Tuesday, February 28, 2012

First Impressions of Argentina

Last Tuesday the 21st we touched down at the international airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina! The days prior had been a whirlwind of cities and climates – Thurs through Sunday we had been in cold Oruro watching carnaval, Sunday afternoon we were back in tropical Cochabamba, Monday afternoon we landed in hot Santa Cruz, and the next day was the 21st.

We disembarked, took a shuttle bus over to the terminal and arrived in the immigrations control area. Here there were three colored lines to guide travelers: Argentinian citizens, non-Argentinian citizens and travelers from the US, Canada and Australia. My first instinct was to go to the last line, us being from the US but it was entirely empty. Bev insisted that the signs must be wrong and we should wait in the non-Argentinian citizens line. It didn’t seem right, so after a minute or two I walked down the later line and confirmed that we should infact be there. Two passports and $140 each, and we were fast-tracked past the other passengers and were off to baggage claim.

Tangent: While there is no visa required for Argentina, they have a “reciprocity fee” because we charge their nationals money for getting a visa to America. Fortunately we only have to pay once every 10 years, while Australians have to pay every time they enter. Additionally this fee is only levied at the airport, so if we had had the time we would have flown to Montivideo, Uruguay and then taken the ferry into Buenos Aires, but we were on a tight schedule for WWOOF. Finally, the whole reciprocity fee thing seems kinda BS, and my professor in Bolivia brought up an interesting point against it. If you take Bolivians for example, they primarily go to the US for work and therefore to limit the flow of people the US levies a fee. Americans primarily go to Bolivia for tourism, and so by levying a fee you’re only discouraging tourist money. Case in point, the Spanish language school in Cochabamba where we studied for a week used to have lots of Americans 2-3 years ago, but now there are hardly any. In fact we met very few American travelers in our entire time in Bolivia.

Once we got our baggage it was off to “customs” where they just make you put your bag in the xray and don’t even look at your customs form. Past that we entered the lobby of the airport. Our taxi hadn’t yet arrived, so we had some time to get money, and by the time we were back there was a man waiting for us with a sign that said “Sam Feldman”. And then we were off to the city, about a half hour (to an hour and a half, depending on traffic) ride.

“Wow, look at this highway,” I thought, “it’s so clean, well-signed and organized.”

“And the cars, they’re all new!”

Arriving in BA, my first impression was that it looked like New York. It had big streets, densely packed with stores and restaurants, except it didn’t have the sky scrapers like NY has. We arrived at our bed and breakfast, “Petit Hotel El Vitraux Petit Hotel El Vitraux Petit Hotel El Vitraux” and were greeted by Elena. Right away you could tell we had awesome hosts. Elena offered to help with our stuff and from then on chatted away with us until late into the evening. You couldn’t imagine how happy we were to have such a warm, welcoming and talkative host (we’ve spent over 8 weeks largely talking to each other)! We were shown our room, which I won’t be able to adequately describe so here are some photos.

I know, amazing! The room, bathroom and patio are literally out of some sort of TV show. We checked email and then spent the rest of the afternoon talking with our hosts. We felt like we instantly had two new friends in BA, and it was a lot of fun talking about our travels, our lives back home and learning as much about life in BA, Argentina, etc.

Finally around 9 or 9:30 we succumbed to our hunger and left to get dinner.

Disclaimer: In Buenos Aires, and probably in Argentina in general (though I’m only familiar with BA so far) life runs very late. First, restaurants don’t open until 8pm, but if you show up before 10pm or 11pm it will be you and a handful of other tourists. From there, bars and nightspots don’t open until 1 or 2am. Needless to say this city doesn’t sleep, because if you figure you’re at dinner from 11 – 1am and then at a bar or out dancing from 2 – 5am, that only leaves 4 hours until you need to be at work. This is also the case in university, according to Elena, where it’s not uncommon to have classes that go until 12am. And then you want to catch up with friends for a few hours, and again, you’re living with 5-6hrs of sleep. The way Elena explained it is that people want to get the most out of life.

The place we picked, out of the many we were recommended was a traditional asado (bbq) place called “Argentine bbq” (I wanted to get my Argentinian steaks asap). As I explained above, when we arrived it was just us and another tourist couple. The menu had tons of meat options, as well as three menus of the day. We decided to each get a different one. And then it was on!

First the appetizers, in my case a large plate of prosciutto and various pickled veggies. For Bev, six large servings of mozzarella/tomato/basil. Then our carrafes of red wine arrived. I finished about half the appetizer, wanting to leave room for the entre and then it arrived. To say that it was an obsurdly large plate of meet wouldn’t do it justice. It was a very obsurdly large plate of meet with at least 10 different cuts of meet and it was my entrĂ©e. Wow. Bev’s was more manageable, it was a large steak served with mushroom sauce and these incredible tatertot ball thingies. I managed to eat two steaks and ribs, and couldn’t power through the rest (which were some odd cuts of meat like intestine, what I think was a heart, etc). After that it was dessert time. And finally we each received a glass of champagne. All of that food for $50 in total.

We then returned to our B&B and went to bed. The next day, we had a delicious breakfast spread waiting for us when we woke up. Then we got ourselves an Argentinian sim, so you can call us whenever, and were off to the bus station.

The bus station is located in a “shady” part of town, but the funny thing is that it was still nicer than many places we had seen in Bolivia. The station itself is huge, full of bus companies. We got our tickets and then were told to wait between platforms 37 and 52. Bev was psyched that there were lots of places to buy food for the road, instead of little old ladies cooking a stew in a large pot or grilling some mystery meat on the side of the road like we had gotten used to in Bolivia. 

As we waited, I couldn’t stop thinking how nice all the buses looked. They’re mostly double-decker buses, and all new of course (not on their 3rd life, like in Bolivia). Our bus arrived 30 minutes late, and even though we had booked the bottom floor by accident (tip: book the top floor, the view is better and it’s sunnier), we were still thrilled by the new seats and the bathroom! Let me repeat, there was a bathroom, which we could use, at any point.

Tangent: If you missed our rants about Bolivia, the buses don’t have bathrooms no matter if it’s a 2hr journey or a 22hr trip. We learned from Elena that it was because there had been an outbreak of cholera and they closed all the bathrooms. Additionally the buses are all on their 3rd life, which means that at any point they might breakdown. By comparison, Argentinian buses in many cases even best Business class in the Accella train. For example, the girls we met at the farm (more on that later) are taking a 20hr bus ride and they get breakfast, lunch, cold dinner, hot dinner and drinks, all included, with fully reclining seats, a bathroom, and it’s all pretty cheap. 

Anyways, the ride down to our farm was nothing but pleasant, on a nice clean highway, riding in a modern bus, and admiring the countryside. Next up, impressions of the farm.

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