Southern Exposure 21: Back to Buenos Aires

The biggest disadvantage of any large group tour–and especially  cruises–is that you never spend very much time in one place, you are usually herded along with a group of other clueless tourists like yourself, and you do not get much of a chance to explore on your own. To state the obvious: Spending only one day in Buenos Aires was absurdly inadequate. So we backtracked there via airplane to give us three more days, this time staying at an Airbnb.

I confess that I was a bit skittish about Airbnbs after our Baltic trip. The first apartment (in Lithuania) was a windowless dungeon with dangerous rickety stairs. The second had the key location (for the guest to pick up the door key) placed above the doorsill, which made the door key beyond reach for anyone under seven feet tall. When we complained to the owner and found another alternative, she basically chewed us out; and we then had to fight to get a partial refund. Embry had also booked an Airbnb in Rio, but when I told that to someone who had recently visited there, I was warned that the chances of getting robbed if we happened to be in the wrong neighborhood were close to one hundred percent. That is when I told Embry I was drawing the line and booked a hotel as an alternative. (Now I confess that I overreacted. We probably would have been fine.)

Well, in Buenos Aires the Airbnb was great. It was located in Recoleta, a New York, Upper East Side-type neighborhood, within walking distance of parks, museums and the waterfront. The lobby of the apartment building was a bid drab and sparse with a worn carpet and no art or pictures on the dark paneled walls, but the location could not have been better. While the apartment was quite small, it was fine for us.

 Even though it was  after nine pm when we arrived, the owner—a bearded young man probably in his mid-thirties– met us and took us up on the tiny elevator to his Airbnb  apartment on the eighth floor, provided us a  map, and made suggestions as to what to see. Following the orientation Embry and I walked to the next block to have dinner at one of the many bustling restaurants. Even though it was already after ten, people were just starting to gather for dinner; and when we left after 11:30, people were still arriving for dinner. (Naturally we ordered Argentine steaks, which were delicious, but not all that different from steaks you get in the U.S. at good steak houses as far as I could tell.)

In a word, Buenos Aires is fabulous! If I had not known where I was, I would have sworn I was in Paris. We spent the entire first day walking the Recoleta neighborhood and environs, strolling through numerous parks with  the purple blossoming jacaranda  tress, and along wide boulevards with fancy high rise apartments. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the low seventies, blue skies and low humidity.  We visited a huge arts and crafts show and spent an hour in the Malda museum, the new modern art museum featuring Latin American artists. We also visited the famous cemetery with the elaborate mausoleums and finally the popular Japanese Gardens. My trusted fitness app showed us logging almost seven miles before we stumbled into the apartment after five, exhausted, followed by another late dinner.

The second day was much the same but at a slower pace. For lunch Andrew had connected us with Ana, an old friend from his days in Russia, who is now a well-known, performing classical pianist and who also runs a music school in Buenos Aires. We spent over two hours with her over brunch learning more about the country from an insider’s perspective. I would argue that two hours with Ana was worth two days with a typical tour guide in trying to  understand what was going on in the country, maybe more.

The big issue right now is the economy. Argentina got in trouble financially in the early 2000s, primarily by spending beyond its means resulting in high profile defaults and devaluation of the currency. They were able to claw their way back to financial health, however, and for the next 15 years enjoyed relative prosperity with low unemployment and a fairly stable currency. The last two years, however, have been a kind of déjà vu-all-over-again. The culprit appears to be the same old/same old—running up big national debts due to massive deficits. This has resulted in staggering inflation, which dropped the value of the Argentine peso by over 50% last year with values continuing to fall precipitously.  Not that long ago the peso traded at the same value as the dollar. At the time of our lunch with Ana it was 73 pesos to the dollar. If you are able convert pesos to dollars, you are doing it. This has resulted in a major run on the dollar. This past week basically the country ran out of dollars requiring the shipment of over $8 billion in cash to Argentina to keep the government and the banks afloat. The reason there are no dollars left in the banks according to an article we read in the Wall Street Journal is that people are so fearful of banks failing that the dollars they are pulling out are ending up under their mattresses. As a practical matter, I was not able to find an ATM or a bank that had any dollars available for my own use. I am not sure I understand the whole picture or exactly what is happening, but what I can understand is that the country already appears to be in crisis with catastrophe lurking just beneath the surface.

What makes the situation more fragile is problem of increasing income disparities, the same rich/poor divide that is affecting most of Latin America and the world. During good times, much was done in Argentina to address the concerns of the poor and working class by providing better access to social services, education and health care. All education including college and graduate school is now free in Argentina. So is virtually all of health care. Government employment practices were softened to provide more job opportunities and job security to poor people. These have been popular and enjoy strong support, especially from labor unions, which are much stronger in Argentina than in the U.S.

The problem is that to combat the financial crisis if the government imposes austerity measures or cuts back on the generous benefits, Ana and many others believe there might be a revolt. Everyone we talked to recalls the dark ages of the 1970s and early 1980s when the military junta was in charge, and they fear a military or even a radical populist takeover could happen again. Everyone also remembers even more vividly the meltdown of the early 2000s, and no one wants to go through anything like that again either. Both outcomes are possible if not probable.

Yet by observing the activity on the streets– the full restaurants, the many families gathered in the parks over the weekend, the relaxed mood on the  street– and which seemed upbeat to me– you would not guess that that there was anything wrong. What would impress you the most is just how beautiful and refined this city is, at least a lot of it. The favela neighborhoods (called “villas” in Argentina) also exist here just as they do in Rio, just not as prominent.

The evening of the second day was probably the highlight of the stay in Buenos Aires for me. We had dinner and watched a show at one of the most famous Tango establishments in Buenos Aires. It came recommended by an Argentine Tango dancer, who is also the friend of our friend and Tango musician herself, Joan Singer. The restaurant was decorated like a palace, no understated elegance here. The food and service were terrific and the dancing extraordinary. I counted some sixteen different performers, all fabulous—six tango dancers, six in the orchestra, and three singers.  I would put the experience at the top of my all-time list of dinner/show experiences though admittedly I am not a dinner/show person. Bottom line: if you ever get to Buenos Aires, you have got to see a Tango show.

The other thing you have got to do if you have the time is get out into the country to gaucho land, Argentina’s brand of cowboys and the wild West. On our third day we took our tour of gaucho country along with seven other tourists leaving around nine in the morning and returning at six and led by a very capable and enthusiastic guide. That excursion took us through the rolling hills and pastures, through one of the small ranching towns and to a large ranch where we ate great Argentine beef, fresh off the grill, and folk danced with the gaucho singers and dancers. Well, Embry danced. I took photos. 

When we returned at six, we retrieved our bags, flagged a cab to the airport and boarded a United Flight to Houston at ten in the evening. We then took  a  flight to Dulles and returned to home sweet home on Tuesday, November 26. Our South American adventure had officially come to an end.

One more post tomorrow before putting this adventure to bed—some final thoughts about this magical continent and why everyone who can should visit South America.

And if you are reading this this means you are following (at least to a degree) the adventure. Thanks! To know there are folks out there who are actually reading some or even all of this means a lot.

7 thoughts on “Southern Exposure 21: Back to Buenos Aires

  1. Your descriptions are spot on – it is a magical
    continent. (Magical realism starts to make sense only after experiencing S America first hand).

    Thrilled you enjoyed La Ventana. The dancers and the musicians are indeed breathtaking. We shall talk more about the trip. Soon…

    If you need another jolt of tango we have a benefit concert dec 9 at the Falls Church — see our website. For immigrant families as part of our Mexico Tour outreach.

    Welcome home!

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