Archive for the 'Argentina' Category

Haciendo Ecología: Being Green in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

When I left New Zealand, I donated old clothes to the Salvation Army, threw away toiletries, and gifted my oil pastels and blue plastic bucket to my boyfriend.  One item that did make it into my suitcase was a bright green cloth grocery bag.  Available for $1.50 at most major supermarkets in New Zealand, the bag shamelessly implores you to “help us create a better environment”.   Girl scout cookies I can resist, but I never could deny the exigency in the eyes of the clip-art raindrop.

In Buenos Aires supermarkets, produce is weighed before you reach the cash register. Shoppers place fruits and vegetables into plastic bags and present them to a store employee, who affixes them with a price sticker.  The first time I went produce shopping after returning to Argentina, I selected my items, set them on the counter, and tried to explain in rusty Spanish that I didn’t want plastic bags.  The man behind the scale stared at me as if I were a talking orange cat.

“Because of the environment” I explained, brandishing my hideous, slightly self-righteous tote bag.

Ah. Ok,” he smiled after a brief pause, “estás haciendo ecología.”

“Yes, exactly, I’m doing ecology.”   After a few minutes of brainstorming, he agreed to weigh and sticker each item individually.  I walked out of the store with a clear conscience, albeit slightly self-conscious.

Unfortunately, the bags aren’t the only thing here made of plastic.  I recently invented a game called “spot the boob job.”  It’s easy – you just look for a tiny woman with a disproportionately large chest and no bra.  Ironically, women who get implants no longer want to appear as though they are wearing a corset, and so are requesting natural-looking fake breasts.  The result is girls with the body of an adolescent and the chest of a senior citizen.

In Buenos Aires, there is overwhelming pressure to conform to an ideal image of beauty.  According to a CNN article, an estimated 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife.  OSDE, a leading health insurance provider, covers the entire cost of aesthetic plastic surgery if you hold their plan 410 or higher.  The concept of healthy is totally distorted. A popular brand of yogurt, known for promoting regularity, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to eat their yogurt because of its slimming effect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it contains a mild laxative.

The moral of the story is that it’s not easy being green in Buenos Aires, and the struggle extends beyond being a vegetarian in a carnivorous country.  Buenos Aires is a city obsessed with physical appearance but utterly negligent of the physical environment.  The other day, I encountered a group of young Argentines on the terrace, drinking mate, rubbing tanning oil on their skin, and flicking their cigarettes into the pool.

I’m no sociologist or psychotherapist, but I speculate that this combination of personal vanity and environmental apathy stems from a lack of control.  Inflation and corruption are rampant, university classes are cancelled due to protests, public transportation is interrupted by strikes, and noise and air pollution are palpable.  I can hardly blame porteños for preferring to invest in their looks rather than their city.  Their bodies are one thing they can still take ownership and pride in.  Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to care for a city that doesn’t take care of them.  Still, even if individuals can’t fix the broken sidewalks, would it hurt them to clean up after their dogs?

When I moved to Buenos Aires over four years ago, I didn’t care about or notice these things.  Instead, I was enthralled by the city’s sense of urgency, arrogance, and glamour.  But live in New Zealand (and date someone doing a master’s thesis on water conservation) long enough, and you start sprouting your own lentils and growing your own herbs.  I used to make fun of people for shopping at Whole Foods.  Now, I say things like, “I’ll just carry my tofu and flaxseed.  Why do I need a bag when I have two hands?”

Leading a healthy and natural life in Buenos Aires is not impossible.  There are vegetarian restaurants and organic cafes, gorgeous yoga studios, meditative breathing courses, and lovely parks and plazas.  However, even if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and create a micro-community, fighting against the zeitgeist is like driving the wrong way on 9 de Julio.

Obviously, there are many things I adore about Buenos Aires; I wouldn’t have made a pilgrimage back here otherwise.  Unfortunately, the pervasive culture is not one of them. If you move to a new city or country where neither you nor the native residents hold you to the local standards, you can observe your surroundings without being personally impacted by them.  But if you and the local culture take each other on, as was my case in Buenos Aires, the prevailing atmosphere directly affects you, making it harder to accept.

Luckily, as a traveler, I have the freedom to move on if the lifestyle doesn’t suit.  As of now, I am a voluntary and temporary guest in Buenos Aires.  For the short time I’m here, I can overlook the city’s shortcomings and focus on the great things it has to offer.

On my next visit to the supermarket, the staff member in charge of the produce section informed me that plastic bags were an obligatory store policy.

“Why?” I challenged.

“To prevent theft.  We seal your bags so you don’t take more items between here and the register.”  I considered proposing another solution – to weigh fruits and vegetables at checkout, but that would result in slower lines, and put him out of work.

“If it’s one item, fine,” he continued, “but if you’ve got multiple items, like your bananas, I have to bag them.”

“But it’s one bunch of bananas,” I argued. “I can’t possibly add another banana to the bunch.”

“Look,” he said, agitated and annoyed, “I’m just trying to do my job.”

I realized then that he didn’t make the rules, nor was he in a position to challenge or break them.  Neither of us can change this city; but unlike him, I have the luxury of leaving in a few weeks for a place where the grass (and the people) are greener.

“Ok.  Bag them,” I conceded.  At that moment, his job seemed more important than my convictions.


Despedida: Saying Good-bye to Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I thought that I could get away without having a despedida. As much as I like being the center of attention, I don’t like to be the reason for or the hostess of an event, especially when the event is saying good-bye to my best friends.  I just couldn’t handle the concept of everyone getting together to talk about how much we’re going to miss each other.

When one of my friends decided to celebrate her birthday on Saturday night, I was relieved. She offered me the night first, but I liked the idea of being able to see my friends without ever having to actually acknowledge that I’m leaving.  I may not be the one getting married, but I was hoping to run off to New Zealand and elope without anyone noticing.  Besides, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to plan an evening more entertaining than Korean karaoke (you even get your own private room and machine).  Unfortunately, my plan backfired.

Before I had even sung my first Britney Spears number, my friends were already asking when we were going to get together again.  As I explained to them that I, like most women when they turn 30, wasn’t planning on dignifying my departure with a party, they nodded sympathetically before discussing amongst themselves potential places, times, and activities.   By the end of the night, nothing had been confirmed, except my sneaking suspicion that friends don’t let friends leave the country without saying good-bye.

Sunday afternoon, the designated social coordinator of the group called to ask if I had made up my mind about the despedida.  Of course I wanted to see everyone again, but I couldn’t decide which would be more depressing: spending time with my friends “one last time” or not.  Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t think of a good pretext for seven people hanging out on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

In the end, my friend convinced me that no planning was necessary, and gave me a moving speech about needing to give my closest friends the opportunity to say good-bye, as if I had just died and was trying to decide whether or not to have a funeral for myself.  I sent an email at the last minute, inviting everyone to my friend’s apartment that afternoon.  Hours later, we were eating homemade avocado dip and chocotorta, gossiping about the previous night, playing Apples to Apples, and making each other laugh.  The truth is that I was going to be sad no matter what, but it’s far better to be sad and in good company than sad and alone.

I think that what made my despedida so nice is that it was not anything out of the ordinary.  It was just another reminder of how wonderful it is to belong to a group of people who love each other, especially one that doesn’t need an itinerary to have a good time.  I’m glad that we had the chance to make one last memory in Buenos Aires, because I don’t know when, if ever, such a moment will arise again.

I’m great at being gone, but I’m terrible at good-byes.  I get overly sentimental, wanting to do, see, touch, and taste everything one last time because I’m convinced that good-bye is forever. But this time, I know that Buenos Aires isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the memories or friendships that I made here.  However, even though I will maintain my relationships and likely return to Argentina in the future, even if just for a visit, it will never again be exactly as it is now.

I think that part of what makes leaving Argentina so hard is that I’m not just saying good-bye to friends or a city.  I’m saying good-bye to an era.  When my friends came over to meet my mother, we took a Buenos Aires class picture. Staring at that photo later, I realized that three people were already missing – they left Argentina earlier in the year – and that nearly everyone else had plans to be gone within the next year or two.

Someone once told me that life is like a spiral – we go around in ever expanding concentric circles, passing by the same points, but always at a different point in our lives.  Of course, different can be just as good or better, but when you like things the way that they are, it can be hard to let go.  So, that’s why I don’t want to do anything special to commemorate my last few days in Buenos Aires. I prefer to carry on with business as usual, doing the things that have characterized and defined my life for the past three years, like run in the park, go shopping with friends, and write, because pretty soon, everything will change.  I may be ready to move on, but I’m still sad for what I’m leaving behind (including all of the clothes that didn’t fit in my suitcase).  In fact, I have to get going.  My friend is waiting for me so we can order take-out, eat dinner on her balcony, and talk about the guy she’s dating.

Operation 20/20: Replacing a Missing Contact Lens

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Why does this type of thing always happen to me?  The day my mother was scheduled to fly to Buenos Aires, I awoke to find the sky a shade of blue closer to navy than periwinkle.  Racing the clock, I hurried to get in a run before the weather turned.  But I was too late.  Already halfway through my workout when the rain began to fall, I was doomed to return home wet instead of merely sweaty.  Audibly cursing the dark clouds overhead, I began to battle with my headphones, which kept falling out.  Frustrated, I reached up and violently yanked them out of my ears.

To punish me for defying Mother Nature, my headphones instantaneously transformed into nunchucks, hitting me in the right eye and knocking out my contact lens.  I stopped in my tracks.  “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” I shouted.  Searching for a clear disc of plastic the size of a nickel in the mud when it’s raining is like, well, searching for a clear disc of plastic the size of a nickel in the mud when it’s raining, especially when it tends to bounce like a ping pong ball.  Still, I had to try, because instead of discardable soft contact lenses, I wear hard lenses designed and priced to last for years. “I certainly hope you find this funny,” I shouted while giving the heavens the evil one-eye.

Squatting, with my hand clasped over my useless eye, I set out on a search and rescue mission for the poor contact lens in distress, all the while trying to watch my step.  I looked like a soggy duck pirate walking a tightrope.  Needless to say, my mission was impossible.  I’m a big believer in all of the adages: “Everything happens for a reason,” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” “Every cloud has a silver lining,” etc.  But some things just suck.  Period.

I called my mother in Michigan just before she left for the airport, and she phoned the family eye doctor to see if they had a lens in stock.  They didn’t.  All lenses are custom made.  In a display of heroic parenting, my mother ordered a lens, paying the lab extra to rush the order, and my dad covered the cost overnight shipping.  Turns out that in the world of international postal service, “overnight” actually means within 2-5 business days.

When I returned from Iguazú Falls, I found a package slip waiting for me.  This would have been good news, except that I was expecting the actual package to be delivered to my door.   Attached to the FedEx invoice was a ransom letter – Argentine customs was holding my contact lens hostage, and if I ever wanted to see it again, I had to bring a considerable amount of cash to the Ezeiza Airport.

Getting my contact lens was about as easy as assembling a desk with a Russian instruction manual.  The cheapest way to get to the airport is to take a shuttle, which departs from Manuel Tienda León’s private terminal near the bus station. Customs is located at the airport, in Terminal C.  But the bus driver instructed me to get off at the first stop, which was Terminal A.  I may not be an expert on the layout of the airport, but I know a little something about the alphabet.  Instead, I descended at Terminal B, only because there didn’t seem to be any signs indicating the existence of Terminal C.

Inside the airport, a security guard ushered me to the tax-free counter, where a woman kindly informed me, “Oh honey, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place.  Did you see the windmill outside at the end of the long, white brick wall? Go past that.” And then, as an afterthought, she added, “It’s raining, isn’t it?”  I set off to follow the white brick wall.  After a series of twists and turns, I passed a gate and crossed a bridge where I had to lull a troll to sleep by playing a magic flute I arrived at the customs office.  It was closed for lunch.

When the office finally reopened, I began to dance the “package pickup tango.”  First, I went to Office 2, where a customs agent photocopied my passport before sending me to Office 1 for a stamp.  Then I made my way to Office 3 where, after knocking softly two times, I was allowed to enter, given a form, and escorted back to Office 2.  An old man searched for my package, opened it, showed me my contact lens, put the lens back in the package, resealed it with yellow tape, and stored it on the shelf.  Then it was back to Office 2 for a quick signature, and on to Office 1 where I paid both a storage fee and a fee for having a package that weighed less than 10 grams.  I shuffled over to Office 3 for the pure amusement of the staff, and then headed to Office 1 for the final step.  “Is that it?” I asked when I had my package in hand, both hopeful and skeptical.
“Yep, that’s it.” came the reply from the old man, followed by my sigh of relief.
“Except that you need to clear customs on your way out.”
“Excuse me?”
Before I could leave, I had to know.  “Why was my package held at customs?” I inquired.
“Because,” he explained, “all packages are held at customs.”

Five hours later, I was back at home, soaking my new contact lens in conditioning solution.  Now that I can see out of both eyes again, I just have one question: Does anyone know the name of a specialist in laser eye surgery?

Coming Up On Your Left: Entertaining Guests

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaPaddle Boats

Hosting is as much a part of living abroad as is learning a new language.  Yet, in all the time that I have lived in Buenos Aires, I have had virtually no visitors (except my own mother). I did get to see a few friends and acquaintances when they passed through town.  But I was not the motivation for those trips, just a bonus.

My two worlds have never truly collided, and most of my friends and family from the States have never interacted with my host country or actively participated in the “Argentine years.” My life at home and abroad were both present during the past three years, but they almost never appear together in the same memory. Pictures allow people on both sides of the equator to put faces with names, but they cannot take the place of actually experiencing a place en vivo y en directo.

Besides, guests give you an excuse to act like a tourist in your own city.  You get to do all of the things that life, work, and pride don’t normally permit you to do – visit museums, drink at Irish pubs, rent paddle boats in the park, carry a map, take pictures.  But maybe I’m just idealizing and romanticizing what it’s like to have visitors.

I have enough friends who practically run hostels to know that being a host is hard work.  Your guests may be on vacation, but you, typically, are not, and differences in time, energy, and budget can make it hard to keep up.  After a few days, you find yourself shoving a guidebook in your guests’ hands and agreeing to meet them for coffee after work.   Having nonstop guests is especially difficult right after you arrive.  Establishing a routine is impossible if every few weeks, visitors come and upset it, and developing new relationships is challenging when you’re busy entertaining old ones.

There is also the pressure and the guilt you feel if your guests are uncomfortable or not having a good time.  In your mind, the city is a reflection of you, and you are responsible for all that happens there.  You want your loved ones to like where you live in the way that you want them to like your boyfriend. If your visitors so much as observe that it would be nice if the sidewalks didn’t have potholes, you get defensive. No one is allowed to talk badly about your city, except you.

Moonlighting as a tour guide/babysitter is worth it in order to spend quality time with close friends and family.  But what about when your visitors are slightly more distant?  There is always some kid you shared a desk with in fourth grade who heard from your parents that you are living abroad and wonders if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to stay with you for a few days.  Of course, you can’t remember if you even like this person.  But the “travelers’ code” states that if you have the space, you have to put them up.  That’s just what you do.  And most of the time, it’s what you want to do.  Just remember, don’t let other people’s vacations get in the way of your own life.

Luckily, my mother was easy.  My mom has been coming to Argentina since before I could locate it on a map.  This was her seventh trip to Buenos Aires, which means that she’s already done and seen it all. The only things on her list of “musts” were: eat empanadas, get together with friends, and spend time with her daughter.  Check. We actually made it a point to get out of town, spending a few days at the incredible Iguazú Falls. The only problem was that since my mother had no agenda of her own, I was left to fill in the gaps in our itinerary.  And as I tried to come up with ideas of fun and novel things for us to do together, I was forced to ask myself: “What the hell am I doing here?”

The hardest part for me about having visitors is that it forces me to confront the fact that I’m just not that into Buenos Aires.  I’m always excited when people tell me that they are coming to visit or stay for a few months, because I know that they are going to love it here.  Most people do.  But they are almost always meat eating, Malbec-drinking, Tango-dancing, Latino-loving, party animals.  And I’m not.  I am a vegetarian, I prefer white wine, Tango bores me, most Argentine guys are not exactly my type, and I will never understand the logic behind starting your night at 2am.  And while the city’s cultural offerings are nice, they are not exactly worth renewing your passport for. This is not to say that Buenos Aires isn’t charming, beautiful or worth visiting.  But in my case, it doesn’t offer me enough to compensate for the noise pollution, exhaust fumes, catcalls, inefficiency, broken sidewalks, and bureaucracy.

So, how did I end up here, and for so long?  Because at first, I didn’t know any better, and honestly, I didn’t care.  Before moving to Argentina, I didn’t do much research or pay attention to the details, because all I wanted was different and distance.  And I certainly got both of those things.  Buenos Aires was a place where I could explore, experiment, resolve, and grow.  It was a place where I could live well.  And it was a place where I could make some of the best friends I’ve ever had.  But it’s not a place where I see myself long-term, because the quality of your life is inextricably influenced by the city where you live.

When I was applying to colleges, my parents (half) joked that I could go to any school I wanted, as long as it was in a place that they would want to visit.  And I think that a good rule to follow is: if are going to move abroad, and take on all of the associated expenses, you should pick a city that you personally would want to visit.  Otherwise, you won’t last long.  That’s why I’m optimistic about New Zealand, a country famous for it’s great outdoors, extreme sports, sheep, and Sauvignon Blanc.  And if any of that sounds appealing to you, you’re welcome to crash on my couch, just as soon as I have one.

Import-Export: Clearing Customs

Like most expats, I run my own private black market.  Every time I go home or someone comes to Buenos Aires, there is always a wish list and a Target shopping spree involved.   Everything I need, I can buy in Buenos Aires.  But there are products from the United States that I simply cannot live without. Some items are unavailable or scarce in Argentina (such as contact solution, peanut butter, and decent chewing gum) while others are higher priced and of lower quality here (such as any electronic devise).  (Once, at the Apple store in Buenos Aires, I overheard a salesclerk ask a young girl who wanted to purchase a new iPod, “Do any of your friends or family members fly to the States often?”)

With my mom coming to visit tomorrow, I’ve been compiling a new set of demands. Unfortunately for me but luckily for my mother’s bank account, I’ve been limited this time by the fact that I’m soon leaving for New Zealand.  But past lists have included everything from York Peppermint Patties to underwear from Victoria’s Secret to Oprah’s magazine to running shoes. Thanks to a recent accident involving headphones hitting me in the eye while I was running outside in the rain, I had to place a last minute order for a right contact lens. (Seriously, how does this kind of thing always happen to me?)

For the most part, the goods that I request are strictly for personal consumption, but I have been known to import occasionally on a friend’s behalf.  Always with the understanding that I am not responsible for lost, theft, damage, or confiscation.  Most people don’t travel frequently and buying online is rarely an option, as most places won’t ship abroad and only accept internationally recognized credit cards.  Plus, Argentines are only allowed to bring back $300 worth of items.  If they are caught with more, they are forced to pay a “tax” of 50% of the excess value.  Americans, on the other hand, can bring as much as they want, as long as it’s for individual use (which explains why computers, cameras, and cell phones are delivered without the box).

Successfully clearing customs is neither an art nor a science.  It’s dumb luck.  Every time I cross a border, I am reminded of Mexico’s “Red Light-Green Light” system: if you have “nothing to declare,” you push a button.  If the light is green, you pass without inspection.  If the light is red, you spend the next hour trying to shove everything back into your suitcase.  When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, my mother and I were each carrying three pieces of luggage.  We pushed our baggage cart to the customs checkpoint like two drunken teenagers grocery shopping for midnight snacks.  The officials took one look at us, laughed, and waved us through.  On all subsequent trips, they have x-rayed my checked luggage, but never my carry-on.

There is just no telling when or where you will have a problem.  When I flew to Cartagena, Colombia via Bogotá, my bags were checked through to my final destination, and I never had to clear customs.  When I returned from Bolivia by foot (buses drop you off right before the border), there were dogs sniffing suitcases and officials searching handbags.  Even though I was not engaged in any suspicious behavior, I got nervous.  Before the woman could form her first question, I blurted out in Spanish, “I’m not carrying anything back from Bolivia.” “Nothing?” she asked, eyebrow cocked.  “Nada,” I repeated.  She let me pass without so much as unzipping my backpack.  Of course, I couldn’t help but mutter, “except for six kilos of coke in my bag.” Thankfully, I was well out of earshot.

More than any other country that I have visited, Chile takes livestock and agriculture seriously.  When a girl on my bus, who didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t understand the instructions to throw away food items, was caught with an orange, it was confiscated, and she was searched and made to pay a fine.  I never did understand the obsession with produce and petting farms until I read on the Department of Homeland Security website that “prohibited agricultural items can harbor foreign animal and plant pests and diseases that could seriously damage America’s crops, livestock, pets, and the environment – and a large sector of our country’s economy.”  Honestly, I don’t know how drug smugglers do it.  Having a banana in my bag is enough to make me sweat.

The mail is no safer or easier.  In Buenos Aires, all large packages must be retrieved from the international post office, located near the bus terminal.  The process goes something like this: a delivery notice arrives to your house days after the package arrives, always on a Friday.  You go the post office between the hours of 10am-5pm and draw a ticket with a letter-number combination, like C17. They are on A28.  After waiting to be called, you produce a photo ID and pay a storage fee.  You are then assigned a new, seven-digit number.  You pass to the next room where you sit on a plastic chair similar to those you had in elementary school and wait your turn.  Inevitably, you fail to recognize your number, and have to be summoned by name.  They bring out your package, possibly opening it, possibly not, you sign a form, possibly paying a customs tax, possibly not, and you leave two hours later with a cardboard box full of towels and cereal.

At least in those instances I always received my package.  A birthday present from a friend went missing for months, until one day I found a ransom note under my door.  It turns out that it had been delivered to my neighbor’s father’s house in a different province.  The following year, my mother mailed me a gift but decided against insurance.  Somewhere, there is an Argentine postal worker with a green iPod shuffle.

When you move abroad, you know that you have to sacrifice some of your prized possessions, adapt to local brands, styles, and flavors, and make do with what is available.  But in order to be fully comfortable and feel at home in your host country, it helps to have a few of your favorite things.  So, if you want to smuggle or send items abroad, just remember: whenever possible, ask an American girl to be your mule; remove electronics from their packaging; put contraband in your carry-on; avoid zoos and apple orchards before traveling; pay for a tracking number; act cool, and always carry extra cash.  Most importantly, don’t get too attached to your purchases, because they are likely going home with a customs agent.

Nouveau Riche: Moving Abroad and Movin’ On Up

Buenos Aires, Argentina

A funny thing happened on the way to Argentina: my socioeconomic status changed.  Growing up in the States, I, like most of my friends and classmates, was middle/upper-middle class.  I never wanted for anything, and often got exactly what I wanted, probably because I never asked for too much.  As is common to my social class, I learned that what you have does not define who you are, the value of hard work and earning your own allowance, and to judge the way that other people spend their money.  This middle class doctrine was only compounded by the quasi-Socialist values of the liberal, intellectual college town where I was born and raised.  Imagine my surprise when I moved to South America, and my assortment of iPods, brand name clothes, passport stamps, and Bat Mitzvah savings all catapulted me into the upper class, albeit the lower-upper class.

Because Buenos Aires looks and feels like a major European city, it can be hard to remember that it is the capital of a developing country.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the world’s ten richest countries, an economic powerhouse with per capita income similar to that of France or Germany.  Despite its strong start, during the past century the country was plagued with financial instability, thanks in large part to a turbulent political situation.  However, during the 1990s, with the peso pegged to the dollar, Argentina had one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Citizens were once again wealthy at home and abroad.

Then, in 2001, Argentina suffered a disastrous economic crisis.  Convertibility ended and the peso depreciated significantly leading to inflation, as Argentina had no way of quickly compensating for its dependence on inexpensive foreign imports.  By 2002, Buenos Aires was considered one of the cheapest cities in Latin America.  The previous year, it had been the most expensive.  Even though the Argentine economy has rebounded sharply in the past five years, growing at an average rate of 8.5%, prices are rising and people are struggling.  Argentina is like one of those families who continues to keep up appearances after the father gambles away the family fortune, both reluctant to lose its place in high society and confident in its ability to stage a comeback.

Buenos Aires remains a beautiful, even luxurious place, but fewer are those who can afford to take advantage of what it has to offer, and many of them are not from around here.  It used to bother me the way that wealthy Westerners have converted Buenos Aires into the world’s hottest outlet mall, capitalizing on the city’s supply of high style and quality at low cost.  But even if it was not my intention to profit from the misfortune of an entire nation, I, too, have benefited from Argentina’s financial woes.

The quality of my life in Buenos Aires has been far greater than it would have been in the United States or Europe, under similar conditions. I have been able to treat myself to dinners at fancy restaurants, late-night taxis, scuba vacations, apartments in the nicest neighborhoods, and classes at the top dance and yoga studios.  Not all the time or every day, but enough.  And my lifestyle has been financed with nothing more than the money I made as a summer intern at an international consulting firm before moving abroad, and, later, a generous nonprofit salary.

My partners in consumption are either fellow expats or members of the country’s elite. Amazingly, although absolute measures of wealth may vary from country to country, social class stereotypes remain constant.  Having a roommate in Argentina is uncommon, as most young people can’t afford to leave home.  Argentines willing and able to open their doors to a stranger are often those whose parents have purchased them a spacious apartment, among other things, and want to fill the extra space and earn extra spending money.  I have watched such roommates eat Ramen noodles with a silver spoon, because they don’t know how to cook, and I have seen mothers come over to do the dishes and drop off dry cleaning.  On one occasion I heard a roommate chastise a houseguest for leaving clothes to dry in the living room, because, “it makes us look like we’re from the ghetto.”

Finding friends who share the same financial situation, background, and social values, priorities, and interests has been challenging.  I am neither obsessed with appearances nor incapable of caring for myself, and the assumptions can be aggravating.  A group of Argentine girls once confessed to a British friend of mine that they don’t eat fast food because they couldn’t be seen in “places like that.”  Since my friend is from London, they imagined she shared their snobbery, failing to realize that she routinely finishes her Saturday night with a Big Mac and fries.  If I comment on how expensive an item is, the store clerk inevitably reminds me that it’s cheap in dollars.  Leaving me to explain that I don’t have dollars, I earn and spend in pesos.  And people quickly assume that my parents are maintaining me.  Maybe I am well-educated, traveled, and dressed, but I am not a rich kid at heart.  We may dine at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores, and live in the same neighborhood, but we got there in very different ways.  Or did we?

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that I am more spoiled, and more of a brat than I would care to admit.  Thanks to my parents, I have no student loans, and following graduation, I had free room, board, and car insurance, enabling me to save for my trip abroad.  My financial freedom is backed by my parents’ dual income, and the knowledge that my bedroom has not yet been converted into a study.  I am notoriously careless with my possessions: dropping new cell phones in rivers, eating and drinking in front of my computer, and heaping dirty clothes in piles on the floor.  Partly because I am lazy and partly because I know that these things can be replaced.  After all, it’s only money.

Since moving to South America, I have wrestled feelings of guilt; for having so much while so many people have too little and, more importantly, for being ungrateful of what I have and taking my privilege for granted.  Growing up, I never felt relatively deprived, but I never felt relatively wealthy either.  I now understand that much of what for me is an expectation is a luxury to the rest of the world.

These past few months, I have had to cut back in order to stay within my budget.  I walk or take the bus, I cook instead of eat out, and I don’t shop or go to the movies.  I’ve also become domesticated, hanging up and folding, making my bed, and scrubbing the bathroom floor. I’ve learned to take responsibility for and pride in my belongings and to make the most of less.  At some point, I even considered renouncing the pursuit of worldly pleasures.  But, then I realized that having just enough to survive is not just stressful, it’s lonely, because you have nothing left to share.

Fortunately, my reality is not one of subsistence.  While I don’t want it to be one of excess, either, I do want to be able to go out for drinks with friends, have space for houseguests, and treat those people who have taken care of me to dinner. I like being able to do nice things for the people I care about, and that requires resources.  Besides, you are no help to anyone else if all of your time, energy, and money are focused on you and your own survival.   And sure, I don’t need pretty things, but I want them, because there is nothing wrong with having beauty in your life, especially if you appreciate it.  I guess it’s a good thing my mother’s coming to visit me in a week.

Just Say No: Letting Good Opportunities Go

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaPainting

I just found out about an incredible opportunity: STA Travel’s 2009 World Traveler Internship. STA Travel is the world’s largest student and youth travel company.  For obvious reasons, both commercial and social, they actively encourage young people to travel abroad.  The summer internship program is a two-month, all expenses paid trip around the world.  In return, the interns must document their experience through videos, blogs, and photos.  This year, STA is sending two people to Fiji, Australia, India, Kenya, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Scotland, and Ireland.  Candidates must be between the ages of 18-26, active, and have a strong desire to travel the world and share their experiences with others; excellent creative, written and verbal skills; an outgoing personality, and basic computer skills.  The first thing I thought when I learned of this program was, “Damn.  Now I’m going to have to apply for this.”

Rarely does such a perfect opportunity come along.  I have no plans for summer ’09 (in fact, after March my dance card is wide open).  Not only do I meet the requirements, I had already been hoping that in the future New Zealand would serve as the jumping off point for a trip around the world.   And if I were to globetrot as an STA Intern, I would be able to develop my writing, photography, video, and journalism skills.   This program was clearly meant for me.

Every one who knows me knows that I am annoyingly and inappropriately competitive. (Except when it comes to bowling.  There’s just no point competing at something when you know there’s no chance of winning.)  In college, my friend and I made another girl cry while playing Sorry! (Although, I’m not sure that was entirely our fault.  Seriously, who actually cries over a board game?)   So, if I am generously sharing this information with potential rivals, it can only mean one thing:  I’ve decided not to apply.

The day I learned of the program, I was so distracted that I couldn’t even concentrate during my guided meditation.  Instead, I took advantage of the time to mentally write the script for my application video.   By the end of the day, my roommate, who studied film production, had agreed to help with the concept and editing, and my friends had been recruited as actors.  Driven to insomnia, I stayed up all night picking out music and pictures to include in the video.   In the morning, after having slept on the idea (albeit fitfully), my enthusiasm started to wane.   I tried to motivate myself: “You might as well apply.  You’ve got nothing to lose and nothing better to do.”  But by afternoon, the pep talk had turned into: “I kind of hope they don’t pick me.” And there’s just no point applying for something that you don’t even want.

I already have a plan A: moving to New Zealand, looking for a job in writing, getting my own apartment, meeting new people, and staying in one place long enough to build momentum and move forward.  After three years of perpetual motion, my goal for 2009 is stillness and stability.  And this trip would be the exact opposite.  Maybe I don’t have anything to lose by applying, but I would have a lot to lose if I were selected, like my sanity.

I’m not done traveling yet.  There are too many places to discover, cultures to explore, foods to taste, dances to learn, sights, sounds, and smells to experience, ways of living and points of views to consider, and stories to hear and tell.  I’m just done backpacking, budgeting, and traveling and living light.  I’ve been doing it since I was nine, and I’m exhausted. When I was drafting a fantasy itinerary for my own trip around the world, I was planning on visiting fewer countries in a year than the program has scheduled for two months.  The internship is a great opportunity, but for someone else.

Let’s be honest. I’m just too old to travel like a rock star.  Nothing has made me come to terms with how not young I am like this program.  In June, I will no longer fall into the under 26 category, which means no more free trips, discounts, or health insurance.  Certainly, 26 is not “old,” but it’s not “youth” either.  At 26, society considers you an adult, capable of fending for yourself and/or too grown up for child’s play.  Hypothetically, if I were to get the internship, I would turn 26 four days into the trip.  Not applying for this internship is like asking that there please be no strippers at your bachelor party – you’re astounded and horrified by your own maturity.  I think I know how Wendy must have felt when decided to leave Never Ever Land.

Truthfully, I’ve been waiting for years to turn 26.  The summer after my first year of college I worked at a country club.  One day, one of the other waitresses began to lament her upcoming birthday and getting old.  She was 22.  The youngest member of the club (in his 30s) was eating lunch at the bar after golfing.  To console her, he confessed, “The best years of my life started when I turned 26.”  His thesis was simple: at 26 he finally had the perfect balance between security and freedom, and responsibility and leisure.  He was still young enough to have fun and experiment, but wise enough to do so without compromising his individuality, health, priorities or values.  He was still learning, but he suffered less and he knew himself well enough to avoid uncomfortable and awkward situations (like agreeing to travel to ten countries in two months with a stranger and document the entire trip).  And most importantly, he had the resources to do things his way.

When I was a kid, I was too scared or stupid or stuck-up or self-loathing to act my age.  I knew that actions had consequences, and I knew what those consequences were.  Too afraid and vulnerable to get in the game, I waited on the sidelines for my turn to play.  And now my age has finally caught up with me.  Maybe I am almost an adult.  But that’s great, because now I can finally enjoy my youth.

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