Communion Of Dreams

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
November 1, 2008, 5:06 pm
Filed under: Argentina, Humor, Mark Twain, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Society, Travel

Part Two: Home, home of the strays.

On Thursday the 16th, Alix was going to be busy with some choir-related rehearsals, so I opted for one of the excursions available to non-choir members of the tour which left at 8:00 local time.  As a result, I was up and going early.

Went downstairs into the hotel’s dining area for breakfast (included in the room price).  It was actually quite a nice spread, and showed that they cater to Americans and Europeans – in addition to various cereals and breakfast breads, juices and yoghurt, there was was a wide selection of German style cold meats and cheeses, fresh fruits and fruit cocktail, even US style bacon and scrambled eggs.  But there were local items as well – something like a quiche or fritatta which was egg-based, with a crusty top and a base of peas – and that was quite good.  There was also something like a beef stew – chunks of beef in a brown sauce, a side dish of potatoes and carrots you could add as you wished.  This was fantastic.  The coffee was also excellent, even though Argentina is not a coffee-producing country, and is available almost everywhere throughout the day, served in small cups similar to (but not as strong as) a Turkish coffee or espresso.

A side note, which I should have mentioned in the previous travelogue: you will hear a lot of hype about the quality of Argentine beef, and of the popularity of both asados and parrilladas.  Believe every word of it.  Seriously – I lived in Iowa for some 15 years, and thought I knew what top-quality meat was.  The Argentine beef we had while on the trip was even better, every single time, without exception.  Little wonder that the Argentine diet is very heavy on beef.  The stuff is just phenomenal.  The Wikipedia article on Argentine Cuisine overall is very accurate from my experience.  In fact, I had to make a conscious decision partway through the trip to cut way back on the amount of food I was eating, since I was feeling overly stuffed all the time.

Anyway, I had a nice breakfast, then got on the tour bus for the trip over to La Plata.  The bus was nice – all the buses we had were nice – but when you spend about 217 hours a day on one for weeks on end, you get sick of the damned things.  And this is was my first experience with the tour guide I shall henceforth call “Ferguson”.

Ferguson was a nice enough sort, but seemingly could not shut up.  I don’t mean that he carried on a rambling discription of all the things we saw, and all the places we went.  No, he would repeat himself about a dozen times on any given little factoid, each time trying some new formulation to the English which almost but not quite meant the same thing as the previous version, always in a sing-song sort of voice that I came to loathe.  And over the course of the dozen permutations he would range from a simple verifiable fact to almost its exact opposite – as though he were a one man game of ‘telephone’.  It got to the point where most of the tour members just did their best to ignore whatever he said, which was a tad problematic given that often he was our only source for information as to scheduling, upcoming events we need to prepare for, et cetera.  I just got in the habit of listening to the *first* thing he said, which was usually reasonably close to the truth, and then tried to tune out all subsequent “clarifications”.  When I say henceforth that Ferguson said this or that, understand that this is what I mean and I am cutting out the 12 to 14 other versions I usually got from the man.

Anyway, we got on the bus to La Plata, located to the east of the Buenos Aires city center about twenty minutes, on the south shore of the Rio La Plata.  The ride took us from the concentrated urban area of our hotels through a variety of suburbs, which ranged from American/European style areas to startlingly apocalyptic shanty towns.  Seriously – vast swathes of land where the housing consisted of little more than packing materials, boardered by places where it was difficult to discern whether the high rises were going up or coming down.  In the merely marginal areas there was some semblence of regular (unpaved) streets and a power grid, with large black plastic tanks of water on the rooftops.  In the poorer sections, even this much civilization was undetectable.

Officially, the population of greater Buenos Aires is about 13 million.  Unoffiicially, most people estimate it is somewhere between 16 and 18 million.  Those who live in the shantytowns are about as unofficial as possible, and the source for the discrepency.

And everywhere – throughout the entire country – there are stray dogs.  You don’t notice that many right in the downtown area, though there are some.  But you get outside of there, and you see more.  Lots more.  Dogs who are clearly homeless, who shy away from most humans, but search for kindness, looking from person to person for someone who will notice them.  They live off whatever scraps they can find, whatever bits are handed over. They are so prevelant that it has become common custom across the entire country to construct elevated baskets for holding garbarge, some four or five feet off the ground.  One of our other tour guides later in the trip said that the Argentines loved dogs, and so were happy to see them everywhere like this.  But the haunted and degraded nature of the strays said otherwise to me, as did the signs in many places which warn of feeding the dogs.   These are not signs of love, leastways as I understand it.

La Plata was a designed city, not an organic one.  It’s nice enough, in the slightly shabby way that seems typical of most of the country.  The drivers there, as in Buenos Aires and the other large towns we visited, were universally insane, and considered things like lane markings and traffic signs to be little more than suggestions.  I did ask Ferguson how “right of way” is determined in the mix of four-way and six-way intersections, since nothing was obvious.  He looked at me like the question made no sense, then shrugged and said that the biggest vehicle went first, of course.  But I saw no accidents, so if it works for them and I don’t have to drive in it, more power to them.

It was a beautify, clear and sunny day, a touch cool but not at all bad.  We got out of the bus in front of the neogothic Cathedral, which Ferguson explained is the fourth largest in the world by some measure or another.  It was impressive, but did not stand up to the great cathedrals in Europe in my mind.  Across the large plaza in front of the Cathedral was the City Hall.  Ferguson said we could go there for a bathroom break.  We did – there seemed to be little else to see there at the time, since the City Council was in session and the bulk of the building off limits to tourists.

Out front of the City Hall there was some kind of demonstration going on.  We watched from in front of the building for a while, trying to figure out what it was all about.  Ferguson explained that one of the government agencies, responsible for certifying taxes, had set up a roadblock.  Seems that they pull in cars, and then search their database to see whether the drivers are current on various taxes due.  If not, the driver can settle up right there.  Or have their car impounded until arrangements are made.  Imagine, if you will, a combination of the IRS and the DMV, with immediate police powers thrown in for good measure.  Little wonder that people were objecting.  Interesting to watch them at it – a bunch of cars had stopped, blocking access to the roadblock (a roadblock of the roadblock, if you will).  Then people poured out of their cars and swamped the tax-checkers.  Bullhorns were produced.  Radio and TV crews attended.  Ferguson said that it was typical.

We left, headed over to the Museo de La Plata – one of the largest Natural History museums in South America, with over 2 million artifacts relating to the continent.  It is a classic 19th century style museum, and in its heyday must have been quite the thing.  While the collection is still very impressive, it is clear that the exhibits are badly dated and funds for upkeep have been lacking.  Even so, it was worth wandering through, and is certainly still a major destination for area schoolchildren, who were thronging the place.

On our way back we took a slight detour through a riverfront/park area which Ferguson called ‘Puerto Sur’.  I am not entirely sure where this area actually is, since I have been unable to find it online.  Suffice it to say that it is one of the many neighborhoods of the city, not far from the city center and adjacent to the Rio Plata, which serves as something of a park and amusement area.

Got back to the hotel early afternoon.  I dropped off my bag, and went out for a bit of a stroll, stopping at one of the little sidewalk places for something akin to an Argentine gyro – a wrap with some delicious strips of beef, a few veggies and a sauce thrown in for good measure.  Swung back by the hotel and connected with a friend who was joining the tour a day late, due to airline hassles.  Since Alix was not yet back from her rehearsals, the two of us went out again into the madness of the city – she wanted to see a bit of it, I wanted to pick up a small English-Spanish dictionary (I was already gaining some confidence with my survival Spanish, wanted more than the simple phrasebook I had could offer).

On both trips out encountered large, wandering protests – huge things which incorporated sound cars, puppets, kettle drums, banners, and no small number of Federal Police on the sidelines, keeping a close eye on developments.  It was unclear exactly what was the focus of the protest was – there were banners and chants about the usual topics of internationalization, native people’s rights, farming, banking.  This recent NPR news item talked about recent protests in Buenos Aires, so that may have been the catalyst for what I saw.  Such street protests are part of the culture of Buenos Aires, and so long as things are peaceful, not to be missed.  Of course, they can turn violent with little warning (to outsiders, anyway), so you take your chances.  I kept my eye on the cops, and so long as they seemed calm, I wasn’t too worried.

Again returned to the hotel, and met up with Alix.  Our friend ML decided to go clean up a bit, take a nap and unpack, so Alix and I went down to the “English Style Pub” (well, more or less . . .) in the hotel for drinks and to chat with other members of the tour.  Discovered that service, as most things related to time/scheduling in Argentina, was very . . . um, casual.  Relaxed.  Unhurried.  As noted on Wikitravel:


Argentinians generally take a relaxed attitude towards time. This can be unsettling to visitors from North America and non-Latin parts of Europe where punctuality is highly valued. You should expect that your Argentine contacts will be at least 10 to 15 minutes late for any appointment. Tardiness of 30 to 45 minutes is not unusual. This is considered normal in Argentina and does not signify any lack of respect for the relationship. Of course, this does not apply to business meetings.

If you are invited to a dinner or party at, say 9 PM, it does not mean that you should be present at 9 PM, but instead that you should not arrive before 9 PM. You’ll be welcomed anytime afterwards. Arriving to a party 2-3 hours late is normally OK and sometimes expected.

This attitude extends to any scheduled activity in Argentina. Plays, concerts usually get going around half an hour after their scheduled times. Long distance buses leave on time. As in any busy city around the world, short-distance public transportation like city buses and the subway do not even bother with time estimates; they arrive when they arrive. Factor these elements into your calculations of how long things will take.

Unannounced bus or train departures ahead of the schedule are not uncommon, especially in big cities. This is normally not a problem, as in general no one will expect you to be on time anyway.

Yup, that’s about right.  For someone such as myself who considers punctuality a sign of respect, it took some getting used to.

Eventually, ML joined us again, and we hooked up with another tour member to wander down the street to an Italian place which had a good reputation.  As it was only 8:30 when we got there, the place was empty – but they were happy to seat us, and our waiter went out of his way to make us feel welcome.  It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, and we took a full two hours to enjoy it, the Argentina way.  Antipasto, main meal, nice dessert, drinks and coffee – an excellent meal.  All told, even with a generous gratuity, it came to about $27 per person – a meal I would easily expect to pay $100 per person for in the US, if I could find one of similar quality.  Sated, we wandered back to the hotel and crashed.

Jim Downey

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