Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas in the Rocket's Red Glare

by Andrew

With just 10 days until Christmas, an apartment the size of a taco , and two gonzo children, I now understand why sales of expensive liquors rise so dramatically in December.

Nevertheless, Christmas in Buenos Aires is a pale shadow of its tinseled American counterpart. Firstly, it's summer here, which does take some of the snap and crackle out of the season's festivities. Second, Argentines would never dream of trampling a Walmart employee to death unless he were manning the meat counter.

Sure, businesses here put up a few garlands and lights, but the shop windows aren't festooned with mechanized nodding reindeer, and the TV commercials haven't changed much. Even more noticeably, people who attend church once a year don't snarl "Feliz Navidad" at you if you happen to say "Felices Fiestas!"

None of this festive understatement has phased Graham and Katharine in the slightest, however. You could put our children in the middle of the Kalahari in December and they would happily pass the time building an airstrip for Santa with bleached bones. They are genetically programmed to get stuff at this time of year.

The children have had to make some adjustments, of course. Here, in no particular order, are the issues with which we are grappling:

1) Logistics. Santa can only bring what will fit into our suitcases. This is a dictum that has been handed down by me, and the children have been instructed to pass the order on to Santa in their Christmas letters. No doll houses, bicycles, or swimming pools, please. The children have been noticeably cold toward me ever since.

2) Lack of chimney. Katharine was appalled when she walked into our first-floor apartment and saw that it lacked Santa's traditional ingress. Fortunately, we do have a small patio and the children have our assurance that we will leave the French doors open on Christmas Eve.

3) Lack of Christmas tree. As in South Africa, real Christmas trees are something of a luxury, and most residents make do with an artificial one. We don't even have that, leaving us no choice but to decorate a dusty little ficus tree on the patio. The children are making decorations from the cardboard inserts in old toilet rolls. Katharine hopes that Santa leaves extra presents out of sheer pity.

4) Greed. By now, we are all weary of hearing the excesses of Wall Street. Make no mistake, though, the rot goes much deeper than that. For the past few days, Katharine has been weighing a scheme that could quite possibly destroy the very fabric of our universe. For the sake of profit, she wants to bring together two of the most powerful magic forces known to man: Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

For six weeks now, Katharine has been clutching a tooth that fell out as we drove to Miami. She refused to put it under her pillow in the United States, hoping instead to make a killing on the foreign-exchange market. Panamanian pillows flunked the test after she discovered that the balboa is pegged to the U.S. dollar. She has been marginally more enthusiastic about the Argentine peso, and has watched closely as the dollar strengthened from 3.0 pesos to 3.4. But with Christmas just around the corner, she saw the chance to hit pay dirt. What would happen, she mused, if she put her tooth under her pillow on Christmas Eve?

Have we truly come to the point where a 7-year-old child will risk everything to increase her return by a few points? Who knows what will happen when Santa's magical emanations collide with the pixie dust of the Tooth Fairy? It simply doesn't bear thinking about. Katharine, her eyes set on a big score, couldn't care less. Fortunately, there is still hope (see below).

5) Anti-aircraft fire. As in much of Europe, Argentines enjoy their big celebration on Christmas Eve. The whole country shuts down in the afternoon and the rest of the day is family time. As midnight nears, it's common for the residents of Buenos Aires to count down a la New Year's Eve before discharging tons of fireworks into the night sky. From what we have been told, the resulting explosions make Beirut look sleepy.

As excited as the children are about the prospect of fireworks, they are more terrified by the possibility that Santa will be blown out of the sky as he attempts to make his deliveries. In hopes of avoiding friendly-fire accidents, Graham wants Rudolf to exchange his red schnozz for a flashing blue-and-white police beacon. And, in the event that this safety precaution fails, Katharine and Graham have mobilized their own fire brigade on our patio. They spend hours practicing fire-suppression techniques with the cleaning hose, convinced that Santa will appear smouldering on our doorstep with a Chinese rocket lodged in his beard.

This distressing image has given even hard-hearted Katharine pause. Not only is she concerned about exposing the Tooth Fairy to anti-aircraft fire, but she also worries that Santa and the Tooth Fairy might collide during mid-air maneuvers. If that happens, she can kiss her profit margin goodbye.

At this point, we don't know what will happen with Katharine and her tooth. Ecuador uses the U.S dollar, so it's a bust from an investment standpoint, leaving only Costa Rica. Hopefully, it's not known as the Rich Coast for nothing.

As for Christmas, we're prepared, fire buckets at the ready, staring up hopefully into the sky.

Scenes from Jumbo, a super-supermercado

California plums for sale!

Onions make her cry.

Dried fish.

Cheesy grin.

Katharine hamming it up.

We really, really miss Food Lion.

Scary doll.

Everything has a price.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Hiking With an Assassin

By Louise

After spending two days in El Calafate standing around gawking at glaciers, we felt the need to seriously stretch our legs on some hiking trails. So we headed to El Chalten, a dusty town within the Parque National Los Glaciares in southern Patagonia. It’s a small, granola/tourist town that was settled in 1985. The town accommodates hikers and climbers eager to hurl themselves at the Fitz Roy massif; Cerro Fitz Roy being one of the toughest climbing peaks in the Andes. Graham had his sights set on it.

The mountain range that surrounded the tiny town was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Even though it’s summer, many peaks were blanketed in snow. Without binoculars, the Glaciar Grande—that flowed between Cerro Solo and Cerro Fitz Roy—looked like a field of trampled snow. With binoculars, we could see that that the snow and ice were actually hundreds of feet thick. We all wished we could hike on a glacier but the walk was four hours long one way and we weren't prepared. Much to Graham's dismay, our goal was to complete two different hikes that would take us only 350 meters up, but would give us vastly different views of the mountains.

As we walked, we did our best to talk in loud voices and disturb all wildlife and any peace other hikers were looking for. We talked about glaciers, global warming, moss, puma attacks, and Santa. It being the season and all, Katharine, who had been walking while sharpening a stick, was keen on reviewing her Christmas wish list. So what if the most amazing mountain scenery surrounded us; let’s focus on the big guy in the red suit.

I asked Katharine what she wanted. Without looking up from her stick sharpening, she very coolly said, “I’m going to ask Santa for a complete assassin’s kit. One with a grappling hook, machine gun, knife, and motorcycle. I want to be an assassin when I grow up.”

I think we may be one of three families on the ES who don’t own a gun. Aside from knocking off the occasional backyard fowl, we’re pretty peaceful. So this was weird; not to mention that she’s seven. But then Graham, rolling on the ground with laughter, explained that Katharine wanted to be the woman in the movie we watched a few days earlier. Oh yeah, that movie, the one starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as husband and wife assassins. Yes, we know it was inappropriate.

Assassin discussion continued for days until Katharine saw part of an episode of Colombo— dubbed in Spanish—and changed her tune. “I don’t want to be an assassin anymore. I don’t want big lips. I want to be a detective.”

That settles it: Dear Santa, Please send Katharine a raincoat for Christmas.

The road to El Chalten.

The assassin leads the way.

Down in the valley

Laguna Capri with Fitz Roy massif in the background.

Glacier with Fitz Roy massif on the right.

The assassin tests the water.

Taking a break: It's tough hiking with regular folk.

Assassin with her sharpened stick.