2 Dec 2010

Strange Luján


 To some degree, knowing a place goes hand in hand with knowing its characters. While Lujan is a small town, it boasts a disproportionately large number of folks who beat their own drum. Or an alternative explanation, is that the general populous is abnormally normal or “cuadrado” ((square) a term I have often heard used) thus being that the few slightly strange people, appear triply so in comparison.
            In any event, this post hopes to introduce the reader to three of Lujan’s most prominent characters, nicknamed by myself; bike dude, dog lady and time man. This nomenclature describes my own personal experiences with all three of these people, but equally reflects the experiences of others who have encountered them.
            Bike dude is in his late twenties to early thirties and is robust in stature, girth, and in the amount of hair and facial hair that emanate from his lion like head. Bike man can be spotted at all hours of the day throughout Lujan, peddling away ferociously on his thick mountain bike. His outings are never luxurious ones, instead they conducted at sweat producing, heart-racing tempo. As he zooms by one might notice his hands clenched tightly to the fat rubber grips on his handlebars. Where is he going? Does he have a job? A Family? Nobody knows. His relentless biking is not the strangest part of bike man’s profile. Rather that the outfit he wears, literally never changes. Not for seasonal variation, rain, sleet, nor summer heat. Bike man will reliably be wearing a black muscle shirt, black shorts, and sneakers. For spring and summertime this is not a bad choice, however (despite many Americans misconceptions that it is never cold in Latin America), winter invites bone-chilling mountain winds, freezing rains, and the occasional snow. Bike dude, defies the law of the seasons, and hot bloodedly peddles on in his summer ware, laughing in the face of nature.
Dog lady is older, in her late fifties to early sixties, has dry, ex-blonde hair that falls limply to her shoulders. Dog lady is always smoking a cigarette. She wears long wrinkled skirts that billow around her ankles, and she is always accompanied by at least two, and sometimes as many as five dogs. These dogs, like planets orbiting around a star, keep their distance, go on to investigate strange smells or the behinds of other dogs, but always with the gravity of dog lady in mind. They go where she goes. I have never seen her feeding these dogs, although I imagine that where she lives, most likely in some darkly lit and crumbling hovel, she provides ample food and shelter for dozens of street dogs. I picture her chewing on burnt toast and sipping mate, maybe reading the paper, treating the dogs as family members; chastising one when he bits another, comforting the squeals of a pup, rubbing down the sore limbs of a veteran.
            Time man, to my senses, is perhaps the strangest of these characters. I find this to be so, because at first glance he doesn’t seem out of the ordinary at all. He is an older gentleman, cleanly shaved and dressed, with a rotating wardrobe of (unlike bike dude) pressed brown slacks, and well-ironed buttoned down shirts. He often totes a weighted down grocery bag in hand, so his walks seems to be legitimate ones; he is returning from the store, or bringing something to a neighbor, or running an errand of some kind. It wasn’t until the third time that he asked me what time it was that I realized that there was something strange about him. Perhaps the other glaring clue on this occasion was that he flashed me his watch, complete with the correct time, after asking, and then pleaded that I give him two pesos. Since then, I have felt something spooky about his presence. The slow, but deliberate way his walks down he street, and the innocence of his curiosity about the time, now feels like some cheap trap to lure in unsuspecting young women like myself, and then POW… but this is probably not the case. Most like he’s just another defenseless and senile old man, lost in time.

25 Nov 2010

Suck My Napa

Mendoza starred in last Sunday’s New York Times travel section, nicknamed Argentina´s Napa Valley http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/travel/21Mendoza.html?ref=travel . The article recounts the typical tourist experience one encounters in Mendoza; bouncing around wineries, dabbeling in gourment cuisine, trying out various extreme sport activities. The journalist closes his account with an interview from the cofounder of a wine bar and American entrepreneur extrordinare, listed as an ex-washington campaign strategist. Señor son of a bitch Evans declares, “Mendoza is Napa 30 or 40 years ago.” The goal of his business efforts is to ¨create an experience that is a little closer to what you might experience in Napa, but with an Argentine flair.” Evans’ statements become the critical metaphor on which the article is hinged: Mendoza—Napa valley, but cheaper, and thirty years in the past.

Argentine culture, in Evan’s warped vision, becomes an accessory to the more essential idea, which is NAPA. His ideal tourists, instead of having an interest in exploring local idiosyncrasies, culture or language, will be served a more palatable plate of culturally understandable Napa Valley; a dish they can digest, only seasoned with a flair of Argentina. Instead of attempting to see a place, a culture, and a people on their own terms, these elements are forced into a damaging comparison—a sluggish and underveloped version of Napa valley, one in dire need of creative American/European entrepreneurs who can straighten it out, and/or set it in the right direction.

My frustration with this worldview is perhaps tripled by my current experiences waiting tables at one of Mendoza’s poshest restaurants that caters to high brow tourists of all nationalities. I’ve found that Americans of the social echelon who dine in cede restaurant have the most backward things to say about their globetrotting experiences in Latina America. One woman who had spent a considerable amount of time in Europe confessed to me that she disagreed with the stereotypes that Buenos Aires was like Paris. “Apart from Recoleta and Puerto Madero (two of the swankiest neighborhoods in the city) I found it to be really run down.” Surprise surprise! Who would guess that a country, which only a few years back suffered an entire economic collapse, would show signs of poverty or disrepair.

Another couple recounted their stay in Santiago, Chile, and then further north in a small residential town, home to Chilean billionaires. They had been unimpressed with Santiago, but had fallen in love with the small town. The woman with googely eyes recounted to me how excited she had been at the sight of helicopter pads on top of mansions. “It was just like Carmel” she exclaimed… Carmel being the California beachfront home to famous actors and artists.

These comments reflect the same kind of mindset Evans reveals in the New York Times article; comparative thinking that due to radically different histories, cultures, racial makeups, languages etc, has no grounds in reality. If you want to visit Europe, go to Europe; if you want to visit Carmel, go to Carmel; if you want to visit Napa Valley, then go to goddam Napa Valley. Don’t come here.



5 Nov 2010

PerBac






My first experience with private Argentine health care came early on this morning when I was obliged to, as a prospective employee of the bodega Alta Vista, undergo some kind of physical in order to secure that I was in conditions to work like a dog for them. Mariela, human resources director, had called me the day before, letting me know that I was to present myself bright and early at the clinic PerBac with my passport, a urine sample, and an empty stomach. Having had several encounters with the decaying and understaffed public hospital in Lujan, I expected this private clinic to gleam with newly purchased equipment, freshly painted rooms, and the welcoming smiles of a well-compensated staff. These assumptions, however, proved sadly incorrect.
PerBac was situated in an old stone house, set back a nudge from the main road that runs through Lujan. I rattled a rusty doorknocker and was ushered into a waiting room. The first tip off I received, that this was not the kind of doctor’s office I had anticipated, was the thick scent of stale cigarette smoke that invaded my nostrils. The waiting room was dimly lit, and a few sticky and lopsided plastic stools lined its periphery; I plopped myself in one of them. A urine shade of yellow stained the walls, while a putrid brown tiled the floors.  An old man, whose disgruntled mannerisms and decrepit outlook on life matched the dismal candor of his surroundings, asked me to follow him into an adjacent room. This second room was a lifeless violet, smudged with dark finger and handprints, grease stains, rub marks. We sat on opposite sides of a thick brown desk and he began taking my information: age, address, birthplace etc… His face, eyes and hair were a dull shade of grey, his voice as lifeless and dry as sandpaper. Transpiring skin shone through the thin layer of hair that coated his skull like peach fuzz. Interspersed throughout the questions of my medical and personal history, came the stale and sarcastic comments of this discontented man’s opinion on my decision to live and work in his country.
“Age, date of birth…Why did you decide to come this godforsaken place?”
“Any operations or allergies… Argentina’s a country without a solution”
“Blood type?… I don’t care what they say about Obama, or the economy, you’d have to be crazy to come live here.”
His fishlike, down-turned mouth completed the face of a man more embittered and disillusioned than a fallen solider. I didn’t say anything to his comments, and was relieved when I was sent on to the next of a series of rooms I would visit within my stay at PerBac.
            The second room was for “Electrosis,” a procedure as frightening as the word itself. Perhaps I am a novice when dealing with doctors in general, even in my own country, but this strange machine to which I was hooked, was something I could only imagine in nightmares about archaic medical practices like electric shock therapy or lobotomy. Although, electrosis proved for the most part painless, the process of being strapped in was traumatic enough. It involved four metal clamps, one tightened to each of my appendages, and then an octopus-like collection of tentacles, which were suctioned to various places across my stomach and chest. A needle attached to a pen drew squiggly lines across some graph paper each time I was electrified.
            I was finally ushered into a third room where my x-ray was to be taken. Once again, this process entailed the use of a machine that could have been a prop in a 1980’s sci-fi thriller. A huge metal crane like object hovered above the cot on which I was told to recline. The precipice of the crane was complete with an ominous black lens, without any kind of shield preventing the condemned from staring into its depths. As I lay, awkwardly on a thick piece of metal which contained the photographic paper, I was encouraged to form various strange positions, each more uncomfortable than the next. In the most curious of these, the metal sheet pressed coldly up against my breasts, while I had to extend my arms back grasping my butt cheeks, my face smushed violently up against a raised cushion. Thankfully, the miniature size of the facility let me know that this was the third and final room in my sequence of tests, and it was time to return to the waiting room.
            This time around a dyed-blonde secretary sat clicking on a keyboard, and the gentleman who had given me electrosis, rested on one of the plastic stools. The grey man entered and began to mumble to the other two about how bat-crazy I was, and that I should never have come to this horrible, terrible, hopeless and forgettable country. Luckily the other two didn’t seem to give him much clout, and merely smiled and nodded. After being permitted to leave, I emerged into the dazzling morning light, relieved.

3 Nov 2010

24 Oct 2010

Night Out

The special night that I am about to describe began very much the same way that less special nights begin—planless and aimless—arriving at some bar with the idea of drinking the cheapest of beverages provided at cede establishment, and then eventually finding our way home. The evening was cool but breezeless, one that tempts with the prospect of summer without actually providing. Jere, Pato(friend) and I were seated on a bench alongside a pedestrian causeway that was in a recent past notoriously dangerous, but now an area bouncing back with fervor. Bars, hostels and cultural centers line either side of the street along with dark windy trees whose curving limbs create a mottled canopy above. The street is perfect for strolling, meandering or barhopping, all of which are good pastimes for the planless and the aimless.
Reclining on one of the benches that stripe the sides of the street, we may have been swigging a bottle of wine purchased at a grocery store, this being the most economical of all possible nighttime options—and thanks to Argeninta’s lack of open container law, an option that is entirely risk free. A group of glassy-eyed, drum toating, dredlocked youngsters ambled by in front of us; one of them recognizing Jere, broke off from the group to come and give him a big hug. What a long time it had been since they had last seen each other, they agreed, and how was Jere’s father and brother. He was presented to Pato and I as Ricky, and would later become the star of that evening.
Ricky had the ruddy brown and red complexion of someone who had been drinking, sallow, dropping eyes, long straw-like brown hair that fell in matted clumps, motionless on his shoulders. He wore colorful yet unkempt baggy pants and shirt, a beaten-up, brimmed leather hat and had a homemade drum strapped across his back. He was the kind of bohemian whose popularity has faded in the states, but that still lives in Latina America; the roaming nomad, the homeless artesian or musician, living hand to mouth, selling crafts in a plaza, sleeping in parks and along doorsteps.
He knew Jere from the long ago and mythical time when they both lived in “el barrio de la Gloria,” a place that haunts all of the stories Jere tells me about his past, a place that as it has been described to me, is an intense combination of the most horrible social realities paired with the most wonderful human resistance. Poverty, guns, drugs, fear being a constant backdrop to daily life, and the necessity of hustling to get by. Children steal fruits and vegetables from nearby farms, or work for change guarding parked cars from the peril of teenagers, women swindle goods under their clothing from grocery stores to resell, while their men rob houses or cars. These stories are not the subject of this post. Most, if not all of them are not mine to tell.
Hearing these histories make me feel like a child listening in on the memories of her elders. Despite the fact that we are of the same age, the life they describe is so vastly different from the ones that they fortunately lead now. In the midst all of these terrible qualities, within this barrio live some of Jere’s favorite people- musicians, friends and family, more simple and honest than you can find anywhere. World famous musician Manu Chao was said to join in turbulent drum circles here, and some of Jere’s friends who belong to one of the barrios “murgos” (musical group I will describe later) have toured Europe, sponsored by the Argentine government. This is a place that he will never take me. Sometimes Jere returns with his brother when I am at work or have plans. They joke about bringing me along, but the subject is always dropped quickly and soundlessly, like a leaden ball into a river.
Though I had heard many stories about this place, I had never met anyone besides Jere’s family who had lived there. And so on this chilly spring evening, I was seized with a combination of fear, excitement and curiosity to finally see this little piece of Jere’s past standing before me. We shared our wine with Ricky and he offered us a fat joint he was puffing. What were we doing later he wanted to know. He was on his way to the house of someone called Gato (the cat), another friend from the barrio, who had just moved into a new rented abode. It would be a celebration, did we want to join.
When word got out to the rest of his crew that Pato had a mode of transportation, we were triply invited. They had been planning to walk which would have taken, as we soon realized, close to an eternity. We all piled into Pato’s vintage 1980’s truck and we were off, heading north along the main road.
In Mendoza’s center, the street San Martin, is a hubbub of people and commerce. Four lanes wide, it is well lit at all hours, and lined with generous sidewalks, tall manicured apartment buildings, elegant stores, and government offices. Without turning once this same street evolved before my eyes, violently shedding all indications of luxury the farther north we went. Street lamps became less and less consistent, instead of fortified buildings, small crumbling brick homes replaced them, and a thick layer of dust began to spin its web around houses, plants, automobiles and the street before us. Just before the road and all signs of human life dissolved completely into the dessert and the night sky, we arrived at our destination.
Gato lived in a little cottage on the back of his landlord’s property. We stumbled along the brick path and entered his new home. The house was enchanting. Ducking under the low doorway and emerging into the house’s main room, felt like peeking in on the lives of fairies or forest gnomes. Thick wooden beams striped the low ceilings above, archaic stone floors met our feet, fantastical swirls of color and pattern decorated the walls, and a slab of tree trunk formed the surface of the kitchen table. The handful of guests sat on low stools and benches cradling their various instruments between their legs, and across their laps. After a subdued exchange of greetings and welcomes, the murgos began.
A classic murgos consists of two elements, percussion and voices. Groups of murgos can have as many as fifteen people, half drummers, half singers. On this evening, everyone was doing a little of both. The rhythms began. Those without traditional drums found empty glass bottles or scrap metal to clang. The beat was contagious, the tiny room swelled with heat and energy and bodies began to pulse. Then the voices started up. These were songs that were either classic murgos tunes, or ones specifically created in La Gloria. About eight or nine of the group were well practiced, and performed complicated harmonies, singing boldly and even carelessly at the top of their lungs. Their voices, like hammers, were radically unselfconscious of where their sound might land. Those who did not know the words joined in at the choruses, silently shook to the beat, or simply sat back and listened. Wine in tin cups passed around the circle; weed in various forms accompanied it. Besides being musically and rhythmically enthralling, many of these songs tell captivating stories. The majority of them talk about life in the barrio, about a distrust of conventional authority figures like police and politicians and even academics. They talk about the resilience of the people who live there in the face of such terrible conditions, about the university of the street- the street being a source of all kinds of unconventional knowledge that is unrecognized by mainstream society.
Ricky was often the one to lead these chant-like songs. Banging on his drum, he would throw his head back, screaming the words. His voice was hoarse from exhaustion and chain smoking, and yet no one cared when it cracked, when he became so inebriated that the words to his songs were hard to distinguish, or when he discarded his drum altogether and began a stilted and awkward dance across the floor. He hardly stopped talking for more than five minutes all throughout the night. If he was not singing he was recounting a story, or a joke. He was the centerpiece of that party, the kind of person who lives every moment of their life with a dangerous and reckless passion, a passion that at any moment might hurtle that individual into death or destruction. For this reason people like Ricky are magnetic to those around them. We crave and yet are terrified of the passion possessed by the Rickys. We love to be near them because we ourselves feel more alive, more adventurous, but we are careful not to stay for too long. We return to our warm beds in our rented or purchased houses, while the Rickys either sleep alone, or don’t sleep, or find another clump of people to mesmerize. Later Jere told me that Ricky was dying of cancer. Like a star near the end of its life, he would be the fiercest and brightest just before disappearing altogether.

25 Sep 2010

Border-Crossing

Last weekend, in order to keep myself from being an outlaw, I was obligated to flee the country and cross the border into Chile. Argentine law gives any traveler a 90-day tourist visa that comes free without any strings attached. This system of tourist visas is a little bit of a joke seeing as I literally left the country for less than three hours, spent that amount of time waiting in a bus station in some non-descript border town in Chile (non-descript in that I can’t describe it seeing as I remained in the bus terminal), only to pop back on a bus going in the opposite direction. I later understood another reason that this system was flawed when I calculated that my round trip bus ticket across the boarder cost me more than if I had just overstayed my visa and eventually paid the corresponding fine. In any event, this entry does not aim to look at the silliness of Argentine tourist-visa policies and rather at the silliness of Argentine border crossing, and its vast contrast with the Chilean equivalent.

23 Sep 2010

MelodiHound

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Observations on the Importance of Things

An American’s life is plagued by things. Keepsakes, chachkas, trinkets, knockoffs, hand-me-downs, and superfluous appliances of all kinds overwhelm our closets, attics and garages, lurk in our dusty corners, and haunt the spaces beneath our beds. Things come easily and cheaply. For evidence of this, one need only visit one’s local thrift store where a twenty-dollar bill is more than enough to refurbish a kitchen, create a wardrobe, or decorate a home.
Thrift stores are not only evidence of the effortless way in which things can be acquired. They equally reveal how willing Americans are to throw away. Donation based thrift only survives in a society in which people don’t give a damn about their old things- are not interested in selling them or re-gifting them to friends. The donations on which these thrift stores are based, are not the result of kind-hearted souls parting with their precious goods so that they might brighten the lives of others. These donations, tellingly delivered in oversized black trash bags, are as good as garbage to their owners. Some mysterious sense of guilt or shame prevents us from outright throwing these things away. And so, donation provides us with a painless alternative that is almost as easy as abandoning them by the curbside (which we also do).
Old things are discarded for newer things. Instead of repairing we replace.
Things fill our lives with such an abundance that they loose all meaning. They blur together into an amorphous blob at which point they are renamed ‘junk’ or ‘clutter’. Some of us hoard, some of us throw away; both being legitimate responses to lives bombarded, weighed down, and assaulted by things.
I was of the later of the two camps mentioned. Things were everywhere, cluttered everything I knew, and as a result I despised them- wanting to watermark the coffee tables on which I was told to use coasters, misuse appliances, accidentally lose others favorite items of clothing, all in an attempt to reveal the meaningless of things that I saw to be inherently true, yet overlooked. When I moved out of my apartment after graduating, I wanted to purge my life of the tedious collections, the nameless keepsakes, and the ratty clothing that I had been accumulating for years. I burned old love letters, trashed memorabilia from the places my friends, family or I had been, and discarded books, papers, and old journals. I wanted a new start, free of unnecessary items, an existence in which my drawers and cupboards gleamed with the brilliance of their emptiness. To me, a clutter-free home meant a clutter-free mind.
While I have far from abandoned this perspective, I have been forced to seriously reconsider. Here, things are sacred. While at first I was amused by Jeremias’ various collections of cardboard boxes, tacky trinkets, and lamentable keepsakes, I have come to understand the profound meaning that they embody for him. Things are hard to come by, thus the things that one does possess are revered, cared for incessantly, repaired and re-patched and refurbished. Here, the sparcity of things gives each individual one importance. Things that in the U.S. would automatically be considered garbage have importance here. Old newspapers, scrap metal, cardboard, can be manipulated and reinvented to have new meanings and uses. Todo sirve para algo- Everything can be used for something.
This huge difference in the mentality towards things now seems obvious to me, is as pervasive and all-encompassing as the air we breathe. Yet it took a while for this distinction to dawn on me, and looking back on several occasions I could have interpreted better had I been aware.
The first occurred just after I had arrived on one of my first visits to Jere’s family’s house. I remarked with muffled surprise that a box in which I had delivered a gift to his mother, six months earlier, was perched on a ledge on display for all to see. Although it was a sightly box, I remember thinking that in my own home, that same box would have long been misplaced, filed away, hidden along with all the other meaningless collections we had amassed.
Another example of this mentality arose as we were moving out of our first (and current) abode into our second. All of my things fit into two suitcases, as I had recently arrived, but Jere’s things seemed never ending, most of which appeared to me to be ‘junk,’ Cardboard boxes stuffed with old papers and magazines, half broken chairs and tables, rusted nails and screws. I remember laughing and pleading him to get rid of some of his things so our move would go smoother. He flushed and became angry. These were his possessions within which he could visualize each hour of hard work he had traded for them. “These are my things”, he told me, “me han costado [they have cost me].”

9 Sep 2010

Whoops

False alarm, not right time of radio show.
Will post updated schedule when I know what it is
tootaloo

Meet the Family

It took a while for the ice between Jere and I and the fam with whom we shared our living space to thaw, but once it had, we began receiving visits from various family members, not just grandma.
One of the first afternoons that this occurred I was alone in the patio, stringing up laundry. Mariela (Mama duck) emerged from her end of the house, with a reluctant Fiama (her oldest 16 year old daughter) in tow. Physically dragging her by the hand towards my front door, poor Fiama, at the ripe age of puberty and family related embarrassment, blushed beet red.
“We have a question for you, Juana” the rotund Mariela barked across the patio.
Still a little unsure about our relationship, I was nervous. Had we offended them in some way, did they need more money, were we using something we shouldn’t be?
“Yes?” I responded cautiously.
“Doesn’t this jacket make Fiama look thin?”
I had not been expecting this kind of question and was silent for a moment. I had always considered the young girl before strikingly beautiful and had never noticed her weight. She was not a stick, but she was healthy, with dark billowy locks, almond eyes and a soft and round face so magnetic I had hardly noticed anything else about her. But now, that Mariela mentioned it she did have a little bit of a tummy.
I insisted that she always looked thin and that the jacket didn’t really change anything.
The answer I provided, however, was unsatisfactory.
“You see,” Mariela continued, now stroking her daughter’s torso, “Fiama is very panzona (bellied), but I think that this jacket is slimming. So what do you think Juana, come on!”
The article of clothing in question was a corduroy blazer, perhaps a size or two too small for her, but according to my American sensibilities of sugarcoating and political correctness etc, I repeated a different version of the answer I had given at first. Coming from a mother the size of a small refrigerator, her daughter’s tummy hardly seemed relevant.
Eventually giving up on my illusive opinion, the conversation diverged to eating habits, and that I looked like a vegetarian, and then eventually the pair wondered back across the patio.
From this day on, relations warmed between us, and like two bordering countries after a recent blockade, we began trading goods and services with fervor. Negotiations were never direct. Instead the three youngest members of the family became peacekeepers, sent from one side of the patio to the other to return favors and solicit sundry household items. Martina (6), Camila (3) and Candelaria (1) were Mariela’s minions, sent to our door to retrieve milk, sugar, eggs, bread, matches, a bicycle pump, the keys for the front gate, spare change, anything imaginable. Two or three times a day, without fail, I would hear the scuffle of light footsteps, then the beating of three sets of tiny fists on my metal door accompanied by a chorus of “Juana, Juana, Juana.”
The one child actually suited for this kind of activity was Martina. At the age of six, she was the only one who had the mental capacity to remember what she had been sent to retrieve. Candelaria, the youngest of the trio, remained mostly silent except for a few squeaks and half-formed words. Then there was Camila, who was often sent to head the group when Martina was out with her friends or at school, but whose age and linguistic skill inevitably made her visits difficult to interpret.
On one occasion, Camila arrived while Jere and I were eating lunch. She padded in through the open door and clung to its frame. “Juana” she muttered, her thick and unruly brown curls bobbing.
“Yes Camila” I responded waiting for the request.
“Uhh…. Uhh….” Her gaze darted about the bright room.
“Yes Camila. What do you need?”
“Uhh…..”
Giving up, we resumed our meal and the conversation we were having. Camila remained sucking on her lips, and clinging to the door, a voyeuristic ghost in our midst.
About ten minutes had past and I had just about forgotten she was there at all, when a whisper of a voice reminded me.
“Cebolla (onion)” she uttered in a tone so soft and unimposing that without looking at her, one might think that this little girl was asleep, and her words described the world she encountered in some nebulous dream of kitchens, mothers, vegetables and disproportionately large onions.
On another occasion Camila and her younger sister were dispatched with nothing more than the word “bottle” in their heads. They arrived once again in a chorus of “Juanas” and a light thumping of fists on the door. “Botella” the pair repeated over and over, Camila initiating the chant, followed by Candelaria who could only accomplish the second part of the word “tella” “tella” “tella.” Unlike the vague and tenuous character of many of their visits, this time the team was unwaveringly resolute in their demands. The one problem was that I had no idea what kind of bottle they were looking for. I showed them a variety of bottles I had lying around, empty tomato sauce bottles, wine bottles, used water bottles, dish detergent bottles, all to no avail. They continued their battle cry for a ‘botella’ ‘tella’ ‘botella’ ‘tella.’ After exhausting all visible possibilities I told them to come back when they had a better idea of what they were looking for. Camila scurried off but Candelaria remained watching me with a furrowed brow, chomping on her cheeks, still muttering ‘tella’ ‘tella’ ‘tella.’ The one-year-old seemed angry and dissatisfied but was unable to communicate these complex feelings to me. She had a job to do, a role to fill within this family, and here I was, an outsider, impeding her ability to do so. Realizing she was alone, she eventually waddled off, a heavy dipper slowing her pace.
In addition to the messengers, Grandma continued to drop in on us, thankfully, on these more recent instances, fully clothed. She always arrived looking for someone or something: her aunt Analisa, her husband’s toolbox, the keys to the front gate. She would mistake us for her nieces or nephews, brother and sister, or long lost friends.
“No, this is not my house,” she would explain to me, “I don’t live here, I’m just visiting relatives.” And then she would enter my kitchen and gaze searchingly around and on into the next room, “Is Anna around? You see tomorrow, I am leaving and I’d like to say goodbye.”
“No, I’m sorry,” I offer apologetically, “But I’ll tell her you stopped by.” I nod and smile, placating the ill-fated hallucinations of a woman lost in time.
We discovered one day that a series of garden pots we had left outside was missing. One by one, they were recuperated from distinct hiding spots within the family’s house with the exception of one. Later that day, Jeremias found the last pot out in the front of the house next to a few other abandoned plants. Inside it, Grandma had feebly stuffed the roots of a handful of weeds into the dirt, dutifully attending to the garden that was no longer hers.
I hope that these anecdotes help to illustrate that space is not the only thing that I share with this family. The moments that I describe brighten my days, as I grow to know each member’s personalities and idiosyncrasies. However strange and dysfunctional the whole equation might appear at times, each one of them make living in this space feel like a home.

1 Sep 2010

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MelodiHound
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Word of the Day

Cloaca- The Océano Pocket Diccionario translation offers us the English word ‘sewer’ which, in my imagination, confines the noun to the underbellies of streets. Carefully removed from the security of our temperature controlled and screened-in abodes, the trope of the sewer exists at a comfortable arms length along with all of the other dirty creatures and things that can be found within them; rats, cockroaches, murder victims, abandoned animals or newborns, used condoms and syringes etc. That the sewer exists distinctly outside and away from the home is a likely mirage American plumbing offers us in order to help us forget the dirty truth that sewage pumps and pipes fill our walls and floors with shit etc. and that those shit pipes in our homes only eventually make it to the bigger shit pipes in fields, streets, and back allies at which point they are endowed with the name ‘sewer’.
Argentine plumbing is different. Houses of all kinds- new and old, luxurious and otherwise have more salient ways of water and shit management.
Let me explain. A cloaca is an integral part of an average Argentine bathroom. Some have fancy metal grates, others covered with plastic or wooden adornments, some entirely uncovered, but the fact remains that all bathrooms are equipped with a deep and narrow hole, through which you can hear (and see with the help of a flashlight) water and other materials sloshing about after flushing or using the sink. While American plumbing enables a toilet user to put their poo first out of sight, then immediately out of mind; the Argentine equivalent is not so kind. Instead, a cloaca prevents this convenient act of forgetting, and serves as a direct passageway to understanding what happens post-flush.
Gwyuanitas Sound Advice Concerning Cloacas:
1. Do not drop your cell phone into one by accident when pulling up your pants after taking a leak. And it you do, a) do not use the sink or flush, and b) rubber gloves!
2. Do not pour bleach down one to stifle odors- a novice dealing with cloacas, as I very recently was, might think, oh- this bleach will certainly help the wafting odor emananting from below. WRONG—a not so very scientific description made clear to me (only too late) that bleach kills the stuff in poo that eats poo, so the poo stops digesting itself and just hangs out, and man oh man did you think that malevolent stench was bad before!!! You got another thing comin’!

19 Aug 2010

Maldito Zonda

Zonda is--- hammer of heat and pressure that explodes out of the mountains wreaking havoc on the inhabitants of the dessert plains below.

Zonda affects everything. Interactions with others are difficult- curt and aggravated at best. One’s body feels unfamiliar, ones head dull and heavy. I have an overwhelming earache, a sensation I last remember having at Disney World when I could not have been more than seven or eight years old. With this hollow pain sucking at my ear cavity, I was unable to enjoy the attractions. I remember finding my only solace in the lap of my mother who squeezed my head between her warm hands, temporarily relieving the pain.
Now at the ripe age of twenty-two I want the same comfort. I want to disappear into a round ball in the corner and sleep until this Zonda leaves me alone.
If an outsider was interested in proof that this Zonda phenomena takes place more than in just my own mind, they need only observe my kitten. Slingshotting from room to room, inside to outside, wall to wall, Kuka darts around like a virulent loose cannon. Her desire for movement is insatiable, her temperament uncharacteristically harsh and mercurial. She moans, a piercing and throaty moan, then latches onto the screened windows, a blanket, my sweater. She moans again than runs off, quicker and more impossible than a shadow.
The good thing about the Zonda is that it enables one to blame nearly anything that goes wrong on its existence. Oh, you got in a fight with your novio- zonda, oh your car won’t start - zonda, oh inflation inflation -zonda, oh I failed my test- zonda…etc etc. In particularly severe cases, schools close, public functions cease, children and the infirm are locked firmly behind closed doors. Hot dust fills the air and rips through the deserted streets, cracking the limbs of trees, uprooting new and frail plants, rattling windows and homes. When the wind and the heat finally cease and the air clears, a bitter and dry cold envelops the city. Temperatures drop twenty or thirty degrees overnight. The cold, however, comes as a relief, as it brings with it a change in air pressure that enables all to think and breathe clearly once again.
Perhaps the Zonda was at the cause of my particular grief today, although I fear that immigration policies will not, like the temperature, change overnight. A perfect and wonderful job opportunity is slipping through my fingers because I am stupid and failed to do the right paper work before arriving. No, I told myself like the conceited and naive American that I was, it will be easy as pie to get a Visa, who wouldn’t want to hire me, legal or otherwise… Well, it turns out, surprise surprise, that most places where I would want to work, legitimate and respectable business, do not want to hire illegal workers. After waiting in line in a migration office for several hours early this morning only to be told that I lacked five out of six important documents required in order to obtain a workers permit, I am filled with jaw-grinding frustration. It could be worse, I think, I could be trying to get into the U.S.

16 Aug 2010

I am looking for a job but...

Not just any job, I try to explain to Jeremias’ brother Lucas. He counters me saying that if I smuggle clothing across the border from Chile I could make as much as 6,000 pesos a day. “In one day!” he emphasizes dramatically. Or I could sell coffee near Puente Oliva where there is not a cafetero (bicycle-bound coffee vendor (jeremias’ occupation) in sight. Or I could learn how to make tortas (typical Mendocino roll seasoned with cow fat) and sell them seeing as Lujan lacks a real bakery, everyone says so. I could make thousands, in two months I could buy myself a motorcycle!
Jeremias, Lucas, and their father Javier are seasoned professionals at working the streets. “Hay plata en la calle” [there is money in the streets] they insist. They learned a long time ago that working laborious hours at jobs that compensated them less than a living wage was futile, unfulfilling and plain stupid. Jere explained to me once that he was fed up “haciendo rica a la gente” [with making other people rich]. Instead, they have each carved comfortable niches for themselves in the streets, making more money in one day than they could have in a week working for the man. I admire their smarts, their savvy and their creativity all born under the weight of the heavy hand of necessity. But how can I explain to them that it is not the kind of life I want, and that it is the kind of life I have the very real privilege of opting out of.
God damn liberal arts education. Fill my head with reckless and irresponsible creativity. Every thought should be thought! Every thought is wonderful and good! Now you expect me to join the work force and humdrumdrumhumhumdrum…. Just forget it all. Retarded. I’m beginning to understand the popularity of blogs. Hundreds and thousands of people finally have the opportunity in public, to contest the world that their lives are not as bland as the equation of their boring jobs and their unfulfilling relationships. In a blog one can scream and shout, “I know what it looks like but actually I am an interesting person!!”… Here, the notion of liberal arts, of learning just for the hell of it, is unthinkable. Here, before enrolling in any class you pick your major which is not just a major but which also gives you the credentials for some kind of job in the real world. Imagine that!
How do I explain to Lucas then, that I will feel unfulfilled, spiritually and emotionally depraved, empty and hollow without some kind of job that challenges my brain, stimulates my creativity, and not necessarily one that fills my pocket. This is a sentence that will remain untranslatable not because of language barriers, but because of hurdles of class and culture, that make it unintelligible to them and that equally make their lives—lives that I will never ever live no matter how long I stay here beside them— unintelligible to me.

11 Aug 2010

June/July

Mother says that I should be writing these things down.
But it is much easier not to write in the same way that it is easier to float than it is to wade; much less friction. Time rolls by, not too fast nor too slow, but always unquestioned and unremembered.
But mother says I must write, and she is probably correct as mothers, with the benefit of hindsight often are.
Maybe Ill start with two days ago painting by new/old apartment. Jere and I had since moved out, but due to a series of misfortunate happenings with our new landlord, we were left with no other choice than to return to our first rented abode. Searching for a new rental not only made time and energy evaporate, but we simply couldn’t rent most places within our price range for lack of paperwork. “Trabajando para mi cuenta” (self-employed) the phrase Jere used incessantly to try to placate landlords that, yes in fact, our payments would make it to their damp and anxious fingertips the first of every month, was an unacceptable substitute for government issued documents testifying to one’s employment, and others that declared that friends and family owned property. Landlords would smile and nod with a guise of sympathy promising us they would speak with their lawyers and their lawyer’s lawyers to see if we could work something out, and then would delay responses to our calls curious about the outcome of those meetings, then would stop answering all together.

A cocktail of frustration, desperation and what felt like destiny led us back to our first rented apartment, feelings which doubled when jeremias (after another failed attempt of getting his full security deposit back) discovered that our old abode now had hot water and a third room, two critical details which demand examination. Hot water—I of realized was far from universal. I had assumed however, that in the kinds of places that would lack it, firm indicators would be present —roofs made out of corrugated metal, dirt or cement floors, and walls or fences collages of found materials. Although our apartment was not by any stretch of the imagination luxurious, it was part of a larger house with fairly permanent architecture, and despite jeremias’ disclaimers that we lacked hot water it was still shocking to arrive in the dead of winter unable to bathe comfortably. While Jere had warned me of this first shortcoming, he had failed to mention that the bathroom also lacked a shower (or had the remnants of one—two knobs and then above them a gaping hole of clay and cement from which the water should have emanated), and that even if we did have hot water we wouldn’t be able to clean ourselves like regular humans. Our first weeks were spent bathing and washing clothes in the homes of friends and family, and washing dishes rapidly so as not to freeze our hands.
The second detail that drew us back was the extra room. How, you might ask, does an apartment magically gain a room after only a matter of weeks? This is also a rather curious circumstance. The apartment was part of a larger house where a sizable and loud family inhabited. As a means of supplementing their monthly income, (Pa peddled DVDs in front of one of the town’s grocery stores) they had divided off part of their house with a Styrofoam wall in order to rent it out to unsuspecting and desperate tenants- they did not require any form of documentation or proof of employment, just cash. At first the apartment consisted of a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom (a misnomer considering that it lacked a bath). The far wall of the later was thus plugged up separating our space from that of the family. When Jere returned to the house for another fated attempt at collecting our cash, the wall had been removed and the bathroom now opened onto a room twice the size of the other two, and for a mere 150 pesos more a month they could all be ours. The family, for a little extra cash, had usurped the privacy of the senile grandmother living with them, the previous owner of the house, forcing her into one of the bedrooms with the six children.
Jere returned from this visit mesmerized. The fact that he was not selling well in the city and was going to have to return to lujan to work, combined with the troubles our new landlord presented us with, left us really no choice but to move out, and unless we wanted to move in with his mother and his siblings (which we didn’t), we didn’t have anywhere else to go. Hot water and an extra room was the only convincing we needed. Within a few moments of discussion on the possibility of returning there, and without really thinking much through, Jere was on the phone with the drunkard man of the house Facundo, explaining our decision and offering to pay fifty pesos more a month for him to secure our claim. In the typical slurred speech that accompanied the later hours of the day Facundo denied Jeremias’ offer of an increased sum and insisted that the apartment was ours because he knew what kind of people we were and that he would rather have trustworthy people living under his roof than strangers. This endured Facundo even more to Jeremias, who insisted that the poorer the person the more open-hearted, and that those with the least to give are the most generous. Our experience with our second landlord, where we were currently living served as a counterpoint supporting this same thesis. Our rich landlord, owner of eight or more houses, and part of the lucrative mining industry, had proved to be a tight-assed and stingy son of a bitch on a variety of occasions, but most notably when he nearly broke into a fist fight for a matter of thirty pesos that he refused to pay our friend Pato who had wired some electric sockets for him.
And so as we counted down the days until the end of the month, where our new old apartment awaited us like a flaming and ferocious beacon of how comfortable and wonderful our life would be. Attached to this hope emanated all of our hopes and dreams; I would find a job, and Jere would begin to make money again, and we could have a garden where I could grow my flowers and cactuses and jere his hopeful marijuana seeds, and we could invite friends over whenever we wanted, or come home at five or six in the morning without worrying about whether the security locks on the inside of the door were bolted shut, and our cat could come back to live with us, and we could shower for fifteen or twenty minutes before the water began to cool off, and, and and, and.
A quick visit to inspect the new room and solidify the details of our re-installment immediately began to melt my illusion of the perfection of my future life. Dodging children and small heaps of trash through the patio towards the entrance to our apartment, I began to remember some of the qualms I had had in the first place that extended beyond its size and the fact that it lacked hot water. Paint and bits of cement flaked off the walls, the shower remained dysfunctional, and bellied up cucarachas littered the corners from a intense chemical attempts to eradicate their obvious infestation. The new room, though quite large, was in treacherous condition from years of use by a poorly cared for senile old woman. A thick odor of excrement hung in the air and the mysterious stains all over the sadly faded pink walls confirmed that odor’s origin. I spent a day dousing the walls with bleach and scrubbing vigorously, eyes closed, in an attempt to eliminate the very concrete remnants of the room’s previous inhabitant.
And so only after my scrub could we begin the urgent task of painting the walls of the three rooms. I knew that only after we had painted could I begin to feel some kind of claim on this space, that it was mine and that I could make a home for myself here. And so we began the at times dull, at times, therapeutically repetitive task of painting the walls. We were in the living/dining room which was sandwiched by the kitchen and the bathroom on either end. Through the bathroom, you may recall, lay the bedroom. On the second afternoon of painting, our meditative strokes were interrupted by a shuffling coming from the bedroom. Although our space was right next that of the family’s, so that we could, nearly twenty four hours a day, hear some kind of noise—whether that be muttered conversations, an angry mother reprimanding her babies, or a desperate couple making quick and excited love on the patio—the shuffling we heard now was unmistakably in our apartment, not coming from the surrounding environment. I might interject here that there was still a door connecting our bedroom with the rest of the family’s house, so it was not at all unlikely that a lost child or pet might wonder through it. We stopped our painting and both turned to face the bathroom door awaiting curiously whomever, or whatever might come through it.
Dressed in nothing but a t-shirt and a diaper, grandma appeared cautiously emerging into the bathroom from the room that was once hers. Her legs and knees nothing more than knotted and leathery sticks, supported what remained of her body by force of habit. Her form was ghostly and gaunt, her eyes hollow and dark. She held up a twisted finger to her lips and ‘shhed’ us, hoping that we might not notify her family that she had escaped their less than watchful eyes. Part frozen with shock, I greeted her kindly and perhaps foolishly, “Hola,” as if this was not the first, but one of many old women I had seen in diapers, demeaned and stripped naked of any dignity that remained in her old age.
Jere, on the other hand, sternly told her to go back to her house, that we were painting and she would stain herself. Obediently and without fuss she bowed her head, turned around and hobbled off. In reflection on this event I realized that each of us treated this woman in the same way that we would respond to an infant. Me, with exaggerated and demonstrative kindness; Jere with firm and foreboding authority.
For weeks after this event, Jere would, after a nap or in the mornings, waddle out of the bathroom, half naked and press his fingers to his lips shushing me.
Yesterday was the first of the month and we have, for the most part, moved into to our new/old apartment. Already we have encountered several different kinds of chaos. Just this morning, for example grandma walked into our kitchen (using the designated entrance this time) and slyly attempted to swindle us of a loaf of bread that lay on the table. The wailing of children, a wide and wrathful matron shouting Cumbia tunes at the top of her lungs, heaps of misplaced trash and excrement, a confused old lady, a hopeless drunk, sporadic electricity and hot water. These are the kinds of things that color my living experience. While we may not have a balcony, a huge garden and a patio as we had in our last room, we have much more here. Privacy, freedom and three colors we chose to paint.