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 had an ENGLISH menu.

Also unique, was that the tables came with complementary peanuts. Roasted, but still in the shell. No provision was made to place the empty shells somewhere, but we noticed shells all over the floor throughout the restaurant. So, blending with the locals, we also tossed the shells over our shoulders as we worked through the contents of the bowl. It felt quite rebellious messing like this and not having to clean up afterwards. Oh, what fun!

Anyway, the mussels – with no garlic – I ordered, were tiny. Like the oysters you get in the tins, easily more than a 100 in a cereal bowl. The taste got a bit tedious towards the end, so we decided that we’ll be looking for a restaurant that serves Mexican food real soon.  

Regarding the language barrier, some keen local (Sefrican) linguists sometimes consider visiting this country for an extended holiday in order to practise their theoretical Spanish. This is not the place to do so, as the language has a large spattering of Italian intermixed. For learning a pure Spanish, Uruguay – just across the river mouth from Buenos Aires – is the better place.

In addition to our evenings out, we had one weekend of intensive sightseeing, and the following two parts describe this.

Part 2 to follow


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 conversation by telling us what kind of trees are growing in the park, where to get tourist information, what to see, etc. But as you may well know, you can spot these types – and their mission – a mile off. Usually at your gate, late Saturday afternoon.

He was (as suspected), collecting money. This on behalf of the Argentinean Ministry of Health for their Campaign of National Struggle against Aids and Drugs. He explained that they were caring for 60 AIDS children in a home and that this was the purpose of his fund-raising. Not to depress him totally, we refrained from giving him our local statistics, and contributed happily for his dedication on a Saturday. OK, and also because he knew who Nelson Mandela was. His parting words were ‘Pretoria Forever!’

The bus tour was comprehensive, with a bilingual – English/Spanish – guide. Also on the tour, were two couples from Mexico and Peru, respectively. They acknowledged us when I had to announce where we were from, appearing noticeably puzzled. Possibly by our skin colour, I thought. White Africans?

One of the destinations was La Boca, the Tango district. This consisted of a brightly painted (like the Muizenberg cabanas) corrugated iron village, converted into curio shops. This was typical of how the poor lived way back. Couples demonstrated the tango in the streets, every 50m or so. But other than the touristy image portrayed by the shows, one got the impression that this was a hard life. Almost all the girls had a number of large holes in their black fish-net stockings, giving the dance the image of a subsistence industry. The tango seems very technical, and appears to be some form of competition, akin to ice skating, with definite sequences having to be performed during it. It is not flowing and does not look like fun either. Definitely not Kobus’ birthday opskop [party] at Sarelsrivier. 


This is also where we lost the Mexican couple on the tour. We had good instructions as to how to wander through the village ALWAYS making right turns to get back to the bus, but after ¾ hour plus an extra 10 minutes, we departed without them. Piet and I were in no hurry, but the guide probably had other commitments. Hopefully they got back to the hotel, as they had left their bag on the bus.


 Earlier in the …

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 a traffic island in the middle of the park area with a – as per usual – vandalised, graffiti’d monument. I commented that the moment I see this behaviour at home, I’m leaving. 


The vandalism came about due to the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001, when people fearing the worst began withdrawing large sums of money from their bank accounts, turning pesos into dollars and sending it abroad, causing a run on the banks. The government then enacted a set of measures effectively freezing all bank accounts for twelve months, allowing for only minor sums of cash to be withdrawn. 

Because of this allowance limit and the serious problems it caused in certain cases, many Argentines became enraged and took to the streets of important cities, engaging in a form of popular protest – banging pots and pans. These protests occurred especially in 2001 and 2002. At first the cacerolazos were simply noisy demonstrations, but soon they included property destruction, often directed at banks, foreign privatized companies, and especially big American and European companies. Many businesses installed metal barriers because windows and glass facades were being broken and even fires being ignited at their doors. 

The president declared a state of emergency, but this only worsened the situation, culminating in the violent protest of 20 and 21 December 2001 in Plaza de Mayo, where demonstrators clashed with the police, ending with several dead, precipitating the fall of the government. 

In 2002 the peso, which was linked to the US dollar in a 1:1 ratio at the time, was fixed at a 1.4 peso/dollar rate by the banks. In the open market however, within a matter of days the exchange rate worsened to 4 pesos/dollar. 

So practically overnight, the middle class became poor, further fuelling the anger, leading to the trashing of buildings and other public property. In La Plata, there certainly is not much more that could be damaged, so thorough have they been. Some marble statues have only the feet remaining on the base. Bronze sculptures have fingers smashed off, and even Evita’s granite plinth on which her bronze bust is mounted, has been broken. 


The economy has since improved significantly, with the Argentinean Peso trading at ARS2.8/USD during our visit (2006), but not yet to the point where there is money available for the rehabilitation of this damage. 

This lag of replacing luxuries is also …