Monday, 2 January 2012

Mothers and gay guys

P.S. There is a parade by the "Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo" on Thursdays, and I went there on the 24th I think. They parade in a circle around the central monument holding signs with photos of loved ones taken during the 1970s. A van drove up and some elderly women slowly got out, each aided by a personal carer/helper. They received huge respect from the attendees. People made room for them through the small crowd, and some men started up a song dedicated to them. They formed a line and held a wide banner, and slowly paraded in a big circle. Many people followed them in a small crowd. Many tourists walked backwards ahead of them, snapping pictures. It was an experience well worth seeing, and I saw other sights there also.
Another group was smaller, and paraded separately at a different point on the circle. I stood on the side in the shade and watched both, then asked the guy near me if he spoke English. He did, but couldn´t explain the difference between the two groups. A young woman nearby him spoke up, "I can answer that." She explained that the smaller group is a more radical one, they have not forgiven the government or something like that. She has a guidebook dedicated solely to Buenos Aires, whereas mine has the entire continent as its scope and doesn´t have space for these details. The three of us chatted a bit. They were both from the United States, she New York and he Los Angeles or somewhere. She has travelled a lot, twice spending a whole year on the move! She seemed to love Latin America, and must have had some interesting travel experiences. She was wearing natural looking fabrics, and she said she felt underdressed in hip Buenos Aires, and was waiting to get out. I mentioned Guillermo, the guy who showed me the old flags and the cannonballs at the church. His business card said he was a licensed investigator, but even fluent Spanish speakers didn´t understand for what exactly. He had claimed that many in the parade were a farce, put on by the current government to point out how much better they are, and only a few cases were genuine. The girl was skeptical however, "That sounds like a conspiracy theory." (It is quite possible Guillermo was talking about the other demonstrations, that everybody seems to agree is simply a show.) I spoke directly (I usually keep a lot of my views to myself) disaligning myself with conspiracy theories. I think I said I tend to trust the mainstream historians. (I meant that I tend to trust expert historians etc. over the random person with a website for instance. However, I am still very willing to go against the mainstream view/approach on a multitude of issues, I just believe exceptional claims need exceptional evidence. [I do support non-rational or arational intuition or perception also, but with due discernment applied to it.]) The guy left soon after this, and she excused herself shortly after. There was nothing overt, but I felt a strong bad vibe from her. I wondered if it had been this comment, in contrast with her apparent "alternative"-ness.
Meanwhile, the guy was a poet, a very nice person with a soft voice, and touched me on the arm while speaking about 4 times in one minute! He suggested the three of us catching up for dinner in the evening. I didn´t jump to say yes, not wanting to show too much interest although I wasn´t against the idea, but he didn´t ask again. By funny coincidence, I had conversations with three gay guys in just a day or two. A Venezuelan journalist at the hostel showed interest in talking to me a lot (including on the 27th). His English was better than the average, but he often didn´t understand my responses I think, and I spoke a little Spanish with him too. If he wants to help me practice my Spanish, and make me feel welcome in a new continent then I´m not complaining (just not too "welcome")!
Another guy and girl at the hostel were from Chile, Andrés and Constanza. Once I found out they were only friends, I was not surprised to find he was gay. On Friday night, I spent around 4 hours in the evening just sitting in the hostel kitchen talking to them! The conversation was challenging and terribly stilted. They had very little English, and so we spoke Spanish. I was very grateful that they would spend that time with me, letting me practice!  It was a night of constant leafing through my bilingual dictionary to find a word, unceasing "um´s and aah´s", slow, and sometimes with misunderstandings. Andrés left for a time saying he was getting his hair cut, and I have no idea what he was talking about, because his neat short cropped hair with metro blonde streaks looked immaculate... He owns a women´s clothing store in Santiago, or something, and was here to purchase stock. They were going dancing the next night in a gay nightclub, and invited me to come. I asked Constanza, "You too?", meaning if she was also going out dancing. But she thought I was asking if she was gay!! I awkwardly backtracked and I think she understood! She wanted to text message her boyfriend in English, so I wrote "I miss you a lot!" down for her to copy. It took a long time for me to understand what she was asking. Also, they saw media of one friend I met earlier on the trip, and quickly and confidently concluded he has also gay. I hadn´t picked it, but some signs were there. I had been surprised he had spent several hours talking to me, while leaving the two good-looking Latin girls nearby to his friend.
The next night I got home a bit before midnight I think, but wasn´t too upset I missed going out with them! (Actually it probably wasn´t too late, as the clubs in Buenos Aires peak about 2am apparently.) Still, I preferred to sleep. It was funny to meet all these people within the space of just a couple of days or so. Buenos Aires is known as South America´s top gay city/destination. Lonely Planet comments on this aspect of the culture, although my guidebook didn´t mention it, being cut from a slightly different cloth!

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Goodbye Cristina! :(

(P.S. In one conversation, the journalist emphatically expressed disappointment that some people "just don´t get it." He gave examples about people who don´t understand that life is about the way we treat other people. Not everyone would agree with his application to particular politics and theology - I mentioned the topics earlier - but that´s not the point. It´s about treating others well. He mentioned Mormons once for instance, saying that you might "want" to dislike them, but you can´t because they´re such nice people! I think these final reflections say a lot about the man.)

Saturday 26th: I don´t remember what I did in the morning (ugh! I´m writing this over a month later. Fortunately I have some notes.) I think Monica helped me with directions, and in the evening I caught a bus to La Boca, the old port district which is reputedly rough, to meet Cristina and her relatives. I got off a little too early, and headed towards Caminito, the small touristy section. On the way, I passed the stadium of Boca Juniors, the most popular soccer team in the country I understand. Outside it, the locals were playing informal soccer games on the grass by the street. Others were sitting on chairs in the shade with refreshments watching them. It was a great sight because it seemed a genuine local cultural experience. As I hurried on through the streets, one guy called out in English, "Hello my friend. How are you? Where are you from?" or something. They seemed formulaic sentences; he probably didn´t speak the language. I wanted to meet him and his small group but was running late, so excused myself, "I´m busy. My friends [pointing]." in Spanish. People often advise you to stay out of the La Boca area (apart from the tourist area), and definitely so at night! It did clearly look more dodgy, but I didn´t have a bad feeling about this group, and it was still daylight anyway.

The buildings of Caminito are painted in very bright colours, so it was clear I had arrived. (In the past the residents had just used whatever paint was leftover from the docks.) I found Cristina with her mum, aunt, and uncle. We wandered around looking at shops, stalls, and the sights. I had a picture with a tango dancer, for a donation. After some pics, we relaxed in a nice cafe with harbour views. We took taxis to Puerto Madero, the renovated port area and "South Bank" equivalent, for a farewell dinner for Cristina and her mum. I had originally planned to go the the youth service at Rey de Reyes church, but this was more important. In the taxi, we passed the worst slums I have seen in the city, consisting of ramshackle shacks built under roads etc.

The group got talking with one waiter outside. I left the talking to the Spanish speakers, and commented light-heartedly to Cristina that the guy seemed to give a good sales pitch, and we´ll see if he´s successful. She told me that he spoke English, and probably heard me, but no matter! The group went with this restaurant, a white tablecloth affair. We ordered asado, which is a very famous dish here, and a barbeque basically. A hot metal grill is brought to the table with assorted meats on it. The chicken was possibly the most delicious I´ve ever eaten, and the chorizo sausage is good. I tried exotic meat parts, not because I looked forward to the taste, but more just to try new things - kidney, intestine, etc. Later (and not connected with ingesting these!) I didn´t know which toilet was the mens´, but the others translated for me! We were the only people in the restaurant, because we were there at the ridiculously early time of 7:30pm or so! We walked outside along the water, where it was dark now but there were plenty of other people around. They caught a taxi home, while I walked back to the hostel. Cristina and her mum were leaving on Sunday night.

Cristina was very sad to be going home, because she had had such a fantastic time seeing her relatives, and in Argentina generally! I really enjoyed hanging out with her. She helped me ease into the culture by bridging the cultural divide by translating, etc. I thought it very unlikely that I would visit Melbourne just before my trip, and run into someone else who would be in the same city far away at the same time! I found myself opening up to her unexpectedly, and knew I wanted to hang out more. It was good to see a familiar face in a foreign country. We met some interesting people together. We had some great chats. I would say she was only an acquaintance beforehand, though earlier we had traveled together as part of a group to a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. Chau amiga!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Buenos Aires (part 6)

Friday 25th: Cristina had been away visiting Iguazu Falls on the northern border with her family. Today we caught up for the first time since her trip. We met at the Obelisk as usual, and talked to some street sellers for a while. One guy remembered me from an earlier day. Cristina said that the falls were incredible, and she had a great time! After wandering around, we stopped for lunch at McDonald´s. (Yup: it´s a global culture in many aspects. Did I mention I´ve had three conversations here via the Google Translate webpage - the exact same site I use frequently in Australia. The other person types in Spanish at their computer, and the translation - though far from perfect - promptly spits out for me. Or that many people here have Facebook also? A Lonely Planet guide somewhere mentioned the "universal uniform" of jeans and t-shirts.) She showed me pictures of the relatives she has met here - aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. She´s had a fantastic time, and has absolutely loved seeing them all. We talked about a lot of things, and I really appreciated this time with her.

Cristina wanted to get a tattoo, and we eventually found a place after asking many people (I would point out the most rugged-looking person I could see, and jokingly suggest she ask them!) I don´t have any tattoos, and have never seen firsthand anyone get one. She chose the words, "Do not fear, for I have overcome the world", to be written on her inner shin/ankle. Coincidentally, after failing to find a font she liked on the internet, she realised the font of the headings in the book she was reading was perfect! We visited the bank, and returned. I sat with her in a small room as the guy tattooed her. She showed some pain, but not that much. She later told me it hurt a lot, more than her other small tattoo(s)! She is a brave girl. We wanted to know the translation in Spanish, so we eventually found a bookstore and then a Spanish Bible, and the particular verse within it.

I wanted to tour the two palaces at Plaza San Martin, however we just missed both of them! We got talking to four homeless guys in the park by the plaza. Frankly I would have preferred to keep walking, but Cristina has a big heart. She got into what was apparently a caring, deep-and-meaningful conversation with the Italian (background) man. Another man was Guaraní, a large indigenous culture I mentioned previously as depicted in The Mission. I was interested to meet him. Though he clearly had some struggles in life, he exuded a sort of calm strength (I am not saying he is necessarily always calm). After we talked for a while, I wanted to take a picture of us all, but he resisted the most strongly, concerned about what I might do with the photo. I read soon after that indigenous people in particular often don't like their picture being taken.

Of the four, we particularly connected with Manuel, a teenager with German background. He was open and friendly. His mum died this year, as I remember, and his father kicked him out of the house. I bought him some food from the supermarket, and he chose a Coke, mate "tea" leaves, and a bag of sugar! I repeatedly refused to buy him alcohol. He ended up walking around with us. Cristina set up a Facebook account for him, while I toured the rail museum, engineers would love it. We walked for a long, long, time south towards San Telmo, because he wanted to come to Andrea's church with us. (Will Cristina read this? Chances are no. But no matter if she does). I felt frustrated inside because I couldn't communicate well in Spanish and felt a little left out, and at the incredible slowness of the walking. But I told myself to get over it of course, as Manuel had much more serious needs than I did. As I see it, it was about finding a balance between independence and group dynamics. Manuel's grandparents live in nearby Uruguay, and Cristina gave him the money for transport there to find work. We both hope he did that.

We stopped for dinner, but not at my por kilo place we had hoped for. We met a group of Aussies, including Rhys from Sydney. We mentioned we were going to church, and he asked to join us. I had no idea what to expect there. We found it, and a group of (mostly) men were sitting in plastic chairs inside the door. I enjoyed meeting and speaking some rudimentary Spanish with them. We all moved downstairs, where the coolness was a very welcome relief from the hot day. Everybody introduced themselves, including Rhys and I who knew enough Spanish to do so. A girl named Sonia led a Bible study. I sat next to Gladys, Andrea's friend who teaches English at a high school, who translated a little for us. Other than this segment, which was a little dull because I couldn't understand, I had a great time! I met lots of the men. Cristina told me she came down the stairs later and saw me surrounded by 4 girls, and I looked like I was loving it! I was friendly, and hung around long enough until, as usual, I was invited along to something else.

The girls from the church were heading out to a cafe. They dropped Andrea off. It ended up being myself, Sonia, Gladys, Vanessa, and another girl who studies English. Sometimes I sat there quietly while they talked in Spanish, but I didn't mind. Other times Gladys translated for us, or I attempted broken Spanish. They were incredibly fun girls, and I have a lot of respect for them. They give up their Friday evening to befriend homeless people, and they can also relax and enjoy life too. Sonia, a very happy person, hit me with a surprise question: "What are your three best points and three worst points?" I was very confused, not trusting how to take the question. It seemed too deep and heavy for people I had just met. I wanted to answer honestly, but feared that if I did the joke might be on me. So I gave a reasonably accurate answer, just not 100% open. It turned out the question was sincere, there was no joke on me. The girls answered it too. I asked if this was normal for Argentina, and they said it wasn't. They are not typical of Argentineans. Gladys said that in a bar, people usually just talk small talk, but these girls like to go beyond this sometimes to include more depth. I said that likewise, I was not entirely typical of Australians either. I am so much more open here. This is the real me, and I want to be more like this and people to understand that. I loved their question, it was just unexpected and I wasn't sure how to take it.

They ordered a platter of nibblies - meats, cheeses, etc. Though I had a fantastic time, several times I worried about my decision to go out and socialise with them rather than with Cristina, Manuel, and Rhys who were retiring for the evening. I was trying to see things from Cristina's perspective - what should you do in "girl world"? Do you stick with your friends, no matter what? I asked directly a few times if she wanted me to come with them. I figured that since I wasn't crystal clear about it, she would have to be direct in asking me. She said it was OK, and so I joined the other group. I have become incredibly independent in the way I socialise. I frequently turn up to places by myself, and get invited along to the next thing whatever it is. Though Rhys seemed a very trustworthy person, and Manuel too, I was concerned about my decision. They were trying to find accommodation for Manuel for the night. Cristina told me the next day that they went to the nearby plaza for a while. Manuel chose not to stay in any hostel, and walked away. Rhys went to his hostel. Unfortunately Cristina did not have enough money for a taxi, and so she waited several hours for a bus. Ugh! She didn't get home till 5:30am or something, and her mum and aunt were worried about her. They themselves didn't get home till 4am, so if Cristina had been earlier she would have had to wait anyway. Still, her aunt told me, via a translator the next day, to look after Cristina! I was very apologetic the next day, but Cristina seemed quite happy and I didn't detect any ill feelings, though she was tired.

I had gotten home around 4am. Vanessa and I joked that we had kissed each-other goodbye, on the cheek, at least 4 times that night! Numerous times someone was leaving, and she thought I was leaving with them, so kissed me goodbye. Everyone kisses so much here! Even when meeting a new person, usually you kiss them, even the guys! The 'mistaken goodbyes' thing had happened with Andrea's sister Ianina too.

(Other news I forgot to mention earlier: the Western journalist got kicked out of the hostel on Wednesday, as I recall. Pablo, the owner, asked him to leave. Earlier he had warned me not to lend any more money to him. I enjoyed this irony, because here was a Latin trying to protect me from a Westerner! Usually it is the other way around, Westerners warning other Westerners to be careful of (the small minority of) Latins who will rob you! Pablo believed his story at first, about being robbed and paying later. However he spoke to other hostel owners, who said they'd heard this story before. So Pablo no longer trusted him. He opined the journalist is "a good man", confirming my perception of as well. I also now assume the story was not true. I believe he is a decent person, but with a few people or life issues. (He told me of two wild adventures while traveling, but now he wishes to settle down and get married.)

For instance, he interrupts people very badly, and talks over the top of others. This is a pet hate of mine. I had listened patiently to him for a while, and was interested although getting tired of being cut off repeatedly. So I cut him off, as gently as I could while still firmly enough to be taken seriously, and said "I didn't finish what I was saying..." or something to that effect. The key point is, he was very respectful of that, and listened a lot better afterwards. Had he been a selfish, manipulative, or argumentative person, he might have taken this as "war". But he didn't - he respected my request.

He is an intelligent person, although it is not surprising a journalist would be well informed. I was pleasantly surprised with his knowledge of Christianity (mainly the Catholic church) in particular. He had interesting comments about various popes, Latin "liberation theology", and condoms in Africa. When he got kicked out, Pablo quietly asked me to watch my things to see he didn't steal any. I wanted to respect both Pablo's concern for me and the journalist, so I went to the room and made a show of tidying and packing my things, to let everybody save face. I got his email address, and emailed him saying not to worry about the money. I do not feel robbed in the slightest. Several times I offered to lend him more, but he refused - not the mark of a thief. He didn't spend much, and put the money to good use buying healthy groceries, and never alcohol or anything. He helped me out in little ways, like giving me his 10 trip train card (it was not the small monetary value, but rather the convenience that was the gift), pointing out the bookshops, and helping a little with my Spanish. I reflect on the experience 3 weeks later, I am very grateful for it, because it was unique, interesting, positive, and taught me something.)

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Buenos Aires (part 5)

Thursday 24th: I met Ruben in the hostel, a Columbian I thought (maybe incorrectly) was here for a soccer coaching course. Later, his team of "Under 16s" boys would arrive at the hostel. He is a friendly person, and his energetic demeanour matches his profession, a school PE (physical education) teacher. His English was comparable to my Spanish (that´s not a compliment)! Alvaro, on shift at the hostel reception, translated my interest in seeing a soccer game to Ruben. I´ve been told not to go alone. Ruben said he´d let me know.

On some day, I visited the northern part of San Telmo. The Santo Domingo church was very interesting, and well worth a visit. I had wandered in with Cristina on an earlier day. I took some photos inside, tiptoeing around and with the flash turned off for respect. As I walked out, a man came up to me and asked if I was taking pictures. Yes I was, I apologised, but am not any more! I thought he was confronting me, because of his close proximity and square-on stance, and the glare behind him made him hard to see. But it turned out he wanted to be my guide! He took me back into the church and pointed out the tattered, dirty, 200 year-old flags seized during the recapture of Buenos Aires after a brief British invasion. The church also has the tomb of Manuel Belgrano, one of the main "liberators" of Argentina. Outside, cannonballs embedded in one section of the tower have been preserved. The man, Guillermo, handed me his card. He had made the sign of the cross as he entered and exited the church.

Politics is more prominent here than in Australia. Major streets and plazes are named for the revered "liberators", or the date of various battle victories (the main street translates as "9th of July Avenue"). There are noisy demonstrations in central places. Both Cristina (as informed by her family) and another told me these are performances put on by the government. There is loud drumming as well as sign waving and movement, but it is very "civil" so to speak. The girl at the hostel who´d lived in Cambridge claimed many young people are interested in politics here.

The nearby church of San Ignacio de Loyola, named after the Jesuits´ founder, was a crisp white building and scenic. I also saw the San Francisco church, run by the Franciscan Order of monks apparently. By the way, the Congressional Palace near my hostel is an incredible sight of European architecture.

In the late afternoon I had an interesting chat with Monica who works at the hostel. She has an interesting arty haircut, and is originally from Prague in the Czech Republic, which I visited with James and two German friends in 2005. She has lived in Spain and now Latin American countries for 7 years, and has fluent Spanish and English also. I talked a little too long, hastily wrote down some Spanish phrases with her help, then rushed off for dinner.

I had just been in contact with Miki, an acquaintance from Australia, who to my surprise is living in Buenos Aires with her husband Chris! They and friends were going out for dinner in Quilmes and invited me. I was interested to hear their experiences living in Argentina. I was to meet their friends at a hostel, and share a taxi with them. I saw the street name at the edge of my map and headed off. However it was much further than I expected, and there was no hotel sign at the number. Although concerned, I figured it was possibly the right place because many hostels are subtle, for safety reasons perhaps. Eventually it was clear I had missed the arrangement. (I later looked it up, and the street I was following had merged onto a major street, and then unknown to me, this street had restarted a block to the side, very disjointed!)

I felt bad about missing the group, stressed from the failed rush, and expected I would spend the evening alone. I admit I was hot, from wearing a jumper in the heat without a t-shirt because my clothes were being washed (sorry to my brother Will, who owns the jumper!) The hostel said the laundry service would return my clothes by the afternoon, or 7pm at the latest, but this did not happen... I have minimal clothing because I intend to buy local clothing later, once I get out of Buenos Aires which is apparently more trendy than the norm. I listened to my guidebook´s recommendation to "take half the clothes, and twice the money, that you think you will need", and learned from my Europe trip with my brother James where we lugged too much stuff around for 3 whole months.

My route home took me past the bookshop, and behind the locked door were Andrea, as well as her sister Ianina and their friend German whom I soon met! It was great to run into friends. Ianina had fair English, so the two of us talked while the group shared mate, my first, drunk from a little cup/pot with a metal straw. They were going out for dinner and invited me, and of course I accepted. We went to Plaza Dorrego with the chairs, tables, and free tango; which by now I recognised well. The others shared one pizza between them. I didn´t understand their communal ordering style, so ordered a salad for myself which we all then shared. I appreciated the company. We walked back to where the sisters´ dad was waiting, along with another sister (there are 8 kids or something crazy like that). I had a great chat with him, a friendly person. We spoke both Spanish and English, both struggling mightily with one another´s language. He successfully communicated that he had played in a military band in the 1970s when the political drama was occurring, but since played in a civilian band. Ianina was surprised that we had managed to communicate these details! It was great to end a mixed evening on such a high note.

Buenos Aires (part 4)

Monday 21st: I was up at 8am, and toured San Telmo where I had been with Cristina and Antonio. The Lezama Park had many homeless people - they are everywhere in Buenos Aires. The Orthodox church had a colourful facade. I ate the lunch special, garnished potatoes and chicken.

I arrived at the Brazil embassy at 3:30pm to pick up my passport and Brazilian visa. I had been to the embassy on Friday, with a stack of documents like hotel reservations as requested on the website, but it turned out than only a bank balance was necessary. Today I was turned away by an impatient guard (I should have tried to speak Spanish). He closed the door on me, but made a more friendly attempt later. An African-looking Brazilian woman was very helpful in translating for me. It turned out we had both missed the closing time of 3pm. The guard said to come back at midday tomorrow. It was my first significant negative experience here (and wasn´t that bad, of course!) I consciously focused on the friendliness of the woman, to avoid dwelling on the negative.

Tues 22nd: I spent the morning reading about clashes over the indigenous peoples, particularly concerning the Jesuits and the Bandeirantes, which is fascinating history. The latter were hardy frontiersmen representing the Portuguese presence based at Sao Paulo. They set out in bandeiras ("flags" in Portuguese) expeditions to capture natives for the slave market. However the Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests who had an extensive presence in the continent) resisted this plundering of their missions, and were the main force resisting slavery. Full credit to them! (The Jesuits are best known today for education: they are highly educated, and run some schools. Their founder, a Spanish knight, developed devotional disciplines. They were active in the Counter Reformation during the Middle Ages, which I don´t support because I value the creation of Protestant Christianity (but do support in that the Catholic church needed change). Some have promoted conspiracy theories about the Jesuits, but expert historians dismiss these as fabrications.) I am no expert on the Jesuits, but my main point is their actions in South America are remarkable! The fictional movie The Mission is based on various real events concerning the native Guaraní people, set near Iguazu Falls. I highly recommend it!! My reading was stimulated by conversations with the Western journalist. He had many positive things to say about the Jesuits, having being educated by them in high school. He had criticisms of the church too, but I think he was choosing to be positive.

I picked up my passport and visa from the embassy. I had paid less than AU$40, compared to the $77 it would have cost, via mail, in Australia. I wasted a lot of time with the process, but it was an achievement to be an Australian, getting a Brazilian visa, in Argentina! By now I had cooked a couple of simple dinners in the hostel, despite the challenge of finding and buying ingredients in unfamiliar supermarkets.

I headed towards a used English books store recommended by the journalist. He knew the locations of three English book stores off by heart! I wanted to buy a Spanish language textbook. On the same block was another bookshop, and I wandered in. I got talking to Andrea who was working there. She was a very nice person, interesting, and very pretty incidentally. As I sensed our conversation was drawing to a close (she had closed the shop I think, but also likes to study there for its internet), I discovered she was a Christian, and she invited me to her nearby church later that week. I bought a Spanish book from the other shop.

Today (?) I had a fantastic social day, not doing much in terms of sightseeing, but meeting many people both in the hostel and around San Telmo. One friendly outgoing guy was from a small island in the Caribbean. He was giving out flyers on the street, but turned out to be a law student or something! He suggested catching up for coffee later to share our experiences, and took my email but never contacted me.

At night I went for a long walk by myself through the streets, starting around 10pm. I ended up at what I would later realise was Constitución train station. The neighbourhood looked more and more dodgy the further I walked, and I heard later it is indeed a bad area. Many people were in the vicinity of the station. As I kept walking, I passed many open stalls and shops, the latter mostly shuttered for security save for a small window. There are many police around the city. I missed my street and ended up at the Obelisk, observing the restaurants become progressively more affluent. I got back around 11:45pm.

Wednesday 23rd: I had breakfast with Jaime and Cecilia, who are temporarily working at the nearby medical centre and are very friendly. I blogged for a long time. I dropped by the bookshop around 2pm, but it was closed. She had mentioned mate, the national drink which is like a tea, but not for today apparently!

I had a hilarious experience with "Fernet cola", which I had never heard but is popular in Argentina. I had stopped into a supermarket to buy a drink, and this 1L bottle was on special. Outside, I started to drink it, when a man who was sifting through trash called out to me. "I don´t speak Spanish" I said in Spanish, but he kept gesturing. I assumed he wanted the plastic bottle, so I skulled most of the drink in two big goes. It was quite bitter, not the sweet imitation Coca-Cola I had expected. There was a little left, but I figured it was possible he also wanted some, and in the very least could just tip it out, so I handed it to him and walked away. I had a delicious lunch at a "per kilo" restaurant, which is a self-serve buffet where you pay for the weight of your food. (It is good value, and there was lots of salad and savoury. I have been eating a lot of meat and breads here, so really craved some salad. Apart from health, another reason to eat less meat here, at least in Brazil, is that the Amazon gets cleared for livestock!)

Anyway I sat down and for the first time noticed I was light-headed, and my head swam a little. I thought it felt a bit like skulling 3 beers quickly, but it didn´t feel like alcohol because I also felt a mild euphoria like a stimulant: I felt "happy", also and calm in contrast to some stress earlier from walking around in the heat. The feeling was not overly intense, but it was good! I recalled stories of travellers being drugged and robbed, but I never thought for a moment this had happened, and I felt fairly sober and in no danger. Out of deep curiosity only (not out of fear nor anger), I walked around trying to find the supermarket/kiosk where I bought the drink, this being the only potential culprit I could think of. I recalled a conversation with Peruvian friends in Melbourne, when they mentioned chewing coca leaves while walking the Inca trail, to reduce altitude sickness. Since it was the same continent, could the drink have been labeled "coca" and not "cola"? After much walking I could not find the same kiosk.

Eventually I walked into the English bookshop to speak with the fluent owner. He said this would not be the case, because they don´t sell coca extracts in the supermarket. He listed a number of drinks, and when he said "Fernet cola" I remembered that was it! He explained that Fernet was an alcoholic drink, and that it was mixed with cola. In Australia, supermarkets do not stock alcoholic drinks, so I was not expecting this. Though the alcohol section in some supermarkets here is extensive and obvious, in the particular refrigerated section where I bought the drink I saw only non-alcoholic drinks.

Today, people on the street were starting to feel more "familiar". In other words, the fact I am in a foreign country feels less intense. In my two trips to Asia, I had the funny experience of adapting to the environment, in that my surroundings stopped feeling unusual ("there´s so many Asian people!") and I didn´t really notice anymore. Also, the massive buzz I´ve been on (not from Fernet, just a natural high!) has worn off. I´m still having a fantastic time over here, it´s just I´m not feeling so "buzzed".

King of Kings Church

Sun 20th: I searched on the internet for a church service to attend. I am very interested in charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity, and this form of faith is growing rapidly here, as well as in Australia and much of the world. In particular, hispanic Catholic charismatics are having a big influence in the U.S. It seems expressive religion fits well with a people who are also expressive in affection, soccer, dance, etc. Curiosity about this expressiveness was the single main reason South America appealed to me. It is not always a good thing though, as a girl two weeks later would say there are lots of fights, since sometimes this expression is channeled in the wrong way. However my internet searching experiences have been frustrating, being very time consuming yet not always fruitful.

I toured Plaza de Mayo, one of the main, central plazas, today(?) One historic building had a small museum. The pink stone Palace of the City Government had a commemoration to Argentine greats, and I just avoided some marching guards! The Bank of the Nation has huge Ancient Greece style pillars, as do some other buildings in the city such as the engineering faculty of one university. The main Catholic cathedral of the city is impressive, and the site of the first church in Buenos Aires. Curiously, the church had a section and tomb(?) for general José de San Martín, a national hero and one of the main libertadores who "liberated" South America from Spain. This seemed mix of "church" and "state" seemed unusual, although probably a good thing - at least it´s being relevant.

I walked around through market stalls, had dinner, and then returned for mass at 6pm at the cathedral. A standard service I found uninteresting to be frank, particularly because I do not speak the language. Afterwards, the changing of the guards for San Martin´s tomb was interesting, although not Buckingham Palace! I caught the train north (thank-you to Monica at the hostel for helping with navigation) to Rey de Reyes Iglesia (King of Kings Church). This is a huge Pentecostal congregation I found on the internet. It is sort of like the Hillsong of Buenos Aires (and in fact a Hillsong group were here just a few months ago), although Hillsong are very moderate by Pentecostal standards. The main pastor, Claudio, is close with a prominent U.S. Christian figure about whom many are skeptical; I don´t know enough to comment, and I won´t write Claudio off for it.

There was a small crowd out the front of the church. This service was just one of many they run throughout the weekend. A queue snaked from the door into a carpark on the side. There, I waited silently while the guy ahead of me and the girl behind me in the queue waited with headphones on. Eventually, I interrupted the guy, Ángel. I wanted to experience this event, and a major part of that was meeting the people! He spoke a little English. Eventually the girl joined in also, translating the word "(street) blocks" for him. She is studying English translation, but has only just started. In the service, we sat together. The music and worship was lively. A guy spoke for a while, who was apparently pretty funny. Later Claudio spoke. The girl got headphones for me, so I could hear the English translator. Claudio is an extremely gifted speaker, very dynamic and motivating. He spoke, I recall, of overcoming various hurts. One point which struck me was, "Don´t ask, why am I not happy, just be it!" I suspect he is right, and I felt this was a deep "emotional"-type [right-brained] truth (as opposed to a rationalistic one). I felt it was a big insight, and although one my logical brain finds challenging to grasp.

The translator echoed Claudio´s emotion as well as his words. When he called for the Holy Spirit, and the people responded with enthusiasm, she would sometimes laugh into the microphone and praise God! It was a good thing actually - it is hard not to smile, laugh, and be happy when someone is expressing those same things into your ear! The girl next to me later explained that people react to the Holy Spirit / worship differently. She cries (happy tears, she clarified), whereas Ángel expresses joy. As for uniquely Pentecostal manifestations, the translator (and Claudio?) spoke in tongues a bit. I have been around charismatics enough, and have formed my own convictions after extensive research, to be completely comfortable with this. Also a young man was prayed for up the front of church. A "catcher" readied himself, but the guy did not fall backwards ("slain in the Spirit"). For me, this non-event´adds rather than subtracts credibility. (Hillsong, by contrast, do not allow speakers to speak in tongues etc.) The music was incredible!! The songs were all in Spanish, but I could understand nearly half the lyrics, because they were relatively simple and because I know the context - Christian language. Everybody in the full room seemed in tune.

Outside the rain was literal. After waiting on the steps, and snapping a couple of photos, the girl walked me to the bus station. The last subway train stopped around 10pm, and I had thought the service would surely not go for more than 2 hours! I was very wrong. As I realised this time was approaching, I decided to stay and "wing it". Though a risk in a big, strange city, things usually turn out OK. The church was consistent with Argentine culture, in which people eat dinner and stay out very late. I am a trasnochador (night owl) in Australia, but here I am not, relative to the people! I feel tired by midnight or 1am. Anyway we only got away around midnight. Things did turn out - the girl took me to a bus station, told me which bus to catch, and to tell the driver ($) "1.10" in Spanish. Eventually I spotted the Obelisk, got off later, and walked a mere 8 blocks or so home. The church was an amazing experience, and I was very hyped from it!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Buenos Aires (part 3)

Sat 19th: I slept early, and woke up at 6am! I blogged, then had breakfast. I had a very interesting discussion with a Argentine guy in the hostel. He was visiting the city to take an entrepreneurship course, and visit a girl who works at the hostel. We talked about relationships, a key part of any culture, in addition to being a personal interest of mine. I thought his experiences spanned the spectrum! He was hurt/negative about his previous relationship, which lasted quite a few years I recall. He felt controlled by this girlfriend, and worn down by her persistent talking. I said, bluntly, that Latin American is seen as more male-dominated on average, relative to certain other countries in the world (my guidebook describes "the often macho Latin culture"). What did he think? He thought this has been true, but is also changing. On the other side of the spectrum, his dad was violent towards him and his sibling(s). He liked the girl in the hostel because she was bubbly, a nice person, and good looking.

I walked to the address of an Adventist church I found on the internet, but there was nothing there. In the supermarket, I had what I consider my first conversation in Spanish! I was very excited and buzzed about this. A man, a fellow shopper, stopped and spoke to me after he heard my accent. I managed to convey some basic travel plans, as well as my name, age, and country; in extremely stilted and limited Spanish. He was a gifted and patient communicator, assisting me to express myself, for instance when I could recall the words for "day" and "year" but not "week" nor "month", we managed to fill in the gaps. A Bolivian woman who worked in the shop also talked to me, but this was less successful. I said I had a Bolivian in the family, but could not communicate any more details on that matter.

A Western journalist, whose name I won´t mention, arrived in the afternoon. He was tired, stressed, and smelly. He said he´d been robbed on a bus trip, had not slept, and had been walking around all morning trying to find a hostel. He said his bank would send a new card on Wednesday, and he would pay then. Pablo, a co-owner of the hostel, let him stay. We had some very interesting conversations; more on him later.

At night I hung out at the hostel with some Latins, including a guy who worked at the hostel, his very attractive friend who played drums (surprisingly!) in their band (both had superb English, and she had lived in Cambridge and almost studied there), a Chilean man with a party-type personality who spoke no English, and Nicholas. I had a great time hanging out with them, drinking the local popular beer Isenbeck. The girl´s uncle had "disappeared" (taken by the authorities) during the political dramas of the 1970s(?) After the others left, Nicholas and I kept talking. He, I understand from his limited English, fixed bikes for professional cyclists. He worked hard, 60 hours a week, and had first worked at the age of 11. He was a good bloke, despite having had a difficult life in many ways. His English deteriorated as the night went on :-), while my respect for him grew. He wanted to have a family, an interesting statement for someone 21(?) or so, and I felt humbled by his poor background.