from Tango, an Argentine Love Story

Look for in bookstores in OctoberChapter 22. Breathing Lessons
“If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room. -Alison Wright, travel photographer/writer.”

I’m being eaten by mosquitoes on the terrace of La Pharmacie, a restaurant in a former old drugstore on Charcas. But I wouldn’t dream of wimping out and saying, “Let’s go inside.” My thick-skinned companions, photographer Alison Wright and writer Lynn Ferrin, live in San Francisco, where fog limits outdoor supping, and they want to eat al fresco. As uncomfortable as I feel, I realize I’d probably jump in the contaminated Río de la Plata if they asked me, so I sit tight.

Alison and I know each other peripherally, mainly through Lynn, who was my boss at VIA Magazine until she retired in 1999. Alison’s stock photos have illustrated some of my travel stories. They’re hanging out with me before and after their cruise to Antarctica. Lynn had told Alison how I was down here practicing tango and Buddhism, so she sent me some emails asking what photo opportunities there might be along those lines. Since it’s unlikely my monk friends would be seen dancing tango, Alison decides to follow me, perhaps the city’s only dancing Buddhist, to my usual milonga haunts.

What an honor it will be to be shot by the same lens that captured the Dalai Lama, his head bowed, his hand gently around the rifle of a soldier who is smiling reverently back at His Holiness. This image of Alison’s, for me, captures the way arms of peace will gently silence arms that lead to mass destruction.

Alison knows a lot about Buddhism and says she would not be alive today but for her ability to focus on her breath. In January 2000, she was in Laos on her way to a meditation retreat in India when her rickety old bus was hit by another bus and shorn in two. People died. She was sitting at the point of impact. Her back was broken, her spleen diced, her lungs punctured. Her left arm looked like it went through a paper shredder. She nearly bled to death. A British aid worker drove her over washboard roads seven hours to a makeshift hospital in Thailand.
She’s convinced it was the “breathing lessons” at the core of Buddhist practice that helped her endure and survive the next three weeks of trauma and agony, including sutures with no anesthesia to her lacerated arm.

Back home in San Francisco, it took many operations to remove glass and debris from her arm and lots of rehab to reassemble her. While still in physical therapy, Alison got a notion that she had to climb 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, which she did, defying all odds, just two years after the accident and a few weeks shy of her fortieth birthday.

This is what I’m thinking when I decide to let a few sharp-toothed mosquitoes gnaw on my legs all they want. It’s so great to have Alison and Lynn here, just as my milonga world is starting to seem so small and insular. Their visit is a reminder of how big the planet really is.
Few onlookers could guess the number of vertical and horizontal miles my two companions have logged on this planet. Both Lynn and Alison have climbed to Everest Base Camp, about a thousand feet lower than Kilimanjaro. They’ve been to Tibet, Nepal, down the Amazon, into the heart of Africa, and all over Asia.

After we’re done eating, Alison accompanies me to La Ideal, where I introduce her to Ángel. He invites us to sit at his “Ángel y amigas” table. She shoots plenty of photos of me and also furtively takes advantage of other ops-a pair of red sparkling shoes (Dorothy’s ruby slippers on stilts), a creaky older couple stuck together with the glue of aged love and adoration. She calls me a “hottie” in my tango getup, but she’s blond and so attractive that she has to keep fending off men who all seem to be under the impression that she can’t wait to drop her equipment for them. “Sorry, I don’t dance,” she has to tell man after man after man.

The next evening I’m late in meeting Lynn at her hotel because the rainy season has kicked in-and that means occasional power outages. As I descended from the eighth floor the power had gone out. I made it safely out of my cage, but the other coffin-size lift held captive my neighbor, Laura. I called the concierge for help before I left, but Laura later told me that she spent a good hour trapped between floors.

As Lynn and I feast on delicious sorrentinos, the Argentine version of ravioli with spicy sauce, and wine, I tell her how the elevator incident reminds me how blessed I am-finally. I’m leading the charmed life after a year from Hell, here in a perennially developing country where people constantly point their index finger to their eye and say ¡Ojo!, meaning “watch for the dangers lurking everywhere!” Lynn shares with me how she loves Buenos Aires even as she recounts how she’s been strapped with a few hundred counterfeit pesos. “I knew that change place was suspicious,” she says, laughing it off, as she describes having to walk down a long, narrow dark hall to get there. But she was in a hurry to get smaller bills for the taxi driver who had no change for her bigger notes. It’s refreshing to be in the company of a seasoned traveler who knows how to take these things in stride.

We talk about Dan a little, because Lynn has known him as long as I have. She thinks highly of him and that he and I belong together. With my newfound patience and equating the act of waiting as soul-building virtue, I tell her that may be so, but for now he’s happy with Evelyn and I’m content here. Lynn says, “I can see that.” Although she’s with a group booked for a tango show, she’d as soon come watch me in the milonga. “You’re the best act in town,” she says.
What a good girlfriend she is!

End of excerpt from Tango, an Argentine Love Story, to be published by Seal Press, October, 2008.


  1. Dear Camille, I’m in the middle of your book. It’so inspiring! I’m Argentine but I have been living abroad for the last six years. I learnt how to dance tango as I was living in Rome. Every time I go to Buenos Aires I take tango lessons, usually morning and afternoon classes, where you hardly find local people. I’m happy to see what tango inspires in people and I wonder how people feel coming to Buenos Aires to dance tango. Your book gave me the key. In addition the parallelism you find between tango and Zen is a whole new dimension I would like to explore. I just wanted to let you know I’m enjoying the book very much.

  2. Querida Marisa, your note brings tears to my eyes. It is so wonderful and affirming to hear this! Today, I was just wondering if my writing was self-serving or other-serving and I so much want it to be the latter—at least, mostly. Thank you —mil gracias y un abrazo. Keep on dancin’ – Camille


  1. […] Cusumano, Author of TANGO, an Argentine Love Story (Seal Press), The travel memoir of a woman who loved, lost, got mad—and decided to dance […]