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Monthly Archives: February 2009

I have to be honest. For me or any other traveler to say that we’re really seeing a place from these hotels and bus stations is like a sailor saying he’s seen the world when he never gets more than two blocks from the dock. Sure we’ve been there, physically. We can see how the streets are different. We talk to some locals. But many of these places we go are like port cities—built for people to come, do their business, and move on. They are still interesting to visitors, but to claim that they are representative of a people’s way of life or achieve that elusive “authenticity” is a stretch.

In its extreme, this is like when I tell people I am from Atlanta and they say “Oh I’ve been there. Well, to the airport anyway.” More often, it’s the simple fact that that no one ever visits your local grocery store or your hometown elementary school. They probably don’t even get to your neighborhood. Still, I am no stickler for “authenticity.” The Venetian casino on the Las Vegas strip is not fake Venice, it’s real Las Vegas. Likewise, the cities on the well-worn Argentine travelers’ path I’ve visited since leaving Buenos Aires are worthwhile in their own ways, as modern sailors’ ports of call. Following are some of these in-authentic Argentine cities and towns I have visited in Patagonia, each listed with its primary occupation and a quick description.

Bariloche, Resort Town
The city is located in the middle of Argentina’s first national park, land donated by the explorer Perito Moreno. With some of the country’s best skiing in the winter and countless more outdoor activities in the summer, it’s filled with visiting Argentines and foreigners year-round. Many buildings are stone or timber not because it’s traditional Argentine architecture, but because that’s just what snowy mountain towns are expected to look like.

Perito Moreno, Wayside
The small town has a special connection to the explorer after whom it is named. In the late 19th century, Chile claimed all the land whose waters flow west to the Pacific. In response, Perito Moreno rerouted the river here to flow into the Rio Descado and on to the Atlantic. Today, this spot of sovereign Argentine territory is little more than an overnight stop for travelers on Ruta 40, an oasis in the steppe. Every night its two restaurants are filled with travelers who will be gone in the morning.

El Chaltén, Base Camp
The town is not yet 24 years old. Argentina settled it to claim the land before Chile did. Today it’s even smaller than Perito Moreno, but much more lively. Other than maintaining the integrity of Argentina’s borders, the town’s only reason for existence is to house the throngs of climbers, mountaineers, and trekkers before or after they head into one of the world’s most spectacular and popular outdoor playgrounds, the Fitz Roy range. Trails start from the center of El Chaltén.

El Calafate, Natural Wonder Gateway
The Perito Moreno Glacier (they just love that guy) is a short drive outside of town. The enormous river of ice is one of the country’s top natural wonders. El Calafate, while it has some activity of its own, basically exists to serve glacier visitors.

Ushuaia
, Geographical Oddity
As the southernmost city in the world (unless you count the village of Puerto Williams across the channel in Chile, which the Argentines do not), Ushuaia has built a healthy amount of “end of the world” tourism. It’s still closer to the equator than Alaska, Moscow, and almost all of Scotland and Denmark, but in the southern hemisphere it’s just about as far as you can go without a boat. Recreational activities like riding the southernmost train in the world, visiting the southernmost shopping in the world, or drinking the southernmost microbrew in the world occupy visitors’ time. The other Ushuaia attraction is its ships to Antarctica, which are carrying more and more tourists every year. People who pay many thousands of dollars for three weeks in a triple berth cabin on research vessels to the frigid continent get their last taste of civilization and relative warmth in Ushuaia.

(By the way, it could be debated whether the Antarctic cruises even leave the country. Maps that don’t exist outside of Argentina show the country’s borders extending south to a slice of Antarctica that extends all the way to the South Pole. These maps also label some south Atlantic islands “Islas Malvinas (Arg.),” even though everyone else in the world, including their inhabitants, knows them as the “Falkland Islands (U.K.).” You may be noticing a pattern of territorialism here. I can just imagine a young Argentina taking some advice from Spain. “Someday, you may be the eighth largest country in the world. But you’ll never get there by being shy about planting that flag.”)

Any good port city needs its sailors’ bars, and these cities have them too. They are the hostels and restaurants listed in Lonely Planet that backpackers gravitate to. Just like sailors, the backpackers sit around talking about other places they’ve been or telling tales about surviving the weather. Meeting these characters from all over the world is much of what’s interesting about traveling these routes. Many of the travelers I’ve met have a casual attitude that the world is theirs. They lead into conversations with “When I was in South Africa…” or “That reminds me of this place in Nepal where…” Surviving a typhoon or being held by border guards are badges of honor the backpackers use to size up each others’ credentials. Most of the time though, the talk is functional, an information sharing to help everyone continue on their way. What did that hostel in San Telmo cost you? Can you still get the morning bus to Rio Gallegos? How is the trail to Lago Torre?

It’s “I hear a storm is blowing across that route from the northeast” and “there’s a man a mile from here who can fix that rudder” at a bar across the street from the docks, not discussions of the place’s cultural nuances. But ports of call have their own sort of authenticity.

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Leaving the city to suddenly find great expanses of open land is like coming out of a dark theater on a sunny afternoon. “This was here all along?” you think. You didn’t even know you were claustrophobic before, but now you don’t know how you fit inside that place. The shift is even more dramatic when leaving the city in the evening on an overnight bus and awakening in the morning to emptiness extending to the horizon, as I did leaving Buenos Aires for the city of Bariloche.

Argentina has the same population as California with a land area six and a half times its size. A full third of this population lives in greater Buenos Aires, leaving a lot of open space everywhere else. My destination, Patagonia, is especially empty. Here there are no farm towns because there no farms. The semi-arid climate supports enough vegetation to feed some sheep and a bit of cattle. A few population centers have developed to serve the wool trade and some energy production, but the population is sparse.

Patagonia favors the tough. From mankind’s origins in Africa, he migrated in every direction. Some people went north to Siberia, then some of those crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska, then some of those kept going south into the Americas. Patagonia was the farthest they could go, the home to the most restless. When Magellan and other Europeans searched for the ends of the new world, the steppe of Patagonia was what they found. After Argentina quite effectively eliminated any trace of indigenous people in the late nineteenth century, the land was opened for shepherds of hardy European stock. When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled the US, it was to a log cabin in Patagonia. Today it hosts serious trekkers and world-class climbers pushing their limits. The people are tough enough to endure its remoteness, the jagged mountains are tough enough to bear its glaciers, and the scrubby vegetation is tough enough to survive its climate.

Today, of course, anyone with a plane ticket or a tolerance for bus travel can enjoy this land. After a stay in the northern Patagonian lakes district, I began a two day bus trip south on Ruta Nacional 40, followed by another day or two of travel before I reached the continent’s end at Tierra del Fuego. Extending over 3000 miles from the Bolivian border to the southern border with Chile, Ruta 40 has some sort of a mythical status in the Argentinian psyche. Even so, its southern portion has no regularly scheduled bus service, probably either because there’s no place to go or because it’s only partially paved. Fortunately, a travel service now runs an occasional two-day backpacker shuttle between two Patagonian cities popular with travelers. Besides needing to get someplace, I booked my ticket because I happen to enjoy overland travel, and don’t mind watching a lot of nothing.

Looking out the window of the bus, the landscape changes are slow but oddly mesmerizing. The northern lakes district looks almost surreal to my North American eyes. Its calm blue lakes seem to tame the mountains rising sharply out of them, saying “this is a playground, come on over and have a romp around.” Puffy white clouds in a perfect blue sky and the twisted branches of small Seussian trees complete the effect. In the dry steppe, the scrub is dots of greenish yellow and dots of purplish gray. Together they are an enormous Monet canvas draped over low rises in every direction. The milky green lakes in parts of southern Patagonia, which look almost artificial in this dusty desert, are fed by Andean glaciers. One of these has the height of a 20-story building, an area larger than Buenos Aires, and can advance up to two meters per day. As the steppe rises to the west, it meets the southern spine of the Andes, which is descending from its highest peaks in the north to beneath the sea at the continent’s end. Here wind and glaciers have shaped the mountains into sharp, rocky towers.

Any illusion of stillness in this picture is quickly broken upon stepping outside. The wind is strong and relentless. There are no gusts, just a steady, stiff breeze, almost enough to lean against. It’s no wonder hardly anything grows taller than knee-high. Riding the bus feels like sailing as the wind pushes it sideways and it shifts lightly across the gravel road. For all its great distances, Patagonia is a just a small peninsula reaching into the great southern oceans.

When I return to urban Argentina, it will not be on that long dusty road, but by plane. One Patagonian pilot, after years of flying with the Argentine postal service, incorporated its memorable landscapes in a story called The Little Prince. I haven’t found any elephant-eating boa constrictor here on the ground, but I will be sure to keep an eye out the window of the plane.

The woman who approached me on the street was quite ugly. I should mention that porteños (“people from the port,” as those from Buenos Aires call themselves) are, on the whole, a fairly attractive people. But when I say that this woman was ugly, I mean she was ugly by even the lowest standards. She old and haggard, wore a faded black Mickey Mouse t-shirt, and had a hair growing a good three inches out of her chin. Homelessness may not help anyone’s physical appearance, but I don’t want her to use that as an excuse. The woman began speaking to me in Spanish.

“[something in Spanish],” she said, with hand outstretched.
“No,” I said, also in Spanish.
“[several more Spanish sentences],” she went on, gesturing towards Mickey Mouse.
“I don’t understand.”
“…understand…,” she said. I was able to pick out the single word, but still nothing else.
“I don’t understand!” I tend to be more convincing when I say this.
“Ah…don’t understand my language…!”
“Yes! I don’t understand my language!”
“…Jesus…you know…?”
“Yes, yes, United States. I don’t understand.”  I tried not to stare at the hair and wondered if she would ever go away.
“…Jesus Christ?”
“Oh! Jesus Christ! Yes. I know. Jesus Christ I understand.”
She then smiled for the first time and delivered her wisdom in simple enough terms for me to hear. “…don’t understand my language…understand Jesus Christ…more important,” she said. She walked away laughing.

Whatever truth that woman intended to bring me, the one comprehensible point she made was decidedly misleading. In life in general, she may have a valid argument, but in Buenos Aires, it’s more important to know Spanish. Mine has come a long way since I took a beginner Spanish class for two weeks at one of several private language schools in the city. I am told that Argentine Spanish is quite different than that of Spain or even the rest of Latin America. Besides some different vocabulary, including a pretty major pronoun change in the second person, the biggest difference is its Italian influence. Most Argentines claim Spanish or Italian ancestry, and I imagine them as speaking with heavy Italian accents. They sip espresso like Italians and spend summer afternoons eating ice cream that’s a lot like gelato and make pizza that they think is really good.

Thanks to my Spanish education, I now know that the name “Buenos Aires” mean “fair winds.” True to its name, most nights a great wind howled past my fifth-floor windows. It sounded like a storm coming in, but one never did. There go those buenos aires, I would think. I quickly changed my mind when I had a cold shower in the morning. The wind had blown out the water heater’s pilot light, which for some reason is six inches from a vent to the windy outside. I lit it again, and it was out again within the hour. “Males Aires Que Apagar Mis Luz Piloto del Calentador de Agua¨ is probalby too long for a city name, but I submit that it is more accurate.

That’s not the only issue I’ve had in my apartment, and resolving any of them is a bit difficult with a landlord who doesn’t speak English. The day after I reported this issue, the woman who takes care of the building stopped me as I was going out the door, talking my ear off. “Oh, I don’t speak Spanish,” I reminded her. But she persisted, surely repeating herself several times, until I heard the number 38, my apartment. “Yes, 38!” I said. As she kept going, I reminded her again that I don’t speak Spanish, and tried to excuse myself out the door. She kept talking, and we began playing a game where when she said a word I recognized, I would repeat it. “…telephone…” “Yes, telephone!” “…hot water…” “Oh, hot water!”

She was trying to help with the pilot light. It is a little discomforting to to talk to a complete stranger who doesn’t understand your language only to realize that she somehow knows where you live and what appliance difficulties you’re having. As I somehow communicated that it was okay at the moment, she said something to the effect of “See, we can work this out. I can understand your language and you can understand my language.”

That encounter was on just my second day of class. By now, I can actually communicate and understand a bit in the language. It´s not a lot, but it´s enough for me to pretend.  I´ve had the following encounter just about every day. (I´m of course not able to pick up on any subtleties of vocabulary, let alone tone or accent, but for our purposes, the conversation is translated into what I imagine it sounds like to a native Spanish speaker.

“Want grill sirloin.”
“Bueno, you wanna the grill-da seer-loina. And a howareya gonna wan-ta that cooked?”
(Pause.) “Yes, grill sirloin. Want.”
“Okaya, the seer-loina…”
”Yes! Sirloin!”
“And a how-a do you wanta that cooked, a rare-a, a media, a wella done-o?”
I pause to think this over. “I speak little Spanish.”
“You don’ta saya! Woulda you likea- the side of a salad or a fries or a vegetables?”
“I touch red wine half.”

In other circumstances, it might entertain someone, but here I don´t think they find it amusing. The people of Buenos Aires are definietly city people. (Lonely Planet makes no convincing mention of the locals’ hospitality.) They’re not mean exactly, but maybe a little cold. They don’t say hello, they don’t smile. Eyes straight ahead and face without expression, they walk purposefully as if each is the only person in the world.

One excuse given for their forlorn looks is their long history of corrupt politicians and failed economic policies that have erased the country´s many advantages and given the Argentines little reason to have any confidence in a bright future. I’m also told that Argentina has the second highest number of psychiatrists per capita, a number drived largely by throngs of unapologetically narcissistic women who want to go talk about themselves. The rest of Latin America thinks of them arrogant wannabe Europeans, and the porteños don´t seem to dispute it.

Cold they may be, but they´re certainly not anti-social. The bars and restaurants fill with people going out with family or friends. The cafe lifestyle is a public one, but I have not seen a lot of intentional interaction between strangers. Buenos Aires has well-attended outdoor festivals all summer long, but they seem to be rather subdued affairs. (This does not apply to soccer games, where I heard it’s not uncommon for ten fans to be killed in fights or stampedes every week of the season.) Although the people are social here, they´re not boisterous, not particularly expressive at all. As I develop my ear for the language though, their picture is beginning to come into focus.

As I was moving out of the apartment I was renting, my landlord was trying to help me get to the bus station. She took out a piece of paper and started to wrote down exactly what I needed to say to ask to leave my bags for a few hours, along with her son´s phone number in case I got into trouble. Before she could, I said, in Spanish, “Yes yes I know, ‘It´s possible to leave the bag here the four hours, bus go four o´clock.'” “Oh, you´ve a learneda the Spaneesh!” she said with perhaps a hint of excitement. Well, maybe a little.

I’m strolling through a park in Buenos Aires on Saturday afternoon when I come across an unusual sight. There are three teenagers wearing black, with piercings on their faces looks of rebellious angst in their eyes. Punks. Funny seeing them here, I think. But as I meander on, this minor diversion becomes a curiosity on a much grander scale. Suddenly, there are punks everywhere, scores of them loitering in every corner of the park. Fortunately I have encountered this exact scenario before, in Seattle, except that instead of punks, it was pugs. As the novelty of two pugs walking in the park gave way to utter amazement at the spectacle of nearly identical little dogs stretching as far as the eye can see, I realized there must be something going on.

The difference (aside from the subjects’ size and general demeanor) is while in the Seattle park I was able to deduce that I had stumbled upon a pug festival, featuring pug tricks, pug product samples, and a pug kissing contest, here I have no clue what is going on. I can’t eavesdrop on their Spanish conversations, I can’t read their Spanish t-shirts, I can’t ask one of them in Spanish “Why so dark? Can’t you see what a beautiful day it is?” And so the mystery of the punks in the park remains unsolved, simply because I lack the skills for basic communication in this country.

As much as I love understanding everything that’s going on around me when I’m at home, part of the reason I travel is that I like to be lost as well. It can be relaxing to have no clue what the people are saying on the subway. The assault of information from signs and billboards is dulled. Not knowing where everyone is going, or what their politics are, or if that shirt is considered trendy, I’m free to sit back and observe, like a fly on the wall, in a way that I couldn’t someplace more familiar. Being disoriented also means having many pleasant surprises. Stumbling on the Buenos Aires Punk Club’s monthly meeting was a delight simply because I had no clue.

The thing is, Buenos Aires is not a really strange place. Being lost in the foreign culture of, say, China is one thing, but here there’s not much to shock me. At least, not on the surface. Having only a week of Spanish under my belt, surface-level observations are all I’ve got, and while the cultural differences of many places are readily apparent with just that, here I’m looking for more subtlety.

After a few days of these surface-level observations, I have collected enough data to apply a tool I use to measure the foreignness of a place called the Total Foreignness Index. The TFI is a compilation of five criteria, each of which measures one aspect of foreignness on a 0 – 4 scale calibrated on one end with comfy, familiar city, and on the other with an extreme foreign city. They are then totaled to produce the TFI on a 0-20 scale. Here are my results.

TOTAL FOREIGNNESS INDEX
for Buenos Aires

Vancouver/Varanasi Dirtiness Scale: 1.0
St. Louis/Seoul Food Weirdness Scale: 0.5
Dayton/Delhi Chaos Scale: 1.0
London/Lagos Poverty Scale: 1.5
Tulsa/Tunis Scam Artist Scale: 0.0

TFI: 4.0

While the foreignness or normalness of a place is by no means the most important reason to visit, it is a factor we all consider. Another is cost. Now, you may think that with a TFI of only 4, Buenos Aires would be a pricey place to visit. To travel cheap, you think, you have to go to weird places like Bangkok (TFI: 12.5) or Delhi (TFI: 20). Well think again, Buenos Aires is a bargain! Normally for prices this low, you’d have to go to a place with a TFI as high as 10! But here in Buenos Aires, mistakes at the highest levels of monetary policy mean you get a steal! In fact, on the Tokyo – Timbuktu Cheapness Scale, where we’d expect to see…

Oh never mind. “As familiar as Europe, but for half the cost,” I’m speaking in tourist generalizations. My Spanish is not yet nuanced enough to get past the clichés.

But I have learned a few things. One is that these folks are night owls. I remember in my seventh grade geography class being shocked to learn that fashionable Spaniards often don’t eat dinner until 10:00. Unbelievable, that’s when I’m brushing my teeth! Well, Argentines are proud to not even think about dining out until more like 11:00, and on weekends it’s not cool to eat dinner until after midnight. If coolness is indeed measured by how long you can put off dinner, then these people have got to be at the top of the list. (Although there is room for improvement. “Where I’m from, the restaurants don’t even open until 1:00 AM, but hardly anyone eats before 4:00.” “Oh yeah? In my country, we eat dinner at 5:00 PM, but that’s for the previous day.”) What this means for me is that I either get very hungry and grouchy for hours until I finally sit down and devour a steak that looks like it was meant for a family to share, or I eat at 6:00 in a café and pretend like it’s just my snack.

I’m halfway through two weeks of Spanish classes, which should help me get to know these people a little better. Perhaps more so than anywhere else I’ve been, the Argentines have little interest in speaking English with me. Not that I can blame them. With the notable exception of Brazil, they’d have to go north well into Texas before they found a sizable group of people who didn’t speak their language. “He’s from the United States and doesn’t know Spanish?” exclaimed my landlady in honest disbelief to her husband. She made a face when I told her I learned German. In any case, I think it’s great that I’m forced to learn some little bit of the language, and my classes are going well.

The only problem is the rolled “r”, which I maintain is not a natural sound. I’ve been made fun of for my inability to properly roll an r, which is apparently important because it can change the meaning of a word.
“Like this,” a friend would say, “dog.”
I would repeat, “but.”
“No no, not but, it’s dog.”
But.”
Dooooog.”
Buuuuut.”

I figured I would never learn Spanish with my handicap. If fact, we can probably attribute my longtime disinterest in Latin America to my poor alveolar trill. You can imagine my surprise then, when the other day, walking down the street and talking to myself, I felt my tongue move in ways it never had before. Was it…? I tried again. I think that’s it, wait, yes! The Latin American air had wrapped itself around my tongue and moved it faster than I could even control! By some power beyond my understanding, I was rolling an r. I might be able to learn Spanish after all. And then, I can go ask those punks just what was going on.