Posts from the Pampas

Dispatch #12 — A Fond Farewell

It’s time to wrap up my dispatches from the Pampas. This one will have short takes on a number of topics. For those interested in my final observation about life in the Pampas, skip to the end.

First, some quick thanks. To Claudia, the exchange teacher whom I brought to the States in 1994 via AFS. Claudia found Laura, who agreed to host Joyce and me. Pictured below are a picture of Claudia voting and a picture of Laura and family with Joyce.

Laura and Pablo were generous and patient hosts. They are posed in front of an ersatz Thanksgiving meal which Joyce and I prepared. No turkey; they’re rather scarce in the Pampas.

Let’s start off with the following action shot. I love how animated these students are. But what’s going on?

Well, one afternoon we were teaching at the institute when we heard a large commotion out front. Some 80 mud covered students were making their way to one of the main intersections in town. I started taking pictures; it was like bees to honey (or, in Thailand, ants to a dead lizard).

These high school seniors are carrying on a local tradition for graduates. You cover yourself in mud, parade to the center of town and then celebrate. (Remember, in the southern hemisphere, we’re at the end, not the midpoint, of the school year).

Okay, now from mud to the mundane. Look at the photo below. What’s unusual about it?

No, it’s not Guacho, the former street dog turned house dog who followed me around town. No, it’s what is missing. Looking again. There’s a four way intersection, but no stop signs. Seems like a recipe for a collision. The local custom is you defer to anyone coming from the right. Surprisingly, it works.

Contrast this with the traffic lights in Suardi. There are only three of them, which is probably three too many, in view of the lack of traffic. However, they have a quirk. They turn green for only one direction at a time. The car or two traveling in the opposite direction has to wait for its own green light. My guess is the person who designed the traffic light has no knowledge of the driving skills of people in Suardi.

Bike riders strictly observe the lights. Once Joyce was bicycling home with friends at 9 pm after a dance class. Not a car in sight. They came to the traffic light. It was red. Everyone waited and waited until it turned green.

Next to Suardi’s main church is a former movie theater which seats about 500 people. Nowadays, it’s used for community activities, including las telas (the fabrics), an acrobatic sport. Maybe you’ve seen it before. Kids shimmy up long pieces of fabric which are hung from the ceiling and then do all sorts of tricks — hanging, spinning, contorting…Here’s an example from a well attended show.

The night we went, about 60 kids, ranging in age from 6 to 18, performed. The theater was packed, with some people sitting in the aisles. (Keep in mind that there are only about 8,000 people in the entire town). I saw one of the young performers a few days later at the local sports club. Weren’t you scared, I asked. Not at all, she responded with a quizzicle smile.

Another community event was a benefit basketball game for a young child who needed a liver transplant. The cost — $80,000 US. I was drafted out of retirement to play. Attendance was sparse. A competitive but congenial game, with the score arbitrarily set after the final buzzer to 28–28.

People in the Pampas are not as competitive as in the States. We attended semi-pro basketball games, in which players helped up members of the opposing team who had fallen on the unpredictable and occasionally damp wooden floor of Club Sportivo.

Oh, and I have to comment about the first basketball game we attended. The male refs greeted each other at the outset by kissing each other, a norm here. Both teams were dressed in red uniforms. One set had black trim, the other set had white trim. There was an extended break between quarters, as the refs made one of the teams change into white shirts with red trim.

Joyce didn’t play basketball but rode Pablo’s bike throughout the town. One on morning ride, she got a flat. She pulled into the nearest gomeria (tire shop).

The two workers checked out the bike. It needs a new tire and inner tube, they said. How much, Joyce asked. 250 pesos ($14), they responded. I don’t have any money on me, Joyce said. Where do you live? Behind Pablo’s and Laura’s home, Joyce replied. No problem, they said. They fixed the tire, Joyce rode home and returned later with the payment.

I should touch briefly upon the Argentinian dialect. Y consonant sounds are pronounced as sh. For example, the pronunciation of yo (which means I) changes to show. The pronunciation of llamame (which means call me) changes to shamame. One night at the community theater, I pointed out to another attendee that the attendance was sparse. The few words I could understand from her response “La sala … sheynah” seemed like a nonsequitor, bizarrely including the Yiddish word sheynah, which means beautiful. I translated it as “The room is beautiful.” How does this woman in the Pampas know Yiddish, I wondered. And then I remembered — this is Argentina. She was saying in Spanish “La sala estara llena,” which translates as “The room will be full.” (I should point out that people in Suardi slang and the Yiddish term for shit are the same — kaka).

Let’s move on the snack food. The favorite in Santa Fe Province is the alfajor. Pictured below is a carefully prepared cross section of one, along with pictures of two alfajores packages.

Alfajores consist of layered sweet crackers intersperced with chocolate cream, dulce de leche or fruit. Some have icing.

I like the one on the right — Oki Oki. How did the company come up with the name? There are two possibilities. Either the manufacturer wanted to pay homage to his Dust Bowl ancestors, or more likely there was a shortage of Ds on the day they chose a name for the product. I’ll go with the latter.

Like on many other of my teaching stints, I made it a point to get a haircut from a local barber. The setting was different from rural Thailand, shown below, where the barber worked in an open air shop and finished off the job by pulling my fingers individually until each one popped.

No, this haircut was in someone’s home. How do I find the barbershop, I asked Lenora? It’s one block away, next door to the beauty parlor, she replied. Does it have a sign? No, she said.

Well, Santa Clara de Buena Vista is a small town. I had no trouble finding the barbershop. It’s in the barber’s home. The front room doubles as the barber shop.

Note the red pennant in the back right of the picture. It’s for the Colon Football Club of Santa Fe. Colon’s stadium, which has the rather cumbersome name of Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao Lopez , is one of the first landmarks you see when you cross the river and enter the city. Across the front cyclone fence are a series of giant letters reading EL CEMENTERIO DE LOS ELEFANTES. They even include this phrase this in their ads:

Why the name? Well, it’s not uncommon for powerhouse football (soccer) teams to go down to defeat on Colon’s storied field. So, the stadium is nicknamed the Cemetery of the Elephants.

Two quick design notes. What’s unusual about the two pictures below:

Let’s start with the one on the left. Two things. First, the outlet is about 3 meters off the ground. This is common in many houses. An advantage is that it’s hard for little tykes to reach. A disadvantage is that electric cords are in plain sight.

If you look to the rear left of the photo, you’ll see a cord going out the window. It connects to the washing machine. It’s not uncommon to locate washing machines outdoors.

As to the picture on the right, note that the toilet roll holder does not have holes for the central spool, but rather slight dimples. As a result, if you tug the wrong way on the toilet paper, the spool comes loose and shoots across the bathroom. A brilliant innovation which enlivens an otherwise routine activity.

Water. I wrote earlier that we could not drink the water out of the tap, due to its high arsenic levels. When we were in Santa Clara, Joyce wanted to help out getting drinking water. She asked Leonor where the source was. Go out to the water tower by the railroad tracks. So Joyce did. Here is a picture of her filling up a large bottle.

Looks good, doesn’t it. The only problem is that Joyce chose the wrong tap. This is the untreated water. Thirty yards away is a low slung concrete building with a tap for treated water. Nonetheless, we survived without any known adverse health problems.

One of the schools we visited was in the small pueblo of San Geronimo. As was the case with Suardi, Santa Clara and Franck, most of the students had never met an American. After speaking with students, we went with them to the church, which is across the street. There, two women who are active in the church spoke about the history of the building.

In the back right corner of the picture, you can make out the statue of San Geronimo. It’s the same as the one in the town square. A very pale, depressed looking person whose hand covers his bloody chest. Why is it bloody? Well, San Geronimo was so guilt ridden that he kept beating his chest with a stone, until it bled.

While the women went on at some length, I leaned over to Claudia and whispered “Perhaps I should tell the students there is no need to beat themselves like San Geronimo. They can go to confession instead.” Claudia responded that the woman had already told this to the students.

Okay, time to wrap things up. What’s the biggest difference between life in the Pampas and life in the States? It’s best summarized in the question a few friends asked us just before our departure. “Are your children going to meet you at the airport?”

This is a perfectly normal question to ask in the Pampas. Generations live close to one another. A high percentage of students who go to bigger cities for university return afterwards and settle in their hometowns. Why? Two reasons. First, the towns have a good economy. It’s possible to get a good paying job in your field of study. The second, and more important reason, is that families here are much closer to each other, emotionally and physically, than in America. Pablo’s aunt and uncle live three houses away. His parents live a five minute walk from the home. His brother’s family resides in a home just four blocks away.

We found a similar pattern when our youngest daughter spent a year in Quito as an exchange student. The family was large. Most Fridays, anywhere from five to eight branches of the family would gather for dinner. The family was constructing a five story building, in which three of the family branches would live.

There seems to be a higher stress on the importance of family in Latin America than in the US. The extended family structure in Suardi brought back memories of my childhood in Queens, New York. So many of my aunts, uncles and cousins lived close by. As to Joyce, for many years her aunt, uncle and cousins lived in the same house she did.

In the past half century, our families have spread across the country, to Pennsylvania, Florida, Chicago, California, Hawaii, etc. But we have lost the regular family contact which characterized our lives in the 1950's and 1960's. It brings to mind an interview I saw nearly 40 years ago of Karl Menninger, the noted psychiatrist and author. By then, Menninger was in his high 80's. The interviewer asked him if life was now better than when he was a young boy. He paused for a moment and replied, “More comfortable, yes. But better? I don’t know.”