Sabbatical 2012 [Day 6-8] Cleaner Airs. Land of Cow

Travels

Our plane emerged from the layer of smog engulfing Santiago. It ascended, and ascended, and ascended, probably just quickly enough to avoid running into the incredibly high Andes mountain range immediately next to the city. LAN came to our rescue, for a price, and agreed to get us to Buenos Aires for a slightly steeper cost than we had originally paid on Pluna [insert curse word here]. I think we have a return trip to Santiago, should we want to totally change plans and return.

We were now flying off to Argentina – land of cows and funny “J” accents. Buenos Aires is an enormous city. You could see how expansive it was from the air, but even more-so from a satellite map. It may not be quite as big as Beijing or Mexico City, but it is up there in expansiveness. None of them are as horrifying from above as the wasteland of suburbia in the desert that is Phoenix (and its greater area) though.

Our plane landed. Immigration was a breeze, despite me fearing that I’d have to pay a ridiculous importation tax on my personal goods. Nobody even collected the customs documents from us. Our baggage was waiting on the carousel before we even got there. So far, quite a great experience flying into the country. Still no guys with machine guns, though. Perhaps someday.

Even flying over the Buenos Aires outskirts, you could tell that the city was in a bit rougher shape than Santiago. Roofs were in need of repair, yards were unkept, and things just didn’t seem quite as tidy. Once we got to experience it ground level, this was largely confirmed. Dirty streets, everything needs a paint job, there is litter and garbage along the crumbling sidewalks – and yet still, somehow, the streets were more enjoyable to walk than Santiago’s.

When we first landed, the air still had a slight haze to it. It still smelled smokey. I thought this was Buenos Aires? That translates to “good airs”. I mean, come on, they had to pluralize “airs”, so there should be an abundance of these good airs, right? Not again! Then it started to snow. Oh, it is just winter! Ok, this white stuff isn’t fog, its snow! Cool, that makes sense. No, wait, whats that cloud coming up from the ground? Oh, its a huge thing on fire. Those aren’t snow flakes, they’re ashes falling back onto the highway like a blizzard. Alright, this makes sense.  10 miles or so away from the plane crash or house fire or whatever that was, the aires did indeed become buenos, and we had arrived at our hotel, Ayres de Recoleta.

Looks swank, right? Don’t be fooled.

Ayres de Recoleta has some incredibly great advertising, and looks very chic on their website. Entering the room, however, yielded something a bit less true. No matter how we photographed the room to show what it actually felt like, it looked gorgeous in photos. How could a hotel be so photogenic but so drab in real life? Three words. Brown corduroy bedding.

Food & Drink

There are no hot dogs in Buenos Aires. Ok, that is probably a lie, but I’m fairly confident that there is not an entire square of hot-dog stands selling “completo salchichas” anywhere in this city. Lets keep it that way, shall we, Argentina?

Alex and I wandered around trying to find a restaurant. First mistake – it was about 7:00pm or so – way too early. Nobody was eating. Its impossible to tell which restaurants are tourist traps with bad food, popular local restaurants with bad food, popular local restaurants with good food, or perhaps the ever-so-rare tourist trap with good food when you don’t have Yelp, Google reviews, or even people already out dining to show a percentage of total table occupancy.

So, what do you do? You walk. A lot. And then you walk some more. And then you go back to the best restaurant you passed after walking for 20 minutes in figure eight’s around the city blocks. When you’re nearly 30 years old, you have to contemplate about the restaurants that are incredibly popular among the senior citizen crowd. Perhaps they have great taste? Maybe its more authentic? Or, maybe it tastes like Denny’s or Bob Evans. Regardless, the eye candy will be assuredly slim.

Aging

Alex and I quickly learned that Buenos Aires women seem to age incredibly poorly. My uncle said he noticed the same thing about women in Italy – young women are gorgeous, and then something suddenly happens – maybe around 32 or so. There is this wall, and everything physically goes to hell all of a sudden. Its not just the women, of course – the men don’t age so well either. I suspect it is the diet consisting of 90% beef & dairy. Either way, kudos to American women (and most of the rest of the world) for aging gracefully and still looking damn good all through the Golden Years. Seriously, grandmas in Buenos Aires were something to fear – like a cracked out clown with bad makeup and misformed cheeks from puffing on cigarettes for 65 years – not the cute ladies we’ve come to love and hug and get kisses from in the US. Unfortunate. Shallow. I apologize, and hope the best for future Buenos Aires generations. Wear Sunscreen. Eat Vegetables.

Back to Food & Drink

The thing we later found out about the senior citizens is that they’re incredibly smart when it comes to scheduling their dinner. They get there right before the restaurant gets incredibly packed and then forms a line or is reservation-only. Early bird gets the worm, as they say.

The first restaurant we tried had several regional cuisines from all over Argentina. Our waitress was incredibly helpful in our ordering. I had something that had large kernels of corn, mixed with vegetables and cheese and Argentine goodness. It was already better than Santiago’s food. For dessert, we got this amazing multi-layered cake with Dulce de Leche, some nuts, flan, chocolate… pretty much everything you would want.

Dining success.

There are empanadas everywhere. Not like the soggy ones we got in Santiago (and I threw away), but perfectly crispy crusts and delicious interiors with fresh ingredients like Roquefort cheese, nuts, spinach, potato, sweet flavorful onions. I could live off of empanadas. Oh, and they’re like $1.50/each. How about that?

Wine was also fantastic. We had the fortune of trying a new varietal called Tannat, of which I’ve never heard of before. The first bottle we got was really tart, almost like wild berries. It was unlike anything I’d had before. I guess it is unique to this region and Uruguay. I hope to find some bottles of it in the states. If you ever happen to come across a bottle, give it a go.

 There are bakeries on seemingly every block. Each one displays its array of pastries in a case. It is difficult to not do a tour of the city just eating pastries. And then, if that isn’t enough, you have cafés on nearly every block as well… maybe 3 per block. Maybe 6. There is even McCafe. Yes, McDonalds’ has entered the café market in Buenos Aires – and they do a hell of a job with the decor, presentation, and quality. There was nothing fast-food feeling about this joint. I’d almost call it prestigious. Impressive, really, for a company like McDonalds.

Then there is Yerba Mate. It would seem that no matter how much we walked and how hard we tried, we could not buy a cup or drink in any mate in a cafe. It would seem that it is something to be prepared only at home, in your own personal gourd and bombilla. Even when we went to buy the yerba leafs, the lady in front of us picking out her package of mate seemed to be very secretive about it. I had heard that many people are very addicted to it – more-so than coffee drinkers in the rest of the world. Perhaps they are embarrassed about their addiction. The mate aisle then sort of felt like the condom aisle in a grocery store or pharmacy. Shame. Embarrassment. Everybody has their preferred brand but nobody wants anybody else to see them picking it or getting it. Then again, I’m basing this entire theory on how a single woman chose her mate so please take this with 99% inaccuracy.

Many street venders sell the gourds and bombillas from which you get to ‘enjoy’ this bitter tea-like beverage. Everybody has their own designs and such. Like these:

You have to be careful when asking dreaded hippie porteños (similar to background guy of above image) where you can buy some Yerba from, though . It turns out that “Yerba” is pronounced the same as “hierba”… well, in most of the world except Argentina where the Y earns this JJJJerba sound. “Hierba” means herb, which, in some cases, can mean exactly what “herb” can mean in English. In any case, when you ask the guy selling Bombillas where to buy yerba, and he says “oh, I know just the guy. We all buy from him” and walks you over to a Jamaican dude with a dolly stacked with coolers tied shut with a rope, and then smiles and shows the internationally recognized hand signal for smoking a joint,  and you suddenly realize that you’re not about to finally find this impossible-to-purchase mate, but instead some other form of mind altering drug. “OOHOHHHOHh  no entendí!!! Yerba MATE! You get that at the SUPERMARKET.”

Ok. Accidental illegal purchase or potentially interesting tea steeping avoided.

Sites and Stuff

Our hotel was in an area of town known as Recoleta. Its primary attraction is a very large above-ground cemetery. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Then you walk around, see a bunch of plazas. There is that big wide avenue with the Washington Monument. Then more Plazas.  Then some odd things.

Some more things that feel like Washington DC. Sort of. Like the Casa Rosada (Rose House), which is basically like the White House, but, if you’re intelligent enough to have guessed, is not white, but rose-colored. A cab driver told us that they put a net across the roof to try to keep the politicians from getting out, but they still escape anyways.

Argentine humor.

The garbage still gets out, too. And it stays out, right along-side the building for everybody to see as they walk by. This would never fly in the US. The White House is one of the most immaculate properties on the planet. I don’t understand why Argentinos would expect anything less of the Casa Rosada.

Though I’m not typically  fan of artisinal crafts and street vendors, Buenos Aires had some truly amazing works displayed at markets and sidewalks. I stopped more times than I’d ever have expected to marvel the craftsmanship of some of these skilled people. Hand-carved coins for necklace pennants, incredibly small sculptures, the aforementioned mate gourds, metal sculptures, wine holders, etc, etc, etc.

Oddly, being right next to a huge ocean/bay, we hadn’t see ocean for 2 days. Time to remedy that – a cab ride to La Boca! “La Boca” translates to “The Mouth” which is basically like saying its a port, or mouth of a river. However, on Sunday, “La Boca” translates to “this is touristic hell and overrun with hoards of daytrippers”. It felt incredibly cheesy and I had to leave. At least we saw a couple dancing tango.

Alex mocking tourists at La Boca. “LOOK AT ALL THE PRETTY COLORS THEY PUT ON THIS SLUM”

Oh, there are lots of statues of famous guys on horses. Really, drop the horse. You look like Don Quixote. I wonder if one day we will build statues of guys in their cars. Like, Obama in a Mercedes on a 70 foot marble pedestal or something.

I think that pretty much wraps it up.

Off to Uruguay, for now. By Buquebus ferry!  We will enter and leave Argentina 4 times. 8 Stamps in the passport, total. Immigration is going to be pretty suspicious of us by the time we’re done.

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Sabbatical [Day 0] The Great Voyage

If  I had to pick one question to never hear again in my life, I think it would be “So, are you all packed?” The only time that somebody could ask me this question and hear an affirmation is if you are in the car with me on the way to the airport.

As anybody who’s traveled with me (or been unfortunate enough to be near me before traveling) may know, packing stresses me the hell out and tends to bring out The Hulk in me. Over the last few years, I have slowly created and added to a huge packing checklist in Google Tasks to try to eliminate some of the confusion and worrying that I may miss something. It helps to a point, but at the same time the mere site of the list can be daunting. Regardless, having to get all of my digital life in order on top of physical things ads an entire new level of bit-packing that seems to just take longer and longer. Did I copy all of the movies I want to watch on the plane? How about music I may want to listen to? Did I unlock my cell phone? Download offline maps? Get a translation app? Dictionary? Ebooks? Spotify sync? Windows updates? GAAAAAH!

After a night of drinking some beers and getting late night food with some close friends, I finally calmed down a bit and could do my general packing. Literally, by bags weren’t packed to satisfaction until about 5 minutes before my ride to the airport arrived.

Alex and I had a flight that left Austin at 7pm on a Saturday. I realized this may be my favorite time to travel. The airport was nearly desolate – no lines at security or anywhere, really. We grabbed a nasty veggie burger for dinner, walked over to the terminal and right onto the plane – despite us not being late at all the plane had almost entirely boarded and was quite empty. Off to Dallas. Insert indifference sound here.

The next flight to Santiago would be 9 hours long. It was in a very outdated 1970’s American Airlines tin can edition 767. Entertainment features included 5 15″ CRT televisions, and we were lucky enough to have power in our seats – except the power was a cigarette lighter plug.

The plane did not experience sudden depressurization or faulty engines on takeoff, cruising, or landing. This may have been a small miracle in and of itself.

American Airlines provided several actually delicious airplane meals. Most importantly, they give you free wine and beer on international flights now. The flight attendants and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Attendant 1: “What would you like to drink?”

Me: “I think I would like a wine. What kind do you have?”

Attendant 1: “White or red.”

Me: “Oh, I mean what type of grapes?”

Attendant 2: “I don’t know, red grapes or white grapes. Its free”

Me: “Oh, I know, I just don’t know what kind of white it is”

Attendant 2: “Sir, its free. You don’t get to choose the kind of grape”

Me: “I know that, I just want to know what kind”

Attendant 1 to Attendant 2: “I think he wants a red”

At which point they hand me a decently sized bottle of delicious Merlot Cabernet blend from France. Why couldn’t they just read me the bottle? Or show me the bottle? The fact is, I actually did have the choice between grape types. I guess I must be the only person to ever fly on an airplane that would pick a wine based on the varietal, and not the color. I wanted to know what would pair with my 5 forms of cheese and carbs that were on my plate.

The wine was way too good for an airplane. I got the white too. So, lesson learned, when they offer you choices of free wine on an American Airlines flight, the correct answer is “both, please”.

American Airline Wine Selection

Two delicious options aboard American Airlines Coach

Some 9 hours after taking off , we had breakfast of cheese and carbs, and quickly found ourselves landing in Santiago de Chile.

Finally, we are here. Alive.

Upon de-boarding, we were shocked to not see any guys in berets holding fully automatic weapons to greet us. Are we in Latin America? Concerned.

Baggage took about 45 minutes to show up on the belt after we had already spent 45 minutes getting off the plane and going through customs. Confirmed: we are in Latin America.  Just a bus ride and a bus ride and a traffic-jammed then rollercoaster cobblestone taxi ride away from our hostel in Valparaiso.

Por fin, llegamos!