- Exchange Rate- $1US = 3.95 AR Pesos
- Costs (In US Dollars):
- Hostel Dorm- $8-12
- Meal in cheap dodgy restaurant- $3.75
- Meal in “Average” restaurant- $7.50
- Beer (bought in a grocery store, 1liter [33oz.])- $1.35
- Beer at a bar (pint)- $3
- 5 hour bus ride- $18
- Gas- $3.65 per gallon ($.96 per liter)
- Total Population- 40,000,000
- Ranked 8th in the world for largest land mass
- Buenos Aires has the highest number of Psychologists per capita of any major city worldwide…it is very normal to see a shrink regularly and part of Porteño (Name given to residents of Buenos Aires) culture. Interestingly enough, BA also has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery of major metropolitan cities as well.
With four hours to pass in Mexico City, I slipped out of the airport into a surprisingly cold night and headed to the nearest night market that I had become familiar with in past adventures to Mexico City. A squalid market with little vendor stalls all selling the same assortment of pens, batteries, padlocks, and cellphone covers, just like 1000 other markets I have seen in dozens of countries. I sat down on a milk crate (literally) in front of a food stall, a soccer game blaring to be heard above the generators on a tiny old TV. Ate 6 tiny tacos, paid the hombre the $1.25 that they cost, and headed back to the airport where I tried my luck sneaking into the premier customer rooms for several airlines but they were all too well guarded. Then I saw one called The American Express Centurion Club. I thought…“I have an American express card, but I’m not sure if I qualify as a Centurian”, but I dubiously approached the front desk. Turns out all you need is an AMEX card and you’re in (they only have them in 6 airports worldwide). Spend the next hour drinking free Grey Goose White Russians (I taught the kid working the bar how to make them, he couldn’t wait to get home and make one for his grandmother) and was served free sandwiches by a cute girl while reclining in a nice chair in front of a flatscreen TV. Nothing like a dirty dingy night market with pig’s heads hanging on hooks and a nice free lounge with flatscreens, and Grey Goose to give you some perspective. Although I have chose to spend years of my life seeking out dirty markets and sleeping in mud huts, or under the stars, It’s always nice when luck brings a little luxury, not just for the comforts it brings, but more for the perspective. As I sat there wishing my plane would be delayed, I hoped that my adventures, my life, would continue to educate me in this way.
Back in Buenos Aires. I had forgotten how much I love this city since the last time I was here 4 years ago, when I spent 3 months working in a restaurant. It’s an old world city with old world charm and a dash of third world flavor. Go into any of the 1000’s of Parisian style cafes, order a café con leche from a male server in a white shirt, black vest and black bowtie, he wears a little leather holster on his black aproned waist with three little slots, one for his corkscrew, one for his table-crumber, and one for his lighter to be quick to offer a light when someone pulls out a cigarette. The café con leche comes topped with a nice layer of foam and is served with small shot glass of soda water, a second small shot glass of orange juice, and a tiny cookie. You will see people sitting at a table, with a cup of coffee or a soda in front of them for hours, just chatting with the person across from them. No waiter trying to rush them out or griping that they didn’t order food.
Speaking of food, its beef, milanesa (breaded meat fillet), Empanadas (A baked pastry filled with meat, chicken, onion/cheese, etc.) medialunas (tiny croissants), chorripan (grilled sausage on French bread), dulce de leche, Alfajores (two biscuit-like cookies with dulce de leche in-between and dipped in chocolate), lots of pizza and pasta, superpanchos (hotdogs with shoestring potato chips on top), lots of calabaza (a pumpkin like squash), red wine (Malbec) and of course yerba mate, it’s a loose tea, slightly bitter, that is drank out of a gourd through a metal straw that has a filter on one end so the loose leaves don’t pass through the straw. If the next shipment of mate never made it into Buenos Aires I think the entire city would grind to a halt. People are crazy about it and carry their thermos of hot water and mate equipment everywhere. Go to a park on Saturday and you will see hundreds of people spread out on the grass taking in the sun and mate. Drinking it is a bit of a ritual and is a social event, passing the mate gourd from person to person, with plenty of nuanced rules and regulations.
I sat in a huge beautiful park enjoying the feeling of travel and freedom that was still creeping through me and settling in after only a few days of beginning my trip. Although I had just left a place, a job, where I ate like a king from the menu of a world class restaurant every day, here I was biting into a sandwich that I had just prepared while laying in the grass that consisted of a tiny French baguette with spreadable cheese on it (Spread with the nearest stick I could find), plain tuna plucked from a can with dirty fingers, and a cucumber sliced up with my pocket knife. I had bought a cold beer from a guy walking around the park selling it out of a cooler and as I drank it from the can while eating my sandwich I thought to myself, “This is the best lunch I have had in years”.
I spent about 3 weeks in Buenos Aires and aside from a few nights I spent almost all of that time with couchsurfers. Ther was the “Art House” that was a real trip. Anywhere from 4 to 8 people lived there at any given time along with a couple of mangy but cool dogs. A maze of a house, low rent area, stripped walls, and ceilings, minimal attention to cleanliness, walls painted with art and graffiti, the “artists” who lived there spent a lot of time smoking pot, drinking Fernet and coke (If Argentina had a national cocktail that would be it, Fernet is a liquor distilled with herbs, rather bitter with a medicinal taste), and playing drums in the plaza. They were super cool but I only stayed with them for two days and because of differences in schedules we didn’t get to hang out much.
I also spent 4 or 5 days with Luciano, a pianist who gives private piano lessons to pay the bills. We got along great from the beginning and I visited him a couple times after my stay with him. He just recently joined couchsurfing because he wants to sublease his apartment and start a backpacking trip into Peru and Bolivia.
Then there was the Martels, Paula and her family, complete with Mom, Dad, and Grandma. They were really too amazing to begin to try and describe. I feel like I found a second family in Buenos Aires. Paula is studying documentary film making in one of the best film schools in Latin America. We shared a lot of favorites in music, film and books. Her mom is a political journalist and her father works in international commerce. They also have two crazy dogs, there is a Dalmatian named Brisa and a mutt affectionately named Ratita (little rat), who are as much a part of the family as an animal could be…oh and lest I forget the turtle, Manolo, that roams the apartment freely. We almost always ate breakfast together and often lunch and dinner, talked about a little of everything, and learned a lot from each other. I stayed with the Martels for two weeks. They were a huge part of my stay in Buenos Aires and I will never forget their kindness and openness.
So I never planned to spend so much time in Buenos Aires but I spent an extra week trying to work out arrangements to work on an Estancia (Argentine cattle ranch), that in the end never transpired, possibly for the better since I have bad knees that have been acting up since I arrived and began walking so much. Of course the Martel’s hospitality also played a role in keeping me around BA also. I spent my days walking the city, visiting some of my old haunts, and generally keeping busy. I’m sure this will get a laugh out of some of you who are reading this from behind your desk at the office but one thing that I have noted about traveling is that I always have lots of things to keep me busy, to some degree I still haven’t escaped the feeling that there are not enough hours in the day. I spend a lot of time trying to improve my spanish, reading books, studying vocabulary, etc. (When I go to Brasil it will be Portugese and so on), I also brought a Ukulele on this trip with the intent to learn so I spend time with that everyday, then there is writing in my journal, time in front of the computer organizing and backing up photos, working on the blog and researching and planning for upcoming destinations and couchsurfing requests, and then of course just exploring and observing the local culture, people, places, museums, etc….Ok, I know…have a nice laugh…All I’m saying is that traveling is not sleeping in, hanging around the pool and drinking cocktails (Ok, well maybe sometimes), but really, its more of a huge interactive classroom, but a classroom where to get to the books you have to pass boobie-traps, predators, jungles, and deserts which are as much a part of the education as the books on the other end. I will touch more in future posts about what it really is to travel but for now I’ve gotta take a break to get another Mai-Tai.
The city of BA is huge and has tons of very distinct barrios or neighborhoods (44). I was in BA during the time when the Jacaranda trees are in bloom which was an added bonus…streets and sidewalks painted with purple flowers falling from the sky. One of the best things about Buenos Aires is the parks. They are huge and many and well kept and well utilized by the population. They are also the scene for a lot of making out in public, which seems to be a favorite pastime in Buenos Aires.
CLICK BELOW TO HEAR A RECORDING I MADE OF WHAT THEY WERE PLAYING AS I TOOK THE PICTURE ABOVE.
The city is big and dense (The metro area of BA is 14 million, the second largest city in S. America after Sao Paolo). Most of the city is covered by buildings that are 6 to 30 stories tall, very few houses. The metro (subway) system and the bus system is great and efficient and really cheap (30 cents US). Like most metro systems I’ve known around the world Buenos Aires never has a dull moment, with people getting on singing songs, juggling, or playing guitar for spare change, selling pens or bars of soap…and one day I saw a kid digging into the pocket of German tourist on a packed metro car, I yanked his hand out, called him a thief and made a bit of a scene. My good deed for the day…when I got to where I was going I checked my email and someone had found my notebook I had lost a couple days before and wanted to return it. Karma?
It’s late in the afternoon and the last light of day is soft and pleasant. A woman wearing a big red clown nose and holding a sign that says “Abrazos Gratis” (Free hugs) is parading around and miming in the middle of a busy but intimate cobble-stoned intersection, jumping in front of cars, jokingly taunting them, the sign dancing up and down. There are lots of pedestrians around, there is a restaurant on one corner with outdoor seating, and another is the entrance to a park. They react to her presence with the same mixed interest as the inadvertent participants in their cars, some of which are amused and smile. Other drivers smile ingenuously, awkwardly, hoping she won’t keep the act up too long so that they can pass. Others honk angrily for her to get out of the way, some scowl and shake their heads; she fights back with an exaggerated cartoon frown and a shrug of the shoulders as she turns on her heals to recuperate her strength on the safety of the sidewalk. Then a taxi driver, grey hair, belly, stops in front of her, smiles, unfastens his seatbelt, opens the door and happily accepts the offer for a free hug. The pedestrian audience erupts in applause. Our two heroes face the group of people applauding on the sidewalk and hand in hand oblige them all with a theatrical bow before he jumps back in his car.
I did make one detour during my time in BA. Paula invited me to go with her to the Mar De Plata Film Festival that takes place in Mar De Plata, a beach city about 4 hours drive from BA. She had a ride arranged in a friend’s car and a place to stay when we got there so was an easy decision. Spent a few very easy going days watching films (I also had a free pass to all the films), and just checking out the city which was not too unlike cities in Southern California but with big high rise apartment buildings that all had a third world shabby construction look to them. I left a couple days before Paula back to BA so I took the train back which was great, reminded me how much I love traveling by train. This train is known for being pretty funky and dangerous (petty theft)…was certainly funky but I managed to keep my wallet in my pocket. I sat next to an overweight Jewish kid from BA (There is a pretty large Jewish population in the Capital, 300,000, the largest in any city in S. America). He was a real sweet kid, 22 years old, he shared his torta with me (like a large empanada) and I shared my sandwich with him. He was very curious about my past and future travels and at one point told me that in his next life he is going to be like me. In this life he paints furniture, reads comic books, listens to UB40, and is into anything about medieval times.
…..One thing that for some odd reason I found to be very funny and interesting is the whole thing with “Los Mercados Chinos”. There are two kinds of supermarkets in BA, the large chain type, and “Los Mercados Chinos” (Chinese Markets). Funny enough I found that there are also only two kinds of “Chinos” in BA, those who own/operate “Tenedores Libres” (Like cheap all you can eat buffets), and those who own/operate “Mercados Chinos”, the grand majority being affiliated with the latter. I never saw a “Chino” in any other line of work. First a side note: In Latin American countries they have a different idea of political correctness, everyone is called by their most prominent physical feature that sets them apart from the norm, a sort of anti-political correctness…so if I was walking down the street and a stranger wanted to get my attention they would likely just yell “Oi! Flaco!” (Skinny). Today at the supermarket when I approach the cashier it was “Que tal Joven”, since I’m young…its “Hows it going youngster?” If your old your “Viejo”, if your fat your “Gordo”, accordingly if your Chinese you are “Chino”. The difference between the Supermercados and Los Mercados Chinos is that the Mercados Chinos are smaller, usually quite shabby and rundown, often open a little later, and always cheaper. One day I was in a proper supermarket and was reaching for a bell pepper in the produce section when an old lady literally slapped my hand and said to me in “Sos loco! Los Chinos se venden por 3 pesos a la vuelta!” she was trying to save me a peso by telling me that I was crazy to buy produce here when it’s so much cheaper at “Los Chinos”. The affiliation with Chinos and mercados is so strong that most people just drop the mercado part, so if you are not in your neighborhood and need to find a cheap place to buy a bottle of wine, you just stop the next person you see in the street and ask them “Hay un Chino por aqui?” (Is there a chinaman around here?). The answer will always be yes, because there are Mercados Chinos every other block for the most part. These “Chinos” are very much real “Chinos” from The Motherland. Most hardly speak any Spanish and don’t make much of an attempt to assimilate…you know, come to think of it as I sit here typing, I’m not sure I ever saw a “Chino” on the street or on the metro, outside of their Mercado existence. Anyways, I dug more into the world of the Chinos asking questions to my couchsurfers and friends. Apparently there exists a Chino Mafia in BA, there was a killing of 9 people last year, all “Chinos”. Where did it go down? A mercado of course. I also got reports that the reason “Los Chinos” have such good prices is because they buy all the stolen goods from the highway robberies of truckers.
A girl is walking towards me on the sidewalk, not beautiful, not even cute, but slim and with bright eyes. Just as I am about to pass her a taxi driver going the opposite direction she is walking honks his horn and makes the international misogynistic “Hey Hottie” whistle at her. She keeps walking, a bounce in this step that maybe wasn’t in the previous one, she lowers her eyes and a faint smile appears on her face that is quickly erased when she looks up again and sees that I am watching her.
Argentine/Porteño people…they love to talk about politics, the newspaper has a section just for politics that is 20 pages. They love to argue and can get into arguments and debates that by American standards would make you, as an observer, feel awkward. You feel as if you are witnessing something that you shouldn’t, as if a married couple began a serious argument with each other at a dinner party. But it’s not like that here. They just like to debate and argue and it just so happens they also like to shout and use profanity but when the dust clears it’s all smiles and kisses. Oh yes, kisses. Everyone gets a kiss on the cheek here. Guy meeting a guy for the first time…kiss on the cheek. Saying goodbye to someone on the phone, its “Chau, Beso!”. Leaving the gathering of your friends to head home…you go to each guy and each girl for a kiss on the cheek. It’s great. Argentines are very proud of their country but also very quick to talk (Or argue, shout, or take to the streets and protest) about the troubles they have and the mistakes they are making as a culture or as a government. Dinner-time is around 10pm. On a Saturday night it’s not unusual to see a restaurant, a big restaurant, a nice restaurant with waiters in bow-ties with maybe 150 seats, ¾ full of people at 3am, not kids either, couples in their sixties, groups of well dressed adults, families, kids. Probably finished their dinner at midnight but stay for more beers, coffee, and conversation. Lots of conversations.
The people in Buenos Aires are VERY cultured. Something that really stood out to me. First of all they read a ton. There is a bookstore literally on every fourth block, sometimes two or even three on one block. And unlike bookstores in The States where the literature section is lost in the towers of John Grisam, Anne Rice, and coffee-table books, the Classics section makes up for nearly half the selections in the bookstores. The city plays a big role in cultivating this culture also, offering all sorts of free cultural events…and people actually go to them. I happened to be in BA for the bi-annual “Night of the Museums” where 45 different museums around the city stay open till 2, 3, 4 in the morning, some all night…all free with lots of other activities, music performances, dance performances, Tango workshops, theater, etc. all over the city. All put on by the city. Even some of the major bus lines and metro lines are free if you have a program for “La Noche de Los Muesos” in your hand, so that everyone can take advantage. How many people came out for La Noche de Los Museos? Same as last time…500,000! On our way to San Telmo from Plaza de Mayo with my CS host Luciano and his buddy from Colombia we passed a line literally two blocks long to get into a museum, old people, middle aged, teenager, kids, all standing in line to get into a museum for free…at 3 AM!!! The next weekend I went to a ballet production of the opera Carmina Burana that the city put on. They erected a huge stage in the middle of the main street, Nueve de Julio (The largest street in the world, 16 lanes across). Free attendance.
An old lady at a crosswalk. She is THE old lady at the crosswalk. Comes up to my chest, hunched back, teeth grit. She shouts at me. “Estamos en Avenida Rivadaria!?” I look up at the street sign. “Si, esta es Avenida Rivadavia”. “Fine, help me cross the street then”, she shouts. Not necessarily in a rude way but in that way that an old lady who has lost patience for pleasantries, will shout. She grabs my arm with the grip of a soldier. “Vamos!”. The light turns and we cross. On the other side of the street I’m about to say my goodbyes when she points to the left “This way!” she tightens her grip and steers me across another street. I realize that I have been recruited for a mission. One of my first in the world of youngster obligations to elderly strangers in the street. I’m excited. A mini adventure. Anxious to glean the most from my situation, I begin the conversation by asking her what her name is. Again shouting…eyes focused straight ahead tiny feet shuffle on the concrete sidewalk…”Name? Name! Who cares! You can call me whatever you like!” Again, not rude, just indifferent. My approach…”Well what name do you like best? And that’s what I’ll call you.” Reply, shouting, “Is this a supermarket?” “No, this is an office building”. “We have to turn right at the next block!” And so we continue. We are being passed by people as if standing still, most look at us, her arm wrapped around mine and clawing my wrist. Some smile. This ladies’ smile says “Oh, look how sweet.” We pass an old guy sitting at an outdoor bistro table with a café con leche in front of him, he probably knows this old nameless woman, another regular character in his barrio, his smile is a lighthearted laugh that says “Another poor sap got sucked into being her a seeing eye dog!” I smile back to let him know that it’s ok. I feel like we are moving slower and slower. It takes almost ten minutes to reach the next block, now in silence. Me still thrilled at this adventure, wondering where the silence and the soldier grip will bring me.”
I published this on December 9th 2010 from Mendoza Argentina, one month after my departure from the US and about a week or so after I left Buenos Aires where I spent about 3 weeks. I’m hoping to get some work here in Mendoza for a couple weeks in a winery, then will begin to head North towards Brazil.
Click below to see photos from the this post: