Either I’m trying to build your suspense to a virtually excruciating level…OR I’ve been distracted by a deluge of “holiday spirit.” You can decide whether you prefer the former or the latter. Okay, after a ridiculous delay, installment three of “That Time I Went to Argentina.”
In the eighties, my grandparents’ neighborhood was a middle class paradise. Imagine streets lined with sensible ranch houses. Every manicured emerald lawn held an aquamarine kidney shaped pool. Each yard was surrounded with symmetrical shrubs and an ultra-white picket fence. The streets were named after trees: “White Oak Drive” and “Maple Lane.” The mailman knew everyone’s name and he even gave me a stamp every time I lost a tooth. The post-war dream was alive and thriving.
I spent most of my summer days hanging around my grandma’s house. She worked in her office in the mornings, while I jumped rope in the yard and watched games shows in the cave-like family room. At one, she emerged for lunch and Days of Our Lives. I watched this program intently, taking very serious notes on a legal pad. I was convinced that the action-packed soap opera was not only a paragon of fine writing and exceptional acting, but also, an easy way to learn the ways and means of adults. I used the “data” collected from a summer of daytime television viewing to write numerous plays and short stories during the school year for my easily impressed “gifted and talented” program counselor.
After Days of Our Lives ended at two o’clock, I usually took a stroll around the neighborhood. Most of my grandma’s neighbors had watched my mom grow up, so they were always happy to shower me with cookies and Snoopy Sno-Cone Makers. Or I might play in the pool until my skin was pruny. I checked the trees for bird nests (a rare occurrence, but I still fantasized about raising a family of loyal starlings-cum-carrier pigeons). I mapped out the most likely locations for high bee density and then labeled them with yellow construction paper flags. This benefited only me, but I reasoned that at some point my grandparents might entertain guests with bee sting allergies.
At least once a week, I would make the longer trek to Rutter’s (a convenience store, about half a mile away). The best part of this store was neither its comprehensive selection of Garbage Pail Kids nor the large freezer of frozen treats. No, its true appeal was found at the edge of the parking lot: a little used phone booth. I would fish a quarter out of my Poochie purse and dial my grandma’s number.
She feigned surprise when she heard my voice on the other end of the phone. “How are you doing, honey?”
“Guess where I am, Grandma?” I hoped that she couldn’t hear the trucks passing by on North George Street
She always asked, “Where in the world are you?”
The answer changed. “Oh, I’m in Paris.”
“Today I’m in Australia.”
It really all depended which city or country had been the focus of the NBC Nightly News the previous night. I always watched it with my grandpa after dinner. (Side note: as a result, I have always felt a deep attraction to Tom Brokaw).
I would make up a story based on my location.
“I rode a camel.”
“I saw the Eiffel Tower from a hot air balloon.”
“I climbed a volcano and I really touched lava…with a stick, of course.”
We would discuss the weather; I made statements based on my hazy knowledge of world geography and climate.
“Oh yeah, it’s pretty cold here because we’re really far from the equator.”
“There have been a lot of earthquakes today, because I am near California.”
Grandma would wish me a safe return trip before I hung up. Then I would go into the store to buy a Diet Coke for her. It’s always good to return from a trip with gifts for loved ones. I had learned this from my grandparents’ annual Caribbean cruises; their suitcases were always bursting with dolls, seashells, and bikinis for me.
I thought about this as I passed a row of telephone booths in the Ezeiza International Airport. “I should call Grandma, because now I really am somewhere else.” But I was on a mission. There was no time for sentimental indulgence. I had to remember how to speak Spanish, catch a cab to San Telmo, and somehow, hopefully find Reyna. I had no idea when she would be arriving at the hostel. And I didn’t want her to have to wait around for me.
I was tired. I definitely smelled a little gamey. The line for immigration had been long and boring. The officer had winked at me and said “Amanda is a lovely name” as he stamped my passport. As if Amanda weren’t the most generic name for caucasian girls born in the U.S. during the late seventies and early eighties. I was incapable of charm, so he received only a robotic “gracias.” I changed clothes, exchanged money, and retrieved my luggage in a daze. Customs revealed itself as a complex obstacle course of human drama and dangerous wheeled suitcases, as I watched a woman throw herself to the ground in tears because her four dogs (from Texas) were denied entry to the Republic of Argentina.
The cab was easier than I thought. The attendant at the desk asked me, “Do you speak Spanish?”
I could only say in feeble half Spanish “Normally I do. But right now I am sleepy and confused. Can we speak English?”
And then silently I scolded myself, “Way to be a lazy American!”
As a cute young boy guided me to my cab (while he asked me polite questions in perfect Oxford English), strange men began to vie for my attention. A man who was probably my father’s age grabbed my arm and pretended to swoon with delight. It was the first of many times that week that I heard the phrase “bruja hermosa” as I passed. It means “beautiful witch.” And yes, of course I was wearing a crazy witchy hat. After a few days, the constant sexual harassment became amusing. Traveling with a pack of cute girls guaranteed constant male attention. But that morning, with blue-black circles under my eyes and the faint panic that accompanies the first few hours in place that is most definitely not the good, ol’ USA, it was too much for me. I practically dove into the backseat of the cab. The driver tried to strike up a conversation with me, but I shut it down with a muttered “Estoy un poco enferma” (I’m a little ill).
Ezeiza is a 30-40 minute drive from the center of Buenos Aires. I was on the edge of my seat, knowing that I was going to burst out of the taxi the moment I saw the facade of the Ostinatto Hostel. I watched the scenery pass with wide eyes and a slack jaw. The signs were in Spanish! The cars were different! The architecture of the buildings was unlike that found in American cities, in a way I couldn’t describe. Billboards for Pepsi and cell phones passed in rapid succession.
I pulled a Latin American phrase book out of my backpack, hoping to miraculously master “vos” and the “ll=sh” concepts in just a few minutes. But I couldn’t focus.
Several months of saving money and worrying…of overthinking every possible outcome and changing my mind with each week…and now I was here.
The taxi stopped and the driver helped me drag my huge blue suitcase out of the trunk. There I was.
I reached for my phone. I tapped out a text to my mom as I waited for the desk clerk to answer the doorbell.
“Tell Grandma that I am in Buenos Aires and the weather is warm. It’s summer in the southern hemisphere.”