Category Archives: Culture


(by Pete)

IMG_01090Lucas passed out red noses at the end of the first day of class. We had just finished a role play between a buffoon, who believes in nothing but belittles everything, and a clown, who by traditional theatrical definition is a gentle, innocent being that is the opposite of the buffoon.

On the second day of class, after a lecture on infection control, I was interested. On day three, after a lecture on clown history, I was hooked.

Lucas was our charismatic teacher. He is an actor, director, and medical doctor who teaches a week-long class on how to be a clown. He is one of the founding members of an effort to help hospitalized kids heal faster through humor and interactive play.

According to Lucas, young patients passively follow doctors orders and wait to get better. However, through the intervention of a clown, he says, they can be brought out of passivity and into active participation in their treatment, which aids in the healing process. I think he’s right.

IMG_01095Lucas is deeply pained by the current portrayal of the clown as a menace, a drunk, and a figure of fear for children. So throughout the week we got history lessons on the clown as well as lessons on the subconscious psychology of the ill or dying patient.

The class culminated on Saturday with nearly 30 new clowns descending on a local shopping mall to practice their skills (I was excused from this part since I didn’t actually plan to volunteer as a clown). Mall security guards, still haunted by memories of the looting in December, panicked and started chatting on their radios. Lucas soothed their fears.

With Lucas

With Lucas

All in all, it was my best week in Bariloche. I also have a newfound respect for actors, especially those that perform live on stage.


People love to take their mate on the road.

People love to take their mate on the road. (photo from Wikipedia)

In one of my very first posts I included a link to the Wikipedia entry on mate (MA-tay). But if you’re like me, you didn’t actually read it.

Mate (the cup) comes in materials and styles to suit any taste, but I've heard a hollowed-out gourd--like this--is "best."

Mate (the cup) comes in materials and styles to suit any taste, but I’ve heard a hollowed-out gourd like this is best. (photo from Wikipedia)

Briefly, yerba is a small tree grown in northern Argentina, southern Paraguay and Brazil, and Uruguay. The dried leaves of this tree are used plain (mate común) or with other herbs to make tea in a special cup called a mate. Like green tea, yerba has both caffeine and antioxidants.

Lots of people have leather bags like this to carry their mate kit. I've seen hot water and disposable thermoses for sale at out-of-the-way tourist places, but no one sells brewed cups of yerba.

I’ve seen plenty of leather bags like this to carry mate kit. I’ve also seen hot water and disposable thermoses for sale at out-of-the-way tourist places. What I would never expect to see are  brewed cups of yerba for sale. (photo from Wikipedia)

In an Argentine edition of Reader’s Digest, a sommelier used the vocabulary of wine tasting (terroir, body, etc.) to discuss the characteristics of yerba. Like wine in France, drinking mate is both serious and as integral to everyday life—and therefore unworthy of comment—as preparing meals at home.

What I find interesting, and even heartwarming, about mate is the social role it plays. First of all, mate is something people often drink in company, always sharing a single cup and straw. In three months I have not tired of seeing people at their worksite or sitting on a patch of grass or at the beach passing around mate. Second, mate is something that a majority of Argentines drink daily, from the poor to the rich, and in this way it has a potential leveling effect. In a self-reflection piece published in an Argentine Vanity Fair-style magazine, the author noted that even while getting high, Argentines drink mate. Of course! Lastly, drinking mate—and drinking it socially—is distinctly Argentine (I’ve been told that Uruguayans don’t have the same sharing tradition). Having a common cultural artifact helps to unify a country that is geographically large and culturally diverse.

The closest I could come to a unifying tradition in the U.S. was Thanksgiving, which is notably different for occurring just once a year and which is being undermined by the Black Friday tradition, which has nothing to do with social connections and everything to do with blind consumerism. (There, now you know how I feel about BF.)

Colonia Suiza

An outdoor handicrafts market ringed by ice cream and beer stands in the middle of the woods is a lot more interesting when you’re not taking mincing steps down a rutted gravel road, sans umbrella, in what my mother would call a good soaking rain, and cursing the steamy hour-long bus ride it took to get there, during which you were privileged to share a seat with a large four year old while praying the severely overcrowded bus wouldn’t slide right off the narrow road into a ditch, causing numerous “crush” fatalities among the passengers because, being so heavy, the bus would undoubtedly roll.

Today at Colonia Suiza—under a cloudless sky and after a month without rain—negative thoughts were focused exclusively on my Spanish, which has atrophied in the five days since I last went to class.

Moving on.

Valeria, a mom we know from tae kwon do who is trying to build a business making pottery, invited Lou and me to spend the afternoon with her and her son Otilio, and as we wandered past stands where woodworkers, weavers, painters, potters, and jewelry, soap and candle makers were trying to make a mango (a buck), I was acutely aware that I was one more tourist passing through without spending money.

More financially successful, I think, was a pair of donations-accepted performers from Buenos Aires. With music, a few props, and moves worthy of Cirque du Soleil, they kept the crowd entranced.

After treating ourselves to ice cream, we headed to the beach to cool off and observed a curious seasonal phenomenon: seed pods on retama bushes popping open with a sound just like crackling fire. Take a listen while trying to ignore the people sounds (15 sec), and then look at retama bushes covered in yellow flowers in mid-November.


Ready-made membrillo (fig) and batata (sweet potato) filling. Sweetened, of course.

Ready-made membrillo (fig) and batata (sweet potato) filling. Sweetened, of course.

I can’t leave Argentina without writing about sweet baked goods, which can be broken down into the following families: tartas, tortas, facturas, galletas and galletitas, and pie (tarts, layer cakes, pastries, cookies and other small confections, and pie—most commonly, lemon meringue).

Dulce de leche, a smooth, spreadable caramel (think Nutella) made from sweetened condensed milk, reigns as a filling or drizzle. It is served to kids with bread and butter as an afternoon snack and is as clearly and importantly Argentine as yerba mate. Other common dessert accoutrement include chocolate, and raspberry, apple, fig or sweet potato filling.

Dulce de leche gets as much shelf space at La Anonima as jam and marmalade.

Dulce de leche gets as much shelf space as jam.

I’ve eaten raised donut holes filled with dulce de leche and rolled in white sugar, buttery pastries filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, cubanitos (a waffle cone in the shape of a cigar filled with dulce de leche and coated in chocolate), alfajores of various types (a cookie sandwich filled with dulce de luche), churros, and, in case you’re holding your jaw to stunt the sudden tooth pain, sugar-free vegan chocolate chip cookies.

Then there is the artisanal ice cream and gourmet chocolate on which Bariloche has built a reputation among tourists. I’m officially tired of (from) so much sugar.

Perder chispa

This afternoon a forest fire started on Cerro Otto, a mountain peak in the middle of a residential area. Low humidity, little rain, and less than average snow fall for the last two years make for tinder-dry conditions.

This afternoon a forest fire started on Cerro Otto, a mountain peak in the middle of a residential area. Low humidity, little rain, and less than average snowfall for the last two years make for tinder-dry conditions.

We are ready to go home.

We are done trying to recreate the food we would eat at home (impossible) and unwilling to eat like Argentines.

We are done—for now—expecting that we will make significant improvements in our Spanish (except for Lou, who has a true immersion experience every weekday).

We are done being on vacation and not having the income or the sense of purpose that come from work, nor the comfort and sense of connection that come from having family and real friends nearby.

Our challenge is to make good use of the two weeks we have left and not think too much about home and the dried cherries, peanut butter, black beans, Yukon Gold potatoes, sourdough bread, asparagus, assorted cheeses, and Mexican food we will immediately buy.

Marcan el fin de año los alumnos de tae kwon do