Archive for December, 2008

Reversed Seasons: Keeping Track of Time in the Southern Hemisphere

Other Side of the World

Argentina may be three hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time but for the past three years, I have been six months behind.  In the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed, and my internal clock has never been properly reset.

Each year when the weather turns warm, I get depressed.  I have a June birthday, and I begin to stress over if I will celebrate getting older, and if so, where, how, and with whom.  I start to resent having no locker to decorate, I worry that all of my friends will be away at summer camp, and I have terrifying flashbacks of my 18th birthday, when the evening consisted of my brother buying me scratch off lottery tickets (I didn’t win) and watching a rented movie on the couch with my best friend.   At the same time, I get excited because the second and best half of the year is yet to come.  And then I realize that it’s December.

When it starts to get cold, I feel relieved.  One year is about to end and another is about to begin.  I can finally put to rest all of the unfinished business that has been haunting me and embark on new projects and resolutions.  Besides, months of good cheer, food, and gifts are on their way.  And then I realize that it’s June.

How am I possibly supposed to keep track of time when all of my external cues are upside down?  I still can’t get my head around listening to my parents talk about losing power in an ice storm while I am sitting in the dark drinking ice water to keep cool.  And the seasons aren’t the only think I’ve had difficulty adjusting to since crossing the equator and changing time zones.  As it turns out, within the circadian rhythm there is room for variation.

In Argentina, people leave the office at the hour considered by most Americans to be dinnertime, and eat dinner between 9-11pm (past my parent’s bedtime).  On Sunday mornings when my Argentine friends complain of being tired and I ask what time they went to bed the night before they reply, “Early.  Like 4am.” In the States, if an event is planned for 6-8pm, people arrive dutifully at 6pm and make their way to the door at exactly 8pm.  In Argentina, 6-8pm is the period of time during which it is acceptable to arrive.  The event starts at 8:01pm and ends when the last person leaves.  In the States, people respect each other’s time.  In Argentina, people respect each other’s rhythm.  Time is definitely relative, at least culturally.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never had a fixed concept of time.  When I was a child, a year revolved around my birthday, because the universe revolved around me.  While I was a student, the year only had nine months.  According to my agenda, the year started mid-September and ended mid-June.  July and August went on sabbatical.  Since graduating from college, I have measured time using a series of milestones: an anniversary in Argentina, a trip home, the day I began my job, the day I quit my job, a first date, the last time I had sex.  A year doesn’t always have 365 days, and sometimes I have more than one year happening simultaneously.  Because for me, a “year” is just a convenient way of saying “time between important moments.”

The calendar is a useful tool for coordinating the logistics of your life.  Like making sure you pay your taxes on time, or that you don’t go to work on Saturday, or that you take your sweaters out of storage, or that you don’t forget to call your friend on her birthday, even if it is in the middle of the summer.  But the calendar is pretty useless when it comes to assessing personal growth and development.  We all have our own way of calculating a year, and our own rate of emotional, mental, and biological maturation.  Yet we obsess over the numbers, measuring our progress, determining what we should be doing right now, and judging where we should be in our life by how many 24-hour days we have been alive.

Clock time is just a guideline.  It is not a rule or a law.  So, if December 31 doesn’t feel like the right time to stop what you’re doing, or if January 1 doesn’t feel like the right time to start something new, don’t worry about.  They are just two more days.  Personally, my new year is going to start on February 25, when I board a plane to New Zealand.

We seem to think that life is a choreographed routine, and that we’re all supposed to be dancing the same steps to the same music.  Like pre-schoolers at our first ballet recital, we spend the entire performance staring at our feet or looking around at our peers to make sure that we are on beat.  But each of us has our own unique soundtrack. We can’t pick the play list.  All we can do is dance. Or in the words of Prince, “party like it’s 1999.”

And with that said, Happy New Year!


What I Did On My Christmas Vacation: Spending the Holidays in Chaco

Chaco, ArgentinaAn Afternoon in Chaco

“Welcome to Saénz Peña Beach,” said my friend the first time we pulled into the driveway of her home in Northeastern Argentina.   My first year abroad, I spent both Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Buenos Aires.  I was living with a French girl at the time.  A few of her friends were visiting from Paris, and on Christmas Eve we ate homemade empanadas and then stood on the street corner for over an hour waiting for a taxi.  (In Argentina, Santa Claus doesn’t come while you’re sleeping.  He comes while you’re out partying.)

New Year’s Eve was a total disaster, at least the part of it that I can remember.  A big group of us went to the beach town of Pinamar to ring in 2006 at the coast.  We all ended up fighting, though no one can recall why.  To ease the process of forgiving and forgetting, we drank.  Mostly a cocktail of $5 a bottle red wine, diet coke, and champagne from a box.  I threw up for the first time since I was nine years old and passed out in the car.  The next thing I knew, it was 6am and my friend was frantically knocking on the window, reviving me from an alcohol-induced coma just in time to see the sun rise over the ocean.  I was too hung over to take the bus home.  Fortunately, the following year my friend offered me her home for the holidays, promising me a family and someone to hold my hair back.

Presidencia Roque Saénz Peña, the second largest city in the province of Chaco and the cotton capital of Argentina, is not exactly your dream vacation destination.  Every December when I tell people that I am going to Chaco they stare at me in disbelief. “Mucho calor y mucha pobreza,” they always say. Really hot and really poor, which is not an inaccurate description.

Chaco has a population of roughly one million people, and at least as many stray dogs.  According to “Chaco, donde la pobreza es más pobre” published in Página/12 in May 2008, the INDEC (National Institute of Statistics and Census) calculates that 40% of Chaco’s inhabitants live below the poverty line.  The INDEC prices the basket of common household goods used to set the poverty level at $982 pesos ($290USD).  However, the actual price is nearly $1400 pesos ($410USD), making the percentage of Chaco’s population living in poverty closer to 55%.

Homes in Saénz Peña resemble found object art, with tin roofs, brick walls, wooden doors, and rusted car part lawn ornaments.  Horse-drawn carts are a common form of transportation.  There are no movie theaters or shopping malls, and the annual highlight is the National Cotton Festival.  Last year, the big news was the paving one of the main avenues.

In the summer, it is already 80°F at 9am, with temperatures steadily rising to 100°F-105°F by early afternoon.  It’s no wonder that the siesta is observed religiously.  Even the accent here is distinct. People place an “h” before vowels, pronouncing my name “Hey-mee.” The difference between Saénz Peña and Buenos Aires is so striking that it’s hard to believe they share the same parents.

As in most places that suffer extreme poverty, there is also extreme wealth in Chaco.  My friend’s family owns a supermarket, and a lot of land where they grow sunflowers and raise cattle. They live in a beautiful two-story home, complete with air conditioning, a patio, and a car in the garage.  Saénz Peña may be humble, but my time in Chaco is nothing short of indulgent.

Spending the holidays in Chaco is like staying over at your best friend’s house where you get to eat all of the sugary cereal that you aren’t allowed to have at home because your parents only buy Grape Nuts. We sleep until noon on beds made up with pink sheets, read fashion magazines, and give ourselves manicures with my friend’s preteen cousins.  We watch movies while eating cookies out of the bag, and at night, we window shop at the finest stores with my friend’s mother and sister.  Bathing is an event, followed by a ceremonial application of creams, lotions, and oils.  We get dressed up, even though we have nowhere to go.

Sometimes our friend Pablo appears at 3am, throwing rocks at our window and beckoning us outside.  We sneak out and take his motorcycle down to the highway to see Saénz Peña’s first and only transvestite prostitute.  Last year on New Year’s Eve we ended up at the cemetery at 8am, and on the way home, I almost drove us into a ditch.

But mostly when we do venture outdoors it is for one thing only: to drive around in circles in her sister’s car, listening to music and the latest gossip.  Like how one of the employees is stealing from the supermarket, or how my friend’s brother’s ex-girlfriend is now pregnant.  “That should be my grandchild,” laments their mother with a hearty laugh, but only half-joking.

If I’m lucky, I get to meet one of these soap opera stars.  My personal favorite is La Tía Rosita.  Last Christmas, she regaled us with stories of the Spanish octogenarian who wanted to fly her to Madrid.  “Chicaaas” she purred before informing us that she had turned down the invitation after learning that he had already had two heart attacks. Then there is Tatiana, who lost her son, my friend’s high school sweetheart, to cancer a few years ago.  During the holidays she becomes Chaco’s version of Betty Crocker, if Betty Crocker cooked exclusively with ham and cheese, and specialized in fried things.  Her buckets of homemade mayonnaise, roasted pork with pineapple, and potato salad are delivered by the Sobrino Paraguayo, the son her brother fathered and abandoned and who now lives with Tatiana.  To demonstrate his gratitude for her hospitality, her nephew has become her errand boy.  I have a special place in my heart for him, as I’m somewhat of a Sobrino Paraguayo myself.

This year, I emerged from the cocoon. So much rest was making me restless and the air conditioning was giving me a headache.  Before my friend even wakes up, I will have gone for a run, ate breakfast, showered, and finished writing this essay.  Yesterday, I went downstairs to find her father waiting to surprise me with a shiny red bike.  I left the ipod at home, opting to be entertained by the sound of dogs barking, roosters crowing, and cumbia playing, and the sight of neighbors drinking mate on the sidewalk and old men selling watermelons by the side of the road.  Visiting Chaco is like watching an old black and white movie, where the story is character and dialogue driven, and completely devoid of special effects.

Safely back at home, I could imagine everyone talking about La Gringa who uses a bike for exercise, reads books, meditates daily, and is a vegetarian.  “I heard she even thinks pork is meat,” they would whisper as I pass. But they accept me exactly the way I am because I make their lives more interesting, and because you can’t choose your family, even when it’s adopted.

The Golden Rule of Flying: Everything I Need to Know About Air Travel I Learned on a Flight to Chaco

Chaco, ArgentinaLlegada del primer vuelo de Aerochaco al aeropuerto de Resistencia. (Foto gentileza Diario Norte)

Do you remember when it was fun to fly?  I don’t.  I’m not sure if this was before my time or if I was just too young to remember.

There have been memorable flights.  Like the time our plane was delayed returning from the Dominican Republic.  As we sat on the runway, I caught a commotion out of the corner of my eye.  I looked out the window to see fuel spurting out of the wing.  Moments later, a ground crew arrived with an economy pack of paper towel and a roll of duct tape the size of an airplane wheel.  They patched the hole, refueled the plane, and cleared us for take-off.  We taxied down the runway like Hansel and Gretel walking through the woods, leaving a trail of jet fuel behind us.

There have been memorable fellow passengers.  Like the woman who sat next to me on a TACA airlines flight from Lima, Peru to San Salvador, El Salvador.  Flights may be inexpensive, but you pay for the difference in price in other ways. In the case of my row mate, she had been trying to get home to Guatemala City for over 48 hours, and she was not pleased.  A flight attendant interrupted her ranting to inform her that she would have to get off the plane.  TACA had given her seat to somebody else, and rescheduled her on the next flight. The woman stared the stewardess in the eyes and declared through clenched teeth, “I am not getting off this plane.” Because there were no doors to slam, she loudly buckled her seat belt, grabbed her book out of the front seat pocket, thrust it into her lap, and began to read.

There have even been memorable meals.  Like the time we were served baby prawn and corn sandwiches on the way from London to Paris.  But I cannot recall an air travel experience that I would describe as enjoyable. Not even my senior year of high school, when 48 classmates and I chartered a flight to the Bahamas for Spring Break.

Legend has it that air travel used to be an event worthy of excitement and fine attire.  This was in the 1960s, when the airlines were still regulated and flying was considered a luxury.   The government controlled airfares and routes, keeping prices high to please investors and unions. Taking to the skies was symbolic of economic prowess, and promised those who could afford to fly a whole wide world of opportunities.

Then President Carter introduced deregulation in 1978, and airlines began to compete on quantity instead of quality.  Costs were cut to woo travelers, and flying became available to the masses. Airlines and passengers began to take one another for granted.  We all know that we are going to fly regardless of how poor the service or uncomfortable the plane, as long as we can afford it. Business suits and Sunday dresses were replaced by sweat pants and slip-on shoes, and in-flight meals went from fine-dining served on real china to for-purchase snack packs.  As an economics major and budget traveler, I am thankful for open markets.  But as a frequent flier, I long for the way things used to be.

In recent years, terrorism and paranoia have transformed flying from unpleasant to painful.  There are the invasive questions: “Who packed your bags?  Did anyone give you anything to carry on the plane? Where did you sleep last night?  Did you sleep alone?” There are the multiple security checkpoints, just in case at some point you caused a diversion, ducked around the corner, and removed your glasses.  It’s enough to make even the most innocent person act suspicious.  Which could be problematic given that, according to “If Looks Could Kill,” an article appearing in the October 25, 2008 edition of The Economist, researchers are developing intelligent video surveillance systems that will use body language, gait, facial expressions, and “micro-expressions” to detect hostile intentions.  Don’t let your fear of flying be mistaken for fear of getting caught.

As much as I love to travel, I have always hated the process of getting from point A to point B.  But a recent flight to Chaco changed my perspective on air travel. Every year my friend invites me to spend the holidays with her and her family in Chaco, a province in Northern Argentina. Our flight was to leave from the Aeroparque Jorge Newberry at 9:40am.  My friend promised to call me in the morning so as to synchronize our arrival at the airport.  An hour before the flight was scheduled to depart, my phone rang. My friend was just now on her way to the airport.

I arrived at 9:00am.  There were no lines and the only question I was asked at the Aerochaco check-in counter was, “Can I please see your passport?” The airport has been renovated to look like an upscale shopping mall (the food court even has a sushi bar), and we treated it that way.   After waltzing through security just twenty minutes before our scheduled departure, we headed straight to the nearest clothing store.  I waited as my friend purchased a Christmas gift for her friend’s baby, and tried on the same pair of jeans in two different sizes. We made it to the gate with five minutes to spare, where the gate attendant greeted us like we were school kids late coming in from recess.

We had the plane practically to ourselves.  The flight attendants were nervous and gracious.  Before take-off, I went to the bathroom, and one actually opened the door for me.  After I was asked to stow my backpack in the overhead compartment, my friend joked that they were afraid I might have a bomb in my bag.  That’s right, we joked about having an explosive on a plane.  We arrived on time, and immediately descended from the plane by stairs to find my friend’s father waiting to pick us up.  That’s when I realized that flying doesn’t have to be miserable.  It can actually be carefree, easy, and dare I say it, fun.

The reality is that planes were never pleasant, not even during the golden age of flying. Aimée Bratt, a Pan Am stewardess in the mid-1960s, is quoted in the article “Up, Up, and Away,” which appeared in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, as having remarked,  “how crowded it was on an airplane, no place to put anything, lines for the lavatories, no place to sit or stand … there was no choice of meals, and there were no extra amenities like headsets or hot towels.” If amenities are better since the days before deregulation, then it is our attitudes that have worsened. Flying went from novelty to necessity. Personally, I have been one a plane more than in a car this year, and I no longer bother to look out the window. Article author Virginia Postrel observes that, “Airline glamour was not about the actual experience of flying but about the idea of air travel—and the ideals and identity it represented.”  Flights used to be a final destination, now they are just a mode of public transportation.  And no one gets dressed up to ride the subway.

Sadly, we are desensitized to air travel, no longer recognizing it for the marvel it is. The truth is that no matter how accessible air travel has become, the fact that humans can fly at all is a privilege.  Human flight is an incredible feat of engineering, and one of our greatest triumphs over nature.  Air travel is perhaps one of the best examples of how to use technology to defy limits and expand our horizons. Flying permits us to see the world from a different perspective, to cross natural barriers, and to connect with peoples, cultures, and wonders previously out of reach. You board a plane in one continent, and after 13 hours you get off the plane in a different hemisphere, time zone, and culture, two days later.  That’s not air travel, that’s time and space travel.

Perhaps this is the golden rule of air travel, to treat flying with the respect and admiration that it deserves.  If airlines won’t provide me with glamour and romance, I’ll bring glamour and romance to the airlines.  Maybe long lines, grumpy passengers, jaded flight crews, recycled air, bad movies, and bloating are unavoidable.  But the next time I go to the airport, I’m going to put on my most flattering pair of pajama pants, buy a pair of white gloves, pin a pair of wings to my lapel, and take to the skies with the wide-eyed innocence of a child’s first visit to Disney World.  After all, even if airports aren’t the happiest places on Earth, it is thanks to airplanes that it truly is a small world.

Inflight Travel Advice For Long Plane Rides

Travel Advice for International Flights

Once More, With Feeling: Singing in Spanish

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Saturday night, I did the scariest thing that a person can do.  I sang in public.  Not only did I sing in public, I sang poorly, and in Spanish.  I’m now confident that I can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

I have been taking voice lessons on and off for the past two years.  Like most little girls, “famous singer” was on my list of “What I Want to be When I Grow Up,” along with “In Living Color fly girl” and “first female president of the United States”.  The other two dreams died in elementary school, when In Living Color was canceled and people started considering Hillary Clinton as a possible presidential candidate.  But the singing fantasy lived on, and I carried it with me all the way to Buenos Aires.

A few of the girls in my jazz dance class were professional singers and teachers, and one of them agreed to be my vocal coach.  Maybe I thought that I could someday finance my travels by working on a cruise ship.  But for the most part, I just wanted to be able to sing in the car without my voice cracking or my eardrums bleeding.  And the answer is yes, you can learn to sing, or at the very least, to sing better.

As a student with virtually no professional prospects or aspirations, the highlight of my singing career is the annual end of year recital.  This year, I was to sing two songs – “Out Tonight” from Rent and “Mi Último Blues” by Celeste Carballo.  Musical theater suits me, and not only did “Out Tonight” sound decent, but I could get into it. Mi Último Blues” on the other hand sounded terrible on me.  I’m not being humble, just honest.  The song is well above my vocal comfort range, and I’m not exactly the poster child of soul.  But I didn’t care.  I was committed to singing both songs.

I am an above-average perfectionist with way too much pride, and I don’t like to do things in public unless I can do them perfectly. For a long time, this included speaking Spanish.  Ironically, this time it was Spanish that permitted me to make a fool of myself.

Everything feels more distant in a different language.  After three years in Argentina, I react to and speak Castellano fluently.  Mastering a living language is impossible, and of course, there are words, phrases, and allusions that escape me.  But Spanish has become incorporated to the point where I think in Spanish, unconsciously mix Spanish words and phrases into English, and sometimes have trouble recalling the language of a particular conversation. But no matter how advanced my oral and written skills are, Spanish is not and never will be my native tongue.

Sometimes, I tire of Spanish, of avoiding certain topics or stories due to a lack of vocabulary, of strangers focusing on how I talk rather than what I have to say, of not feeling completely at ease in my own words, and most of all, of feeling like my speech is not an accurate reflection of who I am.   In fact, when I speak Spanish, there is a disassociation and I transform into a silent observer.  I watch for, notice, and correct my mistakes, even if they are fewer than ever and bother me less.  I listen for new phrases and words.  I consciously place my tongue or form my mouth just so.  I speak on behalf of myself, in a second language.

I love the sound of Spanish, especially the melody of Argentine Castellano.  But I respond to English.  Lately, when I read a particularly well-written phrase or sentence in English, I catch myself running my fingers over the page or pressing the book to my chest.  Spanish doesn’t inspire me in quite the same way.

Conceptually, I know which Spanish words or phrases are good or bad, appropriate or vulgar, informal or formal, but they don’t provoke a visceral response the way that English does.  Recently, I had a heated discussion with the bank about the status of my account.  After hanging up the phone, the first thing I thought was, “wow, I argue really well in Spanish.”  Words lose weight as they pass through the language barrier.  Which is helpful for deflecting insults and offenses, but not great for meaningful relationships or emotive vocal performances.

What moved me about “Mi Último Blues” was the music.  As far as the lyrics were concerned, she could have been singing about kiwis and melons and it would have made no difference.  Maybe I had trouble feeling the song, but the disconnect created a safe space in which to sing. How I sounded was irrelevant, because it was all part of the act.  I was simply playing the part of an American girl singing badly in Spanish.
And I did an excellent job interpreting that character.

Results oriented, I tend to focus more on the final product than on the process.  But Saturday night, I sang for the pure joy of singing (which is the only real reason for doing anything). Who knew that disgracing yourself in public could be so much fun?

Three-Year Ego Boost: Sharing the Streets with Argentine Men

Buenos Aires, Argentina

6:45am.  Downtown.  I am walking to my first English class of the day.  The dark circles under my eyes match the color of my over-sized winter jacket, and nearly reach the scarf tied around my neck.  The only other person on the street at this hour is a businessman.  Wind has blown my hair over my reddened face, but he is unmistakable by his suit and the cell phone pressed to his ear.  As he passes he leans in, interrupting his early morning conversation to tell me, “Qué linda que sos.”  You’re beautiful.  I know how to take a compliment, but that was clearly bullshit.

Catcalling is a national pastime in Argentina.  I studied abroad in Spain and traveled through Italy, so Buenos Aires was not my first encounter with unsolicited comments and hissing. And of course, catcalling exists in the United States.  But still, the consistency and pervasiveness of it here never ceases to amaze me. You cannot walk down the street without someone literally congratulating you on how pretty you are.  (I am always tempted to tell them to direct all feedback to my parents, but as a rule I don’t dignify such behavior with a response.)  I complained about this to an English acquaintance living in France. She eyed me with jealous contempt and remarked, “Basically what you’re saying is that you’ve had a three-year ego boost.”

Personally, I don’t find catcalls demeaning, degrading, or threatening, but I certainly don’t find them flattering.  How can it possibly make you feel special when someone says the exact same thing to every single woman, regardless of shape, size, age, place, or time?  The men here lack creativity, criteria, and sincerity. Hitting on women is a reflex so deeply ingrained in their machismo culture that it has become an unconscious reaction.  I’m not sure that the businessman who talked to me was even aware of doing so.

Rarely has a catcall provoked a positive reaction.  There was one afternoon while I was running.  I was feeling particularly not in shape when a guy yelled, “No te hace falta ese ejercicio.”  You don’t need to exercise.  On another occasion, I was walking down the street, wearing a new hat.  I liked the hat but worried it made me look like a back-up dancer from a Paula Abdul video.  An old man, stooped over, shuffling down the sidewalk stopped and said, “Qué bien que te queda esa gorrita.”  That hat looks great on you.  I actually responded, “thanks!”

For the most part, I find the uninvited attention obnoxious, invasive, and disrespectful.  What bothers me most is that it robs me of my anonymity.  One of the great things about living in a big city is that you can get lost in the crowd.  You may be surrounded by thousands of people, but you get the whole city to yourself.  In Buenos Aires, people audibly notice you on every street corner.  There is no regard or respect for privacy or personal boundaries.  Even if men have the genuine intention of complimenting you, they don’t realize that unsolicited praise from a stranger is often unwelcome.

As it so happens, becoming invisible is easy.  I just have to go the United States.  The first time I returned home after moving to Argentina, I was culture-shocked by how no one even looked at me in that way, let alone said anything.  In my hometown, the only people who shout at you on the street are construction workers, and that’s to warn you to watch your step.

I didn’t realized how accustomed I had grown to being noticed.  That’s not to say that I liked it, just that I had come to expect it.  Like a high-pitched noise that you don’t hear until it stops, and that you kind of miss when it’s gone.  At first, I worried that something had happened during the flight.  But then I realized that while a ten-hour plane ride looks good on no one, it’s hardly enough to turn you ugly.  It’s not me, I decided. It’s them.

Don’t ask me how, but we have housebroken American men. We have taught them exactly when and where it is appropriate to approach women as members of the opposite sex.  For example, in a bar, club, or party, totally acceptable.  When we look especially good, acceptable.  When we find you attractive, acceptable.  In all other circumstances, we are to be regarded as equals. We have trained American men not to see us as women.

Someone once told me that we are given gifts and talents to share them with others. If you have an incredible voice, it’s not so that you can sing in the shower.  If you are an amazing artist, it’s not so that you can paint your garage.  And if you are attractive, it’s not so that you can stare at your reflection. We don’t need our eyes, mouths, or bodies to be pretty, we just need them to function.  So, if you are beautiful, which we all are in our own way, it’s not for your own benefit. And if someone genuinely recognizes your physical beauty, or is perceptive enough to see your inner beauty, they should be able to express their appreciation.

Neither country has it right.  Argentine men are too hot, and American men are too cold.  I want men to view me as a woman, but first and foremost to respect me as a person.  I want them to feel comfortable talking to me, but to think about my feelings before they speak. I don’t want a stranger shouting his admiration at me from a distance of 20 feet, but I also don’t want him to be afraid to smile.

I am an independent, intelligent, ambitious, talented individual, and I expect to be treated as such.  But I am also a young, attractive woman, and I expect to be treated as such. Women don’t want to be objectified. But let’s be honest, we are objects of beauty.

Universe, Is That You?: Searching For a Sign

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaOpen Subway Doors

I was walking home one afternoon when I saw a sign. Literally.  For a gym offering pole dance classes.  My neighborhood is the Buenos Aires equivalent to New York’s Upper East Side.  And any fitness class combining exotic dancing and stay-at-home socialites is a class that I can get into.

The gym invited me to a free trial class the following Saturday.  I was excited to try pole dancing.  And as a freelance writer for Suite101, I decided to do a piece about the benefits of pole dance for the magazine’s health & wellness section.

Just minutes before leaving my apartment, it began to rain torrentially.  This was one of those famous Buenos Aires showers that comes out of nowhere and lasts just long enough to flood the city (although, given the city’s engineering, leaving a garden hose running would probably have the same effect). I was going to need a tarp and a rowboat to make it to the class.  Committed to writing the article, and to meeting a friend, I went anyways.

Soaking wet and waiting for the bus, a thought suddenly occurred to me: what if the Universe is sending me a message?  What if I’m not supposed to go to the class?  What if I shouldn’t write this article? On second thought, I realized that while pole dancing may not be the most decent of pastimes or conventional of topics, the Universe was not going to conjure a storm to keep me from going to class.  Clearly, a meteorological event experienced by an entire city is not a burning bush.  But what about something that happens just to you?

I spent weeks deliberating my decision to move to New Zealand.  Even though I’m happy in Buenos Aires, the reality is I’m starting to get restless.  I’m ready to move on to the next challenge and to start a new phase of my life.  Unfortunately, for me evolution means leaving.

Tired of turning circles, I summoned courage and went to the Aerolineas Argentina office to make a reservation.   According to the woman behind the counter, a ticket from Buenos Aires to Auckland would cost nearly three times the price published on the website.  She assured me that she knew all of the promotional codes, and that there were no deals to New Zealand.

Panicked, I ran home to discover that the woman had no idea what she was talking about.  The fare was still available online.  After much debate over dates, and a few frantic phone calls to friends and family, I submitted my request.  “Sorry,” lamented Aerolineas, “we were unable to process your request.”  In that instant, the price had gone up $300. I changed the dates to get a better fare and finalized the reservation.  Now I just had to pay.  If only it were that easy.

First, the website only accepts Visa and American Express, but I only have a MasterCard.  Thankfully, my mother agreed to lend me her credit card and I was able to proceed. Aerolineas practices price discrimination, charging foreigners a much higher fare.  To get the lower price, you don’t have to be a citizen of Argentina, just a resident.  Nevertheless, the first thing they ask of you is the number of your Documento Nacional de Identidad (National Identity Card), which I of course don’t have.  A sales rep suggested that I pay over the phone.  After giving her the relevant information, including where my father went to college and the name of my first pet, she told me that I would receive confirmation when the transaction was processed.

Three days later, Aerolineas notified me that “the purchase is not complete, because
Visa could not contact the bank and verify the information.” Luckily, the airline agreed to let me pay in person, and later that afternoon, I took the subway to the Aerolineas office.  As we pulled into a station not an hour before the office closed, a voice announced that there was a problem with the subway.  The train sat motionless in the station for nearly half an hour with its doors wide open taunting me to run.  Some people believe that anything worth having is worth fighting for.  I have a slightly different motto: it shouldn’t be this hard. That many obstacles had to be a sign.

I am constantly searching for a sign, an answer to all of life’s questions, such as should I exercise this afternoon? I have good instincts. I’m just not very good at trusting them. When there are so many attractive options available, and so many things that can go wrong, it’s difficult to listen to the sound of your own voice.  Other times, I’m sure of what I want, but I’m scared of what I will have to do to get it. Unsatisfied or not, it’s never easy to trade comfort for uncertainty.  Every once in a while, I wish someone would tell me what to do, or guarantee that what I’m doing will be worth the effort.

The thing is, for something to be a sign it has to be out of the ordinary.  But, sadly, nothing about my experience purchasing the plane ticket was uncommon for Buenos Aires. Yet in my desperate state, I was convinced that the Universe was telling me to go home.  Fortunately, I didn’t listen.

Despite all of the opportunities to walk away, I bought the ticket.  And not only did I get a fare exclusive for Argentines, I was able to pay for it with my own credit card.  I felt empowered, confident that with time, patience, and determination, I could accomplish anything and comfortable with my decision.  And the best part is that the decision was all mine.

If the Universe is as we see it, I was seeing my doubts and fears. Even though my intuition tells me that New Zealand is the right place for right now, leaving Argentina after three years is going to be hard, and starting over is going to be hard work.  Maybe I’m scared, or maybe I’m just lazy, but part of me was hoping someone would tell me not to go.  Either way, at some point, I told the Universe to go to hell.  I’m going to New Zealand.

Prize Winning Pumpkin: Celebrating American Culture Abroad

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Moving competition-size pumpkins calls for a forklift.Today, I stumbled upon a Japanese Culture Festival at the     Jardín Japonés.  Organized by the Fundación Cultural Argentino Japonesa, the agenda included a food tasting and a judo exhibition, both of which I missed.  Luckily, I arrived just in time for a performance by Medetaiko, a Japanese drum ensemble.

Taiko, according to Google, refers to both a kind of drum and a style of ensemble drumming which combines traditional Japanese percussion with karate movements.  Performed in customary dress, taiko is a high-energy mix of music, dance, and martial arts, and it’s fabulous. Taiko drums have been in use for some 2000 years, but Taiko as it is performed today dates back only to the 1950s.  In the 1980s, the Japanese government began sponsoring taiko groups as a way to preserve and promote Japanese culture both at home and abroad.  There are now approximately 5,000 taiko groups in Japan.

As I sat there watching Japanese drumming in Argentina, I thought about how wonderful it is that Japanese immigrants have been able to maintain their cultural identity and share their traditions with both their children and their host country.  And I began to wonder what an American Cultural Festival would like:

12pm: Beauty Pageant
1pm: How to Build the World’s Largest Ball of Yarn
2pm: Thomas Kinkade Cross Stitch Workshop
3pm: Pie Eating Contest

Large immigrant groups tend to inspire the foundation of organizations dedicated to improving cross-cultural relations, and to the preservation, teaching, and diffusion of the language, customs, and rites of the migrant community.  I guess that because Americans tend not to emigrate, you don’t see a lot of American Cultural Societies in foreign countries.

Come to think of it, even though we don’t send people abroad, American language, culture, and commerce is so pervasive worldwide that I’m not sure that such an association would be necessary.  Want to teach your expat children about American society?  Turn on the T.V.  Want them to learn to speak English?  Send them to any local school.  Want to introduce them to American goods and products?  Look for the nearest Walmart. Still, for those of us who do live, work, or raise families abroad, it would be nice to have a building shaped like a skyscraper where we could play baseball, listen to hip-hop music, and eat a decent sandwich.

Of course, it’s wonderful that America does not produce many refugees or political exiles, and that people born in the United States tend to feel comfortable and welcome right where they are.  But the downside to this is that we are not actively promoting awareness or understanding of our culture abroad, nor are we mingling with or learning from other peoples.  If you ask me, a few more American cross-cultural associations in other countries might not be a bad thing.

Quite honestly, I’m saddened by the idea that everything people know about American culture, they learned from Friends.  And I’m even sadder to admit that if I were open an American Cultural Society abroad, I’m not sure what services and activities it would offer, what events it would organize, or what traditions it would celebrate.

Any ideas?

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