Our first “big” international trip after moving to Michigan was a two parter: a week in Rio de Janeiro with our mates Kevin and Sabrina, followed by roughly 5 weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It had been roughly 2 years since Lindsay and I had left the UK (between then of course moving to California, then back to Michigan) and we’d done zero international travel during that period. This was largely due to COVID, but also just all of the general life stuff happening. It was honestly a bit weird taking an international flight after that stretch and arriving at an airport in Rio.
The thing that sort of hit me is both how out of place I felt arriving in a new country, but also how comfortable and “normal” it felt. Unfortunately the “normal” part I don’t mean in a “I’m so cool and used to travel” sort of way, but more in a “I am sadly slightly less excitable when it comes to arriving in airports in new places.” I’d say I felt somewhat “shocked” actually, like “wow, I’m in this amazing new country, but I don’t feel that much different.” Again, this isn’t exactly a good thing, it’s just how I felt.
Luckily, our friends Kevin and Sabrina (Sabrina from Brazil, Kevin basically Brazilian at this point) met us at the airport and that added a lot of excitement. Traveling in a country by yourself is so much different than traveling with somebody who knows the language and food and culture and can be your constant tour guide and explainer of all things.
This might sound lame, but I have to say one of my favorite things about our time in Brazil was our mornings or evenings just hanging out at our AirBnB with Kevin and Sabrina. The AirBnB wasn’t the fanciest place ever, but at night you could open the windows up and look out over the bay right next to us, with lots of people gathering on the street below sitting on a low stone wall drinking beer and just hanging out. One of those places with a really nice natural vibe and lots of life.
I must also mention the amazing time I had with Kevin in the mornings working on what would become a powerful spreadsheet powered by a google form allowing us to precisely track where we spent money. Waking up in the morning, getting our laptops out to make a beautiful spreadsheet and just chatting was really really nice. Sabrina also made some amazing food (manioc was a highlight, assuming I’m spelling it correctly).
Other than work on spreadsheets, we also:
- Talked about 4G speeds while watching near-naked men play volleyball
- Went to a soccer game randomly where Kevin and I almost were killed in the bathroom (not really, but there was a long of chanting of the teams songs by a lot of very strong shirtless men packed together where we felt very much unable to sing along)
- Communed with nature
- Fed each other Açai on these steps
- Fed each other açai not on those steps
- Watched Sabrina cut Kevin’s hair (note that view out the window!)
- Swam on some beautiful beaches in some beautiful water (also not such beautiful water… see below)
- Sugarloaf of course
And many other things. Photos aside, we packed a ton into the week. Museums, parks, food, soccer games, grocery shopping, beaches, swimming, etc. There is of course so much in such a large city like Rio there is plenty we didn’t do, but I walked away not feeling like there was a single thing we’d missed. This was of course in large part thanks to our friends and tour guides, S+K.
When it was time to leave Rio for Argentina we were sad to leave. The view out our window and the time with friends would be missed.
One thing about the photo above though – the bay in the photo had a small beach at one point, and one thing that happened before we left is Lindsay got a nice swim in, right after a very hard rain.
This will become relevant later. Unfortunately I have no photos of Lindsay’s fateful swim, but imagine this scene: Kevin, Lindsay and I walk down to this beach near our AirBnB. We get down there and realize there is nobody at all on the beach, and certainly nobody in the water. The only people on the beach are people picking up garbage. There is a street along one side of the beach (again, this is a little bay / marina) has pipes leading up to the street, where water is pouring out, presumably rain runoff from the streets but really who knows.
I immediately decide there is no way I’m getting in the water. Lindsay, committed to swimming once a day can’t be deterred and goes for a quick dip.
Arriving in Argentina was great. It was easy, it was relatively familiar Spanish speaking (edit: to be clear, I speak very very little Spanish, but I speak SOME, compared to almost zero Portuguese), and getting to and from the airport with Uber was pretty easy.
We stayed in a great neighborhood called Belgrano. The neighborhood is a lot quieter and perhaps less “hip” then the more popular tourist area of Palermo. That said, it was perfect for us, we really loved it and when / if we go back to BA we’ll stay there again I think.
Here is a little tour of our apartment we were in for ~5 weeks.
It’s a bit difficult to describe Buenos Aires. The common thing people tend to say is that it’s “very European.” Unhelpfully, I think that’s probably how I’d describe it too. Walking down the street in our neighborhood a lot of the shops and houses feel like they could be in a small city in the South of France (maybe in Nicola’s family’s Revest-des-Brousses / Forcalquier!). Honestly I don’t know. I do know BA was another reminder of how beautiful and diverse South America is.
As for what we actually did in BA, for the most part our time was spent on our laptops (Lindsay was in the middle of a job search / interviews / etc), walking around exploring the city, eating ramen, and watching Singles Inferno Season 1!
The neighborhood we were staying in was called Belgrano, which we really loved and would (will?) stay in again. It’s a bit less filled with “digital nomad” type crowd. It’s less hip, quieter, but really perfect for us.
Money and the blue dollar rate
One of the more unique experiences I had when we got to BA was figuring out how to get cash. Literally EVERY country I’ve been to in the past ~19 years traveling I typically use the ATM to get local currency. The past 10 years there are more and more credit cards, but many places are still 95% cash, and so I go to the ATM to get money out.
Not at all the case in BA. Because of inflation in the country there is this somewhat bizarre (to me) concept of the “blue dollar rate” – basically there is a “black market” for cash, and if you exchange your USD for Argentinian’s pesos you get essentially TWICE the value for your currency.
Anyway because this is technically illegal (maybe not even technically, just straight up) you can’t just go to an ATM and ask for the blue rate, at an ATM you get ~the bank rate. So that means you have to find a place to exchange USD for Argentinian pesos (ARS). One option is to go to a street known for people who do exchanges (Florida street), but this involves actually having USD to take and then you have to actually go talk with people and (apparently) there can be some bartering, you might not get the best rate, etc. More of a chance for “scammy” experiences.
Another option is Western Union, which <spoiler alert!> is actually how I’d recommend somebody visiting do their exchanges. Especially if you are in a decent neighborhood and find a Western Union that feels safe and has cash (it’s fairly common for them to run out, so you have to come back another day or go somewhere else, etc). We ended up having a great Western Union by our apartment and did 5 or 6 different transactions without issue.
BUT, I went into BA knowing about Western Union but thinking “that place is scammy and a nightmare to deal with, no thanks!” So for the first transaction getting cash I ended up going with a place that I found through reddit. Through social media I texted back and forth with a person, put in an order for a certain amount of money, then had to show up at an address within a certain amount of time. Frankly, being a weak cautious nerd type I was a semi-terrified, in particular because I believe the first transaction I had ~USD$200 to exchange (normally I don’t bring that much cash, maybe $40 max, but was told larger bills would be better for exchange – I wouldn’t do this again, I’d just use Western Union and maybe take USD$50 just in case).
Anyway I get to this apartment complex and some nice woman came out to meet me. I figured “I’ll just give them my cash and they give me the money”, but no, I had to go into the building with them. Then I had to get in an apartment elevator, and which point I was thinking “ah… this is not really what I was expecting.” Finally we get up to an apartment that they had me wait outside of the door in the hallway with maybe 3 or 4 other people just sitting there waiting. Eventually they had me come into the apartment and sit down at a glass table. There were maybe 4 or 5 other woman in there at tables, as well as a few dudes sitting on a couch watching TV (these are the ones with guns I was telling myself). Anyway there were piles of cash out on the table (not an obscene amount, though I suspect there was an obscene amount somewhere in the room/building). The women were all counting out cash / doing exchanges. I gave the woman sitting at my table my money, they made sure it was real (they are SUPER picky about defects, so if you do this bring newer bills!), then counted out a few stacks of cash in a counting machine, then thanked me and that was it. No problem. BUT, it did feel like I was going into some sort of (very nice and professional) drug deal.
I did this once more after the first time, this time PayPaling money to them first (but they still made me come up to the apartment to count out the cash). I hate Western Union that much.
After that I talked to too many people who said Western Union was the way to go, so I switched and never looked back!
(Oh, if you happen to read this and want to exchange money at Western Union, look for a discount code. I had one that took away the entire fee. It was a strangely great deal).
If you are looking at this and thinking “Wait a second Kevin… this is barely better than the bank rate! I think you’re confused”, look at this mind blowing (and hard – my heart goes out to people fighting this) graph of the USD -> ARS exchange rates the past year:
Anyway the inflation issues in Argentina are well documented, interesting to read about, but also super sad. Enough about that for now.
Food is really good
So when we’re living in one place for a long time (we were in BA for ~5 weeks or so) and working we tend to mainly do normal life stuff. Weekends we try to really capitalize on by doing touristy stuff but most nights it’s smaller stuff around our neighborhood. We do tend to eat out a lot more than we do at home in the States because it’s more affordable and we’re typically very excited to try different / new foods.
Some of our favorite things to eat in Argentina were…
Empanadas – we ate many many of these. It was also particularly convenient where we were living because it was incredibly easy / convenient to have food delivered for relatively cheap.
Ramen. This might seem slightly out of place but our neighborhood was next to (or actually technically part of?) Barrio Chino, aka China Town. There was a good ramen spot there that we probably ate at 4 or 5 times.
This is a fairly typical / popular food in Argentina, although to place we ate at a LOT was actually a Napolitano style pizza place (certified!). I know this isn’t perhaps the most exciting pizza, but Argentina aside it’s one of my favorite things to eat and there was a place a short subway ride away called Siamo nel Forno that I really really loved and the pizzas were maybe $8 or so USD. This actually inspired the purchase of a Ooni pizza oven when we got home.
Of course we ate all of the other required pizza as well, e.g. several different Fugazza (lots of onions) pizzas. Honestly they were good, but I’d rather have a thin crust simple pizza I think.
Pasta I had read / been told by friends that there was a real Italian influence in some of the food but I was really sort of pleasantly surprised by how many cute little shops there were around the city that sold fresh pasta and pasta sauce. There were many within walking distance of our place, but the place we got the pasta below from was this really beautiful place that had like 10 different types of freshly prepared pasta and many sauces and such, all very affordable.. If we wanted pasta (and we did want pasta!) we’d just walk a few blocks and pick out exactly what we wanted and come home and cook it. It was really dreamy.
Choripán is a big thing. We had quite a few, they were all good, but i was a bit of a sucker for the atmosphere (and beer) in this touristy little food hall.
Alfajores pretty well known, very good. We ate all types.
Medialuna – this is I feel one of my favorite unexpected favorites. Basically (my take at least) these are small croissant but with a sugary glaze (but not TOO sugary).
Everything else – honestly we ate so much amazing food. We did the bbq / steak / meat thing (honestly not our favorite food at all, but we checked that box). We ate sushi a handful of times, and I don’t even know what else. One other honorable mention is the middle eastern / shawarma place by our house. Really really nice guy worked there and we somewhat got to know him.
Like any large city there is a nearly endless list of things to do and see. We did quite a bit, but I’ll post some random highlights. Not pictured are a bunch of museums (the first one being where we identified Lindsay’s little eye issue for the first time!).
Also, I wanted to specifically call out the photo below because sitting in this park is something that we did a fair amount, but Lindsay did a ton by herself while I was on my computer during the day. One of my favorite things about coming to great cities is their parks. The great cities have great parks that are normally full of people, kids, dogs, etc, random people playing music, etc. Enough people things to make the parks little. In BA it was these things, but the groups of friends would bring a thermos of hot water and a bombilla with mate to pass between friends. This was one of the few things we really missed out on (we didn’t have a group of friends we went to the park with unfortunately!). This is one of the biggest things I miss about Oakland (Lake Merritt).
You may recall earlier in this post I mentioned Lindsay swimming in the bay in Rio after a fairly heavy rain (NOTE: As you can perhaps tell, I’m heavily implying that Lindsay’s swim in unclean water was the cause of all that follows. Of course I do not know that. Also it’s far from a given that the bacterial pink eye was in anyway related to the appendicitis… BUT IT DOES MAKE YOU WONDER!) . Well a few days after that (when we had just gotten to Buenos Aires), Lindsay got pinkeye. Specifically of the bacterial infection variety. So we ended up going to the clinic in BA to get medication.
Anyway Lindsay had pink eye for a few days, then I ended up getting it. Overall not the end of the world, though also not super fun (I was on my laptop 10 hours a day with a very scratchy eye).
Lindsay’s eye had fully healed by the ~1st or 2nd. Then the morning of the April 7th Lindsay complained of a stomach ache or cramps or something similar. It wasn’t too bad at this point, and we went out that day to Chinatown and bought one of those somewhat gross breaded hot dog / cheese dog things:
As the day went on, Lindsay’s stomach was getting worse but was still not so terrible, she figured it was just cramps or something similar. Plus we had big plans that night to go out with Jerry and Christina to a somewhat famous pizza place (Pizza Guerrin).
By this point Lindsay was starting to actually be in a decent amount of pain, but because we were with friends she toughed it out. Looking back I feel sad for Lindsay, because she didn’t know she wasn’t going to be able to tough it out much longer.
After dinner we started walking back to our neighborhood. Lindsay was really not in great shape by this point, but still managed to smile. I suspect at this point she saw light at the end of the tunnel and figured she’d be in bed soon enough. In my defense, it wasn’t until much later that night that I realized how miserable Lindsay was feeling. At this point she said her stomach was still bugging her, but she was fine.
Finally we stopped on the way home to get ice cream. At this point Lindsay told me, “I have to go home, I feel sick.” This will sound terrible (had I known just how terrible she was feeling I’d have walked with her of course!), but she insisted I stay with Jerry and Christina, we had just ordered ice cream. It was a relatively short walk home and she said she was OK, but wanted to leave.
We eat our ice cream, and then on the walk home I get a text from Lindsay “I need medicine, I threw up all the way home” – something alone these lines. This was my first red flag. Her throwing up wouldn’t be a HUGE deal as she tends to throw up slightly more often than I do (a few times a year at least… I haven’t thrown up for years), but the request for medicine was strange, because she knew it was around midnight at this point and it wasn’t “going to be particularly easy to go buy medicine somewhere. (it turns out by the way she threw up basically the entire walk home, ever few minutes she’d have to stop and try to find a dark corner on the street to be sick. BA gets very busy at night, the streets were full apparently!)
Luckily I was with Jerry and Christina and we stopped on the way home at a pharmacy (apparently many pharmacies have a 24/7 pharmacist on staff – you ring a buzzer at the gated door to wake them up, they’ll come open a little security gate and get you what you need. I’m incredibly grateful to Jerry and Christina because this would have been much worse without them helping).
I get home and I see the second red flag: the door to the apartment was cracked open, she hadn’t even fully closed the door. Lindsay is (much to my annoyance!) not very good at LOCKING doors normally, but she tends to at least shut the door. I believe her clothes were also in the living room like she had just gotten home and took her clothes off on the way to getting into bed. At this point I was on edge, and worried about her.
I went into the bedroom and she was curled into a ball on the bed. The next flag was that she wasn’t really sleeping, she was trying to sleep, but sort of grimacing in paid. Maybe half sleeping, but breathing through her mouth and clearly in pain. We’ve been very sick before together, for days (e.g. this time in Thailand we were sick for 5 or 6 days straight), but I’d never seen Lindsay like she was. At this point I was very worried. I tried to tell Lindsay (and myself) it must have been the greasy hotdog thing we ate earlier, some sort of food poisoning or something, but the timeline didn’t really add up (she had complained of the pain in the morning).
From that point, the night was a nightmare for me (and I’m guessing in different ways to Lindsay). She was shaking and doing these sharp/shallow breaths from the pain while she was half sleeping. I tried to sleep but felt like something was wrong. I started googling, and the symptoms she had kept pointing towards appendicitis as a possible explanation. Of course it could have been many other things, but based on what she had told me when I came home and how things had progressed appendicitis seemed at least a possibility. I was up at least half the night googling and trying to find a good hospital in BA that would be a good place to go, plus reading more about different symptoms to try to decide at which point I was being silly vs having a real reason for concern.
In the end, when the morning came (I tried to let her sleep as long as I could) she was in the same condition, not improved. I had her lay flat on her back, without mentioning any particular reason, applied pressure to various parts of her abdomen-ish area, and sure enough there was a very clear area in her lower right side where she said the pain was much worse. At that point I said, “I think we should go to the emergency room” – Lindsay didn’t think so, but I somewhat insisted.
I had picked out two hospitals at this point, the German Hospital Aleman, and the British hospital Britanico. I actually somewhat forget the order that things happened, I think I might have initially put in Hospital Aleman but then our Uber cancelled on us, and I pivoted to Britanico. Both hospitals people had recommend I had talked with on reddit and such all night.
So we get to the Hospital Británico and it was a real experience. We arrived around Possibly in part because of Covid, or just because of overflow / space, there is an outdoor triage area. You start out there, go to a window and talk to somebody who listens to your situation and gives you next steps.
What started at this point, around 10:30AM, was a full day of back and forth between various places. First we had to go in and pay for a basic consultation, or something like that, then we had to wait. You always paid first by going into the main emergency room waiting room, then you came back out to the triage tent.
The first doctor we talked to (we ended up talking with around 4 doctors throughout the day) basically said, “it could be food poisoning, or just a stomach bug”, but I really tried to press the fact that she’s been sick many times but this was different.
They decided to order some blood and urine tests, as well as do an ultrasound. Sometime around here Jerry came to the hospital. This was honestly such an amazing thing, and one of those kindnesses I’ll never forget. There was a LOT of waiting and Jerry helped for HOURS trying to make sure we were taking care of and clearing up any confusion or questions.
Now keep in mind I have known Jerry for a year at this point (online through work), but Lindsay only had met him the previous night. But he sat with us for probably 8 hours or something, basically all day long (missed a soccer game even I think!).
Eventually we went in to do the blood tests and do a series of ultrasounds, which Jerry came with us for. Just as they were going in for the ultrasound I got ahold of my sister Brittany (a great MD!) and was talking through everything with her / getting advice (her basic advice was that often times you had to do a MRI to see for sure, often it was difficult otherwise). While I’m talking to Brittany it turns our Jerry and Lindsay are in the ultrasound room. I got in and poor (and amazing / awesome / kind) Jerry is standing in the corner of the room staring at the wall (to give Lindsay privacy), meanwhile Lindsay is getting an intra-vaginal ultrasound. Jerry is translating Lindsay’s reproductive health history to the person doing the ultrasound. What an amazing guy.
Seriously, Jerry much <3 man. A big part of the reason we went to this particular hospital is because we don’t speak much English. We could have gotten by for sure, but the truth is until the very last part of this story there was a serious language barrier. Jerry being there really helped clear up a number of confusing situations.
After the tests we ended up waiting for a LONG time. I want to say almost 3 hours, I believe the entire time we were waiting outside.
Eventually Jerry had to leave, and they moved us into the emergency room inside. More of a typical (small-ish) emergency room. We sat there from around 6PM until around 11PM-12AM, somewhere around there.
The blood test came back inconclusive. At this point I was semi-panicking because I really felt certain something was really wrong, but it felt like there was a real chance they might just say “it’s probably a flue, if it doesn’t get better in a few days come back” or whatever. Thankfully (with perhaps some encouragement from me!) the person decided to order an MRI. This was AMAZING news to me, after talking with Brittany who said an MRI would likely be the best (only?) really good way to know for sure if it was appendicitis or not. She totally nailed how things might go. It was around 8PM at this point I think, and this was a rough period. I was tired as hell, Lindsay was in pain but also tired and feeling sick, but she had to drink this contrast liquid.
Lindsay would take a TINY sip, then sit there for a minute looking like she was going to die. I can’t tell you how absolutely completely dedicated to Lindsay’s health and bursting with empathy I was on this day, but during this brief period I had a bit of a “OH COME ON DRINK THE LIQUID SO WE CAN GET TO THE SURGERY AND GET OUT OF THIS FUCKING EMERGENCY ROOM!” vibe! If I could have drank the liquid for her, I am convinced I would put down the entire bottle in one drink.
Thirty or forty minutes later (no joke), she finished the contrast liquid, at which point we had to wait an hour before the actual MRI. The nice thing is during this wait (or at least part of the hour) we were upgraded to a exam room (vs the metal benches).
After the MRI (during which I was calling family to give updates) we had another 30 or 40 minute wait. And then, a dcotor angel who I fell in love with called us from the waiting room back to the exam room. An absolutely beautiful woman who has a great calm kind vibe, speaking perfect English. This was key, because although we very much appreciate that we’re in a foreign country, ignorant and unable to speak Spanish, in these moments being able to clearly communicate your thoughts and feelings and understand for the first time what is going on clearly was amazing. I may have slightly teared up with relief.
The doctor said something like, “the MRI came back and it confirms you have acute appendicitis. In order to operate we need to meet three parameters, your urine / blood samples showed elevated XXX, the region of the pain, and the MRI” – something like this. “And so, we are going to need to remove your appendix”. Honestly at this point I was so relieved. The surgery (which perhaps I should have been more concerned about) seemed like a forgone conclusion to me – since around 4AM that morning I had felt like this was what needed to happen, but to finally get to the point where it was happening I was just incredibly relieved (to be clear it’s possible I was being dumb – this really could have been something totally different and I would have been 100% overreacting, I just got “lucky” this time).
At this point I was relieved and much much less worried, but I still was a bit concerned the surgery would have to get scheduled out the next day or something. I was THRILLED when they told me they’d be operating right away, in an hour or less.
At this point the story is basically over. We met the incredibly hansom surgeon and the incredibly handsome anesthesiologist. Again, it was this incredibly thing because they spoke excellent English so we fully understood what was going on, what to expect in terms of timing, what they’d do in terms of procedure. I was very happy to hear they would be doing a laparoscopic surgery.
After they took Lindsay up to the OR I had the real treat of sitting INSIDE the actual hospital (instead of the waiting room) on these INCREDIBLY comfortable couches. I really can’t tell you how happy and relieved I was at this point, really not in the slightest worried.
Before the actual surgery, the surgeon came down to discuss payment. He was super professional about it, but it was still a very strange experience. Basically he told me his fee, which was shared with the anesthesiologist. USD $2000. A steal by US standards, but somewhat tricky because he wanted (for the reasons mentioned above) USD, cash. Or, alternatively, the blue rate in pesos. I could have gotten 2000 in pesos, but that would have been 378,000 pesos. A small bag full of money. Luckily the next day when trying to figure out the details with the surgeon (we stayed over night in the hospital, in patient) it turned out the anesthesiologist had a brother living in the states who had Venmo. So I ended up paying for Lindsay’s appendectomy while sitting in the hospital room by Venmoing some random person two thousand bucks. It was sort of bizare.
The surgeon came down and told me everything went well. I don’t remember exactly but I believe they confirmed the appendicitis (I might be making that up, I don’t know if they could visually tell?) and that the appendix had not ruptured, which was the last real concern I had. Soon after I got to go up and see Lindsay.
I did get to talk with Lindsay that night, she was up when I came into the room. From what I recall, she felt much much better almost immediately. I don’t know if it was drugs or what, but she was in great spirits, just tired.
The next morning she was great as well, a bit sore, but that was it. She ate food, overall felt great. They made us wait until she had peed, but we left pretty early in the morning.
After leaving I think we both felt like we had a new lease on life. I’m incredibly grateful to the hospital staff. It was a very long and tiring day, but in the end we really were taken great care of.
So that was it. We went back to our place in Belgrano, and had another 3ish amazing weeks in the city. It took Lindsay about a week to recover from the surgery (it turns out the main issue is the CO2 your abdomen is pumped full of for the laparoscopic surgery. Strangely (but actually normal / common) Lindsay had a sore shoulder / neck (I guess from the CO2 absorption or something, possibly involving the diaphragm?). I was thrilled, nothing but known, understood/expected symptoms.
TL;DR; I SAVED LINDSAY’S LIFE, I AM A HERO.
Last weeks, and heading home
We really had an amazing time in BA. Looking back at photos now to write this blog post really makes me feel like I’d like to go back. A really beautiful, friendly place to live and spend some time. Great food, green spaces, etc.
There are things we didn’t end up doing. Uruguay is an easy day trip but we ran out of weekends with Lindsay’s surgery and recovery. Patagonia is probably the #1 thing we wanted to do but it just wasn’t economical and was difficult/impossible with our work schedules. Lots of reasons to go back (not to mention to see friends again!).
Next up, Mexico City (where I’m writing this from!)