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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The China Rose

Today I met a friend for lunch and a very fruitful shopping trip in Barrio Chino, the perfect outing for a hazy Tuesday afternoon. Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, in Buenos Aires is pretty small version of the Chinatown you may be used to in other big cities. It's 2 square blocks to be exact. This mini-barrio is located in Belgrano, right next to the Belgrano train station, and there are treasures to be discovered all over the place. There are little trinket shops all over the place, most of which are filled with cheap, Chinese-imported plastic junk; little waving cats or plastic beads, but sometimes they have hidden treasures.
I originally saw this style of tea cup at Sirop Folie, a cool little tea room across the way from Sirop the restaurant (which was also really liked). I loved that the mugs are perfect for loose leaf tea and then you can balance the leaf strainer on the mug lid - genius! I was really excited to find them available for purchase, not to mention the adorable patterns, blue and yellow, just like our kitchen, and blue and white, which my Grandmother once told me was timeless. There are plenty of other ceramic patterns as well, I thought they were a good mix of practical and gimmicky. Now I just need to buy some loose leaf tea. Moving on.

We stopped at China Rose - Mendoza 1689, Barrio Chino - for lunch, and it was surprisingly good. The restaurant is clean, nicely furnished and (very importantly for the 2 pregnant ladies) has really nice bathrooms. I've been to China Rose once before and it was good then too, so it seemed an appropriate place to go for a second visit. I am no expert, but the items I've had here were tasty, non-greasy and straightforward, basically, everything that I'm looking for when I order Chinese.

They offer a fixed price menu for lunch, either $28 or $32 pesos which gets you a drink, appetizer, entree and dessert or coffee. The entree items to choose from are pretty standard, rice or noodle dishes on the $28 peso list - chow mien, fried rice, etc and $32 pesos gets you a meat based dish - pineapple chicken, broccoli chicken and such. As an appetizer, we each ordered the veggie spring rolls which, hilariously, came on a plain white plate. No garnish, no sauce, just rolls. In fairness, there are sauces available on your table, it just looks funny having the spring rolls loose and moving all around your plate.

I ordered the chicken fried rice as my main dish, which is maybe my favorite item on any Chinese food menu and it didn't disappoint. My friend had the pineapple chicken, which was good but would have been better if it had come with a side of rice.

The coffee at the end of the meal was by far the worst thing I had, it was so bitter I couldn't stomach it. All in all it was a good meal and I'm happy to have a standard lunch spot for my China town adventures.

After lunch we went to the grocery store two doors down, the Oriental Asia Market, and picked up some cooking goodies, including quite a few seafood items. Bs.As. is not known for it's seafood, but if your looking for ingredients, Barrio Chino is known as the best place in town to purchase fish and other seafood items for a reasonable price. A word of warning, be ready for the smell, the markets have lots of open air seafood departments which make for a pretty smelly shopping experience.

Friday, November 26, 2010

One Year, Can You Believe It?

As you may have noticed, I've been a bit slack on my postings lately so I have missed both one year anniversary dates for Jon's and my arrival in Argentina (we arrived separately due to my visa delay issues) BUT I have made it in time for another very important anniversary.  It was one year ago today that we moved into our apartment here in Buenos Aires.

One Year!  Can you believe it!?  (Cue Jon Lovitz as Hanukkah Harry SNL skit - "Eight pair!  Can you believe it?! - absolutely one of the funniest SNL skits ever.  If you haven't seen it, look it up, I would post the video but NBC refuses to stream internationally...)

So much has changed in a year. Welcome to my blogging version of a "clip-show".

A year ago today my horrid Coto grocery delivery experience happened, and now I'm ordering from Jumbo, Disco and Quinta Fresca virtually every week. 

A year ago, I couldn't imagine cooking in Argentina without a suitcase (or two) filled with ingredients from the US.  Now, this same suitcase is certainly appreciated (and requested) but I am confident that I can cook 99% of the items with substitutions I find here in the stores.

Our Spanish still has a ways to go, but we are both confident going into a taxi, restaurant or store and communicating what we need.  A year ago I ordered a Chicken Caesar Salad that came with tuna on top - I HATE tuna - but I ate it because I didn't know how to say that it was wrong.  Today I would send that salad back in a heartbeat - and that, my friends, is progress. 

In the last year I have figured out how to grow things - most fondly, basil.  Compare my current basil plants on the left to those just a few months ago.  An amazing feat after the numerous rounds of dead plants that I threw away while Jon shook his head.

Over the past year we have been lucky enough to have lots of great visitors, taken several amazing vacations, made lots of new friends and even said good-bye to some friends that have moved away. Here are some highlights from our last year in Argentina:
Our friends Kelly and Tabo who have sadly moved an hour outside of Buenos Aires
My brother Chris and I in Puerto Madero during his visit in June
My Mom, Pat and Miguel at Estancia Oriental in March
Jon and his parents at Iguazu Falls during their trip in April
My family enjoying National's Stadium in May

Jon and Shankar at his 30th birthday party

Our amazing friends who threw us a baby shower in October

My brother Robbie and I - and a bag of Tostidos - with some adorable VT baby slippers

My wonderful friends Julie and Sarah that came to visit me in Virginia in October
Our friends the Wilsons who came with their beautiful family for a visit from Venezuela

All in all, it's been an incredible and adventure filled year for the Gill Family.  Considering that we expect to be living here for a while longer, we will certainly have lots of new adventures in the upcoming months/year.  We hope everyone enjoyed their Turkey Day (and that my parents enjoyed their 32nd wedding anniversary!) and we are very much looking forward to our next, huge round of visitors at Christmas.  To our next year here in Argentina!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Belly Unveiled

It's time. 

I was waiting until I had something to show to put pregnancy belly pictures on the blog, and by now I am most certainly showing.  I've added an album to my Shameless Photo Sharing list for all of those that are interesting in tracking my growing panza (belly).  This belly is sure to grow even larger after our substitute-Thanksgiving next Saturday - remember there is no Thanksgiving down here so no one gets the day off of work.

I would like to mention that this whole empire-waist-style clothing trend is AMAZING for pregnant ladies.  These non-maternity-yet-maternity-possible clothes like double my wardrobe.  And they don't cost a zillion dollars like normal maternity stuff does.  I would kill for a Target these days.  

And for those that are not interested in the belly - I will resume my normal Buenos Aires-themed posts now :)  Enjoy the weekend everyone!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nail Salons

FYI - this is going to be a total girl-centric post. You've been warned.

I'm a sucker for some girly pampering; nails, massages, facials, etc, I enjoy them all. These types of services I assumed would be exactly the same, only cheaper here, and I was 50% right. As far as nails are concerned, they are generally cheaper. The biggest difference is the was pedicures are done (sometimes without water!) and the range of services available depending on the salon. It's been interesting trying to find any sort of information on nail salons in the area, there really isn't much out there to be seen.

I have only tried a couple of places, but here are my thoughts on the few places I've been:

The Nail Company
Riobamba 1164
I really like this place - it's clean, the people are nice and the prices are right. There are two locations, I've only been to the Barrio Norte location, but it's the best all around experience out of the salons I've been to. So far as I can tell there are no walk-in appointments, so be sure to call first. There are several different types of manicure and pedicure services ranging from basic to paraffin dip to the "super perfect" which includes paraffin, exfoliation and a massage. The facility is quite nice, but they are missing the great massage chairs with an attached foot bath like they have in the US. Instead you get a plastic portable foot tub (like the one every mother has received for Mother's Day at some point), but it serves it's function just fine. They also use all of their own products, which are nice, but I still prefer the O.P.I. brand polish since there are so many additional color choices in their line.
Products: B+
Services: A
Facility: A

Nail Designers
Juncal 1615
Nail Designers was recommended to me by a friend, and they gave a good pedicure, with one strange twist. They didn't use any water. I sat in an extremely nice recliner and put oil soaked cotton on different parts of my feet and then used a scalpel to scrape away callouses. Not the potato peeler thing that I'm used to, an actual surgeon-style scalpel. I was petrified. Imagine a full on scalpel on completely dry skin. Scary. That and there was no massage included with the pedicure, even though I requested a massage ahead of time. They had a number of colors choices, and their products were of good quality. The price was right, 60 pesos (US$15), but without water or a massage, I have not returned.
Products: B
Services: B
Facility: B+

Yin Yang Pie
Arenales 2189
This hilarious named salon is really great for massages, but the pedicures leave some things to be desired. Like Nail Designers, they are also on the list of salons that don't use water, and that just generally freaks me out. In addition, the chair was not all that comfortable. They did use great products and when I asked for a massage to be included with the pedicure they gave me a 30 minute, lay-down foot and leg massage that was amazing. I will be back for the massage, I'll stick with another salon for the pedicure.
Products: A
Services: Pedicure: C / Massage: A+
Facility: B

Av. Quintana 432
This place is actually more of a hair salon that offers nail services, and the services they offer are decent. The pedicure was basic, no frills or massages, but there was water involved so I was a happy girl. The real downside of this place was their products, the basket of polish that they gave me to look through could have come from a little girl's dress up collection.
Products: D
Services: Pedicure: C+
Facility: B

There are a zillion places to choose from in the city and I'll probably keep trying until I find the perfect pedicure. For now, I'll stick with The Nail Company for my manicure and pedicure needs.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Puerto Madryn - Day 3 "Los Penguinos"

Our final day in Puerto Madryn was another day of plan changes.  The road to Estancia San Lorenzo was still closed due to rain and since we were on our last day, we couldn't delay our plans any longer.  Again, the tour company that our Estancia San Lorenzo day was booked through, Cuyun Co Turismo SRL, called us the night before to alert us of the road closure and completely revamped our day.  Holy Godsend.  They even called the company that our airport transfer was booked through to rearrange all of our travel plans for the day.  This is our new final day agenda:
  • 10:00am - Travel from Puerto Piramides to Puerto Madryn
  • 11:30 - 2:00pm - Walk around Puerto Madryn and have lunch
  • 2:00pm - travel to Punto Toombo and hang out with penguins
  • 6:00pm  - leave for Trelew Airport
  • 10:55pm - flight back to Buenos Aires
Let's start with Puerto Madryn.  I had no idea how small this town really was until we had three hours of free time to explore.  There was not a whole lot of exploring to do - and it was incredibly cold and windy.  Luckily, a friend had highly recommended a seafood restaurant in town called
Mariscos del Atlantico(Ave. Guillermo Rawson 288), even more luckily she gave very specific instructions on how to get there because it is well hidden.  It also looks like a dump (pictured on the left).  If my friend hadn't said that it was hands down the best seafood she had ever eaten (including places in San Fransisco and Asia), we would have seen the building and kept on walking.  The inside decor was pleasant and surprising, a small place with a cute nautical, but not cheesy theme.  The only change I would recommend a stricter staff dress code, the only waiter in the place had a shirt that read "F*** SEX".  Classy.
Either way, they had incredible seafood, definitely the best we've had in Argentina, Jon had the Cazuela de Mariscos (seafood stew), it was pretty, well presented and delicious.  We would have loved to come back for dinner, if time had allowed.  Thanks for the suggestion Janet!

From there we left for Punta Tombo, the largest Magellanic penguin colony in South America where up to 500,000 penguins come to incubate their eggs each year.  The parent penguin pair take turns sitting on the eggs (they generally lay 2 eggs at a time) and going to search for food.  This area is the perfect place for penguin eggs because there are plenty of bushes to build nests under and it is right on the Atlantic Ocean, meaning close proximity to food.  There is a park entrance fee of $35 pesos/person, and after you pay the fee you have unlimited time to walk amongst the penguins - and you literally walk right along with them.  There are penguins everywhere, and again as with our whale adventures, you can get extremely close to the animals.

This entire beachfront area has been transformed into a landmine of penguin nests. 

The whole time we were there we battled wind, who knew the Atlantic coast was one long wind tunnel?  Jon's luscious wind-blown curls prove that Puerto Madryn puts Chicago to shame.

Some of the penguins spend time hanging outside of their nests, I promise that the penguin posing with Jon is not dead, he's just taking a breather.  
 Here are some of my favorite shots of the penguins we saw.  They are such hilarious, awkward, adorable animals.

Puerto Madryn was amazing, there are few other places in the world where you can get as close or see as many of these incredible animals.  This is one of those trips that needs to be strategically planned since whales and penguins are migratory, they are not in the area year round.  Generally speaking, September and October are the prime months to visit Puerto Madryn since the weather is warmer (remember July/August are the coldest months here) and you are almost guaranteed to see all of the key species.  A little packing advice before I round out this vacation tri-post:  bring rain/water resistant clothing and leave the dress clothes at home (even the maybe-I'll-wear-something-nice-to-dinner-one-night outfit, trust me, you won't).

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Puerto Madryn - Day 2 "The Flood"

Our second day in Puerto Madryn was the real proof as to why a tour company was really worth it for this trip.

Thursday night we were told that rain was in the forecast for the next day, the day we had planned to visit the Estancia San Lorenzo, a penguin and sea lion colony located on Peninsula Valdez. This colony is unique because it's one of the only places in the world where Orca whales have been observed beaching themselves in an aggressive hunting tactic. The whales work in teams to isolate sea lions and then when the prey seeks refuge on the beach the whales thrust themselves out of the water (essentially beaching themselves) in order to trap their victims and bring them back to the water for dinner. Super smart whales.

Anyways, when the rain started, it didn't stop. To put it in perspective, the average amount of rainfall this area sees per year is 236mm, for 1.5 days during our visit we had over 70mm of rain - a little less than a third of the rain they will get all year. I mean seriously, we were in the desert, who would have thought that it would rain? According to our tour guide "You have brought us the lucky!" which was great for the area, crappy for our vacation. Enter Sundance Spirit.

The vendors that Sundance reserved our tours with religiously called us in our hotel room the night before each tour to ensure our departure time or to alert us of any plan changes. On Thursday night they called to inform us that the only road (which happens to be made of dirt/clay) to Estancia San Lorenzo would be closed due to rain all day Friday (the day of our tour, total bummer). They also informed us that we could just switch our tour days and take the 2nd whale boat tour on Friday and go to the Estancia on Saturday. Score! A Solution! They reworked our reservations on the spot, communicated to the second tour company what we needed and the changes were seamless - Everybody's a winner!

So - here is an update on our revamped, rescheduled, rain-delayed day.
Note the McGyver-style bag + hairclip combo guarding my camera
We went on a second whale watching tour with Botazzi, and this trip was quite different from the previous day. Starting off, we had about 3 additional layers of rain-repellent clothing, making us look even more attractive than our Thursday attire and then the rain scared most of the other tourists off so our trip was much less crowded. The best part was that whales were ambivalent to the rain, and the wind was much calmer the second day so we saw our fair share of whales. I should probably mention that the whales we observed are Southern Right Whales, which are on the endangered species list. They come to Peninsula Valdez/Puerto Madryn bays each year between June and November to breed before heading further south, to the Antarctic, to feed during the summer months of December - March. Full grown whales can be up to 60 feet long and can weigh up to 80 tons. They're pretty hearty animals.

Here is a pretty small calf breaching. Our guide explained that it is believed breaching is a form of communication among adults, but the calves breach much more often, which is thought to be a way to attract their mother's attention.

Another attention-craving calf.

And yet another...

Our boat's captain was insistent on finding this mother/calf pair because the calf is so distinctly colored. This gray/white baby is pretty unusual coloring for the Southern Right Whales.
One of the last stops that we made was right near a different mother/calf pair. We were able to get within 100 feet of the mother who was floating on the surface, so the captain cut our engine and let us just float and take some pictures. It didn't take long for the mother whale to get curious and swam right into our boat while "nudging" it with her big whale nose. We literally could not have gotten any closer. My long distance lens could not zoom out enough to get a full picture.

I was amazed.

Our guide showed us a little favoritism and we got some of the best seats in the house.
Captain Jon
I'll leave you with this short video, in case you haven't gotten the full extent of our whale trip. This was when the mama whale was swimming over towards our boat. You can see the little baby next to her mirroring her movements. Pretty incredible. It was absolutely worth going, rain and all, and we saw enough whales to carry us through years to come.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Puerto Madryn - Day 1

We spent last week brushing shoulders with nature in Puerto Madryn, and I have to admit, it was incredible.  To plan this trip we used a tour company called Sundance Spirit, which has been highly recommended since the day we moved to Buenos Aires, and they were worth their weight in gold for us.  Allan and his staff listened to the type of trip we were interested in taking, they executed quickly and they provided us with a very thorough packet of information prior to leaving - which were all things that I expected from a tour company.  The beauty of booking through Sundance was that when things did not go according to plan, all of the local folks that we had tours book through automatically rearranged schedules and reworked our trip on the spot.  Considering that the weather was uncooperative to the point of ridiculous, this was a huge bonus for keeping our trip on schedule.  Here's the rundown:

We departed for Puerto Madryn on a direct flight from Buenos Aires to Trelew airport on Wednesday afternoon.  This was the smoothest experience that we've had with Aerolineas Argentinas airlines, which is currently the only option when traveling to Trelew.  The flight was quick and easy, it was only 2 hours or so, no big deal.  From Trelew, it is about an hour trip into Puerto Madryn, which is the main town in this area, but we continued on another 40 minutes or so to Puerto Piramides, where we opted to stay during our trip. 
Puerto Piramides has far less to do, the town is literally one short street, but it is located right where all of the whale watching boats depart and alleviates the need to drive to and from Puerto Madryn each time you want to see whales.  We stayed at Las Restingas, which was easily the nicest hotel in town.  Located on the water, we were able to get insanely clear photos of whales from our hotel room - photos like this baby whale tail on the right.

Jon is ready to scope some whales
On our first full day, we had a whale watching excursion planned with Bottazzi, one of the handful of tour companies lining the streets.  We were able to walk over to the tour office and sign up for any of the tours offered that day, although beware, the excursion times are subject to change.  We originally expected to leave at 11am, it was moved to 12pm and we actually left around 12:30pm.  It was a great tour (with an English speaking guide), with the exception of the fact that the boat was a bit crowded and at times it was difficult to get unobstructed photos.  Eventually, I got brave (or just frustrated) and started requesting people sit down when we were close to the whales.  This was a beautiful, but extremely windy day, so we had lots of whale activity and even saw a few sea lions.  We were out on the water for just under 2 hours and I took no less than 1,000 pictures, but with the wind and choppy water I had just about reached my sea-sickness point when we headed back to shore. Nothing describes it better than the pictures, so I'll stop rambling and just show some of the shots from the trip. 

The main reason that the whales come to this bay is to breed, so we saw many mother/baby pairs.  This young whale has not yet learned to breathe out of their blowhole so he kept bobbing to the surface for air.  
This little guy was just popping up to say hello.  And to breathe.
 There is a huge problem now with an overpopulation of seagulls in the area.  The birds have taken to biting the fatty backs of whales and leaving horrible scarring marks.  It became one of the easiest ways to spot the whales, just look to where the seagulls were congregating. 

This is a mother and baby pair, and the baby has a slightly open mouth, probably because they are starting to eat krill.  Before the babies adjust to eating krill, they drink up to 300 liters (~80 gallons) of milk per day.

We got pretty close.

Here is a whale adapting to the seagull problem.  The whales have started lounging with their bellies up, to discourage the seagulls from biting.  Apparently this is a highly unusual behavior for whales.  It looks pretty cool to see them from head to tail though. 
This was the first of our whale watching tours, and each of which were quite different.  We were amazed at the number of whales that we saw in this short period of time, with even more to see from our hotel.  Day 1 = Success!