"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

Big Bang Theory

In the middle of the Drag, next to Sam’s Computer shop, there is a tiny little salon that offers $9.99 haircuts. Interestingly enough, it is named Sophia’s Beauty & Barber Salon (meta, I know). The owner for whom the shop is named is a living legend with reportedly has the fastest scissors in Austin, possibly West of the Mississippi. Having witnessed her give 3 haircuts in less than 20 minutes, I can testify to the speediness. This Sophia is a buxom Middle Eastern woman with platinum blonde hair and a demeanor reminiscent of a madame in a classy 19th century Western brothel. She is probably the closest thing I have ever had to a “regular” stylist, in that I have visited her 3 times in a period of 2 years. We might as well be going steady.

Although it was very quick (which is per usual for Sophia), I vividly remember our first encounter. I was going through a somewhat tumultuous phase when a haircut would “symbolize” much more than a haircut, and I was feeling somewhat reckless. As I started to explain to her the various options I was considering, she nodded along impatiently, as if I were intruding on her valuable haircutting time with meaningless talk. Finally she interrupted me in her rich Persian accent, “I understand. Very fashion, not classic.” Obviously, that was a very generous paraphrase on her part, but before I could quantify her assessment, she had already made the first snip. I had actually brought some sample pictures with me, but she seemed to have her own vision in mind, and I was a little concerned about interrupting her. 15 minutes later, I was sporting the shortest haircut of my life, and I loved it immediately. I haven’t looked back from short hair since.

For some girls, your relationship with your hair stylist ranks up there somewhere between babysitter and ob-gyn. I have never been one of those girls. Nevertheless, being in a foreign country, my intuitive sense of what constitutes a dodgy, low-budget, or classy establishment was a bit skewed. On top of that, there is always the tricky element of language. For this reason, I considered just letting my hair grow during the 9 months I would be in Argentina. It would certainly be a way to fit in better. Short hair seems fairly uncommon among Argentine women. The vogue appears to be long and wavy. Still, after two months of having my hair in “ponytail” length (that is the interim length between manageably short and long enough to actually style, so the only practical option for keeping it out of your face is with a ponytail), I decided it had to go.

Since I was going to be chopping it off, I decided there must be another way for me to incorporate the local aesthetic into what was to become my first foreign haircut. I mentioned earlier that the Argentine style was mostly long and wavy. Well, there is another predominant feature: bangs. Lots of bangs. I haven’t had bangs since elementary school. If you have seen the school portraits, you would probably understand why. Ever since I became old enough to take an active role in my personal appearance, I have firmly resisted this look, either due to emotional trauma, a burgeoning sense of adolescent rebellion, or some combination of the two. After 18 years, I think I'm finally ready to bring it back.

I ended up in a nondescript corner shop in a mall that was on my way to work. I would have preferred to wait until afterward so there was no hurry, but because of siesta and silly working hours, that was a logistical impossibility. There were only two chairs in the shop, and there was just one young girl working. Before I even sat down, she told me that I would need to be paying in exact change ($30 Argentine pesos), because she didn’t have anything else in the register. That may sound like a red flag, but this situation is so common in Argentina, I don’t think anything of it anymore. As it turns out, she was not only incredibly competent, it was a very enjoyable experience. To begin, a cold front had rolled in the night before, which inextricably affected the hot water levels in the apartment. Having hair washed by a professional is always a pleasurable experience (especially because hairstylists also tend to have very long nails) but this time was particular tantalizing because it involved steaming hot water.

As far as the actual haircut goes, I originally wanted the Rihanna. The stylist regrettably told me that my hair was not "long" enough for this style (I have no idea how that works), and she suggested a look that would work very well for my face: short in the front, long in the back – essentially the exact opposite of what I requested. Still, she said it with sweet conviction, so I agreed. The entire time she was cutting my hair, we alternated between pleasant shop conversation (where are you from, how do you like Tucumán, have you been to any good boliches, etc) and little tidbits of pelo-wisdom on the best way to maintain what would undoubtedly become a fierce look. For a basic shampoo and cut, I was impressed with the services involved. I had the full nutrient, blow-dry, style treatment, and she even gave me some bobby pins to “train” my hair to part correctly. Admittedly, I haven’t been keeping it up as she would probably like, but the appeal to short hair is how little actual maintenance it requires. I guess I should probably enjoy the laziness while I can, since I apparently have to let it get quite long before finally getting my Rihanna on. On the other hand, I may be able to get used to this:

My White Whale: Leaving my Heart in Cafayate

March 30, 2010

When we were in Cafayate, it crossed my mind to purchase some cheap sunglasses. It would be my fourth pair in two months, since sunglasses purchased abroad seem destined to be left in places such as dodgy cafeteria tables, customs counters, and Honduran shuttle buses. Nevertheless, being a woman (and a tacaña one at that), it did not stop me from keeping half an eye out whenever I saw a vendor selling imitation Dolce & Gabbana’s on the corner.

I can visualize the location perfectly in my head (if you are in anyway familiar with my sense of direction, that’s saying something). Just outside of the Plaza Mayor in Cafayate, on the alley running along the shorter side of the quadrangle, next to the famous Casa de Las Empanadas, there was a little wholesale store that sold a little of everything. It was crammed with useless trinkets like a Chinatown dollar store. Towards the entrance of the store, there was a rack on which hung several backpacks. At the time, I had been playing with the idea of buying a cheap kiddie backpack to use for work, since my REI packs were a little ostentatious for day-to-day use. Plus, the novelty of having a juvenile backpack is attractive.

When I close my eyes, I can see it perfectly in my head. Right on the forefront was a great plastic backpack that featured my childhood (and lets be honest, adolescent and adulthood) superheroes: the X-Men. It wasn’t just any X-Men backpack (Wolverine, Cyclops, and a couple other major characters I care very little about). It had MY favorite characters – Rogue, Gambit, Nightcrawler, Storm (among others). I’ve always been attracted to the sort of “B-List” characters that don’t necessarily get action figures or top billing in the movies or video games. I remember Halloween in fourth grade, when I tried in vain to find a Rogue Halloween costume. At the time, I was young and impressionable, and I foolishly assumed that Mattel, much like Santa, made toys and merchandise to satisfy every little girl and boy's particular caprices. I won’t go into the grisly details of the end result, but it involved latex dishwashing gloves and green sweats that were way too big for me. There are no photos from that Halloween for good reason.

This backpack had Rogue. I even remember the version of Rogue they used, because it was taken straight from a comic book cover:

It was perfect. But we were in a hurry to get to our picnic in the bodegas (incidentally a total fracaso) and we did not want to be weighed down by additional bags, so I chose not to buy it at the time. I figured that now that I knew the design existed, I could just buy one when we got back to Tucumán. After all, markets and stores with racks in the front just like this one were a dime a dozen in my much bigger, much more cosmopolitan capital city.

Wrong. When I returned home, I quickly found out that all those glossy, colorful backpacks featured our favorite comic book webslinger. Now, I’m a big fan of Spidey. But he didn’t shape my childhood and cap off my university studies like the X-Men. He’s not the one I wanted. And yet, the more stores and kiosks I visited, the more I realized they were the same: Spider-Man, Dragonball Z, Disney princesses, Hello Kitty, and Ben 10 (whoever the hell they are). Very rarely, I would stumble upon the occasional Avengers bag with popular characters like Wolverine, the Thing, Hulk, and of course Spider-Man. But my heroes were nowhere to be found.

For a fleeting moment, this search became an obsession. Every time I would pass a shop window, I would quickly scan for a sign of my dream backpack. My eyes became accustomed to quickly identifying the categories. Barbie was always pink. Hello Kitty tended to be red. Dragonball Z was orange. And course we all know what the ubiquitous blue and red was. As time progressed on, it was as if Peter Parker were mocking me with his popularity. I was seeing his paraphernalia everywhere – in addition to backpacks, there were t-shirts, hats, stationary, stickers, and even ski masks. But no sign of my X-Men. Some of the storeowners did not even recognize the name. Selene joked that it was discrimination, because “people fear what they don’t understand.” It was funny at the time, but since then, the mission took on this additional symbolic meaning. It became my Penelope. It was my emblem of girl power in a heavily machista culture. It was my symbol of childhood innocence. It was my sign of support for the underdog. It was my shout-out to the kids in high school who weren’t awesome at sports, but played musical instruments and wrote poetry really well. And it was nowhere to be found.

Since then, I have become resigned to the fact that this backpack does not exist in Tucumán. It does not exist in Yerba Buena. Or La Rioja, or Corrientes, or Puerto Iguazu. Or even eBay. There’s a chance that it may be found somewhere in the megalopolis of Buenos Aires, but I only have a week to explore, and I've grown weary. Whenever I pass a shop window, I’ll do a quick once-over out of habit, but not with any sense of expectation or real hope. The thrill of the chase gradually evolved into stoic resignation.

Yesterday (Monday, June 7, 2010 – more than two months later) I happened upon a desultory little bazaar near my apartment that had a display window full of haphazard goods such as stuffed animals, winter gloves, tools, and cleaning supplies – not unlike the nameless stuffed-to-the-brim shop in Cafayate. On the top rack, I saw a backpack that said “X-Men” and $33 pesos. My heart skipped a beat. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the Avengers backpack mentioned above with a misprinted label.

There is probably a lesson to be learned from this episode, but I have no idea what it is.

Don't wanna talk about it.
I say why not?
Don't wanna think about it.
I say there's got to be some good reason for your little black backpack

The Siege of the Castillos: Adventure in las Quebradas

March 29, 2010

Upon learning that I would be living in Argentina for nearly a year, I resolved to maximize my time in the United States. I ate at all my favorite restaurants, I religiously followed the entire season of the Texas Longhorns, and I fulfilled one of my longtime fantasies to take a cross-country road trip. For whatever reason, I never had the opportunity to embark on this stereotypical rite of passage during my college years. While my friends were off doing ski trips or attending BCS bowl games, I was either studying abroad, writing a thesis, working at an internship, or had some other prior obligation. At any rate, the timing never worked out. Last summer, I finally got the opportunity to bring this dream to life, and it could not have been more poetic. We were a group of four 20-somethings, all out of college and more or less the same phase in our life, and looking to have a good time. It was like a really nerdy, B-list version of “The Hangover” without the debauchery or a congruent Zach Galifianakis character.

Without much of a plan or itinerary, we simply got on I-10 and started heading west, like young men. It was one of the most fun, spontaneous things I’ve ever done. Developed completely organically, the journey eventually materialized into a four corners road trip which took us through some of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen. It also made me a little sad to realize that in all my visits abroad, there was still so much for me to see in my own country.

Flashforward about 9 months. Selene and I had moved into our apartment in Tucumán, and there was still a week before classes would start. We wanted to take advantage of this free time to visit Cafayate, a good “mid-distance trip”: Long enough that we would need to stay overnight, close enough that it required minimal planning. The bus ride through Salta province was surprisingly reminiscent of the dusty red mesas and deserts in the Western United States.

Moreover, the thing to do in Cafayate is to visit the Quebradas de Conchas, also known as the Valles Calchaquíes. The trip itself reminded me most of our day at the Arches National Park in Utah. Pretty much, there is a standard “route” to follow along the highway, and you can park your car to explore whenever you please. In Argentina, for those who aren’t fortunate enough to have your own 4WD, several tour companies will drive you out, stopping at all the prerequisite photo ops. A few of them were more novelty than anything else– a rock formation that resembled a toad or a farm where you could feed domestic llamas. Some of our party were quite enamored by these attractions. For me, however, these were the most memorable highlights:

Los Castillos: This stop was supposed to be on the more imposing and spectacular formations on the route. I say “supposed” because as we were heading to the cliffs, we heard a deafening crack. The sky was overcast so we just assumed I was thunder. And then, like a gathering storm, the Castillo began to fall. And fall. And FALL.

We were a group of 15 people, and all of us were frozen in our tracks. Our guide, who up until this point had been talking up the Castillos as reminiscent of the spires in Disneyland, clapped his hand over his mouth with a description that could only be described as “Oh shit.” It was one of the most bizarre and surreal moments of my life, not unlike roasting a marshmallow at a live volcano. We had just witnessed the sudden, arbitrary decimation of a millions year-old landmass. If not for the imminent danger of the entire situation, it would be comical. Just 15 minutes beforehand, we were snapping pictures of cacti and posing in cave windows. Now we were looking at a huge pile of rubble, debris, and dust. I secretly thank the group of silly British travelers in our group who arrived late, because if not for them, we may have left on time and ended up a few meters closer to the cliff face.


La Yesera – After a few less impressive stops (granted, it’s hard to follow a rockslide), we pulled over for an extended hike through the La Yesera, a spectacular group of technicolor hills and canyons with bands of color forming Seussian patterns in the rock. The guide explained that the vivid colors were due to the oxidation of several layers of different metals, but it was hard to believe that they occurred naturally. They seemed more at home in a Lewis Carroll novel.

 Welcome to the town of Who-ville
 You can't see me!

After hours of hiking and waiting impatiently for our vanmates to snap their share of pictures, we were getting kind of burnt out with the canyons. Although the Quebradas certainly were beautiful, the sun was beginning to set, a chill was beginning to set in, and we were having a hard time appreciating some of the topographical nuances. It was a shame, since the last stops, La Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat) and El Anfiteatro (the Amphitheatre) are supposed to be brilliant in daylight. As such, we did what I always seem to end up doing as the day winds down in a national park: take silly pictures.


P.S. Silly photos from the epic Going West to Seek our Fortunes trip available here. Thanks for the memories, guys.