The Conquest of Buenos Aires’ Public Transport System

There is something profoundly satisfying in conquering a city’s public transportation system, especially a city in a foreign country. By “conquer” I mean stepping into the bus, train or ferry free of the dazed and confused look of a tourist and instead full of the confident boredom of a local. I try to exude this nonchalance as quickly as possible in new places, hating the tag of tourist, although I’m sure the guidebook, map, huge backpack/ diaper bag, bottles of water and English I speak to my husband give me away within seconds. Ah well, it’s worth trying.

Today I feel we came the closest yet to living like locals here in Buenos Aires, at least in how we got around. Today we mastered Buenos Aires’ bus system. Big deal, I hear you say. How hard is a bus system? Put it this way. When the bus system requires a 192-page booklet full of maps, indexes and impossibly fine print, that bus system is not for the comfort-seeking traveler. That combined with choking diesel fumes and the drivers who begin speeding along the moment you step foot on the bus, despite the baby in your arms, means these buses should be avoided by the faint-hearted.

I’ve lived in many places where a combination of public transportation, walking and biking were convenient forms of getting around: small town Japan, Chicago, and even SW Portland. Now though I live in the Portland suburbs where taking a walk is pleasant but gets me only as far as the housing developments around me. The bus or Max are both even more inconvenient. A short stint at biking to work was great for a few months until I got pregnant and was scared I’d get hit by a car (I’m not sure how the two are related but pregnancy does weird things to your brain). So I drive as little as my suburban life allows, use my husband’s more fuel-efficient car whenever I can, and otherwise travel as “green” as I can by using public transportation wherever I am.


Fighting Poverty in Argentina

One habit I’ve picked up in my travels is, wherever I am, to always read a local newspaper. Somehow the people I pass on the streets become a little less like strangers and a little more like neighbors if I’ve read the same paper with my morning coffee as they read with theirs.

Yesterday I picked up a copy of the Buenos Aires’ daily La Nacion. The top headline read “Crece la controversia por el indice oficial de pobreza” or “Growing controversy about the official poverty index.” Apparently the National Institute of Statistics recently came out with new poverty stats saying 20% (or 8 million people) of Argentina’s population live in poverty. That’s a lot of people but it’s a fairly low stat for Latin America where many nations’ poverty levels exceed 50%. The controversy here is that statisticians in the private sector dispute these official numbers, saying there are an additional 4 million uncounted people living in poverty.

Either way the number of poor people in this wealthy country of Argentina is intolerable. I have had the privilege on this trip to meet some inspiring people involved in fighting poverty through comercio justo or fair trade. Earlier this week I visited Fundacion Silataj and Arte y Esperanza, and today I visited Arte de Pueblos. All three are non-profit organizations who work with indigenous groups to market their gorgeous handicrafts and to fund various community development projects. The products include warm ponchos and scarves from llama wool, eco-friendly wood pieces carved from fallen trees, handbags woven from the chaguar plant and beaded necklaces made from beautiful seeds. I was impressed by the variety of products and the quality. The traditional designs were unlike those I have seen in other Latin American countries.

I’ll return home with some new products for Bambootique but more than that I’ll return inspired by the people who work for these organizations, day in and day out, to improve the lives of those who are so skilled in their traditional work and yet live in poverty.

Dolores and Mercedes, two women who work with Fundacion Silataj to market the handicrafts of many of Argentina’s indigenous people.

Beautiful handmade ponchos and jackets

Arte y Esperanza Shop

Earrings made by Buenos Aires artisans from palo santo, an eco-friendly wood
These earrings will soon be available online from Bambootique
(Thanks Amy for modeling!)

If you’re visiting Argentina and want to purchase fair trade handicrafts, I highly recommend you visit one or all of these shops:

Fundaction Silitaj
Vuelta de Obligado 1933, Belgrano

Arte y Esperanza
Balcarce 234, San Telmo (just a few blocks south of the Casa Rosada)

Arte de Pueblo
Libertad 948, Retiro

Buenos Aires – City of Books and Beauty

I feel like I’m cheating on my home city of Portland by calling BA a “city of books.” I’ve only been here a few days but I feel so at home, in part because of the librerias every few blocks. This cosmopolitan city is full of bookworms and there are new and used booksellers everywhere. I love the site of dusty book stalls full of old volumes in Spanish.

The ultimate stop for books and spectacular beauty is El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Recoleta neighborhood. El Ateneo is the largest bookstore in Latin America (although still smaller than Powell’s or even most Borders I’ve been to at home) but quite possibly the most beautiful in the world. El Ateneo is housed in an old movie theater modeled in the early 20th century after the Opera Garnier in Paris. Splendid! My daughter Grace and I browsed its elegant floors one at a time in the company of my friend Amy. I managed to emerge from its wealth of literature with only a Spanish kids word book for Grace, mainly due to the small size of the store’s English section and my lack of desire to read a full novel in Spanish while on vacation. But I left in awe of this city’s love of the printed word and elegance.

Grace explores the shelves of El Ateneo

Buenos Aires – City of Trees

Buenos Aires is an incredibly green city. I mean that literally, there are trees and parks everywhere. The view from our apartment (a wonderful alternative to a hotel when traveling with a child) is of leaves just beginning to take on the oranges and yellows of fall. Although it’s autumn here in the southern hemisphere, the temperature hovers in the low to mid-70s and the morning air is sticky with humidity left from last night’s sudden but brief thunderstorm. This thriving metropolis of over 12 million people has a soul like no other I’ve seen in Latin America and I’m delighted to find that includes a love for green spaces.

A Rare Find: Fair Trade Wine

My husband, and admittedly I, enjoy a nice glass of red wine most nights at dinner. Our favorites are the rich spicy red wines from Argentina, especially Malbec and Rioja. Wine is on my mind because we are leaving soon on a vacation/ work trip/ conference to Buenos Aires, where we plan to sip, or possibly gulp, Argentine vino daily. When I think of wine production I think fertile soil, hilly vineyards bathed in sunshine, and happy workers laughing as they cut grapes into hand-woven baskets.

While my ethereal vision may still be the reality for some of the world’s vineyards, according to Co-op America most of the wine produced in the Global South comes from vineyards where workers are paid poverty level wages and exposed to heavy pesticide use.

Fair trade wine is brand new to the U.S. market. The only U.S. distributor I’ve been able to locate is Etica, and they don’t sell their wine too widely yet. It’s not at all available in Oregon as far as I can tell. I hope to locate and sample fair trade wine while in Argentina, but what’s a responsible wine lover to do here in Oregon?

The obvious answer is to drink local wine, since our state is home to some incredible vineyards. For those times when my meal requires a variety not available locally I consulted my handy Better World Shopping Guide. I discovered that Yellow Tail, Gallo, Banrock Station, Fetzer and other wine producers are considered ethical wines I can enjoy without guilt. Any organic wine is also considered responsible since pesticide use is one of the biggest problems for workers.

Have you found fair trade or organic wine near you? What’s your favorite local wine? If you’ve found a fair trade, organic or local equivalent to Malbec I’d love to know about it.

This posting ends two weeks of fair trade product reviews for Fair Trade Fortnight. I hope these reviews  inspire you to change at least one shopping habit. And on another note, we leave soon for Argentina and I will be posting here about my adventures and discoveries from the other side of the world!

Calorie Free Chocolate That Makes You Pretty

My favorite, favorite, favorite, must-have skincare product right now is Anti-Body’s chocolate-raspberry lipbalm. Yum! It’s the best way I know to get my daily fix of fair-trade chocolate without the calories. Yes, they use real fair trade chocolate to make this scrumptious stuff not to mention natural raspberry flavors, fair trade coconut oil and fair trade shea butter. It’s so smooth and soft, plus it doesn’t have any of those nasty parabens or phthalates everyone is telling us to stay away from.

Bambootique has been carrying Anti-Body’s skincare products since December and they have been incredibly popular. Their products available at Bambootique include lavender and lemongrass lotions, peppermint lip balm, bath fizzers with fun names like Udderly Lavender plus my favorite chocolate-raspberry lip balm. I initially chose to carry their products because they use more than 50% fair trade ingredients (and the rest are sourced in the U.S.) but I continue to carry them because they are so good, people keep coming back for more.

I don’t want to just toot Anti-Body’s horn; obviously I have a stake here since I sell their products. Have you tried an Anti-Body product? What did you think and what’s your favorite?

Through the end of this week Bambootique is continuing to donate 20% of all sales of Anti-Body products to help start a coconut oil cooperative in Liberia, West Africa. We’ll be doing that through this Saturday May 17th.

Coming tomorrow: You’ll be surprised this product many of us enjoy with dinner every night even exists in fair trade….at least I was!

The “Magic” Soap You Can Use For Everything

I was just recently introduced to the wonders of Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soaps. The soap has been around forever, at least since the hippy days, but a more recent development is that they are certified organic and certified fair trade!

Dr. Bronner’s castile soap is an all-vegetable soap made from fair trade oils such as coconut and olive. There is absolutely nothing synthetic in these soaps and not only are the soaps biodegradable, their funky packaging (covered in Dr. Bronner’s eccentric philosophies) is 100% post-consumer waste recycled. The great thing about this soap is you can use it for absolutely anything! Here are just a few uses listed on Dr. Bronner’s website:

  • Bodywash or shampoo. It’s especially good for babies as it’s gentle and all-natural, although don’t get it in their eyes
  • Everyday cleaning using a ratio of 40 parts water to one part soap (light cleaning) or half water half soap (heavy cleaning)
  • Toothbrushing using just a few drops on your toothbrush
  • Laundry using 1/3 to 1/4 cup plus a dash of baking soda

I have yet to use my Dr. Bronner’s much but I have a big bottle of peppermint scented soap and a little bottle of lavender soap just waiting to be put to use. I did wash my hands this morning using a small squirt of the lavender soap and my hands still feel soft, smooth and smell great. As soon as my hand soap pumps are empty of their artificial, store-bought contents I’m going to refill them using this recipe I found on Enviromom:

1 cup water
1/4 cup liquid castile soap (like Dr. Bronners)
1 tsp vegetable glycerine

I think I’m going to quickly be hooked on this stuff. I’ve slowly switched to mostly natural cleaning and personal care products but most of them are so expensive. One big 16 ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s is under $10 at New Season’s or Trader Joe’s and can replace the myraid of various natural products I’ve been buying. The one use I think I’ll be slow on picking up is brushing my teeth with it though.

Leave me a comment and tell us how you have used Dr. Bronner’s. I’d love to hear more ideas and your experiences.

Coming tomorrow: Fair trade lotions and lip balms, continuing two weeks of fair trade product reviews for Fair Trade fortnight.

He Said It With Flowers

Among the many things I love about my husband, I appreciate that he patiently puts up with my obsession to shop fair trade. He shares my passion for people and the planet, so it’s not too much of a leap for him. For Mother’s Day yesterday he surprised me with a dozen beautiful red-tipped yellow roses, which to my delight were fair trade roses. He had to go out of his way to Whole Foods to buy them and they do cost more than regular roses (about $19.99 per dozen) but he has learned the hard way not to come home with conventional flowers from “flower sweatshops” in South America. Thanks Steve!

More than half of the flowers sold in the United States, particularly roses and carnations, are grown and processed under not so pretty conditions in South America, especially Colombia and Ecuador. Heavy use of pesticides is rampant, with little or no protective gear for field workers, and the conditions in the processing plants are just as bad. Mainly women work in the plants and they are subject to long hours, low pay and an insecure income as they are hired and laid off at the will of their employers. It is not uncommon for a woman working in Colombia’s flower industry to lose her job when she becomes pregnant, even though maternity leave is supposedly a guaranteed right in that country.

As with all fair trade products, they’re not just good for people but they’re good for the earth. In order to be certified fair trade, flowers have to be grown according to strict environmental standards. They’re not necessarily organic (although many are) but the pesticide and herbicide use is much lower and the most harmful ones are disallowed.

I don’t want to demonize all conventionally grown flowers. Growing your own or buying locally grown flowers is a wonderful way to go and some international flower companies have cleaned up their act as the result of pressure from consumers and governments. But exploitation is still rampant so buying either fair trade certified flowers or domestically grown flowers whenever possible is definitely the best expression of your love.

Have you found fair trade certified flowers or another alternative near you? Let me know about it by leaving a comment here. Hopefully they will become more and more common as demand increases.

Coming tomorrow: Continuing on with two weeks of fair trade product reviews, I’ll tell you about a fair trade soap you can use for literally any cleaning in your house, from washing dishes to brushing your teeth!

Celebrate World Fair Trade Day Today!

Today more than 70 countries celebrate World Fair Trade Day, a day that recognizes the value of fair trade to transform the lives of farmers and artisans. Over half of the world’s fair trade artisans are women, many of whom are the sole income-earners for themselves and their children. Fair trade empowers artisans to use their unique gifts to support their families and preserve their cultural heritage for future generations. It is an incredible movement and one I’m proud to be part of.

I’ve been highlighting a fair trade product every day this week (and will next week as well) as part of Fair Trade Fortnight. For World Fair Trade Day I bring you some images of the women who make Bambootique’s handicrafts. Because of these women’s involvement in fair trade their lives are richer and they enrich our lives with their beautiful work.

This is Nurali, from Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Her family was affected by the tsunami in 2004 and she now has a good job making beautiful handbags with Laga Handbags.

Anna is from Liberia, West Africa. She is one of the members of a brand new coconut oil cooperative, an essential ingredient to make fair trade skincare products. We continue to donate 20% of proceeds from skincare product purchases through May 17th to help this co-op buy needed processing equipment to get started.

Ritu is a gifted jewelry crafter and a single mother in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her handiwork empowers her to care for herself and her young daughter.

And in the spirit of friendly competition, here’s a list of a few of my favorite national and Portland-area fair traders who also specialize in handicrafts:

Ten Thousand Villages
914 NW Everett St
Portland, OR 97209

Global Exchange
3508 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Portland, OR 97214

Global Sistergoods

Small Planet Trading
202 Cascade Avenue, Suite B
Hood River, Oregon

Happy World Fair Trade Day and happy fair trade shopping!

Coming next week: More fair trade product reviews on products you may be surprised to know are available fairly traded!

The Book That Changed Shopping

My dear friend Sarah just introduced me to the most incredible little book: The Better World Shopping Guide. This pocket-sized guide is designed to help you make the best brand choice on over 70 categories of products. From gasoline to feminine care to electronics, the book uses an easy-to-read grading system to compare companies’ records on social and environmental responsibility.

The most helpful thing about this guide for me is knowing how to pick the greenest company for essential products that really don’t seem very green. For example, I learned from this book that BP-Amoco is one of the best companies from which I can buy my gas. Among other positives, the company is the largest solar power manufacturer in the world. I also now know to never buy gas from Exxon-Mobil, the #1 worst corporation on the planet (yikes).

The guide has been compiled by one Ellis Jones, a sociology professor at UC Davis with a passion for turning knowledge into practical actions. He has painstakingly researched all the major corporations using an incredible variety of reliable sources. Here’s an excerpt by Jones from the book’s introduction:

Money is power…As trillions of dollars accumulate in the corporate sphere, we witness the growing power of corporations to shape the world as they see fit…We must shift our own voices if we wish to be heard…As consumers we vote every single day with the purest form of power, money. The average American family spends around $18,000 on goods and services. Think of it as casting 18,000 votes every year for the kind of world you want to live in.

This guide is an empowering way to use the power of your dollars, no matter how many or how few you have, to shape the world as YOU see fit. The book is purposely small enough to fit in your purse or pocket so you can carry it whenever you shop. It’s already guided me to select Clif bars (A rating) over Balance bars (F rating). Previously I would have assumed the two bars had more or less the same social and environmental impact, but apparently they do not. Get yourself this book and get shopping!

Coming tomorrow – Day five in two weeks of fair trade product reviews! Fair trade handicrafts (including Bambootique, but so much more).

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