After threading through traffic on the main road for half an hour, the Citroen pulled up in front of the world-famous Recoleta Cemetery, guarded by a thick brick wall. Eva Perón, one of the most celebrated figures ever to come out of the country, had been buried there.
“I hope that my car will be okay if I park it here,” Lylia muttered as we pulled up on Guido Street, parking behind another car with a sticker reading “Viva la Republica Argentina!” slapped on its bumper. “I hope I won’t have to bribe any policemen not to give me a parking ticket.”
Deciding to risk it, we got out of the car and walked through the entrance, a large, neoclassical vestibule with white Doric Greek columns labeled “R.I.P.” or “Requiescat in Pace” (Latin for “rest in peace.”) It was quiet inside the cemetery; the sounds of the city muffled as we walked along the lonely, ghost-ridden paths. The place felt detached from the pulse of the city that throbbed just beyond the wall. The cemetery was laid out on a grid, a small city with tall stone mausoleums for buildings.
“‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina, the truth is I never left you,’” sang Samantha softly as we walked through the mazelike grounds, passing a man staring at a cross etched into the stone wall of a mausoleum, his eyes full of sadness.
“Is that song from Evita, the musical starring Madonna?” Lylia asked suddenly.
“Yes,” Samantha replied, her face turning red.
“Some Argentines were really insulted by that movie, and others thought it was really funny that those people were insulted. It depends on who you ask, though. People who believe that Evita was a saint were furious when the producers cast Madonna, who’s anything but saintlike, as Evita. However, it really pleased the people who dislike Evita because they could laugh at the people who were upset over it.”
“I see . . . but how did you feel about it?” Samantha asked hesitatingly as passed a white marble statue of a weeping angel.
“Well, frankly, I don’t see Evita as a saint, but I don’t dislike her, either. So I really didn’t care much about the casting. But my opinion about Evita is quite rare. You will find that most people here either love Evita or hate her.”
As the morning grew warmer, droplets of sweat began to gather on my temples. I wiped them away, wishing for a fan.
Eva Duarte Perón, as Lylia explained to us as we walked, was the most famous first lady of Argentina who ever lived and had died tragically from cancer at thirty-three. Eva grew up in a poor family, moved to Buenos Aires as a young woman, and became an actress. She met her future husband and idol, Juan Peron, at a charity event in San Juan and he became president two years later in 1946. However, the upper class relentlessly taunted her about her earlier poverty.
Wanting to show those who taunted her that they had picked on the wrong woman, Eva sent officials to seize property and goods from the upper class, and in turn gave their possessions to the descamisados, the poor and underprivileged, whose existence many wealthy people ignored. The Argentine people still talk about her life, which was full of controversy and drama.
Despite opposition from powerful people, Eva was an advocate for labor rights and women’s suffrage, and she ran the Eva Perón Foundation, a charity organization that gave away goods for the poor each year.
Following Lylia, Isabella, and Samantha through the web of paved paths in the cemetery, I noticed that the coffin in many of the polished marble mausoleums was clearly visible. In Argentina, bodies were stored above ground in mausoleums or in niches of walls. Anniversaries of death dates were strictly observed and family members visited the graves of their deceased relatives on the dates of their deaths. Lylia also explained that it was very expensive to be buried in Recoleta Cemetery and that most of the mausoleums we were looking at belonged to very wealthy people, including several presidents and well-known scientists. Some of the tombs had cost up to two million U.S. dollars. Recoleta was a place for the rich to flaunt their wealth after death and rest in a place that was the essence of peace and quiet.
“It’s like a miniature city in here, a city of the dead,” Samantha commented quietly.
Even the trees lining the central paths seemed melancholy, in mourning for the souls in eternal rest all around them. Crosses, cherubs, owls, roses, and frozen-faced weeping angels guarded the mausoleums, all images of the afterlife. The owls, Lylia explained, represented wisdom; the roses, eternal life; the cherubs, angels, and crosses heaven. Jewel-colored stained glass windows decorated some tombs while faded family photographs adorned others.
The air was heavy with prayers and, despite the presence of several tourists besides Samantha and me, the cemetery was a deeply sorrowful and otherworldly place. Each mausoleum listed only the name and the date of death without a birth date. A few cats wandered about, living creatures among the nonliving, slipping between the tombs and disappearing out of sight. Because of the financial crisis, Lylia explained, many people had been dropping off their pets in cemeteries and parks, because they could no longer afford to take care of them. As a result, the number of cats in parks and cemeteries had skyrocketed, and no one was sure of the exact number.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at Evita’s tomb, the entrance of which was adorned with iron roses. Several bouquets of wilted flowers lay at the base of the mausoleum, probably put there that very morning but quickly withering in the midday heat, giving off a strong, sickly sweet smell like honey. Several brass plaques on Evita’s tomb caught my eye, and I leaned in closer to read one.
“I have an uncontrollable desire to burn up my life. If by burning it I can shed light on the way and the happiness of the Argentine people, I shall return and be millions.”
Another plaque read, “Don’t cry for me, I am neither far away nor lost but an essential part of your existence, all the love and pain were foreseen; I carried out a humble imitation of Christ; let it be an example to those who follow me.”
Because I had stumbled across a lot of information about Evita before coming to Argentina, I was fascinated by this larger-than-life woman. When Evita had fallen ill, thousands of Argentines had cried and whispered prayers outside the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, clutching photographs of her to their chests and holding dripping wax candles. In her honor, someone with unbelievable loyalty had fasted to death. Some people, believing that Evita’s death might cause the apocalypse (which I thought was crazy), had even committed suicide.
I was amazed that one woman could capture the hearts of so many people and induce such madness in her followers. After the mass panic surrounding her death, forty thousand people wrote tear-stained letters to the pope, requesting her canonization.
Even more interesting was what happened after the military coup of 1955 that overthrew Evita’s husband and sent him into exile in Europe. To bury the memory of the Peróns once and for all, the incoming government wanted to get rid of Evita’s embalmed body.
Juan Perón had paid a prestigious Spanish embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara, one hundred thousand U.S. dollars to preserve Evita’s body. Ara worked on her body for a year, replacing her fluids with a mixture of glycerin and formaldehyde and coating her body with a thin layer of plastic. During this time, plans were made to build a monument in her honor. Evita’s body would be stored in the base of the monument and be displayed for the public. While the monument was being built, Evita’s embalmed body was displayed in her former office for nearly two years. The government wanted to get rid of her body but didn’t want to have a normal burial because of the madness that would surely ensue, so they appointed Colonel Moori Koenig of the Army Intelligence Service to guard the body and assigned him to find a secret burial place for it.
While he searched for an appropriate spot, he kept Evita’s body in the attic of an office building in Buenos Aires. However, something unexplainable and unsettling happened. The colonel let the affection of his soul take over, falling in love with the body and refusing to part with it. After rumors arose that he had performed inappropriate acts with it, the military dictatorship had to seize the body. He ended his days as a shadow of his former self, drifting through the back streets of Buenos Aires, sad and dreamy, raving about his lost love.
After that incident, rumors spread that the military had hidden Evita’s corpse in various places in Buenos Aires, including private houses, and even, for some weeks, behind the screen of a movie theater in Palermo.
In 1957, in a moment of clarity, the government finally figured out what to with Evita’s body and sent it to Rome to be buried there under the name of an Italian housewife. Pedro Aramburu, the president of Argentina at the time, arranged for the details of the burial to be written in a letter to be given to the next president in case of his death.
Eventually, the government returned Evita’s body to Argentina after eighteen years in Italy. News reports said that her nose was a bit squashed and she was slightly disheveled, but her golden hair was still beautiful, as smooth as silk and not a strand out of place. Rumor claimed that the only people with a key to her tomb were her family members, so it didn’t look like Evita would be leaving Argentina again. Some people believed that Evita’s body wasn’t even in the coffin in her mausoleum but stored in a vault three floors below it, with three different trap doors requiring three different keys to unlock them.
After leaving Evita’s tomb, we ventured to the outlying portions of the cemetery. There, the graves sat in ruins and a smell of life and death wafted through the stale air. Some bodies had been stored in niches in a wall, much like the layout of a morgue. Weeds poked their ugly heads through the lumpy soil among discarded trash. I wondered who these forgotten people had been and why their memories had been allowed to fade away.
This is an excerpt from Jamie Rockers new book, 6,000 Miles From Hollywood: A Tale of Wanderlust in South America coming soon to Amazon.com!
Africa. What does that word conjure up in your imagination? For me, it is of vast savannahs in a sun-bleached land, of empty drifting dunes, soft sandy beaches with turquoise waters, an ancient and raw frontier where the skies are set aflame with the setting sun, and where the most exciting wildlife on earth coexist. I had always wanted to go to Africa. It is one of those places that I wrote in CAPS on my bucket list and somewhere I described as "ESSENTIAL TO TRAVEL TO”. Although I have both traveled and lived abroad extensively, I always felt like Africa should be kept as the "final" destination in my traveling career. Not that I will never travel again, it just seems appropriate after trawling the globe, to leave Africa for last.
So after turning thirty, and realizing that there wasn’t much time left before life’s real responsibilities got in the way, I knew that it was time to go. So I gathered up my resources, suffered through eight vaccination shots against various deadly diseases, pinched my savings together, and took off on a three-month overland safari through Africa. Safari is a Swahili word that means “journey”. Someone “on safari” was away and out of town, which summed up my trip perfectly.
Many people had asked me why I was going to Africa of all places, a continent that had seen horrible poverty and atrocities committed over the years. I wanted to see the Africa beyond what the newspapers and media said, the simple Africa that had nothing to do with war and poverty, child soldiers and corrupt politicians. I wanted to take a closer look at this continent and interpret it for myself.
I often wondered why people who wanted to travel didn’t travel extensively more. Studies conducted with elderly people who are nearing death have shown that many of them wished they had travelled more. And not all the people who travel extensively do so because they are considered "lost".
In my own life, I have travelled and learned a lot and chose the life of unknown possibilities. And like the famous poem from Robert Frost about the fork in the road, it has made all the difference. Sometimes I think that we try to plan our lives out perfectly but we forget about luck. Luck happens to us all the time and whether or not we act upon those opportunities is up to us.
My first destination was Kenya. Upon arrival into Nairobi, the weather was perfect. It was sunny with dry heat and no humidity. It was heaven after being in England for so long (I’m American but currently living in England), with rainy and overcast days ruling my life for the past few months. From the window of my taxi from the airport, I watched scenes of Nairobi life; lean, ebony-skinned women with shaved heads dressed in long skirts with colorful African prints on them, some of them carrying bags of food on top of their heads; groups of smiling kids in school uniform walking to school, their hair braided in cool patterns, men dressed in long sleeve shirts and pants sitting along the side of the road in groups, chatting the day away. Lots of road workers stood about next to large holes in the earth just chatting. Strangely enough, it didn't really seem like anyone was working or at least, they weren’t working hard.
Vendors with paintings, towels, potato chips, and ice cream wandered amongst the traffic when it stopped, gazing at drivers and passengers with hopeful eyes. Matatus lined the road, picking up people at random. Matatus were like mini-vans that carried a lot of people, most of whom sat on each other’s laps. Being too close to someone else was just something you had to get over if you lived in Africa. The matatu drivers loved to get as many people as possible into their vans because, naturally, more people meant more money. Lots of big dump trucks carried dirt past us and the air was filled with choking dust. I pulled my blond hair into a tight knot and slipped on a pair of sunglasses as the wind blew through the cab and the sun shone down with intensity. I was excited to begin my journey. It was the start of a new adventure and I was feeling the newness of these foreign surroundings for the first time.
Some of the workers sitting along the side of the road stared at me with vague interest. I, of course, could not possibly go unnoticed here with my blond hair, green eyes, and pale skin, not to mention the huge backpack I was carrying on my petite frame. I was the foreigner here, the mzungu, which in Swahili meant “white person”. The backpack was nearly the same size as I was and screamed out “tourist”.
“Look sister,” the taxi driver said, pointing to two giraffes grazing in an adjacent field separated by fence.
“What? I see them. Yes, two giraffes grazing!”
It was my first wild animal sighting in Africa and it had happened within thirty minutes of being in the country. And this was all after just coming from the airport. There was also a Maasai with his herd of goats in the large field.
“This land is government protected,” the taxi driver explained.
The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group and are one of the many tribes in Kenya. They are semi-nomadic, and are perhaps the most famous of all the tribal groups in Africa due to their unique style of dress and their custom of drinking cow blood in their diet. The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, but the people have continued their age-old customs. I hope they weren’t planning to abandon their customs anytime soon. Seeing them was like stepping back in time, a time that I could only imagine from looking at them. Because there are so many tribes in Kenya, many Kenyans consider their nationality to be of their tribal affiliation rather than of being ‘Kenyan’, which I found very interesting. Therefore, the Maasai would identify with being Maasai before Kenyan.
Kenya was a place where archaeological excavations around Lake Turkana in the 1970s had revealed skulls thought to be around two million years old and those of the earliest human beings ever discovered. What an exciting thing to think, that the first humans had potentially come from the very land that I was standing upon! Not to mention a land that played host to the annual wildebeest migration, which is the largest single movement of herd animals on the entire planet.
Nairobi, my jumping off point, had a population of 3 million people. The fact that its nickname was “Nai-robbery” did not comfort me. Violent crime and extreme poverty was a big problem of the city.
I was staying in the suburb of Karen, which was the wealthier suburb of Nairobi, in a place called Karen Camp. It was from here where I would depart on my overland adventure. Upon arrival, I checked into my dorm room and then decided to get something to eat. While I was perusing the menu at the bar for lunch, I chatted with an older white Kenyan guy.
“I like to come here for cheap beers,” he exclaimed, making his point by slamming his bottle on the bar top and laughing.
He seemed a bit lonely and anxious to share his stories with someone.
“I had a real wild time growing up in Kenya,” he reminisced. “I used to ride my motorbike really fast along the savannahs. But then I grew up and started to see all the problems that Kenya has, with the corrupt politicians. I think kids have it good, don’t you think? They can live in their own peaceful and innocent worlds without knowing the real truth about the world.”
I nodded, taking a sip of Tusker beer, the most popular Kenyan beer. I was disappointed that the bar didn’t serve a local specialty of nyama choma (barbequed or roast meat). I had heard that you could buy the meat (usually goat) by the kilogram; it’s then cooked over a charcoal pit and served in bite-sized pieces with a vegetable side dish.
Soon, a local Kenyan guy joined us by the name of Mr. Happy. Mr. Happy was very happy indeed, and I could see exactly how he had gotten his nickname.
“There are some strange rules that the Kenyan government enforce; no public smoking, no talking on cell phones in public, and a seriously crazy $4000 fine for loud noise,” he explained. “These rules all have a reason though, as people have been hit by cars while chatting on cell phones, and clubs with loud music have opened next to schools.”
Kenyans were conservative. I had noticed that women wore long skirts and covered their knees and shoulders when out. I could sense that even from looking at people on the street. The women were appropriately covered and there were signs for Christian churches everywhere. Religion, in the form of both Christianity and Islam, had a big presence in Kenya and this may have also contributed to the conservative way of thinking.
The bar began to fill with both expats and locals and it seemed to be a watering hole for the wealthier residents of Karen, most of whom appeared to be white. I suspected that many of these people had come from one of their fancy homes in the neighborhood, a home that was surrounded by high electric wire fence. Seeing these kinds of large houses with all their high security made me feel as though the gap between the rich and the poor might be considerably high in Nairobi. But it was just a guess. Mr. Happy told me that even in Karen, it wasn’t safe to walk around alone. I hated labels and stereotyping of an entire city or nation and I am a firm believer that there are many more good people in the world than bad.
However, “Nai-robbery” didn’t get its nickname for no reason. I planned to head Mr. Happy’s advice. He was a local after all, and he certainly knew more than I did.
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Savannahs & Sunsets: An African Overland Adventure, available on amazon.com
After a restful three days in Swakopmund, Namibia wandering around and going to the beach and local markets, we departed for Spitzkoppe, a series of rock formations in the desert. Spitzkoppe is one of Namibia’s most instantly recognizable landmarks and rises like a tower in southern Damaraland. This was where I would be spending my first African Christmas. We would be bush camping for two nights there and I was sure it was going to be one of the more interesting Christmas holidays that I had experienced.
We arrived at the amazing red rock monoliths in the early afternoon. They were huge rock formations, many of them like smooth balls piled on top of each other. It reminded me of Uluru and the Olgas in Australia. Some had smooth, sheer faces of red rock while other parts were just a huge pile of medium to small-sized boulders.
We set up camp at the foot of a large smooth rock mountain with smaller boulders piled on the top like marbles. It was a stunning location. The sky was a bright blue, the ground was white sand and surrounding us were giant red rocks reaching to the sky. It looked like we were on Mars. There were a few acacia trees here and there so I set up my tent under one of them to get some relief from the intense heat of the sun.
Along with a few others, I decided to climb some rocks. Some of them were really challenging, requiring you to jump across deep ravines and watch your step very carefully. It was fantastic and after crossing over one rock formation, we moved onto another. There were snakes in the area so we had to be careful, not to mention scorpions, lots of thorny bushes, and piles of small feces in the form of pellets. The feces pellets belonged to rock dassies, a small mammal which looked like a guinea pig that lived among the rocks in large groups.
The views were stunning from the rock formations, of endless desert that was so flat that there was just a single straight line on the horizon. Shrub brush dotted the landscape and I wondered how anything could grow in such a dry and intense heat. But there were obviously species who thrived here.
Down by the truck, a fire was started and dinner was beginning to be cooked. We sat around chatting about Christmas and then ate our dinner and roasted marshmallows. A blanket of stars was laid above us and they seemed so brilliant that I could touch them with my hand. Needless to say, I didn’t even need to use a flashlight. The stars provided enough light.
The next morning I woke up and it was Christmas! It didn't really feel like Christmas since I wasn't from the Southern Hemisphere, where it was hot on Christmas Day. I wondered what all the people I loved who weren't with me were doing. I was handling Christmas in the desert better than I thought. I had expected to be homesick throughout the day but somehow, Africa had fooled me into believing that there was no Christmas. I am the ultimate Christmas lover. I start putting up decorations after Thanksgiving and listening to Christmas songs a month before Christmas. I love the traditions, the food, the presents, the parties. But I had survived so far by simply being in denial. It worked a treat.
Our tour leaders were preparing a big breakfast for us, in addition to Christmas lunch/dinner. Breakfast was really good, with sausages, bacon, beans, eggs, toast, and juice.
After breakfast we decided to go rock climbing. An American couple in our group had rock-climbing gear as they were avid rock climbers and had found bolts on the side of a rock face about five minutes from camp. About nine people had a try at rock climbing. The rock face was actually really hard to climb and I only made about 60 percent of the climb before calling it quits. It was really much harder than it looked.
After rock climbing we had some snacks and sat around for a while until it was time for dinner. To pull off a Christmas dinner on a gas cooker is a pretty big feat but our tour leaders pulled it off. On offer were chicken, rosemary lamb, gravy, potatoes, carrots, cranberry sauce, and all the condiments that came with Christmas dinners. We went on another rock scramble after dinner, up the formations, and then watched the most amazing purple and pink sunset over the desert. That was probably the best present I could have received on Christmas. I had to really remember that sometimes, the best presents cost no money at all.
It’s popular all over the world. It’s the quintessential Japanese food and could be considered the earliest “fast food” in Japan. It’s a dish that consists of raw fish, vinegar-rice, and a smear of wasabi. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s SUSHI! But what is this thing that many people so readily gulp down at the drop of a hat and how did it come to be?
Surprise, surprise, the original form of sushi actually came from SE Asia, eventually making its way to the shores of Japan and accidentally becoming the sushi we know today. During ancient times, sushi was not a kind of food, but a way of preserving fish for fermentation, a verb instead of the noun we know today. This was called nare-zushi.
Fish was preserved in fermented rice and when it was ready for consumption, the rice was discarded and only the fermented fish was eaten. Consuming the fermented rice along with partially raw fish/partially fermented fish became popular during the Muromachi period, called sesei-zushi. This is where sushi began to be known not as a way of preserving food, but an actual dish. It wasn’t until the Edo period, at the beginning of the 19th century, that sushi became what it is today. Because of the popularity of food stalls in Tokyo or Edo, as it was called back then, sushi was made to be eaten easily and informally and this is the sushi we know today, called nigiri-zushi.
As a result of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, many nigiri-zushi chefs lost their jobs, packed up their things, and set out for somewhere else to settle and practice their trade, eventually spreading the popularity of nigiri-zushi from Edo to the rest of Japan.
Interestingly enough, we can still try nare-zushi today, near Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture, about an hour from Osaka, Japan. Carp from the lake are caught, scaled and gutted, and then packed with salt and stored for a year before being repacked annually in rice for up to four years. That’s a long time people! So if you go to Japan, forget about your goal to try fugu, (poisonous blowfish) and make a resolution to try nare-zushi!
I immediately noticed a different feeling about the place. The fresh alpine air filled my lungs as I took in a deep breath and a strange sense of peace and reverence washed over me. Koyasan, a sacred site on the top of a peak in the Kii Mountain Range (Wakayama Prefecture), was definitely another world, far away from the hustle and bustle of daily life below it. Little did I know, I had arrived on the day of Kechien Kanjo, one of the most important ceremonies of Shingon Buddhism. In this ritual, wisdom water is offered to the participants in order to wash away the worldly desires. I wondered if it really worked and decided to find out.
After taking the bus to the main area of Donjon Garan, I blindly followed a group of pilgrims carrying walking sticks with jangling bells. They were wearing all white clothing and cone-shaped bamboo hats. Some were chanting sutras. Everyone carried a votive candle and a handful of brightly-colored flowers. I followed them along a dirt path lined with stones until we reached a clearing. Before my eyes a towering orange and white pagoda stretched into the sky. It was dusk and fire torches flickered around the pagoda. The air was heavy with incense. Monks dressed in vibrant ceremonial shades of orange and purple tended to the shrine inside the pagoda, performing rituals as both pilgrims and bystanders watched on.
“Welcome,” an old man as wrinkled as piece of dried fruit said to me with a gap-toothed smile as I stood solemnly in front of the shrine, bowing my head in reverence.
“Arigato gozaimasu,” I replied, bowing.
I walked on. Near the edge of a thicket of towering cedar trees was an enormous wooden structure, one that (in my opinion) rivalled Nara’s Todaiji Temple as the largest wooden structure in the world. I figured this structure, called Kondo, was at least the second.
After consulting my trusty brochure given to me by the nice people at the train station, I saw that it had been built by Kukai in 819 (although the present hall was built for the 7th time in 1932). Kukai, or Kobo Daishi (his posthumous name), is the Japanese monk responsible for spreading Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He lived from 774 to 835 and during his life travelled to China to study with the mystics there. After returning to Japan, he founded Koyasan as a retreat away from the world. Koyasan, surrounded by eight peaks, was selected because the terrain it lies in resembles a lotus plant. There are several sects of Buddhism in Japan, including Tendai, Shingon, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren. Kukai is the founder of Shingon.
Although the pale gray of dusk had set in, I decided to forget about curing my desire for worldly treasures and head to Okunoin, a massive graveyard among the towering cedar trees of the Koyasan forest. From Donjon Garan, it was about a fifteen minute walk to Sando, the entrance path. Along the way, shopkeepers were closing up for the day and the streets were empty and silent. I wondered if I should really be wandering through Japan’s largest graveyard at night.
Upon arrival however, I was relieved to find the entrance path lined with lanterns that cast a flickering pale glow so I could see where I was going. A few other brave souls had also decided to venture through the graveyard at night and the only sound was the wind in the trees. The graveyard was impressive to say the least, filled with the headstones of monks, military commanders, and a few commoners. Passing by some of the towering headstones, I noticed the older ones were written in Sanscrit, the language of Buddhism from India, circa 4th century BC.
Because of the festivities going on, I passed a few monks along the path and two kilometers later, I arrived at Kukai’s mausoleum in the heart of the forest, next to the quiet Tama River. Because of the festivities, the mausoleum was still open and monks flitted about quietly, replacing incense sticks. Monks still bring food to Kukai everyday, as they believe he is not dead but meditating. They feed and change his clothes everyday and no one but the highest monks are allowed to see him. The mausoleum was bedecked in gold lacquer and red upholstery. A group of pilgrims chanted sutras in Sanskrit and I felt like I had been transported to another world.
As I turned around to leave, I noticed with dread that the sky was black above me. Graves stretched before me as far as the eye could see and the trees shifted in the wind. A bird cried out. As I began to walk quickly along the path through the forest, I made a mental note that next time, I would definitely come back during the day.
“Why don’t you come join us?” asked a petite young woman, handing me a flier for the Tango School Academy Dandi in San Telmo after Spanish class the following day. “Tonight is a demonstration lesson at seven P.M. and it’s free,” she added, sounding unusually enthusiastic for an Argentine.
It had to be fate. I couldn’t pass up a free tango lesson (that was one reason I was in Buenos Aires, after all), so I went home to change. Half an hour later, after taking a city bus to the address on the flier, I arrived at the studio where students of all ages were stretching gently to Carlos Gardel’s Soledad. His velvety voice filled the room, a lullaby sung in colors.
Gardel is credited with taking the tango out of the Argentine brothels and into New York and Paris. Only after the dance became popular abroad did the Argentine elite finally accept it. People still say that Gardel “sings better every day” even though he has been dead for years. I had heard that his fans still visit him daily at his mausoleum in the Chacarita Cemetery, the second most famous cemetery (after Recoleta) in Buenos Aires. I’ve also heard that his fans keep a lighted cigarette in the left hand of his life-sized statue at nearly all times. I’m guessing the man liked to smoke.
Why am I here? I asked myself, looking around the room. The music made me sad. It was soulful, moving, and heartbreakingly romantic. Something about it spoke to me. I just hoped that it wouldn’t send me running to the psychiatrist for a prescription for Prozac.
Suddenly, I froze. Standing at the front was Marco, dressed in a fitted T-shirt and black pants, talking to a leggy woman wearing a black dress with a long slit up the side, fishnets, and black patent leather tango shoes. And just as I started to turn to leave, my nerves shaken, I heard Marco’s familiar voice calling out to me.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me in surprise, coming over and dashing my plans for a quick escape.
“Well, I’m taking classes at the University of Belgrano and someone gave me a flier for today’s class,” I explained, embarrassed and feeling the need to explain that I wasn’t really a stalker. “I didn’t know you were teaching here.”
“Well, although there are several schools in San Telmo, you’ve come to the right one.” He smiled, his green eyes twinkling. “So, you’re interested in tango, huh?”
“Yes, but I’ve never danced it before,” I answered weakly. “And I was just getting ready to leave.”
“Leave? Oh no, you can’t do that. If you stay for the first class, I promise to take you to a milonga. But first you have to learn the basic moves of the tango milonguero, right?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said, my hopes rising. “Okay, I’ll stay.”
It wasn’t long before Marco and the leggy woman with the black tango shoes were at the front of the room, illustrating el pechito Argentino, the basic posture in tango, in which both partners stick out their chests. Partnered with a tall old man who must have been in his seventies, I took his hand with quiet determination. We both attempted to stick out our chests as far as we could and lean slightly toward each other with our heads held high. Although we were both trying to be as graceful as possible, we kept stepping on each other’s toes as we tried to follow Marco and his partner’s movements. The old man accidentally kicked me in the shin and I bit my tongue to keep from crying out in pain—not the shining image of tango that I had envisioned.
“Keep your head tall and point your toe. Let your hips do the talking, and don’t be afraid to get close,” the female instructor advised as she walked by me.
The last part, especially, was easier said than done, especially with a partner who was old enough to be my grandfather. It would have helped to have a partner closer to my own age with whom I had a bit of chemistry. Nevertheless, I respected the old man for attempting to learn the tango so late in his life and did my best to dance well with him.
After about an hour of learning basic postures, the class watched in silence as Marco and the leggy woman danced an advanced tango number with the deep connection between two people who know each other well. I watched in awe as they kicked their legs and twirled around, demonstrating ganchos, or “hooks,” where one partner inserts a leg between the other’s, hooks it around an inner thigh, and squeezes. I wondered how long it took to learn that move. As graceful as the morning mist, they moved as one, their feet barely touching the floor. My thoughts drifting, I couldn’t help wondering what Marco and Olivia looked like when they were dancing the tango together. Probably fabulous, I decided.
After their demonstration, we switched partners. This time, my partner was closer to my age, a man with kinky black hair and a leering smile. I could have kicked myself for wanting to change partners.
“Stop thinking so much,” the female instructor commented to me, tapping me on the shoulder as she observed us trying to perform a gancho on our own. “I can see your brain going a thousand kilometers per minute. Tango is about feeling, and you’ll have to learn to stop thinking. Let him lead.”
I certainly didn’t want to give control to my leering partner, but I had to remember that tango was about giving the man control. Above all else, it was about trusting someone else and letting go. It was hard for me to do.
“Let me show you,” Marco said, coming over and pulling me to him.
Taking a deep breath, I summoned all the confidence I had and began to follow his lead. Suddenly, I was moving without thinking, dancing without tripping, and even starting to enjoy myself. I was dancing tango (I think)!
This is an excerpt out of Jamie Rockers upcoming book, 6,000 Miles From Hollywood: A Tale of Wanderlust in South America available now on amazon.com!