Monday, March 24, 2008

The South American Experience: Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires: Dead Animals, Lively Culture

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

After sailing for a few hours, the ferry dropped its passengers in Buenos Aires. Matt and I agreed to pay 50 pesos for a taxi to our hotel, altough we were both sure it was an overcharge. I considered it a "too lazy to learn Spanish" fee, as our driver didn't speak a word of English; he had to work through the cabbie interpreter, a sunglassed smooth-talker that could have played a Miami Vice villan. As we rode to our destination, the cabbie introduced himself, and asked our names.

"Montevideo," I replied. Eventually, I caught on and told him our names. He pointed out the presidential palace and a hot chick before dropping us at our hotel, the TRYP Buenos Aires. As I unpacked, Matt opened the blinds to check out the view from our 8th floor room.

Despite the view, the room was even better than the one we had in Montevideo, with all the expected amenities plus an LCD television mounted to the wall. It was very warm, however, as a room key was required to power the air conditioner, so we left one key behind to cool things down as we left to explore the neighborhood.

The pedestrian avenues of downtown Buenos Aires were the most crowded streets I've ever walked. Matt, the more seasoned traveller whose opinion carries much more weight than mine, said that it was as crowded as China, "But in China you could see over everyone, so it was easier to get around." With all of my efforts focused on avoiding collisions with shoppers, rush-hour commuters, and street performers, I only got an idea of the stores that composed the city center. I was in awe of the girls that easily navigated their way through human and automobile traffic, phone in hand, activating push-to-talk or composing a text message. Busy, open shops, crowded streets, people working -- the contrast to Montevideo could not have been sharper.

We retreated from the masses to shower and change clothes, then returned to the city streets, now less crowded but still very lively. The guidebook suggested a restaurant on San Martin Plaza, but after an exhaustive search we reluctantly concluded the book was either out of date, full of shit, or some combination of the two. I stopped into a pharmacy to purchase more benadryl. Then, after wandering around for about an hour, settled on a nice but unimpressive-looking corner restaurant with Warsteiner umbrellas above its patio tables.

My old boss had grown up in Buenos Aires. Before travelling, I asked her if she had any advice. The exchange went exactly like this:
dn: I leave for South America on February 2. If you have any suggestions other than "try not to get your wallet stolen", I would love to hear them.

old boss: I don't really have any suggestions. I haven't been there in decades! Remember Argentina has the highest rates of HUS in the world, so avoid raw ground beef. You'll be eating dinner really late (past 9PM), so don't miss tea time. Eat alfajores. Don't tip too much. You'll have to tell me all about it when you get back!

dn: Eat cookies? That's some good advice. And I was going to avoid eating raw
ground beef even before you filled me in on that HUS tidbit...

old boss: Alfajores are not just cookies!!!!! they are delicious biscuits filled with dulce de leche and often covered in chocolate, although there are some varieties that are not covered in choc. There are some alfajores that are served at tea time that have cornmeal biscuits, filled with dulce de leche and rolled in shredded coconut, and there are others with a super thin flour just have to have some!
So, after a few Warsteiners, my trout, and Matt's haddock, the bill came.

"Matt, don't tip very much."
"Oh, Matt," I chuckled. "I have done the research. The only piece of advice a former BA resident cared to impart upon me was not to overtip. This is the way things are done in this part of the world."

He left less than 10%, and we proceeded to exit the patio.

"SIR!! Service is NOT INCLUDED in the bill!" our South African waiter shouted, running ten yards to present us with the proof.

"Oh, uh... Here you go," Matt said as he handed over more pesos.

In my old boss' defense, I had some alfajores at the next morning's free hotel breakfast. They truly were delicious. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back at the hotel, we discussed how an American waiter would have handled his small tip: with a few under-the-breath curse words and bitter resignation. "Here's to bottling up your true feelings inside, American-style!" we didn't actually say as we enjoyed the one of the two Cabernet bottles Matt ordered from room service. Da Ali G Show reruns were on, in english. The Queen's English, no less. I wasn't itchy anymore. I slept great.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The day began with a great breakfast buffet, and continued with a lot of walking. We saw San Martin Plaza (in the daylight this time), and crossed the 12-lane Libertador Avenue to see the Torre de las Inglesas, well-graffitied but seemingly on the rebound. Pushing east along the busy street, we came to a monument honoring Carlos Maria de Alvear, a war hero of some type, which was among many statues in a park near the fine arts museum.

After taking a walk around the very impressive (Just while typing, I learned that its metallic petals open and close based on the incidence of solar rays-- holy shit!!) but strangely isolated Floralis Generica, we explored Recolta Cemetery -- there was a black cat hanging out inside, but we tried not to take it as an omen. Recolta was an impressive cemetery, full Argentina's deceased political and military greats. The tombs' excessive ornamentation reminded me of what Royal Tenenbaum's marker would have looked like if he had access to unlimited funds.

"I think that pigeon over there just died," Matt remarked as we looked for a place to eat lunch. Again, we tried not to take it as an omen.

We found a promising restaurant at Buenos Aires Design, a high-end mall. The restaurant's menu was heavy on pastas. "Remember," I told my companion, "Argentina is heavily influenced by Italian culture, since it was flooded with immigrants during the World War II, so there's no shame in eating Italian food during our stay here. Thanks, Mussolini!"

"I'm pretty sure you're the only person who's ever said 'Thanks, Mussolini!'."

Soon, the waitress delivered my lasagna and Matt's dish, salmon pasta garnished with a heap of fresh herbs. Matt pulled them off his dish, due to the tiny caterpillar wiggling among the herb pile.

"I know I can't really read the Spanish menu, but I'm pretty sure there wasn't caterpillar on it," he said, and we proceeded to enjoy our meal, make the long walk back to the hotel, and rest.

In the cooler air of sunset, we headed toward the Obelisk of Buenos Aires, located in the center of the incredibly wide and busy July 9th Avenue. As usual, most of the available bench and grass space was occupied by citizenry -- no doubt taking refuge from their stuffy, non-air-conditioned living spaces. We didn't venture far beyond July 9th Avenue; the neighborhood became grittier as we walked. A mother herded several children along from one garbage can to another, the family working together to collect plastic bottles and other useful trash. It would have been more poignant had Matt and I not been such great fans of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia", watching a hilarious garbage-themed episode on the flight down (see season 3: "The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby), plus an additional episode that inspired us to bring the term "Streetrat" into our everyday vocabulary.

Matt and I elected to retreat and dine in view of the Washington Monument ripoff, on the patio of Cafe Stranger. Despite the name, we were confident our dinner would not lead to an existential crisis.

Aside from the need for Matt to exchange a frozen bottle of beer for a drinkable one, our time at the cafe was delightful, passing the time watching the many young couples make out like their plane was going down. I was fixated on the process a young man might go through for this kind of success. "Oh, gee, it's really hot in my parent's apartment -- let's go to the park and find a bench," or "Hey, do you maybe want to go to the park? Why? Oh, no reason. We can just sit on a bench and see what happens." And what happens when no bench space is available? Do you walk a few blocks to the next park? American teens: be thankful for your cars, your private little mobile apartments.

A boy approached. Wordlessly, he placed a pair of dress socks on the corner of our table, and on the surrounding tables. A few minutes later, he returned to each table, collected his products, and moved on. The exact cycle was again completed 30 minutes later by another boy, who failed to entice diners with a pen, even though the pen featured a LED light.

A stunning twentysomething sat herself directly in Matt's line of vision and drove him mad with lust.

"Look at the way she chews her sandwich," he whispered. I looked. It was obscenely worthwhile.

"Here. Act like you're taking a picture of me, but zoom in on her," I said.

With the second bottle of room service wine waiting back at the hotel, Matt and I dodged pedestrian traffic down Corrientes Avenue. At every intersection, men would implore us to consider exotic entertainment: "Showgirl?". Flyers in their hands, arms extended, the men received no response and each made last-ditch attempts to entice: "Showboy?".

Thursday, February 7

The breakfast buffet included chorizo and cheesecake: nice.

Our plan was to tour Casa Rosada (the presidential palace), but upon arriving, we couldn't discern if tourists were allowed inside. The neighboring Plaza de Mayo seemed worn, graffitied; it was full of people that seemed to have no agenda. Matt and I walked several more blocks to Puerto Madero, the rejuvinated old port district. I saw a dead fish floating in the water; beyond it loomed the Puente de la Mujer.

"I read that they designed that footbridge to resemble a woman doing the tango."

"Man, they really fucked that up," Matt said. "It's like he waited until the night before it was due to design it."

Despite the low level of late-morning pedestrian traffic, many small parillada kiosks were open and grilling. There was enough grilled meat for a state fair, sitting, sizzling, waiting for a customer, the smell wafting our way every 30 yards or so, different shop, same meat.

We took a break in a shaded park near a wetland conserve, near four children that played volleyball without a net. Walking past an unoperational fountain littered with plastic bottles (I told Matt the statue commemorated the first time Eva Peron took a dump in a clamshell), we went back to the Plaza de Mayo via the San Telmo neighborhood. San Telmo was where the tango was born; accordingly, we saw one couple performing the dance for the benefit of a cafe's patrons. We also saw a dead rat on the sidewalk, completing the Buenos Aires Small Animal Death Trifecta.

One hot subway ride later, we emerged in the Palermo neighborhood, and walked through the Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden, and the Plaza de Italia. An enterprising local used a long stick to sell cheap drinks to those on the more expensive side of the zoo's iron fence.

Matt noticed a busy downtown parillada -- well, it was hard to miss, given the storefront display.

We ordered a special dinner for two and a bottle of malbec. The waiter brought us some breadrolls.

"If I'm right about what I think is coming, I'm only eating one roll," Matt said. He asked me how our first empanadas of the trip tasted.

"It's like a really good sloppy joe," I replied.

We then plunged into a pile of meat, most of which we were able to identify. We tried a bit of everything -- intestine, liver, and what might have been kidney included among it.

"I think I'm going into a meat coma," I slurred as I gave up on the final leftover scraps of chicken.


*There's a lot to see. Budget at least 3 days if you want to see the city center and the outlying neighborhoods.

*The TRYP Buenos Aires Hotel has a killer free breakfast and good internet access.

*Expect to be non-threateningly solicited. If someone tries to give you something, resist the natural urge to take it in your hands. Remember when you walked past the Mormons on campus that were trying to hand out complimentary pocket-sized Book of Mormon? And you just smiled and kept your hands to the side? Do that. If you can't resist, remember: the item you're holding was probably fished out of the garbage. After you return the item to the seller, wash your hands.

*Tip 10% or so.

*If you can't comprehend which elevator button to push, go with "L".

*Don't publicly insult Che Guevara.

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