Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Argentine Vacation

Family traditions shape themselves around the lives of their participant founders. So, in retirement, the convenience of joining our children’s families during their school vacations has worked itself into an annual routine. Conceptually, we do not subscribe to the colonialist essence of the American Thanksgiving Holiday. If anything we feel morally obligated to join Native Americans on the occasion of their day of mourning, their commemorating of their Nakba. Lacking such practical alternative and with the coincidence of the extended weekend holiday in our grandchildren’s American school calendar with the ebb of our gardening duties and end of summer fruits in our home garden in Galilee, it has become a sort of family tradition of ours to fly to San Jose, California before Ty’s family and those of two Northern California resident cousins of his get together during the holiday.

Our daughter’s family often joins the same occasion as well. But the more significant tradition for her family is for us to join them for the Christmas and New Year holidays with the excuse of rendering our babysitting services gratis as the three generational family travels abroad. This tradition has gotten so well rooted that we get only a week’s advance notice of the exact dates and destination of the annual trip. This year it was Argentina, a big place for the ten-day escape from New York’s deep freeze. In reality it was a five-day sojourn on a ranch bracketed by a couple-of-days peek on our way in and back at the highlights of what touristic attractions Buenos Aires has to offer.

The unexpected highlight of this brief Argentinian exposure for me came at the very end. Helena Cobban, the founder and CEO of Just World Books, the publishing house that will bring out “Chief Complaint,” my forthcoming short story collection from my solo general practice days in Arrabeh, saw fit to introduce me at the last minute to a fellow publisher in Buenos Aires. The octogenarian Argentinian of Lebanese origins showed up for our last breakfast and turned out to be a real gem of a committed Palestinian defender, a contemporary and personal friend of Edward Said and Abu-Lughud. A diminutive old bundle of energy and intellect, Dr. Saad Chadid had spent an eventful life in the study of philosophy, religion and politics with a special knack for ferreting out the meaning of loaded words and splitting significant hairs at the border between these domains. With the passing away of his friend Edward Said, Saad dedicated his resourceful skills and web of academic contacts to establishing chairs for Palestinian studies at Latin American universities. He has already set up six such Edward Said Chairs and hopes to do at least four more. At eighty-six years of age, he looks well and plans to last till age 105 relying on a common bit of Indian wisdom from his days of studying peaceful resistance at Gandhi’s home village. The adage guarantees 105 years of life to those who dedicatee themselves to others. Gandhi lived only to 78. Saad’s dedication to the Palestinian cause is that absolute. Even his wife had too much of it and split.

The other highlight of the trip was the daily horseback ride at the Ave Maria Ranch. One could ride all day long if they so desired. Marten, the resident Gaucho was always ready, a gentle soul if I ever saw one. He accompanied me when I wanted to go horseback riding while everyone else went to the pool for a swim. We had difficulty communicating beyond the bare essentials of riding. Trotting and galloping are nearly identical in English and Spanish. All the staff seemed so polite and friendly but none was more genuinely so than the owner and manager of the ranch and guest house, Ascension. She also spoke English. I felt truly welcome and at ease till on an afternoon ride we stopped for our picnic lunch and looked for a bottle opener. Marten reached back with his hand and casually drew a huge knife from its sheath hanging from his leather belt. I decided to keep my distance. The glint of the thing in the noon sun made me blink and I wondered what he usually did with his knife other than open beer bottles. I never found out; that was my last ride. Malaika, my teen granddaughter, and her father rode out twice a day and managed to squeeze a last ride before our trip back to the city the last morning of our stay. The ranch also offered nature walks in the gentle slopes of its near fifty thousand dunams. And one could pick organic berries and fruits to one’s heart’s or stomach’s content. Malaika, the vegetarian in the family, went wild with the early season figs and the raspberries. And gourmet home-cooked meals twice a day. All one had to do was to relax and enjoy.

We did make a trip one noon to Tandil, the region’s main town, to sample the cheese and salami, the two specialties of the town. After five hours of flat land driving from Buenos Aires, the well-worn-out hills of Tandil’s terrain were a welcome relief in the endless open horizons in all four directions. We are told that this fades in comparison with the open spaces of Patagonia, Argentina’s major landmass that Hertzl initially considered for his state of the Jews when the Europeans decimated its native peoples around the turn of the 19th century. Why did the guy change his mind, I wondered. And how would it be like for me to visit these parts had he not gone religious with his dream inspired and powered by Europe’s anti-Semitism?

The flight back to New York was delayed by ten hours, a minor nightmare especially for my daughter, the overall organizer of the whole vacation. But apparently the stress affected me as well. Few hours into the flight my wife woke me up from a screaming fit.  I told her what I was screaming about; we were with our extended family on a picnic in a vast meadow. One of my nieces insisted on riding her new truck and circling around the picnic site. (In reality she had posted on Facebook pictures of the new car she had bought though her last one was only a year or two old.) Her truck was so powerful and she was showing it off, making it rear on its back wheels and turnaround in circles (just as my horse did when it threw me off its back!) endangering the children. My wife and I laughed this off.  I drank some water, reclined my seat and dozed off again but to a different dream: We were vacationing in Patagonia this time. Everyone was really polite and friendly, exact copies of our hosts at Ave Maria. They wore Star of David Jewelry instead of crosses. I was very proud and self-confident as I spoke Hebrew with everyone. Many of them spoke fluent Arabic. And they didn’t mind me saying I was Palestinian.

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