Monday, 10 September 2012

Buenos Aires - we are porteños for 2 weeks

Under an ominous gray sky we made our way to Colonia's port to catch a ferry to Buenos Aires. A torrential downpour began shortly after we'd made it safely inside and, as the storm launched into its full fury, I found myself having flashbacks of the crossing from Pontal do Sul to Ilha do Mel. Luckily the massive ferry virtually neutralized any choppiness conjured by the storm and the clouds began to break as we neared the Argentine shoreline an hour later.

The juxtaposition between the Buenos Aires skyline and that of quaint Colonia behind us really can not be overstated. Something akin to viewing a mammoth beside a dormouse. The tranquil countryside of Uruguay quickly faded into distant memory as we surveyed the urban forest of skyscrapers and re-tuned our ears to drown out the vociferous pulse of another megalopolis; around 12 million people, a third of Argentina's total population, are concentrated in the greater metropolitan area of Buenos Aires.

We'd booked a private apartment and were really looking forward to having an entire living space to ourselves for a while. It was in the neighborhood of Boedo, away from the typical touristy areas of Palermo, Recoleta, and San Telmo. Hence, it was relatively quieter and offered a more authentic look at the day-to-day life of porteños, as the locals are called. (In case you're wondering, day-to-day life involves a lot of time spent in cafes, nursing an espresso or cortado while animatedly expressing opinions about national politics, futbol, the weather, etc.)

Gorgeous sunset colors seen from our apartment window.

View from the balcony of our small studio apartment in Boedo, Buenos Aires.
Not terribly exciting but we could see some futbol games in the covered, two-storey field house visible in the middle of this shot.

The thing we were most looking forward to was reconnecting with two particular porteñas, Sabri and Andrea, whom we'd met at the Cuyabeno River Lodge in Ecuador last February. Sabri invited us to hang out with her and her friends the evening of the day following our arrival. We awoke that morning to discover the apartment was suffering a catastrophic failure of technology; we had no internet and the land line was dead too. I charged upstairs to let the building manager know but he was already aware and, shrugging, told me the whole building was down. Someone would come fix it mas tarde ("later"). More shrugging. Fortunately, as with most South American cities, Buenos Aires has a plethora of locutorios - kiosks with phone booths and internet stations. We scampered down the block to the nearest one and were able to contact Sabri and sort out a plan to meet later in the day.

Sabri insisted on meeting us a few blocks from our apartment while it was still light out since she was worried about us walking around Boedo at night. We hadn't felt unsafe in our neighborhood and, frankly, consider ourselves rather seasoned travelers by this point, but figured we'd better heed the advice of a local. Thus, we had our little reunion at the corner of Boedo and Rivadavia while there was still plenty of light to keep any nefarious porteños at bay.

A few strolls and a bus ride later we arrived at Sabri's friends' apartment in Belgrano. Dany and her husband German (pronounced HAIR-man), had moved to Buenos Aires from Quito, Ecuador fairly recently. We quickly ascertained that they must've belonged to Quito's small proportion of upper-class citizens; Dany is a dentist and German a doctor of radiology. German was working an evening shift but Dany welcomed us into their condo, giving us a tour and proudly showing off photos of their recent wedding. The four of us made a trip to the grocery store to pick up supplies and then Sabri and I made a cheesecake together. It was fun!

Sabri's other friends trickled in over the next few hours: Susana, labor rights lawyer and self-ascribed gym addict, Augustina, colleague of Sabri's at university (they are studying archaeology - how cool is that!?), Jonatan, boyfriend of Augustina who spoke no English, a boisterous Columbian diva and physiotherapist (in that order, trust me), and Diego, boyfriend of diva and software programmer (also in that order). I might be missing someone but I think that was all that night. It was a fun group. We sat around the dining table, munching popcorn, chips and the Argentine equivalent of "pigs in a blanket," conversing in two languages (and sometimes a hybrid of both) until it was sufficiently late enough to be Argentine dinner-time (after 10pm). After a heated debate on what to order in (they call it "asking in"), we decided on empanadas. Chris and I were fighting back yawns by the time the food arrived but we gorged ourselves nonetheless.

Our dinner party - photo credit: Jonatan.

Dany, Chris, me, and Sabri.

Dinner was followed by some impromtu salsa dancing in the small living room (Chris and I were genially permitted to remain spectators) and then began the drawn out process of leaving to go out somewhere. I swear, we were vamosing for at least an hour before we actually made it out the door. By that time (after midnight) Chris and I were noticeably fading, struggling to keep our eyes open and assuming the roles of observers rather than participants in the conversation. With the exception of Dany who decided to stay in and wait for German to get off from his shift, the others were just revving up for the night. Midnight for Argentineans (native or foreign integratee) is analogous to about 10 pm for North Americans (excluding Las Vegas). Our bars close by 2 or 3 am. In Buenos Aires they close at 5 or 6 am. Sometimes later.

Chris and I decided to go out for at least a drink and soon found ourselves in an ostensibly Country & Western themed bar. There was no dance floor so we figured out pretty quickly that the group had chosen this venue for our benefit rather than their own preference. It was very nice of them as we'd actually been secretly dreading getting pulled onto the dance floor if we went out. Sabri, ever the supreme hostess, ordered an interesting cocktail of melon liqueur and an energy drink similar to Red Bull that she and I shared. The bar was packed and I got quite caught up in people-watching despite my drowsiness. Eventually Chris and I decided we'd better let our new friends get on their way to a dance club and get ourselves into bed. We'd had a great time but definitely had not yet adapted to the Argentine schedule of late-nights! Sabri, our Argentine mom (she admitted it), insisted on putting us in a radio taxi and even ordered the driver to drive cautiously before we departed. He didn't obey.

A little bit of shenanigans in the entryway to the "country" bar.

The next morning we met up with Sabri, Andrea, Dany, and German to go to Tigre, a sort of suburb of Buenos Aires that's popular with porteños seeking a chill afternoon out of main city. Augustina and Jonatan met us there as well. Although the absence of towering condos and office buildings made it apparent that we were out of the city proper, the sea of people surrounding us as we disembarked from the train immediately abolished any illusions I'd had of Tigre being a tranquil retreat from the city. Nevertheless, it was a really nice riverfront community and we enjoyed wandering the streets lined with market stalls and interesting shops.

Enjoying a parilla with our friends at Tigre.

Our first stop was at a parilla (restaurant specializing in barbecued meat). We shared a very filling spread of different cuts of beef, fries, and salad. There were also some internal organs on the grill but I didn't partake. Chris tried the kidney but I wasn't enticed by his less than stellar review. Nobody at our end of the table touched the tripe. I really don't get what's so appealing about it.... blech.

As we made our way to the waterfront, Sabri made sure we tried some traditional treats including a sweet popped corn. We sat along the bank, watching sportboats cut up the water while those in smaller, human-powered watercraft labored to maintain control in the violent waves. Then we shared maté, in the Argentine way (as far as I can tell, it really only differs from the Uruguayan practice in terms of the type of yerba and how the water is poured into the maté gourd). We hung around until the sun set and then we packed up for the return home. Another lovely day with friends.

Augustina and Jonatan.

Sharing mate at Tigre. Photo credit: Jonatan.
Sabri and I checking out the shops. Or something...
Strolling in Tigre.

Mate time. Apparently I'm telling a really good story here.

German and Dany.
Our next few days were spent taking care of some errands and dedicating time to outline a draft itinerary for our future travel in Patagonia. Our friend Tim and to-be-friend Kayla will join us there and they only have about 3 weeks so careful planning will be essential. Chris managed to get his camera serviced as Buenos Aires happened to have a Nikon service center tucked away in an obscure neighborhood (Sabri was also worried about us going there and advised us to take a taxi instead of public transportation - we didn't think it looked so sketchy but who knows; better safe than sorry). What was wrong with the camera, you ask? I know; all his photos have looked amazing so what could possibly be wrong? I guess some spots on the sensor were fouling the photos and Chris was getting mighty tired of meticulously editing them to get rid of the blemishes. So, Chris's baby was cleaned while we enjoyed lunch at an All Boys resto-bar (one of Argentina's top professional futbol clubs) and seems to be functioning properly now.

Another major task on our list was to scout out camping equipment. Our research had indicated that the availability of quality gear in South America is hit or miss and often involves hefty prices compared to buying at home. We searched the internet to identify some candidate stores and cross-referenced that list with advice from one of Sabri's friends, deciding our best bet was a chain called Montagne. It took an entire afternoon and a trip to a second Montagne location but we came away with a 2-person trekking tent, lightweight thermal sleeping bags, sleeping mats, as well as some extra layers of clothing for me. The best part was that they were having a promotion that day where all items were 25% off if you paid in cash. Score! It was still an expensive purchase but we felt good about saving so much off the regular prices.

Our new tent and sleeping bags. Happy campers. In our apartment.

Our next date with Sabri and friends was for dinner at a restaurant specializing in milanesa. Enough time had passed since our overdose on milanesa in Esteros del Ibera that we were ready to eat it again. We arrived a bit early thanks to a failed attempt to visit another camping store in the area - the sleeping mats we'd bought from Montagne turned out to be pretty pathetic so we'd decided to hunt for something better. Sabri hadn't arrived by our planned meeting time but we weren't concerned. More time went by and I caught the server eyeing my empty coffee cup, seeming to question whether we were in fact meeting a group of friends as I'd told him when we arrived. The other available tables were filling up and our mostly empty 6-seater was fast becoming prime real estate. I went for a bathroom break and returned to find Chris chatting with a random Argentine guy. Turned out he wasn't random at all - he was a friend of Sabri's that lived close to the restaurant and she had called him because she was running late and wanted him to go find us to let us know. Haha! Apparently it wasn't hard to spot the gringos in the crowd...

Sabri arrived not long afterwards along with a friend who was originally from La Paz. I think his name was Juan Carlos... We ordered drinks and a selection of gourmet milanesas to share. They looked spectacular when they arrived but I couldn't eat more than a bite. Tragically, I'd started feeling poorly earlier in the day and things escalated during the time we were waiting for Sabri and friends to arrive. I was suddenly overcome with terrible aches and shaking chills so we had to leave kind of abruptly. Sabri insisted that we take all the remaining food and waited for a taxi with us, fretting over my sudden illness like a mother.

Overnight I developed a fever and a few other symptoms that I won't go into detail about. It was awful and it wasn't gone by the next morning. I spent the entire day in bed. Chris took care of me, forcing me to eat a little something and refilling our 'camel' water bag that he'd converted into a makeshift hot water bottle. He even bought some flowers to help cheer me up. Sadly, I wasn't recovered enough to partake in the evening's activities - our friends Colin and Michelle were in town! We'd last seen them (unexpectedly) in Salta and then parted ways as we headed in opposite directions for the next month or so. As fate would have it, our itineraries lined up again with an overlap in Buenos Aires! Chris went out alone that night to meet up with them in San Telmo where they were staying. I was disappointed to miss out but was in no shape for socializing.

I was somewhat better the next morning but still suffering some lingering effects of whatever bug had got me. Chagrined at the thought of spending yet another day in bed, I mustered my strength and decided to go along with Chris to meet Sabri and her friends Veronica, Pincha (nickname), and their son Ignacio (referred to as Nacho) at La Feria Mataderos (a market). In fact, it was Pincha who approached us first, asking if we knew Sabri. Turned out she was running late again and had sent him a photo of Chris so Pincha could track us down in the crowd. Oh Sabri...

Musicians playing traditional folkloric music on a small outdoor stage at La Feria Matderos.

Veronica, "Nacho", and Pincha.

The marketplace was an explosion of Argentine culture with live music and traditional dancing in the street alongside stalls proffering a variety of handicrafts, baked goods, meats and cheeses, spices and herbs, ornamental plants, and traditional Argentinean foods like choripan (basically a chorizo hot dog) and locro (a hearty soup of corn, beans, ham, bacon, potatoes, etc). Sabri had made a traditional dessert called tarta ricotta - a pastry filled with ricotta flavored with lemon and vanilla. It was delicious. Everything was delicious! We managed to find just a few more items to send home as gifts for family. AND Sabri helped us pick out a good maté gourd and bombilla. An artisan engraved the metal casing of our gourd while we watched.

Artisan engraving our newly purchased mate gourd.
A rare photo of our usual photographer.

Another rare photo. Sabri insisted on taking a photo of us together. Turned out nice!

Sabri and Nacho horsing around in the market.

We returned home in the late afternoon and, despite some weariness on my part, met Colin and Michelle for dinner at a cafe near our apartment. It was great to see them again and catch each other up on our respective adventures (though I imagine some of that had already been covered the previous night when I was absent). We kept it to an early night, agreeing to go out "for real" once I was feeling fully back to normal.

View from a plaza in Buenos Aires.

By the next morning I felt almost 100% (I think the 2 glasses of wine I had at dinner with Col and Shel chased away the residual bug... yep, for sure) so we headed down to Puerto Madero to wander around the Rio de la Plata waterfront and admire the old warehouses that have recently been converted into posh condos and trendy restaurants; part of a massive urban renewal project over the last decade. Random fact: every street in Puerto Madero is named after a woman. We visited a museum on a retired Argentine Naval training frigate, the ARA Presidente Sarmiento, built just before the end of the 19th century. It was pretty neat but I wished more of the cabins were open to the public. I especially wanted to see the captain's quarters - looked quite spacious from the outside.

Puerto Madero.
Highrise condos in the background and warehouses converted to condos in the foreground.

Exploring the Frigate, Presidente Sarmiento.

Hmm... a bit alarming that the gun is aimed right at those new condos...

Captain Christopher.

On our way back home we stopped at another camping store and managed to find some good self-inflating mats to replace the crappy ones we'd originally bought. Now we're basically set for camping with the exception of cooking gear. The plan is to find some used gear when we get more into the areas where camping is popular. Or rent it. In the meantime we will use camping as a cheaper alternative for accommodation but still have to go out to eat if there aren't self-catering facilities.

With our time in Buenos Aires swiftly coming to an end we made plans to see Colin and Michelle one last time and have a proper night out. We chose a Palermo restaurant specializing in Armenian food for a change from the usual parillas that we'd been overindulging in. Chris and I arrived a bit early to discover a long lineup of people wrapping around the corner of the restaurant. Unsure of what was going on, we got in line while we tried to figure it out. Turned out that the restaurant was about to open and we were amongst all the people who hadn't made a reservation and therefore were queuing to ensure they got a table. So it was serendipitous that we arrived early! Colin and Michelle joined us a while later after an unfortunate detour due to miscalculating the location of the restaurant. All was well though because they arrived just as the waiter delivered several scrumptious appetizers that Chris and I had taken the liberty of ordering while we waited. Olives, feta cheese, tabouleh, and a cured meat dish similar to steak tar-tar. For our main courses Chris and I shared eggplant stuffed with seasoned meat and Colin and Michelle split a pair of lamb and veggie skewers, which they also shared with us. Everything was delicious. Oh and of course we had a few bottles of malbec.

From our dinner venue we walked a few blocks to a simple, unsigned building where we knew there was a trendy wine and whiskey bar. It was the perfect spot to relax and visit over a bottle of wine for Michelle and I (...okay mostly for me) and beer and whiskey for the boys. Not too long after we'd arrived I started feeling a bit off and more tipsy than was justified by the amount I'd had to drink - probably was still recovering from whatever sickness I'd had and should've been taking it easier on the tummy/liver. We called it a night after making plans to reconnect some day in Europe or Canada or wherever in the world we might cross paths again. What a great couple! We were so lucky to get paired with them for that tour in Bolivia and then to have the chance to see them a few more times along our journey. (Sadly we have no photos of our time with Col and Shell because it wasn't practical for Chris to bring the camera along to those outings. You'll just have to trust us that they exist and are really awesome.)

For our final day in Buenos Aires we visited the Recoleta neighborhood and spent an hour or so meandering various pathways through the incredible cemetery. It's similar to Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris though the main attractions here are political figures (eg. Eva Peron) rather than artists, philosophers, writers and musicians. Both cemeteries have a serious cat infestation (speaking of the cats... want an interesting read? Check out Waiting for Gertrude: A Graveyard Gothic by Bill Richardson). Despite the inherent melancholy of wandering through a graveyard it wasn't hard to appreciate the stoic beauty of the hundreds of marble mausoleums. A wide variety of architectural styles have been used including Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic. Truly impressive in a somber sort of way. I definitely couldn't deny my own morbid curiosity, creeping up to peer through the iron bars of a few vaults and imagining the slowly decaying corpses only a few feet away in the wooden caskets. A very pleasant way to spend the afternoon!

Recoleta cemetery.

We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling down Avenida 9 de Julio, one of the widest streets in the world. There are up to seven lanes in each direction and then there are parallel two-lane streets flanking the main avenue on both sides. It reminded me of Paris's Champs-Élysées, although I'd have to say its far less grand. We walked all the way to the congressional buildings and watched some protesters belt out their malcontent to the boom of large drums, doing their damndest to drown out the already raucous sound of Buenos Aires's rush hour.

Congress Building of Argentina.
For our final night in the city we met up with Sabri, Andrea, Veronica, Pincha, Nacho, and Susana for a fabulous parilla. I cannot say enough about how wonderful a hostess Sabri was for our entire time in Buenos Aires. She really welcomed us into her circle of friends and showed us more of Argentine culture than we ever would've experienced without her invitations and great recommendations. We hope that someday she'll visit Canada so we can attempt to return the generosity! 

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