Monday, January 23, 2012

Buenos Aires

A good vacation always alters me. I believe this is due to the exposure to new people, new food, new sights, new sounds, new smells and experiencing a culture and way of life that is completely removed and different from my own. This vacation was no exception. As a result, I find it interesting, once it is all over, to step back into my own shoes at the beginning of the trip and relive those early adjustment days when everything is still anticipated, nothing has played out yet and nothing has become familar or routine. Since the goal of this particular trip was always Patagonia, every stop before and after was scheduled to break up the excessively long distances one must travel to reach Patagonia - the not so well defined region at the very southern tip of South America. Easter Island was tacked on at some point as a sort-of "while we're down there" type destination. But ultimately, the goal was always Patagonia and even the way we talked about it was always in terms of Patagonia.

I realize Buenos Aires is an amazing destination in and of itself but since it was never a goal destination, anything we saw or did there was kind of a bonus. Especially since we were there on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day I saw very little point in getting my hopes pinned on doing or seeing anything specific since we had no way of knowing what would be open or closed.

After over a year of planning and several threats of cancellation due to that uninvited interloper in my life - Cancer - I arrived in Buenos Aires with my two friends on Christmas Eve, 22 hours after I left my apartment. Granted, a significant portion of that time was spent in the Delta lounge in the Atlanta airport in the hopes of avoiding the travel debacle I experienced a few years ago on my way to Peru. But despite only grabbing a few hours of sleep, I was excited to get started on my long-anticipated and fought-for vacation.

As I feared, our first challenge of the trip was how to fit the three of us and our three large bags into one small cab. Let me back up and defend my packing for a minute. I purchased a rolling duffel bag for this trip because I was worried about my ability to lug a regular old duffel around - the same duffel I have hauled to Peru, Panama and a number of river trips. I decided that with all of our flights and hotel changes it would help me to have something on wheels since I wasn't sure how my strength and energy would hold out. In packing this wheeled duffel I was constantly removing items and winnowing down my clothing selection to the absolute basics. And I was very successful at this. However, for some reason, my bag still seemed overly stuffed and enormous once I was actually traveling with it despite the fact that I literally used every last item I packed and - as evidenced by my photos - I wore the same clothing over and over and over again. The boys had the same problem with their luggage. But I think the ultimate problem was that we were traveling for nearly 18 full days in two countries through a variety of climates doing a wide variety of activities. Shoe selection alone was tricky. If I did it again, I'm not sure I would be able to pack much differently unless I opted to take only one pair of trail shoes rather than the two I packed. And honestly, I would probably swap one or two t-shirts for one or two extra tech shirts as I somehow elimanted all but two. But at least I only had one carry-on bag and one rolling duffel. The boys weren't quite as efficient . . . However, I will say, once we met others along the way we realized we were traveling far lighter than some in our situation.

So the cab driver had to be a little bit creative. After trying to maneuver a couple of bags this way and that he gave up on trying to fit even two in the back and instead shoved one of our seemingly ridiculous sized bags into his tiny little trunk and then added all of our hand baggage. He then stacked the two remaining bags on top of each other in the middle of the back seat so that they jutted up towards the front. John climbed into the front seat and Zaven and I squeezed into the back and peered over our luggage at one another, happy that we managed to fit in one cab.

We arrived at our hotel too early to check in but the desk clerk directed us to the small dining area for breakfast where we had the best yogurt-fruit-granola parfait ever. Seriously, it was amazing. We were all pretty tired but since we didn't have a room we decided to head out for some exploring. I spent a ridiculous amount of energy asking for directions to an ATM in my terrible Spanish but ultimately was successful enough to get us some money and a little tour of our area. An area that was quickly closing up since it was, after all, Christmas Eve. Although the sunshine and newness of the place made that fact seem a bit surreal.

By the time we returned to our hotel we were able to check into our room - a nice sized suite at the Miravida Soho, a small boutique style hotel in a restored old mansion. The boys shared the bedroom and I took the pull-out couch. We opened the windows and agreed to indulge in a little siesta to rest up before our scheduled dinner with my friend that evening. I think I slept for about an hour. I was tired but I really wanted to get out and explore the city, see new things, taste new tastes. But the boys were out.

I showered and puttered around in my half of the room until I ran out of things to do and when one of them stirred asked how long they planned on sleeping and what was our planning for the afternoon. I wanted to get over to Recoleta, the neighborhood where we were meeting my friend, a little early because according to the guidebook there was a lot more to see over there. They reluctantly got up and showered.

We decided to exchange Christmas gifts before heading out and pulled out some snacks for a little bed picnic and unwrapping. I gave the boys little crocheted penguin tree oranaments to hang off their backpacks (mine was already on my pack) and small leatherman tools. I also gave them chocolates which were opened and shared immediately. Zaven gave me the Bananagrams game and John gave me toe socks and a Hangman book. It all felt like such a cozy way to start a trip we were still anticipating despite the fact it had already started.

We left the hotel around 5 pm and took a taxi to the Recoleta market, which was surprisingly just closing. Our cab driver enjoyed playing tour guide on the drive over and encouraged me to practice my Spanish on him and praised my feeble attempts. John finally confessed to taking over six years of Spanish! This after I was the one stumbling around asking strangers for directions and struggling to follow their responses. I really need to take some Spanish courses.

Recoleta was beautiful and people were lounging around on the lawn in the sunshine and lingering at booths in the market that were mostly closing down for the day. I was hoping to visit the cemetery but it closed just as we arrived so we walked around the Plaza Francia some more and were rewarded with some street tango! That was one of the very few things on my list of must-sees in Buenos Aires!
The dancers were near this beautiful rubber tree with spider-leg like branches that spread out in all directions and - I later learned - is 50 meters wide! Some of the branches are supported by wooden stilts.  The tree is known as Gran Gomero and was planted in 1878.

We meandered around somewhat aimlessly for a while and then decided to try and find a bar that was recommended in my guidebook and by a friend for its beautiful architecture and garden. We thought it sounded like the perfect pre-dinner resting spot. However, we had no idea whether it was open. Relying on the miracle of Google maps via iphone, I navigated us to the address only to discover, as I had feared, it was closed.

By this time it was close enough to 7 pm that I figured we could show up at my friend's apartment since we said we would meet between 7 and 730 pm. I navigated us back to his street only to discover that Parera between Quintana and Guido did not have a number 84. An 80, yes. A 90, yes. But no 84. In fact, nothing was between 80 and 90. Stumped, I searched back through my emails to see whether I had transposed the numbers when I copied them to my calendar. Nope, Parera 84. I shot off an email to my friend and prayed he would check his blackberry. We wandered up and down the street and even checked the next block over. We looked at buzzers on the various buildings to see if names were listed. No luck. I was also concerned because in addition to having the wrong house number, we were not given an apartment number. I considered asking a doorman to one of the buildings but they had suddenly all vanished. And I knew my Spanish was inadequate for that type of conversation.

At one point some concerned strangers approached us to offer assistence. Realizing there was nothing they could do they shrugged their shoulders apologetically and continued on their way to their own festivities. About 15 long minutes of trying to call my friend's U.S. cell phone number unsuccessfully and standing in the street fretting, I received an email saying he was at 68 and included the apartment number. 68 was just up the street and very different from 84. Baffling until he confessed that was the street number of his old apartment . . . .oops!

We had pre-dinner drinks and cheese in his beautiful apartment and John helped him get his printer working. Then he took us on a short walking tour of his neighborhood on our way to dinner. We had reservations at his favorite Italian restaurant - Sottovoce. We learned that the few restaurants that remained open on Christmas Eve in Buenos Aires had very high priced set menus. Ron was disappointed in the food, claiming it didn't live up to its usual caliber, but I thought it was good and we all got along well so I considered it a successful dinner. Plus, there was fantastic people watching. For example, the table next to us were German or Swiss and had decorated their table with a small Christmas tree (we were initially jealous they had a tree on their table until we realized they were the only ones and must have supplied it themselves) and at a certain point in their meal they started pulling out gifts for one another. We speculated about whether the older couple was the younger man or woman's parents and whether they younger couple was married, engaged or just dating. The number of gifts and the rounds of hugs and kisses was somewhat riveting. There was also a singer in the restaurant who was quite good but had the most bizarre song choices for Christmas Eve. It was like fancy karaoke - the Celine Dion song from the Titanic followed by some classic Guns & Roses, for example.

We realized as we walked back to Ron's apartment that our pre-arranged cab ride back to our hotel may be a problem since he too was given the wrong address. As we turned down his street we saw a black car with its hazards flashing and wondered if that was it, but there was no driver. We continued walking until we saw a young man who was indeed our driver and had been dutifully waiting there an extra 20 minutes past our prearranged time at an address that didn't exist. Nice guy. 

We agreed to meet Ron in the morning (he talked us out of our idea to go to Colonia, Uruguay by ferry for the day) and returned to our hotel just past midnight when the locals took to the streets to light fireworks like we do on the 4th of July. Only they had the kind that are illegal most everywhere but Wyoming. The ones that launch into the sky and burst open. I leaned out the large window of our hotel room and watched the fireworks before reluctantly going to bed for the first time in two days.

We had a leisurely Christmas morning and at breakfast we met a nice gay couple from San Francisco with whom we swapped travel stories and itineraries. I liked them enough that we ultimately exchanged information when we saw them again in the evening and now we are Facebook friends. We initially thought maybe we would walk to Ron's since it was such a beautiful day but after we had wandered for a while I realized how far a walk it was and we hailed a cab. After introducing us to Alfajores - an Argentinian sandwich cookie filled with dulce de leche and covered in chocolate or meringue. Delicious.

He took us on a lengthy walking tour of the city pointing out embassies, government buildings and churches along with shopping areas and monuments. He gave us some political and historical context for some of the things we saw as well. Plus, we had a chance to catch up with one another since I hadn't seen him in over a year.

We had lunch at the Faena Hotel+Universe in the Puerto Madero area (since he knew the restuarant would be open). The food was good but the most memorable part of lunch was how ridiculously long it took for Zaven to get his pasta. I think I was finished with whatever I had ordered before he even got anything. We had shared some empanadas as appetizers and he was brought a small dish of cheese for his pasta but otherwise he just watched us eat and waited.

Ron and me after Christmas lunch
After our lengthy lunch we took a cab back to Recoleta and happily the cemetery was still open. The Recoleta Cemetery is one of the top recommendations for visitors for BA and once inside I understood why. It is beautiful. And, of course, along with all of the other tourists, we had to hunt down Eva Perone's tomb and snap the obligatory photos of the famous Evita's final resting place.

After the cemetery we thanked Ron for his excellent tourguiding and said goodbye as he went home and we set off in the other direction. We wandered through the market again for a bit but it felt too early in our journey to shop for souveniers yet so we kept walking. And happily stumbled upon the giant Steel Flower - Floralis Generica. It was beautiful and kind of fascinating since the big steel petals open and close as the sun rises and sets.
After that we returned to the hotel for an early night in an attempt to rest up for our far too early 3 am wake-up call. We had a 4:45 am flight the next morning that we felt was the beginning of our true vacation.


katie said...

I really love hearing about your adventures. Hope you're feeling ok!

Tracy said...

Wow! What an amazing adventure! It looks absolutely beautiful. I'll just grab on to your luggage and make the trip with you! Love, love, love that you had a place and journey to escape to....even though you had to come screeching back into reality when you got back home. Once again, I am in awe of all you accomplish while traveling on your 'reality' journey.

Hope the next step of your treatment goes....well, just goes. And quickly!

Prayers and good thoughts from me to you.

Kimberly said...

It is very common that for the holidays the food gets higher prices and its quality gets worse, but that it is just for those days. Argentina has some the best restaurants in the world due to the meat and vegetables that grow there. I can tell you because I tried the food there myself. I got a Buenos Aires rent so I would cook in the kitchen with vegetables from the place in front of the street. I must say, the tasted as if they had been just taken from the crop!

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