Let go of the need to travel the right way
Posted Mar 09, 2010
As an American living in Buenos Aires, I find myself being very careful not to fall into a certain role: that is, the role of an American living in Buenos Aires. Would a typical American living in Buenos Aires frequent that bar? Then I probably shouldn't. Would a typical American living in Buenos Aires watch, wide-eyed, the loud, tearful lovers' quarrel on the subway? I'll turn the other way and look bored.
I do have a pretty major obstacle in this grand attempt of mine: I am, in fact, an American living in Buenos Aires. So why set myself up like that? It has something to do with what many travelers, feeling original, boast that they're after: the authentic experience. If we go where the locals go, or - the ultimate triumph - pass for a local, we've achieved some sort of alignment with the culture we've dipped into and can claim to Understand it.
But I'm starting to think that that particular brand of proud open-mindedness could be pushed a few inches further open still.
There's been a voice in my head chastising me lately for not living authentically enough here in BA. I'm not completely sure what that even means; the voice is a better chastiser than explainer, so I end up feeling bad without completely understanding why. Yes, it's true, the people I have gravitated toward here and with whom I spend the most time are expats like me: British, French, American, German, Dutch. At the last concert I went to, the band covered the likes of Outkast, MGMT and Marvin Gaye. I've had more Indian food, Mexican food and sushi than steak and Malbec (though to my credit, my empanada intake has been positively Argentine).
Should I be ashamed? Part of me thinks so. A couple months ago, after a flush of fear that, like a typical American in BA, my day-to-day reasons to leave my hip little expat-heavy neighborhood were dwindling, I set up a few volunteer jobs that would get me out to a couple of the dozens of neighborhoods that Frommer's never touches, and help me get to know people who'd never conceived of keeping "countries visited" checklists.
However misguided my reasons for starting these jobs may have been, they've become genuine highlights. Each week, the 20 or so "abuelitos" at the home for senior citizens I visit stand up and cheer, sometimes so emphatically they knock over their domino games, when I walk into their high-ceilinged living room, which always has the warm glow of late afternoon no matter what time of day it is. (One man yells "Kansas City! Wichita! Topeka!" over and over, presumably to evidence his intimate familiarity with my home state, every time we're within a few feet. While I'm not sure how to respond anymore, I've come to depend on it somehow.) They're teaching me lunfardo - a specific strain of Buenos Aires slang - and send me around to one another to say phrases like "I don't have any money" in the dialect of an old, poetic tango musician ("No tengo ni un sope"), which somehow sets off an explosion of debilitating giggles every time. When I read to the young kids at the home for niños, they laugh at my accent but then very patiently show me how to improve it. And there was a moment in their sunny house one Saturday morning a few weeks ago when 8-year-old Oscar was standing on a chair with closed eyes, shaking his hips and singing along to some old, romantic salsa ballad, tiny 4-year-old Emanuel was standing on my feet and holding my hands, commanding me to dance, laughing more openly than I'd seen him laugh, and 7-year-old Victoria was piggy-backed on me, trying to shake along to the beat. I'll just say that at that moment I was really glad - forcefully glad - to be there.
But for all that these volunteer jobs have yielded, they've done nothing to quiet the ‘Is-this-authentic-enough?' line of questioning, and I suspect it's because the criticism that that voice is leveling isn't really fair. Something in me expected my time in Buenos Aires to look a certain way, and in all sorts of ways the experience hasn't conformed to those expectations. "Expect nothing. Live frugally/On surprise," impels Alice Walker. It seems to me that the need to rabidly chase down authenticity too often comes from the same type of rigid thinking that leads a slightly different type of person to the T.G.I. Friday's in each foreign city she visits. Both actions reflect a need to stretch and twist a moment so that we can make sense of it, rather than letting a moment make no sense according to our preset measures, and thereby stretch us.
What if we were to just accept an experience as authentic at the outset, and then actively remain open to the various opportunities and people it presents us with? Release our insistence on a certain outcome; remove our elaborate designs?
Looks like my months in Buenos Aires will not be heavy on authentically musty tango bars, but on authentically silly old slang-spewing men, authentically epic walks through the city by myself, and authentically strong margaritas with expats. No, not the authenticity I'd pictured at the outset, but all the better, right? Ms. Walker's got a point: maybe instead of living in pursuit of authenticity, we should be living on surprise.