Sunday, 31 July 2011

Las Ballenas

With a month left in Argentina, a porteña friend asks me if I want to take a trip to Patagonia to see las ballenas (whales) which migrate to Puerto Madryn, a town half way between Buenos Aires and the southern-most tip of Argentina, every winter to enjoy the relatively warm waters there. She sends me a picture of the whales as if I need any more convincing. ‘Tengo muchas ganas!!!’  I reply (adding the obligatory ten exclamation marks in true Argentine-style) and so we discuss our trip where we plan to practice each others' languages and enjoy the peace of the expansive, tranquil landscape of Patagonia for a long weekend.

First of all, to get there we have two options: plane or coach. Plane, as always, is more expensive and also comes with the risk of delays due to volcanic ash from the volcano that recently erupted in Chile. We choose the coach, which on the other hand is half the price and is a mere 19 hour journey each way. Yes, some years ago I would have balked at this too; thought twice about submitting myself to being cooped up with a bus-full of strangers for such a length of time but, South America alters your perception of distance. Aside from this, coach journeys on this half of the Americas are a highly novel experience (for us gringos at least) with air-hostess-like service, food brought on trays, wine, films and so on. On this occasion we are even treated to a game of bus bingo. The steward, Mathias, announces the numbers over the microphone one by one and does his best to imbue the experience with enthusiasm and suspense – not an easy feat when you consider that it is essentially a game more devoid of excitement than any other.

So, twenty hours later (I have yet to travel on a bus on these shores that is not delayed by at least half an hour), sated by the bingo, films and food we arrive in Puerto Madryn to our hostel room which is the size of a large sauna, and has much the same appearance as one too.

Day one, we watch lobos marinos (sea lions) playing in the sea and lazing on a sandy enclave from a viewpoint. We are highly amused by one frisky male sea lion’s attempts to ‘seduce’ a female. He clearly will not take no for an answer and uses his sheer blubbery heftiness to pin her down.

Day two, we get up early to see the ballenas at a place called Punta Flecha. At 9:30am on the beach it is freezing but we are thrilled to see the whales come so close to the shore, spurting water, flicking their tales in the air every so often. Later the same day we take a tour to see elefantes marinos (elephant seals) and are taken within a stone’s throw of them. Their burpy, groany noisiness is hilarious, the way they heave themselves across the sand and huddle cosily together is charming as are their human-like mannerisms when they scratch themselves pensively.

Day three, we want to take a boat tour from Punto Piramides to see the whales up close. However, our plan is scuppered by the windy weather which means there are no boats departing until much later and we have to catch our bus back to BsAs that evening. However, all is not lost as we enjoy the serenity of the small town and have a slow-paced delicious lunch overlooking the sea.

All in all a perfect antidote to Buenos Aires, and the perfect way to mark the end of this trip to Argentina (I will certainly never forget that game of bus bingo either…).

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Confessions of a Workaholic - Part III

Three months, three members of staff have quit the company I work for and all three have barely been there longer than me. For a company that has less than ten employees this seems astounding. The upshot of all this is that Boss Lady is no longer going to be renting the office space we have been using as it seems a little extravagant for me, myself and I. I am politely informed of this by email in the usual incomprehensible style favoured by Boss Lady, her firm disregard for punctuation never ceases to confuse and amaze me in equal measure. Never mind that I am a gringo with an average grasp of the Spanish language; I don’t mind spending half an hour deciphering every unintelligible sentence she writes to me (her manner of talking is much the same which means that on the few occasions that we meet in person, I descend into deep despair, losing all confidence I may have had in my Spanish speaking abilities).

The message notifies me that my options are to work from home, work from her home, or work in the office in the Boedo neighbourhood. I consider the options.

Home: warm, comfortable, don’t need to spend time commuting; can cook myself nice lunches and make hot, delicious, non-Argentine coffee; but lonely; no opportunity to practice Spanish; risk of getting cabin fever; lack of people and therefore lack of stimulation.

Her home: opportunity to practice Spanish, nice lunches cooked by Boss Lady’s maid, but cold, a long commute, cramped space to work; a pet ferret running around; risk of being asked to do things which are not strictly within my job role; risk of deep loss of faith in my Spanish speaking abilities (see above)….and did I mention the ferret?

Boedo: well this one has a an ominous question mark hanging over it as I have yet to see the space. So I investigate….

Meanwhile, on the plus side, we have employed a new member of staff, Kate, part-time and from the U.S. She has also heard a little mentioned about the space in Boedo (and feels the same way about pet ferrets) so we plot our move there. By this point I have seen photos of the office and it looks ideal as a creative studio space. I tell Boss Lady by email that I am interested in working there and ask if, by chance, there is a sewing machine. ‘What kind of machine do you need?’ comes the prompt reply. I tell her something simple will suffice as it would just be for making samples. ‘Decide which machine you want from Carrefour’. Err, ok, I wasn’t expecting such an immediately proactive response but I am clearly not going to argue this offer.

Two days later, Kate and I head to the new office having purchased a sewing machine with 250 of Boss Lady’s dollars in cash and the office keys reassuringly in our possession. On entering the building, an old turn-of-the-century Parisian-style edifice, we are immediately besotted. The main room is high-ceilinged elegance, art-gallery-white walls, light streaming in through huge windows, so clean you can barely see there are glass panes in the frames. At the back, another room with a mezzanine style section, several hidden rooms with boxes piled up inside, a cellar area, a charming kitchen and a roof terrace the size of half a tennis court.

There is no wifi (yet), and it has that unused, unlived-in eeriness about it, but it is warm, spacious, luminous, and has the thrilling sense of potential that we need. Time to install ourselves and begin in earnest.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

I am a workaholic - Part II

Sunday evening and I have that sinking feeling, that profound dread of what the week will bring. It is all because tomorrow is THE day of the seminar that we have been planning for weeks at work and I have done all I can to prepare my talk, even running through it in my head in the confines of my bedroom. And all I can think is what possessed me to agree to it at all?  What seemed to be a cosy seminar for students has now become a full-blown forum for academics, social researchers, prominent local figures from the ethical fashion industry and other people who 'know their stuff'. And me (who hopefully knows her stuff). In other words, I did not know what I was letting myself in for and the concept snowballed before my very eyes until it was too late to change my mind.

How bad can twenty minutes be? It is a challenge, I tell myself. But then the other half of me wonders if challenges are really necessary in life. Why do I want to take myself out of my comfort zone? Too late to consider all this now...

Next day I awake with the same feeling of dread after the inevitable dreams where everything goes wrong. The pain in the pit of my stomach only worsens as the morning goes on. At around 10am I make my way to El Centro Metropolitano de Diseño by bus, arriving in one of the most run-down parts of Buenos Aires that I have seen yet. Clutching my netbook tightly under my arm I hurriedly walk the few blocks to the centre where inside awaits the most beautiful space of sleek wood, modern-industrial wrought iron, exposed brickwork. The place is alive with activity, classes taking place, groups of people meeting over coffee, it feels creative and full of potential.

Typically I am the first to arrive of my company. No one knows if there are going to be 5 people in the audience, 20 or 60. There is no running order, no timetable, nothing. I should be used to this by now but still it irks me. The seminar starts almost one hour late with around 60 listeners in the audience, various speakers present their ideas and I still have no idea when it will be my turn. The second half of the seminar goes a little downhill; speakers have to rush through their carefully coordinated Powerpoint presentations, attempts at talks made via Skype fall apart as the sound quality deteriorates. Finally, as the penultimate speaker, I am called up to sit under the glaring lights and talk through my experiences of working in fair trade fashion. The look of horror on my bosses face when I start the talk in English instead of Spanish is palpable; it seems there was some miscommunication on this point but now is not the time to worry about it and so I plough on. Like many others, my talk is cut short as we are running well over time, it certainly is not my finest moment.

But it's done and I can breath easily again. I don't have that adrenaline-fueled high that I was expecting, just a sense of anti-climax, deflation, but best of all, relief.

Now onto the next challenge (watch this space for part III).

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My name is Suzie and I am a workaholic

In London I was overworked, underpaid, always cramming my social calendar with too many things, always counting the days till the weekend and forever dreaming about THE trip to Buenos Aires where I would learn castellano; while away the afternoons in cafes sipping espressos while leafing through newspapers; hang out in bars sipping malbec, read all the books I’ve never had time to read and absorb the city like the proverbial sponge. And all those things I have done in spades (except the castellano which is definitely a work in progress).

Four months in and where am I? I have a paid almost full-time job, I am not overworked but I am definitely underpaid, burning the candle at both ends and living for the weekend. As I awoke this morning to a grey Saturday after the most splendid deep sleep I had the urge to make my way to Marks & Spencer to buy the Guardian and an almond croissant before settling down to the crossword. Instead I made coffee and toast and settled down to the Saturday edition of La Nacion to read about Guillaume y Kate and the royal wedding. Likewise, I have done the commuter run numerous times and, lost deep in my own thoughts, almost forgotten I am in BsAs. After all, the lulling motion of a traffic-bound bus and the weary faces of fellow commuters is much the same in any metropolis. But as I fall into something resembling a routine I find myself feeling more content than I have for weeks. Now I have purpose and a reason to get out of bed before 10am. Does this make me a workaholic?

While the routine is akin to my previous London existence there are certain things that keep me grounded in the reality of being here in Argentina.

Take for instance how I got the job in the first place. After several weeks of part-time voluntary work for the company I had never met Boss Lady. She writes me an email: when are you leaving Argentina / it would be great to meet you / do you have experience in making instructions for making garments, if yes I can pay you / let’s meet to discuss things. You would think this would be simple enough, but this woman is what you might call ‘elusive’. Everyday for a week I try to confirm an appointment with her but everyday there is an excuse, then I get tonsillitis which delays us another three days and I start to wonder if this was just not meant to be.

Then the interview: we meet in the Evita museum café and over tea and toast we discuss in a random cocktail of English and Spanish the endless challenges of fair trade, my time working in London, and the possibilities of me going to work in Salta with the producers that make the clothes for her company. Then she asks me how much money I need for me to stay in Buenos Aires before telling me she cannot pay me more than a minimal amount but that she will do what she can to help me find a cheaper place to live. We leave after agreeing to work together for an initial three months. Of course there is no job description as such, never mind a contract. I catch the bus home dazed, still a little weak from the tonsillitis I’ve had, and not quite sure what I have let myself in for.

The following days I am nothing short of engrossed in the task of finding the perfect place to stay for the next three months. I drop Boss Lady a quick mail during the week just to say sorry for not being in touch but I am muy ocupada with room-hunting. Her response comes within minutes:  ‘maybe you can try Craigslist [wow, hadn’t thought of that one…] or couch-surfing [yes I would really love to kip on someone’s sofa while I am working]’. That is the sum total of her assistance.

First week of work and I have not been given a proper brief for what I am supposed to be doing. One day she is sending me design inspiration ideas; the next sending me emails in English to correct at 9pm on a Friday evening. One day telling me she has magazines and fabric swatches I can borrow; the next asking me to join a team meeting at her huge apartment in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires (as my colleagues have already informed me, she never sets foot inside the office).

I am confused. I like information, I like structure and I like boundaries.

I begin to wonder if I am just another clichéd product of the western world with our infamously over-developed work ethic, but my workmates seem to have similar doubts about Boss Lady. Perhaps she is someone who has more money than she knows what to do with and this is merely a recreational distraction for her. Perhaps I have misunderstood what we agreed to work on together and the antibiotics were still clouding my mind when we met.

Or perhaps I simply need to step back and be patient. I have studied Anthropology after all. I know about 'participant observation', the methodology that advocates a subtle level of involvement in the foreign 'society’ while maintaining a degree of distance to be able to observe and make sense of everything. So this is how I will proceed, and I keep my fingers crossed that everything will become clearer.

Friday, 15 April 2011

A welcome visitor (and a not so welcome one)

Lisa Lisa Lisa - howihavebeenlookingforwardtoseeingyou! Since the day you confirmed you had booked your flight I have cherished the thought of you here in this urban mass that I now call home! Yes, my gorgeous and wonderful friend, who I have known for close to twenty years, is here, and it gives the city of Buenos Aires a whole new lease of life for me.

Since she arrived just over a week ago we have done a lot, yet at times done little:
We have cheered with the football fans at a partido between River Plate (one of two of BsAs most celebrated teams, the other being the more notorious Boca Juniors made famous by none other than Maradona) and Banfield (Who are they? Exactly). The game was a bit of a non-starter, the players unenthusiastically dragging themselves across the pitch in the gathering darkness of a Saturday night. Both sides were lowering themselves to the all-too-common amateur pastime of throwing themselves onto the ground at the slightest tap on the shins by a member of the opposing team. Unimpressed, we left at half time in search of some better Saturday night entertainment.

We have been to a puerta cerrada, literally meaning 'closed door' which refers to the popular pop-up restaurants that chefs (and opportunists?) set up in their own homes, not dissimilar to the ones you might find in London. We chose one recommended to me by a porteña, Thai-Phillipino food with plenty of vegetarian options to cater for Lisa's needs. Once we found the place, which was well and truly in the 'burbs of the city, we were in fits of glee. First of all the house itself was gorgeous; high-ceilinged elegance with french-style shutters on the doors, the main room and the outdoor terrace, where we chose to sit, were pleasantly candlelit. And then the food: the roti bread was succulently sweet, the curry deliciously salty, the salad drowning in coriander and flavour.... Only the dessert, a fruit salad made from pomelo and an unidentifiable diced fruit, with green tea ice-cream, was slightly below par, Lisa describing its texture as being 'like snot'.

We have embraced the delights of Freddo, the Argentine chain that is a shrine to ice-creamy goodness; we have also embraced frozen margeritas, caipirinhas and Quilmes cerveza, as well as medialunas (mini croissants), pizza, and more Freddo ice-cream. Above all we have embraced delivery Freddo ice-cream brought straight to our apartment door. Never mind that you have to wait for about an hour for it to arrive, and you could have gone down the road to fetch it yourself twice in that time, that's beside the point: it comes to your door and straight to your sweaty, eager, waiting paws. In Buenos Aires you can get everything delivered: pizza, empanadas, cakes, sushi, McDonalds, alcohol, drugs (both legal and recreational), rental DVDs etc etc. In other words, it's the perfect place for hermits, the immobile and the lazy.

Sunday night, dinner at casa de Suzie y Lisa and it's the night before Lisa heads off to Iguazu waterfalls for a few days. I cook up a Delia Smith lentil Shepherds Pie (missing home-cooking? me?) for us and two friends. Through the night my throat starts to feel tender and strains at every swallow I take. I try to ignore it but it won't let me. Next morning I wake up to full blown tonsillitis and nurse Lisa goes in search of over-the-counter antibiotics. No luck, I have to force myself to move from my horizontal foggy-consciousness to go to the Hospital Aleman (very clean, organised and efficient by the way - I would recommend a visit should you be in BA with any unfortunate ailments). An hour and a half later I am back at the apartment clutching all the antibiotics and ibuprofen I need and ready to pass out on the bed again. Lisa asks me if there is any food she can get for me to keep me going while she is in Iguazu. "Don't worry Lisa, if worse comes to worst I can always get Freddo delivery", and then I am out in a drugged, restless, stupor, dreaming of dulce de leche, mascarpone, tramontana and chocolate amargo no doubt...

Tuesday, 29 March 2011


What am I doing in Argentina? It's a good question; one I get asked several times a week and one I ask myself several times a day.
Well I appear to be living here as I am paying monthly rent but I am not paying any bills so that disqualifies me from getting a bank account which in turn disqualifies me from getting a job. But wait, I have a job. It just so happens to be unpaid but does that lessen the fact that I am working?

The term 'gap year' makes me cringe and 'career break' even more so. My initial plan (which has fallen to the wayside a little) was to embark on some anthropological fieldwork in readiness for a Masters on my return to London but so far it is still in the theoretical stages so I can hardly claim this is a 'research trip'. And anyway how do I say that without sounding hopelessly pretentious?

But people want an answer, the locals I meet, the other gringos and especially Jonathan from Metrobank who is refusing to send me a new debit card after I have mislaid my original one on the grounds that they don't expect their customers to take 'extended trips abroad'. Apparently the fact that I don't have a return flight to the U.K is too ambiguous. Apparently my status is too limbo-esque (if that is not a word it should be). And apparently I will be closing my Metro bank account on my return to the U.K (ha that will learn 'em). 

But for now the ambiguity suits me and I try not to think about it too much as I sit in my (rented) flat or do my (unpaid) job and stay put in BA a while longer.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Going solo in Uruguay

A goodbye hug and kiss to madre and then I am off on my lone travels for a week until we reunite in BA. It has been a few years since I traveled on my own. Where it used to fill me with nervous excitement, anticipation, and an intense feeling of freedom, now it makes me feel more of the nervous and less of the excitement. And yes, lonely too (much as I am loathe to admit it).

Eating in restaurants alone is no fun. I check my emails far too often and am unreasonably disappointed when there is nothing new in my inbox. I drink too much (bad) coffee and eat too much to distract myself. And I walk aimlessly, exploring the ciudad vieja of Montevideo. Anonymous yet not anonymous as surely I stand out, the only pale-skinned, red-haired, blue-eyed soul and this city is not so big that you can lose yourself in it.

At the hostel I am the odd one out, the only gringo. Low season being upon us, it has been solidly booked by a group of twenty or so Uruguayan university students. It’s like I took a wrong turning and found myself in a student halls of residence. The staff make an endearing effort to make me feel welcome sharing a beer with me in the lounge. Playing my namesake song especially for me is a sweet touch… ‘Suzanne takes your hand, and she leads you to the river...’, Leonard Cohen’s deep luscious voice resonates from the speaker behind me as I sit finishing my lunch just before having to leave to catch my bus north. It’s a fleeting moment of contentedness. I pack up my things and leave.

On arrival in Punta del Diablo, after finding my way through the sandy darkness from where the bus drops me off, I am met by the welcoming faces of a hostel-full of travellers. The night turns into a pizza de la parilla fest (pizza cooked on the barbeque) washed down with free-flowing home-made wine poured from a vat-sized communal bottle. I wake up the next day with a headache to match but am gently eased by the sound of the waves seeping through my bedroom window with the promise of some contented and calm days ahead.