Thursday, November 29, 2007

A huge problem

There is a huge problem with this blog.

No, not that.

Um. Not that either.

Why don't you let me go first?

The huge problem with this blog is that there are no photos of people.

There are millions and millions of people in Buenos Aires, but only a handful on my blog — and most of them are in my short photo series "People of Buenos Aires from Behind."

It would be great to have photos of people on this blog.

Like, on Saturday on the subte, there was this amazing magician who couldn't have been more than 20 years old. He had the whole car's rapt attention for 9 stops. It would have been great to get a picture of him. But my camera stayed in my pocket.

And the kids here will get out of school soon and some of them will be walking around with their guardapolvos — their white "lab jackets" worn as a school uniforms — inked with friends' signatures and best wishes. (Versions of "Have a cool summer!!!!" and "Stay sweet!!!!" only with exclamation marks at the beginning of the phrase, too, because, you know, ¡¡¡¡it's in Spanish!!!!)

Photos of them would be a kick, too.

And I would love to be able to post photos of the ladies who wash my clothes, the farmers at the market, the police officers in their thick bullet-proof vests, the woman who sells me cheese, the man who sleeps on the sidewalk and uses his dog as a pillow, the Orthodox Jews clad head to toe in black.

It would be great to post photos of everybody, really. . . including my doorman, who showed up at my apartment yesterday to ask me if he could borrow $300.

Although in that case, I don't know if it would have been better to get a picture of his face as he asked me, or a reaction shot of my face as I just about shit a brick.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A little sugar

I am absolutely in love with café con leche.

It's about one part espresso to two parts steamed milk. And, sure, there's the buzz that comes with it.

But there's also the ritual. If I'm making it at home, there's the careful scooping of the grounds into the filter basket of the espresso machine. If I'm having it out, there are the swift, deliberate motions of the waiter as he sets down my café con leche, my small glass of carbonated water and my complimentary cookie.

And there's the taste. The first bitter sip of the morning before I add the sugar. The foamy, slightly caramelized scalded milk mixed with the espresso. The syrupy espresso at the bottom of the cup where the sugar has settled, treacly but great in small doses.

Of course, at a certain point, there's no café con leche about it. After noon, it's cortados all the way down.

I was introduced to café con leche in Spain, but in some ways it reaches even greater heights here in Argentina.

Here, café con leche is rarely served without a small glass of carbonated water and a little cookie. It just feels so damn civilized.

The sugar almost always comes in a little packet. And that's where the blog "Sobrecitos de azúcar" comes in. This 47-year-old woman has been collecting sugar packets since her childhood and has more than 1000 of them. She is sharing her collection on her blog.

Though I don't have a photo of it — what am I, some sort of Internet photo-taker and writer? — my personal favorite was the sugar packet I got one morning a few months ago at the cafe down the street. It was from LADE, the government-owned, military-operated airline.

You know there had to be a story there.

I'm picturing a cafe owner scrambling through the flaming wreckage of a LADE aircraft, emerging in tattered clothes and smelling of jet fuel, grinning as he clutches as many sugar packets as he can hold.

But I could be wrong.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Miguel Brieva

The boxes of lint for 4 pesos ($1.25) and boxes of mini black holes for 6 pesos ($2) were what caught my eye.

Lint for 4 pesos? I'm kind of on a budget. Didn't lint used to be less expensive? Still, the sign promised it was the "best lint" and I suppose 4 pesos is a steal if we're talking lint of a certain ...

Wait a minute.

The lint was displayed in a handsome package on a shelf facing the street. I spotted it through a window. I had stumbled across a fantastic art exhibit. Works by Miguel Brieva were on display at the stark white gallery space of the Spanish Cultural Center of Buenos Aires (Paraná 1159).

Had I known about it beforehand, I don't know if it would have sounded appealing. But I'm really glad I found it, because I got a big kick out of it. In a city full of surprises, this was easily the best one since . . . the puppet museum.

Miguel Brieva is from Seville, Spain, and the exhibit is at one of two cultural centers in Buenos Aires funded by the government of Spain.

Besides being brilliantly drawn in bold colors, Brieva's stuff has a sense of humor that I appreciated. The comic book-style art is critical of consumerism and mass media (wide and easy targets, granted).

The piece at the top of this entry was several meters long by at least a meter high and occupied the most prominent spot in the gallery. One of the women in the center of the piece says, "The great thing about the dictatorship of the market is that it has all the good parts of that other fascism before it, but without all the marches and military parades and crap!" To the right is a woman filming her husband and child. The husband asks, "Do you think we're happy, dear?" to which the woman responds: "Yes! It says so right here in the camera viewfinder!"

Below are links to two more examples of his work gleaned from the web, with translations. (The text of the second one is a tiny bit crude.)

The exhibit is free and on until Dec. 21.


"Wow, that's weird! What do you think that is, dear?"
"Who knows. ... Well, we'll find out later on TV."


"Look, dear. Look what I've got! It's the latest in balls of excrement, covered by a fine layer of organic refuse carefully chosen by the most well-regarded professionals. Its interior is comprised of an exquisite and varied mixture of deposits gathered from the most refined . . . "

"Yes, yes. Come on! Once again, they've sold you the same shit as always."


Thursday, November 22, 2007

The puppet museum

On my paseo the other day, I ran across the Argentine Museum of Puppets!

I wanted to get in, but apparently you have to pull a few strings.

Thank you. I'm here all night.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Yesterday I was getting ready to head out to a small exhibit featuring art done by kids living in the slums.

I realized the exhibit was on the same side of town as the English-language bookstore . . . and that the bookstore wasn't so far from the cheese shop and the Italian bakery.

I hit the bookstore first and made 35 pesos (US$11) selling them four used paperbacks. Cheese money!

I got to the art exhibit and it was closed. A lot of businesses here lock their doors. But there's usually someone to open up if you knock. Not there, not this time. At other points of my life, I would have found this more upsetting. But I know better now. So I moved on to the bakery.

This Italian bakery is old school. It's been around for very nearly 100 years. And you can tell. (I did not take photos inside the bakery, but there are some photos here.)

I have sworn off buying bread in Buenos Aires, not out of carbophobia but because most if it just sucks. In a place with so much European heritage, it's ridiculous that this should be so, but it is. Every bakery for miles around makes essentially the same bread and it is all insipid and fluffy.

So I'm almost down to only eating bread that I make. But the bread at the Italian bakery is one of the very few places that makes bread worth buying, so I picked up a loaf.

They've got some great-looking pastries too. The one I bought, pictured above, is the pasticciotto. It's a cookie crust filled with pastry cream and chocolate. The man behind the counter dusted it with powdered sugar before he stuck it in a bag for me.

The cheese store is only a few blocks away. It was locked when I got there. But I tapped on the glass and the same old woman who is always there let me in.

I asked for some ricotta first and then asked about the burrata. I had heard of it, but what was it exactly? She told me it was a ball of fresh mozzarella stuffed with a mixture of mozzarella, cream and basil, whereupon I informed her that one of those would be coming home with me as well.

While she totaled up my purchase by hand on a small slip of paper, we chatted a bit about the business.

"¿Sos de acá del barrio?" she asked me.

No, I told her. I live in Almagro.

I told her that good cheese was worth the trip, and she naturally agreed. I said that I sometimes waited until I had something else to do on that side of town to come, but not always. Sometimes I just enjoyed the walk to the cheese store.

"Y sí," she said. "Hay que tomarlo como un paseo." You have to treat it like a stroll.

It's true. On my way there, I had chanced upon some things I didn't know existed. (Who knew there was a puppet museum or a Lunfardo Academy of Buenos Aires?) Plus, I never spend any time in San Telmo or Congreso and they're both great neighborhoods to explore.

True, I hadn't even seen the art exhibit I set out to see. I had managed to pick up some great food, but even if I hadn't it wouldn't have mattered. Paseos are not like blog entries. Even a rambling paseo that doesn't go anywhere isn't a let-down.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Luna Park

Luna Park is where Juan Perón met Evita. That's a tough act to follow, but last night I went there to see Rosana in concert.

It's a straight shot about 40 blocks down Avenida Corrientes from my apartment to the venue. It was a beautiful evening, so I walked there.

The walk took an hour and a half and was really good for clearing my head, even as I choked on exhaust fumes and sneezed from my allergies. By the time I got to Luna Park, I had reached all sorts of profound conclusions about my life!

It was a great show. The acoustics there aren't as good as they are at the Gran Rex, where I saw Rosana last time she was in town. And she was struggling with her voice.

But I still had a great time.

I was a little sad when the show was over. I don't know when I'll be able to catch one of her shows again. She doesn't tour the States, and I won't be here next time she comes around.

But how great is it that I've been able to see her twice here? And Joaquín Sabina twice! And Andrés Calamaro twice! And Jorge Drexler!

I feel pretty lucky.

I sometimes think the best part of learning Spanish is all the music it's allowed me to discover. When music connects with you it's more than the sum of its melody and lyrics. The connection is very personal.

That's why I'm passing along a video clip of Rosana, but without expectations it will do much for you. (This blog is a lot of things, but it's not quite OMG YOU HAVE TO BUY THIS ALBUM IT IS AWESEOM AND YOU WILL LOVE IT! Because if it were, I would by now have mentioned The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which is an awesome album that you have to buy because you will love it.)

I was saying? Oh, yes. Here's Rosana:

I just want to reach through the screen and shake you! Wasn't that amazing?! I mean, you can freaking hear her smiling when she sings!

Anyway, it was midnight when the show was over. The crowd spilled out onto the street.

As I walked up Córdoba to catch the 109 bus, I passed a restaurant half full of people. I was three paces past it when something made me go back. I turned around and stared into the harsh fluorescent lighting of the cafe.

My gaze settled on a table near the bar and I caught the eye of a smokin' transvestite hooker sitting alone with her drink. I gave her a goofy grin. She smiled back. And then my bus came.

Executive summary: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, start a legend. Too much thinking is bad, but walking is good. I see a concert of someone you've probably never heard of or don't care about. Huh. I've seen a lot of concerts of people you've probably never heard of or don't care about. Super duper! Here's a YouTube clip, because you know, there's something you don't see enough of on the Internet. Once again, boy meets girl — but this time it's the same person. And then my bus came.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

At least there's no shortage of dulce de leche

In my last post, I mentioned the absurd shortage of coins in this country.

With the sweat from writing that last entry still dripping from my brow, I headed downstairs to buy food.

The shop two doors down has placed the following sign in its window:

Dear Customer,

For every 100 pesos in coins, we will give you one kilo of El Puente-brand dulce de leche.

Thank you very much.

I am so hoarding coins now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Argentina isn't a country . . .

This place sometimes feels like it's one stop before the loony bin. It can be a beautiful brand of crazy. But it can also be challenging.

* * *

Out of 90 airlines sampled, two Argentine carriers ranked 86th and 87th for on-time performance. Their flights adhere to schedule about 25% of the time. It doesn't help that sometimes they don't even take off on the right day.

* * *

There is an absolutely desperate lack of change in this country. Where do all the coins go? Good question. It is a deep mystery and apparently a perennial source of fascination to foreign media. The BBC did a story on this last year. Reuters just did a story on this. And there's a video report here.

As the BBC story points out, it turns you into a liar. Because when you hand over 20 pesos for a purchase of 12.25 and the clerk asks you if you have any change, you lie through your teeth as the jingle of the precious, precious coins in your pocket echoes in your head like the beating of the telltale heart.

* * *

This video report about buying people's votes in the most recent election is a flawed piece of journalism. Why, for example, did these people cooperate with the reporter? It's not explained. Also, the voice-overs in English don't always completely match what the people are saying in Spanish. But I'm inclined to chalk this up to bad editing. There is certainly truth at the heart of this.

People in poor areas were paid to vote for candidates. And what to make of these vote-getters working both sides of the ballot? They collected votes not just for one candidate, but for the opponent as well.

It's like these vote buyers are completely unprincipled!

* * *

Last week, the sidewalk newsstands that sell all of the city's magazines and newspapers closed for a day. Why? To celebrate the National Day of the Newspaper Seller. I am not making this up. Naturally, the newspapers were not thrilled with this, since it meant they would lose a day of sales.

According to this article in La Nación, the usual arrangement is that the newsstand owners pocket about a third of the paper's cover price. To entice them not to close, the newspaper companies offered to let the newsstand owners keep the ENTIRE price of the newspaper, thereby earning them enough money to pay a helper for the day and be able to relax on the National Day of the Newspaper Seller.

The newsstand owners said no thanks and closed up for the day.

* * *

And you've got to love it when two major holidays fall in the same week. Of course, I'm referring to the fact that the day before the National Day of the Newspaper Seller was the National Day of the Banker.

Turns out, the banker and the newspaper seller honor their professions in the same time-tested way: by not showing up for work.

* * *

This all leads up neatly — so neatly you'd swear this blog entry had a point if you didn't know better — to this advertisement for a book promising to unveil the "marvels, oddities, curiosities, and mysteries" of the Argentines.

The best part is the tagline on the cover:

"Argentina isn't a country, it's an adventure."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Why don't you shut up?"

The prime minister of Spain was in Buenos Aires yesterday, after participating in the Ibero-American summit in Chile.

Having tenuously linked this post to Buenos Aires, I'll continue:

The summit in Chile wasn't exactly a love fest.

Uruguay and Argentina are in the midst of a diplomatic row over a paper mill in Uruguay that Argentina says will lead to unacceptable pollution.

And then Spain and Venezuela got into it.

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez called the former Spanish prime minister a fascist several times, which prompted the current Spanish prime minister to attempt to respond. . . .

. . . which prompted Chávez to not shut the hell up, even though his mic was off.

Which leads us to King Juan Carlos of Spain — who should certainly know a fascist when he sees one — wagging his finger at Chávez and asking him why he won't shut up.

Not really becoming a monarch, but sort of great anyway.

Friday, November 9, 2007


The trip from Salta to Cafayate — the nucleus of the local wine industry — was about 120 miles. It took just under four hours. It might have gone faster, but the bus wasn't just the bus. It was the paperboy, too.

If you lived in any of towns along the dry mountain highway, you could flag the bus down and the driver would sell you a newspaper.

These were very small towns.

In most of them, we would stop at the first building in town and you could clearly see where the town ended up the road a piece. (Still, we'd stop three times to make pick-ups and drop-offs.)

By the time we got to Cafayate, even a town of 11,000 people seemed big.

I paid five bucks to rent a bike just off the expansive main plaza and then pedaled around to the wineries, most of which were a few miles out of town.

The area is desert. It was dry and hot, and it's only November. The heat in January must be unbearable.

Now, you may know that I am sort of a half-assed vegetarian. Increasingly, half-assed I'd say. I eat fish. I had a steak for my birthday this year. And when I was in Chicago, I ate duck at an event put on by Slow Food and the farm.

To that list, we can add the steak I ate in Cafayate.

My dining options were somewhat limited.

I picked a restaurant, leaned my bike against the lamppost and plopped myself down at a table. The waitress handed me a menu.

"We don't have everything on the menu," she said.

"That's fine," I said.

She went down the menu and named about ten things they didn't have before I stopped her.

I had seen signs for lomo a la frontera all over town. I asked for that.

It was steak and eggs over fried potatoes, with some onions and bell peppers thrown in.

Such a contrast to the steak I had six months ago for my birthday. At Bar Uriarte in Buenos Aires, the atmosphere is studied and refined, urban and sophisticated, with a carefully designed menu.

Here, it was plain and rural. Without pretense. Also, apparently, without a menu.

I finished my meal and biked off onto a dirt road into the hills.

Of course, who should I run into?

Eesh. Awkward!

I hoped I hadn't eaten someone they knew. Well, someone they liked.

Aside from the wine and the scenery, the best thing about Cafayate is that the people aren't sick of tourists. They are definitely placing a heavy emphasis on developing the tourism industry there, but you can tell it hasn't gotten old. Yet.

Mendoza is the Argentine region that everyone associates with "wine country," but I think Cafayate is going to be the next big thing — as a travel destination and as an appellation.

* * *

I got back to Salta about 11pm and collapsed into my bed.

The next day, I flew back to Buenos Aires.

Yes, I had planned to take buses on this trip. But I had already taken a 10-hour bus to Córdoba. A 12-hour bus to Salta. And then a 7-hour round-trip to Cafayate and back.

Honestly, there wasn't enough wine in all of Cafayate to make 22 more hours on a bus OK.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I spent my first day in Salta just walking around.

All over Salta, entire buildings are painted with bright-red Coca-Cola ads. The vibrant advertisements, the soft pastels of the buildings, the bright blue sky, the pale purple of the jacarandas. . . They all added up to a very colorful city to explore.

As I walked around, someone called out to me.


I had walked past the guy, but his merchandise had caught my eye, and now he wasn't going to let me off.

"¡Flaco! ¿Probás un damasquito?"

("Dude, do you want to try an apricot?")

Clearly he had made me on sight. Readers of my other blog may remember that the Michigan apricot crop was wiped out by a late spring freeze. No apricots for me this year. Until now.

"How much?" I asked.

They were four pesos, about US$1.25 for a good-sized tray. I popped a sample in my mouth and began digging for my wallet. What the hell was I going to do with 30 apricots? I had no idea. But they were too good to pass up.

I placed the apricots gently into my shoulder bag and kept walking.

A few minutes later I walked past a scrawny kid sitting on the shaded stoop of a convenience store.

"¿Una monedita, señor?" He wanted a little change.

I said no and walked a few spaces before it dawned on me. I spun around and began digging in my bag as I walked up to him.

"¿Che, querés?" I placed four rosy-orange apricots into his tiny, filthy hand.

He thanked me and I walked another block, until another kid asked me for change. I started digging out my apricots again when I turned around and saw that the first kid had finished one of his apricots and was walking up to share the others with this second kid.

I waved him away and gave the second kid some apricots of his own.

I ate the rest of the apricots for dessert that night, left some on my night stand and found that the maid had helped herself when I got back to my room late the next evening.

Who could blame her? They were really great apricots.

* * *

Of course, I made time for some ice cream. The place I went had some unique flavors, including cayote con nuez, cayote being in the squash family and looking like a watermelon on the outside; nuez is walnut. I also tried torrontés, ice cream made from the region's star white wine grape. On the menu was té de coca, or coca-leaf tea ice cream. But they were out of it.

* * *

I knew I wanted to go to the nearby wine region of Cafayate the next day, but I had to figure out how to get there.

There were plenty of excursiones offered, where they provide a bus and a guide and drive you around. This country is absolutely mad about excursions. I think it's a sort of full-employment scheme to soak up the graduates of the tourism programs at universities.

It's to the point where if you contemplate doing something outside of a pre-programmed excursion, people look at you like you're nuts. And sometimes it's all but impossible to do things without an excursion if you don't have a car.

But I was determined to try. Because the excursions on offer to wine country all involved spending the better part of the day looking at rock formations that allegedly resembled things.

I know this because I went into a travel agency where a woman excitedly showed me pictures of these formations.*

"This is the Titanic. This is called the Obelisk. This one is called the Toad."

"Um, I'm really more interested in wineries. Is there any tour where you see fewer rocks and more wineries?"

"No, not really," she said.

Of course not. Why would there be, with so many rocks to look at?

I should mention that part of my frustration with this excursion-centric system stems from a deeply scarring guided tour I was all but forced on during a trip to Argentina four years ago. I saw nothing of interest but spent 14 hours on a bus filled entirely with senior citizens, who for at least the last five hours of the trip were drunk off their asses and engaging in a group sing-along at the top of their lungs.

So I went to the bus station to see if there was a bus that would take me to Cafayate, where I could then strike out on my own. There was. It left at 7am and took about three and a half hours to get there.

So I bought a ticket and went to bed early.

*It all started to remind me of possibly the most random tour I've ever taken in my life, into the Cuevas del Drach salt caves in Mallorca, where we were shown stalagmites and stalactites that supposedly resembled things and then treated to a classical music concert performed by musicians on boats floating in an underground lake. Naturally.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


I was conflicted about taking a trip because the only thing lower than my bank balance is my blog readership. Zing!

Shit. I just zinged myself again. Oh well. At least not many people saw me do it.


Anyway, I reminded myself that I won't be in this country beyond April or May, that things aren't going to get any cheaper or any closer, and that, in the end, I've never regretted spending money on travel — even though I'm still paying for my European wanderings 10 years ago in the form of student loans.

I'll get back to Salta like I said I would, but I should start from the beginning.

My trip started in Córdoba, which I reached after a 10-hour overnight bus ride from Buenos Aires.

I spent two days in Córdoba because it was halfway between Buenos Aires and Salta and because it is arguably Argentina's second city.

It was a nice place to spend a few days, but I wasn't blown away by it.

Still, Córdoba does have some nicely preserved historical architecture in the form of a cathedral (above) and some churches (below).

And the jacaranda trees were in bloom.

As I wondered the city, searching for meaning and purpose in my visit, an ice cream sign came into focus. Just like the meaning and purpose of my visit. And my propensity for cheap narrative devices.

Mmm . . . footsicle. Full of footy goodness.

From Córdoba, I took a 12-hour overnight bus to Salta, which is where I will pick up next time.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Greetings from Salta

A thousand miles from Buenos Aires in the northwest corner of Argentina sits the province of Salta, bordering Chile and Bolivia.

The capital of the province, also named Salta, is one of those dusty, colorful cities you might picture when you think of Latin America.

I mention this in part because I don't always think of myself as being in Latin America when I'm in Buenos Aires — heaven, hell, Europe, the Third World, the First World . . all these things, yes. But not specifically Latin America.

In so many good and bad ways, Buenos Aires is really a world of its own.

Salta, however, is thoroughly and inescapably Latin American.

More on Salta soon.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Up next: butterflies and kittens!

I don't want to say that staring out my window isn't normally rewarding, but it felt particularly rewarding yesterday just before sunset.

All this top-notch blogging and whatever else it is I do has me exhausted.

So I am taking a bus north to Córdoba, and then to Salta. (Here's a map of Argentina.)