Tango, tombs and Malbec: a week in Buenos Aires

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Having heard nothing but rave reviews about Buenos Aires, I was excited to head there for a week`s holiday last month.  Often referred to as the `Paris of the South`, it was a far cry from La Paz with its European air and cosmopolitan feel.  There was not a bowler hat in sight and suddenly I was back to being short again.  Porteños (BA residents, literally `people of the port`) are much taller than paceños it seems.  The Argentinian accent threw me completely at first, but with the speed slower than in Chile, I had half a chance of being able to keep up.

As far as I`m concerned, it`s hard to go wrong holidaying in a city where the staple diet comprises steak and Malbec (note to self: resume yoga immediately upon return).  Thanks to the Italian influence, Buenos Aires also boasts some incredible gelato, with mouth-watering flavours like super dulche de leche, and the streets are abuzz with coffee shops.  I was overly excited that my cortado automatically came with biscuits and accompanying sparkling water.  Montreal – take note!

I found Buenos Aires a great city to roam around, since many of the neighbourhoods are unique in their character and appeal.  Rather like Montreal, it struck me as a city to be experienced, in that there is not an abundance of major sights to be seen, so much as ambience to be soaked up.  Strolling along the wide city streets, I was reminded of the advice of a friendly, proud Argentinian I encountered at the airport – to look upwards – so as not to miss the eclectic architecture, with its spires, domes and shuttered buildings.

La Casa Rosada (Government House)

La Casa Rosada (Government House)

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Evita`s image projected on a downtown building

Evita`s image projected on a downtown building

View from the rooftop terrace of my hostel

View from the rooftop terrace of my hostel

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I spent time exploring the various quarters: La Boca`s Caminito, a vibrant cluster of streets with brightly-coloured houses and outdoor tango; San Telmo, the oldest area of the city, with its narrow, cobblestoned streets and a huge outdoor flea market on weekends with traditional handicrafts and antiques galore; Palermo, a lively area with leafy streets boasting many of the capital`s restaurants, shops and bars; and Recoleta with its magnificent, sprawling cemetery housing Evita Perón`s tomb (I had that darn song in my head for days).

Outdoor tango in Caminito

Outdoor tango in Caminito

A statue of Maradona, football in hand (of God), smiling from the balcony

A statue of Maradona, football in hand (of God), smiling from the balcony

The colourful houses of La Boca

The colourful houses of La Boca

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Recoleta`s cemetery, with its winding alleys of crypts

Recoleta`s Cemetery, with its winding alleys of crypts

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Evita`s flower-adorned tomb

Evita`s flower-adorned tomb

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Recoleta Cemetery spires

Recoleta Cemetery spires

Another highlight was El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a gorgeous bookshop housed in an enormous, ornate former theatre.  With its decorative ceiling, cafe on the stage and plush theatre boxes to lounge and read in, it was well worth a visit.

I also ventured across to Uruguay for a day trip, taking an hour-long ferry ride to explore Colonia del Sacramento.  A quiet, pretty town with hummingbirds darting in amongst the trees, its historic quarter is a UNESCO site.

Dog-walkers are a common sight in Buenos Aires and it is not unusual to see porteños walking 10 or 15 dogs at a time.  An absurd spectacle to the untrained tourist eye, I was very amused and ever prepared to chase a tangle of dogs down the street for a photo opportunity.

The beautiful El Ateneo bookshop

The beautiful El Ateneo bookshop

El Ateneo

El Ateneo

Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), Colonia, Uruguay

Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), Colonia, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Dog-walking, porteño-style

Dog-walking, porteño-style

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Buenos Aires is, of course, reknowned for being the birthplace of tango.  I dutifully attended one of the many tango shows on offer, preceded by a class, just for fun.  It was an impressive spectacle (the show, that is) and the drama and passion was palpable.  From my amateur perspective, I concluded `tango face` is a combination of looking sultry and furious all at once – effective when demonstrated by the professionals on stage, and downright comical in the class I took.

Tango show

Tango show

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Unfortunately, scams, theft and pickpocketing are rife in Buenos Aires and it seemed as if almost every traveller I met had a (horror) story to tell.  I luckily escaped any misfortunes myself, though I moved hostels after an anxiety-inducing incident on my first night.  A local man allegedly checked into the hostel for 15 minutes during the night, swiftly stealing a whole host of valuables from various dormitories, including the one I was sleeping in.

There is a fascinating phenomenon of money-exchanging in Argentina, which I was tipped off about before arriving.  Due to heavy Government control and the ever-decreasing value of the Argentine peso, US dollars are in constant, high demand.  Consequently, there is a growing disparity between the official and `informal` rate of money exchange.  The difference between the official government exchange rate and the dólar “blue” (black market dollar) has been known to climb to a staggering 70% or greater; a fact which many tourists and travellers capitalise upon, to make their dollars go much further.  With the current exchange rate, withdrawing money from a cash machine or exchanging at a bank would give only 5 pesos = US $1.  On the notorious mercado negro (black market), however, it is possible to receive a substantially higher rate of 8+ pesos = US $1.

Despite the various dangers involved, such as counterfeit money, it appears to be a widespread, booming trade and one only has to walk a few paces along Calle Florida to hear cries of “cambio! cambio!” at every corner.  Generally, crisp US $100 bills are most sought-after, offering a higher rate; and the larger the amount, the better the deal.  After negotiating a rate, money is either exchanged on the street or more often than not, customers are led to an inconspicuous store-front office nearby.  Thus (hypothetically-speaking of course…) if one were to engage in this sort of illegal behaviour, a hostel bunk bed could cost as little as $10 and a bottle of excellent supermarket Malbec only $4.

Up next: Easter celebrations and live football!

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Midnight meals & wishes under apples

Welcoming New Year with a 1am meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Welcoming the New Year with a 1.00AM meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Having spent eight of the past ten Christmases in a different continent than my immediate family, I was fairly unfazed about the prospect of spending Christmas solita in Bolivia.  I toyed with the idea of travelling, but after some drawn-out confusion about whether I had two days or two weeks of holiday, in the end I accepted an invitation to experience Christmas Paceño-style with a local family.

Traditions vary among families, but generally there is a late meal on Christmas Eve followed by gift-giving.  Households decorate with a tree and usually nativities too.  Christmas trees were adorned with cotton wool for snow, but outside it was hot and sunny in between frequent rainstorms.  The warmer climate added a strange feel to the festivities, not to mention the absence of working in retail for the first time in five years.  It certainly felt like a quieter, surreal Christmas on many levels.

We spun crackly old Latin American records – an eclectic mix of Bolivian Christmas carols, rousing Mexican folk songs and Puerto Rican pop.  Before midnight, we each wrote a wish on a scrap of paper and tucked it underneath a numbered apple, which I was instructed to take home and eat upon waking on Christmas morning.  When the clock chimed midnight on Christmas Eve, prayers were murmured, greetings exchanged and glasses clinked.  At around 12.30am, we finally sat down to eat (I was somewhat relieved I`d snacked beforehand).  The meal included turkey and stuffing, although this is not necessarily standard fare.

On Christmas Day, I enthusiastically sampled buñuelos (enormous deep-fried discs of dough) doused with honey and treacle-like cane sugar and accompanied by hot chocolate.  They were delicious and undoubtedly terrible for one`s cholestrol.  I immediately loved them.

Buñuelos - deep-fried doughy deliciousness

Buñuelos – deep-fried doughy deliciousness

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

Wishes under apples

Wishes under apples

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

More vinyl fun

More vinyl

Fun fact: At some point, Ricky Martin was a member of this rather greasy-looking band

Fun fact: Ricky Martin was once a member of this rather greasy-looking band

New Year`s Eve is customarily celebrated with a family meal (pork to signify prosperity and abundance) which also takes place after midnight.  Following the meal, many people head out to dance and drink the night away.  As it turns out, I found eating a 1am heavy meal of fritanga (spicy pork stew) with potatoes and corn more conducive to sleeping than hitting the clubs and was content to be in bed by 3am – pitifully early by Bolivian standards.

Bemused to see the local markets overflowing with bright red and yellow underwear for sale, I have since discovered that it is common to wear coloured underwear on December 31st – red for love and yellow for wealth.  Who knew…  I suppose I`ll have to wait another year to test that theory.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!  Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013!

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.

An unforgettable Christmas surprise

My Christmas `bolsita`

My Christmas `bolsita`

Upon leaving work last Friday evening, my boss Gustavo informed me there was a bolsita (little bag) waiting for me, a staff Christmas gift.  I was amazed to discover that the `little bag` was absolutely enormous and too heavy for me to lift, let alone carry home.  I had to make the 5 minute journey by car and ask two people to help haul it up the stairs to my room.  I unzipped the bag to take a peek, noticing a panettone and a box of tea on top and then hurried out for the evening.  The next morning was gloriously sunny and I headed out early to explore one of La Paz`s many markets.  This meant I didn`t get around to opening the bag until mid-afternoon on Saturday.

Marvelling at the generous gift, I savoured unpacking everything from butter to rice to vegetable oil.  As I did so, I detected a distinctly unpleasant smell emanating from the depths of the bag.  Suspecting some fruit had got squashed and was perhaps beginning to rot, I cautiously continued, discovering to my dismay that fluid had leaked onto the bags of sugar and rice.  Pondering the existence of a Bolivian equivalent of durian (a South East Asian strong-smelling fruit – the odour of which I recently heard described as `hot vomit` – though my mum will disagree), I finally uncovered a knotted plastic bag, dripping fluid and stinking terribly.  Upon opening it, I was astounded to encounter the source of the stench: a chicken.  An unsealed, uncooked chicken.  Plucked, with its head still attached and its innards and severed feet tucked neatly alongside it in the bag.

To say I was not expecting an uncooked chicken as a Christmas gift, would be an understatement.  I have since discovered that it is customary in the workplace (though apparently the chickens tend to be frozen, in sealed packages or come with some kind of warning).  Hindsight may be everything, but the experience certainly provided me with some Christmas cheer.

The contents of my Christmas bolsita were as follows:

– 1 x chicken
– 1 x packet of salted butter
– 1 x 5kg bag of sugar
– 1 x 5kg bag of rice
– 1 x 2L bottle of vegetable oil
– 1 x tin of condensed milk
– 1 x tin of peaches
– 1 x packet of pasta
– 1 x bottle of hand soap
– 1 x bottle of dish-washing liquid
– 1 x box of cookies
– 1 x panettone
– 1 x bar of turrón (nougat)
– 1 x bag of strawberry sweets
– 1 x bottle of Bolivian wine
– 1 x bumper box of cinnamon and clove tea
– 3 x fruit-flavoured yoghurt drinks
– 1 x bottle of fruit juice
– 1 x packet of orange-flavoured jelly mix

Happy Holidays, dear readers! x

My Christmas chicken

My Christmas chicken

Gifts galore

Gifts galore

Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…

November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead).  That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol.  This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.

By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist.  After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.

We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat.  The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island.  As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista!  Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee.  We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part.  They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.

The family

Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.

Marcela and Rosa, in their traditional Cholita dress

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Daily life

I wake to the sound of a hundred stray dogs barking, the noise of traffic (one of four rush hours) and the relentless cry of the local newspaper man touting El Diario (or rather “El Diaaaaaariiiiiiooooo!”).  At night, the sounds are the same, except that the newspaper man is replaced by a neighbourhood guard and his whistle.

View from my bedroom window

My work day runs from 8.30am-noon and from 2.30pm-7pm.  That makes for a 2.5hr lunchbreak, which is taking some getting used to!  Most people head home for lunch almuerzo (hence the 4 rush hours) which is the main meal of the day.  Breakfast and dinner are very light, often consisting of little more than a bread roll, but a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack are also common.  Already the local pastelería (cake shop) has begun gifting me cookies as appreciation for loyalty, which can only be a good thing.

Work is going well so far. FONCRESOL`s La Paz office has 10 employees and I am slowly getting to know my colleagues, making a start on my mandate and adapting to the different pace of work.  (My boss Gustavo took me for ceviche (raw seafood) and beer at 11am last Tuesday.)  This coming weekend I will make my first trip out to the coffee production zone which will help me get to grips with my fairly ambitious work-plan.

FONCRESOL`s office

My host family/guest-house set up is convenient and comfortable.  I pay a daily fee for my room, lunch and laundry (a luxury indeed).  Three generations of the family live under the same roof (common for young couples/families to reside with the husband`s parents), and so I find myself adapting from living alone to now sharing a bathroom with 6 or more people, depending on how many other guests are present.  The family`s housekeeper, Petronila, is Aymará (an indigenous group that makes up about 25% of the population).

My host family`s house

Petro, grinding hot peppers and tomatoes to make `llajhua`, a spicy salsa. The impressive outdoor mortar and pestle is called a `batan`.