“They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.” – Confucias.
With that in mind, we left Asia and Africa behind where we have spend the last 4.5 months and hopped on a plane to South America heading for Buenos Aires, 15,000 km away. Our plan was to swap our bikes (not entirely) for textbooks and study a bit of Spanish. After the 40 hour journey from Mumbai, our little hotel, Awwa Suites & Spa , tucked into the leafy neighborhood of Palermo was just the spot to hibernate during our first day in Argentina.
Palermo is a quaint, European style neighborhood with tree-lined, quiet streets, beautiful parks and plazas including Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays, Parque Tres de Febrero, Jardín Japonés (perfect for running), lovely Italian restaurants and Argentinean cafes including Mishiguene, Malvorn, Bella Italia, a dry cleaners with laundry service, wine shops, supermercados and one single hotel. The area is wonderfully residential. It was also a beautiful, 25 minute walk to Vamos Spanish Academy where we took a week long, crash-course in Spanish. Perfecto!
Buenos Aires has the look and feel of an elegant, European city. Its architecture is similar to both Paris and Madrid. Its parks, plazas, and monuments could fit nicely in any Spanish or Italian city. The eating and nightlife is also very Spanish – light and late breakfasts, big lunches with wine, very late dinners which can last for hours. This is not too surprising given the city’s history and the European immigration 100 years ago. The second largest immigration of Italians went to Argentina from about 1850 to 1940. (Only the US had a larger number of Italian Immigrants). Curiously, Argentina also had a significant number of both Eastern European Jewish and German Nazi immigrants. And you can see and feel their influence. Jewish delis are scattered throughout the city. We had one of the best Reuben sandwiches we have ever had (we had to go back twice) and also a tasty bowl of varenikes (which are Argentine pierogies) at Mishiguene.
Argentina has had a very tumultuous past with many different governments, dictators, military juntas and plenty of civil unrest. The recent “Dirty War” of the late seventies, the financial crash of 2001, and the additional economic issues of 2008 have made life challenging for the typical Portenos (as people who live in Buenos Aires are called). There is also a very noticeable division between the poverty of the indigenous people and the extreme wealth of “the Europeans” as well as the foreigners that continue to hide wealth in over-the-top real-estate projects on reclaimed land in new neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
Argentina has recently elected a new president, Macri, in December, and there is both hope and apprehension in the air. The financial issues will take some time to solve, and there will be pain before resolution. Inflation is climbing and is expected to be in the 30-40% range this year. The black market for US dollars has been eliminated only within the last month or so. We met people whose rent has increased by 80%. Taxis are increasing their fares this month by 20%. The change is big, but it appears that Portenos just roll with it – they have seen so much in the last few decades.
Since we plan to spend a couple months in South America, we thought a week of studying Spanish at the Vamos Spanish Academy was a good idea.
We were a little apprehensive, at first, about taking the Spanish course and spending 8 days in Buenos Aires, but we are so glad we did. At the end of the week of study, we could navigate daily tasks much easier in Spanish, and we met some nice people. There were only three other people in our class- a couple from England about our age who are also traveling the world and were in South America on their way up to visit their son at school in California; and a young hipster from Istanbul who is currently living in Austria but visiting Argentina to learn Spanish and working on getting accepted for some extended study in Chile. The class was held for four hours every day, and speaking only Spanish was encouraged. Basically full immersion for half of the day, a great way to get up to speed quickly.
But before we started class on Monday, we had a chance to get an introduction to Buenos Aires. With its 100 miles of recently built bike lanes, there is no better way to see the sights than on cycles. And Chris found a great cycling company, Biking BA, which offered a seven hour cycling experience . We saw most of the key neighborhoods, sights and had a fantastic lunch that included a bondiola completa, a killer sandwich with pork, egg, cheese and all sorts of condiments including chimichurri, hot sauce, tomatoes, carrots, scallions, onions.
The cycling started in San Telmo neighborhood which is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires and used to be the wealthiest neighborhood before an outbreak of cholera drove out the wealthy elite up the hill to the neighborhood of Recoleta.
After cycling through San Telmo, we cycled to La Boca, a working class, colorful barrio, home to La Bombonera where the world famous Boca Juniors play futbol (soccer) and where Tango initially started. Football is crazy popular over here but also extremely dangerous. Games are often delayed or canceled. Although there was a game the first night we arrived, we opted to catch some of it on TV and visit the stadium during the security of daylight hours. Indeed, we learned from someone the next day that there were “small riots” on the streets after the game.
From there, we rode on to Puerto Madero, a barrio with a completely different look and feel as it was created with reclaimed land and has a lot new, modern buildings – most apparently built with money of questionable origins. Puerto Madero also happens to be the barrio where Messi, a famous futbol star, has a home.
We wrapped up our cycling in the Recoleta barrio where the Recoleta Cemetery is located. But on the way, we passed a grave site of hundreds of victims of the “Dirty War”. Human remains were found while digging a new extension to a highway. It turns out that the previous site was an athletic club used by the police. During the war, they used the basement for torture and killing and buried the victims next door not expecting the site to be excavated in the future. Over 30K people “disappeared” during the troubling times between 1976-1983. Many of the tortured people were drugged and thrown out of planes over the Rio de la Plata. In fact, it was one of these pilots who was responsible for bring these grisly details to light.
Recoleta Cemetery, a much different grave site, is an interesting place and takes graveyards to a whole new level. Supposedly, a grave site costs millions and there is a 10 year waiting list. Many of Argentina’s rich and powerful are buried here in some of the most grandiose temples, houses, mausoleums. Evita Peron, Argentina’s First Lady and wife of President Juan Perón, is among the rich and powerful Portenos ( as Argentina folks are called) buried here.
The cycling was a great way to see the city in a day and also meet some more interesting people. We met other travelers from the UK, Canada and the US as well as a number of locals who were very friendly. In fact, we found most of the folks in the city to be very friendly and willing to help. Also, they were incredibly honest. On the day before we were leaving, we realized that we had left USD $100 in a shirt that we dropped off at the local laundry. We did not realize we had left the dollars in the shirt until later that evening when we went to pick up the laundry (washed, folded and wonderful smelling – so nice). When we initially inquired about the money, the woman at the shop suggested that we check with someone else in the morning. The following morning, Chris and I went to laundry shop thinking it was an exercise in futility. But to our surprise, as soon as we walked in, a young lady was waiting for us. She knew immediately that we were the crazy foreigners that left the dollars hanging around in our shirt pocket. She smiled as she pulled out the freshly laundered Jeffersons that she had carefully tucked away in the accounts book for us. With our faith in humanity restored (or at least strengthened) and our clothes freshly laundered, we headed out to our next adventure – a high-speed ferry to Montevideo!
We will miss Buenos Aires. It has been a wonderful week filled with kind and interesting people, education, dinners with new friends and an old grad school buddy, great food and vino. We both wished we stayed for two weeks to continue the Spanish classes and spend more time in the city, but we are looking forward to Uruguay (where they speak Portuguese not Spanish:O).