Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Iguazú Falls in Images

Dagger +1, +3 vs. Werewolves

If you thought that was geeky, check this out =)

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Dodgy Cien

We had gone out in the morning with the objective of going to a camping and fishing supplies store to pick up a penknife and some butane gas for the camping stove. This being Argentina, the camping shops were filled with rifles and handguns. Australia has some of the world’s strictest firearms laws, so as an Australian, the idea of purchasing firearms over the counter at a shop is an oddity. You find yourself wondering what practical camping or fishing application there really is for an evil looking handgun. Nevertheless I was getting quite sidetracked photographing stuff in the windows. “Oh wow, look Alix, they’ve got an M4 Carbine. Sweet, huh?”

Alix did not find this the slightest bit amusing so she hit me up for some cash to buy the supplies herself while I window shopped. I was scratching my chin and staring at the .357 Magnum Desert Eagle while Alix was attempting to close the transaction. She called me over hurriedly. The lady behind the counter had 2 one-hundred peso notes spread out on the counter in front of her.

“One of these notes is not real. Where did you get it from?” She inquired.

“The bank,” we both replied “which one was it, it was Santander Rio, wasn’t it? Yes it was. Definitely Santander Rio, from the Auto Teller Machine” we both spoke simultaneously, finishing each other’s sentences in the way couples do sometimes.

The 100 (cien) peso note is the largest one you see, it is the note that you receive from the ATM when you are withdrawing sizeable sums. We knew we had gotten it from the bank because you don’t receive cien notes from shopkeepers; rather, you hand them over and receive 50’s, 20’s or 10’s as change.

The lady went on to explain that this was ‘not the first time’ it had happened. I had noticed sales clerks holding notes up to the light before in a precautionary gesture. It is easy to ignore it, after all you are not a swindler with a wadful of monopoly money, so it’s easy not to think about it too much.

Naturally the lady wouldn’t accept the note, so we were stuck with it. She encouraged us to return to the bank we obtained it from, which sounded like a less than joyful course of action.

The Dodgy Cien and an authentic one. Can you tell which is which?

Then it dawned on me. Two days prior we had caught a taxi across town at the end of a long day of sightseeing, a long cab ride worth about 50 pesos. When it came time to pay, the cabbie initially accepted a cien peso note, ostensibly he had change for it. He then apologised and returned the note, asking if we had smaller bills. Digging in my wallet a little deeper I could in fact put the cab fare together using a combination of smaller bills, so we closed the transaction that way, but not before a single cien peso note had passed from our hands to his, disappeared from sight for a few moments, then been returned.

Was this a slight of hand trick to pass a counterfeit note? Or had the ATM dispensed the counterfeit in the first place? We would never know, but it seemed unlikely that ATMs would dispense counterfeit bills in a country where the shopkeepers regularly check for watermarks on paper money.

Suddenly I didn’t like the idea of trying to convince a bank manager that his ATM had supplied me with the Dodgy Cien, especially when I myself was not so sure. Besides, we had a city to explore. I resigned myself to having purchased an unintentional souvenir and reminded myself to make like a shopkeeper and carefully examine all bills from now on, lest we receive another Dodgy Cien.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Buenos Aires

After 2 weeks in Sydney we flew into Buenos Aires and settled into our apartment in Recoleta, a suburb of cafés, hair salons, restaurants and well -dressed people, looking forward to spending a few days getting to know the real Buenos Aires.

Our first destination was to explore our local area; plush Recoleta, where professional dog walkers rein in packs of enthusiastic canines, and its geographical neighbour, ritzy Palermo where the porteño girls strut around the bars and restaurants wearing skinny jeans tucked into their tall leather boots in the current fashion and style.

Recoleta Cemetery is a small city celebrating the wealthy and important and dead people of Buenos Aires. It is a vast and crowded checkerboard of black and white crypts. Eva Perón is buried here, interred in the family crypt belonging to her blood relatives, Familia Duarte. I wondered if I would find General San Martín lying here somewhere but no, his final resting place was to be one of significantly more splendour; he is interred at the Catedral Metropolitana in the centre of town.

One of the many interesting mausoleums at Recoleta Cemetary

Angels and crosses adorn the tops of many of the mausoleums

A ‘Subte’ train ride later, hanging onto wallet and camera, the Buenos Aires town centre is a jostling bustle of shopping malls, plazas, palaces and monuments. Shopping is a bit of a sport here; tourists are expected to want to spend their time and money snapping up designer this’n’that at bargain prices and drag their acquisitions back home to whatever safer, wealthier country their currency came from. I felt like I was standing behind a pane of glass and scratching at it with my fingertips, the real Buenos Aires was on the other side of that glass.

One evening we visited Consuelo and Juan Antonio at their beautiful apartment. We caught the Subte to a nearby station and walked to where we though the building should be. So monumental was the apartment building that we walked right past it. Towering stone walls, a gate of black wrought iron and a suited doorman helped me assume it was a public building of some kind, a museum perhaps. Inside, the apartment was a whitewashed picture of style and urbanity, delicately furnished with fine antiques, the collecting of which is a bit of a porteño thing. “They say that an Argentinian man is an Italian who speaks Spanish, dresses like an Englishman and has the intellectual culture of a Frenchman”, Juan Antonio explains. Maybe so. There is certainly something indefinable about the place, a coalescence of European cultures all jostling around in this Argentinian city.

With Juan Antonio & Tía Concho in their beautiful apartment

We dined that evening on huge and juicy Argentinian steaks at a nearby restaurant named Juana M. It was wonderful to share the experience with Consuelo and Juan Antonio; we were welcomed in a way that you can’t match in a big city as a tourist. As we dined it occurred to me that for the moment we were in an environment quite free of other foreigners, a privilege that tourists always crave, the illusion that you are in fact making an entirely new discovery in a foreign place. We wouldn’t have found a restaurant like this one without the benefit of local intelligence.

The next day we strolled around the suburbs of San Telmo and La Boca, taking in the markets and the touristic novelties of these places. Old historic buildings have been converted into marketplaces, each room turned into a different stall selling antiques or arts and crafts.
On the cobbled streets of San Telmo the novelty is pretty thick. A suave older gent in pinstripes and a fedora scopes for attractive female tourists to give impromptu tango lessons to. Human statues abound. Sexy girls dressed as tanguestas drape themselves over tourists, a few dollars will buy you a photo opportunity with a lithe model.

One of the many human statues near San Telmo markets

The streets of La Boca are a similar experience, a bit rougher, a little more charming. One tourist street in particular, Caminito, is painted in bright primary colours with large papier maché figures on the balconies to add to the fun of the atmosphere. Tourists walk up and down looking at the hawkers’ wares, street dancers dance an occasional tango, and touts encourage passersby to sit at tables on the street, buy some overpriced wine or beer and watch the dancers. The tango is mesmerising to watch. It is not a light hearted affair. There is both love and hate mixed up in it.

Caminito, La Boca

Cats snooze on the corrugated iron of the roofs nearby. There are more tanguesta models here. I watch as a portly tourist dons a hat and scarf and a girl in fishnets and a corset shows him how to stand solidly so she can climb up onto his legs, gripping his thighs with hers and staring passionately into his eyes for the camera.

Tango street art, La Boca

A block or two further up the road the colourful buildings and the market stalls have disappeared and cartoneros are picking through the garbage to see if they can salvage anything of value. It is easy to imagine someone getting knifed to death in a nearby alley for a pair of Italian leather shoes. The contrast between the tourist streets and the rest of the suburb is readily apparent.

On our last day in Buenos Aires we visited a few of the historic cafés in the city. Built in 1884, Café Las Violetas has been preserved in its original style since that time, down to the leadlight above the windows. It is a bright and comfortable and stylish place, and it hadn’t appeared in our tourist guidebook. Photographing the café drew odd looks from the locals who frequent it, there were no other foreigners in the place when we visited. I got that special feeling again. I ordered the signature coffee, the ‘Las Violetas’. A combination of coffee, Cointreau, cream, tequila and chocolate it was stimulating, smooth, intoxicating and a little bit dirty. The drink seemed to be a metaphor for Buenos Aires itself.

Café Las Violetas

We had still not been to see a tango show and the moments watching street dancers didn’t seem to count, so we knew we had to see one before we moved on. At Café Tortoni the tango shows are run twice nightly, you cannot miss and you cannot go wrong. Tourists are ticketed and herded downstairs to the dark basement where the tables are crammed in front of the stage. The multilingual jabbering and people taking photos of themselves was an irritation so I watched the waiter for a while. The waiter was cool, a black dude in a bowtie with a white apron and a little badge that read ‘Sergio’. He had a little leather holster for his waiters tools and I liked the way he used them to lift the cap off a bottle of beer and serve it at a table one-handed while his other hand held the tray aloft.

In the fantasy world of tango theatre at Café Tortoni, an Italian-American gangster is having a stormy relationship with a Parisian prostitute in a wild west saloon. Juan’s proverb about Argentinian men seemed to be dancing there on stage, lit up by a follow spotlight and the dim glow of a dozen digital camera viewscreens.

Some people expect to fall in love with Buenos Aires, it is one of those cities, like Paris or Venice that does something to you. I didn’t love it because I never felt like I made it through that pane of glass: the real Buenos Aires remained on the other side. In another week, or another month if we had stayed longer… perhaps. I was happy for the special moments we had.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hot & Cold

The night of our amazing (and difficult) climb up Villarrica, we had booked a trip to one of the many thermal springs near Pucón, Termas Los Pozones. It was a cool, clear night as we disrobed in a Japanese-style wooden hut and slipped through a hole in the floor, down a ladder and into the first of six natural stone pools. The water felt wonderfully warm (it was about 43°C) and our tired muscles instantly relaxed, thanks to the naturally-occuring minerals.

After a little while, we tried the hotter pool nearby (about 47°C). The 30 loud Israeli youths who had taken over this pool were smoking pot and drinking - both not allowed in the pools, if you bothered to read the signs in Spanish. Despite the high temperature being the most soothing, the noise soon made us search out a quieter spot.

After the heat of the two pools, the air seemed bitingly cold to me as I followed Jace quickly through the complex to the other end where we found a slightly cooler pool which was blessedly empty of other humans. I managed to find the "hot spot" in the pool where the thermal water flowed in and we took turns allowing the healing heat to wash over our legs, arms and backs as we stretched out our tired muscles. All too soon, our time was up and we returned to our campsite tired but very happy after an awesome day.

One of the pools at Los Pozones

The rules of Los Pozones include no drugs or alcohol, no sex and no firearms... wait, what?!

Two days later we decided to hike the Lakes Walk through Huerquehue National Park. It started off easily enough, but soon we were climbing up what seemed like a never-ending slope - hadn't we climbed enough for one trip?! The 18km trail took us about 6 1/2 hours - up and down, past many beautiful lakes and waterfalls, through cool rainforests and warm, sunny groves of monkey puzzle trees.

Looking over Lago Tilquilco to Volcan Villarrica

Steam rising off the trail in the morning light

Very tall monkey puzzle trees

Alix nearly stepped on this stunning beetle

The next day we headed back to Los Pozones for another revitalising dip, only to find that 2 of the pools were being cleaned and the other 4 were each less than 1m deep. We quickly decided to walk 1km down the road to Huife, an up-market spa and hotel. It had 3 thermal swimming pools - hot, warm and cool -; a hydrotherapy pool with spa beds, massaging showers and a resistance training channel where you could walk against a strong current (or get swept away by it!); and access to the freezing river (Jace jumped in twice, I was happy with the cool pool). While it was relatively expensive to get in, the pools were great and everyone there, even the children, were relaxed and respectful - no drunken 20-somethings here! We also had fun testing the underwater features of our camera, as you can see below.

Alix in the "hot" pool

Testing the underwater camera

On the spa bed

Alix's new masseur, "Sven"

Jace jumps in the river for some cold therapy

Leaving Pucón the next day was sad for me. We'd had a wonderful time camping and hiking, enjoying thermal spas, sunny weather and the company of 3 fellow campers from the UK (Hi to Eddie, Lisa and Antony!), but it was time to cross back into Argentina and dash to Buenos Aires for our flight to Sydney to meet my beautiful niece, Poppy.

Our last night in Pucón with Antony, Lisa & Eddie

With Poppy, 5 days old