Steak and Tango: Buenos Aires Homestretch!

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It was bittersweet, but we arrived back in Buenos Aires for the last two days of our trip. Luckily, we still had very exciting things on the agenda! Night one: learn to tango. Night two: eat the most amazing steak on Earth at La Cabrera.

We did little during the day, as per usual these days. We walked the Sunday market by the cemetery and checked out cafe Tortoni (the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires, which was both beautiful and had great coffee).  Afterwards we shared a pre-tango bottle of wine on the second story terrace of our hostel. It was surreal being back in Buenos Aires. We have stayed at the Ideal Hostel three times now on this trip, and being back this time was by far the strangest; I felt as if we should be STARTING a journey rather than ending one.

The first evening, we set out to La Catedral, a local milonga, full of portenos that held cheap tango lessons and had great shows later in the night. We had been there before, 4 months earlier, and loved it! Creaky wooden floors, red brick walls, and full of good wine and local flavor: everything you could want from a tango bar in Buenos Aires. This time, we wanted to take lessons, so we jumped in a cab and took off through the city. 
Very different from four months ago, I managed to flawlessly chat with the cab driver as we cruised through the streets. I’m impressed how much my Spanish has improved in such a short time. We covered a wide range of topics, including European influences in Buenos Aires, the wars between Portugal and its colonial provinces in South America, the places and things Adam and I had done on our trip, and joking about how I would love to buy all the clothes in the city, if only they would fit in my backpack. This is a far cry from four months ago when I would say “Corrientes y Suipacha por favor” and shut up for the rest of the ride.

When we arrived at La Catedral, we sadly discovered the place was closed (damn you Sundays!). Luckily, the driver knew a bunch more milongas in the area, and suggested a few dinner places as well. We were dropped off a few blocks away, and ended up in a restaurant that was full of people (rare for Buenos Aires at 8pm). We decided this was a good place, and sat at one of the only tables available, upstairs, overlooking the restaurant and a stage that was set up. By 8:15 there was not a single table left in the place… And it seemed to us, as we peered down on the crowds below, that EVERYONE knew each other. At first we thought we were being paranoid when it looked like every person kept looking up and staring at us after they walked in. We were the only tourist at the place, but Argentina has such a mix of culture, surely you couldn’t tell that from walking through the door!
  So we ordered a platter and some wine and forgot about the crowds.

Before long, it was apparent that a show was about to start. The emcee got up on stage and started talking. It was hard to understand him over the microphone, and he spoke ridiculously fast, but soon we realize he was congratulating an old woman on her birthday… This was her birthday party, and everyone at the restaurant had come for it. Great, first we crash a funeral, now we’ve crashed a little old lady’s birthday too! We’re on a roll!

Then all of a sudden the emcee switches to English and looks directly at Adam and I “hello my friends, welcome!!” then in Spanish “The couple from Canada ladies and gentlemen! Let’s welcome them to the party by a round of applause!” we get cheered for and whistled at, then out of nowhere a spotlight shines over at us and blinds me. I’m sure I’m blushing as we get a shout out by the announcer within the first 3 minutes of the show… People are still clapping for us. We smile and say thank you, and the show continues. This is going to be an unusual night, I can already tell.

The show went all night and was really quite amazing! It began with a few singers that sang popular Latin music, and a couple classic English songs like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Love Again” and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” both translated into Spanish. The crowds of loved every second of it.  They sang along ruthlessly to each of the tunes, cheering and moving to the music all the while. South Americans are so much more passionate about life it seems, and they certainly love a party!

Next, the tango dancers began. The tango is both beautiful, and sensual, and Adam and I quickly realized we would have looked like absolute idiots at the class. How do you teach steps like that in an hour and a half?! I’m extra thankful at this point that the lessons weren’t available, as it seemed the girls take 3 steps to each one of the guy’s movements! I would have tripped over my uncoordinated feet FOR SURE. Nonetheless, I adored watching the dancers on stage!

After a round of dancing, a large bald man got up on stage and sang opera. He was fantastic! He didn’t even need a microphone; he easily could have filled the restaurant with his voice solo. I decided right then and there that, had I been at an entire opera show, I probably would have cried. Then later, when he broke out with one of my favourite Andrea Bocelli songs, I nearly did.

His son, who was probably about 7, sat on the stage behind him and offered him water between each song. It was very sweet. This kid was anything but shy. At the first intermission, when everyone in the restaurant got out on the dance floor and tangoed, he stood up on the stage and danced as crazily and as hard as he could. He was the center of attention for the entire restaurant, and was hilarious to watch while he shook his hips and his head as his arms and legs flailed haphazardly at his side. When the intermission was over, he ran upstairs to his mom to boast about his stage performance. She praised him and offered a sip of her wine as congratulations. Before she knew it, he grabbed the glass and scalded the entire thing in an instant! I nearly choked on an olive I was laughing so hard as the mother mortifyingly tried to pry the empty glass from his hands! No wonder he wasn’t shy, the kid was hammered!

The show continued with another set of the same. Singing, more dancing, then more singing again. The choreography become more complex, and as a result, more impressive! The performances went on until well after midnight, and just watching I was exhausted by the time it was over. Argentina is a dancing culture. You can easily determine this by the sheer number of great dancers that were there that night. Couples, old and young, got up to show off their moves at each intermission, and all of them were fantastic! I wish we had some sort of cultural comparison in Canada.

Our second day in Buenos Aires we spent in the San Telmo district. Still my favourite district in the city, we had no problem hanging out with a few pints in the main square, people watching the afternoon away! This is where we decided it was a good time to add up our collective bus trips over the past four months. Yes, all those hours of hell we had been carefully keeping track of. In four months we had a total of 43 bus trips (not including tours or city buses) for a disgusting grand total of 338 hours!!! When you do the math, that’s 14.08 days, or TWO ENTIRE WEEKS!! Good lord, no wonder we hate buses so much now!

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Thankfully, all of that was behind us. No more buses in South America on this trip! It was our final night on the continent, and we had other things to do… Such as finish our bet!

For those of you that have been following, Adam and I have had an ongoing crib tournament that we have been tallying up since the beginning of January. The rule was, the loser of all the totaled games had to pay for a steak dinner at the famous La Cabrera in Buenos Aires! In the end, the score was Adam: 70, Hilary: 122. Sorry Adam, looks like steak is on you!

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So we dressed up in our best backpacker clothes and went to the steakhouse for 7:30. Turns out, the place didn’t even OPEN until 8. But that didn’t matter, reservations were full and we were already pretty far along on the wait list. How popular IS this place? Also, there are actually TWO locations! One a half block from the first, both of which were packed an hour before opening. Ingeniously however, the restaurant had a few benches and a TV outside that played a blooper reel of the most ridiculous wipeouts. We found this hysterical (and that is an understatement). Although many people loitered around, watching the screen, only Adam and I were curled over in our seats, with tears in our eyes, wheezing breathlessly at how funny this was. Perhaps we had been deprived of comedy for a while (having only CSI on the English TV channels) or maybe it’s true that we do just have more fun than the average passerby. Whatever the case, we sat in line for an hour before we even realized that we were hungry. Well done La Cabrera, well done.

Finally it was our turn. Just as we sat down, they popped open champagne bottles to give to each of the waiting guests in line (jealous!). But not to worry, we had scoped out the menu an hour ago and were ready to start the feast! An amazing bottle of Santa Julia reserva Malbec and stuffed olives with parmesan, almonds, and a sundried tomato with sesames mix in the center. Unreal!  We picked away at this for a while and decided that, on our last night, we would re-read all the blog posts I had written over the last four months… Oh how much we had forgotten!! The horrific airport experience on day one, catching up with friends in Brazil, Carnaval, the Amazon River… and that’s just the first part of the trip! I realized how much I love to describe food in my writing (fancy or otherwise), and my limited vocabulary when it comes to describing scenery… Sorry everybody.

But it really has been an awesome trip. And so, to finish my posts for this trip, why not go out in style and describe another meal!

So for our main course at La Cabrera, we (Adam) spared no luxury. We ordered the nicest thing on the menu. A 500g medium-rare Sirloin Strip Kobe Beef steak… Oh my God. We have been convincing South America that, although Argentinean beef is amazing, we have EXCELLENT Alberta beef as well. It’s hard to impress us Canadians with an “okay” steak. But this Kobe beef blew us out of the water! It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Perfectly seared to medium rare, with a dark red juicy center. Also, it came with a platter of accompaniments. A waiter came around with a large wooden plank of sides that we could choose from. “Take as many as you want!” he said! Big salads with poached eggs and vinaigrette dressing, garlic mashed potatoes, grilled zucchini, spicy dijon mustard dip, palmitos, red pepper sauce, and so much more! We had a table full of small jars to go with the steak, each one more delicious than the last. We actually shared a steak (because the thing was massive) but were both stuffed by the time dinner was over. They added a free glass of champagne for dessert and a lollipop to go! Wow. Hands down the nicest steakhouse I’ve been to, with the most delicious meat I’ve ever had. The Santa Julia Reserva ended up being top of our rating for the wine log (now at exactly 60 different bottles) which made the meal even more perfect. This was not only the best meal of the trip, but also of my life! What an awesome way to finish off four months of travel! We had been at the restaurant for 4 and a half hours (including wait time) by this point, so it was finally time to go home… Actually. Our flight to Canada was scheduled for 9:35pm the following day. How time flies!

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Buenos Aires: When in Doubt, A Bottle of Vino

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Well, I finally have friends! Adam and Nikki have successfully joined me here in Buenos Aires and we’ve had numerous cultural experiences: some successful, others not so much.  
Adam and I explored the gorgeous Teatro Colon and the cementerio where Eva “Evita” Peron and Jim Morrison were buried. We walked around the city, stopping for ice-cream at the famous Freddo cafe, and then stopped along the river for happy hour and shared a bottle of Argentinean Malbec. The wine here is so amazing that our new motto is “when in doubt, a bottle of vino;” and so, whenever we find ourselves exhausted from walking, we stop at the closest cafe and expand on our newly founded wine log.

The next day we toured again; we saw some beautiful churches, visited the presidential palace and explored the San Telmo district – by far my favourite in Buenos Aires! It is filled with quaint little cafes, cobblestone streets and European style architecture! I could stay there all day, just sipping on coffee in one of the plazas!  We carried on from there to this giant park on the other side of town.  We figured, if we crossed the whole park (5-ish km) then we would have our first taste of South American OCEAN! I’m so excited about this! So we trekked through the park, which to me felt strangely like a slightly greener African safari than a park in the middle of a metropolitan city, and made it to the first beach of the trip! 
Definitely NOT what I expected. Giant dead fish lined the tide line, the place reeked of decay, and the water was a sludgy brownish colour. There were a few people hanging around, but NO ONE was interested in touching the water. Naturally, I felt the need to put my foot in the ocean, but I could possibly have some strange disease because of it. I’ll keep u posted 🙂

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After our failed ocean attempt, and a 5km walk back to the city, we stopped at a mate bar for some traditional Paraguayan tea.  The locals here drink mate like a fat kid eats cake; it’s EVERYWHERE.  However, when we ordered the tea, instead of each getting a cup, we were given: a 1/4kg of loose tea, a thermos of hot water, a pitcher of cool water, a spoon, several packets of sugar, some biscuits and one cup with a cool straw to share. Needless to say, we were slightly confused at how to put everything together.   So we mixed a spoonful of the tealeaves in the cup, added the hot water, used the straw to stir and began drinking. Minutes later the waitress came over and started laughing at us. Clearly we weren’t doing this right.  She poured out our sad mixture and did it for us: half a packet of sugar at the bottom, fill the cup half full with the tea leaves, add the other half of the sugar, fill the rest of the cup with tea to the brim, add hot water, enjoy through straw.  At first it was super bitter and very strong. The caffeine went straight to my head within minutes and I was unsure whether I wanted more. After a bit, however, we both grew very accustom to the taste and we ended up sitting for a couple hours sipping at the tea and enjoying the patio!

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After the tea we figured we would go back to the hostel and wait for Nikki. But what to do while we wait? When in doubt, a bottle of vino! Nikki arrived fairly soon after we got to the hostel, so the three of us sat out on the second story terrace and sipped on wine and caught up. After that, it was dinner (it being 11pm, and that being the acceptable hour for south Americans to eat dinner). So we went out to a local milonga bar to have pizza and watch locals tango dance late into the night (over another bottle of wine of course). The tango is SUCH a beautiful and sexy dance to watch! Definitely another bucket list crossed off my life’s to-do list.  “Tango show at a local milonga in Argentina sipping wine with good friends” – Check!

La Bombonera!

The Boca district, on the west side of Buenos Aires, is home to the famous Bombonera (chocolate box). La Bombonera is the home stadium for the world-renowned Boca Junior Football team (soccer for the confused North Americans out there) and is home to HUGE names like Diego Maradona – who played with the team throughout his career and who is arguably one of the greatest football players of all time. 

 Two days ago, I had the pleasure of touring the Bombonera stadium and was amazed by the feel of the place.

The blocks surrounding the stadium are fully dedicated to the team.  Bars, restaurants and souvenir shops, all painted in the infamous blue and gold colours, sport flags and signs and give the neighborhood an exciting, but focused, atmosphere.  Even without a game on this month, you can feel the craziness; broken beer bottles line the sidewalks for blocks, and with the small, windy streets you can see how a crowd would be pushed through the area.

Inside, the stadium is tiny. At first I was shocked by how intimate it all was. Don’t get me wrong, the place still holds 50 000 fans, but I guarantee safety regulations in Canada would half that number. The fans are divided, not by priced sections, but instead, by how crazy they like to party. Any actual seat in the stadium is considered “preferred seating”. Because the field only meets minimum size requirements, every seat has pretty much the same view. So fans that prefer to sit and enjoy the game quietly are placed in the seats along the length of the field; whereas, the fans that want to riot while watching the game are placed behind the goal, on the second level, next to a giant painted number “12”. These fans are considered the 12th player of the game. They will literally involve themselves within every call, every kick, and every move a player makes on the field. They will shout obscenities, call out to their teammates and personally attack a referee for making a bad call by shouting about his mother or his sister!

The lower level of the arena offers a standing room only section: one on each end of the field. Each space was apparently meant for 2000 fans (although I can’t imagine how). Turns out, the areas each fit 5000 standing fans: 2 1/2 TIMES the original capacity. No wonder people are trampled to death when riots break out!  Of the 50 000 fans, only 3000 seats are allotted for the opposition. They have to sit on the top floor, and are denied any and all luxuries; they enter from a separate door; they have no shade, no hot water nor any of the amenities granted to the home team fans. Their section is surrounded by giant walls of glass, topped with barbed wire and chain-linked fence to separate the two groups. The entire debacle is absolutely insane.  
Just standing within the stadium walls one can imagine how moving, and passionate, and out of control the big games against Boca’s arch enemy River would be. The stadium is clearly Argentina’s pride; that much is evident in every detail put into the stadium (and the museum that sits in the lobby).  
I am definitely lucky to have stood in the stands where so many fans have cheered for Boca, and I am hoping so much we get to catch a game there in May on our way back through Buenos Aires!

Arriving in Buenos Aires: Not So Bueno After All

I successfully made it on the plane to Chicago, and I found myself sitting there, thinking “What in the world am I going to do in Buenos Aires for 4 days?” I’d spent so much time getting organized for Brazil, figuring out what major cities I should visit, Carnaval reservations, etc, that I actually have no idea what the capital of Argentina has to offer. I figured I wouldn’t worry much about it on the plane; there was really nothing I could do until I got there. So I picked up my in-flight magazine, flipped it open, and read “Three Perfect Days in Buenos Aires,” a 4-page article, detailing step by step, what to do in the city if you only have 3 days: right down to the last cafe and ice cream stop! 
Just goes to show I’ve still got lucky traveler’s syndrome even without my dearest Caitlin by my side! *Knock on wood*

Okay… The knocking on wood didn’t work. It has been almost a full day since I was joyfully on the plane to Chicago and thanking my stars that I’ve still got luck on my side. 

My luck continued for a little while, I must admit. I got to Chicago without a hitch: had a perfect view of the city skyline with a sunset backdrop! I even arrived at the airport a FULL 30 minutes ahead of schedule, and easily found my gate across O’Hare’s oversized airport. A minor glitch in the system meant we had to be moved to another flight to DC, but that left me with, not only a whole row to myself, but the entire back half of the plane! 
Once again, I arrived 10 minutes early in Washington, caught my connecting flight with practically no wait time, and set out towards Buenos Aires.

I didn’t sleep a wink on the entire 11-hour flight. Nor did I on the previous 8 hours of flights and connections. By the end of the 19-hour journey I just wanted to go to crawl into bed. My eyes were burning from lack of sleep and recycled air; not to mention, I was at that beyond-tired stage that leaves u feeling physically ill. When we landed in Buenos Aires safe and sound, I thought, “At least I’m only tired; overall, I think I’ve done pretty well on my own. I’m so glad it’s all over and nothing horrendous happened”

That’s when everything went horribly wrong.

..

The plane landed at 9:30am; however, we were left stranded on the tarmac for some unknown reason. So we sat… and we sat. People were itching to get off the plane after such a long flight, and I thought I was going to be sick from the heat and exhaustion. At 10:10, 40 minutes after landing, they allowed us to begin unloading, and only then did they inform us what the problem was. Apparently, the ENTIRE Buenos Aires airport was malfunctioning and there was zero electricity! Not to worry, we were told, the immigration and customs offices were moving “just a little slower”. 

So we all walk off the plane into a dark airport. Luckily it was morning and some sunlight could come in, but, as soon as we shuffled downstairs to immigration, only a couple small overhead lights, from a backup generator, lit the path. It was 33 degrees outside, but with all the bodies and no AIRCONDITIONING, it was many degrees hotter in line. The escalators and elevators were out of service and flight crews had to try to carry people in wheelchairs down the large flight of stairs. Soon, more planes began unloading from other berths. This caused a rush as people from all directions started pushing their way haphazardly to the front (The “front” being the top of the broken escalators where guards stood to prevent people from going further). After about a half hour I pushed my exhausted body to the front of the line and made it down the escalators. I was lucky. The Aussie guy next to me had been there for 3 hours and had missed his connecting flight in the next terminal over. 

 At the bottom of the stairs, we had to wait in a line to pay for our visas on arrival. This process was excruciatingly slow considering all the computers were down. From there, I was pushed into another 2-hour line up, to make it through what I assumed was customs. We waited in a long hallway, in the dark, all squished together in the scorching heat of the EZE airport. My line, which was all foreigners from Canada, the USA and Australia, was pretty tame. Not much you can really do I guess! The Argentinean line, however, was in an outrage! Everyone was pushing, shoving, and shouting louder than the person next to them. It was chaos (and their line was twice as long)! After finally collecting my backpack (thank God it was there), I turned the corner towards the exit; there, I was faced with 3, GIANT lines for customs. You have got to be kidding me! 
Luckily, it wasn’t as bad as it appeared. Maybe 10 minutes and I was through the real exit. At this point, I have been on the ground for over 3 1/2 hours.

Hours awake: 24.

The rest of my dilemmas could have been avoided by three simple things: planning ahead, listening to my mother, and my following my experienced traveler’s voice. Unfortunately, I decided I was either too busy or too lazy to make it to the money exchange in Vancouver and get Pesos at a better rate. As well, I was too focused on booking flights and hostels that I didn’t really think about HOW to get anywhere. On top of that, I knew Adam would have my back when it came to a guidebook, so who really needs one in the first 4 days of the trip, right? 
So I walk out of the airport, into freedom, with absolutely ZERO Argentinean pesos. I have $11 American, 15 Brazilian Reais (thank you Cathy) and about $15 Canadian dollars (thank you mom). As for directions to the hostel, I have AN ADDRESS! That is all. No district, area, bus route, taxi cost, approximate distance from airport by car, nothing. 

But this is not an issue, because I know that I can go to the currency exchange or the ATM at the airport and grab some cash. Then I can flick on my iPod, connect to the free wireless Internet the EZE airport has so kindly offered, look up hostel directions, and then be on my way! Only problem: You need electricity for ALL of these things. All the staff at the currency exchanges were just hanging around with nothing to do. Computers were down; Zero exchanges were being made in any currency. ATMs: completely turned off without power. Wifi? Haha, forget about it! 
I don’t even know what the exchange rate is remotely CLOSE to! I thought of even finding an American who would switch me a dollar for some Pesos, but I had NO clue what I’d be getting.

So I go to the information desk and tell them my dilemma. Will the bus take Reais or Dollars? Can you give me a terrible exchange rate just so that I can get on a bus and get the Hell out of here? His response: “Hahaha! You’re fucked!” …Thanks buddy. 

So I’m sent to another terminal to check there. No luck. So I walk to Terminal C: nothing. Then, BEYOND Terminal C I see a bank, and it’s got power! Success! However… There is a line longer than rides at Disney land and by the time I wait five minutes, the whole bank is out of money. Is this really happening? 
 Then I think my luck is changing when some guy tells my there’s one exchange place open at the back of Terminal B. When I find it, I ask to change in the 10 American dollars I have and the attendant agrees! I’m ecstatic. I blabber on about how thankful I am, because I’ve been wandering through terminals forever now, when his computer shuts down too and tells me I’ll have to come back later. What! When? “I don’t know, an hour, maybe two, it’s hard to tell”. Jerk! Finally, I find this tiny coffee shop in the back of Terminal C that is using an old school cash register and has a chalkboard sign with the exchange rates of US Dollars, Euros and Reais. The girl behind the counter looks bored, now that the whole airport has essentially shut down, so I go talk to her. She speaks absolutely zero English, so I ask her in my best Spanish if I could buy a bottle of water and pay with American money. She says yes, but the change will have to be in Pesos… YES!!!!! 
I get some change, run out to the bus stop JUST as my number 8 bus arrives. How far is it to the center of town? I asked some guy in the airport earlier, “40 minutes, give or take, depending on traffic”. Not bad. AN HOUR AND FORTY-FIVE MINUTES later all I want to do in life is get off the goddamn bus! The map I grabbed at the airport is all gibberish to me, the streets all look the same, and the bus is so hot and crowded I think I’m about to die. Ironically, however, the first song that plays on my Ipod is Aloe Blacc’s “I Need A Dollar”. I’m so out of it, I find this hilarious and literally laugh out loud on the bus! (Thanks for the song suggestion Adam. Who knew it would be so appropriate!)

Hours awake: 28.5

I met some Japanese girl on the bus who made me feel slightly better about my predicament. She has been traveling for a year and a half now. By herself, she managed to bus from Bangkok to Turkey in an epic 10-month journey. From there, she made her way down through Africa and into Cape Town, South Africa: another 6 months by bus. She then flew to Morocco, made her way by boat to Italy, and hung out in Naples for a little while. Three weeks ago, two men ran up behind her, slashed her backpack off her back with a machete, and stole all her worldly belongings: clothing, toiletries, laptop, diary and photos! 
 As much as I can complain about electricity, things could have been a lot worse.

Hours awake as I’m writing this: 32.

Anyways, I’m surprised I’ve written out so much after such little sleep. I’ve now been awake for 32 hours and haven’t eaten in 12 (I’m on a roll!). So I’m off to find some food 🙂

To conclude: after a fantastic All-You-Can-Eat-Meat BBQ and a bottle of wine with my roommate Connor, I managed to get some shut-eye after an epic 40-hour day. As for the Japanese girl: back at the hostel, her new friends pulled together to donate as much as they could to her; hand-me-down clothes, a sleeping bag, a new backpack, the whole works. She then flew to Buenos Aires and has a further 7 months of traveling to go. Down through Patagonia, and then busing back up through South and Central America to San Francisco (Wow).