Trip Start Sep 26, 2011
7Trip End Feb 20, 2013
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At 5:30 in the morning, while going through airport security I began thinking. I'd lived twenty-two years without ever leaving the country. Canada didn’t seem to count. I had spent the last four in University, and now I was on my way to South America. I had to admit, I was proud of myself for making it happen. I had always had a deep feeling of wanderlust. I was a long-dormant wayfarer, finally able to live out the epic travel experiences I’d only read about.
As I boarded the plane I became liberated. I had planned ahead, and someone would be meeting me at the airport. My freedom would be mitigated by a sort of structure in the form of intensive Spanish classes, and a prearranged living arrangement
I adjusted my seat, pressed my head against the window, and considered the bitter and gloomy, grey autumn day. I chose to remember Washington State as I was seeing it now. I took this image, and happily said goodbye to all of it. My thoughts turned to romantic visions of a new life in a foreign city.
"Ah, it’s just so touristical," said Carolin, as we stood around taking the same photos, from the same angles, as a hundred or so others. Street workers flipped pamphlets assuring authentic experiences started at a few hundred pesos. Tango dancers posed for pictures. The whole practice seemed to demand a lot from us. Buy this! No, buy this! Eat here! No, eat here! We were in La Boca, literally The Mouth of the city. There lies a port that over 200 years ago was the point all the immigrants came through.
“Well, what do you expect? We’re in the postcard of Buenos Aires.” Many of the least affluent immigrants had set up homes right there
“Let’s get out of here.”
“And walk the neighborhood?” I asked. This strip was all I had been hearing about since arriving in the city. Carolin, who I knew through the language school, and I had finally decided to check it out. We had taken the bus 152 from Retiro to get here. People had warned us not to venture outside of the tourist quadrant. Naturally, I had my preoccupations. There was something unsavory about being the lone tourists who had wandered away from the pack. And everyone said La Boca was a dangerous part of town. “You’ll get robbed,” they all warned.
I swallowed my suspicions, and went walking the neighborhood with the determined German.
Somewhere along the train tracks behind the park I said, “Maybe we should go back,” but Carolin was busy taking photos of the tracks, the buildings, and the boys playing soccer
“Just because we’re out of the tourist space, doesn’t mean we’ve beat it, you know? We’re foreigners. We might as well carry our country’s’ flags,” I said with cynicism.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you wanted to get out of the tourist sector to get a more real experience, yes?”
“Yeah, and look this is good,”
“But, don’t you feel intrusive in a way?”
“What do you mean? It is not, you know, peligroso here. I think everyone just says that because there is poverty here. Don’t you feel safe, though?” I felt more ridiculous than I did unsafe. I was—we were—tourists.
“That’s not my point
We kept arguing, and neither of us, it seemed were on the same page. We bickered for a good thirty minutes more. I think I took the whole thing more seriously and in the end I couldn’t help being angry. The sun was hot. Sweat pooled on my back. I ached to leave La Boca behind.
I had been struggling with figuring out my place in the city. I’d been feeling pretty out of it for a while, now. I didn’t know what it was about me that caused people to say hello before I ever said a word. I didn’t know why when I said to the hotel owner, No entiendo ¿puede hablar más despacio por favor? she spoke más rapido. And, I didn’t know why when I didn’t know I was afraid to ask. Then Carolin left and I was alone in the midst of twelve million people.
It was springtime in Buenos Aires, and I’d spent most of the morning fiddling with my jacket; taking it off, putting it on. It was afternoon now, and my jacket was knotted, resting on my hips. Disculpe, I said, as I shuffled through the business suits, and pencil skirts on Calle Reconquista
Many people had congregated along the sidewalks, and were pouring hot water from thermoses into rounded, wooden cups thus allowing the green yerba herbs to rise and bubble. Everyone was moving according to their own pace at mat time. Perdon. I struggled to move past them. Four blocks into my walk I had crossed La Plaza de Mayo and was out of the business district.
I was heading now into the famed San Telmo. I carried with me my hiking pack, filled with clothes and essentials, and a smaller backpack in front with books for school, and a bulky Toshiba. I had never liked cities. Permiso. I had never wished to live in an American city. It was late afternoon when I finally arrived at my second-rate hostel in the worn barrio.
Outside of the hostel I pushed the page button.“¿Hola?”
“¿Cuantas personas hay?”
“Estoy..uh..” I stammered. “Solo-sola, uno… uh ¿hay una?” I was still working on the correct everything when the door buzzed. I pushed through it, and approached the counter. I jerked my body in a single, swift motion that forced my heavy pack to the ground.
“Tengo una cama arriba,” she said, pointing toward the ceiling.
“Ah, claro.” My right hand was in an upturned fist, holding I suppose an imaginary sum of money. “¿Necesito pagar ahora..?” I asked. I had been extending my hand and retracting it while I waited for an answer. I had adopted the habit of speaking as much with my hands as with my mouth, a habit that now seems as offensive as it is ugly
“No, no. No te preocupes.” she said, hurrying me along. She took me upstairs. I locked up my valuables, got myself sorted out with a shower, and grabbed a book to take to the common area. I thumbed through a copy of Celeste Goes Dancing, a collection of fictions by contemporary Argentine authors. I’ve always liked short stories because I can generally get through one in a sitting. So, I started reading the story that titled the collection; Celeste Goes Dancing. The story takes place in a South American city, during Carnival. Celeste wants to go but she’s too young. Still, she dances in her room. She romanticizes the forbidden. Temptation and lust drive her to disobey orders and go dancing. She goes to a bar. She’s too young, but she dances. She drinks beer. She’s swept up in the passion of the dance, there is a man, and then the story is interrupted.
A guy sat down on the couch next to me.
“¿De der-rop res?” he seemed to ask me.
“¿De donde eres?” He spoke slowly
“Oh, yeah. Soy de Estados Unidos. United States.”
“Yeah, but where in the US?”
“Oh, uh…Washington…Washington State…Seattle.” I had never lived in Seattle, but most people seemed to be familiar.
“¿Y tu? ¿De donde eres?”
“Puerto Rico,” he said. “I’m Alberto. What’s your name?”
Before long we got to talking about what we were doing in the city. He was a fourth-year film student, with a desire to create a name for Puerto Rican cinema.
“And what are you doing here?” he asked
“I’m in school, too. Learning, er, trying to learn Spanish.”
“In Argentina? Of all places, why here?”
This type of reaction would become commonplace. In Buenos Aires learning Spanish would prove a formidable challenge. It’s a different dialect of the language, with disagreeable intonations to the language learner. Also, since a lot of people knew English, being bilingual seemed to be more of a luxury than a necessity. So, I would remind myself that maybe that was a good place to start, one where I could use the language, but not one where I needed to know the language. Still I was often frustrated at my own incompetence, and still found myself inhibited by my lack of comprehension.
“No hablo muy bien español,” I got used to saying. People would always assure me, however, that my Spanish was better than I thought.
“Oh yeah, uh huh,” I would always say, unbelieving
“Get out of Argentina,” they’d say, “and you’ll be surprised at your ability to speak the language.” I appreciated this advice, but I wouldn’t get that opportunity. This wasn’t dancing and I wasn’t Celeste. This was it for me.
Later on that first evening Alberto and I were playing cards with a cosmopolitan group. “I came to South America to learn Spanish and came out speaking the best English of my life,” admitted a petite German girl. Immediately everyone with similar sentiments nodded in agreement. In my stint in Buenos Aires I would meet only a few Americans, and I’d realize that European travelers almost always spoke better English than they did Spanish.
I had only been at the energetic Puerto Limón, for a few hours, although I had been in the city for over a month. The pre-arranged hotel-living had been too comfortable, and quiet. I’d say it was curiosity, maybe a little bit of loneliness too, that led me to uproot myself from my arrangement with the school and head to a new part of town in search of something else. I was proud of myself for executing that single act of independence
After a few days in the hostel I really started to pick up on the traveler ambiance. I, the stationary student-tourist, found myself asking more questions than ever, and imploring to know tales from beyond. Curiosity was quite the beast. Around that time I had picked up and finished the story of Celeste. Curiosity, it turned out, got her raped in the park. Still, I was curious.
But, I was starting to feel out of place again, almost patronized by travelers. “This is the only place you’ve been? Hm, yeah, this isn’t South America. This is like Europe.” Was that true? Did I go to South America, without really ever going to South America? The more I listened, the less I knew about where I should be. And, I no longer knew what experience I should be searching for. I didn’t know why I felt cheated by the space I found myself occupying. I liked the city well enough. So, what was the problem?
I weighed it out, and figured the problem was this; I would be flying out of Buenos Aires in one and a half months, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to experience what everyone else had. I hadn’t gotten a chance to fulfill that romantic vision of travelling. Somehow I had come here to live out those epic experiences I had dreamed about.
I was there, but I wasn’t even close. And, I felt defeated.
After one week at Puerto Limón I had seen upwards of fifty people come and go. Every night was the same we’d sit around and swap stories. I’d mostly just sit around. People would get up and set out for something else extraordinary.
Any one night felt like any other. Conversations would repeat themselves, “What direction are you travelling?” someone coming from the west would ask.
“Not sure yet. I just flew in to Buenos Aires,” was one response. Either that or they might be headed to Patagonia. Most likely, however, that they were either headed to Bolivia, Peru, and onward, or had been there and Argentina was their onward.
For those with fuzzy itineraries hostel-dwellers could always provide useful insights. It’s not uncommon among travelers to scribble and exchange a page or two of advice, places to eat, trains, buses, towns to stay, towns to miss. Travelers were always accustomed to helping each other out, if only to express a sort of expertise on the whole travelling thing. In this sort of environment it didn’t take long for something of a travel bug to really start eating me.
I had accepted my resentment to stagnation, and longed to be one of those people setting out. At least I was learning Spanish. But, alas, would I be able to use it to do anything more than ask for manzanas or pan at the local mercado? Would I ever do as these people had done, and become a more adept Spanish speaker through necessity? Nearly two months in and there I was, in the thick of thinking I’d done it all wrong.
I became close with people a group of individual travelers who got stuck there. Some found it tough to leave. “You just get so comfortable,” they said. Eventually I had had enough of the comfort, and I decided one day to go to the terminal and book a bus. School would finish, and I would, I had decided, go to the jungle in the north of Argentina. The bus ride would be eighteen hours. I would visit for a weekend, then return to Buenos Aires and fly out. It was as much adventure as I’d see outside of the city, and I couldn’t help getting anxious. Finally, I had a next step, a next destination.
My Review Of The Place I Stayed