South America Trip Day 2 – Argentina – Buenos Aires

Breakfast in the quaint dining room of the hotel was followed by a long stroll in the snappy cold air to bring us around. Everything looked better than it had last night, even the people looked to have more colour in their cheeks. The old man selling hot fresh roasted peanuts was doing a roaring trade, as were the numerous news kiosks dotted up and down Avenue de Mayo. We walked past the Obelisco, like a huge needle in the middle of Avenue 9 de Julio. This is the scene of celebration or protest (more protest these days, Argentina hasn’t had a lot to celebrate of late unfortunately). We headed to Florida, which was thronged with shoppers, street entertainers and hawkers. Cafes, theatres and all kinds of shops line the streets here. We popped into a sports shop, where Alex decided to buy a retro (in other words, skin tight) River Plate football shirt. They were going cheap, as River (one of the most famous footy sides in S.America) had just been relegated to the second divison, which is akin to Manchester United suffering the same fate in England. The unthinkable happened – and how their bitter rivals, Boca Juniors, must have laughed.

From here we headed to Plaza San Martin in a lovely area called Retiro, a lovely grassy area, and another popular protest place (they do love a protest in South America). Couples busy inspecting each other’s mouths with their tongues were everywhere – not just lust-struck teenagers but office workers too, some in their 50s (the men anyway – the women – or mistresses – they were with were probably in their early 20s). The passion shown over here is incredible – and public displays of affection commonplace. I found myself blushing – 10 years in Asia has made me like this. Such public passion is unthinkable in Asia. Perhaps I need to leave Asia soon before it completely wraps me up in its icy, passionless embrace. Down some steps we came to a small monument with 2 ceremonial guards. The monument was for those who lost their lives in the Falklands War. In Argentina, Las Malvinas (as the Falklands is known) is a very sensitive topic. On all the maps, Las Malvinas is marked as Argentine territory. Walking around the monument was a solemn experience, and I cringed as the infamous ‘Gotcha!’ headline in the Sun newspaper in 1982 and the sub-heading ‘Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser’ with pictures of crippled vessel flashed into my mind. What a waste of lives, fighting over a little island.

We continued our self-guided tour and had a look at the attractive British-style clock tower, Torre de los Ingleses. Behind this is the impressive old Retiro train station, and we popped over to have a look. I do love train stations like this. Always bustling, always colourful and interesting, full of scoundrels and thieves and businessmen and hawkers, and the promise of adventure. We bought some delicious roasted peanuts to keep warm, as it was absolutely freezing, and then walked on to Plaza de Mayo, the gathering spot for the biggest of protests in BA. Noteworthy views from here included Casa Rosada (the back of it anyway), with its lovely salmon-pink facade. This houses the offices of the President, and its balconies have played hosts to impassioned speeches from Juan and Eva Peron to Raul Alfonsin. Madonna sang from one of them too, in the movie Evita. Around the area is also the magnificent baroque Catedral Metropolitana, which contains the tomb of national hero General Jose de San Martin. As we were admiring the views a group of students approached us and asked us if we would mind answering some questions for a survey. We didn’t mind, and they were trying hard with their English. Their survey was on madness. “What is ‘mad’”? Asked one of the greasy long-haired contingent. “One who accepts things as they are without questioning the logic behind it,” I piped up immediately, Singapore obviously in the forefront of my mind. “And, should mad people be put in hospital?’ “Absolutely not, it will make them more mad.” “Great!” shouted the student, his eyes growing wider and wilder. I suddenly had a mild panic attack. Was this being filmed? Were the students actually mad themselves? Was it a set-up? Was I, in fact, mad? I attributed this to lack of sleep and too much alcohol the night before, and soon the palpitations stopped and I returned to sanity. The students, looking at me warily, thanked me and Alex (who had given them some very sensible, lengthy responses) and went to ask some more foreigners. Alex and I decided it was now time for a break. London City it was then.

In the cafe I ordered some ham and cheese empanadas and a cappuccino, and Alex had a cappuccino too. We sat by the window, looking out onto the grey street full of people. What a grand city Buenos Aires is. A real, gritty yet elegant city. Living in a themepark as I do, I really appreciated the ‘realness’ of BA, full of ‘real’ people. No wonder my good friend Nick Warry had lived here for a year. Once you get under its skin, it must be an incredible place to live and work. The portly, proud waiter of London City, with his clipped moustache and neat shirt, waistcoat and bowtie came over and presented our cappuccinos with a flourish. We had an enjoyable half hour in the warmth of the old cafe, full of old men with old newspapers, businessmen and the like, then left to get the subway back to Avenue de Mayo.

Alex was feeling a bit under the weather now, and decided to pop 2 panadol cold and flu tablets, while I decided to head to the impressive Palacio Barolo on Avenue de Mayo and fork out $40 Pesos for the twice weekly tour which leads to the top and offers magnificent views over Buenos Aires. As an added bonus, Lionel Messi was leading the tour – or at least his twin brother was. He spoke in both Spanish and English, for the benefit of myself and the handful of American tourists here. We got a run-down of the history of the place, once the tallest building in Latin America at 100m over 24 floors, and went up the old elevators to floors of a certain significance, namely the 3rd and 4th, where Messi, with that cocky half-smile, delivered his well-rehearsed rhetoric to the restless crowd. We made it to the top eventually, to the tower on the 19th floor which provided stunning vistas over the whole of Buenos Aires, Congress and the Casa Rosada. From here we popped up to the lighthouse on the 22nd floor, then back down where Messi, real name Tomas, bid me farewell, but not without telling me where ‘the party’ was going to be that night. Shamrocks, apparently. I was glad I’d made the effort to see this historic place, an important landmark in a city full of important buildings.

I tried to doze for an hour back at the hotel, but Alex was busy pacing up and down. “My heart’s racing…..must be the caffeine” he grumbled. “Well, the panadol cold and flu has caffeine in it mate, so you’ve had quite a bit today.” I replied, which didn’t help. Alex left the room to go and breathe deeply on the roof. Only later did I learn that his heart was beating so fast he felt close to asking me to take him to hospital. Caffeine is a trigger to a panic attack, which is what Alex was now suffering from. Completely irrational, they come on all at once, leaving you hyperventilating, in a cold sweat, feeling dizzy and moments from fainting. Or so you think. It’s psychological – all in the mind. As Alex described the symptoms, it began to dawn on me that I too suffer the same attacks. That would explain a lot. Alcohol sets them off too. But alcohol also suppresses it, and I’ve occasionally had a few drinks to calm myself down, having no idea what was wrong with me. Now I know, and I can train my mind to beat it!

Alex popped a valium. He was all set to enter the world again. We decided to go and watch a tango show at one of the most famous places in Buenos Aires – Cafe Tortoni – founded in 1858 and the oldest coffee house in BA. Walking in here was like walking back in time – the walls, the waiters, the customers – all seemed to have been painted by the brush of nostalgia. At the back is a small theatre with a stage, which is where the intimate tango show takes place. We got a small table near the front, and I was quick to order a big bottle of Quilmes, as I was feeling a panic attack coming on in the small room that was filling up quickly. I finished it off in 5 minutes and ordered another. Ahhh! That felt better….much calmer. This can’t be healthy. Alex wasn’t drinking because of the valium. What a pair of rock stars we made. The lights dimmed. The music piped up, the horns, the piano, the accordian, the bass, and then the stars of the show came out – a portly chap deceptively light-footed, with a cheeky smile and a flirtatious eye-brow raise to rival Sean Connery. His partner for the night was a healthy-looking blonde beauty. They twisted and turned, the woman stepping quickly, between the man’s legs, their hips joined, one hand on the waist of the other, the other hand clasped together, a close and passionate dance. It was a great show, but Alex was still suffering, and had to go off for another long walk. When he came back, he popped a second valium – enough to put a horse to sleep. And so he did sleep, nodding off in front of the stage, oblivious to the flashing lights and blaring music. I bet they’ve never had someone fall asleep during their performance before! The second valium had steadied Alex’s heart rate, and he began to feel better. By the end of the excellent 2 hour show we were joining in the singalongs and laughing at the comedy sketches, and ready to head to San Telmo for another steak.

The steak house was lovely, and the salad and steak top-notch, and the bottle of malbec wine first class. Gibralter followed, and I had a couple of pints before heading off to Shamrock, Lionel Messi’s recommendation, for a fernet and coke. It was getting late now, however, and I’d had enough. It had been a long day around this fine city, which was growing on me by the hour. I was looking forward to another day around it.

Author: Neil

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