05.02.2003 - 10.02.2003
View South America 2003 on GregW's travel map.
It's been a while since I wrote, and I have good reason. But I will cover that in the next chapter (which will probably be in your mailbox by now). I was going to write a single email about my experiences in Buenos Aires and La Paz, but then some amazing things happened in La Paz and I think that the city deserves it's own update. And while no one has responded with negative comments about these updates, if any of you find them boring, for sure read Chapter 4, because it promises things that have not been seen yet in my updates - extreme physical distress, gun violence and the use of military equipment on civilian targets! But all that will have to wait until you read my mussing on Buenos Aires...
Buenos Aires, Argentina is a massive city on the Atlantic coast, 13 million Porteños (port dwellers) live there. Seemingly, they all live in 5 or 6 story buildings on narrow streets. It is also an incredibly flat area, with no defining geographical features to help you find your way. These two elements make it very, very easy to get lost. The first night I was there, I wandered out of my hotel without my map, thinking I was just going a few blocks to look around. A left, a right, another left (or was that a right)... and how many blocks forward did I go back there? I was right turned around. And looking down every street I saw exactly the same thing, 5 or 6 story buildings stretching off to the horizon. Luckily I had picked a hotel at the intersection of two major streets and eventually was able to find my way back with the help of a subway map. Needless to say, I never wandered out without my map again.
My first full day in Buenos Aires was spent exploring its many historical and architectural marvels. Casa Rosada is the presidential palace, probably best known to us Westerners as where Eva "Evita" Peron made her famous speechs. The Obelisk is (as you would expect) a big pointy tower. It sits in the middle of Ave 9 de Julio which is claimed to be the widest street in the world. It has 16 lanes of traffic, which certain seems like a lot. I also checked out the Cemetery of Recoleta where many of Buenos Aires elite lay buried, including former presidents (like Julio A. Roca) as well as Evita. Interestingly Juan Peron (Evita's husband) is not buried in Rocoleta. He was not part of Buenos Aires society, and thus didn't have a plot in the cemetery. Evita's family did, and she is entombed in her family's plot. Her grave gets many visitors, and I had to wait around about 15 minutes to find a time to photograph it without people around (I felt it would be disrespectful to photograph it with mourners there). I ended the day in the Museo Nacional des Bellas Artes, which has an excellent collection of old masters, contemporary artists and Argentinean talents.
The next day was raining, so I decided to do some anthropological research on how contemporary Argentineans spend leisure hours (i.e. I went to the mall). Pretty much like malls in North America - Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. A cinema showing somewhat belated Hollywood releases in English with Spanish subtitles. In fact, I have seen 3 films since getting down here - 8 Mile at an outdoor film festival in Santiago, El Señor De Los Anillos (Lord of the rings) and Los Pandillas de Neuva York (Gangs of New York), all of which I had already seen back home, but you can only see what they are showing, right? The film (that day’s selection of LOTR) let out as night was coming on. I headed out past the obviously high end restaurant (the valets parking the Benzs and BMWs gave it away) and into the Buenos Aires night.
And I saw the same thing that I saw every night. 1000s of people out in the streets, opening up garbage bags and searching through them for something edible or sellable. As soon as a store put their garbage out on the street, someone would pick it up and start going through it. One very sad scene was as I was passing a McDonald's just as it was closing. The manager brought the bag out and handed it to a gaggle of 10 or so young boys. The boys tore into the bag and starting grabbing at the left over food. I saw one boy walking away from the bag very happy having half of an Egg McMuffin. It was around 11 o'clock at night, so that means that muffin had been sitting in garbage for probably 12 hours. Another depressing site was the homeless families, some with children still young enough to be breast feeding.
Buenos Airiens seem to have a general lack of respect for their city, and maybe those scenes of poverty breeds it in them. Every time I was walking behind someone I saw them drop something on the ground - the wrapper from their candy or a flyer they weren't interested in. There were plenty of garbage cans around, people just didn't care enough to hang on to the trash for the half a block that they would be required to carry it for. Because of this, Buenos Aires has the feel of a city on the slides, a place that used to be really, really nice and cosmopolitan but is now just becoming grimy.
Nowhere was this better reflected than my hotel, the Hotel Reina (Queen Hotel). Regally named, and probably back when it was built in the 30s it was a regal place to stay. Marble stairways, stained glass windows, wrought-iron elevator cage, 25 foot ceilings. But no one had bothered keeping up the place, and now it just was dark and dirty and dingy. But cheap and central, so I stayed.
I had wanted to spend 4 days in Buenos Aires but due to flight problems ended up spending 5 days. The fifth day was a horror show for me. The heat was getting to me, the noise and smog of the city was starting to annoy me, a bird shat on me (leaving a trail of oily black sludge in my hair and on the back of my tshirt). I was in a foul mood when I went to bed. As my regal suite at the Reina hotel had no AC, I slept each night with the window open to keep the room from becoming oppressively hot. My last night there was a thunder storm, and every time there was a big thunder clap I lurched awake. I had awful dreams of being chased through the streets of Buenos Aires and paranoid thoughts of people crawling through my window to murder me. I woke up the next morning feeling feverish. I was so sick of Buenos Aires that I left my hotel around 11 o'clock and spent 6 hours at the airport waiting for my flight rather than hanging around downtown.
At 5:15pm my LAB flight to La Paz left Buenos Aires, and I was on my way to the most exciting and at the same time most boring part of my trip...