“I love traveling and I hate traveling.” - Amanda the Wise
For over thirty years I have celebrated Christmas at home with family and friends. But none of my family were coming this year, and Joe finds the traditions a little tiresome, so we decided to try Christmas away from home. We arranged a trip to Argentina: six days in Buenos Aires, where I was born, and two days at Iguazu Falls. We arrived in Buenos Aires at nine-thirty at night on December 23.
We had rented an apartment in Recoleta, a posh neighborhood filled with trees, parks, cafes and shops. The manager, Mariana, let us in and showed us around. She had stocked the kitchen with coffee, oranges, and chocolate alfajores, cookies filled with dulce de leche. I loved the apartment, with its huge windows, wood floors, hundreds of books and a huge collection of CDs, mostly American music from the sixties and seventies.
After Mariana left we went out to find dinner. I was amazed to find myself out and about at one in the morning. Amanda was impressed to see families with children in all the cafes and restaurants at that hour. After filling up on empanadas and pizza, we returned exhausted to the apartment, ready for bed.
Now we met our first challenge. The key to the building worked fine. The elevator worked fine, though it was barely bigger than a phone booth, and landed each time with a most disquieting shudder and thud. We were on the fourth floor. At the tiny landing shared with one other apartment, Joe took out the ring of three old-fashioned keys. He tried each key in every lock. Ten minutes of trying. He couldn’t open the door.
We went back downstairs to take the rear elevator to the back door. We couldn’t open it. “I’m at a loss,” Joe said. It was past two o’clock. We had been traveling since 6:30 the previous morning. Everything we owned was inside the apartment, including contact information for Mariana. I pictured us lying down to sleep on the landing. Going out to find a hotel. Finding a friendly police officer to help us.
We went back to the front door, Joe tried and tried, as did Amanda, as did I. No one was pleasant, though Amanda and I were smart enough to hold our tongues as Joe struggled. Finally, he did it. Within a few minutes, we were all in bed. The lock was a problem when we came home the next afternoon too, but Joe figured out the proper combination of jiggling and turning and pulling, and we all mastered it.
The next morning I made great coffee, and we feasted on oranges and cookies. Our first and very urgent job was to change money. We knew that stores and everything else would begin to close about noon, and stay closed through at least Christmas day.
Argentina is once again suffering terrible inflation. The official exchange rate is 8.5 to the dollar, but the unofficial “blue’ rate, published daily in the newspaper, is about 13, so no one goes to the bank to change money. People keep and carry huge amounts of cash, and assault and robbery have become more common. (There is a video on You Tube of a tourist being robbed at gunpoint by a man on a motor scooter. I didn’t watch it, having been sufficiently spooked by all the articles I read on the internet.)
Money-changers on the street call out their rate, but they are more likely to give counterfeit pesos, so you go to an exchange office, or casa de cambio. I am befuddled by the ethics of all this, uncomfortable at taking advantage of another country’s economic mess, uneasily telling myself “when in Rome.”
Mariana had drawn us a map for the best casa de cambio - in a gallery-mall next to the snazziest hotel in BA (rooms start at $600 US/night). It was a very long walk, but she said the taxi would wait while we changed our money. We should call first to be sure they were open.
I called - it went to voice mail. I called the snazzy hotel to ask if the mall and cambio were open today, on Christmas Eve. No. The snazzy hotel clerk went off to inquire, and returned to tell me that no casas de cambio were open December 24 or 25. Banks were also closed. They would all open on Friday. But on Friday we were being picked up at 8:30 to spend the day on the Pampas, in gaucho country, and we wouldn’t be back till 8 at night. Cambios don’t open till 10am, not to mention that we needed pesos Wednesday and Thursday.
I called Mariana. “Let me call Carlos.” I’d never heard of Carlos, but that was okay. She called Carlos, who called someone else, and then Mariana called us back with the following instructions. We were to go to a lottery shop in Belgrano, ask for Lucas, although he would not be there, and tell them Carlos sent us. “It’s a code,” Mariana said.
The lottery shop closed at noon, and it was now just before 11. As usual, Amanda was getting a slow start. We told her she could stay behind, but then reconsidered. We could be getting into any kind of mess, and if we didn’t come back, there she’d be all alone. So she had to come with us.
It was easy to hail a cab. Thrilled that my Spanish was quite fluent, I had a long chat with the taxi driver. His son had just graduated from medical school, and they would soon return to Barcelona, where they had lived a dozen years and his four other sons still lived. I told him about my parents, my brothers, our trip to Africa. All the while the clock and the meter were ticking. I asked Joe, “Is that a decimal point after the 82?” Yes, thank God, so the fare so far was only about seven bucks at the blue rate.
We got to the lottery office about 11:45. It was a tiny office, filled with colorful posters listing the numbers you should play depending on your dreams. A man stood at the counter behind a grid. “I’d like to speak to Lucas, please. Carlos sent me.” Briefly I became a willowy blonde in a suit with padded shoulders, smoking a cigarette.
The man said Lucas was not there; how much did we want to exchange? I said 500 dollars. He unlocked the gate. ‘Thank God it’s working,’ I thought. ‘We’re going to be robbed and murdered,’ I thought. But no, he told us he’d give us 13 to the dollar, and pulled out huge wads of 100 peso bills, holding them below the counter so they were not visible from the office or street, and asked us to count them. We exchanged some amiable remarks and walked out with 6500 pesos.
The next day was Christmas, a family holiday. For tourists, it's a good day to visit parks and the famous Recoleta Cemetery. I searched the internet to see what was open. All the parks run by the city of Buenos Aires would be closed; the list included the Lakes of Palermo and the Botanical Garden, but the zoo wasn’t on the list, and the cemetery was open from 7am to 6pm.
While I searched the internet, Joe had mapped our route. A short walk, he said. But Amanda refused to come. The New York Times had an article the other day about the Obamas facing the challenge of traveling with teenagers - I was amused and reassured, as it resembled our experience, though of course the article contained none of the painful details of the sulking, grumbling and carping. And I imagine when the Obamas leave Malia and Sasha to sleep late in a foreign country the girls are under heavy guard. Nevertheless, forcing her to go to the zoo didn’t seem wise, and I wanted to send the message that we knew she would be fine on her own. With some trepidation, we left her, with strict instructions not to go out. I had gone to the supermarket the day before so there were plenty of sandwich fixings in the refrigerator.
It was a beautiful day, with an intensely blue sky, hot sun, cool breezes, and the temperature in the eighties. And it was lovely to be alone with Joe. We walked and walked and walked through Recoleta and into Palermo and finally came to the botanical garden, which looked beautiful through the locked gate. Joe couldn’t understand why you would close a park; it’s not as though you need staff there. I held my tongue.
The zoo entrance was beyond the garden, another long two blocks. It too was locked. I stopped a young couple to ask, and they confirmed that it was closed. “But I looked on the internet and it didn’t say anything about the zoo being closed.” They had done the same; they were also tourists, from Brazil. “I can’t believe this,” said Joe. “That’s because you expect things to work as they should; I assume things will go wrong.” He thought I was criticizing his attitude, but we resolved that. The little frictions of travel are so much easier to smooth out without an adolescent third party observing and commenting.
We walked on past the zoo, which was surrounded by a low stone wall topped by a fence. Graffiti on the wall called for ‘Liberacion de animales’ in red spray paint. ‘Zoo = carcel.’ Then a dialogue: another red ‘Zoo =,’ followed by a swastika. A black border had effaced the hooks of the swastika, leaving a simple box with a red cross inside. Had the second artist been offended by the swastika, or by equating the animals’ imprisonment with the Holocaust?
Dense bamboo blocked our view through the fence. I could hear strange bird calls and monkey screams. Then a gap in the bamboo revealed three llamas standing in the sunlight, necks erect, long faces disdainful. We watched them a while; they never moved. It was their day off.
The zoo is in a tree-filled city neighborhood of tall apartment buildings. I imagined living in the penthouse. I would sit out on my balcony behind my red geraniums, eating medialunas with my excellent coffee, and look down into the whole zoo. I wondered about the animal racket. Joe wondered about the smell.
Alas, our trip to the zoo included very little zoo.The challenges of travel are exhausting and frustrating. Novelty is exhilarating, but familiarity is a comfort. When we arrived back in Miami Amanda said, “Yes! Everything is in English.” I haven’t decided whether for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home. Next Thanksgiving we're planning to hike the Grand Canyon. Maybe we'll spend Christmas in Gainesville.
COMMENTS: I'D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU. CLICK "COMMENTS," BELOW.
NEXT POST: FEBRUARY 6. ARGENTINA, PART TWO