I like to walk. I walk a lot alone, because I walk just to walk, and I walk very far.

Sometimes I walk just to explore, but usually I’m looking for something very specific that is hard to describe.

Often I look for a coffeeshop. They are incredibly easy to find. But I’m never looking for just a coffeeshop. I’m looking for: a coffeeshop with Wi-Fi that is not Starbucks or Peet’s, has baristas that won’t get mad if I stay for three hours, stylish, not too crowded, not too quiet, fair-trade, organic coffee preferred. I also don’t like places that serve espresso drinks in to-go cups.

Sometimes I think I maintain so many requirements just to give me an excuse to explore Berkeley or SF or Buenos Aires, whatever city I’m in. So sometimes I never find what I’m looking for, but that’s okay. This is why I walk a lot alone.

I landed in Buenos Aires on Sunday, January 29 at about 10am and arrived at my hostel in the city center around 2pm. It was sweltering and humid, and I was happy to get inside the building of my hostel. The first apartment I entered was a volunteer house (I missed the sign on the front door “THIS IS NOT A HOSTEL”), the apartment next door was part of my hostel but with no receptionist. I waited there for about fifteen minutes before some guy that was smoking a cigarette and Skyping with his mom in Spanish told me and the girl next to me that we were supposed to go to the sixth floor. We dragged our luggage upstairs, only to be told that my reservation was for the first floor, not the sixth. I finally got to the first floor, put my things in my room, and then went to the roof.

Hostel Estoril takes up two floors (at least) in the building, and all of the residents have access to the roof. It looks like this:


There was no one on the roof so I went for a walk.

I’m a Geography major. When I tell people this, they usually assume I that I am: a) learning how to make maps or b) memorizing the locations of every country in the world. Thankfully, my major involves neither because if it did, I’d be failing miserably. I get lost a lot. I have a horrible sense of direction. But I also hate to walk down the same street that I’ve just walked, because why do that when you can see more things on the parallel street a block over? So when I get a little lost, I don’t turn around. I just keep walking.

This is good because I rarely look like l’m lost and I get to see lots of different things. It’s bad when streets are topsy-turvy and don’t run exactly parallel/perpendicular to each other.

I left the hostel to go exchange some cash, but when I got to the intercambio they told me I needed my passport. Since I don’t like to walk down the same streets, instead of walking straight back to the hostel to get my passport, I went for a walk.

I ended up walking from the center of the city to a mall called Alto Palermo. I remembered from the short orientation that the hostel’s receptionista gave me that the mall in Palermo was quite far from our hostel.

This far, actually:

I wasn’t tired of walking, but I was tired of being lost. I asked a guy at a kiosco (like small 7-11’s that are all over the city) how to get back to Avenida de Mayo, and he told me I’d have to take the subte, or subway.

I went to the subte and studied the map a bit. It’s very easy to use, and even though I had to make a transfer to get to where I was going, I understood how to use it. I’ve taken BART enough times to know how to read a subway map. As I was looking at the map, an old man around 65 or 70 years old came over to me, smiling, and showed me where I needed to transfer. I already knew but I was thankful for a friendly face and some eye contact, which I hadn’t gotten much of all day. I asked him in Spanish if I would need more than one ticket and he said no, but as we were talking our train arrived and he swiped me in so I didn’t have to buy one.

He started talking to me on the train, and asked what language I spoke. I told him and we continued talking in English, him leaning in so he could hear me. I told him about San Jose, like I always do when I’m talking to strangers on public transportation. I told him I was in Buenos AIres to study Spanish, and he told me, “First it will be hard, and then it will get easier.”

Seats opened up and I sat down, and he sat down too, reading Camus.

When I got back to the hostel I realized my wallet was gone.

I thought back to when I had last had it– the subte. I had taken it out to buy a ticket and then put it back in my purse when I got on the train. The entire scene came rushing back in 20/20 hindsight. The way the old man’s face lit up when he saw me looking at the subway map. The way he leaned in as if he couldn’t hear me. And “first it will be hard…” Sly fucker. I realized I had just gotten worked. 

I emailed my parents and went to sleep early. ¡Bienvenidos a Buenos Aires!

This is the first thing I wrote in my journal when I got to Buenos Aires:

Jan. 30, 2012, Buenos Aires, AR:

It is hot and drizzling. When I walk outside the airport it smells like cologne and cigarettes in the best way, like a new boyfriend (not the old one’s musty jacket). I am on the bus and am not quite sure how or when it will arrive at my hostel, or even if my hostel cancelled my reservation because I am late, but I am accompanied by my unbounded positivity and faith in others. Faith is a great travel companion (faith, not naïveté).

-AK

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Things I’m going to miss about Buenos Aires

-smell of cigar smoke

-more bars and clubs than hairs on my head

-jaywalking as bloodsport

-doorman

-shameless PDA on the bus, in the park, restaurants, your front porch, etc…

-hit on constantly

-tea time

-Tea Connection

-conversations with taxi drivers

-ask anyone how to get anywhere and which bus to take to get there

-Monday party Tuesday party Wednesday party Thursday party Weekend Weekend Weekend

-government likes to make up new holidays

-beer and water cost the same

-outdoor seating everywhere

Things I’m not going to miss about Buenos Aires

-constant fear of getting hit by a bus

-smell of Lucky Strikes

-shameless PDA when not a participant

-hit on constantly

-get robbed by taxi driver

-think everyone that asks me for directions is about to rob me

-every mosquito in town wants me

-all-carb diet

-no free water

Things I miss most about The Bay

-crazy dancing

-bass

-Durban Poison

-late-night fast food

-the nation where jazz and hip hop were born

-Casa Zimbabwe

-Alameda County drinking water (and getting it for free in restaurants)

AK

THIS TERRIBLE DEVASTATING ROMANTIC SICK CITY

Get burned. Get bitten. Get ripped off. Get robbed. Give money to beggars, hustlers and police officers.

Get eaten alive.

Shut up and swallow unwelcome glances as straightforward as thick, smoky slabs of barbequed asado. Feel like meat.

Get used to the smell of hot shit. Start to litter. Try to fit into a city so dense you can hear a cell phone ringing in the next bus over. “Watch where you’re going.”

Listen to the president cry. See her tears on TV. Discover graffiti that will both console her in the wake of her husband’s death and accuse her of murdering hundreds of citizens.

Learn to speak a language as rich and smooth and spreadable as caramel. But find that Spanish is meant to be shouted—at taxi drivers, fútbol players, beautiful young women, your enemies and last but not least, your mother.

Watch this hugely confident and idiosyncratic culture get eaten by false governments and ugly adopted words like shopping, living, and Burger King. Call yourself an American until you are reminded that Argentina is in America, too. Feel like a conquistador. Prime-time from your home country will come to comfort you in your darkest, most homesick hour.

Meet someone. Dream in another language. Translate every red light into an opportunity to kiss. Reconsider your return flight. Become family. Feel at home.

Give in to this coffee and cigarette sick city. Surrender to seared love stories, no helmets and a flagrant disregard for your personal health—you’re getting it now!

Fall. Fall like a dream. Imagine that you will wake up and everything will be back to normal. Expect to hit the cold hard surface of your old life at any moment.

Miss the ground. Think you have begun to fly.

Crash into a mirror.

Watch the dream shatter.

AK

I live in the neighborhood of Recoleta, which is only fun when people ask me where I live and then I milk it for all it’s worth and roll out, “Rrrrrecoleta.” I don’t have to say anything else. They’re already trying to match up stereotypes to my character: “I bet you’re a Blackberry girl, right?”

In fact, I’m not. Occasionally it’s fun to pretend I’m a Recoleta princess, but generally when I leave the house, I get out of Recoleta and head to hipper territories. But when I feel like getting looked up and down by every patron in the coffee shop, I hang out in Recoleta.

Recoleta is Buenos Aires’ Upper East Side. That is, I don’t live on Park Avenue (see Alvear street, below), but I live about five blocks away. One day I was standing in line behind a man in a Ralph Lauren Polo and a Rolex and caught the scent of my Recoleta home. What was it? Ah, the unmistakable, musty, old-money smell. Something like cigars and couches that no one uses. Rrrrrecoleta.

I and another girl from my program named Kerry live in an apartment with a rich, right-wing family. We live a few blocks away from the Recoleta cemetery, a tourist hotspot because the names on the tombs are the same as the names on the city’s street signs. One night at dinner my host mother mentioned offhand that her mother is buried in that cemetery. “I thought it was only for famous or important people,” I said. “No,” she replied. She didn’t have to say anything else, because I knew.

Just rich.

The Recoleta cemetery is full of mausoleums for those that can afford one. All of them are majestic, but in true South American fashion, some are decidedly more majest than others. Rrrrrecoleta!

AK

When I tell the man at the laundromat that my name is Alicia, he says, “Alicia en el País de Maravillas.” Alice in Wonderland. I tell him that we are in el país de maravillas. He smiles and turns to me. “Where do you come from?” he asks, “Colombia?”

I spent my first four weeks here trying to fit in. I did my best to look and act like a typical Buenos Aires girl– a porteña. I stopped wearing makeup, started pulling my hair back away from my face and left my leather boots at home. I don’t smile at people in the street anymore and don’t respond when men say “hello.” I started eating croissants and drinking coffee almost every single day.

But in the process I felt like I was losing track of who I am.

I forgot that I’m not normal anywhere, even at home. I forgot that my weird clothes make me stand out in any city (though SF cuts me some slack). So I wear my strange outfits with porteña attitude and when I was introduced to the friends of a friend– all of whom grew up in Buenos Aires– they told me that when I first walked in, they thought I was a native.

But putting on the attitude is difficult for me. The world is a better place when people regard others as potential friends. So when I’m in California I make a point to say “good morning” when I walk around downtown and I listen when schizos on BART have something to say. If I’m lucky I’ll be contagious.

But I’ve learned that rules in this city are different. Kids are taught from when they’re young to be suspicious of others. It’s dangerous not to be (see: entry #1, getting robbed on the subway). If someone stops you by saying, “Can I ask you a question?” then they are going to con you. You ignore them. When someone actually needs help, they’ll just say what they need to say. Men of all ages and professions will tell you that you are pretty, that they love you, bonita, princesa. According to my last Spanish teacher, Argentine women like these compliments. But to show it is taboo. You are not to smile. You do not turn around. You do not say “hello” back. You do not let anyone down easy. This is the porteña attitude.

Warmth and friendliness is reserved for family members or the doorman or the lady who sells your morning paper– anyone who isn’t a complete stranger. These people, depending on your level of intimacy, get all of your good mornings and how-are-yous and kisses on the cheek.

I’m learning.

I still eat croissants. Just not every day. Meanwhile, I’ve stopped eating out for every meal and have found my favorite grocery store. The moms standing in line behind me remark to the cashier on how re-bueno my eating habits are when I unload my cart full of avocados, oranges, chard, sprouts and basil. My host parents think my food is strange and I tell them it reminds me of home. They assume I mean “the United States” but my grocery list is rare in most parts of the US. I’m not an American in Argentina. I’m a Bay Area-n in Buenos Aires.

Now it’s fall and after six weeks I’m finally falling in love with this place. I’m finding the places, the foods and the friends that make me feel like myself. And it makes Buenos Aires seem a lot more like home.

So let me show you around a little.

Cityscape

French architecture, meet hardcore anarchy

I discovered vibrant pockets of beauty in this cement city during a tour of local street art. After a period of angry, politically-charged graffiti (“SACK THEM ALL!” kind of deal), a few artists decided that they wanted to take street art in a different direction. So they started painting murals, often with whimsical characters and lots of colors. One artist’s signature character is a cactus with nipples. Another, who goes by pum-pum, paints round kittens and bubbly skulls. Local school children go to her art openings. There is still lots of political graffiti– on banks, government buildings, even national monuments. But there are also works of art that bring to life what can sometimes seem like an endless cementerio.

Home décor made from broken bottles reminds me of home

Kids love pum-pum

The top floor of Post Bar is a stencil art gallery called Hollywood in Cambodia

Jaz has a distinct style and likes to paint fighters

3-D paper boats floating down a cement wall

Cool stencil work outside of a fine dining restaurant


Landscape

There is a magnificent ring of waterfalls in Iguazú, a small town in a neighboring province. Here I found heaven and hell in the same place. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to stumble upon these falls without knowing that they were there, what that must have felt like. The jungle has an enchanted feel to it, especially because it’s home to hundreds of species of butterflies that flutter audaciously close. We went on a sunny day and there were rainbows blooming from every fall. The largest fall is called “La Garganta del Diablo” (The Devil’s Throat). To be swallowed by the devil would be a beautiful death.

Listen:


Alicia in El País de Maravillas. I’m finding myself in Wonderland.

AK

“Home is where your credit is good at the corner store.” — Suketa Mehta, Maximum City

If this is true, then I can call BA my home now. I visited a magazine stand today and was $1.50 short. Coins are precious currency in Argentina because buses don’t accept bills, but I remembered that I had at least $1.25 in change in my pocket and handed it over to the lady at the stand.

De dónde sos?” she asked, and my accent changed like it always does when people ask me that question, to properly pronounce this beautifully warm and romantic word,

“California,” I replied.

“You speak very well!” she told me, and asked in Spanish if I wanted to keep my coins for transportation. “You can pay me another day,” she offered. I told her I didn’t need them, but I couldn’t help but remember Mehta’s quote from the Geography of Literature class I took last semester. I walked home smiling.

Though by Mehta’s standards I may have found home, the only city that I really consider to be home is San Jose. I wasn’t born there, I’m not registered to vote there and most days, the house I call home is on Ridge Rd. in Berkeley. But when it comes down to it, when people ask where I’m from, the answer is always San Jose, California. And if you ask where I’m going, the answer stays the same.

There’s not much to do there, at least in comparison to other comparably large cities, but I always look forward to First Fridays whenever I’m in town. I’ve been going for about five years now and one of the few artists whose work and person I can recognize immediately is Kyle Pellet. He shows regularly in SJ galleries like Kaleid, sold holiday cards at The Usuals last December, and did the album art for one of my favorite local rappers, Antwon.

So when he invited me on Facebook to see some of his work on display at Niceta gallery in Buenos Aires, I jumped at the chance to support SJ from the southern hemisphere. Pellet himself couldn’t make it, but I figured there was no reason for me not to go if I was in the city.

Check out the work by Pellet and some other very cool international artists:

 

Clockwise from top left: Diego Cadena (Colombia), Ana Benaroy (USA), Jon Vaughn (Canada)

Arnaud Loumeau (France)

Kyle Pellet (USA)

AK

(or, What I Did for Carnaval)

La Bomba has just finished playing. They started at 7 on the outdoor stage but for tonight they are moving inside. Now they are kicking us out and we have to buy another ticket to see them play again tonight at 12:30am for the fiesta de carnaval.

During the four-day carnaval weekend, most people in our program traveled out of the city. I stayed in  BA and so did Matt, one of the guys from my program so we decided to go together. Matt brought Moy, another guy in our program who had just returned from epic carnaval fiestas in a neighboring city. After the first show we killed some time, grabbed beers and came back.

The indoor venue has one open wall but it feels as if no air escapes from the space. As soon as I cross the border from the outside to the dance floor, I am eating people’s sweat and breathing their backwashed smoke and pushing them out of the way so we can get to the front.

This is a touristy place but it’s a good thing, I think, because Argentines don’t dance. And I don’t mean, “they don’t swerve and grind and take it to the floor” and I don’t mean “they don’t fist pump or wiggle to wobbly bass,” I mean that they don’t move their feet or their hips.

It makes me very uncomfortable. And conspicuous.

But La Bomba de Tiempo is a legendary party, recommended by every travel booklet and hostel in town. Every Monday, a group of 17 percussionists performs a completely improvised show through the direction of their conductor, Santiago Vazquez. It is loud and intense and both times that I went, I’d say there were at least a thousand people there. Maybe half of them are tourists, so you get a very interesting mix of people who are coming to this “legendary party” that they’ve never heard of before and don’t really know what to expect.

What to expect: dirt floor, almost nowhere to sit, drinks served by the liter, the harsh smell of brown Argentine mota (but here it’s called porro), overdressed chicas and conversations with strangers that all start with, “So where you from?”

And the furious sounds of La Bomba:

You here? We’re back. In the front, actually—remember when I was eating people’s sweat? Well it’s getting sweatier because some dudes just gave birth to a mosh pit and it’s only getting bigger. Moy asks if we’re down and we are so we jump in and I’m thankful that I wore my boots to this party. Have you ever seen people mosh to Latin music? To drums, tambourine and maracas? I haven’t til now but I like it.

The music of La Bomba is so different from anything you’ve ever danced to, that it’s hard to figure out how to react. Should I start jumping around and punching people? Spin around? Shake my hips?

(For me, the answer is always: d. all of the above)

During the first show there was a group of hippie-dippy tourists swaying, dancing and doing some weird pseudo-acrobatics that caused lots of people to stare. Moy said they were “so gone” but I wasn’t so sure. I’ve done plenty of strange dancing stone sober. He noticed me watching them and I told him that these were my people. They made me miss the wack-dank-I-don’t-give-a-funk Oakland attitude and shameless dancers who don’t look up to see if anyone is watching. “Get over there!” he said, “Go dance with them!”

Do I even have to say that I did?

AK

As an out-of-the-closet hipster, I’m on a constant search for hippest spots in Buenos Aires. I’ve stumbled upon limited edition clothing stores, a kitschy 70s-themed bar, an excellent microbrewery called Antares, and more than one breezy bookstore-cum-café.

But I didn’t get the chance to actually chat with any BA hipsters until I went to a party at my friend’s apartment. She’s a native Brit that lives in Brooklyn and signed up for the Intensive Spanish Language class that I’m taking. She lives in Palermo with another Brit and a Buenos Aires native.

I’m pretty good at speaking Spanish with non-native speakers, because we talk slow and have basically the same limited vocabulary. But when I got to the party, I couldn’t hold a conversation at all. I have a hard enough time paying attention to conversations at parties when people are talking in English (I like to sit back and watch), so there was no way I could do it in Spanish. Suddenly I empathized with all the non-English speakers that have ever moved  into CZ. Lots of different conversations, loud music, fast talk– I realized my listening skills are far below par. If I’m going to make friends with Argentines, I want to be able to add more to the conversation than , “sí, sí…. okay… right…”

So I gave myself two assignments to help me practice listening. First, watch TV. Second, go to the movies.

I visited the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericana – Buenos Aires), where the boys wear flannel and the girls wear cat-eye glasses. I went just before 8pm to catch a documentary called Moacir at the hip museum’s cine.

The documentary, which was filmed in Buenos Aires, follows a man named Moacir as he achieves his dream of being a professional musician. Moacir moved from the favelas in Brazil to Buenos Aires in search of what everyone is looking for when they decide to ditch their home country: work and a better life. When he first arrived, he lived on the streets until he was admitted to a mental hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. He stayed there for ten years before moving into the tiny one-room apartment where he lives now.

Moacir is a talented singer and composer of carnaval music. He has a wide, Swiss cheese smile and a fondness for androgynous wigs. By virtue of the film’s director (who met Moacir while filming a previous documentary), Moacir gets to record some of the songs he’d composed and even makes a music video.

Check it out:

But to be honest, my favorite part was when the documentary ended. The lights came on and Moacir stood up from his seat in the audience and took to the stage with the tambourine player that appears in the video. To me, this was like watching Michael Phelps win a gold medal on TV and then step out of the screen into your living room still dripping wet. (I’m easily entertained, and so far it’s never been a bad thing.) This was 3-D in real life. He sang four songs and then we cheered for another. Moacir happily obliged.

-AK