What is the purpose of this theatrical exercise—of standing on stage, arms outstretched then falling backwards trusting life will catch you, of taking leaps of faith to prove to yourself you won’t hit the ground… at least too hard?
Maybe it’s that trust takes strength and skill, and developing these requires practice. We play scales and the exercises of Czerny on the piano—thousands of notes designed to be forgotten— in order to be able to play other notes which are arranged to be remembered.
This is what I wrote in a notebook a few weeks ago, when I was feeling philosophical.
This week I’m not feeling so philosophical. This week I’m mainly wondering, why the fuck would someone who has as much pre-traveling anxiety as me keep choosing to undertake a monumental yet completely optional and frivolous pilgrimage each year?
For the past week my chest has been tight, I get these weird pressure headaches in the evenings, and my right eyelid has been twitching intermittently. Every travel arrangement seems fraught.
For example, to keep costs down, I purchased cheaper tickets with carry-on luggage only, which seemed like a nice self-discipline when I booked – wouldn’t I be happier not lugging around a huge case? But it’s turned out that every flight has slightly different carry-on requirements. I’ve spent hours measuring, reading rules, and consulting Reddit threads about how strict they’ll be about an extra inch here or there. I have two flights on Pegasus Airlines, which seems to be the Turkish equivalent of Allegiant Airlines, in that the flights are cheap, but the baggage allowance is exactly one piece. Any item, including a purse or laptop bag counts as that one piece, regardless of its size. Anything additional must be purchased in advance or will cause a large fee at the airport
On one hand, I feel outraged at a world so clearly determined to penalize the poor at every turn. On the other hand, I absorb the judgmental messaging about what it means to be of lower economic status. If I “mess up” and end up paying a punitive fee, then I probably deserve it for failing to diligently read all the fine print, or selfishly packing so much that I can’t also fit my laptop bag into a 20” carry-on. And the fact that I chose such a low-rent airline to begin with points to suspect life choices. When people make better life choices, their money flows like a river instead of arriving too-seldom and unpredictably like the rain in LA. People who make better life choices fly Turkish Airlines, which is civilized, and allows both a suitcase AND a personal item.
Between my natural tendency (augmented by training) to see small events as representing larger issues, and the fact that these trips coincide with my birthday and the end of each year—the two traditional times for evaluating one’s accomplishments and questioning life’s purpose—it’s not surprising that in these anxious moments I can transform every little thing into a reflection of and referendum on my life. It’s not a great headspace.
But I know from experience that once I’m on the plane, a huge amount of this anxiety will disappear. In my current state, I fear that it won’t, but it will.
I know some of you have been waiting with bated breath to find out what astrologically recommended trip I’ll be taking for my birthday this year…
(For those unfamiliar with this blog, in the last few years I have become, reluctantly, a person who lets an astrologist use the time and location of my birth to calculate my “transits” and then recommend the best places to spend my birthday, I wrote a bit about the origins of this practice last year in this post.)
First, let me tell you about a couple of the contenders for this year’s “best place,” because I think they’re more entertaining than usual: According to our astrologist (yes I’m aware of exactly how California it sounds to talk about “our astrologist”)…
The VERY BEST place to be during my Astral Solar Return (i.e. “ASR” i.e. my birthday) would be:
Takaroa: an atoll in the French Polynesian islands. An atoll is apparently a ring-shaped island with a big lagoon in middle. Takaroa is 17 miles x 4 miles in total, but only 8 square miles of that is land, and the rest, I guess, is lagoon. Takaroa’s population is 674 and it has a tropical monsoon climate — with my birthday month of December being the wettest of the year. Traveling to Takaroa, while not impossible, looks expensive and a bit complicated, involving an unverifiable flight from either Tahiti or Papeete. Does an island with 700 people have an hotel?
The BEST (and “only good choice”) in the U.S. was:
Umiat (OO-mee-yat): an unincorporated community in North Slope Borough, Alaska. Located 140 miles from Deadhorse in the Arctic Circle, it’s accessible only by air or river. It is known as one of the coldest places in the US, and “has no permanent residents, being a camp and fuel stop for aircraft and helicopters operating in the area.”
Reading these first two options, I thought for a minute maybe I was being punked. (For comparison, Paul’s first choices were Amsterdam, the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, and Dublin), but apparently this is how my stars aligned.
Out of a handful of other choices ranging from “good” (Maldives) to “very good” (Bishkek, Kyrgzstan) to “other best” (a tie between Nairobi, Kenya and Samsun, Turkey), the winner is….
Samsun, Turkey! It’s a port city on the north coast of Turkey with a population 710,000. It looks pleasant (although it is right across the Black Sea from the Ukrainian nuclear plant we hope the Russians won’t target). I’ll likely just be hanging out there for a night or two, and spend some additional days in Istanbul (…which is not Constantinople)!
My friend who hiked the Pacific Coast Trail, made this lovely short video about her experience and it fits right into the conversation I’ve been having with myself about trips versus vacations. In the video, J_ talks about how people think of a long hike as “an extended vacation in the mountains surrounded by the awesome vistas and beauty. But she says that while there are moments of this, that
“… really it is filled with long dusty miles and sore muscles, and truly, the greatest gifts from taking a long walk are not the landscape, but the lessons learns while oscillating between despair and joy.”
I doubt I’ll ever be brave enough to set out on a months-long hike, but my recent journey did offer up moments of “despair and joy.”
For example, a Friday in Buenos Aires:
Because our original plans to visit another city hadn’t worked out in the end, we’d decided to stay extra days in the Buenos Aires neighborhood we’d begun in, Palermo. Because our first AirB&B apartment wasn’t available for the weekend, it had seemed easiest to move across the street to another apartment, owned by the same people. Despite choosing this for convenience, the move was stressful and rushed. We stayed up late with our Argentinian friend, M_, who was staying with us for a few days. We woke late, disorganized, and up against an early checkout time. A_felt sick, and M_ and I had to navigate our substantial language barriers on our own as we worked out our plans.
While the apartments on both sides of the street were fine in terms of actual space, they shared one flaw which was becoming more apparent by the moment: Each came with only only one key — necessary not only for the apartment, but also to get both in and out of the building itself. So if one person wanted to leave the building—to transport a suitcase or even to disposed of a bag of trash —another person had to take them downstairs to the lobby and let them out if they wanted to keep the key, or had to be trapped inside. This necessity made the move more chaotic than it needed to be, and throughout the trip made normal things, like running to the store, more difficult.
By early Friday afternoon, A_ was sick in bed, and M_ was out shopping. I was home, in charge of the key, banging away on the old, dodgy laptop I had brought, battling the spotty internet and my spottier Spanish to figure out how to comply with the new Covid travel rule that had just gone into effect. We needed to show proof of negative tests taken one day before our departure. Our flight was on Sunday, in the evening. Did one day mean 24 hours or one calendar day? If it was a calendar day, I could find a place open on Saturday. But if it was 24 hours, I needed to find a place on a Sunday morning that would get the results back in time. The internet sputtered and stalled as I attempted to compare lab locations on maps and to navigate vague online appointment systems. I dialed phone numbers but no one answered.
Directly below our window a jack-hammer began to hammer. In a nearby apartment, a dog began barking and didn’t stop, no doubt feeling as trapped and anxious as I was.
As my anxiety mounted, I decided to give up on technology and physically go find one of the labs. Every place said they didn’t take walk-in appointments, but surely I could talk to someone, face-to-face, who could answer my questions and reassure me that we’d be able to leave the country. Choosing what seemed to be the closest lab, I set out on foot. The street was busier, dirtier and much longer than I’d anticipated, but I finally arrived at the address.
The lab was nowhere to be found. No one I asked seemed to know about it, and of course when I called, no one answered. I hailed a cab and directed it to a second lab address, but traffic was bad and I was running out of time to meet M_ and let him in, so I returned to the apartment, defeated. The jackhammer was still hammering, the dog was still barking, A_ was still sleeping, and I had failed to make us a Covid test plan that would allow us to board our plane in two days. And also, I had no real career, was a failure as a writer, there was a new pandemic variant descending and, oh yeah… I had cancer! What had I been thinking taking this trip at all?!
But then M_ returned. He was so sweet and supportive, offering to delay his five-hour bus ride back to his city in order to take a cab with me to a lab and work it out. This pushed me to look at my research one last time, and finally I found a web-article that gave me enough confidence to book a Saturday test, which I did, figuring If it’s wrong, we’ll figure it out tomorrow. M_ left to catch his bus. The despair started to dissipate.
I had an arranged a friend-of-a-friend-date in the evening soI took a shower, put on my one kind-of-dressy outfit. At some point, the hammers finally stop hammering and the dog stops barking. A_ woke up, feeling better.
When A_ , let me out of the building and I stepped onto the street, the air felt airier — the way it sometimes does on summer evenings. I met the friend of a friend, V_ , at a seafood restaurant called La Pescadorita. It had good sidewalk eating areas with some tenting between the tables and the traffic on the road. Hanging out with V_ was a true pleasure. She was so honest and open about her life, I felt like I was hanging out with an old friend. After dinner, we walked along the brick sidewalks and cobble roads to La Viruta Tango, a club where people go to dance. V_ says they although they don’t publicize, that pre-pandemic, there would be lines of tourists there to watch the dancers, just from word of mouth.
La Viruta reminded me of the masonic lodges and social halls where I used to go swing-dancing back in the day. But while those could feel temporary and rented for an event, La Viruta felt like a true place for dancers. It was dark, with a bar at the back and a stage in the front and tables with table clothes around the dance area.
We arrived around 10pm, when the less experienced dancers were still practicing after a lesson and the more advanced dancers were just beginning to arrive. Having been a dancer in the past, the ritual was familiar to me, but the dance itself was complex and unfamiliar.
Around 11, there was the unexpected surprise of a live band! Called Otros Aires, they played tango, but the singer had a laptop and the tango was fused with other beats, like cumbia, maybe salsa — I loved it. Watching the dancers and the band, I felt my heart swell. I was struck with a sense of wonder and gratitude at being alive. Joy.
Around round midnight, the band ended, and the DJ unexpectedly took a break from Tango to play some salsa. A young man invited some of the dancers at the next table to dance. When they refused, V_ pushed me to volunteer. O_ was very happy to be asked, and we danced a couple of salsas, and then a 50s era East Coast swing and had a lot of fun. An older gentleman named M_ then invited me to dance just as they started playing a song that was unfamiliar.
I found myself in a group dance comprised of multiple sets of partners. I did my best to copy the steps of my partner and another woman in the group. Everyone was patient and laughing. After the dance, V_ told me it was a form of Argentine folklorico. It was similar to, but not exactly like this:
Then the tango music resumed, and a rejoined V_ at our table. Sitting at the table, a little sweaty and out of breath, with a new friend, watching the dancers whose lives might be hard or easy, coming together and celebrating with music and movement, I felt a surge of happiness—of gratitude that I get to be part of this, that I get to be a human living on earth, that I get a life with moments like this.
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!
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.