Sunday, September 30, 2012

16 day check-in on the Grande Buenos Aires

I rode on the Grimaldi cargo ship The Grande Buenos Aires from August 13 to September 18, 2012. I embarked in Zarate, Argentina and disembarked in Antwerp, Belgium. The ship called on the ports of Santos, Brazil; Vitoria, Brazil; Dakar, Senegal; Tilbury/London, the U.K.; Emden, Germany; and Hamburg, Germany. This post was written on August 29, 2012.

Waiting outside the port of Vitoria, Brazil.

By now I have been on the ship for 16 days. When I checked my calendar earlier today, I was a bit surprised: indeed being on the ship feels like inhabiting a timeless space where the day of the week matters less than the schedule of ports of call, yet I feel like the past two weeks have stretched into countless frames of mind and periods of personal growth that temporally feel much longer than 16 days.

It wasn’t until we were about halfway between Brazil and Senegal that I truly adapted to ship life. Before that there would be false starts of feeling good, but good days were usually followed by bad days. Bad days in this sense usually meant not feeling physically 100%. Typically my stomach would be upset after a meal or I would lack appetite—food just didn’t taste great and most of the courses of my meals would be sent back to the kitchen, only a small portion having been consumed. Also there were mental and emotional adjustments to make: dealing with loneliness was one, and dealing with my sense of self—how I portrayed my personhood to those I met on the ship, especially when there were no other native English speakers aboard—was another. For the first few weeks I felt like I was a person without a history: I could be anyone, and even when being “myself,” I wondered who is this. Do I contain an unalienable kernel of personality, of being, of self?

One night I showed pictures of my life back home in San Francisco and some of my travels last summer to the passengers’ steward, A Ukrainian living in Italy for 3 years, who I had befriended and to whom I was teaching English slang. After I returned to my cabin, I continued scrolling through the photos on my iPad, going back several years. There I was at Ocean Beach with Colin, on Halloween 2010; there we were with our cat Indigo, playing with him on our bed; there were Kai and I, on a street corner downtown after attending a Switchback launch party; there was my dad and Tommy at my apartment for Thanksgiving 2010. I put down the iPad and a wholesome sense of relief washed over me. I had been denying all this history in my attempt to, in some sense, reinvent myself and avoid home sickness, but in reality I needed to embrace it all. Life is a continuum. I needed to be grounded, I needed to remember I am a person with a rich history—a life well lived despite the yearning for the present period of travel that constantly overlaid all the experiences captured in these pictures. This history informs the present moment in which I find myself sitting in cabin 1215 aboard the Grande Buenos Aires, a few hours away from the coast of Senegal.

We’ve now been at sea, without a glimpse of land, for about 6 whole days. The captain, a kind man without disregard for decorum, recognized how important our last port of call before crossing the Atlantic is to his crew. Therefore, although we were only in Vitoria, Brazil for less than 24 hours, around 9 pm he authorized us all to go ashore, telling everyone to be back by 11 a.m. the next morning at the latest. I ventured onto solid land with the steward. We grabbed a taxi, picked up 4 of the Italian crew at the Manila Discotee located right outside the port’s gate. They subjected the strange taxi driver to Italian, Spanish, and English directions in a fruitless quest to find a money changer at the late hour, all while poking and rough housing with each other the whole drive. We spanned the industrial side of the city, on which our ship was docked, across the bridge over to the old city, and then to the commercial district where a large mall holding many American chain restaurants was located, then back to the Manila Discotee, which I quickly realized was a prostitute bar. So, some stereotypes about sailor life are true.

Coming into port at Vitoria, Brazil, under a concrete bridge.
We spied a photography session of a wedding couple on the banks of the river.
Looking ahead into the port, up the river.
Looking back, the way we came.
Looking back, there's the bridge we came in under.
Tiny glow of sunset.
Panorama of the port of Vitoria, Brazil.
And the two sides of the city, at night. There is a taxi boat but we took a cab across a bridge.

Some of the crew taking a break ashore.
Some more crew letting off steam/chillin. The dang naked mermaid on the wall was my view for a long time.
That night was special despite a slight feeling of not belonging that I couldn’t shake. Many rounds of beer were ordered, deals were made with the establishment’s Madame, and many cigarettes smoked, the Italians pulling from each other’s packs one after another. The spirit was lively and became even livelier when the next round of crew got off their shift and rolled up, still donning their blue and silver reflective jumpsuits emblazoned with the Grimaldi logo. More rounds of beer, more packs of cigarettes flung open for all to partake, and the chief mate had even brought his walkie-talkie and flashlight, which he turned to strobe and shone in people’s faces to annoy them as his loud voice exclaimed in Italian inflection above the din of the celebration. There was an air of frenetic energy and liveliness punctuated by yelps and responses in high pitched Italian, and the famous Italian inflection wrung clearly throughout the whole neighborhood. The steward chaperoned me back to the ship around the time the party was really getting going, but that was fine with me. The crew had welcomed me as one of their own for a few hours despite the fact I could barely communicate with them; I had drank a few beers and my feet had traveled on solid ground. It had been a good night. 

We were invited up to the bridge to have a look around once we left Brazil. In the middle is the one and only female crew member. This picture of her, the other passenger, and me is a picture of all the women on the ship (out of about 35 total people).

I suppose this evening embodies the answer to the question I keep getting: why travel alone on a cargo ship all this way, for all this time—why not fly in an airplane or at least take a passenger ship? Traveling by any other method would not have opened up this slice of life to me: one night of freedom before 6 or 7 days surrounded by water for a group of men (and one woman) who make their life at sea. Usually: 4 months on, 2 months off the ship. As conversations with crew members have revealed over time, this is a type of work that is skilled, offers channels for promotion, yet also consumes the laborer whole. When they are in port, it’s work, work, work nonstop, which is especially exhausting to the older crew members. The majority of the Italian crew seems young, in their 20s or early 30s (I imagine them as children at their parents’ dinner table when forced to eat with the captain), and for them, there may not seem like much alternative at the moment. Put in the context of Italy’s current economic status (worse off than what we hear about the U.S.’s unsavory job market), they perhaps feel locked in, like this is as good as it gets at the moment.

Some—no, many—get out after a few years, judging from the overwhelmingly young crew. However, I had the pleasure of hearing the oldest crew member (besides the cook, who is retiring once this tour concludes in Antwerp) complain about his salary. He is Italian contracted, and receives gross monthly income of 3,500€ (net: 4,800€; apparently the Italian government eats up 1,300€ in taxes, which is a 27.1% tax rate). Considering the grueling nature of the work, he was not satisfied with this salary. By contrast, the Indian workers on the ship have a different contract, and are paid in US Dollars: $6,000/month. One Indian I spoke to is on a 8 month contract. Can you imagine spending July – March nonstop working on a cargo ship, but at the end you have a cool $48,000 waiting for you. Without a family to support, or assets like real estate to maintain, that’s pretty good money—take the cash and hit the road for a 4 month vacation, or rent a short term lodging in your hometown, enjoying a leisurely 4 months of hanging out with friends and bumming around, or perhaps working on a pet project or hobby. But, for the older crew members, or ones with a family, I can see how that money would get eaten up fast when a house, car, and children are taken into account.  

This is part of a series called Photoshoot with myself at sunset on the deck.
All this, to me, is a main impetus to travel: not for the theater of a resort-spotted white sand beach or expensive guided tours in ancient castles and museums, but for the glimpse into what surviving entails for people all around the globe. How do others make a life, make a living? If nothing else I feel less alone in my struggle: indeed I have a family to support while I travel, and likewise I have a family network to return to once my year being abroad is up, similar to the families I imagine the sailors returning to once their tours have finished. Maybe we are content in our work, maybe not; maybe we are searching for something more fulfilling or that feels like a better fit during all of this. No matter what, it’s all authentic human experience, a struggle of survival that spans all of history.  

8 days in and sailing life suits me well --

I rode on the Grimaldi cargo ship The Grande Buenos Aires from August 13 to September 18, 2012. I embarked in Zarate, Argentina and disembarked in Antwerp, Belgium. The ship called on the ports of Santos, Brazil; Vitoria, Brazil; Dakar, Senegal; Tilbury/London, the U.K.; Emden, Germany; and Hamburg, Germany. This post was written on August 21, 2012.

The view from the bridge of the ship, making our way down the tiny river from Zarate.

Passing under the bridge I routinely gazed at from Zarate's waterfront.

I've been enjoying the white wine that accompanies all meals on the ship, the ship is rocking its way up the coast of Brazil, and I've finally got my sea legs. Ship travel embodies a unique time/space coordinate in the human psyche. The majority of the past week can be likened to a drug-induced trip. Days, hours, and minutes no longer mark the majority of life's quantifying; instead, the ship's meal schedule, day-light, and night-time measure the distance to our next destination, all with a sprinkling of patient reserve. We slowly pull abreast of another vessel making its way north; the horizon of land in the distance gradually undulates as we pass new peaks and valleys of Brazil's coast. Occasionally a white edifice wedged within a cliff's plateau shines like a beacon of life existing outside of sea travel.

My first week on the ship passed in some sort of time warp I can only liken to the time warp of hallucinogens (I remember my date, Federico, in Buenos Aires describing his recent acid trip: So much time had passed yet the man was no closer to approaching me on the street). For a few days it was my self-appointed task of moving the marker on the calendar in the mess room, yet days compressed into each other and the week emerged as a composite of one whole day: wake up, eat at 2 or 3 designated times, nap, write in a notebook or on a computing device, behold the horizon outdoors of the cabins, flow with the rhythms of sea and wind; repeat.

At night, when the sky permitted clearness to observe, the stars of the southern hemisphere glowed something bright, Cancer's crab and the stretch of the Milky Way spreading the light of their energy into the swarthy water, which, in return, threw up tiny sparks of white surf, broken and frothing by the bow of my cargo ship. Land and sky engaged in a dance of light and darkness for my poetic enjoyment.

In the day, away from the overcast sky of Argentina, the Atlantic undulated into the texture and iridescence of onyx. I spoke it to myself while beholding the scene on the deck outside the cabin area: texture and iridescence of onyx. Onyx... onyx... onyx... my voice sounding bizarre and foreign in the wind and spray. Yet I recalled a poem I had written years before, about the onyx-thick coal ribbon perpetually aflame in Pennsylvania, a poem that no one in my first year MFA workshop could get a grip on. No onyx-thick coal ribbon to dive.

On the morning of my 8th day on the ship, I awoke in Brazil. I exited the indoors cabin area on the left side of the ship instead of my normal right side. The East-rising sun was shining and reflecting a bright white off the bay water marking space between the various hills rising out of the Santos port area. My bloodshot eyes strained to adjust to this new atmosphere yet a smile crept into my core: our first destination since Argentina. I am in Brazil, this is sea travel: a slow, timeless progress towards new lands.

Panorama of the Port of Santos, Brazil

Yours truly with the Port of Santos Brazil as a backdrop.
This was taken from the deck outside the passenger's messroom on the ship.

After breakfast I ventured onshore with my two fellow passengers, an older couple from Germany who were wrapping up their one-year adventure of traveling South American in their RV. I had said to them, upon making their acquaintance my first day on the ship: Your year is ending and mine is beginning. It occurs to me now that I can no longer say my year begins; I'm 5 weeks in. 46 weeks to go. But this entry isn't about tracking time; it's about time becoming irrelevant in the sense that industrialized countries employ it: their inhabitants' work weeks parceled by the progress of labor: tasks completed, busy-work assuaged, yearly self-evaluations written. Slowly I am sloughing off this stupid skin; never before has it occurred to me as so dangerously inorganic. As a passenger on a cargo ship at sea, I am able to listen to my own biorhythms and no one gives me much trouble if my biorhythms put me out of sync with the schedule of meal time and sleep time on the ship. The mess room staff have ceased calling my cabin when I miss lunch at 11. They might ask the Germans if I am sick or if I am OK, but once I emerge I am met with offerings of cappuccinos and fresh rolls with salami.

Exiting the ship for the first time since Argentina.

Gate 4, from where we got a taxi into the old city center.

So here we are in Santos. The Germans and I are waiting for a taxi to take us from Gate 4 of the Santos Port to the old city center. I drag on my cigarette, nicotine rustling a stomach filled only with Nescafe, and it hits me: I feel like I'm still on the boat; the solid ground undulates like the water. And it continues, in the taxi, in the Coffee Museum, in the city square, in the internet cafe, in the wine and snack shop, on the terrace outside our lunch-time cafe. My body’s equilibrium devices are out of sync; all of Santos rises and falls like the Atlantic. Sure I only got a few hours of shut eye the night before, excited about coming to land, which is adding to my general cracked-out state, but at this moment I am pretty sure the feeling of sea-rocking while on land is as good as the effects of any drug folks pedal on Haight Street. I oscillate between euphoria at the bizarreness of the experience and resigned irritation, waiting to get back on the ship and set sail, where the feeling will be warranted.

View from outside the Coffee Museum.

Lunch time with the Germans. 

Stained glass detail of the Santos Cathedral.
Christ figure with stigmata in the Cathedral. Pretty freaky!

The Germans and I wander Santos old town some more. The sidewalk tiles disintegrate into sand here, like Buenos Aires, yet the half derelict buildings have a charm I did not absorb in Buenos Aires (I do attribute this partially to the summery weather of Brazil, which contrasts with the very overcast winter of Argentina). And Brazil is a country of color: not just some neighborhood painted with blocks of random paint hues (i.e., Boca barrio in BA), but facades consistently sport invigorating colors that set off the tropical green flora exploding out of city squares, hill sides, and sidewalk planters. The buildings aren't the only color in Santos: the inhabitants' skin ranges from dark to light, an absence of which I found disturbing in Buenos Aires. The gene pool in Santos seems to produce a uniform amount of wide, full-bodied noses and thick, sturdy hips in woman and robust mid-sections in men. I have no doubt these people genuinely know how to enjoy their cuisine which is refreshing compared to the appearance-obsessed Argentine who simultaneously yearns for thinness while boasting of the steak and other cow parts routinely roasted in their county's famous parrillas.

Standing in front of a monument in Praça José Bonifácio, Santos, Brazil.

We return a few hours ahead of schedule to our ship; its towering silhouette in the port sparks a unique pride, excitement, and relief in my heart: I remark that it is good to leave the ship but even better to return to it. After observing the crew loading some Caterpillar construction equipment into the vast belly of the ship, we take the service elevator up to the 12th floor. No one is home, all the crew are busy unloading/loading and stocking up on supplies for our next spell of sailing. It's ok because I am comforted to be on the ship, what with my sea legs insisting we are still vying for equilibrium within the waves of the sea, even if the water in the harbor is still.

Loading the construction equipment onto the ship.

View from the deck of the Port and city of Santos.

Panorama of the bay side of the Port of Santos.

Panorama half port, half bay. Santos, Brazil.

3rd floor cargo deck, the floor of the hatch.

3rd floor cargo deck. 

Returning to the ship after sight seeing in Santos, Brazil.

Later that night, after a dinner or tortellini soup, salad, hot dogs, steak, and my post-dinner nightly cappuccino, I watch the crew finish loading the cargo of the stop; the road outside the ship progressively becomes more empty as the construction equipment and cargo containers are charged and stowed. Finally, around 11 p.m., the ramp of our ro/ro ship begins to close, and the large greased cables pull the yellow hatch towards the ship's rear top deck. A Santos tug boat assumes its position on the East side of the ship; port workers untether the ship's ropes from the docking ties and throw them into the bay, from where they are sucked back into the ship, dripping with water; we slowly inch away from the dock and the nose of the ship points out toward the river that will take us to the Atlantic. The air is thick with a foggy mist warmer and more aromatic than I've encountered in San Francisco; the smell on the left side of the ship alternates between the sweet yeastiness of a beer brewery and the fragrant assault of a dump of garbage.

The closing of the ro/ro hatch: the sure sign we were about to leave a port.

Ro/ro hatch almost closed and sealed.

Brazilian port workers waiting to untie us.

Tug boat in position.

Port workers taking a break in Santos, Brazil.

Same view of the bay, at night. Beyond the center hill, there must have been an oil refinery.
Besides the glow evident in this picture, I occasionally caught a glimpse of a flame burning atop a long pipeline.

As we pull out of port, we pass cargo ships from Germany, Singapore, and China, all receiving and emptying containers with Santos' movable cranes that twist and lift tons of goods to and from the ships. The sky-line glows orange from the sodium lights caught in the foggy mist. My body and the rails of the ship are coated in sea salt and humidity; my hands become so sticky I no longer want to carry my camera, yet I can't will myself from the top of the ship, from where I behold glowing Santos passing, passing, passing, and finally receding in the dark horizon. Soon, the familiar rolling of the ship going head to head with the whipped waves of open water, which lulls me into a sound slumber. 

Panorama of Santos, Brazil at night.

Sodium lights getting caught in misty haze and reflecting off the black water.

Trusty tug boat pacing us.

Bye, bye Santos. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Zárate -- a real Argentina?

Note: I was in Zárate from Aug 5 - 13, 2012
I can only imagine Zárate as an analog to the small towns of Californiasure we fetishize Los Angeles and San Francisco, the two main draws for tourist activity, but I would postulate the small towns in between (e.g. Fresno, Visaila, Bakersfield) are the real indicator of California status, for better or for worse. 

Kelci in front of the bridge in Zárate

Analogous is Buenos Aires to Zárate, which is even more pronounced since BA is the one metropolis of Argentina. Zárate itself has some 300,000 inhabitants, but the quaint city center seems much smaller. There is one main road (Justa de Lima), two plazas (Mitre Squareel principal plazaand Italy Square (Plaza Itailia), where the amphitheater and wading pool are located), and the waterfront of the Rio Parana de las Palmas with its bewitching bridge, Complejo Zárate - Brazo Largo, which became my favorite destination. Zárate's livelihood revolves around its factories. There is a Toyota factory, a Honda factory, a handful of beer breweries, a peanut factory, and many more, including Monsanto, those global agricultural terrorists. 

I was lucky enough to land in a hotel with owners that quickly became a surrogate family. Néstor and Julia, proprietors of ARX Hoteles, took me on a Zárate "city tour" on my 4th day in town, probably out of pity for my isolated cara blanca. As we drove around the town, the refrain quickly became "carro, carro, carro, carro." Some 30,000 newly manufactured cars populated lot after expansive lot, all waiting to be shipped out. This is where the port of Zárate comes inwithout doing any research, I would hazard a guess that the main (international) export of Zárate is automobiles, which, I observed, are carried by cargo vessel to receiving nations. 

Sunset from the hotel window

Industry aside, I found the people of Zárate to be nicer and more willing to engage in conversation, for better or for worse. The townspeople appeared to be majorly comprised of teenagers who rode around in/on their loud, tricked out cars and scooters, much to the dismay of my ears. Of course this is a phenomenon we see in the juxtaposition of cities to smaller towns all over the world: small cities urge their populations to forms of entertainment not necessary in bigger cities. Meanwhile, the bigger the city, the more stress its inhabitants deal with in their daily routines; Porteños are wrapped up in their own trials of accomplishing errands and working to support themselves within the context of a bustling capital. I know I was certainly a victim of the "city disease" back in San Francisco—I regulary stressed out about getting to work on time, the rising price of my monthly bus pass, the sound my neighbors made in the night, the overflowing trash bins of my apartment, my leaking washing machine, the refuse dumped on the corner of the Rabbi's burnt and abandoned house on the corner. In Zárate, I floated free: as far as I was concerned, there was no real world, despite the exclaimations of the locals outside my window at 5 or 6 a.m., once their night of dancing at the local clubs had come to an end. 

What I originally planned as a maximum five days in Zárate stretched into nearly two weeks. Grimaldi, the shipping company by whose vessel I was to travel to Europe, said embarkation would be delayed by 4 or 5 days, news I received once I had arrived in Zárate and Néstor called the port agent on my behalf. Later, Grimaldi's minions informed me I would have to venture to Montevideo in Uruguay to board my ship. The definite date became hazy as I waited for final confirmation and stressed about going back to Buenos Aires, taking the Buquebus to Montevideo, and dealing with another border crossing and need for overnight accommodations, all while absorbing and adapting to a new culture and city. At the last minute before my departure to Montevideo, the confirmation evolved once again: I received an email that indeed I could board from Zárate, as the ship's course had changed another time and the full load of passengers coming down from Europe could disembark in Montevideo before Zárate, making room for yours truly. This was great news except I was at a loss as how to pass another week in this small town. 

Panorama shot from the waterfront

I made due, and I found that I had nothing to be ashamed of in terms of my lack of mastery over the Spanish language and the Rioplatanese dialect. The waitstaff in the cafes and restaurants I frequented quickly interpreted I was not a local and made due with bringing me what I ordered—a pure economical exchange without embarrassment or judgment. Also I grew more bold in reading body language and inflection in the absence of language comprehension. Still, however, I felt the swell of anxiety as I set my mind on venturing out of the hotel for dinner, yet it always turned out fine; I again was eating healthily, a sufficient amount of calories per day to keep the flesh on my bones and my mind clear. 

Twice I went to the Esquina Parrilla in Zárate, the second time with the whole gang. If you haven't heard, Argentines are really into their grills. This prix-fix style menu lists all the weird little goodies from the cow that we chowed down on. I do believe there was also a running joke about eating horses.

Slowly but surely the comforts of having a room and ensuite bathroom to myself, and a family of Argentines who took me in as their own, turned into an authentic experience of how life is conducted in Zárate. Time after time folks would ask, Why are you here in Zárate alone?, flabbergasted that a young attractive woman such as myself would find her way to this obscure corner of the world. Time and time again I attempted to explain in Spanish, with my horrible accent:  Yo voy a ir en un barco. Yo voy a ir a Brasil, Senegal, Alemania, Iglesia, y Bélgica. Always the respone: Sola? And me: Sí

On the topic of my interrogations, I must mention that a woman with mostly-blonde short hair, often mistaken for a youthful 20 or 21 years of age, alone in a cafe or restaurant in Zárate caught much attention from Argentine males: I had many a dinner or breakfast interrupted by a curious man. Once this attention resulted in a hand-drawn orchid on an index card presented by an interested male on his way out of the Plaza Cafe; the back of the card revealed a full name and phone number (quite a novel souvenir). I was most amused by the waitstaff of the Nuevo George cafe, who were convinced I was German, not American. Typically, the interested male party just wanted to talk (usually nearly impossible due to his lack of English and my horrible Spanish), and would wind up the conversation with an invitation to take a ride in his car, to go to a party with him and his friends, to go to a club around the corner to dance. I repeatedly refused, my refusals tempered by a nervous giggle and diplomatic gracias, pero no. I wondered to myself: am I missing out on some authentic experience by declining? Is this what marks me as an American: my antisocial and reticent tendencies? But then it would always come back to a practical matter of conversation: I am already totally exhausted from trying to communicate in this cafe; why would I subject myself to more mental trauma by accompanying him to another venue? Safety was rarely a concern, as truly the generosity and compassion of this culture surpassed the jaded warnings of the United States; in Zárate, people just wanted to entertain and insure a lone American brought back good tidings upon return to her home state. 

I went to an event at the Zárate Cultural Center that featured a photography exhibition, a live performance by a tango band, and a performance by a tango dance troupe. This photo is of the exhibition space in the center. I almost sneaked out of Argentina without any tango experiencesso glad I got a smaller, more quaint preview of the cultural staple in Zárate.

So I passed my days in Zárate, with these unusual interactions and a good dose of internet and television in my hotel room. I became a local fixture at ARX CEO'S Hoteles. A few days before my alleged departure, I was awoken by a knock on my door around 12:30 in the afternoonJulia had come to tell me there were two guys playing pool in the hotel that spoke English, and that I should meet them. I got dressed and came out of my room; awaiting me in the game area of the hotel were Marc and Marco, two guys a bit younger than myself who had come from the tiny country of Luxembourg, which is nestled in the armpit of Belgium, France, and Germany. 

A surprise to myself: I began speaking in English with a forgotten gusto, finally able to relay my tales of being in Argentina alone for over three weeks. Perhaps they did not understand some of my language, yet they laughed at my humor and we exchanged questions and answers. Later, Julia came to say those chicos should relocate from the other hotel in the chain, Tango, to ARX CEO's, so that I would have English-speaking company. Later that night, Néstor not only brought Marc and Marco over, but also Lukas, a traveling Dutch salesman from the North part of the Netherlands, who also spoke English. Finally, after so many days of deranged English thoughts and poorly annunciated Spanish, I had a group with which to externalize my thoughts and opinions. 

My English speaking posse: Marc and Marco from Luxembourg , yours truly, and Lukas from the Netherlands.

That night, a Saturday, we spent drinking coffee (me and the Dutchman) and beer (the Luxemborgians), and talking with Nestor and Julia in the common areas of the Hotel about politics, the state of Argentina, and the local characteristics of Zárate, all of which involved much slow pronunciation, gesturing, and diagram drawing. Somehow my horrible Spanish transformed into a tool with which to translate to Lukas, Marc, and Marco; I swelled with pride: perhaps I had learned something of Rioplatanese Spanish and the mannerisms of Argentines, even though in my solitary shyness I had stowed it into dark interiors. I went through the ropes with the newcomers: the way the town works, how much to tip in a cafe, the way business was conducted in the hotel. Once we took a walk to the waterfront, I imparted all my knowledge of the local sites upon them. I, a lone American woman, had paved the way for three male Europeans, and in the process made friends to visit upon my arrival to Europe. Marc mused that indeed I was like a child to Néstor; he was happy and full of good cheer as he brought the English speakers to my branch of the hotel and as my voice truly sounded without reservation for the first time in a week and a half. If I was happy, Néstor was happy. The evidence of this also was apparent in our eating habits: Nestor routinely invited me to dine with him and his family. Indeed, I rest assured knowing I have extended family in Zárate, and would not hesitate to return when the opportunity presents itself. 

My Argentine PEEPS: Nestor and Julia from the hotel. I talked about them a lot while I was on the ship.

Interestingly, I discovered Marc and Marco were waiting for their car to arrive on the Grande Buenos Aires from Antwerp, upon which event they would embark on a tour of the Pan-American Highway. So: their car arrived and was unloaded as I boarded and set sail from the destination from which their car came. Small world, yet totally expected in Zárate, with its small port being the only international attraction in town. The three of us tracked the progress of the vessel religiously, using the website Together we despaired when the vessel seemed to be heading back to Brazil from Montevideo (well, they made jokes while I basked in confusion), and together we rejoiced as, hours later, the marker on the web site's map drifted up the river and beneath the bridge on the morning of my estimated departure. 

Getting on the ship itself was, as expected, a fiasco, one that I mostly attribute to the Argentine culture, with a dose of Grimaldi and the nature of cargo travel thrown in for good measure. Nestor drove Marc, Marco, and me to the port on Monday, August 13th (my half birthdaysix months till 30). As we approached the entrance, the Grande Buenos Aires loomed on the shore, as large and white as the grandest landlocked industrial complex. My heart swelled with anticipation while my stomach swelled with anxiety. Excitement circulated all around. Upon arrival Marc and Marco were able to take care of their paperwork business although their car was not unloaded yet. However, my fate was still unsure: the worker at the port window informed Néstor that I would need to return tomorrow. We all rolled our eyes. Néstor engaged in true Argentine nature, especially accented as he is a lawyer: showing emails and messages on his smartphone stating otherwise and calling upon feisty Spanish rhetoric to argue my case. Finally, after much back-and-forth and some phone calls, the window worker received word I could return at 3 pm to board the ship. 

Eureka! My first siting of the Grande Buenos Aires.

So, we all returned to the hotel and I spent a few last hours with Marc and Marco playing table tennis and talking. 3 o'clock finally drew near and Nestor and I got in his car, picked up his son and his son's girlfriend, took his son to the bus terminal, and then his son's girlfriend, Maria, accompanied us to the port. Again, a round of Spanish rhetoric and back and forth: this time they maintained I had to go to the sister city of Compana to complete my customs paperwork although there was no previous notification of this. Néstor and Maria, also a lawyer, argued my case; finally I was admitted entrance into the port to board my ship. I hugged and kissed Néstor and Maria goodbye and headed in the direction of the gates of the port entrance, toward a car waiting to shepherd me to the ship. I fought back tears: again, I was leaving a family that I regarded as my own, whose kindness and generosity is enough to lambast the most jaded and cynical American. The sadness mixed with self pride: I am a blessed person to encounter such good in people all over the globe, even if I am compelled to depart again and again. And with these thoughts I approached my looming cargo vessel, which would be my home for the next month.