Thursday, August 30, 2012

Song of the South

It’s cloudy again. In Buenos Aires, August is a rainy month. It hasn’t rained for almost a week now, but it’s been cloudy. The apartment doesn’t get much light. When it’s cloudy it doesn’t get any. It’s like waking up in a cave: cold and dim. There’s even a dampness. I don’t know where it comes from, but I can tell by the way the cold seems to cling that it’s a damp cold. The construction equipment is running, which means it’s after 8 o’clock. When they finish the building in one area they start it in another. Every morning the air is rent with the sounds of steel being separated from steel. You can smell the ozone and oil in the air. The men yell to each other. Sleeping past 8, you risk being woken up into a bad mood. I look out the window to see where the sun is. Sometimes, even when the light coming through our windows is all old iron and dried bone, I look up between the buildings to find that the sky is blue. Today, it is cloudy. It’s nice because it’s cold. The clouds make you feel a little warmed when it’s cold. I get out of bed and make some coffee. When it’s percolating, I take it off the burner and pour it into two cups, both pastels, yellow and blue. Gina gets the yellow one. I place it on the bedside table for her and then I go out into the living room. There’s nothing in the living room so it feels cold and every sound is louder. My shoes clap on the parquet floor and I flop down on the polyester loveseat that’s always cold. I take my first drink of coffee and look around the room a little. Trying not to think in case part of a dream should come back to me or I should remember something in the unexpected way that you do in the morning. I think about work for a while, but dismiss it as a viable topic because I’ve been thinking about it too much lately and it’s an exhausted subject. A bar of Zippidy Do Da hums in the spaces between my thoughts, growing each time until it’s got words and even a video of a cartoon bird to go with it. In a short time, I find myself wondering about the part in the song where the bluebird leaves. I think about where he would’ve gone. It’s hard to stop thinking about stupid things like this sometimes. When Gina comes in, still half asleep and cradling her coffee mug like a talisman, I break from my reverie. We talk a little about our dreams. Both of us trying to remember and listen at once. The metal is being torn apart outside. We don’t try to talk over it, but pause as if it were a party of our conversation. I want more coffee before the cup is even empty. I want the warmth more than the caffeine, or even just the feeling of having a full cup of coffee; the feeling of the beginning of the morning when everything is still new and delicate. I think about going to the embassy, about going out into the cold and crushed streets. McDonald’s has been giving away free coffee all week. We can stop and get a cup on the way. That will bring back the new and delicate feeling, but it will only last an instant. We won’t have time to sit and rattle newspapers and drink our coffee in the beige McDonald’s dining area. We’ll have to drink it walking to the embassy. It’s never as good that way. At least the first few sips will be nice, before the cold gets in. We leave our apartment and walk down the echoing stairs. There is not enough room for us to walk abreast in the hallway so we walk single file. The echoing hallway and the smooth tile walls and walking in a line reminds me of being in elementary school. Outside, the air is almost always warmer. It’s the clouds and the lack of the cold building materials. The pneumatic breaks of the buses wheeze and whistle as they coast by. On the sidewalk, people in front walk at a slower pace and the people behind at a faster pace. The tendency is to walk in the gutter; it’s less circuitous and there’s not as much dog shit. Next door, the vegetable stand is displaying wooden boxes of produce from other parts of the country. It makes me think of the grapefruits I found by the side of the road when I went up north and how I sat in a field eating them. There is such a disconnect from the quiet places where these fruits and vegetables come from to the city street where they end up, the prices per kilo changing almost daily with inflation and crop quality. I wonder if we should walk a block over where the McDonald’s is. I can’t remember which block it’s on and I know there’s another further down past the intersection with Puereydonstreet. We decide to walk over to get our second cup of coffee earlier. As we walk, the coffee sloshes against the lid of the cup. When it sloshes up to where the small opening is it jettisons out and lashes the back of your hand and the edge of your sleeve. You lick the coffee from you hand or wipe it on your pant leg. The old cloth smell of it will build up in your sleeve and will constantly remind you of cold coffee and make you feel dirty throughout the day. At the end of the cup, when I have become thirsty enough to drink anything and I drink the cold, thick coffee grounds at the bottom and make myself even more thirsty. The Bolivian embassy is in one of the major commuter train stations. The area around it is ragged. There is a conglomeration of stalls around it that sell many things, but mostly cheap-looking underwear. People in Buenos Aires say that anyplace where cheap underwear is being sold is dangerous. So they deem this place. I have never seen anything happen here. Once, a few blocks away, I saw a kid handcuffed and sitting on the sidewalk, while two cops stood by, neither interested nor disinterested in him. Since I have been here, I have seen this scene repeated all over the city. It doesn’t make the city look dangerous, but rather like it has a conspicuous lack of police cars to take young offenders away. We have to thread our way through the stalls selling cheap underwear. Because I don’t know what the embassy will expect, I am in no hurry. I pass the stalls looking at the likenesses of Bart Simpson on nearly every pair, on the waistband is sewn “New Kids.” The combination of the two anachronisms bothers me. I get sick of walking through all the people. I begin to feel like I am pulling Gina along so I let her go and walk quickly alone, hoping that she will understand that it is too crowded and that there are too many pairs of generic Bart Simpson underwear for us to keep walking together. Walking alone makes me want to go faster and I begin taking larger strides trying to dodge between the others passing through or standing at the stalls. We reach the stairs of the embassy and I take Gina’s hand again, feeling pitiful for acting so badly under a modicum of discomfort. For a moment I’m happy; we are at the embassy and I feel a sense of accomplishment just to find it open. At the top of the stairs we confront a 60 or 70 person-long line which I am determined not to stand in. Usually, the tourist visa department is in a different section of the embassy far removed from the troubles of immigrants or people trying to get a copy of their birth certificate in another country. I pass the line. Gina and I are the only two non-Bolivians in the building. We are taller than everyone. Children run between the lines with their mothers running after them. It is difficult to see them coming because the mothers are usually shorter than the men waiting in line. Every room has some kind of heading, there’s a caja, an emigracionroom but nothing that mentions visas. I find the only window with no line in front of it and ask where we should go for visas. We find the room and go in. There are only a few people in this room, which leads me to think we are in the right place. A woman asks me what we are there for and I tell her we need tourist visas. She tells us we’ll have to wait about twenty minutes. I tell her OK and that we’ll be back. Outside, we find a bare space of sidewalk behind one of the vendor’s stalls and I smoke. The cigarette tastes terrible because I’m smoking it out of frustration. The frustration itself is frustrating because very little has happened, but already the crowds have started to irritate me. I want to go back home but I don’t want to be back in our dim apartment where it’s colder than being outside and the cold had that damp feeling. I feel frustrated because I know that I am lucky to even have an apartment and a day off in the middle of the week to do things like get Bolivian visas for a vacation. These thoughts only irritate me and we decide to go to another McDonald’s nearby and get another coffee where Gina can use the bathroom. We wait in line. It’s not quite 11 when we get to the front, but the girl in her brown McDonald’s uniform won’t give me a free coffee. Gina can’t use the bathroom because there was water all over the floor and a perplexed-looking in a lap coat appraising the situation. Back at the embassy, past the lines again, we are told that we need to go downtown to a bank there to pay the 130 US fee for the visa. We also need travel ticket copies, hotel reservations, credit card copies (to prove we aren’t solvent and looking to leech off Bolivia)passport copies, copies of our yellow fever vaccination cards, two passport-sized photos and completed visa application forms (of which he gives us one and tells us to make a copy). The man who gives us these things is brisk. We have an hour and a half to bring them back. Of course, we could just bring everything back another day, but we already have our money, passports, credit cards and yellow fever vaccination documents. I feel it a sort of challenge to see if I can possibly do all the things required before the embassy closes at 1. The train is packed, the bank is packed, the streets downtown are packed, there’s a line at the photocopy store. I print off copies of our flight information and make up a fake hostel confirmation. I have gone through this sort of thing before in the former Soviet Union where I know the authorities to be much stricter than Bolivia’s. If I can get away with making up a hostel reservation there, I can certainly do it for Bolivia. I get upset when Gina circles YES for the question Have You Ever Applied for a Visa Before on the visa application. I tell her that there bureaucrats will throw away anything that isn’t expertly completed. As I tell her this I don’t really believe it myself. But having spent the whole morning weaving in and out of crowds and waiting in lines and drinking coffee and not being able to appreciate what I have, I feel very tense. I immediately feel bad for getting upset, after all, I’m making her fill out the form on the subway, supplying my back as a writing surface. She tells me she’s surprised that this is getting to me so much. She says she would’ve thought I’d be very comfortable with this process after getting visas before for countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that are much more xenophobic. She’s right; I should be and I don’t know what to say. I used to be calmer. I used to be able to do things. I don’t know what happened. When we return to the embassy the clerk who gave us our brisk instructions seems happy to see us, he can’t believe we’ve managed to do everything so quickly. “We don’t have much time,” I tell him. And after I have finished, I can’t figure out why I have said this, possibly because my Spanish doesn’t permit me to say much, possibly because there is really no excuse for my maniacal rushing. I wanted to say, “I just wanted to get it done,” but I know that such vague desires are often difficult to translate. He asks us for each item separately until he has a lengthy dossier on both Gina and I on his desk. He staples these together, glues our pictures to two separate pieces of paper and tells us to have a seat. When he comes back he’s got two stamps that he’s holding with our passports; they look like visas. Outside the office we hug. It was an incredible task to have been able to get everything together for the Bolivian visa in one morning but my celebratory feelings are dulled by the nagging feeling that it was also completely unnecessary when we’ve still got more than a month before we leave. Back at the apartment, It’s still cloudy and cold and I’ve got nothing to do. We try to make a nice breakfast, but the tense feeling makes me want to control everything that’s happening in the kitchen. The food turns out Ok, not great. After we eat I try to do a few different things that don’t need to be done and finally, I relent and take a nap. Although I’m cold, and there’s a blanket right beside me, I don’t even bother to pull it over me and eventually, all curled up, I fall asleep. Outside, the construction team is still ripping steel from steel.

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