A night in Atlanta

I landed in Atlanta (south-eastern USA) international airport just to find out that the affordable hostel I found online doesn’t really exist, and the cheapest option is a private room in a lodge for $53 (140LTL or £35). And that’s after paying an unexpected $25 fee for a bag on a local flight (check-in bags are not included in the ticket on the flights within the US). “This country is blowing out my minuscule budget…” – I was thinking while checking into the lodge with dirty windows and super friendly, exclusively Afro-American staff. I was shown to the private bedroom with a triple bed, a fridge, a pile of towels and the absent remote control for the working air conditioner. As soon as the conditioner was switched off, I crushed on the bed exhausted from the night before, when I celebrated the last night in Miami until 4.30am and left the hostel an hour later to catch an early plane.

At 7 o’clock in the evening of the same day I went down to the lodge reception: “Where can I find a grocery store?”, “There is one just down the road, you go right under the bridge and turn left. It’s impossible to miss it”, “How long will it take me to walk there?”, “Are you gonna walk?… I’d say it’s about 20 minutes”, replied a surprised receptionist. Well, I don’t drive a car, and not feeling like taking a bus that is overly complicated, according to the French girl living in Atlanta that I met in Miami the night before. The next 40 minutes walk made it clear to me why “not driving a car” phenomenon just doesn’t exist in this country.

I left the hotel and followed the directions. The sun was slowly going down, warm evening air was filled with the pleasant pine smell. I was the only person walking along this 3-line avenue, passing the 5-storey hotels with their huge parking areas, private-house-like restaurants (that advertise themselves by putting a massive road sign) behind their own parking spaces, perfectly green cemetery divided into lots by driving lane, and finally countless private houses, built away from the road, with their own garage and a flawlessly cut front lawn. Buildings stood distantly one from another and there was no fence between them. It all looked like a tidy recently deserted countryside with the tall green pines all over the place and no people around (just cars passing by). Thinking of how much life in Peru happens on the street, it seemed that it is not even possible to meet your neighbours here… since they never leave their house on foot.

I passed a few empty bus stops, the bridge and the further I went the more doubts I had if that was the right way to go. Finally, a human being appeared across the road to my left. I approached a tall dark skinned young man and asked about the store. “Oh my, I don’t quite know, you know the rail lines, it’s next to them…”, –  the explanation was totally useless, so I asked him about the direction: “That way!”, – he pointed to the bridge I just passed. “You’re not from here?” he wondered, “No, I’m from Europe”, “Oh, shit, oh, uh, wow, shit, you’re the first person I meet from Europe!” he got very excited about this fact, “So, you’ve never been outside the country then, huh?”, “No, never”. I headed back to the bridge hoping to meet somebody who can give me clearer directions, thinking that it’s probably impossible to find a young person back in Lithuania who had never ever left even to the neighbouring Poland, Belarus or Latvia… How sad it must be to never leave your own safe harbour…

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“I’m vegetarian 4 days a week and 3 – a meat eater…”

… Explained to me a Dutch man in his fifties. I didn’t want to disappoint him with the fact that “being a vegetarian” implies not eating meat at all, instead, I praised him for an effort.

This conversation about food started one evening in a hostel on Miami Beach. Miami is a super vegetarian-friendly place… So friendly, that nibbling on delicious fried tofu in spicy sauce (that you can take away in a local supermarket) makes the bitter disappointment of getting only a ham sandwich and a meat pie for breakfast in the inter city bus in Peru a very, very distant memory.

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Typical food of northern Peru: orange rice (typical food colouring), tamal (corn & egg mass, chicken, onion & pepper filling), boiled sweet potato, fried plantain, and a piece of fried pork.

Latin America (or, to avoid a sweeping generalization – Belize, Peru and Argentina), despite the impressive variety of grain and bean, fruit and vegetables, is impressively vegetarian-unfriendly part of the world.

First thing you should learn is that being a vegetarian in these countries is about being a non-understood and non-seriously taken minority: a tiny young Peruvian lady will look lost when you ask her “Do you have any soups that do not contain meat?”, to what she’ll smile and say “No”, while seemingly thinking “Does that exist?” or “Is this white woman crazy or what?”. Among things you must do in Argentina any guide, traveller or local, will inevitably add “Eat a parrillada*!”, and to your quiet, very apologetic “I’m a vegetarian…” will give you a loud “Aaaah!” full of disappointment: it is sincerely believed you cannot fully experience Argentina, or Peru for that matter, without eating locally cooked meat. And if in these countries you’ll be just taken as a crazy person, Mayan people in Belize will consider it offensive if you decline an invitation to try their food that is exclusively based on corn and… chicken!

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This is delicious arroz con leche y mazamorra: rice with condensed milk and a fruit mousse based on purple corn and cooked with pineapple, cinnamon and sweet potato flour. Desserts, thanks God, do not have meat : )

Second thing to learn if you chose to be a vegetarian is that cooking will save the world (or you, in this particular experience). Thanks to some basic cooking skills that I acquired trying to survive on my own in Scotland I was able to enjoy the immense variety of foods they only boast about in South America (but don’t eat): at least a dozen of types of beans, a double of that of commercial potato varieties, grains like quinoa and maca, unheard & unseen veggies. So, instead of going miles and miles around the area asking if eating places around have anything vegetarian (which they affirmatively suggest: “We can make you a salad!”), instead of paying the same price for a veggie pizza as a one with meat or fish, and getting disapproving looks, I stayed at home learning how to cook. Some results of these efforts were especially uplifting: cooked food made my Peruvian flatmate and his family discover the existence of aubergine (eggplant), courgette (zucchini), beetroot, baked potatoes and carrots (all of those I would casually cook for myself) and got them deeply surprised that food without meat could actually be tasty and filling!

Finally, be patient and explore, or as English say it: “Keep calm and carry on (being vegetarian)!” ; )

* Parrillada – a plate with a variety of traditionally grilled meat or seafood

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What they eat on the coast

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Typical food from the coastal Peru: el sudado on the foreground and el ceviche (sometimes spelled cebiche) on the background.

Sudado (literally: sweaty) is fish fillet cooked in a hot tomato sauce with a drop of chicha (corn based alcoholic beverage) accompanied by sweet potato, yuca (potato-like vegetable) and roasted corn. Could be eaten like a soup, although, curiously, doesn’t require any water for cooking.

Ceviche is a famous raw fish salad. Recently caught fish is gutted, sprinkled over generously with the lemon juice, and put into the freezer for one day. On the next day it’s sliced, mixed with chopped onion and aji  – local chili pepper, the must-have ingredient of Peruvian cuisine. Served with sweet potato and cancha – roasted corn (It looks like pop-corn, but it doesn’t explode when heated up). Requires very little preparation and absolutely adored by coastal population of Peru, Chile, Colombia, Mexico (where prepared with some local alterations though).

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A fly in the ointment or What spoiled our Argentinean holidays

“So, what do you like about Buenos Aires”, – I kept being asked by friendly porteños and porteñas, when I say that “as any other city Buenos Aires has it’s pretty sides along with it’s ugly sides”. The capital of Argentina is a very green, culturally diverse and historical,

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The oldest building in the town – San Ignacio Church, built in 1686, has an impressively extensive underground tunnel system

simply beautiful city, with loads of cultural life happening all year round.

“And what are the things you don’t like?”, “I can’t stand the service”, “Ah, yes, I get it… it’s true”, – smilingly replied a born and raised in the capital city young man. Phew, so I’m not being spoiled and/or demanding – even local people admit that the service quality… varies from not too bad to scandalously awful.

It all starts when you take your taxi  from the airport and the driver charges you over the amount on the meter, seemingly for the backpack – a claim that makes local people loudly swear in revolt; in any case you “should be grateful” they actually took you on board, as they normally ask you out if the distance to your destination doesn’t look “worthy” to drive. Unfortunately, taking a bus is not a better option, since bus drivers are usually

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Inside the bus. Extravagantly decorated bus. The design choice made me think that the bus driver had two hobbies: football and pimping-up : )

 unfriendly enough to ignore your question about whether they are going to the place you need.

Restaurants are known for their slow service by arrogant waiters who seemed to be having a bad day every day. They don’t care too much to explain you fully what’s in the mysteriously named dish, they say “yes!” to your “may I ask a question?” and walk away to clean another table, and are rude enough to demand their 10 per cent tip although it’s not included in the bill. Oh, yes, and it is not rare that they would actually have only 1/3 of the dishes on the menu.

And while 4 star hotel reception asks you to pay in parts every three days of your two week stay as if they don’t trust you to pay all at once in the end;

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One of the most ridiculous obligatory fees in the restaurants of Buenos Aires is the “cover” or the “service” cost that is not actually a gratitude to the waiter. It “covers” bread and butter that is brought to you, and even if you ask not to bring them, you’ll be charged as “for cutlery and a napkin”…

cultural centre reception doesn’t allow you to be in the building half an hour before the show until the very last minute and sends you off by a  sulky “it starts at 8pm”, without explaining why it’s 7pm on the event’s booklet. Cashiers don’t bother giving you your change when they think it’s too little to be worth counting it. Some shoe shop attendants disapprove your search for perfect pair of shoes: “If you don’t like them, you’re welcome to go and find something better”…

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WARNING: TANGO CONTAINS HIGHLY ADDICTIVE INGREDIENTS, SUCH AS PAIN, PLEASURE, PASSION, EXCITEMENT, CONNECTION, FREEDOM, TORMENT, AND BLISS. IN SEVEN OUT OF TEN CASES IT TAKES OVER A PERSON’S LIFE.”
Naomi Hotta

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Being a porteño: open-air tango

In every milonga* there is something extraordinary: in 3 minutes of the musical tango piece people go through a transformation. An old wrecked woman with dyed hair in the embrace of the man that leads her through the dancing floor transforms into a great seducer that she has always dreamt of being. The leader is older than I am and he becomes an irresistible seducer, despite the age and disagreeable physical appearance. This transformation is what fascinates me in tango.

Edgardo Cozarinsky

My own fascination with tango steams from a similar thought to the one of this film director as well as other numerous and diverse reasons. But that’s not what my post will be about. It will be about the local people and their fascination, their relationship with this Argentinean par excellence music and dance. It feels like tango for porteños is a part of the common culture and the shared past, a part of the social life, an accepted obsession, rather than an exotic hobby, clichéd and stereotyped sports activity (as it is in the rest of the world).

Don’t get me wrong: the obsession with tango doesn’t mean that ALL Argentineans dance tango. It neither means “that the moment you land in the airport you’ll see people dancing in the baggage reclaim or in the arrival area”, – as one local tango dancer commented to me on the expectations “tango tourists” have for Buenos Aires. No, you won’t see couples in red and black with the roses in their teeth dancing on every corner of the city, either. Hope you’re not disappointed. 

Nevertheless, there is a choice from about 2o daily milongas* happening during the week (that number raises to about 30 a day over the weekend), that’s excluding about a triple of that number of classes happening all around this big, over-self confident, even arrogant and melancholic, at the same time, city.

The locations chosen for dancing are also diverse, as the readiness to dance tango can’t be diminished by the unavailability of specialized tango centers. So the dancing crosses the limits and invades cafes and sports halls, parks and public squares. The last ones are actually most welcoming, fun & cheap milongas* to go to, those are certainly worth looking for and are usually found in very-non-touristy parts of the city.

A large pavilion in the park of a quiet residential area Barrancas de Belgrano that lies in the north of the historical city centre, lightens up and fills with music every odd week day and all the way throughout the weekends, becoming a truly magical place to dance tango. We’ve experienced a very informal relaxed atmosphere with old and very fun dancers during the weekdays and well dancing young-ish crowd at the weekends. While I was observing the couples around me a tune started and my leader in his seventies commanded me to get into the tango embrace “Spread out your wings! We’re taking off… “

* social tango dancing evenings

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Being a porteño: late ice-cream, dogs and open air tango

– I’m surprised you’re open that late… Do people actually come to eat ice-cream at this time of the day? – I heard myself asking a vendor at half past midnight in a minimalistic very well lightened ice-cream shop.

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Karin’s enjoying her typical “dulce de leche”, or simply caramel, ice-cream

– Oh yes! We  normally close 1 in the morning, on the weekends it’s at 2am, and if we’re busy, we stay open till 3am… – a beautiful young woman enthusiastically replied while serving a heap of pistachio ice-cream, that was at least 4 times bigger than the cone itself.

– And how does the “kilo of ice-cream” work? Do people buy it for themselves to eat here, or to share in the group or to bring back home and store it in their fridge? – I pointed out at the biggest plastic container on the shelf that indicated: 1kg – $ 56 (US$11 or £7  or 28 LTL). The woman nodded:

– Yes, I would buy it for my self and store it in the fridge, and some weekend off I’ll sit in front of the TV and slowly eat it.

– So, no crisps, or French fries, no alcohol… just ice-cream? – I smiled thinking about the innocence and harmlessness of way the residents of Buenos Aires (or  porteños, as they call themselves) chose to chill out.

– Yes, – she smiled.

– Great! No headache, no stomachache…

– Well my belly hurts a bit in the morning after eating a kilo of ice-cream, – the vendor admitted innocently.

Two girls with three dogs stopped by the ice-cream shop. They exchanged a few words and some banknotes and one of girls entered the shop, leaving her friend with a bunch of dogs outside. Dogs in large quantities are not a rare sight: you can have two, or three, up to maximum of 7 that we counted.

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The girl on the photo might have been a dog walker, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she was the owner of this herd ^_^

But usually one is enough. Whatever quantity, it seems that being a dog in Buenos Aires gives one almost a guarantee of having a good life and being adored by the local population. Big and small, nicely groomed and rather dishevelled dog owners accompany their similarly looking four legged friends on a daily walk. If the fluffy friend is not too big (a boxer, for example, falls into this category), it often travels on the hands of it’s walker, even if the walker is wearing a smart suit. (We once stopped to observe how a man was drinking coffee holding a cup in one hand, while allowing the pup to rest on the other arm that he hold as a cradle in the air). Dogs are given people’s names and treated as personalities, they are seriously talked to, for example, dogs are usually asked questions about their health and given patronizing behavioural guidelines while the owner is away from home, such as: “Don’t chew the carpet, Lily, I’ll be back home very soon and if I find out that you chew the carpet, we will not to see that dog you liked in the park again!…”

(To be continued…)

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This little buddy seemed to be anxiously waiting for somebody at the road crossing, ignoring all the movement and noise around him. Maybe he was meditating…

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