I haven´t blogged since the day I arrived in Buenos Aires, hoping that I would find something nice to say about this city, more than the clean and modern impression which comes instantly and which is certainly true of the newer parts of town.
However, I´ve been here a full week now and have walked for miles throughout various neighborhoods, and still can´t find anything to rave about. On day three, I moved out of my $40 per day, Central Cordoba Hotel in Retiro, near San Martin Plaza, and into the $15 per day Telmotango Hostel in the Historic District of San Telmo. I did this to save up some money for my week in Ushuaia at the tip end of the continent since airfare there costs $300.
That was actually a very smart move as the hostel is much finer and fancier than the hotel was, though I´m paying dorm prices for a two-bed dorm room and a shared bath down the hall. It´s essentially a private room as I have no roommate and the three separate bathrooms are plenty for the few guests at this time of the year. So, I have no complaints about my lodging with it´s good free breakfasts and friendly staff.
But, that´s about the best I have to say about this capital of Argentina…except that the weather is bright and sunny, though the high temperatures have been replaced by wind and Fall weather. Still, midday is pretty warm and it´s certainly not as cold as the months that I have spent travelling down the Andean Cordillera, even during the South American summer.
Mostly, what I find here is an absence of qualities which one normally takes for granted and which I have been finding all along in the poorer countries of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. This is a pretty rich, quite European, city but it has allowed its Historical District to crumble away into gloomy disrepair. I walk through the streets of San Telmo daily, heading out for every errand, especially to find food (more about that in a minute) and I can´t help but compare it to the Old Towns and Historical Districts that I have visited, loved, patronized, and slept in during this four-month South American junket and on my year-long trip around the world.
Most cities, in most countries of the world, make a great effort to restore that central core, not only because of pride in their past, but because that´s where the tourists will flood in. That´s where hotels can charge premium prices, among fancy restaurants and upscale shops. Frequently, I´ve noticed that the older the district, the swankier the neighborhood.
I´m thinking of places like: Dubrovnik, Budva, Bogota, Cartagena, St. Augustine, Cusco and the like. Often, these places are many centuries old. Think of all the Western European cities where you have been, but not I…yet. We are all accustomed to finding careful preservation of this special history. Even Quito, whose Historic District isn´t all that beautiful, compared to some, has done a good job of keeping it in good repair and painted and mended.
But here in Buenos Aires, the sidewalks in many parts of town, not only in the Historical District, are made of tiles, some of which have fallen away, making the ground dangerously uneven and the remaining walk very snaggletoothed. To add insult to injury, there´s plenty of sidewalk dog poop everywhere due to a lack of laws concerning pet responsibility, I suppose, as I haven´t seen that many strays around here. That`s a fixable civic problem which must annoy the residents as much as the tourists.
I´m being reminded, these days, of my reaction to the outskirts of Prague when I stayed in such a gloomy suburb and then went to admire its golden center. Here, in Buenos Aires, I feel the same way walking along my street when the stores are closed. Grafitti, sprayed on galvanized tin and burglar bar window covers, blends with the ugliness of the sides of the buildings. Doorways are full of trash. Not nice to have to live or work in or to hang out as a tourist. This is a big, impersonal city and that feeling pings off of every surface, though I find the people themselves to be very friendly in a passing way.
But, why can´t they cook? Like everyone else, I was taken in by the Myth of “Argentine Beef” and I so looked forward to experiencing a taste and tenderness found nowhere else on earth.
Sorry folks! It´s only a myth! My first steak dinner here was very ordinary and tasted no better than a cheap cut of meat from any grocery store back home. And, I´m not talking about the fine cuts of prime beef that I buy at the organic food store, free of antibiotics and hormones. I´m talking about the regular adulterated stuff found in your ordinary store. Even I can make those unfancy cuts taste better than the ones I´ve been served here.
Plus, these steaks are very greasy. I´m sure that all the fat (though I cut it off, the steak itself was slippery with it) was responsible for big problems, usually associated with Montezuma, later that evening….one of the few reactions I´ve had to food in all of South America. I gave beef a second chance today, and the same was true – tough, tasteless, and fatty – though served in a high-class, expensive place with white linen and wine glasses.
After that first meal, it has been downhill from there, foodwise, because I can´t find anything with flavor. I´ve eaten all over town, trying various menu items, paying mostly between $10 – $15 per meal, for food that has so little taste or preparation talent, that I´ve had to pour on the salt or lemon juice just to get it down. It´s just not good cooking. And always, the french fries with everything. But, at least those provide calories. Bland and tiresome as usual, but filling. Because of the sadness which comes with each meal, I´ve taken to eating only one per day and filling up with breakfast here at the hostel. In the evening, a little fruit is better than scrambling for something open out there, since all eating places seem to close between 7 and 8 p.m.
This is reverse to my food problem in India where I couldn´t find anything without spices. Actually, South American food has proven to be very unoriginal but not tasteless. In almost all of these countries, the default setting is a generous plate of either beef, chicken, or fish, with heaps of both rice and french fries, as well as a nice mixed salad. Sometimes, yucca or fried plantains accompanies that. Very belly-filling and found on every menu. Even though it´s a bit monotonous, it´s tasty and flavorful as well as nourishing. Frequently, all that comes along with a great soup course, for only a few dollars.
Frankly, I would love some soup these days, but I scan the menus in vain. What you will see on every menu here is a great variety of uses for sandwich slices of ham and cheese. You should have seen my gargantuan “ham”burger with a bland beef patty as well as the ham and cheese, lettuce, tomato and a horrible hard-boiled egg sliced up as well. That was truly inedible!
This is Betty Boop cooking, as far as I´m concerned! I´ll be home in two weeks and will be happy to return to my own culinary efforts. Looks like my enthusiasm is waning for what the trail has to offer. Let´s see if poor little, freezing cold Ushuaia is up to the task of redeeming the whole country. I sure hope they make soup down there!