Photograph by Bob Krist
From the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Steak for dinner. Steak for lunch. And for dinner, again. Bife de lomo, charred and crusty outside, pink and soft within, oozing sepia-colored juices. Mmmmm. I reach across the red-checkered tablecloth for a spoonful of garlicky chimichurri sauce to slather over the meat. Meanwhile, a mustached waiter in a long white apron glides silently and professionally to my elbow and tops off my glass of Malbec. At home, I’m not much of a meat-eater; I do the healthy, semi-veggie thing, grains and greens, indulging in a steak once every few months or so. However, since arriving in all-meat-all-the-time Buenos Aires, Argentina, I’ve transformed, like a werewolf under a full moon, into a ravenous, prowling carnivore. I know a steady diet of beef is not in my best interest, but what can I do? I’ve succumbed to the temptation of perfectly grilled bife.
Oh temptation, thy name is travel! At home, I’m a model of temperance. But on the road, self-restraint seems to be one of the things, like toothpaste, that I forget to pack. When I travel, I can’t help myself: I turn into a grown-up version of the toddler who grabs fistfuls of chocolate birthday cake with both hands. More! All for me!
Here in Buenos Aires, my chocolate cake is steak. A friend has loaned me her flat—which I’m sharing with Clarissa, another acquaintance of hers from New York—in the city’s Palermo district, a neighborhood of faded apartment buildings where well-coiffed matrons parade equally well-coiffed poodles along streets lined with jacaranda trees. The area is home to a clutch of restaurants specializing in beef—and another treat I should avoid but can’t: those addictive little Argentine croissants called medialunas (half-moons). A terrific café across the street from my temporary digs makes them fresh daily; every morning I pop in there for medialunas with coffee, which I enjoy at a sidewalk table with a copy of the local newspaper. Usually I do this with Clarissa. Occasionally I succeed in talking her into accompanying me on my Buenos Aires steak marathon. But only occasionally.
Travel’s temptations take many forms, and Clarissa is following hers. “Guess what I found!” she exults one morning. “A shop that has—hold your breath—dulce de leche-and-brownie gelato.” Clarissa is using her trip to cultivate a connoisseurship of Buenos Aires’s ice-cream shops. Every day she stops at a few, always ordering Argentina’s famous flavor, the slightly salty, rich caramel ambrosia known as dulce de leche, or sweetness of milk.
I congratulate her on the find and write down the location of the heladería (ice-cream parlor) on a napkin. Then I shove the napkin into the bottomless pit of my shoulder bag, hoping it won’t resurface until I’m far away from Argentina, preferably on another continent. I worry that if I add yet another of Buenos Aires’s many temptations to my expanding travel portfolio, my stomach will burst.
While a lot of my enthusiasm for excess goes into the consumption of foods, edible treats aren’t the only temptation I’ll give in to and in all likelihood overdo. In Thailand, I have massages—two-hour massages—every single day I’m there. In Japan, I make a beeline for the nearest hot spring and end up staying in the water until my skin turns alarmingly red. And in India, Turkey, Mexico, or any other country with old-fashioned, crammed-with-tiny-shops, bargain-with-the-locals markets, I can’t stop shopping until I’ve completely exhausted my supply of rupees, lira, or pesos. (The recent introduction of ATMs into many of these traditional markets is killing me.)
What is it about traveling that brings out the Cookie Monster lurking inside of us? Part of it, I’m sure, is that travel loosens our inhibitions. The “What the heck, I’ll do it, I’m on vacation” syndrome seems universal to me. Entire tourism industries depend on it, from the airport duty-free shops that tempt travelers to buy the luxury watches, scarves, and jewelry they’d hesitate to splurge on at home, to those dark-side-of-travel temptations: drug and sex tourism.
The allures of consumption, while they are powerful, don’t explain the deeper hunger I often feel on the road. I don’t just want to accumulate stuff on my travels—I want to absorb the places I visit, make them a part of me. Yielding to the temptation of a local pastry I don’t need or an artwork I’m not sure will fit on my wall somehow satisfies that hunger.
A few years ago, down in Havana, Cuba, something happened that helped me understand why travel makes me so insatiable. I was attending a Santería ceremony that featured some of the city’s best drummers. The ceremony started late, and I’d been getting very little sleep. After three hours of standing in a packed room, I was swooning with exhaustion. All I wanted was to return to my hotel. However, a voice in my head kept repeating, anxiously, to the beat of the drums: Stay here. You may not pass this way again.
That voice wasn’t a wayward Santería spirit. It was me, the part of me—the part of all of us—that knows that travel, like life, is finite.
There is a reason why so many travel articles are headlined “Trips of a Lifetime.” When we travel, we embark on an intense, highly concentrated version of life itself; and as with life, we want to grab and hold on to as much of it as we can. While we can. So we give in to temptations.
On my travels, I become a human version of the banged-up suitcases you see tumbling down onto the baggage-claim belt, suitcases so full that they’re held together with straps and duct tape. I’m overpacked with scents, sights, experiences. Yet I always find room for more.
Later in the afternoon, strolling around Buenos Aires, I reach into my bag for my cell phone—and come across the napkin with the address of Clarissa’s ice-cream parlor discovery. My first impulse is to toss the napkin back in my bag, but then I don’t. Yes, eating too many rich Argentine delicacies is making me feel guilty. But the thought of passing up a single one of travel’s sweet moments fills me with an even more painful emotion: regret.
Temptation wins. I choose sweetness. I let my feet lead me to Clarissa’s heladería—and its creamy, to-die-for dulce de leche-and-brownie ice cream.
Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com.