opinions about life, work, and spirituality

Travel Highlights 15: Buenos Aires Day 3

December 13th, 2007

We wake late, after a barely adequate, interrupted sleep and stumble into The Hippopotamo for breakfast. I order apple pancakes, but realize when they arrive that they are a dessert item. Plump apples sleep under a bed of thick, crunchy caramel and a dusting of icing sugar. We pay for our bill, jittery from last night’s indulgence and too much sugar. We buy a giant crusty bun from the confiterie next door and savour its doughy plainness.

We walk to the Casa de Rosada, the famous coral coloured building whose hue derives from ox-blood. It is here that many Argentine revolutions and political uprisings have occurred. Evita gave her speeches from the balcony of this building. We hope to take a tour of the inside, but are disappointed to learn that none are being given today.

After a few choice words of frustration, we decide to take Subte Linea A (Subway Line A) to the National Congress. The subway train we ride, and the line we take is the oldest in South America. The car is panelled in rich, dark wood and boasts brass fixtures. Even the lighting is subdued, which furthers the elegant atmosphere. It is strange to look around and see people in sweat pants and coveralls and dirty jeans in such opulent transportation. It is nice though; a change from the fact that, in North America, the poorest are often denied aesthetics. Here, even the humble subway is a specimen of beauty (Linea A, at least).

The congress buildings are stately and ornate. There are plenty of architectural bits and bobs – curlicues, angels, gargoyle-type figures, swirling pieces, grooves, patterns etc. I’m sure there are official names for each of these architectural features, of which I am completely ignorant. The effect, even upon my ignorance, is pleasing if slightly intimidating. My intimidation is much lessened, however, by the fact that the Argentine parliament is set withing the confines of the city, on a normal city block. There are no sprawling, perfectly manicured green lawns surrounding the building, though there is an interesting park out front. The effect of the opulent building set in a normal city block, like a condominium or library, is congruent with Argentina’s political history; whenever a politician tries to intimidate, cheat or pull a fast one over the people, the people are there to shout and scream and demand justice.

Though I am not envious of Argentina’s troubled history of corrupt, murderous politicians, I admit, I am jealous of the people’s political fervour. Every Thursday a group of mothers whose sons “went missing” during the dirty war led by Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, in the late 1970’s, protest in front of Casa de Rosada. They protest not only the fact that 20,000 to 30,000 people simply “disappeared” during that time, but that later governments, including the current government, are resistant to bringing about justice by prosecuting the perpetrators. They protest in hope that the cycle of corruption, of politicians who look after themselves before looking after the people, will stop. Every Thursday as the Mothers peacefully protest with speeches and chants, hundreds of riot police gather in front of them, dressed in bullet proof black clothes and helmets. They stand behind hundreds of body length black shields, a protection from the Mothers’ words; the demand for justice.

James and I walk through this scene one day. We wind our way in between the shouting mothers and the hard, blackened police men. We walk in front of a giant tank the size of our living room at home, its long machine gun points across the street towards the shouting women. James wants to take a picture of this unbelievable scene, but I am wary. Argentines walk past us, converse and argue and laugh. None glance at the gigantic war machine parked on the sidewalk in front of us. Though many, as they quickly stride to work or lunch, glance at the Mothers, there is nary an eye upon the police. Their presence is felt, I believe, but unacknowledged. Such is the way we humans tend to naturally react when we find ourselves in the same room as someone who hurt us badly in the past. We skirt around the person, a dance of avoidance. Only when we are cornered, will we look towards that person, rarely focusing upon their face, usually letting our eyes drift over their shoulder to the potted plant behind them, and say a curt “hello.” The Mothers are different though. They walk up to that person, look her straight in the eye and demand an answer for all their pain.

Now, back to the Congress buildings. We walk away from parliament towards Café Tortoni. There is a link between Argentine politics and the cafés of Buenos Aires, in that many revolutions had their humble beginnings in conversations held over café con leche. Café Tortoni, at 150 years old, is one of the oldest cafés in Bs As. Inside, high ceilings of creamy stained glass windows mingle with antique furnishings and rich artwork that adorns the walls. The atmosphere is of supreme elegance. Our waiter has a dignified air typical of his profession in Bs As. I have noticed that most waiters are male in this city, and often old and always proud, whether the menu is pricey or not. Serving is not a job one takes as a stint in the summer in Bs As, but a career that will likely last a lifetime.

After we are finished our delicious salads, we saunter back towards our hotel, and drop in various stores on the way. We run into Kenny and Lisa, who look just as ragged as we do, and chat for a few minutes. They say they are taking it easy today. They have time to take it easy, I think, aware of the fact that they have taken five months off to tour around the world. They are appreciative of their travelling time, however, so I am happy for them.

Around 8 pm, James and I famished, but it is much too early to eat dinner in Bs As. Many restaurants will not open for another hour. We find a nice parilla around the corner from our hotel that opens early, and we practically run in drooling. The food is excellent, the Malbec delicious and at 11 pm, as the restaurant begins to fill with customers, we drag ourselves back to our hotel and collapse into bed. Buenas noches!

Travel Highlights 14: Buenos Aires Day 2

December 6th, 2007

We wake early and head over to the corner “Cafe Brittanico”, another neighborhood joint with plenty of character. After a very light breakfast of tostados (little cuts of French bread) with dulce de leche, excellent peach jam, butter and cream cheese, we buy a couple of pastries at the confiterie (bakery) beside our hotel. I am not helping myself to eradicate heartburn, but damn it, I’m in another country half way around the world. I’ll have my pastry and eat it too! The confiterie is an elegant store of burgundy flower flecked wallpaper, wooden racks that boast rough, yeasty smelling bread and smooth glass showcases filled with delicate, gem-like treats. I order a sweet, flaky little bun filled with the dulce de leche. Delicious! Fresh, buttery, creamy, rich and sweet all at once.

We saunter through Parque Lezama, kitty corner to our hotel. Winding walkways converge on each other through gardens of palms and conifers. We pass several dog walkers who attempt to guide ten or eleven dogs through the pathways and past the myriad of statues that sprout up everywhere, like the pop-up constructions in a pop-up book. We are on our way to the famous street of Camanito, and so we pass through one of BsAs most quintessential neighborhoods; La Boca.

We pass by the famous La Boca stadium where thousands of soccer fans meet to enthusiastically cheer on their neighborhood team and afterwards grapple with the competitor’s fans. This morning, it is quiet, however. As we walk, the winter sun teases us with its slanted warmth; the rays mellow the cool bite of the air, but it is still too cold to take our coats off. The neighborhood of La Boca is blue collared quirky. Iron corrugated homes sit next to old, ornate and solid houses which lie next to more modern, blank abodes. There are produce shoppes and butchers stores on every block, which interweave among the residences. The sidewalks are crumbled and uneven, but there are plenty of adults and children going about their daily business. The neighborhood of La Boca looks to me like a South American version of Sesame Street. It pleases the eye, and the heart.

We arrive in Camanito and are taken back by its gaudy tackiness. The surrounding neighborhood of La Boca is so so dirt-earth-and-bones-authentic that this area feels like Walt Disney’s cartoon version. Tourists are everywhere, and the snap of cameras is a sound like teeth upon teeth . The buildings themselves, in a plethora of vivid hues, are charming, but the area is hollowed out for the sake of tourism. No one actually lives here anymore. It’s devoid of that basic aspect which made La Boca so attractive – the daily humdrum of human activity and life. That isn’t to say there aren’t people around. There are plenty of tourists and a plethora of Argentines selling souvenirs.

We head into La Boca’s Museum of Fine Arts, which is mostly dedicated to works by Benito Horacio Quinquela. I’ve never heard of Quinquela, like most North Americans, which is a shame. His work is fabulous. Mostly focusing on dockyard life, ships and the sea, Quinquela’s art is idiosyncratic, full of movement and colour and thoroughly enticing. One portion of the museum is devoted to the artist’s paintings of shipwrecks, and here are some of his most compelling works. In one painting, a throttled ship looks like a gigantic set of blakened jaws that gapes open to show rotting, jagged teeth. Another painting is tranquil – a weeping tree bends its bowing leaves over a broken ship as light strands of soft grass grow upwards through the ship’s hull.

There is also an art exhibition outside, high up on the museum’s roof. The museum has built half walls along the edges of the roof and painted them brilliant coral, shrimp and agate. Delightfully and unexpectedly, sculptures of busts and heads sit in windows along these walls, their background the dockyards, sea, and steel bridges themselves. I imagine that a hurricane would topple these pieces of art, sending them crashing into the neighborhood below, splinters of heads, throats and chest sprayed over the sidewalks and alleys. Somehow this image pleases me; nature allowed to directly interact and toy with art. Sometimes I get a little sick of the sterile, scientifically balanced gallery air and atmosphere. Isn’t art about life? Then why do so few galleries encourage this sense? Here, heads balanced on the edges of window sills, open to brilliant blue sky and the neighborhood’s industrial body, I feel the danger, the heart beat of art, which is life itself.

In the evening, we walk to a music store/restaurant that advertises a jazz concert. We seat ourselves and order a bottle of Malbec. The band, a jazz quartet, arrives with instruments soon after ten. They are a shy, self efffacing group led by a sweet female pianist with a round face and dark owl eyes. We watch and listen as the musicians play off each other, like a game of tag. The night improvises away as we drink our Malbec (heartburn be damned, once again) and tap our feet and fingers in time. After two hours of playing, the musicians thank the small audience and begin to look for their guitar and bass cases. The audience lustily repeats “An autre! an autre!” and the band relents and plays one last song.

We hear a familiar string of vocal bumps to our left – english! We introduce ourselves to a couple from Scotland and a couple from Wisconsin. It is exciting to speak in english and all of us, made giddy from delicious Argentine wine, rattle on and on. We are asked to leave, and I brag to everyone that we really are the example of wild nightlife – to shut down an Argentine restaurant is quite a feat! Outside, the Scottish couple, Kenny and Lisa, invite us out for another drink. Drunk with wine and with communication, we agree and walk to the nearby “Million”, a posh, beautiful bar in an old stone mansion. We sit around a table in the garden courtyard, ivy on the stone walls around us, a square patch of black sky above us, and talk, and talk, and talk. I am heartened to share stories and we laugh at each other’s travel foibles. Finally, as the bartender wipes down his granite counter, we are asked to leave this bar too. Two hours have passed, and it is now almost 3:30am. We hail a taxi, and watch Buenos Aires whizz by us, too happy to speak.