Wednesday, January 20, 2016

South America (Argentina) - Day 44 - 46: Buenos Aires part 1 (Christmas!)

A sleepy taxi to the airport saw us land in Buenos Aires at around midday. We tried to get a bus to the centre, but this is impossible without the travel card known as SUBE. This is basically a charge card which you top up and then use at any of the metro stations or on any of the buses. Given its usefulness and ubiquity, you'd expect the card to be sold everywhere - at least at the airport, right? No. It seems that the SUBE card has been made deliberately awkward to both a) obtain and b) top up. You can only get them from specific kiosks around the city, and you cannot use buses without them. It's so utterly frustrating that you have to wonder if it's some sort of joke the government are playing to mess with tourists' heads.

So instead we had to get a specific airport bus at five times the price in order to get to the centre. From there, we marched around the city trying to find a subway to get to our hostel - fortunately the metro lines accept cash too - and eventually we ended up at Sabatico Travellers Hostel. This is probably the biggest hostel we've stayed at, in terms of space if not people. The place has a massive courtyard over two storeys lined with rooms, showers and dorms, a fantastic rooftop with a BBQ area and seating as well as a "jacuzzi" (read: small bath that gets filled with water), and a big social area.

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Marit and Peter had already arrived before us, so once we all got settled in we popped out to the supermarket for a few bits, dropped off some laundry and then went out to find some food. I'd spotted a place on our trusty Tripadvisor app which looked pretty fancy, so since we were gringos we decided to visit wearing Christmas hats. Credit to the staff at Inaki: they didn't bat an eyelid when four people wearing shorts, flip-flops, sandals and Santa hats marched in to get some rather tasty fish. Unlike the locals in their shirts and trousers who gawked at us for clearly bringing down the tone of the restaurant.

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We were up early the next morning to visit the cemetery in BA. Far from being a morbid place to visit, it's actually an attraction in itself with hugely elaborate mausoleums and memorials lining the streets for several blocks. It's so big that the streets have their own names. Unfortunately, since it was Christmas Eve the regular tours that go around the cemetery weren't running so we had to make do with a pretty basic map and find our own way around. The sky was a deep azure which helped bring out some of the carvings really well. We must have spent a good couple of hours hopping around, taking in the resting places of presidents and celebrities. Eva Peron's grave was a modest affair, typical of her upbringing and relationship with the people. Personally, I wouldn't want the level of ostentation on show for most of these graves. Flame-cook me and stick me in a small box please.

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Once we left the cemetery, we were in need of food. Because Argentinians celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, we decided to join the party that was being held at the hostel that evening which included another assado and wine. Since we weren't sure how good the food was going to be, Gilly and I decided to treat ourselves to a decent lunch beforehand. We stumbled across La Pecora Nera, which happened to be one of the best-rated restaurants in the city and who were offering a three-course lunch with wine for just over £12 each. We snapped their hand off, along with their salad, baked cheese, ravioli, risotto, and chocolate ice cream mousse. Afterwards, since it was Christmas Eve, I followed the time-honoured tradition of getting a haircut, just like Santa did in that story about the baby and the bloke in the sky.

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In the evening, we got the party started early with some Quilmes, followed by wine, wine, then some more wine, then some average over-cooked BBQ food, some wine, some weird egg things which would have gotten in the way of the wine and were therefore left untouched, then finished off with some wine and a choc ice before the fireworks started at midnight whilst we celebrated with a glass of wine.

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There were a good thirty people on the terrace from all over the world, so we swapped travel tips with Andrew and Amy from New Zealand over some more drinks (wine) and then some people decided they were going to go to a club. This sounded like a great idea to me (Gilly sensibly preferred sleep), but there seemed to be dissent amongst the locals as to which place to go to. I decided to stay behind with the hostel staff and some other stragglers whilst a few travellers got a taxi to track down a club. An hour later they were back looking pretty pissed off as the club they wanted to go to was closed, and they couldn't find the alternative one they wanted to get to. Whilst they trundled off to bed, I stayed up with the rest of them to dance around the hostel until a bleary-eyed Gilly came out to inform me that it was almost 5:30am. I pretty much crashed immediately.

In Buenos Aires, wandering the streets on Christmas Day is akin to waking up during the aftermath of an apocalypse. The streets are deserted, with only bits of garbage blowing about. Shops remain closed from Christmas Eve until late on Christmas Day - if they open at all - and restaurants are pretty much a no-go zone throughout the day. There is pretty much zero public transport. Fortunately this wasn't really an issue since we didn't really get up until almost noon, because someone had stayed up late partying. We decided to walk down to Puerto Madero, the most affluent neighbourhood in the city next to the waterfront, and see what was happening. Answer: nothing. Still, it was refreshing to stroll around without having to share the streets with throngs of locals and tourists. We stopped into a kiosk to get a couple of ice creams as the sun was blazing, and almost fainted when they tried to charge us £7. I thought I'd misheard the store owner since nothing had prices labelled, but no - he genuinely wanted us to pay five times the normal price. Christmas day tax, or something. We politely declined and left, whilst he muttered Spanish at us which I'm pretty sure wasn't complimentary, even to my untrained ear. On the plus side, we saw a big boat.

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We'd decided to do something a little different for Christmas, and booked ourselves onto a tango evening. There are dozens of these in BA, most of them aimed firmly at tourists and the majority include a tango lesson followed by dinner and a show. Complejo Tango was no different, and at £30 a head it isn't the cheapest in town, but it is one of the best. For that price, you get a main and one drink as well as the lesson and show. The majority of the hostel rocked up in a minibus and were immediately confronted by a doorman who wanted to remove our bottle of water from us. I think he suspected that it was alcoholic - I tried reasoning with him that I needed it for my ear medication, but to no avail. Until I took a massive swig from the bottle and Gilly did the same and he realised that we weren't actually packing vodka. Then it was all hunky-dory. The next fun part was the tango lesson. I think the company had overbooked and didn't realise until too late so they were trying to funnel a lot of us into the restaurant; we thought that this meant there would be a split lesson, but no, there was only one, and we were either in it or not. So we all marched up into a fairly small room filled with around fifty people and waited to learn how to dance. From then on it was a great night. Our instructor whose name was Alejandro (emphasis on the jandro), sashayed around the room with uber-flamboyance and showed us how to take 6 easy steps which weren't easy at all. It turns out that tango is pretty difficult, but as long as you can move with meaning and then look intense/slightly threatening right at the end, you can make a decent go of it. It was a hilarious half hour, and we even got certificates to prove that we really did make fools out of ourselves.

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From there, we went to the restaurant and awaited our main course...except that us, Peter, Marit and a Dutch couple (JJ and Suzannae) had asked to all be seated together which caused havoc with their table layout. A clearly flustered overseer moved us all to one table then a waitress presented us with an รก la carte menu. This wasn't supposed to happen, but we ordered three courses anyway to see if we could wing it. Then someone came over and asked what kind of wine we wanted - some asked for red, some white. Instead of a glass each, we got a bottle. This was turning into my kind of Christmas. We'd polished off a bottle before the starter arrived, and the waitress came back with two more. Amazing. The food was pretty good, and the show started not long after we finished our main course - it was all in Spanish so a lot of the background was lost, but the dancing was incredible, and made even better by the unending stream of bottles arriving at our table.

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I think most of us would struggle to recall much of the remainder of the night. I do remember being given a full bottle of red mere seconds before we were due to leave and, deciding that it would make a good bus wine, stashed it in my shorts' pocket. That I made it to the bus without spilling a drop on my clothing is testament to my oenophilia, but as the bottle made its way around the group a Danish guy came on board and shouted "Oh my god, how did you get that wine out?!", immediately prompting the bus driver to come and confiscate it to a chorus of boos. To his credit, when we arrived at the hostel he handed it back which we totally weren't expecting. Combined with a few bottles from the rest of the group, we spent the rest of the evening dangling our legs precariously over the edge of the hostel terrace (a good 30-40 feet down to the pavement), before I thought it would be an ideal time to break out a litre bottle of whisky I'd purchased a couple of days prior. That soon went, as did most of the group until only the hardcore remained.

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As far as Christmases go, it was unique, memorable, and a hell of a lot of fun. I don't think many people can say they spent Christmas day doing the tango, but regardless of the activity it was great to spend time with friends drinking wine. Lots and lots of wine.

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