“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Madonna was Here

What is a trip to Buenos Aires without first watching Evita and visiting the Casa Rosada to see the balcony from where she gave her famous speech, or from where Madonna sang "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." This was our final day in BA as we were departing in the evening.  I had mentioned a slight sore throat the night before, and awoke in the morning to a slight fever, joint pain, and a very painful throat.  Many previous trips had prepared me for this so I had a few Tylenol Cold pills in stock.  These helped but I didn't want to exert myself too much today.

The Casa Rosada was a good first stop to enjoy the sunshine and the fountains and greenery of the surrounding Plaza de Mayo.  Across the plaza was encampment of war veterans from the battle over Las Islas Malvinas, or Falkland Islands.  This island group was mentioned so often in recent days that we had the feeling that Argentina wasn't about to give them up to the UK without a fight.  I reserve judgement on this to someone more knowledgable on the subject.  

A lovely walk down tree-lined Avenida de Mayo kept us out of the hot sun, and me into a pharmacy in search of throat losenges.  I took a number and stood in line with the others until my number was called and I figured out exactly what I wanted.  Oh, seven years of Spanish classes, you have served me well.  We weren't trying to pack too much into the day as we were already exhausted and sore from exploring this weekend, and fatigue was setting in from whatever illness I picked up, but at least I was active and not entirely miserable.  We powered on and decided a lingering lunch would hit the spot.  We returned to La Cholita in Retiro, this time for chorizo and a rack of ribs. We had thought the chorizo appetizer was going to put us over the top, but once the ribs arrived, we were silent as we gnawed at the deliciously-sauced bones.  From all the sodium, heat, and walking, just about every appendage in our body was swelling.  It felt nice to sit, but will feel fantastic to be back inChicago drinking nothing but water and eating a salads for a few days until we can lose this meat belly that we've developed, happily, I might add.

As we headed back to the hotel, I must comment on the degree of graffiti in this town.  If there is a surface, it will be drawn upon.  Most is illegible tagging, but along Avenida Justo by the train station, the walls are vividly colorful with imaginative art.  It makes for a more interesting stroll.  No wonder BA is known for its famed street art.  We made one final stop at a wine shop near our hotel to take back a few bottles.  Aside from the ones we were already having shipped to us, I also picked out a cab-Malbec blend from. Mendoza, a sparkling brut, and a Patagonian Syrah.  I could have easily gone hog wild in here but three bottles was enough for the time being.

In short, there is so much more to see in BA than we ever had the opportunity to experience in four short days.  We maximized as best we could, but it deserves another few visits.  The food, vibrancy, and passion make this city truly unique.  Outside the city limits lies an expanse of countryside filled with vineyards, pampas, polo, soccer, horsemanship, mountains, penguins, and rugged terrain.  I am happy that we had a sampling, would be happier still to return and explore this diverse country.  South America truly holds my heart once again.

Classic Buenos Aires

We had it on good authority that the best brunch in the city was where we had already made reservations, at Hernan Gipponi Restaurant at the Fierro Hotel.  This was a brunch tasting menu.  I have never seen a brunch tasting menu.  At only $30 per person, we were ready for this.  Since it was Easter Sunday, we decided to dress up a bit for lunch.  Not for religious purposes, but because we figured everyone else would be dressed up.  The weather was beautiful and peaceful, a calm breeze with birds chirping neon do the crunch of dead leaves underfoot as we walked to brunch.  We were served about 9 courses that ranged from a fruit selection, to an over-easy egg on mashed potatoes with nori, to shrimp, a tiny finger sandwich, fish empanada, whitefish, risotto ossobucu, a Campari cocktail, and yogurt mousse.  Lovely.  We were certifiably more stuffed than we were from any previous meat-based meal.  

The next course of action would be to make our way to the San Telmo neighborhood in time for the antique market.  We had stopped to watch tango performances in the park.  These dancers were putting on a fine show, but so much more elaborate than the dancers we had seen the night before.  Beautiful in their grace nonetheless.  I am loving the national export on display in this city, the beauty and allure of tango.  We explored the market in depth until I spotted a set of French vintage champagne glasses in an art neauveau design.  I bought the set of 8 from a set of very handsome Argentine twins, and they thanked us for the transaction with a traditional kiss on the cheek.  I had been in search of these types of champagne glasses (not flutes) for years and was thrilled to find a vintage set, because I am about to toss out my flutes at home.  

We thought we were done shopping until we spied a handmade hat shop and made our way inside.  We love hats.  I love interesting hats.  And interested indeed I did find.  A black felt chapeau reminiscent of Carmen Sandiego.  It had to be mine.  Carrie walked out with a colorful scarf and our excursion was complete.

We decided the ideal way to wrap up our last full day was to make our way to Puerto Madero to find the Paseo de Mujeres bridge, one of the most famed pieces of modern architecture in Buenos Aires.  This area used to be a series of ports and docks where cargo was unloaded.  It has been reclaimed and turned into lofts, condos, and waterfront restaurants.  We had passed the Argentine frigate Sarmiento and for merely $2 pesos we could explore. Heck, it was a boat and a surprise inexpensive tour so we hopped aboard.  In and out of small passageways we crept, exploring the upper and lower decks like giddy children.  We're on a boat! We left to cross over the Paseo de Mujeres that by then was brightly illuminated in the dusk.  What is interesting about this area is that all the streets and passageways are named after famous national women.  Today Argentina also has a female president.  Thinking back to the influence and love of Evita, South America does indeed embrace and hold in regard their women.  America seems generations behind in equality and tolerance.  It is an unfortunate comparison to our culture but lovely and refreshing to be in a nation that appreciates and celebrates female influence.  Or perhaps I notice it more because of the lack of it in the US.  Greatest nation in the world?  *pause*

Dinner found us at a pizzeria on the waterfront with a bottle of wine on the patio with a view of the bridge, and under the shadow of the giant cargo cranes left behind from the working dock era.  I loved that these were kept in place, illuminated and perched like origami cranes, sitting sentry to the masses below.  Our bodies were still sore today, our feet swollen, our joints aching from the exertion of the weekend.  One more day before departure as we plotted our moves the next day.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Asado and Tango

This is the worst place in the to world to be a vegetarian.  

Parillas (steakhouses) on nearly every corner, the smell of asado wafting from someone's backyard.  Although it is autumn in Buenos Aires, there is always time for a barbecue, as patios and yards are I outfitted with giant rotisserie grills.  Our little charcoal Webers and oversized gas grills have nothing on the grilled meats culture here.  And bless them.  Friday night we dined at La Cabrera, which was filled with locals and tourists alike.  How best to start off the trip with our first major meal as the national pastime. We began with a beef empanada and blood sausage - morcilla - which oozed from its casing when coerced with a knife, served with a side of chimichurri.  It was one of the strangest items on the menu so of course it had to be on our plates.  This was heavenly.  More so than I had expected.  I do hope I can find this in Chicago. If you can get past the appearance, name, and texture, the taste is worth it, but this is no beginner's meal.  My ribeye arrived, along with Carrie's rump roast, served with numerous tiny sides: marinated mushrooms, mashed potatoes, salad, creamed zucchini, baby corns, pumpkin mash, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated red peppers with creme, and more chimichurri.  Spectacular.  Despite my lacking appetite and inability to consume much quantities of food in recent months, I had no problem downing my entire steak and most of the sides.  Despite the sound of the quantity of food, it wasn't American portion sizes, thank goodness.  We accompanied with a lovely bottle of DV Cabernet-Malbec blend from Mendoza and were decidedly content for our single activity of the day.  

Saturday was going to be our major power day of sightseeing, shopping, and dancing.  We navigated the subway ($.30!) to Recoleta Cemetery where BA elite rest in eternal peace.  This had the familiarity of Pompeii, with the cobblestone alleyways and aisles upon aisles of mosoleums of assorted design: baroque, art neauveau, Art Deco, classic, Greek, Egyptian.  Some tombs were broken upon, glass shattered, and some were actively attended to with fresh flowers.  Groundkeepers quarters were tiny shacks tucked between structures.  Thanks to the Rough Guide - our guidebook of choice -  we easily found our way to the tomb of Familia Duarte where Evita is laid to rest.  This cemetery was also our first encounter with other tourists.  We have noticed here the lack of Americans and lack of English speakers.  Usually there is more English spoken as a second language wherever we have traveled, but this we were more dependent on spanish than ever.  Luckily the accent isn't thick or rapid so I have and more success with comprehension and communication than usual.

We strolled through the Recoleta neighborhood en route to our next stop, nestled in a passageway of boutiques, up some back stairs, and rang a buzzer.  This is the home of Comme Il Faut, the tango shoe of note and fame.  It is one single room with the appearance of a French boudoir.  I gave the lady my shoe size and preferred heel height, and shortly nearly 20 boxes of shoes appeared on the carpet at my feet.  Yes, it is true that I just started to tango, but I've been dancing salsa for 10 years, so these shoes were going to play double duty.  Salsa shoes tend to have a shorter heel below 2.5" so I was pleased that she had 7cm/3" heels available.  The only selection available to actually see was a small glass case on the wall of their latest designs.  The rest of the shoes are tucked away in a back room, and I was at the mercy of the lady who brought out every variation of styles in my size and height.  I ended up with two amazing pairs, one in teal and red, and a spectacular pair in black suede with a silver snakeskin strap.  Two silk shoe bags and a tote and we were merrily on our way.

We happened across an English tea shop called Smetterlings on the way over so we popped back in for a spot of tea and a treat.  I have been trying to taste new things here, and although I am not a fan of caramel, I did sample the dolce de leche mousse cake that Carrie picked out.  I didn't dislike it, but sweets just aren't my style.  However, the black tea with lime hit the spot and was a nice respite from the activities of the day so far.  Onward to lunch!  Yes, we did have tea and dessert before lunch.  Whatever.  We found another parilla called La Cholita and stopped in because they had choripan on the menu.  This is chorizo split in half on bread with chimichurri.  Oh this was spectacular.  It was a must-eat on our list.  I do believe we may return for another meal, as the men next to us had ordered a slab of ribs.

After lunch our wanderings brought us to July 9th Avenue, which is considered one of the widest boulevards in the world.  We had passed the Teatro Colón opera house, then onward to the famed obelisk in the middle of the boulevard, where of course a picture was in order before it was time to head back to prepare for the next adventures of our day.

What is more Argentine than meat, wine, and tango? Our next stop brought us to Anuva Wines, a wine loft run by a man named Diego than was in the Palermo neighborhood behind an unmarked door.  It opened up to a marvelous loft with spiral stairs, a veranda, and of course a giant grill for asados.  We sampled five wines from the country: three malbecs from Mendoza, a torrentes white from Salta, and a sparkling extra brut.  All were accompanied by tapas.  Once the official tasting was complete, we were free to finish off the bottles.  And perhaps open more. The conversation really began to flow around the table with other travelers from São Paulo, Scotland, and New York.  This was an excellent sales tactic as we were properly lubricated from polishing off the bottles, so eye decided to purchase a few more and ship them back home.

Our plan for the day had been to take a quick nap after this before heading out to tango.  Back at the room I was able to snooze for about an hour while Carrie typed away on her iPad.  She isn't a night owl so this may may be a challenge for her as Buenos Aires is known to be a nocturnal city.  Although I am normally up very late on weekends, we did have an early start and this start and this may be challenge for me as well.  I grabbed a pair of my newest shoes and headed to a community center of sorts, into the basement, where we managed to find a table we had reserved earlier.  Thank goodness we did this as it was nice to have some space to claim as our own.  The evening began at 11pm with group lessons.  I didn't join in at first, but then I saw a young man standing by the wall alone because he didn't have a practice partner.  I approached him and we joined the lesson together.  He had been dancing only a couple weeks longer than I so I didn't feel as awkward as a beginner.  We changed partners a few times, I danced with a few that were more experienced than I but held up well.

At 12:30am the lessons ended and the dance floor opened up for practica, the open dance for all.  I sat back down with Carrie as we ordered a bottle of cider.  Two gentlemen next to me ask me to dance, to which I stated as a precaution that I was just learning, but one asked to save a dance for me later.  We happily sat watching the dance floor fill with dancers and marveled at them twirling around the floor.  Eventually the music changed to swing style, and another gentleman asked me to dance.  Goodness, haven't danced swing in years, but why not.  We got a couple dances in and I started to loosen up.  The next song rotation was salsa.  Salsa! I was now in my element.  Not many men here danced this, but I managed to find one who did and we hit the dance floor.  It was marvelous. I was as though I was back in Chicago spinning and kicking my way around the floor.  I felt fantastic and my partner was good.  We stayed out there for a couple salsas, and for one bachata.  He seemed nice enough, and was kind to ask me for a tango next when the music rotated again.  

Throughout the evening we did find that next to no one here spoke English. I was able to hold some conversations in Spanish with the table next to me and with the people I danced with during the lessons.  The partner i found for salsa and tango spoke English so it was easier for him to teach me a few new tango moves. We must have been on the dance floor for 3 more songs.  He seemed more interested in chatting with me than dancing, but I did learn a few things and held my own well on floor. Eventually I had to escape his grasp and return to Carrie because he was starting to get intrusive.  I really do enjoy partner dancing, but too much talk can turn into someone getting too friendly and that becomes uncomfortable.

By 2:30am I was ready to go.  The later the evening went, the more experienced local dancers hit the floor and I wasn't about to be held captive by the man that I had danced with.  And my dogs were barking.  So as we walked back to the hotel at nearly 3am, the city was in full swing.  We passed nightclubs with velvet ropes, long lines, and sharma stands.  Some things never change in many countries.  Greasy meat at 3am always hits the spot.  By the end of this day, I no longer recognize my feet.  Swollen, blistered, torn, and scarred from the events of the night and day.  We will feel every bit of this in our bones tomorrow.

For now, I couldn't be happier.  Dancing in Buenos Aires with the locals.  Tasting the marvelous wines of the region.  Eating the best beef in the world.  Experiencing this beautiful city with tinges of French and Italian influence.  More exploration lies ahead.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Can You Pull Bags Off a Plane After Loading? And the Currency Scam

Yes.  Kinda. With extreme exceptions.

Our trip to Buenos Aires began with a lovely light meal and sangria at O'Hare to set the tone.  We each decided to check a bag because we planned on shopping in BA and bringing back wine.  We boarded our plane and discovered there was a 10 minute departure delay.  Then 20 minutes.  Then an hour.  Our connection in Dallas was originally 2.5 hours and that was shrinking quickly.  We did the math and if our plane departure was delayed to a certain point, we would miss our connection to BA. We quickly searched our phones for alternate flights and routes.  We had a backup plan to re-route through Miami.  When the announcement came that we would be delayed again, we sprang into action.  I called the AA Gold number immediately to try to rebook, and Carrie flagged the flight attendant to see if wee could get off the plane.  He said yes, and AA rebooked us through Miami. 

Problem, we couldn't get our bags out of the cargo hold.  "No, we'd have to pull every bag and unload the plane to find yours."  But we were told the gate agent could make the final call on that.  So ewe grabbed our stuff and bolted off the plane.  We were the first people at the gate desk and explained the situation.  Initially Meg at the desk said no, that we had to travel on the same flights as our bags due to international immigration rules.  But she saw that we were rebooked through a different route, so she called baggage operations to pull the luggage.  After all, our new plane, and the old one weren't leaving for a couple hours so there was time to pull them and get them on the new flight.  Helpful tip: both our bags are bright blue and easy to find in a sea of black.  They found mine.  They couldn't find Carrie's. Uh-oh.  Meg discovered that they put Carrie's bag on an earlier flight to Dallas.  We weren't going to Dallas and hence there was a chane that her bag may not get on the conneting flight to Buenos Aires because she wasn't going to be on the flight with it.  But we had to chance it.

A guy behind us in line also tried to rebook and heard that we were getting our bags pulled off the plane.  How is that possible??, he asked.  We said because of international immigration flight regulations it was an exception.  If we tried to pull this stunt for a domestic flight, we didn't stand a chance.  It took about a half hour to get rebooked and figure out the luggage situation.  By that time, another passenger on the plane to Buenos Aires had just stepped off and was trying to the same thing.  Except they couldn't find him a seat and the luggage guy was nowhere to be found.  We kept quiet about our fortune and headed to our next flight.

When we made it to Miami we called again to check on Carrie's bag.  We heard it had been scanned to be on the DFW-EZE flight and should be arriving in BA 2 hours before we would.  We could only cross our fingers at this point, and also hope that my bag was following us.  We finally took off for BA and settled in for an uneventful flight, which fortunately was 2.5 hours shorter than the departure from DFW. We slept gently.  

Going through Passport Control I crossed my fingers.  My passport is almost full and I have just 2 blank pages left: pages I absolutely need to keep blank for the Mongolia stamps and Chinese visas this summer.  If Argentina chose to stamp on one of those pages, I'd be in a passport pickle.  So I paper clipped those two pages together so they wouldn't flip open to them, and the found some blank space on some already-stamped pages.  *phew*  So I just have to keep this in mind for my departure stamp and re-entry stamps into the US and I'm golden for Asia in a few months.

I found my bag quickly on the baggage carousel, but we still searched for the other.  The baggage desk agent wasn't helpful so we walked the entire baggage claim area a few times, stopping at carousels to check , looking around pillars, taking a sweep through Lost & Found.  Finally, her bag was discovered on a still-moving and crowded carousel, where at grabbed it and embraced with the enthusiasm of a long-lost relative. Success!

We found the taxi stand, gave directions and address, and hopped in.  Mistake #1: we were so exhausted that we never looked at the meter.  I asked about the fare.  It sounded high (but after research later, it was fine).  When we pulled up to the hotel, we tried to pay the fare, had some mix-up in the amount, and finally found the bills to give him the correct fare.  Except sitting at lunch later, we were doing the math, and something wasn't right.  I withdrew $700 pesos.  I had $100 left.  The fare was $600 pesos.  And Carrie had only $300 pesos left.  And three $2 peso bills.  Um, where did those $2 come from?? Suddenly I remembered an episode of Scam City on Nat Geo about taxi currency scams.  We strongly believe now that when we paid him and thought we gave him enough but didn't, he swapped out three $300 notes for the $2 ones that were bundled in half, that we gave him the wrong amount, so we handed over three more $100 bills.  Ah.  Dammit.  They got us.  Okay, the conversion rate is high so we're out maybe $15 US each.  It could be worse.  So we researched another scam about counterfeit bills and now we know what to look for.  And to get small bills because $100 and $50 notes are the most commonly scammed.  And we'll try to use our cards more often.

Lesson learned (this is the first time I've been a traveler scam victim) but it could have been worse.  In the end it wasn't a lot of money, it opened our eyes, we arrived safely, and have all our luggage.

This evening we have dinner reservations at a paralla, an Argentine steakhouse.  This country is famed for its beef, and it's said that this country is the worst place in the world to be a vegetarian.  Yay! We enjoyed a very pleasant lunch in the sunshine at an Italian sidewalk cafe in the Palermo neighborhood.  Relaxing under tree-lined streets.  Tomorrow starts the big day of sightseeing, wine tasting, and tango. I'm sure we'll sleep well tonight.