City Living in Buenos Aires

After living for over a month in Buenos Aires, I gained a new appreciation for city living. It seems strange for me to be writing this since it was just ten years ago that Hubby and I picked up stakes to move from the big city of Toronto to a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. I can honestly say “we” were looking to escape the city for a less stressful and less expensive lifestyle, but it was”I” who vowed I would never want to live in a city again. However, Buenos Aires definitely created for me a renewed sense of appreciation for city living – something I never really acquired while living in Toronto.

There are many reasons for my change of heart. The most obvious one is that after ten years I can see the benefits of city living with a different pair of eyes. In Toronto I was one of thousands of stressed out people having to battle horrendous traffic for a job requiring me to drive all over the Greater Toronto Area almost every day. Now I am retired doing things I like to do and not having to work for a living. I have the freedom to travel to foreign countries which can give me an urban and rural lifestyle, depending on where I choose to go. I can now enjoy all that a city has to offer knowing I will be there for just a short while.

This year Hubby and I chose to rent a small, well equipped apartment to set up a base in Buenos Aires (BA) where we could once again experience some city living. For him, BA would be the perfect place to feed his desire for lots of culture, namely music, and for me to explore an exciting cosmopolitan city to feed my desire to write. Unfortunately, I have to confess that my writing suffered because there was simply too much to see and do in BA. We chose one of the best times of the year to be there – their autumn. When we arrived on March 9th, the weather was fabulous with comfortably sunny days. In the last few weeks, it rained more than we liked, but it still beat spending April anywhere in Canada with the possible exception of BC. As my mind shoots back to my days in Toronto, all I can remember is hot, humid summers and raw, cold winters. BA’s climate alone had a hand in changing my perspective.

Our studio apartment.

Our studio apartment.

Where we cooked most of our meals.

Where we cooked most of our meals.

With time on our hands to be a visitor in addition to living there, the extremely active cultural scene, the abundance of places to explore, and the temperate climate all contributed to my new-found appreciation for the city life. To be more specific and to give you a clearer picture of what will go down as one of the more memorable cities Hubby and I have visited together, I will attempt to write not only on what I (we) liked, but also on what we disliked, found amusing, or downright strange.

Let’s begin with what I liked:

  1. In case you didn’t know, BA is a multicultural city which gives it the diversity needed to never let it be boring. Like Toronto, it’s a city of immigrants who first arrived from Spain, Italy, Germany, and other European countries going back to the 1700’s. In the mid 1900’s it began to accept large numbers of immigrants starting with the Jews after WWll. Today it has the largest Jewish population in South America. More recently it has drawn in people from China, Africa, and many of the Arab countries. With 48 separate barrios or districts, it is one of the largest cities in South America with a population over 13 million. Each barrio is quite distinct. Our apartment was located in Palermo one of the more trendy barrios. We had everything we could ever want within a few blocks all within easy walking distance. We could have spent a year just in this area alone and had a different panderia  or cafe to go to for a coffee and pastry every day.
  2. One can’t help being impressed with the similarity BA has to most of the great European cities, making it evident why it’s been dubbed “the Paris of South America”. The large French neo-classical buildings, numerous monuments to their heroes of which there are many, the wide, tree-lined avenues, side-walk cafes galore, and grandiose theatres and museums are far more European than Western. After all, Argentinians have a history of gravitating to the east rather than to the north for their refinement of the arts and who can blame them?
    The greater the hero the larger the monument.

    The greater the hero the larger the monument.

    A monument of Eva Peron.

    A monument of Eva Peron.

    A wealthy art nouveau home in the Ricoleta area.

    A wealthy art nouveau home in the Ricoleta area.

    The justice building in Italian and French architecture.

    The justice building in Italian and French architecture.

  3. Another thing I liked, especially in our barrio, was the proliferation of parks both large and small. Little did I know this when I booked our apartment that most of BA’s parks were here and that the rest of the city lags behind Paris and even New York for adequate green space. This probably explains why they are so well used since they attract people from all over. We were lucky to have them within walking distance. In spite of the ongoing activity of the sports minded and fitness buffs, the families with babies and dogs, and any others who simply wanted to be out and about enjoying them, all the parks we visited were remarkably clean.
  4. Sunday afternoon in a park near where we stayed in Palermo.

    Sunday afternoon in a park near where we stayed in Palermo.

    The Rose Garden near us.

    The Rose Garden near us.

    Some parks had a lake such as this.

    Some parks had a lake such as this.

  5. Being the cultural mecca that BA is put Hubby in his element. I think he enjoyed it almost as much as he enjoys Florence. He even managed to get me to a symphony and two operas! We witnessed the opera, Don Giovanni, performed at the world-class  and very beautiful Teatro Colon. BA boasts of numerous other theatres which puts it up at the top of the list for live theatre beating out New York and London. With all of this, plus their avid interest in sports, especially soccer, there is always something on. Then, of course, there is also tango  where you can take in one of numerous shows including dinner and dance lessons for an exorbitant price. I felt that we could get a sufficient taste of tango from some of the smaller and possibly free performances that can often be found in various venues if you happen to be in that place at the right time. We had caught some in La Boca and San Telmo so it made no sense to me to blow over $100 for a show and mostly bland dinners (this according to Trip Advisor). As for the dance lessons, Hubby wanted none of that! But about two days before we were scheduled to leave, he began to have a change of heart. In the meantime, I was remaining neutral on whether we did or didn’t see a show. We found out that it was possible to take in just a show at some places so we started the search. Too late! All the solo shows were sold out! Now we have to tell our friends back home that we spent over a month in the land of tango and never once got to see a real show or take a tango lesson!
    The world famous Teatro Colon.

    The world famous Teatro Colon.

    Inside the theatre from where we sat for Don Giovanni.

    Inside the theatre from where we sat for Don Giovanni.

    Tango in the plaza at San Telmo.

    Tango in the plaza at San Telmo.

    Tango in a cafe at San Telmo.

    Tango in a cafe at San Telmo.

  6. I have to admit it was all the cafes which provided the most enjoyment for me. I love to sit alone, with Hubby, or with a new-found friend as we often did during our stay. They are perfect places for people watching or for getting into great conversations as we did with our friend, Peter, an ex-pat from Scotland. Peter is a writer who has lived in BA for over 15 years. We appreciated how he took us under his wing to show us the ropes of where to go and what to do in BA. I particularly enjoyed talking to him about what makes the people and the city tick. His psychological approach helped me understand what city living is like not only for ex-pats but also for those who have lived there all their lives.
  7. I was also impressed with the transportation system in BA. Although the subte, the Spanish word for subway, was a tad antiquated, it was convenient and cheap. Furthermore, I felt safe when using it in spite of repeated warnings from the locals to guard my belongings. When the subway couldn’t take us to our destination, we used the buses. With over a 100 bus lines running in every direction to all parts of the city, it was a bit daunting at first, but once Hubby got them figured out, we used them whenever we could to save our feet. With a bus pass, they were even cheaper than the subway!  We never once got lost as most people were more than happy to help us out with directions. In fact, if we ever looked the least bit perplexed about the numbering system or where we were once we got off the bus, there were numerous times when help was offered by an English-speaking person without our asking, and it was offered with no strings attached. So different from our what we experienced last year in Morocco where unwanted guides kept pestering us for a charge, of course.

    Being entertained on the subway.

    Being entertained on the subway.

These were some of the good things about BA which I noticed, and I’m sure I would have found more in time. Now for the things I found particularly annoying which others we talked to also noted:

  1. The most obviously one for any visitor has to be the dog poop! Yes, dog poop on the side walks is the thing I detested the most about this fair city. It even surpassed my horror at seeing the garbage on the side walks of Phomn Phen for despicable things about a city. Everyone in our area, most of whom were apartment dwellers, owned a dog or dogs, of all shapes and sizes.  Even though a law exists addressing ‘pooping and scooping’ not everyone is obeying it. With much care and focus I managed to side step it, but Hubby got caught a couple of times.
  2. The typical Argentinian’s approach to time, which is always ‘manana’ meaning ‘tomorrow’ in English, is another of my pet peeves. People here live very much in the moment so we found that setting a time for social occasions or getting things done could be problematic.  ‘Maybe’ is their preferred word. We had to learn not to have expectations and simply ‘go with the flow’ which was a big adjustment for us.
  3. Communicating was another big problem, especially for me. I tried to learn some Spanish and did manage to build up a very basic vocabulary which was far better than my Thai, for example. However, when I tried using my limited Spanish, I was often left with a blank stare followed by such a rapid barrage of words I couldn’t even begin to understand. I found this very perplexing. I concluded that we in the western world are way too impatient and don’t listen nearly so well as the people in Thailand, Cambodia or Viet Nam where they intuitively seem to know what we want and are able to provide it easily. In both Argentina and Ecuador, my attempts at communicating always seemed to baffle them which would lead to both parties talking at each other but accomplishing nothing. This led to many of the communication screw ups we encountered. I had more communication disasters in three months in South America than I ever encountered in the eight years I’ve gone to the Far East.
  4. One more thing I did not like about living in BA, which was also true of Toronto, was the noise level. Our apartment was on a fairly busy corner and practically next door to a busy restaurant which isn’t at all unusual in such a residential area where there are restaurants on practically every corner. The problem in BA was that most people don’t eat dinner until 10 o’clock about the time we were thinking of going to bed. On weekends no one seemed to sleep because at 4 a.m. there would be parties going on all around us. This caused some trouble when we first arrived when we didn’t know that most stores wouldn’t be open on Sunday until later in the day. Again we had to adjust accordingly. Eating at a late hour wasn’t a problem for us since we did our own cooking in our apartment; however, we did have to make sure we had the food bought ahead of time. As for the noise at night, I solved this with the help of ear plugs.
  5. I was not a huge fan of the Argentinian cuisine which came as no surprise to me since I’m not a huge beef eater. Beef plays a huge role in not only the diet but the psyche of Argentinians. This stems back to the country’s beginnings when the vast flat lands that surround BA known as the pampas ultimately led to cattle raising as one of their main industries. This industry  is still very much in evidence today as the majority of restaurants pride themselves in their skill at producing the best cut of the animal in a manner which they think will convert every vegetarian supporter over to their side. I have to admit I did try a few meals along with the ones cooked by Hubby where the beef far surpassed anything we would have at home, and it was more affordable. For me it ended there. I found that generally most of their food comes over salted and over sugared. Some locals and Peter, our ex-pat friend, agreed so it wasn’t just me. Salt is used in everything whether freshly cooked or from a package and other spices are still not used except by those who dare to expand their cooking skills beyond the tried and true. I never did find a natural yogurt with no sugar added. It’s mostly sold in bottles and loaded with sugar. Most baked goods are made with white flour and too much sugar even down to their croissants. I had to look long and hard for healthy bread that was anywhere near what we can get in Annapolis Royal. I finally found it at a popular restaurant and bakery not too far away from us on Lafinur 3275 called Molvan. Hubby and I happened to find it one day early into our stay after a lovely afternoon walk in a nearby park. I just had tea and a muffin but my first bite told me I had found a bakery that knew what it was doing and was producing something that wasn’t only delicious but healthy with just the right amount of sugar. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I returned to Malvon for another of those yummy muffins that I discovered they also had bread that looked healthy so bought some and once again wasn’t disappointed. This bakery became my bread supplier for the remainder of our stay. Thanks to Hernan, the owner, and his brother who know what they are doing and have dared to hone their skills in another direction to give locals and visitors alike good and healthy food.

So much for my likes and dislikes of BA. Now I would like to mention some things about this city that I can’t categorize into either one. They can only be called either amusing or strange traits of the city and its people as a whole as seen from my perspective.

  1. The first one that comes to mind is the subject of the dogs which I have already mentioned. To go a little deeper, I can’t help but wonder just why they are so popular with the BAer’s so I’ve come up with a theory which comes from my background in psychology. My analysis is they are taking on dogs instead of a life long partner or having kids because dogs will give them unconditional love, something they think they will never find from a fellow human being. One lady in our building confessed to giving up her boyfriend because he didn’t really like dogs that much, and that anyway dogs were easier. Like many first class cities in the world and especially in our western hemisphere, the majority of people who live in the centre are usually older in age or if younger are single. In BA young families are moving to the outer areas where housing is more affordable. Most of the dwellings in our area were apartment buildings. Instead of children, people are adopting dogs, not just one dog but perhaps three or four! I simply can’t imagine having three dogs in my apartment. Many years ago I had two cats in my apartment who nearly drove me crazy. Many of these dog owners work so to keep their animals from getting lonely or just going crazy, they hire dog sitters to look after them. We were always amused to see these guys and gals walking along the streets or passing their time in the parks with other dog walkers. Here was a real growth industry for those looking for what looked like a relatively easy way to make a living.
    Well behaved dogs with their sitter.

    Well behaved dogs with their sitter.

    Dogs with their sitters hanging out in a local park.

    Dogs with their sitters hanging out in a local park.

  2. Another frequent occurrence which seems strange to us visitors but is simply accepted as a fact of life in BA is the constant gathering of groups of people to protest whatever subject is foremost on their minds. We didn’t see much of this going on in our neighbourhood but certainly did whenever we ventured down to Plaza de Mayo or any of the other larger squares in the down town area. In fact, Plaza de Mayo’s reputation rests upon protests starting in 1810 on May 25th, the day Argentina declared its independence from Spain right up to 1977 with the Mothers of the Plaza who gathered to fight for the victims of the ‘Dirty War’ who disappeared and in some cases were murdered. Today most of the protesting is about higher wages which seems to be a forever mantra with employees who claim their wages aren’t keeping up with their cost of living. Salary decreases are very common apparently. We have all heard of Argentina’s constant woes with inflation which seem to keep the country from progressing to an economic status that everyone feels they should have achieved by now. The protests are becoming so common that I have to wonder what purpose they serve as it appears that it’s more about a group of people coming together for a party. We kept hearing from Argentinians themselves that any progress towards any kind of stability is near to impossible given the unwillingness of anyone to relinquish the wrongs of the past and move forward together.
    Just another protest.

    Just another protest.

    Monument to the Mothers at the Plaza de Mayo.

    Monument to the Mothers at the Plaza de Mayo.

    The presidential palace or Pink House where Eva Peron made her famous speech to rally the workers.

    The presidential palace or Pink House where Eva Peron made her famous speech to rally the workers.

  3. This fact leads me to my next revelation regarding the people and that is their self-absorption or constant self – analysis. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Psychiatry is a very popular vocation. It seems just about everyone sooner or later ends up in the psychiatrist’s office mostly for the same reason – depression! Does this sound familiar? Coming from Toronto, I have to say that this was a huge topic as well, and one where I personally got involved with all kinds of self-help and self-growth groups. Don’t get me wrong, I think a little help is always good, but I am also a strong believer of doing the work that has to go with it. My impression is that the BAer’s like most people spend an awful lot of time and money on the subject but aren’t really stepping up to the plate to do what they need to do for themselves and their country.
  4. Another observation which both Hubby and I made was the lack of reading material relating to Argentina’s history. He searched high and low for any books on this subject in English. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much in Spanish either. He did manage to find some at an English title bookstore in San Telmo called Walrus. The BAers like to talk about their present day politics, but when it comes to their past, they hesitate and seem almost embarrassed about it. Or maybe it’s fatalism that nothing will ever change as I heard many times. It’s definitely not a subject that most want to address right now except maybe some one who wasn’t born there.
  5. Finally, it may be a silly little fashion statement and of not much consequence, but I was amused by the footwear many of the woman were sporting. Suddenly all the shop windows were featuring them in their winter displays of shoes and boots. Platforms were “in” and in a big way. Every day I would notice more and more women wearing these things. I thought they were hideous, but Hubby kept at me to buy a pair since I was wearing mostly my sandals in spite of the rain. I did hear that they not only added much wanted height but were also quite comfortable. The latter may be true as those wearing them seemed to be walking along with ease, making much better headway than we ever did with those very high heels we all felt we absolutely needed. I can’t help wondering why women feel the need to be taller?
    Clearing out the summer stock of platforms.

    Clearing out the summer stock of platforms.

    These were at a wedding we witnessed.

    These were at a wedding we witnessed.

I could probably write a book about city living and especially in a city such as Buenos Aires which draws thousands of tourists every year. It is considered as one of ‘the’ great cities of the world to visit, right up there with New York, Paris, or London. It’s a relatively easy city to visit or live in and has something for anyone who ends up there. I am glad we stayed for as long as we did because it would be very difficult to stay for just a day or two. There is just too much to see and do otherwise.

A monument to San Martin who devoted his life to liberating Argentina and Ecuador from Spain.

A monument to San Martin who devoted his life to liberating Argentina and Ecuador from Spain.

Another heroine for Argentina - Eva Peron. Her plaque at the family grave site now in the Ricoleta Cemetery.

Another heroine for Argentina – Eva Peron. Her plaque at the family grave site now in the Ricoleta Cemetery.

La Boca – Another Unexpected Surprise

La Boca – Another Unexpected Surprise

The famous El Caminito in La Boca Buenos Aires.

The famous El Caminito in La Boca Buenos Aires.

If I had always taken the advice of others, chances are I would not be where I am today or done the things I have done. In my travels I have found the same thing to be true. If I had always blindly heeded the advice dished out by travel guidebooks, newspapers, or governments, I probably wouldn’t have had the half the fun or learning that I have had. Experience has proven to me that the best way to decide what I should see and do when travelling is to read and listen with half a mind and then discover the rest for myself.

A day trip to La Boca, one of many areas or barrios in Buenos Aires, last week is a good example. Despite the warnings of it just being another tourist trap albeit an unsafe one at that, Hubby and I decided to go and see for ourselves. The obvious question for me was if it was so unsafe, how could it have become one of BA’s most popular places to visit? There had to be more than brightly painted houses to lure people there? All the guidebooks and those we spoke to urged us to take a tour or at least a taxi but for heaven’s sake not a bus. We both agreed that an expensive tour and the taxi were out and the bus would be our means of getting there. So thanks to Wikipedia I was able to brush up on the history and to National Geographic for helping us with where to go once there. Finally, thanks to Hubby for figuring out how the bus system works and which bus or buses would take us there.

At this point I should tell you a bit about the geography and history of La Boca before I take you on our self conducted tour.

Geographically it lies on the low-lying shores of the greatly polluted Riachuelo River at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, hence its name La Boca which is Spanish for ‘the mouth’. This location determined its destiny as an active port for importing and exporting which attracted mostly poor immigrants from Genoa, Italy. The painted houses for which it is famous were born out of poverty and necessity when the first inhabitants used scrap from the shipyards, such as sheet metal, blocks of wood, corrugated iron, and leftover paint to construct their modest houses. Over the years other poor immigrants from Europe, Africa, Arab, Peru, and Paraguay moved in to eke out a hardscrabble living. In the 1950’s a local artist, Benito Quinquela Martin, painted the walls of one of the abandoned streets and erected a stage. This street became the famous El Caminito or open-air museum. Thanks to Martin it became a haven for actors, dancers, and artists who have all contributed to its allure and made it what it is today: BA’s top tourist trap or attraction or however you want to look at it. It lures in hoards of tour buses which have spurred on a lucrative and much needed industry for the area. However, its success has also given rise to hoards of hawkers and hustlers who have contributed to its somewhat dubious reputation. Tourists are constantly warned to hang on to their pocketbooks, not to stray into any of the streets off the beaten track which is the caminito, or to stay after dark for a late dinner. We were also warned about the over-priced restaurants, gaudy knick knacks, and the bland food. After learning all this, why would it still lure so many visitors whether they be typical tour bus types or more independent adventurers like Hubby and me? Read on and you will find out.

Getting to La Boca by bus wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Hubby orchestrated this beautifully. He managed to get us there by taking only two different buses which he hauled off in his usual manner of enlisting as many poor bystanders as he could to help him out. Fortunately for him, the people in BA are more than willing to help their visitors find their way around.

We started our walking tour at the north end of the Avenida Guillermo Brown. Our first stop was at the Casa Amarilla or “yellow house” which is a replica of the home that Guillermo Brown lived in. Brown was an Irishman who came to Argentina to help them fight for their freedom from Brazil and Uruguay.

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Our second stop was to take a picture of the Tower of the Ghost. The story goes that a female artist took her life by jumping from the top of the tower. Her spirit is said to still haunt the apartments there.

Our third stop was for a coffee and small ham and cheese meurouzo (a small sweet croissant) to help us continue our walk to the Riachuelo River. From there we got a good look at both the old and new Puente Transborado bridges and the famous stadium of the Boca Juniors soccer team.

The stadium is old and ugly from the outside, but is still the place to see the most exciting soccer you will ever see and a chance to yell your lungs out whenever Argentina plays their main rivals. In La Boca they take their football very seriously. That’s another claim to their fame.

By this time we had come to the caminito  where we were confronted with a carnival like atmosphere of brightly coloured houses with lifelike charactures hanging from the balconies, a cobblestone street filled with vendors’ stalls, tables and chairs spilling from the restaurants blaring loud tango music and some demonstrations on how to tango, as well as every other gimmick available to get the tourists to empty their pocket books. Despite all this, I felt no pressure to buy as we walked along taking in some of the tango and shooting lots of pictures.

Soccer is everywhere on the El Caminito.

Evidence of the Boca soccer team is everywhere.

Spying a little alley way of shops with interesting merchandise, I pulled Hubby in. We landed in a tiny shop selling handcrafted jewellery and other unique accessories managed by a lovely lady, Annabella, who actually became our friend for the day. That is one of the curious traits of many of the Argentinians we have met: they love to talk and get quite personal about their lives if they speak English as she did. We learned so much from her including a great place to have a late lunch.

Graham and Annabilia

Graham and Annabella

She did not recommend any of the restaurants that we saw on the caminito but another one around the corner near the old railway track called El Gran Paraiso. We would never have found it on our own, but thanks to Annabella we ended up having one of the best meals we’ve had the whole time we have been in Argentina. This restaurant is located in one of the oldest buildings in La Boca. A huge, rather ugly grille at the doorway doesn’t make for an inviting entrance. However, look past this and you will see tables with colourful umbrellas set in a beautiful garden with large shade trees surrounded by the colourful walls of the buildings. It wasn’t only the setting that made this place special, but also the food and the service. The prices were reasonable, too, which was another surprise since we have found them to be horrendously high in most places putting a damper on us ever eating out. In fact, hadn’t we been told that we would find everything overpriced in La Boca?

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An unexpected guest joins us for lunch.

An unexpected guest joins us for lunch.

I love this!

I love this!

We lingered much longer than we had anticipated over lunch. It was now 4 o’clock and in a few hours it would be dark. With the warnings of being there after dark ringing in our ears, we decided we better wend our way back to the port area where we could catch one of the numerous buses going in all directions. The biggest challenge here is making sure you get on the right bus so finding the proper number is important. This you can do by looking at the posts, studying the maps if there are any, or simply asking a fellow passenger as Hubby prefers to do. This seems to work for him so I’ve learned to let him figure it all out. As we were waiting for our bus, we were bombarded with a constant barrage of blue/white and red/green buses all packed with people chanting and waving flags. It didn’t take us long to realize we were witnessing the foreplay which precedes an important game with the Boca Juniors and one of their rivals, in this case a team from Bolivia. Although exciting to see, it was also frustrating because it meant tying up the rest of the traffic and waiting for things to start moving again. This was too much time for my impatient Hubby who decided we should get off our bus and walk to another stop away from this soccer bedlam. After walking for about 20 minutes, I happened to catch a glimpse of a bus similar to the one we had deserted. Realizing it had to be the same one since the driver smiled in recognition, I took the chance of waving it down. Lo and behold he slowed up to let us back on with no additional charge.

Boca fans.

Boca Juniors fans.

Fans from Bolivia

Fans from Bolivia

The ride back completed what I felt was another day filled with unexpected surprises. Fortunately, they were all good. Ironic that here of all places where we had received so many dire warnings about theft and over pricing we didn’t encounter any of these. We saw and experienced enough to recommend that it’s quite possible to get there on your own, to not spend a ton of money on food and fun, and to simply learn more about what this area is famous for. Amid the gaudy knick knacks and the somewhat seedy areas, the cultural history and sense of neighbourhood is still evident. We never once felt unsafe or pressured by pesky vendors. We did encounter this in Tigre where we least expected because it’s been touted as a very safe place for a family outing. You can read about Tigre in my last post. Instead in La Boca we met some really kind people like Annabelia and the waiter who served us our delicious lunch. I shudder to think that we might have missed this had we listened to all the nay sayers.

Our Trip to Tigre – Facing the Unexpected

Ever since I have been in South America, I have been wrestling with how to deal with unexpected surprises. It seems like the last three months have been full of them most resulting from communication break down and in our case not being able to speak Spanish. A good example of this happened just this past week when Hubby and I visited Tigre, a suburb of Buenos Aires or BA as the ex-pats call it.

Tigre is a suburb to the north of Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata and is a great place to visit if you are looking for an escape from the daily hubbub and noise of the city. The best way to reach it is to take a leisurely, hour-long train ride on the Le Mitre line from the Retiro train station in the city centre.

The Rio de la Plata - Tigre

The Rio de la Plata – Tigre

It was a perfect autumn day, not too hot with clear skies and lots of sun. The ride didn’t provide much in the way of scenery except to reveal how those in this part of the BA suburbs live. The homes are more stately, high rises are fewer, and occasional glimpses of the Rio de la Plata were visible in the distance. The huge Rio de la Plata is the river or gulf (it is called both) which forms a boundary between Uruguay and Argentina and runs into the Atlantic. However, our journey was in no way boring since we did get serenaded by a quartet of singers who managed to grab our attention with traditional Spanish songs along with some modern-day rap.

On the train to Tigre

On the train to Tigre

As we have found since we have been in BA, it’s common to be entertained by all kinds of talent on the trains and subways and to even do some shopping. At certain times of the day, when not too crowded, vendors selling everything from soup to nuts ply the cars and make surprisingly good sales. For the passengers it’s a convenient way to shop and pick up any little item they may need. The nice thing about this marketing scheme is that the vendors don’t pressure the passengers to buy. They run up and down the aisles chanting their spiels or even leaving a sample with each person which they will return to in a few minutes. You simply pass it back if you don’t want it or quickly hand over the money. It’s done effortlessly and with no hassle.

Upon arriving in Tigre exactly one hour later, we quickly headed in the general direction of the Fruit Market and the area where the weekend market is held. Unfortunately, in the middle of the week there are only a handful of shops and restaurants open so the place was quite deserted. However, there are always some who stay open for those of us who venture out to avoid the weekend crowds. We quickly sought out a little restaurant right on the river which had empanadas (the South American version of our sandwich which is a meat, chicken, or vegetable filling wrapped in a kind of dough like pastry) which I had decided I wanted for my lunch.

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What a treat to eat our lunch near the water in the autumn sunlight. Yes, it’s autumn here in this part of the world and probably one of the best times to be here since the days are cooling down to a comfortable 25 degrees. They are also getting shorter which seems odd to us since we are thinking spring and feel they should be getting longer. Oh well, the reversal of the seasons is just another little adjustment we have to deal with here in BA.

After our leisurely, but unfortunately not too tasty lunch, we started out on an exploration of the stores that were open. On the way to the river front, we had spied an interesting looking panderia (bakery) with a huge array of Argentinian baked goodies so decided we would pick up a few items for next morning’s breakfast. Hubby saw they were advertising mate, an Argentine caffeine drink which they claim is better than green tea. Since President Obama had sampled the tea when he was visiting here last week, Hubby was curious as to what we had been missing  so put in an order to the young chap behind the counter.

He brought the tea in a special clay pot with a metal straw attached to the side, a large electric kettle, and a full bag of tea. I thought this was rather strange but didn’t say anything since there have been many things about Argentina customs we have found a bit strange, such as maps that appear to be upside down, too much salt in just about all the restaurant food, and far too many dogs.

We both agreed that the mate was too bitter for our tastes even though it’s supposed to have many health properties and that would be the last time we ever ordered it. After drinking as much as we could so as not to offend our waiter, we asked for our bill. When he presented it to us, we nearly fell off our chairs. The grand total was 150 pesos which in Canadian dollars was $13.50! There had to be a mistake! We had heard about how popular the drink was and its wondrous health benefits but at this cost? Was it this magical? Perhaps if he threw in the whole bag along with the pot then this would justify the price. And if all the health benefits were true, then maybe we were getting our money’s worth? There was room here for some negotiation, or so I thought. Maybe he could lower his price to something more reasonable? The problem was how to communicate this to him when he said, “No Ingles” and we said, “No hablas Espanol”. He bombarded us by speaking rapidly in Spanish which he knew we didn’t understand pretending that he had no idea what we were talking about. Obviously we were at a stalemate. Should we give him something for his service and if so how much, or should we just walk away? Yes, this thought had actually occurred to us. However, being nice Canadians we couldn’t do this so very reluctantly gave in to his demand and paid the bill.

We sat for a while at our side-walk table still in a state of shock. This incident had left a bad taste in our mouths. I could see that Hubby’s shock was rapidly turning into a fury at his conclusion that he had been taken. Meanwhile, I tried to drink some more mate to not only get our money’s worth but to try to get the effect of some of those health benefits. I was right, however, as Hubby went into action by first yelling at our culprit or hapless waiter (at this point I wasn’t sure what he was) and then enlisting the help of anyone near by. The first person he  nabbed was an older woman who smiled and greeted us in French as she walked by our table. He related what had happened and asked her whether this was a fair price. She seemed  aghast at what we had paid and intimated that it really shouldn’t have cost anything as it was more a service to visitors to acquaint them to the wonderful benefits of mate tea. Another young man appeared who spoke fairly good English who said the same thing, but it was obvious that neither of them wanted to get involved in this dispute as they gradually faded into the background. Not inclined to give up easily when it comes to money, Hubby again enlisted a group of about five more people who approached the scene.

One of the group, a woman who spoke very good English and immediately understood what had happened to this couple of unsuspecting tourists, undertook the task of making Hubby’s wishes be known that all he wanted was half his money back or he would get the police involved. Oh dear, at this point I really began to wonder how this would unfold. Would this final ultimatum work? Against the wishes of her friends and possibly family, as we didn’t have a clue who these people were, she barged into the bakery to confront our culprit. Within seconds she came back not with half the money but all of it, handed it to Hubby, and told us to leave quickly. Surprised by this sudden turn of events, we thanked her profusely to which she immediately grabbed us both with a strong embrace planting many kisses on our cheeks before her friends grabbed her to lead her away.

We were left shaking our heads in disbelief at what had just happened. We really didn’t know what to make of it all other than to surmise that the young scoundrel had tried to make a few extra bucks off some naive tourists who spoke no Spanish. On the other hand, we realized once again that as a tourist you always have to be vigilant in a country with a different culture. Argentina and Canada share many similarities in lifestyle and culture making it very comfortable so it’s easy to become complacent. Everyone we have met has bent over backwards to help us with directions, to translate to others when we are having difficulties, and to warn us about watching our personal belongings when in public places. On this particular day we simply weren’t prepared for this unexpected incident. There is also no doubt in my mind that if we had the language skills our outcome would have been less stressful.

This was not the cup our waiter served our mate in. This is a souvenir one I bought at the market.

Our mate was not in this cup.  I bought this as a souvenir and it’s made of metal.

Thankfully the remainder of our day passed with no further surprises. To complete it before heading back to the city, we decided to take a relaxing boat trip up the Rio to see ‘some nature’ – the sales pitch used by the boat operators. A huge catamaran took us past the beautiful estates of the wealthy who have sought out Tigre as their place of escape from the big city. An extra bonus for us was to meet two delightful sisters from England whom we instantly connected with because we all were dying to have a good conversation in English. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel in a foreign country. Perhaps more so when we are beginning to feel the first pangs of travel fatigue and miss having our own language all around us.

A home along the river as seen from our catamarand.

A home along the river as seen from our catamarand.

Me with English sisters - Naomi on the left and Natasha in the middle.

Me with English sisters – Naomi on the left and Natasha in the middle.

So again, as has happened so many times on this South American trip, challenges have arisen quickly and unexpectedly only to be followed by something positive and uplifting. This is the thing about travel. You never know what to expect. All we can say is that it certainly isn’t boring – not for a minute!