Thursday, January 15, 2009

Buenos Aires Wrong...Getting Lost...Being Back

There are plenty of blogs about how to do Buenos Aires right. Bor-ring. You gotta write what you know, so here's my advice on

How to Do Buenos Aires Wrong.

  • Do not make anything that might be referred to as a “Game Plan.”
  • Reservations schmeservations
  • Do not be tempted to save money by cooking at home, even if your accomadations are equipped with a kitchen.
  • Do not designate a specific pocket or bag for your wallet or passport.
  • Distribute important information on scraps of paper kept in various pockets or as bookmarks.
  • Don't worry about having a guidebook that's up-to-date. I'm sure that bus line is still in business.
  • Do not familiarize yourself with exact exchange rates.
  • Do not research restaurants before deciding to eat there.

To see vacation photos, click here.

The People of Buenos Aires

The people, as I peruse their tabletops of handmade jewelry or read their menus, smile and are patient with my Spanish. They use English when they know it.

Things are done with style. We passed by a georgeous, ornate building, and while we were awwing, our cab driver told us that's the city's water management building.

On the subway, a man in his golden years was whistling "Strangers in the Night." He got off at our stop and serenaded us on the walk to the next train, what were the chances? Down the stairs then up again, like a radio I was carrying, and into the next train, he continued. I smiled at him, we exchanged glances, but I didn't want him to stop. He did, right before we got off, to ask me where I was from. I wanted to say how wonderful it was that people whistled Strangers In the Night for trains on end, but I only had time to say Los Estados Unidos before I rushed through the doors.

People from the U.S.

Our group is mixed in with visitors from the states, siblings and friends of Peace Corps people. It's fun to tell them about Paraguay, ask about the U.S. The big joke is that we're heroes. As in, when one of them walks to the kitchen, one of us will call out from lying down on the couch: "While you're up, how would you like to get some more ice for a hero."

It's crazy to imagine they just came down for the trip, and their already back cozy in the states. For us volunteers, it was more like a trip within a trip.

Getting Lost

First, I have to say that my agreement with the group on this trip was that I would plan nothing and in return have no preference as to what we did. I would be a fish at the end of the school, just following the tail in front of me.

I was lead to a lunch on the plaza one day, where we waited two hours to eat, after getting there at 3 p.m.. A coup was afoot when we found out our food hadn't even been made yet. So we left.

A group of a dozen people storming out of a restaurant is a hard thing to contain. We strung out along the sidewalk, in groups of two or three mixed in with the foot traffic. People toward the front wanted to go to a steak restaurant. Toward the back there was talk of going to La Boca, a neighborhood nearby.

Rebecca was walking about 30 feet behind me, and I considered her my loose buddy, until I turned around and saw her walking back, toward the La Boca camp.

She got in a cab, and I assumed she was going to pick me up.

I looked and the cab had 4 people in it. Drivers wouldn’t fit more.

“Come to La Boca!” yelled Rebecca out the window as they passed me.

“Where?” I said, as La Boca is a whole neighborhood.

“I don’t know!” she said, her hands held up apologetically.

Then the cab turned the corner, and they were gone. I looked up in front of me and didn’t see anyone but strangers.

Suddenly I had gone from being surrounded by a group to alone on a crowded street with no phone, no address to the hotel and little idea where I was. I felt the same grip a claustrophobe might feel when the doors close in a hot elevator.

I was too proud to run, but I walked fast through the crowd, trying to catch up to the steak group. The crowd thinned a few blocks up and I realized I didn’t see them anywhere.

Surely they thought I was in La Boca, while the others thought I was eating steak.

I tried not to cry. Because I’m an adult. But as I was going to restaurant window to restaurant I felt like a lost little girl. So I

started to cry like one, a little.

A half-hour later, trying to tame my anxiety, I decided to hail a cab and together we found the hotel, off a plaza I knew was near there. No one was there.

I had to accept what had happened and just said, OK, I have to pretend that I chose to have an evening alone in B.A.

I decided to go for a site-seeing walk, where the thought, "How could she just leave me like that?" kept popping into my head, but I pushed it down. I came upon a guy painting graffiti and decided to talk to him. He was a cute Brazilian painting one of the cartoony characters you see around town. He mistook me for a porteña (someone from B.A.), or at least he said he did. We were chatting when I heard "Rubia!" from across the street. It was my friends.

By the last day in B.A. I was rushing to get somewhere. I had only seen a site, the cemetery Recoleta. I needed at least one more, needed to have a plural, "I've seen the sites."

"Come on people," I said to the rumpled logs in the dorm-style bunks.

We went to a private building with a great view, then we saw the Pink House, their version of the White House, on the way to the boat to Uruguay.


Rebecca left before Uruguay, shaving off the top level of responsiblity, like a nanny leaving the day care. All of us irresponsible ones left keep trying to help each other. When I have to hold the bus tickets, I say loudly, "Ok, I'm putting the bus tickets in the long zippered pocket of my purse." I do so with an exaggerated arm swing for the witnesses. "Long zippered pocket," I say.

We purchased our bus tickets to Punta del Diablo, then it was announced that we had no where to stay. Arriving past the New Year, we figured people would have cleared out by then. This was not the case. We searched online for places, with Shola Googling then passing the numbers to me to call. "No hay nada" (There isn’t anything) said the people on the line. Something about their chuckles and tones made me think they were referring to all of the town instead of just their houses.

In a chatroom online I found a conversation about reserving a place. It's a hot spot so it's best to book now said the person responding. It was dated in August.

Our choices were to go look in person, risking not finding anything, or to lose out on our bus ticket money.

We arrived at 10:30 to a street crowded with people milling around on their way to party. We were weighed down by our bags and the knowledge that we might not have a place to sleep that night.

The first place where Liam and Shola stopped in, the lady told them to give up, that it would be impossible. They came outside and told the group she said there might be something farther from the beach.

We walked farther and farther from the hot spots. We were in a quite a cold spot, actually, and had asked about a dozen places, when we mentioned our plight to a shopkeeper.

And bam. She knew someone, who turned out to be a realtor for some guy who had a house. We negotiated for the rental at midnight.

The Tree House

If you saw the roof of the house from the main road, over the pine trees, you might make a little excursion to see the rest. It is straw-roofed, a series of levels topped with a tiny glass-enclosed room akin to a lighthouse. Inside, it is a main floor and two stories of lofts, which offer almost no privacy, even through the floors, which have peephole lines between the wood. Some walls are straw, some wood. The owner, Fernando, told me he built it himself, and I believe him. He showed me the patios, the outward slants of which startle my equilibrium. He kept saying, “Ocho, no,” (Eight, no) referring to the number in our party and the weight limit of his creations. Almost anything that is stepped on, opened or twisted in the house makes some kind of complaint, as if the house doesn’t want to get up.

We had three members of our mobile party over 6’5”, who had to crouch in certain rooms and duck under doorways. Even I couldn't stand up straight in the little sitting room. On the second story room one board seemed to be just nailed above the others and camoflauged in the same paint. Taking in all the house’s abnormal formations, the bump/“Ouch!”/profanity sequence is common among the squeaks and whines.

The land around the house looks like Florida scrub to me, low bushes and sand and palms and pines, which I always think look weird in tropical climates. There is a bird flying around that is so red, it looks like a digital add-in on a old movie of grey grass. Two green parrots flew around this morning, diving down and landing next a big pit which has a snake at the bottom of it.

The beach is wonderful.

We’re on Uruguayan time. We get to dinner at midnight. Then go out. The pictures of our nights out look like they’re in reverse order, starting out with dark backgrounds and flashes and ending with the pastel sky and the natural light of what could be sunset, but is really sunrise.

The morning is shot, obviously. Naps are taken on the beach and in the house on the top floor to avoid the noise. Last night I took my nap from 9 to midnight.

At night I walk with my neck arched back, because I can't stop looking at the stars. Orion's belt, which used to be out on its own somewhere, is now in the middle of the Milky Way, a thick band of stars over us. I try to imagine that some are closer than others. I try to think about how big and far they are, but they just look like skylights poked in a black dome tent.

Anyone who was looking saw shooting stars that weekend. I saw about six over three nights.

There's staring to be done during they day, as well, especially for the menfolk. The girls look like that one girls that’s in every high school class: really cute, beautiful, just stylish-no-matter-how-she-looks...only in a thong bikini and cloned everywhere.

When you see groups of people milling around the bus station, you can tell which ones are coming and which ones are going. They’re coming from the city, done up in new holiday clothes. They leave in beach wraps, their hair up, dangling shell jewelry around their neck. It’s a nuicance to see people leave. It pops me out of that mental dream that we give ourselves over to on vacation: That life really could be like this forever.

Which is why you can’t really count the last day, which is today, of a vacation. Because you get up and someone says something like, “Last day,” in either a sing-songy way or a drag kind of way. Either that or someone will ask you about your flight or bus time the next day. You’re forced to picture yourself getting on a bus and leaving this place, and the non-vacation life waiting, which you had started to think was a dream.

It's been the anti-vacation

I never worried about how many stars our hostel had. In hostels you just want a bathroom door that locks. We never worried much about how we looked. We didn't buy stupid trinkets or ugly shirts that had the name of everywhere we visited, to advertised our well-traveledness. I didn't stress out about making sure I got my money's worth of fun, because I wasn't traveling on my credit card.

So the point is

The more I travel the more I see the point of traveling as this: Seeing the similarities. I cand stand out on that beach and imagine pretty easily that I’m in St. Augustine, Fl.

You go so damn far and the grass is still grass. Sand sand. It's not just a yellow area on a map.

Teenage girls cross their arms over their bellies when they sit. Little boys watch how the men bait their fish hooks. Women whisper and laugh. There are the same jerks, the same sweet people. Some people just invite you into their world and you make friends across language barriers.

Here on the street, twice a shopkeeper has called out to me that he can see my wallet sticking out of my pocket and I should hide my money better. They do this little sticking in the purse motion, then zipping it up, a dainty move with their man hands. When I zipped up my purse one of the men gave me a thumbs up and a smile.

When I asked the landlady of this house if I could buy body boards here, she drew me a detailed map of where I could find them, with the roads drawn carefully, two lines. There were five other landmarks as well.

I don’t want to sound naïve. I have a former Marine sister who works in security and a teacher mom who works on worrying. They remind me all the time of the dangers. So I lock my computer up in my house before I go. I put my wallet in the inside pocket of my purse and zip it up, when I don't forget. I don’t walk alone at night.

However I do not do it as acts of war, saying, “Those damn (insert name of persons from country of travel here.) They’ll rip ya off every chance you get.”

I am careful but not afraid, and that frightens people. Especially my mother.

I used to be all concerned about which country I would serve in. I almost asked for a country change when I was sent somewhere with no beach or mountains. But that was never the point. The point of getting out of your world is this: Go somewhere where the people don't look like you, dress like you, or talk like you and see how exactly the same you are.

Jan 15. Back

And I'm back, to where Argentina where mom's tell their kids they have to go work, before leaving.

I'm back, and had about 7 wonderful packages waiting from family and friends. Once, I told my friend how much a package costs to send, lowballing it as we do sometimes to $20 (which, in Guaranis, is half my rent), and her jaw dropped. Now I'm carrying loads and loads of them down the street.

My sister sent me a photo album with old pictures: skydiving, my aunt's beautiful beach house, Hawaii, my mom's beautiful wedding, and the story I had told myself about my life seems all wrong. I've seen all these photos before, but it looks different now.

I'm back, and my friend asked me in front of the whole board of the coop how much money I spent on my vacation. Did I lie? The raw numbers, of just how much more money we have, embarrass me.

I'm back, and I'm sorry again.

The voice says, "So sorry that you could forget about it and blow $??? for a two-week vacation?"

I feel guilty and helpless and small. But I can't cash in my guilt, and helplessness will get me nowhere. I can't understand why life is divided this way. All I can do is try to reach across the crevasse, I guess.

1 comment:

jesus said...

Hi Paula.! how are u? i hope well.
I just read your stories, they are so interesting, i´m from Paraguay, but now i´m studying english in canada, i´m so far and maybe that´s why is nice to read your point of view about my country, and at the same time is weird because i´m learning about my country through a foreign person, thx for that. we have something in common,i´m trying to learn english and u spanish and i know exactly what are u feeling, but in different ways. My email is, writte me, i want to practice my english,and also exchange opinion.
Bye, take care.