We had left Buenos Aires and were in Cordoba when a man there gave us two warnings about Bolivia.  First, he mentioned the crime there, but said there is crime everywhere.  Then he mentioned food, and we thought we were in for the usual lesson about not eating fresh vegetables or street food.  But no, he struggled to describe the food there until we supplied the word for him – hot.  His eyes lit up, and he agreed, “Hot, yes.  The food there is too hot.”  Before Argentina we had spent six months in Mexico, and we both love hot food, so his words were more a promise than a warning, but the fact that an Argentine might think food was a bit too hot and flavourful was not a surprise.

The food in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, was often disappointing, and one of the main reasons for that was it was so limited.  Steak, empanadas, pasta and pizza represent most of the food options easily available to us, at least in the neighbourhood we were in.  The steak was very good but not the best ever (as we’d heard beforehand), the empanadas inconsistent (even in the same restaurant), and the pasta unexciting.  We had read in travel guides that despite a huge influx of Italian immigrants to Argentina long ago, the Italian food options were “boring” and the travel guides were right.  The “exciting” topping on the pizza was ham.  No salami, no pepperoni, nothing but ham and cheese, no matter what pizza place we went to.  Sandwiches, too, were invariably ham and cheese.

They start with good products in Argentina, like some of the best beef anywhere, but they just don’t do much with it.  The steak is nicely cooked to bring out its natural flavour but they don’t put any seasoning on it in most restaurants.  In over a month in Argentina, we saw pepper on the table once.  Really, just one time, in dozens of visits to restaurants.  To give ourselves a little variety, we had hoped to cook some of our own food in Buenos Aires, but when we visited the grocery stores and looked at the spices available, our hearts sank.  There would be literally a total of from 8 to 12 varieties of herbs and spices in a store with a good selection, leaving me to wonder whether Tang would make a good substitute for paprika.

Kids in Buenos Aires are so different from the kids in Mexico.  As we’ve mentioned before, Mexican kids are not only incredibly cute, but they are just as incredibly well-behaved.  Months ago we attended a fundraising event in San Miguel with dozens of old gringos (like us) and four Mexican children.  Though the event lasted hours, the kids never acted up, never seemed visibly restless.  But in just a few weeks in Buenos Aires, we saw example after example of children running unsupervised through restaurants, squirming in their seats, and generally misbehaving.  Don’t get me wrong, the kids here are pretty much like American kids, many of which are well-behaved but many are not.  But the contrast with Mexico is a bit shocking.

There is a trade-off, though.  One of our friends in San Miguel, who has lived in Mexico for well over a decade, says that kids there are taught to march in public school and not much else.  She’s exaggerating a bit, but conformity and politeness is much more valued in Mexico, and our friend believes the limited public education system in Mexico is a deliberate choice by the government to keep people in their place.

The kids in Buenos Aires do, however, conform in one way – most wear white lab coats to school.  We saw kids on a break from school, or apparently heading off for a field trip, and the kids in many of the groups all wore the white lab coats.  They looked like they were off to their lab for a little experiment.

The Buenos Aires subway system, or Subte, is perhaps the most inadequate and least people-friendly subway system we’ve used.  The system is poorly laid out, like a four-pronged fork joined in the east and pointing westward.  There is no connecting line in the west, so if you are in the northwest and need to get to the southwest, you must ride the line into what’s known as the Centro but is about as far east as you can get, then switch lines and head west again.  There is a short line connecting the two most southerly lines, about halfway along, and one more in the east but heading north/south.

Everything we’d read about the system before coming to Buenos Aires mentioned that it’s completely inadequate, and we’ll share some numbers to give you a feeling for it.  The Subte has 1.7 million riders daily on 32.5 miles of line, while the London Underground has 3.4 million riders daily on 250 miles of track.  So, the London Underground has twice as many riders, but spreads them out over 8 times as many miles of track.  If you’ve ever ridden the London subway you know it can be crowded, so you can imagine how much worse the Subte is.   If you think it’s unfair to compare the Subte to the Underground, consider that the Mexico City subway has 3.8 million riders, but spreads them out over 120 miles, or about 4 times as many miles of track as in Buenos Aires, and it’s a horribly crowded subway system, too.

Not only is it just not big enough, the layout of the stations really doesn’t make it easy to find where you’re going once you head downstairs to the buy your ticket. In any other subway system we’ve used, you can go downstairs from street level at any of the entrances for a particular stop, then follow the signs to the correct line and correct direction.  But here, some stations have entrances for only one direction, so if you’re heading east you must enter at this corner, and if you’re heading west you must enter at that corner.  Also, in the two places where three lines intersect, the stops for different lines have different names, so, for example, you need to get out at Diagonal Norte on the blue line to get on Carlos Pelligrini on the red line, even though it’s the same stop.

It is cheap and the trains run frequently, but that’s about all that can be said in favor of the system here.

Waiting for the bus in Buenos Aires

Depending on how you look at it Buenos Aires is one of the most orderly or disorderly cities we’ve visited.  Flying in to the airport at night, it is obvious from the rows of streetlights that Buenos Aires was designed using a grid system.  Walk around any neighbourhood, and you’ll see the buildings lining the street all do so with their fronts neatly squared with the street (which might not seem like such an accomplishment until you’ve visited parts of Ireland and Mexico).  Watch people queue up for a bus, and it’s easy to think you could take a measuring tape and find that each person in line is exactly 18 inches from the next, and they all face the same direction.

But look a little closer and you’ll see the chaos all around you.  Bus passengers may respect the rules for standing in line, but drivers certainly don’t respect the rules of the road, if they exist.  People often drive through town at incredible speeds, motorcyclists ride on the sidewalks if the motor traffic ahead of them seems to be moving a little too slowly, drivers create lanes that aren’t there, or turn from the second (or third lane) over, or turn into the fifth lane (a frequent occurrence), and at the many unregulated intersections (that’s right, no signs or lights of any kind, even at many fairly busy intersections) you can see the yelling and hand gestures imported from Italy.

And while the streets and buildings may seem orderly, there are some baffling exceptions.  To see what I mean, walk to Plaza 25 de Mayo, which lies directly in front of the Pink House (much like our White House, except it’s a kind of pink, of course).  You’ll see a nice planned plaza, with a statue of a man on a horse, a flagpole, another statue on an obelisk, fountains, gardens, etc.

Try this experiment.  If you could stand in the center of the main arch of the Pink house and strike off perpendicular to the building, you will come to a statue of a man on a horse.  However, you won’t be right at the middle of the statue, but a few inches to the side.  Make your way around to the other side of the statue and try again, and you’ll almost run into a flagpole just a few feet away.  Almost, but not quite, since the flagpole is not centered on the pink house or the first statue.  Keep going and  you’ll come to a plaque explaining the planned garden ahead of you, but you’ll have to step about two feet to the left to read it since the plaque is not centered on anything you’ve passed so far or even on the garden ahead.  You could keep this up through the garden area, to the statue on the obelisk and so on and you won’t find anything that is lined up with anything else.  It’s generally symmetrical and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to line up the front door of the pink house, the statue, and all the rest but no, they didn’t.  It’s as if someone snapped a plumb line, set all the pieces in place, then nudged each element two feet this way, or four feet that way.  It would be fine, too, if it was clearly asymmetrical, with everything offset enough to give the sense it was done purposefully.  Instead, it looks like each builder just showed up and said, “Close enough.”  It wasn’t.

The most amazing thing to me is how the plaza was used during the recent bicentennial celebrations.  As explained in the last post, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the first local government in Buenos Aires, which began on May 25.  The nearby thoroughfare Avenida 9 de Julio is much, much larger than the Plaza 25 de Mayo, and so made sense as the focal point of the celebrations, but the Plaza seemed more like a construction zone during the celebrations than anything else.  Imagine there was a 4th of July Plaza directly in front of the White House, and the U.S. was getting ready to celebrate its bicentennial (July 4, 1976) and decided to use the White House lawn and the plaza as a loading and unloading zone for events elsewhere.  The Plaza 25 de Mayo looked horrible until the day after the celebrations ended, when all the extra crap was cleaned up and it was transformed into a beautiful public space.  It’s still not lined up, though.

We flew from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, Argentina, last weekend and one of the reasons we haven’t posted anything since then is that it’s been a rough transition.  The total travel time was over 12 hours, with almost 11 hours on planes, and we gained two hours and six months.  Well, we didn’t gain six months, but by crossing the equator we went from late spring in Mexico City, with temperatures in the nineties and over 13 hours of sunlight per day, to late fall in Buenos Aires, with temperatures yo-yoing between the high fifties to low seventies, and only 10 hours of sunlight per day.  Add in a terrible landlady, pressure from Amy applying for and interviewing for a job in Oregon, and it’s been a tiring time.

Things are getting better, though.  By Thursday, Amy got the job, we had a great (but not the best ever) steak in celebration, and it turns out this is a huge holiday weekend here.  All the signs here proclaim that it’s the bicentennial that’s being celebrated, and the events began last night and culminate on May 25, so you’d think that means it’s their Independence Day, but it isn’t.  This marks the events of “May Week” when in 1810 the local viceroy in Buenos Aires was booted out of office and a local government formed (according to Wikipedia).  It wasn’t until July 8, 1816, that national independence was actually declared, so that’s the official Independence Day.  So, this is the bicentennial celebration of  . . . something.  Although this seems to be a national holiday, it might be celebrated more here than elsewhere in the country, in that it commemorates the first local government in Buenos Aires.  Get it?  Yeah, me neither.

We saw part of a military parade, and many of the participants had on old-style uniforms that made it look like a live-action Stratego game.  Celebrations will continue for days, but in our wandering today we never came across food vendors.  I’m sure they’re out there somewhere but I can’t imagine a regular Independence Day celebration in the States, let alone a really big one, that didn’t include more food options than a person could go through in a month.

Some of you may think we recently experienced Mexican Independence Day on May 5 but Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico.  In fact, it’s not a national holiday at all but just a state holiday in Puebla, and which is partially observed elsewhere.  The day commemorates the Battle of Puebla, an impressive victory of the outnumbered Mexican army over the invading French in 1862.  The problem is the French went on to win the war and control Mexico for 3 years, so the Battle of Puebla ended up not making much of a difference in the arc of history, though the battle became a source of justifiable pride for Mexico.  The real Mexican Independence Day will come this September 16, and will mark Mexico’s bicentennial, too.  Several other Latin American countries also declared their independence in 1810, though it took years of fighting in each case to actually break free from the crumbling Spanish Empire.  1810 was not a good year for Spain.