Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Argentina - fun stuff

After seven months of nonstop action we decided that we needed to slow it down a bit because we were becoming slightly travel worn. The effects of having to lug around a 60+ pound bag everywhere, get in a taxi or a bus every single day, find a place to sleep every 4 or 5 days usually on an uncomfortable mattress or in a tent with no mattress and quickly learn how to navigate every new place only to find out that you have to pack your bag and get on another very long bus ride right about when you figure the place out and do it all over again was starting to take its toll on us. So we decided that it was time to get an apartment and just have a normal life for a while and let our batteries recharge. What better place to do this than the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, Argentina? Again, nothing comes to mind. Now you might think that this would be an expensive endeavor but it was quite the opposite. Believe it or not, Katie found out through her many hours of research (thanks babe!) that it would cost us the same to rent a fully furnished apartment in BA for a month, as it would cost to stay in a hostel every night. I kid you not! So, what was the catch you ask? Very simple. We would have to pick one in the old neighborhood of San Telmo (old town if you will) which was the older, quieter part of the city and not in the newer more posh areas where most of the action was. What? Are you kidding me? Who the @%@$^!$#@% cares if you aren’t living in poshville when it is only a quick 15 or 20 minute subway ride away. Of course we will take it, this is friggin’ Buenos Aires baby! So we signed a 30-day lease and immediately celebrated our newly found status. It felt so good to have a place we could call our own for a while after so many months of being nomads.

After settling in we acquainted ourselves with our new home. We had a kitchen with a “real stove and fridge”, a bed with a “real mattress”, a room with a “real view”, our very own bathroom with a “real showerhead” and hot water on demand, and a living room with our very own “real couch and TV”. It was such a welcome change of pace. Did we die and go to heaven? No, not quite but that sure is what it felt like. As a bonus the rooftop had a sundeck equipped with an outdoor shower, bbq pit and attached to it was our very own private breakfast room for tenants only! Can you say, VIP? And to think had we booked a hostel we would have none of these amenities or the additional privacy. Nice find Katie!

So now we had this posh pad for four weeks and absolutely nothing planned but Rest & Relaxation. The first thing we did was to set out and get to know the huge city that we would be spending the next four weeks in. So off we went to acquire a map of the city as well as the metro(subway) system. We soon learned that we were only a two blocks away from the main subway entrance for our neighborhood. Perfect! Quick geography lesson: Buenos Aires is broken out into what they call “barrios” and “comunas”. For those who don’t speak Spanish, Barrio stands for neighborhood and comuna stands for commune. There are 48 barrios and 15 comunas in Buenos Aires with just over three million inhabitants in the city area. It is a huge city with tons of sights to see and things to do. The locals who inhabit this grand city are affectionately called “portenos” which means people from the port because it lies on the southern banks of the largest river in the world (Rio de la Plata) and served as the largest port city in South America in early colonial days because the river is so huge and extends all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. I have my own affectionate name for these people that I came up with now that I know them very well. They can only be best described in our language as “vampires”. I will explain later.

Before I go any further I have some advice for all you wanderlust people out there. Do not come to visit Argentina (or all of South America for that matter) unless you speak some Spanish or are traveling with someone who does speak Spanish at a conversational level. Two reasons for this: 1) This is a “Spanish only” speaking country and you will struggle if you do not have a guide or someone with you who can yak in Spanish and 2) more importantly, you will only get about half as much pleasure, satisfaction and meaningful encounters during your visit if you cannot communicate in their language. Being able to speak their language will serve to elevate your experiences to the highest level. It’s just that simple. In addition, they do not like it and will be offended if you do not speak their language while visiting their country. They expect you to know how to communicate in Spanish in every situation you put yourself in whether it be to buy a gallon of milk or by a subway ticket or order food at a restaurant. Everything is in Spanish! They are very proud of their language and who they are and deservedly so. We are no different or any less demanding in our country. We expect and force everyone who comes to our country to speak English and anyone who does not we frown on them. Well let me just tell you that we are not immune to our own iniquities. So armed with all this information, both Katie and I were looking forward to being able to brush up on our Spanish and explore a new world. It was another very welcome change of pace for us both.

The name Buenos Aires stands for “fair winds” in Spanish. It is a very uber cool city. It has everything! It is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of South America”. This was not always the case. To try and make a long story short and avoid too much detail (I will elaborate when I post the history and overview for our last leg of our trip for those of you who care to read about it – whenever that is) Argentina went through a financial crisis/meltdown that eventually led to the economic collapse of the entire country that started in the early 90’s and finally ended in 2002. There were many factors that caused this. In a nutshell, due to an extended run of corrupt government leaders and banks committing massive tax evasion and money laundering schemes during this time and the genius of the IMF to continue to lend and postpone payments that Argentina owed to other countries it was borrowing from while this was all going on led to the eventual collapse of their currency in 2002. This all led to massive bankruptcies and an unemployment rate that reached 25%. The downward skid toward an economic black hole was finally stabilized at the end of 2003 and the road to recovery began. Today they are still in a recovery phase but have made giant strides in the right direction. Tourism has quadrupled in the last few years and there is no better time than now to visit Argentina because since they have been forced to devalue their currency, everything you do and buy there is at bargain basement blue light special prices. This won’t last for long as they are speeding very fast back to the price levels they were at before they got in trouble. What does all this mean? It means that Katie and I had the good fortune of visiting Argentina at the best possible time EVER! Just to give you an example, the equivalent of a $60 to $80 bottle of the best red wine in America will only cost you $15 to $20 today in Argentina. Or how ‘bout this one, a $35 -$45 absolute best cut of fillet minon steak in the best five star restaurant anywhere in the US will only put you back $8 -$12 in Argentina. The list goes on an on……

We decided that since we would be in Buenos Aires for quite a long time that we needed some sort of structure. So we signed up for some Tango lessons and cooking classes. Argentina is the birthplace of Tango. I have decided that Tango is the hardest dance to learn in the entire world. Here’s why: It is not because the steps are overly complicated or that the flips are too hard to understand. It’s not like country two-stepping or west coast swing where both the man and woman have to learn a programmed step sequence. Tango is much, much more than that. There is no sequence of steps to follow per se. It is a dance that is totally based on feeling. Basically, the man leads the woman into whatever sequence of a million possible dance steps that he wants to. The woman has to anticipate what the man wants to do. This is the hardest thing to learn in Tango. Both minds have to be together as one. If this does not happen, total utter chaos and confusion ensues. This is why I now consider it the most challenging and quite frankly romantic dance method in the world. It is so exciting and fun when you actually do get it right. Now you might ask if I am an expert at it now after weeks of training and the answer is an emphatic no. It takes years to perfect all the dance moves that make up what is called Tango. But we did learn how to do a few of them fairly well and had lots of fun honing our future Tango skills. As an added bonus we happened to be in Buenos Aires during the time of the National Tango Dance Festival which meant that we got a chance to go the competition and see the best Tango dancers in the world go head to head for the title of Tango King and Queen of 2010. To have the chance to see these professionals compete in action in real life was like watching an opera performance in the best theatre in Rome – Graceful and Flawless!

As for the cooking classes, we learned how to make empanadas with the best teacher in Argentina, Teresita. She was listed on Tripadvisor as the #3 must thing to do while in Buenos Aires. She taught us how to make the dough and then the many ways you can stuff an empanada. We made countless little morsels and enjoyed the spoils afterwards with a tasty glass of the best Argentine wine. There are two ways to make empanadas: you can either bake them or deep fry them. I think the general consensus from all of our fellow classmates was that the fried version was the best. Both were delicious.

To occupy ourselves in other ways we decided to do some sightseeing as well. Since we had lots of time to kill we did it intermittently. Buenos Aires has a heavy European influence due to the migration of many European nations to Argentina during the early colonizing period of this great country that occurred in the early 19th century. That means that the architecture has Spanish, Italian and French influences on almost all of its streets. There are magnificent structures on almost every street corner of the main areas. One of the most intriguing and historical streets in terms of architecture is called Avenida de Mayo. It has a large concentration of sophisticated buildings that are of art nouveau, neoclassical and eclectic styles all intertwined together in one location. This street was given its name in honor of the May Revolution of 1810 that eventually led to Argentina’s Independence. Some of the more notable architectural treasures we saw such as the Palacio Barolo, the Congressional Plaza, Casa Rosada and the London City Café reside on this street. There were many other great structures that we visited during our stay that are worth mentioning but I would just rather tell you that we passed by these magnificent buildings every day just admiring their grandeur. Not a moment was wasted. There were also a few other barrios that we hung out in that had lots to offer as well. For example, the barrio of Palermo is where all the fancy restaurants, retail shops and the hippest bars and clubs were (i.e. if you wanted to be out and about on a Friday night this is where most of the action was.) We visited this barrio on an occasional basis. Mainly because we would soon find out through the friends we had made in our apartment complex that San Telmo had everything to offer that we were interested in and more. To our good fortune, the best parillas(steakhouses) were in San Telmo and there were plenty of bars and clubs that were alive in San Telmo on any given night of the week. In addition, there was a Sunday Flea Market that was the thing to do every Sunday that happened just four blocks away from our apartment. As if that wasn’t enough, the most highly rated Tango studio in all of Buenos Aires just happened to be on our street two buildings down. This is where we took our Tango lessons. What more could one ask for?

Another barrio that is frequently visited by tourists is Recoleta. Recoleta is visited for mainly two reasons: 1) this is where the most affluent portenos live. If you are porteno and “of money” this is most likely where you nest. Most of the Beverly Hills type of houses are in this area and, 2) This is where the famous La Recoleta Cemetery is. This is where all of the famous presidents/dictators, artists, actors, painters, etc. were laid to rest. The crypts that they built here are very lavish. Some of them look like tiny houses. Most of them were built to house the remains of the entire family which means that a lot of them still remain unfilled. Some of them are so huge that they are 7 layers deep with each layer housing 4 or 5 bodies. Wicked, eh? All that being said, the truth is there is really only one reason this cemetery is so famous. It is where Eva Peron is buried. For those who don’t know who Eva Peron is I will not dispense with details on her life because that would take about 400 pages to accomplish. I will just summarize by telling you that she is the most famous person to ever live and die in Argentina and it is one of the most romantic stories ever told. I will leave it to your ambitious curiosity to find out why. We visited the cemetery and went to her grave. It was a very touching moment.

Another very famous barrio is probably the oldest and most famous one of them all. It is called La Boca. It is affectionately known among sports fans for La Bombonera the home of the Boca Juniors, one of the world’s best known football(soccer) clubs. For those of you who are serious football fans you probably already know that this is where Diego Maradona was born and played football for the Argentine National Team. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest football players to ever play the game. We visited the stadium that he used to play in. It was pretty cool. There was a walk of stars just like the one you see in Los Angeles on Hollywood Blvd. that has all the greatest football players’ names on them. The other reason that La Boca is so famous is because it is the actual birthplace of the Tango dance. This is where it all originated. The streets are lined every day with Tango dancers displaying their art to all the tourists. The main avenue where all the celebration occurs is called El Caminito. There are droves of restaurants with waiters practically pulling you into their restaurants with the added bonus of being able to sit front row and see how the dance is done the right way. If you have been to NYC, the atmosphere in La Boca is a lot like “Little Italy” in NYC only better because you are surrounded by music and Tango dancing everywhere. It is a very touristy area for very good reasons and very much so worth experiencing.

Another must do in Buenos Aires is to somehow be a part of what the portenos call a Milonga. The Milonga is very simply put a party. And party by definition in Buenos Aires almost always means Tango dancing with a live band. The action usually starts around 11:30pm and does not stop until 5:00 or 6:00am the next morning. The style of dance at a Milonga is slightly different than the traditional Tango dance. Milonga uses the same basic elements as Tango but requires a greater relaxation of the legs and body. Instead, it is a kind of rhythmic walking without any complicated gymnastic type of moves. The main difference is that movement is normally faster, and pauses are not made. In other words, it is a more rustic, watered down version of the Tango. We were lucky enough to get invited to a Milonga party by some of our dance class friends. I think I have now figured out why the dance style is less involved only because I have seen it firsthand. There are hundreds of people who attend these parties at any one time and they all love to dance. The problem is that the dance floor can only accommodate a third at any one time with any room to move. But no matter, they all cram onto the dance floor and seem to not mind dancing buttock to buttock. Just as long as they can be out there enjoying themselves that’s all that matters. Ah portenos, they have such a zest for life and they always make the most of it. We had so much fun at the Milonga dancing and watching the band play all night. As a special treat one of the legendary Tango dancers happened to be there that night as well with his wife. He was a man that appeared to be in his late 70’s. He got a standing ovation when he entered the room. The kind of status that is reserved for a Fred Astaire or someone of that stature. I can’t remember his name but all I know is that he was hugely adored. Every time he got on the dance floor everyone just got out of the way and stopped to get a glimpse of the legend. Pretty cool.

Another popular things to do if you have lots of time in Buenos Aires is to take a ferry boat ride to see the coastal beaches of the country of Uruguay, Argentina’s neighbor. Uruguay is very pretty and cheap. Thousands of Argentines and Brazilians flock here every summer to take advantage of the beaches and activities that surround them. It’s like going to Florida and getting everything at dirt cheap prices. Imagine how packed the Florida beaches would be if that were the case. If you have that picture in your head that is what Uruguay looks like in the summer months. It’s like a bee hive. The most popular destinations are the beach resorts of Punta del Diablo and the capital city Montevideo. It is about a two hour boat ride dock to dock to get there so you could make a day trip out of it if you wanted to. We had plans to go to Uruguay but never managed to make it happen because of all the other things we had going on. No matter, I am quite sure I will be back in Argentina again sometime and I will get another shot at it.

Finally, I told you that I would explain why I call the portenos vampires. The name probably gives most of it away. These people are very simply put, creatures of the night. They are about as nocturnal as it gets. For starters, they get up late almost every day which means that they don’t eat breakfast. You won’t find one single breakfast café in all of Buenos Aires that serves a full breakfast. Not one! For those very few portenos that do get up in the morning they do have breakfast nooks that they go to before heading to work. But forget about being served any real food. The only thing on the menu at before 11:00am is coffee and media lunas: coffee with a half moon croissant. That’s it! Don’t ask to get eggs, bacon or pancakes because you will get laughed at. And lunch? Well good luck trying to find a place that is open every day for lunch or that opens consistently at the same time for that matter. Allow me to explain. We found many places we liked in San Telmo that would be open on Monday at 12:00pm and closed on Tuesday, open on Wednesday at 1:30pm, Thursday at 2:15pm and closed on Fri, Sat and Sun. Oh but that’s only the beginning. Once you think you have them figured out, they do a 180 on you. On any given week they may be closed on Monday, open on Tuesday, Wednesday, closed Thursday and Friday and open Saturday and Sunday. And good luck trying to figure out what time they will be open on those days because that is as random an event as getting an Ace out of a six deck shoot of cards. The point being made here is that the portenos are known to make their own schedules as they see fit on a daily basis. Basically, if they don’t feel like working on Tuesday, they just stay home and don’t open up the shop. That’s just how it is. Dinner time is a different story. Portenos are passionate about their dinner and with good cause. The best steak in the entire world is made in Argentina. I can attest to this because I had about 300 of them while I was there. There is simply no way to describe to you how much better the beef is in Argentina. So f’ing good! I looked up online why this is the case and this is what I came up with: The only thing the cows eat is the best most nourishing grass in the world (Pampa grass) and the second key reason is that they are all free range cows. Translation: they are the happiest cows on earth and believe you me when I say they sure taste like they were. Now back to the vampire stories. If you are porteno you usually dine between the hours of 11: 00pm to 1:00am at night. That’s right, this is not a typo. If you walk around town looking for a local favorite restaurant to have dinner you better not start out until around 10:30 ‘ish because almost all of the best “parillas” will be closed and as empty as a ghost town before then. This was probably one of the hardest things for us to accomplish. Learning how to eat dinner in the wee hours of the morning. This is why I tell you that they are like vampires. They come out in droves at night but you hardly ever see any of them during the day. I am convinced that this is main reason that breakfast is never served. They just don’t care for it. They would rather suck a bloody steak at midnight and stay out all night. But they are some of the most passionate people on the planet and it shows. This means that there is never a dull moment when you have the good fortune of being in the company of a true porteno.

So this is how we spent out time in Buenos Aires. We managed to get tons of activities in and eat until our stomachs almost burst while at the same time get lots of much needed rest albeit at odd hours of the day.

As our time came to an abrupt end in Buenos Aires there was only one other destination in Argentina on our agenda and that was the famous wine valleys of Mendoza. Mendoza lies at the base of the Andes on the very west border of Argentina and Chile. Basically if you climbed over the Andes from the Chile side you would set foot in Mendoza on your decent. That’s kind of how the topography is. That is why we chose to save Mendoza for last because we would head to Chile once we had enough wine in our bellies. But before arriving to Mendoza there is a semi-funny airplane story to be told and I say this half-heartedly. The best most reliable airlines in Argentina is Aerolinas Argentina or Argentine Airlines. So we booked a ticket with them. Check in goes well, the seats we get are great also and the plane is a very nice one. I think we were the only non-portenos on this particular flight. The flight was scheduled to be around 3 hours or so long. Anyway, Katie and I proceed to talk about what we are going to do in Mendoza, how many wineries we are going to visit and if we might want to do some horseback riding in wine country as well. So while we are both brooding with anticipation time passed quickly. Unbeknownst to both of us, there was an announcement in Spanish by the captain about two-thirds of the way there that said that we would be returning to Buenos Aires because of complications. Since we were too busy planning our next 3 or 4 days this announcement went unnoticed by both of us. So right about when we are expecting to land we start getting excited. Well, the argentine fella next to us figures out that we have no clue what is going on and says to us in English: did you guys not hear the announcement they made earlier? Announcement we say, what announcement? After removing his grin he tells us: we are not headed to Mendoza. What are you talking about? Did we get on the wrong plane or something? So still trying to contain himself he tells us that the captain was told to reverse course and head back to origination because of the trade winds? The trade winds I ask? What the hell does that mean? In Mendoza there are a lot of trade winds this time of year and it means that there are 70 to 100 mile gusts at the airport and that it is too risky too land in these conditions. I live in Mendoza and this happens to me all the time when I travel. So we proceed to ask him: what does this mean now? Well probably we will have to wait and see if they can put us on another plane or as most people do you will have to spend the night and catch one tomorrow. So I ask: what are the odds we can get on another plane? I don’t know, you will just have to tell them when we land that you want to get back on the first available flight. You might get lucky because normally the winds die down at the end of every day. The problem is that if you do decide to get on another one you most likely will be waiting until midnight and getting there early in the morning. So it might be better for you to just get some rest and try tomorrow. Humored by us he decided to give us his business card and said: whatever you do here is my business card. Call me if you have any problems and I will help you. Also, call me if you want to go out to dinner with me and my wife and children during your visit in Mendoza. I can take you to the best restaurant in town and be your tour guide if you need one. What a nice guy. The don’t come any better than that.

So after we landed we said thank you to our new friend and set off to remedy our situation. We had already booked a hostel to stay at so it was either cancel it or try and catch a red eye that night. While gathering our bags at the baggage claim we were briefed by airline personnel on what our options were. The problem was that he talking in Spanish at a Speedy Gonzales pace and was so hard to hear because of all the commotion going on. Everyone was yelling and asking questions. So I decided to ask a couple of fellow travelers if they understood what the guy said. Luckily they did. They told us that there was a plane that was scheduled to leave in about 30 minutes that we could rush to the counter and see if there were any seats available but that there was no guarantee this flight would even take off because of the windy situation in Mendoza or we could try and get on the only other flight to Mendoza that would be leaving in about 3 hours. That one would most likely go out but good luck getting a seat. The only other option was to come back tomorrow and fly standby. After a quick group huddle we decided to try and get on the late flight. So as I waited for and watched the bags, Katie sprinted to the ticket counter in hopes of returning with a ticket for both of us. After what seemed like a 10 hour wait she returned with tickets in hand. Yippee! So we would be going to Mendoza tonight after all, maybe! So we called the hostel and gave them our situation and told them to hold our beds for us because we may be arriving late in the morning. So they did. We managed to get to Mendoza that night tired but relieved.

Mendoza was a lot of fun as well. We did a wine tour and visited three wineries and then had a late lunch with the group at the last winery. For those who don’t know,
Argentina is known mostly for one wine in particular: Malbec. They produce some of the best the world has to offer. What we found out in Mendoza is that they also produce some Cab’s and a couple of whites that blow doors on many of the Californian wines. There was one red in particular that we absolutely loved that the manager at our hostel recommended. It was so good that I decided that I wanted to ship a case of it home. To my dismay I found out that it would cost me about three times as much as the case of wine itself to ship it home so instead we just enjoyed as many of them as we could before it was time to leave. We ended up staying a little bit longer in Mendoza than we had planned not because we wanted to become winos but because it was the middle of the winter and the pass through the Andes was closed due to snow and ice on the day we had originally planned to leave. So we had to stay a couple more days before we finally got the green light and hopped on a bus. We crossed over the majestic Andes and finally arrived in Santiago, Chile after a six or seven hour bus ride through some of the tallest mountain peaks I have ever seen. Our time in Argentina had finally come to an end but we definitely made the most it.


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