Sunday, March 25, 2007

Texas loves you anyway

Step one on the road to official travel madness is going to be a stop in the exotic land of Texas, for a visit with my grandmother and her twin sister, who will be celebrating 80-something years of life. We're trying to get my grandmother to write her autobiography, and every time we chat she comes up with some story that illuminates parts of her life I didn't know about--standing outside in a New Jersey winter, supervising school recess while the wind whipped around her ankles, at a time when women weren't allowed to wear pants; traveling New Zealand with her second husband; picking cotton to earn money for college--but I suspect that many of those revealing details aren't getting onto paper.

Texas is everything everyone says and then some: hospitable, hotter than blazes, stark and beautiful and depressing in turn, and, yes, the land of the best barbecue ever, bar none, thank you Kansas and all those eastern states for competing, but there wasn't a competition to begin with. It's just better in Texas, and in Texas, it's better at Black's. The first impressions were not
promising--a salad bar? turkey sandwiches?--but the blackened ovens, the fact that menus scribbled on posterboard are full of misspellings, and, most important, the smell in the air tell the real story, which is this: It's amazing. Order the sliced brisket, grab a wedge of watermelon (skip the banana pudding, which is disgraced by Cool-Whip), grab a receipt for a beer, and don't forget a handful of white bread on your way out to the drinks counter, and you'll be a happy camper by the end of the first mouthful. It'll be a meal to remember in 20 years when you're dealing with high blood pressure. "Yes," you can think then, "I have to take aspirin and exercise and lose weight and be tutted at by physical trainers half my age. And by God, it's worth it. How much are airfares to Austin?"

Edited to add a picture of the pr0n. Sliced brisket, peppery beans, white bread, banana pudding (learn from my mistake and at least scrape off the whipped stuff), watermelon, and the appropriate wine for mesquite-smoked beef. "Look well--look well, o wolves!"

Saturday, March 24, 2007

It's like, a total solar eclipse

Plans for the next few months remain up in the air. I met with the financial planner, a very pleasant woman who failed to laugh out loud at the state of my records, and we're scheduled to get together to go over her recommendations when I get back from Arizona. It was a bit like going to confession: "Forgive me, advisor, for I have savings in a low-yield account and have not put enough thought into the profile of my retirement investments." But she didn't snicker at any of it (divil thank her, as my mother would say) and she said that she felt that it would be fairly straightforward, so I look forward to our next meeting.

In the days preceding our meeting, I was looking around online to see what the options for travel will be and what looks appealing. I've been fascinated by Mongolia for years, ever since finding out that you can ride from one side of the country to the other without encountering a fence, and more so lately, so for giggles I looked up Boojum Expeditions, an outfitter that caters to crazy-ass ferengi interested in wearing out their butts on tiny Mongolian ponies. But now I know that I shouldn't go until 2008, because if you're going to spend 23 hours on a Korean Air flight, there should be a total solar eclipse waiting at the end. And so there will be. I can't adequately convey how amazing I think that it would be to see an eclipse, period, and especially in an area as beautifully open as Mongolia. This may be a truly fiendish bit of planning on the part of the Beijing Olympics committee, scheduling their festivities AND a major astronomical event, but regardless of the merchandising possibilities (the Five Friendlies sacrificing one of their own to bring back the sun!), it sounds like barrels of fantastic.

In the meantime, the woman who invited me to Arizona for the weekend of playing ranch hand now informs me that the manager wants us there at 8 AM on Saturday and 6 AM on Sunday. This raised important questions about the coffee supplies in Nogales, lest the cattle will end up not just punched or poked but also beaten to a bloody pulp. I am mighty peevish without my caffeine fix.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

My sister is a nightmare

Alernate Realities
Originally uploaded by Hannahchan.

Well, technically, she's a Nightmare. Of the Northern Nightmares, darling, didn't Edith Wharton ever mention them? And I think she's Skarzilicious.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Tis the season to get crafty

The last few years, I've found myself slipping further and further into the habit of busting out the kistka and beeswax during Great Lent. Ukies will know whereof I speak: the dreaded pysanka, once a pagan symbol of spring, now an indication that the giver may be a wee bit OCD. When my father taught me the basics, when I was a kid, I remember finding it intensely frustrating: getting the kistka to produce an even flow of wax seemed impossible, and drawing a straight line on a curved surface was more than I could manage. The box of supplies--block of beeswax, cluster of copper-funneled styluses, baggie full of dye packets--ended up gathering dust in the basement workshop.

But a few years ago, a friend from church gave me a pysanka that she had made. It wasn't too elaborate, and it wasn't perfect, but it was beautiful, and that gave me the confidence to try what I had given up on as an eleven-year-old. The basics are easy enough: apply wax design, dip egg in dye, apply further design, dip egg in darker dye, n + 1 until stop, and then melt off the wax, revealing the colors that had been covered by the wax.

The first year's crop were not a tremendous success, not least because I believed the books that said that you could leave the innards of the egg intact. Now, DC is a long way from Ukaine, geography- and climate-wise, and maybe that's the reason, but every single one of that year's pysanky cracked and oozed about three months past their maximum use date. We're not even talking the standard rotten egg smell of sulfur; we're talking closer to putrescine a la squirrel mort. Not promising.

But the next year, my friend gave me an egg pump and some other supplies, and now I make pysanky every year. I'm not a purist, by any means: I use aniline dyes and MinWax laquer, I do empty the eggs (according to the books, an empty egg portends infertility, but anecdotal data suggest that vacant pysanky are no substitute for birth control), and the ancient Ukies probably didn't include sushi or kiwi birds in their original designs. Mother goddesses, yes; spicy tuna rolls, no. Let's file that one under "living tradition" and say no more about it.

The real problem is that the damn things are addictive. Last year I hit a low point, having decided not to watch TV during the fast, and made waaaay too many eggs. The goal this year is not to have so many that I'm embarrassed by it. So far, so good.

In completely other news, best of luck to La Seester at her first roller derby bout tomorrow! Let's hope that the roads are clear and that Marzipain is no match for Scarzipan. Go Nightmares!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Wanderlust and logistics

As most of the (three?) readers of this blog know, I'm coming to an end of my time at my current job and as such need to be making some plans for what to do after March 31. Although I'm not what you might call thrilled about having to find another position, I can say that the association has offered a bit of a cushion against the next few months, and that that, combined with savings and two offers for copyediting work, should keep the ramening wolf from my door.

The responsible thing to do, of course, would be to instantly dedicate myself to a serious job search, possibly with a side order of repressed panic. But...I can't. Or at least, I'm not, at least right now. Because sometime in the last two weeks, I realized that I've got some decent savings, good job prospects, a total absence of dependents more demanding than two weedy lemon verbenas, health benefits, and an itch to get to traveling.

Frankly, Argentina is probably largely to blame. For the last few years, I've avoided taking big vacations, because I haven't been able to coordinate friends to join me for some or all of the time and because I've felt too guilty about leaving a pile of work for my officemates. Now, however, soon to be sans officemates and having left at least some of my reluctance to go solo at Ezeiza, I'm looking hard at the options for getting smeary prints on my passport.

I'm trying not to make this a complete leap into the suggestions, comments, and general advice are welcome.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Riding for dummies

A guy I was dating once observed that I have more of an eye for horses than for men, and he's not entirely wrong. I am and always have been the kind of person who will jerk upright and look around fast if someone says, "Oh, horses!" (although fortunately my sister never really took advantage of that when we were on long family drives as kids, and thanks for that). My main goal in visiting Argentina was to get out on horseback for long hours, and in that I was amply indulged.

The thing is, though, that riding can hurt. Despite never having had a serious riding accident (thank God, knock wood, and long may it remain so), I've had tweaky knees, twisted ankles, agonizingly stiffness through my back and abs, and after one memorable hour-long lesson, literal saddle sores. That's in addition to dealing with the climate ills that any outdoor sport exposes you to, up to and including the joy of getting soaked by sleet. Riders, like other athletes, will cheerfully retail their injuries to one another and anyone who asks, leading more than one person to ask why the hell we even bother. Possibly this was also a way to ask us to shut up, already, if we're unable to keep ourselves from getting all banged up.

The bottom line, for me, is that riding a good horse is like dancing with a good partner: If you're in synch with the horse, your movements are coordinated in a way that makes you feel larger than yourself and much more powerful. You and your partner are constantly telling one another what you're thinking and how you want to deal with whatever's going on around you. Sometimes, especially in classes, it's work, and you're just doing the same steps over and over to work out how to make a transition more smoothly or why you're not getting the message across clearly, and sometimes, as with any exercise, it isn't what anyone would call fun. But there are moments when you feel a perfect communication, and the only word for that feeling is joy.

Not every horse can do that for every person. At Huechahue, I would say that two or three of the six horses I rode got close, and only one of them made me consider grand theft caballo. The first horse I rode was a bit slow; clearly, he was one of the quieter horses a sensible manager keeps on hand for assessing the new guests' skills. The second had a lot more spark, so much so that a full day of convincing him that he would not, in fact, be allowed prove to everyone that he could beat all the other horses in a race ("Don't let him go," cautioned Jane mildly, "For you'll never get him back") was exhausting. The third horse seemed like a good compromise between those two, but he came up sore after a few hours and was put on rest. And then, oh, and then, I was paired with a tiny criollo mare, and I think I left a tiny piece of my heart with her. She's the first horse I've ever galloped who didn't make me worry about a runaway; she loved to go, don't get me wrong, but she was always willing to listen--provided that nobody got too far ahead of her. A girl has her pride, after all. I absolutely adored her, and the long canters and gallops we did remain some of my favorite memories of the trip. On the trek into the mountains, I rode a sensible gentleman of a gelding who got me up and down some terrifying hills with a minimum of fuss, and a slightly less gelded gelding ("Le cortaron, pero le cortaron mal," was our guide's slightly confusing explanation) who was equally footsure but a bit of a jerk toward the other geldings.

None of the lessons in the ring will equal the happiness that I got from stretching out on the paths in Patagonia, but I'm happy to be back with my usual training partner. I like to think that he enjoys our work, when he gets a break from patiently carrying small children and can show off his cantering and flying lead changes, snorting as he goes, but what I know for sure is that I'm happy to be on his back in the rain, the cold, and even DC's infamously muggy summer heat. It's probably a rider thing. I hope you understand.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Adventures in Mataderos

There are definitely downsides to traveling alone: Meals are less fun, there's rarely anyone with whom you can share jokes, and if you get lost on the way somewhere, it's (a) probably your own fault and (b) up to you to get unlost. But one of the great advantages is flexibility: You get to pick your own itinerary. And so it came to pass that on my first evening in Buenos Aires, I realized that I didn't have anyone to meet for dinner and was completely free to wend my way to one of the western suburbs, Mataderos.

Mataderos, previously known as Nueva Chicago, was originally the major slaughterhouse district of the city. It had something of a seedy reputation, as you might expect from an area called "Butchersville" (my rough translation), and it remains one of the less fashionable parts of town, nearly an hour from trendy areas like Palermo. But it's now home to a museum of the gaucho and, on the weekends, a fair dedicated to rural life. In the non-summer months, there are horsemanship competitions and all sorts of gaucho displays, but even in the summer there's a scaled-down fair that the books said might be worth a trip. I hied me to a taxi, having decided that negotiating the bus system would be too much of a pain, and headed west.

The feria more than lived up to my expectations. I strolled past a tiny park where a movie was being projected on a concrete wall, negotiated my way past the outlying stalls of pressed flowers and macramed leather, and found myself stuck in an unmoving crowd. I had forgotten that it was Carnaval, and a murga, the local equivalent of a krewe or mummer's team, was boogieing frantically down the street. The dancers were all wearing elaborate polyester outfits, despite the heat and humidity: fuzzy hats dripping fringe and sequins, white gloves, white pants, and red tail coats covered with more fringe, glitter, and shine. Their progress was slow, but they made up for it by dancing like capoieristas who've just learned to frug. The crowd whooped and cheered and made way by inches, and after about 20 minutes, they worked their way free and were able to decommission their drummer, shed some layers, and relax. The crowd dispersed toward the main stage, where a troupe of dancers ranging age from 8 to at least 60 began to form up for their set, the guys stomping manfully and the women flaring their huge skirts as they spun.

The rest of the feria was more relaxed, but a good time was certainly being had. Rather than tango, which is ubiquitous downtown, there were folk dances from various parts of the country, and after a few minutes the crowd had spread out to allow pockets of audience members to dance as well; I don't know what the dances were, but they involved a great fluttering of kerchiefs and seemed to be familiar to everyone. After wandering around the stalls to peer at knives and leatherwork and getting a mate gourd and bombilla for my father, I followed my nose to one of the barbecue businesses. The owners had spread a bed of coals in the gutter and propped a grill frame over it; I got a sausage sandwich and a Pepsi for about two bucks, found a free seat at a communal table, and sat down to rest my feet and dig in. Just as I was finishing up and thinking of strolling over to the candy stalls (fresh fruit dipped in sugar syrup, rolled in popcorn, and skewered like kebabs), two gauchos on horseback, rawhide brush shields sticking out on either side of their saddles like huge stiff wings, made their way through the crowd just in front of my seat to display their horses' dancing skills. They were followed by several gauchitos, little kids in full costume and jingling as they walked.

Of all the things I did in Buenos Aires, visiting Mataderos was the highlight: there was a great sense of family fun, of a neighborhood, that was missing in the few other generally touristy places I got to see. I wish I had been there at a time when the horsemanship skillz were on full display--clearly, there's reason to go back.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Vandals and Visigoths

Chess graffiti
Originally uploaded by Tisane.
The economic problems of the past five years have left a lot of artists in Buenos Aires out of work, and many of them have turned to graffiti as galleries have shut down. Unlike DC, however, where Cool "Disco" Dan and Borf are about as close as we usually get to creative graffiti, or New York, where graffiti are usually either large team murals or relatively straightforward (if baroquely executed) tags, Buenos Aires is covered with work from Banksy-esque stencil artists. It's become a democratic artform...and apparently anyone with a sharpie can play.