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How do you get to Buenos Aires?

Well, if you take the route I did, you start in Oakland, drive to San Francisco Airport, fly to Puerto Rico, return to California, fly to Maui and then back to California, fly to Rio de Janeiro, and then catch a flight to Buenos Aires. 

Let me explain. 

During the early years I was working as an optometrist, the vision care/optical provider where I worked announced that its upcoming annual conference would be held in Puerto Rico; it had a few outlets there. They also announced that the major contact lens manufacturers were offering sales incentives (“prizes”) to the personnel at each location. That’s the way things were in the 1980s. Don’t shoot me. 

My location, in Berkeley, was one of the busiest in the network, but certainly not number one. So I didn’t take this “contest” seriously and just conducted business as usual. That’s probably why I was so surprised when I won one of the top prizes—a round trip all-expenses-paid vacation for two to Hawaii. I wasn’t about to complain.

After hearing the details I approached the contact lens company rep who was with us in Puerto Rico and asked if I could switch our destination from Waikiki to Maui. In between sips of his Piña Colada he said, “Doc, it makes no difference to us where in Hawaii you go. As long as it costs about the same, it’s fine with us!” 

On our first trip to Hawaii several years before, Sharon and I had taken our kids and my mother to Waikiki, and I was anxious to see another island.

When it was time to fly to Maui, the United States was in the midst of the first Gulf War. Not many people were traveling. I heard from someone in the hotel we stayed at that Japanese tourists in particular were absent because Japan was avoiding supporting the U.S. in its efforts to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Imaginary or not, you’d think they would have been concerned.

Regardless, Maui seemed like a ghost town. Fine with me—we pretty much had the whole beach to ourselves.

Sitting on that beautiful beach one morning we overheard a couple nearby speaking in a foreign language. I pride myself on having a pretty good ear, but for the life of me I just couldn’t identify their language. The man, who was not wearing a shirt, had a chest even hairier than mine, and from a thick gold chain around his neck hung a large Chai, a traditional Jewish symbol that means “life.” It can be linked to Jewish history, mysticism, numerology, and the Talmud. It’s amazing how people’s attraction to things mystical can support an entire branch of the jewelry industry. (You might find it interesting that Elvis sometimes wore one in concert.)

“It doesn’t sound like Hebrew to me,” I said to Sharon as I listened to the couple speaking. Occasionally I thought I detected a word in Spanish, but just couldn’t be sure—it wasn’t like any Spanish I’d ever heard before. We had a mystery on our hands.

But I’m from New York. So I just walked over to them.

“Excuse me, I’m curious. What language are you speaking?”

“We’re from Argentina. We’re speaking Spanish,” he replied, as if I were an idiot. When I told him I speak some Spanish, had visited Mexico a number of times, and that his Spanish sounded different to me, he explained that the Argentine dialect is quite different from the Mexican dialect. (His implication was that it was superior as well.)

His name was Mino, a diminutive of Jaime. He asked me where I was from and we had a nice chat during which I shared that we too were Jewish—a connection that is always meaningful. (Members of the Tribe is how we put it.) When I told him we’d never visited South America but had always wanted to, he produced a business card from a beach bag.

“When you decide to come down send me a fax and I’ll show you around.”

I promised that I would. And I did.

It turned out that the vacation to Buenos Aires we planned would fall on Rosh Hashanah, one of the Jewish High Holidays. In those pre-email days, fax communication was how people communicated, and when I asked if there was a synagogue where we might attend services, he told me that wouldn’t be a problem—we would join him at his congregation. He added that he’d take us to his country club as well. Why not? 

Just like people did in ancient times, we used a travel agent. As I’ve written in As Long as You’re in South America… after we’d booked our flights to Argentina, two Brazilian doctors showed up in my office and offered to let us stay in their apartment in Rio de Janeiro. So, back to the travel agent for changes. It went smoothly enough. 

In the South American map in my head I pictured Brazil and Buenos Aires right next to other—a “quick hop.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. But we were young (well, younger), and after having a great time in Rio we were excited to embark on the second leg of our adventure. 

Although I am not an economist, I was somewhat aware of Argentina’s unusual economic history, often referred to as the “Argentine paradox.” At one time it was a wealthy country, but it repeatedly fell into bad economic times, regularly defaulting on its debt, and going through periods of extreme inflation. Political instability since the 1930s and poor industrial strategies contributed to its dramatic economic and monetary turmoil. Also, I’d seen “Evita,” which gave me a musical—if not political—perspective as to how Argentina worked. 

What was apparent from the moment the taxi dropped us at our hotel in Buenos Aires were the signs of the city’s former grandeur, which were apparent everywhere we went. 

Our hotel was obviously at one time magnificent. Now it was slightly rundown—“tired” was the word Sharon used—with slightly tattered flags of foreign countries adorning its façade. Walking through the shabby hotel lobby was like walking into the past. Old wood that had lost its gleam, and marble floors the rich and famous had once trod were now dark, dingy and marred.

One thing that I will never forget were the sidewalks. They were cracked and brittle, with large chunks of concrete missing. We had to watch our step wherever we went. On the streets I saw many taxis but fewer private cars. 

Standing outside our hotel one day, I watched a bus pull up. As its doors opened a woman in her seventies or eighties carefully stepped off the bus. She was wearing high heels and a tight dress, and draped around her shoulders was a fox fur stole—the kind with the face and paws still attached. She was heavily made up and her bright red, dyed hair bordered on orange. As she walked she looked straight ahead, ignoring the cracks in the sidewalk. She was obviously used to it, but nevertheless I was amazed at her ability to traverse the minefield wearing those heels. But she did. She’d probably been doing this for the last 50 years. Perhaps more.

As promised, our new friend Jaime (Mino) picked us up at the appointed time for dinner. He was alone, the woman we’d met in Maui having been lost in the shuffle. We didn’t ask and he didn’t tell.

The restaurant he’d chosen was a classic Argentine establishment that featured beef—they served beef, some more beef, and even more beef. Fortunately, at this point in my life I was still eating beef. Otherwise, they would have thrown me out on the cracked sidewalk. 

Jaime was known to the proprietor, who greeted him warmly—and us as well after we were introduced. He seemed to understand my inferior, Mexican-tainted Spanish. Our plates of meat came and were quite good. Then, unfortunately, the next course came. I was already stuffed—I’d never eaten so much meat in my life. When I tried to explain to Mino that I really couldn’t eat any more, his response was, “You must! You don’t want to embarrass me in front of the owners!” He was serious, and I did my best to gorge myself. Oh, the lessons we learn when traveling.

Rosh Hashanah services at his synagogue the next day were pretty much the same as those I’d been attending my whole life. The difference now was that not only could I barely keep up with the chanted Argentinian-laced Hebrew, but I could hardly understand the directions given in Spanish as well. (For what it’s worth, I’ve had similar synagogue experiences in Italy, France, and Prague. A friend of mine is Hungarian and his Hebrew is also a fascinating listening adventure.)

One interesting side note was that the prayer book was exactly the same as the one we used in the Conservative congregation my family attended in Long Island. The only difference, of course, was that instead of English, the translated text was in Spanish. (God never misses a chance to have a laugh at my expense.)

A day or two later, Mino invited us to walk around the country club to which he belonged. Sharon wasn’t interested so I went alone. As he and I walked along the manicured golf course, it became apparent that whatever the Argentine equivalent of machismo was, Mino had it in spades. His explanation of the difference in intelligence between men and women said it all:

“A man’s mind is like a vessel. A woman’s mind is like a flat surface. Now picture pouring water over each mind. The water is fully contained in the man’s mind, while it just flows over the edges of the woman’s.” He was serious. I made it a point not to tell my wife, an attorney, this interesting bit of wisdom. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone up until now. Some things are just not worth sharing. 

The next day I told Sharon I wanted to visit the National Museum of Natural History, which I read about in our guide book. As a child, regular school field trips took us to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and I can still picture the giant dinosaur skeleton in the lobby. So I was excited to see what Buenos Aires had to offer.

Not being a great lover of nature, Sharon declined to join me, so I went alone. 

It was a 20-minute taxi ride to the once-majestic edifice. (A learning moment: the Spanish word for building is edificio.) It featured marble steps and tall columns, and as I entered the two-story museum it became clear that I was the only visitor. Obviously, no one came here anymore, and I realized in a bizarre moment that this formerly-great museum was now itself a museum. This was also apparent from the exhibits, which had been neglected for decades. Nothing seemed newer than fifty years. (I can’t be sure if it’s still there or has been replaced; the websites are confusing.)

Around the time of this visit I was very much interested in scorpions, so I was particularly interested in seeing what the museum might offer in their collection. There was only one attendant, a woman pushing a broom.

“¿Dónde están los insectos y los alacránes?” I asked, using the words for insects and scorpions. She indicated the second floor, and I walked up the beautifully-carved marble steps. I am sure at one time this collection was one of the best in the world. Now it was pitiful. Names of specimens typed on small labels had fallen off their pins, left to curl and brown like many of the long-dead insects they described.

And indeed, there were several scorpions, all of them certainly older than I was. This made me feel very sad, and I thought about the Spanish word for sadness: tristeza. The words for sadness and heart (corazón), show up a lot in Latin music.

Before leaving, I asked the lady with the broom where the baños were, and walking into the room marked Hombres I was again reminded of the glory that was once Argentina. Marble commodes that probably had once featured precious metal fixtures were now forlorn and unattended. I left the building, found a taxi, and returned to my hotel, filled with tristeza.

On the last night of our trip, we were thrilled to visit La Boca, the birthplace of the Tango. The area is located on the edge of the city along Rio de la Plata. We entered a café and were seated near the front, where five or six musicians with guitars, violins, accordions, and percussion sat on a small raised stage. The music was great! This was just what I needed after the sadness of the museum. Although we did not dance—we chose instead to drink—there were several couples who did the tango justice. I recognized many of the songs from Tango Argentina, a cassette tape I owned and listened to many times. I still remember one of the musicians, an older man wearing a hat and vest and playing a button accordion. He caught my eye as he played and gave me a wink and a smile that I can only describe as, “Come hither.” It’s amazing the little things you remember.

While there are journeys that will take you to unusual dress, food, culture and lifestyles, this visit to Argentina truly transported me to a different time. I was happy there.

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