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.