Tuesday, June 11, 2013

It Takes Two to Tango

FYI: I´ve been a couple cities behind in my blogging. Luckily, I have time to play catch up right now.

      From El Calafate we FLEW to Buenos Aires. So nice after being on a 28 hour bus. We got lucky and bought our flights for $160 each while we were in Bariloche, just a few days before take-off. Buenos Aires was a lively, colorful, tango-filled whirlwind. We stayed 4 whole days there. That´s a record for us since we´ve been traveling so fast. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, just in time to check out the Sunday antique markets in San Telmo. San Telmo is one of the oldest barrios in Buenos Aires. It is a very historical neighborhood, known for its antique shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars. This is where our hostel was.

One of the first buildings we saw upon arriving: the Catedral. It´s under construction
so what you see is actually a screen. Realistic, no? 
This catedral is where the new Pope used to call home.

     Our first goal was to change our American dollars into Argentinian pesos to get the ¨blue dollar rate¨. I mentioned this in my previous post while we were in Mendoza, although I think I misunderstood what it meant. The ¨blue dollar rate¨is what the Argentinian peso is actually worth in dollars. The Argentinian peso has recently experienced 30% inflation and its value is ridiculously unstable. The government has put a limit on how much it can be exchanged for. At all the official money exchange houses, the rate is about 5.2 pesos per US dollar. The ¨blue dollar rate¨, however, is at least 7 pesos per US dollar. We had no problems in Mendoza or Bariloche exchanging our dollars for pesos under the ¨blue dollar rate¨at the official money exchange houses. However, in Buenos Aires, that was not the case. The exchange houses offered us 5.08 pesos per dollar! This is how our money exchanging little adventure started. After doing some research online and asking fellow hostellers how they got the blue dollar rate, we learned that the only way to get our money´s worth was to change our money from the street exchangers at Calle Florida. We were told that these exchangers shouldn´t change our money right there on the street, but are supposed to take you inside to their hidden office to change the money. If that doesn´t sound sketchy, I don´t know what does. The reason why they´re so secretive about changing the money is because it´s an underground business. It´s silly because they blatantly exchange at the blue dollar rate at proper exchange houses in other Argentinian cities. The other silly thing about this whole operation is that Calle Florida is a really nice commercial street lined with banks, high-end shopping stores, and official exchange houses. These street exchangers yell, ¨dolares, dolares, dolares, cambia dolares!¨, right next to the police officers standing at the street corners. So we picked a dude, one that didn´t look too young or too ridiculous, and followed him into a building (out of sight from the police) to an office fronting as a tour agency. Upon entering the office, there were a few locals in line to buy dollars. The reason behind this ¨blue dollar rate¨ secret exchange is that Argentinians buy dollars because it´s a much more stable currency than their pesos. That way, they don´t lose the value of the money they earn and save. For example, in order to buy real estate property in Buenos Aires, you have to pay in US dollars. The inflation is so bad that a couple weeks ago while we were in Mendoza, the blue dollar rate jumped up from 7:$1 to 9.2: $1. Anyways, we got a decent rate for our dollars, 8.2: $1.

      One of the things we were really looking forward to in Buenos Aires was to do another walking tour. We´re such history/culture nerds. We did a tour through Buenos Aires Free Tours on Monday morning of downtown B.A. We had a small group of 7, which was nice because I got to ask our guide, and co-founder of the company, as many questions as I wanted. We started at the Congreso, where the senators and congressmen work. The Argentinian political system, like Chile´s, is modeled after the United States´. 3 branches of checks and balances, 2 term presidencies with 4 year terms. The giant, black front doors of the Congreso are only opened one day per year in March when the president enters to work with the Congress to pass legislation. The current president is Cristina Kirchner. She is a socialist, part of the Peronista party. There are two main political parties: the Perónistas are the socialists, named for former President Perón (Evita´s husband) who was ousted during Argentina´s military coup in 1978; the other party is the Radicales, which I think is kind of an ironic name because they´re the conservative party. 

El Congreso

      Argentinian politics is very complicated and like most countries has its own corruption. Since Buenos Aires has always been a wealthy city, most of the ¨Porteños¨(citizens of Buenos Aires, named so because of the ports) are politically conservative. The majority of Argentina is poor and most of these people will never see Buenos Aires. It was really interesting to see the political/cultural history through the eyes of the conservatives (our guide was a Porteño), as opposed to through the eyes of the young socialist activists like our guides in Santiago, Chile. President Cristina Kirchner has bipartisan approval ratings. The poor love her. She has done a lot to serve the people, like any good socialist would. However, the conservatives, especially in B.A. don´t like her because the economy is out of whack. Hence, the instability of the peso. It´s a fine line to walk in order to balance social service and the budget. 

Plaza de Mayo

      Then we walked to the Plaza de Mayo (pronounced ¨Masho¨. Argentinians pronounce the ¨ll¨or ¨ya¨sound like ¨sh¨, which is very confusing) and the Casa Rosada. La Casa Rosada is the equivalent to the White House, except it´s pink and the president doesn´t actually live there. La Casa Rosada is where the president works Mon-Fri. She actually lives farther away and comes to work via helicopter. Ridiculous, much? Plaza de Mayo is pretty much dedicated in memory of los Disparacidos (the young men and women who ¨disappeared¨) during the  military dictatorship, 1978-1983. Another military dictatorship sponsored by the United States´CIA during Operation Condor. Everyday for the last 30 years, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo march around the plaza in their white head scarves to remind people about their lost children and to never forget about Argentina´s dirty past. The original objective of Las Madres was to find their children who had disappeared. Their bodies were never returned, so they can´t really find closure and continue to be tortured by the hope that their children will return. 30,000 Argentinos suspected of being against the dictatorship or socialists were detained, tortured in concentration camps, and then killed. Many were killed by the ¨Flying Death¨, where they would be taken by plane and dumped into the ocean alive for them to die by impact or drowning. Others were killed and buried in mass graves. Today, however, the public support of Las Madres has decreased these mothers are now politically affiliated with whichever party gives them financial support. Now Las Madres has a political agenda in addition to remembering and finding los Disparacidos. 

La Casa Rosada from the Plaza de Mayo

      A sub-group of Las Madres are Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Their sole objective is to find their lost grandchildren. During the dictatorship, the pregnant women who were detained were killed after giving birth. The soldiers didn´t know what to do with the babies, so they either sold them, put them up for adoption at proper adoption agencies, gave them away, or adopted the babies themselves. Las Abuelas advertise: If you were adopted between 1973-1980´s or were born during that time and are questioning your biological lineage, come to us and take a DNA test; You might be our lost grandchild. Las Abuelas have found 107 of their lost grandchildren. The most recent one was discovered last week. The worst part is that she discovered that her adoptive parents had killed her biological parents during the dictatorship. Everyday Las Madres and Las Abuelas march together at 3pm at the Plaza de Mayo in memory of los Disparacidos, then part ways like they don´t know each other. 

Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo head scarves graffiti

     Then we walked to Avenida 9 de Julio, the ¨widest street in the world¨! ...Not. That statistic has not been updated. Culturally, Argentinians love to boast the ¨-est in the World!¨, which explains why I´ve been running  into a lot of the ¨(blank) best in the World¨! Currently, the widest street in the world is in Brasilia, Brasil. From this street you can see the mural of Evita, a funny house built on the roof of a high rise building (the only single-home in central B.A.), and the Obelisk. Rio de Janeiro has the Christ the Redeemer, the U.S. has the Statue of Liberty, and Buenos Aires has the Obelisk. On AIDS awareness day, the city covered the phallic obelisk with the largest condom in the world! Haha.

The Obelisk at Avenida 9 Julio

Funny house on the rooftop

Mural of Evita and some public displays of affection (very common in South America)

      So what´s up with streets and plazas named for the months of May and July? In May, many South American countried declared their independence from Spain. In Buenos Aires, the people marched to what is now the Plaza de Mayo to oust the Spanish viceroy and then elected nine presidents to rule. Then there was the war against Spain. These same South American countries have one man in common for their victories: General Jose San Martin. The Spanish Armada were coming in from the north via the Caribbean. General San Martin wanted to follow a surprise strategy by crossing the Andes and attacking the Spanish from the north in Colombia where they would least expect them. The people in Buenos Aires thought this was a crazy idea and didn´t support him. So Gen. San Martin went to Mendoza where they did support him. San Martin and his soldiers crossed the Andes into Chile, then Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia where he helped rally all of their troops against Spain. At last, Gen. San Martin surprise-attacked Spain and won Argentina´s freedom on 9 de Julio. I think the war against Spain lasted for 7 years. 

General José San Martin

      The evening ¨Aristocratic Tour¨through Buenos Aires Free Tours was more of a look into Buenos Aires´ culture. We walked around the wealthier neighborhoods of Recoleta and Retiro. Back in its hey day, Buenos Aires was a super wealthy city. It´s still called the ¨Paris of South America.¨There were no monarchies like in Europe, but Buenos Aires did have several wealthy, aristocratic families who built huge palaces as their homes. These families made their wealth off of the estancias (ranches) they owned outside the city, or the port as merchants, or by owning big businesses. There used to be 108 palaces. Unfortunately, most of them were torn down to expand the city infrastructure. A few still stand today, but are now used as official government or embassy buildings, or as hotels. Back in its day, B.A. was so rich that it imported building materials from France to build the city buildings because French architecture (during la Belle Epoque) was in style. Hence, Buenos Aires looks like such a European city because, construction-wise, it is. 

One of Buenos Aires´palaces. Now a fancy hotel.

     An interesting fact about current culture: Buenos Aires provides the most and the cheapest plastic surgeries. In fact, if you have private health insurance here, you get a free plastic surgery every two years! The wealthy are vain enough to get their plastic surgery, but not buy extravagant cars. You don´t see lamborghini´s or ferrari´s here because that kind of display of wealth is considered tacky. Such an interesting sense of humility. 

      The Porteños come from a mix of Spanish and Italian descent. That´s why they look so European and speak Spanish with an Italian flare. There was a mass immigration of Europeans to Buenos Aires before the World War because they knew things were looking for the worse in their mother-countries in Europe. I also learned what ¨Ché¨means. I heard it all over Argentina. ¨Ché¨ is the equivalent to ¨Oyé¨ in Peru, or ¨Hey!¨ in English. 

      Finally, we ended the tour at Cementerio Recoleta where many prominent figures are buried, most famously, Evita Perón. Evita was the illegitimate child of some important Porteño named Duarte. She grew up poor outside the city. When she decided she wanted to become and actress, she moved to Buenos Aires as a young adult. Here she met her husband and future president Perón. As first lady, Argentina adored Evita. She was beautiful, charming and compassionate. Evita did a lot to help the poor because she was one of them. Sadly she died of cancer at a young age. Her funeral lasted for 2 weeks in Buenos Aires. Her body was embalmed and her casket publicly dispayed. Argeninians from all over the country came to Buenos Aires to see her. 

Evita´s grave at Cemeterio Recoleta

        Then we learned about the infamous, horribly creepy story about Evita´s body. For some reason her body wasn´t buried right away. It was stolen by the man who had embalmed her. He was obsessively in love with Evita. He was a freak, really. He kept her body in his house and talked to her, watched TV with her, eat dinner with her, and sleep with her body! Eventually her body was found and the military took her body back. Things just got worse. These soldiers mutilated and raped her body. Eventually her body was shipped to Italy where her widowed husband, Perón, and his third wife were living. At last her body was safe. The Argentinians loved Evita so much that a group of them uprised, kidnapped the president at the time and demanded for Evita´s body. They gave the president a life or death ultimatum for her body´s return. Since Evita´s body was in Italy, the president couldn´t give them her body, so they killed the president! Qué loco! When Perón passed away, his wife didn´t know what to do with Evita´s body, so she shipped her back to Buenos Aires where here father, Duarte, finally claimed her (after becoming a prominent figure, of course) and buried her under the Duarte family mosoleum in Cemeterio Recoleta. 

       Neither of these tours talked that much about the military dictatorship. A lot of the information I received about the dictatorship was solely from visiting the Plaza de Mayo and the questions I asked. I don´t even know who led the coup or how it happened. All I know is that the military dictatorship fizzled out and ended with the loss of the Malvinas (aka Faulkland Islands) against the British. Elections were held after losing the war over the Malvinas and the Argentinians voted against the military dictatorship. The end. Besides las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, it didn´t seem like Argentina keeps the memory of this ugly past alive, unlike in Chile where the Chilenos own their ugly history and continue to remember their past so it is not repeated.

     On to more fun things: there is so much cool stuff to see and do in Buenos Aires. We didn´t even get to see all of its most popular neighborhoods! It´s a good thing we had such a limited amount of time to spend there because just those 4 days pretty much drained my bank account. Ugh. On Monday night we went to this awesome drum show called ¨La Bomba¨at the Konex. La Bomba is on every Monday night and entrance is only 60 pesos (under $8). So many percussionists, such lively beats, and such liberating rhythms. The drummers looked like they were having so much fun and they looked so free. The beat was contagious and you couldn´t help but dance through the whole show. 

La Bomba

      On Tuesday night we went to a Milonga. There are two ways to do tango. You can either pay a lot of money for a fancy dinner and professional tango show. Or you can go to a local Milonga, which is essentially a dance club/resto-bar with a dance floor. We opted for a Milonga at a local place in San Telmo. The group of us from our hostel pretty much got our own private tango dance lesson. It was awesome. We learned the basic 8 steps and a couple nifty moves. Tango is definitely different fom anything I have ever danced before. I danced a lot of salsa in Cusco, and tango is a lot slower and really sensual. Neither of which I am good at being, haha. After our dance lesson, acoustic guitar players and singers performed. Right when I was thinking about how Peru seemed more like a ¨spicy¨ latino country than Argentina, and especially compared to Chile, the singers started singing. So much passion. They sang from deep within their souls. It was amazing. This is how I came to believe my tour guides when they said that Argentinians are very passionate people. 

With our tango instructors at the Milonga

        On Wednesday we went to the port barrio of La Boca (the mouth). I really enjoyed how colorful this neighborhood is. El Caminato de la Boca (the walkway) is lined with cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating and stages for watching tango dancers. At lunch we got to sit right in front of the stage. First, an acoustic guitar duo were playing. Again, so much passion as they played, no felt, their songs. Then a couple professional tango dancers performed. The way they expressed the tango was so enchanting. After their dance, they invited us to take photos with them. I was practically pushed on stage first to take my photo with the male dancer. Then he asked me, ¨Quiere una foto o quiere bailar?¨(Do you want a photo or do you want to dance?) I was surprised at the question and kind of just stuttered. So he made the decision for me: ¨Pienso que quiere bailar¨ (I think you want to dance), and he started the music. Haha, so there I was dancing tango on stage in Buenos Aires. So much fun! Obviously this man is a professional so he was a very good leader. I just had to relax and follow. The steps I learned at our tango lesson the night before were pretty much useless because he kept twirling and turning me. It was all I could do to keep up! That was definitely my favorite part of my Buenos Aires experience.

La Boca

Our lunch time tango show

Impromptu tango performance, haha

      After all the ladies in our group got to dance tango on stage at this restaurant, Mallory and I went to La Bombonera. The stadium home to the Boca Juniors futból club. The home club of one of the best futból players of all time, Diego Maradona. We went through its museum and took a tour of the stadium. La Bombonera is a perfect example of the passion Argentinians have. In fact, the museum is named ¨Museo de la Pasion Boquense¨ (Museum of the Boca Passion). It was a really well-done museum. It was cute to see the little boys there with their dads. You could see the absolute joy on their faces, their dads´ too! For them it was like going to Disneyland... but way better. Their dreams, their heroes, were in this museum, play or played in this stadium. The other way I can explain the passion of the Porteños in La Boca for their beloved futból team is by relating it to Portland, Oregon and its Trailblazers... to the power of 10. Although we couldn´t see a futból match there, I´m glad we got to see La Bombonera and la Pasion!

Statue of the legendary Diego Maradona

Inside el Museo de la Pasion Boquense

La Bombonera stadium

Locker room throne

Locker room showers ;-P

      After all this time we had already spent in Argentina, we still hadn´t eaten Argentinian steak. So on our last night in Buenos Aires, we went out and split a butterfly steak, accompanied with some good Argentinian Malbec wine at a local restaurant recommended to us by locals and our hostel reception called, Desnivel. It was a really good cut of meat. Honestly, though I thought it was a little bland. Probably just because my American taste buds were longing for more salt. Nonetheless, it was of excellent quality. 

      Next time I come back to South America, I definitely want to come back to Buenos Aires, with a little more time on my hands and a little more money in my pocket. There is tango to be danced, steak to be eaten, and wine to be drunk. What a great city. 

Travel tips: (I forgot about this my last posts. Oops.)
Hostal America del Sur (in El Calafate and Buenos Aires)- 70-85 pesos per night 4 bed dorm with 10% Get South discount
La Bomba- 60 pesos entrance Mondays at 8pm at the Konex
Desnivel Argentinean steak restaurant: our butterfly steak with potatoes cost 140 pesos, good enough to fill two people, half bottle of Malbec 38 pesos
La Bombonera stadium tour and museum entrace 60 pesos
Must go to Sunday Markets on Calle Defense in San Telmo
Must go to el Caminato in La Boca

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