Saturday, November 6, 2010

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We arrived in Buenos Aires on November 2nd, thankfully.  We have found South American airlines can be a bit unreliable.  Slightly buzzed after a night of dinner and wine (wine is really good and way too affordable here) we arrived back at our makeshift lodge to find out our flight to Buenos Aires had been moved to that evening.  This would have killed our first day in Buenos Aires and since our departing flight had already been moved up by twelve hours, our time in Buenos Aires was shrinking rather quickly.  We woke up and after a small piece of bread for breakfast, decided to head to the airport to see if we could catch the earlier flight out.  Of course our taxi failed to show so the nice Frenchman who ran our hotel agreed to run us to the airport.   There were no seatbelts, so we held on to the "holy shit bars" and prayed we would make it in once piece.  Thanks to Jaime, we made an earlier flight and extended our time here by about a day.

Welcome to Buenos Aires.  Thank god Christina is good with directions!

Arriving in Buenos Aires, we hailed a taxi to take us to the San Telmo neighborhood.  Having spent the past five years in Chicago, I'm all too familiar with bad driving and hell bent taxi drivers.  Let me tell you that Chicago taxi drivers have nothing on the taxi drivers in Buenos Aires.  This was quickly apparent when I saw our driver's car was equipped with a racing steering wheel wrapped in the same material I use to wrap to my raquetball racket.  Christina and I traded glances as we rubbed bumpers with other cars.   In Grand Prix style, we made it to our destination and stumbled out of the race car and onto the cobblestone streets of San Telmo.  The San Telmo barrio (or neighborhood) is the former residence of Buenos Aires' elite.  The neighborhood is composed of beautiful but aging European style mansions, abandoned when disease stuck more than a century and the immigrants moved in.  It has since then become a hub of artists, hippie fairs, antique shops and markets galore.  We were a bit weary after hearing from some fellow travel mates attending a semester college abroad here that San Telmo was dangerous. But, after living in Chicago and having spent the previous week in Rio, San Telmo seemed like Disney Land.

Typical of San Telmo.  Old, slightly banged up, but beautiful and full of character.

Coming from Puerto Iguazu, where life moves at a snail's pace, Buenos Aires took time to adjust to.   Buenos Aires is a sprawling city of various cultures and classes, with 13 million people packed into its quarters.  Like most big cities, Buenos Aires comes with some baggage, but the difference in culture seems to put these problems under a microscope if you're an outsider.  With some of the widest roads in the entire world, traffic here more closely resembles a school of swarming fish, jockeying for position with no where to go.  Graffiti marks nearly every building and even the most sacred of historical city monuments are not without some political epitaphs scrawled on the side.  Imagine graffiti on the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial and you'll get a more accurate picture of the graffiti  problem here.  Sidewalks are strewn with trash in some places and Buenos Aires is notorious for the dog shit that lines its streets.  Strolling down the sidewalk can at times feel like a never ending game of hop-scotch.  Air quality is also not great here, as buses spew streams of exhaust upon accelerating and even twleve year old kids walking to school can be seen smoking, like most other Argentines.  Each city comes with good and bad and this is certainly the bad part of Buenos Aires.  But, like Chicago, the city that although I loved I also loved to hate, Buenos Aires has an amazing culture that is completely unique.

We spent our first day in Buenos Aires walking the city aimlessly, trying to get a bearing on the place.  At night, we accidentally stumbled upon Florida Street (which was on our list of things to do) and decided to sieze the opportunity to explore one of BA's most touted attractions.  Florida Steet is less of a street and more of a tiled "go-between" situated inbetween buildings.   It is lined with thousands of vendors showcasing their product on tattered blankets spaced about three feet from each other, spanning for what has to be at least a mile or two.  All vendors were not created equal.  Many sell intricate and completely unique hand crafted jewelry.  If you stand near their blanket long enough, you can watch as they sit indian-style, sip their mate (An Argentine herbal-style tea pronounced like latte) and create these works of art before your very eyes. Hand crafted leather is also big and if you knew anything about the Argentine obsession with beef, you would quickly understand.  Other vendors sell bizzzare odds and ends: little mechanical dogs that walk in circles or play the drums, knock off lingerie, sunglasses and everything else that you could possibly knock off, even old American vinyl records.  After stumblinng around Florida street for a few hours, we grabbed a cheap but amazing bottle of wine and decided to head back and watch the city from our balcony.  Two glasses into the delicious Malbec,  travel fatigue quickly set in and we resigned ourself to the fact that we would not be heading out but instead catching up on some much needed rest.

Like most historical monuments in Buenos Aires, full of grafiti and political dissent.

The following day is was unusually hot in BA for Spring.  Noting that we had not seen a single person wearing shorts, Christina and I tried to blend in (if that was possible) her wearing jeans and myself pants as we ventured out to explore our new city.   The decision to wear pants would nearly lead to a melt down later, after six hours of walking crowded streets with little food.  Although at times we appeared to wander aimlessly, Christina always managed to find our destinations as we visited La Casa Rosada (Argentine version of the White House, but pink where Evita would make speeches from the balcony), the city's towering obelisk monument, the famous Teatro Colon theatre and the Recoletta cemetery.  Recoletta cemetery was certainly a memorable expereince, it is no wonder it's a huge tourist attraction in Buenos Aires.  Like a small city for the dead, Recoletta's streets are lined with ornate and often ancient mausoleums housing entire families in structures chizzled out of marble and granite, often with multiple floors.  Dignitaries, Presidents and the social elite are buried here in mausoleums so large and expansive that many resemble small houses complete with interiors and chairs that allow the family access to pay thier respects.  We walked the cemetery for over an hour, the resident cats criss-crossing in front and behind us, before finally calling it quits after too much walking and too much sun.  We both struggled to find a place serving empanadas before we used the last bit of our energy and collapsed in a cab after six hours of walking on a very hot day.

In La Boca, the working class neighborhood on Camanito Calle
One of the cats, one of the mausoleums.
It keeps going and going and going...
Inside of a mauseloum.

Recoletta Cemetery
After recooperating, we headed out to catch some dinner at Des Nivel, a Parilla recommended by our Argentine hostel mate we met in Rio.  Dinner in Argentina doesn't even begin until 10:30 p.m.  Head out any earlier than that and prepare yourself to sit in a restaurant alone, where the oven hasn't even been turned on yet.  Argentina is a society drunk on beef.   My cholesterol has taken a beating since being here, as I have subsided on nothing but steak, red wine and empanadas.  I'm not complaining as anyone who knows me knows my obsession with meat. But after nearly a week without a single vegetable a carrot sounds pretty good right now and I think my colon would agree.  The streets here are lined with Parillas, the Argentine version of a steak house.  My favorite cut so far is the Bife De Chroizo, also one of the most popular.  It's rib cut, where they have removed the ribs and grilled it like all of their stakes, over a huge wood fire.  Because of the cut and the fire, it screams with flavor.  Take one bit of this puppy and your tastebuds will  send you to a la-la land located smack dab in the middle of beef heaven.  After experiencing Bife De Chorizo, Fliet Mignon will seem like scrap meat to toss to Fido.  The best part of a steak dinner here is the bill, or la cuenta, or as I had been calling it for the past few days: La Chequeta (which actually means jacket.  My spanish is rusty, I did not realize how rusty.)  If you want to spend more than $30 U.S. on a dinner you'll have to try real hard: two steaks and an amazing bottle of wine will set you back about $20 because the exchange rate here it 4:1.  During the day time, you have at your fingertips any number of tasty meat concoctions to choose from.  The empanadas here are amazing, it's like an Argentine hot pocket made to be moblile.  They are typically stuffed with beef, ham and cheese, or roquefort cheese, though the quality and preparation vary from vendor to vendor.  My personal favorite is the Choripon Sandwhich.  To make a choripon, they split a chorizo sausage, throw it in the flat top with some crusty bread to crisp up and smother it with chimichurri sauce.  It goes for about $1 U.S. and will leave you dreaming of flying sausages when you go to bed later that night.

La Casa Rosada. Evita delivered many speeches from here.

 Sausages hanging to dry in the antiques market in San Telmo.

We spent yesterday touring the antique market here in San Telmo before heading to the Ecological Reserve.  San Telmo is known as an antiques hub and it certainly lived up to it's reputation.  One of the markets here is housed inside a giant warehouse-like structure.  There are vendors galore, selling everything you can imagine.  Christina perused the aisles with wide eyes as I peeled off to more closely examine the butchers and the sausages they were curing and drying.  It was a relaxing day, nothing blog worthy, but later that night would be quite the opposite.

Later that night we met up with Maria, one my best friend's little sister who has been living in BA for the past two years working as a painter and teaching English on the side.  Her parents were also in town, so we siezed the opportunity to meet up with some familiar faces and enjoy both hanging out with a local and abandoning my broken Spanish for a while.  We met them at Torquato Tasso, a local (not tourist) tango spot that also hosts a variety of musical acts.  We ordered two bottles of Malbec and some meat and cheese trays as we were serenaded by a quartet of amazing musicians playing the classical guitar in beautiful syncopated rhythm.  It was amazing.  After the guitar act came a satire musical ensemble in leiu of where we thought the tango would be.  After an hour of listening to satire/faux comedy in Spanish, we realized that we had come on the wrong night and decided to venture out around mindnight to find another tango spot.  After another hair raising taxi ride, we arrived at Nino Bien, a famous tango spot that has apparently been written about in a number of novels.  As we worked our way up the winding marble staircase it was quickly apparent that I did not fit.  We had walked into a completely legit tango joint not like the expensive ones put on to the draw the tourist dollars.  Women were wearing high heals, beautiful form fitting dresses with thier hair and nails manicured accordingly and men were wearing suits with ascots and well polished shoes.  I on the other hand, was wearing a pair of jeans that had not been washed in nine days, burkenstocks, and a plaid shirt that had the thickness of a grease stained napkin.  Christina, on the other hand, looked beautiful as always.  We walked into a ballroom where about 200 well dressed men and women sat at tables with white table cloths.  We were, without question, the only gringos in the joint.  I was feeling a bit uneasy as we were catching quite a few eyes from the locals.  They must have thought we were neanderthals.  But, after all, this is the type of experience I had wanted.  Something real, not something manufactured for tourist dollars.  After settling in at a table with some more wine, the curtains as if on cue were lifted and the small orchestra ensemble began to pluck strings to create what would soon become a familiar tango sound.  In what seemed like complete unison, people of all shapes and sizes and age flooded the dance floor and began to dance Tango.  Tango is a peculiar dance, rehearsed and yet completely spontaneous.  Hands clasped in the air, women close their eyes and hang on to their men as they glide gracefully across the dance floor, reacting to both eachother and the syncopation of the music.  It's a beautiful thing to watch, especially when done well.  At one point, the floor cleared and a man old enough to be my grandpa appeared with a beautiful young woman with jet black hair and a purple dress that appeared to be painted on.  Timing their first step with the first pluck of the violin, the couple made their way across the sprawling dance floor and back, without seemingly having even touched their feet to the ground.  It was grace and a spectacle to be seen.  Even more amazing was that the man looked like he should be hobbling around with a walker, not a beautiful vixen.  The dance ended and the crowd applauded.  Although we suffered through quite a few stares, enough to make anyone uncomfortable, we were grateful to have experienced a traditional  milonga.  At 3a.m. we called it a night.  Some video below.

Just arrived safely in Ushuaia, Argentina moments ago.  It's the southern most city in the world.  Unfortunantly, had to get up at 2:30 a.m. to catch our flight.  Looking forward to some clean air and some adventures outdoor. It's Christina's birthday, what a better place to spend it than at the end of the world.  Also, I apologize for spelling errors.  After five years in the corporate world with automatic spell check, it's hard to get used to using your brain again.  Thank for tuning it.  The next two weeks will be spent up and down Patagonia, but at the moment we have little planned.



  1. Dude, seriously, quit this shit. It almost makes me get off my fat ass, but for being a greater version of myself and noone wants that. I love the gringo stares at the Tango place. Excellent stuff my friend. I have a question to ask your companion... would you be willing to write? Not that I don't like Clay's writing, indeed, just the opposite. But I feel like you are the character in the story that comes on heavy in the end to rescue the trip. If that is coming, I want to know more now. :)

  2. Nice post Clay. I can totally relate to many things, including the good and bad of towns (any city in southern Italy), the clothes that haven't been washed in months, and the spelling errors (Italian computers think nearly every word I type is mispelled). Safe travels homey... and keep the posts coming.

  3. The kind of markets you can find in San Telmo are definitely unique. Last year I had decided to rent an apartment in buenos aires right there and it proved to be very efficient. I bought this antique table that was beautiful and affordable. I loved the trip!