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

Radio Peluca time 5pm my time aka RIGHT NOW....aka 4pm eastern standard!
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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 OcĂ©ano 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’!