Thursday, September 4, 2008

Patagonia on my mind

It's been a long dry spell in Joy's blog world. If you don't know by now (as most friends and family do) we have left Patagonia. We now live in Fort Collins, Colorado, 30 miles away from Greeley, where Luis started back in as a programmer, this time with Colorado State Univ./the National Park System. Lucas and Maite attend a Preschool parent Co-op, and I am a stay-at-home mom, for now.

Here are a few of the changes in our lives:

  • English! Everybody speaks it! My grammar is perfect! I have no accent!! The other three members of the family aren't quite as thrilled. Despite his initial complaint that he couldn't understand anyone, Lucas is doing a good job of remembering English. And Maite is a fast learner, especially quick with phrases like "can I have some candy please?"
  • No more Daddy. He's around a lot less these days. Working 8 hours a day really puts a crimp in his style.
  • No more camping on a Wednesday. As I mentioned above, gainful employment has its pitfalls.
  • We have to clean our own house! Goodbye domestic help. Guess who is scrubbing the floors these days?
  • Huge supermarkets! I am overwhelmed by products and choices! Does this stuff truly improve the quality of my life?
  • Bikers on established bike paths! Fort Collins is a bike crazy city, with loads of established bike trails. Lots of parents pulling their children in little trailers behind their bikes, all with helmets. Gone are the days of balancing various children on the handlebars as they weave through traffic.
  • Orderly traffic. Sigh. Boy I've missed that this past year.
  • Retail, retail, retail. This ciaty is ultra jam packed with Lowes, REI, Super Target, Sports Authority, Old Navy, Michaels, Walmart, Kmart, etc., . . . . . the list goes on an on. Nothing new for Americans, but when you see it all with fresh eyes after a year away . . . . just plain wow. For the record, the first place I always head to when I need something is Goodwill. I love a good castoff. People want to know how we saved enough money in two years to spend a year abroad not working. Here's the secret: Goodwill. God bless 'em.
  • Giant vehicles. Yeegads the trucks are big here. I wince to think of filling the tanks on those SUVs.
  • Blonde, blue eyed children abound. Lucas and Maite no longer stand out on that account. Now they stand out because we speak Spanish in public.
  • The size of the houses, the yards, the amout of stuff. If you've ever been inside a house in a foreign country, you will be struck by how much smaller the homes are, (unless your hosts are particularly well off) and how much less stuff people have.
  • No more spontaneous late night meals with friends on weekdays. Not surprisingly, our lives have become more structured these days.
  • Clean, tidy public spaces. The public parks here in Fort Collins are spacious, gorgeous, and, from I've seen so far, well used. Lots of wide open fields for sports. I've traveled enough to know that huge green parks are very particular to the U.S. It's one of my favorite features of my country.
  • And, the number one biggest change is: no more grandparents, uncles and aunts nearby. Now it's just the four of us, on our own, like most other Americans. Unless I can succeed in convincing my parents to move to Fort Collins, that is.
And, of course, I no longer have such an interesting country to blog about. But, I promise, if anymore exciting blog material finds it's way to my finger tips, I will surely let you know!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Now for the bad news

If you’ve been keeping up on my blog, you’ll be tempted to think that life here in Argentina is mostly pleasurable: travel, lazy days with friends, having someone else clean our house, the kids in a delightful preschool a few hours a day. Yes, it's true, there are lots of good things to say about our year in Argentina. I would be negligent in my duties as a blogger, though, if I didn’t tell you a thing or two about why Argentina is NOT the paradise you thought it was.

Driving in Argentina: Not for the faint-hearted.

When you live in a foreign culture, the cultural differences you encounter range from delightful, (ocio!) to slightly annoying, (the idea of “customer service” is pretty different here) to REALLY annoying (long, long lines almost anytime you want to do something). Driving a car, however, is in a whole different category: it's as scary as hell.

Here's a few of the reasons why: red lights are optional. Many drivers will go straight through the red if they think they can make it. Luis almost got plowed down by a semi truck going 100 km (60mph) the other day. Stop signs, likewise, are completely ignored. If you actually stopped, they guy behind you would probably ram into you. Double parking is the norm. Lots of traffic gets stopped up because of double parkers. Even the cops double park. Blinkers are mostly unknown. There are bikers EVERYWHERE. They look straight ahead, headphones on, right out in traffic. It is your obligation, as a driver, to pay close attention to them so as not to kill them, even if it's dark and they have no lights or reflectors. They make no effort to move over --the lives of these riders and the small children sitting on the handlebars are in your hands. Motorcyclists are another fun one: they weave in an out of traffic, rarely with helmets on, as they balance infants on their knees, with two other children clinging on for dear life. I’m not making this stuff up. You can't let your guard down, ever, because everyone and everything out on the road is unpredictable.

A particularly tricky one is approaching an unmarked intersection. Legally, the car on your right has priority, as it is in the U.S. The reality, though, is that the cars on the bigger, “more important” street always go first. If you’re new to Neuquen, it's not obvious which street is more important, so you spend a lot of time watching the other drivers, slowing way down at each intersection just in case. Plus lots of silent praying. If I follow the laws strictly, I will absolutely get into an accident. This ambiguity isn’t only my problem; in the last few months three separate friends have gotten into fenderbenders because of this “right of way” problem.

You won’t be surprised to learn that only freaks wear seatbelts. Even people who have lost loved ones in accidents where a seatbelt would have saved their lives refuse to buckle up. I usually see little kids inside cars, climbing all over the place. Our family always straps in, but we’re serious weirdos.

The horrendous driving conditions is a favorite topic of foreigners living in Argentina. Whenever I check out other bloggers, I invariably find someone who has written about it. How can this possibly be? they wonder. What’s up with the Argentine death wish?

So here is my take on it: People drive this way because they think the chances of an accident are slim, and, more, importantly, they know that law enforcement pretty much doesn’t exist here. For a variety of reasons --lack of training, corruption, avoidance of conflict, laziness-- traffic cops just don’t do their jobs. In just about every third world nation I have been in, in South America, Africa, and Asia, driving is a nasty affair. And like Argentina, these countries all lack a good justice system and effective law enforcement.

Not only is there a lack of law enforcement here, but it's embarrassingly easy to get your license. The hardest part about it is all the hours of waiting in line you'll have to do. When I went in to get my license, this is what happened: first we watched a safety video, which, admittedly, was pretty good. Very graphic scenes of what can happen to a person who doesn't wear a seatbelt, goes too fast, etc. Scared the heck out of me. Then an officer gave a presentation to my group, to review basic road rules. Everyone was frightfully clueless. I mean, there is no spiffy little road manual to study up for your test. Earlier in the month, when I asked for some written material, explaining that I wanted to learn about the laws, I was told "oh no, we don't have anything like that to read. The test is about what you know."

Is it just me, or does that make absolutely no sense?

The driving test itself was a joke, just a drive around the block. At least the officer was able to see if I could handle the car somewhat. There are a few towns in the area where a person doesn't even have to take a road test. Just pay a few pesos, and you can get a license. You have to pretend to be from the town, but coming up with a fake address is not hard; that's why in the town of Cervantes, population 5,000, there are 23,000 legal drivers. Issuing drivers licenses appears to be the town's main industry.

This messy combination of corruption on many different levels, ignorance of traffic laws, and lack of law enforcement makes for some pretty scary driving conditions, believe me. You'll find stories about fatal traffic accidents almost daily in the newspapers.

As we draw closer to our departure, we are already reflecting on the things we will miss. Driving is one of things I will be very happy to leave behind. On my first day back on U.S. roads, I will probably wear a big goofy smile and blow kisses at everyone who comes to a complete stop at stop signs.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Cruising the Carretera

Last November, our family and my parents rented a minivan to drive around Southern Chile. It was a coastal, cultural, family adventure more than anything, with lots of seafood markets and restaurants, sight seeing in several larger cities, with clean, decent lodging, and mostly paved roads. I think I took a shower every morning. A great way to travel, especially with grandparental support with the kids. So civilized.

We just got back from our second trip this year to Chile, this time in a tent. Just the four of us. Meaning, no help distracting Maite from attaching her crying self to my leg, no one to pull Lucas' attention away from rearranging the camp fire with a stick, no extra person to watch the kids when they waded into the river. Some of you might think "what a great, wholesome learning experience for the kids, and family bonding to boot!" Others of you will say, "Sounds like a nightmare! I'd never do it". It was an amazing trip in many ways, but, --I'm not going to lie-- the phrase "I'm just not cut out to be a father", was muttered on more than one occasion. During trying moments when Lucas, for the umpteenth time, refused to do what we asked of him, or there was no escape from little Maite's cries, we thought "How do other parents handle this? How do they deal with such behavioral problems?" The answer, of course, is that most parents don't take their four year-old and two year-old on a two week camping trip into the wilds of Chile. We had the theory that our kids would get better at this camping thing with a little practice. What happened, in fact, is that the whole family eventually learned how to better coexist, peacefully and playfully. Somewhat, anyway.

Kids or no kids, southern Chile was just as glorious as ever. We entered Chile in a tiny town called Palena, and from there drove north. Very, very slowly. But with scenery like this, who wants to go fast? Sharp rising, tree-coated mountains, a ribbon of gravel road that winds through valleys, a tumbling river either on our right, or our left, lakes nestled between mountains. . . Chile gets greener, wilder, and less and less populated the farther south you are. After days of driving on the Carretera Austral (literally "southern road", referring to the road that extends into Chile's most southern area) the beauty didn't let up. Here and there we come to small settlements -- they get called "towns" if its lucky enough to have a school. A town has really hit the big time if it has it's own gas station. In other words, be frugal with your gas, and fill up whenever you can.

One evening, we stopped at a tiny mountain lake, after driving on a truly pathetic "road" for about 30 minutes or so. It was getting dark so we discussed camping on a homestead at the edge of the lake. The place was abandonded, but had trees laden with fruit, and a grassy area where someone had camped before. The owner and his wife and grandchildren appeared (I have no idea how they knew to show up at just that moment) and we asked permission. The man had grown up on this very site, which, until just last year, could only be reached by foot or horse. The little "road" was less than a year old, and the locals were ecstatic. Now they were just waiting for the electricity lines to reach them. "What century are we in, again?" I asked Luis. It is astounding to think of living in such isolation, where to attend school or go to a hospital means many hours on a horse. But there are many, many people who live this way in rural Chile.

In our second week on the road, we drove through Pumalin Park, which is 742,000 acres, owned and managed by Doug Tompkins, American conversationist and business magnate. Much to the consternation of many Chileans, this park cuts a huge swath right out of Chile's middle, stretching from the Argentine border to the sea. Tompkin's policy to leave the land as untouched as possible means we don't see the typical half cut trees, gravel pits, little shacks every few files. Here in Pumalin it's just deep, dense, gloriously untouched green. Huge leaves overflow, at the edges, into the narow, gravel road. The effect is lovely, otherwordly, so unlike Argentina's systematic raze of all trees within 100 feet of the roads.

Luis and my appreciation of this trip directly relates to the lovely camping spots we found, the remote roads, mountains, and stunning vistas we encountered. A memorable trip, for Lucas, and, increasingly, Maite, is about how many airplanes/helicopters/boats/roadwork machines we sighted. They were most impressed with the small airplanes tanking up with water to fight the forest fires, both in Argentina and in Chile. They loved the ferry rides, three all together, including a six hour journey with mountains, small inlets, and fishing boats on all sides. They saw a helicopter up close, and played inside of a parked motor grader.

Besides all things mechanical, they were drawn to every and all bodies of water. We routinely camped near water, meaning our children were usually wet, and frequently buck naked. A few times, we rented little cabins with kitchens to give ourselves a break. These nights turned out to be more work than rest, however, because we bathed the kids, (they love lakes, but hate showers) washed clothes and camp gear.

Leaving the Carretera behind, we ventured past farmlands, passing through unattractive, shoddy little towns, devoid of the natural beauty of their more southern counterparts. In fact, few Chileans towns I have been in can be described as pretty --interesting, yes, authentic, absolutely --but it's the views of the volcanoes, the mountain lakes, and the coast, that keep us coming back. Please note that I am referring to Southern Chile here. Central Chile is a very different kind of trip, its' attractions more city and vineyard oriented.

My feelings were mixed when we got back to Neuquen. I was pleased to unpack, sleep in a bed, not put up the tent. See the cat, and eat our homegrown tomatoes. Sad, though, that our trip to Chile is behind us now, and that the next big trip will probably be the last, for a long while --back to the U.S. The next time Lucas helps thread the tent poles, and Maite helps arrange the sleeping bags, it'll be in the Northern Hemisphere. Good thing that the U.S. is beautiful, too, because a future without mountains, rivers, and trees --now that would be depressing. Not nearly as exotic as southern Chile, but we'll take it.

For pictures of this adventure, click here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Latino pleasures

Last Sunday morning we packed fresh vegetables, bread, homebrewed beer, and a free range chicken I bought at the farmer's market, and headed to the river with our friends Daniel and Ruth. We unpacked our baskets of food at the barbecue area, and Daniel got busy with the fire and chicken preparation. Luis opened his beer and served. To the American readers, please take note, for what happened next is a whole new concept for many of you: it's called ocio, and Argentines do it very, very well.

Ocio loosely translates as "leisure" in English, but that's not really it. Ocio is relaxing, hanging out, doing nothing (even the translation of this is hard) with pleasure as it's one and only goal. Forget about checking your watch; this is not something you squeeze in between 2 and 4pm, before soccer practice. There is no time table, no structure, no "to do" list buzzing around in your brain. We Americans love to be entertained: we spend gadzillions on movies, entertainment parks, large screen T.Vs, musical events, paintball, etc. But what I am speaking about, here, is a more quiet, simple, restful entertainment, one you don't have to pay for. And ocio, my Argentine husband clarifies, is more than just the love of not working. The whole point is to spend unhurried, unmeasured time with your friends.

Last Sunday was one of those special days. We ate our barbecued chicken and fresh vegetables with no hurry, and later put on our bathing suits for a splash in the river. The rest of the day was spent swimming, playing with the kids, talking, drinking mate. The hours ticked by, the sun started to lower, but no one made a move to leave, no comments such as "I really need to get some work done for tommorrow'. Lucas and Maite played on well past dusk, as did the other little kids who were there with their families. It was almost 10pm when we shook our towels out and headed back go the car. "This wouldn't happen in the U.S.", I remarked to Ruth and Daniel. "People have to get home to do things. You don't just hang out indefinitely".

Here in Argentina, there is no social inhibition to showing up unannounced at a friend's house and spending the whole day there. After a few hours, someone will say, "what do you feel like eating?", upon which a few people in attendance will go off to find a store that is still open. Lucas and Maite will inevitably be up way past their bed time; and Luis will ask me if we need to go home to put the kids to bed, hoping to God I'll be o.k. with it. (and I usually am. I've mostly given up on early bedtimes, at least when we are with company) No worries that we are overstaying our welcome, that perhaps our hosts have things to get done. We have played this scene over, countlesss times.

We had our own little ocio community in Colorado, too: Latino friends would come for lunch, and, simply, just stay. All day. After a few hours, Guido or Luis would bring the guitar out, or perhaps we'd all go for a walk at dusk. Barbara Kingsolver, in her new book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", talks about a dinner party, "Italian style" which they managed to stretch into a five hour affair. "Five?" laughed Luis. "Is that all?"

I haven't been to all the countries in Latin America, but I have a hunch that where you find Latinos, you'll find ocio. In Greeley, I always noted that the public parks were more heavily used by Mexican immigrants, who would show up with picnic lunches and spend hours hanging out and playing. I have walked and driven past countless Mexican families hanging out on their lawns, sipping drinks and chatting, the kids running and playing. Homes of the gringo families tend to have uniform, green, and shady lawns, a showcase for their hard work and diligence. The Mexican immigrant families, judging from their scraggly grass, don't put much effort into their lawns. But they actually use them.

"Hard Work" is a value we Americans (or Yanquis, as we are called in Argentina) put right up there next to "family". In Latin America, "friendship" takes a premium position on the priority list. Most Latinos do work hard, but they'd almost surely rather be doing something else. They absolutely will not plan to clean the garage (if they are wealthy enough to have one) with the bit of free time they have. An asado (barbecue) is definitely the more rewarding choice. Americans, in contrast, feel guilty if they abandon their "to do" lists to spend a day at the beach. They feel the need to explain their slothfulness, like "I deserve a break. I've been working hard", and then, to assuage the concious a bit "I'll finish my work in the evening". Spending your weekends doing nothing "productive" (like, at the very least, cleaning the house a bit) doesn't feel right, somehow, to most of us Americans. Argentines require no excuses to spend the day with their friends.

Naturally, American productivity does have its rewards, as we are among the wealthiest in the world, and are infinitely more organized and tidy than just about anyone (excluding a couple of Aisan and European countries). Living in a somewhat chaotic, third world country, I really do appreciate American efficiency and structure, that allows me to paying my bills online, enjoy public libraries, drive on good roads, etc. But as far as the simple, quiet pleasures in life, the lovely days of ocio with friends--well, most Americans just don't know what that is. It is, truly, one of the greatest pleasures of living here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

To The Beach!

My father-in-law Ruben is a true beach lover. Not the crowded, "everybody look at me" type of beach, but rather the solitary sea sides of Patagonia, where he can swim, snorkel, fish, look for mussels, scallops, crabs, observe nature, and eats lots of seafood. He took his wife, Carmen, and the two kids to the remote beaches of the Pennisula Valdes for years, starting in the 1970's. Luis remembers his father rousting him from the tent in the early mornings, snorkeling gear in hand, to dive for scallops in the chilly Patagonia waters.

Images of a Luis as a small boy, his features and wiriness similar to Lucas', trotting along the beach with his father are in my thoughts as our family, including Ruben, headed off to Pennisula Valdes in January. The Pennisula is well known in Argentina, attracting tourists with its superb whale watching and colonies of sea lions. Penguins are commonplace birds, and guanaco (relatives of the camel and the llama, indigenous to Argentina) sprint around fearlessly. Our family, though, was avoiding the tourist draws completely, and going to a beach where a weathered octogenarian friend, Atilio, lived. Ruben told us that his house was very basic, but provided shade, a place to cook, and possibly a room to sleep in. He and Estela were frequent guests of Atilios', and we, apparently, were always welcome.

Argentine Patagonia, if you haven't heard me desribe it before, is a dry, windy, desolate place. Trees are few and far between. The sun is brutal, as there is, reportedly, a hole in the ozone layer directly overhead. We turned off the main road, onto a smaller road-like throughway --a place you wouldn't attempt after a good rain in a car without four wheel drive. We drove twenty kilometers along this road, crested a little bluff, and there it was: in this world of brown and low bushes, my heart leapt at the expanse of deep blue. In the next second, the excitment was replaced with disbelief: our idyllic, lonely Patagonian beach was a wasteland of junky trailers, tattered boats, and strewn empty bottles. You have got to be kidding. This is IT?? We drove eight hours from Neuquen to be surrounded by JUNK?

Welcome to San Roman Beach

Ruben's talents, obviousy, did not include description. How could he have omitted such important facts, such as, oh, the place is a sty? Most of the thousand mile Atlantic coast of Patagonia is largely untouched, so how is it we ended up here? With fallen hearts, we set up camp in the only bit of shade we could find, between a stunted tree and a broken down truck. Next to us was the large motorhome --a revamped city bus, acutally-- of a family who had also come to visit Atilio. This family had a boat on a trailer, and two four wheelers (one for the six year old granddaughter), and a generator, which they rarely turned off. It hummed along in tandem with another generator of a family camping nearby. So much for quiet.

There were, in all, three families visiting Atilio --a total of 16 people, which included four small children and a baby. Atilio, whom I had pictured as a hermit, was anything but. His possessions, and his house, were communal: all 16 of us ate our meals there, together; the house was used to relax in, to clean seafood in, to socialize in. Nobody seemed to mind that the house was stunningly filthy, with dirt floors, dangling cupboard doors, exposed cardboard insulated ceilings, and walls black with cooking oil.

Atilio, at 81, apparently didn't mind, or he surely would have done something to improve his lot. There were, in fact, many families living in this little settlement, which stretched over a half a mile or so, living in wheeless buses, junky motorhomes, clapboard houses. Luis's reaction to this jumble bordered on distress: he is a great lover of natural beauty, and when the disfigured landscape in question is in his own country. . . well, he takes it almost personally. I wasn't too pleased myself, but decided it was a good time to dust off the ole stoicism act I keep on hand for just these occasions.

How to Enjoy Life on a Junky Beach

I kept things lighthearted, Luis mostly kept his cool, and the old saying "things will look better in the morning" proved its wisdom. In the morning, we saw that the low tide revealed a stunning display of seal life. We started to understand why Ruben loves this place: he has eyes only for the ocean. You would never, ever go hungry on these beaches. Ruben and Luis waded out with burlaps bags, and in fifteen minutes had stuffed them with fresh scallops. The sea bottom was chock full of these creatures! Scallops are a very pricey dish, anywhere you go, so you can imagine what it felt like to see such "gold" there for the picking. Many of the families who live on San Roman come to pick scallops to sell, which is legal, I was told, if they are picked by hand. I later learned the selling of scallops and octopus is regulated, and I wouldn't harzard a guess as to who did and who didn't have permission to do so.

Besides scallop picking, Luis and Ruben went "hunting" for octopus (takes some know-how; Luis had a bit of success). Another fun one was fishing for cornalitos, which are miniscule fish that lurk near the shore. Two people wade out with a seining net, 20feet long, two feet deep, and walk back to shore slowly, sweeping up the fish as they go. These fish are too tiny to clean; you just roll them in flour, fry them, and eat them like potato chips. One of the memorable images is of Lucas picking those fish out of the net, and popping them into his mouth while they were still squirming. He had asked me if it was o.k., and I said, go right ahead. Let it be said that I did my best to cultivate open-mindedness and curiosity in my kids' eating habits. Not to be outdone, Maite started munching them, too. (Her current favorite phrase is "yo tambien!" (me, too!))

The Atlantic ocean this far south is chilly, but we swam and snorkeled, anyway. Lucas and Maite had a big time doing "children-on-the-beach" things, like building sandcastles and making roads. These beaches had almost as many broken shells on them as they did rocks and sand! There were empty mussels, scallop, snail, and clam shells, everywhere, billions of them. I had never seen the like.

Apart from the richness of the sea life, we recognized the uniqueness of the social situation. Everybody in our group of 16 pulled together for meals, water, tools, or whatever was needed. All three families collected scallops, and everyone helped clean them and prepare them for sale. (We were the only ones who didn't sell our loot). Incredibly, we were the only ones who ate the seafood. The other visitors were meat, rice, and potatoes folks, which surprised me of people who spend their summers at the ocean. With their motorhome, fourwheelers, guns, generators, their distaste for seafood, and talk about motorcross and pitbulls, we knew we wouldn't be exchanging email addresses with this family. But they were friendly and helpful, and we all kept on eye on each others' kids. Lucas and Maite probably had the best time of anyone, as they both had playmates their own ages. They don't know, or care, about the meaning of "redneck".

Junky Beach tourists?

In my life, I have spent time on beaches as widespread as the Bering Sea in Alaska, Vietnam, West Africa, and the Carribean, to name some of the more exotic ones. The beach of San Roman on the Pennisula Valdes now belongs to that list, but it gets its own special category. Here, we weren't tourists: we were friends of Atilio's, we were seafood foragers, we were wildlife admirers. And, if you take into account the filthy surroundings, the obnoxious non-stop generators, and the lack of water (did I mention the only water we had was to drink? We were sticky with salt water, our clothes stank and our hair was greasy after 4 days. That's a whole other chapter to this tale) I just have to add one more adjective to the list: survivor. Yep, we survived, damp, sticky sleeping bags and all, and came away with a few good stories, a deeper appreciation of the ocean, and forty pounds of scallops. I'd definitely do it again.
Our friend Claudia, when I told her about this post, exclaimed "your friends will think that's the way all the beaches in Patagonia are!" She's right; Argentina's beaches are beautiful, for the most part. Thankfully, San Roman is a very particular case.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Two Filthy Kids, One Erupted Volcano, and New Years on the Mountain

Luis's appreciative social skills do not include sharing nature with anyone who isn't family or friends. He's grumpy if he knows there are other campers anywhere within shouting range. I understand his distate for crowded campgrounds; I, too, would rather stay home than sleep in a tent twenty feet from somebody's stereo. Luis's needs, though, are more extreme: he doesn't even want to see anyone. Just nature, please (or rather, nature, damnit!)

Which is why Calfuqueo, the Echenique way-off-the-map campsite, is such a blessing. Five hours from Neuquen, and then ten miles along a sort-of-a-road, up into the mountains, across a few streams and a bit of mud, and we are there. Most people wouldn't attempt the drive, even with a 4 x 4, given that if you got stuck it would take hours to walk to the main road, but Ruben seems to like the adventure of off-roading with his low-to- the gound, front wheel drive Ford Escort. He has been camping here for years, braving the terrain in all sorts of inappropriate cars.

The place is stunning, and a long, long way from the nearest neighbor. Four very crudely constructed shelters perch on a hill; a five minute walk along a path is a lovely little mountain lake; a one minute path takes you down to a stream, for our drinking water. This is the summer camp of goat herder friends of Ruben's, who, back in the 80's, invited him for a visit. As picturesque as it is, I have a hard time imagining three months sleeping in these "shelters", with only goats for company.

On this camping trip, we are armed with: an astounding quantity of food (on the fifth day, Ana was still bringing out the good stuff. It was bottomless!); borrowed tents in various states of disrepair (thank God for tape. Lots of it); an assortment of blankets and sleeping bags, (which had seemed like plenty for everyone, but a few of us ended up sleeping with our coats on anyway.) And of course, the essentials of any Argentine camping trip: lots of meat, and a few good knives.

Our crew traveled in two cars, and consisted of: One Argentine father-in-law (good ole' Ruben, Lucas' tent mate); my sister-in-law bar owner/scriptwriter (Ana); a friend from Buenos Aires, who looked as good on the fifth day in the mountains as she did on the first (Iliana); one enthusiastic husband who was everywhere doing everything at all times (guess who); one very independent two year old who's filth level, and the inability to stay clean longer than 10 seconds reminded me of Pig Pen from "Peanuts"; her four year old brother, almost as dirty, who spent much of his time "designing" trains in the dirt (Lucas' has been on this train theme for the last two months. His singleminded-ness is truly astonishing); and one, upper class Mexican boyfriend (Ana's) who had never been camping before. Fero, (Mexican boyfriend) we could tell, wasn't used to the mundanities of cooking, cleaning, etc, but he was so affable we didn't hold it against him. And me, the mom, who's main concern was keeping the kids from getting lost in the forest. Which did happen to Lucas, by the way, in a five minute lapse in which I was busy with Maite and no one else was around. The worst twenty minutes of my life, believe me.

During the days we took hikes, some short and one very long (kids stayed back at the camp --thanks Tia Ana), played in the lake, which was marvelous fun for everyone, especially Lucas and Maite. They were naked little nymphs, splashing in the water, screaming and laughing, flittering along (Lucas flits; Maite "chugs" ) the shore. We ate a lot, drank enormous amounts of mate, played card games, sat around the fire late into the night, played with the kids, roasted meat, drank lots of beer. Put more tape on splintered and abused tent poles, shifted tent sites to escape zealous ants, hauled more water from the creek, changed poopy diapers, tried to keep Maite and Lucas from taking off their shoes. You know, camp stuff.

On New Years' Eve, we drove down the mountain, to a little town where Luis's friends own a cabin. "Rustic" is an appropriate word, here. We still had to haul water, and squat furtively behind trees, but at least we had a roof, a cook stove, and eating utensils. Matching plates, even. It was there we toasted in the New Year, with an abundance of food and grog.

Ana, Fero, Iliana, and Ruben left the next day, to tour a bit in Southern Argentina and Chile, and our little family of four was alone once more. We stayed several more days --Moquehue (the little town) and Lake Alumine is so lovely and green, and the cabin is so comfortable (and free), we are reluctant to leave. As we are driving out of town, on the last day, we learned on the radio that a nearby volcano had erupted, just over the border, in Chile. Unaware of the "danger", we had spent that day hiking. No wonder the town had seemed so eerily quiet.

This was the biggest camping trip I've even been on, in terms of number of people, and days out. Unique, too, that the Echenique family, across two hemispheres, could be together. Not a bad way to spend the last few days of 2007, and the beginning of 2008. So Happy New Year to all my readers; may it be a year of promise and adventure for all of you. It will be for us.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Two Birthday Girls and One Christmas Dragon

Christmas time, in our family, means birthday time. Growing up, my parents had to juggle in my birthday (Dec. 19) and my brother's (Dec. 20) around all the Christmas get togethers and church activities. Hectic. I always figured my parents weren't such good planners (or maybe too good). It must be in the genes, though, because many years later my daughter made her grand entrance into the world on, you guessed it, December 19. Five days early. What were the odds of that? I haven't decided if I'm incredibly lucky, or unlucky.

And so it was that last Wednesday, December 19, we had two birthday parties almost on top of each other. The highlight of little Maite's second birthday was a jumping castle. The kids gleefully jumped and bumped around, as I'm convinced all children are genetically programmed to do, no matter what country or culture they're in. They were really thrilled when a couple of the adults got in there with them.

Another party feature was the pinata, Argentine style, which is a balloon filled with candies and toys and white powder(in this case flour), so that it really makes an impression when it pops. There were no blindfolded kids whacking away at paper mache; a little prick with a fork did the trick. Lucas and Maite got the full force of flour explosion. They didn't know their faces were white; they just wanted to know why there was no candy in this pinata. We often make attempts (usually futile) to steer our kids away from candy and pop, so in keeping with our principles, we filled the pinata will little toys, and served the kids homemade fruit slushies instead of pop. I honestly don't think the kids cared that much about the lack of chips, cheese puffs, Coke, candy, etc. (except for the pinata comment) Kids this age (they ranged between 9 months and 5 yrs) don't gauge a party's success on the food served, I've noticed. It was such a hot day, the only things these little people seemed to want was water. We adults sat in the shade of our backyard and drank Luis's homemade beer and ate empanadas.

At around 10pm or so (supposed to have started at 9 pm) people without kids started showing up, bearing gifts for both Maite and me. I don't think the temperature, at that point, was much below 85. We sat around outside, in our backyard, and ate pernil, which is a large meaty cut of beef that has been basted and roasted for 10 hours. It's a new fad here, and it's perfect for large groups. The company we bought the pernil from supply tasty sauces and pan arabe (thin, round bread referred to as "arabic bread"). People put together little sandwiches for themselves, and that is dinner. Yum.

The birthday cake was an original creation of Ana's, that took her the better part of a day: 6 layers, with fruit, cream and dulce de leche (carmelized milk) lathered between the layers. The cake was very tall, and must have weighed 10 pounds. Luis threw in an American twist with a cherry pie, which he made with fresh cherries. That was a new one for people, and pie was scarfed up before I could go for seconds.

People left around 1 am or so. Luis commented that people left early because they had to work tommorrow. I loved that we could celebrate our birthdays on the actual day, a Wednesday, and I could count on everyone showing up, which they all did. Very cool. Thank you Luis and Ana, for two nice parties.

Our Christmas Dragon

I've always kind of thought of the U.S. as a leader in music/dance/theater productions. We've got Disneyland, Vegas, Broadway, and halftimes at sports events. When it comes to school productions, though, Lucas' little preschool puts to shame any school plays I've ever seen. Usually, I think of school auditoriums or gyms, with folding chairs, and homemade costumes. I know about these things: in the second grade I was Rapunzel, crying for a prince from my cardboard tower, which was situated squarely on the gymasium's free throw line.

No free throw lines around here. Jardin de Patri (Lucas' preschool) rented the largest theater in town, the one that hosts the big concerts and plays. The sound system was top notch, as was the fog machine, the lighting, the props. The theme was "A Fantasyland", where each class (there are six classes of 15-20 kids in each group) had a different theme. Lucas's class were dragons. Their costumes were professionally made (the parents paid for them) and all the groups had really lovely, elaborate costumes. The kids danced around, following the movements of their senoritas (teachers) as best they could. Very, very, cute. Impressively, the whole theater was full, and we're talking five hundred people or so. Perhaps what Patri (the owner and director of the preschool) had really wanted to do with her life was produce theatrical productions. . . . she's got a flair for it you generally don't associate with preschool directors.

We've come a long way from my rendition of Rapunzel, with my three foot braids made of yellow yarn.

If you want to see our darling dragon, you can have that pleasure: click here to see the kid who can't stop looking at the lights.