Buyer's remorse, South American style

The past couple of days have fairly flown by. I spent much of Tuesday in the company of Miss Fara Warner, our invalid, helping her go about her day. This included such crucial feats as bathing, dressing and, of course, shopping. We had a fun and low-key time while the rest of the fellows and spouses were off on another jam-packed day. We lunched on empanadas and salad at one of the many restaurants on Santa Fe and shopped for presents for Fara to take home with her. She also splurged on a reversible beaver…coat. Red basket weave leather on one side and black beaver – which is softer than you can even imagine – on the inside. Now, I’m no fan of leather, but this was a striking coat and certainly something she’ll never find again in the US.

I spent much of the time while we were out running interference between Fara’s shoulder and the crowds bustling down the street. In addition, we had to be careful not to trip on any of the giant holes in the sidewalks. I haven’t mentioned it before, but the sidewalks here are a disaster – you can’t walk a block without stepping aside to avoid giant holes, missing tiles, upturned slabs of concrete. It’s things like this that make it impossible to ignore the distressed economy of this nation even as it tries desperately to put on a brave face and retain as much of its former superficial glory as possible. In the afternoon, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I went back out with Rainey and Sally to do some more shopping although, in our defense – especially Rainey’s – we weren’t actually shopping for ourselves. We were shopping on behalf of significant others with no time to shop who sought special gifts. (We were largely unsuccessful in the end.) Now, I don’t even like to shop in other cities, so the fact that I seemed to spend so much time here shopping with one person or another makes me feel so unbelievably…shoppingy. And that’s not me. If I note that it was usually for other people, does that make it count as public service work?

In the meantime, I was thrilled to find out my custom-made jacket had been delivered to the front desk of the hotel. Sure, it had taken a day longer than promised, but what did that matter when I was going to have a tailor made jacket in the most beautiful hue? I could barely contain my excitement between the front desk and the hotel room and, perhaps, if there had been no one else in the elevator then I would have tried it on there.

Instead, it was a few more minutes before I was back in our room and slipped it out of my bag. It was an unqualified disaster – the shoulders started in the middle of my upper arm so that I couldn’t raise my arms above my shoulders, the bottom circumference boasted about 20 extra inches and the collar started around my ears. At first, I thought maybe I was being too critical. And then I tried it on for Fara. And she began laughing so hard, it hurt her arm.

I went off in search of Vanessa and begged her to come by and make a call to the leather shop and explain to them, in Spanish, what a disaster the coat was. I tried it on to show her the problems and had to wait for her to regain her composure from laughing before she could make the call. She dubbed it my leather smock. She was very kind and called the leather shop. Now, I’m not even close to being fluent, but she used the phrase, “totalamente mal” several times.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a return policy in Buenos Aires, but she explained we’d like her money back. The store manager was balking and instead asked if they could send the sales woman over tomorrow to the hotel to retake my measurements. I agreed to meet her in the lobby at ten and let them take one more stab at it.

That evening, we were scheduled to see a show featuring tango music and professional tango dancers. We’d been warned ahead of time that these shows are strictly for tourists and that real Argentines stick to the neighborhood milongas for their tango fix. Still, we are tourists, so what the hell? Fara was, of course, particularly excited about going – but one wrong turn as she stepped into the van and she knew the pain and the crowd were both simply going to be too much.

I’d like to say it was entirely selfish that I made a split-moment decision to stay home with her, but it struck me all of a sudden that a nice quiet dinner with some one-on-one conversation might be a nice change of pace. The meals here have been fantastic but when there’s 25 or so of you, it’s tough to make real conversation.

As it turned out, Fara and I had a nice evening. We walked up to the nearest restaurant, Torre Paris, and sampled some Argentine pizza. The meal was fair but the charming waiter went to great lengths to accommodate Fara’s injury and the conversation was really grand. I was happy to be at home and in bed by 11 for a change. Sleep is a commodity here and since I require about 25 hours of it each night to keep my crankiness and pain away, the exhaustion is starting to take its toll on me.

Wednesday morning, I helped Fara pack and then we finally ventured over to Thai Pie, a little massage therapy outfit just across Paraguay Avenue from the hotel. We’d heard rave reviews from other fellows and the hypnotizing smell of lemongrass was enough to woo us when we stopped in to make appointments for later that day. We killed an hour at a café – talking and, of course, eating - before venturing back across the road, ready for our rub-downs.

When you ask people what their favorite thing was in Argentina, they will no doubt note something noble or historically profound. Or perhaps even point out the massive and fantastic steaks. But me? I’m such a whore for massage, that I’d put Thai Pie at the top of my list. The place consists of several little rooms, separated from each other with reed-like blinds. There’s a reverent hush to the place and, as I noted before, an absolutely engaging aroma and we were each led to our neighboring rooms by goateed gentlemen in black kimono-like pajama outfits.

Fara was able to lean back, with some assistance, in the recliner and had a fabulous hour-long foot rub for about 50 pesos (about $19 US). I had a 30 minute foot rub, followed by a 40 minute facial massage, which included plenty of neck and shoulder attention, too. It was absolute heaven and I was out a total of about 70 pesos (about $26 US) when all was said and done. Afterwards, we were served green tea in the reception area where we sat, sloe-eyed and blinking out the window at the rest of the world in that glorious, inimitable post-massage haze.

That afternoon, we saw the first wave of fellows off to the airport – Gail, Fara, Tony, Sally, Drew, Semiha and Sadat. For the latter two, it would be the last time we’ll see them until February and, effectively, their departure from the Fellowship. Although I don’t think we’ll fully feel their absence until we reassemble on January 6, it was tough to say goodbye. They are both exceptional people and became an integral part of the program – Semiha for her poise and passion and Sedat for the fantastic sense of humor and good spiritedness that he managed to convey to us with a limited (although ever-increasing) amount of English.

I’ll share with you my favorite memory of Semiha on the trip. One evening, we were leaving the Dazzler to head across the road to our ever-present vans. Crossing the street in Argentina is a matter of life and death, a gamble, no matter how small a road, no matter what the crossing signal says. I happened to catch a glimpse of Semiha, endlessly glamorous and completely in possession of her own being, as she stepped off the curb. Around the corner came a gentleman driving a Mercedes. The unspoken rule in Buenos Aires is that cars stop for no one and nothing – pedestrians are on their own.

But this man slowed slightly as he turned the corner and Semiha, already half way across the road, caught his eye and with a slight tilt of her chin, a commanding smile and a firm but gentle lift of her hand, literally brought traffic to a halt. The man behind the wheel stopped and responded to her with a pleasant, admiring smile, as if he’d just fallen prey to everything womanhood had held over him since puberty and let her cross.

I’ll never be that kind of woman. I’ll stop traffic sometimes with sheer will and determination, with my boldness and my rallying cry that pedestrians always have the right of way! But this was something exceptional, a Sophia Loren-like sense of womanhood, a throwback to another time and a wonder and delight to witness. I’m still smiling as I write about it.