April 17, 2005
No Place Like Home - Addendum (Nuts and Bolts)
My Travel Agent: Mayra [at] argentinatravelservices.com
- Because my flight and my Iguazu stay involved award travel, I booked them myself. Mayra did much of the rest. I would recommend an Argentinean travel agent for a visit that included internal travel in Argentina. They can get better rates.
- The Hotel Bel-Air. Clean, modern rooms. Great location. Mostly friendly service (I wasn't as crazy about the front desk staff). Upgraded accomodations are a good value.
- The Sheraton Internacional Iguazu. Much more expensive than other accommodations in the area, but it was available as a "Cash & Points" reward for US $45 & 2800 points per night. If you splurge on it, get a falls view room (as Starwood Gold, I was upgraded to one for one of the nights). I found the humidity oppressive; it was a relief to be able to spend time in my room, yet still be able to see the falls. The "Jungle View" rooms view the parking lot. Food in the hotel is relatively expensive for Argentina, but there are no other choices nearby. There is an outdoor pool, I did not have time to use the fitness room. Cranky high-speed net access is available in the business center for 6 pesos an hour; it is free if you are Starwood Gold.
- A cap for the sun
- A small towel for my daypack (I loathe schvitzing)
- Extra batteries for my camera
- Electric adapters. Sockets in Argentinean hotels seemed to usually be dual use sockets that could take both the European and the Australian plugs. Some hotels had 110 v outlets in the bathrooms.
- Diskettes. Rather than wireless access, I needed to transfer data to computers in business centers, and I didn't see a USB key in my hotel.
- A small bag of plastic cutlery
- Dollars. For the Sheraton (I needed to pay my rate in dollars), or when the ATM at the airport did not work.
- A few extra t-shirts. To change into when you were sweaty. I brought five, I should have brought a few more.
- An extra empty duffel. I took only what I needed to Iguazú and had the hotel keep the rest.
Things I wished I had packed
- Insect repellent. I have bug bites both from Iguazú and Buenos Aires, and they were pretty bad.
- A white T-shirt. A color I tend not to wear, as I am a very white boy. But Palacio has fab black lighting.
- Shorts and a bathing suit. For Iguazú and the Gran Aventura.
Things I didn't need
- More than one pair of dress pants or blazer. I had more than one, so I wrote it, but I could have gotten away with just one.
Things that are different that you don't think about
- Stoplights. Buenos Aires traffic signals light both red and yellow together to indicate that they will turn green.
- Taxi cabs. In the Remises you sit in the back, but in private cabs outside the city you seem to sit in the front.
Advice I am glad I had
- Not to stay in the center. There are a lot of hotels near the Avenida de 9 Julio, but I would prefer to stay in a less touristy neighborhood. On a return visit I would consider renting an apartment for a week.
- To schedule one buffer day when transferring flights. From "LoneStar" at Better Bidding. I would have been very nervous trying to make connections from Iguazu to Jorge Newberry airport, then changing airports to Ezeiza for my flight home. Given the amount of changes and cancellations on both Southern Winds and Aerolineas, I am very glad I did that.
- TakemetoEZE at FlyerTalk was kind enough to send me a very long letter full of advice. One little item was to get Alfajores from Havanna as souvenirs. They're delicious.
Final bits of advice.
- Leave time at Ezeiza. When you get there, you need to check in with your airline, pay airport taxes and go through passport control (three separate lines by itself). In a very light crowd it still took about 30 minutes.
- Airlink. I decided to try Airlink home instead of a cab, or the Airtrain. Relative costs for a one-way trip: $7 total for the subway to the Airtrain, $19 (with tip) for Airlink, a bit more than $40 with tip for a cab. It was morning rush hour, so no choice was good, but it took me more than two hours to get home. I'd only use them if I lived on the East Side so that I had a reasonable chance of being dropped off first. I saved $20 over a cab and didn't have to schlep my bags as I would have on the subway, but it took over an hour longer.
No Place Like Home XII - Departure
The final day of the trip was anticlimactic. I had packed and vacated my room; though I had five hours to kill, in my mind there was little to do but go home. I had planned the final day for shopping and found that also anticlimactic.
Food and transportation are very cheap in Argentina. To my surprise and contrary to what I had been told, clothing isn’t particularly. I walked up the Avenida Santa Fe to one of the shopping galleries, Alto Palermo. I bought . . . two belts, each of which was $24 US. Nice stuff, no particular bargain. It could simply be that I didn’t know where to shop. I tried on a leather jacket at one of the boutiques on the way home, but at 590 pesos and me having to leave for the airport in less than an hour, I was not interested in making it an impulse purchase.
It had been drizzling all day; by the time I left for the airport is was raining. By the time I was at the gate it was pouring. A perfect day to leave Buenos Aires.
The flight back was almost completely full, so I had to try and sleep while sitting; a skill I don’t really have. The plane also had the pack of Chasids from Hell. Evidently, they booked late so they were a group of about ten Chasidim sprinkled throughout the plane. And they had to visit each other every ten minutes. And they had to stand in the aisles. And they had to get things out of the overhead bins. And put them back. And talk. Next time to avoid packs of roving Chasidim, I’m flying on Shabbat.
As I left Buenos Aires, as with leaving any destination, I had the odd sensation I had been away months instead of a week. After two days back in the city, it felt like the only reminder I had been gone was the immense pile of work. But I want to go back. As with my feelings towards Paris, I know that it’s love; a love affair with the pulse of the city, with its rhythms, with its elegance. But in this case I’m wondering if I’m not also in love with the sense of opportunity – a city that sophisticated yet with room for a growing arts community. We shall see what the future holds.
April 14, 2005
No Place Like Home XI - Tango
Things in Argentina do not go as planned.
I called Michele when I got to the hotel. She called me back a short while later, with an awful case of the flu. She gave me the addresses of both places to see tango (La Nacional and La Marshal). I'm embarrassed, but the idea of going to a milonga alone, with poor Spanish and not knowing how to tango was more bravery than I could muster. I changed plans.
I wanted to see some tango much more than I wanted to dance it. I looked at Mayra's suggestions and chose Piazzolla Tango as the least touristy, and also easiest for me to get to.
The walk to Tango Piazzolla at night in drizzling rain took me down streets that were now familiar to me. But I had not yet seen the corners lined with young men picking through garbage. Poverty is still a painful issue and the economy seems to have a way to go.
Tango Piazzolla is on Florida, the pedestrian shopping street in a relatively small dinner hall that was all red velvet, white plaster and gold trim. I'd say Mayra was right, it was a tourist option (at 160 pesos, it's a painful expense for a Porteño) and although it was obviously the form cleaned up and theatricalized, it stayed low key. The meal (the ubiquitous bife de chorizo) was the least expensive part of the evening; 40 pesos more than the show without the meal.
There was a six-piece tango orchestra (guitar, violin, double bass, piano and two bandonéons), two singers, one male and one female and four dancing couples. All were quite good, particularly the singers, who made their dramatic misery particularly clear whether you understood the words or not. The ones I caught were, "When all the doors have closed, there is still the bandoneon". In tango, it seems, misery is a joy.
The dancing was elegant and clear. The men partner slightly differently than in ballet; it's more controlling. A man in ballet will use a strong supporting hand right under the woman's shoulder blade in a lift; in tango the same hand position is used to guide the woman. The man does less and directs more. Also notable was the stance; the shoulders are erect but the knees are in a constant small plié. There were only a few group numbers in the show; most of the dancing was done couple by couple, and partners did not switch. Not every tango was sultry, two - a number with a comic dandy and his bubbly partner who had to pursue him and a number for two couples playing the waiters and waitresses at Tango Piazzolla, were comic.
The nicest surprise was that I did not dine alone. A party, perhaps the only Argentineans there, noticed that I was alone and invited me to dine with them. They were a group of travel agents, and had gotten in complimentarily to sample the place for future clients. They genially practiced their English. It reminded me, though, how few Porteños I had actually met. I spent most of talking to the young man across from me, who was delighted to have someone to practice English with. At one point in the middle of the conversation, I said that Spanish was a better language to have an argument in. He laughed.
"Or to curse in." I said.
This drew a blank.
I put my hand to the side of my mouth and silently mouthed "fuck". He got that, and said quite loudly, "Oh! You mean, like, 'Suck my dick!'"
"Good grief don't SAY that!"
Who said English is not the international language?
Then he asked if it would work if you said it to a girl. I told him gently it would work if he wanted to get slapped.
No Place Like Home X - Back to Buenos Aires
Things in Argentina do not go as planned.
It was raining hard in the morning when I woke up; my bedclothes were damp from sweating off most of the cold. I went to breakfast, packed and took a last look from my room at the spume rising from the Garganta del Diablo.
When I got to the airport at Puerto Iguazú the ticket agent genially told me my flight had been cancelled and my new flight was leaving half an hour earlier. I couldn't complain, but I was wondering when they would have told me had I arrived late.
The plane scheduled to depart half an hour earlier departed half an hour late. Of course.
I knew I was still having sinus problems as we descended and it felt like my eyeballs were trying to jump out of their sockets. We descended, almost landed and suddenly rose again. The pilot made an announcement as the plane circled and people started laughing. It seems there was a dog on the runway.
April 12, 2005
No Place Like Home IX - Cataratas
I enjoyed the Gran Aventura but learned the next day that the view you really came to see didn't cost a thing beyond the park admission. Walking in the park, one takes a free shuttle train to the Gargantas del Diablo station, and walks a bit over a kilometer on a catwalk out to an observation point near the falls.
This was what I had come to see.
The amount of water cascading was astounding. The constant plunge down of the current was dizzying; I couldn't spend that long watching it, and the heat was oppressive.
Brazil is on the opposite side of the river. This meant that I had Lotte Lenya in my head all day singing a snatch of The Bilbao Song. Es war Brasil, gewont?
Looking up the river towards the Sheraton. It is the low flat white building obscured by the mist at the top center of the picture.
I went back to the room after to nurse my cold and try and catch up on the work I never managed to get to in Buenos Aires.
No Place Like Home VIII - Americans Abroad
Buenos Aires is in vogue for tourism right now because the dollar has remaind strong, and is particularly popular with gay tourists. At the airport on the way to Iguazú, I met two men I recognized from Palacio the night before. They told me several of the people I assumed were from Buenos Aires were from Chicago, New York, DC . . .
On the Gran Aventura I had a very pleasant conversation with a couple from Cambridge, MA, which resumed after dinner. As we were talking, two women walked by and called hello; I had been talking to them on Saturday in Recoleta cemetery.
No Place Like Home VII - Iguazú
"You are going to go under the falls and you are going to get wet."
"Very wet. Soaking."
Always believe a tour guide when she tells you this.
The trip to Iguazú was more eventful even before I flew to Buenos Aires than once I got here. I used a travel agent, Mayra at Argentina Travel Services. I am reasonably adept at making reservations on my own; and although she was always a help I wasn't entirely convinced of the value of it until things went wrong. This is Argentina.
The day before I left Mayra emailed me with a subject line "small problem". I had booked a flight on Southern Winds; a reputable low cost carrier that was considered by her to be reliable . . . until it wasn't. At first they changed the times of my flight about an hour. I thought nothing of it. Then the day before I flew to Buenos Aires they changed my flights to Iguazú by a full day. I called Mayra in Buenos Aires immediately.
Mayra was able to quickly rebook me on some of the last available seats on Aerolineas Argentinas at a rate not much more than Southern Winds. I called American Express and disputed the original charges, also making a mental note that American Express, even when expensive, tends to give excellent service when things go wrong.
The most exciting thing about the Aerolineas flight was the ominous steam pouring out of the vents as we boarded, but it was merely the air conditioning and the humidity.
Iguazú is much hotter than Buenos Aires and it was obvious the moment we got off the plane. I took a remise (a radio cab) from the airport to the Sheraton.
The Sheraton Iguazú is the only hotel in the park on the Argentinean side. It's a pretty standard Sheraton, with the issue of being in the middle of a subtropical rain forest. Not everything is in perfect repair, and there are problems you don't have at the Sheraton in Peoria.
I'm Starwood Gold (no big deal, it comes from my American Express card), but it entitles me to an upgraded room when available. No falls view rooms were available the first day, but the very friendly staff found me one for the second. There's no comparison; it's all about the view.
I took yet another shower and rested for a bit; I still felt tired from my cold. After that I went down to the tour guide desk. The only tour available for the day was leaving right then.
After I paid, I asked what exactly I had signed up to do.
"You are going to go under the falls and you are going to get wet."
Well, I didn't think much about it until they started handing us plastic bags to put our shoes in. I was carrying a knapsack and asked for extra bags.
The Gran Aventura tour put together by Iguazú Jungle Explorer involves a trip through the jungle via truck for about 20 minutes to the boat dock, then a 30 minute trip on the river. The boat cannot get very close to the main falls, the Garganta del Diablo. The rapids are too dangerous. But the driver does everything he can to insure an exciting ride; hot-dogging at every possible opportunity.
After a final pause with the clearest view possible of the Garganta (still perhaps a kilometer away) the attendant motions for you to put your cameras in your plastic bags.
The boat heads towards a side series of smaller falls, the Salto San Martin.
I had put my camera, my shoes, my shirt, everything but my pants in the bags and knotted them. I was glad.
We went under the falls and we got wet. Twice.
I was drenched.
Soaked, you land at the lower trails of the park and then you drip and squeak about a kilometer back to the park entrance. It was not the best thing for my cold.
No Place Like Home VI - Palacio
This was the only night I could go out; I was leaving the next morning for Iguazú Falls, returning to Buenos Aires on Wednesday, and Wednesday night was not a "night out" in Buenos Aires. Sunday night was the tea dance that ended at a less insane hour; Buenos Aires nightlife on Friday or Saturday often does not begin until 2 am. I was going to be miserable if I missed my chance to sample the Porteño gay zeitgeist. So I tottered off to Palacio.
For this Bar Goldilocks, Palacio was pretty close to just right. Not too empty. Not too full. Nice music. Good looking, but not impossibly good looking men. Alas, I was also sick, and inhibited by my poor Spanish. I like being able to talk to the other fellow. Not much happened except being approached by a scrawny and unappetizing escort. Gay Argentineans are unfortunately as skilled at the I-am-not-looking-at-you-even-though-I-am-looking-right-at-you-because-if-I-were-looking-at-you-I-would-have-to-commit-to-you-and-something-I-really-like-might-come-along look as gay men worldwide, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.
Contemporaneo x 6 - Teatro San Martin
I'm ashamed to admit that once again I slipped out at intermission. The level of the performance was much higher than on Saturday, but it was the sort of modern dance - and I hate to use this criticism because it's an awful and unfair one - it was the kind I've seen several times too many. It's not fair to carp about having seen a device one time too many, because even if I've seen it one time too many, the choreographer still may have needed to do it. But when you're trapped seeing yet another dance in unison to Arvö Pärt's "Fratres", you start to care less and less about the choreographer's process.
If I have done my duty as a dance viewer, and there is some sort of reward, I would like it to be special dispensation to never, ever, ever see another dance ever, ever, ever, EVER again to Fratres. It's a gorgeous piece of music and very evocative. And as far as I'm concerned, it's used by lazy choreographers who want the music to do the work for them, and don't want to take the effort to find lesser-known musical pieces and offer them to their audience.
After that, yet another jazz-modern dance, again, primarily in unison that seemed like the main purpose in its creation was to find an excuse to get the women's tits exposed. Both sexes were in white button down shirts reminiscent of school uniforms. At the middle of the piece a new man (possibly the choreographer?) came on to usher in new section. His shirt was unbuttoned, presumably because he was sexually liberated. So everyone else unbuttoned his or her shirts. The men looked like men with their shirts unbuttoned. The women looked embarrassed. Funny how they took their curtain calls with their shirts re-buttoned. At the apex of the piece, all the dancers came forward and stared balefully at the audience. Didn´t that go out with Anna Sokolow, or maybe Bob Fosse? The dance didn't build to that moment; it was just another theatrical device. Things would have looked less like one step after another if the choreographer of both pieces in the first half (Miguel Robles) had been a bit more musically sensitive, both to the Pärt or even the boom-chucka electronic music. The steps looked like they were created entirely from his natural body movement without any consideration of whether, even though that next step might have been logical in terms of a movement phrase, it also made sense for the architecture of the music.
At intermission, I realized I only had so much energy in me from fighting off this cold, and I needed to conserve for doing the stupidest thing possible - going to Palacio.
No Place Like Home V - Mythology
Cities have an interest in creating and preserving their own mythology; cities like New York and Buenos Aires have every right to it. New York stories tend to the eccentric or the harsh; Buenos Aires stories revolve around passion.
Michele called me about 10:30 am to set up our lunch date; she was still woozy from an overreaction to headache medicine. I was fighting off sniffles from a combination of change of environment, strange sleep hours and air conditioning. So together we weaved and wheezed to Palermo to have a very un-Buenos Aires meal of vegetarian food at a Krishna restaurant. It was a welcome respite from steaks.
Michele moved down here about a year ago to work intensively in tango. We talked about the vitality of the Buenos Aires art scene. Virgil Thomson was right - cheap rent is everything. The scene here is nascent rather than established, and exciting to contemplate. She feels that the city changed her. A major jazz teacher in New York then Miami, she's no longer interested in doing jazz; it's too linear external to her and she's no more interested in a more centered form. She also felt that Buenos Aires feminized her almost subliminally. She told me what I romanticize as the perfect Buenos Aires story. Taking a taxicab, in conversation with the driver it came out that he also danced tango. She mentioned that she hoped to meet him soon at one of the milongas, the tango houses. "Why wait?" he asked, and pulled over to the side of the road. Flicking on his stereo, they danced two tangos on the sidewalk, got back in the cab when they were finished and continued on.
Michele begged out of visiting the Colón with me because of her wooziness, but we made a date for Wednesday to experience some real tango. I sniffled on to the Colón.
Buenos Aires' two major icons are within a few blocks of each other, the Obelisk at the intersection of the Avenida Corrientes and the Avenida 9 de Julio and the enormous sand colored hulk of the Teatro Colón right off the Avenida 9 de Julio on Viamonte. The Colón is a great opera house in the traditional horseshoe style with legendary acoustics from the shape and the decorations. Even at 3000 seats, they do not use microphones or amplification.
The dome in the entry hall of the theater:
Another view looking upwards.
I had called the day before and was warned to take the 3 pm tour rather than the 1 pm tour because the main auditorium would be dark owing to a lighting rehearsal. This is Buenos Aires. When I got there for the 3 o'clock tour it was announced, sure enough, that the auditorium would be dark. When we got there, they were on a break, and it was light.
Buenos Aires fights its humidity. The paintings in the auditorium's dome date from the sixties; the original frescoes fell apart in the thirties from the humidity. It pervades the city; I am showering and changing shirts twice a day.
The tour took us through the formal reception rooms and down to the subterranean workshops that extend under the Avenida de 9 Julio. What interested me most was that they made their ballet slippers in-house according to the tour guide, though not the pointe shoes and I'm not sure she didn't mean specialized ballet footwear for performances rather than ordinary rehearsal slippers.
By the time the tour was over the sniffles were becoming a full-blown cold. I bought large bottles of water and took the usual Buenos Aires pre-evening nap. I awoke, sweating. Still, I got myself together to see the performance at the Teatro San Martin. The performance was not of the state modern dance company, but of a group of independent choreographers.
April 10, 2005
Sunday Cat Blogging - Kitty Australis Edition
And I thought cat blogging would be impossible this week. This kitty was lounging by a tomb in Recoleta cemetery
and was much more interested in getting petted and skritched than in posing for a picture.
No Place Like Home IV - Necropolis
The tour guide on Friday described Recoleta Cemetery as the third most beautiful cemetery in the world: an odd distinction. I think Père Lachaise came before it, along with one I didn't catch. I found the cemetery more creepy and fascinating than beautiful. It's jammed side by side with monuments and mausoleums, some lovingly tended to, some near collapse.
Bodies are not buried; coffins or urns are placed on view in the mausoleums, which seem to be for entire families rather than single individuals. Often, the glass panes to the doors are broken, and there is a smell to the entire place that suggests decomposition.
The most visited tomb is unsurprisingly Evita's. It is labeled "Familia Duarte" and is neither particularly ornate nor particularly central. I was more struck by the gawkers than the tomb itself.
This picture was taken at the tomb for the Leloir family, city patricians. The effect was caused by the glass door of the mausoleum. "What I am, you will become."
Just burn me, OK?
The rest of the day was spent on a walk to the center getting tickets for performances that night and Sunday. One hazard of being a tourist; the tango show I decided to see at the Borges Cultural Center turned out to be primarily a recital of young students; I slipped out quietly at intermission. The walk home via the Plaza San Martin, filled with lovers and dog walkers, was more memorable than the performance. Buenos Aires lives for nightfall.
For tonight I had a choice between the Ballet Contemporáneo del Teatro San Martin in mixed rep or the Ballet Neoclassico de Buenos Aires in Romeo and Juliet. Because I knew the former's reputation and because Romeo and Juliet is not a ballet that is close to my heart in the way Giselle is, I chose the contemporary company. Reports tonight.
April 9, 2005
No Place Like Home III - Night in Buenos Aires
Dinner was well in the north of Barrio Norte close to Palermo at Chueca Resto-Bar on Soler. The cab driver had a hell of a time finding it - standard rule for cabs in this city is to give them the cross streets as well as the address. Chris didn't tell me it was a drag restaurant - I can't say I minded! The hostess was an immense round empanada of a drag queen - if they had been short of tables they could have thrown a cloth over her décolletage and served a meal from there. Chris brought several people with him; friends from the B&B he was staying and friends from bar hopping. It was a less felicitous mix than one had hoped; by the end of the meal it was evident that with the five people at the table, any one person seriously disliked two of the other people at the table.
The meal was quite good. I had a non-alcoholic daiquiri, a chicken brochette appetizer and beef tenderloin in a malbec sauce. Buenos Aires is land of the steak, and the meat there is delicious and flavorful: stronger tasting than American steak. The total was 50 pesos; the cab ride there 10 pesos including an extravagant tip. It's like vacationing in Sale of the Century.
And then afterwards, my first drag show south of the equator! I do not know who the ladies were; one of them was quite talented in more ways than one, with a very agile mouth that was able to fit an entire trimline princess phone into it. Don't ask. Drag at Chueca was more luxury and fantasy oriented than what I am used to in New York. Lots of gowns and gloves and Marilyn Monroe wigs. In New York, it´s less about the glamour. We were all to go to Palacio, but Chris and one friend decided to go to Sitges, a closer bar, leaving me to go with another, much younger friend to Palacio.
Palacio is in el Centro, a bit southwest of the Obelisk. The line was down the block by the time we got there at 2 am. That's one of the legendary traits of Buenos Aires: late late nights. It didn't look like we were getting in before half an hour, and I had already had a fine full night with a great meal and a drag show. It also was a very young crowd, and when you're 41, you want to spend your nights differently than when you are 22. I bid my companions good night and grabbed a cab.
There's a sexiness to urban life that doesn't even require sex; it's in the connection to the pulse and energy of the city. The cab ride back, speeding down the immensely wide Avenida de 9 Julio towards the glowing Obelisk at 2:20 am with the driver's disco mix beating out of the stereo, was as sexy an urban experience as any I have had in any city in the world.
April 8, 2005
No Place Like Home II - Touring Buenos Aires
The Hotel I am staying at is the Hotel Bel Air, Arenales 1462. It's an area between the city center and the wealthy northern neighborhood of Recoleta called Barrio Norte. There's a park on the corner of the street and the area feels like the Upper East Side of New York crossed with the XVIeme arrondissement of Paris.
The view to the west.
A building across the street - the architecture is very Parisian.
Growing in a hole in the balcony.
This location is extremely convenient, only a few blocks from downtown but not in it, so it still feels like a neighborhood. The hotel itself is comfortable and modern. I opted for a Junior Suite at 280 pesos per night (it is now 330 as of this writing). This conjures up visions of luxury that aren't quite right, though room is quite nice, with a large bed and a balcony looking onto the avenue. This does mean noise; Buenos Aires is a noisy city.
Looking into the sleeping area.
The spiffy bathroom.
Breakfast is included in the price; it is a copious buffet served in a somewhat claustrophobic and overheated hall in the basement, but contains more than your fill of pastries, cakes, juices, fruits and eggs, ham and bacon. Being Jewish, I am spiritually and physically linked to smoked pork meat, so I was quite happy. The are a few small downsides to the hotel. The English of the staff is sufficient for general situations but I wouldn't want to rely on them in case of a problem. The business center, for free Internet use, consists of two glacially slow computers that probably have squirrels on a wheel as their internal processors. Update 4-13-05 - someone was working on the computers this evening. They´ve cleaned out the spyware and they are running much faster. The fitness center consists of a stationary cycle, one cranky treadmill that decelerates randomly and a nearly useless Universal weight machine.
After breakfast I made a few phone calls; one to set up a tour of the city, the second to speak to Chris (catwood for fellow Flyertalkers) to set up meeting tonight and the last to Michele. Michele is a serendipitous meeting; my friend Lori is her friend and wrote to her to ask if she could point me to good tango in Buenos Aires. It turns out that my close friend Valerie was Michele's assistant for several years. We are having lunch and touring the Teatro Colón on Sunday.
The city tour was from 2 until 5 pm, and Chris and I said we would meet after. I went for a walk randomly, walking down the Avenida Paraná to Callao. Knitters, close to the corner of Paraná and Callao (on Paraná) is Versailles, which sells high-end novelty yarn. I'll check it out if I have time later, but it's the kind of store that doesn't bother to label the yarns with prices.
From Callao I walked down Alvear to the edge of Recoleta Park. This is past the Alvear Palace Hotel (Buenos Aires' Ritz Carlton) and the high-end shops you see on Madison Avenue - Zegna, Armani, et al. Oh God, the men in Buenos Aires. Not every one of them is tall, stylish and elegant, but I keep noticing the ones that are. At the park I stopped at an amazing copse of mammoth trees with exposed roots, then doubled back to the Avenida de 9 Julio. Crossing that is a task - it is 140 meters wide. From there I took a path to the Avenida del Libertador and found a place to have lunch - Safari Café. I had a "Lomito" sandwich. That's a small tenderloin steak on a bun topped with fried ham and egg, cheese and tomato, served with fries. Lunch with a soda and a bottle of water came to 16.90 pesos. I could have eaten for a good deal less. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be ordering empanadas; I need to try them. Also, everyone smokes. It's like Paris once again; you can't escape it.
Buenos Aires is on drag queen time. I ran to the tour site to make my 2:00 pm tour. I paid and was told it would start at 2:30. So I killed the time walking a bit down the pedestrian street Florida - do not walk to close to the stores if you don't have the time to be accosted by the salesmen. There is a cultural center in the Galerias Pacificos and once again, tons of high-end stores. I'll do my shopping closer to the end of the trip.
Todos en Buenos Aires no funcionan. Or not quite. The tour guide found me at the appointed place, but we had to wait to switch buses; the air conditioning was not functioning in the larger bus. The standard tour city tour in Buenos Aires lasts three hours and costs 25 pesos. It's worth it, especially at the start of your trip as an orientation to the city; you get a sense of the neighborhoods and the massive economic difference between the north of the city (Recoleta, Barrio Norte) and the south (San Telmo and La Boca). At the center of the tour and the city is the Plaza de Mayo. The Argentineans have a specific slurred accent, so Mayo sounds a bit like Maisho. In the plaza are the Cabildo (a colonial building now a museum), the town council, the Casa Rosada and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
The Cathedral is grandiose and marvelous, but it could be my Jewish childhood. I had no bad associations with Catholicism, for me it was weird, foreign and magical . . . like pork. A group of deaf students in the white lab coats it seems all elementary students wear here was walking out as I entered. Inside there was an enormous picture of the recently deceased pope. At the side was the tomb of General San Martin. Two ceremonial guards were posted to guard him silently. This did not prevent tourists from walking right between them to pose for their pictures.
The Casa Rosada is where the president works. It's also where Eva Peron made her speeches to the masses, from the triple arched balcony on the second floor in the right win of the building. And every Thursday in the square itself, the white-capped Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo lead a vigil for the 37,000 who disappeared during the military government in the late 1970s and the leaders who have not yet been brought to justice.
The Eva Peron monument, Recoleta.
The back of the monument. Obviously someone had more pressing issues to discuss. Also, Eva´s wristlet is not an actual part of the sculpture. Someone pulled up the plastic caulking at the base of the monument and gave her a leash.
A conventillo in San Telmo. The conventillos are multiple family dwellings with communal washing and cooking facilities. People still live in them.
La Boca was a wealthier neighborhood until a yellow fever epidemic in the 19th century. The wealthy abandoned their homes and moved north to Recoleta.
The tour ended on drag queen time as well; I told Chris I would meet him at a bit after 5 pm and saw a note from him on my room door that he had come and gone, but that we were having dinner also on drag queen time, 10 pm, and then going to Palacio to gape at Argentinean men in a more acceptable environment in which to gape.
April 7, 2005
Centro de Experimentacion del Teatro Colón
The Sala del CETC in the Teatro Colón is not accessible via the main entrance. From a side door, you descend a series of series of concrete stairs in a black, chipped stairwell into the bowels of the theater. The stairwell is lit by lurid theatrical lights with a low red-gold glow. This Dantean descent meets or matches the theatrical flair of anything else presented.
The center presented a residency program of four choreographers paired with four composers. The results are presented to the public for 5 pesos (about $1.50). Even had the results been completely dreadful the mere effort would have been worthwhile. The four dances created may not have been world class, but they were all worthwhile viewing, and a community that produces them is culturally rich.
The space itself is in the bowels of the theater, and is a dreadful space for pure dance. It's a subterranean space with a dance floor laid down around poles and huge square brick pillars that divide the space in half. Not great for pure dance, but the columns force entries and hide and reveal dancers in ways that make the space dance as much as the dancers within.
The four pieces were presented without intermission, but the stage would be restructured after each dance by moving the orchestra, the Compañía Oblicua, directed by the creator of the residency, Marcelo Delgado. They were integrated into each piece's movement as well as providing accompaniment. The first piece, Vértices (My Spanish dictionary translates this as Apexes - Walter Cammertoni, chor, Patricia Martinez, comp.) had the orchestra enter first in a choreographed pattern around the arches to sit underneath the central one. The dance itself had the dancers carrying the frames of suitcases and throwing papers. Like many of the pieces that followed, the use of the space was more striking than the movement itself.
. . .Que colma tu aire y vuela (I'm going to make a bad guess and say this may translate colloquially as Spread your Wings and Fly - Ramiro Javier Soñez, chor, Marcos Franciosi, comp.) made as much use of the musicians as the dancers. The musicians were placed at the side of the space and towards the end, the dancers moved aside their music stands to release them as they walked slowly across the stage, gradually becoming more important in the space than the dancers. Delineado (Gabily Anadón, chor, Luciano Giambastiani, comp) moved in the reverse, beginning with a full contingent of musicians and having them leave one by one after sections.
Arder (to burn - Mariana Bellotto, chor. Raúl Lafuret Pereyra, comp.) was the sex number that satisfied every dancers exhibitionistic tendencies. The women stomped about in high heels, and did backup singer moves in an alcove all the way at the back of the space. They came forward, but not to dance, only to stare. They also had their lesbian moments, but the choreographer was far more ginger about the men playing the same games. There was also lots of peekaboo exposures; one of the women removed enough of her pants and panties to give us a tasty buttcrack view. Since she was in better shape than the man at the Castelar, I took it in stride. At the end the shortest man in the company tottered and stammered about in red high heels, tapping furiously in almost a flamenco rhythm. The other dancers gathered and rolled down their pants and skirts to just expose the tops of their pubic hair. I guess it's not usually done, but after my day today, I'd just call them scaredy-cats and say go ahead and show it all.
No place like home - An Argentinean Journal
The coolest thing about being in Buenos Aires so far is the disorienting feeling in my brain that keeps telling me I'm someplace different. It's not a completely unfamiliar place (in some ways, it's Paris in need of a coat of paint) but it is no place like home.
The plane ride to Ezeiza (Buenos Aires' International airport) was not difficult, even at close to 11 hours. In what seemed appropriate to the spirit of the trip, the plane was delayed more than half an hour by "minor maintenance discrepancies requiring paperwork." What we got to see was three maintenance workers in fluorescent vests come on board and fix an overhead luggage bin. With duct tape. It makes one glad it wasn't a wing.
I had a full three seats to myself via brinksmanship in switching my exit row seat at check-in for an empty middle seat in a row I thought would not fill. So after the meal I stretched out and got more than five hours sleep. American Airlines now serves a snack box in lieu of breakfast. It's not a triumph of logic; they serve bagel chips and a cheese spread, but nothing to spread the cheese with. Nor a napkin.
The moment I saw the low pampas grass lining the runway I knew I was Someplace Else. Customs and immigration are swift and pleasant and my travel agent had a driver waiting for me. I had only dollars and no pesos so needed to get myself some. There is one ATM in the airport. The good news is it is HSBC, my bank in the USA. The bad news is it was not working. The driver led me to a bank where amazingly the rate was 2.89 pesos to the dollar with no exchange fee. The published rate is 2.91 to the dollar so this is excellent; most of the exchange kiosks wanted 2.56. To find the bank, Banco Nacional de Argentina (I think) turn right immediately after leaving the gates for the meeting point for international arrivals and then walk to the back. The HSBC machine is straight ahead from the gate and just a bit to the left. So bring enough money in US currency to change in case the machine is not working.
My driver was arranged by my travel agent; it would cost a bit less to arrange at the airport - the Manuel Tienda Leon stand is right after customs and that's around 50 pesos - my driver cost 65 and I gave 10 pesos tip, which is $3 and extravagant here. We had a pleasant conversation in fractured Spanish punctuated in English when he or I got discouraged. My Spanish is dreadful, but his English was weak enough that it forced me to keep trying.
The hotel room at the Bel Air was not ready, so I let them store my luggage and walked to the center of town to get a massage, which seemed like just the thing after a long flight. This was a comedy of errors. I knew the Hotel Castelar was on the Avenida de Mayo, but on my map I mistook that for the Autopista 25 de Mayo 12 blocks out of the way. Know your calendar when navigating Buenos Aires. The walk itself was fascinating, even the detours.
Buenos Aires is grand, dirty with trash, dilapidated and humid. It teams with people, 14 million in the metropolitan region. The traffic is overwhelming, even for a New Yorker. The streets are broad, and filled with pedestrians and shops. The people are elegant. It is a world city. The city was modeled on Paris, and it shows in the Beaux-Arts architecture, much of it in need of renovation.
I finally got to the Hotel Castelar to learn just how bad my Spanish is. It's not that the masseur and I didn't understand the basic gist. He knew I wanted a massage. But how to say I had not made an appointment? Finally by gentle prodding he got me up the stairs to the cashier. I bought a one hour massage for 66 pesos. The masseur led me to an attendant who placed me in a dark tiny wooden cubicle (the Castelar dates from the 1920s - it shows). Was this where I was getting the massage? How would I lie down? No, I finally figured out it was a changing locker by nearly locking myself in and having the changing room attendant stop me. Gentle prodding again from the masseur got me to put on a thin towel and slippers and follow him downstairs. I felt embarrassed because I was still sweaty from the walk and the overnight traveling on the plane. I wanted to shower first, but our communication was so confused I had given up on asking how.
This probably was a mistake; he gave me a massage in a psychologist's hour. I was lucky if it was 40 minutes. It could have been an error on my part in translation or procedure (did I give him the right ticket?) but I don't think so. Still, given that it is more than three times the price in New York City, I can't get too upset, and the massage, though perfunctory, did the trick. It included at the end an amusing Andean-flavored touch where the masseur blew an Andean shepherd's pipe as he massaged my scalp. Even though it was not an inspired massage and I would recommend better Spanish than mine if you choose to go there, I felt much better. The masseur directed me upstairs to the floor with the cubicles where he said I could shower (Shower! Why didn't you tell me???) relax or sleep.
Dad, if you're reading my blog, please skip this paragraph. I had a vague idea of the Castelar Spa's reputation as being cruisy. It is deserved, but it's such a skeevy cruise that it's rather sweet and funny. Older Argentinean men with proud bellies loped about in towels. I moved to let one of them by before I showered; he copped a feel. The oddest part is it is all very respectable; one distinguished looking man (well, as distinguished as one can look wearing nothing but a thin towel) sat down at a table opposite where I was resting after my shower. He looked at me, then lifted his towel to expose his genitals. They were not the most beautiful sight in Buenos Aires. The spa attendant came over to his table to bring him a soda and a plate of meat and cheese. I found it all fascinating, and flattering in an odd way, but given my other pathetic conversations in Spanish that day I sure as hell was not going to risk this one.