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“Why Argentina?” people would ask invariably ask me. I had booked a flight for a six week trip to the country, which I planned to do instead of have a job, so it tended to come up in small talk. Since I didn’t really have an answer, I got annoyed. Why do people keep asking me that? “Oh, well, it’s summer there now you know,” I’d say. Maybe that’s will satisfy them. “Well what are you going to do there?” they’d press on. With that question, I was stumped.

I confess I knew little about Argentina when I booked the flight. Some kids in the U.S. may learn about this part of the world in their high school Spanish classes, when they look at a heavily-shaded world map of Spanish-speaking countries and do role plays where Pablo and Silvia get ice cream in Buenos Aires. We didn’t do that in German class.

For the rest of us, and I’d guess most people in the U.S., the whole continent of South America is sort of a mystery. We keep pretty close tabs on Europe. Asia gave us food we eat all the time and we heard on TV that they’re important to the economy. Africa is filled with the sick and poor and is visited by famous people. But what goes on in South America anyway? A brainstorming list would probably start with Carnaval, cocaine, Machu Picchu, that oil dictator, and then sort of fizzle from there. Argentina, let’s see, Evita, right? The character played by Madonna?

My understanding was not much better. I knew that, being in the southern hemisphere, it somehow has summer in January. (Do they still call it January, I wondered? Maybe since they make the seasons backwards, they switch the months around too?) I knew that it is home to some big mountains. I knew its currency suffered some sort of devaluation crisis. I knew that its residents eat great quantities of beef. I knew that at the grocery store, its wines were sometimes included next to Chile’s. With this I was able to patch together an answer to those persistent “Why Argentina?” questions. “Well, it’s summer there, you know. And I hear the steak and wine are amazing. I’ll probably go see the mountains. Everything’s cheap there too.”

Once you have bought a flight to a foreign country and find yourself stumbling when well-meaning people ask why you’re going, you must buy a Lonely Planet. These delightful guides cover every place in the world you can imagine traveling to, and most of the ones you can’t. I never considered coming to Argentina without one. Started by a couple who traveled from Europe to Australia overland in the ‘70s, it today aims to help its users to travel independently, cheaply, and everywhere.

One way Lonely Planet seems to accomplish this is with its uniformity, which makes every place look as accessible as the last. Every guide has a blue cover with a generic, color-saturated photo. They all employ the same formatting and the same section headings. Every city and town in the world is depicted with the same gray background, white streets, and house-shaped hotel icons. Just went to Italy with Lonely Planet and you’re ready for a new place? Pick up the India guide and off you go. You don’t even need to learn a new map legend!

But the world, as we all know, is rather more complex. Even Lonely Planet’s enthusiastic and consistently formatted embrace of the whole wide world can’t hide the differences. It takes a little detective work, but you can use your guide to find out just what places are like before you go, if you simply learn to be skeptical of its optimism and read between the lines of euphemism. Take the following examples.

  • The Prague guide really stretches to point the visitor to cuisine beyond cabbage and dumplings. So we know we won’t be going for the food.
  • The India guide repeatedly implies that learning to like particular towns will take a great deal of patience. So there must be some unnamed unpleasant perceptions commanding our initial attention. The reader also suspects, correctly, that “engages all of the senses” means “smelly.”
  • The Thailand guide reads like an anthropologist’s field guide to being accepted by a strange people. “Cover your shoulders. Never point your feet out when you are seated. If you must argue, smile.” So we can assume cultural misunderstandings will be part of the trip.
  • Western Europe guides sound like secrets to cheating the system. “Sure you’ve heard all about travelling to Europe, but we’ll tell you how to do it really cheaply and without becoming an un-cool tourist.” So we figure we’ll probably have an easy time spending a lot of money being an un-cool tourist in Western Europe.
  • The Cost Rica guide is filled with descriptions of beaches that “used to be really cool, back in the day, but now it’s filled with fat sunburned gringos and shopping malls. You shoulda been there man, it was sweet.” So we are a little hesitant about going to those places in the present time.
  • The Myanmar (Burma) guide, in a stunning and totally unironic display of Lonely Planet’s persistence to go everywhere, has as its tagline, on the cover: “Should you go? See inside for details.” So, we can assume that Myanmar is a bit off the beaten path, and we suspect that might be for a good reason.

Like it or not, travel guides are the lenses through which many people view the places they visit. I know I could have done some more substantial cultural research, but when I bought my Argentina Lonely Planet and read up on bus schedules and exchanging money, I was also trying to find out just what this place is like. Who are its people? How will they treat me? What do the streets look like? Is it poor? boring? difficult? From my expert guide, I learned a few things.

  1. In Argentina, they have summer in the wintertime, and vise versa.
  2. Argentina is a lot like Europe – same people, same food but with more beef, pretty okay wine, old buildings.
  3. In Argentina this thing happened a little while ago where they basically lost a lot of money, but that’s good news for you because it means everything is dirt cheap!
  4. That’s about it.

Thus, the previously blank Argentina-shaped spot in my brain was filled in with “cheap version of Europe, warm in January.” Hmm. Is that really how they want to be seen by the world? I ran through some of my other poorly-informed perceptions about foreign countries. Egypt has pyramids. Brazil has plastic surgery. Sweden has safe cars. Japan has polite people eating fish. Nope, no other countries were being advertised as clearance rack versions of something else.

And it’s not just Lonely Planet. Several people I spoke to who had been gave many other reasons for visiting, but “cheap Europe” was their only common thread. And sure enough, it’s the reason I started giving when people asked. Maybe someone in the Argentine Tourism Board can get to work establishing their own brand instead of just underselling Europe’s. People don’t know much about it.

Then again, maybe that lack of a branded identity is why I came here. I’m here to find out. “Why Argentina?” “Because I don’t know.”

I have now been in Buenos Aires four days, and have given myself the responsibility of reporting back to you anything of interest I learn in this place. My observations on the day one were “oh, peaches actually are in season here,” “this place reminds me of Barcelona,” and “wow, that steak dinner was cheap!” I hope to be able to give you a more nuanced picture of this city and country than that. Apparently Argentina’s identity is something of a secret to people in the U.S. who don’t speak Spanish. Stay tuned.

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