27 January, 2009

Voy a apolillar a la playa

The gentle sound of the lapping waves and the still-hot but gradually setting sun inspired a siesta after the rigors of lunching at La Huella, the José Ignacio beach bungalow that serves everything from sushi, the never-missing selection of steaks, to grilled brótola, a fish commonly found in the region's waters. So it is timely my friend just taught me apolillar, an Argentine slang meaning "to crash," or to fall asleep.

"Hello I am the sushi director at La Huella," the blue-eyed woman in a mildly Asian-inspired outfit said to us as we settled into our seat. Well that's the first time I've met a sushi director anywhere!

But that's the pleasure on traveling - to be surprised - sometimes good and sometimes bad.

* * *

Thanks to the generosity of a couple friends and their family, I visited Punta del Este last weekend. A region situated on Uruguay's eastern coast, the beach resort is the summer playground of well-heeled Porteños and Brazilians. Out were my usually frugal affairs of hostel bunks and a liter of Quilmes beer; I passed the weekend feeling distinctly underdressed during social affairs.

But a lovely weekend it was. Unlike the oven that is Buenos Aires during the summer, the Atlantic sea breeze, the sandy beaches, and the chic eateries of La Barra and José Ignacio all contributed to softening my will to return to the city - as enjoyable as Buenos Aires is.

It is easy to forget that not all the world live like this.

Of chilled Chardonnays while overlooking an Uruguayan sunset, a vivacious grandmother who rode the waves on an inner tube and advised that the best way to improve my Spanish is to date a pretty Porteña, a former diplomat who powered up his boat to offer me a tour of Punta del Este, to a night at a fashion show my friend produced, I am unlikely to repeat such a weekend any time soon.

* * *

So yes - voy a apolillar a la playa, or I'm going to crash on the beach.

20 January, 2009

In business to lose money

Famous is the difficulty of finding coins and getting businesses to make change for large bills in Buenos Aires. Where have all the coins gone? "No sé," or "I don't know," said every Porteño I asked. My Porteña roommate tells me she sometimes go from bank to bank trying to collect enough change for the week.

Just this afternoon I went to the local Disco supermarket and bought a baguette and an orange Fanta. The bill came to AR$4.91. I gave a 5 peso note and got 10 centavos back. Three days ago I took a taxi home and the meter told me AR$5.80. I gave AR$10 and got back a AR$5 note. How do businesses deal with taxes and audits when their receipts don't square up with cash on hand?

Coins are essential in the Porteños' daily lives. One needs coins to take buses and many Subte (subway) stations loudly display "NO HAY MONEDAS," or no coins to make change. So if one wants to buy a 10 trip Subte card (AR$11), it's best to turn up with exactly AR$11. Where to come up with that 1 peso coin is another story.

Thinking about this makes me tired. Time for a siesta.

18 January, 2009

Cats in the park

A change in weather today brought about a different pace of life. Suddenly Porteños are wearing coats and the outdoor crowd at Café del Botánico downstairs is a little thinner. Bloody hell it's only 21C!

Just yesterday it was 39C and unbearably hot. But for some reason I don't mind. Is it because I am not in Washington, DC looking at federal workers setting up bleacher seats and portable toilets for the Obama inauguration?

Nonetheless the warm weather is driving my thoughts to the beach. The news reported that my momentary respite will end soon and summer will vengefully return next week. Thank goodness a Porteño friend invited me to join him and his girlfriend at their Punta del Este beach house in Uruguay next Friday.

On another note, the Botanical Garden across the street is a curious institution. It's lovingly manicured and a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. I can hear and see all the activities from my balcony. Families gather, couples neck, and children frolic amongst the greens. But unlike most parks I know, dogs aren't allowed (blasphemy!). The Botánico seems to be a haven for cats. Heaps and heaps of felines nap lazily in the park and jealously guard the entrance should an unsuspecting fido decide to intrude.

15 January, 2009

Desayuno Porteño*

I am becoming less and less aware of my surroundings. I still pay attention to where I'm going and continue to trot around like a puppy's first time out in a new neighborhood, letting my curiosity get the best of me. But after eight days in Buenos Aires and a few days of Spanish classes, I am feeling more settled and more comfortable.

I still have a great deal to learn, but can now converse in basic Spanish phrases, like ordering food at restaurants, asking for directions and change, or directing taxis to my desired destination.

I now have my local bakery (Café del Botánico), where I get my breakfast of two medialunas** and one café con leche***. I have been frequenting the same empanada/pizza shop, and most recently, discovered a new neighborhood tapas cafe, where one can order what seems like an infinite variety of small dishes from a bar. Just yesterday the pizza shop owner took my order, heard my strange accent (I made the mistake of pronouncing the number 15 in French instead of in the school-taught Porteño accent), smiled and quizzed me about where I'm from, and asked me to return often.

Today, as I took my 30 minutes walk from my apartment to my Spanish language school, I discovered that I unconsciously took my iPod and had been listening to music and my BBC World News podcast. While walking with an iPod would be normal for me in New York or Washington, I have been too busy exploring to care about listening to music on my walks.

I guess I am making progress. I am now more comfortable with my new home and the new language.

However, this clothing store on the way to school didn't escape my attention.

* a continental breakfast of a cup of coffee, two medialunas, and a glass of juice. All for less than US$3
** the Porteño version of the croissant. It is slightly sweet but every bit as good as the French version
*** the Latin American version of Café Au Lait

11 January, 2009

The Redcoats are coming

How the professionals do it

History has it when British troops marched on Buenos Aires in 1806, residents of San Telmo slowed the advancing invaders by pouring pots of boiling water off their balconies.

By evidence of this blogger's Sunday visit to San Telmo, a neighborhood that claims to be BsAs' oldest district, the British are still coming . . . and the Americans, the Germans, the Italians, the Japanese . . .

Instead of scalding foreign toppers with hot water, today's Argentines are showering the visitors with unending tango music and Buenos Aires largest antique market.

* * * *

Too much playing tourist makes me cranky.

When I lived in Washington, I would get impatient with visitors who clogged up the Metro's escalators. Moreover, I've plenty of time in Buenos Aires. Unlike the average tourist with a fortnight in Argentina, I'm planning to stay here and learn the language.

But what is one to do when one's curiosity overcomes one's phobia of big crowds and overpriced restaurants? It's a fine Sunday with a breezy 25 Celsius. Time to have a walk.

Besides, my Spanish classes start tomorrow. It's almost time to stop being a tourist, live a more structured life, and more importantly, start learning the language, culture, and the city's people.

What the chica made me do after I stole her hat

Ironically, tonight I am joining an Argentine and a former Washington Rugby Football Club teammate to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers at a pub.

For those who are interested in seeing my stumbles about San Telmo, have a look at my photos on Picasa.

09 January, 2009

Barrio taiwanés?

The bus system in Buenos Aires is confusing. Unlike Portland or Washington, where one can easily find bus schedules and routes online, managing the BsAs bus system, or colectivos as they’re known here, can take a bit of time.

“I’ll take you to the nearest stop and get you on the right bus home,” the owner of Restaurant Lai Lai assured me.

I wasn’t expecting this level of service when I got to Buenos Aires’ Barrio Chino last tonight. I was simply looking for a meal to take me a little closer to home, and perhaps an ethnic Chinese or Asian grocery store to get some instant noodles. But when Señora Hu, Lai Lai’s owner, heard my Taiwanese-accented Mandarin, she invited me to stay longer and chat. My initial hope of a short meal and some time to reflect and write my journal turned into an animated conversation about my trip to Argentina and Hu’s 20 plus years’ stay in BsAs as a Taiwanese Argentinean. It’s funny that my first substantive conversation in town wasn’t in English or even Spanish, but Chinese.

I would compare Belgrano to some of the more fancied American neighborhoods like Brentwood in Los Angeles or parts of Park Slope in Brooklyn. Originally founded as a northern suburb to Buenos Aires, Belgrano has been integrated into the city and is situated close to venerable institutions such as the Argentine Polo Ground. The neighborhood is home to chic cafés and fashionable boutiques. Unlike Palermo, which still retains a bohemian air about the neighborhood, Belgrano denizens look like the country club type. Barrio Chino sits deep inside Belgrano.

“Actually, many Barrio Chino restaurants are Taiwanese-owned,” Señora Hu expressed with a certain level of pride. While English is my primary language, as a Chinese speaker, I definitely detected many Barrio Chino business owners speaking Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent. I even overheard a Chinese supermarket owner speaking to his friends in the Taiwanese dialect, which is as different to Mandarin as Portuguese is to Spanish.

More than two decades ago, my parents worked up the courage to move the family to the United States. But my folks had the advantage of being solidly middle class and university-educated. These Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants came to Argentina and other parts of South America not knowing what to expect, mostly without capital and spoke no Spanish.

* * * *

I feel like I am spending a lot of time documenting my initial days here in Argentina. Perhaps I’m spending too much time blogging. But I feel like I should take every opportunity to record my experience here.

08 January, 2009


A Palermo parilla I lunched at today.
Steak with garlic mustard sauce, salad, and sparkling water = AR$24/US$7.

Third day in Buenos Aires and I am in full discovery mode. As a newcomer to Argentina, every street corner is overwhelming my senses. I fully examine storefronts and restaurant menus and constantly look up unknown words in my pocket Spanish dictionary. It is exciting to be in a new city and learning about a different lifestyle. Who knows how long this sensation will last? But I’m going to enjoy this feeling before life becomes routine.

Kioscos are to Buenos Aires what 7 Elevens are to Taipei. Gringos may think the ubiquitous 24/7 convenience stores are a North American habit, but the Taiwanese have perfected the concept and have dotted their cities with more 7 Elevens than mailboxes.

My local Kiosco

Kioscos are similar to the Taiwanese 7 Elevens. They are usually small and narrow holes in the wall that sell everything from mobile phone recharge cards, sodas, snacks, tobacco, and alcohol. My Porteña roommate tells me Kioscos are on nearly every BsAs block.

This morning I registered for a one-week intensive Spanish class at the Daniela Wasser School. As a crash course for visiting North Americans, Europeans, and other tourists, it is a bit expensive at US$190 for 20 hours of instruction. But since I speak almost no Spanish, I don’t want to wait until March for the Universidad de Buenos Aires’ Español para Extrajeros program to start.

BsAs seems to be mostly an Ibero-Italian city. Aside from the language, the Spanish and Italian culinary influences are especially noticeable. Outside of local dishes like steaks, steaks, steaks, and every other available cow part, one can readily find pizzerias, pasta, tapas or heladerias (Italian ice cream shops) and confiterias (bakeries and cafés).

But walking back from Daniela Wasser School earlier this afternoon, I stumbled upon perhaps an Arab neighborhood (or at least a group of Middle Eastern restaurants) in Palermo, on Avenida Raul Scalabrini Ortiz between Cordoba and Nicaragua. While the initial eatery I encountered had an unassuming front with a simple Comida Árabe sign, I soon came across four or five other Arab restaurants, complete with garish faux Middle Eastern facades and advertised belly dancers. I think I’ll take some time out to explore the first of these eateries.

PS – I also realize that I live on Arab Republic of Syria Street (Republica Árabe Siria).

Looking out my balcony onto Republica Árabe Siria. Jardin Botanico to the left.


It is very sunny.

That was my first impression of Buenos Aires (BsAs) as my flight descended upon Argentina’s capital city. Having just left a cold and snowy North American Christmas, summer in January is fantastic!

* * * *

I feel like a child. I am in a foreign land where I lack proper command of the local language and sound less coherent than a 2-year old. This shortcoming makes life in my new home very interesting, at least until I improve my Spanish.

Subte station in Buenos Aires

“Where are you from?” two señoras asked in Spanish as I stepped into a locutoria (calling center and Internet cafe).

“At least I got that one,” I thought to myself. Struggling with my two rucksacks with a combined weight of around 40kg, I replied in the most disgraceful Español, “Yo soy Californiano.”

“Suerte!” they wished me luck as we parted.

My poor Spanish makes daily life more difficult. For example, on my first day I went shopping for a prepaid mobile phone SIM card. While I returned with the right item, I couldn’t successful call customer service and activate my phone. This morning I went to the supermarket and had an entire conversation in Spanish with a very nice señora. Aside from telling her that I am American and I’m in BsAs to study Spanish, I haven’t a clue what we talked about. I just nodded, smiled a lot, and said muchas gracias whenever the lady offered another helpful suggestion.

* * * *

shady Arenales Street just around the corner from my apartment

Palermo is my new neighborhood. From my balcony I can see the leafy Jardin Botanico (Botanical Garden) across the street and I can find life’s necessities all within a few blocks; Disco, a local supermarket, is three blocks from my apartment; I found a nearby store that carries wine from Familia Bianchi, one of my favorite Malbec producers from the Mendoza region; the Subte, Buenos Aires’ subway, is literally right at my building’s front door.

Palermo, the neighborhood of Jorge Luis Borges, is geographically large and culturally and gastronomically diverse. From what my roommate told me, Palermo Soho (because it is trendy like Soho) offers some of Buenos Aires best boutique shopping and bars; Palermo Hollywood (because of the area’s high concentration of movie studios, actors, and directors) is geared towards the fashionistas and entertainers; while Palermo Chico, sitting prettily by the Rio de la Plata (River Plate), is one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhood.

Russel Street in Palermo Soho

* * * *

It is almost 1:30am now. As I gaze across the Jardin Botanico at the nearby highrises of the Belgrano neighborhood, it is getting increasingly challenging to keep my eyes open. Tomorrow is another big day; I will be going to a language institute to register for a beginner Spanish course to start next Monday.

05 January, 2009

Go day

Departure day is finally here. I get on my flight from Washington, DC tonight and will arrive at Buenos Aires at 10am tomorrow morning. The last minute details are mundane, but I had a bit of running around this morning, closing my bank account, visiting my credit union to withdraw some US currency, and to visit my dogs, whose ashes are buried at Folger Park on Capitol Hill. It's a bit emotional to leave them behind and I'll think of them often.

Mentally I am swinging between a high level of anxiety and excitement. I'm excited to get on the road and explore my new world, but also question if I've made the right choice to quite my job and head to a new country without any assurances of what I'll find. But c'est la vie.

I can't believe I managed to fit my life into a 70 liter and a 40 liter backpack. Except for a couple books and sweatshirts I left behind, everything else got in. Buenos Aires isn't quite the backwoods and I'll be able to get the common items while I'm living there, but I tried to take Rick Ridgeway's attitude regarding packing for a trip. When he and his team prepared for their trek across the Tibetan high desert, Ridgeway's mantra was " If we don't have it, we can't get it, and if we can't get it, we don't need it."

Next stop, BsAs.

01 January, 2009

Mother's tears

Goodbyes, it's one of those things I'm not very good at.

Standing in the 5:30am Portland wind and rain, holding mother as she cried in my arms, was heartbreaking. I'm sure my absence is much harder on mother than on me. I am leaving once again for another continent, and with the exception of this weekend in Washington, DC, will be away from family for the better part of 2009.

Arriving at Portland International Airport this morning, I saw scenes similar to what I went through earlier; mothers saying goodbye to sons and daughters; families saying farewell to departing fathers and mothers. Before 9/11, I never noticed how many military personnel move through civilian airports. Since Oregon does not have a federal military base, and judging by their unit insignias, many servicemen and women I saw this morning are reservists and national guards being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. What a challenging farewell and start of a new year for their families!