Friday, June 20, 2008

Dimming the lights

The seasons are turning in Buenos Aires. The days are getting shorter and the air colder. For the past two days I have walked around through an incessant drizzle, dodging puddles and searching in vain for decent anti-frizz gel. Although it’s annoying to have my hair act as a personal barometer, most of me welcomes the rain. Cairo receives less than an inch of rainfall a year, which is a far cry from Seattle’s annual precipitation. The rain here reminds me of home. It cleanses the air, the streets, the buildings. During these past two days, it’s seemed as if the entire city is wringing itself out, purging itself of impurities. A veil of peace has settled, at least temporarily. Before the rain came this week, thousands of Argentines flocked to the Plaza de Mayo to protest Cristina’s policies and the government’s handling of the conflicto del campo. The government has raised export taxes on crops in what they claim is an attempt to keep Argentinean goods competitive in the global market, curtail inflation, and keep Argentines fed first by discouraging exportation. The conflict between the government and the countrymen has escalated as of late, but the rain has forced displeased citizens indoors. The city is quieter, and it seems appropriate to retreat, to stow myself away in a café with a large cup of tea and gaze out at the dark streets.

The tea and the darkness give me the perfect opportunity to think back at the contrast of last week, of all the color and activity. Last weekend was a long one, as Monday was a holiday. On Saturday we went to Tigre, which is an area about an hour outside downtown Buenos Aires. Tigre is like a very countrified version of Venice, because its inhabitants all live on small islands, and the fastest way to travel between islands is by boat. After an amazing lunch of parilla, or barbecue, we wandered over hill and dale, exploring the island and watching the boats. It was late afternoon, and the shadows of the trees created tiger stripes on the muddy river. Silver-lined trees stood sentinel on the riverbank, and the crisp air and wind kept us vigilant.

Sunday was a complete reversal from Saturday. I went to a soccer game. By soccer I of course mean ‘football’, which, as anyone outside the US will tell you, is what God intended it to be called. The game was Argentina vs. Ecuador, and was a World Cup qualifier. I was expecting my eardrums to explode. I was expecting to be accosted by fans in rapid-fire Spanish on what exactly a couple of Americans were doing there, and then to be mummy-wrapped in Argentinean flags and be force-fed dulce de leche. The experience was actually a little anticlimactic. Apparently games between two Argentinean teams are way more intense. This game was oddly calm. Ecuador scored in the first half, and then Argentina scored in the last 30 seconds of the game. Since it was a tie, the World Cup standings don’t change at all. Hm. It was just like a game back home, only the stadium probably could have held the entire population of Lichtenstein.

Monday a bunch of us went to an estancia, which is a ranch. We just spent the day eating more delicious barbecue, wandering around, and relaxing. All in all, a very trying day. I went out on Wednesday and Thursday night this week, which here means getting home between 4:00 and 6:00 am and then going to work/class the next day, all bright-eyed and bushytailed. I have yet to develop the Argentine stamina of steel, so tonight I am sitting in my café, drinking my tea, and am quite happy to go to bed early and get some rest. Tomorrow Natalie and I are taking the ferry to Uruguay for the afternoon, and then almost definitely going out, so it’s good to take a pause in the middle. I can’t think of anything better right now than sitting here, watching the dark rain, and ordering a second pot of tea. I need to soak up some quiet time, to dim the lights for a moment before plunging into the color and action once again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Buenos Aires does not have designated 'going out' nights. In this city that loves to live, there is always something to do, which is why on Monday night I found myself at a drum concert. It's called 'La Bomba' and is held every Monday in a giant, concrete warehouse that looks more like a parking garage than a concert venue. A conductor leads roughly 10 middle-aged guys who play timpani, sets, bongos, and djembes. It's crowded and hot, people and music straining against the raw, unpainted walls. Natalie, her friend Lauren and I jumped right into the tide with our fellow free spirits, dreadlocks and the occasional t-shirt flying into the air around us. I carried my purse, my jacket, but no inhibitions. For awhile I just danced in my own space, concentrating on the music for me. However, somewhere around the 1-hour mark I stopped to really look at the band and the crowd. Everyone in the band looked incredibly happy and at ease. What struck me was that they were putting their music forth with complete abandon, allowing the crowd as a whole but also individuals within the crowd to digest the music and take it as their own. It was a musical peace offering to the masses with no fine print or strings attached. It was open, and clear, and honest. We may have been stuffed into some garage-like locale, but this was to muffle the noise for the sake of the neighbors, not because the event was taboo. This revelation may not sound ground-breaking, but seen through the frame of recent emigration from the Middle East, the openness was striking.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be open and closed, what is presented and withheld, and which of these actions can be qualified as 'honest'. What does it mean for a city to truly unfold itself to those who seek to understand it better? In Cairo, women are meant to be hidden. Their honor is sacred, and hijabs and nigabs are a very clear reminder of that value. However, because women's coverings so clearly demonstrate societal values, I find them somewhat idiosyncratic. By covering themselves, by hiding away so much skin, women blatantly expose something incredibly personal; their beliefs. By hiding one thing, something else is revealed. In Buenos Aires, women do not cover themselves, which of course reflects an equally strong set of values, just one that I am more accustomed to. This social exterior seems placid, without mystery. However here there are also layers beneath the surface. Buenos Aires may be relatively tranquil now, but it hides a dark underbelly of a past wrought with military coups and colonial struggles. That mothers march in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday, or that Argentinians look strikingly European are both indications that this country cannot escape its past, or the values that helped build the society it is today; that in small ways it's attempting to address its roots and develop a comfortable synthesis of old and new. I feel like Cairo operated more in extremes. It was louder, dirtier, harsher and at times somewhat overwhelming. But in the land of sand and sun, I couldn't help but admire the energy. Cairo was presented to me, undistilled and unfiltered. So far, Buenos Aires is revealing itself more gradually to me. Buenos Aires and Cairo could not be more different, but I'm so glad I get the chance to go to both places, to compare how different cultures unravel themselves. I get to observe what it means for a city to be honest to its own past as well as those who visit. I can only hope that my time here will help me peel away more layers, unraveling the picture and making what initially seemed simple infinitely more complex.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Buenos dias Buenos Aires

It's been almost a week since I touched down in Argentina, and I think I'm doing a pretty admirable job of changing hemispheres/continents/weather patterns/food types/people/language/residence. I love Buenos Aires. It is so completely different from Cairo, and I think I'm developing a bad habit of saying, "Oh this is interesting. In Egypt..." Have to work on that. BA is different, but I think it's going to be a fantastic summer. A little run-down of the differences between Cairo and Buenos Aires thus far:

Street names: Since Spanish and English use the same alphabet, there's no transliteration involved. You never find a street that's called one thing at the beginning and something else at the other, i.e. 'Abd El-Hamid' vs 'Abd Al-Hameed'. All hail consistency.

Clothing: I went to school with very wealthy Egyptians, so they dressed pretty differently from the general populous. However here no one wears burkas, hijabs, or galabiyas. The common ensemble includes nice jackets, tight jeans, fluffy sweaters and something leather, probably including boots. The shopping is's going to be a problem.

Food: Argentina has a huge Italian and Spanish influence, so a lot of the food here is pizza, pasta, or steak. The meat is delicious...I've heard the pizza and pasta are as well. I live in an incredibly nice neighborhood, and am lucky enough to be surrounded by health food stores, so I've had no problem finding gluten-free substitutes. I'm still amazed that it's so easy to be gluten-intolerant here, but there you are.

Language: I can understand it! Woo hoo! I understand about 98% of what my teacher says in class, and a lot less on the street, but I'm practicing constantly, so I know I'll get better every day. I'm interning for a non-profit here called Consciencia, and I speak completely in Spanish when I'm at work. It's hard right now and my boss speaks really quickly, but I know it will be a great way to learn. The non-profit mostly focuses on education and promoting civil responsibility to students.

Residence: I'm living in a student residence, just like I did in Cairo, but this one is smaller. It used to be a mansion and has been renovated for student housing. It's beautiful. There is a large kitchen, a great living room, and my room is really spacious (although without windows or bookshelves). Everyone in the house is very nice. Most people will only be here for a month, so it will be interesting to be here for the rotation/turnover at the end of June.

Religion: Islam prohibits the eating of pork. I cannot even tell you how many different forms of ham I've seen here thus far. Islam also frowns upon the consumption of alcohol. Wine and beer are such an accepted part of the culture here that our program actually provided them for us at the welcome dinner earlier this week. I know that shouldn't shock me, especially b/c the drinking age is 18, but I'm just used to living in dry dorms. Viva el vino.

Boys: Argentinian boys are cute. Everyone here seems to be a serial dater, though. I was talking to Sophia, who's one of the program coordinators. She explained to me that it was really normal to constantly be in a relationship. She said most Argentinians would probably have about 20 boyfriends or girlfriends with 2-3 serious ones before getting married. Ah! In Egypt, 'dating' means meeting the family of the man you're going to marry, and you'd better as hell still be a virgin. If you never get married? Tough luck.

That's the rundown for now. Plenty more updates to come.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A bookmark

Today was the end of my semester in Cairo. I can write the sentence, but it still hasn’t really sunk in yet that I’m done with Egypt and on the plane to Argentina. I’ve been thinking about the end for about four weeks now, since spring break ended. Nothing extremely blog-worthy has happened since then. I went to Khan and bought souvenirs, I finally made it to see the pyramids at Giza, and in the same day I got back in the saddle and rode, very slowly, around a second set of pyramids at Abu Sir. Twice in the last week, I took a late night ride on a felucca full of friends, laughing and drinking as we glided over the Nile. I took seven finals in one week, I attended half a dozen farewell dinners, and then I finally said goodbye.

This could just be another day in a life. On the downside, I’m aboard a plane, eating exceptionally bad airplane food. On the plus side, there happens to be an extremely good looking Brazilian with dreadlocks slumbering next to me, and the airline I’m flying is Italian, so they offer wine as part of the complimentary beverage service. I’ve boarded a plane dozens of times before, shuttling off to various ends of the earth. But this time is significant, because it marks the end of four months living without: toilets where you can flush the paper, nonleaded gas, easily-accessible gluten-free food, stop signs in English, and set prices. It hasn’t always been easy. Cairo tested me, physically and mentally. To see and experience something so alien, so completely different from the US, has definitely made me look at the world and myself almost from a different dimension. If every new environment is like a funhouse mirror, then every time we look out at the world we see ourselves reflected back from a different angle, new parts distorted and magnified. If I didn’t come away from Cairo feeling like I saw new layers of myself and the world, well, I must have been walking around with my eyes closed. Fortunately, this is not the case.

I’m sure the introduction of a new environment will only throw what I have learned into sharper relief. I can’t really describe exactly how Cairo has affected me. It’s always hard to explain exactly why we are friends with the people we are, or why we love our families, or why we harbor an unreasonably strong dislike for spinach. We just do. In the same vein, Cairo just has changed my perspective. I don’t know how, it just has. Somehow the hot, dry air, unmitigated sun and teeming city energy have seeped into some invisible, semi-permeable membrane of mine, and I think it will have a hard time seeping out again. Cairo made studying sociopolitical conflicts and history and diplomacy real concepts for me, and it reaffirmed what I should be doing with my life. It was nothing like what I thought it would be, and everything it should have been. With that thought, I raise my flimsy, plastic cup full of wine to the end of a semester of adventures, and the beginning of what hopefully will be an amazing summer. Cheers.