What's new, Buenos Aires?

Transcribed from travel journal By the time we arrived in Buenos Aires yesterday morning, I was completely giddy from lack of sleep. Fortunately, the weather was temporarily uplifting – beautiful and breezy and not at all hot and humid as we’d been warned.

We were met at the airport and ushered into the white vans that would become like second homes to us during the trip and shuttled to the ambitiously named Hotel Dazzler. Buenos Aires isn’t a city that strikes you as impressive upon first glance. In fact, the day we arrived was a national holiday and the streets were deserted as we made our way toward the city center. The run-down high-rise flats we passed along the highway reminded me of parts of Puerto Rico. It’s not difficult to recognize instantly that this is a country that has lost some of its glow at the hands of economic and political instability.

Charles Eisendrath & his innardsWe arrived at the Hotel well before our noon check in time, which turned out to be just as well, since they claimed to have no record of our reservation whatsoever. However, they promised us to take a look and we left them with our luggage while heading towards the first seminar of the day. Charles and Birgit took it all in great cheer, informing us that this was the Argentinean way while the rest of us wondered if perhaps we hated the Argentinean way. No matter! Back into the vans we went and were whisked off to a small art gallery where we were expecting a small breakfast but encountered, instead, some plastic cups and a bottle or two of Coke and Fanta. Since most of us were in need of tooth picks to keep our eyes open, the disappointment was palatable. Still, for the most part, we were able to focus on a very impassioned talk given us by a Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst for Neuvo Mayoria.

With absolutely no disrespect to our host, I was simply more tired than I remember being in years – pulling all-nighters in one’s thirties is not a pretty sight – and I had a great deal of difficulty following his thick accent. Not to mention the fact that I’m startlingly ignorant on the facts of Argentina’s political history and lacked the basic knowledge to follow closely enough. I consider the fact that I kept my head upright to be quite a coup!

By the time we were finished there, we headed back to the hotel where our rooms had been found, recovered or otherwise wrangled away from innocent victims. Of course, it turned out Chris and I were put in the same room with Kim and Gerard and some people didn't get into their rooms until nearly 3 in the afternoon. In hindsight, such mix-ups and gaffes weren’t major ones – it just felt that way since we were all hovering somewhere between the dementia and delusion of exhaustion.

Deciding that hunger was beating out exhaustion, a group of us decided to accompany Charles Eisendrath (newly nicknamed Iron Wire by our John Bacon) to one of his favorite meat joints near the hotel. My prediction for the week from the previous post came true, in spades. Except it wasn’t just lots of beef. It was lots of meat and…parts. Iron Wire ordered for the table as he has been here before and within seconds of sitting down, small plates of piping hot fresh empanadas were presented. Glorious little pastries stuffed with meat!

Next, came wedges of a salty, orange cheese grilled over an open flame until melty in the middle and bowls of tomato and onion salad in a simple vinegar and oil dressing. Chris and I learned quickly to ask for agua mineral (sin gas or con gas, depending on your bubble preferences) and we were plenty full by the time a little portable grill was presented, piled up with…bits.

As a hunter, Charles no doubt has a very economic and sensible approach to animal consumption – eat it all. Thus, the platter included sweetbreads (which, as we all know, are neither sweet nor bread), plump chorizo, dark bulging blood sausage links and little circles of intestine. Mmmm! I can only say for certain that the chorizo was quite good. The rest, your guess is as good as mine.

Did I mention we were already stuffed by the time the meat arrived? Our amigo Luis (whose fellowship ends with this week’s return to BA) spent four months complaining about how much Americans eat, how big our meals are. The Argentineans make us look like rank amateurs, if this week is any indication! (If I can just figure out how the women are all so rail thin, however, I’ll be on to something.)

Dinner at Gran Bar DanizonThen, of course, came the secondary meat course – the Argentinean specialty of asada (basically, short ribs) as well as something we misunderstood as llama but which really turned out to be good old fashioned beef. And I tell you, there’s nothing like a giant, carne-heavy meat to really get your energy going when you’re running on 30 minutes sleep in 32 hours.

With a full belly and the sensation that I would fall over every time I stood up, I had no choice but to surrender to exhaustion. That meant I missed out on what I'm told was a very interesting and fun bus tour of Buenos Aires. I tried to get up in order to attend a talk at the hotel by Alberto Heguy, a former polo player and member of one of Argentina's preeminent polo-playing families.

In the evening, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to a terribly sophisticated night spot called Gran Bar Danizon for a fabulous dinner. The place was dark and impeccably appointed, the clientele entirely too chic for the likes of us – beautiful people pressed tan belly to tan belly in a crowded bar area next to the dining room. (As I discovered while forcing my way to the bathroom, many of them were young American men yapping it up with BA beauties.) It was a gorgeous meal, featuring some fantastic…beef!

I must confess that as we tooled around Buenos Aires yesterday, I had been a bit concerned. Completely empty sidewalks and closed shops seemed to accentuate the mish-mosh architecture of strange high-rise buildings and the graffiti’d monuments we passed along the way. I thought we’d stumbled upon a ghost town.

Night scene in Buenos AiresFortunately, it turns out that Argentineans take their holidays very seriously and everyone was off for the day. By this morning, the area surrounding our hotel – at Libertad and Paraguay in the downtown area known as MicroCentro – was bustling at full tilt.

I haven’t traveled much in South America. And by much, I mean not at all. But I sort of expected a “feel” to the place more in keeping with the rustic feel of Puerto Rico than Europe, but I’d say this city owes its sophistication and versatility at least as much to the latter as to its outlying traditional areas. It’s been called the Paris of South America which seems more than a bit generous, although maybe it was true before 2001.

It’s still, however, a very sophisticated city with wide boulevards and loads of shops, people packing the side walks. I don’t feel as conspicuous walking around as I might in more rural areas – tourism is crucial to BA’s survival and with the dollar getting you nearly three pesos these days, if you can swing the airfare, you’ll eat and stay well very cheaply here.