Monday, August 07, 2006

Buenos Aires!

I met Leo as planned at EZE airport. Since it was 6am, we figured were in no hurry to get into town, so we decided to take the 2-hour, 25 cents public bus journey into the city. The Lonely Planet indicated that we needed to take the 51 bus. As we boarded, we crosschecked the information with the driver, only to learn that there were several 51 bus lines, each coming to the airport but going to different destinations. We took the wrong bus for a while, and connected with the right one when we spotted it driving behind ours. It’s now winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so the temperature is chilly. We arrived at Constitucion, a bus terminal near the constitutional government building. The area is identified as being especially dangerous by BA standards (safe city by South American standards) at night. We then walked 20-30 minutes to the hostel booked by Tapan, the End-of-the-world hostel. It seemed quite nice when we walked into the lobby. Since it’s the low season right now, accommodations are cheap and plentiful. The rate was less than $5 per person per night. As we were shown our room, we rapidly understood why it was so cheap. The 2-bed room was small and without heating, and smelled like a hockey locker room. A small portable “tan-light” heater was hidden in the closet. As we plugged it in, it illuminated the room as if there was a second sun. I peeped through the window, only to find out that it was not actually leading outside, but rather in an enclosed parking garage. We closed it to limit fumes from coming into the room. The toilets were pretty filthy, completely flooded and with hair everywhere. The walls were paper thin, and we could hear “everything” that was happening in the room next door. We figured that it would be fine for a few days, since we did not intend to spend any time there. At least, the hostel offered free and fast internet access. A letter from Tapan informed us that he would be joining 2 days later, as he had secured a 10-year American transit visa and rescheduled his flight.

We headed out and took the subte (subterrano, subway) to the main bus terminal, Retiro. We gathered information about going to the Iguazu falls, Mendoza and Santiago de Chile. We then walked around Puerto Madero, a chic and trendy neighbourhood on the harbourfront. We had lunch in a steakhouse, where we enjoyed a finely prepared filet mignon and a porterhouse. Argentina is rightly renown for its beef and wine products. A steak in a reasonably chic restaurant costs around $5, and a good bottle of Malbec wine is between $1 and $25+. After lunch, we purchased some ferry tickets to Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay for the next day. We then walked around all afternoon, seeing the major sights downtown BA has to offer. All are condensed within a 30-minute walk radius, so it’s very easy and pleasant to walk around. We saw the English tower, the Casa Rosa where Evita Peron made her famous speech, the Cathedral, the Congress, the oldest church in Argentina, the Obelisk etc. We also saw about 100 people demonstrating against pay cuts at the French Hospital, which happened to be located right across the street from our hostel. About 300 policemen in full riot gear were ready to quash the demonstrators should need be.

We then returned to the hostel to change. Leo contacted an Argentinean friend, and we set a rendez-vous at Unico, a bar in Palermo. I had another steak in a restaurant in Palermo, but it wasn’t as good as the one at lunch. I only ate half of it, thinking I had enough meat for one day. We hung around Unico before moving on to a bar specialized in board games. We played Jenga for a while. We kissed our Argentinean friends goodbye (only one kiss in Argentina, not two like in Canada or three like in France) and went for a last drink in another bar, where we met some girls on vacation from Cordoba.

The next morning, the fast ferry took about an hour to reach the port of Colonia de Sacramento. Colonia is a very small town located about 100km from BA, about half-way to Montevideo. It’s so small that Thrifty actually rents golf carts and quad bikes to get around. It was founded by the Portuguese, who were using it to smuggle goods into Argentina. Spain eventually kicked the Portuguese out. It has a fortified center, and many charming small streets and restaurants. The access to the town’s 6 museums costs about a quarter. You will find everything in the museums, from old maps to stuffed animals to weapons to reconstructions of traditional houses. It even has the skeleton of a fully-grown blue whale. We had lunch at El Torreon, a touristy restaurant right on the water. It was expensive by South American standards, and the food was ordinary. In the afternoon, we visited museums and tried different local drinks, such as their version of Sangria, which is made with white wine, or Grappa miel. (Grappa, the Italian liquor, with honey) We climbed the lighthouse, and saw pretty much everything there is to see in the town. We caught the last ferry back to BA, this time taking the slow ferry. It took over three hours to reach Puerto Madero. We missed the last train to San Telmo, where we intended to have dinner that night. It makes very little sense that the last subte is at 10:30, considering Porteños don’t have dinner before 9pm, don’t go out until 1 or 2am, and don’t come home before 6 or 7am. We had dinner at a Tango show restaurant, and I was truly impressed by the sheer strength necessary to dance Tango. The dance is spectacular. I also met a girl from Saguenay, who just arrived in BA to study for 5 months. We then visited another bar with live music, before going home around 2am.

The next morning, Leo and I walked around and stumbled onto Cromañon, the infamous bar where 194 people burnt to death a couple of years ago. There are still many flowers, messages and pictures from the victims and for the families. I can still recall the images broadcasted on the news when the terrible accident happened. The emergency exits were padlocked, and many people did not make it out. After this sobering visit, we walked back to the hostel and saw Tapan getting out of a taxi. It was nice to see him again. We helped him with his bags and moved into a three-person room. We also met Ellie, a charming Welsh girl, who happened to move into the fume-filled room we were just leaving. We invited her to join us for lunch, and she gladly accepted. We had lunch in Puerto Madero (steak, for a change) and then went to the bus station to book a bus to Iguazu. The bus ride takes about 20 hours, and costs $50. I checked the internet and learned that flying there only costs $100. As Leo and Tapan booked the overnight bus, I purchased the Aerolineas Argentinas flight online, as I hate busses and sometimes get motion sick on long journeys. Afterwards, we walked around the chic Recoleta neighbourhood. We arrived at the cemetery 10 minutes too late, so we weren’t able to pay our respects to Evita, who is buried there. It was only 8pm, much too early for dinner, so we decided to go to the board game bar for a while before dinner. They opened the door just as we arrived, and we were their first customers of the day. We played jenga, ate empanadas and chatted away. Next thing we knew, it was passed 5am, we completely forgot about dinner and we were still playing jenga.

The next day, we slept until early afternoon. Leo and Tapan left for the bus station so Ellie and I had lunch together, and spent the day lazily walking around BA. We had dinner in the Lavalle area, and I went to sleep early, exhausted and recuperating from the previous night.

I showed up at Aeroparque, the domestic airport in BA, at 6:30am this morning, for a 7:45 flight to Iguazu. When I arrived, I was informed that my flight was delayed by over two hours. This means that I will not make it to Iguazu on time to meet with Leo and Tapan. I hope they get my email and we are able to meet up later on today. I am about to board the plane and Dan Brown is about to teach me what the Holy Grail actually is.

Lastly, I am impressed at how much I am able to communicate in Spanish. I understand almost everything, and can get my messages across. Another month or two and I would likely be fluent! Too bad I can’t take any more time down here.

I won’t be able to upload pictures until I return to Canada, but I will make sure to do so shortly after I arrive.

¡Besos de BA!

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