Thursday, October 29, 2009

Little Gestures

Hola chiquitos,

Well, I meant to publish an original blog a few weeks ago, but since that never happened, here's the recap of my last few days in Bs As. (Sorry for the mixes of the tenses.)

The first thing I should probably talk about was my Iguazu trip. The park, split between Argentina and Brasil, boasts the biggest waterfalls in the world, and even when I was consulting with a fellow creative writer, we were just at a loss of words to explain their glory. You can look at some pictures but they don't do the place justice. Iguazu is the Guarani word for "big water." Legend has it that a god planned to marry a beautiful aborigine named Naipí, who fled with her mortal lover Tarobá in a canoe. In rage, the god sliced the river creating the waterfalls, condemning the lovers to an eternal fall. It was designated a World Heritage Site but unfortunately thanks to deforestation, less than 6% of the original top soil remains. Let me start at the beginning.

We all met at Universidad de Belgrano and took a 14-hour bus ride to first see some ruins of the first Jesuit settlers in the region in the 15th century. It was where they "educated" local Guarani children, and though I have some problems in general with that, it was neat to see how much they built on their complex in such a short time. Next we traveled to an estancia (like a ranch) where we relaxed for most of the day. They had a mate tea plantation, and I found out it had been in their family for 3 generations. Some people swam in the pool and others lay in the hammocks. When it was time to eat, I had some of the BEST meat I have ever had in my life. And this is saying something, because I don't even eat beef in the US and I can't get enough of it here. But literally it was one of those times where every bite you were just amazed at how good it was. We also got to eat hand-picked bananas and guava. :) That night we arrived at St. George Hotel, and I again had some of the best food I've ever had: French Chocolate Mousse, which there is just never enough of in the world, and American Apple Pie, which I had been craving for a while.

Well, the next day we traveled to the actual Iguazu Park and while it was already POURING that day, we had no idea how bad it would get. First we traveled to a small museum explaining how the natives used to live among nature in this region and what kind of animals could be found there. On our trip, we saw a toucan, some small lizards (there was even one crawling on the wall in the hotel restaurant!) and a HUGE lizard (with the whole tongue action), a multitude of butterflies, a vulture and some other strange-looking birds, and coatis. There were also apparently jaguars and alligators there too but we didn't see them. Well, we managed to get to the "Devil's Throat," but not after holding onto the railings for our lives and being pelted with rain that felt like hail. The wind was so strong that they shut down the park, but the trains had stopped working and most of the trails were flooded so we were stranded for a while. Seriously we were all on survival mode. :D

We were supposed to go to a local Guarani village but ISA decided we should go back to the park to see more waterfalls. It was kind of sad because I wanted to ask them about Pachamama, who is a Mother Earth Goddess. Well, the next day was much better weather and we saw waterfalls that looked like falling dulce de leche. :) My favorite were the Two Sister waterfalls. There was also a place where you could go almost directly beneath a waterfall and though you couldn't see much when you got there because the water was so strong, it was definitely an experience. We went back by plane that night, but overall I thought it was a good weekend.

After a first failed attempt, I managed to find the Parque de la Memoria, which is a sort of art center dedicated to the disappeared. It's all outside, and it was first proposed less than a decade ago so it hasn't been finished, but there were over 400 art submissions and only a few have been accepted. The structures I got to see were really fascinating. You can see some of them here. One of the proposed art pieces is a sort of transparent sculpture that would stand on the Rio de la Plata - since so many were disappeared in this river, many felt it was important to have the park near it. The sculpture would be of a 14-year-old boy named Pablo Míguez who was disappeared, most likely for his political beliefs, but still so young that the thought itself is appalling. (However, the average age of the disappeared was 21 or 22.) It would signify how his body "disappeared" but remains reflected on the surface when one looks hard enough. Another art sculpture, one with three houses connected to each other in strange ways, seems very simple but would mean much to those who had experienced being sequestered in silence and darkness for so long. It has open doors and open roofs where colored light filters through. Another sculpture is actually several sticks posted near each other, but when one walks around, you can see it makes the face of a man and many other people. The artist dedicated it to his disappeared father but he wanted everyone to be able to see their loved ones in it. Another fairly simple one is three human-like structures that are hallowed out; they represent a man, woman, and a woman who is pregnant. They are bare in the middle to represent the lack of found bodies. Perhaps the most impressive structure is the connecting walls with the names and ages of the disappeared in Argentina. Of course, it reminded me of the Wall of Memory in Chile, but this one differed in that it identified that people had been disappearing before the dictatorship, but once it finally took over, thousands were disappeared. They have about 9,000 names, but there are 30,000 places to represent the rest that are missing.

Let's see... over the weekend I partied some more. jaja On Thursday, Nea, Jordan and all our Argentine friends went to a bar called Rusty Nail (yes, it's actually called that) and then to a boliche nearby. My dance partner was actually a gay Colombian all night and he said I danced better than most Latinas! So that was a great compliment. jaja Saturday was obviously Halloween, and even though they sell costumes and decorations and stuff, traditions like trick-or-treating aren't celebrated. Well, some of our Argentine friends (Rocio, Rafael, Cristian, Ingrid, and Juan Carlos) threw a costume party anyway, and Nea and I went dressed up as masqueraders, and it was a lot of fun. I'm so glad that I've found a group to party with! I truly feel like I've made more Argentine friends than anyone else I know, and it's certainly not because my Spanish is good. Far from it, I think it really has to do with being outgoing and sympatica. Even though I've perhaps fit in more than the 100 other Americans that I know of, I realized also that the people who live here already have lives of their own, and it's hard to stop it on account of a foreigner that they've just met. I think it's kind of counterintuitive to think you can come to a country that doesn't speak your language and automatically fit in with people you've never known before--I think if I had a year here, I might be able to forge serious relations. As it is, it is only at the end of these months that I have managed to get into the Argentine's hearts.

The other day my friend Sol, the one from the last march I went to, invited me to a rally against prostitution in Argentina. It's quite a big problem here and the government is implicit in its functions. (Apparently I have walked by brothels and not even known it!) A new friend, Ani, explained to me that the police often take homeless people off the streets and force them into prostitution. That is why, when there was a group gathered in front of the Congress building and a government representative appeared, they all booed and hissed at him! In fact, they started chanting this song about "basura" (garbage) with no restraint, and I almost felt bad for him! Of course, I don't know the situation that well, and some others explained that even though he SAID he was standing in solidarity with them, his party's actions spoke louder than his words and they wouldn't believe his lies. First, though, I went to the Psicologia building of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (the campus is one of the hugest I've ever seen - it spreads out across the entire city) where I managed to find two friends I had met last time, Marcos and Alex! Apparently it's a really big hangout for UBA students, and I'm pretty sure students occupy it a lot when they want to protest, which means no class...! I really wish I had gotten to go to UBA; it seems like they take their studies a lot more seriously and there are A LOT more politically-minded students there. UB has nothing of the sort...

Well, I got there and watched a video about how Argentines are still protesting for the right to have legal abortions. Almost no Latin American countries allow the procedure, mostly because they're Catholic, but to me I cannot imagine living in a country where something as fundamental to my reproductive rights would be denied. I feel like that speaks volumes about how women's persons are treated, and though I might never have an abortion, I would feel insecure as to what other rights as a woman may be taken away at any moment. Well, after that, I handed out some fliers about the upcoming rally (I sort of felt like I was working for Planned Parenthood again), and then Alex, Ani and I joined the other people outside the Congress building. In a different sense of the term, many women have been "disappeared" in Argentina, meaning that they were forced into prostitution and then killed without ever having shown a trace of where they had gone. Domestic violence is also a HUGE problem in Argentina, so people were speaking out against that as well. As always, there were lots of socialistas. :)

This may seem rather small, but I finally bought a purse to replace my other one that had been stone. For me, it was one of the final steps to regaining my sense of security again - plus, it's really cute! ^_^

I have finals all this week but mostly I haven't even studied for them because I've studied this period of time so much that I don't sweat it at all. Is it strange that I'm actually looking forward to going back to Knox and taking hard classes?

Another detention center I went to was called Olimpo because of its connections to the Olympics; the Athletic Club was a few blocks away and was also used to hold prisoners. One of the most surprising things about the former concentration camps is learning just how close they were to communities; houses on this street were literally a few feet away. Well, at this one, I was shown all the books that were banned during the dictatorship; in total, there were over 1,000. They included obvious things like Lenin's works but also children's books. For example, one storybook illustrated a person struggling to carry their workload by themselves, and when a partner helped them, everything ended happily. This was seen as subversive and anyone who owned these books were subject to being disappeared. They also bizarrely included mathematics and science books because they were modern and university students were among the top targets. Many musical artists were banned, even North American ones such as the Rolling Stones and John Lennon. Hundreds of movies were also banned. I don't know if it's hard for you to imagine, but for me I cannot think of my government telling me what I can and cannot learn about. Information during this period became very sacred and books were guarded like precious jewels. It was seen as one way to protest the government's atrocities. Well, they also showed me outside where the prisoners were held in the garage (Garaje). Only a few hundred were able to be held at a time, but eventually most were "transferred" to ESMA or boarded on a death flight. I don't want to say these captors were more sympathetic, but they sometimes allowed the prisoners to take showers and look out the windows to see sunlight and hear normal sounds of the world like children getting out of school. Don't get me wrong though, they were all systematically tortured and many were forced to do slave labor like the cooking and carpentry of the place. In fact, when they captured leftist doctors, they forced them to save those who were dying from torture. However, there were some happy stories that came out of the place, like stories of solidarity. For example, the "subversives" would have code names for the guards like M-30,000 (Mataron, "they killed," 30,000 for how many suspected were disappeared) and call each other by their real names instead of the letter-number names the guards would give them to give them back some of their human identity. They would also knock on the cell bars, two meaning "How are you?" and three meaning "Good night" for example. I imagine these gestures meant everything in the world to them.

The last concentration camp I went to was on the street Virrey Cevallos, and this was the least remodeled of them all. Let me be specific: when it was operating, the place was actually three different apartments, but when the human rights tribunals started to arrive, they changed the structures so much that the walls had come down between the 3. Only a few people were kept in these apartments, and for the ones who have survived and come forward, they only know what a few of the rooms are. They know, of course, where the torture chambers were (now it looks like a regular living room), where the cells were, where the bathrooms were (one former detenido remembered feeling the tiles of the shower and so could identify it that way), and where the captors held official meetings of the state. The guide told me that the center is now trying to gather local information from the neighbors about what was passed down by families, and try to recreate what may have happened there from that. In fact, the day I left they were having an open forum with the community to try to decide how they wanted to go about its construction. She invited me to come, and even told me one of the former prisoners would be there (but probably wouldn't be talking about his experiences), but unfortunately I had to fly back that day.

On Friday Juan Carlos and I went to a futbol match between Argentino Jrs. (one of the many Bs As teams) and Rosario. It was so fun! I totally understand why people love futbol so much now. It's much more than just the sport; it's a surge of adrenaline and a sense of community. Kids are taught from very young the chants and motions of their teams, and on either side you could see streamers, signs, colored umbrellas, etc. When the teams come out, people throw confetti into the air and set off colored smoke (team colors of course). When a team scores a goal, people start jumping and yelling, and it's just so infectious that you want to join in. The games always last about 2 hours, and if there is a tie like with what happened at our match, there is no overtime and no team wins. The visiting team is always allowed to leave first out of courtesy, and because it's supposed to discourage fights between the fans. I'm really going to try to watch more futbol now, and I'll for sure be rooting most for Argentina, and Chile too, at Mundial this year!

That last weekend was also Rocio's birthday so went out to Rusty Nail again and I saw Alejandro (the gay Colombian guy) again and also wished him a happy birthday. It was 15 pesos at the door and then all you could eat pizza and drinks, but really, since there were so many people, you could only get a few drinks in the end. So, we (Rocio, Juan Carlos, Rafael, and I) went to Alto Palermo and had a relaxing night. The next day Rocio had a party at her apartment and in addition to those people, I got to see Cristian off and meet her brother. (Nea and Jordan were traveling in Uruguay.) We drank beer and champagne, and still honestly I don't know what happened, but it must have been a bad mix because I got seriously wasted and by the time we made it to the boliche Niceto, I had barely made it in the door before I had to go out again and puke on the curb. :( It was really painful and I wondered why/how that had to happen to me on the last night. Well, at least my friends took care of me, though I didn't get back to my apartment until 3 in the afternoon the next day with almost nothing packed and the bus leaving for the airport at 6. I made it but it goes without saying that it was difficult...

Well, I stocked up on alfajores, dulce de leche, and mate, though I really wish I could bring back some of their beef. I ate dulce de leche ice cream and as much of their meat as I could on the last few days, so hopefully I'll remember those tastes forever... I was really sad when I had to get on the bus to go and cried out that I didn't want to leave. I don't think any of the Americans understood because they had not made Argentine friends. The hardest part was thinking that I'd never see them again, and I know my experience would have been totally different had Rocio and the others not let me into their social group. In fact, I know it would have been worse. I'm very grateful to them and hope I expressed that enough to them at the end. Well, before I get too philosophical (I'm leaving that for the next blog post), I'll end it here.


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