Ghosts, unrequitted love, criminals and (txt)

Trip Start Jan 28, 2008
Trip End Feb 08, 2008

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Avenida Guatemala 5830, BA

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Thursday February 7, 2008 Legends: ghosts, unrequitted love, famous criminals
(I know, we have already done this day, but we haven't done the night!)
So I am commencing where we left off getting home and resting in order to be ready for tonight. We then start talking about tonight reminding me of my favorite movie/play/score: West Side Story with the tragically/ironic song of an almost unrequited Romeo/Juliet type love tale.
We are told that we will hear more of the same tonight, by twilight to midnight. From the streets to the cemeteries: tonight, tonight tra la la la lala

Tonight, tonight /
Won't be just any night /
Tonight there will be no morning star /
Tonight, tonight, I'll see my love tonight /
And for us, stars will stop where they are /
Today, the minutes seem like hours /
The hours go so slowly /
And still the sky is light . . .
Oh moon, grow bright /
And make this endless day endless night!

Ah, tonight. We are going to hear the West side stories of Buenos Aires (west of the docks): a legend/story tour of ghosts, unrequited lovers, and historic criminals but no Puerto Rican gangs! Tonight: darkness and light! (Photo 1 on next page)

During this time, we will be introduced to the mystery of our stay here so far. When we were on our bike ride, we of course, had to rent them from someone, and them there someones turned out to be Gracie and Ruy an aunt/nephew entrepreneurial team with hearts on their sleeves and blankets wrapped around their hearts, showing enormous warmth, kindness and interest in us as more than just stray people coming into their territory and needing to be fed. It will come to pass that we will hear from them more than once after we have returned back to Canada. (Photo 2)

Anyway, they are introducing us to mate. Which had us up to that point asking - what are the little pots with pipes that everyone carry and vendors sell for tourists? Why do people carry hot water thermoses to pour a hot liquid into these pots/cups. If it is MJ they are smoking, then why douse it with water? Or are they making an Argentinian hooch and inhaling it? So far we have had all sorts of names thrown at us with much jest: hemp, green tea, sinsemilla; informal pot, grass-weed, mint-green, buds, bhang, kef, ganja, locoweed; and spliff. Well, not really all of those monikers, but a few. Regardless, we are guessing that tonight we will find out. They told us they would bring some 'pots' for us to look at and buy if we wished and also explain it all. (Photo imbedded above)

Tomorrow, Friday - we go to a ranch for a horse ride and Argentinian barbecue. We leave for Santiago on Saturday. We will leave with as many memories as wishes, with more places waiting for us than those visited by us, with stories, legends, history and cultures scraped lightly with a hot knife across butter hardly leaving a trace or sign that we have been here or known anything. We are but a blip... Before we got to the stories and legends, Grace and Ruy took us in their own five-seater auto - no different than anyone else's auto here or back home, not a tour bus, or something special, nope, just a wee bit of themselves as the whole evening would be. And, in their car we were given a Shakespearean line: "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." And as we prepared to hear yarns of this city in the past, a tour of the city was born and grew making us aware of the latin: tempus edax return: time is the devourer of things. The route they choose, goes from our apartment in Palermo, north - basically following the rail tracks or in the direction - veering east along Avenida Sarmiento, past the the Monumento de los Espanoles (which we kept mistaking for the Italian monument until corrected by a sharp eyed Buenos Airean reader herein) - turning onto Avenida El Librador, where we reach first the National Museum of Decorative Art and get a photo in the less-than-twilight aperature mode (photo 3); and then, the dual plazas of Uruguay and Chile (we hear the story of rumbling disent between Argentina and Uruguay today over an unusual matter - (Story 1)

We continue along the Avenida El Librador and the great Freedom monument (which is the second time we have seen it, but cannot find it on the maps or in the tour books - so we will have to fill in this part later; perhaps I am mistaken and it is a Liberty monument). A quick description of the Fine Arts Museum as we pass by; (we believe it is here that we are told of "Frend Isaac Blando", which is the way I heard the correct enunciation of Isaac Fernández Blanco, the Museum of: (Story 2) and of Peruvian silver and Bolivian photos (photo 4). Read the detail of this museo as attached to the photo.

It should be noted that writing in a little black journal in the back seat of a car travelling at normal pot-hole speed and loose road tile aggression, through Recoleta is a greater task than adapting to the altitude of Machu Picho (which we decided not to do) or going over the Uguaza falls seated on a DVD of one's favorite tango music (which we did purchase, but wouldn't dare put it to such a test of durability). Plus, for those who know me - I am deaf in one ear (left or right depending upon my mood) and I hear only what I want to hear or what can be heard when my mind isn't thinking of something more important than what people are saying - which of course is always. So whatever Ruy was telling me gets a little embellished to make up for what I missed.

Anyway, we had the pre-knowledge that our return trip-of-legends is to go through Recoleta again. Thus, we were now on our way down Av. Alvear (note the reference to this street in the story) past the hotel of its name, and then to the Four Seasons Hotel near Plaza, St. Martin (photo 5) -where one can see in the distance, the top of the Monumental tower (photo 6: Torre Monumental) behind the (photo 7 Edificio Kavanagh) and close to the French Foreign Ministry with tall beautiful iron gates (Story 3 of the Kavanagh family, an unrequitted lover causing a church to be hidden. As we continued our journey towards and reaching Centro Nord, the Mayo Plaza again, we are told of the amount of reclaimed land from the Rio le Plata, and that the National Conservatory is a site of rubble from demolished buildings turned into a true feel-good story (Story 4 ).
Arriving at the pink/rose colored government house (photo 8), the reason for the color is explained amongst tidbits of facts on the founding of B.A. at this spot and with this building (Story 5). The Place de Mayo statue is inscribed with the word Freedom. Now, I am REALLY getting curious about the other statue on Avenida Libertador. We have described much of the history and habit of building a fort, government house, city hall and a 'big hole' for a cemetery; however, it is the story of throwing all the dead bodies in the hole (photo 9) that intrigues us the most, particularly as it relates to failed attempts to dig out archealogical ruins behind Government House. (Story 6).
Next, Ruy describes Avenida Mayo in considerable detail and then Grace explains to us that the whole Avenue is: "French by conception; Spanish by decision; and Argentinian by conviction" one has to understand well the cultures of all three to appreciate this tag line. It almost is a story in of itself, but we did not have the luxury to get a more detailed explanation. It sounds to us like a well-worn saying and perhaps some reader may leave a comment for us on its origin and intent.
As I was saying the 'tour' quickly reviews, for us, the Plaza, Cathedral, and Cabildo (City Hall). The drive then takes us to St. Elmo and a nightly view of the Eglise de San Telmo which we had seen previously by day. Then, firstly the Tango district where we quickly see not only The Esquina Carlos Gardel theater that we attended two nights earlier, but many of the other establishments offering competitive tourist shows. We were told that Jorges Borges said of the Tango: "The tango is a direct expression of something that poets have often tried to state in words: the belief that a fight may be a celebration." Earlier in the week during our explorations of BA we also had seen a sculptured relief (photo 10) demonstrating the passion and irony of this statement. 'Twas a bit of serendipity, as we had not understood the potential meaning of the sculpture, when we took the photo.

To get to this district we had to pass by a building wherein lived The bride of sand...(photo 11) another legend (Story 7).

Another window also to our left as we drive on and we are dared to look within to see a face therein. (photo 12 & 13). The story describes this building as the Phantom tower of Poca (which in translation Poca means 'little/few'). I will soon tell the story but I will be missing the relevance of the word Poca. (Story 8) (photo) Now, at this point I got lost in my bearings (hey it is dark out there), but then told that we are close to the great Autopista 9 de Julio and we can see that we are leaving Av. Martin Garcia, a street which we had come down after the Tango show a couple of evenings ago.

We stop at the Santa Felicitas Church (photo 14). It is the only church in BA where statues represent worldly characters - and we will we relate the story as to why. It was built by German architect Ernest Bunge in a mish-mash or highly eclectic elements of Gothic reminiscences and Romanesque. This weather-beaten yet charming chapel with a domed transept and nave was built in 1875 to the memory of Southern belle Felicitas Guerrero de Álzaga, "once thought to be the most beautiful woman in Argentina". "The statues depict Felicitas with her children and Martin de Alzaga. For them he used imported Carrara marblemade. Felicitas Guerrero was a young and wealthy widow, considered by that time the most beautiful woman in Buenos Aires". (Story 9) In 1872, she was murdered by a cheated solicitor, Enrique Ocampo (uncle to writers Victoria and Silvina Ocampo). In memory of their daughter, the parents erected this temple in 1875, ordering the design to Bunge.

Stories of the West side (of  the Dock area) in detail:

Story 1: This is a simple story of the excellent relations for many, many years between Uruguay and Argentina until just recently. They are now fighting over a river. It is the Rio Plata. Apparently the Uruguayans are doing something at the delta that is causing an issue with the silt build up and river levels that they claim they have no choice but to do. It is a case of: if they do nothing they hurt; if they do anything Argentina hurts. But, it is a Uruguay problem that they are resolving by making it another country's issue. The retribution is now being applied through trade and exports and restricted shipping. This hurts Uruguay. It is the sort of story that is very important for these two countries, but would not warrant the equivalent of a classified ad for a lost pair of spectacles in a North American or European newspaper.

Story 2 a):
"The Musee Isaac Fernández Blanco - we are told "is a collection of silver, wood carvings, paintings, Bolivian photos and costumes from colonial times" and that inside there is an "almost jungle-like garden where outdoor theatrical performances are given. Well, you can read those details on the photo attached. The story/legend is that in the 18 Century the slave trade was well established. Many stories surfaced of dead souls in the the museum as slaves were buried in the grounds without ceremony. It was reported to be an "English dissident" cemetery. Later all the tombstones of the English were taken to Recoletta. At this point Ruy commenced an introduction to M. Manuel Mujica Láinez, "fiction writer and art critic, born in B.A. 11 Sept 1910. His parents belonged to old and aristocratic families, descended from the founder of the city of Buenos Aires, Juan de Garay as well as from notable men of letters of the 19th C". We understand that Manuel, was known proverbially and famously as Manucho, who went to work at Buenos Aires' great newspaper La Nacion as literary and art critic". This permitted him to marry in 1936, a beautiful patrician girl, Ana de Alvear, descended from Carlos Maria de Alvear, mentioned in other parts of this travelblog and of whom the great Avenita Alvear is named. 1936 was also the year of the 25-year-old's first publication, Glosas castellanas. Ruy then went on to tell us that it was Manucho who wrote that by removing the gravestones it left the ghosts unhappy and they remain now haunting the Museum."

Story 2 b):
A side story to this, well worth knowing (and I have checked to ensure it is true) is that "...the 18 Century African slaves had a dance called the Candombe for carnivals. Today, the 'Tango' is a mixture of songs and music including the candombe". This is the supporting arguments as I understand them: Candombe is of the ancestral heritage brought by blacks arriving at the Río de la Plata. The term is generic for all black dances. Its musical spirit sums up the sorrows of the unfortunate slaves, who were hastily transplanted to South America to be sold and subjected to cruelty, leading to pained souls, harboring an inconsolable nostalgia for their homeland. The newly arrived Africans called their drums tango, and and also called the place where they gathered to perform their Candombe dances, tango. Accordingly, the dances were called tangos. The word tango referred to the genesis, the instruments, and the native dance of the slaves. Today, it may well be a combination of other dances and music reflecting the new cultures and ethniticity of the South American countries. But, we can see where it all began.

Story 3: The Kavanaugh Building. It was commissioned in 1934 by Corina Kavanagh who invested all she
had inherited in building her own skyscraper. The design is according to Ruy: "a mix of Modern and Art Deco style, yet an American skyscraper. "It was at the time" he said "the highest reinforced concrete structure in the world, and the tallest building in South America". He also claimed that "it was the first in South America with elevators and first with air-conditioning and state-of-the-art plumbing. (I subsequently verifed all of these facts.) It was declared a national historical monument in 1999. We were also told that in or about 1939 its facade received an award from the American Institute of Architects. Corina Kavanagh lived for many years on the 14th floor in the only apartment that occupies an entire floor. The story: "There is a legend that says that the shape and size of the building was designed as an act of revenge. One of the daughters of Corina, who was from a wealthy but not an aristocrat family, fell in love with the son of the Anchorena family, who were both wealthy and aristocratic. The Anchorena family, lived in a palace on the other side of Plaza San Martin and, going back to 1850 had owned the magnificent current French Embassy. Originally the Anchorenas also had built a church within site of their home. As they disapproved of the engagement and halted the wedding plans, Corina Kavanagh, in revenge, decided to build a skyscraper that would block the view of the church from their palace." That little church can be seen today hidden behind the Kavanaugh building if one walks around it. (We drove around to see it).

Story 4: National Conservatory
Land was reclaimed from the River Rio le Plata. The project aimed to increase the navigability of the river so as to provide improved communications and trade opportunities for Argentina´s inland river communities. The whole project extended approximately 800 kilometres. The story is: that this accidental nature reserve came about after reclaimed land by the waterfront was abandoned and nature took over. When abandoned much of the lands used to be a site of immense rubble from demolished buildings. It is now a popular place for a bike ride or stroll, with a good chance of seeing flamingos, parakeets, herons and river turtles. There are beaches, trails and lookouts. It is a feel good story of how bad intentions, neglect and poor environmental assessments or control over a major project can be reversed by nature!

Story 5: Government House
We have mentioned the rubiginous colour of the building. Some call it pink; others a brownish red. Rather than describe the colour, Ruy told us of how the colour came about and perhaps that will provide an answer as to what the colour is supposed to be. He talked of the years 1800 - 1850 with settlers given the rubric by themselves or by others, of Federalist or a Unitarian. Well, it happened that the colour of the former was a rouge and of the latter a blanc . In order to accomodate the wishes of both and share the power and glory the building was painted an amalgum of both. Today, it is the only building of its colour known in Argentina.

Story 6: The Cemetery
Our commentators and guides both contributed to this oft told tale amongst residents of Buenos Aires. As mentioned, in the colonial days the cemetery was basically a hole in the ground for dumping cadavers. And of course they would be covered and then more dumped on top of them. As there was continuous fighting and much illness/pestilence there were many bodies - few were given a Christian burial or blessed. The Bank Nationale and other eddifices now sit on most of that site. The superstitious say that the spirits of the dead still wander there at night. The story is that there used to be architecture somewhat like a Roman Colliseum and over the last decade, there have been several attempts to excavate the site. This is behind the Government House and close to the wandering souls. However, in addition there used to be what have been referred to as "Holes to Hell" accessible by tunnel in the 1800s connecting the Government House Building with illegal traffic to the river. Many a person died with the tides, accidents and cruelty. Since then, every time an attempt has been made, at a certain point/level reached by workers - they stop and put down their tools, leave the job and refuse to go on further even though they need the work and the income. They state that they can hear the moaning and screams of the dead. The fear in their eyes reportedly is enough to make a believer of many.

Story 7: The Bride of Sand
Our trip through San Telmo takes us close to the river and it is here as we pass by that we are told the story of Elisa Brown the daughter of William Brown. She committed suicide by approaching the river, plunging in only to be found the next morning face down in the sand with her bridal veil. Her reason for depression and anguish was the death of her boyfriend/fiance in the Brazilian wars with Argentina of 1820-30. To this day, one can still see a ghost of a women wearing a bridal veil floating across the sands. They say she has never found the soul of her fiance.

Story 8: Phantom Tower of Poca
In the 1930s there was considerable smoking of opium and an isolated, reclusive woman painter had lived in this particular tower. One day a notable photographer came by to take photographs of her paintings which had been reported as news-worthy and of good value in the artistic community (with a 'however' attached). The photographer did not feel comfortable, could not take the photographs he had hoped for but always new that after developing there was always that extra surprise of capturing something he had not intended. It could be a Mona-Lisa type smile, a pose in a certain light, but photographing stills (other photographs or paintings was extraordinarily challenging). Regardless he took the film back to his processing darkroom and much to his surprise the paintings revealed demons and goblins. Strange creatures which had not been apparent with the naked eye! They say that looking in the tower even today and one can see her face and that of any many demons. Yet, some people live there anyway, despite the legends.

Story 9: The Santa Felicitas Church
To speak of Felicitas Guerrero is to speak of a short though eventful life and a most tragic end. At a very young age (Ruy says 15), the aristocratic lady had married Martín Álzaga, a wealthy Spanish landowner ("65 years old") by whom they had a son who died of yellow fever; a second son was ill at birth but lived. Álzaga would die shortly after leaving Felicitas and their only child a vast fortune. Quite naturally, the ravishing lady was sought after by many suitors among which a Mr. Ocampo would soon stand out and take to her liking. Unfortunately, the story says that Felicitas turned down his marriage proposal thus making him bitter and angry. In his madness and revenge, he shoot her . She died later of the injuries at her own opulent country house, on whose site the church now stands. "An old local superstition suggests those who would like to get their lost love back should pray to St Felicitas while grabbing one of the iron bars of the church's gate." We are also told that "few women want to get married in this church because they think their marriage would be doomed".

Now one might think that was the end of the night and the stories; but would I spoil the evening for someone else reading this who wished to take the same ghoulish tour? Of course not - there were more stories that I have left out and I know that they are adding more to their repetoire. In particular we heard of the "House of the Lions" - lovers killed by big cats and now the grounds are overpopulated by small ones (pussy cats)! Also, the criminal Covino, a short man with huge ears who brought the definition of cruelty to a depth not imagined in Argentina in the destructive years in which he lived and others didn't. Another is of the "Lady In White" where a man finds he is dating a ghost; and finally the story of Napolean's Lover the wife of Count Volensky (son of Napolean). Enuff said !!

To find out more, B.A. awaits and so does Gracie and Ruy. For their and our parting they brought out the mate cups and other touristy 'stuff' we might be interested in.  We bought two of the cups and some small leather change-purses for the grandkids.  But before this, they gave us an explanation of mate - a full one. And it went 'something' like this. 'Tis a traditional drink  of Argentina and is an infusion. Dried leaves and twigs of the yerba mate plant  are placed in a small cup also called mate, usually made from a gourd. The drink is sipped through a straw called a bombillaMate can be sweetened with to hide a bitter flavour; herbs can also do the same thing. Almost boiling water is poured into the gourd. At small social gatherings, a mate may be shared, with the host preparing the mate to the preference of each guest. The drink has a pungent taste like a cross between green tea and coffee, with hints of tobacco and oak. Traditionally, natural gourds are used, though wood vessels, bamboo tubes and gourd-shaped mates, made of ceramic or metal (stainless steel or even silver) are also common. Typically, to cure a gourd, the inside is first scraped with the tip of a bombilla to remove loose gourd particles. Mate herb and hot water is added next, and the mixture poured into the gourd. The mixture is left to sit overnight and the water is topped off periodically through the next 24 hours as the gourd absorbs the water. Finally the gourd is scraped out, emptied, and put in sunlight until completely dry.  It is common for a black mold to grow inside the gourd when it is stored. Some people will clean this out, others consider it an enhancement to the mate flavor.

And I should add one more comment. It is now a month later and I am at home writing in this travelogue. Ingrid has just said to me: "I didn't tell you, but when you proposed that we accept their offer to go on an 'evening' ride in their car, I was more than a little concerned that you would accept a ride at the dark of night with two strangers. Did you not have any fear or concern of being robbed or hurt or...?" I could only reply that travelling to another part of the world or in one's own neighborhood takes a certain amount of risk even when crossing a street with traffic lights; however, there also comes a time when the gut instinct takes over and one does not fear for fears sake or because one is in a foreign country. One fears when instinct says: "I am getting a NO feeling here..." She smiled at this and tells me that she is changing her way of looking at people and the world around her.

If a reader wishes to contact Gracie to ask  about her personal tours or renting bikes, she can be reached at:

Bon voyage
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