Saturday, December 31, 2016

Buenos Aires day 2 – no nos han vencido (we have not been defeated)

Our second day was a very moving one. We explored a bit of the centre of the city, the area around Plaza de Mayo. Once more, we were taken aback by the impressive architecture, the massive constructions, the views from the parks... And also by the practical lack of colonial architecture, as opposed to the overwhelming abundance of early 19th and early 20th century architecture. I think I had mentioned this before, but you could really feel you're walking around Madrid or Paris in places!

At Plaza de Mayo there's the famous Casa Rosada, the Pink House, office of the presidency. It's one of the more iconic buildings in Buenos Aires, painted in baby pink. This square also holds one of the very few colonial buildings we saw, the Cabildo – it looked rather basic, reflecting that the great wealth of the nation was yet to come. As well, the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, Argentina's most important Catholic temple, sits there. We had a peek, and it just so happened that mass was going on. It is a nice building, and it was remarkable how unlike Mexican or Peruvian ones it was, completely devoid of any indigenous influence whatsoever! But my favourite part of the cathedral was one of its chapels, with twisting purple marble columns. Once again, the wealth and style of these places blew my mind.

Now, from the looks of it, it was obvious Plaza de Mayo was going to have some sort of political gathering. That square is where the mothers and grandmothers of people forcibly disappeared during the last Argentinean dictatorship would come to protest. Since standing gatherings of three or more people had been made illegal, the mothers protested by walking around the square in twos, therefore not breaking the law but still being able to stage a protest. Sadly, this was still a move against the dictatorship, and many women were also forcibly disappeared. This square really does mean something. 

I really wanted to see what was going to take place at the square, but it really did look like it was just beginning. So we went for another walk nearby to look at more architecture, including the Galerías Pacífico, a very old shopping arcade famous for its murals on its central cupola. When we arrived, there was even a gigantic Christmas tree! 

But once we were done with this pretty, holiday-appropriate visit, we really had to get back to the square. There was something about different sprayed messages we had seen around the area that were presenting me a moment of social tension, of anger at the treatment of women, of political demands... 

"Presión Social!" (Social Pressure!) with the image of a person being shot in the head.

"Te molesta más una pintada que una piba asesinada?" (a sprayed message bothers you more than the murder of a woman?)

"Pija violadora a la licuadora" (raping dick - into the blender)

When we made it to the square, my jaw dropped. This was no ordinary demonstration, this was the weekly demonstration by the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo! Not only that, but my habibi had wanted to see this on his previous visit over 15 years ago, but he missed it. And here we were, in 2016, witnesses of this show of steadfastness, of refusal to let things slip into oblivion, of solidarity...

I even get emotional as I write this and remember the people, the marching, and their songs about forced disappearances, about the people not being defeated yet, about friends and family giving voice to those taken away by the state... Sure, Mexico has seen its fair share of state violence and forced disappearances as well, but Argentina's last dictatorship was so cynical about it, so brutal, and I could easily think of friends and family that would most probably have been killed by the state had we lived in Argentina instead of Mexico. Chilling, moving, eye-opening.

At the square there was this woman from Nigeria also voicing her anger and thirst for action at the situation of women and children taken by Boko Haram in her country. Her passionate speech and attitude fit perfectly in this square.  

After such an intense day, we really needed a beer to relax at night. We hit the perfect spot: On Tap, a brewery some 15 minutes from our apartment. Not only did they have numerous brews of all types on tap, they had amazing burgers! The meat was so thick and juicy and flavourful! And the crowd as, frankly, a bunch or really good-looking young Argentineans. So we had good beer, good burgers, good fries, and good eye candy. A needed mental break from the intensity earlier on.

And this was just our second day in Buenos Aires. See why I need to write about each and every single day?

Friday, December 30, 2016

Buenos Aires day 1 – from muzzarella to l'chaim

I had been wanting to visit Argentina for a really long time. My habibi had visited already once right before we met, and he had told me stories about his trip there. Unfortunately, Buenos Aires is pretty far, especially since my last decade or so I've been living in the Middle East, Asia and the very north of North America!

But now, we're based in Mexico City, a "mere" 9-10 hours from Buenos Aires on a direct flight, and I had unknowingly accumulated a lot of air miles so, after a brief stop in Panama, we finally arrived to this remote city I had been wanting to see so badly!

We spent 8 nights there. We saw a lot. Did a lot. Ate a lot. Loved the place. I can't find a way to talk about the trip but chronologically, with impressions about certain things. So, here we go, with the night we arrived and our first full day in the city!

What's that smell?

You won't believe it, but the first thing we noticed on a short walk around our airbnb – located in a nice area called Palermo – was a strange smell. We couldn't place it, and it was like in the area we were walking in. We figured Buenos Aires just had a weird smell to it and that was that. And then, we came to this basic restaurant – we were famished, it was already very late! – and ordered a very simple item: pizza margarita, with nothing but tomato sauce, arugula and... muzzarella! (they call it muzzarella there), the source of the smell! What we had noticed was the aroma of real good authentic muzzarella wafting down the street! hahaha! Anyhow, the pizza was delicious in its simplicity, and we washed it down with my first taste ever of Quilmes, an Argentinean beer. 

Coffee, parks, Evita...

I loved breakfasts in Buenos Aires. Espresso is so ubiquitous you simply ask for "café" and you get a delicious, properly made espresso. And, if you want the "other" kind, you say americano! And you traditionally accompany it with heavy, rich, sweet "medialunas" (croissants, but unlike any I had tasted). Oh, and coffee is always served with some sparkling water. What's not to love? 

At this place we went – Café del Botánico, near the botanical gardens – a guy sat down and he set on the table his helmet: a work of art with traditional Buenos Aires painting called fileteado, with tango scenes and the Che Guevara! How cool!  

Afterward, a delicious walk around the beautiful botanical gardens, enjoying the sun and the flowers (including gigantic magnolias)... Because, remember, this was summer down south!

And, something you can't miss, the Evita museum. I don't think I need to tell anybody about the strength of the image of this woman. They even wanted to make her a saint! But her rather fun life before marrying Perón prevented that, of course. The museum is full of paraphernalia like dresses, shoes, photos, items she used, items from social institutions she created or led... Wow. 

To finish this part of the tour, and in faithful attention to our guidebook's instructions, we had a "dulce de leche granizado" ice-cream at Un'Altra Volta. This really was dulce the leche made ice-cream! It was delicious, but so heavy! We loved it, and immediately vowed not to have that ever again! LOL

Art and architecture

In that same area was the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires), a nice modern building with few exhibitions, but good ones! We saw plenty of Latin-American contemporary art and sculpture, including a video exhibition on queer, religious and political themes. Very cool.

And after the museum, and during all our stay, we marvelled at the architecture and the presence of old shops, pharmacies and whatnot. In the early 20th century Argentina was one of the ten wealthiest nations, and it shows in the architecture of the time – tall, majestic, EXPENSIVE buildings everywhere. Crazy attention to detail and adornments in the interiors... People sometimes say – and usually as a joke – that Argentina (and Buenos Aires in particular) was the Europe of America. But honestly, there are streets and whole areas that do look like you could be in Europe!

A full stomach and a Christmas tradition

Part of our explorations had to do with Jewish Buenos Aires. After all, the Jewish population of Argentina ranks third in size in the continent (after the US and Canada) and is about five to six times bigger that Mexico City's, a city that is about six times bigger than Buenos Aires!

Anyhow, we had heard that Tuesdays the Centro Comunitario Guesher offered buffet dinners with lots of authentic, mostly Sephardi, cuisine. So after braving terrible traffic caused by the closing of the subway due to an accident, we made it to the community centre. And we proceeded to enjoy a night of too much food, most of it familiar but peculiar in very specific ways: the kebbe were longer and thinner and paler than the ones in Lebanon; the hummus was sweetened with some sugar... There were filled veggies, rice with vermicelli (also very common in Lebanon), stuffed grape leaves (they called them niños envueltos here)... Oh, and at the end? Maamoul (an ultra-sweet pastry that is consumed in Lebanon during Easter!) and perfect Turkish coffee. 

Besides the happiness of enjoying home-made Middle Eastern Jewish food (by the way, for the main dishes, you simply walked into the kitchen and helped yourself!), we had conversations with the owner and some of our other dining companions. By the way, the owner behaved in an almost Woody-Allenesque way in a movie – every time we made a comment on how something reminded us of a Lebanese dish, but was a bit different, he became all defensive! "Oh, so it's not good? But that's how it's made!" "No, no, it's delicious! It's a nice surprise to see how you make it different!" "But you like it? I mean, these are all authentic recipes! Why don't you like it? it's good! and home-made" "No, we DO like it, it's very good! Really!!!". LOL    

We finished our very long day with a walk to try to digest that enormous dinner – which had also introduced us to the economic reality of the country, with devaluation and inflation, as the price of the dinner was over twice what we had seen online! But that was about to become a constant – no price we ever saw online or on very recent guidebooks could keep pace with reality. 

Anyhow, we ended up at the Obelisco de Buenos Aires, an iconic obelisk that celebrates the foundation of the city and that stands in the middle of the city's broadest avenue, 9 de Julio. Hell, I read this is the world's broadest avenue! A total of 14 lanes plus 4 parallel ones! It was a nice night, and it just so happened that there were many Colombians in small groups, with candles. They were celebrating some Colombian Christmas tradition a colleague had briefly told me about.  

After that and a quick glance of Teatro Colón we were done and ready to take the bus home and prepare for our second day!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Buenos Aires day 0 – Panama!

I won't deny it, this year's been crazy travel-wise! Most of it work related, for sure. But I had to find a way for the me and the habibi to spend some quality time and travel together, right? So, we exchanged some air miles I didn't even know I had and, thanks to my ignorance about their existence, we had accumulated enough to fly us to... Buenos Aires! Sure, we had to travel barely 2 days after I returned from Nairobi, but this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to fly to a place we could otherwise not afford because, in case you didn't know, a direct flight from Mexico City to Buenos Aires takes over NINE hours! 

But direct is something we couldn't do, because air miles, right? Before getting to Buenos Aires, we had to stop for a night in Panama City, both on the way there and back. Isn't it ironic that I had to spend 4 days in Panama for work, and now I was back on a very long layover? But the habibi had never visited, so this actually worked in my favour!

Anyhow, we were only very briefly there. We arrived to Panama City at night, so we simply enjoyed the city views from the guesthouse's rooftop, and then we went for a beer to la Rana Dorada, in Casco Viejo, the historic UNESCO Heritage part of the city we were staying at. And the beers were not bad at all! Panamanian craft beers! They even had  a porter!

Next day we would have simply taken a cab to the airport, but the habib wanted to get up to see the sunset from Casco Viejo, so we got early - way earlier than I would ever do - and went up to the rooftop for some really beautiful sunrise views...

And afterwards, since we were already up, and since it wasn't that hot - though it was quickly beginning to feel warm - we went for a walk of Casco Viejo and a promenade by the sea, for more views of both the old and the new parts of the city.

At some point we had to go back to the guesthouse because it was getting too hot, and we had to have breakfast! Oh, by the way, our room had this slanted ceiling with a couple windows, which gave you a curious view of the city in the distance. Nice! And breakfast was pretty good, too. Coffee was very dark and very strong, and I had what the menu called a Panamanian Breakfast - how could I not give that a try! It consisted of meat strips with green peppers and some sauce (pretty good, actually) and what they said were corn tortillas, but which looked unlike any corn tortillas I had ever seen! So I did get something unique, right?

For our very brief stay, and considering that this was just a layover, it was good. But our main goal and happy destination was Buenos Aires! So after a few more views from the city after takeoff, we veered south for a 6-7 hour flight to the "Europe of America"... 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

more Korea in Mexico City!

After I returned from Nairobi we went for a stroll at what I wonder if we should stop calling Zona Rosa and start calling Koreatown! Not only have Koreans opened numerous restaurants and small shops in this traditionally gay area, but the Korean cultural presence has become so strong that Mexico City's first Korean festival took over a few streets of Zona Rosa early December!

There were Mexican groups singing and dancing K-Pop, and Mexican fans that sang along the Korean lyrics!

There were stands for explaining food culture, as well as the Korean language and alphabet!

And even a number of workshops for Korean crafts!

It is funny that, now that I've been to Korea three times, Korean culture is also becoming quite the reference for a number of young Mexicans. And the very least this will mean for me is even more options for Korean food for me right here, right? Yay! 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

on Safari!

My very last day in Nairobi was free. Quite deservedly so, after the gruelling but very successful days before! Now, going to the more impressive national parks was out of the question – it took too long or cost too much. But guess what lies just some 10 minutes from Nairobi? The Nairobi National Park! Like, there's a natural reserve, with wildlife, 10 minutes from the city! I convinced a colleague of mine to come along, and we set off on a safari! BTW, safari in Swahili simply means trip. Neat, right?

Anyhow, this was one amazing safari. True, the park is too small to hold bigger animals like elephants, or enormous herds of wildlife. But being my first experience of the kind, it was simply fabulous! 

Soon after we entered the park we spotted... warthogs! These fellows are so ugly they're cute! LOL. I loved them, and seeing them right there, free, among the bushes, just got me all fuelled up with expectation about the things ahead!

A bit further ahead, on some posts to the sides of the road, monkeys! Oh, by the way, you enter on your own vehicle and wander along designated roads. The roads are ok, though they can get pretty rough at times, so having a big sturdy car is best. So you are sort of exploring the savanna, in a controlled way, but you still feel you're "out there"...

Hippos were the most boring, of course, as all you could see were their ears and eyes just above water level. The lake they decided to rest at, though, was beautiful.

Next – and my favourite by far – was a giraffe. Sure, I had seen giraffe at zoos, but seeing this one, coming to us from afar, getting bigger and bigger, with its both awkward and elegant walk, and looking so frankly alien in comparison to other mammals... I fell in love with it. And we saw plenty of giraffe afterwards – plenty! – but this one in particular filled me with awe and stole my heart.

That, and the savanna... to think we were seeing this, and so close to the city! So close, in fact, it was not hard to make a turn and have the cityscape in the distance and, occasionally, with some animal, like a buffalo! (and we also saw buffalo aplenty!)

Not as closely as we wold have wanted, but close enough, we saw graceful impala, massive ostrich...

And very up close, a small group of zebra! They are the cutest thing!

Now, every time we crossed another vehicle, the drivers would chat and exchange info: zebra are that way, ostrich are that other way, have you seen this or such animal? At some point, it actually seemed everybody except us had seen lions! We would be pointed in some direction, would see more wildlife but no lions, and then some other driver would say "Oh, yeah, we spotted some that other way!". 

It became a bit annoying and since we had seen plenty already and it seemed the frigging lions didn't want anything to do with us, we decided to leave the park. But then, heading towards the exit, our driver's keen eye caught a number of vehicles in the distance and he guessed, correctly, that meant there was either a lion or something else worth watching! And indeed, it was lions! Two females enjoying the shade of a tree!

Majestic things, these beasts. And we were pretty close. In fact, the tree sort of hid them, so most of the cars were on the "wrong" side, while we were right next to them. Then, one of the lions looked my way, and my reptilian brain kicked in – I felt fear, worry, reached for the window handle and started rolling the window up! I mean, it was silly to think the lion would leave the nice shade to attack not just a person, but a person inside a car. But hey, so many generations of people who survived by not letting themselves get eaten by a lion surely do leave a genetic imprint, correct?

That would have been plenty for a morning. But just when we were very close to the exit, baboons! So many of them! And you could tell who the leader was because it was one massive son of a gun! One hit by that bastard and you'd be gone! An incredible sight. And sort of like a bonus one!

So, an amazing trip all in all. I got to see what Nairobi looked like, I enjoyed meeting its people, I had one of my most satisfying work experiences in the last couple of years (I can finally say with confidence I am a practitioner in my field!), and I even got to go on a small safari! Yay!