Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chew On This

While I consider myself to me a relatively intelligent human being, fairly competent at most tasks, gum chewing proved to be a bit of challenge for me in the earlier part of my life.

I remember the first piece of gum I ever had. I don’t remember how old I was but I remember still feeling quite small. I believe the piece in question was an individually wrapped blue stick that came in a box of Cheerios. I begged my mom to let me have it. So she and my sister, 3 years my elder, sat on the steps while I stood in front of them as though about to partake in a spelling bee.

My mom opened it for me and handed me this sacred new candy. Her instructions were very clear. She said “Don’t swallow it, do not swallow this. Chew it, but don’t swallow it.”

As I recall I chewed it once and then swallowed it.

Throughout my youth (after I stopped swallowing my gum) my mother would only let us chew half pieces of sugar free Trident. We would ask for a piece of gum and she would tear us a half of an already pitifully small piece of Trident. As though a whole piece of Trident was more than our little mouths could handle. You may consider this to be foreshadowing.

Somewhere around elementary school a rumor started going around that the Trident that came in the multicolored paper could be eaten without being removed from said paper, and that said paper would dissolve in your mouth.

I can’t tell you how many gum wrappers I swallowed that year.

I would chew and chew and chew, periodically removing the gum from my mouth to examine what looked like a very gnarled piece of green trash, and then pop it back in to continue working this paper until it dissolved.

Gullible and determined are a terrible pair to be.

When I would query about said task, the answer would always come back, “oh it takes a while.” Sure it takes a while, after a while ANYTHING will disintegrate in your mouth. I’m sure if I put a Raptor fossil in my mouth that too would disintegrate after a “while.” But my excitement at the sheer possibility of success far outweighed any ounce of rational reasoning I might have applied to my task.

But probably the biggest moment in my gum chewing life came while I was still in elementary school. These were the days when Bubblicious and Bubble Tape (6 feet of bubble gum… 6 FEET OF BUBBLE GUM) were popular amongst the gum chewing crowd. Perhaps it was the fluorescent colors, or the fruity flavor that made them popular. Maybe it was just the sugar.

I of course chewed these gums without prior consent or knowledge of my mother.

I discovered something different though, something better. Somewhere on the bottom shelf of my candy store I found a little gem called Big League Chew. I’m not sure what Big League Chew was actually made of; I’m guessing the ingredients list went something like this;

Artificial Flavor

That stuff was addicting. Especially the strawberry flavor. Oh man to this day I still get goose bumps thinking about it. It came in a package like chewing tobacco would, and was even cut into tobacco like strands; everything about it was tobaccoish – except for the bright pink coloring.

It was great because you could help yourself to the perfect portion of fluorescent colored strands to suit your needs.

This for me, was invariably the whole package.

Oh it started out innocent enough, putting a pinch in my mouth, and then another pinch, and another, but the taste was so good that I was soon jamming fistfuls into my gullet. Over and over, I dipped my sugary paw into the pouch only to push a pile deep into the depths of my mouth.

By the time the package was empty all I could do was sit there in catatonic state, my mouth impossible to close, while a thick stream of pink drool slowly made its way down my chin and onto my t-shirt.

This by the way almost always took place while sitting on my front porch. Yes I know, not only could I not talk and chew gum at the same time, but I also couldn’t stand and chew it either. To me, the only appropriate activity that matched Big League Chew was sitting on my porch staring at passing cars.

I would sit there like I had just shot up, who knows how many grams of sugar coursing through my veins as I slowly started to zone out and see rainbows and unicorns and mystical tiny Martians hoola-hooping on my lawn.

Ok it wasn’t that severe, but it was close. That Big League Chew was as close to the 60s as I would ever be.

Even today I get a little giddy if I see a package of big league chew. Granted I don’t go candy shopping much… or….at all any more. Believe it or not Trident is still my sugarless gum of choice. And if you offered to split a piece with me, I would most likely oblige, not nearly as outraged as I was as a child.

But you can bet your ass that if I ripped open a package of Big League Chew, it would be only a matter of minutes before that pink drool had found its way out of my mouth and onto my dress shirt.

Some things never change.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hostel Environment

Hostels, for those of you who may not know, are budget accommodations whereby travelers stay in dorm bedrooms of anywhere from 2 to 12 beds that come with either an en suite bathroom, or 1 for the entire floor. Some Hostels provide many amenities, some do not. And you pay a fraction of the price for a hotel or private lodging.

The first time I stayed in a hostel I was 20 years old. It was one of my first times traveling completely alone in a foreign country, in a new city where I didn’t know a soul. I was amazed at how easy it was to meet new people. The whole experience was exciting and I went on to stay at a dozen more throughout Western Europe. I had discovered a great way to see the world.

But three backpacking trips and somewhere over 30 hostels later, my views have started to evolve. I still agree that it is the cheapest and most unique way to see the world, meet people, and have adventures.

But I am 25 now and I’ve started to realize that it does require a certain mentality and spirit to stay in hostels. I’m not an elitist, I don’t think I am better than the other people staying in hostels, but I wonder if my mentality has changed. I wonder if the sun is setting on my time on this type of travel.

You meet a lot of people in hostels, people from all over the world. Mostly you meet other Americas, Canadians, Australians, Germans and people from the UK. This is not a bad thing per say but they just tend to be the people who travel most. People from Europe seem to stay in hostels well into their 40s and even beyond, but the Americans you meet in hostels tend to fall in the 18 to 23 age bracket. And I really noticed that more on this trip than any other

Perhaps it is because I am 25 now, in my 4th year out of college, that I became so aware on this trip. Generally the Americans you meet have just finished college, or are on a break, or taking a year off etc. Sure I meet people like myself taking 2 weeks off of work to see as much of the world as possible, but with each trip I take they are fewer and further between.

I am pretty comfortable with the whole hostel experience; I know the routine of checking in/out and how to go about making friends. But staying in a hostel is an exercise in tolerance. It is absolutely exhausting. The quality of a hostel itself is measured up against your desire to see that city on a dime. The more you want to see a place, the more you’re willing to put up with to see it.

You’ll put up with things like, bunk beds crafted by incompetent masochists that upon first glance, appear to be made of broken shards of used IKEA furniture. Or living out of the same backpack for days on end without doing laundry so that the smallest article of stinky clothing infiltrates the entire bag to create tour de force in revulsion any time you open your bag.

You begin to get very comfortable with yourself as you don’t really have a choice. When you don’t have a private place to change, being in a room full of strangers all in their underwear seems as natural as though you have been doing it your whole life. (Maybe you have, I’m not trying to judge)

I’ve already mentioned the snoring before, but oh god. It is a wonder any of these people will ever get married considering the sounds, moans, grunts, whistles, and wheezing that escapes them during sleep. Some nights I would open my eyes expecting to see a room full of baboons, or hyenas around me. But no, these were in fact human beings.

Walking into the bathrooms in hostels is always a hold your breath experience.

You hold your breath because you’re not sure how bad the bathroom is going to be once you get in it.
You hold your breath because it is either going to smell like the inside of a septic tank or some unfathomable assortment of chemicals used to kill the sense that you are inside of a septic tank.

And the bathroom is wet. Not just damp, but wet. The floor is soaked like the last 20 people to take a shower in there had pointed the nozzle straight up at the ceiling instead of towards the drain. Like the bathroom had JUST finished filming a raunchy Britney Spears video before I showed up.

I realized I had kind of hit a turning point with hostels on my last trip with the hostel in Uruguay where I spent 2 nights. I walk in and immediately the men’s bathroom smells like a severed foot left in a moldy locker full of expired hummus. There is water dripping everywhere of course, but despite all this I strip and get into the shower.

I am in there for about 3 minutes before I notice what appears to be a large piece of gauze stuck to the wall. I decide not to get a closer look. So I turned my head to the left to avoid looking at it, and I noticed what appeared to be a soaking wet pair of used blue briefs hanging on a pipe sticking out of the wall.


It was at that moment that I realized I might be done with hostels.

It’s not that that I don’t love traveling. I do. It’s very much a part of who I am and I value every trip I’ve taken. The opportunities that hostels provide are incredible. I have seen more of the world staying at hostels than I would have staying at any other hotel or budget accommodation.

Plus as an individual traveler it has allowed me to meet people that create unique experiences and incredible adventures that I wouldn’t otherwise just sitting on my bunk reading the complete Lord of the Rings Trilogy or an Ayn Rand novel.

But as I cross the hump from my early 20s into my late 20s, I find myself wanting more. It’s not just wanting to stay in nicer places where I can have a guaranteed good nights rest instead of playing Russian Sleep Roulette. It’s more how I experience these places that I crave more out of.

When I first started staying in hostels I felt like I had been let in on some incredible community of travelers. And I have enjoyed being a part of that community.

But a different need has surfaced within me, a desire to travel with a friend or group of friends close to me. I have always said that I traveled by myself because I got to see whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and I had no one to rely on but myself. And I loved that. There is so much to see though, and sharing it with someone changes the experience.

My sister and I still talk about the trip we took to the south of France for a week, and the funny things that happened, and how I thought I won 400 dollars at the slot machine when I had actually only won 40, and the markets, and the hilarious fish dinner. That’s what I love! I love being able to paint a canvas of memories with my loved ones that we can always go back to and relive.

Currently many of my travel memories are wrapped up written stories and in the memories of people whose names I can’t remember and will never see again. And that is all well and good because I have always loved the independence I felt while traipsing the globe on my own. But I have proved to myself I can do it. I know I am capable of such things. I crave more.

What I seek now is to continue to experience the world and laugh and drink and be amazed with someone close to me. So that we can relive it at my Wedding, at my 50th birthday party, wherever.

If nothing else, if one day I am traveling in some far-off country with a friend and I find myself in the shower staring a pair of underwear… at least I’ll know whose it is.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Airport and the Painting

I fell in love with this painting at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires. It was fantastic, very much for me, and I was delighted I was able to talk the guy down from 500 to 400 pesos. My only concern was that I would have some challenges getting it home.
Challenges turned out to be an understatement.
The tough thing about backpacking in a foreign country, or anywhere for that manner, is carrying 40 pounds of your own stuff on your back wherever you go. I am lucky enough to have a pretty nice backpack so getting around isn’t too cumbersome. But it has a lot of straps and attachments that hang off.
So I have an oversized duffle bag with a shoulder strap that I stuff it in before I check it in when I am getting on planes. It helps keeps the bag protected and in good shape.
When I was leaving Buenos Aires for the last time I had scheduled a cab to the airport so I figured I would put it in the duffle ahead of time as I would just be going from the curb to check in.
I lost count of how many miscalculations I made on this trip.
I get to the airport and at curbside check in there is a machine that wraps your suitcase in cellophane a bunch of times to ensure it stays sealed under the plane and no one has gone into it. They charge about 10 dollars for this.
I figured this would be a great way to protect my painting. I ask the man to wrap my painting, and while this was probably the first time this man had ever done such a task, or possibly used his arms (he looked like a Double Dare contestant in the middle of some sort of awful physical challenge) we manage to bundle up my painting nicely.
I go inside and get on a very short line to check in. I am excited about this. All I have is my bag to check in, my small backpack to carry on, and my painting which is about 20 by 30 inches. I was somewhat concerned about it fitting in the overhead compartment.
So I checked with one of the airline reps who once again (all together now) did not speak English. So I am trying to ask him if it will fit on the plane, but this has brought a whole new line of questioning about.
He wants to know if I have a receipt for the painting. Of course I don’t because I bought it at a market. He says I can’t get on the plane without a special something or other from an office at the very end of check in. I calmly accept it and with my 40 pound duffle bag slung over my shoulder and my painting delicately in hand, walk down to where I thought he pointed.

After 10 minutes on the wrong line the gentleman at this particular window is very accommodating ands starts giving me people’s names to contact and office doors to knock on. I decide to just go back to my guy at check in, plead ignorance and frustration and try my chances.
Poor decision.
I schlep my 40 pound bag back to the check in desk where the guy insists I get the documentation I need. My previously unflappable cool has given way to a very obvious frustration which I am sure doesn’t bother him because he doesn’t really speak English which shouldn’t even bother me because I am in ArgenFrigginTina.
Finally he learns that he needs to tell me to go to the police depot, which is located 1000 yards past the wrong place I went to last time, in baggage claim inside of a suitcase, under a bridge, guarded by a fleet of magical unicorn-riding trolls.
Well, it might as well have been anyway.
So back I go carrying pack over my shoulder like I’m a lost mortician hauling a dead body to the incinerator.
I finally find a man who asks me if I have a painting, I tell him yes. He gives me an acknowledging nod and shows me into a room. When I get into that room 4 men in uniforms (with no guns or any other type of official thing on them) tell me I am in the wrong room.
So I walk out and the same man who told me to go in sees me, walks me back in, tells the 4 guys in uniform what I am doing. They nod their heads that I am, in fact, in the correct room.
So another non-English speaking man comes out and asks me where I bought my painting. I tell him. He asks for my receipt, I tell him I don’t have one. He then says I can’t take the painting on the plane.
As though this guy was the last line of defense against art thieves in Argentina. Surely no thief would try to get on a plane without a receipt for his stolen painting! In hindsight I am pretty sure I could have written “Rich bought this…no seriously, he did” on a piece of paper and it would have sufficed.
The guy insists I can not leave the country with my painting.
He was acting like I was standing there with a dead Alpaca full of exotic birds and needle drugs. It was a damn painting. I bought it at the market. How does this not suffice?!
Finally he brings in an English speaking woman who knows I am about to start kicking people, and calmly explains that if I undo the 10 dollar wrapping job I have on my painting and show it to the man, AS A FAVOR (they really emphasized that) they will let me take it with me.
But they really wanted me to know that this was only a favor.
A favor really? Ok well I’ll make sure the next time this turd waffle is trying to leave America with something he rightfully owns, I’ll do him the favor and let him. What the hell?
He hands me a box cutter so I can undo the protective wrapping on my painting. Immediately I realize these employees are not cut of the finest cloth because they know I am visibly pissed, yet they still decided to hand me a weapon.
So it takes me 5 minutes to undo the green cellophane around my painting and when I finally show it to them, I swear to you, and I can’t prove that they said this;
“Oh yea that is nice.”
”Yea it’s beautiful.”
But I can’t prove that.
They say it’s ok that I can rewrap it and the man will walk me over to check in to vouch for me, because apparently we are now BFFs.
So I rewrap it, which is kind of like trying to rewrap your Christmas presents after you’ve already torn off the paper. In fact when I finish trying to put it back together, it looks like it was wrapped by a 5 year old.
I walk all the way back to check in desk and walk to the front of the line, because I am NOT about to wait on that crap again. And if somebody had challenged me about it, it would have been sad, but I would jammed my painting in their eye.
My new friend says my painting is NOT in fact stolen, and belongs to me.
As though if I had shown him Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and pinky promised I had bought it at the market, he would have cleared this as well.
I eventually made it through security but I was so frazzled I wanted to just sit down on the floor of duty free and crack open a bottle of Blue Label. But I didn’t. I came home, and so did my painting, undamaged, and in tact.
It now hangs happily above my bar. Which is appropriate, because I need a drink every time I think of what it took to get that painting home.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Iceland Cometh

One of the things Buenos Aires also had to offer was a man from Iceland named Ragna. When I met Ragna the first night he was nice enough for about 40 minutes. Then he started talking more... a lot more. So much more that I took to staring straight up into the sky to avoid participating in the conversation.
One hopes to meet cool interesting friendly travelers on the roof of a hostel, not people who lecture about how great Obama is and the quality of Bush's decisions and the world economy and the Icelandic sunset schedule and life in Oregon and how to bargain and blah blah blah.
I came close to leaping off the roof, but instead 4 of us, including Ragna went to dinner. Thank god I had somebody else to talk to.
The next night we are all sitting on the roof drinking chatting and eating empanadas at midnight when we decide its time to go out, because people don’t leave until after midnight. So a couple of Americans, Ragna from Iceland, a Polish chick, and an Israeli dude head out for some drinks. We are enjoying ourselves when Ragna starts getting a little strange.
He orders a Cubra Libra (because apparently its 1988) and then sends it back. He orders another and then sends that one back. I say something like, ¨Man I guess they make bad drinks here huh? ¨
What Ragna must have heard was,
Ragna starts saying to me, ¨Do you have a problem with that? Do you? Do you have a problem with me?¨
I do a double take with another American to see if Ragna is kidding but we are both not sure. It happens again and I kind of joke it off because I’m not sure what is going on.
We finally get our bill and he asks me if I want to pay for his drinks as a sign of friendship. I'm not sure what kind of crazy America-Iceland treaty exists in his world but the last thing I want to buy for this maniac is a drink. I attempt to politely decline which seems to put him off.
He then casually says, ¨Oh its nothing, I’m on coke.¨
Now my knowledge of drugs is equal to my knowledge of Spanish but ít didn’t look like he was on coke. Or so I thought. As it turns out, apparently as we were sitting at our table drinking Ragna had been not so discreetly giving me the finger the whole time, which I didn’t notice. So we all leave to go to another bar, and the other American and I hang back and just let Ragna and crew keep walking off into the night.
Peace out.
So the 4 of us are at a bar now where Poland and Israel are working on their international relations and the other American who speaks Spanish is sitting in a director’s type chair talking to some Argentinean women. I sit down next to him and since I don’t speak Spanish I just sit there like I’m Regis Philbin´s crappy fill in co-host.
We got home at 6 in the morning.

Fast forward to my last morning in Uruguay. I flee on another grey morning. I go through customs where the nice people ask me questions that go like this.
"Habla Espanol?"
I'm not sure if they were expecting me to burst into Spanish here and say something like, "AHH Just kidding. I love messing around with South American customs officials. I really got you guys huh?"
I take the 3 hour boat back to Buenos Aires and check back into the same hostel. It is amazing how some hostels become these ever evolving families of people coming and going. I slide right back into the sway of things. Right away I make sure I book tickets to 2 events.
The first event is a Tango show. Tango has its roots in Buenos Aires when it was first danced by the immigrants, and there being not enough women it was danced man on man. (Can you imagine how different Dancing with the Stars would be if THAT didn't change.)
I go with a bunch of other folks from the hostel to a very dodgy neighborhood called Boca. The show is very Disney, there are characters that walk around, and even a town drunk. Though considering the show went on for close to 3 hours I began to wonder if he was in fact "acting."
We have a decent dinner where a tango couple come around and take pictures with people. One of the guys at my table refuses to take a picture with the tango woman. I can understand though. I too find it offensive when strange exotically dressed women who don't speak my language ask to take a picture with me while throwing their leg around me like a sash. Yea, what a turn off.
There is something about me folks. At large group gatherings there is something about me that makes the players in these events search the crowd, find my goofy face and pull me out to play along. It happened with the Big Foot show in Orlando, the Hula Dancers in Hawaii, and of course the Tango Show in Bs As.
So I get pulled out onto the floor to dance tango with this woman who keeps screaming "PASSION" at me and while she is leading I am trying desperately to keep up. She then jumps into my arms and has me spin her around while screaming, “DO YOU WANT TO BE MY BOYFRIEND?”
I was pretty sure I was going to get dizzy and fall down or accidentally drop her. Luckily I survived and so did she.
The next day I went to a traditional Gaucho ranch. These were the original lonely cowboys of Argentina. The place has horse rides, a huge Asado and a little show.
I had been really interested to go to this and kept asking the people at my hostel front desk to look up shows for me. But I kept mixing up the word for Gaucho Ranch with the word for Parking Lot. So I kept saying to the desk
"Can you book me a reservation for the parking lot? I really want to ride horses around the parking lot."
You can imagine the look they gave me. This happened at least 4 times.
So I go to the Estancia and ride horse. My horse is friendly and doesn't really follow directions. There is a photographer walking around taking pictures of us on the horses. My horse refuses to pose and walks away so this woman is screaming at me.
Are you kidding me? I am not a centaur. Contrary to what you may think, this horse is not just an extension of me, it is its own animal and I do not speak horse. He just ignores her. I do too.
I also quickly realize why nobody wears shorts while riding a horse. If I could pick any word to describe riding a horse in shorts that word would be Chafe.

We have a massive lunch where I eat blood sausage. It tastes exactly how it sounds.

So we finally get out of there and head back to the hostel. I change my clothes and head to a 9 course tasting dinner with another American.

We had some ceviche, some goat cheese foam, some caramel apple and lots of other things but there are 2 that really kind of stuck out in my head.

The first was the lamb. It was 2 small pieces. I have only had lamb a handful of times. But this lamb was unlike any I had ever had. It was tender, and the texture was incredible. The taste was outrageously good. I was in love with it.

I tell the waiter it was my favorite. And he asks me if I know what part of the lamb it was, which I don' t. So he tells me.

It was tongue. Lamb tongue. And it was goooood.

The other dish that figured prominently in the meal was the octopus with tomato air. The tomato air was essentially bubbles that tasted not so awesome and the octopus well... I am not a squid or octopus fan.

And this octopus isn't even deep fried. I don't so much look at it I just pop a large pink piece into my mouth and start to chew... and chew... and chew. And then I look down in my bowl to actually examine my meal. And I see the suction cups. And I realize why I don't like it.

It tastes like I am eating a rubber bathtub mat. I feel like one should not eat anything found in a bathroom.
Luckily my last 2 meals in Buenos Aires were steak, and lots of it. Seeing as I am back in New York now I am already going through withdrawal. I crave to feel the feelings I felt in Buenos Aires.
Maybe I will go out and buy a steak... or maybe I'll just go chew on my bathtub mat.