Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A tale of two taxistas

I don't think the blogs for this trip are going to be in order. It's not like anything else here is, anyway. (The photos in the flickr set are approximately in order, and yes, they are still coming as I have time.)

Gustavo is the taxista, or cab driver, who collected and then adopted us at the Iguazú airport. I visited Iguazú with a German couple from the conference who speak excellent English, German (of course), and a tiny bit of rudimentary restaurant Spanish. Since Gustavo speaks only rudimentary English, I got the front seat so I could translate.

We spent two days there, flying in one morning and flying out the following evening, spending one night at the Esturion hotel in the town of Iguazú, by far the nicest place I stayed during the entire trip. We asked Gustavo to take us to the hotel, so that we could drop off our bags, but he suggested that we go straight to the park. Now, there are places in the world (and parts of Argentina) where it is not terribly wise to let a taxi driver take you anywhere that you did not ask to go, but Gustavo knew how much time we should plan on spending on each side of the park, and it was late morning when we arrived. He continued driving down the road as he pulled out a tourist map of the park and started pointing at and marking things we should see that day. (The park, the falls, and the wildlife there are spectacular, but they are best described in photos; please see the flickr link to the right.)

We followed his advice about seeing the Brazil side, taking a boat tour there (I think he gets a kickback from bringing visitors, because he was intent on taking us all the way to the ticket office) and then taking the park bus up the road to the pathways close to the falls. He picked us up only fashionably late at the gate where he promised to meet us in the evening. We declined his suggestion about a rather costly dinner show to attend, but we did take a walk around the town of Iguazú on his advice, and he showed us the viewpoint that looks out over the rivers that separate Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

He picked us up at the hotel promptly at 9am the following day, as we had agreed, and again scribbled on a tourist map where we should go in the park and how much time to allow. He suggested meeting at the park gate at 5pm for a 6pm flight. He was right again on that count; the Iguazú airport is 10 minutes from the park and it's tiny. Domestic flights in Argentina also tend to include security checks that are far quicker and more straightforward than in the U.S. On the way to the airport, he had one more idea that wasn't in our plan, and he was exactly right again. He made a rather inelegant U-turn across a mostly empty road to show us some toucans he spotted in a tree, since we hadn't yet seen any in the park. We paid him kind of a lot (at least by Argentinian standards), but he saw us through two full days, and I doubt our visit would have been as complete without his guidance.

I'll mention one other taxista I met in Argentina. I spent less time with him, only about 20 minutes as he drove me from the hostel to the airport in Salta, and I didn't get his name. That conversation was also in Spanish, which I speak with an accent that usually prompts the question, "Where are you from?" I explained that I am from California, and he started asking me about California. California is not something I can explain in 20 minutes, but I explained that the culture was different, that the driving was certainly different, and so on. (Perhaps it was because of this conversation; this driver was the most cautious of any I rode with. Argentinian drivers, especially taxistas, are a very competitive lot.)

He also mentioned that he had never traveled much. He earned perhaps twenty pesos taking me to the airport, which is about US$5, and the cost of some things (including computers and long-distance travel) does not come down just because of weak currency; they are simply beyond the means of most people. The part that surprised me was that when we entered through the airport gates, he said that he had never been inside the airport grounds before, at all. In any case, I hope he also enjoyed his trip.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A word about the language

I'm back from Argentina as of this morning. I'm jet lagged, and I chose not to save too much water when showering today. I'm gradually starting to work my way through everything that has accumulated in my absence: laundry, mail, unmowed grass, and just shy of two thousand photos. I promise I will get to blogging about the trip itself, and putting up more photos very soon. (Those more interested in photos should keep an eye on the flickr link on the right side of the screen.)

There are many stories to tell of a trip such as this, people, places, reactions. For now, I would like to provide just a bit of background and context regarding my command (or lack thereof) of Spanish, because that aspect has colored the entire trip.

I know Spanish, at least sort of. To say that one knows a second language is always a relative thing. I think I can safely say that I know considerably more Spanish than most American high school student, since I started as an American high school student. I got good grades, which reflected more an ability to do grammar exercises than anything like confidence or command of the language.

I got a variety of reactions and results speaking Spanish (or trying to) with people in Argentina. If I can sit down with someone one-on-one in a fairly quiet place, I can carry on an understandable if not necessarily eloquent conversation. At the same time, Argentinian Spanish is rather different than the mainly-Mexican Spanish I usually hear on the radio at home in California, and when a waiter or shopkeeper mumbles some unfamiliar, short phrase nothing whatever goes in. Thus, I ate entire meals in Spanish, but at the same time convinced a number of waiters that it was time to attempt some English. Slang, especially anything regional to that part, is pretty much hopeless.

Mostly, though, the people I encountered were very encouraging, slowing down when I asked them to, and quite a few sort of "adopting" me, ranging from other visitors to folks on the street to hotel staff. One subway official detected that I was hopelessly turned around and handed me a map, then followed me down the wrong ramp and saw to it that I started down the right one. Just about everyone of whom I asked an earnest question (however awkward my Spanish) took the time to point me in the right direction, advise, or support my journey, in large and small ways. I think that, even more than scenery, was what made the trip so much fun.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Hold the ketchup

Buenos Aires is a city of many talents, with much to recommend it, but should you have occasion someday to visit, I suggest you skip the ketchup.

I finally had the opportunity to meet in person on this trip with the Bolivian friend from online whose fault it is that my Spanish is (usually) functional. We had lunch in a restaurant and he ordered the Milanesa, a piece of meat pounded flat and breaded. This dish came with fries (papas fritas), and my friend began by dipping them into mayonnaise.

I explained that the North American habit is to dip fries into ketchup, and he seemed puzzled by this, but there was ketchup on the table, so he tried some. Then he made a face and declined to continue. I stole a fry from him and tasted it myself, and found that it was indeed rather terrible. Remember the old Pace commercial in which the cowboys are shocked to find that their brand X salsa is made in New York City, rather than someplace where people know what it's supposed to taste like? It was like that.

There is far more to report about this place and this trip than the bad ketchup, but I think most of the rest should wait until I can post photos to go along. I'm taking notes, in the meantime. At least the blogs should only get better from here.