AN ODE TO SOUTH AMERICA.
AN ODE TO SOUTH AMERICA.
It was autumn in Europe when we set sail, albeit metaphorically, for Latin America. We were flying into Buenos Aires where we meant to stay a month or longer before visiting the surrounding countries. We had given up our flat-share in Barcelona and packed the rest of our limited belongings away in storage. Cramped as we were on board the Iberian Airways’ flight, I tried not to visualize what lay on the other side. Experience has taught me to keep an open mind. Things never turn out exactly as you imagine them. Despite a brief delay at the stop-over in Madrid and the lousy airplane food and even lousier service from the stewards, we got there first thing in the morning.
The usual waiting for the luggage, changing of currencies and a phone call to Nora, the woman we renting an apartment from and we were set for adventure. I was amazed by how green the fields were out of town. They soon gave way to shabby neighbourhoods which in turn, gave way to more pleasant environs before we pulled up in front of a nice, serviced building in Barrio Norte. Nora, who had waited some time already, came down to show us in. She was a well- conserved woman in her forties who run her rental apartments smoothly and efficiently.
After a wonder around the neighbourhood and getting some groceries, we crashed out for a couple of hours to get over the jet lag. On waking up it was all systems go. It is a fantastic sensation being somewhere new, with all that that promises. First stop was Café Tortoni, on Avenida de Mayo. A fabulous, old, marbled café with a decadent décor and old-fashioned service. We stopped at Plaza de Mayo, where mothers and grandmothers gathered regularly to protest against the disappearance of their children. Argentina, like most of South America has a brutal history.
The next weeks were spent visiting various neighbourhoods; Recoleta with its famous cemetery where Eva Peron rests, San Telmo with its antique market and Tango on the streets, Palermo with its cafes and night-time bars, and Retiro where trains and buses leave to outer Buenos Aires and beyond. We took a train to Tigre and enjoyed the riverside picnic atmosphere and the market. We went to San Antonio de Areco and took in the Gaucho lifestyle and we had Tango classes and endless coffees in the beautiful art-décor cafes. I went to Capoeira classes and met some wonderful people and we marveled at the contrast between the run-down buildings in La Boca and the chic shopping malls in Barrio Norte.
I looked into teaching English but found that the pay was so bad, the economic situation was still so dismal that it was not worth the effort. After a month, there was nothing left for it but to move on. First stop was Chile.
We took a bus from Retiro station to Santiago de Chile. It was a twelve hour journey in total, including brief stops. The highlight of which was waking at dawn as we crossed the Andes. Having gone through the provinces of Cordoba and Mendoza which were pretty flat, the contrast was striking. Small mountain villages, often of only a handful of shacks nestled here and there. We stopped at a guest house where the driver and his assistant picked up fresh coffee and croissants for breakfast. As we wound down, going round and round the steep mountain sides, the view was breathtaking and dizzying. On the other side, vineyards and farmland slowly gave way to an urban landscape and we pulled into Santiago de Chile around midday.
We took a taxi to our guesthouse in a quiet neighbourhood and were dismayed to find a sullen and unhelpful welcome. It was obviously owned by a well-to-do family that had fallen on hard times and had had to expand the family home, constructing a makeshift, two-floored attachment to it. The room we had was a double room in the sense that it had a double bed, a small TV on the wall, and a cramped but private bathroom. We checked in, left our luggage and set off to discover the city. There is a hill right in the city from which one can see the layout of the city. A market and an old monastery nearby made for an interesting first stop. Santiago is, like Buenos Aires, so European in design and sentiment that it was so pleasant to wonder the streets. The metro, which must have been very new then, was so sleek and avant-guard and everything seemed to work smoothly. We had lunch in the fish market where due to the lower numbers in visitors, the restaurant and bar owners called out at us and almost hounded us down. In the end, we went into the nearest place having walked around and refuted various offers.
We spent the next few days visiting various parts of the city before we left for the coast by bus. Now Chile is so long and narrow that crossing the country width-wise takes about an hour. We arrived in Valparaiso at dusk on an evening when there was a power cut. It reminded me of a similar occurrence a few years prior to that when I arrived in Belem, Brazil, much later in the night, to find a chaotic city lit by candles and lanterns. Anyway, this time, our accommodation was in a family home run by a young, friendly couple who ate with guests and whose house was a work-in-progress as they were continuously doing it up in mosaic.
Despite the power cut, we set off and wondered past the local bars, picked up some food from the half-lit supermarket and picnicked in a square in the centre. Just when we were cursing our luck and about to return to the guest house, the lights came on and we walked into the most charming café cum artist’ hangout. Now, Valparaiso is famous for its creative spirit and one of its most famous residents was Pablo Neruda. The oldest and sweetest waiter I have ever set eyes on served us and kept bringing out things for us to try. He was so delighted at having visitors from what seemed like and was the other side of the world. We had a few pisco sours and so many snacks. He would not let us pay for half the things we consumed and was shocked when I paid the bill. Gunni, my boyfriend got a telling off from him. What was the world coming to if a girl paid for drinks and food! Even when I told him it was partly with his money, he wasn’t convinced.
Valparaiso is hilly in parts and coastal in others. There is a port and all that comes with that; sleazy bars, rowdy tarts and drunken sailors. There is an old lift that joins the upper and lower parts of the city. There was a folkloric festival during our stay and we saw the townsfolk all dressed up in various traditional costumes parading in the town centre. We visited Pablo Neruda’s house and took in the local atmosphere. We also made a day trip to Viña del Mar, a beachside town fifteen minutes down the road.
Viña del Mar has white, sandy beaches and the ever-cold Atlantic Ocean. The water was freezing, to the point where I only dipped my toes in and yelped back in horror. The town is clearly a full-time residence for some and a retreat for others. The seaside is awash with condos and the streets orderly and affluent. On our return to Valparaiso, we made arrangements to leave the next day, destination Santiago and on to Montevideo-Uruguay.
At the bus station in Santiago de Chile, chaos reigned. It wasn’t clear which window one had to go to and there were no buses going directly to Montevideo. We decided to get a ticket to Buenos Aires and then a ferry on to Monte Video. Just as it was almost our turn at the window, a fat, middle-aged woman, laden with endless bags pushed in without even an apology. It turned out she was taking the same bus as we were and Gunni gave her his meanest look, which was hilarious. Anyway, sometime later, when we pulled up at the border and had to fill in our customs forms and show our passports, the same woman was pulled aside and she ended up delaying us all. She had bags of food which the officials would not let her cross with. No amount of begging and pleading from her changed their minds. We felt wicked for thinking she deserved it, although with an attitude like that, she did not have many sympathizers. As we had set off first thing in the morning, by midday, we stopped for lunch at a small town bus station. There was some confusion as to how long we had and what the driver’s instructions had been that when we saw the bus pull away with all our possessions on it, we panicked and feared the worse. We went in search of any passengers from the same bus and when we finally found them, discovered that the driver had to refill and would return in 45 minutes. Panic over, we got some food and the rest of the journey went smoothly.
It was raining for hours as we drove into Buenos Aires. In a way that made me think of the Argentinian film, “El mismo amor, la misma lluvia”. (The same love, the same rain). This sort of melancholic, never-ending rain that must contribute so much to the soulful Tango music. We made our way to the ferry station for the quick hop across to Uruguay. On the other end, I was flustered by the number of checks and procedures. It struck us as odd that there would be so much fuss crossing these borders. A bus ride into Montevideo past lovely countryside and we were at our humble but charming guesthouse. It was in an old building, lovingly renovated, with all the architectural details intact. It was simple and yet quite majestic and a contrast to our abodes in Chile.
It must have rained almost every day we were in Uruguay, although the warmth of the people shone enough to make up for the weather. Their lilt was a sort of sing-song that was even more pronounced than the Argentinians. We went to a couple of Afro-cultural events as this was the time leading up to Carnival and the local folkloric dances and music mostly came from that. Candombe is one of the most famous ones. We visited the seaside and went out to the bars at night. We caught a performance by the famous Uruguayan musician Gorge Drexler at a local theatre. We went to the famous Sunday market which has so many antique stalls and heard the Candombe drummers as they marched on Sunday morning. Soon it was time to head north to Brazil.