Relaxing by the Río Quequén

What could be better than a picnic down by the river after a long, busy week? A little fresh air never did anyone any harm.

Cola de Zorro | Pampas Grass by katiemetz, on Flickr [Cola de Zorro (Pampas Grass)]

Daniel Down by the River by katiemetz, on Flickr [Daniel]

Katie Down by the River by katiemetz, on Flickr [Yours truly]

Volando | Flying by katiemetz, on Flickr [Many species of birds can be found along the Río Quequén.]

Let's Go For a Ride by katiemetz, on Flickr [The river is a prime location for recreational activities like horseback riding, fishing, and rowing.]

Late Afternoon on the Río Quequén by katiemetz, on Flickr [There's nothing like some peace and quiet.] Read More......

Drumroll, Please

I promised photos of our bedroom in this post...and here they are! The "palace" is a work in progress, but I'm very pleased with the results so far.

Bedroom 1 by katiealley on Flickr[A couple months ago, this room didn't exist! There are still some details to take care of, but we're almost there. I need to finish decorating too.]

Bedroom 2 by katiealley on Flickr[This trunk belonged to Daniel's great-grandmother. She stowed her belongings in it when she immigrated to Argentina from Italy in the 1930s. I brought the botanical print with me from back home. It is a page from a botany book dating back to the 1800s.]

Bedroom 3 by katiealley on Flickr[Here you can see our office from the bedroom. We are still waiting for the bedroom door to arrive. :) After we completely finish with the bedroom, we have plans to paint and make changes to the office.]

With His Own Two Hands by katiealley on Flickr[Daniel did all the work himself, and he did a very nice job. (Although I think he may have wanted to kill me when he was laying the floor.) It's great to have someone who's handy and is not afraid to tackle home improvement.]

Aren't I a lucky woman? :)

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Driving in Argentina

Argentine License Plate

When I was a kid, my dad was fanatical about seat belt use, and he always insisted that my sister and I buckle up. In fact, we were repeatedly told that the car simply wouldn't move until the aforementioned seat belts were fastened. Apparently this mindset stuck with me because I've always been very conscientious about using my seat belt and asking that others riding with me use theirs too, even if they weren't accustomed to wearing it.

Generally speaking, I'd like to say that I'm a reasonably safe and courteous driver. I will own up to having a bit of a lead foot, but overall I wouldn't classify myself as a menace to society when I'm on the road. Well, maybe if you're a groundhog, but that's a completely different story.

At the present moment, I'm relegated to the passenger seat because I don't know how to drive stick (it's very rare to find a car with automatic transmission in Argentina). I'm not exactly complaining; being chauffeured around town isn't so bad. I'm sure I'll get around to learning one of these days, but honestly, I'm not entirely convinced I want to drive here. Why? The answer is simple: the Argentines drive like lunatics.

Lane markers...merely a suggestion. Speed limit...what's that? Traffic lights...generally obeyed. Stop signs...almost non-existent, which results in a free-for-all at 4-way intersections. Seat belts...apparently they're meant for decoration because hardly anyone uses them. Yielding to pedestrians...maybe if it's an old lady with a cane, but even then, highly unlikely. Speed bumps...everywhere [very annoying!]. Road rage...amazingly, not so much.

I don't think my parents truly believed my description of how people drive here until they saw it with their own two eyes. Fortunately, things are a bit calmer here in Necochea than in Buenos Aires but not much.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here's an excerpt from the U.S. State Department's page on Argentina:

"Traffic accidents are the primary threat to life and limb in Argentina. Pedestrians and drivers should exercise caution. Drivers frequently ignore traffic laws and vehicles often travel at excessive speeds. The rate and toll of traffic accidents has been a topic of much media attention over the past year. The Institute of Road Safety and Education, a private Buenos Aires organization dedicated to transportation safety issues, reports that Argentina has the highest traffic mortality rate in South America per 100,000 inhabitants."

If you couple the devil-may-care attitude about driving safety along with the fact that a good number of cars on the road are poorly maintained and/or lacking advanced safety features such as airbags, it's no wonder that Argentina has such a high mortality rate when it comes to car accidents.

Still think you'd like to take a crack at driving in Argentina? If so, I suggest you read fellow blogger Taos Turner's attempt at finding some sanity while behind the wheel: 15 Rules for Stress-free Driving in Argentina.

Fortunately, Daniel's driving habits seem to buck the general trend, as he is a very cautious driver (in fact, I tease him for driving like an old man). I know I'm in good hands with him, but he's not the one I have to worry about - it's the rest of the crazies out there. Do you think I could somehow wear two seat belts?

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This Little Piggy Went to Market...

Creamy pink skin, an upturned nose, those adorable floppy ears, and a straight – not curly – little pigtail. It would have made the perfect subject for one of my photos if it weren't dead. There it was, laid out over a cloth on the table in the entryway to Daniel's grandmother's house: today's lunch.

Tomás had purchased a lechón for our Sunday asado (barbecue) from someone who raises pigs out in the country. This little piggy, alive and kicking only a couple of hours earlier, lay motionless, awaiting its fate on the grill.

[I can imagine you all squealing "Eeeew!", but of course, no one bats an eyelash when that succulent, mouth-wateringly delicious pork is brought to the table. Well, maybe the vegetarians do, but they're few and far between around here.]

I think most Americans are extremely detached from the reality of what it means to raise one's own food, slaughter it, and process it. In the U.S., your meat comes to you nicely wrapped in plastic on a styrofoam dish with a little pad. There are few, if any, reminders of the fact that those boneless, skinless chicken breasts were once roaming around a farm somewhere (or more likely, crammed into a pen). There are no feathers, no hooves, no faces on the meat and poultry you buy. Frankly, plenty of people would completely freak out if they saw a head or a foot still attached.

It used to be that people felt an intimate connection to their food and where it came from. Daniel's grandmother and grandfather were farmers who lived out in the country, where raising and slaughtering animals was a way of life. Having chicken for dinner? Ok. Go out to the yard, pick out the one you like best, a few minutes behind the shed, then off to the kitchen with the bird. In two shakes of a lamb's tail (errr, a rooster's tailfeathers?) you'd be eating arroz con pollo. There were no fluorescently-lit supermarkets with aisle after aisle of convenience foods to choose from. You either killed that chicken with your own two hands or you went hungry; there wasn't much of a choice.

Sadly, that relationship and understanding of what the land provides continues to weaken in Argentina just as it already has in the U.S. Neither Daniel nor his mother have any inclination or know-how when it comes to animal husbandry or butchering, and I'm pretty sure they're happy to remain blissfully uninformed. Tomás tends to a veggie patch that yields a bounty of fresh vegetables, but many people are content with mushy, canned veggies, even at the height of summer. Convenience foods have yet to really take hold in Argentina, but their popularity is on the rise here.

Unfortunately, the more we consume processed foods, the more we distance ourselves from real food and everything entailed in producing it. Of course, it's simply not practical to expect everyone to start raising their own free-range chickens and growing organic produce in their backyards; however, I do think it's good once in a while to think about the story of your food, to understand its journey from the field to your table.

Lechón by katiealley on Flickr I listened to Tomás wax poetic about the farm where he bought the pig as I savored every morsel of lechón at lunch this afternoon. I thought about where that cute little piggy came from, and while I appreciated his seemingly excellent origins, I was grateful that I wasn't the one that had to do the dirty work.

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Caution: Men at Work

Thump, thump, thump. Ping, ping, ping. Clank, clank, clank. After a brief hiatus, the sounds of demolition and construction have resumed. Daniel just finished knocking a hole in the wall for our new radiator. Tomorrow another coat of paint will go on the walls. The new door should be arriving any day now, and hopefully by the end of the week, the wood flooring will be installed.

Daniel has been working very hard to make our home both comfortable and attractive, and for that I am very grateful. He has definite ideas about how certain things should be (that is my diplomatic way of saying that he can be a bit stubborn at times), but usually he is very open to my opinions and suggestions. For now we are concentrating our efforts on the bedroom, but plans are in the works for changes to the office and the kitchen as well. Once the painting, flooring, etc. are finished in the bedroom, I am looking forward to buying some new furniture and decorating with some of the contents of suitcases 1-4. I promise to post photos once things are in order.

We jokingly refer to our modest abode as "el palacio" (the palace). Palace it is not but as the old saying goes: Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

Photo credit: hugovk Read More......

Project 365: Full Steam Ahead

Project 365 by katiealley

As I explained in this post, I decided to embark upon a photography project that would help me to chronicle my first year in Argentina. By taking just one photo every day, I hope to create a visual diary of my experiences. Although Project 365 didn't launch the day I'd originally planned – hey, life happens – I'm happy to report that I just completed my first week. Click here to check out my Project 365 set on Flickr. You can also visit this ever-expanding set of photos by clicking on the link in my blog's sidebar under "My Flickr Photos."

Is there anything in particular you think I should take a picture of? I'm taking requests. :)

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Argentina's National Drink: Mate

Imagine the scene: the sun is blazing overhead and tiny beads of perspiration have begun to form on your forehead and upper lip. You're on the beach in Necochea, surrounded by a veritable sea of sunbathers and colorful beach umbrellas. You conclude after a few minutes that you could really use some sort of liquid refreshment, so you saunter over to the snack bar to peruse the offerings. Ah, there's nothing more thirst-quenching on a scorching summer's day than water? Yep, that's what the sign says. Agua caliente $1.

Though you may be left scratching your head, any Argentine worth his salt would know exactly what to do with that hot water: prepare mate [pronounced mah-tay]. Argentines never need much of an excuse to drink their beloved infusion, which is often compared to an herbal or green tea.

When Daniel and I took a trip to Bariloche last year, I would have liked a peso every time one of the guides mentioned: "X es un hermoso lugar y además es un lugar perfecto para tomar mate." [X is a gorgeous place, and it's also a perfect spot to drink mate]. While relaxing, either alone or with friends, no matter when or where, mate is the beverage of choice for just about every Argentine.

Even my cat Cocoa drinks mate now that he's living here in Argentina:

Cocoa - Un Gato Bien Argentino by katiemetz, on Flickr

Take a look at this brief video clip that does a great job of explaining what mate is, how it's cultivated, and its importance in Argentine culture.

[If you can't see the embedded video, please click here.]

Many people raised outside the tradition of mate don't really care for the taste, which is normally described as "green," herbal or bitter. Frankly, it's not my favorite. My stepdad, however, got hooked on mate after he first tried it back in October, and now he drinks it on the job with his co-worker.

Although I don't particularly enjoy the taste, what I do appreciate about mate is its significance as a ritual and the way it brings people together. The ritual of preparing mate is comforting in and of itself, and the joy of sharing it with others strengthens bonds. An invitation to share mate is considered an honor and a sign of friendship. It also offers something to do to pass the time, especially when you're by yourself. As Daniel's aunt once put it, "When you're alone, mate is your friend—it keeps you company."

So, if you're sitting at home thinking that your taste buds could use a little high adventure, perhaps you'll consider trying mate. Like everything else on the planet, you can buy some on click here or here to check it out. I, for one, will stick with my iced tea.

[Update 1/9/11: I now drink mate on the beach, too. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.]

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The Fate of Suitcase No. 4

As I mentioned here, suitcase #4 never made it onto the plane in Lima, leaving me to wonder about the fate of such items as my favorite DVDs, a bottle of chili powder, and a brand new pair of jeans. Although the bag did not arrive on Monday afternoon as originally promised, I did receive it by courier bright and early the very next day. I'm happy to report that the suitcase arrived with all of the items completely intact; I wish I could say the same for the contents of the other bags.

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Although suitcase #4 had not yet materialized, on Monday I began the task of unpacking suitcases #1, #2 and #3. I pride myself on being a rather good packer, and I managed to fit quite a bit into those three bags. Daniel watched in amazement as item after item emerged from the depths of my luggage as though it were Mary Poppins' bottomless carpetbag. Bag #1 made it through the rigors of international travel unscathed, and Bag #2 contained just one broken item that was no great loss. But when I unzipped Bag #3 and I heard broken ceramic rattling around, I knew that I was about to be a very unhappy camper.

Bag #3 was the suitcase that was originally supposed to be a carry-on until the agent made me check it [read here]. This small suitcase contained all of the most fragile items that I had brought with me, and many of them hold a great deal of sentimental value for me. Upon opening the bag, I could see that the contents had shifted quite a bit. I slowly unwrapped my various trinkets, searching for the source of the tiny pieces of pottery that littered the bag. The first casualty was a small hand-painted plate that I had brought back from Spain, and the second was a beautiful piece of antique redware pottery that I had bought when I first graduated from college.

Operating on very little sleep and with a wealth of emotions already swirling around inside of me, I felt an anger well up inside of me that manifested itself as tears and statements hurled at the broken shards in front of me. "I paid $150 for this?! Look how they treated my luggage!" Poor Daniel and his aunt did their best to console me, but at that moment all of the stress of the past few days was being directed at that suitcase, and no amount of soothing words could have made me feel better.

The next morning, after a full night's rest, a bit of perspective and bag #4 in hand, I felt tremendously better. Let's face it: moving sucks, whether it be down the street or 5,500 miles away. At least I made it to Argentina in one piece, even if all my possessions didn't.

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The Odyssey, Part II

After a round of hugs and much jubilation, I paused for a moment and asked, "Where's Tomás?" Daniel and Hilda explained that he was waiting out in the car, listening to a soccer game on the radio. As we made our way out to the parking lot, I began to recount the story of the turbulence, the luggage, etc. Upon leaving the terminal we were met with heavy rain, and we decided to wait under an overhang rather than soak ourselves and the luggage. Daniel turned to me and said, "You know, we had our own adventure on the way here."

The very same storm that had buffeted the plane during landing had also plagued Hilda, Daniel and Tomás as they made their way to the airport to pick me up. As strong rains began to pelt the car, Tomás naturally turned on the windshield wipers, but after just a few minutes the wiper blades fell out of synch and crossed over each other, rendering Tomás virtually unable to drive the car for lack of visibility. Keep in mind that Argentina has been suffering from one of the worst droughts in years, and it just so happened that the heavens opened up the day I arrived.

The trio was passing through the countryside with nowhere to stop to fix the wipers, but finally they happened upon a small store where they purchased a screwdriver to deal with the problem. Tomás joked that they must have bought a toy version because after about three turns of the screwdriver, it broke. Fortunately the storm had let up and they were able to continue to the airport without problems, but Tomás was quite concerned about the return trip home if the storm should kick up again, as the wiper issue continued unresolved.

So there we were beneath the awning, watching as the rain came pouring down, and I momentarily regretted my decision to leave my umbrella back in Philadelphia. After 15 minutes or so the storm abated somewhat, and we decided to make a break for the car. With luggage in tow (minus bag #4, of course), we found the car and started loading up the suitcases.

We left the airport with nothing but a light drizzle falling, but our luck soon gave way as we were faced with a torrent of rain (and an additional torrent of curse words issuing from the frustrated Tomás). We drove along in a scene that must have resembled a 90-year-old trying to negotiate the traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, complete with cars whizzing past and lots of honking. Tomás searched in vain for a spot where we could pull over, but with no shoulder in sight, we continued along at a snail's pace – to the great irritation of other drivers – praying that the rain would let up.

The rain finally slowed to the point where it was nothing but a minor nuisance, and eventually it stopped altogether. Now we were moving along at a decent clip, and we were confident that we would make it home around 2:30am or so. We passed the time talking, taking a nap (ok, just me) and having an in-car picnic of medialunas (sweet croissants) and piping hot coffee from a thermos.

Now we were very close to home and just about to pass through the town of Pieres (don't blink or you'll miss it), when we were pulled over at a police checkpoint. I am convinced that at 2am the police out in the country have nothing better to do, and they like to pull a little power trip to make themselves feel important. They asked Tomás for his driver's license, proof of insurance, blah, blah, blah, and proceeded to nitpick over something they didn't like with the insurance documentation. The officer's supervisor comes over and says, "You know, I could impound your vehicle if I wanted to but I will let you go." Seriously?! I thought Hilda, one of the sweetest people I know, was going to blow a gasket. Twenty-five minutes later with everyone's blood pressure at least twenty-five points higher, we drove the final stretch to Necochea.

We finally pulled into the driveway at about 3am, and I trudged into the kitchen where I was met by the bleary-eyed Cocoa and Ziggy (they had made the trip down in October). A few minutes later I slid into bed and fell fast asleep, exhausted after about 34 hours of travel.

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The Odyssey, Part I

When last I left you, dear reader, I was happily typing away in the clean, shiny and bright Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Peru. As the hour of my flight drew closer, I decided to grab a snack before heading to the gate. The irony of paying $2 USD for a handful of Snyder's of Hanover pretzels and $2.50 for a small Coke did not escape me (I think airports worldwide have perfected the art of ripping off passengers).

After exploring the offerings at the duty free shop to kill just a bit more time, I finally made my way down to the gate. I happened to sit down next to a young woman from California who had quit her job as a teacher to travel around South America. She told me she had only gotten as far as Colombia when she found herself madly in love with a man there, and she admitted that she hadn't seen much of South America since. Determined to explore a bit more of the continent, she was now on her way to La Paz, Bolivia. We easily made conversation as we awaited our respective flights, and finally I heard the boarding call for my flight to Buenos Aires.

After being herded onto the plane, I wedged myself into the middle seat between two Argentines, one being a rather disagreeable young man and the other a pleasant young woman. I passed the time reading, watching the in-flight entertainment, chatting with my seatmate and attempting to eat horrible airline food. There was really nothing remarkable about this flight until it came time for the landing.

As we approached Ezeiza, sheets of rain began pouring off the windows and gusts of wind caused the aircraft to shudder tremendously. I have flown many times, and I had never experienced such turbulence before, especially being so close to the ground! Several times the airplane dipped in such a startling manner that many of the female passengers screamed in fright (that really didn't help my nerves). The captain announced that he was going to circle the airport and attempt another approach. Thankfully, the second time around was fairly smooth, and the passengers broke out in applause when we landed.

We now fast forward to the wait at the baggage carousel. The baggage, dampened by the whipping rain, began parading past on the conveyor belt. Out popped bag #1 after just a couple of minutes. A few minutes later, bags #2 and #3 followed suit. Just one more and I'm out of here, I thought to myself. I waited patiently as suitcase after suitcase filed past me. Finally the conveyor belt came to a halt. Dejected, I realized that my largest bag would probably not be going home with me – at least not today – and I trudged over to the counter to speak with an airline employee about my missing luggage.

The man was very kind and apologetic, and he assured me that my missing suitcase would be delivered to me in Necochea. He explained that it probably didn't make it onto my flight from Lima, but that another flight would arrive the next day at 6am and I should have my bag by that very same evening.

With just one obstacle left – customs – I pressed on, excited to see Daniel, his mom Hilda, and his stepdad Tomás. Legitimately, I had nothing to declare at customs, but I prayed that I would not be stopped by the customs officer. I was tired and I just wanted to go home. After all, I still had a five-hour car ride ahead of me. As I rolled up to customs, I flashed a smile at the customs agent (this never hurts) and I said hello. Eyeing up my cart full of luggage, he asked me if I was traveling alone (uh oh). He then proceeded to ask me a string of questions about where I had come from and my nationality. He obviously had me pegged as Argentine because he was surprised when I responded that I am American. "Hablás bien el castellano...pasá, pasá." ["You speak Spanish well. Go ahead, go on through."] With a wave of the customs officer's hand, I passed through customs unscathed and through the sliding doors to meet the smiling faces of Daniel and Hilda.

But where was Tomás?

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I Made It!

I arrived safe and sound in Necochea at 3am this morning! More details to follow... Read More......

Greetings from Lima, Peru

I'm pleased to announce that I have winged my way to the South American continent where I'm presently awaiting my connecting flight to Buenos Aires. It's gray, muggy and rather hot here in Lima, especially if, like me, you're wearing fifty layers of clothing to maximize every inch of space in your suitcases. My temperature-induced crankiness coupled with the fact that I am dog-tired led me to make the decision to just stay put at the airport. I had daydreamed about a brief field trip out into the city to take in some sights, but reality jarred me back to my senses when I stepped off the plane. Besides, everyone knows that a computer with a fast Internet connection is the perfect timewaster. Hello, Facebook...

The ride to New York and the flight to Lima went relatively smoothly. The biggest blow was delivered at the check-in counter when the ticket agent asked to weigh my carry-on luggage. Of course, I had fully prepared my checked luggage to exacting weight specifications, particularly since you're looking at excess baggage fees between $50 and $150. I decided to be a rebel when it came to my hand luggage, though, for the pure and simple fact that in all the times I've flown, I've never had my carry-on pieces weighed. Well, I guess I rolled the dice, and this time I wasn't so lucky. Upon hearing this crushing piece of news, I was fully prepared to send the suitcase home with my stepdad rather than pay the steep fee; I figured it would have to make the journey another time. Fortunately, a generous benefactor came to my rescue, and a baggage disaster was narrowly averted. ;)

A number of other irritating events transpired over the last 10 hours or so, but irritation seems to go hand-in-hand with air travel these days. At least I can be thankful that I didn't have burning hot coffee spilled in my lap by the flight attendant like the nice Peruvian woman seated to my right did. That's not exactly how I like to start off my day at 5:30 am.

Next stop...Buenos Aires.

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