Hola Mate

18 06 2009

One of my favorite things about Argentina was the mate ritual. In South America, yerba mate has been known as the “drink of the gods” for centuries. The bitter tea takes a little getting used to, but it is packed with vitamins and insanely healthy. It is also a tradition in itself.

Mate is the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Southern Brazil. And drinking mate is not just healthy, it’s ritual. Mate gourds, usually metal or wood or a combination, are gorgeous, artful creations.  The gourd is shared between a group, filled with hot water each time and passed from person to person, each of whom drinks the entire gourdful of tea through the bombilla (straw filter) before pouring more water and passing the gourd. It’s a sharing of friendship and an honor to share another’s mate.

All this is a long way of explaining that mate is yet another thing I wish I could have brought back from Argentina in unlimited supply. But now I’ve discovered the next bet thing: Guayakí is a company that not only sells gourds and mate but that does so with a larger purpose in mind. The company partners with small farmers and indigenous communities, aiding in conservation and community development in the sub-tropic cultures of South America. Named for the Aché Guayakí people native to the mate forest, the company practices a business model called Market Driven Restoration, allowing consumer purchases of yerba mate in North America to support indigenous communities and sustainable agriculture and reforestation projects in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

Namely, not only can I feel good about enjoying my mate again, I feel good about helping save the South American landscape I’ve come to love so much.





The Next Best Thing

5 02 2009

I keep harping on this Argentina thing, I know. But yesterday, as I braved 19 (feels like 2) degree weather, and bent forward to protect myself from crazy winds that slanted the heavily pouring snow, I couldn’t help but pretend it was last year and I was sweating away in sunny Buenos Aires. To make myself feel better, I read about the new up-and-coming Tango scene in Miami. Tango, it seems, is the new salsa in balmy Miami, where milongas are cropping up and folks are trading the swinging hips of salsa for the regimented, sensual steps of tango (lessons required: this is one dance where improvisation just doesn’t quite work).

While I do love salsa, I can understand why the folks in Miami have a new craze. Tango is intense, riveting, and out and out dificil, but oh so amazing to watch. Observe, for example, this intricate footwork from a milonga in BA.

However, Miami, though closer than BA, is currently  still tough to get to, so I figured I’d see if  there were places closer to home to heat up the cold winter nights with a little dancing. Sure enough, there are…

Those serious about learning the dance can check out Triangulo, where a month of classes is $70 ($55 for university and high school students). Those just looking for one hot night, check out Richard Lipkin’s Guide to Argentine Tango in New York, which has a calendar jam-packed with tango happenings all over the city and beyond, and more places for classes as well. Dance Tango lists milongas and classes as well as shows, for those who love the dance but may not be ready to strut their own stuff quite yet.





Alfajor Heaven

30 01 2009

In honor of my ongoing nostalgia for last year’s adventures, another flashback. This one I actually found in my drafts: it was started but (for reasons now unknown) never finished, back in Argentina, on (I am guessing) January 14, 2008. My guess is that it was never finished because I was spending a good part of my Luján internet time frantically trying to figure out a way to replace my camera, which had just been stolen in Buenos Aires. At any rate, it finally goes live a year later…

Today, this, the first day of my career as a travel guidebook writer, I am in Luján, quite possibly the closest one gets to a one horse town. It’s quiet and tiny and full of small town charm, including the most beautiful confiteria (sweet shop) I have ever seen.

Villa de Luján is a tiny wood building that looks more like it belongs in Switzerland than in “gaucholand.” We were first attracted to the cartoonish gnomes gracing the outside, but then I saw the menu: dulce de leche galore. My new friend Liz (Note: Liz is now a dear friend and the one with whom I am soon to embark on a very exciting, as yet undisclosed venture) and I  have become, over the past week,  self-declared dulce de leche experts, specializing in the alfajor, a heavenly cookie sandwich filled with the sweet of sweets.

Naturally, Liz and I figured we must give it a try, us being travel writers and this being a a very important spot in the tine town. Entering the tiny cabin was like entering grandmother’s house, complete with flowery tablecloths, and, even better, sweets. The staff consisted of a cheerful older woman and her mother, who both chatted amiably before sitting us at a doily covered table and serving us orange juice in sugar-rimmed glasses, followed by a slice of spongy lemon cake. But the highlight, of course, was the king of alfajorés—a triple-layer cookie filled with one layer vanilla crème and one dulce de leche and surrounded by rich chocolate. Don’t think, full as we were, we didn’t leave without a few for the road.

Villa de Lujan, B Mitre 179, Lujan, Argentina, (02323) 429949





A Little Bite of Heaven

8 05 2008

As I write this, I have retreated momentarily to the bliss that is the Havanna alfajor.

To explain: a few days ago I got an email from my friend and former EuroCheapo cohort Alex Robertson Textor, with whom I had coffee plans a few days later. All the email said was “What type of alfajor do you prefer, meringue or chocolcate? I will explain later.” Perplexed, but assuming he was writing something about the alfajor and needed my expert opinion, I quickly replied that the chocolate is best by far, because the meringue gets a little crumbly and takes away from the cookie.

Turns out, though, that Alex didn’t need my alfajor expertise, and actually doesn’t even agree with it (turns out he is a meringue fan). He was asking because his sister just returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. Bearing gifts. Alex showed up for coffee today and pulled two alfajores from his (new awesome recycled products) bag for me. Chocolate coated.

I simply couldn’t believe my luck (or Alex’s generosity, parting with two of them!), and didn’t wait more than 10 seconds before diving into the first. I gave the second a little time (an hour or so) but I couldn’t let it sit there on the table without wanting to eat it, so here I am, taking another bite of chocolate covered bliss. And I know it doesn’t seem possible, but it’s better than I remembered. The cookie has the perfect balance of a little bit of crunch and a little bit of flake, but it surely doesn’t overpower the star of the show: creamy, sweet dulce de leche. Ah happiness.

So a huge THANK YOU to Alex. And, since I surely haven’t blogged about the alfajor enough, a bit about Havanna, which might just as easily be called, simply, Heaven.

Havanna stores are all over Argentina. In Buenos Aires they are almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks is in New York. Almost. But they should be. While their main product is the amazing alfajor (covered with meringue, chocolate, or white chocolate), they also sell jars of dulce de leche, candies, and other scrumptious tidbits. Of note is the Havannet: a cone-shaped, chocolate-covered beauty that consists of a small cookie and massive amounts of dulce de leche. In both the Havannet cookie and the alfajor the cookie itself is just slightly infused with lemon, just enough of it.

Then there is the coffee, which comes in tiny cups and and, of course, a cookie. Havanna has the value meal to beat out anything McDonald’s might try. For just a few dollars you get a small coffee, a cookie, and sometimes even a tiny cup of juice, all on a pretty little tray. And did I mention that the coffee drinks are almost as deliciously rich as the cookies themselves? Cappuccino, mocha, white chocolate…

Maybe if I think about it long enough Havanna will come to me. (Oh wait. It already has.)





Flashbacks (or Something More)

15 04 2008

I think Argentina’s stalking me. Or haunting me. Or calling to me in some strange mental telepathy sort of way. Or perhaps I’m channeling Argentina and making it all up. Whatever the case, it’s been cropping up a lot.

It’s going to seem hokey, but while there I felt I had some sort of spirit/force/what-have-you watching out for me. I’m pretty sure it was Gaga, my maternal grandmother who passed away before I was born but who, I’ve always been told, had a strong adventurous spirit and was in all an amazing woman. I grew up jealous that my siblings have Gaga stories and I never got to know her. In my recent adventures, it only seemed right to speak to a strong female force in my life—who, incidentally, came to San Francisco from Hong Kong (by herself) at age 22, knowing no one (and my mom was worried about my move to NYC).

In my recent adventures, I got to know Gaga. Just when I was feeling exhausted or sick or lonely, I’d get pulled into a parade at Carnaval or stumble upon a beautiful Ash Wednesday ceremony. And it always seemed that I’d recently asked her for help. Call it what you will, I think my grandmother was looking out for me.

Then I came home, and during the job-hunting struggles of late I’ve had the distinct feeling that Gaga is giving me the silent treatment. Last week was especially rough (a separate post all to itself), and I went into the weekend feeling particularly frustrated and all around glum.

Then on Saturday I sat in Washington Square Park to enjoy beautiful weather and a band playing the greatest hits of Marvin Gaye. The man on the bench next to me was wearing a bracelet, a wooden saint bracelet that just about every male in Argentina sports. I happen to have one of these bracelets. It was given to me by Dario, who I met on a bus to Buenos Aires at the end of my trip. This experience warrants a separate post in itself, but for today’s purposes, it’s only necessary to say that in a particularly weak moment I called on Gaga and then met Dario (which happens, in addition to everything else, to be my nephew’s name). He gave me not only interesting conversation and perspective but a bracelet by which to remember him.

I wore the bracelet the rest of my trip and periodically put it on now that I’m home. It’s not fashionable, but it makes me happy. I wasn’t wearing it Saturday (I put it on when I got home), but the sight of another wearing it here in New York gave me that same sense of happiness, and a sense of peace that this is indeed a small world and a good one. I didn’t talk to said male because he seemed to have lost that Argentine friendliness, but I vowed to email Dario and tell him about it. (I have yet to do this, but I will. And then I’ll blog about it.)

Since then, Argentina’s been all over. This morning in DailyCandy there was a deal for a Pachamama massage at the Iguazu Day Spa, and while I didn’t make it to Iguazu I am definitely simpatica with Mother Earth (as the Pachamama is also known). I won’t be getting the Pachamama massage any time soon, but it seemed a weird coincidence since I keep hearing about things from Argentina.

Perhaps more bizarre was my experience yesterday. After an afternoon of struggling through the headache that is taxes (yes I’m one of those brilliant people who waited until the last possible minute) I heard a street band on my way to work. This is not uncommon (see above), and yet yesterday’s band was different: something about the horns and the rhythms was distinctive. Though I was surrounded by tall buildings and fast-walking people, for a second I turned the corner expecting a group of brightly colored diablos dancing around on a dusty street.

Perhaps it was my tax haze, but it seemed so real I was almost there, and I really did expect a parade. Is it all coincidence? Wishful thinking? Or am I simply going insane? Or could it be Gaga telling me to hang in there and remember my adventures (and her)? The jury is still out on all that. In the meantime, however, I will continue to wear Dario’s bracelet and to remember my parade.

And for fun, this video I took in Tilcara which captures my diablo abduction. You’ll see the girl next to me be pulled into the parade, then I laugh before my diablo grabs me and chaos ensues as I get pulled into the parade. It’s like the Blair Witch Project (except much less scary… and real).





How I Almost Became My Mother

28 03 2008

My mother is a worrier. She worries about everything, especially everything having to do with her children. And with five children she’s basically spent most of the last 42 years worrying. Being the youngest, and probably the most adventurous, I seem to give my mother the most to worry about these days. She nearly drove herself to insanity with worry when I chose to drive across the country with friends at age 20, and when I moved to New York by myself she almost took my siblings with her.

Funny side note: On a rainy day when we were in Venice together I left breakfast to use the restroom and decided to retrieve my rain jacket from its holding place with the rest of my backpacking gear under the bus. When I stayed on the bus while it drove around to pick up the rest of our tour group, my mother (of course) noted my absence and jumped to the logical conclusion that her healthy 22-year-old daughter had fallen in the bathroom and couldn’t get up to call anyone.

Needless to say, Mom’s worrying has given her children a lot to laugh at over the years. And by the time I was heading Argentina on my own I was used to it. I, it seems, am not a worrier. Not usually at least…

I am typically of the “no plan is a good plan” travel mentality, and have accordingly experienced much hilarity from simply going with the flow. But every once in a while the planner in me comes out, and it did just that in Northwest Argentina. In San Salvador de Jujuy I met another girl, Da, and we decided to head up to Humahuaca for Carnaval together. Given the festival weekend, there was a lot of talk about the inevitable scarcity of beds there. This hasn’t stopped me in the past, but for some reason it made me nervous. Da, however, was ready to go.

I determined that I couldn’t miss out on experiencing Carnaval and next thing I knew I was on a bus to Uquía, which we thought would be a better bet since it is outside town. We arrived around 7 p.m. and knocked on the door of their ONE hostel. The man didn’t even open the door all the way before telling us they were too full. Much to my chagrin I soon found myself following Da around while she asked people if we might sleep on their couches. Then we clambered across the river, where we’d heard a woman had cabins. After wandering a while in no man’s land we came upon two houses, and a man outside the first pointed us even further up the road to the woman.

When we reached her house a young girl came out and asked us to wait, which seemed a good sign. But the proprietor’s face said all. We tried to make ourselves as pathetic as possible, and pointed at the vast empty room behind her, begging for even a tiny space on the floor there just so long as it was sheltered, but to no avail. The thought of two young women without a place to sleep didn’t bother this woman one bit. Clearly she is not my mother, who not only worries about her own children but everyone else’s too. I, on the other hand, found myself becoming increasingly more like my mother as the situation became more dire. I started hearing her worry voice in my head, and kicking myself for not following my initial instincts. My “fearless female traveler” self was waning, and fast.

I kept repeating to myself my former travel adventures: arriving in Bacharach, Germany and hiking half an hour uphill in my heavy pack to the castle hostel that had told me over the phone he had no rooms and then convincing him to lay out mattresses in his conference room (and we got a discount), driving around Bordeaux, France unable to find accommodations and ultimately sleeping in our rental cars (only to find out the next morning that our “safe” hospital parking lot” was right under the helicopter landing pad)… But my previous adventures did nothing to ease the gnawing feeling in my gut that something was going terribly wrong.

All this worry snowballed into yet another strain of worry: worry about my worry. Unlike my mother, I’m not usually a worrier. Or at least not in the same way. I often make myself crazy with thought, but that (I always tell myself) is not the same as worry. And especially in travel adventures I’m not the one to worry, so what was wrong? Am I getting old? Am I turning into my mother? Am I losing my sense of adventure?

Luckily, I never found out, because my planless plan (however worrisome) turned out to be one of the most rewarding adventures of my trip. Da and I went back to the “cabins” on the lady’s property to ask the man who had last directed us to her house if we might stay with him. He gestured to the five children playing in his yard and suggested the cabin next door. Again we were pathetic and pleaded with the man who answered the door for a sliver of his floor. He hesitated but was definitely considering.

Finally he left to ask his wife, and after ten agonizing minutes returned and invited us inside. The cabin (which they were renting from the lady who is definitely not like my mom) afforded barely enough space for the family of four, but Patricio and his family welcomed us in, offering us mate and chatting with us about our respective countries (Da is from China). When the time came they drove us into Humahuaca for the evening’s Carnaval celebrations. The whole way their eight-year-old twins, Octavio and Julia chattered away about their vacation and asked us question after question about America and China.

Upon arrival in Humahuaca we split up (it was at this time that I split my toe), and as we left them for a delicious meal and revelry I laughed at myself for ever having worried. In the course of our wanderings that night Da and I found a woman with two beds for let in her house, and promptly paid her for them, not out of want to escape our family but in hope of making their last night of vacation a little easier.

When we found the family again Octavio instantly took my hand and began chattering away about his night, firing questions about mine in rapid Spanish. (I was smitten.) After Da and I had retrieved our things there were hugs all around and Eugenia, the mother, made us each promise to call her when we were back in Buenos Aires. She would cook for us. And so I reluctantly left my new family with the realization that the very adventure that made me “become my mother” for those few short moments actually allowed me to find her (in Argentina).

And even better than that? We discovered that my new littler brother and I had the same sweater:

“Siblings” in their Sweaters





More With the Shoes

12 03 2008

Not long ago, when I announced the change in title that my blog underwent (psst…speaking of changes, check out my newly updated About page. It now goes with the shoe theme too!), I mentioned that I had more shoe posts in the works. And then I never wrote them. I’m trying to spread out the shoe love, but I think it’s time for another.

To recap: when we last left off with the saga of Suzanne’s shoes, she had sent home a pair of unruly strappy sandals that refused to let her salsa dance, and then quarreled with a pair of brand new hiking boots that broke three days into wearing them (the mud is another story, but that she was actually proud of).

Ok, strange third person voiceover finished. So after the hiking boots fiasco I decided that the only shoes a traveling girl can depend on are her flip flops.

I arrived in San Salvador de Jujuy on a Thursday afternoon, excited to explore Argentina’s northwest and more excited to experience their Carnaval. I was informed that I would be hard-pressed to find a bed in any of the Carnaval towns I wanted to visit. On a last minute whim, the girl I was traveling with at the time, Da, and I packed small backpacks with a few days worth of clothes, left our big packs at the hostel in San Salvador and headed up to Uquia, with the brilliant idea of sleeping near Humahuaca, going to Carnaval the next day, and staying up with the festival all night before catching a morning bus back to San Salvador. The short of a much longer story (that I will one day figure out how to tell in a short blog post) is that we finally made it to Humahuaca on Friday night.

In Humahuaca, it was cold (this is where I bought the famous llama sweater, which despite my offers no one seems to want), and I had only my flip flops. There were sneakers in my pack, but that was back in San Salvador, so it seemed I was destined to have cold feet in Humahuaca. But, true California girl that I am, I was still devoted to my beloved flip flops, which had yet to fail me…

Until, that is, while strolling the fair on the edge of town, I walked right into a giant metal post that was sticking up from the ground. Plowed into is more like it. My toe, not protected by shoe was massively hurt for the space of about 10 seconds, but then pain gave over to the blissful re-realization that I was still at Carnaval, and I continued walking. A few moments later, however, my foot felt a little wet and sticky and to my horror I looked down to discover that my no longer hurting toe was gushing blood. I had busted the skin on the end of it.

Da and I raced through the fair asking where there was a pharmacy, but given that it was now late and festival time I decided it wouldn’t be open and settled for dousing my toe in hand sanitizer, wrapping it in toilet paper, and buying a pair of socks (oh the things you’re willing to do when you travel). Then we went to enjoy some Carnaval grub. But when my toe started throbbing halfway through dinner I decided perhaps a pharmacy wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. To my relief, they were still open (probably for idiots just like me who only bring flip flops to a crowded festival on dirt roads) and I purchased some sort of ointment that I hoped was anti-bacterial.

I spent the next two nights wearing socks with my flip flops and limping slightly, but ultimately I didn’t wind up losing my toe, so all was good. My relationship with my flip flops, however, has not been the same since. I blame myself really.

Lesson learned: Think before you pack. Period.





Ode to the Alfajor

11 03 2008

With Easter two weeks away and me still not eating sweets (ok, a few bites of cake to celebrate my friend Lauren’s birthday, but really we should have celebrated it in December so I’ll say I ate the cake then?), I find myself dreaming of alfajores…

I’m not actually going to write an ode as I’ve never been much of a poet. But if anyone out there has a deep inclination to pen some long-winded verse about what may be the most delicious cookie of all time, I would gladly read it, and post it to my blog, and proclaim it to all I meet. Ok, perhaps not that last, but I do feel very passionately about the alfajor, so anything is possible.

What exactly is an alfajor? Well, it is the reason, for one, that I had to give up sweets for Lent in the first place (Lent conveniently starting for me exactly one week after Ash Wednesday, otherwise known as the day I left Argentina, land of the alfajor). More importantly, however, it is a cookie, made up of layered cookies with a dulce de leche filling. For more on dulce de leche or where to buy it, see my earlier post on it.

In Northern Argentina, the cookies are often of a harder or flakier nature and usually topped with powdered sugar. In Buenos Aires and surrounding areas it is more often a biscuit, sometimes surrounded by a meringue coating, though I prefer those that are dipped in white or dark chocolate. Then of course there is the triple layer alfajores, with dulce de leche as one layer and vanilla or chocolate cream as the other. Needless to say, I tended to eat at least one alfajor a day (hence my subsequent Lenten sacrifice). The real miracle is that even after stuffing myself with alfajores for a month, I’m still dreaming of them. But it’s not so miraculous when you consider that eating one is an experience that might be tantamount to heaven.

And in writing this post I discovered I’m not the only one addicted to the alfajor. A list of some of the alfajor love I found simply by googling the word:

  • An Alfajor blog post on mattbites, by a fellow travel writer and gifted photographer. Matt shares my obsession with alfajores, and he even gives a recipe and some gorgeous photos of the cookies.
  • An entire conversation on yahoo answers centered around one of life’s biggest questions: “What is your favorite alfajor?”
  • And just this morning I found an actual Ode to an Alfajor (though she used the name without writing an ode either; at least great minds think alike).

All this alfajor love aside, though, the supply of alfajores in Argentina is endless, so choosing the right one requires much experimentation or a little bit of knowledge. Luckily, I am now a self-proclaimed alfajor expert, willing pass my knowledge along with a few tips for alfajor tasting:

  1. You can rarely go wrong with the homemade alfajores of a sweet shop or market. They are fresh and almost always have a little too much (which is precisely the right amount) dulce de leche.
  2. When the alfajor emergency arises, head to the nearest kiosko (which is bound to be less than a block away) where the shelves overflow with various prepackaged alfajores. Beware, however, not all brands make a good one. I recommend Milka or Aguila.
  3. Then of course there is Havanna, which is an experience that will one of these days warrant a post all its own. For now, suffice to say that the beloved coffee shops are all over Buenos Aires and in many other cities, and their alfajores may just change your life.
  4. Finally, if your mouth is watering but you’re not going to Argentina any time soon, there is always the option of ordering online (something I’m contemplating once Lent is over).




Sweet of…Sweets

25 02 2008

Dulce de leche. The literal translation is “sweet of milk.” It is exactly that in Guys and Dolls, when gambler Sky (Marlon Brando) convinces the cold “missionary doll” to join him for dinner in Havana, Cuba and tricks her into a drinking a cocktail  (or several) by that name by saying it’s a milkshake with a little rum. (Okay, so I have a small addiction to old musicals.) It is also, I learned today, a somewhat bizarre Florida-based men’s clothing line.

But, more importantly, in Argentina, it is a caramel concoction so delicious it has its own legend. Today dulce de leche is an Argentine staple, used in everything from pastries to ice cream (and we’re not talking the Häagen-Dazs version folks). It is even a breakfast food, to be spread on bread as the Italians do with Nutella.

What makes this caramel so special? The answer is unclear, save that there is something about the golden, sweet stuff that makes it nothing short of addictive. Something about its chemical balance is such that it required this particular writer to eat her weight in it while traveling, enough to make her give up sweets for Lent (Lent conveniently starting exactly one week after Ash Wednesday, when she was safe at home, out of DDL territory). It is, in short, a little bit of heaven on earth.

Lessons learned:
1) While traveling in Argentina, scope out the corner pastry shop and visit it (and any others you happen to see) often. This is especially key when entering a new unexplored province where the regional DDL treats will be change.

2) If having DDL withdrawals at home (and if it isn’t Lent, or you haven’t given up sweets), try making it yourself.

3) If you can’t cook, or you’re too lazy to cook, put down the Häagen-Dazs and stock up on the real thing online.





They Ring Bells In Argentina Too

7 02 2008

As a little girl, I would go home from Church and ring the bell on my mother’s lamp because the priest said to. For those uninitiated with the Catholic Mass, when consecrating the bread and wine, the priest, in Christ’s words, says to eat the bread and drink the wine that are Christ’s body and blood. After the priest, as Christ says, “Do this in memory of me,” an altar boy rings a bell, a tradition dating back to when the congregation couldn’t see what the priest was doing. As the good little girl that I was, I made sure every Sunday to ring my bell, since I thought the priest had asked me to.

As a grown, Carnaval-celebrating woman, I arrived in Salta yesterday afternoon, exhausted, fighting a terrible cold, tired of nieve being sprayed in my ears, and happy to be away from Carnaval. I had completely lost track of my days and and it never ocurred to me that the day after Carnaval ends is Ash Wednesday, and that in so fervently Catholica a country as Argetnina, there would be masses.

Nevertheless, there is a very pretty (pink) church in the main plaza of the city, and after a trip to the museum I decided to pop in. When I neared the doors the sound emanating gave me goosebumps. A crystal clear woman’s voice was singing a lovely Spanish tune that resounded against the ornate walls of the church.

I entered solemnly, excited that I had stumbled upon an actual ceremony, and it was only when I saw the hundreds (literally) of people that filled the giant cathedral that it ocurred to me it was Ash Wednesday. I was exhausted and carrying a heavy grocery bag filled with water, toilet paper for my runny nose (and hotel that doesn’t supply it), and snacks for my next day’s tour, but I felt I had to stay.

It took about twenty minutes for them to get ahses to everyone. In that time the choir sang about 15 songs. I recognized the tunes to five of those, and found myself trying to recall what the words would have been in English. This is harder than it seems. For some reason, with the Spanish over it, even the words to the Our Father failed me; all the responses that have been second nature since childhood faltered as I tried to make out the Spanish.

But one thing crystal clear: I heard bells. It was a touching and humbling experience to thing that in another language, on the other side of the equator, they do the exact same things. And though I haven’t been the most devoted Catholic in recent years, it was incredible to experience Ash Wednesday with hundreds of strangers, speaking in a foreign tongue, in a stunning and massive cathedral.