Thursday, 19 December 2013

Tango and Money Caves

By Sanne

So after a smooth border crossing from Uruguay into Argentina (for us anyway, Shandy Man was subject to some scare tactics from the border officials) we were now back in Argentina and headed for Buenos Aires. We managed to ride through boring Entre Rios without being stopped by the infamous corrupt cops here.
Riding into Buenos Aires in afternoon peak traffic is a little intimidating. I could not recall the traffic being so heavy last time we were here, but maybe the past two weeks spent in Uruguay had accustomed me to quieter roads. Nevertheless, traffic was heaving and 6 packed lanes lead us towards this giant city of 13 million people. Shandy was going to a hostel while we had arranged to stay with a Couch Host so we parted ways with promises to catch up the following day.

The next day we went out exploring the city to see the things we had missed last time we were here. Readers of the blog might recall our quite stressful start to our South America trip with major hassles with shipping and our bikes being held for ransom in London while we were already in Buenos Aires. So back in September our minds were focused on getting our bikes back and not so much on sightseeing. But now we had 24 hours to do just that and the first thing we did was head to Recoletta, a rich neighbourhood which houses a very famous cemetery of the same name. It is a beautiful cemetery and walking around in there you could be forgiven to think that you are in Paris. Only the rich and important people get the ‘privilege’ to be buried here, one of the famous graves belong to Evita for example. These aren’t just regular gravestones but chambers or chapels dedicated to each person or family, and one is more opulent than the next. It seems to be a sort of high society competition to see who can have the biggest, most extravagant grave, so that even when the person is dead people will surely be in awe over his wealth. 

After Recoletta we took the very cheap (40cents a ticket) but very crowded subway into Plaza de Mayo, probably the most important square in Buenos Aires. There we waited until 4pm for the Madres the Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo) to start their parade. During the Dirty War from 1976-83, the military dictatorship was responsible for the disappearance of approximately 30,000 people (generally people who had expressed reservations about the dictatorship) and the Madres is a group of mothers who had children among the disappeared. Every Thursday afternoon they gather here in Plaza de Mayo and circle the statue in the middle in silence while holding up banners and sometimes photos of their sons and daughters who they haven’t seen for over 30 years. It is a silent but resistant presence they show and it is sad and very touching. Clearly they know that their children will not return but they still keep up the ritual of meeting here every Thursday to show the world that although many years have passed, they will never forget. I have to mention that a similar group exists: ‘Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo’ (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo). They are looking for their grandchildren from the same war. What happened was that the military would often kill both the mother and father, but without the nerve to kill their children as well these would then be passed on to military people in a kind of adoption. Fast-forward to 30 years later, you now have all these kids, who are around my age, whose parents are not their real parents, in fact the person they now address as ‘Dad’ probably was the one who killed their real father. So the Abuelas are grandmothers whose children have been killed and grandchildren stolen. They no longer march in Plaza de Mayo but from what I can understand they are still very much active in helping children who might have doubts whether their parents are their real parents or not.

After this sad spectacle our attention turned towards some very loud bangs which sounded a lot like gunshots so naturally we walked in that direction! The ‘gunshots’ came from Avenida de Mayo which the police had closed off for obvious reasons. Looking up the street towards congress we could see clouds of smoke and hear car alarms going off everywhere. Then we noticed a group of men walking up the street towards Plaza de Mayo with fire crackers in their hands letting them off every few seconds. It looked like a war zone and the weird thing was, the police did nothing to stop them, they just stood there watching not looking too concerned at all, as if this was just a regular thing that happens on a daily basis. Mark and I were fascinated and profoundly confused at the same time as we had no idea what the h… was going on. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, 30 minutes later another demonstration started up in the same spot, but for something else. To quote an Argentinian friend of ours, December is crazy. For some reason, be it the heat or something else, December is THE month to get your inner rebel out of the closet and start hatin’. People go a bit mental this time a year it seems. Well, from what I saw that day, I have to say I agree.

When you say Buenos Aires most people will say: Tango. And this was my main regret that I didn’t get to see last time, so this time I had done my research and found that a Milonga is the best place to experience the real tango. There are touristy shows as well but I wasn’t interested in some Mouilin Rouge type extravaganza. No, I wanted to be where the Portenos (people from BA) go to get their dance on. And Milongas (dance halls) is where they go apparently. Our Couch Host recommended La Catedral which is an old flour warehouse converted into a milonga. We picked up Shandy at his hostel and after sharing a few beers at a couple of bars in Palermo we went to see if this tango thing was all it’s cracked up to be.

From the outside La Catedral looks like nothing at all. Blink and you’ll miss it kind of place, it doesn’t even say La Catedral on the door, luckily we knew the house number. A man sitting at a desk took 20 pesos from each of us in entry and told us to walk up the stairs from where we could hear faint music playing. The stairs lead us up to the first floor and we followed the music till we turned a corner and just like that we had landed in Bohemia Central. The room was dark and massive, you could tell this was a warehouse space. Weird artwork was hanging everywhere and in the ceiling hang a giant human heart maybe 3 metres wide. We planted ourselves at a table, ordered some drinks and food from the surprisingly all vegetarian menu, a rarity in this meat-loving country. There were several couples on the dancefloor, but they were part of a class that were learning to tango so you could tell they were beginners. However after a while the real action started with couples who could actually dance taking to the dancefloor. One thing I did learn was that the tango they dance here is nothing like the tango I knew. You know the aggressive, quite hard moves. That is not real tango. The real tango (and what they dance here) is much softer and more understated. And all the action happens from the waist down, mainly the feet which the woman moves in incredibly detailed ways. It was a real pleasure to watch and even Mark, who had been resistant to the idea of going to watch tango, was enjoying it. At some point in the evening four guys walked onto the dancefloor with their music instruments and started playing (tango is very much about the music as well as the dance). That was equally as enjoyable as watching the dancing. And the best part of it was that it felt really authentic, not some things just put on for tourists. I think we were the only tourists there, the rest were locals. The whole place had a real bohemian feel to it, from the old, creaking wooden floors to the resident cat walking in between dancing couples on the dancefloor. Amazing place.

Our time in Buenos Aires was up but we only had to go 80 kms south to La Plata to see our friend and Couch Host Facundo who we had stayed with before. The reason for coming here, besides seeing Facundo of course, was 1. To get a new tent and 2. To exchange money. We had made the decision to get a new tent and Facundo had been extremely helpful in helping us find and reserve one in a local store. So now we own a Montagne all-season tent so that we’re ready for the harsh Patagonia weather. Then it was time for the money exchange. We needed to exchange US dollars into Argentinian pesos. The US dollars we had gotten out of atms in Uruguay which dispense both dollars and Uruguayan pesos. I promised in my last blog a quick explanation of the economics of Argentina so here goes. The economy is a mess. Inflation is at 25% although officially it’s 10%. The Economist magazine stated in 2011 that it no longer trusted inflation figures coming out of Argentina. This inflation has made Argentina’s peso highly volatile and US dollars very sought after. So, now comes the fun part; two different exchange rates exist for the US dollar to the peso. The legal rate and the black market rate. And there’s a noticeable difference between the rates. The legal rate is at 6 pesos to the dollar while the blue rate as they call is currently around 9.4. So if you bring US dollars into the country and exchange them at the latter rate, you can get your money to last a lot longer.

Although illegal it is largely accepted to change money on the blue rate (the national newspaper even prints the current blue rate daily) and walking down Buenos Aires’ Av Florida all you hear is ‘cambio, cambio cambio’ which means exchange and they will change on the blue rate. Last time we were here we had no idea about this dual-rate thing so we had no US dollars with us, but now we did and Facundo had helped set up an appointment for us at a local ‘cave’ as they’re called. It’s really not as dodgy as it sounds. We were given the address and found the nice apartment building where we were buzzed in after we said the codeword which was that some woman’s name had sent us. A man in the lobby then tells us where to go (clearly in on it too) and we take the elevator to the given floor and walk to the door where we knock and again are buzzed in to some kind of waiting room. After a couple of minutes we are let in another door and now stand in a room set up just like a bank with actual counters and tellers behind glass. It is all very professionally done and within 10 minutes we were out the door again with a big bundle of pesos at a much better rate. Argentina had just become a much more affordable country to be in.

Taking a breather next to the river in Gualeguaychu, the border town on the Argentina side

Dog-walker in Buenos Aires, typically each walker has around 15 dogs with him

Recoletta Cemetery

Evita's grave

Plaza de Mayo

In 2010 Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, 
but unbelievably abortion is still illegal in this hugely catholic country

The white scarf of the Mothers, painted on the ground in Plaza de Mayo

Madres de Plaza de Mayo

The guys setting off fire crackers, I still have no idea what that was about!

It was the day for demonstrations alright, all we caught of this one was that 
it had something to do with education

Yes, we know The Falklands are keep telling us...

Tango at La Catedral

That guy on the picture in the back is Carlos Gardel, who was one of the most 
prominent figures in the history of tango. I thought it was John Travolta.

The giant heart hanging from the ceiling

Car wreck on the streets of La Plata

At an asado with some Argentinians (Facundo on the far left sipping mate)

Yes, we managed to get a vegetarian asado in Argentina! It's that little red thing in the corner next to all the meat...

1 comment:

  1. Happy Christmas you guys - still following your travels and hope to get back on the road soon. Hope 2014 is another good one for you.