The Conquistador’s Lament

I’ve put off writing the concluding post to the Latin America leg of the Conquest for long enough. It is time to try to put into words what the constantly smiling gringo felt so vividly for two weeks.

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We went to Iguazu Falls for Ben and the girls’ last leg of the trip. After 36 hours, Ben would fly off to Ibiza and the girls would continue onto Brazil for the next leg of their trip. I was heading back to Buenos Aires, excited about the prospect of exploring on my own terms, but missing the companionship of more travel partners I might never see again.

I checked into a hostel called “The Pink House.” That is a play on the name of the presidential mansion in Buenos Aires, known as Casa Rosada. It was spartan but clean in the Recoleta neighborhood, which I wanted to explore from instead of our further west initial place in trendy Palermo.

Recoleta is not really setup for tourists outside of the few blocks around the famed cemetery that holds Evita’s remains along with the dearly departed phenomenal mausoleum builders, some of which are seen below. Past that, it is very much a nice but ungentrified neighborhood in Central BA, serving as a portal to the governmental and financial districts. It is also a Jewish district, bringing me back to my first international travels where the herd of the very Catholic Stall family stuck out like sore thumbs among the Abraham Lincoln-esque costumes in the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood of Westminster.

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I found some fine restaurants around the area, as well as a very overrated hamburguesa. There were plenty of cafes to hole up in on a rainy day, reading Seneca and then the mindblowing Kierkegaard. My appreciation for comprehensible philosophy grew in an unbelievable way. It is one thing to try to tackle Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is something vastly different to read Seneca’s common language letter to his best friend.

My days were filled with walking through antique shops on the way to the next cafe, late nights at jazz clubs, and treating myself to phenomenal steaks and Malbecs. Vicky continued to show me around in BA in a way that I never could’ve seen as a tourist, and the experiences continued to be incredible.

On Sunday morning, I trudged through a persistent drizzle towards San Telmo, about 4 miles from my hostel. About ⅔ of the way there, I got tired of being rained on and decided to get a coffee and a sandwich in the next cafe I came across. Bar de Cao was a relic from another age. 115 years old, it had wine bottles all over the walls, important documents from the history of Buenos Aires that had been signed there, and a spiked coffee named after Hemingway to boot.

There were 4 waitresses, one older and the other three about my age. They took turns swooping in on the gringo, with the short one (though still wearing 3 inch multicolored foam platforms on the bottom of her black sneakers) taking the first turn.

As my coffee turned into a ham sandwich, which turned into a glass of Malbec, the girls all took their turn seeing what they could get the blue eyed gringo to say. I sat there writing about one of them, as I often do while people watching.

Describing a living breathing person in minute detail who is interacting with the world and only very rarely you, that is a powerful writing exercise. The way she buttered the toast that she kept munching on, and the rhythm of her fingernails clicking the bar. The things that her body language said as she interacted with other patrons and staff. The way her mole wiggled as she laughed at my broken Spanish, and the muted one heeled turn she employed when walking away. All of these things are what makes real characters in fiction, a keen look at behaviors without becoming a direct (and therefore contaminating) influence. I’d be willing to wager great money that more than a few famous characters were the result of people watching in a bar with a notebook.

I sat there, writing away, both a character description and the outline of a novel, as I continued to soak up all the sensory perceptions that I could in a place that I might never come to again. Suddenly the older waitress comes bombing over to my table and says “Bag! You bag!”

Pretty startled from my dreamlike character study, I patted my wallet and said “No bag. All good.” She quickly grabbed a bartender who then grabbed the man sitting with his back to me at the table behind me, tossing him into the street. Apparently the man was feeling my coat, which was full of $400 worth of pesos, as I had just exchanged money that morning. The waitresses, now clucking around hen-like, never gave me more than 5 minutes without a visit again.

This was great service.

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As I paid my bill, a comical $13 for 2 glasses of wine, a sandwich and a spiked coffee, I used my newly acquired Spanish to ask my muse for directions to the San Telmo market. Her body language immediately changed into one I hadn’t yet recognized, one leaning slightly forward in a vulnerable position, made incredibly disconcerting to an American boy with a huge weakness for Latin American women. We stumbled through my request, plenty of looking down and laughing as we both butchered the other’s language. Finally I got my directions and put on my green rain shell, and as I walked away from her, she lightly brushed my shoulder with her outstretched hand, raising the hair down my spinal column like contact with light electricity.

Vowing in blood to teach myself Spanish upon return to the US. I set off to a bookstore to find a Spanish fairy tale book to read to the ever growing legion of kids that my friends continue to hand off to “dear Uncle Moorman.” I figure start small and work up. No way I’m going to get anything out of trying to read Borges in Spanish.

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The next day, as I boarded the plane, I said goodbye to a country that found its way into my heart in the first 3 hours of my arrival, I wondered if I would get back. I tell myself I will, but then again there are a lot of places in that category at this point. International flights are the expensive part of travel, and that budget is shrinking rapidly as the business requires capital to grow.

Someday, when we get the business humming like it should, maybe I’ll go back. But it’ll be different, it always is. A few of the restaurants I grew to love will be out of business for one reason or another, the currency will have appreciated so that my beloved $12 steak is now $25. Vicky will be on assignment in Paraguay, or whatever far flung reaches of Latin America offer Deloitte the most billable hours, and the red wine won’t ever taste as sweet as that first Carmenere on the veranda of our AirBnB in Palermo.

Maybe that’s a pessimistic way to look at it, and I should adopt Ben’s travel thesis of, “every time in a place is different. It is the traveller’s job to separate them and don’t let the bad bleed into the magic of a first impression.”

Well that’s not quite how he says it, but it is the gist.

My time in Buenos Aires was incredibly magical. To kiss a gorgeous, intelligent and (really freaking tall) Argentinian girl in the midnight rain down a sidestreet lit up only by the neon of restaurants and bars, as you’ve just walked out of seeing a 17 piece jazz band that resolutely reconfirmed your love of live music. To walk back soaked to the bone, with a smile on your face because you stole a scene in life that is only real in the movies.

That’s magic.

That is undeniable, in your face, think about it on your deathbed with a smile on your face stuff.

Most of the time we let all of our moments bleed together, letting the bad stain the good with marks that won’t come off, but why? What do we gain by trying to compress our experience into a format where the greatest are marred by the average and the mundane?

So many moments of my life are compressed into a slurry that reminds me of the stuff inside of chicken nuggets. Sure, I think back on years of my life and I have some memory that will make me smile, but these are momentary placeholders in years of forgettable (and forgotten) experiences. A stolen chicken nugget tastes great, but eating the box of 20 at McDonald’s is a shit way to spend the 3 hours after a meal.

I am so glad that I’ve realized this early, and made it my goal in life to appreciate moments in real time. How few times do we realize how truly content we are in the moment itself? Most of the time it is the bitter memory of a time that was better than now, picked from the slurry of forgettable years.

Moments like that don’t just happen on travel. They happen every day. It is the “Eureka!” moment that comes in the business when you realize where the funding is coming from, or it is the moment when you take your highly technical designs to a Purdue professor, and have him stand up impressed.

These are moments that have to be savored in the moment to be properly remembered in the future. It is not a quantity race. It isn’t an Instagram picture from Greece with 200 likes in a moment that you don’t really remember because you were hammered. It can be the sunrise coming over a cornfield, or a moment of achievement after work well done. It can be the first time that baby grabs your hand, or the moment when your 6 year old finally starts turning his shoulders and hitting everything in sight in Coach’s Pitch.

It is about recognizing it, not has a hazy also ran picked from the lot, but as a vivid experience that gives you strength to think about.

As Seneca said in that letter to his friend, “Everyone hurries his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and a weariness for the present.”

Don’t be that person. Don’t be caught in a trap of “tomorrow will be different.” Live a life as a collection of moments that you will think back on in the past and say, “Well if I made it out of a 14 mile mapless bicycle odyssey around Buenos Aires in the dark, surely I can make it through this.”

That navigation fiasco could’ve been a real game changer in my time in Argentina. I could’ve had a real go at Ben and ruined our dynamic for the rest of the trip. Instead, it ends up being one of the truly treasured experiences of my trip, one where I learned to just keep pedaling and figure it out.

When I got back and did tersely tell Ben that he left me without a map and I didn’t appreciate it, he incredulously looked at me and said, “Listen mate, you’re an independent guy and you figured it out, I don’t see the problem.” He didn’t, and after 2 glasses of red wine, I didn’t either.

Nothing was irreparably broken, so why not enjoy the next sip of wine and let it go?

That’s a life worth living, where our triumphs are learned from and remembered, and our failures are learned from and left to the slurry of unfocused memories.

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I’m glad I figured that out now, I’ve still got quite a few years before the scales fell from my eyes to catch up on.

There is truly wisdom to be learned from men who wrote down how to not take life too seriously. I’m glad that I stumbled upon Seneca and his brand of no nonsense Stoicism. To read it, take it in and digest it was truly a gift to have been done in Buenos Aires. To look around and say that I am in this moment and there is no where else I’d rather be, because tomorrow this won’t be the same. That’s a truly magical experience, no matter where it is.
Look for a few more of those. You’ll thank me when you find them.

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If Heaven Ain’t Like Buenos Aires, then I Don’t Want to Go.

Scrawled onto the folded backs of two large white placemats from Cafe Thibon was the sum of my afternoon writing yesterday.Starting slowly yesterday, I walked along Ave de Santa Fe towards the Recoleta neighborhood to meet Vicky for lunch. We met, (she was late, but the whole country is late so…there’s that) and I quickly ignored her recommendation to stay away from the mondongo, and piled right in.

Mondongo is something in Argentina that could be passably described as “cow stomach curry.” It is a mix of vegetables, lentils, blood sausages and chorizo, stewed together in a base yellow sauce, with two inch chunks of stomach thrown in for the main meat.

When in Rome right?

It was actually very good so long as I didn’t look directly at the piece of stomach as I lifted the spoon to my mouth. The ridges and seemingly jelly-fish like frills of stomach lining were a bit less than appetizing, but after the first bite, it wasn’t going to kill me.

While I tried my best blue eyed poor me act to get Vicky to get a carafe of wine and skip the rest of the dwindling afternoon of work, I failed, and so was left to my own devices.

I was going to go to the cathedral, but I was sidetracked along the way by a set of faces that made me quickly question where I was. I stopped into Cafe Thibon, to recollect my thoughts and get a cup of coffee to put me over the mid-afternoon drop nods.

Cafe Thibon is part liquor store, part cafe. The green granite bar prominently displays two vintage sets of Malbec, while a taciturn and portly old man dropped clean silverware into a worn wooden box between the espresso makers. My seat had me looking out into the street, but the wooden boxes of wine were stacked so high that I could only see a sliver through the open door. The occasional biker would flit by, only staying in my sight for a second, while the seemingly endless supply of grand old men with their ringed fingers and sweater covered walrusy midsections wandered by the displays of wines and liquors.

Behind me to my right was one of these old men, looking like he could’ve been the Argentinian brother of Bloomberg’s Tom Keene. He had a regal mane of white on the sides but very little on top, so to compensate, he combed his hair back, those wiry white strands, so that they connected, much like an electrical circuit that would fail if connections were breached. His forearms pressed flat on the table next to his newspaper, his left hand would go up like clockwork every 4-5th breath, pressing those hairs back towards their more numerous counterparts.

As I started to doodle on a placemat, I looked over the names of the wines in the glass cases beside me. Alamos, Angelica Zapata, Los Arboles, and Catena were a few of the more prominent names. The crackling of AM Spanish language radio could be heard faintly, with the tunes of jingles rolling together with the music to my untrained ear.

Cafe Thibon roasted their own coffee which they kept in massive glass cylinders on the back counter. Their gold domed tops seemed to be lacking only a crescent moon from the mosque tops I’d seen throughout the Middle East. An old fashioned balance, worn black with the grease of hands and the decades of coffee, is used to determine the amount of coffee sold. The curmudgeonly old man would gently place the cylindrical weight on one side and a bag on the other before tapping out a few beans into the bag, frowning, and repeating the process again and again until symmetry was achieved.

As he finished one bag, he reached his sausage fingers into a large dish of stuffed olives, selecting three, then rolling them around in his palm with a move from his thick thumb. Examination done, he clutched down on two and ejected one into his open mouth, before putting those two with some others that he’d soon serve me.

I asked the waitress for a glass of Malbec. Sure it was 3:00 in the afternoon, but I was on holiday for Chrissake. As I sipped the delightful house offering, I started to visualize the rhythm of Buenos Aires in a way that I had not before. Just as some people can pick up the beat of a song from just a handful of notes, so too can one feel the cadence of a city. The way that old men shuffle  down sidewalks and the rapidity that cabs take off from red lights, these are but a few small sample pulses from the beating heart of a city. The overheard intonation of a conversation and the movements of waitress, these too show la tiempo de vivre. In a place like Argentina, the home of one of the world’s most famous dances, the Tango, this rhythm takes on even more meaning. Plain as the smell of a place or the mountains and rivers that comprise its landscape, the rhythm is as real as the nose on your face once you have trained yourself to look.

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Ever since I was a little boy, I loved to go wandering through the hustle and bustle of a city anonymously. My father used to drop me off in the Loop of Chicago with my cousin Brad, who usually still had a few hours of work left before going home. Brad would rip a sheet of stationary so that I had his address, and then tell me to go wander around until 5, and to ask for help if I got lost.

Nothing like free range cousin-ing right?

I always longed for the feeling of aimless anonymity walking past thousands of people where no one knows your name. This effect is only amplified when one does not understand the language as throngs of people are living lives truly parallel to my own, a graceful mystery save for a the few non-verbal cues that I can ascertain.

I find myself with odd sense of deja vu here in Buenos Aires. I’ve certainly never gone on a prolific enough bender to have gotten here and back in a timely fashion, so all of my experiences should be new ones. These senses are not that of interaction wtih place, but instead the briefest inclination that I have seen the face of one of my deceased loved ones.

Yesterday I was walking down a side street in Palermo, as an old man shuffled closer with his head down. As I got within arm’s length of him, he picked his cabbie hatted head up a little bit, and to my shock and surprise, the face of Uncle Bill Kay was smiling back at me. The crinkled skin around his very round eyes and the way his face was always reminiscent of a round faced white owl who had been turned into an eternally boyish old man, this was the face that peeked out from under that cap. For that briefest of seconds, I saw those blue eyes twinkle at me once more, just like they did for so many Christmases of my youth.

Just as quickly he was gone, like a warm blooded ghost who had disappeared into the wall. As I walked onward, this feeling of seeing someone I loved out of the corner of my eye only increased. As soon as I turned to look, they were always gone.

I started thinking about Buenos Aires as my heaven replacement. Maybe all of my loved ones are here, living lives that no longer diverge with my own, but still loving, living and breathing as they did when our lives intersected. Perhaps Uncle Bill gets up every morning about 9AM, dresses impeccably in his blazer, sweater vest and scarf, and heads over to Cafe Thibon for his morning coffee, where he banters with the waitress, and playfully argues with the similarly dressed man sitting next to him about tomorrow’s weather. Then he shuffles in his leather shoes over to the park, where he plays chess with the other old men and talks about the romantic conquests of his youth, before going home to the butcher and picking up a slice of meat to grill and eat with his evening wine.

I’ve read enough of the Bible to know, that the actual cardinal directions to “Heaven” were quite general. Who is to say that our loved ones don’t merely move on to this Paris of the Southern Hemisphere and continue living lives with hopes, fears, joys and pains? It seems equally comforting to me, that if I continue to travel the ends of the earth, that I might for the most instantaneous of seconds, get to see that loved one of mine in a moment that requires neither acknowledgement or discussion, only the feeling of a full heart and a sense of contentment that all is as it should be.

Even if it is just Uncle Bill’s doppelganger, I wouldn’t trade the brief blissful feeling of Resurrection for all the facts on Earth.

Some mysteries are better left in the ether.

Zen and the Art of Being Lost in Buenos Aires

There is a half read book on my nightstand at home called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Robert Pirsig takes a trip across the American West on his motorcycle with his slightly autistic son and a couple of friends. Most people look at that title and wonder what kind of drugs someone had to be on to come up with something so inane. Having read a good half of it, before other books jumped up the ladder, I find that some of the most instructive tomes about life seem to be the most random.

I had my own moment of Zen on a pushbike yesterday. Fearing that the weather might turn rainy later in the week, we tried to get out and see as much as we could yesterday. A trip to the Recoleta Cemetery, a place that puts the greatest of New Orleans mausoleums to shame, and a lunch of empanadas and tortas had shown us two different neighborhoods, but we resolved to get some bikes and make our own tour.

No one moves very quickly in Argentina, and the nonchalance with respect to time has already infected us, so by time we actually got to the bike shop, it was nearly 4PM. Being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, we only had about two hours of daylight left to burn. We grabbed a couple of maps and headed off through a city seen as one of the most bikeable in the world.

Then things started to go a bit haywire. Ben and I lost the girls after about 10 minutes of riding, which was probably to be expected. We meandered along some bike trails, edging closer to the water, but only getting into the port district. Seemingly anywhere in the world, you’d never prefer to be by the docks as the sunsets, but there we were.

Also, as opposed to nearly EVERY map I’ve ever seen in this life, the map given to us by the bike shop was oriented not on a North/South axis, but instead on the city grid of Buenos Aires, which was laid with a datum relative to the river instead of cardinal directions. This meant that saying I want to go “up” on the map than I am now was a very trying experiment in map turning.

About 7 miles from home, my chain came off and became wedged between the sprocket and chain guard. Having no tools and not enough Spanish to figure out “wrench” we battled with the bike for about ten minutes before deciding that I should just throw it into a cab and head back before it got dark. Ben grabbed my map and headed back on his bike, because neither of us fancied a nocturnal bike ride around a city we’d known for only 24 hours.

I thought getting a cab would be easy, but no one wanted to let me put my greasy bike (and even greasier hands) in their tiny Peugeot cab. So I stood there slackjawed, wondering how in the world I was going to make it home without a map, Spanish skills and a bike a chain off the rails and no way to fix it. Finally a security guard finally took pity on me and brought me out a pair of pliers, and I quickly got the bike back in working order. Then a couple of Venezuelans came and took pity on me, giving me some very general directions toward the Palermo neighborhood where I’d started. At this point, I was nearly 6 miles away with a very quickly setting sun.

I took their advice to the best of my ability, taking a bike path to the end of the line (praying that I’d come out at the CORRECT end.) A quote from Pirsig started to hum in my ears as my mindset moved from annoyed to determined.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

Trying to isolate the pattern, both in my own life and in this particular bicycle marooning, was a trying exercise. I had left the docks, where I at least knew my general relative position to home, moving in a direction that the Venezuelans promised would take me home. Having no  geographic context  to draw from, I had to stay 100% true to their directions or I’d end up god knows where.

Looking back on my own life, I recognize the same pattern. So many people put their heads down and start charging off in a direction given to them by others, only to find that the slightest deviation in direction will leave them stranded with no idea how to get either back from whence they came or forward to an original destination.

That is why the need for context is sacrosanct. Knowing only a handful of street names, my context in this odyssey was very limited, so I was dependent on external forces to give me a direction. The more streets that one recognizes, the more able to self-help he becomes. He recognizes small mistakes before they lead so far off track that it loses all feasibility.

The same is true in life. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be rich and live in NYC. I grew up on a diet of Friends, Seinfeld and the Wall Street Journal, and I knew that at the Southern tip of an island at the center of the world, my dreams would all come true. (There is currently a gingery Semite, a sleeping Indian, an illiterate Italian, and a bald…well whatever Gar is, reading this and laughing hysterically that I thought that all my dreams would come true in our dingy corner of the financial world.)

I got to my destination, and for a while, I loved it. The stress, the money, the comical number of amazing women to be found in Manhattan…this is what I came for.

Then complacency snuck in. My whole life had been about getting to this place, covering the distance, both physical and cultural, that lay between the sleepy cornfield I’d grown up in and the screaming trading pits that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. Once I’d stopped “pedaling” as I arrived at my destination, I got nervous that the bike would fall over on top of me.

Back in Buenos Aires, the sun had set and the buildings weren’t getting any nicer. I followed Cordoba street until it Y’d off. Inevitably, I took the wrong side of the Y. Pedaling faster was motion, but it was not to be confused with progress by any means. I was merely going faster in the wrong direction for 20 blocks.

Finally I began asking anyone standing still how to get to Palermo. My original directions were now defunct, and the only way I’d get home was to find a new set. An older woman (hell this is South America, she could’ve been 35 or 55 and I wouldn’t know the difference) told me that I was at least 40 blocks from Palermo, but if I went up 3 streets and turned right, that I would get onto Serrano and as long as I kept pedaling, I’d get to somewhere I’d recognize.

Now I had a direction that would turn my motion into progress. This was the “eureka” moment that gave purpose to what was otherwise aimless wandering.

Sure enough, after hoofing it 14 miles around Buenos Aires, I came up to the Plaza de Armes and knew that the bike shop was just around the corner.

Eureka moments happen in all facets of life, not just with hopelessly lost Americans on pushbikes. Mine happened on that brutally cold February morning in Chicago, that moment when I knew that I was headed in the wrong direction. So I asked if I could follow someone else’s for a while, and much to my benefit, he said yes. Eventually Ben’s direction and mine diverged, but that was alright, because I had enough context to self-correct. My direction is rarely perfect, but knowing that a path is the wrong one is always worth something.

If I’ve got one lesson to teach anyone, let it be the danger of sheepishly following along. One has to find their own direction, otherwise we’re just eating and shitting until we die.

Also though, I’d still advise a map in Buenos Aires, but boy can you learn a few things without one.

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.” Robert Pirsig