Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Buenos Aires - Argentina

We arrived in the capital at eleven in the morning and promptly left our bags at the bus station secure zone before heading out into the big city.  A quick stroll and a spot of lunch was in order so we found a good value café down a little side road before being pointed in the direction of Florida avenue, a popular shopping street with big retail outlets either side and street vendors with their wares laid out on rugs in the middle along with a smattering of touts flogging tango shows throughout.  Just off the street is a famous mall ‘Galerias Pacifico’ into which we ventured, not to buy anything of course but it was fun getting lost riding the escalators and admiring the murals on the ceiling in the main lobby of the building.  Plenty of window shopping later (do you still call it window shopping if they sell in the street?) we decided to rest the feet in a historic ‘ye olde’ billiard hall with plenty of atmosphere called ‘Los 36 Billares’ where at first we sat down upstairs and enjoyed a bottle of wine.  We then descended the stairs and watched games of three ball billiards take place before conceding that we didn’t really understand it and opted for a game of pool further down the hall.  The games were timed on ancient wall-mounted mechanical devices that you could hear click-clacking as the clockwork mechanism ran, keeping track of your time with the associated costs detailed on a laminate pinned below the gismo.  It was a great hangout and time went quickly.

In the Galerios Pacifico shopping mall

In the Los 36 Billares billiard hall

The clockwork timer gizmatron
We had successfully been able to arrange a Couchsurfing host for here in Buenos Aires and he along with his girlfriend were musicians and we had arranged to meet at one of their performances.  Wanting to make sure we would make it on time, we began making our way to the venue with what we thought was plenty of time to spare.  A couple of subways later we in the general area trekking down street after street, I don’t think the scale on the map had really hit home yet for us as it is such a big city.  We walked and walked, the streets weren’t always well signposted so we sometimes needed to rely on directions from locals which were well intended but unfortunately often bogus, a big problem in South America.  We had arrived at a rather dodgy neighborhood called Abasto, renowned for being a bit of a slum with lots of people making their beds in doorways and going through the bins but we didn’t encounter any problems.  The club was called Guapachoza and was an amazingly quirky cabaret style venue with a long, dark seating area that had a bar at one end and a stage at the other.  It was there that Sebastian and Silvana introduced themselves to us and explained that they would be playing later which meant that we had made it on time!
The bar had quiche and pizza for sale by the slice along with a great white beer called ‘Patagonia’ which we sipped on whilst the other of the two acts finished their final sound check and our hosts came on to play.  Sebastian plays a seven string classical guitar and Silvana plays the flute, together they play Tango along with traditional Brazilian-influenced styles.  I would have been happy having found the venue with the level of talent on display let alone knowing that we would have the privilege of being hosted by them and later have a chance to talk all things music, they are amazing musicians and it really was an honour for us.  The second group to play were also excellent, original songwriting backed up with an inventive display of percussion leant to a wonderful performance.  Although we were tired it was great to have had an authentic and enjoyable experience such as this.  We stayed at Sebastian’s flat in a peaceful town called Martinez which was in the Province of Buenos Aires (the capital and the province are distinctly separate to the extent where they are both independently governed) where he was a true gentleman and host by giving up his warm and extremely comfortable bed for us and setting up his single mattress in the kitchen.    

Sebastian and Silvana performing

Sebastian, Silvana and Kate

Rising early the next day, we got into Sebastian’s car and picked up Silvana before getting the train to Retiro in the city.  It was an extremely important day for our hosts who were due at the Foreign Office to give a presentation in order to qualify for a grant to travel Europe to play Tango music.  We parted at the train station and with our best wishes residing with them we headed to the prosperous suburb of Recoleta to visit the Cementerio de la Recoleta which is a graveyard filled to the brim with the statues and marble sarcophagi of the wealthy dead.  Often the graves stand as high as bungalows in a micro village of family tombs set out like a city grid.  One of the more popular although definitely not amongst the most prominent was the tomb of the Duarte family which is the final resting place of Evita.  Impressive as it was there is only so much sarcophagi air you can breathe in so we headed to the landmark Obelisco in the city center which is a giant phallic statue to pose in front of as a testament that you indeed are in and have been to Buenos Aires.

Cementerio de la Recoleta

The final resting place of Evita

Kate in front of the Obelisco
Craving the space that is so desperately precious in these big cities we visited the Botanical garden in Palermo that was home to lots and lots of cats, trees, naughty and nice statues and an unusable bin owing to the fact that there was a cat on it.  We witnessed sunset that evening at a park called ‘Parque 3 de Febrero’ next to a lake surrounded by roller-bladers and joggers.  Following this we visited Plaza Serrano albeit very quickly as we were due to meet at Silvana’s for dinner later that evening.  The Plaza was surrounded by bars of different sorts and it was here that we received a free drinks offer for a bar called ‘Bowie’ which was apparently up the road but turned out about fifteen minutes up the road and by the time we got there it was time to leave.  The bar looked new and had some enthusiastic staff but it just wasn’t good timing for us so we finished our drinks and left (we did buy one too we aren’t that tight!).  At Silvana’s we got out the guitars and had a quick jam before we ate, Sebastian was teaching me some southern Argentinian crowd pleasers which I still hum now and again although I’m not sure what any of them were called.  The pizza arrived along with a more traditional dish, a pizza shaped chic-pea based food that was similar to a potato cake.  

Cat bin

How many cats?

Getting your ducks in a row in Parque 3 de Febrero
The following day we had our first glimpse of San Telmo which had a small and standard plaza market during the week and some goings on but this was nothing compared to the atmosphere of when we visited that Sunday.   Highlights of our original journey there included spotting (albeit hard to miss when you share the same pavement) professional dog walkers that somehow manage to tend to at least ten well behaved pooches at a time.  In addition to the outdoor goings on there is an indoor market selling genuine antiques including robots from yonder year,  musical relics such as gramophones and even old toys like Subbuteo figures (we clocked a 1993 England team).  Having nibbled on our first churro, a sweet snack similar to a doughnut but made in a kind of oblong shape, our taste buds were aroused and it was time to seek sustenance.  Being told that Puerto Madera was a good place to visit we headed out there and although we didn’t really feel the charm and it was all a little bit uppity, we got kicked out of a bar when they discovered we wouldn’t be eating straight away, I’m sure with some hot weather it could be a fun day out.  A little more wandering lead us to a really nice hotel restaurant where we enjoyed a bottle of wine with an excellent ‘Menu del Dia’, the often cheaper set menu option, for lunch which usually includes a drink and a desert as well. 

The dog walker
Heading back to Plaza Dorrego we entered a bar to kill some time before we headed to no less than the Brazilian Embassy for a performance of some traditional Brazilian music including original compositions by the orchestra that Silvana played the flute for.  Before we departed San Telmo we managed to view an impromptu Tango performance on the stage of a mostly empty bar.  We threw some change in the hat for the dancers and made our way to the Embajada De Brasil, where we enjoyed some extremely well-rehearsed numbers performed by talented musicians.  Free drinks and nibbles in the lobby followed the performance where I was able to grab a photo with the gang, afterwards Silvana informed us how they strictly practiced around three hours a week yet it was the first time they had the opportunity to do a proper performance in two years.  This was also a chance to meet Silvana’s dad who was a really nice guy and was also an excellent opportunity for us to practice our Spanish and him his English as he gave us a lift in the car on the way back (he said he couldn’t speak much English but he was a bit of a dark horse).

Tango in the bar

Silvana in the Brazillian orchestra
Drinks in the lobby afterwards

Silvana and her dad
On Friday the 1st of July we had our first sleep-in for a while and a generally lazy day at Sebastian’s doing some updating and we got to meet his good friend Leandro who was a legend.  There was to be a bit of a Jersey reunion that evening as James Orpin, a friend and Spanish studies buddy is currently working in Buenos Aires teaching English.  It would have been a crime not to meet up this side of the world, our profesor senor Duffy would not be best pleased.  Orpy and Charlotte were hosting a housewarming parrilla (South American style BBQ) at their new place and had invited us to join the festivities; this would be our first parrilla so we were understandably exited!  Our expectations were fully exceeded and I had no idea what a wizard Orpy was on the BBQ as he served up a mixed grill of chorizo, beef steak, morcilla (a black pudding style sausage), cheese and courgettes along with much more.  The evening really was amazing and it was great chatting to his workmates albeit a bit bizarre to suddenly have English speakers as the majority for the first time in a long time.

Orpy, Sebastian, Silvana, Leandro, Kate and me at Orpy's parrilla
Keeping with the meat theme, we cooked a traditional British roast on the Saturday with Yorkshire puddings and all (although we didn’t stretch to making the stuffing).  Sebastian and Silvana really enjoyed it which may have had something to do with the gravy being made with a whole bottle of red wine.  The guys were especially excited by the puddings which didn’t turn out too bad for mostly guesswork on the measurements.  This was washed down with a bit of Fernet and afterwards they had to depart in order to teach students on their relative instruments for about an hour or so.

Sitting down for our traditional British roast

The famous Fernet drink

My beard had been proving to be far to irritating and in the most part ginger so this was removed whilst we waited for Sebastian and Silvana to finish teaching, trying a variety of beard and moustache styles in the process at Kate’s discretion and amusement.  On their return they took us out in Martinez to a heladeria for ice cream where we enjoyed the best flavour in the world, the creamy toffee tones of the lovely dulce de leche with chocolate pieces.   Sebastian had a gig that evening at a five star hotel which he had been playing at for around three years I believe.  It isn’t the most intimate of venues playing in a large lobby amongst the odd clatter or plates and kids running around past their bedtimes but it had been a great networking spot and he had secured many appointments from this.  He still managed to pull in a crowd as he performed a variety of styles which included traditional tango and Brazilian styles.  Whilst he played his hour long set the hotel staff gave Kate and I a bottle of wine on the house along with free reign of the buffet in the dining room, we really were living well lately!  It is traditional to head out on the town late in South America and this evening was no exception.     

Tucking into ice creams at the heladeria

Sebastian playing at the hotel

I think it was around 1am when we turned up at a local bar in Martinez where they had some great deals on drinks, albeit quite hard to get one as although the staff were friendly they had their heads positioned firmly up their rears and couldn’t handle an order of more than four items.  Honestly, I began getting the round in and she had to stop me after a beer and two Bailey’s whereupon she opened up someone else’s beer that was already on the bar but still cold and then proceeded to make herself and her mate a drink!  The tab system in these places is ridiculous as it merely complicates matters and Leandro vouched for this by mentioning that he has been able to sidestep out of the bar without settling up on plenty of occasions!  We enjoyed a drinking game or two before heading back to Sebastian’s where Leandro and I had the jam that I had been craving and it was great fun with absolute respect to Leandro who plays left-handed but can still knock out some tunes on a guitar strung up the opposite way round for him.

Out on the town in Martinez


The following day we revisited Sam Telmo but this time catching the Sunday market where the place really comes to life.  Along with the indoor and Plaza Dorrego markets, the stalls continued way down the adjacent street literally as far as you could see selling all types of clothes, souvenirs and gimmicky items.  There were street performers including a human statue and one performer who I can’t think of any other way to describe than ‘the wind guy’ who acted and was dressed as such that he always looked like he was in a gale.  Finally, the most bizarre of the street performers was a slobby looking South American with a big stick bashing a small cardboard box and throwing his voice to emit a horrible, baby-like crying noise as he did so.  We bought some hats, it was definitely cold enough and Charlotte bought some jewelry for her mum in England to be taken back by a friend as there had been problems with items being stolen from the post in the past!  Before boarding the subway, James and Charlie showed us the bizarre Casa Rosada (pink house) which serves as offices to the country’s president.  Back at Sebastian’s we had the standard roast dinner leftovers and said an emotional goodbye to Silvana for the last time.

The cups and metal straw for mate (local drink pronounced 'matay')

Kate with the human statue

The amazing wind guy

Charlotte, me and Orpy

Casa Rosada

On our final day Seb gave us a traditional meal of rice and broccoli which tasted better than it smelled before giving us a lift to train station where we had to say our final, sad goodbyes.  The week had gone amazingly quickly for us and I hope that Sebastian and Silvana had enjoyed it nearly as much as we had.  We are eternally grateful for them hosting us and including us in their lives at such a busy and important time for them.  One thing for sure is that our experience of Buenos Aires really wouldn’t have been the same without our new friends; we will try our best to visit any UK based gigs they have on their European tour next year for certain.  From the train station at Retiro we walked to the boat terminal and took a cheap one hour trip across the water with a company called Seacat to Colonia de Sacremento in Uruguay.  On the boat the locals were eagerly tuned in on their radios for the Copa America group stage football match between Uruguay and Peru and it felt like the whole boat rocked when they scored!  We didn’t have much in the way of expectations when it came to Uruguay but we knew that we couldn’t stay too long because we needed to begin the journey north and across to Bolivia in order to keep to our schedule.  Even so, Colonia de Sacremento had been recommended to us as a beautiful town and for the sake of a one hour trip in a land as big as this it really was an easy decision to make.   

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