Argentina (Part 2) – Birthday in Bahia Blanca

BIRTHDAY TRIP TO BAHIA BLANCA

Once A and I arrived in Buenos Aires, we needed to get to my ASR “magical birthday spot,” Bahia Blanca, a small city south of Buenos Aires. It takes about eight-hours to travel to Bahia Blanca by car, or just over an hour by plane. We chose the plane. Planes from the smaller local airport in Buenos Aires to Bahia Blanca depart twice a day— in the morning and in the afternoon. Bahia Blanca is the kind of place, where, when you tell Argentinians you need to go there, they look at you perplexed, and ask “Why?” We only had a week in Argentina, and since I really only needed to be in Bahia Blanca at 1:29pm (local time) on my birthday, I considered flying in the morning, hanging out in the airport, and returning in the afternoon. But this plan contained some risk: If anything went wrong with the morning flight, there wouldn’t be any other options and I would have traveled all the way to Argentina only to fail in my mission! In the end, we decided to play it safe and take an afternoon flight on the previous day to make double-sure I was in the right place at the right time.

Upon arriving in Bahia Blanca, we took a cab from the airport into town and found it about as it had been described to us, which is to say, very average. If I was to pick an Argentinian version of the town I grew up in, it might be this. Probably a pretty nice place to go to work, have a family, pay rent, go to the grocery story… but not exactly a cultural or aesthetic mecca. Which was not really a disappointment. We were still dealing with jet-lag and happy enough not to feel obligated to rush to any famous museums, etc.

We did, however, accomplish a rite of passage for Argentina, in that we found a place that would exchange our money at the “blue market rate.” The blue market rate is almost double the official exchange rate. Swapping bills at this rate is not illegal, but not exactly legal either, so you need to find a partner and a place either by going to someplace like the reputed exchange hotspot of Calle Florida back in Buenos Aires, or by “asking around,” and finding someone trustworthy. After a couple of misses, we lucked out asking a staffer at our hotel. It probably didn’t hurt that A_ tipped him generously in American cash when he helped with our bags.  He gave us the address of a small shop whose primary business was something other than a money exchange. Discreetly counting out our bills at the counter felt, as A_, put it, “a little shady,” but it was safer and nicer than Calle Florida would have been, and much less time-consuming. It felt like a victory as it helped me stretch my travel funds for the rest of the trip!

The next day was my birthday, and also “Immaculate Conception Day” or “Day of the Virgin.” I’d read about this before our trip and and had wondered if the day might be occasion for a festival or a parade or something. I can say that, at least in Bahia Blanca, it is not. As we were exchanging our money the previous day, I’d asked the shop-owner what happened on this holiday and she described it as a day where, if you are religious, you can go to church, or you stay home or hang out with family. Nobody goes to work and pretty much all businesses are closed. Kind of like Christmas Day without the decorations. A_ and I enjoyed the fact that we had our hotel to ourselves, went to the little hotel gym, and used the time to figure some travel plans that were changing.

By the magical hour of 1:29pm, we were back at the airport, preparing to board our plane. I felt a little worldlier and wealthier. I wasn’t sure if I felt immediately luckier, but, but that’s mostly a matter of mindset, so I decided I did!

A reader has asked for some pictures. It’s hard to convey how badly I failed as a photographer on this trip, but these will start to give you some idea!

View from our hotel window at the Bahia Blanca Airport
Our waiting plane at the Bahia Blanca Airport
Me and A_ at the airport at the magical moment of 1:29pm on my birthday.

 

Argentina – (Part 1) It Was a Trip

I’ve been remiss in reporting about my Argentina trip.

Upon my return, a friend, S, (who also does an annual ASR trip) asked me how it was. I replied, “Good, but not relaxing.”

She responded, “It’s an ASR trip. It’s not really the point for it to be relaxing.”

Her response made me think.

Other people had asked the same question, and I had been giving versions the same answer, “Good, but not relaxing,” a touch humorously, maybe a tinge apologetically— as if the expectation would be that if I went on this big trip, I should return rested and renewed. Or healed in some way. And since I couldn’t say that, I felt my answer was low-key disappointing. This expectation was, of course, something I projected on the people who asked. The only person I can say with certainty might have actually felt that way… is me. But when S said what she did, I quickly recognized there had been a gap in my thinking—

— because a “trip” and a “vacation” are different things. Maybe because we take “vacation time” from normal work to travel, “taking a vacation” has certain connotations. Like a good, successful vacation should be relaxing and fun and easy. I’ve never taken a luxury cruise, or been to an all inclusive resort, but these might seem like the ideal that other people with less time and resources should aspire to match—a complete escape from one’s daily life and freedom from the worries and decisions. And maybe you also learn about other cultures secondarily, but it’s not the primary impetus.

“Traveling” on the other hand, is like living your life in a different place. Though we usually hope for life to be easy, I don’t know that we generally expect it to be, and of course maybe it’s better for ones growth as a person to deal with some things that are hard. Maybe a main point of traveling is discovery; to learn about where and how other people live and navigate the unfamiliar, and then maybe, to imagine what one’s life would be in this different place, once the unfamiliar things had become familiar. Maybe the point of taking a trip—and maybe particular an ASR trip —is to be forced (or given the opportunity) to examine ones perspective. Such examination often leads to change, I guess. And change, as they say, it hard.

So Argentina was trip. It was traveling. Some plans fell through. Some plans came scarily close to falling through, but then didn’t. There were logistical issues, language mishaps, a minor injury. But having come out on the other side of things, I look back and feel like like dealing with those things was ultimately rewarding—an important reminder that I am always learning and can and will deal with whatever comes my way.

 

Why I’m Writing This on a Plane to Argentina

Dec 5, 2021

Wait, you’re probably thinking, Is she “literally” on a plan to Argentina, or is this going to be one of those posts where “flying to Argentina” is some weird metaphor? The answer is I am typing this on an American Airlines flight that just took off from Dallas Fort Worth, and in nine and a half hours will land in Buenos Aires.

The plane is full, it’s dimly lit. Some folks —including my traveling companion—have already taken their in-flight drugs and are sleeping, chins to chests. Glowing screens on the walls show our flight path, and more glowing screens on the seat backs silently play commercials, episodes of Ted Lasso, and movies with car chases and fight scenes. One contented baby is sleeping in the seat in front of me, while one discontented (and incredibly strong-lunged) baby cries across the aisle. It’s okay. I’m wearing earplugs.

But you don’t care about any of this – you’re wondering why I don’t get to the point and tell you why I’m on my way to Argentina. I’m procrastinating because the answer is a little embarrassing.

It’s because an astrologist told me to.

Some background:

A few years ago, a friend (who’d been having some good luck in love, career, etc,) told Paul that she had been consulting an astrologist, K, who specialized in Solar Returns. The idea has something to do with looking at the position of the stars when and where you were born and somehow using that information to calculate where your “best stars” are for any given year. The astrologist then recommends where on the globe you should spend her birthday, in order to mitigate transits that might be unlucky, and optimize what can be optimized.

That was the first year that, for our anniversary, Paul got us readings from K. I can’t say I exactly believe in the astrology, but I do believe in affirmations, and it seemed like taking a trip with one’s goals in mind is a strong affirming action. And it could also be fun. At the same time, it always feels a little “out there” to spend a lot of time effort and resources on an astrology trip… at least for me, if something feels too frivolous it becomes more stressful than fun. Paul is someone who takes big swings more in stride. He sometimes enjoys something more because it verges on the ridiculous!

For the last few years, things worked out in terms of our personalities. The first year I had the option of making a road trip to Eureka, California, while Paul went to Japan. The next year, I took a two hour flight on Southwest to Loreto, Mexico, while Paul journeyed to a small town in Italy. Last year, because of the pandemic, we told the astrologist to just give her best shot within driving distance. I got Goleta, California (near Santa Barbara) while Paul took a longer trip to Arizona.

But this year, when our recommendations arrived, the tables had turned. K noted that that even if Paul stayed in Los Angeles, it would be “neutral,” though he might improve his horoscope with a fairly easy trip to Hawaii.

But after that she said:

For Barrington the choice is much more difficult. She will have very bad transit trends for health this year (Saturn for about 4 months puts health at risk), so we need to do ASR possibly very protective for health and without dangerous values! In view of the heavy transits, I would like to offer you the best possible horoscope for health protection and throughout the US there are NO places that are completely safe! This means that I could NEVER make the positive prediction with birthday 2021 in the US (too bad stars).

Then she offered up my BEST options, which she said would be “VERY protective for health, with success in all kinds of projects and extraordinary benefits for human relationships and love, money and carrier.”

They were specific cities in:

Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Guyana.

The second best choice was in Barbados, which she said was protective for health, projects and relationships but with some stress for money with extra expenses throughout the year, (apparently because of Mars in the 2nd House—something astrologers will understand but not me). A third option was Guam. Lastly, she included Boston, although she described this as “NOT a completely safe horoscope. I can only propose it as a ‘less worse’ emergency solution.”

None of these were the kind of easy, inexpensive trip I was hoping for. Distracted by other things happening that evening— like watching our Creepshow episode for the first time and doing fun prep for a morning colonoscopy—I put it out of my mind.

Until, twelve hours later, I received the completely-out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis.

Which certainly felt like a coincidence right after the big health warning. In several years, K has never been quite so specific or adamant about health. I figured it couldn’t hurt to explore the options. And, of course, planning a trip is more fun than planning a cancer journey…

Our friend Brazil didn’t have time for a road trip to the recommended city of Curitiba, and said he wouldn’t recommend trying to drive there from Sao Paulo during monsoon season.

Guyana—just a hop from Miami—was the closest and cheapest, but it had big red travel advisories for both Covid and a huge recent crime surge.

But then my friend, A, said, “I’ve been thinking about going to Argentina.” She speaks much better Spanish than me, and has a friend in Argentina who wants to show us around his city, which is midway between Buenos Aires and my “magic birthday destination” of Bahia Blanca. We’ve been friends for a long time, but have never traveled together and the idea started to seem more fun. Clearly, I’m at a place where the future is feeling uncertain, so… why not?

I’ll say again that I probably don’t believe in astrology, specifically. But from experience, I have to acknowledge that sometimes the universe gives you enough little pushes.

And that’s why I’m writing this post on a plane to Argentina!

Americanish Premieres at CAAM

A notable moment I want to record it before it passes too far into the past: AMERICANISH, a film that Paul produced, had its debut in San Francisco last weekend at CAAMFEST where it won the audience award!

In an only-barely post-Covid-vaccine world, the viewing was both virtual geo-locked to California, and live, at a drive-in at Fort Mason Center.

This felt especially sweet as last year was chock full of disappointments when the film was rejected from a number of top festivals. The producing team went through the additional time, effort and expense of “re-opening” the cut and do more edits, as well as take a hard look at where their film “fits in.” A fun, sweet comedy about Muslim women following their dreams in New York can be a “one of these things is not like the others” situation at film festivals that tend to have a more serious-minded curatorial bent. The movie still has an uphill climb to find love and distribution, but now there are some good reviews coming in, the pandemic easing up, and people in general wanting to feel more optimistic and have fun, it may have found its stride! Here’s hoping!

And here’s a trailer:

A little background, since I don’t think I’ve talked much about this project here on this blog. AMERICANISH has been in the works for about five years. When Paul came on board four years ago, the working title was still “My Cousin Sister’s Wedding.” Paul’s role as a producer began when his friend, Iman, from film school approached him about doing a rewrite pass on a feature she was going to be directing. She and her co-writer were applying for some funding and the script needed a little push to get it in shape. He did the pass, then ended up mentoring and helping her on set, since this was her first feature. (He directed his first feature in 2011-12). During post, he spent months working with a first-time feature editor here in LA. And throughout, he has been involved in the gazillion little decisions and frustrations that go into making a film: which edits, which music, what posters, what trailers, what colors, what name, what fonts where to spend money, what to do then there is no money, what festivals to enter, what to do when festivals say “no,”— and more. This small victory is well-earned by everyone involved.

When Paul or I get some kind of award or a good thing, we joke/not joke, saying, “I’m proud of you everyday, but today you got an award.” This week the film achieved a benchmark, but I’m proud of Paul for the things he does every day. For mentoring and helping people—not just his friends, and not just people in a position to “pay him back”—from where he is now — even when he’s dealing with a disappointments or losses in his own life or career, he is generous with his skills, his time, his advice and his presence and unique energy. There were many examples of this during the course of making this film. (I can say all this, because he does not read this blog!)

Life in a Time of Pandemic: Road Trip Edition (Day 1, Part 1)


Telling people you are planning to drive from one end of the country to the other in the midst of a pandemic gives rise to some questions. Do you think it’s safer to drive than fly? The answer is “maybe.” We have to make more stops, but we won’t have the hours of sharing air with strangers in a confined space. Also, we’ve brought our car to Florida and need to get it back to LA, along with all of our stuff, so it’s attractive to feel like driving is the safer option. Do you think an AirBnB would be cleaner than a hotel? Not really. I feel like the cleanliness of individually-owned properties is less predictable than a hotel that is part of a chain. In New Mexico, where we’ll spend our second night, the occupancy for hotels is capped at 25%, so it will be almost empty, and I figure I can wipe down surfaces and touch points in a single room with less error than in a house.

On the flip side, we’ve also made the decision to spend the first night with my uncle, who lives deep in the country heart of Texas. Because my uncle is not one for phones, emails, or plane trips, and because he is still recovering from a badly broken leg several months back, my family worries for him, and would like me visit. Paul is not a fan of this; he worries because he doesn’t want to be responsible for making him sick. I don’t either, but, I reason, we’ve been sequestered for several weeks, my uncle’s house is fairly large so we can spread out, and as an essential worker, he has been going to work, so he’s being exposed to some outside people already. Of course, the flip side of that is that we are also being exposed to him. Either way, though, we’ll need to do two week quarantine when we get back to Los Angeles. When I tell Paul my family is in favor of us going. He asks “are they okay if we go and then one of us gets sick and dies?” This is a fair question, so I call my mother and uncle and ask: They all say to go for it, and think it is weird that I should ask. Apparently, if something tragic happens, my husband may blame me, but my family will not.

April 24, Friday –Pre move plans always include going to bed early and getting up mega-early the day of the move… and never really work that way. Still, we are loaded and on the road by sometime between 8:30 and 9am. In addition to the bag of snacks we had on our way east, I’ve put together another bag, containing rubbing alcohol, a roll paper towels, a roll of toilet paper, and a container of Clorox wipes A small container of hand sanitizer sits in the center console, along with the cloth masks my mother has sent.

It should take about eleven hours to get to my uncle’s house. We have one “fun” item on the the itinerary, which is stopping at a Buc-ee’s filling station and purchasing brisket sandwiches for lunch after we cross into Alabama.

Our last planned stop in Gainesville is the Starbucks for Paul, but as we near it, we see the the drive-through line — the only line since there’s no in-store service — extends down the street. We keep driving, planning to find a sugary caffeine drink on down the road.

Two hours later, it’s time for our first bathroom break. Since restaurants are closed, the choices are gas stations and state rest areas and I think rest areas are the way to go. The bathrooms are spacious and, with few people traveling for leisure and mostly-male truckers, I’m guessing not crowded. When we arrive, I enact for the first time the routine I have planned: using a Clorox wipe to open every door handle, latch the stall door, and, after perching the wipe on the top of the door while I use the facilities, using it again to exit the stall, push on the faucet handles and activate the dryers. I wipe each touch point I pass as as a little act of service to whomever uses it next.
 
In Tallahassee, where we went to grad-school back in the day, our pre-pandemic plans had been to see friends, reach out to professors, revisit old haunts. Our new plan is to drive straight through. But outside of town we decide we can each text one friend, and offer to drive by and wave. Twenty minutes later we have a short ten-year reunion with our friend Susie, with us parked at the end of her driveway and she standing eight or ten feet away.  She tells us about her kids, the birds in the backyard, working from home and painting designs on furniture.

Social distance reunion

She is in the middle of her workday, and we are still ten hours from our destination, so after fifteen minutes we are on our way. We make another spontaneous detour to see the graduate student housing where we lived for three years, only to discover the university has razed most of the buildings, including the one where we lived.

The line for the Starbucks in Tallahassee is even longer that the one in Gainesville, so we continue to the highway.

Before leaving, I asked the Facebook what music we should listen to on our trip, and got a handful of responses that includes Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Step Inside this House by Lyle Lovett, so we’ve downloaded these, along with an album I’ve been hearing about all week, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. These all seem a little less “basic” than the music we listened to coming the other direction– Paul’s choices of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and the Hamilton soundtrack.

We play the Lucinda Williams, and I’m getting into it — I’ve always had an affinity for raspy female recording artists — but four songs in, Paul says “I don’t think I can do it.” He hits the control on the steering wheel that I’ve never gotten the hang of, and next thing I know, we’re listening to “Memories” by Maroon 5, which, I have to admit, is catchy. I’ve always had an affection for the earworm masterpiece that is Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and that affection transfers to this pop song that borrows heavily from it.

After a little while, Paul starts Weezer album, which I think I remember liking. Now, though, high-hat cymbal feels constant and grating and tinny — but I don’t say anything. It’s good to listen to an entire album and experience it as a whole, I tell myself.

At 2:15pm, Kelly Clarkson plays as we discuss the new Heidi Klum-Tim Gunn show Making the Cut, trying to break down precisely what it means to have a taste problem, what it means to feel more expensive, and how each of these might translate to both the entertainment industry and life. “I think maybe we’d be better off,” says Paul, “if I felt more expensive to people.”

By this time we are already passing billboards for the Buc-ee’s, even though we’re still 100 miles out. For those who don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a Texas-based gas-station chain. A Buc–ee’s generally has at least a couple dozen gas pumps (one location has 100), and a convenience stores the size of a small Costco. Each store has a deli, a fudgery, a meat carvery, a desert case, and lots of branded tchotchkes. Fans wax poetic about the signature chopped brisket sandwich which, in case you don’t get the chance — tastes like a heightened McRib’s with pickles on it.

As we cross into Alabama, we can see some congestion going the other direction, at a checkpoint going from Alabama into Florida. There’s no checkpoint in our direction. For us, the only slow-down is the line of cars entering the Buc-ee’s.

If you squint, you can read the Sweet Home Alabama sign.

I’m a bit ashamed of how much social environment affects my perspective. I’ve found myself wearing the mask outside when there’s no one within a hundred feet. Based on my reading and common sense, I know this is unnecessary, but everyone else is doing it, so I do, too. In Alabama, outside the Buc-ee’s, the opposite is true. People are hanging out by their vehicles, and those entering aren’t wearing masks. For a moment, this seems reasonable. The store is as big as a theme park– we’ll be able to social distance easily, right?

A Buc-ee’s picture I stole from the internet.

But as soon as we walk through the sliding glass doors we realize this is not right. The lines at the two checkout stands are spaced in six foot increments, but because of this the lines extend down main aisle of the store — the same aisle that every customer needs to traverse to get to the contents of the store. While customers have space from the person in front of them in line, they are also within two feet of every customer entering the store .. like us.

Paul and I look at each other and in unison don our masks.

All around us, people without masks dart away from each other, like bumper cars, or like people with no umbrellas trying to dodge the rain. “If we come home with the virus,” I joke to Paul, as we grab our foil wrapped sandwiches from the bustling carvery, “it’s probably because we had to gett sandwiches at Buc-ee’s.” It wasn’t that funny of a joke.

We eat our sandwiches in the car. We’ve reached the “depressing part of the day.” Which is that time you are thinking you should be almost done driving, but according to the GPS you have five or six more hours to go…