Buenos Aires. The southern port, entry to Argentina, on the Río de la Plata sitting beside Uruguay and under Brazil. The land of meat, wine and tango, and meat again. A country that extends to the end of the Earth on to Patagonia and the Antarctic.
A city that has seen an enormous amount of history on its streets and inside its buildings, it bares a grey autumn sky and a particular accent that bounces off every street corner as people speak amongst themselves, into their phones or straight out yell at someone or something in way that seems strangely Italian.
I arrive to Buenos Aires on a Saturday night, as I step off the plane I read a text from my father to meet up with him and Julian, a friend, colleague and former student of his at La Cabrera restaurant in Palermo neighborhood, the trendy, bar-riddled somewhat historic district in the north part of the city. Seeing how the airline lost my baggage I head straight over. Nothing like a few big glasses of Mendocino wine and good beef to forget the 9+ hour flight.
I am in Argentina merely to indulge myself in fine dining, drinks, and traveling with my father who is currently working throughout South America. This is, by all means, a trip of strictly pleasure. No academic or professional excuse to travel, no long-lost relative to visit. This is one of those father-and-son trips I have always enjoyed so much, ever since I can remember. As with such a trip, there are no youth hostels or walking tours involved, this time it’s a 4 star hotel in the Microcentro of Buenos Aires, a private bathroom with hot water and dinner after dinner with my dad’s friends and colleagues who I have come to befriend myself with the years.
My father has been in Buenos Aires, or BsAs, as the locals abbreviate for a few weeks now. The weekend I arrive is labor day weekend, which means that Sunday and Monday are national holidays and my father and I walk around the city with his long time friend Hayra. Hayra is an Armenian ex-pat who has lived in Argentina for decades, making him a Porteño by now. We tour the deserted city, all its shops closed and storefronts sealed with steel curtains. A few people walk around the downtown area but it still seems as a ghost town.
I have only been to Argentina twice, both times only for hours at a time, a day at most. This time, over a week walking among the Porteño streets I realize it is easy to get a feel for the history and identity of this place, however complex they may be. The cobblestone streets lined with trees and endless parked cars. Renaults, Peugeots, Citroens, Rovers, Fiats. Is this Southamerica or Europe?
Its eclectic, art nouveau and international-style architecture exude old-world urbanism, that is until, you hear someone speak “Oshe, podés traer un vino al asado?” A specific accent in the spanish language where “y” sounds are replaced for “sh” and all of a sudden all verbs are accentuated at the last vocal, then I remember it’s not Paris or Rome, its Buenos Aires.
A city that has outlived ongoing social and political unrest -most notably, General Videla’s dictatorial regime in the 1970s- this capital city embraces the beating heart and soul of Latinamerica, ex-colonies fighting internally to define themselves in a post-colonial state, a world where -up until a few decades ago- power was snatched from one power player to the next. México, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina. We have all shared this type of story at one point or another.
I don’t pretend to know what life was like during the regime, nor do I pretend to make a clean and slick comparison to Mexico’s current situation. It’s not possible, they are two completely different historical events. They do however, have strange resemblances. As I hear a number of older Argentinians comment on how the “desaparecidos” -those disappeared or kidnapped during the dictatorship and presumed dead- were a common occurrence a few decades ago, I can’t help but think of my own country’s everyday news. Students that disappear, journalist killed, inefficient police with no accountability. I hear the stories that are now etched into history books and wonder how my generation will see -and tell- our stories decades from now. What can we learn from this?
I was about to learn more about this Argentine-mexican relationship. As it turns out, in the 1970s a substantial number of Argentinians fled Videla’s regime and not only wandered around South America, but actually resettled in Mexico. The Mexican government gave refuge to many, triggering a generation of Mexican-Argentine friendships, one of them being my father and Daniel’s.
Daniel met my father in the seventies, when he was a twenty-something animation filmmaker that had left Argentina. He tells me the story of how he found out in the paper that Videla’s government was going after “subversive cultural groups” and before finding out if he was one of them, he fled to Mexico to study and got a scholarship.
The story of him landing in Mexico City late at night with $50 Dollars and starting a whole new chapter of his life the next day is told to me and the rest of the people at the table over a home-cooked dinner of chicken, salad and wine (not everything is meat, after all). Tonight we are at their family’s apartment somewhere west of the downtown. Filled with books, photographs and lots of color, it’s a warming place that welcomes old friends. My father hadn’t seen Daniel for years, since even upon returning years later to Argentina, he was still persecuted, jailed and his brother “missing”. Again, I try to only listen humbly and try to learn from hearing these stories. And to to assert that coincidences make great stories, in 2010 Daniel’s daughter Marcela had come to Mexico on an internship at my father’s office, where she asked us to take her on a tour of Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood looking for the house were her parents had lived in the seventies. As we approached the street and eventually the house, I remember my father with a look that revealed that somewhere in his mind, dots were being connected, until the point where he asked Marcela “Wait, what’s your father’s name?” And then everything made sense. His intern was his old argentine filmmaker friend’s daughter. That was seven years ago. Today we share a nice dinner with friends and family. Something that at some point was difficult to have for a lot of people in this very city.
As I walked everyday through the streets of Buenos Aires I started to get that Im-getting-used-to-this-place feeling. That feeling of adaptation that comes to travelers as they spend more time in a new place. When you feel the familiarity of certain streets, notice the same vendor everyday on the same corner, start ordering coffee like a local or just notice that you know your way around better than you thought. Sometimes this feeling is accentuated by friends, old and new that you meet at this place. Such is the case here.
A few years back at a random college house party in Puebla, I met Flora and Julie, two french girls studying abroad in Mexico. They became great friends over time and while Flora ended up -currently- in Cambodia, Julie, as it turns out, was doing an internship in Bs As.
Being both new to the city, we decided to explore it. first we hit Bebop Club, a speakeasy-ish jazz club in the basement of the trendy Aldo’s winery and restaurant. Craft beer, live big band jazz and meeting up with a great friend is always a great night. Bebop is what you would expect to find if you Google Image search “underground jazz club” velvet stage curtains, low lighting and a fully stacked bar. It’s an interesting place with an inviting vibe, not pretentious and a lot of locals looking for good music. The sound and vibrations of live music from a 16-member band contrast with the empty streets of midnight Buenos Aires just a few steps away. As we walked back after the show, we discussed how the city has a big nightlife scene, where millennials start the party at 1 or 2 am -anything before that is considered pretty lame- and how it could contest with the Mexican college-party scene (we are, after all, the home of Tequila). A couple of days later, Julie mentions a “Buenos Aires Celebrates Mexico” festival on the city’s Avenida de Mayo, a couple of blocks away from the Casa Rosada (The Pink House, Argentina’s seat of power), so we meet up at Güerrín Pizza, an iconic two-story pizza place on Avenida Corrientes, Julie is there with a couple other friends, it’s election night in France, so they’re glued to their smartphones and when the results come in announcing Macron’s win, we all cheer with beers and pizza. After Güerrin, we head to the Mex-Bs As festival, to our dismay its raining and dying down, so we are now on the hunt for a place to have a drink at get out of the rain.
We arrive at Dandy by Plaza Libertadores. a corner storefront restaurant with a warehouse-ish style and great staff. A lot of locals having a sunday coffee or glass of wine. Champagne and conversation keeps rolling for hours, Dandy does not disappoint, even giving us a few glasses on the house.
It’s always nice to find a friendly face and travel companion in a city where the norm is to be always hectic and the collective social stance is not-to-welcoming. Don’t get me wrong, I love Argentina and its people, I’ve had Argentine roommates since I was a teenager, I’ve hosted Porteño friends at home and I’ve had my fair share of crushes on Argentine women, but still, even by non-capital-city Argentine standards, Porteño culture is a particular one, where you can’t take anything personal and creating bonds from scratch is not that easy, not to say once they’re made you will be treated to some of the most welcoming and generous people there are, as I have found out time after time with Argentine friends.
I learned this a few days into my trip. When Hayra and a few other friends invited us for dinner at the mostly-local-only restaurant El Obrero in La Boca, Maradona’s old stomping ground, the house of Tango and a colorful, yet touristy street called El Caminito. However, El Obrero is not on the tourist-packed Caminito, it is tucked a number of blocks into the real Boca. A working-class neighborhood that is -as Anthony Bourdain put it- “not known for a small amount of crime”. It’s an old industrial neighborhood with great food, that’s for sure.
We walk into an old building with shutters on the windows and a high ceiling with dozens of fútbol (soccer, for all English-speaking North Americans) jerseys. We wine and dine with a number of my Dad’s colleagues and friends, including Ana, who had hosted me on my previous trip to Bs As and is now a great friend. The conversation goes on for hours on end and we keep eating and drinking. The ravioli are spectacular and the one liter Imperial beer is not to be messed with. El Obrero is definitely a must.
We take off and Ana gives us a ride, she’s driving a big white panel van, 3 seater, thus, I take the back. She tells us how the plan is to turn it into an overlanding camper and travel through South America. Naturally, I invite myself to be part of the travel crew. There’s something intriguing about photographing Bs As from the back of a van, it does make for interesting images.
The next morning, I venture on Avenida Libertador to the Argentine Design Museum. An interesting proposal where a railroad building (a lookout tower apparently) has been renovated as a 4 story museum with “design”. i use “quotes” since there is a rant coming, bare with me. In my opinion, a museum must engage and educate the public on a certain topic, in this case design. This is not happening here. The musuem has visual and contemporary art pieces by designers, it is not depicting design as the problem-solving discipline and resource it is. Interesting as it may be, the exhibits of deconstructing blueprints into artwork is not design. Rant over. However, the building itself is worth a visit.
Walking out of the museum I stumble upon a small garage-converted-store that does actually portray the reality of modern Argentinian design. Jorge and Soledad are a husband and wife team running a tiny store that sources all its product from local and regional designers, focusing on sustainable and socially-aware materials and processes. They kindly show me every item and masterpiece among their shelves and we have a very entertaining conversation on Latin American culture, economy and politics.
I keep walking down towards Recoleta, another high-end neighborhood of Bs As with may shops, boutiques and restaurants. I’m not usually big on the tourist-trap burger joints, but I’m hungry and thirsty and could eat a cow, so Buller Brew House it is. To their favor they brew their own beer, which is always a good sign. As soon as my beer arrives, two forty-something guys sit down on the table immediately next to mine speaking English. I introduce myself and it turns out they’re American and fly down often to Argentina for work and visiting relatives. Bruce, Rob and I end up having beers and talking about everything from travel to politics, including Trump and how they envision their Republican values and support their president. This is exactly why I travel and what drives me to do so: Comparing, sharing and conversing about different points of view while making new friends. If a dialogue con happen over beers in Argentina between a twenty-something year old Mexican and two forty-something Americans, I can’t see how we can’t make the World work for everyone. Nothing like discussing world issues over beers and burgers.
To this point Buenos Aires has treated me to a number of great experiences, specially food and drink wise, as well as reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. On the latter note I was about to get one of the best and unexpected good times in a while.
One of my father’s colleagues this time around in Bs As had invited him (and by association, me) to to go sailing on the Río de la Plata with her family. My dad left earlier so it was just me meeting up with strangers and getting on a boat hoping to have fun and get some good photographs. Graciela (my dad’s friend) texts me and tells me to meet them at San Isidro train station, the picturesque town just north of Bs As, so I get on the train at head out. I’m wifi-less, my mexican phone is basically a paper weight, there’s no public phone around and I have no idea who I’m meeting. Suddenly I grab wi-fi off a roasted chicken vendor -of all things- and I get a text from Graciela’s daughter, Virginia saying she’s a block away. A minute later I see young, tall Virginia wave at me (probably because I was the only individual standing in the middle of the street like a lost dog). She’s extroverted, chatty and charismatic. We walk to her family’s place a few blocks away, I meet Graciela and Marcelo, her parents and briefly say hi her two sisters.
We pack everything up and head to the marina. We park at the dock and board a 30 foot sailboat. Virginia jokes about my possibly getting seasick, almost as if to jinx me, a few minutes later I start feeling dizzy. In my mind I’m angry at myself. “How can I’ve rock climbed, wakeboarded, rappelled and kayaked, and a SAILBOAT is getting the best of my equilibrium perception?!”
I pop a Dramamine and eventually a second one that knocks me out for a good while. I wake up and it’s time for the lunch Graciela packed. We have a delicious Argentinian meat with Dijon mustard and quiche-like dish. God bless Dramamine. Now completely in control of my senses Marcelo shows me the basics of sailing, although I’m still basically bolted down on my seat not wanting to make an even greater fool of myself by falling or puking. We talk about many things, art, culture, films, politics, economy. I can tell Marcelo and Graciela are very driven, passionate and intelligent, having traveled around the world and have inherited this passion for knowledge to their daughters. I wish i hadn’t drugged myself with Dramamine in order to keep up with the conversation.
My first time on a sailboat was not as smooth as I had intended, but I cannot complain in the least about the company or food. I only wish I will be a better sailor next time around. As we sail back to the marina I remember how Stefan, a colleague of mine back in DC sailed several times a month, if not every weekend, and how next time I see him I will share this story of my still-disgraceful sailing skills and hopefully get some pointers from him for future aquatic endeavors.
After docking, Virginia invites me to her sister Valentina’s play at a local community theatre, Suburban Players. Tonight’s performance: A Slight Hitch, a 1980s-set comedy about generation gaps between boomers and their parents, followed by a cast party with drinks, music and great new people to meet. Turns out, one of the theatre company members is an old friend of mine from middle-school, who co-incidentally is not there that night. Small world, after all.
My last day in Buenos Aires my body is finally demanding a rest from all the wine and meat, I checkout from the hotel and fly out of Aeroparque Newberry, the regional airport a stone’s throw from the center of Bs As. I fly out to Santiago -with the mandatory Pisco Sour during layover- and land in the monster Mexico City is the next morning, trying to hold on to all the names, faces, conversations, meals, drinks and the memorable details of my trip.
Buenos Aires is made of many stories, many objects, sounds, colors and tastes and smells. All the people who inhabit this beautiful city have a lot to offer and I have hopefully left something behind as well.
I can only say thank you to all the amazing people I encountered on my trip. Each one of you showed me something I did not know before. Shared knowledge, thoughts and opinions. I am grateful for the privilege of traveling, and not only for the sake of traveling, but for the opportunity to grow, learn and share.