Saturday, December 15, 2007

Argentina: Home Sweet Buenos Aires

Touching down in Buenos Aires, we scrambled to find an apartment, Spanish classes, and some sleep. For fear that we`ll always be a month or two behind in our blog if we try and capture all of the great things about Buenos Aires, we are instead doing a Greatest Hits album of our month in the city.

The food: After eating a lot of peanut butter and tomato sandwiches in Africa and a lot of french fries and steak in Brazil, it felt like there wasn`t nearly enough time to try and sample the huge bonanza of stylish, fun, restaurants in Buenos Aires. But we gave it a try. Japanese, Thai, Scandinavian, French, Italian, Indian, fusion and, of course, the classic Argentine parilla (barbecue). All washed down with loads of red wine. Although, we weren`t above making our own caipirinhas at home. And there was a fresh fruit stand on every corner. Plus, we loved the hours. Finally a city made for night owls! Most restaurants don`t even open until 9pm. And you can walk home at 3am and still find your favorite ice-cream store serving up dulce-de-leche cones. Bliss! We need to leave soon or buy bigger pants.

The people: They are beautiful. And they should be, with the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world and a hair stylist on ever corner. But despite this, they are also wonderfully friendly. Sometimes they even give out free hugs (abrazos gratis)! With our unstylish backpacking duds and lack of tango shoes, we worried we would be frequently turned away. But instead, we felt warmly welcomed nearly everywhere, and we were encouraged to bust out our Spanish. Speaking of which, we found a fantastic school (Oh! Espagnol, we highly recommend it), and we both adored our teachers. Super nice folks who not only helped us navigate the Argentine accent (which can sound like drunken Italians trying to speak Spanish), but also clued us into great places to eat, hear music, and soak up more culture. Including the ubiquitous mate (seen in Eric´s hand). As an aside, we grew enamored with mate, the bitter yerba mate drink that every Argentine drinks. What`s interesting is that you basically can`t buy it in a restaurant, it`s a homegrown affair. But every local hanging out in a park has a thermos and their mate gourd with them. What we especially loved about it, is that it`s a shared ritual. You pass the gourd, and there`s all sorts of etiquette and ritual as to the drinking and serving. Very cool. We picked one up and look forward to indoctrinating friends and family when we get home. As a final note on the people of Buenos Aires, we have to mention our local video store clerk. Normally, we associate video store employees with disgruntled teens who kind of ignore you. But Fabian was fabulous. He helped us find Argentine movies with English subtitles and would always slow down his speech to help us with the language. Going to the videostore usually meant a good 20 minutes of chatting. Made us feel like locals. And everyone should see Valentin, our favorite Argentine flick thus far..

The beauty: From the amazing architecture that always draws European comparisons to the dramatic colors of La Boca (where we had a flat tire on our bike tour), Buenos Aires is a visual treat. From the graffiti to the murals (and the odd pingpong game), we loved getting lost in neighborhoods. Each barrio has a distinct flavor, and our apartment was in Palermo, known for its bevy of restaurants and bars and leafy green parks. Rest assured, however, that we did study sometimes! Eric has mastered the present tense, which he says is all he needs for his new zen ´living in the moment´way of life. Perhaps this means he`s done studying?

One of our favorite spots was the Recoleta cemetery, which we explored with Eric`s parents when they came to visit. It is truly a city of the dead, with a jaw-dropping array of sarcophagy and monuments neatly arranged along streets among leafy trees. Even the scores of tourists lining up to see Eva Peron`s grave (yes, we were among them), couldn`t mar the tranquility of the spot.

Warning: gruesome story to follow. One of the more beautiful graves (in photo) has a horrific story behind it. Evidently a woman was accidentally buried alive in the early 1900s (most likely they mistook her coma for a death). Several days after her burial, workers heard screams coming from her grave. When they opened up her tomb, they found scratch marks attesting to her attempt to escape. Truly awful. Her parents then commissioned her current tomb as a memorial to their daughter, and it has become a symbol of the cemetery. Eerie but true.

The music: The music scene here is absolutely incredible. Every night it seems there`s something to listen to, and there are always great live street bands playing at the outdoor markets. On Mondays, there´s a wild all percussion outdoor event called La Bombe de Tiempo. Buenos Aire`s bohemian crowd stands outside drinking beer in the street and selling homemade pan relleno, an amazingly delicious bread stuffed with anything from corn and carrots to ham and cheese. It`s like being in a Grateful Dead parking lot. And then every Wednesday you can catch a band called Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, where four dreadlocked acordion players, a stand up bass, a piano player, and a singer, and horns pound out this fantastic music that`s part tango, part rock, and completely addictive. Just down the street from our apartment is a fabulous jazz bar called Thelonius, where we caught a band playing jazz that sounded like the soundtrack to a chase scene in an edgy film noir. And you can dance ALL NIGHT (literally) at various clubs that mix dancehall, reggae, cumbia and American classics. But you need to prepare, as clubs don`t even open until after 1am, and the cool kids don`t show until after 3am. Unbelievable.

And that`s not even including the tango. The classic, of course, is just that...classic. Beautiful, elegant, and still enjoying immense popularity in milongas across town, where you can practice your moves, take classes, or simply watch. Just be careful not to make eye contact with a potential partner unless you know what you`re doing. Inexperienced dancers can be kicked off the floor at some of the more serious milongas. But tango is also evolving, with groups like the Gotan Project and BajoFundo Tango Club exploding the electrotango scene. We checked out one of the more alternative milongas called La Catedral to find an enormous papiermaiche heart (of the anatomical kind) looming over industrial chic art in a dark old warehouse while 20- and 30-somethings glided across the dancefloor.

And lastly there are penas, the home to Argentina`s folkcloric music scene, where all the young granola-types go to play guitar and sing along to the music. We hit a few in our neighborhood, ordered a bottle of $3 wine and clapped along until 3am. We don`t know how people work in this town.

The animals: We finally saw the last of the Big Five! Turns out the rhino, which had eluded us on our African safaris, was hanging out in Buenos Aires listening to tango and drinking wine all this time! We caught a glimpse of him when we were walking down the street by the zoo. Maybe we can photoshop him into our pictures at the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania? Our other favorite bestial sight was all the dog walkers in Buenos Aires. It is not uncommon to see 20 dogs with a walker, all happily wagging their tales and smiling in the sunshine. The only downside is the unfortunate sidewalk droppings that result from their wanderings. These are a serious hazard.

The Contrast: While tourist books praise Buenos Aires as the city where a dollar is still a dollar, and it`s easy to think that artsy restaurants and stylish boutiques mean everyone`s flush with pesos, there is still a darker side to the city`s financial state following the economic crash of 2001. It`s hard to believe it`s only been a mere six years since over 50% of Argentina`s population plunged below the poverty line, with unemployment skyrocketing and homelessness rapidly following suit. Progress has certainly been rapid, but there are still pockets of desperation that are reminders of instability. Most visible were the cartoneros, the people (often families) that pick through the garbage each night to sort out recyclables that they can sell. Far from being an illict job, the government sometimes provides a train for these poor workers to come from the outskirts into the city to do this much-needed work. But they don`t provide a salary, benefits, or healthcare, and it`s heartbreaking to see parents and kids sorting through the trash at 3am when you`re walking home from a bar or club. Another sobering reminder of hard times are the shantytowns that line the no-mans-land between La Boca and Puerto Madero. Here, families from neighboring impoverished countries squat in shacks, and it`s clear that not everyone is drinking Malbec and eating steak. We were also fascinated by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, mothers who have been gathering every Thursday since 1977 to seek justice for their children who disappeared during the military dictatorship. In some cases, they are searching for their grown children who were taken from them to be `adopted` by military families and their friends. They refuse to be ignored until justice is served and reparations are made, and it`s quite powerful to see these women silently walking with photos of their children in the busy downtown plaza.

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