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26 Sept-17 Oct 2013. For the first time in over a year I’m actually writing about a place while we are still there. It won’t last long, since we leave tomorrow, but for now I’m up-to-date.

We rented an apartment in BA, for the grand sum of $35 per night, in Recoleta, one of the more up-market regions of the city, though the apartment is somewhat faded. It has seen better days, but serves us well in all our basic needs. Good thing. As per the previous post, we’ve spent a lot of time in here, organizing the rest of our travels around Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. In between we’ve managed to travel all over the city to see beautiful buildings, Sunday ferias (neighbourhood street fairs), parks and reserves, a little tango dancing, a river delta and the world’s most extraordinary cemetery.

I’ve always, wrongly, called in Bwenos Aries, as in Aries the Ram. It’s actually closer to Bwenos Eye-rez. It’s a very cosmopolitan, European city, with wide boulevards, beautiful old French style buildings, many parks, and a population almost exclusively of European descent. Fashion and cafes are rampant. It’s known as the Paris of South America and I can see why, but, um . . . . .it’s no Paris, one of my favourite cities in the world. Not to say BA is awful. Far from it. As cities go it’s pretty good, and has been good to us. People have been helpful and friendly, there’s good infrastructure, and we’ve seen and done some wonderful things.

I don’t think I can convey how long it took us to get “Sube” cards to travel by public transport around the city. They are like London’s “Oyster” card, or Montreal’s “Opus” card, allowing you to use the one card for travel on all public transport. Each place we asked we were told to go somewhere different. Many times. They are not available at the subway stations. You need exact change (coins only) for the bus fare and it varies with how many stops you are going, and no one seems to want to give out coins in change so we really wanted these cards. Finally we found the Sube head office and waited in line for about 30 minutes, presented our passports and got our cards. After we’d used the 20 pesos we’d charged them up with it was then another merry-go-round to top them up but we finally did it. Same story with getting a SIM card for the phone – not available anywhere except at the head office of the service provider.

Everyone warned us about BA. Even before we left Vancouver a friend told us a story about a friend of hers who had been held up at gunpoint here. The taxi driver from the airport warned us, the apartment agent warned us. Over and over we were getting the message it’s not safe here. Well we’ve been safe. So far. Don’t want to tempt fate. It has made us reluctant to go out much at night, though when we have it’s been fine, and it has made us be more vigilant with our belongings, and reluctant to walk on empty streets. Always aware of surroundings. Daypacks and camera strapped on tight. And yet, a short piece from Don about our daily life here: For my birthday dinner this evening we stopped on the way home at our local fish market to get a salmon fillet, some fresh asparagus from our local fruit and vegetable store, and some fresh hand-made ravioli with a spinach filling from the pasta shop. To go with all that a bottle of an excellent 2011 Argentinian Sauvignon Blanc from our corner grocery store for the equivalent of US$12. Heaven! It’s very civilized. It’s very western, very cosmopolitan, and in places very sophisticated.

Some (not so typical) BA street scenes

Floralis Genérica, a gift to the city by the architect Eduardo Catalano. Huge and beautiful, sitting in a reflecting pool in a large park. Its petals can open and close though according to Wiki the mechanism is disabled. No matter, open to the sun is just fine.

I first visited La Recoleta Cemetery over thirty years ago, and never forgot it, and I’ve never seen anything like it since: a whole village of mausoleums. It’s quite extraordinary. Streets and streets of little buildings housing the dead. Family mausoleums laid out like a village. All different architectural styles. The burial place of whole families, of presidents, writers, actors, soldiers, politicians, Nobel Prize winners, and Eva Peron. Each building houses the remains of many. Some are well maintained, some sadly neglected.

A peek inside, though this is one of very few where that is possible

Cemetery cat. Be afraid. Be very afraid . . . . .

Of course we went to the Sunday market at San Telmo, a charming barrio (neighbourhood) of cobblestone streets dating back to the 1800’s, and full of antique stores. It’s listed as one of the top places to see in BA and on Sundays it comes alive with street stalls and musicians. Some people writing Tripadvisor reviews complain that it’s touristy and there are no longer any real antiques there. They may be right. Whatever. It was lively and colourful and alive and full of incredibly creative crafts for sale, and musicians, and tango dancers, and fun. We loved it.

We’d decided we’d had enough fun for the day and set off walking back to the underground to go home. After two or three blocks Don realized we were going the wrong way. What serendipity that turned out to be. We continued around the block to change directions. After a while I could hear drumming. I immediately quickened my steps of course, walking towards the noise. I wanted to know what it was. This is what we came across:

about sixteen men and one boy

drumming and marching down one of the narrow streets. We walked until we got in front of them. Three young boys waving flags high in the sky were leading them,

and in between the flag bearers and the drummers were the dancers,

all of them drumming and dancing all the way down the street to the town square. What a hoot! And huge props to those girls for being able to dance, really dance, on cobblestones, in those high heels! Tyra would be proud.
We couldn’t find out anything about them.

From all I’ve read I think the nightlife in BA is extraordinary – bars and dance halls and concerts and shows – and it starts late and goes later, every night. Certainly each time we were out late the streets were crowded. But we’re not nightlife people so some may think we have not had a true taste of this vibrant city, and they’re probably right. But we have gone wild and had wine with dinner more than once, and even actually tried the steak. We’re generally not red meat eaters either, but since Argentina has the best beef in the world (with the possible exception of Kobe beef) we thought we’d better try it. It was melt-in-the-mouth delicious.

There’s a fashion house, Tramando, just down the street from us that we’ve walked by just about every day, and each time I admired the clothes in the window. One day they were changing the window display and we got talking to one of the designers who was checking his work from the street. He invited us to an evening soiree at the store! So chic!

Meanwhile, wandering the streets we came across these two guards from the Regimiento de Patricios

and this display of the latest in men’s avant-garde fashion. Not that we’ve actually seen any men dressed like this.

A milonga is a public dance where people go to dance the tango, though some have branched out to include a little salsa and jive. They are all over BA and are held both in the afternoon and late in the evening. They almost always include a class beforehand. We weren’t up for a class. Um how do I put this politely? – Don is not a natural dancer, and I love to dance but can’t follow choreography to save my life. So we dropped in on an afternoon milonga to see what it was all about. So sweet. An afternoon tea social, only there was more wine and coffee being drunk than tea I suspect. We sat and watched. Mostly the men and women sat separately. When the music started, somehow by osmosis each found a partner and immediately they were dancing a very sedate cheek-to-cheek tango. Whether or not they knew each other before hand we couldn’t tell. We could tell they were enjoying themselves immensely in a very kind and gentle way. We left feeling completely openhearted.

That evening we went to a tango performance, which was an entirely different animal. Two fabulous musicians, two equally fabulous singers, and S.E.X. on the dance floor. Apparently the tango originated in the brothels of Argentina. It has a raw uninhibited sensuality and sexuality; it’s foreplay as a dance, and the performance was superb.

Moving on from the Tango I’ll finish this post with a word about maté. It’s an infusion of this caffeine-rich herb, which everyone drinks in great quantities, maybe even more than coffee. It’s drunk through a metal straw with tiny holes in the bottom acting as a sieve. What intrigued us most was the great abundance and enormous variety of handcrafted maté cups available at all the markets. They are usually made from gourds which we saw covered in intricately worked silver, a cows hoof, hand woven fabric, painted designs, and our personal favourite, the skin of a single cojone from a very sad bull.

Next post: A gaucho market, an ecological reserve right in the city, dog walkers (yes dog walkers) and the most colourful barrio of BA.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.