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.

Strolling about Microcentro

Well, the heat and humidity continue here. It is in the high 20s with extraordinary damp, like a sauna outside, but no reason not to start looking around. Where to go, however, was dictated by a need for airconditioning, so I hopped on the Subte (subway) only two blocks from my flat, and headed up to the Microcentro, downtown, a few stops away. I got off at the Plaza San Martin, with broad walkways overlooking a gentle slope down to the waterfront of the River Plata:

You can't actually see the buildings beyond the promenade, however, because a combination of smog and fog has rolled in from the port, obscuring the view. A short walk down the pedestrian shopping street of Florida took me to the Galleria Pacificos, the upscale shopping mall located in the business district. It is a bit disconcerting to know that malls are the same everywhere - had I been so inclined, I could have spent the day shopping Lacoste, Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, etc. But I sought out the Galleria for more esoteric interests, namely the architecture (and the air conditioning). The building itself dates from the early 1890s, used to be the railway headquarters, and occupies a full city block. It was only converted into a mall however, in 1992. Inside, the building is split into four quarters, with the laneways between these quarters turned into three-storey atriums. In the centre, where they all meet, is an ornate cupola that was filled with neo-classical murals during a 1945 remodel. They are ostensibly part of the New Realism movement, but would seem to be more influenced by classical European muralists than the Mexican muralists credited. Here is one view of a panel of one mural (the angle is a bit off because I am tipping the camera over a Clinique boutique sign):

Further down Florida, I happened upon my first example of the BA artform known as filete - an ornate handpainted signage rooted in the Sicilian immigration of the early 20th century. This sign marked the street address of a grocery store:

I expect to see a great deal more of this fantastic art form as I meander around San Telmo tomorrow.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The long and winding road....

10:35 pm Saturday - Pearson International Airport - waiting for the overnight flight to Buenos Aires.

It is extraordinary to watch NHL playoff hockey in an airport, particularly Toronto’s airport, when everyone in the bar is dying as the Montreal Canadiens blow a 4-2 lead in the third period, eventually losing in overtime to Washington 6-5. GAH! Being away for three weeks means I will come back mid-way into the second round. Half the teams now playing will be gone, and we should have a much better idea who could take the Cup than we do currently, when it seems no one really wants it.

Checking in at Edmonton was surreal - normally, on a Saturday afternoon, it would be packed with people travelling east to make evening overseas connections. The security line can run 30 or 40 minutes, minimum. But today, thanks to an Icelandic volcano, I walked right up to the wicket, no lineup at Air Canada. While the attendant could not upgrade me to the sold-out business class (with the awesome-looking lie flat pods), she did manage to put me in a row near the back with three empty seats across. So I hope to be able to at least sleep a bit on the plane. We leave Toronto at 10 to midnight, and do not arrive in BA until nearly 3 in the afternoon. It is a very long flight.

Of course, there is always someone who apparently never listens to, or reads, the news. As I was checking my seating options, a breathless woman in her 30s rushed up to the adjacent wicket, and actually let out a howl when the attendant told her her flight to Rome had been cancelled. “Check again,” she implored - just in case the volcano had made an exception, just for her. Seriously - flights to Europe have been cancelled for days, and she doesn’t know that? Embarrassing.

Perhaps owing to the slow day at security, the new people were receiving extra training. I, the epitome of racial profiling in action, was selected for random further screening by a very pleasant young woman who looked like she belonged in high school. She dutifully explained each step in the process, and gave me a thorough “pat down” only slightly less intensive than my annual mammogram. She apologized before moving to each stage of the process, ending with an ankle massage and a look at the soles of my feet. I am pleased to say both of us passed our test, and her instructor seemed particularly happy with how we had both conducted ourselves.

The flight from Edmonton, on an Embraer 190, was smooth and fast - less than 4 hours gate to gate. I managed to catch up on recent movies - it only seemed appropriate to watch “Up in the Air” while flying myself. Despite all the awards, and the heightened expectations I therefore had, the movie was great and thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly recommend a scene partway through the film where George Clooney is sitting in a hotel lounge with his impossibly young co-worker, Anna Kendrick, and his paramour, Vera Farmiga, discussing their changing expectations in partners as they age. Hysterical.

The flight to Buenos Aires is close to full, with perhaps 15 empty seats on the whole plane. My first sign that this flight would not be like other international flights? Being served a full hot supper at 12:30 am. Only on a flight to South America would one presume folks are going to eat now, and perhaps nap around 4. I did get my three seats across, which totalled about 4.5 linear feet. Which is about a foot shorter than I am, which made for an intriguing several hours of trying to contort myself into a pretzel that could still balance on less than deep cushions. I got some rest, but I doubt Day 1 in BA is going to be terribly eventful!

After 10.5 hours in flight, we stopover in Santiago. Security is quite something. In Toronto, there were two extra checkpoints I needed to be scanned through, after I cleared general security, and in Santiago, where we changed planes and crews, there was another security point, where our carry-on luggage was inspected anew, and we were wanded. Keep in mind none of us ever left the secured transfer zone. Why all the extra security suddenly is a mystery, but I now feel very, very protected.

The approach to Santiago is a bit unnerving - the plane comes down a channel between two ranges in the Andes. Looking out the windows on each side of the plane and seeing only mountains, and not from above, but at eye-level, is a bit unnerving. Perhaps they should have timed the flight so this part would happen under cover of darkness, and not late morning.

Disappointingly, the first thing one sees in the Santiago airport proper, once you’ve cleared the security point, is a Starbucks. Across the hall from a Dunkin Donuts. En espanol, but still.

Anyway, it is a hot, humid day threatening rain, so the mountain views are a bit hazy, but here’s the first shot from this vacation:


Update: Sunday, 4:34 pm I have now arrived in BA and have checked into my apartment hotel. It is lovely. I will post pictures tomorrow, once I recover from the flight, the heat and humidity.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Only in Canada

When I travel, I like to look for the quirky things that other people might not notice, or comment upon.

I am overnighting in Edmonton on my way to Buenos Aires tommorrow (well, actually, I only arrive Sunday afternoon, but I don't know how to describe a flight that crosses into a second day - is there a word for that?)

I got here around supper time. I checked into my hotel, Varscona on Whyte. For those of you unfamiliar with Edmonton, Whyte Avenue is the hip place to be, where all the fashionable young things in five inch silver lame heels totter down the sidewalks between $14 martinis. The neighbourhood is full of trendy nightspots, overpriced restaurants, and fantastically odd shops. But there are still holdouts from before the gentrification, and those juxtapositions make walking around a lot of fun. Antique shops, funky bookstores, tattered banks cheek-by-jowl with yoga stores and cigar shops. And a bar named Filthy McNasty's. Classy and the not so much, side-by-side.

I was skirting around, looking for a place to eat that would not sneer at my jeans and hiking boots when I suddenly realized I was approaching a crowd of bikers. Not the Tour de France kind, the chopper kind. A large crowd, probably 55 or 60 of them, both sexes, clad head to foot in black leather. A couple of the older guys were chatting quite aimiably with a pair of City beat cops off near a parking meter. As I got closer, I could see probably 40 tricked out bikes parked neatly side by side in an off road parking lot. Obviously, they were making plans for an excellent Friday night to enjoy the nice spring weather (21 degrees, sunny). Nobody looked particularly threatening, so I kept walking towards them - they were between me and the hotel, after all.

And then I realized almost every single one of them had a cup in their hand. A brown paper cup. They were milling about in a Tim Horton's parking lot.

You can't make stuff like this up.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Looks like I'm getting ready to go on another vacation without really having posted much about the previous two last year. I'm going to try and remedy that over the summer, but first, I am seriously thinking about shifting the focus of this blog to more travel-oriented pursuits (not that the blog has previously had much focus, but you know what I mean).


In the meantime, I am taking a netbook with me on my next trip, to Argentina and Uruguay, and my intention, at least, is to blog from the road. We'll see if I'm any better with that than writing about the trip upon my return!