Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hola Argentina!

Ever wanted to take off for a year? My sister Sharon did just that. Her story...

Ever get the feeling there's more to life than ...... whatever it is you're doing. Ever wondered what it would feel like to throw it all in and go back to the good old days of a pack on your back, a bit of money in your pocket and not knowing where your next bed will be?
Sharon at their apartment in Cordoba
At the age of 45 with two children and a husband living in Auckland, New Zealand I decided to do something about that restless feeling. My solution: escape to South America.Twelve months ago this week I went along to the travel agent and paid for four tickets to Argentina. One month later, with four backpacks and not much more we left our lives, our jobs and school and caught the plane to Buenos Aires.

El Caminito in La Boca, Buenos Aires via
The plan was to spend eight months in South America. End of plan. We are not great planners, we have no five-year agenda, we barely keep a diary of what's coming up in the next two weeks. So as per usual we were winging it. No jobs lined up, no school organised for the children, nowhere to live. Preparation was nerve-wracking, stressful but most of all very, very exciting. We were on an adventure.

The Andes via
I was desperate for an adventure. Call it midlife crisis or suburban boredom but I needed a change. I was working four days a week, getting up at 4.15 am to start work at 4.30 producing a breakfast show on New Zealand TV. The job was fun, sometimes exciting, sometimes exhilarating but the hours were a killer. I was constantly in a state of jetlag, more-than-usual grumpy with the family, obsessed with getting to bed by 8pm to get my necessary eight hours a night.

Husband Adam was happily working as a reporter/producer and the children, Leah, 8 and Finn, 10 cheerily skipped off to school each morning. But there was no objection from any of them when we packed up our furniture and crammed it into the garage, handed the keys to our trusty, crusty old Corolla to my sister Pietra, said farewell to our friends and made the escape.

Leah, Finn, Sharon and Adam at farewell party
Actually, it wasn't that easy. We were taking a big risk financially. We'd quit our jobs with no certainty of walking back into work when we returned in eight months. We rented our house at a price that would just cover the mortgage but nothing else. Friends were supportive but baffled. Teachers at the school farewelled the kids with plenty of positive comments about new experiences, travel and learning a new language.

Adam is the only one who speaks Spanish. The rest of us would learn by total immersion. Why South America? I'd partied and surfed through my 20s in Australia, travelled Europe on my OE, Adam and I had lived in South East Asia before marriage and spent three years in London where both the children were born. Africa, we thought would be too difficult for small children, South America was new territory for both of us and we'd have a small head start with Adam's Spanish.

But I can't say the exact day we decided on Argentina. Maybe it was a romantic notion of mastering the tango with my husband and spending hours sipping red wine in an ancient courtyard in the shadow of the Andes. Whatever, it seemed more interesting than my mundane life in suburban Auckland.
La Boca, birthplace of the Tango, via
A fourteen-hour flight later to Buenos Aires the taxi dropped us in a narrow cobbled street in the old, artsy, "up and coming" suburb of San Telmo and we rang the bell to the hostel. Our home for three nights was a three metre by three metre bunk room. We dumped our bags and headed out into the hot humid Buenos Aires afternoon to explore.

Street vendor via
Hard hit by jet lag we slept like babies that night. Till 2am when we all woke to the dance music blaring through the hostel. This is party town after all and the parties don't start till well after midnight. Next morning the kindly young hostel hosts reminded us this place was strictly for 18-36 year olds. We were well outside the range on both sides but we were welcome to stay. By now the children were entranced by the comings and goings of the young hostelers and by the no-rules, anything goes style of living. For Adam and I it was deja vu 25 years later only this time with computers and mobile phones.

Downtown Buenos Aires via
Couple dancing via
We spent three days riding buses through the streets of Buenos Aires, the crazy-noisy boulevards, the famous 16-lane, biggest-in-the-world Avenida de 9 Julio, returning day after day to our favourite pizzeria in San Telmo, just down the road from our hostel which served puddings for gluttons.

Overwhelmed by the sweaty heat, a hectic city that never, never sleeps we decided BA wasn't the town for us and within a week we once again crammed our bags into the too small taxi and rushed for the bus station to board the overnight bus to Cordoba, Argentina's second city in the northwest.

Cockroaches scuttling in front of the yellow-washed cathedral in Plaza San Martin greeted us at dawn in Cordoba. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. I imagined us in a little, adobe white washed village where the kids ran around playing soccer and we made a home of a little, low terracotta-roofed house with the locals. Not this modern city of more than a million that felt like a mini Buenos Aires.
"Let's not stay here," I said to Adam as we sat over bad coffees in a cafe still recovering from the night before with alcohol-sticky tables and the stale stench of liquor. "Don't worry, there'll be an oasis," he promised.

We were waiting for 10am when we could jump into a taxi to visit a family we arranged to stay with. I had met their daughter in Auckland and she had urged me to contact her parents. Sure enough there was the oasis. Behind a high stone wall we found a big garden with swimming pool and wonderful 70s-style family home. Rolando and Mertha Cosacov greeted us with the typical Argentine kiss on the cheek, coffee and medialunas (croissants). We decided to stay, give this ancient Jesuit city of seven universities a go.

The extended Cosacov family of uncles, aunts, cousins and children made a big difference to our lives in Cordoba, inviting us to family celebrations, taking us on trips to their holiday house and to nearby tourist attractions, helping us find an apartment, inviting the children on sleepovers. Their generosity was overwhelming. Pity I couldn't express that to them but my Spanish was limited to Si and No. Lesson one: learn the lingo before you get there.

After 10 days of true South American hospitality with the Cosacovs we reluctantly ventured into the city centre to another hostel as we searched for a more permanent abode. We thought our budget could stretch to a two-bedroom apartment in a middle class suburb.  We ended up almost begging the agent to sign us up for a one-bedroomer in the student district, paying double the local rate. We were delighted, though, to quit hostel living with the all night door slamming, creaky bunk beds, unwashed dishes and strangers' hairs in the bathroom sink. And, though tiny, our apartment was light and airy, in a leafy part of town just minutes from some gorgeous museums and a big park.

Adam, Leah and Finn at Cristo in La Cumbre, near Cordoba
In ten minutes we were settled into our home for the next six months. I even had a job for a few hours a week teaching English to groups of children at a private language school. I thought it would be a doddle. I failed to factor in the lack of communication with zero Spanish, zero teaching skills, trying to get across the basics to a bunch of kids. Add to that the Kiwi accent that was as foreign as Martian and my classes were a chaotic mix of shouting (me) and uncontrollable noise (them). I resorted to teaching them what I knew: the haka, how to make traditional Maori poi (balls on the end of a long string) and how to bake a banana cake.

I wasn't invited back for the second term and the entire six weeks wages were spent on a day long bus trip to a town in the mountains. It was to be our Easter break adventure but we arrived in pouring rain to a place overrun with local holidaymakers and "no vacancy" signs everywhere. We bussed back home that night. That was the turning point for what to do with the kids. Naively we thought we would home school them and they would be educated by their surroundings and learn a foreign language by simply living in the country. Wrong. I quickly realised how impossible it is to persuade your child to write an essay about his or her favourite art piece they'd just seen in the museum without a lot of shouting, tears and bribery.

Enrolling them at a bilingual private school was the only education option and we raided the retirement fund to finance it but it was the best decision we made on that trip.

We quickly settled into a routine of getting up at 6.30am, porridge for breakfast, then one of us would dash for the bus to take the kids to San Patricio school 20 minutes away. Then walk home across the park to spend six hours whiling away the hours till it was time to pick them up again. We gave up trying to find work and instead spent our days exploring the city, learning Spanish and drinking coffee. At weekends we'd take a bus to the Sierras, the nearby mountain range filled with winding roads and villages.

Sundays were devoted to travelling to and from Finn's football matches, usually at rundown football clubs that in their heyday were the life and soul of the city but were now broke and warn out. But even the children's matches were exciting and entertaining and brimming with South American passion.

Ask the kids the best thing about their time away and it's not the adventure and challenge of a new school, making new friends or learning a new language as all parents hope the answer would be. For them it was the trip to Iguacu Falls, the closest thing we got to a theme park, I guess.

Finn at Iguacu Falls
With my Aunt Ann and Uncle Paul, we crammed into an eight seater people mover and travelled 5,000 km in 12 days, north west towards Bolivia and the beautiful city of Salta (where we shared the same room as the biggest cockroach I've ever seen!), over a big mountain range to an incredible valley of Road Runner-like cactii, 1,000 km along the longest straightest road through the Gran Chaco, staying a night halfway along at a place called Monte Quemada which Adam translated as Burnt Mountain.

Leah in Calchaqui Valley
There was definitely no mountain but it was a very dried up patch of poor land and scraggly trees stretching out on a plain in all directions for miles. It was the most memorable night we had because the town was so dreadfully depressing with teenagers hanging around the equivalent of burger bars with bad, loud music, we ate chewy meat sandwiches that took an hour to come to us in a cold, deserted restaurant, but we did pass a couple of women practising belly dancing in their full middle eastern costumes, then at another spot two men in black suits doing classical dance routine. All this on a Tuesday night in Monte Quemada. 

We did this trip in the middle of winter, setting out from Cordoba in 25 degree Celcius, hot and dry and expecting to hit the tropics of Iguaccu and do some mid-winter sunbathing. But overnight the temperature plummetted and we arrived at Iguaccu, in teeming, cold rain. Not to be deterred we explored the falls on both the Argentinian and Brazillian sides, got thoroughly soaked and all agreed they more than lived up to their hype. Adding to the day was a fabulous all you could eat smorgasbord lunch on the Brazilian side at a restaurant overlooking the falls. We pronounced it the best meal we had in Argentina!

Horse Trekking
The trip made me restless to do more travel. We'd been in Argentina nearly six months and we had no real plan then except to leave South America in September for England for a month with Adam's family before returning to NZ. Only school was keeping us in Cordoba so when Adam was offered some work with Reuters in Buenos Aires, I decided to pull the kids out of class and go backpacking for our last six weeks in South America.

Again, we were winging it but the idea was to bus to Uruguay, staying at hostels along the way and meet Adam at weekends. Uruguay mid-winter is a little like much of New Zealand - very wet and very, very quiet. But the people are kind and gentle and we never felt unsafe, even when we found ourselves wandering through the crack district in Montevideo or stuck in a deserted, coastal town in the pouring rain, the only sign of life was a bedraggled cyclist making his way up to Mexico.

Leah and Finn at Hand In The Sand, Uruguay
We're happily home in our slice of suburban Auckland now, back at school, back at work (different job for me), back with friends and family. But I hope it's not the end of our adventures.

Where would you go - if you could take off for a year?


  1. this is such an inspiring read! :D if i could take a year off, i would love to travel all over europe. i've also been daydreaming about living in london for a year. :)

    <3, Mimi

  2. How amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this account... I think it is truly incredible and what a real adventure. I loved reading every word!

    My fiance and I have definitely talked about taking an adventure year once we start a family. Telluride, CO (not as exotic a place as Argentina!) would be our little dream for a year! Fingers crossed!

  3. I dont know where I would go but I am very inspired by your travels.

  4. funny enough, my top two places to travel next are Argentina and New Zealand!! Thanks for such a great post and such a great story. What an adventure!!

  5. I SO wish I had the courage to do that. I think I'd go to South Africa.

  6. What an amazing story! I hope that our little family has enough chutzpah to do something like that someday. I'd love to go to Chile or Iceland.

  7. What an amazing adventure. A story of a true commitment to "living life to the fullest"...I love that it was a "family thing!" Andy and I had friends who biked/backpacked around the world (they put all their belongings in one of those pods, said hasta la vista to their jobs and set forth on an adventure of a lifetime). I am so inspired by these stories!

  8. Thats just amazing! I love that they took their kids with them and didnt wait to take an adventure when their kids were older. What a great experience for the whole family! :)

    PS thanks for following my blog! Love yours!

  9. reading this post was so refreshing - I've always dreamed of sailing around the world with my family, thinking - like you - that the kids would just learn along the way &/or that i'd do some boat-schooling (who needs a formal education? Nuns are overrated).
    anyway, I married a GOLFER, not a SAILOR, and have not yet done it, but have managed to drag the little ones around the world quite a bit nonetheless. and don't laugh, but NZ and Australia are placed we envision going for long spans of time. be careful - we may contact you:-)

  10. Amazing! I would love to take a year off. I think it would be very scary, but incredible. I would go to somewhere in Europe!

  11. Thanks for sharing this story. My hat goes off to you for doing this with children! Adventure indeed! I spent my honeymoon in BA and Uruguay and thought it was a lovely, fascinating place. Reading your story reminded me of many of the adventures we had.

  12. This was such a touching story... really touching, because I yearn to travel, to experience the world with my family, and I have such a deep admiration for your sister, and others like her- that have set their 'life' aside and experienced a different life... in a whole new way. Thank you for sharing!!

  13. I almost cried reading this story. That is what I really wanna do now! Just escape the routine, work and travel somewhere else. One year off is indeed a plenty time for me. :) I am really amazed with your courage and sense of adventure. I hope I can do that as well, sometimes in the future. My choice would be tuscany, italy. :)

  14. I really want to get to know Argentina!!! it seems to be a very interesting country
    I wanted to ask you for recommendations for my trip, for example about buenos aires apartments, where should I stay? near the center?


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