Buenos Aires and Colonia del Sacramento
18.04.2009 23 °C
I'm finally allowing myself a day to take stock and organise my time ahead. Whilst fighting the inevitable twin impact of jetlag and culture shock, I've managed to have some pretty fantastic and full on experiences over the past week.
Those of you who have seen me late for a bus or rushing to catch a train will know that public transport can make me just a little nervous. I'll admit that I was totally flustered by the prospect of a twelve hour flight to Sao Paolo. I spent much of it falling in and out of sleep, waking up periodically and feeling puzzled to find myself in a big metal tube somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean. The changeover flight was 8:30am Latin American time. The next two hours passed relatively quickly, and there I was, a bundle of nerves stumbling into South America.
Brian had given me an address on Tacuari, a road in the city centre. As my taxi neared the city I was bombarded with a series of conflicting sights: crumbling tower blocks, plush high rise apartments, vast roads, tropical trees; a pastiche of European and Latin American styles, wealth and poverty. The contradictions didn't cease as we neared the centre of town. They only grew closer together. Stepping out at the address on Tacuari I was somewhat concerned to find that it was a flat building, seeing as Brian hadn't given me a flat number. I tried pushing a button labeled 'recepcion' though it looked decidedly broken. I even tried inquiring with one of the other residents. No joy. Rather than hang about in the street with all of my luggage, I made a bee-line for the nearest hostel. I booked into the Clan Hostel for one night, where I was given a room in a ten person dorm. As hostels go it had a pretty good vibe - colourful and cheerful if a bit run down. An hour or so later I succesfully reached Brian via the wonders of Facebook. He came to the hostel and took me straight out for coffee and exploring. It was great to get a quick and enthusiastic tour of the centre of town, including the bustling shopping streets and local markets that carry on well into the evening. Finally my initial nerves were giving way to a sense of excitement.
ALL THE WORLD IS A HANDKERCHIEF
Later we went for a drink in the Clan Hostel bar, making the most of my single night there. We met a few interesting English and Australian people. At one point I found myself talking to a girl who just happened to be from Guildford, about twenty minutes from Sutton, was going to study at Wimbledon where I did my foundation course, and was then planning to move to Brighton, where I'm moving to in September. Shortly afterwards Brian was chatting to a girl who happened to be from Darlington where he grew up. I only mention it because it was a bit like that episode of Red Dwarf in which the crew meet female equivalents of themselves from a parallel universe, except I didn't get pregnant. Sorry - ignore that - I watch too much sci fi. As we parted company and prepared to call it a day I remarked to Brian that I always feel annoyed at myself for using the phrase 'It's a small world', but that it never stops seeming appropriate. He told me the Spanish have a different saying, 'Todo Mundo es un panuelo'. 'All the world is a handkerchief.' Ick. The following morning I bade farewell to the Clan Hostel and moved into Brian's flat - a charming little place, if a little close to the noise of traffic ouside. I've been crashing on his floor up till now.
CEMENTARIO DE LA RECOLETA
The first main tourist attraction I visited, and one of the must-sees according to all the guide books, was the Recoleta Cemetary where many of the most powerful figures of Argentinian history are buried. The easy comparison that springs to mind is the Parisian cemetary of Pere Lachaise. Although primarily for aristocracy, the main attraction for many is the tomb of a woman born into the working classes: Eva Peron, or Evita. If a brief history helps...Evita was the wife of Juan Domingo Peron, elected president three times (first in 1946), winning the Argentinians over with his working class sympathies. Evita became a political force in her own right, touring the world and bringing Peronism to the masses before falling ill and dying in 1952. Peronism still maintains a powerful grip on Argentinian politics. The current president, Cristina Kirchner, makes no attempt to dismiss the label 'Peronist' when applied to her. Politics aside Evita presents a great rags d to riches story that will always have mass appeal. Thanks though to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical based on her life we English have one more thing to avoid bringing up in conversation with Argentinians, besides Margaret Thatcher.
Its a big metal flower! The Floralis Generica was designed by Eduardo Catalano. It opens during the day and closes its petals from dusk till dawn. An impressive piece of engineering. But not a patch on Newcastle upon Tyne's Millenium Bridge. Haway man!
MUSEO NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES
I was excited at the prospect of what I might find at the National Art Gallery. There were some Goyas and Velazquez, though they weren't brilliant examples...some impressive Degas...what I was really searching for was a feel for Argentinian art. Who were the key figures? What characterised their art? I would end up finding these questions difficult to answer. Dissapointingly much of the modern Argentinian art from the 30s onwards seemed to be derivative of European styles. A poor imitation of Cezanne here, a poor imitation of Picasso there. But then, as I moved further back through the chronology, it was like I struck gold several times in a row. The most notable perhaps was Cesareo Bernaldo de Quiros 1879-1918, whose striking portraits of old Argentinian gauchos (cow herders) and workers were beautifully executed. They had Manet-like compositions in which each central figure is blocking the rest of the painting in an imposing manner. Two other painters of a similar period, Eduardo Siuori and Ernesto De La Carcova, found their way into my notebook. Another understated but brilliant artist here was Rafael Pedro Figari 1861 - 1938, a Uruguayan painter who painted lively street scenes in subdued pastel colours. Check them out if curious.
Brian was giving an English lesson to a private student the next morning, so I had to be out early. I gave myself a rough list of things to see. Mostly though I took it as an opportunity to spend some time wandering with a map and finding my bearings. Its quite daunting at first given the size of the city, but its not actually too complicated to navigate given the grid system much like in North American cities. I treated myself to an enormous energizing breakfast of coffee, orange juice, croissants, scrambled egg, toast, and apple pie. The food in Buenos Aires, much like the modern art I suppose, is a kind of quirky variation on European styles. There are a lot of dishes with extremely high sugar content - which I think I would struggle with in the long term, but then again it is useful to have access to so much high energy food in a city as busy as this. Also, a real bonus is the fondness for random free stuff. For example, I didn't order that apple pie - it just turned up as an added extra. Sometimes when you order a beer a bowl of peanuts will turn up and they won't charge you for it. My cinicism made me wonder at first whether it was a tourist thing, but apparently not.
PLAZA DE MAYO
This is a spectacular square in the heart of the city, where many protests and marches are held. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo still march here campaigning for a full account of the Dirt War atrocities committed by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. During this time between 10,000 and 30,000 people died or 'disappeared' under Jorge Rafael Videla's campaign of violence against those with left wing or communist sympathies.
This georgeous cathedral next to the Plaza de Mayo houses the tomb of Jose San Martin, who liberated Argentina from the Spanish in 1816 before being exiled to France. The tomb is constantly guarded by armed soldiers.
Before arriving I had done some research into Spanish schools in Buenos Aires. After spending just a few days here it seemed even more like a sensible thing to get involved with. Expanish (Experience Spanish) had stood out. I tend to trust organisations with well organised websites, so that was a selling point, along with the beautiful old building where lessons take place. I went to inquire and, finding the staff friendly and the atmosphere good, signed up for a week's worth of lessons beginning on Monday. It'll be twenty hours from Monday to Friday, with additional evening activities you can sign up for including tango lessons, walks, wine tasting, and parties. I have also signed up for a week's flat share, designed to help immerse you in the language by sharing accomodation with at least on other Spanish speaker. I just got my flat share info through. I'll be sharing with a 26 year old Psychology student called Carolina in Bario Norte, a neighbourhood roughly a twenty minute walk from the school and Brian's flat. So by the end of next week I should have a good grip on the language that will serve me well for wherever else I plan to go in South America, as well as having met lots of new people and fully experienced Buenos Aires living and nightlife.
LA PENA DEL COLORADO
I was itching to see some live music that evening, and Brian was not adverse to the idea. La Pena Del Colorado was guidebook-recommended as an exciting place to see live Tango. We enjoyed a few beers and became enchanted by the voice of a middle aged Argentinian crooner. Nice. The beer here is interesting. You drink it more like wine, inasmuch as you order a litre bottle and share it between small glasses. I'd imagine I'll be returning to La Pena at some point. It is a very swanky joint.
COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO
On Friday we decided on a day trip to Colonia, taking a ferry across to Uruguay. By reputation Colonia is one of the prettiest towns in Uruguay. I can only decribe it as ridiculously idyllic. Palm trees, coastline, colourful worn down buildings, street cafes - a beautiful old colonial town unchanged by time.
THE ROAD AHEAD
This weekend will mostly be a more calm affair as I get my head straight and plan my next move. The most likely plan for the week after next is to catch a twelve hour bus ride to Cordoba, where I'll spend a couple of nights before heading up to Salta, a much more traditional colonial Argentinian city that will provide me with a clear route into Bolivia and then into Peru. I'll also be brushing up on my Spanish in preparation for Monday's class and moving into my new accomodation. However if I do feel up to it here is a possibility of a football game at Boca on tomorrow, organised by Expanish. I've heard the Argentinians really know how to party when it comes to football. So now I'll sign off and send you all my love for reading this rather lengthy post. I'll try to update in a week or so when another interval from constant activity arises. Chau!