First trip, first classes, first missin Amurica

Jujuy

            So this weekend a friend and I went to Jujuy, a province in northern Argentina below Bolivia. The three main things to do in Jujuy: look at beautiful scenery, wander through cute little towns, and buy llama-print clothing. We hit all three. The upside to

Lil town in Jujuy.

the fact that we spend upwards of 50 hours on buses over 5 days (planes were grounded due to ash from the volcano) was that we got to see lots of cool scenery. The downside was the fact that we were on buses for 50 hours. Some interesting things:

  • So we stayed in a different hostel almost every night, which meant meeting lots of interesting people. Resolved: the people who backpack around South America are by far the coolest group of people possible. Just straight up crazy adventurous, full of amazing stories, really laid back, and extremely friendly. So obviously now my new plan is to backpack around South America at some point, because I feel like the fact that I speak Spanish would make it even more fun (more info/bonding opportunities). Lemme know if you want to join.
  • We set off with pretty much zero information about the area, and sometimes went to some small towns just because we wouldn’t have to wait as long for the bus for another small town. This meant some mistakes, like going to a town that ended up being pretty much the most empty, boring place imaginable. Upside to this 2-hour bus ride was getting the opportunity to go through a national guard checkpoint. A lot of people smuggle drugs from Bolivia, and there was even a wall of newspaper clippings of all the kilos of cocaine this particular checkpoint had confiscated! Cooool. Good news: if any of you are considering smuggling cocaine from Bolivia to Argentina, I have your answer — give it to gringa tourists! In a blatant show of ethnic profiling, we were shoed through the checkpoint without so much as a glance into our bags.
  • Btw, about Bolivians: so one of our teachers told us that if we’re ever feeling bad about our Spanish, to talk to one of the Bolivians selling food on the streets in BA; they all enunciate really well and basically “talk like robots,” he told us. There is a Bolivian fruit stand outside my building. New friends?
  • My friend and I blend in pretty well in Buenos Aires, but we did not blend in in northern Argentina, which has a population that is much more Bolivian in appearance (Bolivians are largely of indigenous descent). The funny thing was that the porteños failed at blending in about as much as we did (though for different reasons; for us it was the hiking boots, and for them it was the fashion boots). I’m glad I got the chance to see rural Argentina; it’s kind of like how if a foreigner had only seen the Upper East Side, a trip to rural Idaho or something would reveal an entirely different side of the country. Lots of Argentines aren’t like the porteños I see on a daily basis, which is important to know.
  • Speaking of porteños. One of the most frustrating things that happened my first few weeks here was how I would ask a question using the right words and grammar and a vendor or clerk would act like I was speaking complete gibberish. Just complete lack of understanding. It was incredibly disheartening. A porteña at my hostel informed me that this is a “thing.” Porteños apparently do this to foreigners to force them to say it better, and only “understand” when you improve your accent/pronunciation/grammar.

Starting class

Starting classes this week has been pretty exciting. Here’s the DL on the two I’ve had so far.

Class on “International Politics: The Agenda of Commercial Liberalization, Processes and Resistance”: This class pretty much delivered on every stereotype I’d collected about la UBA before arriving. Our professor immediately assigned us Marx, loves using the word “hegemony” and blaming capitalism, passed mate back and forth with students during class, spoke about GW Bush with absolute disdain, gestured towards me and the other American in the class every time he talked about the United States (and our world hegemony), and arrived 30 minutes late the first day. Things I did not expect: the class is really small, a lot of our grade is based on discussion, this professor talks really slowly and I can understand mostly everything (BIG deal — we’re not expected to understand anything for at least 1 and ½ months), the professor has a syllabus and is really organized (very unusual for la UBA), and the other students are super nice, even reminding each other to talk slower in small groups so I can follow. I’m really pumped, since this class is pretty much exactly what I was hoping for in terms of learning about world economics/politics and liberalization from the standpoint of Argentines. Really interesting, but I feel like it’s gonna get awkward that I’m American reeeeal fast. Already, I can’t remember one good thing that was said about America, and the professor has a kind of worrisome habit of asking me to explain American history/policy to the class. Which is appropriate when it’s just “Leah, how many Mexicans live in the United States?” (though still debatable…) but less o.k. when it’s about explaining the difference between Bush and Obama’s reaction to the economic crisis. Which kind of catches you off guard, especially in a foreign language where I definitely need some planning time to figure out how to talk around words I don’t know.

Class on “Recent Argentina (1983-1999)” and on the transfer to democracy: A lot of foreigners in this class, which makes sense I guess. The cool thing about the fact that it’s a class on Argentine history that we obviously have no background in is that we all get tutors and a special packet of readings for foreigners that has extra info. I feel like if there are 8-9 other Americans in this class, it can’t be too difficult. Especially since a lot of them speak pretty low-level Spanish. Definite score on this class.

Things I miss about the United States (absence makes the heart grow fonder): 

  • Efficiency. You have to stand in line for everything, but it’s mostly frustrating because when you get to the front of the line at the grocery store after a 30-minute wait in the express lane because all you have to do is buy some eggs for breakfast (all hypothetical…), the cashier seems entirely unconcerned with the queue stretching the length of the store and continues to chat with other cashiers, swipe items as slowly as humanly possible, wait 3 minutes for the manager to arrive with change, etc. Or another example: checkpoint near Bolivian border, where one national guardsman checked all the suitcases while 3 others stood by, watching and chatting. Come onnnnnn.
  • Healthy food options. There is no whole wheat bread, skim milk, non-sugary cereal, or meals that do not include large amounts of butter and salt. My personal rebellion has been cooking enormous quantities of vegetables. I have decided the only reason

    Veggies! Typical meal nowadays.

    people here are not morbidly obese is that they smoke like chimneys and drink mate constantly.

  • Good party dance music. They are really into electronic dance musak here, which is fun for like… 2 hours. Luckily, I have now located the two clubs in town that have regular hip-hop/reggaetone nights. Yussss.
  • Fewer smokers. Half this population could probably be categorized as chain smokers, and the other half are on their way. My entire host family constantly smokes inside the house. This is weird, but I keep thinking about how people feel about paying other people’s lung cancer bills, since Argentina has universal healthcare? Wouldn’t that be a huge strain on the system? Currently unable to find a single non-smoker to whom to pose this question.
  • Punctuality. They are wayyyy late to everything. Not cool.
  • Staring being socially inappropriate. So the normal reaction when someone is staring at you on the subte is to look at them so they’ll look away, yeah? But following quite a few instances of awkward sustained eye contact, I realized that this is not the appropriate reaction here because they do not look away. At least in the U.S., people pretend like they’re not all staring at everyone else.

One big thing I appreciate about Buenos Aires:

  • Meals/coffee. People here are just obsessed with sitting with friends and chatting for hours and hours. Waiters will never give you the check without asking, and that’s because people spend inordinate amounts of time eating and getting coffee. The coffee “shops” here are enormous and more the size of regular restaurants, and are always full. And it’s not like in the US where if you want to sit at a table for 4 hours, you should probably buy something at least every hour. Here, a cup of coffee and a medialuna and you’re set for an afternoon. Also, absolutely no food or drink comes to-go, which is actually nice because it forces you to slow down.

EXTRA:

  • Woke myself by sleep talking the other night (normal), and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was speaking Spanish! Quite proud.
  • Upon hearing some Central Americans talking about chicken in a hostel, realized how acclimated I am to the Argentine accent (the double “l” is the difference, and the word is pollo) and how strange it sounds to hear other types of Spanish. I’ve even pretty much fallen into it myself by this point, which is exciting because after Colombia, Argentina has the prettiest accent. What I need now is to get the rhythm right. Basically, imitating a really corny Italian accent gets you pretty close here (probably because a huge percentage of the population is of Italian descent).
  • Heading to a Bible-themed theme park tomorrow. More deets to follow, but this should be good.
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