Visiting Argentina Part 2
I wake up at 3AM with the automated wake up call. Packing, checkout and drop-off of my car goes quickly and I’m at the airport in plenty of time. Airports so early in the morning have a strange, desolate feel — no cafes or stores are open, there aren’t crowds or lines, and here and there people are sprawled across seats or on the floor, grabbing sleep as best they can between flights. Flying is a great equalizer, at least for those who can’t access the VIP clubs. Everyone is at the mercy of their schedules, lacking anything other than the meager contents of their backpacks and carry-ons.
Today is a day of waiting and sitting. Two hours for the first flight to Dallas, a truly boring wait of five hours IN Dallas, and then the ten-hour overnight flight to Buenos Aires. On the plane to Dallas, to my horror, I find an important nugget of information in my guidebook that I had missed — a reciprocity fee between the US and Argentina, which I need to pay before entering the country. More than once I’ll discover that the scant month and a half between my decision to go and my trip leads to some bit of missed information. But this will be the only one of real potential consequence. At Dallas I log in and discover…the fee has been waived! Due to diplomatic agreements between the US and Argentinian Governments, fees both ways have been postponed for the time being. Thanks, Obama! It’s a lesson that reading the fine print before taking a trip is really important, and also that checking for up to date knowledge is always a good thing — the guidebook I’m using, while very good, was published in 2014.
On the plane I suffer through attempts to sleep, some more successful than others. In the middle of the night, one of my row mates gets airsick and there is a period of shuffling, standing, and moving around while he visits the restroom. Not conducive to sleep. However, after reading a few chapters from the excellent novel “The Ghost Brigades,” I’m able to drop off for several hours.
Arrival in Buenos Aires is like arrival in any airport, anywhere. Shuffling off the plane, getting in line for passport and customs, inevitably ending up in the slowest, longest line, and then emerging into the cacophony of the arrival area where several taxi services vie for my attention. I go to a shuttle service instead and a quick half hour later am in Buenos Aires.
First impressions: varied kinds of neighborhoods and lifestyles are visible through the windows as the bus rumbles along the highway to downtown Buenos Aires. Some buildings appear empty; others half-finished; nothing specific jumps out in terms of architectural style. Fútbol fields abound. There isn’t much traffic, foot or vehicle, but then, it is a holiday — San Martín’s day, celebrating one of the most revered of Argentinians, Jose de San Martín, who helped secure the independence not just of much of Argentina, but also of Chile and Peru. Also, it’s 8:30 in the morning. The Buenos Aires culture is famously late, and I suspect many are just starting their day. From the bus, which stops at a central terminal, I’m directed to a transfer car which takes several of us to our specific destinations nearby. I’m the last, dropped at the Claridge hotel, a beautiful older hotel set somewhat incongruously on a narrow street in the middle of the downtown business district, surrounded by mostly closed shops and stores and office buildings. I can’t check in yet, but can at least leave my luggage. I set out to explore the town and stay awake.
I chose the Claridge for this first night because of its central location within the downtown core. Several sights are within walking distance although the neighborhood itself is relatively modern and non-descript. The Teatro Colón is to the west, the government palace and cathedral to the south, and the Plaza San Martín to the north. The downtown core of Buenos Aires is characterized by narrow streets, some pedestrian only, and tall office buildings.
Walking down the street to Plaza San Martín, I stop to make my first food purchase and it’s…at a Starbucks! In my defense, I need to charge my electronics after the plane ride and I know Starbucks will also have wifi. It’s eerily familiar, other than a few region-specific treats in the cold case. I’m reminded, as I often am while traveling, of Neal Stephenson’s observations in his novel Snowcrash about the power of franchising. When people go to strange places, they crave familiarity. And so the McDonalds, the Burger Kings and yes, the Starbucks, that dot the world provide people like me with a dose of comfort. I also need the caffeine in my tea. Fortified and with electronics charged, I walk down to the information booth near the Plaza San Martín and ask the very friendly, helpful and English-speaking guide what I should do since so many things are closed today.
She immediately suggests the Cementario de la Recoleta, a mini city of mausoleums in which many of Buenos Aires’ most famous people are laid to rest in various kinds of crypts. One main reason to visit is, it’s open. Also, it’s free. And it’s no more than a few kilometers away. There’s also a craft fair, the Feria Plaza Francia which normally is open just on weekends but is open today for the holiday. She suggests if I have the energy for it to walk even further north and check out the huge, metal flower that opens and closes with the sun, the Floralis Genérica, and the MALBA, a private museum some blocks further yet. This all seems like a good bet to keep me awake and mentally stimulated for at least the several hours until I can check in. I follow her directions, starting near the Plazoleta Carlos Pelligrini and continuing down the Avenue Alvear, which is lined with beautiful buildings built with a French flavor and housing some of the city’s embassies. I will later learn more of the history of Buenos Aires and how this region was founded by the upper classes of Buenos Aires who fled the neighborhood of San Telmo in the 1800s due to yellow fever epidemics. I also pass the building where Jorge Luis Borges, one of Argentina’s most famous writers, lived.
Like many countries where were colonized or influenced by the Spanish, Buenos Aires is dotted with plazas and courtyards. This architectural trend will be seen in every city and town I visit and provides welcome places to stop, rest and learn a little history.
When I reach the Cementario I realize this really is something different. The layout is similar to a city in miniature, with large and small alleys and paths, and a much greater density and number of mausoleums than I had been expecting. When the guidebooks say you can spend hours here they aren’t kidding. I begin wandering randomly and quickly get somewhat lost and turned around. The Cementario is amazing in scale, scope and history. Sleek black marble-faced crypts sit side by side with gothic, decaying constructs from the 1800s. Many of the relatively newer mausoleums feature glass doors and windows, allowing visitors to peek inside and see the caskets and funerary decorations. In some places because of time and neglect the glass has broken or a door been pushed ajar, letting in the elements, shards of glass, the occasional chip bag, and spiders and cats. In some crypts, the proliferation of spider webs around the edges of doors and windows resembles bread mold or creeping frost, slowly growing inward to obscure details of the caskets and alters inside.
There’s something bemusing about a city and a culture that reveres history, status and aspects of ostentatiousness to the point of creating the collective monument that is the Cementario. I’m not aware of too many other places that have put together such a collection of crypts, although there are probably far more than I think. In a country like Argentina with strong Catholic roots, the idea that death isn’t the end seems to run deep, justifying these kinds of displays. And too there are the elements of seeing and being seen, even in death.
Eventually I remember that this is where Eva Duartes (Evita) is buried and I follow the directions to her tomb. It’s surprisingly modest, but also appears the most visited of any tomb here. Faded, drooping flowers and more than a few perky artificial ones adorn the front of the tomb. After, I spend more than an hour randomly reading the plaques on different mausoleums. Many appear to be gifts from clubs, friends, and family members, highlighting some aspect of the deceased’s life and relationships. As I wander, the Cementario becomes more crowded, as tourists of various nationalities fill the space. I stop to watch a group of seven or eight Spanish-speaking women take a group selfie and chat amongst themselves. My Spanish is rusty and not good enough to follow them, but I do hear distinctly the word “Pokemon.” I assume they’re discussing the rumor that certain Pokemon are more likely to be found in gravesites (not true) or alternatively, how some sites like graveyards and memorials have asked not to be made into Pokestops out of respect.
After an hour I get hungry and wander out and along the streets of Recoleta, and find a nondescript cafe that serves an adequate lunch of sadly sticky gnocchi and gives me a chance to get off my feet for a while. The lack of sleep is catching up to me and I keep glancing at my watch to see whether it’s time to go back to my room for a nap. No such luck. So I go back out and spend an hour wandering around the Feria. It’s oddly familiar, with many of the same kinds of crafts I’d see at Pike Place Market in Seattle — lots of jewelry, tie-dye, wood-carvings and eclectic clothes. Here and there are things more region-specific such as woolen goods, leather items, snack carts selling empanadas and stuffed bread. I also visit the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar next to the Cementario, which dates back to the 1700s. From its upper floors one can see a good view of the tops of the many crypts, crosses raised to the sky like so many TV antennas, an antiquated simile from the days when people had TV antennas on their homes.
As I wander around the Plaza San Martín de Tours, on a lark and remembering the conversation of the women at the Cementario, I take out my phone and check out Pokemon Go. To my astonishment, there are Pokestops everywhere. I had heard the Latin America countries weren’t yet activated for Pokemon but it appears my knowledge is outdated. As one might expect at an outdoor craft fair, several of the Pokestops have been tagged with lures and I amuse myself catching a few virtual creatures.
Stopping at a bench to rest my feet and people-watch I find myself feeling a little wistful. When the rare English speaker wanders by, my ears perk up. Before I left, I had lunch with a friend and he asked me how I’d feel about traveling on my own. We talked about the pluses and minuses of setting one’s own agenda, and also about the differences when going places with other people.
“It’s like going to a ballgame alone,” he told me. “At first you’re like, ‘Oh, this will be great! I’ll really be able to just focus on the action on the field.’ But then, something neat happens and you turn around to talk about it with someone else and no one’s there.” I agree, and sitting here I feel, strongly, what he’s talking about. The wares of the various vendors beg to be discussed and admired aloud; the mausoleums and architectural choices of the Cementario as well. I suppose that’s one reason to create this travel log, as a conversation with myself and maybe, in a temporally unsynchronized way, with other people.
The many vendors selling treats are tempting, but my appetite is still figuring out what time zone it’s in, and in any case it’s late enough in the day for me to check in to my hotel. I catch a taxi back. A quick shower and unpacking later, I feel a bit more awake and decide to see if the Teatro Colón, just down the street, has any tours available for the late afternoon. The Teatro is a world-class opera house and listed as one of the most interesting sites in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, it’s also quite popular and all the tours for the day are sold out. I go outside and decide to take a walk down to the Plaza de Mayo, along Calle Florida, which is a pedestrian street. The sun is setting and I hope to get good light on the pink Presidential Palace, as well as make sure my eye’s photoreceptors record the light of the setting sun which I’ve read will help me reset my internal clock.
On Calle Florida, I am reminded of the similar pedestrian street in Copenhagen, Strøget. That street, like this one, is lined with a combination of fast food restaurants, luggage stores, souvenir shops, a variety of retailers of more conventional goods like clothing and leatherwork, and small enclosed malls (or galerías here). There are buskers also, of varying quality, and I do hear one young man playing a guitar so well that I have to tip. There are also many people chanting “Cambio. Cambio.” They are moneychangers who will give a very favorable exchange rate for US dollars. Argentina’s currency issues — which are one of the reasons I’m here — have made an underground exchange culture (called the “blue market”) very popular here. But also risky due to counterfeiting. I decide to stay away.
The crowd walking up and down the street may be less blonde and tall, but it’s the same kind of mix of tourists and locals on their way home as I’ve seen in Copenhagen. I reach Plaza de Mayo, where there are memorials and signs detailing the missing from Argentina’s Dirty War of some decades ago. There are also many people just sitting and enjoying the evening. I recall the importance of the town square as a gathering place to towns and people in Latin America. The light is good although half the face of the Presidential Palace is in shadow. I snap a photo of where Evita stood, then wander off to find dinner.
I find an ice cream and sandwiches cafe and sit. I suspect I’ll be eating dinner a lot in places like these. They’re both inexpensive and open early in the evening. People in Buenos Aires like to eat late and many restaurants don’t even open until eight or nine in the evening. At least for tonight and possibly for several more days, my body’s clock just won’t allow me to stay up that late without eating. Or sleeping. I order the vegetable tart. I’m also not quite ready for much in the way of meat.
Back to my hotel (with an ice cream stop along the way), I decide a glass of wine will be the best end to the day (as well as keeping me up a little later yet) and go down to the hotel bar for a few hours. Here, they don’t skimp on the wine, and I decide not to try to finish the very full glass I’m given. Good choice, as once I get upstairs, I can hardly stay awake and end up falling into a deep sleep for the next eleven hours.