Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Long Way Down

Nice house in Ricoleta, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaArgentina is a change, and it's not just the (relative) wealth. For one thing, I’m back to being just above average height instead of being a giant among men who doesn’t fit in bus seats or doorways. There’s clearly much more European blood here. Argentina had massive waves of immigration from Europe, especially from Italy. They imported not just skin tone and stature, but also pizza, pasta, and ice cream. Also a bit of the accent, Argentinian Spanish doesn’t sound quite like its neighbors. The food is different- aside from the famous steaks and great Italian food, there seems to be a national obsession with hot dogs (known here as panchos) and these crust-less white-bread ham, cheese, and mayo sandwiches, often triple decked. Then of course there's the Alfajors-- glazed cookie sandwiches. Everywhere.

An Argentine day’s schedule takes its cues from Spain—it runs late. Dinner is usually around ten pm at the earliest, often as late as midnight. Don’t bother going out to bars or clubs before two am. Also, don’t expect anything to be open between noon and three in the afternoon, everybody has collapsed from being awake until five am and getting up again to start the day at nine.

Speaking of time, so you know though it isn’t marked as much on most maps, Buenos Aires is one hour ahead of the rest of the country, during summertime (December, January, and February on this side of the planet).

I'm taking the express route through the country. I've hit the border town of La Quaica, spent midnight hours in the streets of Jujuy, passed a day in Salta, then shot across and down to Buenos Aires in time for Obama’s inauguration (something I wanted to be somewhere with TV access for, instead of on a bus, even if, as a puzzled Brazilian friend of mine pointed out, I could’ve just youtubed it later).

Of all the cities I’ve been to so far, Buenos Aires gets the most hype. Usually when something gets that much hype, I actually lower my expectations. Chances of it living up to anything like how its described seem slim. But BA did not disappoint. I wouldn’t call anything with a lit-up 16-lane main drag (once again, named after my birthday!) the “Paris of South America,” but that isn’t a strike against the place. I understand why it gets the nickname. You wander past the numerous dusty bookstores, the parilla grills, the statues, cobbled streets, pizza shots, designer clothing stores, wide streets and skyscrapers both old and modern, and you, too will be trying to compare it to any and all of the modern cities you’ve ever seen in the “developed world.” Cross in front of the deep-dish pizza being served across the street from the theater featuring Phantom of the Opera and a Harold Pinter play on the secondary stage and it’s Chicago, or maybe New York (if you ignore the deep dish). Exit a Gothic church to find a helmet-less motorcyclist roll down the street listening to white iPod earbuds and smoking a cigarette and you could be, well, just about anywhere in Western Europe.

The whole place looks and feels like the 1st world but with this exotic edge to it. It’s not in the polish, it’s in the crust and dirt. It’s the things you find that are at odd, black angles, bits a pieces that remind you that you are still in Latin America, peeking out from the dark street corners at night. That’s another thing, from a theater perspective, this city has mastered light design. It knows what colors need to hit what spots and where the shadows need to be cast for best effect. It’s everywhere from public parks to little corner stores. Reminds you of all the little things tucked away in corners to find. Needless to say, I’m coming back to this town. There’s more here I want to see.

I’ve left for now. I got tickets straight down as far south as you can get direct from BA, then a little bit further. A double-decker bus marathon to Rio Gallegos and from there through Chile, across a ferry with black-and-white dolphins riding our waves and treeless hills dotted by sheep, llamas, and pink-flamingo filled lakes back across another border to the crags and forests of Tierra del Fuego province, Argentina. Also as a bonus, for the second part I sat next to a French guy my age who didn't know basically any English or Spanish but who had both a French-Spanish dictionary and phrasebook. So, I now know some very very very basic French. Enough to survive by in a French speaking country, I think. I hope. I'm looking through a "Francès para todos" to reinforce a few things while I'm here.

I called the part before that a "marathon," but “Gauntlet” might be better. I bought a $6 pocket radio with batteries and earbuds on my way out. When I stepped off the bus at a pit stop among my iPod and cell phone toting fellow passengers, I figured my cheap radio would be safe for a couple minutes unobserved. It wasn’t—it and someone else’s bag were reported missing shortly after we got back on. A couple hours later, our pirated, dubbed Stephen Seagal movie was interrupted by the announcement that the A/c had stopped working. In the Pampas and upper Patagonia in the summertime, this is a big problem. Three sweltering stops later, our bus had been replaced (though not after I’d searched it again for the radio and bag—finding a pillow and someone else’s jacket and bag). The second bus had two unexplained stops in a garage, then pulled over on the side of the road ten minutes out of town. I wandered up to the front of the upper deck, and took my time getting a cup of water. When we still weren’t moving, I went downstairs and asked the other passengers. They didn’t know what was going on either. So I poked my head into the driver’s compartment. Nobody there. I opened the passenger side door to the driver’s compartment and stuck my head out, finding both drivers looking at the back, who finally told me the engine had overheated. Half an hour later, we had pulled over a second time, and this time the main passenger door opened and everybody was told the bus was broken and we had to get off. We watched it get dark on the side of the road as a new bus took half the passengers on board and sped off. A second bus pulled over, then left. A third empty one pulled over and took the rest of us. I get a nice seat, and found out that the window is cracked and leaking. That’s about the time that I realized that my fleece had gone missing with my radio. I hadn’t seen it in the search that afternoon. We finally pulled into Rio Gallegos late, meaning I had to wait two more days to get a bus to Ushuaia.

As one woman in the first line on the first side of the first of two border crossings to Tierra del Fuego told me two days later, “Patience. When travelling Patagonia, you always need to bring your patience.”

I’m writing from Ushsuaia now, the self proclaimed “end of the world.” I’m spending a week here before a boat trip I booked. The views here in any direction, when not obstructed by a hotel or tourist shop, are magnificent. The hiking and camping opportunities are first class, and there are chances to see penguins, seals, and glaciers. Should be a good week.

And waiting at the end of it, that little boat trip I mentioned? It’s going to Antarctica.

Check out this entry's Photos



    Sorry to hear about your lost items, hope that doesn't happen again :(

    Sending hugs and luck and best wishes!

  2. I loved the picture with the red circle on the floor that said "you are here". Some things are just too good. Also the "less police, more poets" sign. Good eye for the detail. Say hello to the penguins for us.


  3. FingA, man. I've always wanted to go to BA - I'm glad to hear it lived up to your expectations :). And Antarctica...wow. I'm really glad you get to do this and we get to follow along.

  4. It's not just BA - about a third of Argentina observes daylight savings. In the north the border is between Tucuman and Salta. I'm not sure where it is in the south.
    Rio Gallegos is a terrible place to be stuck for 2 days. My sympathy.

  5. Starbuck- WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!

    Ananymom- Yeah that "you are here" photo was too good to pass up. Glad the pictures got up okay, I had some doubts about this upload.

    Count C- You would love it in BA. You should definitely check it out sometime. Wander around the bookstores in San Telmo and make friends with the owners. If your Spanish is up to scratch, I can introduce you to one or two. Plus the theater, plus all the other stuff everybody loves about the place, tango, food...

    Awandering- Good to know. People described it to me as being the BA province, but I guess it's bigger than that... Any as for Rio Gallegos I managed to make a niche chatting people up in a bar where there was some jazz on Friday nights. Other than that there was a lot of reading. Yeah.