Maté (chapter 1)

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“Cual es tus apellido?”  questioned the airport employee

My eyes widened and the expression on my face gave away that I was clueless to what the question was.

“Cual es tus apellido? What is your last name?”  she stated again, this time a little more slowly and making sure to speak English.

I gave her my last name and she directed me to where my suitcases were waiting. I gathered them up and went on my way.  Judging from my level of Spanish comprehension, it was obvious that the Argentine air had not quite worked into my brains or blood as the sounds of Spanish were still quite new to my ears.  But regardless, this has better be something I get used to very quickly seeing as this is the only language I’ll be hearing for the next 6 months of my life.

Within a matter of minutes, I had found the car and driver that had been arranged to take me from Ezeiza airport to the student’s residence located in the heart of bustling downtown Buenos Aires.  But just as I was out the door and on my way, it would be then that I would witnessed the first ever famed Argentine “kiss” between two men.

Just a brief commentary on the beso (kiss) is that it is not an actual kiss but rather a “cheek to cheek” embrace that is a form of salutations here in Argentina. Two men engaging in a cheek to cheek kiss was no commentary on their sexual preferences. But rather it was the everyday custom that formed a daily part of Argentine life. Before my 6 months would be up, I will have found myself subjected to the famed Argentine kiss on a daily basis from both friends & strangers alike.

But in that moment, having just landed and fresh from North America, seeing two men in a cheek to cheek in embrace without it being a commentary on their sexuality was definitely a new sight. Little did I know that it would be the first of many new sights that awaited me as a took my first steps towards venturing deep into the heart of the Argentine culture.

Many of those new sights are ones I saw whizzing by me in the car as the driver transported me into the city centre. Funny how in many Latin American countries like Mexico, it is so easy for them to hide their poverty as tourist are herded into shuttles that take them straight to their hotels the moment that they land. They never need to see any thing that they don’t want to. Their only impression of Mexico will be a secluded beach with English speaking employees.

However, Argentina was different. The country’s economic  troubles become obvious the moment that one lands in Ezeiza international airport. The only way to not see poverty is to become visually challenged in some way, shape, or form.  There is no shuttle bus that will take you straight to some beach resort full of English speaking staff that are ready to greet you and offer you all the comforts of home with a dash of culture thrown into the mix. No, Argentine culture is like a pill that you must either swallow whole or not take it at all.  But rest assured that if you do choose dive in headfirst and swallow the culture whole- heartedly, the friendly open spirit of the people in the country will make every experience good or bad more digestible, feasible, and palatable.

As I gazed out the window of the car watching buildings go past,  reality struck me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.   From the 6 lane highway where vehicles scrambled for space, to the broken buildings,and raw vegetation sprawled intermittently and sporatically, it all began to sink in that I was on another continent.

But it wouldn’t be too long before the scenery began to change and as the car and driver raced along the widest Avenue in the world, Avenida de Julio, the distinct European flair and hints of colonial architecture of the buildings told me that we had reached our destination and were now in the city coined as “The Paris of South America”, Buenos Aires.  

 Buenos Aires, the name itself conjures images, of tango, meat,and dulce de leche. It was the city that was hot on the list of every tourist brochure and website.  Buenos Aires is the birthplace of the ever so popular Argentine tango.  I couldn’t have imagined that in taking my first tango lesson just more than a year ago that I would wind up here in this magnificent city.  Argentine rock band Soda Stereo had sang about Buenos Aires being "La Ciudad de Furia" (the city of fury) and hiding beneath it's wings. The lyrics of the song seemed undeniably appropriate for that time in my life.

It has been said that Buenos Aires means many things to many people. I would soon come face to face with the incredible diversity of the city. It’s night life, tango halls, parks, greenery, museums etc. There is something for everyone no matter what background or walk of life you come from.   And that when you land here you may seem overwhelmed at all the things there are to do but if you open your heart, the city will come to you and you’ll find your niche eventually.

“What will Buenos Aires mean to me?” I wondered to myself.

For me, coming here was more than just a 6 month excursion….it was my last hope. In Canada, I had left behind a pile of broken hopes and dreams.  And now this was my last chance. I had taken the last of my savings and spent it all just to get here. Coming to Buenos Aires was the very last card I had left to play. If things didn’t work out here, then it would be as if in life I had found myself staring at a sign that says “dead end”.

Maté is a type of tea that is one of the most popular beverages in Argentina and is basically the national drink (other than Fernet Branca), maté leaves are poured to a gourd and hot water is added. A metal bombilla served as the straw and it shoved inside the gourd and it is used to sip the maté. When all the water has been absorbed by the leaves, more water is poured and more sips are taken. This happens over and over again until the flavor has been absorbed from all the leaves inside the gourd.

This is also the expression of friendship in Argentina. People can been seen out on the street with a gourd a thermos of water having a maté and sharing one gourd among a group of friends. When you visit someone's home, offering you a maté and sharing it with you back in forth is the Argentine way of welcoming you and showing hospitality.

In that moment in my life, I desperately needed someone to extend hospitality and friendship to me the way Argentines do by offering a maté. But I held hope in my heart that the biggest gamble in my heart may lead to the biggest win. All the words spoken to me from others about their feelings about this trip was that I was meant to be here and this city is my destiny. Beyond that all I saw was a blank canvas  of my life that was just waiting to be painted by experiences, sights and sounds in the city. In that moment, as far as I was concerned all I had planned was to get a few tango lessons under my belt at Confiteria Ideal,  a visit with Evita at the cemetario de Recoleta, and sampling tasty steaks at local parillas. Of course  this would be alongside teaching English and popping into a local church that I planned to try.

I had found myself lost in thought dreaming of all that I was wanting to do when suddenly the car stopped and the driver got out and opened the door for me and shoved my bags onto the sidewalk. I had reached the residence.

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