You can ALWAYS be too careful

Our last day in Buenos Aires.

Jo: “I wanna go see the La Boca neighbourhood.”

Me: “Ok…. Wikitravel says that it’s a poorer part of Buenos Aires and Lonely Planet says that travellers should be careful even when you’re walking about in daylight. EEeee… thorntree forum says got mugging one le. What’s there to see at La Boca again?”

Jo: “Colorful buildings”

Me: “Hell no!”

I hate to admit it, but between the two of us, Jo is the more gungho traveller. She’ll charge on to see new things, while I’m the one who’ll check all the guidebooks/websites, weigh all the pros and cons before deciding if I want to go to any of these so-called attractions.

This attitude extends to other aspects of our travelling style, including the way we pack our valuables when we go for day trips around town.

Jo saunters around town with her phone in one pocket and everything else in a sling bag that she clutches in front of her chest.

I have…

a) A pocket of loose change
b) A different pocket for bigger notes
c) A dummy “mugging” wallet
d) My handphone
e) A money belt with my passport and even bigger notes
f) A backpack with all our valuable electronics.
g) An external waist pouch with my ready use ATM card, keys and other loose items.

In other words, on a typical day about town, I look like Batman… if instead of having a kickass utility belt, Batman has bulging pockets for his knickknacks.

Somehow, in spite of Jo’s sulking, I managed to convince her to go to town for a tour of Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires’ main opera house) instead of La Boca. As usual, we decided to take a subway at San Juan station that was near our hostel.

As we got onto our train carriage, two VERY burly men and two frail-looking old aunties with very big coats squeezed onto the train with us. They forced themselves between me and Jo and essentially sandwiched me between the four of them.

We knew that something was up because the rest of the train carriage was empty and they seemed hell bent on separating the two of us. We were also sort of clued in when we saw the other passengers (even the sleeping ones) IMMEDIATELY putting their heads together and whispering amongst themselves,while pointing in our general direction.

(Of course) We shouted to each other to watch our belongings and started clutching our things close to us. Coincidentally, that was also the instant when I had the epiphany that splitting my eggs into so many baskets was not the brilliantest idea I’d ever had. I’m surprised I haven’t been hauled into a police station for running my hands up and down my body in public while trying to push away two old ladies.

Two minutes and one train stop later, the gang of four forced their way out of the train and gave me a push back into the carriage for good measure.

As we stood shellshocked in the carriage, I started to assess our damages. Sure enough, my “dummy” wallet was gone. My external pouch and backpack had also been unzipped, the cash inside them was gone (though they kindly left my ATM/credit card unmolested). Most amazingly, they managed to get my phone which I had been clutching on to for dear life. There was only an instant when they were barging out of the train that they managed to brush my hand off my pocket for (what seems to me like) a fraction of a second (These guys were pros).

Jo, on the other hand, lost a grand total of nothing.

Careless Jo: 1
Ultra careful TW: 0

Silver lining is that except for my ego, we were both unhurt, but instead of Teatro Colón or La Boca, we ended up spending our last day in Buenos Aires being bounced between two police stations and sitting for five hours in the waiting room waiting (of course) for a (drunk) English translator so that we could file our report.

High Flying, Adored

Before flying into South America, I could probably be able to name you THREE Argentine personalities – Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Madonna, I mean Evita.

From the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (yes… ha ha! TW watched the lousy Madonna flick), I know that Eva Duarte was a poor country girl who became a star and subsequently married Juan Domingo Perón, who became the dictator/President of Argentina at that time. I also know that she was really popular among the poorer folks of Argentina because (I might be slightly off the mark here) she dressed like a material girl and sang “Don’t Cry for me Argentina” from a balcony.

THE famous balcony. As we stood in front of the historic monument, where if you close your eyes, you could still imagine what it was like to be part of the masses that Evita was addressing so many years ago, we could not help but think… “It’s PINK?????”

But it was only when we reached Buenos Aires that we were really able to feel the impact that one woman still managed to have on the entire Argentine psyche even 60 years after her death.

When I say 60 years after her death, I meant it quite literally.

Through serendipity or plain dumb luck, we were in town on the 60th Anniversary of the  death of Eva Perón. In fact, because we had decided to go back for a second day of La Recoleta Cemetery awesomeness (aka the free English guided tour), we were actually at her final resting place (for now) that very day.

Where the cemetery was relatively peaceful, empty and quiet the day before, it was PACKED when we got there on Day 2.

True, there was a new “resident” moving into La Recoleta Cemetery, but most of the people were there to pay their respects to Eva.

It was strange (for us) to see the outpouring of grief for a woman who had been gone for 60 years. Flowers, wreaths and candles were scattered all around Lot No 88, the Duarte family crypt.

Day 1 and Day 2 – What a difference a day makes.

There were so many homage items that they overflowed onto the neighbouring mausoleums.

Overflow

Old ladies would kneel down on crickety knees to kiss her portrait, young men encouraged EVERYONE around them to shout “VIVA EVITA!” with them.

VIVA EVITA!

In death, she evoked just as many raw emotions as she did in life. This “charisma” of her presence was also the reason why they took 20 years to properly place the body of Evita in the Duarte family crypt.

In spite of the cancer that had ravaged her body, Juan Perón managed to get Evita embalmed a la Ho Chi Minh and Lenin. There were also plans to build a Mausoleum “bigger than the Statue of Liberty” where people could go to pay their respect to the “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.

Unfortunately, a military junta successfully staged a coup two years after the death of Evita. Juan Perón was forced to abandon her body and went into exile in Spain.

The new military leadership did not want to destroy her body nor bury it, for fear that such an action would rally the Perónist supporters. No one wanted to take ownership of it so she was moved from site to site to avoid detection. These sites allegedly included an unmarked van parked around the capital, the city’s sewer system, behind the screen of a Buenos Aires cinema and the office of the Military Intelligence (where soldiers on duty supposedly got involved in some necrophiliac nastiness). Unfailingly, however, the site where the body is hidden would be discovered, and lighted candles and flowers would mysteriously turn up around these hiding places. The body of Eva Perón remained a strong rallying point for the Perónist resistance movement.

She was eventually shipped covertly to Italy where she was buried under the pseudonym of “Maria Maggi”.

She would have remained there for all eternity, but Juan Perón was invited back to run for President of Argentina in 1973. One of his non-negotiable demands was that he get Eva’s body back. He kept his end of the bargain by winning the Presidential election and promptly dying the year after. During the year however, he proudly displayed Eva on the dining table of his new house. He also had his (third) wife Isabel comb Eva’s hair daily and made her lie on top of Evita so that she could absorb her “charisma”.

The “absorbing” thing probably didn’t work so well, because even though Isabel Perón succeeded Juan as President, she was overthrown herself in 1976. The new new military leadership believed they’d learnt from the old one’s experience, and had Eva interred 5 metres underground in the Duarte family crypt in La Recoleta Cemetery under concrete and three steel plates. It is believed that this new resting place would be able to withstand a nuclear attack.

Evita had been on display beside Juan Perón prior to the big move.

Juan was moved to the Perón family crypt in Chacarita cemetery. (Interesting fact: Grave robbers broke into Juan’s crypt too and sawed off his hands. Initial deductions was that the the hands would be held for ransom, but since no ransom demand came along, the speculations were that somebody sawed off the hands to try to access Juan’s secret Swiss bank accounts – Suck that, George Clooney!)

Regardless, there is no denying the effect she had on the Argentines. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of her death, the Argentine mint were putting into circulation new 100 Argentine peso notes with her face on it (it’s the first time a woman’s face had adorned any Argentine currency).

I think our Recoleta tour guide, Maria said it best when she said that, “Everybody either loves her or hates her. There is no middle ground.”

And I think that there is no other way she would have wanted it.

Expectamus Dominum

At the risk of sounding like an eyeliner-wearing emo goth girl, I’ll come right out and say it: My favourite place in Buenos Aires is a Cemetery…

But then again, La Recoleta Cemetery is unlike any other cemeteries that we’ve ever been to.

Situated in the heart of the rather posh Recoleta neighbourhood, the cemetery houses the remains of some of the most (in)famous personalities in Argentine history.

Add to that the elaborate marble mausoleums and the MANY exquisite works of famous sculptors, I personally think that La Recoleta Cemetery is a good place to while away a good afternoon (or in our case, two) for anyone stopping by Buenos Aires.

The gorgeous crypts divide the cemetery into numerous corridors… in death as it is in life… it’s like the “houses” are divided into neighbourhoods within the necropolis

Some of these corridors are long… and rather dark. You lose a bit of your sense of space and can feel really isolated wandering through these corridors by yourself

With the sculpted faces of angels/demons/departed in various stages of disrepair staring down from all around you…

Not to mention very few of the coffins are interred underground (many coffins can be seen through glass windows/tomb’s doors)…

I suppose we should feel spooked, but instead we felt a weird serenity and calmness walking through the cemetery.

I’ve mentioned that in order to make La Recoleta Cemetery their final resting place, the deceased need to be part of the Who’s Who of Argentine history (and since land here is not cheap, they also need to have a LOT of money). That’s why in a such a (relatively) small space, we were able to find the crypts of Presidents and Revolutionaries, Nobel Prize Winners and Athletes, Writers and Madmen. Interestingly, this also means that bitter enemies might be placed next to one another and the assassinated might be laid to rest directly opposite the guy who ordered the hit.

With so many colorful personalities within, the best part about La Recoleta is definitely the stories. I think one of the reasons we enjoyed the place so much was because we managed to get ourselves on the free tour provided by the custodians of the cemetery.

We were guided through the history/mythologies and superstitions of the Argentine people in the 1.5 hours tour, using the tombs of her most famous citizens as a window into their lives.

(Insider tip: Free English tours of La Recoleta Cemetery are conducted at 1100am on Tuesdays and Thursdays)

Two of my “favourite” stories have to be the ones about Liliana Crociati de Szaszak and Rufina Cambaceres.

Liliana Crociati de Szaszak was the daughter of celebrity hairdresser Joseph Crociati.

Liliana was killed in an avalanche during her honeymoon in Innsbruck, Austria. Liliana’s father commissioned a life sized bronze statue to be made of his daughter in her wedding dress (complete with wedding ring and rosary) and wrote a beautiful poem to adorn the crypt. The local legend was that her faithful dog, Sabú fell dead the exact moment she did. (Maria, our guide has since debunked that as myth. The statue of Sabú was added a few years after, when it died of natural causes).

The locals believe that rubbing Sabú’s nose brings good luck. And in a move that would make any 4D buying Singaporean’s heart swell with joy, the nose is now significantly shinier than the other parts of the statue.

Rufina Cambaceres – Knocking on Heaven’s Door… maybe?

Rufina Cambaceres is the cemetery’s resident Lady in White.

She collapsed on her 19th birthday and fell into a deep faint. All efforts to resuscitate her failed, and eventually three different physicians declared her dead. Since she was the daughter of famous Argentine writer Eugene Cambaceres, she was placed in the Cambaceres family crypt.

A few days after her final rites, visitors and caretakers within La Recoleta started hearing strange noises coming from the Cambaceres crypt. The family was informed and fearing that grave diggers might be trying to get at the jewelry Rufina was buried with, they decided to open up the crypt.

Inside the crypt, they noticed that the coffin had been shifted. Opening the coffin, they found fingernail lines scratched across the inside of the coffin and on Rufina’s face.

The family maintained that it was the work of robbers and vandals who harbour a grudge against the family, but the more common belief is that Rufina was buried alive. Rufina probably suffered from catalepsy. At some point after her “funeral”, she awoke to find herself trapped in the coffin. In her fear and desperation, she tried to get the attention of the people outside her crypt and/or scratch her way out of the her prison. Failing at both, she “died” a second time.

A new statue was made of her to be placed outside her tomb. Some believe that the rendering of a beautiful (and almost sad) Rufina standing in front of a door is a nod to the real cause of her death. Locals claim that she still roams the “streets” of La Recoleta Cemetery on moonless nights.

And then there are the “other” residents in the Cemetery.

A cat and his pet statue

La Recoleta Cemetery is home to 80++ (VERY FAT) cats. Cats are seldom seen in other parts of Buenos Aires, but for some reason, they all congregate within the cemetery. The locals believe that the cats are drawn to the spirit of the dead. A more sensible opinion is that they are attracted by the local ladies who would religiously feed them twice a day.

Next up: Recoleta’s most famous resident. Sharing Lot 88 with five of her family members, one Eva Duarte.

Air and Sunshine

Ever since I’ve stopped working, Jo and I (actually more Jo) would normally wake up to have brunch at about 11am. This late brunch throws our day off sync because we would have an afternoon snack around 3pm and then dinner at 8pm followed by supper at about 1am.

My parents, on the other hand, follow a strict regimen of having breakfast at 7 in the morning, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 6pm.

So you can see, our meal times NEVER overlap. This can only mean one thing: my parents are convinced that Jo and I survive on a weird diet of air and sunshine.

So far, our meal timings have worked brilliantly on our travels. We go in later than the normal mealtime crowd, so we never really have to wait in line and we always have a table.

And then along comes Argentina.

The Argentinians have a practice that I would have appreciated the hell out of, back when I was working. Even in the big city of Buenos Aires, they have a siesta period from 1pm to 5pm.

The rationale for the siesta is to allow the working crowd to take some time off in the middle of the day to attend to personal matters. This could mean anything from a catnap to self enrichment classes to bringing the kids from school to just chilling in the parks.

So, while in Argentina, do as the Argentinians do right?

We spent A LOT of time in parks during our time in Buenos Aires. I’m pretty sure that 89.3% of Buenos Aires is composed of parks.

It does help that they really have some really gorgeous parks with gentle hills that are just begging us to lie down or even roll down from.

It does help that the parks are filled with totally unshy dogs who would amble up to us to get free hugs/pats

And of course, there are also BA’s famous dog walkers who are each walking at least 10 dogs…

Speaking of dogs in parks… there’s this statue we saw in one of the parks that we just cannot make any sense of…

The downside of the siesta? The working crowd have to go back to work till 9pm at night after the “break”. Accordingly, the shops and restaurants adjusted THEIR siesta hours to match that of the working crowd’s. Most shops/restaurants are closed from 4pm to 9pm to serve the working crowd. Who gives a shit about tourists anyway, right?

Re: Our meal time. A GIANT monkey wrench.

We were constantly hungry during our first two days in Buenos Aires.

We’d show up expectantly at restaurants only to find that it is “Cerrado”ed.

I realize from my experience that this can only mean one thing. Argentinians survive on a diet of sunshine and fresh air.

Air and Sunshine… makes the Argentine flag fly beautifully too

“We are going to die because we don’t speak Español!!”

Those were the first thoughts that raced through my mind as our taxi veered sharply towards the big lorry on our right.

Seemingly oblivious to our impending doom, the taxi driver TOOK HIS HANDS OFF THE WHEELS and adjusted the pair of glasses he had placed over the pair he was wearing (one for short sightedness, one for long. I think the technical term for glasses like these is “Coca Cola bottles”).

He continued to flip through his handwritten notes.

“Quiero Ira… ‘I….RA’… is means ‘I want go to’”, he said as he calmly turned his steering wheel away from our possible death at the very last possible moment. I swear I could hear the sound of car molecules scraping against one another.

Hearing that we “No hablar Español”, he had taken it upon himself to teach us a few choice phrases as we sped from the airport to our hostel at 120km/h. He was convinced we would not be able to survive in South America without knowing the language.

In truth, I was more afraid we would not survive his Spanish lesson.

And that marked the beginning of our love/hate relationship with Español in South America.

We love how sexy the pronunciation rolls off the tongues of hot Latino hunks/babes. You know how when people don’t understand us when we speak in English, we try to patiently explain by repeating what we’ve said LOUDER and sloooooower?

It doesn’t work that way here. A blank look from us will normally provoke a rapid and furious output of vowels, consonants and “rrrrs” accompanied by vigorous hand wringing. With their powers combined, they are normally successful in their goal of completely losing us. At that point, we can only close our eyes and wish we could sound just as sexy.

And then there’s the food.

Every meal we had during our first two weeks in Argentina was a dangerous game of Russian Roulette. After the first three meals, we sort of gave up trying to ask what the various items on the menu were, since we would not be able to understand the waiters when they tried to describe the dish to us anyway.

We embarked on a run of trial and error, randomly pointing at items on the menu and just hoping for the best. Most of the time when the waiters repeated our orders to us, we just nodded confidently without knowing what the names of the dishes meant. We managed to catch terms like chicken (pollo), potatoes (papas), milk (leche) and pizza (pizza) pretty fast, but we ran into trouble ordering items from the meat (carne) section.

And then there are the mystery ingredients in the pizzas. One word I learned immediately was “aceitunas” (olives). I hate it, but I don’t want to be the idiot who asks people in a country famous for olive production to hold the olives in the pizzas

For a country obsessed with meat, it’s only natural that they have about (I’m making a rough estimation here) 200000000000000000134382 terms for the different cuts of meat and methods of preparations.

That’s the story of how we ended up with a hugeass platter of meat called the Parillada which includes a pinch of potatoes with (again, rough estimation) 638 slabs of grilled steak, BBQed chicken, smoked pork, blood sausages and…. liver.

Death by liver…. I KNEW that’s probably how we were going to go.