¡I'm (tango)ing to Argentina!

SIT Public Health in Urban Environments / Buenos Aires, Argentina

Goodbye Kasi

One of the hardest goodbyes was to my laundry woman down the street. She has been a constant in this whirlwind of a semester: always calling me Kasi, making fun of me for forgetting my laundry receipt every week, and folding my clothes impeccably for a decent price. Hola Kasi! Chaú Kasi! OK Kasi!  I figured it wasn’t worth it to explain to her what my name actually is, because she was just a person who I paid to do my laundry. I should have written my name down on a piece of paper to show her. Then again, I still don’t know her name.

I like to think she cared for me; she told me how to hold my bag on the street to avoid getting pick pocketed (though that didn’t stop the ladron that ripped my iPhone out of my hands and fled). Her smile greeted my presence and a bag of dirty laundry every week. Her children brought me my change a few times, and her dog always ran around me in circles.

I will admit at one point I was thrown off guard when I had to pay 10 pesos more than usual (less than 1 USD) – but that is a sacrifice you make as a loyal customer. As I am packing up my room to leave, I am throwing out laundry receipts labeled “Kasi” tucked away in every nook of my room. I can’t stop the tears from falling over the memory of a woman that I will probably forget in about a year.

These small occurrences formed the majority of my abroad experience. My cleaning lady was a 5-minute trip, but I met her every week. I bought an alpaca sweater from remote village in the north of Argentina, but I found the same sweater for sale in every Buenos Aires souvenir shop. I only knew one song by latino artist Nicky Jamz, but it played in the clubs every night. The lunch spot Banco Rojo had infinite, delicious options, but falafel was my fallback every time.

I have photos to remember the beautiful places and I have a 33-page paper in Spanish to remember the program, but the small memories might fade soon – that is a depressing truth. Those sum of those small moments formed my experience abroad. There will always be something from travelling that one can carry for the rest of their life – photos, a new language, etc. – but you can’t anticipate the small routines that emerge when you’re out of your element. Not only can I thank my cleaning lady for fresh scented socks, but also I can thank her for engaging with the foreign student who successfully struggled to navigate her language and city.

En taxi

Before coming to Buenos Aires, I was told time and time again that the taxis are not safe. “You can only take certain cabs,” “make sure they have a sign on top,” “don’t speak English in the cab,” etc. For these reasons I took extra care my first few weeks only getting into RadioTaxis or calling them ahead of time. A few months in – as I started navigating the language and the map of the city better- my fears of getting lost, getting ripped off, or worse, slowly began to diminish. I would go as far as to say that I have had some of the best conversations abroad in a taxi.

 

  • There was the one driver who sang La Bamba with my friends and I for an entire 20-minute drive. He also invited us over for an Argentine barbecue at his home (not that we actually went, but it’s the thought that counts, right?)
  • Another driver was so excited to meet someone from the US that he took a selfie with me when he dropped me off at home to show his friends. It’s unclear where that picture will go…
  • One taxi driver was hard of hearing and couldn’t understand my castellano, so he took it upon himself to lecture me about staying safe in the city. It was very nice of him, but when he tried to walk me to my door from the cab, I basically screamed NO in his ear (not because I was angry, because he was hard of hearing!!)
  • There was another driver who I engaged with for the whole ride about the complexities of the Argentine health care system and economic situation. He kept saying “¡Mirá vos!” (look at you!) impressed that I could half-speak the language.
  • Yesterday my driver was telling me that his son works at a local boliche (Argentina’s version of a nightclub), and that I should ask for him next time I go. I am unclear on how he should help me. This same driver also had a taxi cab filled with cockroaches from a recent passenger who had come in with a box of exotic fruits and vegetables. He was nice enough to offer me a discount for the cucarachas!

 

Well the moral of this story is to aprovechar every opportunity to practice the language abroad: take advantage of those long taxi rides. Taxi drivers here, in my experience, have been generally excited to talk with their passengers, and are less likely to rip you off when you prove that you can command the language.

 

¡Qué quilombo!

Loud, popping fireworks awoke me from my sleep yesterday. The sound was not surprising, as I hear popping noises outside my window almost every day. What did surprise me was the hoard of people walking across the street below my room, waving their flags and banging their drums. I have seen protests before in Buenos Aires, but none that take place in my quiet barrio. Hundreds upon hundreds of people filled the streets below me. From children to seniors, la gente of all ages marched around the capital in the biggest mobilization against the Macri administration to date.

Walking to school was nothing short of a quilombo, Argentina’s favorite word to describe chaos. It was an out-of-body experience: I was watching a movie of myself dodging and ducking through the crowds, trying to blend in but failing. Re: my last blog post, I felt like I was in Latin America. Every other street was completely blockaded by the masses, and the gridlock that ensued was not going to stop for hours. It was amusing to see the faces of the drivers in the standstill, maybe not amusing for them, but definitely for me. Today was not the day to drive around Buenos Aires. It was concerning, however, to hear ambulances at every street corner, unable to go anywhere.

Behind the windowpane of this ambulance, the driver had his palm to his face in frustration

Behind the windowpane of this ambulance, the driver had his palm to his face in frustration. 

My 20-minute walk to school turned into an hour. My excursion was a maze, reversing my steps 3 times over until I found the easiest path. When I tried to cross Avenida San Juan, the protest was in full speed, stampeding down the street, and I foolishly assumed that I would be able to walk across when the stoplight changed. Silly me – road rules don’t apply in the midst of a protest. I took a deep breath, braced myself. Crossing the road, I performed a diagonal dance to the other side of the street, allowing the crowd to take me with them. The same rule about swimming sideways in the undertow applied to this situation: don’t fight the current.

I did eventually make it to class (no limbs or cellphones were lost in the process). All of the students sat around complaining that they made us come to school today, but the teachers stared back at us blankly. Protests are a part of life here. Just like we don’t have snow days off at Cornell, we don’t have protest days off in Buenos Aires.

IMG_4461

A sneak peak of the protest

After everything, only fliers were left in the street.

After everything, only fliers were left in the street.

 

**Unrelated: I also just found out that all venues that play live music are prohibited in the city until further notice, an effort to make music festivals and clubs safer. AKA I am basically living in the plot of Footloose.

Latin America feels like…

My north american friends and I frequently comment on “not feeling like we’re in Latin America.” If Latin America were a feeling, I’m not entirely sure what it would be. I suppose that going somewhere new gives an intangible sense of foreignism, but what classifies a Latin American feeling?

This past Saturday at brunch my friends’ subte train broke down and they had to walk 15 minutes through one of the “sketchier areas” of the city. They described the walk as a risky stroll through street vendors upon street vendors selling basically the same goods. While they were still in Buenos Aires, they told me that it felt like Latin America.

The other day I was on the colectivo on my way to a different neighborhood, and I looked around the bus and saw only Caucasian people staring at their smartphones. I had read a statistic somewhere that about 95% of the people living in Buenos Aires are Caucasian. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but there is a heavy European influence from massive migration in the 20th century. The lack of diversity on the bus was surprising, regardless of knowing the Caucasian profile of Buenos Aires. Also, the fact that everyone still had smartphones was reminiscent of the states. I turned to my friend and told him that I did not feel like I was in Latin America.

When our program took a trip to a hospital outside of the metropolitan area in the province of Buenos Aires, the drive there was almost deserted, with streets of old, precarious, 1-story houses, and tons of people walking on the street on a scorching hot day. The class agreement was that we felt like we were in Latin America.

Gauchos, wine country, salt flats, waterfalls, and glaciers, Argentina has an enormous variety of unique Latin American features. The city of Buenos Aires is definitely an anomaly in the country and not what any of us expected it to be, but it has a charming mix of Italian, Spanish, and “typical Latin American” vibes. We’re constantly reminded of not being in the US with the distinct lack of English (it’s not like Europe where it feels like everyone speaks English!).

However, there are so many culture aspects that remind me of home. When I hang out with kids my age, our sense of humor is comparable. Walking down the streets in my barrio I could be in any US city and not realize it. Coca-cola is everywhere, same with McDonald’s and Starbucks. Whenever I start feeling homesick, I know that I can find a piece of New York in this vibrant city.

Cadavers and Vino

Welcome to Mendoza, the wine country of Argentina. Inside this grey table we have two dead bodies preserved in formaldehyde!

Did I grab your attention? Cool.

Part of our program includes educational visits to primary care centers, hospitals and emergency rooms. Some health centers are situated in or around the city of Buenos Aires,  with a few in rural provinces. This week we are stationed in the fertile Mendoza province, nestled in the Andes mountains and surrounded by vineyards.

Lake in the Luján de Cuyo region of Mendoza

Lake in the Luján de Cuyo region of Mendoza

The 14-hour bus that brought us here was nothing short of luxurious: the seats converted into beds, the bus attendant hosted bingo (top prize was a bottle of Mendozan wine), and the personal TVs brought entertainment. I had high expectations for this trip, most of which included fine wine and dining.

I am still waiting to check those two itinerary items off my list (mainly because I can’t afford fine dining, and my roommate and I spent 4 hours last night unsuccessfully searching for a cork screw…3 tweezers were sacrificed in the process). In the meantime, we’ve been immersed in the academic portion of our trip. Our program took a trip to the medical school of Mendoza, la Universidad de Aconcagua (named after what they claim to be the highest peak in the Americas, located in Mendoza). During our tour of the school we learned that the pedagogical structure of the university was based off of the little-known Universidad de Cornell en Nueva York. My eyes lit up with big red pride at finding a random 200-person medical school in the middle of Argentina that resembles my university.

Our tour continued to the laboratory section of the medical school. Microscopes and petri dishes lined the metallic table-tops. Upon walking into the sterile lab, the nearest pre-med and I looked at each other and said, “ahh, feels just like home.” We crossed through the swinging doors into the gross anatomy lab, where 5 human-sized tables were laid out across the room. The tour guide delved into the anatomy curriculum. In Argentina, there is a law that requires dead bodies found on the streets without identification to be used for medical science. All of the Yankees turned and looked at each other with a shiver of fear for the thought of all those people who have unwillingly donated their body to science.

The cadaver box

The cadaver box

“OK, now who wants to see our cadavers?” All of the brave, giddy, and naïve souls (unclear which category I belonged too) skipped over to the central table. A recent graduate slid the metallic table top to the side and inside laid two preserved bodies, completely brown and hairless. They were hardly recognizable, with a body that looked as peeled as that skinned character in Game of Thrones (use google). We all stared, stiff as the bodies lying before us. Next to the table were 3 jars of fetuses attached to their placentas at varying ages of development. They were suspended in a liquid, little fingers and toes creeping out of the body. Back and forth, we gawked at the dead fetuses, and then the dead adults. Life…but mostly death…

I wasn’t expecting to see dead bodies today, but I guess Mendoza is filled with surpri- be right back my roommate needs me to plunge her toilet!

Me and the Andes Mountains

Me and the Andes Mountains

 

Jewish Geography

The best part about Jewish geography is that it knows no bounds. Even in Argentina -where there is actually the 3rd largest Jewish population- someone will know someone who knows someone with whom you went to sleep-away camp. I do indeed have a distant, Jewish cousin in Buenos Aires. However, after you establish a 4th degree connection, usually the conversation enters and awkward lull. Okay, you know this person, cool, now what are we supposed to talk about?

Anyway, last week I got a taste of Jewish geography when my program took a trip to la AMIA, a Jewish center for the elderly, to study envejecimiento (the aging of a society). Our purpose was to conduct focus groups; in which we would ask the elderly about their experiences with various public services in the city of Buenos Aires. Never having conducted focus groups before, I was excited to learn a new research skill. That, and also a part of me was looking forward to meeting more Jews.

Walking into la AMIA, I felt at home hearing Yiddish-accented Spanish-speakers trying to speak English with me. We held the focus groups in Spanish, with a room filled with over 20 elderly Jews complaining about the city (ah! The familiar sound of Jews complaining!). One woman asked me, where are you from? at least 5 separate times. Another woman was telling me about how her son just left for Israel last week. However, my favorite interaction was when an elderly woman, with hot pink painted lips and shiny blue eye shadow

, smiled at us and yelled in her thick, Yiddish-accented-hard-of-hearing voice, I have been to Long ISEland!!!! *pronounced phonetically*

You can always count on a Jew to have connections in Long Island.

~

La Arteterapía

La Arteterapía

(Side note: yesterday I met a Jew my age who laughed when I went straight to the ofertas (sale section) of a store. Apparently the cheap Jew stereotype holds true in South America!)

Boomerang

I can understand about 75% of what my host mom says. I know that she edits a journal, she’s retired, and she practices Buddhism even though she was raised Catholic. From the moment I met her, she told me (in Spanish): I’ve never had a problem with any of the exchange students that have stayed with me, because I believe that each experience is a lesson to be learned and communication is the cornerstone of any relationship. It was evident that she would be an easy person to live with.

Recently, I’ve been frustrated that our home lacks WIFI (yes I am a millennial). I’ve been asking her about the situation about once a week, because all of the homestays are required to have WIFI. Her response is always the same: I’m waiting for the cable company to come and fix the issue, but I can’t do anything about how slow they are, because there’s only one company to use.

So today I learned a story that I would like to share with you all about why my house doesn’t have WIFI.  While I can’t promise all of it is true due to a language barrier, here is what I could get out of it. All names have been changed for confidentiality purposes.

~

M- my host mom- has a friend from college who she’s known for a long, long time. This friend, who shall be named Lisa, married and had 2 children with her husband, John. Both children, the daughter and son, call M “abuela” as a symbol of their familial relationship. John and M work together at the same magazine, even though M works from home to edit on her computer.

Recently, M found out that John had been cheating on Lisa for over 10 years, and had another child with the mistress. Well at first M kept her mouth shut, not feeling as if it were her place to interfere in someone else’s marriage. Eventually word got out and M confessed to Lisa, and the marriage ended. John, however, was not at all happy with M.

A few weeks before I came to Buenos Aires, M went on vacation with Lisa while she left her keys behind with Lisa’s daughter and her boyfriend to take care of the dog. After 5 days of vacation, M returned to find every single cable in her house cut. No more phone. No more computer. And definitely no WIFI. There was no way she was able to do work.

As a retired woman with a small, part-time editing job, M found herself unable to do work and facing extensive cable replacement bills she couldn’t afford. The only person who would do this to her, who would have access to her home, and who would want to make her suffer, was the man whose marriage fell apart – John.

She asked the daughter and her boyfriend if they gave the key to her father. They adamantly said it wasn’t him and they didn’t know who it was, blaming the situation on the dog. M asserted that she knew it was John, and she wouldn’t be mad at the daughter if she told the truth. However, the daughter and her boyfriend didn’t say a word.

~

Upon hearing this story, I felt sorry for my host mother. I expressed my sincerest apologies, but her response was the following: No – I feel sorry for him. Life is like a boomerang. He did something horrible to another person and now it is going to come back to him. It’s karma, and I feel sorry for him. M as incredibly cool, calm and collected for someone who has had to jump through hoops for the past month trying to fix cables. I think I’m going to take a lesson from M and try to work on my patience. After all, the boomerang will hit the person who threw it, not me.

 

 

Carrot mayonnaise

I lucked out living so close to Parque Lezama, a peaceful, green respite in the cobble-stoned streets of San Telmo. Today the weather was perfect for a stroll in the park and some light school reading. After a leisurely morning of rest, relaxation and a delicious omelette with queso crema, I packed my backpack to have a picnic for one. The day before I had purchased a sandwich at the organic market only open 2 days a week that I was excited to taste. Significantly less overwhelming than the Ithaca Farmer’s Market with a familiar sense of community vibes, the pop-up shop had lured me in on my walk home from classes. I chose to try a sandwich with carrot mayonnaise – because why not?!

The park was sparse this afternoon, with a few venders selling craft goods and chicos playing fútbol on the grass. After a few minutes of scavenging for the best spot, my eyes laid sight on a quaint bench next to a pavement walkway. I made myself comfortable with my epidemiology readings in hand. It was easy to tune out the white noise of passersby and venders bargaining.

Some 40 minutes into my reading, I noticed a slowly approaching figure of beige pants and white sneakers. The old man crept slower than a casual pace, and he seemed to be coming to a stop directly in front of me. My inner dialogue began to panic a little bit, I can sense his unwavering eyes staring at me…should I get up and move or maybe say hola? Or maybe I should pretend like I don’t feel his burning scrutiny.

Clenching my belongings, I raised my gaze to meet the old man’s. For about 0.5 seconds we stared at each other, motionless, and for what seemed like an eternity. The old man raised his eyebrows ever so slightly, as if he were suggesting something that I couldn’t quite grasp. The interaction ended as quickly as it began when the elderly man turned his head and carried on his merry way.

I’m not sure what I was supposed to make of the exchange – should I be creeped out? Was he just being friendly, like a tip of the hat? Why did he stop in front of me? I’m hoping that as I become better accustomed to the codigos (social codes) of this country, I will eventually be able to decipher that strange moment in Parque Lezama. However, my gut tells me that this interaction will remain a haunting mystery for a long, long time.

(P.S. the carrot mayonnaise was decent – I would say that it was more like a carrot spread than a mayonnaise.)

 

Yoga is pronounced “shhoga”

Is it so obvious that I speak English? Yes, my skin is barely off-white and sprinkled with freckles, but I heard somewhere that over 90% of Buenos Aires is Caucasian. So why is it so difficult to blend in?

 

Tonight my friend and I took el colectivo (the bus) to Viejo Palermo in Buenos Aires to try a yoga class in Spanish. We walk into the studio and one of the first questions we are asked is if we would like the sign-up sheets in English. Well yes, I would like the sign-up sheet in English, but I am honestly a tiny bit offended that you didn’t think I could handle a sign-up sheet in Spanish. Even though I don’t sport the classic porteña platform sandals, my style doesn’t scream tourist either. I can roll my rr’s and pronounce my ll’s like “shh,” but something about my appearance must trigger the gringa alert.

 

Inside the yoga classroom everyone is lying in shavasana on their mats, ready to start the vinyasa. It’s all too familiar for me since I took hot yoga classes almost every day this winter break. Breathing a sigh of relief, I feel grounded again in this foreign place and resume the corpse pose on the mat.

 

We start class on the barre, stretching a bit to warm up the hamstrings. The teacher speaks a soothing Castellano that I can barely understand, but I peak around at my neighbors to follow suit. Suddenly I hear, “alguien no entiende español?” Oh no. I decide to shut my mouth and pretend I understand everything. The instructor switches to English: “does anyone not speak Spanish?” Ugh. I know this question is directed at me.

 

Mas o menos…” I respond. The room breaks out in a light chuckle at my horrible accent. More or less, I do speak Spanish. While I am not (yet) fluent, it is kind of insulting to be called out in front of a crowd of locals. The teacher continued the class in Spanish, while interjecting at times to explain positions in English for me and my friend. After hearing her repeat the same phrases over and over again in Spanish, I started to catch on to new words through my practice. Exhala, sostén, mantenga, to name a few. Moving through the familiar vinyasa flow, a new flow of words filled my Spanglish dictionary.

Punta del Este

Who would have known that Tinder is the perfect way to befriend the locals? While the app has many uses for match-making, my friends and I have been using it to find Uruguayans who can help us practice our Spanish and give recommendations. Punta del Este, Uruguay is known as a hotspot for beachgoers around South America, and – as we found out – the location sports a swipe-worthy Tinder game. One of our matches, a native from Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, invited us to una previa with his friends before going out for the night. Having met the boys the night before, my two travel friends and I were eager to practice more Spanish with los amigos uruguayos (oo-roo-goo-ah-shohs)*.

As it turns out, una previa, or as we call a pre-game, doesn’t start until 2am, we go out at 4am, and we fall asleep at 7am. Time works differently in this place – and I’m not talking about the time zone difference. People from ages 18 to 40+ bob their sweaty shoulders on a packed dancefloor until sunrise. While the speakers vibrate with the punching beats of reggaeton and top 40 hits, my family and friends in the US are sound asleep. The five hours of socializing tick by fast and wind down with the transition of a sky from night navy to dawn blue. After my friends and I wrap up a conversation with a man from Brazil, we take the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic. The warm beach winds envelope our sunburnt skin and the exhaustion begins to set in, slowly, like an approaching cloud of fog. Not having eaten since dinner, the gas station empanadas filled with carne (meat) and jamon y queso (ham and cheese) are a piping hot break to the fast. We lie in our 6-cot dorm and close our eyes, bellies full.

Los dedos at sunrise

Los dedos at sunrise

 

*As a rule of thumb, be careful with apps like Tinder. If you are meeting someone for the first time, go with friends and meet in a public area!

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Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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