Thursday, August 28, 2008

Semana Uno

Nick & I got off the airplane, sleepy and a little smelly (actually, that was only me), and made it through customs without the fanfare we had worried about. We got our luggage and were then picked up by a taxi from our homestay program--Road2Argentina. We were both a little nervous because the driver didn't say a word and didn't seem like he wanted us to say a word to him, but soon we relaxed, and smiled at the radio station playing classic Argentine music, and looked outside at the things passing. Slums, at first. Miles and miles of slums. We were both so surprised to see such a long stretch of poverty-stricken tenements. It was so sad to see, especially when we saw mothers walking out of the buildings with children, and clothes drying from windowsills that weren't protected by any windowpanes. But, despite the poverty, you saw how even poor Argentines had Buenos Aires pride, as every few hundred yards were gigantic billboards of smiling and sweating Boca Juniors players.

When we got to our homestay, our host mom, Paola, answered the elevator that let us off on the 9th floor. She is in her late 50's, tiny, with a shock of very, very red hair. She ushered us in, and was obviously very flustered at something, but we weren't sure yet of what. After the doorman went downstairs and we set down our suitcases, Paola made us tea, and literally began to tell us her life-story. She has been going through a divorce for 8 years, and because Argentine law is very machismo, she has been unable to get a penny from her ex-husband. Her son lives in Los Angeles, her oldest daughter lives in Panama City, and her youngest daughter lives in a neighboring barrio in Buenos Aires, but doesn't speak with her. We think that Paola is pretty lonely, so we're going to try and get up early now in the mornings so that we can chat with her before we start our days. She's a character! She gets overly-excited (in sort of an angry way) about very little things, such as us coming home at 8 when dinner isn't until 9...But she means very well, and we are really appreciative.

After we finished tea with Paola, Nick and I went to Recoletta Cemetery, a cemetery that houses 6,400 mausaleums, including that of Evita. Here are some pictures (I've started calling Nick Ansel Adams):

Some of the graves are absolutely impressive, with marble exteriors, stone angels guarding entrances, stained glass windows above the coffins inside, and golden vases and medalliions adorning the alters. But some have been broken into by gravediggers and the glass on the doors is shattered, the dried flowers have been broken and scattered over the alters, and debris litters the floors of the interior. It is haunting, eerie, and beautiful all at the same time.

After we explored Recoletta, we walked across to another part of the city, Congresso, where we saw the Plaza San Martin, a wide plaza dedicated to San Martin, the liberator of much of South America. A large statue of San Martin stands in the middle, lit up by the glow of spotlights, and a plot of trees cushions it from the road. Kids were playing rugby in between the statue of San Martin and the statues of the angels guarding him, and it was neat to see the old meets the new. Across the street from the plaza stands the Circular Militar, an aristocratic mansion that was once owned by one of Argentina's most prestigious families. Here's Nick at the Plaza San Martin:

Yesterday's explorations started in the morning, when we trekked to the Plaza de Mayo, where the Madres marched during the Argentine junta. During the late 70's and early 80's, 30,000 Argentines were kidnapped and murdered for their political beliefs. Most were university-aged young adults, and their mothers began to march in the Plaza de Mayo wearing white kerchiefs over their heads and carrying pictures of their children. The junta kidnapped 12 of the mothers, 8 of whom have never been seen again, but the mothers kept marching. They marched everyday, and eventually opened up a bookstore that sells books about the junta and its ramifications. The Plaza de Mayo stretches in front of the Casa Rosada, the house where the President traditionally lives (although the Kirchners opted to live outside the city). It is pink in color, odd for such a machismo country, but we read that when it was first built, it was painted with cattle blood in the hopes of making it red, but the sun dried the blood to a pink color, and they've stuck with it ever since (not the blood, but the color). Interesting, huh? Across the street from the Casa Rosada is the mausaleum of San Martin, the great liberator. There is an eternal flame on the outside of his resting place, and inside the building, his tomb is draped with the Argentine flag.

In the afternoon we had our orientation at Road2Argentina, which was incredibly helpful. They gave us information on the buses, subways, prices, class, and extra-curriculars (we might take an Argentine cooking class!). Afterwards, we took the subway to Palermo, a beautiful neighborhood that we both have fallen in love with, and we stumbled across a quaint bar with records decorating the walls and the nicest bartender ever. At first we were the only patrons there, and we shared a giant bottle of beer, but soon a band trickled in and began to set up on stage, quickly followed by others. The lights dimmed, and this three-man, one-woman band began to play, and it was gorgeous. The setting was perfect--no one has heat because it is so rarely cold, but it was a chilly, rainy night, and we were bundled up in this basement bar, and we had glasses of red wine, and the stage was lit with red lights, and this beautiful woman dressed all in bright pink w/ a black skirt and converses was singing words I didn't understand but were moving nonetheless, and her band was playing right alongside her with acoustic, base, and percussion. It was really one of my favorite memories. We walked home to Paola's afterwards, a forty minute trek that was chilly but exciting in that we were walking across a city that was foreign two days ago and that now we are trying to make home.

And then comes today...Today we took a tour of the Palacio Barolo, a no-words-can-explain it building that was created in the image of Luis Barolo's vision of Dante's Inferno. Let's just say that Dan Brown would probably pee in his pants with excitement if he visited the Palacio Barolo. It is a building in which everything is embedded with symbols. The foyer is meant to represent Hell, the first seven floors meant to resemble Purgatory, and the top seven meant to represent Heaven. The very top floor is a tiny room made completely of windows with a giant, Industrial Revolution-era illumination machine meant to symbolize God. The foyer floor is embedded with masonic symbols of shapes within shapes meant to represent Dante's relationship with the divine.

On the first floor (Purgatory), the pillars are embroidered with carvings that resemble beasts from the Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy has 22 chapters and 7 parts, and 22/7 is 3.14, so the building is created as a circle. Literally, the hidden meanings are endless. But from the top floors, the views are striking. You can see Congreso, the building where the Argentine Congress meets, the Rio de la Plata, the Casa Rosada, the Obelisko, and even Uruguay from the very top floor.

On our trek back to Paola's from the Palacio, we wandered around a few barrios we had yet to see, tasted our first Quilmes, Argentina's most famous beer, and visited Once, the Jewish barrio of Buenos Aires, which apparently has the only kosher McDonald's outside of Israel (although we sadly could not find it). But we did find some amazing empanadas and pastries...I'm still thinking about the dolce de leche 5 hours later. The doorman at Paola's apartment heard me talking about it and he told Nick that I would probably be very wide by the time we left Paola's. Yikes!!!

I have allready gone on for far too long, but I am so excited by this city, by all it has to offer, the good the bad, the ugly the beautiful, the history, the present, everything...I feel like I am exploding! Thanks for keeping tabs on us, and we'll keep you posted! :-) By the way, I think the days of vegetarianism are most likely over...

And post-thoughts....