Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tagged! I'm it

I was meme'd this morning by my friend Karan, the failed mommy, and now feel compelled to answer her questions (although I know she can't make me, I'm always happy to be included):

1. What do you love about where you live?
I love coming home to it. I am frequently on the road, for work and for fun, and I enjoy the travel in ways, perhaps, that others do not. But I am always glad to come home from my adventures and sleep in my own bed. I also enjoy the fact that the water is never more than 5 minutes away from any point in town, and this time of year, there's a whole day's worth of activities available after work lets out, because the sun isn't setting until about 2 a.m. (and then only briefly). But at the end of the day, what I love most about living here are the people I am surrounded by.

On a bigger scale, as a Canadian, I was asked this week if I would ever buy a home in another country. And as much as I enjoy visiting other places, I have learned by traveling just how lucky we are to live in this lovely, infuriating, peaceful nation of winter and mosquitoes. Where we talk about our differences endlessly instead of killing each other. Where we are allowed to tell our governments they are stupid, and no one comes to get us in the middle of the night.

2. What could entice you to leave it?
World peace and the elimination of poverty and hatred and xenophobia would be a start. I would consider a temporary assignment outside of Canada, but I would need to know I was coming back eventually. As for the North, I often thought I would leave, and I guess I will eventually (I can't imagine being an elderly person in this climate, being trapped in my house 7-8 months of the year because of weather and road conditions), but I have no idea why I would go other than weather and health. I suppose a place where the weather is better and my health would improve would seem enticing.

3. If you could go anywhere on a trip, without regard to resources, where would you go, and why?
I would take a year and drive around New Zealand. It has always seemed like a country that has every type of vista and climate and experience, rolled into one package. And I like leisurely road trips. And lots of scenery to photograph.

4. What inspires you?
Lately, not much, which is kind of a problem I need to work through. An opportunity to effect positive change is inspiring, and rare. A chance to experience something new - always inspiring. Being around others who do so much more with less than I have, and who are genuinely appreciative, that's inspiring, and humbling.

5. What makes you laugh the hardest?
Bing'ing off of friends until you are practically hyperventilating.

And Craig Ferguson.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

comment changes

Some of you have, over the course of my time blogging, pointed out that you couldn't leave a comment unless you were a registered user. Well, I have finally figured out how to turn this off. I will experiment with allowing any comments, including from anonymous posters, and see if that results in a ton of spam or random robot solicitations. If it does, I will make further adjustments. If not, comment away! I would like to know if more than 4 people are reading this at any given time.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Back to reality

I am now back in Canada, after another 26 hour ordeal packed into one sold-out flight in economy class after another, including the 16-hour flight from BA to Toronto via Santiago, Chile. At least the polo player seated next to me was happy to trade seats so I could sit on the aisle, and he could sleep next to the window. I have determined to never again take any flight longer than 8 hours without doing everything in my power to upgrade to business class. Those lie flat beds were really impressive looking as I shuffled past them coming onto, and off, the overnight flight.

I have a few unfinished posts that I will keep working on and put up over the coming days, so keep checking back for more from Argentina. I'll then be taking a break from posting until the next trip, looking like September.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Iguazu Falls; or, I can see Brazil from my hotel!

When the rain first came Monday afternoon, I could only hear the occasional splash of a large droplet upon a broad leaf in the canopy overhead, while I remained dry on the trail below. It was extraordinary to stand there, alone on the trail under the trees of the Mesopotamian rainforest, listening only to the birds and the “splosh!... splosh!“ of the rain. And then quite unexpectedly, came the deluge as the canopy gave way. It was as if someone had pulled the plug on a full bathtub, and I was now standing directly under the drain.

Soaked, and still perhaps a kilometre from the hotel, I had no option but to make a run for it - that’s when I happened upon an abandoned park ranger’s facility with an overhanging porch farther down the trail, where several other drenched hikers were already seeking refuge. And so we stood around, this mix and match crew of foreigners, not really making conversation, but standing comfortably with each other, sharing the experience and the moment, waiting for the rain to abate.

This three-day trip to Iguazu was my only significant side trip from Buenos Aires. I had intended to also go into Uruguay (just an hour by ferry across the river), but a combination of my misplaying the May Day long weekend, and my continuing enjoyment of BA’s fine neighbourhoods, led me to abandon those plans. But I could not come all this way and not take a trip to see Iguazu Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world.

Iguazu Falls lies at the far northern tip of Argentina, in Missiones province, where the country meets Paraguay and Brazil in one of the most dangerous, and most scenic, places on Earth. Dangerous because it is a haven for drug and gun smugglers and organized criminals seeking to move trafficked contraband across national borders with impunity; scenic because of a spectacular break in the rainforest created by the two branches of the Iguazu River coming together at a precipice that stretches for over three kilometres, and which comprises more than 250 individual waterfalls all running together in a torrent of water. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so. The national park is actually a cooperative project of Brazil and Argentina, and it straddles the border.

When coming to the park, there are basically two options; Argentina, or Brazil. If you’re on an Argentina-based trip like me, crossing over into Brazil for the day to see their view of the falls will cost you about $140 in a country entry fee, plus whatever the cost is for the tour package you’re on. For about 3 hours and one trail. I declined the opportunity. There are only two hotels in the park itself; the Sheraton on the Argentine side, and the Tropical des Cataratas in Brazil. They lie across the Iguazu River from one another and are perhaps 400 m apart. To say they are expensive and exploit their monopoly would be an understatement.

Your only other option is to stay in one of the many hotels in the town of Puerto Iguazu, about a 15 minute taxi ride away, and shuttle back and forth each day by cab or bus. I wasn’t entirely sure of the logistics of this operation, so I chose to suck it up and stay at the Sheraton and be able to walk right out into the park after breakfast. When the park opened at 8 am. The great advantage to this plan was, for about an hour each morning, the hotel guests had the place to themselves, as the tour buses didn’t tend to arrive until after 9. The downside, of course, was the cost. I’m not generally comfortable with places where I know the money I am spending for a night’s stay is probably as much as the chambermaid earns in a month. Or, for that matter, that anglicizes all of the waiters’ names so the largely American and European guests can, presumably, remember them easier. After all, Guillermo and Pedro are so much more difficult to retain than William and Peter.

Anyway, politics aside, I splurged on two nights at the Sheraton, with a falls view room. Here's the view from my balcony, with the morning mist rising off the falls:


Just out of frame to the left of this photo is the Brazilian hotel. That break in the trees on the left? That's the river valley, the dividing line between the countries.

In the park, there’s a system of elevated hiking trails, very well-maintained, and a eco-train that hauls you from major stop to major stop in case you get tired of all the walking around.


It is currently the rainy season, which means there's even more water in the rivers than usual. It is quite spectacular.



Argentines have what can only be described as a different sense of public safety than Canadians do. I highly doubt we would ever get away with building this sort of observation platform overhanging the rushing torrents of water, cantilevered to the point of inducing vertigo.



A number of fellow travellers, hearing I am from Canada, asked me how this compared to Niagara Falls. Let me be clear - these falls are beyond compare. Whereas Niagara has prostituted itself into basically becoming Las Vegas with a waterfall, all cheap casinos and wax museums, Iguazu has largely maintained a pristine natural state. And it is glorious to see. The park is full of wildlife, from birds like this Plush crested jay, the "urraca comun":


and the social flycatcher:


To the raccoon/badger cross, the coatimundi (the size of a Labrador retriever when full-grown):


Extraordinary butterflies:


flowers, like this bird of paradise:

and iguanas:

After the rain I was caught in finally stopped, the sun came out and brought with it the rainbows. Truly a magical day.


Guira Oga Wildlife Sanctuary

I am a planner. At any given time, I am already researching 2 to 4 vacations ahead - currently, I have folders open for my next 3 vacations, through the end of 2011. Despite this, sometimes the best parts of my holiday are completely spontaneous and unexpected. That was certainly the case with the highlight of my awesome trip to Argentina.

On Wednesday morning, after two days of hiking around Iguazu National Park, I had a few hours to kill before flying back to BA in the early afternoon. I had read a post on some chat board a while back about a bird sanctuary operated by the local native group near the town of Puerto Iguazu, about 15 km from my hotel in the park, but my notes didn't specify exactly where it was. After a bit of online research by the Sheraton's concierge, we tracked down a physical street address, and I was off and running. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but I was anxious to see some of the more elusive birds from the park up close, and figured this would likely be much more successful than wandering around some more trails hoping to have sharp enough eyes to spot these guys tucked into the treetops dozens of feet overhead.

Sure enough, the Guira Oga Wildlife Sanctuary is located about 15 minutes from the entrance to Iquazu Falls National Park, about 5 km from the town of Puerto Iguazu, and the name means "the home of the birds" in the local Quarani language.

The sanctuary is simply amazing. It is set back from the road in a corner of the rainforest. Every bird and animal here is in some way a victim of an interaction with man - either they were poached and subsequently confiscated by border patrol, or illegally kept as pets, or they were injured by a car along the length of highway that cuts through a corner of the park (a roadside sign urging motorists to slow down says 500 animals are killed each year on the highway; countless multiples are no doubt injured). The sanctuary is part rehabilitation center, part breeding center, and part zoo. Any bird or animal capable of hunting for themselves is released back into the park when they are healed; but the simple, tragic fact remains that many of these birds and animals will never be able to be released into the wild, either because they never learned to hunt or live in nature, or because their injuries will never fully heal and they would be vulnerable to attack if let loose.

There were only five of us on the 10:30 am tour, which was a shame, and I was the only anglo, which was an even bigger shame. There was a young couple from BA on their honeymoon, and a middle-aged couple from southern Argentina on a holiday in BA who'd pretty much done what I had and come up on a detour for a few days of nature. Evidently, this sanctuary is better known in the Spanish-speaking world than farther afield, but I am a big believer that it needs to be better publicized, since the entrance fee (30 pesos, or about $7.50) is how it funds its projects.

The tour is guided by a very well-informed ranger who has obviously spent considerable time working among the birds and animals. My guide, a young woman named Tamara, had been studying English for a scant 7 months, and was fluent in idiomatic English. She knew the history of each animal we observed on the two hour tour and answered a great many questions we all had. In some respects, I think the fact we were only five meant we got an even better tour, a more personalized tour, than if we'd been many.

The tour starts with all of us climbing into the back of an open bed cart being pulled along a dirt path further into the rainforest by a tractor. After about 10 minutes, it stops at a building, and we all climb down and start walking along a path which is probably a couple of kilometres long, and along which we will eventually find 15-18 large mesh domes under which groups of bird live. Toucans with toucans, eagles with eagles, parrots with parrots, etc.

The enclosures are quite large, and there are only 4-6 birds in each. Inside, the rainforest is replicated as much as possible, and there are any number of perches, etc for them to flit between. And the mesh is quite fine, which means the birds have a sense of being part of the bigger environment, while being protected from predators. I asked Tamara if the wild birds, monkeys, etc ever come out of the rainforest to investigate their brethren under mesh, and she said it happened all the time. The fine mesh also means it is possible to get really great photos without the typical fence-grid overlay which mars many a zoo shot, and the birds especially seem really curious when people come along and many came right up to the mesh to investigate us, which meant we were only five or six feet away on the pathway. They seemed to understand we were no threat to them, and that they were protected by the domes.

This is a standard green parrot:


and a scarlet macaw:


and my most favorite, the toco toucan:


It's not just birds who end up in the sanctuary - there was a family of capuchin monkeys, including this baby, and when he is old enough, he will be released back into the park, while his injured parents live out their days under protection:

The raptors, most of whom can no longer fly, spend their days outside the mesh domes, sitting on falconry posts out in the open, chattering to themselves. This is an Aquila Viuda black and white hawk-eagle, who had snapped a tendon in its wing when hit by a car. The wing had healed somewhat, but this fellow would never again have the strength to fly and more specifically, hunt:


Next to him, a Crowned Solitary Eagle:


This caiman had been a BA family's illegal pet as a baby, but when it started to grow and become aggressive, they surrendered it to the park. It is now about 12 feet long:


This is a pygmy deer. She is about the size of a border collie, which was surprising to me, being used to the full-size deer and elk of Banff and Jasper National Parks. She was having a snooze right next to the elevated walkway. Had I been so inclined, I could have easily reached over the handrail and patted her head. She was completely unfazed by the approach of people. Her babies however, stood off at a distance; born in captivity, this apprehension of people means they may eventually be released into the park.


Some of the species currently living at the sanctuary are nearly extinct in nature, their habitat destroyed by man and massive hydro electric dams along the principal rivers in the rainforest. When two or more of the same species are in the sanctuary at the same time, the rangers will try to induce mating, in order to rebuild the populations, and they take great care so the healthy babies do not become used to man or domesticated. Only by doing this do they have any hope of being able to release them into the wild when they are old enough to fend for themselves. They have apparently had great success with some species, but not others. There was an enclosure dedicated to enormous vultures, but I noticed off to the side a smaller pen with only one large black vulture sitting in it. I asked Tamara about that one. It had been found by a farmer as a fledgling, and raised in a barn before eventually being seized by officials. But the damage was already done - the vulture now only recognizes people as its "friends". The rangers tried to introduce it to the other vultures, and it attacked them as a threat. It seems incapable of recognizing its own kind, and as a result, will live out its days alone.

I never did get to see the purported highlight of the tour, however. The puma they had been caring for had recently recovered sufficiently to be released back into the park. Another success story for a well-organized and incredible sanctuary!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Feria de los Mataderos

Buenos Aires is a very large city. The capital district comprises 29 districts, with nearly 13 million people living here. Thus far, I have spent my time mostly in the six districts that form the downtown and immediate surrounding area, but today I ventured further afield, to the district of Mataderos.

This is the last stop before crossing out of the city into the more rural areas that will eventually lead to the Pampas, the cattle ranches of the grassland plains, where Argentina's famous beef is raised. "Mataderos" means slaughterhouse, and this traditionally was the neighbourhood where cattle would be brought for sale and slaughter, with the surrounding apartments and flats housing the workers from the slaughterhouses. This is not a prosperous neighourhood, but it is working and proud and quite traditional, and it celebrates the "real Argentina" every Sunday during the fall and winter with a fair.

Because of its location, it is not nearly as tourist-oriented as the more easily accessible Sunday fairs, like San Telmo, although to be sure there were a number of tourists here (although most seemed to be from nearby regions or countries, speaking Spanish. I didn't hear anyone speaking English all afternoon). Getting here is a bit of a challenge. I took the subway to the very end, and then hired a car to take me another 12-15 minutes through some desperate looking areas to the fair grounds, formally named the National Market of the Hacienda, which is in reality an open stadium that might be used for soccer or rugby the other six days a week.

In hiring the remise, as the car service is called, I was assigned to a very nice young man named Sebastian, who spoke exactly no English. Either the local tobacco smells suspiciously like pot, or Sebastian enjoys his weed (particularly in his car), but in any event, he drove me very carefully to the fair grounds and explained quite adamantly that I should never cross Eva Peron Avenue, which was the main route to the fair grounds. It was quickly apparent why - on one side of the street, corner stores, supermarkets, clothing outlets, a Mercedes dealership - on the other side, the ravaged remains of buildings that looked like they had been through a war. The contrast was beyond striking. It might explain why no one at my hotel had themselves ever been to Mataderos, and all cautioned me to be careful and watch my camera.

Sebastian brought me right up to the main gate and explained to me what I would find depending on which direction I turned - the restaurant/grill zone, entertainment, lots and lots of arts and crafts stalls, and over here, the horses. Through my now-patented routine of hand signals and limited Spanish, he agreed to come back at 5:30 and pick me up to take me back to the subway station. I had the afternoon to myself. Or as much to myself as one can have with 10 or 12 thousand other folks out enjoying the rest of the Worker's Day weekend (May 1).


This is part of one block - it goes on for several blocks in each direction, with the central square hosting the musical activities. Over the course of the afternoon, a number of excellent bands and musicians played any number of what seemed to be well-known folk songs, such that large segments of the crowd were singing along, clapping their hands to add percussion, and even dancing in the street. Part of the Feria's appeal is the number of local people it draws with roots in the outlying regions, who come to the fair dressed in traditional garb:


These two were married, and along with another couple, seemed to be leading the street dancing. Between bands, we struck up a conversation, and they seemed fascinated that a Canadian would come to their fair. I guess it doesn't happen very often. But it didn't matter if you came dressed in jeans and T-shirts, like the young folk did, or in the more traditional clothes, watching everyone move with precision was amazing, like seeing a room full of Victorians waltzing at a ball, dozens of couples moving in sync crossing the floor in uniform direction.

A big part of the Feria is the traditional gaucho competitions, where horsemen (and one woman) undertake games of skill. My favorite involves galloping at full speed towards a small stand roughly eight feet tall, from whose crossbar hangs about a foot of rope and at the very bottom of the rope, a pin with a loop of metal, about the size of a key chain ring. The gaucho holds a silver wand out in front of him at arm's length, and must get the wand through the loop while standing in the stirrups of the galloping horse. It is impressive to watch. These fellows were waiting their turn:


The central square is ringed with parillas (charcoal grills) and food stalls. I was mesmerized watching the empanada assembly line at one, and here they are making tortillas for a very hungry crowd. The folks on the right, in the aprons, are rolling out and punching out the tortillas - they then go to the lady in the foreground, who is in charge of frying them up, and then they make their way up to the front of the stall for sale:


As with any fair, there is something for everyone, and some quirky place-specific stuff as well. Personally, I've never been to a fair where people brought their pet ponies, instead of their dogs, and this fellow every outfitted his pony in the traditional garb of the estancia horses. Perhaps the pony fantasizes about what he will be when he grows up?


I have to confess that I cannot tell the difference between an alpaca and a llama, and because of that, I'm not exactly sure what this is:


His keeper however, was parading him through the crowds, stopping to let small kids pose for their dads (it was always the dads with the cameras) on its back. It was quite cooperative, given the heat and the crowd, and I ran into him several times throughout the day at various places on the fair grounds.

It's a shame more tourists don't know about the fair. It isn't marketed to tourists, but maybe that's a good thing. Those of us who happen to find it can enjoy a glimpse of a more traditional Argentine life, among actual Argentines, instead of being treated to a more polished theme park "experience" that would no doubt be priced out of reach for the average local worker. As it was, I had no problems with the crowd, no one even looked at my camera, and I had a delightful afternoon browsing stalls and eating from food stands and having simple conversations with folks who were kind of excited someone from away took the time and had the interest to come to their fair.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The birds of Puerto Madero

While out along the promenade, I came upon a number of birds who seem quite accustomed to the presence of people. I got within 10 feet of this little guy, who was quite enamoured of the grubs and ants he was pulling out of the tree truck crevices:


This fellow was waiting for me to drop some of my lunch on the ground, keeping watch from the trellises that shade parts of the promenade:


And then there were the parakeets. These little guys are not so good with people, so chasing them around was a bit more of a challenge. Still, they are impossibly green and incredibly playful, darting all over the place, usually in pairs.


I can't wait to see what next week brings at Iquazu Falls, in the Argentine rainforest. I won't be taking my netbook with me for the next couple of days, but will try to post on Wednesday night upon my return to BA.

Puerto Madero

Bright, shiny Puerto Madero sits just east of downtown, across a narrow canal. It is the newest of the city's districts, being designated only in 1991. From the 1800s, this area was the working dockland of Buenos Aires. As ships grew every larger, docks that could handle them sprung up to the north of the city, along the actual River Plata coast and this area fell into disrepair, and was even off-limits during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983.

With the return of democracy came the return of real estate speculation, and suddenly Puerto Madero was hot stuff for foreigners with a lot of cash to spread around. Unusually, many of the warehouses in the district were recycled into office and loft housing space, instead of being torn down. Those that were too far gone were however, replaced with shiny tall towers, the largest in town.



The entire area is criss-crossed with spectacular pedestrian promenades, public art, and bridges crossing four basins of water (one of which now houses a very high end yacht club).

This bridge, Puente de la Mujer, is by my favorite contemporary architect, Santiago Calatrava, and it can rotate to allow vessels to pass from the club out into the bay. The suspension and arc of the bridge are said to be inspired by the form of a tango-dancing couple in a lean.


Beyond the spashy architecture and loft spaces (and the most expensive restaurants in town) lies a second component of Madero - the ecological reserve.


Created practically by accident - the zone was used as a landfill during the dictatorship to dispose of massive amounts of earth removed from other parts of the city during public works projects - the idea was to create more land for development. But when the economy tanked during the Falklands war, the plan stalled, and nature took over, with these high grasses and trees taking hold and attracting abundant wildlife and birdlife. Since virtually everyone here lives in apartments, with no yards or outdoor space, this central location within walking distance of downtown is hugely popular on weekends, and especially on days like May Day, the Day of the Worker, with those who aren't interested in attending the huge leftist political rallies in the Plaza de Mayo. It seemed more prudent for me to spend my Saturday among the famillies picnicing along the promenades than getting caught up in anti-foreigner rhetoric downtown.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Darkness uncloaked

You get an entirely different sense of a city walking around its neighbourhoods after dark. In Spanish or Latin cities especially, what is hidden during daylight hours reveals itself: windows go unshuttered now that the heat of the day has passed, bringing lush interior courtyards into view; music, in this case tango and salsa, waft from open doors inviting one to linger and listen; and families stroll before dinner, usually with a dog or two in tow. Here, teens literally hang out on street corners, sitting on sidewalk curbs talking until all hours. Obedient dogs linger in doorways patiently waiting for their people, without being tethered or physically restrained in any way. The dog owners of Buenos Aires could give lessons on keeping dogs calm and loyal.

But there is another side to Buenos Aires at night as well. Darkness brings out armies of scavengers who patiently sort through the day’s garbage looking for anything they can recycle, reuse, or sell second-hand. This is the side of the city the brochures and travel books don’t tell you about. About the people, and there are many of them, of all ages and both genders, who are desperate to make ends meet and resort to any legal method to facilitate that. (There are also, of course, armies of people who resort to illegal means of earning a living, but thankfully, I had no contact with any of them).

You see the scavengers everywhere - the cardboard recycler guys with their enormous wheeled bins, tearing open the trash bags outside local businesses and homes, pawing through every last scrap and examining it closely to determine its value. By mid-evening, they have literally filled their bins and are wheeling them off to parts unknown down the middle of the road. BA has no official recycling program - homes and businesses throw everything into the same trash bags - but evidently there is some sort of unofficial recycling program, as there’s no shortage of people meticulously salvaging cans, bottles, tins, and cardboard from every bag on every corner. They must be taking it all somewhere and earning a few pesos for their trouble. It is a significant industry.

Then there are those who are just trying to stave off the hunger. Last Thursday night, I saw a man literally peeling the layers of an onion outside the San Telmo Market, trying to figure out if any part of it remained edible after an outside layer had started to moulder. A middle-aged woman was a few feet away, examining some carrots that had been set aside by merchants. At this market at least, merchants offer the small kindness of not placing the spoiling food in plastic bags, leaving it instead on open pallets at the curbside for anyone to take.

You would think with all this ripping open of garbage bags, and scattering of remnants, that the city would be an unholy mess, but it isn’t. I don’t know what army of cleaners comes along in the dead of night, but by morning, all the trash has been removed and the cycle begins anew. You might also think such a hot, humid city would be battling an onslaught of vermin like rats and cockroaches, and that the exposed trash would attract them into the open, but I can honestly say I never saw one rat or one cockroach in my entire stay in San Telmo.

What you also don’t see in Buenos Aires are beggars or street people. At least not in the downtown areas where you might expect to find them, those areas being travelled all day by shoppers, tourists, and business people, folks with cash in pocket. There are no panhandlers here to speak of. The buskers on Florida Street are, in my view, different, as they are performing music or magic or a puppet show in exchange for a donation.

And yet, taking a train out to Tigre, or a taxi to the airport, one passes what can only be described as shantytowns, places where the bricks are literally crumbling from the facades, the roof lines are heaving and uneven, and there’s an accumulation of industrial plastic bins, like the kind you mix cement in, lining the roof, filled with who knows what - rainwater? There are also any number of abandoned construction projects, victims of the peso’s crash a few years back and the general economic upheaval since late 2008. Many of these sites, most without facades or windows, just open concrete structures, are clearly being lived in, with many a line of laundry hung out to dry by squatters. There is obvious poverty here, but you don’t see it unless you look for it, and then it slaps you in the face.

In the meantime, the sun comes up and the army has retreated behind closed doors until darkness falls again, while the working poor, those who earn perhaps a thousand pesos a month, hosing off sidewalks and sweeping stoops, are out plying their respective trades for 10 hours at a time.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reminders are everywhere

Argentina's ignoble history of repression and murder of dissidents is never completely out of mind, or for that matter, out of sight:


These four sidewalk stones are on a popular street, Defensa, in my neighbourhood. On Sundays, the street is closed to traffic and thousands of people pour onto it as it transforms into a 15-block long pedestrian shopping mall. Virtually everyone passes by these stones on every outing.

The stones say: Here lived (name), activist, disappeared on (date - 3 in 1977, 1 in 1975) for acts of terrorism against the state.

The plaques are installed and sponsored by "neighbourhoods for remembrance and justice". Given how many thousands of people were disappeared during the oppressive miltary regime from 1977-1983, I expect to see many more of these stones as I wander around town during the next couple of weeks.

Hey! Not so tight!

Argentines are famous for their love of dogs. You see them everywhere, and they are usually big Labs, or pit bulls, or mastiffs - big dogs you wouldn't expect to live in small apartments. Purse dogs are rare, at least in the neighbourhood I'm staying in (I'm heading out to the chi-chi neighbourhoods next week and will report back if there is, indeed, a surfeit of purse dogs farther afield).

However, I passed this lady today a few blocks from my flat - she was evidently waiting for someone to come out of a nearby shop - and I had to double back to grab this photo (thank God for long telephoto lenses!)


Look at the poor thing's face, with its pink tongue hanging out. It definitely does NOT seem impressed to be squeezed under this woman's arm like some annoying purse. To its eternal credit however, it did not squirm to try and get away, and seemed resigned to its ignominous fate.

Sunday in the San Telmo Market

Sundays are a big social day in Buenos Aires. Most folks here work six days a week (average wage - 90 pesos a day - about $22 American dollars) and Sunday is their day to get out there and mingle with their friends, browse a market, sip coffee, and get some sun. There are about a dozen markets/fairs held in the city's various neighbourhoods on Sundays, but the biggest is on Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo. There, about 270 people are licensed to set up booths and offer all manner of antiques, glasswork, silver, etc for sale. A number of them are also original artists, displaying their paintings, ceramics, fabric work and photography for sale. It is a carnival, but packed with people.

When I came here, I knew I wanted to come home with some filete, but so much of what is offered in the touristy areas is mass produced. I wanted something handmade, and I finally got it. This fellow, Daniel Flore, is a certified fileteador, and he paints while minding his booth (he also has a shop around the corner during the week).


The diversity of what's on offer is stunning - from antique Victrolas -


to every colour of fedora and hat possible (a must for the stylish Tango dancer!)


This is just part of one of the dozens of alleys lined with stalls:


After a couple of hours of browsing about however, enough is enough with the crowds. Once again, as with the art deco debacle earlier in the week, almost everything I liked - the exquisite glasswork, the original seltzer bottles, the deco silver work -was too big or too heavy to transport back to Canada. A person could however, fashion a lovely apartment from what's on sale locally! And considering flats are available beginning at $35,000 US....

In the end, it all comes down to weather

As Canadians, we seem to be obsessed with the weather. Go anywhere, and we can always start a decent conversation with a total stranger by commenting on the weather.

When I arrived here a week ago, it was unseasonably warm and humid, and I was dying. Then, thankfully, the weather broke and fall was restored (it is the equivalent of late October here, after all). Not that it got cold, mind you, but the temperature dropped to the high teens. Perfect for the T-shirts I had packed. Yesterday, I flipped on the TV and this is what I saw:

Yes, indeed, this reporter, live on the scene of something important in BA, is wearing mittens. Look at the screen more closely - it's a quarter past noon, and it's a little over 16 degrees Celsius. And she's wearing mittens, a hat, a big, bulky turtleneck and a coat. I took this photo specifically because I knew if I tried to explain it without a visual aid, I would be accused of exaggerating the situation.

Which raises one important question: how hot does it get here in the summer that 16 degrees is considered really bloody cold?

I hasten to add that this reporter is not an isolated incident. Ever since the weather got cooler on Wednesday, I have been seeing these women - and it is always women - wearing big wool coats, or buttoned/zippered leather jackets, sometimes together. They still look cold. And they all look at me, walking down the street quite happily in a T-shirt, like I'm a crazy woman.

I wonder if they too, are talking about the weather?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mothers never forget

Every Thursday afternoon at 3:30 pm, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of the May Plaza) hold a demonstration around the central obelisk in the park across from the Presidential Palace. They have done so every week since April 1977, and their goal remains the same: to force the government to accept formal responsibility for, and give them a full accounting of, the whereabouts of their adult children, who were kidnapped by paramiltary gangs and the armed forces for their left-wing, anti-military, or trade unionist activities from 1977 to 1983. As many as 30,000 people went missing during that period, during the Dirty War and Operation Condor.

What began as a small, silent protest of a few has now turned into a larger event, with the active support of trade unions:

Many of the founding Mothers were themselves "disappeared" to concentration camps, and three never returned - their remains were finally found and identified in 2005, and one founder, Azucena Villaflor, has even been buried at the foot of the Obelisk.

Many of those lost, however, were never found, owing no doubt to a preferred military technique of throwing militants out of planes over the Atlantic. Without a body, the military could then claim they weren't actually dead, only that they had "disappeared".

The Mothers have split, over the years, into two factions, with the Founding Line (below) continuing their original quest; the splinter group has become more radical and supports all sorts of anti-government activities, but both continue to march together on Thursdays.

The white headscarves the Mothers each wear are embroidered with the name of their specific disappeared child; some also march while holding photos of their children. The Mothers are getting older now, of course, but they have vowed to continue as long as they can.

They are also extremely well-organized; they have a storefront near the Senate, they sponsor an independent University and all manner of programs designed to support democracy, free speech, and unionism, and they run fundraising booths on the Plaza selling pins, T-shirts, and keychains to fund their initiatives.

While the UN and an independent commission have each confirmed the Dirty War's legacy, the government still has not taken responsibility for these thousands of tortures and murders. And the Mothers wait.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

San Telmo - the heart of BA

Today has been threatening rain throughout, so I did not take as many pictures as I would normally, the light being rather poor. However, as promised, I spent most of the day strolling around my new adopted neighbourhood of San Telmo, one of the oldest parts of the city, and rumoured to be where Pedro de Mendoza founded the city many moons ago (BA is currently celebrating its bicentennial, but I'm not sure how long it was between founding, in the colonial sense, and becoming an incorporated city, in the formal sense). It is a charming place, full of cobblestoned streets and leafy green parks where folks sip beers and watch tango dancers perform "spontaneously".

I spent most of the day popping in and out of the numerous antiques stores around Plaza Dorrego, some of which specialize entirely in art deco and art nouveau. Sadly, I did not in the end purchase anything, mostly because the things I really, really wanted - sideboards, entire silver tea sets, dining room chairs - would be difficult to transport. It pains me beyond belief to leave things in the store in the $50-100 range (the most expensive item was the sideboard, a fabulously rounded and shaped item big enough to fill a proper dining room, on for $563 - pesos, not dollars. There are about 4 pesos to a dollar currently). Yes, the sideboard would cost less than an IKEA chair back in Canada. Hence, the pain in leaving it behind.

Unfortunately for me, my interest in art deco has never really been manifested by the smaller items, the jewelry and tiny personal items that would fit easily in a suitcase. However, I am poised to buy something, and I will know it when I see it. It is actually hard to spend money here - for example, I am just back from a big dinner, with beer, that ran 40 pesos in total. When I gave the waiter a 50 peso note and indicated I did not want change, he nearly fell over. That still brought the cost of dinner to less than $15.

One of the things I have remarked upon so far in this neighbourhood is the ornate ironwork present on virtually every balcony of any building of a certain age:

Ironwork meets the Italianate style at Mercado San Telmo, a spectacular 1897 building that houses a number of individual stalls, on one side specializing in antiques and books, and on the other, on fruit and veggie sellers, butchers, bakers, etc. You can wander through there and shop item by item, stall by stall, and build an entire menu. Everyone entering the building is greeted by a rather romanticized vision of the place, handsomely crafted in filete:

A large part of the fun of this sort of vacation, wandering as I am on no fixed schedule, is finding the little gems along the way. BA is renowned for its graffiti -in fact, before going out to dinner, I watched a pair of young men cover over old graffiti on the building across the way from me, and paint something entirely new in its place. Even the graffiti is more elaborate and stylish than one might expect:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Where I'm at...

I've rented an apartment in Buenos Aires, rather than stay in a hotel for three weeks. I've tried this out previously in Reykajavik, and in Mexico, to great success, so I thought I'd go to the well again, and I'm very pleased with how this has turned out.

After much poking around online, I found a loft type flat in the San Telmo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. This is the main floor:


A reverse view from the tiny kitchen:

And upstairs, the bedroom, with a lovely full bath attached:

The neighbourhood is central, lovely, and reminds me a bit of Merida in the Yucatan for the way buildings shove up against each other, yet are still fabulously decorated and ornate. San Telmo is the historic part of BA, full of cobblestones and important sites. Tomorrow, I plan to stroll about and report back on my findings.