Monday, June 23, 2008

Life After Salsa

Hanging with my Salsa friendsAfter Salsa class last night at Club Mambo, several of us went to a nearby restaurant to hang out, have a beer—or in the case of most of us, a Coke—and get a little grub. On the right in back is Henry, the Salsa instructor (one of several I have), and in between him and me is his dance partner, Soledad. On the left is Adrian, one of the first people I met at La Salsera, the other dance studio. Next to him is Carlito, or "little Carlos." I don't know if you can tell from the photo, but he's not that little. He's about my height (that would be 5' 7") but is flippin' buff. He lifts weights. He relayed a story of two crooks who held him up. One of them stuck a gun to his head. He proceeded to knock the guys arm away—it's all about the muzzle—and pummel him in the face. His accomplice ran. I shook his hand and congratulated him. The world would be a better place if more people kicked the asses of crooks. Behind Carlito is Santiago.

Soledad, being surrounded by guys, posed a question: what is the quality in a woman that you most want? The answers were (in no particular order): has to be beautiful (of course), honest, sincere, and have a positive attitude. Doesn't matter where you are; relationships and desirable qualities don't change.

For some reason, stimulated by the topic at hand, perhaps, I mentioned loathing when a dance partner tells me how to dance the pattern or the move, or tries to lead. In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, the way dancing works—at least the kind I'm doing—is that the guy (the lead) decides what moves to dance. He directs the woman (the follower), and she responds by moving in the way he communicates. So, when the woman tells the guy he's doing something wrong or when she, herself, tries to lead, something is out of whack. The others agreed, and added that this kind of behavior is probably an indication of the way that woman is in all areas of her life. Soledad added that when you come across that kind of woman, you should run. We all chuckled in agreement.

These kinds of times will be the jewels I remember most fondly about my trip. Just hanging out with the locals, talking about normal stuff. I'm almost beginning to feel like a Porteño.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Living and Getting Around in Buenos Aires

The view out my window With five subway lines snaking out from el centro in every direction, over 150 bus lines, and 40,000 taxis, there is no excuse for not being able to get around Buenos Aires. The city is gigantic—if you take the biggest, widest street in Seattle for comparison, there are probably dozens of streets in Buenos Aires that are way bigger—but there is no reason you can't move around very easily.

For 30¢, you can take the subway from any station on a line to any station on any other line. You can do this all day long, if you want—all for only 30¢. Of course, you're probably going to want to go above ground eventually, so it'll cost you another 30¢ to get home. To make this easier, you just buy a 10-trip pass when you enter any subway station. You feed this into the turnstile, the reader scans the magnetic strip, subtracts one of the trips off the ticket, and then you walk through the turnstile to the platform. All the lines (with the exception of one) intersect in the downtown area, so if you need to take multiple lines to get from one point to another, you'll typically just take your line to a "combination" station, walk through a passage-way to the other line, wait for the subway, and get on it, taking it to your final stop.

Subte Line A Line A, the oldest in the city, open since 1913, has neat old cars made of wood. The doors don't even open automatically. When the subway stops, make sure to grab hold of a door and pull hard. If you just stand there waiting for the doors to open—as happens on all the other lines—within a few seconds, the train will pull away, leaving you standing there asking yourself what in freaking heck just happened. Don't ask me how I know this.

On almost any main street, you can flag a taxi driver down pretty quickly. Just look for the illuminated "Libre" sign in the front passenger window. This means the taxi is free, or available. I have had nothing but good experiences with taxis in Buenos Aires. From admonishment to be careful with my things in certain neighborhoods to history lessons and sightseeing tours en route to Spanish practice, I've always had pleasant rides and been charged very reasonable rates in my voyages via taxi in Buenos Aires.

The apartment across from mine—notice the lady cleaning her windowsNow, I'm living in an apartment in Palermo and to get where I go nowadays—mostly Salsa classes and dancing—I have to take the bus, or colectivo. Of course I could take taxis, but I would end up paying much, much more than necessary. A necessity, when being a bus traveler is a bus schedule, and one of the places you can obtain a bus schedule is on the subway. Besides comedy duos, singers and musicians, beggars, people selling stickers, cards, pens, clothing, and other random items, you can spend 5 pesos while riding the subway—if your timing is lucky—to purchase a bus schedule. The Buenos Aires bus schedule is a booklet of almost 200 pages!

To take the appropriate bus, study the bus schedule, figure out what bus you need to take to get where you need to go, show up at the stop, flag the bus down when you see it coming—if you or someone else doesn't wave, he'll go right on by—hop on and drop one peso in the gizmo. It will spit out a ticket. For shorter routes, you can tell the driver "noventa" and he'll punch a button specifying to the machine to spit out a ticket for only 90¢ (centavos). I'm not sure how to determine whether your route costs 90¢ or one peso other than to ask the driver. Once you're familiar with your route, it's easy. I think one peso is the default amount, so if you just get on the bus and drop a peso in the machine, you should be good to go.

My little kingdom It's tough to keep track of where you are, but you can tell the bus driver where you need to go and ask him to tell you when to get off.

If you need help on the fly, when any bus stops, you can ask the driver what bus you need to take to get somewhere. I've also asked people on the street the same question. Everyone is quite helpful.

Last night when I was coming home from Salsa class, a bus pulled up to our right-hand side at a stoplight. Our driver opened the door, the other driver opened his window, and the two had a little conversation. At the next light, our driver opened his window and another bus pulled up to our left and opened his door. They talked until the light turned green (which is always preceded by a yellow). At the next light, they continued the conversation. At the third light, they wrapped up their chat. The bus to our left had driven three blocks with his door open.

Yours truly, earning money As far as my apartment, it's nothing special. It's in a nine-story-tall apartment building. There are approximately 17,000 such buildings in BA (not actually sure how many, but lots—there may actually be 17,000!). Apartments in BA are a bit different than in the States. You use a key to get in the front door and another key to your own apartment, as opposed to apartments back home where each apartment unit is exposed to the outside. This style is a bit more secure. To get in the elevator, you pull open the outer door, pull open the inner door (a telescoping sort of gizmo), get in, close the outer door, close the inner door, then press your button. Definitely not a modern elevator design, but it seems to work okay. Most buildings have this old design. I'm in a nice neighborhood and am paying $550 per month—a bit more than I wanted to, but not bad. You'd pay way more in Seattle for the same thing. The money I earn will way more than make up for the extra cost of the apartment compared with a hostel—speaking of which, I was paying an extraordinarily low rate of 35 pesos per night for a private room, with breakfast included in Hostel Estoril, before moving here. That's about $12 per night. So, you can live in Buenos Aires for less than $20 a day, if you work at it. Pretty amazing. Being so cheap, I thought I was in Israel. I was surrounded by Israelis for a couple weeks, but that's a subject for another post.

That's all for now, good folks.

The Way Salsa is Going

  • I go to class and struggle to learn a new pattern for one hour.
  • By the end of class, I've pretty much got it—but just barely.
  • Within 5 minutes, I've forgotten it.
  • So, I whip out my Panasonic PHD (Push Here, Dummy) camera and shoot a video of the teacher and a partner dancing the pattern. If I don't do this, I will forget everything.
  • I go home and work on it all week—or for weeks. The problem is, working on a pattern alone is not much better than worthless. You really have to do it with a partner.
  • Go to the dance on Friday or Saturday.
  • Try the pattern I've been working on by myself but with a partner in the middle of the dance floor. In fact, try it multiple times.
  • Screw it up every time.
  • Go home in frustration after dancing one time.

My problem is that I'm virtually intolerant of not doing something perfectly the first time. If I fail after a few attempts, I become intensely frustrated. I am not keen on practicing these moves in the middle of the dance floor. A much more ideal environment would be somewhere else during the week where there is little pressure and everyone is working through moves and testing newly learned skills. There aren't many places like that. I've invited some folks over to my apartment for practice, but have no takers so far. They probably think I'm a psycho and don't want to go to a stranger's house. Afraid I'll chop them up or something.

So, I guess I'll just have to practice alone for the time being and look stupid at the club. Not my idea of a good time, but I think it's the only way.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Dangerous Day in BA

Today, I had one task to accomplish. I needed to go to Banco Piano and get some cash. Not all banks in Latin America will give cash advances against credit cards. In fact, I had a challenging time in Patagonia—at least after leaving Chile. I couldn't get cash in Ushuaia or in El Calafate. It's a good thing I had brought plenty of Chilean pesos with me after leaving Chile. I was able to change those for Argentine pesos. I also had some US dollars that I changed after I ran out of Chilean pesos to change. In Buenos Aires, however, Banco Piano is the answer. Hand them your credit card and passport, tell them what you want—in either pesos or dollars—sign on the dotted line, and you're set.

(Of course, the ideal solution, typically, is to have a PIN for your credit or debit card. Then you can just get money from an ATM. The reason I haven't been doing it that way is because my debit card got stolen by some bastard a few months back, and I don't have a PIN for my replacement credit card. Hopefully, I'll be getting a special package in the mail next week and it will include a debit card with a PIN.)

After waiting in line for my turn at the teller window, I did the above, and was then notified that my bank had declined the request. So, I proceeded out of the bank and tracked down a Locutorio—a place where you can make phone calls and use computers for Internet access. These are all over the place down here. I called my bank and found out that there is a limit of $1,000 per day. Now you may be asking yourself why I would need more than $1,000, or even anywhere near $1,000, in one shot. The reason is that the apartment I will be renting costs $550 per month and a one-month security deposit is required, for a grand total of $1,100. Did I forget to mention I'm going to be living in an apartment in Buenos Aires for at least one month?

A friend of mine in Portland, Oregon is also a software developer, needs some help with a current project, and I want to earn some extra money, so I'm going to be doing some work for him over the next few weeks. I really need a decent environment in which to work, ergo my own pad.

[Note: As I write this, I'm listening to Ricardo Arjona's album Quién Dijo Ayer, the disc I listened to countless times while freezing half to death all night long in the cab of the semi down in Patagonia. It brings back fond memories.]

There was a slight mist this morning as I went to the bank. In Washington, where I'm from, it mists all winter long. Most folks don't use an umbrella. As lightly as it usually rains, you barely get wet. Just throw on your jacket and go. Here in BA, apparently things are different. Many people were using umbrellas despite the very moderate amount of precipitation which was falling. I just threw on my shell—nothing more than a windbreaker with a hood—over the top of my fleece and went. No problem—except for almost getting my eye poked out numerous times by passing umbrellas. A few conscientious passersby would lift their weapons over the heads of traffic moving in the other direction, but not everyone was as astute. Thankfully, I made it through the day with both my LASIKized eyes in tact. Since my LASIK surgery a year-and-a-half ago, I'm a little more paranoid about my eyes. I'm more careful with them and more protective of them. Now I can wear cool sunglasses, too—major bonus.

I looked at an apartment yesterday which was quite decent. Tomorrow, I will check out another one. I like its location better. It's closer to the subte, to downtown, and to other things that I'll be doing on a regular basis. Both apartments are studios—pretty small, but plenty for my needs. The important things are a quiet work environment and good Internet access.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Brief Salsa Update

Went to La Salsera tonight for another class. This was my first time with this instructor—Juan Manuel. He was excellent. He paid close attention to time and was right on the money. I was quite happy about that.

Afterwards, he and a few other students—Hector, Natalia, and Melisa—were heading out for pizza and he invited me. It was a good time just hanging with some really nice locals. Although I've been robbed twice and had a third attempt, this kind of experience is beginning to add up. That is, I'm meeting and hanging out with more and more people who are genuinely kind, generous, and fun, and I continue to make good, new friends.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Rueda de Casino & Rhythm (or the lack thereof)

I have now been to three different venues which teach Salsa.

#1: Cuba Mia—not recommended (address: Salta 508). Granted, this is based on only one class, but that's my verdict. I've had over a half-dozen Salsa teachers that taught Salsa based on an 8-beat pattern. This makes sense because it takes 8 beats to complete the basic salsa pattern. The teacher at Cuba Mia told me to forget that and that I should dance based on a 4-beat pattern. I had a bad taste in my mouth from that point forward. Moreover, the entire group of people in our class (there were multiple classes at the same time) were dancing differently and so I couldn't really watch them to see what they were doing—which was necessary since I didn't know the names of the patterns in Spanish and so merely listening to the teacher was inadequate. There's more. The teacher was demonstrating moves at full speed and he would do them only a couple times and then expect us to be able to do them. Next criticism: the teacher was making a noise to emphasize the beat and he did it on three—bizarre. Moreover, his beat didn't correspond to the loud music that the other class was using. VERY confusing. Also, the floor was concrete and was somewhat rough and uneven. Not ideal. It was the single worst Salsa class I've ever taken. I don't plan on going back.

#2: Club Mambo—recommended (address: Terrada 50). The class was small and the teacher was good. Despite my compliment of the instructor, there was at least one song where he had us dancing 1 bar off. This is a pretty common thing to see, but I cannot help but be baffled when experienced dancers—and especially instructors—are off by a bar. I simply can't understand how someone can be a good dancer and not be able to hear when a musical phrase begins. Regardless, it was a great class and I plan on going back. The class was at 7:30 P.M. on Sunday evening. Another class was offered at 1:00 P.M. on Tuesday, but I was in Spanish class, so I didn't go. I may go to that class, too, next week. I will definitely go back to the one on Sunday.

#3: La Salsera—recommended (address: Yatay 961). This was the first club I went to here in BA—that was last Saturday. The class was large and well run. Although it was a challenge, as the teacher spoke quickly, it was a beginning class, so I got through it with no problem. As I've already mentioned regarding other classes, there were a time or two when the whole class was off by a bar. Don't know if this was the prof's fault, or just random.

After this class was the intermediate class. I just watched, but I'll probably go to that one next time instead of the beginning one. It looked great and they learned a really nice pattern.

Then there was the general dance later in the evening. Don't know about going to other places just to dance, but La Salsera seemed great for this. The songs were excellent and there were lots of people there.

Last night I went back to La Salsera for the beginning class in Rueda de Casino—finally, I'm to the topic to which the title of this post refers, other than the rhythm issue. Rueda de Casino is a group Salsa dance where everyone stands in a circle and is arranged guy/girl/guy/girl/etc. The leader calls out moves and everyone does them simultaneously. Moves also include changing partners in varyingly complex ways, such as just moving from the person on your left to the one on your right, or performing some kind of turn and then moving two or three partners around the circle while clapping a specified number of times in the proper rhythm while moving. I saw this kind of Salsa dance for the first time in Rio de Janeiro and thought it was very cool. Now I'm learning it. The teacher was great. Again, however, I had trouble with the time. The other (intermediate) Rueda de Casino class was dancing to a song and we didn't seem to be consistently dancing at the same pace as the song. Maybe it's a fault of mine that I have an absolute need to hear the beat and begin the pattern at the precisely the right moment and know what the correlation is between the pattern and the music, but that's the way I am. At least when I'm on the dance floor with just one other person, I can kick things off exactly when I want to. I just need to learn some more patterns and practice them!

Also at La Salsera, there was an intermediate Salsa class before the Rueda de Casino class. They learned a really cool pattern. I'm planning on going to that class next week, and then the Rueda de Casino class. I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but there were severe problems in this class with starting the pattern one bar off. Despite this, the pattern was really nice.

After the Rueda de Casino class, I went over to the apartment of a friend of Patricio's (remember, Patricio is my Spanish teacher). A couple other guys were already there and I joined them in watching the last half of the La Boca v. Brazil futbol game. Since La Boca lost, I learned approximately one-hundred-thirty-seven ways to cuss and complain after your futbol team loses. I also had a couple portions of an excellent dish called Locro. It had beans, sausage, and other stuff. Remember, I'm not into food too much, so "other stuff" is pretty technical food speak for me. I also added a little bit of the liquid from a jar of all sorts of spices and peppers. A tiny spoonful added some nice kick. It was a very tasty dish.

I'll be going back over there tonight for an asado, or BBQ, on the rooftop.

On a separate note, I fell down the stairs at the hostel the other day. Actually, that sounds more dramatic than it actually was. The stairs are marble, thus slick. My foot slipped, and I fell. My butt and right elbow took the brunt of the fall. My butt was sore a few days after, and my elbow was in intense pain from the moment of impact. About three days later, it still hurts when I touch it, but not as intensely as before. Could've been worse.

Finally, an update on current events in Argentina. Just the usual, really. The farmers are protesting the hyper-high export taxes—41%!!! This tax rate was announced during harvest time. They protest by blocking the roads. Then the truckers protest the blocked roads. They do this by blocking more roads. And, there's a school in BA without gas, so there's no heat, so the students are cold. So, all the students are protesting in the streets. Drums, signs, chanting...again, just the usual.

That's all for now. Hasta luego.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Magic of Beer

I've discussed some of the successes and failures of my trip in prior blog posts, and one of the failures has been improving my Salsa dancing skills. I was in Buenos Aires an entire month and didn't go dancing once. Now that is pathetic.

I'm in BA again for a minimum of a couple weeks this time around and I decided I should work on the dance legs, as they have atrophied terribly. I asked my Spanish tutor about Salsa clubs and he gave me three names. I ended up going to La Salsera last night.

I looked them up on the Internet, wrote down the address, looked at my map, and decided on subte line A, which I caught less than a block from here. I got off at Rio de Janeiro station. Then I backtracked one block to a street called Yatay, hung a left and walked to Yatay 961.

While I walked, a connection between addresses and centuries occurred to me. Have you ever thought about how the 19th century is actually the 20th? That's because the first one started with numbers under 100. In the same way, I would have to walk not 9 blocks, but 10, to get to Yatay 961. That's because the first block began with a building labeled 12, not one-hundred-something. Pondering this subject kept me entertained for the lengthy ten-block walk. This paragraph is what is commonly referred to as digression. Back to the dancing, this post's raison d'être.

I left plenty of time for the trip, as I was going for the first time, didn't know exactly how long the trip would take, and didn't want to show up late for a class about which I was already nervous. When I arrived at the club, there was a guy standing in the street puffing on a cigarette. I asked him if there were Salsa classes here—again, just trying to quash my fears. He said there were.

I stepped into the lobby and had a sort of chat with the guy at the desk, partly filled out the form he gave me, and paid him ten pesos. I ended up taking the form home with me since I hadn't brought my passport and didn't remember the number. They need that number to punch my info into their computer to register each student.

I proceeded upstairs and put on my dance shoes—owning and wearing dance shoes doesn't make one a good dancer, in case you were wondering. I bought them just before I left home, simply because my knees are problematic and dancing in my tennis shoes would almost certainly bring my trip to a tragic end. Or maybe I would simply hang out in the local hospital for a few weeks. I don't really want to experiment with the durability of my knees.

The fellow who had been hanging out by the front door showed up a minute later. He proceeded out onto the balcony. I followed him and struck up a conversation. Martin has been dancing for fifteen years and helps out with the classes. After a few minutes, we headed back in, as other students had arrived and so had the teacher. Music began to play.

The teacher corralled us over onto the dance floor. It was 10:30 P.M. There were too many students to fit onto the hardwood, so we extended out onto the tiles covering the rest of the room.

The teacher talked so fast I could hardly understand a word that came out of his mouth—one of the reasons I figured I'd better start with the beginning class. He had us do some warm up steps that I was amazed he had absolute beginners doing. Not everyone was a beginner, but some were. Since I had no idea what the instructions were, I strained through the sea of legs and bodies to see what the instructor was doing. I figured if I could see it, I could mimic it.

After the warm up, we proceeded to do the basic, adding a couple cross-body leads—no idea what they're called in Spanish—and a couple variations on the ladies' outside turn. I knew all of this, so I survived the class and got a little practice in.

I ended up sitting through the intermediate class. I also shot a little video of the pattern with my point-and-shoot camera so I could work on it later on my own. I have to admit that it didn't occur to me at first to shoot a video of the class, but that I got the idea from another guy who arrived late and began to shoot some video on his own P&S. It became apparent over the course of the evening that Adrian loves taking pictures and video.

Adrian has been taking dance lessons for a year-and-a-half, is a Catholic of little faith who doesn't go to church, but does believe in God. He works at a grocery store, but is studying computer repair. He lives with his mom in the barrio of Mataderos. His dad lives elsewhere. He shot pictures and video throughout the evening, including one of me that I will cherish forever.

After the intermediate class, everyone filtered downstairs where the general dance session was beginning. It was 1 A.M. This is normal in The City That Never Sleeps.

For my entire life, I've pretended I didn't care what people think of me. Well, it wasn't really pretending. That's what I actually believed. I have come to the realization that I really do care—too much, I'm sure. Maybe acting like I didn't care was simply a convenient excuse for being a jerk.

In any event, caring what people think of me rears its ugly head more than ever when I'm sitting at a table at the edge of the dance floor. For some reason, I am terrified to ask a girl to dance with me. Maybe it's just because I currently suck, or maybe it's something else. At the moment, I know approximately three Salsa moves. Over the course of a five-minute song, that's pretty boring. Also, when trying out a move I'm working on, there's always the risk of screwing it up. Are these the root causes of my fear of asking a lady to dance? When my psychologist and I are done with the full analysis, I will let you know.

The end result of my nerves was that I sat at the table for maybe an hour trying to build up my courage—or maybe it was two hours. Adrian had left the table and returned with a beer. He offered me some. I declined, of course, not really liking alcohol too much, an acquired taste, possibly. It occurred to me, however, that a beer might be just what I needed—something to take the edge off my irrational fear. I walked over to the bar and, for six pesos, got me one.

Back at the table, a guy walked up and said something. Adrian notified me that this table had been reserved—probably the reason for the piece of paper in the middle of it that read reservado—and its rightful owner was now claiming it. We grabbed our bags and he led me over to a table on the other side of the club. Interestingly, he sat me down next to one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. I had noticed her dancing earlier—shocking, I know. Fortunately, I had gotten my amazement out of the way then and was able to say hi and kiss her on the cheek without slobbering too much.

I figured the best way to make use of the beer was to get it in my system, so I basically chugged it. Over the next several songs, I continued to try to decide whom I would ask to dance. My basic criterion was to choose the girl who terrified me the least. None of them really fit the bill too well. As each song came to an end, I swore I'd ask someone to dance when the next song started. More songs came and went. This time, my excuse was simply that the beer needed more time to take effect.

Ultra-super-duper-freaking-hot chick looked at her watch. My heart rate increased. Was she about to leave? She reached for her sweater. Maybe she's just cold. I don't know if the beer had had any effect yet, and I'm certain that I hadn't solved my underlying issue of insecurity, but the fear of missing out on a dance with ultra-super-duper-freaking-hot chick trumped all else. I held out my hand and asked her if she wanted to dance.

As usually seems to be the case, my dance partner was tolerant of my mere three moves and patient with my screw ups. I tried a few of the basics, the stuff we had gone over in class. Piece o' cake. I tried a few of the things I had worked on earlier in the day with my "Learn to Dance Salsa" DVD. Not bad. Then I decided to try a really cool move that I used to know—operative words used to. I almost choked her. I can't really say she had a big smile on her face when we were done, but I had survived. I was under the clear realization that I should keep practicing.

I figured that was enough torture for one night and swapped out my dance footware for my very old and worn New Balance 973s. Adrian walked me out to help me find the proper bus stop. Long story short, it was 4 A.M. and the buses were thin. I ended up taking a cab.

As has been a consistent happening on this trip, I made some new friends, a fine one in particular. I made it over a small hurdle and am now going to commit to keeping up with the Salsa. And, if I didn't realize it before, I now know that I have serious issues with insecurity. Last, but not least, as a Baptist, for drinking alcohol and dancing, I will go directly to Hell—I will not pass go and I will not collect two-hundred dollars. All in all, a good night.