Sunday, February 24, 2008

LAMEST OSCARS NIGHT EVER




OK, we Cukrowskis love movies, and we even love the Academy Awards. We have a party every year, complete with games, ballots, decorations, themed foods, prizes, and costumes. Not only did none of that happen this year since we were in Uruguay, but we just turned off the TV in frustration moments ago at 1:30 A.M. and didn't even finish watching the show. Why? First, it started at 11:30 our time, which is pretty late to start an overly-long show, but second, and far more importantly, they simultaneously translated the show on the only channel showing it. It made us crazy barely hearing the English in the background and then hearing the Spanish really loudly in the foreground! We are NOWHERE near good enough in our Spanish to make that work, but also it was annoying because we really did want to hear the presenters and the movie clips AS THEY WERE, not with voiceovers. I think subtitles would have been perfectly acceptable, but not voiceover. 
So I'm going to try to upload these pictures for you of the world's most lame Oscar party and then I'm going to bed—pouting and with a headache. :) I'll check in the morning to see who won.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

THIS ONE'S FOR YOU, DAVID.


So we went to the Zoo in Buenos Aires, Argentina last week, and we saw some absolutely freakish little animals that run wild all over the zoo. They're rodents that look like a small deer got real cozy with a rabbit one drunken night and the resultant offspring were these things. We had no idea what they were, but, perhaps because today would have been my brother David's 44th birthday had he lived and I'm missing him, and, because he knew all kinds of weird facts and would have been happy to share them with you, I will tell you about this animal tonight in my best David manner.

The Mara, or Dolichotis patagonum, lives on the plains and scrubland of Argentina and can live up to 15 years. Males and females form long-term pair bonds, but the young form creches. They can easily weigh 25 or so pounds, which is a lot for what is basically a wild rabbit. End of lecture.

What you really need to know is that they're weird looking. See for yourself.

THE MILLION PESO BANK NOTE

There's a really fun short story by Mark Twain that I recommend (you can find it easily on the internet for free) called THE MILLION POUND BANK NOTE. Without telling you too much, this guy gets a lot of stuff for free because he only has a million-pound bill and nobody can break it. That's kind of what happens around here, but you don't need a million pounds (although I'd like to try!). Nobody wants to take big bills around here, and by big bills, I mean maybe 200 pesos, which is only $10. Forget about spending 500 or 1000 pesos. Only big purchases work for something like that. Maybe part of the reason is that people are relatively poor, and they're dealing in much smaller sums than we Americans are used to.

Nothing costs what it costs in my head. [I've written on this subject before, but it requires updating.] Things either cost more or less, but rarely is something exact on the money, so to speak. The average income in Uruguay is, I've heard, less than $10,000 a year. But you want to know something interesting? These poor people don't expect change when amounts don't merit giving out a coin. What I mean is, even though Americans count every last cent, here there isn't even a coin smaller than a 50 cent (1/2 peso) piece. I bought 102 pesos' worth of stuff at the convenience store next door the other day, and I paid with a 200. Rather than mess with giving me back all that change, the cashier gave me 100 pesos.
"No problem," he said.
Are you kidding me? No way would that have happened back in the States. From what I hear, this kind of thing happens all the time in stores, etc., and--get this--it always favors the consumer. It blows me away.

Here are some other examples of things that are way different priced here in reality than in my head: it's cheaper for us four Cukrowskis to go to the Old City (downtown) by taxi than by bus, which seems completely wrong to me, yet blue jeans cost an outrageous amount (on sale for $50-60; at the nice mall, they're $300). Back at home my hair color stuff (Revlon #42, in case you're interested) costs $3.00, but here it costs U$S 15-20 or more. It's outrageous to buy appliances here: for example, you can buy my really nice large fridge back home for what an apartment-sized one costs here.

I guess I don't really have a point tonight, other than to marvel at the generosity of the shop owners-- and really, a society as a whole that chooses not to sweat the small stuff.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

TANGO VS. TENGO



OK, I've repented from my crankiness, and I'm writing a thankful blog entry instead. This past weekend, we went with all the students, the Penyas, and Lynette's parents to Buenos Aires, Argentina. What a wonderful, exciting, vibrant city! We just loved it, even though we were there only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Our friends-who-have-been-missionaries-in-Argentina Steve and Lynette Austin, and Tim and Carolina Archer had told us it was great, and had given us some suggestions of what to do and see, and they were right! Too bad we didn't get to do everything, but what we did was just wonderful anyway. I'll write more about other things, but first I want to tell you about the tango.

TANGO
We went to a Tango show on Friday night. We ate a delicious dinner, and a fabulous 4-piece band played throughout, and
then 6 tango dancers 
and 3 singers walked us through the various development
al phases of the 
tango. A short course for you: it started as a low-class thing, became popular in high class places as well, Carlos Gardel is a biggie in tango singing history, and it's way cool to watch. All of us loved it!

TENGO=I HAVE
Another thing we couldn't help but notice was that, while there was a great deal of wealth in B.A. (1 in 30 people have plastic surgery of some sort), there are many poor, poor people as well. When I visited the cathedral and looked at a statue of Jesus near the Pink Palace (their White House, where Evita stood on the balcony), I could picture him crying as he pictured the haves and the have nots there in B.A. and elsewhere. Attached are some pictures of homeless and rat trap houses, which, of course, we breezed by in our air-conditioned tour bus. Ken did meet and introduce me to a shoe-shine man, with whom Ken struck up a 3-day relationship of sorts: they visited daily; they shared a meal; they spoke in Ken's broken Spanish; they waved when passing by. This man was doing his very best to make a living for his family, but he was having a hard time making it, but no matter what, he was a have not.

When we were at the tango, I thought about the similar word tengo, a Spanish word meaning I have. I have so much. I have a family. I have money. I have stuff, way too much of it. I have an education. I have this wonderful opportunity to travel. I have received so many more blessings than I deserve. I have thankfulness in my heart.

10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU

OK, I know it's not politically correct to say anything negative about someone else's country—and, to be sure, I LOVE traveling, and I'm loving living in Uruguay—but sometimes you just notice some of the bad stuff. And I'm in a foul mood, so I thought I'd share my peeves today, lucky you:

1. NOT GETTING MONEY: I went to the only ATM I have found that will take my ATM card in all of Montevideo today, and AGAIN it was out of money. So, I have maybe $5 worth of pesos to buy food for our supper tonight. Oh well… I'll go to the far-ish grocery store (Ta-Ta; for more juvenile comments about this and other name brand-names-that-don't-translate-well-into-English, see the comments under the blog entitled "Today I mailed a letter"), since I've walked this far already. No problem that I don't have cash, TaTa will always take my credit card.
Until today. After I had taken a long time shopping, waiting in order to have each vegetable weighed by the weighing-person, and after I had waited for the bread guy to bag my bread, and after I had waited in a really long line because everybody is buying back-to-school supplies, the checker rejected my use of my credit card. They always take my credit card with my photocopy of my passport. [For the record, we've been told, "Whatever you do, don't take your original passport out with you; after all, it could be stolen, and you'd be up a creek." Additionally, our passports are all being held hostage at the Brazilian Consulate for 3 working days while "processing" our visas.]
"No," she said, "You must have your original passport with you at all times." I told her I've always used it here with a photocopy. "No, you didn't," she informed me. Well! I WOULD have paid her with money, but remember, the stupid ATM machine had no money in it. I would have written a check, but forget about opening a checking account down here; ACU doesn't even have a checking account down here (a fact that astounds me), because it's so difficult for foreign entities to get one apparently. Stupid country.

2. OGLING, GROPING MEN: It is part of Uruguayan culture (actually, a large part of South American culture) to cat-call (piropos) women who are walking by on the street or whatever. If a woman smiles or responds at all, the guy or guys take that signal as their cue to up the ante. If you go to a club, like a couple of our students did last weekend (after checking out it was a good place for dancing, not all the negative stuff that can go with such places), you get groped and mauled and harassed against your will until you leave the club, and even then, you're followed, but fortunately one of the Study Abroad guys frowned them away. It may be cultural, but it's still BAD.

3. TRASH IN THE RIVER/OCEAN/STREETS: Many dogs roam freely around here, and I have to admit they're usually pretty friendly and docile. But they haven't learned to flush so to speak. The sidewalks are hazardous. You can routinely see people toss stuff on the ground as well.
And there's a general mistreatment of the amazing gift of water that this port city has. The river is so brown (yes, some of it's sediment, but much of it is pollution) that it was pretty gross riding across it on the BuqueBus ferryboat to and from Argentina this weekend.

4. CHOCOLATE -- They just don't get it. 

5. LACK OF AIR CONDITIONING -- This one would be Ken's #1 and ranks pretty high on mine as well. Yes, we get that we're spoiled Americans, and yes, we use too much of the world's limited resources, but hey, it's hot, really hot, and this is an industrialized country in a major city, folks. Couldn’t at least a couple of places, like say a library, a classroom, or a common room, have air conditioning?

6. ORANGES -- The fruit here is fantastic, fresh, and juicy. The vegetables are equally delicious. The oranges—and thus the orange juice—aren't. Florida oranges really are better.

7. ITTY-BITTY, STUPID NAPKINS -- Their napkins are terrible, weirdly-textured, unabsorbant, little useless things about the size of a playing card. You need about thirty to get the job done, which seems counter-productive if they're trying to save paper.

8. LOCKING EVERYTHING UP-- Here, in Casa ACU, where I live among friends and where we don't even lock the door to our apartment at night (it only opens to the student hallways), we lock and unlock doors all day and all night. For example, to go next door to the Spanish classroom, I leave the apartment (which, as I said, we don't lock because that would require using even MORE keys), go downstairs, unlock the wooden door that leads to the garage door, go through the door, relock the wooden door, go to the outside door, unlock it, go through the door, relock from the other side. Walk maybe twenty feet and then wait for either Ken or Rachel (who have keys to the church building, where the classroom is) to unlock that door, go upstairs to the classroom. If anybody is late, Ken or Rachel must go down the flights of stairs to re-unlock the door to allow them in.
VERY annoying.
But why do we do this, when basically we share much of this building with the church and when there are THREE ways (yes, count them) that we could go in there WITHOUT USING ALL THESE KEYS, without even leaving the building, or without inconveniencing anybody? First, there's a door that connects to the church in the hallway outside our bedroom. I repeat, there's a door that connects to the church outside our bedroom, approximately 10 feet from my bed; second, there's an elevator that opens to both Casa ACU and the church building, but we aren't allowed to use it; and third, there's a door in the garage/hallway that opens directly up to the church building. Stupid.

9. MEAT, MEAT, MEAT. We hear a lot about Uruguayan and Argentinian beef. "It's the best," people say, "and they eat a whole lot of it." In Argentina, both parts of that sentence are true; in Uruguay, only the last part of the sentence is.

10. SERRATED KNIVES -- I'm glad there are serrated knives in this world, and around here, since they eat so much meat, they need them. But there's not ONE regular, flat-edged knife in all of Casa ACU, to my knowledge, and I've seen none in all of Uruguay so far. Not one butter knife. Weird.

And some other things annoy me too, like crummy internet service, but I just don't remember what they are this minute. OK, I feel better now that I've vented, and I'll write much more positive entries henceforth. Thank you for listening.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

TODAY I MAILED A LETTER.

Today I mailed a letter. Really. That's all. But it takes me all day sometimes to do one new thing. I had to buy envelopes at a bookstore (they were neither to be found at the grocery store nor at a couple of other stores I checked); I had to buy stamps at a pharmacy. I had to find out that there are no mailboxes around nor a post office that I can figure out. So, I went to yet a different pharmacy that has a box in it for outgoing mail. Who knew? 

Our learning curve is getting better daily, but there are still a number of tasks for which we're simply not prepared. I found pancake syrup, for instance, the other day, at what I'm pretty sure is the only place that carries it in the whole city of Montevideo. Took me—you'll think I'm exaggerating but I'm not—most of 3 days.

We went to the movies for the first time on Saturday to see best picture nominee ATONEMENT (loved it, as I had the book)—alas, the learning curve again. First, you buy the tickets at a booth in the mall not located next to the theater; tickets are sold only at certain times regardless of showings. Second, since popcorn is kind of hard to come by around here, we bought the snack pack with two boxes of popcorn and 4 drinks. You have to pay for the snacks over at the (usually-unmanned) ticket booth; the popcorn place doesn't deal with money at all. Third, I braced myself to order the popcorn, thought through my how-to-order Spanish words, thought about what the girl might say to me, etc. So it stunned me when she asked me, "Do you want sugar or salt on your popcorn?" Not kettle corn (which I despise, by the way), but sugar poured on your popcorn. Just another cultural difference, the kind of thing we run into daily around here.

Sometimes the curve you're thrown ends up being better than you expect. Like our Lavadera, the washing place (pictured). We take our yucky, filthy clothes less than a block from Casa ACU, and a marvelous surprise happens. You pick them up the next day, and they're neatly folded, smell HEAVENLY, and for this you pay a mere $3.00 per load. Oh, and yes, in my limited survey of two laundry places, it seems to be a requirement to have 
an incredibly friendly, adorable cat basking in the front window. I like going to our place and petting the cat as much as anything, I think (I can't believe that I miss our kitties so much. Have I become THAT person? Oh no...).

Saturday, February 09, 2008

IF YOU LIKE PINA COLADAS...

Las llamadas are the traditional carnaval parades of the candombe troupes. This is the second year that this particular parade has run for two nights instead of one. We went on the bigger night, and despite getting caught in the rain, it was FANTASTIC! I'm not sure how many drum troupes we saw, but we saw many before we left in a downpour a little before midnight I think, and they ran until 2:00 a.m. or so. The parade flowed very much more smoothly than the one that had opened Carnaval until the rain caused intermittent delays. Candombe has its roots in Africa, and it's a mix of Latin American and African drum beats. Apparently, the neighborhood where the parade is used to have a bunch of drummers get together hang out and drum; then more joined in; then more and more. Now hundreds and hundreds of people come out these two nights [and other times as well] to make this exciting event a reality. We could see the flags of each new group long before they reached us, when the drumbeats were just a faint throb. Dancers came next, costumed in feathers, sequins, and bright fabric. The candombe drummers followed in large groups, making a a tremendous sound that you could feel reverberate right through your body. Audience members joined behind the drummers dancing and clapping. I LOVED it! Despite the rain, despite the people drinking large juice boxes of wine, despite the massive amounts of pot being smoked around us, it was very, very exciting and beautiful. I would go again and again were I able, but I wouldn't go again to the boring Carnaval parade. [I'm trying, by the way, to upload some candombe drumming, in video format; hope it works! Allen Teel, this attempt is for you!]
video
video

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

PUT THE KID IN A CAGE.


-written by Krista Cukrowski

This Saturday, I went to the zoo with Dad and Katie. Dad had warned me that it most likely would be very depressing, filled with mistreated animals and such, and that I would most likely hate it. However, I really liked it. In general, it was…nice compared to what we were expecting. It turned out to be something like the Abilene Fair meets an Exotic Ranch. As Zoological Parks go, they had a very large range of animals, almost everything from rhinos to small goats (which I still don't understand the point of…you're not even allowed to pet them. Lame.).

One thing that Ken was really impressed with was that they had 3 different types of large flightless birds (Ostrich, Rea, and Emu), and they even had a penguin. (Yes, just one, and it looked like it was a bit confused as to why it was there). Ken says it was "Bizarre." Some of the more interesting things we saw were: Baby Leopards and a very playful older one, a Hippo, Coatis, Seals, Ocelots, Snakes, Guanacos, Baboons, Tigers, Parrots and Macaws, a gross capybara, tons of domestic cats that just run around freely, and some semi-attractive hyenas who were interested in catching some of those domestic cats that run around freely.

On a sadder note, our visit there was blighted by the presence of what I would have to say is the most repulsive thing I've seen so far in Montevideo. It consisted of a very obese child of about nine or ten who was continuously ramming his wide body into the fences to scare the animals. For example, the first time we encountered this disturbed child was when this really cute, fluffy sheep went up to the edge of the enclosure to get a cracker. How adorable, right? Instead of the cracker, it got whacked in the face by the moronic fat boy who was being cruel to animals. Grrrr….I really didn't like this kid, and if I knew how to tell him not to do that in Spanish, I would have, but alas….stupid language barrier.
The Abilene Zoo is definitely a much happier place than MVD's Zoo, but when you consider that admission was only 20 pesos (inexplicably, we got in for free, which we attribute to Carnaval, our fallback explanation), and the size of it, they really are doing the best that can!

Oh, and did I mention that we got cotton candy? It was good.

Monday, February 04, 2008

LICENSE TO CARNAVAL

The sign at the corner bakery says "Licensia en Carnaval." Then it tells us they will be back on the 18th of February. Today, I might add, is the 4th. These folks take their Carnaval seriously!

"How long does Carnaval last?" GREAT question, but hard to answer. "40 days," some say, "like Lent, only different." Our laundry place is taking Monday through Wednesday off for Carnaval; Hansen's school, however, is BEGINNING its school year during Carnaval (this Wednesday, Feb. 6, rather than in March like other schools); the convenience store virtually next door is open in the mornings and then closed the rest of the day for "awhile." 

This much I have heard to be true. Carnaval--and thus vacation--lasts longest in Uruguay (versus Brazil and Argentina and other Carnaval-celebrating places). But what do people DO during Carnaval, other than the opening parade I told you about and occasional candombe bands playing? We have no idea. Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 03, 2008

EL SUPERBOL

The Superbowl is not a big deal here, but it did run on the local Fox Sports channel. I, like many people, offend true American football fans by only watching a few minutes of football per year (but then again, I'm offended by the whole sport in general, but that's fodder for its own blog entry sometime), usually the last two or so minutes before the halftime show (which I didn't even watch this year), the halftime show (which I've turned off many years, most notably the horrible spectacle that was Prince), and the last two or so minutes at the end of the Superbowl (a strategy that paid off really well tonight, since halftime was great, and the outcome of the game changed the last couple of minutes). 
Tonight changed nothing for me, because (a) the commentary was in Spanish, so I understood even less than I usually understand about football, (b) the commercials weren't the high-dollar extravaganzas we're used to during the Superbowl but were mostly local commercials (again, in Spanish-- imagine the nerve!), and (c) several of us here at Casa ACU have picked up some bug or 'nuther that's keeping us close to our baƱos. So, I actually would have had to watch the game JUST TO SEE FOOTBALL! 

[An aside: I did, however, watch and enjoy the halftime show. Tom Petty was in great form; his guitarist dude was amazing; the show was really about the music and not about a bunch of glitz or wardrobe malfunctions. I predict there will be much said about the "disappointing halftime show," and I hope you don't listen, Mr. Petty. They're just so young, these folks. They don't know you like I do.] 

Back to futbol; as everybody knows, the REAL football worldwide is soccer, and Ken, Katie, and Krista have STRONG opinions about that subject, now that they've gone to a biggie game around here, where they fell in love with "our team," Team Nacional. They came home pumped about the whole event last Monday: "Mom, you can't believe that they searched us, yet people blew off real flares during the game; where were they hiding them?" "Mom, there were over 60,000 people there; it was so exciting, easily the loudest place I've ever been." "Mom, they sing a song where they take off their jerseys and swing them around over their heads. Seriously, it's the 'take off your jerseys and swing them around your head' song." "Mom, I have to learn how to whistle with my two fingers in my mouth; everybody here learns that; at home, only Aunt Shelly can do it." "Mom, I can't believe you sold your ticket to Mike; it was SO fun." Plus, we have positive feelings about soccer since my nephew Tyler is so good at the sport. He's one of two freshmen playing for his College Station high school team, and he's played for some really-hard-to-get-in teams and camps pretty much since he learned to walk. He's really, really good at it. So really, our favorite teams are Team Nacional and Team Tyler!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

GODDESS WORSHIP





Most of the time our travels have served to show us how much we people on this globe are essentially the same. Sure, a few customs are different, but really, when all is said and done, people all over the world love their families, have to eat, have to clean, and such.

Then there are a few customs that really are radically different. In the Philippines, it was still done that people would put out food for their deceased relatives on November 1st, All Souls Day. It didn't matter if you were a devout Catholic or whatever; this cultural phenomenon was part of your DNA and upbringing.

Here in Uruguay, the Festival of Iemanja (EE-mon-zhAH) is something odd from my perspective. Every February 2nd, worshipers of Iemanja, the goddess of the sea, start gathering early in the morning (a few) and continuing through the evening (thousands).

So what goes on during this strange, ghostly, spiritual event? You'll have to take Ken and Katie's views, as Krista and I had had enough walking earlier today; we saw the preparations on the beach but not the actual litter, which offended Krista SO MUCH. Here's what Katie and Ken found:

By sunset, the beach was mobbed. Celebrants lit candles and left flowers at the statue of Iemanja. Hundreds of people waded into the water to release their offerings (this part kills Krista, my conservationist; I find it interesting that littering is what offends her, not the pagan ritual thing. We hear that some people throw such valuables as wedding dresses or fine jewelry into the water; then, later, when all the people have left, scavengers comb the beach and shallow waters to snag them!). Individual congregations staked out small areas on the sand, and each seemed to have its own variant on the ritual, although white-robed women were everywhere. Many seemed like semi-voodoo variations, kind of like that strange lady in THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. At one meeting place, a woman held a large shell and wailed. In another, a teen-aged girl staggered in a trance (there were quite a few young girls who seemed to be in training to take over one day from the older white-robed ladies). Many performed symbolic cleansings. Others danced. Drums beat and bells rang all around. Uruguay is a very secular country, so this mass spiritualism is somewhat surprising.