Monday, June 20, 2016

Home away from home: Buenos Aires

Argentina's White House = the Pink House, Casa Rosada
When we left Rome on December 1, it really felt like we left home. This shouldn’t have really been surprising to me, considering how much time I have spent living there and how four years ago I finally declared Rome my home. Yet, somehow, it was surprising. It was even more surprising to realize how many people we were saying goodbye to, not just friends and colleagues, but to neighbors we got to know, to our dry cleaner up the street, to our Porter, to my aesthetician, to the priests who married us in Spello, and all the other people that we saw regularly in our life in Rome that we wouldn’t see after December. It felt like a final goodbye this time, even though it was my fourth goodbye to Rome. Perhaps it would not be a real goodbye, like the three times before were not, but it felt different, scarier, this time and there was a large part of me that feared that this one was for real.

Outdoor cafe in la Boca area
Five months later we landed in Buenos Aires and even in the airport, I felt like I was in Rome again, for all the good and bad reasons. There were about 5 ATMs in the airport, none of which worked, the rationale: it was Sunday. Yes, we could have been in Italy. The resemblances just kept popping up throughout our entire stay: The cashier's resentment at getting a large bill. The mega long lines and peculiarly slow check-out at grocery stores. The 4 dollar bottles of wine that were better than the North American 30 dollar ones. The protests ever couple days. The blocks and blocks of yummy pizza and gelato restaurants. The coffee culture.

Famous traditional cafe, Cafe Tortoni
The similarities ranged from small things like the pits in the olives on pizza and the bidets in the hotels and apartments to big things like being able to sit outdoors in cafes during the mild winters and receipts that were wrong or change that was missing. To me, even the way people speak Spanish is reminiscent of Italian; Argentinian Spanish has the same beautiful, sing-songy inflections and dramatic tones as Italian.

Random Gondola
Of course, there is an obvious reason for all of these similarities.  A huge percentage of Argentina's population has Italian heritage (up to 62% according to some sources). Most of these immigrants came over about 150 years ago, in the late 19th - early 20th century, around the same time that they went to New York. To a much greater extent than the Big Apple though, Buenos Aires really felt like it has carried on the culture and feel of the mother country.

Pizza at Pizzeria Guerrin, one of the many famous spots
Don’t get me wrong, Buenos Aires was very un-Italian in many ways too: broader, grander boulevards like those of Paris or Madrid, a much farther-reaching, organized and cheaper metro, avocados on the streets, tango clubs and radio stations, bold, shiny Latin-looking buses, more legitimate parking options and churches filled on Sundays, to name a few. Argentina very much has its own culture and national identity, one that they are proud of, and should be.

Gardel's ubiquitous portrait
We didn't stay in Argentina long enough to get into the real subtleties of the culture, but we did have time to take in the local life. We had rented an apartment for those 12 days in Buenos Aires, so at least for that short time, it felt like we were properly living there. We went to the grocery store every day and to mass at the corner of our street. We used the metro to get everywhere and went running in the nearby parks. We did laundry in the building and then at the nearby laundromat when the laundry machine broke (… also like Italy). We cooked meals with the local ingredients and had coffee in the neighborhood cafes.

lovey sight from the BA metro's open doors
Yes, in many ways it felt like being home, but in others it felt far from it and far from friends. I had visited Buenos Aires once before in 2004 and I had loved it. It was the one other city aside from Rome where I could see myself living. Now I know why. Back then, I don't think I had picked up on all the similarities. This visit was a little bittersweet for me; I still loved it now, but it felt a little like dating a boy that reminds you of your ex. It might ease the pain, but it is not a great reason for being together. Buenos Aires reminded me of my ex and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it this quickly after the break up. Perhaps it was too soon.

One of the many elegant buildings found across Buenos Aires

Monday, June 6, 2016

Don't judge a country by its travel guide: Visiting Colombia

I am not even sure how we ended up in Colombia. Last I remember, we were struggling with how to cut down our large and ever growing list of countries to visit on this sabbatical. After a not-so enthusiastic review in our travel book and the realization that our friends who were in Colombia were no longer there, I remember opting to leave it out on this particular tour of South America. Then we somehow realized we would fly through Colombia anyway en route to Argentina and it was back on the list. Colombia ended up being one of my favorite countries yet on this trip. So it goes to show you how impressions (and travel guides) can be wrong.

Colombian Colors
Cartagena was the first of two stops in Colombia, Bogota the second. Completely different in climate, temperature, elevation, character and almost everything else, it was hard to see them as part of one country. But this proves the diversity of the large countries in South America.

We arrived from Haiti to Cartagena to face even hotter and more humid temperatures than the island we had just left. Cartagena is steamy alright, and there is nothing to do about it but get used the constant perspiration and rehydration cycle. But you could hardly care about that when you are wandering the old colonial streets of this enchanting city. You are surrounded by color: on the buildings, in the flowers, the artwork, flower pots, door and window frames, murals. Everything catches your attention, eye and heart in this ode to color. Like admiring a peacock, just watching this fanfare of hues can make you happy.

Cartagena's Bocagrande skyline
Cartagena was a great mix of modern and traditional: skyscrapers in one direction, fortified walls and canons in another. With its heat, tones, coastal front walkway and seaside sounds, the place screamed summer, vacation and relaxation. Cartagena is the place you dream of in the middle of winter after 3 months of cold gray skies… or perhaps the place you dream of when living in Bogota in April.

New England-style: Brick buildings and side walks in Bogota
Funny enough, our next destination, Bogota, could have easily been the site of one of these aforementioned gloomy dreamers. April in Bogota is 10-15 degrees Celsius, cloudy, threatening, rainy and gray. It has English or Irish weather. And the similarities to England didn’t stop there. Actually Bogota reminded me even more of New England in the US. The city was a sea of red bricks: buildings, neighborhoods and streets filled with them. Many of these red brick buildings were pubs. Beer was advertised everywhere. You could tell instantly that beer is a large part of the past-time in this particular city. Many artisan beers were featured on billboards, but even the national beer, Aguila, made quite an appearance. Restaurants and bars were set deep inside these brick houses creating cozy, dim settings with bars and benches of wood. Bogota could have been Cambridge, Massachusetts or London, England. A far cry from the hot, Caribbean feel of its Colombian sister, Cartagena.

Bogota Beer Company
In both cities, the people were hard working and courteous. The food was excellent; breakfast like the Central American ones, heavily featured eggs, plantains and a meat of sorts. The juices were thick with tropical fruit. Both cities had massive grocery stores with everything you could want and coffee stores that demonstrated their tradition of coffee.

I kicked myself in the end for being swayed by a book’s opinion and wish we had included other Colombian cities, but we already knew that this trip would be a small sampling of South America, not an exhaustive experience. Cali, Medellin, even Cartagena’s islands and surrounding towns would have to wait for another time, but I was more than happy with the time that we did allot to this country. Like making the acquaintance of someone that you had not expected to get along with, I had made a new friend with Colombia.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ayiti cherie

Jacmel beach

Practically since we met in 2006, a good friend of ours has been urging us to come visit her country, Haiti. So since then, Haiti has been on our minds. In 2010, my husband was deployed to the country for the emergency response. That year, Haiti was in everyone's minds.

We finally made the trip last week. Reflecting on my recent 10 days there, I originally started to write about how the country seems after the earthquake, how it looks, how the people are. I was so concerned and interested to hear about it all after having only had second-hand stories. However, thinking twice about this post, I decided against this. I did not go to Haiti for work or for a journalist assignment. I went to Haiti to attend a wedding and to visit friends, happy occasions that led to a joyous trip and I don’t want to boil Haiti down to those terrible 30 seconds in January 2010. There is much more to the country than that.

Here are some highlights:

Yes, this cake is real.
Nothing is too fancy 

Haitians love to dress up and I knew even before landing in the country that despite my cocktail dress and new black heels, I would be one of the least fancy people at the wedding. I was correct. For any Haitian event, but particularly a wedding, you bring out the long dresses, big jewels, elegant purses, fancy hats, and of course sexy shoes. It was truly a feast for the eyes to see the men and women so elegant and stylish, many of the women, of any age, pulling off dresses that I could only dream of.

It helps when a friend has a waterproof go-pro
Hidden, but seriously hidden, gems 

As an outsider, it can be easy to lose sight of what Haiti has to offer when just looking around. Haiti is a very poor country. There is no escaping that fact and that kind of poverty is not subtle. There are slums covering the hillsides; there are dry river beds completely filled with trash. There are people everywhere looking for a way to survive, making a dollar or two for food. These parts of Haiti are obvious to any visitor. The parts that aren’t so obvious are some sites of exceptional natural beauty. Don’t get me wrong, some of Haiti’s natural beauty is obvious. It too has the idyllic Caribbean beaches that cruise ships have been exploiting for years now. However, some of the beauty is quite hidden indeed. One such place is Bassin Bleu. Bassin Bleu is a series of waterfalls that fill turquoise basins at different ground levels. And when I say this is not obvious it is because even with a guide and 4 other Haitians in the car asking locals in Creole for directions, we still just barely found it. This was the definition of a hidden gem. But the trek made it more of an adventure and it was worth it to finally jump into the stunningly beautiful, freezing cold water, which we had completely to ourselves. Another advantage of hidden treasures: exclusivity.

My husband dreams about this lobster
The food! 

Food for me is part of culture so I love it for that, but I am not a foodie when it comes to researching dishes, restaurants or specialties of a place. So maybe this fact is well known, but I was not expecting it: Haitian food is AMAZING! Everything is flavorful, savory, even spicy (especially when you add the standard pickliz, i.e. spicy cabbage accompaniment.) Fish, lobster, conch (lambi), shrimp, everything from the water is well made. Plantains adorn most meals or come in the form of a tasty snack: Papitas, i.e. plantain chips. The local peanut butter, Mamba, is extraordinary. At the supermarket, it comes in all different ways, some creamier, some darker, some spicier, but of course, the best is the homemade Mamba that makes other peanut butter, especially non-Haitian varieties, seem like processed goo. Fresh mangoes, coconuts, sour saps, all of these are standard fruits that you find at breakfast or as juices. They are usually even just hanging in the trees above your head.

Barrels of Booze

To get a little buzz on, you have at least two incredibly good alcoholic choices: Prestige beer that is the standard national beer, but it really tastes much more flavorful than your typical lager, and Barbancourt rum, that has won all sorts of awards and has its die-hard followers (one of whom was on the trip with us). We even went to see the Barbancourt distillery to learn as much as we could about its details, production, varieties and distribution. In this private tour, we had the full attention of our guide and seeing our enthusiasm for his rum, he indulged us with our requests, questions, comments and photo-taking. Our accommodating guide even let us peer into the resting room for the prestigious 15 year Barbancourt and let us have a taste of the "forgotten barrel of rum" laying among the others. It was a special tour that made the enthusiasts of our group even more enthusiastic.

The temple of rum
Haitian hospitality 

The people were amazing. This goes without saying for my friend’s family and all of her friends who went out of their way to drive us around and show us a good time in their country, but it also was true for others, like the head of HR who exceptionally gave us a tour of the Barbancourt distillery when his colleague was not available. And the wonderful staff at the hotel in Jacmel who helped us with anything we threw at them and then went even above and beyond that to turn their lobby into a movie theater for us (the only guests) moving chairs around, setting up speakers and even making popcorn. I had never seen such hospitality and such honest desire to be kind.

Of course, there is a flip side and you have to be understanding of the fact that our hotel room in Jacmel, for example, didn’t have water for a day: so no shower, toilet or sink to use; that when there are demonstrations it can take two hours to get across town; that people will ask to help you or sell you something for money, because they have to; that is the only way they have work.

View over Port-au-Prince
Haiti is an amazing country and I wish with all my heart that both its internal problems, like rampant corruption, and its external problems, like being in the path of natural disasters, let up and allow the country to take advantage of all its bounty and richness, both of land and of spirit. It would be great to know Haiti again as the Pearl of the Antilles, not as the poorest country in the western hemisphere or the country devastated in 2010.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Panama is like...

Panama City skyline
We all have a tendency to want to make the unfamiliar familiar and we usually do that through comparisons. The Copan ruins are like Paris. Dubai is like Las Vegas. That music teacher looks like Prince. Unfamiliar meat tastes like chicken...

We all have our own comparison points. Everyone told me that Panama City is like Miami, but because I have never been to Miami, that meant nothing to me and seeing the 20 some sky scrapers on the Panamanian sky line took me completely by surprise.

For me, driving on the seaside highway past Panama City’s elaborate downtown felt more like Chicago. Perhaps you have never been to Chicago and so that comparison means nothing to you. Suffice it to say though that super tall, architecturally interesting buildings right alongside the waterfront, Chicago’s or Panama City’s, is always an impressive sight.

Panama was interesting because it was so familiar in some ways, so different in others. It uses the American dollar as its currency (with the addition of their own coins). English is much more common. More than any other country I have been to in Central America, Panamanians did not hesitate to switch to English when faced with my fledgling Spanish. Malls take up both a large part of the real estate and social activities. And finally, Panama City has a Costco. Need I say more.

It was at once comforting and at once disappointing to see such a modern “USA”- style society. Like in the US, you drive everywhere which means there is usually a ton of traffic. The shopping, restaurants, cafes etc. are almost all indoor, usually in the aforementioned malls. The cost of food and other products was also comparable to the US; no 25 cent avocados like you have in Guatemala.

Of course, the USA has had a huge part in Panamanian history – for better or for worse. From its independence from Colombia to the building of the Canal, the US has always been highly “involved” let’s say… but that is a much larger topic. So I will leave it at that.

Casco Viejo
It is also very evident that Panama is gearing up to be an economic hot spot, the likes of Dubai or Bangkok. It has improved its highways (thanks to newly installed tolls), put in a metro system, is expanding its airport and is really promoting real estate investments particularly in the downtown, Casco Viejo area. Apparently, they painted over some of the more unseemly graffiti and a ton of brochures list the various benefits, such as automatic permanent residency, that you get if you invest 300,000 USD or more in the country. It is fascinating to see a city so driven in its mission.

Panama has also capitalized on the Canal as a tourist sight and has built a completely new visitor center at Miraflores to accommodate the increasing number of people flocking to the locks.

Miraflores Visitor Center
There is something about the Panama Canal that is completely fascinating while at the exact same time, utterly boring. You stand around watching water fill a surprisingly narrow space that will eventually lift up a massive ship in extreme slow motion. Then the ship sails, or more like inches, away. It is like watching golf; there is so little action.

However, somehow, it is captivating. And everyone stares at it like the finale of the World Cup, snapping pictures, commenting to other stander-byers, waiting in awe for the locks to close and the ship to rise. It must be that somehow, intrinsically you feel that this was a huge feat of engineering. Ships should not be able to essentially go over land to get from one ocean to another, and the Panama Canal’s engineers made it happen. Pretty cool even for someone who does not, in the slightest, understand the mechanics of it.

It is also apparently the only time and place on the seas where the captain ever gives up control of his/her ship. That is requirement for the Canal, but a massive No-No anywhere else. As a control freak, I get how big a deal this is. What? You want me to hand over control of MY ship. Uh-uh. Not gonna happen. But if you don’t want to go around the entire South American continent, then you might have to reconsider this stance. You give up power, let another capable person take over your responsibility, let him/her navigate the tricky, narrow parts and then you get control back later, after a lot of waiting (it takes 18 hours+ to get through the 3 sets of locks that make up this canal).

Crew standing idly, taking pictures, enjoying the Canal
This very much sounds like another important life lesson that I have been resisting lately. Sometimes giving up the navigation of your own ship is the quickest way to where you want to go. Even if the power gremlin in you doesn’t like this and resents the fact that you are just supposed to stand around idle and watch your crew take selfies. You have to suck it up and say: yes, right now my job, is not to have one. It is to listen to direction and step in when I am called. It is a weird thing to have understood from Panama, but I appreciated the reminder.

Seeing more than just its capital would have told me a lot more about Panama, but our week there was a nice chance to reconnect with friends, an interesting reminder about some facets of American society and a good example of how different countries in the same region can be. It was also a time to remember to quell the power gremlin and let someone else do their job.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Paris of the Mayan World

The national bird of Honduras
A couple of things stand out about our two day trip to Copan, Honduras

1- When it comes to driving in Guatemala, Google maps suck.
2- All immigration officers should be as nice as the Honduran officer allowing us into his country
3- Cowboy hats are THE number 1 fashion piece in Copan

Of course all of this is secondary to the Mayan ruins, which were the actual reason that we went to Copan. To quote our enthusiastic and elaborative tour guide: Tikal’s vastness might make it the New York of ruins, but Copan’s elaborate designs make it the Paris of them.

The northern part of Central America has your pick of Mayan Ruins. Being in Guatemala the obvious choice would have been Tikal. But it is a 12 hour bus or 1 hour flight away from Antigua, about twice the distance of Copan. Also, as the preeminent tourist destination in Guatemala, Tikal’s cost for a weekend was $300+ per person which was more than we wanted to pay. Copan by contrast was not as touristy and within driving distance: 6 hours by Google's estimate. Of course, if you refer to my points above, Google should never be trusted, particularly not in Guatemala or Latin America in general.

Even if you forget about Google’s deficiencies of not recognizing the major highway and not computing the standstill traffic that we were in, we also had the misfortune of leaving on the Saturday of the Caravan del Zorro, the weekend when 40,000 motorcycles make a pilgrimage to the Black Christ in Esquipulas. It was the exact same route just one hour closer than Copan. Of course, we only found this out after the fact.

Long story short, we arrived in Copan 10 hours later, not 6. Ten hours in the car makes Karen a grumpy camper. Arriving at dark, made it worse and we started fearing that the El Florida border crossing might close. (It doesn’t by the way. It is open 24 hours a day). However, because it is generally not considered safe to be on the roads after sunset, we were the only ones arriving at 6pm. So the border crossing was all ours. The Honduran Officer was more than happy to see us. He thanked us profusely for giving him our passports, for each finger that we put on the scanner, for letting him take our pictures, for the entrance fee to the country. He was smiley, polite, respectful and kind. A great welcome to a new country. We liked Honduras already.

The next day, at its 8am opening time, we tackled the ruins. When visiting any ruins you need to bring your imagination. Even though the ruins at Copan are in very good shape, half of it is still buried under years of soil or overruled by trees extending their roots. Another good portion was gone altogether with the passing time.

We rightly determined that we should get a guide because, like the Roman forum, walking around an archaeological site on your own with the 3-4 signs is essentially like wandering around a grave site. It is a very important site for many people, but unless you have family there, the gravestones' names and dates mean nothing to you. The same with ruins. If you don’t know the story, it is hard to feel moved by the significance of a place. Our guide was a very knowledgeable, go-lucky, playful man who, you could tell, liked his job and had pride in Copan. He was the one who compared Paris to Copan and I get the sense that were he ever to visit Paris (or perhaps he has), he would still rank Copan above it.

Monkey-looking thing
The hieroglyphs which are more numerous here than in any other Mayan site are still indecipherable to the average human. I would have loved to be that symbologist that shows up on a site and can read a statue, an altar or the fa├žade of a temple just by understanding symbols, but sadly, I am not and even learning about them on our tour while I photographed them my only take-aways are the bug-eyed guy, the monkey-looking thing, the teeth of something or other and the generic Mayan king/god. I do remember the dancing jaguar though because that was particularly funny and stood out.

Bug-eyed guy
Dancing Jaguar, its real name, not like my invented ones above
With or without a guide though, Copan does have a magical sense to it. It engages all of your sense. At eight in the morning, you can smell the dampness of the surrounding forests in the air. You can hear all the birds chirping away, happy that the dawn dispelled another night. You can almost taste the papayas and coconuts ripening on the nearby trees. Your eyes can easily feast on the hieroglyphs and intricate statues. And as an outdoor museum, you can touch the steps and stones that made up this medieval, civilization.

The town has adopted the name of the ruins, Copan Ruinas town. However, it just barely qualifies as a town. Perhaps more a village than anything else, it has three main stretches of activity all with businesses generally feeding on tourism: 2-3 hotels, some restaurants, a couple bars – juice and regular ones - and strangely enough, pharmacies. Perhaps these also fed on tourists.

One other thing was clear from the town of Copan Ruinas: the cowboy hat ruled. It was ubiquitous. Even more than the cities I have been to in Texas, or the west of the US, the cowboy hat here was the rule not the exception for the men of the town. It was probably the one and only real fashion statement. Coupled with all the trucks, many of which had seemingly taken mud baths, this town was not afraid of hard work or getting dirty.

Like Guatemala, you do have to take safety into account when visiting Honduras and take some precautions. Copan, like Antigua though, is a bit of a haven. I am very happy though that its reputation for being unsafe is not the only thing I know about Honduras.

Aside from being safe, Copan was interesting, intriguing, and a historian’s mecca. I am glad we visited the Paris of the Mayan World. One day I will also make it to its New York.


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