Buenos Aires, Argentina
23/06/12 – 01/06/12 – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Cavalier is a bus line in Argentina and it was on one of their executive coaches that we left Rosario for Buenos Aires. By executive I mean wide leather, ultra-reclining seats, on-board services such as coffee and tea, television and WiFi.. crazy right? We’re supposed to be on a shoe-string. We did try and find a budget option, and you’d think there’d be one, but we asked around, and ask we did.. and the best we could come up with was executive Cavalier. Perhaps we just need to practice more.. or improve our Espanol; which is one of the activities we have lined up for our 8 night stay in Argentinas capital.
Through a recommendation from some fellow travelers met in Ilha Grande, we had arranged an apartment in BA’s hipster neighborhood San Telmo. We had been asked to pay for the apartment, in advance, in hard currency. Painful for many reasons, one being the ATM’s here, like home, impose a limit on funds withdrawn per Diem; so soon after arriving we’re scourging around BA’s Retiro terminal trying to find an ATM. Buenos Aires carries that typical big city warning that goes along the lines of ‘watch for pick-pockets on buses and in crowded areas’. Retiro terminal has a pretty dodgy section out the front near the urban bus terminal, it’s a kind of slap together market place with a slum area around the back, there’s a few beggars and some ‘too cool for school’ kids giving us the eye so we’re pretty hasty and perhaps slightly paranoid getting on the bus to our apartment.
Our bus barraged through the central plazas and into Calle Bolivar, with it’s narrow roads, and enclosing buildings from a bygone era, where modern street art mixes with traditional building decorations, and the tagging and rubbish piles never lets you forget the mammoth urban metropolis you’re in the middle of. Our helpful bus driver tells us where we should get off and it’s only a block or two before we’re at Juan Garay and Boliver, where our apartment for the next 8 days is. We’re met shortly after arriving by a helpful young woman who takes us into the dark elevator well and into the tiny fit-for-1-and-a-half-people elevator where you need to pull both an aging grill and an outside door closed for it to operate. It’s entirely possible that upon leaving the elevator one night we might have forgotten to do this, thus rendering the elevator useless on the 4th floor. Might have. Not sure.
‘Well it smells well maintained’ I say to Rebecca.. it has that ‘grandads shed’ smell of oil and it’s almost next to silent in operation. But eventually the door soon opens to our mezzanine apartment; beautiful floor to second story windows, sun streaming in with an uninterrupted view across the south of the city. Bricked with feature painted concrete roof and decorated with various South American relics. Then there’s a great black iron staircase up to a mezzanine level where there’s the bedroom and classically decorated bathroom. Bit fancy for us we reckon. But pretty cheap, fully-featured (with cooktop) and beautifully located, on the border between San Telmo and La Boca, where we’re instructed not to venture without a guide. Okay. No probs there.
We’ve arrived on a Saturday which means that the bohemian heart of San Telmo is warming up for the weekend. Follow Callee Defensa down from Juan Garay and you walk past aging mansions from the late 1800’s, whose shopfronts have been transformed into modern boutiques, or art studios, or one of the countless antique dealerships. Eventually you get to Plaza Dorrego where tables and chairs have been setup around the cobbled streets of the plaza for people to soak in a merienda.. a late-afternoon snack, perhaps a picada but more likely a selection of cakes and a coffee. There’s an artisan market happening around them, where bohemian types in their baggy, brightly patterned pants and woolen beanies deal in the unusual, from wire sculptures to mate’ vases. The handful of antique dealers are really exclaimed on Sunday where this square transforms into a tightly woven marketplace of stalls of antique vendors, selling everything from old cutlery, old photographs of random strangers, time-pieces and furniture. There’s a platform setup where an old local tango purist offers a lesson or two to curious tourists. The surrounding cobbled streets of Defensa and Bolivar become pedestrianised and jumbled with vendors and tourists alike for a good kilometer into Plaza de Mayo; the business and arguably the showcase central district of Buenos Aires. Here you can turn 360 degrees and see some of BA’s most amazing buildings. Depending on the angle you could be in Montmarte, Paris or Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Late 19th century buildings, typically with that Parisian beehive and porthole windows, or then there’s the slightly more Latin American Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, with it’s balcony’s upon which once stood Evita in front of her adoring crowds.
Broad, leafy and impeccably lined with historical buildings; Av De Mayo heads east to the Plaza del Congresso, the congress building, seemingly modeled on the White House in Washington DC. And in between the two ends, the iconic Obelisk at intersecting Av 9 de Julio. Described as ‘phallic’ by the Lonely Planet.. a slightly perverse perspective if you ask me.. something else I need to write to the LP about.. but it’s an important central landmark in BA, and a great way of orientating yourself if you’re feeling lost.
Buenos Aires does become distinctly grittier away from the microcentro. Av Corrientes and Cordoba are your big city avenues, choofing with bus fumes, and bustling sidewalks of people who walk too fast and are constantly bumping into each other, scowling, bumping into each other again. There’s the magazine stalls selling pornography, the metro sidewalk vents and sex-call touts plastering endless dirty wallet sized pieces of paper over just about everything. Av Florida is the shopping promenade and it intersects with the grittier Av Lavelle. There’s restaurant hawkers and flashing neon Burger King signs, busy shopfronts of people selling scarves, and other cheap clothing.
North of Lavelle is Av. Santa Fe, which is the ritzy shopping district, keep walking along here and you get into Recolleta and Palmero; and it’s obvious in this section of town that it’s residents are living well. One great cultural exception to Santa Fe, is Bond Street arcade, a 3 level galleria of mostly tattoo shops and heavy metal and hip-hop music and tee shirt vendors. It’s a really great cultural dichotomy where you have the classic well-to-do Buenos Aires ladies and their culture of plastic body modification; and then you have the punk rockers, with their piercings and tattoos.. all with seemingly the same interests, all strolling the same Avenue, but seemingly worlds apart.
During the weekdays we dropped in every day at 4pm to Expanish at Av. Maipu (lol) and Av. Juan D Peron where the lovely Catalina took us through a different module each day focusing on specific travel-related circumstances with the aim to provide enough vocabulary and phrases to get the student capable of dealing with the given situation. The topics ranged from ordering food.. to transport.. to medical and banks. It was a great way to discover just what a beast Spanish is. I mean.. those Spanish verbs. I haven’t even begun to understand anything beyond present tense, but let me tell you, I’m well on the way to becoming an expert conjugator.. But the course has given us a reasonable grasp of being able to get ourselves around. Verbs like have, want, looking for, buy, take we’re across and using. Understanding responses is another thing, the Argentines speak pretty quickly, but we’ve been told be Catalina, who is Chilean, to expect it to get faster in Chile.
We have admittedly bluffed our way through some conversations. I showed some amusement at a bloke in the supermercado buying a cask of white wine. He looked at me and chuffed, which set me off, because I thought.. ‘okay cask wine is bad enough when the cheapest bottles are only about $2AU.. second.. white wine? When Argentina is known for its delicious Malbec..?’ He caught my smile and laughing said something else, holding aloft his cask.. ‘Siiiiiii’ I say knowingly and he turns the corner;
I think ‘okay cool.. thinks I’m a local..’ when suddenly he turns back and continues to rabbit on. ‘Oh no’ I think.. and I’m suddenly out of feigning words.. instead resorting to smiling and nodding at the appropriate moments. There was a pause there where I was expected to say something in reply and didn’t so I feign distraction.. ‘Sorry.. which one?’ I say to Rebecca.. and from the corner of my eye I see his look of confusion as he turns around yet again to the cashier. We wouldn’t be lying if we said we’d had more than one of those kinds of interactions.
Being the turbulent democracy that it is; we awake mid-week to the sounds of explosions and car horns and venture out to Defensa to make our daily walk into microcentro; it’s almost immediately apparent something is up. Last nights trash hasn’t been collected, and as common here, has been mostly strewn across the road and sidewalk as the lesser fortunate break out the recyclables to collect and redeem. So there’s **** everywhere. Add to that there’s no traffic. And there’s tough looking union guys with drums, beer and banners parading through the street. As we approach Plaza de Mayo, there’s the smoke of flares and fireworks, a sea-floor of swirling banners and flags and a stage setup in the Plaza. The drums are loud and there’s chants and songs and whistles being blown. It’s a protest probably quite common in scale here but beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Even Av. Julio de 9, which centers at the Obelisk is shut-down. There’s buses lining the streets, abandoned by their drivers, members of the striking transport union. We’re told later that the protest is in response to a proposed drop in income tax thresholds meaning many of the union members will be taxed at a higher rate. The evening news shows the vitriolic speeches of several union members, spearheaded by union boss Hugo Moyana; once a close ally of current President Christina Fernandez. Though there’s seemingly no risk of violence, it’s unnerving to see protests on such a scale, and the significant impact it has in grinding parts of the urban metropolis to a halt.
We take in few meals out; it’s pretty cost prohibitive and instead opt to make use of our kitchen facilities by shopping at the local supermercado, which is all out chaos at 6:30pm on any given day. But a great way to improve your spoken and aural Spanish. The moments we did have eating out were all poignant in their own ways. The San Telmo market has some great little cafes, we found one that had old billy-carts, salmon painted chairs strung up to the ceiling with an old television set atop an old refrigerator and behind the counter, a middle-aged woman whose home-made pastries and tarts were laid out on the counter in front of her. We ordered cafe cortados in these beaut little antique cortado glasses. We also took in a spinach tart and several empanadas.
We also visited a little boutique bar, on a typical San Telmo corner, across from an old mansion whose corrugated safety gate had been adorned in some fantastic street art. We paid a bit, but we sampled some local ‘red’ beer and just took in a few moments, watching people return home from work, drinking local beer and listening to music, surrounded by old books and bottles of wine.
Similarly at an local eatery, unapologetically plain, with terrible doily fashioned curtains we ate unapologetically brazen meat, bread and salad at 11pm at night. Sensing we were the only foreigners there, we soaked in the local atmosphere as the blokes behind us took sides and jeered at the football match on the television, and middle-aged ladies in wonderful hats sat down together to simply enjoy a bottle of red. I had an exceptional steak, juicy and rich with flavor, cooked to perfection and flavored with olive oil. With lungs full of soot, shoes covered in dog-****, but bellies full of delicious food, it was time to move on, into the mountains and in the direction of Chile to Bariloche, some 22 hours away by bus. It was about to get cold.