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April 7, 2005

No place like home - An Argentinean Journal

The coolest thing about being in Buenos Aires so far is the disorienting feeling in my brain that keeps telling me I'm someplace different. It's not a completely unfamiliar place (in some ways, it's Paris in need of a coat of paint) but it is no place like home.

The plane ride to Ezeiza (Buenos Aires' International airport) was not difficult, even at close to 11 hours. In what seemed appropriate to the spirit of the trip, the plane was delayed more than half an hour by "minor maintenance discrepancies requiring paperwork." What we got to see was three maintenance workers in fluorescent vests come on board and fix an overhead luggage bin. With duct tape. It makes one glad it wasn't a wing.

I had a full three seats to myself via brinksmanship in switching my exit row seat at check-in for an empty middle seat in a row I thought would not fill. So after the meal I stretched out and got more than five hours sleep. American Airlines now serves a snack box in lieu of breakfast. It's not a triumph of logic; they serve bagel chips and a cheese spread, but nothing to spread the cheese with. Nor a napkin.

The moment I saw the low pampas grass lining the runway I knew I was Someplace Else. Customs and immigration are swift and pleasant and my travel agent had a driver waiting for me. I had only dollars and no pesos so needed to get myself some. There is one ATM in the airport. The good news is it is HSBC, my bank in the USA. The bad news is it was not working. The driver led me to a bank where amazingly the rate was 2.89 pesos to the dollar with no exchange fee. The published rate is 2.91 to the dollar so this is excellent; most of the exchange kiosks wanted 2.56. To find the bank, Banco Nacional de Argentina (I think) turn right immediately after leaving the gates for the meeting point for international arrivals and then walk to the back. The HSBC machine is straight ahead from the gate and just a bit to the left. So bring enough money in US currency to change in case the machine is not working.

My driver was arranged by my travel agent; it would cost a bit less to arrange at the airport - the Manuel Tienda Leon stand is right after customs and that's around 50 pesos - my driver cost 65 and I gave 10 pesos tip, which is $3 and extravagant here. We had a pleasant conversation in fractured Spanish punctuated in English when he or I got discouraged. My Spanish is dreadful, but his English was weak enough that it forced me to keep trying.

The hotel room at the Bel Air was not ready, so I let them store my luggage and walked to the center of town to get a massage, which seemed like just the thing after a long flight. This was a comedy of errors. I knew the Hotel Castelar was on the Avenida de Mayo, but on my map I mistook that for the Autopista 25 de Mayo 12 blocks out of the way. Know your calendar when navigating Buenos Aires. The walk itself was fascinating, even the detours.

Buenos Aires is grand, dirty with trash, dilapidated and humid. It teams with people, 14 million in the metropolitan region. The traffic is overwhelming, even for a New Yorker. The streets are broad, and filled with pedestrians and shops. The people are elegant. It is a world city. The city was modeled on Paris, and it shows in the Beaux-Arts architecture, much of it in need of renovation.

I finally got to the Hotel Castelar to learn just how bad my Spanish is. It's not that the masseur and I didn't understand the basic gist. He knew I wanted a massage. But how to say I had not made an appointment? Finally by gentle prodding he got me up the stairs to the cashier. I bought a one hour massage for 66 pesos. The masseur led me to an attendant who placed me in a dark tiny wooden cubicle (the Castelar dates from the 1920s - it shows). Was this where I was getting the massage? How would I lie down? No, I finally figured out it was a changing locker by nearly locking myself in and having the changing room attendant stop me. Gentle prodding again from the masseur got me to put on a thin towel and slippers and follow him downstairs. I felt embarrassed because I was still sweaty from the walk and the overnight traveling on the plane. I wanted to shower first, but our communication was so confused I had given up on asking how.

This probably was a mistake; he gave me a massage in a psychologist's hour. I was lucky if it was 40 minutes. It could have been an error on my part in translation or procedure (did I give him the right ticket?) but I don't think so. Still, given that it is more than three times the price in New York City, I can't get too upset, and the massage, though perfunctory, did the trick. It included at the end an amusing Andean-flavored touch where the masseur blew an Andean shepherd's pipe as he massaged my scalp. Even though it was not an inspired massage and I would recommend better Spanish than mine if you choose to go there, I felt much better. The masseur directed me upstairs to the floor with the cubicles where he said I could shower (Shower! Why didn't you tell me???) relax or sleep.

Dad, if you're reading my blog, please skip this paragraph. I had a vague idea of the Castelar Spa's reputation as being cruisy. It is deserved, but it's such a skeevy cruise that it's rather sweet and funny. Older Argentinean men with proud bellies loped about in towels. I moved to let one of them by before I showered; he copped a feel. The oddest part is it is all very respectable; one distinguished looking man (well, as distinguished as one can look wearing nothing but a thin towel) sat down at a table opposite where I was resting after my shower. He looked at me, then lifted his towel to expose his genitals. They were not the most beautiful sight in Buenos Aires. The spa attendant came over to his table to bring him a soda and a plate of meat and cheese. I found it all fascinating, and flattering in an odd way, but given my other pathetic conversations in Spanish that day I sure as hell was not going to risk this one.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at April 7, 2005 10:19 PM

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