Thursday, November 16, 2006


la Patagonia, Part 2

It was early on a typical January morning during a frigid Alaskan (-35F) cold snap, when this familia norteamericano loaded our six massive suitcases into my brother's truck and cautiously navigated the dark empty roads to the airport - all we needed was to slam into some poor moose trying to cross the glazed highways. Having bid goodbye the night before to our friends, our families, and our home of 22 years, we cautiously stepped aboard that small commuter plane and began our 28-hour trek across the full lengths of two continents, from the top of the world to the bottom of the world.

And jointly breathed a huge sigh of relief. We'd not had a moment's rest in the six short weeks since accepting the new 3-5 year assignment. The non-stop helter-skelter of creating lists; making decisions; letting go of our daily routines; sorting through 22 years of accumulated belongings - what ships air-freight, what goes by slow boat, what goes into storage; trying to order 220 volt converters and adapters (which, by the way weren't the right ones); closing up the house; finding someone to routinely check on the house and plow the snow; farming out the dog; storing the cars; renewing subscriptions and then arranging for mail forwarding; setting up Electronic Fund Transfers to automatically pay the residual bills; getting ATM cards; buying clothes, shoes, and various household supplies that we (rightly) feared would not be available.

Pulling all the documentation together - sending off for freshly certified birth certificates and a freshly certified copy of our marriage license, even my college diploma, then having all that translated into spanish, and then having to have the translations all notarized again; getting pictures, passports and visas. Getting complete physicals along with dozens of vaccinations for every possible disease except Japanese encephalitis and then trying to get the vaccination records translated and notarized.

Somehow finding time to take trips to the Brand X headquarters for their useless and misguided "overseas family orientation" (no one in Brand X had ever lived where we were going, nor, as it turned out, did anyone know much about what it was really like), and then on to the Argentine consulate in Los Angeles to pick up the all-important work permit and sign our visas.

During all this, I was also closing down my office and turning over 22 years of accumulated files to what was left of my department that had started to disband after the internal takeover months earlier; trying at the last minute to identify and reassign all the responsibilities that I'd taken for granted for so many years; sorting out what books, manuals, guidelines, files, etc. to take with me; negotiating with the IT guys for a computer. And somehow cramming in as much self-study spanish lessons as possible. Attending a nostalgic and touching farewell roast with a roomful of 40 of my soon-to-be former employees and coworkers.

Then, in the last days, waiting around for the movers to haul everything to storage that hadn't already been shipped, then draining and blowing out the water lines, boarding up the windows and doors, turning the heater thermostat to 50, and securely locking up before driving away from the security of our nest.

And, knowing that we probably would not see our folks for at least a year or so, we also tried to spend as much time with them as possible, especially over the holidays.

A last minute rescheduling the afternoon before now routed us through JFK, adding four more hours to the ordeal, but at least the long overnight haul to Buenos Aires would be via first class on Aerolinas Argentinas instead of the business class seats on a suddenly cancelled United flight out of Miami. Although I'd flown at least a million air miles by then, I had rarely gotten the chance to fly with my family. The trip itself was actually relaxing after the intense chaotic efforts to get ready (we actually completed every single item on those checklists). Five-year old Z was too keyed up by the adventure, and hardly slept. I have never been able to sleep on an airplane...

The next morning we stumbled zombie-like off that plane into the 95F heat and chaos of the Buenos Aires airport, getting swept up by my new Brand X boss (we'd only met by phone a couple times), and driven out into the mad scramble of their "freeway" system for a long trip into the city. We were whisked off to our new luxurious hotel near the city center, which catered to international business travelers on unlimited expense accounts (importantly to us it had a "north american style" breakfast menu). We slept for more than 20 hours and awoke to a hot, muggy summer morning, eager to head out into the streets to explore this new world.

We were three country hicks on the loose in a exotic foreign megalopolis, with no ties or connections, not knowing another soul (except the tenuous link to my newly met Brand-X boss), barely able to communicate with anybody. In a way, it felt like we were under water or wearing earplugs, because we really couldn't understand what people were saying to us - contrary to the Brand X indoctrination few people actually spoke english. I felt like a sponge trying to soak up every impression, to catalogue every new and different sight. Not far from the hotel we stopped in one of the ubiquitous corner cafes, hoping to find breakfast. It turns out the typical breakfast was coffee (strong - espresso) and medialunas (small sweet croissants); not much else. Lunch proved to be even more challenging, although a few days later we found a McDonalds in their pedestrian-only shopping mecca - Avenida Florida, which finally quelled Z's desire for something more familiar.

We were curious to investigate the multitude of little one-room shops that lined the streets, which were somewhat intimidating, because they weren't really setup for casual browsing. Typically a customer would come in and spend ten or fifteen minutes discussing family, weather, etc., before telling the shopkeeper what he wanted, and waiting for him to fetch it and hand it across the counter. The shopkeepers would try to convince us to buy something; we learned to smile but shake our heads a lot; our first spoken phrase was some version of "solomente mirando" (just looking).

Late in the afternoon, after having walked for miles, we found ourselves across town, and way too tired to walk back, so we hailed a taxi to return to the hotel. My Brand X boss was aghast. "You don't take taxis in the city. You'll get robbed." He immediately hired a remise (a private car) for the rest of our week-long stay. In the mornings, the patient driver would drop us off at whatever location we were curious about, and while away the hours chatting with the locals as we continued our explorations. Then we'd stumble back to the car for a mad ride through the congested streets back to the hotel. We kept this up for nearly a week. We walked for miles and miles (sorry, kilometros y kilometros). Although we didn't stray very far from the general area of the city center, we saw it all.

We knew that our brief expense account extravaganza would soon come to an end and we'd have to climb aboard yet another plane for the last leg of our journey, to start trying to assemble our new life in a new home with a new job in a new world. Our destination lay another thousand miles to the south, on the South Atlantic shores of la Patagonia...

What an adventure. I got exhausted just reading about those elaborate trip preparations. I hate travel-prep.
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