Starwars spoilers and spliffs.
A beetle shuffles though the grass which is impeding the way at every turn. It squeezes though a gap beneath a horizontal stem and clambers over another then disappears beneath a clump of wide blades and out of sight. An ant marches in to the recently vacated clearing and waves its antennae at me suspiciously. I sigh and sit up, feeling my spine pop and look around me.
I am sitting in Plaza De Mayo watching the city spinning around me. Besuited men and women trot past me on their way back from lunch and are swallowed up by their office buildings. A loosely organised protest burbles away behind me and a man reads in the grass to my left in front of a kissing couple and a man watching his dog walk slowly about in a fountain. A constant stream of people leak from the nearby metro station and somewhere, music is playing. I eat a plastic dish of red jelly, sucking the quivering chunks from the spoon in quiet contemplation and waiting.
I have made my way in to central Buenos Aires alone for a change. Jamie takes off on Robin at nine in the morning to the airport where she will be vigorously wrapped in clingfilm and shut in to a large box before returning home. Neither of us has a mobile phone so we make a pleasingly retro plan to meet at the Bicentennial Museum cafe at two then three if one of us fails to make it in time.
I turn up at two, clutching my dish of jelly in a bag and go in to the museum. I look about, where is the cafe? A security guard looks at me.
Is there a cafe here?
I ask to which he says no and beckons me towards the security scanner which, to me looks like overkill for a small museum housing some low, brown ruins and a few paintings. I shake my head.
There’s no cafe? I am meeting a friend here in the cafe but there is no cafe.
The man is very stern and makes me feel a bit panicked. I momentarily forget the word for boyfriend and Jamie becomes a mysterious friend who meets me in nonexistent coffee houses. The man looks at me with the sort of expression one reserves for the mess a three year old leaves when given command of a pot of yogurt. I make towards the exit opposite, abandoning the cozy expedition around the museum for jelly in the garden and relief from the security guard’s scrutiny. He says something to me in an incomprehensible Argentinian accent full of shushing sounds and half understood noises. I stare at him for a second wondering what he has said.
Um..yes I am meeting him here but there is no cafe….
I say, trying to look more adult by checking my imaginary watch and shrugging as if to say ‘can’t get the bloody staff’ and continue to the door again.
I said, it’s locked. You can’t go out there. It’s not an exit.
Ah so, that’s what he was saying. I push pathetically on the door as if to confirm the matter then leave in a soup of embarrassment via the front door and sit outside in the blazing sun trying to snatch a glance at people’s watches as they pass. Finally, a hairy arm passes close enough to tell me that Jamie hasn’t made it on time and I wander up to the grassy square and sit in the grass, unsure what to do with myself. After eight months in Jamie’s almost constant company, I have almost forgotten what one does when alone. I eat my jelly, I look around, I read the protesters banners and eventually lie on my stomach looking at minibeasts until three.
This time, he is waiting by the door, blue t-shirt a brightly lit beacon against the dusty beige pavements and pale steel of the museum. I smile stupidly all the way along the street as I am prone to doing when I can see Jamie from afar. It always makes me laugh seeing someone you are supposed to meet, waiting for you with a strangers face on, tapping their toes or window gazing. I wave at him and he starts towards me. I suppose Robin must be gone then. The thought makes me suddenly a little doleful.
I ask him as he approaches and he nods.
She’s all gone. I miss her already.
He says sadly,
I miss Robin….
I will hear this phrase many, many times in the next few weeks and will shush him repeatedly but the first time I hear it, I feel sad for him and squeeze his hand affectionately.
It’s ok, it’ll be fun…
I say encouragingly, thinking of plush bus seats and hours of staring out the window in a reclined position.
The bike is all packed up, waiting only for our payment of piles of purple banknotes before she flies home without us. Jamie, however sad he is about Robin, has made a new friend. Danny hasn’t got any wheels and we can’t clip a tank bag on him but we can go to see Star Wars with him and his wife later that day. A fellow Englishman, Danny turned up at the crating area as Jamie began dismantling Robin’s battery and introduced himself. He and his Colombian wife, Paola have ridden from Bogota to Buenos Aires on their Suzuki V-Strom and are about to embark on a new life in Vietnam as teachers in an international school in Ho Chi Minh City. Danny didn’t even recognise Robin as a fellow V-Strom, so taped up, filthy and pimped out with stickers was she by the time she had completed her long journey. I feel a twinge of pride in her shambolic appearance and smile broadly at Jamie when he tells me.
The long crating process ended with an invite to the cinema and a drink or two afterwards. Jamie rarely enthuses after meeting new people so despite my misgivings about an enforced Star Wars viewing, I agree to join him on a rare social outing. The cinema turns out to be only five blocks from our hotel and is housed in an overwhelmingly glittery shopping centre, full of artificial Christmas trees and air conditioned shops. A long line of people wait outside Santa’s grotto dressed in shorts and t-shirts, incongruous against the fake snow lining the roof. The Christmas elves look stressed and bored. I am pleased as we breeze past following unspecific signs towards the cinema. We go up and down a few escalators, walk round in some large circles, wander down a few corridors and eventually find the cinema hiding in a corner of the first floor.
Do we have to see Star Wars?
I ask Jamie. I haven’t seen anything but snippets of any of the other ones and have always viewed George Lucas with a mild suspicion reserved for those with fabulous amounts of money and a propensity for interstellar chaos.
Says Jamie and hustles me in to the long queue. Danny and Paola turn up just as we are reaching the front and I can immediately see why Jamie warmed to him. He is very English, greets Jamie with an ‘alright mate’ and swiftly begins a long and amusing conversation about his love for Star Wars. When I tell him I have never seen any of the saga and ask him to summarise the story, he does so unhesitatingly with humour and nerdish enthusiasm. Paola nods along with his narrative until a frown passes over her face.
She asks as Danny explains Carrie Fisher’s role as Princess Leia.
Oh you mean Caaari Feeshair.
Replies Paola in a strong Colombian accent. Since meeting Danny she has had to relearn the pronunciation of Hollywood actors names and sit in confusion through undubbed versions of films and tv programmes getting used to the original but new to her voices of famous characters.
I still can’t watch the undubbed Simpsons though….
She says to me.
The voices are too weird!
She adds and I laugh and agree telling her that when we watch it here, the characters sound so wrong we have to flip over and watch something less familiar.
The film turns out to be surprisingly entertaining and I most enjoy the very end with a grizzly looking Luke Skywalker standing on a hill with a hangdog expression on his face. He must be sad about the dark side. Danny analyses the storyline enthusiastically and we all talk over one another, sharing moments we particularly liked. A long, aimless walk through the identikit streets of Buenos Aires finishes in a small, divey bar where we share bottles of beer and relentlessly quiz Paola about the complexities of being Colombian. We are astounded to learn that ‘self consciousness’ doesn’t exist in Colombia.
No, we aren’t raised like that…
She says when I ask why everyone is so rambunctious, so cheerful, so damn noisy.
No one feels embarrassed to tell anyone to shut up if they are kept awake by a party. Then again, no one would be kept awake by a party. You just learn to sleep through the noise.
I can sleep through anything.
Says Paola philosophically.
I suddenly remember a leavers party at a primary school I visited two years ago in Colombia. Reggaeton playing loudly, the ten year old kids coupled up and began grinding on each other in the most disturbingly explicit way, the parents didn’t bat an eyelid. The Americans I was with and I stood open mouthed, horrified and fascinated by the dancing and no one said a thing about it. I ask Paola about it and a shadow crosses her face.
Yeah every boy in Colombia wants to be a drug lord like Pablo Escobar and every girl wants to be one of the prostitutes in little bikinis tagging along behind the trail of cash.
She says, shaking her head.
Colombia has been really messed up by the drug trade.
She adds. And suddenly the happy, smiley, warmly welcoming, noisy, pimped up, ugly, blinging, beautiful, selfish, selfless mishmash that is Colombia begins to finally make some sense. The conversation goes on and on, the intricacies explained. The differences between the people of Colombia and England are highlighted in neon yellow. It begins to seem like a miracle that two people from these countries could ever understand each other but it seems they can and so much so, that they can boast a happy marriage. Each has their own bolt hole, the little things they escape to and insist to the other is better about their own country but in general it’s as though the two of them hold a mirror to the other and allow the nicer bits of each others cultures to make them complete.
We sit, the next day, on a bench in the Japanese garden in the Palermo area of Buenos Aires, discussing the pleasant merging of the two such different cultures. The garden is a beautiful little strolling oasis in the city. Three huge silk fish billow in the wind atop a flag pole, hundreds of kaleidoscopic folded cranes tangle in the bamboo. Great, glittering flexes of koi gulp at the surface of a long, green pond to the shrieks of excited children. Twanging Japanese music plays quietly through speakers hidden within tiny pagodas and little brown birds twitch the water from the softly bonging bamboo fountains across their feathers.
It occurs to me that if Colombian and English seemed like an incongruous mix then Japanese and Argentinian is more so. How do these quiet, calm, self contained people mix in to the country that gave us such publicly announced passions as tango dancing? I try to picture a Japanese family sitting down to a parilla, great hunks of grilled meat piled up like mattresses, big bottles of beer beside them then dancing with roses gripped in their teeth. How does it work? Perhaps this garden, with its careful, sweeping curves and trembling acacias is how.
Not unlike Danny and Paola’s marriage where at first the two cultures fit like square pegs in to round holes they must soak up the new bits of this unchartered territory, tentatively feeling the way ahead and learning how things are done. They must try a piece of the rude, smokey hunks of lambs guts, feel the tingling in their veins as they watch the tango dancers gliding past, test the tangle of their tongues around the curious new language. They must learn to take onboard a whole heap of new things, assimilating the differences and learning to live with them. Sometimes though when it all gets too much, the Japanese garden, a little piece of home comes in to its own. Perhaps if it were you, you would come here to rake at the gravel, balance a long tube of bamboo so it tips just right as it fills with water, trim the bonsai and then feel ready go back out and be something totally other again.
Perhaps our voyage atop Robin has its similarities to this too. We have been very English much of the time.
Thank you! Yes please! Lovely, delicious! Thank you and sorry to bother you!
And we are met by shrugs. The cooks here are cooking their mothers and grandmother’s recipes so of course it’s delicious, they know that already. They don’t understand when we apologise for little things because nobody does that here. We don’t have to keep saying please and thank you all the time, just being here and asking for some lunch cooked to their famous recipe is enough.
Slowly we learn to assimilate this new culture. We both learn to leave it at thank you just the once, to say what we mean without a prefacing apology and to go downstairs and say, please will you just be quiet? We chomp down whatever food we are given and try out the weird new phrases we hear around us. And its not so bad after all, to be direct, to say it like it is and to fit in a little more. We try on the role, a little like dressing up for a party and it works, we suddenly don’t stick out so much from the people around us. We fit in.
But it is tiring at times and, like anyone else exploring a new culture, sometimes we need that bolt hole. Having hoovered up the tripe in peanut sauce, forced ourselves to say thank you just the one time then pushed to the front of the queue but chatted to a stranger like they are our best friends, we retreat. We close the door on a long day of being square pegs and we make our own Japanese garden. A cup of tea made with our long sought, highly dangerous four quid kettle and a good slosh of milk. A cup of bright orange Yorkshire tea is the tiny piece of home we need before we are ready to go back out and try to fit in to the round hole once again.
We begin to feel quite at home in Buenos Aires but an entirely novel cultural experience is nearly upon us. From here we will head to Santa Cruz for a ten day Bolivian Christmas and New Year holiday. We will be walked through the experience by our friends Gary and Jen who have flown in from London to spend time with Gary’s family who live in Bolivia’s second city.
Having paid the vast piles of Argentinian pesos for Robin’s journey home, we take a ferry from Buenos Aires across a little notch in the land to Uruguay. Santa Cruz is a short plane ride from Montevideo and the cheapest option we can find for a quick hop between countries. It seems a shame to waste the opportunity to see the place so we book ourselves a hostel in the capital and prepare for a night in Latin America’s most liberal of countries.
Uruguay is democratic, open minded and proud of it. Our taxi driver points out the monuments stationed around the city.
There are others, this one is the most important though. When you leave Uruguay, take that freedom with you! We fight for our liberty here!
He adds grinning fiercely. I nod enthusiastically, wondering what the right response is.
Yes! Ok! Thank you!
I manage, weakly and mulling over the new responsibilities of assimilating here if only for one day. I don’t know if I make a very good freedom fighter, perhaps I am still being too English.
Fortunately freedom fighting is not required of me. We are let in to the hostel we have booked by a slightly confused looking man who doesn’t have a strong grip on hostel management. He shows us hesitantly to our room which turns out to be a dorm room with one bunk bed dismantled and the two singles pushed together. There are no sheets yet and he anxiously explains that the beds will be made by the time we get back from lunch. Fortunately, lunch is a high priority and we head round the corner to a nice, bustling parilla house and order large quantities of grilled meat. It’s wonderfully cheap again after the anxiety inducing costs of Argentina and we return happy.
The original man has been replaced by a slight, poetic man with serious eyes and the appearance of one who enjoys reading Nietzsche and playing the guitar. He welcomes us in lyrical English and we busy ourselves in our room. By ‘making the bed’ the previous man meant putting some brand new bedding, still in it’s Ikea packaging neatly atop the bare mattress. It becomes evident that this hostel is totally in its infancy. I check the review page which persuaded us with its 9.6 out of 10 score, to make the reservation. There are in fact only six reviews and all of them absolutely glow. The hostel is pleasant, cozy, a little crumbly around the edges but there is a cat curled on the sofa and a nice, relaxed atmosphere. It’s nothing special though and we are puzzled. The hostel was so great, so inviting and the welcome gift was really great. One review raves. Welcome gift? We wonder. What welcome gift? We didn’t get one, unless by welcome gift they mean sheets.
The beds made we decide to invest in some bottles of beer and some ice cream for dinner. As we leave, the Nietzsche fan appears behind us.
Hey guys, I wanted to ask….do you smoke marijuana?
He asks shiftily.
I say, wondering if this is some kind of unusual way the Uruguayan government has of imprisoning travellers.
I look at Jamie who looks back with equal confusion. Nietzsche clears his throat and looks a little puzzled by our reticence.
Oh…ok well I wanted to give you this.
He says and holds out a beautifully crafted joint. I look at it for a moment and suddenly remember we are in Uruguay, land of legal cannabis, same sex marriage, tolerance and equality. The joint isn’t an elaborate honey trap at all, it’s our welcome gift. We thank our host who clearly thinks we are a little peculiar and Jamie takes the joint slightly warily. It’s a shame, we agree, that we will have to pass through the less tolerant Bolivian customs the following day.
Montevideo feels like a European city during a long recession. It’s full of pleasant streets and attractive buildings. The people seem educated and laid back but the place is shabby and feels as though it has had its heyday then fallen in to decline. The low clouds and rain lend a slightly soviet feeling to the place and we decide to save our energy for Santa Cruz and spend the evening in. We buy bottles of local beer, tubs of dulce de leche flavoured ice cream and some squares of homemade pizza from the local grocers then retreat to our hostel and sit on the roof terrace. By six the rain has finally receded and a glorious clotted cream coloured sunset washes the whole place clean. The clouds break apart in to thousands of polka dots suspended above our heads and every building glows in the long sunlight. Four cannabis plants luminesce in a brilliant, liquid green in the corner beside the brick parilla and the providence of our welcome gift is suddenly made clear. We sit in the final hour of sunshine enjoying cold glasses of beer and trying to tempt the resident cat to join us. Somewhere along the way we start practising our Welsh accents. Jamie’s, as always, comes out like a confused Geordie and this makes me laugh. Soon Jamie joins in, giggling helplessly as his Welshman becomes a strange, Indian Cockney hybrid. The darkness creeps up on us, slowly leaving the terrace in shadow and finally, when our sides hurt and we reign in the hilarity, we tumble down in to our room to eat the ice cream which is delicious, curiously so.