Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Salta: First Impressions

We are now living with a family in Salta in Northwest Argentina, where we have completed our orientation for six weeks of volunteering under the auspices of the Foundation for Sustainable Development.

The City
Salta Main Square
Salta is a beautiful city…often called “Salta La Linda” (Salta the Beautiful) by Argentinians. It is in a wide, flat valley in the foothills of the Andes at about 4000 feet above sea level (Click for map). We are not far from some very high mountains, but we have not seen them yet. The population of the city and its suburbs is about 600,000, so it is quite small by US or South American standards. The first thing that strikes you is the straight streets and the low, colorfully painted colonial buildings. Salta was founded in 1582 and is full of reminders of its Spanish colonial past. It feels quite quiet and safe after the bustle of Cusco and the crazy chaos of Jodhpur – our two previous volunteering venues.

Salta: San Francisco Church
The Weather
We arrived in Salta on the first day of spring -- it was warm and dry, and the air clear and fresh. However, it is still early spring: the trees have no leaves, and spring bulbs and tree blossoms are just starting to emerge. The next two days brought a nasty shock: it became cool, breezy and cloudy with nighttime temperatures in the low 30s. We are glad we brought our thick socks, sweaters and windbreakers. However, today is already warmer and drier, and we expect it to continue to warm up as the summer approaches. The climate is classified as “subtropical highland” with a decent amount of rainfall, though there are areas quite close that are high desert like in southern Arizona.

Where we are staying
Our first night in Salta was in a charming and comfortable B&B opposite an ancient and still active convent, with equally ancient and still active nuns. Our next two nights were in a hostel on a noisier street, where we were put up courtesy of the FSD – we had about 40 years on the other guests, who were friendly and from all over the world. Although the word “hostel” conjures up Spartan conditions, we had a comfortable private room with a large bed and plentiful hot water. Finally, a few hours ago, we moved to the house where we will be staying for the next 6 weeks, with our host, Liliana, her son Santiago (age 16), 2 dogs and one cat. Like many Salta houses, it is small and all one story, and is about a half hour’s walk from the town center. Time will tell how this will work for us.

Eating out
This is Argentina, so dinner is very late, though not as late here as it was in Buenos Aires. Our first night, we went to a restaurant which turned out to be fantastically popular, with a line outside waiting to enjoy the excellent and very plentiful food. Argentinian food has many influences – especially Spanish and Italian, and of course the main ingredient is beef. They drink a lot of lager-type beer, and strongly flavored red wines like Malbec, which are grown in this region and to the south in Mendoza. The past two days, we have been eating in various restaurants courtesy of the FSD. Notable is the absence of vegetables and correspondingly large amounts of carbohydrates and protein. Yesterday, when we are all feeling cold and damp, we rapidly warmed up by sampling the famous winter soup of the region, called “locro” – beans, corn, sausage, and pieces of meat (with bones) all boiled together for hours, and eaten sprinkled with green onions and dried red peppers.

General Guemes - Salta's hometown hero
Everyone we talk to seems to agree…Argentina’s politics and economy are in a mess. The government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whom everyone refers to as “Cristina”, appears to arouse extremes of devotion or dislike. Inflation is 25% or 30% thought the government claims it is just 4% or 5%. In the center of Buenos Aires, gridlocked traffic is caused by street protests by one group or another every day. There are elections coming up soon, so every billboard is covered with posters for a variety of national and local candidates for office. Buenos Aires is noticeably more rundown and graffiti-covered than it was when we were here about eight years ago.

Because Cristina has banned many imports and made others prohibitively expensive, in addition to restricting the ownership of dollars and other strong currencies, there is a huge black market. Everywhere in BA, and to a lesser extent here in Salta, there are touts on the street whispering that they want to buy dollars at 10 and 11 pesos to the dollar. The official rate is 5.5. The “blue dollar” exchange rate is so prevalent, that it is even listed on the front page of the main anti-Cristina newspapers along with the official rate. We wish we had brought more dollars in cash with us so that we could take advantage of the unofficial rates, but apparently you run the risk of being palmed off with counterfeit bills.

The past two days, have been introduced to our new surroundings and briefed on the social and economic conditions in Salta, working with NGOs, living with a local family, getting round the city etc. The two FSD office staff here are extremely helpful and professional, and have done a lot to prepare us and help us feel at home. Our Spanish is getting a real work-out and will become even more important once we meet our host NGO organizations tomorrow. Actually, Sandy is not working directly with an NGO but an office in the Salta state government which deals with relations with NGOs. He is going to be giving presentations (in Spanish) to NGO leaders on using the internet, setting up web sites, social media etc. (Gulp). Lin is also meeting “her” NGO tomorrow. It focuses on educational outreach programs for children in an impoverished northern barrio.


Speaking of Spanish…in addition to trying hard to remember all our Spanish lessons, we need to understand the local accent and different word usage. A word like “pollo” sounds like “pojo”, a word like “rico” sounds like “zhico”. All the fruits and vegetables have different names and they use “vos” instead of “tu” when addressing people familiarly…and everyone is addressed familiarly. Finally, there is a lot of kissing when you meet and when you leave…one smacker near the right ear is obligatory.

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