4am. Alex and I stumbled from the little bar in San Telmo, Buenos Aires and out into the cobbled street into a very chilly Argentine night. We’d probably been awake for the best part of 2 days, and a night on the tiles after a punishing 26 hour flight from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, probably wasn’t the best way to recover from jet-lag. We jumped into a taxi and headed back to our hotel on Avenue de Mayo and found it locked. An old doorman opened it up for us after ascertaining we weren’t criminals, and we got into the ancient lift (capacity: 3 people) with the iron grill door you have to pull open to get in and shut tight for it to move again, and headed up to the 4th floor. Not since the Windsor Hotel in Cairo had I seen such a relic of a lift, but it added a certain charm to this old and worn hotel. The freezing cold room, however, did little to cheer us, and made for a sleepless morning. The lack of sleep on this first night became a pattern for the next few weeks, and sleep became a thing to resort to if there was nothing else to do. There’s always something to do in South America. It was early Monday morning now. We’d left Hong Kong on Saturday night. Still, what a night, what a start to the trip it had been.
The flight had been fairly uneventful. On the Johannesburg to Buenos Aires route the captain announced that we could, if we looked to our left, see Table Mountain of Cape Down down below. Alex and I were sat on the right. Apart from the that, we spent the flight watching Top Gear, half-movies, reading, listening to music, and chatting about the trip ahead. Alex and I, save a cheeky weekend in Thailand a couple of months before, and a couple of snowboarding/skiing trips to Japan, hadn’t had a proper ‘lads’ vacation for 7 years – the last being a Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia trip at the time of the tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, an event that dampened the mood in our travel camp considerably. This trip, then, had been 7 years in the making. Older now, wiser (perhaps), we were ready for it. No longer backpackers, but not 5-star hotel merchants either, this was to be a different kind of trip, tailored to suit our individuality – so no group tours. Alex had been this way before – 11 years ago. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Some of this trip then, would be a repeat of those moments, though we were hoping to squeeze in Chile and Paraguay too. But perhaps the halcyon days of then would be replaced and the days of now would be looked back upon with more satisfaction. Live for the moment.
Alex got up to fetch something from the overhead locker opposite at one stage on the flight, and dropped a heavy bag on the old woman’s head sitting opposite. She didn’t flinch. “I think that woman’s dead”, whispered Alex…”or on horse tranquilisers.” Suddenly, as though she had heard everything Alex said, the old woman came around. “Ooooh. Felt a bit of a bump on my head. Dear me, what was that?” Alex confessed to his sins, which ignited a spark of conversation. The old woman, Gertra, was German but raised in South Africa – in Cape Town. She must have been nearly 70, but had a glint in her eye (the Creme Brulee song from League of Gentleman: “Bright eyes, burning like fire….” sprung to mind immediately) and was touring around Argentina and Brazil as part of some kind of OAP Couch Surfing club. She showed us her itinerary, and it was certainly a comprehensive tour of the area, taking in the major sights, as well as visiting churches, attending tea parties and the like. “You see, I worked hard – too hard – all my life, and never had the chance to travel like the young today. I worried too much about the future. But now…..well, I could die tomorrow, so I’m doing everything I want to do. Don’t you worry about making money money money, boys….live your life to the full, you’ve only got one shot.” It was as though my mum’s voice was being channeled through the old woman’s. I didn’t need to be told that, for this is the ‘live your life to the full’ motto I live by, but it was nice to be reminded. The gin and tonics were slipping down Gertra’s hatch, and a mischievous side begin to take hold. “I’m looking forward to seeing the sights, and meeting the locals of course” she winked. “A nice young man would be fun….but no younger than 30!” She chortled, pouring herself another mini bottle of Gordons. “Just remember. Live your life like there’s no tomorrow. That’s what I regret not doing when I was younger. Now, I don’t have that long left, but I’m going to bloody enjoy it!” What a woman, what an inspiration. We were going to bloody enjoy ourselves too.
We arrived in Buenos Aires in the early evening. Ah! South America at last! And Argentina – tango, wine, steak, football, Maradona, mountains, history, culture, the Falklands (the first words that come to mind)….I was looking forward to it immensely. It was still daylight when we left the airport. We took a taxi to the Hotel Mundial in Central Buenos Aires, on Avenue del Mayo. Nothing special on the way in. Kids playing football in parks, orderly traffic, smooth, paved roads, then into Central, with colonial architecture, wide streets, and a dull cold colour of murky grey and off-white like Paris at night, or perhaps a darker London. The national flag flew from everywhere – hung from lines the breadth of the streets, from buildings, on buses, but at this time, in these quiet, almost deserted streets, even the flag seemed to be drained of colour. People shuffled around the streets in big coats and bobble hats, all dressed in shades of brown. We were staying on one of the main streets in BA now and it was throbbing with all the intensity of an impotent man. It didn’t bode well. In my mind were painted visions of a city constantly moving, partying, celebrating. Maybe they were in mourning after their team’s poor showing at the Copa America (which their tiny neighbours Uruguay won). Maybe it’s just the state of the economy, which I thought was strengthening. We checked in to the quiet Mundial, and got into the ancient lift and into our cold and characterless room. I stuck some music on i-tunes – the Manic Street Preachers. We were determined to go out and make a night of it – the cold and dark of the night wasn’t going to deter us.
We got showered and changed, and headed out into the chilly night up Avenue del Mayo to get our bearings. We walked to Plaza del Congreso – a nice area with fountains and statues set in a small park, at the end of which sits the Palacio Del Congreso, a colossal building with a huge green dome. Indeed, many buildings lining this avenue could be described as colossal – and very ‘faded European’ too. This surprised me – BA is a very elegant and easy to navigate city, for the most part. We endeavored to explore more tomorrow, but right now, we needed a coffee.
We strolled back down the the other side of the Avenue and crossed Avenue 9 de Julio – the 16 lane ‘widest street in the world’. It took a while to cross, and then we were in Microcentro, full of skyscrapers and old European buildings fighting for space and attention. We found the pedestrianised shopping street – Florida, and one of the first signs of life in this city – Johnny Depp, swaggering down the street complete with swashbuckler sword. He seemed oblivious to the world, and the shoppers buying handicrafts from the street vendors that hog the middle of the street. Surreal. Now, our desire to get a coffee had become a fixation. A local’s favourite for over 50 years – London City – was sadly closed, being 9pm on a Sunday, so we opted for another, though more recent, locals favourite – Starbucks. Here, upstairs, we sat with the young and beautiful of BA, looking down onto Florida and watching the world go by whilst engaged in animated chat. This was probably the loudest starbucks I’d ever been to. But then, people just talk more over here I think. I was enjoying practicing my rudimentary Spanish with coffee barristas – asking for coffee with milk – asking where the toilet was – saying sorry when nudging into someone when edging past. And getting responses in Spanish was great too, even if I couldn’t understand anything. I found throughout the trip that speaking Spanish – making the effort to – really improved service in cafes and bars – and for people we spoke to in the street or in bars and clubs, friends were made all the easier. Between us, Alex and I had enough Spanish to get by in most situations. It’s a rewarding experience, making the effort to communicate in the native language of the country you’re visiting.
We left Starbucks and headed to the arty cultural district of San Telmo, all cobbled streets, old world cafes, colonial housing and student friendly bars. Still, it was quiet, but suddenly we stumbled upon a street full of life. Hundreds of students waving banners were chanting and jumping up and down in front of a huge screen that had been erected, with police vans waiting at various corners in the surrounding streets if things kicked off. BA was about to elect a new mayor – and the students were out to listen to a speech from one of the candidates. The mood was jovial and it seemed that everyone looked like Che Guevara. There must be a special shop where you can get kitted out to look that cool. A kind of effortlessly cool trendy disheveled style, complete with designer beard. The girls sported similar fatigues, and all had long, lank greasy dark brown or blonde hair.. Most here knew each other. Alex and I stood in the middle of the crowd and clapped and cheered on cue, trying our best to blend in. When the speech stopped, music started blaring out from somewhere, people started pogoing around and chanting, and it was nice to be part of it all. We were famished, however, so slipped away.
Down the next street we heard another commotion, this one of excitement and much merriment. Drums, horns, dancing. We came across a long line of people, students mainly I think, lots of dreadlocks and topless men beating drums, hippies dancing in the street, all smiling, all having a great time, seemingly for no apparent reason, just because they could. Most of them were swilling bottles of San Telmo Malbec wine and seemed completely out of it and into it at the same time. The sound of the drums and the horns and the excitement got my adrenaline going, and I would have joined in the march had my stomach not been complaining so much. Fortunately, we’d stopped to watch this impromptu procession right outside a famous parrilla (steak house). It was busy, full of locals and tourists alike enjoying prime steak and wine. We joined them. Nobody spoke much English, a trend we found throughout Argentina (beginning a conversation in Spanish here generally means any future exchanges will take place in Spanish too, and you will be spoken to as though you are a fluent speaker – even if the person speaks English, they are only too happy to patiently let you speak Spanish, and will generally not even try to speak English – which in a way is great) but we managed to order a couple of tenderloins and a salad, and a bottle of San Telmo Malbec. Argentina is rightly famous for its steak and wine. I’d never been a steak man before coming here – but I was immediately converted tonight. A juicy steak paired with a delicious red malbec. Heaven. Back in Singapore it was breakfast time, but I didn’t care – I didn’t have time to let my body adjust to local time. Drinking at breakfast time wasn’t something my body was used to either – but it would have to get used to it. People all around us were chatting, enjoying themselves, having a lot of fun. I thought about the scenes I’d witnessed outside. Perhaps I’d been in Singapore too long. Over there, a student gathering or a protest would be met with arrests, as would an impromptu march and dance down a street. People can’t be creative or express themselves in any way. This kind of expression comes second nature in a democracy, of which, sadly, Singapore is very far away from being.
Alex and I paid up and headed around the corner and down a narrow cobbled street to a cosy period style bar full of Che Guevara lookalikes and their chicas. A mix up nearly ended up with us having another bottle of malbec, but fortunately we managed to get what we wanted in the end – 2 bottles of the delicious local beer, Quilmes. After this, we were well warmed-up, and ready for another bar. We headed to Gibraltar, a British-style pub in San Telmo. We found it eventually, and it was teeming, loads of casually-dressed local and international students (who else would be out at this time on a Sunday night). We ordered another Quilmes each, and sat at the bar. It was a nice place, and had a very cosy, British feel. The music was British, and even the oak bar was British. We sat at the bar and got talking to a couple of local girls who spoke a little bit of English, and so we had a Spanglish conversation about BA, football, bars and tango, and even the Falklands (or Islas Malvinas as it is called here – it’s marked as Argentine territory on all the maps too). They offered to take us to a tango class on Tuesday night, an offer which we thought would be stupid to miss, so we agreed to meet then. We never did meet them again, but they made one important contribution to the trip (at least for Alex – for me it resulted in some shocking hangovers) – they introduced us to the medicinal alcoholic drink famous in Argentina – Fernet – a digestif containing god knows how many herbs and spices (saffron, myrrh, rhubarb, camomile, cardamom, aloe, ginseng etc) and mixed with coke. They were drinking it, and we decided to order one each for ourselves. I didn’t like it at first, but, like the last Kasabian record, it grew on me, and I soon found myself ordering another. The girls laughed – ‘2 more gringos hooked’ I could hear them thinking. They left us to our new addictions, and we were immediately approached by a group of Peruvian students who were with a French girl, also a student here. The French girl and I communicated in Spanish the for the next few drinks (fernet for me, pints of Quilmes for the girls – a trend I saw throughout South America – the girls drink pints, the guys spirits and mixers), and Alex spoke Spanglish with the Peruvians, who knew a little more English. It was getting quiet in Gibraltar now, and on for 2am. The girls wanted to take us to another bar, where there was a ‘lock-in.’ We followed them blindly down the dark cobbled streets of San Telmo, until we came to an inconspicuous looking door with a large doorbell. The girls rang the doorbell, said a few words (I’d like to think it was a magic spanish password, but probably nothing that mysterious), and the door was opened by young man who ushered us upstairs. Loads of students were up here drinking, couples kissing each other passionately, singing songs. Great atmosphere. I got a round of cuba libres, which was probably a big mistake as we had now mixed wine, beer, fernet and rum, but at the time it seemed like the best idea in the world. It was our first night in South America, in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, we felt invincible. We drank, we chatted, we had a lot of fun. At 4am we called it a night, and stumbled out into the cobbled streets once more…..