One day, my husband Ben decided to go to law school. Then he decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer so he got a job instead.* The point of this saga being: Ben had a two and a half week period between end-of-law-school and start-of-new-job and I had as many vacation days, so in July 2011, we found ourselves in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It was the first time we’d traveled internationally since THE BIG TRIP (excepting a honeymoon at a Mexican resort, which doesn’t really count) and within two hours of landing in Buenos Aires we realized two things:
- We are rusty, and
- OH YEAH this is what I lived and felt for 8 months and oh my god I’ve missed it.
You see, being a “good” traveler takes practice. You need to develop a rhythm, a comfort with your surroundings, a general knowledge of how to do the essentials: get lodging, food, money. Ben and I had a rhythm on our Big Trip. It wasn’t ever spoken, but we got comfortable landing in a foreign place and knowing pretty well how to get sh*t done.
But we lost that rhythm. So when we took the overnight flight to BA from Miami, negotiated a taxi into the city from the airport and found ourselves standing in a nice but modest hostel in the Palermo neighborhood, we stood there blinking at each other. What now?
First order of business: money. Can’t buy food without money and we’re hungry. Where’s the bank? Ask the hostel proprietor. Between his broken English/our broken Spanish get a pretty good idea of bank location. Start walking. Get lost. Turn around. So hungry. Is that a bank? I don’t know. Definitely not a bank. Keep walking. Is that a bank? Yes! How do we get money? Our card won’t work in this ATM. We have to talk to people? Why is that security guard staring at me? OK, I think he’s laughing at us. Do we wait in line here? What’s the exchange rate? Do you know how to ask for that in Spanish?
…Surprisingly, we did eventually get money AND specifically requested small bills, as we’d read that in Argentina no one will cash large ones. Ben was proud of that maneuver.
We stopped in a small, busy cafe in the same neighborhood as our hostel (the only lodging we’d booked prior to the trip). The neighborhood, Palermo, has a hip but comfortable vibe. Boutiques and bars and art galleries cluster together amongst narrow, old homes. There were a lot of young folks, but it was quiet at night on the side streets. Very European.
I ordered the one sandwich I could reasonably translate off the chalkboard menu above the counter, and we sat down at a bistro table to try and formulate a plan for the day.
The problem with Palermo is that it isn’t close to the metro (subte in BA). It’s very accessible to the busline, but as any seasoned traveler will attest, while metros are relatively easy to navigate, public bus systems are very difficult for newbies. And, after traveling so far and long, we didn’t have the energy to figure it out. So, after lunch, we hiked about a mile to the closest subte to ride to the city center.
We managed to exit the subte near Plaza de Mayo. It was the first of many plazas we would encounter on this trip — it seems that any city in South America, no matter how small, has a plaza. If there’s three straw huts on a Bolivian mountain where the llamas outnumber the humans, they build a friggin’ “plaza.”
BA’s Plaza de Mayo is the city’s political center. This is mostly because it’s home to the Casa Rosada, the Argentine presidential mansion and office. What’s awesome is that “Casa Rosada” = “Pink House” which I think we can all agree is objectively better than our version of the same building, the White House. How dull.
Well, you think this is awesome until you realize that the reason it’s pink is because it was originally painted with a mixture including ox blood. Not awesome. But then it becomes awesome again at night when neon pink spotlights shine on the building making you and your husband, who’ve become really lost, mistake it for a casino that you resolve to come back and find the next day.
And now, A Play, in Three Acts:
Setting: The lawn in front of Casa Rosada
Cast: Unnamed hero
Circumstance: The first attempted activity of hero’s trip to Argentina
I knew I only had a few good hours left in Ben, so I forced him to his feet so I could at least see a bit more of the city before he crashed for good. He’s a sleeper, that one.
There are several other important buildings in Plaza de Mayo, but I can’t remember them. There was a beautiful cathedral at the opposite end of the square from the Casa Rosada, but I only remember thinking (for the dozenth time in BA), “this could be in Rome.”
Given that I hadn’t researched too much about the city prior to arriving (surprise!), my single-minded mission for the day became to walk around until our legs were too exhausted to keep walking. I’ll ruin the ending for you now to say that I was successful in my mission, much to Ben’s chagrin.
As we started our death march through Buenos Aires, we rounded around the back of Plaza de Maya to discover a building with a sign in Spanish out front that we couldn’t read, and a long line of people waiting to get in the door. We decided to stand in this line to see what would happen. We were whisked through a metal detector (which strangely did not deter us) and found ourselves inside.
We later discovered it was some sort of museum built in 2010 for the bicentennial of Argentina’s independence. At the time, we knew it was an exhibit of some sort in which all the signage exceeded Ben’s Spanish 201 abilities. However, this anecdote should be a revealing peak into the way Ben and I travel: we have no idea what we’re doing. And we are sheep.
BA is not a particularly beautiful city. It’s not un-beautiful, and it has lovely buildings and squares, but like any major and historical metropolis, it’s dirty and rough around the edges. We discovered this as we moseyed through city blocks for (what felt like) hours. Eventually, we landed in Puerto Madero, a waterfront neighborhood and BA’s historical port. It was easy to tell this area of the city, once a decaying warehouse district, has been reclaimed by yuppies. There are factories-turned-luxury condominiums, high rises, expensive waterfront restaurants. We stopped at cafe to rest our legs and ordered our first South American cafes con leche.
We took a final walk on the other side of the port, along the Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve. While it was too late to go into the reserve, we enjoyed strolling along the water, watching the roadside parrillos pop up to serve their standard Argentine steaks.
So many mayonnaises at the roadside steak stand!
I hadn’t slept in 36 hours; my leg muscles were screaming. Given my pitiful condition, BA’s legendary nightlife would have to wait. I knew Ben felt the same way when I suggested finding our way back to the hostel and he ran off towards a bus stop with a kind of energy I hadn’t seen from him all day. Well, the phrase running “toward the bus stop” gives the impression that the journey back to our hostel was easy. It was not. It was an hour and a half not-easy. When we (finally) found a bus stop, we had to determine if the stop was on the correct route and running in the right direction and which bus number went to Palermo and at which stop to disembark. It was a long process, and only successful thanks to the kindness of English-speaking strangers and a complete lack of pride on our part.
I don’t even remember how I managed to stumble from bus to bed, but I do remember curling up next to Ben (we’d splurged on our own room), and falling asleep to the happy chatter of young backpackers in the common area starting their night. I cursed their stamina before passing out until noon the following day. Ta da!
* If you ever need 1/3 of a lawyer, email us!