Australian Abroad, Keen Capoeirista, Museum Mogul, Budding Blogger, Thirsty Traveller – currently Itapuã, Salvador, Brazil
Due to a visa mishap which required me to get new papers sent to me from Australia and the UK and to deal with an awful lot of red tape, my early September, two day visa run to Buenos Aires turned into a 28 day stay in the city – with two days worth of clothes! While unexpected, I still had a blast and I’m grateful for the time I got to spend in Argentina’s capital, and the opportunity to get intimately acquainted. By the end, apart from my terrible Spanish, I was starting to feel like a local.
The currency of Argentina is the peso, and at the moment, it’s not worth very much. When I was there, 1 Brazilian Real was worth about 10 pesos, and 100 pesos was about US$4. I had some US dollars on me while travelling as I had read online that you can use them there and I had some left over from last time I was in the US. Sellers were very happy to accept US dollars, as the peso was dropping rapidly while I was there, making US$ more valuable every day.
One of the most obvious places I could see the falling peso was every time I used a cash machine. The charge for withdrawing money was just a little bit more every time. Also, I was limited to withdrawing 300 pesos at a time. This was particularly frustrating as for my visa I needed to pay a pretty hefty fee in cash. I tried to go into the bank and get this, but they said I couldn’t with my international card, which meant withdrawing it in lots of 300 peso lots, paying the fee every time. Not fun.
While Argentinians speak Spanish, which I generally understand thanks for my good grasp of Portuguese, I found people in Buenos Aires quite difficult to understand because they spoke Spanish like they were Italians, with the same intonations and flair. Fortunately I found that as long as I spoke slowly most people could understand my Portuguese, and, at least at all the touristy sites, I found that people spoke good English, so I had lots of options for communicating.
As well as speaking like Italians, I found that they ate like Italians! Pizza was a staple in restaurants. BBQ was also extremely popular, with high quality meat that wasn’t salted (unlike Brazilian BBQ). The restaurants where you can grab BBQ meat, usually in a delicious meat sandwich, are called Parrilla. My favourite by far was a little hole in the wall near San Telmo Market, I visited several times, and the wine there was good too!
The other food that Argentina is known for is the Empanada, which always made a great afternoon snack. Most days for lunch I would head to one of the many food by weight restaurants in the city centre so I could get a little bit of salad in amongst all the meat!
I did a lot of walking during my time in Buenos Aires, as I definitely feel that it is the best way to see as much of the city as possible. But when travelling further distances, or travelling at night, I was grateful for her amazing metro. The rides were cheap and easy to pay for with a Subte card, and it was possible to get pretty much everywhere in the main city. I didn’t try the bus service, as these are always much harder than the metro. I only had to resort to an Uber twice, on a strike day when the metro was closed, and getting to the airport to leave the city at 2am on a Sunday morning. The Uber to the airport cost 600 pesos includin road tariffs, which seemed to be good value.
While a lot of people told me that Buenos Aires is quite dangerous, I didn’t really feel it. There were always lots of people on the street, so it had that community feel that makes you feel safe. Also, in the centre of the city there were loads of police, just loads, which I suppose is supposed to make us feel safe.
During my time in Buenos Aires there were a lot of strikes and demonstrations. Every day in the city centre there would be a group of people gathered for some reason or other, which I could not always discern. I had to wait an extra day for my visa at one point as no one was working in the embassy due to a strike. On another day the metro itself was closed due to a strike. On this day there were also people marching through the streets all afternoon, and people selling BBQ and freshly squeezed orange juice, taking advantage of the number of people on the street.
Not having planned my stay, and unsure exactly how long I would be there as I awaited my documents, I split my time between two hostels in San Telmo, America del Sur and Art Factory. I found that both of them were cheap (about $10 a day), with good Wi-Fi, and a lively atmosphere where I could meet people, and extremely helpful staff. America del Sur was definitely the nicer of the two, with each dorm having its own private bathroom and just feeling a little bit cleaner in general (though one of my room mates claims she had bed bugs in her bed). The Art Factory had a great bar for chilling, but also had a strange wrist band system for entering the building, and often ran out of hot water in the communal shower rooms. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend both for English speaking travelers looking for basic, fun accommodation in the centre of Buenos Aires.
A hotel that I wouldn’t recommend is the red hotel next to America del Sul. It was raided by police early one morning and they escorted out three men in hand cuffs and interviewed a long line of crying women…
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I felt a bit like I could have been in any big European city. The same architecture and mix of shops and residential. The city overall was a bit disappointing in that way. But there were definitely things to see!
I stayed in San Telmo during my time in Buenos Aires, which mean that visits to San Telmo antique market, and the bars and restaurants on Defensa were a regular activity. A bit pricier than other areas due to the number of tourists in the area, the bars and restaurants in the area all had a good vibe about them.
On Sundays Defensa Street turns into a big open air market, with stalls running up and down the street for about 5 kilometres. It also had a bit of a arty vibe, and the artists selling their wears were happy to just talk about their work without laying on the pressure to buy. I did all my present shopping for the trip here, and managed to find something quirky, unusual, and reasonably priced for everyone. One of my favourite finds was this Bob Marley puppet!
More tempting for me when it came to making purchases was San Telmo antiques market. They say that Argentinians never throw anything out and you can find anything there, and that certainly felt like the case. Clothes, watches, bags, tins, photographs (who buys someone else’s old family snaps?), if I wasn’t careful I could have spent a small fortune there. They also had a small stall near the centre where you could try interesting Argentinian wines by the glass.
Recoleta Cemetery was probably my favourite site. I have been a big fan of cemeteries ever since visiting New Orleans where I discovered some of their cemeteries which are like little cities, with tombs built for families on little streets, with all the politics of who lives near who and whose place is bigger than whose. Recoleta cemetery is just like this, so it is a fascinating cultural look, and the art of some of the tombs is just stunning. It covers about 14 acres and has over 4,500 tombs mostly dating from between 1880 and 1930. It was striking how many of the people interred there had military titles, speaking to the dominant role that the military has played in the history of Argentina.
As I chose to walk to Recoleta from where I was staying in San Telmo, I got to see a lot of sites on the way. I crossed quite a number of parks with fascinating statues, and grand trees with spreading roots that capture the imagination.
The cemetery itself is located in a cultural centre with a number of art galleries, but the most interesting place I visited there was the small Church next door, Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Pilar, which had cloisters at the back filled with fascinating objects.
Palermo was another favourite spot! I actually visited hoping to go to see the animals at the Eco Park there, but it is closed to the public. I walked around the outskirts of the parka and managed to glimpse a few animals, including a gorgeous hippopotamus, through the cracks in the fence, but overall it was a disappointment.
However, the trip led us up to a public park and rose garden where it was possible to relax and make some great photos and videos. It was just a shame that it wasn’t the right time of year for roses. Judging but the number of bushes, the place must be spectacular when they are all in bloom.
Finally, we went to the Japanese Gardens there, which had a small entry fee, but was worth every penny. I felt transported in the middle of the city, it was spectacular.
I made my way to several museums and art galleries during my time in Buenos Aires, but to my surprise my favourite turned out to be the Museo Historico Nacional. While it was certainly filled with portraits of old white men, like most museums, it also had an amazing collection of guns and swords! It also had a member of the military on duty standing perfectly still next to some particularly valuable items. I was watching him closely for secret movement…
An unexpected highlight was also the Museum of Puppets. Incredibly small, just three rooms, I still found myself transfixed by some of the puppets on display and wanting to know more about them. Unfortunately labelling was pretty limited.
Of course, do any football fan, a visit to Buenos Aires is not complete without a visit to La Bomboneira, the home stadium of Boca Junior!!
As a capoeirista, usually the first thing I do when I arrive in a new city is find a group (or a couple of groups) to train with. Fortunately for me, Buenos Aires was brimming with capoeira. While I visited quite a few groups on a one-off basis, I spent most of my time training with Professor Jaqueira from group Oriaxe and Contra Mestre Neguinho who has an Angola group in the city.
Professor Jaqueira is the teacher of an Argentinian friend of mine who lives in Salvador, and she put me in touch with him when I arrived. He is part of group Oriaxe, which spun out of Topazio and is headed up by Mestre Marcos Gytauna. The group has a weekly Friday roda in the Mestre’s academy, which is a bit further out of the city, and I was fortunate to be able to visit and participate a number of times.
I was also able to take part in a street roda that Professor Jaqueira organised, and meet capoeiristas from lots of different groups.
Oriaxe’s style of capoeira, being related to Topazio, is quite ‘fighty’, which was a bit different from my normal style, but that was great because it meant that I was doing things that pushed me out of my comfort zone, which was a great way to learn. Despite the seemingly aggressive style of capoeira, I found that each of the classes with Professor Jaqueira was very joyful. They start each class with a salute ‘Capoeira so e alegria’ (Capoeira is only happiness), and it definitely felt true when training, talking and passing time with Professor Jaqueira and his students. I felt like they really adopted me into the group and went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I left feeling like I had made some real friends in the city.
Contra Mestre Neguinho also went out of his way to make me feel welcome in Buenos Aires and helped with the struggles of adapting to the city. As a Baiano (man from Bahia), like my capoeira Mestre, I found that he shared many of the same philosophies about capoeira as my Mestre and my group. Of course, I mostly train regional, and CMestre Neguinho’s is an Angola group, and while I have trained a bit of Angola in my time, I still have so much to learn, so again I was working outside of my comfort zone, which I found incredibly stimulating and rewarding.
I loved CMestre Neguinho’s style of capoeira, and also really liked his style of teaching. One of the reasons that I have struggled with Angola in the past is that I don’t always understand why things are done in certain way that are different to what I have learnt in regional, and this is rarely explained. But CMestre Neguinho took to time to explain why it is important to hold an arm in a certain way or move your feet in a certain way while playing Angola. Also, I often feel with capoeira that we do the training together, but when it comes to the roda we are kind of on our own, left to figure out what works when actually playing by trial and error, watching, and just osmosis. In the training rodas in CMestre Neguinho’s class, rodas were about learning. If a student was in a position to do a good move while playing in the roda, but didn’t take it, he would stop the roda and get the students to return to the position, and ask them to talk through their options before continuing. It was a great way to learn, and not just for the students in the roda, as the other students watching could also benefit for the insights.
The day before leaving, CMestre Neguinho had a roda in his academy with capoeirista from around the city. The axe of the roda was so good, and it was definitely the best way to finish the Capoeira part of my trip to Buenos Aires. I was just a little sad not to be staying for another week as his mestre, Mestre Cabore was arriving the following weekend!
When I got back to Salvador, I was asked about the experience of training capoeira abroad (of course Salvador is also abroad for me, but…). I said that the experience helped me realise that with Capoeira, when you arrive in a new place you already have a community and new group of friends waiting for you. Capoeira connects us, and if you arrive in a new place with respect and a willingness to learn and share, you can make some incredible connections.