Seeing the world, one country at the time

Gauchos, Tango and Ghosts



We woke up late Sunday morning and went for quick look at the antique market in Plaza Dorrego. A lot is crammed into that one little square. La Defensa, the street leading past it, was lined with vendors, performers and artists. Lars found it a bit touristy, which surprised him. He thought it would be more local, but Plaza Dorrego is the Montmartre of Buenos Aires. We watched delightfully eccentric tango dancers executing complicated twists on a small square of cardboard. A guy selling pictures chatted with us. He carried a camera so we thought they were his, but later Lars saw the same photos in several other places. He felt deceived. The guy had spoken very passionately about his photos.

Ignacio “Nacho” Conti and his family; Gabriela, Agustina and Camila, invited us to lunch in fashionable Recoleta. Nacho was a colleague at my old company, who had since had two adorable and charming daughters who will cause him ulcers when they hit their teens. Feeling spoiled by the pricey meal and in turn invited them to a decadent ice cream dessert (Buenos Aires has superb ice cream parlors). This was followed by a walk through the Recoleta market. As a souvenir I bought a pendant with the pink Rodocrocita, or “Inca Rose”, the national stone, from an artist after Nacho bargained it down. Then we went on a museum tour of the cloisters of the Basilica Nuestra Senora del Pilar, next to the Recoleta cemetery. It was the original building in the neighborhood, when what is now the famous cemetery was only the nuns’ vegetable gardens. Not even Nacho had been in the religious art museum within. It still features the original flooring, stairs, walls, and other components from its 1732 construction. Most interesting are the windows with panes made from agate so that light could enter, without exposing the nuns.

Nacho spent the afternoon walking with us through Recoleta’s upscale section. We stopped at the Havanna store so Lars could try their famous alfajor, an Argentine delicacy. Walking through the Plaza San Martin with its extensive Ombu tree, we reached the Calle Florida, one of Buenos Aires’ most famous and longest pedestrian avenues. We walked the length of it, past Galerias Pacifico with its grand murals and stopped to see a dramatic street tango show. Nacho was saying goodbye when a beggar asked him for money. When Nacho said no the man insisted that he translate his request for us since we obviously couldn’t understand him. Nacho refused, so the man turned his attention to Lars, who also refused. The beggar made a rude comment about Lars’ mother that he’s lucky he didn’t understand.

We took the bus back to San Telmo to see some tango, but it was late and instead we ended up at a restaurant called La Brigada, that had been recommended. It was upscale but had a curious soccer theme going. The place was blanketed with soccer memorabilia. Even the balustrade and stairs were carved into soccer balls. It was so full that we had to come back later, once we had changed into appropriate attire. It was a great meal. After a liter of wine and a huge plate of steak and fries, we strolled back to the hotel, passing by some nice old-fashioned cafes and bars. One featured blues and had a woman singing and playing the piano. Buenos Aires often does feel like an old style Europe.

One morning we went to the Don Silvano ranch outside of Buenos Aires, near San Antonio de Areco. Don Silvano was going to show us the real gaucho life. The gauchos were the cowboys of the Argentine pampas, or plains. Included in our group was a honeymooning Puerto Rican couple, a family of Venezuelans and their American son-in-law and an animated Colombian couple on their ten-year wedding anniversary. Our guide was blonde and buxom, with a cute style, but quite serious about her job. I got scolded for putting my head out the window and for making the group wait, even though we had been told a later time. We drove through the rich suburbs of San Isidro and Pilar to get out to the countryside.

Don Silvano was a large ranch, though not grand in any way, and obviously built for big groups of visitors. We were greeted by a gaucho who led us through a flowered arch to a small building. There, a pintsize older gaucho was serving up warm and delicious empanadas accompanied by red or white wine. We got two servings before being ushered over to watch a cow get milked after tying one of its legs to the post so that it wouldn’t kick us in the head. We got a farmer’s perspective by milking it ourselves, as the official photographer captured the moment. Lars passed on the opportunity, while I gave it a whirl. Suffice to say I definitely don’t have skill as a farmhand.

We continued on to the stable where the horses were saddled and bridled, ready for us to ride. They had a platform for those not able to get on themselves. We refused to be coddled like that. It already felt way too easy. We rode around the ranch, very calmly and slowly. Lars’ horse was a little feisty and kept trying to gallop. In fact, I think Lars was secretly inciting the horse to gallop, because he kept asking me to hold his backpack for him.

We left the horses to go into a large hall for an “asado”, or barbecue. A louder, more boisterous group was already there for a company function. They were mostly Argentine and must have been there all day, because they came in sweaty from a soccer game and wet from the pool. One of the few women in the group was the organizer. The entertainment started with a welcome from the older gaucho, looking even more diminutive in his gaucho outfit (white shirt, bandana smartly tied around his neck, riding breeches and black boots). He was elegant and gentle-mannered and when he played the guitar and began to sing his voice belied his appearance. It boomed in a beautiful baritone. We couldn’t believe that voice came out of such a tiny man. He welcomed each of us foreigners by country and sang songs from almost each one to a captive audience. There was a lot of clapping and whistling. Participation was fueled by the wine flowing around the table. The “asado” was generous and filling, accompanied by salad and potatoes and the requisite bread. It was delicious.
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The hall was huge. We may have been around 50, but it could have seated three times as many. With all our noise though, it didn’t feel at all empty. The dance show was impressive. A married couple danced in different traditional costumes representing very different dance styles from the north, the south and the Buenos Aires area. I could see strains of cueca and Andean dancing, as well as Spanish dances like the fandango. They also performed a jaw-dropping drum dance and gaucho tricks with whips and “boleadores” (leather strips with hard balls on the ends, used as weapons). PICTURE They had people come up and dance with them, but luckily we weren’t picked. They ended with some tango and milongas, then asked us up to dance. Lars and I went and did our few steps and were complimented afterward. Thank goodness we have rhythm.

Dessert was followed by champagne that the company pulled out. By now our group was mingling, friendly and talkative. Next to me was the Colombian who talked the whole time about his travels and life abroad as the son of a diplomat. After lunch, we headed over to the fields to sit and watch the gauchos perform on their horses. They did “block races” which were originally used to determine land ownership, then did tricks with the horses making them lie down and roll and with a buffalo, making it kneel. Then they raced to win the hand of a lady. They did this by galloping at full speed and grabbing her ring off of a hook hanging from a crossbar. They were quite adept at this, standing up and riding rigid to pick the ring off with a little pin. After, they would come around and offer it to one of us in exchange for a kiss instead of a marriage proposal. The crowd was cheering madly.

After, the gauchos stood on their horses while saying goodbye to us, then led the horses away as we went to have boiled “mate” and biscuits. “Mate” is the Argentine layperson’s favorite beverage, a bitter tea sucked through a perforated straw out of a gourd or silver container. “Mate” is often shared among friends and originated in the pampas, with the gauchos who had long and cold nights on the plains. “Mate” energized them, just like the coca leaf does the Andean people. It was very sweet and tasty.
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This was the end of our gaucho experience. We headed back to Buenos Aires and our respective hotels. There we set up a meeting with Christian Schmee, a Thunderbird friend, to have dinner. Schmee picked us up and took us to a “top” (Argentine slang for trendy) restaurant bar in Recoleta called Danzon. The sushi was delicious, the décor very chic and minimalist. It was by far the most exclusive and expensive meal we’ve had on this trip, but it was nice to feel classy for once. Everything was perfectly coordinated, almost boring. It looked like a restaurant showcased in Architectural Digest, but full of beautiful people.

The next day we spent exploring the city, walking the lengths of its pedestrian streets, stopping for a snack in front of the Casa de la Moneda in the Plaza 25 de Mayo and continuing on to the Teatro Colon, one of the five greatest theaters in the world, where we had a tour of its innards; its set warehouse, shoe, wig and costume storage rooms (holding thousands upon thousands of each), as well as of the theatre itself, which is elegant in all its red and gold coloring. They were doing sound tests for an upcoming performance, so we admired it in the dark. Nevertheless, it didn’t fail to impress. Best of all were the statues and costumes dispersed throughout the building. After, we felt obligated to do a taste test at the Cadore ice cream parlor, arguably the best ice cream in town. Haagen Dazs and Ben and Jerry’s have NOTHING on these guys. In the evening we got dressed up and taxied over to the famous Café Tortoni, a century old eatery with more charm and elegance than any in DC. We were there for the tango show, which took place in a back room. We shared a table with a warm Brazilian couple who gave us tips on where to go.

We returned to Recoleta for a free cemetery tour conducted by a lively Argentine with very good English. The tour lasted two hours, as she animatedly described the tragic and mysterious stories behind many of the tombs in the cemetery, such as Rufina Cambacereo who was accidentally buried alive and awoke in her coffin, or the suicide of Admiral Brown’s daughter, or the theft of Evita Peron’s body in 1955. It was fascinating. Recoleta is a poet and photographer’s dream anyway, with its endless alleys, delicate statues and legions of stray cats. Clustered together in the alleys, which branch off in all directions, are 6400 mausoleums holding entire families in their caskets. This was the high society graveyard, where not only wealth but family name determined whether you could rest your corpse here or not. With the recent economic hardships, many families are trying to sell their tombs, which fetch around $20,000. The empty chambers stand desolate, dust and cobwebs and broken glass showing their decay and neglect.

After, I picked up the bus tickets I’d ordered (with great difficulty) to go from Argentina to Chile from a helpful woman who talked nonstop. She wore lots of jewelry that jangled as she moved about. I kept trying to leave and she kept trying to make me stay, by calling or emailing or asking me to sit down. We were invited by Christian to a Happy Hour with the Open Business Club and we were running late. My old colleague Veronica showed up too. It was really good to see her, better than I expected, since we haven’t been in touch for so long. But as all good friendships, as soon as we saw each other, that easiness came back right away and we were comfortable.

Veronica picked us up on Friday to go to the beach for the weekend. Finally I would see the beaches around Buenos Aires province. We headed south toward Mar de Plata for several hours, finally finding a charming inn overlooking the ocean in Pinamar, with a kitchen where we could cook our own asado and hang out talking and playing cards. Here at last was a real vacation. The first afternoon we spent walking around the exclusive beach resort of Carilo. It has a quaint sandy village nestled in the forest. It is a fairytale land of homemade chocolate, clothing boutiques, and cozy cafes. It wasn’t quite summer yet, so the weather was crisp and too windy to spend much time on the beach. However, Vero and I snuck out to the Carilo beach one sunny day, rubbing elbows with the rich of Buenos Aires and burning our winter skin. Sunday we hung out on our beach until lunchtime, when a sudden storm chased us away. Veronica rushed to get us out of there, worrying that the rain would convert the sand to unnavigable mud. We experienced the impassioned driving of the Italian blooded Argentine as she sped back to the city, until we hit a traffic jam, where she slowed down enough to get into heated exchanges with fellow drivers. Though intense, these arguments always took on a playful bent, while in the US I’d worry that I could get shot. The traffic was horrendous. We were relieved to arrive safely back at the hotel.