rob mug shot

Chapter 3

Back to school...

Thu, 24 Apr 2003

Hola amigos,

last time I wrote, I think I was on my way to Ushuaia. Almost 4 weeks ago - and my hair has had the chance to escpae into it's natural wildness again after my Spanish Challenge haircut. Some of you have commented on the epic nature of that email. I can't predict with much accuracy right now but I fear that this one may even surpass the last in that respect! We'll see... If it does then perhaps it would be wise not to try to read this now but print it out and take it out to the pub, buy it a pint and spend the evening with it. Or not...

OK, well that's not a particularly succinct start is it? 150 words and I haven't told you anything yet.

Part 1 - Natural Science

When I last left you I had thrown myself in the deep end of party life in Buenos Aires (BA for short) but was still a total stranger to Argentina as a whole. A good rememdy for the slight city fatgiue I was suffering also, I thought, would be a trip to the country. This fitted in well with my sketchy initial plan of "things to do in Argentina" which featured prominently a trip to the most quitessentially Argentine land of Patagonia, ideally before the winter sets in. My orginial plan would have seen me starting my entire journey in Ushuaia at the southern end of the Pan-American highway in an attempt to acheive some sort of continuity from Norway, the connection being the sub-arctic climate and glaciers (which I had spotted on a favorite web-site), heading north from there into the tropics of Ecuador. But as you know, the metropolises (metropoli?) of Rio & BA got involved and I got happily side-tracked!

Anyway, the very southern tip of Tierra Del Fuego (Cape Horn) is about 55 degrees south of the equator - which at first blush would imply that it would have a similar climate to, well, Newcastle Upon Tyne at 55 degrees north, but as we all know the gulf stream makes things a bit milder, greener and pleasanter in northern Europe. So I was expecting something pretty dramatic, but it turned out to be... nice! I was there at the end of March which in another hemispherical reversal is equivalent to the end of September in Europe.

Incidentally, as a southern hemisphere virgin, (apologies to residents of Australia etc.) Jason from Opera asked me if I had been fascinated to see the water Coriolis-ing the wrong way down the plug-hole and I had to admit that I hadn't even noticed it - and still haven't! The things one does notice are:

a) In the day time, the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west but it tends to go the other way getting there, so if you're looking for it in between times, the best place to start looking is in the north.

b) In the night time, the constellations are totally out of whack. Orion - check (but upside down!) but plough - no! I've always found the Southern Cross a hard one to spot because with a bit of effort, you can just about make any 4 or 5 stars into a cross of sorts. I know they've got fewer people down there but you'd think the Southern Hemisphere would have come up with something a bit more distinct - and imaginative!

Anyway, a brief astronomical interlude there, where was I? Oh yes, the geography of Patagonia.

Well the weather was very good. Late summer sunny and the town of Ushuaia itself not so surprising after some time living in Norway. The Oslo Fjord is pretty spectacular in winter - paved with ice and snow capped peaks all around; at first appearance Tierra Del Fuego seemed merely... pleasant. I had been warned about the fantastically strong winds circulating the south seas and particularly the resulting towering waves of the meeting point of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I was looking forward to that raw natural power. Sadly, the actual point of Cape Horn is the southern tip of a tiny uninhabited Chilean island and not easily accessible from Ushuaia and one finds oneself confined to the calmer waters of the Beagles Channel, so I didn't quite get the exposure to the wild elements I had anticipated.

So, little in the way of magnificent oceanographical experiences but plenty, conversely, in the zoological line. The Beagle Channel is pretty long and three hours by fast boat took me from Ushuaia near the western end to Harberton near the eastern end. The point of the boat journey was a visit to an estancia (ranch) of 50,000 hectares (not uncommon in Argentina!) created a hundred years or so ago - it's pretty isoated down there, I can tell you. Anyway, the highlight for me was the chance to see sealions, penguins, albatrosses and luckily a pod (school?) of killers whales in the wild.

From Ushuaia, I went to El Calafate, a desert town on the shores of Lago Argentina and previously inhabited only by lonely weapon toting gauchos and the sweet-tempered, big-eyed, llama-like guacanos who between them no doubt developed their own special symbiotic relationship. Now it's the access point for the Los Glaciares national park and specifically the Moreno glacier. The Moreno glacier is the famous one, a picture of which I had seen one day on the internet at:

It's remarkable in that in the centre (it's 5 km across at the end), it moves at 2 meters per day (most glaciers move at about 5 meters a year don't they?), fed by vast icefields parts of which experience continuous snow fall - 24 hours, every day of the year caused by The Andes freeze-drying the humid air continually blowing off the South Pacific to the west. The result of this massive input of snow at the top is a continual crumbling of massive 50 meter high walls of ice into the lake in which it terminates, creating calf icebergs, the births of which are accompanied by a rumbling thunder as thousands of tonnes of water continue their journey around the water cycle after a few (no doubt rather dull) years stuck in that glacier.

The Los Glaciares national park is on the border with Chile, the steppes of Patagonia at 200 meters altitude suddenly giving way to a thin band of foothills and then the Andes proper. Mt Fitzroy, in particular rising abruptly vertically to a height of 3400 meters, just one step behind the foothills. Spectacular and augmented by my meeting with the (typically :-) opinionated and personable French Canadian Yves from Quebec. His views on the war in Iraq (my first return to thoughts of abroad for some time!) and the history of the Middle East with special reference to Israel and the Jews kept us in conversation all the way to the glacial lake at the very foot of Fitzroy. We covered plenty of ground, both physically and conversationally, crossing the deserts of international politics and the new US imperialism, wading through the swamps of political and religious ideology, enjoying the challenging alpine scenery of sexual proclivity and sauntering through the sunny valleys of personal history and recent acquiantances.

But eventually I was quite glad to be leaving the rain shadow of the Andes and the dry steppes of Patagonia to Chatwin-esque types, never feeling myself particularly at home in the desert and far from the sea, having grown up on the lush island of Guernsey.

One day and one flight later I found myself back in BA, out of the desert and back in the green Plata del Rio, out of the hostels and back in the plush apartment I had rented in fashionable Recoleta, leaving behind the cup-a-soup and bread roll meals and surrounded by chic bars and restaurants offering all kinds of international cuisine and affordable luxury. What's more, I found myself eagerly anticipating the arrival of my tango partner, Teresa.

Part 2 - Humanities

Buenos Aires is a big city - over 12 million people (although Teresa & I explored quite extensively, we never left the central district called the "Capital Federal"!) and it feels very european. People look european - the dominant influences are Spanish, and Italian; there is not the visible indigenous or black influence that there is in Brazil for example. The Porteños ("port-dwellers" as they call themselves) consider themselves an unfortunate people, doomed never to fulfil the potential which they are aware they possess. They are proud and a little haughty but will warm up a bit if you compliment the city, the country, the food, etc.

Other topics guaranteed to be of interest are football and politics. I found a surprising number of anglophiles who express their delight that the English are coming back after so long a break; they will curse Galtieri and Thatcher in the same breath (which seems quite fair!) but found an almost universal puzzlement at Blair's cow-towing to Bush regarding Iraq.

On reflection, one realises that this is one of the few places in the world unaffected as yet by Bush's potentially interminable "war on terror" (we heard that some US citizens are buying property in BA as a bolt-hole in case the war does come to the mainland USA!) or, as yet, by the SARS outbreak

For an Englishman abroad in Argentina, though, perhaps the biggest bone of contention is Maradona's "hand of god" incident in the 1986 World Cup. Not a recommended topic of conversation with a stranger but one which I have tentativley broached on a couple of occasions. They are unrepentant! :-)

When Teresa arrived, in a reversal of subsequent situations, she was dressed in travelling mufti and I was dressed smartly in my city garb of newly acquired trainers and smart shirt (yes, & trousers! :-). It was a refreshing change to dress up a bit after wearing the same clothes over and over again whilst in Patagonia. Life from this point on became city-orientated.

We explored the city. With a taxi costing somewhere between £0.50 pence and £2 and a good meal for two including wine costing around the £20 mark, bon-viveurs that we are, you can imagine that we didn't restrain ourselves too much!

We visited Las Cañitas, a trendy 20-somethings area with wall to wall restaurants and bars; we visited the 20 to 30-somethings area of Palermo with more sparse, arty and unique restaurants; we visited San Telmo which we declared our spiritual home in BA with its bohemian atmosphere, small atmospheric restaurants and cafes, notable surrounding the beautiful and architypical Plaza Dorrego which is full of tree-shaded cafes, artists and madmen (San Telmo is also the tango district). And of course the ares in which we were staying, fashionable Recoleta, is itself full of bistros, little-old-lady cafes and up-market restaurants inhabited by the privileged and beautiful. Our local turned out to be the drop-dead delicious Gran Bar Danzon where they serve expensive cocktails (at a shocking £1.50) and sushi (at an extortionate £5 for a big mixed plate). Of course we did other things too, but eating and drinking certainly featured prominently.

BA is a good place to eat, but it's more famous, of course, as the home of the tango and this was one of the main reasons why Teresa and I had arranged to meet up here (having discovered our common desire to learn to tango at Christmas). Our first outing was to the old world tango mecca of Confiteria Ideal; there are classes nearly every day starting at midday and merging into the daily milonga which finishes around 10pm. Here, you are taught the basic steps of the tango by older tanguistos: enthusiastic old men in shiny shoes and robotic old ladies with high heels and dyed hair. For them, some of whom have been dancing the tango, one suspects, since before the 2nd World War, the tango is the rather macho dance one expects in which the man is a man and the woman is obedient, guided by the man's strong hands.

It was interesting and refreshing (but more expensive!) therefore, to go to a new dance school where we benefitted from private instruction by the vivacious Marcelo and Anna, younger, more modern tanguistos for whom the tango takes on more of the elegance and mysticism of a kind of two-person tai-chi. The man doesn't lead with his arms but, having established a shared axis (similar to "chi") leads with his chest, the woman feeling the ebb and flow of their joint energy. Sounds a lot more sexy, doesn't it? They insisted that although the man directs the overall structure, the woman has much more input in terms of expression and embellishments. Marcello told us that for him, this is the most exciting part, when he feels the woman guiding him in some new and, no doubt, very sexy direction. Much more appealing! At times, it is almost like relationship guidance: "Roberto - you must give Teresa more space to express herself", "Teresa - you must be aware of Roberto's intention", "Roberto - you are confusing Teresa - make a decision and stick to it!" etc. We danced a few times, exhausting 2 hour classes; we were starting to reap the benefits in our dancing in the time we had - and vowed to continue. After a class, we would find ourselves drifting back towards San Telmo to sit under the trees in Dorrego Square, nibble at some appetiser, drink a glass of cool Argentina "Chablis" and order (another) delicious fresh Italian-style meal.

After a week of gourmandising, we headed out of town to visit... the wine region! We found a lovely place just outside Mendoza, a ranch called Baquero, itself a wine producer, run by two sisters. The older sister runs the vineyard and wine-making whilst the younger one, Marcella, runs the accomodation business. Marcella is a ceramicist, designer and generally creative person. The old ranch in which we stayed was reminiscent of an article from Ideal Homes, combining minimalist modern chic with the obviously old and original features and heavy furniture of a late 19th century ranch house (that is, until a backpack or a pair of discarded M & S socks intruded upon the illusion!) A big willow tree shaded the back terrace where we would sit for sun-downers whilst waiting for dinner. We felt a little self-conscious at first as the sisters served us our evening meal, not so much in sympathy with their fall into straitened times as with the embarrassingly low value set upon their country's standing as reflected in the power of our strong european currency. Didn't Marcella have a husband, children (and a maid!) at home? Things became more comfortable as we realised this was the estancia way - kind of like going round to someone's house for dinner - every night!

We found ourselves somewhat amused by the unfortunate names transposed into English, which seemed to litter our entire visit. We were of course visiting "bodegas" but ours was situated on Calle (Road) "Ursquiza" in the town of "Maipu" and our genteel hostess the elder sister was blessed with the name "Grisi"! We had several laughs along the way and had to stiffle a snigger when asking, for instance "Err, Grisi, could you tell us how to get out of Maipu?" Childish? Perhaps! but we were constantly in and out of Maipu and experiencing the sights and smells of Bodegas.

Three days later we were back in BA for a final tour of the eateries. We went back to Freud & Fahler for some more of their incredible tapas/sushi starters and back to Gran Bar Danzon for some more cocktails and sushi; we visited Nectarine for a real haute cuisine experience and tried their Valrhona chocolate dessert; sadly there was no time left for a return visit to Sudestada for more sticky pork in spicy peanut sauce, to try some more calzone at the Ferrari restaurant or to eat slabs of beef at the Club de Vino.

Another three days and it was time for T to head home and aside from the obligatory additional wine cargo, she was no doubt carrying an extra pound or two in other ways. BA is not a place to slim!

So, the gastronomy, wine appreciation and dance classes came to an end. The zoology, geology and geography lessons of Patagonia and botanic rambles of Fitzroy were already a wine-faded memory. The only option was to sign up for a Spanish course and to take some guitar lessons... and no doubt learn more about the psychology of the people along the way too.

But I'm getting hungry now and there's a lovely little french bistro called Rabelais just around the corner...

Cheers & love


PS Did I mention the memorable egg and chips on the banks of the Delta del Parana in Tigre? :-)