The City of Good Air and Great Everything

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ah, Buenos Aires. Capital of Argentina; Birthplace of the tango; Home of dulce de leche; City of statues, city of parks, city of eternal nights; New Paris, New Rome, New New York; where does one start? I’ll tell you. Unless you fly in you probably start at the Retiro train, bus, and “Subte” station (subway) a hustling-bustling mass of vehicles heaving bodies to and fro en masse but only after they have dodged their way in and out of other bodies to get there. My destination had been recommended to me by Alabama Dan, Hostel Obelisco, for its decent breakfasts and excellent location. Sometimes I get overconfident in my ability to find things. I had glanced at a map online the day before and now, arriving, I was less certain that I could find my way. I wandered to the subway and remembered that I was heading for Diagonal Norte station so that was step one. I remembered it was about two blocks east of the obelisk and when I came above ground, there in front of me was the obelisk – but which way was east? So I wandered up the street that ended up being Diagonal Norte and after a few blocks turned back to the obelisk where I found Corrientes which I also recalled from my map view, so I headed down there and found myself – and my hostel – right in the heart of the theatre district. I definitely felt like I was in New York as I walked past the old buildings, theatres, and people bustling everywhere. And that, as would soon unfold, was the first sign that I would love it here.

While in Cordoba, I’d met another backpacker named Rob from England that was couchsurfing in Buenos Aires with a girl named Fatima. I chatted with him while he was there and he recommended getting in touch with her, so I did. As a result, my plan after a late Friday night dinner was to meet up at her house where she was hosting a friend’s birthday. I was supposed to show up around 11-11:30 where we could visit and drink until 2ish then head out. The next step was dinner, which I ate around 10, a pretty reasonably-priced parilla (mixed grill). The problem was, in a city like this, I hadn’t banked on liquor stores all being closed at 11 (the equivalent of, say, 7 PM back home). I hunted and hunted, asked and asked, but could find nowhere to buy a bottle of wine, rum, or anything besides beer. I retreated back to the hostel to cancel my visit because I didn’t want to show up empty handed and decided to ask one of the nice girls working at the reception for ideas. I could buy a bottle of wine from the bar for a bit more than at the store or, one of the guys visiting there said, I could buy a bottle of vodka off him that he didn’t need tonight. So he walked to his place and he got me the vodka and then walked me to the bus stop and made sure I got on the right one. The people here, for day one, have been great.

I got off the 59 bus at the right spot with the help of the driver and walked to Fatima’s, not too late considering my hassle in procuring alcohol. Her friends were also there, a bunch of ex-pats from Bolivia, Peru, and Poland; they were all friendly and fun and tolerated my bad Spanish with good humour. Then it came to be around 2 and we hopped into a cab for a club nearby and I think I got home around 5 AM. I took a few hours and by 9 AM I had had breakfast and was out the door on a photo mission. The first stop was the nearby Obelisk where I attempted some panoramas. It sits right in the middle of Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world with 14 lanes not to mention access lanes and three (THREE!) boulevards to break up the crossing. If you sprinted across you might make it all the way to the other side in one shot. Maybe. So I wanted to get a shot that showed how wide the avenue was as well as the obelisk and the road wrapping around it. The answer was up and I surveyed the neighbourhood before walking casually into Hotel Colon and going to the top floor. There was a guy working on sound for their banquet room up there and he tried his best to help me find a way but there were only dirty windows to shoot through. I went down a floor and asked one of the women working there if I could get a view through one of the rooms and they quite happily obliged. A very nice courtesy of them and I have them to thank for the photo on the left.

I walked up the North Diagonal which connects the Obelisk with La Casa Rosada, effectively Argentina’s White House. It’s situated in Plaza de Mayo on, you guessed it, Avenida de Mayo, which connects it with Congress. The design of the city was an ambitious attempt to recreate the feel of Paris’ wide avenues and connecting monuments and it worked out beautifully. I wish we could have this sort of aesthetic foresight in city planning back home but I can’t blame the mayor I suppose, when the city gets up in arms about spending an bit more to make an important overpass look like it wasn’t shipped in from the former Soviet Union. I walked back to and then down July 9th, making my way to Recoleta where an incredible cemetery as well as a weekend artisan market awaited. By the time I got there the partially cloudy sky had become overcast and I lost all those great clouds that had been forming for my obelisk photos. As the cemetery was mostly statues (and I’d seen Dan’s great photos) I thought I’d shoot black and white anyway, so it didn’t matter as much but I can’t help but think how cool those photos could’ve been on a different day and with better light. Still, they were fantastic to behold and the decadence of the cemetery makes it clear that these were not the ordinary-Joses of Argentina. Presidents, governors, celebrities, and important people of means have all found their final rest here. I, however, had no time for ANY rest there as it had started to rain and it was 12 blocks to the subway station. So I left and walked quickly up the road and headed back to the hostel.

I was hoping to have SOMEthing to do that night but Fatima was busy and Laura (the Dutch girl I met in Cordoba) hadn’t been back on Facebook since messaging me to say she was also in Buenos Aires. I also didn’t really know anybody at the hostel aside from casually meeting two Arab Israelis and their two Kiwi friends who were nowhere to be seen. So I did nothing on Saturday night which was OK given how tired I was and that Friday was great. Well, I did plan to go to get a nice steak somewhere and again didn’t take a map with me. This time I walked within a block of it several times but never passed it and settled for plan B which looked busy and pretty bumping not to mention the menu was pretty reasonable. There were so many signs I should’ve got up and left but I’d searched a long time in the rain and was hungry. First, the busyness of the place was almost ALL tourists. I was seated behind some US pilots griping about co-pilots they’d worked with, for example. Then, when they brought the bread and olives I said I didn’t need it (they bring it unasked and then charge “cover”) at which point I was told I would pay cover whether I ate it or not. This was after he’d already opened my bottle of wine, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to be spending any money. Or like I could leave. Then when I ordered my steak he asked what I’d like with it. What does it come with? Nothing. Fries or anything like that are extra. So the price wasn’t so reasonable either. I bit the bullet and hoped the steak would be good. It wasn’t. It was tough as nails and lacking flavour much like the bottle of Norton Malbec that I’d chosen, and it turned out to be MORE expensive than the good steakhouse I’d wanted to go to when all was said and done. Ah well, it filled me up at least. I don’t know why I tipped, especially when he tried to get rid me to leave (in spite of plenty of open tables) while I sipped my wine and read a bit. The restaurant, by the way, was La Estancia.

The next day I had only one sure plan: to watch the Argentina-Mexico match. My morning was spent doing nothing in particular, just walking around looking at things and people. I went back to the hostel to study my Spanish book a bit but ended up sitting next to a Brazilian girl named Pricila that also wanted to watch the game. Argentina and Brazil are bitter rivals so she wanted to cheer on Mexico at a Brazilian bar but I managed to convince her to come with me to Futbol Park where a large screen was put up in the park and it was filled with cheering Argentines. She was to be disappointed as Argentina scored first an offside goal and then two more following it. Mexico scored one retaliatory goal before the end and then, more than any game I’ve seen before, the city went off. They are getting increasingly crazy with each win and after sharing a pizza and helping her load her luggage into a cab I grabbed my camera (why, oh why, didn’t I bring it to the park??) and went to just one of the squares filled with singing, honking, clapping, and stomping fans. A few photos here and there and then back to the hostel where a salsa band was already starting. I sat with one of the Israeli girls and visited for a bit then chatted with an actual girl (as in, not woman – she was 14) who I felt quite sorry for as she sat there watching her mom dance. She had an interesting story.

The next day I took off for La Boca, once again with too cursory a glance at the map but I made it there. La Boca is a really charming little district of colourful old buildings, tango in the streets, restaurants, art gallerys, painters, and so on. I’d been wanting to go to a Tango show as this is where it all started (there is some dispute on this to be fair) but they’re generally pretty pricey for backpacker budgets. Some of the restaurants were doing tango shows for free and I found one that also had reasonably-priced food (and the steak does come with fries?) and decided this was the way to do it. My steak was far better than at La Estancia, it cost almost half when all was said and done (though I had a glass of beer instead of a bottle of wine) and I got a tango show which was great. I don’t know but I think it must all be rehearsed: I don’t think you could pull off the dances they were doing without knowing what was about to happen. Or at least I couldn’t. I got up and tried a few moves with one of the dancers after lunch and headed back north through old San Telmo, Montserrat, and then hopped on the old wood-panelled subway to the congress building on the opposite end of the avenue. It was beautiful and I had a nice late afternoon sun making it glow. Then I walked back to the hostel and visited with a Colombian girl (from Cali) that sat next to me and we went to see Prince of Persia together instead of drinking too much. We should have drank. It wasn’t that bad really (especially if you remember the old game) but you could definitely wait for it to come on DVD and rent it.

I had one free night of accommodation after staying 4 nights and plans to hang out with the Colombian girl and her Serbian friends but I got a message from Dan, Leanne, and Janet across the river in Uruguay that if I wanted to see them I had to get there today. I was reluctant to throw away my free night and breakfast for the fifth day but I didn’t have much left to do in Buenos Aires and did want to catch up with them once more so I packed up, apologized to my new friends, and checked out. I laughed when the receptionist asked if I had a reason for checking out an hour late and told her I was actually checking out 23 hours early. I decided to head to Tigre, which is supposed to be a quaint suburb of Buenos Aires and from there take the ferry across to Carmelo, weaving through the river delta in what Lonely Planet calls “the most interesting and cheapest way to cross to Uruguay”. From Carmelo, itself a nice Riviera Plata town, I should be able to catch a bus and head down to Colonia where the gang would be waiting. So I and my backpacks headed for the Retiro train station, where I dodged people heading in all directions and discovered the true source of the tango. The train to Tigre cost about 30 cents and I was quite happy to get on board and watch Buenos Aires zip by out the window.

Buenos Aires Photos

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