Published: November 19th 2012November 12th 2012
Cacerolazo protests on 8N
My view from ground level
Since my previous travels in South America over 6 years ago, I've had a desire to perfect my Spanish, become fluent and hopefully be able to use the language in life/work in the future.
Things in London were great, but they had reached a point in life and work (and age!!) where if I wasn't going to seize the opportunity now to take 12 months out from everything to learn the language, then I never would. Ultimately, I thought that if I didn't do this I'd look back and regret it – and that was the deciding factor which made the final decision a lot easier. That's why I'm now following my dream and have 12 months or so to live, travel and learn in Spanish speaking countries.
My previous trip in South America was done purely for the travelling, with the language being something I almost picked up on the side. This time around, the primary objective would be learning the language - with a nice little aside being that I would be able to visit some of the most amazing places in the world along the way!! Therefore, at regular intervals I'm planning
The atmospheric underground tango hall at Cafe Tortini. The dancing was exquisite.
to stop travelling for 3-4 weeks at time to attend language schools and live with local families – as I know this will do wonders for my Spanish speaking. I'll also travel to some more out of the way places where there will be few/no westerners so I'll be able to practice my Spanish, as well as enjoying the many world-renowned destinations that I'll be travelling through on my route, which started in Buenos Aires and will eventually take me all the way to San Francisco overland!!
I had visited Buenos Aires before in 2005/6, so one of the first things that hit me was how much prices have increased. I think inflation has been 15-20% for each of the last 6 years so prices have at least doubled since I was there. Accommodation remained reasonable, with a dorm bed being £10-£12, food was £10 for a steak or £6-7 for a smaller dish – although these were a lot more than last time. The public transport around the city is still very heavily subsidised which, means that a metro journey is 35p and a bus journey 30p! However, simple things like a half litre bottle of
La bomba el tiempo
My view of this amazing percussion group (taken with iphone so quality v. low)
water (needed frequently in the heat!!) was £1.20 and long distance bus journeys had at least trebled, with people having to pay over £100 for the journey up to Iguazu falls, which I'm sure only cost around £30 last time around!!
In my time travelling I've got pretty adept at sussing out what I want from a hostel – all it really needs is a bed, and a good way of meeting other travellers – ideally a bar or a roof terrace. I don't want it to be too “party, party” - I am 30 now after all!! - but for a solo traveller its all about meeting new people easily. In this case I got the Ostinatto hostel just right. It had a smallish bar with a happy hour that ran from 6pm-11pm, and because the bar was small it meant that you were always meeting new people there. So it was that I met Joe (Devon) and Luis (Colombia), and we did whatever any group of lads do – which is bond over football!!
Now I had really wanted to go and watch one of the two big teams live (Boca Juniors
The famous coloured houses of "El Caminito" in La Boca.
or River Plate), but unfortunately I would end up being thwarted on both the weekends I was in the city. Football matches are usually held on Sundays in Argentina, but as I found to my cost they can be moved at late notice to a different time or day to meet TV needs. This was the case with first the Boca Juniors match, and then the River Plate match. For both I checked a few days before and they were scheduled for the Sunday, and I checked again on Saturday and the kick off had been moved forward to that evening and I couldn't attend! D'OH!!
In some ways it might have been a good thing with the Boca match, as I had heard that the only way you could go to the game is for £80/£90 through a tour company. I was planning to try and do it independently by wandering down early on match day to secure a ticket, but the following day I heard there had been some trouble before the game as a friend from the hostel who was on an organised tour ended up in a Boca pub that got attacked by
My first (slightly bitter!!) taste of the national drink
away fans with bricks and stones coming through the windows and them having to be kept inside the pub for an hour and missing the first 10 minutes of the match!!
Luis, Joe and I went on a bit of a wild goose chase across the city to watch one of the other top division teams “Argentinos Juniors”. It was a pretty low standard of football, but was a very entertaining spectacle – especially due to the full drumming band (maybe 12-15 strong) that played throughout and had everyone jumping!!
In my time exploring the city I also managed to take in another Argentinian staple - tango, visiting an amazing tango show at Café Tortoni. Again, these are frequently advertised at hugely expensive prices (£80/£90) for a hotel transfer, meal and a show, but some friends at the hostel managed to find a show in a historic tango club for about £18. The standard of dancing was amazing, and combined with the costumes, the live band and the atmosphere in the underground tango hall, it was a superb experience. Later in the week I took a tango lesson and got to try it first
Inside the parliament building
I managed to get a guided tour (in Spanish!!)
hand!! It was a 2 hour beginners lesson and because (I guess as always with these dances) there are more women than men, you are dancing all the way through and so get the chance to practice a lot. I wouldn't say I was a master of it – but by the end thought I was putting together a few good sequences of moves and I was certainly bumping into people (my partner and other couples!!) a lot less, so took that as a good thing!!
I thought that coming to South America I'd have to miss out on two of my big UK passions – gigs and hockey. However I've already been able to find them both (sort of!!). I headed to see “La Bomba el tiempo” http://wander-argentina.com/la-bomba-de-tiempo%E2%80%94monday-night-drumfest-at-konex/
If they ever tour the UK I'd definitely recommend them, they have a residency every Monday night at the Konex cultural centre which is an atmospheric open air performance area. They are a 15 or 16 strong full percussion band with an ever changing conductor, and the group have worked out a series of simple hand gestures which allows the conductor to maintain the freestyle/jamming elements
Giant flower sculpture thingy!!
Opposite the fine arts museum is this sculpture - the petals close every evening and reopen each morning!
of the performance which make it so special, while at the same time keep everyone together and in time. It was a brilliant experience.
I came across the hockey when enjoying some “park-life” in Palermo (one of the upmarket barrios of Buenos Aires) one Sunday afternoon. One of the largest parks had a large lake as a centrepiece and you could hire rollerblades for half an hour to skate round it on the pedestrianised perimeter road. The skates I hired were the lowest of the low quality. Zero ankle support, wheels that were so worn down it was actually easier to skate backwards rather than forwards, and when I did manage to build up some speed and did a quick hockey stop, the force was too much for the skates and the middle two wheels snapped off at the axle, left the chassis and went rolling off down the path – much to the surprise of other skaters!! Ooops!!
I came across the group of roller hockey players who were just having a pick up game in one of the more open areas of the park like they apparently do every Sunday. After I
Maragarita - host mother
The two of us after our final dinner together
had handed back my ruined skates I wandered back to the hockey players, who were just finishing up their game, and I was able to chat to one of them to test my Spanish. He explained that the standard in Argentina is very low, but they do have the odd good player who plays with them, including one from Finland who I could see was pretty handy!!
Seeing as at the top of this blog I described my year away as being language first and travelling second, the fact the first 1,000 words haven't featured any Spanish might make me seem a bit hypocritical. However, I have been diligently studying away and feel that I am seeing the benefits. The Monday after I arrived I started my language course with Expanish – one of the larger institutions in the city. At first I had been reluctant to go with a larger school – having had such great memories of the tiny 2 person language school I discovered on my last travels that then put me in touch with a Bolivian family who I lived with for 3 ½ weeks. However, realism set in a little and having
arrived on a Thursday, needing to start lessons on a Monday, and wanting to move in with an Argentinian family as soon as possible afterwards, one of the larger schools was the only way I was going to do this.
As it turned out this worked really well – I enjoyed the language school a lot. There were lessons from 9am-1pm and all the students generally went out for some lunch after, and by Friday night everyone was ready for a drink together. As in Bolivia it was also an amazing experience to live with a local family (although part of the attraction might have been the private en-suite room that I unexpectedly had after my time in a shared dorm!!). My host mother Margarita was an artist and was very accommodating with my attempts to practice and improve my Spanish. We had dinner together each night and used to chat during and afterwards. The conversations weren't the most epic, but they were certainly on broader subjects than were I was from, where I'd been and were I was going. It was really pleasing that so early on I was making myself reasonably well understood on a pretty wide range of subjects, and I found that as I got used to her accent, and practised more, my understanding got better and better.
During my first week in Buenos Aires there was a heatwave which meant we had summer temperatures during spring, so the mercury topped out at 36.7 C according to the local newspapers. This then lead to a surge in electricity because of demand for the air conditioning units, which knocked out the power grid for the whole city at exactly 6 p.m. (i.e. start of rush hour) when I was looking to get home! The tube line I take back to my Argentinian family's house was shut and each bus stop had about a hundred people queueing so in the end I just walked home!! It took two hours but was very pleasant - especially as the temperature had reduced by then! However, the heatwave has combined with a strike by the dustmen to mean there is some pretty smelly rubbish sitting on lots of street corners which certainly added to the local flavour!
My chats around the dinner table with Margarita showed that the Argentines talk about politics a lot more than we do in Britain. The state of the government is something that is mentioned on a daily – almost hourly - basis. Argentina appears to have a much broader middle class than the majority of the rest of Spanish speaking South America, and in general the middle class appear to be very unhappy with the current president Cristina Fernandez, who won re-election last year with a massive 54% of the vote against a fractured and divided opposition.
Since then it appears that the people are increasingly unhappy. The main concern appears to be around the economy – official inflation is at 10%, much less than the 30% that appears to be the case and is regularly quoted by experts. The government has banned trading pesos into other more stable currencies such as USD, so the housing market has come to a virtual standstill as it is useless to hold large numbers of pesos. But the voters also feel she is taking increasingly authoritarian positions, for example trying to amend the constitution to allow her a third term in office.
All this was clearly evidenced with the 8N protests (8th
November), where (I would guess) over a million people took to the streets with the cacerolazo
(casserole) protest (families bring out their pots and hammer them as hard as they can to create a din that cannot be ignored!) that brought down the government a decade ago over the economic débâcle came to haunt that period in Argentina’s history.
I joined the protest for a few hours early on. It was peaceful, almost a family affair, with groups of relatives all banging their pots in unison. However, there was a strength of voice and numbers that suggested it will certainly be an interesting story to follow over the next months....