Junto al Río Inmovil

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Friday, May 5, 2006

The longest entry so far. I apologize for that, and for the fact that my sentences have become long, meandering yarns, knotted with strange punctuation. With this (new) disclaimer out of the way:

My trip to Buenos Aires was filled with small disasters. The trick for me had been to pull the good out and realizing that, on the whole, it was worth going.

There were many reasons for me to travel to Argentina-and, consequently, to get out of Chile. One of the biggest is to eat well and cheaply. My last meal in Chile was a dinner of porotos (bean stew) with a lone cooked hot dog swimming in the chunky liquid. My first meal in Argentina, shortly after landing in Buenos Aires on Friday afternoon-at a "parrilla"- was a plate of freshly grilled ribs, and more of them than I should ever have eaten. But more on that later.

Another reason is to buy things cheaply. One thing I was searching for was a replacement copy of a library book I lost in Chile. The options given to me by the university librarian were: to replace it, or to reimburse them for everything it would take to buy another copy (which meant, in essence, importing it from Argentina + steep import taxes + binding and processing ... $150 dollars minimum). I was also looking for shoes and a cheap leather fanny pack ... yes, a fanny pack (they're big down here) ... we'll see if I can pull it off in the U.S. A relative of mine once referred to them as "fag bags," so it may be difficult.

Finally, there's the history. As a city, Buenos Aires dates back to the 15oos, served as one of the viceroyalties of the Spanish Empire ("The Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata," named for a river that flows along the northern edge of town) was invaded by the British, served as a base for Bolivar and San Martín (the liberators of South America), saw the rise and fall of Peronism (and Evita) and a bloody dictatorship in the 70s and 80s. Porteños claim, with regularity, to be more European than South American. I'll reserve judgment, but the history could be seen in the architecture of every building-something you won't see in Santiago, because any old structure was, at one time or another, destroyed in a terrible earthquake.

My plan, however, for Buenos Aires, was to meet up with a friend from Georgetown studying abroad there, Genny, and with Fitz, one of my companions to Chiloé who was also visiting. And on Friday night, after an early dinner and half an hour of struggling to correctly dial Genny's phone number (one's telephone number changes in Argentina, depending on whether you're being called from a landline or another cell phone), I met up with her.

I left my camera behind (by accident), and we set out onto the streets, walking to Puerto Madero, a wealthy neighborhood along a series of dikes on the city's eastern edge. I can tell you it looked a lot like the Baltimore waterfront: modern buildings, an architecturally interesting bridge and kitschy/classy restaurants (even a TGI Friday's). There was a lot of expensive brick and stainless steel, and plenty of classy dressers.

From there, we went to the Casa Rosada (The Pink House," residence of Argentina's president) and the adjacent Plaza de Mayo, where so much of the country's political history played out and where mothers of "disappeared" dissidents protested during the dictatorship. All of it was luminous at night, under the hazy orange glow of the aging streetlamps. Protesters stayed out well into the night, many of them demanding official recognition of the same atrocities as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Buenos Aires, being larger than Santiago, should have felt unsafe-that's what reason would tell me. But I walked the streets, which were largely deserted for the weekend, without any sense of insecurity. I felt immersed in culture and history. I felt like I was in a true city.

The three major monuments of Buenos Aires-The Casa Rosada, the Obelisk and the National Congress-are arranged geographically in a triangle. From the presidential palace, we walked up a diagonal street (Saénz Peña, I believe) that led directly to the Obelisk, which stood up tall from the horizon almost 10 blocks away, a huge shaft of light rising out of the cool darkness. The Obelisk sits at the intersection of two major avenues in BsAs (as they love to abbreviate it): 9 de Julio and Corrientes, a cracking, caving street lined by tall office buildings, cafes and, especially theaters. Each building carried a huge billboard, and the theaters were covered in neon lighting, which lit up in pattern and sequence. Corrientes is BsAs' Broadway, though it felt like Times Square, and it was there that Genny left me for the night.

My back had begun to hurt, and I walked back to the hostel. It was only 10 p.m. I felt like an old man, considering Buenos Aires' nightlife was reputed to last until 7 a.m. (eventually found that it doesn't start until 3 a.m., so they're really not hard core). But how was I supposed to take the city's pulse when my lower back wouldn't let me stay out 'til midnight? Little did I know it was a sign of things to come for me?

My hostel was nice enough, though it had the tacky, tacky name: "Tango City." The staff was friendly enough, though they forced me to speak English to them. There was a bar downstairs and all of the walls were painted fiery colors. Like all hostels, it was a little grimy and quite alive at night-fun, but no place to sleep off a bad back. It mostly went away, through my fits of rest, broken by slamming doors and by the entries of each of my five roommates. Some came in well past dawn.

I took Saturday morning to revisit most of the places I'd seen the night before, but with a camera. By noon, I was making my way down the Avenida de Mayo toward the Congress. Most of the statues out front were covered with a strange black mesh and scaffolding, and I assume they were being restored. The plaza out front was crawling with pigeons, which would fly up in massive waves at odd intervals. And they did it at low altitude, scaring me into turning my back to their onslaught and covering my head.

Pictures taken, I went to a public phone to call Genny. We arranged to meet up to go to the International Book Fair (books in Chile are four time as expensive as in the U.S.-500 pp. paperback, $50-but dirt cheap across the Andes). I hung up. And then it hit me.

I'd been feeling queasy all morning. Breakfast hadn't gone down easy. I knew I'd eaten too much the night before, and that it hadn't settled well. And at that moment I knew I had thirty seconds to find a secluded place to revisit, well, what I ate at the parrilla. There weren't many of those within a block of Congress during lunchtime.

I dashed around a corner, last night's dinner rising up, and I tried to cover my mouth, failed and nearly threw up all over a woman's shoes ("¿Estás bien?" She asked). I kneeled down next to a storm drain in front of a small construction site and felt the second wave pass through me. When I looked up, all of the Porteños were proceeding with business as usual. The construction workers chatted. Business people walked to lunch. No one was paying me the slightest bit of attention, or acting as if my situation was out of the ordinary. I assume they took me for just another drunken gringo. Either way, it was better than making a scene. So much for eating well, though, or for going out at night.

I wasn't in any condition to walk up to Genny's, though I certainly felt much less queasy, so I took the metro. BsAs' metro is probably the oldest in Latin America. My host father, in one of his many odd lectures, told me that (Now, he's deaf, and likes to ramble when he thinks no one's listening, so you decide to believe what follows or not) it was built at the turn of the century, when BsAs did not yet need it. It was simply an ostentatious display of the city's long-gone wealth.

And it shows in its design: three lines that run diagonally east-west, and only meet in one place, the Plaza de Mayo. Thus, you cannot travel north or south, only in and out of the Centro on one line. Many of the trains have rickety cars made of wood, with doors that must be opened by hand and that snap shut like bear-traps when the trains begin to move.

Genny and I met up, rode the bus to the Plaza Italia in the city's north, and to the book fair. I bought little. The massive convention center was filled with books, arranged not by author, genre or subject matter, but by publisher. Lightheaded and lost, I had no idea which publishers had the rights to authors I was madly searching for. I left with some Borges and a CD by Taj Mahal, and certainly not the book I was looking for.

We met up with some fellow students of Genny's in Palermo Viejo, in a trendy restaurant. Palermo Viejo, in many ways, is like an Adams Morgan (to make a DC parallel) to Buenos Aires-new restaurants, bars and clothing stores line the streets, all of them catering to the young and upwardly mobile. The waiters at the restaurant were dressed in white (t-shirts), tried to talk to us in English and pranced around as if the place were in SoHo. I drank water, the girls made dinner plans. I promised to call them later on to let them know if I was up for it. I made my way back to the hostel in a cab.

The cabbie-now, this is interesting, believe me-was a veteran of the Falklands War, in which Argentina was soundly defeated by Great Britain when it attempted to take what it calls the Malvinas, not Falkland, Islands. During that quick war in the late 80s, Chile (under Pinochet) allowed Britain to use Chilean Airbases as a base for its helicopters. Chileans are proud of it too, and sing a song about it during soccer matches against the Argentine national team ("Argentinos, maricones / Les quitaron las Malvinas los güeones ... ). The cabbie said he had no real prejudices about the people of any nation, especially not Americans, but that Chileans "are a special case." He added that, generally, they were not well liked in South America. He'd even made peace with the Britons, he said, having invited two or three British officers into his home and given them driving tours of Argentina. But, oh, not the Chileans ... it would be a while before he would get over their "betrayal of the continent."

I took an hour nap at the hostel. I drank some water. I wasn't up for dinner. Someone had stolen a shirt of mine that I was hanging out to dry. I went downstairs, where I ran into Fitz (who followed the directions to my hostel I'd sent in an e-mail). I called Genny to say I couldn't even think about food. Fitz and I made plans for the next day. I drank some water. I went to sleep. It was 10:00 p.m., again.

Breakfast went down easier on Sunday. Fitz and I went to the barrio San Telmo to see a well-known antiques fair. San Telmo is a barrio filled with old buildings and cobblestone streets, and the main street (Defensa) is lined with antique shops. I may or may not have bought a small gift or two. In general, though, it was an overpriced collection of common antiques: glass bottles, coins, medallions, rusty arms, silverware, etc. One man had a collection of knives that included World War II-era pieces, swastikas and all. The street performers were out, including a puppeteer and a man with a strange portable organ/music box that played when he wound a crank in the back-on top, it had two parakeets that, though mostly there for looks and a sense of the grotesque, soloed over the music. Tango shows sprang up on every corner, one of which consisted of an older man dancing with his reflection in a shop window.

We made our way to Recollect to visit the cemetery where the city's and the country's royalty are entombed. I visited the tombs of Diego Sarmiento, Facundo Quiroga and, of course, Evita-though hers was but an unimposing, practically hidden, black marble structure. That doesn't mean it wasn't crawling with tourists (see photo). No one was crying, anyway, not these days.

Lunch was at a "tenedor libre," an all-you-can-eat buffet. Cemeteries work up your appetite, it seems. It was reasonably priced, but all I could eat wasn't much. Walking, we made our way toward the grand, stately park far in the city's northwest (technically Palermo), where we walked past some a Japanese garden, a planetarium and an impressive amount of statues-the largest of which sat at a major, major intersection near the park entrance. It was Sunday afternoon. There was a jazz band doing covers of old songs in English. The lady singing lead butchered Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World." Fitz and I moved on.

The park was impressive, and its border was lined with expensive, clean apartment buildings. The streets that ran along side it were in good shape, and almost ten lanes wide and covered with speeding luxury cars. As in Santiago, the best roads always lead in and out of the wealthiest neighborhoods. Every other street in Buenos Aires needed more than a few repairs.

After stopping to call Genny from a locutorio (a shop filled with phone booths), Fitz and I caught a bus and met up with her in a quiet restaurant. She took us back to her place, where we watched American television, ate empanadas and chatted with her curious host sister-a change, for sure, from the usually cold Chileans I've come to know. We were waiting out the dead hours before the BsAs nightlife began (meaning that we didn't even get ready until 1 a.m.).

We went out to an Irish Pub named Kilkenny's, and met up with some more American students. The music was loud, and all American pop from the 80s (some early 90s, like "Mr. Jones"). They did play "Bohemian Rhapsody," though. Score one point for them. The bar was crammed with Argentines, and the omnipresent security guards wouldn't let us play cards. A Long Island Iced Tea and a beer later, I made my way home. At least I'd lasted until 3:30 that night, at least.

Fitz and I met up a little later than usual Monday morning. We took a bus down to La Boca, known for its colorfully painted houses and for its soccer team, Boca Juniors-easily the most famous club in South America. The guidebooks warned us that it was dangerous, and to stay on the tourist streets. That was something of a shame, because the tourist streets, on May Day no less, were crammed with gawking tourists. Cameras snapped all around. All of the stores sold the exact same overpriced souvenirs. It was, in a sense, almost as tacky as a truck stop I know in Gallup, New Mexico.

We fled the commotion down toward the Bombonera, the soccer stadium. It was far less impressive than I had imagined after all of the eulogizing speeches young Latin American men had made about it ("La Bombonera doesn't shake," they told me, "it beats"-ah hem, "like a heart. Cachai?"). All concrete and brick, it was, at least, painted a fading color of yellow. Shrines to Diego Maradonna, one of the greatest soccer players to ever live (now a recovering coke addict and talk show host-his first guest: Fidel Castro) abounded.

Continuing around the corner-this street was actually deserted-we made our way back to Almirante Brown, a major street, and gazed upon the Torre Fantasma. A peddler in the street had told us the "Phantom" the tower was named after was the shadow of a man who, a hundred years ago, could be seen walking back and forth behind the blinds at night. He swore it was the woman owner's lover, no ghost. I think it was a joke. I could never tell with Argentines.

Fitz had spoken all weekend about finding Tierra Santa, a religious theme park advertised in his guidebook as a "pilgrimage to kitsch." When we finally made it there, Monday afternoon, after two buses and some serious walking, it was closed for the holiday. Patterned after "ancient Jerusalem," we peered through the grates to see the Golgotha, with its three crosses, surrounded by a Roman soldier, a Mary and a Joseph of Arimathea all made of plaster or stone. Kitsch indeed. We took some pictures in front of the sign and got some ugly stares from the God-fearing Argentines that walked by. Only in Latin America, I guess.

We went to the famous Café Tortoni, back in the center, famous for the best Tango show in Buenos Aires and bought tickets for the 10 p.m. showing. The tango was spectacular, as advertised, and the show involved singing, dance and live music (with three virtuoso musicians-piano, accordion, bass-no less). No photos. Dinner was an argentine "hamburger" with the show, a open-faced ground beef sandwich covered in melted cheese and bacon. I guess my stomach was feeling better.

After the show, Fitz and I split up. Genny had to study for classes the next day. Though Tuesday was going to be Fitz's birthday, and he'd long claimed to have grand ideas of celebrating at midnight, we were damned tired. We said goodbye and promised to meet up back in Santiago. The streets were pretty at night, though a little littered with trash, but I was tired of wandering them and ready to head toward home.

Tuesday morning, before I left town for my afternoon flight, I shopped around, buying the last few cheap things that I would need in Santiago. I got a haircut, and a much needed one at that. I found the book I was looking for, and for only $2 U.S.. And then, I went to lunch, and bought a huge sirloin steak (and a side of fries) and ate almost all of it. When it came, the Argentines at the next table over gawked at my excess, and then returned to their small bowls of pasta. No side effects to date, though.

I took a taxi to the Airport, which lies almost 40 km outside of town. It was a little over $15. The cabbie, though he agreed to a price before I got into the cab, forced me to pay the toll fees. A rosary hung from the rearview mirror, and he crossed himself whenever we passed a church (despite the fact that we did it at 70 mph on a superhighway). He spoke very loudly and fidgeted a lot. Maybe his conscience was getting to him. Hell, it was only 15 bucks.

I realized at Ezeiza International that I had left my cell phone at the hostel. The man in customs gave me a dirty look when he saw my American passport. I paid the $18 airport tax and bought a $5 Newsweek and a $1.50 can of Pepsi. Only in airports (and even in Argentina) ...

There, sitting in the terminal, waiting for my second flight in a week-neither of which would take me to or from "home," which was a strange feeling-I began to ruminate on what I'd seen, and to compare it with Chile. And it was then that I began to see what was good in Santiago, a city I've often disparaged as smoggy and boring, and what I might have been overlooking. Perhaps there were some real positives to my choice to study in Chile that BsAs had finally put into perspective. Seeing that, besides the beautiful city, was what really made the trip valuable. And finding the good took some work, considering the food poisoning, lost cell phone and stolen shirt ... but more on "the positives" on Monday, unless I change my mind.
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