The sunlight is streaming into my apartment as I am writing this post. But it is not the warm, tropical sun I had grown accustomed to in South America. The light taking a shy peek in my living room (never quite seeming to warm it) today is its northern European cousin. The world has changed more drastically since my last post than anyone could have imagined, and I have gone from adventurer to hermit in 48 hours.
I remember thinking about pandemics, about the might and the fragility of the human race, and the impressive conglomerations we have built to as a tribute to our ingenuity as I saw the vast city rising up against the horizon. Portentous? Porteño. I had just learned this word (‘one who lives in a port city’) is used to designate a citizen of my next destination. Ah, what would I do without Wikipedia? The ferry from Uruguay takes about three hours across the Rio Plata to one of the most beautiful cities of the continent: the city of tango and fair skies, Buenos Aires. The skyline seems to rise slowly out of the sea until it dominates the view all around, casting its presence in a pale hue of blue. It was late afternoon already when the ship completed its extended navigations through the dockworks, leaving me close to an expressway far from the city centre. Fortunately my conversation partner, a European multilingual translator I had the fortune to meet on the ferry, was getting a taxi anyway, so we ended up sharing a long taxi ride in the evening traffic, allowing me a first peek at the city so many had recommended me.
Night had fallen when I finally arrived at the house of my next couchsurfing host. A soft-spoken, unhealthily pale man around my age opened the door on the 16th floor of a high rise apartment building in Palermo Soho neighbourhood, taking me in with an ambiguous glance and sarcastic words of welcome. His first announcement was that, unfortunately, his spare bedroom would be occupied by the both of us because he had air-bnb’ed his place for the upcoming days. Ostendibly this situation was due to his travel plans having being cancelled because his law firm needed him around, but I never saw him put in a minute of work throughout the week. He had some bad references with stories of awkward situations and poor communication, stating he was bisexual and not very good with boundaries. Spare keys were only available for the building entrance, not for the door to his apartment. On a side note, apartment buildings in Argentina have front doors that, for some unfathomable reason, only open with a key from the inside. The concept of fire regulations has apparently not occurred to anyone yet, and neither has the consideration that it is very annoying to walk all your visitors sixteen floors down just to let them out.
The Argentine peso has had a pretty rough year, so much in fact that the central bank has limited the amount of dollars a citizen can obtain monthly to $200 in order to stem the outflow of foreign exchange reserves. This and other measures have given the currency an artificial rate that is substantially overvalued. For instance, I went up to a restaurant and asked whether I could pay in dollars, waving a crisp $100 bill. After some negotiation I had paid for my dinner and gotten change at a rate about 25% better than the official exchange rate, which goes to show how badly people want strong currencies.
I had planned to stay in Buenos Aires for about a week, which in not too much in a city that size. I met up with a bunch of jazz players, played a couple of sessions (including a tango session, which was very interesting: stylistically it is not too far removed from gypsy jazz, it is even played with a pick on acoustic guitar. The strong dynamic changes and tempo jumps made sure I really needed to be sharp though!) and busked a couple of times with a Peruvian gypsy jazz player who had come across the style on Youtube and was now trying to make his way to the grand festival in France.
All went well until, after a couchsurfing meeting had ended, I stayed in the park a bit too long after sundown and promptly got robbed by a junkie with a knife. A Colombian expat and me were still making music as he came up in the dark and asked for all of our valuables in Spanish. To make matters worse, I gaily replied I didn’t speak Spanish but he was welcome to have a cigarette (which is what you are usually approached for). Our robber, however, showed me his absolute disdain for the English language by whipping out his knife, which is a very universal way of making point. Fortunately my compadre managed to stall the guy while stealthily swiping our phones underneath the blanket we were sitting on, yelling “tranquilo, tranquilo” while pretending to search for wallets. As we were not too far from the big road, our junkie (easily recognized by his tense demeanor and huge pupils, not to mention his shifty behaviour) was clearly in a hurry to get away, so after getting his hands on our wallets he made a dash for it.
This could have ended a lot worse. I lost about fifteen euros in local cash, plus my debit and credit card (I usually carry these two separately but unfortunately I had made use of my credit card that very day). I still had my phone, which was my biggest concern. Nowadays so much is hooked up to your smartphone, both security and convenience-wise, that it is by far the worst item to lose abroad. I think (unless I had months and many countries to go) I would rather lose my passport than my smartphone nowadays, and that is saying something. I spent a couple of hours down at the police station doing the paperwork and blocking my cards, got some late night pasta with borrowed money and was ready for a good night’s sleep at around 3AM. I told my host I’d be right over, he messages me “sure, see you in a bit”. I had forgotten my front door key though, so I had to wait a bit to slip in with someone else. As this happens a lot in these big apartment buildings, nobody usually bats an eye if you don’t look like a homicidal drunk, but I got caught by the night guard. I stammered in broken Spanish that I had a friend in the building, and I mentioned the apartment number. This was specific enough apparently, cause he let me pass with a glare and some warnings I did not understand.
When I texted my host I had arrived, I did not get an immediate answer. When I tried calling him, his phone turned out to be turned off. I tried knocking on the door and ringing the bell but to no avail. Afraid the angry night guard would kick me out if he found me making noise in front of my ‘friends’ door, I tried a combination of knocking, ringing and messaging but either he was fast asleep, or still with some lover he had mentioned would come over that night. I heard occasional stumbling through the door but however I tried to draw the attention of the person moving inside, it was without success. What a way to rest after a robbery, stranded in front of a locked door, trying to sleep in the hallway. I considered trying a hotel or getting a cab to an acquaintance but without any money, my options were limited. Paranoia creeped up on me: what if he refused to open the door tomorrow as well? My passport and all my luggage were there: he held all the cards. That shifty bastard! I knew I shouldn’t have trusted him. Bad references are not given lightly on Couchsurfing. I should have just booked a hostel, but I was too keen on cutting costs and staying in the center of downtown.
Grumbling to myself, I dozed off a little. Early morning travel awoke me from my fitful slumber, and with the echoing noise of the first tenants heading for work, I decided to risk some more noise myself and try once more to get in. Shouting, slamming the door and ringing the doorbell finally produced the desired effect: after ten minutes he opened up, bleary-eyed, and asked me not to make such a fuss. He eventually came up with some unconvincing excuses and apologies, but I was too tired to care. Putting my documents under my pillow, I noticed my exhaustion and after a quick shower I fell into a deep sleep.
The next days were spent getting money from Western Union (last resort of stranded travellers all over the world, and at a phenomenal exchange rate too), renting an Airbnb with a German traveller I had met during carnival, making music and meeting Gonzalo Bergara, a famous Argentinian Gypsy Jazz player whom I had followed on Youtube for years, and testing my mettle playing the four letter word game against a Miami spelling bee champion. I also ran into my buddy Sil with whom I had lived in an exceptionally raunchy student house six years previously, which of course we had to celebrate by drinking excessively all night.
The rest of the week flew by and before I knew it I was on a flight to Bariloche, the biggest city in Patagonia. I was welcomed at the family house of my friend Martin, who had stayed at my house previously. His family lives together in a big house near the town centre, where they consume a lot of football on TV (with grandma supporting a different team, leading to some interesting situations during tense matches). Patagonia is famous for the nature, covering the southern reaches of the Andes, and I couldn’t wait to do some trekking after spending so much time in big cities.
After studying the maps with Martin and his family, I bought enough food to last me for a couple of days and took an early morning bus into the mountains. The weather was fair and, since I had never done multi-day trails by myself before, I was excited to get started. Finally a use for my new and improved camping gear that I had been lugging around for so many weeks. After two days filled with incredible sights I reached a mountain hut on the foot of a glacier. The showers came with a surcharge of six euros and the bunk beds didn’t look appealing so I pitched my tent outside and spent my money on half liter cans of Grolsch, which were a pleasant surprise on the other side of the world.
Me and my newfound hiking buddies were in good spirits as we reached the first civilized outpost a couple of days later. While waiting for a boat back to Bariloche, our moods changed abruptly. Someone’s smartphone picked up signal and he shushed our joyful conversation, having just read how covid-19 was suddenly changing the world. The United States had closed their borders, the stockmarkets were falling and Europe was one big red blur on the map. Flights were being cancelled left and right. We suddenly found out all the world had been focused on one thing only, while were away in the mountains. A very surreal realization. Slowly we began looking at our own countries, trying to contact out families. That night we enjoyed craft beer and steak in Bariloche where life was as yet untouched, deliberating whether it would be feasible to stay put until the whole thing would blow over. Running the numbers it quickly became clear that wasn’t an option, and that this night of festivities would be one of the last of its kind for a while.
I flew back to São Paulo the next day, where fear of the virus had not yet struck. I arrived late and after a few beers in one of the many vibrant streets I went to sleep, hoping for a nice last couple of days in tropical South America. It wasn’t to be. My mother called me at 9 in the morning, telling me she was booking a flight for me for that very afternoon. The flight routes were being scrapped en masse now and the net was closing in on me! I grabbed my stuff and headed off at once because in a city this size, reaching the international airport can take multiple hours. I barely made it through the check-in in time, but at least I was allowed to take my Brazilian guitar on board at no extra cost. As I ran towards the gate accompanied the utter mispronounciation of my name on the intercom, I locked eyes with an old man with a shock of grey hair. I guess he saw my guitar because he gave me a smile and a nod. After a few more steps I decided this moment was too awesome too pass up, even with my name sounding for last call. So I walked back and asked him “Excuse me, are you Pat Metheny?” He smiled and nodded affirmatively. I told him I’m a big fan but I have to run cause it’s my name their calling. He nodded, gave me a corona elbow bump and told me to run.
Twenty four hours later I was home. I feel so lucky to have been able to go on this journey, meet so many amazing people just before the world ground to a halt. While that is a bit of an exaggeration, it does seem like travelling won’t be possible for a while so I count my blessings! Two months just making music, couchsurfing and camping in tropical South America: less daunting than my previous journeys to Africa and Asia but rewarding nonetheless. Thanks to everyone who read with me here to the very end and I hope to see you here all again because whatever happens, this will certainly not have been the last journey I’ll make. Happy lockdown!