Balsamic Vinegar in Two Acts

Day 6: Shake Shake Shake. Shake Shake Shake. Shake Your Boot Camp

Until I borked my shoulder playing hockey a year and a half ago I was an enthusiastic Crossfitter. For those who are unfamiliar, Crossfit is a workout program that combines weightlifting and aerobic exercise in a constantly-changing regimen of short-but-very-intense workouts. It’s a program favored by firefighters, police offers, military personnel and others whose day-to-day jobs feature intense bursts of life-or-death physical activity. So it’s really a natural fit for me as a software product manager.

Crossfit is also a ton of fun (if your idea of fun is “torn blisters on your hands and gasping for air like a beached sturgeon”) and the place I work out at (Crossfit Epiphany) has a great and supportive community that helps people get into wicked amazing shape. Crossfitters become slightly obsessed and talk about Crossfit with the same kind of wide-eyed, proselytizing tone you usually hear from the folks who ring your doorbell at 3 p.m. to hand out glossy, four-color pamphlets about the rapture.

So after a long rehab, I’ve been testing out my shoulder on some home workouts and getting ready to head back to Crossfit when returning to Portland. While surfing the Internet for “Things to do in Buenos Aires that do not involve getting stabbed in a soccer riot” I stumbled across Boot Camp Buenos Aires, which looked like a fun way to continue to work my way into shape.

It may give you an idea how badass Crossfitters are that the phrase “boot camp” sounded kind of pansy. To mere mortals, the phrase “boot camp” is designed to conjure up pictures of endless marches with 60-pound packs and pushups in the mud, while a drill sergeant shouts profanity from above. I figured it would be a pretty easy workout — maybe some light toning and deep knee bends. The meeting point was about 1.3 miles from my apartment, so I decided to warm up with a run over there just to make sure that I would get enough exercise.

We met at Plaza Italia, underneath the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian military leader who led the Italian Legion in the Uruguayan Civil War. They don’t need much of an excuse to put up a statue here. The boot camp leader was Carolyn, from Indiana by way of Chicago. Also working out that day were a gentleman from Holland, two local women and another American gal. I did not manage to remember anybody’s names because I was too busy feeling cocky about how much I was going to crush the workout.

I got my first introduction to the Buenos Aires kiss-on-the-right-cheek greeting, which is markedly different than the Spanish kiss-on-both-cheeks greeting that I had finally gotten used to in Barcelona. I bungled the procedure with such flair that the women immediately guessed that I was new in town. (For the record it’s right cheek only, no tongue.)

I also got my Spanish corrected, since Argentina uses the unique “Voseo” form of the familiar, thus tossing two years of college Spanish out the window as “Tú eres” becomes “Vos sos.” I remember this was mentioned in passing in one or more Spanish classes many years ago, but I filed it away in the “How likely is it that I am ever going to need to know THAT?!?” section of my brain. I imagine this is the same way that first-year medical students approach lectures on obscure tropical diseases — academically interesting, but probably not worth memorizing.

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We jogged another half mile or so over to a nearby park, dropped our bags next to a statue of a deer (possibly a military hero deer, I dunno) and then Carolyn proceeded to kick our booties all over the campo for the next hour. There were burpies, squats, push-ups, runs, planks, lunges and a crazy pass-your-leg-through-a-lunge-so-you-look-like-a-breakdancer-in-a-car-accident maneuver. In between each set of exercises we jumped enough rope to rig a schooner. We topped it off with an all-out 400 meter sprint through the park, around another statue. Big thumbs up on the boot camp. I’ll be back as soon as I can walk again.

It was 8:30 p.m. when we finished, a lovely warm Buenos Aires evening. Hundreds of people were out cycling and running around the Palermo parks. I walked back to Plaza Italia (gingerly), past the unmistakably earthy smell of the BA city zoo. I caught the bus back home, as there was no way I was going to be able to jog for more than about 45 feet without collapsing.

After a shower I headed out to a Brazilian restaurant and refueled with a bowl of feijoada, a stew of beans, pork and sausage. While I was dining they kept picking up tables and moving them out onto the sidewalk, and by the time I was done eating I was sitting alone at a solitary table in the middle of the restaurant. I kept expecting Allen Funt to jump out from behind the Fanta cooler.

Day 7: Shattered!

It was a busy workday on Friday, so I decided it would be nice to have a quiet night at home. I went down to the local grocery store to pick up some dinner items, including a bottle of balsamic vinegar to enhance my frequent salads. Around midnight I realized that nothing blogworthy had really happened all day, so I opened up the refrigerator and knocked the bottle of balsamic vinegar onto the concrete floor, shattering the bottle and sending shards of glass and pools of balsamic vinegar throughout the apartment.

Half an hour later I had managed to carefully pick up the glass and sop up the balsamic vinegar, most of which had made a beeline for safety underneath the refrigerator. Remind me not to decry “Lack of blogworthy items” again.

Product I am least likely to purchase at the grocery store:

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Day 8: Yoga En El Parque

With my first full free weekend ahead of me, it was time to do some sightseeing! I mapped out the route to downtown Buenos Aires, which could either be entirely by bus or by bus + subway. Having seen the traffic here, I figured that subway would definitely be better, so I caught the bus to the subway station.

Hey Bus! Hey! Hey Bus!

Just because you’re standing at a bus stop DOES NOT mean that the bus is going to stop for you. You have to wave the bus down to get it to stop. This is mostly practical — with over 150 different bus lines, any bus stop usually serves multiple routes, and it would be inefficient for the bus to have to stop just to see if the people standing there wanted to get on or not. So when the bus comes hurtling around a corner you have to step out into the street and wave your arm if you want it to come screeching to a halt in front of you.

In fact, the buses aren’t really big on stopping at all. Let’s just say that I’m getting pretty experienced at hopping off the bus while it’s stopped-ish.

Other fascinating facts about Buenos Aires traffic:

  • Traffic signals here give you a yellow light before they’re about to turn red, AND before they’re about to turn green. So, technically, yellow means go. I look both ways before crossing any street.
  • There are no stop signs in my neighborhood, and cars hurtle through the streets like the Daytona 500, yet somehow everyone manages to avoid crashing at intersections. I haven’t figured this out yet.
  • There are approximately 1 billion taxis here. I have yet to be in one.

I was pretty sure that my SUBE card (the magical electronic bus pass) would also work in the subway, so I spent 30 seconds waving it above, around and next to various parts of the entry gate before I watched someone else go through and figured out where to hold my card. This is what it must feel like to be in the first week of Charms class at Hogwarts.

The subway has imported New York City’s 1970s grafitti:

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The subway took forever to arrive, and what it lacked in ambience it made up for in vendors hopping on and off the cars to sell confections, maps and other gewgaws. About 2/3 of the way to downtown we stopped at the Pueyrredón statin and there was an announcement made over the loudspeaker, which I couldn’t understand. Almost everyone got off the train. Since I didn’t know what was going on, I stayed on the train and after a few minutes the doors closed and we were on our way again.

Back in the direction we’d come from.

I’m still not exactly sure what happened, but due to construction or repairs or a drunk subway designer or the giant monster from the movie Cloverfield, I had to get out at the next station and cross over the tracks onto the other side to continue the journey to downtown. I’m still not clear how this all works.

Anyway, it took me 70 minutes to get downtown.

Once in the heart of Buenos Aires, I walked over to the Plaza del Mayo and enjoyed taking in the downtown architecture, which is a mix of Spanish, French and Latin American. It’s very striking. I saw Casa Rosada, which is the headquarters of Argentina’s executive branch. And about 100 tour buses, which were shuttling dazed Americans around the sights of the city.

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I stuck to the bus for my trip home and it only took about 35 minutes from downtown to my front door. I can report that Buenos Aires does not lack for McDonalds locations.

After a siesta I headed out on two more bus rides for a Yoga in the Park event. The same people who run Buenos Aires Boot Camp also run Buena Onda Yoga and they were having a fundraising event for Unión de los Pibes. I figured some yoga would be a good way to stretch out my bootcamped muscles and meet some people. The participants were mostly expats, including a gal who had a small dog that featured only one fewer than the standard number of eyes that are typically issued to dogs. I pet its good side.

We walked together while chatting, over a mile to the park, where we set out our blankets and mats and had a lovely yoga session in the fresh(ish) air. The only downside to outdoor yoga was the occasional ant bite on the toe, which is almost certainly going to give me some unpronounceable tropical disease that my doctor back home will not have paid attention to during her first year of medical school.

And then a gargantuan rhinoceros beetle walked between my feet while I was in a very vulnerable downward dog position.

(Full disclosure: my downward dog has two eyes.)

Afterward we picnicked; I chatted with a gal who had quit her technical writing job at Red Hat to move to Buenos Aires for a year and write a novel. And also with Jess, the yoga teacher, a journalist who is stringing for the AP, among other things. Many writers here among the expat community. Food: yummy.

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Following the picnic I walked, bused and walked some more back home, stopping along the way at the grocery store to pick up yet another bottle of balsamic vinegar. I’m expecting to get a call from the VISA fraud department any moment now to tell me that they’ve discovered a “suspicious pattern of usage” on my card, i.e. multiple purchases of balsamic vinegar in South America within a 24-hour period. I’m sure I’m going to have to provide some form of documentation. I hope I can remember my PIN.

Shoplifting in Argentina and Other Adventures

There comes a point in every 10-hour flight when you realize yes, that baby IS going to scream for the entire 6000 miles. For me, that point was “somewhere over Ecuador.”

Day 1: DFWTF?

As a frequent traveler and a major nerd, I subscribe to multiple web services for automatically tracking my travel plans (highly recommend, by the way). I get regular text messages on the day of the flight with helpful information like “Your flight is currently ON TIME, scheduled for departure at 12:35 p.m. from gate C19.” But when my phone starts dinging on flight day like it’s Christmas in front of the local TJ Maxx, it’s never good news.

It was not good news.

The message said “AA flight 1006 PDX to DFW is currently DELAYED until 1:55 p.m. You are likely to miss your connection. Tap here for alternate flights.”

Under “Alternate flights,” it proposed a route of Portland – Dallas – Los Angeles – Miami – Buenos Aires, arriving approximately 19 hours later than scheduled. I’m not a geographer by profession, but that struck me as a twee bit indirect. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in stops in Iceland and Cape Town.

So I hauled off to the airport and started tracking the delayed inbound aircraft, which would ultimately be my outbound flight. And it became pretty clear that the timing was going to be very, very tight. Doing the math, it looked like IF the flight landed in Portland as estimated, and IF they got the passengers off and the new passengers on quickly and IF there was a big tailwind heading south as they had announced, and IF I could get from terminal A to terminal D in Dallas quickly, I would probably make my flight with about 30 minutes to spare.

And so began the next four hours of nail biting.

By the time we took off from Portland the 30 minute window was down to 20 minutes, pending this magical promised tailwind. I pictured Disney’s Aladdin gently pushing the aircraft from behind. With three hours to kill on the plane, I carefully studied the layout of the DFW airport at the back of the in-flight magazine and game-planned my run from the gate to the Skytrain to the next terminal.

We touched down at 7:12 p.m., 23 minutes before the flight to Argentina would depart. It was going to be very close.

Fun fact: Did you know that the Dallas-Fort Worth airport terminal is in New Hampshire? I didn’t either, but after we landed we taxied for what I estimate to be 2,700 miles. By the time we reached gate A31 in Nashua it was 7:22. Thirteen minutes to make my flight.

Another interesting tidbit: Every airline has a research department where they study the most efficient way to load passengers onto an airplane. United uses a back-to-front methodology, whereas Continental favors a window-middle-aisle strategy. American chunks the plane into different sections and Southwest finds that self-selection is fastest. But you know what none of them have? A LABORATORY WHERE THEY FIGURE OUT THE MOST EFFICIENT WAY TO GET PASSENGERS OFF OF A PLANE!!!

And let’s just say that this flight was particularly inefficient in the disembarking procedure. It’s as if they were throwing a party with a free open bar and nobody wanted to leave. “Hey, we just spent three hours together in a cramped tube hurtling through the sky. Wouldn’t this be a good time to stop and have a conversation while standing in the middle of the aisle?”

I am a frequent traveler, and I cannot remember a flight that was this slow to unload. I was in row 12 and I think the people in rows 20 and higher are probably still in the plane.

I would like to propose a new method of de-planing that goes in this order:

  1. People with only one small carry-on bag who are desperately rushing to catch the only daily flight to the far reaches of South America.
  2. Everybody else on the airplane, but especially the people who are too stupid to figure out how to get their giant, hard-sided four-wheeled, 600-pound rollerbags out of the overhead compartment.

The vast majority of the passengers were utterly baffled by their bag in the overhead compartment. How did that get in there? Can it be removed? How can I tell my bag from your bag? Perhaps we should all stop and consider whether we can ever truly know the position of any bag in the universe.

In some cases it took upwards of four people, an engineering survey and a Congressional oversight committee hearing to remove a bag.

7:33 p.m.

Even after exiting the plane, the people walking up the ramp to the terminal were strolling — no, lollygagging — three abreast as if to say “We have never been on an airport jetway this exciting and we intend to savor the moment!”

I burst into the terminal at 7:34. I sprinted for the Skytrain.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Skytrain arrived. I jumped on. It started moving. Terminal B. Doors open. Doors stay open a long time. Doors stay open long enough for the entire population of New Hampshire to board, were they all at the airport simultaneously. Doors close. Train chugs along. Terminal D. Doors open.

I leap off of the Skytrain. Race down the escalator. Run to the gate.

“Buenos Aires!” I shout.

“It’s gone,” says the gate agent, in a tone of voice that says “You should have been here an hour ago.”


Back in the old days, gate agents used to have the flexibility to hold an outgoing flight if they knew that an inbound flight was slightly delayed. Today, such things are controlled by a master control center that balances the cost of delays with the cost of flying faster and burning more fuel. I was an actuarial casualty.

The agent gave me some options for getting to Buenos Aires. One involved spending the night in the Dallas Airport and flying through Miami at 5 a.m. Another involved flying out in an hour and spending the night in the Miami airport. I opted for:

(c) Have American Airlines put me up in a hotel with some free food vouchers and take the same flight the next night. I figured it would be the less grueling of the three options.

American was actually quite accommodating about putting me up for free. The guy standing next to me at the gate didn’t have it so lucky. He had missed the flight and was trying to convince the agent that he should be able to take another flight. She was grilling him like Perry Mason as to why he had missed the flight. His story, as best I could follow it, involved helping a friend fix a truck, not wearing a watch, losing track of time and unexpected traffic. Translation: stoned.

Days 2-3: Long Night’s Journey Into Day

I highly recommend the Hawthorn Suites DFW, especially if you are the kind of traveler who enjoys having a kitchen in your hotel room and were thoughtful enough to travel with a full set of dishes, cooking utensils and a nearby grocery store in your carry-on luggage. If for some reasons you have neglected to carry any of those things, the Hawthorn Suites “kitchen” is approximately as functional as the ones in the remodeling section of Home Depot.

The nearest walkable restaurant is a Whataburger 3/10ths of a mile away (for anyone who enjoys dining at an establishment that openly calls into question the provenance of the food in its own name). Not being a big fan of the Whataburger, or its sister establishment Holycrapisthisahotdog, I opted to walk a freezing mile to the Marriott to spend my $12 American Airlines dinner coupon on a club salad. I had packed for South America, not a one-mile walk on a cold Dallas night in February.

The next day I luxuriated in the “suite” until my negotiated late checkout of 1 p.m., then caught the shuttle back to the airport where I had six hours to kill until my flight. Two free meals at TGI Friday’s later (Whatasalad), we boarded the giant American Airlines 777 and we were off to Buenos Aires!

The woman sitting next to me had a baby in her arms and was traveling with two other small children and a regular-sized husband. My Spanish isn’t great, but in our conversation I got the gist of what she was saying, which was “What the hell was I thinking having three children?!?”

As soon as we took off the baby started to scream, and bless its giant lungs it continued to scream, unabated, until we landed in Buenos Aires 10 hours later. I attempted to drown it out with podcasts, music and “sleeping,” but none were particularly successful. On the bright side, the baby drifted off to sleep right about when we were landing, so I’m sure they had a very pleasant drive home from the airport.

The highlight of the flight was getting up to stretch my legs and seeing the sunrise out the window as we flew over the Andes near Santiago, Chile. That was amazingly spectacular. The entire last hour of the flight was lovely.

I should add that the plane emptied out efficiently.

It took almost two hours to get through the customs and immigration lines in the airport. Then another hour to get to my apartment by taxi (we were delayed by “random deployed railroad crossing barrier despite lack of train”). I was met by my AirBnB landlord, a charming Canadian gentleman who showed me around the place, gave me some maps to the city and then departed. I took a quick walk around the neighborhood to get my bearings, found a bank with a cash machine to withdraw some pesos and stopped into a grocery store for some food. The rest of the day was a blur of trying to stay awake long enough to go to bed. It was Monday night. I left Portland on Saturday morning.

Day 4: Settling In

Tuesday I had a lot of work coming up in the afternoon (i.e. daytime in the USA), so in the morning I went out for a run. It’s about a mile from my apartment in the Palermo Hollywood district of Buenos Aires to the extensive Palermo park system. It was raining, but it was a warm rain, so I didn’t mind. I spent almost 90 minutes out running and walking and getting a feel for the area. At the end of my run it started raining heavily, so I ducked back into the apartment, a bit wet but well exercised. The rest of the day was spent working with the door open, listening to the rain on the patio.

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Day 5: Are you Ready For Some Fútbol?

On my Tuesday run I had passed by the Jumbo, a giant grocery store, home improvement center and mall (“Jumbo” is Spanish for “Target”). I walked the mile over there in the morning and loaded up on a few food items that my local grocery doesn’t have. I also picked up a pair of soccer shinguards, because I was planning to play soccer at night.

You may be asking why I didn’t just bring my own soccer shinguards, since I have two pairs of them (guards, not shins) at home. The answer is that I am mildly obsessed with traveling light. Hadas would laugh at the word “mildly,” but then we have differing philosophies on travel. I believe that travel is best experienced by seeing the world with only the few small things you can carry on your back. Hadas believes that travel is best experienced by bringing the contents of your home. In fairness, I am here for three weeks with three shirts to choose from, whereas she would be able to do a costume change after every production number.

Anyway, I have one backpack-style carry-on bag and I do everything in my power to keep it light. True story, I bought a special travel shaver that takes two AA batteries, just so I could leave the AA batteries out and buy them at my destination.

Second true story: I went the first four days of my trip without shaving because I didn’t know how to say “AA batteries” in Spanish.

So I left the soccer shinguards at home, figuring I could pick up a cheap pair when I got here. And sure enough, at the Jumbo they had soccer shinguards and I bought a pair. There was a weird-looking buckle on the strap that looked like it would be awfully uncomfortable, but I would worry about that later.

After a good day’s work it was time to go play soccer! There’s an organization down here called Buenos Aires Fútbol Amigos that organizes pick-up soccer games for locals and expats. I’d signed up for a 7 p.m. game and was getting ready to head out in the rain to play. Meanwhile, I was loading my soccer gear into my backpack when I finally got around to inspecting the shinguards.

So it turns out, the uncomfortable-looking “buckle” was actually an anti-theft device. It brought so many things into focus. For instance, on leaving the Jumbo an alarm had gone off when I passed through the exit. But being that this is Argentina and nobody looked askance or pointed a rifle at me I figured that maybe it was just a sound that notified the store that people were exiting. In fact, the same alarm sounded a few minutes later when I passed into and out of a sporting goods store in the mall, so I was pretty sure that this was just the “Customer has entered or exited!” sound. They really needed to learn to make it sound like less of an alarm.

But no, it turns out that it was an anti-theft device that the cashier at the Jumbo had neglected to remove. And one of the hallmarks of an anti-theft device is that they’re designed to be very, very difficult to remove.

I can report that they are, in fact, very, very difficult to remove.

After 30 minutes with various implements discovered in the apartment (corkscrew, serrated kitchen knife, profanity) I managed to stabscrewpry the device off of my shinguard. I have gained a new appreciation for safecrackers, and if they ever film Ocean’s 14, they should totally have the plot involve removing a plastic anti-theft device from the elastic straps of a $10 pair of shinguards. Raise the stakes, baby!

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The bus system in Buenos Aires is complicated. There are over 150 different bus routes, all operated by a variety of different companies. It’s so complicated, in fact, that there’s an entire book that explains all the routes. It’s called the “Guia T” (pronounced like “guillotine”) and once you’ve learned how to read it you’re no more than 17 steps away from easily finding your way from point A to point B. There’s also a website, which is 1,000 times simpler to use, except for the fact that some of the bus lines have multiple routes, and the website simply says “Some of the buses on this route may not take you where you want to go.”

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On the brighter side, the buses have standardized on a rechargeable card system, ending years of massive coin shortages since everyone hoarded coins to use on the bus. It used to be impossible to get change. Now you just tell the driver where you’re going, hold the card up to a box, and it auto-magically deducts the right amount, which is about 34 cents per ride.

I caught the jam-packed bus 140 towards the soccer place, but since it was jam-packed I couldn’t see what streets we were passing. I finally got off when I figured I was pretty close, and it turned out I had only missed by about a mile. After a 20 minute walk through greater Palermo I arrived at the soccer facility. It’s a small building with two artificial turf fields, each about the size of a small basketball court, surrounded by concrete walls and with a fabric roof. There was water dripping through many holes in the roof, and just before we kicked off an entire corner of the roof gave way, pouring gallons of water onto the field. I made a mental note not to play right fullback.

The game was fun. It was a mix of locals and expats, with chatter equally divided between Spanish and English. Despite not having played soccer in a couple years, I was able to hold my own. Had a few nice assists, scored a couple goals. Didn’t get kicked in the face. I’d describe the gameplay as competitive, but not cutthroat. Everyone was clearly out to have fun, and the quality of passing was a step up from what I would expect in a game back home.

After the game, my legs a bit wobbly, I stood in the rain for 15 minutes until the return bus came. Being dark, rainy and steamy (the bus, but me as well), I was pretty sure I was going to miss my stop and end up in Uruguay, but at the last moment I noticed a giant billboard for The Killers (appearing in Buenos Aires March 30th) which I recognized from the taxi ride on day one, so I hopped off the bus and walked the two blocks to the apartment for a shower, dinner and sleep.