Monday, June 16, 2008

In a desperate land

This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end

("The End", The Doors)

Luciano and I are watching the news on TV right now, wondering if these are the final days of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's presidency, after just 5 months in office. You can tell things are serious when the news stations, which are typically supporters of whichever government is in power, have fixed headlines such as "Horas decisivas - protestas en todo el pais" (Decisive hours - protests throughout the nation) or "Critica día" (critical day).

The conflict between the campo (countryside or agricultural interests) and the federal government has been going on for more than 3 months now. The primary issue is new taxes, up to 44% of market value, which growers believe will bankrupt them. At times the two sides talk, other times the negotiations collapse and the campo blockades highways or halts production and shipments of food. We live with sporadic shortages (or complete lack of) of meat, dairy products, cooking oil, and other basics so we try to keep stocked up on the essentials.

Tensions have been increasing lately with new but related problems. Sympathy strikes resulted in cessation of all bus transportation for long-distance travel, the primary means of journeying in Argentina. Gasoline is completely unavailable in some provinces and in short supply in the rest of the country, with long lines and rationing.

We walked over to a large superstore (Jumbo) this evening to replenish our cupboards with whatever we could find. The streets during the day were eerily quiet and I wasn't sure if it was because today is a public holiday or if something more ominous was awaiting. When we left the store to walk home, we heard the banging of pots and pans, the famed cacerolazos which Argentinos use to demonstrate their grievances. Before, they had been mainly street protests, groups of people marching and hammering away. This time it was everywhere, literally. Every street we walked down had people on their balconies or hanging out of open windows, pots and pans clanging away, not to mention the people actually out on the streets doing the same thing. On the news we see that every barrio (district) of Buenos Aires is resonating with protests. Hundreds of thousands are loudly and visibly expressing hostility toward the government. Every major city in the country is experiencing the same civic disturbances. Every major highway is blockaded.

What will be next? I don't know. I'm still a stranger here in so many ways but to me it seems like there is so much frustration with the government that I don't know how they can continue their present course. Luciano is much blunter, he says if Cristina doesn't cave in and repeal her tax hikes, she has at most only a few days left as president. Presidenta Fernandez may soon be singing the Doors song rather than one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hits. Like the old Chinese curse, we're certainly living in interesting times.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Paris is burning

Buenos Aires, often called the Paris of the South, is gasping for breath as I write this, smothered by a thick layer of smoke. For a week now we've seen the sky alternate between hazy gray and sooty black as the winds either aid or afflict the city more. Grasslands and farms outside the capital are on fire, some 180,000 acres so far, and no relief appears to be in sight.

As you may recall, we had a nationwide farm strike recently which currently is in a state of temporary truce as the famers and the government negotiate. In light of this tension, it's not suprising that rumors and conspiracy theories abound on both sides. Some say the farmers carelessly lit fires to burn off post-harvest crop stubble and it subsequently got out of control. Others say the farmers did it deliberately to punish the capital and humble the government. The opposition says that most of the fires are on public grasslands, used for grazing, and that ranchers would never burn the land their cattle use to graze so it must have been government forces that started it to make the farmers look bad. I have no idea, I just hope it ends before we all literally choke to death.

On a positive note, I finally got my visa renewed. For 3 months, I jumped through every hoop required by Migraciones, obtaining all of the documents they requested complete with embassy seals, notarizations, legalizations, and everything else they could throw at me (including one wild goose chase to a Foreign Ministry office but the address they wrote down for me turned out to be a bakery). Then they informed me they had lost one of their official documents, my entry permit from a year ago, and would have to search their archives. They told me to come back at the end of the week on Friday, the final business day before my visa expired on that Sunday. I showed up wondering if I would be an illegal alien the following week but somehow they'd found what they needed and now I can spend the next 9 months dreading the process before I have to begin it all over again.

Of course, it wasn't quite all over yet. When my visa expired, so did my DNI (national identity document, kind of like an internal passport used for ID and mandatory for both citizens and foreign residents). It has blank spaces in it for renewals, requiring a new expiration date, authorized signature, and offical stamp. Could they do that at the same time as my visa? Are you kidding? The bureaucracy couldn't survive if it was so efficient. No, I had to go to another office of Migraciones about a kilometer away, waste more hours, stand in more lines, bring more copies of documents, and so on. Six different steps and officials were needed to get a date, a signature, and a rubber stamp applied. Can you imagine actually trying to accomplish anything complicated here? I suspect one would die of old age before it ever finished.

Luciano spent a week in Spain recently, during Easter week. He lived there for a while and is still registered as a resident. To keep his status, he needs to renew his residency in person every 2 years so he decided it would be a good time to close his store and do it, since BA virtually shuts down from Thursday through Tuesday around the holiday. I, of course, was in the throes of visa renewals so there was no way I could leave the country and jeopardize my months of work. When he came back, we compared notes. His bureaucratic process took less than 10 minutes and mine had already lasted 2.5 months. Hmmm, which country is efficient and has an economy 6 times greater than the other although it's only 1/5 the size in area? I'll take "Spain" for $500, Alex! Anyway, Luciano had a good time and hopefully I'll be able to go with him on his next trip there.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Double, double toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble...
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth)

Chaos and turmoil reign in Argentina now and nobody knows just what wicked something may be coming next. Two weeks ago the government of Christina Fernandez Kirchner increased taxes on agricultural products (in simpler terms, *food*) to 44% of their value. Farmers throughout the country are refusing to ship their harvests and ranchers are withholding their livestock. Supporters of the rural rebellion have blockaded many major highways of the country, turning back the few trucks brave or foolhardy enough to try to deliver foodstuffs to Buenos Aires, the capital. Not only is the food supply cut off but the blockades create huge traffic jams along all the routes leading to Buenos Aires. As we say here, "¡Que quilombo! (what a mess)".

Within the city, protesters against the government have formed nightly parades of cacerolazos, people who march in the streets or public plazas banging pots and pans (cacerolas) to call attention to their grievances. It's the first time since the economic meltdown of 2000-2001 that this form of popular protest has been seen in the capital, so I'd say it's a good bet this is getting serious. Argentina, famed throughout the world of its cattle, finds its stores empty of beef and dairy products. Also dwindling in supply are wheat, bread, pasta, cooking oil, chicken, eggs, and many other basics.

Like most other people, I headed out to shop a couple of days ago, attempting to stock up on essentials before the stores are completely empty. I already knew I wouldn't find any beef but we mostly eat chicken anyway so I wasn't dismayed by the vacant display cases. Fortunately, by visiting two markets, I was able to secure a good supply of bread, milk, and other items so I think Luciano and I will do fine for at least a week before we start living on a more boring diet of pasta and rice or something similar. Hopefully the government and the farmers will start talking instead of yelling and reach some kind of accomodation soon.

I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of Argentine politics but clearly there are fundamental problems here. Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world in area and a vast amount of its land is ideal for ranching and farming. For many years, in the 1800's and early 1900's, it was the biggest beef producer as well as one of the world's top suppliers of grains and other agricultural products. With only 40 million people in a land one-third the size of the United States (and 14 million of those living in the capital), my guess is there is a lot of available terrain for increased agriculture. However, the news reports here have said that cattle production has decreased by 25% during the last 30 years. I find it hard to believe that Argentina isn't expanding its production, utilizing its natural resources better, and augmenting the public and private economies. There's so much potential in this amazing land but little promise of ever fulfilling it.

One of the most obvious reasons is the stultifying bureaucracy. Luciano and I often joke about how if we want to buy a new toothbrush or take a walk in a park, we'd better have our official ID's handy, several forms in triplicate and notarized, and a few days to repeatedly visit government offices to get the requisite permissions. It's not quite that bad but it's not a huge exaggeration either. For example, to buy a car in the US you walk into a dealer, plunk down your money, and within an hour you can be driving your new gas-guzzler home. Here, you plunk down your money, fill out reams of papers...and then wait 2 to 3 months to get your car. There's no temporary operating permit like we have in the States, the dealer has to send all of the paperwork to the government and after a couple of months of grinding its way through the system, a valid registration is issued and the buyer can finally have his/her vehicle. The same thing applies to private party sales of used vehicles so no matter what you buy, you'd best plan to wait a couple of months before you ever take possession of it.

Another example is the process of renting an apartment. One can't simply fill out an application, pay a couple of months equivalent of rent as a deposit, and move in. No, you have to submit a garantia. This is a legal document, similar to a lien, in which the owner of a property of equal or greater value than the apartment you want to rent promises his property as security against damages or failure to pay the rent. So, how many of you renters out there could find someone who would volunteer a lien against his home so you could rent an apartment? But wait, it gets better. It can't just be a friend, it has to be a close personal relative such as parent, child, brother or grandparent. Your field of choices just got narrower, right? We're still not done yet! The guaranteed property also has to be in the capital so your relative's home in another city or province won't be accepted. Now imagine that your parents and grandparents have already provided the garantia for your brothers, sisters, or cousins (it can only be used up to the value of the property being pledged). How will you ever rent your own place? Life for the poor and middle class here can be exhausting because it seems difficult to ever truly get ahead.

You can imagine how other procedures and requirements of business and daily life are comparable. With that in mind, it's not hard to understand why Argentina is mired in between slow growth and stagnation. Yet no one seems to want to change the system. I believe that until it does change, Argentina is going to remain stuck and never achieve what it should.

On a cheerier note, here are some snaps we took of guys during our time in Salta, Jujuy, and Cordoba. The quality often isn't great because we were trying to do it covertly, shooting on the spur of the moment from quite a distance away. But it should still give you an idea of how the lads of Argentina look. In my next post, I'll write about our time in Cordoba, with another slideshow.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Catching up with Cachi

My oh my, I've been slothful lately, neglecting the blog. It just seems like there's always something else that I need to be doing. Tonight I hope to get caught up at least to our excursion to Cachi (back in January!) as well as fill you in with a bit of current news.

Let's deal with the present first. A little over a week ago, Luciano and I moved from the apartment in Belgrano, where we had stayed for 6 months, to an apartment in the adjacent barrio of Coghlan. It's on the other side of Belgrano from our old apartment so it's really quite a change, I'm having to learn where all the routine things are like grocery stores, banks, restaurants, and so on.

It's much quieter here. Unlike the apartment on Libertador, this place is on a quiet residential street and it also doesn't face the street so there's little traffic noise. It doesn't have the awesome view we had before but I'm quite happy with the tradeoff. It's also a little smaller so it was a huge challenge to squeeze our ever accumulating pile of possessions into the new place but I've somehow gotten it all to fit. Of course, we promptly went out and added to the pile by buying a DVD player 3 days after we moved in (previously we just used our laptops to watch movies). It's a pretty good hike to the subway but again there's a tradeoff: it's only 1 block to the aboveground commuter train station which runs from downtown out to the suburbs well beyond the city limits.

We got lucky with this place. Our previous landlord wanted to raise the rent by several hundred pesos (an 18% increase) and I decided it was worth the pain of packing up and moving. After a lot of searching, we found this place for 20% *less* than we were paying in Belgrano. All in all, I think it was a successful venture! The landlady is ultra nice, lives in the building next door, and has furnished the apartment beautifully and completely, down to the smallest details.

Along with the apartment hunt, I've been working on renewing my resident visa since the latter part of January. Dealing with government, banks, and other officious types of institutions here is like stepping into a demented Kafka novel or Alice's Wonderland. Very little makes sense, most things are capricious, and one's patience and sanity are constantly imperiled.

In January, my Colombian friend John called Migraciones (Immigration) to find out exactly what I would need to renew the visa; he needed to renew his as well so he did the phone work for both of us. Ergo, there's no way there was a language problem because obviously Spanish is his native tongue.

Of course, when we arrived at Migraciones the following week, they informed me that I actually needed a financial document which I would have to get from the US company with whom I have investments. I had them write down exactly what was needed, specifically if it would need notarization or other special treament and was told no, just a simple paragraph on company letterhead would be perfect.

It was kind of a disaster getting the document, a comedy of errors back in the States. Ultimately I did receive it and promptly went to Migraciones again. Naturally, what I was told before was no longer the truth-of-the-day. The financial document has to be taken to the US consulate where a consular official will authenticate it and affix a seal. Again I had them write this down and they said the consulate knows all about it, they do this all the time, etc. Of course, when I phoned the consulate they said they have never done anything of that nature. Apparently "they do this all the time" really means that the Red Queen had another bout of insanity and the rules just changed hours before. The consulate told me someone else had come in for the first time with the same request that very day. For both of us, they're going to let us sign an affadavit in which we state that our own documents are genuine, the consular official will notarize that, and they say Migraciones probably will accept it, simply because it will have a consular stamp, not because of what it says (which really is absolutely nothing). Welcome to Wonderland.

So much for current events. I want to finish with our travel adventures in Salta so let's talk about driving los señores margaritas (driving Misters Daisy) to Cachi. We used the same tour company as on our trip to Humahuaca but we had a different guide/driver and one change in the passenger list. We had met Alfonso from Italy on our prior excursion, became friendly with him, and thus he joined us for our trip to Cachi. The other member of our tour was new to us, a nice young woman from Buenos Aires who was travelling for an extended period to get better acquainted with her own country.

Cachi is slightly south of Salta capital and definitely west, up into the Andes. As you can see in the slideshow, the route was similar to our prior tour, beginning in green fertile valleys and becoming higher and drier as we climbed into the mountains. We made various stops for photos and scenic views but not so much for visiting villages along the way as we had done previously. Ultimately we reached Cachi, whose name comes from the indigenous Cacán language and means silent stone. It's located at the western end of the Valles Calchaquíes (Calchaqui Valley), a group of interconnected valleys that run through Salta, Tucumán, and Catamarca provinces. Cachi lies at 7480 feet (2280 meters), at the foot of the Nevado de Cachi (Cachi Mountain) which soars up to 22, 047 feet (6720 meters). Its church dates from the 1600's and its Pío Pablo Díaz Archaeological Museum hosts thousands of antiquities dating as far back as 10,000 years.

After lunch in Cachi, we strolled through the town and of course browsed some of the local marketplaces and tourist traps. That's where I found the bizarre ceramic which I wrote about in an earlier post, complete with photo. I have it sitting in a place of honor in the new apartment, although Luciano keeps stuffing a (wrapped) piece of hard candy in the screaming woman's mouth, apparently believing a little sugar will help her with the birth pangs.

On the return leg, we visited Parque Nacional Los Cardones (Cactus National Park). Its 158,000 acres encompass several distinct zones of differing climate, terrain, fauna, and flora. Of course the flora includes the namesake cactus, cardón, a giant species which has very long spines that native peoples still use as knitting needles. The park shelters such exotic fauna as vicuña, similar to the llama, and puma, a type of mountain lion.

We left the Andes during the final part of our journey via the Quebrada de Escoipe (Ravine of Escoipe) and a stop at Piedra del Molino (Millstone), the highest point on the road at 10,984 feet (3384 meters). A huge millstone was found there long ago and nobody has any idea how it arrived at the summit nor why it was abandoned there. There is a small roadside chapel at the peak. From this vantage point you can look down over the beautiful Valle Encantado (Enchanted Valley) and with a bit of luck see majestic condors gliding through the sky.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A bag of chips and a bowl of humahuaca

No, Humahuaca is not an Argentine version of guacamole. It's a huge valley in northwestern Argentina. The valley itself is named the Quebrada de Humahuaca (Ravine of Humahuaca) and there's also a town named Humahuaca in the valley. It's a United Nations World Heritage Site because of its great natural beauty and its importance as an historic crossroads. For millenia, Humahuaca has been a route for transit between Peru and Argentina. The Incans used it for caravans of their far-flung empire, the Spanish connected their viceroyalties of Peru and Rio De La Plata, and the Argentinos found it a critical juncture for travel during their wars of independence.

Luciano and I journeyed around the environs of Salta Capital quite a bit on our own, utilizing colectivos (public buses). It's a cheap way to get around, costing just a peso or two to travel to nearby towns. To go further afield, we decided to take a couple of excursiones (group tours). Our first tour was to Humahuaca in neighboring Juyuy province.

Our driver and guide, Juanjo, picked us up in front of our hotel at 8 AM. We had a small group, just us and two tourists from Italy. Juanjo conducted the tour in Spanish, the only language we all understood in common, but he is multilingual, chatting privately with me in English, with our companions in Italian, and said he speaks Portuguese as well.

We set out through the lowlands of Salta toward Jujuy, slowly climbing in elevation as the terrain became higher and drier. As we entered Jujuy province, Juanjo pointed out fields of the main crop of Jujuy, tobacco. Soon, even the tobacco fields gave way to drier terrain, as we climbed to the high semi-desert plateau.

Our first major stop was Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors), a formation caused by strata of varying mineral contents. The contrast of earth-tone pigments against the blue skies, white clouds, and shadowed mountains was striking. Just a few kilometers further we came to the tiny pueblo of Purmamarca, which means Town of the Virgin Earth in the native Aymara language which is still spoken by about a million people in the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The small town square holds a handicrafts market for tourists, which are surely the largest source of income for this remote village.

Next we proceeded on to Tilcara, formerly a crucial spot on the route from Peru to Argentina. Built on hill, the pucará (fortified town) of ancient Tilcara has been reconstructed so that one can imagine what it must have been like during the time of the Incas. With its high vantage point, Tilcara was able to observe movements through the quebrada and pose a formidable obstacle to any unfriendly forces. Its stone buildings are low-roofed and small but remain quite cool inside despite the hot desert temperatures. In this region, we find llamas and alpacas grazing, more cacti than trees, and air dry enough to mummify corpses. Tilcara means Shooting Star in Quechua, another Andean language widely used in the Altiplano (Andean plateau region of South America).

As we continued heading north, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn before we reached Humahuaca. Technically we entered the tropics yet there wasn't a trace of lush Amazonian-type foliage. At 9642 feet above sea level, Humahuaca is arid and the air is noticeably thin. Its cobblestone streets, adobe structures, and colonial architecture give it definite charm. From the main plaza, we trekked up an incredibly long and broad staircase to an immense monument to Argentina's independence. The view from the monument is spectacular but the statue and staircase seem like anomalies, far too ornate and huge for a small pueblo like Humahuaca.

Juanjo turned us over to his local counterpart, who gave us a tour of the cathedral and spoke to us about the indigenous customs and history. We had a pleasant lunch in the town, entertained by native musicians in costume. Afterward, we wandered around the plaza, strolled the picturesque streets, and of course browsed the handicrafts markets.

We headed back to San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital of Jujuy province. We stopped near the main plaza to look around a bit at some of Juyuy's colonial buildings and received an unexpected bonus. Dozens of children were singing and dancing in front of the cathedral, in native costumes, practicing for an upcoming event. We indulged in cortados (espresso with a dollop of steamed milk) and pastries before the return trip to Salta.

Juanjo selected an alternate route which took us through truly beautiful hills and valleys. The winding road had 130 curves according to our guide so it was fortunate none of us had problems with motion sickness. Each bend revealed another lovely sylvan view. The landscape was much like San Lorenzo which we had visited previously but more remote. Our last stop was beside the Rio Ubierna (Ubierna River), just before sunset.

It was a long day, about 12 hours, and we had covered a lot of territory, seen historic places, and visited regions with dramatically different climate and scenery. I definitely think we got our money's worth for the 100 pesos (US $32) that it cost.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Salta La Linda

Originally, Luciano and I planned to rent a car and drive the 900-something miles to Salta. I thought it would probably be cheaper than flying plus I would see a lot of the countryside in between. However, when we looked into it, we got a bad case of sticker shock. Rental cars here are exorbitantly priced, even the smallest economy car going for 60 dollars a day or more, so our original two week plan would have cost at least 1000 dollars just for car rental, gas, and related costs. We ended up flying to Salta for just a bit over 400 dollars for both of us.

We stayed in an apart-hotel a couple of blocks from the principal town square, Plaza 9 de Julio. The apartment had a good view over the city and the central location made it very convenient. At about 30 dollars per day, it was cheaper than a hotel plus we had an entire apartment and kitchen rather than just a room.

Salta is very picturesque with lots of preserved colonial era architecture. Salteños are proud of their city and it shows in the well-kept streets, parks, and plazas. It's not a big city, only about 500,000 inhabitants, but it is the capital of the province of the same name. The province of Salta is in northwest Argentina, sharing borders with Chile and Bolivia. Its fertile lowlands in the southeast change into chains of foothills as you go north or west, finally climbing up into the high peaks of the Andes mountains. This gives Salta a breadth of climates and terrains, from lush subtropical to dry high mountain deserts. Click here for a brief overview of Salta and be sure to click Zone Map to get your bearings for our travels through this area.

Salta is Luciano's hometown so I had an excellent guide. We started off by getting an aerial view of the city, riding the teleférico (sky tram) from San Martin park up to the top of nearby Cerro San Bernardo (cerro is hill in Spanish). On the hilltop is a beautifully landscaped park with a creek, waterfall, restaurant and stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains of Salta Capital, as the city is popularly known. We chose to walk back down the hill via a staircase trail so that we could enjoy the changing vistas during our leisurely descent. The trails terminates in Guemes park where there is a huge monument to General Guemes, one of the heroes of Argentina's revolution.

The heart of Salta Capital is Plaza 9 de Julio. This town square is framed by some of the city's most important buildings such as the cabildo (city hall) and the cathedral, both fine examples of colonial architecture. All of the buildings facing the plaza are illuminated from dusk to dawn, providing a visual treat throughout the night. Many locals as well as tourists enjoy a beverage or meal at one of the cafés lining the plaza, then take a stroll around the park to greet their friends. The city center is safe to enjoy even in the middle of the night, not only because of the lighting but because the city has monitoring cameras installed throughout the central zone. Salta is surprisingly more high tech than Buenos wi-fi internet access is provided by the city government.

A popular nocturnal destination is Balcarce Street, about 8 blocks north of the town square. Thursday through Sunday evenings the street is blocked to traffic and becomes a pedestrian zone for huge crowds which flock to its many restaurants, bars, and nightclubs until daylight. Salta has a number of pedestrian shopping streets as well and the relatively small size of the city's core makes it well suited for the tourist or resident who enjoys walking.

We visited Jekyll in Calle San Luis, Salta's only fulltime gay bar, on three occasions. It's neither big nor fancy but it's certainly popular, packed each time we were there. Clearly it pays to have a monopoly. During one of our excursions into the province, we met an Italian tourist, Alfonso, who happens to be gay. We had dinner together one evening and promised him we'd show him the local gay bar so we hopped in a cab to head for Jekyll. Just three blocks into the trip, the driver made a left turn and we were immediately creamed by a city bus. It all happened so fast we didn't even have time to shriek or pee our pants. Fortunately the angle of impact was such that the two vehicles bounced off each other more than smashed together so nobody was injured. In fact, none of us even broke a nail or mussed our hair, or else how could we ever have proceeded on to the gay bar and been seen like that in public?

As I mentioned previously, we were thinking of moving to Salta. Buenos Aires is huge, exciting, and packed with things to do. It's also noisy, dirty, and crowded. After nine months here, I'm thinking it would be nice to live somewhere more tranquil, a house with a yard instead of an apartment with a balcony, maybe get a dog or two. Therefore we spent quite a bit of time outside of Salta Capital, not only enjoying the scenery but scouting potential areas to live. One day we visited Quebrada San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo Ravine), a nature preserve in the hills about 12 miles from the city. It's absolutely gorgeous, a winding creek with water pouring over boulders, lush vegetation climbing the banks up through the hillsides, a cool refreshing climate year round. Just outside the park is the community of San Lorenzo, spread over gently rolling hills abundant with trees and greenery. There are similar pueblos in the surrounding areas and if we ever decide to live in Salta, I suspect that we'll buy a home in that area. It's a slice of paradise.

We also spent a day in Vaqueros, a pueblo just outside the city limits of Salta, across the Rio Vaqueros (Vaqueros River). Luciano still has a house in Vaqueros and we wanted to look it over and consider it as a possible home. It's quite large and is in a very quiet area at the end of a street. The back yard officially extends all the way to the river, 200-300 feet away, so there's lots of open space.

After visiting his house, we walked along the river for a good mile or so. It's very pretty with long vistas to the nearby hills. In midsummer, the river is low but I could tell by erosion higher up the banks that it can swell dramatically with rain and glacial runoff. Luciano showed me the popular riverside areas for romantic encounters of both the gay and straight variety...although I think I could have figured it out for myself from the dozens and dozens of condom wrappers lying around.

Luciano's family still lives in Salta, not far from Vaqueros. We went to the family home for Christmas and it's very different from our traditions. Here people get together on Christmas eve for a big dinner that always begins at midnight (or later) with a toast of cider or champagne. Fireworks are legal and for 15 or 20 minutes after midnight on Christmas there was a constant barrage of explosions to celebrate the holiday. I saw something completely new to me, a globo, which is like a very small hot air balloon. Inside is a packet of combustible fuel and after it's ignited it heats the balloon causing the glowing orb to rise and float into the nighttime sky. Very pretty but I wonder how many of them eventually fall back down and set fire to something!

Christmas Day itself is anticlimactic with everyone sleeping in and no particular festivities going on. In fact, virtually the entire city shut down, even the restaurants and kioscos (tiny shops that sell cigarettes, sodas, and such). We had almost nothing to eat in the apartment so Luciano went out foraging and the only thing he could find open was a heladería (ice cream shop) so we had a decadent lunch of 3 flavors.

New Year's Eve is also very different. It's celebrated at home, again with a midnight dinner. Only a handful of restaurants were open and all the bars and nightclubs were shut tight. The streets were nearly deserted but once again the fireworks madness commenced at the stroke of 12. We were on Balcarce Street at the time and laughed at the antics of some kids with their dog. Unlike every dog I've ever met, this one loved fireworks. He'd run around them barking and nipping at them and even the exploding variety didn't bother him in the least, he just circled again and went back for more.

Our final evening in Salta was spent with friends both old and new. Our Italian tourist joined us with his newfound romance, a nice lad from Chicoana, a nearby pueblo. I could never remember its name nor the noun for its inhabitants (chicoano) so I kept referring to him as "the chimichanga" (it's like a burrito). Luciano thought that was funny so the boy was permanently christened with a new nickname, like it or not. My friend Ulises, who is also from Salta originally and was visiting his family, also dined with us as well as our mutual friend Gustavo who was living in BA in 2005 but later moved back to Salta. We had a delicious dinner and lively time at Doña Salta, a restaurant specializing in Salteño cuisine amidst authentic ambience and decor.

This slideshow is of scenes in and around Salta Capital. In my next posts, you'll read about our adventures further afield and there will be more slideshows. Click the lower left corner of the slideshow if you want to go to the photo album page to view the pics full size.

Monday, January 14, 2008

We're backss now, aren't we, my precioussssss?

Happy New Year to all! I could add Merry Christmas, Happy Hallowe'en, Happy Thanksgiving, and even a Kwanza greeting to that, I suppose. After all, I have been absent from my blog for two months. Mea culpa.

In October, Luciano and I began to think of Christmas plans and we decided we would visit his hometown, Salta, in the province of the same name. Located in northwestern Argentina, amidst the Andes mountains, the province is known as Salta La Linda (Salta the Lovely) for its tremendous natural beauty. I was very much looking forward to seeing this area famed as Argentina's most beautiful and varied terrain.

Also around that time, we came up with an idea for a joint business venture, which would probably entail moving out of Buenos Aires. We decided to consider Salta as a possible future home. I spent most of November and part of December researching numerous aspects of our business plans as well as investigating Salta and other places as potential spots to live and work.

In the midst of all of this, my blog fell by the wayside. I was too busy looking toward the future to write about the present.

Now you're probably wondering just what the heck is this new business I'm talking about. Well, all I can say for now is that when I finally tell you, it will rock your world. And I'm not exaggerating. It's about 80% certain at the moment but we still need to do a bit more fact-finding before we commit ourselves irrevocably. Hang on, it will be worth the wait!

I'm trying now to organize the almost 1000 photos we took during our recent travels. I won't bombard you with all of them but I will put a few slideshow/photo albums here soon. We ended up not only visiting Salta but also the neighboring province of Jujuy and then extended our vacation time to include Córdoba, situated halfway between Salta and Buenos Aires. All in all, it was pretty amazing with gorgeous scenery, interesting people, and some unusual experiences.

For now, I will leave you with this photo of my newest prized possession, a ceramic piece of indigenous art that I found in Cachi, a village sited at 7750 feet (2280 meters) up in the Andes. When I saw it, I simply had to have it. It was perhaps the oddest thing I've ever seen and there was no way I was leaving Cachi without it! Look for a series of new posts about our travel adventures beginning within the next couple of days.