I found an Irish pub whose name was just that, “Irish Pub.” There was also “del Turismo Chocolates.” Ushuaia had its authentic parts, particularly the container stockpiles and the west part of town, but I did not stay long enough to appreciate the town as it might deserve.
The short mountains that hugged the coast have a low, wind-swept tree line that makes them look bald. They have sharp peaks and spiny ridges, and the snow cover in these months is only patchy. I contemplated them as I could from my quick ride to the police checkpoint just out of town.
Police checkpoints are common here. I don’t know why. When I showed them my passport and they asked me destination, accommodation, and transportation, I gave them my rap, and then asked why there are police checkpoints at the outskirts of El Calafate and Ushuaia. “Security!” the bossman had hollered.
A king crab fisherman took me out of town, passed the dense forests and spiky summits, to a crossroads 45 kilometers on. It wasn’t long before another man picked me up to take me onward to Tolhuin, which in a dead language means “heart”, appropriate in that the town is at the heart of Tierra del Fuego. The scenery changed to the tune of conspiracy theories about millionaires building underground solar storm-proof refuges. I thanked him and he invited me to his cabin if I became stuck there. I thanked him again, but for some reason I felt a strong urge to make it to Buenos Aires quickly.
At the small gas station in town I asked a few drivers for rides or otherwise just lingered. When a pair of motorcycles pulled in loaded down with travel bags front and back, I went over to them. They were Austrian and at first the man was about to tell me that they couldn’t take me along when they’d responded to my question that yes, they were going to Chile. “No,” I said, “I just want to give this to someone who will use it. Do you speak Spanish?” They did. So I handed them the Copec guide that miner Claudio had given me months back in Iquique. Then I wished them well and them me, and I returned to the road.
A small and silent guy who reminded me of Ewoks, down to their friendliness, drove me the rest of the way into Rio Grande, right back to the YPF. After a quick buy of bread and other things that the border guards wouldn’t pester me about, I found a more-or-less secluded field, where I pitched my tent among a guard of bumpy hills. I fell asleep thinking, requisites for happiness must change with age.
The next day I hitched a ride out of town with a man headed to the Rio Gallegos border to repair Immigration’s scanning equipment. After the first border crossing I was back in Chile. We drove through the Pampa to the ferry. Penguins leapt from waves alongside black and white dolphins, shadowing our boat. On the mainland once more I continued with the man to the border to re-enter Argentina, and we parted ways. Despite spending some 4 hours with him, I can’t recall his name or anything particularly remarkable about our shared time. I might consider it a shame, but then, I suppose that only some time is memorable.
I walk out passed the covered buildings of the border, where passports were stamped in and out and the Argentinian and Chilean officials sat side-by-side. I walked a few kilometers until I came upon an obligatory weigh station. I met the administrator there, and the guard on duty. We chatted and they offered me coffee, and the young officer decided to start asking truckers to take me.
Eventually, and when the weigh station had already closed, my thumb attracted a trucker with Chilean plates.
“Hello friend hello, welcome to my cab! I’m Javier!” he cried joyfully.
I introduced myself and we were off. He was from Punta Arenas. I told him I went there but I didn’t see it well.
“That’s ok that’s ok. Damn! Argentinians! They can’t drive worth a damn!” he said as we were underway, his protruding jaw rolling up like a hook.
Fields of pampa and wispy grass bent horizontal from the gale shot by and we were in Rio Gallegos, the largest Argentinian city that far south. We re-loaded at a packed gas station.
“Vacation. Everyone’s traveling,” he said. The station pumps had lines backed up for 100 feet. Javier jumped down and filled the rig’s tanks and I looked out at the scene. We were at an YPF. There were other backpackers there, but it looked to me like they were asking for southbound. There was also a line in front of a bright orange hot water dispenser to go into mate-packed gourds. Mate, you ask? It’s an herbal tea that Argentinians drink with a furor throughout the year from thermoses or from round gourd-shaped mugs. The mug is packed full of the herb and hot water is added, and a long straw stunted with a strainer, called the bombilla, is pressed to the bottom to suck up the mixing.
We were underway once more.
“I love this truck!” he hollered with flashing eyes. “American! Freightliner!” I wondered why he hollered when there was plenty of silence in the cab, but it didn’t bother me.
“We got good work vehicles,” I said, “but for sedans I prefer a Honda, or Toyota.”
“Yes, clearly. Freightliner trucks are the best. This one’s mine. Headed to pick up some concrete for the new road in Tierra del Fuego,” he said.
“Glad to hear they’re paving that road, it’s brutal.”
We passed hours of silence together despite the hollering. I glanced around the cab. It was very spacious and there were a bunch of things scattered throughout. He had a TV, for example, and a small table behind my seat. The most interesting thing, however, was a small effigy of what looked like Christ, but it was something else. It was “Gauchito Gil,” a Patagonian gaucho with Jesus beard and long hair, and a red scarf tied around his neck. A placard about it read “Gauchito Gil, protege mi auto/protect my car.”
When we neared towns the loud stinging ring of quad motors shook the air, but otherwise the way was plain. Endless pampa.
“Argentinians are so damn unorganized,” he said when I’d pointed out a roundabout sign that had confusing arrows pointing every which way. “And don’t be fooled by the reputation, we have good asado as well.”
Asado is barbeque, but in Argentina it really refers to cooked ribs. In both Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia grilled meat is popular, but in Argentina there’s a meat culture, as I would come to find out.
Javier stopped in a river delta town called Piedra Buena. By chance a car filled with his cousins pulled into the same gas station, and we had a small feast in the cab.
“This is Chilean cordero, Chael,” Javier said, handing me a plate of sheep meat and rice. Only the third hot food since Puerto Montt, it went down well. We also ate sopaipilla fried bread and drank Nestle coffee.
Outside the sky appeared white, and long slim black clouds stretched out like worsening rips. Later, the clouds would turn into a splashed nexus of pink, and would seem subservient to the origin of the sun, such that they appeared like that spatial body’s gleaming outstretched fingers, skinny like the wringing skeletal digits of an old widow.
His cousins had squeezed into the front seats and Javier sat on the bed. There was ample head space, and the smells of the food and coffee wafted upward, from where it would later descend and remind us of the good food we’d eaten.
A sleepy concoction of more pampa landscape and the heat put me to sleep in the seat beside Javier. When I woke I saw that he had driven through the night, and we’d arrived to a town called Fitz Roy around 1 am.
“This is where I turn west,” he said. He handed me a bag of bread and ham.
I thanked him and pulled my stuff down from the cab and shut the door. He drove off, shooting up dirt and dust that suspended in the orange light of streetlamps. I did up my tent behind a poster board to block that damn pampa wind I’ve spoken about.
In the morning it was more hitching in the pampa. A Bolivian took me to Caleta Olivia, a dusty coastal town that I marched across weighed down by the sun. At a gas station there I met gruff Facundo, who drove me for an hour filled with talk of Harleys and the lax work ethic of Argentina.
“If we don’t want to work, we don’t,” he’d said. “It’s a more human approach to work, not necessarily laziness. Humans evolving should mean more time to enjoy life in this way or that, but it seems lots of people think work is life. They’re wrong, man.”
“Seems to me it depends on where you’re born,” I said. “We as individuals are just along for the ride.”
He drove me up the deserted coast to Comodoro Rivadavia, the largest city of the southeastern pampa and one of the wealthiest thanks to its oil reserves. Facundo decided to take me to the city’s northern exit, some 15 kilometers out, sparing me a painstaking dead walk in the heat.
A few hours later I was in a car with a young father on his way to Bahia Blanca some 800 kilometers away. In the long stretches of nothingness pampa, it was hard to keep awake. Whenever a gas station would show up we’d stop to splash our faces with water. We listened to Dread Mar . Otherwise, conversations would last until the guy would cut them short.
Night closed in and we were somewhere in the darkness, lost in time again. At a gas station I hopped out of the car and thanked the guy, who drove off to find a hotel. The moon snuck through wisps of cloud to illuminate the surrounds, but everything looked plain and gross. The air smelled acrid. My stomach ached from hunger.
Groups of dozens wandered around the area, their cars all parked in line at the gas pump, which had been sucked dry of nafta, as the Argentinians call it. A few kids ran in front of their parents, who didn’t seem to mind their bare feet on oil stained concrete and wetted dirt. I drew my fingers down the straps of my pack, and seemed to separate them from my skin. It was humid. My stomach ached.
“Excuse me,” I asked someone walking by, “Where am I?”
“San Antonio,” he replied.
San Antonio. 250 kilometers from Bahia Blanca, which was a further 800 kilometers from Buenos Aires. The rancid air had little effect on my appetite. Beside the gas station was a popular comedor. Opposite the scene were a few more restaurants.
I walked across the darkness under the moon to the first restaurant. Inside a man was singing for a small audience. I could see the kitchen, the cook wearing an aged purple shirt and green bandana and poking at the meat clamped in racks and encircling a central fire.
“Miss,” I touched a waitress’ shoulder. “This may be a strange question, but do you have any work I might do for something to munch on?”
“Ask that man over there, he’s the owner,” she said.
I went to the tall, balding man who was busy with a conversation. When he finished I asked the same question, and he looked at me only partly, his head turned away and a pair of sullen eyes straining to look me over from their sockets. His eyebrows were raised dramatically and his coiling moustache made him look ostentatious—in another life he might’ve headed a circus. And if appearances were any hint, his reply should not have surprised me: “No.”
I walked out and wandered away down the black road. A pair of people sat under a flickering halogen lamp. I asked where I might pitch my tent. The man energetically drew a diagram in the dirt to demonstrate where I should camp behind the gas station and the woman repeated over and over again in a voice long since deprived of vibration “not here”.
I walked back toward the gas station. The green bandana cook was smoking in front of the restaurant.
He squinted in the air but not in order to see me better, but because he was probably just cool. From where he leaned on the wall, one leg propped up and his knee sticking out, he said: “they didn’t give you any food?”
I stopped. “Well, I asked for work to eat something. No go,” I said.
He made some hand gestures and said in broken English, “Where from?”
“The states,” I said.
“Want food?” he asked.
“Come, come. I get food. You come,” he said.
I walked over to him and he led me around the corner to some dark shadows beside a dumpster. “Wait,” he said, disappearing back inside the restaurant.
It was very late and all I’d had to eat that day was bread and ham leftovers that Javier had given me. I expected the cook to come out with a plate of rice or something like that. He didn’t.
When he returned he held in his hand a piece of cardboard filled with all sorts of cuts of meat and chorizo. He set it down on a concrete slab in front of me. “Money,” he said, still in English, as he pulled out a bill to give me. I refused the money. He shook his head sharply and frowned, “this, money. No problem.” He handed me the 20 pesos and a set of utensils and then again disappeared into the restaurant.
I was left somewhat dumbstruck for a moment as I considered this new situation. I was sitting on my pack beside a dumpster in the dead of night, hidden in the shadows of a restaurant whose cook had undermined the bossman to bring a transient several helpings of meat. It was an unlikely scene for my first Argentinian asado. I looked down at the food and saw big slices of beef roasted in herbs, the juices sitting atop like pools of flavor, or soaking into the cardboard. The chorizo would explode in taste when I’d bite into it. I split open the blood sausage and scooped out the delicious insides. When it was time for the meat, I found that it was succulent and easy to eat, and there was enough flavor to make bread sufficient for days to come.
When I’d finished what I could I gathered the significant remains into a plastic bag. I waved at the cook from outside the restaurant, and made a few gestures to communicate my gratitude and satisfaction, careful to remain out of the bossman’s sight. I found a place to camp behind the gas station and quickly fell into humid and sweaty sleep.
A Detour with Ed
In the morning there were other tents pitched around me—families who could not continue because the nafta truck had not arrived the night before. I packed my things and walked out to the gas station. Other backpackers were already there, but it looked like they were headed south. I crossed the road to the Shell station opposite, there to try my luck to get north.
In the several hours I spent there, I noticed a few things. First, there was a broken down bus of 20-somethings, and all the girls had big billowing colorfully designed pants like upside-down sails from hippy boats. All the guys had black hair and many of them sported scruffy faces like mine. Since Chile, beards have been more commonplace, and people have been able to guess my age more exactly. I think it has everything to do with the correlation that suggests how well I could pass as a local.
After those hours split between thumbing in the shade-less desert oven of the road to asking lines of cars at the gas station, I finally met a trucker to take me to Bahia Blanca, who agreed right after that feeling of presentiment had emerged in my throat, something that also happens as your eventual ride starts coming toward you from down the road.
The Chilean trucker took me all the way to Bahia Blanca, a number of hours north. We drank cold juice along the way. And the way had finally shifted from desolate pampa to wavy fields of wheat ready for the harvest. Trees popped up, and the flatness took me home when I stared at it too long.
I found myself in the TV room of a large gas station on the outskirts of the city, the Chilean having already headed downtown. I spent a few hours doing nothing. There were backpackers lounging in the room, but we didn’t speak. Outside there was yet another pair of backpackers asking cars for rides, and at the exit south there was a group of 5, each with a backpack.
When finally I decided to emerge and begin asking for rides myself, those backpackers had gone. But another had arrived. He had a small pack with tent and sleeping bag strapped on the outside, like mine. He smiled at me as I motioned him over. He looked a bit younger than me, but he had the exact same face as my friend Catalan, big thick eyebrows and shiny coffee orbs, a scruffy face and an accent that proved he was from Barcelona.
“Man, I can’t believe it,” I said. “You have the Quechua Forclaz 40 liter pack!”
He looked at his pack, then looked at mine, “hey yeah, we have the same backpack. It is a small world.”
“You buy yours at Decathlon?” He had bought his at that French superstore, and so had I. All those years ago I had been searching for a brown and black pack like his but the only one I could find was grey and red. Alas, only the colors differentiated our packs, and also the thinness of my shoulder straps.
We were both headed to Buenos Aires, so he (Aria) and I decided to share responsibilities asking drivers. We did this for a few hours until finally I decided I’d try my thumb on the road. I wished him well and said I’d come find him if I found a ride that would take two.
It took all of a minute to stop a big rig on the road. The trucker looked at me with a small face and beady eyes that sat patiently behind a pair of thick lenses. He had greying hair, and later would tell me he was 50. As we spoke, Aria appeared behind me.
“Man, I found a ride headed to Buenos Aires, but since you were here first I wanted to see if you wanted it,” he said.
“No man, you go ahead, I’m gonna go with this guy here.”
“Is he headed to Buenos Aires?” he asked.
“Rosario,” said the trucker.
“Go on man it’s all good, maybe we’ll see each other again someday,” I said. And Aria disappeared.
I hopped in with this trucker and we were off.
Rosario was not on the way. In fact, it was further north and further west than Buenos Aires. But I didn’t mind. We took the small Ruta 33 north from Bahia Blanca. We drove into the early hours and eventually pulled into a gas station, where Eduardo fell to sleep in his bunk and I in the seat.
In the morning it was more of the 33. Fields of green soy and tall pointy corn stalks passed. The small towns were built of brick and harkened back to an older time. Silos and shady trees dotted the countryside and big signs read “Illinois Seeds,” as if to suggest that I really was home. We passed crops of sunflowers whose faces turned toward the sun, like some kind of collective worship to that ultimate supremacy.
“I can leave you on a road to Buenos Aires if you want,” said Ed, “or if you want you can come with me. We’ll drop this stuff off and later eat a good asado. What do you think?”
And so it was that I went with Ed on a detour all the way to Rosario, Argentina’s second largest city. I didn’t mind, since it was Sunday and I didn’t feel like continuing the hitch.
A few hours later we arrived to the outskirts and found the city’s main distribution center. Wide concrete avenues circled the warehouses where the trucks unload their cargo of fruit, vegetables and dairy. Ed backed up the trailer against one of the large green metal gates. Inside the warehouse empty wooden crates were stacked to two stories high, like a downtown of towers. Men started to unloaded the refrigerated peaches from our trailer.
For a few hours I idly sat. From time to time Ed would toss me a peach. I drew, or I read, and the sun was heavy. Scavengers on bicycles came by and searched for discarded foodstuffs. Girls on the backs of motorcycles. Carnal desires, but restrain. Eventually we went to his truck HQ where his boss looked at me strangely. I’d never met the man who restricts the truckers from picking up hitchers. Ed must hold some sway because when the bossman asked, Ed just said I was a friend and that was the end of that.
We met one of Ed’s friends in a gas station and drank cups of Fanta. The friend gave us a bag of roast chicken. Later we drove to yet another distribution center. Night fell, and men and boys continued to unload our truck in the haze of floating dirt and heat and dim light. It was strange for them to see me, and despite their thick slang I understood that they thought it funny that I was there too.
With so much time to think, I thought it unfortunate when Ed told me he was single without children. I thought how commonplace it seemed here for Argentinian men t strip off their shirts in the heat. I thought it reminded me of the Mexican man’s tendency not to remove his shirt but to pull it up and over his potbelly. I thought how hungry I was, that I hadn’t eaten since 4pm the previous day and it was already night. Finally Ed came into the truck and we feasted on the chicken and meat. It was leftover asado, but it had retained its flavor.
I listened to the radio as I ate. The word ‘che’ is like our figurative ‘look’. Argentinians call each other ‘loco’. Any time there’s a double L or a Y, it sounds like shhh. It’s all sing-songy. I have decided it is the hardest dialect to understand when spoken with slang. Besides these observations, the radio also spewed football and Argentinian rock. These things are popular.
“What does your ex do?” I asked when Ed had told me his exgirlfriend constantly asks him for money.
“She waxes ladies private areas,” he said. “We broke up because I’m not allowed to say ‘no’ to her boys. They’re ladrones, robbers. Spoiled brats.”
“It’s sad some don’t understand how great a thing it is that they have the option of free education here,” I said.
“It’s a real shame,” he replied.
Ed disappeared and I continued to eat and watch the workers unload the trailer. It reminded me of the burros who unloaded the riverboat in Nicaragua. Remember that your fruit must first pass through this type of man: muscles, voices worn dry from yelling, laughs, strange calls and noises, mixed words and utterances about women and whores, curses and roughness.
We walked out of the distribution center when another trucker had arrived to take over Ed’s rig. The bossman met us in the deserted street and drove us across town. His daughter was in the passenger’s seat and I looked at her bare knees from time to time, the light from the streetlamps sliding off them steadily.
Bossman dropped us at a family home in the countryside just outside of Rosario. I could see in the garage a family set at dinner—it was Sunday, anyway. We walked in and everyone greeted Ed, who is a quiet man but who this family also insisted was a good person. There were 6 or 7 people there. A tall white haired man with a giant’s grip shook my hand. Several old ladies were there and smiled brightly. A young girl ran around. “Are you hungry?” they asked. Ed and I were served plates filled with more asado and sides of salad and potatoes. We feasted with this family.
“We are a trucker family,” the grandmother said. “My husband was a trucker, my boy is a trucker, and his boy too.”
“That’s right, welcome!” said the young father who was Ed’s trucking partner. His skin was tattooed and his eyes darted every which way. “You want a beer man?”
We drank and made merry. I downed the asado and a piece of pie. I took a side seat as I heard myself explaining my travels—something that seems to bore me these days. Then we talked about cocaine and Ed’s friend explained each thing he wanted to explain in five different ways.
Finally we left, the young father showing Ed out to the rig he had come to take to Cordoba. We climbed into this new truck and wished the family well and were gone once more. We stopped at a gas station where Ed showed me mate cups and bombillas, and we drank espressos. It was around 1am.
I had decided to head with Ed toward Cordoba to get out and camp at the tollbooth for better hitching in the morning. Ed wanted me to come with him to Cordoba, Argentina’s third largest city, but it was not yet my road. So, we drove to the tollbooth and Ed let me out. I thanked him, and then he drove off into memory, just like everyone else.
The tollbooth had the peculiar service of free hot showers. So it was that I jumped into a scorching stream to quit my skin of the days since Ushuaia. I brushed my teeth, then pitched tent and slept.
In the morning I was told I could not hitch so close to the tollbooth. Then I found a pair of gendarmia in their army green uniforms. They were young and full of new found authority and dismissed me politely but with underpinned upbraiding. I scoffed at them secretly and went to ask a few trucks who had stopped. No luck. And for a few hours it went like that.
The cops had gathered and were stopping semis at their makeshift checkpoint. Two different officers came up to me. I told them what I was doing. They were more open and friendly than the younger pair of steel lips I’d spoken with. They were also the higher ranking.
“Oh this? We’re stopping trucks because there’s a law that says they can’t travel until 2pm. Christina, the president, decreed,” one told me.
I chatted with them for a while. I tried to make jokes about the police and Chile, and we even went as far as to denounce the abused authority that some officers wreak of.
“You know what, don’t worry about hitchhiking, we’ll find you a ride,” they told me.
“Oh? Well, thanks guys,” I said.
“Where are you going?”
I ate the last piece of meat that I’d saved from the day before. It just made me hungrier. I was thirsty too, but the deathly sun with its damn flares warmed my water bottle. From the guardrail post on which I sat rose the distinct odor of heated urine. At least my appetite was put on hold.
At that thought, the cops whistled me over. They’d found me a ride with a big trucker in his petrol truck—the only type of truck that was permitted to travel. I thanked the cops and we were off.
“Isn’t it illegal to have passengers in petrol trucks?” I asked the driver.
“What? Yea! Yeah it’s illegal, but if that guy—what was his name, Parsons—if he says it’s ok, then if cops stop me further down I’ll just blame him! Hah!”
3 hours passed and we were in the urban outskirts of Buenos Aires, the largest city in South American Spanish-speaking countries and second in the Spanish-speaking world only to Mexico City. I hopped out of the truck somewhere in San Fernando.
Despite the heat, the shadows of trees helped me on the walk to a train station the locals had told me about. I made it to the station and paid the 90 cents for a ride into the central station Retiro, in Buenos Aires center, or, as they called it, Capital.
Rekindling an Old Amistad in the Big City
Welcome to Buenos Aires. I felt good to be in a giant city, and I felt happy to know that I’d soon be meeting up with a good buddy I’d met on the road almost a full year before. The train zoomed across the city, passing shantytowns and rubbish—and me thinking how strange it must be to be a poor person in a place with free health care and education—until the central station.
Retiro would be the first of many train stations that I’d come to admire for its extravagance of huge steel vaulted ceilings and giant windows through which burst the light of day onto the marble floor and commuters. It also had a rough attribute to it as the homeless chose its stone coves as hideaways, and the beggars waited patiently beside the ticket booth to plead with each and every soul.
When I emerged from the station I heard a “heeeeyyy!” in English. I turned to see the Israeli couple with which I’d shared some rides on Chile’s Carretera Austral. We spoke briefly and agreed that it was a small world, and a quickly rotating one too. Then they left, and I left… or, maybe we just went on, maybe there is no ‘leaving’ in this case.
I made contact with my friend Julian, who told me to wait in front of the Plaza Hotel at Plaza San Martin, a gorgeous sloping park treed and peacefully tucked amongst the hustle bustle of downtown and bulk and dominance of surrounding buildings. I could already tell that the city was modeled closely after European ones, with large colonial buildings representing the Parisian redesigns of the 19th century; that is, expansive avenues and detailed ornamentation of facades, and regulated heights. The sensationalist surrounds are somehow amazingly pleasing to the eye.
Before I would meet Julian’s mom in front of the Plaza Hotel, I decided to treat myself to a victory meal of Chinese food. Indeed, when I asked where the cheapest eats were, everyone said “The Chinamen!” The restaurant charges by the kilo, so I ate an incredible diversity of sweet pork, chow mein and who knows what else.
When I met Julian’s mom, she was happy and bright. She had deep eyes and tanned skin, big sunglasses and a small blue car. Away we drove, across town to a city called Quilmes, and in front of Julian’s house.
“I live alone, and Julian and his two older brothers live here in their father’s house—oh but the father doesn’t live here, he lives with a new family of his, but we’re all cordial together!” she said.
Julian showed up soon enough on his motorbike, and removed his helmet. He looked the same as when I met him so long ago at Tono’s woodshop on the coast of Ecuador. We had spent a week with Tono, Mono and Coa in Ayampe, and we had even shared a night of festivities in the town of Montanita. It seemed so long ago.
We embraced and his mom left. He showed me around the house. He set me up in his room on the second floor, with a view down on the street and the residential neighborhood.
“So, man, are you in love?” I asked.
“What man? Come on,” he said.
“I recall very specifically that you came all the way back here for a girl.”
He chuckled. “Man, you know it didn’t work. I came back and three weeks later it was over.”
“I see, and since then?”
“Other girls,” he said.
“I thought so. So, now?”
“I’m with a girl now, a Ukrainian girl. But man I’m thinking of traveling. I want to get to the States the next time. I’m going to make it next time man. I learned my lesson about leaving home when you have a girlfriend. It’s not going to happen again,” he said.
“And this girl you’re with now?”
“Man, come on. I dunno. It’s not serious, and I don’t want it to be serious, because I’m thinking about traveling.”
I felt a cringe in my chest, as if my own hypocrisy was wielding disaster when I said: “Yea you have to keep from falling for someone if you want to travel. I did it for 7 years, but then in Peru… well, it’s my history.”
Later I met his older brothers German and Landro. The trio went about the place shirtless, and each had tattoos on their shoulders. We watched the news and Landro cooked steak and potatoes, or chicken and potatoes, or we talked about the Italian cruise ship disaster. The guys were cool, if you can dig it. I admired their living situation and it reminded me of living with my brother for the first two months of this whole travel thing.
We went one night to their mother’s place.
“Feel at home, this is your house,” she said.
I looked at the library and sifted through books on impressionism or “Art that Changed the World.” My hand ran over the spines of books until it rested on a Spanish translation of “Ulysses”. James Joyce’s novel has been on my to-do list since my father gifted it to me when I’d completed high school. When I completed college he gave me the “Guide to Ulysees,” but I have put it off still. One day!
In the back of the house, across the lawn and into a guesthouse of sorts, I found Landro and German rapping about as Landro was cooking. And he was cooking on something that they told me every Argentinian house has, a parilla. It was a giant brick chimney over whose fire hung a large grill. Landro adjusted the grill’s distance from the burning coals with a wheel which drew in or let out length of chain that held the grill. When the coals were ready he threw on the meat. Chorizo, slabs of thigh or cut rib, blood sausage, etc. He told me that asado referred to the ribs, but the whole deal was an Argentine asado.
The taste was extraordinary for something whose process seems so ascetic. Cold coke and fried potatoes accompanied the meat, which we ate at a round glass table outside with the brothers, German’s girlfriend and their mom.
Conversations were interesting, and I enjoyed seeing the sons’ relationship with their mother play out before me in awkward pauses. We spoke of politics, which divides the sons from their mom. When I changed the conversation to free education versus paid education, Landro pointed out: “our Nobel Laureates studied at free universities.”
It was the first of several pleasant evenings over the course of which through greetings and farewells I would come to learn that men here kiss each other on the cheek. It reminded me of my good friends in France who had clearly initiated me into their group when they began to say goodbye with a bissou on each cheek. Alas, here the kiss is on one cheek only, but the feeling of closeness is the same.
A Day in Buenos Aires
The sun’s glare seemed hotter than other days, but that’s probably because it knew I would be walking a lot on this particularly one. It didn’t bother me that the sun was so relentless, since the tall French-style apartment blocks of lined stone and iron-ringed balconies, and intricate marble balustrades that I’d see when able to catch a glimpse of the inside, cast long shadows under which I strode. And it was very much a stroll rather than a walk.
Like falling stars water glistened as it fell from air conditioners onto my head. Outdoor cafes spoke of a European influence that completed my expectations. What I had not expected was the high percentage of bodies fit and tanned and beautiful, and there were beautiful faces too, but a turning head most often turns for legs, hips or chests. I walked on, and more often than not I turned my head.
The metro system is called the “subte,” short for subterranean, and although I knew it had free bathrooms, I opted for a confident strut into a cleaner and far less humid McDonald’s bathroom. Humidity in a bathroom makes you really wonder what kinds of moistures are in the air.
I walked from the train station at Constitucion, where I’d arrived from the Quilmes station after Julian had dropped me there and zoomed off on his motorbike to work in La Plata. I strode down the 9 de Julio, its reputation as the world’s widest avenue not failing to impress. Indeed, the whole Capital can be based on an orientation that places this avenue at its center, like a linear heart of sorts that doesn’t beat but moves nonetheless.
When I turned off the grand avenue at the statue that resembles almost exactly the Washington Monument, the latter being the older of the two, I soon learned the true attraction of Buenos Aires. The city has the quality of side streets that beckon you down them. They are dense and diagonal, and tall buildings mean you feel that you can see down ways for miles.
I had worked up enough of an appetite to eat a number of other asados, but Buenos Aires also has the unfortunate reputation of being expensive. The cheapest meal turned out to be a 1/4 kilo of Chinese food and 3 skinny breadsticks (all the bread in Buenos Aires seems to be skinny breadsticks, as if all the bakers are one-handed).
All small grocery stores are staffed by Argentinians, but most are headed by Chinese, who sit in pairs at the entrance looking at computers or writing something down. A global Chinese invasion might be easy to coordinate, I thought. Then I thought, that’s a damn stupid American thing to think.
I took to walking again. Throngs of people moved through everywhere, and my head turned. Some porteñas as residents of Buenos Aires are called, have rendered themselves unattractive with strange bleached hair. Others know what they have a flaunt it. Even men in suits seem to strut. The continent-wide stereotype of Argentinians thinking they’re better than everyone else must come from these suited men, I thought.
The Casa Rosada is where the Argentine government is said to be based, and I ate my food in front of it. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who have camped in protest against the country’s old dictatorship’s killings in the 1970s and 80s for years, had their tents across the plaza from my spot. I’d heard that they recently tried one of the guilty, and everyone was happy. So it goes.
Then I continued my stroll. I didn’t go to casino-crazy and expensive Puerto Madero. Instead I returned to the big avenue past interesting old-man stores and tobacco shops, and strode down its length to the French embassy, which itself was surrounded by buildings that gave a scene that very well could be found in Paris itself. Behind it I was in Palermo, a high-class neighborhood that had hidden treasures of gorgeous mansions, one of which was dark abandoned and crumbling and whose security cameras had been retaken by cobwebs, but whose survey would see only the cracked and spot-covered outer wall and cast iron gate, designed in vines and goblets. A massive tree from within the property spread out its branches to shade the small intersection, and I was briefly overcome by the desire to buy it. If only!
Continuing onward past open entrances whose hallways slippery marble and glinting statues spoke of luxury and power. I found another park, and frowned at ugly graffiti tagging statues and plaques, even tagging trees. The trees were amazing; the base must have been the length of a bus with the exposed roots; the roots themselves 2 feet vertically skinny and like standing ribbons as the walls of a maze who wave and connect to the center trunk. The branches thick as wheels stretched out and hung low at a level horizontal to shade an area whose perimeter might exceed the length of a city block. Homeless men had made home between the ribbon roots and foreigners took their photos as they slept.
I crossed an avenue and came to a collection of large buildings—museums. First I found the Recoleta Cemetery, with long brick-lain avenues and whose large mausoleums built side-by-side reminded me immediately of Punta Arenas’ cemetery. Brazilians went to and fro snapping photos—everyone had a camera of some kind. There were no stray dogs, only stray cats, which seemed appropriate if Egyptians were right about their roles in the afterlife. The most impressive mausoleums were old and crumbling and had long since been seeded by foliage. I don’t know how I feel about these big leftovers, which in some cases cost more than a grave robber might possibly make in a lifetime. After all, how can anyone judge anything when all knowledge comes from light and shadow and ripples in the air?
I followed the cemetery’s 3-story brick peripheral wall to more large avenues behind it. I crossed and found the Museo de las Bellas Artes to be free. They had carvings by Rodin and Rembrandt’s Portrait of Sister Lisbeth van Rijn. Rembrandt’s black seems blacker than other artists’, all of them kept in a room far cooler than the others. Other exhibitions were mostly of European art; and among the greats were pieces by Gauguin, Monet and Van Gogh. There were exhibitions of furniture and mate fixings, and Argentina’s first large collection of European art. Julian’s mom, a proponent of modern art, had suggested that realistic art was unnecessary now that photography exists, but I wondered if the artists of the Renaissance would have opted for a Nikon. At the end of the circuit there were painted scenes of Argentine military exploits by an artist named Pueyrredón. I became taken by “La Vuelta del Malón” by Angel Della Valle, a local artist legend. But the most impressive unknown piece in the museum, for me, was “The Empress Theodora” by Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant.
When I left I walked to the Malba Museum of Latin American Art, but did not go in due to the entry fee. Instead, and quite ironically, I drew the building. A man approached me as I drew and desired to see other drawings. We spoke of literature and Faulkner, and the porteño man told me he had also hitched, but in Europe on the Hippie Trail. So it goes.
I walked toward the Botanical Garden where cats with missing ears or eyes roamed in the grass, and then passed the Japanese Gardens, peaking in through the bars. As I was walking passed a café, I noticed a man sitting at a table facing the entrance to an apartment building. I watched as a woman emerged and stared hard at the man, and when she began to walk away the man abandoned the table to catch up with her to plead forgiveness or who knows what. The dizziness of existence.
Onward I walked, glancing down those beckoning streets whose facades seem busy, and whose shop fronts advertise this or that. I bought bread and a tomato and feasted. Later I came to the subte and remarked that no one seems to check tickets on trains here. The car rocked back and forth as we shot down the tunnel. Fucking spray paint, I thought.
People here look you in the eye. I eyed everyone as I walked in San Telmo, the city’s cobblestone center. Its small squares were too much like Paris’ Montmartre, but the two would have been developing around the same time. I strolled until a rusting old bridge beside a new one and a dirty, smelly river. The river probably flows into the Parana, the widest river in the world and the river along which Buenos Aires sits, taking its name from the constant yet gentle breeze that swipes across the water’s surface.
I was in La Boca neighborhood, the poorer but touristic neighborhood in which Tango was born. I walked until the buildings became colorful corrugated metal, and restaurants had vast outdoor seating filled with tourists. Besides getting hassled I watched demonstrations of Tango dancing and thought how strange the history of the dance, which began as a dance among the destitute and today is a global symbol of elegance.
Giant mannequins of a strange animation—voluptuous women and shady men—glared down from balconies at the passersby. I wondered if they might come to life at night to argue or for the women to talk sassy at the shady man’s conniving remarks.
Shops and restaurants had wild theatrical letters to seduce tourists in, and an old train track remained cutting the neighborhood in two. The contrasts of the neighborhood were remarkable, like the pink metal building facing the old neutral stone colonial one. Senegalese immigrants were selling jewelry and watches, Argentinian men had loud chatting conversations, and the air vibrated with a unique life, despite its touristic quality.
Later I returned to San Telmo and wet my head in a fountain at Parque Lezama. Wandering through the National History Museum I learned that San Jose de San Martin is more revered here for their independence than Bolivar. A great man, they say. I wonder how many great men of the great men were actually great men, and what the hell a great man is anyway. One truth is that no great man is as great as memory of him suggests.
And like in many National History Museums in Latin America and the world, they have a funny way of saying they lost a battle or war. I would be more interested in a National History Museum in the U.S., for example, with Howard Zinn as curator.
I left the museum and spent a few minutes contemplating the old rails that had been placed among the cobblestone, and which now was mostly covered with asphalt. Sad days were those when urban planners predicted automobiles’ significance. Looking at the buried rails for me made sense of the fact that ancient civilizations’ cities were built one on top of the other; I could see it happening.
I returned to Quilmes train, and walk the 15 blocks to Julian’s door. My day in Buenos Aires ended.
Cats, Asado and Robbery
We spent most days in the house. On one day, Julian and I went back into the city to meet up with Zac, my Wisconsin friend who had stayed with us in the House of No Ends back in Lima. He proposed we sell peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to tourists one day. The thing’s in the making.
Back in Julian’s house one morning, German came into the kitchen and told me his daunting story from the night before. He had come back from work on the back of his friend’s motorcycle. When he’d gotten off, suddenly two other motorcycles of gun-toting adolescents came screaming up behind them, right out front of the house, screaming they’d kill the friend if he didn’t give them the motorcycle. The friend had put the bike into gear and sped off, and German quickly keyed the door and slammed it behind him, all fast enough not to get shot.
“They told me Buenos Aires was dangerous,” I joked.
“Man, I don’t know what it is about this corner—I think it’s a free zone for crime cause cops never come here,” he said. So it goes.
We went one night to their father’s house. It was a humble home where he lived with his girlfriend, her daughter and her daughter’s kid. The daughter was my age, and somewhere in her eyes was the recognition that she could see the track of her life ever since she gave birth—something that would depress me at this point in my own life.
The girlfriend’s mother was also there, a large old woman with sinking eyes but a smile and gossip-ready all the same. I went out with Julian and Landro to watch their dad on the parrilla. So, it’s true that every Argentinian house has one of these. The meats sizzled and popped, and we drank cold beer. The night had come, and inside the table was set for the evening’s dinner.
We feasted on the succulent meat, which had surprised me—me, thinking that I couldn’t possibly find meat that was better than Landro’s the other night. I remarked to him that “you must have learned parillada from your father.”
Their father’s politic is far different from their own. Julian travels like me, and when the father overheard us brainstorming, he remarked, “you cheapskates just don’t want to spend any money!”
“What would you have us do?” Julian asked.
“Stay put, get a job, raise a family,” he said.
Later, their father remarked that “Birth of a Nation” was a good American Civil War movie. I had to suppress passionate denunciation, but I let out a little steam, calling the whole thing a pile of shit and racist.
“There’s a lot of racism in the State right?” he asked.
“A lot. But most racism is denied, and people avoid being racist by segregating themselves from what they call ‘minorities’, which is another bullshit term, but that’s a whole other conversation,” I said.
Despite the heavy conversational material, the night ended pleasantly and their father drove us back to the house, but not before the girlfriend gave me a Clockwork Orange T-shirt. “For your road,” she’d said.
On another day, a strange happenstance occurred. We were all sitting in the kitchen watching “Vivo Argentina”, the country’s Today Show, when they began interviewing a couple who had hitchhiked around the world. I didn’t recognize them, but then the announcer said they were going live to another Argentinian couple who were on the road in Colombia. It was Juan Villarino, with whom I’ve been in contact for ages and who I’ve missed seeing on the road several times. Oh well, small world, and so it goes.
Oh, and the days in the house were mostly quick. Being in Quilmes, I only went to Buenos Aires a few more times. Most of my day was spent with the small kittens in the house—one of which I secretly named Clint—or by repairing clothes and my backpack. I had to repair it all, because the next road was going to be a long one, a hot one too.
I’m writing from the house now, but tomorrow it’s the road once more, to somewhere.