Friday, May 22, 2009

Temporary State of First Worldness

So, I am in the states for a few weeks for a little business, a little pleasure and a little summertime. After a long ass flight, I am in Washington DC for the week, a place I lived on and off for over a dozen years. First off, in case you were worried, modern Rome is doing just fine. A little more gentrified then six months ago, which means a little more anger in the street, but otherwise all good. The flowers are in bloom, everything is fertile and green, and the sun is getting hotter as summer kicks off this weekend. Lucky me.

DC feels like a old pair of comfortable jeans in one moment and then in another, it feels like shoes that don't quite fit. I am loving the familiarity of the neatly tree lined streets, the stores that I shopped in for a large chunk of my adult life, the sweet smell of summer hitting the city. The girls are wearing their newest sundresses, their shoulders finally fully peaking out after their long hibernation. The boys are in shirtsleeves, their arms just starting the process of the inevitable summertime farmer tans. But after six months in the third world, it is very odd to be where there is so much order, so many straight lines. The rules are much more rigid in the first world, or maybe the compliance levels and expectations are just much higher. I am not sure exactly what it is, but there is a sense of order than just evades the south somehow.

In some way, I feel like a stranger peeping into a life that I only want to dip my toes into as to not be fully enveloped by it. When I was sitting in the back of a taxi yesterday morning, the early summer glow bathing the cars patiently waiting in the enormous traffic jam on the highway (sans crazy horn hocking a la Buenos Aires), all I could think was, “Is this the only way that people can live here? “ Jammed in their cars, following the path that someone before them grooved out for them and was drilled into them as they did the things that their families and society preached to them were the things to do: College, the big city, good job, insurance, security, spouse, car, children, mortgage, dog, college funds, 401ks, retirement, bigger job, bigger office, bigger salary, bigger mortgage, bigger car. Does it have to keep on getting bigger to be considered progress? There was a lot of the same thing in those shiny new Hondas, Toyotas, and Volkswagons.

This isn’t only a first world affliction anymore… the bigger, more syndrome. I saw it creeping into life in Buenos Aires, especially in my first world light neighborhood. For example, blackberries, Iphones – the accoutrement of most people with money and not enough time scrambling for excess– were more and more noticeable in my hood in BA and are ubiquitous here. In fact, I don’t know if I know anyone in DC who doesn’t have a blackberry/Iphone/PDA. Even me.

I am missing Buenos Aires this afternoon, mostly the crazy chaos and energy of the city. BA is eternally alive with its heart beating wildly, loudly, and sometimes even erratically each and every day. In Washington, I am trying but just cannot feel the city’s heart. Maybe I have to try a little harder to listen since maybe it's just not as loud as BA. After all, with it's buses and crazy cars and random third world trucks, BA's heart has some serious competition to be heard.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wash ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em

My life here in Buenos Aires is a little bit in a bubble, I will admit it. I live in a posh neighborhood, as a friend and former BA resident mentioned on Facebook to me in regards to my last post. Living here was a deliberate move. Before this, I lived in San Telmo – the gritty, über urban enclave of hipsters ensconced in stunning, old buildings that once housed the working class settlers of Buenos Aires.

Anyway, a Paco problem (kind of like crystal meth) drove me north to my tree-filled, breeder-ish hood of first world light. This neighborhood, with its' lovely little specialty shops for cheese, wine, underwear, and delicious imported treats tucked in the corners. No paco. Non-native English is occasionally heard on the streets with the thick Argentine accent that can’t quite grab the right vowel.

Many of these people who don’t care how much anything costs- they have the housekeeper, the trainer, the cook, the nanny- you name it, Third world elites. They don’t just exist here in BA, they exist all over the third world. Want someone to wait in the maddeningly long lines everywhere for everything? Hire a personal assistant. Why do anything yourself when you can afford for someone else to do it?

I chatted with a South American friend about it. What is the reason for this? He thought maybe it had something to do with power – money equals power and if you have it, you can hire people and tell them what to do. He also thought it was also part of the traditional classist and racial hierarchy in Latin America, which is strong here in Buenos Aires.

I also thought it was about the system. For example, I once read a story in the New Yorker about the way of life in Lagos, Nigeria – a giant third world city where people will do anything for money - even wash your feet! In a place where there are not a lot of jobs, people make their own jobs and force you to pay. This is one of those places.

For example if you want to park on the street, often there is a guy helping to navigate the traffic for you. He doesn’t ask, he just does it. As I walk down the street to the gym, I often see the same group of guys outside a hulking church and sprawling private Catholic school complex. There are three or four of them who sit on plastic containers turned upside down, chain smoking and talking amongst them selves and waiting. Waiting. Waiting is the classic posture of the service class.

When a car comes creeping slowly off the hyper-trafficked Luis Maria Campos onto the calmer Maure, they often spring into action. They furiously wave their yellow rags to direct the drivers, standing in the street with an air of authority more like a crossing guard than a cop. Sometimes they wash the cars too, earning a few extra bucks.

Work is work, I suppose. Especially in this economy, right? Guess washing cars in Buenos Aires is better than washing feet in Lagos.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Wandering the World

I have a standing date most Wednesdays with a friend to have an intercambio, which is when you meet up and spend half the time speaking English and the other half speaking Spanish. It has been a huge help for me as I am working on my Spanish and has given me the chance to learn a bit more about Buenos Aires through the best source of information – the locals.

The other night I was waiting for my friend in Palermo, outside of the University of Buenos Aires. It was a mild fall night, the shadows of the bare trees reflecting onto the sidewalks and into the windows of the chic boutiques that line the cobblestone streets. As I waited for her to come out of her English class, I struck up a conversation with a woman who worked on the campus as a security guard type. Short, stocky, with a pockmarked face and ill-fitting clothes, we chatted about the erratic onset of the fall. She asked my about my bike, which I had leaning up against the light post a couple of feet away. Did I want to put it inside? “No,” I said, “I’m just waiting for a friend who should be out shortly.” We chatted a bit more and then she asked me if I rode very far. No, I responded, just from Las Cañitas. “Las Cañitas?” she asked, “Where is that exactly? I have heard people talk about it, but I don’t know it.”

Las Cañitas is maybe 20 blocks away, but to this woman, it could have been Mars. Another world.

I will give you that Buenos Aires is a huge, sprawling city, with a metro area as big as Yellowstone National Park. And this is not a phenomenon unique to BA. There are other people like this woman I have encountered in New York, Berlin, and Washington, DC. It’s more about curiosity about the world and this woman (and those who don’t leave their little universes everywhere in the world) just did not have it.

In my travels I have also met the other extreme, people who want to travel and cannot because of their government or their own situation with money or family. These are the people I love to chat with and will usually find me across a crowded room at a party. I am inspired by their love of adventure, especially when I grow weary of my own. They remind me why I go out into the world and how amazing it is to discover all that the world has to offer.

As for the non-nomadic woman, she reminds me about how wonderful it is sometimes to just be home.