Ch 4.6 - Lockdown, Family Time, Bureacracy, and Black Market Currency Conversions

So its just a few clicks into the lockdown and suddenly we’re a family with all the tasks that came with that. We had to register Aquiles’ birth with the municipal government and take him to the pediatrician, while Lau was to start rehabilitation after her trauamatic birth. A foreigner, and the father, there was not much in those areas that I could help with beyond simply showing up.

Meanwhile, we did have to eat. I buckled up my courage and took the car on my own to the big grocery warehouse once every couple weeks. I did spend a lot of time cooking while Lau and baby rested, and her aunt and cousins brought over food once in a while. I am sure they would have been over more frequently, however the air of fear in the fresh lockdown atmosphere choked even the sweetest of hearts. Each time I traveled to the store, or anywhere really, I was sure to have grocery bags in the front seat so if police stopped me or I ran through some unforeseen checkpoint (scattered throughout neighborhoods through the city), I would have an obvious excuse as to what I was doing outside my home.

There were some blessings to the early lockdown too, a main one being the lack of distant family and friends coming by to see the baby. Not-so-distant family and friends were welcome, of course, but apparently that’s not how it works in Argentina, and Lau had been dreading the aunts and uncles she hadn’t seen in years stopping by to touch the newborn with their germ-ridden fingers. (Unbeknownst to me, apparently this was becoming a more well-known issue even before covid; newborn babies shouldn’t be held or touched by too many folks before their immune systems have ramped up.)

I would still go on walks, no fucks given. Apparently you weren’t supposed to do that, but you could still go shopping. With a backpack and some cash in my pocket, I’d always make sure to pick up some fruits at a random verdulería while out and about, just as that potential excuse should it ever come up. The only time I ever had to talk to a cop during the lockdown was on my way back to the hospital after Lau’s birth. I’d gone home to take a nap, practice yoga, and bring back food for the night. Cops in the street asked me where I was going. I motioned to the supplies, and they waved me on.

My exercise was transferring to more indoor-based activities, however. The Budokon community had started a weekly session that, for the time being, made me feel part of a little community. It would later crumble when it became clear to me that their online efforts at community-building were purely business-based, but it provided me some English-speaking solace nonetheless. Every Sunday at noon I would practice yoga, mobility, or martial arts with a global community of similar-minded people onscreen. Cameron Shayne would have a “Mind Science” talk beforehand, and these as well offered me some peace. The very first talk covered his concepts of “the sit or the sword” and knowing when to choose which mode of action. The theme was “this is how it is now.” Sometimes things are too big for us to change, and fighting is not the solution.

And so I sat. I accepted what was and decided to take advantage of it. I could be a father, a husband, and an online entrepreneur with very little issue, if any at all. Very frustrated with the “2-week” lockdown that the Argentine president kept extending, it wasn’t until later in the summer that the frustration would linger past the frontier into the true fear that it actually was… but for now, I chose to focus on the life right around me. My life of travel was over anyway, and all I really wanted was to get back to California to have my parents around and make life a little easier.

Not to sound ungrateful. Lau’s aunt, uncle, and cousins were incredibly supportive during this time. They owned a few taxis and knew the routes through the neighborhoods to avoid the police checkpoints, so they would come over a few times per week. Sometimes with food, sometimes to help clean or just spend time with Lau and the baby. That gave me some extra freedom. I decided to learn how to barbecue Argentine style: asado. We had to be quiet in the backyard, and I couldn’t invite my new friends from the local corner store, because apparently neighbors were telling on one another for having company during the lockdown. (I would carry that paranoia with me until a few weeks before we finally left, in December, when I heard a birthday party blasting dance music until late in the night. What once would have been a disturbing of the peace had become a sigh of relief that we were, indeed, still human.)

Meanwhile, they would invite us to their house almost every Sunday for an asado. Tío Alfonso would share with me his tips. He used too much salt but I couldn’t even begin to explain the richness of the feasts that came from that grill onto the table. There was a spirit of tradition here, something they had all known since childhood, something they had shared with their grandparents and their grandparents. Something about the meat dripping down onto hot coals that makes the mouth water, the wine that washes down the warmth of a family’s gathering around a table used for generations. I was privileged enough to experience this in a way that may never have happened if it weren’t for the lockdown.

Yet that was only half the fun. The first half was getting to their house without incident, since the highways had police checkpoints. Adrenaline rushing, baby whimpering, I took the wheel while Lau would tell me where to go through the bizarrely laid residential avenues from the backseat. We saw police cars once in a while but were never stopped. We always brought Aquiles’ medical documents with us. Our alibi was to say we were on our way to or on the way home from the hospital, since Lau’s official ID card said she lived in the same district as her family.

One Sunday in particular, I wasn’t feeling particularly social. I was going through my ups and downs of the whole thing, and the truth was I wasn’t always in the mood for a family asado where I still felt kind of like an outsider. The baby was the center of attention and I didn’t feel like I would ever really be missed, so I dropped Lau and Aquiles off and headed home for my Budokon community session. On the way, following a very select path avoiding most main thoroughfares, I saw a mini checkpoint. It was a quiet street, and the sight snuck up on me. I made the immediate first right turn I could and pulled over, heart pounding. As I checked the map, I asked myself what was so stressful about it. The worst that could happen was what, a fine?

I’d ask myself that question a lot over the next year. Or two. As the world turns, and we examine the sit or the sword, inevitably comes the moment where we decide whether to ask permission now or beg forgiveness afterwards. Sometimes life gives you no choice.

The Sunday trips became a meme for our time in the early lockdown. I would hum the Mission Impossible theme and no matter how often we did it, I would still be nervous. Same went for when we needed to go register Aquiles downtown so we could move the process forward to get his American passport. We had no appointment and thus no permission, because it was impossible, and so the police at the bridge leading into town told us we weren’t allowed to pass. Lau explained that we didn’t know, that I was a gringo and we just need to register the baby, and the female cop told us to just not let it happen again. I have a feeling that was the way of most of these interactions. (Tío had told me that some people were genuinely stupid though, and would try to cross different zones of town without any excuse or reason for doing so, and they were the ones who were legitimately turned around or fined.) It was all for naught in any case, because the office was closed. A bit later we ended up snagging an appointment the week it re-opened, and while the cousins watched Aquiles, Tío and Tía took us in their taxi to the office. He explained to the cop exactly what we were doing, that we had an appointment and they were our witnesses, and without showing any evidence we were waved on through.

Insert “shake my head” meme again.

At the end of May we moved to our new place. We had a nice parilla there for asados and even a nice yard with everything ready to plant a garden. There was a lemon tree and we planted an apple tree, plenty of cilantro, lavender, basil and other herbs, and in the raised garden beds experimented with carrots, kale, chard, chives, spinach, and more. We slowly stopped making as many trips across town and ended up inviting the family over to our place instead, as I learned to grill and the family gave me tips. My main issue was always not getting the coals hot enough. While the weekends were spent primarily focused on work, our Saturdays we would spend out in the garden, while Sundays were spent with family. It was a new but pleasant schedule for me.

And then there was the general routine of the week, which was new to me as well. In our new home, we were settling in for the long haul. We had no idea how long we’d be there, we were just glad that our “landlord” understood our situation and was flexible with us. We found the ultimate babysitter, an energetic girl named Luz who lived just a few blocks away. For four hours per day, five days per week, Lau and I were free to work—we didn’t even have to worry about anything, because Aquiles absolutely loved her and they got along great. Lau went to rehab twice per week, she cooked amazing meals, and I started the carnivore diet. There was a butcher shop down the street from our house and I could walk in with tupperware, point to a few different cuts I wanted, and $10 later walk out with enough meat for a few days of only eating meat. I found a connection to marijuana, bought a healthy supply of both sativa and indica to last me indefinitely. I’d try to wake up before the baby did at about 5:30am, get stoned and leave before I could feel the cold. Later in the day as a pick-me-up, I’d smoke again and do a few laps around the nearby park, do pull-ups and push-ups on the playground, and practice animal locomotion on the soccer field. Even if I weren’t a foreigner gringo, I still would have been quite the sight. It was healthy for me to push it all aside and just do what I needed to do. Before bed, I would smoke again and practice the Budokon mobility teacher training I had signed up for, all the while processing through the paranoia that some neighbor had smelled my smoke and called the police on me. (That never happened—in fact, the only knocks on the door that ever came were from the neighbor a few doors down who owned a verdulería and would deliver straight to our door when he came home for the night.) And then I would either paint my desk (see above), or work on some kind of art through the night while momma and baby slept.

All in all, life was simple, life was good. I was focused on staying healthy, my new business was thriving, we ate well, and the baby was happy. We had our little fights and disagreements once in a while, but that’s all a part of discovering new dynamics with new members of the family, as I’ve come to believe. By July-ish, the lockdown had eased up quite a bit, as everyone was learning that it didn’t help for anything but collapsing economies and ruining livelihoods. It was less stressful to go outside or travel across town, but I would remain wary and not pass through checkpoints ever, if I didn’t have to. I’d seen too much of the police state firsthand.

The only times when the simplicity of life was taken away from us were those moments of bureaucracy. No one ever picked up the phone, and half the time the online systems for appointments were either shut down or not working. Once we got an appointment for Aquiles DNI (ID card) and Argentine passport, only to arrive at a closed office building, signs everywhere saying they were closed due to the pandemic. Lau was furious, for good reason. I, on the other hand, was disheartened. Conspiracy theories were going rampant about the Argentine government shutting down passport offices so Argentines couldn’t flee the doom that the country was falling into, on all levels. (Countless folk had been taking the boat from Buenos Aires over to a better life in Uraguay.) All that contributed to me wondering if we ever, truly, would get out of there. Life was good for us in the day-to-day, but when the mind starts thinking too much into the future, well, life stops feeling so good.

The final anecdote to sum up this chapter is the dolar blue exchange man who would come over to our house. The dolar blue is the black market dollar, always bought and sold at a different rate than the official when there are currency restrictions, as there currently were. Argentine citizens could only buy $200 USD per month with their pesos to put into savings (it later turned into $100). The idea behind that is to keep the wealth from leaving the economy as the government kept printing more and hyperinflating the peso. That meant, for us selling the dollars, that we could literally receive almost twice the official rate of pesos for our dollars. It was ludicrous but an excellent situation for us.

Anyway, we fortunately had a bunch of U.S. dollars still. All our rent was paid in direct dollars, generally corresponding to a local price, but some times we needed pesos for day to day stuff, mainly extra purchases beyond food and living. Lau made a bunch of pesos in her yoga school but I was trapped in this place and sometimes needed to buy creature comforts like two new computer monitors, speakers, and a gamer PC to turn into a hackintosh that I could properly work on… the laptop wasn’t doing it anymore, and hell, we were here for the long-haul. Throw in the ganja, rehab, babysitter, and other bills, and a few extra hundred dollars here and there went a long way to make life more pleasant.

I’ll never forget the first time the money exchange man came over. As with most services, businesses had to shut their doors during the pandemic, but their phone numbers remained active for delivery. We would text the guy how many dollars we wanted to convert and he would come straight to our door, a backpack full of cash. The first time, I freaked out. “What do you mean the black market dollar man is coming over?” I’d ask Lau, furious. She said it was normal, par for the course. I was shocked but trusted her. He knocked on the door and entered, casually handed us a fat stack, take our cash without counting it, and we’d talk a bit about our life and situation, being stuck here, etc. New expenses kept seeming to come up and he eventually was making monthly visits. One afternoon I was stoned and paranoid and told Lau I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t open the door. I’d watched too many movies, read too many books, and this guy was really a cop in a sting operation.

The worst never happened though. A visit or two later he even brought his wife and baby, who was of an age with Aquiles, to introduce us. It was one of the more outlandish relationships I’d ever expected to develop down there. I think it was that movie Pineapple Express where the theme in the beginning is “you don’t befriend your drug dealer” because, well, it’s a shady business. But here in Argentina, people were still just people. And if their services overlapped our needs, it didn’t matter which area of the law either landed.

TTFN!