12 April, 2010

¡¿Viva Slovenia?!

Slovenia! The country most known for the sizable population of Americans who don't even know it exists – beating out Myanmar by a Slovenian donkey hair (do they even have donkeys?). From what I saw today at the Buenos Aires Feria de Eslovenia, what they do have is a great deal of traditional head gear that would make the pope jealous, and a hefty supply of sausage. And if the proportions are correct, based on this miniscule festival thousands of miles from their home, 1 in 50 Slovenians have stunning blue eyes and an interested American boy.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I was invited to the Slovenia festival. It covered a two block radius (I'm almost certain that's the size of Slovenia), and it was packed full; one can assume all of Slovenia was in attendance. Circling the area were large displays of Slovenian information explaining how they came to Buenos Aires and possibly why they have a Barbershop octet singing at full volume on stage. Also, as the pedestrian traffic lights blinked red on the blocked off street, a large crowd circled several traditional Slovenian dancers.

I'm hoping their style pops up on “So You Think You Can Dance”.

I was determined to educate myself on the deep roots of Slovenian lifestyle. Which naturally calls for a traditional Slovenia beer – as they would say, “an empty sack can't stand upright”. Yeah, I don't get it either. Nevertheless, the beer went down smooth. Slovenia isn't looking so slovenly now.

As we were heading out, one of the festival officials eagerly handed us a catalog of traditional Slovenian food and a map of Slovenia. Had I been anyone else, I would have thought, “Ha, like I'll ever need that.” However, had a few more Slovenian beers been sloshing around in a sausage filled stomach and the phone number of that blue-eyed milk maid been in my pocket, I would have soon found myself in the back alleys of Ljubljana, dancing to the chanting men and wondering what Myanmar looks like.

07 April, 2010

Pillow Planetarium Mayham

A giant pillow fight. Just the idea of it is enough to make your inner child put on their jammies and jump up and down on the bed. By the way, my inner child just swept the legs out from under your inner child, you have to watch out for that.

The air was crisp, the sun was shining, and I could have sworn she said to meet in front of the entrance at 4. I was invited to the “Buenos Aires Flash Mob – Pillow Fight” from a girl on couchsurfing.org, but I didn't see her. In fact, I didn't see anyone with a pillow. My inner child felt like he was left at the soccer game again. As I was about to leave, we met eyes. That is, my eyes met the bag of pillows she was carrying. Dreams do come true.

In 2006, the first Buenos Aires pillow fight brought in over a thousand people. In 2008, there were several hundred. They had tried one in February of this year, but less than fifty people showed up. After Silvana and her friends set up the group on Facebook for April, three thousand people joined. Yet, it was nearly the hour to begin and only a few scattered people had arrived with pillows.

We talked to a photographer from the Associated Press as people came and went around the planetarium. Silvana bobbed in her seat, demanding more ¡peelows! I helped by doing pillow calls. Which is smacking someone with a pillow closest to you. Pillows go crazy for that sound. Trust me, it worked. Before we knew it, the whole lawn was filled with pillow warriors.

One of Silvana's friends took charge (I assume since he was the only one with a whistle). He circled everyone together, i.e. set the tinder in place. Then came the spark. Someone yelled, and the whole area went up in feathery flames. People who had been sitting calmly just a minute before were now wielding their “goodnight moon” pillow like a battle ax. High school girls were taking on overgrown futbol hooligans.

After a five-minute blaze through the crowd with two pillows swinging maniacally around my head, I stepped out for a second and talked to a funny, shaved head Argentine with a metal t-shirt on. He said in the first ten minutes, a girl had peed her pants, some guy lost his watch, and another almost broke his camera. At one point, feathers exploded into the air and the crowd gasped; all that remained was an empty piece of cloth.

For the next hour and a half, the fights would come to a stand still, then suddenly break out again – usually focused on one person. Here are a few signs you're about to be pummeled by two hundred people with fluffy weapons of war:

- Someone shouts your name, or describes something ridiculous you're wearing (Dressing up like Where's Waldo sounded like a good idea before you left home, I know)
- You're a tiny girl with friends that have a malicious sense of humor.
- You try to get everyone's attention
- And the worst of all... You tell everyone that the fight is over.

When the group of coordinators, that is, Silvana and her friends, decided to leave nearly two hours after it had started, the pillows were still in full motion and the ground was littered with bits of foam. One guy was smiling with a bloody lip, the Argentine with the metal t-shirt had a bruise on his head. and my battle wound was a red, watery eye (a.k.a tears of manliness).

Twice they had made their last comments, thanked everyone from coming, and then were promptly attacked by the giggling mob. In the end, all they could do was walk away from the wildfire and see if it lasted until bedtime, in which the pillow fight would become an epidemic. Well, at least one can dream.

27 March, 2010

It Takes Three to Tango

I place one hand solidly around the small of her back, and take her hand with the other. We stand inches apart as I move, my chest pushing her forward. Our feet glide as one, step by step across the smooth wooden floor. Her long legs anticipate my movements, the scent of flowers drifts off her hair, and her milky soft hands lay firm in mine. The tango is a dance of passion, firmly connecting the instinctual roles of feminine and masculine; and had this woman been fifty years younger, I might have sensed some of that.

This was my first class of tango in Buenos Aires and it was already an experience. Although I had come to class with a stunning, radiant girl from Oregon, I soon found myself in the firm grasp of my long lost Argentine grandmother. She gave a polite smile as I attempted maneuvering her around the several other couples in the small dance studio with the “basic steps” I had learned. These basic steps being successive quick and slow movements, depending on the beat of the music. I didn't even hear the music at that point, my only goal was not to crush her ancient toes. In order for two to tango, a third is necessary: the teacher.

Hypatia had arrived earlier in the week on a twenty-five hour trip from Oregon to Argentina with no other goals in mind than to dance the tango, drink wine, and relax. Somehow, I couldn't argue with that and we quickly signed up for an eight-day tango package at the local dance school. Other than the place being peculiarly hard to find (before crossing through the art gallery, you make a left at the picture of a midget sumo wrestler holding a birdcage), it was perfect. There were two rooms, one slightly bigger than the other, and classes were held all day, nearly every day. This excited Hypatia; she considered dropping nursing school to live in Argentina and dance the tango. I agreed to be her partner as long as she learned to be as graceful as my new tango grandma.

Over several weeks, different teachers taught us posture, walking posture, the eight-count (with the right posture), “ochos” and “crusadas”, and they did mention a thing or two about posture. Machismo is almost the foundation of the tango posture. The teacher repeated, “Chest up and out, shoulders relaxed.” Inevitably, every two minutes he repeated it directly to me. Finally he took things into his own hands. What I mean is, he took me into his own hands, and placed me in the exact position, opposite his. Holding his hand and wrapping my arm around his back, my mind had conflicting signals. I wasn't sure I wanted to feel manly right now.

After the first day, I had muscles in my lower back ache that I didn't even know existed. I found myself sticking my chest out at the grocery store, in restaurants, and while inexplicably helping old ladies cross the street. I made sure to remind Hypatia to stick her chest and butt out too... for the respect of the tradition. She reminded me, in turn, men lead the dance, so if she makes any mistakes, it's my fault. So I lead her into the kitchen to make me a sandwich.

When we had gotten a very basic idea of moving around a dance floor, we decided to attend a Milonga, which is a local dance hall, playing all sorts of music, mainly tango. We had found a girl on my favorite travel social network, www.couchsurfing.org, who knew about tango and invited us out with a couple of her friends.

The first thing I learned about Milonga versus a dance studio is space. There is none. Dozens of couples filled the floor for each song, leaving pockets of air between the quick and graceful professionals and the skittish and hesitant amateurs. It was like I had learned to swim the backstroke, then I was thrown into a bathtub. When I took Hypatia out for a dance, I found I not only had to watch out for stepping on her feet, but also all the other surrounding women. Luckily, as a kid I mastered "Minesweeper" on the computer.

I came to notice that the intensity and technicality of the dance is the man's responsibility. Women taking a first class tripped over the men they were with, but once in the hands of the teacher, they looked like they had been raised in three-inch tango heels. On our third class, the teacher took Hypatia to show a few moves. She whipped around him with youthful grace, her legs gliding through the air, following his every move. When she was done, I said, “wow, way to show off.” She laughed, “I have no idea what I did. Did that look okay?”

It's nice to know eventually I'll be able to take all the credit for the dance. Right now, though, I am only taking credit for my macho posture. 

08 February, 2010

The River of January

The beauty of Brazil, Rio de Janiero, was built up by billionaires, bomb-shelled by poverty-driven crimes, and populated with the entire spectrum of humanity: slum lords to silver spoons. It's pretty crazy, I guess is what I'm saying.

Our Boeing 747 hovered over the unquestionable wonder of the world. Its landscape exploded with living mountains. Of all luring environments, Rio de Janiero stands out as South America's glittering jade in the sand. Also as it's cash cow, which is wearing jade.

We taxied to the airport after landing; old broken airplanes lined the grassy medians - relics of older times. The mountains stood confidently from ground-level, striving, despite the expanding life below them. Clouds hovered above. The postcards hadn't lied.

As is the nature of travel, only a brush stroke of a masterpiece can be seen on my brief journeys. Yet, this stroke inspires a striking curiosity, a spirit of hopeful adventure, and an excuse to drink a lot of the local alcohol and call yourself cultured. Three days was my brush stroke and I crave to return to fill in the clouded background – as well as refill my cup of caipirinha – cane alcohol mixed with your choice of fruit.

Our cab driver didn't know our hotel and circled the streets. I took the opportunity to watch the local life: the old hairy men wearing nothing but stretchy Speedos, the women in less than modest beach clothing, the coconut vendors and shirtless trash collectors with their wooden carts. Though mildly dirty, the tacky atmosphere known in most beach towns was absent. Instead, the scents of wilderness lingered, capturing the ghosts of the first colonies, of disorganization and a slight apprehension, yet compelling in its imperfection. Oh, and did I mention Speedos?

Nathalie, her two French friends, Dimitri and Fabianny, and I met to grab lunch off of Copacabana Beach. Walking down the street opposite the ocean, I snapped photos of trees growing sideways out of the sidewalk – natural benches for the local artisans whose artwork was displayed in a little tented market. The blue horizon blurred, ocean with sky. Across the four-lane road, dark-skinned locals played soccer-volley ball intensely. Although hungry from the trip, I still felt an urge to walk on the sand and gaze thoughtlessly at the powerful picture in front of me. Of course my urge to gorge myself on a seafood buffet was greater and we soon made it to the restaurant.

In three days, the four of us saw five major tourist sites.

1. The Beaches: Copacabana and Ipanema.
2. The lagoon
3. The fort
4. The big Jesus
5. As many restaurants and bars as there are meals in a day.

Merely a glimpse of Rio was all I was allotted on this trip. I spent the majority of the time watching the French speak French, the Brazilians speak Portuguese, and the Spanish wonder what happened to their language.

I had no big adventure, no major epiphanies, no hassles, hang-ups, or hangovers. It was moderately marvelous. I feel like I missed something though, like the party was just about to start. The calmness seemed almost inappropriate for the awing location. It was too luscious to be so serene. Too warm to cause such laziness. Too picturesque to be so populated. It was as if I were visiting the idea of Rio. It's imagined hills, covered in favelas. It's rumored lagoon, circled with joggers and bikers, kids in go carts and fruit vendors on the side. Surreality surrounded me atop the mountain, standing beneath the large Jesus, watching the fog come in and fade his image into a mere shadow. The speckled landscape below became smudged and blurry, blocking any formation of memories. As if Rio preferred to be a forgotten thought, savored only in the moments of being experienced.

On the third night, a monstrous thunderstorm moved over the city as Nathalie and I headed to the airport. The flights delayed a couple hours as the torrents of water washed away all traces of my stay. It could all have been a false memory. It was too perfect to be real. One day I'll go down the looking glass, through the wooden wardrobe, across the river Styx, tackle the jade wearing cash cow, and demand a more realistic vacation.

29 January, 2010

Sao Paulo and the Vehicle Monsoon

Sao Paulo is the definition of a city. If you look up 'city' in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of me, stuck in a two-hour traffic jam from the International airport, mumbling, “ugh, Sao Paulo is the definition of a city.”  Below, you'll see: 2. (noun) a mind-numbing mass of people crazy enough to live in one area. See also, Tokyo, Mumbai, and giant African ant hills.

Denilo, a German descendent, Brazilian raised, entrepreneur, model, and part-time driver stood waiting for me, with a sign at the airport - 'Kevin.'
“Were you sitting on the wheel?” he asked after I shook his hand.
“You got here fast.”
“Ah... Ha.” Was that Brazilian humor, or regular humor on three hours of sleep?

Denilo was outgoing and talkative. We had a forty-five minute conversation about cars. My knowledge of cars goes as far as hearing the model of a car, and instantly knowing whether it's funny sounding or not. Silverado, not funny. Saab, funny (I'd Saab if I had that car). Car conversations must be ubiquitous here, as Sao Paulo has more than 8 million vehicles trickling down the streets. Yes, 8 million. Imagine staring at a highway, non-stop, for two months, and never seeing a break in the cars honking by. That's about 8 million. In Sao Paulo though, it never stops.

Later in the week, I explored the city by foot – which is like admiring a two-story mural with a magnifying glass. For a thirty minute stretch of walking down one road, I saw nothing but car dealerships. Most cars were slightly out of my price range: Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW; they may as well have had the bat mobile. Not to mention, all the cheap cars, the Hondas and Fords. Every conceivable make or model of car is bought here or brought here. Basically, Brazilians make American car lovers look like Amish car mechanics.

If it weren't enough to flood the city with vehicles, Sao Paulo also has the largest fleet of helicopters. They can be heard throughout the day, circling the city with the rich and powerful. I'm thinking of opening a business of helicopter taxis – although, the altitude and the fare could easily be mixed up.

Despite Sao Paulo's infestation of four-wheeled smog producers, the city is so immense that calm streets can still be found throughout the metropolis. I walked down the wealthy streets of Rua Brazil and Rua Groenlandia to find tree-covered mansions guarded by barbed wire, security cameras, and private security guards lazily watching TV on the boxy 6-inch screens. I'm almost positive they were watching a show about cars.

Off Paulista, the main strip lined with immense skyscrapers, a small sanctuary of greenery hides from the traffic. A recreation of the amazonian jungle penetrates the earth of several blocks, reclaiming it's once lush home. The clustered maze of different palms, vines, leaves, and branches block out nearly any view of cement highrises. In fact, trees are sneaking around all over the city, grasping onto concrete walls and wiggling through sidewalks. However, If I were a tree here, I would definitely sell my body to get a Ferrari.

Although intimidating, Sao Paulo was growing on me. I saw why so many people could live here. An aliveness and foundational respect for plants helps the city bloom. However, while hugging the trees, a drop of water hit me on the head like Newtons apple and I remembered that all this green needed water. Lots of water. I estimated a monsoon's worth. Which is exactly what dropped out of the sky five minutes later. Meanwhile, I had no umbrella and no taxi, which went perfect with my no sense of direction.

As I waited under an awning, examining my map, a guy ran up with a cardboard box over his head, tossed it into the trash and ran inside. This man knows his city. I grabbed the cardboard box and braved the weather. Soon, I was walking calf deep in puddles, my shorts were soaked, and my shoes squished like sponges. By the time I reached the apartment, I looked like I'd swam there.

Sao Paulo still has much to offer me, but next time I go out, I'm taking my helicopter taxi.

20 January, 2010

The Price of Silence (is about seventy-five bucks)

It was three in the morning when we stopped in a Chinese-run convenience store with pay phones. Jesus plopped into the chair, grabbed the phone, and told the person on the other line Wilson was a thief. The Chinese cashiers stared at us. William assured them he had no weapons by lifting his shirt and showing off his hips. He continued buzzing to me about Wilson (shirt still to his chest) – Wilson switched the bill; he was in cahoots with the bartender; why did he disappear?

Two hours earlier, we all stood on the third floor platform of the dim, neon-lit dance club, located in the locals' area 'Once'. A mammoth of a boy bobbed back and forth in front of us, eyes wide, enjoying his own story about knocking someone out. He grinned, several teeth were missing from his square jaw, “Security” was written on his t-shirt. This burly bouncer originally approached the four of us because he thought the boys' cigarettes might be weed. Satisfied they were destroying their bodies legally, he stayed and exchanged tales of violence with the guys and living the tough life. I wanted to contribute, but my only violent tale is when I hit my friend in elementary school and his eyelashes got caught in his glasses. I was immediately sorry. I didn't share, though; as I guest, I didn't want to out-man them.

We had arrived early at the club, around 1AM. The bouncers at the front frisked us and one of them took my pen. It was like a prisoners ball. Inside, shy teenagers lined the sides of the empty dance floor, waiting for the crowds to arrive. I realized I paid for the first round of drinks when little change returned from a big bill. How fortunate, I've been meaning to be more unintentionally generous. We watched as the bartender poured more than six different liquors into a neon-green bucket, large enough to have a warning for drowning infants. The bartender popped in four straws. In addition, she handed us two Slurpee-sized cups of a dark liquid. I could have paid her to stab my liver instead.

As more people arrived, more cigarettes singed away, the smoke clouded against the ceiling. No matter where you are in the world, teenagers everywhere think it's cool to smoke. When older, it's cool to tell everyone you're quitting. I may start, purely to quit.

The bucket of liquor got lighter and the other two cups were poured in. Some people don't like mixing their drinks, but it's really like throwing all your trash in one bag. Someone's going to take it out eventually... I'm not sure what my metaphor means, but it seems suitable. Go with it.

Flash forward, Quentin Tarantino style! Outside, Jesus, William, and I wandered to a street corner and a red hatchback slowed to the curb. Jesus and William tried to open the door and the car sped off. That was a very lazy way to hijack a car. Calmly, they walked to the other side of the corner and another red car pulled up. This time they opened the door and hopped in. When in Argentina...

Flash, again! Wilson stepped to the cashier to make the order. He and I were downstairs getting a refill on the bucket. I glanced at the dance floor. For the second time, I met eyes with a cute girl dancing in a circle of friends. Wilson turned and asked me for some money, I handed him a large bill, the only one I had. The bartender examined the bill; he flicked it, turned it over, held it under the light, and handed it back. “No sirve nada” - It's no good.
Wilson asked me for another bill. I told him that was my last one. Wilson handed the cashier the bill again and tried to negotiate. The cashier wrote on a little slip of paper. We slid over; the bartender looked at the paper, and gave us nothing. I guess the paper said, “Hey Bernice, why haven't you returned my calls? Oh, and I totally jacked these kids' money, BOO-Yah!.. but really, call me back.” I'd been bamboozled. Maybe the bill truly was fake. Maybe they didn't read the paper right. Maybe I should ask that girl to dance... We split up to find Jesus and explain what happened.

Jesus ran into me and I tried to explain the story. His red eyes showed thin signs of understanding. I finished and he stormed the cashier. The cashier handed Jesus the bill and let him look at it. Jesus flipped it around and handed it back. “Wait!,” I said in my head. “At least let me have the damn bill!” Jesus wandered off to the front. Sometimes, in a foreign country, I assume people know what they're doing. This shouldn't have been one of those times. Tonight it cost me $75 to learn to speak up.

Early that evening, after dinner, Pat, Bob, Veronica, William, Wilson, Jesus, and I gathered for a glass of champagne. It was Jesus' birthday. I hadn't planned on going out, but two hours later, we sat with four wine bottles, two bottles of champagne, three liters of beer, and a liter of cider, all empty. The boys decided to go out, and invited me along. I figured, an adventure is always awaiting...

Getting ready, Jesus suggested I wear different shoes. Nike's were better than my low-cut running shoes. I put on jeans and a green striped polo shirt; they said I looked good, I fit in. They laughed, but these were the clothes of thieves. I had to ask them to repeat that; we looked like college kids on the way to a prep rally. Thieves? They explained that kids who wear these clothes, in the part of town we're going to, are considered thieves, because, “How else could they afford these clothes?”

Well, for one, they could work as bartenders.

10 January, 2010

Chauffeuring Street Kids 2: Revenge of the Shift

In this mangled metropolis, I am a born-again driver. I shift gears with lightning reflexes. I slash across lanes flawlessly. I attempt to change the station on the radio... Still working on that one. Only one test remains to become a certified Argentine road warrior. The highway. Or as they define it in my Spanish dictionary, “El Diablo Gigante con Pantalones del Fuego”. Don't ask where I got this dictionary.

This time around, William and his little girl decide it might be safer to walk through the shanty towns by the train tracks, flashing hundred peso bills, than to ride with me. No problem, because it's mad max countdown. I've got my war paint on. We're starting off in a blaze. We hit the highway in t-minus... once I get out of first gear. Oops. Car stalled. Mmm, okay. Got it. Oh, wait, release break. Yeah. Let's go. Woo! ….Okay, how do I turn that off?

It's day two of apartment hunting and I am 'preparado'. I take a deep breath and recall the important lessons from yesterday: how to holler at women from the window, how to take my shirt off every time we get out of the car, and how to avoid eye contact with the ridiculous red light vendors. In reality, who drives to work, stops at a red light, and thinks, “Golly, I just remembered I need a super-soaker, a child-sized floaty vest, and a kite before I get home”? Welcome to Buenos Aires. Credit card not accepted. No return policy – unless you can find the same street corner vendor. Then the policy is to toss it at him.

Overall, I'm more at ease with the city. I've come to enjoy the agreed disorderliness. Elements of the traffic are even making sense. When the light is about to turn green, both red and yellow light up. It's strange at first; but, as soon as I see the red/yellow light, I shift into first gear. It's genius - everyone's ready to squeal forward on green (pedestrians present or not). I've even accepted the fantasy lanes people create; mainly, because it's impossible for traffic to flow with taxis stopping every second to snag their fares. Hence, everyone hovering slightly to the side of the lane, ready to leap around stopped vehicles. Ordered chaos is the fail-safe of humanity. Oo, that's quotable. I hope it makes sense.

Now, it's time. Highway time. Jesús flicks his hand toward the road, which I've come to understand means keep going straight; or, look at that chica caliente – this results in plenty of confusion. I keep driving straight and see the cement highway crisscrossing the road ahead. The road splits, he flicks, I turn, we're in.

And... commence dramatic anti-climax. It's a highway. Not much going on. In fact, people are well behaved. The highway may even be the calmest part of the city. I honestly feel cheated. I want to star in Speed Racer. I want to bust out maneuvers that are too Fast as well as too Furious. I want Matrix-style back flips off tractor trailers! I'd even settle for the Love Bug. Alas, we coast along the highway for about five minutes and then exit into another “economical” area of the city to look for apartments. Oh well, as long as it doesn't turn into Hostel...

As for the apartment shopping, we double our productivity – that is, we see two places today instead of one. We make a supremely efficient team. Wilson scribbles five numbers off of rent signs, Jesús calls one, sets up a meeting we never go to, and I drive in circles. Hm... I think we unknowingly summed up the Argentine government.

As we're about to give up and go home, I give Jesús one more number. He calls and speaks for a minute. A meeting is set and we drive to the renter's office. If only it were that easy. We can't see the apartment because they're painting it. Another reason may be that Jesús looks like a street kid, he has tattoos, crooked teeth, and speaks the street slang; they don't think he can afford to rent the place. However, they show him photos, he says he likes it and tells them we''ll return the next day...

Does Jesús find an apartment?? Will Kevin buy more floaty vests?? Who is the mysterious man lurking in the shadows??

For answers to these questions, and more, tune in next time!

Next time!: Yes, No, Raúl (turns out, he has a hangover).