Buenos Aires will not eat your children, I told you way back when I first started writing here. It’s true. But on recent evidence, it may just devour you entire, backed up by the rest of this country. Argentina, it seems, is a very difficult place to leave. First there was the brutal way it kneecapped me on the night before my supposed exit. That bought it a few extra weeks. But once I could walk the plan was clear: a week or so in Salta to see the pirates, then a quick overnighter through BA to get the hell out of winter and up to the clear northern sands of tropical Brazil. Easy.
Turns out I stay in Salta for over a month. Then BA for another three weeks. Even now I don’t really know how it happened. Salta is pretty. I have friends who live there, meaning I quickly make a whole lot more. A city suddenly takes on a much different complexion when that happens. There are so many more things to do and discover. Every other day brings new offers from other people – to go to this party, to visit the family farm, to do road trips. As I result I start speaking seriously bad-ass Spanish (though nothing can compare with Verónica). And the World Cup is on, and I’m writing about it, so it has to be watched through. Once Brazil is knocked out by Holland, it makes rushing up there less of a priority.
It’s about now that I realise I’ve already overstayed my visa. Starts to look like I’ll have to spend a few days in BA to sort this sort. I procrastinate for another fortnight, then finally pull up stumps in the north-west. Ok, I tell myself on the long, long bus ride back, spacing out, watching the fields and hills tick through the window frames like the world’s slowest movie reel. As soon as I get in tomorrow, I’ll go straight down to the immigration place and sort it out. I don’t have any more time to waste. Yep. I’ll get right on it.
Ten days later I remember to check the immigration website for the first time. Before that I didn’t even know where the place was. Palermo House has pulled its bag of tricks out once again. Which is odd, because I’m not a huge fan of youth hostels. I know I’ve written about my fondness for this place, but that’s more about the friends who work here than a love of the genre. Hostels are a lottery. There are often good people, but you’re also so likely to have to tolerate the glorious procession of travelling douchebags. Kind of like The Travelling Wilburys, but all the Wilburys have been replaced by douchebags. There are the dreadlocked mystic-guru-wannabes in their tie-died fisherman’s pants (not even a cliché, I’m serious) and their stories about ashrams in India; there are the deadly-dull Scandinavians with their earnest guidebook frowns; there are the smarmy officious box-ticking tourists with their 11-day, 14-country itineraries and their loud diatribes about how, yeah, they’ve already done Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, now they’re off to do the east coast, and next year they’re going to do Africa; and of course there are the footy-trip kids, who even if they’re not on footy trips still act like they are, walking round slapping and hooting at each other, and not understanding anything about the place they’re in, and looking fairly offended by that fact, as though it’s really just poor form that someone should have the temerity to have a foreign country over here and be all foreign and confusing and talk a funny language that they can’t understand. Any or all of these groups get around wearing various items of woven clothing decorated with llama patterns, as though it’s compulsory to label yourself in this fashion the minute you set foot on this continent.
(While travelling with Mr Fox in Peru, I once told a persistent shopkeeper that I would buy something if they had something in stock without llamas on it. “Sin llamas?” she said, as though I’d proposed a stroll to the moon. “Hey,” she called to her colleague. “Do we have anything without llamas?” The same look of confusion. “Hey,” called the colleague to the back room. “Do we have anything without llamas on it?” Twenty minutes later, once the three of them had rifled through every pile of stock in the place, they shook their heads in defeat. No. Nothing without llamas.)
And then, even if douchebag readings are low, backpacking joints are just so homogenous. There’s an international template for construction and atmosphere, and the same demographic of young Western travellers inhabits them the world over, whether it’s Mongolia, Botswana, or the Netherlands Antilles. You have to walk outside and read the street signs to try and figure out what country you’re in. Like staying at the Hilton, but with more lice. They can be fun, sure, but they kind of limit the actual point of travelling.
But I’m only back in town for a few days, of course, so I head back to Palermo House. I have my plan. My rough plan. Not that I have tickets or anything, but I have my rough plan. The good thing about rough plans is that you’re free to change them whenever a better offer comes along. And if the world of hostels is a lottery, then this time I win. Sometimes you meet good people, and now and then you meet great people. But really occasionally, by chance, whole groups of great people happen to coincide at the same time, a kind of personality-based alignment of the stars as our different trajectories around the continent and globe all crash together at precisely this one spot. In a mere few days, a dozen disparate people from all over the world become a little community.
The last great nexus was at this same place back in November, the Hawkeye one, as detailed here. But this time we have even greater numbers. Matt is a furry-bearded Californian lady-killer, who makes up for his llama jacket with an impeccable playlist that set the tone for every night we have (and makes sure that ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ by LCD Soundsystem will forever be the soundtrack to this year). He is travelling with Shameless, an Irish trashbag of epic proportions, who despite being in his mid-30s and having a career teaching small children, is one of the most unstoppable consumers of intoxicants I’ve ever met. The idea that I could be like that at his age is both terrifying and inspirational. Matt also gives me one of my favourite-ever nicknames: The GNB (or Genital Nibbling Bear). I’m too drunk to remember how it comes about (nothing suss though). My favourite nickname of the year was Salsa Picante (Hot Sauce), as Level Five used to call me. So I’m happy to partially share that nickname with Matt and Shameless’ friend, Jimmy Picante. Despite being Swiss, his outrageous accent means he topples Clemenceau as the Frenchiest Frenchman who ever Frenched. He’s also one of those people who everyone genuinely loves. It’s hard to explain this phenomenon. People who are just nice and nothing else are dead fucking boring, but this is something else: that rare breed who are intelligent, and fun, and good to talk to, but endlessly exude warmth and friendliness to those around them. The kind of people everyone wants to hang out with, and who make you want to hug them at random moments for no reason at all.
Tara is a kind of anime character, with a shock of white-blond hair, a beautifully clipped British accent, and the power of anime speed. She’s the first person I’ve met who can walk faster than me. She just pushes up her sleeves, flips the collar of her leather jacket, and goes, leaving footpaths quailing in her wake. She also co-invents The Womb (see below), and 90s pop-rock band Good Honda. Roze is a French-African girl with the best crazy-eyes in the business, and a Hindenburg-sized personality to match. Leo and Nina are one of the loveliest couples I’ve ever met, two Brazilians half my height, but all heart. Danny Rogers is uniformly referred to by his full name, dating from well before his arrival, when Julián keeps yelling out “Who is Dunnnni Rrro-jairs? Is Dunnnni Rrro-jairs here yet?” He’s a nicely-spoken young chap, full of puppyish enthusiasm, who tells us tales of punting on the River Cam, and inexplicably decides that I am some sort of wise old man to be looked up to. If anyone would like to get in touch and put him straight, drop me a line. He is joined bit by bit over coming days by his International Scooby Gang: the French sleep-champion Guillemette, the explosively enthusiastic German Andy, and Dan, a sort of Banged Up Abroad laddish polar opposite to balance out Danny. All of them are about to start a year’s exchange in Córdoba. This is their baptism of fire.
Marce is from Córdoba too, and a jack-of-all-trades: professional footballer, award-winning industrial designer, graphic artist, guitarist. His highly-original nickname from Julián – Córdoba – is soon transformed into Cordobéstia (the Beast of Córdoba). Lili, who can understand my English on the back of two years living in Bondi, is the quintessentially sweet French girl, an appearance that masks a cynicism as pointed as mine when it comes to other people. “I love people,” she says smilingly, flicking her cigarette, “who come to Paris and say, ‘Oh, I saw the culture.’ Like it’s this thing sitting in a glass box in the Louvre that you can just go and look at. Oh, see? Here is The Culture.”
And of course, camaraderie is always fostered by adversity. In Buenos Aires, it’s fucking cold. I mean, I knew this place had a winter, but it’s seriously freaking freezing. I am constantly mouthing thanks that Washington left me half a dozen spare t-shirts, because I’m currently wearing all of them at once in a desperate attempt to preserve myself with layering. I only ever thought I’d have to tide myself over for a couple of chilly weeks in May, so the sad woollen rag I brought with me is subsiding after some months of use, now more hole than jumper. There is also a metre-diameter opening high in the wall of the common area, that lets in bitterly cold drafts when we’re trying to drink in the early hours of the morning. Eventually, combining losing my rag with a fit of inspiration, I hack a mattress in half with a carving knife in front of the reception desk, with Julián anxiously hovering around enquiring whether I really have to do that, then climb a ladder with the knife in my teeth, roll up the mattress, jam it into the hole while hanging one-handed off the sprinkler pipes, and plug the gaps with towels, all under the perturbed gaze of a couple of confused Norwegians. With the whole mess covered up with a tasteful crochet rug that even matches the colours of the wall mural, things feel a bit better. But it’s still a frigidworld outside, and a lot of the rooms are still unheated, and every blanket in the place is claimed and watchfully guarded. I have a large pink fuzzy blanket that becomes known as The Womb, under which two or three of us often huddle pitifully on one of the couches hoping to make it through until morning. The hot water is still on the blink and runs out after two showers. The only tactics are to wait until the mid-afternoon, when the cold torrent makes you scream a little less, or cross one’s fingers and hope to find some hot water in the middle of the night. It sometimes works, and the best showers are 5 a.m. wasted ones.
The only thing that makes life worth living is other people. And for all the times when it doesn’t happen, there are these rare moments when everything clicks, when you are with people who are feeling the vibe, the buena onda, the good Honda, in exactly the way that you are; when you’re with people who want to party like you so much so that it becomes second nature, like footballers who know instinctively where their teammate will be in five seconds’ time. You know what the others will think and what they’ll want. You are all working for the same purpose, all foot soldiers of the infinite paradox, bunked down together. No-one has to get up early for work. No-one wants a quiet night in. And if anyone ever does have to get up early, they say “Fuck it. I’ll just push through.”
We push through. I sleep a total of 24 hours in the first ten nights. Each evening starts with Matt and Danny Rogers bringing back litre flagons of obscenely cheap and nasty rum. The cheapness and nastiness is outweighed by the fact that there are litres of it. I shop and cook big sprawling winter meals for everyone, soups and giant dishes of pasta, and amazing Argentine red wine that costs a couple of bucks a pop. We go out and attack the town, fighting the cold with the cold steel kiss of a hip flask, stumbling back in at stupid hours to dance ourselves clean once again, a dozen people all hanging out for the beat to drop. We talk truly epic amounts of shit, each joke a hook for someone else to latch on to. We trace out maps of our home countries on the black dining tables in cocaine. We fall between languages – English, Spanish, French, stumble through our meanings, but always find what we were looking for, or a place that’s just as good. “Zese are my thinks,” says Jimmy, trying to share a point of personal philosophy, and grammatical errors have never been so wonderful. “You’re just so French,” I keep telling him. “I mean, you’re so French.“
At some point we end up at a trashy nightclub on a golf course. It’s as tacky as it sounds. Shameless is wandering round in the carpark after having been removed by security for being too wasted (no-one else knows yet, and later we’ll find him asleep in a shrub, shivering in his Irish dreams like a hound dreaming of hares). Matt is chasing a girl from Rosario with Agent Smith-like focus. Danny Rogers is sort of thinking about doing the same, but is really just too nice to go through with it. A random French girl is doing my head in by doing an unconscious but very accurate Tai Snaith impression. Suddenly across the dancefloor I spot Jimmy (it’s not easy, he’s pretty short). He locks eyes with me, and his are wide with revelation. He fights his way across the floor with some urgency, elbows pistoning a path through, until he reaches me and grabs two huge handfuls of my shirt, an intent look on his face. “You’re right!” he yells out. “You’re right. I didn’t think in it before but now I realise. I’m so French! I really… I’m so French!”
(It reminds me very much of my friend Ed at a Thomas Schumacher party in 2003: the same dancefloor stalk, the same iron-fisted shirt-clutch, the same unwavering eye contact and look of intent, as he solemnly and slowly raised a crumpled napkin on which his wobbly pill-wasted handwriting had scrawled, “Never come down.”)
The nights roll on until nine, ten, eleven in the morning, at which point you can usually find me and Danny Rogers rolling around side by side on the floor in the patches of sunlight by the terrace windows. The one night I almost sleep, I head back early to write a few things, and go to bed at 3 a.m. Ten seconds after pulling up the covers I hear the others come home. “I’ll just quickly see what they’re up to,” I tell myself. The next thing it’s 9 o’clock again, as ever. Seeing the sunrise is no longer a matter for comment. Then there’ll be a couple of hours sleep till someone wakes and rouses the next. We’re not just trashbags. We walk out into the clear crisp sunny afternoons to find the city. We visit museums, piss ourselves laughing at billboards, sing in the streets to bemused passers-by. We snap on sunglasses and smoke cigarettes and tear open baguettes for impromptu picnics in the park. We are idyllic. We are astonishing. We are young and fierce and impossibly fucking beautiful. There will never be anyone to match us. There will never be any need. You don’t need to build the pyramids twice.
There are times in all our lives, stretches of a few days here and there which with hindsight will come to resemble the briefest moments, when everything is perfect, when the sun shines, when we are with friends and loved, and when everything we do becomes an adventure, everything we say becomes the funniest of jokes, every part of it we share becomes a bond that ties those people to us from that point on. When you love each other like there is nothing else in the world. Moments when you and your friends would walk into battle for each other without a second’s thought, and would do it laughing. Where the feel of air on your face makes you laugh out loud, and so does seeing your friends smile, and when they do you want to hug them until you can’t breathe. And ringing through it all like the clear note of a tiny bell is a certain sadness, a knowledge that of course it won’t last, it can’t last, that this is one of those peaks that must pass, as any peak must do. A pre-emptive nostalgia that tinges the shine with a little sepia. But that doesn’t bring it down. Maybe it even heightens it. Because you know how special this place is, where the words you say are golden, and fall from your mouths glinting like the rich afternoon sunlight that paints your skin and brings out the last impossible green that every leaf otherwise does its best to conceal. And as we age, and die, those moments will start to fade with each one who falls, like the after-image of fireworks burned across your retinas. But when I die, the friendships that I’ve made like this will mean that, whatever else I’ve done with my given years, I will have left behind something beautiful.
And so of course gradually they leave. One by one, each day ticking off another farewell. A plane to Bogota, Dublin, Madrid. A bus to Mendoza or Sao Paolo. An early morning hug after a final all-nighter, or a moment in the afternoon light watching a taxi dwindle down the road. Eventually I am the last one left, a microcosm of the fear of watching your friends die that I wrote about not along ago. I get a job editing a magazine. I get a week to write a massive grant proposal. I get an even more massive fever: my body’s attempt to finally make me sleep. It was always going to happen. I hunch over my laptop shivering in cold sweats and trying to concentrate on an Excel spreadsheet magazine budget that occasionally spins so disconcertingly that I have to wander off to throw up. Fortunately my co-editor is only on a text-chat client, so she can’t hear it. We get the thing done. I have hot and cold sweats for over a week. I don’t give a shit, there’s no question it was worth it. Somehow I’m still in Buenos Aires.
Alix is an Australian, another apparently long-term resident in this place. She’s neat and tiny and could be a librarian if not the epic sleeve tattoo covering one arm. At one point I recognise her from behind from two hundred metres down the street just because of the colours on her skin. She’s nocturnal too, and gives me reassuring silent company during long nights of computing. I tell her about not being able to prise myself free of this place. “Oh, you got trapped too,” she says, sounding like the waitress from Rock and Roll Heaven. She tells me she was supposed to go on to Brazil six months ago. She was supposed to be home by now. But somehow she stayed. Her visa expired. She didn’t have the money to renew it. She stayed some more. Now she’s still here. She starts numbering off the friends who’ve had the same thing happen. The Argentina Trap. “I know so many people,” she says, “who came to Buenos Aires and never left.” Suddenly it’s not just a thing that has happened, it’s an entire phenomenon. I start to get a little scared.
Leaving should be easy, for anyone. In an Argentine winter it’s by far the most attractive option, and having incentive is a pretty good way to get shit done. The new countries to be seen are exotic and beckoning you. And yet…somehow Argentina hangs on. There is something about it that makes it very hard to leave. The way the cobbled streets and ornate iron railings speak to you of history, let you feel a direct contact with the past, where our own suburbs have blanked it out and smothered it in bitumen. The way each building has an identity that our rows of anonymous orange-brick townhouses will never have, from now until they’re bulldozed into dust and PVC. The way its trees arch out over the streets from each side as though embracing you, or trying to hold you in. Plus I can speak now, I can hold a conversation without feeling like my tongue is gaffer-taped to my face. When I go to say something the words are there and waiting, no need to plan ahead, no need to grope into the corners of my brain like a man shoulder-deep into a bulging cupboard trying to find a single rubber band. The feeling of triumph at getting here isn’t something I want to give up. My first joy has always been language, and the feeling of words coming out in a natural order, with a natural rhythm, and seeing people nod and smile and laugh with me, in ways I had intended, is a gift from which it’s very hard to walk away. And the idea of starting over in Portuguese kind of breaks my heart.
My Dutch roommates have noticed the phenomenon too. “I thought you were leaving a long time ago,” they keep saying. At first I talk more to Angela. Claudia seems a bit more reserved and I figure she must be a lady, somewhat perturbed by either my earlier constant state of intoxication, or my later tendency to shuffle around wrapped in a blanket and looking like death. After a few days she blows this theory out of the water by asking if I know what the most popular word in Holland was last year. I don’t. Swaffelen, she explains, is the act of slapping someone across the face with your penis. It is a very good word to know. It works in English in a very satisfying manner: to swaffle. I swaffle, you swaffle, he swaffles. The resulting conversation dispels any doubt about her being in any way reserved. I should really stop having first impressions. They’re usually worth about as much as a Weimer pfennig.
I have brilliant conversations with both these two, who confirm my pre-existing observations that a) the Dutch speak better English than the English, and b) I have never met a Dutch person I didn’t like. They’re just so sensible and reasonable and chilled out. But never boring. For four days I try to book tickets out of the country. For four days I stare at possible permutations of Brazilian airline schedules on my computer. I stress and plot and turn things over in my mind, then leave it and do something else, then come back to it. Every time the girls come past they ask if I’ve booked anything. I clutch my blanket closer as I shake my head.
Finally though, finally, I make a reservation. They cheer me like a homecoming hero. On my last night Julián has a giant crazy artist party, people painting massive murals on the papered-over walls, trays of space cakes circulating. As a wise older man I have one piece of advice for the kids. Watch out for space cakes. They’re chocolaty and delicious, and also full of drugs which tend to make you crave things that are chocolaty and delicious. I eat mine. Then I eat someone else’s. It’s a long time coming on, as it always is. When it arrives, it does so with a vengeance. I’ve hardly been stoned since I was a teenager. My world is a very strange place. One of the things about being incredibly stoned is that it makes you very open to the idea of getting more stoned. And eating chocolate. An Italian guy asks if I want to split a cake with him. Of course I do. Angela had maybe a quarter of my first one, and even that’s enough to make her sit there grinning like a tall tanned Cheshire Cat. She looks like she’s concentrating on a conversation with some guy, but later tells me that she was falling endlessly through the green stripes on his shirt. Eventually it gets too much and she has to retire to bed, where she lies giggling for several hours. By now I am stoned to an unprecedented level. The world has become strangely distant, like I’m watching everybody through a broad length of pipe.
I’m still remarkably talkative though, in a stream of consciousness sort of way. Someone spills water on my knee. Claudia asks what the wet patch is from. I tell her I was swaffled by a midget. She asks if I’m sure it wasn’t a hobbit. I tell her the hobbit swaffled the left leg while the midget swaffled the right. The mental image of this is enough to destroy me for many long giggling minutes. ‘Hobbit-swaffling’ becomes the phrase of the night. ‘Swaffled by a hobbit’ is also popular. “You look like you got swaffled by a hobbit” indicates an expression of surprise. I use precisely this phrase when speaking to some doctors from Brisbane here on some sort of doctor’s exchange. They’re staying in a different hostel and came for the party, so they don’t know how weird I am. After some minutes of conversation (if you can call it that) they do rather look like they’ve just been hobbit-swaffled. They’re in the spirit of things though. One of them grabs a space cake. After half of it, he has a long look at me and declares that half will probably be enough. He asks if I want the other half. Dude, it’s made of chocolate.
The bottles of wine don’t really help the cause either. Claudia, not content with helping invent hobbit-swaffling, draws a buxom naked lady in blue permanent marker on my hand. One of the lady’s leg’s runs down my thumb and the other down my forefinger, so every time I go to pick something up she does a very graphic set of splits. After this has freaked out a number of people I try to remove it by licking it and rubbing it down the side of my jeans. Later, people claim they advised me against it at the time. I don’t remember. I am a foot soldier of the infinite paradox. I have shit to do. When I leave the next day, it takes me ten long seconds to figure out why I have long stripes of fluorescent blue smeared all down the left leg of my grey jeans.
I am supposed to depart at seven a.m., so of course staying up seems like the easy option. That was the plan at the start of the night. There’s that thing about plans again. I don’t even remember going downstairs. I don’t remember finding the closest empty bed. All I remember is waking up at 5 pm the next day, with my head under a blanket and my body not so, the small matter of ten hours late, and still incredibly stoned. Not a little bit of hangover effect, I mean still properly poleaxed. A few more hours of fuzziness and it starts to settle. I look up some timetables online. I get my shit together. I hug my people, hitch up my newly-blue jeans, and set off to catch my bus.
Yeah, I said bus. No, not a plane. Look, I am most definitely leaving Argentina. I am now on my way to Brazil. I just have to duck by Córdoba first to see Córdobestia and the Scooby Gang. And maybe a quick stop in Salta for one last night at La Casona.