…the sign on the corner building read, beside which a street light arched like a back and two tangueros strode across the cover of the leather-bound journal that was to be my first purchase in Buenos Aires. “Little road or journey,” it signifies, though the flight to South America is not diminutive. Distance is not the point, Proust says, of travel, but that discovery in oneself of other eyes. One looks and looks, agape at the mausoleum of Evita, the white miles of salt desert at Salinas Grandes or an Inca mummy at El Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña—at oneself anew.
“Soy una norteamericana,” I told the young man dancing with me. I am North American. His eyes grew wide before smiling, pleased to be having an encounter suddenly more exotic than a weekday tango lesson at a cultural center. I was the only one over twenty two, much less not living in Rosario, Argentina, but my host—soon to be known as my “Mama Argentina,” garnered my free entrance at the local instruction.
I have taken tango lessons and attended enough milongas, or tango dances, in the states to appreciate the value of an authentic Argentine lesson. Teachers who had not traveled to Buenos Aires for their instruction had less credential than a yoga instructor who had never been to India. If location is everything for a business, for the arts, it is as necessary as fishing in the wilds for Alaskan salmon. The freezer version does not catch light diving headlong toward the ocean.
The instructor taught us boleos, which thrilled me since my American instructors preferred that we master posture and balance before moving on to difficult flourishes. Yet, the dance is famously compelling for those moments of whipping the arch of a foot from the hip like a blue and white bandera. I hoped the intimacy of eye contact, the subtle language of the body would transcend my elemental Spanish as I concentrated my full attention on physical communication. My young partner kissed me on the cheek to welcome me, a warmly open cultural greeting that caused me to notice how separately I am accustomed to holding myself.
The most significant observations about my own culture have come after recognizing it in contrast, and Argentina is striking in its cultural difference as well as its sharp geographical disparity. The pampas climb to the Andes, housing microclimates that vary from forests of cacti to grasslands grazed by llamas and vicuñas. The external mirrors the internal, and the arid miles of spiky desert reflect the hardships of the workers, from railroad to oil, who have had to strike for just wages, while the minerals of the Altiplano ripple through the ridges like the thick-blooded gazes of two sisters.
Here for research in translation, I joined my colleague and his Study Abroad group for three weeks in Buenos Aires, Rosario, and an excursion to Jujuy in the north of Argentina. Having taught English for years, I appreciate experiential education and encourage my advisees to intern or undertake service work that allows them to apply their knowledge, but it wasn’t until standing before the 2,700 year old ruins of the Atacama tribe that I began to imagine myself prioritizing that investment.
The limitations of a text-based education were apparent sitting across the breakfast table trying to understand the details of Argentine political history in my host’s dialect. We listened to the radio together while she translated the positions in the current presidential election. (Argentina is less than thirty years into their current democracy.) I was humbled by her desire to share her world with me. Later she typed a note onto my computer screen, in Spanish, after I shared a story about my ancestors’ farm in Virginia, that “we grow in relation to exposure.”
Her nephew Fabian speaks four languages. We found common ground in literature and talked about Jorge Luis Borges, whose quote he had memorized: “Death is life lived. Life is death that comes.” Perhaps travel is living such that when the swath is cut, the little road has stretched, for a time at least, across the Andrean cordillera.