Monday, July 27, 2009

Buenos Aires and the Journey Home - Chapter 3

Hola, Gumboot readers! Well, Michellé y Juan have returned home to Downtown Canada (Editor`s note: on Sunday night, we flew over mountains and ocean and rivers and green space into Vancouver...and then we were lucky enough to meander up and down The Drive during the tail-end of Summer Days - people, we are so, so fortunate to live where we do...tourists must orgasm when they arrive in this part of the world!).

But enough about Vancouver and beautiful British Columbia. Let`s get back to Downtown South America! So, the last time we checked in with Juan y Michellé, we had thrived in the Andes, learned about olive oil, defended against nuclear zombies at the Difunta Correa, and survived precarious paragliding. The next challenge for this delightful power couple: smog, traffic, rain, and a hospital in Buenos Aires!

So, Buenos Aires is a city of 13 million people (give or take a dozen). Some of the city's highlights include the world's largest street, 9 de Julio, and Christianity's answer to Disneyland, the Parque Tierra Santa. According to the country's maps, Argentina, not Britain, owns the Malvinas, not Falklands (shhh, don't tell the United Kingdom!). Argentinians, as described by the "rest of South America" and "Lonely Planet" are "Italians who speak Spanish, want to be French and behave like the English." One travel writer also used the term "a-hole" to depict these "Europeans of the Third World." In the experience of Juan y Michellé, the Canadian travelers were discriminated against more by French Canadians named Martin than by Argentinians; everyone was pretty darn nice, in spite of the hazy busyness of the city. In the end, Buenos Aires grew on us.

First highlight, Caminito: ladies and gentlemen, welcome to La Boca, a neighbourhood built on Italian immigrants (not literally), tango and Maradona's football club, Boca Juniors, where the now coach of Argentina's National Men's Club played his career. Caminito was/is a tourist mecca. Throughout our travels, Juan typically looked out of place with his Panasonic Lumix draped around his neck; however, amongst the restaurants, souvenir shops, cheesy tango dancers, and colourful buildings of Caminito he was right at home. Besides, dozens of Argentinian tourists had, ahem, much longer lenses than he did. Fun fact about tango: contrary to popular belief, tango is actually not at all about dancing; originally, the art form was created as a comment on class-romance-relations, where a man would sing to a woman about, well, forbidden-esque love. For questions about tango, please email Martin Renauld at renauld14(at) Probably the most hilarious part of the Caminito trip was the Maradona impersonator. For a modest price of, we think, 10 pesos, you - yes, you - can have your photo taken with a guy who looks like Maradona. Again. He's not Maradona, but he kinda sorta maybe looks like him. Needless to say, we don't have a photo of this gent. But we do have a great idea. A "business venture" if you will. Would you rather pay 10 pesos for a picture with a fake Maradona, or 8 pesos for a picture of the real Martin Renauld. We know the answer...

Second highlight, San Telmo Market: as Summer Days in Vancouver sputter towards cancellation (such is the word on the street about carless streets), the San Telmo Market, which is exactly where the thoughtful, visionary, humble, street-savvy, and amazing Andrea Reimer will be taking Vancouver in the years ahead, will be the vibrant, colourful and, yes, carless Sunday street market that it has been for decades. Hey, man, Buenos Aires defines itself as a "European City," so it's understandable that such street culture survives and thrives amidst the rise of the automobile in the Southern hemisphere. Argentinians see cars as a status symbol, sure, but having a street or two closed in a neighbourhood will never deter people (most of whom still walk everywhere, which is why the wine and meat can't make 'em all fat!) from visiting the neighbourhood. From the locally made crafts (most of Argentina's consumer products are also local) to the amazing street performers (see video and prepare to dance!) the market was a delightful romp that was so extensive that it took up all of Sunday afternoon and most of the evening.

Third "highlight," public health care in Argentina: nothing says "adventure" like heading to one of Buenos Aires's hospitals during a swine flu epidemic that has inspired a "state of emergency" from the city's mayor, Mauricio Marci. While free health care for all is certainly admirable, in a city of 13 million with a 51% poverty rate, it obviously comes with a fair share of challenges. One such challenge is limited resources coupled with high demand: there's nothing quite like waiting 2 hours in a crowded waiting room only to share a 6x8 ft doctor's office with three other individuals, each suffering from a different ailment. Despite the 'health care for all' mantra, a tiered system was still fairly obvious: one of the first questions Michellé was asked was why she had come to the public hospital and not the nearby private hospital. With symptoms that some sources (mostly questionable organizations like the WHO) say represent the swine flu (5 out of 6 symptoms isn't that bad, right?) Michellé was lucky to have made it out alive two x-rays, one ventilator, numerous threats of quarantine, and 5 hours later.

Fourth highlight, artful museums, cemetaries and freezing rain:
for two days in Buenos Aires it rained like it was November in the Pacific Northwest. And we took the bus. First, buses in Argentina are superfun, because they only stop for, like, 30 seconds to let people on. And, when you get off, sometimes you just have time to jump off the back as the bus slows down. Needless to say, a fun time. What is not fun is putting 2.50 pesos in change (biggest coin in Juan's hand was 25 cents) into a rickety old machine that eats a lot of them (bus companies may or may not be a leading cause of Argentina's coin shortage). And what is hilarious is when a five-person line up forms behind Juan as the bus careens around Buenos Aires streets and he tries - with little success - to pay for the tickets from 10 blocks ago. And what is amazing and community-inspirational is when the five-person line-up cheers Juan on and gives him high-fives when the tickets finally spit out of the machine. And then the unraveling travelers got off the bus at the next stop... So, we nerded out in a couple of musems, including the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (picture), and then braved the chilly weather in one of Buesnos Aires's coolest, and creepiest, attractions: the La Recoleta Cemetery. Some of the famous burials include Eva Peron, Domingo Sarmiento and Isabel Walewski Colonna (grandchild of Napoleon Boneparte). After walking for 20 minutes in the wrong direction, Juan y Michelle arrived a little later than expected at the cemetery, which inspired them to split up - each with a camera - and document the amazing history of the site. Soon, we were approached by security guards who were understandably cold and ready to shut things down. And so began a giant game of hide-and-seek. Basically, there were two strategies: first, Michellé pretended to not understand what anyone was saying (which she took to quite naturally); second, Juan just ran, man. The game was highlighted by pointing, shrugging and yelling of infinitives and nouns: "Amigo?! Amigo?!" That's right, Recoleta Cemetary Security, Juan leaves on his own accord...and because hypothermia was setting in. Oh, and, needless to say, given how the journey began, we took a taxi back to Ximen and Martana's place...

Fifth highlight, Tigre on the Delta:
one can only imagine how excited Michellé was to travel into the river delta of Buenos Aires on a train and a boat! While the train was, well, a jam-packed, uncomfortable commuter train that makes the B-Line look spacious, the boat-ride was enjoyable and adventurous (see "transportation culture" community-takeaway below), mostly because the boat doesn't really "stop" for you to get off; the Captain (we're nautical now, people) sorta backs up, the First Mate loosely wraps a rope around the "dock" and then you hop off as the boat pulls away. Making the day even more enjoyable was the delicious lunch we had on one of the islands. Perhaps it was our nautical savvy, or our delightful Canadian air, but somehow we even managed to score free drinks at the end of the meal. We later learned that such drinks are given to customers when they (a) spend a larger-than-normal amount on a meal or (b) are well liked by their patrons. Given that Juan's meal consisted of "Provaletta El Hornero" - fried cheese - it was probably mostly column b that earned us the drinks. Top score for efficiency. Top score for deliciousness and customer service. Top score for adventure. Low score for safety. Still, well played, Argentina.

Our big night out with Ximen and Marta
na: finally, we experienced an authentic tango show. Ximena, breaking with Argentinian culture and social norms, called out to the singers with requests for songs. People turned and sent curious looks her way, but the performer totally got it: "this is normal in Uruguay," she explained to the audience. You're darn right it is! After several bottles of delicious malbec and the best steak Juan has ever had, Martin and Juan bid goodnight to the ladies and ventured out into the chilly San Telmo, well, morning. [INSERT YOUR GUESS ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED BETWEEN 3AM AND 6:30AM HERE]. And then we meandered home to get a restful few hours of sleep before striking out into the city in search of delightful goods to smuggle into Canada. (Editor's note: look, Canada Border Services, we might've brought a green herb back into the country, but, relax, it's only maté.) In any case, Monsieur Renauld, you got it like you did in our Bishop`s University days, good sir.

And then we came home. As it turns out, South America is far from the West Coast. But after 36 hours of traveling, which included extended stopovers in Santiago and LA, we made it home. Terrifying fact about LAX: you can buy iPods and digital cameras in vending machines. On the way home, there was really only one glitch. We had an unannounced two hour stopover in Lima, Peru. It was almost that medium-sized, um, thing that makes travelers lose it, break down and get a little nuts. Luckily, we channeled our craziness through humour. And, so, here is an excerpt of our "things we hate about Lima" list:

1. The "L" has something to hide.
2. Alpaccas, unlike sharks and bears, are naturally violent, aggressive and angry creatures.
3. In Lima, terrorists outnumber teachers 11:1.
4. Machu Pichu was actually built in 1987.
5. We had to go there.

Luckily, Limans (number six on the list) have a good sense of humour.

As you, the readers, know, The Weekly Gumboot is both about community and the actionable steps/tips/ideas that can be implemented to build said community(ies). So, in no particular order, here are the five things Juan y Michellé would like to share about the Argentinian/Urugyuan community that, well, we North Americans can certainly learn from:

1. Maté - the green herb of which we spoke. This warm drink is all about community. It is commonly shared between family and friends over stories and laughs. Here are some rules about mate: only the server can touch the straw or "re-arrange" the maté; drinkers must drink until a slurping sound is made; once you finish your turn you must return it directly to the server. If anyone wants to stop by commercial drive for a little maté-party, like we said, we smuggled some back.
2.Transportation Culture - imagine how much fun it would be to take the 99 B-Line if, say, it only slowed down at Commercial and Broadway. And, hey, imagine if the bus from Vancouver to Calgary served champagne, unlimited wine and the biggest glass of whiskey you've ever seen. Not only that, imagine if, for a few dollars extra, you could lie down and sleep in a full sized bed the whole way. People in Canada don't take the bus over long distances because, well, they're shabby. But recent findings show that, because of things like oil disappearing, traveling by plane as we do will most certainly change. Don't worry. There's a large reserve of whiskey and 1980s music videos in supply.
3. Eating - like maté-drinking, meals are typically a time when families and friends share moments and community is built. So, what better way to widen and deepen the community net than, well, adding another meal to the day? In Argentina, like in many South American countries, dinner is eaten much later in the evening - as late as 11pm - with a smaller meal eaten at about 6pm. While indulging in a small-child sized steak and a bottle of wine close to midnight takes some getting used to, the opportunities for community this tradition brings with it does not.
4. Coins (even if they are part of a black market racket) - if one stereotype can be said to be true about Argentinians - from the perspective of two humble Canadians - it's that they're laid-back. Symbolic of this laid-back lifestyle is the Argentinian attitude towards coins. With a low-supply-high-demand situation on their hands, the laissez faire Argentine solution is not to fight over limited resources (which cannot, sadly, be said about much of the world's population), but to instead not worry about the details and round up or round down to the nearest peso.
5. Martana y Ximen - it is Canada's loss that one of its greatest revolutionaries left Quebec in search of a "real" revolution in Argentina (without Che the place is pretty calm, though, Martin). And Ximena, well, she's just hilarious and makes up for any lack of English-speaking with dramatic flare. When asked what her favourite part of Juan y Michellé's visit was she said, "when you left and went to Cordoba." The delivery was deadpan, too. In all seriousness, our hosts defined friendship and community, constantly putting themselves out to welcome us in. If Martin's PhD dissertation doesn't get finished on time, we are partly to blame. But, then again, it is South America. Being on time is just a little bit different in that neck of the woods. So, Martana y Ximen, muchas gracias!

So there it is. The end of the unraveling travels of Juan y Michelle. Keep your eyes open for The Unraveling Traveler, our new adventure guide for community minded travelers (appendix on shade-finding included for free). We hope you've had as much fun reading as we have writing. So you know, we did our writing in installments... Our final tip: if and when all else fails, just say 'si'...


- Juan y Michellé


godfrey said...

Best. Travel Post. Ever. My favourite part is the running from cemetary security guards. Your insights into Argentinian culture in general are also much appreciated.

Kurt Heinrich said...

great post John and Michelle. I liked the hospital part particularly.

Michelle Burtnyk said...

Thanks! And the invite is still open to anyone who would like to attend a mate-drinking party - of course, you may be subjected to watching a 1200+ photo slideshow ...

John Horn said...

I think we trimmed it down to 1052. Thanks for the post, Kurt. I'll buy the domain name now, good sir.

Anonymous said...

After reflexion, I have abandonned all my current activities to offer some competition to the Diego Maradonna look-alike guy, I made 50 pesos pretending to be me...
Furthermore, I testify that everything in the post is indeed true, except the part about Lima, I've never seen it, so it does not exist.

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