Would You Let This Baby Pee in Your Ear?



Mistina, Matt and I were at our friend Maribel’s house for a lovely traditional Cajamarquino lunch of carne asada (slow cooked beef), rice and pureed potatoes when the subject of Mistina’s earache arose.

“There is the cure,” Maribel said, laughing as she pointed at her adorable, 6 month old niece Mariana, “baby urine.”

“What?” Matt and I sputtered. Mistina nodded. She had already heard this from multiple sources over the past few days.

“Baby urine. A Cajamarquino remedy. You put it in your ear and it cures your earache. Or breast milk. My sister [Mariana’s mom] will be here soon…” Maribel laughed at our shock, but the offer was sincere.

We obviously needed enlightenment. Maribel explained how a traditional home remedy for earaches is to either have a baby pee in your ear (“urine therapy”) or a nursing mother express breast milk in your ear. Maribel confirmed that her family had used these remedies with success but recognized that we would find this odd and questioned whether the remedy works because of a scientific reason or because of a placebo effect. She also raised the interesting question of whether Peruvian remedies would work on us foreigners.

We tried goading Mistina into giving it a shot, but she was having none of it. She did concede that if her ear still hurt in a week she would consider urine therapy. (Matt and I both agreed that if we had to choose one, we would choose the breast milk.) Mistina also said that she recalled reading about this urine therapy in a book about pioneer days. Apart from cleansing a wound or a snakebite, neither Matt nor I had ever heard of urine therapy. Maribel asked what our American home remedies were and apart from chicken soup for a cold, we couldn’t come up with any.

Maribel told us about another Peruvian remedy: the Limpia de Cuy, or Cleansing via Guinea Pig. For this treatment you take a black guinea pig and rub it all over the ill person’s body 3 times. Then you cut open the cuy (these poor guys never have a chance) and look at the organs to see what part is diseased. It is believed that the disease is transferred from the ill person to the cuy and manifests itself (so if you had a lung ailment, the cuy’s lungs would be bad). Maribel relayed how her father suffered from seizures for many years before he was completely cured after undergoing a Limpia de Cuy and some herbal treatments.

Maribel described other cures for various ailments that involved sprinkling salt in a cross shape in a pan, cooking it until it sizzled and then adding boiling water and sometimes an egg. These mixtures are then placed on the person’s forearms and lower legs although she conceded that it is hard to do it without burning the person.

In addition to these interesting remedies, Peru is the land of homeopathic medicine. Herbal remedies are common here, and a popular one is mate de coca, or a coca leaf tea, that is used to treat altitude sickness. Mate de coca is legal in Peru and many South American countries; however, despite the fact that it provides no narcotic effect whatsoever, it is illegal in the US and many other countries because cocaine is derived from the same plant. Chewing coca leaves is also commonly used as a stimulant for laborers and is popular with hikers trekking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu to combat the altitude and provide an energy boost.

Mate de Coca

Mate de Coca

During Carnival there were additional vendors in our town and this guy was set up on our square for a few days.

One night Matt, Mistina and I stopped by and chatted with him about his products. He is from the Amazon and was very nice about explaining the properties and uses of the different items. I bought the chuchuhuasha bark, which is supposed to be great for any joint and back pain, among many other uses. Peruvians prepare it by steeping it in alcohol for 10 days; mine has been steeping in rum for about a week now, so I haven’t tried it yet. According to various websites, it has some amazing properties and studies have confirmed some of these. https://www.indigo-herbs.co.uk/acatalog/Chuchuhuasi_Info.html. He also gave us some sacha inchi nuts, which I have now researched and understand are one of the latest super food crazes used to lower cholesterol (if it hits Whole Foods and Dr. Oz, it must be mainstream).

So if these homeopathic remedies are supported by science, what about baby urine and breast milk for ear infections? My unscientific google search did not uncover any conclusive literature on the subject, but some people (including Americans) swear by it. Maggots and leeches are being used again in some US hospitals, so maybe these will be the next remedies to come into vogue.

Soundtrack of My Life (Thus Far)

A current popular blog theme is the music that shaped the writers’ lives or is entwined with their memories. So I thought I would follow suit, but it’s hard to limit my list. Mind you, I am not saying these are the best songs ever; in fact, some make me cringe, but hearing them will transport me every time.

 Weela Wallia. Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

My dad’s Irish clan loves their Irish songs and this one topped the list for me. An old woman “stuck a knife in the baby’s head; the more she stuck it, the more it bled,” wow, what an image. And then the woman gets hung for her crime; maybe this is why the legal profession appealed to me. Or not. I sang this song in kindergarten and Dad had to explain to the unamused teacher why. His response: he didn’t think anyone would understand me because I talked (and sang) so fast!

 The Butcher Boy. Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

Yes, there is a theme here.  The special treat if Grandma Dwyer rode home with your family from the cottage was that she would treat everyone to frozen custard (ah, La Ducs) and we would sing Irish songs (between licking our cones). This song, about a girl who commits suicide after her boyfriend spurns her when she gets pregnant was another favorite. My brother Tommy and I used to serenade our German neighbors with this one when we were about 4 and 7, respectively. I think our mom approved because it was a cautionary tale of the dangers of premarital sex. I’m not sure what our poor neighbors thought.

8 Days a Week. The Beatles

Older sis Mick and her best friend Chris LOVED The Beatles and thus, so did I. But they mocked me endlessly when I asked them how a week could have 8 days. Ah, I still feel the shame, but it didn’t diminish my Beatlemania. And I suppose Mick and Chris’ torture made me tougher (despite the lingering grate phobia).

Be Not Afraid. Bob Dufford & On Eagle’s Wings. Michael Joncas

I hate these songs. All the upper level girls in my Catholic grade school had to sing at funerals while the boys got an extra recess. This was horrifically depressing because the only funerals we sang at were the ones for the extremely elderly, which usually had 5 people in attendance. It embarrasses me to think about how irreverent and disrespectful I was during these funerals, but I loathed them and the blatant sexism. In eighth grade I led a protest and refused to sing at funerals any longer (this included during summer vacation when we were expected to go sing if requested). My friend’s mom said I was committing a sin and at some point I got guilted into again singing for funerals. Mind you, this had nothing to do with the quality of my voice, but rather the need for a critical mass in the choir. As an adult I have sung these songs at countless funerals and while I still hate them, I do it out of love and respect for the deceased. I maintain that it was wrong to force young girls into this role, but I do love the mystical smell of incense.

Thunder Island. Jay Ferguson

Summer of 1978. Cottage. Lazy days on the raft, truth or dare in the attic at night.

Only the Good Die Young. Billy Joel

Same summer; same memories. As a Catholic girl, it gave me hope of being naughty some day even if I didn’t totally understand the lyrics!

Jesse’s Girl. Rick Springfield

My first concert without my parents. Tommy and his friend took my friend and me to Summerfest and we saw Rick Springfield at the Main Stage. Even better – when I couldn’t see anything, Tall Paul put me on his shoulders and I felt so cool.

New Year’s Day. U2

The first music video I remember seeing once we got cable. I LOVED my MTV and watched it for hours on end. Close second in my MTV world was The One Thing by INXS.

A Boy Called Sue. Johnny Cash

My Dad’s best friend Pat would always put this one on the juke box at Irene’s, the smallest bar in Hurley, or was it Ironwood, when we were on our annual ski trips to the UP.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues. Elton John

My family moved in the middle of my sophomore year of high school. I was miserable and secretly cried my eyes out to this one.

Relax. Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Dad was driving me somewhere when this song came on and he asked me what the lyrics were. I lied and said I didn’t know. He probably did. I still blush when I hear this song.

I Can’t Fight This Feeling. REO Speedwagon

The plight of every younger sister is that all of your friends have crushes on your brother at some point. This was the anthem for one of my friends and her flirtation with Tommy. No, I won’t name names. But you both know and I still laugh when I hear this song.

Blister in the Sun. Violent Femmes

If you are of a certain age, and from Milwaukee, it is a given that you love the Femmes and saw them often. I had the eponymous album and played it as I got ready for my high school graduation.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles

This song is a two-fer on memory lane. The album was one of the few I took to college. It also was the song that kicked off the Live 8 concert in London in 2005. Matt and I were driving through the English countryside when the broadcast started and U2 with Sir Paul sang this song. Priceless.

 Respect. Aretha Franklin

My college roommate Amy and I would put this song on the jukebox in the bar we would hit after working our shift at the Dane County Coliseum. We would dance like maniacs and belt it out.

Come on Eileen. Dexy’s Midnight Runners

My middle name is Eileen. I don’t know any songs with Kerry.

 Baby Can I Hold You. Tracy Chapman

When I lived in Italy, some friends asked my roommate Jean and me to translate this song for them. It was good Italian practice. Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry and John Lennon’s Imagine were other favorites at that time.


UW-Madison, Class of 1990. Go Badgers!

The Parting Glass. Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem

Mom defied the priest and we sang this song at Dad’s funeral. Good for any ending.

Angel. Robbie Williams

This treacly song was all the rage when my family toured Ireland with an entourage of friends. My musical friend Julie predicted she would have all of us singing it within a few days and she was right. We even had choreographed hand motions as our “performances” were on the long car rides.

Fly Me To The Moon. Frank Sinatra

Mom loved Frank and I came to share her love. Long before meeting Matt, I knew that if I ever married I wanted this to be the wedding song. Thankfully, Matt concurred.

 Watching the Wheels. John Lennon

I played this song on my way to and from work when I desperately wanted to quit a career that other people thought was great. “I just have to let it go.” And I did.

What are your song memories?

Computer Meltdown

The old Kerry was back. With a vengeance. After months of going with the South American flow of a relaxed pace and inefficiency, I was done.

I sprinted across the street, yelling at the Movistar service technician who was doing his best to ignore me while he dialed his phone.

“Excuse me, when are you coming to my house to fix my internet?” I demanded.

He waved a paper, nervously refusing to look at me. “I’m at this house. I’m not the tech for your house.”

“But you were at my house on Saturday. And you left. And I still don’t have internet!”

“Another tech…” he tried to turn his back to me but I stuck with him.

“Who? When?”

“I don’t know. But not me.”

“But it was you. You were at my house. And you didn’t fix anything and now no one has come for 3 days.”

“Ahh.  Matthews, right?” He was trying to placate me and I knew it.

“Yes. There.” I pointed to our house.

“Okay, I’ll tell them.” His eyes darted about, refusing to look at me. I interpreted that as a fear of being caught. I was convinced this guy had deleted our job request for the past 3 days because he didn’t know how to solve our internet problem or didn’t want to deal with it. Matt later said the guy was probably afraid that I was going to drag him across the street to our house. At 5’3”, I’m bigger than he and had rage on my side, so that might have been it.

I stalked back across the street while glaring at the guy on the corner who had watched this entire exchange. Slammed the doors to my house.  ARGGG. Why is it so hard to get things done here? Why can’t I speak better Spanish so I don’t sound like a 5 year old? Olga, our housekeeper, tiptoed around me. She had never seen me angry, much less livid, these past eight months. And I have never seen a Peruvian mad; they go into begging mode when they want something. Not this American. I wasn’t about to beg someone who was screwing me over. But I am no fool. I had tried the begging: I had sent Olga out to talk to the tech when I first saw him across the street because I thought the begging might work. It didn’t. Of course, my in-your-face aggression didn’t either.

I explained to Olga what happened and why I didn’t believe that he wasn’t suppose to be at our house.

“Well, he did have an order for the other house…” she ventured.

“Did you see it?” The lawyer in me was out in full force.

“No, but I said Matthews to him…”

“Hrmph.  But he was here on Saturday and left and no one has come since.”

“The same guy? Here? Oh.” She retreated.

I had a new plan: when he was done with the other job, I would waylay him again and demand that he call his tech office immediately to find out when someone was coming to my house. I looked out the window. Damn, his car was gone. He had snuck away.

The saga began when an electrical storm knocked out our phone, internet, and computer on Friday. The worst part was that about 30 seconds before it happened it occurred to me that I should shut down the computer. But I didn’t. There was a pop on the screen and then no phone, no internet, no computer. The storm was intense and lasted a couple of hours, so I didn’t really expect service to return quickly and I was ignoring the fact that the computer wouldn’t turn on. By the next morning, it was clear that we needed service, but a review of all the paperwork from our provider, Movistar, and its on-line site (via my cell phone, which thankfully has a data plan) revealed that the only way to call for service was from a Movistar phone. Ours didn’t work; that was part of the problem. So we walked to our friend’s house and her housekeeper called Movistar for us and explained the problem. A tech would come within 24 hours.

And he did come, later that afternoon. We explained the problem and showed him that the phone and modem both didn’t work. We also explained that the modem wouldn’t power up at all – clearly it was fried, not that we know that idiomatic expression in Spanish, but he seemed to understand. He checked a few things, confirmed nothing worked and then said he needed to check the lines but had to wait as a strong storm had kicked up. He waited, we waited, and then, next thing we knew, he was gone without a word and nothing was fixed. We hung around the rest of the day, optimistic that he would return. Wrong.

On Sunday Matt returned to our friend’s house and called Movistar while I hopefully waited at home. This time, Matt couldn’t get out of the automatic system because there was already a service code associated with our phone number and the recording said a tech would be out within 24 hours. So we waited around the house all day and no one came.

On Monday, Matt had a coworker call as the 24 hours was up to 48 hours and still no resolution or return visit. This time, we received a new service code and his coworker told him they had another 24 hours to send a tech. What? They already had 48 hours and no one had fixed the problem, but apparently that is the way it works here. So I again was homebound, waiting for the tech who never arrived. At some point our phone came back on and later there was an automated call from Movistar. I didn’t quite understand all of it, but thought I hit the right number that indicated we still had a problem as the internet was not going to work until we got a new modem.

On Tuesday, Matt had a coworker call another time as 24 hours had elapsed yet again. Same routine: new code, 24 hours. I was ballistic by this point. How can Movistar buy itself another 24 hours just by giving us a new code? I felt chained to the house as I was not going to miss the tech visit and had instructed Olga to be on high alert for anyone at the door. On Monday I ran to the door or window about every 2 minutes as I was fearful of missing the tech guy when he arrived. I was doing the same thing on Tuesday, which is how I saw the tech across the street and accosted him. After that incident and still no tech, I insisted that Matt go to Movistar after work and explain in person what was happening and what we needed. He did and was assured someone would come the next day (today) and that the tech would call first. Matt also asked whether the tech would come with a modem in his car and the woman laughed and said yes.

The first thing I did today was to instruct Olga that her most important job of the day was to answer the phone (I was worried that it would be a recording and I don’t understand those well) so that we didn’t miss the tech’s visit. Yep, she missed the call. I was furious and, while I didn’t yell at her, I did go yell in the other room. After I calmed down, I asked her to call Movistar (as our phone now worked we could call from home) and find out if a tech was coming.  After about 20 minutes she came and told me that Movistar had no record of any problem with our line, but that she had a code and a tech would come in 24 hours. WTF??? By this time, I was ranting in Spanish the best I could (though I really need to learn to say WTF) and asked Olga how that made any sense when the tech was here, on Saturday, when we have called every day for the past 4 days and when Matt actually went to Movistar yesterday. She seemed puzzled by these questions and seemed to find it perfectly reasonable that we would wait another 24 hours now that we had a code.  What?? I had had enough of this senseless conversation when there was a knock at the door.

Yes, it was the same tech- from Saturday, from yesterday- at the door. I went to the computer room when he arrived and politely explained, though I really wanted to wring his neck, that the modem didn’t work and we didn’t have internet. He looked at it and conceded that was the case, but said he didn’t have a modem because he was there to service our …phone. What??? I told him that he knew the internet and modem didn’t work since he came on Saturday (I thought it prudent to ignore our conversation of the prior afternoon). He responded that he was here for the service call from 11 am yesterday that said there was a problem with the phone so that is what he came to fix. (*@!^$&(^$  But, he assured me, he would come back in a half hour with a modem because he knew we had been waiting for it. It is now 3 1/2 hours. I am still waiting.

This whole exchange proves that you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl. I am still trying to figure out what part of this bothers me the most: the lack of internet, which I depend on for my amusement while I am home alone all day; my loss of independence as I feel chained to the house (despite sneaking out to use my friend’s internet at the moment); or the sheer inefficiency, which my Type A personality can pretend to handle most of the time but really can’t.

Update: The (same) tech showed up, a mere 6 1/2 hours late. But he had a modem and we are connected again. Yippee! Next step: finding out if our iMac can be salvaged. Fingers crossed…

Happy St. Paddy’s Day – Better Late Than Never!

Yesterday I was in Lima obtaining my Peruvian residency card. It was a typical bureaucratic experience with two items of note: the Peruvians determined that I am a green-eyed blond (and here I thought I was a brown-eyed brunette for the past 45 years) and my residency stamp is on the visa page with a JFK quote, which seemed fitting for St. Patrick’s Day. I did not have the luck o’ the Irish when our plane from Lima arrived over Cajamarca, circled a few times, and then flew back to Lima as the pilot determined the weather didn’t permit him to land. Or maybe not landing was the lucky part! In any event, for that reason this post is a day late.

Although the month of Carnival festivities had worn us out, we decided to throw a St. Patrick’s Day party last Saturday for our expat and Peruvian friends. The Peruvians were quite interested to know what a St. Paddy’s Day party entailed, and we were at a bit of a loss – uh, drinking and wearing green? But we stepped it up and made corned beef (from scratch, no handy pre-brined meat here), potato salad (okay, not entirely Irish, but the potatoes count), oatmeal cookies,  and Irish cream brownies (courtesy of our friend Sarah), greeted everyone at the door with a shot of Baileys or Jameson and had the Irish tunes playing. Matt boss, Peter, contributed some Pogues and other contemporary Celtic tunes that complemented our Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem collection quite nicely.

It was pretty cool to have 5 countries represented : USA, Canada, Peru, Colombia and Mexico and everyone enjoying a typical American St. Patrick’s Day party. But the Peruvians like to sing and dance.  While I was tempted to teach them all Weela, Wallia, I was concerned that this group of educators might not see the justice in the song but instead wonder why I was singing a song about killing a baby. (My kindergarden teacher wondered the same thing and called my parents for an explanation.  True story.) We put on some YouTube videos teaching Irish dance, but as all I know about Irish dance is that you have to keep your arms down and shoulders straight, that was short lived.  We gave the Electric Slide and Boot Scootin’ Boogie a shot (thank you, Mistina and Sarah), but in the end, Latin music prevailed. One of the teachers noted, “you Americans dance with your legs, not your hips” and I think she understood why learning to salsa is not natural for us! The party went until the wee hours and a good time was had by all.

Clean Up

Clean Up

Goodbye to Carnival – The Davy College Unsha

The last party of Carnival is the Unsha, where a tree is cut down, moved somewhere else and “planted” in the ground, street, wherever, and then decorated with presents, danced around and chopped down at which time there is a mad dash for the presents. We asked several Peruvians the origin or symbolism of Unsha and were told it was just a Cajamarca Carnival tradition. So whatever the initial meaning was, it is apparently lost! Different neighborhoods, or barrios, have their Unsha celebrations, as did Matt’s school. The Davy Unsha operates as both the traditional Carnival celebration as well as a staff party and newbie hazing. We were warned, so we knew to have an extra change of clothes although I managed to decline the hazing ceremony, so avoided the eggs on my head and was just sprayed with water and dusted with baby powder.

Matt did a fantastic job with the pictures and a video on his blog, so I am now going to cheat and direct you there. http://mattgeiger.blogspot.com/

Be sure to watch the (short) video – it is well worth it and you get to see eggs cracked on Matt’s head!   http://mattgeiger.blogspot.com/2014/03/unsha-2014-video.html

One Parade Too Many – Cajamarca Carnival Part 2

I hate parades. I like the crowds, merriment and people watching before the parade, but I get bored silly sitting on the sidelines and watching endless streams of paraders. Until attending Markesan’s June Dairy Days parade became a cottage tradition that I was shamed into by my young niece and nephew, I had managed to avoid parades for a good decade. Then we moved to Cajamarca. There are parades for Saints, Patria (Independence), Carnival and endless other reasons, or so it seems. Because we want to participate in cultural events, we have gone to most of them. For Carnival alone we attended 3 parades, the paint parade and two “normal” parades.  We were under the impression that Sunday and Monday’s parades were distinct, but with the exception of some floats, generally carrying the barrio (neighborhood) queens and princesses, Monday’s parade wasn’t much different than Sunday’s parade. On Sunday, Matt, Mistina and I went to the parade early and managed to get a good standing spot near the beginning of the route. The vendors were hawking everything from food, toys, super soakers and plastic, hats and umbrellas to protect from the super soakers, balloons and pails of water that are customary at all of the Carnival events (including the burial of the Ño Carnivalón!).

After waiting about 1 1/2  hours, the parade began and even I was impressed.  The costumes were fantastic and so different from what we have in the US (or at least at June Dairy Days).  The only major irritation was that despite staking our spot for 2 hours, we were battered by people shoving past us. We lasted at the parade for about 1 1/2 hours before I got bored.

We then went to two teachers’ house for additional festivities that included throwing water balloons off the balcony at departing parade attendees. Note: there was major retaliation when a guy threw a bucket of water at us and then a flatbed truck spotted us and drove down our street to douse us with water. We also had the special treat of a homemade Cajamarquino meal: Chupe verde (my favorite herb soup with potatoes, egg and fresh cheese), chicharrones (fried pork), sweet potatoes, yuca, corn and delicious Peruvian condiments.  Dessert was fresh cheese with honey.  Delicious!  As if the food wasn’t amazing enough, we also had very pure cañazo, 14 year old beer and chicha de mani (a peanut based liquor) that had a smell reminiscent of Chinese food and an interesting smoky flavor. After eating, the karaoke machine was set up and we listened to our friends sing Peruvian songs. Then the dancing began and we got some salsa lessons. Honestly, I think Latin Americans are born knowing how to salsa; I clearly was not as I am usually thrusting the wrong hip!

On Monday we were off to another parade, but this time we were prepared.

Prepared to Play Carnival

Prepared to Play Carnival

Mistina, Sarah, her 2 1/2 year old twins (Emma and Beau), Matt and I went to the parade route and after a block of scoping out the crowds decided that paying 20 soles each ($7.20) for front row seats was worth it!  Later we realized that a front row seat with a plastic roof might have been a better idea.  We were generally exempt from intentional water attacks due to Emma and Beau so we didn’t get to use our balloons as that would have prompted an attack that would have certainly involved the kids.

And then the parade began and apart from the floats and the fact that some of the marchers looked like they had been drinking all night (and probably were), it was just like the parade the day before!  We lasted about 2 hours (after waiting 2 hours) and then decided to leave.  Little did we know that leaving was not easy as access to the route is blocked off by viewing stands, makeshift structures, trucks and the like.  We walked several blocks before there was a small opening that we were able to climb through, with the help of many kind strangers, to get out. The parade lasted several more hours, so we were all happy we left when we did. Next year, two parades will definitely be my maximum and one might even suffice.

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Today we have another Carnival Celebration: the Davy College Unsha.  A tree is erected and then you have a party to chop it down!  Last night we watched a tree get dragged down our street and then a few hours later Mistina and I walked down the block to see what the commotion was.  With the world’s dullest ax they were cutting branches off the bottom so that the tree would fit it into the hole in the middle of the street.  I was not convinced the power lines were safe so we left as they erected it.  Apparently these trees are “planted” in the streets all over the city!

Ding, Dong the Ño is Dead – Cajamarca Carnival Part 1

Cajamarquinos know how to party! Cajamarca is the Carnival Capital of Peru and the official Cajamarca “Programa Carnaval” has events beginning on January 23 and ending on March 9. To the uninitiated (us) it was a little hard to figure out what is Carnival related and why, but here are the main events that we experienced.

Water, Water everywhere.  This phenomenon actually began before January 23 when my friend Mistina and I were on a walk and got sprayed with water from a passing vehicle.  She bore the brunt of the attack and looked at her soggy clothes with a shocked expression . “What was that?  Is this water?” We decided to assume the best, that it was water, but were confused by the experience. We had never encountered any anti-American animus but wondered whether something had happened while we were on Christmas break that would lead to random, anonymous aggression. A couple days later I was walking my usual bike path route when WHOOSH!  A bucket of water was thrown at me. Thankfully, the aim was off so I was merely splashed with the aftereffects. I turned and yelled at the passing vehicle (maybe even made a nasty gesture, it was instinct, I swear) and the guys in the truck bed were busting a gut. Matt did some investigation at work and learned that water antics are a part of Carnival and start sometime in January. So attacks with water balloons, super soakers, buckets and hoses are all in good fun, condoned and to be expected. Despite this, we didn’t have too many other experiences with random acts of water until the parades this past weekend. Matt inadvertently stumbled into a water fight in our neighborhood last week, but as some of the participants were his students they respectfully gave him a pass. The same thing happened this weekend as we were walking from one of the parades.

Ño Carnavalón.  This guy shows up everywhere and can best be described as the Life of the Party (or, in this case, Carnival). For awhile I understood him to be a demon but I am not sure that is the case although he was dressed like a devil when he got married to the Doña Carnavalón in Baños a couple of weekends ago and he generally looks pretty scary. Saturday’s parade was the Ingreso de Ño Carnavalón (Arrival of the Carnival Ño), the event that really gets the party started. Sunday and Monday’s parades featured the Ño (or various versions of him), last night was his wake (yep, he died. Probably from too much partying) and today was his cremation in Baños. RIP until next year Ño Carnivalón, and maybe we can finally get a full night’s sleep! Last night the music started in Baños at 11:30 pm and this morning on Matt’s 5:30 am walk to work he passed three guys, one holding up his friend, who was holding a beer, and the third playing a snare drum. The party never stops!

The Ño and Doña Arrive

The Ño and Doña Arrive

Ño and Doña

Doña and Ño

Ño cremation

Ño cremation

The Paint Parade.  “Stay home,” we were warned, “It’s dirty. People are out of control.” Saturday’s parade, while technically called the Ingreso de Ño Carnavalón, is locally known as the paint parade. Apart from the truck carrying Ño and Doña, the rest of the parade is comprised of gangs of people, who sing, dance, drink and throw paint at everyone and everything. People, cars, houses, the police – nothing is sacred. We were invited to our friend Maribel’s house, which is conveniently located on the parade route, for breakfast and to enjoy the parade.  And by “enjoy” I mean lob water balloons and, when those ran out, buckets of water at the parade participants from the roof of her building!

Not that we were safe. First, I will never engage in bomb making as I managed to soak myself (and Matt) by overfilling balloons. Kiera, Maribel’s niece, was worse and changed her clothes 2 times before we even began (of course, she is only 8). Then the neighbors decided to wage water war on us (and they were slightly higher up and had better throwing arms) and finally, this truck was in the parade to retaliate against roof watchers like us.

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After the parade passed we had a nice, traditional lunch of fried trout, corn and rice and then decided to join the fray. I was a little nervous given all the warnings, but wasn’t going to be the party pooper. So 8 of us packed into a sedan cab (9 counting the driver) and buzzed off to the fun.  And was it fun!  Being conspicuously paint free, we were quickly accosted and painted. People literally surrounded us and slapped, threw, dabbed or dumped paint on us. And then they offered us shots! We were invited to tag along with one group and at every turn they would herd us along with them. It was hilarious – singing (the same endless tune with different verses, which Matt and I faked knowing as people urged us to sing), dancing, drinking (okay, I declined the shots for the most part as I think the bottles had as much paint as alcohol in them). Eventually we ran into some friends of Maribel’s and we ditched our first gang and joined our second one. We ended up in front of someone’s house and the carousing continued, including the homeowners bringing out chicha de jora, a traditional corn beer, cañazo, distilled sugar cane, and a pan of rice and sausage. Apparently these street parties are common as we saw many of them.  Of course, now that we were part of the parade, we were doused with water, which was karmic payback, no doubt!  After a couple of hours, the crowd was getting drunk, it started raining and we decided to call it a day on a high note. The paint parade got two thumbs up from Matt and me and was our favorite parade of Carnival.  To get a complete feel for the event, check out Matt’s blog where he posted videos of the day. http://mattgeiger.blogspot.com/2014/03/carnivales-2014-day-one-videos.html

Clean Up

Clean Up

Money, Money, Money – Navigating the Blue Market

The pesos are sticking to my boobs as Matt and I race-walk the mile back to our apartment in the 100 degree heat after our first “blue market” transaction. We exchanged $700, which translated to 7700 pesos. 77 bills to stuff in our pockets, Matt’s shoe and my bra. While walking around with a few hundred dollars in the US would not put us in a tizzy, Americans are constantly warned of the perils of carrying large sums of money in South American countries. The cost-benefit analysis promotes the robbing of tourists in countries where an average monthly wage likely is far lower than the few hundred dollars a tourist has in his pocket. Adding to our, okay, really just my, paranoia is the fact that we have left a “cave,” an illegal-but-condoned private money changer, and anyone hanging around clearly knows that we each have a wad of cash somewhere on our person.


So what led me, generally a stickler for the rules, to illegal trading?  Economics, pure and simple. On the day we arrived in Argentina, the official exchange rate was 6.7 pesos per dollar. At our local cave, to which we were directed by our landlady, we got 11 pesos per dollar, which allowed our dollars to stretch an additional 64 percent. All guide books, websites, Argentines and just about anyone who had ever been to Argentina told us to exchange our money on the so-called blue market, and when we arrived to Buenos Aires, the blue market rate was published in the newspaper and stated on the television newscasters’ money reports alongside the official rate. So we were initially confused – was the blue market the same as the black market? After all, the second time we walked out of our local cave, there were about 10 police officers in front of the place and not one of them gave us a second look. And our cave had no front business – the door said Consultancy and it was a small lobby with two teller windows. We would hand over our dollars, they would get passed off to someone in a back room and a wad of pesos would come our way. The only added consulting service was when the cashier taught us how to spot counterfeit pesos, which just added to my paranoia about getting ripped off as a tourist.

And then there were the caves on Florida street, the bustling shopping district that had about 10 people on every corner shouting “exchange,” “dollars,” “buy dollars” and the like. We were intimidated by Florida street as we weren’t sure how to avoid getting ripped off or counterfeit bills (honestly, when you are getting that many bills are you going to sit in some back room and look at each one?) so we stuck with our local “consultancy” and grew more relaxed about the walk back to the apartment with our cash.

The blue market exists because Argentines distrust the stability of the peso and prefer the relative stability of good ol’ greenbacks. Stashing dollars under the mattress is no joke. Although most Argentines use a house safe, we literally stuffed our dollars and pesos under our mattress.  In 2011, in an attempt to curb this behavior, the government essentially forbade Argentines to own dollars except for travel abroad. Even then, the individual had to apply to obtain US dollars for a trip and such requests were not always granted, or were granted in a stingy fashion. One Argentine told us that people began booking cheap US flights they never intended to use just to obtain some dollars. Going across the river to Colonia, Uruguay, where dollars can be withdrawn from an ATM is also popular. Foreigners can not withdraw dollars from an Argentine bank or ATM, and charging purchases makes no sense as you will get the official exchange rate. So we arrived in Argentina with our entire vacation budget in cash and hit the blue market.

About a week after we arrive the peso plummeted, falling 17% in two days, raising the official exchange rate to 8. The government first decried the blue market, admonished newspapers and television stations for publishing the blue rates, and cracked down on the caves with a series of raids. The government then announced that the restrictions on owning dollars would be loosened and a plan would be announced in a few days. Unsure whether the changes would render the blue market obsolete, we quickly exchanged a few hundred dollars and got an abysmal 9.9 pesos to dollar rate. The following week the government announced that the loosened restrictions would allow Argentines to buy a certain amount of dollars per year based on income, but those dollars must saved in a bank account for a year or be subject to a hefty penalty for early withdrawal.  Our “consultancy” had a padlock on the door but Matt and I needed to exchange a few more dollars.  We headed to Florida Street and the mood was subdued – no one hawking their rates or shouting “cambio,” but quiet people hanging around with calculators in hand.  We asked our Peruvian friend to come with us and she was amazing in action: approaching various exchangers before negotiating an fantastic 12.2 rate for us. We followed the woman down a side street and into an actual travel agency where we were buzzed in and the door locked behind us.  Matt and I would have freaked out on our own in that situation, but we felt fine with our friend, particularly after she discerned that  the owner was Peruvian and chatted him up.  He was tickled that we lived in Peru, so we dispensed with checking the cash for counterfeits and hoped we weren’t ripped off (we weren’t).

We are headed back to Argentina in May for a wine trip to Mendoza, so I checked to see whether the blue market remains alive and well.  It is.  As of today, the official rate is 7.88 and the blue rate is 11.25.  Apparently, Argentines still want their dollars.

Buenos Aires: Evita, the Beatles, Opera and More

Buenos Aires has so many great museums and other sights that while we saw a lot, we barely scratched the surface (a good reason to return someday).  Here are some of our favorite paid attractions.

1.  Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA)  An excellent modern art museum with many different types of exhibits, the MALBA is a beautiful space and organized well.  A definite must-see.

2.  Evita Museum  We had lunch in the museum cafe (amazing warm bread!) and then toured the museum.  The museum looks rather small and we expected to tour it fairly quickly, but it was very interesting with artifacts of various stages of Eva Perón’s short life, she was only 33 when she died, so we spent more time there than anticipated.  My favorite artifacts were her clothes and shoes (I was surprised by  her large shoe size!), but it was interesting to learn about her causes such as women’s rights and children’s welfare.


Evita (museum cafe)

3.  Japanese Gardens  We actually went to the gardens with the primary purpose of having lunch at the restaurant on the grounds, but the restaurant was closed for the holidays.  The gardens were lovely, but incredibly crowded.  Matt thought this added to the authenticity of the experience as when we visited various gardens in Japan they were usually too crowded to enjoy the tranquility they were intended to inspire!

4.  Teatro Colon  One of my favorite sights in Buenos Aires, I would love to see an opera here some day (while Matt liked the theater, he was happy it was not opera season).  As our tour guide explained, the cost of Teatro Colon cannot be estimated as a building with these specific materials – the particular marble, windows, fixtures- can not be built today. The beauty of the theater is incredible and the English speaking Argentine guide was funny, entertaining and knowledgable as he kept our group moving at the prescribed pace. A few interesting tidbits: the Argentine opera audience is not shy and will hiss at singers who it doesn’t think meet the grade; there are separate entrances depending on ticket price and the materials and styles of the entrances reflect said prices;  and the lower, grated areas under the side boxes were the widows’ boxes where widows who wanted to see the opera but also were in mourning would have to sit to see the opera but not be seen.

5.  Fuerza Bruta  Our entertainment wasn’t all high brow - Fuerza Bruta is a stripped down Cirque de Soleil. The audience stands throughout the show and is constantly moved to accommodate the staging. A mixture of song, dance, performance art, swimming, acrobatics and more, it was an exhilarating hour and a half for the bargain price of $14 a ticket. We didn’t even mind being jostled and having water sprayed on us, it was so fun! See Matt’s blog for some videos of the spectacle.  http://mattgeiger.blogspot.com/2014/02/fuerza-bruta.html

6.  Zoo  While the Buenos Aires Zoo is a bit shabby, it was quite charming with its old buildings and pleasant grounds.  We loved that these guys were freely wandering about and learned that the jackelope is really a Patagonian Mara (relative of the guinea pig, but apparently not eaten in Argentina).

This is a great zoo for kids as patrons are encouraged to buy the special pellets in order to feed most of the animals.  So like the old days at Milwaukee County Zoo, you can see elephants and bears shamelessly begging for food. The enclosures also allow the patrons to get fairly close so you can get a good look at the animals.  Yes, zoos have their negatives and it is always a hard to see the animals captive (well, except for the huge, Amazonian snakes.  I was happy they were captive and still almost threw up looking at them), but if you can put that moral issue aside, it is a nice place to spend a few hours.

7. Xul Solar Museum We really know nothing about Argentine art but Matt read about this museum and thought it sounded neat.  I thought it was cool that the artist changed his name from Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari to Xul Solar (note that Xul is Lux backwards, so his name means Solar Light).  In addition to being an artist and sculptor, Xul was a cosmic dude, interested in astrology and reincarnation.  He invented two languages, tarot decks, a mystic game of chess (apparently the board was larger and the rules could change as the game was played) and created a new piano with 3 rows and colored keys.  The museum is small, but interesting.  Because the museum was set up by Xul’s widow and followed Xul’s design, Matt questioned just how famous Xul was if he established his own museum.  But then we saw his works at other museums and some pieces are traveling around the US as part of a joint exhibit of Xul and Jorge Luis Borges’ (writer) works.

8.  Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art  (MAMBA) This museum doesn’t really deserve to be on the list as we didn’t care for it much; the collection was limited and not well organized.  To be fair, two of the exhibit floors were under construction so it may be more impressive when those are accessible.  And while it normally charges a fee, we happen to go on a free day so it wasn’t all bad. 

9.  Fortabat Museum  We were a bit disappointed when we began our visit as you are first directed to the family gallery and with the exception of the Andy Warhol painting of Mrs. Fortabat, we weren’t too interested.  (Aside: if you own your own gallery, you can put your niece’s substandard work in it too!).  But once we got to the lower level, the quality improved immensely and the artwork was amazing.  My favorites included a fantastic painting of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, a View from the Empire State Building and a Tower of Babel.  The top level has functional art: bikes, chairs, coat racks etc., which while not of great interest to me, added to the uniqueness of the collection.

10.  The Beatles Museum While the Fab 4 never made it to Buenos Aires to the best of my knowledge, the Cavern Club complex pays tribute to them in style. Created by a Argentine whose Beatles memorabilia  earned him a Guinness World Record for having the largest Beatles collection, the small museum is packed with items ranging from albums to figurines to bubble gum to condoms (John and Yoko label, not the Beatles).  The collector doesn’t appear to play favorites and the solo work by each of the Beatles also gets a nod.

11.  Proa  This museum located in a really cool building in Caminito does not have a permanent collection.  We were fortunate enough to see a fascinating Ron Mueck exhibit that was life-like sculptures of people apart from the scale (they were either big or little, but never exactly right).  The exhibit also had a film that showed him and his staff creating the work.



Wow, when I see all that we did on vacation, it is no wonder we were happy to get home to Cajamarca!

Fun Freebies in Buenos Aires

I have been procrastinating posting more about Buenos Aires because we did so much that I am having a hard time organizing all of it into coherent posts. So enjoy today’s post on the fun freebies and stay tuned for posts on the paid attractions, Tango and Salsa and a surprise bonus (yes, I know what it will be).

In no particular order, here are the worthwhile free attractions we enjoyed in Buenos Aires.

Recoleta Cemetery  - No verdant spaces here, this place is a concrete and marble mini-town chock full of mausoleums, statutes and dead people. Some mausoleums are beautifully maintained while others have fallen into creepy, decrepitness. While free, people at the entry will stop you, draw you a map to the main attractions and then hit you up for a “donation” to some cause. Eva Perón is buried here (we learned that it was after much wrangling and moving of her corpse, including overseas, that she was finally interred in her family’s crypt) as are many other Argentine notables. While other famous tombs are marked, Evita’s is not, so the 20 cents I spent on the map was worth it. Had we not toured the cemetery on a day with a heat index of 116 F, we likely could have stayed longer, but we were afraid we would join the corpses.

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The tomb below is often visited. The young woman died in an earthquake in Innsbruck in 1970 and her parents commissioned a statue of her in her wedding dress to stand outside her tomb. The poem under the statue was written by her father and beseeches God as to why his daughter died. The bronze dog was added after the dog’s death. No mention of the husband, so I’m not sure whether he perished in the earthquake as well.


Liliana Crociati de Szaszak

Botanical Garden in Palermo  A horticulturist’s dream, this shady retreat is home to over 5,500 plants and trees and a nice place to enjoy a peaceful walk or rest on a park bench. Not that we rested; it’s not our nature to actually sit in one spot while on vacation. I kept saying I was going to go back there some day with a book, but it never happened.

Rose Garden  If you have to pick between the Rose Garden and the Botanical Garden, go for the flowers. The gardens were absolutely beautiful, laid out alongside a lagoon. We must have been there at the right time of year as the flowers were in bloom. There are fountains, statutes, and a pergola covered walkway, which make the whole park lovely. There isn’t a lot of shade, so we saved it for a day that was merely in the high 80s.

Eduardo Sívori Plastic Art Museum  We had no idea why this museum has “Plastic” in its name, so we didn’t have any expectations when we entered. We still don’t know why, as the museum is dedicated to showcasing Argentine art. Wow. The galleries were filled with light and laid out really well and the contemporary art exhibits by Sergio Moscona, César Fioravanti, and Marcelo Mayorga were each distinctive and all very good.

Casa Rosada  This Argentine equivalent to the White House is both the executive office and mansion of the Argentine president (although she lives elsewhere).  We went on the tour, which was a bit dry and didn’t provide a lot of opportunities to take good photos.  One notable aspect of the tour was when the guide, upon showing us the famous balcony where the Peróns spoke to the masses, reminded the group that Madonna (in the movie Evita), and not Eva Perón, sang Don’t Cry for Me Argentina from the balcony. We were also shocked to enter President Cristina Fernández’s office and see her family pictures, desk etc.  Of course, on that date the President hadn’t made an appearance for over a month, so her office hadn’t been used recently!  The Hall of Argentine Bicentennial Women was impressive and filled with portraits of famous Argentine women.  President Fernandez gives her televised speeches from this room, so we later saw it on the news reports when she finally showed up to rule her country.

On the day she was set to make her first appearance after her absence, we happened to walk by the Casa Rosada about two hours before the speech. There were loads of cameramen and many organized groups of people (unions and other issue groups). We waited for about an hour and then decided to go home.  As we watched the news that night, we realized that at some point the gates were opened and all those people and groups were allowed to enter the Casa Rosada’s atrium. After the press conference, Cristina address the crowd in the atrium for about 45 minutes. It would have been cool if we had waited, even if most of what she said would have been lost on us.

Puerto Madero  A gentrified former port, Puerto Madero is filled with shops, restaurants, hotels, a few museums, green spaces, bridges, and ships and is a fun place to hang out for an afternoon. Quiz for my Milwaukee followers: name the architect of the “Woman Bridge” pictured below.  Puerto Madero contains an ecological preserve and there is a long walkway that runs along side the preserve (site of our Salsa day, stay tuned). It also is site of the free Humor Museum, which is in a lovely building that retains its former German brewhouse atmosphere.  The displays were somewhat lost on us due to language and cultural differences in humor.

San Telmo  San Telmo is known for its antique market and shops but I managed to buy a nice pair of sandals there instead. On Sundays, the main drag, Calle Defensa, is closed to traffic and becomes a bustling flea market that extends for blocks on end. Flea market doesn’t entirely do it justice as in additional to all of the wares there are musicians, street foods, tango dancers and throngs of people enjoying the scene. Matt bought his first prized mate cup here and we found the popernipperings here too. Plaza Dorrego is nice and if you miss the flea market, there are plenty of vendors hawking their wares there every day of the week.

National Museum of Fine Arts  While it does not rank as my favorite museum in Buenos Aires, a visit to this free museum is worth it. It has a large collection of international art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, including several rooms devoted to Argentine painters. It’s been about a month, but I remember a room devoted to the Impressionists, Rodin’s Kiss and a creepy bust, a collection of bombillas (silver mate straws), and gorgeous display of hair combs that were so ornate and large I am not sure how one would hold her head up. The museum is raising funds for air conditioning (only one room has it thus far), so as we went on the same day as the Recoleta Cemetery, we were not able to linger long due to the extreme heat. Near the Museum is the ginormous Floralis Generica, which opens at dawn and closes at dusk.

Plazas, Monuments and More Plazas There are countless plazas to enjoy in Buenos Aires: Plaza de Mayo outside the Casa Rosada is a big demonstration site with camps and signs everywhere, Plaza de la República has the iconic obelisk, Plaza San Martin is a huge park, Plaza Italia was near our apartment so we passed it daily, Plaza del Congreso has Rodin’s the Thinker, among other sculptures … The list goes on.  Everywhere you look there is a Plaza and a Monument to enjoy.

Hipódromo Argentino de Palermo  I know I already devoted part of a post to the horse track and casino, but it was so fun we went twice so it is worth mentioning again.  It truly can be a free event if you don’t wager and in addition to enjoying the races, the people watching is great too.

Home stretch!

Home stretch!

Next up: the paid attractions.