May 30, 2004

Montevideo

Leaving Buenos Aires was very hard. Our host Daniel was amazing, taking time off work to show us around the city. Having grown up in this city he was an invaluable resource of information. Although he can only think of moving to southern Patagonia to set up shop in El Calafate, I hope he enjoyed seeing the city from the eyes of a tourist. Such a big city (11 million in the metropolitain region) has so much to offer for the curious minded. I was definately feeling little roots trying to anchor themselves down into Argentine soil. After four months of nomadic living switching to a new sedentary routine for a week was very welcome.

On wednsday the 19th after a very classic late evening dinner we went to the Confeteria Idea at 10:30pm. It is one of the oldest tango halls in Buenos Aires. It is an amazing building with a huge 30x50m room on the ground floor. During the day this room is where you can relax have cofee and eat some pastries called "facturas" which have become part of our regular breakfeast diet.
However in the evening the room is closed and you go up a big stone staircase to the dance hall. It oozes character with big (painted) marble pillars and beautiful wood mouldings on the walls. The paint is chipping off in some parts and all the fans date back to the second world war. You really sense that the room has lived through many turbulant times in Buenos Aires, but still remains a very swank place to dance. People were all very well dressed and dancing beautifully to the music played by a DJ. It was not untill one in the morning that the orchestra came out to play. They all looked as old as room they were playing in. Maybe it was late but to me it seemed that the two had always existed together. There was a young couple who did a few demonstrations but it was the slower less flashy dancing of the regular patrons that enchanted me.

Two days later Ryan and I were enrolled in a Tango class. Our instructors were fantastic and after an hour of line dancing the basic 8 step. They determined that I was ready to start dancing with a woman... I definately did not think so and my palm were sweaty, I was concentrating so hard. But the woman I was dancing with was just learning as well and easily in her sixties. I soon relaxed and started to enjoy the flow of the dance and maybe following the music.
Two days later we returned to another class with Damien and our host Daniel.
This was a completely different experience. The instructors assumed that we had experience because we had been to one class. After a short warm up they tried to teach me to do all the signalling and manipulation needed so that the partner knows exactly what to do. This time my shoulders were cramping up as I was trying to keep the proper position for my arms. The dance along with the music is very enchanting and I am interested to learn more when I return to Canada.

One day when walking around looking at the Buenos Aires architecture, streets, difficult sidewalks and billboards we saw hundreds of "piqueteros" meetin in the middle of the Avendida de Mayo between the Casa Rosada and the Congresso National. We asked what was going on to a protester who was in his fifties and he told us it was about wages for workers and cost of living in Argentina. He then told us they would start marching to the plaza in front of the national congress at three fifteen pm. And amazingly the group of at least 5000 protesters started moving right on time. Damien and I followed them to the plaza in front of the national congress. I found it an amazing place because from each tributary street were other groups of "piqueteros" flooding into the plaza. On all sides the plaza is hemmed in by 6-8 storey buildings. The congress building is very much integrated into the city landscape. Which I found very different to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa which have acres of grass in front.
Instead while sitting on the steps of a monument in the centre of the plaza looking over all the very well organized and peacefull protesters, I felt that protest is part of the regular political dialog in Argentina. There was even several young school children there as a group with their own cordoned off area with minders ensuring their safety in the crowd. Argentina has many financial and social challenges at the moment, currently as far as I could gather the protesters were asking for a raise of $250 pesos per month. Which when you consider that a doctor working for a public hospital often earns only 100 pesos per day which is about 45 dollars is not really that much. However the economic pressures on the government are such that it may be difficult.

Eventually I did take the ferry with Damien and Ryan still with me for another week in Uruguay. We crossed the Rio de la Plata to Colonia de Sacramento. It is a small town where everyone gets around on 2 stroke engine scooters which don't seem to have mufflers. The main industry seems to be tourism from Argentina. There are 8 municipal museums and lots of nice cobblestone streets in the old part of town. It was odd being in a new country knowing that I had become accustomed to Argentine beer, food, mannerisms and their way of speaking spanish. Uruguay although not very different is certainly marks the end of my travelling with Damien and Ryan who will each go their separate ways. Damien to Northern Argentina before flying home and Ryan to Rio de Janero to meet his girlfriend. So I will have to get used to being alone on the road for a few months. I will really miss having them around, it really made the trip a lot easier so far.

In the meantime we are having a very nice time in Montevideo. When in El Chalten by the Lago Desierto we met a very nice Uruguayan couple who spent four hours with us waiting for a boat that never came. We were cordially envited to come by and see them when we cycled through to meet their children who are of our generation. Unfortunately Isabel and Gustavo are away on business in Italy when we planned to stop by, but their children, Maria del Mar, Cecilia, Alphonso and Margerita are hosting us. They are amazingly open and friendly and their hospitality to three crazy canuck cyclists has been fantastic. We are in a beautiful western suburb (Carasco) of Montevideo and to go to the center we have to take the very scenic "Rambla" coast road for 20km which is lined with excellent beaches.


Posted by gwendal at 07:37 AM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2004

Finally Buenos Aires!

On our flight down to Ushuaia we had to switch from the international airport
in Buenos Aires to the regional aerodrome which is very close to the center of the city. I am having some trouble believing that 4 months later I am back in the same city together with Damien and Ryan. I had only met Ryan once before the trip and Damien had only been involved in preparations one month before his departure. It is amazing that we have been able to travel together and become good friends in such close quarters for so long.




Some of the stereotypes that have built a mental image of Buenos Aires for me were: its the Paris of the South, the home of the tango, and the fanatical heart of Argentine soccer. My approach to tourism through the city will definitely be affected by these pre-conceptions. I am already certain that I will contribute a little to your pre-conceptions of the city by talking about these stereotypical subjects. This is a question that has been bothering me lately. So be warned that my writing is jammed with cultural cliche's and stereotypical events. We are lucky enough to have met a "porteņo" (someone who live in B.A.) when we were in El Calafate who invited us to stay with him. Having a contact in such a big city (11 million in metropolitain B.A.) has made our lives so much easier. Sunday we tried to go see the super classic match between the soccer clubs River Plate and Boca Jr. Each has their stadium on one end of the city. Unfortunately it was akin to trying to find tickets for the first game of the Stanley cup final in Calgary or a subway series in New York. So we settled into a very packed bar in the center of the city. The cloud of smoke on the ceiling of the room got lower and lower as it became evident that Boca jr. was not going to be able to score and River Plate was going to win. I really enjoyed the atmosphere but my lungs definitely let me know that they were not too happy with me.

My next entry will be fairly soon. I am really enjoying the rest in Buenos Aires and I hope to let you know about some of the other things you can see and do in the capital.


Posted by gwendal at 11:44 AM | Comments (2)

May 14, 2004

Change of Pace

Since arriving in Bahia Blanca at the south-eastern corner of the Buenos Aires Province we have had a week of cold and much harder weather. The progress has still been good but our legs are more tired and we are arriving into towns late in the day and sometimes in the dark. Three days after leaving Bahia Blanca we arrived in the very small village of Copetonas (which is also the name of a type of bird in the region that has been over hunted). We were greeted by a dozen children at the gate of the town all very curious to see us arrive on very colourful loaded bicycles. It did not take them long to find us one of their parents homes where we could leave our bikes while we waited for the only "hotel" in town to have our rooms ready. In the meantime they took the opportunity to invite us to a game of football before the sun set. In Copetonas the family of farmers whith whom we ate dinner reccomended that we go 30km off our route the next day to cycle on the beach. Although the sand was very fine and could support a car or an unloaded bicycle, our wheels just sank into the sand. It was nice to be on the beach with a strong breeze whipping up the surf. But we had also given ourselves an extra 60km to ride through farm roads to get to the next town. The hospitality in Copetonas was amazing but in the future I will learn to be more weary of advice given at the end of a big meal during which the host has drunk a dozen glasses of wine.




On May fourth we arrived in Miramar which marks the beginning of a massively developed 200km strech of coastline for beach tourism. The center plaza of Miramar is was about 5 blocks from the beautiful beach. Because were were there in the off season nearly all the tall appartment buildings, shops and hotels close to the beach were closed and unoccupied. The center plaza in the winter becomes the edge of town and the life of the town shifts inland to where all the permanent residents can afford to live. The city has no hills and almost
everybody gets around in bicycles. This makes the city feel even more quiet in the offseason as there are so few cars. Like the entire south-eastern coastline of the Buenos Aires province this beach town exists only for summer tourism for all the people who live in Buenos Aires.

We did manage to find one surf board builder who lives 20km from Mar del Plata. He owns a series of rustic bungalows 400m from the beach that he built himself with recycled wood from imported car crates. We were able to spend a nice rest day surfing with the beautiful point break all to ourselves.




"Catching a Wave"

Mar del Plata claims to be the largest beach resort town in the world with 750 thousand permanent residents which easily swells to 1.5 milion in the summer. This was a more vibrant city than Miramar but there are parts when I felt I was walking in a gost town. The grand hotel and casino at the main beach have fallen on hard time and have been closed for a few years. Having such a large abandoned building right on the waterfront reminded me of the difficulties faced by Vancouver with the Woodwards building. We continued along the coast northward to Buenos Aires stringing together as many little beach towns as possible. The greatest advantage of this coastal road was that since it is the off season there was almost no traffic at all. Three days after leaving Mar del Plata the wind settled in behind us from the south-east. We had started early and stopped for lunch at 11am after having done 30km. By the time we stopped for dinner at 3:30 we had done 105km. Soon ideas of beating our longest day of cycling record started to pop up in the conversation. Since the wind was still with us and the road was flat we set off again at 5:00. By the time the sun set at 6:20 we had done 135km. With the wind still strong we continued into the dark. The road had almost no traffic and the moon did not get up over the horizon until 8pm. It was very dark but it was a clear night and the road was very straight. After 8 1/2 hours of riding we arrived in the small town of Pepinas at 9:30pm having cycled 212km. There was only one Petrobras gas station and a small restorant open for a Libertadores football cup match. We ordered a second dinner. Nothing else was open so we spent the night behind the restorant under an awning. The next day we cycled another 110km before arriving in the university town of La Plata only 70km from the capital. The arrival to La Plata was interesting because we were arriving to metropolitain Buenos Aires from a less travelled road that only leads to farmland and beach towns. It was not until we were 5km from the city that the farmland gave way to small suburban homes and commercial development. If we had taken a major road into town there would have been billboard, gas stations, car lots and wearhouses for at least 50km before we were on the edge of the city.

Posted by gwendal at 11:42 AM | Comments (1)