Wednesday, June 27, 2007

An Alaskan in Argentina

I grew up in a town of mostly dirt and gravel roads, with zero traffic lights. Bethel Alaska, population 6000 or so, is so isolated you have to fly to get there. Leave the town limits and you’ll find miles and miles of tundra dotted by countless lakes, sloughs and rivers. Quiet, but for the birds, the mosquitoes near your face, and the sound of the blueberries hitting the bottom of your bucket. The Yupik Eskimos of Bethel and the nearby villages are generally low key folks, and the gussaqs (white people) who live there have, somewhat, followed suit. Living in rural Alaska brings out different priorities; we just mostly wanted to stay warm and dry. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in a tie.

Now jump ahead to 1997, and where am I? Living in a city of 14 million, traveling in buses and subways crammed with people, where the din of the street passed through the walls of my tiny apartment on the 7th floor. Kind of a strange choice for a rural Alaskan. But Buenos Aires, for a young, single person looking for a new experience, was fun. Restaurants, bars, cafes, tango halls, concerts, theaters, parties, the race track, sporting events . . . This is what I did when I wasn’t teaching English. A typical Saturday night for me might be going from one dance joint to the next with a group of friends, and then breakfast together later in the morning. Weekdays were almost as lively; my Argentine friend Sandra and I would go to tango halls, to take a few turns on the floor and watch the couples. The tango is a complicated dance, but I found I could follow along somewhat if the man was experienced at leading. Between Sandra and her friends, and fellow English teachers, I always had people to do things with. When I met Luis, who had moved to the city to study at the University of Buenos Aires, my social life got even better.

Nevertheless, after 8 months or so, the noise, traffic, the subway and the crowds, confirmed what I suspected: I’m better suited for tundra. I can’t deny that Buenos Aires has its charms. I love the culture of the coffee house, where people read their newspapers or talk with friends over espresso and medialunas (croissants). Buenos Aires is a very old city, elegant in its architecture, and a history lesson in Spanish colonialism, war and independence, and arrival of immigrants from all over Europe. It’s an artsy city, with its theaters, art galleries, dance halls, and pretty shops. But in no way can you ever confuse Buenos Aires with a first world city. You can see, immediately, that there are few resources to keep the city clean and in good repair. You will notice that it is more chaotic than European cities, that lines are longer, bureaucracy is messier, and some organization is on strike, causing huge delays that are felt in many sectors of the city. It’s a nice place to visit for a week or so, but it’s a challenging, often exhausting place for residents. I am extraordinarily grateful that Luis is NOT from Buenos Aires. I doubt we would we have taken a year off to live there.

. . . .and now on to Patagonia . . . .

There are, in fact, plenty of people who aren’t happy about living in such a monstrous city. Ruben and Carmen lived there most of their lives, but, once married and with children, they wanted a more peaceful life. In 1978, they packed a hired truck with their worldly possessions, put their kids, Luis and Ana, in their tiny car, and headed 800 miles south and west, to the region known as Patagonia. Ruben had jumped at the chance to head up the chemical laboratory of a paint factory at its newly opened branch in Neuquén. Twenty-nine years later, Ruben is still here, happy to be retired, with time to visit friends, take siestas, travel, and, most recently, play with his two grandchildren, Lucas and Maite. Sadly, Carmen passed away in 1999. Ruben has since found a new companion, Estela, to share his life with.

The city that Carmen and Ruben chose for their new home, is not, unfortunately, one of Argentina’s finer efforts, aesthetically speaking: it reminds me of part of Wyoming, with its wind, dust, and low-to the ground desert vegetation. It gets hot in the summer, and in the winter it rains some, and occasionally snows. People here complain about the cold when it gets into the 40s, or, heaven forbid, the 30s. Lucas, who has spent lots of time playing in the snow of the Colorado, has learned, here in Neuquén, how to complain that his hands are cold when the needle drops below 60 degrees.

It’s apparent that most Argentines, who are largely descended from the heat loving Spanish and Italians, don’t come to Neuquén for the weather. What makes Neuquén, a city of 300,000 and counting, such a rapidly growing city, and one of the most expensive in the country, is oil. The oil companies are busy in Neuquén, and they pay their employees well. I can see the economic jump from the last time we were here, in 2003. Prices for most things are higher, there are more shops, and many more cars. Incredibly, housing prices and rents are actually cheaper in Greeley than they are here. (More on the economic situation of the locals in a later post) We are fortunate that Ruben is letting us live in one of his rental units, the original house that he and Carmen built in 1980.

How does Neuquén homes compare to American ones? Houses are generally much smaller than American homes and made of brick; walls are built up against the neighbor’s walls. Gardens and yards, as we know them in the U.S., are rare, as plots of land here are much smaller. Most people have a tiny patch of open space behind the house, where they hang their clothes to dry (dryers are not common), and a spot to make a fire for their asados (barbecues). Sidewalks are usually broken and cracked, or nonexistent, despite the large amount of pedestrians. Open green spaces lack attention by the city. They are certainly beautiful neighborhoods in the city; but more common are the cramped, dusty neighborhoods of the working poor. The disparity between rich and poor is greater in third world countries than in wealthier countries such as the U.S.

Our house in unusual, in that it’s fairly large, free standing (no neighbors on the other side of the wall), and we have a big, grassy (sort of grassy) yard. (Luis likes to tell people here about how fanatical Americans are about their yards. Argentines shake their heads in wonder about Americans spending so much time mowing and caring for their lawns). Despite the spaciousness of our house, we are not living a life of luxury. Our neighborhood is not upscale; with an unpaved street, living here is a dusty, sometimes muddy affair. We are not complaining (at least, not too loudly); we are better off than many, many people.

As far as tourism --well, Neuquén doesn’t get much of it. Tourists usually skip right over the city, which lacks the elegant colonial architecture of Argentina’s older cities, and the mountains, trees, and ski resorts of the Andean towns San Martin, Bariloche, and Villa La Angostura. But don’t let this stop you from visiting us!

Despite the differences in appearance and climate between Neuquén and other well known cities of the country, it is, at heart, a thoroughly Argentine city, with it’s slower pace, lively social life, its slow and sloppy bureaucracy, and its flakey plumbers. What sets it apart, for us, is the presence of friends, and, above all, family. We have two very young, very challenging children who are quite content spending time with their grandparents, and Ruben and Estela love to have them over. Balm to a beleaguered parent, and worth crossing a couple continents for, I’d say. And as far as living in a city that falls short of American standards in terms of general wealth and overall tidiness -- I’m learning that constant comparison will not help me in my quest to adapt to my new situation. This is not an easy task, but I’m working on it.