Monday, April 28, 2008

Bus Scare

Illustrations by the author

This being my first experience in a foreign country, one mistake was to think in terms of how things work in the USA. Up to now, I was giddy and gliding along enjoying the cheap rooms, cheap food, and extremely cheap transportation.

About transportation, does any blog mention how unbelievably, damn cheap the trains are? The above ground train from any station to any part of the city costs only .65 centavos, which is what, .22 cents in the US? It is barely worth the effort of adding the costs together.

However one should never fully trust the colectivo system in Buenos Aires. People have described the buses as dangerous, the driving of them that is, but that´s not the real problem--they are complex, complicated, and changing. All those one way streets in town means that the scenery will be different on the way back because they won´t use the same streets and then you need to get off nearby where you started from, but without an automated street announcer, it´s a guess as to which street is closest to the destination.

I get on the number 86 because that bus originally took me from the airport to the city center three days ago, and how unsafe can it be? Yes, this is night and I want to visit Rivadavia park, near 5000 Rivadavia, but so what? Anyway I have taken this bus before and know where it goes.

The 86 was heading down Rivadavia, then turned off onto a dark street with few lights and no people outside. It was 9pm, so that was kind of weird. I trusted that the bus driver knew what was happening.

The bus would turn left and turn right, heading down still more dark streets, and this didn´t feel like the airport route which I vividly remember as anyone´s first sighting of a foreign country in daytime is.

Some concern hit me because of not wanting to just exit onto dark streets with no people around and what else could I do? Even if I asked the driver where we were going, I likely couldn't translate the answer. So I said nothing and hoped we would see the city again. Unfortunately this didn´t happen.

Soon looking out the window showed fields as far as the eye could see, and at night the eye has limitations on distance. But it was totally blank except for a few pinpoints of light. My thinking now was: the trip away from the airport had somewhat flat scenery too, so maybe I can get off at the airport. It is only like 11pm now, so the airport would have people, right?´

Eventually the driver turned to me and asked me where I was going or wanted to go. All I said was "5000 Rivadavia" which he reacted to with disbelief. Now his language was making a show, and I pretended to listen and understand everything. One of the last things you want is someone yelling at you in a foreign language. Not only are bus drivers cranky here, but Argentina has a reputation for people disappearing, maybe people who make trouble on busses too. All this loud question and answer attracted a middle aged guy in a windbreaker jacket who approached to join in.

The guy talking with the driver kept trading sentences, and I heard the driver say in exasperation, "look, he said five, zero zero zero. He can´t even say "Cinco Mil Rivadavia, crazy Norte Americano", but the guy was much kinder when he said to me. "Hello, you must get off at the next stop with me." I just nodded because it was better to be directed than simply jump off the bus in the middle of nowhere. "you want to go to 5000 Rivadavia, yes? First we get off here."

Once we got off, the step was into a surreal scene of wandering animals, mothers holding infants, guys lining up under a bridge like going to work and smokey, burning piles of grass in any direction you looked. The lights would pierce through the smoke occasionally. How could all this be happening this close to midnight on a Sunday? All I thought about was ´boy you are really in South America now´.
I followed the man over and away from the bus. We stopped and he said, "don´t worry I am with the police" and pushed a badge into my face still in a black leather holder.
Then lifting up his shirt showed that a small handgun was being held by his belt, which he should not have done. I thought, ´my god, this is it. It ends here in South America...´ The smoke curled around my nostrils and I looked around for some sign of help. "It is very dangerous out here", and patted his gun once.

He ordered me to follow him and we crossd to the other side. "Wait, you wait here, right?" he told me. Visions of his friends driving up to kidnap me occupied my thoughts. After all there is even a name for these type of robberies, called Express Robbery, where they take you to the ATM for a complete withdrawl at gunpoint.

However soon enough another #86 coming from the other direction and people reacted normally by rousing themselvess to get on board. The guy told the driver something about taking "this muchacho" back to the city centre and opened a path for me to get on this bus. By now I felt he was really a cop who helped out a desperately lost Americano get back to the comfortable enviorns of the expected city life.

"Okay, you can get on now. Go back to Rivadavia from here. Good luck." I wanted to ask him, but where are you going. Are you coming too? which would have been unnecessary, so all I could do was choke out several "muchas gracias´s" in a row.
Again the driver seemed put out at being inconvenienced by a lost, lame, non-bilingual traveler huffed when I asked him a travel question.

The return trip was still really long, first seeing blankness like space itself outside the window, then followed by dark streets devoid of people or even dogs to
give a hint at the north-south-east-west of things. Feeling worried like during the outboard trip, I asked about the direction to the city centre, and the bus driver's response was something along the line of "sit down and shut up" in an exasperated tone. Being escorted by a cop counted for nothing among Buenos Aires bus drivers, certainly the ones I met tonight.

Just sitting still as ordered, the scene outside the window filled with businesses, and some people now occupied the corners. Another turn and the worst questions were answered by the sign that announced 3500 Rivadavia. I jumped off the bus at that point.

Asking several people waiting for a bus eventually got me on the #26 heading to the Obelisk, which I didn't want to believe fully until I finally saw that tall, marvelous structure looming ahead out of the darkness. The McDonalds was still open and filled with people, so I entered it hoping my nerves would do well with a capuccino. Only then could I feel that the bus adventure was really over.

After this I had the sense to take the colectivos during the day and to make the habit of jumping off once it turned any corner at all--which is stupid, but not having a map of the bus system, a Guia T, this was the only response. But not since have I under-estimated the sheer day-wrecking ability of the bus system here. After that I learned the pleasures of taking the subway because you rarely interact with the drivers and destinations are rather hard to change without notice.

Later I found out that there is a beautifully thought out computer model of the bus system, the Compu-map, that explodes out the routes of every bus in red, elegant zig zags. There are at least five different #86 busses with shorter and longer routes. One of the #86 lines crosses deeply into the county south of Capital Federal.

Days later I am armed with the Guia T, and ready to take Colectivos again; at least this was my attitude, but adjustment to them is not easy, and even three months later, I avoid taking them at night.

Illustrations by the author

Friday, April 25, 2008


During the stay at the San Juan Hostel, everyone always is talking with others, and I am no exception.

People share food, play music, ask endless questions about traveling, countries, the news, rotten political leaders, the inflation back home, etc. At one table Bruna, a tall, dark, attractive girl, 26, from Brazil talks about being a teacher for Porteugese here in town. I couldn't get attention to focus on me for too long. Her very wide smile and full lips and half-lidded almond eyes mesmerized most of the men at the table.

She came off as a wary, smart traveler who can handle any South American language situation, and even make a few bucks at her newest destination. This is how I wish things could be for me. Four other guys and me sat at the table watching her talk and wished that maybe we could walk Bruna to her room for something alot more private.

About thirty days later, I have already spent one night in Lezama park, and now Buenos Aires was experiencing a cold spell that cut through the meager summer clothes I had used since then. Wandering the streets of San Telmo was just wearing down my shoes, but the idea was to sleep only during the awful early morning hours of maximum coldness.

Earlier at Dorrego Square I had tried meeting a very attractive, drunk woman who was interacting with her child, but having limited language didn't help me get any closer to her.

Now the idea after roaming the streets was to have one last look at her, so back at the square I spotted her amid some dancers and singers raucously ending the evening. Seeing her dancing kept me entertained until a young, attractive woman broke from the crowd to look me in the eyes, Bruna was tipsy, and she put her arm around me like old friends.

"I am with these people. They are helping me. Well, I don't have any place to stay because I don't have any money" she smiled broadly and helplessly.

"Well Bruna, me neither. That is my situation exactly" I explained honestly.

"Ah ha. You see I was meant to find you then" She answered. "Just stay with me, I can get you a place for tonight"

I wondered how she as going to pull that off--getting me a place without any money herself, but I was out of options at that point, so hanging around a bunch of semi-drunken strangers walking around San Telmo streets in 5am darkness; this was my best option available.

Me, Bruna and six others cut through a shadowy Lezama Park heading toward the mysterious rooms that don't charge, we stopped at a bar with its door open to anybody and pouring fresh beer for friends of friends with no cash being exchanged. The band set up had departed hours ago. Now a bunch of loose guys played pool or talked.

I asked her, "Are we getting close to the room?"

"This is good, yes?" Bruna said very close to my face, "we drink a little bit, then find out about..."

"Getting some sleep sometime today/tonight?"

"Yes, whether we can find someplace to hide you so nobody finds out...and yes sleep." she smiled confidently.

After a few more rounds of beer, Bruna walked close to me just a few doors down to the Hostel. We crept like mice among the deserted place, people obviously inside the rooms deep in slumber. She got the key to a different room through a window and some kind soul on the other side. Now with a key, we crept into a 3- bed room, Bruna taking the bottom bunk bed, and me sliding eagerly into the top. The bed apart on the floor beneath had some couple obviously making love under their covers. Occasionally the room contained sounds of quick, strangled breaths, and a quietly escaping moan from the girl. What the hell I thought, if two people entering doesn't bother them, why should it bother me?

The sleep wasn't perfect even though I used my nice denim jacket for warmth and a man's suit coat I found abandoned on Estados Unidos street in San Telmo; using that for my feet...but still better than being out in the cold.

Heading for the kitchen for breakfast, I met a young guy, a computer programmer in Venezuela, who detailed some tortures at the hands of the Chavez government--just the usual Rodney King type beating followed by threats against his family if he stayed there opposing the government--and Bruna occasionally visited saying, "I have depressing news. The manager of the hostel wants me to sleep with him, but I won't of course. I will sleep only in separate bed, and I mentioned you, and he doesn't know what to do about you."

"Don't worry about me, I'll just stay in the kitchen" I assured her. A quick look out the window of the Buenos Aires skyline showed gathering dark clouds adding to the unusual cold air. I sure didn't want to be ejected out in that weather.

"Because, I need just one more night. Then I will go with my friend to La Plata. She has a house." Bruna explained.

"What about Brazil? Aren't you from there? It is alot warmer than here" I offered.

She didn't speak right away, then looking away said, "I probably never will." At this point I wanted to go away with Bruna too, but found out that it is only another
opportunity to surf a couch at someone's place. Things could turn out worse than they already are, so I stopped asking her about it. "We leave very early too, at 5am"
and that was all I needed to hear. I am not getting up that early for anything.

So as I stayed sitting and listening to un translated conversation in the kitchen, friends of Bruna shared good colombian coffee, medialunas, noodles and vegetables. Occasionally Bruna would leave to speak to the manager about the situation. Finally after the longest time, I just played with my pen and listened to pop music on a half broken radio, she re-entered the kitchen. A handsome, smiling young man trailed in behind her. I assumed who he was with us not saying anything.

"Okay, here is how it is. I am staying with Damian tonight and you can stay in a room if you like, but it isn't cleaned yet. Is that okay?" Bruna said quickly. I just answered something in response all to the agreement side without even thinking. Damian said nothing as Bruna led me to the nicest room I've seen in the entire country since my arrival having its own bathroom, closet, desk with light attachment and full sized bed with blankets. I sat on the bed in disbelief. It had been 12 hours since we were walking drunk in the park with no place to sleep in mind.

I pulled Bruna's face and gave her a lingering kiss on the cheek. "What can I say, you're like a goddess." I tried saying as a compliment.

"You have to leave when I do. There is no key so you can't get out. I will come back for you at 5am." she said without emotion.

"Then you're still going to La Plata? That means I may never see you again" It just occured to me that I would be unable to return the favor or even talk with her again.

"Oh, of course, oh may be right. But anyway I will knock on your door, then you will go with me, yes?" then she quietly turned and closed the door behind her.

Me, the man with no pesos to spend on things like beer and blankets, food, clothes, or transport looked around one last time and waited to slip into unconciousness.

The next morning, being the coldest morning ever felt this early in the year, Bruna and her female friend and I tied up the last detail of our clothes. Briefly I planned to hide a blanket, a wall decoration, in my pants for the added warmth, but abandoned that idea.

Quietly, all three of us delicately walked out of the hostel--just as when we entered, leaving like theives with their work done--and then half ran down down Avenue Manuel Garcia toward the bus. Off in the distance was their ride to La Plata. Feeling nervous and cold there was no long emotional goodbye, Bruna kept her arms hugged inside her coat and half ran to the stop. "Goodbye" she leaned over and gave me a quick Argentine kiss on the right cheek. "Use that gas station there. You can wait there as long as you want." she instructed, "it will be warmer later, I promise" she smiled. With nothing else to say, I headed off sideways to a gas station to wait out the sunrise, when there should be more warmth. But everything is new to me in this city, and who knows what to expect...except that in South America people share what little they have and some have good advice.

I beat myself up for making the decision to strand myself here hoping that my story would turn into a mild episode of Gilligan's Island, (from which they were never rescued) but not figuring that "things may be difficult" would not translate into really being difficult। So I lost on that bet. Having nothing to lose at this point, I sat in the gas station and prayed. I prayed to the great, vast body of knowledge and wisdom that put us all here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


...being lost
is worth the coming home
-Stones, Neil Diamond 1971

Gee I left the US sort of happy and looking forward to the trip, there was alot of "juice" in going rather than staying. However as someone pointed out, you can't expect to understand the Portenos during the first year. That maybe true, plus the slow job seach, plus some plain laziness creeping all adds up to I miss certain things about the USA.

I miss the convenience of stores. In California you can run to the market and pick up a box of fried chicken for fairly cheap prices, pick up some deserts, and whammo you experience an instant gratification feeling. Here the service is medium-lousy, the waits always long and pointless, and there is no fried chicken ready to eat anywhere!

I also miss bacon, eggs, strong coffee and pancakes a food staple found in all 50 states with sugar and butter for the asking. So now I have taken up making pancakes from scratch because my hosts always have oil (aceite) and a mixing bowl and flour of some kind. There are pans and spatulas and butter. I carry the baking soda in my backpack for tooth brushing. All I need to buy is a couple eggs at a kiosko, then I can start enjoying that full stomached, American feeling of having eaten hot, buttery flapjacks.

Popcorn is another delicacy that is available at the local mercados, though not all. When I made a pot of popcorn usually the other South Americans present would ask "what's all the noise about?" but rarely asked for a handfull of the stuff.

About the second month of feeling the tearing feeling of not being anywhere in particular, I began craving Steely Dan songs so using You Tube at the locutorio one day, their song from the LP Katy Lied totally nailed my feeling for me:

If I had my way
I would move to another lifetime
I'd quit my job
Ride the train through the misty nighttime
I'll be ready when my feet touch ground
Wherever I come down
And if the folks will have me
Then they'll have me

Any world that I'm welcome to
Is better than the one I come from

I can hear your words
When you speak of what you are and have seen
I can see your hand
Reaching out through a shining daydream
Where the days and nights are not the same
Captured happy in a picture frame
Honey I will be there
Yes I'll be there


I got this thing inside me
That's got to find a place to hide me
I only know I must obey
This feeling I can't explain away

I think I'll go to the park
Watch the children playing
Perhaps I'll find in my head
What my heart is saying
A vision of a child returning
A kingdom where the sky is burning
Honey I will be there
Yes I'll be there


Any World That I'm Welcome To (1975)

How did those two guys from New York who were amazing songwriters know that people go through periods like that? It felt like they had planted an easter egg to be opened 35 years later when the need arose.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Surfing My Way

This is not a travel blog!

Because I am not traveling anywhere except inside from dependency to independence. Although it is happening in a foreign country, Argentina, and in an
international city, Buenos Aires.

Also I don't have anything nice to say about Buenos Aires in the same way as the New York Times Travel Section or more recently NBC's Today Show which lathers
the place so strongly that you wonder if they're talking about the same city.

However folks interested in Buenos Aires ought to gain some information about
the local customs, people, weather, and economic conditions from reading this blog.

Posted on this page is an example of my sketching ability, which is not great and not terrible, but aiming at cheeky and irreverent like the person I am. (The subject is the artist's conception of Hillary Clinton's speech at the Wellesley College graduation day in 1969, the upskirt version). I play guitar at the amateur level, and oh yes I write a little.

Oh getting here... yes I took the plane out of Miami on the end of January 2008. The price was insanely low. Later I found out that the price of leaving may be impossible to pay, which exactly means what? That is what this blog is about.

I had things too cushy in the United States being poor and working in the film business. Knowing the language and the customs of the greatest country in the world, The United States, wasn't helping me much. I used that language to avoid doing the real stuff: earning a real living would be one direction that could have kept me in the USA.

Film jobs don't pay all that much for most of the workers. Only the top film budgets can afford to pay a decent livable wage, and during strikes there is no wage for most of these people. They joined me earning almost nothing during 2007. Then the other shoe dropped in my set up. My mentor/teacher protector roommate...had enough of my lazy mooching ways and cut me loose to find myself...or not!

With the prospect of being another poor, homeless film worker in the USA, I tried for a more interesting gamble। How about if I learn to take care of myself and completely start over? Working my way out of a bad situation and with a real reason, getting back to the shining city on the hill, ought to get the juices flowing--this was the thinking. So this is a story happening in real time and in a real place. In other words:
I am a Camera
Sorry, I couldn't resist that. Those words open the work of my favorite author Christopher Isherwood, who's material was fashioned into the 1972 movie "Cabaret", a favorite film.

Now the update of that phrase is probably, "I am a Computer, assembling data for later use, search, and archive."