More news…

So, this is a few days late, but:   I quit.  Due to the aforementioned problems with housing and the resignation of my boss and her replacement with an eminently disagreeable interim boss, I decided that I was tired of pissing away my savings in Lujan by working for an organization that didn´t appreciate me.  So, I went to one last day of building on the Habitat site, moved all my things to Buenos Aires, and that was it. A few days later, I found a pretty good deal on a plane ticket to Peru, and here I am.  I´ll here for about three weeks, eating, taking photos, and hiking.  I do love it here– everything is a breath of air from Argentine culture, people, food, scenery, etc.  The only thing I think I may tire of is– you guessed it– panpipes.  I´m keeping a running tally of times I hear Simon and Garfunkel panpipe covers, and I´m at three so far.  That´s okay though.

Oh, and for any of my tiny readership in the DC area:  I changed my flight and I´ll be back in the US on June 14th.  Let´s party. 

Buenos Aires Cabdrivers

My favorite conversations with cabbies in BA:

Almost every cabdriver I´ve met:

Cabdriver – So, who do you like in the election– Hillary or Osama?

Me -You mean Obama?

-Yeah, the black guy.

Or, one guy in particular:

Me- So, I was thinking of going to Bolivia and Peru when I´m done with Argentina.

Cabdriver- Oh no, dont go there, those places are really poor.

- Oh really?

-Yeah, theyre like giant slums.   Youll get robbed as soon as you get off the plane.

-Hmm, interesting.

-Yeah, its not even third world.  It´s the fifth world.  People still live like the flintstones there.  You should go someplace nice– like Holland. Or Canada.

-Good idea.  You sound like you must be a traveler yourself.

-Yeah, I read a lot.  Just don´t go to Peru and Bolivia.  There´s nothing to see there.

My favorite Buenos Aires blog

There are a lot of foreigners blogging in Buenos Aires, with a correspondingly broad range in the quality of their output.  Of all these, my favorites by far are Ian Mount and Cintra Scott, two journalists living in BA whose writing shows up frequently in places like Gridskipper and the New York Times.  GoodAirs is a joint project between them, and it’s balanced, eloquent, and usually quite funny. It usually covers Argentine current events and the accompanying hubbub in the local press– everything from the just-renewed farm strike to the (former president) Juan D. Perón Institute throwing a tantrum over an episode of The Simpsons

The latest entry covers the 200-ton fruit avalanche that stopped traffic on Avenida 9 de Julio (the huge 16-lane avenue that you see in pictures of BA) for several hours and the brawl that almost ensued.  The youtube video is something to see (especially the guy who almost gets run over fleeing the lemons.)

Displaced.

Well, I should have seen it coming.

Life in Luján seemed so calm and even comforting.  Returning from vacation with my parents at the beginning of April, I found myself  looking forward to returning to Lujan, as I finally had a routine of sorts and people to call on the weekends.  Although I was living in a slightly ill-equipped apartment in the back of the Habitat office, I was getting along well and even cooking meals for myself on the camp stove I bought expressly bought for this trip and intended to use for… you know, camping.

When I first returned to my room, I found that my things had been moved a little bit and the bathroom had been thoroughly cleaned.  “How nice,” I foolishly thought,” they must have a cleaning service that comes every month or so.”  At an office so cash-strapped that all of its computers are all running pirated copies of Windows, odds of this would fall somewhere between improbable and laughable.    The next day, at work, my boss broke the bad news: I had to move out within a week or the property owner would threaten legal action.

I knew along this was coming, just not so suddenly.  How did I come to be the victim of gross anti-volunteer injustices?  Enter the landlady:

\"La Dueña\"- The landlady The landlady only wants the space to be used as an office even though it’s a house.  Fair enough; it’s her property. Habitat Argentina wants to be able to provide housing for free in lieu of the stipend that most other Habitat international volunteers receive in most other countries.   Fair enough; they’re broke.  Here’s where we run into some problems.

Strike one: This was something both parties should have worked out when they signed the lease, not when the Luján office started to house volunteers there. Their employees of course can rest easy since they have no vested interest in ensuring the welfare of free labor who’s in the country on a tourist visa.

Strike two:  The landlady is completely insane.  She owns several properties on the block; the one where I lived happens to look directly across the lot, into the backyard of the one where she lives, separated by a wall.  That wall apparently isn’t high enough.  I knew in my gut that things weren’t going to turn out well when she called my boss weekly to report that she knew exactly what time I turned the lights off and went to bed every night. I have yet to see this woman in person, but I guess she’s seen me.

Strike three: I’m out.  I moved out last week, and now I’m living in Colegio Nuestra Señora de Lujan de los Hermanos Maristas (Villa Maristas for short), which is a Catholic boarding school and conference center.  In retrospect, titling one of my posts “Catholic by Osmosis?” doesn’t seem so funny anymore.  It’s not so bad though:  I have to walk thirty minutes to work and eat bad cafeteria food for breakfast and dinner, but I got a lot of exercise and don’t have to do dishes.  I’m currently in the hunt for an apartment or something of that sort. While I’ve found some appealing and dirt-cheap alternatives already, this is not Washington, DC, where you can scan the listings on Craigslist, tell lies about yourself at a few open houses, cut a check for the first and last month’s rent, and move in.  Most Argentine landlords want a 2-year lease and a garantía, where you sign over an entire other property as collateral- for an apartment lease.  For most Argies, this will consist of one’s parents’ house, but this is not an option for me While this seems absurd at first blush,  in a country where people still remember the peso devaluation of 2002 (where the government slashed the value of the peso, and thus everyone’s bank accounts, to dig out of a long recession), it sort of makes sense.

In other news: I did some traveling in March, and I should be putting up some of the pictures on Flickr tonight.

Blowing the lid off of Lonely Planet

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism, by Thomas Kohnstamm

This one has been coming for a while. A news blog I’ve been reading just published a summary of coverage of a former Lonely Planet writer’s tell-all book that has now spread all over the internet. After reading the Kirkus review of this book, I have no desire to read it, as it appears to consist mostly of tales of the author buying drugs and sinking to new lows to get girls to sleep with him. In one highly publicized passage, he described how a restaurant got a positive review:

“The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight,” he writes. “We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner.

“That performance earned a guidebook entry describing the restaurant as “a pleasant surprise” where “the table service is friendly.

However, most of the other juicy quotes that have arisen have been far more damaging to Lonely Planet, and seem to corroborate grumbles that I’ve been having with their business for a while. Mainly the author claims that “I was not able to go to all the places I needed to go to,” and that he instead would write up a “sort of mosaic job to tie up the loose ends.” He also repeatedly asserts that the advance Lonely Planet gave him (which is supposed to cover travel costs) was far from adequate.

I’m not surprised one bit by all of this. From what I can observe, Lonely Planet has been sitting on top of the travel guide food chain for a while: in the few hostel lobbies and airports I’ve been to, just about every young traveler has had a copy of their blue Argentina guide in hand, whether in English or another language. Being this fat and happy appears has not been good for them, as it seems to inspired a glib tone and complacent editing and updating. Some of the restaurant reviews in the current edition are in a such a glowingly laudatory tone that they sound like publicity penned by the management (“It’s an institution!”); a listing for a campground where I stayed noted its choice location but failed to note that this location happened to be across the street from an open-air nightclub which had already been in operation for several years.  In some entries about Argentina’s national parks, basic information about hiking is absent, but you will find a note that says: “For more information, see Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes” ($19.99 retail). To be fair, it would be impossible to include comprehensive trail reports, but some basic information for planning purposes would be easy and appropriate as LP books are supposedly geared towards the active/backpacker set.

As a coda to this story, my parents came to visit and brought me a copy of The Rough Guide to Argentina, which I’ve been using ever since.  It’s not better, but I like it more.

Here’s a link to the NYT blog entry where I first read about this, and from which I lifted several of the links.

Lujan: Catholic by Osmosis?

Thanks to my near-total lack of posts, my tiny readership is probably starting to wonder what the hell I’ve been up to for the past two(!) months. Here’s a quick outline:I arrived in Buenos Aires the morning of January 15th to start my six-month volunteer position with Habitat for Humanity of Argentina. While I could have put off the start of “work” for a few weeks to schlep around the country a bit, I felt so overwhelmed by the notion of being dropped into a completely new country by myself that I decided to go forgo this so I could start to meet people and feel centered. Bad idea. I reported to the national office, which lies in a suburb of Buenos Aires to start orientation and training. After about 48 hours of “capacitación,” which mostly consisted of going through educational activities geared to the intellectual level of 5th graders, I was already longing to get out. Luckily, after the first week, I got to escape for some real on-the-job training: Global Village. Global Village is a program that Habitat runs where groups of volunteers can stay for a week or two in another country and work on a construction site, sight-see, and learn a little bit about the local culture. This is is a group of Global Village regulars from Indiana who came along to build. I learned a lot about farming during my time with them.I was to spend a week and a half with the group, first as a trainee, then as a “House Leader,” a position that basically involves accompanying the group full-time and being the middleman between the volunteers and Habitat for anything that should arise. My experiences with the group ranged from the great and fulfilling (spending all day outdoors and getting my hands dirty, finally) to the comically bad (explaining to a group of Indiana farm folk that in Argentina, men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek).After that, I spent another fairly uneventful week in the national office, took a quick vacation to the beach (where it was cloudy 75% of the time), and finaly moved to Luján, the city I’m calling home for the next four months. Luján is a city of about 85,000 people and home to one of the regional offices of Habitat Argentina. I’ll write a bit more about my comical living situation here in the near future, but the most important thing to know about Luján is that it’s known as the “The Capital of Faith” here in Argentina. This is because it’s home to the country’s largest basilica, a monstrous set of granite stalagmites that can be seen from miles away in the flat pampas. What’s even more striking about the Basilica is the way that it figures into the country’s Catholic faith.   For most of the year, the millions of tourists/pilgrims who come to Lujan treat the pilgrimage a bit like a Sunday football game:  they show up for the main event (mass at the cathedral) but spend most of their time having cookouts and hanging out at the plaza in front of the basilica, where there are several dozen stands that sell exactly the same catholic knick-knacks.  It’s quite a sight to behold, and you can smell the charcoal smoke and the burning beef for miles.

Basilica Nuestra Señora de Lujan
For the rest of the week, Lujan is a fairly tranquil midsize town, just like many others in the province.  It has a university (Universidad Nacional de Lujan), a couple of pedestrian plazas that are good for relaxing and people-watching, lots of bars and restaurants, a few nightclubs that fill up with university students on Friday and Saturday nights- and lots of ice cream shops.  Not a bad place to call home for a little while.  Though I don’t think I like it as much as I’ll like Mendoza, where I’m headed this weekend. More on that soon…

For Jon Adams

MS-13MS-13:  El Salvador,  Fairfax County, and now- Argentina.(from a street in Palermo, Buenos Aires)