Christmas in Argentina 2010

Greater folly

Joni and recorder

sheer and utter lunacy

Joni and recorder

… love hath no-one than this

Joni and recorder

than that they buy their three year old a recorder for Christmas.

Joni of course is much more aware of what’s going on this year, loves Christmas trees, although somewhat confused about the whole Santa thing.  I suspect “Santa” at nursery was probably one of the (female) teachers, as he came home saying that they’d seen “the Christmas lady”, and then when we saw a picture of Santa he informed me that this in fact was “the Christmas lady” herself.  I tried to suggest that Santa is normally a man with a beard, only apparently his Christmas lady also had a beard, so that’s my explanation blown out of the water by his first-hand experience to the contrary! 

Celebrations here happen on the night of the 24th; we had a traditional meat-fest on the barbecue shared with friends; 5 families, 21 of us round the table in total making short work of a piglet, a chicken and various lumps of cow, followed by letting fireworks off in the road at midnight, along with the rest of the neighbourhood.  We all went to bed at around 3.30, thus we were somewhat dismayed by the arrival of our bright and lively child who bounced in at 6 (he had also not gone to bed till 3.30 so we were counting on him needing a lie-in).  Fortunately with a swift blow with a mallet  boot to the backside bit of gentle persuasion he did concede to go back to sleep for another couple of hours. 

The 25th here feels quite a lot like boxing day in the UK, apart from being thirty degrees hotter (actually forty this year).  We had a late breakfast, opened presents, and then Joni and I somehow managed to spend most of the morning outside in the paddling pool in our pyjamas, punctuated by bursts of squealing on the above recorder.  Not being the UK, we don’t have a fridge full of left over turkey, so I did some Japanese Okonomiyaki for lunch, mostly because the two ingredients which we currently have in abundance are eggs (gift from the village) and cabbage (growing luxuriantly on our patio).  I’m sure it wouldn’t have won many certificates of authenticity from the streets of Osaka, but given that we don’t have too many Japanese supermarkets around here, I thought it was a pretty credible attempt… tasted good anyway, and at the end of the day that’s what actually matters. 

Washed up, ate chocolate, watched some TV, had a bit of a siesta (perverse child still asleep), and now wondering if it’s yet cooled down sufficiently outside to take the dogs for a walk.  They will have a boring day tomorrow as we’re off to do a prison errand and see some friends in Cordoba so I feel like they ought to have a run out today at least.  At some stage we’ll Skype a few folk in the UK.  And that will be us done for another year. 

Sadly Jesus doesn’t get much of a mention at Christmas round here; in fact Christmas is so secular that even the church mostly ignores it, to the extent that if the 24th or 25th fall on a Sunday, they’ll cancel the services rather than expect people to come to church for Christmas!  Really I have no idea how this has come about, I assumed it was because it was an imported festival, and therefore had already lost its roots before crossing the Atlantic, but when I’ve asked people here about that, they say no, the church did used to celebrate Christmas, “only we don’t any more”.  That seems truly weird to me, and certainly as far as my kid is concerned, I’m thinking we need to start building in some new family traditions, like a nativity scene alongside the Christmas tree, and a rendition of the Christmas story as part of our own celebration.  The word became flesh and came and dwelt amongst the chocolate and wrapping paper. 

Little boys

Sunny morning in the plaza and I’m sitting close enough to supervise, yet distant enough to disown him should the need arise, watching my child extract the full multi-sensory enjoyment out of the muddy puddles left by last night’s storm.  A natural performer, the small blonde head in the centre is quickly surrounded by larger primary school children.  These nicely brought up young people have self-divided into two groups.  The first form the inner circle of Joni’s apprentices, eagerly following him into the deliciously illicit territory of muddy water.  The second hover a few paces behind, increasing nervous by the presence of this adult who is clearly the blonde child’s parent, and yet isn’t calling a halt to his antics.  Finally they start trying to prompt me into reacting as a good Argentinian mother surely would;

“He’s getting all wet”   “Yes, I thought he probably was”

“He might fall over”   “Yes, I expect he probably will”

“He’s going to get his clothes all muddy”  “Yes, I’m sure it’ll wash out”

“You’ll have to give him a bath”   “Yes, we do that most days too…”

He did; he did; he did; and I did.  And I’m sure they all went home and told their parents. 

A different sunny morning and I’m at the summer scheme for people with disabilities, just started this week till the middle of February.  We’ve been in the pool a while and I’m sitting at the edge in the company of a physiotherapist watching my little friend from the village in his element.  We’ve finished his swimming lesson, and he is now fully engaged in trying to pick up the bubbles from the top of the water. 

“Como cambió la vida de este chiquito”  She observes “How this little boy’s life has changed”.

I have no idea if she fully understands the weight of what she was saying, or who she was saying it to.  Nor have I any idea where we go from here, what else we can do for him, or for anyone else, in this context or in any other.  How many starfish can we throw back into the sea?  I don’t know, but I’m proud to have had the privilege to be able to make a difference to this one. 

Another new morning, and here we are, about to celebrate the birth of another little boy, conceived out of wedlock, born into poverty, in an occupied territory, forced to become a refugee, ultimately rejected even by his own; and yet, two thousand years on, still transforming lives.  A new day dawns, a new reality beckons.  This is Christmas. 

Observations from a sardine can

San Francisco to Salta is 972 km by road according to our atlas which is probably a reasonable enough estimate.  Twenty four hours (twelve there, twelve back) strapped into a moving sardine can in the company of a three year old is something of an endurance test for all concerned, despite the fact that he was pretty well behaved most of the time.  My proudest moment was on entering Salta province and catching the first glimpse of the mountains… “Look mummy, those are big hills.  They are for climbing on”.  That’s my boy!  Sadly son, the best chance you’ll have of actually climbing a hill resides in the UK, ironically enough.  This has nothing to do with height, or danger, but culture; here there is little culture of climbing hills, so it is hard to find people to go with, mapping is poor to non-existent, and in many cases access can only be gained by taking a machete to the thick scrub growing up the sides.  The few hills which gain the dubious privilege of being designated tourist attractions are rewarded with a layer of concrete; all the way up to the car-park at the summit.  But I promise we’ll find something to climb on next time we’re in the UK. 

Before we reach the hills of Salta, a goodly chunk of the journey is taken up crossing the province of Santiago del Estero, where a significant proportion of Argentina’s Arabic/Middle-Eastern population are located.  Argentina is largely a nation of immigrants, although most groups have been here for three generations or more and racial integration here in general has been better achieved than in Europe or North America.  However, there are many areas of the country where certain surnames dominate and the people are still thought of as being predominantly from, e.g. Germany in the province of Entre Rios, Italy in Buenos Aires, Wales in the Patagonia, and, in this case, the Middle East in Santiago del Estero.  We can only imagine the first Arabic peoples fleeing war and hunger, arriving in Argentina’s immense territory and surveying its vast and varied topography; from the lakes and glaciers of the south, the arable wetlands of the East, the high Andes mountains to the West, and the eternal plains of the fertile pampas in the middle.  Bewildered by the sheer sensory overload of it all, perhaps a small voice from the back pipes up “That bit has sand… it would remind us of home” and off they popped to Santiago del Estero.  Thus it was with some astonishment that we discovered this year that the entire length of this hitherto desert province had been transformed into an oasis of green, but back to that in a minute. 

Santiago de Estero is one of the poorer provinces (being not very fertile I would guess), and it appears that the police department isn’t over-funded.  On a couple of occasions we witnessed a police road-block complete with orange cones, manned by two officers.  The first officer steps smartly out, and with a “don’t mess with me” face brings the traffic to a halt.  He then goes around to the drivers side window of the leading car, leans in and says – I kid you not – “My colleague here needs to go to the next village, can you give him a lift?”  We enjoyed watching this little performance happen to the car in front of us, and then a few villages further on, we found ourselves in front and thus became the designated police transport.  “Yes” is probably the most sensible response, given that “no” would likely lead to having the car taken apart and us being fined for some imaginary minor infraction.  In any case we had room, we were going his way, we do quite often voluntarily pick up hitchhikers anyway, and the young officer more than paid for his ride by entertaining our child in the back.  I took advantage of the opportunity for some local information, and asked him what had happened to Santiago province to make the plants grow.  The short answer; it’s been raining for months.  Climate change is pretty easy to identify in places like this where previously weather patterns had been so predictable that folk knew from one year to the next which dates they were expecting it to rain, and by how much.  Maybe those Arabic forefathers were able to look further into the future than we’re giving them credit for. 

Not completely related, or actually maybe it is, the other thing I noticed going through Santiago were the campaign placards; Agro-toxins kill our orange trees.  Now I reckon if you genetically modify soya seed, and then you spray the fields from the air with poisons designed to kill everything except the genetically modified soya seed, it probably isn’t a great surprise that your spraying takes out more than just the weeds in the soya field.  So I’m asking why it apparently didn’t occur to anyone before to wonder what would happen if there was a bit of a wind on spraying days, or where the chemicals would end up after they filtered through to the irrigation canals.  I’m not a great sociologist, but I’m guessing the simple answer is that the orange trees belong to the poor guy whose field backs onto the land owned by the rich guy who grows the soya, and that the real challenge will be one of persuading the rich guy to give a damn, particularly in the current economic climate where soya is making the already rich even richer despite the whining about levels of taxation. 

So, eventually we leave Santiago del Estero behind us, the hills come into view, and a couple of hours later, so does the city of Salta.  Salta city is a loud urban sprawl, whose aspect is improved by its backdrop of surrounding mountains (although one might say that the aspect of the mountains would be better improved by the removal of the urban sprawl… I guess it’s a question of preference).  Salta isn’t any less attractive than any other city, but it is a city, and not being a great shopper I’ve never really figured out what I’m supposed to do there having sampled most of the coffee shops and looked in most of the museums.  Certainly I wouldn’t go more than twice without good reason, especially while so much of the rest of Argentina still lies waiting to be explored.  But beggars don’t always get to choose, and a meeting had been arranged so to a meeting I went. 

I do believe that some meetings are a necessary evil, which is why I’m committed to being there… but some of what happens seems to come down more on the side of the evil than the necessary.  How much of this could be done by email?  Probably most of the “information sharing” bits, and definitely anything where we are merely reporting “lack of progress” (per-lease) which would mean we could better use the working time for, uh, well, the items that actually need working on.  Partly it’s a cultural thing.  Here “being busy” and “doing stuff” is what is important, whereas my temptation is always to analyse; “yes but what are we being busy with… could that doing stuff have been done more efficiently…”  Maybe at some stage I’ll learn to be happy that I’ve been busy all day, rather than asking whether I’ve achieved anything.  Anyway, that was that.  The good points as always; people and ice-cream… there’s a couple of folk who we only ever see in Salta, one in particular who I really love to catch up with so it was good to drink tea and do the washing up with her; and we make it our mission to sniff out good local ice-cream anywhere we are and Salta’s no exception.  Joni had fun chasing the cats around the house (they quickly learned to make themselves scarce), he also enjoyed discovering a whole new range of Thomas toys, Thomas books, even Thomas on his bed, a different plaza to go out to, and best of all, a new ready made audience including young people who were more than willing to be bossed around by a three year old mini-dictator for a couple of days. 

And then we piled back into the sardine can and drove twelve hours home again. 

It broke

I had great plans to write a blog all week only it kept on not happening. Partly I was busily doing all the normal stuff that we do all week, and also because I was writing a talk for today for the kids club. Martin and I went dressed as shepherds, complete with sheep and a campfire, on a day shortly after the death of Jesus, and we reminisced about how we had been there at his birth, and the man he grew up to be. I haven’t seen the photos yet so I’ve no idea how we looked, but it seemed to go OK.
So, having ploughed my way down the list of jobs and activities for today, I thought I’d write a blog this evening. I cut the grass while it was still light, and unplugging the strimmer from the socket, I was met with a barrage of sparks and the house fused. Not only did the house fuse, but the fuse box died in the act of fusing. In Argentina, a very common phrase to hear is “se rompió”; which means “it broke”. Having spent the years of my youth having it impressed upon me that “stuff doesn’t just break itself”, it used to surprise me the ease with which people here say “se rompió”. Having been here a few years, I now know that this is Argentina, and really, things just do break themselves, and the fuse box “se rompió”.

Saturday night is a particularly rubbish time to find oneself without electricity, so Martin went off to fish out our tame builder friend, who in turn rounded up another neighbour who apparently works for EPEC, the electricity company. He came round and gave the offending fuse-box a good biff with a hammer, and now it works again. As Martin says, if we’d hit it, it wouldn’t have worked at all, so we can only assume that this is a special EPEC-trained sort of biff. Apparently this is only a temporary fix and we need to buy some new bits and get it done properly, but hopefully it’ll survive at least to keep the fridge running for the next few days.

And so finally, I am writing the blog that I didn’t write all week, but I’m not going to be writing it for very much longer because it’s after midnight, and we’re planning on driving up to Salta tomorrow for a few days setting off soon after dawn has cracked to make the most of the early morning cool, so, hope to catch you sometime towards the back end of the week when we’re here again.

PhD in Communication Skills

Working on developing alternative communication strategies with the kids at school, in the context of watching my non-disabled off-spring multiplying his verbal skills, I’m beginning to think that any child who learns to communicate ought to be awarded a PhD just as a matter of course.  Before we even start thinking about planning the content of any message, we must already have some concept of the nature and purpose of communication in order to be motivated to do it in the first place.  Following that, if we are to successfully convey even the simplest idea we first must have the ability to attract and maintain the listener’s attention, and if we have any intention of allowing our partner to respond to us, then we also have understood something of the rules of reciprocity and turn-taking.  And this is just to start with, it only gets more complicated from here as even the most trivial exchange is laden with content and choices to be made;

– Look Joni, where has Wibbly Pig put his banana skin?

– On his head! 

In a three word response my toddler conveys that he knows that I’m speaking to him, that I’ve asked him a question, and that he clearly understands the content of that question; “where” requiring a location-based response, as well as who – Wibbly Pig, and what – the banana skin.  He also selects the correct preposition, the correct possessive pronoun, demonstrates that he can match nouns to parts of the body and arranges the words into their conventional order, all in the split second between my asking and his answering.  And of course this is but one of hundreds of exchanges in which he will participate in different contexts, with different people during the course of every day, in his case, in two languages.  And all this in a much shorter time, and frankly with a lot less fuss than most people take over their doctorates. 

My little friend from the village did me proud this week.  When I first started working with him over a year ago, I created a set of cards containing photos of key family members, pictures representing the animals on their small-holding, and some others relating to everyday objects that I thought he might find motivating; biscuit, drink, football etc.  We looked at them a few times during my visits to his house, and then this year he went off to school and I stopped having much real input into the content of his schooling.  Now I’m in school at the same time as him for two days a week so the other day I fished out the cards that I had put away in a drawer, took them along to school, and scattered them on the table in front of him to see how he would react;


He carefully picked up each card and examined it closely, made the relevant animal noises for each of the farm pictures, pointed to the different members of his family, and finally selected the biscuit picture to give to one of the members of staff sitting next to him.  Thus he drew himself a little crowd of other members of staff all wanting to see what he was doing, and then asking him about the different members of his family, and the animals on their land.  It’s the most interest I’ve ever seen him take in any table-top activity so far, and the most interest I’ve ever seen any of the staff take in him. 

I’m trying not to lay my opinions (professional or otherwise) on with a trowel at the moment having already nailed my colours to the mast a couple of weeks ago as far as school is concerned, but I really hope that this little event and my little friend’s demonstration of his abilities might have opened the way towards some radical new ideas here; like this kid has potential; it is worth trying to teach him; many non-verbal kids do have something to say; it is worth the effort to help them discover and use the right materials to say it with; home-made resources can be just as good as anything high-tech or imported…  Now achieving that would be a real triumph for both his and my non-verbal communication.  Doctorates all round? 

Heading into December

I can’t decide if life’s busy or quiet, I think that probably means that it’s chugging along at the same sort of pace as ever, and I’m tired. I had my first good pasting today at school from the person I was supposed to be working with. She’s a lot bigger than me, I gave up trying to protect her person or the school’s property in favour of my own (slightly battered) skin at the point where she ripped a metal cupboard door off and tried to hit me with it. Brings back memories of another place I used to work… I don’t do challenging behaviour, it wasn’t my strong point in the other place and it isn’t now either. I’d really like to be working with the guys who barely receive any attention because they are unable to cause enough trouble for anyone to notice their presence… but of course school don’t think they have any difficulties with those kids precisely because they aren’t demanding attention, so instead they’ve given me the select little group of the students that they know they can’t handle. Luckily classes finish soon, and then I’ll have a couple of weeks where the only kid I’ll be in charge of is my own, before summer scheme starts, when I’ll spend the subsequent two months turning into a mermaid, or more likely a wrinkly prune, in the local outdoor pool in the company of a (mostly) different bunch of disabled people, and my ever-present little friend from the village.
Meanwhile my DIY wheelchair insert is taking shape in our garage, albeit slowly; partly due to time constraints, but also because of having to let each stage dry for a few days before moving on. Martin’s in Cordoba, should be well on the way back by now in fact. Boy and I took the dogs for a good walk this afternoon, cue much squelching in mud and splashing of stones into the irrigation canal (Joni throws the stones and dog dives enthuseastically into the water after them). Day concluded by throwing one muddy child in bath, followed by food, stories, and bed.

Someone sent me the link to this video, which may be way too cheesy for you guys who are already up to your necks in corny Christmas gimmicks, but we don’t get anything like that here, so I quite enjoyed the couple of minutes of festive cheer (and the quality of the singing’s pretty good too);