A Travellerspoint blog

Reflections and new vistas

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Monday 17.03.08

After returning from Mar del Plata early January, my life began to settle like the contents of a packet of cornflakes in transit. In fact I was barely undergoing any transit whatsoever, save for the odd trip to the shops during the week. Mar del Plata had swallowed my remaining cash and the bank account was nigh-on empty; any extra-curricular activity for my two final months in BA would have to be more like a soft caress than a heavy pet on the hip pocket. I did have one unavoidable journey to make, across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay for a night in February to renew my tourist Visa. Colonia de Sacramento, just across the estuary is a really pleasant place to visit though, and I was happy to spend another couple of days wandering its cobblestoned streets.

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Buenos Aires is what you might call a 'Wetropolis'. Whether it be sunny or overcast, the Capital Federal's very top-heavy concrete:tree ratio keeps summer's humidity high enough to brew sweat soup at any hour; while spring and summer storms bring near-relentless precipitation, leaving the calles (streets) like the canals of Venice and the underground Subte akin to the New York sewers. Like a drowning prospector, the city has struck ironic gold: 'Fair Winds' (Buenos Aires translated into English) is no longer by nature as it is by name. Where was that fresh breeze on a warm sunny day I had been missing? Where was that smell of springtime or the call of birds? Not in San Telmo. We had cartoneros at 10pm, garbage trucks after midnight and city buses bugling the sunrise.

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Between blokes from the Lime House hostel, several porteños and the odd ring-in from the semi-despised Milhouse, the other ex-pats and I were able to scrounge enough players each Friday for five-a-side football. In Rio de Janeiro the football action is often found on the glamorous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema; in Buenos Aires, the fields are found underneath the elevated freeways. With my dribbling skills not proficient enough to earn me a starting spot in the Boca Juniors' midfield, I planted myself squarely within the goals and tried to block anything that came my way. I enjoyed my five-month stay in Buenos Aires. It's dynamic, cultured, proud, and there is always one reason or another to celebrate. This giant city of thirteen million inhabitants is one place I will miss more than most. My last morning - a Tuesday – was a little surreal; I packed my things and farewelled Anahí after four delightful months together. I boarded the bus for the airport and by evening was flying north toward Peru's capital, Lima.

Due to the lateness of my arrival, I caught an official taxi from the airport toward a rich coastal barrio of Lima named Miraflores. While taking the coastal road for part of the way, a great white glowing cross on a distant hill gave me my first conformation that religion was far from forgotten in this part of the world. In fact, I was in Peru for that very reason – to take part in and document Semana Santa, the celebration of Easter. There couldn't be a more appropriate Latin American counterpart to Buenos Aires than Lima. Even in wealthy Miraflores the buildings are constructed in such a different way to those of the 'Paris of South America'. For a big city, Lima is just so....Latin American. In search of photos the following day, I descended the cliffs toward the Pacific where a busy highway separates the beach from the city's rocky plateau. The term 'beach' is one that could only be applied rather loosely, since its composition is that of rocks, mostly fist-sized or bigger. Nevertheless, and in disregard of the water-borne contaminants, this place is popular with the surfing population of Peru and elsewhere because of its easy to reach medium-sized waves. I wasn't convinced.

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In the afternoon of Easter Thursday, I booked a pew in the Business Class coach to Ayacucho about ten hours away in the mountains. Thanks to Argentina's first rate bus lines, I had expectations of a heavenly ascendance to the town, but those above bestowed unto me instead a hole(y) cushion. Two seat changes later, I at last achieved a fair amount of comfort; though twice in the night I awoke to find my legs up over the backrest and arms out at weird angles. The work of poltergeists, the devil or just R.E.M sleep? Be your own judge, but leave me out of it.

Posted by Jeremy T 01:20 Archived in Argentina Tagged automotive Comments (0)

High time for a commercial break

sunny 24 °C
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Monday 31.12.07

It was a relief to leave the claustrophobic confines of Buenos Aires and head south toward bluer waters. We left for Mar del Plata in the morning, and though we were able to escape Latin America's third largest city, we still found ourselves well within the boundaries of the Argentinean province of the same name. The inter-city coaches in this country are among the finest in the world, and we opted for Cama class, best described as 'fully reclining all-cow comfort'; as an added bonus coming garnished with free Havanna Alfajores. Mar del Plata (meaning Silver Sea) was just five hours away, merely a trip around the block by South American standards, and not a long time after the little hand ambled past the upright position we were aboard a local bus heading out along the southern Atlantic coast to where we'd be staying.

Anahí's friend Elisa lives with her family in the northern and more tranquilo part of the city, and I have to say we received a red-carpet foreign diplomat's reception, complete with free bicycle rental (pre-puncture only), all the 1kbps internet we could handle and the promise of a mutually beneficial Mar del Plata/Melbourne free-trade agreement at the end of it. We would have the bungalow to ourselves, and our every need pandered to by Elisa's mother. But the best was yet to come, as the smell from the approaching New Year's feast began to waft seemingly halfway across the neighbourhood. After darkness had fallen on the last day of 2007, the feast, big enough to feed a stable of starving greyhounds, began featuring at least four varieties of stuffed whole chicken and naturally plenty of other meaty offerings. Enormous too was the variety of alcohol on offer, with cratefuls of beer and wine and enough bubbly sidra (cider) to propel oneself to the upper reaches of Willy Wonka's fizzy-lifting room. Explosions overhead heralded the approach of midnight, and we all ran out to the street to get a better look. The suburban fireworks display is not a part of Australian tradition, mostly because of the impossibility of attaining the equipment, but Latin Americans will find any excuse to make a loud noise and some pretty colours.

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Having spent many a holiday on Australia's fine stretches of sand, I was a smidgeon disappointed when I first laid eyes on the beaches of Mar del Plata. The northern beaches are all tiny half-moon shapes, strung together by a series of breakwaters and looking like they had spent time on the Atlantic continental shelf before being hauled to the shore for human enjoyment. From the colour of the city's main beaches fronting the boardwalks and ice-cream parlours, they could've been dredged from the asteroid belt. Whatever sand is left on these weathered shores is obscured by rows upon rows upon rows of beach huts for rent and the remainder covered bumper to bumper by the sunbathing masses. Hundreds of thousands of Argentineans make the journey in summer to get away, though when every second porteño from Buenos Aires is breathing over your shoulder, you may wonder exactly what they are escaping from. In fact the climate in the capital over January becomes unbearable, and for someone that has spent even a single summer there, it's really no surprise why everyone wants to leave.

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Capitalism comes snapping at the heels of all these beach-goers, a fact which cannot be escaped unless one flies a couple of parsecs away from the popular zones. While all points of sale downtown - including pharmacies - are almost entirely cloaked in Coke Zero or other fizzy beverage signs (one even cheekily named Farmacia Zero), aeroplanes promote hygiene products by buzzing overhead the beaches, which themselves are often named after various local and international corporations. The town is slowly disappearing under the waves of its own national popularity, though because of stiff competition from the more famous beaches in Uruguay and Brasil, it is fairly unknown to foreigners. In spite of all this, Mar del Plata is a relaxing place to visit, helped in volumes by the locals, who are a helpful and friendly bunch.

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Perhaps sporting hang-overs (or is that hangs-over?) from the previous year's excesses, we took turns at being ill the first couple of days into the new year, but were ready to party by the fourth. Good timing too, as a Japanese DJ named Satoshi Tomeii was billed to play at a venue on one of the city's more beautiful southern beaches. The best of the night was saved until last, when we spilled out onto the balcony for the final two hours of his marathon set. The solar system's most-favouritest ball of superheated gasses rose over the sea as the bacchan boogying continued, this time with forward rolls, comet tails streaming from the tips of my fingers and fancy but sometimes disastrous footwork from some of the local lads on the dew-soaked deck. The vibe and music of the party left us with a nebular afterglow that shone as bright as the morning sun, or maybe it was just wonderfully blissful to be breathing at that point in time.

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After a week relaxing on the coast, it was time for me to leave on the seventh, to make my way back to the helter-swelter of Buenos Aires in January. For want of hard currency, future mentionable moments would be fewer and farer between than ever before, and I would have to sit patiently, often for hours on end trying to find them. Or myself.

Posted by Jeremy T 10:38 Archived in Argentina Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

May the Beige be with you...

Celebrations on the other side of the world

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Saturday 22.12.07

Christmas was just around the corner. It is not a holiday that I particularly follow with the greatest fervour, partly because I am not religious, and partly because of its rampant over-commercialisation. But I do like a good excuse to party, and the holiday period, that week or more of indulging in food and alcohol with friends and family, may be the best excuse we English-speakers have. Especially I might add, in the Southern Hemisphere, where things begin to heat up weather-wise. The temperature in Buenos Aires was rising too, but something was amiss. I realised there is an air about this time which makes it special, and it's probably due to being surrounded (and sometimes hounded) by loved ones. In short, I was missing my family and friends back in Australia. Nevertheless, I had a family in Buenos Aires with which to celebrate, and this passage is about how we passed that time in Argentina.

On the eve of the aforementioned feast, I was finally moving out of the Lime House hostel into an apartment in the inner-city barrio of San Telmo. When the previous tenants of the house, a couple of Ecuadorian friends of Anahí had left the house in a shocking mess I was more than a little annoyed, and Christmas was off to a shaky start. With her mother Maria, sister Carolina and Carolina's boyfriend Nico, we went to her aunt's apartment in Palermo after nightfall. I had the pleasure of discovering not only that Christmas is a very similar occasion in our two countries in regards to general table banter and laughs, but also that Argentineans have some unique interpretations of Christmas cuisine. Featuring strongly was Matambre (mystery processed meat with egg and traces of vegetables) and Vitel Toné (thin beef medallions in a tuna sauce). These eccentric but tasty offerings were washed down with glass after glass of bubbly sidra (cider).

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Christmas Day we met Carolina and Nico and the four of us made our way out to a house in the pueblo of Marcos Paz, hanging a little like a loose thread off one of Buenos Aires' outer skirts. This triple-tiered trip included my first ride on the Subte Linea A, which is what you would get if you put the ancient W-Class trams on the City Loop. When we arrived two and a half hours later, I discovered that the girls' extended family were talking over the top of one another with such incredible pitch and tempo that I couldn't understand a word that was being said. I instead busied myself with much the same food and sidra as I'd indulged in the night before, and discovered Nico, an Argentine himself was also completely lost in the cacophony. After another two and a half hours, bone-tired and bulging unattractively, it was time to make the long ride home, similar in duration to the journey out, if not longer.

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Beige is not the kind of colour to stir up the deepest of desires. It's not the colour of the flag you would display proudly from the top of your mast, nor can it be described as dazzling, devilish or even dangerous. It is just well, beige. Argentinean cuisine is decidedly beige, but that's not to say it can't be delicious. I have mentioned in previous passages the two most succulent steaks which have ever crossed this critic's lips had been born and bred in Argentina, and of course Argentina's pastries, from sweet facturas to savoury empanadas also taste wonderful. It's just that you hope they would throw a vegetable or fruit into the mix now and then. And a bit of spice wouldn't go astray either. It appears at least the porteños are beginning to branch out a little, as the growing popularity of international fare like sushi may attest.

Alfajores are one such beige delicacy that won't blend into the background. Every country has its vices. Australians are fanatics about chocolate, crisps and biscuits to name a few. Argentineans have Alfajores. They are best described as regular Wagon Wheels, stacked three high and the jam substituted for dulce de leche. There can be found a mucus-secreting selection of these treats just in front of the counter at every corner store, and due to overwhelming popularity, chocolaty giants such as Oreo, Cadbury and Chips Ahoy! have jumped in and produced their own lines. By far the most popular is the ubiquitous Havanna, hailing originally from Mar del Plata and available for purchase by the boxload in seemingly every fifth store in the Microcentro. It was to Mar del Plata that we would be sojourning next, not in search of the humble Alfajor, but of salt and sand and fresh air and everything that wasn't available in Buenos Aires.

Posted by Jeremy T 15:55 Archived in Argentina Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Human Traffic

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Monday 10.12.07

Every working day in Buenos Aires brings a new protest, rally or call to arms, and more often than not, the parades thrust towards 20-lane Avenida 9 Julio to cause as much upheaval as possible. A yawning chasm splitting the city's skyline down the middle, the world's widest street requires two light changes to span its immense girth on foot. An entire north/south column of city blocks was put to the floor in its conception, and the resplendently phallic Obelisco erected in the middle of its three-way intercourse with Avenida Corrientes and Avenida Roque Saenz Peña.

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Along with the cloth banners and chanting of the typical protest comes the drum beating, snare rolling, whistle blowing and exploding firecrackers. I initially believed it all to be just pre-election ranting, but even after Cristina Kirchner succeeded her husband to the presidency, the streets of the Microcentro continue to be blocked periodically by taxis, sanitation trucks or throngs of labourers, construction workers and university students. One day I had the privilege of witnessing a protest traffic-jam at the obelisk, where a two-tone blue 9 Julio rally yielded to an angry red and white Corrientes mob marching perpendicular to their forward motion.

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Today's rally took the proverbial cracker as almost half a million people lined up for the whole day along Avenida Mayo to watch 'La Presidenta' Cristina pass after her inauguration in the late afternoon. For its entire length from Plaza de Mayo to Congreso (just over one kilometre), the avenue was blocked by metal barricades with only two places to cross. In the end, I had to cross 9 Julio up and back at the junction of the two super-roads to find the crossing heading in the right direction, and even that required becoming an honorary member of a frenetically-drumming group known as the Octubre Movimiento. In fact, every person watching the parade seemed to be part of a political organisation or lobby group, often with the words nacional, liberación or frente planted somewhere on their movement's banner.

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A spare change funded circus of sorts thrives outside the cinema centre in cash-riddled Recoleta. With an auspicious location across the road from one of planet earth's most glamorous cemeteries and only a coin's flip from the restaurant strip, the complex draws a significant amount of prestige foot traffic every night. Attracted to this jingle-jangle of foreign and local plata comes the street performers, grubby children selling roses for "One money please" and a blob-like character lying on a rug who bawls at passers-by in the hope they drop a couple of monedas into his Itty Bitty Bin.

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Posted by Jeremy T 07:00 Archived in Argentina Tagged foot Comments (0)

Up Close and Personal

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Thursday 06.12.07

There are places in this world where the alcohol flows like water, where perfect strangers get along, cultures come together (though often nullified within moments) and no-one complains too much if you come home stinking drunk and a little noisy at 7am. I'm talking about the typical youth hostel. For those who have never backpacked, it might be a fairly alien concept, but it does become your home when travelling, albeit one you share with a few dozen or more like (or loose) minded individuals.

Single travellers make up the broth of the hostel soup, the core ingredients of which tend to be of English, Australian, Kiwi or Irish stock; a handful of Scandinavian, North American, Israeli and those of Germanic roots are then thrown in and a sprinkling of other nationalities adds the final touch. The English and Irish are happy to get drunk every single night, and usually spend their afternoons watching football on TV. The Aussies and Kiwis will be scouring the town come evening for nightclubs they haven't been kicked out of yet. They sleep all day. Everyone speaks English, and there are always more males than females. You will hardly ever run into a person from France, Spain, Portugal or Italy at a Latin American hostel, even in Buenos Aires. Since bathroom, bedroom and living room are shared; belongings litter the floor; and beds, clothing and hair often stay unkempt for the whole day, it doesn't pay to obsess that your roommates' personal hygiene portfolios aren't as impeccable as yours.

Not all hostels are the same. Some tend to be quiet affairs - somewhere to stay while studying or escaping everyone else, meanwhile others are the complete opposite, encouraging group excursions and long-lasting drunken orgies where one may not see the light of day for more than half a week. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Buenos Aires, where the two hostels Lime House and Milhouse stand on opposite banks of huge Avenida 9 Julio. The Milhouse rates very highly with many English and Irish travellers, because here the alcohol to weight ratio is very good. For non-vampires though, the Lime House offers somewhere light, relaxed and a lot more worldly, but still with a lively social scene.

The weekend saw Buenos Aires play host to another big music festival, Personal Fest. Me, Anahí and her friend Camila all had tickets to the Friday night show, which kicked off for us with Tego Calderon, a famous Reggaetón artist who was accompanied by a couple of sexy African dancers. In the interim I took the others to see the Dandy Warhols, proponents of cool psychedelic prog-rock before we headed back to catch Electronic Tango group Gotan Project on the main stage. We fought our way through the crowd, filled with tattooed Latino gangsters (in clothing ten sizes too big) waiting at the same place for B-Real from Cypress Hill. Surely this couldn't be right - the stage was double-booked, and when finally Gotan Project's members, immaculately suited in white took the stage, it was to jeers and whistling from the crowd. The organisers had made a big mistake, and the several thousand-strong audience turned on the Tango group, hurling water bottles and the glow sticks that had been ironically handed to every paying punter. During their third song, the lead singer was struck by a pink torpedo in mid-note and they walked off the stage in disgust. Boldly they returned minutes later and finished their set to greater applause than they had begun with, all the while deftly sidestepping the remainder of the glowing missiles.

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I wandered off to catch some electronic music, and returned after an hour or so to the main stage to watch B-Real. With bi-lingual rhyming over funky beats and old-school stoner hits that everyone knew, he rocked the place, all while smoking joint after huge joint. With most of the crowd having BYO'd especially for the occasion, it's a wonder the fire brigade weren't alerted by nearby residents.

I migrated back to the dancefloor where seminal New York tech-heads Fischerspooner played an hour of great tunes and then returned for Snoop Dogg, but having had my fill of the crowd, I sat on the grass at the back. Without warning, two hundred people or more began running in my direction, and I did the only thing I could - I bolted too, hiding behind a tent as others leapt fences or fell over in the dirt. It was over as soon as it had begun, but only a few minutes after everyone returned it happened again, and then a third and final time. No one around knew what had transpired until after the event, when we found out someone had been stabbed. The Snoop Dogg show went on, and in typical fashion, he kept the crowd chanting his name repeatedly in several different ways throughout all his famous tracks for over two hours.

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A Kiwi friend Ricky joined me on Sunday evening to meet up with Anahí and another friend Elisa at a lake in Parque Tres de Febrero in Palermo. The streets winding through the park were lively at this time, devoted to joggers, rollerbladers and bike riders. Rented four and six-seater cycle buggies trundled past, often filled with singing or guitar-playing porteños, but the lake they had all flocked to definitely looked cleaner from a distance. The four of us departed to Palermo Hollywood in the later portion of the evening, and there was a feeling of finally breaking into the Buenos Aires underground music scene as the Afro Mama Jam session began. Rapping, singing and beatboxing were layered over improvised funk, while guitars, brass instruments and drums changed hands and rhythms. A pair of tapdancing twins augmented the eclectic collection of sounds and the crowd, squashed in between the bar and stage, held dance-offs of their own until management finally told everyone to pack up at 4am.

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Posted by Jeremy T 11:13 Archived in Argentina Tagged events Comments (0)

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