Buenos Aires…

6 09 2008

Buenos Dias from Cordoba, Argentina! Three weeks after I escaped the rainy shores of England for warmer climates (I´m choosing to ignore the heat wave at home!), I´ve finally found the time to sit down and catch up with everything that I´ve done!

On the 6th of September, I landed in Buenos Aires: I felt a mixture of feelings. Firstly annoyance that my earphones hadn’t worked the entire 12 hour flight so had to lip read all the movies… but mostly excitement mixed with apprehension. For those that don´t know my partner in escape for the next 6 months is my better half, Claire. However, not content with only six months travelling across South America, Claire also decided to embark on a 6 month solo trip around South East Asia and Australasia prior to flying out to meet me in South America. Never one for sending the most informative emails, all I had was an email saying “flying to BA, should land around same time as you! x”… So out I walked into arrivals, pale skinned, still trying to get used to carrying my life on my back, frantically searching the faces staring back at me for my long lost nomad of a girlfriend… luckily luck was on my side and both flights were on time and landed in the same terminal… a good start! With 6 months to catch up on, out we went into the… cold air of Buenos Aires! Ah well… we couldn’t have everything, it is early spring after all!

For the first 6 days we stayed in an apartment in Palermo, one of BA´s many districts. Whilst not as cheap as a hostel, an apartment not only affords you your own space, but always means you feel as if you´re actually living in the city, even if for only a short while. You get to swap greetings with the neighbours in the lift, shop at the local supermarket and explore at your own pace with the added benefit of home comforts at the end of the day.

The first thing that hits you from the moment you get off the plane is how few Argentineans actually speak English, particularly if they are over 30. Simply asking basic questions in the airport can be a struggle. Whilst it is manageable to get by with hand gestures and a few broken phrases, it is thoroughly worth swatting up on some brief phrases and some basic verb endings before flying out. Nothing is better for learning a language than by immersing yourself in it, and Argentina provides the opportunity to do just that, but it is so much better to have a rough foundation from which to begin. With a GCSE Spanish and a half and A Level I´ve managed to get by, but am still thinking about taking a brief course somewhere to refresh. Claire, having never studied the language has coped, but is definitely going to do a course. It is made harder by the fact that the local speak very quickly, and each Latin American country has its own nuances. It is very different in many ways from European Spanish. Courses are readily available most places through the hostels and don’t cost too much. Quite a few people we have met had been on one and couldn’t recommend it enough. To have the confidence to converse with locals and break away from the stock phrases it such a great thing to be able to do. I would love to be able to sit in a bar or on the bus and understand the conversations around me. It makes you feel even more apart of everything around you. Fingers crossed by the time we fly home, we will be semi fluent. That is the goal!

My first impressions of Buenos Aires were mixed. Whilst there was much to see, what I did see seemed to lack the grandeur and spirit that I expected of a Capital City and Argentina. Heading down the Plaza de Mayo, the main square where most of BA´s historical moments have taken place, the first thing that you see is the graffiti on the main statue and water fountains and the massive opposing black fencing that surround large portions of the square. On one side is the Casa Rosada, the governmental palace. From the building´s balcony, Evita, Maradona, Galiteri and Peron have addressed the crowds. To truly understand Buenos Aires you first need to understand its turbulent history. There is a museum at the Casa Rosada, however I would not recommend it. It is painfully neutral and not very well laid out. For an overview Argentinean history, visit one of the below sites.



The Plaza de Mayo has been bombed, filled by Evita´s descamisados and is still the site of frequent protests, notably the weekly demonstrations of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The graffiti is not mindless ´street tags´ but passionate messages and pleas. The fences and riot vans that circle the square highlight the fact that at any moment the peaceful scene could change, and serve as a reminder of the instability that still hangs over Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole. The economy whilst stronger that it has been for decades still has a way to go before it gets back anything near its former strength. Corruption is still a big problem, but the people are not apathetic, some thing which could not be said of the UK. Young and old are all aware of what is going on politically and all voice their opinions on the matter.

A few days after our arrival the sunshine finally arrived, we checked out of the apartment and into Hostel Arrabal in Montserrat. I cannot recommend this hostel enough, it hasn’t been open too long and this shows. It is so clean and spacious. It had a very homely feel and was perfect for meeting like minded people and planning what we would do once we left BA. Evenings were spent sipping a few cold bottles of Quilmes, playing pool and watching the odd DVD. (Finally saw City of God – if you haven’t seen it, make sure you do so! Very powerful and well told. I´d also recommend the book as well!) To get to hostel we decided the take the Subterraneo. Whilst nowhere near as expansive as the tube or subway, it is the cheapest and easiest method of getting around the city. Around 15p takes you the full length of the city. However there doesn’t seem to be any point where it is quiet, which is a big problem if you have a whopping back pack! Having travelled for 6 months already, whopping doesn’t even do Claire´s bag justice! The 15 minute journey to the hostel was spent with our heads down, being tutted at and pushed around the whole carriage like a pinball… don´t get me wrong Argentineans are incredibly friendly and welcoming but don’t like their subway being filled with backpacks!

Over the 10 days we were in Buenos Aires, we hopped on and off the subway and walked plenty exploring everything that the city has to offer; which is a lot! We spent hours simply wandering the streets looking at BA´s eclectic architecture. Styles range from colonial, neoclassical through to Baroque. The old is mixed with the new- as buildings fall into neglect they are replaced with newer designs, there is something that catches your eye on every street. If you wish to get away from city life, it is simple enough to do. We headed down to Palermo Park, where there is 1000 acres to explore. Here we discovered some lovely little gardens that look as if they had been taken straight from a national trust site and placed in BA. The loveliest by far was the Jardin Japones (Japanese Garden) It is one of the largest in the world outside of Japan! We spent a couple of hours simply strolling around and watching Coi carp from the bridge.

For Claire´s Birthday we decided to head to Recoleta to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Here we had read was a large collection of Picasso and even a few Monet´s. Not wanting to sound too cynical, after all I´m no art critic… however I can´t help but feel that the Gallery got the raw deal when it came to what it was offered to display. The collection as a whole was particularly sparse and what there was were a few unknown lesser paintings. Not overly worth the visit in our opinion, but good to fill an hour or so. Across the road is the Cultural Centre, this was much more my cup of tea. There are numerous galleries which are constantly rotated; when we went there was a brilliant photography exhibition by a local artist! Across the road lies the Flores- a giant metal flower, donated by Eduardo Catolo, it is definitely worth seeing. The most visted spot in Recoleta though has to be Cemetery. This is what we visited next.The site exerts a magnetic attraction to locals and foreigners alike. Not only because it is where Evita is buried, but also to see some of the more spectacular crypts and mausoleums: rows upon row they lie as testimony to the lives of their loved ones. The more money in life, the grander the tribute in death. Walking back through San Telmo, we came across another gem of a museum – the city museum of…doors! Whilst not to everyone´s appeal-the collection certainly is vast and well researched… San Telmo is a lovely area to wander around the tiny boutiques that line the street; we spent ages pouring over the antiques. There is also a great flea market on Sundays which Claire loved. We also headed to Caminito in La Boca. The famous painter Benito Quinquela Martin took up the theme of colour in his area and took over an alleyway to showcase his work. The working class locals took pride in their local artist and painted their houses in bright vibrant colours. The area is awash with paintings and colour, however sadly it is now also awash with tourists. Coaches lined the streets when we visited, and touts line the streets. This was such a shame, and its not too hard to imagine how alive the place would have been and how much better.

If you wish to do any shopping, then you only have to head to Florida Street, BA´s version of Oxford Street. We spent a few hours here trolling up and down trying to find a decent pair of hiking boots, good for shopping but soon begins to wear you down! Even more so when you are on a tight budget! We much preferred walking down Avenida de Mayo, where we found some great craft markets, teeming with locally produced and affordable goods. One thing you have to buy when you come to BA is a mate cup (a Gourd). Mate is not just a drink but a social ritual. It tastes a bit like green tea and is made by pouring hot water over hot green leaves. The gourd is passed to each person who drains it through a metal straw (a bombilla) before refilling it and passing it on. Every single argentinian owns their own gourd, and everyone seems to own a flask to go with it. Everywhere you turn; the locals are sipping away or walking past swinging their flasks.

The social life, and to a great extent the business and cultural life of Buenos Aires revolves around its Cafes or Confiterias as they are known. There are Cafés on almost every corner, and some say it rivals Paris for its Café Culture. Historically the rise of the café as an institution came from the high proportion of male immigrants who were single of their wives stayed behind. They came to the cafes to play cards and socialize. Gradually they became associated with a particular clientele. Each political, social and artistic circle laid claim to its own café. One of the most famous Cafés is Café Tortoni. It’s a historic cafe which in past times was frequented by some of the great Argentine writers and intellectuals, including Jorge Luis Borges. Claire and I enjoyed a drink here and soaked up the intellectual atmosphere. Great minds think a like and all that…

Alongside Coffee and Mate, there are two other culinary institutions that we have noticed since arriving in Argentina. Firstly is the national obsession with Dulce de Leche. Literally meaning milk sweet, it is made from milk, sugar and vanilla. It is everywhere! In ice cream, cake, biscuits, croissants. It is impossible to get a savoury breakfast – everything is sugar coated! Great for a while, especially for me as I have the biggest sweet tooth, but can get a tad tedious. Luckily the other institution is definitely not sweet! Beef is the Argentine´s pleasure and joy! Parrillas are everywhere – literally large coal grills on to which hunks of cow are dropped and cooked to perfection! For Claire´s Birthday we ended the night back in Palermo at a lovely restaurant, where we each had a steak the size of a dinner plate, a large salad, fried and the most amazing bottle of Malbec, all for the lip smacking price of 20 pounds! And thats the more expensive end of the market. To buy and cook it yourself on the hostels grill is dirt cheap! We are going to be so fat by the time we leave!

Another thing we have slowly got used to is the pace of life – whilst not overly noticeable in BA, the nights are much longer than anything at home. When we left the restaurant around midnight, tables were still being laid. The night usually begins around 11pm for drinks with Clubs not opening until around 2am. With some of the guys we met in the hostel, Marc, James, Robin and Emma; Claire and I headed out to experience BA´s night life. Having been drinking in the hostel for quite a few hours, and having at one point giving up hope of going out, it was a shock when people started getting ready at around midnight. Out we went though to a few bars, before heading to a club called Amerika which promised all you can drink for 30 pesos (around 6 pounds) The club was interesting to say the least – full of men dressed as women… was an experience! The irish guy we were with looked vaguely like Chris Martin so was great to discover the barmen was a massive coldplay fan – cue no queuing all night and ample vodka! (Thanks James!) A good night was had by all (no comment)

Two days later, the lads from the hostel and I embarked on another must see event – a Boca Junior match! Having seen packages offered by the hostel which included transport, food and a ticket for 180 pesos, we booked ourselves on. However after a bit of research we discovered you can queue on the day at 8am and get them for 20 pesos which we promptly did! We were warned to carry no cameras or wallets, as La Boca can be particularly dangerous. Sitting back in the hostel as kick off wasn’t until 5, we read up on tales from previous people who had been. Tales of chairs being thrown, stands set alight, the sky awash with bodily fluids… we were ready for whatever came our way, it was all part of the experience! Around the stadium were numerous riot vans, police weiding shotguns and water canons – the mood was tense! We were subject to numerous searches before joining the unwashed masses in the standing area! Despite numerous red cards, 2 disallowed goals (one in the dying seconds of the game) and 2 actual goals, the crowd remained civilised, much to our disappointment! Don´t get me wrong, they were passionate and plenty of chants (something about the ref being a xxx ) and I´m no hooligan, but it would have been nice to see a few fireworks or the odd chair leg! We had psyched ourselves up for it after all… alas we left the stadium with all our limbs intact and headed back for a few cold beers and post match analysis! Later than evening we were in for another treat – wandering through San Telmo after yet another steak we came across the main square, which had been decorated with fairy lights and wooden boards on the floor and all the locals were dancing the tango and numerous dances that had been passed from one generation to the next. Young and old – mothers and daughters, all drank and danced and had fun. Claire and I joined in and I attempted to tango, but I was more and happy watching the masters at work. It was mesmerising and very passionate… This concluded our time in Buenos Aires! Next stop, Uruguay – a detour from our original plan, but that´s all part of the adventure!




One response

11 10 2008
Stu Rogers

Sounds as though you’re having an amazing time mate. The history of the country sounds particularly interesting. I studied a few of the social issues last year and I’m sure its quite moving going through the turbulent historical past in BA.

As for this night out, ‘good night had by all’, what does this mean?! Or should I not enquire further…

And as for the football match, i thought you would have been the once instigating the riot! haha.

I look forward to reading about further adventures!

Love to Claire.

Stu x

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