Buenos Aires: Duality

Part I: The Airing of Grievances (A Festivus Miracle)

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‘Nah it’s ok guys remember we don’t believe in subtlety’

I failed. I attempted to reconcile my differences with the insanity of Buenos Aires, and I returned from Montevideo to discover that much to my surprise, I’m still yet to be convinced. I have to admit, this is also bad timing as I am currently on a plane to Santiago, Chile, watching Buenos Aires fade into the horizon for probably the last time ever. Last night, walking through the city at midnight while drunk on Fernet again, and realising I was about to leave the city, I confusingly felt both sad and happy at the same time. I’m fully aware this may come across as fairly insulting, so I apologise to any Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) who may be reading, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it; I was happy because I was leaving, and sad because I was happy. This is not how I envisaged the first stop of my trip ending – cutting Buenos Aires short so I can get out, and spending much of the time I had designated for the city taking refuge in a totally different country across the River Plate. Then again, as I’ve made clear before, it’s difficult to equate this sort of experience to the kind you’d get on, say, a five-day city break to Scandinavia. On circumnavigational journeys of this magnitude, I’ve realised that, as much as it may upset you, you have to take a bullet every once in a while, and that not every city is for everyone. You have to chop and change as you go, adding time in some places, removing some elsewhere. It’s an ugly side of travelling, but one that I think, in a way, feels more authentic. You don’t travel to be in permanent, stress-free paradise. You quit your job (or get made redundant, whoops), you give up your room and you say goodbye to your home country because you want something bigger than that. Not some soul-searching, faux-spiritual nonsense, but just… an experience. Something different. If you set out expecting only great moments with great food, great sights and great people, travelling is not for you.

However, on a similar note to my initial one, what arguably frustrates me more than my inability to appreciate Buenos Aires is the number of foreigners who bullshit themselves into believing the city is an unending masterpiece; God’s gift to urbanisation. Obviously I’m not being a total cynic, and I am fully aware that many people truly and genuinely love Buenos Aires, and really find their ‘spiritual home’ for lack of a less wanky term. There are people who wholeheartedly embrace its impressive bohemian arts scene, its gastronomic diversity, its intense energy and its weird hobos who ask you for a sip of your beer on the street. Then there are those infuriatingly naive people who praise literally every single thing about the city, as if it has no poverty, as if it has a perfect infrastructure, that it’s somehow ‘better’ than anywhere in Europe. On that note, I’m not saying it’s worse than anywhere in Europe, as it’s impossible to compare continents like that unless you’re an idiot, and on that subsequent note, I have actually had one person suggest that Buenos Aires is ‘better than anywhere in the Western World’ (what is it if it’s not Western?), and I’ve even heard people bother to rave about the flavour of the goddamn tap water, which is widely regarded as tasting like shit. What is interesting about these people, however, is that as soon as I mention to them that I’m not so sure I’m BA’s biggest fan, they’ll start to question their own love of it.

I’m not being a killjoy on purpose; it’s very easy to spot when someone is bullshitting about this kind of thing, simply for the fact that they gravely overcompensate for any doubts they have by going completely overboard with sycophancy. Even the most hardened, loyal, born-and-raised Buenos Aires residents I met were quick to complain about a myriad of aspects of the city, be they economical, administrative, infrastructural or otherwise. I feel like more travelers than meet the eye objectively know there are many great things about this city, but will not admit that subjectively there are other things that need improvement. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you cannot claim that Buenos Aires is a perfect utopia (if simply for the fact that no city is a perfect utopia), yet people do it anyway. I love London, but there are a million things I also dislike about it.

Which brings me to another point – you cannot compare Buenos Aires to London on a superficial level at all. Whenever I commented on the intensity of Buenos Aires to other travelers, they’d say ‘but you live in London! How can you complain about Buenos Aires?’. London is literally half a world away from Buenos Aires. If, in your eyes, two cities can be considered similar simply because their population is above ten million, you need to re-evaluate the way in which you absorb different cultures. Perhaps in terms of statistics, or in the way the pointless Human Development Index looks at it, the two cities may have more in common than I think, but from a subjective, personal viewpoint – literally the only way it is possible for me to experience both cities – they are totally, totally different. It has literally never been 40°C in London. London does not have choripan, London does not have two-litre bottles of beer for £1, London does not have the SuperClasico, London does not have neighbourhoods where locals have said ‘don’t go there because you will get mugged’, London does not have beautiful Spanish colonial-era architecture. And do you know what else? It might seem pretty damn obvious but London is not a Spanish-speaking city. As an Englishman, me turning up expecting that I could just swoop into their culture like a Tetris piece falling into place would indicate a more insulting level of disrespectful ignorance than suggesting that Buenos Aires is a challenging travel destination in the first place. Going from one big city to another doesn’t mean shit – no two great cities are the same – and it blows my mind that many people seem to think they are.

 

Part II: Screaming Midget

Now that’s over, I can finally comment on the what’s happened since I wrote the first part of this post. While that was one the plane, I now find myself in Santiago, having waited at the bus stop for two hours, during which my bus was half an hour late. In the complete chaos of San Borja Bus Terminal, it’s easy to get completely freaked out when your bus randomly doesn’t turn up on time. There are no departure boards, no staff to speak to, and – most infuriatingly – about 50 gates for buses to arrive at, and you have absolutely no idea which one yours will appear at. You have to be vigilant, you have to attempt to ask other people what’s going on, and most importantly, you have to be patient. I’ve since discovered that it’s horrible being patient.

We set off on the 7 hour bus journey north to La Serena about 3 minutes ago, but we’re currently stopped at a corner shop about 200 yards from the bus terminal, and all three drivers (three drivers?) have jumped out, and gone and bought beer.

Sitting on the plane earlier, my phone and laptop both died and I had time to reflect on the past couple of days, while a video played overhead of what I can only assume was some sort of Brazilian package holiday advert but involved people manically riding round a city in a golf cart looking like Jack Nicklaus on meth. The end of my time in Uruguay and my subsequent return to Buenos Aires was filled with some rather strange moments, and, of course, strange people. My ferry from Uruguay was delayed by four hours for seemingly no reason, so the crowd of waiting passengers at the ferry terminal in Colonia was getting agitated at both the delay and the lack of information about the delay. After an hour or so, the crowd started whistling, booing and hissing at intermittent intervals, at which point the Colonia Express staff obviously realised they needed to send in the big guns.

With his high-pitched shriek parting the crowd like the Red Sea, a 5ft tall bald man with a shirt, tie and microphone came bursting into the room in some sort of last-ditch attempt at crowd control. Within a few seconds of talking he realised his Madonna-esque head-mounted microphone was broken, and instead of trying to fix it or replace it, just started screaming everything he needed to say. Like an insane, shiny-headed troll in the corner, he (I think) told everyone in an increasingly hoarse voice that there was no more information yet. The crowd closed in on him, shouting in Spanish and waving their tickets, and I pushed to the front to ask if he spoke English. “YES!” he said, so I asked what was going on, and he responded by shouting YEEEES!. I gave up and sat back down until another staff member appeared. Due to the sheer number of boats leaving that afternoon, I started to worry I would miss mine, so I approached this other staff member with my boarding pass, and before I could even ask if she spoke English, she saw it and said something very pointedly (while also pointing at the waiting area) in Spanish. I again asked her if she spoke English, to which she just said a bunch more stuff in Spanish. I then attempted to ask her in Spanish if anyone spoke English, to which she yet again gave me a barrage of Spanish. Finally, I told her in very clear Spanish that didn’t understand – for the fourth time, another aggressive reply I didn’t understand, so I just totally lost my shit and very forcefully said Why are you doing this?! I don’t know what the f*** you’re saying!” at her. The response, predictably, was just more Spanish. I walked away.

A special shoutout for Weird Person of the Week goes to Bruno the taxi driver. After my ferry arrived at a port in Buenos Aires that A) I wasn’t expecting, and B) is under a motorway in a sketchy neighbourhood with no transport links or cash machines, I walked for twenty minutes with all my luggage to the gentrified Puerta del Madero, at which point I promptly collapsed into the first taxi to come my way. Enter Bruno; a large 30-something Porteno wearing a full Argentina kit (including shorts and socks). Usually when you get into a taxi in a foreign country and the driver speaks absolutely no English, your best bet is either to attempt to speak in their language, or to remain silent. Old Bruno here, however, was a man of gumption. He promptly got out his enormous Samsung Galaxy and opened the Google Translate app. He pressed the microphone button and spoke into it, asking me where I was going. I told him the corner of Avenida Rivadavia and Libertad. He said OK, then picked up the phone and said something into it. He handed it back to me, and a little computerised American voice said ‘Do you like football?’. I replied into the phone ‘Yes, I like it very much, and Carlos Tevez is my hero’. After a little robotic Spanish man’s voice translated it back to Bruno, he said ‘OH! Manchester United?!’. I said ‘No, West Ham United!’. He knew his stuff; ‘Ah that was Tevez’s first team in England, he helped save them from relegation’. Obviously at this point he hadn’t suddenly become proficient in English; he was still talking through the translator like we were aliens attempting to communicate in some cheap sci-fi film. I arranged a lift to the airport the next morning with him, as his rates were a lot lower than the airport shuttle companies, and we departed ways at my hostel. The following night, after stumbling home drunk, I got into bed for a reasonably early night, ready for a 7am wake-up call. Then, in the darkness, my phone vibrated. It was Bruno asking me when I wanted to be picked up. I had already told him 8am, so I told him again, at which point there was a long pause. He then accidentally sent me a kissing emoji, then apologised in Spanish and laughed, then I laughed to make it less awkward. I fell asleep, only to feel the buzz of my phone again about an hour later. It was Bruno again. I unlocked my phone to reveal that he had sent me a low-resolution photo of Carlos Tevez playing for West Ham. In the middle of the night.

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The next morning I climbed into Bruno’s taxi van, at which point I noticed he had upgraded his Argentina kit and was now wearing football boots too. I pointed at them and said ‘porque?’. He got out the old translator app and translated ‘Oh I’m sorry about these, I was playing football yesterday’. Does he not know how to undress for bed? Did he wear boots to sleep? As the questions compiled in my head, Bruno handed me the phone to start a conversation. I started talking about my travels. If you’ve ever used the audio translate function on Google Translate, then you’ll be familiar with its often erroneous output. We talked about my travels, at which point I inadvertently told him I was going to ‘Easter Island, Bench Polynesia and Jelly Bean Zealand’, and during a conversation about music Bruno accidentally told me that he ‘loves Lenny Kravitz but sometimes he has too many bananas’ at which point I quickly moved the conversation-by-proxy on for fear that perhaps that last statement wasn’t an accident.

Arriving at the hopeless Ezeiza Airport, I told Bruno I had no change, so he let me run inside to the cash machine. First one I come to? Empty. Second? Empty. Third? Same again. There’s an unusual thing that happens in Buenos Aires, and to an extent the rest of Argentina; inflation obviously causes a drop in the value of money, and the Argentinian economy is on its knees at the moment, running at a rate of 40% inflation per year. As a result, more people need more money to buy stuff, and the cash machines are refilled every day except weekends. Thus, Friday evenings see long queues for cash machines all over the city, as people get out enough to last them the weekend. I had arrived at the airport too early for any of the machines to have been refilled. I tried fifteen different machines. All empty. I left Bruno outside like a lemon, and once I finally got my hands on some cash (McDonald’s does cashback?), I ran outside, superfluous McMuffin in hand, for Bruno to tell me that we had overstayed the short-stay parking limit. Which was true; he wasn’t trying to con me, so I paid up, said goodbye to my strange taxi man, went back inside, checked in, and sulked with my McMuffin until my plane took off.

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A mixture of fear and shame

And finally, a shoutout to Ines, who was my partner-in-crime as we trawled the city looking for a piano for me to play. Sitting at lunch in a specialist cheese restaurant, drinking some of the worst wine to ever have graced my oesophagus, we decided that I should play piano. I don’t really know why, but as soon as the idea was put forward, I suddenly craved it, and we went on a mission to bars, cafes and tango clubs trying to find a piano they’d allow me to use. We then stumbled into a music shop around the corner from my hostel, at which point the guy hooked up a £5,000 electric piano and just… allowed me to sit there and play it. For a long time too. Obviously afterwards we had to give the spiel about how we’d think about it, like I was only pretending to look like a traveler and was secretly Mr Deeds about to piss £5k into the wind.

I’m currently still on this coach, somewhere north of Santiago and the scenery is very impressive. It’s like central Spain (think Spaghetti Westerns) but on steroids. The mountains are bigger, the landscape harsher and the sun more relentless. I just attempted to use the bathroom and I’m not entirely convinced you wouldn’t die if you stayed in there long enough – the door is almost impossible to open (including from the inside), it’s considerably hotter than a sauna, and is sat right on top of the engine, meaning I opened the door to – and I’m not joking – a thick cloud of exhaust smoke. In order to get as much circulation in so they don’t accidentally kill a passenger each journey, the staff had snapped part of the hinge of the bathroom window off to allow it to open further than originally designed, and wedged a full two-litre bottle of water between the glass and the frame, hanging out over the motorway. If that thing dislodges itself, someone behind us is either going to get a faceful of delicious bathroom water or a terrible brain injury.

They’ve just put on a Chilean dub of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a broken soundcard. Michelangelo sounds like he’s about to consume the souls of Raphael, Donatello and Leonardo. Only six hours to go now.

Gabe

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Montevideo: Yerba Mate Man

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Your typical mate calabash gourd

Without using violent facial expressions, it’s difficult to describe mate. To those who have never hit up this part of the world, that’s not me being overly-familiar; yerba mate – or just ‘mate’ (pronounced mat-ay) – is the name of an unusual hot beverage that Argentinians drink like it’s going out of fashion, and that Uruguayans drink like their lives depend on it. It’s a bit like a sort of strange grassy tea, but if my memory serves me correctly (I’m currently on a bus, on which the advertised wi-fi is predictably broken), it’s not actually tea. I’m glad I could be of such help. In fact, until I look it up, it’s stuck in a state of quantum superposition – it’s Schrödinger’s Mate, who sounds like a pretty cool guy.

Basically, to explain it like an idiot, you get a little pot thing and cram it full of mate, then pour hot water over it and drink it from the bottom up using a metal straw that has a built-in filter (you do not want that stuff getting in your mouth). You get a couple of mouthfuls per helping, then refill and repeat until you’ve had enough, or until the copious amount of caffeine involved gives you a heart attack. Walking around Montevideo, every street corner, every doorway, every park bench and every bus stop will have someone sat with a bunch of mate and a thermos flask, all day every day – it’s like a strange liquid religion over here. So I thought, when in Rome, do as the Uruguayans do, and get in on the action. However, I was warned beforehand that it is ‘a little bitter’. This is what I would classify as an understatement. It has absolutely no natural sweetness, and really tastes like… well, a plant. I’m not a connoisseur on the palatable properties of hay, but I imagine if you took some, ground it up and mixed it with a couple of paracetemol tablets, you’d get a flavour not dissimilar to mate. However, after a couple of rounds of forcing myself to drink it (for fear of looking like a social outcast), I now wake up in the morning craving its unrestrained chlorophyll, spend most of my waking hours combing the barrios of Montevideo looking for my next fix, and go to sleep wishing its bitter embrace would carry me to the land of dreams. I am now a yerba mate man. Or once I get to Chile in two days maybe I’ll forget it ever existed.

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A pleasant boat ride

Heading back to Buenos Aires today, which is something I’m dreading less than I expected I would. Uruguay is an awesome little country, and I’ve enjoyed my five days in Montevideo more than the previous 15 in Buenos Aires, but I’m willing to admit there must be more to BA that I’m missing. So I’m heading back – just for 48 hours – to see what more I can make of it, so I guess it may get a little messy.

Notable moments of the last couple of days in Uruguay include eating a late-night dinner and drinking Tannat on a rooftop overlooking the city, being recruited to film some fellow travellers busking on a cross-town bus, attempting to swim in the River Plate and ending up covered in various unbecoming substances, and going to see some live music with a couple of friends and spending large portions of the evening engaging in futile battle with an insurmountable army of mosquitoes and buying plastic cups of beer from a man who’d crafted a makeshift bar out of a wooden crate. Highlight of the night – other than Julian and Katrina’s excellent set (hi guys if you’re reading) – is a friend and fellow audience member suddenly slapping themselves in the face mid-song in a misjudged attempt to kill a mosquito. A moment I won’t forget in a hurry (also hi if you’re reading, you know who you are).

Onwards (or backwards) to Buenos Aires. Let’s give it one more go.

Gabe

(P.S. no photos this time as I am using the world’s worst internet connection. Sorry.)

Montevideo: McDontevideo’s

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Whoops, empty menu

Here’s something we can all agree on; one thing all humans love to do (and there’s a very high chance this isn’t true at all) is to – while travelling abroad – compare products, shops and restaurants that we also have at home. It can lead to some subtly surreal moments and entertaining little finds. I once found cherry blossom Nestea in Riga, Latvia; a Burger King that sold beer in Gijón, Spain; a supermarket that sold almost nothing but Coca Cola in Reykjavik, Iceland, and, most mind-blowingly; a McDonald’s that does a genuinely fantastic burger here in Montevideo, Uruguay. And I’m not talking some off-menu, gourmet choice here. Seeing as every shop in Montevideo closes at 10pm and I needed to save money on food, I hit the road in the hopes that I’d find some greasy empanada-serving kiosk or street food stall, but instead I slunk under the giant yellow M with a feeling of great shame, and ordered a Cuarto Combo (Quarter Pounder Combo), expecting the boring, dry, heartless burger I’ve known too well from drunken walks home through Kings Cross.

On a side note; are McDonald’s employees told to be a pain in the ass? Is it part of the job description? I’m not standing at the back of the restaurant looking up at the menu because I’m trying to waste your time, I’m doing it because you’d be more annoyed if I succumbed to your endless beckoning ‘hola’s without actually knowing what I want to eat, you obnoxious fools.

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Why this name. Why.

Either way, this burger had it all. Quality cheese, juicy beef, genuinely fresh vegetables. I don’t want to know how much money the UK restaurants are skimping on in regards to ingredients but this was a legitimately solid burger. I sat down (smashing my head against a low-hanging light) and stared out of the window onto the square below, eating this masterpiece with tears of joy forming in my eyes.

So what else happened? Me and Ines – a friend from back in Buenos Aires – reconvened in Montevideo and cycled a 25 mile round-trip (40 km for you metric heathens) to Don Ceriani – a tiny little beach/restaurant combo out on the eastern edge of the city – and had some of the best seafood of my life, straight out of the Atlantic onto my plate. Bit of calamari, bit of cod, bit of lemon, bit of mayo, bit of cerveza and boom. Happy lunch. Cycled back and got hideously burned after my sunscreen got lost in an impromptu swim in the ocean, then fell asleep at 6pm like a badass.

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Rainbow cloud

Today I woke up feeling truly awful so just… did nothing. Went for a bit of food, then sat and attempted to write this blog post, which has taken me almost 24 hours to compose. OH also I saw a rainbow cloud. And I was woken up this morning by the hostel kitten smacking me round the face.

Gabe

Montevideo: Bife de Araña

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A real Argentine steak

You read that right; it’s country #2 time. Like the daring, syphilitic Spanish colonialists all those centuries ago, I have crossed the River Plate from Argentina to Uruguay. However, I personally managed to avoid emotionally or physically abusing any aboriginals during my transit; in fact, in a sad little tugboat-ferry hybrid pumping out thick black smoke as it wobbled uneasily across the estuary, it felt more like I was on a school trip to the Isle of Wight in 2005 rather than on my way to gut the Incas of their precious metals. But either way, here I am in Montevideo.

Uruguay. The home of Edinson Cavani, of Diego Forlan, of Diego Godín – indeed of Luis Suárez himself. I have set foot in a country of footballing royalty and over-achievement; three million people, two Olympic gold medals, two World Cups, fifteen Copa Americas. All Latin American people will tell you that their country is the most football-crazy on Earth, and from an outsider’s perspective I was always inclined to lean toward gifting Argentina that title. Yet, bizarrely, I only found one native in Argentina who admitted to even liking football, let alone being crazy for it. And shortly after I swung the conversation toward Messi, Maradona and my beloved Tevez, he swung it off in a different direction. He wanted to talk about some islands off the coast of Argentina that have been the cause of a few disputes in their time. You might have heard of them. After such a weak demonstration of football fandom from Argentina, as soon as I got to Montevideo, I got in a taxi and started chatting football, eager to see if Uruguay would take the crown.

  • “So do you follow football?”
  • “Ah sí, football!”
  • “Great! Who do you support?”
  • “Oh support no-one.”
  • “Oh really? Not even Barcelona? Because of Luis Suárez?”
  • “I do not know this Luis Suárez.”
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You know shit is bad if Julián Speroni is comforting you

The conversation quickly drifted into incredulous, disappointed silence as I sunk back in my chair, put my chin in my hand, and looked up. At that exact moment, we had stopped at a traffic light next to a gigantic billboard of Suárez himself looking down on us, his little rat-faced stare towering over the avenue like an infallible hero of the nation. If you only knew, Luis. If you only knew.

To those of you who don’t like football; I digress. I guess there hasn’t been a blog update in a few days so there’s more to write than normal. There have been few highlights in the past few days, with copious amounts of booking and other organisation having taken up valuable time, along with day-long hangovers borne of atrocious South American alcohol. The main culprit being a 9pm-9am night of clubs across the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, fueled by an ungodly number of espresso martinis supplied by my trusty enabler Dan, a fellow traveler.

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La Bombonera

The next day I took a walk down to La Boca to check out La Bombonera, the iconic home of Boca Juniors – one of Buenos Aires’ major football teams and one half of the infamous SuperClásico derby match. The neighbourhood directly surrounding the staidum is a little sketchy; about six people – with a combined total of around two teeth – approached me to ask random questions in slurred Spanish, even once I tell them I can’t understand the most basic sentences in received-pronunciation Spanish, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a couple of close calls (and a few hostelmates being less fortunate) it’s do not let people stop you on the street in Buenos Aires. Somewhere in the city is a giant pile of wallets, cameras and mobile phones of the poor souls who made the ultimate sacrifice, and stopped dead in their their tracks at the sight of a dirt-encrusted man with a low-riding baseball cap waving around a pair of socks.

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The actually-quite-impressive Constitución Train Station

In fact, La Boca took the ‘dodgy neighbourhood’ vibe to an extent at which it became surreal. Walking through Parque Lezama, I witnessed a homeless man and what I can only hope was his son pelting a tree with stones. I was stood on the other side of the tree, so assumed they were either playing a game or maybe attempting the world’s slowest quest for timber, but when I walked round to the other side, and they paused for a moment, I saw a rat clinging to the side of the tree. Not moving, but very much still alive. Then – boom! This kid slung a rock as hard as he could and – I’m not exaggerating – it hit the rat flush in the face, knocking it off the tree. Then the dad tried again and he too got a direct hit. And a third, and a fourth. Their marksmanship was genuinely staggering, as was the rat’s inability to realise that it should RUN. After I subsequently realised I was about to witness a brutal murder (yeah, they were almost certainly going to eat this diseased little city park rat for sustenance), I turned away, only to look back at just the wrong moment as the dad slammed a boulder down on top of the little bastard. What a city.

Although, a rival for strangest moment so far would actually have to come from my brief time in Montevideo. Arriving at the bus terminal at 6pm, I realised I hadn’t eaten anything all day, so took a seat in a burger restaurant with quite comfortably the worst customer service I’ve experienced outside of England (and France). The waiter – who spoke English – had no idea what I wanted, as if asking for food in a restaurant was some sort of strange performance art I was attempting, and kept wandering off before I could finish my sentences. So when my truly bizarre ‘Hamburguesa Canadiense’ arrived, complete with whole hard-boiled egg, olives and mustard, and a spider jumped out of it and threw itself off the table just before I could take my first bite, I had experienced enough inexplicable bullshit in this place already that it didn’t phase me.

And yes, after convincing myself that my hunger may have been causing me to hallucinate, I ate the burger anyway.

Gabe