15 July 2008

All good things...

We woke up Sunday morning and acknowledged something we'd been denying for days: I was sick. I had a deep, dry cough, and I was very tired. I adopted a don't ask, don't tell attitude about my temperature, which was probably two or three degrees higher than it should have been. See, we have a nasty habit of getting sick on vacation. My sister-in-law Laurie has a theory that you power through life, but the day you leave for vacation, you relax and inadvertently let down your defenses. We'd planned to spend our last morning at the Jardín Japonés, but instead we spent most of it relaxing at the hotel. We spent some time chatting with our B&B's other guests, and then went to our room to finish packing. Our flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago didn't leave until 9PM, but Lorena advised us to get to Ezeiza three hours earlier. We decided that our last meal in South America should be at a classic old Buenos Aires establishment-- not at the airport. We took a taxi to Talcahuano 937 to try El Cuartito, a pizza place that's been a favorite among locals for nearly 75 years.

Argentina has deep ties to Italy, and those ties are reflected in the cuisine. Pasta and pizza are very popular here, and even the ubiquitous empanadas look a whole lot like calzoni. We'd had neapolitan pizza at Piola and Filo, but real Argentine-style pizza is different. For starters, it's thicker. As we discovered at El Cuartito, it's also cheesier.

El Cuartito is a classic old pizza place. The waiters are terse, and the walls are covered by sports posters and old magazine covers.
We ordered a small muzzarella pie, and another with jamon (it's under the cheese!) and sweet peppers. Unless you specify otherwise, all pizzas in Argentina seem to be topped with aceitunas even if olives aren't in the description. We also ordered a single slice of fainá. Fainá is a flatbread that's made with chickpea flour, and it's a traditional accompaniment to Argentine pizza. It's got a crisp crust, but the texture is a little like polenta. I'm not exactly sure what purpose it serves; we nibbled at it and then abandoned it to focus on our pizzas. El Cuartito's pizza is thicker and cheesier than the Neapolitan-style pizzas we generally prefer, but we enjoyed our lunch. More than the food, we just loved the old world vibe.

El Cuartito is in the center of town, a very short walk from Avenida 9 de Julio. Moments after we left the restaurant, and for the very first time on a street in Buenos Aires, I was concerned that we were about to be robbed. Buenos Aires is pretty quiet on Sundays, and the only other people walking along Paraguay toward 9 de Julio were a couple who were ripping open garbage bags on the street and searching the contents for... anything worth anything. Mostly, they found shreds of paper, and they didn't seem happy about that. We didn't speak, we just walked confidently past them. As we did, I noticed the woman's face-- she was completely strung out on something. She looked crazed. Several months ago, I read an article in the NY Times about paco, a cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine. Despite the scourge, we'd never seen any indication of drug activity in Buenos Aires before that moment. The couple moved on to the next set of garbage bags, and we reached the corner of 9 de Julio.

9 de Julio is a wildly wide avenue, with six lanes of traffic in each direction. We'd passed the Obelisco dozens of times during our stay in Buenos Aires, but we'd never bothered to take a picture of it before. Generally speaking, we prefer to take pictures of things that we can't easily find in Google-- ourselves, a certain old tree that caught our eye, maybe, or the label on a bottle of Uruguayan rosado that we'll never see again. We rarely take pictures of prominent landmarks because, well, someone else has already done it far better than we would. This wasn't so much a picture of the Obelisk as it was a picture of our last view of downtown Buenos Aires before we hopped in a cab to check out of Casa Palermitano and then leave for the airport.

Back at the hotel, we popped in to have one last chat with Lorena and Lucas. I'm really not a bird person. I've never been creeped out by anything more than the giant aviary at the San Diego Zoo. Lucas was different. He was like a cat with feathers. I enjoyed watching him eat peanuts, corn, and pickles, and I started to get a sense for his moods. One day I said to Steve "Lucas looks tired." As if on cue, he yawned ten seconds later and we both cracked up. On Sunday, Lucas was kind of moody. Just look at that cold shoulder! We said our goodbyes to Lorena and Andrea, who gave us a bottle of one of their favorite Argentine Malbecs and a pair of embroidered Casa Palermitano washcloths to remember our stay with them. We hugged them goodbye, and took one last look at the urban casa that had been our home for the past twelve nights.

When we got to Ezeiza, we were grateful for Lorena's suggestion that we get there early. The line to check in was very long, but we had entertainment. They guy in front of us boogied to whatever was on his iPod for a solid hour, occasionally singing audibly or doing a full turn. There was a dark side: every time the line moved, he bent his lithe frame in half to pick up his luggage and showed us a shocking amount of butt crack.

Within five minutes of boarding the plan, the passenger in front of us pooped himself.
We paid our exit tax, passed through security, and made it to the gate with half an hour to spare. Our flight to Santiago was packed, but it was on time. When we got to Santiago, though, we were stunned to see our flight to LAX was already boarding. We hurried to the gate only to find that our 11 hour flight was populated by a huge group of pajama-clad, giggly teenage girls returning to LA, and a large group of good looking male Uruguayan soccer players. When we boarded, the reality of our seat assignment was far worse than we imagined: the teenagers were scattered about and keeping to themselves. We had a functionally deaf older couple behind us who had to scream to hear each other, and a sick, screaming toddler and his clueless dad in front of us. We grasped hands, took a deep breath, and prepared ourselves for the worst. Within 5 minutes of boarding, dad was changing the world's stinkiest diaper right there in the seat. A flight attendant pleaded with him to use the bathroom, but when he didn't budge, she brought all the wet wipes she could muster. My thoughts immediately turned to the next occupant of that seat.

Then, shortly after take-off, we learned that LAN's amazing in-flight entertainment system was malfunctioning, and the countless movies, TV shows, documentaries, streaming music, and video games that had kept us and everyone else so happy on our LAX-SCL flight two weeks earlier would be unavailable. The flight crew rebooted the system a few times, but it never worked perfectly. In some seats, such as Steve's, it never worked at all.

The flight got off to a bad start, but shortly after the dinner service, the lights dimmed. Like Lucas does when Lorena puts a towel over his cage, Steve and I-- along with the toddler, his dad, the almost-deaf couple behind us, and nearly two hundred teenagers-- fell asleep. We hit some wild turbulence over the Pacific, but when I finally pulled out my ear plugs at 5AM, almost everyone was still asleep. With insistent button-pushing, I convinced the TV screen in front of me to play a movie. The flight attendants served breakfast-- an omelette floating in some sort of liquid. It was so unappealing that even Steve, who ate thymus glands in Argentina, wouldn't taste it. We landed on time, and although we expected a long, tedious trip through customs at LAX, we were out in the sunlight with our luggage an hour after we landed.

South Americans have a curious custom that we noticed on each of our seven LAN flights. As soon as the plane stops, the passengers applaud. Are they just grateful to be alive? Or is it a way of thanking the pilot for a job well done? We have no idea why they do it, but it's endearing. And on that final flight, we gave in and clapped too.

12 July 2008

Rodents of Unusual Size

After our big meal at Bar Uriarte last night, we slept like babies. We stumbled out of our room for coffee at 11:30, and bumped into Casa Palmeritano's newest residents, who'd just arrived this morning. They're from Brooklyn-- like me!

This is our last full day here, so we wanted to tie up a few loose ends. Norma doesn't work on Sundays, so we wanted to tip her personally and thank her for taking such good care of our room. Norma has radar; the moment you wander into the dining room, she drops whatever she's doing in another part of the house to squeeze oranges for your jugo de naranja exprimida. She always offers to make us some eggs, but we're usually too stuffed from the previous night's dinner to eat anything more than a couple of medialunas. Norma whistles while she works-- really.

We also wanted to pay Lorena today, in case we didn't see much of her tomorrow. I've said it before, but I've never encountered a better value that Casa Palermitano, and I've never encountered more welcoming hosts than Lorena and Andrea. In addition to providing us a very attractive, clean, comfortable, and spacious room for the bargain-basement price of $58 USD a night, Lorena and Andrea have helped to make every aspect of our trip better. They've not only called cabs, drawn maps, and made dinner reservations for us, but they've been friends to us here. They've given advice on how to stay safe, and chatted with us extensively in their office about Buenos Aires, their home, their plans for the future, and their hilarious, pickle-eating parrot, Lucas. Lucas plays in Lorena's hands like a puppy. She can turn him over, rub his belly, and put her fingers in his mouth. By contrast, Lucas will only speak for Andrea, but he won't let her play with him. Our flight is tomorrow night, but we reserved the room through Monday because we didn't want to check out early. Since Lorena had the room open anyway, she wouldn't take our money for Sunday night. She's just like that. We didn't want to risk offending her, so instead of insisting she let us pay for Sunday night, we asked her if we could take her and Andrea our for dinner. We have a 9:30 reservation for four at (drumroll) Bar Uriarte. We hoped to get back to El Establo, but we're kind of beefed out.

Dinner plans in place, Steve and I left for the zoo. Jardín Zoológico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires is in the Palermo Barrio, not far from our hotel. We've walked passed it more than once, but never quite made it through the gate. Before she and Larry left for home yesterday, Marcia warned me that the zoo here is more old school. "It might be upsetting to an animal lover," she explained.

There are several species of birds and rodents that wander freely through the park and approach people for food. There are kiosks everywhere that sell "animal food," and you can hand feed almost anything that lives in the Buenos Aires zoo. Animals with major fangs are out of reach, but for safe animals that you can't hand-feed, there's a chute you can use to pass food into the cage. We have petting zoos in the U.S., but it's hard to imagine a zoo that would allow animals-- any animals-- to wander freely.

The majestic aquatic turtles live in a glass tank the size of a small bathroom. Granted, they don't move much, but the enclosure had a goldfish-in-bowl look to it. Then there was this guy, a beautiful blue and gold macaw surrounded on one side by bricks, and on the other by a chain-link fence.

Animals from all over the world are represented at the zoo, but our favorites were some of the more unusual local speciments. The carpincho (capybara in English) is a rodent that's bigger than a large dog. Carpinchos are valued here for their leather. In fact, one of the current residents at our hotel, Chase from Los Angeles, showed up to breakfast in his handsome new carpincho slippers. The craziest-looking animal we saw was the giant anteater. Although these are usually harmless, an anteater attacked a zookeeper here last year and left her in critical condition.

It was about 70 degrees and sunny the whole time we were at the zoo. Not bad for winter, huh? It was a beautiful day, and we really enjoyed ourselves. We walked back to the hotel, and stopped at Munchi's for one last taste of Argentine helado-- frambuesa y chocolate amargo. Mmm, mmm.

Andrea and Lorena called a taxi to take the four of us to Bar Uriarte for our 9:30PM reservation. The staff recognized us from the night before, and they were extremely friendly and welcoming. We started with a sparkling Trumpeter Rosado de Malbec and some cheese croquettes. We ordered a couple of starters to share, and then moved on to our entrees and the best vino tinto of our trip-- the Flecha de los Andes Malbec. Steve and Lorena both ordered ojo de bife (ribeye) with goat provoleta and chimichurri. This may be total blasphemy, but Bar Uriarte's meats are better than a top notch Parilla's. Our waiter overheard us debating the various desserts and offered to make up a "special dessert tray for four." It was more like dessert for forty! We made a valiant effort, but the four of us barely made a dent in this tray.

I started to doze off on Steve's shoulder between entrees and dessert, and I suspect that's how Lorena and Andrea will remember me: ¡La chica que se durmió en la cena!

11 July 2008

The same, but different.

We'd tentatively planned to spend our Friday at the Buenos Aires Zoo, but then we bumped into Larry and Marcia from Seattle. It's their last day in Buenos Aires, and they invited us to join them at Caminos y Sabores, the "roads and flavors" expo at the La Rural Exhbition Center. It sounded like fun! Artisans travel from all over Argentina with their chocolates, oils, vinegars, spices, cheeses, salamis, beers, wines, licors, Fernets, leather goods, wool, silver, etc.

Larry and Marcia suggested we take the subway; the Bulnes station is about five blocks from our hotel, and La Rural is only two stops away from there by train. Cabs are so inexpensive here that we'd never bothered to try the subway. We pay about $4 USD for a typical cab ride across town; subway fare is $0.30.

The subway in Buenos Aires feels oddly like the subway in New York. The air is heavy, warm, and moist, and hits your face at high speed every time a train arrives. We got off at Plaza Italia, and walked up to La Rural. We've seen so many professional dog walkers in Buenos Aires, but this time, we actually had our camera at the ready. We counted sixteen, but there were leashes and paws everywhere.

As we approached La Rural, Steve noticed a majestic old tree. The trunk was huge! Here's a picture with Larry in it, just for perspective. We've seen several trees like this here, and every time I see one, I expect to see a door open up and a family of elves to scamper out.

The expo was interesting. It's open to the public for a small admission fee, but most of the vendors traveled to the big city in hopes of finding stores to sell or distribute their products. There were some really interesting wool and leather goods. One thing that caught our eye was a cow hair "agenda" that was designed to conceal a handgun. Might come in handy with the Supreme Court's recent interpretation of the Second Amendment!

We particularly enjoyed trying the cheeses. We tried one (I think they called it Queso de Campo) that looked like swiss cheese, but was mild and springy like day-old macaroni that's bloated from soaking up cheesy bechamel. Most of the cheesemakers call their goat cheeses "Queso de Cabra"-- goat cheese. We tried several different kinds, all with the same name. We finally bought a disc of a moist, firm one with a texture somewhere between a slicing and crumbling cheese, and took it back to Casa Palermitano (along with a $6 USD bottle of sparkling "Lambrusquino") for a light lunch. We also bought some wildly fragrant vinegars and a chimichurri-inspired dip to take home to the States.

We lingered over our wine and cheese in Lorena's diningroom for a long time, and then decided to read for a bit and take a nap. I know, it's a hard life when you're on vacation! For dinner, Andrea made a 9PM reservation for us at Bar Uriarte. Restaurants often struggle to create spaces that are both attractive and comfortable, but Bar Uriarte is both. It's a gorgeous space, but it's warm and inviting. The service was better than any we've encountered in BsAs, the wine list was extensive, and the food was delicious. And per the post below, we tipped like Americans, not like Argentines.

We started with a burrata and tomato confit salad. Burrata is the freshest cheese you'll ever taste, and it's as milky white and pliant as marshmallow fluff. We've had a lot of bad tomatoes in Buenos Aires. It's winter here, but that doesn't stop restaurants from throwing pale, flavorless tomatoes into their salads. The tomato confit was a much better idea! One thing we've really enjoyed here, besides the meat, is the mushrooms. Hongos are very popular in Buenos Aires, and they're usually delicious. We had a grilled polenta and mushrooms appetizer at Filo that we loved. Bar Uriarte's mushrooms are served alone on a plate with a few shavings of pecorino, but that's all they need. They're like little hunks of succulent, fatty meat. We relented and scooped up the smaller ones with some grilled flatbread that they'd left of the table, but only because we couldn't get them with our forks.

We've been drinking a lot of Malbec here, but it's always very primary and fruity. I suspect the better ones can age, but we never see older bottles on restaurant lists. I don't remember the producer, but we chose a reserve Syrah with dinner last night that was a little older and had a lot more character. It had a slightly herbaceous and coconutty American oak flavor to it, but not to the point of distraction. It worked well with our skirt steak and sweetbreads. Why isn't skirt steak more popular? We've had our share of tenderloin, sirloin, and ribeye here, but nothing packs more meat flavor for the buck than a good old fashioned skirt steak. As a kid, I used to order these "Roumanian tenderloins" for dinner at the Kosher deli. I hereby resolve to cook more skirt steak in 2008.

By 11PM, we'd moved on to coffee and crème brûlée flavored with (what else?) dulce de leche. A man with what had to be hair plugs came and sat next to us. He was at a sunken table for ten, so we were a couple of feet above him and totally fixated on his head. The hair around his head's perimeter was typical-- just coarse, graying, middle aged hair. The stuff in the center was soft, fine, darker, and stuck up like a baby duck's fuzz. We couldn't take our eyes off it. I had an almost irresistible desire to touch this man's hair-- and so did Steve.

Bar Uriarte could have been in Portland. Hell, it could have been in New York or Paris. When we got up to leave, we encountered a sobering reminder of how Buenos Aires differs from those other cities: the front door is bolted shut. A charming hostess peered out the window, and decided it was safe to let us out.

Random thoughts

Fast salt - use salt shakers in Argentina with extreme caution. Their normal-looking shakers release ultra fine salt from ultra big holes.

Small feet - I tried to buy a pair of Merrell all-weather mocs to hike around Iguazu Falls, and discovered that my feet, which are size 9, are freakishly larger by Argentine standards. I was laughed out of two shoe stores (they tried to convince me to wear 8s at both. "They stretch!")

To drink or not to drink the water - we use tap water to brush our teeth, and we haven't had any problems. We keep bottled water for drinking, and always order a bottle of agua con gas in restaurants. Even the locals seem to prefer bottled water. I don't think the tap water is dangerous, but if you're on vacation for only a week or two, it's not worth the digestive adjustment period.

Traffic lanes are mere suggestions. On a four lane street, it's common to see six or seven improvised lanes of cars. The cars are small, and they weave through traffic with so little room to spare that you feel you could be crushed from either direction. It's really terrifying, but it works. Traffic flows relatively smoothly, and most of the cars have seatbelts.

Cars are different - The ones we see in Buenos Aires are primarily Renault, Peugeot, VW, Ford, and Chevy. We've seen a handful of Mercedes (mostly tiny A160) and BMWs, and a lone Volvo wagon. Other than a handful of Honda Fits and a lone Toyota Corolla, we haven't seen many Japanese cars at all. The vast majority of cars seem to have manual transmissions, and we haven't seen a single airbag in any car in Buenos Aires. We take half a dozen cabs every day, so we've been in a lot of cars!

Two yellow lights - in Buenos Aires, traffic lights turn yellow before they turn red, but also before they turn green. My observation is that they blow they yellow light that comes before the green one regularly, but they seem to heed yellow before red. I guess you have to heed one or the other if you want to stay alive here.

Table charges - many restaurants charge a small cover fee for each person at the table. They range from about 2 pesos to 6 pesos, or about $0.66 to $2.00. This is NOT a tip; it's the restaurant's "cover charge." If it sounds like a scam, consider this: restaurants do not ever-- ever-- rush you here. You can order a cappuccino, and sit at a table all night. At one restaurant, Señor Telmo, we eavesdropped as a woman at a neighboring table tried to dispute the charge. Her husband had lunch, but all she'd had was a cup of coffee. She pleaded for ten minutes for them to drop the 2 peso charge, but the restaurant adamantly refused. Some of the higher end restaurants don't have a table charge, but most do. We've spent 250 pesos on dinner, and still been hit with the table charge. In Uruguay, our check also had a charge (that worked out to less than 50 cents per person) for the musicians who played during dinner.

Tips are appreciated here, but they're smaller. In restaurants, a tip is never guaranteed, but servers expect about 10%. Quite honestly, the service level rarely warrants more. The server takes your order, and brings your stuff to the table. You flag him down if you need anything else. You flag him down for the check. You pour your own wine and water, and you grind your own pepper. Not all restaurants accept credit cards, but even among the ones that do, you can't leave a tip on the card. Be prepared to leave cash. We've had a couple of experiences (notably at El Establo) where service was outstanding, and on those occasions, we've tipped 20-25%.

More on tipping - Porteños generally give taxi drivers no tips at all, or small tips by rounding up to the next peso on cab fare. We've left small, 1-2 peso tips for the most part. We've deviated from this local practice when a driver has gone out of his way for us. For example, the driver Lorena called to take us to Chacarita made multiple stops. We tipped him 20%. Our B&B's housekeeper and breakfast cook, Norma, has taken very good care of us. We leave what's considered a good tip (by local standards) for her every day-- 5 pesos, or about $1.67. It takes very little money by American standards to reward good service here, and the locals are truly grateful. We plan to leave a significantly larger, American style tip for Norma on our last day.

10 July 2008

Las Madres

The Littles are half Argentine. Their dad was born in Buenos Aires, and lived there until his parents emigrated to the United States when he was five years old. Grandma Nelly was an only child, but Grandpa Richard was the youngest of seven children. My kids have history and extended family in Argentina, and I wanted to see some of it for myself. Their dad dug up an old picture and the address of his father's house-- Puntas Arenas 1861. It's in the Paternal Barrio, a straight shot west about twenty minutes from our hotel in Palermo. It's well outside central Buenos Aires, so Lorena (we love this woman!) gave us a more extensive map, called a taxi, and instructed the driver to take us to the house, give us a few minutes to get out and take pictures, and then take us on to our next destination. The picture we'd seen of the house looked so much like the beautiful old houses we've seen in San Telmo. When we found it, we were surprised to see that it looked nothing like the picture. We double checked the address. Punta Arenas 1861 has had a complete facelift.

We got back in the cab, and headed to Cementerio Chacarita. Grandpa Richard's family has a mauseoleum there. It's an imposing sight; it's as beautiful a cemetery as Recoleta, but much larger. The archivo, which had as many books as a small library, was closed. We had no way to look up Grandpa's family's "address," so we just went for a walk and hoped we'd find it. We knew it was pointless-- it was sort of like walking up and down random Manhattan streets in hopes of spotting a single familiar name on a single familiar mailbox. We never found Grandpa's family, but near the entrance, we spotted Grandma's maiden name on a mausoleum. A relative? We'll ask her when we get back to Los Angeles.

Chacarita has its famous residents, but it's a living, breathing cemetery. Most of the visitors we saw today were there to pay respects to a relative, not a celebrity. We saw a procession of cars pull up, presumably for a funeral. There are florists near the entrance, but I noticed that unlike at Recoleta or in the States, where visitors leave flowers in bud vases and empty soda bottles, they simply tuck them into the tombs at Chacarita. Vases, or any other vessels that hold water, are forbidden at Chacarita. Still water provides a happy home for mosquitoes, and mosquitoes here spread Dengue fever. The flowers for the dead don't live as long at Chacarita, but they're safer for the living.

We left Chacarita, and took a cab to Plaza de Mayo. The U.S. State Department website had one strict warning for Americans who visit Argentina: avoid political protests. We timed our visit to Plaza de Mayo, the political center of Buenos Aires, to coincide with a left wing march. Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have marched in protest every Thursday afternoon at 3:30 for thirty years. Las Madres is an association of mothers who formed to protest the disappearance of their adult children during the Argentine "Dirty War"-- a military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. Initially, we were very interested in the Mamas and their cause. What could be more odious than a dictatorship that abducts people during the night, tortures them, murders them, and never even returns the bodies? As we learned more about the Mamas, our affection diminished. Many of them have been radicalized by their experiences; they're not just little old ladies in headscarves who protest egregious human rights abuses anymore... they're hardcore socialists. The banner they carry says "distribute the wealth." One of their founders, Hebe de Bonafini, has publicly stated her support for the September 11th hijackers. We saw a lot of tourists in the square before the march (which is actually more of a leisurely stroll) and many gave Las Madres donations. That really hardened my feelings about charity: I do not ever, under any circumstances, donate so much as a dollar to a cause just because someone holds out his hand. Your money has power, and it's your political voice; be sure you agree with how it will be used before you hand it over.

The Mamas inspired much stronger feelings in me than I expected. All fired up, I took Steve's hand and headed to Munchi's to chill out over a couple of cones of delicious Argentine helado.

09 July 2008

9 de Julio

July 9 is Independence Day in Argentina. At Lorena's suggestion, we spent the afternoon with several million Argentines at Feria de Mataderos. There are a lot of street fairs in Buenos Aires; we went to the Feria San Telmo last Sunday and enjoyed ourselves, but it's intensely touristy. The Matador's Fair, which is far from the center of Buenos Aires (but still only $10 US by cab) has a lot more local flavor.

Lorena called a taxi for us, and arranged for the same taxi company to pick us up a few hours later. At the outer edge of the fair, which is in the Mataderos barrio, it looked like a cheesy outdoor flea market. There were some freshly baked churros (note: stuffed with dulce de leche. The Argentines stuff dulce de leche into everything) for sale, and table after table of assorted crap. A block or so into the fair, it changed before our eyes. We watched artisans hammer silver, and we admired table after table of handcrafted stuff. Some of it was ridiculous; in keeping with the gaucho theme, a lot of folks make random objects like clocks and wine racks out of horseshoes. Some of it, though, was really unique. We found a young glass artist who makes jewelry and bud vases reminiscent of the 50s era Higgins pieces that I've been collecting for years. We picked a vase with fun design, and gladly handed over nineteen pesos-- about $6.30. We bought a few souvenirs for friends and family, and then we found a couple of native women from Salta who were selling alpaca sweaters. We both spotted a gorgeous white and gray alpaca scarf, and decided to share it. When the woman who made it asked us for treinta pesos-- $10-- we thought we'd misunderstood.

Food and drink are not regulated here the way they are in the states. At fairs, people wander around with baskets of homemade pastries and empanadas for sale. One woman set herself up on the sidewalk and laid out her beautifully made cakes on milk crates. People sell bottles of homemade "licor" without any special licensing. One woman offered us samples, and we loved her stuff. Her dulce de leche ($2 for a nice sized jar) had a deeper flavor and lighter texture than most of what we've had here, and her dulce de leche licor ($3 for a 500ml or so bottle) could put Bailey's out of business. Who knows if we'll get either package through customs.

As we strolled past more sellers, I reached down to pet a large dog that brushed up against my waist. I jumped back a couple of feet when I realized that the large dog was actually a small horse! The horses are an attraction of sorts. For a couple of pesos, you can plop your child up on to the horse for a few minutes, go for a walk, and take pictures.

At the center of the Feria de Mataderos, there's a stage for live entertainment. The music is familiar to everyone who lives here, with mostly older men and women dressed in traditional gaucho clothing who dance along. We loved seeing so many people, young and old, sing every word to songs we'd never even heard.

We had food fatigue from all the big meals we've had here, so we decided to skip lunch. We were still curious to see what the locals were eating. In some ways, a street fair is a street fair is a street fair.
There are asados everywhere, and they serve hamburgers, sausages, grilled chicken, etc. Then there are the more uniquely Argentine empanadas, which cost about $0.30 US each. Mexican tamales are very popular, too. If there was meat to be had, there were locals in line for it. One of the stranger offerings involved popcorn. Fruit is dipped in goo, threaded on to a skewer, and rolled in popcorn. We agreed that we'd never seen anything quite like it, and that we wouldn't feel like we'd missed an important cultural experience if we walked on by. We made our way back to the center of the fair to watch the dancers, but by late afternoon, the crowd had swelled and the square was unbearable. There were traffic jams-- traffic jams of people-- in every direction. What had been a very pleasant experience turned into my own personal hell. We escaped back out to the fair's less crowded periphery to do some people watching, and then studied the map Lorena had drawn for us to find the spot where we were supposed to rendezvous with our taxi. He arrived within a few minutes, and flagged us down. It's humbling to realize how much we stick out here. Argentines aren't homogenous by any stretch, but with our fair skin and curly blond hair, we're just too far from the average to blend in.

We headed back to Casa Palermitano for a much-needed siesta, and decided to make dinner reservations at an Indian restaurant just around the corner called Katmandu. There's only so much beef and so much pasta you can eat, and we knew we wouldn't find either at Katmandu.

It was a nice dinner. Typical stuff, but well executed. Some tandoori paneer and vegetables, and some rogan josh. We ordered a Catena Zapata rosado of Malbec. It was 46 pesos on the restaurant's list, which works out to $15.30. The owner came over to compliment us on a good choice, and told us it's worth the extra money. We were dumbstruck. Can you imagine ordering a really good wine from a restaurant's list for $15? He told us a little about the wine, and then asked where we were from. We told him "the United States." He asked where. "Oregon," we told him. Then he said something that surprised us: I know Oregon. We know the United States. People there don't know Argentina, though.

It's true, I suppose, and it's neither an unreasonable statement nor an unreasonable reality.

08 July 2008

Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento is the oldest town in Uruguay. Spain and Portugal took turns conquering Colonia for about 150 years before Uruguay gained independence in 1828. The Barrio Histórico, which retains its colonial era charm, is a popular vacation spot for Porteños, and a frequent side trip for tourists in Buenos Aires. There are several ferries each day, and the "fast" boat gets you to Colonia in under an hour. In typical form, we booked the ferry ride the day before, so we took the seats available to us: first class to Colonia, and steerage back to Buenos Aires. Steve tried to e-mail a hotel in Colonia for reservations, but he never got a response. Lorena, our innkeeper and savior, called the Posada Plaza Mayor for us, and confirmed that they'd gotten Steve's e-mail and had a room waiting for us.

Primera clase was nothing special. The only real advantages are 1. fewer screaming children than there are in turista clase, and 2. free champagne in plastic cups. It's a 50 minute ferry ride; unless you're seriously high strung about crowds and noise, the first class seats aren't worth the extra pesos.

The ferry to Colonia overflowed with humanity. There were more people than seats. When we disembarked in Uruguay, the scene at baggage claim looked like a chapatti giveaway in central Dhaka. Fortunately, we hadn't checked any bags. We skirted the edge of the crowd and beat a hasty retreat with our lone backpack. When we got to Barrio Histórico, there was nobody there. Were they still waiting for their bags? Hours later, as we snapped pictures of the lighthouse with only a handful of tourists in sight, we wondered where everyone had gone.

Our room at the Posada Plaza Mayor was spacious, with high ceilings, huge windows, and gorgeous old moldings. The best part was that it opened out to this beautiful patio. The worst part was that the hotel allows smoking, and the room was redolent of stale, old smoke. The staff were pleasant and helpful, and offered us restaurant and sightseeing tips in English.

We had a leisurely lunch of ñoqui and Uruguayan rosado at a charming Italian place near the hotel, and then wandered down to the beach. I think this is technically the Rio de la Plata, but it looks, smells, and feels like the Atlantic Ocean. At 3PM, it was still warm enough to enjoy the ocean breeze, so we walked by the water for a long time. When it got too cold, we wandered back into town to check out the sights. In some ways, Colonia is like every other beach town on Earth. There's a lighthouse, an old church, and countless antique and souvenir shops. In some ways, it's different. Most of the streets look like European cobblestone; some of them, the oldest ones, look like mazes of large, uneven rocks. It's equal parts Cannon Beach and 17th century Portugal. The Uruguayans take the "off leash" concept of dog ownership a step farther than we've seen in Argentina-- the dogs just sort of walk themselves and then go home. We saw dogs everywhere, and we rarely saw them with humans. All the dogs were polite and well-socialized. This little guy looked lost, but he took stock of his surroundings and found his way.

We had a few restaurant recommendations from our Fodor's guide and from the hotel staff. In Colonia, just as in Buenos Aires, restaurants don't even open for dinner until 8PM. At 7:30, most of them were pitch black. We grew concerned; in the U.S., it's not uncommon for restaurants to close on Sunday or Monday nights. Is that why the town was so quiet? We explored the ruins of an old Portuguese house for a while, and then returned to see if anything had opened. We were disappointed to find that Mesón de la Plaza, which is supposed to have the best selection of small production Uruguayan wines in Colonia, was closed. We found another restaurant that our Fodor's guide had recommended, and this one was open: El Drugstore. There were only a couple of tables of people inside: a women eating alone, which is a rare sight in South America, and a couple who smooched for so long that we're pretty sure they didn't need a room. We choose a table with a great view of the kitchen, which is smack dab in the front of the restaurant. We ordered an assortment of tapas-- some little cheese fritters, a tortilla, which is a Spanish omelette, and some couscous with mushrooms that was so hearty and meaty (despite being described as "vegetarian" on the menu) that we wondered whether they used veal stock or oxtails to kick it up a few notches. We settled in with a bottle of $10 Tannat, and nibbled slowly. An hour later, the music started. I don't really know how to describe the music-- flamenco guitar, maybe? The "drummer" tapped his hands against his own seat, and we were seriously impressed by the variety of sounds he was able to coax from such a simple wooden box. These guys were great! By 10:30, the place was packed. That empty table for six became a full table for eight, including three children. It's not just young adults who enjoy nightlife in Buenos Aires and its environs: we've watched toddlers and octogenarians file into loud, trendy restaurants past midnight.

We didn't want to leave. Of course, there's never any pressure to leave. We ordered a couple of espressos and a dulce de leche-stuffed crepe to prolong the experience. An hour after that, we ordered some cognac. When we finally requested our check (they never, ever bring a check until you ask for it here), it was only because we had a 9:45AM ferry to catch the next morning.

We enjoyed our trip to Colonia, but here are a few random thoughts about the experience...

• It's a day trip. There's no need to stay overnight. You can see the whole town in three or four hours. Although you do need to go through customs on both sides, it's a ten minute process.
• It's not a uniquely Uruguayan experience. We decided not to visit Montevideo, but we're having second thoughts. Colonia is geared for tourists, and as nice as it is, you don't get any sense of life in Uruguay. Go for the loveliness of the place, but recognize that it's very much a resort town.
• It's touristy nature makes it easier in some ways than Buenos Aires. Everyone seems to know a little English in the restaurants and hotels, and the restaurants offer menus in English. You can pay for anything in Uruguayan Pesos, Argentine Pesos, or American Dollars.
• Buenos Aires is a seriously frenetic city, and two weeks here can really wear you out. Colonia is a nice place to relax and recharge.

06 July 2008

Poor Niagara.

Everyone who's been to Argentina told us that you're supposed to visit Iguazu Falls. Iguazu is 650 miles northeast of Buenos Aires, near the confluence of the Paraná and Iguazu rivers where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. It's two hours by plane or twenty by bus. The pictures looked pretty, but as a side trip, it seemed expensive and cumbersome. Airfare for two? $800. One night at the dated Sheraton inside the park with views of the falls? $300. Tourist visas to see the Brazillian side? $200. Yellow fever shots? $300. Then there were the smaller issues-- transportation to and from the Iguazu airport sounded daunting. The falls can be at their least spectacular in July. The mosquitoes in the region occasionally carry Dengue, for which there's no vaccination. We tossed Iguazu back and forth, but cooler heads prevailed and we decided not to go.

Then we went.

We woke up late on Friday morning, and wandered into Casa Palermitano's dining room to see if there was any coffee and left over medialunas. We found both. We also found an American couple who had just returned from their third or fourth visit to Iguazu falls.

Nobody gets yellow fever shots.
Airfare is cheaper if you book from here than from the States.
Forget Brazil. The Argentine side alone is worth the trip.
You don't have to spend the night.
The falls are roaring now.

We pulled out my laptop, and booked a Saturday morning flight with a Saturday night return. With Lorena's gracious assistance, we used LAN's Spanish-language site and bought two tickets for about fifty percent less than they cost through the English-language site. Twenty hours later, we were in the park.

When we arrived at Iguazu Airport, we hired a driver, Mario, for the day. Mario pulled out a book with his prices; for the equivalent of $50 USD, he'd drive us to the park, wait for us, and then take us back to the airport whenever we were ready to leave. He asked for no money in advance, and offered us his advice on what to see both inside and outside the park.

Spanish conquistadors first spotted the Cataratas del Iguazú in the sixteenth century, and it's been a popular tourist destination for at least a hundred years. Supposedly, Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed "poor Niagara!" when she visited Iguazu Falls. Indeed. As Steve commented after we left, "waterfalls are ruined for me forever." Yosemite Falls, by comparison, looks like a small child peeing off the top of a hill.

In 2001, the Argentine government completed an amazing series of metal footbridges in place of traditional hiking trails. The footbridges protect the plants and animals from the millions of visitors who flow through the park, and offer visitors views that would not be possible from trails on the ground. There's also an open "eco train" that transports visitors from one trail to another.

We boarded the eco-train, and got off at the trail for Garganta del Diablo. The "Devil's Throat" is the most impressive of the falls, and an exciting place to start the trip. The bridges start off over land, and then extend over the deceptively tranquil river. There is no picture or video that will prepare you for the Devil's Throat. It's enormous in every direction. The sound is explosive. The air is wet with a constant, cool mist. At its densest, black birds rise up out of white nothingness. There's no visible bottom. The falls surround you, and it feels like the edge of the Earth.

We loved the mist, but we quickly pulled out our souvenir plastic ponchos. We'd packed for winter in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires-- not a sunny, humid day in the jungle. Wet jeans and waterlogged leather shoes sounded bad. We had no idea what we were in for a couple of hours later.

We made our way back to the eco-train, and were greeted by thousands of brightly-colored butterflies. They're absolutely everywhere. They're in the trees, they're on the ground, they're in the garbage cans, and they're often on the tourists. Then we saw the first of dozens of coatis. A coati is in the raccoon family, but it has a long, pointy snout that appears to have evolved to snatch bites of comida basura from unsuspecting tourists. We read online that coatis are one of the few animals on Earth that eat tarantulas, but the ones in the park have a definite taste for potato chips. I hoped to spot a giant capybara, but the rodents we saw look more like guinea pigs.

We took the eco-train to Cataratas Station, from which the park's upper and lower circuits both begin. Garganta del Diablo reminded me of the "Jurassic Park" ride at Universal Studios. It's so peaceful, but it's filled with anticipation for the heart-stopping, gut-wrenching finale. The upper circuit, by comparison, is a roller coaster of constant thrills with no single drop that's more memorable than the others. It's a sustained feeling of excitement that rewards visitors with breathtaking views at every turn. The upper circuit traverses the edges of any number of waterfalls; as you reach the edge of one and marvel at the wall of water beside you, you can see dozens more crashing in the distance.

Even in July, Iguazu gets hot. It was about 80 degrees and 90% humidity when we reached the upper circuit; in the shade, the breeze felt perfect. In the sunshine, our jeans plastered to our legs like saran wrap. We wore the lightest shirts we'd packed, but they were dark and had long sleeves. We stank. The lower circuit is fairly steep and has lots of stairs; with hindsight, it would have been better to hit that one first thing in the morning when the sun was lower and we were as fresh as daisies. We paused for some lemon ices in the shade, and pressed on. I don't know if it was our timing or the fact that it required more exertion, but we encountered very few people on the lower circuit. We had vast stretches of it to ourselves. I briefly considered skipping the lower circuit too, but looking back on everything I saw in the park, it was the highlight of my day. Of my year. Those who know me well know that I'm not prone to sentimentality about nature. I've never seen anything more perfect and more beautiful than Iguazu Falls framed by the full arc of a bright rainbow. We stared at it for a long time.

We eventually made our way back up to Cataratas Station, sticky and sunburned. Steve's shirt was completely soaked. It looked like it had fallen into a swimming pool of human sweat. Mine had white mosquito-repellent streaks and splotches everywhere. We were so happy that we didn't care. We wiped our heads off with the little hand towel we brought in our backpack, and decided that none of the people who had to smell us on the flight back to Buenos Aires would know our names our ever see us again. More on that later.

After a relaxed lunch at the visitors' center, we left the park and found Mario's car. He offered that he could take us straight to the airport, or for another $30, take us on a tour of Puerto Iguazú. With a few hours to go before our flight, we decided to see the city. Mario explained that Puerto Iguazú is home to 45,000 people. It's a nice enough town, but primarily, it's a place to stay outside the park if you want to visit Iguazu Falls but don't want to pay the Sheraton's high tariff. An enthusiastic, delightful guide, Mario showed us the confluence of the Iguazu and Paraná rivers, and took us to the spot at which Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet in a scenic triangle. The small skyline in the distance is Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The middle ground in the center of the photo is Brazil, and the photo is taken, of course, standing in Argentina.

We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. We cleaned ourselves up a bit, and then found a comfortable spot to look through our guide book and plan our next adventure. Our return flight left on time, and the plane was almost empty. I imagine it's packed on Sundays! For two hours, we joked about who looked stickier, and debated the merits of flying to Ushuaia, the city (population 430) at the end of the Earth, the next day. We had no luggage to claim, so less than half an hour after our plane landed, we were back at Casa Palermitano. We should have been exhausted, but we were totally energized by our thrilling day! We plotted a midnight dinner at Piola. Since Steve was technically far grubbier than I was, he claimed the first shower. I grabbed my Fodor's guide with Piola's number, and burst out of our room with my frizzy rainforest hair to ask Lorena to call for a reservation. Just as I did, a couple walked toward me and said We were on your flight from Iguazu. Small world!

Small world indeed. The couple, who were actually right in front of us on the plane, are from Seattle. In a city of fourteen million people and almost as many hotel rooms, another couple from the Pacific Northwest is in the room next to ours in a five bedroom B&B with no sign. We sat together over coffee and medialunas this morning and chatted about Iguazu, Buenos Aires, and the fact that we'd all chosen to leave summer for winter after complaining all spring that it still felt like winter at home.

Tomorrow we're off to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. It looks lovely. No matter what we see or do in Uruguay or Buenos Aires now, this will always be the vacation when we saw Iguazu Falls.

04 July 2008

Cementerio de la Recoleta

Argentines love their corpses, and none more so than that of Eva Perón. Perón was thirty three at the time of her death from cancer in 1952. Her husband, President Juan Perón, had her embalmed so thoroughly and artistically that her corpse could be displayed to the public permanently, just like Lenin's. Things didn't work out as planned. Perón was overthrown in a military coup a couple of years later, and Eva's body vanished for sixteen years. When it finally surfaced, Juan Perón kept Eva's body in his home, where his subsequent wife, Isabel, brushed the corpse's hair every day. When Perón died, Isabel buried Eva's body in her family's tomb in Cementerio de la Recoleta. The Recoleta Cemetery looks like a small city. The tombs, which all look different, sit side-by side in streets and alleys like a Manhattan neighborhood in miniature. Some of them look like mansions, carved from marble with elaborate detail. Others look like rundown brick shacks where a troll might live. The Duarte family's tomb is somewhere in the middle. It's well-maintained, but in no way ostentatious. The cemetery's other residents are... cats. It's a recurring theme here in Buenos Aires. The cats are friendly and well-cared for, and they're absolutely everywhere. Some of them seem to stand guard in front of some particular tomb, as though it's home.

After we toured the cemetery, we walked around the neighborhood a bit and then hailed a taxi to El Establo. Margaret's El Establo. This time, we wrote down the address. The palmitos were as to die for as Margaret described, and the waiter, who absolutely charmed us, demonstrated how tender our meat was by cutting it cleanly with a fork and spoon! One thing Margaret didn't mention was the french fries. The "papas fritas" at El Establo were the best fries we've ever had-- far better, even, than any frite we ate in Belgium. We often order more than we want to eat just to try different things, but we finished every bite at El Establo. We actually split the last fry on principle. As we finished up our Malbec, the waiter brought us a couple of shots of limoncello, gratis. Then a couple more. We left the restaurant, and wandered up Calle Florida to peek into store windows and walk off lunch.

Tonight, we'll be asleep by 10PM. Tomorrow morning, we'll be up by 4:30AM to catch a plane to Iguazu Falls.