I found Buenos Aires like nothing so much as New York City. OK, the buildings aren’t as tall. However, the pace, the presence of subway entrances everywhere downtown, the sense of “a city that doesn’t sleep,” the tacky tourist shops and the sight of homeless people sleeping in the doorways of upscale restaurants, banks and stores—such things reminded me of my time in New York.
My friend Carlos found my hotel for us, with a little difficulty, on his phone’s GPS. It was on a pedestrian walkway named La Valle, rather than a street. There are many of these in Latin America. I don’t see why we don’t have more in the U.S.
The hotel’s doorway was so narrow that we almost missed it! Its lobby was like a very long closet, desk clerk wedged in behind the far counter and the elevator right up against it.
Carlos and I took my bag up to my room on the fourth floor. Once more, I opened a door to a model of efficient use of space.
After stowing the bag, Carlos and I went out for pizza. On the way, I got my first view of Buenos Aires’ famous Obelisk.
At “Kentucky Pizza”—a bit of a shock to an American used to seeing that state’s name paired with chickens—we talked about the origins of our respective connections with Meher Baba. These intimate discussions were a part of my journey that I loved. I had once met the late Eduardo Nunez (known as “Kiki”), Carlos’ Baba connection (as well as that of many other Argentinians) in India.
After lunch, we stopped at another restaurant for coffee. Carlos had to get back to La Plata, and I walked the rest of the way back to the hotel by myself.
I went up to my room to settle in and have a shower and nap. When I woke up, I could see out the window that it was dark outside. Venturing back out for dinner in an evening drizzle, I felt disoriented by all the lights and activity. Walking a block up to where we’d had coffee, I noticed a similar-looking diner across the way. Just for the sake of doing something different, I decided to eat there.
On restaurants and waiters in Argentina
There’s something special about restaurants in Argentina. They seem unusually solid, somehow. Waiters have a certain gravitas.
Suarez, with its heavy wooden tables and big, expert waiters, felt so grounded that I almost felt I could live there—that I wouldn’t need a wife or girlfriend or support system, just the restaurant! Like living in the belly of a whale. A passing feeling, but palpable.
My waiter, Francesco, could have been a bullfighter. He had swagger.
I felt a little uncomfortable at first, not being able to really read the menu. I wasn’t sure how much dinner would cost.
I pointed to a photo on the menu of something that looked like a chicken and salad plate. Francesco came over to my booth, and with great bravado, threw a clean white tablecloth over the whole table. I had no idea why I, alone among the patrons, deserved a tablecloth. When I asked Francesco, he shouted, “Dinner! Others just having coffee!” OK, that explained that!
A long walk to the Museum of Modern Art
After a good night’s sleep, I went out onto La Valle early to find breakfast and explore Buenos Aires. I walked the two blocks up to the Obelisk to get a better look at this nexus and its setting.
The monument stands on a median between two extremely wide boulevards. Far across from the one at which La Valle ends, is the wall of elegant old and new 10-to-20-storey buildings that are one of the city’s “brands” and seem to go on endlessly.Though hungry, I decided to walk until I found just what I wanted: a little café that would serve an omelet, toast and coffee. Such places weren’t as common as I’d imagined, but that just enabled me to hike through more of the city. Walking a lot each day was one of my minor goals, anyway.
After 10 blocks or so—still more “New York” than Mexico City, whose every block contains reminders of the distant past—I ambled into an unobtrusive little place and asked the proprietor, “Omelette con jimon y queso, café y brindis?” (“Ham and cheese omelet, coffee and toast?”)
“Si, si,” he replied in a friendly tone. I caught up with my phone apps while he cooked behind the counter. There was only one other customer in the place, a woman sitting near the front door, writing in a notebook. She smiled as I entered. For reasons having nothing to do with her, I decided to sit all the way in the back.
She was still writing when I left, an hour later. “Are you a writer?” I asked. At first, she didn’t understand my phone-app Spanish, but we finally succeeded in communicating. She described the kind of writing she did. As I struggled to understand her, it suddenly became clear to me that she was an astrologer. She gave me a big smile when I suggested that in Spanish.
Destination for the day
While waiting for breakfast, I used my phone to search for an art museum. As a longtime painter, deeply inspired by Matisse, Chagall, Klee and others, I nearly always visit a museum when in a foreign city. I’ve been delighted by the work of many artists scarcely heard of in America.
I settled on the Museum of Modern Art—a good ways off, but that meant I’d get to see even more of the city. The walk itself proved to be the highlight of the day!
I headed back toward the Obelisk, then turned down 9 de Julio Avenida, the boulevard straddling that monument. Passing the wide outlet of a walkway (they don’t seem to call them Ramblas in Buenos Aires), along which freelance money-changers were whispering “Cambio?” (Change?), I tightened my hold on my wallet and went on.
A little later, I began to notice magnificent Victorian architecture on all sides. A ways up ahead, I could see a plaza that looked like a central meeting point. An inscription on a building to my left said Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires. There were other public buildings and what looked like massive downtown department stores. I was nearing a vast plaza with a smaller obelisk at its centre. At its far end was a huge pink building that I learned was the Argentine Presidential Palace.
As I crossed the square, which Google Maps designated as Plaza de Mayo, I heard strains of what sounded like a Salvation Army band. Soon, a large group of musicians and demonstrators holding green flags began to pass by. Watching TV in my hotel room the night before, I’d learned that this very day, Parliament was voting on a divisive political issue, the legalization of abortion. Those in favor were called the Greens—those opposed, the Blues.
San Telmo: Bohemian barrio and home of the tango
As magnificent as Plaza de Mayo was, my journey in a sense began as I left it. Making my way east along another walkway, I became aware of the gradual “bohemianization” of the neighbourhood. I didn’t learn until later that I was in San Telmo, an area with a long history that includes its prominence as a major locus of tango culture.
The real estate in San Telmo was less expensive than in some other areas. Perhaps that was what inspired the many murals painted on walls and aluminum roll-up doors. However, as in the bottom picture above, it clearly isn’t all on-the-run graffiti!
Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art
I felt disappointed by the exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art. They seemed to partake of a Latin American tendency to curate museum galleries in intellectualized, thematic ways. Most of what I saw was conceptual, as well.
After visiting every gallery—I found no permanent collection on display—I spent some time in the café, uploading the photos I’d taken earlier in the day. Then I began the walk back.
The Poetry Café
I returned from the museum by the same route I’d come by, so as not to miss a place called the Poetry Café. This time I went in and sat down. Finding the atmosphere charming, I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a draft of beer. All of them turned out to be straight from heaven. It was my first beef in the nation with the world’s highest per capita consumption of the stuff!
While eating, I received a text from Carlos, who was back in Buenos Aires for an appointment that evening. He knew Poetry Café and said he’d meet me there. Waiting, I read for a while and had a late-afternoon coffee. I asked my waitress, “Do a lot of poets come here?” She pointed to a room upstairs and said, “The poets met there a few nights ago!”
I felt it an absolute necessity to at least try to write a poem at the Poetry Café. Happily, the effort was a success.
After Carlos arrived, we walked San Telmo together. He shared briefly about the association of the neighborhood with the tango. Friends on Facebook were urging me to attend a tango show, but I still wasn’t sure where to go, or how much it would cost.
As we walked back through Plaza de Mayo, Carlos pointed to what appeared to be an organized group and said, “These are relatives of people who disappeared during the dictatorship. They meet here every Thursday.” My heart went out to the ache those hearts must continue to feel.
Our roaming the city continued with a visit to yet another café, followed by a descent into the Buenos Aires subway system, every bit as crowded as New York’s. We had a plan to rendezvous with Carlos’ girlfriend Marcela, in Palermo, an upscale inner suburb. However, it turned out that Marcela, a biochemist, had to work late.Feeling a sense of responsibility for his American visitor’s safety, Carlos accompanied me back to the central city after a rest. We finally parted after a delicious meal at a Middle Eastern street food place, and I walked back to the hotel.
To read about the previous leg of the author’s journey, visit MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY AND THE FERRY TO BUENOS AIRES: Travels in Latin America [Part 4]»
image 32: Wikimedia Commons; all other images: Max Reif