Monday, October 28, 2013

Last Days in Salta

Our last week of volunteer work in Salta is now upon us, and we have a lot to do before we finish – complete our projects, write final reports, have our exit interviews, and more.

Tea on the patio with Isabel
Argentina on Sunday was again in the grip of election fever, this time for the national elections, after weeks of campaigning. Every flat surface was been plastered with posters, which were then covered over with rival posters or defaced with unflattering amendments. Interestingly, all politicking ceased, by law, on Thursday night, presumably to allow two days of quiet reflection before the vote.  It looks like the Kirschner party has lost some seats, so the prospect of a change in the constitution to allow Christina to run for a third term has receded. The local political scene is still firmly in the grip of the pro-Kirschner/Peronist party which, to the outsider looks like a family affair. The State Governor’s brother, and the city mayor’s daughter have both been elected to the national Chamber of Deputies (equivalent to the House of Representatives) – very cosy. Argentinians are compelled to vote in their elections, so many were traveling on Sunday to the place where they are registered, and many businesses were closed.

Planting herbs in the comedor garden wall
This past week we planted herbs and ornamental plants in “our” comedor garden and started work in a second comedor in a more distant and more deprived barrio in the south of the city. Our presentations are becoming more polished. At least, the audience does not wince quite so much at Sandy’s grammatical errors and wayward pronunciation in Spanish. Next week, after delays awaiting FSD approval and appropriate signatures, Lin hopes to be able to purchase the instructional books and games that she plans to donate to her before-school program.

Children at play at the ANPUY center (where Lin works)
We continue to enjoy Salta and its varied and sophisticated cultural life, with two incredibly inexpensive chamber music concerts and a trip to the ballet in the past week. The ballet – Giselle – was remarkably well performed before a very appreciative audience. The chamber concert of challenging music by Prokofiev and Shostakovitch was excellent, and the audience was mostly young people – unlike audiences at the Kimmel Center, where graying and bald heads predominate.

Ancient wine press made of leather, designed for stomping
On Saturday, we visited the excellent Museo del Norte, in the old Cabildo building -- the residence of the Spanish Governor during colonial times. It has a good collection, and explanation of the life in pre-colonial times when many stone-age tribes, and eventually the Inca, inhabited the area. The Inca, who were like the Romans of South America, were only here for about 60 years before the Spaniards came along and changed all the rules.

Rail line to Chile through the mountains

Today (Sunday) we took the local bus (US $0.30 for a 55-minute ride) to the little town of Campo Quijano at the foot of the Andes. It is particularly well known as the place where the Tren de las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) starts its ascent of the Andes, from 4000 feet to over 14,000 feet in about 80 miles. The track is used only once a week by a train designed for tourists – the rest of the time it makes an excellent hiking trail, though few people seem to take advantage of it. Incidentally, the track, which is a marvel of engineering was designed by a Philadelphia-born engineer, Richard Maury. We enjoyed a peaceful and gently rising hike along the track, surrounded by interesting birds, trees in flower, small farms, and increasingly desolate mountain slopes. We were told that condors are occasionally sighted, but we did not walk far enough into the mountains to reach their habitat.
Railway bridge over raging river

With the prospect of our work coming to an end, we are looking forward to 12 days or so of traveling round northwest Argentina. We will travel by local buses and stay in the clean, comfortable – and cheap – hostels of which every town seems to have a wide choice.

Gaucho girl in Salta's central square

Curious cow near the railroad track

Old steam engine from Peru-Chile line

Making dough for empanadas in Campo Quijano

Odd birds beside the railway line
Guaria cuckoo

Whistling heron - though it did not whistle for us.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Work and Play in Salta

It is hard to believe that we have been living and working in Salta for 4 weeks and that we have only 2 weeks left to work on our projects. In addition to our work we are getting to know the city of Salta and its environs better, and appreciating more of the qualities of Argentine life.

Sandy’s Work
Sandy is working for the “Subsectretaria de Relaciones con Organizaciones Sociales de Acción Voluntaria de la Gobiernio de la Cuidad de Salta” (Subsecretariat for Relationships with Social Organizations of Voluntary Activities of the Government of the City of Salta) -- a very long name for a small Department in the municipal government of Salta. Local government, indeed all levels of government in Argentina, is reputedly rife with favoritism, nepotism, and corruption and there are certainly stories in the papers and stories passed around in conversation on the topic. “His” department, however, is staffed with dedicated and hard-working people who are working with volunteer organizations and NGOs to improve the life of the most deprived sector of Saltenos.

Children with pots of seeds at comedor
Initially, it looked as if his work would be technical and involve developing a web site to allow the local organizations to learn about and communicate with each other. However, this was soon thrown over in favor of a more practical, and from his point of view more directly satisfying, project.

Around the city, in the poorer barrios, are about 70 small food kitchens (comedores) which provide local children with at least one nourishing meal per day. The food leans heavily towards the standard Argentine carbo-carnivorous diet. Vegetables are in short supply, partly because they are expensive to buy, and partly due to lack of familiarity. So, Master Gardener diploma in hand, he was asked to develop a short course on vegetable gardening, and to create small gardens in two of the comedores, to serve as models for others.
Sandy talking to the mothers.

For the past couple of weeks and for the next two, he has been drawing up lesson plans (in Spanish!), creating visual aids, and buying seeds and tools. So far he has given 2 lessons at one comedor, with Lin’s help, to enthusiastic children and their equally encouraging mothers. The children have planted tomato, pepper and zucchini seeds in little pots and watched them sprout, and have helped to lay out a small raised bed in the back yard, where they have planted more vegetable seeds. A couple of the mothers are particularly interested and are getting a bit more training, so that they will be able to spread the word to the other comedores sometime in the future. Overall it has been very rewarding and fun, though it stretches his Spanish to (and beyond) its limit.

Lin’s Work
Kids playing at ANPUY center
Hugo - one of Lin's pupils

Lin works with disadvantaged kids attending an NGO in the north of the city. They are selected from their schools to attend a daily program that compensates for their poor or dysfunctional family life, with the goal of keeping them in school and raising their grades so that their educational future is more secure and successful. They are given breakfast, help with homework, and sporting or educational games and activities all morning, since school is open only in the afternoons. They depend on city and government funding, as well as on volunteers and sponsors for support. They have their own property, a large schoolroom with a couple of smaller rooms and an office, outdoor restrooms, and a playground with a jungle gym.

Evenings and Weekends
We are trying, along with the other two FSD interns, to take full advantage of Salta and its environs, which have a lot to offer. Once our six weeks with FSD is over we look forward to taking more three-and four-day bus trips to more distant tourist sites in Argentina’s northwest, before we head back to Philly in mid-November.

We were really impressed with the local orchestra, which is reputedly one of the best in Argentina. 50 pesos ($6 US at the unofficial exchange rate) got us front and center tickets for an excellent program of classical music, which was completely different from the advertised program – very enjoyable nevertheless. The highlight was a virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto by a Kazakh musician, who followed up with 5 encores with an increasingly Argentine flavor, ending up with tangos and a folk tune that had the audience humming along.
Trio after Albinoni performance

A few days ago, there was a free concert by a chamber trio playing 6 suites by Albinoni – again well played and enthusiastically received.

“Our” Isabel continues to encourage us to go to one of the folk music clubs in the center of town to hear the local traditional music, but the start time for live music is midnight -- a little too late for us oldies.

Last Monday was a public holiday, one of Argentina’s nineteen per year. In a politically correct progression, it used to be the “Day of Discovery”, commemorating Columbus’ arrival in the New World, then it became the “Day of the (Hispanic) Race”, and now it is the “Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity”.

Our cabana in Tilcara hostel

We decided to take advantage of the 3-day weekend to visit Tilcara, a small desert town high in the mountains about 135 miles north of here. (We are still trying to get used to the idea that “north” means “hotter”). After an interesting 5-hour bus trip in a very comfortable air-conditioned double decker, we were dropped off at the side of the road into a scene that was straight out of a western movie – blazing sun, blue skies, dust blowing through the streets of low adobe houses, and organ pipe cactus on dry rocky hillsides in the background. Our hostel, where we were at least 40 years older than most of the guests and the owners, was charming and our accommodation was “upgraded” to a beautiful little cabana, with its own solar heated running water, in the corner of the garden.

Multicolored rocks in Tilcara

Tilcara was fascinating. We thought it was like Santa Fe in New Mexico must have been 50 years ago, with a burgeoning artists’ colony, fascinating Spanish colonial buildings, pre-Columbian archeological sites, a mixture of native languages and cultures, low adobe buildings, and desert mountains on all sides under an intense blue sky. We spent our two and a half days visiting the Pucara – a restored pre-Inca fort on a hill outside of town, the Devil’s Throat – a slightly terrifying gorge reached after a 5 km uphill hike, and various historical and archeological museums. 

Making a bee line for a cactus flower
The town also boasted some excellent restaurants, though we did not partake of the local llama-steak specialties. However, we must admit that we spent quite a lot of time relaxing in the hostel garden, which overlooked the town and had some lovely birds we had never seen before.

Other day trips have involved more hiking, with a bus trip to the Quebrada of San Lorenzo – a gorge about 10 miles out of town, and a longer trip to the Dique of Cabra Corral – a huge man-made lake about 30 miles south. Our trip to the latter was on a local bus through fertile countryside, with tobacco farms, cattle ranches and gauchos on horseback, dressed in wide black sombreros, leather waistcoats and chaps, with elaborately decorated knives in their belts and ropes on their saddles. Sadly the bus whisked us past before we could take any photos.

Musicians in Tilcara playing pan-pipes made from plastic plumbing supplies

Dique de Cabra Corral - huge man-made lake in a very dry area

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On the streets of Salta

As we walk round the streets of Salta – and we are doing a lot of walking – we are struck by many interesting and unusual sights. Rather than write a long blog this week we are sharing some photos with a few comments.

For Sale 
Would you buy this car?

If you want to indicate that your car is for sale, no words are needed. A bottle on the roof, often filled with a brightly colored liquid is all you that is required.


The Argentine government has a strict policy of making everything in Argentina and importing very little. There are a few foreign – mostly French – car companies with subsidiaries in Argentina, but even their products are very expensive. As a result the streets are full of old cars, as well as wrecks from which pieces are slowly cannibalized.

Election Posters

Would you vote for this man?

 Last Sunday was the day of the provincial elections, which everyone looked on as not very important compared with the upcoming national elections in 2 weeks. Those will tell if Cristinita’s government has enough support to continue its increasingly unpopular and risky policies. We enjoy looking at the posters of the candidates, which invariably have a photo plus a banal and meaningless slogan. Some of the candidates look as if they do not bother to shave or have something to hide.


It is strawberry season here and at many street corners there are barrows piled high with dark red strawberries, which fill the air with an intoxicating scent. 20 pesos for 2 kilos = US $0.80 per pound.


There are a lot of dogs, and evidence of dogs in Salta – and very few cats. Dogs are everywhere. Some people keep them on their roofs or balconies, from where they bark at unsuspecting pedestrians. Because of all the dogs, the trash is put out for pickup in elevated baskets. 

Our House

This is the house we are staying in. The front is still under construction, and may always be. The back half and upstairs are new and mostly finished. Isabel is our hostess -- a sweet, clever and entertaining lady with strong opinions. Lin and she get on very well.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Living and working in Salta

Lin admiring Simpsons' influences
We are enjoying Salta’s warm spring days and cool nights. Everyone here tells us that Salta has a perfect climate and so far we cannot disagree. We have had no rain, so we mostly walk into town and round the city streets, which keeps us fit and allows us to learn more about the city.  There are lots of street-events in various public squares, with music, craft and food stalls, clowns and costumed characters, usually collecting money for some charity or NGO. There is a lot of individual enterprise, too, with people selling socks or jewelry, fruit from a cart, or woolen hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters and blankets.

Sandy admiring carved convent door
The bus system is extensive and inexpensive. You have to be ready to flag down the bus or the driver will drive right on past. The tickets work a bit like EZ-Pass in Pennsylvania. You wave your prepaid card at a little yellow box when you get on the bus, and a ticket magically appears. A ticket inspector may appear at any moment, too.

Crossing at the intersections involves taking your life in your hands and hoping you can get to the other side before you get hit. Apparently drivers give priority to the right, but the rule is mostly ignored when they approach an intersection, and only occasionally will a driver stop for a pedestrian. Surprisingly we have seen only a few accidents, but many near misses.
Salta's wedding cake cathedral at night

Our Work
With encouragement from the FSD office, we are beginning to put a project together, and rely on Google translation to help us express the ideas in Spanish. We have been reading books FSD recommends and lends us about aid and development in poor countries. 

Sandy is working on a plan for small community gardens at food-kitchens which provide children from poor areas with their only meal of the day. He is also developing a social web site for the more than 500 NGOs in the city, so that they can share information about who they are and what they are doing.
Sandy can walk to the municipal offices where his boss is based, but because of the disruptive upcoming elections he finds it easier to work on his laptop from home. His business meetings usually take place in a café over a breakfast consisting of juice, coffee, seltzer and mini-croissants.

Lin’s work is a long commute, with a twenty-minute walk and a thirty-five minute bus ride. She is helping with underprivileged children at a center which serves as a safe refuge for them to play and study in when they are not in school. The public schools are open for half days only, and many children drop out of school with poor literacy skills. The program helps to keep them in school and some get scholarships to high schools. They may also benefit from a sort of 4-H program and small vegetable garden for learning about nutrition and growing healthy foods. We’ll see what we have time for.

The food in Argentina is largely protein and carbohydrates, though we have seen a wide variety of fruit and vegetables in stores and markets, and salads on restaurant menus. It is strawberry season and there are carts piled high on many corners with the most delicious dark red fruit – 20 pesos (3 dollars) for 2 kilos! Of course, they eat a lot of beef, and pizza is very popular. Salta is famous for its empanadas -- little semicircular pies filled with cheese, corn, chicken or ground beef, which are then grilled and served with a tomato and onion sauce. Argentinians drink a lot of Tang and soda, and all drinks (except the delicious local wines) are loaded with sugar – they even add extra sugar to their soda. They think we are rather weird to drink coffee or tea without sugar. 

Selling mates and bombillas
The local social drink is mate, which is served with great ceremony. The mate (a small wooden cup or gourd) is filled with yerba (the leaves and stems of a bitter herb related to holly) and some sugar. They then add boiling water, which you suck from the bottom of the cup with a metal straw called a bombilla. The same cup and straw are refilled many times and passed around among the guests. The drink is bitter, sweet and stimulating.

Breakfast is a token meal of tea or coffee with toast or crackers. Lunch is a big meal eaten at about 2:00 PM. You are then meant to wait until dinner which is usually eaten after – often well after – 9 PM. However, there is usually a light snack at around 6 PM to tide you over.

Business students promoting their entrepreneurship
We are loving our new home-stay. The family is warm and welcoming. They are well-educated and enjoy talking to us in Spanish, which is helping us to become more fluent. They live in a large house they have been remodeling for the last couple of years. Like most houses in Argentina, it seems to be in a permanent state of construction  Sandy and I share a good sized room, with two single beds, a small table and two chairs. The floors and bathrooms are tiled, and there is a grass area in the back patio. They have two sons, of 19 and 13, living here, though they also have grown-up children in college and elsewhere. Their puppy is an adorable one-year old brown pit-bull who is very strong and friendly.

We have been here only two nights so far, having moved house after a week with a single working mother and her sixteen-year-old son, two dogs, a borrowed cat, and problems with keys, meals, and internet access…a distinctly forgettable experience. Our new host family provides a good Wi-Fi connection, and delicious meals, with fresh fruit and vegetables.

We are going to a classical music concert of the renowned Salta Orchestra in the municipal theater with the other FSD interns on Friday night. It starts at 9:30 PM and we have been warned to expect some audience participation that would be frowned upon in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia. We will probably take a bus ride outside the city over the weekend, as there are parks and canyons to visit not too far away.

This weekend Argentina is holding the first of three elections in the next two months. This one is for the provincial governments, and posters with photos of many more or less trustworthy-looking characters are plastered around the town. Voting is obligatory and citizens may be fined or suffer other sanctions if they do not vote.

Street happenings

More dancing in the street