Jan 17

My tour group supposedly arrived in Buenos Aires last night. MEI booked us all in a swank-sounding dig called the Hotel Presidente, but I was enjoying the company at the casa de las She-Devils. Plus, I didnít want to contend with a potentially upscale establishment, so I decided to wait a day and meet up with my tour group later this morning before the city tour began. The only problem was that everyone at the house left and, with no key for the front door or the building door (both two-sided key locks), I was left with nothing to do but play guitar in the sun and wait for someone to come home and let me out.

Late in the afternoon Patricia showed up and, recalling my keen ability to get lost even while looking for dishes in the kitchen, rode with me on the bus all the way to the hotel.

LíHotel Presidente was swank indeed. Patricia and I stood at the foot of the 20-story building and looked up. My clothes, my many smells, even my baggage seemed wildly out of place. And I was still standing on the street! I thanked Patricia profusely for all the assisting and record-swapping and Spanish-teaching and general life-saving sheíd done for me and gave her more than one big-ass hug. I watched her trot speedily away and silently added her to my list of People I Need To Send Things To When I Get Home.

Careful not to broadside any high-class guests with my backpack, I turned to walk under the red velvet awning with gold tassels. A man in a suit made from the same material and colors as hotel lobby pulled back a glass door before I had the chance to break my nose on it.

"Hola y buenos tardes. Bienvenido a LíHotel Presidente," he told me with a smile that acknowledged my improper presentation, but also seemed to say, "Donít worry, man. Itís coolÖ" "Me sigues a la recepcion," he added, walking me to the front desk.

He escorted me to the front desk where I was able to recognize my grimy self in at least one of eight mirrors encasing the reception area. My pack was lifted from my shoulders without my asking and placed gingerly on a brass trolley. I made a mental note to grab it before a bellboy had a chance to bring it to my room. With no clue how or how much to tip here, and I didnít want to mess it up just yet.

A man behind the desk with a Spanish make-it-snappy lisp asked my name. The frames of his glasses were made from needle-thin tortoise-shell, and probably very expensive, but the thickness of the lenses still couldnít prevent him from looking like Scooter from the Muppets. My two-syllable last name threw him off and he had to call our expedition liaison, Steve, to confirm my place on the roster. I sweat for a minute when he explained in crude English that I had neither a room in his hotel, nor a seat on the plane down to Ushuaia. I was handed the phone where Steve asked me a simple question (What is your first name again?) and the problem was solved quickly. I handed the phone back to the obviously irritated clerk and Steve reiterated to him that my name was not Bill Meier, but Craig Billmeier. He handed me my key card and said with a crinkled nose, "I apologize, Señor Meier."

I headed off the bellboy and made a beeline to the elevator with my pack hastily thrown over one shoulder.

If compared to a Motel 6, this would be a Motel 335. My room was plush, decorated in soft alpine greens and maroons and trimmed in hardwood. I was left 8 towels, 9 lamps, a wall-mounted stereo, 40 channels of cable, a 10-foot wide 13th floor view of the city, a sewing kit, a shoehorn, a mint, and a decorative map of the city. And in the center of the room was one double bed, meaning either I was about to become very good friends with someone, or the room was all mine!

I immediately stripped off all my clothes and turned on the TV. As much as hanging out with locals is a cultural window for outsiders, so is watching The Simpsons in other countries and languages. Just short of my friends who can have whole conversations using nothing but dialogue lifted from the show, I have most episodes loosely memorized. Enough so that I could probably learn any language so long as The Simpsons were translated into it.

After Los Simpsons díEspanol, I pulled out a book and took to the gleaming, beckoning baño. It was so clean a peppy little ribbon had been tied to the toilet celebrating its recent sanitation. The toilets of my hostsí have been more than adequate, inviting even, but there is something special about a toilet that is geared towards providing comfort and pleasure to a well-to-do traveling business person or upscale vacationer. I paid special appreciation to the soft, two-ply toilet paper and relished the ticklingly refreshing bidet.

Later in the evening I sat naked and looking out my own private window at the vast, beautiful expanse of the Capital Federal district. Feeling as free and comfortable as could be, proud at the feat of having made it so far, both in Argentina and in life in general, and staring at the city below and beyond me, I came to recognize that people who drive cars here were absolutely, certifiably, undeniably insane.

Lanes, road signs, traffic lights, blinkers, hornsÖ all mere suggestions. Riding in a vehicle here is not unlike playing a street-driving video game, complete with the occasional fender-bender or pedestrian-braising. If car doors worked like flippers, driving could be like a mobile pinball game. Streets of Frogger. I canít believe how many accidents almost happen. Every time a light turns red you can count on at least two sets of screeching tires. What the city planners paint off as three lanes is often times made into six or seven by drivers. A taxiís average life span canít be more than 30,000 to 40,000 feet.

Speaking of taxiís, on my ride from the airport into town the cab driver honked repeatedly while cruising down the highway. At what, I could not tell. Sometimes there were no cars for a quarter-mile in either direction. It wasnít until we pulled off into a barrio and slowed down that I realized he was honking at girls. If we passed a dress, we honked. If we spotted long hair, we honked. If we were cruising down the highway going 110 km/hr and we zoomed by what was possibly a girl, we honked. I learned that honking was not the international sign for Look Out!, but rather, a noise signifying Chica!

At first I was appalled at this. Where I come from, this sort of behavior is at best, tacky and at worst, a law-breaking offense. But then, Buenos Aires has the highest plastic surgeon-to-citizen ratio in the world. Women do it up here. It starts with the hair and the make-up, then it moves on to boobs to lips to hipsÖ If menís behavior here is not appreciated, it is at least encouraged.

Eventually I followed the omnipotent horns to see what was being honked at. Occasionally, it was a worth it. Granted, maybe 1 out of every 20 honk-ees were even remotely attractive, the other honks yielded a wide array of Barbie dolls, transsexuals, and severely under-aged and under-dressed girls that I found culturally enlightening. But after a while all the honking just became disrespectful and/or annoying. Any girl with an even slightly pretty face and/or figure gets constantly bombarded by whistling, honking, cat-calling, and even applause, so I canít imagine what it must take to score with someone here. Youíd have to be pretty imaginative to pick someone up in this town.

The most disturbing, yet uncomfortably arousing aspect of the women of Buenos Aires is the fact that so many arenít even women yet. Scantily-clad youngens were commonplace. It was not unusual to see a very sexy lady walk past you only to realize she was no more then 12 or 13. And oddly, it didnít seem to bother anyone. Some of my friends who are in their mid-20ís were dating 15 and 16 year-olds. Did anyone bat an eye? Nope. Did anyone call the cops? Not uh. Did people continue honking at them? Damn straight!

My perch above the city left me feeling out of touch so I threw on some clothes and hit the town. I walked down the main drag for about an hour until I landed in what would be the equivalent of San Franciscoís Civic Center. I sat on a park bench among the freaks, sneaks, gimps, bums, and people with no front teeth. In the half hour I was there I was only asked for a match, while every other "respectable" person was challenged for money, smokes, or sex. I wasnít sure if I wasnít getting harassed because I fit (I havenít showered, shaved or changed my clothes in 3 days) or if it was obvious I was just an outsider. Either way, it was nice to be able to sit back and observe how the dregs operated, which was not unlike any other place on earth. A lady with a gaunt kitty strung to the end of a long shoelace sat next to me. Judging by her 5-foot thick odorous cloud, I think she may have just returned from a bath in local reclaimated water plant. I started to get dizzy so I decided it was time to head back. Plus, I figured if there was any place in this city I should not be after dark, it was there.

On the way back to the hotel I passed an alley. How I missed it before is absolutely beyond me. Even from the main drag the overwhelming neon signs were blinding. Latin pop blared from every other storefront and people were spilling out into the street. At midnight on a Monday the place was still bustling, so I hung a right and fell into Buenos Airesí premier consumer cesspool. On a three-block stretch there were at least five movie houses playing current flicks. I contemplated checking one out, but I wasnít sure if they were subtitled or overdubbed. Instead I kept walking.

I passed a street painter who had the talent, efficiency, and stealth technique of the late, great Bob "Fluffy White Cloud" Ross. Only he was using spray paint. If I were hauling around hard-shelled luggage I would have picked one up, but alas, I am utilizing my trusty and collapsible, internal-frame backpack, so I opted just to give him all my change. As I later remembered, change here includes one and five dollar coins and gave the guy well over $10. Oh well, better him than one of the million charlatans I keep seeing around these tourist-y parts.

On my way back to the main drag I approached a mass of people all circling around a magician. He stood on a soapbox wearing flamboyant pirate apparel and spoke in a voice reminiscent of a scorned Cyrano de Bergerac Ė condescendingly pompous, but searingly witty. He had everyone continually laughing at someoneís expense.

I stopped and watched as he gathered random items from a few of the spectators, presumably for his next trick. Soon, a pile of jackets, food, packs of cigarettes, and recently purchased merchandise began accumulating behind him. He approached onlookers saying something either funny or obscene and his victims either laughed or blushed in response. Then he proceeded to relieve them of some personal affect.

In 20 minutes he had smoked at least five borrowed cigarettes, fondled numerous women, and performed zero magic tricks. I couldnít understand a word he was saying, so I had nothing to go on but his body language. My masterful knowledge of physical human exchange loosely interpreted his actions into, "I would like to touch the breasts and behinds of all girls here between the age of 12 and 17." I gathered this after watching him touch the boobs and butts of every girl between the ages of 12 and 17. Each time he did, it garnered the laughter and applause of the whole crowd, including the girls he was touching. Then it dawned on me - here I was waiting for the magic to happen, while it was happening the whole time! Before me stood a man who had overcome the obstacle of getting, and keeping, a girlís attention in the enormously competitive city of Buenos Aires. I took notes:

    • wear goofy clothes
    • belittle your audience
    • touch girls without their permission
    • steal things from under their noses

I started to think his final trick was going to be disappearing from the scene with all the items he had gathered behind him. I waited another five minutes to see, but when he started picking on people next to me I took off fearing I was next.

I got back to the hotel room by 2am and showered, not because I wanted to (or because I needed to, because believe me, I did), but just because I could. And it was with a change of clothes and a rejuvenated spirit that I set out for the locals favorite pizza, Ugiís $1.99 Grande Mozzarella. Thatís right, a whole, large, cheese pizza for under two bucks. I lucked out because this week happens to be their 20th anniversary and they were having a special; normally their pies were $2.15.

While crossing the street, a guy saw my Ugiís box and stopped me for some directions, thinking I was a local. My remedial Spanish clued him in right quick, but he was friendly and we shared a chat and a slice until he excused himself and chased down some 16 year-old girls who just passed. I carted my Ugiís box through the hotel lobby clarifying that I was, in fact, a cheap bastard. The bell boy gave me and my pizza a knowing nod so I offered him a slice. I could tell he wanted one, but professionalism made him decline.

I finished my meal and set off to explore the hotel. I found in a corner nook of the lobby two free-internet computers. Elsewhere I stumbled into a hair/face/nails salon/sauna/gym. I utilized the Nautilus machines until I started to notice that all the time in the sun today while waiting for Patricia did a number on my shoulders, forcing me to quit after half an hour. I took the stairs back up to the 13th floor and found that all the leftover room service meals were piled high on carts located in the stairwells of each floor. I could tell how decadent this place was just by all the untouched food the guests left behind. By the time I got back to my floor I was cradling cookies, dinner rolls, fruit, and a couple bottles of unopened wine. I scarfed down a banana, left some pizza crust crumbs in my bed, cracked open a bottle of wine, realized I absolutely loathe wine, glopped some Nivea crème on my ever-worsening sunburn, and finally fell asleep while some Jennifer Connelly film played on the TV.