My first impression of Mendoza = squished. Omaha has a river to the east, but nothing else constricting it, so it’s very spacious. I am used to spacious. I’ve never spent a lot of time in large cities, so I do not know exactly what to compare this place to. Mendoza isn’t a large city by any stretch. Mendoza proper is actually kind of small, and the metro area is only slightly larger than Omaha, but it feels similar to what I imagine a larger city is like. The streets are all lined with parked cars and bumper-to-bumper traffic. The buildings all share walls, there aren’t alleys between any of them; a single block of sidewalk (100 meters) can have 20+ small stores all selling different things. I actually like this. It makes what would be sprawled out city more compact and easier to get around.
Mendoza is, apparently, close to a fault line so earthquakes aren’t uncommon. A while back (maybe the 1860s?) there was a severe earthquake that destroyed much of the city. As a result, the general sentiment is that earthquakes are scary and therefore buildings aren’t constructed very tall – an understandable reason to cram everything in on a horizontal level.
Along with how the city is built, just about everything is somehow different from what I am used to. Mendoza is in a desert, which I didn’t expect based off the pictures I saw before coming here. The city plays a clever little trick by lining the roads with deep gutters on either side, then planting trees in these gutters so any water goes straight to the trees allowing them to grow in a place they probably shouldn’t be. These gutters are also great for catching trash that would normally be blowing around the streets and walkways – and possibly those inebriated on weekend nights. The air is also much drier and the temperatures between day and night vary a lot more. Oh, yeah, and it’s winter here, which is weird for two reasons:
- Saying it’s winter and being in the month of August just doesn’t register properly in my brain. I keep thinking I am going to be making a transfer to warmer clothes.
- Winter here is not like the winters I know, so right now it feels more like an Omaha fall which makes me think it is already October or November.
The traffic here is downright hilarious to me. Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way, anywhere, not even crosswalks; I think Frogger was inspired by something similar to streets like these. They must paint lines on the streets just to create jobs, because everyone ignores them like they don’t exist. If the light is red but nobody is coming down the cross street you are okay to proceed. If you ride a scooter or motorcycle, the world is your playground, including sidewalks. Also, feel free to park directly under no parking signs, because the worst that will happen is getting a few tickets (I haven’t seen any sort of towing service). Driving slower than the flow of traffic will reward you with horns from every car that passes, as will causing traffic to slow down because you were crossing the street.
It isn’t chaos, though. It all works, and I am starting to like how it all functions together. Everything works because they don’t let anything interrupt the flow of traffic; I’ve only seen two minor fender-benders so far.
Getting around the city is also different, but fast, due to how traffic flows. My three main options are:
- My own two feet (preferred as it is free and I’m in control)
- The bus (faster than walking and cheap, but only once I figure out the routes. . . )
- Taxi (fastest and most direct, but costs money and requires knowledge of where I’m going – I don’t have this knowledge yet) (also, when I get out of the taxi I can’t forget to ‘cierre con amor’, it’s very easy to slam the doors because they aren’t as heavy as cars in the U.S.)
Of all things I could be intimidated by in a foreign country that speaks a different language, it’s the bus system. The amount of time I’ve spent sitting on the wrong bus can already be measured in hours, and many miles have been walked going from the wrong stop to where I actually needed to be. A few more rides and I’ll I have it down!
Besides the city and infrastructure, the culture itself is obviously different. In general, people are extremely friendly with one another, and share more with each other. One of the first customs I was introduced to was drinking mate (pronounced ‘mah-tay’, not like the Australian friend), which is shared among everyone sitting at the table. Along with drinking mate, it is difficult to be dehydrated in this desert due to how much wine, coffee, wine, tea, water, wine, soda water, beer, wine, terma (this herbal lemony beverage of sorts), and of course wine is drank here. I like having all these to drink because public drinking fountains don’t exist and water costs money when eating out at restaurants.
Time itself is also a bit different here. In the U.S. everything is very punctual and scheduled. Back home, if I don’t arrive somewhere ten minutes early then I might as well be late. Here, there are two timelines: the real time, and Argentinian time. I learned quickly that getting somewhere on real time meant waiting for everyone else that comes on Argentinian time. Being thirty minutes to an hour late is normal and basically expected.
Along with a different perspective of time is just the daily schedule. Lunch is eaten no earlier than 2pm, and dinner no earlier than 10pm. I am not quite used to this, but I don’t think it will take long to adjust. A really neat thing they have here is the siesta. Just about everything in town shuts down for a few hours each day in the afternoon. A lot of people sleep, others just eat lunch and relax, but nobody works. It’s awesome.
And, of course, there’s all the Spanish words I had never learned in classes, such as using ‘acá’ instead of ‘aqui,’ and ‘auto’ is their word for car (not ‘coche’ or ‘carro’). There’s also the use of ‘vos’ which I have never been taught about in any of my previous classes (despite having two instructors from Argentina), and only heard of it via a lovely Spanish-speaking cousin of mine. Also, nobody says ‘adios’ here, everyone uses ‘chao.’ Oh, and if someone invites you to go to a ‘boliche’ some night, I guarantee you won’t be rolling a ball down an alley towards a pyramid of white pins.
The biggest difference by far is the lack of personal space (in a good way). When people converse with each other they are very close to one another. Tables don’t feel as wide, so sitting across from someone still puts them right in front of you. During conversations, a light touch on the arm or shoulder is extremely common and very frequent.
The same can be said for hugging and people holding hands. When I went to the travel clinic to get immunizations before leaving they had a brochure with general information about Argentina. One of the things it pointed out was that public displays of affection were not as prevalent or socially accepted as they are in the States. This could not be any further from the truth! The parks and sidewalks are filled with people (and stray dogs…) of all ages publicly displaying their affection for each other. The passion is real!
Easily, my favorite part of the culture is all the kissing! 😉 Every time you meet up with someone there is a kiss, and every time you part ways there is another kiss. It is common for men to kiss women, women to kiss men, women to kiss women, men to kiss men, and strangers kiss strangers. Everyone kisses everyone! It’s fantastic because I instantly feel friendlier towards all these new people I am meeting. I don’t think it’s possible to kiss someone and still be defensive or unfriendly.
Then there are all the small things. Such as how little is wasted here. I am not sure if it is to save money, reduce waste, or help the environment, or maybe a combination of all those, but if there is a scrap of uneaten food or anything not fully used, it gets saved. Even dead palm branches are used as brooms to sweep the city sidewalks.
Another small thing is how people don’t seem to walk on a specific side of the sidewalk. This small thing is probably the only thing I would change in this place if I could. I never realized how strictly people in the U.S. walk on the right side. Here, either with or against the flow of people, they are always taking up the whole sidewalk.
Wi-Fi is also a little different. Nearly every business will offer free Wi-Fi for its customers, but nearly every network is protected by a password. Back home, it feels like half of businesses secure their networks but the other half just don’t care. I think this might be due to the proximity businesses are to each other here. If one didn’t have a protected network the 10 other businesses in range would just use their service. It could also be a matter of my need of the internet for communication down here. I don’t have an operational SIM card in my phone, so in order to use it I am always looking for an available Wi-Fi signal.
Despite all these differences, there are a few similarities to Omaha. People are generally polite and friendly to each other, and I am used to being friendly with strangers. Greeting people who I’ve never seen in my life and talking to them as if we know each other is just another daily interaction of life.
There is also a surprising amount of music from the States. The filler music that is played in TV commercials and news broadcasts is frequently something I recognize (which is funny because I can listen to the rest of the broadcast and not understand a word). To this point, the driver of the second taxi I rode in had “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC as his ringtone. I have also seen many stores selling t-shirts of bands and I recognize a lot of them.
Besides family and close friends, this place doesn’t lack very much. I think I lucked out with choosing this city as a place to study for four months. It feels big enough to offer anything I could want or need, but it also isn’t so huge that it’s overwhelming (except that damn bus system). I wasn’t sure what to expect when coming here but am very happy I did!