Author Archives: flipsiders

Three interesting plants (and one more for the botany nerds)

1. Moon Flowers (Ipomoea alba)

Moon flowers are not particular to Buenos Aires; they are grown in gardens around the world, and indeed I first saw these fragrant, nocturnally blooming relatives of the morning glory in our neighbor Kirk’s garden in DC.  Soon after we arrived here, however, we came across a large moon flower vine in a front yard around the block from our house. We noticed that the large white flowers were open in the evening and closed during the day, and so Isabel and I set out to pinpoint the timing of the floral movements.  We thought the flowers might open pretty quickly, so we made a plan to visit the plant every half hour, starting at 6 pm.  Our first evening, we found five elongate swollen buds that looked like they were ready to go.  No action at 6; no action at 6:30.  When we returned at 7, however, we were surprised to see a fully expanded flower, so we knew the opening took less than 30 minutes.  As we were standing there, all of a sudden another bud unfurled in fast forward — opening to its full expanse in less than 60 seconds!  We could hardly believe our eyes!  A couple of minutes later, another one did the same thing, this time helped by a puff of wind to expand in under 20 seconds.  Over the next few weeks, we would swing by the plant before dinner, in time for the evening show, and came to reliably recognize buds that would open within the next minute or so.

The folding-up the next day is a slower process.  We visited the plant every hour starting at 8 am and found that the petals gradually roll in, so that by noon the open flower looks like a tube sock that has just been pulled off a leg.  They roll up faster in the sun, and will stay open into the early afternoon on a cool or cloudy day.  Each flower lasts only about 15 hours — enough time, presumably, to be visited and pollinated by a long-tongued hawkmoth, though we never saw any hover by.

Video link:

The precision of the opening time reminded me of Linnaeus’ idea for a floral clock, which was meant to allow a viewer to tell the time, based on fixed opening and closing times of particular species:

2. Monstera deliciosa – Nature’s Happy Meal

My friend Rudi introduced me to the delightful fruits of Monstera deliciosa, which ripen and fall in the autumn, and provide days of delectation and amusement.  The common name of the plant is split-leaf philodendron (also ‘fruit salad plant’),  a vine with huge leaves that climbs high up the sides of trees and buildings, and is commonly planted in gardens and parks in Buenos Aires.

The fruits look kind of like elongate green pine cones, covered with hexagonal green tiles.  They ripen slowly, starting as the end farthest away from the stem, over the course of about 5 days, all the while emitting a pungent pineapple fragrance that fills the kitchen.  The tiles lift off the fruit and fall away (great for arranging into geometric patterns), revealing another set of white hexagons below.  This is the soft edible part of the fruit, which you pull off of the tough core and eat; it tastes like a cross between pineapple and banana – delicious, just as the latin name of the the fruit promises!  The next day, you’ll have a few more tiles and a little more fruit.  You can only eat the flesh below the loosened tiles, so a fruit will last about a week, in daily doses of an inch or two of ripeness.

You have to be careful not to eat the green tiles or the unripe fruit, because they contain calcium oxalate crystals and other substances that can irritate your mouth and throat.  (Some plants in the Arum family, to which Monstera belongs, are called  ‘dumbcane,’ because ingestion of the plant can literally make you dumb, at least temporarily.)

3. Palo Borracho (Chorisia speciosa)

Palo Borracho is a very common street tree in BsAs, instantly recognizable (depending on the season and age of the tree) by its bottle shape, green spiny trunk, voluptuous pink flowers, and large green mango-sized fruits that open to release puffs of cottony-downy seeds.

4.  Samaras on a legume! (Tipuana tipu)

This one is just for the botany aficionados — samaras on a legume!  In plant taxonomy class I learned that plants in the pea family have fruits called legumes, which are essentially pea pods — but one of the most common and beautiful street trees in Buenos Aires, the tipa (Tipuana tipu), has fruits that look just like typical maple samaras, with one seed and a wing!  I can hardly explain how startling and almost unnerving a sight this is — maybe like seeing feathers on a cow!


Black tie affair

We have been meaning to post some pictures and a few words about our January visit to the penguin convention at the Harberton Estancia in Tierra del Fuego, since… well, January.  Nothing like a deadline – our impending return home – to motivate some action.  So, here, belatedly, are some great photos and a couple of observations about what was really one of the highlights of our time in Argentina.

Harberton is a very large private estancia that is home to a breeding colony of Magellanic penguins.  In addition to providing for conservation, research and a museum, the owners have an arrangement with a local tour company that allows for tourists to come and take a guided walk around the island among the penguins.

There are actually two species there – by far the most numerous are the Magellanic penguins pictured here.  The adults are instantly recognizable by the curling white stripe on the side of their heads and a white bar below their necks and down their sides.

The other species present on the island is the larger, but less numerous Gentoo, pictured here.

To protect the penguins from over-friendly tourists who might adversely affect the animals or their nests, most of the area one can walk through is roped off.  Of course the penguins flagrantly disobey the restrictions and in the end you have to step rather carefully to avoid scaring or even stepping on them.

Just having a little friendly conversation here.

We were there near the end of the chick-rearing season, when the babies were almost as big as their parents but still depending on them for food.  Here a parent (could be mom or dad) is regurgitating a recently-fished lunch to feed two very hungry young’uns, each of which wants more food NOW!!  (Our pals at Wikipedia tell us that Magellanic penguins generally lay two eggs; both parents incubate the eggs, and they also share the task of feeding the chicks, for about a month.)

This link will take you take you to a video I uploaded to Youtube showing a clearly exhausted Gentoo parent who feels that she has fed his/her chick enough and wants to keep the rest of his/her lunch!  Most parents can probably relate:

One of the things that becomes obvious when you see young penguins up close is that they really are feathered birds.  This molting chick is taking a nap in the summer sunshine.

This close-up shows the feathers on a wing that we found on the beach, presumably left behind by the skuas (predatory birds) that prey on isolated individual penguins.

If, like us, you have grown up seeing photos and videos of penguins on ice and in the water, it is surprising to see that these guys run around on the grass and dirt and make nests in holes in the ground.

Pretty cool eh?


In our neighborhood, and throughout the city, storefronts and signs offering opportunities for DEPILACION are, amazingly, as common as dog-related businesses.  Naturally, my curiosity was piqued as I daily walked back and forth to the train past a dozen or more such shops, offering a range of services and special deals, and often filled with women leafing through magazines as they waited their turn.  When I queried my “Portena” (Buenos Aires natives) friends. I learned that removal of body hair is pretty much an imperative for Argentine women, and that this is commonly accomplished, not with a razor in the shower, but instead via biweekly trips to one’s favorite depilacion shop.

Neither hair removal nor avoidable pain are my strong suits, but eventually my ‘when in Rome’ impulses overcame my reluctance  – so one fine Friday morning my friend Patricia and I set out — she as guide and hand-holder, I as curious but trepidacious mammal — on an anthropological expedition to a local depilacion parlor.

As we chatted and strolled along the street, Patricia suddenly stopped, nose in air; she had caught the scent of warm wax – and when we looked up, sure enough we were standing in front of a small shop advertising the availability of a range of depilatory services on its window.  Patricia explained my status as fearful neophyte gringa to Vero, who agreed to go slow, explain the process, and treat me gently.  I decided to start with the ‘media-pierna’ (ankle to knee) and see how it went before I committed to more.  Having assured me that the process  was less painful than childbirth, Patricia held my hand, Vero wielded the warm caramel-colored wax, and soon enough my pierna entera was done!  As usual, the anticipation was worse than the event.

I was rather conservative in the corporeal real estate that I exposed to the wax — coming away merely with smooth legs and gently arched eyebrows — but suffice it to say that there is not a square centimeter of face or body that is beyond the reach of the wax.   A common special is ‘media pierna,  cavado, y axilas,’ for 23 pesos (just under $6.00).  While the place that we went to employed the common ‘french’ method, there are also plenty of locales for those who favor the spanish method (wax on disposable strips of paper) or higher-tech laser depilation.  Apparently argentine girls first come in with their mothers at age 13 or so, and then they too become lifers.

Josh, who thankfully has a much more highly developed sense of decorum than his tell-all wife (and is undoubtedly wincing as he reads this), was less than enthusiastic about my describing my experiences “to the whole world”, so you can imagine how relieved he was to learn that the battery went dead on the camera just as Vero finished my calves and started heading north… However, out of deference to him (cherished husband AND the one who uploads the blog posts) we will not be seeing ANY of the photo-documentation of Martha’s experiences.



Time difference

It's dinner time. Where is everybody?


Another thing that has taken some getting used to is the time difference…

…by which I mean, NOT the one mandated by the folks in Greenwich, but rather the one that reflects the Argentine life style – about US time + 3 hours.   It’s most obvious at dinner time.  On several occasions our family has headed out, hungry, at about 8 pm (late dinner for a school night, right?) to get something to eat.  Invariably, we walk into an entirely empty dining room, ask timidly if we might be served, peruse our menus, order, eat, dawdle, pay, and leave, without another soul in sight (save the solicitous and slightly bemused waiters).  The locals arrive at 9:30 or 10:00, and no, we don’t know how their kids manage to get up for school in the morning.

One summer night, we enjoyed our typical lonely restaurant dinner on a beautiful outdoor patio across from the cathedral, and then headed for a movie at about 9.  When we emerged from the theater at 11:30 or so, ready for a beer, we wandered into a hopping restaurant / bar and were told that we couldn’t sit at one of the outdoor tables, since we didn’t want to eat.  Sure enough, everyone else was digging into giant steaks.

Parties follow the same clock: Annie has been invited to several celebrations that start at 9 and end at 2 – early, I know, but she’s only in 8th grade; the all-night parties don’t start ‘til high school (i.e., next year).  There are special ‘tween’ ‘nightclubs’ that are open only from 2 am to 7 am – no kidding!

So what about the Tango?!

Tango is, of course, one of the things Buenos Aires is known for.  On a weekend afternoon you will see often see dancers on street corners and in plazas.

One of the street performances we most enjoyed was this very professional group that I recorded (yes, I tipped them handsomely for the privilege).

This link will take you to the youtube video of the performance:

While the street shows are mostly for tourists, the art form is alive and well in a lot of venues.  On most Sunday afternoons we hear our neighbors playing recordings of a diversity of tango song styles, and most people can rattle off the names of famous tango artists, especially singers, dating from the 1920s til today.  There are lots of clubs where you can go to watch and listen to all kinds of performances, ranging from small music/dance ensembles with just a handful of performers to enormous Broadway-like shows involving dozens of dancers on stage.

Contrary to the urgings of a number of our friends we haven’t taken tango lessons;  Martha did try a few steps with nephew Eli.  It’s just as easy as it looks!   The shoes are key.

What I find really interesting and fun is that, while the basic style of the music, costume and dance of tango is rooted in this early 20th century tradition, the art form continues to evolve.

Check out this updated version in a music video from a contemporary group called the Gotan Project:

Austral seder

Because we were traveling in the northwest of Argentina. we celebrated Passover a week late, when we returned to Buenos Aires.

Annie, Isabel, and our friend Siel (from Belgium) had fun squishing soggy matzos to make the ancestral matzo balls.

We were joined by our friends Brent, Beth, Elena and Nathaniel (known as the ‘pelirojos’ for their dominant hair color), also here on sabbatical from DC, plus Brent’s parents, visiting from Israel, and our local friends Ricardo and Nora.

Ric and Josh were in charge of the grilled meat (asado) for the main course.  The obligatory Passover narrative conflicted with the Argentine imperative that you eat when the meat is ready.  Our asado master, Ric, struggled graciously with this conflict and eventually conceded that we had to eat when the people were ready, rather than the other way around.  It was delicious.

Nora brought a very nice bottle of wine made by her 85-year old father just a few blocks from our home.

The kids acted out the story of the flight from Egypt.  Nathaniel, as baby Moses, floated in a basket on the river.

Reading from the Haggadah, I was once again struck by the northern hemisphere bias that until now I had never even noticed:

“It is spring. The air is growing warmer. The trees are budding.

Flowers are blooming. Pesach is a springtime holiday. The karpas

reminds us of springtime and hope. Sometimes we despair of the evil in

our world. Pesach calls us to hope again.”

I changed the season to fall, but kept the hope part.

The pelirojos introduced us to the game of ‘super egg’ in which the winner of a clash between two hardboiled eggs moves on to the next level; Brent’s egg ultimately prevailed against all comers.

It was, all in all, a festive mixture of traditions from different families, of Argentine and North American foods, and northern and southern seasons.  Oh, and the wine was outstanding.

Dog country!

People love their dogs here.   According the SPCA, approximately 40% of US households have dogs.  In Argentina the comparable number is about 80%.    It seems like there are dogs everywhere.

It isn’t surprising that everyone stops by to view the puppies in the window.  Every time we walk by this shop Annie and Isabel ask us when we are going to get one.

What is amazing is that almost every block on a commercial street has a pet store and a veterinarian, sometimes two of each.  And at many pet food stores, they will bathe your dog for you as well…

… in the store window for all to watch and enjoy.

On any weekday morning you will see dogwalkers all over Buenos Aires, each with 8-15 dogs strapped to their waists, wading through the streets.   We asked this fellow how many dogs were his maximum on a walk.  We think he said 20 to 25!  Hope they get along well with each other ….

Wishful thinking!  The ‘clean-up after your pet’ regulations are rather loosely observed here. So as you might expect, with so many dogs around, one has to tread carefully around town.

No hay monedas!

In another reversal from home, where pocket change is largely an anachronism, here coins (monedas) are an essential commodity in short supply — due to a national shortage? hoarding? black market operations? — no one seems to have an answer.  At any rate, the procurement and hoarding of change is a daily imperative that requires planning and strategy.  In conducting daily business transactions, from buying a newspaper at the kiosko on the corner to paying for groceries at the supermarket, the guiding principles are to give up as few coins as possible, and to collect as many as possible.  The merchants, of course, have the same goals, so it can become a game of chicken to see who will back down first.  If you buy something for, say, 34 pesos, and pay with a 50 peso note (about twelve dollars) the shopkeeper will ask if you have a peso coin so they can give you back a 2, 5, and 10 peso notes.  If you don’t have a peso, or at least staunchly resist the temptation to hand over the one that is buried deep in your pocket, then they have to give you a coveted peso coin, plus the 5 and 10 peso notes.  Victory falls to the one who comes away with more coins.

Why do you need to hoard monedas? Without it, you can’t take the bus or make inexpensive purchases.  The bus fares, though absurdly low (often 1 peso 25 centavos – about thirty cents to ride all the way across town), have to be paid in coin, and round trips for our family of four can run 12 pesos or more – a stack of change that requires several days to accumulate. Merchants may also refuse to sell you something inexpensive (water or gum for 2 or 3 pesos) even if you offer a 5 or 10 peso note — and forget about trying to pay with a 50 or 100 peso bill!

Train fares are about the same as bus fares, but you can theoretically pay for tickets with paper money – though as often as not the ticket-seller will wave you on to the train without a ticket if he doesn’t have change for a 2 peso note, or a sign will tell you to either pay exact change or just get on the train.

One day my stash of coins had grown sufficiently large that I felt flush and frivolously paid with exact change for several transactions in a row – an event greeted with exclamations of surprise and delight from the merchants — Barbaro!!  Gracias!! — and then, having squandered my supply, I couldn’t get on the bus to come home.


About a week after we arrived in Argentina, we set out on a trip to Patagonia – a gigantic region that encompasses about a third of the total area of Argentina – where one could easily spend a month or more exploring the amazing scenery and incredible wildlife. Because our time was limited by the start of the girls’ school, we settled on just 2 destinations – Calafate, the ‘gateway’ to Las Glacieres National Park, and Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the jumping-off point for ships heading to Antarctica.

From Calafate, we took an expedition to Las Glacieres National Park to see the Perito Moreno glacier, an enormously popular tourist destination in the area, on the order of Half Dome or Ol’ Faithful.

The Perito Moreno glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.    This river of ice moves slowly – about a yard per day – from its source roughly 20 miles away.  The end of the glacier is a wall of ice about 3 miles long and rising 200 feet above the surface of the water in Lake Argentina.

We signed up for a ‘micro-trekking’ tour of the glacier.  After strapping crampons onto our boots we set out on to the ice with our group and Claudio, our dentist-turned-guide.

It took a little while to get used to the feeling of walking up a steep slope of ice without something to hold on to. The surface of the ice was very hard and sharp; we wore gloves to protect our hands from the texture, more than from the cold.

After the micro-trek we hiked back through a lovely forest that borders the glacier.

It felt remarkable to walk through this lush forest full of flowering orchids and fuchsias just alongside an enormous river of ice.

From the forest we went back to the site where our boat had first landed, and enjoyed a picnic lunch on the rocks.

This time of year (summer) in Patagonia its ALWAYS windy, but when the sun is out the temperature is very comfortable.

An extensive system of boardwalks crosses the hillside across from the glacier’s ‘ablation zone’, where huge chunks of ice separate and crash noisily into the water with satisfying frequency.

The cracks and crevasses and sub-surface rivers of water were a deep turquoise color.  However, there is some disagreement in the family as to whether the surface of the glacier looked as blue as these pictures suggest.

‘True blue’ or not, it is one of the most beautiful and remarkable places any of us has ever been to, and something we will remember all our lives.

At the top of the world

This post comes from an edited email from Isabel to her class in Washington, DC about our trip to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego.


I’m on top now – you guys are upside-down!

We went up on a big ski-lift to a pretty area and from there we hiked up a long ways to three small glaciers up in the mountains.  We were way high up, sometimes 30 feet above the ground.

Before heading down again on the ski-lift we stopped at a little café-hut


and noticed a crazy map that sent our brains spinning with ideas.


For instance, the whole world doesn’t have a top or a bottom; there is nothing to say what is up or down – on our planet, or our solar system, or our galaxy, or the universe!!

This idea totally changed my perspective; it had never occurred to me before that the world doesn’t have an up and a down. My new way of thinking about it is that wherever you are is the top.

Look, Washington DC is on the left and California is on the right.

By Isabel