We stole away from Santiago to visit Buenos Aires, and explore some good Malbecs from Mendoza. I had a free ticket on Sky Airlines and we stayed in an Airbnb that was in the nicest neighborhood of Ricoleta and a couple doors down from the Plaza Hotel and was still pretty reasonably priced. Flying over the Andes was mesmerizing - the endless snowy peaks straining against their earthly confines, trying to scrape the bottom of the plane. I thought of a book I had read a long time ago, Alive, where a plane had crashed in the Andes and the survivors had to eat each other to stay alive. I shuddered.
The first place we visited was La Recoleta Cementario. The Argentinians know how to do death right. The first cemetery photo below is me standing in front of a rather "simple" family mausoleum that looked like a palace. This place is an unbelievable maze of tombs and it seems as if all of Argentina’s history is buried here. We were looking for the grave of Eva Peron but we couldn't seem to find it, even after asking many caretakers where it was. Very mysteriously and multiple times, they pointed to a phantom location before we even got the question out of our mouths. We wandered up and down the rows of buildings. The cemetery seemed to go on forever and ever, its narrow streets of stone and brick “homes” holding sad plastic flowers and dusty coffins covered with cloths, many broken into. The dark angels hovered over roofs against the purplish-blue sky. The black, wrought-iron gates vainly attempted to keep out potential robbers and keep in lost souls. At one point we saw signs pointing to an unknown tomb that we thought might belong to someone important who might be near Peron, but as it turned out, it was only the funeral de jour… a benign soul of questionable importance. The entire family hunched inside the shadowy mausoleum eating lunch over candlelight with many family members sucking on cigarettes in the narrow thoroughfare blowing their misty smoke into dead air. In the end, we couldn't find Evita Peron’s final resting place so we finally gave up.
I started thinking… what did I want to do with my remains when I died? I remember that my patent attorney in Chile recently had to leave one of our meetings early because his Aunt had died. I asked him if they were going to bring in food and drink, and party to celebrate her life (she was in her 90's). He was mortified and said no, that's not how they did things in Santiago. That's what we did when my grandmother died. She was in her 90's and sick and I looked at it as a sad occasion to be sure, but one that we made the best of. I enjoyed being with my family. We ate and drank and toasted the wonderful woman, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother that she was. It's funny how death is viewed and held differently from country to country, family to family. I decided that I don’t really care what happens to me after I die, but I do want a big party thrown for me. I want everyone to have a good time at my funeral.
After some follow up research we found out that when she died, Eva Peron’s corpse had been stolen and was missing for 16 years accompanied by ample amounts of farfetched intrigue. After they found her body, her husband’s next wife kept Eva’s embalmed remains in their dining room next to the table for two years! Now her final resting place is in La Recoleta Cementario. But is it?
My observation about Buenos Aires is that it is a missed opportunity. As an example, the sidewalks need repaired, even in the best neighborhoods and walking through the rest of the city is somewhat daunting. It is at once a metropolis on the edge, but also vibrating with indescribable beauty and passion and possibility. It is the kind of city where we stopped into a cafe for a quick snack, glass of vino tinto, and charge for our phones ... and were treated to a tango dance. We spent six days walking and exploring, eating and drinking and by the way, the Malbecs didn't disappoint.
On the Eastern Side of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires stands the Casa Rosada – the palace of El Presidente – currently Mauricio Macri. It’s from the balconies here that Eva Perón famously preached to throngs of impassioned Argentines. The building’s color could have come from President Sarmiento’s attempt at making peace during his 1868–74 term (by blending the red of the Federalists with the white of the Unitarists). Another theory, however, is that the color comes from painting the palace with bovine blood, a common practice in the late 19th century.
On Sunday August 9th, we had made a reservation to see La Casa Rosada and walked through some - it seemed to us – not so safe neighborhoods to get there. One of the events going on en route was some sort of Peruvian festival complete with dancers in sequined outfits, entertainers, food vendors and hawkers of every sort of thing imaginable.
After wading through masses of people whose contagious enthusiasm immediately put us in a celebratory mood, we arrived at the Palace. It was walled off with an impenetrable iron fence and a garrison of armed soldiers standing at the ready who explained to us that the palace was closed for “maintenance.” But I didn’t think so.
Outside of the fence was a food vendor cooking ribs, sausage, and other unidentifiable meats, on the longest grill I’d ever seen. The smoke alone I’m sure consumed Argentina’s carbon footprint allotment in the fight against global warming. After escaping the smoke and catching our breath, we continued on to San Telmo through even more sketchy neighborhoods.
We found a temporary oasis in a restaurant called, La Popular, which arguably had the best papas fritas in the Southern Hemisphere and a pretty good glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was served at room temperature which didn’t seem to affect its good taste. After resting our weary feet, we continued on and discovered a wonderful array of antiques and handcrafted goods that made the perilous journey worthwhile. I bought a handmade pair of white, leather Agua Patagonia shoes that are super cool looking and comfortable.
On the way back, the Peruvian festival had seemingly gotten a little rowdy and out of hand and we had heard that there was some sort of bomb scare. Walking down the street (I think it was Córdova or maybe Sante Fe?) we saw people running towards us from the direction in which we were headed. I asked a vendor, who was quickly packing up, “¿Que paso?”
She responded as she ran off, “Hay peligros.” Which loosely translates to, “There are dangers.”
A scene flashed through my head: World War Z, when the “infection” first broke out. I felt like the wife of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) standing there for one moment, confused, while a stream of people started running toward us, panicking, perhaps a part of an unnecessary mob mentality, or perhaps a harbinger of something real, something more nefarious.
Dennis shouted, “Look at all these people running toward us. They’re running away from something. Let’s go!!!!”
It didn’t take me longer than two steps of a tango dance to agree and we took off, down dark side streets, crooked alleys and crumbling sidewalks, past buildings of forbidding iron gates and graffiti sides, hand in hand, and finally came out on the other side, a reasonably lit street where we stopped to catch our breath.
We never found out what the danger was, but later heard that it was a knife fight. It turns out that it was more Westside Story than World War Z. Nevertheless, we made it home safe and sound.
What did I learn? Beauty is only skin deep.