Sunday, May 01, 2005

Weekend getaway

Because I would rather regret my misspent dollars than my misspent youth, and because a weekend of my youth is surely more misspent doing laundry and grocery shopping than sightseeing in a foreign city, last week I went to Buenos Aires for the weekend. I am quite pleased with myself, even if I do feel a wee bit silly. But Brian was in São Paulo this past week for work, and he figured he might as well spend the weekend before in Argentina. I certainly wasn't going to let him go have fun with out me; I'm certain there was something about that in the vows. So on Friday night we headed to Argentina.


One of the biggest problems we faced in Argentina was the language barrier. Both of us took Spanish in college, but it’s been a good five years since we’ve had any lessons, and four since we’ve had much occasion to use it. Add to our inexperience, the fact that the Argentine accent was stronger than we’d expected. One of our college Spanish teachers was from Argentina, so we had some idea of what the language would sound like, but Carlos must have controlled his accent to help us learn what Spanish sounds like in the States, Mexico, and everywhere else. I wasn’t too worried about language issues when we first arrived. A week earlier, I had called to reserve a room. I was able to understand and answer all the questions the man asked me: How many people? When will you arrive? How many nights?

We arrived at the airport early Saturday morning, and I approached the first counter marked “Remises” to find out about a taxi to our hotel.

“¿Cuánto cuesta un remis a la Calle Lavalle?” I asked, hoping they would understand me. I had no idea whether ‘remis’ was masculine or feminine, and I pronounced ‘all’ as ‘eye.’

“¿A Cah-shay Lah-vah-shay?” The woman asked after a moment.

Brian and I exchanged a glance that communicated all kinds of questions and worries. “Sí,” I replied.


One in a cab, the driver asked us where we were going more specifically, and I checked the address in Lonely Planet. When we were stopped at a toll plaza, the driver asked to see the listing. I showed him, and he said something I didn’t understand. I looked at Brian, hoping he had gotten it.

“He says our hotel burned down.”

I understood that the man was offering to take us to a different hotel, run by someone he knew. Eighty pesos a night, including breakfast, he told us. Any trust I had for the man flew out the car window and was run over by some other little car on the highway into Buenos Aires. I had read posts in the Thorn Tree forum about taxi drivers in this city. They weren’t to be trusted very much anyhow. While Brian and the driver stumbled through conversations about other topics, I concentrated on figuring out how to say “I don’t believe you,” and “Let me out of this car.”

As we approached Lavalle, the driver again repeated what he had told us earlier about the hotel. I told Brian that we needed to just go to the hotel and work things out from there if there was really a problem. Brian conveyed this to the driver, and slowly started to figure out that the hotel had not burned down; that wasn’t what the driver had been telling us after all. He’d only meant the hotel was likely to be full.

“Tenemos reservaciones,” I told him, confident enough to say that. And I still had some 'reservaciones' about this driver. We declined his offer to wait for us, in case the hotel was full, and headed along the pedestrian mall to the hotel.

When we got to our room, we got out our Spanish-English dictionary. The words for ‘flame’ and ‘full’ are rather similar. Brian had simply heard one when the driver had said the other. Having figured out that, we contemplated the sign in our room:

Sr. Pasajero:
Tome nota que su equipaje puede ser revisado cuando usted retira del hotel.
-La Gerencia

Did it mean they would search our bags when we went out? Or that we could check them at the desk when we checked out if we wanted to continue sight-seeing.

“I guess your interpretation depends on how paranoid you are,” Brian said. He went to take a shower, while I turned on the TV. I heard the water start to run, and then he came back into the room.

“I’m watching Argentine cartoons,” I told him.

“This is important.”

“There’s a guy in a turban. I think he’s the bad guy.”

“No, listen. ‘C’ stands for ‘caliente,’ not ‘cold.’”

Very important indeed.


Later on we checked to see if the water drained the wrong way in the Southern Hemisphere. The toilet didn’t seem like a good way to tell, and we couldn’t quite see which way the water was funneling down the drain in the sink, so I spit in some toothpaste while I was brushing my teeth. It swirled counter-clockwise down the drain.

When I first brushed my teeth after returning home, I watched the water swirl down the drain. Counter-clockwise. I did some research with my most trusted source for random information. It turns out, the water should have drained clockwise when we were in Argentina, but that we needed to let the water rest for a long time before we would see the effect.


So what did we actually see in Argentina? It’s amazing what one can pack into two days. We started out wandering along Florida Street, a pedestrian mall of shops, to the Plaza de Mayo.

One of the first things that we saw was tango dancers on the street, as we’d been promised.

Photo of tango dancers

They were amazing. Later, we saw a sign describing tango as “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire,” and that was the honest-to-goodness truth: watching tango is like watching people have sex standing up in public.

Plaza de Mayo was mostly empty, as it was the weekend. We saw the monument there to the revolution and independence of Argentina, and lots of graffiti. The Casa Rosada is there—the government building that houses the executive power (basically like our White House). That’s where you saw Madonna sing from the balcony in Evita.

Photo of La Plaza de Mayo

There is also an interesting cathedral lining the plaza. Outside of the cathedral we saw a camera crew and some trucks, which we’d also seen as we walked along Florida. We watched them for awhile and couldn’t figure out what they were doing.

From there we made our way toward Recoleta, to the cemetery that everyone told us we needed to see. It was the strangest cemetery I had ever seen. Outside there were musicians playing, and a sort of crafts fair was going on. There were more tango dancers. I had expected something a long the lines of Arlington Cemetery, with a series of graves and grave markers and the occasional larger memorial. But all of the tombs at Recoleta are above ground, and it looks like a small city.

Photo of tombs in el cementario recoleta

We peered into the tombs. Sometimes there was a casket right there. More often there was some sort of altar with a crucifix, and a steep, narrow staircase descending into the ground. We finally located Eva Perón’s tomb, where she is buried with her family (Juan Perón is in another cemetery across town), mostly by following the crowds.

Photo of Duarte family tomb

Photo of plaque for Evita

We awoke the next morning to the sound of rain. I dragged a very cranky Brian out in the wet, chilly morning, to look at old buildings, including el Teatro Colon (the opera house), and el Palacio del Congreso (the capitol building).

Photo of el Teatro Colon

Photo of el Palacio del Congreso

Finally Brian convinced me to stop in a café, where he ordered coffee and we had hot, fresh, delicious empanadas. We bought a newspaper, and I read that the camera crew outside the cathedral had been a Spike Lee crew filming some sort of commericial. By the time we were finished, it was still chilly, but the rain had stopped, and Brian had enough caffeine in him to make him a much happier sight-seeing companion.

The highlight of that second day was the San Telmo market. Much like Washington’s Eastern Market, the Mercado San Telmo is in an enclosed area, where there are produce stands and stands to buy meat, cheese, eggs, and bread. But there are also antiques booths, with people selling delicate-looking old toys, old-fashioned cameras, and gaudy jewelry. Outside the market, other people set up booths to sell crafts and other goods.

Photo of the outside of El Mercado San Telmo

Photo of a produce stand

Photo of meat

We went from San Telmo to Caminito in La Boca. Caminito, which is named after a tango song, is a very touristy, pedestrian strip down near the waterfront. The buildings are painted bright colors.

Photo of Caminito

Photo of Caminito

I had read that it wasn’t really safe to wander off the main streets in La Boca, but I found it interesting how poor the neighborhood surrounding Caminito was. There was a soccer game about to start in the stadium nearby, and the streets near Caminito were filled with people dressed in blue and yellow, many of them wrapped in their team’s flag, as they walked to the game.

People were obsessed with soccer. On our way back to our downtown hotel, we passed a bus stop that was outside a café. As we approached, we noticed half a dozen men with their faces pressed up against the glass. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing at first, but then we saw that the game had started and was being shown on television in the café. The men were watching it intently.

That game (or maybe another) was on the radio on the bus I took to the airport later that night. The three other passengers on the bus gathered up front near the driver, listening to the game. I let my mind wander as I watched the city float by the window in the darkness. The announcer spoke too rapidly for me to understand anything except his call of “¡GOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLL!” when someone scored.


Anonymous said...

This commentary is even better than the comments associated with the pictures on the website, and per usual, you are able to convey a marvelous set of imagery in your writing. Maybe instead of doing health policy research you should start work on your novel or short stories.

ann said...

Or maybe you should be a travel writer. Then you could get paid to travel and write. Just a thought.

I love the pictures, especially the one of the tango dancers. It fits in so well with your wonderful description.

matty said...

a few years ago, i was in Santiago when their league championships were going on. the game finished (going to popular ColoColo) as i was finishing another bottle of excellent Chilean wine. the streets filled. i wanted to go downstairs to stand on the sidewalk to experience in this phenomenon they dubbed "futbol."
i was advised not to, considering i might get swept away and lost. so i watched the crowds below march and chant down the street. flags waved, arms swayed.
it was reminiscent of home when the lakers won a championship, minus the vandalism, fires, and freakish mob violence.
damn, i hate the lakers.

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