Tag Archives: Buenos Aires

The last post

8 Feb
Last morning, Rio Lujan

Sunrise on the last day: our final camping weekend was spent by the Rio Lujan, Tigre delta, Buenos Aires province.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

This might not be the first time you’ve heard a journalist say this, but the headline on this story – well, it’s a bit of a lie.

Unless I completely fail to get myself organised before we fly home next week, this won’t be the last post ever.

But it is the last report of our travels with the van, and for that reason I have been procrastinating over writing it even more than usual. Because I can’t possibly think of how I’m going to end it. Just think how devastatingly witty, profound, meaningful and tear-jerkingly amazing it’s going to have to be to do justice to the last four and a half years.

So I have decided not to try. Maybe I’ll just let it all fizzle out, or stop the post mid-sentence. Let’s see what happens.

For now we’re going way back to the end of 2015, when we bundled out of Brazil in a haze of rain and fog. We had the delusional hope that once we crossed the Argentinian border, as if by magic, the sun would appear. Guess what, on the other side of the man-made frontier, the topography and weather were exactly the same. The El Niño phenomenon was generating some crazy weather and it had absolutely no consideration for a) borders or b) our trip.

It was a bit complicated because we had committed to writing a story in that part of northern Argentina, more than two weeks hence, which required us to attend a festival in January. In the meantime we had planned to remain up there for Christmas and New Year, make final repairs to the van before selling it in Buenos Aires, start organising all our accumulated stuff, and enjoy our final few weeks of camping, barbeques and sunsets. None of that was really possible with sheeting rain, howling winds and flooded campsites.

Choripan!

On the upside, we were back in the land of the choripan with chimichurri!

While trying to decide what to do we headed south a little, occasionally pulling in to water-logged petrol stations to take a break from the unbelievable rain, and obsessively checking the weather online. It was pretty set in for the festive period and the only way to escape it and find good camping was to get south of Buenos Aires, a few hundred kilometres more than we’d planned to do, and way off our route.

A wet windy night pretty much made up our minds – this wasn’t the way to end the trip, and it was totally impractical to do all our essential van jobs without good, dry weather. That had to take priority so with guilty hearts we cancelled our work plan and headed south towards a sunny Christmas.

Almost as soon as we reached the border of Buenos Aires province, things brightened. We drove through the pampa under lovely skies, and felt relieved.

We pitched up in Tandil, a sweet little hillside town about 300km south of the capital, and found a relatively luxurious campground where we could dig in for a week, laze by the pool, and let Christmas float by. It was our fifth Christmas on the road and while we do always feel a bit sad knowing we’re absent from a lovely family dinner, we miss virtually nothing else about it.

Not that we are totally grumpy grinches, obviously. We follow certain traditions like joining the throngs at the supermarket on Christmas Eve to stock up with ridiculous amounts of food, booze and chocolate. And we always try to cook a feast of some kind.

For our second Argentinian Christmas that obviously involved a lot of steak and a barbeque. As a nod to the British festive plate, we made chorizo sage and onion ‘stuffing’ balls and chucked them on as well.

There was a dessert too but I had to have an impromptu, spumante-related, nap and missed it.

I mentioned to Jeremy that next year we might have money for Christmas presents and asked what he might like. He said: “A campervan please.”

Moonlit nights

Damn, we’re going to miss those van evenings – camping beneath the moon, Tandil, Argentina.

Given my earlier comments about the awful weather I am really, honestly not complaining, but the heat was so intense we couldn’t go out walking for long.

We took a short hike up to Tandil’s mini version of Christ the Redeemer where, as always, we befriended a stray dog. On the way back down the ground was so hot the dog was literally hopping around, trying to save its poor burning paws. As he flopped in the shade at the bottom we rehydrated him with a couple of litres of water and bathed his sizzling pads.

Tandil walk

A stroll with a stray dog in Tandil, Buenos Aires province.

Now we were stationary for a few days, we could launch Operation Chuckaway.
Even though we’ve lived with minimal possessions for the last few years, we’d still managed to accumulate an amazing amount of clutter. It was time to downsize yet again.

Van clear-out

Van clear-out stage one, Christmas 2015, Tandil, Argentina.

We decided to brave the crowds at the coast for new year, and were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely family-run campsite in San Clemente del Tuyú where loud music was banned, and the rule was actually observed. Another win for the grinches!!

We love music. We like going somewhere to hear music, and then coming home to a place where we can choose to listen to our music or not. For new year’s eve we found a lively packed bar with tables outside, and snacked on calamari and milanesa as we watched people go by. A live band came on in the street after midnight, and the Latin American tradition of spraying each other with foam and silly string began in earnest. As we ate ice cream on our way home at 1.30am, some of the beachwear shops were just opening. Who buys flip flops in the middle of the night? You have to love Argentina.

Once the holidays were out of the way we started working on the van – getting some minor repairs done, sewing things, siliconing things, glueing things, getting round to some jobs we had ignored for years.

Final van preps

Doing some final DIY jobs before selling the van.

In 2012 our awning broke in a storm. Yes, 2012. We’d been using it – with improvisation, brute force and frequent swearing – but still hadn’t fixed it because it always seemed like such an arse to try to find someone to repair a specialist awning that doesn’t exist in South America.

It couldn’t just be lashed back together – its locking, telescopic aluminium leg has to be an exact size and fit or it can’t be put up or put away. To get that kind of work done you need to be lucky to find That Guy – the guy who is handy, who loves to solve a problem, who is interested in our journey, who has the will and the time to help. How do you find That Guy when you’re always on the move, always a stranger in town?

We studied the map to find the right size of town, where we could both camp and get things done without having to spend each day navigating a massive city. We randomly ended up in Navarro, a lovely nowheresville place in the pampa south of BA. We love those kind of communities because they tend to contain useful shops and helpful people who aren’t bored of tourists.

We went to the local ironmonger to explain our awning predicament. He said: “What about asking the bloke next door who makes aluminium window frames?

We went next door, clutching the snapped, bent awning leg. The boss shook his head: “Nope nothing we could do about that, we only do windows,” he said. But lurking behind him, listening, was his colleague. It was That Guy.

Let me have a quick look”, he said. We pulled the van up to the shop and took the awning out. He puzzled over it for ages, trying this piece and that, sawing pieces off and attaching new bits but nothing was working. It was way past closing time, the sun was beating down mercilessly and he was on the verge of giving up – but we could tell we had him in our clutches! Failure is not an option for That Guy. He asked us to return after siesta – he wanted to mull it over as he ate lunch and slept.

Awning guy

That Guy (next to Jeremy) was delighted.

When we went back a few hours later he was hopping around excitedly. He’d had his eureka moment – within half an hour the awning was repaired, it slid beautifully into place and folded away like new. He was almost more pleased about it than we were. Hugs and photos all round, and off we went.

As well as doing all the dull chores, we were making the most of our last days with the van by spending all our time outside, and barbequing as many dinners as possible before returning to winter in Europe.

Sunset parrilla

Sunset parrilla at the municipal campground in Navarro, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.

Inevitably, we were starting to feel horribly sad about saying goodbye to our van life. At the same time we were kind of itching to have the sale all done and dusted, as nothing was certain about the buyer until we’d met and he’d seen the van. Our minds were torn between wistfulness for what we’d experienced in the last four-and-a-half years, and excitement about seeing everyone and making new – albeit uncertain – plans for the future.

One thing we can be sure of is that those plans will always involve travel in some form. Everyone says it and it’s true – travel does not scratch the itch, it only feeds the urge to see more.

Our final weekend was spent on the banks of the Rio Lujan in the Tigre Delta north of Buenos Aires – a perfect, peaceful spot for some contemplation and teary, self-indulgent nostalgia.

Beer o'clock, Tigre delta

Beer o’clock in the Tigre delta – our last night of proper camping in the van.

We were ridiculously nervous as we left there to make the short drive to meet our buyer. I drove like an old lady down the fast motorway, thinking it would just be typical if someone crashed into us on the way to make the sale.

The exceedingly helpful Cris Torlasco of camper hire company Andean Roads had helped us find a buyer, who was a friend of his. We parked up at Cris’s place for a couple of days, cleaned up the van, showed the buyer round, dragged all our stuff outside and got down to packing and handing over. It all went smoothly and the deal was done.

We’d agreed to get one final mechanical repair completed before we drove it to the buyer’s house. We thought it was quite fitting that our last few hours with the van were spent sitting outside a mechanic’s yard on a plastic chair, waiting, waiting. How many hours have we spent doing that since 2011? I couldn’t even guess.

For various reasons we’d decided not to leave for Europe straightaway but to spend a month in an apartment in Buenos Aires – to complete a new writing project, spend time with our friends Karen and Gustavo, and enjoy one last hurrah of steak, wine and summer.

Once everything was ready we drove the van to the buyer’s house in the suburbs of the city. He and his wife were excited about their adventures ahead. We sat in their living room and had a celebratory beer, feeling strange, relieved we’d got everything done, and not a little emotional.

Our taxi arrived and as we stood to leave I instinctively picked up my van keys from the table.

Oh sorry!” I laughed a little hysterically, putting them back down, “they’re not mine any more”.

Days: 1,590
Miles: Final total 58,276 / Kms 93,242
Things we now know to be true: We will never be cured.

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age… perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping… I fear this disease incurable.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

 

PHOTO GALLERY, INCLUDING THE RETURN TO BUENOS AIRES:

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If you’re tired of Buenos Aires, try harder

24 Nov
Casa Coupage, Buenos Aires

More wine?

Villa La Angostura, Argentina
[by Paula]

We arrived in Buenos Aires on an overnight ferry, bleary-eyed and begging for more sleep, and things pretty much continued that way until we left a month later.

BA is the kind of city that you gorge on until you feel a bit sick. So many atmospheric bars, quality restaurants and little pavement cafes give it a decadent Parisien feel. Tempting treats like platters of cheeses and cured meats are practically waved under your nose every time you order a drink. Amazing cakes and ice creams leap out as you try to innocently walk along the street. There’s steak and wine everywhere. Even the bloke at the greasy sausage sandwich stall in the market sells red wine by the glass. Bloody hell, what’s a person supposed to do?

Like a couple of kids who hadn’t seen sweets in years, we crammed everything in until our cheeks bulged.

As if all of this isn’t bad enough for you, everything in BA happens exceptionally late. Turning up to a restaurant before around 10pm more or less makes you a social leper. Steak houses are rammed by 11pm-to-midnight. Most bars only get going sometime after this.

Drinks in Bar Plaza Dorrego

This’ll perk you up. Bar Plaza Dorrego, Buenos Aires.

So not only are you getting fat and pasty, you’re knackered as well.

I realise that makes me sound like a whining old lady. We had a blast, although we were certainly woefully lacking in training for the city life. Years of living on the road and camping had got us into a routine of early starts, active days and ridiculously early nights. Most other countries in Latin America exist on a different schedule to Argentina – meals are eaten early and (except for in larger or more touristy cities) going out late for drinks is not really the norm.

We’d got used to that, but we were up for the BA challenge – it was sink or swim.

Our friends Karen and Gustavo, helped set the scene when we arrived at their apartment from the ferry port.

“We’ll have dinner later and go out to a bar tonight,” they said.

After dinner we went out. It was 12.30am. By about 3.30am we cracked. We’d been awake for about 25 hours straight, so left Karen and Gustavo in the bar and went home.

The next morning Karen got up and went to sit a Portuguese exam, having had about 90 minutes sleep. She passed with flying colours.

We realised what complete wimps we had become.

We had a bit more time to prepare for their welcome barbeque with some friends a few days later, which slowly got going at about 10pm and, in true Argentine style, involved enough meat to feed a small town.

Over the next few weeks we consolidated our initiation with some more training, helpfully aided by our overlanding friends James and Lauren, who have this uncanny knack of getting everyone around them completely roaring drunk, without anyone realising quite how it happened. It was great to coincide with them again in one of the continent’s most renowned party cities. What could possibly go wrong?

We also reunited with Marek, whom we´d first encountered with his partner Zuzka in Puerto Iguazu, and finally met Stevie, Tree and little Sol from Sprinter Life, who’d been travelling around in their van for five years and were preparing to return home to the US. Added to that were new overlanders Rike and Martin, which made quite the little crowd. The over-excitement of having a proper social life again only added to the kids-in-a-sweet-shop atmosphere.

It would surely bore you silly to read a list of all the meals and wine-soaked nights we had. Some of it´s covered in the photo gallery below, but stand-outs include a couple of stupendous steak nights at Gran Parilla de la Plata in San Telmo with James, Lauren and co, great seafood at El Obrero in La Boca, and a sublime way-off-budget meal at Casa Coupage with Stevie and Tree, that involved a 7-course gourmet Argentine tasting menu and a wine-tasting menu so extensive that Tree remembers very little about what we ate that night.

Over our time there we said farewells to Marek, James and Lauren, and Stevie and Tree, who were all at the end of their long road trips and heading home. While we were sad, our livers were quietly grateful.

Of course there were sensible, practical and cultured things to be done as well. As with most of our visits to a major city, there was maintenance work to be carried out on the van. We already had a list of jobs planned, which became a bit longer when we were driving to our apartment on day two and heard a rather loud clunk every time we turned a corner.

Thankfully, we again had the required parts – ball joints and a tie rod end, if you really want to know – stashed in the van, so no drama there. [makes a change – ed].

We ran in the park and walked all over the city – visted Evita’s family vault at the grand cemetery of La Recoleta, gazed at the Casa Rosada, wandered the streets of La Boca with Karen and their little boy Santino and later went to a roaringly loud Boca Juniors game at the stadium. Living in an apartment in San Telmo gave us easy access to its lovely Sunday market and numerous little quirky shops and cafes. We went to a tango show at a cultural centre, and watched an outdoor milonga (tango club) in the square near our place.

And on a more serious note, we were fascinated by watching the Madres de Plaza de Mayo on their weekly march in the plaza near Casa Rosada, and by our trip with Karen and Gustavo to the former Naval academy ESMA, an ex-detention and torture centre which we covered in the last blog post.

Much of the internet we have found on the road in Argentina has been surprisingly poor, so we also used the time to catch up on some jobs and admin, including arranging some things for my parents’ upcoming trip to Patagonia.

When we left BA, we would be driving 1,600km over a few days, to meet them in San Martin de los Andes, in northern Patagonia.

“Shall I pack my flip-flops?” asked my mum. “Well probably”, I said, “but it’s still spring so really you’ll need to pack for all weathers.”

I wasn’t wrong. But little did we know that late spring in San Martin could mean actual snow blizzards. Little did we know that the very day they were travelling was to coincide with the start of some remarkably extreme weather in Argentina. And little did we know that San Martin’s airport was not equipped to cope with landing planes through a puff of cloud, never mind an all-out blast of snow from the Antarctic.

No, that was all to come.

Days: 1,148
Miles: 28,279
Things we now know to be true: You can plan all you like.

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MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW..

Argentina’s dirty past

23 Oct
Faces of the disappeared, ESMA

Just a few of the tens of thousands of people ‘disappeared’ during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’.

Buenos Aires
[by Jeremy]

And this is where they brought the trucks in and loaded the tortured, bloody bodies on board before driving them to the airport, flying them out over the Rio Plata and throwing them in to the sea. Around 5000 people passed through here, only 200 or so survived,” says trade union and political activist – and an old friend of ours – Gustavo Granero.

This place definitely isn’t on the usual tourist agenda and yet it is hard to understand today’s Argentina without understanding how it has confronted – and risen anew from – its brutal, relatively recent, past.

We are at the ESMA complex, a vast former Naval academy in the north of Buenos Aires that was the most notorious of over 400 detention and torture centres established during the period of brutal military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Today it is a peaceful, picturesque, tree-lined space devoted to keeping alive the memory of those who were killed, tortured, beaten and disappeared during what has become known as Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’.

Now called the ‘space for memory and human rights’ it’s a centre for social movements, poignant political art works, progressive film shows and, importantly, a massive archive of documents relating to the ongoing fight for justice for the victims.

It is also a remarkably moving reminder of the human rights abuses that were carried out here – and across Argentina – on an unimaginable scale.

Trial and punishment

‘Juicio y Castigo’ – trial and punishment. Ex-ESMA, Buenos Aires.

The dictatorship came to power during a period of economic and political turmoil – in which protests, strikes and political violence left hundreds dead – following the death of president Juan Perón.

Army commander Jorge Videla seized power, promising a war against “left-wing terrorism”.

In reality he led a movement committed to a brutal, economically neo-liberal, socially conservative, militarised, Catholic agenda which needed to remove all opposition, deemed “terrorists”, in order to implement its plan.

To Videla, a terrorist was not defined as someone who threw grenades, but anyone who opposed “western, christian values” or economic liberalisation, including trade unionists, students, journalists, left-wing activists, and anyone suspected of ‘sympathising’ with them.

Initial details about the fate of ‘the disappeared’, as they became known around the world, came from the accounts of those few who lived to tell the tale. Many of their stories are imprinted on the walls of ESMA today.

People suspected by the military of being “subversive” would be abducted in raids by plain-clothes men. Homes were raided in the middle of the night. Families were left with nothing but the screams of their loved ones.

Raided homes

An art installation at ESMA represents homes that were raided by agents of the dictatorship.

Once kidnapped, they would be taken to one of more than 400 detention centres. Many were horrifically tortured. Children were tortured in front of their parents and parents in front of their children.

Thousands of political prisoners were drugged, stripped naked, loaded onto military planes and thrown out over the Atlantic Ocean.

The dictatorship did not discriminate: men and women, teenagers and adults, even the unborn were targeted.

In one notorious incident, 60 students from Manuel Belgrano High School, in Buenos Aires, were disappeared simply for having joined their student council. The abductees were taken to clandestine detention centres, where the majority of them were tortured and killed.

Human rights groups estimate around 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship.

Around one-third of those were women. Some were abducted with their small children. Others were pregnant, or became so while incarcerated, often through rape by guards and torturers.

Pregnant prisoners were kept alive until they had given birth. Sometimes the mothers were able to nurse their newborns for a few days, or even weeks, before the babies were taken from them and the mothers were murdered.

Marching for the disappeared

Families have fought for years to find out what happened to their children and grandchildren.

According to human-rights groups, as many as 500 newborns and young children were taken from disappeared parents and handed over, their identities erased, to childless military and police couples, people connected to government agents or others favoured by the regime. To this day organisations, operating from the ESMA complex, are helping families to reunite with their stolen relatives.

In a recent high-profile case, one of the country’s top activists – whose daughter was killed after having her baby snatched by the regime – was reunited with her lost grandson.

The military did its best to ensure that no-one would ever be brought to justice for such crimes.

In September 1983 the ‘National Pacification Act’ was passed, granting impunity to the state by claiming that the military’s actions were a result of an “anti-subversive war”.

Following the collapse of the junta in the face of massive protests, strikes and trade union action, an unprecedented Truth Commission was set up and its 1985 report ‘Nunca Más’ (‘Never Again’) led to the trials and jailing of nine former junta leaders.

But in 1986 President Raul Alfonsín, feeling threatened by the military unrest that followed the trials, passed a new law called Full Stop, which halted all investigations of political violence during the Dirty War.

In 1990 Alfonsín’s successor, President Carlos Menem, pardoned and released the imprisoned junta leaders.

Only in 2003 did the new government of Nestor Kirchner scrap the amnesty laws, opening the door to prosecutions and to some semblance of justice. Even then it took a further two years before the Supreme Court upheld the overturning of the amnesty laws.

The national memory archive, based at ESMA, is today helping that quest for justice – by collecting testimonies and evidence, keeping the memory alive and helping the victims and their families.

Alongside the powerful emotions that a visit to ESMA provokes, one of the most poignant sights in Buenos Aires is undoubtedly seeing the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared taking to the streets in the name of their lost loved ones.

Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Still marching – the mothers and grandmothers have never given up.

The Madres de Plaza de Mayo was created in 1977 by mothers searching for children detained by the military regime. They began gathering in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace every Thursday to march around the square, wearing white headscarves embroidered with their missing children’s names.

After 37 years the remaining members still turn out every week, walking slowly around the plaza, some reading out the names of the missing, hoping they can find out exactly what happened to them and supporting the current government’s drive to ensure that those who perpetrated this most savage of crimes face justice. They are a symbol of the struggle for the heart and soul of Argentina.

Because despite all the progress of recent years, today there is still a struggle.

On the one side you have the current progressive government (for all its imperfections), trade unions, social movements and the families of the disappeared. On the other, the right-wing media conglomerates, the vulture funds and the descendants of those who participated in, stayed silent during, or actively collaborated with the dictatorship and whom – by various means – want to achieve the same neo-liberal nightmare.

Through it all the Madres de Plaza de Mayo continue to gather defiantly behind their banner: ‘Ni un paso atrás’, not one step back!

Days: 1,116
Miles: 25,587
Things we now know to be true: Silence is not an option.