Archive for April, 2013


Buenos Aires

Sometimes the amor hits you at first sight.  Other times, it is a longer courtship.  After five weeks in Wellington, a city one can traverse on foot in half an hour in any direction and where we could be atop Mt. Victoria in 20 minutes on foot from our apartment, Buenos Aires was overwhelming at first.  It is sprawling, flat and noisy.  To be honest, I felt a bit claustrophobic for the first fews days as we tried to get our bearings.  But, with the benefit of two full weeks here, we’ve been able to adopt a more relaxed pace and that has allowed us to discover a Buenos Aires that we love.  We’ve spent hours in cafes soaking up the street life and wandering the streets of Palermo and Recoleto.  We rarely have escaped our apartment before noon, having adjusted easily to the 10 pm dinners.  (School is going to be a harsh re-entry for Zara next year.)  We work, we read, we drink cortados and eat medialunas. It all feels so civilized.

Palermo.  We rented a wonderful 2-bedroom apartment right in the heart of Palermo Viejo.  We love this place.  From our cozy first floor balcony, we can look out on cobblestoned, leaf-lined streets, cafes dotting every corner filled with fashionable Portenos drinking cortados and rows of chic clothing and shoe stores.  Signs of Argentina’s current economic crisis abound, however.  Every store is staffed with guards.  Waiters warn us to watch our bags as we sit at the outdoor cafes. Yesterday, we witnessed a bold daylight robbery, where the thief ran 100 yards down the street with a bag nabbed from a tourist in an outdoor cafe. In the evening, young children approach pedding trinkets and after a few nights, their faces are all familiar.
 
 
Recoleta Cemetery.  On any top ten list of places to visit in BA, it is best known as the final resting place of Eva Peron, but it is a worthwhile visit irrespective of its inhabitants.  The cemetery is a warren of above-ground vaults hosting the remains of Argentina’s rich and powerful, and we spent a couple of hours walking up and down the aisles noting the different styles, which ranged from elaborate marble mausoleums to more austerely styled three-foot wide vaults. The ongoing attention paid to the vaults also varied widely. Some had fresh flowers adorning them, whereas others were adorned primarily with cobwebs, dust, rubbish and pieces of broken glass.  I later read that 94 of them are protected by the Argentine state, as national historical sites.  I hope those are the ones that are well-cared for, although given the current government’s economic policies, who knows.

La Feria de San Pedro Telmo.  This is held every Sunday on the Plaza Dorrego in the oldest BA neighborhood of San Telmo and was jam-packed on a hot afternoon.  Compared to our neighborhood, it was teeming with tourists, but we had a wonderful time exploring the handicrafts and antiques.  Zara picked up a new instrument (the ocarina) and Jonathan lucked upon a pair of handmade leather shoes for half-price.  There are street performers, tango dancers and multiple cafes where people tuck into bowls of peanuts and drink refreshing lagers.

El Ateneo.  We love bookstores.  And although we have all fully embraced the digital reading age, there is still nothing like exploring a grand bookstore, which are becoming increasingly rare in America.  El Ateneo is a must-see, although if you don’t speak Spanish, prepare yourself that there is only one shelf of English language books.  The bookstore was converted from a grand theater about 5 years ago and is a must-see.  A lovely cafe sits where the stage used to be and provides a perfect venue to lose yourself in a good book while sipping a cortado.
 

Tango.  No, we didn’t Tango, although there are a ton of opportunities for those more nimble-footed.  We did see a fabulously entertaining show at La Ventana, which was a highlight of our two weeks here.  The impressive footwork from the passionate tango dances elicited multiple “oohs” from Zara, and once again made me fear for our future when she said “I want to do that with [unnamed classmate]!”‘  The show was not limited to the tango, but showcased an entertaining variety of traditional Argentinian song and dance, with the most impressive performer performing an incredibly skilled and rapid-fire routine with bolas (traditional hunting weapons consisting of a wooden or leather balls at the end of braided ropes) that had the audience captivated by the near misses with his cranium.

Museo de los Ninos.  We joked with Zara that this is a museum where she’d been put on display and people would come and look at her while she was supposed to entertain them.  I think she was a bit concerned until we arrived at this kid-nirvana in a mall.  Basically, it is kiddie city, where children can pretend to work at McDonald’s (no joke), be a dentist, perform ultrasounds, grocery shop, be on tv, host a radio show…you get the idea.  May be parent hell but it is kid heaven and you have to figure out on your own if it merits a visit.
Museo Evita.  We visited here our last day on a walk through Palermo before the first rain of our visit struck.  The museum is located in an old mansion in an upscale neighborhood, and the mansion had served as a home for single mothers during the Peron years.  The museum does a great job of highlighting the numerous social works projects spearheaded by Evita, although it would be more meaningful for an international audience if more of the displays were in English.  Still, as divisive as figure as she was, I couldn’t help but me awed by her impact and influence before her premature death at 33.

Ornithophobia sufferers, beware.  Buenos Aires is pigeon paradise.  For our animal-loving daughter, this has meant nearly daily visits to a neighborhood park in Palermo to feed the pigeons.  On most days, an elderly, toothless gentleman sits on a park bench selling corn kernels at 5 pesos a bag.  He calls her Zarita and tells me that his sister is from Calfornia. When he’s absent, Jonathan takes Zara to a nearby mercado where she buys a bag twice as big.  These larger ones she can make that one bag last for half an hour.  Fortunately, Jonathan is on pigeon duties most days. He was more tolerable of Zara’s hobby until one pooped on his head one day.  (Post-script: A parrot at the same park pooped on me today.)

General Thoughts/Advice.
  • Bring dollars!  Due to severe currency controls, you’ll get significantly more bang for your buck if you aren’t held hostage to the official exchange rate.
  •  Wine is extremely good value.  Don’t waste your time on beer here.
  • The meat really is that good.
  • Don’t miss the helado (Argentinian ice cream that rivals the best Italian gelato)
  • Dress your best. Portenos are extremely styish.
  • Adjust your internal clock.  Fridays and Saturdays groups of people walked home past our apartment at 6am.  And they like to sing and shout.  Jonathan even has acknowledged that Americans are quiet in comparison.
  • The jarritos of limonata are a must on a hot day.  Best lemonades I’ve ever had.
  • Wifi in cafes is ubiquitous but we had less success with prepaid SIMs.
Getting ready for a late night at tango

Getting ready for a late night at tango

Tango Show

Tango Show

Sunday in the Park

Sunday in the Park

Shopping in Kid City

Shopping in Kid City

Flipping patatas fritas

Flipping patatas fritas

2013-04-19 15.43.09 2013-04-19 15.55.42

Mausoleums

Mausoleums

More mausoleums

More mausoleums

2013-04-20 08.22.41

Recoleta Cemetary

Recoleta Cemetary

Late night dining

Late night dining

Post-opera

Post-opera

Street perfomers in San Telmo

Street perfomers in San Telmo

Ferio San Telmo

Ferio San Telmo

Booklovers delight at El Ateneo

Booklovers delight at El Ateneo

Carousel in Palermo Viejo

Carousel in Palermo Viejo

Even the Palermo trees are well-dressed!

Even the Palermo trees are well-dressed!

Pigeons!

Pigeons!

Our Palermo apartment

Our Palermo apartment

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Opera in Buenos Aires

“This isn’t the type of opera I expected”, Zara urgently whispered to me, as we shuffled for a better view of the stage.  Her sole exposure to opera before now has been Britain’s Got Talent duo of Jonathan and Charlotte, whose singing she adored.

So, what better way to introduce a 6-year old music lover to opera then to book standing “seats” with a view of only 1/3 of the stage at an opera with Spanish subtitles sang in French?  Yep, that was our brilliant plan in going to see “Carmen” at the Teatro Colon.  The theater is billed as one of the five best acoustical venues in the world and it is gorgeous to boot after benefitting from a massive refurbishment effort a few years back.

As we climbed staircase after staircase after staircase to the highest level, I started to have a few misgivings. Opera arguably is most happily enjoyed from the comfort of a seat that allows for an occasional snooze.  Fortunately, there was a hard bench behind our standing area if standing became to taxing, but when seated, the stage wasn’t visible at all.  Zara did her best to appreciate the show, but we hadn’t done a great job of summarizing the story for her in our hurried read-through of a Carmen synopsis on the way over in the cab and with most of the stage obscured from view, she didn’t have much to go on.

We lasted 90 minutes, through the first two acts, which was long enough to enjoy the well-known Habanera and Toreador songs.  Jonathan and I then made an executive decision to leave, so as to not forever spoil opera for her.   (The fact that the tickets cost less than to attend a movie in the US made this a much easier choice.)  The upside is that next time Zara should be thrilled just to have a seat from which she can see the stage.  I suspect that the tango show we have tickets for later this week will be a bit more up my dancing girl’s alley.
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Santiago Surprises

We landed in Santiago after a long day of travel from Wellington with few expectations. To be honest, Santiago only ended up on our itinerary because it seemed to be the sole entry point in S. America from Auckland. We flew LAN and the flight was happily uneventful, although only Zara slept for longer than 20 minutes and even she managed to squeeze in four movies.

Our day of entry was a rough one.  I had to pay the $160 entry fee for US citizens, whereas Z was able to rely on her British passport, proving that two is better than one in the case of nationality! In our bleary-eyed state, we let our defenses down and  were escorted to a taxi but a friendly, but very persistent “airport employee” (and later realized the cost was double the normal rate).  The heavy air was a bit of a shock after Wellington’s cool, fresh breezes and the horizon was obscured by smog.  We could just barely make out the faint outlines of hills and mountains in every direction though the taupe-colored air.

The ride to the city started off promising on a well-maintained highway, but as we entered the lengthy San Cristobal tunnel that bisects the sprawling city, traffic slowed to a crawl and we understood  enough Spanish from our taxi driver to make out that massive university protests were clogging the streets.  The situation took a decided turn for the worse after discovering that our tunnel exit was blocked off, so we had to endure a slow creep through the overcrowded tunnel for at least 30 minutes as my claustrophobia worsened in the stagnant underground air.  When we finally emerged from the subterranean darkness, our taxi driver was cursing the blocked calles and congestion that seemed centered around our final destination and I just felt overcome with queasiness. We passed teams of riot police but the protests themselves must have been a bit further away because we didn’t see any protestors.

As we negotiated the lair of one-way streets, our taxi driver appeared somewhat confused by the address we gave him but we assured him he could just drop us off on the general block and we could find it. If only it had been that easy.

It turns out that the AirbnB address I only indicated the general neighborhood, not a specific apartment building.

Lesson #1. Always confirm Airbnb directions with your host BEFORE landing in a city where you haven’t yet obtained a local Sim card and thus have no way to call/text to confirm.  Airbnb does a great job of reminding you to do this in its confirmation emails, but unfortunately it was a lesson that I had to learn the hard way.

Lesson #2: The people we met in Santiago were incredibly helpful and kind, but my Spanish was seriously rusty (i.e., borderline useless).

Lesson #3: I don’t cope well with stress when jet-lagged (arguably, you could drop the qualifier).

Lesson #4:  My Spanish needs a serious refresher course.

After over an hour of traipsing up and down several blocks, looking pathetic at random apartment lobbies, coping with dead iPhones and knocking on strangers’ doors, we finally were offered a wifi password that allowed us to contact our Airbnb host and obtain the actual address, which was on the 27th floor.  (Always comforting in a country that has recorded the world’s 2nd largest earthquake.)

That evening, jet-lag knocked us out and we only just managed to rise before noon the next day.  As a result, we took a very que sera sera attitude towards sightseeing, which meant that we meandered the streets through the Centro Mercado, towards the Barrio Bellavista and stopped for a leisurely three-course lunch in a converted casita.  After fortifying ourselves with some pescados fritos we headed toward Cerro San Cristobol, for our fourth urban tram-ride with panoramic views (after HK, Penang and Wellington).   The view gave us a much better appreciation for the spectacular setting that Santiago lies within–similar to the LA basin (certainly in the smog aspect) but ringed by the Andes!  A 22-meter statue of the Virgin Mary sits atop the hill and we soaked up the sun at her feet for awhile until the requirement to remain silent became too taxing for Z.

We opted for the tram ride down the mountain although it’s possible to do it on foot and landed back in the Bellavista neighborhood just as Friday evening happy hour was in full swing.  Not wanting to miss out on the lively atmosphere, we snagged an outdoor table at the Crazy Bar and ordered a large Cerveza Austral, a local lager.

The bar lived up to its name.  Too bad Jonathan didn’t have the opportunity to down more beer before a street performer in drag set up “her” stereo right in front of us and started shaking her coconut knockers around our table.  And before Jonathan had a chance to protest, she was giving him a lap dance as Zara laughed uncontrollably at his side.  Unfortunately, the pics I took didn’t capture his expression, but Zara’s expression speaks volumes.  Unfortunately, Zara now has a few new moves to her dance repertoire that may not be appropriate for a 6-year old and she hasn’t been shy about using them.  That girl will do anything for a laugh.

We later grabbed dinner at another plaza in Bellavista and sampled (okay–we had 2 each) Pisco Sours, the national drink.  If anything–they are too easy to drink.  Luckily, the late hour saved me from a third round.

Saturday morning was another lie-in.  When we finally motivated, we walked to another neighborhood about 1/2 hour away and grabbed a late breakfast outdoors at Leerte.  We both readily adopted the local habit of the cortado, an espresso cut with milk, usually in a 1-1 ratio.  We were scheduled to meet my former assistant at 2:30pm so we quickly walked over the El Castillo de Hidalgo after our meal.  The castle was originally built as a fortress to protect the city in 1826 and is perched atop a rocky hill and offers more great views (smog permitting).  It’s definitely worth a visit.

We were running late to meet Claudia at the ultra-modern Costanera Center mall so we grabbed a taxi there.  It was wonderful to catch up with Claudia, a native Chilean, who is back working at the Santiago office of my old law firm.  Afterwards, we took advantage of the mall to grab an ice-cream, sort out our Sim card, stop by a bookstore so Z could read a bit (the one children’s book in English we could find) and then walked the 3 miles back towards our part of town.

We hoped to grab dinner outdoors, but soon began to appreciate that Claudia’s comment that Chileans don’t eat dinner was spot-on.  There were plenty of bars were snacks could be had, but surprisingly few sit-down restaurants for dinners.  We finally settled on an outdoor bar, which set us back only $20 after a filling meal of empanadas, cervezas and olives and nuts.  It was lovely to experience something closer to SE Asian prices after the sticker shock of Norway and NZ.

In the end, we all thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in Santiago.  It’s a city that is well-run, seems to have a vibrant middle class, little poverty visible on the street, very friendly people and a truly spectacular setting.  Would love to return for a longer visit some day although the lack of a dinner culture is a definite negative. Now if they can only make some progress on the smog…but if LA could, there is hope.

La Virgen - Atop Cerro San Cristobol

La Virgen – Atop Cerro San Cristobol

View from Cerro San Cristobol

View from Cerro San Cristobol

Santiago Sunset

Santiago Sunset

Street Art

Street Art

Bellavista neighborhood

Bellavista neighborhood

Cerro San Cristobol

Cerro San Cristobol

Sidewalk lapdance

Sidewalk lapdance

Atop Castillo Hidalgo

Atop Castillo Hidalgo

With Claudia

With Claudia

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