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Argentina – Night-Time Land of The Complex Carbohydrate

Buenos Aires is undoubtedly a fantastic city, and Argentina has certainly had a great deal to offer, but for those of us only here short term (less than seven days,) the city in particular offers some confusing and tricky social and dietary arrangements.

Timekeeping and a daily schedule is perhaps the most flummoxing for the short-stayers. Residents of Argentina (and especially BA) seem to keep hours at which even those night-owls the Spanish would flinch. Need to meet granny for a coffee at 1am? No problem. Don’t forget to bring the baby. Need a steak dinner with seven friends at 2am? Go ahead, but you might need to book.

Coming from Peru and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Brazil, where dinner is at 1700 hours and all are in bed before 2200, this requires a major shift in the timetabling of one’s day. No more the rush to see and do everything in the middle of the day – after all, most things are shut between 1 and 6pm. No racing around, walking block after block looking for that gallery or market – if you don’t take it easy you’ll peak too early and need your bed before dinner time.

Which brings us onto the second problem: when to eat? It might sound trivial to those of you in the middle of your working lives and indeed we expect no sympathy, but when travelling, mealtimes can often become a focal point for the day. It’s therefore a slight problem if you get to the point where you’ve saved yourself for a “local mealtime”, only to find that you begin to snore over your steak and drop off over dessert. In general in South America, people seem to enjoy a light breakfast and a hearty and long lunch. The difference in Argentina is that dinner is so late it requires some sort of teatime snack between 5 and 7. For us three-meals-a-day Brits, for whom breakfast is, we’re always told, the most important, we’re already confused.

This brings us to our third issue, diet. Rio aside, fresh food has been hard to find in the last three months. Vegetables are not prevalent in shopping baskets; supermarkets are chocked-full of dried foods, tins and bread; pasta and pizza make up a large part of many restaurant menus; on the road (much like home) the only option seems to be biscuits and pastry. Argentina, in particular, seems to be the land of the complex carbohydrate.

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The large-scale consumption of yerba mate seems to have created one gigantic sweet tooth. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the obsession here with dulce de leche. This thick caramel sauce spread is pretty much smothered on everything, and is known as the “taste of Buenos Aires”. It appears in coffee, on cakes and, most prominently, sandwiched between wagon-wheel like alfajor biscuits. It’s good, but it’s sweetness is hair-raising. Elsewhere, ubiquitous kiosks provide endless arrays of chocolate and sweets and ice cream, whilst coffee and cake are acceptable sustenance at any time of the day. For those of us who prefer a savoury snack, empanadas abound and sandwiches are exclusively of the ham and cheese variety. Occasionally, for a further bread fix, a superpancho hotdog can be found. I prefer the triple version…

All this sounds great, and added to the excellent steak dinners and meat-mountain parillas, you may wonder what the problem is. Nevertheless, it all seems like either food for a treat or food for an athlete. There isn’t a great deal of middle ground. Helen thought that it might be heaven to be in a place where cake is served for breakfast and biscuits, ice creams and pastries such as medialunas are the only available snacks. I thought likewise about the prevalence of good red meat, but for both of us we are yearning for fresh food, good salad and perhaps more regular eating hours.

A small section of the dulce de leche aisle

However, this is a fairly minor complaint, and if you look properly and spend the money you can eat many international cuisines in Buenos Aires. In fact, it wouldn’t take long to get used to the lifestyle, timekeeping and diet, but unfortunately time is something we’re running out of.

Come to Argentina, come to Buenos Aires, and to get the most out of it, stay for a while and stay up late.

 

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A Tale of Two (Or More) Restaurants

It can be tricky to write about our travels without making it seen like are gushing, moaning, worrying or gluttonous. The very nature of the tour we´re on calls for at least one, if not all of these characteristics almost every day. “Oh no, another 20 hour bus journey! Oh, but the sights are just spectacularly wonderful! Oh, but what if…? Oh, but we ate and drank some great stuff!” Southern Brazil has been no exception, but with the comfort and security of a great house in Florianópolis to stay in, and with the much more comfortable lifestyle and amenities brought by the rocketing economic status of the country, it has also afforded us more time to practice the gluttony side of things.

Thus, every day on Santa Catarina we’d walk down to the beach (past the strange daylight loving owls who nested on the ground near the road) and kick up the sand (jumping out of the way of the comedic sand crabs) for twenty minutes or so until we reached the tiny fishing village of Pantolo Do Sul. Here, although it was inexplicably impossible to buy fresh fish at the market, we could sit and watch the fishing boats bobbing on the waves whilst sipping a caipirinha and ordering a dish of something that we hoped hadn´t been long out of the sea.

The most interesting of the eateries here was Arante´s. Apparently founded in 1958 as a general store for fishermen, it´s speciality seems always to have been fried fish with `pirao´, a gloupey but tasty gravy made from fish stock. However it was in the seventies, when students began to visit the nearby beaches regularly but were not endowed with the mobile communications devices of today, that Arante´s began to cultivate its most distinctive feature. Needing to know where the party was, and fuelled by the free cachaca that is still available and just as potent today, the students began to stick notes up for each other on the restaurant walls and at the bar. As more cachaca flowed, so the notes became more poetic and illustrative. Over thirty years later one suspects this has also meant that the owners have never had to buy a tin of paint, as the walls are now covered in booze and fish-insipred artwork and messages, although now the most common subject seems to be how good the booze and the fish are.

Santa Catarina and Florianopolis were good for us; clean, quiet and spacious after the populous and many-flavoured Rio. Nonetheless, the time came to move on and inevitably an overnight bus tooks us eight hours south to the big Rio Grande Do Sul city of Porto Alegre. This large metropolis seems to be home to many students and, depite the rain, we like the place. One of it´s principle attractions for a short stay such as ours seems to be the large old central market. Aside from bursting with better fresh fish (at last, so this is where it all goes!), meat and vegetable stalls than we´ve seen anywhere else in South America to date, it also houses a wealth of eateries of all sizes. These aren´t the dodgy cafes next to hairdressers you often find in English municipal markets, these range from full blown sushi restaurants to extravagant ice-cream parlours. Soaked from the rain and sadly devoid of a kitchen in which to experiment with the afformentioned market-fare, we visited one of these restaurants, Restaurante Gambrinus, for dinner. Unusually for a weeknight, and a main reason for our choice, the menu included feijoada, a traditional stew of beans and beef with pork which we´d been promising ourselves throughout Brazil. Much like cassoulet, but darker and saltier, it was a great way to dry off and worth the wait since Rio.

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More than the food though, the welcome from most people in Brazil has been thoroughly warming. Despite us feeling terrible at hardly being able to understand a word of the language we have often been offered help by complete strangers just because of our lost looks or the fact that we´re from out of town. At Restaurant Gambrinus this warm welcome extended to numerous jokes, slaps on the back, questions about football and royalty, requests of letters from England, group photos even (we think) a refusal of a tip. We were only there an hour! So here´s to the gluttony of travel in Southern Brazil, to the sea, to feijoada, to caipirinha and to Jose C.L. Tavares from Gambrinus in Porto Alegre.

Now, where shall we go for lunch?

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The Wheels On The Bus Go…?

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Brazil loves its buses. Not in the same way that Peru loves buses, with their cracked windscreens, dodgy sandwiches and terrifying overtaking. Not in the same way that Bolivia loves buses, with their cliff-hugging ruggedness, wild temperature swings and unfathomable toilet stops. Not even in the same way that Argentina loves buses, with (as yet unconfirmed) reports of their wine swilling, bed-seats and coverage of vast distances.

No, unlike their long-haul all-terrain specialist neighbours across the continent, Brazilians seem to be enormous fans of the humble urban bus. Conductors man turnstiles on every vehicle; taxis are outnumbered. In Rio, drug gangs pay for buses to run in favelas. Meanwhile in Sau Paulo it’s more than likely that, to add to another startling but unproven fact about that staggeringly gigantic metropolis, there are more buses there than any other city on the planet.

On the beautiful island of Santa Catarina, where we’ve been for the last week, the buses are efficient and regular. What this infrastructure shares with the rest if Brazil though, is its complete lack of information and incomprehensibility to the stranger. You need a map of the area burned into your retinas to match the place names with your intended destination. Bus stops are desolate, timetable and route-mapless places.

Why does this really matter though? Obviously for the slack-timed loafers like us it’s not important. Surely if we waste an hour getting on the wrong bus and then another walking down a very back road strewn with discarded TVs and dead animals, only to find that the next bus takes us five more miles in the wrong direction, we’ll still have time for a delicious caipirinha and a fresh plate of prawns? Well yes, and we were advised to get a car, but it’s not really us who we’re worried about. Olympic Games anyone? FIFA World Cup?

If you’re perhaps an employee of a media organisation, looking for a little trip out to one of these tournaments (we know you’re out there!) then you need to do at least a few things. First, get your Portuguese phrase book out and get swotting – the language, and no doubt the accent are both pretty tricky. Second, do like Zezinho and get some maps (and maybe bus routes) tattooed onto your limbs. Third, have a little preliminary visit to Santa Catarina and wash down your seafood with a caipi. It’s got to be worth it, even if you don’t have the free time we do…

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Wish You Were Here

We spent a while trying to work out how to write this post without making everyone jealous. We realised we couldn’t. You have been warned!

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We’re currently staying on Ilha de Santa Caterina, an island off the coast of Brazil and are very grateful to our friend, John Murray, who’s putting us up in some style near the fishing village of Pantano Do Sul. No shared dorms or showers here…and beautiful beaches to boot. Our days have consisted of walks on the golden sand, the freshest seafood imaginable, bodyboarding (sort of) caipirinhas, wine and Woody Allen films. After 2 days of sunshine today is raining, but we are eating oysters on the pier, in a small town called Ribeirao De Ihla, so life’s not too bad. Happy days :)

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Favela Fella – Rio and Rochina

When you arrive at your destination for a tour and get out of a van-bus to see a bare-chested guy pointing a submachine-gun at passers by, you know you’re in an interesting place. Whilst this was the case as we arrived in Rochina, Rios biggest favela by population with around 250,000 residents, we were pretty sure we would be safe.

Our guide was Zezinho, a DJ, educator, favela resident, operator of Favela Adventures, graffiti artist and cat obsessive. A somewhat larger than life character, he was so fiercely proud of Rochina, he had been virtually covered in tattoos of representations of the place, from pictures to graffiti tags, from his neck to his toes. This and his status as a DJ and promoter of favela life led him to being stopped in the street every couple of minutes to cries of “Rochina!”.

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Zezinho lives and breathes Rochina, and seems to have made it his mission in life to demonstrate to the world that favela life here deserves respect and is often misrepresented in Brazilian psyche, the media and the world at large. He does not deny that there are issues there. Perhaps the hardest to swallow is the relationship between the people, the reputedly corrupt police and the drug barons who effectively control the favela. Zezinho writes extensively about such issues on his blog Life In Rocina and explains far better than I can:

“Rocinha, like most of Rio’s favelas, is under the control of a criminal faction. The faction that controls Rocinha, as of late 2006, is the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos)…These groups are famous for providing much needed resources such as support for day care, medicine for the sick, and money for the poor. They also have been known to asphalt roads, host huge community parties, and even sponsor other recreational spaces and activities, such as soccer pitches. These groups normally maintain a very high level of control over social behavior, strictly prohibiting street crimes such as rape, muggings, and break-ins within the favela. Even so, Rio’s criminal factions should not be glorified or romanticized as some sort of modern day Robin Hoods. Besides drug trafficking, such organizations in Rio have historically been involved in arms smuggling, bank robberies, kidnapping, and murder.”

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He also added that whilst, in an ideal world, police control might be better (as he experienced in his time in the US for example), there is a systemic problem with police training and pay in Rio, making it an impossible task for the police to regain control of favelas. The prevalence of bribery, corruption and – key to it all – the way in which the police and those outside the favelas historically view those inside, compared to the order and progress and feeling of respect and worth seemingly brought by the ‘drugs guys’, makes attitudes towards the traditional authorities highly suspicious. This is further compounded, according to Zezinho, by a mere lip-service investment in the run up to major events such as the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics of 2016. We saw a large community centre standing empty and unused that we were told was completed around 9 months ago. After the builders had left, the authorities had apparently not bothered organising anything to go in there. The problems of the favela persist despite what seems to be a tight and hard working community spirit.

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Whilst we saw guns and drug sellers in our short time in the favela, and we were warned not to provoke certain people by taking photos in certain places, we also found the people to be friendly and welcoming. We encountered almost no begging and we felt safe enough to wear jewellery and carry cameras openly. The people were clearly hardworking, the houses small and the streets and alleyways narrow; but this was by no means the violent shanty town that the idea of a favela might conjure.

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As we spent our 6 hours wandering around Rochina, we were also introduced to many of the community projects and non-profit organisations set up (often by locals) to help residents. Zezinho, for example, puts his tour guiding profits into a DJ school which he currently runs from his own house (Spin Rochina). You can find out more, and how you might be able to help this project, by visiting our Thanks page. Similarly, we later met a local man who teaches favela kids (many of whom rarely leave Rochina) to surf at a nearby beach. He takes broken boards from some of Rios richer surfers, spends hours repairing them, and uses them to teach the children who earn their places by attending school, getting grades and staying out of trouble. If you were a surfer with plans of volunteering somewhere, I can only imagine that this would be an excellent place to work.

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Rio is certainly a multi-facited city. From the favelas such as Rochina, with its dichotomy of friendly, hardworking pride set against large-scale systemic and ethical problems, to the classy beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, where the beautiful (and sometimes not-so-beautiful) people peruse restaurants that make even Londoners baulk at the price. From rubbing shoulders with locals in a Samba club on a sweaty Saturday night in Lapa, to squeezing through other foreigners to gawp up at the highly symbolic Cristo Redentor (below) on a blazing hot afternoon. Rio is well worth a visit, and is not always all it seems.

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Iguazu – Wet & Wild

There was a painfully recognisable fact in the departures lounge at Salta Airport in Argentina: the number if people on our flight to Puerto Iguazu totalled exactly 18 – the number of passengers needed to fill a plane the same size as that of our nightmare flight to Rurrenabaque in Bolivia last month. Out of the window we could see such a plane, so to turn a corner and see a brand new large jet standing there was an enormous relief. Good old Aerolíneas Argentinas – running at a loss to give us a relatively safe and comfortable flight to the far north-eastern tip of the country, where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet around a spectacular sight.

The gigantic waterfalls of Iguazú straddle the Argentinian and Brazilian border and can be viewed from either country. We started on the Argentinian side which, with its droves of tourists (even on a weekday in spring), its food courts, immaculate paths, signposted attractions, small train service and uniformed information points, felt much like an enthusiastic theme park.

Getting there early we began with a wildlife trail. A clear path through rainforest reminiscent of our Bolivian jungle experience. Even without a guide we were able to see various birds including a toucan, as well as some other badger-sized mammals called coatis (which we later found to be pretty prevalent in the park, attempting Yogi-style picnic robberies). So far only one small waterfall, but we knew the main event was yet to come.

Befitting its theme park nature, the first glimpses of the big waterfall were akin to the scene in Jurassic Park, where the Brontosauruses are first spotted moving across the distant plain. Here, whilst still feeling like the set of that film, it was instead the clouds of spray that first gave away the awe-inspiring view to come. The train took us most of the way to the northernmost point where we walked with plenty of others, (many of whom obsessively cradled a flask and a cup of maté in typically Argentinian style) across a long winding bridge structure to above the ‘Devils Throat’. Cascading below was an indescribable amount of water. Nobody even though about getting in a barrel. The bottom was virtually invisible due to the height and vast clouds of spray, which teams of swallows threaded through, adding further swirls to the torrents. Tourists had their pictures taken in-front of the spay, everybody got wet and we thought we might have seen the falls. But there was more.

 

At every turn on the subsequent easy trails, we had spectacular views. The falls are immense and range over such a wide area that it took us around three hours to get around the majority of the length. On the way we were joined at close quarters by monkeys, lizards big and small, more coati, butterflies, eagles and of course plenty of humans. But like the Jurassic Park idea, where mammoth attractions astound visitors who still feel like they’re in the jungle, we rarely felt overcrowded.

 

That evening we crossed into Brazil (hello new passport stamp, goodbye bank balance and ability to comprehend…) so that the following day we could visit the falls on that side before heading off on a somewhat ridiculous 24 hour bus trip to Rio. The Brazilian side was also full of souvenir shops and talking bus rides, but still the majesty of the falls could not be overcome. Here the scale of the site could be seen in full, and the sheer size, weight and noise of the water could be appreciated. We left for the bus station damp but awed.