After my adventure in the great white south, I hopped on a flight to Buenos Aires. I'd a little time before heading to Africa, and I figured I'd spend a little time in the Argentinean capital. I ended up spending nearly two weeks here, due to a couple of circumstances (one in particular) that were beyond my control. However, there are much worse places to be stuck in the world, though it leaves me with an interesting quandary on how best to relay the events of my time there to you. Hopefully the highlights listed below will give you a taste of what it was like.
Buenos Aires is absolutely beautiful. It has a very European feel to it - even more so than Santiago, Chile: Long, wide streets filled with smooth-trunked old trees, quaint little café's with clinking coffee mugs, tiny restaurants with street-side tables covered by colorful awnings. It's also got its busy side - It's the largest city I've been to so far in the trip. It's absolutely enormous. Apparently over 13 million live in the metro area, giving it a very diverse set of inhabitants. The neon glow of McDonald's arches and blinking Sony signs illuminate the hustle and bustle of thousands of people's walk toward late-night dinners.
As luck (bad, this time) would have it, I ended up staying in three different hostels while in town. As you might expect, there were some surprising similarities, and some stark contrasts.
The first one, called "Lime House", was located on a busy corner in the middle of the action downtown. One had to go up two very dark flights of marble stairs, worn concave in the centers by years of use, to get to the office. It was a dark and dingy, with terrible bathrooms and showers, and catered to a pretty young crowd of laid back, beer drinking hippies. I shared a dorm with three people I never saw, but by the looks of their gear, it was probably for the best. I only lasted two nights there.
Portal Del Sur was my next residence, and my favorite. It had four stories of rooms, crowned by a rooftop terrace complete with a bar in which the smallest beer you could buy was a 1.5 liter bottle. The staff was fairly curt and not overly friendly, but they had an absolutely beautiful travel agent named Cecilia, and breakfast was really good, so I ended up staying here for the majority of my time. I bunked in a dorm here as well, where I actually met some really interesting people. Mandi, Oliver, Cat, Callie, Willie, and the Irish girl who celebrated her birthday on a random Tuesday night were all staying in the same place, and made life a lot more fun. Thanks to you all if you're reading along.
My third and final home in Buenos Aires was a huge place called "Milhouse". It's one of the biggest hostels in the city and had the only availability late in my stay. It's a massive, commercialized, multi-story, eight-person-per-dorm, HI-affiliated place with more people than you could imagine. The staff even wears matching t-shirts for recognition. It was actually a pretty impressive operation. However, as I found out later the similarities of this place and a large fraternity house in the US were striking. Every night, as I was going to bed at 12:00 or 1:00, my seven perpetually drunk/high dorm mates were heading out. Much like spring break, they'd get all dressed up to go clubbing until all hours of the night. They'd come back in at five or six in the morning, turning on all the lights and talking like they had absolutely no idea I was there - which they probably didn't. I'm getting old.
Buenos Aires turned out to be a good place for me sit down and get some things done. As you may have guessed, a trip like this is actually pretty far from a vacation. There are a lot of things that have to get sorted out. If you screw something up it could mean long delays at borders, losing money, losing your stuff, or getting robbed. Your mindset is a little different when your entire world is contained in two bags and a passport.
- If the rate of stamping in my passport continued, I figured I'd likely run out of space in by around June or so, likely in the middle of Israel or something - probably not the easiest of all places to get everything sorted out. I really didn't know if they could do it or not, but I spent most of my first day in Buenos Aires at the American Embassy, hoping they could add pages to my passport without sending it back to the US. Fortunately, they were able to do it right there, but took their sweet time about it. In a twisted way, it was almost comforting to see the US government operations in Argentina so closely resembling those in the states. It was just like waiting at the DMV.
- I also had to figure out what to do with all the extra cold-weather gear I had from the Antarctic adventure. I actually had to pay a penalty in the airport for my luggage being overweight - I was carrying around an extra 20 pounds of boots, coats and long underwear. I spent a couple days figuring out how the Argentinean postal service worked - and no, it's not like ours. I won't bore you with the details, but if you're ever in Buenos Aires and need to mail something over nine kilos, know you have a trip to a sketchy post office down by the waterfront and a visit to a less-than-efficient customs desk in your future.
- The best part of my entire visit to Buenos Aires was figuring out how to procure a Brazilian visa. For those of you not accustomed to these proceedings, a quick overview - in most cases, a US passport is sufficient to get you into a country. A quick stamp at the immigration office and you're on your way. In some cases you'll need a Visa - an official set of documentation from the host country on your visit. Now these can come in many shapes and sizes, and in varying levels of difficulty to obtain. In the case of Brazil, it's about as painful as it can be. Basically our two countries have agreed to screw each other over as much as possible. What this ends up meaning for US citizens (and, to be fair, for Brazilians trying to get into the US as well), is that you have to go by the Brazilian consulate, apply for a visa, hope to get it approved, give them your passport, then pay a little over $100 to get it back with the right set of stickers and stamps attached.
To make a long story short, here are the highlights:
- The Brazilian consulate is open Monday through Friday, but only opens to non-Brazilians from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm.
- You have to bring an extra passport photo with you
- You have to completely fill out a 24 question form asking for really personal and detailed information. Any blanks will result in a rejection
- In the presence of the immigration officer, you have to sign a print-out of your visa application EXACTLY like the signature on your passport. They are really strict about this for some reason, and watch you like a hawk while writing.
- You must surrender your passport to them for the three business days of processing. Unfortunately for me, I started this on a Wednesday. This means it would be ready for picking up on Friday right? Nope. Try Monday. Umm... no - it's a bank holiday. I had to wait until Tuesday to get my freakin passport back.
- You can't pay for your visa there (and why would you be able to?). You have to take a little receipt and walk two or three blocks down to a bank where they accept payment. You then get another receipt stapled to your original which you take to pick up your passport.
- You can pick up your passport from the consulate only between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 pm.
Yes, it was a complete pain in the ass. You'd think I was getting some top-level security clearance or something.
Before I surrendered my passport to the Brazilian secret service, I managed to fit in a quick trip across the river to Uruguay. Based on a discussion with a dude from a tourist information office, I booked a ferry/bus combination to Montevideo. The ferry system was pretty nice - we rode on a cool-looking double-hulled fast-boat which could seat over 100 people. Then we had a three-hour bus ride from Colonia to Montevideo. I actually enjoyed the ride - the countryside in Uruguay reminds me a lot of Missouri. Deep green hills lined by rows and rows of corn and wheat, round hay bales scattered around lush pasture land, small farms with gravel roads guarded by tall pine trees. It was actually somewhat soothing.
Montevideo itself is a nice city, but fairly pale once you've spent some time in Buenos Aires. It's much smaller, but still has a nice old European air about it. It was Sunday afternoon and I took a long walk around the beachfront area, watching old leathery-skinned men fishing in the sea with long poles. Kids were playing soccer in fields right next to the beach, while teenagers on rollerblades and bicycles passed by.
That night I walked up to a local pizza joint and sat down to a nice big cheese and pepperoni. Uruguay is the first place I'd seen proper pepperoni in South America. I was a happy camper when it was brought out. I ended up having a beer and watching a soccer game with the owner of the restaurant for a few hours. I can't stand soccer, but the guy was nice enough, and spoke enough broken English for us to converse at a 1st grade level.
Obviously a lot more happened in the two weeks I was in Buenos Aires than just the above. However, rather than write about individual days I thought I'd just summarize my time by doing a quick Pros and Cons list. Hope you enjoy:
- Ugi's: Amazingly enough, there is a chain of pizza around downtown Buenos Aires which serves only plain cheese pizza. Yes, it's true. Their menu does have some choices - like whether you want a quarter of a pizza or a whole pizza, or whether you want a beer or 7up or Pepsi. That's it. However, it's actually pretty good, and it's amazingly cheap. I can get half a medium pizza and a Pepsi for a little over 7 pesos (roughly $2.33). Marengo, if you ever make it to BA, you won't starve.
- Movie Theaters: Fortunately, all three of my hostels were near the action of the city - meaning there were three movie theaters within walking distance. I managed to catch three or four movies I hadn't yet seen: "The Number 23", "Ghost Rider", "Pathfinder", and "300", the last of which was tremendous.
- Women: Argentineans, be proud. The women of Buenos Aires are the most beautiful in all of South America. The way they dress, the way they move, the way they present themselves - simply amazing. I could go on and on. "Low-cut" has an all new meaning. Fellas, I'll create an extended version of this at some point and send it to you via email.
- Recoleta Cemetery: On a hill in the middle of Buenos Aires stands an absolutely unbelievable cemetery next to a large church. It's absolutely beautiful, and unlike anything I'd ever seen. Small pedestrian streets and walkways are lined with crypts and tombs bigger than houses. Every different type of granite and marble is put to use to create unbelievable tributes to the dead. This is no place for the common tombstone.
- The Flower: In the middle of a park in a fairly posh area of BA stands a giant metal flower. Strange, I know. It is actually quite impressive though - it even opens and closes with the sunrise and sunset, just like a real flower. It's actually pretty impressive, though I'm told the locals don't like it at all.
- The Brazilian Visa: What a pain in the ass. What I listed above only touches on the frustration and worry I had about getting this thing. I'd talked to a couple other people who said they'd heard of people having their application rejected, and having to wait for another week to get it settled. I was unbelievably glad when I had my passport back in my hands. It was simply ridiculous.
- Rain: It rained damn near every day I was there. I was told it's unseasonable, but yet there it was, day after day, filling the streets, and running off of buildings. The thing about rain in the city is that drips continue for hours after the rain stops - coming off of gutters and overhangs to get you when you least expect it. Fortunately I had a few other things to do to keep me busy, but it's never fun to be soaked when you just want to get something to eat.
- "Club" Marketers: All the pedestrian-only streets were filled with men and women trying to sucker people in to their private clubs for a "show". They would try to hand out little flyers and "invitations" to "free shows" and "massages". They were sketchy to say the least, and ridiculously annoying. They'd even bother families and older people. No, I don't want a personal invitation to your underground, seedy strip club filled with 15 guys looking to rob me. Thanks anyway. And they just kept asking... and asking...
- City Tour: I booked a city tour the second day I was in town. It got off to a bad start as I was the first to be picked up and had to wait for over an hour as we picked people up from various hotels around the area. Additionally, the tour guide didn't speak much English, and we didn't even see a few of the major areas of the city. That was 40 pesos wasted.
- Roommates at Milhouse: On my last night at Milhouse, I ended up going to bed around 1:00 or so. Everyone else was gone, as usual. Around 2:30 in the morning, the door swung open, and all the lights were switched on by four or five of my noisy roommates, continuing a loud conversation from the hallway. Pissed off, I thought about getting up and saying something, but just stayed still in bed, feigning sleep and listening to the inane diatribe. Before long, it became clear why they were back. I could hear some tapping and scraping, like someone pushing something around on a pane of glass. Then I heard them start talking about which line each one wanted, followed by some overdone sniffing. After they were done, one of them even asked another if they should wake me up to see if I wanted some. Fortunately, it was the owner's last bit of his stash, and didn't see the need to distribute more to someone he didn't know. They then complimented each other on their clothing choices, and headed back out. I packed up early that morning.
Buenos Aires is a wonderful city. Like any metropolis, it has its ups and downs, but as far as South America goes, it was by far my favorite. It will be a place on my list to visit again - and hopefully on yours as well.