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 3-4] Santiago de Chile de Hotdogs

Santiago. It was interesting to arrive into a large bustling metropolis after a quaint colonial city like Valparaiso. It felt like we were in New York. Or Mexico City. Or Barcelona. It felt like everywhere, but different. It was night-time when we arrived. The metro was super clean and quiet and efficient. When we submerged from the underground, people were out and about on the streets everywhere. The streets seemed pretty clean and the buildings well-kept. There wasn’t dog poop everywhere, which was an improvement over Valparaiso. We got to our trendy, tiny apartment – though it was substantially more roomy than our hostel which had room for two bunks and a bean-bag chair, but that’s about it.

We walked around forever trying to find a restaurant, but nowhere seemed to be serving food. Chileans eat late, but it was already fairly late and still everywhere seemed to just be cafés. People drinking beer or coffee, but no food. Oh well. We found a cool little pizza place that knew what they were doing, bought a bottle of wine and chilled at the apartment for a while. Pizza always feels like such a cop-out. Sometimes, it’s just what you need.
The next morning we woke up decently early to walk around the city. The first thing we noticed was the smog. Mmmm… smokey. Alex felt like he was back in Beijing, but I was reminded of DF, Mexico. Santiago is located between the ocean and the gigantic Andes mountain range. Essentially, the moisture and warmth from the ocean traps a layer of smog in the valley, and it is disgusting. Anybody who doesn’t think that humans are capable of changing climate needs to spend a couple of weeks in a place like Santiago. When your snot turns black and you constantly feel like you have the flu from a sore throat, you realize just how much our polluting vehicles and factories really affects the environment we depend on.

There are mountains surrounding Santiago. You can’t see them, despite there being 10,000ft peaks just a few miles away. Part of this is because you’re nearly always surrounded by highrise or midrise buildings – similar to the claustrophobia feeling in New York City. If you do catch a space to peek through, though, it doesn’t matter. The smog blocks the rest of that view. Lovely.

Walking around, Alex was excited to try some good coffee from South America. It turns out that there is some phenomenon called “café con piernas” or “coffee with legs”. Basically, think of Hooters, but instead of serving food tha baristas wear somewhat scandalous outfits and serve coffee to lonely old business men. Its pretty disgusting, and horribly machismo, but we had to go. At first, like any such establishment, we felt dirty for even opening the door. But then, half the businessmen walked out and then some women came in with their kids. I guess café con piernas is a family destination as well.

We walked around some plazas. Plaza de Armas. It should really be called Plaza de Hotdogs. Santiago has some of the most disgusting food I’ve come across in all of my travels. Nearly everywhere seems to have signs to boast their sandwiches – be it hot dogs or hamburgers or sloppy meat sandwiches with who knows what kind of meat piled over the sides of boring bread that could put the most overdone Arby’s sandwich to shame. Oh, and the mayo. SO MUCH MAYO. On everything. Cups of mayo. Mayo could give the hotdog a run for the official food of Santiago.

Back to the plazas and city. Plaza de Armas has an entire side of a block dedicated to hotdog stands. Each hot dog stand seems to offer exactly the same things as the stand next to it. Some stands are clearly more popular than other stands. What sets them apart, we’ll never know.

Just a few blocks away exists a very similar phenomenon where on a single narrow street, there are around 20 or so very small small appliance repair shops. Each one displays its replacement blender pitcher arrangement proudly in a glass case, along with various other parts. It would seem as though all they could possibly repair were blenders, but some had other random appliance parts from can openers, coffee makers, hair dryers, and other small appliances that would never ever ever be worth your time and money to repair. But there they were, all doing exactly the same thing, competing with their immediate neighbors for the same business.

In the neighborhood which we stayed in, Bellas Artes, there seemed to be maybe one restaurant within blocks to eat at. Everything else was cafés. It was the Café quadrant. In Bella Vista, just across the highway, there were tons of restaurants and some bars, but not so many cafés. A few blocks from that were sketchy bars and nightclubs, but no restaurants.

The layout reminded me of how I’ve heard of Brasilia described. Restaurants in one quarter of the city, hotels in the opposite quarter, and shopping in some other quarter, with a taxi required to get in between them all. Santiago may not be quite as bad, but its not so great to just wander outside of your hotel and find great things.
We continue to walk around, exploring various pockets. At one point we see this amazingly different building with a grid-like rusty structure around it. It may have been a museum. Maybe it was a shopping mall. Or probably a college. We should go in, though, naturally. So we do. And we find a security guard. Alex asks “que es este edificio?” She gives us this look like we had just spoken blasphemy. In Spanish…

“This Building? This BUILDING is the Culture Center. You know, culture? Arts, theater, cinema, photography…”

and basically stopped mid-sentence and shook her head because she thought we weren’t worth the time and were clearly so uncultured that we wouldn’t know what culture was if it smacked us in the face. We learned a bit about Chilean security guard culture, and decided it was time to immediately leave.

We climbed a hill. Then we climbed a bigger hill and took a funicular down. You might think this was the wrong order, but if you saw the line to take the funicular up, you’d agree with our decision.

We walked around a lot, took silly photos of street art and funny street signs and stuff like this:

To the grocery store. I took a photo of the hot dog aisle.

My friend, Christine noticed this photo and said she took the same photo. She did. And she wrote a gerat article about hot dogs in Santiago here. We picked a bottle of delicious and inexpensive Chilean wine. Some cheese. Breakfast things – because we decided we could do a better job cooking eggs and placing them on bread than any non-existent non-hotdog-breakfast-stand could hope to. (which, it turns out, Alex did quite well at). We went through the checkout line, which was of course slow and obnoxious, and then required me to return to the back of the store to weigh the bread we had placed in a bag, despite there being a scale right on the checkout counter in front of the cashier. Slow.

But then, it was all made up for when the supermarket music switched to the next track – Careless Whisper by George Michael. The girl bagging our groceries started giggling, and told the cashier “la canción!”, pointing to the overhead speakers. Alex and I also began to laugh, knowing exactly what it was that was so entertaining. “Por el video Youtube?” Sí.

Some things are funny no matter what hemisphere you are in.