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When I look outside the café, I could swear we are in Madrid. There is a wide, tree-lined boulevard and people speeding by a rate reserved for financial districts in capital cities. Just like in Spain, we are surrounded by a dialect of Spanish just outside my comfort zone, different enough to my Central American accent so that I am almost, though not entirely, sure I have understood everything correctly.
The coffee stop was necessary to beat back the 13 hour overnight flight the day before, and as soon as we are energy-infused, we head out along the pedestrian walkway in what is called the ‘microcentro’ of this busy city. The familiarity is again palpable, and in one word and a knowing nod, we realize we have also been here before. This looks just like Lisbon. The white tiles, a specific stylish flair, the same gritty feeling, and the street performers, like the human statues painted as the statue of liberty of the guy sitting down on what appears to be thin air.
There are certain aspects that reveal that we are in South America, however: the heavily advertised Manu Chao concert this coming week and the fact that controversial (read: awesome) Mexican rock band Molotov is third largest on a festival bill under Kings of Leon and Fiona Apple later this month.
So this is what Buenos Aires is really like, I think to myself. That first day, the whole time we explore the city and for days afterward I can’t stop saying that out loud, either. For the first time in our lives and after over 2 years of traveling we have finally made it south of the equator, and yet, walking up the Avenida de Mayo away from the Casa Rosada (the ‘pink house’, Argentina’s government building a la the U.S. White House) there are very few clues to indicate we are not experiencing a very sunny Parisian summer afternoon.
The Argentine capital is in fact called the Paris of South America and the ornate neo-gothic and French Bourbon architecture inspire me to want a bit crusty baguette stacked with ridiculous amounts of fromage…
Initially, these strange feelings of familiarity muted what is normally this intense buzz I get when traveling to an entirely new part of the world. Like any drug, the first travel buzz is the best, and you spend the rest of your addiction chasing it. For me that was my first time in Costa Rica, at 16, speeding away from the airport too quickly in a rusty Jeep toward the greenest mountains that looked as though they housed no civilization but would actual reveal adorable little towns where our exchange students lived.
With long-term travel it’s impossible to sustain that buzz, but there are huge moments when it courses through our veins – arriving to Mexico City in the middle of the night back as relatively newbie travelers in July 2010, or landing in in Bangkok, Thailand in 2011 to begin our first experience in Asia.
So where was the buzz here in Buenos Aires, our first time on this continent, closer to Antarctica than Canada. I didn’t even check if the water went down the drain in the other direction.
Are we jaded? Have we seen too much? These are the questions we were both privately asking ourselves those first days here in the city, and I wondered, terrified, if in fact I hadn’t lost my travel mojo, but my love of travel.
We are in Latin America’s most visited city, and a majestic city at that. This is a city in which its immigrants were able to build their incredible European architecture and thereby capture a magical feeling of starting in the new world in a way no city in America does. More inspiring, at least to me, are the old-fashioned restaurants with red leather cushions and imposing mahogany bars stocked with whiskey and red wine, where five to ten waiters in black and white uniforms hustle and bustle with trays and napkins serving tiny cups of coffee (you know, the size cups of coffee used to be) and heaping plates of medialunas and other typical sweets (you know, before calorie counting existed). This is the city of Evita, who spoke from the balcony of that Casa Rosada.
The intellectual vibe here is unmistakable, with bookstores around the city as full as bars and cafes on a Saturday afternoon. And although the scent of smoked meat wafts around every corner of this carnivorous city, there is a vegetarian, vegan and organic movement so strong here that after over a week in town, Dani and I have eaten at a different vegetarian restaurant every single day. When we are not shoving down gooey, cheesy pizza and empanadas, that is, which trumps eating a French baguette any day of the week.
See how that happened?
Whatever that buzz was I was looking for, it never appeared. Its absence (and some patience), however, revealed exactly what it is I love about traveling. It’s the knowledge of what is happening today in another part of the world. While you read this, there is a good chance that in Mexico City right now there are throngs of people inside of La Ideal bakery, snapping up pastries, and that in Chiang Mai, Thailand a young monk in a saffron orange robe is probably glancing at his cell phone on public transportation, while the two wide-eyed foreigners also on board look in amazement at how much they actually have in common with monks. In Ottawa, locals are cycling to work, because there are hundreds of miles of great bike paths to do that, and in rural Laos, a mother is making sticky rice in a basket over a fire which her multi-generational family will eat in a circle in the front yard together at lunch.
The more I travel, the more I know that certain things around the world are the same. Small beach towns like Palolem in Goa or Samara in Costa Rica, are set up in a scarily similar way, down to at least half the tourist trinkets sold in the shacks and shops that line the streets. Also, every culture has some type of local dish with folded over dough that I am going to love: pizzas in Italy, empanadas in Buenos Aires, Polish pieriogies, Hungarian Langos, Mexican potato tacos, Indian naan bread preferably filled with paneer cheese and yes, baguettes – both the cheesy variety available on the streets of Paris and those with avocado and egg and cheese, best ordered with a side of spicy Papaya salad on the streets of Laos, a former French colony.
Is anything new anymore, I wondered when I first got here, the buzz kill of European familiarity having slapped me in the face in Buenos Aires.
Now I wonder if that matters.
As we begin our trek across this continent, from vineyards in Mendoza up to the top of Macchu Pichu, in Peru, is it so terrible that I will compare the wine I drink with that I’ve drunk in Italy or the incredible Inca civilization with the Mayan ruins I’ve scaled twice in Tikal, Guatemala.
Like most things in life, this makes me think about a scene from one of the best movies of all time, Pulp Fiction. Gangster Vincent Vega comes back from a stint in Europe and he says to his partner Jules, ‘You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?’ To which Jules replies, ‘What?’ Vincent explains, ‘It’s the little differences. They got the same sh*t over there that we got here, it’s just that over there it’s a little different’. Jules asks for an example. I can give him thousands. Not just from Europe, or Argentina, but everywhere in the world.
For a while I wondered if travel was simply self-indulgent, but given some navel-gazing and a bit of real reflection, I can feel a buzz in my veins again when I think about discovering what the people of Cartagena, Colombia do on Saturday afternoons, or what kind of doughy masterpiece I’ll be shoveling down in Bolivia…
So I guess what I wonder is whether what’s really important about travel is discovering the little differences and more importantly the big similarities around the world?