How I learned to slow down and smell the
Buenos Aires: Photo by author
One blistering summer, long before Covid-19, I abandoned Chicago to spend a few weeks in cooler climes — eating, drinking and hiking my way through three countries (Paraguay, Chile and Argentina). My friends and family all urged caution--that it wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone, that I'd be called an "ugly" or "arrogant" American.
In a way, I had to leave America before I could fully embrace and appreciate my own national identity. At home in the United States, I view myself as a freethinker who often disagrees with the status quo.
But when I'm traveling? Sure, I learned how to order salad in a beef country like Argentina, and I learned to stand my ground with wild taxi drivers. Most surprisingly though, I learned how very American I am. When I leave the country, I am astonished to discover that my Americanism is more than skin deep.
I value and guard my personal space. In some countries, people stand much closer than I'm used to at home, touch me too often, expect me to share my table, my stories, my air.
Once I was flying in cattle car from somewhere to Paraguay. (Seriously, the plane belonged to a cattle rancher.) I apologized a dozen times to the elderly man next to me, as he endured my fidgeting, jostling and spilling. Finally he touched my hand. “Please stop the worry,” he smiled. “You are not molesting me.
I expect everything to happen quick, faster, right now! In bathroom queues and restaurants, nobody is moving fast enough. People seem to be dawdling on purpose, just to get on my nerves.
On a connection from Asuncion to Buenos Aires, the flight was delayed again and again with no explanation or apology. The other waiting passengers simply nodded and shrugged, went for coffee or took a nap. I fumed in silence.
I am always multi-tasking. Music on. Composing email. One eye on the baseball scores, while cruising Amazon for new ebooks, uploading pics to Instagram and posting pithy retorts on Twitter, all at the same time.
When the flight finally left, dinner was served at about midnight. I simply moved my tablet to my lap, and added ‘eating’ to my juggling act. Listen-read-bite-click-read-bite-listen.
Everyone around me, however, including the children, took off their headphones, paused their movies, put their phones away. Stopped what they were doing.
Just. Ate. Dinner.
Determined to be a Citizen of the World, I decided to embrace the local thinking. The next morning, I had breakfast like an Argentine. I sat quietly in the hotel restaurant, smiling at other diners or gazing out the window. I had 2 cups of cafe con leche before I even glanced at the menu. I didn’t touch my phone once.
It was excruciating.
Finally, a waiter took pity on me and wandered over. He served me a lovely breakfast of pastry, cheese and my favorite fruit — a plummy Malbec wine.
Apparently, the Argentines drink wine the way the Germans drink beer. Which is to say, a lot. (I often had to wait hours for dinner, but I never once had to wait for a glass of wine.)
In South America, I had no choice but to slow down or stop moving altogether. To not simply endure waiting, but to appreciate it.
To yell less, and listen more.
To let strangers take comfort from my nearness and my warmth.
To stop rushing to the front of the crowd, and let the crowd form itself around me.
To release my need to steer the boat, and let the tide take me in.
Street Tango lessons: photo of author
8 weeks later, I arrived home to a still blistering but drizzly Chicago. I meandered over to the bus stop, smiling at random teenagers and staring at the silvery clouds. I lost my place in line half a dozen times, fascinated by a girl’s purple tattoo, or a Polish newspaper sticking out of an old man’s back pocket.
Finally the bus driver snapped at me and made me laugh. “You think I got all day lady? Get on the damn bus!”
When the pandemic began, all those lessons I learned in South America helped me deal with my cabin fever and Covid boredom. I had already learned to linger. To be still. To let my frantic thoughts churn themselves into exhaustion and finally drift away.
Hopefully soon, we'll all be back out there traveling the world, discovering that we are so much more alike than we know.