What I Learned in Argentina, Chapter Buenos Aires

Call me silly if you will, but I’ve always had a burning desire to visit every continent before  I expire. Until recently I had managed North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. That left South America and Antarctica on my “To Do List”. Well, my lovely wife and I have been married for 25 years now, as of December 24, 2011. In  celebration of that achievement Babs decided to surprise me with a trip to Argentina. She considered two important facts when planning this. A) It’s in South America. B) It has wine country, complete with wine tours, always an enjoyable pastime on any trip. Argentina it was.

The initial idea was to plan this trip entirely in secret and surprise me with it on Christmas Day. She was successful with this plan until a week or so before Christmas. Then she left a packet of information she’d been perusing out on the dining room table and forgot it. I found the envelope. I opened it. I remember saying, ” What’s this Argentina stuff?” Babs was devastated. I found it prematurely. Didn’t matter to me. I was ecstatic. It’s summer in South America and I was going.

Fast forward to December 28. We boarded a plane headed for Buenos Aires, a long haul from North America, almost 11 hours. Then you add 3 hours to regular Chicago time and the overnight flight was seeming longer. We arrived tired, but excited to be there. Exchanged some U.S. dollars for some Argentine Pesos at a rate of $1 U.S. to $4.28 Argentine. An English speaking driver met us and took us to our hotel, and English speaking drivers and guides continued to usher us about the country every stop of the way. Easy traveling, if a bit bourgeois. An old Joe Jackson song got stuck in my head, “Don’t go messin’ with the jet set. Get out of my way……Can you say it in English…..”

Arrived at a lovely little boutique hotel in a nice little upscale neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Wasn’t 3 PM yet and the room wasn’t ready yet, so they held our luggage and pointed us to the bar where they proceeded to pour us complimentary champagne, congratulating us on our 25th wedding anniversary. Went to dinner that night and had the obligatory Argentine steak dinner. It was prefaced by, you guessed it, complimentary champagne. Went to a very nice dinner of pasta with scads of seafood in it on New Years Eve. Babs was feeling a bit under the weather so they pampered us with, you guessed it, complimentary champagne. Late in the trip we were riding in first class on the high speed ferry across the Rio de la Plata (a hydrofoil) and the first thing they did was, once again, give us champagne. Argentines really like showing their hospitality with a little Argentine bubbly and I didn’t complain once.

Had a lovely tour of Buenos Aires and learned some Argentine history. Saw Eva Peron’s tomb. The real highlight of the Buenos Aires leg, however, was the tango lesson and the tango show at dinner later. Our driver picked us up at the hotel and dropped us off at a tango studio for a lesson. Went to Argentina and didn’t tango once? I think not. Got to tango. We were taught by an aging tango dancer and her young partner. Apparently this lady was once quite the celebrated tango dancer, touring the world. She gave us, you guessed it again, champagne. Then she proudly displayed her wall of photos of famous people she has tutored in the tango. This included Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Duvall, among others. Babs and Rex didn’t make it onto the wall of fame, but it was a lovely experience nevertheless.

Then it was on to the dinner and tango show. I have been to a lot of different corners of the globe, and I have seen a lot of different dancing and music shows that purport to show tourists a little of the local culture. This was by far the most professional, best performed example of local culture for tourists I have ever witnessed. The live orchestra, complete with two, not one squeeze box player, piano, and strings was perfect, never missing a note. A celebrated and talented group of trained professional dancers put every possible spin on the tango you could imagine, complete with wardrobe changes, theatricality, and smoke machines. The dinner was forgettable, but pleasant. There was no champagne, but the prix fixe meal included an endless glass of Malbec. Then that English speaking driver met us outside and drove us home past an obvious hooker accosting a car on the street. When I noted the hooker, the driver pointedly told me, “It’s a man.” Transvestite hookers in Buenos Aires? Look like women, but can they tango as a woman?

A lot of Buenos Aires was a blur of neighborhoods and tours. Did you know that the British introduced soccer to Argentina, so the locals named the two biggest pro soccer teams with English names? True dat. The Boca Juniors and the River Plate. Go figure. Everyone still revers Diego Maradona. He’s right up there with San Martin (the dude who freed Argentina from the Spanish) and Eva Peron.

All in all Buenos Aires is a lovely city. I learned a couple of very important things there. As an American I have always thought of Latin American people as being brown, a mixture of European and indigenous as in Mexico, or coffee colored as in the ready mix of European and African in Brazil. I got to Argentina and I had never seen so many white people in my life, albeit white people who speak Spanish. There are Argentines with Spanish ancestry. There are huge numbers of Argentines with Italian ancestry. There are a smattering of German, Swiss, and French descendants who call Argentina home. What you don’t see? People of African heritage or Native Americans. Practically non-existent. I live in Chicago. I work in a public school on the South Side. My reaction? Where did all these white people come from? I guess there wasn’t a serious history of slavery in Argentina, so thus no Africans as in Brazil. As for the indigenous people, well one tour guide told us that there was an effort on the part of the Argentine government in the early 1900’s to do away with all the Indians. Never learned that in World History. Guess I need to do a little more research.

The other important thing I learned in Buenos Aires. People eat dinner really late. I was told on several occasions, “We never eat dinner until after the sun goes down. That means about 10 PM. One driver explained that Argentines eat a really large breakfast, a lunch in mid-afternoon, have tea or cocktails with snacks in late afternoon, and then have dinner late. Furthermore, it soon became apparent that any meal in Argentina that is worth its salt lasts two hours minimum. That means dinner usually lasts until midnight. Definitely not the “Early Bird Special”. For the record, I gained five pounds while in Argentina and I’m still trying to work it off. I’m befuddled how there are so many skinny, lovely people in that country after examining and partaking in their eating habits. (And it’s nigh on to impossible to be a vegetarian in Argentina, although I met one, quite possibly the only one.)

I must be signing off for now. I anticipate returning with Chapter Two of this tome, Mendoza, wine tours, the folly of mountain biking in the Andes. For now, Buenos Noches.

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