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!