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Tango and Gauchos: Buenos Aires part II


View Buenos Aires and Uruguay on zzlangerhans's travel map.

There was no Metro in La Boca and it didn't look too far away on the map so we decided to walk there to look for a restaurant. Our route took us through Parque Lezama, an attractive green space with some impressive monuments and its own Sunday flea market.
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The barrio of Buenos Aires that is most emblematic of the city is La Boca. The neighborhood is situated at the mouth of the Matanza River that forms the southern border of the city, hence the name "The Mouth". La Boca is known worldwide for the buildings painted in bright. contrasting primary colors especially along the pedestrian street El Caminito. If you're writing a guidebook or composing a travel website for Buenos Aires, it's mandatory to emblazon the cover or front webpage with a vibrant picture of El Caminito. La Boca is historically a rough, working-class neighborhood associated with the nearby shipyards and only carries a veneer of gaiety. El Caminito is the creation of a local artist in the 1960's and has basically become a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and other tack. There's no underestimating the importance of a colorful picture in attracting business, but unfortunately the liveliness of El Caminito hasn't done much to elevate the rest of the neighborhood which continues to be considered seedy and even dangerous. El Caminito was at the far southern end of La Boca which made our walk there much longer than we had realized. We had to practically run the last few blocks to see the colored houses before the sun set.
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Having accomplished the compulsory walk down El Caminito we set off in search of a restaurant and came up empty-handed. Perhaps if we hadn't had a lousy meal in the Mercado de San Telmo the previous night we might have been more willing to risk one of the small, dim restaurants we encountered on the street. This would be our second of only three dinners in Buenos Aires and we weren't willing to risk another disappointment. Instead we walked around the dim streets a little longer to look at the street art. The previous evening I had some time to review the appalling history of Argentina's Dirty War in the 1970's and 1980's and so I had some idea of the meaning of the murals. Subsequent to the military coup in 1976, the junta initiated a relentless campaign of suppression against any elements of their own population that disputed their policies. While this is something that has happened countless times with dictatorships in modern history, the actions of the junta and their proxies was notable for their ruthlessness and inhumanity. Among the atrocities were thousands of extrajudicial killings, including the dumping of live victims from airplanes flying over the ocean such that their bodies have never been recovered. Many children were orphaned or otherwise taken from their families and given to members of the military to raise as their own. Because of incredibly evil tactics such as these, many families still do not know what became of their loved ones or children during the Dirty War and the wounds of that time have never been able to completely heal.

Perhaps the most shocking of all the things I read about the Dirty War was the story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. This was a group of mothers of young people who had disappeared who began to congregate together on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential palace every Thursday beginning in 1977. They wore white scarves around their heads to symbolize the diapers of their lost children. Incredibly, the mother who was the founder of this movement was herself kidnapped, tortured, and thrown from an airplane into the sea by the direct order of the leader of the military junta. It is a tale of absolute depravity that is the equal of anything engineered by Hitler or Pol Pot, and a shocking reminder of the depths that human beings can sink to when they believe themselves to be above any concept of morality. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a common theme of street art in Buenos Aires and the roads themselves are emblazoned in many places with stencils of the white scarves that became their emblem. They are heartbreaking reminders of the importance of never becoming complacent about life and liberty.
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La Boca had one last interesting sight for us. Outside of the closed art museum Fundacion PROA was an enormous art installation composed from hundreds of metal bicycle frames welded together into a gigantic archway. On closer inspection I learned that the sculpture was the work of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. For a few minutes while the kids gleefully wedged themselves between the bicycles I was able to reflect on the incongruity of a politically-charged sculpture reflecting repression on the opposite side of the world in a city whose present was still defined by brutal political oppression that had ended thirty-five years earlier. And here was I, a tourist with no stake in either country, witnessing artistic depictions of both conflicts within minutes of each other.
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At this point we were on the main road that coursed along the Matanza River so it was a relatively simple task to jump on a bus northward to San Telmo. On the way to our restaurant we heard an enormous clamor of beating drums emanating from a side street. We paused at the intersection and soon a procession appeared, many of whom were beating on conga drums. For a moment we thought it was a regular parade of some sort and then we remembered the events from earlier in the day. We followed the procession into the next street and sure enough we found ourselves in the midst of another protest. We didn't expect to make any further sense of what we were seeing so we proceeded onward to the famous parilla restaurant we had chosen, Desnivel. It was a pleasant atmosphere and the beer was cold, but I'm not sure if there's an Argentine parillada that's ideal for our taste. We'd had some highly-recommended versions for both lunch and dinner and my take was the same as it had been when we'd eaten it in Miami: greasy and salty.
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Before turning in for the night we passed by Plaza Dorrego, a small square surrounded by bars and cafes. There was a large group of people surrounding a dance floor that had been created in the center of the plaza and we could see that a tango exhibition with professional dancers was in progress. It finished soon after we arrived and many of the observers flooded into the square and began an Argentinian folk dance that was similar to the one we had scene at the Feria de Mataderos earlier that day.
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Once we were back at the Airbnb I hooked up to Wifi to review world events and saw the horrifying news that an entire American family had died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty water heater at a short-term rental in Tulum, Mexico. We had stayed overnight in Tulum ourselves just three months earlier. I found the water heater in our own apartment and studied it, quickly realizing I would have absolutely no clue how to determine if it was leaking carbon monoxide. It was just one of those risks of traveling we would have to accept and try not to think about. Fortunately it was something that didn't seem to happen often. It was still hard for me to fall asleep that night thinking of a family just like ours who wanted to show their children the world and were now gone from the earth as silently as a candle being snuffed out.

In the morning we had breakfast at Mercado de San Telmo again, and then set our north for a walking tour of the upscale barrios of San Nicolás, Retiro, Recoleta, and Palermo. Once we had seen these places we could feel like we had seen everything that my research had indicated was necessary to have a complete impression of Buenos Aires. It was Monday now and the protesters had been replaced by regular folks going around their business in the busy downtown area.
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Just north of the Plaza de Mayo we stumbled upon Calle Florida, Buenos Aires' iconic pedestrian shopping street. The street was somewhat reminiscent of a European pedestrian thoroughfare that one might see in Madrid or Paris, if somewhat narrower and a little shadowy due to the tall commercial buildings that surrounded us on either side. At one intersection a lively six-person band alleviated the somewhat somber atmosphere. Just as in Paris, some entryways opened up into cavernous arcades with marble walls and upscale boutiques.
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We came out the north end of Calle Florida and found ourselves at the entrance of Plaza San Martin, a large park in the upscale Retiro neighborhood. It was a fairly conventional city park except for the trees, which were both unfamiliar and breathtaking. At the center was an enormous ombú that had been allowed to spit out a low serpentine branch about twenty meters into an adjacent glade, where it performed double duty as a park bench. Even more amazing were the towering tipa trees that lined the paths, whose curving branches split again and again until they looked like green fan coral blocking out the sky. From a plaza lined with flowering magnolias we could see the Torre Monumental, a majestic clocktower that commemorates the country's independence.
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After the park things started to go sideways. My plan for the rest of the day had been to walk through the barrio of Recoleta and see the Floralis Genérica sculpture, followed by the Jardín Japonés and then dinner in Palermo. Unfortunately Mei Ling started getting stomach pain while we were in the park and it steadily got worse as we resumed our walk. I palpated her stomach carefully and there was no localized tenderness to suggest a serious problem. I tried buying antacids at a pharmacy but they didn't help. We went on as long as we could but eventually it was clear that the pain wasn't going to go away any time soon so we caught a taxi back to the Airbnb. Mei Ling went to bed and I went out with Cleo to find something to bring back for dinner. I couldn't face parrillada again and there didn't seem to be any other kind of restaurants in our neighborhood. Eventually we went back to the Mercado de San Telmo and I bought some roasted chicken for the kids. It was disappointing not to have completed our exploration of Buenos Aires, but I think the upscale, modern neighborhoods of Recoleta and Palermo probably had the least to offer us anyway. It would have been nice to have seen the Floralis Genérica, but fortunately one can still see many photos of it online. I stole one of them that is better than any photo I could have taken.
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In the morning Mei Ling was completely back to normal, which of course was a huge relief. My best guess was that she had an attack of gastritis from all the greasy parilla we had been eating. We had to catch our ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay and there wasn't time for anything but a quick breakfast. I don't think that the events of the last day had too much of an effect of my impression of Buenos Aires, but I don't feel particularly inclined to return to the city to see the things we missed. We'd had a busy weekend but most of the interesting things we did were related to events like the Ferias. I felt that Buenos Aires punched below its size when it came to things we enjoy like food markets, walking neighborhoods, and colonial architecture. It seemed to me like a city that had never achieved its full potential, possibly due to decades of political strife and military misadventure. Tango and La Boca don't put Buenos Aires in the echelon of Rio or Mexico City, let alone cities like Madrid or Barcelona. Of course, Buenos Aires might be an absolutely fantastic place to live but I wouldn't put it in my top fifty cities in the world to visit.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:56 Archived in Argentina

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