25. Sep, 2015

Where my heart and soul sings


Having visited Argentina just over 10 years ago we were keen to return and rekindle our love for it. The flight was good we and as we flew over the outskirts of Buenos Aires it was clear that many things had changed in a decade. The financial crash in 2001 meant that their currency and its security was volatile and the Peronism, which lived on in the spirit of many Argentinians, rose up. Operating banks in 2005 were few and far between and all had tight security on the doors but still many wore the scars from people's anger as it was splattered on the shutters and windows. The streets were broken, the people were fed up, many unroadworthy cars were battered and poverty in the streets stretched out its hands. Yet the wealth that had been accumulated during the 18 th century was still evident. There were enough businesses and investments happening to ensure that the country didn't become bankrupt - it nearly did. Like so many central and South American countries though investments in its own people and its resources has helped to seal a future they can be proud of. It must be difficult to compete with your wealthier neighbours who offer a loaded hand while your people suffer on the blighted streets; I refer to the hands of China and the USA here. 

In 2015 detached houses with more swimming pools, more than in the whole of Peru, had been built. Sparkling cars in the driveways proved that capitalism was not dead and that Argentina  had entered the competitive market and to some it may have seemed that they knew how to barter with the best of them and they had betrayed their pursuit of Peronism, something so many had died for. 

Touchdown, immigration, bus, subte and a brief walk to our boutique hotel in Monserrat. A run down area of Argentina littered with so much dog faeces you literally had to hopscotch around it. Graffiti adorned the walls and there was little evidence of residents. People drinking out of the bottles sat on dusty doorsteps without a care in world (and that was just John and I - lol). 

Malbec was calling and so we walked down the deserted streets except for a few irresponsible dog walkers. The cafe was cute, Malbec was cheaper than water and crudités were stale. The service was with a smile and families popped in and out creating a welcoming ambience. Where are the crazed drivers of yonder years, I thought. What has happened to the cars without bonnets or windscreens I thought again as car after car behaved itself and sparkled like new. 

A couple of years ago we toured around Italy (stunning country at all levels) driving from Pisa to Naples and all around The Amalfi Coast. It is difficult to know how to take Italian  driving. It is not about how good or bad it is but how much you laugh or cry about it. Up until now I had always described the Argentinians as the most dangerous drivers on the road when the topic of conversation came up. Argentinians would frequently challenge each other to a car duel. On several of our road trips there in 2005 I had to prise my knuckles off the seat at the end of any journey as I sat there screaming my head off and being terrified that the next car would kill us and all those nearby. You would look in the rear view mirror and see nothing and the next thing something had overtaken you on a straight road (not a motorway) at approximately 150 mph. and lanes what were they for? In 2005 when we returned the hire car the company were amazed that we had been driving, saying that most Brits bring the cars back in a matter of hours after throwing the towel in. Well scoff no more Paula, life at last on the roads in BA was sacred and honoured. At last. Much education must have taken place - a whole country strategy to conquer this one. Looks like the Italians are back in the first place as the most laughable drivers. Cue video! It's a generalisation, like much of my observations, but much of it is so true!!http://youtu.be/uKC4XGGlnRI 

We were due to stay in this region for 4 nights and I grew concerned, but I needed have been. It is amazing how daylight brings a welcome relief and make all the scares of the world disappear.  The next day came we realised that were perfectly safe, but that the area was really neglected. The hosts, as usual, were a delight and helped to orientate us around the city.

Tour buses are always great for helping you orientate yourself around large cities. Buenos Aires had certainly changed, but it's sparkle had not dimmed, indeed on first glance had brightened. The BA that we had fallen in love with stroked us, amused us, bemused us, angered us but most importantly welcomed and entertained us. 

Caminito, once a artists' haven and a place where few visitors went, was now a tourists' haven and a place where few artists went. Tango was performed at several restaurants and the Argentinian accordion could be heard droning on in the background. We drank Malbec from a blue penguin jug, and ate a steak. The 2nd one we had eaten and both felt that the quality of meat was not on par with what we had grown accustomed to in Argentina or the UK, but nonetheless it was good food for a good price in good company. 

The flea markets at San Telmo are worth a visit and provide an entertaining afternoon people watching and again making up stories. I try to steal some photos unsuccessfully. People in Peru and Ecuador seemed used to being photographed, but here - well you can imagine going down to Electric Avenue on a busy Saturday and taking photos of the punters without permission you are likely to get a what for. San Telmo was the same. 

As dad covers his eyes his daughter asks where to put the card. He so doesn't want to answer but I am sure it served a s au self distraction. I must admit the last 30 mins of the flight a round of applause erupts only the 2nd on the 19 flights we had done. 

A pop into the Belle Artes Gallery was bemusing. Immediately upon setting foot in the place it seemed that the art works were fake. The paintings didn't glisten, the tones of the colour didn't look right and 15th century European art was painted onto canvas. Now if my mind serves me right canvas boards that are used today were not invented until the 17th or even 18th century. Which would mean that this painting allegedly from the 15th century is a FAKE!

Despite this there was much to revel in the gallery and again rekindle a love for a painting a print which we have in our house by Benito Quinquela Martin,  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benito_Quinquela_Mart%C3%ADn a Lowry of his time. He captures the mood of the people so tenderly. 

A small exhibition of some Paraguayan art was on offer and was inspirational; a group of people and a culture we had yet to encounter, but were keen to. 

Our travels brings us several challenges always will, it is meant to and if it doesn't then you might as well just dream your travels, much better to live it. We knew of many scams on our travels. To avoid any we would walk with purpose, use safes or hide money about our persons if we were carrying hundred of dollars, keep our ears and eyes open and ultimately avoid putting ourselves in danger. Taxis so far had proved to be our biggest challenge-  overcharging, winding up the meter, not using the meter -señor you have forgotten to put the meter on - would be our regular rhetoric etc and occasionally using tactics to undermine you. On this taxi journey after a visit to San Telmo flea market I was ready to run the gauntlet and most importantly was determined to win. 

'Buenos tardes.'

We chat about our visit explaining that it is our second visit hinting that he shouldn't try to scam us as we know all the scams in the book. A scam often used by taxis was to speed up the meter or when paying was to swap your larger note for a smaller one. At the end of our journey John opened up his wallet and asked how much? MISTAKE. The taxi guy  pointed to a note. I screamed at the taxi driver and said something I probably don't want to admit to and decided to walk off. If he couldn't say a number he didn't deserve paying. John stayed. I turned and asked the guy again how much. Still deciding to play silly games I again refused to entertain him, again telling him what I though of his nonsense. John stayed believing we were not being scammed. He gave in and handed over a 100 pesos ( $4.00) The guy swapped it for a 2 peso! I jumped back in the taxi flinging all his belongings until I found where he had hidden our 100. He watched with eyes wide as his jumper flew in his face. On finding it I again told him what I thought of him as he shook the 100 peso note in his face and walked off. John stayed and the taxi guy gave John 50 pesos change. John hadn't realised I had taken  our 100 pesos back, the guy nearly jumped out of the taxi after me as now I was in profit. I was prepared to let him. What was he going to do? I was fired up. And it wasn't his fault that he didn't know I knew how to handle myself in these situations. I screamed at him again and threatened to get the policia. Generously John gave him the 50 pesos for the fare and walked back to me. He is much more generous than me. I would have taken the risk of walking off with the guy's 50 pesos for winding me up, trying to steal from me and ultimately breaking the law and it would make him think twice before he did that to someone again, particularly a woman! 

We continued our tour of Argentina taking in a tango lesson, watching a tango show walking around the streets and just casually peering through the open windows of the milonga halls. 

La Boca, a place where many downtrodden people have risen up from still bears the scars of poverty, but it has a sense of pride like any province. Clever graffiti adorns many walls depicting local scenes of ambition. It's people have a history of being artistic, adventurous and ambitious. Maradona was one of its famous inhabitants, it also houses his former football team Boca Juniors' football stadium. Martin, the artist alluded to earlier, also lived there. Renowned for much petty crime it is quite important to keep out of the shadows of this barro. However, it was daylight and there were many families around. We walked through the park and back to the stadium. Whilst nothing happened you could feel that something could so easily and as you find yourself reporting the crime to the police you see the shrugging of the shoulder in resignation of the low expectations of La Boca, exactly like when I reported the taxi scam. What do you expect was the answer I got. It happens here. But if we don't take a stand against petty crime nothing will change and people deserve to be safe and deserve to have the best for them and their next generation. Argentina was safer but it had a long way to go if the attitude towards addressing petty crime didn't change. 

I never underestimate the beauty of Argentina. It is by far one of my favourite countries and one I would choose to live in. We always described Argentina as the Paris of the west and on wandering around the streets and barros we can see why. Full of Parisian charm and Argentinian character and history it has so much going for it. The people are a delight. Friendly, sociable and care deeply and passionate for each other and it appears the countries around them. It is shown in everything that they do. The love for the pope and Eva Peron is posted everywhere. Their museums are full of the plights of the history makers and they are clearly proud of them all. Demonstrations are a regular occurrence as people actively parole the streets noisily and with purpose. We walked to the pink house (Casa Rosa) where Eva Peron gave her famous or infamous, depending on whichever camp you are in, farewell speech to the shirtless. And barricades were being erected all around it.  Huge 12 ft steel barricades which made you think something big was happening. A water tank poised ready to inflict pain and misery upon those the driver thought deserved it. I managed to get through to the pink house with a sweet smile to the armoured policia, but John became trapped on the other side. Separated and desperate he pleaded to let him through to his esposa! He looked lost and for a split second I could see how getting caught up in a demonstration is upsetting. Through and on to the Casa Rosa and the bicentennial museum about the city's history. A visit to Argentina really would not be complete without recognising two things, the impact that Peronism had on the country and the history of tango. Both are linked and when you look at Argentina's beginning and you look at its future you understand it and love it. I do. 

I am truly fascinated that the country loved and cherished two of its youngest political pioneers - Eva Peron and Che Guevara. Both ambitious for their country, both were idealists and both were shocked by what they witnessed on the streets knowing that other countries around them were stealing their resources and benefiting from them. Both died young (Eva 33 - cancer and Che 39 captured and killed by Bolivian and CIA forces) and both had their bodies tampered with after they were dead. 

Eva Peron 'My artistic calling made me know other scenes I stopped seeing everyday vulgar injustices and I started to glimpse first and know later the greater injustices I not saw then I the fiction but in the reality of my new life.'  Sums up her belief of the world in which she lived.

What I find most fascinating is that their short lives have cut deep into the heart of this country. Their impact set precedence for the Argentinian people of today, but equally because they died young their lives and the richness of their voice is romanticised because it can be. Argentinians are die hard romantics and the way they show this is through living a rich sociable life ( the best nightlife anywhere in the world) and tangoing! Frank Sinatra got it so wrong about NY being the city that never sleeps. New Yorkers are regularly asleep by 11 and London is too expensive to stay out in the West End, yet in BA everyone, and I do mean everyone, children included, go out most nights if only to have a bite to eat. A song needs to be made about this place. 

Food comes in huge quantities. The steaks are huge, the beers are huge and I could feel my arteries swelling with each passing day. The best steak we ate was at the ranch Susanna. A rejuvenated living ranch about 80 km outside of BA. We arrived on another hot day and after eating a delicious empanada got on a horse and rode it with a group. Not being a lover of horses I don't find horse riding easy. They are animals and have their own minds, rightly so, but you are in their hands - hooves. I love the thrill but when you are 6ft off the ground on an animal you met seconds ago the fear, if only temporary, starts to fill you up. I imagined how I would fall, but the ground was hard and if I did fall it was going to hurt. Needless to say like all other adventures, nothing amazing happened. We cantered around the neighbouring fields and I loved it - so I did it again, this time with much more confidence. People who ride horses make it look easy as they turn and steer their furry friend around showing who is in control. Me, if the horse isn't well trained to deal with nervous and incompetent riders then the onlookers are in for a feast of laughter. Last time I rode a horse in Argentina my horse ran off into the forest with me bobbing vicariously up and down as the worried and elderly gaucho galloped in hot pursuit to rescue it (his horse was an important commodity, I was not) 'twas not funny at the time, but provides a good laugh now. 

The Gauchos put their showmanship to great use as they herded the horses together with their sheep dogs and raced each other in competitive games. A great treat and one I really appreciated. The Gauchos are slightly forgotten people in Argentina. Their representation in art, music, food and horseman ship is not advertised as much as the sportsman, religious peeps and political figures of yore. Unsure why this is, as they are pretty unique group to Argentina and certainly provided much towards their current lifestyle loves - dancing, Parilla, polo, horse riding etc. 

By this point I had lost count of how many hotels we had stayed in or how many airports we had been in but we were about to add more to the list as we ventured north to Iguazu. Most of our flights we had planned good times for early afternoon for short flights or nights for longer flights. So we took advantage of a lazy morning and took in some cafe culture - so easy to do in BA. A woman arrives at Tienda Coffee a trendy cafe group and asks for her baby's bottle to be filled with milk. She is smartly dressed and a toddler of about 3 follows her. She is refused. I am unsure why. But it reminded me of the many times we witnessed in Peru of families arriving late at night in the small cafes with a saucepan which was filled with soup from the kitchen. They thanked the owners and walked away normally with a child or two hidden under their cloaks. I know our local restaurants and takeaways in Widcombe, Bath feed the homeless. They arrive either penniless or with a few pennies requesting to be fed. The owners are very generous and I have never witnessed a refusal. It is nice to know that we live in a supportive community.  All these restaurants I refer to are not part of a chain, they are owned by the locals and therefore the locals invest in all their customers. I'm sure again this is a generalisation but I have seen it happen many times. 

Flights are also interesting. We had yet to have a female pilot and most planes we had been in were air buses. I like airbuses. They are reliable and there are few bumps whilst in the air. Most challenging flights so far and coming in at number 

3. Quito to Lima - it wasn't just the plane ride which was bumpy but also Cotapxi had yet to blow its top and could have done at any moment, including as we flew dangerously close to it, but the fugitives on the plane made a real scene for the first 45 minutes. 

2. Cusco to Lima take off was bumpy and it seemed to take a long time to control the plane. 

And landing in at number 1 we have:

1. Malaga to Madrid in the Mosquito - bumped the whole journey, flew close to the ground and to make matters worse I had the child from I don't where, kicking me the whole journey. Note to self - next time take the train, just as fast and cheap and it's practically door to door with less wait time. Cue read 'Idle Traveller' by Dan Kieran and outlines routes and reasons to take trains rather than planes - if only we all had the time to...

On this flight to Iguazu I had the most nervous person I had ever encountered right next to me. A father with his children and wife who sat adjacent to him but across the aisle. First flight, I thought. He took photos of everything, his wife and the children ok, but the sandwich box, the exit sign, the wing, his children eating the sandwich, his children drinking, his feet, me and John - when was he going to stop? I thought it quite cute though. He kept closing his eyes and practising his relaxing techniques. The ride was a little bumpy in parts and although he tried to be the courageous father he gave in to his worries and swapped place with his son putting him next to me so he could sit next to his wife to hold her hand. The boy, about 8, fidgeted lots and as we descended he picked his ears incessantly trying to stop them popping. He sat on his hands as he realised that his behaviour was somewhat worrying as dad took photos of the whole affair. The landing was hilarious. Dad squeezed his wife's hand and his eyes tight and moved his feet as if he is putting the brakes on his car down hard. We land safely and everyone breaks out into a round of applause. I have not heard a round of applause since our landing in Cancun. You can't help wearing a smile and loving the Latino love of life and praise others including God.