It's been a slice y'all -- stay in touch at www.verateschow.ca!
The time has come... our bags are packed, and in just a few moments we'll be sitting in a taxi heading to EZE for the first leg of our long journey home to Canada.
It's been a slice y'all -- stay in touch at www.verateschow.ca!
Hindsight is of course always 20/20, but now that our adventure in Argentina is drawing to a close, I nevertheless want to share some of the things I wish I had done differently.
The first one's a small one: I wish I'd had a better sense of the weather here, and packed accordingly. For some reason, I assumed that it would be always hot. And it's not! Argentina's got four seasons, and although places like Buenos Aires are fairly moderate (i.e., it doesn't snow in winter!) it can still get pretty chilly in spring and fall, when we were here.
History and Culture
I didn't really have a sense of Argentina's history and culture before we arrived, and I believe that had I taken the time to familiarize myself a little more with this, our transition from North to South America might have been a little smoother, or at least, that we would have had a deeper appreciation for the richness with which we were surrounded for eight months.
Sure, we read some picturebooks together, the boys and I, and I knew about Tango. Heck, I'd even heard of Eva Perron (and not just because of Madonna!) And, having watched (a LONG time ago) Motorcycle Diaries, and read (an even LONGER time ago!) Eva Luna, I was not completely unfamiliar with the South American ethos. We've even taken the time to have coffee with several people in Toronto who were either Argentine, or who had recently lived in the country, just to get some guidance before we embarked on our 8-month journey into the unknown.
So we kind of prepared.
And yet, I had no real sense of Argentina when we arrived.
I did not know, for example, about the Economic Crisis of 2001 and its impacts on Argentines from all social classes, which can still be felt today. I also had not realised how recently there had been a military dictatorship here, and at that as result of the estimated 30 000 "disappeared", the Mothers and Grandmothers still march every Thursday on Plaza de Mayo (we saw them just this past week!) It took me months to figure out Mate culture. And I had little sense of Argentina's physical regions and its fascinating Inca history (which in some ways parallels our Canadian First Nations story in the systemic eradication of origins culture) until we actually traveled to Missiones, Patagonia and Salta/Jujuy.
The next time I go to a place that is so very "different" in terms of socio-economics and politics, I will take better care, too, to research the money situation in advance.
We'd read about the blue rate before coming here, but didn't really "get" it. We also hadn't considered how the country's economic volatility would affect us as long-term foreign visitors. For example, realizing how frugal we'd had to be Sept - Dec, we'd decided to increase our weekly budget from $250 USD week for a family of four to $280 after the new year, thinking this would allow us a little more wiggle room. But, when the 30% inflation and plummeting blue rate were factored in, our USD did little to help us, and we ended up right where we'd started!
Perhaps the most significant factor on this trip was language. Although we did a little bit of prep in the form of a sticker book (and I had a few phrases already from high school, when my mother had forced me to learn some basic Spanish before my band traveled to Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico), our language skills were really rather pathetic, given that we'd be living in this country for nearly a year!
Although Tats was taking a daily Spanish class when she was here, I was pretty much resigned to picking up the bits and pieces I did through immersion, and through the occasional bout of "Cat Spanish". (Though the latter didn't address the Argentine-specific problem!)
Not speaking the language of the people really affects your everyday life: I had no idea what folks were saying to me the vast majority of the time, and everyone from bus drivers to shop owners to people we met on the street must have thought I was pretty stupid!
Not knowing the language also precludes one from having rich, meaningful relationships with "friends" you make abroad. Frequently having to resort to a game of charades to glean understanding or make oneself understood, "deeper" conversation topics seemed like insurmountable hurdles, and with most Argentines, we were restricted to superficial topics. Our only truly "deep" relationship developed with the Marias, and that was primarily because their English was exceptional. In essence, we were restricted to a subculture of ex-pats and English-speaking Portenos, which had its own charm, but which I felt inhibited us from truly experiencing all the greater culture Argentina in general and Buenos Aires in particular had to offer.
The only silver lining here was that I developed an enormous empathy for the many ESL families I work with back home in Ontario -- not only am I now more familiar with what it feels like to be reasonably intelligent but feel totally stupid, I also have a better understanding for why they don't learn English sooner: Life in a new country, with children, is BUSY, and basic survival often usurps language learning, despite a recognition of the latter's importance. Having said that, I also realise how critical it is now to learn the language of the place where you're living, and I will do my best to support the ESL families at my school in getting the language acquisition help they need to improve their situation.
Although I learned a lot as a teacher, I wish I'd been able to communicate more effectively with the locals.
I didn't have a lot of very specific expectations about coming to Argentina. I knew the weather would be warmer than in Canada, and I was looking forward to that. I also knew we'd have grand adventures (which we did), and I had been looking forward to discovering a new part of the world together with my children, and integrating our discoveries into our existing schema of how the world worked, and expanding that schema.
As we look out over the city this final morning here in Buenos Aires, I'm somewhat in awe of the fact that -- despite our lack of preparation in the ways outlined above -- we actually pulled this off. We had help from many people along the way, both emotional as well as financial. But ultimately, we are the ones who did it, this crazy year, and we are forever changed because of it.
Many people have asked us about $ here. How, for example, did we manage for several months at a stretch without access to a bank machine? How did we access cash here?
Now that we're leaving, and no longer have to worry about break-ins or theft, I will confess that we actually brought our entire supply of USD (plus a $1000 USD emergency/contingency fund) with us in cold, hard cash! For our family of four, for a four month stretch, that was about ten thousand US dollars. (We undertook this trip in two legs, so that we had a three-month stretch from Sept - Dec., and another leg after the new year, from Jan to May.)
Having our entire budget at our disposal was a risky venture. For one thing, if we spent it unwisely, we'd be broke at the end of our trip, and unable to eat or get to the airport! Also, if we were robbed, we'd be SOL. But, given our limited budget and Argentina's outrageous withdrawal fees, we elected to take the chance.
So... where did we hide the $$$ you might ask?
Well, to begin with, after paying our rent in a lump sum up front, we used an envelope system I had developed and organized while still in Canada. Each envelope was numbered in a series (1 - 5) and contained three additional envelopes (labeled "a", "b", "c") and enough USD to see us comfortably through three weeks of groceries, transportation, "entertainment" (museums, the zoo, donations to local musicians and street performers, and so on). With an assumed blue rate of 10:1, this amounted to about $800 USD per three-week period for our family of four. That allowed us to dine out once a week as well. Roughly every three weeks, we'd head over to one of our Arbolitos and exchange our USD for pesos. Sometimes -- if the rate was lousy -- we'd wait longer and exchange two envelopes, which meant we ended up having to exchange well over $1000 USD at a time. (We'd also brought an emergency fund of approx $1000 USD for each leg, which we exchanged in chunks thoughout our time here as needed: We used our ER fund in the first leg for a bus trip to Iguazu, and in the second leg for some medical appts as well as to help with our Salta trip. We are coming back to North America with $300 USD left over.)
Our resulting pesos were organized into the "1a", "1b", etc envelopes, then hidden in various inconspicuous spots throughout the apartment, and inventoried in two digital locations.
Many of our envelopes lived between the pages of books on the bookshelf in the living room here: A travel book about Puerto Rico, for example, housed our emergency fund. Our "medical expenses" pesos lived in Panama, and $350 ARS for the taxi ride to the airport was stored between the pages of volume 4 of a 23-volume encyclopedia set!
But our favourite and most easily-accessible hiding spot was a large map of Canada puzzle box, which we kept on a shelf in the bookcase.
Beneath the puzzle pieces there, our current and upcoming weekly envelopes lay nicely hidden from view.
Living on a cash system can be somewhat stressful, because it feels like one is always counting money. But for us, it ensured that we stayed more or less within our budget here, and never had to pay the outlandish fees to access funds from a bank machine, or be subject to the ridiculous exchange rates while doing so.
SOOOOOOooo not in the mood for packing! We tried, we really did this morning after breakfast with our landlady. But we just couldn't do it!
So, we elected instead to head off to Recoletta to enjoy one final, sunny afternoon at the feria there.
After doing a little touristy shopping and sight-seeing, we met some friends under the big, old tree, and shared an ice cream at Persicco. (The friends played a funny trick on the boys, and gave them a going-away present that consisted of a massive container of Dulce de Leche, which is very popular here, but which Alex and Simon despise! Except... SURPRISE -- it wasn't Dulce de Leche at all, but rather an assortment of candies, which the boys loved quite a bit, hehe!)
As a result of our procrastinations, we came home to this...
The boys went to play in their room for a bit while Tats cooked dinner and I attacked the mess in our room, during which I "lost" my phone multiple times in various piles.
After three hours of packing, I had successfully stuffed more or less everything into our three checked bags and four carry-on items, but not without massive overflow that simply could not come with us.
After the boys had been tucked into bed, the Marias came over one final time -- we shared some tears and some going-away presents, and loaded them up with three garbage bags full of clothes, groceries and the household items that invariably accumulate after a nearly a year of living abroad. (The most significant casualty was a wine red, black label designer jacket, which I dearly love, but which was a huge space hog, and which the Marias immediately loved, too, making our parting of ways -- mine and the jacket's -- considerably more palpable.) They ended up with so much "useful crap" that they had to take a taxi home.
Satisfied with our packing for the night, Tats and I hauled our zippered up suitcases out to the living room, and went to bed.
It's a bit surreal to be doing all these "lasts"... this afternoon was our final time volunteering at Las Heras Park with the street dogs; we brought all the newspaper we had collected over the weeks, and two giant bags of dog food, and said good-bye to both our four-legged and two-legged friends.
If we don't adopt another Humane Society dog when we get back to Toronto, we're thinking of at least volunteering at the local animal shelter once a week.
Thought it might be fun for our local friends, or those who visited us in BsAs this year, to play a little matching game: See if you can match up each map below with a location that we frequented. (Hint, I myself don't recognize them all, lol!)
The boys took us to the Bicentario Museum the other day; it's a place they discovered with Jeanette, downtown, one day when they tried to tour the Pink House which was closed.
Located just behind the Casa Rosada, at the former river's edge, the Bicentario Museum chronicles 200 years in Argentina's history, up to and including 2010.
The museum is built directly on top of the partially restored site of the old customs building from 1850, and modern elements have been carefully designed to incorporate the historical pieces from the building's original architecture. Exposed brick and old beams dance with modern marble and glass floors revealing the original foundations, while a series of rooms display artifacts from highlights in the country's history.
Unfortunately, most of the information is only available in Spanish, so visitors will need a bilingual friend or a keen sense of inference! Nevertheless, this museum is well executed, and worth a visit if you are downtown.
We invited the boys' Arts teachers to the park today for a little picnic: The Marias, Gabriel and Christian all came. It was rather a boisterous time, and lots of fun was had by all!
Our final visit to the zoo on Tuesday afternoon marked Tats' first time feeding the seals. We also saw the seal show one last time, said good bye to the Orangutan (we had brought her another banana), and had one final look into the hippo's wide, open mouth. And... we got up close and personal with a freely wandering turtle!
Those who live in Buenos Aires will be familiar with the somewhat unusual "Porteno" way of doing business: It's not uncommon, for example, for local business owners to lose a sale rather than make change for a 100-peso bill, and one often gets yelled at for touching before trying in shops. But last night's restaurant experience took crappy customer service to a whole new level!
In this second example of not-so-great travel adventures, I'll share a story that will make your hair stand on end, and your teeth chew carefully -- I should give Tatiana much of the author's credit here: The material below was taken largely from the review she wrote last night for Trip Advisor. ("I" is Tats.)
I also just want to insert that we've had lots of great experiences with restaurants here and with people. But the experience below must be shared, I felt, if only to help the next victim avoid such a nightmare!!!
We Got Served a Rusty Nail with a Side of Attitude
We'd been to La Cabrera once before and quite enjoyed the food and the atmosphere, so we decided to go there one more time before leaving the city. What a giant mistake! What follows is without question the worst restaurant experience of our lives -- no exaggeration.
It started out pretty well. Since we had reservations, we only had to wait for about 15 minutes before being seated -- that's not too bad for Buenos Aires. A pleasant enough waiter took our order, and soon brought us our starter -- a caprese salad. It looked and tasted just fine, until I took a bite, and, to my horror, pulled A NAIL out of my mouth.
Not a fingernail -- a metal nail, made out of iron. Sharp. Rusty.
Had I bitten it the wrong way, I could have had a pretty bad mouth injury! I was suddenly glad I had gotten my tetanus shot before coming to Buenos Aires, though I would never have guessed that I was putting myself at risk of tetanus by dining at a restaurant that claims to be in the top 50 in Latin America!
I held the nail up for inspection by my dinner companions, and the four of us examined it carefully, somewhat in shock. Still, at this point we were willing to forgive the establishment. I mean, freak accidents happen to everyone, right? I thought about snapping a picture, but it in the end stupidly decided that it was unnecessary. Surely a restaurant of this caliber would take care of this, we figured. Our server was quite apologetic, after all, and even though my appetite was rather spoiled, we figured we'd give them the benefit of the doubt.
However, what came next was rather unbelievable: After the waiter had brought our bill, he informed us that we had not been charged for the salad (duh!) or the dessert (ice cream for the kids; we didn't even want to order any dessert after what happened, but the kids had really been looking forward to that...) Plus, they brought out a tree of cheap lollipops to appease us which, frankly, felt more like a slap in the face. At the very least, they could have taken out the cubierto (seating charge), we felt!
That's when we asked to talk to a manager, in English. Two people came in succession, and instead of apologizing, they tried to explain to us what a seating/cutlery charge is, as if we didn't know, after 8 months in the city. Finally, they agreed to take out two cubiertos out of four (which is something many restaurants routinely do for us without our asking, since lots of places tend to waive cubiertos for the kids). In the end, we got about 5 bucks off our US$100+ meal. We did take a picture of THAT, and are including it with the review.
We would have argued further, but unfortunately one of our kids was a bit under the weather and getting really tired and nearly falling asleep, so we decided to just pay the bill and leave. We certainly did not feel like leaving a tip at that point, so we paid exactly the amount the restaurant charged. We felt somewhat bad for the waiter, but could not imagine paying any extra to the establishment after what had just happened. However, our empathy for the waiter quickly evaporated after he very carefully and deliberately counted the pesos we paid him and then had the audacity to point out that "tips were not included", implying that we better give him some. I understand that what happened not exactly his fault, but seriously? You just served someone a rusty nail in a salad and -- having witnessed our rather lengthy discussion with the personnel at your place -- feel like it was the right thing to ask for a tip after all that?
On our way out, the hostess asked us how everything was, and seemed rather embarrassed and horrified to hear of our experience. She was extremely apologetic and had told us that she thought that it was completely unacceptable. I felt for her. I know I would have felt quite awful if an establishment I represented dealt with customers in such a manner.
Wow. Just wow. Let me tell you, we left with a VERY bad taste in our mouths, and there is no question we'll be telling people to avoid this place. A nail in a salad, outlandish and ridiculous as it is, can be forgiven, but the way the restaurant dealt with it is absolutely inexcusable and is indicative of very serious problems.
Canadian, vegetarian, PPL, certified teacher and mother of twins, home schooling for the year, in Argentina!
Visit me online at www.verateschow.ca