...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Paris of South America

Okay, so I´ve never been to the Paris of Europe, but after spending Thursday night through Monday morning in Buenos Aires, I could see why porteños (people from BA) call it that: wide, tree-lined avenues; gorgeous architecture; and world-class theater, art, music, and cuisine. Our mini-vacation there (I went with Kristin, Julia, Carla, and Mariah) was near-perfect. We did and saw and ate so much that it´d take a while to describe it all, but I´ll give it a try:

We all brought our luggage (which was not much, since we were only going to be gone a few days) with us to our CIEE class, then left during the recreo (break) about half-way through to walk to the bus terminal a few blocks away. All international flights in Chile leave from the capital, so we had to take a bus to Los Pajaritos station in Santiago, then take another transer bus to the airport. We flew to Buenos Aires and transfered to our hotel (it was included in the price of our trip) without incident. By the time we got there, it was after eleven, and we didn´t get to sleep until after midnight.

The day got off to an inauspicious start: when I turned on the faucet to wash my hands, there was no water. Ditto the shower. We called reception, and they said the water had been turned off for plumbing work or something; when we tried the water a little later, it came out all rusty and brown. At this point, I was a little concerned about the hotel, because it seemed just a little sketchy: it had a generally shabby aspect to it, the elevators were Old World-style lifts, and there was no bathtub or shower area in our bathroom. There was just a shower head near the ceiling, a drain in the floor, and a squee-gee. The idea was that the entire bathroom was your shower, and you´d squee-gee the floor afterwards. After breakfast at the hotel (tea, hot milk, toast with dulce de leche, and medialunas (´´half moons,´´ or croissants)) the water had been turned on and was coming out of the faucets looking like water, so we showered. Things started to look a little more auspicious.

And they were really auspicious when we stepped out of the hotel lobby and realized that our location could not have been better: we were right at the junction of Corrientes and Florida; in other words, smack in the middle of where we wanted to be. We spent the morning changing money, buying stamps, making reservations for things we were going to do later, and exploring the area around our hotel. We ducked into musty used-book shops, played in the plazas, bought fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice from a street vendor, visited the tribunal building and national post office, and walked along Avenida 9 de julio, the widest avenue in the world. 9 de julio, named in honor of Argentina´s independence day, is sixteen lanes and over 140 meters wide--that´s about one-and-a-half football fields. Since it´s impossible to cross in one change of the traffic lights, there are four grassy island/plaza strips running down the avenue--think the Park Blocks in Portland, only on a grander scale. 9 de julio was also the site of our near-death, as four of us (Julia made it across the street in time) were almost run over while trying to jaywalk. (We were sure the light was about to change!) But as Kristin said, at least being killed on the widest avenue of the world would vault us into legend-status among friends and family.

Walking around the city, I was amazed at how much diversity there was. Chilean society is extremely homogenous, and anyone with light-brown or blond hair sticks out like a sore thumb. To Chileans, I am blond, and anonymous Chilean men feel the need to point that out to me wherever I go. But there were so many porteños with blond, light-brown, medium-brown, even red hair that we barely stood out at all. It´s due to all the European (especially Italian) immigration to Argentina and especially Buenos Aires, and the fact that there was probably not as much mixing between the European immigrants/Spanish conquistadores and the indigenous populations as there was in Chile. In any case, it was wonderful to be able to spend three days virtually free of piropos (catcalls).

After lunch at a little Italian cafe headed back to our hotel for the city tour that was included in our travel package. It was more than a little touristy and cheesy (we were in a huge tour bus, and had to in introduce ourselves and then applaud everyone as they said which country they were from, etc) but definitely worth it, because it took us through some gorgeous neighborhoods that we might not have gotten to otherwise. For instance, we stopped in La Boca, the colorful, shabby-chic neighborhood where the Italian immigrants first settled and where tango was born among the brothels and sexually-frustrated single men. Originally, men danced with each other, the tango moves representing their frustration and longing and the dances serving as a kind of competition to see who would have the next ´´turn´´ with in the brothels. Eventually the men started dancing with the prostitutes, and the tango became less violent and forceful and more sensual. On the tour, we also passed by the theater where tango was first officially performed, signalling its acceptance by European and Argentinian high society.

Now La Boca is also home to one of Argentina´s two primary fútbol teams. The other one is called ´´River,´´ and there´s a huge rivalry between them.

We also passed through the cuico (posh) neighborhoods of Palermo, Palermo Chico, and Recoleta. We saw the Casa Rosada, or ´´Pink House:´´ it´s the seat of the federal government, and according to the guide was painted pink to diffuse tensions between two rival political parties, the Reds and the Whites. We stopped at the Plaza de Mayo, where I stepped into the National Cathedral and snapped photos of political graffiti scrawled on the cement pillars near the Plaza. We saw Puente Madero, a land-mark pedestrian bridge, and many many more things. By the end of the day, as we walked back to our hotel, it´s safe to say that we had all fallen under Buenos Aires´spell.

And one of the best things was yet to come: dinner. Oh, the food in Buenos Aires. Because of all the Italian influence in Argentina, there are a ton of incredible Italian restaurants and all but the most cuico can be enjoyed for incredibly cheap prices. We went to an Italian-Argentinian restuarant, where I ate the best steak of my life (the meat in Argentina is world-famous), shared a substancial breaded-mozzarella appetizer with Julia, and had two glasses of Argentinian red wine, all for less than $10 US. It was an Epicurean dream. We all went to bed that night happy, excited, stuffed, and completely in love with Buenos Aires.

I´ll have to write about Sadturday and Sunday later--I can see that I´m not going to be able to be concise, and I´ve got to work on a paper. Check back tomorrow, and until then, ¡chao!