Monday, September 29, 2008

Where are you from?

Where are you from, originally? South Africa.
And you parents? South Africa.
What about your grandparents? South Africa.

This is an all-too-familiar conversation for me these days, although sometimes it happens in Spanish. Something I realised a long time ago is that something about my appearance causes confusion when people are trying to figure out where I’m from. Added to that is the fact that many people don’t realise that we have had centuries of cultural diversity in South Africa. Consequently, there are many people especially ‘coloured’ people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coloured) in South Africa who don’t have a detailed understanding of their racial heritage.

I’ve also come to realise more and more how we tend to make guesses and/or assumptions based on what we know or have been exposed to. When I lived in England some people thought I had some Indian heritage. Here in South America though the usual guesses about my roots (after assuming that I’m from where they meet me) are usually that I’m from Colombia, Peru or Brazil – in no particular order. I’ve even been told that sometimes I sound as though I’m speaking Spanish with a bit of a Peruvian or Colombian accent – the Peruvian accent makes sense since that’s where I learned the language and where I quite a bit of time.

This conversation often results in a number of questions about how I ended up in South America, what I’m doing here, where I learned to speak Spanish and where I think I’m going next – this is one conversation where I’m really adept at getting things across in Spanish. While the confusion about my appearance is understandable I think many people mostly know about the indigenous people in South Africa and the (on average) wealthier descendants of European settlers, who are the South Africans they are most likely to meet travelling throughout the world. These conversations have been a bit of a catalyst recently as at times I have been thinking about issues relating to culture, race and identity – something that recently has been a burgeoning issue among coloured South Africans. I don’t have any answers or conclusions just yet, but the international, multi-cultural and diverse interaction I have had on this journey (in a few different languages) has definitely been an eye-opening experience and one I hope to continue beyond the shores of South America.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nomadic artisans and artists…

Over the course of the past year I have managed to visit parts of 4 different countries in South America – more than most, less than many. There have been many highlights, numerous differences between the countries, but also a few similarities – the most obvious one being the language. But there is a group of people, far from homogenous, who in some way seem to show up in numerous location around the continent. I’m talking about the (occasionally nomadic) artisans who can be seen in markets in different cities and countries around the continent.

In every town and city I have visited over the past year I have visited markets selling everything from miniature replicas of Inca monuments to clothing items and scores of costume jewellery items. While this in and of itself is not all that fascinating, after all one can find craft markets around the world, what I persona found interesting is the number of people who make a living this way and travel around the continent depending on where all the tourists are or where they may find new opportunities. Some of them, like some of the guys I met in Cusco, are also musicians, artists and acrobats with carrying degrees of skill. Many of them move within their own their own country, such as people from around Peru converging on Cusco where the masses of tourists are. But, there are also some of them who move from country to country; as a result I have met Brazilians artisans plying their trade in Buenos Aires and Argentineans in Copacabana (Bolivia).

Some of these artisans are even further from home. During my time in Cusco I came across a few European travellers (at least that’s what they were initially) who got into making and selling crafts because they decided not to return to their home countries – I guess there’s something about this continent that results in many not wanting to return to the lives they left behind. More often than not the nomadic artisans are in the 20s, maybe early 30s, and they live and travel light. It would be easy for many to assume that for some they don’t have any other options so they are making the most of what they have, but this is not always the case. Some of them have families living in the towns they are from and some have more mainstream employable skills, but they choose this life at least for a time and they get to see more of the world. It’s a different life to what many of us may imagine for ourselves, but one that seems to work for them…

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another year comes and goes…

My birthday has come and (as I write this) just about gone. I’ve just celebrated my 29th birthday and once again my celebrations have taken place away from my home country South Africa. This is the third time that I’ve spent a birthday on this journey and each on has been different so far, with various things – the setting, the people I have around me at the time, whatever I’m going through etc – affecting if and how I celebrate.

I had a different kind of birthday weekend here in Buenos Aires (BsAs), but I’ve enjoyed it. As usual I worked at the restaurant on Friday night, although it was a really quiet evening for some reason. On Saturday I watched a film and had some lunch on my own (just enjoying some space on my own). I worked on Saturday night too – it was Taco’s Night at the hostel – and it was a good evening hanging out with a few of the people staying here at the hostel. That evening I was invited to a house-party with some friends I met here in BsAs – in fact it was a party for someone else also celebrating their birthday on the 21st. I only ended up getting back to my friends’ apartment about 06:30 the next morning, but I had a good time meeting a few locals.

My birthday coincides with a major holiday here (‘Spring Day’ and ‘Students Day’) so the masses were out enjoying the somewhat pleasant weather – I only caught the end of it when I went out for dinner with a few friends. In the end of was a good weekend and I guess a bit better than I thought it would. I sort of can’t believe that this is my last birthday of my 20s and like with other major evenings it had me thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m heading. But, these are things that I will wrestle with when the time calls for… So watch this space…

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hostel (occasionally ‘hostile’) living…

As I’ve said previously, I’m living in a hostel at the moment in Buenos Aires and it is without a doubt a different kind of lifestyle. I’ve kind of spoken a bit about what it’s like but there are a few other things I thought I’d add…


Firstly, the people I meet here are really interesting – although at times some are bizarre to the point of concern. I have met people from all over the world while living here (and on my journey so far) – Swedish, German, Swiss, Italian, Brazilian, Uruguayan, US Americans, South Korean to mention a few. The majority of them are taking time off after graduating from university to see a bit of the world while some others are just taking a short (or occasionally slightly longer) holiday. I’ve also met a few people who have left jobs; sold apartments/cars/businesses and just left there lives (for a while) to see the world – with a few of them in search of a new place to settle (like 2 British guys I met recently). Occasionally there are some strange people I’d prefer to avoid and fortunately not too often (only twice on my trip so far) someone who freaks out the people around him with strange and almost abusive behaviour. But, what can you do?


The other thing that really stands out for me is my living in a place where most people are passing through. Most people stay for a week or less while I’ve already been here for about 8 weeks now – so it feels strange being an semi-permanent ‘fixture’ in such a rapidly and constantly changing place. On the positive side this means I meet loads of people, but on the downside there is the fact that if I meet someone interesting they’ll be gone in a few days. But this is how things are for now and when taking all the good and the not-so-good into account it’s still an interesting and (mostly) positive place to be at the moment.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lost in a Painting...

Two yachts at dusk… sailing down a wide slow-moving river… no need to be anywhere anytime soon… just going where the winds and the river takes them…

After the cold, wet and windy weather over the past week or so the sun made an appearance today. So, I decided to head out to a part of town I didn’t know that well and make the most of the good weather that according to the weather men is not going to last. So I got onto the Subte (the underground train) and headed out to Palermo an area of Buenos Aires known for its boutique shops, bars, nightclubs, coffee shops and parks.

I walked from the Subte station toward one park where I was told there would be a market and sat in the sun for a while reading one of the books I’m busy with at the moment. I then walked to another plaza where I found another market and browsed for a while before stopping off at a nearby botanical garden for a while. On the way I passed someone selling paintings and there was one that caught my attention – two sail boats sailing into the distance. The colours – deep oranges, browns and reds – caught my attention but I then found myself what it would be like to be on one of those yachts. I thought about the idea of being away from the noise of the city; living according to a rhythm of the elements like the sun, the wind and the river’s flow; the escape. It was good to stand there for a while and just imagined the possible scene… But then I snapped out of my trance and carried on with my day… I guess it would be good, but for now it’s just a daydream. Not a bad dream though...

So that was my Saturday afternoon. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mate, alfajores and dulce de leche…

One of the interesting aspects of encountering a new place, person and/or culture is the food they enjoy – and that you may have to endure. Over the course of the past year that I have spent here in South America there have been a number of things I have come across that I have not tried for various reasons (i.e. raw fish/seafood marinated in lime juice in Peru called ‘ceviche’) and others that I have tried (i.e. Peruvian still stuffed potatoes or ‘papa rellena’). Here in Argentina it has not bee as extreme though, but I though I’d mention a few things I have encountered.

Firstly, let me say that I chose to suffer the turmoil of eating tonnes of red meat and trying out the local red wine from time to time. Seriously though, the steaks and wine are a treat wherever you go in Buenos Aires and being from South Africa I didn’t need to be asked twice to try it out. But, then there is mate, pronounced ‘maa-teh’. This bitter herb drink (see Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mate_(beverage) for more info) is enjoyed by many people in Argentina as well as southern Chile. It’s customary to share this with people around you so in a sense it’s not just a beverage but a social interaction too. This social aspect is something that I really like, but I have not been able to stomach the (in my opinion) horribly bitter drink. I guess I’ll stick to coffee for now…

But it’s not all meat, wine and mate in Argentina. In fact, ‘porteños’ (a name meaning ‘people of the port’ used to refer to residents of Buenos Aires) have a real sweet tooth too. Firstly, there is the ever-popular ‘dulce de leche’ (literally meaning “milk sweet/candy”) – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dulce_de_leche. It’s something like caramel and is eaten on bread and other pastries (often for breakfast or with coffee), not to mention that it’s one of the most common fillings for the ‘alfajor’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfajor). The alfajor is a treat consisting of two biscuits with something sweet in the middle and is found in a number of countries across the continent in slightly different forms in each country. In fact they are so popular that even some biscuit companies (such as the larger-triple-decker-chocolate-covered-Oreo-alfjor) have their own take on them. These are some of the gastronomical highlights I’ve experienced in Argentina over the past few months and from time to time something else comes along, so I guess there could be something more to write about at some point.

¡Hasta luego!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Week in my Life…

So I guess the dust has settled for now and this Buenos Aires chapter appears to have some routine, or at least a rhythm at the moment. So what do my weeks look like at the moment?

I’m teaching a few hours of English lessons each week to some locals and some of the classes start as early as 8am – that’s really early for me considering my routine over the past year or so – but some of the classes are later in the day. This is the first time that I’m taught English and I think it’s taking me a while to get into it. I’m teaching business English to people in the workplace which I would guess is something considerably different. This will bring in a bit of cash and keep me going for now.
Some of time, about 20 hours a week, is taken up by waiting on tables and working behind the bar at a restaurant in a hostel. I don’t get paid but instead get free accommodation in one of the dorm rooms and get to eat in the restaurant on some days – and then there are the occasional tips. Friday nights are kind of crazy at times with the barbecue and the live band, not to mention the ‘happy hour’ drinks specials. I’ve always avoided anything to do with the service industries so I’ve been surprised at the fact that I’ve enjoyed this work more than the teaching so far. I guess that could be a good sign considering the fact that I still entertain the idea of some day running and owning a coffee shop of my own.

So that’s the gist of my life in Buenos Aires at the moment without any real ideas of where things are heading. Lately I’ve missed a wedding and also realised how many other things I have missed while being on this journey at times. There are also times where I think about staying in one place for a while and building something more stable – this is especially true when I think of the fact that I’ll be 29 later this month and I don’t seem to have any idea as to where my life is heading. That said though I know that at least to some degree I’m not living in such a way that I’m preparing to die comfortably, as well as that this adventure has been and still is a life-changing experience.