Monday, December 28, 2009

hobo holidays

I have been couchsurfing here in Montevideo with Sexy for the past few nights. It has been a good time. A chatty Israeli made me eggs on Xmas Eve, and then I left to explore. The city was like a ghost town. I ended up attending Mass. When Mass ended, a woman enlisted me to walk her home because she did not feel safe because the streets were so deserted and dark. I went to retrieve Sexy at the hostel and we went out with some other travelers and partied until 8 in the morning with a group of Italian boys. Who knew people went out to discos on Xmas Eve? I think it was the first Xmas I was ever hungover. Later in the day we took a bus from our hostel to the house of our couchsurfing host. We wanted to make dinner for him and his other two surfers, so we went out to look for food. Everything was closed, so we ended up buying canned food at a gas station with an impressive alcohol selection. Our Xmas dinner consisted of a strange canned corn and chickpea tortilla, pasta with canned mushrooms, and champagne, beer, and white wine, all purchased at the gas station.

Yesterday the streets were still deserted, so Sexy and I wandered around taking photos and plotting our escape. We were walking through the Ciudad Viejo--the old city--when we heard some music coming from a back alley and saw some kids that we had seen dancing in a plaza earlier. We went to investigate and as soon as they saw us coming down the alley, they surrounded us and began chattering excitedly. At first we were a little frightened, and I couldnt understand what they were saying, but then said in unison: WELCOME!

Everyone in Montevideo is so friendly, and everyone always asks us the same thing: Why did you come to Uruguay? It is pretty charming. These kids were great. They ranged from about ten to eighteen years old, and they were dancing to a music they called techtonika. They welcomed us and offered to teach us some dance moves, and we chilled with them for a while. When we left, they even posed for a big group photo, which was to-die-for adorable.

Tomorrow we will take a bus to the beach and stay through New Years. We hear there will be a full moon on New Years Eve, which will be incredible! I still havent made my New Years resolutions, which I am very serious about. But I have some bus time to work this all out. I think it will have something to do with balancing work and play, trying to live a life of fewer extremes. But I dont know.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

home in the rain

I left my new house this afternoon to go shoot the pato semifinals at the Campo de Polo in Palermo, but it started sprinkling the second I stepped outside. It was also deadly hot and humid, so I thought about it and reluctantly turned home. Twenty minutes later, it was POURING. You could probably paddle across the cobblestone street right now.

Because it's raining, let's talk about a few of my favorite things (thus far in BsAs):

The city buses here are a crazy jumble of different colors, designs, and breakneck drivers. Some of the buses feel like mobile discotheques, decked out in glitter and stars. They're a great way to see the city, and cooler than the subway.

Heladerias, Librerias, Empanderias
These are my favorite 'ias.' The ice cream here is great, there are so many bookstores, and cheap empanadas.

Movie Clubs
I've been to see two movies so far, one for free, the other super cheap. Both were shown in tiny theaters (less than 20 people), and were just DVDs projected onto a screen. They were fantastic.

Everywhere, they sell jasmine flowers for 10 pesos a bunch. The other day I was on a bus and the bus driver had a few flowers sitting in a jar next to him.

Cute boys, all sorts
The men here are attractive without looking like they care or notice. There are men of European and Latin descent, bankers, artists, hippies. It is a little overwhelming. I have been unable to talk to the men here. Then yesterday a cute British boy said hello to me and I was too unused to talking to respond. I have only met one American boy so far, and he turned out to be a good friend of Joe's, which I found out later. I don't want to have anything to do with any kind of boys at the moment. (Except, of course, for the man I'm going to marry, who is providing me with a nice email affair for the moment. )

My new home
It's nice to have a real home to hide inside when it is raining. I think it would drive me a little crazy if I were stuck in the hostel downtown right now. But I'm not! I have moved, and I now have keys to a beautiful split-level home on the edge between Villa Crespo and Paternal, about a 40-minute bus ride from where I was before. I'm sharing the home with a charming gay couple, both of whom are extremely attractive, so it is the best of both worlds for me. I get to look at cute boys but not deal with any drama. I also have a beautiful terrace where I can hang my underwear to dry. Turns out I kind of love doing my laundry by hand.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


This week I had a terrible headache for about 168 hours. And I do mean 168 hours, and not 7 days. I would wake up in the middle of the night with my head aching, and in the morning my first thought would be, "God, my head still fucking hurts." It was awful.

The mosquitoes here are something fierce. My first day here, I was attacked by so many mosquitos in the nature reserve that I had to come home to wash up because my hands were covered in blood from swatting them. Naturally, I came to the conclusion that I had dengue, and just rested a lot and drank lots of water. But I didn't have a fever.

I thought it could be the red wine, so I stopped drinking red wine. I stopped drinking white wine. Then I stopped drinking beer. Still, headache.

Then a fellow student asked if I was eating anything different. Like any frugal traveler, I've been making some meals in my hostel, namely powdered soup. She suggested to check the soup ingredients; maybe it was MSG. I checked, and yep, they all had MSG. So I stopped eating the soups, but the headache still persisted.

My teacher said, "Maybe it's the cigarettes." I thought about this. The first day or two, I was still smoking my Winstons from home. Then I bought a pack of Camels (which give me a slight headache, even back in the States), and then switched to Parliaments. It seemed like the only thing left. I thought, "Good lord, what if I have to quit smoking?" I resolved to quit smoking and lasted six hours before I thought I'd switch brands again and see if it helped. So I found a store that sells Winstons and continued on my merry smoking way. I also drank a bottle of red wine.

After 168 hours, my headache disappeared.

Then, during class today, I suddenly had a random nosebleed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

10 days in

I have begun to feel strangely comfortable here in Buenos Aires, even though I can't speak the language and I have no friends. The Internet helps a lot, I must admit. Also, things have started to move along in their own little way, and I am glad for all the distraction.

My biggest piece of news is that I sold a second story to a magazine, and it is a FOOD story, so maybe this will be the first step to writing about things that I love. It is a short piece, but it will be published in a nice, glossy magazine and they are paying me enough to almost pay a full month's rent here. Maybe that is the ticket to my existence as a writer, to get paid in US$ and live abroad.

That leads me to my second piece of news, which is that I have found a place to move into on Wednesday! I looked at three apartments in different neighborhoods. My instinct was to move into the first one I saw, which was in the trendy San Telmo neighborhood. I would have shared the house with four or five other students, and a young couple and their daughter. The place was appropriately untidy for my taste, and full of young travelers. But I think I am getting old, because I'm taking a place much further from the action, in Villa Crespo. It lacks the obvious charm of San Telmo, like the cobblestone streets and myriad cafes and galleries, but it feels more peaceful to me. And instead of living with a bunch of rag-taggers like myself, I will be sharing the house with a couple, two young men who are both artists in their own right. If I had known they were a couple right off the bat, I probably wouldn't have gone to see the place because I don't really like the idea of living with a couple. But everything just seemed so fucking perfect. They were so charming and hospitable, and their place is cute, cozy, and out of the way. I'm surprised that I am so excited to get out of the buzzing downtown area where I'm staying. But, like I said, I must be getting old. I also thought I'd be dying to meet other Americans and travelers, but it turns out I don't really care at the moment. I think more than anything, I am dying for a good night's sleep, and it turns out downtown Buenos Aires is not the place for that. After the drunk people and trash collectors have disappeared from the street, the street cleaning truck crawls down my block every night around 3 a.m. to wash away the grime with a high-pressure sprayer, and it is maddening.

There is only one other person in my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) class, a woman who is my father's age. She is all the company I need. Today we finished the first week of the two-week-long course, and it is boring and annoying for the most part, but sometimes interesting to think about one's native language in such elementary ways. I found the practice teaching to be incredibly fun. The students (six adults) were all over the place, but they were engaged. Of course, the first ten minutes of my class consisted of the students interrogating me about my ethnic heritage. Why do you look Asian if you were born in the States? There aren't too many Asian people here in Buenos Aires, although all the supermarkets seem to be owned by Chinese people (who actually speak Chinese). They were intense, but overall, delightful. One of the students invited us to a party as his house tonight, but I have been so crushed by this weird headache that I had to say no. I hope that he will extend the invitation some other time.

I think the real turning point for me was the other night when, for whatever reason, I started to think about returning to the States in April and I was seized with this feeling of anxiety and dread. I don't really know why the thought of going back freaks me out, but I'm going to let that simmer in the back of my mind and probably let it terrorize me late at night when I am done wondering if this persistent headache is a symptom of dengue.

Friday, December 4, 2009

tempting towns

This morning I headed out to explore the barrio Retiro, another neighborhood abutting Microcentro, where I am staying. I passed by (another) protest in front of the University of Buenos Aires, gilded shopping centers, sidewalk cafes, and then went into the Retiro train station to have a look around. I love train stations.

With only a vague idea of which direction I was going, I followed a major road a short way to where it was no longer major. The road was suddenly unpaved, and the buildings now had numbers painted on by hand. There were dogs lying in the doorways, and the types of looks I was getting had changed from mostly indifference to curiosity. Instead of being another buzzing member of the glamorous hive of downtown, I was now walking slowly through a static town-within-a-town.

This part of town had a completely distinct personality. It was protected and segregated by highway overpasses, rusting train containers, abandoned tracks, and swaths of dusty roads. The residences ranged from cardboard lean-tos to brick cubes stacked two high, adorned with narrow, steel, spiral stairs. I wove my way through the lanes of houses. There were tons of people out, cooking, chatting, and of course staring at me. The past two days here, I've felt like I could be anywhere. But this morning I felt like I was somewhere new. I was incredibly happy.

I have been carrying my espresso-machine-sized camera haphazardly in a large canvas tote bag. Although my padded camera bag would be much better for it, I feel like it attracts a lot of attention. You know how in New York you can tell who the tourists are because they're wearing the backpacks on their stomachs and strangling their handbags while walking down Park Avenue? Well, here everyone does that. I've never really been the nervous type about my belongings--mostly since I'm more likely to damage them than anyone else--but here I've already been told to put my camera away twice. I am trying to be good about taking it out quickly to compose photos and then stashing it back. I desperately wanted to shoot photos while in this neighborhood, but instead I wandered blithely through. Although there was an appropriate amount of activity to make it feel safe, there was also an element of stillness that alerts a cautionary sense in me. It's like approaching a dog that is bounding around wagging its tail versus a dog that is just staring at you with its head sort of bent down.

It wasn't until that I emerged on the other end that I took my camera back out. Then I came across the entrance to a more decrepit-looking collection of homes. I couldn't tell how big it was because it was level, unlike the maze of two-story buildings I'd come through. I got even more excited because I am a hugely privileged dork fascinated by poor people and old-school urban development. Cogniscent of the cluster of police cars sitting in a clearing just there, I took out my camera and snapped a quick photo, then stood for a moment assessing the best way into this second village.

Promptly a policeman approached me and told me to leave, telling me it was very dangerous. I wondered whether he would prevent me from entering the encampment. If I were to walk through with my camera concealed, was it a sure thing that I'd be robbed? It was the middle of the day. I've been told I'm quite risk tolerant, and I briefly thought of just ignoring him and plunging in. On the other hand, I didn't want to be stupid. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and if I were to get my camera jacked on my third day here, well, I would definitely see exactly where that line was. I followed his directions to get back to the preapproved areas of town, the whole time plotting a return without any belongings except my keys.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

alone in argentina

I got into Buenos Aires yesterday morning. After the very friendly taxi driver tried to charge me more than twice as much for the fare, I was deposited onto the bustling Calle Lavalle, a pedestrian-only strip surrounded by restaurants and shops and portenos marching around at a NYC pace.

The four-story climb to my hostel is worth it. My room is set with three single beds, separated by two nightstands. The senora of the house instructed me to sleep in the middle one. I would have laughed if I hadn't been so confused, because she had also just told me that the room was all my own. But, like a good houseguest, summarily took a shower and passed out in said middle bed. I love my room. It has a perfect one-foot-deep balcony with French doors draped in transluscent yellow netting, bathing my room in a golden glow of sun and cigarette smoke.

It is something like heaven.

Because I will be here for so long, I don't feel compelled to charge around in tourist mode. I spent a few hours yesterday and today trawling around and perfecting my use of three words: hola, si, and lo siento. "Hola" of course is hello. Then I say "si" to show that I can understand, but not really respond in a much deeper manner. And then I say "lo siento" to everyone who asks me for money or any further information, because I neither have the language capacity nor the pesitos to be of much help at all.

Last night it was my intention to take a nap and then go out for dinner, but I was so exhausted and overwhelmed that I just ate a granola bar and went back to bed. And, although I'm no stranger to eating in restaurants alone, the thought of it made me lonely more than excited.

Cue surreal single-note piano music.

I thought it would take a few days, por menos, for me to feel lonely and confused, but it only took ten hours. The night before I left, I dreamed of the boy who I went out with on Monday. Last night, I dreamed about Joe. And during today's highly unsettling afternoon siesta, I dreamed of Ex. This is not the kind of loneliness I was anticipating. It is deeper and weirder and more unwanted than any loneliness I've had before. But it is not alarming, mostly because I have nobody to talk to about it. And it only surfaces in my sleep. I guess that is reason enough to stay conscious.

The big-city aspect has a lot to do with it. My last two solo travels, I went to small places, where people would stop and talk to you and welcome you. When you come to a buzzing metropolis, the world does not slow down to fold you in. Big cities are all alike in that way. Part of me wants to leave and go to a smaller town, but I know I will stay here at least until Christmas. I am definitely the kind of person who pushes herself through things, the more distasteful the better, just to prove that I can do it. I also believe that the harder something is, the bigger the reward: no pain, no gain. But this trip isn't really about proving anything to anyone, and besides, I just pushed myself through a crappy two-year program and I really don't think I'm any better for it. This trip is supposed to be just about doing whatever the hell I want to do. The problem is, a really large part of me just wants to go out and drink tons of booze.

Why is that always what I want to do?

But no, mother, that's not what I'm going to do. I'm going to be patient, try to enjoy myself, and finish up this novel that is apparently too long according to first-novel publishing guidelines. All this not-being-able-to-communicate is going to be good for my novel. I can tell.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

last minute freakout

I got pulled over (again) today. Welcome back to Illinois! It did not stay my day off right.

This is going to be a somewhat frenetic post. I've ingested a lot of coffee and cigarettes.

Packing tonight was a tricky maneuver. I want to bring nothing and everything. I am obsessed with my summer dresses but cannot bring them all. And, more like, I will end up going out how I went out in New York, in disgusting cutoffs and dirty tee-shirts. I almost don't want to bring them to force myself to look better. But somehow I crammed a bunch of clothes into a bag and am now contemplating this obnoxious thing of beauty, my tripod. It is a separate piece of luggage. I can't not take it and yet I can't imagine taking it. The tripod has become a metaphor for all of my problems with this endeavor at all.

Got home last night after twelve intense days in California. Top 10 Highlights: 1) Eating a burrito with the dog in Dolores Park an hour after landing at SFO, 2) crashing a City Hall function with booze and schwag and hors d'oeuvres, 3) seeing that Ex is still adorable, 4) a 24-hour date with my peripatetic life partner that included a) biscuits, gravy, waffles, and crab for breakfast, b)watching the Heimlich Maneuver performed at dinner one night, and c) Point Break Live, 7) tailgating with Raiders fans and getting drunk by noon, 8) a sleepover party with Joe, 9) spending soft time with my friends at my old apartment, and 10) the idea of family time.

Bottom 5 buzzkillers: 1) breaking my very-needed cell phone my first morning in SF, 2) a return to the serious boozing and ensuing sicking, and 3) witnessing the fallout of a long-standing friendship gone bad, 4) helping a bloodied, beaten up man to his feet just down the block from my apartment, about an hour after I passed him drinking what smelled like cologne with his buddies, and 5) pissing all over myself in a port-a-potty.

I slept a blessed eight hours last night and then set about freaking out today, starting with getting pulled over. Tomorrow I get on an airplane and fly for fourteen hours. I think what I like best about airplane rides is that the act of booking a ticket and then actually going somewhere works well with my mentality of shoot first, ask questions later. I hate obsessive anxiety, which is going to party out tonight with the three shots of espresso I had earlier this evening. I know it wasn't the wisest move, but I had a lot to do, and I was on a date with a sweet boy who I will probably marry. I will tell you all about it some time. The date had two purposes: the minor one was to take away four hours of pre-trip anxiety. But the real reason I had to go out on a date today is because one thing about me that you probably don't know is that right before I make a big move or decision, I have to fall in love, have sex, (and not necessarily with the same person), then leave. This way, when I leave I can direct all of my obsessive, cyclical thoughts to dramatic romantic fantasies rather than putting myself through the wringer of decision-making anxiety. I recommend it highly. Why second-guess yourself when you can just escape to a fantasy world where everyone is in love--it's just the timing that is off?

Timing: It is everything that matters, completely out of our control, and, in the end, completely inconsequential. It's the perfect abstract concept to take the blame for everything.

See you in South America.