Plaza de MayoIn this episode our heroes find themselves on the set of lesser known Oscar-winning movie, "The Mission", get rather sozzelled on red wine and inadvertently stalk a Franco-Irish couple around northern Argentina.
View From the Pink House Balcony
And so it was that we crossed the border into Argentina. Nothing seemed particularly different; it was still oppressively hot, I still couldn't really grasp what people were saying and the currency still looked like you shoud be playing monopoly not at being grown-ups!
We jumped on the first bus we came across which was heading to Posada, this was ideal as we wanted to head to San Ignacio Mini, a village built around the remains of a Jesuit Misson. We jumped off the bus hoping it was the right place, it was, and then got lost. We got lost in what is essentially a cross-road, of which 3 branches lead nowhere, it was spectacular. Anyway, after that clusterfuck of an experience, and with the help of Eleanor's Spanish and the tourist infomation guy we were at our hostel, Adventure Hostel. The lack of adventure at this place was startling. No Indiana Jones or Lara Croft-types anywhere. Not a rope swing, treasure trove,
Ruins of the Jesuit church at San Ignacio Mini
booby trap or lost world to be found. They did however have WIFI, a pool and you could hire a mountain bike to explore the road system (which you can do more comfortably by google earth or a car). For the dash daring amongst you there is table tennis, and to add to the boundary pushing renagade sense of it all the padddles have no cushioning. Wow, I bet Falcon Scott played table tennis this way on his way to the South Pole. The place could have done with a bit of a facelift as it felt a bit rundown and unloved. The bed was perfectly comfortable but the bathroom was pretty unpleasant.
Anyway, my deirison of the hostel aside, San Ignacio Mini was a rather pleasant village. The roads consisted of blood-red clay, which due to the lack of rain provided an everpresent veil of ochre powder, floating in the air. The boys raced around the place on off-road motorbikes, creating a constant buzz that was complimented by the crickets once the sun had gone down. Old men and women of all ages sat outside of their homes on verandanas, which merged with the street, drinking
Trying Mate for the first time
Mate (I'll return to this topic) and gossiping. It has a sleepy, relaxed feeeling.
The old mission sits in the midle of the village and, if it weren't for tourism, you would barely notice it's presence. The museum gave us an opportunity to practice our Spanish. It chartered both the history of the mission and the fate of the native peoples. The ruins themselves are impressive, they cover a vast area and most of the walls remain intact. The floors of the church and the Jesuit missonries quarters remain relatively unscathed by the jungle's encroachement two centuries ago. I was surprised to see that the wood of the veranda posts of the quadrangle had survived for 250 years! You get a sense of history when wandering amongst the buildings, it is easy, thanks to the information, to see Jesuits preaching to the natives, the workshops creating rosaries, the native peoples living and working around the main square. At night (for the cost of a second ticket) and light and visual display (in many languages thanks to WIFI) charts the history of the mission here and creates a living work of art on the walls of the ruins
City of the dead!
and the invading trees. The Jeremy Irons/Robert De Niro film "The Mission" was based upon the events that occurred in this area in the 1700's for all you movie fans out there.
We left San Ignacio to head to Buenos Aires. We had intended to stop halfway to break up the journey but places like Concordia and Rosario seemed to offer little in the way of encouragement and enticement. We decided to bus it all the way to BsAs (as the locals call it). 16 hours on the bus. 16. Hours. It was long, however, the monotony was disrupted by the fact that we got served food (chicken milanese) and drinks (red wine with ice) and were "entertained" by Jackie Chan (The Pendant, not sure what this was about) and Adam Sandler (Jack and Jill; would rather eat my own boiled intestines than see this again) on the TV. We then fell comfortably asleep. At dawn we awoke, the view was of nothing as far as the eye could see. In my sleep deprived, disorientated state I momentarily worried that we'd overshot BsAs and ended up in Patagonia. Luckily we hadn't and Argentina is probably a just
a series of relatively bland landscapes, pockmarked with interesting things (I'm assured this is not the case).
BsAs was a bit nuts on the way in, to be honest. A 12 lane highway full of cars, packed in like sardines to a can, all beeping their horns (for no reason other than their latin blood's demands), and all of us going absolutely nowhere. I think some tortoises went past, but they were a blur so I coudn't really tell. To ease our pain the bus company supplied us with breakfast and another movie. This time we were in for a treat; "The Forger." I'll summarise the plot. It's Goodwill Hunting, but the kid can paint, not do maths. He's adopted by Alfred Molina (must have been for the cash) who sells fake paintings. Boy fakes paintings for Alf (and Billy Boyd, the least interesting hobbit, not the famous ones or the one who hooked up with the good looking girl from LOST), and then realises, with the help from some friends that this is bad and does the right thing while at the same time destroying Alf. There, saved you two hours; all gratitude accepted.
Fountains in the Sun
Fountains in the Sun
Once off the bus we realised it was cold. Scotland-in-winter cold. I was wearing shorts. Major communication break down between me and the weatherman here. So, hoody and beanie donned and me looking like a walking Under Armour advertisement, we made for the bus. To reiterate the traffic was frentic, in a static-going-nowhere-until-hell-freezes-over sort of a way. The bus crawled, painfully across the hotcoals of the city's grid patterned streets. Some people had clearly waited for the bus for ages, jumped on, then got off at the next stop around 200m away. They could have walked that distance ten times over in the time it took us. Baffling. The hostel (Hostel Tango), however, was modern, clean and had no grand promises of adventure. Excellent. We dumped our stuff and decided to have lunch. We found the nearest cafe that wasn't Starbucks and had steak sandwiches and empanadas. Feeling energised we walked, aimlessly through the compact, claustrophobic, European streets of the city.
BsAs claims to be the Paris of South America, Paris probably wouldn't be impressed. It's not that BsAs is awful or a stain on the copy book of homosapien existence and achievement. Far from it,
An extreme example of BsAs Jekyll & Hyde architecture
it's a city with character, its just a bit dirty, unkempt, rough around the edges and the citizens seem to take themselves a bit too seriously. It's like it's trying too hard to be cool and isn't quite getting the look right and thus the whole charade is a bit awkward. In fact, awkward is the best way to describe this place. There is some great architecture, copied somewhat unashamedly from various cities from the "Old World." On one street you will have Victorian London, downtown, Paris, Pre-war Berlin and 1850's Madrid all co-existing rather amicably with a modern glass office block. The problem is, the owners don't really bother to keep up appearances and the pollution and that ever present bastarrd, Age, have taken their toll. Europe and Latin America, old and modern sit side by side here, but that's just it, they are side by side like uncomfortable neighbours, not happily acquainted bedfellows. This makes it quite fun to walk around and try to guess where or when a building or feature is from and after a hile you get used to the quirkiness of it all.
The Plaza de Mayo, however, is something that BsAs can patent and is unique to itself. Over the last 200 years it have undergone a huge transformation (the local museum behind the pink house has possibly the best video/computer montage of it all). The presdential palace, the Pink House, the National Bank, the Cathedral and the Calbido all sit around the square. It is the literal and symbolic heart of the nation. If you want to protest about something, and the history lessons tell us that the Argentine people are no stranger to a protest or two, this is the place to do it. There are currently two long running protests; The Mothers of the Disappeared (listen to the Joshua Tree for the history of this, or read below as I may talk a bit about it, not sure yet) and the Veterans of the Falklands War seeking pensions denied to them by successive governments. This last one made Ellie a bit jumpy as she read "Las Malvinas", "Guerra" and "Inglese" and had kittens. The Pink house is open for free tours at the weekend (Obama and Cameron should do the same I think, just don't leave plans to screw the NHS lying around, ay Dave!) and it was an insightful, enlightening and fun tour. On the wall of the corridor of Argentine heroes there is a photo of Maradona's "Hand of God" goal. This made me laugh. The tourguide asked "Can you see his hand touching the ball? No? Exactly." Touche. Plus I'm Welsh and really couldn't care less. What was very much more imppressive was that we got to see the president's office (plenty of wood and green leather, ordered and pleasant smelling if you want to know) and to stand on the balcony from the film, Evita. Apparently, Madonna didn't create that epic pile of codswollop, it was a real life person (and Lloyd-Webber was in any case responisble for the musical catastrophe). In all, seriousness Eva Peron is like a godess here. Despite all the history I'm still not entirely certain what the Peron's actually did but it was apparently good. She is interred at the Necropolis and it's a shrine now, although we went when it was raining and no-one else was there. She died young and I guess that adds to the legacy, her husband was the president on a few occassions, in and around, various uprisings (as I said earlrier they love a protest) and coups.
As mentioned above BsAs has a Necropolis. Basically this is a neighbourhood of the dead (and stray cats). Ellie tells me there were criteria to "get in". I assume being dead was high on this list. There are quite a few houses of the dead, with doors and windows (why?) and they range from the ostentatious to those which look like filing cabinets, with draws and everything. I'd heard a rumour that the Mayor had ordered the to be concreted in to prevent the dead rising on halloween, but I may also have got my wires crossed with an episode of Family Guy. Evita's family tomb is not particularly noticable, the signpost to it helps though, which I guess is reflected in the fact that her family weren't particularly prominent, but enough to justify a plot here, until after her marriage into the Peron family. It's worth a bit of a day seeing this place, but there's something odd about the momuments to the dead resembling houses of the living and the need to arrange them in to streets. It isn't scary or spooky, just a bit odd, but then I believe that when you're dead, that's it. Game over. Nothing. And in 100 years no one remembers! Bleak but true.
That was a bit grim, I'll mention something a bit more lively...La Boca. Once a dockside neighbourhood for Italian immigrants it is now a dockside neighbourhood for tourists and the people who make money from tourists. It's not a good place to be after dark apparently, or if you wander on to the wrong streets, or if you sport a River Plate t-shirt. The buildings are painted all kinds of colours, a throw back to the "old days" when the locals would paint their houses with whatever was left over after the boat was done, and restaurants have couple's dancing "tango" and one enterprising chap is dressed as a "fat-era" Maradona posing for photos. It's quite clearly a neighbourhood that has cashed in on it's fame, almost unashamedly so (it's the bloody Cold Play of neighbourhoods), but it is vibrant and brings in finance to a deprived area. The football team Boca Juniors plays in the area still (reckon the players live pretty far away now though) and are an institution. Apparently the games here are worth going to see but we arrived when they were playing out of town and so missed the fun (a theme is developing here with sport).
In San Ignacio we met fellow travellers, Michelle and Colin, who were coming to the end of their trip. We ended up in the same hostel in BsAs and it was good to share some beers and stories with them. We made each other jealous, them with their tales and us with our potential tales and opportunities. It's the lovely part of travelling, getting to meet people from all over the world and to share expeirences and learn new things. Also in our hostel was Douglas, a septugenarian Canadian living in Uruguay. Wow. This gentleman was fascinating, he'd had one hell of a life and continued to live it to the full. We chatted until the small hours about science, language, Dylan Thomas, travelling, Hungarian Princesses, psychology, medicine and life. It was wonderful to have met such a person and to have shared this brief exchange, although I'm hoping we can keep up the email conversation.
I was supposed to play some lacrosse here but as it rained a lot it was cancelled. I did, however, get to sample some nightlife with Daniel from the team which was great. We talked sport, politics and beer. We also drank some fantastic ales at the Atari bar (no crappy 80's computers to be seen anywhere sadly), we tried 9 in total, but we cheated by having the sample menu. Ellie, however, had a full pint of honey ale which made her slightly drunk...the bears here were strong like all good home brews. No crazy 5am nights for us though, we're too old and tired for that so we probably missed out on some fun anecdotes. Wine is a must here, it's less than a pound for some really good Malbecs and for less than £5 you can drink better than a king (I imagine, I have no evidence to base this on whatsoever). Ellie and I have been indulging, although a bottle of wine is substantially more units of alcohol than the beer in Brazil and we're likely to need help at the Priory when we return.
I could write a blog praising the steaks but I'll leave this here just now. We're heading south to Patagonia, but are breaking up the journey to Puerto Madryn with a wee mountain walk at Sierra de la Ventana. 9 hours on a bus to Sierra overnight and the ipod is ready to play a few Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcasts.
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