14 February, 2009

Protest Entre Ríos style and horses have oranges for breakfast

Hugo Ramón, my landlord for the weekend, had his legs spread about shoulder length apart. With the right foot slightly in front of the left and his eyes glaring straight into mine, he demonstrated the proper form of taking mate. Hugo cupped the mate with his right and and comfortably rested his left hand on his hip.

Why have a steak when a few cows are available?

"When talking to a gaucho you must show all your hands and look them straight in the eyes," he said in exceptionally slow Spanish for my benefit. "No surprises." Pretending to have a poncho and a knife, he faked a stab and retreated quickly while shielding himself with a make-belief poncho.

Hugo is not a gaucho. He is a painter and he rents his spare room out to Carnival tourists. Like others here in Entre Ríos Province, Hugo incessantly drinks mate, an herbal tea common in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of South of Brazil.

A Gualeguaychú protest against a proposed paper mill across the river in Uruguay

* * *

I arrived in Gualeguaychú late on Friday afternoon. Having no reservations for a bed or a room at a hotel, I arrived with my tent and sleeping bag figuring I will sort myself out along the riverside beaches if need be. But alas, even the campgrounds are full! It is Carnival weekend.

"Che, che," Hugo yelled at me as I walked by his house. "Need a room?"

It´s perfect. The room is dark, hot, and slightly damp. But Hugo and his family speak no English (I got great Spanish lessons all weekend), are massively friendly hosts, and even showed me around town in his vintage Malibu.

All for 25 pesos a night . . .

The host's opinion of Carnival tourists came free of charge: Porteños (dangerous and crazy), Chileans (feminine and gay), Americans (can't dance and drink too much).

Gualeguaychú Carnival

* * *

"Lluvia," Samuel, one of Aurora's employees, said to me as he motioned to the sky. It is already 11pm on Sunday night. But if rain is coming, I better arm my tent with its rainfly. Sure enough, as the day broke in the morning, rain came pouring out of the heavens.

Not more than an hour ago, I got dropped off at the side of a remote highway, approximately 6 hours north of Buenos Aires. With nothing but the stars, my headlamp, and highway markers to guide me, I had two simple choices - hike the 12 km to Parque Nacional el Palmar's campsite, or take the 4 km walk to Aurora del Palmar, a nearby private reserve reportedly with superb campsites.

"Leave it to me," the Neuvo Expreso bus driver said to me earlier in the afternoon at the Gualeguaychú bus terminal. "I will get you to the Parque Nacional el Palmar." Marcello Daniel Bauza, broke into a big smile when he found out that I lived in Washington, DC. "I used to play professional soccer for the Washington Diplomats," the driver said to me. "How about if I speak English to you, and you can practice your Spanish with me?"

Sunset at La Aurora del Palmar

So off we went for the three hour ride, with the red glare of the bus' speedometer reflecting off our faces, chatting in Spanglish. At what we thought was the right distance marker, Marcello yelled "now!" With more of a rolling pause than a stop, the bus door swung open and I jumped out with my rucksack.

One worry I had walking on Highway 14 to Aurora del Palmar is the pace of traffic. Because of the rural nature of the route, I am not visible to oncoming cars and trucks until their headlights are close enough to reflect off my backpack. Keeping the headlamp on more as a warning to passing traffic, I took care to step off the road whenever cars came by.

2 km after I passed the national park marker, a white Toyota pickup with Argentina's national park ranger crest on its door stopped 100 meters in front of me. "Where are you going?" the driver grinned at me.

Horses and sheep have oranges for breakfast at La Aurora

More pictures of the trip can be found here.

13 February, 2009

To Gualeguaychú

On the road again.

For 34 pesos this Flechabus will get me to Gualeguaychú, home of Argentina's carnival, or el Carnaval del Pais. I adore Buenos Aires but feel a constant urge to see the rest of this country. I will spend two days in Gualeguaychú and move north to Colón, another river town in Argentina's Mesopotamia. I've got my gears with me and will then travel to Parque Nacional El Palmar for camping and a safari in Argentina's subtropic north.

On another note, I find myself adopting some Porteño habits. I carry my Guía T (bus guide) with me everywhere I go and find myself hoarding coins (my reason for doing this is explained here). Instead of using my credit card at the supermarket or at restaurants, I will use cash just to break up the larger bills and to get coins for bus rides.

06 February, 2009

My shameless marketing and time to Carnaval (don't think it's a verb but ...)

I actually haven't touched a steak for a whole week! Not improbably but I must break my fast today.

Señora Hu, the owner of Restaurante Lai Lai, waved at me as soon as I entered the eatery last night. "Come! It's past 10pm and we're just about to have dinner," she said to me. "Join us." Such offer of a family style Taiwanese meal is difficult to resist.

The señora got me a liter of Quilmes and disappeared into the kitchen. "I've been cooking," she happily said as she reemerged. "The kitchen staff don't know these dishes well enough." So at no cost to me, I had three cup chicken (a Taiwanese specialty), mapo tofu, and a plate of fragrant eggplants stirred fried with garlic and basil.

Señora Hu has taken me in - all on account of my Taiwanese-accented Chinese. It's no matter to her that I am American and not Taiwanese. She's offered help with Buenos Aires know-hows and her perspectives as an immigrant who came to Argentina with nothing but her family and faith. So for last night, she refused payment for my meal.

If you are in Buenos Aires and read this blog for some odd reason, visit Restaurante Lai Lai in Barrio Chino - especially if you want authentic Taiwanese/Chinese dishes outside of the usual fried rice or beef with broccoli. Details on Guía Oleo are here.

On another note, I am off this afternoon to get bus tickets for Guayleguachú's carnaval. While there are options closer to home in Buenos Aires, Gualeguaychú is only a three hour bus trip. The festival is documented here by a friend and here by a travel web site on Argentina.

05 February, 2009

Ricos tacos

Since I am an Angeleno, I naturally think proper tacos should be cooked and served out of the back of a roach coach. But, I am in Argentina, the land spices left behind.

Except for an annoying but light cough, I am better today. I went to my Spanish lesson this afternoon and was able to be up and about. By 9pm I was craving dinner, and more importantly, a proper pint. I didn't want a liter of watery Quilmes, but desired a beer with taste.

"RICOS TACOS" the neon sign in front of La Fabríca del Taco declared!

La Fabríca del Taco's tacos

Unnatural! Proper Mexican in Buenos Aires?

The carne asada tacos came in about the right size. But alas, the tortilla was flour instead of corn and the meat a wee bit overcooked. But the tacos did come with plenty of chopped onions and cilantro and I had three salsas to choose from: poco picante, picante regular, and muy picante (a little spicy, regular spicy, very spicy).

Muy picante salsa was actually spicy. I broke a sweat and asked for more lemonade.

Poco Picante, Picante Regular, or Muy Picante!

On the way home I stopped at Antares, a neighborhood brewpub I've yet to try. As a friend recommended, Antares brews are atypical of other Argentine cervezas. They were rich with flavors and served in proper British pint glasses.

Antares Pub in Palermo Soho

04 February, 2009

A caffeinated life

I woke up Monday morning with a cold. My head was twirling around and I lost my voice. I had to cancel my Spanish lesson and stayed home to recover. But there's only so much time I can spend inside before I lose my mind!

Although Café del Botánico is right downstairs from my apartment and has far better food, I only go there for their medialunas. So, I packed my books and my homework and headed to DiVino, my usual neighborhood café and vinoteca. For the price of 7 pesos/US$2 for a cup of café con leche, I sat at DiVino for nearly four hours and read, wrote my journal, did my Spanish homework, and watched Palermo go by on bikes, roller blades, on foot, and in cars and buses. I stayed until dinner time (which is 10-11pm in Buenos Aires) before I headed home.

It probably helps that DiVino has a lovely waitress who doesn't pay me a bit of attention no matter how much I try to speak to her in my poor Spanish.

02 February, 2009

Castellano only please!

"SPEAK SPANISH," the man seated in front of us demanded! As my friend and I were the only English speakers on the bus, it was very obvious that the indignant man was speaking to us.

We're were not speaking loudly by any measure, especially with the bus engine roaring and the traffic flying past us. Nonetheless, my friend and I lowered our voices and tried to take the man's concerns in mind.

Once again he turned around and let loose another volley of demands. Now - in my amateurish stage, my ability to understand rapidly-spoken Spanish is poor. Further, it was only 17hr00 and the man smelled heavily of alcohol. Between the pace of his speech and the slurring, I understood very few of his insults. Nevertheless, I got the point.

I understand where he is coming from. I am a visitor to Argentina and I should respect the local language and customs. As Americans, we demand the same of visitors to the United States.

But I am trying. I have been to Spanish school, hired a tutor, and sought out language exchange partners to make Porteño friends and practice my Spanish as much as possible. But it takes time and I've only been here for three weeks.