Don't cry for us Argentina

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
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Trip End Apr 30, 2013


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Sunday, January 13, 2013

We left you last feeling somewhat sorry for our sad selves at the mercy of Argentinean inhospitality and its less than endearing treatment of us so far.
It's the day after that then, Christmas Eve morning, and we find ourselves after a night of the most uncomfortable bus travel we might ever have experienced (seats that didn’t recline, windows that rattled ominously in their frames, arm rests adorned with something sticky and air-conditioning that probably didn’t even work back when the bus was born mid-last century), sitting on a pavement at just after 6am, leaning against our bags on a smelly street in Cordoba (a city somewhere in the middle of Argentina), doggedly ringing the bell and banging on the door of the hostel we have wisely booked ourselves into (in the case of our couchsurfing host once again turning out to be all false promises). If you remember we had been offered a couch for Christmas, but as yet have not received an address and so wanted to be prepared for disappointment. The hostel we have booked in this fume-choked alley of downtown nowhere, on a morning already threatening to become the sweatiest day since the Jurassic era, seems to have shut for the festive period, as no answer to our persistent bell-ringing and door-banging is forthcoming. And so we have gotten ourselves used to the idea of spending Christmas Mary-and-Joseph style, hunkering down on some dirty grass under whatever roof we might beg for comfort (obviously without any miracle births or scenes of happy shepherds involved). Then Stevie goes for a wander around the sticky streets to hunt down whatever accommodation might be available and, mercifully, it doesn’t take too long to sniff out a room. We check in, dive under a cold shower, and then discover we have a message from Marta, the host who had - almost suspiciously - offered us her couch for Christmas (well really, what kind of weirdo offers up their house to strangers at Christmas?), giving an address and directions to her place, and bidding us arrive whenever we like. We spend the day then, skipping about with glee, exploring the city and looking around the shops for something that we can take as a small gift - just a bottle of wine or box of chocolates - that might modestly convey our gratitude for Marta’s generosity...

What kind of person offers up their house to strangers at Christmas? To call Marta one in a million would be a grievous understatement.  To call her our saviour might be a little over the top. Somewhere, in the middle of those two descriptions then lies Marta Roganti, a woman who gave us not only a home (in the form of a small flat attached to the outside of their house) for Christmas, but the welcome of a family we must have known in a former life. Her and her three children, Fernanda (24), Alvaro (21) and Maria Jose (18) became our family for the Christmas of 2012. Arriving at their home was as close to coming home as coming home can be, welcomed by kisses and cuddles all round.  I wish I could convey what it was like to stay with them, but the closest I can come is by saying that it was like living through one of those feel-good Christmas movies. We joined them and their wonderful circle of friends for Christmas dinner; they accepted us without question and made every effort to speak our language (even those to whom it didn’t come easily) and get to know us. They generously fed us, plied us with Christmas spirits, and treated us like special guests, rather than the scrounging bums we were. They took us in grubbed up by a country that we felt had rejected us, and scrubbed us up clean and sparkling like we had not thought possible. 
There have been many things about Argentina that we have found less than endearing; even some that have really pissed us off. Marta turned our feelings around, spun the experience on its head, and showed us the best of Argentina by showing us the best of humanity. After a few days of warmth and friendship - being driven to the beautiful local countryside to swim in sun-drenched rivers, being taken out for drinks and taken care of like we were real brother, sister and children, being taught about Argentinean music, culture and history - saying goodbye was difficult. We were truly choked up to be leaving.
I’m afraid that being the luckiest people in the world doesn’t make for an interesting read. I know that it’s far more entertaining to hear about us grabbing the shit-stained end of the walking stick, but this is the experience we are having, so this is what we must write. Thank you Marta, and all the new friends and family we made in Cordoba. We can’t wait to see you again somewhere down the road. All our love.

Moving on, then…

Buenos Aires, city about which songs are written, second largest urban area in South America, and home to about 60% of all Argentineans, is pretty cool. It has a historic centre of beautiful buildings along massive avenues, rich in architecture of European style and street art graffiti of a dissident nature. Wandering around is certainly a treat for the eyes and a work-out for your neck, gazing ever upwards at the splendours, and ever downwards to avoid the dog poo.  Buenos Aires doesn’t have the cultural and beautiful religious sights of Chile’s Santiago, or the staggeringly fascinating edifices of Peru’s Cusco or the uniquely calming high-altitude charm of Ecuador’s Quito. Still, it’s pretty cool. The most recognized symbol of Buenos Aires, and Argentina they say, is the Obelisk: A famously phallic symbol that sits in the middle of the widest avenue in the world: Avenue 9th of July (all streets in South America seem to be named after famous dates), consisting of nine lanes of traffic, and stretching 140 metres from one side to the other (you could fit two football pitches side by side onto it).  Don’t ever mention to an Argentinean that their beloved Obelisk seems to be nothing but an exact replica of the Washington Monument. People from Buenos Aires, or Portenos (coming from the port) are totally proud of being totally proud. They admit to being known as the snobs of South America with glee and gusto. They shout about their wonderful obelisk as though nothing like it had ever been constructed, and harp on about their widest avenue as though there weren’t a street somewhere in Brasilia that is a staggering 250 metres wide (though not, strictly speaking, an avenue, so allowing Argentina to win on semantics).  

We learned the reason for the Falklands War with Great Britain. If you don’t care for a brief history lesson, skip to the next paragraph. Otherwise: In Argentina, the Falklands are called Malvinas. The Malvinas had been colonized by the British navy from way back in about 1883, when they took it off some other European country. It seems a fact that before Europeans first discovered it in the 17th century, or round-abouts, there had been no native inhabitants on the islands.  Argentina therefore could do little about having the Malvinas claimed by the Brits, not having that much in the way of a navy themselves, and so didn’t bother to put up much argument for a long time, but for about 150 years (since Argentina became a single state and declared its independence from the Spanish) held onto a resentment that seemed to bury itself into their national psyche. The phrase "Malvinas son Argentina’s" was a kind of rally-round cry. When differences occurred between Argentineans, a hearty shout of “The Malvinas are Argentina’s” would have the heartening effect of pulling people together in camaraderie, a common cause, something everyone agreed upon and shared.  And so, it could only be a matter of time before some smart-arse politician used this fact to take advantage of the populace and draw attention away from some devastating economic crisis or such...
Fast-forward to 1982 then, and this politician (some military dictator or other – if they haven’t made a movie about them I generally don’t know anything about them) sent a few ships to attack and take back the Malvinas (Falklands remember, for those that fell asleep during the first half of the class), in order to distract the people from the shitty job the government were doing. The people duly waved their flags and “hoo-rah!”d in support until about two and a half months later when they realized that the reclamation of their beloved long-lost land was somewhat folly when taking into consideration that their little collection of boats weren’t much match for the greatest naval force in the world. The British warships took a couple of months to reach the islands, and the skirmish lasted a couple of weeks after that. The Argentinean people smacked their foreheads in frustration and anger at falling for this political ruse, but then, to make a sad story a little happier, they used this dunderfuddle as an excuse to oust the military dictators that had been making such of a mess of things, and replace them with their first democratic government since 1973. Since then, Argentina has enjoyed its longest period of uninterrupted democracy in the last century or so. Every cloud, eh? 
The Argies held onto their hatred of the Brits for only four years, until they beat them at football in the world cup in Mexico. And they actually happily admit to Maradonna’s cheating and getting away with it. Frankly I’m surprised the incident didn’t spark a national holiday. It seems a typically Argentinean trait to use one’s hand to score a goal, and then cheekily show off about it. This is one thing that cannot be held against them. If we were honest, wouldn’t we all happily gloat about cheating if we could so blatantly get away with it? Yes we would. Anyhow, I can vouch that British-Argentinean relations seem to be back on amicable ground, and that in Buenos Aires at least, nobody seemed to bear me any personal grudge.
We are pleased to report that Argentineans can be cheeky, funny, mocking, self-deprecating or rude, and in many ways therefore remind me of English people. For that I must love them. Portenos have the highest percentage of plastic surgery rates in the world (supposedly, everyone on private health care gets a free operation every two years), and we had some fun playing spot-the-silicone-job. They also have the highest rate of people in therapy (even more than Americans), which might vindicate us describing them as a complicated people. They’re sweet-talking, bullshitting, friendly, loud, 75kg of beef a year-eating and charmingly proud, though one of the greatest things about these people may be that they just cannot simply be narrowed down to such singular definitions as this, as our most recent friendship has proven.

We spent over a week in Buenos Aires, staying with yet another couchsurfing host who, once again, did more for us than we deserved. Juan (“Hwan” if you want to pronounce it correctly, “John” if you don’t) had offered us a room in his house over the New Year period. We cheekily asked him if we could stay a little longer while we awaited delivery of our new Kindle (e-book reader – to replace the one that was nicked from us in Mendoza).  Juan immediately agreed and very kindly allowed us to stay in his spare room for about nine days in total. Juan is not your typical Porteno. A quiet, pensive vegan in a city full of loud, passionate carnivores might go unnoticed or overlooked in such a world, but we are so glad to have shared the same space as him for the short(ish) time we had. Getting to know him was not as easy as with some couchsurfers we’ve met, his introspective nature being one that many people might consider a barrier to friendship, but, knowing that barriers are things to be climbed over, once we had spent a little time with him, learning to cook these things called "vegetables" (novel, and surprisingly delicious!), joining him on bike rides, sharing his great taste in music, and discovering his mind-blowing talent on the Tabla (Indian drums), we realized that Juan is one of those rare diamonds that it is truly an honour to know.  We really do look forward to returning your kindness one day soon, our friend. Thank you for the Tabla lessons, and for embarrassing me ridiculously in the drumming department.

So, whilst in Buenos Aires, we did a lot of sightseeing. We offered up our patronage to the free Museo de Bellas Artes (Beautiful Art Museum), witnessing original sculptures by Rodin (including the famous The Kiss), and various paintings by such names I've heard of like Monet, Manet, Degas and Van Gogh. Mostly we scanned past the paintings mumbling "boring, boring, boring... ooh look, this one's by Van Gogh... boring, boring..." but the sculptures really impressed me. I find it amazing that someone can look at piece of rock and see a beautiful woman within, and then set about freeing her one chisel tap at a time. One tiny mistake and oops, there goes her finger. Start all over again with another big rock. At least on canvas you can paint over your mistakes, but the talented sculptor must truly be a genius. We visited the grave of Eva Peron, otherwise known as Evita, socialist star of Argentine history, and beloved by many (you know her via one of Madonna’s laughable attempts at acting). We wandered up and down B.A’s grandiose streets, taking in ridiculous palaces, cathedrals, statues and The Pink House, Argentina’s presidential palace. The reason for its colour (pink) seems unknown to even the most zealous of tour guides, but it is where the current president (a lady, ironically?) resides, giving rise to its other nickname, The Barbie House. This president, Cristina, was deemed worthy for the highest office in the land by simply being none other than the previous president’s wife, indicating further Argentinean’s great complicated love of things that make no sense, even in the political arena.

 “The president is finally gone! But who will take his place? Well his wife seems a logical choice… Well maybe not logical but she was sitting in the closest chair, so why not? Hoorah for the new president! On with the football game…”

One of the greatest things we were to discover in Buenos Aires, was one of Argentina’s proudest pastimes, that of Parilla, (“par-eeya”), which seems to roughly translate to “stuff your gut full of as much barbecued meat as you can possibly squeeze in,” and which seems to be to Argentineans what dumplings are to Chinese. We nervously slotted ourselves into a Parilla restaurant and ordered the plate “for two, please.” We were treated to a table-sized hot plate of sizzling meat, from innards to outtards and not excluding the frankly unidentifiable.  We gorged for a few minutes… or maybe hours (time might have stood still while we were sweatily swashbuckling with knives and forks) until our stomachs cried in disgust at our actions, accustomed, as they were by this point, to our heavily vegetarian diets. Nevertheless, we gobbled and gluttoned until it took all our strength just to pay the bill, waddle out of the restaurant and stumble to the nearest patch of grass on which to fall asleep/unconscious for a few hours. South Africans beware; there may be some competition for you in whom the world’s greatest barbecuers might be. Let the contest begin!

We spent New Year’s Eve in true Argentinean style; at a nightclub that didn’t even open until after 1am (luckily living with Marta had prepared us for the lifestyle of staying up all night and sleeping all day). We taxied out to the swanky area of Buenos Aires, inserted ourselves into an upstairs bar at about twenty minutes before twelve, and toasted in midnight from a balcony with a beautiful view of the city’s skyline, glugging free champagne as the air exploded with fireworks. It was all very romantic, but after ten minutes of being chatted to by other foreigners, we snuck away to find the nightclub at which Mr. Internet had promised us a big party was taking place. There then followed enough hours of dancing to result in injury, interspersed with an equally good few hours’ worth of standing in line for drinks. Kez can dance. She does it like she owns the floor. I sticky-footedly swing my hips, and occasionally funk up the elbows in a strutting-chicken style. Vodka and Red Bull seems to improve my groove. By the time we stumbled out into the bright, hot sunshine of the next morning, we were ready to find our way back home. In further Argentinean style, there happened to be a street party on the road outside the club, with a large, thumping sound system offering New Year revelers an excuse to keep on stamping and sweating under the first blue sky of the year, and so off Kez ran for one last boogie while I tried to sober up enough to figure out which direction was up, which was down, and just where the hell exactly do we live now?  You’ll be pleased to hear we made it back to Juan’s suburban home, mid-morning, and collapsed under our sheets with nothing else to say about the year 2012 except thanks old buddy; you’ve been a blast!
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Comments

Yolanda on

Awesome post! Happy New Year!!! :)

kezandstevie
kezandstevie on

Thanks Lands. Happy New Year to you too!

Heather Rader on

Your pix look amazing and it looks like you are having the time of your life. I am very happy to see more pix with your glasses off Kez. xoxox

Nic on

I love reading your blogs and always look forward to the next one....... keep em coming! Big love to you both..... stay safe xxxxxx

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