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.

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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.

This charming piece of graffiti pops up in several places in Buenos Aires. I pass by this particular example of ignorance every day on the way to Spanish class.

It says: Gay Marriage =  AIDS

So, let me get this straight: an institution that would encourage more stable, long-term relationships will lead to more instances of AIDS?

There’s a logic problem here. But then again, logic is not the point of this bit of propaganda.

This week, a judge in Buenos Aires approved a petition by a gay couple to marry. It would be the second such union in Argentina.  The first, in December of last year, was Latin America’s first gay marriage and took place way down in Argentina’s southernmost tip — Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world. Given the continent’s Roman Catholicism, they probably had to go all the way down there to get away from the archbishops’ withering denunciations.

In fact, in good Catholic fashion, Buenos Aires’ main man in a miter has gone into a tizzy over the second union, calling same-sex marriage a “violation of human rights.”

Local graffiti

Our paths cross several mornings a week as I walk up Borges Street toward the subway, dodging the errant streams of water as people hose down their sidewalks, resisting the call of the bakery’s  mountain of sugary croissants, and sighing – again – about that once-beautiful neoclassical corner house that’s made the sad transition from faded elegance to just junky and shabby.

The man is kind of short with a belly, sports a thick mop of jet-black hair and exudes an amazing sense of calm even though he’s the critical nexus of an impossible system of movement and instinct that seems preprogrammed for chaos.

He’s the dog walker. And he’s got nine charges on leashes most mornings, the smallest being a German shepherd.

It’s a strange but common sight in this city of dog lovers, where you can get anything delivered, from a latte to your laundry, from empanadas and ice cream to your weekly grocery shopping. For those busy porteños (Buenos Aires residents) with a little extra cash, why not hire out the walking chores?

I like this particular moving human-canine mass; it retains a kind of stately flow despite the thundering buses, uneven sidewalks and enough dog shit laying around to drive any pooch to distraction. Better than the mini-herds of smaller dogs you see occasionally, yapping and nipping and just making life miserable for everyone concerned.

Palermo pads

The dog walkers are just one of the more colorful aspects of life here in Palermo Soho, my neighborhood in la Capital Federal, where I’ve been for about three weeks. Friends had recommended the area as a desirable place to be, and turns out Lady Luck was on my side when I rented an apartment over the Internet.

It’s quite the place to be these days, full of cafés and leafy oaks, parks and squares and a wonderful mish-mash of architectural styles, from the aforementioned neoclassical beauties to modern, minimalist high-rises (luckily not too many, yet) and everything in between. There are even a couple of half-timbered houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Bavaria.

The neighborhood’s gotten the Soho designation because it’s become quite hip and trendy, and expensive for Argentines. The big Palermo neighborhood has been further subdivided into Old Palermo, Little Palermo and, most oddly, Palermo Hollywood, since there are a bunch of television studios there.

My area has fewer Klieg lights and more hip clothing boutiques, staffed by impossibly beautiful Argentines who must have either just stepped out of a Greek sculptor’s studio, Pygmalion style, or are just killing time until they’re scooped up by some telenovela producer. I step out of these places happy with my wardrobe addition, but wanting to put a bag over my head.

Adding to the city's decibel level

Luckily, the hipster epicenter is several blocks away. Right around my apartment, it’s a bit more down to earth and every-day. There’s the supermarket around the corner run by Asian immigrants (they’re ALL run by Asians with a grasp on Spanish that seems worse than mine), where I can buy my sweet but deadly-to-the-waistline dulce de leche.

There are the fresh vegetable stands on every block, where you can get a bag full of greens for a song. There’s the gym next door where Argentines work off all that beef and cheese that make up their diet. And there’s the laundry where I take all my dirty clothes and drop them off with the kind old woman who continually takes delight in the strangeness of my name. I pick them up later that day, washed and folded, all for about three euros.

It’s  pretty certain that one of the city’s most famous sons, writer Jorge Luis Borges, would find it somewhat odd that the area has become so chic. He spent his childhood in a house just around the corner from me, on the street that now bears his name. (It’s now a hair salon with a plaque.) But back in his day, Palermo was a semi-rural area on the outskirts of town, frequented by gauchos and knife-carrying thugs who liked to drink and fight in the local bars.

Literatura...that's a real slog for me to get through

Just down the street at the next corner is where Borges, in his poem “Buenos Aires,” set the “mythical foundation” of the city. Well, today at the intersection there’s a hamburger place where I got some disgustingly greasy French fries the other day, a designer furniture shop and an ultra-hip bar that’s all flat metal planes.  But at least on one corner there’s still the “Almacén el Preferido,” a pink building that dates from the 19th century.

Borges wrote about the sometimes nefarious goings-on in the place and the atmosphere of potential violence that fascinated him.

Yesterday I peered in the window. Not a sign of a glaring gaucho on his fifth whisky or the glittering flash of deadly metal. Instead, an amorous couple stared into each other’s eyes and two tourists, outfitted with fanny packs and Crocs, dug into a big hunk of Argentine beef.

At least the food part of this particular Buenos Aires scene is eternal.