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.

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