Thursday, June 9, 2011

Day 5: 6/9/11...Catchin' A Break from Vulcan

         A volcano, you say? It turns out there was an eruption in Chile days before, and I was clueless about it until this afternoon. If it had blown a few days earlier, this blog would be about me going to the mall in Wellington, FL. All the flights in and out are canceled and there are some Yankees here at the hotel who can't go home. If it had blown next week, I wouldn't have been able to go down to Patagonia. (assuming it's a one-blower). It's so nice when the planets align on my behalf! I owe that volcano a virgin.

       Pretty much today was the second act of my bus ride. This featured a flat tire (more than one, I think), more peeing from the neighbor lady, a "hmph" breakfast, and a much less disorienting arrival. Now that I've ridden each bus company's bus one time each, I feel I can offer the informed opinion that you should take Bariloche and not Crucero del Norte. Unless you prefer bus whiskey to bus wine.
        I felt pretty confident about the Retiro station layout, and made for the taxis right away. There was this guy near the taxi who did the following: met me at the headlight of the taxi, took the handle of my suitcase, opened the taxi door, and threw the suitcase into the taxi. Then he started trying to converse with me. "No comprende?" "Perdon?", "No habla", until finally I understood that he wanted a tip for his literal 4 seconds of labor. I gave him the equivalent of a quarter just to avoid making the ol' USA look bad.

           Fortunately I had written down all the hotel info along with a sketch of a map, so the taxi driver and I got along great. This weird thing happened: at one point where we didn't move for a series of red lights, I noticed another cab driver right alongside us. He looked EXACTLY like my driver! They even scratched their bald heads the same - with their middle fingers. If I knew Spanish I would have pointed it out and probably offended him somehow.

           We got to the hotel. Tipping has become very anxiety-producing for me. You never know what's normal in a foreign country. I thought I remembered reading that you don't tip taxi drivers in Argentina, but I only ever remember to look that up after I get out of a cab. Then I panic about the exchange rate and doing all the math about how to give exactly the right amount. Come to think of it, I don't even know how much to tip an American driver. Or a barber. In the end it never feels right. By the time you read this, I will have forgotten to look it up again.

           The hotel I'm at is great! I got one of those polite hug/kiss-on-cheek greetings from the (thank god) lady who let me in the front gate. She was extremely friendly and spoke great English. This is called the Lola House. It was a last minute choice after the hotel I originally booked decided to shut down a few days before I left the US. I think it may have been for the best since that hotel was only $30 a night, and might have been worth the money.

             I took a walk around the block and, well, I had 2 first impressions: dog crap and graffiti. They are in alarming abundance here - at least the immediate area I'm in. Is there some correlation? I can't read it, so maybe all the graffiti is complaining about the dog crap. Or the dogs are objecting to the opinions expressed in the graffiti. I'll need to learn Spanish or Dog to find out the whole story.

            I decided to try an empanada, since I think it has something specifically to do with Argentina or even just Buenos Aires. I'm not sure. They were good, but based on this one experience it seems like an empanada is basically a Hot Pocket. Freshly made and good, but pretty much a Hot Pocket. Mine came with a special prize: leaking all over the pair of pants that I had just put on for the first time not half an hour before! Ole!

          After that I went to the Valhalla of all traveling cheap bastards: the supermarket! I am my mother's son, and I eat primarily from establishments with at least 8 cash registers. I actually think it's very important to visit a grocery store when traveling. It's a huge clue into a country's culture. Think about it: what could be more indicative of your daily life besides what you put in your shopping cart? Case in point: in this store, the wine section was four times the size of the cereal aisle. As a cereal connoisseur and a wine dilettante, I found this highly significant.

           As I write this, I am digesting the results of that excursion. My first two - THAT'S RIGHT TWO - bananas since arriving here. You read that right! Was this not a banana republic at one point? I expected the streets of South America to be paved with bananas! But - another surprise - there were hardly any bananas at all in the store! They were outnumbered by friggin' KIWIS, by Jove!

         One last culture shock for the evening: I was expected to have weighed my bananas before putting them in my cart. I wanted to say: "SORRY. In AMERICA we have cash registers that weigh your bananas FOR you." But thankfully I couldn't say it in Spanish and also I'm a wuss.

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