Friday, 14 September 2007

Buenos Aires: reflection postscript

31 Aug 2007

In my last blog I promised you all, my fellow travellers, my reflections on my adventure and the way it has changed my thinking and my life. Maybe it is too soon for this, as I am still in my final few days here in Buenos Aires....too soon to understand let alone to know. But first reflections sometimes reveal as much as final results.

When departing for Buenos Aires and asked about my trip, after the usual glib re post "to dance tango" I ended up confessing that this was my first proper trip outside Europe, my first transatlantic flight, my first encounter with Latin America, and more importantly, the first time I have ever travelled alone! Add to that the fact that I spoke only four words of Spanish, hardly even danced tango as a novice, and the real picture emerged. Here in Buenos Aires as an inexperienced traveller without language and without that all-important umbilical cord of friendships and emotional support, how ever could I survive?

There were moments when survival was the name of the game. In practical terms not having Spanish, let alone Castellano, was a barrier, especially at the time Stephanie and I were attacked and robbed in the street. But as an emotionally dependant man I found the isolation a significant issue. I had taken two important decisions. One was to travel without a computer. My contact with the outside world was to be through the locutorio (Internet cafe). For about 1 peso an hour it was possible to grind the faltering Internet connections via fuzzy screens and dilapidated keyboards, surrounded by vocal youths or ardent Internet communicators. New messages only ever arrived after one left (especially with the 4 hour time difference), so communicating was like sending and reading yesterdays newspapers. The second decision was to rent an apartment rather than to stay in a tango house. I will probably never know the merits of this decision. It afforded privacy, peace, a home, an environment one controlled; but closing the apartment door sealed out the outside world and contact with people. However, it did mean that I was able to dance at 2am and play tango all night! The combination of travelling alone, without easy communication and without peer support was at time tough. Especially on those days when I chose not to dance - where I could find the day closing without human contact, but for walking in the bustling city. However, the experience enabled me to mature in self-sufficiency both in a practical and emotional way.

My life as an English barrister was one underwritten by control....working in the most regulated environment in the world where laws and rules are the tools of the trade and our functions are largely defined by them. When not controlled by judges, courts, clerks and clients, we exercise control through procedures and persuasion. The lack of Spanish, in one fell-swoop, deprived me of my principal skill set. At times I passed through Argentine society like a shadow in late afternoon sunshine. My reflection was all that really existed to those around, otherwise I had little reality or relevance. Just as Portenios observe everyone: the pretty woman, the disadvantaged cripple, each small child, so the tall foreigner is noticed, but not understood and not in reality relevant. And so I slipped seamlessly from being defined by my profession to being indefinable, save by the dollar or euro.

As blind people quickly develop heightened senses of hearing, smell and spacial awareness, this controlling, controlled, articulate, emotionally dependant, inexperienced traveller soon learned the importance of new skills and the need to develop neglected ones. An important example was in relation to non-verbal communication. Expressions, and surprisingly, touch formed an important link with the warm and responsive Portenios. My friendship with Portenios (who spoke and enjoyed practicing their British English) was important, especially Oscar and Mary, Cecilia, Cristina, Julia, Georgie. Other ex pats, Norm, Lee, Elena, Ian, and Dana provided important anchors, and visitors, particularly Carla, Anna and Judi added delight and interest.

My main regret in the early days was my challenging progress with tango. After all, this had been my declared purpose for the visit and I had imagined that I would be dancing confidently at milongas within a month of arriving. This was not to be. One friend said that for each lesson you need 5 hours of practice. When I heard this I was incredulous, but it is absolutely correct. And for me, the absence of a regular dance partner was a real disadvantage and challenge. Stephanie's visit in August rescued me from a sense of failure in this respect. She tenderly and empathetically re-introduced my to the basics of tango and terribly importantly, gave me a sense of the connection which is critical to this dance. On reflection, her originally unplanned visit would have been more timely earlier in the trip, but then as we observed, the 'drip effect' of the teaching I had would have been less effective at an earlier stage. And importantly, Stephanie was here for the World Championships, a highlight in dance terms.

Another question remains over my decision not to travel further afield in Argentina. This is the most wonderful and varied country for visitors. So many areas areas are spectacular and worthy of time. I had to decide priorities for my stay, and the long journeys pose a distraction from the main purpose of enjoying Buenos Aires as a Portenio and learning tango. I felt that, this time, tourism was not for me. In consequence I have little knowledge of the rest of the country, but a detailed familiarity with the city in which I need no map.

On early reflection my visit has given me most of what I could ever have wanted. The moments of loneliness have been character developing and more than compensated for by the moments of friendship and connection. My understanding of this fascinating capital and its people is as great as anyone could have without full command of Castellano, and possibly greater than some who do! Through the friendships I have made and experienced, my eyes ave been opened to another way of life where the priorities of work and money are put in another perspective. It is doubtful that I can ever go back to my former way of life centered round work and home. Six months have given me the knowledge I do have wings, and I have learned to fly. I will continue to travel, and shall return on a regular basis to Argentina. On my next visit I will have sufficient command of Castellano and maybe a tango house in San Telmo? Want to come?

Postscript
I am in the process of preparing a 'Survival Guide' for those who plan to visit Buenos Aires. I will publish this on my blog for those who are interested in following my footsteps, or know someone who does.
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