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Published: January 7th 2013
At the beginning of December I arrived in Cordoba, the second city of Argentina, ready to settle down for another period of study at a language school. The first positive was that after completing a written exam and conversation “interview” with the class co-ordinator I had moved up from the “A2 beginner” level that I was being taught in Buenos Aires, to the “B1 intermediate” level here in Cordoba – so it seemed the Spanish practice on the road had been useful! (There are six levels, beginner (A1 & A2), Intermediate (B1 & B2) and advanced (C1 & C2).
The school was very friendly, although they seemed to be in the middle of a bit of a recruitment drought when I arrived as I'm sure for the first week there were more staff at the school than there were students – which could surely never work!
On the first Monday of classes I also moved into another family homestay to continue my attempts at fully immersing in the Spanish language, and the great thing about this one was the house was only ten minutes walk from the language school so those 9a.m. starts didn't look quite so daunting!
Cordoba's main cathedral
Cathedral de buen pastor
I was also lucky that the first Friday I attended the school coincided with their end of year Christmas/New Year celebration party and thank you to the staff. The night was a huge amount of fun, with food and a little beer laid on, a DJ (one of the students so played a great mix of music) and a brilliant Argentine folk band who played a 45 minute or so set. While a night of free food, booze and live music will always be a winner in my book, the other highlight was that I spent the whole night speaking in Spanish – both with the staff and with the other students – even though we also shared English as a stronger common language. It really is the only way I'm going to continue to improve my Spanish – so I was really pleased that I didn't just take the “easy” option and ask that we speak together in English!
Another big highlight of my time in Cordoba was the weekly “Espanol y Cerveza” night that was held every Thursday on the roof terrace of one of the larger hostels. It was incredibly simple in concept, they simply promoted
the night as a “language and cultural exchange”, didn't charge anyone to get in, and then made a turn on the large amount of beer and food that was bought by everyone. It was a genuine language exchange as well, as it brought together foreign students that were studying Spanish, as well as local Cordobesas who were studying English. I found it a great way to meet like-minded people, practice my Spanish and have a few beers - although the inevitable push out to a “boliche” (bar) afterwards often meant that the class starting on Friday at 9a.m. was a tough one!
Talking about the nightlife in Cordoba, its certainly up there with Buenos Aires in the night owl stakes! The locals tend to go out around 2.30a.m. With things only really getting busy from 3.30a.m onwards. Some places start to wind down at 5.30a.m., but it seems that only at 7a.m. or so, with the sun having risen, can a night really be considered late! I remember one of the first Friday nights I headed out, had what I considered a pretty big night, and was wandering home at around 4.45a.m. to find that virtually every bar was
One of the many meals I had there - this time with the guys and girls from the language school.
still packed. I've never felt like a party pooper heading home from a night at approaching 5.a.m!!
I did up my game later in my stay, with a weekend that was probably the latest I've had in my life – and now I'm the more mature side of 30 I'm supposed to be slowing down! A 5.30a.m. finish after the “espanol y cerveza” on the Thursday night was followed up by two 7.30a.m. finishes on the Friday and Saturday nights! Needless to say Sunday was a more chilled affair ahead of classes the next day!
While sampling the unique nightlife was certainly part of the “cultural immersion” that I was taking seriously (I had enjoyed getting back into a routine of working/studying hard Monday-Friday and playing hard at weekends) everyone had advised that one of the must-do's while in Cordoba is to take a trip out to the Sierras, a range of hills and highlands that surround the city, to enjoy a day trip or long weekend.
The final Sunday I was in Cordoba I headed out to the town of Carlos Paz with three Australian friends from the language school. One of the things I have
Heartily recommended by the Carlos Paz tourist information office
found pleasantly surprising is that the tourist information offices (especially in the smaller towns I've visited) have been incredibly helpful. Supplying not just maps, but also an enthusiastic run-down of the “must see” sights of their particular city. Its also a great chance for me to practice my Spanish, although I wasn't entirely sure I had heard the man correctly as he talked in lavish tones about a giant cuckoo clock and a huge concrete statue of a donkey as key parts of any visit!
The aforementioned highlights, while appreciated for their comedy value, were slightly underwhelming, but the main reason to come to Carlos Paz was to take a chairlift up to the top of a mountain overlooking the town, and the huge man-made lake that had turned Carols Paz into a water sports destination. The views were great and it was lovely to be up in the breeze away from the heatwave that had settled in Cordoba. After enjoying the sights, myself and Tessa decided to go one step further and the wily saleswoman at the top of the mountain convinced up to have a go on the zip wire that spanned the valley from the mountain
we were on, to its neighbour on the other side.
Having done quite a few adrenaline activities in my previous travels, I was surprised at how much this got my heart rate pumping. While the speeds you achieve don't appear all that great, the fact that you are traversing alone using only a reinforced leather glove as your brake definitely add to the excitement! The return trip was definitely the highlight, as confidence gained from the first attempt meant I was able to go at much higher speed, combined with the fact that this time the view was out across the lake rather than towards the mountain. A really fun experience.
Cordoba also saw me embark on another new, and pretty adrenaline pumping experience - my first currency trades on the Argentinian black market! (known as the blue market in Argentina as its so common to use it). Traditionally, people looked to save in US dollars as this currency is so much more stable than the peso. However, at a time of huge suspicion about the government’s economic policies the “capital flight” from pesos to dollars could have been so severe that the authorities put in drastic controls
basically preventing Argentine citizens from buying or owning USD through normal channels. A black market of course sprung up.
My take on it is that if people are looking to save and they feel inflation is running at say 30% (compared to the government's official version of about 10%), then after 1 year their saved pesos will be worth 30% less. Not ideal. Therefore people in cash generative businesses seem happy to pay a significant (i.e. 25%) premium over the official rate to buy USD with their pesos and attempt to “inflation proof” their savings.
This is were I could come in. As a foreigner I was able to withdraw as many USD as possible from the ATMs in Uruguay and Paraguay (which both offer a dual currency feature in their main branches). Clutching my wad of crisp dollars, I now needed to find someone to buy them from me at as large a premium as I could negotiate. Strange men approached me in the street offering “cambio, cambio”, but this seemed stupidly high risk and a good way to lose all my money!
Instead, I decided to start asking round the jewellery shops which advertised that
they bought gold and silver to see if they would also buy dollars. Putting my improving Spanish to use, about the fourth shop that I tried agreed that yes, he would buy dollars and at a rate of 6.2. The official rate was 4.85, so he was offering me a 28%!p(MISSING)remium!! I tried to appear calm as I nearly bit his hand off and we completed our “trade” in his lovely air conditioned shop without any incident!
While the morals of what I did are up for debate, it was certainly an exciting and unusual thing to have done – and the fact that it also meant all of my subsequent purchases in Argentina were over 25%!c(MISSING)heaper was no bad thing either!
I spent Christmas in Cordoba, and to take my mind off the fact I was missing spending it with friends and family back home I was keen to get stuck into cooking a traditional English Christmas dinner. All I needed now was someone to cook it for, and an oven to cook it in. Luckily, my friend from the language school Ozcan was the solution to both! Being from Turkey, 25th
December celebrations had never been a big part of his experience so he was keen to sample an English roast, and he was also living in a shared student residence that had the necessary kitchen to allow me to unleash my inner Jamie Oliver!!
Its been a while since I've cooked a roast, and I'd certainly never done so in a kitchen this hot, but it worked out very well. To my taste I used a little too much salt, but the end result was a great success and four clean plates (2 German girls also joined us for dinner) at the end of the meal seemed to pay testimony to that!! (Obviously I'd helped matters slightly by ensuring that I supplied buck's fizz and plentiful wine to accompany the meal!)
I left Cordoba late on Boxing day, but this was a busy day with my last four hours of classes in the morning, followed by an exam to test whether I had reached the required standard to move from level B1 to level B2. Luckily I had, and passed the exam, so that was a great boost before all of the guys from the language school (6 of us – apparently it gets busier in January!) headed out for a farewell meal at my favourite restaurant – a place called Snr. Espacio where I urge anyone who visits Cordoba to go and sample the steak – I did at least three times over! (http://www.srespacio.com.ar/
It brought the curtain down on another great chapter in the trip. I found a great language school, met some fun people and I think my Spanish has benefited greatly because of it. Now its time to put that theory into practice with a month on the road through Chile, Bolivia and Peru to the ancient capital Cusco where I think the next language school beckons....
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