Sunday, April 12, 2009

a Window Into A City's Soul

Opening up Buenos Aires to Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham was like pulling open a curtain to view a new city; we saw it with fresh eyes, rediscovering the pieces of its puzzle over and over again.

Caitlin has started a collection of photographs documenting her time in Buenos Aires. She calls this photo essay "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly." I think it is the most apt title, as every part of Buenos Aires has a bit of the good, the bad, and the ugly in it. They are three sides of the same coin, all inescapable without the other. You can't walk through beautiful Puerto Madero without thinking of the unscrupulous wealth disparities in the city, or of the corruption that so enriched some of these residents. And, on the flip-side, you can't see the villas without thinking that at one time, to some of its residents, these slums offered the dazzling hope of a shot at life in Argentina's Big Apple.

But, this week, 4 Cunninghams and 1 Maxwell tried our very best to conquer and soak up the good of BA. We strolled through the rose garden; ate one amazing meal after another; became intrigued while watching Evita the musical and then explored our way through the Evita Museum; shopped til we dropped; took in the paintings of the MALBA and the petals of the unfolding Flora Generalis rose; wound our way through Recoleta tombs; stopped at nearly every vendor at the San Telmo Antique Fair; and danced salsa through our Tuesday night. In so many ways it was exotic, unforgettable, and an honest-to-goodness blast.
Nick and I got to see so many sights we had yet to check off the list, like the Flora Generalis and her metallic solar-powerd leaves, stretching out in the sunshine and reflecting the sparkles of the water that rocks underneath her flower. And we got to show off and play tour guide to some of the most spectacular city jewels, from the haunting mausaleums of the Recoleta Cemetery to the quaint sea-side atmosphere of the Tigre Delta. To look at Buenos Aires through those fresh-again eyes, right as we are about to close our BA chapter, was indeed the perfect way to begin to say goodbye to this temporary home.

But of course, we couldn't altogether avoid the sharp edges. As we hopped over piles of dog poop on the cracked sidewalks and dodged traffic that never stops, despite a blinking and beckoning walking signal, snippets of the bleaker side of BA came through. Only hours after Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham landed, the 5 of us were walking down Avenida Santa Fe, taking in the Botanical Gardens on our right and the layout of the city on our left. Mrs. Cunningham was snapping a few pictures here and there, until she realized her camera was no longer on her wrist. There is no way that it had fallen off; it was wound tighly around her arm and she would have felt its sudden fall. It had to have been clipped off by a very savvy pick-pocketer. Mrs. Cunningham didn't let it get in her way; she was such a trooper and hardly skipped a beat. But it was a scary reminder that we weren't in the US (though of course that could happen anywhere) and that we have to take extra precautions.

But in the end, that is the real BA: the good, the bad, and the ugly, as Caitlin so appropriately says. And in the end, that is what travel is for, to show us the reality of other places so that our understanding and our empathy deepens. As my mom so often says, "it is important to be uncomfortable," to realize other perspectives and other ways. There are so many ways to challenge yourself in that medium and to put yourself in uncomfortable, soul-searching situations--some people find it through sports, others through intensive careers or studies, and some find it through travel. When you travel, you are completely vulnerable to an unknown place, with its own system, rules, and regulations. It was exciting and interesting to see the Cunninghams open up to the good, the bad, and the ugly here and accept it all without question or judgement, to see them experience BA.

And with that experience, with that loss of comfort, comes the abandonment of routine. While traveling, a schedule goes out the window, and the day unfolds exactly as it is supposed to. In a short time while traveling, you can learn so much about those around you, and connect in ways that take longer in everyday life and all of its hubub. And that happened so much this week. Without a schedule, without too many obligations from work and other factors, the 5 of us were free to stay at lunch for another hour because we were having a good conversation, or to keep dinner going for another 2 hours because we were laughing so much. That is the most rewarding, when travel becomes not so much about the destination, but rather about atmosphere within that destination that permits such unusual openness and memory-making moments. I am so thankful for this week and all of the memories it has given me.

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