Friday, June 12, 2009

Buenos Aires, 21-24.1.08

My plan to go on a long backpacking trip in South America surprised me, in a way. Seven months before I arrived in Buenos Aires, in the end of January 2008 (for the first time since living there from ’89 to’95), I was thinking I don’t want to do it. The “big trip” has become a standard of the post-army Israeli, a rite of passage, almost on par with the army and university as life-stages which most Israelis go through. I used to think that I had been out of the country enough, that it was wasteful in money and time, that I didn’t need it or it didn’t attract me, that I preferred starting school and gaining knowledge (what I thought really attracted me… and I might have been right). Aside from that, it is quite obvious to me that not going on a trip was a way of being different, an attempt at being anti-mainstream, a sentiment that’s been part of me for as long as I remember myself, whether it was in movie and music choices, opinions, behaviour, etc.
I had finished with my army service, applied for a job in NY that would’ve required a 2-year commitment (my fantasy world view of it was that I would live in the city, and besides working, study different courses in many subjects, not aiming for a degree at all, instead choosing what interested me in a general education program, or however it’s called), and waited for a reply. When more than a month had passed from the supposed reply date, a random conversation with a friend that was working giving technical support for an Israeli company in the US led to me coming to work for that same company (in fact, I was in Minnesota less than two weeks after we first talked). It was in the US, living and working with Gil, who had spent 8 months traveling in South America, that my desire to travel first appeared. Looking back now, it is amusing to note how different my trip was from Gil’s. But the seeds were planted, and that’s all that matters.
One of my first impressions from Argentina was this: I checked into the hostel, left my bags, went out the door, randomly took a right turn and started walking. I always like to do that in cities: just walk aimlessly for a while, not looking for anything, but for everything. After walking two or three blocks I got to a pretty big plaza, and in the end of it saw the huge, beautiful, domed building of the Congreso. Quite random, especially considering that to this day, even after another month and a half spent in Buenos Aires, it’s still my favourite building in the city. I decided to celebrate the occasion with a bottle of beer, went into a kiosk, saw the big liter bottles, said to myself “I like this country”, proceeded to ask the clerk if it’s legal to drink in the plaza (I still had a US hangover, I guess…), got laughed at a bit, and then I sat for half an hour in front of the Congreso, drinking beer and admiring the intricate design and detail of the architecture and the signs of time and deterioration (the Argentinean government doesn’t maintain its buildings all that much, if for lack of funds or lack of desire I do not know, but I much prefer it that way. The mold, dirt and ash on the carved surfaces of 18th century buildings are much more interesting to me, have more character, and just look right). So yeah, I liked Argentina from the get go (of course, I wasn’t objective to begin with).
I spent my first three days in Buenos Aires walking around the city with my best friend from childhood, Leandro (I should write about how crazy it is to meet your primary school friends again after 13 years of virtually no contact, when I get a chance), just getting to know the different neighborhoods and landmarks, eating good food (choripanes, meat, ice cream, empanadas, beer and wine…), and generally enjoying the big city. The nightlife in the city is crazy- people go out at 2AM and get back home at 7AM... It’s fair to say I didn’t do all that much in those three days.
At this point I was still not very sociable, and I remember wanting to talk to the other people (I can't bring myself to call them guests... it's so formal sounding. I guess it comes from the same place that makes me argue with any young clerk that calls me "sir") in the hostel but not doing it. It's funny how hard it is to just come up to strangers and enter into their conversations, and how easy it becomes while backpacking. I think that's part of the magic of the trip- that familiarity, that feeling of camaraderie between everybody, the loss of discomfort, even if it's only temporary. As I’ve said before and I’ll say again: backpacking is a state of mind. More than a year after the first trip, and about a month after the second one ended, I can say that it has not translated into my day to day life. The main culprit might be that I’m in certain parts of the US where people are outwardly friendly, but distant. Or just the way of life- alone in a hotel room instead of with 7 other people in a dorm room, driving a car instead of riding the bus, etc.. I think I will write about that at some point: how those daily things change the dynamic of human relations completely. Anyway, the second I landed in Mexico to begin my second backpacking trip (this was almost a year down the line from those three days in Buenos Aires, and about 5 months ago) the openness came back, naturally and effortlessly.
I did talk to three Israelis who were in my room, and as funny as it sounds, I felt like they were better than me, versed in the art of travelling, higher in the hierarchy of backpackers. I almost felt ashamed when asked how long I had been traveling and had to reply “2 days…” Dumb, but true. I was the newbie, fresh meat, whatever you want to call it. After all, every group is a society, with rules, power, assumptions, traditions and a social hierarchy, and backpackers are no exception.
I left Buenos Aires with a hunger for more, a desire to come back to the city and really explore it. But I also left it with a lot of expectations for my next destination: Ushuaia, “the end of the world” (if you go for touristy catch phrases, which I do occasionally. Don’t we all?), the southern tip of Argentina, the second most austral city in the world (but nobody cares about Puerto Williams, the city across the Beagle Channel, anyway…), and the gateway into Patagonia.

1 comment:

  1. I spend a couple of weeks a year backpacking in Europe and, as you say, one definitely is in a different mental state and wearing a different mask than one usually is. The backpack does all the explaining you need, leaving the person in front of the pack free to present himself in new ways if he cares to.