Monday, January 21, 2008

maté and other stories from argentina

i´m back in brazil now (ahhh), but a story or three from argentina:

story #1- maté. argentines love maté. for those not familiar with the stuff, it´s a type of tea that tastes remarkably like dirt. you drink it from a metal straw called a bombilla (say /bomb.bee.shuh/). you might say it´s an acquired taste and that the argentines have acquired it. everywhere you go, people are packing maté. over there there´s another gourd and bombilla and a thermos of hot water and a bag of the leafy powdered stuff. and over there. and in that public bathroom that doesn´t have soap or toilet paper, they´ve got maté. its reach is far and wide. people in argentina take their maté very seriously. there´s a whole ritual that goes with drinking it that´s as elaborate as it is respected. don´t heat the water to a boil. don´t pour the hot (but not boiling) water all at once into the gourd or mug. make sure you give the maté a good shake before all else (gets the dust out so you don't get your dirt and dust flavors mixed up- it really does taste like dirt). don´t pour the water for your own maté unless you´re drinking it alone. if you´re sharing maté with some one, drink the whole cup yourself before pouring water for the next person and passing the gourd (think personal bowl);). lastly and most importantly, never touch or move the straw while you´re drinking maté. probably there are other rules, too, but this is what i gleaned from the experience. they refer to the stuff as ´herb´. here in buzios today while standing in a doorway to avoid the rain that´s coming down in buckets, an argentine peeked out from under his rain gear with a desperate look in his eye asking if i knew where he could get some ´herb´?? i told him the coffee is good and strong here in brazil...

story #2- konex and the drummers. so, i run into rakhal (as in "davis rakhal" as in "we just camped together at burning man rakhal") in buenos aires. actually, he e-mails me to say he´s in buenos aires and where in south america might i be. it just so happens i´m also in buenos aires, in the same neighborhood even, just down the street from where he´s writing to me. i invite him to come to the apartment where my sister is staying, where we´ll be making breakfast (it´s 2 o´clock). an hour and a half or so later, just as we´re leaving to check out the streets, rakhal shows up in the lobby. geez, the world is so tiny. anyway, you know the story. the main point i´m trying to get to is that if you're going to run into anyone while traveling it's probably rakhal because the guy spends about half his life at it. and if rakhal tells you not to miss something because it's one of the coolest things he's seen on his trip, it's probably worth listening to. so, the two highlights are patagonia and a percussion show that's happening every monday night right in Buenos Aires. i´ve never been to patagonia, but i imagine it´s pretty spectacular. i decide to go see the drumming. it´s AMAZING! a dozen or so musicians with various percussion style instruments in perfect sync proceed to send the crowd into a dancing FRENZY. it´s crazy, i mean people are DANCING. the drummers are DRUMMING. for two hours straight it goes on like this without missing a beat. later, tired and awestruck, i go and meet up with my sister and her friends to brag about the fun they missed. it´s ten-thirty when i get back to their apartment (i´m thinking dinner then putting my dancing feet to bed). i no sooner get the word AWESOME out and they tell me to pack a bag because we´re catching a night bus to colón...

story #3- colón. i have no idea where colón is, but i like the spirit of the evening, the spontaneity of it, and i run back to my apartment to pack a bag. where ever it is we´re going, i´m sure it will be a nice break from the city and its sweltering maze of concrete, its hissing busses and trash piles. (i did like the drumming, though). i´m game. at 6:30 in the morning we arrive in colón, the sky just beginning to hint at light. the hostel we´re headed to doesn´t open until 10, and the only thing open is this bus stop coffee shop...so, we drink too much coffee and eat too many half moons (croissants) as we watch the sunrise over the neighborhood tree tops. it´s lovely. we´re exhausted. we take our things and head for the streets. there doesn´t appear to be much happening in colón, at least not at this hour. there are a few signs of life, people watering front lawns and sweeping porches, dogs sniffing trash piles, that kind of excitement. the streets are all dirt. the sidewalks, too. we walk by the lake towards our hostel. it reminds me of clearlake in some strange, trashy, speedboats will be taking this over later kind of way. we fall asleep on the shore of the lake under a clump of some willowy shrub and wake up later with sand caked on our cheeks and sun in our eyes. our room won´t be ready til noon they say, so we decide to take advantage of the fact that the lobby is also an ice-cream parlor. can i just say i don´t have ice-cream nearly enough for breakfast. hardly ever, actually. we order a huge carton with four flavors, two of them have dulce de leche in them. dulce de leche, by the way, is this sweet, caramelized milk stuff that argentines are almost as addicted to as maté. it tastes nothing like dirt. it not only comes in ice-cream flavors, but in cookies, cakes and little dishes to put on your bread .some people actually eat it with presunto on their sandwiches (i have to admit it was better than i thought it would be). after we shower we head for the streets again, looking for something to bring us up from our sugar crash (there´s a reason we don´t eat ice-cream for breakfast). NOTHING is open. we walk further, figuring there must be something to eat in the entire town of colón. we are wrong. it´s three in the afternoon and signs politely inform us that nothing reopens until 6. it seems like a cruel trick when we find the one place in the entire town that is open is an ice-cream parlor...

what else can i say about colón? i started calling it colon (without the accent) because i´m sure this place will give us all organ failure.

ok, i think: tomorrow we´ll wake up early and go find a nice beach. instead we wake up early to a power outage and rain so heavy it starts flooding our rooms. i don´t know if i´ve ever seen such heavy rain. it´s stuffy and hot in our suite without air conditioning or fans, so we open the doors and let the rain come in freely with the air... and drink our maté in the dark. luckily, by this point we have pepper cheese and crackers in our possession because we´re not going anywhere it would seem...oh, but check-out time is at noon, and our bus isn't scheduled to leave until 8 p.m. "colon!" (without the accent) i can´t help but curse over and over again.

we take a taxi to the bus station right away and try to change our tickets. the next bus leaves at 3. we can change our tickets for only a slight fee. ok, only five hours to wait in the bus stop café with the rain coming down in sheets. better than TEN. only half the stupid wait to be exact. but, weren´t we JUST here JUST doing this very same thing? again we drink too much coffee...and we wait.

we are somewhere between cracked out and wiped out when our bus finally comes. we are all dreaming of real food but know the only food like substance we´ll be seeing on the bus is alfajores (cookies with dulce de leche between them. say /alfa.whores/... and yes, i am beginning to feel like one). we settle into our seats on our crowded bus with our plastic wrapped alfajores and get ready for our six hour bus ride back to buenos aires. alright, we came all this way and we didn´t really DO or SEE anything. FINE, we ate a bunch of junk food by a trashy lake and it rained the whole time. at least we have one more night in the city to enjoy before i head back to brazil. we should be getting back to civilization just in time for a delicious (and cheap) steak dinner with wine and a big salad! just as i start to daydream about all the food i´m going to eat, the bus breaks down at one of its stops. it´s unbelievable, really. all we can do is sit on the curb in disbelief and eat ice-cream and wait for whatever cruel trick the universe is playing to not be funny anymore. we wait for three hours like this on the curb and i only stop feeling sorry for myself when i look around at some of the elderly men and women sitting on the curb with us, their faces tired, their bodies surely aching...and then at the young families trying to comfort their fussing children in the uncomfortable heat. ok, i don´t have it that bad. all the same i am overjoyed when the bus is finally fixed and we are finally on it, eating our alfajores.

*at one a.m. we finally had our steak and wine and it was SERIOUSLY the best dinner EVER.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

not so buenos aires

We just arrived in Buenos Aires last night and while I should first be writing about the last six weeks of adventures in Brazil (so much happened I don't know where to start), I will first say that I've never had a later dinner (in Brazil or otherwise) than the one that was graciously cooked for us last night at three in the morning after our flight arrived two hours delayed. Deliciously grilled meat with thinly sliced onions served as the morning song birds began to sing will remain my lasting first impression of B.A. I will also remember the pool of sweat I woke up in this morning as the sun struck the side of our cement building and cooked us like our beefy dinner. Like most apartments here, ours doesn't have air-conditioning, and it's HOT. Muggy, stuffy, stinky, stupid hot. Brazil was a breeze in comparison. It's not by accident that the Portenos (folks from Buenos Aires) who are able to leave the city during the summer and head for neighboring beaches do. Between the sweltering heat and the pollution, this time of year this city has anything but "Buenos Aires" (good air). We'll survive, though. Most likely by turning into vampires and sleeping all day and continuing to eat our dinners in the wee hours of the morning. For ten days I'm saying goodbye to the daytimes and the small towns and fabulous beaches to check out this bustling city. Couldn't be all bad.

Monday, November 26, 2007

thanksmasday

It's funny, normally when I talk about having a big party weekend I mean all night dancing...this big party weekend there was no dancing involved, just Thanksgiving, early Christmas and Cael's 1st birthday party three days in a row. And that's not even to mention the days of shopping, prepping, cleaning the house and cooking. I have to say it was a great weekend, full of good food and new friends and laughter. And it was even a little exhausting like a good all night dance party. Well, not quite the same, but close. A few photos of the fun...



Liana and turkey...



"Team Turkey"


Alvaro and Cael...


Pecan pie featuring turkey art...


Sierra and Camila at Thanksgiving...


A tired birthday boy...


Camila and balloons...



Liana and the birthday boy...


janaina at cael's birthday party


Liana & Alvaro & Cael celebrated Christmas early since they'll be in Tahoe for the real deal.


It's starting to look a lot like Christmas...


A present tree...


Santa Claus (or Papai Noel as he's referred to here) came to town early in Rio and has had to weather many a rain storm at his post in front of the grocery store...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

giving thanks

Mostly I'm psyched to be here in Brazil on this sunny coastline, but I have to admit I get a little homesick thinking of Thanksgiving at home. I think of my mom's festive table decorations and endless crock pot of apple cider and of my dad carving the turkey after tending to it on the BBQ all day. I think of three generations of women playing scrabble like we always do and of uncle Bill tugging on Jill's arm while she tries to relax in peace. I think of the Phelans and the Mickelsons and the Cellos and the Monagles and all the family friends that have warmed up our house for the holiday. I give thanks for all of you wonderful people!!

Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves while the rest of you gorge on stuffing and togetherness, we (a small group of Americans in Rio) decided to do our own Thanksgiving. Liana and I and her friend Joe from Minnesota are the turkeys who volunteered to cook for 11 people on Friday night and call it a holiday. We picked up a big ol' bird that we'll start brining tonight (a term I just learned this evening), then we just need to figure out how to cook it. Any ideas? Dad?? ;)
It should be fun having a bunch of people over to the apartment...even if we can't make it chilly we can at least make it cozy. Hopefully we won't screw it up too badly and turn the Brazilians in the group off to Thanksgiving. Otherwise, it's just one long hot stretch til Christmas.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

working vacation

Although some days I forget altogether, I'm in Brazil to work. Working to live here for a little while, working on my Portuguese, working on myself. One of the voices in my head says, "Shouldn't you be getting to work instead of hanging out in Brazil right now?" Then I remember I've got my entire life to work full-time in an office or a classroom or wherever, that right now there's other work to be done...I'm here and I'm going to make the most of it!

Slowly but surely I'm getting more interest in private English lessons. I posted an ad on Craigslist Rio de Janeiro (gotta love it) which has found me a couple of students, and otherwise I've met people and it's come up that way. I met my first student on the plane ride over and got my first paycheck two days after I arrived! So far I have four students and two more who want to start after the New Year. I'm teaching mostly conversation about six hours a week in cafes, bookstores, sometimes at the beach. It's rough. Teaching privately is the best way to skip the paperwork that small English schools require, and it pays better, too. I'm basically making the same hourly wage I make at home, just not working as many hours. Hopefully business will pick up in a couple months...

November and December are big holiday months in Brazil. Every time I turn around it's another four day holiday for Saint somebody. In the U.S. our holidays tend to fall on Mondays or Fridays. Here they're on Tuesdays or Thursdays, effectively blowing most of the week. I'm not saying Brazilians aren't hard workers, they are, it's just they know how to take strategic time off. And the calendar is on their side. Since I'm not one to argue with the calendar, I'm planning to hit the road for a few weeks in December. Kind of a vacation in a vacation. I'll probably check out some new places: Angra dos Reis, Florianopolis, Parati...and go back to a couple of my favorite spots, like the jungle and Buzios. We'll see where I end up. My sister, Jill, comes to visit Dec. 19th to spend Christmas in Rio...followed by our folks coming down for New Year's! I'm so excited to have my entire family here, to show them around this place that is quickly becoming part of me. After our vacationing I'll look for an apartment in Rio and get back to work.

Monday, November 12, 2007

welcome to the jungle

My second weekend in Brazil I decided to take a break from the fast-paced city and check out a nearby mountain town, Petropolis. I booked three nights and started reading about the retreat town with European flavor, and how it was where the imperial court went in the summer to avoid Rio's noise and mugginess. Perfect, I thought. When the hostel called to say their pipes had burst and they were shutting down for the week but they could redirect me to one of their sister hostels in Rio, Sao Paulo or Casimiro, I almost canceled my weekend. I was trying to get OUT of big cities, not looking for a get away in the same city or worse a bigger city, Sao Paulo...wait, where's Casimiro? They told me it was a nature reserve off the beaten track, a place called Jungle Beach Hostel. I guess if there's a jungle and a beach it's probably pretty peaceful. Ok, I'll take it. I hung up and looked again in my Lonely Planet...no mention of Casimiro. No website for Jungle Beach Hostel online. Huh, I guess it is off the beaten track. This is going to be an adventure...

I woke up late the next morning and knew I was running late to make all of my connections to catch the last bus from Casimiro to the Jungle Beach Hostel. First I had to take the 1 hour trip to Novo Rio Rodoviaria (the main bus station in the center) then take another 3 hour bus ride to Casimiro. And by "3 hour" I was pretty sure it meant what most other schedules mean down here- around three hours, probably more. I hustled to the bus station and caught the bus, hoping to make it in time. I had no idea where I was actually trying to make it to...

On the bus, I met a Brazilian named Luiz who works in the offshore oil industry. He spends one week with his family in Rio, then the following week working in Macae. He was all too familiar with the bus ride I was taking for the first time. We talked for most of the trip and he wondered what I was doing going to Casimiro. He told me there wasn't really anything there. I told him I was going to the Jungle Beach Hostel. He had never heard of it. When we got to Casimiro I had just missed the last bus that would head up into the jungle. I wasn't sure how to get to this remote spot where I was headed or how to explain it to a cab driver. Luiz told me to stay put while he went and talked to a taxi driver. Rates for taxis and hostels and just about everything else down here tend to have a Brazilian rate and a foreigner rate. Luiz got the local rate for me and said the taxi driver knew exactly where the hostel was. I thanked him and headed off in the taxi into the darkening hills looking for the jungle.

We wound up and around, bumping our way along a mostly paved road. The air felt exquisite coming through the window, cooler and softer than the city air I had been breathing, and it smelled like fresh rain and flowers. From the "main" road we went through several gates along smaller dirt roads, much darker and rockier, until we got to a bridge. A black horse and her foal scrambled out of the way to let us pass. I could hear a waterfall not too far in the distance but couldn't see it. It's always strange arriving in new places at night, without any sort of orientation or visual mapping. I was there, that's all I knew. I was psyched to figure out what that meant.

Through the open window of the main house I could see a man dancing and playing with a bunch of kids. Music was blaring and every one was laughing...fun. I was greeted warmly and shown to my room which I shared with a German girl, Anja. She was in her 10th month of travel in South America and was on her last leg before heading home. Other folks were visiting Jungle Beach, too: Five Irish and English guys, and five girls from Sweden. For the next three days we took amazing hikes through the Serra Mar region of the Atlantic Rainforest, cabled down a steep mountainside to swim under the most amazing waterfall, laid around the giant rocks of the river, played sand-volleyball (boys against girls- we won), were shown by the kids who live there which tropical fruits you could eat off the trees, and otherwise had a great time. One night we rented a van and were driven to the nearby town of Sana, an old hippy colony that was intentionally hard to get to, and wandered around the cobblestone streets til morning. Around every turn was another type of music blaring from a different open air bar. We met some locals selling their hand-made jewelry. Around 3 a.m. we were shown the way to a Forro party down a long dirt road with a folky-rock band and lots and lots of dancing. In the center was a big fire pit and even a few clowns and fire-dancers. Ah, I felt right at home.

Back to the hostel, the owner is working on a couple of interesting projects right now which he asked me to help out with: An environmental education program to alert locals and visitors to the preservation of The Atlantic Rainforest (in English, Spanish and Portuguese) and a center for local women to sell their hand-crafted wares and make a sustainable living. I'm not sure yet what I might be able to contribute to his projects, but I have a feeling I'll be going back again to this magical place in the jungle...