Upside Down World

Thursday, April 16th, 2009, 10:56 pm

After I closed my hotel room door I paused to give myself a little pat on the back. “Well done, Geno,” I said, enjoying a rare moment of pride and satisfaction. I’d somehow managed to transport myself from Allison Park, Pennsylvania to Mar del Plata, Argentina, and the fact that I’d accomplished this without psyche-scarring trauma was worth savoring.

I drove to the airport without incident and after enjoying a pint and a cheeseburger I hopped aboard my flight to Atlanta. The plane was two-thirds empty, I had room to stretch my legs, and the flight was a breeze. A bit of a rough landing, the pilot seemed a bit liberal with the throttle, but no biggie. I deplaned at Terminal B, my flight to Buenos Aires would depart from Terminal E. Fancying a stroll I decided to pass on the train and hike the 900 meters to my gate. I can always do with a bit of exercise and with a ten-hour looming I was looking for anything that might tucker me out.

I made it to the gate no problem, but as I looked for my PokerNews colleagues they started calling my zone for boarding. “Wha?” I said, checking the time and seeing that we had over 45 minutes before takeoff. But I didn’t want to get stuck checking my carry-on so I passed up charging my computer and iPhone (mistake) and scurried onboard. I was dismayed to find that the seats in economy were just like economy seats everywhere–cramped. I was hoping that, maybe, 767’s that fly intercontinental might be configured so that the peasants in steerage don’t have to endure agonizing leg cramps. Silly me.

I felt even sillier–no, that isn’t the word…enraged, that’s it!–when Otis tweeted that he’d been upgraded to business class (this after he’d missed his Argentine connection the night before). The bastard even posted a pic of his acres of legroom–this while I was on the same plane and faced with sitting in the same position for half a day. I retaliated by posting a photo of the sorry state of my knees, which you can find at my Twitter feed. If you check it out and don’t know what  “FML” means, think about it a bit. Here’s a hint–the last two letters stand for “My Life”.

But, OK. Otis has a comfy chair and lots of legroom. And, as he twitted later, he got to order beef tenderloin and shrimp scampi for dinner. But I took a deep breath, took another, took another, and that did the trick. I was on the plane. My dinner would no doubt be lovely (and indeed it was pretty good). And I’d sleep during the flight and arrive in Argentina bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

We got in the air and the woman in front of my pushed her seat all the way back. Pinning my knee in place. I managed to tug myself free and tried to arrange my legs in a way that the CIA wouldn’t consider an effective “enhanced interrogation” method. I’d popped my sleeping pill at the end of dinner and I hoped/prayed/begged that I’d lose consciousness for a few hours.

I listened to a book on tape with the volume set low, hoping the muted words would lull me to sleep. It didn’t work, except that it did. I was sleepy but still alert, still following the words, still hoping that I’d doze off. It seemed that I was awake forever…and then I opened my eyes to find the horizon streaked orange with looming sunlight. I’d crashed for about five hours, waking up when we were about 90 minutes from landing. Head felt pretty good, legs felt pretty good. Not bad. My only concern was that my phone was utterly dead, and I plugged it into my als0-depleted laptop hoping it would suck enough volts to work when we landed.

No such luck–after I waddled off the plane and made it through Customs I again had to plug my phone in. I then got the text from Otis to say that he’d made plans and wouldn’t need to take the bus. No problem, but I still couldn’t find the other PokerNews folks. I only knew Melissa by sight and as I circled the luggage carousel I didn’t see her or anyone else who might be part of the gang. And it turns out there was a most unhappy reason for that–none of their checked luggage made it to Argentina, and so they had to spend three days in the same clothes, no equipment…awful. Having lucked out by lugging all my gear I changed money, took a deep breath, and headed out into the wilds of Argentina.

The airport taxi stand, in particular. A guy saw that I was looking for a cab and took my carry-on and started walking toward the cabs. He then handed my bag to another guy, who led me across the road to another line of cabs. OK. He chattered away with a big smile and I smiled back and said I don’t speak Spanish. He kept chattering and eventually he handed my bag to a surly-looking guy who put it in the trunk of a cab.

I told them where I needed to go and they quoted me a price–eighty dollars. American. “Uh, what?” I said. The bus ride to Mar del Plata would cost a third of that. The guy tried to convince me that this was a fair price and I said “No way” and got out of the cab. Probably a good move, as they instantly cut their price in half. Forty bucks still seemed a steep price, but the fact is I had no idea how far the bus station was, and I wasn’t in the mood to find a new taxi and begin negotiations again. I handed over two twenties, gave the guy a cold stare for a tip, and we were on our way.

Turns out that my $40 cab ride was a bargain. It took us nearly a half-hour weaving through heavy traffic to get there. From the little I saw looking out the window, Buenos Aires is a lovely city, kinda reminded me of San Francisco. The architecture, the attractive people walking around. We finally made it to the bus station, I gave the cabbie a handsome tip, and I tried to find a bus.

You enter the Omnibus Retiro Terminal and the ground floor is all shops and restaurants. Fortunately I read up about it and knew you had to go up to the second floor to find the ticket counters. There are like 200 of them lined up forever, and I found one with “Mar del Plata” on the sign and another person buying a ticket. He looked like the sort who knows a reputable bus line when he sees one, so I bought a ticket for the 10:15 (leaving in ten minutes) and boogied down to platform 64.

Lots of folks didn’t want to take the bus from BA to Mar del Plata because they feared the ride would be something out a nightmare–packed, hot, luggage tied to the roof, uncooped chickens squawking about. None of that. It was an ultra-modern double-decker bus, air-conditioned, fully reclining seats. I had more legroom on the bus than Otis had in his business-class airline seat. And the bus was nearly empty–I went up to the top level, got my gear arranged, and kicked up my feet.

The trip took a bit more than five hours and I loved every bit of it. Listened to my trusty iPod Shuffle, dozed on and off, decompressed. The scenery outside was beautiful, though a bit disturbing for someone who grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. Pittsburgh is all hills and valleys and nooks and crannies. Other than the rivers there ain’t a lot of flatness there. But as we drove on, and on, and on, it seemed that the whole of Argentina had been graded by some celestial bulldozer. The landscape we drove through was flat. When I mean flat, I mean FLAT. Maybe you think you know about flatness, maybe you grew up in Kansas or Winnipeg or someplace where they joke about how the dog ran away three days ago and point to the horizon and say, “There he is!”.

But this part of Argentina was goddam flat, man. We drove for about three hours and on both sides of the bus the grasslands stretched out forever. The place is tailor-made for armored warfare. Looking at the plains was like looking out at the ocean, but the horizon seemed even further away than it appears at sea. You’d look out and see a copse of trees about a thousand yards away. Beyond that you’d see a few more trees about 2,000 yards out. Beyond THAT you’d see a gray blur–more trees. And even beyond that there’s be a blurrier gray blob that was another tree. If you were staging a 10K race in Argentina you could gather people along the highway, point right and say, “Yinz see that tree?”

“The poofy one?”

“No, the spiky one to the left and behind of the poofy one.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“That’s the finish line. Ready set go.”

And if you wanted to run a marathon you’d just need to point to a tree to the left of the road (that’s where we’ll start) and point to a speck off to the right (that’s where you break the tape). Steven Wright once said he wasn’t afraid of heights, he was afraid of widths. It’s possible Wright spent some time on a bus in Argentina.

When we got into Mar del Plata I had some trouble finding a taxi, as the cab stand was around the corner in front of the terminal. Found one, finally explained to the driver where I was staying, and off we went. When we got there, for some reason I felt like Ray Liotta at the end of GoodFellas–I had this feeling that I was gonna get killed right outside the hotel. I dunno, there were no sinister people around, there’s a park and a playground right across the street, it looks pretty benign. Here’s the view from my window:

I’ve since heard from multiple sources not to venture outside at night, and in fact it’s not a good idea to walk around at all unless you’re with a group. So I might not get to the beach to take pictures, as a camera with a big lens is apparently the international symbol for “Hit me in the head and take my consumer electronics”. Ah well.

Met up with Pauly and Change at the PokerStars’ party, then a gang of us hung out at the hotel bar and drank beer until midnight. Took a cab home without incident, woke up feeling blauuugggh, and two Advil later I was raring to go. And so I’m here, covering a poker tournament where I can’t speak the native language of 90% of the players. It’s been a challenge, yes it has.

So that’s it. I’m here in Argentina. Work hard for four more days, head for home.

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