No Bear Issue
A long flight to Buenos Aires from the winter of northern England saw us disembark wearing far too many clothes...for the 40 degree heat that hit us like a wet haddock on the napper. Fortunately, D had insisted we arrange a place to stay before we arrived and so we could just take a cab to the air conditioning we´d booked for 2 weeks. Take that, Al Gore.
While we may not be the most worldly-wise people on the planet, we did manage to avoid one of the more common tricks in BA, which was explained to us by a less fortunate tenant we met by the rooftop pool (did we mention the rooftop pool?). It works best with tired travellers paying their taxi fares with a number of peso notes, whereupon the driver quickly switches a high-denomination one for a 5 peso (that´s just under a pound) and claiming he´s been underpaid.
Despite swearing in Istanbul to never let our (pert) derrieres touch another torture device masquerading as a bike saddle again, we decided that the best way to get a feel for the city would be on two wheels. Accordingly, we arranged a cycle tour of the main sites (hosted by Barbara the multilingual medical student). Starting in Plaza San Martin (the Liberator) we headed down to the Falklands memorial, or rather, the Las Malvinas memorial. Here, Barabara explained to us the history of the war from the Argentine perspective, i.e. an unpopular leader launched into a military adventure partly to boost popularity at home...no parallels there then! Unfortunately, for them anyway, their navy consisted largely of conscripted 16 year olds firing torpedoes that rarely went in a straight line. It´s kind of difficult to know what to say to that - after all, "phew" seems a bit tactless! Across from the memorial stands what used to be known as the British Tower until a Freedom-Fries-moment gripped the nation and saw it renamed (although it is now back as the Torre de los Ingleses).
The tower has (for obvious reasons) attracted a large amount of grafitti in the past which still remains as, bizarrely, spray-painting and scrawling are not illegal in BA. This means that the city is covered with a range of intricate murals, bald political statements, sporting and gang slogans as well as your usual al fresco declarations of unrequited and undying love. It also means that many statues are ringed by protective cast-iron fencing.
The tour continued through the city´s huge shoreline ecological reserve (where we saw wild coypu) to the La Boca district which houses the crumbling blue-and-yellow cathedral to football that is La Bombonera. Unfortunately, we arrived too early for the Argentinian season. La Boca also claims to be the spiritual birth-place of tango and the streets play host to glad-ragged street dancers accompanied by accordion-istas. They are flanked by rainbow-painted houses whose style is a throwback to the needs of the original italian immigrants in the barrio who arrived penniless and took for whatever leftover paints were offered from the shipyards.
The end of the tour saw us at the Casa Rosada, the Pink House, which is fronted by the balcony upon which took place one of the most important events in history - Madonna sinning live to the crowd in the Plaza De Mayo while dressed as some Argentinian woman no-one´s really heard of.
Of course, the square doesn´t usually contain a large crowd of extras but instead acts as a central meeting point for citizens striking or protesting against the government. On a more raw note, the square is also where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo congregate weekly to demonstrate in memory of, and to raise awareness of, the desaparecidos, the children who disappeared during the so-called Dirty War, many of whom were killed or adopted by members of the military withour ever knowing their true parentage.
BA, like all of Argentina, eats meat... a lot of meat. Whole sides of cows grill around open charcoal pits in parilla windows. So it was our carnivourous duty to check this out. At 10 at night, it was 30 degrees outside. Inside, next to grills the size of the Titanic´s engine room, the temperature approached that required to facilitate nuclear fusion. The steaks themselves generally come in 2 sizes - "breeze block" or "half a house". A single steak would easily feed a family of badgers for a month. Not bad for the princely sum of 3 pounds.
The Rest of the City
Slightly misleading title - this city doesn´t rest. After coming out of a late night movie on a weekday, we headed back to our apartment past groups of people just sitting down to dinner at 1.30am. The streets are also busy with the "cartoneros" hard at work opening, sorting, squashing and re-packing all the city´s rubbish piles before wheeling off their booty in teetering, over-sized trolleys. Much of the cardboard packaging appears to go to making up new walls in the outlying shanty barrios, and the remainder is sold, along with sackfuls of plastic bottles, to recycling plants. Over 30,000 make a living from this industry on the streets every night.
Our first proper taste of tango came at a show in the basement of the art-nouveau Cafe Tortoni, with its wood panelling and tiffany lamps. Downstairs, below the tea-room, is a brick-walled theatre with ceramic floor and wooden beams. The tables for 4 are squeezed between the supporting pillars looking on to a low stage at front. At its side was a 4-piece of violin, double bass, piano and accordion. 3 pairs of dancers, with the assistance of 2 crazy percussionists and an MC/singer, told the story of tango from its roots in the brothels of the barrios to the acceptability of high society dance-halls. Great (by which R means skimpy) costumes and even better moves! We shared a table with a German couple from Florida and, between the choregraphed lust eye-watering splits and dips performed by the gorgeous (and flexible) dancers, he confided that he liked "ze the girrrl wiz ze violin"!
In the hope of acquiring such mesmerising powers, we enrolled in a tango class at the famous Confituria Ideal, which took place one steamy afternoon on the dance-floor alongside the regular milonga. Carlos, our teacher (with a kindly Ozzie translating) explained the secrets of the male lead in tango. He must have a "strong Argentinian chest", "invade the woman´s space" and "shine his light on the lady from his chest"....so now you too know how to tango - get cracking.
Needing to get a grip on latin america, we signed-up for a week of Spanish classes at the BA Spanish School, near the national Congress building. As luck would have it, the group class turned into private lessons when 2 others never showed, meaning it was just the 2 of us for 4 hrs per morning with our teacher Analia. A Swiss couple we bumped into in the common room promised us we´d see the world differently once we were thinking in Spanish. Sure enough, there are 2 verbs for "to be", the word for spouse is the same as that for handcuffs, and the word for "hoodie" (the garment) is the same as that for a kangaroo (so now when you see a burberry-clad youth you can quite legitimately call them a joey).
The BA Herald recommended a visit to El Ateneo, which had come 2nd in a Guardian list of the most beautiful bookshops in the world (1st place was in Maastricht, treaty-lovers), and is converted from a grand theatre. We enjoyed a great lunch sitting on the stage behind swept-back red velvet curtains with the pulleys for backstage rigging still suspended overhead. Stacks of books filled the auditorium, lit all round the tiers with candle bulbs. The theatre boxes that had once hosted the chattering classes of BA, had now been made into quiet reading rooms. Where words were once spoken, they are now written and read.
Every Sunday, San Telmo hosts a street fair and the local antique shops and craftspeople spread their wares into the Plaza Dorrego - a marketplace buzzing with activity and selling everything from old tango records to wedding photos, from matchboxes with Marge and Homer Simpson (as you've never seen them before) to original membership books for the socialist revolution!
A day-trip saw us ride the mid-morning train to Tigre in the Rio Parana delta, past sprawling shanty towns to the manicured playground of the wealthy, who have their summer houses on the many islands of the delta approachable only by boat.
On our last day, we moseyed on over to the low-rise cobbled bohemia of Palermo Viejo for tea and cakes - we totally recommend Cafe Abierto (don´t know what it´s called when it´s shut, mind) on Plaza Serrano. The area is reminiscent of San Francisco - lots of hanging-out and arty shops and, no doubt, artists starving in bare garrets. After a wander through the boutique-lined streets spilling out music and incense past the hippy-chic jewellery laid out on blankets on streets, we dined at Cabernet in a cobbled courtyard full of plants and uplighters with the smell of jasmine in flower filling the evening air. A black and gold cab sped us through the night back to the apartment. Goodnight Buenos Aires!