Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Gaping Hole: Buenos Aires & Montevideo- May-June 2008

As I've mentioned before, I'm writing these blog posts several years after the actual trips described in them. They are heavily based on the group emails I sent back home while traveling, emails that served as a kind of travel journal for me, as well as a way to both tell my family and friends what I'm doing and showing them I'm alive and well. Now I'm faced with a bit of a problem, since I have nothing written about the end of my South American trip, which spans a month and a bit in Buenos Aires and a 1-week sidetrip to Uruguay. I don't know if I didn't write anything at the time because of the enormity and complexity of Buenos Aires - both as a city in itself and as a bundle of personal history, complications and emotions for myself - or out of simple laziness. It's probably a bit of both. What I do know is that it wasn't for lack of time; I probably had more free time in Buenos Aires than at any other point of that trip. And several long trips later, I can say that I've learned that often the relationship is an inverse one: the more free time I have, the less of it I spend writing long, detailed emails about what I'm doing.
What I will do right now, is post a combination of translations from the notebook I kept (world-famous from the FTTN sections in this blog) and my not-so-hazy (I hope) memories. I'll try to keep it relatively short...

What follows is the only thing I wrote back then, about my first two nights in the city, in which I managed to get robbed by a transvestite and get in a shouting match with a bouncer in a strip club, both of them while trying to find an internet place with Skype at 3-4AM. The stories happened as follows:
The first night, going through one of the pedestrian streets in the center at around 3AM, a young woman started trying to convince me to go into a strip club. After a mildly long and somewhat interesting discussion, I agreed to go in to get a stamp on a card she gave me, so she would get a 10 peso commission  without any obligation on my part (yeah, right... I should've known). So I go into the club, and two girls sit me down and start talking to me, explaining how the club works in these deep voices, looking me in the eyes and listening to everything I said with extreme interest. It was all amazingly fake and unattractive, and so cliche it's crazy ("So, you're a tourist, huh? Didn't you come to Buenos Aires for pleasure?" or "Oh, you just had a long bus ride? Don't you want to stay around and relax for a bit"?). After a while a guy comes up and gives me a glass of coke, and I put it aside. I was kinda enjoying the whole thing, it was pretty funny. I actually giggled in the girls' face a couple of times, since the whole situation was so predictable and ridiculous it was hard for me to hold it back. Then all of a sudden the girl says that if I don't want to stay tonight, then they'll charge me the minimum consumption of 40 pesos and I can come back another day. That's when I got mad... 40 pesos for a coke and some stupid talk and some unwanted caresses? I started arguing, and the guy comes over to take the money. I started shouting at him "You're not going to charge me anything! I'm not going to pay anything!" and stuff like that, and in the end I just pushed him aside (surprisingly easy...) and went out of the place, followed by his "la concha de tu madre" shouts. Not a very good bouncer, I would say... I guess they usually rely on tourists just being too afraid to react in any other way than pay up and go away. I also think I might have been pretty lucky, and in retrospect I should've paid the 40 pesos and be done with it.
Now, to the second night. I left the hostel to go to an internet place, again at 3-4AM. All of a sudden, a transvestite comes out of a taxi and starts hitting on me. She walked up to me, pulled out her tits, and started trying to touch me and hug me and push her tits into my face and her hands down my pants. All the time she was saying "you're pretty, don't you want to fuck, come on, I have a pussy, I swear, touch me". You know, what usually happens out on the streets... Anyway, I was trying to just push her away, and after about a minute of this back and forth she goes back into the taxi and drives away. I went into the internet place, and after about a minute it hit me. I searched my pockets, but the money was gone. Luckily, when I go out at night I only take a couple of bills and nothing else, so s/he only took about 120-140 pesos... it's worth the story, I guess. And it's better than getting mugged violently. The funniest thing is that my first thought was "fuck, I don't even know if I should be thinking benzona or batzona" (Hebrew for son of a whore or daughter of a whore). So what did I do? I told the guy at the internet place that I have no money, walked back to the hostel, brought 2 pesos in coins, and came back to the internet place to make my calls. My reaction was more laughter than anger, so I guess it's all good. [And since then I've told the story so many times, I'm sure it was worth 120 pesos].

After such a spectacular beginning, my time in the city had to be heading in the right direction. I spent the first three weeks in a hostel called The Clan, which has unfortunately closed since then. It was considered a drug den and party hostel, located in the microcentro, only one block away from the Milhouse, probably the premier party hostel in Buenos Aires at that time. The Clan catered for the more dirty and alternative crowd, though, and I remember feeling there was a kind of rivalry going on between the two. I would say that it lived up to expectations, but that my expectations were misplaced. I thought I wanted a party hostel, but in retrospect I'm not sure it was the right place for me. It was probably the only hostel I went to on that trip where I barely made friends with other travelers, and considering it's the one I spent the longest time, I find that pretty unusual. I did make friends with basically the entire staff, though, and I'm still in on-and-off contact with some of them. I was even supposed to get some basic work in the hostel, an hour or two a day just to pay for my bed. But with every day that passed it seemed to me like it wasn't gonna happen, despise promises that were made.
By the third week it was clear it wasn't gonna happen and that it's the wrong place for me anyway. I moved to the much quieter Mantenganse, in San Telmo. There, most of the guests were Latin American, were staying long- or medium-term, and working in the city. A stark change from the mostly British and Australian, coke and alcohol, party all night and wake-up-at-2pm atmosphere of the Clan. It fit me much better, and I stayed there for the remainder of my time in the city.
What did I do in Buenos Aires that whole month+, you ask? Mostly met with old friends and schoolmates, walked around and triggered my dormant childhood memories, went to concerts, museums and exhibitions, read books in the many parks... that sort of thing. There's probably a lot of detail to go into, but it's too far in the past and probably not interesting enough to go into. Oh, and ate really good meat and drank a lot of cheap and good wine. There was an Australian guy in Mantenganse with whom I made a tradition: each evening, we bought 3-4 bottles of wine and brought them back to the hostel. If people joined us, great. If they didn't, also great. The bottles were empty by night's end regardless.
I've already admitted to my love for public transportation elsewhere on this blog, so allow me to indulge that love a bit. I really enjoyed Buenos Aires' bus network. There's a metro too, shaped like a hand, with all 5 lines converging in the center but no connections otherwise, and with its wood paneled cars in line A. But it's the buses that caught my heart. First of all, they're very colorful, with each number having its own color pattern. And there's a lot of lines. They sell a small book of maps and info about bus lines called the Guia T, and with it you can find a bus that will take you virtually from anywhere to anywhere in the Capital Federal area, as long as you're willing to walk 5-10 blocks. At most you would need to combine two lines. Figuring out which lines and combinations to use was great fun, like a puzzle. And back then the buses only accepted coins, so it was an everlasting struggle to have change. This, coupled with a rumored hoarding of coins by the mafia, caused a coin shortage all over the city. I remember store owners refusing to sell me because they claimed they didn't have change, but we both knew they just wanted to keep the coins for themselves. And several times I saw people in bus stops, selling 9 peso coins for 10 pesos (paid in bills, of course). Oh, and one of the first things that surprised and impressed me in the city is seeing people wait at bus stops, forming long lines in single-file, that sometimes stretch for the whole block and even around the corner. I've never seen that anywhere else.

After a bit more than a month in the city, I felt like I needed a little break from it. So instead of going out in the country, I chose to go out of the country, but to a fairly similar place: Montevideo. I took a ferry across the Rio de la Plata, a great name to explain the concept of a euphemism. The river is a dirty brown color, evoking thoughts of nothing but mud and shit, but they named it the silver river (actually, it was named that way because of the Spanish explorers trading in silver in the area, way back in early colonial times, but I like the other explanation better even though it's not true). It's also as wide as many seas - 220km at its widest, making it by far the widest in the world. The boat trip across from Buenos Aires to Colonia in Uruguay takes 3 hours.
Colonia itself is a small, nice and cobble-stoned colonial town, so it's aptly named I guess. For many people it's a port of entry and nothing else, and I was no different: I walked around for an hour and took a bus down to Montevideo.
Montevideo struck me as a smaller, less chaotic version of the big city across the river, and Uruguayans, generally speaking, struck me as more polite. A lot of people will say that it's not hard to be more polite than Argentinians, but let's ignore them, since I have many Argentinian friends. I will say that I was extremely surprised when cars out on the streets not only didn't try to run me over, but actually stopped and let me pass when I was waiting at a crossroads. Not once, but several times! It was complete culture shock, after Buenos Aires, and I must admit that the first time I was suspicious.
What can I say about my 5 days in Uruguay? I ate a lot of chivitos, probably the best sandwich in the world if you're a meat eater. I drank a lot of mate - if you think Argentinians are crazy about mate, wait until you get to Uruguay. I walked around a lot, as always, and tried to understand what the city is all about. And I made friends with several people in the hostel, one of them the self described "worst Argentinian possible": gay, vegetarian, doesn't like alcohol and doesn't like football (if you're from the US, I mean the kind that is actually played with your foot).
My favorite building in the city seemed to me like a crazy mish mash of all and any architectural styles possible, and I spent quite a bit of time looking at it while sitting on a park bench in the afternoon and drinking a liter bottle of beer (ah, the joys of Latin America...). Besides the fact that it was fucking crazy in shape and ornamentation, in an old-looking kind of way, it also seemed very familiar.
When I came back to Buenos Aires I found out why - right across from the Congress building, one of my favorite buildings in the city, beyond the park, stands its sibling. When I found out they do tours, I had to go in, and I found out some interesting information, along with a cool tour of different nooks and crannies, discussion of odd architectural and ornamental choices inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, and a visit to the lighthouse on top of it, which was supposed to create a beam of light so strong and so directed that it would join mid-river with an identical beam from a lighthouse on top of the building in Montevideo, creating a "bridge of light". Long story short, the venture failed, but the light, when on, can be seen in Montevideo. But I still recommend the tour. Oh, there's a great view from the top as well! The Buenos Aires one is called Palacio Barolo, and the Montevideo one Palacio Salvo.

I'm sure there's a lot more to be said about both cities, and about my shenanigans in them, but for the moment I feel like this is enough. I might revise this post in the future, but it's been seven years and I want to move on to posting about my first time in Mexico [incidentally, I'm in Mexico again, so it's good timing].

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