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Category “Johnie does Argentina”

Argentina – Part 1

Thursday, 21 October, 2010

By Johnie Jonker

During Feb/Mar 2006 a colleague and I had the good fortune to visit Argentina for the installation of observation equipment on helicopters of the La Plata Police Airwing. La Plata is a university town 50km SE of Buenos Aires.

After an uneventful journey via Brazil with an overnight stop at a local hotel prior to getting a connecting flight the following day, we arrived in Buenos Aires from where a pre-arranged shuttle took us to the Hotel Corregidor in La Plata.

Uneventful maybe, but only due to taking precautions prior to leaving home. Brazil being a Yellow Fever zone, requires visitors to be vaccinated against this disease prior to departure from their home country. Not liking needles, I argued that as I am not visiting that part of Brazil where this disease is prevalent – just down the road from the airport as a transit passenger – this injection should not be required. I thought I was making progress with this argument, when the following scenario was explained to me: Upon arrival in Brazil, I am going to be asked to present my Yellow Fever vaccination certificate to the immigration official. Should I be unable to produce this, there are two options: Return home on the next available flight at your own cost, or have the relevant injection administered by a customs official. The thought of the second option somehow made me feel faint straight away and I resignedly went for the injection at my local travel clinic. Admittedly, it did not hurt that much.

Upon completion of our daily working activities at the local airfield – being picked up by the police at the hotel every morning, arriving back at around 4pm – Piet and I had long evenings to discover the town – shops stayed open till 7 pm – and see the sights. We also rarely dined at the hotel, but preferred any of the numerous restaurants in close vicinity.

After the second World War, many Germans (also Italians) left Europe and settled in Argentina, putting up breweries and restaurants. Two streets up from the hotel was one such German restaurant, which we frequented on more than one occasion. The fact that it had a genuine German name and typical beer-related logo did not necessarily mean that anyone working in the restaurant understood a single word of it. Their German was therefore on a par with their English.

Trying to decipher the menu we managed to work out the difference between chicken, beef and fish, but noted that absolutely no mutton was available. This puzzled me, as I distinctly remember attending an event as a student, advertised as an “Argentynse skaapbraai” [Argentinian sheep barbeque], where the sheep carcass was stretched flat and supported diagonally over the fire, almost like one side of a tent. Oh well, maybe a different part of Argentina then, or I was misled.

On our first visit we pointed to an item on the menu and were pleasantly surprised with a really good steak. The waiter fortunately understood what “birra” meant, which helped. Imagine our surprise when we visited the same restaurant a few nights later and ordered the same item, getting something looking and tasting completely different. In an attempt to get to the bottom of this enigma – via hand-signs and our best Spanish – we finally understood from the waiter the following: The previous time we had pointed at this item on the menu, we did so halfway through the description. This time we pointed 4 words on (in the same description). “Eet no same”. Dead right there, mate. Eat was very different.

On another evening, we made a unique discovery. We visited a nice family restaurant (although judging by the age of the patrons, it looked a bit like pensioners day at Checkers) right behind the hotel. What made it unusual was that it …

Argentina – Part 2

Thursday, 21 October, 2010

March 2006: Buenos Aires

By JJ Jonker  

The hotel concierge explained to us in broken English – Eengleesh, she’s no beeg here – how to get to the bus terminus in La Plata, and which bus to take, so we left for Buenos Aires after breakfast. Busses depart every 20 minutes until 12 pm, and from then on every hour, so no real planning is required. Just arrive at the terminus and get on the first departing bus. It never ceases to amaze me – coming from a country where public transport is not a priority – how well it works in pretty much ANY other place I’ve visited.

Public transport is also very cheap. For this excursion, R9.20 covered a return trip of more than an hour each way in excess of 50km on a good dual carriage road and a very comfortable bus, including reclining seats. This is definitely the way to see Argentina as a backpacker.

When the bus arrived in BsAs, we reported at the Sheraton as per instruction by our concierge to enquire about city sightseeing tours, reserving seats for an afternoon tour. We then walked via a beautiful park to the tourist strip (Florida Street). The park has 200 year+ rubber trees and also Kapok trees with its beautiful pink flowers. Being from Pretoria, it was strange to also see Jacaranda trees so far from home. Subsequently I learnt that this tree is actually indigenous to South America, ours hailing from Brazil. A special enclosed area is provided for dogs – basically a crèche – where for a fee, you “park” your animal under supervision when you go shopping.

The city has a number of these green areas – well-maintained parks with ancient trees – and the odd vagrant sleeping on a bench. The main street, 9 July Avenue (when they declared themselves independent from Spain), is 140m wide. It has two sets of roads running parallel – 6 lanes and 2 lanes – in BOTH directions, claimed to be the widest in the world.

 

Just below the park is what used to be called the British Clock Tower. This Elizabethan-style 7-storey structure – the Argentine Big Ben – was a gift from the British community of Buenos Aires after building the nearby railroad station complex.

However, after losing the Falklands war, the Argentines were somewhat upset and went on a renaming spree concerning everything British, hence the tower was renamed the Torre Monumental. This differs from our local approach where the renaming spree followed a political victory. Sore losers on the one hand, vs sore winners on the other. Go figure.

 

The Florida Street area, which is open for pedestrian traffic only, is very viby, with especially leather and wine shops in abundance. A huge range of items is on sale here, mostly well priced even from a South African tourist point-of-view. This is where my colleague Piet Bosch cost me a lot of money.

He managed to get himself invited (or was that “solicited”?) by a marketeer to an off-street factory outlet for leather jackets. I ended up buying a jacket and he bought nothing. Contrary to the sales talk in the street regarding their claim that it will be made within 2.5 hours, this is not valid on a Saturday. It is not quite as cheap as in India, but better made. At least both of us got a hug from the young sales lady after signing the purchase. But as promised, the jacket was ready on the Monday, when Piet and I got on the bus again that afternoon doing the round trip from La Plata to BsAs in three hours, returning with the jacket.

On the way to the hotel to join the tour group, we stopped in the park again and sat on a bench. We were then approached by a very friendly local striking up a …

Argentina – Part 3

Thursday, 21 October, 2010

March 2006: La Plata

By JJ Jonker  

It was easy to navigate La Plata on foot using a map from the hotel, as the town is laid out in a square grid of streets and avenues – all numbered – with a few diagonals that run from corner to corner. Wherever the diagonals cross (every 6 streets/aves) there is a roundabout or park with vandalised sculptures and monuments. 

All streets are one-ways, except for the tree-lined main arteries (every 6) with NO traffic signs. Everybody yields (or is supposed to) to the right. So you only slow down through the intersection, check and go. This slows down all traffic to around 40km/h. Unless your mode of transport happens to be the double cab bakkie of the Police Airwing, in which case you don’t slow down. Everyone else must maar look out on your behalf. 

At the top of the town (6 streets up from our hotel), there is a park with a zoo, and we walked up there around 10 am. The surrounding streets are popular for jogging, and a number of people partaking in a road race passed us. The park is well laid out, and appears to be from a more opulent era, with maintenance now sorely lacking. There is an impressive sports complex, including a stadium with a well-maintained pitch. But the buildings are dilapidated, ticket windows shuttered, gates chained up, dry 6-lane looks-like half-olympic size swimming pool, filled in public pool in the park, dirty dam, abandoned/non-operative rental paddle boats, missing plaques and statues, general vandalism, graffiti and even an observatory, which has been closed down.   

 

The zoo itself has quite a variety of animals, mostly one of each, but we saw lions, tiger, black bear, empty jaguar cage, giraffe, Indian elephant, two monstrous white rhinos (never seen such huge ones before, not even at home), their equivalent of springbok, eland and silver jackals, emus, a wallaby, llama, flamingos, macaws, buzzards, marmoset monkeys and a werfbobbejaan [baboon]. Rubber trees squeeze palm trees to stay upright – reminding one of the trees growing through Inca temple ruins. 

The zoo buildings also are pretty much in need of maintenance. Paving is broken due to tree roots, windows smashed and boarded up, the toilet facilities have no lights, seats or paper, with general upkeep lacking everywhere. 

At lunchtime, a restaurant opens on the pavement outside the zoo. It is literally a take-away restaurant – they take the restaurant away at the end of the day, until next Sunday. 

We unfortunately did not know that this was going to happen, as the pavement was empty when we entered the zoo, and had by that time already consumed a terrible mini-pizza at a kiosk inside the zoo. But the smell was divine, exactly like boerewors. Also just about any cut of meat you can think of, hanging in pieces the size you normally see in a butchery, which is then cut up as per order prior to cooking. Lots of families have lunch here, making a happy noise. 

Police presence is very evident – wearing day-glow orange bibs – patrolling the streets against car-theft. We witnessed a local being arrested right opposite the side-walk restaurant. The perpetrator did not want to come quietly, and the policeman was sitting on top of him, unable to let go to get the hand-cuffs on. It took 3 more officers (one a lady) to get him handcuffed and on his feet, and still he tried to head-butt them. The original arresting officer, once he dusted himself and got his breath back, was physically chased away by the lady officer. She probably correctly understood that he was now going to bliksem [stuff up] the skelm [offender] that gave him so much trouble. He probably did later, when there weren’t so many witnesses around. 

The highest point in town is marked by …