I’ve really enjoyed Study Abroad but it hasn’t felt like a vacation. While I have had the least work in Buenos Aires I am not probably building my worst GPA ever. What's more, I don’t quite care. Early on I saw that I could either spend as much time as possible doing work and trying to earn good marks but I realized that, at least for me, it might not pay off. I tend to work long hours and get the same or poorer grades than my classmates. I decided that as long as I was going to be here I would consciously try to experience as much as possible while trying my best to get good grades and, more importantly, learn.
It has been an interesting social experiment. I have spent many (though I’d say an average) amount of nights staying out until 4 or 6 AM. I’ve developed a taste for Fernet branca and Coca-cola. I have had some of the best times of my life—that I can remember. I’ve also felt very lonely at times. These are the swings of Study-Abroad which rings of high-school more than college. Actually, much about study abroad echoes the social situations of those formative years. A relatively small group of young adults are dropped in a new environment and though they are unclosed in a semi-permeable bubble the new surroundings (or something else) cause them to jump for friend groups and mates. I have gotten to know a few people in this program quite well but I still feel like a stranger to most. Is this a bad thing? No, yet when our group split up to either go to Paraguay or Salta last weekend I got to know kids that I had not spoken to before and now I wish I had more time with them before we jet back home and blend into the massive student body in the fall. I will have to be better about staying in touch with people who I’ve studied abroad with. Maybe that is what I hope will change most when I return—my difficulty with keeping up with good people. It was also difficult not to think about my worries about social situations and meshing with others on this trip. While I tried to be more care-free, in-the-moment and all that I think I learned that being in a new place can either help or hinder getting one’s groove (so to speak). It’s really up to the person.
I don’t want to end this class and (in a way) this program thinking along such difficult lines. Studying abroad has made me more comfortable with my self in relation to other people more than it has left me sensitized to social interaction. I have enjoyed most all my classes (though Economics needs to be retooled) and have definitely improved at speaking Spanish. I am very happy with my home stay and think that it is one of the best ways to separate oneself from the familiar.
I only have one solid recommendation. I wish NYU Study Abroad made it easier to take classes at other schools in Buenos Aires. I understand this goes against the program’s distinction and organization but that is why I say it. Every argentine who asked me where I studied assumed I was an exchange student or taking classes at UBA or some other school. I know some students in this program who stayed two semesters and, in the second, took some classes outside. I’ve heard that it was difficult for them to set this up. It should not have been.
Things I will remember years from now:
-Hanging with the Bohemians until dawn on Av. Independencia
-My first harmonica lesson
-Radiohead at Club Ciudad
-Bariloche with Liz, David, Summer, and Evelyn
-My night in a tent at the foot of volcan Lanín
-The Village Recoleta movie theater
-Avenida 9 de Julio and Santa fe
-Drinking mate with Malvinas veterans
-Being there when Alfonsin died
-Reading at the Feria del Libro
-Learning to walk before I could tango
I originally signed up for this blog because I was excited to use my new digital camera to publish my own images on a site. When I heard that a family friend had gone to Buenos Aires and gotten his camera stolen I backed down and decided not to bring my own. For the first month or so I used other peoples’ pictures and ones I found on the web. Then my parents brought a camera down which was smaller and more practical and I began to integrate a few original pictures into my posts; but by then this course was well underway and I no longer cared most about the graphics. Instead, blogging became a way to distill some of the thought processes that were going on in my head or to clear those processes away and respond to a prompt or reading that I had not seen or considered before.
I liked blogging but it never became a habit. It was less like a work-weekly activity and more like a somewhat stressful though usually enjoyable unburdening that happened in clumps as the semester progressed. In this way I don’t think that I experienced part of what blogging is said to be about. And I think that if I were to take this course again I would try to post more regularly. The way I (and many people, especially those I know in Buenos Aires) did it did not feel exactly like a blogging class. But I don’t consider this a failure on my or the course’s part. Each post was an experience in rehashing experiences, feelings, and opinions within a structure that I felt was loose enough to let my thoughts flow.
This class is very different because of Steve’s Wizard-of-Oz manner of teaching. I received a few e-mails from him towards the beginning but other than that I barely feel the presence of the teacher. I do wonder about how my performance is being evaluated, whether my posts are being seen as good or bad but I realized that if I received any of that information this class would cease to be about blogging. Responses are not papers and though I’m sure they will be graded with some element of normative university policy I have not worried about that when I have written responses and I appreciate that.
What would have made it better? I think that it is good that Steve wasn’t as strict as he could have been about the schedule for turning in posts. I think it is best to respond more regularly—to make blogging a habit rather than a confusing mixture of duty and pleasure. Yet it was difficult to make this habit and maybe (maybe) it would have been easier had there been more occasions to write on an open topic instead of a prompt. That said, I think all the prompts were helpful. Maybe my main criticism relates to the timing of the class in relation to the study abroad programs. In New York school is over and kids from a few of the programs that began with Spring semester are back at home as well. Meanwhile the students in Buenos Aires and Shanghai have a few more weeks left meaning our final thoughts are going to be sent out (tonight) before I think my actual final impressions have taken shape. This is a casualty of school-schedules and the beginning of summer-term which I don’t know how to solve. All and all, I have really enjoyed this course and think it is a meaningful addition to the travel experience. Thank you.
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To every one but especially those with classes they need to take in London or jobs they want to get n Shanghai:
Try tango. People stare will stare at you on the streets, in cafes—people-watch, and, as a veteran of this program told me, look back. In the weeks before you go it would be helpful to keep up with you blog posts; I didn’t because I was a bit scholastically disoriented but I think it would have prefaced my trip in a different way. And yes this is a trip. Did I live here? Yes. But it was travel, constantly travel, if very subtlety so.
If you want to see more disco balls than appear in Saturday night fever go to Museum in San Telmo on Peru. If you want to see Frida Kaulo with a parrot on her shoulder or a painting called “The Disasters of Mysticism” and so much more go to the malba in Palermo. If you can’t stand the site of mass quantities of meat don’t go, Argentina thrives off cows, ham, and feed. If you want to see villas fifteen minutes away from the capital where Peron made most of a country fall in love with him what you should do is look behind the Retiro bus station. I have yet to visit the Holocaust museum because I found out about it yesterday but I would bet its worth seeing too.
You may not see more than an eighth of the barrios in Buenos Aires. NYU is situated very centrally and the building is beautiful. It also used to be Angola’s embassy here. I don’t think they pay the guards enough to work there as some have to stay overnight but that is normal for Buenos Aires.
If you can speak any Spanish at all I would recommend trying the home-stay option. I lived in Retiro, relatively far from most everyone else in the program. This made it somewhat more difficult to meet up with people and I was always the guy holding everyone’s money at the end of a cab ride with multiple stops. But it was great. I’m not going to guarantee a thing but living with Argentines is different than living with people (like you might be) traveling through Argentina. Try to remember, you’re not staying here. But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel comfortable.
Get to know the bars, the cafes, the monuments that strike you, the customs that puzzle you. Make argentine friends. Get to know indie kids, scenesters, club-goers, travelers, dancers, people who talk to you, and people who you want to talk you. Learn who Sarmiento is and if you meet someone named Facundo it won’t be interesting unless you have read about Civilización y Barbarie. It’s a big theme here. Leave Buenos Aires. See, if not touch Perrito Moreno which s growing at the same rate that it is disappearing.
Almost everyday has clear blue skies which makes it difficult to get used to the weather here. I will miss the weather so much. Drink the wine. Know what telos are. Its ok to be a little jubilant. Study Abroad is an idea that you will get but shouldn’t cling to.
If I don’t come back here I will regret it.
When de Botton talks about habit his main point is that we tend to simplify the spaces (areas, neighborhoods, streets, worlds) that we spend the most time in down to functionality. We miss points of view, namely imagined points of view that others may have and we miss the romantic and interesting for the pragmatic. I have taken up habits in Buenos Aires as I’m sure most have in their respective study abroad sites but the habits that de Botton talks about take form in the place that some call home. As I’m preparing to prepare to leave this city I think about how the spectrum of homes I feel connected to right now.
First there is the home that there is no place like. I like to poke fun at my liberal college Massachusetts town but as I write this I can think of places and not just people that are important to me there. A bridge in the woods near a middle school that I never went to, a park I used to run races around. Though I wouldn’t say these places are a part of me in any way I do think that they hold a significance that one who doesn’t live in my town would have a harder time appreciating. In a larger sense I thank my summer camp which is based on walking around my town much like de Botton (though it is of course different when you’re leading a group of kids) for a greater appreciation of the daily life that most people pass by in their cars.
I also think of New York which is still a place of discovery. I feel most like a New Yorker when I’m commuting. I also realize that I spend most of my time in the city with the same people in the same places be they school-related or not. When I get back I want to change that and if there is a place that one can constantly discover new things it is New York. One can feel at home there but I think it would never be the same feeling that de Botton has for his quiet English hometown or I have for the town I grew up in.
Then there is Buenos Aires. I wouldn’t call it home at all though I definitely feel an attachment to my bedroom that feels detached from travel. I still wake up to my host family eating breakfast and think, for an instant, that I’m back in the US. My room here is totally different than any room I have ever slept in but having a place that has not changed and that I have returned to almost every night for the past three months makes it special. And my commute here has not lost all romanticism. I have realized here that I like the bus more than the subway. I’ll say I want to take the bus instead because of the light, passing across Nueve de Julio, the street noise, and the nicer temperature. Yet I’ve realized how frustratingly held up the bus can get with the traffic in this city , that inefficiency that de Botton talks about. I’ve realized that the subway may be faster, and not take my monedas so sometimes I’ll take but if I can I still take the bus. Even though I opt for the more pleasurable transport (and often end up regretting it) I think that the fact that I still choose the bus exemplifies a habit specific to this city and my time here. This has not been a vacation to the Barbados; this is a different type of travel—longer, more complex, more quotidian yet not normal.
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Benjamin describes the structure of public spaces and tries to reason how people relate to those spaces.
De Botton describes the smells, colors, and ideas that all places carry with them so as to get a better idea of why he feels those spaces are significant and when are they significant.
“Yacht y Golf” is a lush hotel in Paraguay, about half an hour from Asuncion. This past weekend half of our group traveled out of Argentina to stay at this place and tour the area surrounding the city.
I am breaking a rule here. I know the assignment is to describe a place in the country where we are staying. But I have been here long enough for most every place I walk into to fit into a scheme of normalcy. I thought about what I could describe in Argentina. Cafes like Café Martinez, a chain that evokes Starbucks all over the city (or at least downtown). Museums like the malba which shows contemporary Latin American art which is fascinating yet it was the art that caught my attention when I visited—and somehow it was not the place. I could discuss the NYU building which used to be the embassy for an African country (I can’t find out which) until the university bought it. The building is beautiful where the rooms haven’t been redone to look like classrooms on 25 west fourth or that building across from Coles. Dull white ceilings and a lot of traffic. I like going there but for the people, not the place.
I think that I will remember my trip to Paraguay for two reasons: getting to hang out with people from the program who I haven’t talked to before and the strange, excessive, bizarre, yet not absurd place that was Yacht y Golf. I am writing about Yacht y Golf because it fits into the type of description and thought processes which Benjamin and De Botton evoke, namely the impressions given by structure (décor, architecture), common conceptions and themes.
The lobby of Yacht y Golf has light-colored walls and half drawn curtains and seems dark. On your left you can look through a wall of glass with glue marks on the edges of the panes where they attach to the wooden frames. Through that glass you can see a false waterfall issuing from jagged rocks and clusters of tropical-looking plants. In the lobby there is a table with a chessboard to the left, golden pelican statues on coffee tables and an enormous wooden carving of five indigenous-looking faces grimacing (what does this mean? More importantly, does that description alone give you an image?).
The most of the rooms are ample with one enormous bed and mirrors on the wall across from the headboard. The décor is straight from another era that I would call the seventies. A lot of gold-colored things (sinks, reading lights, ashtrays) and dark tones. You can still smoke in the rooms, that’s a time-warp in itself.
In the basement (also the beach-level) are the suits. Though each of these is different all have multiple rooms and beds, jacuzzis, and enormous mirrors above the master beds. While the Ambassador suite gives off a very official vibe with its early twentieth century furniture (lots of exposed wood) and frenetic blue paisley walls, the Presidential suite hides nothing with its design based on mirrors, red and black leather furniture, and paintings of mushroom clouds. As one of our program heads said, “these are rooms where rich old men take their mistresses far away to do things they don’t want to be remembered for”.
From what I have said here Yacht y Golf as a place tries to imitate the idea of the luxury hotel. Maybe if I mention the clay tennis courts open 24 hours, golf course, two pools, spa, multiple bars, and waterslide you better will understand this attempt at place. I don’t think the attempt was successful, at least not for many of the students who went on the trip. What I heard more than anything from them was that Yacht y Golf was bizarre, overdone, and phony. I agree with all these descriptions. But there is something else.
The blatant difference between the abject poverty that surrounded the resort made everyone hyper-aware of the inequality in Paraguay. We all felt a bit guilty staying there. We all felt like we weren’t experiencing the real Paraguay. It occurred to me though, that while Yacht y Golf may be bizarre it was not absurd. Absurdity connotes the absence of sense and Yacht y Golf makes a lot of sense. In a way it needs to exist as an indicator of the “harsh reality” of inequality in the world. We can’t escape rich and poor. We can not escape the gap between them. When I thought of this I didn’t only think of the resort as an addition to the image of the luxury hotel but as an appropriately luxurious response to quotidian life in Paraguay. But in this sense we were experiencing the real Paraguay—the reality and immensity of the resort; the reality and immensity of the gap. I tried not to think about it while I was there. I was a fun weekend.
In my creative writing class here I read Walter Benjamin for the first time. Wikipedia describes him as a “German Jewish Marxist Literary Critic” and I smile. I guess he is that, or at least that’s one way to categorize him. Benjamin is also identified with the Frankfurt school, the same institution responsible for a solid chunk of introductions to sociology and cultural studies. His works read as snippets of his own writing interspersed with swaths of quotations from an immense mental collection of sources. In a way I relate him to Borges because both men write very consciously as members of a larger tradition. But Benjamin is not a fiction writer so his texts include the words which inspired them. Reading a chapter from The Arcades Project, a collection of essays vaguely focused around the Parisian arcades of the late nineteenth century, reads like an expanded and engaging reference work which strives to catalogue the sense of an era—the sense of space in particular.
In class we read a chapter on the Flâneur. In his own indirect and multi-voiced way Benjamin defines the Flâneur in many ways but most simply as an urban wanderer who experiences the city as they walk through streets and the emerging bustling public spaces which began to characterize Paris towards the end of the 1800s. The Flâneur has an encyclopedic knowledge of the city. They know its history; the gory details, the pomp and circumstance. Yet the monuments don’t attract them as much as do the people. The Flaneur is a fly-on-the-wall but not as insignificant or invisible. Benjamin calls him or her a journalist and a detective, but with stories only for themselves. Yet the Flaneur is also “buoyant” and a true lover of life as opposed to a urban hermit like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov or the Man in the Crowd, a mysterious figure in Edgar Allen Poe’s story by the same title which Benjamin cites multiple times in his essay on Flânerie.
I took The Arcades Project out of the library and found a short essay titled “Mirrors” in which Benjamin muses about the rising number of mirrors in the Paris, “in cafes and restaurants, in shops and stores, in haircutting salons and literary salons, in baths and everywhere”. He devotes much of his time describing why mirrors are used. To expand space. To spread light. To support egotism. He also gets at how mirrors transform things. He says that all the mirrors, especially in the arcades, evoke ambiguity; “for although this mirror world may have many aspects, indeed infinitely many, it remains ambiguous, double-edged.”
I chose to write about “Mirrors” because I’ve had my own musings about mirrors here in Buenos Aires. Soon after I got here I realized that there were not only mirrors in cafes and restaurants but there were also small reflective rectangles in subway cars by the doors (for security), not to mention many newer buildings have tall tinted windows on their first floors which I have seen people adjusting their appearance in on more than one occasion. The mirrors in the busses are in the same places as they are in New York but they are engraved with delicate and ornate designs. I ended up asking the same question that Benjamin did. What is at the root of Buenos Aires’ obsession (too strong?) with mirrors. Amplification of space. Egotism. To spread light. But here there is something else.
At first I guessed (more hoped than guessed) that mirrors might be so common because of the silver found in Argentina and Latin America when Buenos Aires was beginning to take shape. Mirrors are made by joining a thin layer of silver to a pate of glass and Argentina was named for Argentum, a Greek epithet for silver. When my parents visited I posed the question to my dad and he didn’t have to think before he said, “Paris”. When I saw Benjamin’s essay and read his descriptions I saw a similarity and a relation. Here, the designs of the oldest cafés and many important buildings were taken from European models. The landowning class’ desire to appear Enlightened, French, Spanish, Parisian. The mirrors here may reflect a society preoccupied with appearance, aesthetics, and seeing over the shoulder, being the fly on the wall while sipping a café con leche; but the mirrors are also a symbol of a reflection conjured from across the Atlantic. Talk about amplification of space.
The film tells the story of two girls, each around twenty years old. One, Lala, is the daughter of a wealthy family that lives in Buenos Aires. The other, Guayi, is a servant in Lala’s house. The two fall in love and, as imdb so curtly summarizes: the girls, “unable to find a place for their love in the world they live in, are pushed to commit a crime”. But it is a mistake to classify this movie as a social drama dealing with the touchy issue of homosexuality in Latin America. It seems that “the world [that the girls] live in” is more forbidding because of the class differences between them. Guayi is Paraguayan and while I am no expert I have the feeling from being here a few months that the two countries are seen as completely different. While my image of Argentina prioritizes Buenos Aires and urban culture Paraguay has no comparable city. Paraguay’s population is also more impoverished. Yet what makes Paraguay an interesting choice is the enormous population (the majority) of Paraguayans who speak the indigenous language, guaraní, if only because it so clearly suggests the legacy antecedent to Spain’s.
Yet the main character is not Guayi but Lala who flees home early in the story to visit Guayi’s home. The film does not take you to the most rural, urban, or impoverished part of Paraguay—it takes you to Guayi’s past. I liked how the images could portray the difference in the landscape while maintaining a focus on the story. Lucía Puenzo has also made a movie called XXY about a hermaphrodite. I want to see that to see if she deals with the social and sexual themes there as deftly as she does here.
In El niño pez Lala is played by Inés Efron, who played Alex, the lead of XXY. Efron does not have the same beauty as Mariela Vitale, who plays Guayi. Maybe I can clarify what I mean if I tell you that Vitale appeared nude in playboy not long ago. Vitale has a commercial beauty, a look that can be marketed because somehow it signifies something verifiable. I might compare her to Megan Fox from the Transformers movies in this way. I wanted to clarify this because, although I think Efron was casted for her superior acting talent and history with the director I also think her appearance was engineered to compliment Vitale’s. Lala dresses in tank-tops and jeans while Guayi wears short skirts and thongs. Lala is skinny and pale. Guayi exudes the exotic, the indigenous—think Disney’s Pocahontas.
Throughout the movie Lala is followed when she leaves Buenos Aires and returns to find her world turned inside out. She sees Guayi with a man and feels extremely jealous. One of my friends pointed out that this jealousy smacked of the machismo culture that I have gotten to know a little better on the streets and in the boliches of Buenos Aires. And, without going too far, I think that Efron’s character is intentionally made more masculine in contrast with Vitale’s. I am not sure what to make of the gender scripting mixed with class and sexuality but I certainly think argentine cultural values heavily affected how this story was put together, for better and for worse.
After a month or so in Buenos Aires I decided I wanted to play an instrument. I played trombone from third to twelfth grade and even tried guitar in middle school (isn’t that the most likely time a kid would want to learn guitar?) but the one instrument I have always tried to play and given up on is harmonica.
I wanted to learn tango. Tango on the chromatic harmonica which is distinct because it enables the player to play every note instead of only playing notes in one key. The chromatic harmonica means you could use one harmonica for any song. I bought a cheap (relatively) after a week or so of back-and-forth-shouldIreallybuythis—then I did.
I was just screwing around with it until I happened upon a milonga where I saw a slightly balding, scruffy, paunchy dude playing harmonica and (in fact) leading a band playing tango. This was my chance and I asked him if he’d give me lessons. He said sure (and spoke English well) and asked what kind of harmonica I had. A Chrometta 10.
“Oh that’s shit man.”
That’s the first thing I remember Rafael telling me.
He seems like he’s in his late thirties. Divorced. We had the first lesson in the park by my home-stay and he biked from far way to be there. We couldn’t have it at his place because he was living with his ex-wife at that time and as one might expect, he told me “it isn’t a good situation.” So we sat down in the park and he taught me how to get a better sound. He wasn’t a professional teacher but rather a musician who, like many of the (few) artists I have met here, teaches anything they can to make extra cash. He told me I needed to cover the holes on the instrument more, surround them with my mouth, “like eating a p***y.” This comparison would come up again. It’s part of who Rafael is. I think it shows how Argentine he is.
But he’s not from Buenos Aires. The reason why he can speak English so well is because he spent two years teaching snowboarding in Vermont. The reason why he can snowboard is because he spent some of his childhood with his father at their home in Bariloche, the gateway to some of the best skiing on the continent. I think his parents split up when he was young. His father is alive but his mother died a few years ago. He still keeps an embroidered flower in his wallet to remember her by.
The next few lessons were at a clean apartment he was renting as long as he could. For a few weeks this French woman stayed with him. He lived in France for a few months and could speak more or less fluently. She had bought him a top-of-the-line harmonica in France, something he couldn’t buy in Argentina. But it was the best.
He didn’t have the money to pay for it so he asked me if I wanted to buy his old harmonica—a nice Hohner. I eventually decided to buy it for 200 pesos less than retail along with his snowboarding jacket thrown in for free. I felt like I was ripping him off and he seemed sad to sell both but he really needed the money for the new harmonica.
He is a patient teacher and he has a passion for music. He freely admits that he teaches tango classes to get laid. He loves to snowboard. He says he has to dance every day or he feels sick. I haven’t heard from him in a month.
I had always wanted to go on a, no the road trip—the American road trip, the cross country ride that takes a group of friends from the cold (eternally) east to the sweltering south through the dry southwest, over the mountains and into Balmy California. It’s a figment within the American Dream, a journey that made Louis, Clark, and Jack Nicholson’s career. The ride is never easy but its always life changing.
I never went on said trip in the United States. Gas got too expensive. One needs to be at least twenty-five to rent a car. Weeks after landing in Argentina I began to fantasize about driving along the south American coast. Windows down. Music blaring. Running out of cigarettes. The open road. But when I finally verbalized my plan in a casual “so what are you doing for Spring Break” conversation I was shut down by a simple question: “Do you know how to drive stick?” Of course I don’t. I don’t even like to drive very much. I get tired and bored easily. What I liked about my road trip idea was just that, the idea. There were plenty of other fun things to do over break; a car would just complicate things.
It was that disappointment that made renting a car with a group of friends in Bariloche that much more exciting. We picked up a list of rental places at the tourist office and “A Rent-a-Car,” in all of its blissfully ESL redundancy, was the first one with vehicles available. Our group of five sat in the small office within a one-story galleria. We paid a soft-spoken balding man in cash and gave him the numbers of my passport, my friend’s drivers license, and a third companion’s credit card number. But we paid in cash. It was thirty pesos a day split five ways. Our white Chevy sedan had a broken radio and windshield wiper. It took Alex, the only one of us who had any experience with a stick shift, twenty minutes to pull onto the street. This lapse was duly noted by the nice man who’d just trusted the vehicle to us.
We had rented that car for four days, from Sunday to Wednesday, but we only had it for two. In two days we drove to Colonia Suiza, a strange mock-village inhabited by chocolatiers and artisans (“artisan” is thrown around a lot in this region) and scaled the hills and narrow roads around Mount Tronador. Destination-wise these trips were dull. Mount Tronador is the highest peak in the region but all we saw of it was water falling—albeit beautifully—down its southern side from a viewing point bounded by Lincoln-log-like railings. Before the waterfalls was the main attraction, a waning glacier lying in a murky lake. Looking back, I equate these sites with the highway gimmicks of the fabled road trip. The World’s Biggest Donut. A sandwich with Jesus’ face toasted into it. Blank, the Eighth Wonder of the World. But before we got to the glacier we sat in the car, rolling uncertainly up and down narrow roads listening to music from portable speakers I’d bought in Bariloche, worrying about how little gas we had left and having a great time. A key part of the American road trip is that the journey outbalances the inevitable disappointment of the destination.
We made it all the way back to our hostel before the clutch gave out. Sure Alex wasn’t a pro but we figured the car had been a lemon to begin with and we fell asleep thinking we’d just trade it in for a fresh vehicle the next day for our trip El Bolson. Yet when we got to A Rent-a-Car we learned that in Argentina, when they think you broke the car, you have to pay for it. Now came the next part of the journey—the guilty call home. Mom, I took (well figuratively) the car, it broke, can you help? One girl called her father, a car enthusiast, who told her it was ridiculous that we’d be charged for breaking the clutch—we hadn’t driven it long enough for the damage to be all our fault. Another parent wasn’t so understanding. “You fucking rented a car?...and you didn’t get insurance?” Well we weren’t sure if had gotten insurance or not but that parent, a mother, was also the one who stayed on the phone with her daughter, found a lawyer friend in Bariloche and promised us that we would get away with it. And we would have if it hadn’t been for those meddling Argentines at A Rent-a-Car who promptly charged the damage to the credit card we supplied before it supplier could reach her mom to ask her to close the account. That fact that our fate had been partially decided by a joint account made us all feel younger and not in the way that the road trip is supposed to.
In the end we rented another car at Hertz. The same day that we lost our first vehicle we took that second one down Route 40 (arguably the Route 66 of Argentina) to El Bolson, a village three hours south of Bariloche which experienced a large influx of hippies in the seventies making it touristy and unique at the same time. The spike in be-dreaded wanderers and weed didn’t make me feel like I had traveled back in time but instead that I’d come upon a place that had ceased to travel through time or had taken its own route at any rate.
When we returned that car the next day we were confident that we wouldn’t be charged for any damages but the burnt chemical smell in the cabin betrayed us and we were in fact charged the exact same amount to fumigate as A Rent-a-Car had asked for an entirely new clutch. We left Hertz with plans to contest the charge to Visa and grimly aware of the fact that in Argentina they make you pay for you mistakes. And this was how the road trip and indeed my trip with my friends ended. That morning two of them left for Mendoza and the next day I left for Parque Lanin up north. There is always a dramatic parting and a low point in the road trip. But we had made plans to separate before our spirits and wallets were sunk. This parting was merely hectic.
Before we parted we all agreed that the cars or “the car” had defined our stay in Bariloche. And maybe that is all the American road trip is finally about.
I was tired when I got home and I have a TV bolted to the wall at the head of my bed so I could do little but watch it. Almost the moment I turned the news on a notice came on the bottom of the screen announcing Raul Alfonsín, the president who governed Argentina after the fall of the last military coup ended in 1983, had just been pronounced dead. A crowd was forming a few blocks away from my host-family’s house on Avenida Santa Fe. People were crying. Waiting for something to happen, for someone to come out of the doors after the doctor came out to announce Alfonsín’s death. I turned off the television, put my camera in my bag and left.
I wanted to get an idea of what this event meant to the people who gathered by that door and Argentines in general. There wasn’t any sign of a change as I walked up Santa Fe. I had thought that maybe the streets would gradually fill with people shouting and marching towards the crowd they saw on the evening news. But the streets were quiet either because people hadn’t heard or didn’t want to go out in the street with the radicals, or maybe the country had moved on and the group that I’d seen mourning Alfonsín was a meaningless minority. I’m not sure.
The block was marked off and the crowd was growing. I awkwardly moved around people some holding candles, some teary-eyed. In the center of the crowd there dozens of candles. In front of the building were Alfonsín was there were several television crews. I saw the young reporter I’d just seen on TV and looked at all the lights and tripods, microphones and emptied packages of Duracell batteries on the sidewalk. Because I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of Alfonsín to these people I felt like an observer. Wanting to cheer but without the words. And I realized that none of the camera technicians or anchors were crying. This was work and when they weren’t shooting they were scrambling for batteries and a good angle. When they were shooting the cameramen would constantly yell at the people with microphones shoved in their face (these were politicians who seemed used to it) to step down. One reporter, a blonde woman, became known as “ey, rubia flaca” (skinny blonde) after the cameramen told her to crouch down a few dozen times during one interview. These are things one doesn’t see on the news. The rush and the problems, the idea that your job distances you from telling the story that your trying to communicate with feeling to viewers at home.
So there were smiles and tears around Raul Alfonsín tonight. I’m not sure what to think of him but I can say that his death did not cause a media-frenzy or a popular demonstration but rather a contained mixture of both.