Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Change of plans

So I'm not in Patagonia after all. I spoke with my Dad yesterday, and my grandpa is in a really bad way. They've admitted him to the hospital, and no one can say either way how it's going to go. He stopped responding to chemo, and is really weak. He might turn a corner and be okay, but then again he might not. Needless to say, I'm not going to risk it. I'm trying desperately to get home. After all, Argentina will always be here. The first confirmed flight I could get was on December 6th, waaaaay too far away. I'm on standby for a flight to Newark tomorrow in the middle of the night. If I make it, I'll be in New York for a day or two to collect my things, and then on home to Cleveland. Wish me luck!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Paraguay, parte cuatro

On to the main event, the reason I ended up in Paraguay to begin with: Iguazu falls. The largest system of waterfalls in the world, it is rivaled only by Victoria Falls in South Africa, which, while smaller in all around area, still has the largest single curtain of water in the world. Niagara, by comparison to either, is just a trickle. Much thanks to Wikipedia for today's trivia!

Anyway, the Falls are actually on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and can be viewed from either country. There's some debate as to which country has the best view, but from what I'd heard, Brazil had the best. So that was where I would go. There was, however, the pesky little problem of the Brazilian visa, which costs $150 and takes a week or so to obtain. But I was informed by those in the know (er, Kati) that from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay you can enter into Brazil freely and not a soul will bother to stop you at the border. Frightening as that sounded to me, I was prepared to take the risk.

And it was fine. We hopped a bus, drove over the bridge, and suddenly everything was Portuguese and samba. So I was in Brazil, though (shhhhh!) not officially. This lax security would come up later to bite me in the ass (foreshadowing again!), but for the moment I was much relieved at not having to pay $150 for a couple hours at a big waterfall.

But honestly, it might have been worth it. The Falls were absolutely amazing, something no digital camera could actually capture. Not that we didn't try.

I could sit here and try and explain what it was like, but that would be pointless. Looks like you'll just have to go there and see for yourself.

And while you're there, don't forget to see the Itaipu dam, our next stop on the Ciudad del Este tourist train. Again, Wikipedia is there for all our quick-but-not-necessarily-accurate information needs: Itaipu, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World (who knew?), is the largest dam in the world, and every day gives off the hydroelectric energy of 434,000 barrels of petroleum, providing 93% of Paraguay's energy and 20% of Brazil's. That's pretty cool. Also cool: watching them as they illuminate it at night to very loud, very dramatic music. Let me just say that it is way, way bigger than I imagined. Unfortunately you can't tell from the pictures, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
Finally, after an evening of ka'u rapo and karaoke (pictures available upon request), I was ready to head back to Argentina. This, much to my dismay, was easier said than done.

The trip, a nice little 18-hour bus trip, started off well. My big mistake was to take the bus through Paraguay (my nemesis!) and exit from Encarnacion instead of through Ciudad el Este. Thus we arrived at the border in the middle of the night, and I was awoken from a rather pleasant and well-earned sleep to hand my passport to the official who had boarded the bus, who informed me that I did not possess an entry stamp into Paraguay. Um, oops. Surely they had stamped it? I had stopped through customs on the way out of Argentina; isn't, receive an exit and an entrance stamp at the same time? Apparently not. I bid you return to my little Brazil adventure. So he was right. I didn't have it. I made a "silly me" gesture and smiled, and was told I'd have to get off the bus and yes, "come into the office." Mild jangling of the nerves. Okay then.

I was desperately trying to wake up and remember my Spanish, and he brought me into this little room, where I was interrogated by a very formidable woman in a ponytail that somehow, inexplicably, added to my fear. She informed me that I was in (indecipherable Spanish), and that there was a fine of 300,000-odd Gaurani (that's Paraguayan money), about $100, which I did not have. I explained this to her, very calmly, adding that I never actually saw any customs officials when I entered Paraguay and was thus prevented from obtaining the necessary stamp. So it wasn't my fault, obviously. She seemed much affronted by this and proceeded to give me a brief history of Paraguayan international border control, and reminded me coldly that there were many customs officials at the border (thousands! she said) and it was my responsibility to find them. I then informed her that the bus I was on didn't stop, and she rolled her eyes up into her brain and said that I had to ASK the driver to stop. Obviously!

Finally I asked her what was to be done. It was the middle of the night and I had no money anyway, couldn't she just let me pass? Because honestly, I was trying to LEAVE the godforsaken place, what difference could it possibly make? At this she hardened--if further hardening on her part was even possible--and said that I'd have to get off the bus, turn around, and go back to Ciudad del Este. Now I was getting panicked. I would not--could not!--go back. I asked for an ATM. She said there was one in the city center, but the bus driver wouldn't wait for me. Essentially, she said every possible thing she could say to make me feel helpless, hopeless, and alone. And it worked marvelously. I started crying like a little girl, my Spanish reduced to incoherent pleas. How on earth was I in a room with the only two people in Paraguay who didn't know who I was?

She sent me out of the room with a look that said "Don't worry, something can be arranged," seamlessly transitioning from bad cop to good cop in an instant. I stood outside, shaking and exhausted and feeling like the poorest, saddest person in the whole world, when the original official--the man, who by the way also had extremely bad hair, it must be an intimidation tactic--came up to me. "Crying isn't going to help you," he said. "You'll get no sympathy from us." Of course I started to howl at that, but desperately tried to stop. It wasn't going to happen.

He cocked his head. "How much can you afford to pay?" I stopped crying immediately. Hope! Yes, this was South America! I'd forgotten! I told him that I had only 120 Argentine pesos, the truth (dammit, should have said less), and he said he'd talk to his partner, scary ponytail lady. Next she came out, and very kindly asked me to come into the office. "We wouldn't want you to have to go back," she said. "Let me talk to my partner, see if we can work something out." They disappeared, came back a few minutes later and said if I gave them what I had, they'd let me go. I nearly fell to the ground to kiss their feet, so relieved was I to be leaving Paraguay. "But remember, we're doing you a favor, so not a word!" They admonished. Of course not! I would say nothing and be grateful to the end of my days!

I rushed back to the bus to get my money, and the other passengers, who had been waiting for me, were all concern and pity (these ones knew me, of course). "Why are you crying? What did they do to you?" I grabbed the money, muttered "I'm fine," and ran like the wind back to the office, where I paid them, got back my passport, and fled at long last from the Country of Multiple Miseries, mouth firmly shut.

That lasted until we crossed the border, when the Argentine official, a very pretty (and I'm not even making that up) girl with NO PONYTAIL, commented that I didn't have a stamp from Paraguay, at which point I lost it again. I think I whined something like "They wouldn't give me one!", and she shook her head. "How much did they make you pay?" I told her, and she smiled sweetly and actually said "Well it's over now. You're in Argentina, and you won't have any problems here." I could have kissed her.

We got off the bus to go through customs, and word of my shakedown had spread to everyone else. People squeezed my hand and apologized, a grandmotherly type tsk-tsked and said "And after what happened to you in Asuncion!", and my general bad luck was discussed freely among the crowd. Some of the Argentine officials asked me how much I had to pay, and when I told them, they nodded. "Barrato," they said. Cheap. Well that's one good thing anyway. Could have been worse.

Then we got back on the bus, and I breathed in the air of Argentina, a country that in that moment was as dear to my heart as my own, and settled in for a nice long bout of self pity. I was crying, and it was one of those indulgent, wonderful cries. Poor, poor me! Attacked! Robbed! Alone! Tired! Forced to speak nothing but Spanish for an endless week! Forced to bribe mean, ugly people with bad hair! Woe is me, sufferer of great misfortune!

And then, somewhere in the middle of all that wallowing, something began to needle me. Never one to overlook an emotion, however faint, I decided to investigate. And to my surprise I found that what I felt, underneath all of my whining, was shame. I was back in Argentina, yes, and on vacation. In a few short weeks I would be heading back to the states, back to a family so happy they would make Norman Rockwell blush, to celebrate a holiday that would no doubt involve lots of food and embarrassing quantities of presents, in a big, lovely house in a big, lovely suburb. And after that I'm off to Scotland, where (I hope) I'm awaited with tenderness, and after that...whatever I want, really.

I forget, sometimes, that I used to be a missionary. That I used to live my life for something other than myself. And unless I remind myself, I forget that those kids, who I have been so busy hating, will probably never go anywhere. For them there will never be Christmas, or feasting, or travel or college or education or even parents. Nothing excuses what they did to me of course, but then, what excuse do I have for all this whining? What on earth do I have, really, to be so sad about?

Do I sound preachy? You can take the girl out of the mission field, as they say... But honestly, I am ashamed of myself sometimes. I am singularly blessed. I know this. I would go on and wax poetic on the realizations that overtook me on the long trip back to Buenos Aires, but some things are just better left off the Internet.

So that's my Paraguay adventure. Hope it wasn't too long-winded. Sometimes I just can't help myself!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Paraguay, parte tres

And so our saga continues. I slept uneasily that night, wary of feeling any of the warning signs my doctor had mentioned. When I woke, the pain had left my head, but instead chose to take up residence in every other conceivable part of my body. Honestly, muscles were throbbing in places I never suspected contained nerve cells.

But my dear and faithful new friend, appeared in the morning after spending eight hours freezing on a bus that took much longer than usual, and I was so happy to see her I forgot to ache for a few seconds. She had bought all the newspapers, and produced from her backpack the Asuncion equivalent of the New York Star, in which I appeared, vomiting in the Emergency Room (where did they get that picture??) under the headline "Fifteen ParaƱitas Attack and Almost Kill a Tourist!" It was written in a mixture of Spanish and Guarani, the local language, and so I had to have Esther translate the choicest sentences, including the one that says the "little pirahnas peeled her like an egg." Nice.

Next, we went to the police station, where they had recuperated Vivian's cell phone and, thankfully, my debit card. Sadly, the camera that Kati and Esther had owned for all of 24 hours was never to be seen again. Esther assures me it is now in the possession of one of the more unscrupulous of Asuncion's finest. Ah well.

Finally, having said goodbye to Vivian, we were on a bus headed back to Ciudad del Este. And there I stayed for four days, in the capable hands of Esther's friends, who managed to show me a very good time in spite of the scrapes all over my body and the tennis-ball shaped goose egg on my jaw.

They were gentle with me the first night I was there, but after that were determined, at my behest, to get me as ka'u rapo as possible on the subsequent nights, ka'u rapo being Guarani for so drunk I would no longer cower in fear when we passed an elementary school. The word was introduced to me on my first night there, before I even went to Asuncion, when we had bonded over red wine and my inability to dance salsa to their exceptionally high standard. A few shots of the night in question:

After a day of rest, they endeavored to send me home with at least a few good memories of their homeland. First they took me to a big national park, where acres of forest had been covered in water following the creation of the Itaipu dam (more on that later). One incredible thing about Paraguay: Everything is free. Even the horse and buggy ride we took through the park.

The park was full of these anthills, which fascinated me, as anyone who has ever seen me spend an hour watching an ant carry a leaf twice its size across the sidewalk can attest to.

Next on the agenda was the zoo. This was, without a doubt, the greatest zoo I have ever been to. Because, mystifyingly, the proprietors never saw fit to actually separate the people from the animals with anything more than a little wire cage. Meaning I could reach my little finger in and have it torn off by a jaguar, if I were so inclined. I contemplated it in fact, when a leopard was rubbing its shanks on the cage not two inches from my eager little hands, but as I do with most of my idiot urges, I managed to restrain myself. I did, however, snap a picture of the leopard when it had gone a safe distance away by sticking my entire camera inside of its habitat:

I did the same thing with a toucan, who, friendly little fellow that he was, caught me taking his picture and came up to investigate, trying ridiculously to stick his enormous beak outside, no doubt because he wanted me to pet him, not because he wanted to bite me:

But it got even better than that. And no one can fault me for this: I did reach my hands in to touch the monkeys. They WANTED me to. I KNEW it. And they wrapped their tiny little monkey hands around my finger and it was so adorable I almost fainted with pleasure. I love, I mean I REALLY love monkeys. Not as much as the little boy monkey loved me, mind, but I love them!

So that was that day. Most interesting of all, besides the monkeys, was the fact that everywhere I went people knew me. When I limped into the zoo, the security guards said they saw me on the television, and told me to let them know if I needed anything at all. In the park, a boy scout leader apologized on behalf of his entire country. On the bus, the driver said he was ashamed and sorry. So now I'm famous, or at least I was for a few days.

There is more, there is still more, but for now I have to eat pizza.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Paraguay, parte dos

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! The turkey's roasting in the oven, the guests have been invited, and Kati and I are getting ready to make sweet potatoes and green bean casserole. But for now, I have a few moments to continue my saga.

Okay. Deep breath.

In the city center, we went to various touristy places: a memorial to Paraguay's presidents, a museum of National History, a few parks, and finally we were to head to the Palacio, the government building and supposedly very beautiful. Unfortunately I wouldn't know, as I never made it. (Achem: there's that foreshadowing again! A bit heavy-handed, I know...but I'm stalling)

One of the things Esther had told me to see was the Bahia, the view of the Rio Paraguay in front of the Palacio. We were nearly at the Palacio, when Vivian suggested we head down to the riverfront. To our left was the building, to our right, rows and rows of slum housing. What I've heard of the Favelas in Brazil aside, shanty towns don't make me nervous. I have worked, and lived, in the slums of several countries, and never had a problem. Nevertheless, I held my bag a little closer to my side.

As we walked, we passed a group of kids playing futbol in the dirt fields in front of the river. I looked around to see who was there, and finding no adults around, I surreptitiously took out my camera and took a picture, then put it back in my bag. By this time, though, we had been noticed, and were suddenly swarmed with kids. This wasn't really alarming, as I've had that happen to me a lot, except that they were trying to reach their hands into my bag. Still, for the most part they were smiling, and I was smiling back, and didn't feel frightened.

Then, all of a sudden, one of them grabbed the Star of David from around my neck and yanked it off. Any other necklace and I wouldn't have cared, but that was a gift from a dear friend after my conversion, and has a lot of value to me--and none to them. The strangest thing was, the kid that took it just stood there, holding it and staring at me. So I asked for it back, following him a bit as he backed up.

I wasn't afraid, I was furious. And I still think if we had just left, we would have been fine. But Vivian made a pretty dire mistake: She took out her cell phone to call the police. Kati had warned me before that in Paraguay, they'll kill you for your cell phone, though I still had trouble believing it. But as soon as that phone came out, all hell broke loose.

Suddenly I was surrounded by kids, screaming and trying to wrench the bag from my hands, pulling my hair and hitting me. At first I was so shocked I clung to my bag, but it got progressively more violent, and some of the kids were older, teenagers with menacing faces mingled in with the oddly still smiling faces of the younger ones. Somehow I ended up on the ground, and I don't remember much. The last thing I remember through the haze was looking up and seeing one of them leap into the air, and come down on my face.

I suppose I lost consciousness, though I didn't realize it. Vivian told me later she found me blacked out and bleeding. She was bruised and scratched up, but somehow most of the venom was aimed at me. Because I struggled, maybe? I don't know. I remember being picked up by some women who had come out of the shanty town, and led into their homes. I was hysterical, but I couldn't feel any pain. I was really confused. I was seeing things in tunnel vision: my bare feet sloshing through the mud, my legs covered in blood, the brown arms of the women helping me. I couldn't remember where I was, or what happened.

They sat me and Vivian down inside, and wiped my face with dirty rags. Vivian was crying, and kept saying to me how sorry she was. I looked at her, and I remembered who she was, and that I was in Asuncion, but I couldn't remember when I got there, how I got there. I kept asking her, and she kept saying, "You don't remember? You don't remember?"

An odd thing: We were speaking Spanish, and I could understand everything perfectly. The ladies came back in, carrying our empty bags, and said something to Vivian. We wouldn't get my camera back or her cell phone, but we could maybe get the memory chips from inside. She was pleading with them to help, and asking for the police. They took us into the bathroom to wash our legs, and I stood their shaking and crying while they washed the blood and dirt off of me, still trying to think clearly, to calm down, to remember what happened.

Finally we were being led outside, and there were three policeman waiting for us. They kept saying "Tranquila, tranquila," and led us to the police car. We waited for a few minutes while they took down what we had lost, our account of the story, and interviewed some of the people there. Vivian needed to pick up her son, so as they drove me to the hospital, she asked to be dropped off at her car and promised to meet me at the hospital.

I had no papers, and no money, so they took me to the public emergency room. This consisted of a long room crammed full of beds, in which lay people in various stages of distress and pain. There were cockroaches scurrying on the floor. The bed they took me to had bloodstains on it.

Still, the doctors were excellent. They were med students, who were required to do a rotation in public health. They were young, and treated me with such gentleness and kindness that I started crying again. At this point my Spanish, which had somehow moved into fluency in the moments after the assault, completely disappeared, and I was left explaining what happened to me as best as I could. By now I remembered more, could give them my name and birthday and tell them what happened, but I was also starting to feel pain. My head felt like someone inside of it was suffocating, and desperately trying to get out.

They took me for x-rays in ancient machines in dirty rooms, after which I sat waiting in the hall for the results. Suddenly I was nauseous, and asked for a trashcan, into which I promptly started vomiting. There was a woman sitting next to me, and she held my forehead and cooed to me, mostly because my head hurt so badly that I was screaming and didn't realize it. The people around me were talking about what happened to me in hushed tones and shaking their heads, stroking me and saying how sorry they were. My, but it hurt so badly.

Because I threw up, they needed to get an MRI. I lay inside, trying not to throw up, and crying. So much of this crying! I was alone, in a dirty foreign hospital, bruised, bleeding, with no money and no papers, and the self pity I felt in that moment, magnified by the mental haze, was shocking in its strength. I swear, the thing had arms and legs.

When they wheeled me out of the MRI room, Vivian was there, with her son and Dan, the Slovenian. I'm afraid I scared little Rauli a bit, vomiting as I was into a trashcan on my lap, but I tried to smile and reassure him that I was okay. I was massively relieved that they were there. By now, the doctors had called one of Esther's friends back in Ciudad del Este, whose number was the only remaining thing in my bag. They put me in bed and gave me an IV, and one of the nurses came up to me with a cell phone. She had given Silvi her cell phone number, and the onslaught of calls had begun.

Esther's friend wanted to come and get me. She said she could get on a bus and be there by four in the morning. But I told her no; I didn't want her to sit on a bus for five hours two days in a row. But I must have sounded terrible, because she called back a half hour later and said she was coming. Later she told me that I had thanked her profusely, and said how much I wanted her to come, though I don't remember that.

They wanted me to stay overnight in the hospital. I couldn't bear the thought. There was a child screaming in the bed next to me, the place smelled of blood and urine. Vivian convinced them to let me go, but I had to sign something saying that if I threw up again, or had head pain or nausea, I would come back. They presented me with a bill, that amounted to about $40 (for x-rays and an MRI! unbelievable!), and that I wasn't even required to pay.

When I left the hospital, held up by Vivian on one side and Dan on the other, there was a swarm of reporters and television cameras waiting for me outside. Vivian explained what happened, and I answered as many questions as my Spanish would allow, and we went home, where I showered, cried some more, and called my parents to make sure I wasn't going to die, something I do at least once in every country I go to. They were, understandably, beside themselves with worry. I did the best I could to reassure them, and went to bed.

That's enough for now, Thanksgiving preparations are calling.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Paraguay, parte uno

I am back in Buenos Aires, here to remain for a few days before heading South, and thus finally have access to Internet, which I lacked most of the time in Paraguay. Rumors as to what exactly befell me in that particular country have been running a bit wild, and I'm here to set things straight. I thought about dividing my Paraguay adventure into three parts--the good, the bad, and the ugly, if you please--but have decided that since the good would take up a mere three paragraphs (not because there was necessarily less of it, but because good stories are always short), and since the bad was all so bad so as to be ugly anyway, I would stick to a chronological (more or less) account, divided neatly into as many parts as it takes for me to get the story out.

Esther--Kati's spouse, you'll remember--is from Paraguay, and thus has several friends there. The plan was to fly to Puerto Iguazu, in the Northeast corner of Argentina, on Monday, and cross the border there into Ciudad del Este to stay with some of her friends. From there I would see the incredible Iguazu falls, the largest in the world, and then head to Asuncion for a few days before heading back on Friday. That was the plan.

I arrived in Ciudad del Este, and spent a wonderful night with Esther's friends, who convinced me to go to Asuncion the following day, and return to Ciudad del Este to spend a few days with them when they didn't have to work. Simple decision. The next day, we headed into the city to buy a camera for Kati and Esther before I left for Asuncion. Ciudad del Este, of Miami Vice: The Terrible Movie fame, is THE place to buy electronics. A city full of drugs, smuggling, terrorist cells, and blood-thirsty capitalism, it was certainly one of the most interesting places I've ever seen. Found a camera, a Nikon digital for $160, bought it, and headed to Asuncion.

I was staying with a girl named Vivian, from the Hospitality Club, a single mother with a five-year-old son. She picked me up from the bus station with Dan, a Slovenian and another HC guest, and that night we went to an opening party at the National Theater, to mingle with Asuncion's elite, drinking wine and hoarding appetizers. Afterwards, we drove out somewhere in the country to a friend's house to sit on their porch and drink beer, though at this point, like her little boy (who came with us), I was fairly exhausted and ready to go to bed.

The next day, we went to Luque, a nearby city, to look for jewelry. Luque is home to the headquarters of South American futbol, a huge, imposing building surrounded by the flags of various South American countries, a few soccer fields (are they called fields?) and a fountain in which water spouts from an enormous soccer ball.

Luque itself is a bizarre little town. Their team colors are blue and yellow, and everything in the town--and I mean everything--is painted blue and yellow. The supermarket is blue and yellow. The public trashcans are blue and yellow. The buses are blue and yellow. Even, yes, the houses are painted--you guessed it--blue and yellow. This, to me, is a fanaticism that borders on insanity. I took some pictures, which I would post here if I had them. (Attention: that is called "foreshadowing")

Next we headed into the centerof Asuncion to see the sights, and here's where the fun really begins. Unfortunately I've run out of time, so you'll have to pick it up tomorrow. Oh yes! To be continued!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I am better

As in, completely. As in, I want nothing more than to describe all the crazy things I've been doing without having to address what I wrote only a few days ago, so far and so foreign does it seem to me. I told you, it is magic, the difference between that me and this me. Already I feel the mild embarrassment that comes when I look back and see my purple prose, overwritten as it always is when I feel some strong emotion. I can't remember now what it felt like, and it left as suddenly as it came. That's why I get so angry with people who suggest I just exercize or think positively or something, rather than take drugs. Because when I, who am only three days out of it, can't understand it, how on earth do they thing they can?

Anyway, I am well. In Paraguay and bursting with stories, though short on time. You'll have them soon, I promise.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

This one's not going to be so funny...

So I thought I might escape the whole depression aspect of anxiety this round, but unfortunately I woke up today with the whole leg-shaking short-of-breath heart-pumping sort of nastiness that means new panic, and within a few hours it had settled itself nicely into the heft of pointless, inexplicable sadness. I have dealt with it enough that I can look at it objectively, see it for what it is, but still have no idea how to relieve it, aside from sweating out the four or five more days it's going to take for my little pills to work their magic. And it is magic, bloody witchcraft, so unbelievably effective for me that even now, when my limbs feel like they each weigh a hundred pounds, when I have to drag myself out of bed and can't bear to leave the house or speak to anyone who hasn't known me for ten years, I still get to feel hope, something most people I know who suffer from depression rarely feel. I am lucky, I guess.

In the course of my writing this whatever-it-is, I read through other things I had written over the years, stories and blogs and journal entries, and anxiety and depression always seems to be an underlying theme. It's not the center of my life by any means, most of the time I barely think about it at all, but it is always there, humming somewhere in the background.

I found this old blog entry from my second year in Israel, after I went off Paxil for the second time. I removed it from my blog the very next day, when I realized how despairing it sounded and that, um, people I KNOW were reading it, but it so clearly explains how I feel on the really bad days. I've been free of this feeling for a year, and like a person recently recovered from illness, I've forgotten what it felt like to be sick. I can't explain it when I'm healthy, it all seems so abstract. But today I can, today I remember. Here, for your perusal, before it ends up in my book, which it inevitably will I'm sure:

January 15, 2005

This morning I started crying over breakfast. Luise and Tammy and I were sitting around the table, innocently eating toast, and suddenly tears were rolling down my cheeks. I was talking about something mundane--the lines in the grocery store, the paper Luise has to write--and there they were, all these tears without reason. And so I know: I am here again.

I hate the stupid metaphors I have to use to describe what it feels like when you know you are entering into depression. I hate the words sinking and stagnant and slipping away. I hate the fact that I have to use them at all, have to try and make sense of something so utterly ridiculous, so completely unwelcome.

I used to be, in some small immature way, proud to be the kind of emotionally unstable person who suffers--oh how I suffered! When I was eighteen, I felt that it put me in league with the greatest creative minds in history, as if by having a touch of madness in myself, I had the potential to become any one of them. You start to coddle your own unique little agony, that piece of you that makes you different from all the dull masses of simple people who don't know what it means to truly feel anything. You start to use phrases like falling into darkness or sinking into despair. Having such grandiose expressions attributed to you makes you feel so unbearably special and important.

But after a while, when it finally becomes clear how unromantic, how utterly inconvenient it is to be really depressed--when you're not sad, or down, or blue, when you're just paralyzed, and helpless, and disconnected from everything around you. I don't understand things when I'm depressed. I can't make sense of numbers, facial expressions, how my feet keep moving, one after the other, on the sidewalk when I walk (When did I start walking? When did I leave home?) I can't match up emotions to events--am I sad because we got in a fight, or because when the teacher erased the board, tiny flecks of red pen remained there? Both things suddenly carry equal weight, bring equal distress.

This is what it is like to be me: I know myself so well, have spent so much time wandering around in my brain, critically accepting and rejecting parts of me, changing what I don't like, allowing myself a little pride for the things that I do, analyzing my emotions and motivations and hopes and hurts and longings to the point where whatever life gives me, I will know who I am. But this is when I am normal, when my brain is firing straight and even and I struggle only with the everyday problems of life. The trouble is this: at the first hint of something long-forgotten coming back to reclaim me, I lose it all. It comes up on me so slowly, playing a little game of advance and retreat, so that finally, when it strikes for good, over toast and coffee, I am caught completely off guard, and everything I thought I knew about myself vanishes in an instant.

I guess I write to find it again. I write because I am so tired of this. It does not make me special, or creative, or even interesting. It is trite, it is common, it bores me to tears. I write because I am so angry. With every year that passes I can see myself growing, changing, becoming the person I want to be--and all of it comes to nothing when I'm up against a few rogue chemicals. I write because oftentimes only words and reason can bring me back, only they can make me feel slightly normal when I am suddenly overcome by an almost physical sensation of hopelessness. I am in the thick of this right now. It woke me up at six in the morning, grabbed me mid-dream by the chest, sucked me up through layers of subconscious, and finally pulled me back into reality, only to fill me with irrational panic and fear and sadness. And now I want only to curl up into sleep again, shut down for a while, or run away.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kati's Birthday

My anxiety has abated a bit, which is an intense relief. Normally it comes for a day or two and then goes, but I was on day six, and after a few more days of that kind of panic my body tends to exhaust itself into depression, which frightens me most of all. But more about that later, as there are pictures to share and stories to tell!

Yesterday was my dear Kati's birthday, as I believe I mentioned. I went with her and Esther to their weekly church service at Cegla (Centro Evangelico por Gays y Lesbianas Argentinos, or something of that ilk), which meets in a more liberal Methodist church every Friday night. The Bible study was the third chapter of John--I mean Juan--and the sermon I couldn't quite make out. Something about trusting God. The worship music was familiar, however, in tune if not in lyric, and I felt quite at home, Jewishness and Shabbat aside. I know I'm not supposed to be in church, but does it count if it's a gay church, that no other church recognizes? The strangest part, these people love God just as much as the people who reject them. Kati tells me there's a lot of broken people at Cegla, people whose families won't speak to them or who hid their identities for a long time. I find that really sad, almost as sad as the fact that my being there would disappoint not only the Christians in my life, who long for me to return to the fold, but the Jews, who long for me to come apart and be separate. Can I not just do what brings me peace and joy?

Anyway, brokenness was not in evidence last night, when we went to a cheap burger joint to celebrate Kati's birthday. There was much singing and tomfoolery, a bit of origami, and some standing on chairs. Emily, she of the blond hair, and who everyone wants to set me up with because they want everybody to be gay of course, had a camera, so I finally have some pictures. Enjoy!

We had to sit in the empty back room because these are some really loud homosexuals.

We got Kati a cake!

The happy couple

Don't remember their names, but the one one the right is from Ukraine...

This swarthy young man would be Manu, doing unspeakable things to his cake.

Friday, November 09, 2007

He regresado

I am back in Buenos Aires, arriving just in time to celebrate Kati reaching her 29th year of being alive. Hope it's a good one! I myself am more than happy to be back. As much as I enjoyed Montevideo, I think I might be getting too old to travel alone. I would enjoy everything so much more with someone familiar--not that I didn't have a great time with Javier and his friends. I couldn't help but feel, sitting outside the El Verde bar in the gloaming with a gaggle of Uruguayans, that I lead a charmed life. But that does not mean that I don't wish there was a witness to it, that I didn't feel like I was going through it alone. That's the odd feeling that hit me yesterday, the loneliness that comes when you're surrounded with people, but no intimates. It was hard, the last day, because when I feel lonely, I prefer to be alone. And putting on a face and speaking Spanish is exhausting.

So it's good to be back. I've been fighting a bit of free-floating anxiety lately, something I haven't felt in a long time. I upped my medication today, thinking that might help. The liter of beer cooling in the fridge might help as well... It will at least help me write. I've got 12,000 words so far, I realized today. And the shape of whatever it is I'm trying to write is making itself known. It might explain my melancholy to a degree: I try to write this character, and she just looks more and more like me. So I'm digging through some old emotional boxes long since stored away, and taking close looks at some difficult periods in my life. Anxiety breeds anxiety, so that might just be it.

I am well though, I promise, blessed and fat as a happy mongoose. I plan on holing up and writing for the next few days before I head out to Paraguay, so you might get a bit more interior monologue for a few days, but after that it's back to nominally funny travelogue, so hang in there!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Tengo un momento por fin...

So I am safe and happy here in Montevideo. Before I came, I searched Hospitality Club for someone to stay with, and ended up finding Javier, who, as it turns out, is adorable. He lives with his brother in a very male (read: messy) house in the center of the city, and they kindly installed a mattress, complete with sleeping bag, on their floor for my personal use.

The first night I arrived, Javier met me on the corner of his street, and we had to rush to drop my bag off at his house because he was in the middle of theater class. So I went with him to watch, and it was truly something. A roomful of Uruguayan twenty-somethings, looking for all the world like a roomful of American twenty-somethings, and rehearsing a play that I could not, in spite of my basic command of Spanish, figure out. But it alternated between being funny and serious, and as I watched I had one of those peculiar "how did my life bring me here?" moments that I relish but that only seem to appear when I´m traveling.

Yesterday, Javier had to work, so his brother, Martin, showed me around the city. We must have walked the entire length of Montevideo, from the large main street, through the Ciudad Vieja, and straight to the Ramblas at the ocean. My Spanish was serving me well, though there were a couple slip-ups. Later that night we went out with a bunch of people to La Verde, where Javier tried to help me work on my accent and I tried to teach him how to talk like a New Yawkah. This resulted in much laughter from all parties. Anyway, we stayed out late and I am sore tired. But happy.

More news from me when I don´t have to pay for it....

Monday, November 05, 2007

¡No es posible!

As it turns out, whatever it was that the lady at the Paraguayan consulate said to me the other day, apparently, was important after all. She was asking me to wait one more minute as I needed to sign a paper. In my defense, all I heard was "Come back in twenty-four hours...indecipherable Spanish...maybe a bit more indecipherable Spanish," right before she walked away. So what was I supposed to conclude, other than that I had been dismissed? The point of this being that I had to go back again today. ¡Ay, Dios mio! But at last I do have in my possession a bona fide Paraguayan visa, at the cost of USD$65 and good until 2014, bringing my dreams of revisiting Paraguay every year just one step closer.

The weekend, the weekend. On Friday night I went to Chabad for services, which was quite an experience as for the first hour and a half I was the only woman. And as women and men sit seperately, and the women's side was basically a tiny corner, I had to sit and listen to the men wax philisophic in Spanish and Hebrew on something about Yitzhak, only I couldn't really hear because there was, like, a big wall in the way. Finally, at nearly nine, all these girls pour in and we start services, and thankfully all the services are the same so I could follow along nicely. Except that the tunes were different, and the Chazan had the worst Ashkenazi accent I have ever heard. It was all Ado-nooooii and Emeeessss and all that. And yes, I realize maybe one of you knows what I'm talking about, but that one stands firmly with me on the side of extreme annoyance.

Afterwards the rabbi, who invited me, had me follow him upstairs (it wasn't creepy; everyone was going upstairs) to this room where two tables were set for food, one for the boys and one for the girls. I was pretty unsure what was going on, but I went with it. You know, whatever. Then he gives a little d'var torah, in which he's talking about Shidduchim (how proper Jews date!) and meeting the one you're supposed to marry and all that, and I realize that everyone there is young and, presumably, single. It's like speed-dating, only you can't actually sit next to/speak with/meet anyone of the opposite sex. Interesting. Then, he leaves. Yes, he just leaves, abandoning me. At this point, I am on one side of the table, and four girls are on the other side. Could they sense I was a convert? Could they (the horror!) smell the pork on my breath? I was deflated, and felt horribly out of place. But, in the interest of cultural rapport and empathy everywhere, I decided to make a fool out of myself and act like I was interesting and fun and, most importantly, ardently religious. I scooted my chair up to one of the girls and dove in with all the Spanish gusto I could muster, filling in with Hebrew when necessary since they all knew it anyway, and by the end of the night I had them convinced of my genuine Jewiness. One of them, the only married one, told me the story of how she had met and married her husband, which consisted of a set-up, two weeks of talking on the phone, one date and that's it: They were engaged. Beautiful, some might say, really really weird I would protest. But still, they seemed happy enough for a couple who were sitting on opposite sides of the room and not talking to each other.

So that was Friday night. Next time, I will bring Kati, since she's a Real Jew. Lets just hope we can get her to take off her cross for a night, cover up, dozen or so tattoos, and refrain from talking about her wife for an evening. Wish me luck, as I have the feeling not everybody gets a kick out pretending to be something they're not the way I do.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Viva el tango!

Okay, so I didn't go see tango the other night. Kati reminded me it was Halloween, which obviously meant that I had to revise my plans. Measures needed to be taken. In spite of certain shameful occurences that took place on Halloween last year, I still love it. Unfortunately Buenos Aires does not do Halloween, so I had to improvise. I bought a lot of candy and searched endlessly through Kati's cable channels for something scary to watch. There were plenty of offerings, but they were all dubbed in Spanish, which really wouldn't do. Finally we found a channel that was showing Jeepers Creepers 2--Not Jeepers Creepers 1, mind you, but the SEQUEL to the classic--and I was in ecstasy. Of course, Kati had to follow me to the bathroom for the rest of the night and stand there while I made sure the weird crowman was not behind the curtain or worse, in the toilet, and then wait while I (not going to paint a word picture for you here) before I dismissed her, but it was worth it somehow. It was a good night.

Yesterday I had to go to the Paraguayan consulate to secure my visa for my much anticipated trip to Paraguay, which I have been told by my Paraguayan host has absolutely nothing to see. I waited in line for a long time, trying not to look at all the mothers breastfeeding their children (seriously, there must have been at least four of them). Finally I filled out the application and gave it to the lady, along with my passport (!), and was told to come back in 24 hours. She might have said something else, but I was too embarrassed to tell her I didn't understand, so I just nodded. Hopefully it wasn't something, like, important. And hopefully I'll get my passport, like, back. Otherwise I will have to make a new life for myself here. A life in which I will most likely be gay, because it's all I know.

Anyway, I did go see Tango last night. I called this bar, and they said there was a show at nine, so naturally I show up at a quarter to, and the place is completely empty. Lights are on, a lone bartender is standing behind the bar, and there is no sign of a show. Hmmmm. I forced myself to walk up and own the street (I couldn't go around the block lest the bar be out of sight and hordes of people suddenly descend on it and get better seats than me) until five to nine. Still nobody. So I went in and asked if there was a show, and was told yes, there was, and yes, it started at nine. As in three minutes from now. The people will arrive at nine, the bartender says. Okay. This is unusual. I sat own and ordered a glass of wine, and pulled out my miniature little notebook so I could work on some writing in the manner of expat writers everywhere. At 9:30, a few people came in, then a few more. Finally, at 10:00, the lights dimmed.

The show was great. Touristy, obviously, but really great. The music was played by this guy on an accordion and this girl on an electronic keyboard, who I kind of had a little girl crush on. She was all dressed up in this gorgeous dress, with these amazing shoes, and her hair all luxurious and curly, but she had the nerdiest little face, with thick glasses and a decent-size nose, and she played the #$%@ out of that keyboard, and I loved her. There was also a singer, a tall bald man with a voice much to big for the little bar, and I loved him too. And the dancers were this couple and they were so so good an I loved them too. I loved everyboy in the bar. I loved tango, I loved Buenos Aires, I loved my glass of wine. I even loved the taxi driver who took me home. It was also a good night.