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.

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