I had spent nearly three months in Buenos Aires and couldn’t wait to get out. Originally enamored by the modernity and architectural charm of the city, the striking beauty of its women, the passion of Tango and a literary tradition that included the likes of Luis Borges, I had quickly fallen disillusioned with a place I had heard deemed as the “Paris of Latin America.” Coming from New York—where no man or woman appears the same—Buenos Aires seemed all too homogenous. While most Porteños (citizens of Buenos Aires) trace their roots back to different parts of Western Europe, almost everyone in the city was white. Furthermore, the people I had met didn’t seem particularly fond of Americans, a sentiment shared by much of Latin America especially during the Bush years, and yet, Buenos Aires reminded more of America than any other Latin American country I had been to. Men often went out to clubs dressed in shirt and tie and flashing business cards, women armed in high heels and stylish office attire upturned their noses as they passed by, high-culture types sat around daintily drinking cafés con leche at outdoor corner cafes. The city seemed to be in love with capitalism and the dance of the dollar, and eagerly trying to distance itself from the rest of Latin America.
I left with nothing more than a fitting Buenos Fucking Aires T-shirt souvenir and a thick Argentine accent added to my broken Spanish, a novelty that would earn me more than a few disapproving glances from other Latin Americans in my travels to come.
I had also discovered to my disappointment that Tango had become more a less a thing of the past, relegated to exhibitions for tourists and an esoteric crowd of dance enthusiast. It was not the dance of Argentina’s youth. Instead the contemporary tune appeared to be techno and electronic music, and fist pumping and air-jerking was in full affect at the majority of the city’s clubs until the early hours of the morning. I would often wake up and shower to the sound of “Thump! Thump! Thump!” exploding from the techno club below my residence. To top it off, I had decided to stay with an ex-girlfriend turned friend who was a native of Buenos Aires, and that, as any person with good sense would already know, was a bad idea.
During my last week a thick fog enveloped the city like a fallen cloud—the farmers were burning fields in the west to protest something or other, and an unfortunate wind carried the smoke right into the heart of Buenos Aires. Everything smelled like smoke. It was time to go.
I left with nothing more than a fitting Buenos Fucking Aires T-shirt souvenir and a thick Argentine accent added to my broken Spanish, a novelty that would earn me more than a few disapproving glances from other Latin Americans in my travels to come. I wanted desperately to go to Brazil—one of the best things about Buenos Aires had been the Brazilian friends I had made at my Spanish language school—but I didn’t have the patience to wait for a visa or the extra $125 to pay for it. So I decided to take a bus west with the intention of ending up in Peru and visiting Machu Picchu before purchasing a flight home and a return to reality. For a few extra dollars I bought a first class ticket to Mendoza, the westernmost city in Argentina, on a bus that would put any Greyhound to shame. I kicked back in Mendoza for a couple days and enjoyed a bicycle wine tour, a precarious idea in itself and perhaps the most fantastic dance with death I’d ever run, or rather, biked across. Then I bought another ticket that took me across the Andes and into Chile. On the bus I met a pretty Japanese American girl that was working in Argentina, and we chatted away for the length of an eight hour bus trip. As the bus crawled up, down, and around snow capped peaks that seemed to be tickling the sun, I envisioned an international Kerouac-style love affair—long nights of wine and days of sundrenched wandering—but all I got in the end was a new Facebook friend.
I made it to Santiago, Chile and explored for a few days, the only memorable site being a tour of Pablo Neruda’s house, where I was inspired to be more of a poet for the remainder of my trip. For better or worse, this opportunity came quicker than I thought after I took a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in Chile, and found myself with a debit card that wouldn’t function, a dollar or so in cash, and a bus agency that didn’t accept credit. As I peered despairingly out from the bus stop window at a shabby desert town, dusty roads and thirsty soles meandering the streets, I began my first poem—Stuck in a desert/ Not a peso to my name/ I’d love some dessert/ Or a ticket on the train. In the midst of my musings a long haired kid I later learned was from New Zealand walked into the bus agency lugging two surfboards and an overstuffed backpacker’s bag and bought a ticket on the bus to Cusco that I wanted to be on. I quickly abandoned my verse to push my luck as a poet even further by attempting to talk him into lending me a few bucks ($8 to be exact) until we reached Cusco, and hopefully an ATM that would accept my card. Fortunately, he was friendly and sympathetic to my situation, and although I’m sure at least part of him thought I was a full-of-shit scam artist (and a bad one at that), he paid the remainder of my ticket and off we went on the next bus up into Peru.
The local Peruvian bus was a distant cry from the spacious luxury buses of Argentina and Chile. Hard-eyed Indian women climbed on board wrapped in intricate hand-woven shawls, leather faced men as old as the earth lied in the aisle and tried to sleep. At one point the bus came to a police checkpoint and two Indian women were pulled aside and arrested for carrying contraband of some sort. I opened up a bottle of absinthe I had bought somewhere along my hazy Mendoza wine tour and passed it to my generous Kiwi friend. It was strong as hell and we got buzzed and looked deep into Peru.
There was no bathroom on the bus and every few hours the driver would stop at some lonely town and men, women, and children alike would hustle off into the night to pee. Women squat in the street, men leaned tiredly against walls exhaling with satisfaction, children pissed off sidewalks into the cobblestone streets. Once the drains of the unfortunate town were running ferociously with the contents of our bus’s bladders, the driver would honk and the hoard of pissers would pull up their pants and skirts and scurry back onto the bus.
We traveled the length of the night and arrived at Cusco sometime near dawn. After stretching out our stiffened limbs we crammed Rueben’s surfboards into the back of a taxi and headed into town.
As the gray morning bloomed into a golden day I peered out of our taxi window at the city. Tiny cobblestone streets lined with sidewalks that at times were no wider than a foot weaved up into the mountains. Indian women walked their llamas through the town square holding them by strings as bright-eyed tourists shuffled for their cameras. Little girls carried tiny baby llamas wrapped in shawls like cute little puppies and fed them some sort of baby llama drink from bottles. As we passed a plaza I saw a young artist setting up her easel to begin painting the plazas fountain. The town seemed to be gradually waking from its slumber and content to approach the new day at a patient, almost pre-modern pace. I had escaped the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires.
Cusco turned out to be everything I had hoped for. Built on the ruins of what was once the capital of a flourishing Incan empire, it maintained a connection to its own ancient history unlike any place I had been before. Furthermore, the locals I met seemed genuinely friendly, the food was cheap and bursting with flavor, the discotecas alive with young people rocking and spinning to reggaeton and salsa, and the sights, most notably Machu Picchu, were without an inkling of doubt worth a trip to the farthest corners of the earth.
One night Rueben and I went out drinking and dancing into the small hours of the night. When we returned to our hotel we decided, mainly because of my own stubborn inebriated insistence, to ascend one of the tiny alleys that climbed up the backs of the Andes and watch the sunrise from high above the town. As we sat perched on a ledge in anticipation of a rising sun that would drape the town in a dim daylight, I pulled a notebook from my pocket and wrote the following:
March 21, 2008
I imagine sitting on a cloud must feel something like this.
The people of Peru look like they were chosen from the richest soil and molded by the highest god. There is a history in their eyes, and not one that reveals sadness, but rather some secret wisdom unknown forever to me.
I have never been to a more beautiful place. The city sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes mountains that stand proudly on all sides like monuments to God, their noses gently nudging the clouds. In the middle of town there is a Spanish colonial square with two magnificent Cathedrals. On all sides the houses flow out from the square like spilt sand, closely bunched together, and almost all complimented by Spanish tile roofs, climbing the back of the mountains nearly to their highest peaks. Yet somehow they do so without disturbing the organic beauty of the mountain, but instead blending with an artist’s touch the earthy tone of the roofs with the soft, inviting green of the Andes.
Now, I sit and write alongside my generous and amiable new friend, both of us looking down on the city like prehistoric birds or strange pagan gods. I feel deeply I am in a magical place, one where time seems suspended in air like a butterfly stopped mid-flight, and you can almost touch history’s wings with the tip of your finger, or feel it blowing by with the mountain’s breeze against the softness of your lips.
Earlier in town I sat in a small square near two llamas eating a tall green grass. Two Indian women in colorful skirts and shawls sold crafts and watched over them. One weaved an intricate throw with Incan symbols and gods, and on my left two young Spanish lovers sat in the grass looking out at the city. Now I realize that I, a tourist, am perhaps the latest player in this lands often-tragic unfolding history.
But even with the presence of so many tourists like myself, the deep flavor of the city seems to effortlessly prevail, and though industry is dominated by our dollars and Euros, at times it is as if we are merely ghosts trapped in some silly state of awe and wonder, floating through the town. The locals know, of course, we were not here yesterday and we will be gone tomorrow.
And gone we were. Rueben left a few days later. He was traveling Latin America to surf and Cusco is not a coastal town. I stayed for ten days, visited Machu Picchu and the surrounding ruins, then finally, on May 1st ended my travels through South America and flew home.
Nathaniel Kostar is a poet, playwright, and travel writer from New Jersey and the founder of www.poetsandart.com. He holds a degree in English from Rutgers University, and has performed his original poems all over the Tri-State area, including such notable venues as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (2007 Slam Semi-finalist), the Bowery Poetry Club (2009 Slam-semifinalist), and the NJ State Theatre. His plays Losing It and Bringing Down Jesus have enjoyed productions and staged readings at Cabaret Theatre in New Brunswick. He loves travelling and has travelled extensively in South and Central America. Please visit his sight www.poetsandart.com to see more work from him.