Sunday, January 30, 2011

Argentina, As I Saw It

Argentina. Just the word conjures up images of an enticing Latin American culture and landscape, calling for my attention: Sensuous Tango and late night revelry in Buenos Aires. Macho Gauchos on the dusty, endless Pampas, tending to their cattle and beloved horses. Striking glaciers and castles of ice at the very tip of the Southern hemisphere. Towering Andean peaks scratching the sky down the Western spine of the country. Political passion and upheaval. Red meat, grilled to perfection, and copious amounts of red, red wine. Was there any doubt that I would visit?

Once again, I headed out with an intrepid band of traveling photographers lead by Ron Zak of Solano College to explore a land far, far away. The goals: immerse ourselves in the culture; discover our differences as well as our similarities; and take pictures - not necessarily of the postcard variety, but rather, images that carry impact. And for me, ultimately, to make this world a smaller place.

As a photographer, I struggled on this trip. Mightily. As an individual attempting to broaden my horizons, I thrived. I'm never so alive as when I'm on a journey of exploration, and visiting Argentina was certainly that. My itinerary: two weeks in Buenos Aires with the group, followed by one week in Mendoza with just two pals, Patty and Windsor (best traveling partners ever!).

In a nutshell, the people of Argentina are not so unlike us. They look like us, they dress like us, they hold jobs, raise their families and go about their business in much the same manner as us here in the West. There are vast cultural, social and economic differences, for certain, but from a superficial look on the outside - we are they, they are we. It was almost a little bit disconcerting to go halfway round the world to find... well, me!

In addition to the people, I found the locales I visited oddly familiar as well. Buenos Aires, for example, could be San Francisco South in so many ways. The similarities between the two cities really couldn't be ignored:
  • Both cities are comprised of smaller, distinct neighborhoods (known as "barrios" in BsAs), each with their own characteristics and attributes that make them unique
  • Similar latitudes (SF is at latitude 38 North; BsAs is at latitude 35 South)
  • Sprawling parks that are the pride and playgrounds of the people
  • World-class museums
  • Home to stunning landmark bridges (in the case of BsAs, the Puente de la Mujer, or Women's Bridge)
  • A pervasive food culture, with Wine Country in each city's backyard
  • Pedestrian friendly - I literally and happily walked off the soles of my feet in BsAs
  • Gay friendly
The differences are key as well:
  • Although both San Francisco and Buenos Aires are cities built on water, San Francisco Bay is integral to SF's identity, skyline, lifestyle and livelihood. The Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, however, is largely hidden from view. Aside from the dikes set up in Puerto Madero, the newest part of town in BsAs, the water contributes almost nothing to the obvious pulse of the city. This despite its locals being called porteños (people of the port), and its port being one of the busiest in South America. Go figure.
  • Buenos Aires is a much bigger city and suburban area than San Francisco. BsAs proper is home to three million people (SF: 800,000), and the surrounding Buenos Aires province brings the city and its suburbs to a population of more than 13 million (SF Bay Area: 7.4 million), which is more than one third of the entire population of Argentina. That is a whole lot of people, believe me!
  • To move all those people, BsAs has an extensive public transportation system. Once again, the Bay Area falls short (but we all know that, don't we?).
  • I found that San Francisco - or really any large city in the U.S. for that matter - to be much more diverse than Buenos Aires. The European influence is predominant in BsAs (the city is 89 percent white); Asian, African, Middle Eastern and even Latin American representation in its people is minuscule.
  • And, happy to admit it, our food is far better. They're giving us a run for our money where wine is concerned, but I'll take the diversity in our dining options any day of the week. Grin.
As for the Western Argentina portion of my trip, if landing in Buenos Aires left me feeling as if I were in San Francisco, landing in Mendoza felt like being plunked down in the American Southwest.

Mendoza is located in a high desert located at the foot of the Andes mountains, not unlike my hometown of Salt Lake City. The landscape in Mendoza could be that of Southern Utah, or the Mojave Desert in California. Forests are nonexistent; rather, cacti, low-lying shrubs and tenacious wildflowers cling to the rocky surfaces in hopes of their next sip of water. Which comes sporadically. And the mountains - oh the mountains! I was so thrilled to see snowcapped peaks upon my arrival from the big city. The flat Pampas that comprises the central plains of Argentina simply slams into the base of the Andes, which jut commandingly into the sky, without so much as a moment's notice. They are stunning in their spareness.

But more on all of that later! Please share in my Argentine journey through the remainder of this blog. There's a lot here, so make sure to keep hitting the "Older Posts" link at the foot of every page to read the blog in order, or follow the links down the right hand side to pick and choose the articles at random. And please leave me your comments! I'd love to know if you have had the same or different experiences if you've visited Argentina; if my words and pictures teach or inspire you; or if I've bored you to tears. Whatever - just let me know!

To all my fellow travelers, the new friends I've made while on the journey, and those who touched my life while I was in your country, I thank you for the memories. And much love to my darling husband who was, as always, so supportive of my need to split the country now and again. Te quiero!

Barrio de San Telmo

As I mentioned, Buenos Aires is a huge city. Huge. There are 48 different official barrios, and I made it to about nine. My home base was located in San Telmo, perhaps the most interesting, lively and vibrant of all the barrios I visited. It was a fantastic neighborhood, with some of the city's most impressive graffiti lining the narrow cobblestone streets, art galleries and cafés at every turn, and a palpable energy in the air. It was just fun.

Sights popular with both locals and tourists alike were steps from my doorstep. San Telmo is home to Plaza Dorrego, the second oldest plaza in BsAs, and its famed Sunday Feria de Antigüedades (antiques market). Calle Defensa, a street chock full of restaurants, shops and galleries, turns into a pedestrian-only crafts market on Sunday as well. And while the neighborhood really does come alive on Sunday, it's a bustling area any other day of the week too. Tango music and dance can be enjoyed every night in the plaza, and the cafes and restaurants spill patrons onto the sidewalks literally all night long. San Telmo meters out the bohemian heartbeat of the city.

Scenes from the Sunday Feria de Antigüedades
and crafts market...

Scenes from the antique market...

During my stay, a film crew descended on Plaza Dorrego and shot some scenes for a movie over the course of an afternoon. They spiffed up one of the side streets and transformed it into something quite different - added a fountain, a flower stand, potted plants, window boxes, etc. So even though their end result was not exactly representative of the true locale, the location scouts obviously agree with me: San Telmo is just where you want to be to discover the European flavor and latin spirit of Buenos Aires.

La Boca

Undoubtedly, if you've seen promotional photos of Buenos Aires, you've seen La Boca. Specifically, Caminito Street and its colorful "conventillos" (zinc buildings painted in wild colors). The images are ubiquitous, I suppose with good reason. Caminito is vibrant, historic and bursting with people and activities. This is the place of the city's original port, and the story goes that the precarious ramshackle homes of the dock workers were slathered with leftover paint from the shipyards. A visually over-the-top neighborhood was born, and today Caminito thrives as a tourist destination and open-air museum. Think of a mash-up between Pier 39 and Bourbon Street. The atmosphere is fun and festive. Music, dance, food and drink are all readily available for the tourists that descend from chartered buses without fail each and every day.

La Boca is also home to the Boca Juniors Athletic Club - one of the most popular futból teams in the country. The stadium, popularly called "La Bombonera" (the candy jar) is a neighborhood icon, complete with a museum and a walk of fame where the footprints of the team's biggest stars are imprinted in the sidewalk. Soccer season had yet to begin when I was there, so sadly, I didn't get to see a game in action, or more precisely, the passion and zeal of the people who are diehard fans. Next time.

But Caminito and La Bombonera are far cries from truly representing La Boca. After all, Caminito is a mere 300 foot long cobblestone street, and the stadium is just that - a stadium, generally a world unto itself. The remainder of La Boca is very rough, very poor, and a place a tourist would never venture after dark. Even during the day, wandering into some of the neighborhoods surrounding the attractions is not exactly comfortable. But we did it. We walked through the side streets in small groups and were warned time and time and time again that we had better leave the area and if nothing else, put our flashy, expensive cameras away. One local woman was so insistent that her neighborhood was not safe for tourists, that she offered to pay bus fare for a couple members of our group. And that was in the light of day. So there's an underbelly of La Boca that most tourists will never see, and that's probably just as well. It's not the shantytowns that really are away from the tourist view, but to get a tiny glimpse of the less visible, less privileged porteño way of life in a city and country that is mainly middle class, La Boca offered just that.

Gaucho and Tango dancers along Calle Caminito