I spent a fantastic Saturday afternoon and evening at the Hipoódromo Argentino de Palermo–the Buenos Aires horse racing track. It is, as per the above image, a Buenos Aires institution. It is also a perfect place to watch the old, middle and upper class men of the city interact with each other while they smoke cigarettes and drink small cups of coffee. They, like most gambling men, do a lot of yelling as the horses round the bend and gallop past the crowd of onlookers at ridiculous speeds. This makes the hipódromo a great place to learn city-specific curses and to laugh at the weird mix of horse names given to the poor animals you watch. My most recent favorite: pirata perseguido, though ScorpioNYC, pronounced phonetically be the announcer as “scorpionick”, was a close second.
Also, the balding, khaki-short-wearing Argentine men sometimes bring their grandchildren, who are more fun to bet on than the horses. They run half the length of the track as faux jockeys, whipping all the while their imaginary horses with rolled-up newspapers.
This was, actually, my second visit to the hipódromo. There is something particularly pleasant about spending time at this track in the muggy Porteño summer. It is close to the water and near one of the city’s largest parks so the winds for which Buenos Aires was named are palpable and cool. It’s also lovely that the minimum bet is so low. For two pesos, the equivalent of fifty U.S. cents, you can bet on any race. I’ve lost everything I’ve put down so far. Entrance is free.
An important fact about the hipódromo: the snack bar is terrible and overpriced. The worst hamburgers and hot dogs on earth are served at the aforementioned bar. You can’t disguise the foulness of these disasters with the salsa golf, essentially a mayonnaise-heavy Thousand Island dressing that they freely offer. The beer they sell is non-alcoholic. The ham and cheese sandwiches are an abomination. Bring your own food and beverages if ever, my dear comrades, you find yourself at the B.A. tracks.
Take head, oh ye foreigners who dare to enter into the strange world of mobile telecommunication in Buenos Aires!
A few days after my arrival here I went about getting myself a functional cell phone. With the aid of a lovely young Colombian woman and her lovely young American boyfriend we went from Claro to Movistar and then, finally, ended up at Personal. (These are the three most aggressively present carriers in these parts). I purchased, for the ridiculously high price of 60 American bucks, a little LG phone. My own U.S. cell phone didn’t have the bandwidth to work this far South of the equator, apparently, and the folks you can normally pay to hack in and change this couldn’t fix the problem. Price paid and journey over I ran my fingers over the soft white plastic of my new mobile and thought, this will be my connection to the vast social networks whose links crisscross Buenos Aires, my dear port city.
Well, yes and no: First off, it is entirely unclear to me what prefixes to use when calling on said cell phone. I’ve heard different numbers to try from different people. There is apparently no hard and fast rule. “It’s sometimes 15,” people say, or “Try 11 first.” Some say to input the prefix in your contact list with the rest of the number, others say it’s unnecessary.
I have a whopping five contacts in my phone right now, only two of which I have been able to successfully call or send text messages to.
In addition, if one were to dial the Argentine prefix from a U.S. phone and then key in what I believe is my number (this was more difficult to figure out than you’d imagine because I received three text messages from Personal after setting up my phone, all of which claimed that I had a different phone number) you would be roundly informed by an operator–more likely a recording of an operator than an actual, live, human operator–that the number does not exist. Go figure.
I have successfully placed and received calls about as often as my attempts at communication via voice or SMS have failed, inexplicably and entirely. I also have received several voice messages which I cannot access because this bitchy recorded lady keeps telling me to put in my pass code–a code I have never known and that will forever remain shrouded in an impenetrable mystery to me. A friend of mine who has been living in the city for over two years still doesn’t know how to get his messages. TWO YEARS: this is a man with many local friends, mind you, and a reasonable amount of technological know-how.
So, for now, I remain only partially linked in. But I swear there must be a secret because Argentine’s love to talk on their cell phones as much as anybody. Although they do really seem to prefer the walkie-talkie function. Even when they aren’t using it, they treat their phones thusly, moving them from ear to mouth and back again, somewhat haphazardly, throughout their often very loud and animated conversations.
One great perk, which may or may not be specific to Argentine cell phones: each button on my phone, when pressed, sounds like a different key on an old casio keyboard.
According to the heat index it was about 99 degrees today as I wandered, for two hours, with little aim around the city. I walked from my apartment in Recoleta to Plaza Congreso to Obelisco to Plaza de Mayo. Meandered a bit around the latter ye ol’ plaza and then headed back home to arrive, with luck, just before the late afternoon rain began.
I had time during this fine, extremely hot walk of mine to think on the differences I note between my lovely Los Angeles and here. And, to amuse and confound you, I came up with the following list of notable distinctions:
1.) Dish soap: it’s so much soapier here, somehow, but considerably less affective at cutting grease.
2.) Wine: cheaper if you buy the local stuff and oh soooo delicious.
3.) Bidets: Porteños love bidets. I wonder if it doesn’t come from their long admiration of French culture, but I swear I have yet to see an apartment without one.
4.) Dinner: so much later. I never eat before 9 p.m. and usually it’s more like 10:30.
5.) The weekend: everyone strolls about in the afternoons, but really wakes up at night. It is not unusual to see folks in their 60s and 70s out at one, two, three in the morning. And the young ones? Up until the dawn and then some. Plenty of bars and clubs stay open until 9 a.m.
6.) The manner in which coffee is brewed: Now at a café espresso machines are the norm, but somehow the coffee is usually weaker than it should be. For the home barrista like myself I’ve seen Italian percolators for sale as well as French presses, but by far what appears the most common (and cheapest) method is a re-useable cotton filter not unlike a sock with some wire holding it open where you’d slide your foot in. For a coffee snob like myself, this has been a serious adjustment. And let’s not forget that we are in South America so Nescafe has quite a hold at the local grocery stores. Instant coffee abounds, if not at the local restaurants, certainly in the aisles of the CarreFour.
7.) Plastic surgery: Now coming from Los Angeles, you’d think this wouldn’t be so different. But it is. People love plastic surgery here. There are fake breasts and sculpted noses in every direction. From what I hear this is common across Latin America, particularly in Brazil and Columbia.
8.) Parks: In my neighborhood there are many, as in nearby barrio Palermo, but what’s most impressive? Every park has its own Facebook page. I can’t do all the confirming on this that I’d like to (because I, despite much prodding by the general public and the vague sense that I will be single forever and increasingly incapable of making friends without membership, am not on Facebook) but it appears, indeed, to be true. Perhaps parks everywhere are on Facebook these days, but never have I seen a placard in a park inviting me to ‘friend’ it.
Oh sweet, sweet Buenos Aires. How muggy and lovely you truly are!
O.k. readers, particularly those sensitive to crude language, consider this fair warning. The following post contains the occasional expletive.
Now, having told you what to expect, let us commence with the cursing: SHIT! What I thought was a small, avant-garde gnat commune in the corner of my bedroom turns out to be an imperialist army of mosquitos. I woke up today looking like someone suffering from one of those 19th Century diseases that kills your social life quickly and you slowly. Luckily, my social life here is minimal so I just appear afflicted when I buy my entrance tickets to museums or my groceries. And the folks selling that stuff have, thus far, made no obvious attempts to distance themselves from me. Although, I may not be in the best position to gauge such gestures, considering it is quite common for anyone to look at me with that peculiar “don’t you dare come hither” stare. Fucking mosquitos.
And, in unrelated news, I’ve just discovered the following glorious phenomenon: If a porteño is instant messaging another porteño, or anyone, really, and wants to indicate laughter the following text is used: “Ja ja ja.” Oh my! So splendid a transliteration of “ha ha ha” (which is itself, I suppose, a transliteration) I have never seen. And that it appears totally normal to them to write “ja ja ja” and totally normal to me to write “ha ha ha” makes it all the more jubilant.
That, my dears, is all I have for now. Wish me luck sleeping under the constant threat of attack by those colonialist jerks.
This photo (which I grabbed from flickr and cannot take the credit for) is from the San Telmo Sunday market, or fería. Every Sunday throngs of tourists and Porteños alike stroll the streets of San Telmo looking for various crafts, clothes, gourds out of which to drink Mate tea, antiques etc. Musicians and street performers of all types, including the mandatory tango dancers, set up to busk every few blocks. I went yesterday with an ex-pat friend of mine and wandered for a few hours. I ended up buying a pair of homemade shoes that would put any Echo Park hipster to shame. They are glorious. And, again, photos will follow once I solve that little card reader/language problem. (By the end of the week, comrades, I vow to make that purchase.)
The streets are packed with slow-moving shoppers who stop over stalls and finger the goods. There are also plenty of folks walking around with coolers of beer and soda or baskets of pan relleno (stuffed bread) and a surprising number of people with stands to sell orange juice, squeezed from the fruit on the spot and delicious.
The drawback of the market is not only the ubiquity of tourists, but the ease with which vendors seem to peg them. Its unclear to me how they know (but they always do) who is a local and who isn’t. Spanish won’t save you here. Even when I was silent I’d have folks start the bartering in English.
Another vow: not to leave Buenos Aires without one of those seltzer bottles.
My friends, I deliver unto you a fabulous web site which you may have already discovered via my tweets or my where to go page: buenosairesword. The graffiti in Buenos Aires is fantastic, as is the commercial and municipal typography all over the place. By fantastic I do not mean ‘high design’ (though this exists in spades in parts of Buenos Aires). I mean rich. There are such varieties of color and shape, juxtapositions, and bizarre conflicts between texts that you can pretty much stare at any wall and be mesmerized. Play around with the aforementioned site (it will be easier if you can read Spanish, but a few clicks here and there and you’ll probably figure it out even if you don’t). You will a.)not be disappointed and b.) get a little sense of the typographical aesthetics of the city.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have an apartment! Yes, a little studio in Recoleta (which is the Beverly Hills of Buenos Aires. Not my first choice given my deep commitment to proletarian aims, but after a week of searching I had to take what I could get). It’s a studio. Spartan but lovely, with hardwood floors and a tiny kitchen with a two-burner electric stove. It has a bathtub and lots of natural light–its two greatest selling points. I am paying a bit over a third more than what a Porteño* would to live here. This is the cause of some frustration, but I have accepted the cost as one of many that come with outsider status. And it is still half what my rent was in Los Angeles. Pictures of my fine domicile will follow once I figure out how to say “I’d like a card reader for my digital camera” in Spanish without sounding like an idiot. I imagine it would sound something like the following sentence if I try today: “Hello. I am looking for a thing that I can use to take out photos from this card that exists in my camera so that I can put them on my computer. Do you understand me?” Serviceable, but so awfully clunky.
I moved in today and shortly thereafter walked a block down my street to the CarreFour grocery store. I purchased the following: six eggs, one loaf of wheat bread, one large bottle of water, butter, mayonnaise, mustard, two peaches, a bottle of cheap Malbec and a can of tuna-fish. (The tuna was by far the worst decision I’ve made here thus far, excluding perhaps the canned mushroom sandwich I ordered two days ago. Yes, that’s right, canned mushroom sandwich. With canned asparagus and crappy cheese. ‘Fracaso total’, as they say. It was, in my defense, an attempt to avoid yet one more disastrous jamón y queso concoction. God they love ham and cheese here. They make lasagna with it, sandwiches, empanadas, pizza…everything).
And now, dear readers, I am sitting comfortably at my table sipping from a mug of wine, writing this little post and attempting to decipher the Guia T. The ingenious Guia T is the guide to the complex bus infrastructure in the city. Buses, unlike the ‘subte’ (short for subterráneo), run all night and from my neighborhood, they are by far the superior form of transportation to any other section of town. You find where you are in the city and then where you want to go and see what bus numbers correspond to both. The guide comes as a little booklet “de bolsillo” and a new addition is put out every year. Every other page has a map of one section of the city divided into 24 squares, corresponding to 24 squares of bus numbers on the page preceding it. My problem: I have absolutely no idea which direction the busses should be headed when I catch them. None. My cardinal directions are always bad but have moved from bad to non-existent during my time in Buenos Aires. Luckily, a friend of mine gave me a spectacular compass before I left. I’ll have to keep it around my neck to have any chance. Another fun fact about the buses here: When you hop on at a stop, you don’t tell the driver where you are going, you tell him how much you want to pay. I have yet to meet anyone who can tell me exactly how one decides how to gauge the appropriate cost. The consensus seems to be to just say 1 peso and 20 centavos and assume this will serve you well.
Its nine now, so still a good hour before the porteño dinner hour. That’s how long I’m giving myself to figure out how to get from Recoleta to Palermo, a barrio I would liken to L.A.’s Silverlake. Wish me luck.
*’Porteños/as are Buenos Aires residents.