Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina - The End

This will be the last entry.

I´d hoped to wrap this up with some kind of broad, sweeping statement about the meaning of life and the virtues of travel but the truth is I don´t think I´ve learned anything over the past couple months except how to buy a bus ticket in Spanish. I´ve met some really fine people, seen some pretty amazing things, and had more fun than you could fit into a wheelbarrow, but if anything I fear this trip may have retarded my ability to become a functioning member of society rather than fostered it. Living the good life is no way to motivate yourself.

So I´ll get on plane in a few hours and start trying to reprogram myself for the real world.

In closing, here are a few things I´ve seen and heard over the last couple days.

While walking through La Boca I passed a small hardware store and peeked in just in time to hear a kid who looked about seven tell the shopkeeper, "I need the paint to be this color." In his hand was a kind of outdoor light fixture with the blue paint peeling away. It was still attached by bolts to a couple of softball-sized chunks of concrete which I can only imagine used to be part of the outside of his house.

Before dinner the other night, we were sharing a few liters of beer while our old Aussie friend Amanda (who you may remember from such episodes as "snowed on at 16,000 feet on the way to Macchu Pichu," and who happened to be in B.A. at the same time as me) regaled us with stories of punching Owen Wilson in the nose at an Aspen ski resort and hopping over a guardrail to steal a guitar during a band´s setbreak in Vancouver to protest the lame cover of "Sweet Child Of Mine" they´d just played and sprinting away from security guards while performing what she considered to be a far superior version. When her Cuba Libre took a while to arrive, someone offered to pour her a beer and she said, "No thanks, I stopped drinking beer when I was four."

Last night I hung out with, among other good folks, a Scottish guy who chucked it all to come down here and kite surf. He spent the better part of an hour extolling the virtues of the kilt, insisting it´s a great ice breaker, a beautiful cultural exchange, and the perfect way to meet girls. He suggested that everyone should wear a kilt, and that it wouldn´t be the least bit of an affront to the Scots if everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. "After all," he said, "It wouldn´t have been too keen if the guy who invented sliced bread hadn´t shared it with the rest of the world, would it?"

I´ve unwittingly adopted the British tic of ending all my sentences with questions. Haven´t I?

I´ve seen several sunrises and sunsets.

I´ve photographed the buildings which stand in the locations where the homes of Che Guevara and Jorge Luis Borges once stood. I have no idea why.

I finally learned how to make a phone call.

So that´s that. I´ve got 32 hours of travelling to get home which begin in about 8 hours. Assuming I don´t "find myself" in that short period of time and veer off in some bizarre and unpredictable direction, I´ll see everyone in Seattle at the Park Pub on Thursday night around 10:30. That´s exactly where I was on Thursday night three months ago and very likely where I´ll be come the first lame Thursday in February.

I need a huge plate of sushi, a dinosaur-sized Blue Med salad from Costas Opa, a ticket to the Seahawk game, and a place to live. If anyone can help please email me.

Otherwise, keep the peace, take care, talksoon, and be good.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina - Part 3

Went to see a Boca Juniors soccer game yesterday with a guy from London and a guy from Brazil. It was exciting for me because I´ve never seen a professional soccer game, but these guys were going nuts because Boca apparently is one of the world´s famous clubs: home to Maradonna, housed in a famous stadium nicknamed "The Cauldron," and the pride and joy of La Boca, which is B.A.´s toughest, roughest, blue-collarest neighborhood. The antics of the fans there are legendary.

I was feeling pretty good about it until the guy from Brazil (who lives in Sao Paolo, mind you, one of the most-populated and insane cities in the world) approached me a little bashfully before we left and said, "Chad, do you know if we´re supposed to wear all neutral colors today or is would it be ok to wear this shirt with this blue stripe?"

I said, "Are you serious?"

He shrugged and walked back to his room. I immediately went back to mine, dug through my "luggage," and found a brown t-shirt, which I considered complimenting with a pair of brown pants. In the end, I figured I was safe in blue jeans but spent most of the rest of the day with my hands in my pockets, clutching my wallet and camera.

The game didn´t disappoint. I´ve never seen anything so ridiculous. Not even if you multiplied Crutcher by 60,000 would you have a collection of sports fans more intense than this. The visiting fans from Independiente were literally quarantined in one end of the stadium, sectioned off by 15-foot fences with barbed hooks on top. Just after halftime, the visiting fans started launching red plastic bags filled with urine and feces over the edge of the second deck, drilling more than a handful of hometown Boca fans directly in the heads and chanting "Now you´re the shitty ones who´ve been shitted on." But there was nothing to be done. The cops weren´t about to go up there to stop it and I was amazed at how well the Boca fans took it. I suppose those things were settled after the game, regardless of the fact that no Boca fan was allowed to leave the stadium until all of the visiting fans had been escorted out by police in riot gear.

I asked if this was special treatment due to the pissbag episode but was assured that it happens every game. "The pissbags or the police escort?" I asked. "Both," said the guy in front of me as he waved his Boca jersey above his head and chanted the words to one of the many songs that were sung throughout the game.

I´ve never seen so many people jump up and down in one place for so long without stopping.

Boca won 2-0 and people were really happy about that.

After the game, we went to watch people dance tangos in the street.

It was Sunday, so I got to bed early, around 3:00.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina - Part 2

There is a passion here that outweighs all other national interests. It supercedes the love of the tango, the madness of Maradonna, the addiction to máte, and the burgeoning psychoanalysis industry. It's bigger than the images of Che Guevera painted on every back alley wall and more intense than the graffiti desecrating every equestrian statue of General Julio Roca. It is the grandest of all Argentinian customs.

It is "leaning in doorways."

Everywhere you look, on every street, there are men leaning in doorways. Sometimes they smoke or sip máte, but mostly they just stand there, appearing to stare into space and guard doorways. The doorways never seem to lead anywhere. Upon closer investigation, you realize that these men are neither staring at nor guarding *anything*, as these words both suggest some minimal amount of purpose or activity and the people we´re speaking of are engaged in nothing of the sort. Often, they will raise one arm to about ear level in order to support the weight of the body as it is leaned against the concrete edifice of the doorway. People walk past them and they simultaneously appear to notice and not notice this happening. Many of them are balding and all have hairy arms. The sleeves are often rolled up. The faces are always severe.

It is a kind of stationary dance, the elements of man and doorway sometimes becoming so artfully intertwined that it´s impossible to distinguish one from the other. I´ve tried, when no one is looking, to lean in a few doorways myself, but have yet to even approach the level of skill that would be necessary to lean in a doorway publicly. Perhaps someday.

All throughout the city people go about their business, buying and selling and throwing bad attitudes at tourists. Vegetables fall on the ground and are picked up without a second thought. Traffic speeds by and newspapers are halved and quartered. Babies are carried in cloth sacks and children try to sell you cigarettes. And all the while, the unsung heros of Buenos Aires maintain their solemn vigil. Standing. Watching. Leaning. Always Leaning.

Leaning Men of Argentina, ¡I salute you!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina - Part 1

I'm not going to mince words here. Buenos Aires is outstanding.

Very much a city of contradictions, which isn't surprising considering it's history. They're very proud of Argentina in this town, and relatively convinced they're a cut above the rest of South America (and the rest of the country, for that matter) but just like in the U.S., nobody's really a native. They exterminated most of their Indians and the majority of the population came over from Italy, Spain, and Wales less than 200 years ago. B.A. was mostly a smuggler's paradise (like that planet where Han Solo blows Guido away) and when the Spanish Crown, way back in the day, declared that it was going to compliment the major port of Lima with an east-coast counterpart, the naming of Buenos Aires was akin to the U.S. declaring Las Vegas to be it's second capitol. Before that, the favorite pastime around here was trapping stray cattle and skinning them for the leather, leaving all the meat to rot in the fields and feed the stray dogs (which I'm guessing was the genesis of *that* whole problem.)

Not only was today the feast of the Immaculate Conception, but it also marked the 25th anniversary of the assasination of John Lennon, a wound from which the world of music still bleeds. I celebrated at the esteemed Jorge Luis Borges Cultural Institute by viewing two exhibits. One was a collection of sketches, paintings, and sculptures by Dali, taken from the period of time when he was obsessed with Don Quixote, along with his series of Tarot Cards, the Twelve Apostles, and the Ten Commandments. It was pretty austere and incredible. The other billed itself as a tribute to John Lennon: His Birth, Music, Art, Life, Politics, and Death. This turned out to be a poorly edited VHS tape illegally cobbled together from various sources (Anthology, Imagine, The Complete Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, etc.) and projected from a portable machine onto a small screen. The quality was so bad that those little rainbow lines appeared between many of the cuts and several scenes were completely repeated. I paid the exact same entrance fee for these two exhibits.

I went to the Plaza de Mayo this afternoon to watch the Mothers of the Desaparecidos conduct their weekly march. In the late '70s and early '80s, Argentina conducted a little-discussed operation now known as The Dirty War, during which 30,000 intellectuals, students, and political dissidents vanished into the backseats of large black automobiles, never to be seen or heard from again. Most families never found the bodies and were never informed as to the reasons for the disappearances. This was a pretty moving spectacle, with the mothers, siblings, and children of the Desaparecidos marching, chanting, singing, and carrying signs, but was also a bit of a party, with many supportors turning out to cheer them on, sell and buy food, and gather with friends to read, talk, and sleep on the beautiful lawns that make up the plaza. A very odd combination of mourning and celebration.

Two nights ago, I went to the opera dressed in the same cords and shirt I've been wearing for the last three months. The general appearance of most of the people there, not to mention a sign out front, suggested that the appropriate attire for gentlemen was a coat and dark tie. I later learned, however, that in addition to catering to Buenos Aires' social elite, the opera house also sells standing room only tickets in the upper balcony to anyone who wants one for the equivalent of about three U.S. dollars.

I sort of split the middle by scalping an upper deck reserve seat off a woman who turned out to be a government official and college professor. She worked a neat little scam where she sold me her ticket for $10 and then bought a standing room ticket for $3, claiming that she "was not so much liking Strauss" and figured she "might be leaving early." A few minutes after I sat down in her seat, she followed and plopped down next to me.

"It seems to me," she said. "That the lady who usually sits in this seat very much likes Verdi and Puccini, and does not so much like Strauss. It seems to me she is not coming."

She was right. The lady never came, and my scalper saved herself $7.

I have a feeling that's more or less the way the Argentinian government works.

Need to get going now, as it's nearly midnight, which means dinnertime.

The computer I'm writing this from, by the way, is a Commodore.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Carmen de Patagones, Argentina

It´s been a whirlwind 48 hours with not much happening, so this may be a confused entry.

Jumped on the train in Bariloche for a 16-hour ride from Westernmost to Easternmost Argentina, and was immediately greeted by about 30 13-year old kids heading out on a fieldtrip to the beach (much like the class trip to Washington DC I took in 8th grade) and the crazy British guy named Robert who I´ve now bumped into on the boat to Puerto Natales, the trails in Torres del Paine, the bus on Route 40, and the train to Viedma. It´s pretty uncanny. He´s a nice guy, older, very animated, and is constantly scribbling down notes. His handwriting is bad and I´ve never been able to figure out what he´s writing.

On this particular day, on which I learned that of several hundred passengers on the train I was impossibly seated next to Robert, it turns out that Robert was experiencing some severe nausea and general gastronomical discomfort, the development of which he described to me in excruciating detail during the first hour of the train ride.

"It´s really quite amazing," he´d say, examining his rather substantial belly with both hands, as though searching for a baseball that may have become lodged in there. "I´m really quite certain that I´ve no idea how this came on."

"Yes," I´d say. "It sounds awful."

"I mean, I´m just miserable," he´d answer. "It´s as though there´s something alive in there. I´m really feeling quite ill right now. I´m not certain how this will play out."

More rubbing of the tummy, to which we now add profuse sweating and shivering.

"I can´t imagine it´s anything I´ve eaten. Perhaps I´ve allowed myself to become dehydrated."

Later, when he was feeling better and the ride got a little bumpy, he did his best impression of that crazy piano player from the "Shine" movie, giggling uncontrollably in a way that betrayed his fears that the entire trip would be this bouncy.

"Oh-ho-ho! Here we go, Chad! Here we go now! It´s going to be a rough one it is! Oh my, my, my! Ho-ho! Dear, dear this could be a rough one, couldn´t it, Chad! Ho-ho-ho!"

Meanwhile, the 13-year old kids took a shine to me and gathered around in droves to chat in English and correct my Spanish and ask me to listen to their favorite songs on their CD players. It was good to be a curiosity rather than an annoying tourist for a change.

Enjoyed the perks of the train, which included the ability to walk around and even a decent dinner in the dining car. As for scenery, it was very much a repeat of Route 40, furthering my knowledge of the vastness of the nothing encompassed by much of this country. (8th largest in the world, I learned.)

The train arrived the following morning, just as I was finishing yet another breakfast of coffee and small pieces of round toast covered with this stuff called "Dulce de Leche" which essentially is a creamy caramel spread that is so addictive I´m convinced there are at least trace amounts of some opiate in there. Got to chatting with a guy named Jon from Brown U. who´d been studying in Mendoza for a semester and was now finishing off his time in Argentina by travelling around a little with his buddy on a very tight budget. He was kind of a slow-talking, granola-stoner type, and if he wasn´t from Cali or Colorado, he certainly should have been.

Met back up with him and his pal at the bus station and they were kind of a sorry pair. Even dirtier than me, with all kinds of odds and ends tied to the outsides of their backpacks with bits of twine and carrying torn plastic bags full of leftovers and a metal grill which they´d been using to cook. They said they were heading south.

"If you´re heading south, why did you take this train all the way east?" I asked them. They stood there, sleep-deprived and doe-eyed, staring blankly at me like I was a map of a city they´d never been to rather than a person who´d just asked them a perfectly reasonable question.

Something finally registered in Jon´s brain and he blinked.

"Oh," he said, as though he was thinking about it for the first time. He paused a second and then said, "I don´t know."

His friend then had the same revelation -- you could see it in his face.

"Oh, shit," he said, slowly letting one of his bags slip to the ground in a gesture that reeked of defeat. "That´s right..."

Keep in mind, these weren´t homeless guys -- one goes to Brown and the other lives in Monterey.

In any case, they finally bought a ticket to some godforesaken town on the eastern coast and headed off to a campsite to spend the night. After a quick pass through Carmen de Patagones, I´d decided it would be in my best interest *not* to stay there for the night and instead bought an 8pm ticket to Buenos Aires, making it two all-night trips in a row for me.

With 10 hours to kill, I figured I´d follow the fellas to their campsite while they set up their stuff and then head into town with them to grab some pizza and beers or something, seeing as how they were pretty good folks, the quality of whose company far exceeded their planning skills.

The walk to the campsite, though, went on much longer than I´d anticipated, and was punctuated with various fits of delirious laughter and beleaguered groaning as we turned corner after corner, negotiated a divided highway, and finally crossed a huge bridge. Jon´s buddy Rory was walking ahead and small pieces of food started to poke their way out of the torn shopping bag he was carrying. At one point, as we were walking single-file over the bridge, an entire loaf of bread worked it´s way out and fell on the ground without Rory even noticing. Jon turned around, giggling stupidly while the metal grill split into two pieces and fell to the ground as well

"Oh, man" he said to me, closing his eyes and looking skyward as he continued laughing deliriously. "Did you see that, Chad?"

I had seen it. I had also seen about enough. As politely as possible, I begged off and told the guys I was going to turn around and head into town, suggesting we try to meet up in a couple hours.

"Yeah," said Jon. "Good idea. Peace out, Chad."

As I said before, they were good guys and I really did hope to meet up and have a beer later rather than wander around solo for ten hours, but it was not to be.

Instead, I went to the tourist office where a woman who reminded me of the wardrobe specialist from "The Incredibles" gave me a 3-hour presentation on a 20-minute "historical walk" she suggested I take and loaded me up with 20 pounds worth of brochures advertising attractions around town which I would spend the rest of the day unable to locate. The place was absolutley dead, there were no people, and of the few establishments which existed most were closed. I finally gave up and went to have a beer at the only open cafe I could find.

Ten minutes after my beer arrived I looked up and there was Robert at a table across the room, sorting through the exact same unwieldy pile of brochures that I´d been given.

"Chad," he shouted from across the cafe, waving his arm. "Chad, hello! I´ve just had the most *extraordinarily* fascinating day! Isn´t this place marvelous?"

I went over to his table and set down my beer.

"Did you really see all these things?" I asked him, gazing down at the brochures for the abandoned fort, the secret caves, the captured British flag, the first school, the old house, the famous restaurant, the bar with the curious history.

Robert sipped his coffee and examined the mess of information spread before him.

"Not a bloody one of them," he said.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Bariloche, Argentina

If anyone is wondering what Casey Affleck is up to, I can tell you with absolute confidence that he´s posing as an Irish backpacker and running around Argentina with two of his buddies who are so sunburned from a long day on a Chilean volcano that they´re shedding more flesh than a leper colony. Two days of banging around this vacation town with those guys has been entertaining and fun but hasn´t yielded any fantastic stories -- it´s been more like watching a Three Stooges marathon on The WB.

One of the dogs from El Bolson followed me here.

There are three bars in this town and all of them are Irish pubs, which rather dismayed the Irish lads. Last night one of the Irish pubs had a flamenco band with dueling guitar players decked out in full-on tight bodysuits with flared sleeves who absolutely blew the roof off. There´s a tune which is kind of like the Latin American "Cissy Strut" that I´ve heard everywhere I´ve been, but last night´s version took it to a new level.

This is the paragraph about housekeeping: Time is starting to run short down here. If anyone in Seattle needs or knows of someone who needs a roommate or a subletter for a few months in early 2006, please let me know. I should be back in the rainy city Thursday, December 15, but will be leaving the following Monday, the 19th, for Christmas Recovery in Michigan, returning to the rain again on the 28th.

Something that has been left out of these entries due to the fact that I´ve gotten so used to it that it no longer seems remarkable:

Toilets. I think I touched on the TP issue earlier, but what I haven´t mentioned is the fact that sewage systems down here are very delicate and can´t withstand repeated flushings of toilet paper. To solve this problem, every bathroom in every city in every country has a sign asking you to kindly place your used toilet paper in a little plastic garbage can rather than flush it down the toilet. This was very difficult for me to do at first and I´ll fully admit that I cheated for a while. You eventually fall into line, though, and now it´s second nature for me.

If the picture isn´t clear to you, or this all sounds confusing, I´ll break it down: Your shit-stained toilet paper goes into a little bucket with everyone else´s shit-stained toilet paper. I´d wager to guess this never happens in the U.S.

So if I visit your house in the next few months and, upon my departure, you find some vile, nasty, filthy stuff in your garbage can, please forgive me. I´m a creature of habit.

I suppose that wasn´t the best story to tell following my plea for a place to leave.

Friday, December 02, 2005

El Bolson, Argentina

A few weeks ago, a tired and beaten-looking Argentinian who was sitting next to me and gazing dejectedly out the window of our bus said, without looking at me, "This country is run by dogs," to which I responded very enthusiastically by reeling off everything I knew about Peron, The Dirty War, San Martin, and a whole host of other tumultuous episodes in Argentine history. He looked at me, a little puzzled, and then pointed out the window toward a kind of ragged shanty town that we were passing.

"No," he said. "I mean dogs."

He was right. There wasn´t a human being in sight but the little township was abustle with canines of all shapes and sizes, methodically conducting their business.

After that, I took notice in nearly every town. Esquel was swarming with dogs. Perrito Morena, too. El Chalten and Ushuia and Rio May were all crawling with dogs which I wouldn´t call strays, since they more or less act like they own the places. Often times you´ll see the same ones day in and day out, hanging around their favorite restaurants, parks, and bars.

But nowhere has been like this. They´re plotting something here. I´m sure of it. My Israeli roommate got bitten. They´ve been following me everywhere I go. When there´s not one following me, I can feel them watching from behind bushes and around corners. At night, lying in bed, you can hear them in the streets. Thousands of them. Barking and growling and shouting and plotting. It´s otherworldly. Sometimes it feels like you can understand what they´re saying, and what they appear to be saying is, "Take heed, humans! Your time is very fucking nigh!"

Yesterday I wandered south of town to a little-visited area in search of a brewerey (cerveceria) that´s supposed to be out there. I came upon a pack of about fifteen dogs who obviously didn´t expect to be disturbed or interrupted so far from town, and who immediately set upon me. I narrowly escaped with all my body parts by hauling ass across the street and clumsily imitating a kind of clucking sound with my teeth and tongue that I heard the owner of the hostel (who clearly is either a co-conspirator or made some kind of deal) making the other day. These particular dogs were extra fierce- and intelligent-looking. I think they were the leaders of the movement. The core of the junta, if you will. I really need to get out of here before the shit hits the fan.

In other news, yesterday marked the first day of the "Fifth International El Bolson Jazz Festival." It´s international because there´s a pretty ragged old British ex-pat baritone sax player who´s been hanging around here for a few decades. The rest of the acts were all local. In the afternoon, I witnessed a rather awful but still exciting free jazz experiment between the sax player and a pianist. When I learned that they were playing again at midnight in a bar I figured I´d go to see what kind of dangerous things would ensue. I was both delighted and disappointed to show up at the bar several hours later, knock back a few drinks, and watch these free jazz experimentalists play the *exact same disjointed atonal set* note for note.

Truly a thing of beauty.

A British woman shushed me twice during this display and I couldn´t help but laugh.

Now, it´s time to find a bus. The dogs are barking. I can see them in the streets. I can hear them in my head. I can feel them in my shoes. Our time is running out.