It has actually been a few days since I arrived back in Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires but a combination of spending a couple of days in Terespolis in the hills outside Rio and Christmas has dealt a blow to my good intention of keeping this blog relatively up to date. Nevertheless, I hope you find my account of visiting Buenos Aires of interest…
After a painless 90 minute boat journey across from the Uruguayan town of Colonia on the other side of the Argentina-Uruguay river plate, I arrived in the early evening in Puerto Madero, the main port in Buenos Aires. After hailing a taxi, I headed across to my hotel (the affordable, hospitable and comfortable Aldeano II) a stone’s throw from the Argentine National Congress to dump my bags and relax for a while.
Given that Uruguayan cash machines only appear to dispense bank notes of relatively high worth, I was unwilling to take any more money out at the port in Colonia to buy a substantial lunch. The result of this meant that the residual coins I was able to scrabble together were only enough to buy a measly bottle of water and a rather forlorn-looking croissant. As such, after a quick rest at the hotel, I was ready to go in search of good. Having had such a glut of steak while in Montevideo, however, I couldn’t cope with yet another identikit red meat dinner – however delicious they might be.
My mind turned to conversation I’d had with a friend in the summer where he mentioned that Argentina was home to a large community of diaspora Armenians who are hugely influential in economic, political and cultural circles in Buenos Aires. As such, I concluded, there must be a number of Armenian restaurants in the city.
A quick scan of Google threw up a restaurant called ‘Sarkis’ in Villa Crespo, close to the fashionable Palermo Viejo district. It was a fairly drab evening outside with some light rain so I thought it safe to ignore the warnings about long queues to get a table and chance it. Arriving at the restaurant and walking past the fifty or so people queuing patiently to get a table, I walked up to the waiter guarding the front door and greeted him in Armenian (“barev!”), hoping that this brazen approach would be enough to help me skip the huge line. For whatever reason, it appeared to work and I was ushered to a table in the corner of the restaurant within the next ten minutes. I muttered a hearty “shnorhakalutyun” (thank you) to the manager.
Having secured a table I was, for want of a better term, hoist by my own petard in that I was handed an Armenian language copy of the menu. They were either attempting to call my bluff or assumed I was actually Armenian! Either way, my Armenian menu was quickly swapped for an English version.
In short, the food was exceptional and the service brilliant. The basturma had a great smoky taste, the lavash was light and fresh and the lamb khorovadz was as good as any I’ve had this side of the South Caucasus. Eating Armenian food in Argentina might seem like a strange thing to do but I couldn’t possibly recommend ‘Sarkis’ any more.
There’s no more appealing word than “free” in the English dictionary so, when I noticed that there was a free walking tour around Buenos Aires, I immediately marked it down as something I would like to do. (If you want to read no further than this, you can find details of this excellent and highly commendable tour here).
I arrived, as advertised, at the Plaza Italia close to the centre of the city as advertised at 11am the next morning and joined a diverse group of other tourists from the United States, Canada and Australia under the statue of Garibaldi on his horse. We were soon joined by the English tour guide Jonathan who has been based in Buenos Aires for a number of years and conducts a free tour each day, asking only that those who take part are generous in their tips at the end.
While I’d had the chance to explore the city a bit before, it was a terrific way of getting to know the “real” Buenos Aires beyond simply seeing the main squares, boulevards and tourist attractions.
Given that taxi prices are ridiculously low in much of South America (apart from Brazil where, like everything else, they’ve become a rip-off), I’m often adverse to using public transport when a taxi can get you from “A” to “B” for only a couple of pounds. It was therefore quite an experience to be taken on the British-built Buenos Aires metro system, riding along in the wooden tube carriages and dodging a litany of pick-pockets along the way.
Another highlight of the tour was visiting the Abasto neighbourhood where the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel has lived and where an entire industry has grown up around his memory, including bustling theatres and shops selling tango outfits, as well as the numerous street murals commemorating his life.
In Abasto we also learned about the legend of Gaucho Gil, a legendary figure in the country’s popular culture who has come to be regarded as a saint by many Argentines.
To explain Gaucho Gil’s story in a nutshell, he was a farm-worker on the estate of an extremely wealthy widow with whom he gradually entered into a relationship. The wealthy widow was said to be obsessed with Gil, much to the annoyance of both her brothers and the local police chief, who had designs on the said widow. In a fit of anger, the police chief ordered Gil that he must leave the village and never come back or else he would pay with his life. Gil then spent the subsequent twenty years living a nomadic existence in various parts of Argentina, performing various Robin Hood-style acts as he went. Gil eventually grew bored of this existence and returned to the village. When the police chief found out that he was in town, he immediately went to confront Gil and order his to leave. In the meantime, Gil had heard on the grapevine that the police chief’s son had been taken violently ill that day. Upon encountering the police chief on the road, Gil told him that if he were to say a prayer for him, the son’s life would be spared. The police chief had not heard of his son’s illness, rubbished Gil’s suggestion and slit his throat, killing him. Upon returning to the village, the police chief found out that Gil had been telling the truth and immediately said prayer, repenting for what he had done. His son was then automatically resurrected and the police chief spent the rest of his days letting everyone know about Gil’s saintly credentials.
The Catholic Church has refused to beatify Gil, yet this has not stopped many Argentineans holding him in very high regard. After having it pointed out to me, I noticed that a large number of cars and shops have red ribbons tied to them; the official mark of Gaucho Gil, modelled after his bandana. There are many shrines (such as the one pictured) around the country and prayers can be offered to Gil for any reason, including calling upon him to heal a family member or bring you wealth or praying for bad fortune to fall upon your enemies. If Gil was to be formally ‘adopted’ as a saint by the Catholic Church, his ability to conduct ‘dark’ acts would be muted. As such, many are content to see his ‘saintly’ status remain in limbo.
Plaza do Mayo
As our tour guide Jonathan told us, no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to the Plaza do Mayo. The square contains some of the most famous buildings in the city, not least the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral and Casa Rosada (“Pink House”), the seat of the Argentine Presidency.
The most interesting thing about the Plaza do Mayo from my point of view, though, is the ongoing presence of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza do Mayo’, a group which sprung up in the late 1970s in opposition to the military dictatorship to demand answers from the government about ‘disappeared’ loved ones. The number of people murdered by the Argentine military junta that ruled until 1983 is a matter of some debate but estimates suggest the number may be as high as 30,000, of which 9,000 remain unaccounted for.
Each Thursday at 15:30 the ‘Mothers of Plaza do Mayo’ continue to gather in the square to demand action from the government of the day to do more to investigate the fate of their loved ones. By pure coincidence I happened to be in the square at the time, so was able to witness the incredibly humbling spectacle of many, mainly elderly people marching and holding up pictures of loved ones whose fate remains unclear (read: whose bodies have never been recovered). Given the age profile of the crowd, I can only conclude that many thousands more parents have gone to their grave never having received answers from the government.
While on the square, I also had the chance to hear about another group, the ‘Grandmothers of Plaza do Mayo’. It is said that, under the military dictatorship, 400 pregnant women who opposed the regime were allowed to give birth to their children and murdered shortly after; their babies being handed to supporters of the regime. Having constructed a DNA database of all 400 of these women, the group allows those who have doubts as to whether those claiming to be their mothers really did give birth to them to have tests to establish whether not they were the children of one of the 400. If they are found to be, the people who raised them can face trial for the kidnapping of a child and being accessories to murder. To date, a total of 107 cases have been identified. I cannot think of a more chilling discovery to make than that of those you had always thought were your parents having been complicit in the murder of your birth mother.
San Telmo, Puerto Madero and Recoleta
Aside from the serious nature of Plaza do Mayo, Buenos Aires is a terrific place to socialise.
San Telmo is amongst the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and, along with Puerto Madero (of which more in a moment), my favourite part of Buenos Aires. After stepping out of the crowded Plaza do Mayo, you are within seconds transported to quiet, shady streets lined with historic buildings housing bars, restaurants and artists studios. To my mind, it’s one of the most European-feeling parts of the city with a distinctly colonial feel. Walking around San Telmo, you get some insight into how it must have felt to live in Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century when Argentina was seemingly-irreversibly on the up and the country ranked 6th in the global league table of most prosperous nations. It is one of the few parts of town where genuine thought and care appears to have been put into maintaining historic buildings, as opposed to letting them decay.
Not far from the colonial-style San Telmo is Puerto Madero, Argentina’s main port. While it remains in active use as the main terminal through which people and goods enter and leave Argentina, the most historic part of the port has now been given over to tourism. Speaking to friends who visited the city twenty years ago, they described how the port area was considered a squalid and dangerous area of the city. Thankfully, the regeneration of the area means it is now home to the best hotels in the city and a string of upmarket restaurants catering for tourists and the elite of Buenos Aires society. As the photos below show, it’s a fantastic place to go for a walk but, if you intend to eat, make sure you bring credit cards!
No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a visit to Recoleta, a historic part of the city which is home to the famous cemetery that provides a final resting place for Eva Peron. If you haven’t been to a Catholic graveyard in South America before, then it’s quite an astonishing sight. While in the UK we are used to seeing relatively simple gravestones, even for the most significant of historic figures, the mausoleums constructed to house the graves of the Argentina elite are on an unmatched scale of grandeur and pomposity. Sadly, my camera ran out of battery half way through visiting the cemetery but I managed to capture a few shots which I hope underscore this observation:
Political pygmies and social inequality
For most part, Buenos Aires is a middle-class city with living standards that are comparable with most European cities. I would say, however, that the feeling of gaping social inequalities is stronger in Argentina than any other country I’ve visited in South America with the exception of only Brazil.
The whole city has a slightly uneasy air about it. Upon first glance, Buenos Aires has a sense of style, sophistication and self-confidence not seen elsewhere in South America with immaculately-maintained tree-lined avenues and expensive boutiques dominating the centre of the city. Upon slightly deeper examination, it’s clear that the city is crumbling; architecturally and socially.
While repeated waves of Peronist Presidents have issued lofty pledges to address these problems, a quick visit to the square in front of the National Congress very clearly indicates the lack of progress they have made. No more than fifty metres from the Congress, the square is home to semi-permanent tent city filled with homeless people are downtrodden to the point they don’t even bother pestering tourists and the prosperous Portitos who pass them by for money.
The conflict over the Falkland Islands is, in 2012, considered by many in the UK to be a long-ago fought conflict of little significance today. In many respects, though, the combination of arrogance, aggression and petty nationalism demonstrated by General General Galtieri and his military junta in 1982 has characterised Argentine politics ever since.
Looking at the country’s most recent leaders, we’ve witnessed the Presidencies of the supposedly ‘reformist’ yet ultimately vainglorious Carlos Menem, the gombeenism of the late Nestor Kirchner and the ludicrous Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner who not only cooks the books to hide the country’s spiralling inflation rates yet resorts to demagogic nationalism to bolster her popularity. Her ‘door-stepping’ of David Cameron in a corridor at the G20 to discuss the status of the Falkland Islands was not the actions of a respectable head of state but rather those of a 1980s union official.
While the stellar growth of the Brazilian economy has kept Argentina’s economy afloat for the past few years, international financial institutions steer resolutely clear of investments in the country as a result of its decision to default on its debt obligations in the late 1990s. With Brazilian economic growth projected to fall to only 1% next year, tough times lie ahead for Argentina.
I pity the people of Argentina – a proud, educated and passionate people – that they have allowed themselves to be ruled by such pygmies.
While Foz do Iguacu, Asuncion and Montevideo were all places I was visiting for the first time, I had the change to visit Buenos Aires three years ago and had already seen many of the city’s main tourist attractions. I’m extremely glad I came again though as the trip was a great opportunity to get to know the city well and go beyond some of the more establish tourist trails.
One question I was repeatedly asked by friends when returning from Buenos Aires for the first time and expect to be asked again was whether or not there is any residual resentment towards the British with regards to the Falklands War. While I’m sure there is the odd person out there who harbours a grudge, just as there are some dinosaurs in the UK who still spew hatred against Germans over the Second World War, I’ve never encountered anything other than generosity and kindness when in Argentina. This is true for everyone else I’ve spoken to who has had the chance to spend time in the country, so don’t let any fears in this respect put you off.