Part 6 – Tango Country – Argentina
March 19, 2009
Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Latitude at Buenos Aires 34.35 South, Longitude 58.22 West
Today we flew to Buenos Aires to spend several days with our friends, John and Evelyn, and to see the city. Our pick-up was at 6:10 a.m. to go to the Quito Airport for a 9:10 departure so we were more or less sleep walking through the pre-flight process. We had a two hour flight to Lima, a one hour layover there and then it was on to Buenos Aires, for 4 hours arriving around 7:00 p.m. The time zone is only one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time so we didn’t have much adjusting to do. We exchanged our dollars for some Argentine pesos (3.5 pesos to the dollar) and took the Ezezia Taxi into the city. Our friends live in the Montserrat district on what is
essentially the Pennsylvania Avenue of Buenos Aires, with the presidential palace (Casa Rosada) at one end and the legislative building (called Congreso) at the other, only their street is called Avenida de Mayo ( which is pronounced majo here vs. mayo in Mexico) It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, having been founded along with the Plaza de Mayo in the 16th Century.
Although it was late, no one seemed to be sleeping here. We were discovering that this is a late night city as we walked down the street to a sidewalk café for a late dinner with a good bottle of Argentine malbec wine. John and Evelyn have an apartment on the 3rd floor of a turn-of –the-century building with tall doors opening onto a narrow balcony with a view of the goings-on in the always active street below. As we came to learn during our week here, the nightlife here is plentiful and of high quality – a true “insomniac’s delight. Since neither Gary nor I are insomniacs, we found ourselves falling into the local pattern of staying up late and sleeping late, which tends to curtail the sightseeing of things historical.
The name Buenos Aires translates as “Good Airs” and we found the climate to be just that – much like Southern California. Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world with 23 provinces or states, and 1/3 of its population lives in Buenos Aires. It is the 3rd largest beef exporter in the world, and the 5th largest wine producer. They have three seasons of 70’s and 80’s (Fahrenheit) in spring, fall and summer, and then in the winter the highs are in the 50’s.The city is a at sea level on the west bank of the La Plata River where it empties into the Atlantic. The city proper is 78 square miles with 3 million people. This is a country of high passion and the things they are passionate about are Romance, Music, Meat, Wine and Politics.
Political demonstrations here are so frequent as to become the norm versus the exception. It seems the people were so repressed during the dictator years, they now binge protest to make up for lost time. Their history is one of high political drama, verging on the stuff of soap operas. Just in the 20th century there were coups with varying degrees of violence in 1930, 1943, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1970, 1976 and 1983. They sort of alternated between military dictators, civilian dictators and the occasional elected person who evolved into a dictator. Argentines apparently find coups the most expeditious way of “throwing the bums out”. They also seem to alternate between extreme right and extreme left, and then dabble occasionally with fragile democracies. Politics has had many faces here, none of them dull.
The first serious European explorer was Pedro de Mendoza who in 1536 founded a city he called Nuestra Senora Santa Maria del Buenos Aires (Our Lady St. Mary of the Good Air) However the natives attacked and he left in 1537 in one of the first European “cut and run” episodes on this continent. The next effort at conquest came from the west from more intrepid conquerors who had subdued the Incas in Peru and Ecuador. Suddenly the “good air” was no longer good for the indigenous people who were promptly enslaved and died by the thousands due to diseases introduced by the Spaniards (some as simple as the common cold) for which they had no immunity. The population of indigenous people dropped 90% in only 4 generations and then a ruthless governor of Buenos Aires took care of wiping out the other 10% a few centuries later.
They were ruled by the Spaniards until the Revolution in 1816, and then the caudillos (think war lords) were established in various regions after Spanish rule. A port was established in 1580, but with no silver or gold, it didn’t really flourish until the beef industry geared up several years later. In 1776 Spain made Buenos Aires the capital of their conquered lands (current day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and part of Peru). Things changed in 1808 when Napoleon overthrew the Spanish King and ultimately this resulted in a revolution in May of 1810. ( for which Avenida Mayo is named) and in1816 Independence was declared.
While the history of Argentina is peppered with colorful politics, the 40 years from 1943 to 1983 are perhaps the most interesting. Juan Peron, was an obscure general in 1943 when a coup took place, and because he was allied with labor unions, he was able to position himself to become president. His stature was greatly enhanced when he met and married the beautiful and ambitious Eva Duarte (called Evita or little Eva).At the time, she was a radio star who had worked her way out of poverty. She was very popular with the masses and she was largely responsible for her husband’s success. She was a champion of the poor, viewed as a saint-like savior and established several social welfare foundations. Her best known cause was that of those she called Los Descamisados or the Shirtless Ones, the poorest of the poor. With her encouragement, Juan Peron established trade union support, nationalized industries that were under foreign control and established a five year plan for the economy. He also enjoyed his greatest popularity, appearing with Evita on the balcony of Casa Rosada before as many as 350 thousand people in Plaza de Mayo. Unfortunately, she died in 1952 of cancer at the age of 33 and was nationally mourned in a 4 day funeral extravaganza.
Juan Peron was active in politics for another twenty-two years, but never did fare well without her and his career was mostly downhill from there. Actually “downhill” is putting it mildly since he was exiled in 1955 after his own military bombed Plaza de Mayo to get him out of the Casa Rosada in what must have been the strong message that followed their suggestion that he vacate his office. He was eventually allowed back in 1971, but never regained his former power and he died shortly thereafter. After his death, his third wife (Evita was his second) Isabel, became President, and she took a serious detour from the leftist politics and unwittingly set the stage for the bloodbath that ensued. Left wing guerillas called the Montaneros had been systematically assassinating police and military leaders for several years and were particularly active in rural areas. In 1975 Isabel signed a decree to authorize the military to annihilate the subversives without exactly identifying to whom that term might apply. And so in the province of Tucuman, the military got quite carried away and wiped out the university professors and students, along with anyone else whom they felt might fit the bill as a “subversive”. In 1976, the economy tanked and Isabel was arrested by her own military leaders and eventually allowed to go into exile, while they proceeded to take the subversive hunt nationwide in what they called the National Reorganization Process – a thinly veiled euphemism for political cleansing. Since the economy was in freefall with 1000 per cent inflation, the new dictators decided that the total elimination of the left wing would be just the thing to help the country snap out of it. Consequently, the Dirty War (Guerra Sucia) was born, as what was once a political war between the left and the right developed into a campaign of terror against civilians by the extreme right.
And thus began the most notorious of political eras that lasted from 1976 to 1983 when as many as 30,000 citizens perceived to be enemies of the dictator were made to disappear. Since the open killings of innocent people tended to create civil unrest, the dictators (there were 3 from 1976 to 1983) embarked upon Operation Condor, an underground semi-covert operation, whereby there would be arrests followed by disappearances with no bodies left as evidence. Those who vanished were called Los Desparecidos (or the Disappeared Ones- not to be confused with Evita’s Shirtless Ones.) The word “disappeared” became a verb meaning “made to disappear” as in “Antonio was disappeared from his office last night”. Thousands of enemies of the state were arrested, taken to detention centers, tortured and killed in atrocities rivaling those perpetrated by the Nazis, if not in numbers, then in sheer brutality. It was nightmare stuff, e.g. taking people out over the Atlantic and shoving them out of helicopters was a favored way “disappearing people”. Imprisoned “subversive” pregnant women were allowed to give birth, but then their babies were taken for adoption to “good” families and the biological mothers were “disappeared”. Enemies included a wide range of educators, trade union members, judges and lawyers and often their relatives. The lucky fled into exile by the thousands.
In 1981 there were massive protests, many led by the mothers of those who were “disappeared” and this was thankfully the beginning of the end. Then in 1982 the current dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded the Falkland Islands (which the Argentines called the Islas Malvinas) hoping to reclaim them from Great Britain, probably thinking that there is nothing like a good little war to distract the people from the domestic problem of mass genocide. Unfortunately for Galtieri and his cronies, it was all over in 74 days with Great Britain winning decisively and the Falklands debacle proved to be the swan song for the military junta. Perpetrators of the horrors of the Dirty War are still being tracked down and tried for their crimes today and many families are still looking for children and grandchildren.
And so, it was back to civilian rule, and although the killing stopped, that would also introduce its own brand of chaos. National elections were restored in 1989, but that wasn’t the end of the melodrama. In 2001 the whole financial structure of the country collapsed in massive defaults, there were widespread riots leaving 27 dead and somehow they had four presidents in an 11 day period. Today Argentina is a democracy with a bicameral legislature, much like the US model. The country is doing well (so far anyway) with an elected female president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner who is very popular, at least for now, but we should all stay tuned for the next dramatic episode surely not too far distant in the future – it never is in Argentina.
March 20, 2009
Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Today we had what our British friends refer to as a “bit of a lie in”, meaning we slept late, and thus we were getting right into the rhythm of life in the city of Buenos Aires. We strolled down the Avenida Mayo for a late breakfast outside. John and Evelyn’s apartment is being remodeled and the kitchen is not chef -ready, but eating out here is simple and economical and everything you need is within a block or two. The “locotorio” where you can have internet access for practically nothing, the laundry service and all kinds of restaurants are only a few steps away and taxis are everywhere. We walked several blocks along the Calle Florida, once home to poets, tango singers, where there is some of the best shopping in the world, particularly for leather goods. Traffic is fierce, the drivers are aggressive, and the sidewalks are bustling, but somehow it all works. One of our stops was the Galerias Pacifico which today is an elegant shopping mall. It was built in 1889, intended to emulate the Bon Marche department store in Paris. It later became the headquarters of the railroad, but after they moved out it fell into disrepair. It was totally renovated in the 1990’s with restored frescoes, gilt, and elaborate chandeliers with French and Italian architecture from the Belle Epoque era of the late 19th, and early 20th Century. We had a late lunch at Posada 1820 with large servings of beef, and much wine, which makes for a pretty lazy afternoon.
Buenos Aires is both a city and a state of Argentina. The city residents are called Portenos. Residents outside the city, but within the state are called Buenos Airesans. There is a ring road called the Avenida General Paz and beyond that is considered the hinterlands by the Portenos. Within the city there are 5 main areas: (1) Plaza de Mayo and the Microcenter which includes the Monserrat neighborhood (2) San Telmo and La Boca 3) Recoleta (4) Plaza San Martin and Retiro and (5) Palermo and Belgrano. We spent the majority of our stay focusing the first three, but sadly we had to leave much for a future visit.
A friend had been here in Buenos Aires recently and left without fully satisfying her urge to purchase mass quantities of leather goods, and so I agreed to accept a mission to a Peter Kent store in the Recoleta district to buy a leather purse for her. After this initial reconnaissance, Gary and I had a leisurely walk back to our friends apartment along the Avenida 9 de Julio (Ninth of July Avenue) which is the widest street in the world at 223 feet. It is a sprawling Parisian-like boulevard lined with trees. At the intersection of Avenida Corrientes, they have erected an obelisk similar to the Washington Monument, only shorter, to commemorate momentous historical events in Argentina’s history, of which there are many.
After a brief siesta, we took another short walk to see a fabulous flamenco show and had a late (with late being the operative word, a radical departure from our Quito routine) dinner at Café La Cantareo. Our meal and entertainment lasted from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Music is one of the main passions of the country and although tango is king, there is a wide variety of other types of music, and most involve a grand passion of some sort. It was well after 2:00 a.m. when we got back to the apartment so a bit of a lie-in will no doubt be required for tomorrow as well and thus the pattern starts to emerge.
March 21, 2009
Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina
We again slept late, arising mid-morning, and walked to the Iberia Café, one of the oldest in Buenos Aires. Afterward we took a city tour by bus through several neighborhoods. They call them “barrios, but they do not have the negative connotation that the word has acquired in the US. Our first stop was the Plaza del Mayo, first built in 1580 as a marketplace, and around which stand several of the city’s most historic buildings, including the oldest building in the city, the Cabildo de Buenos Aires, which served as the government headquarters during Spanish rule. There is also the National Bank and Finance ministry, which always seems to never be located too far from where the president sleeps no matter what country you are visiting. Their financial district is called Microcentro which is comprised of a series of narrow streets near the Plaza, comparable to Wall Street, but without the skyscrapers. It also tends to have a lot more excitement as was the case in 2002 with the currency collapse when protesters took to the streets of the Microcentro banging pots and pans. (It’s just hard to picture this happening in
Manhattan). The Metropolitan Cathedral also sits on the Plaza de Mayo. It is the 6th church built on this site since the 16th Century, with consecration taking place in 1836. It is a rather somber baroque structure with the silver altar and soaring arches typical of cathedrals in South America. No word on what happened with the previous 5 churches, but they were more modest affairs so apparently someone saw fit to erect churches progressively more impressive. The Pyramide de Mayo is built in middle of plaza to commemorate the May 1810 revolution from Spain
The Plaza itself is a very historic place. The city was founded here when the Jesuits came in right on the heels of the conquering Spaniards in the 16th Century. There was a large scale soul grab which ensued (as opposed to later land grabbing in 1870’s and 1880’s when many of the large estancias were established). Once the Jesuits got things started, the immigration flood gates opened with mostly people from Italy and Spain, France, creating an ideal gene pool for hot tempers and torrid romance, as evidenced in the history that unfolded on the Plaza over the years – protest marches, labor union demonstrations, left wing riots, right wing riots, pronouncements of undying loyalty to a cause, declarations of war, aerial bombardments of sitting presidents – the Plaza has seen it all. The Argentine passions are strong and the collective memory long. For example, every Thursday, the Madres de las Plaza de Mayo (mothers of the Plaza Mayo who are the mothers of the missing or their designates) march here to protest the disappearances of their children in the Dirty War.
The most well known building on the Plaza Mayo is the Spanish Colonial style Presidential Palace, called the Casa Rosada (translation is the “pink house” it is indeed rosy pink with its color derived from oxblood mixed with whitewash. The blending of colors symbolizes the mixing of the Federal (red) and the Unitarian (white) parties which were the two opposing factions of the days when it was built from 1862-85.
The Casa Rosada had sort of an Alamo feel to it. Along with the thick walls, the bullet marks and flak scars added to the ambiance. We were able to go inside to the inner courtyard where we found it to have a very monastic quality, which was sort of a surprise considering Evita’s reputation for Dior gowns and Tiffany jewels, but then she wasn’t here all that long and she did have another residence in a fancier neighborhood. We didn’t see President Kirchner, but she was probably busy with matters other than adding a woman’s touch to the Casa Rosada.
From the Plaza de Mayo we travelled down Avenida deMayo past the famous Café Tortoni , which opened in 1858, and where later in the week we would see a tango show and the very beautiful opera house, the Teatro Colon which was closed for renovations while we were there. This area has the highest concentration of churches in the city, but jaded as we were by touring churches, we were content with our guide just pointing to them. At the opposite end of Avenida de Mayo, we saw the Congressional Building, inaugurated in 1906, on the Plaza de los dos Congresos – Plaza of the Two Congresses. The building, which locals just call Congreso, is modeled after the US Capitol (with a smaller green dome) and the US System of government (bicameral houses for the legislature) And of course being a government building, it is an ideal site for strikes, protests, graffiti and general civil disobedience.
We did a drive-by of the Plaza San Martin through an area called Retiro which was once a retreat for monks in the 17th Century. It later became home to slave markets and military barracks, as well as a railway hub. The plaza is surrounded by ombu trees which are native to the pampas of Argentina. They grow quite large – 40 to 50 feet in girth and 40 to 60 feet in height. Their branches are umbrella-like and their leaves are thick and leathery – sort of like a magnolia. The base of the tree has exposed roots similar in appearance to cypress or banyan. These trees grow all over the city and create a wonderful shade canopy for the streets. In the center of the square is a monument to Jose de San Martin, their Revolutionary War Hero in the rebellion against Spain.
From there we drove through San Telmo which we will visit on Sunday, Market Day, and on to La Boca, which means the mouth in Spanish. It is located at the mouth of a small river (the Riachuelo) that empties into the Rio Plata. Our first stop was the futbol (soccer) stadium called La Bombonera, built in the 1940’s and renovated in the 1990’s. The name roughly translates as the Chocolate (bonbon) Box which it is said to resemble. At this point, I’m thinking this tour is obviously for soccer fans, more so than for the rest of us, since the highlight of the stop was to go inside the stadium. We chose to walk around the surrounding neighborhood a bit since we thought a stadium viewing a bit mundane, even if this one will hold 60,000 screaming fans . There was a lot of memorabilia for sale in blue and yellow, the colors of the local team, the Boca Juniors (The full name is the Club Atlantico Boca Juniors) which was established in 1905. Frequent scandals and bribery have occurred over the years, and of course nowadays, there is probably doping to boot. Fans range from passionate to semi-rabid.
Players are idolized with a reverence usually reserved for penitents in the cathedral and felons up for parole, but for many this stadium is their place of worship. There are 20 First Division teams in Argentina who play 2 single round tournaments a year, and they also have the minor leagues. And of course they compete for the World Cup, which in itself creates a whole new level of national hysteria. Wins and losses at any level can, in equal measure, cause people to head to the nearest plaza to start a riot. The Boca Juniors have won two World Cups in 1978 and 1986, but those wins didn’t apparently result in any coups or takeovers of third world countries. Soccer is as widely played as it is watched with soccer pitches all over the city – anywhere there is a sprig of grass or a relatively flat place where sprigs might emerge if given the chance.
Equestrian sports are also big here – polo, racing, hunting, showing, and perhaps most curiously, the game of pato ( which translates as duck in Spanish). It is also called horse ball – sort of like polo without the mallets and the little ball. They have a bigger ball-shaped basked with 6 leather handles and the rider has to gallop up lean sideways in the saddle and grab the ball to move it. He can then pass it to other players on his team in sort of a keep away game from the opposing team. The game gets its name from the days when there was a live duck inside the basket. I don’t know who thought that idea up, but I can only imagine how messy a highly-agitated live duck might get.
Our next stop in Boca was El Caminito (which means little road) which is a pedestrian street filled with markets and restaurants and lined with buildings painted in every shade imaginable. . Throughout the streets are three dimensional carvings of everyday street life, e.g. a woman hanging out of window shaking out a dish rag side by side liberal doses of really skilled trompe l’oeil painting,( the “trick the eye” technique making you think you are seeing something 3 dimensional) so you never can tell for sure without touching it. There was art everywhere – modern art, classical art and everything in between. There were booths and
booths of craft vendors and Gary bought a leather Carnival mask at one of them. We also wandered down Calle Necochea – another narrow, pedestrian only street. There were restaurant recruiters with pamphlets hawking the charms of specific restaurants and tango shows on open air stages. Here we saw the famous houses (some more shack than house) of La Boca with corrugated zinc roofs and walls painted in vivid colors – a design scheme that supposedly came about as immigrants scrounged whatever paint leftovers they could find in the city. Despite the humble architecture, the ambiance is vibrant and welcoming – very much alive. There is apparently a street party here every day. The whole area seems to be an eclectic mix of polychromatic garish façades and faded signs on the shop fronts. (Not many Martha Stewart moments in Boca). It somehow works here, but we were thinking we should not try these color combos at home.
Walking through Boca gives you a real taste of the old days. Many of the buildings here were former brothels or bars frequented by sailors and immigrants out on the town to indulge in cards, drinking, fighting and wild women. – all the vices plus the tango in one place. But today it has become gentrified and only the vices of beer drinking and the tango remain. We also walked through La Vuelta de Rocha – an area at the “elbow” of the Riachuelo River where it makes a 90 degree turn. It is a grubby yet picturesque sub-barrio of Boca. It was a makeshift port during the Revolution and later the home port of a steamship that made the trip to Montevideo, Uruguay daily.
Our last stop was Puerto Madero and we decided we would get off the bus, have a leisurely stroll, enjoy a glass of wine and then take the short walk back to Avenida Mayo. Puerto Madero was built in the late 19th Century as the shipping needs of the city and country outgrew the Boca waterfront. A competition for the design was held and the winning concept called for 4 docks to be built parallel to the Rio Plata with a grid of streets all named after women. Unfortunately, the design created spaces too narrow and shallow for the larger ships of the 20th Century and a newer port was built upriver which took from 1922 to 1925. The warehouses of Puerto Madero that had housed grain and perishables to be exported to other countries fell into disrepair and were allowed to decay for several years. Then in the 1990’s the whole area was rebuilt with a yacht club, boutiques, hotels and restaurants – all very upscale. We sat at an outdoor restaurant and had our wine and light meal with a view of the graceful and very elegant Puente de la Mujer bridge that was added as part of the renovation. Just after dark we walked back to the apartment and apparently our light meal was too light for Gary so he and I stopped by a late night Argentinian Chinese buffet. Gary reports food was” interesting” – always a dangerous sign so I was glad I only watched.
March 22, 2009
Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Today we again walked down Avenida de Mayo to have breakfast before catching the Subte (subway) to San Telmo for the Sunday Market which is called Feria de San Telmo or San Telmo Fair. The main site for the market is Plaza Dorrego, surrounded by two-storied balconied buildings with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and like Boca, it is quite bohemian in atmosphere. Residents play cards and chess outdoors here during the week, but on weekends there is a mass influx of people for the market where there is a huge selection of antiques, jewelry, arts, crafts and assorted flea market gewgaws such as vinyl records, old books, housewares, silver jewelry, and leather goods, just to name a few. There were some real deals to be had here – sort of a touchy-feely version of EBay with the goods spread out right before your eyes. The houses around the square were once homes of the city’s aristocrats. On other streets are the more modest places where the working poor lived, such as the Casa Minima (minimal house) also called the Casa Chorizo (sausage house) because it is long and narrow like a shotgun house. It was built in 1880 by freed slaves and is one of the few remaining examples of this type of indigenous architecture. Access to these tiny houses was via narrow corridors off the street. The plaza has a life size sculpture in the middle called the Canto al Trabajo (Ode to Work). It is comprised of fourteen life size laborers struggling to move a boulder – more classical than realistic, but then maybe fourteen guys hauling bananas wouldn’t be as artistic.
As in Boca, much of the signage here is in the style called “Fileteado” which is now a Porteno folk art form. It involves flamboyant, elaborate calligraphy, with an ornamental stylized border with flowers, scrollwork, curlicues and so forth, usually in bold, primary colors. ( sort of like the signs from the old West advertising Wild Bill Hickok’s Wild West Show or Dr. Feelgood’s Medicine Show.) The city buses use this type-face for sayings and proverbs plastered on their sides. Strangely enough this type of signage was banned during the Dirty War since it was considered leftist subversive stuff.
San Telmo was the actual site of that first landing by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536. It was the main residential area from the 16th to the mid-19th Century. Boca and San Telmo became distinctly more blue collar in the mid 19th Century with an influx of immigrants from Genoa, Italy, who built their homes along the docks where they worked. The more affluent moved north to Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano where they still are today. It is said the “Soul” of Argentina was left behind, so they typically go to party in Boca and San Telmo get in touch with this missing “soul”.
Both Boca and San Telmo claim to have given birth to the tango and there are milongas in both places, which are basically salons where those who are reasonably skilled in tango dancing go to dance with others of similar levels of accomplishment. Occasionally there is a live orchestra, but mostly this is not the case. Rookies at tango are expected to simply watch. The word “milonga” is believed to be African in origin, as are the rhythms and music because at this point the area was inhabited by former black slaves who were freed when the slave trade was abolished in 1813. The process is fairly structured in that the men ask the women to dance for 3 songs in a row and it is serious business. As they dance there is no chitchat – it is considered performance art, not your usual social encounter where you exchange phone numbers, text your friends, and snap photos on your cell phone. There are many street tango dancers who perform for donations from passersby who will also pose for pictures with the tourists. And then there are tango shows that are not so serious, often open air with no admission charged. Their purpose is to amuse the tourists who are eating and drinking at an establishment, passed off as an attempt to teach the tango to the uninitiated. This involves generating the general buffoonery associated with a sultry vixen of a woman coaxing onstage, a chunky tourist in a billowing flowered shirt and baggy shorts, sporting sandals with dark socks. By this time you a praying this man is not an American, but in your heart you know he probably is. Sometimes you just have to just look away and keep walking.
Restaurants seem to line every street – whether under a roof or open air and were all seemed to be serving asado – which is a term for both the open air barbecue for grilling and the meat itself. It is also possible to buy mate, a bitter green tea that the gauchos drink, usually from a leather gourd, but we chose to stick with the tried and true – wines from the Mendoza region. We found a restaurant on the Plaza Dorrego which mercifully had no Tango Amateur Hour and ordered our wine and pizza. Even before the food came, we had our own street side entertainment with an assortment of “borrachos” (drunks), perros (dogs) and assorted characters selling assorted stuff. I was a little startled, to say the least, when I sensed something amiss, and I looked down to see one of the borrachos had passed out under my chair and his lolling head was directly between my feet with his beard tickling my ankles. I was glad I was not wearing a skirt (oops, let me rephrase here – I did have shorts on). At this point the police showed up and moved the borrachos along to some other part of the fiesta. It made for interesting lunch conversation while it lasted, but we were glad to return to watching just the mildly weird and the slightly intoxicated from that point on.
After lunch we made a few purchases – I bought some silver jewelry and Gary bought a set of boleadores which are used by gauchos to capture large flightless birds called rheas – it more or less trips them up, gets them all entangled and then they can be easily caught (sort of like roping calves). Boleadores are hard heavy balls covered in leather tied on to short, but sturdy ropes brandished like a lasso. Gary seemed to think these were made from the private parts of a bull, but I like to think not, especially since they are hanging on the wall of my library at home. If Gary is right, I think it just sends the wrong message about me. We walked quite a bit, stopping a few times for a refreshing glass of wine before taking a taxi back to Avenida de Mayo. We had steak at a local outdoor restaurant and called it a night fairly early for Buenos Aires, around 10:00 p.m.
March 23, 2009
Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Today Gary and I set out on foot to explore several areas we had seen from the tour bus. We walked along the Avenida Mayo for a close up look at the Congreso, but kept going until we reached Recoleta, the part of Buenos Aires most often compared to Paris. We found it to be sort of Paris without the attitude with broad tree-lined boulevards, blatant disregard for calories and fattening food, meals consumed outside in outdoor cafes and bistros, dogs allowed everywhere, meals eaten very late, fashion conscious shoppers in high-heeled shoes shopping in high-end boutiques. It is very much a neighborhood for walking, unless of course you’re wearing those stilettos.
Recoleta became the primary residential area for the aristocracy after a yellow fever epidemic broke out in San Telmo in 1871, and then there were all those tacky immigrants moving in too. Today it has further burnished its high glamour reputation – very much the Park Avenue in terms of refinement with art museums, expensive dogs with walkers, high end shops, upscale restaurants elegant apartments, well manicured parks. The professional dog walkers are called paseadores and it is not uncommon for them to walk10 to 25 dogs at a time, almost exclusively expensive and well groomed pure-bred animals. While many paseadores carry a bucket, poop scooping is apparently not a mandatory part of the job description, so pedestrians are well-advised to watch where they walk, which is a special challenge after dark.
We had a wine and a fabulous empanada snack across from the shady park which was called Plaza Francia, and enjoyed watching the paseadores and their charges ambling down the street in a tangle of legs and leashes. The empanadas were right out of the oven and really tasty. I have resolved to make these little meat filled pastries at home, but then again they are almost too sinfully good. I would put them in the same category as hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts – too much of a good thing and then you find yourself headed to the mall for new clothes in the next size up.
We walked by a few of the highlights of Recoleta, such as the luxurious Alvear Palace Hotel, the only 5 star grand hotel from olden days. Built in 1923, it remains very Gallic with an orangerie and French décor throughout. Everyone who is anyone stays here, except for us of course – we’re staying on the Avenida de Mayo. There were other sights as well which we only strolled by, such as the National Library and the Fine Arts Museum. One we missed was the Ice Rink Palace (Palais de Glace) which was built in the 1920’s by Baron di Marchi for ice skating and then later it became a ballroom. Legend has it that Carlos Gardel, (the Tiger Woods of Tango in his day) was shot here by a rival in a sort of Tonya Harding kind of incident, only it was dancing not skating. And like Tonya’s victim, Nancy Kerrigan – Carlos lived to tango another day.
There was one discordant note we saw in Recoleta – well two if you count the dog poop – i.e. there is a “hippy’ market (looks like they came here straight from Woodstock) near the cemetery that looks somewhat out of place. I wanted to tour the cemetery, but we were saving that for tomorrow. I found Peter Kent and made my purchase and then it was Gary’s turn to pick what we would do and so we embarked on a personal quest to locate the Buenos Aires Harley Davidson store. We had the address and found the street, but the street number seemed to be several digits higher than the numbers we were seeing. The problem was that we were in
Recoleta and the store was in a suburb called San Isidro, and not walk-able without several days worth of food and water. We got a taxi whose driver was extremely friendly, but he knew little English – only Italian and a little Spanish. I was able to chat with him a little in a really limited way by mixing both languages and I understood him to say his father emigrated from Italy several years ago and married his mother, an Argentine. With the help of my guidebook and a lot of mime activity back and forth, I was able to understand things he was showing us en route including the place (formerly a naval mechanics school) where prisoners were detained, tortured and killed during the Dirty War – a landmark not usually highlighted on the organized tours. Today it is undergoing conversion to a museum to honor the victims. We finally arrived at the Harley store, but unfortunately is was closed on Mondays, so Gary will have to order his H-D Buenos Aires shirt from the Internet. But it was a fun ride anyway.
We had the cabbie drop us in Recoleta for a long, but leisurely walk back to our friends’ apartment along the Avenida 9 de Julio. We found that while Recoleta is very Parisian, the rest of the city is pure Latin American – graffiti, petty crime, litter, crimes of grand passion and crimes of petty theft, dictators and demagogues, music and dancing, and of course machismo is very much alive and well. While there is a lot of Italian and Spanish influence here, there is also a significant German population – although more so in the mountains around Bariloche, which was known as a hideout for Nazis after WWII. For the most part, people here are fine-boned and slender, with fair skin, dark eyes and hair – but there are many blondes as well – don’t know if it’s Clairol or the Germans. The orangey-red hair color not found in nature on otherwise dark haired women is also popular here.
In the evening we went to an apartment in Recoleta for cocktails belonging to a friend of John and Evelyn’s. From there we walked to the Centro Cultural Recoleta, a center for the arts, to see an excellent Cirque du Soleil type performance that Evelyn recommended. The Center is housed in an Italianate building which was an art school built on land donated by the monks in the 17th Century. It is now a venue for a wide range of performances. The performance we saw was on the open air stage and the evening proved to be quite magical with the lights of the city in the background. Afterward, we saw that the historic church adjacent to cemetery, the Church of our Lady of Pilar. (Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Pilar) was open so we had a quick peek. It was consecrated in 1732, well before the adjacent cemetery was built. It has a very simple architecture with a really elaborate baroque silver altar. It was brought here by mule train over the Andes from Peru, which is no small trip, even by car or truck. We then walked to a nearby Italian restaurant for dinner and took a cab back to the apartment sometime around midnight.
March 24, 2009
Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Today we awoke to thunderous drums and blaring loud speakers. We learned that there is a “Big March” today for the Disappeared Ones on this, the 33rd anniversary of the coup that led to the military takeover of the government and the Dirty War. There was a combination parade/protest/commemoration going on right outside our windows on the Avenida de Mayo. We were sorry we were going to miss it but we planned to spend the morning at the Recoleta Cemetery. We needn’t have worried because it lasted all day and well into the night.
We had an appointment with an English speaking guide at the
cemetery so we took a cab to ensure we didn’t have to hear it in Spanish. The official name is the Cementerio de la Recoleta and it opened in 1922. It occupies 14 acres and is surrounded by high brick walls with trees, spires, crypt roofs and sculptures poking up above the walls. Inside the walls, there is a small central plaza with wide leafy avenues going off in four different directions. From the avenues the necropolis becomes a labyrinth of paths with elaborate tombs for the rich and famous, along with thousands of wealthy unknowns. The paths are marble and granite walled corridors, most with polished well-kept facades along with a few tombs fallen into disrepair. Individual families are responsible for upkeep of the tombs,and if a family dies out or goes bankrupt, then the site deteriorates. Unfortunately some of the tombs are little more than stone piles which might be a neighbor to a Greco Roman mini-palace with a fabulous sculpture.
The marble labyrinth can be a little eerie, and of course it is reportedly haunted. There are many writers buried here along with presidents and generals and industry tycoons The cemetery is a hodgepodge of architectures – neo-classical, neo-gothic, art deco, modern, colonial. There are 6,400 mausoleums and just about as many styles, with 70 considered national historic monuments. There is a mix of fine sculpture and kitsch, Greek temples and fairy tale castles with even a few pyramids thrown in. The corridors all have streets names and were constructed with 90 degree angles so it is possible to navigate with the aid of a
map. Aside from the architecture, the sculpture is really something to behold. There is a plethora of angel, Madonna and Jesus statuary, along with carved likenesses of the mere mortals entombed here. Some of the sculptures are true masterpieces, such as the one of the deceased lying on a bed very life-like, with the coverlet slightly rumpled, the quilting on the covers clearly evident– all in marble. Another example of such mastery is the Paz family tomb which has sculptures like something out of the gardens at Versailles, but with lots of Virgin Marys, angels and cherubs instead of Neptune and the sea nymphs.
The most famous Recoleta “resident is Eva Peron, whose tomb is a very simple black marble affair with numerous commemorative plaques. The tomb is actually that of Duarte family, which was her maiden name. The original plan was to bury her under an enormous statue of the Shirtless Ones, but there was the coup which forced Juan to flee Argentina, leaving Evita’s remains behind. The anti-Peronistas took over and tried to erase all evidence of the Perons which included sending Evita’s remains to Milan, Italy under a false name where they remained from 1955 to 1971. Juan was in exile in Spain at that time, so Evita’s remains were sent to Madrid to be near him. Then in 1973 Peron was brought back to Argentina and he assumed the presidency for the third time and, yup, Evita was supposed to be trundled back to Buenos Aires when her tomb was finished, but Juan died before they could get “round to it.” Peron’s third wife Isabel who became president when he died in 1974 actually had Evita returned and she was a very well traveled corpse by this time. She would have racked up lots of frequent flyer points had there been such a thing. Supposedly, to gain popularity with the working class, Isabel had Evita buried next to Juan in the Presidential palace, but then two years later, there was another coup by the military and they wanted the Perons to vacate the premises. So Juan was sent to Chacarita Cemetery and Evita to Recoleta to the Duarte family crypt, where hopefully her traveling days are over.
But there are other fascinating stories of the not so famous, such the one of David Alleno, a night watchman at Recoleta, and an Italian immigrant who dreamed of being buried there – the only problem being, he wasn’t dead. He saved money to buy his spot, travelled back to Italy to find a sculptor who could do justice to a carving of his likeness in marble, and brought it back with him. Some legends say as soon as the tomb was finished, he killed himself so he could move right in, but other sources say he waited to go the regular way. He supposedly haunts the cemetery at night and they say you can hear his keys jangling as he walks the narrow streets.
The story of Rufina Cambaceres is one right out of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. Supposedly she suffered a cataleptic attack (a nervous disorder which forces the body to go rigid and not respond to external stimulus). They thought she was dead and buried her in 1902. However she supposedly woke up and began screaming and clawing at her coffin. Security guards heard her screams and came to her rescue, but by then she’d died for real of a heart attack and thus was buried again. Her mother, feeling more than a little guilty, went all out on the second burial and had a new tomb made in Carrara marble with a life-size statue of a girl at a door with her hand on a doorknob. She also had her put in a glass topped casket so if she wakes up again, she can see out , summon help or whatever, but given her history I would think a doorknob inside the casket would be more useful– but that’s just me.
Then there is General Juan Manuel de Rosas – one of the caudillos from 1829 to 1852 who ordered the genocide of thousands of indigenous people. He started out as an okay guy – he had a ranch, and was sort of a well-liked gaucho’s gaucho. However, after a political assassination created an opening for governor, he was elected and then became quite a despot. He met Charles Darwin on his trip to South America and had him put into stocks for violating one of his rules (the one that says no knives shall be carried on Sundays). He reportedly liked to use buffoons at lavish balls to say outrageous things to invited guests (particularly foreign ambassadors), that he chose not to say himself since challenging a court jester to a duel just wasn’t done. In 1835 he was offered “la suma de poder” which gave him full power with no oversight meaning he was a full-fledged dictator, as opposed to his previous years when he was only partially fledged. He had a secret organization called the “Mazorcas”, who would beat, maim and kill not only those who opposed him, but those who did not overtly support him. He did have his supporters who were called “Rosistas” so it was cool to be a Rosista and dangerous not to be. He received an award from the Revolutionary War Hero, General San Martin called the combat sable and was declared a “maximum hero” of Argentina. Despite his hero status, he was overthrown in 1852 and spent the rest of his life in exile in
England, where he was eventually buried since he wasn’t all that welcome back home. Then there was a general period of pursuit, murder and mayhem, sort of open season on “Rosistas”. And one of his enemies advertised a Sunday spectacle where Rosas’ former residence would be dynamited for the amusement of the masses. After several more coups (and of course they were coming fast and furious) – all was forgiven and he was shipped back to Buenos Aires in 1989 and buried in Recoleta. It is rumored however his body was once kidnapped and held for ransom, but it was recovered and new security measures were put in place. They think he is there within his marble mausoleum, but given the political chess game played here with dead bodies, who can know for sure?
After the cemetery tour we had lunch at an outdoor café in Recoleta (great empanadas again) and walked to the Palermo barrio to see the Evita Museum which is housed in a 20th Century mansion that belonged to an aristocratic family. It was bought as a shelter for the homeless in 1948 by the Eva Peron Social Aid foundation. It was used for administrative purposes after the fall of the Peron government before becoming the Eva Peron Museum. There was a good collection of Evita memorabilia including old letters, newspaper and magazine articles and photographs, many going back to her radio star days in the 1930’s. Among of the most interesting things were her dresses. (Dior no less) and her jewelry (pictures only, the real stuff was probably stolen and/or pawned long ago). It was interesting to see how glamorous she must have seemed to the impoverished masses – sort of like Princess Diana in the slums of India with Mother Teresa. Although the clothes must have been stunning in their day, a few of them could have fit into the wardrobe for Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy, particularly that little polka dot number.
We took a taxi back to the apartment, only to find the protest marchers still going full force, but at this point it seemed to be more Woodstock than the Million Man March on Washington. Marchers were splashing in the fountains and the streets were totally trashed with copious graffiti on just about every surface within reach. In the evening we shuffled past the litter to dinner and a tango show at the historic Café Tortoni, opened in 1852. The Café Tortoni was named after a bar in Paris which was a writers’ and artists’ hangout, complete with a poet’s corner. Carlos Gardel danced here, both before and after being shot by his rival. Many famous people came here, everyone from the King of Spain to Hillary Clinton. The World Tango museum is here, along with a research library on the tango.
Tango music and dance are as much a national pastime here as soccer. Ardent fans of the tango are called “tangueros” The professional tango shows are sometimes called fantasias and often seem to have a plot involving lust, jealousy, pride, domestic violence and passion gone amok. The dance involves a lot of theatre and rigid rules. The man sometimes wears fedora sort of hat called a funyi pulled low over one eye. His dark hair is oiled and gleaming and he oozes testosterone (in sort of a foppish way, not so much NFL). His role is to project sort of refined Tarzan-like male dominance. He maintains a stiff upper body as he spins and dips his partner. She wears a slinky dress, showing just enough leg and cleavage to be titillating as she performs her complicated footwork and suggestive gyrations. Her role is to portray the fiery and feisty siren whom he tries to subdue. They will often pause in their dance shooting a haughty sneer at each other and occasionally turn to the audience as if to speak. If they did, I think it would go something like this:
He: You see this how faithless bimbo who has ripped my heart to shreds. I should plunge my priceless bejeweled dagger into this slut’s bellybutton”
She: “You see this jealous maniac I live with? I hope he doesn’t try to plunge that cheap Walmart knife into my bellybutton again”.
All dramatizations and exaggeration on my part aside, it was really a wonderful performance. The professional tango show is a must on any visit to Buenos Aires.
March 25, 2009
Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we got to bed in, the wee hours, we again found ourselves sleeping late and walking down the street for breakfast on this our last full day in Buenos Aires. After breakfast a van picked us up to take us to the Tren de la Costa which will take us to an area called El Tigre. It is upriver from Buenos Aires in the delta of the Parana River where it empties into the Rio Plata. The train took us to San Isidro, not too far from the Harley Davidson shop actually, but today we were on another mission. We had a short walk under the jacaranda trees to visit to the local cathedral and just enough time for a glass of wine and a snack and then it was
back on the train to El Tigre. It was founded in 1820 and was named for the jaguars, (which were apparently perceived to be tigers) which were abundant in the area at the time. It became an important port for timber and fruit to be shipped downriver. The port city for the area was named Puerto de las Frutos (Port Fruit) and today the town still has a large market which was expanded to include crafts. It is a big draw for tourists and city dwellers alike.
Upon arrival in El Tigre, we boarded a boat for a tour of the many canals and islands. The shoreline on the other side of the Parana River is Uruguay. Many people from Buenos Aires have summer and weekend homes here with boats and docks. It is similar in appearance to south Florida along the Inter-coastal waterway. It was very relaxing to sip our wine as we motored past the houses, ranging from the elegant neo-colonial mansions from the 1870’s to the modest little cabins with indoor furniture brought outdoors – sort of Argentine Redneck style. In the late afternoon we took a van back to the city and walked to a restaurant for our last dinner here. We were glad to see the protest trash cleaned up, but the graffiti will require a little more work. Tomorrow we leave for Santiago, Chile and the final leg of our trip, but we realize that we have left so much unseen, not just in Buenos Aires, but the hundreds of places beyond the Avenida de la Paz as well. Maybe next time.