How to Talk to Your Taxi Driver (In Argentina)

“Hola, ¿como va?”

“Bien, ¿vos?”

“Bien. Ehh, bueno— Suipacha y Juncal, porfa.”



“No, a vos.”

Well, that’s how. Nothing tricky there. You could even go without the pleasantries; a simple, “Suipacha y Juncal” is all you really need to get yourself home.

Perhaps, then, a better question is not how, but rather, why should you talk to your taxi driver.

I’ll answer with an anecdote, not surprisingly, about a taxi ride.

It was late March, and I was leaving La Bomba, which is a drum circle directed by a conductor who uses a language of cues and gestures to create combinations of rhythms between the drummers, real time. Very cool. It was a correspondingly energetic crowd, featuring all of the festivities that such crowds often offer. Namely, I was drunk (legally; this is Buenos Aires, OK). But that night, I was feeling a little off, not really grooving with the vibe, maybe missing home a little. It had been a good night already, even before the concert, so I decided to call it quits and stumbled my way out of the crowd onto the street.

I hailed a taxi.

I had precisely the conversation transcribed above.

And then I slumped back in my seat feeling grateful for cushions and wheels and the fact that I didn’t have class till 14:00 the next day.

The driver, an older, mustachioed guy with a cross hanging from his rearview mirror, asked me how I was doing. Tired, I replied. Wasn’t really feeling it tonight, I said. He asked where I was from. I gave him the spiel. I’m from outside of Boston, MA, here studying sociology, Spanish, and art, living with a host family, and yes I like Argentina very much (they’re a prideful bunch, gotta stroke that nationalist ego).

We had a very pleasant conversation: about how corruption is present in both of our countries, but perhaps only more obvious in Argentina, about the role of religion in our countries, about the recent election of el Papa Argentino— and so on. Somehow, late-night drunk Spanish conversations always flow so smoothly, or perhaps that’s just how I (don’t) remember them.

He asked about my family and friends, and whether I missed them. I said yes, of course, though I especially miss my girlfriend, who is back in los Estados Unidos. That’s probably part of why I wasn’t feeling it tonight, I said. Concerts are better with girlfriends.

Then he asked me, “¿Y qué tal con los mujeres acá? ¿Te la están dando?”

“¿Cómo? No entiendo..”

“¡El sexo! El fuckey-fuckey, el baile sagrado. Y qué de la novia, ¡no la vas a ver por cinco meses!

I laughed, mostly in reaction to his sudden burst of colorful language, but also a little unsure what he was getting at.

“I mean, yeah, that’s true. I will not be having sex for several months. Quite the conundrum,” I replied, not seeing where this was going.

“What if I told you that I could take you right now to a place where you could choose from four rooms; from four photos. For 110 pesos (about $15) I can take you there and you can see the photos, and for $450 pesos (~$65), you can do anything you want to whichever one you choose.”

It probably appeared to him as though I were actually contemplating his offer, as it took me solidly thirty seconds to sort out what was actually happening.

“What? Like, what? Now?”

“Si, ahora. ¿Vamos?”

“Whoa, whoa. ¡No! No, hombre, ¡no tengo ningún interés! Tengo novia. Tengo… ¡dignidad!”

He said OK and kept driving, acting like nothing had happened. It got silent for a full minute.  Still five minutes from home. I finally asked him, “So you, like, do this? With like, prostitutes?” He said yes. I asked for how long. He said about twenty years. Whoa, okay. I paused, considered the situation. I felt almost as if I were watching someone else being taxied through Alto Palermo. I don’t talk to taxi-driving pimps every day, okay? Suddenly, I realized the opportunity at hand and became very intrigued by my situation, almost in an academic sense. There he was, “the oppressor,” driving along, nodding to the cumbia playing quietly in the background. Now that I see him, what do I say?

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about it now, but at that moment, I felt compelled to get on my horse and spout that righteous academia which I do generally prescribe to: I talked about cycles of poverty and abuse, and about how every person is just as logical within their bounded rationality as each other person; these women don’t want to be selling their bodies, but they do so, because they have ended up in situations where it has become the logical course of action— which is tragic, on an institutional and human level. I fairly ranted, knowing I had only another two or three minutes to make the impression that I needed to make— my shot to exert direct influence, however insignificant, upon this global patriarchy. After each of my sentences, he nodded his head in silent accordance, and when I finally had gotten my points across and we were pulling up in front of my apartment complex, he said only, “Si, si. Muy triste, muy triste.”

I paid, and said goodbye, and then went up to my room and asked myself whether I had just imagined the whole thing. It’s not that strange an event; we all know those people do exist in the world— but I will admit that at that point in time, it was a shock for me to meet one of them.

So then, to answer my question: Why should you talk to your taxi driver?

Because that’s where life gets interesting. The moment you step out of your daily bubble and touch upon that which is foreign and new, you open yourself up to seeing a world you have never seen before. Yeah, he could have been dangerous, and I could have unwittingly ended up at a whorehouse. But in retrospect (and even in the moment), I realized that this was something so removed from my customary sphere of interactions that I would never have come across it had I not then talked to my taxi driver. And obviously, there is much more to discover from the taxi drivers of the world than prostitution rigs; everyone, including yourself, is living hir own unique experience, and in my opinion, it can only benefit you to open yourself and learn from them.

Oh, Flaneur—

I’d like to share a concept that I have grown to adore and utilize widely in my life.

It’s an old French ideal, something probably upper-class and white and readily eyebrowed, but the art of the flaneur is a specific take on observation: Wikipedia says the word means something along the lines of “to stroll” or “saunter” or “loaf,” which alludes to that principle at the core of flanerie, which is to do nothing; to have no objective, no destination, no prerogative or goal in mind, except to observe in any way you might like the surroundings you encounter.

Historically, the flaneur has been important in some strains of academic thought including urban modernization, class conflict, and architecture. Important theoretic contributors include Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Susan Sontag, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb; of course there are lots of interesting learnings pent up in each of these contributions to the theme, but this being a blog and you having the Internet, I will let you explore ad libitum and I’ll proceed with what I’d actually like to write about.

I have now begun my semester studying abroad. Except for when I’ve had to participate in program-scheduled activities (picking classes, orientation etc.) I have had a great many hours of entirely unstructured time. Like most humans I do often enjoy the company of others and so I have certainly been getting to know the other international students as well as my host family and an interesting handful of native Argentines. But when I wake up on Friday and Saturday and Sunday (literally, every day this weekend) with nothing that I must do, I think to myself, I’ve made it. I’m here, this is what I’ve been waiting for. Enter, the flaneur.

I am in love with the idea of eschewing purpose, first in any location, as it matters not where you look but how, but with even more gusto in some place new and fantastic. Not that I have any problem with having guiding purpose in your day or life, as you would be idle to be without it. But so often, our purpose lends us spectacular clarity upon our destination and utter blindness to anything that might be even a degree off-course.

There is a nice parable that illustrates this idea, in which a rich man leads a crowd of people to see that he had laid out a trail of dollar bills on a sidewalk stretching as far as the eye could see. Immediately the crowd swarms, racing and elbowing each other to pick them up first. When they arrive, breathless, at the end of the trail, the rich man points so as to lift their gaze ever so slightly, to see that he had also hung hundred dollar bills from the trees on either side of the sidewalk. In the distance, not yet far from the starting line, a single man had noticed the hanging money and was about to climb the fourth tree.

To be alone in a crowd; to be one with its ebbs and flows, its conflict and resolution; to notice and admire each grand story as it marches past, mysterious forever; invisible (unless someone else is watching me, and then let them). Baudelaire looked to be one with the crowd. I look to be one part of it. A tiny part, scarily small, or perhaps the world is scarily large, and I’m still normal-sized. Perhaps I am enamored with this concept of relativity, that suddenly I’m not so important; I tire of placing myself on such a false pedestal, like why should I care so much about myself? I can answer this question only evolutionarily, and perhaps economically as I will likely someday contribute some value back from where I’ve taken it. But ethically, I am an arbitrary prince, my value arbited by fickle luck. In my selfishness I am disgusted. But I digress..

Now, im not so idealistic as to suggest that all of you with your busy lives and money-trails should suddenly stop these activities and squat on city corners for hours each day. In my luxurious moment, I am able to begin and end the day without having accomplished a single goal, except to have observed, and that is a truly precious privilege. However, I also have lived the busy life, and this mindset has not only just occurred to me in these spare minutes. For it is that exactly: a mindset. Often I’ll set aside a time slot,- nothing outrageous, perhaps half an hour, during which time I’ll set the single goal of getting razors and body soap from the CVS nearby. Unless each of our days are so routinely unfortunate that each task forever bleeds into the next, I think we are generally able to allot a bit of extra time for oneself at strategic points in our days. To do what? To do nothing. For me, I have seen the most hideous and the most beautiful things in these times, the most banal and the most surprising. If you are so jaded to experience that you do not feel the attraction to this activity (or lack thereof), then you should read my last post, which explained slightly why I like to keep my eyes open.

An interesting adaptation of this concept is that of the cyberflaneur, in which this mindset of not being always-purposed is applied to our use of the Internet. Trends indicate that we increasingly use the Internet only functionally. In an article published in the New York Times last February, Evegny Morozov commented that our increasing societal single-mindedness is reflected on the Internet:

Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.

(Side-question: is social media helping or hurting our discovery of interesting things? Morozov seems to think that it’s a distraction from our own perusing, but technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci doesn’t quite agree; is there a ‘filter bubble’? Is seeing new and exciting articles from our friends on FB a new flaneurism, or is it the ‘daily me’?)

Again, not that I think we should all sit around flipping through page after page of Wikipedia or Reddit or TED, but in actuality, I do! Everything in moderation, but these tools of modernity can connect us with troves of brilliance and creativity, information about history, art, all of the academica under the sun, etc.

Set parameters. Fifteen minutes. Forty-five. Don’t allow yourself to over or under-do it. If you get so wrapped up in a wikipedia binge that you only look up two hours later, the next time you might have ten minutes free, you’ll think “I don’t want to start, because then I won’t be able to stop.” Not that self moderation is easy for everyone, but give it your all..

Be an active observer of your world. Loaf both on the curb outside Starbucks and then again inside; sip your latte, but use their WIFI to read about the folks that might have a cure for HIV in infants. Follow your money trail, but look to the trees! You might see a monkey 8-] (or a mantis??)

On Substitutes and Glitter-Bombs

Since I’ve been home since the end of last semester, I’ve been finding odd ways to use my time: I made a newsletter for my fraternity, designed a flyer for an environmental activist group on campus, visited Wesleyan a few times, and I got a job as a substitute teacher for a local school system (K-12).

Substitute teaching is psychologically strange. Especially for the younger grades, where kids are less socialized and perhaps more genuine, the substitute enters their lives, inhabits a position of importance for a day or a few hours, and then— leaves. For the kids, this means games of name-swapping, musical chairs, and mass misbehavior among the ranks. For me, the wide-eyed substitute, as I clean up the shrapnel from Joe and Allen’s glitter-bombs and separate cliquey Maura-and-Jess from jealous Andrea, I gain a glimpse of twelve or twenty-five future-adults, all of whom I will probably never again meet; I am left knowing of twenty-five people that I will never really know.

The word for this feeling is sonder, defined unofficially as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” It’s a feeling we should encounter a lot, really. Every time you step anywhere and see anyone, whether he is next to you on the bus, or she’s down out your skyscraper window getting onto a bus, or across the world being hit by a bus— there are simply billions of people that we will never encounter, each of whom might be perfectly invaluable companions.

I alternatively react to this feeling with either renewed motivation to meet people and see things and go places, or with extreme and impenetrable apathy towards people and life. Some days I’ll remember meeting Thomas while subbing in a 5th grade special education classroom and feel proud and bolstered by having boosted his day with my (hopefully) helpful presence. But only one second later I’ll remember how inevitably difficult life will be for Thomas, that his own biology will continue to conspire against him for the rest of his life. Thousands more are like Thomas. Millions of people lead tremendously difficult lives. Billions of salmon swimming upstream. Perhaps we’re all in these waters together, but some streams just seem unjustly gradated.

It’s the easy conclusion to announce loudly to oneself that “that’s just the way it is.” Some people have it rough. What could I do about that? Welcome to the world, bad things happen. Nasty people win the lottery and good people never play it. And that’s the gut-crunching truth behind it all— it’s luck. As you sit and revel in your satin-eyed armchair, remember that you could have been born anywhere, anytime. Of course, we shouldn’t live guiltily for having begun where we did, but we also shouldn’t forget how vast a quilt this civilization has become.

Unfortunately this leads back to the same fork-in-the-road: will this substitute teacher be left with renewed motivation to meet people and go places and experience life, or will he saddle up and hunker down with impenetrable apathy against the world?

There is no answer for everyone, but I think the worst sin of all is to ever become jaded: to life, to love, to happiness, or to despair; to take for granted that which you have inherited, earned, or lost; to never feel sonder.

Stay curious. Throw a glitter bomb at a stranger. Don’t let apathy become your default.

And if you ever find yourself too complacent in your ways— try substitute teaching.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Coming Soon: Mantis&Me, Travel Edition

Happy new years everyone. I hope you celebrated in style. Personally 2012 was a rough year, complicated and formative and sad. I think I’m quite ready to leave this one behind. As Pooh said to Rabbit, “thanks so much, I’ll be leaving now!”

I am about to encounter a lot of things new and foreign. I say ‘things’ because, well, I don’t yet know what I’ll learn, who I’ll meet, or how I’ll change from having done whatever I end up doing. I know little more than skeletal facts: In 1 week, I’m going to Israel on a birthright trip with friends from Wesleyan; and then in about 2 months, I’m leaving to study abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Birthright is much more predictable an experience- 10 days with a clear-cut itinerary in the company of a well known crew. We’ll see some ancient sites, visit a Kibbutz, experience an Israeli Shabbat and hopefully get an authentic, unfiltered-by-the-media feel for what it’s like to be in Israel and why there has been so much conflict over so many ‘things’ for so many years. I come from a non-religious background of reform Judaism, and while I do have some relatives who maintain a strong connection with Israel, I am relatively uninformed about many of the debates and thus look forward to learning. What I will see is fairly clear, but how will I feel? Who will I meet, and what will they say? How will my encounter with Israel affect my perspective on issues regarding the Middle East, my relationship with Judaism, my view of humanity?

On a different and recurring note, I will be in Israel during a difficult time, during my father’s first yahrzeit. I will be sad to be apart from my family during this time. I will be glad to have my close friends with me there. Perhaps I will feel something spiritual or profound being in Israel but really I anticipate just sadness and maybe some peace. At least this year will soon become part of the past.

After Israel, I am home in MA for an awkward month until I leave for Argentina in the last week of February. During this time I’ll be with my family and will probably visit Wesleyan for a time. I’ll also be relearning español hardcore and familiarizing myself with argentinan spanish, which is apparently different but pleasant. This time in itself is exciting: a whole month’s worth of time to get shit done. I’m working on a few things primarily these days… firstly selling some of my dad’s posessions that are worth $ and taking up space in closets because they dont-and-wont fit or suit anyone ever. Hard to let some of it go. Anyone want a really cool globe? (If you contact me after having read this post I’ll give it to you for $30 instead of $180 on ebay (cackles madly)). Secondly I’m working on a newsletter for my fraternity, which has been a learning experience though not unpleasant. Coordinating 30 guys into writing something is like diapering an octopus. Thirdly, I’ve got a whole bunch of things to read that I’ve encountered on the internet or received from a friend or kept from a class where I didn’t get to read everything because of just that— school keeps me working from assignment to assignment, leading me to list future readings furiously so that one day I might further round my education. This task is endless and not unpleasant.

Enter Argentina. I have many feelings about Argentina, as this next real phase of life looms hazy on the horizon. I am a predictable mix of excited, bewildered, eager for it to begin, and sad to be soon disconnected from my various networks of friends and family. It shimmers with promise of new excitement and learnings, and also new challenges and unfamiliar situations that will call upon new skills and competencies.

What can I do in preparation? Read travel advice online? Talk to people who have been, lived, or studied there? Learn about the country and its history and culture? I can do all of the preparatory work in the world but when it comes down to it, it’s really whether you can be quick on your feet, kid. Can you walk the world, kid? Can you, having learned everything you’ve learned in the environments you’ve learned them in, successfully transpose those skills into a different social key? Can you exude yourself with everyone you’ve never met, to win yourself allies and defend your place in the world, and can you do this with grace and with vigor?

The tests I’ve just described are the reasons why I have chosen to pursue a study abroad experience in college. I chose Argentina because 1) I want to gain fluency in spanish, having previously reached an academic competency that would be most effectively brought home, so to say, by an abroad experience, and 2) because of the city of Buenos Aires, which I hear is full of character, magnificent with a unique blend of Western European and Jewish immigrant influence which can be seen in architecture, food, and art, all, of course, while situated in South America. My freshman year in high school, I went on a white-guilt-volunteer trip to Peru, where I saw great culture and great poverty. I will certainly want to travel through other parts of South America if this is possible. I feel an Amazonian bike-trip fantasy slowly formulating…

Anyways, Argentina is probably the most developed of the South American countries, and Buenos Aires is apparently all about education, home to four(+) very large universities, and libraries on every corner, says my guide book. I love libraries, and books and good headphones. I want to sit in a library in Argentina and read and write and think and observe and create. I want to discover and learn about new problems. I want to learn about old problems in new ways. As per Einstein, I think that I’ll spend 95% of my time thinking about the problems, and thereby let solutions become self evident. And I want to think a lot, so as to maximize my chance of thinking of something that doesnt suck.

I’ll take four or five classes; two: one spanish language course and one Argentinean culture course from my international Abroad program, and two or three more from a subset of classes from any of the three or four beforementioned very large universities in the city. I will look for classes in economics, sociology, entrepreneurship, marketing, art/design, or anything regarding collisions of technology or science and society.

I will live in a home stay. I listed as my highest preference a middle-aged, middle-class couple with young kids. I thought it was interesting and logical that I should get to choose so closely, though they obviously don’t guarantee perfect placements. I look forward to meeting my host family– what an exciting opportunity to meet people who are likely to be similar enough to connect with me and different enough to provide a totally new experience.

At the very least, much is about to change. I feel very positively about most of it, and the rest I will learn from. Or I wont, and I’ll make the same mistakes over and over again. We don’t ever do that now do we?

* * *

I want to thank a lot of you. And I have, in person or online, with words of gratitude for all that I know that I have been given this year. Yes, it is true that, well, something took itself way from me this year. But I have been given outstanding quantities of kindheartedness and positive energies, most outstandingly by those very close to me, but also by so many others whose genuine concern for myself and my family has been completely heartwarming. My community rallied and hoisted us up, and my family can only murmur thanks in return.

Let this be a good new year, and I wish peace, health, and prosperity upon you all.

For the Squirrels

I remember that windy morning, dragging the blue tarp up a mountain of leaves, straining with all of my might until he noticed my struggle and flourished the leaves away. He wore a red and black patagonia, and blue jeans with a thick leather belt and boots. Real boots, “that could be run over with a truck and still last you a lifetime.”

I got tired so he told me to pick up acorns. The oak tree in the corner always managed to distribute its hard-hatted offspring evenly through the entire yard. I squatted and began a collection, dropping a handful-a-second into the bucket, first making a hollow gunshot noise, until the bottom was covered and I could safely relish the swift “thunk” of acorns on acorns. Dad never picked up acorns, except to show me how to do it, and then he picked them ferociously, challenging me, “what, you can’t keep up? I’m gonna get ten times as much as you in one-tenth of the time— how do you like them apples?” He loved that movie.

Eventually the red-gold yard turned green, and the first bucket had long overflowed into the second and third. Three mountains of nuts. “That’s a lot of nuts.” I said. “That’s a lot of nuts,” he said. “What are we going to do with all of these acorns?” I asked, staring up, eyebrow raised. He surveyed the buckets and bit the inside of his cheek. “I’m not sure, let’s clean up and go inside for dinner.”

We gathered the leaf blower, and the blue and the red and the bamboo rake, and the trowel I had been using to dig for worms, and hung our manly equipment on the garage wall. We bent down together to take off our boots.

But then he spotted the recycling bin, pink and full next to the downstairs freezer. Lying on the top of the bin was a partially smushed gallon milk container. He thought for a second, turned his head, picked it up, and blew forcefully into the top so that the carton assumed into its original form. He tore off the label, whipped out his pocket knife, and cut from the rim, down and around and up again, so that the carton become scooplike and open. “What are you doing?” I asked, confused.

“For the squirrels!” he exclaimed.

“For the squirrels?” I questioned.

“For the squirrels!” he exclaimed, again, jumping to his feet with his boots untied, clunking as he bounced his way to the barrels on the other side of the garage.

“For the squirrels!” I exclaimed, understanding. I leapt to my feet with my boots untied and scurried after him. I squatted next to him as he threw massive handfuls into the carton-scoop.

“This is BRILLIANT” he announced, throwing one last handful into the carton and bounding out the garage door, headed for a corner of the yard where the squirrels roamed free and hungry.

“Mhmm, now the squirrels will NEVER go hungry during winter!” I trotted after him, laughing as my boots threatened to come flying off. I arrived as he finished half-burying the carton so that the acorns were at ground-level. He padded the dirt back into place with a trowel. “Come on, we’ve gotta make DOZENS of these!”

We made dozens of carton-scoops, each brimming with enough acorns to make the most stone-faced squirrel faint with delight. We embedded them around the yard, and come winter, we even made sure to shovel the snow off of each of them so that hungry squirrels might be able to find them. “For the squirrels!” we laughed together, again and again.

* * * * *

It’s now ten years and one tragedy later, and I, wearing the red-and-black patagonia and blue jeans, stumbled upon an original carton-scoop. It was hardly concealed and full of soil, and its sight brought this memory into the corners of my eyes. It’s a relic from a reality that has long changed, now fuzzy and gilded with time.

But it is not a sad memory, rather, it is brimming with joy and love and poignance; it is crisp and untouchable and permanent, and it will always be with me. For me, it illustrates the importance of perspective, that life is the way that you perceive it to be. There is no reason that yard work or shoveling or tedious problem sets must be tedious or offensive. There is similarly no reason why a golden sunset or a gathering of friends must be joyous. Our existence is governed by interpretation— how we associate event with sentiment. This is not necessarily a subconscious occurrence: we do have agency in interpreting each of the facets of our life. Crumpled plastic in a bin does not in itself feed a squirrel — until you let it! So in the grandest sense, redefine the boundaries of your life. How might you reinterpret garbage into happiness? Where is your sadness merely a result of diseased perception? Look carefully— it is often a choice. Find new perspective. Acceptance is a cardboard prison. Knock it down and look around; do any squirrels need feeding?

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