Greetings again from Buenos Aires. I arrived on July 10, and of course I have a plan. It’s a bit ambitious, maybe even a little over the top. Argentina is a very large country, the eighth largest in the world for area. It is about 2/3 the size of the continental U.S., and it has virtually every type of topography and climate imaginable, from glaciers to deserts to jungle to very high mountains (including the 2nd highest in the world after Mt. Everest as measured by the topographic prominence method of height) to vast savanna. I have divided the country into eight regions, and I intend to spend about three months in each of those regions exploring, interviewing, photographing, and writing for publication. I will use the internet and referrals to find lodging with families in their homes. How better to learn the history and culture of a country than to hear it from those who have spent their lives there? I will leave Argentina periodically for travel assignments to other parts of the world, but will return to Argentina as my base of operations. At the end of the project I will write and seek a publisher for a comprehensive English-language cultural history of Argentina, as told to me by Argentines.
I am using Workaway and other websites to find my accommodations, and I am seeking sponsors to cover the travel expenses. I have made application in about a dozen places so far, including one situation in a jungle (at least I assume it is, because it lists anaconda as part of the wildlife I could encounter and presumably photograph); another is helping out in a tango studio in Buenos Aires (taking lessons for free is part of the deal). Yet another is working in the fields as a laborer in the vineyards of Mendoza. My requirements are good internet reception and free lodging, and the freedom to spend half of every day doing my explorations, photography, research, and writing.
Since I started writing this blog post three weeks ago, and am just now publishing it due to technical difficulties, I have confirmed my first situation, which will be in a region in the far NE of Argentina called Mesopotamia. The area includes 1.4 million hectares of pristine wilderness, rainforest and wetlands, probably the second largest such natural paradise left on the planet. In addition to hundreds of species of birds, there are caimans, rheas, capybaras, jaguars, and apparently an occasional anaconda, that I would guess feeds off of the other species. I anticipate getting included in private tours into the interior conducted by the native gauchos. I have secured free lodging in a private residence in exchange for teaching English to about five children, ages 8-12. It will take me about 15 hours by bus to reach my destination, and I leave Wednesday night. But I am getting ahead of myself. Back to my trip into Buenos Aires for my second extended stay and the reason for the title of this little essay:
The hearing aid legacy
Because of my unpleasant experience last year with a lost hearing aid (See my blog post The Other Argentina), I realized that if anything goes wrong while visiting Argentina, such as with my laptop, camera, or peripherals, finding parts, if they are available at all, will be prohibitively priced at 300-400% mark-up, or substantial bribes may be required to have them shipped into the country ($1,000 USD got mentioned as a suitable bribe for me to take possession of my free hearing aid shipped here from Florida in the U.S. This in addition to several hundred dollars in import tariffs. I refused delivery and the authorities shipped my hearing aid back to Florida, where I picked it up on my return to the States.) So I became afraid and cautious, which means that this time I really loaded up.
Learning to fear
Now the first rule of the experienced traveler is to travel light. I know this. But this time I was afraid. Not only because of the hearing aid situation, but once during my last visit here, I spilled some beer on my laptop and I was extremely fortunate that not one, but two expert IT guys worked on cleaning the inside of my laptop with isopropyl alcohol and Q-tips. Unlike the official authorities, they refused to take any payment of any kind for their time and knowledge. They restored my laptop to mint condition and flawless working order. But what would I have done without them? Then just before I left to come here this time, the letter S fell off my keyboard and I had to replace the entire keyboard. You can’t just replace a single letter. So I got to thinking, what if another letter falls off my keyboard, for whatever reason? Replacing the keyboard, if even possible, would most likely cost me more than a new laptop in the States. Or what if my mouse quit working? Or . . . ? For the record I am now exceedingly careful to keep food and drink away from my laptop.
Fear of authorities
So I loaded up with spare parts. I also wanted some English language books not available on Kindle to take along. I wanted samples of my work, which meant some print magazines not available online, and a few copies of Malpractice, the book I ghostwrote for a client and that is now on sale at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
By the time I got to the airport in Tampa, somehow I had one large suitcase, one heavy backpack, one rolling file case with all my work papers, my camera case and tripod, and my small travel purse with my passport, meds, cash, and credit cards. My suitcase and backpack were over the weight limit, so by the time I solved that problem I had a couple more carry-ons than was allowed, but for some reason the airline let me get away with it. Until I went to board. The flight attendant took one look at me and said “You’ve got a lot going on there.”
To my ears, that was as polite and poetic as “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Then they took some more stuff off of me and checked it through (without charge, amazingly), so that when I arrived in Buenos Aires, my baggage which had now spontaneously propagated, required a cart to haul, with six pieces. I now resembled a human camel.
I was nervous when I approached customs, because everything I had so carefully packed had been totally rearranged and I no longer knew where anything was. And the usual customs declaration page had been revised by the Argentine authorities and included the most dire warnings about pressing smuggling charges against anyone who tried to bring superfluous electronic gadgetry into the country, and I looked like an outpost of Radio Shack. But I got to the xray machine and loaded all my stuff and then asked the guy if he wanted me to get on the belt as well. He understood me and laughed, and then asked me where I was from, and by the time we were done with all that, my stuff was on the other side of the machine waiting for me. As I walked away, I looked over my shoulder and saw him pull the next guy over, who had only one small bag, and was asking him to empty it out onto a table. I now realize I am not cut out for a life of smuggling. Way too nerve-wracking for my taste.
Fear of homelessness and uncertainty
Then there is the hostel to deal with. Yes, the hostel. Because I hadn’t had enough time to get my lodging lined up in advance, and the whole process is all so vague and uncertain about who will respond, and when, and will I want what I finally end up with, and this is all being done with strangers and you have spent a lot of money getting to where they live, and maybe the last five miles is up a dusty road, or worse, a muddy river, and where, exactly do the anacondas hide? So I am temporarily in a holding pattern in a different Buenos Aires hostel, awaiting acceptance by strangers to bring me into their private home far from the capital city. The taxi driver spoke no English, and abruptly stopped in the middle of traffic and unloaded all my stuff on the sidewalk, and it took me fifteen minutes to figure out how to load it all onto my back and two hands. Then I couldn’t find the hostel at the address listed. It turned out to be on the second floor with very steep steps and no elevator. Happily they saw me bent over, coming up the stairs, one painful step at a time, like Jean Valjean hauling the carriage out of the mud (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo) and two guys rushed down the stairs to carry my stuff up, each one exclaiming how heavy my bags were. They were all very nice, and I was incredibly grateful to see them coming down the stairs to help me.
Fear for my stuff
At check-in the hostel charged me 1100 pesos rent for the first five days, which sounds outrageous until I do the calculations and realize it is only $65 for five days, and that includes breakfast. I get a bunk bed and a locker, but the lockers are made of that composition board that is about as strong as sawdust, and the hasp of the lock has the screws exposed, and can easily be unscrewed to gain entry to your locker.
I had a tiny lock with a super tiny key, so I load up my locker and lock it, and within five minutes I can’t find my tiny key. I panic, because now my most important valuables, including my purse, money, and all ID, are locked up in this locker to which I no longer have a key. So I take a bottle opener and unscrew the hasp of the lock, and presto, I have executed forced entry into my own locker. The fact that it would be this easy for anyone else is not lost on me. However, as I replace the screws into the composition board, they slip from my fingers and fall to the floor. I get out my flashlight to look under the bed for them, and so as not to disturb others asleep in the room. I can’t find the screws. I have now lost the keys to my lock, and the screws to the hasp.
Fear is exhausting
I am under a fast approaching deadline for some articles. I collapse on the bunk bed, with my backpack as my footrest to elevate my swollen feet, and my laptop is my pillow. I fall fast asleep. I wake up about midnight, go out to the tiny community room and there are musicians playing and singing for no one in particular, and there are two or three others amusing themselves with their cell phones.
An older guy is channel surfing on the small wall-mounted TV. The reception is bad and the screen has a lot of electronic snow. I videotape the room. When they wind down for the night, I get out my laptop and write until 4 a.m. By then either exhaustion or the Malbec wine or both ease my way into sleep.
I wake up late, the cold rain has stopped, and sunshine is flooding through the double French doors leading to a tiny balcony off of my dorm room. No one else is around. I must have overslept. In the effulgence of noon light, I experience a rush of new enthusiasm for what I am about.
I make my way to the balcony doors and pull the drapes to one side. Or try to. They fall to the floor at my feet. I climb up on my chair, noting as I do that the seat is loose and screws are sticking up from it on the corners. Sitting down in a hurry or the wrong way could be dangerous to parts of my anatomy. I stand on the chair and manage to get the drapes back in place, suspended from something that looks like a heavy metal coat hanger, sturdy enough to hold the weight of the drapes as long as you don’t attempt to open them.
Fear of plumbing
This morning I have to learn to navigate the floor I live on. It seems there are small steps up and small steps down where you least expect them, so that my spinal column is being constantly jolted by these unexpected changes in elevation. Especially is this true in the bathroom where the shower stalls have just enough room to turn around in them. The flow of water is good, but when I reach up to adjust the direction of the shower head, it comes off in my hand and falls to the floor. The hot water hasn’t arrived yet, so I am trying to bend over in the cold shower to retrieve the shower head. The cold water is hitting my back like a waterfalls. I am unsuccessful restoring the shower head to its proper place, so I turn the water off and go to the next shower stall.
Fear of breaking the rules
Then there is the toilet. Plumbing in a foreign country should always be approached with extreme caution. Advance planning is everything. First, is there toilet paper? Do you provide your own, or does the house provide it? Next, flush the toilet before you use it. Yes, you are wasting precious water, but it has to be done. You can pretty much forecast the chances of your toilet stopping up with a practice flush. Some are iffy with just water going down. If you stop up a toilet, there is rarely a plunger in the house, probably because no one can remember where the last user left it. In my new abode, Hostel Colonial Buenos Aires, there is a plunger in each stall. This could be a very bad sign, or a good sign. This hostel is either well prepared, or the incidence of stopped up toilets has been so overwhelming that every guest has their own private plumbing supply.
There is an ominous sign on the wall of each toilet stall that reads in Spanish and English: “Please don’t throw toilet paper into the toilet.” I always thought that was what toilets were for. But there is a silhouette diagram of a person throwing paper into the tiny trash can wedged between the side of the toilet and the wall.
I haven’t seen this since Ecuador, where they had these signs everywhere except the new airport in Quito. I thought it was gross to sit on a toilet where right beside your leg was a container of soiled toilet paper. Which in most cases stinks. I wondered why? Are the toilets no good? Does everyone stop up the toilets, and this strategy is to prevent a plumbing epidemic? In Ecuador I wondered what would happen if I broke this rule and flushed my toilet paper? Would the toilet police come? Would there be an outbreak of cholera? Would I be held up to public shame? How would anyone know? Because there wasn’t enough soiled paper in my personal trash can?
But surely a two or three story building in the middle of a big city is not using a septic system. Or are the sewer pipes in the city so old that they cannot handle flow of anything except quickly biodegradable human waste? In America, back in the good old days when we used outhouses, toilet paper was often a luxury and we used Sears catalogs. It was simple because everything dropped straight down. There was nothing to stop up. Here they are discouraging the use of toilet paper being entered into a system that for some reason can’t handle it. Not even Angel Soft. Maybe the toilets are simply an engineering failure; someone has to design these things, and maybe the owner just needs to buy new toilets, and he’s trying to make it look like it’s the city’s fault.
Why they call them “water closets”
I note with interest there is a four-foot hose with tiny shower head on the end of it. Could this be the bidet? Tremulously, I aimed it into the toilet and turned it on. It wasn’t a spray, but a low-pressure, high-volume torrent. I spent just a moment trying to imagine how exactly one aimed this device in the cramped quarters without getting water all over yourself and the floor. I have learned why they call these things in Europe “water closets.” Indeed. I decided I would postpone that learning experience to a later date.
My goal is to be less afraid
At the beginning of this article I told you my plan might be a little over the top, a surfeit of ambition over sense. But I didn’t tell you why. The reason is that my plan includes a determination to lose some of my fear. As you travel, there are so many unknowns, so many adjustments, and so many surprises. You are advised to be super vigilant, and to guard your scarce resources (scarce by intention, as a result of traveling light) with unsustainable intensity. Sooner or later, your focus will lapse and bad things could happen, and how will you cope? Even at home, where everything is familiar to you, on a bad day you can be reduced to anger or tears by the normal difficulties of survival. Now multiply that by the rigors and uncertainties of travel, and you can quickly feel all your self-confidence draining right out of you.
There is only one antidote to this pervasive fear and loss of self-confidence. You have to move forward and give yourself the opportunity to survive in spite of yourself, and learn that you are indeed capable of amazing things. Self-confidence grows with increasing, successful exposure to risk. Eventually it takes more to knock you down. At a certain age, a single missed step can cause a fracture and enormous complications in your life. Your mind and your body respond more slowly and take longer to heal or recover. You pay more attention to details, because more details now become threatening to you. You need people more at precisely the time in your life when there are fewer available to help you. You may become dependent on the kindness of strangers, something you are not used to. Both aging and travel are lessons in humility, and only a fool would be arrogant in such circumstances. And yet many often are just that.
I want to be less afraid, of fewer things. To accomplish this as I grow older, I have to constantly push back at the boundaries of what I dare not attempt, and to resist the sense of life’s opportunities shrinking. Life still is what it is, but I for one will not go quietly into that dark night. If it seems like this blog post has been a litany of complaints, it has been the opposite. I have learned where the hidden steps are, I know which shower to use, they took care of my lock this morning, and in the process I have met some more wonderful people. One young man asked me if I skipped breakfast this morning because I didn’t like the food. I told him the truth, that I didn’t realize a breakfast was included. Now I do.
Tomorrow I may try the bidet. Maybe.
This is the poster they have painted on the wall down the hallway outside my room. It says it all.