Â Nearly nine months ago, we set out on our yearlong tour of the world, and it seemed as though we had an eternity of adventures ahead of us; now, however, our time is winding down, and we will probably be home before we know it. Having seen parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia, we were about to spend the final trimester of â€œmany-moonsâ€ exploring the continent of South America. Aside from a few general plans (Patagonia and Machu Picchu), we have very limited plans and almost no expectations of what awaits us; I suppose it will be a good test of how far we have come as travelers–were we now wily veterans of world travel who could, for instance, annihilate the competition on Amazing Race, or are we more like the bumpkins who only get accepted so that audience could have a few extra laughs in the first two episodes? Either way, Sarah and I were both really excited to embark on the final sojourn of our year abroad as we stepped off the plane and entered our sixth and final continent in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Actually, the previous few days had been a whirlwind of travelâ€¦we left New Zealand in the early afternoon of Sunday, March 25 and arrived in Los Angeles early on the morning of Sunday, March 25; a little weird, I know, but at least we were getting back a few of the many hours that we had lost in various time zones over the past nine months. It may seem sort of pointless to return to the United States for something like 36 hours, but it saved us a good deal of money. Iâ€™d love to tell you that we had a glorious adventure in L.A., but we basically took the city bus to a shopping area and did a few errands before returning to our hotel and enjoying the comfort and familiarity of accommodation in a decent American hotel room. Among the highlights of the day were stocking up on our favorite brands of toiletries at Target (nearly 2 hours of exploration there), lunch at Chiliâ€™s while the NCAA Elite 8 and NBA were on side-by-side flat-screens, and shipping a package that cost less than the price of the goods we had purchased. Even better, we had arranged for Sarahâ€™s folks to send a package of new clothes that we had ordered to our hotel; I donâ€™t know that I had fully appreciated the softness of new clothes before that day, and my own parents informed me that people reading these blogs would probably be happy to see us wear something different for onceâ€¦alas, our color choices were limited, so you get to feast your eyes on my tomato red t-shirt for three more months, but at least it will be without stains for a while. The best part of our stay was having time for extended phone calls to both of our parents; we hadnâ€™t talked out loud to one another for a while, and it was good for us all to hear each othersâ€™ voices. Then, after less than 24 hours in LA, we flew to DC and had just enough time for Sarah to dine on Wendys and throw up before catching a plane for Buenos Aires, where we would arrive early the following morningâ€¦what a whirlwind of travel we had strung together!
Itâ€™s always a little nerve-wracking when the plane sets down in a new country, but things went very smoothly for us upon arriving to BA (a somewhat unfortunate abbreviation that is nonetheless a popular nickname for the city). Immigration was expensive–we had to pay $280 for a ten-year entry fee–but easy; apparently, we had opted to leave all the tiny green spiders behind this time. The main thing that was a concern for us was language, but getting from the airport to the hotel did not provide any complications. We were pleased to find that our hotel was clean and comfortable, although we were back to the dreaded shower/toilet share stall that we had come to know and, well, maybe just know. Still, we had landed in a pretty good place, and the staff was very helpful and niceâ€¦late the next night, we were returning to the hotel, and the maid asked me in Spanish (often called castellanos here), and I replied that I knew a little; she pointed at Sarah and told me how beautiful she was and that she had a nice smile. Sheâ€™s right, and it was very sweet of her to stop me and have me translate it for Sarah.
After cleaning up and grabbing a bite to eatâ€¦I was pretty tame about using the limited Spanish that I havenâ€™t practiced in 16 years, although I did manage to ask â€œcome se diceâ€ when the waitress brought me the bill, and she pronounced the word for it, la cuentaâ€¦Sarah and I began to explore. Buenos Aires is sort of a city just to be seen and experienced as opposed to a place that you study in museums and galleries. It is a very beautiful city, with seemingly endless blocks of nice shopping and cute cafes. It is also known for its nightlife, but the Raffs arenâ€™t big clubbers in general, and the past few days of rigorous travel precluded any notions of staying out until the clubs opened at 2:00 AM! Still, I donâ€™t know that we have enjoyed simply walking a large city in quite a while, and the people of BA are very friendly and helpful.
We spent a few minutes that afternoon walking down in the Puerto Madero area, the port for the ferries, which has a ton of nice restaurants and fancy hotels. We were actually looking for a tourist office to explore the possibility of visiting Patagonia this late in the year; although we didnâ€™t find an office in this area, it was still a very pleasant to place to walk. We were also happy to see that there were clear traffic laws here, and people were expected to follow them. J
Strangely, one of the most appealing sights in BA is the elegant (yes, elegant!) shopping mall, Gallerias Pacifico. We didnâ€™t need to do any shopping, but enjoyed checking out the mural-covered ceiling, large arching windows, and lovely fountain from the bottom floor of the mall. Even the food court was nice, and I noticed more than a few folks relaxing with a glass of wine while they took in the people and the scene. Near the mall, we found a tourist office and were excited to find that Patagonia facilities and transportation services run through the entire month of April; so we are going to be able to visit one of the highest attractions on our wish list.
Av Florida, near Gallerias Pacifico, is a shopperâ€™s haven, with several long city blocks lining the pedestrian mall; as per usual, it was bustling with afternoon shoppers and cafÃ©-goers, all of whom were dressed impeccably–good thing the Raffs had some fresh gear of their ownâ€¦not a hole in a pant leg between us! In the same neighborhood, we ran across the gargantuan Av 9 de Julio, which seriously spans three or four city blocks and took a gander at Un Obelisco, the impressive obelisk that is sort of definitive symbol of Buenos Aires. Before heading out, we also popped our head into Teatro Colon, the fancy 2500-seat theater, but we had to settle for a poster view of the auditorium because the tours were finished for the day.
The people of Argentina love beef and Italian food, so Sarah and I were set for the next few weeksâ€™ cuisine. We were a bit afraid that we would have trouble find some dinner since the locals like to dine at 10:00 PM, but the Italian place on the corner by our hotel was nice and, more importantly, open at 7:30. The waiter helped us pick out a tasty dish in our price range, and we soon sat enjoying tender steaks and mashed potatoes, along with a delicious glass of Malbec. He did most of the work, and I nodded and said, si, on the few occasions where I recognized one of the words he said; it wasnâ€™t helping my cause that my left ear was plugged when I was trying to understand people who talk faster than most people at home. Anyway, he was very nice, and Sarah and I really enjoyed our first night in BA.
Our first order of business on day two in BA was to figure out how to get out, or move on, after a day or so. Sarah had reserved airline tickets to Patagonia the previous night, and we had nearly a week to fill in between. Our plan was to head up to a few places in Northeast Argentina before returning to BA, and the best way to move was by bus. The tourist office at the bus station (which much to my disappointment was called the estacione de omnibus instead of de autobus, which our high school Spanish teacher said so beautifully that my friends and I had found over 300 ways to get her to say it everyday) was unmanned, so we decided to figure it out for ourselves. Actually, between the little bit of English that the bus clerk had and the little bit of Spanish that I had, we hashed it out and got two different sets of tickets without much difficultyâ€¦Sarah checked, and the tickets were even to the actual places that I thought I was asking the clerk for us to go!
The weather was a lovely 70 degree sunshiny day, and so Sarah and I decided to do some more tourism on our own two feet. Buenos Aires was proving to have some unique main attractions–yesterday, a fancy mall, and today, a luxurious cemetery! Actually, it was the cemetery where Eva Peron, or Evita, is buried, along with many of the other richest, most powerful Argentines of the past two hundred years. The walk over to the cemetery took us through one of the richest neighborhoods of BA, and the cemetery, a former church orchard, is located in the middle of a lovely park, complete with professional dog walkers and their 14 canine clients, beside the 1732 church (actually a basilica for the past 90 years), Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Pilar. The church was fairly simple in dÃ©cor but very nice; the main point of interest for us was the porcelain or wood-carved dolls of various saints around the church.
Moving onto the cemetery, we explored this virtual city of the dead, and it was indeed something impressive to behold! Some of the tombs and mausoleums were the size of small houses, holding entire families. Marble statues and bronze plaques were common adornments, and it was clear that a lot of money had gone into these final places of rest. We followed the crowds to Evitaâ€™s grave, adorned with fresh flowers and numerous plaques of gratitude, it is clear that she is still a much-revered figure among the masses of this country.
Â That afternoon, we got in a few more attractions, most notably the Congressional building which greatly resembles the US Capitol and the Presidential Palace, best known for the balcony from which Evita Peron would greet the public. As with yesterday, it was also fun just to walk along the streets, peeking into the eternally busy cafes and fancy shops that seem to occupy every block of BAâ€™s considerable downtown.
Despite avoiding the nightclubs, we did taste a bit of the nightlife by attending a tango show that evening, and it was a pretty spectacular thing to watch. I am not a huge fan of the dance, but I canâ€™t lie, the tango is lively and sexy and fun! The guys were well-dressed and moved with precision and strength, while the girls were voluptuous and leggy with beautiful costumes and feet that seemed to fly above their heads in rapid-fire! The show loosely told the story of two young couples falling in love, accompanied by a great jazzy four-piece band and one of those cheesy Spanish nightclub singers who periodically narrated the love stories with melodramatic solos that had lots of rolled â€œrâ€™sâ€ and sounded exactly the same. The dancers were amazing, though, as they twirled, kicked, and pressed themselves together passionately, and both Sarah and I loved it!
Actually, our final day in the BA area was spent in Uruguay. That may seem strange, but you can take a ferry across the Rio del Platte to the small town of Colonia del Sacramento for the day. Actually, our friend Crystal had recommended it to us, and it ended up being a great experience. Colonia is a historical point of interest, having been a smuggling port for the Portuguese between 1680 and 1762, when the Spanish captured it and held it for nearly 20 years. Today, it is home to a bunch of ruins from that period, and since it is a very small town with cobble-streets and lots of charm, it makes for a nice dayâ€™s excursion.
While I canâ€™t claim that we got a truly Uruguayan experience, Sarah actually partook in an interesting tradition at lunch by ordering gnocchi on the 29th day of the month; in more difficult times, all that people could afford on the day before payday was the potato dumplings, and people now reserve the 29th as a traditional day to dine on them. I, on the other hand, ordered grilled flank steak and proceeded to eat half a cow.
We spent the afternoon touring around Colonia; six hours was more than enough time to do this, but it was definitely nice to be back in the quietude of a small town after several days in large cities. After checking out a couple of shops with leather work, silver jewelry, knitted sweaters, and special mugs with filtered straws made for the popular tea drink mate, we headed over to the historical part of town. A few highlights included Puerto de Campo, the ruins of a large defensive wall that ran from the town down to the river, some old adobe one story houses with large restored street lamps to illuminate the cobblestones at night, and an old lighthouse that we climbed for some nice city and river views. My favorite part, though, was Iglesia Matriz, a church built in 1680 and rebuilt after a destructive fire in 1799; its interior was almost pure white, simple but pleasing, in what is apparently characteristic of classic Portuguese churches. We finished our sightseeing by visiting the old port; no hints remain of itâ€™s past, but it was fun to look out and imagine ships being surreptitiously unloaded by the moonlight some three hundred years ago.
Having finished our touring, we stopped off for a restaurant for a light dinner and a drink. We had a great view dining al fresco across from the church, but Sarah made the occasion more memorable by getting pooped onâ€¦twiceâ€¦during dinner and exclaiming, â€œSERIOUSLY, who gets pooped on twice at the same dinner?!â€ In a rare instance of my best friend from high school knowing more than my teacher, I really did use the word escrimente both appropriately and correctly in an actual conversation with Spanish-speaking people at the next table, so I guess our first few daysâ€™ experience in South America was complete!