Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

We neglected, before we began our trip, to upload on our MP3 player the entire soundtrack to Evita. We only put two songs from the musical on the device. So, as we neared Buenos Aires, we had but two songs to sing, over and over, over and over, from the score. This resulted in several outbursts a day of "LOOK OUT, Buenos Aires!," likely to the chagrin of fellow travelers and residents alike. We later discovered that left-leaning Portenos - residents of B.A. - rather revile Madonna (claiming that Madonna, a "whore," isn't fit to portray Evita, a "saint") and hate the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but old songs die hard, and we had to sing them anyway.

While we warned Buenos Aires to LOOK OUT, it was us who had another thing coming. The capital of Argentina is, truly, a Big Apple, and a dignified, beautiful apple, at that. Founded in 1580 and later named the capital, Buenos Aires really is Argentina's, and perhaps all of Souh America's, first city.

As is our wont, we jumped on a tour bus to get the 5,000 foot overview of the city as soon as we rolled into town. Ou first destination was Avenida 9 de Julio, the city's main thouroughfare and perhaps the largest city street in all the world, measuring 16 lanes across. Plunked in the midst of the traffic is a 400 foot obelisk, constructed in 1936 to mark the 400th year of Argentine statehood. It was thrown up in a mere four weeks, certainly a record for governmentally-mandated and controlled projects.

We rolled on to the neighborhood of Recoleta, the twentieth century enclave of the elite and ruling classes, where we felt immediatey transported to Paris. Balconies are decorated with wrought-iron curly-cues, lawns are green and impeccably manicured, cafes with sprawling open air seating options dot the sidewalks, and dog-walkers seem a dime a dozen. But, despite the obvious affluence and privilege that pervades the neighborhood, our tour guide informed us that a midsized two bedroom apartment would run a Porteno $200,000 US - a pittance compared with housing prices in other world cities - evidence of the recent currency devaluation and economic collapse of the Argentine economy.

After gawking at Recoleta, we moved on to Palermo, home to numerous parks, gardens and museums. There, we spotted acres of greenery and, somewhat unusual, an enormous metallic sculpture of a tulip, which opens and closes its pedals coincident with the rising and setting of the sun.

Next, the bus continued on to Plaza de Mayo, the center of the city and the seat of government and power. as it was the very locus of the founding of Buenos Aires in 1580. The square is flanked on all sides by important or historic buildings: at the far end sits the notorious Casa Rosada, or Presidential Palace. The Casa Rosada acquired its moniker when, in the early 1900s, a truce was established between the Federalist party, whose color was white, and the Republican party, whose color was red. Delighted with the accord between parties, the reigning administration ordered the building to be painted pink to symbolize the harmony between the two. It was from the balcony of the Casa Rosada that Evita and her military-dictator husband, Juan Peron, addressed crowds of adoring workers and union members, on whose behalf and with their backing the Perons seized power in the early 1950's. And this same balcony was used by Pope John Paul II in the 1980's to speak to Argentinian Catholics and by Madonna and Antonio Banderas during the filming of "Evita." Strange proverbial bed-mates, to be sure.

On the north side of the plaza is the Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the largest we've seen on our trip and notable in that it appeared to be an actual, honest-to-goodness working cathedral, with a congregation and ministry and all. We were struck by how much foot traffic the cathedral received and how it buzzed and hummed with visitors, members and priests - yes, we even spotted priests working there. In contrast to most European cathedrals and many South American ones, this city center house of worship reverberated with daily work - an odd spectacle, indeed.

Situated on the west side of the square is the Cabildo, or the old town hall. Decidedly older than the rest of the buildings surrounding the square - it was built in 1751 - the Cabildo is classic Spanish colonial, with thick white stucco walls, heavy supporting planks, and intricately carved wood balconies. It served as the seat of government during the founding and early years of Buenos Aires, and it is the only public Spanish colonial building in the city surviving today.

Finally, in the center of the square is the Piramide de Mayo, an homage to the founding of the city. This monument is more well known as the site of Thursday afternoon protests by old Argentinian mothers from the 1970s until today. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Buenos Aires was the center of an Argentine maelstrom of random and not so random violence perpetrated by left-leaning terrorists. They espoused violent revolution and viewed car bombings and kidnappings as effective tools to foment discontent within the working class. The military, fearing Marxist overthrow and perhaps simply eager to weild a heavy hand, began counterattcking, and the pendulum of violence and hate swung far the other way: beginning in 1976, the military began a systematic purge of leftists, union activists, intellectuals, and poor workers who happened to be viewed as suspicious. The government detained, tortured, and "disappeared" at least 10,000 Aregentines in this pogrom of blood, although unofficial counts estimate that a more accuate number might be between 20,000 to 30,000. Unable to find their son and daughters and deprived of official recourse, the mothers of the disappeared began, rather savvily, to congregate in the 1976 in front of the Pyramid, finding their voice by collectively petitioning the government to account for the whereabouts of their loved ones. The government could take no action against these old women (public opinion certainly couldn't favor a mass arrest or massacre of mothers in front of the Presidential Palace) and so, for years and years, they've met in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday and do what mothers do best: complain. The success of their tactics is still unclear; after democracy was restored, many of the military's atrocities were brough to light, and scores of mass graves are being unearthed so the bodies therein can be catalogued and the families notified. Still, mothers to this day gather every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo to continue to complain, so one must assume that not every person has been accounted for and that some families still remain in the dark as to their children's ultimate fate.

We moved on to San Telmo, home of the famous tango and a more bohemian vibe. San Telmos was once the home of the fabulously rich and powerful, until a yellow fever epidemic hit in 1873, and the welathy fled north to Recoleta to avoid death and sickness. Waves of immigrants gladly took the space they vacated, and the tango was born soon thereafter, danced with seduction, despiration, and passion.

But, as far as we can tell, the reigning passion at the moment has nothing to do with tango and everything to do with soccer. After moving through San Telmo, we were escorted to La Boca, a rough, immigrant-populated neighborhood whose big claim to fame is that it houses the world famous (at least in the opinion of the Argentines) Boca Junior Stadium. Our tour bus made the requisite stop near the old but highly revered stadium and as we pulled up our tour guide pointed out that once we attended a Boca Junior's game we could die knowing that our lives had meaning. It is not clear what peering into this most beloved structure will earn us, but if in another twenty years time we find our lives as empty as the stadium was that day we will at least know where we went wrong.

After paying homage to the Boca Juniors shrine, we were delivered to Caminito Street, billed as an open-air museum in the middle of La Boca, which looked to us suspiciously like a small alley decked out for tourists. In reality, Caminito is a slice of what perhaps much of La Boca looked like before the advent of concrete block housing. Rows of glorified shanties, constructed out of tin and wood planking, are stacked together in a way reminiscent of a house of cards, and each section is painted in bright colors - rose, canary yellow, sky blue. Apparently Italian immigrants in the early 1900 came to Buenos Aires looking for a better life, and when they disembarked, they cannibalized their ships for construction material and paint, resulting in the odd but festive appearance of the neighborhood. So much for providing for an escape option if they didn't like what they found. The bus allowed for time to wander Caminito, so we did, making our way past the colorful houses, souveneer shops, and tango performers eager to receive a few coins for their efforts (women always dressed in black fishnets and skimpy skirts to show off their legs, and men donned the ubiquitous black Humphrey Bogart hat low over one eye). After half an hour of aimless strolling, we were glad to have seen La Boca, but we had no reason to return on our own.

The bus finally deposited us in the middle of Retiro, the center of town and site of Plaza San Martin, home to a number of what we considered to be several funny monuments. The first is what used to be known as Torre Ingles, a tower the English government dedicated to the government of Argentina upon its founding. But, when Argentina invaded the Falkland islands in 1982 (historical consensus is that Argentine generals, reacting to discontent within the population regarding economic policies and the mass dissappearance of citizens, envisioned the Falkland Islands War as a quick win and a way to rally the Argentines around the seated government; what they didn't envision was Margaret Thatcher's reaction), the Argentine government renamed the tower, wiping away centuries of the feel-good monument donation. Even funnier is the Falkland Islands War memorial across the street, which is continually guarded by a member of the Argentine military and contains a tomb of the unknown soldier, replete with an eternal flame burning in memory for those who died during that pointless military escapade.

At the conclusion of our tour we made our way back to the central part of the city and retired to our hostel to relax and decide what we wanted to eat. Under normal circumstances that decision would amount to little more than selecting which beef restraunt we would disappoint with our ever-thrifty ways. But tonight was no average night because for no good reason at all neither of us were much in the mood for meat. Instead, on the course of our city tour we developed a mutual hankering for something spicey. We knew Asian food would be hard to find and we figured good Asian cousine would be an impossibility, but with an unusual dose of optimism and an address for a Thai restaurant downtown we were on a mission. After an hour or so of walking around without much luck we finally found what we were craving in a place called Empire Thai. We were fairly certain that the restraunt's host and owner was a gay Canadian, but his partner must have been a native Thai because the meal we scarffed down tasted like an authentic native creation. Steven sprung for the spicey Panang curry chicken while Cori opted for the standard chicken Pad Thai. Both dishes were quite tasty, but Steven absolutely fell in love with his selection. At one point the waitor came over to see if everying was OK because Steven's expressions of contentment were so noisey that he was certain that something was amiss.

As those of you who read these entries in sequential order have already figured out, we spent the next three days in Uruguay. But, as planned, we returned to Buenos Aires early the morning of Christmas Eve and sat in wait until we could enjoy our mutual Christmas present to each other - a two day stay at the Marriott downtown using Steve's hard-won warrior of the road hotel points that he accumulated during his former life as a consultant. The Marriott was quite a treat, esecially compared with some of the digs we had stayed in during the three and half months previous: right downtown, off the Plaza San Martin (we scored a room upgrade to one overlooking the Plaza by playing the honeymoon card), it was also located right at the mouth of Calle Florida, Buenos Aires' main pedestrian and shopping street, stretching at least 12 blocks and intersecting with Calle Lavalle, the other pedestrian thoroughfare in the city. Further, the hotel had a full compliment of cable channels, an ironing board and iron, a helpful conceirge, a fitness room with pool, whirlpool, and sauna, and a bathtub we could actually envision taking a bath in. Ironically, though, the Marriott was the only hotel room in which we actually spotted a cockroach (to be sure, they were probably elsewhere, but they weren't bold enough to show their antennae until this cheeky one appeared in the swanky hotel). Go figure.

We really weren't sure what to expect in terms of how South Americans, and specifically Portenos, would celebrate Christmas. Truth be told, though, we were somewhat deflated by how little the holiday seemed to matter to the average Argentine, and we strangely missed the assult of constant holiday music and ubiquitous decorations for a month before the big day. Malls were the biggest point of comparison, for better or worse. While US kids form lines snaking out the entrance of megamalls, waiting for just a few moments with Santa, who perches regally on his cardboard throne in all its confectionary splendor, the only santa we saw in South America was a thin man in a haggared-looking santa suit, sitting alone by an escalator, and eagerly offering lollipops to kids passing by. On the whole, we agreed that while the materialism and consumerism that seeps into the US version of Christmas can be disheartening, it does serve to get us "in the mood" and generate excitement for the holiday. We missed that this year.

However undercelebrated in lead-up, though, the city did certainly seem to shut down come about six in the evening Christmas Eve. Shops, attractions, and restaurants closed, and we ended up eating Christmas Eve dinner in our hotel room: two pints of ice cream and a tasty room-service hamburger. But we had difficulty locating Christmas-themed movies to watch while eating our ice cream.

Since the conciege couldn't locate an English-speaking Christmas Eve service, we decided to attend a Christmas morning service at Iglesia Anglicana, an antiquated Anglican parish downtown squeezed between banks and office buildings. The priest welcomed us before the service - meagerly attended by a handful of permanent ex-pats and a smattering of tourists like us - during which he admitted that the congregation was a dying one. Frankly, what with the location (far away from any residential area whatsoever) and, given the tediousness of the ceremony (Anglicans, perhaps, are constitutionally unable to express Christmas joy, it seems), we could understand why.

The remainder of the day was dedicated to sitting in a cafe and then scouting the city for an appropriate internet and phone connection to call home, which we were finally able to accomplish after Steve ran around for more than an hour, searching for internet kiosks with microphones. And, at the end of the day, we headed for Christmas dinner - most restuarants and shops were open by that point - to Cabana de los Lilas, a house of beef with a long-standing reputation for excellence. The Cabana is located in thePuerto Madero neighborhood, an old wharf revitalized in the 1990s with an infusion of capital by the government and a committment by several dozen restaurants to set up shop. Today, Puerto Madero really is the restaurant row of Buenos Aires, and it is a pleasant place to stroll along the waterfront after stuffing oneself silly, which is exactly what we did. We were served a "complementary" appetizer (complementary in that it was brought to our table without us ordering it, although we were each charged several dollars as a "table cover" for sitting down). The spread included sun dried tomatos and mozzarella, salmon with dill, raw beef carpaccio, marinated mushrooms, and garlic calamari. We each ordered cuts of meat, we shared a side of pureed pumpkin, and Cori had a glass of the house cabernet. It was a lovely meal, and a wonderful finale to a gourmet experience in Argentina. After dinner, we walked off some of the meal lethargy by ambling along that water front and over the women's bridge, an altramodern wooden footbridge connecting one side of the port to the other and held up by a sleek series of cables. We weren't sure why it was called the women's bridge, but it was packed with people, men and women alike, perhaps walking off some of their Christmas dinner, just like us.

Our last few days in Buenos Aires saw us collecting souvieneers and visiting a few last tourist sites in the city. One token of Argentina we certainly wanted to bring back was mate paraphenilia. Mate, a type of tea, is a national obsession - more an identity than a beverage. Mate is made by stuffing a large amount of mate tea into a small gourd, then pouring hot water over the tea leaves. True mate drinkers do not add sugar or water. After steeping for quite some time, one drinks the mate by inserting a metal "straw" into the beverage; the end of the straw that is inserted in the tea is finely screened off in such a way to strain away the leaves floating in the soupy mix. After taking a few sips, one pours more hot water over the leaves from a thermos, which must always be nearby. Mate can and is taken at any time, individually or communally, and drinking mate is often an act through which one connects with others. The first time one takes mate by oneself, it is considered a rite of passage, in some regards. And from then on, one is not without his or her mate: leather mate bags, not less than twelve inches high, six inches wide, and three inches thick, can be found for sale in ubiquity throughout Argentina. And Argentines travel far and wide with these kits - the gourd, the mate tea bag, the straw, and the thermos. We met an Argentine in Bolivia who, in addition to carrying a three foot backpack, was toting a mate kit along with him so he could partake of this daily ritual on the road. Interestingly while, almost to a person, all Argentines drink mate, rarely are they found doing so in public, and it is impossible to find mate offered on any Argentine menu - so much so that we traveled for a month in the country and nevertheless did not partake in the mate culture until we bought our own supplies.

As for the sites, one of our favorites was Recoleta Cemetary, the resting place of the Argentine ruling class. Founded by a local priest in the early 1800s as an adjunct to a nearby convent, the first person buried in the cemetary was actually a mestizo servant boy. But it soon became the burying ground of established families, and it was - and still is - one of THE ways to display familial wealth and prestige. If having an address in Recoleta is important in life, it might even be more so in death; families are willing to start the bidding for a crypt at about $20,000, and the prices can skyrocket from there. Perhaps the prices have become so inflated due to the proximity of powerful people buried here; in fact, almost anyone who was anyone is buried here, including several heads of state and Evita herself.

Crypts themselves are interesting sociological pieces: some emulate greek or roman temples, others resesmble pyramids, some take the form of the source of the money which allowed the owner to be laid to rest here - office buildings and banks - and one, the owner a fan of Byron's naturalistic romanticism, evoked a crumbling grotto. And some boast statutes of the people buried inside; most notably, a woman and her dog, who were buried after they died in an avalanche while she was honeymooning in Austria, and another young woman, who suffered an epileptic fit, was thought to be dead but buried alive, and was later found to have tried to escape her coffin but died trying.

All in all, there are 6,400 crypts in the necropolis, most with a very small chapel on the entry level, and stairs decending into the ground, some several stories down. What made one the largest impressions on us, though, was the varied states of repair of these crypts. Many are relatively new and show signs of contant upkeep and loving care; one even contained a fully and newly decorated Christmas tree in the chapel of the crypt. However, a shocking number of crypts were decrepit, rotting from decay on the inside, with cement and brick crumbling, cobwebs covering locks and doors, and random bits of plaster and wooden butressing scattered on the floor of the chapels. We didn't understand how so many tombs fell into disrepair, and why they weren't appropriated by the city government for resale, but they did lend an appropriately spooky feel to a place that, on the whole, felt much more like a city of the living than a city of the dead.

On our last night in Buenos Aires, we splurged twice. A few days before, we had visited Teatro Colon, BA's opera house, with the hope of taking a tour around the theatre. While there, we learned that Don Giovanni, one of Mozart's operas, was playing our last night in the city (and Steve remembered that he had written a paper on the opera in college, although he could not recollect the content of said paper), so it seemed that fate had intervened and was directing us to attend. Accordingly, we purchased nosebleed seats, attempted to gussie up as much as was in our power to do so, and off we went.

The Teatro Colon is one of BA's main tourist attractions. Built in the late 1800's, the theatre was designed in accordance with the splendor expected in that age: a red plush curtain separates the audience from the stage, the ceiling is decorated in crenelated plastering, painted cherubims and the like, and a crystal chandelier,
and clusters of lights - what we imagine once were actually gaslamps -adorn every tier and balcony liberally. But what makes it so remarkable is its conical shape. The theatre rises vertically from the orchestra level but doesn't expand outward, like many theatres do, with the result that the diameter of the uppermost balcony does not appear to exceed the diameter of the floor. This creates a storied effect, where level after level is piled on top of one another, but with very few people seated on each level. As a result, almost all 3500 possible attendees have a relatively clear view of the stage, and the acoustics are impeccable, too; none of the performers, as far as we could tell, were mic-ed during the opera, but we could hear them perfectly. We wish we could give equally rave reviews to Don Giovanni, but, truth be told, we were somewhat disappointed with the performance, and we wonder whether we are suited to be opera-goers, anyway. But it was, nevertheless, a special treat for our last night in South America.

Not ready to call it quits, in true Argentine fashion (and perhaps the only night we spent in South America in which that was true), we grabbed a taxi from the theatre and headed to Cafe Tortoni, a true BA establishment, with a capital E, where numerous Argentine notables, including Jorge Luis Borges, have spent time sipping coffee, gossipping, and watching the world go by. The cafe hosts a tango show every night, and we decided to combine a visit to the cafe with a show to round out our Argentine experience. We were ushered into a small cabaret style theatre adjacent to the cafe and seated around a small table with a few other Americans - rarities for the majority of our trip, until we hit BA. After some small talk with our fellow countrypeople, the lights dimmed, the show began, and we were greeted by a young but bald singer who charismatically addressed the group in Spanish (although we do think the majority of the audience didn't speak Spanish, at all) and then sang a few songs, Sinatra-style. His delivery was cheesy and effected, but the over-the-top shtick worked anyway. Then a couple pranced out and danced for a song, a quick, upbeat number to get the show rolling. For the rest of the first act, the singer and the dancers performed alternately, the dancers changing clothes between each number, and the singer occasionally changing jackets. The singer was what he was, but we were both impressed by the dancers, who were somehow able to create very different tones and convey very different emotions based on their pacing, their moves, and their spacing - and, ok, their costumes, too. Act two began with a swarthy older gentleman with a ponytail, who began his act with a type of tap dance using what seemed to be wooden clogs - an Argentine equivalent of Lord of the Dance. He continued tapping and then brought out a rug, which he spun over and around himself in various patterns. Finally, he put the rug away and brought out what we think are called boleros - a set of metal balls each attached to a chain - that he began swinging over his head and next to his body. After getting the rhythm, he started slapping the boleros on the wooden floor in succession, creating a hard, hollow repetitive clank that contrasted, in tone and with syncopation, with his continued dancing. His dancing and spinning became more complex and the rhythms more intricate until he was spinning he boleros furiously - so much we thought they'd come unhinged and fly out into the audience - and then, with a grand flourish, he tapped and slapped in one finale, then brought his feet and the boleros to a sudden stop, and we all heard silence, and then we took a collective breath, and clapped and cheered his performance. The remainder of act two was dedicated to more goofy songs by the singer and sultry dances by the dancers, some bows and farewells, yet another song, and then the lights came up. We were sometimes amused, sometimes amazed, and generally entertained. We're not sure we'd go again, but we were glad we went once.

Our last day in South America and for the first third of our trip calls for some reminiscing and reflection. It is difficult to believe we are a third of the way through our world tour and are completely finished visiting the Western Hemisphere. We made a few wrong turns and a few mistakes, but we hoped we've learned our lessons during this training wheel period and can apply our learning as we go forward. Above all, we've had a fabulous time - we've seen and done so much in four months, and we are amazed everytime we think back over these myriad experiences - visiting ancient temples, swimming with dolphins, marvelling at big falls and small animals, hiking in unbelivable terrain, and living it up in world-class cities. So, with that, we bid a fond adieu to the Americas and head east to begin the next part of our journey.
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