"Women are the guardians of continuity. If the hearth moves, they move with it. Remember, it is the gypsy women who keep their men on the road."

~"Boomerang Love," Jimmy Buffett

Eso es lo que dijo ella: Office Rules

The first rule of the Office is that there is no office. Not really, seeing as how I just mentioned it in my last entry. But before Selene and I made the decision to move-in together, we definitely set some initial ground rules to live by. For no other reason than our personal amusement, we officially referred to them as “pacts.” Although melodramatic nomenclature may be unnecessary, I do adhere to the belief that having a frank discussion about idiosyncrasies and personal habits is necessary for any people to live together. In this particular situation, it was especially crucial since we would not just be sharing an apartment, but an actual bedroom. It had been years since I’ve had a roommate in the literal sense of the word, and I’d grown accustomed to privacy, as demonstrated by the “No-pants Rule” implemented in Austin. While I’m pretty sure that the success of our current living situation has more to do with compatible personalities than anything else, I thought sharing some of these random, arbitrary ground rules might shed some light onto the random quirkiness that goes on in the Office.

  1. Spanish – The primary reason that had any doubts about living together had to do with the fact that we both wanted to improve our Spanish and learn more about the Argentinean culture. After all, sequestering the two sole Norteamericanas in Tucumán doesn’t sound like a particularly immersive cultural experience. As such, we made a strict resolution to speak Spanish for an allotted time every day. Usually, we started in the morning when we were most awake and out running errands. The minimum was 4 hours a day. This requirement has slackened since we’ve started work, partly because we see each other less, but mostly because we’ve started hanging out with students and locals. A typical weekend night involves us sitting at a table full of beer bottles and chatting with Tucumanos into the wee hours of the mornings. That counts.
  2. La Ruta de Empanada– When we all arrived in Buenos Aires for orientation, each becario received a welcome packet from their respective province with an assortment of maps and brochures. Most included information on the arts and culture of the various touristy activities. Tucumán provided us with a couple maps (which we’ve used to great effect) and this pamphlet called “La Ruta de Empanadas,” which is this list of the top 25 empanada eateries in the city. Since my proposed Fulbright side project was to learn as much as I could about Argentine cuisine, this endeavor made perfect sense. Eager to take on a new, silly project, we decided to follow this Ruta, which has been no easy task since it is laid out in an inexplicably spiral pattern which has had us running around the town. We’ve hit our share of setbacks, but the end is near, and a detailed review of the experience is to come. I’ve even finally managed to refer to the project as “academic in nature” with a straight face.
  3. Health – One commonality that Selene and I immediately noticed was our desire to stay fit and healthy during our time here. In reference to the item above, this goal was particularly pointed since a diet consisting of empanadas is not particularly conducive to leading a healthy lifestyle. In many ways, the Argentine diet and lifestyle is in direct opposition to everything I consider conventional wisdom regarding healthy and good habits, let alone everything I’ve been taught as a fitness instructor. From the sad little nutrient-less breakfasts to the midnight pizza dinners, it was like being a slovenly college student all over again. Case in point, during the first week I was Couchsurfing with Mariana, I’m not sure I ate any vegetables. Just big slabs of meat with a carb or starchy side – I’ve never craved a tomato more than I did that week. Naturally, I was a gracious guest that cleaned my plate (eventually), but I was very much looking forward to having a kitchen where I could have some control over the portion sizes and quality of ingredients. Having a roommate who was on board definitely made it easy to accommodate. Also, having a gym buddy is effective when you don’t feel like getting out of bed at 8 AM.
  4. Cell phone – And now we come to the biggest, baddest pact of all. For reasons unknown even to myself, I thought it would be a fun challenge to see how long I could last in Argentina without a cell phone. In the past, whenever I have lived or traveled abroad, I was never gone for enough time to warrant purchasing a travel phone or SIM card. With technological advances such as Skype, wide internet access, and Facebook, there were always different ways to get around it. Surely there are occasions where a phone call would make things more convenient, but at the same time, the work-arounds listed above can be hardly described as inconvenient. On top of that, I have always wanted to attempt a dramatic social experiment such as living out of a backpack, living a 100% sustainable lifestyle, 1 paragraph e-mails, etc. In the States I never used my phone that much anyway, so it seemed like a challenge I would have the easiest time transitioning to. Having a “fresh start” in a new country (no prior contracts, no local contacts, etc) seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out. Luckily I have a roommate who is game for just about any of my random vagaries, so I’ve got a companion who has embarked on this fool’s mission with me.

    At this point, it’s been 2 months and counting, and we’re still going strong. More than anything, the external reaction to this pact has been more fascinating than its actual impact (or lack thereof) on our daily lives. For example, Argentineans are always shocked (“Imposible!”), because they are a culture that relies heavily on texting and phone calls. The reaction from home, however, has been surprisingly encouraging. I guess I never noticed it while I had a phone, but being separated from one has given me a fresh perspective. There was a surreal moment last week where I’d be sitting at a table of four. At one point, three of my friends were having three separate silent text message conversations with absolutely no interaction with the present company. Obviously, being without a phone, I was the odd one out. But as an objective observer, I’m not sure that I really want membership to this particular club.

At any rate, I’ll be sure to keep you guys posted on the status of the cell phones, and every other pact. In the meantime, we can finally share the beauty that’s the Office. The visitors that come always have a good time (That’s what she said!).
Defenders of our Apartment

Rocking the burnt orange on my side of the room

Panoramic view of the living/sleeping/work area

Our House: Finding an Apartment in Argentina

Prior to my departure, everybody kept asking me whether I had secured a homestay, apartment, dormitory, etc in Tucumán. Typically I would respond with a shrug and tell them I would figure it out once I arrived. In retrospect, I must have come off as downright cavalier about what is arguably the biggest concern for people traveling abroad. Still, between helping international students find housing in Austin and hopping around the city finding adequate housing for myself, I’ve just seen way many too many people get burned trying to arrange their housing prematurely. On top of being exceedingly difficult (can you imagine trying to do lease paperwork online?!), it isn’t a particularly reliable method. There are simply too many variables: how safe is the area, how far is it from the center/work/nearest grocery store/bus stop, what bills and utilities are included, what is the actual condition of the apartment etc. I would gladly pay for a week at a hotel and be homeless for a few days over finding myself stuck in a dodgy place and having to deal with that for 8 months. Thankfully, I didn’t have to pay for a week at a hotel… I didn’t actually have to pay for anything. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Talk to people – I remember trying to explain Craigslist to some locals, and they just sort of chuckled. “No existe.” It quickly became evident that my traditional methods of house-hunting weren’t going to fly. So I asked them how people in Argentina find housing. Their reply: “Contactos.” My primary contactos were a group of Couchsurfers and students who told me to check out the bulletin boards at the various facultades sprinkled around the city. Sure enough, on our first try, we hit the mother lode of ads for roommates, tenants, boarders, and everything in between. Later on when I had a list of prospective locations, they gave me valuable, honest feedback on which ones were a deal/rip-off, what was a good/dodgy area, etc. You can’t get that type of service from a realtor.
  2. Maps, Maps, Maps - I know I sound like a Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs song, but I cannot stress the need for a good, detailed city map. Usually the tourist office or information center should be able to provide you with one. Use it, mark all over it, and treasure it. Google Maps is a useful tool, but sometimes it’s just helpful to get a panoramic view. For example, at first glance, Tucumán is laid out in a very intuitive way: a gridlike system of numbered one-way streets. Its only idiosyncrasy (and it’s a big one) is that at various intersections throughout the city, the streets change names. Somebody who wasn’t aware of that minor detail could have wasted a lot of time walking in circles.
  3. Lace up your walking shoes –I find that if I’m riding as a passenger on a bus or a car, it’s very easy to zone out on your location. On foot, you have to take a much more active role in where you’re going. Distances have always been hard for me to gauge abstractly. Walking provides a concrete way to conceptualize the time it takes to get from Point A to Point B. You get a better view of the street signs and numbers, which in turn helps you familiarize yourself with various landmarks and places. Additionally, when you’re on foot, you can start, stop, rest, eat, and drink at your leisure. As we were traversing the city, whenever we were tired or hungry we would pop into the nearest café or heladeria as needed. While seemingly trivial, this step was crucial in preventing burn-out. Finally, there is the practical house-hunting aspect. When we were on foot, we passed by several residences with “For Lease” signs. By keeping half an eye out, you’ll find a lot more prospects.
  4. Know where you are- Arguably, one of the most frustrating things about house hunting is communication. There is nothing worse than finding the place of your dreams, and then having to wait for a response on its availability, price, etc. That is one of the shortfalls with e-mail and doing things online. As mentioned above, Argentines don’t put as much stock into doing things online. Every ad and flyer we found only gave phone numbers. This just became a matter of being strategic and knowing about the culture. We figured that most people would be at work or school during regular business hours. For this reason, we made all of our phone calls during the siesta hours, when we assumed everybody would be at home. In the period of 30 minutes, we made over 10 cold calls, and I would venture to guess about 90% of them answered. We were able to make appointments to visit the places within the next day. I was shocked – I don’t think that type of return would ever happen in the States.
  5. Couchsurfing – I know I’ve talked it up a lot in the past couple of posts, but Couchsurfing has really been my saving grace during my stay here. The entire first week, I crashed with one of Tucumán’s most active members. In addition to making me feel right at home (pretty much, I freely came and went at my leisure, including one day in which I was completely bed-ridden ), she introduced me to her friends, family, and workplace.

    On top of that, it was through Couchsurfing that I actually landed in my current apartment. A few weeks before leaving, I posted a brief introduction on the message board and solicited any leads on housing. One of the responses was from a gentleman whose elderly mother rents office space. A room had recently become available, and for safety/security reasons, they thought it might be worthwhile to rent to a student as opposed to a business. Long story short, we visited the place, fell in love with it, and now we live in “The Office” (more to come soon).

I don’t make any illusions about my method being stress-free or surefire, because it was still a lot of work, and I was pretty beat-up by the end of the week. Still, I talk to some of my fellow Fulbrighters who have bounced around from hostels to failed homestays and had to deal with no gas, hot water, or electricity. All things considered, it’s kind of embarrassing how easy the transition was for me. Interestingly enough, I found that an old-school approach was the most effective: tapping all the resources and contacts you have readily available (using a little creativity and string-pulling as needed), calling on phones (payphones and landlines, no less!), pretty much just getting on the street and talking to people. I guess sometimes retro is the best way to go. At the very least, it’s true for 80’s music!
Our house it has a crowd There's always something happening And it's usually quite loud

Rock 'n Roll: How to Pack for 9 months Abroad

In As Good as it Gets, there is a scene where Helen Hunt’s character (Carol the Waitress) is in her bedroom with her entire wardrobe sprawled on her bed. “There’s no way to pack for this trip!” That’s pretty much how I felt the week before the trip. I used one backpack for the entire Central America trip, and that was no problem. The difference is that in Argentina, I needed to pack for three seasons. I was facing the typical dilemma that plagues all travelers. On one hand, I didn’t want to overpack since it’s a hassle. Nevertheless, irrational fear of being caught unawares in some far-fetched unexpected situation always creeps in. Maybe I’ll be invited to an exclusive black-tie gala at the Casa Rosada, or perhaps encounter the freak snowstorm of the century. Or worse, maybe I’ll get caught in the middle of a labor strike and every sock manufacturer in the country will halt productions. Refusing to give into this temptation, I set a limit myself, namely the weight limits set by the airline: One carry-on and one-checked bag of 15 kgs. (Normally international flights would have much higher limits, but we were taking a domestic airline from Buenos Aires to Tucumán, so we were subject to very strict baggage limits.)

I accepted this challenge whole-heartedly, since it also gave me a convenient excuse to rid myself of years of accumulated shit. In addition to making traveling easier, there is the romantic appeal of living simply, being above worldly possessions, appreciating the ones I have, etc. Seeing as how I hadn’t gone through some of the items in my room since I left for college, this was no easy task. My strategy was to take a multi-pronged attack. I started with a trial run in which I packed everything I wanted to, fully aware that I would surpass the limits I set for myself. That didn’t matter, once I weighed it, I would know exactly how much work I had to do. From there, I would systematically and brutally cut. If for some reason I needed to add something to the “must pack” pile, I forced myself to toss out two objects as a self-inflicted punishment for not remembering it in the first place.

The process was very slow-going. There was a constant shuffle between the various piles I had created for myself: pack, maybe pack, don’t pack but keep in storage, and toss. There were also several trips to Goodwill and a couple local charities that I wanted to patronize (again… strategy. It is no coincidence that I selected organizations which were tax-deductible). As to be expected, most of my luggage was bogged down by unnecessary amounts of clothing and toiletries. I thought about just sucking it up and steeling myself for heavy fees, but when I did the math, I realized that nothing I owned was worth what they were asking. Here are some steps I took to cut the load:

  1. Get rid of all white items (except for maybe socks) – They show dirt too easily, which isn’t conducive to wearing clothes multiple times before washing.
  2. Get rid of all packaging (boxes, plastic covers, etc) – I know it feels poetic to have something brand-new for a trip since it’s a new chapter in your life and you want it to be perfect and everything, but all it does is take up unnecessary space. You’re going to open it up once you arrive anyway, so you might as well see if you can’t save some space by jigsawing it into a crevice or pocket.
  3. No “outfits” – I think girls are especially guilty of having a favorite “outfit,” but it serves little purpose beyond feeling cute. My rule is that if an article of clothing doesn’t match at least two other items in your wardrobe, get rid of it. If it isn’t versatile, it’s a waste of space. Function trumps fashion. No exceptions.
  4. Avoid clothing with text – This may be less crucial if you’re going to a country that speaks the language, but it occurred to me that nobody here was going to find my snarky pop-culture graphic tees funny. I know solid colors are boring, but at least they’re universally understood. Plus, it may give people less of an excuse to stare blatantly at my chest.
  5. Drop all brand-loyalty - A full bottle of shampoo is about 15 oz. Lotion can go up to 32 oz. These revelations made me realize how much space I was wasting on personal items that are readily available worldwide, and usually cheap.  As painful as it was to part ways with some of my favorite brands, I was able to shed about an extra 10 lbs. in luggage. In case you are wondering, no, Argentina doesn’t sell Herbal Essence, and yes, I do still smell like flowers.

Obviously, these rules will vary widely depending on your location. If you are traveling to some rougher spots where items like shampoo, batteries, and sport bras really are luxuries, you will have to adjust accordingly. In particular, #1 and #4 are kind of arbitrary, but they were effective in helping me reduce my load. Pretty much, I assessed everything I had and tried to find some common quality that would give me an excuse to get rid of stuff. Apparently I really like graphic t-shirts.Here is the “unedited” version:

After following the rules I made for myself, here are the items I was able to get rid of:
The dejected ones

Now for the packing process itself. As silly as it sounds, there are several different schools of thought when it comes to packing. Naturally, I researched (ie. Googled and YouTubed) each of them thoroughly, experimented with them, and ultimately settled for a hybrid of the Rolling Method and the Rational Packing Method (the latter is worth reading just because the writer is kind of a jerk about it). Pretty much, I laid a few pieces of similar-sized clothing on top of eachother, rolled them up tightly, and secured them with a rubber band. Here are some other suggestions:

  1. Resist the urge to “stuff” – I know how it feels. You see a crack in the corner, and you think you think you can wedge one last bottle of facial cleanser or one last book in there. Fight the temptation. A little bit of air is a good thing.
  2. Ziplock bags are your friend – A little air is good, too much is just a waste of space, as mentioned above in Tip #2. Plastic bags are a great way to stay organized and prevent messes, but they just become a squishy, amorphous pain in the ass if you don’t squeeze out the excess. I go so far as sucking the air out of the corner of the bag myself. Think about those Saturday morning infomercials for the vacuum-seal that allegedly keeps meat fresh in the freezer for over a year. You want it that tight.
  3. Know your luggage – Before you start stuffing the main compartments silly, take a moment to explore the anatomy of your suitcase/backpack. Usually, there are a few hidden places on the inside that could be utilized for extra storage. For me, it was a zipper that separated the frame from the bottom lining of the suitcase. I filled those cracks with some scarves, and it actually made packing easier since it made the bottom of the suitcase level.
  4. Underneath the scarves is a passageway to Narnia
  5. Know where you’re going – In preparation for this trip I contacted the Fulbrighters from last year to ask exactly what they needed, and what they wished they left behind. What they wore to work, what classroom resources they had available, how cheap groceries were, etc. That helped me ditch a bunch of heavy textbooks and teaching aides I would probably never use.
  6. Use ALL your resources – At some point you just have to get creative. If need be, cheat. No matter how I cut it, I could not fit an entire year’s worth of possessions into one piece of luggage. So I tried something different. We were meeting our referentes for orientation in Buenos Aires before heading to our respective provinces. They were only going to be there for 2 days. That’s carry-on territory, easy. So, I e-mailed my referente ahead of time, and asked if she were willing to check in one of my suitcases as her own. She agreed.

    If I'm being completely honest, my second suitcase was about 3 kg overweight. Maybe the agent took pity on me because I was foreign and alone. Maybe he thought I was cute. Maybe he didn't think I spoke any Spanish and didn't want to bother trying to explain the fees to me. At any rate, he let it slide. Whatever, Pyrrhic victories are still victories. 
    Obviously, not everybody is going to be as lucky as I was with #10. But I like to think that luck has something to do with it, too. My end result: 3 charities satiated, 2 medium-sized suitcases, 1 carry-on stuffed to the brim with books, $0 baggage fees. Airport owned.

    **Update** Just a couple days after I published this post, I read an article in the New York Times that demonstrated how a flight attendant can pack for 10 days in one carry-on. She's a professional, but I'll have you notice that she uses the Rolling Method as well.

     Suitcase #1 - 15 kg en punto

     Suitcase #2 - 18 kg (Thank God for small favors)

    Leaving on a Jet Plane

    February 7 – 14, 2010

    My last week in Central America was flying solo in Honduras. Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures to share since the bulk of the trip was devoted to scuba diving, and I don’t have an underwater camera. Also, simply put, the times I weren’t underwater, I was too busy enjoying being on an island. I spent a good part of the week in a bathing suit and flip flops, so the camera would have been more of a liability than anything else. For this reason, I’m just going to give highlights from that week:
    • La Ceiba: Watching the second half of one of the greatest Super Bowls in recent memory at an ex-pat bar and hearing local Hondurans screaming “Who Dat”
    • Utila: Befriending a CSer who also happened to be a great cook. Although I ended up staying at the dorm, I spent much of my free time (and there was a lot) visiting him for free food and illegally downloaded movies which are apparently the norm anywhere south of Brownsville.
    • Utila: Diving at some of the best reefs in the world. The water was so warm that the last day, I was able to ditch the wetsuit altogether.
    • Utila: Staying at the Underwater Vision dorms. After a full-day of diving, I pissed away several hours drinking beer, playing Uno, swapping jokes, and sharing stories with fellow travelers.
    • San Pedro de Sula: Attending what essentially amounted to a Honduran nerd party which was comprised of several people sitting in a circle, eating papusas, and watching people play Guitar Hero and Samba Amigo (the Latin version which uses the Wii remote like maracas)
    There was one story, however, that I mentioned earlier was worth re-telling. Ironically, it was nothing that occurred during the trip as much as when I was leaving. To provide a bit of context, I was kind of stupid in purchasing my air ticket. I got such an amazing price (about $450 USD for round trip to and from Belize) that it never occurred to me to change the departure city, despite knowing I would be traveling. I figured for a price so low, I could just figure out a way to get back to Belize from Honduras. Had I known ahead of time how unreliable everything in Latin America seems to be, I would have paid the fees immediately.

    Unfortunately, in my naïve optimism, the thought never crossed my mind. I bought a ticket with a “domestic airline” called Maya Island Air. My host in Utila seemed wary of the airline, but it was considered one of the more reliable Belizean airlines. I found out exactly what that caliber standard actually meant on the morning of my flight. Being a good American traveler, I arrived at the airport an hour and half prior to the flight. To my chagrin, as of 9:30 AM, the ticket counter was not even open. I had to resist the urge to panic, since I knew from earlier correspondence with the airline that there was some confusion about whether they actually had flights on Sundays. I thought the issue was resolved (yes, there was indeed a flight), but the completely empty counter was a bit disheartening. This general feeling of failure was only exacerbated by the fact that the American Airlines counter right next door was bustling with smiling customer service agents and a long line of gringos with lots of checked baggage. Behind the desk, employees had even seen fit to decorate for Valentine’s Day with a bunch of heart-shaped balloons and pink shit. Show-offs.

    I went to get some breakfast in the hope that somehow my acting normal and nonchalant would somehow will somebody to come. Sure enough, about half an hour later the Mayan Air had officially “opened.” I went and checked-in, and to my immense relief, the flight records and everything was in order. The woman kindly issued me a handwritten boarding pass, approximately the size of a business card, in which she filled in the blanks with pertinent information such as name, passport number, and flight information. Her handwriting was nice. This was looking to be an interesting flight.

    With my “boarding pass” in hand, I was able to pass through “security,” and head to my gate to wait or the flight. My “official” gate was cordoned off and completely vacant. Not wanting to arouse suspicion by sitting alone in a blocked-off airport gate, I headed down one gate to the American Airlines area, which of course was packed to the brim and bustling with travel activity. I busied myself with reading and jotting notes in my journal, ignoring the ambient noise around me. At some point they must have announced boarding, since there was that universal swell of people clustering around the entrance to get a “good spot” in line, even knowing full well that they always board by group number. I must have been immersed in my book (aptly, The Odyssey), because I didn’t notice the lady from the ticket counter had come to tell me they were ready. At first, I was quite surprised that she was able to pick me out. She escorted me towards the gate where two other gentlemen in plainclothes and a security officer were waiting. It took me a moment to realize that this group was our flight, and her ability to remember me became immediately less impressive. Bypassing the mass of humanity that was trying vainly to shove their way onto the AA plane, we quietly headed down a hidden escalator to the side of the gate. As we neared the bottom, I realized that we were walking straight onto to the runway. Talk about curbside service. It was then that I saw the plane:

    An air traffic controller informed us that to balance out the weight, we would need two in the back and one in the front. He looked at me and asked if I wanted the front in which I responded, “Chyeah!” Entering the “passenger side” door and sliding into my seat was one of the most bizarre and surreal moments of my life. The plane had less seating than our tour vans in Guatemala. The distance separating me and the cockpit was equivalent to the front and backseat of a car. There was a window separating me from the pilot, not unlike the ones in some taxis or limos. I had a complete view of the throttle and all the meters on the plane’s dashboard. Awesome. Obviously, it would have been superfluous for the pilot to use a mic for his announcement. He just yelled over his shoulder to let us know that we’d be there in an hour. He then shook hands with the air traffic control before turning on the ignition. Like… with a key. As we were cruising down the runway, he slid the window closed. Like… with his hand. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I always idealized the inner working of a plane as something akin to a spaceship: vacuum-sealed doors, state-of-the-art technology in the consoles, but at the very least, power windows. In a way, the whole flight felt a bit mundane. My two fellow passengers busied themselves with paperwork, while I amused myself by watching the various dials and needles moving around and attempting to decipher what they meant. Obviously, I had no idea what anything stood for, and I’m hoping none of you readers get the hair-brained idea that flying is easy, but it was still a lot of fun to pretend. It was a fitting end to a trip that was riddled with bizarre and hilarious experiences that would be my primer to Latin America.  

    Baby, you know I'll be back again.

    **P.S. This entry completes the chapter of my Central American adventure. From now on, the entries will focus on my experiences in Argentina as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. Thanks to all of you that have tagged along this far, and hope you'll join me on this next ride.