Buenos Aires

Trip Start Jun 23, 2011
Trip End Aug 30, 2011

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Friday, July 8, 2011

We arrived in Buenos Aires on Tuesday afternoon from Iguazu and headed to our hotel. After we made our way to the hotel and settled in, we got a map and some dinner recommendations from the concierge. We had previously received a very detailed list of Buenos Aires recommendations that Brenda passed along from a friend of hers. When we mentioned that we really wanted to
go to a place from that list called "El Obrero" he was a bit aghast. He said, “That's in La Boca, which is a bad neighborhood, and that’s in a bad part of the bad neighborhood. You don’t want to go there.” So that threw us off a bit.

He recommended Café San Juan, in San Telmo, one of the oldest neighborhoods in BA. It is filled with narrow cobblestone streets and “resto bars” (the cool name that a lot of them have on their signs) that have been there for over 100 years. It has a lot of character. We had been warned not to show up too early for dinner in BA, lest we get frowned upon as provincial American tourists without proper manners, so we didn’t go to dinner until about 10. Argentina is like Spain in that everyone eats very late. Dinner is usually around 9 or 10 and bars and clubs don’t start to fill up on the weekends until around 2.

We got to Café San Juan and, not having reservations, were seated at the bar. Sitting at the bar was actually really cool, because it looked right into the kitchen, so we could see everything. The kitchen was tiny, and there were four guys in there running around with a perfect precision
preparing all the food. It also meant that we got to see all of the dishes before we had to order, so we had a good look at most of the items on the menu.

There was a waiter there who spoke perfect English and even an English menu. This was the kind of place where the menu changes often depending on what fresh ingredients they find to cook, so it was written on a chalkboard. We ordered a potato torte with peppers to start and steak and a smoked tomato and goat cheese crepe for our entrees. Everything was absolutely
amazing. We both agreed it was the best meal we’ve had on our trip so far. The Argentinean
steak lived up to its reputation and more – it was a thick juicy cut cooked perfectly medium rare, served with chorizo sausage sliced thin and pan fried in a cast iron pan (we watched them do it) until it was brown and crispy and then finished with potatoes and green and red peppers. The whole dish was covered in a thin red sauce filled with chopped garlic and just a hint of spice. It was fantastic. K’s dish was equally amazing. It was bursting with cheese, and
really delicious.

On Thursday we woke up without a real plan and started reading our Rough Guide and wikitravel in order to plan our next two days. Ben and Debbie, the English couple we met in Ilha Grande, had told us they had played polo in BA, and it had been really fun, so we decided to try and book that. We called the guy to book for the next day (Thursday), but he said Thursday was booked, could we do today? So we headed out to meet him for our polo lesson.

We had about two hours before we got picked up so we wandered through the center of town, down Calle Florida, a pedestrian avenue with tons of shops and restaurants, and by the huge Obelisk monument they have there. I picked up some gloves and hat for our Bolivian and Peruvian mountain trips, since I forgot mine at home. The hate was only 10 pesos, about $2.50. When we walked up to the corner where we would be picked up, there was a couple who
looked a little younger than us already standing there and the guy said to us, “Are you for polo?” reminding us both of Hank Azaria’s character saying “Are you for scuba?” in whatever movie it was where Hank Azaria’s character said that. We said yes and met Johan and Paola, a German and Uruguayan, respectively, who would be the rest of our group lesson.

Fernando the instructor picked us up in a van and we headed about 50km out of town to a horse farm/polo training ground. Polo is a very popular sport in Argentina. There are professional teams and players who make millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements. We passed three other polo farms on the rutted country road on the way to our farm. Argentina loves polo more than anywhere else in the world.

First we got our equipment. Everyone had a polo helmet, a whip and a stick. Fernando gave K-money the smallest helmet he had, but it was still too big for her tiny head, so he had to go get the children’s size, which fit her perfectly.

We began the lesson by learning how to make horses do what we wanted. It was basically the opposite of everything we’ve ever learned about horses. For me, this was not much. I’ve been on a horse maybe five times before, so the fact that you kicked these horses on the left to get them to turn right wasn’t that big of a deal. But K-money is an expert saddle-seat rider, so for her it took some getting used to. We got up on the horses and practiced getting them to turn and go where we wanted. It was all pretty easy until the horse went any faster than a walk, when staying on the horse became my main objective and turning, which really required shifting your weight around, seemed likely to cause me to topple off the horse.

After that, we got our sticks or mallets or whatever they are called (for some reason we didn’t learn this terminology during the lesson) and learned how to hit the ball. While waiting for Fernando to get the horses ready, we had been playing around with the sticks and hitting some grapefruits that had fallen from a tree in the yard. Never having seen a polo match before,
the four of us had discussed which end of the mallet you hit the ball with during the polo match, because the two ends were shaped differently. Now we discovered to our chagrin that you actually hit the ball with the long side of the mallet (turned 90 degrees from how you would use a croquet mallet). We are incredibly ignorant about polo.

So we began leading our horses up and down the polo field, which is really, really long by the way-maybe 250 yards, and hitting the ball in front of us. Fernando followed along behind so that every time we whiffed, which was often, he would clean up after us and hit the balls out in front
again. I got to be pretty good and hitting the ball and got one through the goal posts from almost 60 yards. After that we went around practicing hitting the ball in various directions and getting our horse to do what we wanted. I got my horse going faster than a walk a few times, but it was so hard to judge the proper swing to hit the ball when you were bouncing up and down on a horse that my hits weren’t very successful when I had any speed. We and the horses took a rest while we prepared for the big match.

Fernando taught us the rules of polo. It’s not at all a free for all after the ball like soccer. When a player hits the ball ahead of him, no one is allowed to cross the imaginary line between him (or her) and the ball. So a defender on his right (Polo players must play with their right hands) can only hit the ball by approaching the ball from the left and reaching over their horse with the stick and hitting that way. A defender on the right cannot hit the ball at all, but can run their horse up beside the player with the ball and push his and his horse’s shoulder into the other player’s and
horse’s shoulder to force the player off the ball. We practiced using your horse to push another horse around for a little while. This added a whole new and dangerous dimension to the game.

After we “learned” (in quotes because none of still had any idea what we were doing), we played a 3 v 2 match on a shortened field. It was Johan, K and me vs. Fernando and Paola. Playing polo is incredibly difficult. You’ve got the whip and reins in your left hand and the stick in your right hand, so your hands are totally full. You’re trying to stay on the horse and control the horse and maneuver around other players and hit the ball in the right direction. Every once in a while an opposing player’s horse with take a crap while you trying to line up a shot, throwing another distraction in that you have to process and ignore in order to hit a good shot.  And we were playing at a walk. I really want to go see a proper match now and see these guys galloping around and playing properly.

In our “match”, the good guys were able to move the ball around and punch it in a few times for a quick 4-1 lead, but ultimately our defense broke down too many times and Fernando and Paola won 5-4. The match was so much fun, although I’m sure anyone watching would have thought it was the most pitiful thing they ever saw. Very rarely did any horses go faster than a walk. Very rarely was any defense played. In fact, the best defense was usually to pull your horse around to follow the opposing player as they lined up a shot and then hit the ball yourself after they missed. The match was really exhilarating, though. The whole lesson was so cool – even though our playing was slow and pitiful it was cool to think “We are playing polo in Argentina right now!” We posed for lots of pictures and a few videos on our horses to document the event.

After we finished the match we shared a beer and saw some 16 day old puppies that one of Fernando’s dogs had. They were cute little things. Then we loaded up the van for the trip back to BA. Argentina was playing Colombia that night in the Copa America and Johan and Paola had been asking around about where to watch it with “the crazy fans who paint their faces” as Johan put it. They had been directed to this place Football para Locos, which sounded promising.

They invited us to join them, so we went. They served empanadas, pizza, and beer. The place was not quite what we were expecting – it was a little slicker and more corporate, and no one had their face painted. Also, it seemed to be tourist place and maybe half the fans there were Colombia fans. But it was still a lot of fun. There were chants going on and everyone was so into the game – making loud exclamations whenever there was a foul (or a “foul”, depending on what team you were cheering for) or a scoring chance. Colombia actually looked like the better team for much of the match, but neither team could find the back of the net. It was as fun as a 0-0 tie can be.

The next day we hiked all around BA. We saw the painted houses at Caminito in La Boca, walked through San Telmo, stopping at every other antique shop where K found some new piece of antique jewelry that she wanted, and wandered through Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. We tried a vegetarian restaurant that we had read about in the NYT for lunch, and it was delicious. It’s hard being a vegetarian in Argentina, but this place was really good.

After our long walk we went back to the hotel to rest a bit and get ready for dinner. We went to El Obrero, despite the concierge’s warnings. It was a really cool place, very local, not many tourists there. Boca Juniors and other football team paraphernalia covers the walls. There were about 7 women in the whole place, and a lot of the table full of old guys looked like they may have been sitting at the same place since about 1970. There was one waitress who spoke a bit of English, so she helped us. K had some homemade pasta that was surprisingly excellent for a place whose focus is definitely meat. I asked the waitress what the most popular item was and got that. It was basically a New York Strip – again the Argentinean beef cannot be beat. It was an amazing meal (and amazingly cheap-they had wines on their menu for 20 pesos, about 5USD. We splurged and got one that was about 10USD).

Friday morning we got up and grabbed a bus to Rosario for our next stop. BA was an amazing place. We’d love to come back for a longer time in the summer. The weather was nice here – about 60 during the day – but it would still be nice to see more people sitting outside at all of the sidewalk cafes. We didn’t get to see everything we would have liked, but polo was definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far. As was all of the delicious steak.
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Nemo on

Count me "in" for an extended trip to BA. Sounds awesome.

I'm sure your walking game of polo was less pitiful than you imagined. Just think, you guys could probably hold your own against a team of Argentine nursing home residents or 3-year-olds (although one of the 3-year-olds might be mad that K was wearing a polo hat designed for someone his age).

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