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Thursday, December 29th, 2005

24 December 2005 – 28 December 2005 (Saturday – Wednesday) – Buenos Aires, Argentina

I have a very good friend, Natalia. She is from Buenos Aires, but has been living in Singapore for more than a year now. That was where we knew each other. We live just 10 minutes from each other and had spent quite a lot of time together just before I left Singapore. And to my most pleasant surprise, she was coming to Buenos Aires this Christmas holiday to spend some time with her family. And I would be spending Christmas Eve with her and her sister’s family tonight.

I had a little present for Claudia and her boyfriend, Leonardo and left it under the tiny Christmas tree. I also had presents for Natalia and her sister, Raquel. I bought a bottle of sidar (cider juice) and pan dulce (Christmas cake) for the party. I was ready to go!

Gosh, Raquel’s family was really welcoming to me. And it was absolutely fantastic to see Natalia again! I was introduced to everyone, relatives from Raquel’s husband. It was a very Italian affair, everyone was joyous, loud, laughing, joking, arguing, gesturing, passing the dishes around. This scene looked almost surreal to me, as I amusedly recalled those movies involving Italian family dinners. So, it is all real here.

With Natalia

Feliz Navidad!

I had spent Christmas Eve last year at Natalia’s house. Then, I had my own Hospitality Club guest, David from Spain, whom I brought along for the party. David speaks English, so it was not a problem for communications for then, I could hardly utter one word in Spanish. And yet, one year on… I am spending Christmas with Natalia and her family again, and I was talking to everyone in Spanish. How things have changed!

At the point of midnight, everyone toasted merrily with champagne and sidar. We climbed up to the roof and watched fireworks all over the city. People lit paper balloons and let float in the sky. One actually fell right into our backyard. Raquel’s husband, Alfredo, pointed out to me an area which was very, very poor and dodgy. It was right outside the Distrito Federal, in the Provincia. And it had the most sprouts of fireworks. It is always like this, the poorest has the most inclination and money for joyful celebrations.

Raquel and her sister-in-law later hooked on me to tell me stories after stories. At the opposite spectrum of what Elisa-Maris had told me yesterday, these ladies lamented to me about the tough life of the middle-class, living here in Buenos Aires. The stress, the long distances to travel, the need to hurry all the time. With the fall of the economy a few years ago, they still had to feed, clothe and educate their children in whatever means they can, often, they have to hold more than 1 job. Although education in the state university is free, it is really tough to enter, these kids had to study really hard, and if they fail, they had to repeat the year again and again. Many, to pay for books and photocopies, had to resort to working while studying. In fact, as it is the trend that nearly all of the students work and study at the same time, most courses are held 6am-8am, before work, and 7pm-11pm, after work. Then, depending on whether they have exams, they either go partying til 3 or 4am… heheh… or they study in a late-night or 24-hour cafe til 3 or 4am. And up they go to work the next day at 8am. No, it is not easy living in Buenos Aires…

True, to every side of the coin, there is the other.

Naturally, by 2am, 3am, 4am… I had immense difficulty keeping up with the conversations, especially those long grandmother stories of utter irrelevance suddenly recalled by Alfredo’s mother… stories of her second-cousin, the son of the brother of her brother-in-law… people who had long died and whom we absolutely do not know nor care about. I just switched off totally, smiled genially and nodded vaguely.

The next day, we groggily woke up at noon. I thanked the family profusely and headed home for a wash. I was to meet Monica today, this Polish tourist whom I met in San Pedro de Atacama. At that time when we parted, we promised to catch up again in Buenos Aires. I had enjoyed talking to her, and looked forward to meeting her again. As everything would be closed today, Christmas Day, we more or less arranged to go to a park today to sun-bathe.

I called her hostel and left a message that I would be there by around 4pm. To be honest, while we had vaguely made this appointment to hang out together today, I was latina enough to know that plans always change. If I find her at the hostel and she is still keen to go, great, we would go. If she is not at the hostel or is sleeping, I don’t care, I don’t mind, I would still go to the park.

When I arrived at the hostel, I asked for her at the reception. Gosh, to my horrors, instead of telling me that Monica was still sleeping, they actually dragged her out of bed. Monica looked a mess. She could hardly focus her eyes on me. She had been partying for 12 hours straight, from midnight last night to noon today. She had just crawled into bed! She had been in Buenos Aires for 9 days and had spent all 9 nights partying and sleeping in in the day.

To those who enjoy partying, perhaps, this was normal. But to me, it sounded excessive. Partying is fun, but for 9 nights in a row? I asked Monica if she had seen any parts of Buenos Aires. She kinda muttered vaguely, “Oh, you can do tours… you know… if you want.” Well, that sounded like she had not gone anywhere else. For a moment, I wanted to ask her to stop partying just for one night, so that she was sober enough the next DAY and we could do something together. I really wanted to share with her the Buenos Aires that I love.

But wait… Why do I want to do that? How can I do that in one day? I could only show her buildings, parks, streets and monuments. To experience and love Buenos Aires, it is not done this way. These things would mean NOTHING to her. The magic of Buenos Aires has to be sensed, to be lived. The magic first dawns on you as you experience the street-lives, then, it engulfs and envelopes you as you walk around in half disbelief and marvel at what is going on around you and as you begin to learn about little idiosyncrasies of the people here, finally, it grows and sinks right into your blood stream and you just cannot get enough of the incredible city. I would not be able to share THAT with just about anyone. The person does not only need to have open eyes, but an open heart, an open mind, open pores to soak everything in. Let Monica enjoy Buenos Aires in her own way.

I packed Monica back to bed, and headed to Plaza San Martin. I had always loved doing this – walk barefoot on the grass, find a spot in the sun or shade, lay down, stare at the blue blue sky, sleep, read, people-watch. Absolutely fantastic and tranquil way to spend Christmas Day.

Plaza San Martin

Henry, my travel buddy from Isla del Sol to La Paz in Bolivia, was also in Buenos Aires right now. He had called me late at night on Christmas Day to tell me he would be heading to Uruguay the next day, Boxing Day. He would spend New Year there. What?? Gosh, we really wanted to see each other again in Buenos Aires, but there was just not enough time anymore. He had to leave, as he had already exceeded his 30-day visa here.

On Boxing Day, as there was no other way to meet, Henry asked me if I could go to Tigre as he would head there to buy his boat ticket to Uruguay. Well, why not? I would do that. So, I took a bus, 1 hour, all the way to Retiro Train Terminal and then, grabbed a train, 1 hour as well, all the way to Tigre. Hahaa… just to see my dear friend Henry! Once again, it was really wonderful to see him again!!

Henry had found a job here easily. He is a film-maker and even filmed Maradona recently at the Clarin (a leading newspaper of Argentina) Awards. But he really needed to find an apartment. He desperately wanted to get an apartment to have his own kitchen, so that he could start cooking his own meals.

Ha… Henry and I are both foreigners here in Argentina. To us, there are just the following food categories – meat, milanesa, pasta, pizza – here in Argentina. He missed Peruvian food very much. He missed the variety there. He said he could eat one different dish a day and would not have to repeat for at least a month! I understood him perfectly. The same can be said of Singaporean food, I could probably last 2, 3 months without repeating our local dishes. We are always fondest of the food we grow up with.

OK, the average Argentines could argue that there are DIFFERENT kinds of meat and DIFFERENT kinds of pasta. But to us, they are the same – meat and pasta! They are delicious at first, but after a while, please… enough. Thank goodness, these past days, I was able to use Claudia’s kitchen to prepare my own lunch before I head out for the day. I love Claudia’s kitchen. I love Claudia’s pots and pans.

Finally, Henry had to go and I wished him all the best for his career and new life here in Argentina, and perhaps, in other countries next time, who knows. Sob sob, bye bye.

One major item I wanted to buy was books. Spanish books, of course. I wanted to try and read them. There is no way I could get them back in my country, so I had to get them here. I also did not want to be over-ambitious, what is the point if I could not understand a word! Nothing too political or philosophical, just short stories. I walked up and down Av. Corrientes for up to 7 hours on Tuesday, browsing at every bookshop between Av. 9 de Julio and Av. Callao. Fantastic avenue, this.

I left a bookshop with 2 books that cost me 27 Argentine pesos. I thought, in Singapore, I would have to pay for ONE book (and not even in Spanish) for more or less S$27 (that’s about 50 Argentine pesos). Great bargains here.

As I had repeatedly said, there is a wide wide range of topics here. To narrow down to Oriental topics, for example, I found many books on Tao, Buddhism, Qi Gong, I-Ching, Akido, Reiki, Tai Ji Quan, Ayuverdic, Acupuncture, The Art of War by Sun-Tzu, Feng Shui and well, for that matter, Kama-Sutra. Raquel, Natalia’s sister, seeing that I am Chinese, had wanted my advice on Feng Shui! Gosh, how embarrassing, I know nothing!

I mean, I actually learnt how to use I-Ching here in Argentina, I had my first proper experience with a Reiki maestro in Ecuador. Here I am in South America, buying talismans from the Tiahuanacu culture in La Paz, having my future read with coca leaves, sinking my paws into South American literature, lusting after the Argentine movies DVDs in MusicMundo (a CD/DVD megastore), dying to be able to watch them to understand more about Argentina people but not able to afford them… And yet, people here are absolutely fascinated with the Oriental ideas, practices and mysticism, many are learning Mandarin, reading up whatever they can find, going for acupuncture or Reiki and practising Qi Gong, Tai Ji Quan… People are always like that, aren’t they?, we are always drawn to whatever that is opposite and unfamiliar, and thus, exotic.

The other thing I really really really wanted to do was also to watch a function in Teatro Colon. I had tried to do that with Pablo back in June, but there was a strike on the evening we went. On Wednesday, I was determined to watch the ballet called ‘Giselle‘. This is the last function of the season. I had to watch it, for I had so few days left.

I want to watch a function at Teatro Colon... by hook or by crook!

I arranged to meet Natalia at 8pm, to buy the tickets for the 8:30pm show. I arrived at 7:45pm and waited. Natalia, being Singaporean-trained, arrived 5 minutes later. Both of us were way earlier than our arranged time. Unfortunately, she told me there were no more tickets left! What?? I was horrified. We wanted to get the cheapest tickets – all of 3 pesos, standing tickets right at the topmost floor where you could see nothing. We did not care, we just wanted the experience of being in Teatro Colon. I thought there would surely be standing tickets!

But all was not lost, she said that there was a guy who told us to meet him at the entrance at 8:20pm to 8:25pm. He might be able to bum us some tickets. That was great! We waited for him there, and soon he shoved us 2 tickets almost furtively.  Hmmm… both had already been ripped. Used tickets? Where did he get these from? These were the portions normally given to the guests. Anyway, we did not have time to ponder and puzzle over it and we hurried to the ticket-guy and gave him the tickets. He asked us why were these already torn. I wanted to l-i-e, to tell him that we had entered just now, but came out again. And now we were going in again.

But before I could do that, Natalia, again being Singaporean-trained, honestly told him – “A guy gave us these tickets. I do not know why they were already torn.”

Now, where is the hole? I seriously need to crawl into it to d-i-e now!!

The ticket-guy fingered them suspiciously and informed us we could not enter the function with torn tickets. OK, shoot me right now. But wait… another guy, you know the older heavier-set guy who stands a little bit behind, with a walkie-talkie, told us to wait, he would talk to someone.

I drew Natalia aside and contemplated our situation. Have we gotten that guy who gave us the tickets into trouble? Is this how I die? Glamourously here in Teatro Colon?

“Pasan, señoritas… pasan…” (Pass, ladies… pass), the older guy beckoned at us after a few minutes. What??? Gee, thanks! We breezed right through as sweetly as we could, but I was still waiting for the bullet to hit my back. We checked the tickets. I thought they were standing tickets, but no… these were box tickets!! We had a box!!!!! You know, like where the two old men in The Muppet Show sit and snicker at the performances! We had a BOX!!!!

There were already 3 guests at the balcony, so at the back, we could see nothing if we sat down. But we could stand, no problem. We were ready to stand and watch the performance right at the ceiling! And gosh, could our luck be furthered?… One of the guests was a middle-aged lady. She got up and told me to take her seat by the balcony. She had seen this ballet 4 times. No, seriously? She explained that for 50 years, she had been coming to Teatro Colon. For the good performances, she would snap up several functions. She just loves all this. Unbelievable! Natalia and I alternated and shared the seat. Gosh, it was such a beautiful performance… all about love, love, love. We later learnt that the other 2 guests paid 64 pesos for these seats. 64 pesos?? And we slithered in for FREE!!  Lucky bastards we were.

After the ballet, we headed to Kilkenny to meet Natalia’s brother, Rodrigo and his friends. It was close to midnight now. As we walked along the dark streets towards the bar, Natalia, again, being Singaporean-trained, was crying out at the amount of rubbish on the streets. Rubbish? What rubbish? Oh, you call this rubbish?? I know of other streets and avenues with even worse rubbish.

From around 8pm onwards, especially around the centre, the disembowelment of rubbish bags begins. All over, the rubbish people would cut open the rubbish bags discarded by the shop-owners and residents. They would go through everything to see what could be recycled – cardboxes, glass bottles, aluminium cans, cloth. So, at night, things can get really foul along some streets of Buenos Aires as rotten food scattered, paper flew and plastic bottles rolled.

After more than a year in Singapore, Natalia had gotten used to all things being clean, ordered, functioning, nothing broken. She really appreciated these qualities of Singapore, which perhaps were not so commonplace here in Argentina. Heh. Well, a friend of Claudia, Cintia, had told me that there was a 5-metre deep hole in front of her apartment right in the middle of the road where all cars had to drive around it gingerly.  The nearby residents recently placed a candle there to celebrate the hole’s first birthday. Things just do not get fixed. But in Singapore, that hole’s existence would not last 2 days.

Meanwhile, I had reached the complete opposite end. I had gotten used to the latina way of life, to all these rubbish everywhere now, to all the things that do not function and yet, somehow still function, to all the unexpected surprises and delightful discoveries.

Kilkenny is a great bar with great music. I had a thoroughly enjoyable night, chatting with Natalia, Rodrigo and his friends. By now, I was not even yawning and was still quite perky at 3am. But Natalia was yawning her eyes out, eager to get back home. Previously, during her youth here in Buenos Aires, she had thought the nocturnal life of Buenos Aires to be normal, no biggie, she had grown up in this culture and knew of nothing else.

In my previous trip here and in my previous RTW blog, I had written about this aspect of Buenos Aires as being something rather unique. I saw it through the eyes of a foreigner. Natalia had read that blog of mine and now, having been to other parts of the world, she was also seeing things through the eyes of a foreigner. Yes, she agreed, the crazy nocturnal life of Buenos Aires was indeed very unique. As we discussed this, we saw more taxis pulling up by Kilkenny, dislodging freshly-arrived party-goers. It was 3:30am.

Well, if I kept this topsy-turvy timing on, I probably would not have much problem adjusting to the jet-lag time differences when I get back to Singapore, where night is day and day is night compared to Argentina.

A Break from BsAs

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

19 December 2005 – 23 December 2005 (Monday – Friday) – Villa Elisa, Mar del Plata, Argentina

Well, as I said, much as I love this city, I needed a short break from Buenos Aires.

Raquel, whom I met way way way back in Salvador, Brazil, lives in Villa Elisa. I had pre-arranged with her that I would like to spend a few days at her place and she welcomed me with open arms. At the point of packing for the little trip, I also had the sudden idea to go straight to Mar del Plata after that to spend a couple of days on the beach before returning to Buenos Aires. Great to be travelling alone, as you can just make and change decisions just like that. Left a hurried note in Claudia’s apartment to tell her I would only be back by Christmas Eve.

Fantastic to see Raquel again. She has 2 children – Salvador, turning 11 soon and Carmen, who had just turned 9. She is about 10 years older than I, but she is such a cool lady, with many similar ideas as I, so we just had tonnes to talk about. And she is a great mom too, yes, to me as well, haha. I did not have to do anything at all in my 3 days with her. I just waited to be fed and got fed. OK, I did the dishes, perhaps the one household chore I am good at and which my hosts allow me to do.

As it is summer and the children had completed school for the term, we just spent our days going to the club, where the children ran off to swim or play racquet games, while Raquel and I, together with some of her friends, relaxed on the grass under the sun. We chatted, drank mate and played ‘Scrabble’ in Spanish. I had the dictionary clasped to my bosom the entire time, and at the end of the game, to my utter surprise, I actually won the game, heh…

Grimacing from the bitterness of mate, but still I drink it

With Carmen, Raquel's daughter and Fernanda, Raquel's friend

Raquel even brought along her I-Ching coins and the thick Book of Change and we asked several questions and consulted the book. I really had to laugh at myself. I-Ching has Oriental origins and I learnt how to use it here in Argentina. We also went for a short African dance practice, taught by Fernanda, Raquel’s friend. Fernanda is a Physics and Mathematics teacher in a school, very scientific-minded, yet she is also an artesana, making Mapuche weavings and other crafts and teaching African dances.

Villa Elisa is merely 45 minutes to 1 hour away from Buenos Aires on the bus towards La Plata and gosh, it is a completely different world. Just out of Buenos Aires’ provinces, are lands and lands of pure greenery. Villa Elisa is a residential area with big lovely houses, pretty gardens and lots and lots of shady trees along the streets. Just lovely to spend a couple of days here surrounded by chirping birds and pollution-free fresh air.

Raquel’s children are also incredibly intelligent and creative. They are drawing and drawing all the time and there are pictures pasted all over the house. I was amazed by how artistic they are, again they are the seeds of Argentina’s creativity culture. Raquel also shared with me the same theory, that Argentines must be ingenious, resourceful, creative to get around their social and economic situations. For her age, just 9 years old, I found Carmen really mature. She would sit there and give her opinions about the social class differences in Argentina and the bad education of the people who dirtied the streets in Buenos Aires and the beaches along the coasts. She over and over again expressed her love for nature, greenery and animals. Hahaa, this girl truly belongs to the countryside, like here in Villa Elisa.

I took the bus to Mar del Plata on Thursday morning and when I arrived at 2pm there, I was taken aback by how freezing cold Mar del Plata was. Gosh, this is the top summer resort of Argentina, where in perhaps 10 days’ time, hoards and hoards of porteños would descend upon this beach city like ants to bake under the sun. But with the strange topsy-turvy weather of Argentina, it was like 18C in the day and 12C in the night that ‘summer’ day.

This year was really odd. When I was here in Buenos Aires in autumn, back in May and June, the temperature reached a hot 28C. Now that it is summer, it actually dipped down to 12C. I had only brought along skimpy summery tops and a jacket which was basically just a shell where the wind blew right through me. Brrr….

The next day, I wanted to take advantage of the noon sun to head out to the beach, but at the hostel, somehow or other, I had to be sociable, stopping to chat with this and that person as I made my way from the bed to the breakfast table.

The lady who talked to me for more than 2 hours at the breakfast table was Elisa-Maris. She is an Argentine who had just returned from United States after more than 20 years there. She wanted to move back to Argentina and change her career. As she is still sorting out her things between Argentina and United States, she is currently living at the hostel.

I found it strange. Most people here in South America, including in Argentina, are planning and plotting their ways to work in United States or Europe. Yet, to meet a lady, who actually wants to leave United States to return to her home country, why?… I was curious.

Elisa-Maris explained that here in Argentina, compared to United States, people are very open-minded, there is indeed a huge cauldron of cultures and ideas here. For example, she explained… in United States, an average person listen to a few kinds of music, say, Country Music, Pop. But in Argentina, many people listen to ALL kinds of music, from Celtic to African to Arabic to Indian and people here read a lot about all topics around the world. I thought back… true, my friends here, Pablo and his friends, Raquel, Natalia, etc… indeed have music collections from all over the world. For sure, having scanned the bookshops here, people do read everything, bookshops are opened til 10pm or later, and often, on the bus or subte (metro), I would see people reading. Some artesanos in Plaza Francia, I was told, are doctors, radiologists… and Fernanda is a science teacher, yet, they also swing the other way – art.

Art, dance, music, literature, poetry… Argentina is indeed the place where cultures are cultured. This is what she misses here in Argentina, this is what she loves and wants to return to. She used to be a highly-placed teacher, a specialist in some kind of education, but now she wants to start a film company. Look at that! What a complete change! It was really refreshing to chat with Elisa-Maris, as she encouraged me to open my mind to all the options and changes in my new life when this trip ends.

I finally hit the beach and got myself nicely baked, both sides, for 2 hours or so, before the clouds closed in. The beaches of Mar del Plata are lined with rows and rows and rows of umbrellas and shady canvas cabins that stretched as far as the eyes could see. At this point, most of them are empty, although there were scattering of tourists all over the beach. But, gosh, I can just imagine, how horrifying it would be in January and February when nearly the entire population of Buenos Aires relocates itself here. I also noticed, to my amusement, that true to what Javier and Cristian had told us back at the beaches in Icapui, Brazil that Argentine guys do not wear swimming trunks, they just wear beach shorts.

I walked up and down the shopping streets of Mar del Plata, joining the last-minute shopping crowd. Yes, there is indeed a sense of urgency now. It’s the day before Christmas Eve! I could sense the desperation of some of the people as they browsed and picked. They were obviously buying things that they previously would not have bought, if they had had time to think long and hard at, ha. Whoops… I just realised I am one of them! I need to get presents for my friends back in Buenos Aires right now!

The Days And Nights Are Just Packed

Friday, December 23rd, 2005
14 December 2005 - 18 December 2005 (Wednesday - Sunday) - Buenos Aires, Argentina Thanks for giving me the break from updating the blog. I sure needed it!! To those who had been reading or polling... well, forgive me. I spent the ... [Continue reading this entry]

Mi Buenos Aires Querido

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005
13 December 2005 (Tuesday) - Buenos Aires, Argentina Ah, mi Buenos Aires querido... (My dear Buenos Aires)! I was very happy to see it again - in perfect summery weather this time - when the bus pulled up earlier than expected. My ... [Continue reading this entry]

Shopping Time

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

12 December 2005 (Monday) - Cordoba to Buenos Aires, Argentina

As I leave for home from Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of my missions here is to shop shop shop. Coz afterall, I am leaving and I have no idea when I ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

11 December 2005 (Sunday) - Córdoba to Alta Gracia to Córdoba, Argentina

I actually had quite a lot of difficulty tearing myself away from Nadia's house. Although Nadia is much younger than I, I found her very mature, intelligent and a ... [Continue reading this entry]

Paseo de las Artes

Sunday, December 11th, 2005
10 December 2005 (Saturday) - Córdoba, Argentina No Marina when I arrived in Córdoba. I was not surprised. I stuffed my backpack and haversack into a locker and tried to figure out what to do next. Suddenly, I realised I ... [Continue reading this entry]

Through the Andes and the Pampas

Sunday, December 11th, 2005
9 December 2005 (Friday) - Viña del Mar, Chile to Córdoba, Argentina Jessica and I bid farewells and I climbed onto the bus to Mendoza, Argentina. There were just 5 passengers on the bus. I guess, many Chileans were not travelling ... [Continue reading this entry]

Ceferino Ceferino Ceferino

Friday, December 9th, 2005
8 December 2005 (Thursday) - Viña del Mar, Chile Today is a public holiday and so Jessica did not have to go to work and was free to show me around. She drove me to Concon and we stopped by Playa ... [Continue reading this entry]

Some Like It Slimey

Friday, December 9th, 2005

7 December 2005 (Wednesday) - Valparaiso, Chile

I headed out to Valparaíso late in the morning and walked down the entire length of the town. Skinny Chile is really so interesting. On the one hand, you can see the crashing ... [Continue reading this entry]