Sunday, October 28, 2012

Twiddledum and Twiddledee

These two German friends are one of the funniest couples we ran into so far on this trip. We met Twiddledum and Twiddledee in a hostel in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Actually, they are called Simon and Markus but I lovingly baptized them Dum and Dee (though they are a much skinnier version of the original duo) - for the smashing duo they make. Let me introduce them to you.

Twiddledum (Simon):
Tall, skinny, chatty and bald (although he skilfully hides it with an impressive collection of straw hats). He calls everybody "man) and he's the living life of the party. Having done all the weed smoking he could in Europe, all the beer drinking possible in Australia and all the opium smoking manageable in Asia, he is now on a coke quest throughout South America. He usually shows up around noon with a wild story from last night (usually involving at least on crazy Australian, various girls and a drug of your choice) and with his wits and charms always manages to still get breakfast. He's friends with everybody - and I mean literally everybody: The staff, the hostel lodgers and every person he might meet on the street, buying pizza or dancing salsa.

Twiddledee (Markus):
Short, skinny, puppy dog eyes and quiet as Twiddledee is talkative. He has been Dum's travel sidekick for 10 years now and that is about as much information as he will give you. Dee is soft-spoken and almost too timid to say "hi". There's a good chance you don't see or hear him if Dum's anywhere near him. Dee's the one who makes sure they check out on time, find their way back home and don't spend their entire budget on drugs.

Twiddeldum & Twiddledee:
I cannot imagine one without the other. Dum's rare pauses are congenially filled by Dee's remarks. Whatever one can't remember, the other one can and vice versa. They come as close to a married couple as heterosexual male friends can get. If you ever run into them (they're not hard to miss), just lean back and listen - they're great fun!

The Colombian Connection

Asunción is pretty much like any other capital - “big” city (for Paraguay that means about 500.000 inhabitants): government buildings, malls, many people and a lot of traffic, bars and cultural events. So far, so expected. I didn't expect however to meet Eric. I am sure every tourist in Asunción will meet Eric at one point. You will meet him at artisan fairs, in a park or just walking around the city. Don't worry, you don't need to look for him, he will find you. Eric is Colombian, 32 years old, father of two kids, married and a traveling “artisan”. His name is probably José, he might be anything between 25 and 40 years old and if he is married, he does not take that very seriously. He is Colombian though – that is the only confirmed fact – and THE drug dealer in Paraguay. His drug business is cleverly spread. He has a drug base in every major city in Paraguay and 4 partners who work for him. He travels around the country from franchise to franchise and stays in each place for a couple of months to check up on his partners, the business and to keep in touch with each base. If you have ever watched the TV series “The Wire”, he is sort of a Stringer Bell with dreads. I asked him how he became a drug dealer. “It's all about independence, man. Look around you – all these people are slaves of the money. They are not free. I wanted to be independent and not be anybody's slave any more!” I pointed out that some people that buy drugs from him are just as dependent on drugs as other on money – so his job makes other people his slaves. (Now I am thinking – girl, did you have nothing better to do than start a moral discussion with a drug dealer??!!) But Eric has it all figured out. “You are right,” he told me, “and if it was just for me, I wouldn't do large scale drug business. A little bit of weed here, a little bit of coke there, that would be enough for me. But I have a family to feed. I gotta provide, ya know. So the way I see it, if it's not me, it's somebody else.” What can I say, Eric is a great salesman. Not only does he know how to sell his life style but also, in less than 30 minutes he makes you buy any drug if you want it or not. Right now he is working on an international expansion, next destination: Santiago de Chile. So Chileans: watch out, the Colombian connection is coming!  

Welcome to Filadelfia or Meet the Mennonites

Creepy. This word best describes Filadelfia, a small small town in the north of Paraguay, right next to the Bolivian border. I get off the bus and step into a breathtaking heat of 37 degrees (at 9 PM!!) and the first thing I see is two tall blond people with blue eyes walking by. Weird. They speak in German. Unusual. A car stops, two women get off, they speak German. Rare. I walk into the next hotel to make a phone call, all the signs are in Spanish and German. Freaky. The woman at the front desk addresses me in German. I am creeped out. What happened? Where am I? I thought I was in the middle of nowhere in Paraguay and not back home in Germany. As history goes, during the 1920s a big group of Mennonites migrated from Germany to the new world and some of them settled down in the north of Paraguay. So Filadelfia has become a little German oasis in the wasteland of the Chaco region. For anybody else, it might be fascinating or interesting to see how this little town is totally under German command. They only make out about 33% of the population (the rest being indigenous people and Paraguayans) but they control the city. They run the city's “cooperativa”, a self-run civic union which runs like a city hall. People pay taxes, the cooperativa makes sure everything in town runs smoothly. In 2006 Filadelfia officially became a town and a formal process of municipalization was initiated, meaning, it became as bureaucratic as any city. However, the Germans took care of that, too. As soon as they realized that their cooperativa would get competition, they made sure their people ran for city council. So now the German control both, the private business and the city affairs. Creepy. The Mennonites in Filadelfia are of the more liberal kind (not like the Amish – who formed as a splinter group from the Mennonites in the Sates, although most people who are called Amish are actually Mennonites). They have cars and TVs, use cell phones and drink beer. Although, in the only supermarket in town, you cannot buy alcohol. Of course, there is another small (German-run) store where you can get everything from wine to Whiskey if you are willing to pay the high prices. The indigenous population seems to be willing to do it – you can find them in hordes along the main road, drunk and passed out, after 6 PM every day. All of this was explained (and later experienced) to us by our German Mennonite couchsurfing host, Damaris. Damaris, whose age we haven't figured out (bestimates range from 30-50) and who works as a social worker for the city (Quote: “It's important to help the indigenous people, they have a long history of domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and alcohol abuse.” Quote 2: “We don't mingle too much with the indios. You know, it's difficult if you cannot interact on the same intellectual level”).
I was thrilled to be able to talk in German again, find any German product I might have missed in the supermarket and even listen to some people speak Plattdeutsch (a dialect from the north of Germany). Also, listening to a conversation the lady from the tourism office had, organizing a tour for 40 people from A to Z was a skill I certainly did not expect to encounter in Paraguay. However, I also remembered how annoying German schedules can be (if something closes at 11.30 am and you get there at 11.31 you will be thrown out), and how rude (Germans call it direct) my people can be. I was literally barked at, in German, of course, to put my purse in a locker before entering the supermarket. I have to admit though, 2 days in Filadelfia was about as much as I could take: hot + humid + too many Mennonite Germans = CREEPY!  

Ciudad del Este: Welcome to Gotham City

I had been warned. Many times. People get robbed there. Assaulted. Killed. Everybody who had been to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay before seemed to have a different horror story about it. “I didn't think of anything bad walking down the street and this guy came up with his gun and I had to give him my wallet.” “They warned me not to walk down the bridge but I didn't have money to take a cab so I walked anyway. Next thing I knew, three sketchy men walk up, point a gun to my head and ask me for my money. Obviously, I didn't have any, so they robbed my shoes.” So I imagined a Paraguayan Gotham City crossing the border from Foz de Iguazú (a lovely city on the Brazilian side of the Iguazú falls) to Ciudad del Este. The first person I met though was a charming lady at the tourism office (right next to the migration office) who took her time explaining to me all the sights of the city, where to go, where not to, how to get there and how much it would cost. When we were looking for a public phone to call the couchsurfer we were staying with, she just let us use her cell phone. That was our first introduction into Paraguayan hospitality. Friendly, warm, welcoming and always willing to help out a clueless gringo.
From the migration point it's only a short walk into the city center, however, unless you might collect stories like the ones mentioned above, don't walk!! Even if it's just a street, take a cab! There is all sorts of creatures trying to sell you electronics, money or drugs (and I am not sure if they aren't cops in disguise...). But once you manage to get downtown, it's … well, now here it takes a little bit of extra effort trying to describe what the hustling and bustling city center of Ciudad del Este looks like. First off, 90% of the people are Chinese or Korean. Second, they all try to sell you something, or anything really: clothes, purses, watches, cell phones, food – you name it. Ciudad del Este is South America's biggest trading city, since it is tax free, everything here is cheap (and fake or made in China) so it became a huge market for especially Koreans and Chinese. Ciudad del Este is also the only city in South America I have been to so far where people work Monday to Saturdays (and acutally WORK, not just sit at their desks, checking their facebook) – because the Asian bosses make sure nobody is standing still at no time. And then downtown Ciudad del Este is just a giant Chinese market. Stand after stand after stand, everybody trying to get through, shoving and pushing, and – obviously – looking for the best deal. It was a little bit hard for me to actually understand what the vendors were saying to ME. Since I don't look Paraguayan, the next best guess is that I am Brazilian – so most people would say something in Portuguese to me and be completely amazed when I actually answered in Spanish! Ciudad del Este is really some sort of free zone, where nothing seems to be as it is in other Latin American cities. The next “sight” was a bar we went to. I am not even sure how to call it. It was a bar, an ice cream parlor, downstairs was a bowling alley, next to it the cheap disco (free but with no AC – at 40 degrees), upstairs the VIP disco (pricey but with AC!) and filled with 15 year olds (note: the teenage men in Ciudad del Este have adopted a very unique way of walking, I call it the Arnold Schwarzenegger walk – walk as if you're muscle-packed and at least 30 cm taller).
One of the most shocking things to me though was seeing armed men in the streets, and I mean your regular shopper or family men, not just security guards. I have never seen armed men like that before (I have not been to Central America before and I am also not from the US where having a weapon is common) – so I have to admit that sitting at an internet cafe next to a big fat gun made me feel somewhat uneasy...
Ciudad del Este is a fascinating place, very much unlike the rest of Paraguay, but never boring!  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Montevideo: The city that always sleeps

mmmm, mmmeat

Candombé parade

main plaza in Montevideo (where are the people???)

deserted streets

people - anyone?

anyone at all?


we found the creatures of Montevideo
Yes, Montevideo  is a beautiful city, but it's a sleeping beauty. Or, at least it was in a temporary coma when we got there. We stayed for 3 days in Uruguay's capital and it seemed like a ghost town. Now, I will admit that it might have had everything to do with a rainy, windy and cold weekend and if we hadn't been touristing, most likely I wouldn't have made it past the coffee machine either. The streets were completely void of people and the ones that ventured out there were very sketchy figures, to say the least! We happened to be there on a weekend of open museums - and fully enjoyed it, since we seemed to be the only 2 people in Montevideo taking advantage of it. So yes, Montevideo has many many interesting museums (carnival museum, a museum of sound, the government building, a museum that show the psychiatric history of the town, old mansions and gentlemen clubs ...) - definitely worth seeing!
Looking for places to eat (proved to be a difficult task on Saturday and Sunday where everything is closed - ??? - ), there is a great variety of food - from pizza to Armenian restaurants. Apparently, there are big Arabic and Armenian communities in Montevideo - so make sure to enjoy their food! Or asados. Or parrillas! Just meat! Uruguayans love meat! They're a cattle country and it shows. My favorite: a take-out BBQ. It's like a restaurant but they have these giant grills where all kinds of meat is roasting (even for me as an almost vegetarian a great sight) and you can pick your piece of meat, steak, your sausage or whatever you like and in about 10 minutes it's ready to go! Love it!
To be fair, on our first night we did get to see a very impressive candombé parade. Montevideo is famous for its candombé tradition (not CANDOMBLE), a tradition that came with its African slaves. Originally, the drumming sounds were made by captive slaves in order to communicate to other slaves what tribe or nation they belonged to. Walking and dancing along to the drumming sounds became something slave owners started competing over: Who had the best musicians and dancers among his slaves. Nowadays, the Uruguayan Candombé is practiced every weekend and especially during carnival season. So far the official definition. If you are in the middle of dancers and drummers, it's a big, loud, chaotic, charming and simply wonderful street party. People on the streets just stop walking and start dancing along with the formal group of dancers and drummers - to an extent that one procession can block traffic for many blocks and for hours! If you ever go to Montevideo, just follow the sound of the drums and you'll find yourself in the middle of a Candombé party!
The most action we got from our stay in Montevideo, however, was a classic fist fight. Outside a bar all of a sudden we see this huge commotion (somebody had said something to somebody else and this somebody else apparently didn't like it) and people forming up into two groups. Next thing you know, they were beating each other up - until some girlfriends stepped in and dragged their boys away from the fight (quote: "What the hell are you doing there fighting?? - Well, he's my friend. - "So what?! You don't even know what they were fighting about. We had an agreement - when we're out together you don't fight any more!" - Yes, honey. I am sorry sweetie. It won't happen again, I promise.). Meanwhile our Uruguayan friends apologized over and over again, insisting that this usually NEVER happens ("Montevideo is such a tranquil city, nobody ever fights here!" - Yes, we had realized!). Well, what can I say, we were the first spectators in line, cheering for the fighters. Finally, some action in Montevideo!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Buenos Aires: Tangos, Robbers and a House of Hippies

Buenos Aires is BIG. I mean, HUGE. Yes, people have told me before but as always, it's different once you experience it yourself. What does big mean? It means, everything that is within an hour walking distance, is super-close. Everything you can reach by public transportation in an hour is pretty close. We once took a train to a small town outside of Buenos Aires because we were told, "it's really not that far" - translates into: 50 minutes bus ride, 2 hours on the train and 30 minutes walking. Obviously, being two geniuses when it comes to navigating around big cities, even after 2 weeks in the same neighborhood, we get lost every time we go to the supermarket. But, amazingly, we did manage to find the tango in Buenos Aires. First, on public display for the tourists in San Telmo. These performances made me doubt we were in the city of tango. I dance the probably worst tango there is - but even I could tell, these dancers (average age: 65) should not be shaking around any more. Then, we found the milongas. Not that I knew what a milonga was before coming to Argentina but it is the typical way to dance tango in Buenos Aires. Dancers of all levels and ages go to different bars to dance tango (usually, it involves some kind of live music, too). A milonga attracts tango dancers of all sorts: professional dancers go, just as do beginners. So even I was asked to dance! What I loved about the milongas we went to - nobody cares how you dance and if you are an absolute beginner, most are delighted to teach you. Most interesting character I met: an older gentleman. Of course he offered his entire life story: how he got divorced from his controlling wife (meaning: he probably cheated on her a little bit too often), then discovered tango (meaning: an easy way to meet women) and then decided to use tango therapy in his work as a psychologist (meaning: not sure). So even if you don't dance at all - just watching and talking to people at a milonga is a joy!
Another experience you shouldn't miss while being in BA is getting robbed. Again, I am starting to think, you don't get the full BA experience if you miss out on that. Naturally, it happened to me, too. So here we are riding the subway (SUBTE, as they call it) and I am fascinated by this girl who puts on her make-up (including eyeliner!!!) just using a tiny mirror and doesn't seem to be bothered by the bumpy ride at all. Unfortunately, she was the wrong person to look at. Noticing my constant staring she pointed it out to the two boys she was with. I have to admit that I get carried away many times by my anthropological interest so thinking she feels bothered, I look away shamefully ... Little did I know! Getting off the train, there must have been about a 20 second period where I did not have my purse in front of me, by the time I realize my wallet is gone. My natural first reaction is to yell at basically everybody who has ears that my wallet was stolen. Poor Sam doesn't know why I am acting like a mad woman until a lady comes up and says: "Are you missing something from your purse?" - YESSS, (duh!!!). "I saw it exactly, it was them!" and she points towards the make-up girl and her two friends. Of course! So I start running after them (Sam following me, still confused at what exactly is going on). I grab make-up girl (the señora is screaming from behind: "that's her, that's her!") and I am not exactly sure what came out of my mouth but it definitely included the words "weona" "culiá" and "concha tu madre" (pardon my french but I was ready to beat her up). Make-up robber girl was of course in full denial but as everybody realized what was going on, people blocked the way so she couldn't escape until miraculously my wallet is laying on the ground, and nothing is missing! So this is a warning to all the robbers out there: I have a history with pick-pockets, so please, make sure you're fast enough because I am coming after you no matter what!
Equally exciting (although in a completely different way) was our time in a house full of hippies. Full of 17 hippies, their friends, guests and 2 dogs and 1 cat, to be more precise. This house had everything!

- A Chilean mime who got a little bit too excited over having another "Chilean" in the house - so he made me say and repeat every Chilenismo he could think of.
- An Argentinian cinema student who wore a different hat every day and spoke to everybody in English, even if the other person was Argentinian as well and didn't understand a word
- A Danish dancer who practiced her moves wherever she could - preferably in the kitchen while cooking
- A Mexican who had all the connections to anything and everything illegal in Buenos Aires
- A Romanian who was actually Hungarian and every time I saw him he was giving somebody a tour of the house (we got the tour as well, so I know it used to be a hostel until the hippies took over)
- An Austrian who under no circumstances would speak German but I got a feeling she was the one organizing the house (who made coffee, who owed money for the shared food, who had to do the dishes etc. etc.)
- A Slovakian violinist with her Argentinian boyfriend (bass and guitar player) who played Balkan music together (divine!!!)
and and and

Needless to say that under the Austrian regime, it was the most organized, the cleanest, one of the friendliest and definitely one of the liveliest places I have ever stayed at!

It will be hard to say goodbye to Buenos Aires. It's not only a big city, it is a great city: from full moon festivals, over constant music and dancing on the streets to the best pizza I have had in YEARS- ché!