and so at last we arrive in buenos aires, a city we had both been excited to see for a long while. it has been called the paris of south america, and not without reason, since, during its heyday, some excessively-wealthy portenos saw wisdom in moving entire mansions from france to buenos aires, while those with a bit more pragmatism and common sense saw fit to avoid all the hassle of shipping master bedrooms across oceans by simply erecting exact duplicates of the coveted parisian buildings in their own backyards. for a long while the city actively sought european immigrants, and even today it seems to take pride in its affinity with those small, distant countries across the atlantic. what a change coming from brazil.
we spent our first few days enjoying free walking tours of the city provided by friendly locals and our first few evenings in a trendy corner of palermo almost entirely devoted to upscale restaurants and bars. as in uruguay, the steak here is cheap and excellent; so also is the wine, particularly the malbec, a varietal which thrives in this country.
it took a few attempts to find the perfect hostel in buenos aires -- the first was too empty, frequented primarily by people much older than us (although it offered a fine refuge for my convalescence from a recent cold); the second was still rather empty, and occupied by a family with three young children who, frankly, bullied us out of the place; finally we hit upon a winner with a hostel in palermo occupied entirely by backpackers around our age -- it even had a bar downstairs which was frequented by locals.
having settled down in our hostel of choice, we set out to explore the different neighborhoods of the city. there's retiro (the place the wealthy used to retire to when the bustle of the burgeoning city grew too tiresome), which features the rodeo drive of argentina; recoleta, home to the outrageous cemetery (i don't normally consider tombstones to be a tourist attraction, but this place is something else, with nearly 90 of the few thousand mausoleums designated as national monuments) and a large artisan market on the weekends; la boca, the popular postcard motif, home of the vibrantly painted buildings and epicenter of tourist-trap restaurants and souvenir shops; bond street, not so much a neighborhood as an oasis, a world unto itself, a tiny haven for the city's inked and pierced underworld, nestled amongst unprepossessing shopping centers; puerto madero, a newer neighborhood sprouting sleek glass-and-steel buildings just like in vancouver, also home to a large artisan market; and san telmo, the old town, with its famous tango shows and -- you guessed it -- a popular artisan market.
which brings me to an important subject: portenos and their style. one must come to terms immediately upon arriving in buenos aires that this is a city where the mullet is revered, an enchanted land where a crop of short hair punctuated by a single, off-center, foot-long, chord-like braid projecting somewhere from the back of one's noggin is considered a good look. if one feels particularly adventurous, one can forgo the single braid for a few shorter dreadlocks, again placed somewhat randomly at the rear of one's head. what can it all mean? the mullet, we are told, may be derived from indigenous amazonian styles (yet one also wonders if this trend does not stem from the country's infatuation with the mullet-maned futbol legend maradona). but the dreaded rat tails? surely those can only be intended as a disdainful contumely against fashion and vanity. and yet... and yet... somehow portenos can actually make it work.
hairdos aside, something akin to a hippie style is quite common in buenos aires. i can't say if the trend reaches far back into the city's history or if it is a recent expression of the hard-earned civil liberties recaptured less than forty years ago with the fall of the military dictatorship that was busy 'disappearing' dissidents and other non-conformists. what i can say is that these hippies, or artisans, or what have you, love to line up along sidewalks, drinking mate and chatting amongst themselves when they are not busy hawking their fares. it matters not if their goods are hand-made or purchased wholesale from the nearest factory -- the spirit at the heart of the process is what really counts, and it was probably this spirit that so intoxicated amar that he became addicted to shopping for necklaces, always on the lookout for the high that would come with the purchase of a new 'heater'.
we were disappointed in brazil to find that we had just missed the end of futbol season, and so were quite happy to have the opportunity to watch an opening match in buenos aires. we saw river plate (the second biggest team in buenos aires) play colon (from the province of santa fe). it was much fun to experience the crowd first-hand. for most of the game, the stands were aswarm with cheering and singing, and the stadium exuded a sense of satisfied joy as the clock wound down on a two-nothing victory for the home team -- until, in the last seven or so minutes, with the second goal coming after regulation time, river plate gave up two long goals and their lead, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of the now-surly crowd. in our case this implosion only lead to a few ruffled feathers, but we have heard of other cases where violence has erupted during such situations. in fact, it is common practice to keep all the home-team fans corralled in the stadium for half an hour or so after the game to give the opposition fans a chance to escape without a brawl ensuing. and, even barring any fisticuffs, we were told that it is not unusual for idle fans to pass the time at a game by expectorating or even micturating on their reviled counterparts. standing at the fenced-off gate, waiting for sufficient time to pass before it was deemed safe to release us, i couldn't help but muse upon the sorry state people can so easily descend to: caged in for our own good.
i suppose i would be remiss if i neglected to mention something of the nightlife in buenos aires. 'portenos love to party,' both of our tour guides averred on separate occasions. and it is true. what's more, they love to party late. dinner commonly commences around ten or eleven, with drinks following, and the nightclubs remain empty until about two; thereafter, various establishments offer specialized experiences for different stages of the night, so that, even as one stumbles out of a club at six in the morning, ready for the comforting confines of bed, one will see long queues lining the sidewalks in front of afterparties and morning clubs. add to this a preponderance of new and confusing music -- the numbing repetition of reggaeton, the maddeningly dilatory progressions of electronica, the embarrassingly bad hip hop so popular these days -- and i found myself feeling at times like an old man newly schooled, with a better understanding of the drug scene that is so closely linked -- one might even say integral -- to the nightlife of this city.
during the day, buenos aires comes across as a very literary city. perhaps this is because of its innumerable cafes and book stores, or perhaps i just ascribe it this quality because it was home to the likes of borges, cortazar, gombrowicz, etc... but whatever the reason, it is a great place to grab a tea and read for a while. the city is also quite easy to navigate, with an intuitive street layout and a cheap metro system. and even though there is always something going on here, it is not hard to find a quiet corner to relax in if one feels the need. all of these factors combine to make buenos aires a very livable place -- perhaps too livable for travelling: we found ourselves getting too comfortable, losing our edge as it were, becoming content to live life at too relaxed a pace. of all the great museums the city can boast of, we only visited one; of the untold bars and restaurants, we stuck to a few which we found early and returned to loyally. even after having returned from a short sojourn to rosario with the express intention of leaving as soon as humanly possible, we found ourselves still in the city three days later. and so, with a vague fear of getting stuck here for ever, we forced ourselves to move on, catching an 8:30 a.m. flight after having arrived back at the hostel around 6.