Friday, 11 April 2008

This morning we received candied almonds from Rodrigo and I got a kiss on the cheek, drove to the airport in Calama with Gonzalo, said our goodbyes, and boarded a plane for Buenos Aires, Argentina, or B.A. as our new guide, Peter calls it. Thus begins one of the busiest times in our itinerary, for the next two weeks we’ll never stay in a place more than two nights, most will be for just one night. In a period of 17 days, we’ll pack up and change hotels 12 times. Oh well, we’re in the final stretch, the last lap, our adrenalin is pumping and the finish line is in sight. Peter met us at the airport and transferred us to the hotel. As we drove towards the city we passed lots of tall, thin apartment buildings. They looked even more skinny because they each stood by themselves, like tall, lanky teenagers, instead of shoved up against other buildings.

Peter told us to call him “Peter”, even though his card read “Pedro”. He said he went to a British school from the age of three, and he’d always been called Peter. His schooling was quite rigorous, he said he learned each subject in English and Spanish, he’d have English history and then Spanish history, he said he went to school from 8 in the morning to 6 at night. Poor Peter! He seems very intelligent and friendly and speaks excellent English, I think we’ll enjoy having him show us his city. His girlfriend lives in Houston, so we have a few things in common. Clay read that the Olympic torch was in Buenos Aires the day we arrived, but we missed it, and the only thing we encountered was a remnant of the traffic it caused. Too bad, that would have been a cool experience, and maybe exciting as well considering all the protests surrounding the torch this year.

There was a terrible recession in Buenos Aires a few years ago, it was once a very expensive place for tourists, but after the crash it became an extremely cheap place for foreigners. Many have moved in and bought properties, Peter said unfortunately the salaries in Buenos Aires have not been adjusted and it’s very hard for locals to make a living. Prices are beginning to rise the past few years, but the salaries haven’t.

The downtown area looks very European, we saw many buildings that reminded us of Paris or Rome. As we drove to the hotel Peter told us about how the wealthy families once lived in areas like La Boca or San Telmo down south near the water, but when yellow fever came these wealthy people moved north to neighborhoods like Palermo or Recoleta. We’ll be visiting all these places tomorrow on our city tour, but we had the rest of the afternoon and evening free.

He dropped us off at our hotel, and I have to say, it isn’t our favorite. The carpet is grimy, we initiated a hands-off policy, and the kids have a hole in their bathroom door. Our tub has a Jacuzzi, and the holes where the air blows out are rusty and black, the ceiling in the bathroom is black with mold as well. On the good side, the sheets look clean, the doors lock, and we’ve got lots of restaurants nearby. In the elevator on the way back home, we stopped on floor one and I stepped out and turned to get Benji’s hand. I looked back up to see we had stepped into the middle of a conference, people were sitting at tables and a man was talking in a microphone. I was mortified, what kind of elevator stops in the middle of a conference hall? I hurried back in and stared at the floor until the doors closed again and took us to floor 0, surely if I didn’t see them, they didn’t see me. The kids thought this was really funny.

We picked a restaurant a few doors down and enjoyed an “early” dinner around 7:30. I wonder if all of South America typically starts dinner around 9 or 10. So far Chile and Argentina have, I don’t know what families with children that have to get up early for school do. Maybe they eat earlier at home. While we ate our dinner, an old man with an ancient camera asked if we wanted our picture taken. We told him sure, and posed with our cards in our hands, we were in the midst of a game of Emperor. He promised to deliver the pictures to our hotel tomorrow, and we handed over our ten bucks for two pictures. A little steep, but we have no pictures of us playing Emperor, which has become such a family staple at the dinner table. Besides, he looks like a nice old man, and I liked the way he held his camera with a real reverence, it had a big old-fashioned flash on top that blinded us all when he took the picture. We said “cheese” and resumed our game, a moment in time captured in Buenos Aires.


Saturday, 12 April 2008

After a lackluster breakfast, we met Peter at 9. We started off walking across the street to the Recoleta Cemetery. We passed a small park where a man played with his two dogs, another dog ran around while his owner sat on a bench. So different from Santiago, where the only dogs we saw were strays, lounging about in packs in the parks. The cemetery was amazing, it was like no cemetery I’ve ever seen before. After entering the gates, we encountered hundreds of small mausoleums, each family constructed their own, each was different. Some looked like small churches with stained glass and crosses on top, some were sleek and shiny in marble, some were covered in peeling plaster. Each family tried to the top the other, Peter said “there was a problem with egos in here.” Some were adorned with enormous statues of angels or men on horseback or Mary.

Peter explained that the cemetery had been allowed to get rundown during the recession, squatters had moved in and so did rats. About three years ago they began to clean it up again, it is now inhabited by dozens of cats. We walked up and down paths, peering into the doors of the locked mausoleums. Some had coffins or urns resting on shelves, most had trap doors that led four or five stories down, where more coffins and urns were crammed on shelves. Some had tiny altars inside with crosses and pictures of Mary, flowers, or tiny statues resting on shelves. Some had broken glass in the doors or cobwebs stretching from the head of a mother to a child, others seemed well-cared for. We saw stained glass in some, and outside one a beautiful life-sized statue of a young woman with her hand resting lightly on a dog at her side. Beside it was a plaque, Peter translated the lines where a father lamented the death of his 27 year old daughter, “Why?” he petitioned again and again, “Why?”

It was a lovely place to stroll, quiet and peaceful and interesting, statues silhouetted against a perfect blue sky. We got in the van when we were done and began to drive through the city while Peter pointed out interesting things. I noticed a pretty tree festooned with bright pink flowers, it was a kapok tree and Peter explained that the male tree has pink flowers, the female has white flowers, and they produce a fruit that has something like cotton on the inside, a substance used to fill life jackets. Maybe someday you’ll win Jeopardy with that random bit of information!

We drove down the widest avenue in the world, called The Ninth of July, at some points it gets to 18 lanes across, but Peter said that means it can accommodate 25 cars across, since drivers rarely stay in their lanes but “share” with others in an attempt to get ahead in the abysmal traffic. “The lanes are just decoration,” he said. We were lucky, we toured on a Saturday so we didn’t encounter the terrible traffic they get during the week. Peter told us a sort of Romeo and Juliet story as we got out and walked a while, once there were two wealthy feuding families in Buenos Aries. The wife in one family died, and the husband built a beautiful church in her honor and buried her there. This man’s son fell in love with the daughter of the rival family, and both families were very upset. They got married anyway, and in anger the daughter’s parents built an ugly gray concrete building right in front of the beautiful church so it was hidden. We saw a corner of the pretty gothic church, obscured by the gray concrete atrocity, such a shame.

We visited Caminito in the La Boca neighborhood alongside the harbor, a row of bright metal houses, painted all different colors. A long time ago very poor immigrants lived here, they built their homes from the scrap metal taken from boats in the harbor and painted them with leftover paint. It is said the tango originated in this area, that the melancholy and dramatic melodies came from the accordions of these poor, weary immigrants. This particular street has been kept up, mostly for tourists’ sake. It was a fun place to explore, artists set up their paintings along the path, people dressed like tango dancers tried to get you to pay for a picture with them, Peter told us one particular lady was known for taking men’s wallets when they got a picture with her. This news astounded Benji, he wanted to know how she did it, why she wasn’t arrested, why anyone would take their picture with her . . . he talked about it the rest of the day.

Peter told us about a game they play in Argentina called Pato, which means “duck”. It is a little like polo, the players ride on horses, but the similarity stops there. They play with a ball that has six handles on it, and the players toss it to each other to try and get it through a hoop at either end of the playing field. I asked what happens if they drop the ball, Peter said it is amazing, they go racing as fast as they can towards the ball on their horses and they just lean over and scoop it up. Horses collide and riders can hit each other, they are not allowed to hide the ball so sometimes the riders gallop side by side, each trying to wrestle the ball away from the other. It sounds like a violent sport, but at least they don’t play the original way, with a real, live duck wrapped in leather (hence the name). They would grab the duck by its neck to throw it, I doubt a duck ever survived a game.

We encountered other markets throughout the day. At one we bought some tiny figures carved from matchsticks and protected under a glass tube. I hope they make it home okay! We wandered through antique stalls and fruit and vegetable stands, past stores we might see anywhere in the States. Buenos Aires is definitely a cosmopolitan city with a European feel. We passed dogs dressed in sweaters, and dogs sitting in chairs next to their owners at outdoor cafes. We saw a few homeless strays, but most dogs had collars and owners. We visited a cathedral and were surprised by the size since the outside was so small. We drove through a wealthy neighborhood full of old mansions now inhabited by hotels or stores. The kids were getting pooped, we were all getting hungry, and I really had to go to the bathroom. Peter dropped us off near a restaurant I’d seen in my guidebook pages and bid us farewell, he’ll pick us up in the morning for our flight to Iguazu Falls.

I cannot tell you how disappointed my bladder and I were when we found out the restaurant I’d chosen was not open during lunch. We headed towards the hotel, sure we’d find some sort of café along the way. Twenty five minutes later I would have been happy to find a kind farmer’s garden to pee in, but there were no gardens, and no restaurants, in sight. Not even a McDonald’s. We arrived at our hotel, I was about to pass out and bolted in the elevator and up to the fifth floor in record time. After everyone used the bathroom, we went back down to find a restaurant, it was now 2:30 and we were starving, but had a 7 reservation at a nice restaurant for dinner, where we would partake in an Argentinean beef fest, so we didn’t want to eat too much.

We split some entrees at an Italian place and went in search of Volta, Peter proclaimed it the most amazing ice cream in the world and we had to try it, beef-fest or not. We walked ten blocks and found it, the most wonderful ice cream in the world. Oh my gosh, it was good and creamy. They heaped it on the cone, six inches high and finished with a twist on top. The chocolate was amazing, the cone was crunchy all the way to the tip, but I was the only one to discover this because the kids all said it was too rich and couldn’t finish theirs. I finished mine, good to the last scrumptious crunch. I guess I have to say that Clay didn’t even get any ice cream, he just tasted ours and then went in search of a bookstore we wanted to visit. I guess that makes me a hoggy face. I resolved to run on the treadmill when we got back to the hotel.

We found the bookstore three doors down, one of the most amazing bookstores I’ve ever seen. It was housed in an old theater, there was still a stage with a heavy velvet curtain on one end. Balconies stretched up the sides, and the ceiling in the middle was a giant dome with a mural painted on it. It was a beautiful place, with bookshelves lining all the walls, only most of them were in Spanish. We did manage to find a couple of Magic School Bus books for Benji and a novel for Alayna, Nate and I are sharing right now and it’s no fair because he gets to read it more than me. Clay got two Tin Tin comic books in Spanish, he’s really been getting a chance to practice his Spanish in South America and enjoying it, he hopes the comics will help him learn even more.

When we got back to the hotel it was around 5, Clay read his comic book, the boys played legos, Alayna took at look at her email, and I went in search of the gym. I didn’t have very high hopes, the hotel seemed a little run down all around and I figured the gym would consist of a dilapidated treadmill and some rusty free weights. I stepped out on the 14th floor and was rewarded with an amazing view of the cemetery we’d visited earlier in the day. From that height, it looked like a tiny city down below, with domes and statues and tiny streets running through, everything tight and compact, like a Legoland city. The two treadmills were nothing fancy, instead of buttons they had a sliding scale that would adjust your speed, but they looked out on the cemetery below and the tourists who meandered back and forth. I ran for thirty minutes with that beautiful view, and whenever I got tired I remember that enormous ice cream cone I ate earlier in the day and pushed that slide up a little higher.

Dinner that night was amazing, tender tenderloin, succulent chicken, we all feasted. With the check, they brought Alayna and I diagrams of a cow printed on canvas and tied with a bow, a nice beefy present. We caught a cab back home and after getting the kids in bed, Clay went downstairs to get on the internet for a while and work on the web site. I tried to stay up for him but drowsed into sleep around 10. He didn’t make it to bed until midnight, but he got the Chile journals finished, and with that knowledge slept well all night long.