Sunday, November 15, 2009

Volunteering in Buenos Aires - Don't Pay!

Read more! Volunteering in Buenos Aires: Don’t PAY for the chance to help!

Buenos Aires is full of free volunteer opportunities. Many of these opportunities are sold to bright-eyed travelers for upwards of $300 USD and many pay up to $1000 USD just to join a program. Some of these programs offer Spanish lessons and advisors as part of the package and say you are also making a ‘donation.’ These things are true but too often the advisor is notably absent and while you are making a donation, you can’t be sure what the money is going towards and you are also paying salaries.

It is clear that these organizations are not out to steal your money (although it would be a great scam) but basically what they do is hook you up with a community center or project going on in the city that needs volunteers. They are middlemen and the savvy Internet researcher can easily find these opportunities without handing over any cash.

I write from personal experience. When I arrived in Buenos Aires 2+ years ago I had no plan, no Spanish language skills and a little money. I moonlighted as the worst translator ever (Sorry to the lady who paid me $40 to translate that wine article...I didn’t even use subjunctive!) and decided I had to find some way to occupy my time- and fast.
Volunteering had always been a hobby so I put my fingers to the keyboard and searched Google for volunteer opportunities in Buenos Aires. I quickly found a link to Centro Conviven, emailed the director and got a response the next day. He invited me to an “interview” at the gas station coffee shop around the corner from the community center, explained to me what activities I could do there and that I could begin the very next day. Since I had done some research and found those expensive umbrella organizations I asked the director how much I’d have to pay. He laughed and now I’m laughing. But you know who was not laughing? All of the volunteers I met at Conviven who were paying $300 USD to do the same volunteer work as me.

They were all part of an organization that promised an advisor who always disappointed, and not much else. They were all pretty P.O’ed when I told them I had arrived on my own. I understand that having a program waiting for you once you arrive in a new country is comforting- but anyone is who is brave enough to come all the way to Buenos Aires can handle a few scary days, do a little research and find a great program.

The moral of the story is that travelers are a strong, courageous, intelligent breed, equipped with the power to find our own opportunities and spend our money wisely.

As for the money paid upfront “going towards to programs” the truth is you never know how the money is spent. When I arrived at Conviven I saw the need for many improvements. I took my USDs and helped buy fans and heaters to keep the classrooms pleasant all year round. When it’s too cold to be outside, the kids know they have a warm place to come and play where they are safe from street violence. When the summer sun gets a little too unbearable they know they can come to Conviven, sit in front of a fan and learn English, do art or just be.

Centro Conviven is just one of the many exciting places to volunteer for free in Buenos Aires. If you have had a positive experience with the middlemen organizations or a specific program please comment about it here!
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Design Suites hotel chain

Read more! My favorite line of hotels in Argentina is Design Suites - specifically those in Salta and El Calafate by the glaciars And here is the rest of it. Read more!

Friday, August 14, 2009

From Winter to Spring in Buenos Aires

Read more! Imagine a 50 year-old taxi driver in a beat-up but recently washed taxi. He has pulled over to the side of the road, or maybe is still in his own driveway, and has nodded off under the dark gray sky, a hallmark of a Buenos Aires winter. He has abandoned his thermos and mate, little green yerba leaves and luke warm water have spilled onto the empty passengers seat. His body is curled over with arms folded to protect him from the freezing air. His head rests against the cold window and condensation accumulates as he breathes gently out his mouth that is decorated with a rusty 5 o’clock shadow and some drool. He only wakes up to cough, and then curses at the disturbance.

All of the sudden a ray of sunlight pierces through the window and the taxi driver bats open his tired eyes. Without a moment of hesitation, like a bear awakening from his hibernation, he squints, smiles and unfolds into a beautiful full-body stretch. He revs the engine, dusts off the dashboard, and begins the first day of the rest of his life with a renewed energy and refined sense of hope.

This is how spring arrives in Buenos Aires.
The Buenos Aires winter may not be as frigid as the same season in many other countries, but the way the Porteños (citizens of the port city) complain, one would think they were in the artic circle. The “queja”, or the complaint, is also a Buenos Aires hallmark. Even they themselves admit it, and are not sure why they complain as a way of life. Luckily for them, and foreign visitors, the queja is relatively transparent, with common phrases such as, “it’s the Armageddon” and “it feels colder because there’s 100% humidity!” the queja does not seem sour daily interactions. In winter, the queja is extreme, while the weather might not be – which also introduces the queja’s best friend, exaggeration.

While Porteños are busy hibernating and planning for the Armageddon, deep inside they hold a shiny yet beat-up hope for the fateful day when, although it may still be cold, they can shake off the bitterness of winter and celebrate the holiday (and promise) of Spring. Yes, Argentineans celebrate the Day of Spring (sans gofer) on the second Sunday of the month of August. Coincidentally, Spring Day is also Child’s Day, El Dia del Niño. On this day, the responsibility falls more on the godparent’s shoulders and gifts are expected, if not demanded. Note: To increase the national spending, a popular tactic in Argentina is to promote obscure holidays and encourage las compras.

Fortunately, by Argentinean law, (one that is actually abided by) all employees must earn 13 months of salary a year, and the extra month of cash is given in to parts, one half at the end of July and the other in January. For many people, this bonus is a sign of Spring, and our friendly taxi driver, with his new lease on life, is no exception. He jumps into his car and goes to buy his godson a new soccer ball and for his goddaughter, a relatively expensive (because it’s imported) Barbie. Money is no cause for the queja, the sun has come out, he has his bi-annual bonus and his wife is preparing a delicious celebratory meal for the entire family. It’s spring, things are good.

For the college-aged crowd, whose age range is much wider than that of most other places, 20 – 35 years, Spring is represented by a huge sigh of relief: Final exams are over. In Argentina, there is a cruel University system, that, apart from encouraging college careers that commonly stretch for over 10 years (for a bachelors degree), plants an entire month of studying and exams in the absolute coldest and most sweltering months of the year; December/ January and July/August. Old buddies Queja and Exaggeration get together and make passing an exam the most impossible feat known to mankind and the weather becomes worthy of a panic attack. The University exams have a surprisingly depressing effect on the general society and of course increasing the queja. There are a few factors that could cause this phenomenon. Maybe it’s because the majority of the citizens can and do attend excellent free Universities, or because the student population is so large due to the fact that the average student graduates is 7 or 8 years, not 4, for a basic degree. (Some people would take this as a sign and imagine that Argentineans just don’t want to grow up. I think that’s probably true, on a subconscious level, but that’s also what makes Buenos Aires city and it’s inhabitants so youthful and uncompromising.)

One key social group that cannot go without mention during the “holiday” season is the wealthy upper-class. While the rest of Argentina basically resents them, the rich families are important because they show us foreigners how to celebrate Spring Day in style. The high class welcomes Spring by lowering the central heating in their mansion, pulling out their fancy cars and moving their tennis matches to outdoor courts. This might not sound very exciting – why should it be? These families just got back from wonderful ski vacations surrounded by some of the Earth’s most beautiful landscapes.

Having the luxury to escape the gray winter in the city is one that very few citizens have. Those that do, however, have that luxury will travel to Bariloche or Mendoza to go skiing and relax in indoor pools and in-suite Jacuzzis.

For the children of these families, Spring Day is Children’s Day and presents shall be received. Bikes, cell phones, trips to see the Backyardigans on Ice and new designer clothes are revealed to exaggerated and dissipating gratitude and everyone goes back to their bedroom and watches TV.

As different as social classes and age groups might be in their daily regimen, they all celebrate and welcome Spring with a energetic sense of progress and gratitude. For the taxi driver, the med student and the desperate housewife Spring has arrived, the queja takes a temporary pause, and this fantastic city is alive again after an absolutely freezing, painful, bone-chilling and exaggerated winter.
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

When safety and fashion get together!

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Fanny packs are in! Wear a fanny pack!

I have always secretly loved fanny packs for their convenience and comfort and to my delight there are "cool" to use in Buenos Aires. For those who wince at the idea - check out leather stores in Palermo that sell hot leather "belts" with big "pockets." They are great for carrying money around and can be hidden under clothes.

Here a fanny pack is called "riñonera" reen-yon-era

You can find them all over Palermo in cool leather boutiques such as Ahahi-M Read more!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What are you doing in Buenos Aires?

Read more! Meet Annie Ofew. She recently graduated from U. Michigan and came to Buenos Aires to learn Spanish and live la vida loca. Annie spends a few months partying in Palermo, taking the obligatory Spanish language classes and doing some sightseeing- looks like she’s done here. The only exception is that she happens to have fallen in love with Buenos Aires- she’s not ready to go. Her inner monologue goes something like this:

Mini floating devil: Annie, you are jobless and homeless in the US, stay in Buenos Aires!
Mini floating angel: Annie, you’re broke. Go home and get a job.
Mini floating devil: Boluda! There are no jobs there!
Mini floating angel: But your parents miss you and your college boyfriend is waiting for you to return!
Mini floating devil: Your parents have secretly moved to a one-bedroom condo in Florida and last night at Rumi you gave your number to seven different guys.
Mini floating angel: But what on Earth will you do all day in Buenos Aires? What kind of life can you lead?
Mini floating devil: Oh angelito, Buenos Aires is built and maintained by people whose first priority is living well and second priority is work and progress. Let the Porteños show our sweet Annie how it’s done.
Porteños have mastered the art of filling their days with sun, fun and social interactions under the clever guise of work, study and their much-needed rest. In contrast to the United States or Europe where work and study is neither sunny nor funny, Buenos Aires provides many opportunities for us foreigners to experience this daily balance of accomplishment and enjoyment.

Note: For Annie Ofew, it is very easy to sit in your house or nearby plaza and do nothing all day. You can do that for about two months before you realize you are broke, have gained 20 lbs and miss your mommy. You will not find the aforementioned balance this way. Refer to the following information and take advantage of what this big city has to offer.

Below are options for Annie Ofew; living in Buenos Aires, not looking for a full-time job or university degree but still wanting to live a reasonably productive life while slowly chipping away at that big bank account of bar mitzvah money back home. These selected options fall into 2 categories; clowns and cultural centers.


Clown is the local name of the profession of circus-try and represents the opportunity for Annie Ofew to take classes and become skilled in any one of the following areas: acrobatics, street performance, juggling, make-up artistry, costume design and murga.
One of the things that makes Buenos Aires so appealing is that the majority of the young people you meet are either artists, musicians, clowns or some other profession where you don’t have to wake up at 7 am and the only rule is ‘be creative.’ It’s a miracle that these people can live on whatever they earn, but they do, and you can too!

The first step to get involved in clown is to take a class. There are talleres in every neighborhood in Buenos Aires and you can find them online or simply by keeping an eye out for signs. Ads for clown classes are posted all over building walls and bus stop poles around town- don’t be afraid- call that number and go check it out.

Acrobatics! For those hailing from the Maryland/ DC area, this is a Marva-Tots dream!
From sailing through the air on trapezes to climbing and dangling from beautiful ropes, acrobatics is good for your mind and body. These activities help integrate thinking and doing while giving your muscles a good work out.

Street performance includes impromptu acting and general ‘clowning around’ in public. Those in Buenos Aires may have noticed dirty hippies juggling at big intersections and then passing through the cars with a hat to collect tips. These are not bums! These are clown students out on assignment for their class. (Don’t confuse these with the real hippie bums who have wet themselves and want to wash your windshield.)

Make-up artistry and costume design are great ways to get involved in clown while having your parents think you are in the fashion industry. In addition to clown classes, there are also many classes for special effects design. Check out for information on how to study special effects with the pros.

Murga, the last but very not least of the clown arena, can be thought of as clown as a team sport. If you have been hearing loud drumming from your window at the same time each week, you have probably been listening to a murga practice. Murga is a form of musical theater involving a chorus of dancers and a group of 3-6 drummers. There are special murga dances (not difficult to learn) that are performed to the beat of the drums. All murgas have their own specific costume, which invariable includes sequins, bright satins, bells, whistles and the kitchen sink. The drumming is very exciting and generally includes a redoblante (snare drum), bombo (a shallow bass drum played horizontally and worn at the waist) and platillos (clash cymbals).

The best part about clown is that everyone at home will think you are ridiculous, but you are the one having all the fun and learning outside the box.

Cultural Centers

Cultural centers connect Porteños to the art, music, education and creative thinking that breathe life and soul into Buenos Aires. Each neighborhood has it’s own centro cultural and most offer history and information concerning the area as well as classes open to the public. Many classes are free or have a very low fee and include activities such as folklore dancing, tango dancing, massage, painting, English language acquisition and miscellaneous lectures.

There are also many cultural centers bearing the name of a famous historical figure such as Centro Cultural Borges located downtown or Espacio Cultural Carlos Gardel located in Chacarita. These centers pay homage to their namesakes in the form of theater and arts classes as well as special performances.

Those living in Recoleta should stop by the Centro Cultural Recoleta located by the Recoleta cemetery. This center always has excellent art exhibits as well as art classes open to the community.

Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas, located near Abasto, is part of the excellent (and free!) University of Buenos Aires. This center has a huge listing of classes, both cultural and vocational, taught by PhD’s from the UBA. Cultural courses fall under the following categories: fine arts, art and architecture, circo (clown), dance, science and humanities, film, photography, music, theater, design, languages, literature and communication. Vocational courses fall under these categories: education, therapy, psychology, information sciences, communication, foreign languages, administration, small businesses, home repair, design and tourism. The courses cost about $10 - $90 USD per semester. Do more research at

Now, between running off to the circus and taking a course in 20th Century Latin American art, Annie Ofew should be feeling pretty good right about now. These ideas offer a great way to meet local people, pick up new skills and feel great about living in Buenos Aires.
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Thursday, July 30, 2009

BA City Orientation!

Read more! Attention everyone coming to Buenos Aires! Hit the ground running with a City Orientation! Learn about transportation, food, timing, people, customs, history, shopping, going out - all in a few hours! No matter how many guide books you've read- nothing can prepare you for the reality of Buenos Aires. In 2-3 fun hours you'll feel like a pro and ready to get your life started with ease. The first day in a new city is scary and lonely- the City Orientation automatically brightens up those first day woes as we explore the city together. All your questions and doubts will be answered and you'll have a trusted contact for the rest of your time in Buenos Aires. Contact me at and we can Skype to talk about options and scheduling. Do yourself a favor, become independent in BA and hit the ground running! Read more!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Non- Steak Food in BA

Read more! Let’s be honest; there are only so many steaks one can eat in a week. Even the local Porteños put away their sharp knives from time to time to dig into other local specialty foods. While these culinary delights might not be world famous, they strongly represent Buenos Aires and deserve some of the spotlight. So, move over bife de come the under-dogs...

Top 3 Non-Steak BA Delicacies

1. Life is like a box of empanadas, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Empanadas are essentially homemade Hot Pockets or turnovers and have two basic parts: filling and dough. Empanada fillings are traditionally savory and come piping hot. When buying or ordering empanadas you will have a long list of fillings to choose from:

Spanish English
Jamón y queso Ham and cheese
Carne (suave o picante) Ground beef (regular or spicy)
Carne cortado al cuchillo Meat cut in chunks
Pollo Chicken
Queso y cebolla Cheese and onion
Roqueforte Roquefort cheese
Jamón y ananá Ham and pineapple
Humita Creamed corn
Caprese Cheese, tomato and basil

Ojo! Any of these warm hand held delights may come with the following: hard-boiled egg (huevo duro), green olives (aceitunas) or raisins (pasas de uva). These are traditional ingredients and they compliment the flavors nicely.

Rule: Never ask for a specially made empanada unless you are offered the option. It’s like asking the McDonalds cashier to make sure they only put mayonnaise on the left half of the top bun.

Tip: When looking forward to a night in watching a movie or relaxing in the hotel, order a box of empanadas with a few of each (un poco de todo) and have fun guessing which is which.

2. Heavy on the cheese, light on the sauce.

Pizza is one of the most popular foods in Buenos Aires and often accompanies empanadas on the back of the delivery boys’ motorbike. It is rare to find a restaurant that sells only one or the other. Empanadas and pizza are partners in crime and have a lot in common. BA pizzas have lots of cheese, very little tomato sauce and almost always come with whole green olives on top.

In general, toppings are the same as anywhere else, however there are 2 specialties that any BA visitor must try.

Fugazetta: Mountains of onions atop of a thick pizza crust (bad date food)
Fainá: Flat crust-like dough made out of crushed garbanzo beans and oil (traditionally eaten together with a piece of pizza stacked on top)

3. Schnitzel from Milan?

Milanesas are a staple in the Argentine diet and are made by cutting thin slices of chicken or meat, pounding them with bread crumbs and frying them in a pan of boiling oil. Often accompanied by mashed potatoes or fries, these crispy cutlets can come as big as your head, meaning they are a full meal.

Those looking for a healthier or vegetarian option can enjoy soy milanesas. Argentina is one of the worlds biggest soy producers and so far the Argentines have only incorporated it into a very few foods. Luckily, the big wigs in Chinatown got word of this countrywide fact and have begun fun tofu campaigns to help educate the masses.

Milanesas can be found on the menu of most cafés and restaurants and are generally offered “a la Napolitana,” with ham and cheese melted on top or as the main event in a sandwich.

What are YOUR favorite BA non-parilla foods?
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