This emotional event proved quite an introduction to Argentina. I got my finger on the pulse of local politics by reading the local newspapers and especially by talking to people, one of mine and Argentinians favourite activities. Unsurprisingly almost everybody had their own opinion and was more than happy to share: someone said that Kirchner was a crook looking from immunity from trials – Berlusconi, anyone? – or just looking to get rich while in politics, while for others he was a fair man who tried to redistribute wealth and progress civil society. What is the truth? By the end of it I had the uncanny feeling of being in a hall of mirrors where different, distorted images are reflected back to you according to where you look. What is certain is that under Kirchner Argentina gradually recovered from the disastrous economic crisis that hit it in 2000.
Months later, in Colombia, I spent a few days with a lovely Argentinean couple, Martin and Flor, who told me how under many aspects they are proud of their country. According to them the very tough crisis had somehow revitalized society, shaken up old patterns, inspired social economy and community projects. Equally, new magazines and radio programs are now flourishing and long-forgotten trials on the dark years of the dictatorship are reopened.
On those first few days, I had my quintessential Buenos Aires experience when, shortly after entering a vintage clothing shop on a rainy afternoon, the two adorable men managing it offered me my first round of yerba mate while chatting with me at length over the state of Argentina like they had known me for a while. As I savoured the slightly bitter but invigorating brew, I was introduced to the warm Argentinean conviviality. At its centre there is the yerba mate, which is a South American hot drink especially popular in Argentina, Uruguay and Southern Brazil. In comparison green tea tastes like Coca-Cola! Yerba mate is made by steeping the leaves of the mate’s plant in hot water and is drunk from a gourd with a metal straw, usually shared among a circle of people. There is all a ritual and a social meaning around yerba mate and I met countless Argentinians travelling around with their yerba mate gourd and a thermos of hot water wherever they go.
They say that Buenos Aires is the most European of the Latin Americans capitals and I couldn’t agree more. Walking the streets of Buenos Aires, I felt a sense of déjà-vu and familiarity as it seemed to me a blend of cities like Rome, Milan and Barcelona. No wonder, as so many Italians and Spanish immigrants influenced the history of the city shaping its distinctive identity. One night, thanks to a shop owner’s tip, I went to eat in a youth sports club restaurant, Club Eros, in the trendy neighbourhood of Palermo. There they serve huge portions of hand-made pasta and water comes in old-fashioned siphons, while the mostly local patrons follow on TV the two Buenos Aires football teams and archenemies, Boca and River Plate.
After football, another great national passion I could not ignore while in Buenos Aires is tango! To look the part, I attended a couple of lessons on tango’s posture. I made a fool of myself dancing with unglamorous sport sandals while the rest of the ladies had nice, high-heeled tango shoes, but was fun all the same. I discovered that there are so many good tango songs I had never heard before, like Malevaje by Roberto Goyeneche.
One night I went to La Confiteria Ideal, one of the old-fashioned tango houses. I did not get much out of the pre-tango lesson, I think I am genetically engineered not to dance tango. Still, I had a hell of a time observing the couples on the dance floors. A man and her partner, both in their mid sixties, dancing tango figures like pro and with great sense of humour. A lady in her sixties, all dressed in black and red sequins, dancing with a man twenty years her junior with a pony tail and red shirt matching hers; a Maradona-look alike dancing with an ethereal Japanese woman; a good-looking young man looking smug and content while swirling around; a gangster-looking type dancing with a tiny woman….Endless entertainment!
My landlady in Buenos Aires, who does not like dancing tango but loves listening to it, told me tango is a defining feature and reflects some aspects of portenos´ (people from Buenos Aires) psyche as much as dulce de leche, the very sweet delicious condensed milk that Argentinians eat often and with gusto. And the Argentinean accent is as sweet as dulce de leche: they say it sounds like when an Italian is speaking Spanish. I am not sure about this, but for sure it does sounds funny. To add to the variety there is lunfardo, the slang from Buenos Aires, reflecting the heterogeneous identity of the place, with influences from Italian, Portuguese, French, indigenous languages and even from Africa.
I only scraped the surface of Buenos Aires’ immensity, but it was for me a good introduction to the country. Where I felt that my journey really started, though, is in San Antonio de Areco. It is a small town of cobbled streets, two hours north of Buenos Aires, famous for its silversmiths and leather craftsmen and it is the self-proclaimed cradle of gaucho culture. Gauchos are one of the founding myths of Argentina. They are a kind of cowboys of the pampas, rugged, solitary, with their own ethical code and their inseparable facon, the knife. Their lifestyle is now long disappeared, but some aspects of it are still alive and celebrated during the fiesta de la Tradicion – the Tradition’s Fair – held every November in town and taken very seriously by the locals.
Sipping Argentinean wine at a table overlooking San Antonio de Areco main square, while watching some gauchos gossiping, I had one of the first magical moments of the trip. People in San Antonio are very friendly. In no time a group of welcoming locals adopted me, showing me around and involving me in the Tradition’s Fair celebrations.
In the three days of the Fair there were spectacular rodeo-like shows, horses’ parades and gauchos everywhere, dressed with their stylish riding pants, shirts and hats. A delegation of gauchos visiting from Salta, in the North-West, with their distinctive red and black ponchos, wide-brimmed hats, coca-leaves munching and horses fitted with leather “wings” to protect them from thorns piqued my imagination.
To really go deeper into the gaucho mindset and have a try to something I used to do and like years before, I did a two hours horse ride. It left my back hurting for days, but galloping next to a gaucho in the open countryside, surrounded by blooming flowers, was another moment where I thought paradise might look like a horse ride in a sunny spring afternoon.
The nights were lit by bonfires and livened up by traditional dances and songs while people ate asado, the world-famous Argentinean grill. I had no choice but happily join the merry-go-round thinking about how good it tasted my first bite of Argentina.
Stay tuned! On the next post I will write about Tierra del Fuego and how I got to Chile in a small cargo boat passing through an avenue of glaciers.