Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Shores of the Rio Parana and Slopes of the Central Sierras. PLUS! Our shortlist of Argentina's idiosyncracies.

It seemed ages before our bus to made it past the sprawling city limits of greater metropolitan Buenos Aires. Eventually we emerged into gentle rolling farmland very similar to the Uruguayan countryside. That fact should not have been surprising since the two countries are only separated by a (rather wide) river to the north. Our route followed the river to the city of Rosario, Argentina's third largest city, just under 4 hours northwest of Buenos Aires.

After a bizarre debacle during which our taxi driver had to spend 10 minutes helping us find our hostel since for some reason there was no sign marking the entrance and the number was somewhat inconspicuous, we checked in and then wandered down to the river for a late afternoon stroll. There is some nice colonial architecture in the city center such as the National Flag Memorial tower and propylaeum. Although the waterfront at the city center isn't the nicest - in place of beaches, cement retaining walls line the shore - the picturesque islands of the Parana Delta and near constant stream of ships and fishing boats make the area somewhat interesting for an hour or so of relaxation.

Rosario. Downtown viewed from a beach north of the city center.

All in all, we didn't do much during our time in Rosario. On the advice of our hostel owner we took the bus further north to visit some of Rosario's beaches. The area was much nicer than the parks in the center but we were a little turned off by the amount of garbage floating in the water as we walked along the beach in search of a good picnic spot. We still enjoyed a pleasant day in the sunshine, reading and people-watching while every dog on the beach made friends with Chris. Later we took another tip from the hostel owner and had dinner at a seafood restaurant right on the docks at the river. We ordered half a pacu (river fish related to the piranha) prepared with chimichurri. It creeped me out a little that we were actually served a fish chopped in half lengthwise, complete with half a head but it was absolutely delicious! And what an authentic setting in which to eat it - we were able to watch local fishermen casting their lines while we dined.

From Rosario we traveled 5 hours further inland to Argentina's second largest city: Córdoba. Despite being only slightly bigger than Rosario, Córdoba was significantly louder. We'd read that the locals pride themselves on being expert partiers (it's a University city) so we did our best to choose a quiet hostel since we like to go to bed around midnight, not 5 or 6am. We did find a really great new hostel with immensely enthusiastic owners. But it wasn't quiet. The first night there was a huge group of Chileans staying there and they were definitely in the mood to party. It actually didn't turn out too bad because after they all spent hours getting ready (i.e. monopolizing the 2 bathrooms) they went out and the place was silent until they came home in the wee hours of the morning. They must've been tired after all that partying though because they went right to bed. The next day we went out for a few hours to sight-see and run errands. When we returned, the hostel was completely deserted. The big group had left and we were the only guests!

Interesting graffiti on a building in Cordoba.

Beautiful church in Cordoba.

With the hostel to ourselves we decided to take up the owners on their offer of a free barbecue lesson. Now, you might be thinking, "what do you need a bbq lesson for? You're Canadian! We bbq. Year-round!" Well, I can't remember if I blogged about it, but we did have a failed attempt to bbq in Costa Rica because down there they (generally) don't have propane or gas bbqs; only carbon (briquettes). Having had no experience using this method of grilling, we'd tried all sorts of approaches to get hot coals, finally achieving limited success with Modest's idea of using driftwood to make a fire. Argentine's also use carbon for their bbqs but there's no driftwood in urban areas so we were sort of at a loss for how to go about readying the bbq. Juani, assistant to the hostel owner, was happy to show us how to do it properly.

The trick is to put the carbon on the grill itself and prepare a fire underneath using newspaper or other flammable materials. With a little time and encouragement the carbon will catch fire and begin to smoulder. The starter materials can then be cleared out from under the grill. Once the briquettes are red hot, the grill is pulled forward so the coals can be pushed over the back edge to drop onto the "floor" of the bbq. About half are spread across the floor to form a layer of hot coals under the grill and the other half is put onto a semi-enclosed shelf outside the bbq where another batch of carbon is piled on top of it to begin heating. It worked marvellously! We grilled some steaks, potato and vegetables. I even tried to make a chimichurri sauce with the dried mixture we'd bought in Buenos Aires but I think it needed more time to absorb the oil because it was still a little crunchy when we ate it. We enjoyed bbq'ing for a change so much that we decided to do it again the next day, swapping in some chorizos for Chris instead of more steak.

Chris perfecting the techniques for Argentinean barbecue aka asado

We didn't do too much else while in Córdoba. While wandering around the center we stumbled upon a small festival with music and dancing in the main plaza. Apparently they were celebrating the Day of Immigrants. Groups clothed in colorful costumes performed traditional dances of their respective countries. Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Spain were all represented. Even though we could only understand a limited amount of the speeches it was still really neat to watch the lively dancers and see such a heartwarming display of cultural acceptance.

I think the only other thing worth mentioning about our time in Córdoba is a short anecdote of my well-intentioned attempt to be a good Samaritan that almost turned into a local charging me with sexual harassment. Okay, it wasn't quite that dramatic. We were walking on a street somewhere and as a young lady passed by me I noticed that she had a small wad of cash hanging precariously from the back pocket of her jeans. I called out to her before it occurred to me that I had no idea how to say, "Your money is about to fall out of your pocket" in Spanish. At least I couldn't call up that phrase without thinking about it first. So there I stood, mumbling "hay... uhh, tiene..." (there is... uhh, you have...) while pointing repeatedly at her ass. After a few moments of confusion and utter embarrassment on my part she finally realized I was pointing at the money and thanked me for letting her know. Awkward.

From Córdoba we headed a few hours north to La Cumbre, a small town nestled into a quiet agricultural valley of the Sierras de Córdoba. We arrived on a gorgeous sunny day and found the town blissfully calm after enduring nearly three weeks of urban dwelling in Argentina's 3 biggest cities. The downside of traveling to small towns in Argentina is that the locals have remained staunchly faithful to the afternoon siesta. Everything shuts down between 1 and 5 pm. Even grocery stores, laundromats, and most restaurants. Of course, we arrived just after 1 pm, hungry and not carrying sufficient food supplies to make our own lunch. Luckily our hostel owners were able to direct us to a small panaderia (bakery) where we bought bread and a few snacks to hold us over until the town awoke from its nap time.

Our primary reason for visiting La Cumbre was to try paragliding - the town is somewhat of a mecca for the thrill-sport. In fact, several world champions now reside in the area and they actually hosted an international competition a few years ago. There is a bountiful tourism industry founded on tandem jumps or full courses to learn the ins and outs of paragliding. We were hoping to partake in the former. Unfortunately the weather turned rotten the day after we arrived and stayed that way until the day we left. Thus, we weren't able to take a tandem flight after all. We still enjoyed the tranquility of being in a lazy town and made the most of our time by doing a short hike up to La Cumbre's statue of Christ the Redeemer followed by a random tour of the surrounding hillsides while we searched for the dam our hostel owner had suggested we hike to...

Me approaching the statue of Christ the Redeemer in La Cumbre.

View of La Cumbre from above Christ the Redeemer

The day we left La Cumbre was gloriously sunny and, perhaps more importantly, the breeze was perfect for paragliding. But it was too little too late. We had an overnight bus to catch from Córdoba to Mendoza. And there was no way I was missing that! Hello wine country!! Eeeeeeeeeeeeee.

So, it seems this blog post is lacking a bit of substance seeing as we didn't get up to much. Therefore I thought I'd take the opportunity to add a bit more to that scroll bar and provide our avid readers with a list of what we think are some of Argentina's top idiosyncrasies. Some of these are true for all of south america but it's mostly a compilation of things that have irked, confused, or amused us as travelers in Argentina.
  • Where's the draft?  Yes, Argentina is now known as a veritable wine-producing country. The main reason that's true is because national consumption of wine crashed a few decades ago (from 90 L per person per year to a mere 40 L... for reference, North Americans drink ~10 L per person per year... so, really....). This forced Argentinean wine producers to look elsewhere to market all the surplus wine. A big reason for the colossal decrease in wine consumption was a widespread shift towards  drinking soft drinks and beer with meals. Our assumption was that a country that now loves drinking beer more than wine would have comparable methods to meet this demand as we do at home. Specifically, we expected that restaurants and bars would serve beer from kegs. Shockingly, draft beer is virtually non-existent in Argentina. A few establishments serve chopp, beer on tap, but the standard pour is only 330 mL. For the same price as a pint would be at home! Even more bizarre is that bottled beer (available in 330 mL or 1 L bottles) is generally cheaper. Cerveza grande (beer in 1-L bottles) is by far the most common form in which beer appears on Argentine menus. Related to this is the difficulty of purchasing beer from a supermarket. You must bring an empty 1-L bottle in order to obtain a ticket that will allow you to purchase a new returnable bottle of beer. Not exactly practical for travelers. Fortunately, most hostels keep a stash of empties for their guests' use. You can buy beer without an empty but you pay more since they will only let you have a non-returnable bottle. The bottles look exactly the same. Evidently they are not.
  • Don't flush that! There are signs everywhere in south america warning you not to flush toilet paper. It took a while to get used to but I think I will have a hard time switching back to tossing it in the bowl versus a (usually overflowing) wastebin. Now, we have to confess that we think this whole system is BS. Maybe it's necessary for really old buildings where the plumbing truly can't handle the extra solids but c'mon. If our poop can go down, the TP should be find too. Yes, poop has different properties than paper (both Chris and I have taken wastewater treatment courses) but we have a really hard time believing that even the plumbing in brand new restaurants can't handle TP.
  • Garçon!! *snap snap*.  It is not rude to yell, wave, whistle, etc at servers. In fact, if you don't, they will likely not return to your table once the food has been served. They don't come back to check if everything is okay. When they see your glass is empty, they don't come by to ask if you'd like another drink (oh, there's no such thing as refills here. In addition to their being no draft beer, there's no fountain pop. Bottles only. And you pay per unit). In fact, they probably don't notice that your glass is empty. They don't usually come to clear your plates when you're finished either. And if they do, they would never ask whether you want the bill; that's considered very rude. No, if you want something, it's up to you to get their attention. On a related note, tipping is not common.
  • All dogs go to heaven.  There are a billion stray dogs in south america. Or at least several thousands. In some cities there's a serious infestation. Almost everyone seems to own a dog as well. And no one seems to pick up their dog's shit. Sidewalks are a virtual minefield of terds and patties. It's disgusting. But back to my original point - the number of starving strays is heartbreaking. And infuriating! South america, Argentina included, desperately needs spaying/neutering programs.
  • Memorize 100 product codes? Forget it.  When you buy produce at supermarkets in Argentina you can't just throw it in your cart and take it up to the cashier. You have to take it to the produce clerk who will weigh it, bag it, and seal the bag with a barcoded price sticker so you can't add anything to it before you go to the check-outs. Visualize gridlock in the produce aisle. Yep. In some stores you can bring all your desired produce to the scales and they will load them in one or two bags, sealing the bag with one sticker and putting the rest on the outside. The most frustrating is when you have to actually put each veggie/fruit in a separate bag. Talk about waste. Oh, and there are minimum weights. So, if you want to buy one jalapeno for your stirfry, forget it. Produce shopping is not geared towards the backpacker who doesn't have somewhere to store a dozen peppers for a week. On the other hand, this is why shopping at markets is better (and cheaper!).
  • You must pay for intimacy!  The price of a room for two depends on whether you want a double bed or twin beds. A double bed costs 15-25% more. I do not understand. Shouldn't it cost more for two beds? Twice the amount of labor required to make two beds... Apparently you have to pay more if you want to be close enough to whack your partner when they snore.
  • Pit stick.  It does not exist in Argentina. Oh they have deodorant. But it can only be found in roll-on or spray form. Me no likey. That is all.
  • Can I have some change for the bus?  Everywhere else in south america the bus drivers or an assistant take your money and give you change. Not in Argentina. Here you have to put exact change (coins only) into a machine and good f*c&ing luck getting change anywhere. Alternatively, some cities have bus cards that you can recharge. However, the card itself costs money and it's hardly worth it for a backpacker to buy one if you're only in town for a few days. Luckily, lots of hostels keep a set of cards that you can use and return when you leave. Otherwise, welcome to panhandling in order to get bus fare. Oh, also important to know: you can wait at the well-marked bus stop but if you don't raise your arm to indicate that you want the bus to stop, it will drive right by. If there are many people waiting for the bus, queue to the right of the sign and let old/pregnant/obese people go to the front. Yes, I said obese. In fact, obese people are grouped with disabled/old/pregnant people in terms of getting preferential access to seats on the bus. More beef? Yes please.
  • Is there a concert? A futbol match? Free matéNope. It's the lineup for the ATM. This has been mentioned in a previous blog but it definitely belongs on this list. Northern Argentina was the worst. All the time, everywhere. They must not have direct deposit for paychecks or online bill payment. There was always a line for taking out cash. This was especially aggravating when you weren't totally confident that your card would even work in the machine after waiting 10-20 minutes to find out. The maximum withdrawal amount per transaction is about $200 and there is a $4 fee for each transaction. Bunk. Bank hours are even more ridiculous than at home too: 8 am - 1 pm. The most absurd part is that banks are obliged to have waiting areas (seriously, rows of seats) because people line up long before the doors open and then wait for their turn, hoping to get served before closing time. How is this normal? 
  • That'll be US$55.  Argentines love the American dollar. It's not because they love Americans (oh no; they don't). It's because they see it as a stable currency while viewing (not without justification) their own as too volatile to warrant saving or investing in. For this reason, many tour agencies and hostels list their prices in US dollars. And they demand payment in that currency. Sure you can pay in pesos but they offer a horrible exchange rate. Now, a few months ago this wouldn't have been a big deal. We would've just gone to any ATM, waited in the inexorable  line and taken out US$. But, in an effort to decrease national dependency on a foreign currency, the Argentine government recently took action to severely limit the amount of US$ an individual can obtain per day and made it so you can only get it from the bank itself, not from an ATM. Furthermore, it's prohibited to exchange any currency for US$. Doesn't matter if you're Argentinean or a foreigner. Forget about it. In short, it is next to impossible to get US funds in this country. Unless you want to try the ever-expanding black market that has developed in response to the sanctions. Good luck with that.
  • Would you like meat with your meat?  I already provided values for Argentinean wine consumption above and noted that despite having decreased significantly over the past few decades it is still much greater than the average consumption of North Americans. I don't have stats for beef consumption here but I suspect it's also outrageously higher than world trends. Don't get me wrong - the beef here is amazing. Coming from beef country ourselves it pains us to say that the beef here is superior. But lord help you if you like to eat a balanced meal with a salad or some cooked veggies on the side. Restaurant meals don't typically include these so you have to order them separately. A typical salad in Argentina consists of lettuce, tomato and white onion. Not exactly enticing or much of a serving of vegetables in my opinion. Cooked veggies are even scarier. Best to take care of your fruit/veggie intake by buying your own produce at the market.
  • Would you like a bill with your coffee?  In Argentina, a pastry similar to a danish is called a factura. This word also means Invoice or bill. The first time you say no and then find out what it actually means. The next time you say yes.
  • Habla Castellano?  It's spanish, sort of. The Argentinean dialect (?) of spanish is different. For example, the name of it, Castellano, is pronounced "ca-ste-liano" in spanish but is "ca-ste-shiano" in Argentina. Any "y" sound as in "yes" is changed to a "sh" sound. They also drop their "s's" more like French. "Hasta luego" becomes "Ha'ta luego". It's almost like they have a lisp. Very difficult for SSL (spanish as a second language) folks to adapt to.
  • A day in the life. The typical daily schedule of Argentineans has been a running theme of frustration in this blog since we came here. It begins rather similarly to our days at home with an 8 or 9 o'clock start to the workday. Afternoon is where things diverge. Siesta begins sometime after noon and lasts until 4 or 5 pm at which time the workday resumes. Most working Argentineans enjoy "after office", social drinks with coworkers at around 7 or so when the workday is over. Dinner doesn't happen before 10 pm. After dinner (but not before midnight) it's time to hit a disco. Then you dance until 5 or 6 am, go home, sleep for a few hours and go back to work. I don't know that I could ever get used to this schedule. But you ask an Argentinean and they say they think it's weird any other way. Our friends from Buenos Aires say they found it depressing when they were in another country and dinner was at 7 or 8 pm and then the night was over. Not many portenos take siesta. But they still do the late dinner and partying til the wee hours of the morning. So, basically, they are the most crazy.

Alright, now that I've picked on the country and vented my backpacker's frustrations let me just say that there are also many amazing things unique to Argentina and the rest of south america. I am in no way implying that we regret coming here or that we aren't having an incredible time in spite of these rather minor inconveniences or oddities. On the contrary, these are the things that keep us concious that we are in a foreign country, experiencing a different culture, and making memories that will last a lifetime. Awwwwwww.

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