Monday, January 26, 2009

La Pampa

Our first weekend excursion is all said and done. What a weekend we had. I had no idea what was in store for us in La Pampa, in Rojas to be exact. Kind of like when go see a movie having no idea what it's about. No expectations or preconceived notions to taint my perspective. This one turned out to be filled with culture, food, tradition, relaxation, education. I was pleasantly surprised.

We headed for Rojas early Friday morning. It was about a three hour car ride to the country, or "el campo" in Castellano (the type Spanish spoken here in Argentina.) I got us off to a good start, oversleeping and putting us about an hour off schedule. For once I was thankful for the Argentine style of driving, fast and purposeful, to put it nicely. Consequently, we were back on schedule in no time. Mario, along with his wife Marianna, were our gracious hosts and tour guides for the weekend. Mario is jovial man with a wealth of knowledge and a passion for speaking his mind. He doesn't speak a lick of English but the meaning of his words are often easy to understand in spite of the language barrier. I have noticed that most Argentines are animated speakers. They do a lot of talking with their hands. I don't mean simple gestures to emphasize their point but actually acting out words with their hands. I find this to be very helpful in figuring out what people are talking about.

Our first stop was a place called INTA, the National Institute of Farming Technology. In short, INTA is a government run research and development center for agriculture in Argentina. Their purpose is to aid Argentina in agricultural development while having minimal impact on the environment. Another one of their goals is to facilitate in helping small farmers produce better crops. The branch that we visited in Pergamino is only one of many in Argentina. We met Miguel, a director of this facility, who taught us about the goals and purpose of INTA while we passed around the Yerba Mate. It is evident that INTA and those who are involved with it take immense pride in their country and what it provides them. They seemed very excited to have us there, excited to share with us what they do for their country. We were even put on their website the very next day! Check us out.

Now, for those of you who don't know about Yerba Mate, allow me to enlighten you. It is a drink of health, friendship, and tradition introduced by the Guarani of South America, as I understand it. It is still a common ritual in parts of South America today. It is customarily shared from a hollowed out gourd with a metal straw and is passed around the table. In addition to being a social activity, it has numerous health benefits. I believe it to have cured my stomach sickness! We did a lot of sharing of the Yerba Mate during our weekend in el campo. I even came home with my very own gourd and bombilla (bom-bee-sha = metal straw.) It is very common to see people walking around with their Mate equipment, even here in Buenos Aires.

After we left INTA, we went to a private seed corn plant that is also in Pergamino, Argentina. This place was massive, a grand scale production. I learned more than I ever thought I would about the trials and tribulations of seed corn. Poor Bennett felt like he was back on the farm in Minnesota. It was an impressive operation, but the unfortunate heat that day hindered my true appreciation of the plant. Luckily we were only a few minutes drive from Mario's farm and just a few minutes away from the refreshment of the swimming pool.

Needless to say we spent a lot of time in that swimming pool. We also spent a lot of time eating. Mario and Mariana fed us some noteworthy meals. The traditional breakfast of Argentina is toast and coffee. Lunch is usually empanadas or something comparable. Dinner is the biggest meal of the day and is rarely eaten before 9pm. I don't know what it is but these Argentines just don't quit. We consistently stayed up until at least 4am with no sign of fatigue from any of the natives. Meanwhile, Americans were quite obviously struggling to keep up.

The first night we had a true asado. The cow was one of Mario's, killed a few days earlier. I had my first experience eating weird animal parts, the intestines and kidneys were served first. I tried them, but I can't say that I liked it. The flavor of this beef is unlike any I have ever tasted. First of all I've probably never had beef that fresh, and secondly, I think that much of the distinct flavor comes from the way the meat is cooked. I don't know if I said this before but Argentines love their beef. By the end of the weekend I was joking that the official dish of Argentina is bife con dulce de leche. They also love their dulce de leche, kind of a sugary version of caramel sauce.

My favorite meal was the second night. We had lamb. For the first time in my life I actually witnessed first hand the killing of my food. I didn't intend to actually watch this, in fact Mario and Tony had asked if I wanted to and I said no. However, I was out riding one of Mario's horses and just happened to walk by as Luis went into the sheep pen to lasso one up. After that, curiosity got the best of me and I had to see it through. I have never seen anything like it in my life! I watched the entire process from start to finish and it really made me aware of what it takes for me to eat meat. I am, as I think most people are, so detached from my food and where it comes from. Now I can't imagine what kinds of things happen to the meat that we eat and how old it must be. It really got me thinking. The lamb was served and ready to eat about 4 hours after it was killed. I will also say, hands down, that was the best meat I have ever tasted in my life.

So as I write this it seems like all we did was eat! I assure you there were plenty of other activities. In addition to eating and swimming we rode horses, went shopping, went on moonlit walks, danced, listened to the music. Rachel brought her guitar and her beautiful voice so we had the pleasure of her entertainment after dinner.

All the while we were greatly improving our Spanish speaking and comprehension. Everyone was so patient and helpful as we tried, and sometimes struggled, to learn. Tony was our tireless translator for the weekend often having to tell stories twice and fill in tidbits of conversations. I don't know how many times he must have heard the three of us ask him "Tony, how do say .....?"

All in all it was an unforgettable experience. A much needed break from the stress of living and adjusting to the city. A nice little taste of the rest of Argentina.

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