At the front desk at the hostel, I discovered that Reyna had not yet arrived. This, coupled with the realization that I couldn’t just check in and take a nap because all of the bed sheets were in the dryer, deflated my spirits. I had been picturing some sort of teary-eyed, squeaky-voiced reunion. And instead I was in Buenos Aires, alone and possibly unable to speak Spanish. Nevermind that I was also smelly and bleary-eyed. A shower and a few minutes of sleep would have been fine consolation prizes.
I was signing the hostel’s contract, agreeing to never bring in alcohol from outside (the Ostinatto had a bar) and always be quiet after 11 pm (no problem, since I’m a grandma about peace, quiet, and beauty sleep), when a girl with dreads appeared next to me. Well-worn, practical clothes and the kind of shoes that never hurt one’s feet.
“Oh, shit,” I thought. “I’m totally out of my league. I’ve got an enormous suitcase full of cowboy boots, sundresses, and lacy panties, and this girl has a duffle bag of the barest essentials. I doubt she brought flip flops to wear in the shower.”
People my age were probably supposed to stay at a nice bed and breakfast.
I was trying to focus on transcribing my passport number onto my check-in paperwork (no easy feat, because at this point, the numbers were performing an enthusiastic line dance before my eyes), when I heard the girl say that her reservation was listed under “Shaina* or Reyna.”
I jumped to attention. “Actually, your reservation is under ‘Amanda.” And we’re roommates, I guess.”
The timing was amazing. This girl, Lacey, had received an email from Shaina that morning, saying something along the lines of “Hey, we have an extra bed in our room in BA, because our fourth buddy dropped out.”** She headed over to our hostel in San Telmo right after receiving the message, only to run into me about five minutes after my arrival.
Perfect! After learning that Lacey had been in South America for nearly a year, backpacking and exploring every corner of the continent, I knew that I was in good hands. We stashed our bags in the hostel basement before heading out into the street.
A light rain was falling, enveloping the narrow streets in a romantic mist. Walking was a challenge. The cobblestone streets were treacherous, but not nearly as slippery as the tiled sidewalks. Overwhelmed by human traffic of the street feria, I tried to focus my eyes on the sky. The hole in the ozone layer was hovering above me, but nothing seemed different. A Bowerbirds song escaped from the window of a movie store. It would be the only time I heard anything other than vapid dance music in Argentina.
Lacey guided me to a cafe, where I drank my first boozy coffee of the week: coffee (obviously), frangelico, whiskey, chocolate, and a bit of milk. Oh yeah! In minutes, I was drunk on sugar and forbidden dairy. We talked about Andy Warhol and the revolution of pop art. Then feminism. Latin American spanish. Socialism and the shortcomings of communism. I craved cigarettes and straight whiskey.
We decided to head back to the hostel, since Reyna and Shaina were allegedly arriving at 2 pm. On the way, I found myself caught up in trying on clothes at the feria, using a window as a mirror. Eighty pesos (and some intense negotiation, with much assistance from Lacey) later, I was the owner of an amazing suede/sweater jacket and two “boho” blouses.
And Reyna! She was there at the desk at the Ostinatto, laden down by numerous duffle bags.
I was so excited to see her! After gathering our sheets and calculating everyone’s hostel bill, we giggled breathlessly up the winding stairs to our third floor room. We lounged in one of the bottom bunks, catching up on four months.
“Well, first I decided that I was over him.”
“…and then then he was emailing me every day, even though I don’t even really have email down here.”
“I’ve been hanging out with this guy, and it’s stupid.”
“I’ve been thinking about this guy, and it’s stupid.”
And then it was lunch time…the soft rain had evolved into a downpour, drenching my hair as we ran to a restaurant. I learned several important things from my first meal in B.A.:
- Pizza is good. Especially with gorgonzola cheese. And I guess this is a good time to mention that I was taking a “break” from veganism while on vacation.
- Wine is cheap and delicious in Argentina. Even the cheapest 10 peso bottle (about $3) tastes like heaven. I’ve always been a loyal fan of the brown liquors, but since I’ve returned from my trip, I’ve had a constant hankering for Argentino wine. I mean, not in alcoholic way or anything. I swear I’m not drinking malbec for breakfast or substituting cabernet for interpersonal relationships.
- The service in Argentina is bad. The food doesn’t arrive for 30 minutes (at best). The check arrives about two hours later. And don’t expect frequent refills or amiable check-ins a la “how is everything?”. But a generous gratuity is 10%, so why complain? Except…well, I silently complained every time, until Friday when I met up with Lem. Then we bitched about it non-stop. “We’re awful Americans. We expect efficiency. Time is money, after all.”
After lunch, we walked around San Telmo in a tipsy haze, laughing at sexual harassers and the few obvious Americans we saw. At one point, in the midst of the soft slur of spanish surrounding us, we heard a loud midwestern accent announce, “Empanadas! We can cross THAT off the list.” This became one of the biggest recurring jokes of the trip.
At some point we had dinner. And some time before and/or after, we sprawled in our beds, drinking fernet*** and Coke. I shared the latest gossip from Portland, while Reyna and Shaina filled me in on the intricacies of dating in Argentina. Overall: beware of sudden, uninvited tongue kissing from strangers. Noted.
Eventually I took the hottest shower and fell into the darkest sleep. I don’t remember putting on my pajamas. I certainly cannot recall saying “good night” to my friends. Somehow I put in my earplugs and pulled my sleep mask over my eyes.
And then…I was walking through Center City Philadelphia, when I spied an old boyfriend in a phone booth.
“This just might be the last phone booth in North America,” I decided.
I did not trust him. Who uses pay phones in an era of cell phones and Skype?
I decided to spy on him, pulling my coat’s huge collar around my face. Someone once told me, “Nobody looks like you, Amanda.” So I knew that my mission would most likely be unsuccessful.
I was already rehearsing excuses. “Oh, that was YOU in the phone booth? I didn’t even notice…you see, I was skulking around because I was looking for my contact lens. It’s somewhere here on the sidewalk, I think.”
He did not notice me, because he was engrossed in conversation. With my little sister in Los Angeles. “She’s not who you think she is. She’s not your real sister. It’s all a sham. Beware.”
I backed away, blinking in confusion. And then my eyes must have been closed for a second too long, because when I reopened them, I was walking along the Delaware River. The wind was blustery but the sky was the blinding blue of a kindergarten painting. A long strip at the top of the page, followed by a weighty expanse of white.
He was in the river, flailing around and screaming my name. Without thinking, I ripped off my clothes, and jumped in. Normally I’m a wimpy swimmer at best, but just then I had super human speed and strength. I began to drag his slippery body back to the shore. He fought me the whole way. I tried to cover his mouth, hoping that he would pass out for a few moments. No luck. Instead, he bit my finger and declared, “I’ll never thank you for this, you know.”
When I took a good look at his face, I realized that he wasn’t at all who I thought he was.
I pushed him away, before tossing a piece of driftwood toward him. “Hold on to this. I’m never coming back. You’ll figure it out.”
I swam back to the shore, wrapping my coat over my sopping clothes.
I opened my eyes. My hair was still wet and I was somewhere strange. A bunk bed in South America. And I had just dreamed about Philadelphia for the first time ever.
*Shaina was Reyna’s new friend from her university program in Argentina. She is actually from Eugene, OR, so they became fast friends.
**I never met the original fourth member of our entourage. She was stranded in Colombia, thanks to some financial and immigration issues. It worked out fine for her, because Colombia is a cheap paradise.
***A mysterious herbal liquor. Argentinos will try to tell you that fernet will never cause a hangover. THIS IS A LIE. DO NOT FALL FOR THIS SCAM. In fact, it may induce the worst hangover of all time. And I’m fairly convinced that it causes intensely real and disturbing dreams if consumed within four hours of bedtime.