The pint-sized porteno stands to teach, gesticulating emphatically with his hands as he holds forth, sweating through his dingy T-shirt and lecturing us passionately about the history of Argentina, taking care to speak slowly so we can understand his Castellano. My third week of Spanish school in Buenos Aires has landed me with this firecracker of a “maestro.” Until this week Pablo was out sick from work, hospitalized with a nasty lung infection. Even now he occasionally stops teaching to cough, a deep hack that wracks his small frame and leaves him spent and out of breath.

The classroom is warm and humid, with a noisy window unit reluctantly spitting tepid air into the small space. Five students sit around the U-shaped tables, representing five different countries;  I’m the token American. Across from me, a portly, forbidding woman with severe eyebrows jots something down in the notebook in front of her. She’s visiting from Ukraine, and her name is Dragona. We begin every class by reporting in Spanish what we’ve done during the previous day, and her reports always involve heavy drinking and late nights with the other members of her hostel.  

Across from me, a portly, forbidding woman with severe eyebrows jots something down in the notebook in front of her. She’s visiting from Ukraine, and her name is Dragona.

Our teacher, a self-described Marxist, is lecturing about “la dictadura,” the dictatorship that took place in Argentina from 1974 to 1983, during which the military government hunted down, kidnapped, and “disappeared” some 13,000 left-wing political dissidents, especially citizens with socialist or Marxist leanings. This is the hot button political issue among Argentinians; the Dirty War happened recently enough that many of them remember the events or have family members who were affected by them. As Pablo begins to soliloquize about how much better Argentina would have fared under a communist government, Dragona leans in and begins arguing vehemently with him: she grew up under a communist regime in Ukraine, she has seen the effects of communism first hand, and history has proven that communism is not going to solve anyone’s problems. He would be foolish to think otherwise. They go at it for a few minutes, eventually coming to a detente; the class continues.

I scoot out a few minutes early so as not to miss my tango lesson, making my way quickly to the underground “subte” and walking down into the heat to catch my train, my dress sticking to the backs of my legs as I hold onto the handrail, grinning at the culture clash and the way that international travel makes such strange moments possible.

*****

How did I end up here? This wasn’t a trip that I planned overnight. I knew a year in advance that I wanted to take an international trip the following winter, and I spent six months carefully saving money, planning my itinerary, and watching airlines ticket prices to score the best deal. The seasonal nature of my work made taking time off simple: my pottery “season” ends at Christmas and doesn’t pick up again in earnest until spring shows begin in late April or early May. I need some of that time to replenish the inventory that sold over the holidays, but even so, winter is always a slow time of year. Rather than waiting out the cold weather in Asheville, last year I elected to spend a month in Argentina, improving my Spanish and dancing tango.

I think many people avoid international travel because they imagine danger or prohibitive expense, but in fact, well planned international travel can be safe and affordable. Reading both the “Argentina” and “Buenos Aires” Lonely Planet guidebooks before I left home alerted me to common scams (no, there is no 500 peso note in Argentinian currency, despite what some shady money-changers might tell you) and while I occasionally got catcalled or hassled by touts while I was out and about, I felt comfortable and safe during the majority of my trip.

Advance research helped me save money, too. The Argentinian peso has experienced continual inflation in recent years; because of currency controls and the relative strength of the dollar, a black market existed in Argentina for American currency, and you could get much better rates from street money changers than you could from the banks. (Argentina lifted their currency controls in December of 2015.) If you were willing to head down to Florida street and follow a tout yelling “cambio, cambio!” into a money changing station disguised as a magazine stand, suddenly your vacation was 40% off.

If you were willing to head down to Florida street and follow a tout yelling “cambio, cambio!” into a money changing station disguised as a magazine stand, suddenly your vacation was 40% off.

The total bill for my month long South American adventure, including the flight, totaled less than $3000. Furthermore, I spent about $800 of that money on Spanish school, tango lessons, and two delicious pairs of handmade tango shoes; simply buying a flight and staying in an affordable hostel with a small budget for sightseeing or day trips would be much cheaper. Find a few kind couchsurfing hosts in your target country and you trim your budget down even more, to the point where it seems silly to stay home.

*****

Making my way through the throngs of people, I exit the subte, climbing the stairs to the bustling street. I walk five blocks and ring the bell at DNI tango; the buzzer sounds and I let myself into the entryway of the dance school. Pio, my instructor, is waiting for me, and he ushers me upstairs into a small, unairconditioned practice room with wood floors time-worn from countless ocho cortados. Pio is Italian and quite short, with loose gray curls forming a fluffy afro around his head. He speaks English fairly well, with the occasional language snafu, like the time I spent several minutes trying to decode his command to “heeg” him; I eventually realized that he was trying to say the word “hug.”

Today he leads me through a “practica,” a session that allows you to practice the concepts you’re learning in your formal lessons. He guides me through some back ochos, pausing occasionally to offer feedback. He continues trying to break me of the habit of bobbing up and down when I execute turns, offering an enthusiastic “eso!” (literally “that,” but more like “well done” in context) when I finally start getting it.

After my lesson, I stop at a small store for some helado- cheap, delicious, and energy packed Argentinian ice cream that serves as an indulgent meal replacement. The flavor names are listed in Spanish and I don’t know exactly what I’m ordering, but I’m feeling adventurous so I simply point at something that looks good. I’m not disappointed.

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