Steak for dinner. Steak for lunch. And for dinner, again. Bife de lomo, charred and crusty outside, pink and soft within, oozing sepia-coloured juices. Mmmm. I reach across the red-chequered tablecloth for a spoonful of garlicky chimichurri sauce to slather over the meat. Meanwhile, a moustachioed waiter glides by silently and tops off my glass of Malbec. At home, I’m not much of a meat-eater but since arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I’ve transformed, like a werewolf under a full moon, into a 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. I turn into a grown-up version of the toddler who grabs fistfuls of chocolate birthday cake with both hands. More! All for me! 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 neighbourhood 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 specialising in beef—and another treat I should avoid but can’t: addictive little Argentine croissants called medialunas (half-moons). Every morning I pop in to a café across the street for medialunas with coffee, which I enjoy at a sidewalk table with the local newspaper.
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 flavour, 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 parlour) on a napkin. Then I shove the napkin into the bottomless pit of my shoulder bag, hoping it won’t resurface until I’m on another continent. If I add 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 my only temptation. In Thailand, I have massages—two-hour massages—every single day. In Japan, I make a beeline for the nearest hot spring and end up soaking until my skin turns alarmingly red. And in India, Turkey, or any other country with old-fashioned, bargain-with-the-locals markets, I shop until I’ve exhausted my supply of rupees or lira.
What is it about travelling that brings out the Cookie Monster lurking inside of us? Part of it 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 travellers to buy the luxury watches 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 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 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. I’d been getting very little sleep so after three hours of standing in a packed room, I was swooning with exhaustion. But a voice in my head kept repeating, anxiously: 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.
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.
I become a human version of the banged-up suitcases you see tumbling down on to 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 parlour 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. My feet lead me to Clarissa’s heladería—and its creamy, dulce de leche-and-brownie ice cream.
Appeared in the November 2013 issue as “Lead Us Into Temptation”.