Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas from Argentina!

Happy Christmas! It’s time to send season’s greetings to all those of you who celebrate today. Hope you are having/had a good one! You probably won’t be reading this now (well you are reading it NOW, obviously, but I mean that it’s probably already Boxing Day or 2011, or never, as while I type this you’ll all be fast asleep in front of the telly. After all that is the true spirit of Christmas!

Having been in La Rioja for a week, it’s now time to bring this bad boy bang up-to-date. So, a week’s worth in one go. Deep breath, here goes:

Saturday 18th December 2010

I had the dormitory to myself for my last night in Mendoza, which was rather strange as the hostel had actually been over-occupied for the previous few nights, with people sleeping on mattresses on the floor in some of the dorms. It just happened that there was a big exodus the previous evening and no one arriving to replace them. So, after a good night’s sleep (my back was gradually getting better by this stage), it was up reasonably early to check out and make my way to the bus station.

After another good breakfast I shared a taxi to the bus station with Signe and Malthe (the lovely Danish couple I had spend quite a bit of time with the previous couple of days, who were on their way to the airport for a flight to Montevideo). They generously insisted on paying (I must give the impression of being a proper travelling scrubber!). The bus was 45 minutes late leaving, but once underway it was another scenic ride through desert and scrub, surrounded by mountains and with condors soaring above. Luckily, given that it was a 9 hour journey, my back was feeling better and I have to say the bus rides through endless nothingness are one of the highlights for me. Just the occasional dusty little town dotted between state capitals. It really gives you a feeling for just how big Argentina is and how the geography influences the way of life over here (people think nothing of a 6 hour drive, which is generally anathema for us Brits).

The food onboard (included in the price, just like a scheduled flight) also gives an insight into Argentinian culture. Lunch was an anaemic ham and cheese roll and tea was an alfajor (biscuitty thing with the ubiquitous dulce de leche filling) and a cup of tea (of which the bag broke, but I was rather thirsty so drank it nonetheless). Continuing thoughts on Argentinian food: I want fruit and veg!

I’d like to say that Adrian was waiting for me at the bus station (a rather nice contemporary affair on the edge of La Rioja), but he was late. Clearly his months in Argentina have washed any Swiss punctuality clean out of his system, and he has returned to his native Spanish habits! I’ve thought before how much he reminds me of Mario and once again the similarities have been emphasized. ;-)

Anyway, better late than never… we got a taxi back to his house (an interesting conflagration of flats and bedsits, clustered around the owners home and central courtyard/garden). Nicely rustic finishing on the buildings and generally a bit of a third world feel!

We went to the nearby supermarket to get food, and Adrian cooked chicken curry, washed down with beer. It was getting quite late by this time and so we didn’t even manage the 1am meeting time at the venue for Adrian’s leaving party. We were there by 2am, though, so not that late! It was a really nice venue. A kind of mainly outside pub/bar, reminiscent of a beer garden, but much, much hotter. I have to say that La Rioja is absolutely baking! However, 2am until 7am is the perfect time… a balmy 25 degrees or so, without the sun scorching the earth. Here it is totally understandably why people live a mainly nocturnal existence.

The party continued back at Oscar and Andres’ flat, with morning-dancing. Not something that I can imagine happening in Sidmouth. I think bed was a record 9:30am! It was actually a really good night, just the right number of people to chat too, practising a bit more Spanish and allowing some of the locals to practise their English too.

Sunday 19th December 2010

Naturally, Sunday was a bit late starting! And given the heat, that was probably a good thing. Even the slightest movement outside of the air-conditioned flat during the day brings on a major sweating episode. I know I like it hot, but I have decided that 40 degrees is perhaps a bit too hot, even for me!

So, the day continued slowly, eating cherries and watermelon, until the evening, when we ventured into La Rioja for an Asado in a nice restaurant in the centre. Jeez, talk about meat! We went for the whole hog (excuse the mixed-meat metaphor), which included various different cuts and bits of offal. It was really delicious and more than enough to fill 4 greedy blokes, of decidedly mixed origin (bits of China, the Middle East [Oscar has a quarter Arab in him], Spain, Switzerland and Devon all represented). This was followed by more watermelon back at home (dirt cheap here at this time of year and much sweeter and juicier than anything you can ever find in the UK) and a relatively early night (which means about 3am here).

Monday 20th December 2010

Adrian was keen to get moving on Monday morning (feeling guilty for sleeping most of the previous day!), but foolishly gave me the choice of a lie-in which I gratefully accepted. I don’t think my body will ever fully adjust to all these late nights, so I am happy to get sleep when I can. It’s certainly made me more relaxed about the whole idea of routines. I suppose being on holiday makes it a lot easier, but I do feel more easy-going than when I am back in the UK. Perhaps it’s the heat, which generally makes you feel more lethargic and less prone to over-analysis!

Anyway, I was actually up in the morning (for a change), so was able to do my washing and internet-stuff before lunch. I’m just trying to remember what lunch consisted of, because, as most of you are aware, food is definitely the most important element of the day for me. Here, in La Rioja, it is especially so because Oscar is treating me to an array of different Chinese dishes, which is a nice vegetable-filled counterpart to the more substantial Argentinian MEAT-based cuisine. I seem to recall it was washed down with beer, whatever it was, and I’m sure it was delicious. But, instead of wracking my brains to remember what it was I am just going to let it go. It's good practice for me to try to be slightly less anally-retentive and I know you’re not that interested in the contents of my stomach!

Even more deliciousness was to come in the evening, though, so let’s concentrate on that instead. Oscar cooked a special kind of Chinese fondue, where you cook various pieces of meat and vegetables in a savoury soup/stock in the middle of the table (further condimented with a kind of dipping sauce). It was superb, and I was able to dust off my chopstick skills, which went down very well with the Chinese fraternity (shocked that a Westerner could be so adept – heck, I was shocked that I could be so adept!). Anyway, it was lovely to sit all together, eating slowly (we must have been eating for a couple of hours, at least), drinking wine and chatting (in a mixture of English and Spanish). In a symbol of Argentinian-Chinese friendship, a guy we had seen earlier in the Internet shop (internet is state-owned here in La Rioja), came to join us for dinner. He kind of knew Oscar and Andres from before, as he had installed their broadband, but it was a fairly spontaneous move all round. I think part of the motivation was that he spoke English and wanted to practice with a native speaker. As always (paid or not) I was happy to oblige.

Before dinner, in the glorious amber light of evening we went for a wander around the town. It’s a gloriously languorous kind of place (you can’t imagine anything happening very fast here... or even anything happening, full stop) and was nice to sit in the main square, eating ice-cream and watching the world go by. Once again I have been made to feel very much at home (albeit a very different kind of home [away from home]) and am really enjoying not doing very much, just soaking up the feeling of the place and trying to understand what it must be like to be a foreign student studying in La Rioja.

After dinner, we stayed up drinking homemade Pimms (I think I was the only one who really liked it – doubly so given that the total cost of the ingredients was less than a cheap bottle of wine at home) and chatting, which was punctuated by me falling through the chair, in utterly comic fashion. It was a plastic patio chair and the centre simply gave way so that I was sandwiched in the middle. Much mirth and merriment ensued. Another good (late) night, concluded on the balcony, talking to Oscar and Andres (whose English, like everyone, improves dramatically after a drink or two), while Adrian went progressive shades of white and left us in order to be sick! Maybe the Pimms was a tad too potent.

Tuesday 21st December 2010

Another sleep-filled morning (I no longer feel like I’m wasting the day, because, frankly, it’s just too bloody hot here! The books were right, La Rioja is one of the hottest places in the world). Chinese noodle soup for lunch, under the cool draft of the air-conditioner. Yum. An afternoon spent doing mundane tasks like clipping fingernails, flossing teeth, internet banking (no, that’s not a euphemism), that kind of thing. There’s no rush, the rat-race doesn’t exist here.

Then, once the sun was close to setting it was safe to venture outside. We had Lomito for dinner, in a lomiteria (not sure if that’s what it’s called, but it should be), which is a kind of giant sandwich, filled with steak, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and a fried egg. A tad too salty, but quite tasty in a dirty, fast-food kind of way. Adrian had a slightly different version, topped with oceans of melted cheese. Count the calories in that! It’s no wonder so many Argentinians are getting fat! It was this time washed down with Quilmes Stout, a cerveza negra, somewhat reminiscent of Old Peculiar in it’s sweet fruitiness, if not it’s strength. It’s a mere 4.8%.

After dinner we went to play pool. Good fun and good people watching too. The mullet is alive and well in Argentina, albeit with a distinctive South American twist. I’ll have to try and get some photographic evidence as it’s too hard to accurately describe in words. There were also quite a lot of piercings in evidence, with the eyebrow being a particularly popular location. In the end, we were all pretty knackered (and it was only 2am), so an early night was required.

Wednesday 22nd December 2010

Had a jolly good night’s sleep, so feeling half shot-away today (which is when I started writing this… although I’m not sure I’ll get round to posting it just yet… I think I’m going to drip feed you over the next week so that you don’t get blog fatigue). I think, if indeed it’s possible, it’s hotter than ever today. Anyway, I’m now up-to-date with my washing, so have set about the task of updating the blog. It’s hard going with such a massive backlog, but I shall preserve and won’t leave La Rioja until it’s back on track. I might have to stay here for the rest of my time in Argentina, in that case!

In food-related news, it was stir-fried green beans (hot and spicy, Chinese-style), sweetcorn and empanadas for lunch, followed by a siesta (for Adrian at least), or a few hours out of the heat, listening to music and taking it easy (if typing like a dervish counts as taking it easy). This was followed by an early evening stroll in the centre (by early evening I mean between 7 and 10pm – it doesn’t get dark here until 9pm), eating Adrian’s ice-cream (I originally didn’t fancy one [not being the world’s biggest ice-cream fan] but I changed my mind once I saw him eating his!), people watching and trying to find a jewellery shop so that Adrian could compare prices for his mother back in Switzerland. It’s always interesting just wandering around, trying to get a feel for the place, especially so when you have to walk at a crawl so as not to break out in a massive sweat. Even the locals appear to suffer from the heat…. It does seem kind of all-consuming at this time of year. One other interesting observation is how the heat and Argentina changes your concept of time. I was looking in restaurant windows, seeing the waiters idly standing round, waiting for customers and I thought, “well, of course it’s empty, it’s far too early to eat”. I looked at my watch and it was 9:15pm!
Other observations on La Rioja: people think nothing of taking the whole family on a scooter (and I mean the whole family... I have seen several groups of four people (all without helmets, naturally), all occupying the same small scooter. It makes Italy seem safety-mad! I often look at them and think it would be rather nice if they went around in the style of a stunt-riding display team (you know, with a kid hanging off each side, maybe doing a handstand occasionally, that kind of think). Oh, yes, and there is "Titi" everywhere you look here. And, no I'm not commenting on the female form (would I be that crude?). No, apparently it is the name of a local politician, who must have lots of supporters (or own a paint shop) because his name is daubed on walls everywhere!
After visiting the wine shop (I found an interesting bottle of Sangiovese from Mendoza [not very common here] along with a La Riojan Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Cafayate) we went to the supermarket. It was such a strange experience. Heaving with people, at almost 11 o’clock at night, the queues for the check-out were about 10 people deep. Therefore we didn’t get back and start cooking until after 11pm! In order to stave off the hunger pangs we assembled a picada of cheese and salami and cracked open the Sangiovese (not bad, but not quite up to the heights achieved from the grape in Italy… still what can you expect for 4 pounds [yes, rather extravagant for me, I know!]). Oscar was treating us to more Chinese fare. This time it was a kind of Chinese stew. Lots of different vegetables, with mushrooms and beef. The dish is finished off by piling chili (lots of) and garlic on top of the meat, on top of the stew and then pouring very hot oil over the whole lot. It makes for excellent theatre and tasted divine! We drank a fruity young Temparanillo will the meal, which worked quite well, despite the heat (I munched through a whole chili at one point, and it reminded me of the Chili’s that Michelle once bought us from the Chinese Supermarket in Poole).

You will probably not believe it, but I managed to break a second chair. The La Riojan heat must make the plastic brittle, that’s all I can say. Either that, or the many asados and piles of Chinese food have started to take their toll (I don’t think I feel visibly fatter, but could probably be harbouring an extra couple of kilos somewhere on my body). Anyway, it’s providing good entertainment and has given me a good idea about what to get Oscar and Andres for Christmas!

After dinner we played cards until the early hours, entertaining ourselves handsomely with food-related forfeits (the loser had to eat, respectively: a bread roll, three runner beans, and (the piece of resistance) a raw egg). Adrian had the honour of that one, and did a sterling job of keeping it down (helped, no dobut, by the fact that we had limited our alcohol intake to two bottles of wine between 4).

Thursday 23rd December 2010

I think Adrian is starting to get into that limbo phase when you are about to leave one place for another. I understand totally how that can wreak havoc on the emotions. It’s quite a big upheaval at the best of times, but when you’ve formed strong emotional bonds with different people (on the other side of the world, especially) it must be really tough. He’s having trouble sleeping, bless him, but at least he made the most of that restlessness to go to the supermarket (braving 43 degree heat get there!) to buy us facturas for breakfast.. What a sweetheart!

Well, breakfast was once again lunch and lunch was at tea-time and today was so hot that it was almost impossible to know if you were coming or going, or what time it was or what you were supposed to be doing just to try and keep cool. The latter involved staying resolutely indoors, directly positioned under the air-conditioning unit, with additional fan-related support, spraying yourself with a mister, not moving too much, wearing as little as possible, that kind of thing. An interesting challenge, interspersed with cries of “que calor, papa!” (apologies for lack of accents, this keyboard doesn't have any) and nods of agreement from anyone and everyone. I’m not sure any conversation extended beyond talk of how hot it was, which was fine for an Englishman who’s obsessed with the weather. I’m in meteorological heaven (or should it be hell [?], given our representation of hell as an inferno of La Riojan proportions!).

Thankfully the heat was tempered slightly by a spot or two of rain during the evening, and by about midnight it was safe to venture outside. Adrian, Oscar and me went for a couple of beers and some pizza (funny that it should be so much like an American deep-pan affair, what with all that Italian heritage… hmm… that's cultural imperialism for you). Still, it was nice to be outside in the fresh air (and yes, you could almost even describe it as fresh!). An early night for once – in bed by 4:30am!

Friday 24th December 2010 (aka Christmas Eve)

So, the big day had arrived (well, here in Argentina, at least, where the major celebrations occur on Christmas Eve… or actually on Christmas Day if you consider that things don’t really get moving until after midnight). But that's going to have to wait until tomorrow because we are off out for dinner shortly.

Once again, Season's greetings to you all.

Lots of love,
James xx

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