Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pardon me, boy

Is that the Chattanooga choo choo? No, it's the Tren De La Costa, a picturesque ride of 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from Olivos in the outskirts of Buenos Aires proper to Tigre on the Rio de la Plata. Luciano and I took the train last Sunday, the 21st, and had a very enjoyable outing.

The train is an upscale tourist attraction, not a typical commuter train. It's very well maintained, has comfortable seats and oversized windows, and the 11 refurbished vintage stations along its route are designed to appeal to the eye rather than serve a merely utilitarian purpose. Each station has a theme which integrates its architecture with the amenities and attractions it offers. For example, Borges station, named after the famous author, is the "Arts" station and features roof gardens, gazebos, outdoor statuary and its parks and pathways lead to one of the oldest operating cinemas in the world.

We stopped about halfway along the rail line to lunch in San Isidro, the "Shopping" station. The station itself is lovely with many outdoor cafes, bars, plazas, and gallerias. Plaza Mitre, the park across from the station, hosts an open-air crafts and antiques fair with dozens and dozens of booths. Both the park and the station feature live performances to keep you entertained while you eat and shop. From the park we headed into the center of town, passing by its historic cathedral. It has the charm and feel of a village, broad tree-lined streets, houses rather than apartment buildings, and little traffic compared to congested Buenos Aires. We stopped in at a cafe, whose name I can't recall, and had pastries that were truly enormous. I know how to find the place again and believe me, the next time we're there I will hunt for it!

After our high-calorie indulgence, we somehow waddled back to the station and hopped aboard for the ride to Tigre, one of the most popular day trips for residents of the capital. Situated in the Paraná Delta region of the river, it is an operating port as well as a tourist destination. There's an amusement park, casino, pubs and restaurants, and hundreds of shops to buy artesanal clothing, furniture, and other handicrafts. Boat tours of the delta and nearby islands are available.

The round-trip fare is only 16 pesos (US $5.08), or 10 pesos for Argentine residents, and is good for all day travel, allowing stops at any or all of the stations. Trains run approximately every 20 minutes from 7 in the morning until midnight. Visitors to Buenos Aires should certainly plan for a day trip on the Tren De La Costa not only for its inherent attractions but as a brief respite from the chaos of the city. A regular commuter train also runs from Retiro station in downtown Buenos Aires all the way to Tigre, with various stops along the way, for only 1.50 pesos (about US $0.50) but it's not nearly as scenic and doesn't allow passengers to debark and reboard along the way. For 20 dollars, you and your special someone will enjoy a romantic rail journey, a full day of sightseeing, a lovely lunch outdoors, and come back with change in your pocket. What could be better?

I can afford
To board a Chattanooga choo choo
I've got my fare
And just a trifle to spare

(Thanks to Mack Gordon, lyrics, and Harry Warren, music, and the fabulous Andrews Sisters for the unforgettable song "Chattanooga Choo Choo"!)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Highlights of my brother's vacation

During my brother's visit, I did get to show a bit of the city as well as a tiny slice of neighboring Uruguay and we saw a few places I had never seen before either. One place I have wanted to visit for a long time is Las Violetas, a café and panadería (bakery) that is famed for its elegance as much as for its delicacies. It's in the Almagro barrio on Avenida Rivadavia, not an upmarket area but one would never realize that after stepping through the doors. It reminded me of the lobby of one of the grand hotels of yesteryear, tall columns rising to the high vaulted ceiling, gilded wainscoting, stained glass windows, and brass and polished wood in abundance. The waiters were smartly attired in white jackets and the café was abuzz with conservation. The pastries lived up to their reputation in both taste and appearance. Open since 1884, I heartily recommend a visit to anyone who wants to relive some of the glamor of Buenos Aires' lost splendor.


Buenos Aires is renowned for its vast number of museums (130+), more than Paris has. One of the must-see places are the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) on Avenida Libertador in Recoleta, where one can view works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and many more great artists from every era and style, all free of charge. Across Libertador is the Centro Cultural Recoleta, (Recoleta Cultural Center) where contemporary artists are showcased in renovated galleries that were once part of a 17th century convent.

We also toured the Museo Evita (Evita Museum), which I had never visited, for an extensive perspective of Eva Peron, one of history's most intriguing and powerful women. To this day Evita is reviled as a villainess or adored as a near-saint, so it's almost impossible to understand Argentina without some awareness of her role in history and politics.

We dined out virtually every evening and discovered some new restaurants that deserve commendation. 1816 (the name commemorates Argentina's revolution) is something akin to a tenedor libre (all-you-can-eat buffet). It's not a serve-yourself buffet but for a fixed price (I think it was 38 pesos or US $12.06) you can select anything on the menu and keep selecting more dishes until you're satisfied or you explode. The food is excellent, the ambience is moderne, and the staff is friendly and attentive. It's located at Avenida Cramer 1753 in Belgrano.

Reencuentro in Palermo (Cabrera 4801) is also a fixed price all-you-can-eat restaurant. It does have a buffet portion for salads and some side dishes but the meat, poultry, fish, and hot sides such as potatoes are brought upon request to your table. The food is even better than 1816, which is quite a compliment, and it's also cheaper (26 pesos or US $8.25). That may explain why it is always ultra crowded. I strongly suggest making reservations or arriving early, no later than 9:00 PM, if you don't want a long wait for a table.

Sundays were the days we had the longest outings because that's the only day of the week when Luciano's store is closed. The first Sunday, 30 September, we went to La Boca with my Colombian friend, John, and his sister, Juliet. It was the first visit to La Boca for everyone in our group, except me. I was surprised that not even Luciano had seen this extremely colorful and popular section of the city. It is one of the oldest barrios of the city and the home of one of Argentina's two greatest rival soccer teams (La Boca vs. River Plate). The architecture is striking, the outdoor cafes are literally in the closed-to-traffic street, and tango music pervades the air while dancers flawlessly execute their precise and elegant maneuvers.

The following Sunday we journeyed across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia, Uruguay. A river crossing doesn't sound like much but the Rio de la Plata is more of a broad estuary than a river, a vast expanse of water that seems like the ocean. There are two types of ferry offered by Buquebus in Puerto Madero, a slow conventional ship that takes 3 hours (99 pesos/US $31.43 round trip) and a faster hydrofoil which crosses in only one hour (149 pesos/ US $47.30). It was well worth the extra $16 to spend only 2 hours total in travel time instead of 6 hours. We left very early in the morning, about 8:00 AM and our return ferry departed at 10:30 PM so we had plenty of time to explore all of the old colonial town.

Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, Colonia throughout the years whipsawed between Portuguese and Spanish control for more than a century, then became part of the tug-of-war between Brazil and Argentina until Uruguay finally became independent. It's very very charming and picturesque, well-preserved old buildings, a lighthouse, city walls, and cobblestone streets. The townspeople participate in parades and processions throughout the day, costumed to portray whichever historic period is relevant. There are many quaint cafés and bistros for dining or drinking inside and out, so you can pause to relax and regroup for more sightseeing. Colonia is one of the United Nations' World Heritage Sites.

As I wrote in my last post, my brother is a musician and music teacher. He particularly wanted to find some percussion instruments unique to South America. We had some wild goose chases at first but eventually found Bonkó Percusión in Chacaritas (on Forest at Olleros) which has a huge variety of drums, shakers, gourds, and everything else that is used to keep a beat. The owner, Javier, is a professional drummer, very knowledgeable, and a nice guy. He speaks English so I was let off the hook for a while (I interpreted for my brother just about everywhere we went and believe me when I say it can be hard work!). They spent 2 or 3 hours talking about music and instruments during the two visits we made to the shop and eventually my brother carted a whole suitcase of things back to the U.S.

It was an exhausting couple of weeks in many ways but I also discovered some new places and enjoyed visiting some familiar spots as well. Perhaps the next time I have a visitor things will go more smoothly.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The incurious tourist

My brother, Mitch, visited me from September 28 to October 11, his first visit to South America. It was an odd experience in many ways, at times fun but also many episodes of stress or tedium. Because he had never been to Buenos Aires before, I assumed he would be eager to see and do everything, something akin to the travel agency tours of Europe where one visits 14 countries in 7 days but it's such a rush that nothing is remembered or even enjoyed. This vacation was decidely the opposite of that.

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing so almost every evening we parted with the plan that he would phone me when he was awake, fed, and nearly ready to start the day's activities. Most days that meant we didn't even meet until at least 1:00 PM and often not until after 3:00 PM. Upon meeting, there might be an errand or two to do, the need to stop for a coffee, pastry, or ice cream every hour or two, plus transportation time to get where we were going. Ergo, we seldom had more than a couple of hours per day for any actual sightseeing.

Buenos Aires certainly has some indoor attractions but most of the great touristy stuff is meant to be seen from outside during the daylight. With only two hours average per day, I wasn't able to show him but a fraction of what Buenos Aires has to offer. What I did show him didn't seem to interest him very much.

The famous Recoleta cemetery with Evita's tomb and incredible works of art decorating thousands of mausoleums? We blew through it in about 20 minutes. A walk through historic San Telmo, flavored with cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and scores of antique shops? He hardly glancced at it and expressed interest only in finding a shop that sells (illegal in the U.S.) Cuban cigars. The cultural center where BA's best and brightest artists display their works? We could hardly get out of there fast enough. Plaza Italia and the Botanical Garden? Too much sun, too may cats, just a bunch of trees and plants. What about a tour of downtown with its incredible architecture, beautiful plazas, and historic monuments? The presidential palace and the Plaza de Mayo, where to this day the mothers and grandmothers of the desaparecidos (disappeared people) march to demand justice? Even that was met with diffidence, sort of "OK, so that's the Casa Rosada and some old ladies march there because...let's go get a coffee and pastry."

Most of the time when I tried to explain what we were seeing or add some depth and color by telling its history or cultural relevance, he seemed bored and distracted. It was as though very little interested him beyond coffee, pastries, ice cream, Cuban cigars, and finding a shop to buy some indigenous musical instruments (he's a musician). I expected more but perhaps I'm more curious than the typical tourist.

So, that describes the tedium part I mentioned above, either his tedium about what we were doing or my tedium of waiting for him to get going each day. The stress part is yet another story. There were some just plain awful episodes.

One was when we visited Colonia, Uruguay, a preserved colonial town across the Rio de La Plata from Buenos Aires. Shortly after arriving, we stopped in for an al fresco lunch at a picturesque café with a lovely view of the river. My brother thought the chicken on his brochete mixto (grilled skewers of chicken, beef, and veggies) was undercooked. Luciano ate a piece and agreed. Rather than sending it back to be cooked more, my brother began to complain of feeling sick. I told him he couldn't possibly feel any potential food poisoning for at least several hours but he was in such a worked up state that he ended up going into the restroom and vomiting anyway. Afterward, he came back to the table irate and ordered me to tell off the waiter and restaurant staff in Spanish (he barely speaks any). After that, it was rather hard to enjoy the rest of the day, wondering when the next outburst would occur.

Another catastrophe happened when the lock on the street-side door to his apartment building broke. Here, almost every building requires residents to use a key to exit as well as enter so my brother was stuck inside. There was no real danger, such as in a fire, because he was on the first floor with a balcony so he could have jumped if his life was threatened. It was certainly a great inconvenience to wait an hour for the owner and a locksmith to affect a rescue but his reaction was as if he had been held captive in Guantanamo Bay for months.

Oddly enough, he was most composed during what I would have found the worst experience of all. He was pickpocketed on the subway the next to last day of his vacation, losing his wallet, credit and ATM cards, driver's license, and money. I'd advised him upon arrival to carry a limtied amount of cash and only a single credit or ATM card, whichever he would be using that day, because pickpockets have a thriving industry here (as in most crowded urban environments). He felt sure that no one could get into the deep pockets of the cargo pants he favors (as seen in the above photo) without his knowledge and thus he became another tourist bereft of his valuables. Perhaps by this time he was just worn out with the insults and injuries he felt he'd sustained here and therefore he weathered the incident relatively well.

Next time I'll show some photos and describe some of the sightseeing but for now, here's a little advice to would-be tourists.
  • Realize that you're a stranger in a strange land and adapt your habits accordingly (i.e., triple your level of caution). Thieves and con artists will spot you a mile away no matter how you attempt to blend in or dress like a local.

  • Before your trip, take some time to find out about where you're going. If you know a little about the history or culture, you'll probably find everything much more interesting when you get there.

  • Don't insult the natives. That taxi driver probably understands enough English to be offended by the derogatory comments you're making about his country or people in what you think is a private backseat conversation.

  • Tell your local guide, friend, or family member some general themes of what you want to see and experience, such as art, architecture, nature, or history. Otherwise you'll be dragged around to things that bore you to tears and your contact will be annoyed about trying to read your mind to guess what might entertain you.

  • Most important, relax and have a good time. A major benefit of foreign travel is the opportunity to try new things: food, language, environment, and everything else. If you can roll with a few punches, you'll add some new dimensions to your life and go home with some stories to share.

Coming up, I'll share some photos and tell you more about what we actually did, not just whine about how stressful it was...I promise!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Gone but not forgotten

I haven't posted anything lately because I've been way too busy. My brother is here in Buenos Aires, visiting me from Seattle. Prior to his arrival, I arranged lodging for him as well some other things to make his trip a success. Since he arrived, I've been burning the candle at both ends, showing him around the city as well as keeping up the essentials of our normal lives. I've been taking some photos and video as we run around doing touristy things so when I get some free time or after my brother goes home, I should have plenty of stuff to post for a while.

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you have probably noticed some changes in the past couple of weeks. There's a new style and color scheme as well as some new panels and gadgets on the page, such as a live chat module and polls so you can participate along with me. I'm kind of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. If nobody appears to be using the new toys, they'll undoubtedly get dropped sometime in the future.

It all started when Luciano went manic on me. He wanted me to add a feature to automatically translate the blog into Spanish since his English is pretty basic. He's pretty enthusiastic about HTML, Java, and all those other things and loves to spend time updating his commercial website. So he started tinkering with the code for my blog pages and by the time he was finished, I wasn't sure what had changed or how stable it would be. Rather than try to revert back to the original, I went with a whole new template and added the enhanced features. So it all turned out well in the end.


In the meantime, enjoy this video of Sandra Mihanovich. She's a celebrated Argentinian singer, a lesbian, and she's been out for a couple of decades or more. She has an interesting history. During the military dictatorship (1976-1983), she skated on thin ice, as the repressive conservatives of the junta wanted to eliminate her. However, she comes from a well-connected family and their status protected her from becoming one of the desaparecidos (disappeared ones). She sang duets with one of her lovers and her songs are often about boy-boy or girl-girl love and the societal struggles that go along with it.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Tell me why!

Last night I slept alone on the sofa while Luciano slumbered in the bed. Trouble in paradise? No, but I bet I got your attention and you're hoping for a juicy story. I've had a cold the past few days that started in my nose and has now moved down to my chest. When we went to bed last night, I started coughing almost as soon as I laid down. I couldn't sleep and I didn't want to keep Luciano awake all night so I got up and went into the living room. I realized that being upright made the cough a lot better so I decided to grab a pillow and prop myself into a semi-reclining position on the sofa and try to snooze. Next thing I knew it was morning and Luciano was standing over me asking me why I hadn't slept in the bed. I needn't have worried about disturbing him, he told me he fell asleep almost immediately and didn't remember hearing even a single cough.

It's actually kind of nice that we don't notice each other's routine activities. Usually we go to sleep and get up together and pretty much spend the whole night wrapped around each other. But a few times he's awakened early, showered, dressed, eaten, and gone off to work while I snoozed away. We're comfortable enough together that we don't react to every sound and movement of the other one and I like that feeling of easy familiarity.

Earlier yesterday evening we went to a birthday party in Recoleta at the home of one of Luciano's friends, who I'm told is someone fairly high up in the national government. There were 30+ guys there, all Argentinos and all gay. I don't know why it's so obvious that I'm a yanqui (American), there are tall Argentinos with fair hair. All I said was hola (hello) to the group but everyone knew instantly that I'm an American and talked to me in English. It was pretty much like a typical American birthday party with a cake, singing the same happy birthday song (but in Spanish), drinks and snacks, laughter and conversation. Other than the language and empanadas (meat-filled pastries), you wouldn't necessarily realize it wasn't somewhere in the US.

Last Sunday we were out and about, as usual on the one day of the week when Luciano's store is closed. We walked over to the Bosques de Palermo (Palermo Woods), a large park reminiscent of New York's Central Park, with a lake, rose garden, golf course, and other amenities. We stopped in at the clubhouse and ordered banana sundaes. They turned out not to be an ice cream dish but more like a parfait: sliced banana layered with wafers and whipped cream and topped with a maraschino cherry.

In the evening we walked down Avenida Cabildo as we tried to decide where to eat. Luciano had an inspiration and said he knew just where to go for an inexpensive but good meal. When he started to enter the Coto supermarket, I thought he was surely joking. We weren't going to buy a few things and stand outside on the sidewalk to eat them, were we? I was astounded when we rode the escalator to the upper floor and saw a buffet restaurant, children's arcade, and bar-café. Luciano had a milanesa and I enjoyed a beef brochette, both accompanied by potatoes au gratin, beverage, and fancy pastries for dessert. Who would have figured we could eat like that inside a supermarket?

Price for 2 entrees, side dishes, pastries, and beverages: 39.56 pesos (US $12.55)

We had watched a documentary on the History Channel the previous night about mass murderers. I told Luciano that the song I Don't Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats was based on one such episode and we watched the video of it on YouTube. As you may recall, it's quite a catchy tune and ever since he periodically sings and claps to the chorus part, "Tell me why!", as in this photo at the Olleros subway station while we awaited a train after dinner. We headed back uptown in Belgrano and saw a late showing of the Bourne Ultimatum as an end to the weekend.

During the week, I've roamed about Belgrano, exploring the neighborhood. It has a bit of everything. There are quiet broad streets with large private homes near Cramer, commercial chaos pretty much everywhere along Avenida Cabildo, a thriving ethnic enclave in Barrio Chino (Chinatown), and some very elegant parks and plazas.

It looks like Belgrano will be our home for a while. I've sampled life in the four upscale barrios (not including Puerto Madero which is too isolated for my taste) and so far I prefer Recoleta or Belgrano. Since Luciano's business is in Belgrano, it seems like the obvious choice of where to live. Because we'll be moving again in just two months, we're already starting to look for a new apartment in this area. We had a long talk about future plans a couple of nights ago so now we're considering a more permanent arrangement, a longterm rental contract instead of the temporary furnished apartments I've been using. A real home and a husband, all I need next is a dog and I'll feel almost like Donna Reed.

Addendum: OK, perhaps my life isn't the Donna Reed show, unless there was an episode when Donna and Alex spent time in a funhouse/madhouse. Luciano came home, put on satin running shorts, a hoodie, and rollerblades, then skated into the kitchen to cook ravioli. Now it's after dinner and he's lying on the bed watching TV, still wearing the rollerblades. I never cease to be amused and amazed.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Oops! I forgot I was in Argentina

Estafador/a. If you're thinking about coming to Argentina, remember this word, you'll most likely use it at some point. It means swindler (the form ending in a is used for female grifters and con artists).

I've made the move to Belgrano and therein lies the story of my latest foray into the world of conniving tricksters. When you rent a temporary furnished apartment here, you seldom have a chance to see it before placing a deposit because it is likely occupied. You rely on the description of features and photos on the rental agency's website, perhaps take a walk past the outside of the building (or along the block if you don't have a specific address yet), and hope for the best.

The apartment we're in really is quite nice. The kitchen is twice the size of my apartment in Recoleta, the balcony is deep enough to hold a table and chairs, and the layout feels more roomy overall. However, it lacks air conditioning, something which will be essential in a couple of months as the climate turns hot and very humid.

I specifically searched for apartments with air conditioning. It was one of the three absolute requirements on my list. When I took possession of the apartment, I had a positive impression of it and didn't pay too much attention to details. That was a mistake. I should have printed the web page and brought it with me so I could check off every single feature listed. Of course, even if I had, it might have turned into a disaster. If I refused to take possession, I'd be standing on the sidewalk with boxes, bags, and suitcases up to my eyeballs and absolutely no alternative on the spur of the moment. Naturally, the system is rigged because the entire amount of the rental contract is due when you take possession. That makes rental fraud an alluring way of life.

I actually didn't even know what to look for. Some sites list air conditioning as "split frio/calor" and until this happened, I didn't know what a split really was. Once Luciano came to our new home after work, he quickly informed me what a split is and that we certainly don't have one here.

I drafted an email to the rental agency and asked them what they intended to do about it (along with several other more minor features that were absent). That was almost a week ago and I still haven't heard from them. Instead, they passed it on to the owner and told her to fix things. They've already got their commission, obviously the landlady won't use their agency again, and therefore they'll move on to other suckers. Remember what you learned earlier? Estafadores.

The owner and I have reached an agreement, the best we can do under the circumstances. She's not at fault because she opened the apartment to the agency for a full inventory and photo session. They knew exactly what was here and chose to falsify the information. The dueña (landlady) and I will reduce the contract by one month (out of the original three months) and she'll refund half of my last month's rent. Then the rental agency should refund the other half as a deduction from their commission. We'll see if they agree to it or not. I assume they won't and that I'll then have to play hardball with them.

Next time I will remember that I'm in Argentina and scrutinize everything thoroughly. Anyway, here's a photo of the view from the balcony. The green area in the lower right is the edge of Plaza Barrancas (Hillsides) de Belgrano, a lovely park I walk through almost every day. The weather now is cool so A/C isn't a concern and we've enjoyed some relaxing repasts al fresco.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Goodnight, Recoleta ... good morning, Belgrano

This is my last night in Recoleta, living on the corner of Pacheco de Melo and Pasaje Bolllini. I've lived here for three months plus I lived not far away during 2005 for a month so I know the neighborhood well. In Belgrano, I will be starting from scratch. Luciano's shop is there and my friends live there also but the new apartment is in a different part of the barrio so I'll need to explore it as terra incognita. I was there today to meet the owner and pick up the keys. It's very nice and the view is awesome from the 10th (or 9th in European/Argentinian style) floor.

I'll have one of the most coveted addresses, after the Casa Rosada (presidential palace), in the city: Avenida del Libertador. People here practically sigh when I say I'm moving to Libertador. Luciano says we'll be conchetos. I don't have a good way to translate that. An old-fashioned term would be dandies and a modern one might be pampered rich kids. It's used for young men with plenty of money, fancy cars, prestigious homes, and so on. I think I'm a bit long in the tooth to play the role of concheto convincingly.

Since we got back from La Pampa, we've mostly been domestically dull, I suppose. Cooking dinner at home, long conversations (my Spanish is improving dramatically from living with an Argentino), reading or browsing the web, etc. We went to dinner last week at Garbis in Belgrano, a middle-eastern restaurant serving a mix of Arabic and Armenian cuisine. We ordered Pilav Persa, a very rich rice dish with chicken, almonds, and raisins designed to be shared by two people. It was delicious and filling all by itself and we were glad we hadn't ordered anything else with it.

Price for Persa Pilav and 2 beverages: 47.50 pesos (US $15.07).

Sunday we roamed a great deal on foot. First we walked to Alto Palermo Shopping so Luciano could take some photos there for a friend in Boston. We did a little clothes shopping and Luciano found a shirt he loved at Kevingston, an Argentine clothier with branches in other Latin American countries. We found one for me also but they didn't have it in my size so we decided to look for it at one of the other branches in Avenida Santa Fe. Ultimately we ended up walking all the way to Microcentro (downtown) and up and down the lengths of both Florida and Lavalle before buying the shirt at Kevingston in Galerias Pacifico. Then we headed to Las Cuartetas for quick empanadas, grabbed a bus back to Recoleta to drop off our purchases, and zipped over to a nearby cinema just in time to make the 10:30 PM showing of Hairspray. I was a bit uncertain about it because I love the original version but the new one is equally good, if not better in certain ways, although it's impossible to ever equal the glamor of the late Divine. My young fay hero, Justin (Mark Indelicato), on Ugly Betty does a wonderful job of re-enacting "Good Morning, Baltimore", the opening number, for his parents on the subway. I just love that kid, he's such a terrific role model for young gay people. He's happy, well-adjusted, and his family totally loves him just as he is.

One night last week we went for a long walk after dinner through Recoleta, ending up at the other end of Avenida del Libertador before heading back home. The contrasts are striking. Near Libertador and Callao are jewelers like Cartier and European couturiers vending items at astronomical prices. Just blocks away is a world away, Villa 31, one of the villas miserias (shanty towns/slums), where a single bauble from Cartier would probably feed all of the inhabitants for a month.

Riches and poverty co-exist here in a strange symbiosis. There's no official recycling program like we have in California. All of your garbage is tossed in the same bag and the building's portero (doorman) hauls it out to the street each evening. Then an army of the impoverished, estimated at 25,000 people, descends on the city to sift through the trash and pick out anything that can be processed and sold (paper, plastic, etc.). You see whole families including children working through the night in a struggle to survive. The government supplies a train, known as the Ghost Train or White Train, to bring these cartoneros into the city at dusk and ship them back out to the slums in the morning, a train without seats, heating, or air-conditioning. Walking down a street in the richest part of the capital at night means encountering the faces of the desperately poor yet most porteños seldom seem to even notice them. Do click the link above, the photographs are incredible.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The gay caballeros

After breakfast on Monday morning we took a taxi to Parque Don Tomas on the edge of Santa Rosa. It has a very large lake, picnic and barbecue spots, a children's playland with a pink castle, and surprisingly enough, real live people. It was the most daytime activity we had seen in La Pampa. We walked around the lake a while and then headed back into town, where once again the streets appeared almost empty.

The day before we had tried to arrange a visit to one of the nearby estancias (ranches) so we could go horseback riding. La Pampa is clearly off the beaten tourist track. The provincial tourist office is closed on weekends and holidays, precisely the times when tourists are most likely to visit. All of the estancias we tried to contact were either not answering the phone or said they were closed on holidays. Walt Disney would be turning over in his grave.

As we walked back toward the central plaza, we stopped in at a locutorio (shop with public phone booths) because we'd used up all of our cell phone credit calling estancias. Luciano called a couple more estancias with no luck and we asked the owner, Silvia, if she had any advice. She went into high gear, calling around town to see what she could arrange for the chicos de Buenos Aires (boys from Buenos Aires), as she referred to us during her calls. Finally she found an estancia that agreed to let us rent horses as a special favor to Silvia and perhaps because it was unusual to have visitors from as far away as the capital and California. She was certainly the most goodhearted and helpful person either of us has met in a very long time.

We had an hour and a half to kill so we got some takeout milanesa sandwiches and strolled to a nearby park bench for an al fresco lunch. Then we popped into another heladería for ice cream, albeit with the hope that we might see La Reina de la Pampa there or perhaps another member of Pampeano gay royalty. No luck but as an aside, I must say that the ice cream in Argentina is truly awesome. I guess the natural grazing for cows, which results in their world class beef, also does wonders for the quality of their milk.

We took a taxi the 10 or so miles out to Estancia La Cuesta. It's far enough from town to seem a world of its own, quiet and peaceful in the windswept plains. The owner took us to the corral to meet our mounts and saddle up. We hadn't seen a single gaucho so it looked like our only choice was to become gauchos ourselves. It had been years since I rode a horse but I quickly developed a fondness for Jotate (JT), my mount. Luciano got Gete (GT), so apparently there's a fetish for initials on the ranch.

The three of us set off for a leisurely introduction to the simple beauty of Argentina's plains, as well as an opportunity to get famililar with our horses. Luciano grew up in the countryside of Salta and it had only been a couple of years since he had ridden last, so he felt right at ease in the saddle. It took a little longer for me to feel comfortable but eventually my youthful years of riding on my grandfather's ranch came back to me. We had a lot of fun, moving the horses into a fast canter, pulling back to a walk to rest them, and then running fast again through the open spaces. Along the way, our hostess pointed out to us some of the unique flora and fauna of the pampa.

All too soon, it was time to turn back. Darkness was approaching and we would be leaving for Buenos Aires that night. The ranch owners gave us a ride back to the hotel and we showered off the dust from our afternoon on horseback. A little nap, a snack, a short time on our notebooks in the lounge, and it was then time to pack our bags and start the journey back to buenos Aires.

Buses are the most common form of long distance transportation here. They're cheap (about US $45 round-trip for 1216 km/755 miles total) with frequent departures. Many have cama (bed) seats, which fold flat so it's easy to sleep on overnight journeys. Traffic was heavy as we approached the capital on Tuesday morning so we arrived nearly two hours late. After the isolation and tranquility of La Pampa, it was almost unnerving to debark in Retiro station with thousands of people jostling, talking, and hurrying about their business. Nevertheless, we felt refreshed from our visit to the heart of Argentina, ready to re-enter the metropolitan chaos once again.

Here's a slideshow of pics from our trip. You can click in it to go to the web album in Picasa (Google's photo sharing service).

Monday, August 20, 2007

La Pampa: tranquility and royalty

Luciano and I are sitting in the sala de estar (public lounge) of Hotel Cuprum in Santa Rosa, La Pampa. We're such techno-geeks, we both brought our notebooks so he's busy with email while I update the blog.

Alas, we weren't greeted by gauchos and Pampeana virgins with flowers. Rather, we were met by some pretty damn cold weather and empty streets. It was kind of eerie, hardly a soul to be seen on the streets when we arrived early in the morning. We did see plenty of well-fed dogs roaming the streets which led us to speculate about a canine uprising and the possibility of all the Pampeanos having been devoured in their homes by man's best friend. The only other sign of life was a procession of early 20th century vintage cars, heading off to rally, as we discovered later in the local newspaper.

The town reminds me a lot of the small cities in California's San Joaquin Valley where I grew up. Very agricultural, as would be expected in this part of Patagonia, the heartland of Argentina's cattle industry.

Our hotel is quite lovely, modern and a lot of luxurious detail. Its outside is clad in copper (cuprum is Latin for copper) and the inside is filled with beautiful woodwork. We enjoyed the hotel's breakfast buffet while waiting for our room to be ready, deposited our gear in the room, then set off to explore the town on foot. We walked a mile or so into the town center, ending up at the central plaza. Surely there would lots of activity there, right? Nope, it was dead quiet. We strolled around, saw some interesting statues, buildings, and parks and finally ended up at a parilla (barbecue or open-fire grill) restaurant. Where better to eat beef than La Pampa? Parilla Don Pepe offers a 30 peso (US $9.50) parilla libre, meaning you get appetizers, main and side dishes, and dessert and you can keep ordering as much as you want of any of it. We had various forms of salchicha (sausage), fiambres (cold meats), chicken, and beef with plenty of things on the side, followed by two kinds of ice cream to top it all off. We could barely move after so much gluttony but we finally dragged ourselves back out to the empty streets.

As we resumed our walkabout, we made friends with a cute stray bitch whom we named Nuestra Amiga (Our Friend). She followed us for several miles as we roamed through Santa Rosa, the capital of the province, until we ended up at the town's biggest attraction, Casino Club. It's not on the scale of Las Vegas but it has a few hundred slot machines, several dozen roulette tables, restaurants, and shows in the evening. Neither of us is a gambler but we decided we had to try a slot machine one time (10 centavos, about 3 cents US), just so we could say we had done it. When we tried to insert my 10 centavo coin, we discovered they don't work with actual money, you have to buy a card that gets loaded with credit. As we were standing in line to buy a minimum-amount card from the cashier, we found a machine that would accept 2 peso notes so we switched tactics. Luciano put in his 2 pesos and pressed the button. Wheels spun and pictures popped up but no winning row. He pushed it again and this time it was a winner. We had more than doubled our money and retired from gambling with a huge profit of 2.40 pesos (77 cents US).

When we left the casino, Nuestra Amiga had disappeared. We were kind of relieved, we're both dog lovers and we'd begun to feel responsible for her but obviously there was no way we could adopt her and take her to our hotel (or to Buenos Aires). On our way back, we spotted her following a pair of girls and Luciano had us quickly cross the street before she could see us. We didn't want to feel guilty if she latched onto us again and we had to abandon her a second time outside the hotel door.

After a shower and a short siesta (nap), we headed back to the city center for dinner and a taste of the gay night life in La Pampa. Throughout the trip, we've kept up a playful banter about how excellent our choice was to visit Patagonia instead of Rosario. Our pizza that night was so much better than pizza in Rosario where they make it with inferior ingredients and spit in the food before tossing it at the customer with an angry snarl. The orange juice we drank was delicious and straight from the teats of vacas naranjas (orange cows), unlike the malodorous toxic liquid we would have been served in Rosario. Luciano has kept me laughing all day with his fantastic comparisons of mythic La Pampa and frightful Rosario.

Sated with pizza, we were off to visit Cadíz, the only gay bar we could find listed in all of La Pampa's 55,000 square miles (a little bigger than the state of Arkansas). The address is just a few blocks from the city's central plaza so it was easy to find but we discovered that it is now a clothing store. What to do? We ducked into a cybercafe and hit the Argentine chat rooms. Nobody had anything useful to offer in terms of other local gay venues but we did get an offer for a threesome. Back to the streets in hope of spotting someone obviously gay who might aid our quest. Either our gaydar wasn't functioning or we were the only homos in town. Eventually Luciano asked three young señoritas who appeared to be pretty hip. They were very friendly and cool, took us along their way, and pointed out the street we should take and told us the name of the only existing gay bar, Picaso. It was easy to find but it was clearly closed. It was only 11 PM so perhaps it opened late like some of the clubs in the capital? No, the sign on the door informed us the bar is only open on Thursday evenings.

All in all, Santa Rosa is odd. The town was mostly somnolent during the day, streets all but deserted. During the dinner hours, the restaurants were bustling, but by midnight, the inhabitants had retreated into whatever secret lairs they occupied. La Pampa, perhaps a province of vampires?

We walked up Calle San Martin, the main drag, and found a heladería (ice cream shop), which seemed as exciting as any other options. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the day.

We ordered our double cones and sat at a table next to four teenage boys. One of them was pretty obviously gay and appeared to be the dominant member of the group. Much to our surprise, the other lads, who seemed straight, doted on him. We soon named him La Reina de la Pampa (the Queen of the Pampa) because he commanded the attentions and services of his courtiers. When signaled, one of the boys held his ice cream cone so he could rummage through his knapsack. Another was quick to dab his face with a napkin when a bit of ice cream marred the royal mouth. At his summons, all three promptly arose and left with him, perhaps heading back to the royal palace. We departed soon thereafter, happy to have found a tiny slice of gay life in the heartland.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Homo home hunting

I'm hunting for a new apartment yet again. I've lived in Barrio Norte, Recoleta, and Palermo so far. They're all along the Libertador Corridor, a broad band of neighborhoods through which Avenida del Libertador passes, adjacent to the Rio de la Plata river. They're considered the most desirable areas of the city and the only one I haven't lived in yet is Belgrano. There's one other ritzy area, Puerto Madero, but it's downtown and essentially reclaimed docklands so there's not a developed infrastructure of shops, pedestrian life, and such, so it doesn't really appeal to me. My search now is for a nice place in Belgrano

So far, I must say I'm not impressed with the quality of service from the temp rental agencies. The one I'm renting from now has been great but they don't have anything suitable at the moment in Belgrano. I've been searching other temp agencies online and they're not exactly customer-oriented. One displayed prices in their ads, listed as all-inclusive, but when I phoned, the price suddenly jumped up 20% or more. When I completed an online form to inquire about another apartment, that company sent back a reply that simply said it wasn't available. You'd think they would at least suggest I look at another similar listing or two, right? Or at least say when it would be available in case I want to rent it in the future? Other companies have simply failed to respond at all to my inquiries. Argentina definitely has a lot to learn about successful business practices.

On the other hand, I needed a document translated recently and it had to be an official certified translation. On an expatriate forum, I found a referral and phoned the translator. She's pregnant and expecting any minute so she passed me on to one of her colleagues, Brenda. I met with Brenda on Sunday evening and by Tuesday she had the translation ready for me and did it at a very reasonable cost. So I know it's not a complete cultural mindset, people here can get things done, can do their best to create goodwill which will bring them more business. It's just sadly not very common.

OK, shameless plug for Luciano. He's kind of a fanatic about business, really wants to work hard to be successful and build his enterprise. I told him about my blog and that he was featured in it and the first thing he said was "Did you put a link to my store in it?" And I'd been worried he might object to even being discussed in a public forum! So here it is, if you're looking for an amiable guy who will sell you vitamins, nutritional supplements, apparel, and other sports related items, visit his website or store, Mercado Sports. Plus you get the bonus of a very cute guy assisting you with your purchases.

That's it for the moment. It's a three-day holiday weekend here and we're heading off to La Pampa (the part of Argentina where real gauchos are) soon. We decided to take a spur of the moment trip somewhere and originally planned to go to Rosario. Then he got inspired about the idea of visiting La Pampa and did a 180. He began extolling the virtues of La Pampa so ecstatically that I almost believe we'll be greeted by a receiving line of handsome gauchos (cowboys) on horseback and a bevy of wholesome fresh-faced maidens who will strew our path with flowers. Two hours earlier, he was just as rapturous about Rosario but after La Pampa popped into his fertile brain, Rosario became an evil corrupt city filled with liars, thieves, and cheats and only the fresh innocence and natural beauty of Argentine's plains would do! His tongue-in-cheek slandering of Rosario was truly funny and I'll remind him of what he said in the future when he suggests Rosario for another weekend outing.

I'll try to post a full accounting of our trip to the countryside on Tuesday after we return.

Woof! It's a dog's life

It's rather strange. I have nothing terribly interesting to report yet my life here in Buenos Aires has changed dramatically in the past couple of weeks. Undoubtedly you remember Luciano from my last post. Since I wrote that, he and I have virtually been living together. Every evening after he closes his store, he comes back from Belgrano to Recoleta/Barrio Norte and we cook dinner, listen to music, talk, and peruse the internet. Quite a domestic life, eh? That's not to say that it's boring. I'm always entertained when he's here and never wish that I was alone. That is saying a lot. I have friends that I dearly love but if I spent every night and weekend with them, I'd probably be climbing the walls. With Luciano, I just feel relaxed and at ease with him (even if we do sometimes have to struggle with the language gap a bit).

He almost scares me at times because he's so perceptive or intuitive. A couple of days after my latest post, we were talking about the boxes I've received from the US. You're probably familiar with my regular trips to the central postal facility in Retiro to retrieve yet another box or two of my books and personal belongings. Because I'm moving every couple of months, as I try out life in different areas of the city, Luciano asked me why I didn't store my boxes back in California and have them shipped when I was settled, so I wouldn't need to cart them around here. I said that things hadn't gone as smoothly as I'd originally thought, that I'd hoped I would have figured out where I wanted to live and possibly found a longterm apartment by this time, in which case I would want all of my stuff here.

Then I began to say something else, "En realidad (Actually)..." and he jumped in and uttered a long complicated sentence in Spanish. My jaw dropped and I sat there for a few seconds with my mouth open and a stunned looked on my face. He apparently mistook that for lack of understanding of his words but I'd pretty much gotten everything he said. He jumped up and went to the computer so he could type it into a translation program and then said "¡Mira! (Look!)." It said "Actually you were planning to leave Buenos Aires but now that you've met me, everything has changed and you're going to stay." It wasn't what I was going to say. I'd had something more innocuous in mind, about how perhaps I should have waited on the shipments until I was certain I would remain in Argentina. But, it was what I had been thinking, spot on.

You may recall my mention of a possible visit to Costa Rica later this year. What I hadn't told anyone was that I was planning to spend 6 weeks there not just for fun but to give the country a serious evaluation for my next home. I'd been rather depressed about my social experiences here and thought it might be best to return to my first love, Central America. I've always had such good times there, met really nice people, and already have friends in Panama and Costa Rica. In my mind I was already halfway living there, enjoying my fantasy tropical back yard, two dogs, and spacious home.

And Luciano changed all that, just as he'd said. How the hell did he know? The closest I'd come to discussing it was simply telling him a brief version of my camcorder thief story and a few general comments about having bad luck meeting people, that it seemed everyone I met was looking for profit rather than friendship.

OK, perhaps it was a lucky guess. But it just happens too often to be luck. Not long after the above incident, I mentioned something about my last dog (I've had dogs pretty much all of my life). He said "si, un labrador...negro (yes, a Labrador retriever...black)." That was the last dog I had! I have no pictures of her visible (they're sealed in my photos box, deep within one of the boxes I shipped). I've never mentioned her before. And it wasn't a guess, he stated it as a fact. I've asked him how he does that and he just says that it's a matter of observation, of studying people to understand their character, personality, and way of thinking. I think perhaps he has voodoo charms or an enslaved demon at his beck and call.

Speaking of dogs, last night I told him he's like a big Labrador-type dog. He loves physical attention, the way a dog loves to be petted. Massaged, stroked, and pampered, and I'm not talking in a sexual way. You know how you can pet a dog for 20 minutes and the moment you stop, he either nudges you with his nose or grunts a "woof" to let you know he expects you to resume where you left off? Luciano is just like that, he never tires of it and when I stop rubbing his back or neck he looks at me and says "¡mas! (more!)" It's a good thing I love large cuddly dogs.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A blowjob just when I needed it most

I met Luciano a few weeks ago on gay.com. He messaged me and opened our chat with "give me money, i'm homeless and live on the street so don't throw away your food, I'll reheat it, and I need money to buy medicine for my poor sick aunt" (in Spanish, of course). I literally laughed out loud. I had updated my profile a couple of days before and added stuff about how I was looking for genuine friends, not losers who give me sob stories and are looking for handouts. Obviously he had read that and was tomando el pelo (pulling my hair which is how you say pulling someone's leg in castellano). I gave him instant bonus points for showing wit and humor.

Early Friday evening he and I met up at Alto Palermo Shopping, a large mall about 8 blocks from my apartment. Luciano has a small shop in a mall in Belgrano and asked me to accompany him to an exposition/trade show related to his business. He loves to walk, and he walks as though the demons of hell are chasing him, so we semi-sprinted about two miles from the mall to Centro Costa Salguero, a convention center next to the Rio de la Plata. We only stayed there about an hour, enough time for him to survey the available products and meet some new contacts. Then we headed back out into the rain for a dash to Paseo Alcorta, a shopping mall in Palermo Chico, so he could show me the fast food place he worked at in the food court a few years ago when he moved to the capital. It was time for dinner but, needless to say, Luciano wasn't eager to eat in the mall amidst memories of lousy wages and even worse managers.

So, we headed back uptown to Belgrano and ate in a cafeteria-style restaurant, Fame, near his store. It's not fancy but the food is decent and inexpensive and I remembered it from the first time we met when we went there for a coffee. At that time I was pretty nervous, as I often am when meeting new people here. Not only do I worry whether I'm meeting a new con artist or a potential good friend, I'm also anxious about the language gap. In English I think I'm a relatively bright and interesting person but I fear that my Spanish isn't good enough to keep a new acquaintance amused or involved. Of course, that just starts a cycle: I worry about my Spanish so I'm tense which makes it harder to speak and listen which makes me worry more.

Luciano is a pretty high-energy guy but he also has been very good about putting me at ease. We communicate very well most of the time, except when it's way late and my brain is too tired to process castellano any longer. As you'll see in the rest of this post, I more or less spent several days with him using castellano continuously day and night (he speaks little English) and my communication level increases dramatically as I become accustomed to someone's voice, intonation, and vocabulary.

After dinner, we walked around Belgrano a while and he gave me a crash course on public sex cruising in Buenos Aires. I got the lowdown on which subway station restrooms are cruisy and he even demonstrated how it all works at one of them. Then we went to visit his friend Javier at his apartment. They have been friends since they were young in Salta (northwest Argentina) and are close enough that Luciano has a key to his apartment (which is indeed a high level of trust here). During our conversation, among other things, they decided I haven't yet seen enough of the racier parts of BA night life, which set the stage for Saturday's activities. Eventually I left for home and a good night's rest since we were planning a late outing on Saturday night.

On Saturday, Luciano and I once again made Alto Palermo Shopping our rendezvous point. It's conveniently located a few blocks from Parque Las Heras, a public park enjoyed by families during the day but dedicated to cruising at night, as he eventually showed me. We walked down Avenida Santa Fe and Luciano pointed out which restaurants, cafés, and bars are mostly gay at night and the corners where the taxiboys (male prostitutes) ply their trade. Conveniently enough, many of them coincide so a would-be patron can enjoy a meal or drink in a restaurant while watching the taxiboys through the window, a kind of reverse window shopping.

Ultimately we arrived at our primary target about 1:00 AM, Zoom, a gay sex club. It has a small bar area as well as a lounge to relax or watch TV. Most of the space is given over to the driving purpose of the venue: cruising and semi-public sex. It's not like a bathhouse where people strip and walk around with towels. You can check coats, daypacks, and such, but you keep your clothes on as you troll around for prey.

There are lots of dimly lit passageways throughout the club, many lined with private booths. The booths are big enough for two people, have a video monitor with porn playing, mirrors, and strategically placed holes so one can observe or interact with whomever is in adjacent booths. There's also a pitch-black maze where one is forced to grope one's way, obviously with the intention of feeling much more than the walls. Luciano clearly found that arousing, as he proved by grabbing my hand to put in his pants so I could feel just how much he was enjoying it in there. The maze itself didn't do much for me but I certainly had no objection whatsoever to groping and grinding with Luciano for a while.

Our outing was more of a sightseeing tour rather than a night of debauchery. We stuck together, popping into empty cabins to see what was going on next door, meandered the maze a number of times, checked out the swelling (in more ways than one) crowd, and even chatted with a few people he knew. Eventually we got tired and walked back to my apartment which is only about a dozen blocks away and finally got to sleep around 5 AM.

Prices for Zoom: admission 12 pesos (US $3.87), soft drinks 4 pesos (US $1.29), beer 7 pesos (US $2.25)

The next morning, Sunday, we slept in and then got a kick start with cappucinos and a shower, then headed to the supermarket because my cupboards were truly bare. Luciano loves to cook so we got what we needed and he whipped up a delicious chicken cacciatore. After lunch, we talked and napped and then wanted coffee but discovered that my espresso machine was not putting out. I assumed the dispersion screen was blocked but I didn't have a screwdriver to remove it for cleaning. We headed for Easy, a superstore similar to Home Depot in the US, to find a screwdriver. As I said before, he loves to walk, so walk we did, a good 3 miles but it was a brisk evening, not overly cold, so it was fine. Along the way, Luciano continued my cruising education by showing me where the hot spot is in the Bosque de Palermo (Forest of Palermo), a woodsy park along Avenida de Libertador. We took the subway home and once again he demonstrated his culinary skills by making us a couple of savory pizzas.

It turned out the dispersion screen wasn't the problem with my Ariete. It was the outlet hole of the portafilter basket, a very tiny hole indeed. A paper clip was too big, a straw from the broom was too flimsy, and I didn't have any wooden toothpicks. Luciano is a clever boy. He took the filter basket, put his mouth around the hole, and blew. Nothing happened. He blew some more. He turned red in the face. Finally, he felt the blockage give way. We put it all back together, crossed our fingers, and happily watched frothy brown crema flowing into the cups. Luciano's expert blowjob had done the trick.

Later that night I rewarded him for his excellent cooking and hole-clearing success with an hour long massage. OK, who am I kidding? He seemed to love it but I bet enjoyed it even more. He's the typical Argentino beauty so who wouldn't enjoy rubbing a hot naked guy?

When he left this morning to go open his shop, I felt better than I had in weeks. I'd had such a fun few days and felt so comfortable and relaxed with him. I know what some of you readers are thinking. Why would I trust a relative stranger again, letting him not only visit my home but stay overnight for two nights? Part of it is I don't want to become a total victim, incapable of trusting anyone, living a sequestered life. Also, the situation is different with him. Unlike the problematic guys in my recent past, I actually know a lot about him. I have been in his store, in his office, in his home, in the home of his friend. He's not someone with a tabula rasa life, where false facts are painted to give me the illusion of knowing the person. So perhaps it's still a risk but at least it's grounded in some verified experiences. I'll just keep my fingers crossed and hope that it turns out as well as Luciano's blowjob did.

Is that a burrito in your pocket or are you glad to see me?

Today I'm sitting at home in my apartment, sniffling and sneezing. It looks like I caught a slight cold. I don't feel too bad though, I'll probably be out and about again tomorrow. Even with a cold, I'm in a great mood because the past several days have been so enjoyable.

Thursday evening I met up with Ulises in Calle Florida, the extensive pedestrian shopping street in Microcentro. I was on a quest for elusive game, seldom seen in Buenos Aires, a Mexican burrito. I'd heard of this place that was supposed to be good and cheap so Ulises joined me in the hunt. We found it at Lavalle 441, the California Burrito Company. It's not flashy or stylish but it has first class food at bargain prices. The burritos are made as you watch, so you can select whichever ingredients you want to include, and they are muy grande (very big)! We both ordered the promoción (special) which includes a burrito, basket of tortilla chips with choice of dip, and a soft drink, and I was so stuffed I could hardly move afterward. I met the owner briefly, a nice guy from San Francisco who has been here for a couple of years. I guarantee I will be going back there regularly to get my fix of salsa, tortillas, guacamole, and all those other things I miss from back home.

Price for 2 specials (burrito, chips with guacamole, and soft drink): 34 pesos (US $10.93).

After dinner, we strolled around Florida and Lavalle a bit, window shopping, and then decided to go for a coffee at the famous Café Tortoni. They were having a tango show that evening and we weren't really up for that, more interested in finding a quiet spot to talk. So we kept going up Avenida de Mayo and went to Goya, a lovely restaurant with a large balcony where you can sit and look down at the main floor. Later we walked up to Avenida 9 de Julio where I could catch my bus (colectívo) home to Barrio Norte. The bus system here is great, it goes just about everwhere in the city with frequent buses, it runs all night (the subway closes around 11 PM), and the fare is only 80 centavos (US $0.26). I've been getting more adventurous recently, trying to learn and use some of the 100+ bus routes in the city. It was a pleasant evening.

I went to the central post office for international mail in Retiro again on Friday. It's turning into my home away from home. Before I left California, I shipped all of my boxes during two days, a Thursday and Friday. One would assume that they would arrive more or less together. Instead, about every week to ten days, I get a notice of a shipment, go down to Retiro, go through the lengthy waits in both the postal and customs sections, and come back with only one or two boxes.

This time it was not only the fastest ever but I had a pleasant diversion. It was raining on Friday and I think that kept people away so there were only 15 people ahead of me in line. While I was waiting, a young man struck up a conversation with me and we spent the next hour-and-a-half together until I cleared customs and departed for home. His name is Patricio and he lives in my former neighborhood of Palermo. He buys things from eBay fairly often and he entertained me with stories about his postal and customs misadventures. That day he told me he was really hoping not to see anyone he recognized in customs because on his previous trip he'd gotten into a vociferous shouting match with one of the customs officers who had tried to jack up the customs duty sky high so he could pocket the difference.

Patricio helped me with the part of the process I absolutely hate, listening for my ticket number. When you enter the post office section, you take a ticket number for your turn and that's no problem, it's a short number between 1 and 100. After the postal clerk does his/her stuff, you receive a customs ticket and the numbers there are very long. Then you sit in the customs area and wait to hear your number called over a bad loudspeaker. They do it in batches so you're listening to rapid fire calls in Spanish such as "715384, 714568, 715446, 715695, 714622." Even the native Spanish speakers have a hard time distinguishing their respective numbers so you can imagine how I grip my ticket stub and desperately try to keep up with the flow. Patricio listened for my number, escorted me into the receiving area, talked to the customs officer for me, and even phoned for a radio taxi to pick up me and my two boxes. What a thoughtful and considerate lad! He wants to practice his English so we'll stay in touch and get together for coffee and conversation in the future.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Out of the closet and into the attic

I went uptown to Belgrano for dinner on Saturday, joining my friends D., C., M., and some of their friends whom I had not met previously. The main drag on this side of town is Avenida Santa Fe, very popular and commercial all of its length, and after it passes through Barrio Norte and Palermo into Belgrano, its name changes to Avenida Cabildo. That's about all that changes, it continues to be the prime street for shopping and dining.

There were eight in our party at La Farola de Cabildo, a bustling restaurant that is part of a small chain in the capital. The fare is mostly traditional Argentine, emphasizing pastas and milanesas/supremas (breaded and fried slices of beef or chicken, similar to a schnitzel). Portions are generous and with the accompanying pan (bread) and papas (potatoes), it's unlikely anyone will leave hungry. I ordered the Pollo del Caribe, a chicken breast smothered in a strawberry sauce with peaches, pineapple, and pears. When it arrived at the table, the glistening scarlet sauce and fruit caused one of our group to comment that it appeared more like a postre (dessert) than a main dish. It was quite tasty but not as sweet as one might expect from the described ingredients. I was rather surprised to find it on the menu. Fruit and meat combinations seem like a culinary choice more apt for California than Argentina. Argentinos are not known for being particularly adventurous in dining; I'd guess that 90% of the menu items in non-ethnic restaurants are some variation of the basic beef-pasta-potaotes food pyramid.

One couple in our group (we'll call them Dorian and Gray) aroused genetic envy in me. Obviously they have an attic and store their portraits there. Both appear a good ten years younger than their ages, so they have either an Oscar Wilde magic going or DNA that could be patented. They were charming and friendly, as well as being very goodlooking as so many Argentinos are. A cute couple, obviously smitten with each other, they weren't timid about showing affection in public. Nothing flamboyant, just simple things such as holding hands or resting an arm on the other, but it's something not commonly seen here. Buenos Aires is probably the most gay-friendly city on the South American continent, with civil unions and anti-discrimination laws, yet gays are mostly ultra discreet in public.

I found it very refreshing. After so many years in Los Angeles, including the time I lived in the gay Oz of West Hollywood, it was nice to see a couple acting normally. In other words, acting heterosexually. Straights here aren't shy about handholding or kissing so there isn't any cultural taboo about public affection in general. Ergo, why shouldn't gay couples behave naturally? It's fairly controversial here, much as it was in California years ago: the old debate about creating a backlash if we are too visible and straight society starts feeling uncomfortable or threatened. Of course, I can't see whát's so distressing about tenderness but perhaps one has to feel macho before one's machismo can be threatened. Anyway, I applaud the lads and hope they keep on being true to themselves.

Price for 8 meals and 9 beverages: 192 pesos (US $62, about $7.75 per person).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I'm dreaming of a white ... Fourth of July?

Well, it wasn't the fourth, it was actually the ninth of July (nueve de julio), which is Argentina's equivalent of the U.S. holiday. Back in California, we celebrate with fireworks and picnics, barbecues, or pool parties. With summer in full swing and the mercury rising, it's a great day to enjoy the great outdoors. Here, it's the dead of winter and it freakin' snowed! Obviously, the Argentine patriots of 1816 were not planning ahead or they would have waited six months so future generations could enjoy summertime activities on Independence Day.

Anyone who knows me also knows that cold weather and I are not bosom buddies. I loathe cold. I'd never been to Buenos Aires in winter but I did my due diligence before deciding to move. I checked dozens of sources and they all said pretty much the same thing: BA has a temperate climate, mild winters, lovely springs and autumns, and hot summers. There was not one single mention of snow. Can somebody tell me if my move came with a money-back guarantee?

I have lots of luck, but it depends on your point of view as to whether it's good or bad. This was the first snowfall in the capital in 89 years and I was here for it. Out and about on the streets, everywhere I looked were parents and children, the tykes bundled up and standing on the sidewalk in front of their apartment buildings so the parents could snap once-in-a-lifetime photos. Trust me, it was the topic of conversation with everyone here for several days.

It was way cold for several days around the 9th but this is a big city which means there's a lot of urban-industrial heat. So the snow mostly didn't stick around, melting moments after landfall. There was a nice white coating in the parks, on top of parked cars, and various other spots, but even that was gone by the next day. My friend D. took this pic of some rooftops near his home.

Javier, whom I last saw in Panama about 3 years ago, was in BA last week during the snowfall and he thought it was great fun. Go figure, a tico (Costa Rican) who loves Siberian temperatures. Maybe it's the novelty of change from the tropical climate he normally enjoys? I considered asking him to smuggle me back to Costa Rica in his baggage but decided it would be wiser just to book a regular trip in the near future. I haven't decided on the exact date yet, but probably in September or October you'll be reading my postings from Costa Rica for a month or more.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Supping with a chucked fetus

Next they'll just chuck a fetus down the runway! (Edina in Ab Fab, whining about how the models get younger every year)

On Thursday I talked to Robert, whom I hadn't seen yet since I arrived. We met during my first trip to Argentina in 2005 and, as usual for me, stayed in touch off-and-on. Robert is stunning, which is saying a lot considering the elevated standard of male beauty in Buenos Aires. He works as a print and runway model in a city that has at least one potential model per hundred feet of sidewalk. He had been working in Brazil for a while but now that he's back we decided to get together for dinner and catch up on things. He's one of the very few people I know here with a car, so he came by my apartment, picked me up, and off we went. It's his city and he knows where to eat, so I concentrated on our conversation and left the driving to him. Only when he slowed down to look for parking did I realize that we were on El Salvador in Palermo Viejo, just a few blocks from my former apartment.

We were at Mott, a very trendy upscale restaurant. It has a spacious feeling, high ceilings open all the way to the second floor balcony, with a somewhat minimalist decorative style which accentuates the space. One doesn't feel crowded or overwhelmed like in many BA restaurants where space is at a premium. The chairs are more like comfy armchairs than the standard-issue rigid highbacks we normally find.

Mott self-describes its cuisine as cocina de mercado (market cuisine), implying that it emphasizes fresh wholesome ingredients. One restaurant review defines their menu as European eclectic and another calls it nouvelle argentine. I would say all of the above are true; it is eclectic with touches of Italian, Asian, Mexican, French, and of course, Argentine. The food seems more healthful than typical Argentine cuisine with less breading-and-frying and salads having a prominent place on the menu.

We shared a chicken caesar salad as an appetizer. It was quite lovely, the greens some of the best I've had yet in BA, a crunchy mix of croutons and Thai-style chunks of chicken breast, shaved Parmesan, and a dressing that was bright but not overpowering. Robert's main course was Lomo Crépine, a beef tenderloin that looked delicious. I chose Pollo Mex, a nouvelle approach to Mexican cuisine with seasoned chicken breast pieces in an open pastry shell, served with corncakes and frijoles picantes (spicy beans).

The service was more attentive than usual in porteño restaurants. Most of the time, your waiter will not pop by to check on you after your food is served. If you want something, you look for him and catch his attention. It's just the way things are, the assumption is that you want to dine in peace and will let the mozo (waiter) know if anything is required. Mott's staff is a bit more proactive but not intrusive; we didn't have a Cindy or a Shawn hovering over us all night, becoming our new best friend.

Mott is on the pricy side for restaurants here, with entrées ranging from 32-47 pesos. It also features a full bar.

Price for 1 salad, 2 entrees, and 2 beverages: 119 pesos (US $39).

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Chaos and crooks (Part II) and a respite from insanity


The C&C theme contined full blast on Friday. Before I left California, I mailed myself packages of books, personal documents, photos, mementos, and similar stuff: my life reduced to some cartons of essentials. They were supposed to arrive in 4 to 6 weeks but are just starting to arrive now, after 10 weeks. On Friday, I trudged down to the central post office for international shipments to pick up the first two packages. They don't deliver them to you and collect postage due/customs fees or even let you pick them up in your neighborhood post office. No, everyone has to go downtown to the central office and join in the crazed melée, what could be more fun?

I headed down to Retiro, another huge combination subway-commuter train station, next to the central bus depot and about 5 blocks from the international postal facility. I didn't walk into the post office, I squeezed in because it was literally jammed wall to wall with people. I took a number (47) from the dispenser and waited my turn. When they called the next number, 33, I was delighted...only 14 ahead of me! I thought maybe all of those people were there for something else. The next few numbers went by and I was relieved that I would apparently be served in just 10 or 15 minutes instead of the hours I had assumed when I first edged through the door. Then they called 38 verde (green). That's when I realized I was doomed. I had a yellow number, so there were actually 114 people ahead of me. To make matters worse, they call out the number like auctioneers, barely pausing for a breath between them. People can't possibly navigate through the jammed herd to one of the three counter spots before the clerk has already skipped ahead one or two numbers. At one point, that caused some shouting and scuffling and I thought back to Tuesday, wondering if I'd end up being crushed in a postal riot instead of a train riot.

Two hours later, mostly spent admiring a very cute Argentino who was also waiting outside, I finally got called, forced my way to the counter, and presented my notices. That's when I realized I'd forgotten to bring my passport. The color scan in my wallet wasn't acceptable nor was my California license/photo ID. No, here the passport or DNI (kind of an internal passport) is everything. The clerk sent me home so that I could go back next week and experience the chaotic joy all over again.

That night I was logged into MSN and got the most unexpected instant message of my life. Denis, the thief. He pleaded for forgiveness and essentially said he did it because he was desperate for cash and wanted to go home to Chaco (in northern Argentina). I finally got him to confess how much he had sold my stuff for (my original cost was about US$ 450). 200 pesos. That's US$ 65. I would have paid him double or triple that just to get it back. Qué tonto (how stupid)! Equally stupid was him not thinking about my 20 years as a programmer. While he was telling me he'd gone back to Chaco using his ill-gotten gains, I was backtracing our connection and seeing that he was actually chatting from right here in Buenos Aires. Tip: everything you do online leaves a trace, never forget that! I've got a nice little chart of his movements by backtracing chats and emails, so I know which parts of the city he frequents, which internet cafés he visits, and so on. Our story isn't over yet, I've been making plans for him ever since he pilfered the goods.

Ultimately, I figured out what the purpose was of this contact. He wanted to know if he was a wanted man or not. He asked if I'd notified the police and when I told him the police had said he'd get at least 6 years in jail for the crime, he begged me to drop charges. He had no reply when I asked him why I would want to do that and he logged off soon after. I have no doubt he'll be back, with a new angle to get me to absolve him. That's fine, every contact just gets me closer to where I am going: obtaining justice (or perhaps it's revenge?).

On Saturday I enjoyed a respite from the institutional insanity and the graspings of larcenous acquaintances. I met with my friend Alex, one of the few new friends here who has been nothing but honest and sincere. He works for a superstore similar to a Walmart combined with a super-grocery and we met a few days after my arrival when I was shopping there. At that time he was working in customer service and he came to the register to help when I was fumbling in Spanish trying to pay with my credit card. He walked me all the way out of the store to the street and said he would enjoy getting together sometime to practice his English (which is already very good). Alex is straight with a wife and daughter, so don't leap to any conclusions!

Since then, we've gotten together occasionally to chat over a coffee or coke. He insists each time on taking turns to pay for the drinks, unlike the majority here who just expect that the "rich" American will pick up all tabs for all things. He's very polite, earnest, intelligent, and well read. If he were gay, I'd drop to my knees and propose (OK, maybe I wouldn't propose immediately after dropping to my knees). Seriously, I greatly enjoy his company and it's nice to spend time with someone who doesn't have an ulterior motive. We've discussed the problem here of so many people wanting what they can get right now without consideration for the future or other people. He's an astute thinker and I appreciate his insights into his country and his people.

On my way home, I helped a confused American couple find their subway stop. After my time with Alex, when they commented how nice and friendly the Argentine people are, I actually smiled and agreed.

Chaos and crooks (Part I)

On Tuesday, I went to Migraciones (Immigration) in Microcentro to file some papers about my resident visa. It was my first visit there and of course I got lost. It's on Avenida 25 de Mayo, a rather small street that leads to the Casa Rosada. I mistakenly assumed it was on Avenida de Mayo, one of the grand boulevards of the city which also leads to the Casa Rosada. This isn't unusual in Buenos Aires. There are sets of streets such as Peña, Saenz Peña, and Rodriguez Peña. There are even two streets that cross, whose names are pronounced identically, so the only way to be sure you're in the right spot is if you agree to meet at the intersection of H. Yrigoyen and B. Irigoyen.

Immigation sent me off on a wild goose chase to have my birth certificate officially translated. I had done that in California, prior to leaving, as per instructions of the Argentine consulate. I paid a certified translator and then got official stamps (notarization and apostille) for everything, the original documents and the translations. Here, they said so sorry, these aren't legal, you need to do it all again using an Argentine translator and they sent me off to the Colegio de Traductores Públicos in Balvanera. When I arrived there, the receptionist explained that they don't actually do any translations there and that I should go to their website to find a list of certified translators to contact privately. Couldn't Migraciones just have told me that, before I trekked all the way there?

Next I went to Constitución to meet my friend Ulises for a late lunch. He works a block from the combined train-subway station, one of the largest in Buenos Aires. We had a nice visit and meal at a restaurant inside the station's concourse and afterward we stood around talking a bit before going our separate ways. Suddenly, he grabbed my arm and said "you have to go to the subway now!" I was puzzled about his odd outburst until he said "look, they're closing the gates, we need to get out of here." Last month there was a major riot at Estación Constitución when the trains were shut down. One of the largest rail stations in the city, with 400,000 people passing through daily, commuters were enraged when they found themselves stranded, unable to get home to the provincial suburbs. So, Ulises was rightly alarmed when he saw the possibility of history repeating itself. In the 60 seconds or so between his outcry and the time I started hustling toward the stairs down to the subte, the crowd pressing against the rail platform gates swelled from a handful to several hundred. I did not want to wait even a few more minutes for it to grow to a horde of irate thousands so I hightailed it down into the bowels of the subway and headed home.

That same day also brought more conniving behavior by a so-called friend or acquaintance named Luis. I met him online long ago and since I arrived in BA, we would meet once every week or ten days for coffee and chat. At first I thought he might be an okay guy. He appeared more stable than some others I had met, such as my camcorder thief, 40 years old with a decent job in public relations. However, he didn't fail to disappoint me given enough time! After about a month, he casually asked to borrow 20 pesos (US $6.50) to buy a card to refuel his cell phone minutes. I saw it as a test, a relatively cheap way of finding out if he was another deadbeat looking to scam a foreigner. He promised to pay it back when we met for coffee again the next week. Never happened. Instead, the next week he said he couldn't meet for coffee because his poor old mom was very sick...and could I lend him 50 pesos to buy her medicine? Then his mom was in the hospital and needed 200 pesos for therapy. He didn't take me up on my offer to visit her in the hospital and cheer her up, wouldn't a surprise visit from an exotic foreigner lift her spirits? I had visions of him scouring hospital rooms, seeking an old lady who would pretend to be his mom for half the take. On Tuesday, apparently mom hadn't died yet because he asked to borrow 150 pesos to buy her a birthday gift.

Where in the world is Striezel?

Find out for yourself! Use this interactive map of Buenos Aires, courtesy of the city government. I think it will help orient those of you unfamiliar with the city when I write about places I go. I don't think there's an English version but much of it ís pretty self-explanatory...buttons to click for moving around, zooming in, and so on.

It opens with an overview map of the 40+ official barrios of the city. Recoleta is in the upper-right section of the map and you'll see Palermo, where I used to live, right next to it. If you want to see where I'm living now, look on the lower left for a box labelled Localizador de Direcciones. Enter Bollini where it says Calle and Pacheco de Melo where it says Intersección, then click Buscar (Search).

Microcentro (downtown) isn't shown as an official barrio but it comprises all or parts of Retiro, Recoleta, San Nicolas, and Montserrat, which are on the right side of the overview map. That's where many government offices and important buildings are located, including the Casa Rosada (presidential palace) and Obelisco (the monument that symbolizes the heart of Buenos Aires).

The map only displays what is known as Capital Federal, an autonomous city within Greater Buenos Aires. It's somewhat comparable to our District of Columbia, a self-governing federal district distinct from the provinces (states). Capital Federal has a population of about 3 million with another 10-12 million in the surrounding metropolitan area.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Someday my prince will shop for his own shoes

Last weekend I had my first fiesta (party) in my new apartment in Recoleta/Barrio Norte. Actually, it was more of a fiestita, a little party, because there were only four of us. I met D. maybe 7 or 8 years ago, when he was in LA to study English for the summer. We stayed in touch, off-and-on, over the years and he's been full of helpful info and advice about living here. I've gotten together with him and his boyfriend, C., at times for lunch, dinner, and just hanging out. A couple of weeks ago I went out to Belgrano to join them in celebrating C.'s birthday.

This time, they came to see me and the new place and we hung out with pizza and empanadas (meat-filled pastry) from a local restaurant. Almost every restaurant here delivers and, oddly enough, they usually call it delivery instead of envio a domicilio, the correct Spanish term. There are lots of these Spanglish terms in use. You use a mouse, not a raton, with your computer. You buy or rent a DVD pronounced the English way, not day-bay-day like it should be pronounced in Spanish. I don't know why these things are but I suspect they're the result of the pervasive influence of American television and movies.

We also tried out my new espresso machine. Yes, I bought the Ariete model I talked about in a recent entry. I love the look of it, somewhat retro but also modern. It has a stainless steel boiler, brass portafilter, burr grinder, and temperature gauge for you coffee techno-geeks like me. I was planning to buy a Saeco Aroma, aka Saeco Classico, a longtime workhorse of home espresso machines, which I had found on a website. Naturally, when I arrived all ready to plunk down my credit card, they told me they no longer carry it. So, I went with the one I really wanted, the Ariete, even though it was almost twice the cost...but it does have a built-in grinder so it really wasn't a bad deal! I'm happy now, drinking myself into a hyper-caffeinated bliss daily.

The fourth person at our gathering was M., one of the best friends of C. and D. He took part in a home video recently, a kind of fun birthday project for another of his friends. It's a twisted version of Cinderella, who is known as Cenicienta in Spanish. Enjoy!