Thursday, February 26, 2009

Welcome to Australia!

I apologize for the time lapse before this entry, but I have been incredibly busy for the past week! I can't believe I've only been here for two weeks and a few days; it feels like I've been here forever. I still haven't even started classes; right now I'm in the middle of O-week (orientation week), the week before Uni starts in earnest. I'm not even going to try to write about O-week right now-- suffice to say that it is absolutely packed full of orientation sessions, fun events, and parties, and we don't get much time off. My next event is in less than an hour, they keep us pretty busy here at Trinity (the college where I'm staying-- more about that later).

Months and months ago, I signed up to do a program called the Melbourne Welcome, an orientation/introduction program for exchange students. I arrived at Newman College, one of the dozen or so residential colleges that are next to the Uni, on Saturday morning (the 14th). I was immediately plunged into a four-day frenzy of meeting people, walking around various places in the city, and having tons of fun as fifteen or so Australian volunteer hosts showed about hundred exchange students their city, college, and university. (Side note: college and university are very different things here. Uni is mostly just where you go to class, and maybe you join a few clubs there, but college is where your life really is. Each college has a small number of students (the largest has about 280) and is where you live, eat, hang out, play sports, and make your closest friends. Each student has immense loyalty to his or her college, although only a small fraction of Uni students stay at college. So to say "I'm at college" doesn't mean you've graduated from high school and are taking university classes, but rather that you are a member of this small community of students, each of which has a dean, registrar, library, tutors and academic support, clubs and societies, and basically everything you could need. They're modeled after the English system, so it's really nothing like res colleges at Princeton. The closest equivalent I can come up with is maybe an eating club, but you all live together and do everything together in addition to eating together and playing sports for your club/college? More about this in my next post.)

Anyway, while at Melbourne Welcome, I was placed into a host group of ten exchange students and an Australian second-year student named Ben, from Geelong (a large regional city about an hour from Melbourne). Ben was not only a great resource, but turned out to be a fantastic person as well, and a good friend. The rest of the host group (and all the other exchangers, really) was about 70% american and 30% international (mostly European). We did most of the scheduled events in our host groups, but by the time the program was over I had met almost everyone and had made a good set of (mostly American) friends that were and are a lot of fun to talk to, laugh with, and just generally hang out with. Although I haven't seen them much lately due to college activities (most of them are not staying at a college), I am excited to keep hanging out with them and maybe travel with them later on. I'll just give a few highlights of what we did on the program:
DAY 1:
  • Eureka Tower Skydeck-- 360 degree view of Melbourne from the top of an 88-story building
    Coffee at the QV, a large open-air shopping center, at a place called Max Brenner (?) which had amazing chocolatethings
  • Australia night-- Australian wine and cheese tasting in the Newman College Junior Common room (each college has a JCR, a common area with a bar where students hang out).

DAY 2:

  • Queen Victoria Market-- while the rest of the group went here, I went out for Yum Cha (what they call dim sum here) with some of the Mech Engineering faculty and their families. Delicious, fun, and a good opportunity to meet a lot of the people I will be working and studying with this semester.
  • Melbourne Zoo-- huge and full of a wide variety of animals. With only two hours, it was impossible to see everything, but I did manage to see Australian wildlife like kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras, wombats, and echidnas.
  • Australian trivia night--identifying pictures of famous Australians, answering questions about Australian culture and history, all over a delicious dinner (formal hall, held twice a week at Newman, where the food is better and served rather than buffet-style, in multiple courses. more about this when I write about Trinity, which is similar)
DAY 3:
  • SURFING at Ocean Grove, a beach about an hour and a half from Melbourne. We spent an entire day at the beach, learning how to surf and generally lazing around. I also learned how to play cricket, which I imagine is fun to play on the beach but not really a great spectator sport, especially because games last anywhere from four hours to five days (!). A really fun day, although I am not very good at surfing!

DAY 4:

  • Tour of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the sports stadium for cricket, footy (Australian rules football), and a few other sports. It's very unlike Beaver Stadium, although it holds about the same number of people. The stadium has inside it a museum, several shops, and a bunch of formal, members-only areas for the Melbourne Cricket Club. The MCC has a 14-year waiting list; several of my australian friends were put on the list when they were about nine and have a few years to go. It's very prestigious and desirable to be in the MCC, apparently, and also Melbourne is SPORTS-CRAZY. I'm not kidding. everyone plays sports, everyone watches sports, everyone follows sports. It is unheard of not to like sports (or "sport," as they say here).
  • Free time in the city. We mostly spent it walking up and down Swanston street, the main street, and chilling back at Newman.
  • Formal farewell dinner-- a DELICIOUS three course meal, in formal attire, with speeches and things by the dean and the rector of Newman College.

We also had free time each evening, which we used to go dancing, bowling, or just sitting at a pub and hanging out. By the end of the program I had gotten to know a ton of Americans, a few internationals, and a good amount of Aussies as well.

The next day (Wednesday the 18th), I moved into Trinity College. I was one of the first here, since the first-year students hadn't moved in yet and the upperclassmen didn't move in until today. But I managed to get to know a few people through TISC, the Trinity International Students Committee, which sponsored a bunch of events like going out for dessert, a barbecue on the lawn, games in the Trinity JCR, and out to lunch in St. Kilda, the beach district. Most of the students that had already arrived were first-year international students, and a few international upperclassmen leading us around. There are only about five exchange students in all of the college, and we are pretty well scattered.

I really want to write more about Trinity, but I will have to save it as pretty soon it'll be time to go to dinner. I guess I will save O-week for a long post after it's over next sunday!!!
View of Melbourne from the top of the Skydeck
Stopping for coffee
Kangaroos at the Melbourne zoo!
First formal dinner at Newman


Megan (Canada) shows Ben (AUS) the awkward turtle, which apparently is not big here.
Megan and me in wetsuits, learning to surf
Megan, Brad, and Jess at Ocean Grove

Day 2 of a 4-day match at the MCG . . . there were about twenty people watching.

Before the final farewell dinner at Newman

At the Queen Vic night market. Clockwise from left: emu, crocodile, and kangaroo meat.
We decided to go to the old and decrepit Luna Park in St. Kilda. and ride the Ghost Train.
Dancing to celebrate Brad's 21st birthday

Friday, February 13, 2009

Melbourne: First Impressions

THE CITY

is fantastic. Melbourne is a fairly lively city of about 3.7 million, on Port Phillip on the state of Victoria. However, the downtown area (the CBD, central business district) is pretty far back from Port Phillip and instead sits on the Yarra river a bit more inland. Both my hostel and the university of Melbourne are in North Melbourne, which is just outside of the main city. It's far enough to be quiet, but only a fifteen or twenty minute walk away from the CBD. If you're lazy, you can take one of the frequent trams that run through the city. I haven't figured out how to take those yet though, preferring to depend on my own feet. The entire city is pretty walkable, and I managed to cover most of it in my marathon day on Wednesday.

The weather is not bad, actually. I expected it to be the heat of summer, with all this news about heatwaves and bushfires. Apparently Melbourne reached a scorching 47 degrees celsius (116F) the Saturday before I came. However, since I've been here it's been pleasantly sunny, maybe about 70F max. It even gets fairly chilly at night. I'm sure the heat will come back though, so I'm bracing for it.

Interesting and/or notable things:
-Melbourne's reputation for multiculturalism is, if anything, understated. Ethnic restaurants proliferate in every direction, cultural centers abound, and just looking around gives you a window into the city's unabashed diversity.
-Shops here close at 6, so no dice if you're trying to get stuff after work I guess?
-The Queen Victoria Market is currently my favorite place in the city. There is a ton of cheap, good quality fresh produce and I just can't walk through without buying a piece of fruit or a sandwich, especially with the hawkers yelling their prices and trying to drown each other out.
-AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS are awesome and everywhere. I like it when they're mixed with some other accent, a necessary consequence of the diversity mentioned above.


THE PEOPLE

are uniformly friendly, down-to-earth, straightforward, and with a great sense of humor. Even after only two days here, I have a ton of quotes, but I'll just give you the highlights:

Airport pickup guy (Chris) to me, describing another exchange student:
"That girl's got more luggage than the Israelites when Moses led 'em out of Egypt."

Overheard in Queen Victoria Market-- customer to vendor:
"You've got to eat hot chilies every day, it keeps you from getting colon cancer."
(launches into graphic description of colon cancer)
(to me) "I'm sorry love, you're probably a bit young for that sort of detail."

Guy in club (Taylor) to me, whilst discussing America vs. Australia:
"You know the only thing I can't stand about America? The Imperial System. Use metric, for God's sake!"

Guy in club 2 (creepy rando) to me, dialogue:
Guy:"How are you?"
Me:"...fine."
(pause)
Guy:"Do you have a boyfriend?"
(beat)
me:"...yeah."
(guy nods and sidles off)


THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE

is going to be a great place to spend a semester. I mentioned its beautiful setting in my last post, and that's in addition to the fantastic academic environment I am going to have. The professor I emailed before coming here, Andrew Ooi, met me this morning to discuss a project for me to work on. However, he also took me on a tour of the department; introduced me to all his colleagues, the department grad students, and office staff; showed me the student center, where I'll register for courses in a few weeks; promised to sign release forms if I wanted to take any classes I didn't meet the prerequisites for; and even invited me out for yum chao (what they call dim sum here) with the entire faculty the following Sunday. He mentioned Professor Smits, chair of the Princeton department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, to almost everyone we met, and you could tell that Smits was well-known and very respected here. It was almost as if everyone respected ME more just because of my association with him. From there, Professor Ooi passed me off to Jason (a lab tech? A professor? in any case, he's finished his PhD but looks pretty young), who took me on a tour of the two-and-a-half story fluids lab. If nothing else had convinced me I'd come to the right place, that would have. They have some of the best equipment I'd ever seen, much better than Princeton's, and I am so so so excited to have the chance to to work here. I learned a ton of new things just by listening to Jason describe the equipment and asking him questions about it. Suffice to say that I am thrilled at the prospect of doing research there for the upcoming semester.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Melbourne: First Day

What a great city. I've been here for less than 48 hours and already I'm positive that this semester is going to be fantastic. From what I know of Melbourne thus far, it is definitely in my list of top 5 world cities (probably Mumbai, Hong Kong, Lyon, New York, and Melbourne), and might be in the top 3. I haven't decided yet.

After about 32 hours of transit time, including 24 in the air and several layovers, I finally touched down at about noon local time on Wednesday. After claiming my bag and going through customs, I met the very friendly and helpful ToGoTo staff, a service provided by the University of Melbourne. They loaded my two massive bags and my guitar into a van which I shared with one other student, a guy from China named Mo (he was staying at a homestay). The friendly and talkative driver dropped me off at the YHA Melbourne Metro hostel. I hit up a nearby grocery store to stock up on food for lunch and the next few days (the hostel has a huge, amply supplied kitchen and at least eight fridges). Although I really did mean to do something wednesday night to keep the jet lag at bay, I pretty much conked out for most of the afternoon, woke up to cook dinner, and went straight back to sleep, apologizing to my three roommates for the odd hours.

I forced myself to sleep until at least 8am on Thursday (not that I needed convincing) but struck out for the hostel lobby bright and early, determined to do some adventuring. Lunch and dinner alone in the crowded hostel common area the previous day had taught me that despite the ever-present friendliness of the people, they weren't exactly willing to make friends straightaway with a lone traveler. Although it's always a little scary for me to strike out alone, I would much rather stumble my way around by myself and be proactive about it than to wait helplessly to make friends who already knew the city. Armed with map, journal, and the always-handy Lonely Planet, I stepped out of the door and started to walk.

Exploring the city alone turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made in a long time. I had no time constraints, no worries, no set schedule, and only the vaguest idea of where I wanted to go. For a Type-A person like me, that's unsettling at best and incapacitating at worst, but I quickly learned to see my lack of planning as a freedom rather than a handicap. I knew I wanted to see some things and used them as a sparse framework for my aimless wanderings; I ended up exploring Queen Victoria Market (one of the largest open-air markets in the Southern hemisphere, with clothes, shoes, souvenirs, and best of all a huge selection of fresh produce; bought a sandwich and some fruit and ate a leisurely lunch alone with my book in the beautiful Flagstaff Gardens; made my way down to the Yarra river, which was salty and crowded with seagulls; laughed at penguins and goggled at sharks at the Melbourne Aquarium (although it seems small, it's much larger than it appears and is well worth the admission price; had a cold frappucino while reading and people-watching in Federation Square, a huge open area on the banks of the Yarra dominated by geometric, modern, abstract buildings and crowded with tourists and Melburnians alike. On more than one occasion, I wandered in completely the opposite direction than the one I had intended (all things considered, not a terrible problem if you don't really have a destination) and ended up exploring the Docklands, Southern Cross railway station, and Chinatown.

After thoroughly exploring all of this, I walked up Swanston street (the main street of Melbourne) making side trips into bookstores and coffeeshops whenever I felt the urge to do so. My eventual goal was the University of Melbourne, where I'd be spending the next 5 months. When I finally arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find, after hours of tramping through the dry and dusty city, acres of lush greenery and collegiate-gothic buildings. It reminded me quite a lot of the Penn State campus (more than it reminded me of Princeton), and when the leaves change in a few months it will be breathtaking. Although the residential colleges are individually fenced in (much like Yale's), I managed to find my way into Trinity College, which is to be my home away from home. It's no Princeton, but I think I'll live. I'll find out more about the college on the 18th, which is when I get to move in.

Tired and hungry, I returned to the hostel and cooked myself dinner, then climbed the stairs to my room, promising myself an early night so that my feet could recover from the miles of walking I'd subjected them to that day. However, my room was full of people. Lindsey and Kim, two of my three roommates (from Scotland and England, respectively), were getting ready to go out, and with them were Ben, Ryan, and Christie (England, England, Canada). They were soon joined by Tracy (Scotland), Jen (England) and Kat (England)-- no small feat, considering that the room was about the size of my Spelman single and crowded with four bunk beds! From what I could gather, most had either just met or knew only one or two people within the group. All were traveling, most had been traveling for quite some time, and none were planning to stay in Melbourne for more than a few days. One of them had simply decided to pick up and leave home eight months earlier--quit her job, skipped out on her lease and two weeks later was in a hostel in Sydney looking for a job. Others had been traveling for years and planned to continue doing so. I couldn't decide whether it was inspiring or irresponsible; I could only assume that the money was coming from their parents (all were college-aged or a little older), which took away a little of the glamour.

I initially begged off of their offer for me to tag along, citing tiredness and a meeting with a professor the next morning, but peer pressure and a couple of friendly jabs changed my mind and an hour later I was packed into a cab with people I had just met, on my way to a club to meet even more people I didn't know. Lindsey's brother worked in Melbourne and had brought a ton of friends to the club (called Billboard-- it was actually pretty good, the music was loud and the lighting was pretty decent and the dance floor was hopping). Although I barely knew these people, the night was more fun than I've had in a long time, and we finally came home at about 3:30am, or at least a few of us did. I knew I had to be in good shape to meet with Professor Ooi on Friday, so I headed out before the rest of the crowd did (accompanied by Tracy and Kat). However, it was still a fantastic first real day in Melbourne, and I can't wait for more!

Monday, February 9, 2009

and I'm just a little stuck on you

January 31, 2009

Unfortunately, once more I overslept and woke up a mere 10min before the group was supposed to leave. I managed to drag myself out of bed, into some clean clothes, and onto the Subte to the bus station at Retiro. The early morning was gray and dreary, and the district from which we took the bus was the least well-kept I'd seen-- piles of trash everywhere, homeless people, ripped up sidewalks, and people handing out newspapers and flyers of every conceivable political bent. These obstacles not withstanding, we boarded the bus for San Antonio de Areco at about 9:30am.

San Antonio de Areco is known as the unofficial capital of the Pampas, the rural flatlands surrounding Buenos Aires. It's a very small town, known for its silverwork and gaucho history. The gauchos of South America are the equivalent of the cowboys of North America-- riding around on horses, driving cattle, facing off with outlaws, and taming the wild west.

We went to a couple of museums in town, including the workshop of a famous silversmith, which was pretty cool. We also got to see a gaucho museum, which was pretty much a ranch with displays you could walk through. The entire town was very pleasant, with a firm feeling of "wide-open spaces." I wish I had brought my swimsuit, so that I could join the locals jumping of the bridge and swimming in the river to take a break from the heat.

Other than the two museums, almost everything was closed. Apparently the whole sleepy little town takes a lunch break from 12:30-3:30pm every day; this was, sadly, almost exactly the time slot that we were there, so all we could really do was amble aimlessly through the streets or along the river. Which really wasn't too bad, anyway.

The bust left at about 3:30 for the 112 km trip back to Buenos Aires, just as it began to rain. The fates were smiling on us though, because the rain stopped as soon as the bus pulled into the terminal at Retiro, held off during our walk to the Subte and home again, and restarted as soon as we reached the door of our hostel. After a few hours at the hostel to relax, shower, and pack, we piled into groups of four and took cabs (costing only about 5 pesos each, less than $2) to the restaurant where we were to have our final group dinner.

The last group dinner was quite an affair-- everyone dressed up in their fines (or, for some, their least wrinkled) apparel. The meal itself had three courses: an appetizer of breaded mozzarella and bruschetta, a main course of either spinach ravioli or beef tenderloin in a Malbec (type of Argentinian red wine) sauce, and for dessert, helado (ice cream) with strawberry sauce in a pastry shell. Everything was delicious and beautifully presented, and I must admit . . . I abandoned my vegetarianism for one night only and ate steak for the first time in two years (n.b. if you would like to engage me in conversation over why I felt that this was a morally justifiable choice, I would be happy to oblige. also, it was absolutely, fantastically delicious.)

Each table was kept well stocked with soda, water, and good red wine, so when Richard stood up between the main course and dessert, we were all prepared for his lengthy toast and presentation of gifts to Maya, Sara, Victor, and Carolina (tour manager, vice president, president, and assistant director, respectively, with the latter three also serving as much-utilised translators). Happy, content, and full of good food, we were more than willing to oblige the restaurant staff and proceeded to serenade them with one last performance of a few of the songs we'd gotten to know so well over the last month. One of the waiters then informed us that he'd taken a video of the whole thing, and that he would post it on the restaurant's facebook page as soon as he could.

After a sudden surge of hugging and picture taking, the whole group headed out to a bar in the trendy, touristy Plaza Serrano area and had one last night out, laughing and dancing and yelling together. It was the most unified I had ever seen the Glee club; indeed, probably the most unified I'd ever seen a group of close to fifty people. I think every single person knew every other one, and could sit down and talk to new friends just as easily as old ones. It was a pretty incredible feeling.

We couldn't keep everyone together for long, though-- some went to another club, some back to the hostel, and others just to wander wherever the wind blew. Those who were in reasonably good shape took care of those who . . . weren't . . . and eventually ended up back at the hostel for one last night with the heat and the mosquitoes.

The final day of the trip got off to a slow start as people packed their suitcases and moved them into the hostel's luggage room, then gradually drifted off to the separate adventures they had planned for the day. Mine was brunch at Cafe Tortoni, a famous cafe where legendary Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges had sat composing his great works. We also stopped by an antique bookstore before heading off to another Feria, this time in La Recoleta. The fair was much more upscale than its San Telmo equivalent, in price, quality, and size. It had a much more diverse selection of goods, and we spent hours browsing and drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice until it was time to go back to the hostel to leave.

As we packed our things into the bus to the airport, I looked around once more at the bustling city. Although it's not one of my all-time favorite places, I did enjoy my time there, mostly because of the people I spent it with. I think the most important lesson I will take from this trip is that friends can be found in the most unexpected places, and treasures can emerge from the most unexpected people. I'll miss these new friends this coming semester, but I can also take that lesson and apply it when I arrive in Australia in just a few days. I'm excited!


On the bridge in San Antonio de Areco


Tackle Ultimate Frisbee (minus frisbee?)


Gaucho Museum


DELICIOUS STEAK DINNER (and this doesn't even count as rare for them)


Me and my friend Brad on the final night


Cafe Tortoni, the frequent haunt of Borges


On the way to the Feria at Recoleta


Sad to leave Buenos Aires :(

Buenos Aires: Palermo, ICANA, La Boca, meat, cathedrals, and singalongs

January 30, 2009

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were all a bit of a blur for me (for reasons that will become clear). Tuesday morning saw us climbing aboard the Subte once more, this time heading for the Recoleta district-- home of the richest citizens, ritziest shops, and most famous dead people. One of Recoleta's most popular attractions is its cemetery, where many bygone military dictators, scientists, poets, and various members of old upstanding families lie entombed. You have to have either tons of money or very good connections (usually both) to take your final rest in La Cemeteria de Recoleta. I hesitate to say "buried," because there are no actual graves and no dirt or grass. It's simply row upon winding row of tall marble tombs, sculpted figures, and smooth, wide paving stones underfoot. The most celebrated crypt is that of Eva Peron, a.k.a. Evita, the wife of past Argentinian president and major historical figure Juan Peron. Evita is a history-maker in her own right, having championed the causes of women and the working class while her husband was in office. Her tomb alone among the dusty, cobwebbed monuments, was covered with fresh flowers and polished to a glistening sheen.

The early evening was largely taken by a rehearsal and concert at the Iglesia Dinamarquesa, or Danish Church. It was covered with posters of Kirkegaard, Hans Christian Anderson, maps of Denmark, Danish flags, Danish inscriptions, and even paper cutouts of Vikings. The masterpiece, in my opinion, was a breathtakingly detailed model of a four-masted Viking ship, about four or five feet long and perfectly proportioned. It was hanging from the ceiling of the sanctuary (I kid you not).

The church was very small, but it was full to bursting for that night's concert. They filled side rooms, packed the pews, and still there were people hanging out the doors. Our (very long) program was met by enthusiastic applause and shouts of "Bravo!" . . . they demanded an encore and proceeded to give flowers to all the soloists. It was a very gratifying performance, and the beaming faces of the audience made the stifling, airless heat almost bearable.

However, for me the concert marked the start of an unfortunate episode in which I battled very hard with my stomach and lost badly. It suddenly tied itself in knots and I could barely stand, let alone walk. I made it only a few minutes into dinner before trying to walk the three blocks back to the hostel; I made it only two before having to throw up in a trash can. I spent the evening in the hostel's bathroom while the rest of the group went out to Plaza Serrano, a square bordered by bars and clubs.

The next day (Wednesday) I felt a little better, so I went with the group to Palermo, a district famous for its beautiful parks. I bought a picnic lunch of fruit and yogurt (all my stomach could handle) and we ate by a lake in a lovely green park. After lunch, most of the group headed to MALBA, BA's famous modern art museum. Some of the art was quite odd, but interesting nonetheless.

The evening was taken by a rehearsal at ICANA, a "North American Cultural Center" not far from our hostel-- or, as one friend described, a "United States love-fest." The building was full of U.S. paraphernalia: portraits of presidents, books about America, and even easy "learn English" kits. We were slightly less pleased, however, when shown the room in which we were supposed to sing; it could barely hold the choir, let alone an audience. Nonetheless, we made do and were able to rehearse one last time for the concert the next day.

Dinner was very . . . Argentine. We went to a fairly nice restaurant, and most of the group had a traditional parilla or grill dinner. In other words: meat. Lots of meat. Lots of very different, very cultural meat, including intestines, kidneys, and blood sausage. We vegetarians smugly munched our delicious ravioli, and acceded graciously when the meat-eaters asked for our leftovers.

Unfortunately, my stomach of steel was apparently weakened by its earlier upheavals and the sight of all those delicious organs and entrails made me nauseous once more. I was extraordinarily glad to be out of the restaurant and into another helado shop. After a healthy dose of ice cream we all stumbled back to the hostel and collapsed; long days full of walking really do wonders for being able to sleep soundly.

Thursday dawned bright with the promise of a glorious breakfast that did not include croissants or watery juice! Unfortunately, Thursday went on its merry way without me as I slept on, oblivious. Tragically, I missed out on "good breakfast" day. Around noon, we performed at the Dedication Mass of the Catedral Metropolitan, BA's main cathedral. The cathedral was beautiful, but the loft we performed in was hot and stuffy (and slightly awkward, since after the short concert we did after the mass there was no way to exit gracefully and the audience didn't know we were done. oops). We did end up going down into the main part of the cathedral to perform one last song. We had also developed quite a following from the Iglesia Dinamarquesa, who skipped their lunch breaks to hear us sing at the cathedral and also planned to attend our concert at ICANA that night.

Our afternoon included a trip to La Boca, the working-class district of BA. It's named for its location at the mouth, or la boca, of the river. It was extremely gaudy and touristy, but simultaneously bright and inviting. We walked down los Caminitos, a row of brightly painted houses, trying to choose an inexpensive and fast place to eat lunch. This turned out to be an impossibility, as every restaurant was geared towards tourists, complete with a tangoing couple in front of an invariably garish facade. We settled for a place close to the canal, which turned out to be pricey and slow-- but also delicious, one of the better meals I've had here. The downside was that it left us little time to actually see La Boca. So all we really had time to do was wander up and down the expensive outdoor stalls. We missed out on the Museo de la Pasion Boquense, a soccer museum, and the famed La Bombanera (literally "the Chocolate Box), a soccer stadium. We boarded the bus just as it started to rain heavily.

The rain continued for a few hours (the first significant precipitation we had seen) but cleared before it was time to head to our concert at ICANA. Once more, the house was packed with smiling faces, and the performance was very well received. It was slightly nostalgic for me, as it was my last performance withe the Glee Club until next fall.

The concert was followed by a mediocre dinner a few blocks from the hostel: great company, but terrible food. However, Richard surprised us with an announcement that the hostel was holding a small gathering with beer, snacks, and a local folk group. Turns out that the "local folk group" was one guy who worked at the hostel and his guitar.

The hostel had filled up a bit over the course of the time we'd been there; there was a group of college kids from Israel, an older couple (perhaps 60s or 70s), and a few Argentinians and Brazilians in addition to the hostel's normal staff. I hadn't seen much of them, other than exchanging awkward glances on the way to the shower. But as I walked into the atrium, I was surprised to see that it was packed to the gills with people, all listening intently to some of the most beautiful classical guitar playing I have ever heard. I recognized the player as one of the guys who worked the midnight to eight shift; he couldn't have been much older than I was, but his playing was technically exquisite and breathtakingly musical. I couldn't tear my ears or eyes away.

After he had finished, he passed his guitar on to another hostel worker, who played traditional Argentine music for us and even sang along in a rough but pleasant voice. He also soon proved his mettle as an accomplished classical guitarist. The guitar was then passed to Victor, and then to me, and soon it was a full-on singalong/karaoke session. All we needed was a campfire for the scene to be complete.

We sang until the wee hours of the morning, despite our scheduled early departure the next day. I slept feeling overwhelmingly content and happy, ready to take on the Pampas the next day.


The tomb of Eva Peron, under her maiden name Duarte


DANISH VIKING SHIP


Park in Palermo where we ate lunch


mmmm . . . intestines


Me, playing and singing at the hostel

summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the streets

January 26, 2009

I am utterly exhausted as I write this, and my feet are screaming at me for the abuse I’ve given them over the past twelve hours. We began early, with a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal in the hostel lobby at 10am. I cringed every time the other hostel guests had to make their way around us as we crowded the atrium, singing obnoxiously, but we had apparently worked it out with the hostel beforehand.

From there we tramped en masse to the nearest Subte station, the Subway/Metro of Buenos Aires. It’s not like the Metro in Paris, or the Subway in New York, or even like the MTR of Hong Kong; the train lines radiate outward from Microcentro like oddly bent spokes on a wheel, and there are few transfer stations. However, with Sara’s guidance we successfully navigated the system and emerged in the barrio (neighborhood) of Congreso. We ate lunch at La Americana, the so-called reina, or queen, of empanadas—at least, that’s what the sign outside boasted. Empanadas are basically glorified Hot Pockets: little pastries full of meat, cheese, and vegetables. Three or four can make a meal, and they are a favorite lunch food or snack here in BA.

The empanadas at La Americana did not disappoint; they were delicious. They also gave us energy for our next adventure: wandering down Avenue Corrientes, a street famous for its bookstores and music shops. Although I speak no Spanish, I managed to find a few books and posters I understood. We boarded the Subte once more to see Plaza San Martin, a large grassy area with some trees, benches, and memorials, dominated by a colossal statue in the center. We only had two hours here so Becky and I just wandered up and down the surrounding streets, shopping lazily, gaping at the ubiquitous street tango couples, and perusing high-end shops full of things we couldn’t afford. My new favorite phrase is “Es muy Linda, pero yo soy estudiente pobre.” It’s very pretty, but I am a poor student.

We actually had empanadas again for dinner, since we were a little short on time and Argentine dinner takes FOREVER. We had to make it to the Subte once more to travel to a show: a local percussion group called La Bomba de Tiempo (The Time Bomb). Finally, I thought—a place to sit down! Little did I know . . .

We emerged from the humid, subterranean depths of the Subte, walked a few blocks, and blinked. The line for the show contained hundreds of people and was at least four blocks long. We followed the seemingly neverending queue, trying to join, until we were called to the front; apparently, Richard had secured 48 tickets in advance. Unfortunately, this led us past a crowd of justifiably annoyed Argentines, who were lined up to kingdom come to get into this show. They were all about our age, which should have been my first clue that this wasn’t the sort of concert I had pictured.

We filed into a narrow opening between buildings and suddenly found ourselves in a huge space, open to the sky and bordered by burned-out warehouses. It was decorated with neon signs, huge posters of odd-looking people, and a metal sculpture of a huge, menacing-looking insect. The space was dominated by a series of bright orange stage in the center, with many platforms and a screen at the back, decorated with round ship’s life-preservers. In the back corner, there was a bar that seemed carved into one of the warehouse fronts, selling empanadas (of course) and beer in 1L cups. The bar’s popularity mounted as the night went on.

Overall, the space had a very eclectic, Rastafarian feel; as one friend put it, if there were one place in the world where you could get pot, this would be it. This prediction soon proved true, as the space quickly filled with young Argentines and whatever the South American equivalent of hippie is. As night fell, the music got louder, the dancing got wilder, and the crowd got crazier. By the end of the night, everyone was jumping, screaming, and crowdsurfing to the heart-thumping groove of La Bomba de Tiempo, which was made up of about fifteen percussionists on various instruments and a pretty good scat singer. However, the music was not what made the experience. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it; dancing with reckless abandon in a crowd of young people that at that moment had no nationality, yelling and clapping and laughing with sheer joy. It was a very full sort of living, if that makes any sense.

Afterwards, the crowd-controllers and very present security guards opened the entire back wall—which turned out to be a chain-link fence—and at least a thousand people poured out into the street, most still drunk or high (or both) and all still laughing giddily and dancing to their own beats. Some had signs with arrows reading “Afterparty this way!” but we ended up taking the very last Subte train back to Microcentro and collapsed at the hostel, too tired to do anything but shower, play a few rounds of cards, and call it a night.


Rehearsal at the hostel


La Reina de las Empanadas!


The Argentinian flag


La Bomba de Tiempo show


video

Buenos Aires: Tango in San Telmo

January 25, 2009

Our second day was as packed as the first. Although I slept through the first and second alarms, streaming sunlight and a light breeze through the window woke me gently. The night was very hot, but bearable, and after trundling off to the shower I was greeted with a modest (though delicious) breakfast of a croissant, some toast, juice, and coffee. As I ate, was continually astonished by the sheer amount of sunlight in and around me. Perhaps it was simply a reaction after having spent so much time imprisoned in dreary, wintry New Jersey, but I actually felt better rested, happier, and healthier than I had in months. Talk about seasonal depression.

After a leisurely meal, we headed out to the Plaza de Mayo with Professor Litchman, an abnormal psycholgy professor from Princeton who happens to have a summer home in Buenos Aires and was here for intersession, just like us. He gave us a brief history of Argentina and described many of the historic government buildings surrounding the Plaza de Mayo, including the Casa Rosada (Pink House), which is the equivalent of our White House except the president doesn't actually live there.

After feeding some of Plaza de Mayo's many, many pigeons, we struck out for San Telmo for the Feria de Pedro San Telmo, which takes place every Sunday afternoon. One road, Calle Defensa, is entirely blocked, filled with street performers and vendors selling a variety of handcrafted and antique goods, including the silver and leather work we'd seen before but also fileta (I think that's what it's called? a folk-art type way of painting that involves lots of ornate lines and curlicues), crocheted ponchos and scarves, mate (pronounced MAH-tay, traditional Argentinian tea) and countless other items.

Armed with my Lonely Planet, I managed to find the one organic, vegtarian-friendly restaurant in all of Argentina, where we had a delicious pizza lunch. Becky, Maya and I then ventured out into the Feria, where we browsed and meandered and simply absorbed the atmosphere. Although our bargaining was largely ineffectual, I managed to get a few gifts for friends and family. More exciting were the countless street performers, including a seemingly infinite supply of guitarists, one of BA's most famous tango bands (complete with violins, double bass, three accordion players, and even a piano), a very talented tangoing couple, and even some kind of painter-cum-dancer-cum-performance artist, rhythmically splattering neon paint on black canvas in time to the Bob Marley blaring from his stereo.

We met again as a group for dinner at Manolo (still far too early to be anywhere close to genuine Argentine dinnertime), then to Plaza Dorrenga to watch some outdoor tango. From there we pretty much invaded the Torquato Tasso Senter Cultural for some tango of our own! Although only a few of us knew what we were doing, we each ventured onto the dance floor once or twice (to the clear dismay of the experienced, graceful Argentine couples) and played the stereotypcal bumbling Americans. However, we cleared out shamefully early (midnight) to let them tango in peace, and retired to the hostel for the night.


The lobby of the hostel


Feeding pigeons in the Plaza de Mayo


According to Prof. Litchman, one of BA's best tango orchestras!


Fresh-squeezed jugo de naranjas, one of my favorite things :)

What's new, Buenos Aires?

(Note: the following entries on my recent trip to Argentina are excerpted from the journal I kept while staying there)

January 24, 2009

Arriving here in Buenos Aires was a full day affair-- we left Princeton at 3:30pm on Friday and got to Argentina at 2:40pm the next day (by way of Newark and Toronto, a total of about 15 hours of flight). After clearing the near-nonexistent customs, all 48 of us piled onto a bus and left for our hostel in the city. The 80-90 degree heat hit as soon as we walked out of the airport, and the sunlight streaming through the windows of the bus had an unavoidably soporific effect. One moment, the road before us unfurled through green fields and distant foothills; a quick doze, and the city's skyscrapers had replaced the pleasant meadows. Although it wasn't the towering, undeniably cosmopolitan skyline of New York, there was a certain charm to the buildings we approached, an old-world sort of feel.

My first impression of the capital of Argentina was that of a lively, bustling city with a very European flavor. If I had to describe it in terms of previous experiences, I'd say it was a cross between NYC and Bangalore-- crowded streets, a mixture of small shops and skyscrapers, but without the traffic, piles of trash, and wandering livestock I'd grown accustomed to last summer. Our hostel, the 06 Central Hostel in Microcentro (the neighborhood at the city's center), is a pleasant, airy place, with double doors and high-ceilinged rooms. Although unairconditioned, parts of the roof are open to the sky and fans keep the air reasonably cool. The shower and bathroom facilities are adequate, but not palatial-- and certainly welcome after our long flight. The rooms are dorm-style with 6 people to a room, but large enough not to be uncomfortably crowded. The hostel also has a kitchen, an open, cheery lobby, and a TV room with two computers with internet (there's wifi in the whole place, too).

After cleaning up a bit, we hit up an ATM and explored the neighborhood of Microcentro. The long, pedestrian avenue Florida was full of street vendors selling jewelry, leather, and other tourist trinkets. Musicians and street performers abound: singers, guitarists, dancers, jugglers, and even people whose sole purpose is to dress like a statue, stand completely still, and startle passersby. I wonder if there's a name for people like that. At about 7pm, the entire group headed out to a small restaurant that Richard and Carolina had found, where the food was mediocre but the atmosphere pleasant and friendly. Of course, only gringos eat so early, but that's exactly what we are so why pretend otherwise?

After dinner, we split into smaller groups: some went back to the hostel to relax, others meandered off to find a sports bar to watch the big soccer match set to begin at 10. A small group (myself included) decided to further explore Microcentro. We saw some small monuments, a little park, and the obelisk at the center of Avenue 9 de Julio, which the internet tells me is 140m wide and in fact the widest street in the world. Exhausted from all the walking, we stopped to grab drinks at a little cafe a few blocks from the hostel and then headed to bed to prepare for the next long day!


On the bus to the airport!


Tango lessons in the Toronto airport


Richard, the director of the Glee Club, waves a sign at us to get us to organize. We mostly fail to comply.


My first view of Buenos Aires


Jumping in front of the obelisk in Av 9 de Julio

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Paris in Pictures

Hey all! So it's been a while, but I have been pretty busy since I last wrote in this blog. I can't believe that an entire semester has already gone by! Anyway, just to give a slight update on my travels, I did end up going to Paris for fall break (October 2008), on tour with the Katzenjammers. We sang in a couple of parks and at a church, but otherwise it was mostly just a pleasure trip. I won't bore you with details, but here are a bunch of pictures:


Happy Meredith with her baguette


"Chris, make an Eiffel tower face!"
(at the Jardin des Tuileries, where we sang and attracted a huge crowd. unfortunately, we were closely watched by policemen and thus could not put out a hat for coins. sadface.)


Opera dorks in front of the Opera House


The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles


A poster advertising the concert we did at the Scots Kirk, a Scottish church in the city


And of course, La Tour Eiffel!


Hopefully I will post my pictures and journal entries from my recent trip to Buenos Aires over the next few days . . . stay tuned!