Guilt and Gratitude

I’m writing this entry on thanksgiving. It’s not celebrated in Argentina (as far as I know, Canada is the only country outside the US where they celebrate thanksgiving), but I thought it would be good to think about the things I’m grateful for anyway.

I love traveling, and I feel very lucky that I have many months left still to travel. I love being in a new place, I love learning about other cultures and meeting people from all over, learning words and playing silly language games, swapping travel stories and learning the lesser known idiosyncrasies of countries I thought I understood. I like having my own assumptions about the world challenged and being humbled to meet people who are much more informed than I am. I like walking through the streets and taking public transportation. I love learning what the people who live here love about their home, and what they wish was different. I love the challenge of learning a new language, the avenues it opens in your mind, the way you’re forced to question things you thought must be the same everywhere. I’m very happy to be doing what I am now. There are inconveniences, discomforts, loneliness, and anxiety – there always are with travel – but I bear them and they come and go and I cope, and they don’t make me want to stop traveling.

I have to add, though, that it feels a bit weird to write about gratitude when I have such a stress-free lifestyle. I get self-conscious, thinking, come on you idiot, of course you have things to be grateful for. You haven’t worked since June. You’re on vacation. You can eat steak every day and drink wine every night and sit on a beach for the next three months if you feel like it. What is your gratitude worth if it comes so easily?

I also feel a bit guilty in general, a rich white American traveling in countries beset by economic crises and poverty and violence and me reveling in how cheap it all is. I wonder if I’m having a really authentic experience here, if I’m really learning about the places I visit, if I’m really coming to know these places the way I’d like to.

I know this guilt is probably part of every traveler’s experience. I don’t want to dwell too much on it, other than to say it’s something I feel along with my gratitude for the many, many awesome things that my lucky life is full of. I think it’s worth mentioning along with the things I’m grateful for because in some ways this guilt is something I’m grateful for as well. It’s feelings of guilt that help motivate me to get up early to explore the city while everyone else is still sleeping off their hangovers. Those feelings keep me from getting attached to the insular environment of the hostel. They remind me to keep my privileged American eyes open. They remind me that ultimately I’m not traveling to party, or to take an extended vacation. They remind me that at the root of my desire to travel is a hunger for knowledge about the world, for perspective and context and humility. Maybe guilt is the wrong word for it – maybe I mean a sense of purpose, or calling even. In any case, it is that feeling – more, even, than all the crazy experiences I’ve had or all the little happinesses of my traveling life that I’m truly grateful for – that I appreciate most today.

I’m lucky, and grateful for my good fortune, and trying earnestly to savor to the last drop the good gift that I’ve been given. It’s probably not so profound to think that I’m happy I quit my job and decided to travel for a while before I work again. But I am. I made the right decision.

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Spanish lessons and live music

Monday was the date of my First Official Spanish Lesson. I have had many unofficial Spanish lessons already – drilling numbers and reflexive verbs at Javier’s dining room table; learning simple past tenses in the back of a jeep bumping down a dirt road in Colombia; practicing “soy allergica a gluten” over and over in preparation for ordering at a restaurant; listening to my friends speak Spanish for hours at the house in Uruguay – but this was my first with a dedicated professor. I feel a little silly and proud that we’re able to speak exclusively in Spanish. It surprises me, actually, how much I’m able to communicate (albeit slowly and awkwardly). I’ve never learned a language while traveling before. It’s a strange, organic process, especially after something as structured as Latin. You learn survival phrases first, grammar be damned, and sometimes it’s weeks before you learn the literal meaning of phrases you’ve been taught. I can’t deny that I get a little delighted by my tiny accomplishments (recharging my bus pass, discussing drink components with a bartender, haggling at the Sunday market, etc). It feels like slow going most of the time, but I’m still miles kilometres beyond where I was when I first landed in Bogota.

This week and part of next week I have 90-minute Spanish lessons each day. In the meantime…

Monday evening I joined the horde of French people staying at my hostel for Bomba de Tiempo ( http://labombadetiempo.blogspot.com.ar/). This is a massive drum concert that happens every Monday in an open air venue that holds probably 1000 people (I am making this number up because I have no concept of how to gauge crowd sizes, but anyway it’s a lot). Apparently it has become pretty overwhelmed by tourists in recent times. I couldn’t tell you, honestly – I was captivated by those drums the second I heard them and I didn’t stop dancing until much later that night, after the street parade and afterparty. It doesn’t feel touristy. You look around and you see other people grinning as wide as you are, drinking and dancing like happy fools, and you don’t worry so much about whether they’re tourists or Argentines or beautiful French people still managing to hold their cigarettes elegantly while they dance. After the concert, a block away a group of drummers with marching drums start to play on a street corner and suddenly 200 people have taken over the street and cars are squeezing through with the people inside laughing and taking pictures as everyone dances and drinks and parades to a night club close by. Because I am not a Nightclub Person, I was in a cab on the way back to the hostel about five minutes after we arrived, but I believe it’s a good nightclub if you like that sort of thing.

Tuesday I had the delightful experience of listening to a fantastic mambo band (I didn’t even know I liked mambo) followed by the heartbreaking experience of finding out that it was their last concert. The venue was Vuelta la pez (or “flight the fish” which is no less enigmatic in Spanish than in English), small, dimly lit, hidden up the stairs and behind a discreet little door with just the street number painted on colorfully. I’m not sure what you call this kind of place (bar? Lounge? Speakeasy?) but it is My Kind of Place. There was dancing there too, lots of girls dancing what I assume was the mambo, but also places to sit and talk and sip cocktails and just absorb the music. I was dead tired from Bomba de Tiempo the night before so after the music ended and I hugged my friends I piled myself onto a bus and headed back for the night.

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Lots of little everyday things happening this week – asados, many cheap and delicious bottles of Argentine wine being purchased and drunk, exploring the streets around my hostel, feeling cool when I figure out how to take the bus correctly. Though the hostel is a bit of an insulating environment, I’m slowly beginning to know Buenos Aires better and better.

Saturday morning in Buenos Aires

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I could have taken the Subte over to San Martin plaza and the little park with its enormous sprawling tree, limbs so huge and meandering that they built iron crutches into the plaza to hold the splayed branches up – and just through the park across busy Avenida del Libertador you have that huge tower that’s a replica of the one in piazza San Marco in Venice (many things in Buenos Aires are a replica of something in Europe) – – I could have taken the Subte, but the weather was fine, clean-feeling air and bright sun and jewel blue sky, warm and breezy, so I walked down to Florida street to change money on the “blue” market (the street empty so early in the morning, and me getting a terrible rate of only 12 pesos to the dollar this time) and from there along San Martin street all the way to the park.

The beautiful fractal-pattern trees with their bare earth-colored trunks and vibrant purple flowers frame a plaza of Buenos Aires’ ubiquitous cool white tiles gridded into perfect squares. When the tiles break from impact or age or tree roots thrusting up under the sidewalk, they subdivide into smaller and smaller squares. The trees in this plaza (called jacaranda, I learn later on a tour) are lovely and give good shade to the soft, broad-leaved, slightly squeaky grass. After a few false starts in mosquito-ridden patches of grass near the center of the park, I find an old tree on the edge whose broad roots bend gently into a natural seat. Two huge roots extend like arms into the grass, forming a hollow where I stash my purse and shoes and stand with my feet in the cold grass and start my first sun salutation.

Traditional ashtanga sun salutations timed to my breath, with some warrior poses thrown in between downward dogs to help me warm up. I need to stretch my legs after all the walking yesterday – downward dog for my hamstrings and hips, and I wriggle luxuriously to loosen my IT bands and ankles; warrior one for energy; warrior two for stability; and I’m feeling brave and unselfconscious in this park so I go for warrior three, balancing for about five breaths and using the San Marco tower as my focal point. Afterwards – pigeon poses, which are fun to do while watching actual pigeons poke around the grass, and cowface pose, which I love for its ridiculous name and deep hip stretch.

I won’t pretend it’s not awkward to go to a park where no one else is doing anything remotely like yoga, alone in tight leggings and a travel-stained top, and contort your body into strange awkward positions and try to look like a wise guru and hope no one else in the park is watching when it’s time to stick your butt in the air for downward dog. I usually feel exposed, especially if there are men watching. (There are almost always men watching. I’m a woman out alone and not wearing a nun’s habit. I try to avoid eye contact so I don’t have to see their lewd grins or hear their oh-so-original comments about flexibility). On the other hand, I’m also probably making it more awkward than it needs to be – I could pay for a class in a studio or convince someone from the hostel to come to the park with me.

Today I don’t feel so self conscious or exposed and I make some mental notes on this park, planning to come back. Not a lot of people like yoga, and the number of people who like yoga and also stay in hostels and also don’t care how many creepy park dudes watch them try to balance on one foot or stick their butts in the air in a park is even smaller, but I’m putting this one on the shortlist of places to do yoga anyway and promise myself to invite someone next time. At the end of my asanas I sit and mediate a little in the fresh grass (purse in my lap, just in case). The light has shifted and now it’s hot. Warm air stirs in the plaza, a guy throws tennis balls for his dogs to chase (a really fat golden lab and a sleeker black mutt), and I see two friends meet and surreptitiously light a joint to share. Yoga is over and I’m awake and hungry new, so I take the Subte back toward San Telmo with a few other early morning porteños still waking up this Saturday.

Beginnings in Buenos Aires

I’m back again in Buenos Aires after three weeks of relaxation and partying in Uruguay. How can I describe the feeling of aimlessness I felt there? Why did I feel out of place among the relaxed vacationers in the hostels where I stayed? I’m never sure of the reason I sometimes feel so isolated among otherwise excellent people. Am I just too introverted for life? Do other people ever feel like this? I could keep picking at those little loose edges of my social self-confidence until I go crazy. I think perhaps fretting over those feelings isn’t so productive, so I’ll just say that I met interesting people from all over the world; dug the chill vibe of sweet beautiful Uruguay; ate fantastic steak; and in the end I began to let go of some of the self-destructive anxiety that still lingered from the start of my trip. And if I passed some time feeling out of place – well, I also made new friends and had fantastically good times I won’t soon forget.

Buenos Aires has been a major part of my larger travel goal for a while. Early on I decided I would spend a month here to take Spanish lessons and dig the city. Passing through places quickly, unable to strike up genuine friendships with locals thanks to my limited Spanish – it’s made me feel superficial and alienated. This pit stop is a time to make real progress on communicating in Spanish and to spend time coming to know a place intimately – if not as well as a local, then at least less like a tourist.

I arrived in Monday. I had my travel day to myself to feel quiet and let my introverted mind recover itself. I felt a bit exhausted after the last days of Montevideo and wanted time to read, write, sleep, and slip through crowds unnoticed the way you can only when you’re alone. My first day in a new place, tired from travel, I seldom feel like talking, so I settled in a quiet corner of the hostel common room to read and catch up on conversations with friends in other places. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for doing this, but I need solitude. In hostels it’s too easy to become exhausted from the constant interaction.

When I was ready for human contact again I met a delightful French girl named Steph in the spacious and comfortable dorm room just the two of us shared. The hostel was overbooked so we were both upgraded to an ensuite – lovely after the full, messy dorm in Montevideo. I helped her change money on the blue market and we made lunch together. Classically beautiful, friendly, and self-assured, she is intent on speaking English and Spanish, not French, and she would sigh elegantly and look the other way when the other French guests in the hostel came near. Irritated by the presence of her countrymen, she went to the courtyard to smoke and try to disguise herself as a visitor from some other county – her cigarette held languidly next to her shoulder and her scarf draped over her classic camisole, sitting outside at a little cafe table and looking hopelessly French. I coached her on how to smoke like an American, telling her to smile constantly and try to look dumb, and lean forward with her cigarette in front of her instead of held elegantly off to the side. She uncrossed her legs and grinned and hid the scarf. It was going well until a loud comment from the other group elicited an exasperated “ohh la la” and our cover was blown – and a few minutes later I was surrounded by the whole group and smiling as the French conversation washed over me and reminded me of Paris.

To celebrate our first day in Buenos Aires and the abundance of $2 and $3 bottles of excellent wine, we started drinking around four, which really seemed like a good idea at the time, and eventually talked with a Spanish-speaking group near us having a party. I met a very friendly Peruvian guy who acted like everyone’s best friend, warm and so funny, always happy (he said), laughing loudly and drunkenly. Something about him was strange to me, but I chalked it up to the beer he’d been guzzling. After ten minutes or so of conversation he shyly brought out silver rings to show his friends and the little group of hostel guests who had joined them. They were sterling silver set with colored stones in a cloisonne technique that I know from my semesters in the jewelry studio isn’t easy. Good craftsmanship, too, and I had decided to buy one and was handing his displays back when he looked at me with a disappointed expression saying “oh… there’s one missing. But that’s fine. This is my life’s work, and it’s hard. But it’s fine, I don’t care that one is missing.” He couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d tried. I bought the ring I wanted (it was a good price for the quality of the work) and told him I was sorry he lost a ring. There was no point in making a scene, but I was furious at his attempt to manipulate me into giving him more money by accusing me of stealing, especially when I felt kinship with him as a jeweler and respect as a craftsman. The entire friendly conversation had been an act that evaporated when I refused to pretend I had actually stolen something. Eventually he left, still giving me sullen accusatory looks.

The night progressed with bottles of wine and more conversation in a mixture of French, Spanish, and English. I learned such useful phrases as “Tout le monde á poil” (“everybody get naked!”) and various swear words. The hostel courtyard was loud with languages and laughter until the early morning hours.

Now it’s late morning and people are sampling various hangover remedies and generally staying in the hostel. I’m tired too, but I can’t stay inside doing nothing. It’s spring and the air is fresh and delicate in the early hours and the city is buzzing beyond the hostel doors and I can’t stay inside. As soon as I close the door the world shifts and here are cars trundling by on the uneven pavement and taxis slow to pass me on the sidewalk, thinking that as I stand there in the wash of light and air and noise that I must be lost. I’m not lost. I’m on Chacabuco street and I have only a few blocks to walk down to Estados Unidos to a cafe I found yesterday. I’m making mental notes as I pass little market stands where I can buy fruit on my way back, and noticing beautiful old bars expertly painted in an art nouveau style. They look like they would be fantastic dark places to drink cocktails and meet interesting people late at night. More mental notes. I pass the parilla restaurant with the pretty 1930s style lettering and find my cafe. The coffee guy remembers me and remembers that I like my coffee cortado (“cut” with milk). I drink my cortado and look out the window and work on my slow translation of Paula, thinking that this isn’t such a bad way to start my month in Buenos Aires.

Travel update: Villa de Leyva

The small colonial town Villa de Leyva was the last place I visited before I left Colombia.

The first thing I remember is having trouble walking over the uneven streets. I’ve been places with cobbled streets before, but none that were so difficult to navigate, and I wondered what it must be like to live there and to walk everywhere on those slick stones, or to run over them. In fact I did have to run at one point that weekend, when I realized I had left my passport in our hostel and we had only half an hour before the bus to Bogota, but that was later – when we came into town it was hard enough to walk without tripping and also pay attention to the lovely old colonial buildings. I read that the streets now are actually reconstructions, and not the original roads, and that really made me wonder why they didn’t make them a bit steadier, but perhaps they came out more historically accurate this way. In any case it’s like walking on marbles and took some adjusting to.

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I came to Villa de Leyva for a weekend, but it was still very quiet. You can walk along the cobbled streets and look at the beautiful white buildings with green doors and shutters, with flowers from the courtyard gardens climbing over the walls. You can find little parks (I’m crazy about parks) and eat at little charming cafes and restaurants. There was a cafe I particularly liked that was part of a sort of complex of shops and restaurants, all set back from the street and all connected by series of small airy courtyards and passageways of cool shade opening onto more charming little courtyards and cafes. In some ways it reminded me of Tuscany, with the warm color of the paint and the way the colonnades glowed with reflected light, but Villa de Leyva has its own particular style that couldn’t truly be mistaken for anywhere in Italy.

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One morning I climbed a steep hill above the city. Near the start I met three stray dogs hanging around the park. Normally dogs unsettle me a bit, but these were friendly and didn’t seem to want anything other than to keep me company on my way up the hillside, racing each other ahead and stopping occasionally to wag their tails enthusiastically while they waited for me to catch up.

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Villa de Leyva is apparently famous for fossils, including a huge kronosaur that has its own museum. People go to the hills around the town to hunt for fossils but I didn’t really know about that when we went, so I had to be content with seeing them embedded as decoration in walls and stones on the streets.

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On Saturday the peasants and farmers in the surrounding countryside bring harvests in to a market in town. We walked there for breakfast, eating sweet arepas with chocolate. We strolled past huge piles of exotic fruits that after a month in Colombia were starting to become familiar to me – pitayas, lulos, papayas, and huge quantities of oranges, limes, and bananas. We bought juice made from a few of these blended together. I also bought a molinillo, which is the special blending tool Colombians use to whisk hot chocolate into a froth. Everywhere in Colombia people I met drank hot chocolate, usually instead of coffee in the morning, and often with little bits of mozzarella cheese dropped in to melt and give the chocolate a savory edge. The best coffee in Colombia being exported, it’s hard to find in the country and many people drink instant coffee if they drink it at all.

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My friend Javier and I had just had lunch and were on our way to the bus terminal when I remembered that my passport was still locked in a cubby at the hostel where we had stayed. It was only 30 minutes until the bus was meant to depart and the hostel was about a 20 minute walk, so I had to make a run for it. Sometimes when you travel you end up running to catch your plane or train or bus and making it at the last second, and it’s embarrassing to be running through some quiet town, especially with a huge backpack, but it’s something I think most travelers have done at least once.

I seldom forget something as important as a passport, though, so I made myself a little checklist with PASSPORT at the top for the next time I leave a hostel, just in case.

Rainy Afternoon

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It’s cold out, and raining hard in Montevideo today. I know this because I can see the slick streets with black umbrellas drifting over them, I can see the tree branches tossing silently and I can see the power lines swaying sedately in the wind. I can see all of this from the window of a cafe where I am warm and dry, and where if I’m lucky, I can draw out this 75-peso glass of wine for a few hours while I read and write and avoid the weather.

It shouldn’t be hard today, I’m slyly people watching and finding a few other couples here hiding from the rain, in amongst rich-looking businessmen and two girls who must be old friends. There’s an old couple here on a date and a chic-looking woman absorbed by a book.

I picked this cafe because it’s full of natural light and high ceilings and books about philosophy, cooking, religion, and art, all in Spanish. I’m practicing Spanish too, working through Paula by Isabel Allende. I think I manage a page about every fifteen minutes. I don’t mind the slow pace. This isn’t a day to hurry back outside.

Rain can be a challenge for the traveler. The thing to do in a new city is walk the streets, watch people, see the place from different angles and do the famous things you’re supposed to do. But who wants to do all that in the freezing rain and wind? Rainy days are days for staying inside.

So I’m staying in the cafe with my 75-peso glass of wine and my book and my Spanish dictionary, and as I watch the locals hide from the weather, I’m starting to realize that I’m seeing more richness and life in here than I would if I hurried around those famous sites soggy and freezing and feeling miserable. There are worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon than hanging in a cool cafe with the locals.

Travel update : Uruguay

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I wrote my last post as I was leaving Colombia for Buenos Aires. It’s not a typical move for travelers in South America – most people heading south go overland and visit Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, even Paraguay or Brazil or Chile first – but I needed to make the trip quickly in time to meet a friend in Uruguay (which is a short boat ride from Buenos Aires). I’ve been in Uruguay for two weeks, enjoying my friend’s company, the beaches and warm people of Uruguay, and a relaxed state of mind.

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(The beach in Marindia)

We drank mate (sometimes more popular than coffee in this part of the world) and cooked meat on the parilla. The beef and sausage in Uruguay and Argentina are excellent, and there’s a great culture of cooking meat slowly for hours over open coals. Wine is excellent and cheap, too. So – wine and beef in the evenings, and mate for the hangover the next morning. In between – hours at the beach, helping with minor construction projects, and enjoying each other’s company.

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Camilo left for the US after a few days and I headed to the capital Montevideo. Feeling a little over budget (Uruguay is expensive for South America), I mainly walked around the streets and took pictures, punctuated by an occasional cup of coffee at one of many cafes. Uruguay and Argentina are heavily influenced by European culture, and it’s easy to find sidewalk cafes much like those in Paris. Mate may be more popular, but they still make an excellent cup of coffee here.

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(Entrance to the old city in Montevideo)

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My hostel was full of Brazilians who spoke more Spanish than English, and I spent a couple of evenings practicing by attempting to explain the game of hearts. “Corazones!!!”, I remember shouting many times that night, but ultimately I think I was unsuccessful at conveying the strategy of the game.

The next day at breakfast I discovered that I was heading the same direction along the coast as a Brazilian couple from the hostel, so we decided to drive together to Punta del Diablo.

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In the summer this place must be mad, but it’s spring now and the town is nearly silent. For dinner one night we were one of only two parties at a family-run Italian restaurant. The little daughter Catalina played in my lap while we looked at the menu, and her father cooked some of the best salmon I’ve tasted. After dinner, they poured us tiny glasses of their homemade limoncello and introduced us to their six dogs, who were hiding from the storm outside.

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When it rains in a tiny beach town there’s not much to do, so we saw a lot of the inside of our hostel. Fortunately, as sometimes happens at hostels, there was a good crowd of travelers, so we managed to pass some evenings in excellent company.

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Not far from Punta del Diablo is a remote settlement called Cabo Polonia. It’s not exactly undiscovered (jeep shuttles run there several times a day from a bus terminal), but there are no roads in or out of the place, so one must either take a 4×4 shuttle from the dirt road, or walk down the beach several hours from Punta del Diablo. Like Punta del Diablo, there’s not much to do if the weather isn’t suitable for beach going, but the vibe of the tiny village is lovely and relaxed. There are a few places obviously aimed at tourists, and the rest is little farms, a hostel, and summer homes. We explored the lighthouse among an enormous crowd of school children, and watched a herd of sea lions roaring and rolling around on the rocks by the sea.

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I had no idea that countries outside the US have the same Halloween traditions that we do. On the way back to the hostel we passed the town of Castillos, where the streets were blocked to allow kids in costumes to trick or treat. At the hostel our Halloween party consisted of a pumpkin carving contest which was won by a Finnish couple’s impressive rendition of Jack Skellington. They claimed it was their first time carving a pumpkin…

Relaxing is lovely, but I’m not meant to do it forever. Soon it will be time to move on again to explore a new place.