La Catedral

High on the list of Famous Things You Are Supposed To Do in buenos aires is to go to a tango show or to a milonga (a dance hall where locals can meet and tango). Last time I was here, in march of this year, we went to a tango show at Cafe Tortoni, a famous old cafe with a stage downstairs. The dancing was impressive and beautiful, but to me felt a little flat – the dances were choreographed and rote, and the the performers seemed a bit bored – it wasn’t the passionate tango scene I was expecting. I ran out of time on that trip and never made it to a milonga where I hoped to see people dance without being on display, so on this visit I wanted to make sure I went. As I understand it, tango, while being quintessentially Argentinian, isn’t necessarily something that everyone you meet in Argentina dances regularly; but it is an important subculture that’s an integral part of the character and history of buenos aires, and I wanted to investigate a bit more, so I went along with friends to a famous milonga called La Catedral.

La Catedral being so famous, I expected it to feel a bit touristy – nice, perhaps, but also a bit superficial, with waiters dressed in 1920s style tuxes trying to pressure us into buying expensive cocktails and lots of extra costs hidden under the 60-peso entry fee. I was completely surprised and delighted by the space that we found instead – a high-ceilinged, dim, creaky beautiful dance hall, dingy and bohemian and decorated haphazardly with old, strange paintings, odd sculptures, drapes of fabric, half-broken chairs, and threadbare faded low couches lining the dance floor. It reminded me more of the set for a performance of Rent than a touristy tango hall. I was in love immediately.

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We took a tango lesson with a group of mainly foreigners, some of whom already had some experience with tango. In general I am terrible at partnered dancing; I am independent and hate feeling that I’m not in control, which makes me a difficult dance partner – but I was matched with strong leaders and fell in love with the intimate, melancholic dance at once. After the lesson our teachers danced for us together, effortlessly, passionately, beautifully.

We relaxed with drinks after the lesson, trying to decide how long to stay – the proper milonga didn’t start until midnight, and it was only 8:30 – and eventually found out way to a side room where our teachers were relaxing and dancing a bit and we got in some more practice away from the main dance floor.

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At midnight, a live band began to play, violins and ostinatto and a strange small guitar that reminded me of a dulcimer, beautiful and sad. A man came out to dance the gaucho flamenco-like stomping dance – I don’t know the name – proud and flamboyant and violent. Then the milonga began and the floor was full of pacing couples. I don’t know where Catedral figures in the true tango scene, whether it’s a serious dance hall or not, but it was absolutely not a tourist show – there were pairs from every age group, from dignified gentlemen whirling pretty and graceful young women in high heels, next to casually dressed young men in sneakers, to girls in sandals and leggings; even one couple dressed a bit goth, with the woman holding herself gracefully in a laced corset. Even sporting my travel stained flip-flops, I was asked to dance several times and did my best, though my skill level is still so basic that my patient partners all politely escorted me back to my seat after one or two rounds.

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The milonga started at midnight and I expect would have continued until four or five in the morning, in true buenos aires fashion. We left at two, all of us wishing we had the evergy to stay longer while the milonga pulsed on, and vowing to come back within the week to dance again.

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A walk in Buenos Aires

One day late in November, just after thanksgiving, the weather was clear and warm and the sun blazed out of a sapphire spring sky, and the jacaranda trees were heavy with purple flowers (I can’t get over those trees, reader, I’m crazy about them), and the breeze was nice and I needed some exercise – so I decided to walk from my hostel in San Telmo to the famous cemetery in Recoleta, about 35 city blocks.

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Huge portraits of Evita (Eva Peron, former first lady, actress, champion of the working class, and universally beloved “patron saint” of Buenos Aires) flank the sides of this building, the ministry of social services.

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The obelisk in the center of the huge avenue 9 de Julio (supposedly the widest street in south America, though apparently that title comes with some qualifiers, like it’s not technically all one road since its split into pieces with different names). Apparently this intersection is where you go to find public celebrations after football wins, the start of the massive group bicycle ride called masa critica, and pretty much every other public party.

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Sculpture on 9 de Julio

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After about an hour of walking I came to the edge of Recoleta, which is the posh neighborhood of the city. The parks here are beautiful and well-manicured. You especially notice enormous sprawling trees with gigantic roots heaving themselves out of the earth and long, meandering tree limbs that are sometimes held up by posts installed by the city to keep them from splitting.

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I entered the famous cemetery, where the rich and prominent citizens of Buenos Aires are buried in huge mausoleums arranged in a grid like city blocks. There are beautiful sculptures and old gothic-style architecture. Some of the mausoleums tower five or six meters high.

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I didn’t include a picture of Eva Peron’s grave, but it’s the most famous in the cemetery, because of her hugely important status in Argentine culture (I would venture to say she is as highly regarded and loved here as Simon Bolivar is in Colombia). Apparently when Evita died there were a number of problems getting her buried in Argentine soil, and her body was actually stolen by political enemies for years before it could be recovered and entombed. Her mausoleum is modest, befitting her status as an illegitimate child and a champion of the working class, but it’s easy to spot given the crowds of tourists who throng to take pictures.

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I think some people get creeped out by cemeteries, but I find them peaceful. As a Christian I don’t have so many negative associations with death, and anyway apart from religious connotations, cemeteries tend to be quiet, beautiful spaces that inspire contemplation. Although its character is different, Recoleta reminds me a little of Cimitaire Pere Lachaise in Paris, another cemetery that’s wonderful to visit and wander in. Recoleta in particular is nice for this because it’s like a little city – you can turn a corner and find yourself on another “street” completely empty of people, silent and peaceful.

Spanish lessons and live music

Monday was the date of my First Official Spanish Lesson. I have had many unofficial Spanish lessons already – drilling numbers and reflexive verbs at Javier’s dining room table; learning simple past tenses in the back of a jeep bumping down a dirt road in Colombia; practicing “soy allergica a gluten” over and over in preparation for ordering at a restaurant; listening to my friends speak Spanish for hours at the house in Uruguay – but this was my first with a dedicated professor. I feel a little silly and proud that we’re able to speak exclusively in Spanish. It surprises me, actually, how much I’m able to communicate (albeit slowly and awkwardly). I’ve never learned a language while traveling before. It’s a strange, organic process, especially after something as structured as Latin. You learn survival phrases first, grammar be damned, and sometimes it’s weeks before you learn the literal meaning of phrases you’ve been taught. I can’t deny that I get a little delighted by my tiny accomplishments (recharging my bus pass, discussing drink components with a bartender, haggling at the Sunday market, etc). It feels like slow going most of the time, but I’m still miles kilometres beyond where I was when I first landed in Bogota.

This week and part of next week I have 90-minute Spanish lessons each day. In the meantime…

Monday evening I joined the horde of French people staying at my hostel for Bomba de Tiempo ( http://labombadetiempo.blogspot.com.ar/). This is a massive drum concert that happens every Monday in an open air venue that holds probably 1000 people (I am making this number up because I have no concept of how to gauge crowd sizes, but anyway it’s a lot). Apparently it has become pretty overwhelmed by tourists in recent times. I couldn’t tell you, honestly – I was captivated by those drums the second I heard them and I didn’t stop dancing until much later that night, after the street parade and afterparty. It doesn’t feel touristy. You look around and you see other people grinning as wide as you are, drinking and dancing like happy fools, and you don’t worry so much about whether they’re tourists or Argentines or beautiful French people still managing to hold their cigarettes elegantly while they dance. After the concert, a block away a group of drummers with marching drums start to play on a street corner and suddenly 200 people have taken over the street and cars are squeezing through with the people inside laughing and taking pictures as everyone dances and drinks and parades to a night club close by. Because I am not a Nightclub Person, I was in a cab on the way back to the hostel about five minutes after we arrived, but I believe it’s a good nightclub if you like that sort of thing.

Tuesday I had the delightful experience of listening to a fantastic mambo band (I didn’t even know I liked mambo) followed by the heartbreaking experience of finding out that it was their last concert. The venue was Vuelta la pez (or “flight the fish” which is no less enigmatic in Spanish than in English), small, dimly lit, hidden up the stairs and behind a discreet little door with just the street number painted on colorfully. I’m not sure what you call this kind of place (bar? Lounge? Speakeasy?) but it is My Kind of Place. There was dancing there too, lots of girls dancing what I assume was the mambo, but also places to sit and talk and sip cocktails and just absorb the music. I was dead tired from Bomba de Tiempo the night before so after the music ended and I hugged my friends I piled myself onto a bus and headed back for the night.

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Lots of little everyday things happening this week – asados, many cheap and delicious bottles of Argentine wine being purchased and drunk, exploring the streets around my hostel, feeling cool when I figure out how to take the bus correctly. Though the hostel is a bit of an insulating environment, I’m slowly beginning to know Buenos Aires better and better.

Saturday morning in Buenos Aires

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I could have taken the Subte over to San Martin plaza and the little park with its enormous sprawling tree, limbs so huge and meandering that they built iron crutches into the plaza to hold the splayed branches up – and just through the park across busy Avenida del Libertador you have that huge tower that’s a replica of the one in piazza San Marco in Venice (many things in Buenos Aires are a replica of something in Europe) – – I could have taken the Subte, but the weather was fine, clean-feeling air and bright sun and jewel blue sky, warm and breezy, so I walked down to Florida street to change money on the “blue” market (the street empty so early in the morning, and me getting a terrible rate of only 12 pesos to the dollar this time) and from there along San Martin street all the way to the park.

The beautiful fractal-pattern trees with their bare earth-colored trunks and vibrant purple flowers frame a plaza of Buenos Aires’ ubiquitous cool white tiles gridded into perfect squares. When the tiles break from impact or age or tree roots thrusting up under the sidewalk, they subdivide into smaller and smaller squares. The trees in this plaza (called jacaranda, I learn later on a tour) are lovely and give good shade to the soft, broad-leaved, slightly squeaky grass. After a few false starts in mosquito-ridden patches of grass near the center of the park, I find an old tree on the edge whose broad roots bend gently into a natural seat. Two huge roots extend like arms into the grass, forming a hollow where I stash my purse and shoes and stand with my feet in the cold grass and start my first sun salutation.

Traditional ashtanga sun salutations timed to my breath, with some warrior poses thrown in between downward dogs to help me warm up. I need to stretch my legs after all the walking yesterday – downward dog for my hamstrings and hips, and I wriggle luxuriously to loosen my IT bands and ankles; warrior one for energy; warrior two for stability; and I’m feeling brave and unselfconscious in this park so I go for warrior three, balancing for about five breaths and using the San Marco tower as my focal point. Afterwards – pigeon poses, which are fun to do while watching actual pigeons poke around the grass, and cowface pose, which I love for its ridiculous name and deep hip stretch.

I won’t pretend it’s not awkward to go to a park where no one else is doing anything remotely like yoga, alone in tight leggings and a travel-stained top, and contort your body into strange awkward positions and try to look like a wise guru and hope no one else in the park is watching when it’s time to stick your butt in the air for downward dog. I usually feel exposed, especially if there are men watching. (There are almost always men watching. I’m a woman out alone and not wearing a nun’s habit. I try to avoid eye contact so I don’t have to see their lewd grins or hear their oh-so-original comments about flexibility). On the other hand, I’m also probably making it more awkward than it needs to be – I could pay for a class in a studio or convince someone from the hostel to come to the park with me.

Today I don’t feel so self conscious or exposed and I make some mental notes on this park, planning to come back. Not a lot of people like yoga, and the number of people who like yoga and also stay in hostels and also don’t care how many creepy park dudes watch them try to balance on one foot or stick their butts in the air in a park is even smaller, but I’m putting this one on the shortlist of places to do yoga anyway and promise myself to invite someone next time. At the end of my asanas I sit and mediate a little in the fresh grass (purse in my lap, just in case). The light has shifted and now it’s hot. Warm air stirs in the plaza, a guy throws tennis balls for his dogs to chase (a really fat golden lab and a sleeker black mutt), and I see two friends meet and surreptitiously light a joint to share. Yoga is over and I’m awake and hungry new, so I take the Subte back toward San Telmo with a few other early morning porteƱos still waking up this Saturday.