Urban Biking and Tango
Shortly after breakfast, I met the rest of the group in the lobby at around 9:30AM for our first day of active vacation: biking through the urban sprawl of Buenos Aires. The concept sounded somewhat daunting at first since this, after all, was a gigantic metropolis of more than 10 million people packed across an area almost the size of Los Angeles. Battalions of cars, trucks, and buses aggressively roamed the streets, restricting the mobility of any punier mode of transportation consisting of two wheels. However, my guide Victor reassured us that on a typical Sunday morning, the streets of this capital city would be transformed into a docile and navigable world of wide, open lanes, whereupon bikers could reclaim their urban coexistence.With this reassurance, I put on my visor and helmet, and after a short safety talk from our new personal city bike guide Ana, we set off on Peru Street, a few blocks from the main square of Buenos Aires
. There was something special about biking through downtown Buenos Aires. Perhaps it was the rapidly changing landscape that enhanced the visual senses, or the cool breezes on this early spring morning rustling through the leaves and beautiful violet blossoms that sent a tingle of delight down my spine. Or perhaps it was the strange sound of silence engulfing the deserted streets of a city that never seemed to sleep. Whatever the case, I was enjoying every second of the ride! Riding past a multitude of esthetic architecture lining the avenues of Buenos Aires, from the French-influenced Beaux Arts buildings to the elegant modern skyscrapers, I felt like I was passing through an open air museum of decorative urban art.
We first stopped at Plaza de Mayo
(May Square), the very heart of this elegant city. There were already loads of tour buses, from which herds of tourists were exiting and following their guides. Since the buses were parked on the perimeter of this main square, those people had to walk some distance and then congregated in large numbers around the monuments. However, we simply rode our bikes into the square and parked directly in front of the central monument, El Obelisco de Mayo
(The Obelisk of May). They watched the five of us ride our bikes, cameras in hand, through the main square where we got off and stopped for a lecture on the history of Argentina. Ana explained that the name of this beautiful square came from the month in which Argentina declared its independence from Spain in 1810
. It was not until July 9, 1816 that Argentina finally won its independence. However, this square was the epicenter of Argentina. It was here that the first settlement of this country was established with three basic buildings, a fort, a church, and a governmental building. At the turn of the 20th century, when Buenos Aires gained its financial wealth from being a principal port, many buildings were erected around the city, and their architectural styles were modeled after the French. Then the military regimes took hold of the country from the 1930's until the 1980’s, and for fifty years, the economic mismanagement of the country plunged Argentina into almost a third world status, from which it is still trying to recover. Much poverty is still rampant in this nation, and the elegant façade of this city only hides its struggling finances. The graceful charm of the tango has sometimes become a dance that some citizens perform on the street for money. As in any big tourist city, Buenos Aires also has its fair share of pickpockets. My traveling companions Jim from Scottsdale, AZ and his two German-American sister friends, Elsa and Inge, were walking around Plaza de Mayo when a daring local couple coordinated a smooth pickpocketing ploy in broad daylight. They suddenly felt something wet, which was coming from a water gun aimed from a distance by the female thief. Not knowing what had happened, the three turned around, and a lady appeared to conviently show up with paper towels, as she exclaimed, "Oh dear
. You have bird droppings. Let me help you clean them up." Her male companion also showed up with some paper towel. They then patted their hands all over the bodies and pockets of the three unsuspecting Americans. The male pickpocket thief then turned to his partner in crime and said that they needed to rush to the train station to catch their train. They successfully ran off with all of Jim’s cash. His wallet, however, was put back in his pocket with the credit cards intact. The reason for the “selective acquisition” of the cash was unknown.
I could see the tears and blood etched on the walls of Argentina. But now having a democratic governement with its first female president, this country hopes one day to relive its glory days. We mounted our bikes again, and according to Ana’s plan, we were going to visit two of Buenos Aires’ popular neighborhoods, Palermo and Recoleta. Then after lunch in Recoleta, we would ride to the newest district of the city, Puerto Madero on the the Rio de la Plata (Silver River), followed by a short visit to San Telmo, the chic Bohemian neighborhood where Tango was born.
Palermo, with its elegant townhouses and blossoming trees, radiated an aura of charm in this big metropolis. As we took a detour from the widely partitioned Avenida del Libertador, we magically rode into a serene world lined with BMW’s and Mercedes parked in front of multimillion peso properties, a typical reflection of the upscale affluence of Palermo
. It was truly an elite oasis of capitalists’ treasures tucked neatly away from the rest of the city. Riding farther down Avenida del Libertador, we rode into the verdant parks of northern Buenos Aires. On this typical Sunday afternoon, the park was full of families with their children running, biking, and skating in the park loops, while others strolled around with ice cream in hand. It was a cool spring afternoon to be enjoyed together. We took a 30 minute break to admire the roses and geese in the Rosedal Garden. I was very impressed with the large number of people exercising, either jogging or biking, in the park. In fact, there was an outdoor congregation of people exercising to music and an instructor.
Then, off we went again, heading to Recoleta for lunch. Recoleta, an equally affluent neighborhood adjacent to Palermo, was famous for its glamorous "French architectural style" and the cemetery holding the remains of Evita. We had lunch at a nice restaurant called Oasis, located in the shopping arcade called Terrazas
, near the blossoming violet flowers where I appropriately had a fresh Primavera pannini (or Spring Sandwich), consisting of ham, Tybo cheese, sliced hard-boiled egg, Criolla lettuce, and a sliver of tomato, accompanied by an espresso.
After lunch, we rode into the newly-developed waterfront neighborhood of Puero Madero, a former shipyard transformed into condominiums, shopping malls, and dotted with yachts
. We passed by a plain, abandoned, yellow building, which possessed such rich history as the main immigration station to the country of Argentina. Droves of immigrants, mostly from Italy, Spain, Germany, etc. passed through that building just as so many people had passed through Ellis Island in New York City, to help weave an intricate tapestry of this multinational city. We rode farther through the ecological park next to this neighborhood alongside the wide Rio de la Plata (Silver River) separating Argentina from Uruguay. The city of Buenos Aires actually lay at the mouth of this river as it coursed right into the south Atlantic Ocean. The park, peaceful and shielded with green leaves, was full of Porteños, or residents of Buenos Aires, again enjoying nature amidst asphalt and concrete. We ended our ride with a brief stop in San Telmo, the Bohemian district that helped create the seductive, graceful Tango dance.
After the ride, I walked towards the heart of Buenos Aires only to find some barricade and a stage with some live music coming from loud speakers. In fact, the music sounded like live tango performed by guitarists. Looking at the crowd gathered all around, I realized I was right in the middle of a celebration of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, a celebration of democracy over communism. Argentine and German flags were hung around the lampposts, intertwined in a strong bond of friendship between the two countries
. Walking further, I revisited the bustling shopping street of Calle Florida with the intention of doing some window shopping and enjoying the commotion of dancers, performers, and people all around. After popping my head into a few stores, I ended up leaving them with lots of bags containing a new pair of leather shoes, a lot of dress shirts and ties, and a collection of Argentine springtime fashion. Instead of returning back to the hotel, I strolled down to the main square, where I discovered another concert, full of young people dressed in colorful costumes. They at first reminded me of Samba Schools from Brazil, but then I saw them swinging flags and dancing loudly.
"Qué está pasando
? (What's going on?)" I asked one of the participants.
"Estamos celebrando la tolerancia a la diversidad étnica
(We're celebrating tolerance to ethnic diversity)," a young, blonde Argentine woman responded. She went on to say that African immigrants to Argentina had been suffering cruel acts of physical or psychological aggression, and that people in this country should put an end to that. A sort of Harlem Renaissance was transpiring right in front of my eyes.
Later that evening, I had dinner with the group at a restaurant with a Tango Show at El Querandí
(Calle Peru 302 right at the corner of Peru and Avenida Belgrano in the Bohemian district of Monserrat)
. The performance was elegant and seductively charming. The women danced with an enchanting, alluring look in their eyes, and the men, with their stern, serious gazes, took the woman's hand, and together they danced to the hypnotizing, entrancing live tango music performed by a pianist, bassist, violinist, accordionist, and singer. The scene seemed to bring to life the charismatic essence of Buenos Aires and its great historical contribution to world culture.
Tomorrow will be the two hour flight to Mendoza, a city located in the shadows of the Andes Mountains in western Argentina, and the start of the bike ride through the famous vineyards and wineries of this South American nation.
To Be Continued....