Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Long Road North Part II: Buenos Aires

Arrival


My overnight trip from Bahía Blanca to Buenos Aires was uneventful. The bus showed up more or less on time at the central bus terminal, I wasted a bunch of time once again being thwarted by an unhelpful Argentine information booth occupant who fed me all sorts of misinformation, but eventually made it onto the bus (which I had looked up in advance with the help of Constanza and her mom) to my hostel. It was 8am, and apparently the male hostel staffers were still recovering from the night before because their eyes were bloodshot and they seemed very, very high.

It was too early to check in, but the female staffer ushered me upstairs for breakfast and coffee and I sat there and enjoyed the spotty wireless for a bit before claiming a locker once the dwellers in the room I was checking into woke up, and then going for a walk. A little on edge about being in a BIG CITY again for the first time since Santiago way back in October, I didn't bring much with me and was all paranoid, eyeing everyone suspiciously and peevishly glaring at every bit of graffiti and thinking, "Ugh, humans" every time the wall or sidewalk smelled of piss or feces.

Thank you Buenos Aires graffiti artist.
That pretty much sums it up.


But I eventually got to the spot that was my goal:

The U.S. Embassy.

Calm down, I wasn't in trouble. I was just out of room for stamps in my passport (uuuuuuugggggh firstworldproblems) and needed to get me more before I moved on from Argentina. I showed up at the giant gated complex, walked right around the long line, flashed my passport, and got VIP treatment. Ameeeerrriiicaaaa!! (it made me feel more than kind of bad). They did confiscate all of my stuff, though, not trusting me with whatever electronic devices and mystery liquids (Nalgene bottle of water) I was carrying with me. I took a number, waited 30 minutes, filled out a form, paid the fee and handed over my passport, and was told to come back in four hours.

So I walked across the street to the large green spot on my map which turned out to be a perfectly acceptable city park and curled up on the grass and read a book for a few hours, then getting stiff, got up and walked around, discovering an immense and beautiful rose garden where I stopped and, you guessed it, smelled them roses.

Rose garden. Okay, maybe this city stuff isn't all bad after all.


The four hours up, I wandered back over to the Embassy, skipped the line again, had my stuff confiscated again (although this time I was handed plastic retrieval number 69 with a wink and an obscene comment from the Argentinian guard who thought he was being awfully clever). I then waited 40 minutes behind a VERY ANGRY woman, cut straight out of a SNL-style mold for a middle-aged butch lesbian, who, impatient about her 40 minute wait time, kept turning to me and mumbling variations on "fucking cunt" under her breath anytime the mini-skirted and heavily made-up and bejeweled Porteña in epic platform heels currently being served at the desk loudly vented her difficulties in obtaining a fiancé visa.

Meanwhile, some great propaganda was playing on the televisions hanging in the waiting hall. Fascinating and successful ethnic-looking people talking about how the U.S. is the Land of Opportunity and how they've managed to Maintain their Cultural Identity while enjoying the Great Mixing Pot that is Ameeerrriicaaa and making lots of blonde friends. Features of Women and Muslims Conquering the Business World. A segment on Black History Month. The funny part: 90% of it was recognizably filmed on USC's campus, and of course the "Universities: The Nation's Jewels" was all about TROJAN PRIDE! Fight on!



Anyhow, I eventually got my passport back, now fat with lots of new pages that I'm going to have a hard time filling before the passport expires, especially at my rate of travel (2 countries in over 6 months? Come ON).

By then I was starving, so I rolled into the first not-sketchy looking sandwich shop I found and ordered their biggest sandwich, with fries and a beer, and sat on the street and ate my sandwich and drank my beer, all while attempting to not be angry about being in a city. I felt like crap. I was tired, exhausted. I felt unduly emotional and grumpy. I had weird cramps. I was dizzy a lot. I was bloated. I had been nauseated almost daily for a few hours in the morning for almost two months. It was like really bad PMS, except...I was still months overdue in the monthly bleeding department, so I was also worried, and I worried about that while I ate my sandwich.

I couldn't be pregnant, having not engaged in the requisite activities, apologies to Mary Mother of God. And I'm normally a bombproof regular bleeder: I've never missed a period despite long periods of heavy exercise, crazy travel, serious stress, major illness, and several of those combined. I worried that something serious was wrong, and wondered if I should see a doctor. Or could I be pregnant? That would have pretty disturbing implications involving being drugged and raped, something I assumed I would at least have had a clue about after the fact. I finished my sandwich, and skulked back to the hostel, now in a decidedly worse mood.

I was finally allowed to check in, and promptly claimed a top bunk as My Domain, and sat there catching up on emails and stuff for a few hours, avoiding conversation and avoiding smiling at people like an antisocial jerk. The others in my room were a group of sick Norwegians, which made me even grumpier. Fed up with my sulky self, I kicked myself out of bed, put on running clothes, and went for a run to my newly-discovered park. Which was full of kissing lovers. Which made me even grumpier. I returned back to the hostel in a supremely foul mood, showered, drank a huge happy hour beer by myself, still avoiding people, went out for a lonely and mediocre dinner, returned to the hostel, stuffed the earplugs in, and went to sleep.

Black Market Dealings and My Imaginary Fetus


I went running again the next morning, attempting to shake my funk that had started on the way back from Antarctica and that had been following me like a shouldered albatross. I ran and ran and ran, then did situps until I felt like I wanted to puke, then thought about maybe being rape-pregnant again. To distract myself, I decided to go have an Argentine Adventure and head downtown to do some black market money exchanging. I was wildly successful, shopping around for the best rates, hunting down the best traders, doing shady behind-dumpster deals, discreetly hiding my multiple stashes of cash money obtained from various sources so that nobody would know how much I was actually carrying, and coming away almost twice as rich as I had started the day. I bought myself some semi-stylish, inexpensive sandals to celebrate, my cute Chiloe shoes having been completely worn to sole-less. And I went to a pharmacy and bought a pregnancy test.

Downtown BA
Parktown BA

Then I decided to go explore another of the green spots on the city map, a big nature reserve nearby. It was surprising nature-y and I found a nice spot to sit on a bench and read more of my book, but I couldn't focus. I kept thinking about being pregnant. What if I was?

I thought about it. I've always wanted kids. I sure didn't ever want to have them under the circumstance of having been drugged-raped, but I still thought that if there was a child inside me, I wanted to be its mother. Then I remembered all of the drinking I had done in the past months and felt immediately terribly guilty, and apologized profusely to my imaginary fetus. I assumed everyone I knew would think I was crazy if I decided to have the baby, but an abortion was out of the question for me. I'm not the sort of person to picket abortion clinics because for me it's a personal and not a black and white moral issue (besides, it seems to me that picketing abortion clinics is an ineffective and jackass way of going about an extremely sensitive and personal issue). But for me, ever since seeing a collection of pickled fetuses at various developmental stages at a museum, it's been burned in my head that a fetus is little human, and humans have a right to live, and that right to live outweighs my right to anything except maybe my own physical safety (and in a battle of self-defense, sorry fetus...I've got a bit of an upper hand). I also never bought the "life worth living" argument because who am I to judge what sort of life is worth living? Someone I had the Abortion Conversation once asked me if I would feel the same way if I found out my fetus had Down's Syndrome. Of course! I know it would be difficult, but I would happily be the mother of a child (and adult) with Down's. Some of the nicest, happiest, and arguably wisest people I know have Down's. Anyhow, I knew that was a discussion, and a difficult one, that I would have to have with many of my best friends, most of whom are militantly pro-choice. Not to mention the "no, I don't want to give it up for adoption just because I would be a single mom," conversation with my family.

All that thinking made me need to pee, convenient, since that's what is needed for the pregnancy test, which in the middle of all that thinking, I had sat and read the Spanish instructions for (having never had the occasion to take a pregnancy test before). I needed a 10-second stream of 3-hour old pee. Whatever that meant, but I was pretty sure I had that. I looked around, crawled off into the apparently alligator infested (? really?) bushes, and peed on the end of a little white and purple plastic stick, which yes, was weird.

Modo de uso: How to find out if you've got a 2-month old proto-human incubating inside you in three easy steps. The fact that urine probably shouldn't be blue doesn't seem to bother these people.
Not in the pregnancy test directions but conveniently posted elsewhere: avoid getting eaten by alligators.

Then I capped it, and decided to not spend the next 5 minutes obsessively watching it to find out my fate for the next rest of my life, and went off to walk to the beach. I got to the beach, sat down, held my breath, pulled the stick out of my purse, and...

BAM

Not pregnant.

I was simultaneously relieved, a tad disappointed, and suddenly scared. Because if I wasn't pregnant, then I probably had Cancer Part 4 involving a tumor the size of a basketball that had taken over my overies, or had been infected by aliens, or was otherwise Seriously Messed Up.

The Recovery


Back at the hostel, I vented my concerns to the Former PhD Advisor Known as Frank, who asked me if I was maybe anemic. Anemic! Yes! That would explain everything! I had always had problems with mild anemia, and with the exception of the occasional asado, had been eating very little in the iron department. Excellent, I thought, I'm only in the best place in the whole world to fix this problem: Argentina, the land of Great Steak. So I immediately set out to eat ALL THE STEAK. (yes, I know there are other ways to get iron, but I love steak, and when in Argentina...)

So I asked for advice about where to go to get steak, and was told that if I hurried, there was a restaurant a 15 minute walk away that had a Steak Happy Hour that involved showing up at the door and getting in line 20 minutes before opening at 6:40, getting seated at 7:00 and quickly ordering, and snarfing down the food before the clock hit 8:00, when the classier customers would start showing up and the cheap backpackers would get booted from their tables. Perfect. So off I went, and I found the place, and in line I met Londoner Rob who was a Steak Happy Hour regular, and who suggested we share a table in a sort of blind speed date, "The best part is if we hate eachother, we know we get kicked out in an hour!" Except Rob was a super fun guy to talk to and also knew which steak to order, which meant that we ended up with this:

All that...for me?
(note the look of excitement mixed with terror on my face)
And yes, I ate it. For health purposes.

Needless to say, I immediately felt a whole world better. Seriously. And it was steak for every meal I could get from there on out. And it was like I was a whole new person.

The next day I went running again and didn't mind the lovers making out in the park so much. Good for them.

I braved new adventures, like the post office, which turned into a big freaking fiasco that took two hours and involved me using every trick in my feminine portfolio short of offering sexual favors (actually it was the getting all feisty and argumentative that finally did the job, the whole "I'm going to be such a pain in your ass that you're going to beg me to let you do what I want so that I'll shut up and leave you alone" trick) to get them to ship my damned box. I eventually won.

Just SEND THE DAMNED PACKAGE! uuuuggghhhh


Then I went to go track down a place to buy ferry tickets to Uruguay, since I had heard that Uruguay was the Magical Land of Dollars where I could get more money to smuggle back into Argentina. Except that after a solid hour of wandering around getting lost trying to find the place they would only let me pay in dollars. "If I had them, why would I be going to Uruguay?" I asked. I didn't have any more dollars, and the tickets were really expensive, which totally defeated the purpose. Grumpy again, I consoled myself with more steak. Or rather attempted to, but the place that promised they had what I wanted didn't after I sat down, so I had to settle for chicken smothered in cheese which is what they brought me as the replacement, which both sucks and I'm allergic to. Grumpiness level increased. Plus I had blisters. Damnit.

But then I went with my roommate--fellow transplanted Angelino Emily, a vivacious Hollywood costume designer--back to the steak restaurant and all was well again. Well enough that we decided to go out and get ourselves some tango lessons at a milonga. It was pouring rain when we finished our meal (promptly, of course, at 8:00), so we took a taxi to the dance hall. Lessons, it turned out, weren't going to start for another two hours. So we ordered a bottle of wine. Tango music was playing on the speakers and there was a dance floor, so some intrepid young gentlemen found their way to where we were sitting and spun us around a bit, patient with our lack of skill.

That's me in the green dress

When the lessons started, I was immediately grabbed by a dashing young man who turned out to be a pediatric surgeon doing his residency in Buenos Aires, and who loved to tango and danced very well. Why he picked me as a dance partner I will never know, but I didn't argue, because he was fun, and it meant that I got to go to the advanced class with him. While practicing, I chatted with my partner, Ariel, and half fell in love as he told me more and more about himself and his world-saving dreams, except he confessed that he didn't like snow so I knew there was no future for us. Class ended and we rejoined the rest of the group, but I danced with the surgeon until morning, arriving back at the hostel just in time to sleep three hours before the hostel owner woke me up with a gentle shake, telling me they needed me to check out.

He woke me from one of the most vivid, colorful dreams I can ever remember having, probably a result of all of the iron now flooding my system.

Buenos Aires Dream Sequence


In the dream, I was back in the tango club, except the club not a dance hall but a dingy and cavernous warehouse, dimly lit with a few lamps on the tables scattered by the bar and one hot spotlight on the unpolished wood dance floor. The bare concrete walls were decorated with a chaos of abstract paintings on unframed  canvasses, held together by red tones that were probably pulled straight from memories of La Luna Negra, my favorite Spanish tapas restaurant back in Pasadena. The giveaway that I was dreaming was the massive anatomic heart sculpture, the size of a room, hanging red and bloody looking from the ceiling above the bar, seemingly pulsating slowly to--or was it the source of?--the beat of the nostalgic tango music.

My pediatric surgeon was back, but he was a gaucho now, lost and out of place in this big city but at home among the bola performers and wistful old couples. He took my hand and we danced, not in the solid open frame I had learned, but the close embrace of lovers. He led me through the slow walks and twirls with the pressure of his cheekbones alone and my steps were long and elegant and sensual like how I always imagined tango being.

In the middle of tango-ing, we were treated to a bola show at the Milonga


We melted together in my dream.

"I have a secret." He whispered. "I am a gaucho."
"I know," I whispered back.
"I live on a secret Ranchito in the city."

Then he took me to his Ranchito, except he was driving my car, except my car was white. He parked at a pediatric hospital in the middle of an old neighborhood, and led me to a tall black gate. "Welcome to my Ranchito," he said, as he opened the gate.

Inside was a secret garden. There were bushes of rosemary, jasmine, and thyme. In pots he was nursing a dozen exotic flowers that looked like jewels. He picked one with long red petals, like one of the tubeworms from hydrothermal vents, a tube of red lipstick, and gave it to me with a kiss. I followed him through rows of squash and tomatoes and corn. It was my friend Vicky's backyard garden, except everything was oversized, including an avocado tree the size of a house with avocados like hard, green grapefruits. It was lit through the fruit trees by the full moon. The city had disappeared.

In the middle of the secret garden was a round, orange, one-room earthen hut, sculpted in Cobb, straight out of one of my sustainable building books. On the outside were reliefs of serpentine trees. On the inside, sculpted onto the wall, the word AMOR. Love. Wine bottles built into the earth walls let the moonlight shine through in glittering green. Gritty tango music from a hundred years ago played over a radio that seemed at least as old.

We danced. Kissed. Sat down on his small bed covered in a wispy canopy of mosquito netting. "Do you want a baby?" he asked, "Un pequeño gauchito?"

And that's when I woke up to the shaking of the hostel owner back in the dorm room with Emily, who was still passed out.

I wrote this down because that is how I want to remember Buenos Aires: romantic, surreal, haunted with nostalgia, and saturated with the sound of tango music. And also because when I woke up I found an inexplicable, hard, green, grapefruit-sized avocado and a flower in my purse.

Emily and I decided that the proper course of action
was to leave the avocado as a ritual welcome gift for
the next guest a the hostel, hoping that it would lead
them to their own Buenos Aires adventures.

Epilogue


In various states of hangover and exhaustion, Emily and I went out to brunch to soak up the fun of the night before and then went to check out the colorful neighborhood of La Boca, which turned out to be crazily, but sort of fun in a Disneyland-esque way, toursity. We were both exhausted so we didn't last long, but we had some fun before crawling back to the hostel to take naps: her in a comfortable bed, me on a couch in the computer room since I had been unceremoniously kicked out of my bed.

Me and Emily, reliving our crazy previous night
La Boca


Emily and I and a few others from our hostel room (including the Mexican guy who I had been sleeping on top of the whole week but who had such an opposite schedule to mine that I only knew he was there because every time he rolled over the bunk would threaten to shake me out of the top bed, but he turned out to be really cool) went out to a final dinner, and then I said goodbye to this lovely, bizarre, magical city and hopped on an overnight bus to Córdoba.

Check out the story from Emily's perspective told on her blog.