Julie's Travel
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04/09/09
Argentina 3/09
Filed under: General
Posted by: @ 12:03 pm

At PHL 3 hours early, pitiful that a well traveled person like myself would get so excited that she couldn’t figure out what to do besides go to the airport. Left my kittens, so sad, they are used to having me there almost all the time as I work at home. They are just about a year old and have each other for company. I have arranged a number of visitors too. And yet I worry about them without me. I think they call that an exaggerated sense of self importance. Anyway, with a bow and a “namaste” I said good bye. Picked up my wild child (Dori, 10) at school. She was fairly attacked by her friends as I dragged her out. The drive was like riding with a firecracker she was so wound up: “what time does the flight leave?!! This is the most amazing trip I have ever gone on!!!” Then, “I miss my friends; I want Mommy (tears included).” A minute or two then: “Can we go shopping in Argentina? What day will I be going to school with Romina?” and on and on.

 

 

By the time we get to the gate though, she is in full travel mode, relaxed and centered, she does it like an old pro. We talk a little about the trip and she says, “I wonder if Argentina will be like anywhere else we’ve been.” Funny, I was wondering the same thing. My first foray into South America, a new continent. The closest I have been is Costa Rica. Only been on the far side of the equator once and it was quite exotic and amazing: Kenya. Buenos Aires is said to have an extremely European feel, but Europe it’s not. My curiosity is certainly piqued, of course this is coupled with fear. Of what? Well since I am always a little afraid, even when at home with my kittens, it could be anything. We are traveling far, even by air the trip will take about 15 hours total. We leave this afternoon but don’t arrive til tomorrow morning. Then there is my terribly embarrassing skeletal touristo Spanglish (One day I will take courses and……blah, blah, blah). We are doing some substantial traveling solo and well off the tourist path (more later). Besides I am a little out of practice, haven’t been much of anywhere in over a year. One time it was pointed out to me that the physical sensation of fear and the physical sensation of excitement are one and the same. The only difference is the words one hangs on the feelings. With that in mind, scratch that fear statement, I am getting very excited!

 

 

3/19/09

 

So we flew on American. Connecting through DFW adds 3 or 4 hours to the travel time over a Miami connection (which we will do on the return) but since we are on frequent traveler miles for free that’s what we got. That said the flight was as pleasant as an overnight in coach could be. The crew was Dallas based so they remained friendly and polite (and blond) through the night. The plane, a 777, was either brand new or recently refurbished and offered tons of choices for the individual screen on each seat back. Dori watched Disney sitcom reruns and I chose Slum Dog Millionaire which I heard was great but found a miserable variation on a Cinderella tale; maybe it was the small screen.

Our great little package includes a private airport transfer and the day use of a hotel in the Ricoleta district of Buenos Aires, a very ritzy address. Truly a typical hotel in a way that there is nothing typical of Buenos Aires. This country is a melting pot of European immigrants, tending to be a little more southern (Italian and Spanish), with very little sign of the original inhabitants except in an occasional stately nose reminiscent of those seen in Incan art. BA feels like a Paris of the southern hemisphere, or if I was going to be cynical I would say a Paris wanna be.

This little hotel is extremely minimalist, post modern, spare and pleasant. Each unit is actually a studio, hence the name Ayres Apartments, with a pullman kitchen, a full bath and a small balcony overlooking a fairly quiet street. Our view from the balcony is quite wonderful for it includes the famous Ricoleta Cemetery full of dramatic and grand statuary and beyond that the vast and muddy river, Rio de la Plata, that has fueled the economy of this city for centuries. There is no charge for internet access by wi-fi and, most important for my girl, there is lovely little pool in a courtyard, more like an alley, and I watch her play in there as I write.

In exchange for a guarantee of a swim later I dragged herself through the parks of the Palermo district by foot today. First stop was to change $50. The currency thing is very strange here. Dollars are widely accepted (except in taxis, which are so cheap it makes my head spin!) and generally preferred, though change is given in Argentinean pesos.  The money changing store took my U.S. dollars at one window and sent me with a receipt to the second window for pesos. It turned out that I was forth or fifth in line to pick up and in fact there was no line but just the bunch of us standing around waiting for our names to be called. The time it took these seemingly capable and well dressed young men behind the glass to come up with the cash left me feeling they were printing it in a back room somewhere.

 

We stopped for pizza for her and salad with chicken for me at an outside café, both of which were lovely and entirely familiar to my American palate. The former however leaned a bit Italian being baked in a true wood burning oven and eaten with knife and fork, much to the chagrin of my very hungry child. The price was, as reported, probably about half what we would have paid in the states. Service was great and in the style to which I am accustomed with the exception of the Spanglish practiced by the waitress and myself. It’s amazing how successful one can be knowing almost no Spanish. As we ate we got to watch the parade of well-to-do porteños (as those from Buenos Aires are called) go about their business. To me they feel like a hybrid of the conglomeration of ethnicity and style found in cities of the U.S. and the self assuredness and elegance, and often beauty, of the… Spanish let’s say.

 

Though the weather here is pretty near perfect for me (which is a little warm for most people including my daughter) I am not sure it was worth the effort required for the park tour, elegant Spanish feeling parks canopied with grand acacias. We finally baled out at the sweet little Japanese garden complete with good size pond and masses of mammoth koi carp.

Tonight we do something summarily un-touristy. We will take the overnight bus to a distant smaller city called Corrientes where we will find my daughter’s friend Romina. Her mother, Valeria spent the fall semester of 2008 doing a Fullbright exchange with a teacher at Dori’s school and she brought her daughter who became fast and wonderful friends with mine. This was actually the original impetus for this trip followed closely by the extremely weak Argentinean peso and enough frequent flier miles to get here and back. Of course if I had thought the whole thing through I would have realized that this town is about a 10 hour ride or a $400 flight from BA. I guess the good news is there are these luxury buses that go overnight fitted with things like full lay-down seats and meal service. The cost is about $50 each way. A full report is upcoming but right now I must snatch my damp daughter from the pool and get ready for our next adventure.

 

3/20/09

 

Here I sit in Valeria’s office which overlooks one of 2 internal courtyards and stucco walls, a tile porch roof and the top of a lovely ficus tree. I don’t mind the heat one bit but I am glad the ceiling fan is on, I would guess it’s close to 90. My daughter who wanders boldly around in winter coatless is probably dying. I don’t know for sure since she is at school with Romina. Now, this is an opportunity of a lifetime for her (her mother says) so I pushed hard for her to be bold and go along. She had a look that was some combination of terror and exhaustion but went for it. But more on this later…

 

Last night we grabbed a taxi to the vast bus station (about $3!) where Valeria had arranged and pre-purchased the tickets for us. The driver made sure to drop us off at the right door to pick up tickets for our bus, counter 119 by the way. We walked with purpose into the station and tooled around on the first floor finding nothing recognizable as a ticket counter. Finally I asked someone with my more and more elaborate collection of hand motions and single words and was told that the counters were upstairs. Onto the up escalator we went and found to our amazement all of those counters 1 through 119 and then some. We walked along moving up the numbers and found 118 then 120. OMG, now what? We began to ask at the counters around: Corrientes? Tonight? No, no, uh-oh… Finally at the moment my trusting child began to have suspicion in her eyes we asked for counter 119, oh! Around the other side. Guess I am not that mathematical but I never noticed we had only seen even numbers. We found wonderful and efficient women behind that counter who spoke even less English than we speak Spanish. Apparently our reputation had proceeded us and one of them actually walked us to the platform and handed us over to the wait person on the bus. Later I discovered that Valeria had feared for our confusion and impressed this upon the kind bus company staff very effectively.

 

And what a bus it was, mammoth, two levels, with seats only rivaled by Cadillacs from that era in the 70’s in which one felt as though one was driving their living room, plush and tilting almost flat with leg rests that pop up. The windows all covered and Velcroed together with heavy curtains to keep out the light. Once Dori was settled, reclined and tucked under the soft blanket in the AC she declared, “Ahhhhh, this is the life.” Need I mention the sharp contrast with the torturous seats on the flight? It turned out to be a nearly twelve hour ride which could not have been more painless. The driver was amazing, never hard on the brakes nor sharp on the steering all night, and a full time attendant served us a late dinner (composed of what we American would call meat, meat and meat) and a light breakfast complete with, for me, the all important café con leche.

Apparently we had to take a detour in the night hence the extra hour or so of drive time allowing us to cross some of the interior in daylight. Opening those curtains a bit we discovered what there is the most of in vast Argentina: empty space, green, lush, flat grassland punctuated by the occasional stand of trees and cows, lots and lots and lots of them.

We climbed off in Corrientes’ much smaller bus station relatively refreshed and waited a bit for our friends, as they predicted we might, hence we were fearless. Ah and there they were hugging us and giving an air kiss on both cheeks in that Mediterranean style. We meet Valeria’s now not so new and wonderful boyfriend Daniel and climb in his roomy four door Toyota pick up.

 

The contrast between Corrientes and Buenos Aires is so sharp that the two seem unrelated, the latter so cosmopolitan and the former so much more what I have come to think of as Latin American: full of Spanish Colonial remnants and tropical style houses: stucco, corrugated roofs interspersed with tile and always in every way with their back to the street, walled-in so that we have no idea if this might be an opulent home or a bare bones one.

Romina’s is no exception. We drive into a sort of garage under a section of the house and enter the first courtyard to find a lovely and large maze of a house with a sprawling kitchen and a couple of baths and plenty of rooms with high wooden ceilings and ceiling fans. In the rear courtyard we find a sweet little pool. Oh and a big lovable dog named Geronimo with a furrowed brow and his bowl in his mouth. Subtle, isn’t he?  Valeria offers us her wonderful and gracious hospitality in the form of a traditional Argentinean breakfast of pastries including the typical chipa made of tapioca flour and unsweetened ricotta-like cheese.

 

 

Then we wander the river front of the city, a place where all go to spend time and see and be seen. Corrientes 300 plus years of existence owes itself to the Rio Parana, deep and wide and suitable for commerce. Tug boats and barges are easily seen moving goods and grains along. The ancientness of the city is found in the colonial architecture of the balustrades and walks of these parks along the river. Locals are observed fishing and skating and biking and playing guitar, as well as drinking the ever present mate. This is a custom particular to Argentina and overflowing a bit to some of the adjacent countries. The drink is a very mild stimulant, less affective than coffee. It is carried in a thermos to keep it warm and poured into a communal cup with a metal straw and shared between family and friends. The herb is easily seen floating along the top. Valeria prefers one made with yerba, as she describes it making the drink “softer” or more mild. She and Daniel are kind enough to offer me a taste and I find it pleasing and refreshing, a bit tea- like but with a distinct aroma of smoke.

 

We come back home in  time to open the door for Julieta, Romina’s teenage sister who goes to school in the morning, and for what is usually the largest meal of the day, lunch. The main dish is called milanessa de pollo and looks like breaded chicken breast but when I ask Romina if it is meat she says no. Upon closer questioning of Valeria I discover that here in this country chicken is not meat only beef is meat. We finish the meal with typical local ice cream, deliciously gelato-like and called dulce de leche which is hand delivered at the door as we are finishing lunch.

As it turns out labor is cheap here and it is most common for almost everything to be delivered. Those who do this, function separately strictly as a delivery service. Their help can be enlisted as couriers as well and they will even, with a phone call, pay a tax out of their pocket then come to you for the money. And on that topic of cheap labor, though they are middle class, Romina’s family employs a housekeeper for a half day five days a week. I could deal with that! And in this topsy-turvy world of the devalued peso, if you are getting ready for an affair of some kind and need a party dress it is far less expensive to hire a seamstress than to purchase a dress ready-made.

 

And so, we drop the girls off at school, 1:30 to 6:30. Valeria and I walk in with them to remind the vice principal of Dori’s presence. The girls (all girls in this Catholic school) gather around Dori to get a better look and maybe a little touch. In this provincial city foreigners are very rare and English is widely studied so this is a grand opportunity for them. As we depart I can only describe her look as one of a deer in the headlights and I have to talk myself down knowing that she will survive this experience with these other little girls handily and have wonderful story to carry home and throughout her life.

Back home us grownups go to do the tropical thing and take a siesta. Amazing how easy that is for me on this warm afternoon. I could easily make a habit of it. I lay on Romina’s bed at the front of the house, shutters pulled, fan running with the street sounds of a car, a motor bike, a small group of children passing, the bells of an occasional vendor and the next thing I know I awake with the light at a different angle not sure how long I slept. This is an especially important nap today as tomorrow is Valeria’s birthday and tonight she has 27 people, family and friends coming for the traditional asado. You might never guess what that is….a meal of barbequed fine Argentinean organically-fed free range beef (all of it is like this since what they have most of is wide open space and warm weather) done over a charcoal fire on a special outside grill permanently housed in a kind of second kitchen at the back the courtyard of nearly every house.

 

How this event will be for me is dubious. I am essentially a shy person whose response to shyness is to ask questions and tell stories. This approach will be nearly impossible in a Spanish speaking crowd. In addition I am mostly an early bird and guests are not expected to arrive until nine or so with dinner being served around 11! At any rate my plan for my daughter is to collect her from school, feed her a snack and put her down for a nap along with her friend. Two ten year olds napping together, hmmm, I won’t hold my breath.

 

 

3/21/09

 

 

The first day of spring at home is the first day of autumn on this side of the equator. In Corrientes this means the mornings are cool. I sit again in Valeria’s office and the house is quite quiet at 730 AM. I suspect I will be solo for quite some time as I bailed out early on the party, at maybe 12:30, and left behind all of the other guests including those with young children showing no signs of winding down. These people are sweet and warm in the way we think of as small town southerners might be. Most have been friends their entire lives. Valeria’s siblings, a total of five, all still live here. Interestingly many of the women speak a fair amount of English and none of the men. Valeria explained to me that her father told his children, “To be citizens of the world you must learn English” and they took his clear and I suspect somewhat forceful advice.

 

 

Now 8:30, Valeria has arisen and told me, with an “Oh my gosh” that her guests departed at around three. As I left the music was just getting started. Three men with three of those small deep Latin guitars singing and playing local songs full of longing and sweetness. Dinner was indeed served at eleven, meat, meat and meat. Hors d’oeuvres  were a wonderful pastry pocket called empanadas full of….meat, ground in this case, with onion, olive oil, boiled egg, pepper and meat. Three kinds of sausage, different sizes (from varying sections of the intestines I try not to imagine) and different consistencies all beef of course. Then the crowning glory, asado, great slabs of….meat, salted but otherwise untainted. Dori made it only to the empanadas then nearly keeled over before asking me to get her settled in bed.

 

Interestingly the simple innocence of these provincial people does not trump the Argentinean general dissatisfaction which seems to spring from problems with a very impoverished and corrupt government and spread to life in general. The result is a liberal and open discussion of ones mental and emotional state as well as extremely common use of therapists and anti-depressants. This kind of conversation with a friend of Valeria’s in Spanglish is especially entertaining. One of the tour books I am using seems to trace this to the influx of Jews in the early part of the 20th century. I am unclear as to whether this is the truth or anti-Semitism.

 

Back on the bus….

 

 

8:30 PM, we have just said good bye to our amazing hosts with a few tears caused, for me, by the fact that there is no way of knowing when or if we will see any of them again. I offer the girls our home if they come to the states to study. These people are full of generosity and grace and I feel such gratitude for the time spent with them in the states and even more for the time spent in their home. We spent today mainly outside Corrientes, first wandering a tiny town called Santa Ana. Left behind by time somehow, this fairly isolated village has many of it’s original colonial homes, single story simple stucco with tile roofs, as well as the original simple Catholic church with a figure of the patron Santa Ana at the entrance and a number of others throughout. Horses are used nearly a liberally as cars in this town and the sight of a traditionally clad gaucho on horseback is common.

 

Then onto to a point in the river above where the tributary that is full of mud enters. This is a wonderful sleepy beach town where we wander along the waterfront to see the crystal clear river on one side and the wonderful whimsical weekend houses on the other, finally stopping at a small resort to experience a native fish dish that turns out to be so substantial, so rich and buttery and in such a shape that it reminds me of….steak. Throughout our meal we are serenaded by a raucous bunch of about 20 white middle aged Speedo-clad Brazilian fisherman who are stretched out at a long table drinking, playing a guitar and a couple of drums as though it was Carnavale. Very entertaining. Valeria says that Argentineans frequently go to the beach in Brazil and they find these Brazilians so free and extraverted that she and her friends are a little jealous.  And here is certainly proof.

 

It turns out that Daniel knows the resort’s owner and arranges for the girls to be able to swim in the pool overlooking the river satisfying my water bug of a daughter for today. Then we climb back into the truck and make our way up the bank til we reach “la playa” a manmade beach of lovely golden sand dredged from the bottom of the river. We wade in and the water is refreshing and so clear that we can see the massive number of fry rushing around our feet.

Back at Romina’s we pack up and are carried with care to the bus station where we climb on for the next leg of our trip and the last non-bed night until our flight home. Wow we really are hard-core travelers!

 

 

3/23/09

 

Ok so maybe we aren’t such hard core travelers. You know as this itinerary shaped up at home I began referring to it as the Argentinean death march. I would never do this to my clients. One time I had a family that wanted me to arrange something nearly as intense and I really pushed them to consider another approach but they refused. It turned out that they had a great time but then they are Russians and Russians are very tough indeed. And on many levels so are we. My daughter has been traveling on grueling flights followed by punishing itineraries since she was very small. Once when we were flying to Sicily when she was about seven, we stopped between home and the Newark airport to feed her some dreaded fast food (did I mention that we never eat fast food, really!) and she got food poisoned. The itinerary connected through Milan and the flight was late so we had to make a run for the connection. Dori was looking some odd shade of green. We made a very fast stop in the bathroom as we crossed the airport. As we walked out she said two things to me: 1) I threw up 2) Do we still have to run? I was flabbergasted since I had no idea what was going on in that stall. I asked if she could walk fast, she answered I think so and off we went.

 

This time though she left home with a little cough and as we proceeded to one difficult night of sleep after another followed by stressful days with people who speak little English and a real lack of vitamin C (though plenty of meat) she has slowly succumbed. Our plan for today, a prepaid one, to go on a mini-trek across a glacier here in Patagonia, has had to be jettisoned. So let me whine for a second: We came all the way to the most southern end of the globe to sit around the hotel! Ok, I’m better now. Once again I am reminded how humbling parenting is. The illusion of having control of my life continues to crumble. I’m sure that’s good for me in the long run but today I would rather be wearing crampons. One of the things I often tell my clients is that travel is either a great time or a great story. If you are really lucky it’s both but you never really know.

 

The part of Patagonia where we are staying is the town of Calafete very near the foot of the massive and advancing Moreno glacier, one of the last advancing glaciers in the world in this age of global warming. It spills down the eastern slope of the Andes into a lake, Lago Argentino, made by its retreat in the last ice age. There it calves pretty much 365 days a year and our plan for tomorrow is to boat up close and catch some waves from the icebergs, but we will see.  For me having been in the Canadian Rockies and seen those opalescent glacial lakes there one would think this would pail but those are little puddles compared to this lake, the largest in the country. Flying in across the vast brown empty miles of the Patagonian Steppe, then seeing its aqua hue come into view was quite surprising. Its shape is irregular and it has many arms that disappear around hills then reappear as one makes the final approach to the airport.

 

Ok so I guess I’ll go sit around. Too bad I don’t like the book I brought much.

 

 

3/24/09

 

It’s 9 PM or so. We had an amazing and exhausting day but more on that shortly. In order to change our excursions we had to get a note from a doctor. In the U.S. it would certainly be cheaper to just let it go. Here the professional world is very different. As it turns out, for all that is wrong with this government, university education is free. Oddly this means that there is an amazing overabundance of electrical engineers and architects, for example. It’s not just hard for them to get a job, often it’s impossible, meaning that there are lawyers driving cabs (no rude lawyer comments please). A house call from el doctor ran about $30 US and he appeared within a half hour as though it was something more serious than a cold.

So we ended up moving the glacier trekking excursion to today and we shopped til we dropped yesterday. This being a tourist town, those extremely low prices are hard to find. Even so we picked up an amazing white leather bag with orange and yellow shapes for my preteen (believe me when I say it’s very stylish) as well as some cool gifts as we walked along the one main shopping street. The town is nearly new and the only source of revenue is tourism. Spurred by the weak peso (visitors from the US, Europe and even Japan can be found here) and the fact that el presidente de Argentina has actively promoted the destination, bringing his friends, buying up land and creating a resort of his own thereby substantiating the suspicions that the locals have that he has his own selfish agenda, growth is exponential making the second largest business construction. We ended our shopping marathon at the supermarket where we picked up lunch for our glacier trek. They have ready-made empanadas of a multitude of varieties and since we didn’t share a language with the woman at the counter we just ordered one of each.

 

We go wild for dinner at the lovely little restaurant called La Tablita, lamb specialists, did I mention that the “meat” of Patagonia is sheep? An understated and classy joint playing Cold Play and Tracy Chapman and with waiters packing PDA’s to place orders. The grill is open to the dining room which is surrounded in glass and overlooks lovely roses abundant and lavish all around Calafete in the fall of the year. Dori gets what she has been hankering for: spaghetti rosa and I try my lamb which runs 22 pesos or about $7 and is enough for two and a doggie bag. Amazingly the total bill for this fancy meal is a little more than 90 pesos or $30.

 

 

Then we amble up the hill put of town to our hotel which is today called the Patagonia Park but was owned by Kampinsky, an upscale old world hotelier, until recently and everyone in Calafete refers to it by its previous name and maybe always will. It perches overlooking the town then the lake, made moody by the angle of the sun and the amount and shade of the clouds, with some wonderful views of the snow capped mountains beyond. Other than that it’s pretty average with décor that somehow really doesn’t come together and odd music being played in the lobby that includes Stones covers sung by a very electronic group with a soft female almost Japanese sounding vocalist (think Tumbling Dice). It does have the all important pool however, and one of good size, which has entertained my aquatic daughter on a couple of occasions.

 

 

So our real glacier excursion begins with a civilized pick up time. The bus is comfortable although the driver looks way too young. There is no guide aboard and the youthful driver speaks only Spanish and that softly so we are not sure when we stop if it’s for el bano or an overlook. The country we cross is extremely reminiscent of west Texas, the place of my daughter’s birth. Dry with rocky brown mountains and lots of scrub, I keep waiting for pronghorn to appear.

 

 

But we ride along the banks of Lago Argentino, such a wild blue against that brown. Massive and completely empty, it goes on and on. The color and solitude are the result of the sediment from the earth that the glacier grinds up as it drifts slowly toward the lake. This sediment is very fine and light and it stays in solution throughout resulting in that opalescence and causing an opaqueness that won’t allow the growth of plants at the bottom, hence nothing for fish to eat, hence no humans in motor boats with nets or rods floating on top nor much in the way of summer homes along the banks finally resulting in cheap real estate much of which is federally owned in the form of Glacier National Park.. After a while we round a bend and things get a little steeper and cloudier and greener with exotic looking forests, and we begin to see the mountain range that is the source of the Perito Marino Glacier that we are headed for stunningly snow covered and in wispy clouds.

 

We round one bend and sprawled before us across the lake is the glacier itself. We can see how this is truly a river of ice flowing from the snowy peak and undulating down and down and finally entering the water as a wall of ice. It takes my breath away and the bus is all a-whisper in “Oh my Gods!” in about a half a dozen languages. We ride along the edge of the water a while, alternately seeing then not seeing, and it is an astounding surprise each time it appears. Finally we reach a launch for the boat that carries us across the lake along the front of the ice to the trailhead to climb on. Luckily there is no rain and even plenty of spots of sun but the wind off the ice is chilling. We motor very close and the sight only gets more amazing with crags and cracks that are that same astounding color as the lake, made more brilliant by the sharp contrast with the external opaque white ice. Plenty of little bergs can be seen and little bits break off and fall in as we watch. In sharp contrast the national park employee on the mic drones on first en Espanol then in English about park rules.


We climb off and onto the golden brown rocks of the opposing shore and are divided into groups by language, one for Spanish and one for everyone else, which is to say for us very lucky Americans, the English speaking tour. We are with Italians and French and Japanese and a couple from Bala Cynwyd. Go figure. We hike through a lush rain forest-like woods with lots of moss and a number of fallen trees all with the bizarre backdrop of the front of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Our guide points out that very grand “carpenter grande” woodpecker at his work, an exotic creature with a great red crest. We make our way to a rocky beach where he explains that, in fact this glacier is not advancing, it is both advancing and receding in equal quantity and is therefore a stable glacier.

 

 

Interestingly there is an arc in the lake the top of which meets the glacier. In the winter, as the glacier advances it frequently cuts one side of the arc off from the other side. The north side connects to the larger part of the lake and has a creek that outlets eventually to the Atlantic but the north side, called the Rico Arm has no egress and is quite small. When the glacier disconnects this arm from the rest of the lake then continues to melt and calf, the water level rises and rises, usually only a few meters, before the glacier recedes and lake breaks through but back in ’88 the dam lasted two seasons and the lake level rose right into the forest and took with it many trees, an explanation for the fallen giants we saw along the trail. When it broke through the whole thing was quite dramatic and films of the event are available all over Calefete for sale.

 

Then we head for the little gravelly plateau to be fitted for our crampons which are strapped around our shoes very tightly. Our guide gives us some simple instruction in a combination of limited English and body motions. Keep your feet far apart as you walk so as not to hook the crampons to each other. When you walk up the glacier make small steps with your toes pointing out. When you walk down keep your back straight, don’t lean forward because you will begin to run then possibly roll. Keep your gloves on as the ice can be sharp.

 

 

And we climb on. I can’t help but grin the whole time. Using the crampons is a truly counter intuitive experience for people used to ice in the winter. I feel like a squirrel climbing a tree, they stick on each step like Velcro. Very cool. I need a pair of these at home. The ice looks like mounds of meringue. It has lots of cracks and in the cracks are puddles and streams of that opalescent water. Our guide shows us a sink whole where there was a river below the ice that eventually collapsed. The resulting hole becomes a drain of melt water that, because we are in the southern hemisphere, flows clockwise. We find an arch and each member of the group takes a picture standing in it.

 

We climb a hill and our guide tells us this will be our highest point. The wind howls but the sun is shining, thank goodness, and the process of getting up there has warmed us. The view down seems fairly far but we certainly have made almost no progress toward the mountain and it becomes clearer how vast this ice field really is. We cross one hill and find a wooden table with a number of tumblers, a bottle of whiskey and a bowl of confections. Our guide adds ice from the glacier (and water for those of us who don’t partake) and here we toast our good fortune in experiencing this glacier first hand. These guys have to carry all of these accoutrements up each day as this river of ice is on the move at such a great rate that the table may disappear or be found in a puddle or river or in the lake itself. Finally we walk like ducks, close to the edge overlooking the lake. The terminus of the glacier bows inward a bit and we can see the face of the other side. Here we wait in the wind for it to calf…and wait….and wait…..and wait a little more. Oh well, not today.

 

We meander off the ice and unwrap our crampons and reenter a world made richer by this experience. We hike back through that exotic forest and sit in a nice little pavilion, just as it begins to rain in earnest, and eat the lunch we packed, in our case our empanadas of various kinds, some pleasant surprises, a spinach one for me, and some not so pleasant, onion and potato, ewww. While we sit in view of the mountain but not the glacier we hear a thunderous crash, the calving we were awaiting. I run into the space overlooking the ice and see….not a thing, not even a splash or a wave. Finally we make our way back to the boat and begin the crossing. As a final gift the sun shines through the rain and over the Rico arm of the lake we see a brilliant rainbow!

 

 

For dinner this night we find a lovely little café, kind of artsy, that specializes in crepes, both sweet and sandwich-y. What a cool spot clearly made for cool people like us and with the bonus of overlooking the skate board park which is heavily used by teenage boys who are as good as any I have seen in LOVE Park in Philly. Desperate for vegetables I find the all vege section of the menu and there is the Argentinean crepe of my dreams: mashed pumpkin, corn, green onion and a little bit of queso. For ten U.S. dollars! Go figure, I can get a rack of lamb in this town for 30% less than a veggie crepe. Dinner ends up running about 90 pesos. Hmmm, do you see a pattern?

 

3/25/09

 

 

So we have decided to jettison any further early rising glacier exploration in favor of an extremely creative way to separate tourists from their dollars: A hybrid tourist bus and four wheel drive vehicle with tires nearly as tall as me. This rides into the vast ranches that cover the craggy mountain on the edge of town and gives us some wonderful lake and town views as well as rounding the top of the mountain and giving a glimpse of the main cordillera of the Andes. The guide, Luis, is such an amazing and animated man as to give the impression of a cartoon character, in his 40’s with wild hair and big eyes and this strange way of speaking that seems common for men here, kind a very low but forced air tone that may be partly the result of the common smoking habit as well as the requirement for as much machismo as one can generate. He tells us some cool stuff about the rocks dropped in these mountains by the glaciers’ retreat in the last ice age and the extreme aridity caused by the Andes catching all of the precipitation as the weather systems cross from west to east. The sky is ice blue and it’s darn cold up here. We are happy to climb back into the vehicle after each stop. Then we round a bend to find a domed tent in which, Luis tells us, we will find a café y chocolat. Nice! As we climb from the vehicle and wander to the tent we see dos zorro gris, that would be two gray foxes about cocker spaniel sized with big fluffy amazing tails. They hang very close and seem almost tame, in fact we find out they are almost tame. The tour company feeds them a little this and that which pleases us tourists very much! Then down the mountain we grind and onto the very late flight back to Buenos Aires.

 

 

We arrive actually after midnight and have a prearranged transfer back to the Ayres Apartments. As we cruise the streets on a Wednesday night we see nearly as many folks strolling as in daylight. The whole country runs late (what with the day broken up by siesta) but the city of Buenos Aires has one of the latest party scenes in the world. We check in quickly and my daughter rolls into bed already asleep. For me, in spite of our fifth floor location, I experience the beat of a club somewhere close by. I am not sure if I am hearing it or feeling it but as I drift off it invades my dreams and when I come to momentarily in the five o’clock hour it is still going on.

 

 

In the morning we fairly roll out and onto a city tour, big tour bus, guide in both Spanish and English, this is a very clean tour, what I mean is no dirt at all. First stop is the convention center or main municipal square of the town, the place of the Pink House, where the president works, but not where he lives. What is not mentioned is that the Argentinean people have been known to burn down their leaders’ residence if they are displeased enough so El Presidente resides outside of town. Also on the square is the main cathedral, externally a very neo-classical piece feeling much more gothic inside. Having been all over Europe we are pretty hard to impress in this area.

 

 Possibly the most interesting (and disturbing) thing on the square is the area where the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo have silently protested every Thursday afternoon since their children have become victims of the reign of terror that took place in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Those “disappeared” included babies taken from mothers for the ruling class (how sick and twisted is that?) as well as a large collection of men that the government then in power felt threatened by. Some ninety or so of these babies, now in their 30’s have been discovered, however none of those threatening men have been accounted for. Not much news on this from our sparkling clean guide.

 

 

Our tour continues on an exploration of the wonderful still gritty district known as La Boca which grew on the banks of the second port and was populated by impoverished French Basque and Genovese immigrants who found work there. The original houses were all made of corrugated sheet metal, and many still are, and painted a multitude of colors, sometimes a number of shades upon one house as a result of the use of left over  boat paint acquired for free. This is the place of the birth of the tango originally practiced only by men who were much greater in number with the original immigrant population. This amazing dance original to La Boca and Argentina was first accepted as art by the French and only then by the high society of Buenos Aires. La Boca now has a little tourist strip full of junk stores and some surprisingly wonderful original art found in little kiosks along these few streets, as well as a number of pairs dressed for tango, with spare hats and offering a picture with opposite sex to take home and show your friends.

 

 

The original port is called Puerto Madera and it came into existence as a result of a political favor of some kind. It was constructed in a section of the river that silted up in a few decades. Dori and I have dinner there this last night after an ATM adventure. Though had used one in Patagonia that offered me an English choice this one does not. Just when I think I will loose my mind I see this guy in a suit waiting for a turn. I ask him if he speaks English (did I mention that no one in this whole country speaks any more English than I speak Spanish?) and it turns out he is a fluent English speaker, as though he had spent some time in the US, and he walks us thorough the withdrawal.

 

 

So Puerto Madera has become a very upscale office complex with buildings belonging to Microsoft and the like. The original brick dock yard done in an English style in the mid-19th century has been converted to a collection of restaurants and office buildings reminiscent of Faneuil Hall in Boston. We have a lovely dinner in a pasta joint suggested by the staff at our hotel; quite a fancy spot with paunchy waiters in black ties. I ask ours if he has any English and he says no but does bring a menu in English. He is holding out on us as it turns out. I was hoping for spaghetti for my daughter and la vaca for me on my last night, but there is none on my menu though I see some at other tables. I am quite sure I will survive as I have had more carne since I have been here than I have in the last six months or longer.

 

 

After dinner we walk along the river and find a spot to get my daughter’s dulce de leche fix. We walk across a wonderful modern suspension bridge for pedestrians that has a tall angled tower with cables connecting to the base reminiscent of a harp.  Pretty cool! By the way, the city finally settled on a functional port furthest down the river, easily accessible to the sea and not prone to silting. And it only took about 250 years!

 

3/27/09

 

Did I mention I love this hotel? I think it’s one of my favorite I have ever seen or stayed in; certainly it’s my favorite city hotel. All the basics are there (clean, good service, well  equipped) but really my ardor is about the design, ultimately minimalist, a collection of rectangles laid all around from the couch to the flat screen TV to the recessed rectangle of lighting on the ceiling over the rectangular table, even the toilet and bidet take on this shape. They really hit the design, I find it flawless. The almost classical grounded stability of those shapes makes the place supremely peaceful.

Today we do what I want (said in a demanding tone), in my mind the two things, along with seeing La Boca, that cannot be missed in this city. First stop is Ricoleta Cemetery, just a ½ block from our hotel, the place where Eva Duarte Peron’s body was finally laid to rest, burial place of the rich and famous of BA, many of the mausoleums are designed by the finest architects and artists of the last century or so, and signed by them. Styles range from classical to deco to nouveau to gothic to an occasional reconstruction in minimalist mode. We even find one in an Egyptian pyramidal shape. Many of these have glassed doors and one can peek inside and see lace covered caskets, some neat and tidy, some with the cloth rotting and full of cobwebs.

 

There are lots of people wandering the “calles”. Plenty of us tourist, I exchange exclamations in my skeletal Spanish with French Canadians who have no English and a similar amount of the local language. There are a fair number of porteños stopping for lunch or a smoke, then there are a few working on the crypts. One monument covered in scaffolding and being high pressure scrubbed by two folks in heavy black raincoats (it’s probably 90 degrees). We dare not even guess if they are male or female. Not good work from my point of view and I like the heat. Then as I wander through a quieter section and look down an alley I see a bucket with a scrub brush handle protruding from it, a feather duster with a very long wooden handle, as tall as the tomb it leans upon as it angles across the aisle, and an open door.  I must wander down there to see what’s going on. There is a small, fine boned man with a beard and ringlets of long brown hair in his early 30’s working inside. He is cleaning in earnest, with speed and purpose. I say “hola” and he responds in kind with a sweet voice as fine as his bones.  Very cool.

So the place just blows me away. It’s one of the highlights of my trip to Argentina. My child hates it. Do you think hate is too strong a word? I don’t. She whines and suffers (she really doesn’t like the heat) and then gives up and leaves me. Then I have three choices as I see it: I could make a massive scene in public to make her stay with me and/or offer some dreaded consequence to her walking away or I could succumb to her desire to leave the cemetery or I could just trust that she won’t disappear on me and let her wander. I chose the last which on some level made the place more interesting as she sort of stalked me and I would see her as a shadow down a corridor here and there.

 

 

She does stick with me to find Evita’s grave, having seen the musical right before we left. (The day we departed she sang “Don’t cry for me” in the shower.) It was, as you might guess, the busiest spot in the place. Interestingly, Eva Peron died in early 50’s but her body didn’t make it to her father’s crypt until the early 80’s for fear that her enemies would steal it. 

Next stop was the nearby MALBA: Museo de Arte Latinoamericanano Buenos Aires. All 20th century art and all Latin American of course, it balances out the hopeless fawning over European art that fills the other museums in the city. The building itself may be it’s finest piece, a wonderful collection of clean shapes and angles and materials and textures and full of light, it feels as if it’s from the same lineage as our Kimmel Center (sorry, I really like the Kimmel). Most of the collection was donated or lent by one collector, Argentinean business man Eduardo F. Constantini.

 

There are only a few names I recognize a lovely Frida Kahlo self portrait with a parrot, a few Diego Rivera’s but the stuff I love is by artists whose names don’t even sound remotely familiar. As is often true of art of the last century, it is a combination of disturbing and humorous, one piece is more thought provoking than the last. It even holds my daughter’s interest…sort of. She and I both get popped for taking pictures. It’s wonderful for me to find all of the descriptions and explanations in each gallery strictly in Spanish. This stops me from focusing upon the words and background of the artist and forces me to really experience the art in a purer form, our own Albert Barnes would have been proud.

 

 

So we use the last ten peso note I have to catch a taxi back to our hotel. When I hand the driver our bill he sees it has handwriting on it and refuses it. We find ourselves in a stale-mate as this is the only note we have and we are unable to successfully communicate this to him. Finally with something that is no doubt a curse he keeps the note and waves us out of his car. We head to a touristo café that will take our credit card and have our last jugo de naranja fresca (freshly squeezed orange juice) and people watch while we wait for our airport transfer.

 

 

Ok, I have softened on Buenos Aires. I no longer see it as strictly an ersatz Paris, it is something like the country in which it resides and something like other great American cities and something like wonderful European cities but, all in all, of and unto itself, and certainly worth a substantial visit. Dori and I have only scratched the surface of things to see and do…..then there is the endless café sitting and people watching that needs to be done here. I would go back.

 

 

We are on the final leg, flying home over night through Miami.  On Argentina the country, it really is a massive place that we have barely sampled. There are penguins in Patagonia, the high dry desert of the northwest that still has some of its native people called Salta and, of course, there are Iguazu Falls that this country shares with Brazil. Even so in ten days we have covered more miles than I ever have on any trip, in fact more miles than any clients that I have ever booked anywhere. The variety of what we have seen lends a surreal quality to the experience: the provincial Latin Americana of Corrientes, the massive empty space of Calafete and the rich culture of Buenos Aires are worlds apart from each other. And we are tired, wow! In the world of travel, as in every area, Nietzsche was probably right: what does not kill us makes us stronger. Having survived our Argentinean death march we are travel warriors!

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