Friday, December 23, 2011

The real city that never sleeps

Another week, another destination. A month of our trip has passed already. We celebrated the moment in Buenos Aires. After having been in both New York and Buenos Aires, I'd like to say BA really takes the cake when it comes to partying. The abuelitas had a really hard time keeping up with the rhythm of this city. First night coming back home from dinner at 2am (yes, we had dinner from 12am to 2am, in a restaurant full of people.) I was surprised to see a big line outside the ice cream shop next door (Heladeria Cadore - some of the best ice-cream I've ever had, btw). Waiting in a line at an ice-cream shop at 2am? Perfectly normal in Buenos Aires.

The photo above was taken right before we landed into Buenos Aires. I think LAN is my new favorite airline. Not only do they have hottie flight attendants and boarding personnel, but they also have amazing food, new comfy planes and a huge selection of free movies on your personal TV screen. We've been flying LAN a lot lately and we love it. To get to Buenos Aires we had 2 red-eye flights: one from La Paz to Lima and another one from Lima to BA. It was pretty rough overall, getting into BA at 6am and being completely exhausted after many hours of transit. But it's not the worst - we have two 15-hour back to back flights coming up soon... Getting into Argentina I used my Romanian passport at the Immigration booth to avoid paying the reciprocity fee of 140 USD which only US citizens have to pay. I'll be using the same passport in Chile and Brazil as well, since these countries also charge $140 from Americans. Good ol' Romanian passport is now saving me a lot of money.

We had really nice weather in BA - at around 85 degrees every day. It was hot, but the canopy of the old trees lining the streets provided a lot of shade. We walked around a lot, for hours every day. We had destinations to see, and walked to get from one to another. Sometimes, when we'd get really tired, we'd take the subway or a bus, but for the most part, we walked like maniacs. We sometimes stopped to catch our breath, rest our legs and get a little coffee, like in the photo above. BA is packed with little cafes at almost every street corner and they all serve excellent coffee. After being offered only watery instant Nescafe all over Peru and Bolivia, it felt great to sip real coffee again. It's ironic that Bolivia grows some of the best coffee in the world, yet you can never get a decent coffee while you're there. Probably all the good coffee gets exported and the locals never get to taste it themselves or can't afford it.

The photo above was taken in Palermo, in one of the more ritzy shopping areas of the city. We just walked around there and window-shopped. We couldn't afford anything anyway, since most prices were higher than in the US, plus, we only have one full backpack for 6 months and we don't have space to fit any extra stuff. We bought some souvenirs for friends and family back home, but when we tried to ship it at the post office, it was either too expensive, or we could only do it through one special post office, located far. It's really complicated to ship stuff back home from here.

Thanks Anne for the photo! This was at a Japanese restaurant where I had a piece of sushi from cuerbo patagonico ahumado (smoked patagonian stag) - which was interesting, but probably tastier in a form other than sushi. Behind me is a guy who played Hindu music all night long. Eating stag at a sushi joint while listening to Indian music - interesting combination.

So, before you even start wondering about our hot Argentine men flings, dear reader you must know that the gentleman in the photo above (and many other photos in this post) is none other than Daniel Benjamin, Anne's old time friend (and long lost brother) from New York. He came to visit us for one week in Buenos Aires. He will join us again for 3 weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia, at the same time as my friend Laura from Romania. As you can see from the photo above, we were dining in luxury, having steaks almost every night. It's what you have to do if you're in BA. I will speak about that more in an upcoming post about food.

One night, as we were walking back home, we just happened to be walking through Plaza de Mayo, where Casa Rosada (the President's pink house) is. We saw the huge Christmas tree in the square on fire, many firetrucks trying to put down the fire, lots of garbage on the street, people everywhere, streets were blocked to traffic, all surrounding buildings were covered in fresh graffiti and TV crews were sprinkled around the square. I asked a guy from one of the TV crews what was going on and he told us that day marked the 10 year anniversary of the December 2001 Crisis in Argentina. Apparently, there was some civil unrest now too, which led to the burning of the big Christmas tree.

Peaceful night time protests on Avenida de Mayo.

Moped pizza delivery in San Telmo.

Cute street in San Telmo, minutes before I stepped into bloody dog diarrhea on the sidewalk. I was looking at the map and walking and next thing I know my sandal and all my toes are succumbed into this moist and cold paste. I look down and when I realized what it was, I screamed in horror and made an involuntary gesture of disgust to shake myself of that poopy mess. When doing that, I splashed dog diarrhea all over Anne's dress, another girl walking in front of us and the wall and front steps of a nice coffee shop on the corner. After which, I went into the coffee shop and spent a long time in their bathroom, trying to wash off all that mess from in-between my toes. Sorry for the long and graphic description - moral of the story: don't read and walk, a lot of shit can happen.

Kids playing with a water fountain. It was insanely hot out and right before we saw this fountain, I said to Anne: "I could walk into a sprinkler right now". We then saw this fountain, but the water was really strong and soaked you to the bone.

Anne and I by Puente de la Mujer, a modern bridge in the new and modern neighborhood of Puerto Madera. Here you have skyscrapers and the most modern buildings of Buenos Aires, as well as dorms for a catholic university. As we were walking along this canal, we saw a lot of young people covered in a muddy paste. We thought they were playing around and fell in the river, but no... we walked more and it started to smell really bad. We saw piles of flour and cracked eggs on the pavement. More youngsters covered in the same muddy paste, which we now figured it was flour and eggs. A few parents were cleaning up. We still don't know what it was, but we assume it was some sort of graduation celebration, where people fight with flour and eggs... no idea, but if anyone knows what that means, please let us know.

Puerto Madera neighborhood

Anne and Daniel on Puente de la Mujer

Fancy boats in Puerto Madera

We were told to go see the inside of this mall, which had a ceiling painted in the style of the Sistine Chapel. Ironically, painting a mall like this is in a way like saying that shopping is the new church.

Ok, garbage in Buenos Aires is really something to talk about.They don't recycle. And on trash nights, people just take bags of garbage out and place them on the sidewalk where they will be picked up by garbage trucks. If I remember correctly, I think they do the same thing in New York. The difference here is that in-between the stage where people take out their trash and before the garbage trucks arrive, poor people scavenge for anything that could be recycled inside the bags. They probably take that stuff to a recycling center and get a few pesos back. So, these people rip open all the garbage bags and take everything out. EVERYTHING. They mercilessly roam through every bag, take what they need and leave a huge mess behind. Especially in the financial district area, where all the bags are full of paper, at the end of the night, the streets seem covered in a snow-like layer of small pieces of shredded paper. I don't have good photos of this, but I was shocked to see how a few people could turn the streets into such a disaster. 

Buenos Aires mall at night.

Anne found out on the website "What's Up Buenos Aires" about a "drum circle" show that sounded interesting. We went and had a blast. It wasn't quite a "drum circle", but rather a real orchestra of drummers with a real conductor. They played for 2 hours straight, the venue was packed and everyone was dancing. Teenage portenos (how Buenos Aires people call themselves) are all extremely attractive. Tons of cute girls, more so than guys. We were probably the oldest people there. It feels strange lately to be surrounded only by people in their early 20s.

Taking the subway in Buenos Aires during peak hours is a real drag. It gets soooo packed, that you have to elbow your way out to make sure you get out at your stop. As soon as the train stops, people start getting on, not allowing people to get out first. The platforms are full to the brim and not everyone makes it onto the train, having to wait for the next train or even the one after that.

Isn't this the sexiest Jesus you've ever seen? We went to Recoleta, the famous cemetery in Buenos Aires, considered to be the biggest necropolis in the world. It was indeed quite impressive. This is where Evita Peron is buried. We tried to go to the isle where she is buried, but there was a huge line of tourists waiting in a long line to take photos of her grave, which was actually not that interesting. We took a photo of the line of tourists and skipped that whole part.

The graves in Recoleta all look like tiny houses, with ornate decorations and statues.

Now this is something I really enjoyed: an opera house turned bookstore, with the stage turned into a coffee shop. One of the coolest things I've seen. Tons of great books, you can find here anything you've ever wanted. They even had huge Spanish-Romanian dictionaries... that's often my gauge for whether a bookstore has a rare selection or not.

Beautiful avenue in Recoleta district.

Chilling in our rental apartment in Buenos Aires. Anne found an apartment on Airbnb that was located on Corrientes Avenue, one of the biggest and busiest streets in Buenos Aires. The street was lined up with theaters and bookstores and every night there were huge crowds of people in front of every theater. People love the theater here. I think most of the shows were musicals, so this street was something like the Broadway of Argentina. It was nice to have our own place, because we could leave all our stuff around (which you can't when you stay in a shared dorm at a hostel), we cooked, washed our dirty clothes and hung them to dry all over the house, and walked around in our underwear.

Lots of nativity scenes all over the city... we even saw one perched up on the back of a truck, where all the characters were real people (except for baby Jesus, who was a doll). It looked like a float during a carnival. There were also loudspeakers playing Christmas music and telling the nativity story. This one photographed above was located in a square, but with real-size statues.

Anne and Daniel on an old-school subway car.

La Boca neighborhood, one of my favorite places in BA.

Bar in La Boca. The old black guy singing was actually Brazilian and was singing mostly famous Brazilian songs, like Girl from Ipanema. I really wanted to stop there, get a beer and listen to the guy, but I think Anne and Daniel wanted to get back home and get ready for dinner, so we left.

La Boca streets at sunset.

And of course, two Argentine staples: Maradonna and Tango, both in one grafitti in La Boca.

One of my favorite photos of the series: sunset through street vendor at flea market.

I took a lot of photos of the streets, simply because I wanted to somehow capture the vibe and atmosphere of being there, walking on those streets. One of my favorite things were the canopies of really old trees covering up the entire street. Sometimes, the trees would be taller than the buildings. This made it so that, even if it was extremely hot out, you could still be in the shade while walking. 

At the Mercado de la Pulgas (Antiques Market) in Palermo Viejo. We heard it was taking place every Saturday, so we went there, but it was already late in the afternoon and most of the shops were closed already. A lot of random old things, but not very cheap.

That's me in La Boca.

A statue I really liked at the Antiques Market. The guy is taking the bull by its both horns. There are great details of the animal's muscles and overall it feels very visceral.

Again La Boca. The most famous street in this neighborhood and the main tourist attraction is Caminito. It's a really short alley lined up with these colorful houses. Apparently, this is where Italian immigrants first settled. They were working in the harbour (which is right at the end of the street) and they had some leftover paint from painting the docks, so they decided to use it to paint their houses. And this is the result. Aside from this one street, the neighborhood is still very poor and working class, but has a lot of charm and old buildings.

Street in Palermo.

Anne and Daniel in La Boca. Anne is reading us out loud about the history of the neighborhood from the Lonely Planet guidebook that Daniel brought with him from New York. That book was very helpful during our stay in BA, since we only brought a giant tome called South America on a Shoestring, which superficially highlights every place, without going into much detail. It really helped having a detailed book just on Buenos Aires. Thanks Daniel!

Methinks this is the cutest photo of Anne ever.

The photo above was taken in San Telmo on a Suday during the famous Sunday Craft and Flea market. The entire street was lined up with vendors for about 10 blocks, culminating with a square full to the brim with more vendors of vintage items. There were a lot of old jewelry and also tons of crap. Lots of things that I might consider buying if I was at home and needed to decorate my house, but not while I'm on a backpacking trip.

On the rooftop patio of Le Bar, one of the trendiest new bars for cool kids in BA.

This statue was a couple blocks from the apartment we rented, and there was constantly a line of people waiting to take photos with these guys. I did not look up their names, so I don't know who they are, but apparently a lot of people wanted to get photographed with them, so we did too. The statue was even lit with a bright reflector at night, for optimal night photography.

Street vendors in San Telmo. A lot of leather goods and knit bracelets, and the usual hippie DIY fare.

San Telmo street.

Here's a little fashion shot of the things I scored in Buenos Aires: a fluffy cotton summer dress, great to wear in 90 degree weather. I badly needed something like this. Living in San Francisco, you forget that somewhere out there in this world, there is weather so hot, that putting jeans on (or anything tight, for that matter) would be madness. In Buenos Aires it was so hot, you could not wear jeans. I also scored a leather fanny pack for keeping my money and passport. I got 2 feather earrings from a street vendor, a cheap scarf made in India (mostly to tie around my head and keep my hair under control during this hot weather. I also got a CD with jazz music from the 50s for my mom. That's all.

Hope you enjoyed yet another long rant.

Till next time!

Cemetery Cat and Perforated Mango

I'm writing now from our room at the Hotel Keoken in Punta Arenas, Chile. We had an amazing week in Buenos Aires before this. It felt like a vacation to us, coming from the insanity of La Paz. Buenos Aires is very similar to the big cities of the U.S., but with a Latin twist. For example, dining at restaurants in Buenos Aires is pretty much the same as the U.S., but instead of eating dinner between the hours of 7:00 to 9:00, Argentinians eat around midnight. 

It didn't take us long to adjust to this new schedule and feel at home in BA. The subway (subte) reminded me a lot of the subway (the "T") in Boston. It was even color-coded, just like the T. 

The traffic definitely felt South American, but it wasn't as chaotic or quite as fast as in Peru and Bolivia. The biggest difference from traffic in the U.S. is pedestrians don't seem to have right of way. Drivers don't yield to you when you're walking through a crosswalk, so you constantly have to be aware of your surroundings and watch for turning vehicles. Also, I'm not sure if Argentina has a helmet law or not, but we saw many motorcyclists doing something really strange: wearing a helmet halfway on. It's hard to describe and I can't believe I didn't get a photo of this, but I just did a quick search for "Buenos Aires motorcycle helmet" and I found a photo of what I'm talking about. I mean, just wear it or don't bother. If anything, wearing a helmet this way is distracting and will cause more accidents and injuries than not wearing it at all. Maybe there is a helmet law and this is a way of qualifying for wearing a helmet? Or maybe there is no helmet law and this is just a trend, a way to look cool. Who knows...

It was our first real taste of hot weather, and we were loving it. The temperature was in the 90's for a couple days and people had their air conditioners on full blast. I will always remember walking down the city streets and getting dripped on by water coming from the air conditioners in the apartments above my head. A fond memory of Buenos Aires.

Not too many central cooling systems here. Most of the buildings were pretty old.

Backing up for a minute, let me talk briefly about the trip from La Paz to Buenos Aires. We went from La Paz to Lima (with a five-hour layover) to Buenos Aires, on a red-eye flight. If you look at a map, you can see that Lima is actually out of the way, but it was the best we could do. I forgot that I had my mini Swiss Army knife (that my parents just bought me in France) with me in my carry-on bag, and they confiscated it in the La Paz airport. I also lost my extra digital camera I had with me ... well, someone took it out of a hidden zipper pocket in the luggage that I checked. Fortunately, all of the other zipper pockets were locked up, so nothing else went missing. It was an old digital camera that I don't really need right now, so I wasn't that bummed about losing it. The only annoying thing was that there was an 8-gig memory card in it, but luckily there weren't any photos on it. I guess it was a reality check for us. When you start to drop your guard a bit and get comfortable is when bad things can start happening, so it was a reminder that we do need to take those extra precautionary steps along the way so that something more important doesn't go missing.

Rainbow from the plane landing in Buenos Aires at 5:00 a.m.

My friend Daniel from college ended up buying a last-minute flight and meeting us in BA because he had some vacation time he needed to use before the year-end, so the three of us ended up renting a sweet apartment for the week through the website It had a full kitchen, living room with dining area, cable TV, WiFi, bathroom and three twin beds--perfect. And it was in an old building with cool elevators that had those non-automatic sliding doors.

The scariest thing about the apartment: the dude in the photo below. It's a cardboard cut-out security guard, but coming home alone at night and not expecting a fake guard was terrifying. I used the flash in this photo, but it was quite dark in the hallway. I tried talking to this guy as I approached but he wouldn't respond or move an inch. I didn't know what was going on ...

Scared the s*#t out of me coming home alone at night and thinking it was a real guard.

While enjoying my first meal out in BA, I noticed a bunch of smoke rising from the street. At first, I thought it was just a lot of car exhaust--a pretty usual sight in La Paz--but then I saw the bright orange flames coming from a car! Within minutes, there were police cars, fire trucks and an ambulance at the scene. A crowd of people gathered to watch the inferno.

Our view from the restaurant.

We went out to a bar the first night, but didn't order any drinks because we were too exhausted from our flights. The nightlife is crazy in BA--the bars serve alcohol until 5:00 a.m. and stay open until 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. I definitely don't want to bar-tend there.

Rooftop of a bar we perused. The clouds were rolling by so fast with the wind.

Every day, we picked a new neighborhood to explore. We went to Palermo on the second day to check out some of the shops we'd read about.

The hip neighborhood of Palermo is sponsored by Vitamin Water. Monica is covering up the logo on this bench.

Fashionable household leather items and bags. This store had a big stack of real animal hides and the biggest bean bags I've ever seen.

Quick snapshot of me and my friend Daniel.

A light store in the antique shopping plaza.

We went to San Telmo on the big weekend shopping day. One street in the neighborhood fills up with vendors selling all sorts of items for several blocks. We only walked down a fraction of the street and it somehow took us almost an entire day.

Leather goods galore. The only thing I bought was a fabric screen-printed 2012 lunar calendar for about $3 USD.

After shopping in San Telmo, we quickly made our way over to the most touristy street in BA: El Caminito, in the cute neighborhood of La Boca. People kept telling us not to even bother going there, but I'm glad we did. The houses were all very bright and colorful, and we encountered some great bossa nova musicians along the way.

One day, we had to spend a couple hours at the U.S. Embassy because I needed more blank pages in my passport. They raped me with an $82 USD fee for the few pieces of paper. I must admit they are pretty cool though ... I don't think they could get any more American. Each page has a different graphic: a black bear with a fish in its mouth, a totem pole, American bison, Statue of Liberty, cowboys herding cattle, wheat, and--of course--a bald eagle.

Later that day, we checked out a fancy mall, a theatre-turned-bookstore, the famous Recoleta Cemetery, caught a live performance of a 12-piece drumming group and had a steak dinner.

This old theatre is really a bookstore now--can you believe it? What value they put on books!

I was fascinated by the details in the Recoleta Cemetery.

Inside one of the mausoleums.
This girl was quite small--you really had to look closely to appreciate the beauty of the design.

Monica found something cool.

The property contains 4,691 vaults, all above ground.

Rock on!

Most materials used between 1880 and 1930 in the construction of tombs were imported from Paris and Milan.

The most frightening thing in the cemetery was not baby coffins, cobwebs or rancid wafting smells. It was the cat below! I whole-heartedly thought this was a joke--someone playing a stupid trick on the people in the cemetery by setting up a taxidermied cat. Either that or I was seeing a ghost. But no--it was alive! One eye was glued shut and the other was half open. It was stiff as a board and frozen in an odd position. Little did we know it was about to drop a deuce right in the middle of that missing tile. What a sight ...

This cat actually looks better in this poor-quality photograph than it did in real life.

We briefly stopped by a low-income neighborhood right outside the major city bus terminal.

And then went to the show we read about on

The drumming performance was at Konex--a venue that used to be an oil factory.

They played repetitive grooves that got the crowd bumpin'.

One-liter beers: Quilmes (Daniel and I pronounce it kill-me's)

Fancy mall with painted ceiling and LED Xmas tree.

Puente de la Mujer (Bridge of the Woman). This footbridge swings open to allow watercraft passage.

La Mujer?

It was a real scorcher so some kids decided to cool off in a public fountain at dusk.

We happened to walk down Avenida de Mayo during the 10-year anniversary of the (December 2001) uprising in Argentina. The street looked totally different from how we remembered it a couple days prior. Now there was graffiti all over the walls of the buildings, news reporters and camera personnel shooting footage of the street, almost all of the restaurants and cafes were closed, and there was no through-traffic so people were walking in the middle of the street.

A protest or commemoration of some sort? I didn't quite understand ...

Daniel and I took a brief stroll in the neighborhood one day while Monica stayed inside to catch up on some important Internet errands. We did a little shopping on Florida street and then checked out the Police Museum, one of the craziest museums I've ever seen.

I bet no more than four people visit this museum in a given week. It's on the seventh floor of a random building.

Posing with two of the many uniformed officers in the museum. That's my favorite hat on the left.

Skeleton of Argentina's favorite K-9: Chonino. Every year, the Federal Police, through the Dog Division, pays tribute to this exemplary dog on June 2.

The museum got really weird at this point. Here are some photographs of human deformities ...

A mock cock-fight.

In the drug room, they had displays of all sorts of confiscated drug paraphernalia.

The perforated mango (?)

SO GRUESOME. I won't go into great detail, but there were graphic photos of murder victims and disturbing human anatomy models.

Photos of serial killers and other criminals, instruments of harm and so on ... not a place for kids, or the faint of heart.

One last photo because I seem to be obsessed with the "trash culture" in all of these countries I'm visiting. In BA, it seems to be trash night every single night, though I can't say for sure. They don't seem to use dumpsters or trash cans, so the bags just get dumped onto the sidewalk and/or street. Then, late at night, people go through it before the trucks arrive to pick it up. Hot items seem to be recyclable bottles and also certain papers. We theorized that people are seeking personal information for identity theft, but who knows. They surely make a huge mess of it all.

Photo: Monica

It's late now, though the sun set not too long ago, around 10:30 p.m. The temperature's in the 40's and Monica and I have to layer all of the warm clothes we brought when we go outside. I'm glad I have that alpaca sweater I got in Peru ...