The Shady Life, Vol. II: Cordoba, Argentina
“I don’t have boyfriends, only lovers,” Guillermo, the overweight and chronically sweaty owner of the hostel I was staying at, remarked matter-of-factly, as if he had just given the time. A few weeks into my stay in CÃ³rdoba, I was no longer fazed by completely unsolicited and otherwise uncomfortable exclamations such as these.
To many, CÃ³rdoba is a pleasant alternative to the hustle-and-bustle of Argentina’s frenetic capital city, Buenos Aires. A proliferation of Jesuit churches and architecture, beautiful mountains that are only an hour’s drive away, and a stunning populace all draw tourists from Buenos Aires to Berlin. However, once you get past all of the painted frescoes and model look-alikes, you’ll find that this seemingly innocuous city can also be about as charming as the setting of a David Lynch film.
As the first city I would be visiting upon my exodus from Buenos Aires – where I had been living in relative comfort for the previous month – CÃ³rdoba was going to be different. Not that I could really afford them anyway, but even modest hotels and “downtown locations” were crossed off my list, as I enthusiastically sought a more exciting experience at the first stop on my backpacking mini-trip through Argentina. And so, after little deliberation I settled on a hostel that 1) wasn’t Hostelling International affiliated and 2) was situated some ways out of downtown, right by the river â€“ two crucial factors in ensuring the exciting experience that I so sought.
I arrived at the steps of my hostel at 7 a.m. on an overcast Saturday morning, my head foggy from the 10 hour bus ride and having not the slightest notion that this place would be my home, refuge, or place of asylum (depending on the night) for the next 7 weeks. The lone building in between a street that separates and then joins together at the front and back of the edifice, the hostel appeared to be built on an unusually large median â€“ thus explaining the phenomenon of every single window in the hostel opening out towards a street.
Nothing at this place worked properly. I wanted to rough it, and it was as if a genie had been charged with granting my wish. The toilet seat was held up by a mop. The hot water heater was broken. The sink ran constantly, which struck me as especially odd considering that it was quite apparent the owner was already cutting all costs through the neglect of all of his other domestic devices. It made little sense to me; if you’re trying so hard to save money (or to hoard it perhaps), why allow an otherwise easily fixable problem such as a leaky faucet to persist when it’ll surely wind up costing you more than if you don’t fix it? Just how lazy must you be to tighten a screw and instantly end an accumulating expense, in this case in the form of an unnecessarily high water bill? For sure, the “administrative operations” of this place had thrown me for a loop.
As time went on, I found myself growing more and more comfortable in the place, despite the lack of many basic luxuries that many of us take for granted at home, such as not having to consciously remember to check that toilet paper is available after you race to the bathroom in a hurry, with only your business on your mind. At one point, I really thought I was living in a parody â€“ literally nothing in the hostel worked in its proper function. From the telephone that never had any pesos on it to the refrigerator that’s freezer did all of the “refrigerating,” it was if I was living on the set of some TV studio fun house, all the while waiting for the audience to burst out in laughter as I tried in vain to conduct ordinary household tasks.
One Friday, after a night of partying in the suburbs, I arrived back at the hostel at the crack of dawn. As my three friends â€“ two worked at the hostel, the other one had been there doing nothing (as was the overwhelmingly predominate occupation, myself included, of most of the people staying in the hostel long term) â€“ and I walked toward the hostel door, an odd figure began approaching us from three blocks away. I couldn’t quite make “it” out â€“ while it had the long, flowing hair of a woman, its shoulders were big enough to make Hans and Frans weep. Not exactly clear-headed and in the best mood after 8 hours of partying, the bizarre scene â€“ which all transpired with the orange-ish glow of the morning sun hitting the deserted street, adding to the eeriness of it all â€“ unfolded before us.
Coming one block closer, “it” was revealed to be a human figure, although of which gender, I could not discern. The spectacle of a hulking transvestite in a tight-yellow wife-beater did little to rectify our dispostion. After what seemed like eternity, Guillermo’s nephew, who was part of our group that night, finally stopped fumbling and unlocked the main door, slamming it hard just as our “neighbor” was less than a block away. Something told me he wasn’t just coming to ask for some sugar â€“ well, not the kind you bake with, anyway. Immediately we proceeded up the stairs to the balcony to further observe this creature of the night. At this point I felt as if I were at the shark tank at the aquarium; while you feel exhilarated observing such a potentially hazardous, intriguing, being thrashing about, you never quite forget that the only thing separating you from certain violation is little more than a sliver of concrete and glass. How perilously close we bring ourselves to the end sometimes, all in the name of cheap thrill…but alas, I digress. While eventually we tired of watching the beast search for its “prey,” the night’s events stayed with me. It was more than just a harmless exhibition, for me at least â€“ it was a “real” introduction to the hostel.
You see, in the glossy brochure and the flashy internet site, they never advertised the weekend raids – organized by the CÃ³rdoba police department – to break up the nightly sex trade that flourishes on the riverbank, only a few dozen meters away from the hostel. Nor do they show smiling pictures of the legions of random, shifty young people always stopping by under the guise of being a “friend” of Guillermo, even though they appear to be half his age, if that. In fact, this place doesn’t even honor the even the most basic of its commitments â€“ on its flashy, graphic-designed, flyer, it asserts that all guests presenting the flyer are “entitled” to a free beer every day of their stay. Upon on my polite request that the staff fulfill its promise, I was immediately informed that I had mistakenly been given an “old” flyer; and yet, the mountains of crisp ones, shining bright in piles around the hostel, still proudly and prominently touted the “free beer” promotion.
Hardly surprised at this point, I let it go. By now, a good few weeks into my stay, I had come to reason with the one important truism about this place: there is, absolutely, positively, no reason for anything. Perhaps that’s why I found the place so relaxing. If not that, it was certainly intriguing. 6 weeks into my stay, I wondered in amazement how I, a young man afforded a relatively comfortable upbringing, could so effortlessly feel at ease in this underbelly of human existence. Perhaps, more than adequately provided with the optimal environment, some undiscovered, depraved subconscious of my being had been exposed; or, maybe there’s a much simpler explanation: I merely relished the absolute lack of responsibility expected of me, and deeply cherished this temporary condition, particularly in light of the newfound lives of my friends – fresh from college and straight into the cubicle â€“ who were now adamantly expected to be “productive” members of society. In this place, waking up before 12 p.m. could have you branded the “responsible one.”
As all things â€“ good and bad â€“ eventually come to end, I finally left this place after 7 weeks, arriving in Buenos Aires to a well-equipped apartment and a shower with hot water. Oddly enough, I found myself living only a few blocks away from the “Zona Roja” of the city, and, one night, as I escorted a (certifiably) female companion home from the bar, we passed by a character who possessed an eerily striking resemblance to the aforementioned transvestite in the yellow wife-beater in CÃ³rdoba. And yet, this time, I wasn’t the least bit fazed, only amused. While that dark side of meâ€“ so fully exposed in CÃ³rdoba â€“ may have been kept latent in the more “civilized” big city, it was certainly still there, ready to be conjured up (benignly, I sincerely hope) every once and awhile.