Most of my friends talked about begging quarters from their parents for brightly colored gumballs that shot out of the machines which also sold holographic stickers and gooey sticky hands. I, meanwhile, grew up longing for the moments I was allowed to run over to the little cart staked a few feet away from my grandmother’s restaurant in Honduras and purchase rectangular pieces of dulce de leche, on which I would nibble for the rest of the afternoon, slowly savoring every last milky crumb.

Dulce de leche was also acquired in a caramel-like form (and can be made at home by boiling a can of condensed milk for several hours), which I would spread between two thin wafers and enjoy with paramount gusto. Needless to say, dulce de leche was a significant part of life growing up in Tegucigalpa and has continued to be one of my favorite sweet treats.

One can imagine my excitement at discovering Buenos Aires to be a haven of not only the savoriest beef but of an omnipresent dulce de leche as well. Ah, heaven! Dulce de leche was literally everywhere and in everything. Dulce de leche-filled doughnuts. Dulce de leche flan. Dulce de leche gelato. Dulce de leche-filled panqueques (crepes) drizzled with more dulce de leche. Dulce de leche cookie sandwiches dipped in chocolate, otherwise known as the Argentine delicacy alfajor.  And of course, dulce de leche straight from the jar.

Our first morning in the city, B and I wandered into a small bakery, where we grabbed a tray and a pair of tongs to essentially help ourselves to all the pastries our hearts desired. I chose a churro and a few other delicious but less memorable delights. Five pastries and just 1USD (remember what I said about bang for your buck?) later, I was happily biting into my churro and even more joyfully discovering it was filled with none other than creamy, delicious dulce de leche! Possibly the best day of my life.

Until I realized fifteen minutes into things that the dulce de leche was copiously squirting out the other end of the churro and glazing the entire front of my skirt. My heart lamented the waste…

But nothing could truly rain on my sugar-laden parade. Dulce de leche may have healing powers yet, and Buenos Aires was definitely the place to revel for all its abundance of the milky caramel sweet.

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The abundant, succulent, and cheap beef was not the only delicacy we encountered in Argentina. Other delicious specialties included:

Empanadas: a small, calzone-like baked pastry most commonly stuffed with fragrant beef, chopped green onions and olives, and plump raisins, and that is heaven when fresh out of the oven. Other variations of fillings such as chicken or veggies were frequently offered, but naturally, the empanadas de carne were the best.

Chimichurri: the standard sauce accompaniment with meat (particularly beef, surprise surprise) made of parsley, olive oil, vinegar, minced garlic, paprika, oregano, and bay leaves. Though freshly mixed chimichurri is green in color, we learned that an “aged” (week-old) chimichurri turns reddish and is equally as tasty and edible. Nearly every restaurant we stepped foot in had a little bowl of it waiting on the table. Chimichurri is also makes a fine butter substitute on bread.

Choripan: the Argentine’s hot dog ensemble with spicy pork sausage or chorizo sandwiched between crispy halves of baguette and slathered in chimichurri. We found a tiny shop near our hostel that sold these suckers in giant portions for about 1USD. Simplyamazing.

Pizza: about 60% of the population in Argentina is estimated to possess some degree of Italian descent thanks to significant immigration from Italy dating back to the 1850s and continuing on until the 1960s. Italian food, as a result, has a huge presence in Argentina. Many of the pizzas we saw, including one we tried at El Gran Bar Federal in San Telmo, are of a thicker, softer crust and completely covered in melty muzzarella with a single green olive garnishing each slice.

Gelato: I am not sure I can count on both hands the number of times we had gelato on our trip. It was just too good to pass up every time we stumbled on a different shop, and the variety of flavors available everywhere only made it more enticing. It is safe to say that the gelato was the best we have tasted outside of the 1Euro cones we consumed in Venice, Italy.

I daresay the runaway highlight of our vacation to Argentina was the gastronomy, which to be honest, I expected. Known for its production of quality beef, Argentina promised my fill and more of juicy steak, and it certainly delivered far beyond my meatiest dreams. As someone who comes from a line of people that consistently eats steak for breakfast (and lunch and dinner), I consider my standards to be decently high.

First, there was the parrillada (pah-ree-sha-da) one may order from a restaurant consisting of an assortment of barbecued meats grilled to perfection, and served as a course often shared by several people. A parrillada can include a rack of ribs, several different cuts of beef, chorizo, sweetbreads, chinchulines or pig intestines, and morcilla or blood sausage, an Argentine favorite that frankly did not capture the favor of my palate.

B and I tried a few steak restaurants during our week in Buenos Aires. Viejo Gomez was a fancy establishment chosen as a desperate last resort in the face of indecision; our first encounter with parrillada that was mediocre at best (of course, Argentine beef mediocrity far trumps the standards of American beef). My favorite part was probably the Quilmes beer and the dulce de leche candy the doorman handed me on my way out.

Then there was La Brigada, recommended by the husband of Teresita, who instructed our cooking class (more about that to come). The place was also a bit too ritz for us with its business meeting crowds and high brow patrons, but the meat was delicious enough. I ordered a milanesa, a popular breaded patty reminiscent of German snitzel, in lieu of the bife de lomo that had run out. While it wasn’t terrible, I stuck to steak at every ensuing restaurant venture after that meal. B wisely choose beef and was handsomely rewarded.

The ultimate crown of glory went to El Desnivel, a small, out-of-the way place in the neighborhood of San Telmo, where our humble hostel was located. After a day of bone-chilling, pouring rain, B and I snuck in for what was the best meal of our entire trip. Along with handmade spinach pasta covered in thick bolognese, we ordered an asado de tira, a rack of the crispiest, juiciest short ribs we will likely ever consume in our lifetimes. B still dreams about the chunks of fat he meant to tear off the bone and then felt compelled to swallow because of the outrageously wonderful flavor. I may or may not have contemplated licking the plate after the ribs had been devoured. We returned to the restaurant for our last meal at the end of the week, and agreed that if we lived in Buenos Aires, the homey, unpretentious El Desnivel would be a definite spot to take visitors.

But really, the biggest draw I think of Argentine beef, and food in general, was the price. We ate so well during our entire trip for so little money. The generous portion of asado de tira in all its meaty glory and juice at El Desnivel was a mere 8USD. Combined with the homemade spinach pasta, unlimited bread, chimichurri and a 1.5 litre soda, the meal cost barely 20USD, tip included. And we basically had to be rolled out of the restaurant, we were so stuffed. Talk about a serious bang for your chuck, er, buck.

Paraguay.

December 27, 2010

[The first of what I hope to be many installments.]

I have written very sporadically in my journal over the past many months. But of the little I have chronicled, all entries point toward antsiness, a great impulse to escape, the ever-present longing to run away to Latin America. To be honest though, these inner callings are not a recent development so much as they have been cultivated since the first time I stepped foot in (or was carried into, really, since I was only five months old) Honduras, the land of my heart and soul.

Sometime around the end of October, I met with one of my pastors to discuss the progress of my Life Group, the women’s Bible Study I lead Tuesday mornings. I happened to mention, amidst other things, what a toll social work was wreaking on my life and how my ideal situation was getting the hell out of there and here. Coincidentally, our head pastor’s wife’s father (ha!) is the Regional Director of all of Latin America for the Christian and Missionary Alliance. A few days later, S sent him an email on my behalf, effectively starting an email exchange that might very well change my life.

Within a flurry of days, I had sent along my resume and a brief description about myself, my current predicament, and my future dreams so to speak. I received a prompt response that BM would be embarking on a trip to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay for the next few weeks, during which he would talk to his peeps and get back to me in a month’s time.

Meanwhile, my one-year mark as a Family Advocate with Center for Community Solutions passed (finally and with much ado), and B and I embarked on our long-awaited vacation to Buenos Aires. I was determined to disconnect from reality in all its glory while I reveled in the land of juicy steak and dulce de leche, and pledged with myself not to have anything to do with internet, Gmail, or Facebook. It was a fantastic week.

On our last day in Argentina, we found ourselves waiting for our airport lift and killing time in the lobby of our hostel, mindlessly watching NASCAR racing and eavesdropping on the Skype conversations of other tourists. I figured that since the week was drawing to a close, it wouldn’t hurt to take a peek at my emails. As I waded through a bevy of spam and advertisements, I clicked on one strange-looking email from a certain BB. Since I was not expecting to hear anything from CMA until after Thanksgiving, I was particularly caught off-guard opening an email with few lines, but sentences that sure packed a punch.

“Hi [Lo]. BM discussed with me your interest in serving in Latin America for a year or two and we believe you would fit well and have great ministry in Paraguay.  I would like to discuss the opportunity with you at length, however […] Would it be possible for you to change your ticket to visit Paraguay on the way back [from Buenos Aires]?  We would be glad to cover the costs of changing your ticket and possibly the additional flight Buenos Aires-Asuncion-Buenos Aires.”

I nearly screamed. I waved B over to confirm that he was seeing and reading the same thing, and then panic set in. I was leaving for the airport in two hours, slated to make my way home to California, and suddenly this unexpected offer to jet set off to Paraguay was messing up my plans without giving me so much as a fortnight to mull it all over. I am a strictly methodical planner by nature, so acting on impulse and taking leaps of faith are not my forte by any stretch.

But somehow, while I was in the airport a few hours later and confronted with the fact that there was an easily accessible flight to Asuncion and I really wanted to see the opportunity through, I convinced myself to buy a $500 ticket to Paraguay. It was the most spontaneous, exhilarating moment of my entire life. Unfortunately, scheduling a delayed trip back to the US did not work out quite as easily, so long story short, I never made it to Paraguay.

But the story doesn’t end there. Continued correspondence with BM and BB has been a journey of divine appointments. From what I can tell, the need for a team member is great and based on the particular ministry needs, God has made a space whose shape shouts Lo. It has been a solid two months of wild dreaming about the prospects of life and love and ministry in Paraguay.

I am expecting a call any minute now from BM, who is here in San Diego for the week, to set a time to meet. I am on the cusp of a new season, and my heart is waiting, hoping, and praying for a door to fling open.

Pray with me, my friends.