Getting to Know Buenos Aires
Because I experienced Buenos Aires with Jo, and Jo has, as we have termed it on this trip, a Big Cat attitude (on the ball, go-get-em, decisive), we have seen a hell of a lot of this city in a week and a half.
We began by renting bikes, along with bright red helmets that made us look simultaneously like we’d fallen out of Marioworld and decided to try our hand at the profession of mining, and spent a day cycling between sights which were in neighbourhoods too far to walk to. We started with the Floralis Genérica, a 23 metre tall, metal sculpture of a flower, stood in a pool of water which dappled light across its aluminium and steel petals. We wandered around a large, gently perfumed rose garden, and admired the magnificent exterior of the Congressional Palace with its many classical columns and green dome. The day was rounded off with a visit to Recoleta Cemetery, which can best be described by drawing parallels with a small city: it is organised into ‘streets’ along which the tombs of varying degrees of grandeur are lined, and it is perfectly easy to get lost; in fact we had to ask for directions to find the tomb of Eva Peron, also known as Evita, the beloved First Lady of Argentina from 1946-52 and national icon (she is also the subject of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name, so, naturally, we burst into renditions of ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’ as we searched for her tomb).
We explored on foot over the next few days. We discovered the Argentinian national pastime and passion for political protesting, not only in Plaza de Mayo, a square known as the centre of political protests, but also through the main avenues and streets. Within our first week there were no fewer than three protests, and by protest I mean hundreds upon hundreds of people marching with printed t-shirts, huge banners and flags, and at one point we even spotted a float of sorts painted to resemble the Argentinian flag. In fact, as I type up this entry I can hear drums beating outside: another protest is definitely in progress.
We crossed all sixteen lanes of the Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world, to get to the Teatro Colón, an opera theatre acoustically considered to be amongst the top five concert venues in the world. We enjoyed a tour around the interior. The entrance hall has a magnificent stained-glass dome depicting eight of the nine muses (they don’t know where the ninth has run away to, let them know if you find out), and to demonstrate the acoustics of the golden corridor, where auditions and chamber concerts take place, a member of the group sung a snippet of a musical number to his wife, even getting down on one knee at the end. However, the real treat was stepping into the official boxes of the main auditorium as the residential orchestra practised for an upcoming opera, and listening to the beautiful sound cast around the room.
We wandered around La Boca, the shantytown area of Buenos Aires, which is distinctive for its brightly painted buildings. The trees lining the streets even had colourful knitted scarves around their trunks.
On Sunday there is one thing and one thing only to do in Buenos Aires: visit the famous antiques market of San Telmo. The market stretches along both sides of the street for so many blocks that it disappears from view before it finishes. We wandered for more than five hours. There were the usual tacky tourist items, but also plenty of stalls of intricate and stunning handmade jewellery, paintings of tangoing figures or snapshots of the city, collector matchboxes and stamps, pendants carved from coins from around the world, stalls selling incense, spices, jars of rich dulce de leche (a kind of caramelised milk found everywhere on this continent); any antique you can think of, there is almost certainly at least one stall devoted to it in San Telmo. Between the stalls, buskers played Spanish guitar, or performed puppet shows, and we even came across a ten-piece tango band complete with three accordions and, more astonishingly considering this was just on the street, a piano. Jo and I took the plunge and had a caricature portrait drawn of the two of us; we both look a little plaintive in it, but impressive considering it took the artist only half an hour. Plus, I discovered what I could have probably guessed; I am far too easily distracted and giggly to be a good portrait model. We also had a tour around El Zanjón, an archaeological site of underground tunnels from the old city, which took twenty years to excavate and restore.
One evening we went along to a ‘mate tasting’ at our hostel, which thankfully turned out not to be simply kissing other travellers; mate, pronounced maté, is a drink of hot water and herbs, drunk from metal or wooden gourds and through metals straws. It is a social activity; one gourd can be passed around a circle multiple times, with the hot water topped up for each person. Extremely bitter for the first sip, but I very quickly got used to the taste.
We also had a brief, free tango lesson at our hostel, which taught us the basics to do with weight, movement and rhythm, then headed out another evening to a hidden gem of a tango club named La Catedral, a huge loft area, its walls hung with paintings, coloured lights strung across the high ceiling, rickety chairs and tables stood around the dancefloor. We had a much longer tango lesson, this time partnering off and learning complete steps, after which we sat back and watched the pros moving silkily across the dance floor, improvising the whole time.
Certainly our most bizarre experience of the city, of this first month of travelling in fact, was the performance of La Fuerza Bruta (Brute Force). The crowd was ushered into a space and stood standing throughout the whole performance. The show was made up of various sections: drumming and chanting occurred on the front stage, at multiple points a treadmill came out into the audience from the back and sides of the room, a tank of water was suspended above us in which performers ran, danced and dived, and then lowered so far that the audience could touch it with their palms, and for one section a huge parachute covered the space and performers were lowered from the ceiling through gaps. All in all it was full on, exuberant, utterly strange, and unlike anything I have ever seen. And yet it worked: by the end the crowd was buzzing and dancing along with the performers.
At the weekend, we took a taxi, train, and tram along the coast to reach the weekend-getaway town of Tigre. From there we took a commuter boat: the whole area is riddled with waterways, and the launch served as a kind of waterbus which could drive on both sides of the ‘road’, picking up people from the end of the jetties which jutted out from each property. After about three kilometres we disembarked and walked around, admiring the beautiful properties, all on stilts, and finding pathways which ran alongside smaller tributaries.
Going a bit further afield, we rode a ferry fifty kilometres across the wide Río de la Plata, to the Uruguayan town of Colonia. A tour guide met us there, and with her voice proJECTing every SINgle WORD in a SLOW and SPAnish manner, we wandered the old town for an hour, past the Street of Sighs where the prostitutes worked until the ‘40s, the beautiful old church, and large main square. After the tour, Jo and I had sandwiches on a jetty, next to the gently bobbing sailing boats, then did some further wandering ourselves, climbing the lighthouse’s 112 steps to peer across the water at the faint outlines of Buenos Aires’ skyscrapers. We popped into many artesan shops full of local, handmade and kooky items, and had a deliciously strong coffee sat outside a café on the cobbled streets of the main square, accompanied by live Spanish guitar.
The Grand Finale
And so to the grand finale of Jo’s month in South America. A minibus picked us up and drove us about 90 minutes out of the city, to a tiny airfield, where we had two minutes of informal training, which consisted of showing us photos, then sat in the sun all day, doing not much as other people had their turn… at what, you ask?
Well, we were each buckled into a harness, then climbed into a miniscule plane, each with our own instructor. For more than 20 minutes we flew higher and higher, the pilot even gave Jo the steering wheel at one point and let her direct the plane (as I say, informal), and we climbed until we were at 10,000 feet. At this point Jo and her instructor jumped out, and I followed with mine seconds after. During the thirty or so seconds of freefall, which are amazing enough as it is, we went through a cloud which I found tremendously exciting, followed by 5 minutes of floating down once the parachute opened. A very adrenaline pumping activity to round off the month together, and luckily for you all, there is video evidence and stunning pictures which definitely show us both at our most beautiful.
Yesterday morning we said our goodbyes and Jo marched off to the airport with her large rucksack, ready to return to Germany to continue her year studying abroad. I now have a week of alone time to visit art galleries, drink coffee, write, and wander around the city’s parks, doing whatever takes my whim, after which Nae, a university friend, will be joining me for the next leg of the journey. So, as ever, more is sure to come soon!