From my personal journal, three weeks after I returned from my third trip to Argentina:
“If you’re going to start a long trip on the wrong foot, why not begin in your hometown – hey, why not 3 blocks from your front door, making a mistake you never, ever make when you’re merely going across the river to see a movie or attend a poetry reading? Something that will set in motion a chain of events resulting in your missing an international flight, a concert 5000 miles away, an entire day of vacation? When I screw up, I do it well. Perhaps this is something to take pride in, rather than engaging in tornadoes of self-blame.
“I suppose in the end, I missed only an opera I wanted to see and one night in a mediocre hotel. But the low-self-esteem chain reaction that began with my taking the wrong bus in my own city of 30,000 people continued for a week, and I’m not sure I’ve completely overcome it even now, six weeks later. And the amount of money I wasted by not paying attention on my vacation is so ridiculous, I refuse to even tally it, for fear the self-esteem crash will last another couple of months.”
A bit melodramatic, but even now, another month later, I find myself wondering how I managed to get onto the #48 bus instead of the #43 bus – an operation I’ve performed with no problems whatsoever about once a week for six years. But the morning I had to catch the 43 on time – in order to make it to the shopping mall in the next town, to catch the Megabus to Manhattan, to catch the subway to JFK, to catch a 9:30 p.m. flight to Buenos Aires – I failed. And the failures continued all day and late into the night.
As soon as the bus turned off Main Street, I realized what I’d done. The 43 bus does not turn, but continues east on Main Street as it turns into Bridge Street, which becomes Russell Street and then Route 9. I’d been distracted with applying sunscreen or hand sanitizer or something, but when the bus turned, I snapped my head up and said aloud, “Oh, shit, I’m on the wrong bus!” My little adopted city is a friendly place – a woman asked me what bus I’d wanted, and a man helped me carry my suitcase down the steps to the sidewalk. In my panic, I first thought I could zoom back to Main Street to the next bus stop, but immediately realized it was too late to catch the 43.
Plan B: Rush down the bike path to the Greyhound station, which is also the taxi company office, and grab a cab to the mall, where I could barely make the Megabus. Brilliant plan – in a real city. Where I live, this translated to asking the dispatcher to call a cab. He knew there was no way in hell I’d be able to get one of the few taxis in town in the next 25 minutes, and it took me a while to understand this. Plan C: Whip out pathetic little pay-as-you-go cell phone and call everyone I can think of who might be free at 11:15 a.m. on a weekday morning and ask them for a ride to the mall. Another abject failure.
Finally I went back inside the station, where Mr. Taxi Dispatcher/ Bus Ticket Seller deigned to answer my questions after ignoring me for 20 or so minutes. I bought a ticket for the next bus, thinking that leaving New England at 1:30 p.m. would allow me to catch a night flight from New York to South America. I shouldered my daypack, left my suitcase in the bus station waiting area – fairly certain that no one would touch it in our nice college town – and trudged back up the hill to Main Street to buy some takeout food. It was a gorgeous day, unseasonably warm for mid-March, so I sat in the park, watching a couple of high school boys toss a football back and forth, and trying to shovel enough food in so I’d stop crying.
I’m not normally that weepy, although I have to watch it when my blood sugar level plummets. The waterworks seemed to be stuck in the on position because of hunger, lack of sleep, and the stress that precedes any of my long vacations – rushing around making sure everything’s packed, cleaned, done, the cat sitter has the house key, my passport is in my backpack… But this time, atop the usual madness of departure was another layer: fear. I didn’t understand why, as this was my third trip to Argentina, and the second journey by myself. I knew the center of Buenos Aires better than any major metro area in the world, I was much more fluent in castellano than I’d been during my last trip 10 months before, and I’d packed everything I needed – even the little outlet adaptor so I could charge my camera battery. Some of the feeling was vague uneasiness, and some was specific: I was afraid of not knowing where I was going in the New York subway system, and I was afraid of having my wallet stolen in Buenos Aires.
And atop these worries, another layer of more profound fear. Perhaps I should say that these apprehensions were intertwined, like vines in a forest, rather than layered like an English trifle. The deeper anxieties had to do with what we used to call many years ago in Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings “doing a geographic.” These days I use the phrase “mid-life crisis,” and I’ve felt reassured to discover I’m far from the only middle-aged woman here in our Happy Valley who’s been wondering if she should quit her secure and dull-as-dishwater job, take a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Languages) certification course, and run off to another country for a year or a decade.
Every time I’ve gone to Argentina, I’ve spent too much time and energy studying the place and wondering, “Could I live here? Do I really want to?” I’ve imbued all three of my trips with too much meaning, so that they’ve been far more than vacations. I went the first time because the economy was lousy in the U.S. and much of the world, airfares had dropped by 40%, and for the first time in my life, I was simultaneously single and employed at a decent job with a few weeks’ vacation. But I went with a head full of questions about Argentina that I was unable to find the answers to with only 10 days in the country, a copy of Lonely Planet Buenos Aires, and low-intermediate Spanish skills hobbled by shyness. The second trip was a study tour about which I’ve written on this blog. My questions were answered, but, as is always the case with meaningful questions, the answers simply led to more interesting and extensive questions. So it goes.
And so I went, two hours late, to New York City. As usual, the traffic jam began in the middle of Connecticut, and we crawled, block by painful block, through Manhattan at rush hour. At first I enjoyed watching gay men in Chelsea from the bus windows, but I grew more and more anxious as dusk fell and Port Authority seemed ever out of reach. We finally made it. I wasn’t breathing easily yet, but I still had enough time to get to the airport. I wrestled my suitcase downstairs to the subway’s A/C/E platform, confused by the temporary signs about construction closing certain lines after certain times of day. But I’d downloaded and printed my itinerary from the MTA’s Trip Planner web page, so I knew what train to take. What a relief!
But I might have learned something after years of relying on the internet to get me through the real world. I had the wrong train information for that platform. I knew something was off, so I started asking other commuters which train I needed to take. I almost got onto the wrong one before a man muttered, “Don’t take this one; you want the Far Rockaway.” I felt grateful to him, but it was dawning on me that by the time I caught the right train, it was going to be too late to check in and get through airport security. Then the Far Rockaway arrived, and I spent the entire ride leaning over my suitcase, engaged in the sort of prayer that’s less communication with a higher power than desperate hope that somehow this comedy of errors would end with a punch line that didn’t feel like a kick in the teeth.
But when those of us heading for our flights arrived at the Howard Beach-JFK Airport Station A, we discovered the Airtrain wasn’t running. At this point in my thwarted journey, it might not have made a bit of difference, but it seemed like one more broken link in the chain that had been my day, and I was still blaming myself for screwing up hours ago. Instead of the train, the transportation authority was running shuttle buses to all eight of the terminals. The passengers were jammed in by the dozens with our overstuffed luggage, and then the buses sat. I sweated and tried not to swear as the minutes ticked by. Finally people began to ask what was going on, and an employee replied, “We’re waiting for the Port Authority to tell us we can move.”
As I watched my watch’s minute hand move toward 9:30, I struck up a conversation with a young woman with a giant backpack. She was on her way to Peru because Machu Picchu was “on the bucket list.” I told her it was on mine, too, if I could ever stop visiting Argentina. Although she was in no danger of missing her 11:30 flight, she seemed more stressed out than I – she was trying to call a friend, as they’d miscommunicated about which gate was their meeting spot. She called my airline for me, but we couldn’t get past the automated numbers.
At that point it was too late anyway. I arrived at the counter five minutes after my flight time to see what could be done. The airline employee looked at his watch and gave me a little lecture: “Oh, this is no good, no good at all.” Thank you, sir – as if I hadn’t figured that out while perspiring on the platform below Port Authority. Yes, I wanted to say, I began planning this mess at 11 this morning, just so I could have an interesting day. He went off to talk to a higher authority, then returned and said they’d put me on standby for the next night’s flight. There was nothing else to do, so I went downstairs to the “hospitality” desk. The young guy there directed me to the shuttle that would get me to the shuttle that would take me to a motel, and I trudged off with my suitcase and backpack.
As I firmly believe that the journey is more important than the destination, I tried to enjoy the unexpected adventure. I had an interesting conversation about mid-life crisis with a woman a bit older than I who was on her way to a group tour of Turkey the following day, and after she’d been dropped off at the local La Quinta Inn, I chatted with a mother and her two daughters, one a teenager and the other roughly 10 years old. They seemed to love each other’s company, and their silliness was contagious at that hour of the night.
But I was exhausted and angry at myself, and when I finally made it to my room, I called a close friend in Minnesota and cried on his proverbial shoulder. I was spending the first night of my vacation not on a flight to Buenos Aires, but in a generic motel in Ozone Park, Queens, thanks to my own stupidity. I’d miss the opera at the Teatro Colón on Thursday night because I’d be on the plane. I felt like an idiot. Etc., etc. He talked me down off the walls, and I finally went to sleep around 1 or 2 a.m.
Checkout time was noon and the airport shuttle left at 12:30; I wasn’t in the mood to go into the city. On most trips I berate myself for only one thing: overpacking. But this time I was grateful I’d schlepped so much reading material. I read an entire (mediocre) book about the history of Argentine feminism; started another book, about political elites exploiting gauchos; and wrote a number of pages in my journal, the first entries in what ended up being 92 pages in less than three weeks. I’d decided to leave the electronic devices at home – ironically, my last cell phone call was in response to a query from my credit card company about why they were seeing a charge to a hotel in Queens, New York from the previous night.
Finally, at 9 p.m., I boarded the plane. Despite my fatigue, hunger (it had been hard to find vegetarian protein even in this airport in a major world metropolis), and disgust with myself, I began grinning. Tomorrow morning I’d be in one of my favorite cities again! My travel troubles were over!
It’s just as well I didn’t know things would worsen before they improved.