Alex Hart

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Magical Realism

The people here in Añatuya know me a bit better now and laugh about how bad my Spanish was last year (and comment that it is better now). Certainly, it was very frustrating at times and it led to quite a few misunderstandings.

It is however difficult sometimes to work out, when, things aren’t quite as you would expect if this is due to the language barrier, people winding me up, or (as is so often the case in South America) whether it´s just the way things are done here.

For example yesterday I went to buy my bus ticket back to Buenos Aires. I am travelling back with the same company I travelled here with, the same class of travel (cama) and the distance of journey is the same. Why then did the ticket cost nearly 100 pesos (20%) less than it cost in Buenos Aires or to buy online? The girl behind the counter explained I shouldn’t worry, it´s all good. When I ask other people they simply shrug – it’s a complete mystery!

Last weekend it was very cold. Temperatures dropped down to close to freezing at night and didn’t get above 14 degrees in the day. There is no heating in my room and needless to say I was very cold. The kind offer of an extra blanket didn’t help and when I asked if there was any sort of heating in my room I was told no. I took to wrapping myself in the little fleece blanket I brought with me for the bus journey at night just to keep warm. I mentioned this to people in the café and they all roar with laughter. ¨change to the other hotel¨ they helpfully suggest. I am reluctant to do this, firstly because the people here are so lovely but also because the additional cost would mean I have less money to spend on treats for the kids.
El Hogar y Anatuya 020
On Sunday evening I come back to find the staff huddled round an open fire in the café – yours truly meanwhile has to huddle under blankets to keep warm. ¨Go and buy a little heater and smuggle it in your handbag¨ the café crowd say. I explain I am also a little nervous about plugging a heater into the one socket that works in my room. It has been known to emit blue sparks and one day last year when I was here, the electrics blew. This just makes everyone laugh even more! ¨If your hairdryer works, you should be fine¨ they tell me. So I duly purchase my little fan heater and it works beautifully – bliss!! Of course I can´t watch TV or plug in my computer and stay warm at the same time due to the 1 socket issue but that’s okay.

So imagine my surprise a day later when I notice the store room door is open and I spy around 4 or 5 electric heaters there!!!! I am completely baffled. Why didn’t they offer me one? Maybe they are too expensive to run? Maybe they just don’t work? As to the real reason – I suspect I will never know.

And finally, if you have ever had to deal with the post office system in Argentina you may have some sympathy for my dread of going to the post office to buy stamps. I am convinced that the man behind the counter was born a public servant – he only speaks in straight lines. Last year, even with local help, buying stamps was a real mission. This year things are no different. We spend a long time debating what I need.
The post office
¨New Zealand is in Europe¨ He states. I give him my best Paddington bear glare but to no avail – he really doesn’t know where New Zealand is. Finally we manage to agree on what I need. I grab my purse and immediately he wags his finger at me. ¨No, no, no¨ he says. ¨You need to come back at 11.00¨. And then it dawns on me that despite our long discussion, he actually has no stamps.

It´s going to be a long day…………….

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Saturday Night Fiebre!

In practically every small town in Europe you will find a café in the town square that is the living heart of the community. Here in Añatuya, ¨Jose´s café¨(as I call it) is no different. Jose and his brother Marco act as patriarchs, confidantes and general advisers to all who pass through their doors. The café, with its generous array of pastiles, is always warm and welcoming and its impossible not to be drawn into its atmosphere. When I slipped in quietly on my first day back in Añatuya last week, M, the quiet, twinkly eyed waiter simply said ¨Buen dia – long time no see¨as though I had somehow been away on holiday for a couple of weeks.

Jose was nowhere to be seen and a rather garbled conversation with my friend N led me to believe he had passed away suddenly from cancer. This was a bit of a shock to me, however a further conversation with Marco revealed that he was not dead but merely unwell – although nobody seems to know what is wrong with him – ¨it´s all in his head!¨says Marco.
The café has a different feel about it depending on the time of day, but whatever the time, the main focus inside is the large plasma TV fixed to one wall. Before lunch, the café is the province of the older men in the town – no women are to be seen (presumably they are elsewhere cleaning, shopping, washing or cooking…….). The ¨No smoking¨ rule is ignored as the men sip their coffee, smoke and debate the important issues of the hour as they no doubt have done for the last 30 years or so.

Jose's café and its TV

Jose’s café and its TV

The choice of daily morning show that these guys watch on TV is completely baffling to me. The host is a very tall and somewhat glamorous transsexual male dressed in the highest heels imaginable. The show´s guests (on this particular day) are various men dressed in pink lycra tights, also tottering on high heels and sporting the oddest womens´ wigs I have ever seen! ¨HAPPY HAIRDRESSERS DAY!¨appears across the screen in bold letters. It´s so bizarre! Meanwhile Jose´s elderly macho clientele are completely transfixed!

On Saturday nights though things are a bit different. For some men there´s only one thing more important than strutting their stuff or chasing girls and that’s the beautiful game of Fútbol!
As I wait for my evening meal, a group of young men enter the café, gravely nod and wish me a good evening before sitting down in front of the TV screen. On this particular Saturday night, things are not going so well for the home team – there are no excited shouts or frenzied exclamations of Gooooooaaaaaal!

It seems this particular football god may have fallen from heaven judging by recent Argentinean newspaper reports

It seems this particular football god may have fallen from heaven judging by recent Argentinean newspaper reports


Montevideo it seems is winning. You could cut the tense atmosphere with a knife. The men don’t make a sound but you can feel their agony and their desperate hope that things will turn around in the last few moments. It´s just too painful to watch – so I tiptoe out quietly. Time for an early night methinks!


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Añatuya – The return journey

It has been quite a year – over the last 12 months I have left my tax career behind, made a TV programme, enrolled in University, travelled to Argentina for a month to volunteer for a charity there, jumped out of a plane to raise funds for the same charity, welcomed various foreign students into our home and oh unfortunately also spent a couple of weeks in hospital. Best of all working with my hubby hasn’t ended in murder on either part – although we have learned to leave work at the front door whenever possible. Phew! You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s been a pretty exhausting time but in truth I have loved every minute of it – even when our finances have been tight.

So when I have told people I planned on going back to Añatuya, some have been slightly puzzled and asked “why – haven’t you just done that?” I guess that’s the point though – this trip is all about closing the circle. I am dying to find out how all of the children I met are doing, to see and do some things I didn’t get round to and of course it’s a perfect way to advance my Spanish too.

Arriving into Buenos Aires this week I was surprised at how excited I felt – after all I’m on my own and I’m going to be working and studying for most of my trip. However, Buenos Aires is simply an amazing and beautiful city – from its proud and elegant buildings to the vibrancy in the city centre and theatre district. It’s the week of the Tango world championships and the whole city has a real buzz about it. The president announced that the country is doing OK economically and whilst there is a massive inflation problem, in the city people are feeling really positive. Even the hotel I stayed in last year has had a bit of a face lift. “I don’t know what it is today” groaned one taxi driver “everyone – not just the tourists – has 100 peso notes it’s driving me mad!” At which point he leaped out of the cab mid traffic to change my 100 peso note with the cabbie in front, much to the irritation of the drivers behind us.

Another thing I have noticed this time is that people in Buenos Aires didn’t automatically revert to English when I spoke to them. Clearly my Spanish has improved dramatically (¡Gracias a L por supuesto!). It’s great to be able to have a decent conversation with strangers and as I am studying South American literature this semester, browsing the bookshops on Corrientes again was even more enjoyable than before.

The Recoleta cemetary is one of my favourite places in BA. It's one of latin America´s ironies however that the military leaders have the most ostentatious tombs of all!

The Recoleta cemetary is one of my favourite places in BA. It’s one of latin America´s ironies however that the military leaders have the most ostentatious tombs of all!

The journey north to Añatuya by bus was comfortable and uneventful and the staff at the Hotel Difuncor greeted me like a long lost friend and showed me to the room I had last year – so far so good. In fact too good – based on previous experience that must mean something is about to go horribly wrong……

….The weather here has turned back to being very cold and is expected to between 2 and 5 degrees at night for the next few days and here’s the rub. The hotel has no heating in it. At all. Ah! When I enquired about some heating for my room I was kindly offered an extra blanket. To think I whinged about the heat last year!
Anyhow, the children from the hogar are away on a holiday until next week and I will find out how this went and catch up with everyone from Haciendo Camino properly at that time. Until then I think I will grab some supplies and make a tent under my blanket to wait out the cold weather.

Hasta luego!


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Flying Red Tomatoes

When the surgeon asked me if there was anything I wanted to know before my operation in March, I think he was a little disconcerted when I asked only “how soon will I be able to sky dive?”

As it turned out, the sky dive to raise money for children in Añatuya  Argentina  took a little longer to organise than planned – mainly due to cancellations because of the weather. However  I  finally did the deed last Saturday.

The prospect of jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet up was for me quite simply terrifying. So instead of focussing on the actual jump, before the day  I worried about other random things such as would I be able to do the suit up over my chest? Would they shout my weight out to all present? Would I scream like a banshee on the way down only to fall in an awkward heap on the ground? What would it be like being strapped to a complete stranger (being British, this was a real concern for me)? Oh and finally, dear god, please don’t let the suit be red………

You might think a red flying suit would be the last thing to worry about. Well perhaps it helps if I explain. Several years ago, not long after I had met my husband, he organised a skiing weekend as a surprise. I had not skied much (and not for many years) so was lacking in the necessary gear for our planned weekend in the Scottish highlands (as was my 6 year old son). “Not to worry” said my beloved, “I will go and organise everything”.  Fabulous! How thoughtful! I happily told my colleagues all about my man’s plans. One of my friends asked if I was not the teeniest bit concerned about my new man purchasing an important item of clothing – sowing a tint seed of doubt in my mind – but really, what could possibly go wrong?

Arriving home that evening my beloved presented me with my ski gear – a lovely tomato red “onesie” and even better – a matching mini red onesie for my son. Ah. The offending item (unfortunately) fitted so there was nothing for it but to wear the outfit in the snow. To this day, I shudder in horror at the memory of the photograph of me hurtling down the mountain, arms outstretched, like a giant beef tomato, mini cherry tomato following swiftly behind……. Suffice it to say that the onesie was quietly disposed of to charity soon after!

So last Saturday, on the actual day of the sky dive all my fears were reduced to nothing. The (blue) suit did up, there was no stressing about having my weight declared and the instructor, T, was experienced and kind. Plus the weather was clear and sunny.  So far so good! As the plane took off I contented myself with looking out of the window at the marvellous scenery while trying to remember the instructions I had been given.

So far so good!

At 13,000 feet, T opened the door of the Cessna and instructed me to swing my legs out and perch them on the little ledge outside. At this point the sheer shock of the blast of wind in my face not to mention dangling in the air sent a wave of extreme panic through me and I struggled to breathe. T asked if I was ok ) but by now full on panic attack had taken hold and I was turning blue in the face. Eventually I crawled back into the safety of the cabin and the pilot turned the plane back to ground.

At this point I pictured all of the people on the ground waiting for me, the people who had generously sponsored my dive and the embarrassment of admitting failure and handing back the funds. I tapped T on the shoulder and said ¨Please, I really need to do this¨.

The second time the door opened I felt calmer, my breathing was under control and before I knew it we had tipped out of the plane and were freefalling.

Strangely, despite my fear of heights I wasn’t concerned about how high up we were and instead  I focussed only on breathing in and out and after almost a minute the chute was pulled, the noise stopped and we were floating above the ground – fantastic!

We glided to a graceful stop a few minutes later – it was all over.

yippee made it!

Now I know some people rave about sky diving but I have to confess it’s not for me. It was intended to be a challenge – for me to conquer my fear and do something that scared me silly for the sake of somebody else. In that sense it was very successful and I would very much like to thank all involved who helped me achieve my goal. Would I do it again? Well you just have to see the video to see how terrified I was – and frankly I would only jump out of a plane again if my very life depended on it.

Speaking of lives depending on it, just a mere 3 hours later the very same Cessna plane lost power above the airfield and crash landed into some trees. Nobody was hurt thank goodness – but that could very easily have been me……..

If you want to know more about my fundraising project you can see it here:


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Superman doesen’t live here!

When I was young, my hero was James Bond (Sean Connery’s version in particular). James Bond  was suave, sophisticated, always found a way to get out of a tricky situation and got the job done.  The best thing about James Bond was that he didn’t need an alien super power  he was just great at his job. Okay so he had some pretty nifty gadgets to help him but his talents like being a champion skier and bilingual in Japanese were eminently believable and achievable for us mere mortals.

wonder woman

Wonder woman – don’t you just love her outfit?

We love superheroes and I think it’s because ultimately we don’t like the fact that we are vulnerable human beings and sometimes we don’t want to admit to our frailties. We make mistakes. Sometimes we drop the ball and we don’t always get the girl (or the guy) that’s for sure!

Today I sat talking to a neighbour and friend who has been jetting all over the world over the last few weeks for work.  Being away from home, D explained that a lot of things have piled for him up at work and at home.  He was exhausted and yet he said that he needed to  do a DIY job at home just so he could feel a bit more in control by having achieved something on his enormous to do list. The sad thing is that I, like many people I expect, can totally relate to this.

For years I felt that I needed to perform like a superhero. If one task was ballooning out of control, then the answer was to simply take on another to prove I could perform that one like wonderwoman and also to deflect attention from the task that wasn’t performed to my own standard of perfection…..  My weekends were regimented in such a way that I could achieve the multitude of tasks I lined up for myself each week and heaven forbid anything (like a social activity) should throw my timetable out of sync!

Being in hospital for 2 weeks recently I was panicked to realise that I had missed the first 2 weeks of university – never mind the office work piling up and all of the other daily tasks that needed to be done at home. To cap it all, on coming home I was under strict instruction to take it easy and not to carry out certain physical activities. Some of the fundraising projects I had planned needed to take a back seat.  I had to take it easy for the first 5 days at home. I assumed that meant doing ‘half’ what I normally do.

So five days after being discharged, I headed back for  half a day back at work, came home to tackle the housework and crashed……….help! Somebody needs to find the kryptonite that has paralysed me!!!

Superman’s nemesis – Kryptonite

Superman's nemesis - Kryptonite

I was horribly unprepared for my first university tutorial and stammered my way through the session. For the very first time, the real prospect of failure loomed large in front of me. What happened to wonderwoman who can do anything she sets her mind to?  The thought of failing at something important to me is the most terrifying thing in the world and yet by driving ourselves forward at breakneck pace we all set ourselves up for failure constantly.

Maybe It’s time for me to take a look in the mirror and see that I am hurtling towards the age of 50 – I need glasses to read the fine print and I no longer have the energy of a 17 year old student!

So what if it takes me longer to complete my studies than I had planned? I will still get there if I make an effort. So what if there is a pile of ironing! There will still be something to iron tomorrow and if the garden looks untidy – well  it will still survive if I don’t manage to do all the weeding in the next week.

The real superheroes in this world are those people who don’t pretend they can do everything. They are the ones who put aside the ‘urgent’ task to listen to someone else’s problems. People who take time out of their own busy lives to help someone else – whether it is an elderly parent or their neighbour across the street.

So to all of these superheroes, I salute you and oh,  by the way, next time you are passing, any chance you can you help me look under the sofa for that kryptonite that’s holding me back from my superpowers?……..


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Only when Iaugh!

Well, the TV show aired and rather than taking time to see the feedback and reflect on the journey so far, a trip to hospital kinda put a spanner in the works this week and has forced me to stop still in my tracks.

I have never liked hospitals – depressing noisy places with a lingering smell of sickness and disinfectant.  However  having experienced the NZ public health service first hand I feel it only fair to set the record straight about the excellent health service we have in this country and the dedicated professionals who work so hard within its systems.

Travelling to hospital by ambulance in the early hours of the morning was quite scary.  While the paramedic took it upon himself to lecture me on the purpose of pain (if you have pain – go to the doctor, dont wait until you need an ambulance was basically his message!) all I could think about through my gritted teeth was why the bleep bleep  hadn’t  I asked them to go the route avoiding the bumpy gravel road…

I am not surprised at the cost of our health service here in New Zealand – the care and attention delivered by the doctors, nurses and care assistants  is phenomenal. What was slightly shocking to me (from my observations this week) is the amount of illnesses being treated that perhaps could have been avoided through healthy living – from issues stemming from obesity to alcohol abuse.

Our public health system creaks along – it’s amazing with so many patients and with health decisions changing so fast that things like the hospital food service can keep up at all. I confess when I finally was allowed to eat and found my appetite –  the non-arrival of my breakfast (toast) this morning had me chasing the poor orderly down the corridor in a state of panic and near to tears. He took off at high speed poor man.  After that I thought it best to stock up on a cheese scone from the downstairs cafe in case my lunch suffered a similar fate.

The sheer kindness of the nurses looking after me is, quite frankly humbling.  They work so hard and maintain a calm professional manner in the face of some very rude and demanding patients. Personally I thank my blessings we have a public health service in this day and age – but lets face it you are not paying to stay in some top hotel!

It does however pay to have your wits about you and to pay attention to everything you are told. In a busy ward it only takes one person to forget to make some notes to find that your pain relief is not administered or food is offered to a patient who is nil by mouth. The health staff  act as social workers at times as well as looking out for elderly confused patients suffering with alzheimers.

There have been 2 occasions when I have felt like ripping back the curtains around patients who, whilst surrounded by doctors and nurses as well as close family have done nothing but moan and complain about their sorry lot at full volume, refusing to take medical specialists advice and at the same time contributing to the distress of other sick patients around them. Instead taking a leisurely walk around the ward to lower my own blood pressure seemed a better option…..

View from my hospital bedside - simply beautiful....

View from my hospital bedside – simply beautiful….

 

 

 

 

 

So, while I still have a semblance of a sense of humour here are some of my health service observations.

  1. Hospital Food
    okay, I had to start with this one. Actually, it could be worse – but for anyone who experienced school dinners in the 70’s and 80’s you will understand why I shiver at the sight of hospital mash potato, custard (a la thick skin)and mushy orange vegetables which even after eating I could not identify accurately. Methinks Gordon Ramsay  should pay a visit to the canteen….
  2. Doctors
    They say it’s a sign of getting older when doctors and policeman start looking really young. I have to say all the doctors here look really young which makes me slightly nervous. On top of this, they seem fit, have great teeth and are fashionably dressed. I feel like I am in an episode of a TV soap!
  3. Privacy
    There is no privacy in a shared hospital room – you hear EVERYTHING!  All the patients quickly get to know what is wrong wih their room mates, along with all their gory personal details. At the end of a short stay it’s not surprising that you feel like you are on your way to gaining a medical diploma of some sort.
  4. Drugs
    Ah! What can I tell you about the drugs except that when you are sick the drugs they dish out are goooood!
  5. And finally – yes it truly does hurt to laugh!

This weekend I have a brief reprieve in the form of a trip home before a further scan and then an operation. So right now I would like to say a big big thank you to  all those who have been looking after me – especially B and E – you know who you are!    I just have to remember to behave myself and try not to do the very big list of chores waiting for me at home…….


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Downsize Me!

So Phase 2 of my new life is well and truly underway.   University has started, I am busy in our business, organising more fundraising and also settling our homestay HJ, in at home.  My starting over episode screens this Sunday (7.30pm on Vibe TV) and this will close the first chapter for me.

One of the compromises I committed to, in exchange for for giving up my executive salary was to ‘downsize’ my spending. This of course was music to my husband’s ears.

Ever tried it? Well if not, let me tell you it is not as easy as it sounds!!!  A couple of years ago I bought a new car. Shiny black with tinted windows, heated leather seats and a turbo boost that when you put your foot down (practically my favourite thing about driving) it leapt forward quietly with satisfying speed and ease. It had several annoying features which I won’t bore you with, but it was comfortable and more importantly it was mine.  This particular model however guzzles petrol at a terrifying rate. Every trip to the city and back cost $30 and let’s not even discuss the cost of new tyres!

Bye Bye Baby!So, if I am to truly downsize aspects of my spending, the car had to go. Letting go proved to be surprisingly difficult and caused me to sulk big time – until I thought about all the things I still want to do (e.g. go back to Argentina this year!). After that, the decision was easy. My new car is cheaper to run, easier for parking and still a lovely shiny black.

Bye Bye Baby!

The next thing to tackle was the weekly shopping bill. One of the big drawbacks of marrying a serious foodie is the effect that it has on your waistline, and your wallet (Faro really is one of my favourite shops). “You really have been living well!” was how our doctor put it when he did a health check. Losing weight is essential for my health and also my personal wellbeing.  Cutting out the ‘crap’ processed foods and alcohol from our daily diet and planning our meals properly also saves us money – it’s that simple.

Sadly the cats don't get the idea of downsizing their food!

Sadly the cats don’t get the idea of downsizing their food!

Changing our eating habits also means eating out less. Being based in the countryside I don’t miss that as much as I thought I would and instead it means when I do go out its more enjoyable.

The garden has been full to bursting with fresh produce this summer and we have been living like the old TV show – “The Good Life”. I have a pantry stuffed with preserves and pickles and a freezer full of wonderful beef (God bless William and Harry).  I am almost at the stage of never wanting to see another courgette (zucchini) again and I confess that I couldn’t quite bring myself to make marrow jam. I have however had lots of delicious passata made with the sweet tomatoes that are still appearing daily. The autumn veggies are in the ground and I can see lots of lovely winter casseroles in my future again without the price tag

Finally, the other area I have committed to cut down on is spending on my wardrobe. When I finished work I emptied out my wardrobe and carted huge bundles off to various charities. It was very cathartic to do this.  I had far too many things in there that had never been worn – including a brand new suit costing over £300 I had had shipped out from Jermyn Street in London still with its labels attached.

Samantha Hannah (“Starting Over”, Choice TV) taught me how to put together an outfit and how to truly have a capsule wardrobe (don’t you just love that phrase!) Now, nothing gets purchased, unless it fits in with my lifestyle and what I already have and I can visualise exactly how and when I will wear it. Instead of the old dark, cramped wardrobe, I now have space so I can see everything. I even keep my accessories with the outfits so I have no excuse not to be well turned out every day!

Brilliant! Plus it makes shopping so much more fun and takes the edge off the fact that I can’t just flash the plastic every time I see a fab new pair of shoes…..!!!

As for the other stuff – skincare and haircuts – well what can I say? In my view a girl has got to have some pleasures and we deserve to look our best– right??