January 18, 2000
The welcome leaflet on the back of my door informed me that a complimentary "Traditional U.S. Breakfast Buffet" was being served in the restaurant until 10am. "Traditional," my U.S. Ass! I was expecting Little Debbie’s and third-rate orange drink, not a series of deliciously stocked tables that wouldn’t fit in my room. I gorged myself on variously decorated croissants and fruit pastries, apples, bananas, kiwis, french toast, cereal, orange and apple and pear juice, and dulce de leche cookies (my favorite local cuisine – dulce de leche literally means "candy of milk" and is a cross between caramel and butterscotch). I didn’t plan on going back to my room after eating, so I had my daypack with me. I hit the town looking for an American Express Traveler’s Cheque office with five pounds of "Traditional U.S. Breakfast Buffet" items hung over my Nivea-creamed shoulders.
I had an hour to find the office, exchange my money, and get a new camera battery before my bus left. I was given explicit directions from the bellboy on how to get to the office, but anyone who knows me will not be surprised that I made a right out of the hotel doors instead of a left, like instructed. I spent a full hour figuring out where I went wrong. I only found the Am Ex office because I walked in asking for directions. On the three minute trek back to the hotel I distributed all the food in my pack to any homeless person I passed, less a couple things to get me through the day in case our plans did not include vegetarian cuisine.
I caught the bus with only minutes to spare. As an opportunity to share Argentine culture, our expedition group was invited to the Santa Susana Ranch, 100 kms outside of town. There, we were treated to what’s known as an Estancia. Dude ranch BBQ is to America what Luau is to Hawaii, what Biergarten is to Germany, and what Estancia is to Argentina.
We got off the bus and assimilated with people unloading from three other tour buses. We were herded into a house filled with various antiques, indicative of olden times here in South America. I felt like a bull in a china shop so I snuck out and sat in the courtyard observing my soon-to-be shipmates.
Antarctica is widely regarded as Earth’s Final Frontier, largely because it is so remote, so hostile, and so enigmatic. Thus, reaching the Great White South seemed the epitome of adventure to me.
Adventure, of course, meaning uncomfortable experience.
My options for visiting the mystical land varied greatly. The first choices I saw were in the $10,000 range. The bulk of these opportunities were aboard fancy cruise ships, floating cities equipped with casinos and ballrooms, where you could walk from the bow to the stern and call it a day. Not only did this seem a little out of my reach both monetarily and maturity –wise, but how likely is it that those folks are gonna even set foot outside the boat, much less experience Antarctica?
One day in the spring of 1997, I was unceremoniously slagged by my ex-girlfriend and my band canceled a four-month tour. With neither Rock nor a girl, I had no reason or desire to remain home. That night I looked in the paper for special airfares to Israel. It was one of the destinations on our tour schedule and I was looking forward to it. I decided I was going to go, band or no band.
I called three travel agents and left messages. It was after 9pm when I called the forth. A guy named Steve answered. That he was working at night was an immediate point in his favor. That he gave me prices, reasonable prices, right away was another point. He prodded about why I wanted to go, what I planned on doing, and how long I planned on staying. All I could tell him was that I wanted to get out of town, and that I wanted to see some friends. And I was willing to ride in the baggage compartment on a Tuesday night red-eye if it meant making it cheaper. As an afterthought, I threw in that I was interested in seeing some place called Petra (where Indiana Jones found the cup of eternal life). I didn’t know if it was anywhere near Israel, but I figured it was closer to there than it was to here. He told me he’d see what he could.
The next morning he called me with prices, times, and date options (all of them for seats and not a slot between passenger’s luggage in the airplane undercarriage), and a full report on Petra (I was right, it was closer to Israel than it was to California). His steadfast and friendly help, coupled with his shared love of ridiculous travel destinations and excuses for going, has earned him my business for every overseas trip I have taken since.
I enlisted Steve’s efforts on my trip south and he found some ventures under $5000. They all included multiple daily landings on the continent (weather permitting), on-boat seminars, and a proposed sense of danger.
I firmly believe that the amount of money you spend on a trip before you leave is inversely proportionate to the amount of fun and adventure you have once you’re gone. In short, the more you prepare the less you leave open to chance. This attitude invites excitement and eliminates disappointment. It also ups the odds of coming home with one less appendage, which is a plus.
Given my budget, time restrictions, and wish-to-do’s, Steve and I agreed on an eco-minded company out of Toronto called Marine Expeditions (MEI). Steve, bless him, pulled a trump card and got me on a Russian Icebreaker for under $3000. Were I to leave two weeks earlier (over the turn of the new century) it would have been closer to $20,000. Things were go. I was on a questionably-chartered boat with broke adventurers like myself ready to forge into the world’s most dangerous waters in order to reach the planet’s least understood destination.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I found that most of my partners in adventure were old. I even spotted a few canes. I overheard a conversation about medicine and if there would be a pharmacist on the boat. I overheard not once, not twice, but thrice, people talking about the quality of Argentine golf courses. One woman said to another how quaint the servants were, then snapped one of the waitresses over and took another cup of wine without saying Thank You. The fact that she even used the word "servant," much less treated her like one, was disturbing. The worst were the endless aristocratic New York accents (Floridian in the winter) creating their own nasally, soulless Spanish. One of our peppier guides, Paula, asked a tourist if they were enjoying Buenos Aires. Paula spoke excellent English. It was flawless outside of the adorable accent. Each word out of her mouth was clear and coherent. When she said "Buenos Aires" it rolled off the tongue with the elegance of a local, because she was a local. Bwen-ess EYE-rrrace. But the old tourist woman kept asking, "What? Did I enjoy who? What are you speaking of, dear?" It was patronizing, like one speaks to a small child or dog. I piped in to mediate. The old woman raised her head to touch the light bulb that just flashed on above it and said to Paula, "You mean Buh-WANE-ose AIR-ees, sweetie."
Around noon we were all ushered into an open-air dining room for lunch and entertainment a la Tango. I was seated at a table next to two 23 year-old Canadians who had just finished backpacking through Peru and Bolivia. Finally! One was vegetarian, no less! I felt immediately at ease with Hilary and Jeremy and my social worries melted away. We were served as meaty a dish as you can imagine, but with three different kinds of salads on the side. The food in my backpack went uneaten, and was to remain so especially after the dessert.
Hilary, Jeremy and I spoke until the place was empty. They had just finished college and were using this time to do some trekking before settling down together. They, too, were not thrilled to see classic "tourists" in our group. While speaking of the others on our trip they both asked me excitedly if I had seen "the weird guy." I had no idea who they were talking about, even after their vivid description of the man, but I kept his composite in my mind in hopes of running into him.
There were still full trays of the dessert pastries left behind (can’t eat them with dentures, I guess) so I ate, as usual when presented with the chance, till I got sick. We adjured to the fields to watch a horse show which was more of a Man Over Animal show. We were obliged to ride the horses when they were done. I wasn’t too wild about watching the ranch hands whipping the horses around to begin with, but I took off my PC sash and tried to figure out what the great allure was with horses.
I mounted Perro (which if I’m not mistaken means "dog") and set off for enlightenment. I was immediately reminded of their size, power, and tendency to become unruly. Mine wasn’t bucking me around or bolting across the plantation at a high gallop without my consent, like some of the others. Instead, Perro just ate grass, no more than ten feet from where I climbed on. The ranch hands kept coming by and yelling for me to give him a kick or a swat with the reins. Some of them even did it for me, but Perro never budged. I came to the conclusion that if this animal wanted to stand idly and chew cud with a piddly human on his back who obviously had no business being there, who was I to make it do otherwise?
We arrived back at the hotel in the early evening. I found my room had been restored to civilized conditions. They replaced the shampoo and lotion bottles that were now in my pack and put some chocolates on my pillow! I love chocolate! They even re-sanitized and re-ribboned the bathroom. I was busy re-unsanitizing it when the phone rang.
Because I arrived late and on my own, I received my own room. All the other single passengers were doubled up throughout the hotel. One of them had rather adamantly demanded a new room or at least a new roommate. His current one was renowned in the arena of snoring. Enough so that when introduced, the Snorer presented his roommate with ear plugs and a box of sleeping pills.
I was asked if I wouldn’t mind giving up my room to the Snorer and take up residency with the Complainer. Since my bus to the airport left at 3am, and I hadn’t planned on going to sleep anyway, I said no problemo.
After moving my stuff into Complainer’s room I left a genial note for him saying who I was, why my stuff was there, and that I’d be popping in around 3am to retrieve everything. I wasn’t sure if Complainer was a crotchety old man and I didn’t want to take any chances of finding all my luggage in the shower when I returned.
My night was squandered in the plaza below the Capital Federal monument. I contemplated more Ugi’s pizza, but since the gaseous ghosts of yesterday’s pie kept returning I opted for some cheap chocolate instead. My sunburn, in case you’re wondering, is fading fast, thanks to the incredibly viscous Nivea Ultra Moisturizer.
Even at 12:30am, predictable midnight lovers strolling hand in hand with ice cream cones weren’t the only ones out on the town. Old ladies were walking their dogs. Parents were wandering with their kids, also eating ice cream cones. Teens were loitering and drinking and smoking and laughing. This place was down-right hopping.
In 1995 we played a concert in a hall called Bernal in southern Buenos Aires. It was quite large and, at midnight, almost empty. Before the show began we went for pizza in hopes of prolonging what was likely going to be a failed night. When we came back, an hour later, the place was completely packed. And it stayed that way until we played at 4:30am, when even more people showed up. Shortly after we finished, the sun came up and people left for work. I can understand a culture that stays up late, but I can not understand a culture that stays up late and gets up early.