"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

The Andes: So Much More than a Chocolatey Mint Thin

It´s a popular urban legend that Eskimos have a ridiculous number of words for snow. I am pretty sure that this myth was debunked in my Intro to Linguistics class, but the general idea is that cultures craft their language around what is important to them. Living in Texas, I never had a pressing need to develop a nuanced snow vocabulary. I have, however, attached certain connotations and feelings with it. For example, I have always been infatuated with kitschy snowmen and penguins during the wintertime - the campier and higher the likelihood that it makes it onto an ugly sweater the better. These guys remind me of Christmas, which is my favorite time of the year.
Another image that appears in my mind´s eye is that of a picturesque alpine lodge nestled in the mountains. I see a European style villa where you can curl up by the fireplace on a cozy bear rug sipping a mug of hot chocolate after a day of skiing. Resort towns like Aspen, Switzerland, and even Bariloche elicit an element of luxury and bourgeois privilege.

Finally, less often, I visualize a scene of kids riding a makeshift sled or skating on a frozen pond. Usually these pictures of childhood innocence are faded and grainy, in the style of a Norman Rockwell painting or Charlie Brown.

These are my sort of happy place idyllic connections with snow. I turn to them because they are comforting and pleasant. The reality, though, is that there is an entirely different side which I recently experienced firsthand in Patagonia. It started on a busride from Bariloche to the little hidden town of El Bolson, where we wanted to spend a few hours before taking an overnight bus to our next destination. To maximize our time in El Bolson, we left Bariloche on an early bus.

We were ready. The bags were packed and the clothes laid out the night before. After whipping up a quick breakfast and downing a morning tea, we were loaded onto the bus before 8AM. The sky was pitch black, and we were hoping to catch an Argentine sunrise. As we rolled out of the station, there were just three people on the bus, and I wondered whether the company was losing money on the trip. As it turns out, there were a number of smaller stops throughout the city, and we picked up some more commuters along the way. Once we were up to 12 or so, the bus driver turned off the lights and invariably, like obedient little Pavlovian dogs, we fell immediately asleep. As I place it, it was probably around 8:30 at that point. I remember merging onto a highway before drifting off. I woke up at approximately 9:20. Wow. What a difference and hour can make. White. To my complete shock, we were now rumbling through what appeared to be a blizzard in the arctic tundra. We were surrounded by trees and mountains to both sides. Everything was covered in a blanket of stark white, including the sky which had taken upon a nondescript milky, canvas color. No sun, no clouds. It was as if this sheet of white never ended.

Folks, this was not a winter wonderland. This was Mother Nature on steroids, and she was flexing. The forest was rendered unrecognizable underneath a coat of thick snow. Branches protruding from long dead trees were crystallized in ice, forming bizarre glassy sculptures. For miles and miles, there was no trace of life or civilization - no vehicles coming or going, no birds circling, not even the occasional flora to provide a little color. We were staring complete desolation in the face. The monochromatic scene was not quite beautiful, but nevertheless awe-inspiring in a hypnotic, terrifying way.

The snow that was falling outside the windows was not soft and powdery. It did not want you to make paper cutouts of its unique star-shaped snowflakes. It was not here to provide a playground for your winter sports entertainment. This was pellet-shaped, no-nonsense, "I will wreck your shit" snow. Think "Fellowship of the Ring" and the Misty Mountains. If the bus broke down, we would have been as helpless as Merry and Pippin (I´ll let you guys guess which one of us was which). This snow meant business.

For this reason, I sat with baited breath as the driver masterfully wove us through the switchbacks of the Andes. I watched in silence, transfixed, for about 20 minutes or so when all of a sudden, the entire scene just stopped as abruptly as it started. All of a sudden, there was color again: evergreens living up to their name, there were even occasional clumps of bright red berries popping against the shrubbery. It was like a scene from "Pleasantville." The snow was still falling, but not strongly enough to stick. As we exited the mountain pass, the first signs of civilization were these quaint little wooden cabins worthy of a St. Jude Christmas card. Between the smoking chimney, the cake icing-like snow frosting their roofs, and the clothes drying out in the backyard, the scene was downright cute. It would have been easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, but I wasn´t going to be fooled so quickly. After witnessing its capabilities, I knew the snow would turn on us at any given minute.

Sure enough, I started writing this post from the cafe of Esquel bus station, where we got stuck spending the night, hobo style, on the floor. The reason? Snow blocking the roads to Trelew.

World Cup 2010: Vamos, Vamos, Argentina!

On the 3-hour return flight from Ushuaia, LAN airlines made the genius, inspired decision to show a game-by-game recap of the 2010 World Cup finals. Eager for a distraction from the little girl who would not stop kicking the back of my chair, I plugged in my headphones to watch. To my amusement, it was a British sportscaster narrating the game recaps. It was delightful to hear his Anglophile renditions of names like “Xavi,” “Forlan,” and “Kaka.” To my horror, with each passing moment, I came to realize how fully I had invested myself into this sporting event. For starters, I had somehow found the time to watch every game in the knockout stage. Moreover, I hadn’t just watched them. I followed them. Religiously. I recognized the names of the star players (usually the “strikers”). Every night, I would faithfully log on to ESPN to filled out the results in my little bracket chart. From the highlight reel, I was able to relive some of the emotional highs and lows: My heart swelled with pride when Donovan scored the last minute go-ahead goal to push Team USA into the finals. It broke for Ghana’s overtime loss to Uruguay. I cringed as I was forced to re-watch Germany’s systematic disassembly of my beloved Argentina. And in the dramatic finale, when the camera zoomed in on Iker Casillas, the Spanish captain and goalie, weeping for joy at his country’s first title, I found myself shedding a tear for them as well.

It seems like only yesterday that in anticipation for this grant, I was asking my friends for a crash course on the rules of the game. The concept of “offsides” was particularly difficult to grasp. I remember being at a restaurant with Koci, who was moving salt shakers and napkin holders around the table. With Zack, we were at a tattoo parlor, so the only props available were his hands. Although their valiant efforts were unsuccessful, it all turned out to be unnecessary. As it turns out, I just needed to watch a couple actual soccer games. Once the Mundial started, it all clicked. By the end of the qualifying rounds, my Facebook status was dominated by shout-outs to Palermo and Maradona. Selene and I were fluently dissecting the different styles of play: Team Argentina’s flashy offense, Germany’s chilling scoring-efficiency, Spain’s intricate European formations, Team USA's clumsy ball-handling, Holland... just kind of being there. One of my prouder moments was maintaining a respectable conversation with a middle-aged Argentine banker regarding the differences between the European and Latin leagues. It is for all these reasons that I am convinced that the World Cup remains the single-most international sporting event, even surpassing the Olympic Games.

For example, I have found K'naan's stupidly catchy “Wavin’ Flag” song far more effective at rallying a crowd than any of Bono’s or Will.i.am’s UNICEF/Save the children/USO super-medleys. Just last week, the kickboxing instructor at our gym made us do about 30 lunges to this tune. I don't care how cheesy it is- even now, 3 months after the start of the tournament, the opening “Ooh-oh-oh-oh” riff still gets my blood pumping. There are several versions recorded to appeal to the various regional demographics (for a fascinating examination of Middle Eastern culture, check out the Arabic version featuring Nancy Ajram), but naturally I am partial to the Spanish version featuring David Bisbal:

One of my favorite memories of this season (and possibly my entire stay in Argentina) was the Argentina vs. South Korea game on June 17. Purely by chance, this game fell on the week of the Fulbright midterm conference, and we all found ourselves back in Buenos Aires. It was a double whammy-- not only was I reunited with my fellow ETAs, but we also had the unique opportunity to watch a World Cup game in the capital city. It was sure to be a memorable experience, possibly the only thing that would have roused some of us up before 8 AM. Meeting in the lobby, we were decked out in our various iterations of celeste and white: silly hats, bootlegged black market imitation jerseys, one particularly enthusiastic individual had draped himself in the Argentine flag.

Gringos united
We were headed to the Plaza San Martin in the heart of Retiro, one of Buenos Aires’ largest and most centrally-located districts. The expansive park features a sprawling, sloping lawn, perfect for an outdoor showing. Cold and still bleary-eyed from shenanigans the night before, we shuffled in silence. The streets around our hotel were fairly empty, or at least only just beginning to wake up. As we neared the plaza, however, the undeniable buzz of a gathering crowd became palpable. Our pace quickened as we followed the electric hum of people convening from all directions. Street vendors with horns, flags, and other miscellaneous memorabilia were beginning to pop up with increasing frequency. We started to see more wires and cords, eventually leading to A/V equipment. And finally, we saw the huge screen and knew we were in the right place.

Our party situated itself near an enthusiastic-looking group (per K'naan's instructions, there were lots of flags waving) - close enough to get a great view of the action, but safely out of reach from potential mosh pits up front. It turned out to be a good decision, since hidden amongst our neighbors was a little impromptu band featuring a drummer and an indefatigable trumpet player whose tunes kept us hopping and clapping the entire game.

And what a game it was. With each Argentine goal (there were 4… it was kind of a slaughter), the crowd reaction grew increasingly raucous and rowdy. By the third goal, we were hugging, screaming, and twirling our shirts over our head. Confetti was raining, and those horribly obnoxious horns that sounded like dying elephants were blaring non-stop. By the end of the game, our throats were hoarse from cheering, our feet were tired from jumping, and our shoulders were sore from waving our arms. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s like that adrenaline high that you feel after leaving a rock concert or a really badass nightclub. Everything is little muted because your ears are ringing, but you really don’t care because you’re in such a giddy mood. Nobody’s really talking to eachother, but there’s a little skip in everybody’s step as you’re walking back home (or in this case the hotel). Even in typing this entry, I am just hit by a wave of nostalgia for Texas football games at Darrell K. Royal Stadium… the Godzilla-tron, the incessant drum cadences, surprise appearances by Matthew McConaughey, and those coupons for 5 free wings at Plucker’s every time the Longhorns won. As stoked as I am about football, however, my first experience following the World Cup has finally converted me into a soccer fan. Although I’m unlikely to follow the regular season with any consistency, I will probably find myself falling in love all over again in four years. That is, if I’m not actually in Brazil.

In the meantime, a personal note to Coach Brown: How about ordering 100,000 vuvuzelas for DKR? Combined with “Texas, Fight!” our defense would be unstoppable. And we would still be less obnoxious than Red Raiders fans…

Dinosaur suit = best. costume. ever

Giant bouncy ball

Argentine flag wavin'. Caution: NOISY

Platos Estereo-Tipicos: Top 5 Argentine Regional dishes

It is difficult to quantify Argentine food since so much of it is regional, depending on availability and freshness of ingredients. For example, at home I usually stick to staples like beef and chicken, and occasionally pork on special occasions. While we have been traveling through Patagonia, however, there has been a greater abundance of fish and lamb. There are undeniable Italian, Arabic, and Spanish influences, as demonstrated by the prevalence of pastas, pizzas, and egg dishes. Nevertheless, the food endemic to the Andean Northwest is often credited with being the most "authentic" regional cuisine that can be attributed to the Prehispanic civilizations as demonstrated by their indigenous names. Indeed, some of our visiting Fulbrighters have confessed that they have never tried some of these dishes. As luck would have it, Tucumán is smack dab in the nexus of it all, giving me the false sense of authority to pick what I feel are the 5 stereotypical plates.

  1. Minutas: This item really is really more of a category than an actual dish, but it was a convenient catch-all for several variations of what I consider the same thing. Literally "minute dishes," they essentially occupy the place between fast food and "special of the day" at a casual dining restaurant. Most restaurant keep minutas on the menu for people who want something cheap, hearty, and difficult to mess-up. A rough equivalent might be the "burgers and sandwiches" section you would find at a restaurant comparable to Chili´s or Friday´s. The three basic meat options are lomo (steak), milanesa (a thin, breaded piece of beef), and a suprema (a thin, breaded piece of chicken). These meats can be eaten in sandwich form (more common in street vendors) or as an entree. Naturally, the most common sides are fries or mashed potatoes. If you´re feeling fancy, these dishes can be embellished with a few different sauces: Portuguesa (chunky tomato), Napolitana (marinara and mozzarella), or Suiza (ironically a slab of cheese that is rarely Swiss). If you don´t care about your blood pressure, you can layer it with "the works": ham, cheese, and a fried egg, which is inexplicably named the Mexican.
  2. Tamale: Although the geographically disinclined tend to make the sweeping generalization that all food south of the Rio Grande is "Mexican," I will concede that the tamale is pretty similar in appearance and taste. It involves cornmeal and shredded meat boiled in a dried corn husk called a chala. Although the dish is fairly common, it does not seem to possess the same ritual and significance as in Mexico.

  3. Humita: On the outside it resembles a tamale, but the inside is a creamy filling of sweet corn (choclo), onion, and usually goat cheese. I get the impression that humitas are much more popular than tamales, especially as comfort food or special occasions. A particularly rich variation is humita en olla (in a pot). Rather than wrapping it in a corn husk to be eaten as a dish, the filling itself is spooned out as a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs soup.
    Humita unwrapped

  4. Locro:I tasted locro for the first time in Cafayate, when we had just started our culinary adventures. The notes of my journal read "a big bowl of love." Pretty much, it is a meat stew with a choclo base. The meat can be any combination of beef, chicken, goat, sausage, tripe, and whatever other leftovers the chef decides to throw in the pot. Nationwide, it is traditional to eat it on special holidays such as 25 de Mayo or 9 de Julio, and each region, indeed each household, prepares locro a little differently. Most versions that I´ve tried have included vegetables such as canneloni beans or squash to give the stew a thicker, chunkier consistency. Any other identifying ingredients end there, and I would probably rather not know them, since I suspect that locro also functions as a convenient dumping ground for getting rid of leftover meat. All I know is that there is nothing better on a cold day than a steaming bowl of locro and a basket of bread.

  5. Empanadas: They are the epitome of street food, but they are so prevalent that even high-end restaurants serve some version of them on their menu. Eat them as a snack, appetizer, or stuff yourself silly for a satisfying meal. Reheat them in the morning to nurse a hangover. Buy them to go, and eat them on your walk to work. You would be hard-pressed to find a more versatile food. In fact, it might rival pizza for the best food to accompany beer and a day of football (both versions).

    These dumplings come in a variety of shapes, sizes, doughs, and a wide array of fillings. The most popular savory flavors are meat, chicken, cheese, and ham and cheese. Some of the more original ones I have tried include caprese, lamb, tuna, and a weird fake cordon bleu. Within these subcategories, I have devised my own criteria for evaluating their qualities, which I will reveal when I finally complete the Ruta.