The Tigre boat trip was truly the highlight of my Buenos Aires experience. Besides a refreshing taste of the nature I craved, it was an surprising insight into the decadent life that many of the priveledged and upwardly mobile middle class enjoyed here. Don’t get me wrong, I love the city too, but I had just left LA, my own distracting meccaof entertainment and I was beginning to feel frustrated; I had hardly read a page or written a word in the last 5 days, it was hot and my lovely harem was sadly (for me) beginning to go their separate ways. The day after the boat, as is customary on minimally pre-planned journeys, I sat down with a map and a borrowed guide book and decided to not get up until I had determined my next move.
Of course, every time fellow travelers see you plotting, it’s only friendly to offer advice. The only occasionally annoying part about this is that every time you think you have a route decided upon you get either the logistical opinions:
“Oh, hmmm, it might be tough to find a place to stay in the high season at this short notice…” Yes, I’ve chosen to travel at the peak of Argentina’s high-season, or you get the more confusing subjective opinions:
“Well, there’s not much to do there – you can probably miss it out…” or “It’s really boring / not pretty / not tourist-friendly” etc. Of course I sounded a little like Mr. Grumps when I would reply, “Actually I’m looking for a place with not much to do, minimal distractions, a place to get away from it all.” I always had to be careful to say it in a tactful way, otherwise the “away from it all” had a distinct way of sounding like “away from people like you..”
About an hour into my hung over frustration, Shira approached me. She could tell I was a little unbalanced. “Would you like a smoke? I’ll help you work it out.” Shira was one of the first people I met at the Ostinatto Hostel and had been sweet enough to bring me a coffee after my lost underwear trick. In fact I’d spent my first day in Buenos Aires with her, tracking down a local SIM card for my newly jailbroken iPhone and then exploring to the Jardín Zoológico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (far more exotic than just saying ‘zoo’) because the preferrable Jardín Botánico was closed for repairs. Had a renegade palm tree malfunctioned? Was a particular strain of cactus having a mechanical problem? It was unclear, so we headed to the zoo instead. I forgot how much I disliked zoos. The captive creatures always seem so depressed and the unlucky animals at the Jardín Zoológico were no exception; the penguins just stood in a sliver of shade with their wings spread wide and I’m pretty sure the polar bear was dead. In fact, the only happy animal at the zoo seemed to be a gang of Capybaras, a funny looking mash-up of rabbit-hamster-dog, that ran wild around the park keeping the grass short and fertilized.
Shira was a rather serious girl and had just finished 6 years in the Israeli army. Perhaps that explained her seriousness? However in the last couple of days that I’d known her, she had opened up and shown me a sweeter side:
“I like the way you speak.” She told me. “It’s calm.”
I am always surprised when people remark on my calmness. Or that I seem balanced. Perhaps in my endless quest for these qualities I’ve actually begun manifesting them, or at least outwardly projecting them. Maybe? I also take great pride in challenging foreigners’ impressions of Americans. Some of it comes down to knowing basic geography. For example, everyone should know Portugal isn’t in Africa, Ireland isn’t actually attached to England and the name ‘America’ also applies to Canada, Mexico, Argentina and everywhere else in the ‘Americas’. It’s also important to be good at adapting to cultures; a typical complaint of Americans is that they whine a lot and want things to conform to their customs. This is one thing in a developed place like BA, but try that tactic in Delhi, India and see what happens: you’ll get chewed up and ejected as quick as that lamb curry which you knew you shouldn’t have eaten at the Bangalore train station. Finally, of course it’s always important to talk loud enough so people can actually hear you, but some Americans talk like their slightly deaf, which may be true of the iPod generation but it’s a cliche that has certainly been around for far longer than the sexy multi-touch device in your pocket. In closing this brief rant, it’s up to all of us to help change the world’s impression of our culture by being good diplomats to our country, god dammit.
And so, as a constantly quitting smoker, I joined Shira and her Marlboro Reds on the balcony where I told her of my proposed route down the east coast.
“Would you mind if I made some suggestions?” She’d been traveling around Argentina for the last couple of months, spoke good Spanish and was logistically responsible.
“Of course not, please go ahead.” Then I listened as she blew my plan out of the water:
“I don’t think you’re going to find what you’re looking for on the east coast of Argentina. The beaches are not so great. The ones that are, are packed with people. The other ones are desolate, largely feature-less and windy as hell.” I had imagined little thatched beach huts like my time in Thailand, but that idea was going up in smoke more quickly than the cancer stick that projected sharply from between my stress-taut fingers.
“In my opinion, you should fly south, and take the extra time you save exploring the lake district, going on treks and seeing the mountains. There, I think you will find your peace.” Perhaps it was my exasperation or perhaps it was her calm, informed plan that sold me, but even as she finished her suggestion I was pressing “Purchase” on the LAN Airlines website accessed on my little netbook. I would save Ushuaia, which was apparently packed with everyone from stinky backpackers to cruise ship invalids anyway, for a future Antarctic expedition and instead head to the southern town of Rio Gallegos, a place where people universally warned: “Seriously, there is NOTHING going on.” Fantastic, it was settled, I’d head to this delightful sounding place the following night. I thanked Shira and traded contact information; I knew I would certainly be asking for her help again at some point. Thank you, oh wise, Ex-Israeli Army, backpacker oracle!
On my final night in BA, I tracked down a few final contacts and had two options; either I track down Pablo, who was throwing a huge party for a friend and told me a lot of her friends loved Americans OR meet up with two guys, an old friend from LA and a friend of a friend who was an interactive designer. Of course, being a man of maturity and substance I chose the latter as a more productive use of my time. It began to rain so hard on my way to meet Mario, the FoF, that when we arrived at his apartment block, the taxi driver tapped the windshield and asked: “¿Estás seguro?” or ‘Are you sure?’. I’d come this far, and since it was laundry day I was already wearing swim trunks (and a light tuxedo shirt ;). I slapped some pesos into his hand, smiled and exited thetaxi into the most torrential rain of my life.
I was already quite wet when I got to the security box and said I was a guest of “Say-Eff-Ay.” I kept repeating but he didn’t get it. I called Mario (and so many backpackers ask why I think a cell phone is so important 😉
“Mario, I’m downstairs but the security guard is confused. I told him ‘6-F’ but he doesn’t get it! I’m so wet, it’s ridiculous.” Again, I blasted into the security window’s grille: “Say-Eff-Ay!! Say-Eff-Ay!!” But the security guard just continued to look at me sadly.
“You’re saying ‘C-F’, say ‘Says-Eff-Ay’. Hang on, I’m coming down.” So looking wet, and acting like a complete imbecile is how I met Mario but luckily he turned out to be a talented and cool cat. A talented and cool cat who had a spare towel. After drying off and waiting for the rain to abate, we met up with Andrew Warner, an entrepreneurial friend from LA who’d moved down to Buenos Aires after some successful business moves where he was living the remotely productive life, interviewing some of the world’s top minds on the art of entrepreneurship. Of course what else would we have for dinner other than another meat fest? This one however, expertly ordered by Mario, was not to be forgotten; it came with a slew of condiments, from olive tepanades to spiced chimichurri. I always love condiments because it lets you get creative in your own, gluttonous way. And besides, I better stock up on fuel, tomorrow would be the long road, or in this case, short plane ride to the ‘seriously nothing going on’ Rio Gallegos.