liked the Roman blinds we had in our apartment in Wanganui, and how they would not be so hard to make and now I seem to have promised to sew them. But I figure they can't be that tricksy, and I know an expert on the matter with whom to consult if things should go haywire - namely my cherished mother, who has just recently been finished a similar project at my dear maid-of-honour's house. And yea, so that's where I am building a dog house out of scraps. They have two dogs who are currently guarding the site while they aren't living there: Petrona, the bitch with the gimpy leg (no really, she is a female dog who was hit by a car and rescued, but has a gimpy leg. Sheesh, what did you think?) and Achilles the macho dominante, otherwise known as the big smooshy German Shepherd who just wants cuddles. The dog house will be as palatial as the people house, I have no doubt.

So when they move there, the idea is that we stay in the apartment until we know for sure where we go and what we do. It will be nice to have our own place, it has been a while. I am itching to start work here and now, now that I have permission to do so, but I have to be cool until Joel finds the right job for him, wherever that may be. Neither of us want to make the same mistake as we did in Wanganui - we took the first jobs that came along, and found it very hard to then leave, or even look seriously for something more suited to our respective education. Not this time, this time we do it right, while there are still people inthe world who don't mind feeding us as long as week cook, clean and build dog houses.

No photos today, since I am not on my computer, but I will post some soon I promise. Photos of snow, and house, and dogs and the world. Maybe even the casino, where I am trying to persuade the people with the automobile to take me this weekend. I have no desire nor money to gamble, but I imagine it to be all shiny and glitzy and sparkly and shimmery, which I like. Who you calling magpie?!

Be well, stay in touch!

La Viajera
(Viaje = a journey, trip; Viajar = to travel; ergo Viajera = traveller, in the feminine form. I thought it appropriate, what with one thing and another.)

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Last day in Buenos Aires

Today was our last full day in Buenos Aires before heading to Neuquen tomorrow night. We will take a bus at 6.30pm Sunday and sleep our way through what is probably 15 hours of exquisite Argentinean scenery - but it will be dark, and a long trip, so might as well. And in true Leiva Benegas style we spent most of our last day in the big smoke inside the house... But at 4pm we pulled our socks up and went outside into a clear and crisp winter afternoon.

All we really did was go to pick up our bus tickets at the bus station, and drink a glass of cheap wine in one of the cheap Retiro eateries, but every outing is an adventure in this city. Retiro is the suburb of central Buenos Aires where the train and bus stations are - this place has to be seen to be believed... I really don't know how to even begin to explain it. Picture in the background the most exquisite train station building you could ever imagine. High vaulted ceilings, gas lights, bas reliefs and leadlight windows. Now picture it really dirty, and with lots of little shops tacked on like cardboard cutouts to the interior and the exterior, selling everything from food, to little handbag-dog jackets, to camera bags. And out on the street are even more stalls, and shops and street vendors and open-air grill retaurants and a guy making a barbeque in half a 44 gallon drum selling chorizos in bread for five pesos and African guys selling jewellery out of brief cases (always African guys, it's some sort of a cartel I swear) and stray dogs who look very friendly (and well-fed) and beggars with no legs and this really really unsual smell... I love the place, it is absolutely fascinating.

So we drank an enormous tumbler full of three peso wine (about $1.40, and actually really nice) each and watched Argentina beat Columbia at football on TV. People roaring at goals, hissing and shouting 'bolludo' at bad passes (kind of a mixture between idiot and asshole)... We had the opportunity to actually be at the game, for very little money. It was played in a suburb of BA, and would have been an experience for sure. But this is where I curse my drifting attention when the conversation between the boys gets all full of rowdy boy slang and I cease to pay heed. If I had listened instead of, I don't even know what I was doing, I could have given input of the 'yeah, I'd really like to do that' kind, and we might have got our keesters off the couch and gone. Anyhoo.

So, a few outstanding memories of Buenos Aires... Well, Retiro - but we have already covered that. The biggest and most lasting impression is of the contrasts. Grand and craven, rich and poor, large and small, expensive and cheap. The hustle, the bustle, the life, the music in the street, the people, the atmosphere. I love the place, and it freaks me out. The subway. It is not quite as inefficient as I first thought (and Joel got quite upset with me for saying that, so I am admitting wrong and taking it kind of half back), and all of the stations have the most amazing murals by Argentinean artists and mosaics and tilework on the walls dating from the 30s, by the looks. I will post photos of these on the blog, easier than trying to paint another visual picture... Retiro really took it out of me. Today on the way to the station there was a guy playing electric violin in the subway carriage. Balancing adeptly with the sway of the carriage, playing the most amazing solo. On the way home, we saw a guy in between two platforms playing electric guitar, harmonica, maracas, bass drum, and something that sounded like a hi-hat but was actually like a tap-shoe on a piece of board and attached to said board was a tambourine. He was a true one-man-band! Fantastic.

The architecture. No matter how dirty, patchy, pot-holey and loco this city is, I can't get over the houses. People live in the most amazing buildings, like it was nothing! Everytime I see one for sale, I want to buy it. 'Oooh look!' I say to Joel, 'we could buy that three-storey one over there, and have a shop on the bottom, lease the second floor out as offices and live on the top! And we can have a roof-top garden! Look at the windows! And the shutters! And the french balconies!' He is not quite as enthusiastic as I am, but I am sure to win him over. There is a boutique hotel for sale on a corner a couple of blocks from here, and I swear it is the most beautiful building in the world, and so wonderfully maintained. It is almost enough to make me forsake my dream of a piece of rainforest in Misiones... Almost. And having said it was dirty I feel I need to clarify that it is not littered with rubbish, so much as covered in a patina of grime. There are people who clean the streets, 24-7, picking up rubbish and sweeping the pavements, and you would be hard pressed to find even a cigarette butt. But somehow, it is like you are viewing the city through grubby glasses...

People in the street who give you bits of paper advertising something, anything. At first I didn't take any bit of paper thrust at me, because whatever they're selling I can't afford it and I don't want to contribute to more rubbish in the city. But Joel told me that these people get paid only if they get rid of everything they were given at the beginning of the day, and I don't want to be responsible for anyone not being able to feed their kids, so now I take everything. Apparently there are shady people who keep an eye on the paper-giver-outers, and if they throw anything in the bin they get beaten up and not paid... Even if they already gave me one I'll take another. The funniest ones though are the ones advertising prostitutes. They go to give one to Joel, and suddenly see that we are walking arm in arm and snatch it back. Prostitution is illegal in Argentina, and not only do I mean that Joel is less likely to be a customer, but I also apparently look like a snitch.

People look twice at me and Joel here anyway - we look like we come from two very different parts of town. He is short, a bit native and a bit scruffy, and I am tall, what he terms 'posh' (I am so not posh! Has he met my parents? Sorry mis queridos padres, but you are not posh) and most definitly a gringa. He reckons guys are applauding him as we walk past... I just feel self-conscious because I feel the eyes boring into the back of my head. I stopped on one of the main streets to get my boots cleaned by a shoe-cleaner guy (do they have a title?), as they were in a sorry state of never having been polished (don't tell Don and Russel! My old bosses would be shocked...) and EVERYONE was looking at me. 'Don't women do this?' I asked the guy. He assured me that yes, many women do, but only early in the morning on the way to the office, when no one is around to see. I felt like such a tourist.

The poverty. It is not ubiquitous, but it is insidious. There was a wee boy on the subway the other day who couldn't have been more than six years old. He walked the length of the carriage, throwing himself into peoples' laps and hugging them, and while they found themselves at a loss as to what to do with the urchin in their arms he thrust a collectable card of the Weet-bix box kind into their hands and moved on. He would then return the same way and hope to get a few pesos for his card. Most people gave it back. One young guy gave him an unecessarily rough shove and told him to get lost. I didn't know what to think or feel... Is he already inured to the rejection? Is he hurt every time? Is he already hard and money-minded and using his wee-boy-charm as bait? Do his parents send him out with no regard for how he feels? Does he feel like the man about the house at six years old, and having to provide for his family? I will always remember him. I will also always remember the homeless man who was washing his sack of clothes in the broken water pipe around the corner of the house, and hanging them to dry on a scaffold nearby. I wanted to go home and fetch him some soap, but I felt like one of those people who have everything, who try to make themselves feel better by helping those who have nothing. So I did nothing. Sigh. It is very hard to know what to do...

There is undoubtedly a lot more I could write about, but this mail is already quite lengthy. There is always a flip-side to every coin, though, and this city proves it beyond a doubt. For every homeless person, or war veteran with no legs, or wee boy on the subway, there are eight middle class people with comfortable lives and one uber-rich guy with more than the GDP in his bank account. The most expensive restaurant in the area has the worst and most cracked pavement outside. Pay three pesos for a glass of wine, or 50 pesos to get into a night club. Life here is certainly not simple, and though I love Buenos Aires, I don't know if I could live here. I don't want to get used to the legless guy outside the subway station in Retiro, or ever push the wee boy on the subway away with an angry word. Maybe next time I will give the guy some soap though.

Ok, time for a late dinner (although quite timely by Argentinean standards), then maybe we will go out for a drink at one of the bars in the area. Tomorrow we are aiming to go to a reserve nearby to spend the morning, before coming home to pack our bags again and head inland. Let's see if we manage to move our butts in the morning... I am so in holiday mode!

Next stop Neuquen!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Last piece of the puzzle!

Today I got the last piece of paper I need to apply for residency! Woohoo! Next week we go to Neuquen and start the process. Hope it all goes smoothly...

That's all really. Still in Buenos Aires, still loving the city, crazy though it is. Fabulous architecture, so much life, so many things to see. I attach a few photos for your viewing pleasure - including the immigration building, which is an old structure by the port, built to handle the European influx in the 1800s. They came in their boats, and landed directly on the docks at immigration. Handy huh? I had to walk for miles! Miles I tell you!

Puerto Madero reminds me of Auckland, yachts and fancy bars on the waterfront. The blue tiles are on the wall of the subway stations, and there is one train line where all the carriages have polished wood interiors and old fashioned detailing. The guard type guys are from the national guard, and there are always two of the at the memorial for the war in the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas). And everywhere you look, lovely buildings in various states of repair. Today we saw just the facade of a building restored and protected, and a new skyscraper built behind it! I thought that was a nice touch.

Chau gente! Hasta luego!

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Day of rest and contemplation.

Today is a pyjama day! I reckon we have deserved one, because we have accomplished so much in the last few days - more than we managed to do in several months in New Zealand, in terms of immigration. I have all my papers stamped, and am just waiting on my police clearance which will be ready on Monday. With any luck no one has ever stolen my identity, travelled to Argentina and hijacked a bus or something...

The system is different, but it seems to work. Joel explained that the reason we had to do so much running, is that the system is not always accessible via Internet. There is still a large portion of the population that has no regular access to Internet, and they still need to have access to the system. Hence the queues and the dashing about town like we were part of the Scooby Doo team, gathering clues and racing off to the next location. I can see my immigration as an adventure, or the solving of a mystery and that makes it much more fun! The benefit of waiting to see a real person is that things happen on the spot, with real human contact and not as some abstract part of a big machine.

We spent our waiting time yesterday walking the length of one of the biggest shopping streets in Buenos Aires - Calle Florida. It is a pedestrian only street, with shops of all kinds, from Christian Dios to local artesans and leatherworkers. I fell in love with a leather jacket that I can't afford to buy and consoled myself with two rings from a street vendor instead. For 10 pesos each (about $4.80) I bought one silver plated and one gold plated with cubic zirconias. They look fantastic and I was very pleased with myself for being such an astute shopper.

The service in the shops here is beyond excellent. As you walk the street, people from the smaller owner/operator businesses stand outside to try to entice you in with offers and cards. Once you agree to go and take a look, they escort you to the premises - often inside a galleria or mall - and deliver you into the hands of the owners who then drop everything to assist you with whatever you desire, with no pressure to buy. They all praise my Spanish to the high heavens and offer to tailor-make anything within a matter of a few hours, should I wish to buy something they don't currently have in stock. I lingered over that jacket for at least half an hour while we chatted to the lady who owned the shop and made the garments. She was in no hurry to see us leave when it became obvious that we couldn't buy, and gave us advice and tips for settling in Argentina. In general, I have found the people to be very welcoming of foreigners, and eager to assist with whatever they can.

The not so good news is that a water pipe has broken in our building and may take all weekend to fix... on Thursday we had no water at all, and had to fill water bottles from a hose down on the street. Yesterday we only had hot water, which was fine, because it still meant we could shower and do dishes, but today we only have cold water, and only in the bathroom... another good reason to stay in my jammies all day! It's raining outside anyway, after several days of beautifully clear late autumn days - crisp in the mornings but gorgeous once the sun comes out. The temperature has dropped to a more reasonable average of about 16 degrees celsius, as opposed to the mid-twenties we had when we landed. Nice, but not when the clothes you packed for easy access are all winter ones! I should just bask in it though, because Neuquen will be cold. We will probably head inland at the end of next week.

Ok, well that about wraps it up for me today. No photos from yesterday as my camera ran out of batteries and I haven't had a chance to buy more. Just another beautiful Buenos Aires building. People live here! Can I have one?

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Never a dull moment! Or wait...

I am still completely bemused and befuddled at the day just gone. It felt very hectic, but also included long periods of waiting for - what I didn't know... I have waited in queues where my number was 590, spoken to both rude and ignorant officials and some very helpful and smiling ones, witnessed first hand the crazy Argentinean answer to immigration bureaucracy and sprinted vast distances across this sprawling megalopolis (or that's how it felt, I admit to a bit of poetic license here) to get to another queue before they stop admitting more.

We have had so much conflicting advice and information about what I need in order to complete my residency application, ranging from 'oh no, you have everything you just need a stamp on that paper from the Ministry of Internal Affairs' to 'you have to send everything back to New Zealand to get the embassy there to do this that and the other'. We stood in that queue where my number was 590 for what felt like a day but was probably only a couple of hours, in order to get an appointment for Friday - not even to see anyone who could tell me anything. The paper I need is from the Federal Police, to verify that I have no criminal record in Argentina, and should technically be the last piece of this immigration puzzle. The bank where the office is was on strike, so it was extra slow and full of impatient and angry people and arrogant security guards who wouldn't let Joel accompany me to translate.

So we waited. Went to a coffee shop next door who obviously cater to the wealthy lawyers and government officials in the are, because they charged us 16 pesos for a coffee and an orange juice. There are about 2.2 pesos to a dollar at the moment, but it feels like a spend of $16 NZ in terms of the value of money. This is an expensive city, even supermarket prices are very high in comparison to what people earn. They have the same cheese problem as New Zealand! Export prices for locals. The only cheap things are alcohol and tobacco! What does that say about the society?

But after we had got my appointment for tomorrow and returned home, we chanced a phone call to a department of the Federal Police that handles immigration enquiries and they sent us to another office on the other side of town, which is technically the department of immigration proper. When we arrived panting, after running the several blocks from the subway stop, we saw a queue of at least 200 people and just about lost heart. But never take anything at face value here, is my new motto! We weasled our way inside, interrupted a few people to ask a couple of pertinent questions, and found a wee office at the back of the building where they processed my transaction on the spot and told me to come back and pick up the paper next Wednesday. You just have to persevere! And disregard the queues, the several hundred other people waiting for god knows what, and have a local on your side. I would be so lost if not for Joel! I'll have to remember to cancel my appointment on Friday... or maybe I won't, just to be bad. Mwahahahahaaaa!

So tomorrow I get my police clearance from NZ stamped to confirm it's authenticity - this also confuses me... How do they know? But apparently because it was translated and verified by the Argentinean consul in Wellington it carries a bit of weight, and they will trust it enought to stamp it, but not enough to use it without a stamp. Hmm. Then we wait for Joel's ID which is ready on Monday and my other piece of papel de mierda (a phrase I have come to use and abuse) on Wednesday, and then we head to Neuquen to finish the process there. Less people means less queues and faster processing is the theory. Let's hope. I am starting to really feel for Joel and the boys when they were going through all this in New Zealand, it is so confusing!

Some photos of today's impressions, including the super expensive coffe shop, the train station and the mighty obelisk.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Buenos Aires on an ordinary Tuesday.

Today (Tuesday 26 May - happy birthday Mum!) was the first working day since we landed, so we set out to get Joel's ID document sorted so we can start with my immigration process. After literally walking several kilometres, being sent from one place to another by unhelpful officials, and negotiating a complex and not terribly efficient subway network we finally ended up miles from home but in the right queue. An hour later, we had completed the right forms and paid the requisite amount of money and his documentation will be ready to pick up on Monday. Whew! And now to find our way home...

Meanwhile, I lost my Visa debit card... Well not so much lost, as I was dumb and left it in an ATM... Kilometres and several subway changes away from where I discovered it was missing. So that's been cancelled and my money is still all there - what there was of it to start with - and I have learned a valuable lesson in, um... Well. I haven't actually learned anything new because I already know to check you have everything before you leave the ATM. So, not even a learning curve, although I am sure somehow it built character.

I also have a crick in my neck from looking up. I love the architecture in this city! I took a few photos with my new little point and click camera today and will try to append them to this post. Wrought iron balcomies, shuttered windows, intricate stonework... absolutely beautiful, and many are apartments. I would love to live in such an edifice! Some are completely empty and boarded up, which seems a terrible waste. They often have crazy towers, turrets and one even had a lighthouse on top! I guess up there is where you want to be, away from the bustle and grime of street level. Though as you can see, some enterprising individuals have spraypainted political graffiti on the nice marble benches, which does make street-level more interesting.

Anyways, have to go and do terribly important things now. Bye.