Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Buenos Aires

Nov 11, 2007 Buenos Aires, Argentina

Arriving in Buenos Aires after a ten hour flight from Cape Town, we disembarked, passed through immigration and found our luggage with no problems. A short taxi ride brought us into the city itself, a city dotted with old colonial buildings between modern steel and glass high rises, wide streets, wonderful old trees, large green parks where people walk dogs or push baby strollers. A far cry from South Africa.

We had picked a backpackers hostel on the internet, one with pictures of nice rooms. However, the reality was far from the pictures. True, we had a private bathroom and a TV mounted high up on the wall. Also, a refrigerator placed high up on a ledge. But the bed had seen better days sometime in the middle of the last century.

We ventured out in search of food. A real paradise for us. Cheese shops filled with many choices. Sausages of every type. Gourmet smells from every restaurant and café (at least three on every block.) The streets, the shops, the old buildings, people walking; everything reminded us of European cities, Madrid, Paris, Florence, or maybe even Barcelona.

Because of the bed, we quickly went in search of a new place. A taxi ride is a good way to see different parts of the city. We soon found a small studio apartment in a very central and rich part of the city. A few blocks away is the Plaza San Martin, a large square surrounded by flowering Jacaranda trees and containing a large statuary group in the center, topped by an equestrian statue of General Jose de San Martin, revered as the liberator of Argentina. By Wednesday we had moved and began exploring the neighborhood. On every corner, flower stands burst with color and sweet fragrance. Many professional dog walkers with up to 20 dogs on connecting leashes walk swiftly by. A couple of blocks from our apartment are a Supermarket, many shops, more cafes and restaurants and several shopping malls. We began to stock our refrigerator.

Our apartment is on Arenales, a tree-lined street filled with 10 and 12 story apartment buildings and upscale shops selling everything from lingerie to fancy furniture. One block away is Avenida Santa Fe, one of the city’s main shopping streets
Two blocks away is the city’s main thoroughfare, the Avenida 9 Julio, probably the widest street in the world. There are 11 lanes of traffic in each direction, 22 in all, broken into sections by tree lined strips. It takes at least 2 traffic light changes to cross this behemoth of an avenue, and if you’re too slow, you can wait for three. Both sides are lined with tallish buildings dating from the 19th and 20th centuries and containing both offices and posh apartments, very reminiscent of New York’s 5th Ave. or the Champs Elysee in Paris, the street level is lined with all kinds of shops. Avenida 9 Julio runs for about 2 miles from the waterfront area to the edge of the downtown section known as Microcentro. At one point, where it crosses the Avenida Corrientes, Buenos Aires’ answer to Broadway, there’s a large plaza containing a 250 ft. tall obelisk built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Buenos Aires and the spot where the first Argentine flag was hoisted on Independence Day in 1816.

At the Plaza San Martin is the beginning of La Florida, a mile long pedestrian street lined with high-end shops and many shopping malls. One of Argentines specialties is leather goods and almost every shop carries purses, coats and accessories in many colors and patterns of leather. The street is so crowded that just walking becomes an exercise in avoidance. It is also home to the largest Mac Donald’s we’ve ever seen anywhere.

The famous Cementario de Recoleta is also within walking distance (good exercise for old travelers). Outside of the cemetery the streets are lined with outdoor cafes, Tango demonstrations, vendors, a craft market on the weekends and lots of people sitting, eating and enjoying the outdoors. An old Ficus tree over 200 years old spreads it limbs and leaves providing shade under its 200 foot diameter. Benches around the trunk of the tree are filled with couples of every age enjoying the sights, the music and the food that abounds. Certainly not the average cemetery.

Here many of Argentina’s leaders and elite over the centuries (The ones who no longer matter) are buried. Inside the cemetery walls there are mausoleums of every type and size, built of marble, granite, stones or bricks. Many have statues in front, others on domed tops, usually of angels. I especially like the ones with the skylights on top. More light for the dead? Some have glass fronts so visitors can see the caskets. It is a city of and for the dead. We wove our way down the narrow streets looking for Eva Peron’s resting place. Finally we spotted a crowd and found the mausoleum belonging to the family Duarte. Every day crowds come to take pictures and pay homage to the woman many call Saint Evita.

Sunday we rode the metro to an old part of Buenos Aires, the San Telmo section. Here, in the Plaza Dorrego, the large Sunday open air antiques market draws thousands of browsers. We passed antique stalls selling glass ware, bad oil paintings, earrings and jewelry, ancient victrolas, toy soldiers, purses and lots of knitted shawls. The funniest sight is all the stall owners dressed as angels, belly dancers, butterflies, Romans in togas, anything you can think of. The strangest thing was that they are also antiques. There wasn’t a person under 55 dressed in costume. These folks are out here every Sunday and have probably been doing this for many years, not really caring whether they sell any of their wares or not and having loads of fun. We stopped and watched more tango demonstrations, listened to a musical group doing Latin music, visited an old cathedral and enjoyed the afternoon.

So far we are really enjoying Buenos Aires, maybe more so because after living in Asia and Africa for almost 4 years, we appreciate it. Another thing we like is the size of people and the clothes for sale. Especially the underwear. In Asia the people are about the size of an American 10 year old child. Ted bought some XXXL underwear which turned out to be too small even for me! All the bras are padded in countries where the weather is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 40+ Celsius. Do they think breasts are like yeast and flour; they’ll rise with more heat? In India clothes are very cheap but they all look like they came from an import place. Okay for me but Ted didn’t want to look like a 65 + year old hippie. Bras were very cheap, about $1.25 U.S. And they look like it. In Africa there wasn’t much choice. Sure, in the used clothes markets in Tanzania but who wants to wear used underwear? So finally we’re back with choices of size, color, lace and brands. Thank heaven; we’re about out of underwear, though Ted says that it’s a long time since he’s seen so many women he’d like to see without underwear.

Buenos Aires has a “Pink House” (Casa Rosada) where the President lives during his term of office. This is where the Peron’s used to address the crowds from an upstairs window. Today, the park in front of the House is filled with strolling people and pigeons. A vendor sells pigeon food and buyers are treated to hundreds of pigeons which will sit on their arms or head to reach the food.

In another part of the city we found the Mercado de Pulgas (flea market), a real treat. A city block filled with different vendors selling everything from estate or garage sales. Wonderful old items along with pure junk. Some great buys. Shops filled with chandeliers, old furniture, old costume jewelry, silver, glass, mirrors, and a thousand other great finds.

Yesterday we visited the Plaza Congreso, the Argentine legislature, built on the model of the US Capitol in Washington, sporting a huge dome and rotunda. Unlike the capitol, however, the building is adorned with large numbers of European style sculptures including a gigantic victory driving a chariot on the front portico roof. The Plaza across the street has a huge fountain with fantastic horses’ ala the fountain in the main square in Salzburg, Austria, which stands in front of a large monument to Argentine independence. It’s definitely one of the world’s greatest city squares, ranking right up there with anything anywhere else in the world.

We’ve traveled on the subway and the busses. One subway line, Lina A has very old cars with wooden seats and doors that are manually opened. It’s like stepping back in time about 100 years. We’ve walked miles through old and new neighborhoods. It certainly is an interesting city. And we haven’t even left Buenos Aires yet!

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