Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Long Road North Part III: Córdoba

For my overnight journey to Córdoba, I was seated next to a well-dressed older woman who very much admired the fact that the water cooler had a plastic flower perched on top. I tried to sleep, but the TV blared loudly (horror movies, as usual) well into the night, until, looking around me at around 3am and confirming that everyone was at least trying to sleep, I went up and knocked on the driver partition and pleaded with the driver to shut off the sound. He seemed surprised that it was still on, and did. And then I finally slept. For 3 1/2 hours until the bus rolled into Córdoba a full hour early.

I had stopped in Córdoba to visit my friend Fernando, who is now a geologist on the faculty of the University of Córdoba but who was still a freshly-minted PhD when I met him in 2008 when we took the Geobiology Course together. Geobio friends are forever friends, and Fer was my best friend from that summer. Our staying in touch has been helped by the fact that we both share a tiny subfield as researchers of lacustrine stromatolites. Actually Fer shares some of the blame for getting me into stromatolites, since I had only barely heard of them before taking the Geobio course, and they were, like, his favorite thing. I had just finished my first year of grad school and knew nothing. Fernando, on the other hand, had the Dr. title in front of his name. So I was prepared to believe everything he said (and I still do).

A few fun photos from Geobio 2008

Fer & me working on final data analysis, or something serious, and I'm pretty sure I'm seated where I am so that I could easily turn around and make him help me figure things out.
Fer analyzing microarrays (remember those?) while I modeled the latest in labwear fashion.

We were a good team: I taught him how to pipette, he taught me how to rock hammer. The spirit of Geobiology.

A lot had happened since that summer course. Fer moved to Tennessee for a postdoc. I switched projects and passed my qualifying exams. Fer returned to Argentina and starred in a TV series (see videos below). I switched projects again and started working on stromatolites for realz. Fer got married. I graduated. We had so much to catch up about! So I was thrilled when, while sitting at the bus terminal cafe sipping coffee,  eating a medialuna, and working on my talk, Fer showed up and gave me a big hug.

TV special on Fernando and his High Andean stromatolites

Part I (unless you are a math nerd, skip to 4:44)

Part II, filmed since of the whole series that year, Fer's segment was the viewer favorite (mine, too)

So yeah, Fer is pretty awesome. And so I was excited about meeting his wife who, I assumed, must be amazing to have landed a guy like him. And she was.

Wendy answered the door when we got to their house and greeted me without any hint of a Tennessee accent (how, Wendy?) despite being Tennessee born and bred. After the three of us chatted a bit, Wendy announced that she was going for a run, which sounded like an excellent idea so I asked if I could tag along. She took me on a mini-tour of the neighborhood, and we ran along the banks of what was usually a nice riverside park but that day was mahem thanks to the unusual flooding of the river that not only jumped its banks but decided to take over some of the nearby streets as well. Meanwhile I peppered her with questions and was deeply impressed with her story: a smart, tough, independent, successful lawyer who had fallen in love and followed a guy to a different continent, arriving in a foreign country and culture without knowing the language, but adapting so quickly and thoroughly that she's now the relationship's social anchor and has carved out her ever-evolving niche doing contract work as her own boss, speaks fluent Spanish, and has been adopted into Fer's extended family. Fer even half complained, "She has more friends than me here!"

Ferris wheel in Cordoba designed in 1916 by Gustave Eiffel. Ironic, since George Ferris designed the original Wheel in 1983 for the Chicago World's Fair as an answer to Eiffel's Tower built for the the 1989 Paris Fair. There must be a story behind this...

I was doubly impressed because I know from experience how hard that is. In the end, I had not wanted to stay in Germany with my ex-fiancé. I spoke fluent German and had German friends and "family" even before I met him, but the culture and environment was too different, and it went beyond my capacity (and willingness) to adapt. I said I would have done it at the time, but I know it would have driven me nuts. I'm pretty sure I couldn't have lasted. It made me wonder if I could have done that under different circumstances, in a different culture, but a part of me doubted it. We are who we are and home is home and our culture is a part of that. And admired Wendy all the more for it. Home is also where your heart is, and where her heart was was obvious.

We returned to the house, and I showered and crawled straight into bed to catch up on the night of sleep I didn't get, and Fer and Wendy promised to wake me when it was time to eat. They didn't need to. My carnivore's nose pulled me right out of dreamland as soon as Fer fired up the Asado in their back yard. What followed was a feast: a giant slab of meat (and more meat) as well as grilled veggies that, I found out, had quite a story attached to them. Wendy may have arrived in Córdoba as a fish out of water, but she didn't waste any time in tracking down a laundry list of local farmers from whom she could reliably procure various families of organic veggies, like a sort of one-woman patchwork CSA. Now, years later, the whole system has gotten a bit more organized and she no longer has to go to 20 different farmers' homes to get 20 different types of vegetable, but she still puts the rest of us "yep. bring the box to my door. I can make it that far in my pajamas thanx" CSA-supporting veggiephiles to shame.

Was it delicious? What does it look like?? Of course it was.
And that's when the miracle occurred. My innate lunar cycle-timed capacity to lose a not-insignificant percentage of my body weight in uteral lining, apparently finally satisfied with the offerings of steak steak and more steak (and organic dark leafy green vegetables, too) that I had been plying it with all week, decided to return to me. It was a little, well, anemic, a [mercifully] far cry from its usual buckets-of-blood gory glory, but I was reassured me that my ovaries had, indeed, not been taken over by an alien or basketball-sized tumor. Iron. Turns out it's an essential mineral. If I had kept eating like I had been eating the past few months, the gnomes working in my bone marrow factories pumping out my red blood cells probably would have given up on the whole heme thing and would have started trying to substitute in manganese in hopes of producing chlorophylls instead. That could have been neat, but I don't know if I'd like life as a plant.

Anyhow, happily full of delicious food, and happy that my body had apparently started to return to normal functioning, I was ready to hit the town. Fer and Wendy took me on a brief driving tour of the city and then to a nice central park on a hill overlooking the city where we drank mate for a bit before continuing on to Córdoba's famous weekend artisanal market. The market, claimed to be Argentina's biggest, consists of a good several hundred stalls selling handmade jewelry of a thousand varieties, whimsically-painted pottery, mate gourds and bombillas in every imaginable shape, size, and design imaginable, books on the million medicinal applications of marijuana, the standard cheap trinkets you can find everywhere on this continent, giant chandeliers woven from sticks, antiques sold by Fer & Wendy's transvestite tailor neighbor, and everything in between. Meanwhile music drifted through the crowd from a group of enormously talented local kids performing on the street to a half-seated, half-dancing crowd.

Fer and Wendy as my designated Pathclearers for the Cordoba market.
Seen at the Cordoba Market. I'm a sucker for creative, artistic graffiti art.

Once we had had our fill of the market (Wendy bought a cute pair of handmade earrings), we settled into seats on a balcony overlooking the bustle from one of the hip resto-bars lining the market's street and drank some beers as the sun set.

The next morning I went with Fer to the university and gave Talk #2 in the Dr. Frantz and her Stromatolites South America Tour. I met Fer's academic extended family, from his PhD advisor to his current students and undergrads under his care. The excellent questions reassured me that I had made it mostly understandable. It was fun chatting with everyone and discussing the doubts that Fer's advisor had, which was good practice for the reviewer responses I needed to write up for the manuscript I had written on one of the topics I presented. He later hooked me up with tons of tips for my upcoming trip to the north of Argentina, including a field guide pointing out the location of a bunch of really nice stromatolites. Stromatolite people are good people.

Poster for the Cordoba talk
After lunch, Fer took me to the cafeteria for lunch and we reminisced about the Geobio course and how it had changed both of our lives. It certainly shaped mine. Life consists of a billion small and large decisions that subtly and dramatically alter the course our living takes. The Geobiology course was--and continues to be-- a giant magnet that pulled my life into its orbit and changed its direction in a huge way.

When I took the course, I had just finished my first year of grad school, a tough year where I spent a lot of nights sleeping in my office at the university while running all-night measurements and teaching early-morning classes on topics that I had previously known nothing about. I came to grad school with a background in engineering and a degree in chemistry. Yet the PhD project I had chosen was a pretty hardcore microbial metabolism study, and the department I was in was a geology department. I had never had a microbiology or geology class before in my life. It was a steep learning curve, and I felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water. The Geobiology course came highly recommended from  all of my mentors and I hoped that it would finally give me some background in the two subjects I was supposed to become an expert in--biology and geology. It did that, but more than that it made me fall absolutely in love with the field of geobiology, in love with the colorful and talented microorganisms that have shaped the chemistry of our planet since life's beginning, and introduced me to stromatolites, which years later would become the topic of my PhD thesis, despite spending most of my PhD working on bacterial metabolism. It also introduced me to the people who would later become my advisors, mentors, letter-of-recommendation-writers, and some of my closest friends.

More fun Geobio 2008 photos

Fer: "These are beautiful, domal, rounded, nicely formed stro..."
Richard: "Boobs?"
Fer, getting held up by a bird somewhere in Wyoming.
Will, 2008 course director, demonstrates the proper investigation of sensitive sites while Frank, current course director supervises.

In addition to the professional and academic impact, the course was a catalyst that changed my personal life as well. Being surrounded that first summer with smart, interesting, and largely well-adjusted people who liked and respected me was novel. I had spent the past three years in an intense and serious relationship with a smart, interesting, but not-so-well-adjusted boyfriend who regularly echoed the self-doubts in my own head that I was not smart enough, not good enough, not talented enough to be in grad school, to be a scientist. Who celebrated my successes by telling me that the only reason I was accepted to programs like my PhD program and the Geobiology course was because I was a girl and programs had quotas to fill. Who would yell at me for hours about how stupid I was when I would fail to do things The Right Way, like the time I hung a pot in our kitchen from The Wrong Hook and he took that as an opportunity to berate everything from my pot-hanging logic to my abilities as a scientist and my goodness as a person until I left the house crying to go sleep in my office again.

The course was a much-needed reprieve from that. The people there made me feel at ease, accepted, a valuable part of the team, even though I was one of the youngest students and knew nothing. The mix of students from very different backgrounds provided a valuable life lesson: none of us know everything, and in order to succeed, we need a good group of friends with talents and skills different than our own. That you don't have to be perfect or the smartest person in the room to contribute, as long as you leverage the skills and knowledge you do have. And the course reminded me that I had skills and I was smart enough. And that I didn't have to put up with the bullshit I was used to getting from my boyfriend.

Monster! Giant kinda adorable inflatable one in a modern art exhibit in Cordoba.

In retrospect, I should have shown him the door when I got back home at the end of the course. I had intended to. But like many abusive partners, he had a charming and a sweet side and was a master manipulator. When I laid out my grievances when I came home that summer and told him he needed to go, he cried and swore earnestly that he was sorry, that he had been wrong, and that he would change. I wanted to believe him, so I did. I loved him like a person loves a three-legged puppy. "It's not his fault he's a asshole sometimes, he's insecure and sort of autistic, he needs me, I can't leave him." He was my best friend, we had a house together, the relationship was a disaster but it felt comfortable. And when he was good he was wonderful: kind, caring, empathetic, devoted, romantic, and bend-over-backwards helpful. But when he was bad he was a monster. He swore the same things again and again and again for years more until I finally, finally pulled my shit together and closed the door for good. It took years and was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and things may have turned out a lot differently for me if not for the glimmer of hope for a different life that I saw during the Geobio course that made me ultimately refuse to accept a life with someone who called me stupid.

All of that flew through my head while chewing my lunch and thinking about how the Geobio course changed my life. And across from me was someone I will always be grateful to for the part he played in both recruiting me to the Cult of Stromatolites and for being a living reminder that it was possible for a man to be smart AND kind, respectful, secure, and handsome (seriously Wendy, you won the love lottery! but then, so did he!).

Cordoba is famous for, among other things (like being a crazy university party town), its pile of historic Jesuit churches and educational institutions.
Not Jesuit, but very pretty. Everything was plated in gold in this cathedral. After seeing this, all the beautiful cathedrals I saw in Germany don't seem quite so impressive.

I spent a few more days with Fer and Wendy. One day when Wendy didn't have to work in the afternoon, she took me on a tour of some of the more historic parts of Córdoba (and was my guardian angel when she helped me arrange bus tickets for my upcoming adventures, dollar exchanging, and a camera repair). The two of them also took me to their local 50-year-old Arabian restaurant (apparently there is a large middle eastern community in that part of Argentina--who knew?) where I ate brain for the first time in my life (it was surprisingly tasty). But not before first stopping off for a late-night desperate exchange at Wendy's dealer where pesos were slipped through a wrought-iron gate in exchange for a paper bag full of goods: arugula, squash, beans, and other organic CSA veggies. Being that close to fresh produce made me itchy.

Hummus and Brain: not your typical Argentine dinner.
And not your typical Argentine restaurant sign.

I was excited to head up to the Argentine high desert--something I had wanted to do ever since Fer had showed me photos way back in 2007 of the stromatolites at his field site up there--but sad to say goodbye to Fer and Wendy. Thanks you two for the hospitality and I hope to be back someday! (and come visit me, you promised! haha)

Dangerous drug paraphernalia from Wendy's shady back-alley dealer.

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