Category Archives: daily life

Argentina 2, Day 68 – Handfuls of Homespun Haiku

Barking dog chorus
One escape triggers the rest
There will be no peace

Eight invitations
Parade of birthday parties
Almost every week

Ants dig towards the light
Build a little mound of dirt
On the bathroom grate

Frutería man
Sings his favorite songs each day
From the hit show Grease

School bus late again
Flat tires leaking windows
Sixteen kids in van


Things to be happy about, in no particular order:

>Conversations with Mari


Talking with Mari is a highlight of my weekday afternoons. I’d like to tell you her last name, but I don’t know it. I do know that she’s been working (cleaning, cooking, childcare) for our friends Barbara and Daniel for 8 years. I know her husband is named Nestor and they have three children (two teenage sons and a daughter who’s about Emily’s age, 13). She’s Argentine and hasn’t traveled more than 100 or so miles away from this town in her whole life. I expect she’s a couple years younger than me, though her decades of physical work have hardened her.

When we arrived in March I immediately began to ask around for domestic help. During Argentina One, Elvi lived with us and I was eager to replicate that experience, to whatever extent possible. (Interesting post recently on this topic of hiring domestic help from a blog that I enjoy reading). Barbara’s suggestion of Mari has been a short-term solution to a short-term situation. Barbara knows she’s recommended someone trustworthy, Mari makes some (always needed) extra money, and we get some help. Though it would mean LONG days for her, we all agreed to try. She starts working for us around 5 pm, after she’s been working at Barbara’s since 8 am. Our house is small (about 1100 sq ft), and some types of things she’d normally do (laundry, for example) are already out-sourced. Plus I’ve usually washed the breakfast dishes by 5 pm, on most days.

From the beginning it was clear that cooking is Mari’s first love. Before she worked for Barbara, one of her jobs was to prepare pastries at a small restaurant in La Plata, but the hours were too long and unreliable. One day when I was downtown I saw a flyer for a cooking school and I brought it home to her. She carefully read every word out loud and wondered whether you would need “secundario” (high school) to enroll. Because she doesn’t have secundario.

She’s often talks about how difficult it has been for her to leave her own kids alone while she spends her hours caring for other people’s children. About seven years ago, all three of her kids came down with hepatitis (A, probably) and required many weeks of bedrest and medical care. Throughout those months she didn’t dare tell Barbara about the hepatitis at all, afraid of losing her job. Instead she sanitized her life with boiling water and bleach. I’d call it a no-win situation.

Our conversations focus on our common ground instead of our vast differences. We’re two woman, within a few years’ ago of each other, both wives and mothers to three children. We commiserate over our teenagers, the curious behavior of our siblings, and our aging parents. We swap recipes for desserts we like making. As I type this, Chris is dictating to her his recipe for corn bread (she’d never had it before last week, when Chris had made it, and she intends to prepare it for her family tonight).

Once in a while she tells stories of working for Barbara, Daniel, and their daughters. It’s more venting frustrations than gossiping, and she feels safe telling me things that she knows I won’t turn and tell Barbara. Unless Barbara becomes one of the handful of people who reads this blog… Admittedly awkward to hear stories about one’s friends’ personal habits (but oh so tantalizing from a soap opera, human-interest perspective). I usually do the equivalent of covering my ears with hands and saying “la-la-la-la-la.” Oh well, all’s fair in life. She doesn’t tell these stories often, and our lives may be just as interesting for Barbara to hear about.


A somewhat frustrating week of dealing with the asynchronous orbits of life. Parenting, partnering, household managing, writing as a geographer, preparing data for classes I’ll teach in September. Meanwhile every time some natural disaster occurs, like earthquakes that bury children or cyclones that swamp them, I wonder again why I’m not using my mapping skills for humanitarian work (instead of a life teaching privileged students in higher education). You might say that I’m teaching them so that they can go out and do good deeds themselves, but sometimes I don’t want to be once-removed from a real and pressing need.

Yesterday at Colegio Patris the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders hosted an all-day sports tournament with three of the other local private schools. It’s part of Patris’s celebration of their 10th anniversary. So for hours Eric played rounds of soccer and Julia played rounds of field hockey. By the time I arrived in mid-afternoon I’d missed all of Julia’s games, but others told me she played extremely well. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that she towers over her diminutive, younger peers. She now wants to play field hockey when she returns to the States, something that would be a matter of course in New England, but not so easy in Southern California. Eric’s 5th grade team also made it to the championship round but they lost in the last few moments. I got to hear the girls in his class chanting his name, which sounds like “Aihr-Reek.”

Two weeks and counting …

Living with Less – Guest Post by Chris Sinton

As a faculty member of an environmental studies program, I really need to “practicar lo que sermonear.” Our stay in City Bell has given us a chance or, more accurately, has forced us to live with a lower environmental impact. As I ask my students “what is the minimum amount of material and energy we can use and still live a safe, healthy, and happy life?” Ok, it is hard to measure the happiness part but we are relatively safe and certainly well-fed. A note on feeding: the children like to point out that I am growing at least one more chin. Maybe I will grow back my beard and hide my new collection.

In the US we have: two cars, many bikes, washer/dryer, fancy stove/oven, dishwasher, microwave, large refrigerator, assorted mixers and blenders, electric knife sharpener, central air/heat, and lots of other goodies. Here, we have a TV, an ancient fridge, a dinky stove/oven, a fraction of the pots and pans, and a quarter of the clothes we own. [We do have our computers]. It is like being in a camping cabin for three months.

How can we survive? Life without a car works because we can easily walk to get groceries, ice cream, soccer balls, etc. To get to work, I either pick up a bus near the house or, more often, walk twenty minutes to catch a bus on the main road (Camino Centenario). Total bus trip is 10-20 minutes. Eric and Julia take an overcrowded minibus to and from school. If we need to get somewhere with Emily, we take a taxi. To transport the entire family, we need two taxis (hassle but workable).

While we have reduced our transportation impact, I am not so sure about the house. The house is uninsulated and the fridge runs most of the time. A rolled up towel keeps out the draft from the gap under the front door.

On the stuff side, we get by with what we have. We do miss some of our appliances and certainly a car, but that is mostly when we need to get Emily somewhere. Most of our food seems to come locally, although bananas still come from Ecuador and other fruits from the western side of the country.

OK, lesson learned. We can get by with less. Can we go home now and fire up the big gas grill?

life back home

Oh yea, there’s also that life going on back in the northern hemisphere. Like the sprinkler system whose settings still reflect winter conditions (ours is the dry and dying lawn across the street, photo taken from Kim and Steve’s front door). The decision about whether to pull up all (irrigated, non-native, water-sucking) front lawn grass and convert to other drought-tolerant plants may have been made for us! Though we can’t plant new things until late fall when the weather cools again.


Now that Chris’s primary teaching responsbilities are over, he’s been prepping for the three classes he’ll be teaching this fall at Redlands. Last week we learned that he and one of his colleagues in Environmental Studies (Wendy McIntyre) received a grant from HP for teaching their field-based courses with new technologies (tablet pcs, gps, digital cameras, etc.). All good, and now they have to do the work! I’ve been trying to get him do write a guest posting on the blog. Send him an email ( with encouragement.


When we do return to California in 4 weeks, it won’t be for long. We “don’t work” in the summers, according to our faculty contracts, and by June 18 we’ll be in Vermont. Six weeks or so of travels, visits, and vacation around New England. When we’re in Middlebury we’ll also close on the Monroe St house sale, fingers crossed! Last month we signed the contract with mixed feelings: thrilled at the financial prospect of not owning two homes (not to mention the rented one in Argentina!), but twinges of nostalgic regret for cutting off this tangible connection to our old life. The new owners will be incoming Middlebury faculty with young kids, and we have good images of their enjoying the home we built.


Thanks to all the people in the States who are keeping this “life back home” running smoothly: Kim, Steve, Nathan, Monica, Theresa, Ingrid, and unnamed others. I send my appreciative thoughts of this while I am sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop (with wi-fi), sipping my café con leche, drafting the syllabus for my fall class on spatial thinking, an instant messaging with my sister in Mexico. Emily, my trusty companion, reads her book and comments on the people walking by. I’m thinking the people around here don’t worry too much about their grass turning brown.

Argentina Day 2, Day 51

It’s all so old that it’s new again. What better way to spend time in the modern world then checking hair for nits (circa 300 BCE) while listening to downloaded podcasts of NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.