Argentina part one: Buenos Aires, Tuesday 11th – Monday 17th February

THE LONGEST DAY

We left Auckland at 6pm on Tuesday 11th February, flew for 15 hours, and arrived in Buenos Aires at 5pm on the same day. This journey also took us from the country with the greatest time zone difference from home (13 hours ahead) to the smallest since we’ve been away (3 hours behind).

The whole journey was quite an adventure. We realised at the departure gate that Maeve had left her shoes in Dave and Moira’s car, and it was far too late to retrieve them. Jay had a nap on the bench at departures (very out of character, but a normal part of long-term concussion recovery), whilst Maeve spoke to the airline staff about his head injury. They kindly gave us priority boarding to minimise the risk of someone dropping their carry on bag on his head whilst loading the overhead luggage bins. Another concern we had was about our food: unusually, there had been no option during online check-in to select a vegan meal, so we asked about it at the baggage drop, and again at the departure gate. Two members of staff assured us there was a vegan option on the regular menu. This turned out to be false, but we only discovered that when offered the vegetarian meal, which was covered in cheese. The staff on the plane were really apologetic and did their best to feed us; we ended up with a salad-y thing and lots of nuts which they brought us from the extensive business class snack selection (and extra wine for Maeve!). Thankfully our biggest concern – that the change in air pressure could cause Jay’s symptoms to get worse – wasn’t an issue, and the long flight passed in relative ease, though without any sleep for either of us. After a brief layover in Santiago we were treated to incredible views of the Andes, followed by the wide plains of Argentina.

We arrived in Buenos Aires and caught an airport express bus into the city to our hostel. We were slightly dubious about the setup when we checked in and were shown to a room right beside reception. The building was incredible: huge high ceilings and open spaces, with the original doors which were mostly glass. The room was sandwiched between reception and a courtyard which was the social and smoking area for the hostel. Since we’d been awake for about 28 hours at this point, we were really keen for a quiet room, but the receptionist told us this was the only one available.

We took ourselves out for dinner and were delighted to find that the first restaurant we went to had two vegan options. We definitely weren’t feeling picky so we were happy to go with that! We shared a beer and stumbled sleepily back to the hostel.

As soon as we lay on the bed we realised the situation was untenable. The courtyard was less than a metre from our heads, through a single pane of glass. And there was a party going on. We pleaded with reception again, and they managed to find another twin room for us on the other side of the hostel. We were warned that other travellers had booked an 8am check-in the next day so we may be woken early to clear the room, but we were happy to take that chance. As it was, we slept through til 11 without being disturbed again. The 11th of February was 40 hours long for us, and by the time we finally went to sleep we’d been awake for 31 hours of it.

The next morning we found a nice coffee shop and managed in broken Spanish to establish that we could have avocado on toast “without egg” for breakfast. And followed that up with a slice of vegan chocolate cake! We had a very relaxed morning, discussing our plans for South America and reflecting on our time in New Zealand. We were both filled with renewed energy, although we were still very aware of Jay’s head injury, and the need to take things slowly.

That night we had arranged to stay with a Servas host, Gabriella, who was soon to become our “Argentinian Jewish mother”. Our original two days of staying with her turned into five, and we had a great time getting to know her, sharing meals, and learning about Argentina. On our arrival, Gabriella was busy showing other Servas travellers around Buenos Aires (two women from Japan, who are close friends with people we stayed with there!), so we were shown in by her son and took the opportunity to catch up on more sleep.

Over the next few days we continued to deal with jet lag/concussion, whilst exploring Buenos Aires a little. It is a fantastic city with a 24 hour culture and tons going on everywhere. We went to the “world’s greatest bookshop” in an old theatre and visited some lovely parks. There is amazing street art everywhere, adding to the already spectacular architecture.

On Friday night there was a party for the two Servas visitors from Japan. We got to take part in a Japanese tea ceremony and origami workshop, in Argentina, neither of which we did in Japan! This was followed by sushi and tempura, and lots of wine.

After the party a group of us went to a milonga – a locals’ tango club, with a brief stop for a drunken tango lesson in the middle of the street! The milonga was a traditional one: men ask women to dance, the style is very formal, and only mixed-sex couples were allowed.

Our friends from Servas all had some experience with tango since it is such a big part of Argentinian culture, but all the women hated it for the patriarchal overtones. It is a dance of power, where women are expected to submit entirely to men. Thankfully things are changing now, and apparently there are lots of places to go and dance tango that are more progressive. We saw tons of evidence of queer culture in Buenos Aires, from Love is Love traffic signals, to rainbow street art, to same-sex couples being openly affectionate in the street. It was a wonderful change to many of the places we’ve visited which have felt unsafe for LGBTQIA people.

Another interesting facet of Argentine culture that we came across in BA concerned Jay’s profession. It turned out that a lot of Servas hosts here are psychologists, and that psychologists are common in most services in Argentina. Certainly among the folks that we had contact with it seemed that the role was a fair bit different than in the UK. For one, it seemed to mostly be delivering psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. In the UK clinical psychologists tend not to also be psychotherapists, although they do deliver psychological therapies as part of a wider role. In addition, seeing a psychologist was a very positive thing to tell people about, and folks would spend a lot of their income on therapy because it showed others that you took care of yourself. This is such a positive change in terms of attitude, if not in terms of accessibility for people on low incomes. One area in which things differed which would be inappropriate from a UK perspective was in the range and scope of psychologists. We were told that it was normal for people to see a psychologist for any minor sadness or difficulty, and that children were often taken to see psychologists if they showed negative emotions. We spoke to people who had been taken at very young ages for therapy. In the UK psychologists would be very much opposed to seeing anyone for what would essentially be ‘normal’ distress, due to concerns that it would prevent people from developing their own resilience and skills in managing difficult emotions and situations. That’s not to say that either approach is right or wrong, as they exist in different contexts, but many of the people we met who had gone through therapy as children for everyday life problems had not found it a positive or helpful experience for their personal development.

The morning after the party and milonga, after getting in at 2am, Maeve managed to drag herself out of bed to join Gabriella at her Rio Abierto movement class. Despite being led in Spanish, it was possible to join in with copying the physical movements, and it turned out to be a pretty good hangover cure! We went for lunch at a Loving Hut – an international chain of vegan restaurants which we’d previously been to in Vietnam. In Ha Noi we ate summer rolls and salads, but here in Buenos Aires the menu was entirely fake-meat sandwiches! We had seitan burgers, far too many chips, and a mocha milkshake. Junk food ftw.

We then walked to La Boca, stopping at the famous Dorrego Plaza for a cold drink. Our long, hot walk took us through some interesting residential areas and a local market in the park. As we neared the football stadium we walked through working-class neighbourhoods with visible signs of poverty everywhere, then as we turned a corner we were suddenly confronted with air-conditioned coaches spewing out tourists to visit the famous Caminito district. It was as if there was an invisible wall between poverty and tourism, one street wide. The houses in the area are all brightly painted, as they have been since the neighbourhood was home to artists and immigrants, with massive overcrowding and poverty. The conditions are now romanticised as a trendy tourist trap, full of stores selling mass-produced trinkets and bars spilling out into the street with dancers performing the tango. But it is still a beautiful and vibrant area.

That night we had our own tango lesson, at a free drop-in just a few doors from Gabriella’s flat. There was a mix of experienced dancers and a few of us complete beginners, and thankfully the instructor also spoke English. We learned the basic steps, and after an hour we were both thoroughly bored with the rigid routine! But we are glad to have had the opportunity to dance the tango in Buenos Aires.

On our last full day in Buenos Aires we had the important job of finding new shoes for Maeve, which was mercifully painless thanks to a sale at a nearby Salomon shop (and once again with gratitude to the English-speaking staff). We tried a strange local coffee: “pink latte”, which we’d seen advertised in lots of places, but had only just found with a vegan milk option. We had no idea what to expect; it turns out the drink is made with beetroot powder and pollen, neither of which we think enhances a coffee!

The next day we parted with Gabriella at the local bus stop and headed to the intercity bus terminal to start an epic 18 hour overnight coach trip. We were sad to leave Buenos Aires, it is a buzzing 24 hour city where it felt like we’d quickly made friends and found lots of places we liked and things we enjoyed. There are loads of things we’d like to see and do if we get the chance to go back. We did struggle a little with the weather, especially overnight: with the exception of an epic thunderstorm on the final night, it had been a constant muggy 25 degrees, which made it very hard to sleep! But overall our week in Buenos Aires was the perfect transition period to kick-start our travelling again, after a long convalescence in New Zealand. We left full of excitement for the next part of our adventure; a long-awaited expedition to “Welsh Patagonia”!

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