Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Falcons of Argentina

This post is dedicated to my dad, Rick!

I grew up in Los Angeles and I spent for my first years of freedom cruising the freeways and streets in a '66 Ford Falcon coupe, which my friends and I lovingly dubbed The Cruising Mobile. I was pretty amused to discover the Falcon is a popular car here in Argentina, so I've taken pictures of many that I've encountered. I haven't spotted any models from 1966, and I think most have been later model sedans.

Introducing the Falcons of Argentina!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Buenos Aires, Argentina Part 2

Buenos Aires was a shock to the system. I found myself avoiding going out doors to the point that I've lost a significant amount of weight from not maintaining my normal eating habits. When I finally did take a breath and cross the threshold, I would roam for miles (or, should I say kilometers) down what I considered secure corridors without ever going inside a cafe, restaurant, or shop. Picture me walking for 4-5 hours while constantly trying to ascertain if the street is safe, if there are women and children on the sidewalk, if the men are old or young. (I partially blame the countless "be safe!" tidings bestowed on me; while well-meaning and technically good advice, they tend to promote a paranoia that makes it hard to for me to enjoy myself.)

Self portrait in double reflection: the balcony window and the mirror
above the dining room table in the first apartment I stayed in.
Speaking to people terrified me because people in this region speak Rioplatenese Spanish, the sound of which I can best describe as Spanish with the inflection of Italian and the suaveness of French. The double L, which I learned to pronounce as a "yuh" sound, is pronounced as "zh," and Y is the same: Yo (I) becomes Zho; the street I first stayed on, called Gallo, is pronounced "gow-zho," not "gow-yo." Turns out my already bad Spanish was in effect useless.

This shoe shop's styles caught my eye, then I realized those are heels for dancing tango.
I suppose the biggest surprise was that folks didn't really speak English, and it seemed like few were willing to work with me. I became extremely embarrassed of being found out; I constantly wondered what happened to the girl who was happy to point and gesture in the pastry shop to buy a box of macaroons last summer in Europe. I toured museums constantly wondering where to get a map and why the second floor wasn't open, yet I wouldn't be caught dead asking a question to the staff or even to the people in whose apartment I was staying. I suppose part of that can be reduced to haughtiness, or self-consciousness to the point of conceitedness. But mostly stubbornness.

This somewhat sepia-toned floral pattern was very popular in all types of shops for clothing and accessories. Even vendor booths in street fairs had this styled of pattern available.
My discovery of the difference in pronunciation (and even vocabulary, to a certain extent) was perhaps the most disappointing when applied to my love for Alejandra Pizarnik's poetry in its native form. I realized I would never fully grasp the music and prosody of her work without living here and actively learning the language for a couple years. My stupid pie-in-the-sky dreams of seriously translating her work were dashed. And, because of my trouble with the language and culture, I never inquired about her anywhere, I never went searching for her in libraries or bookstores, I never made the trek to the suburb where she grew up.

Funny window display of a sea of reaching mannequin hands in a fabric store in Recoleta

Portrait of Buenos Aires apartments in reflection

Grocery stores often have a person specifically assigned to the produce section, that will bag and mark your fruit and vegetables for you. You don't tip taxi drivers. No one ever has change for a 100 bill, which is about the equivalent of a $20 bill in the US. Having change is important and you can get it at most banks (during my first foray into this at the local HSBC branch, I literally got a rush of adrenaline when it was my turn with the clerk and I think I visibly blushed).

A particularly artsy and well kept apartment facade near Recoleta.
Eventually I learned some tricks and employed them when I came to my wit's end, faint to the point I was worried of passing out on the street: when you go in a restaurant in Buenos Aires, you sit down wherever you want. Even in cafes you sit, and you are waited on. You always have to ask for your bill (that's one thing I remember from Barcelona 2001: the night Elizabeth and I waited for about two hours for our bill from a waiter who refused to bring it unless we asked for it in Spanish: la cuenta, por favor), and in fact I eventually amused myself by watching the Spanish speakers around me grow shifty and flag down their server to get their bill. You tip 10% usually (although many were very thankful when I did so, leading me to believe perhaps Porteños are actually not that generous...?) and there is a customary cubierto fee, which is a charge for using silverware, of about 4 to 8 pesos. While we're on the topic, Argentine people usually eat dinner at 9, 10 o'clock or later, and when they go dancing at clubs, they show up at 2 or 3 a.m. Apparently the business day still starts at the same time as the rest of the world (9 a.m.), yet somehow the life expectancy of Argentines is about the same as the US, according to my guide.

La Casa Rosa at night; this is that famous building from whose balcony many presidents and dictators made speeches, and from where Madonna sang "Don't cry for me, Argentina...."

Detail of wet footsteps on the plaque beside the Belgrano Monument in Plaza de Mayo
All this having been said, I survived. I got exercise. I stayed alive. I went to some museums. I went to some parks. I found the Russian Orthodox Church; I found the Jesuit Church (yes, it's freaking called St. Ignatius!). I had a couple English guided tours. I weaved my way through the packed Peruvian Pride festival in downtown Buenos Aires on a Sunday. I drank some dang good hot chocolate and I drank Fernet the Argentine way: with Coca-cola, as a mixed drink (they like Fernet a lot here). I don't regret my problems with the language and the culture and the things that it prohibited me from doing, although I did feel a constant bearing down from the people I stayed with or others to have a more vigorous experience; the thing is, I don't do tourism vigorously. I like to sleep in. I like to fart around in my pajamas. I like being comfortable. I like walking around somewhat aimlessly. I do slightly regret not preparing more, and not actively prepping myself with vocab or pronunciation as the experience was happening, but in the total sum of the way my life has changed in the last 4 weeks, I think I'm doing OK.

View of Torre Monumental, which used to be called the British Clock Tower before Argentina got pissed enough at the British to change its name in 1982, on a crisp sunny day. View from San Martin Plaza.
On one of my better days, I gave up my trek to some museums on the water front of La Boca when the sidewalk literally ended in train tracks and turned into a large thoroughfare underneath a highway. I retraced my footsteps and went back to Bar Britanico on the corner of Defensa and Avenida Brasil, across from Parque Lezama and down the block from the Russian Orthodox Church. I marched straight in, grabbed a table with a good view, and banished any weird feelings I had about attempting to order a hot chocolate from the unamused waiter. I stirred the bar of chocolate into my hot milk, sipped, and wrote a poem about Alejandra and the crazy, noisy, smelly streets of Buenos Aires. That day I truly accomplished something and I found myself whistling down Tacuarí as I returned to my apartment near San Martin Square.

Detail of a pool of water underneath the skeleton of a large derelict building past Retiro Station and on the way to the port.
Above all, I opened my eyes, ears, nostrils, and feet to Buenos Aires and in that way I absorbed the city in raw sensory perception. I know in 6 months from now, even in 5 or 10 years from now, some vortex of Buenos Aires will come back to me. Perhaps a certain smell or sound will trigger it, but in my experience cities just return to mind at random times, like a zeitgeist with a strong emphasis on the ghost part of the untranslatable concept. And a tinge of longing or unease for Buenos Aires will remind me that I did something difficult, I survived, and I'm living a worthwhile life.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Cats of Recoleta Cemetery

This post is dedicated to Colin, proud poppi to a little blue-eyed gatito.

A colony of cats live in the famous Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires where Evita Perón is buried. My tour guide said a lot of heady stuff about them being the angels and spirits of the cemetery, guardians if you will. I just photographed them since I'm a cat person.

There are a few Web sites dedicated to these cats, but the gist of the story is this: they are well cared for by a group of local women who feed them, spay and neuter them, and give them other medical attention.

As a sidenote, I visited the cemetery the day Evita's oldest sister was laid to rest in the Duarte family tomb (Evita's maiden name), and caught the tail end of the burial.

Buenos Aires, Argentina - Part I

I hear that Porteños like to self deprecate by saying they're living in the third world, which is absolutely not true. Yet: Buenos Aires is a large hectic city that circulates its population around its body heavily and conspicuously, exhaling a lot of exhaust in the process. Even in "good" neighborhoods garbage gets swept into a pile on the corner and after the trash collectors come there is still more trash on the corner than the worse corners of San Francisco. (In Argentina they still do it like Amsterdam and New York, where men ride on the back of trucks and jump off to grab bags and throw them in the dumpster apparatus, unlike California, where a mechanical arm picks up bins specially designed to fit the arm's hand--we could talk for a long time about what these variations in refuse collection mean for jobs and the culture, but I'll save that conversation for later.) Sidewalks commonly disintegrate into dog shit and sand, intersections don't have stop signs or stop lights, and automobile exhaust is absolutely asphyxiating.

View from my bus stop at Av. Sante Fe and Fray J. Sta. Maria de Oro as I started my 2 1/2 hour fiasco of getting on a bus to Zarate

Yet: The city has a so-so subway system but the best (and most overwhelming) bus system I've encountered. There are hundreds of bus lines (at newsstands you can pick up a thick spiral-bound tome to help you navigate, I hear), buses come every 5-10 minutes if not more often, they run 24 hours, and a ride only costs 1.25 pesos (equivalent to about a quarter) (yes that's subsidized). The bus system is privatized so a handful of companies operate the hundreds of lines. Buses barely slow down and open their back doors for those who wish to exit. Riders queue in an orderly fashion down the crowded sidewalks and stick out their arm to hail their bus. Drivers speed around corners and inches away from pedestrians on skinny busy roads.

This one's for Colin -- all hail discordia

As for other means of transport, there are probably more taxis in Buenos Aires than New York City, and of course Buenos Aires is home to what Porteños claim is the widest street in the world: Av. 9 de Julio (btw, Buenos Aires isn't the only city in South America that has what I consider a really weird habit of naming its streets after dates), which is their Independence Day. They literally bulldozed a wide city block to build this street, and in my experience it takes two cycles of red lights to cross it. They also have a street called 25 de Mayo, which is the day the war for independence started.

View down Av. 9 de Julio, of the Obelisco

I had two extremely unique experiences of Buenos Aires' circulation system: once I found myself by the Retiro Bus Terminal at rush hour as I was vaguely pulled towards the port from which my ship was originally supposed to leave. This, to be honest, reminded me of my most raw experiences with Mexican/Mexican-American parts of LA or SF or events like the Porterville swapmeet: an exhausting flow of people, trash, open fires, vendors toasting pastries and caramelizing peanuts, pedaling bootleg Nike socks, jewelry, paper products, travel equipment, and cell phone accessories while behind some building wall thousands of buses depart and arrive to/from destinations all over South America. The other, coming out of the last stop of the subway line C at Constitución, another large bus/train station on the South side of the city (yes, that kind of South side). That was similar to Retiro except I was part of the big exhale of people the subway let out, as we found our way up and out of one of the many exits, all the while beholding reclining swaddled bodies under every stairwell or nook in the station. The sheer amount of people and action exhausted me both times.

View from the balcony (6th floor) of my first apartment near Palermo, down Gallo

All this having been said, Buenos Aires had its moments of arresting beauty as well: the sun setting down the curve of Av del Libertador or reflecting off a row of Haussman-era French styled houses; a sunny Sunday in the local dog park; a quiet overcast Wednesday as they lay Evita's oldest sister to rest at Recoleta cemetery. Although, I am sure Buenos Aires is the most beautiful in Spring or Fall as its many tree lined streets become alive or start the colorful decline into winter.

Looking North West from Parque Lezama

Coming back from the MELBA

Parque Las Heras