Sunday, April 25, 2010

Falling for Chile

El Cajón de Maipo -- outside Santiago. Whenever I have a rough day, I look back on these past (almost!) three months and remember why I can't stay mad at Chile.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Welcome to the World of Rotary: Service Above Self

The gray-haired Chilean man with round glasses stepped down from the podium and thrust the microphone in my face. I sat in the front of the ballroom of the Hotel Militar Coraceros, behind a long table with a plate of half-eaten noodle casserole with breadcrumb topping in front of me. I nervously tapped the binder of class notes at my feet. A visiting Rotary International director from Tucson was set to present a complex earthquake fund proposal heavy with Rotary jargon. He wanted me to translate. I looked into the crowd of men in suits and gulped. “Gracias,” I began. 

My Rotary host counselor Dan Luis Martinez invited me to the Viña del Mar club lunch meeting a week earlier. I’d prepared a photo-heavy PowerPoint presentation, which I'd saved it to my Macbook. I’d toted the laptop on the wild bus ride and up the steep hill to my class in Sausalito that morning. Several of the students glanced at me when I walked in the classroom that morning dressed in black pants, ballerina flats and a pink sweater that stood out among the Chilean college student uniform of distressed jeans, destroyed sneakers and bomber jackets. 

I slipped out early to walk down the hill to the Rotary meeting conveniently located 10 minutes away in a hotel on a quiet leafy street in Viña, a new location due to earthquake damages in their traditional meeting spot. I entered the lobby and tracked down my counselor in the crowd of mingling men in suits. I quickly realized that I was the only woman present among the dignified men, average age 75. 
A waiter passed around a tray of drinks, and I passed up the pisco sour for what looked like a fancy latte. The circle of men surrounding me quickly warned me that it contained alcohol. While the men sipped their drinks my host counselor introduced me to the president of one of the many clubs in Valparaíso. The gracious gentleman invited me attend one of his club meetings. Next the district governor handed me his card and offered to help me with anything I needed during my stay in Chile.   

The friendly Rotarians dialed up their hearing aids and practiced their English with me, asking me where I was from and what I was studying. They wanted me to meet the Rotary International director  visiting Chile from Arizona. All the while I engaged in the Rotary custom of exchanging cards with everyone I met. (Thanks to my Charleston sponsor club for giving me a stack of beautiful, professional business cards!)

Some of the Rotarians suggested I get in touch with the Valparaíso Rotaract club. I actually made contact with the group, a Rotary sponsored served organization for young people, before I left the States. I’m looking forward to meeting with them Friday evening and adding a Rotary-affiliated service project to my current volunteer activities at La Católica. 

After the three-course lunch the members stood to sing the solemn Rotary anthem. The meeting commenced with a presentation on community projects from the youngest member present. Afterward they asked me to stand and briefly introduce myself before the other American's presentation.

I thanked them for the invitation and expressed how grateful I was to finally get in touch with Rotary and how blessed I feel to be given this opportunity to study in Chile this year through the generosity of Rotary. In conclusion I presented them with the club banner from the Charleston club (I must say I’m proud of the pretty and colorful design depicting Broad Street).
After the two-and-a-half-hour meeting I was running late for my next class, but one of the hospitable Rotarians offered to drop me off at the university on his way into Valparaíso. Traveling between the two cities via car instead of jolting bus offered a new experience. As we sped on the highway I gazed out the window watching waves crash against the rocks below the castles and resorts of Viña as the sun glimmered and ships sailed on the cobalt sea. Thank you Rotary, I thought.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Porteña at heart?

I was young and in love. I remember the six-month affair as a hazy muddle of euphoria and depression, passion and frustration. When we went our separate ways my emotions faded. On the other side of the world I all but forgot my former infatuation.

Yet some memories still make me shudder or induce a wave of nausea while others accelerate my heart rate and induce a wave of nostalgia. I remember being cold and lonely, always lost. But I also remember smiling and dancing, feeling so alive.

After three years of 5,230 miles of separation, I suddenly reencountered my former flame. I'd always wondered what it would be like. I was sure my feelings would have changed -- I'd explored so many places since we left off. I was jittery at the first encounter, then a flood of long-turned-subconscious memories washed over me. We spent almost a week getting reacquainted. I kept thinking, How did we end up back together?

Melodramatic imagery aside (the turbulent relationship in question is with a city, not a man), my experience with Buenos Aires is complicated. The city seduced me with a dream-like, balmy summer and then turned on me with a tragic, dreary winter.

But I swooned all over again for the beguiling South American capital as soon as my taxi from the airport entered the city. With every verdant park, palatial building and Italian-inflected line of Spanish the driver uttered, a layer of my grudge melted.

I was back home. But it wasn’t so sweet. Although everything was familiar I found myself disoriented and confused, looking at maps upside down and furiously flipping through my Guia T bus guide. And things had changed. Where were all the mullets and mate drinkers? And when did Starbucks get here?

But running through the Bosques de Palermo, carrying out a load of shopping bags out of Palermo Viejo and wandering through slick art museums with my iPod blasting soothed my irritation. As did spending a day at the spa, lingering over gourmet dinners of spinach gnocchi with vintage Malbec and  downing dozens of cappuccinos and Volta ice cream cones (some of the best, coming from someone who frequented multiple gelato establishments daily during a three-week tour of Italy). I hate to admit it, but the 4:1 peso/dollar exchange rate can bring happiness.

Soon I forgave Buenos Aires. For everything. I would do anything to be back.

Why Buenos Aires? That's complicated -- It's a chaotic, European-style metropolis made up of a bundle of diverse neighborhoods at the far southern end of the world. A sprawling city known for books and theater, design and fashion, art and music, luxury and poverty, cafés and dulce de leche. It seems as if everyone on the street is walking a purebred dog or in a passionate embrace.  But all that comes with a heavy dose of exasperating bureaucracy, disconcerting plastic surgery and psychoanalysis and constant political protests. And watching elegant women clicking in heels and toting designer bags walk down the same block as leather-faced men from the slums driving horse-drawn carts and sorting through trash can make anyone feel uncomfortable.

The city has stolen and broken many a heart. So many who visit fall in love. But like a jealous, naive girlfriend I secretly believe that the swarms of tourists gushing about the clubbing scene (deserved -- during my taxi ride to the airport at 5:30 a.m. we passed still-pulsing clubs) just don’t know the city like I do.

On the colectivo bus ride to the Palacio Barolo where I interned with Time Out on Avenida de Mayo I contemplated my feelings. Buenos Aires is an exciting city. It’s a volatile combination of thrills and frustration. Anything is possible, yet nothing is possible. Things just don’t work the way they should. Its cycle of political strife, economic failure and government corruption continues.

Over cortados in the business district an 11-year expat and former supervisor tried to divert my fantasies about starting a life there. But the heart wants what the heart wants. And mine wants Buenos Aires. Whether Buenos Aires will ever have me back, that’s yet to be determined.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Into Patagonia

The sky dimmed with the passing hours as we leaned over the rails and pondered the colossal sea of ice looming below. Snow-crusted mountains framed the frozen city that extended beyond our vision, like the ocean itself. Thunder ruptured the silence whenever a chunk of ice cracked from the mass and crashed into the aqua lake below, shooting a water high into the sky. Each explosion brought on a wave of chills. The glacier seemed so powerful, so alive. The jagged jaws of ice gleamed a brilliant blue, their dagger-like forms jutting into the sky with an air of violence.

Standing in the mighty vicinity of El Glacier Perito Moreno in El Parque Nacional de Glacieres of southern Argentina is a thrilling, even spiritual experience. The glacier is an imposing, active presence. I mulled over the idea that the entire metropolis of Buenos Aires could fit inside the 100-square mile, 200-foot-tall mass of ice as the last of the sunlight gleamed an incandescent pink through a break in the clouds. Antarctica seemed dangerously close. It was ... surreal. There I was, more than 6,000 miles from home in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, facing one of the world’s natural wonders. 
A week earlier I hadn’t known this glacier existed, but after a three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires I'd landed in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina. I suddenly found myself 2,000 miles away from my apartment in Valparaíso and my chaotic new class routine in La Universidad Católica. I'd arrived with three new acquaintances-turned-friends: Natalie, my shining fellow Rotary Scholar and two tall, blond and beautiful Christian-school teachers. During the next three days we bonded over conversaton accompanied by Quilmes, empanadas, Malbec, ice cream and gooey Argentine pizza after our long days of excursions.

We took refuge in our cozy and rustic hospedaje in El Calafate, the boomtown gateway to Argentine Patagonia (its population has more than tripled since 2001). In the mornings Balén and her husband served us homemade bread and jam made from fruit from the backyard trees (our favorite tasted better than cherry pie) along with the quintessential medialunas. We topped our sweet-grain cheerios with vanilla or strawberry yogurt and sipped mate cocido or coffee by the old-fashioned stove. From the moment the warm and beautiful couple (always chasing after or scooping up their puppy-eyed, snotty-nosed toddler) first greeted us I swooned, dismissing any doubts I had about my former affinity for Argentine accents and memories of Argentine hospitality. The husband was a typical shaggy-haired and aquamarine-eyed Argentine – imagine an older brother of Gael García Berna (from The Motorcycle Diaries and Y Tu Mamá También).

Our second day in El Calafate we woke up for a three-hour bus ride to the village of El Chaltén, the base for some of the best trekking in Patagonia where we hiked around the Fitz Roy Massif. While walking through the sunny forest we met three red-headed Magellanic woodpeckers. The giant birds announced their presence with the drum of their tree-demolishing double knocks. Again I reflected on my circumstances -- Here I was, meandering though the rugged wilds of Patagonia, admiring turquoise lakes, peering down into gargantuan valleys and gazing up at the sheer granite faces of the extra-terrestrial-shaped Fitz Roy mountains. The peaks protruded like fangs into the clouds of the Patagonian heavens, perhaps the most spectacular on planet earth.

The next afternoon following a round of cappuccinos in the pleasantly touristy El Calafate, Natalie and I walked to the Laguna Nimez Reserve on the edge of town. The wind whipped our hair and our hiking boots sunk into the soft, wildflower-carpeted field shoring the lake. A flock of flamingos soared over the water while horses grazed and upland geese waddled through the grass.

Later that evening we hired a taxi to the Lago Roca, an almost-secret spot where the locals spend their weekend afternoons. Our driver turned out to be a private local guide, an opinionated character named Mauricio who drove us through the lonesome highways of rugged Patagonia, dodging dozens of leaping, dog-sized hares reminiscent of miniature kangaroos in the golden glow of evening. He paused for photo opps of aqua lakes and a took us for a look around of one of the estancias (a sheep farm in this case) before parking at the shores of Lago Roca to share a round of mate in the plains below El Perito Moreno. After the sunset we piled back in the car, just as the stars punctuated the humbling expanse of Patagonian sky to ride home in silent, sleepy gratitude. 

And there I was, unworthy, exploring Patagonia, the namesake of the ultimate brand of outdoor gear and the wilderness enthusiast’s definitive adventure at the southern ends of the earth.

(see the rest of my photos at

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On the Argentine Capital

Tomorrow I'm leaving for Buenos Aires, where I lived for half of 2007. Three years later I have mixed emotions on returning to the cosmopolitan South American metropolis. You could even say I'm nervous. There I had some of my highest highs and my lowest lows.

I liked Barcelona, Santiago and Madrid just fine, but as elegant or sophisticated as those cities could be, they lacked that certain energy. Buenos Aires throbs with it. I don't know if it's the ongoing history of economic and political struggle and protest, the passionate fusion of Latin American and Italian cultures or all the sensual Tango, but that city has something.

At 21, Buenos Aires swept me off my feet. I swooned for the chocolate amargo ice cream delivered by motorbike. At night my friends and I sipped Malbec and ate gooey pizza topped with salsa blanca and chorizo or bowls of creamy gnocchi on breezy sidewalks. I'd fly across the sprawling city in cheap colectivos and taxis, always clutching my Guia T. In the mornings I'd run laps in the Bosques de Palermo, admiring the rose garden and trying not to stare at all the affectionate couples and the bronzed, scantily clad joggers and inline skaters.

In the evenings I'd drink mate, charging up for the night ahead. While we'd wait in line to get in a boliche I'd stare at the silicone enhancements and genetic miracles ahead of us, barely concealed under thin layers of Lycra. Then we'd dance the night away and leave the still raging club to catch a bus home at dawn.

I'm remembering the afternoons I walked up and down avenidas Santa Fe and 9 de Julio, passing Plaza de Mayo and contemplating the protests or the marching madres de los desparecidos. I can still recite the barrios: hip Palermo, charming San Telmo, elegant Recoleta, chaotic Constitución, gritty Abasto, residential Belgrano, colorful La Boca and modern Puerto Madero.

Buenos Aires -- the land of Jorge Luis Borges, Maradona and Evita Perón. The capital of dulce de leche and chorripan. The massive city of mullets and make outs, full of dog walkers and green parks. Where tiny old ladies walk their little dogs at 3 a.m. dressed in fur coats and the men in the market belt out Italian love ballads. The land of vos y "zsho," a country where a thong is the equivalent of a swimsuit and no part of a cow is left uneaten. The place where I could afford blow outs and waxes and spent my weekends hiding my shock in avant-garde art galleries and sipping cortados in Victorian cafes.

I'm afraid I won't want to come back to the Pacific side of the continent. Even though I suspect I'll soon have similar emotions about Valparaíso, right now I'm oh-so ready to escape so I can put on a dress and take lots of pictures without fearing for my life. I plan to buy loads of books without going broke. I'm going to admire all the design and fashion, all too absent in my current home.

And after going to bed hungry in Chile I'm looking forward to escaping to a country where dinner is a meal, even if served at 11 p.m.