I don’t know if it was good karma or that my father woke up on the right side of the bed (though that could also be counted as karma)… but one morning this May, he came up to me wondering if I wanted to volunteer somewhere around the world. “No, no and no… why do you think it is just that! It is not true… it is not the south American women the ONLY reason for me to volunteer in the southern hemisphere” … let me try phrasing it better. It is to the end of my personal desire of understanding cultures and people, that i could not refuse the opportunity of being part of the celebration of the 100 years of a rural town in the northern platos of Argentina. What better way to know a culture if not though celebration. “We must dance more together” to create a better understanding between cultures, told me Bernhard Haoper, a very composed white haired german agronomist, in an interview some months back. Can it be true? Does dancing bring us closer? Do we for a moment stop thinking too much from our categorical mind and let our more spontaneous heart express freely and intimately?
It is strange how when we travel to these ‘so called’ unstable and developing social and economic destinations – which are still unknown to us – we carry this strange fear. I can only imagine what travelers to India must feels like when they get baptized and are introduced to their dreamy mystical land by our taxi drivers and paharganj touts. Even by trying to erase my blackboard of fears and the 10 year in India… I failed. “What if I get robed at gun point?” “Well, if I survive that, it’ll be an experience… and it shall become a new story to tell :D” was my excuse to smile at the thought..
Little did I know that I would find a landscape which reminded me of Finland when I took the local bus from the airport. The air so cold and so clean, the grass so green, the trees so naked, the land so vast, the houses so cute with their gardens and the road so ordered!!!???!!! … No, I did not get that wrong, I was as puzzled as you might be right now. And more puzzled when, if going a little back in time, I found myself at the airport without a clue of where I had to go. I had lost the print out with the hostel name, address and direction and the internet at the airport was in no mood to be collaborative. So after much contemplation and self abuse I bought a map and asked for the bus which would lead me around the area I thought my bed was awaiting me… which I did find after a 2 hour bus ride, an espresso with chocolate, some invented Spanish and the blessed Wi-Fi.
Have you ever felt the desire to warmly welcome a traveler to your country? If you have or haven’t… try thinking how would you welcome this unknown traveler to your culture, your people and your country?
I don’t think I’ve ever been so warm and spontaneous in all my life to randomly go up to a traveler from far lands and welcome her with an open hear… but I can tell you that it is one of the warmest embrace of welcome a traveler can wish for. I was trying to get lost among the never ending straight streets of Buenos Aires, when my eyes fell on a passionate, beautiful and sensual street dancing tango. I know, street tango… that’s….! (use whoever word can best describe the feeling for you, for awesome, legendary are just not enough!) In between these turns, twisting legs, fired eyes, beautiful legs, the dancer announced the land I came from as I gave the tip. “You are from India??!!??” and as I turned to nod, I saw a random, surprised, intrigued and amazed man… who as soon as I finished my nod welcome-kissed me to Argentina… and some part of my heart knew that it now belonged to Argentina.
I find it very ironical how in a world where most young men are proud to count the women they have been with – the number being directly proportional to coolness – and the young ladies are divided between their feminist approach to equality – “if men can do it, we can too!” – and their everlasting romantic idea of the ideal one man… think that the best way to HIT on the other sex is at clubs and pubs where everyone is a bit tipsy. It just confuses the unscrewed bolt in my head when I think that these are catwalks where coolness means the capacity of spending and being loud, where dance is without words, where men believe machismo attracts the ladies and where the less you care the more superior you believe to be… are these really the best spaces?
Or am I in complete delusion when I say that a tango bar (like the one we went to in Buenos Aires :D), where sexiness is measured in the capacity of leading and following, where respect is given to courteousness and humility, where courage is seen as the capacity to invite, where the ladies seduce by hiding but yet revealing their skin, where attraction is created by the capacity to intrigue and where emotions are conveyed though eyes and lips… will give you far better chances???!!??
Somehow I think we have forgotten e aesthetics of dance and why we dance, whichever may be the style… from jumping around at pubs up to wavy trance.
I know, what happened to the volunteering? This is all part of it, just not yet in the labor field. I must say that when I was first told that I was going to be the only male volunteer, I did not know if to cry or to have a huge smile on my face… somehow both came simultaneously. To the surprise of my strange expression I ended up having other male companions. Balaraam, with Brazilian looks and typical British character, he was my official miss-interpreter. No, he is neither an Indian, nor is he a Red Indian with an Indian name (ok, I know, they live in North America… but the thought of it was just awesome – sorry, Bala!). The boy nearly got my hair cut like a baseball hat and totally twisted my words to a local girl… which if I was in India, would have led to me running for my life with her brother hunting me down with an axe. Emanuel was the other male volunteer. Our Argentinean socialist stud, he wants to do a research on different cultures by comparing their meat consumption per capita. I know; what a great idea. Somehow I just never related meat consumption to explain and understand cultures; but if I think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Be sure that I shall be reading that enquiry as soon as it is done. By the by, did you know Argentineans are the biggest meat eaters in the world? I mean, the guys consume over a 100kg a year, out of which 70 of beef… my apologies to some of my Indian friends who might find this offensive and to everyone’s digestive system.
The unlucky girls who had to face our group at first were Regina; with her beautiful voice and cute smile, who didn’t only have to bear with my blabery mouth but also with me asking her to dance whenever she was around… and Sol, with her passionate tango blood, beautiful presence and my first mate companion.
In introducing us to the project and the activities, they brought me back to what I would imagine my kindergarten days must have been like – ending the school with sticky hands, painted floor, horrible drawings accompanied with lots of spontaneity, innocence and laughter. It’s great to be a child sometimes, somehow I always forget the one hiding in me.
All spoken about, but really… what are we here for? The town where we will be working, Villa Ana, was started by La Forestal, a British and German company. The company had land rights over a huge forest area after the failure of the province to repay a loan to the two governments. This region, in the north of Argentina, was a forest of Quebracho: a local tree. The tree, after being at least 100 years old is a great source for tannin – a compound used to make leather dye which also has the property of making the leather more flexible. Like most such stories, the forest was exploited till the very last trees during the two world wars – how can we forget, soldiers are full of leather gears – and around 1960, after all the trees were used to help the great British and German soldiers (enemy at war but business companions in producing leather die :D) … the company left. The people were left without the prime resource of their land, to somehow create a new economy to sustain themselves.
With the desire to learn the struggle, challenges, hopes and the story of the people from Villa Anna, I adventured on our 13hr bus ride from Buenos Aires with my volunteer companions… and what a ride, the road had no bumps and one could actually sleep well on those (very) reclining seats.
The road ended where our journey ended, it really felt like being at the end of one of the world’s corners. Very much convinced that we were not still there, yes… how can u not know you’ve reached when the very road you are on is over… we heard two blonde British ladies shouting. Vicky, the coordinator of the Subir al Sur, and Lucy, our facilitator with the heavy task of bearing these 9 volunteers- full of their ‘feel good factor’ – “We are coming to help!”.
Somehow… with some strange coincidence… people who have an inclination to the social world have some link with India. Maybe it is the relation of marijuana with youth who want to think out of the box or India’s capacity to make people think without the plant… but either way, Vicky had lost her brother to some Himalayan mountain where he is still hiding and Lucy adventured there many times. Once the India link is established, one is sure to have some interesting conversations… and that was the case for the next 2 weeks.
I’m sure each one of us has an opinion of chest hair. With a book in my hand, my back resting on a tree trunk, the winter sun warming my body, and the ‘Mate’ circulating, I was in Argentinean bliss… when suddenly I was assaulted. My polo shirt button was opened and a camera suddenly closed its shutter on my chest hair. Without having the time to process what just happened and terribly confused by the thoughts which came to my mind, I saw our cute Korean girls with a big grin looking at the picture just taken. Jihye and Mona (I love it when they have an English name to make life simple for us ignorant westerners) did not stop smiling for quite some time and then came to ask me if they could touch my chest hair. I know, wtf? Or I guess it is all just part of our cultural shocks. Supposedly Korean women love chest hair. Jihye is a the tall athlete who defeated me at the Chicken fight (oohh, I so love Korean games) and Mona was as perfect a Korean doll, as perfect as you can imagine. Both of them were skinny and with the hobby of dieting every second dinner. But there was something so innocent, so simple, so childlike and so funny about how they went about the whole chest hair and beard thing that saying ‘no’ was something which never came to and I had fun being their hairy guiny pig. Keep that innocence alive Jihye and Mona 🙂
Culture shocks will always remain, and some, I guess are just too difficult to digest. When Flor, our second facilitator, randomly woke up one evening and decided that after our siesta we would give each other a shower to wake us up. “I know we have after siesta wake up games… but a shower?” I did not hear wrong, we had to give a shower with no water, no soap, no towel… a shower where one person had to imagine such things existed and carry out the act of bathing the other. Something just too difficult for my mind to take, it was Doctor Doctor taken to a whole new level… a level I so enjoyed watching but I could just not have myself doing it to a girl. I would feel just too sleazy each time my hand was going over her, and then my sleazy smile would have never stopped appearing on my face for the whole bathing time… forgetting about when she would have had to bathe me.
Each morning, to warm up our bloods we had exercise. Each one of us invented one exercise which the rest performed. Everyday a pair had morning duties of breakfast and lunch and a different pair for snack and dinner. The rest of us were busy painting, breaking stones, playing with kids and breaking the floor of the mess. No, we did not leave the poor kids without a floor… we made a new one; so if any of you want a new floor, I can do that ;). I never knew that breaking a floor was something I had always wanted to do.
Eating, working, dancing, playing, laughing, singing, cooking, inventing Spanish, interacting… and days went pass by. Among us there were four other volunteers. Marlene, who from one angle looked the cute girl next door and from the other the cunning French women; Anne, also from France, with her cute dimple which I guess made all her students love her; Isabel, from Madrid, was my other official interpreter and a much more reliable one… thank you for all the extra chatting I made you do. Taking the anti-sun-rising order, just for the final introduction, we had the girl who said the most ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ I’ve ever heard and will ever hear in 14 days. Narumi came the land of the rising sun; with one of the cutes smiles and best massage hands I know of… after our ways separated the world seemed so much less thankful to me 😦
The local youth group we were working and interacting with were the Quebrachitos – their name tacking inspiration from the tree they saw disappearing from their lands. With around 20 members ranging from 14 to around 30, they really made me understand how important is the capacity to formulate a vision in creating social harmony. Coming from different economic backgrounds, with many of them interested in history, it was very interesting to see how the human psyche becomes much more active and constructive when instead of rejecting and forgetting the past, you try to understand it and then challenge the present. Forgetting is easy… embracing the past to mould the present and shape the future is not. It requires the capacity to find a harmony in confusion; a confusion caused by all your mixed feelings, external opinions, present struggles and some anger towards those who took your resources away.
Anger, revenge, frustrations do not ever disappear or fade away when we act passively on it – when we try to forget, think it never happened. The past never fades, it the very reason for our present to be the way it is. The only decision we have in this moment is how we incorporate this past in us; and if this is done constructively with your mind and heart being aware, active and ready to mould the present… then anger, revenge, frustrations can be great source for change. A change not based on destroying the past, but on a healthier incorporation of the past. How can anger change is love? “By dancing more together’… or in other words: by working on our mutual beliefs, on our inner desires. When we challenge our revenge, when we analyze our anger, when we understand our frustration… we turn from a passive view of life to an active way of living. This is what I feel this youth group has been able to achieve in formulating their vision.
Some people wonder why I don’t live in developed countries, my answer is because the youth has no vision. What do you do with money if you have no vision on how to use that money? When you have health but no desire to move out of your house? When you have schools but no motivation to learn? I live to see and to hope others make me see things I would not have seen otherwise… but if people around me don’t want to see then I rather close my eyes.
Separating music from South Americans is like separating oxygen from living beings. With this eternal sky, grass fields till where your eye could see, horses ridden on the mud floors… each morning felt like a movie scene when we were woken up by our next door bursting music at 7am. Poverty is so different around the world. In India they might not have the money to send their children to school, but they will make sure that at least 200 people come to their daughter’s marriage. In Argentina, be sure that their house may be of mud… but they will have the most awesome of music systems; a system that I’m sure most of the people I know don’t have, me included.
The town even had their own discotheque – the boliche. Open only on Saturdays and beginning by 11pm, we were lucky enough to be there twice till around 5am. With too much Cumbia and Regeton… but none of it mattered too much after the 700ml glasses of beer they had, my main objective of the night would become to get a girl for Emanuel 😀 and saving my ass from Bala’s miss-interpretations. It was somewhere in between the first night at the club that I decided I wanted a haircut. High enough I spotted Angie, and with my faithful interpreter Isabel I went up to her. Angie, a tall blond hair Hermaphrodite (this is what I was told, but I’m not aware if humans can be hermaphrodite), she was supposed to be a great hair stylist; at least that is what some reliable sources had told me. So there I was, ready for the coming Monday to have a haircut by Angie. All exited as 7pm was approaching on Monday, I even washed myself with cold water to be on clean and ready… I was left waiting and waiting… to finally accept that I had been ditched 😦
The 100 year celebration was celebrating a new beginning for the town – an ecstasy of music to bring people closer and mutually believe in the re-flowering of their town. Celebrating in the very factory which created the town, with these history telling bricks at the background, they were getting ready to prepare a meal for 4000 people. Never in my life have I seen so much meat… enough to make me feel horribly repulsed by it and awesomely happy at the same time. Seventeen (unholy) cows had been donated for two dishes: Lomo, a 12 hour cooked meat with lentils, and Assado, their barbeque. Eating was not easy that day… too little space to store all that the eye wanted. It was unbelievably delicious. I collapsed on the green fields of the factory for 4 hours after the ‘free’ lunch offered by the town.
The two nights of festivities were full of various artists who made the whole town dance, mostly at Cumbia. With these passionate musicians on the stage, the men with their hats on and leading the way for the ladies in their long skirts who beautifully followed them, it was a candy to my eye. I think in India we lack of these social festivities; we are more introverted… we don’t always let our heart speak… we worry too much about the ‘Shoulds’ in life – a confusion, I think, caused by our miss-understanding of Dharma, as dad would say. Music is to Latinos what movies are to Indians – both take them away from the daily struggles of life. Bollywood films are full of songs but somehow we don’t transfer these songs from the realm of movies to social dancing festivity. Dance is seen something to watch in India: Not only we don’t have community dances but we also see them as something a bit taboo. We must always have control over ourselves; never let ourselves be too loose… too un-controlled.
It is very important to have an introvert and disciplined aspect of the self, but it equally important to let our more spontaneous and fun-loving aspects of us flourish. It is important have the capability of enjoying.
As we danced more, drank more, worked more, we also approached our departure date. On our last day each one of us had to write something about the other volunteers and an evaluation form to be left with the organization. Not all of us were going back to Buenos Aires; the lucky ones with time in hand were going to the Iguazu falls.
It was incredible how the Quebrachitos bid us farewell. They came with a pick-up jeep which had half of its back space occupied by speakers. All our bags were thrown into it and we walked with the jeep moving at our pace, loud Spanish music playing, emergency blinkers on and all of us walking behind it on those eternal pampas. It was the perfect end to our small two week movie, the only thing which I did not see were the credits appearing in front of me, but clearly visible in my mind. The end of film emotions were waving in the air, people were hugging, tears were caressing some cheeks, some other eyes were wet but restraining the drop from falling and everyone’s sadness for the departure was embraced with the smiles of the adventure lived together.
We all get so fascinated when new media enables some interesting events to occur. Like WIkileacks with the US confidential files or with a political scandal through tweets. It was not different when Narumi lost her passport. Wanting to go to Uruguay for a day, as soon as we reached Buenos Aires, Narumi and I ventured out to find tickets. With all the information in hand, we got back to the hostel, packed our bags, got out of the hostel. “Wait, I think I left my passport” whispered Narumi with her soft voice. Thinking it’ll be a matter of two minutes, Bala and I decided to wait for her on the street. Gone were the sunny winter days of Villa Anna. We were in bloody Argentinian winter. Not seeing her coming out and freezing outside, we decided to go back in to find Narumi quite sure to have lost her passport somewhere during our ticket search in the morning. With no possibility of getting anywhere out of Argentina we went to the Japanese embassy… where we heard more ‘thank yous’ in one hour than in our two weeks with Narumi. With a flight to catch the day after and with the hope of getting a new passport within a day, we went out for some steaks at night.
Night fell and the sun gave light for a new day and a facebook message. Guess what, some girl had found Narumi’s passport on a bus… typed her name on facebook and viola, the linked was established! Still think you are too cool to be on facebook? 😉
Narumi left us for Chile a day before I also left for the same country. Bala was on his way to Peru a few yours after my departure. Why Chile? Well, if you have a friend studying there and a cheap air ticket and it’s a new country, a new culture to know more about… why not! Being the longest country in the world with 4300km and just 200km wide, Chile has the driest desert on earth in the north, with only 0.2mm of rain a year, very fertile land around the Santiago region and the beautiful Patagonia in the south, which is also one of the most fish rich regions in the world. Did you know 30% of the world’s fish comes from there? Chile is also the richest South American country and it has a huge German ancestry. Something else I had no clue about… but it surely explained the very ordered traffic.
Without my directions (AGAIN! … though they were with me till the airport), I reached the metro station which I remembered reading in the instructions – Pedro de Valvidia. With my map in hand to understand which exit I should take, I hear “there you are!”. Surprised to hear some English, I automatically look up to find my living map was in front of me. Shivani is the only person who has ever come from India to study in Chile… interesting. Most Chilean were just clueless about India but much more creative in their questions.. A part of the usual, do you speak Indian questions, they asked her if she has a pet elephant :D.
Vegetables were the only thing I could think of eating that night. There was enough meat in my system to keep me meat-less for a very long time – not that I would actually stay without meat for so long, but if left with no choice, I could survive. With some good Chilean wine, an invented risotto I slept like a baby that night.
Not having time to see much, I decided to keep one day for Santiago and one for Valparaiso, both very interesting. Valparaiso is two hours from Santiago and it is a port town with very Bohemia style architecture. Full of interesting graffiti, Valparaiso is a UNESCO protected town and the town where I had my first raw sea muscles of various types. In trying to get lost in the town, I found myself in the main fish market. With all kind of fish being sold, my eyes caught attention on this old couple having muscles with lemon and with each bite I saw the faces smiling. The temptation was too much… I had to try! I’ll admit it… the bites were not easy but surely interesting.
The situation was completely different but the conclusion the same when I walked around Santiago. With most shops closed and hunger summoning me after the 4 hour of walk, I saw this nice coffee shop. As I walked towards it I saw a very nice pair of legs inside, then I saw 3 more pairs with the same dress. I had to go in! Cafè con Pernhas – coffee with legs – is a great concept I’ve only discovered recently. There are only girls serving, all of them wearing short skirts with their nice legs at full view for the clients to view. They come to you slowly with their hips moving, ask you for your order, they turn around and walk back in the same way… just this time you see more the movement. Once ready they come back to you and with a nice smile leave your coffee on the table. How great is that! These are not un-respected places. They are very respected places where a lot of people go… then of course you have the ones which are a little less respectable… but still they maintain a certain degree of respect.
My flight back to Buenos Aires was 1 day before I had to leave for Italy. With the most clear sky over the Andes, I realized how much of a crime it is to fly over them. It is doing injustice to them… they are made to travel by road, not by sky!
With my fist journey to the South America soil and with the desire to live some part of my short life in those lands, I left Buenos Aires on the 19th of July. I’ve seen many skies in my life but there was something so magical about the beauty of the Argentina sky. The clouds we low, well formed but scattered, leaving large spaces for the sun to shine its rays. The sun rise and sun set would not just color the sky around them but all of the sky which was below the cloud formation at 360 degrees around you. I cannot explain if it was the vastness of the land, the low and scattered could formation, the different sky of the southern hemisphere or my changed perception… but the there was magic in that sky that I felt was changing in accordance to my emotions. With a part of my heart leaving its new home, the sky wetting the lands with its tears, my personal desire to return one day and maybe have the gun point story one day… my long flight back took off.