Part 1: TOWN
Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires, Argentina
I’m sitting in a chair, staring out the window of a café along one of the chic streets of Palermo. I’m drinking a double espresso and writing in my journal and listening to the American alternative music that the hipster baristas are playing from their laptop. It’s the beginning of winter in Buenos Aires and the streets are lined with huge, yellow- and orange-leafed trees that are slowly shedding. Their foliage paves the sidewalks, trodden on by well-dressed Porteños on their way to work or joggers getting in a workout in the crisp winter air or the occasional dog-walker, leading packs of pure-breds just as well-dressed as their owners in their cozy sweaters to keep them warm. This is a completely different world than the one Donovan, Nicki, and I have been living in for the last nine months and it’s been kind of a culture shock.
Little known fact about the Peace Corps: We get vacation days. Two for every month of service, yet we are not allowed to begin using them until we have spent at least three months in our respective sites. At the three month mark, I contracted a bad case of wanderlust and turned to my good friend and G-mate Nicki and casually asked if she wanted to go to Buenos Aires. Three months later, she, Donovan, and I were getting on a bus in Encarnación to hop across into Argentina and make our way to the city of Good Airs. However, nothing in my life here in Paraguay has ever been easy, so the process of getting across the border involved the bus driver forgetting that there were Americans aboard who needed to get stamped out of Paraguay, zooming past customs, stopping later, realizing his mistake, forcing us to get off and walk back into Paraguay to say “hey, we’re leaving. Chau.” After this fiasco, the fun continued when the next bus that was going to cross the bridge was packed and barely had any room for us, but we were given no choice but to hop on through the back door as it was pulling away, me barely making it and hanging out the door with my huge backpack while an Argentinian woman kept screaming and screaming about how we were CRAZY LOCOS and how everybody was going to fall out the door and die. She continued to repeat this last statement over and over again, even when the bus got onto the bridge between the two countries and had to stop because of traffic congestion. It wasn’t moving, but we could fall out the door and die. We decided to leave her hanging and just hopped off the bus to walk across the bridge into Argentina, which was ultimately faster in the end. To continue our tale of complete chaos, when we finally arrived at the bus terminal in Posadas, Argentina and purchased our tickets, we realized that we had forgotten about the hour time difference between Paraguay and Argentina and that our bus actually left in 15 minutes, not an hour and fifteen minutes. Whoops.
But we made it! And it was glorious! And freezing! Buenos Aires is a gorgeous city that I highly recommend that everyone visit. It has a huge European influence, noted in the architecture, and has done very well to modernize and keep up with the Western world, but still retains the culture of Argentina and the city, apparent in the tango and the delicious steak and wine and the amazing espresso and the partaking of mate out of the traditional Argentine gourd and the leather and art and music.
We spent the first few nights of our trip in a hostel in San Telmo, a grittier, yet eclectic neighborhood in the south that boasts a huge craft/antique/art market every Sunday. And it’s huge. The center of the market is in a small plaza surrounded by coffee shops, but the market extends down San Telmo’s cobblestone streets for at least fifteen blocks. It’s filled with leather goods, artwork, antique stalls, mate gourds, silver-work, tango-dancing pairs, and indie bands playing on sidewalks, mainly attracting tourists, but still fun, nonetheless. We wandered for a couple hours while Donovan and Nicki grew tired of my indecisiveness over whether or not I wanted to buy a painting from a street vendor (I ultimately decided not to- I figured the canvas would mold in my house here). We spent three days in the neighborhood, walking along streets lined with big European-style townhouses, mainly continuing our search for delicious food. It’s everywhere. We ate steak and wine, of course, but also went to craft breweries, little hole-in-the-wall bars, old, traditional cafes, and, my personal favorite, a British pub, where we, American volunteers in Paraguay, ate a great Indian curry. In Buenos Aires. And that, kids, is called globalization.
After bopping around San Telmo for three days, we moved to a hostel in the northern neighborhood of Palermo, which is more chic and boasts fantastic food and coffee and shopping and nightlife. I really do think we just went to Buenos Aires for the food…. My personal favorite meal was at a closed door restaurant that was obviously all about the food. It was lightly decorated, no menus, just blackboards on the walls boasting items that have never crossed into Paraguay like sea bass and brussels sprouts and leeks. In typical Chance style, I made a fool of myself when ordering, accidentally asking for the rump of crow instead of venison (ciervo and cuervo are very similar words) along with a delicious Malbec. In Palermo and neighboring Recoleta, we went to both the MALBA (Museum of Latin-american Art of Buenos Aires) and Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) and explored the vast Recoleta cemetery for a couple hours, looking at the extravagant mausoleums that have created a maze-like city of the graves of Buenos Aires’ elite, including past politicians and the great Eva Peron. Possibly my favorite part of our trip (shoutout to Donovan, it was his idea) was a street art tour of Palermo. Led by a great Irishwoman who works part-time for Graffitimundo, an organization devoted to promoting street artists, it wove us through the streets of Buenos Aires, showing off the amazing street art culture that has only began about ten years ago. Buenos Aires apparently is renown in the street art community and some of the pieces we saw were absolutely stunning, earning street art the respect of both the residents and even the government, who has sponsored large pieces to cultivate art in the city.
Buenos Aires is a unique city and it was extremely hard for us to leave (I’m now writing from back in site). It had things that I could only dream of having in site (that’s the point of Peace Corps, I understand, thank you very much) and I miss the coffee and city-feel and good food and, probably most of all, speaking Spanish instead of struggling with Guarani. I had an amazing time walking all over the city with Donovan and Nicki, laughing and eating and mateing and wearing ourselves out. We got lost, we explored, we drank way too much coffee, and we partook in general merriment. And that made it a pretty successful trip in my opinion.
But Buenos Aires, you stay where you’re at, because I’ll definitely be back. I’ve still got 44 vacation days left.