Published: December 28th 2011December 27th 2011
To be found everywhere in Argentina. New cars are so hideously expensive that people seemingly never get rid of theirs!
After almost three months gallivanting around this glorious country and gawping at natural wonders like we have never seen before and might never see again, it is time for us to leave. Argentina has really, really grown on us and we are sad - genuinely sad - to be going. This is tempered, of course, by the fact that Chile, crazy, spindly Chile, awaits us on the other side of the mountains. In the spirit of my previous observations on, among others, Argentina's numismatic irritations, the following are a few further musings on those oddities which - combined with its soaring peaks, roaring waterfalls and creaking glaciers - make Argentina the utterly compelling place it is. La comida
Food...eating is one of Argentina's great pleasures, and at the same time a source of head-banging frustration. Examples abound - take meat, for example. Surely one of Argentina's defining foods. Argentines are pretty potty about beef - it's not unusual to be in the queue at the supermarket meat counter and overhear the little old lady in front of you ask, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, for 15kg of beef for the weekend asado
quintessential Argentine get-together rather similar to a UK summer barbeque on steroids. Here they even publish a monthly magazine about how to get the best out of your parrilla
. And yet, despite producing some of the world's best, tastiest, most succulent beef, Argentines usually insist on half carbonising their meat before they'll eat it - an absolute travesty if ever I saw one. Why, of why? Go to Paris and ask for you entrecôte "bien cuite"
and your snooty French waiter will sneer at you, privately if not openly, in that special way only snooty French waiters can. In Argentina the situation is the opposite - everyone assumes you want your meat cooked through unless you specify otherwise, jugoso
for "juicy" (which culinary philistine would want their prime bife de chorizo
anything other than juicy?), medio rojo
for "pink in the middle" or, if you really want your waiter to look at you like you're mad, vuelto y vuelto -
"turned and turned". Moo-stifying. El queso
On the topic of cows...Argentina, seriously, what is it with you and cheese? On the assumption - biologically sound, I think - that all those juicy cows have lactating mothers - Argentina
must produce an awful lot of milk! Ergo
, it must churn out some pretty good cheese, ¿sí?
Despite the fact it's positively crawling with cows, with farms and a population with origins all over the globe, Argentina cannot produce decent cheese. Again - why? Argentine cheese, inevitably shrink-wrapped as hefty bricks in lurid plastic, is the kind of stuff which, if you rolled it into a ball, you could play squash with quite successfully. Cremoso, azul, muzarela
(nothing even like
the real stuff, hence the phoney spelling no doubt) - it's all rubbery and grim-grim-grim, but is obviously a very popular product here, judging from the huge range of the brands supermarkets stock. Imagine, if you will, a France where the finest fromage
is Babybel. That's Argentina. Shudder. Comer sano
"Eating healthily" in Argetina can be something of a challenge at times. Again, the situation is highly illogical. As some of the world's vainest and greediest consumers of plastic surgery like liposuction and tummy tucks (ads proclaiming "despídese del rollito"
- "get rid of your roll of tummy fat" - are everywhere), Argentines certainly like to eat lots of unhealthy food. The standard serving size of
ice cream is the half-pound tub, pizza is all cheese (yes, the grim oily stuff) and no tomato, and junk food (the milanesa
or fried, breaded fillet of meat, is almost a national dish). Combine this with delicious, dulce de leche-laden desserts so sweet just looking
at them sends your blood sugar soaring, and it's hard to stay virtuous here. Fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere - as you'd expect for a huge, largely temperate country - but restaurants hardly ever serve them, unless you count patatas fritas
as a vegetable (Glasgow salads and all that). Aside from the obvious saving of money, one significant advantage of self catering, as we have done at least 80% of the time, is that you get to put some green in your diet. No wonder the cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables in El Bolsón had us in raptures. Similarly, fresh, unadulterated fruit juice is hard to find, Argentines vastly preferring to guzzle fizzy drinks or gaseosas
by the gallon. We were also intrigued by the local version if "jogging", which seems to consist of "going for a walk while dressed in sports clothes", quite often while chomping on something along the way. The lingo
Travelling around Argentina is certainly an awful lot easier if you speak Spanish - it's definitely opened doors for us, from helping us hitch rides out of isolated places to finding the nicest places to stay and eat. It also makes being on the road, of course, a lot more fun. But Argentina nonetheless throws up some surprises here too - anybody who's heard an American lady refer in public to her fanny
will know that even two countries which speak the same language don't actually speak the same language. Many pretty basic words are different from those used in Spain (incidentally, Argentines prefer to refer to their language as Castellano
rather than Español
). We all know what elevators, diapers (and ever fanny-packs!) are, but ask a greengrocer if he has any fresas
, and genuinely blank stares ensue. Here a strawberry is a frutilla
, a pea an arveja
and an avocado a palta
. A ticket is a boleto
and not a billete
, juice is jugo
and not zumo -
the list is long. Argentine Castilian also sounds very different from the Iberian variety: helpfully, here it's spoken at about half the speed (I
often think the Spanish do it on purpose) and with a decidedly Italian lilt - it's quite lovely to listen to and even nicer to speak. I've embraced the accent whole-heartedly. Neither does Argentine Castilian have any of the th-th-
ing the British so like to make fun of - a standard "s" sound is used instead - far easier. The double L, which sounds like a Y in Spain, becomes a ZH sound here, and a SH in Uruguay. Slightly trickier to pick up is something called the voseo
: for Argentines, an informal "you" is vos
, never tú
. With this vos
comes a whole new set of verb forms...The first time somebody asked me ¿de dónde sos vos?
("where are you from?") it took a little while for me to figure out what on Earth they meant. The differences aren't huge, but I'm a fan of blending in. I don't know if I'll ever be able to lisp a z
ever again, and I can proudly claim to have hoodwinked a grand total of three Argentines into thinking I'm one of them (although my wild and woolly hair, uncut for three months, may have helped). Driving
rental car, however, "blending in" is a much tougher proposition, for many reasons. Driving in Argentina is frought with minor irritations - such as the omnipresence of dogs galloping all over the place - to rather less minor ones - the absence of priority rules at intersections, the Argentine predilection for overtaking on blind corners, the absolute lack of turning signals...to name just three. Most intriguing is the use of hazard lights here...Meaning in the pseudo-civilised world: "there is a hazard in the road and I am slowing down". Meaning in Argentina: "look out! I am about to do something exceptionally stupid and/or dangerous". Drivers seem to use their winkers as a sort of pre-emptive excuse for any form of crazy, erratic driving - for instance slamming on the brakes while the driver looks for the address he or she needs. That is assuming the lights even work, of course, for Argentina is home to a truly mind-boggling array of of clapped-out heaps of junk on its roads. Presumably, the concept of an "MOT" is unknown here, or else its criteria are so lax anything gets through. We routinely saw cars without bonnets, with various large pieces of bodywork missing,
or with windscreens so badly cracked the driver was barely visible behind it. It was all very...vintage
. And, protecting these death-traps from otherwise certain disaster is one of the country's most intriguing and bizarre characters. Difunta Correa
A few miles outside the city of San Juan is a most peculiar place. A low hill in the middle of scrubby nowhere, yet surrounded by car parks, iffy souvenir shops and greasy spoons. A hill covered in miniature wooden models of houses, festooned car parts and numberplates and red ribbons. A hill littered - everywhere - with plastic drinks bottles refilled with water. Atop the hill sits a sort of grotto, whose centrepiece is a gaudily-painted sculpture of a half-naked woman - dead - with an infant suckling at her breat. People travel thousands
of miles to come here. Welcome to the weird world of Difunta Correa.
Deolinda Correa lived in San Juan province in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her husband had been conscripted during the civil war and anxious for his welfare, she roamed the deserts in search of the column he had joined (many variants of the legen exist). Within a short while Deolina
Another of the mainstays of Argentine driving - the diversion or desvío.
ran out of food and water and died. Some days later her body was found, but so was her infant son, who had miraculously survived by suckling at his dead mother's breast. The deceased - difunta
- Deolinda Correa rapidly became a figure of devotion, and has been comprehensively subsumed into the local flavour of Catholicism, where she is widely revered at something of a saint (very much unrecognised by him in Rome), to whom thanks are given for pretty much everything...A promotion, academic success, you name it. Votive plaques thanking Difunta Correa for her various intercessions cover the hillside in San Juan in their thousands. From Misiones province to Santa Cruz, red-ribboned miniature shrines are to be found by the roadside (for among Difunta's most devoted followers are, incongruously, truck-drivers - hence the numberplates). The shrines are invariably piled high with bottles of water to assuage the thirst of this woman who died of it. Truly a unique Argentina phenomenon. Another semi-legendary figure, the Gauchito Gil
, is the object of a very similar popular devotion.
For all your incomprehensible quirks, Argentina, we will miss you. Hasta luego.
There are more photos below