Communion Of Dreams

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
October 30, 2008, 8:54 pm
Filed under: Health, Humor, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Travel

Part One: We many, we noisy many, we band of travelers.

In spite of the fact that all the prep went well, I should have known what was in store for me on the trip.  Sorry – getting ahead of myself.  So to speak.

The trip to Patagonia – my first real vacation in almost three years – was going to be something of a challenge.  I knew this from the time I decided that I would go along with my wife on the tour.  See, it was put together because of the choir she belongs to – it wasn’t something I particularly had ever wanted to do.  But I decided to go.  As I put it back in January:

You probably already know about the North American Welsh Choir tour to Patagonia next October. And you may know that in return for my wife coordinating all the reservations and money and whatnot on the Choir’s end, she is getting her cost of the trip offset (in full, it looks like). Just in the last few days I’ve decided that I am going to go along.

Yeah, surprises me a bit, as well. I have no desire to go to South America. I have never had any desire to go to South America.

But my MIL is going to die soon. And late this year I should have decompressed from that, and been working hard for months being a good little book conservator, maybe an author. It will be a good time to challenge myself in a new way, get out of my comfort zone. This tour will be a good opportunity to do that. Plus my wife and I haven’t had anything approaching a real vacation in a couple of years, and we didn’t do anything to celebrate our 20th anniversary last October. So, this will serve that purpose as well.

Boy, did it.  You’ll see.

Anyway, as I said, our prep for the trip went well.  By the time Tuesday, Oct. 14 rolled around, we were ready to go.  We’d scaled back our packing for the trip considerably from previous trips overseas, and each of us had managed to get everything we wanted to take into one suitcase per person, under 13 kilograms (call it 29 pounds).  This was necessary because during the tour we’d be flying on an internal Argentine airlines which had a strict weight limit of 15 kilos.  We’d gathered together all the necessary documentation, stuff to read on long flights, et cetera, et cetera.  Made arrangements to have the pets cared for in our absence, mail and newspapers brought in.  Cleaned out the fridge, even washed the dishes so we weren’t faced with a mess when returning home.

So when the shuttle to take us to the airport arrived ten minutes early, it only caused a mild panic.  We grabbed our bags, our coats, said goodbye to the dog, and left.

We got to the Kansas City airport, and went to the check-in counter.  We had burned a bunch of frequent-flyer miles for an upgrade to business class for our flights, but wanted to see if we could take an earlier flight than originally scheduled from KC to Dallas.  The check-in person was very helpful, and we managed it with no problems.  Better to waste time in the Admiral’s Club in Dallas than worry about making our flight.  This worked as planned.

When it came time for our flight to Buenos Aires that evening, we happily got on board and settled ourselves in the spacious seats in business class (which is effectively First Class on that flight – there’s only the one premium class).  Flying in business class makes everything more pleasant, in terms of the space, the food, the entertainment.  Too bad I spent a large chunk of the 11 hours in the head.

Yeah, some intestinal grunge.  Traveler’s Disease, before I even got out of the country.  In one of those itty-bitty aircraft toilets.  Actually, in three of those itty-bitty aircraft toilets, depending on which one was available at the time.  Almost as much fun as having that kind of problem when confined to a porta-potty.

And that’s what I meant when I said I should have known what was in store for me on this trip.  No, I didn’t get another round of TD – I was fortunate in that regard.  Rather, that nothing would work out as I had hoped, and too much time would be spent crowded, uncomfortable, in a noisy small space.

So, we got to Buenos Aires.  Thanks to my Lonely Planet guide, I had a good idea about the layout of the airport, and where to find an ATM and a taxi to get us to our hotel.  Alix (my nickname for my wife – most people know her as Martha) and I retrieved our bags, made the pro-forma pass through customs (it’s easy to get INTO Argentina), and met up with another member of the tour who had come in on the same flight.  The three of us shared a taxi.  Or, rather, I should say that we shared getting sheared by a couple of the local touts who arranged for a taxi for us.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad.  I knew what the official rate was supposed to be (foreigners pay a significantly higher amount for taxis than do locals – they’re wonderfully upfront about how they are screwing you over in this way).  The two kids who latched onto us and then “negotiated” with the taxi driver wound up getting about the same rate, with a surcharge for the extra person going to a slightly different location (her hotel was about a dozen blocks from ours).  They got a kick-back from the driver, he got the fare in front of some other taxis, and we got to our hotel feeling only slightly fleeced.  Everybody was happy.

The hotel is right downtown, in Buenos Aires’ business district.  Actually, quite nice.  A bit on the swank side.  Since it was mid-morning, our rooms wouldn’t be ready for a while, but they were happy to stow our luggage for us until we could check in.  Alix and I went for a bit of an exploratory walk around downtown.

OK, we’d been traveling for about 24 hours at that point, having lost a couple of hours due to time-change in going east.  And I’d spent way too much time miserable, sitting in an airplane toilet.  But still, Buenos Aires struck me as . . . well, alien.  Not just “foreign”, as I might describe a large unknown city in Europe.  More different than that.  Even though porteños consider themselves to be essentially European, this was different than any city I’ve been in.  Grungier.  Horrid, horrid sidewalks (seriously – you could easily break an ankle if you didn’t pay close attention where you put your feet).  A crush of humanity.  Touts for every single business out in the streets and pedestrian walkways pushing flyers and business cards on you, trying to grab your attention (and sometimes you, physically) for the business they represented.  Loud speakers blaring advertisiments and music.  Lots and lots of glitzy, flashing, obnoxious signs.  Honestly, it felt like Blade Runner, without the perpetual gritty rain.

I was happy to get back to the hotel after a couple of hours of that.

We sat in the lobby as others arrived.  Alix, having helped arrange the trip on the choir side, knew a lot of the people by name at least – many were pleased to meet her in person.  There was much chattering and going on back and forth.  I mostly smiled and sat off to the side, out of the way.

Finally, we went on a tour of the city, previously arranged.  Frankly, most of the people on our bus (myself included) were almost comatose at that point, and could really care less about the various important city monuments we passed – everyone was tired from travel, wanting to get into our rooms and get cleaned up before getting dinner.  But we dutifully nodded at each landmark’s history, got off the bus to admire the pink government house and stare at the riot police lining up to stop one of the daily demonstrations in B.A.  Best of all, when the bus returned to the hotel, our rooms were ready.

Nice room for us, generous by European standards, moderate by American.  A change, a bit of a shower, rest a while.  Several stations on cable in English, with Spanish subtitles.  Met back downstairs early evening for the big opening night feast.

Our buses – gods, did I spend so much time on buses – were ready, and took the lot of us over to a nice fancy restaurant for dinner.  A note on this – the restaurants in Buenos Aires, in all of Argentina in fact, don’t even *think* about opening for dinner until 8:30 or 9:00.  No, I am not kidding – it is one of the most significant cultural differences between here and there.  Dinner is eaten late, often as late as 11:00 or midnight.  And they *always* take a couple of hours for a meal.  Seriously.  I grew to like the longer, relaxed pace for eating.  I never did get used to the idea of eating a heavy meal so late.

Anyway, the restaurant was designed as their version of an “all you can eat” place.  But with the twist that everything is made to order.  Well, the entrees, anyway.  The way it was done was that all around the perimeter were different “stations” – one was a custom pasta station, one a custom pizza station, one an Argentine barbeque/grill, one doing sushi, one doing custom crepes (with a double metric buttload of other desserts already waiting).  There was also an established elaborate and extensive salad/antipasto bar.  Everything was included in the meal, except for the drinks and tips for the chefs at the individual stations.  (Prices are very cheap in Argentina at present – a quart bottle of decent domestic beer is about US $4 in a nice restaurant, and an acceptible tip is AR $2 (two pesos – about US 60 cents.)  The domestic wines are quite good, though they tend toward a preponderence of red wines (Merlots in particular – what they call ‘Marbec’ in Argentina).  But do not try the local distilled spirits.  Really – just don’t.

We ate and drank ourselves stupid over the next couple of hours, and towards the end there were introductions of the various tour leaders, guides, and whatnot.  Alix got a very nice round of applause from everyone for her work coordinating things.  This made it easy for me to get along with everyone on the tour – all I had to do was explain that I was her husband, and I instantly had a niche.  It was towards the end of the evening that two themes emerged in my awareness which were to dominate the entire tour: one, that I was with a large group (about 60) of extrovert musicians – and the other 60 or so people on the tour were likewise gregarious Welsh who love the sound of their own voice; and two, that in addition to the non-stop, high speed conversations taking place around me, these people know and love music.  During the course of dinner the din of talking got to the point of almost being painful, making it impossible to hear what people across the table were trying to say to me.  Then, at the end after all the introductions were over, they broke into song.  Not just a half-hearted verse of “Happy Birthday”, either – this was a full-throated, trained choir which loves to sing, along with a large number of similarly inclined Welsh (who are happy to break into song at just about any excuse).  Everyone stood, and they gave their first performance in Argentina to the other patrons and staff at the restaurant – who loved it!

We finally left the restaurant about 11:00 – just when the bulk of other patrons were starting to arrive.  Back to the hotel and crash, hard.  It’d been a long and eventful day.

Jim Downey

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

If anyone burst into song when I’m in a restaurant, I’d die. In Welsh too! Good grief.

Looks like you enjoyed yourself though.

Good luck recuperating, sounds like you need a holiday after this. 🙂

Comment by Troika21

Thanks, Troika – as you’ll see, there were aspects of the trip which were wonderful, and others which were . . . less so. 😉

The singing thing did take some getting used to. Fortunately, I’ve been to Wales enough times to know about that this is one aspect of that culture.

Jim D.

Comment by Communion of Dreams

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