Where the airs are good

posted in: South America 2017 | 1

Thursday, November 9

By the time I got to sleep last night, I didn’t really get to sleep last night. I was still on island time, two hours behind Santiago time, and then I was just restless. Plus, with a 5:00 a.m. wake-up, I kept checking the clock to make sure I wouldn’t oversleep, in spite of the fact that my alarm was set.

I tried to sleep on the plane, but it was a smaller plane and not very comfortable, and there was the requisite crying baby on board about two rows behind me.

But I was determined not to slow down when we got to Buenos Aires. Once we got checked into our hotel, I decided to take a break from the rest of the group and strike out on my own. I’m enjoying spending time with them, and any worries I had about how I would adapt to a group tour after so many solo trips has proven to be completely unfounded, but today I just wanted to have a few hours to get a personal experience of the city. Most of the group was heading to a restaurant Federico recommended for lunch, but I went my own way. I asked Fede for a suggestion on where to walk to see some cool architecture and get a flavor of the neighborhood, and he sent me on a route toward the Recoleta. It was exactly what I wanted to see, and I soon found my self becoming enamored with this beautiful city.

French embassy
French embassy
Brazilian embassy
Brazilian embassy
Just a random house in the Recoleta neighborhood
Just a random house in the Recoleta neighborhood

We are here for just two days now, but we’ll be back for two more days in a couple of weeks, after the excursion to Patagonia. We had a few hours before our orientation meeting at the hotel, and later was a group dinner. Then tomorrow morning we have a group city tour, and we have the afternoon free. Then in the evening we are getting a tango lesson, and after that is one of those touristy tango shows with dinner that is sure to be very touristy but should be fun nevertheless.

Once I got to the Recoleta neighborhood, I stepped inside La iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, which is adjacent to the famous Recoleta Cemetery. Although Fede told us we’ll be visiting the cemetery when we’re back here after Patagonia, I couldn’t resist stepping in to have a quick look around. It is definitely not your average burial ground. This is a place where the dead live in much more luxury than most of us who are living.

Recoleta Cemetery, seen from the neighboring church cloister
Recoleta Cemetery, seen from the neighboring church cloister

Across the street from the cemetery is Buller, a brew pub that Fede recommended. (He told me later that when he still lived here he and his dad used to come to Buller.) I sat outside under an umbrella and had a great pizza with white onions and olives and lots of cheese and no sauce, along with a nice cold Golden Ale.

After I walked back to the hotel, there was still some time to wander around the nearby area, so I found Plaza San Martin and just lingered there for a while.

Torre Monumental seen from Plaza San Martin
Torre Monumental seen from Plaza San Martin. This tower was a gift from the local British community in honor of the centennial of the May Revolution of 1810, though it was not completed until 1916. Originally called “Torre de los Ingleses,” the name was changed after the Falklands War in 1982.

When I got to the hotel for our orientation meeting, I suddenly discovered that the lack of sleep combined with the brilliant sunshine had taken their toll. I did all I could to stay focused on the meeting, but was glad to have about 45 minutes afterwards for a cool shower before we headed off to dinner. Lesson learned: pace myself!

Dinner was at Antigua Tasca de Cuchilleros (the old bar of the knife-maker) in the San Telmo neighborhood. The restaurant was closed except for us. It was a good meal of empanada, steak and french fries, and ice cream, with a salad and wine. But the best part was at the end when our server, who was the daughter of the owners, told us about the history of the house where the restaurant is located. It was built in 1729 and is one of the oldest houses still standing in Buenos Aires. Beneath it was a secret tunnel, one of many in the city that were filled in during the nineteenth century. After her family bought the house, they arranged to excavate the tunnel, and they found many artifacts. Argentine law provides that the state owns everything below ground, but they gave the family permission to keep all the artifacts as long as they made it accessible to the public. She brought us down into the tunnel, and it was fascinating.

Tunnel under the restaurant Antigua Tasca de Cuchilleros
Tunnel under the restaurant Antigua Tasca de Cuchilleros

Friday, November 10

We started the day with a city tour. We took a bus to Plaza de Mayo (May Square). This is the site where the revolution began on May 25, 1810, eventually leading to Argentina’s independence from Spain (on July 9, 1816, although the war continued until 1818). Today Plaza de Mayo is the center of Argentina’s political life. It is surrounded by many impressive edifices.

Casa Rosada (Pink House)
Casa Rosada (Pink House). This is the executive mansion and office of the president of Argentina (though the president does not actually live here). The building was inaugurated in 1898. In front is the Pirámide de Mayo, the oldest monument in Buenos Aires, built in 1811 to commemorate the first anniversary of the May Revolution.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires. Work on the cathedral began in 1753, and it was consecrated in 1791 without the facade, which was constructed starting in the 1820s but not completed until the 1860s. The remains of General José de San Martín, the liberator and national hero of Argentina, are inside. This is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. From 1998 until 2013 the Archbishop was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was then elected pope.

From there we took a quick ride on the subway, four stops, to the site of the National Congress. Our bus met us there and took us to the office of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of May Square). Here we met with a man, Miguel, who shared his personal story. This was the emotional high point of the trip so far.

In the 1976 a military coup overthrew Isabel Perón as president and established a military junta that remained in power until 1983. During their reign, some 30,000 of their opponents, mostly young people, were abducted and killed. They came to be known as “desaparecidos” (disappeareds). The miltary who carried out these abductions would frequently spare pregnant women, killing them after they gave birth and giving their babies to their friends, to childless military families, or to the church.

The Abuelas are the grandmothers of these abducted babies, and the organization is working to find these children, now in their 40s.

Miguel was a baby when his parents became two of the desaparecidos. His mother was pregnant at the time. He grew up with his abuela, and she worked for the rest of her life to find her grandchild. She died a few years ago, and Miguel carries on the search.

Poster in the Abuelas office
Poster in the Abuelas office

So far the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo have found 134 of these children and reunited them with their real families. In many cases, they did not know they were adopted. It’s likely that in some cases their adoptive parents did not know how they came to be available for adoption, but many were complicit in the crimes. (Here is a story of one of the children. It is well worth reading.)

After we left the Abuelas office, we went to one of the most colorful neighborhoods in the city, La Boca. Here we had some time to explore. Street vendors sold art and crafts and souvenirs. Tango dancers invited us to have our picture taken with them. It is a delightful part of Buenos Aires. (See the picture at the top of this post, as well as the ones below.

La Boca
La Boca
Panorama of street in La Boca
Panorama of street in La Boca

After our visit to La Boca our driver dropped us off in front of the Teatro Colón, widely considered to be one of the top opera houses and concert venues in the world. Some of us tried to get tickets for a tour, but they were all sold out for the day. We are hoping we’ll be able to see it when we return to Buenos Aires after our Patagonia excursion.

Teatro Colon
Teatro Colón, which opened in 1908.

The rest of the group went for lunch to one of the best pizza restaurants in the city, but since I had pizza yesterday and wasn’t especially hungry, I decided to wander on my own. There was a nice park across from the Teatro, and the impressive Supreme Court building was also there. In addition, Templo Libertad was nearby. Our local guide told us we would need our passports to get in to see the synagogue and the adjacent museum, and mine was back in the safe in my hotel room. But I decided to give it a try, and they allowed me in with my driver’s license.

The museum was small but interesting, with a lot of artifacts from Europe that came to Argentina with immigrants. Although a few Jews came during the early colonial era, some to escape the Spanish Inquisition, most of Argentina’s Jews arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century from eastern Europe. At its peak in the 1960s, there were over 300,000 Jews in Argentina, but during the junta many escaped. The Jewish population today is under 200,000. Argentina has the seventh largest Jewish population in the world. The synagogue was founded in 1862, before the largest wave of immigration. It has traditional synagogue architecture, with the women’s gallery in the balcony.

Templo Libertad
Templo Libertad
Temple sanctuary
Temple sanctuary

When I left the synagogue, I walked back to the hotel, stopping for lunch at a place called Raclette, where you select bread, meat, and toppings and they add raclette for a spectacular grilled cheese experience.

Following a nap, it was time for a tango lesson. We got back in the van and went to Los 36 Billares, a billiard parlor and restaurant with a room in back where we met our instructors and got a basic lesson. It was a lot of fun. I danced with Mary, one of the three “Wisconsin ladies” on our tour, and afterwards Federico asked me if I’d danced tango before, because I was very good! The real treat, though, was watching our instructors dance for us.

Our instructors demonstrate the tango
Our instructors demonstrate the tango

The night ended with a touristy dinner theater/tango show at Esquina Carlos Gardel. Our instructors told us that this style of tango is nothing like traditional tango as it is danced in the milongas. It is highly choreographed and includes highly acrobatic lifts. (If you watch Dancing with the Stars, as I do, you know this ballroom style of Argentine tango. At the milongas, dance clubs where regular people go to dance (starting and midnight and often not ending until 6:00 am), everything is improvised. In any case, the show was fun and entertaining, though toward the end I found my eyes closing, and I probably missed four or five of the dances, waking up each time for the applause.

Later I found out from several of the other tour members that they were dozing during Miguel’s talk and I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time staying awake for the tango.

As I write this I’m on board our flight to Bariloche. The couple who sat down next to me are from Florida, but originally from Bay Shore, just a few miles from my home town. I feel like there’s a cliche that expresses this kind of coincidence.

My Travel Mates

I thought I should take some time to tell about the other people on my tour. Without exception, I’ve enjoyed getting to know them all. I may be the youngest person on the tour, but I’m inspired by their energy and impressed by their travel experiences, which in several cases make mine seem minimal. I am also possibly the only non-retired person on this trip.

Pat is from Denver, a former teacher who still does some substitute teaching. This is her first OAT trip, but she’s done a fair amount of travel.

Leona and Janice are cousins from Illinois and Arizona respectively.

Ann, Mary, and Maureen are three friends from the Madison, Wisconsin, area. They’ve been on a number of OAT trips to some far-flung places like Nepal, Bhutan, and India.

Sam and Diane (we call them the Cheers couple) are from San Francisco. They have traveled all over southeast and central Asia, Iran, Africa, plus all the “normal” places.

Shane is also a multi-trip OAT veteran. He is from the SF Bay area, married, but traveling solo.

Ed and Louise are from southern California. For a while they traveled around the USA in a motorhome.

Jane is from Boston but now lives in Florida. She started traveling after her husband died a few years ago, and it has become her happy obsession.

Juergen and Monica are newlyweds from the SF Bay area. They are originally from southern Germany.

Jane, Juergen, and Monica did not come to Rapa Nui with us; they met us in Buenos Aires. Pat, Leona, and Janice are not continuing on the Iguazu extension at the end of the trip.

Our tour director is Federico Ferraro. He is originally from Buenos Aires but now lives with his partner and their young daughter in El Calafate, one of the stops later on our tour.

Dinner at Antigua Tasca de Cuchilleros.Left side (front to back): Federico, Leona, Shane, and Janice. Right side (front to back): Monika, Juergen, Jane, Maureen, Mary.
(left to right): Sam, Diane, Ann
(left to right): Louise, Ed, Pat

  1. Mary

    How interesting! Buenos Aires sounds really neat, and Iearning about S.A. is fascinating! A whole unknown beautiful world. You’re having a really great trip, and with good travel-mates! Hope the sleep cycle evens out 😴

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