One Year Older, None the Wiser

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The bedlam at Asuncion Bus Station is enough to make me catch the first bus south, heading towards the border town of Encarnacion. The chaotic roads slowly turn back into the long straight, bumpy roads of the countryside. Paraguayīs wealth obviously lies in the south, with the standard of housing and vehicles reflecting this. In Encarnacion, I grab something quick to eat to offload my remaining Guaranis, and then try to find transport over the border to Argentina.

Locals looking at watches and tutting after and hour waiting for a bus to Posadas points me in the direction of the booths for buses to Buenos Aires (BA). As luck would have it, an overnight bus leaves in an hour. Soon heading for the border, I feel the hold up is over only for everyone to be pulled off the bus; bags checked, stamps in passes, a rather annoying fine of 20 pounds for only staying 3 days. An hour later we proceed over the `Bridge of Friendship` to the Argentine border. Again, all bags off (this time X-rayed), passes stamped, names taken, questions asked. The friendship definitely doesnīt look like a trusting relationship.

A full two and a half hours after leaving Encarnacion, we reach the Argentine border city of Posadas, around about 3 miles covered. The change is stark. Housing quality and roads take a huge jump up. Just as I think we will begin the long journey to BA, we pull into the bus depot. Everybody off, this time into the canteen and a sit down meal for all the patrons. A strange atmosphere of bemused travelers blinking at each other in the light, forced to share the chefīs creations with complete strangers, while the Argentine equivalent of `Dancing on Ice` announces itīs winner on the TV. The head of the judges is an unconvincing transvestite, but beyond that the show has as much merit as the UK variety.

Finally the open road. The scale of El Literol equals that of the Parana, with vast estates given over to arable and pasture. There are few large cities on the route, with the notable exception of Rosario. Only when you reach the outskirts of BA does the build up begin, endless industrial areas and commuter towns. Stopping at depots along the way, the bus slowly empties. After an hour of driving through this sprawl, the airport emerges and then the centre immediately after.

The centre of BA bears a striking resemblance to Paris. Pale walled buildings with dark slate roofs; a very dignified place. I reach my hostel in Recoleta, a wonderful conversion of one of these town houses, and settle into my home for the week.

Exploring the centre of town is a delight. The wide, open parkways and trendy galleries and shopping, give BA a great buzz. The central avenue provides the main conduit for cars to enter, so is a little cluttered with 14 lanes of traffic, but then the side roads are nothing but an endless mix of beautiful and interesting buildings. Everything is centred around the square holding the Casa Rosada. This is the location of many of the great moments of Argentine history, including speeches by Evita, Juan Perron and Maradona. The square also contains the Cathedral which, although not the most compelling example, does contain some beautiful frescos on the ceiling and stained glass that glows in the ever present sunshine. Continuing up the main avenue, you reach the tall limestone obelisk that appears on many postcards, and the grand, spire-laden Congress building.

For dinner, I tried the national delicacy of a Parillada. The most beautiful piece of barbequed meat was placed in front of me, rare as requested and served with nothing more than the smile from the waiter. Spectacular.

The northern barrios of Retiro, Recoleta and Palermo are classically where the rich live in BA. Each has their own character, but they all share the same elegant buildings and cafe culture. Retiro marks the hub of transport, with the bus station, trains and also the airport nearby. Recoleta is defined by its cemetery, the resting place of the great and the good of Argentine history. It is a peaceful change from the crazy city outside, wandering down the streets of the dead with limestone and granite mausoleums dotted with brass ornaments. The interiors of these structures are amazingly ornate, with beautiful stone floors and stained glass. Evitaīs family tomb is always surrounded by a crowd. Palermo is an area of middle and upper class homes, separated by small grassy parks.

The south holds the traditionally working class barrios of Montserrat, San Telmo and Boca. Catching the subway to Boca (again the subway is clean and efficient like Sao and Rio) makes a pleasant change from the wealth of the north. Factories and port works replace the opulent mansions, and the people chatting in cafes are replaced by roadside barbeques and the smell of roasting chicken. The heart of Boca is the stadium of Boca Juniors football team and the small street called īCaminita`, decorated by a local artist. The locals are encouraged to continue the tradition of painting their houses bright colours, which with the tango dancers, drummers makes for a striking image, set against the old port structures.

Heading north you reach San Telmo and Montserrat, the oldest parts of BA. San Telmo consists of a set of crumbling colonial streets with cobbled roads and a small square in the middle. Along all the streets are small antiques shops and galleries, selling items from the great estates of Argentinaīs heyday. The cafe culture here is at its most traditional, with high ceilinged bars having old photos dotted up the walls. I had lunch in one of these, the menu of the day being gnocchi for the 29th of the month, a local tradition.

Montserrat includes the oldest church in BA, set within a Franciscan monastery. The basilica with its calm and white-washed interior makes a pleasant change from the searing heat outside. I wandered round the empty museum, with a very keen curator wanting to practice her English at every opportunity. She allowed me to see the cloisters though and we talked about the connection between BA and Africa through the high proportion of missionaries coming from South America.

In the evening, I went to see some kendo, BA style. The club practices in a small sports centre to the west of the centre, with the unusual surface of tiles on iron over a swimming pool. They are an incredibly friendly group and after the practice they keep buying big bottles of the local beer. We talk about kendo for a few hours until the bar in the sports club looks like it is trying to close. The sensei leans over and says "you donīt have to go anywhere do you?". We pile into cars, off to a local pizza place. More beer, big pizzas to share, me not allowed to pay for anything. The talk of kendo continues till 2 am. Back into the cars and shoot off. Iīm dropped off at the hostel, full and a little drunk, happy to have met such great Kendoka and people.

The next day, I turn 28. Unfortunately, the sun of the previous day has caught up with me and Iīm not felling in the best of health. A day in bed with a brief interlude to go out and eat some pasta to settle the stomach. I did get a chance to talk to my dormmate, Martin . A semi-pro freerider and ski instructor from Bariloche in the south of Argentina, he is off to Europe for a season to do some filming and promotion work.

I was hoping to go to Montevideo the following day, but the thought of 6 hours on boats definitely didnīt settle my stomach. I settled for a good lunch and a wander. In the evening,  I went down to the new port area of Puerto Madero with some of the other guys from the hostel. It has a similar vibe to docklands, with really cool bars and amazing buildings down by the water. On returning to the hostel, disaster had struck for Martin. Someone had checked into the hostel without any bags and went into the dorm we were sharing. He went through anything he could find, coming across Martinīs laptop which he took and left. Luckily, everything of importance I had was in a locker, but definitely a lesson for the future.

The next day was based around a trip back to Boca to see Boca Juniors play the champions elect Lanus. The noise and vibrancy of the Boca fans was something I will remember for a long time, along with the confrontations between local youths and the riot police. A tense and hard fought game finished 1-1, with a spirited Boca Juniors rallying in the second half behind the tall figure of Palermo up front. Lanus received the league trophy amid a hail of bottles, coins and spit raining down from the stands. Boca have the consolation of heading off to Japan to compete as the World Club Championships as the South American champions from last year. I finished my stay in BA watching American Football with a Danish guy called Jonni. A great guy traveling round Argentina for a few months before returning to finish a Masters in logistics. Off to Cordoba next.
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