March 2010


Atkins, it ain't

Not much has suffered during my two months of life in Argentina, save my waistline. My belly isn’t hanging down over my belt just yet, but give me another two months with Argentine cuisine, and the Great Spillover might just begin.

How to sum up the Argentine diet?

Umm…meat and sweets.

There you go.

Argentines are big meat eaters. In 2007, per capita beef consumption was 149 pounds a year, according to one source, down from 396 pounds per annum in the 19th century. Yikes.

I mean, they do have good reason to enjoy consuming cow – their country is one of the major producers of the stuff (the country has just under 40 million people and some 50 million cows) and its quality is way up there. The majority of restaurants seem to be parrilla (grill) places offering numerous beef cuts, chorizo sausages, blood sausage, short ribs, breaded meats, pork, barbecued chicken, and so on, ad infinitum.

This was tea meant for two

But hey, why be forced to choose just one animal part? Go for the gold with the meat feast platter – oh, I forget the name. The first time I saw one of those being carried out – a large, raised platter heated from below piled at least four inches high with cuts of meat – I thought some banquet was happening in the next room. It was for the family of four at the next table.

But man, after a while, it gets to be too much. I’m no vegetarian, and am really not a health fanatic when it comes to my diet. But here, order a hamburger or a lomito and what you get is heart attack on a plate.

The beef, that’s fine, but usually it’s covered in a slice of ham, a half-inch layer of melted cheese, and then an egg, boiled or fried. Oh, don’t forget the sea of French fries that come with it. Tired of that, there’s pizza and pasta, which Argentines eat mountains of. Cream and red meat (really?) sauces are preferred.

Desert anyone?

My typical breakfast

Oh yes, there is the divine dulce de leche, a thick caramel paste that once must have been the nectar of the gods. It’s often layered between short-bread cookies dipped in chocolate (alfajores), or stuffed into mini croissants dusted with confectioner’s sugar, or simply eaten out of the jar by addicts like me, until they go into sugar shock.

Don’t forget the flan, which also has a dulce de leche variation, or the gelato stands on every street corner, where for about US$2.50, you can get a big Styrofoam container overflowing with three of your favorite flavors. They say it has less fat than American ice cream, you know, so what’s the harm?

Note the empty nature of the jar

I don’t know why Argentines, with all these high-carb, high calorie, big-portioned meals, aren’t just huge. The men do tend to be bigger than Europeans after, say, the age of 40, but they don’t in any way approach the American girth. What gives? They’re not all dancing tango 24/7.

So I complain and I regret and I just continue to eat it up. Asceticism can wait until I return to Berlin. (I don’t want to talk about it!)

In fact, after I wrap this up, I’ll probably head out to the restaurant here in Iguazú recommended in my guide, supposedly the best in town. What I’ll order? Probably a big hunk of cow flesh and a glass of Malbec.

Because when in Rome…

I'm crying for you here, Evita

There’s something about the proverbial tourist trap that just gets my goat.

Is it the Disneyfication of a place that was at least once kind of authentic? Is it the touts that accost you every second step pressuring you to eat at their restaurant, or trying to start fake conversations (usually beginning with the word “friend”) just to get you to stop so they can make the hard sell? What about the prices, 50% higher than anywhere else in the city, and the food, 50% worse?

What’s not to love?

“El Caminito” in the Bs.As. ‘hood of La Boca fully meets all these requirements for tourist trapdom and I had pretty much decided to give this block of candy-colored houses a wide berth. But, as my time here comes to a close (I don’t want to talk about it!), I fell victim to the marketing. This little street is in all the tourism material, was the main pic for the Smithsonian magazine cover story on the city, etc., etc. (Slide show below.)

Street scene

The funny thing is, this tourist sinkhole is located right in the middle of a neighborhood that is considered fairly dangerous, La Boca. The name refers to the mouth of the Riachuelo river, a stinking cesspool of a waterway that gives the area its distinctive, disagreeable smell. (Although yesterday, a brisk breeze drove the most noxious fumes on their way.)

Back in the day, that day being the 19th century, is was the entry point for immigrants and goods to the city. Many new arrivals set up shop here and built houses with corrugated zinc.

They didn’t have money for paint, the story goes, so asked arriving ships to give them any leftovers. That’s why the dwellings were painted this crazy quilt of colors.

Back to the danger: most guides and several websites from travelers recommend not venturing down to the neighborhood after dark, nor straying away even during the day from the candy-colored street packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, and sprinkled with cops and couples dancing tango and posing for pictures in exchange for some cash.

Who does this?

I was concerned, emptying out my wallet before I went, dressing down, making sure my camera was safely hidden away, getting ready for the knife-wielding thugs surely lurking behind every bright pastel corner.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. The place was so chock-full of Bermuda-wearing paleskins like me (well, minus the attire), that only the most criminal would have dared. OK, I’m sure it’s happened. I just stayed aware and was not bothered by anyone but the touts.

I’m not quite sure what the attraction is. It’s so fake and out of touch with anything actually happening in Buenos Aires (save the very cool contemporary arts center next door).

The food is pricey, the stuff for sale schlocky, the houses…kinda pretty, but you’re done in ten minutes. But then, people were actually paying to have their photographs taken behind those painted wooden boards with openings that you stick your head through. So what do I know?

The Real World

The surrounding, more monochromatic neighborhood looked much more interesting. There is some cool mish-mashy architecture, the stadium for the Boca Juniors soccer team that is the local religious shrine, hole-in-the-wall restaurants grilling their beloved meat out on the street, and all in all a different side of Bs. As., far removed from my leafy, upscale Palermo neighborhood.

But as I still had vague thoughts of gangs of rampaging hoodies in my head, I didn’t get too far off the beaten track. Probably a wise move in the end; I’ve still got my camera.

Sleeping giant ... hope he stays that way

There were a few seconds of pure panic.

I had just braved a disgusting restroom in the bus station in some mid-sized city about seven hours into the return trip from my week in Patagonia. The bus had pulled into a brightly lit station at around 11 p.m., just as I was dozing off, when the steward came up to the top level and blasted out some sentences in rapid-fire Spanish. I was fairly sure he said the bus was stopping for ten minutes, but asked an Argentine next to me; she held up ten fingers.

So, a quick trip to said facilities, and back to the platform area, ready to get down to sleep for, I hoped, a big chunk of the trip back to Buenos Aires.

But, the dock where my bus had been was empty.

I know I gasped out loud. There was a bus from the same company two docks over, so I ran over to it, but the destination sign said Mendoza, another city. Could I have been that stupid? What had that damn steward said, a ten-second stop? Why did I even get off the damn bus? There was a bathroom on board. My computer, my phone, my passport, half of everything stitch of clothing I have here in Argentina was on board that now-absent vehicle. Where the fuck was I, anyway?

The panic must have been pretty visible because out of the corner of my eye I saw an arm waving at me. I looked over in the fluorescent glare and recognized a guy who had been sitting a couple of rows back from me. “Don’t worry,” were his first words after I went over to him, like a castaway greeting the ship coming to save him. “The bus is coming back in ten minutes.”

Shoreline

Had that initial, white-hot fear been founded, it would have been a very crappy coda to an otherwise delightful week in Patagonia. (Slide show below.)

After a pleasant day in Bariloche (see previous post), I had rented a white VW Gol, Volkswagen’s entry-level car designed in Brazil that’s a hit in South America. This was no high-performance vehicle, more like a Ford Fiesta with slightly better styling, but it was cheap. I’d read that there were lengthy stretches of road coming up that were not paved, and some four-wheel drive, manly vehicle would have set my mind more at ease. To distract myself from the gravel surface coming up and the possible results of my miserliness, I just kept scarfing down the chocolates I’d bought in town until I was sick.

But then I reached my first destination on the Seven Lakes Drive without having to leave the comforts of asphalt. Villa la Angostura is a little up-market town next to the peninsula where I did my hike, also in the last post. I don’t know; it was pretty and all, but felt kind of like a tourist trap, although the trap has mostly been set for the wealthy Argentines who come here to ski or who have second homes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the scenery cannot be beat. But the town itself didn’t offer much besides chocolate shops or stores featuring all the same Argentine handicrafts.

Nothing interesting here

And let me tell you, I am not impressed (by the handicrafts, that is). Every time I’m in Asia, I just go wild seeing interesting things to bring back. I just keep myself in check so my apartment doesn’t begin looking like a Chinese restaurant.

But here, there’s been no temptation to pull out my wallet for any of the cheesy, chintzy stuff like badly painted wooden figures, vaguely “native” looking I-don’t-know-whats, knives (so many it’s scary), or cups meant for mate (the national tea-like beverage, wait, or is that Pepsi or Sprite, which everyone seems to drink much more of these days?).

Well, I did get the DVD of that Argentine movie that just won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. At least I’ll have something.

So, I did that hike, fell victim to a woman selling a bunch of dulce de leche products my expanding waistline does NOT need, and crashed.

The next day me and the Gol left Lake Nahuel Huapi and paved roadway behind, hitting the gravel, jerking and shuddering alongside fantastically beautiful lakes nestled amid forest-covered mountains – Lake Correntoso, Lake Espejo, lakes Falkner and Traful. They were all azure blue and shimmering under the bright, late summer sun. They’re perfect for long treks on their surrounding mountain ridges or for setting up tents on their tranquil shores – if I were into that kind of thing.

Wish I hadn’t been so worried about my seen-better-days car just shaking into a million pieces, or kicking up some rock that would put a huge scratch on its white (well, tan at this point) surface. I did get out a couple of times to snap some pictures, although a car would inevitably pass by and I’d be lost in a thick cloud of kicked-up dust for a few minutes. It was only half-way through this stretch that I realized the car actually had AC and I didn’t have to have the windows open and hold my breath whenever some SUV would roar by, leaving me literally eating his dust. The windows stayed up after that.

Bouquet

Back on asphalt and up to San Martín de los Andes, a truly charming town that’s cute indeed, but not treacly cute like Villa la Angostura. I stayed at this B&B called La Casa de Eugenia, and if you’re even in San Martín, this is the place to be. The place has an incredibly laid-back, nice host, beautiful design and furnishings that aren’t snotty, and a breakfast to die for. Thank you, guide book.

The food in the area: excellent. Ravioli stuffed with lamb in a blueberry sauce, local trout, or medium-rare Argentine steak with, yes, some version of potatoes, usually accompanied by a nice glass of Malbec.

It was then that I headed up to Junín, the angler’s paradise I mentioned in the last posting, as well as home to the Christian sculpture garden. It was also the place of death of the Blessed Laura Vicuña, a girl who lived to the ripe old age of 13 and was beatified by the Pope John Paul II. She gave herself to God because her mother was shacking up with a farmer to make ends meet. I don’t think she can be canonized because Laura’s backers can’t produce a miracle she performed.

But the real miraculous aspect of the region is the extinct (I certainly hoped so) volcano rising like a earth god above everything around it. It’s called Lanín, rises 3,776 meters, and elicited another audible gasp from me when I first spotted its snow-capped peak while jerking and shaking down yet another unpaved road. I was headed down the northern shore of Lake Huechulafquen after having stopped at the national park ranger station. I asked about hikes, but “easy, shortish ones.” The woman told me about one that, in the end, appears to have been designed for small children. I guess I came across like even more of a wimp than I thought.

Lakeside idyll

As I walked around this forest path reading signs featuring the adventures of a comic forest elf and his “living room in the forest,” powerful Lanín kept watch behind me, resting after an eruption many moons ago which spewed volcanic rock all over the place. You can climb the peak, but it takes three days and you need to be outfitted with things like ice-axes and crampons, and prove to the rangers that you are mentally and physically prepared for the experience. I didn’t think I’d pass that particular test. I was content to appreciate it from afar, as well as the astoundingly beautiful lake not far away, placid and glistening under a brilliant blue sky.

Time was running short, so back in the car for a bumpy ride back to San Martín to get my stuff and make the three-hour trip back to Bariloche to catch the bus that afternoon. I had to put pedal to metal even around some hair-raising turns since I was running late. But by God, I didn’t want to miss that bus. Can you imagine missing your bus out in the middle of Patagonia?

Bush being very, very bad

The fly-fishing capital of Argentina, Junín de los Andes, is also home to a sculpture park called the Vía Christi. As the name implies, it highlights some of the events Jesus’ life as described in the Bible, although there’s a heaping dollop of purely imaginary events thrown in just to liven things up a bit, or get a point across. One main point seems to be that George W. Bush wasn’t liked much in Junín either.

In one of the newest sculptures, Jesus’ is Tempted in the Desert, the main visage on the many-faced, serpent-tailed Satan is none other than W. It’s just classic.

Now, a Christian-themed sculpture park would not usually make any must-do list of mine. But in Junín, if you aren’t baiting a hook or casting a rod, the options are limited. I’d already eaten, walked around the main plaza, window shopped in the three stores, so, why not see what Christ is up to up on the hill with the big white cross on it?

A very anachronistic sermon

Well, as I wrote in a status update on Facebook, the Vía Christi is an odd place: it’s alternatively creepy in its depictions of violence and suffering, plus over-the-top cheesy in its naiveté and the execution and subject matter of the works. (The one of Jesus preaching to Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Gandhi (wasn’t he a Hindu?) has to take the cake.)

But then, it’s also kind of interesting in that the whole thing – which is on a rather pleasant wooded hillside – is an amalgam of native Mapuche history and iconography with Christian stories and symbolism.

The Mapuche are the region’s primary indigenous group. They’re mostly in Chile, but there is also a good number in this part of Argentina, a stone’s throw from the Chilean border. Many live in Junín, and you can see the native influence in just how people look — facial characteristics and statures that are very different from those in Buenos Aires.

Pizarro or Cabeza de Vaca driving it in?

So, in the park, while you’ve  got the basics going on — tempting, scourging, nailing — there’s a bit of a political tinge to it all. Bush is Lucifer, as we’ve seen. The guy nailing Jesus to the cross is decked out like a conquistador – those Spanish baddies who wiped out much of the indigenous population in South and Central America.

Among the Jesus scenes, there are big plaques with reliefs on them that compare Jesus’ suffering with that of the Mapuche people. Plus a little liberation theology is thrown in, talking about the Church helping the poor, wiping out debt, etc. Pope Benedict would not be happy, I predict. Also, mosaic artwork and traditional design of the Mapuche surround all the sculptures.

No comment

And, the Mapuche seem a little less prudish than your general Vatican Monsignor commissioning a religious work of art. No loin cloths or fig leafs on this Jesus undergoing his tribulation. Perhaps a people who were traditionally close to nature prefer their God-men au naturel.

Sight for Sore Eyes

It was at about kilometer seven that I began to wonder if I really was the outdoorsy type; at about nine-and-a-half, I was having serious doubts.

I mean, it was my own decision to break off from the group of tourists with whom I’d taken a boat from Villa La Angostura through the breathtaking Nahuel Huapi Lake to the end of the Quetrihué peninsula during my week in Argentina’s Patagonia. The wimps were going to do a 15-minute circuit on a raised wooden path looking at some barkless trees and head back on the boat.

Not me, I was going to trek the 13 kilometers back. I had bought some hiking shoes that drove a dagger into my sense of aesthetics, but I’d just grin and bear it. I had acquired a Gore-Tex-ish jacket that would keep out any inclement weather. But my nature-appreciation experiment was showing signs of distress. The jacket now tied across my waist had to be hitched up every three feet or so and I’d just stepped pretty much in the middle of a good-sized cow patty while looking at, I don’t know, some vines or something…poison ivy?

Yes, there are country folk and there are city folk, and I had pretty much decided at that moment I was a member of the latter club as I tried to get the gunk out of the grooves on the sole of my right shoe.

Occasional groups of young people whizzing by on mountain bikes left me wishing I’d chosen that option. I’d decided to walk the route, thinking I’d be doing some more intense communing with nature that way, and get better pics. Well, I’d gotten about as up close and personal as I wanted – shit-smeared shoes, a couple of insect bites, raging thirst.

At one point late in the game, I came across three young women sitting on the trail. They asked me about the walk and I tried to feign enthusiasm. One looked like she was smoking a joint, which seemed like good preparation for what lay ahead.

Lake placid

Lake placid

But, as appears to be the case in Patagonia, even the most citified person cannot fail to be awed by the region’s natural beauty. (Slide show below.)

And once I turned a final corner on this tiresome hike, I was hit hard in the face by a fantastic vista of deep blue lakes surrounded by pine-covered mountains and valleys. Frustration, swept away. (I still made a beeline for a kiosk selling drinks.)

I didn’t know much about Patagonia before going, besides the fact that it comprises the southern part of Argentina and Chile. It’s a huge region with varied geographic features: from arid, scrubby flatlands to forested mountains to ice fields and glaciers.

Where to go? My first travel itinerary was ambitious. I thought I’d fly to the Lake District, do some driving around, then fly down to Calafate and see the impressive glacier there, on which you can trek if you’re under 45 (time’s running out for this guy), then take another flight down to Tierra del Fuego, the most southerly tip of South America, called the End of the World. But, seeing the cost of flights here, I scaled it back considerably…even foregoing airplanes all together.

Despite my general dislike of buses, especially the thought of sitting in one for 20 hours (the time it would take me to get to the Lake District from Bs.As.) I was told that’s the way to get around in Argentina, especially for gringos on a budget, who pay three times what Argentines pay when it comes to airfare. So, I booked the highest class on the ómnibus and crossed my fingers.

A far cry from Greyhound

Well, this ain’t Greyhound. First class was on the upper deck of a double-decker monster, fitted out with seats you see in business or first class on a plane. You’re served snacks and meals, and at bed time the seats fold down to 180 degrees. The only negative was the movie selection; there were about three or so, I think. One forgettable Robin Williams vehicle and two straight-to-cable flicks heavy on the explosions and bad acting. The sound was piped over loudspeakers, and my iPod ran out of juice half-way through.

First stop, 20 hours later, San Carlos de Bariloche, the starting point for Patagonia’s lake country and the Seven Lakes Drive I was eager to do. Perched on the edge of the azure waters of Nahuel Huapi Lake, it’s got an odd Swiss Alps feel – only en español. That’s largely due to the chalet-style architecture from the 1930s that was inspired by the early German and Swiss settlers. It’s called the “Bariloche Alpine Style” and uses local stone, varnished wood and carved gable ends. It’s all over the place. Sometimes it looks too precious to be real, but I suppose it is.

There is, however, a dark side to this pretty place – Nazis. For years, the head of the German Bariloche school was a former high-ranking SS officer. Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” is said to have lived here for years before his eventual capture and trial. After World War II, Argentina in general was a haven for Nazi war criminals, some of the most notorious who enjoyed explicit protection from then-President Juan Perón, Evita’s husband.

Alpine Style

But walking down Bariloche’s main drag, I didn’t spot any swastikas or suspicious Lederhosen, but a lot of outdoors shops and ski suppliers. There’s a big ski resort not far from here, Cerro Catedral, and the place is packed in both summer (boating and fishing and hiking) and winter (skiing, of course). I hit it just after the summer throngs had left. Perfect.

The region is known for its chocolate, and chocolate emporiums line the streets – delicious and deadly. I did not resist temptation. In the afternoon, I took a gondola up the Cerro Otto, a mountain and, I think, small ski resort just east of town that offers spectacular views over the region and its glittering lake.

But you know, a picture is worth a lot of blathering, and I took a bunch of them. So I’ll just add a slide show here and conclude the Patagonian adventure in the next post. Besides, I’ve got Spanish homework to do.

Received in about two days

The sidewalks in downtown Buenos Aires are usually packed during the weekdays. Successfully maneuvering their relatively narrow widths involves getting around potholes, piles of fresh dog shit, and that family of four spread out across the walkway’s entire width during their midday constitutional. Grrr…

Senses have to running in overdrive:  squinting eyes deciphering the seen-better-days crosswalk lights in the blaring sun, nose filtering out the aforementioned fecal matter and exhaust from the ancient buses roaring by.

But a blind man would know when he’s reached an intersection of two major streets – maybe Corrientes and Callao, or Córdoba and Uruguay, or Lima and Rivadabia – because of a distinctive snap, snap, snap. It’s more regular than any traffic light audio signal to help those with low vision.

Its source – youngish men popping little pieces of paper and shoving them toward any male over the age of 16 passing by. On them, services are offered by women who, in the ads at least, go by names Ambar, Alma, or Justine and promise to fulfill your every desire – often for cut-rate prices good for a short time only. Act now!

a little more beauty, a little less prurience?

Londoners will just yawn, since such ads fill those red phone booths so beloved by tourists – or at least they did when I last spent any time there. But Buenos Aires is awash in them like no place I’ve ever seen.

OK, before you call me a member of the prude patrol, let me set you straight. I am not one, a fact to which most who know me will attest. Yeah, I’ve been tempted to yell “get a room” to some of the couples you see in the parks around here, like the one I stumbled upon today in a niche outside of Bariloche’s main cathedral – embarrassing for everyone concerned.  But, hey, live and let live. Maybe I’m just jealous of young love and unbridled passion. Amsterdam’s red-light district doesn’t raise an eyebrow…wonder why all this does?

I don’t know, something for me and my psychoanalyst, of which there are dozens in my neighborhood. I kid you not; Freud is huge here.

But back to the the topic at hand. In Buenos Aires, go to any public phone and your senses will be overwhelmed by a sea of silicon boobs and thong-clad butts staring out at you from those small slips of paper. Larger versions of the same ads are often posted on electrical boxes and poles. They’re generally somewhat more discrete in that the woman is actually facing the camera, or her rear-end is clad in a little more than just a quarter-inch strip of cloth. Discretion, you know.

Hard to know what this hypersexualization of the public sphere means to people, or if it’s just ignored.

Street scene

It doesn’t end with bad photocopies handed out blank side up by dodgy looking 20-somethings. The newsstands, features of every block in the city where porteños buy their daily papers, magazines, and catch up on the gossip, often seem to double as adult bookstores – albeit of the soft-core variety.

Usually one end of the display is devoted to the harder-end version of the lad mags…silicon in full view, or as Argentines seem to prefer, a woman in her early twenties oiled up, wearing the thong, pushing her glutes up and out. When it comes to T&A, the Argentines go for the A.

And, on the other side, there’s a real shortage of beefcake around — in print I mean. Argentine men can be incredibly attactive, but publishers don’t seem to be interested in showing it off. Sex objectification has not penetrated the other gender side in this land of very-much-intact machismo.

Now all in all, I’m pretty sex positive, but, come on, think of the children. I mean, perhaps in this era of hard-core Internet porn as far away as a click or two, a little skin on the street is nothing. But the message this puts out to young minds looking for the latest Mickey Mouse comic and confronted two stacks over with a vision of impossibly huge breasts and sexualized positions can’t be edifying. Am I behind the times? Get me to a nunnery?

And who knows? Perhaps to become a truly successful Latin Lover, training has to start early.