January 6th 2009: From Plane to Palermo
It’s the beauty of traveling. The most mundane day stumbling through a new city, completely exhausted sticks in your mind like the spattering of great adventures that occur in our at-home lives. Not that Buenos Aires isn’t a special place. The first description that popped into my mind was this
“Buenos Aires is like Montreal… on steroids.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first. The journey. Amy and I flew through St. Paul, Minnesota, then through Atlanta and then on to our final destination. It was a relatively uneventful trip, exactly what all international travelers pray for. Atlanta was a bit of surprise. One thousand Government Issue soldiers in full U.S. Army camo had gathered for some ostensible flight to training, or perhaps Iraq. The airport was a place of phenomenal diversity. Jamaican grannies chatted animatedly with long-haired hippies. The fat people of America. The black people of America. Even the army embodied a surprising mix. Latinos, blacks, pale white-faced teenagers whose eyes seemed to cry “I’m much too young to die. To young to be wearing these big silly boots,” not to mention several women of all shapes, sizes and skin color. Good looking ones too. Demi Moore types.
I had gotten into the habit of double double checking my bags in preparation for the mean, pick-pocket ridden streets of B.A. But despite my best efforts, disaster struck as the plane touched down. No, we didn’t crash, but horror of horrors I lost my glasses case while getting off the plane. I was distraught. The loss was foreboding. My mind rushed over all of the other valuables I had foolishly brought with me and I intimated their inevitable disappearance or destruction.
I went back through the plane a few times, incredulous as I searched under seat cushions and in seat pouches. A Delta airlines representative, with sympathetic but understandably impatient eyes and the stunning good looks of all Argentines helped out. But eventually we gave up. I tried to swallow the loss, but I also had a sense that I had a small window in which I could find them. A window that was steadily closing.
I rushed through the line at customs, heading straight for a family of 5. 3 blonde, innocent looking Argentine kids were crowding around their parents legs at the agent’s desk. They had been sitting right behind me. I was convinced that they had taken them. It was the only explanation. Accidentally or not.
But just before I began to interrogate them with my terrible and flustered Spanish (“Son bambinos tienen mis antejos!!! Danmeles!”) A finger tapped on my shoulder. The agent from the plane.
He’d found them.
I began a slow recovery from the vagaries of connection to material objects. We moved on to the customs where we encountered a kind but stern motherly type border lady. She spoke reasonable English. Her first question was both obvious and understandable: “Where are you staying?” Of course, Amy and I, used to winging it, had no clear destination.
She nodded at us with wise condescension. “So you are here for the adventure?” She seemed to be supportive, but also shook her head as if in warning. “Be careful for the adventure. There are lots of people in my country who will take your pockets, take your jewels, take your money.” We held our breath, wondering if our poor planning would cost us entry to the country.
The murderous thump of her stamp on my innocent passport, despite its violence, was a thing of relief.
We hadn’t gotten five feet out of the airport before we were swamped by taxi drivers. We magnetized towards a short, unintimidating, portly man who we would later discover had the very unflattering, unlatino name “Walter.”
Walter led us to his ‘cab’, an unmarked, unremarkable sedan in the regular parking lot. He went on to a description – half in Spanish, half in English – of the difference between ‘cabs’ and ‘taxis’. The gist of his panegyric, as far as I understood, was that cabbies aren’t licensed in any way, shape or form to transport human beings.
But he ended up being quite the welcoming committee. Not to mention a talented English-music ‘sing-along-with-the-radio’ cantante.
As we started down the autoroute, Walter fingered the family portrait hanging from his rearview mirror, explicitly drawing attention to the absurd number of his offspring. Their hunger seemed to hinge on my tip
I started the conversation where I could – with the weather. “Es menos cuarante grados en Canada ahora,” I offered as I scanned the vista from the highway – a scattering of rundown apartment buildings and tropical vegetation. He didn’t understand me at first. I think he heard me properly, he just didn’t believe me. Eventually he replied in broken English: “below cero? Fourteen?”
“No. Forty BELOW zero.”
“Noooooooo,” he moaned in disbelief. “That’s eighty grados difference. Is crazy!”
During the rest of the drive, Walter shared with us a wide range of facts on the city as well as on his family. He told us what cell phone company to set up a contract with. He waxed sentimental about his son’s love for McDonald’s (Papi! Papi! Trae-me a McDonald’s!) He even offered to give us a tour of the city at a future date, if we felt like it.
Eventually, our wonderful time with Walter ended and we found ourselves in the frenetic streets of Centro Buenos Aires in the hostel lobby. As I tried to negotiate a room with the girl at the desk, I was flanked by two intimidating Aussies. In stereotypical fashion, they were belligerently drunk and they both cradled liter bottles of Argentine beer in the big paws. It was 9:30 am. They asked where I was from, and when into the usual tripe about how much they loved North America because the girls’ legs went to rubber at the first intimation of the Aussie accent. They were in a deadlocked debate with the hostel staff who didn’t want them to leave with their beers.
“So you want me to skull it then honey? Well, I suppose I can do that. Only for you.”
Skulling it is Australian for chugging. The girl looked confused. I tried to innocently translate. “Va beber todo. Por ti.” She shook her head as if she had seen it all before and ushered us to our room.
After a refreshing nap, we hit the road. Sky Magazine, the periodical on the plane had written an article on Argentina and had recommended a steak house in the working neighborhood of Palermo. “Que descrubimiento fortuito de algo muy bella!” (Serendipity – the best translation I could find) I had a vague idea of how to get there, and with Amy in tow I set off in search of my first bistec Argentine, at my first Parilla (grill). It was our first good look at the city and its inhabitants, affectionately called portenos.
“Conoce usted el restaurante La Dorita?” I had to depend on some help to get to the restaurant. But my first attempts were met with solemn but blank stares. Eventually a pharmacist pointed us in the right direction and it was on to Steak heaven.
On the way, we were introduced to what I am assuming are the usual suspects in Buenos Aires. We winded through the busy streets of downtown, and over the enormous intersection surrounding El obelisk, an enormous phallic tower symbolizing the liberation of Argentina from Spain.
We continued onto the quieter and more monied streets of Recoleta. This affluent neighborhood opened up into a series of parks that contained the most fascinating baobabesque trees and artistic statues at regular interludes. Unfortunately, the trees were marred by the homeless and the statues by graffiti. But it was still a nice place and a large group of portenos had chosen to carry out every sort of exercise routine imaginable in the park. One highlight was a young guy who had brought a bench press bar to the park. Just getting it there must have been a work out. And of course the skimpily clad, spandex emphasized cuerpos of the world’s most beautiful women keeping themselves in shape.
Another interesting site that I first mistook for a class of poverty stricken youth was the recycling patrol. On every corner a dirty faced youth packed cardboard into large canvas bags. Creating jobs, keeping the streets clean, and helping the environment. You couldn’t ask more from the gobierno de ciudad.
To wrap up, we reached the holy grail of working class steak and had a sample of Argentine bovine that was some sort of gustatory epiphany. Coupled with a 650 cc bottelia of Imperial beer, I reached the pinnacle of satiation. Amy was simultaneously pleasured and disgusted with the carnivorous nature of the meal.
We then wondered home in the beginnings of an electric thunderstorm and grabbed our first bus back to the hostel to conquer our jet lag in our tiny, sweaty hostel beds. Interestingly, the ubiquitous buses, called collectives, in B.A. are privately run (which makes navigating them completely impossible). Not speaking Spanish seemed a sufficient excuse to get a free ride. Ignorance is bliss.
Spanish word of the day: Crepulsculo – Twilight. Gleaned from a movie poster from a vampire flick of certain notoriety amongst adolescent girls (the world over?)