SOUTH AMERICA ADVENTURE: WHEN YOU SEE THE SOUTHERN CROSS, PART 4--BUENOS AIRES & MONTEVIDEO
We docked in Buenos Aires on Valentine's Day. The full (English) name of the city is "City of Our Lady Holy Mary of the Fair Winds" which probably won't fit on a soccer jersey. Buenos Aires is a leafy city the size of Chicago with a busy port, broad boulevards and many statues.
Our immediate mission there was to seek out the statue of Luis Maria Drago (1858-1921) who was an ancestor of Maria A., a friend of ours. We looked up his bio and learned that a doctrine was named after him. Essentially, as a jurist and the Argentine Foreign Minister, he declared, in response to a French and German naval blockade of Venezuela, that a foreign power could not, by armed intervention, force American republics to pay their debts, but rather they had to seek recourse through local courts. I'm guessing that the result of that doctrine was that European powers would no longer loan Argentina money, and maybe that accounted for the relative poverty of most Latin American countries. In any case, we found a picture of Drago's statue on the Internet, along with a general location, but unfortunately, our guide told us it would not going to be on our route.
On this midsummer day, we enjoyed the warm and humid weather. Along the wide boulevards, most people live in modern high rise apartment complexes, many of which show signs of wear. Unlike other Latin capitals, B.A. is not known for Spanish colonial architecture because it did not become a prominent city until the mid 19th Century, after the Spaniards left. Thus, the architecture was heavily influenced by French and Italian, but not Spanish, cultures.
The climate was more temperate than the North, and it was uneconomic for the colonial powers to import African labor for sugar cane as they did in Brazil and Columbia. B.A. developed its own unique culture. The portenos (citizens of B.A.) have achieved world renown for two things--tango and futbol (soccer), both of which require fancy footwork.
The Argentines have a national obsession about one other thing--the Falkland Islands which they call the Malvinas. All over the city one finds hand painted signs and graffiti with slogans like "Falklands are Malvinas. They were, are and will be Argentine." Also, "Malvinas are not English, they are Argentine." The slogans are written in Spanish, not generally spoken in the Falklands. When meeting an Argentine, anywhere in the country, it's probably best to avoid that subject completely.
Unlike most other cities, the major tourist attraction in B.A. is Recoleta Cemetery, located in the fashionable Recoleta neighborhood, near the zoo. In that cemetery, people line up to photograph the mausoleum of Eva Duarte Peron who is both revered and reviled by the Argentines. It's probably 50-50. Most tourists are familiar with the Broadway play Evita, and so they want to visit the scene. Recoleta Cemetery is like a small city--full of above ground mausoleums which are solidly built, better than most houses. Evita's body disappeared for 16 years, but now it is buried under several feet of concrete to prevent it from slipping away again.
We visited the famous Boca neighborhood which was originally settled by Italians who, like Americans, moved away to better neighborhoods as they prospered. The word "boca" means "mouth", and it was so named because it is situated near the mouth of the river. The city is built in the tidal estuary of the Plate River which is known for its muddy brown water. I'm not sure where the city obtains its water supply, but I was careful to drink bottled water. Boca is notable as the birthplace of the tango, the national dance.
Tango is an art form which originated about 100 years ago in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Tango songs feature sensual lyrics and body movements which attracted young males of that era, years before Elvis. Tango reminds me of a land version of synchronized swimming, as the performers dance as one. The dance became a worldwide phenomenon when a porteno named Carlos Gardel recorded a song called Mi Noche Triste (My Sad Night) which made him a superstar throughout Latin America. Gardel was killed in a plane crash in 1935 but, like Elvis, his likeness with his trademark fedora and fine clothes is seen all over town. His influence is reflected in the fact that Argentines love to dress in fine clothes and stroll down the boulevards and malls to see and be seen.
The vibrant culture of Boca is expressed in the colorful buildings in reds, greens and yellows. Street painters have created beautiful murals on the walls, many of which have revolutionary themes. Tourists love to soak up the culture there. I observed a large man dressed in a bright yellow suit and tie with a yellow hat who appeared to be the street boss. Many young local ladies approached us on the street to sell items, but it wasn't clear to me what they were selling. In any event, they were constantly waiting on this gentleman who was dispensing orders or advice. I wasn't about to ask too many questions.
For lunch we crowded into La Ventana Restaurant for a dinner and show. It was a large room with a stained glass ceiling. The tables were small and the round wooden chairs were uncomfortable. However, the food was excellent. We had large, thick prime steaks for which Argentina is so famous. Argentines are known for eating copious quantities of meat, and this restaurant is typical. The local red Malbec wine was smooth and excellent. For the appetizer, they served empenadas which are ground veal encased in dough. In the U.P. of Michigan, they call this popular dish pasties. The dessert was a delicious crepe of dulce de leche.
After we stuffed ourselves, the show began. The entertainers included a 9 piece orchestra, 10 dancers, a bolador and 2 singers. In several of the sets, the dancers danced the tango with graceful improvisational moves. The bolador swung the 2 balls on the strings. The singers has fine voices. The entertainment was terrific, but it lasted about an hour too long. We had 500 people in a room sitting in uncomfortable chairs and it was getting stuffy in there. Fortunately, I was able to walk around without being too rude.
We returned to the Star Princess to celebrate Valentine's Day and renew our wedding vows in a mass ceremony. For Dianne and me, it was 25 years of bliss.
We sailed across the Rio de la Plata 140 miles or so to Uruguay which is the smallest Hispanic country in South America. The River Plate is about 100 miles wide at this point, which is wider than Lake Michigan. The capital city, Montevideo, is named after a 450 foot mountain (Cerro de Montevideo) which looms up behind the city. It is crowned with a fortress. As legend has it, the city was named by a Portuguese sailor who sighted it and called out "Monte vejo eu" ("I see a mountain"). There are several other stories of how the city got its name, but this one was the most colorful.
Montevideo is a city of 1.8 million people in a country with a total population of only 3.5 million. The city is clean and tidy for a large city with many skyscrapers. As in Buenos Aires, most of the people live in high rise apartment complexes. The fortunate ones live on the Rambla, the coastal avenue flanked by luxury high rises. The iconic ANTEL Telecommunications Tower, designed by Carlos Ott, is Uruguay's tallest building at 517 feet, and bears a resemblance to the Burj in Dubai, the world's tallest building.
At the harbor is the monument to the Graf Spee, a German battleship which was sunk in Montevideo Harbor at the beginning of World War II. The full story is a little more interesting. The Admiral Graf Spee was deployed to the South Atlantic in early 1939, before World War II broke out. Between September and December, 1939, it sank 9 allied merchant ships before 3 British cruisers confronted it at which became known as the Battle of River Plate. All the ships in the the battle were damaged, and the Graf Spee was forced to put into port in Montevideo, a neutral port. At that point, it gets better. The British deliberately broadcast a message on a frequency that they knew the Germans were monitoring. The message convinced the commander of the Graf Spee that a superior British force was quickly approaching to sink it. The actual British force was over 3000 miles away. The German commander conferred with his superiors and the decision was made to destroy the sensitive equipment and scuttle the ship. The sunken ship is still there. The German commander shot himself the next day.
Most of Uruguay, like neighboring Argentina, is pampas (grasslands) which are ideal for growing wheat and other grains and also cattle ranching. Indeed, the South American gauchos (cowboys) developed their culture in Uruguay in the 1700's. They quickly learned to round up wild horses and cattle, living off the land in their nomadic lifestyle. The term gaucho comes from the Indian word for orphan.
We took a motor coach about 50 miles outside of Montevideo to La Rabida, a family run 3500 acre estancia (ranch) which derives a nice income catering to greenhorn tourists. The ranch grows corn and soybeans as well as raising horses, sheep and cattle. They even raise nandu (rhea birds), large flightless birds resembling ostriches. The livestock are tended by gauchos.
Underlying most of the country is a large aquifer, the Raigon Aquifer, which provides fresh, sweet, life giving water which we found good to drink. The water is called el oro azul (the blue gold). No bottled water here!
Our Uruguayan hosts treated us to a picnic, or barbecue at the ranch. They collect some vintage vehicles like a horse drawn carriage, a Model A Ford and a Ford truck, both from the same era. They are operable, but we didn't ride in them. Instead our hosts took our group on a hayride on a tractor drawn wooden wagon. Each wagon carried about 20 of us. We sat on bales of hay. They took us for a mile or so down to the River Plate which, as I mentioned before, is very wide and you can't see the other side. It has a sandy beach and the locals often swim there. When we got back to the main buildings, the ranch hands were busy barbecuing asado beef, sausage, chicken and lamb. They even cooked kidneys and sweetbreads, which, by the way, tasted good. As in Argentina, we found the beef to be outstanding.
I went horseback riding and then horse drawn skin surfing, a strange sport in which a horse gallops away, dragging a large cowhide with a person on it. The cowhide slides easily on the grassy barnyard with little friction and it's a fun ride. You must hold on tightly or you'll roll off. I enjoyed it, but I could feel every bump in the pasture. Compare it to a flying carpet except it's on the ground.
We did other dude ranch things like milking a cow and shearing sheep. We were entertained by a native folk dancing troupe with Uruguayan folk music. A fun and relaxing afternoon!
NEXT Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janiero--Switching over to Portuguese