Saturday, March 17, 2007

Tango, Heidi, and Balnearios

Franco was the taxi driver who picked me up in Constitucion - the worst subway stop in Buenos Aires. He told me I should never be there at night again and got a little dramatic about what could happen to me there. The house I found on Craigslist is beautiful, dates from the 1800's with italian tile and marble in the entrance and high ceilings and doors with windows and old school locks. It's bedrooms are along a hallway within an outdoor courtyard. It's a bit like New Orleans' French Quarter with lanterns and climbing plants. It's also too far from the city center and the nightlife and the nearest train station is full of perros de la noche. I'm moving to Palermo on Monday.

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After finding the house and moving my stuff, I did what anyone coming from New York winter would want to do; I went to the beach. The mode of travel in Argentina is luxury buses. They're double deckers with chairs that turn into beds. I caught one at 1am and got into Mar Del Plata at 6am. At the bus station in Mar Del Plata I didn't know where to go to catch a cab. I saw a girl I recognized from the bus and asked her if she wanted to share a cab. Florencia spoke great English with a German sounding accent and looked like she could be from there with light hair and beautiful blue/green eyes. She's Argentine and told me she was in Mar Del Plata to see some friends' band play at the festival. When I couldn't get a hotel room immediately, I went with Flor to meet her friends for breakfast. They were a group of indie musicians, their managers, and friends staying in a hotel otherwise full of retired folks on holiday. Mar Del Plata reminded me a lot of Miami.

After breakfast Flor and I went to nap in one of the band's rooms. I ended up spending the day hanging out with her and talking about music, life, and travels. We wandered around Mar Del Plata and she helped me get a cellphone and find a hotel. Later that night I met her at the Hotel Provincial - this old, grand hotel on the beach which houses the city casino and banquet rooms where the festival was held.

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We walked through a beautiful lobby of marble, gold brocade, velvet and frescoes into a room full of hipsters facing a stage in anticipation. Flor took us backstage where the band was playing and drinking. She told me she had to find out which song she'd be singing. I was excited to learn she was going to perfom - she hadn't mentioned that she plays too. Or she might have said so in Spanish during one of our conversations where I only understood 60% or so of what was said. She told me Cat Power is her favorite artist and she sang a lot like her. The band is called Los Alamos - they were good and so was Flor. After a couple hours of hipster life I headed back to the hotel.

The hotel had an Italian name and was in the style of a chalet. The region of the Argentina's north beaches are dominated by German mountainesque architecture. The beaches are of dunes with pine trees and the German immigrants who settled there offered an alternative to the French architecture of BsAs and of Mar Del Plata. The smaller towns are all Swiss Family Robinson - gnarled wood facades and sloping rooves.
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Mar Del Plata was a lot of high rises and a super crowded beach - like Miami meets Coney Island minus the rides. I went to the beach Sunday and was kind of disappointed to see the beaches are brown sand and that they aren't topless. There were people selling things on the beach and calling out their wares - the way men sell hot dogs at the ballpark - "helados, churros," etc. I saw the only black man I've seen here - walking along the beach selling silver jewelry. The continents of Asia and Africa are not really represented here. There is every version of European and Euro/Indigenous person possible Amerindian, Mediterranean, Nordic, Slavic - and all speak of themselves as Argentine without distinction. A lot of the people I see look Spanish or Italian or German and they're more open and friendly than the average stranger you might meet in Europe or the US.

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I left the crowded, rather littered beach and walked up to a part of the boardwalk where a group was watching a show. It was an open invite to the crowd to Tango - accompanied by a cd and a hostess who was selling Tango mixtapes. A cross section of couples had accepted the invitation and danced along while a couple hundred people looked on. There were older and middle aged couples with the most endearing facial expressions. There was a super cute thug kid dancing with his mother. There was a couple of high school girls in school uniforms, knee highs and pumas. One took the mic from the hostess to encourage the audience to join in the dance. She got the crowd laughing and was totally comfortable addressing a big group of strangers to lecture them on the benefits of joining in the Tango. The way people interact here is impressive - the level of comfort and warmth. Like it's a country of friends with all the charm of the southern US. I left the boardwalk and went back to the Heidi hostel. I wanted to go to the casino.

I played craps, black jack, and poker in a country where the peso is three to the dollar. It's a lot of fun not being poor after Manhattan living for the past four years. I won at craps and didn't enjoy the poker. This was the big casino - the Hotel Provincial takes up roughly two large city blocks - but the playing room wasn't more than two tables of each game and a few rows of slot machines. People here seem to be cash poor - I'm told the middle class has all their money invested and there doesn't seem to be a lot of money to go around generally. With all its plush buses, huge steaks and fancy architecture, Argentina is still the third world. A friend here told me Argentina is a third world country that likes to think it's first world. The casino didn't lie. After I lost some at poker, I won it back at craps and cashed in.

The next morning I planned to go to a smaller beach town. Before leaving, I visited the port - the main port of the country. It's famous for its congregation of sea lions and for a graveyard of rusting ships. I took a quick tour by taxi and tried to decipher the cabbie's heavy accent. I leared at the hot, young dockworkers in uniform jumpsuits sweating in the sun.

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The bus ride was two hours to Villa Gesell which I was told would be a very pretty beach town. I was pretty sure I'd like it. I got in and got a cab to the hotel. No one was on the streets and what I saw was a lot like suburban Baja. The nice lady who owns the hotel told me everyone was at the beach and that the streets were empty because of that. It reminded me of an old Star Trek episode where the crew lands in a ghost town. I took myself to the beach to join the town. It was a significant improvement on Mar Del Plata - the same brown sand, but more space. There was the same litter and there were a lot more chalets. I gawked at the architecture and the ATV's. It was windy and the day was ending so I went to check out the shopping. If you're Californian you know what I'm saying when I tell you Gesell was a Latino Solvang. I found it kitch and not really in a good way. But there were some good crafts to buy and I ended up getting colorful baskets and furry mates, great homemade shopping items imported from the north of Argentina and from Peru. That night I went to go eat at a restaurant I'd read had a great asado (grilled meat). There was a wait so I went down the street a bit to look for a bookstore I'd read about. The guy working in the bookstore was very friendly and wanted to speak English with me.

Eduardo told me about different authors he thought I should read and about the summer in Gesell. He said he was waiting for a friend and was going to close the store to have an asado at his house in the back. He invited me to join the group of friends. I declined at first but when I met Nadia I decided I shouldn't pass up a homemade asado with a group of friendly bohemians. We went behind the store to a big backyard with a grill area in an enclosed space - a large open oven, fridge, and tables. Nadia's boyfriend is French and he did the cooking. They told me how they'd met traveling in Patagonia, a large nature preserve, and how they split their time between France, Italy, and Argentina. They spoke perfect English - occasionally switching into Castellano. Juan had been working as a supermarket manager and wasn't satisfied with his life in Paris. He decided to quit his job and travel for a while. He never went back - he and Nadia own a hostel in Gesell and make Euros in Tuscany during the off season. They gypsy around and seemed really happy not knowing what they'd do year-to-year.

The next day I took a local bus through the backwoods to another town called Pinamar. I was happy to leave Hansel and Gretel and the ATV's and go to the Porteno version of Laguna Beach. In Pinamar I got a room in a depression-era hotel surrounded by dunes. It was delapidated and beautiful and I got there just as the summer season ended. The hotel was empty and spooky and I left my things and took a run on the overcast beach. I passed closed balnearios (beach bar/restaurants), stray dogs and large beachfront houses of every style from Spanish adobe to Dada.

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I walked along the sand roads to the town center a half mile away. I tried to go to a balneario I'd seen was open but it was protected by a large barking dog. The dogs in Argentina have a fantastic life. They roam freely and eat well. There are no leashes or fences and plenty of canine company. At night, alone in Pinamar, I wondered at the likelihood of getting mauled by a free-spirited German Shepherd. Instead I was adopted by one for my walk to town. He stayed with me the whole way to the restaurant - greeting friends along the way and making me feel safe on the dark road.

The town center was a string of shiny, new shops and wide avenues. I found the parilla (pareesha) with a salad buffet and all you can eat of every cut of cow.
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The waiter at the parilla kind of filled in for my dog friend - he was this great looking, human stand-in. He hung out at my table for most of my dinner. His accent was hard for me. Gerrardo is from the northern city Tucuman and works in different resort towns following the tourist seasons of snow and beach. He was really good-looking and kind of macho in a formal, polite way. I decided to decline his invite for coffee and left to go to the internet cafe after dinner. Sitting at a computer an hour later, Gerrardo showed up unexpectedly. He insisted on walking me to the taxi station, then decided to ride with me to his apt near my hotel. I got a little nervous when he got out of the cab with me and graciously paid the taxi on the dark, deserted, sandy road. But he just gave me a hug goodbye and walked off into the dunes. The boys here are as good as the steak.

The next day was cloudy too and I left the haunted hotel in the dunes and went back to Buenos Aires. There was a party Hernan was going to Thursday night and I wanted to go back to Palermo.

1 comment:

The Invisible Man said...

Hi there. It was good to read your post about Pinamar. I too enjoyed the decentness of the people who live there. You can use my pics of Pinamar for the argentinastravel website as long as you can give my site a short attribution link. A friend of mine actually runs that site, so it is a very small world! Good luck to your continued travels!