The Whole Picture is Nothing But a Compilation of Details.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dinner, Tango, and Cigars In the Other City That Never Sleeps.

Courtesy of
Barely off the ferry from Uruguay, dodging a few "free-lance" taxis, we were suddenly absorbed by the disembarking mob, with which we merged. As the crowd disappeared into Buenos Aires like a cloud dispersed by wind, we found ourselves next to the taxi line outside the terminal - just where we wanted to be! Placed third in line, we were assigned the third car that pulled in. There was no room for error or forging ahead as the man in charge was the definition of "effective and orderly" personified. As we slid into the backseat, I already had my hackles up and my arguments and questions formulated in Spanish to avoid being ripped off by the driver like we had in Montevideo. Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me. Moments later we arrived safely and without disagreements at Los Patios de Montserrat, a bed and breakfast centrally located in the textile district, ten blocks from the obelisk at Plaza de la Republica, where the Argentine flag was hoisted for the first time in Buenos Aires, on August 23, 1812.

In typical fashion, adding an element of surprise wherever we went, our accommodations in Buenos Aires were booked "sight unseen". The marble entryway looked like a fancy apartment building so we hesitated briefly before ringing the buzzer labeled "reception", afraid it was someone's private home. I had barely removed my finger when the smiling inn keeper appeared in the doorway welcoming us to Los Patios de Montserrat. Graham, originally from New York, and his Argentine artist wife Brenda have owned and operated the stately 19th century home as a bed and breakfast since they purchased the building in 2009.

The Ballroom at Los Patios de Montserrat
We took the elevator up two floors, and were enveloped by a beautiful natural light, which entered the space through skylights and an open courtyard. A nice, refreshing breeze came from the ballroom, where the original solid wood, floor-to-ceiling double doors were wide open, letting the warm, dry summer air of Buenos Aires seep in. Eight sets of simple wooden chairs and tables dressed in blue cloths hugged the wall by the open double-doors, the openings secured by rod-iron banisters. A small metal statue of a peeing dog kept a door from slamming shut. I was completely consumed, wishing the floor and walls could tell me all the stories and secrets they held.

Brought back to reality, we were shown to room number fourteen, which was furnished with a beautiful, simple bed flanked by wooden bedside tables. There was an antique dresser for our clothes, and the light fixtures all had energy efficient light bulbs (provided through an exchange program sponsored by the manufacturer). The toilet, separated from the rest of the room by a door, shared ceiling space with the adjacent, shared bath for "damas", an ingenious way to use space and add a private bathroom, which posed no problem to us at all as the "damas" had very little, if any traffic during our stay. The toilet door was framed by bricks; otherwise our room was made of stucco and ceramic tile. The shower head was modern and the water pressure fantastic - wonderful after the experience in Montevideo where a moderate rain shower would have been more effective than was the shower at the hostel.

Rested, clean, and dressed in our best, we set out for dinner, tango, and cigars, an evening talked about excitedly since the day our flights were booked. For me, it felt fantastic to shed winter clothes and put on a sleeveless dress, which I paired with my finest flip-flops (remember, we were backpacking after all). One of my favorite things about Buenos Aires and South America in general is the lack of air conditioning: you never have to worry about freezing to death inside a restaurant when it's eighty degrees outside; a threat particularly prevalent in the state of Florida. We found a little restaurant around the corner which met our simple criteria: they had a wood burning oven. At "Parilla la Posada" we had a lovely dinner served by an enthusiastic and sincere waiter. I spoke Spanish; he spoke English. Eager to be on time for the tango show, we departed in a hurry and hoofed it across town to Piazzolla Tango. The show was delayed so our arriving ten minutes after said show time didn't matter. In fact, the guests who were there for dinner as well were just served their main course as we sat down in the opulent hall, reminiscent of the grand old theatres of Europe.

The exact origins of tango - both the word and the dance are lost in myth and unrecorded history. It is generally agreed upon that this dramatic and sensual dance was brought to Uruguay and Argentina in the late 1800's by poor European immigrants, and that the music reflects their sense of loss and longing for the people and places left behind. The more affluent classes encountered the dance in brothels and dance halls; the only place they interacted with the poor, working class. Inscribed onto the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, the popularity of tango has fluctuated with historical economic conditions, but has been widely celebrated since the mid-1980's.

After a wonderful performance, we paused for coffee and dessert at a local bar/cafe, amazed at the number of people partying on a Tuesday night. Bars were full and happening at 1:30 am. When do these people work? we wondered. The next morning we noticed that the clock over the reception desk was one hour behind ours and we quickly realized why we were alone in the restaurant, early for the tango show, and had plenty of company at the bar so "late"...

We had both been to Buenos Aires before and felt no urge to see all the historical sites again. We wanted to take in the city on the street level, so we walked. For hours. Dodging summer rain showers, children blowing soap bubbles, and aggressive sales men offering leather goods, currency exchange, and the best parillo in town. In the afternoon we headed over to the bus terminal for the next southbound leg of our journey.

The Original Terminal
El Retiro consists of two parts: the old one and the new one. It's in the old part they have the good food (and all the thieves and undercover police), so that's of course where we provisioned for the twenty-hour bus ride to San Martin de los Andes. We are obviously both of the type more concerned with real threats like immediate availability of food to stave off a direct nose-dive to the horrible (for everyone) blood sugar-bottom, than with crime, which has a greater component of shit luck and can therefore only be averted to a point determined by your street smarts. The new part of the terminal is host to sterile and scary food like rubbery hot dogs and bright yellow popcorn, hair salons, and in excess of thirty bus companies competing for, and managing thousands of passengers daily on their way to and from far-flung destinations. The activity on the ground is a continuous, cyclical blur of buses pulling in exactly fifteen minutes before departure; platforms being announced over crackly loudspeakers; tickets collected by courteous drivers in pressed uniforms; luggage carefully matched with tickets and placed in the belly of the bus; passengers taking their assigned seats; and drivers cautiously maneuvering their bus away from the platform, right on their scheduled time of departure. The efficiency and level of professionalism is unimaginable.

We were southbound again, cruising down paved roads in wide, comfortable seats that folded down 180 degrees, with on-board service that put any airline to shame.

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