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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Where The Fair Winds Blow

Fair or not, I don't care, as long as they were warm winds!

Buenos Aires was gloriously warm. Except for a couple of drizzly nights, we celebrated our arrival in the 30-degree (as in Celcius, not Fareinheit, yaaaay!) temperatures by strutting around in tees and shorts. We would have topped off our summery ensemble with slippers but didn't want to risk stepping on the numerous stinky landmines left by dogs (not stray dogs, by the way. More on that later.)

We had booked ourselves 5 nights at Obelisco Suites under the Hosteling International network. 5 nights, because HI was offering a "Stay 5 Nights, Pay for 4" offer, which came with free (or rather "free", as we found out later) dinner. We arrived at the hostel and queued for 30min to be served by the slow and disinterested staff, only to be told that the offer was no longer valid. I had to locate the online offer on my iPhone and stick it into their face, and after that show them how to locate the info on the HI website on their computer, before they agreed to honour the special rates. No, not a good first impression indeed - which only went downhill from that point on.

We climbed 90 spiraling steps up the building to our room on the 4th floor, which turned out to be not a suite, despite the name of the hostel. We had to use the common bathroom down the hallway, which was fine, except that only 1 person could use it at a time. The room-to-bathroom ratio (3:1) on our floor seemed okay at first, but apparently the bed-to-bathroom ratio for the entire hostel was something like 100:6, so people would wander from floor to floor in the morning in search of an empty bathroom. We gave up crossing our legs and hopping around outside a locked bathroom every morning and resorted to brushing out teeth in the kitchen sink, then dashing 3 floors down to use the toilets at the breakfast area.

However, we were pleased with the size of the bedroom and even the bathroom (they were huge!) and no one ever seemed to use both the kitchens on our floor (or on every floor, for that matter) so we had them all to ourselves. There was also a quaint cage elevator that crawled up and down the building, but we chose to use the stairs (needed some leg exercise after all those long 20-hour bus rides), which turned out to be the faster option anyway. (We saw some really fat people who actually bothered to wait for the elevator to bring them down a couple of floors... LAZY!!!)

The upside of Obelisco Suites being a big hostel is that it organises alot of tours, both chargeable and free ones. There is also a travel desk, which helped us book our bus tickets to Puerto Iguazu at no additional service charge. Dinner is offered at their sister hostel, Florida Suites, nearby. The meal is free - if you buy a drink from the bar. We sampled the spaghetti (in tomato sauce and nothing else) and pizza. The portions were tiny - we had to supplement dinner with a McChicken Junior and ice-cream cones (Dulce de Leche flavour rocks!) We decided that coupled with the cost of the drinks, it made more sense to cook our own food, which turned out to be more satisfying in terms of taste and quantity.

The downside of Obelisco Suites - it is a 'party hostel'. The only common area was the bar, which played music 24/7 (Really 24/7. Dan can attest to that cos he stayed up all night to send in our GO calendar orders.) People were playing pool and drinking beer at 9am, and although the smokers adjourned to the balcony for ciggie breaks, the smoke seeped indoors. The TV room was in shambles. We wanted to watch Transformers 2 (which I HATED and fell asleep during) on DVD but couldn't find the remote control. Thinking that the staff might have kept it at the reception counter, I went down to ask for it, only to be told to "search everywhere in the room" for it, cos "it's there, somewhere." Fail. We never found the remote. Super fail. The reception staff also doled out incorrect tour information. We signed up for a free walking tour, which we were told would be of the downtown area. The staff's mistake was only revealed halfway through the actual tour, when the guide informed that we would be visiting the La Boca neighbourhood, which we had already visited on our own the day before. Super waste our time.

We couldn't receive the WiFi signal in our 4th floor room, and didn't want to log-on at the bar at the risk of becoming deaf secondhand-cigarette-smoke-breathers with bruises from errant pool balls. Plus, for some bizarre reason, there was a GIANT poster of a very naked African tribesmen hanging on the walls next to the tables. Which meant that seated at the table, I would be staring straight (at eye level!) at a HUGE pierced naked male organ held aloft by a painful-looking contraption tied around the waist. To avoid looking at the Penis Poster (as I call it), I would have to sit directly under it - which meant having the naked organ hovering next to my ear. It was kinda hard to concentrate on my laptop with my right ear feeling so small and vulnerable.

Thankfully, we found peace in a quiet nook on the 2nd floor to set up our laptops. Soon, we found ourselves answering idiotic questions from the guests staying there:

(1) Where is the bathroom?
(2) Where is the girl who stays in this room? Has she come back yet?
(3) Where is the reception? (Hellooo?? How did you even get up here without seeing it?!)

Really, the place was swarming with idiots. Except for the poor girl who shared the table with us and was quietly eating her white-rice dinner. Yeah, a plate of plain white rice. Well, I could smell tuna but I couldn't see it. I would have offered her food but we didn't have any with us then. She must have been on a really tight travel budget. Or had a roomful of big shopping bags.

We had chosen to stay at Obelisco Suites for its fantastic location - in the microcenter (i.e. like the Raffles Place of Buenos Aires), 2 blocks from the landmark obelisk (the equivalent of the Raffles statue, I guess, albeit very much taller) and at the junction of 3 Subte (aka the MRT of BA) lines. Nice, very convenient, albeit very much dead on a Sunday (just like Raffles Place!)

Wandering around downtown B.A - old architecture, naked statues and dirty pigeons.

A very faint obelisk in the background

Everyone who has been to BA calls it Europe in South America. Yes, there are beautiful buildings, countless museums, quiet parks and elegant statues all around. But there are also very stark reminders of BA's third world side - homeless people sleeping in the streets, beggars, cracked waterlogged pavements, litter accumulating along the curb, smelly drains, derelict buildings, dodgy streets. And this was just in the downtown area - in neighbourhoods like La Boca, it's more apparent.

We headed for the vehicle-free pedestrian mall, which sounded really interesting and bustling, from the description in travel guide. Bustling, yes - especially if you include the traffic that is exiting from underground carparks in the surrounding buildings onto the pedestrian mall! We stopped to watch a street Tango performance but hardly cast an eye at the hodgepodge of cheap wares spilling out on the grubby pavement. Europe? Nope, not quite.

Looks idyllic, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, most tourists only bring back pretty pictures of BA, not snapshots of real life on the streets. Me too, admittedly.

Located across the river from Buenos Aires, is the town of Colonia in Uruguay. We had planned to hop over to Uruguay for 3-4 days from here, and headed to the Uruguayan consulate in the BA neighbourhood of Recoleta to get our visa processed. We were keeping our fingers crossed that the process would be quick and easy, given that day trips to Colonia were very popular with many tourists.

We were so wrong. We got off the local bus and walked a few blocks before finally locating the Uruguayan consulate. The queue for the visa counter looked short with only 2-3 applicants in front of us. It took us 1 hour of waiting in the stuffy office to get to the front of the queue. We congratulated ourselves for heading out early that morning, cos by then, the queue behind us had snaked all the way out onto the pavement.

5 minutes later, we were out of the office, without a visa. The consulate could only give us the visa in 10 days, at the earliest. It could take up to 2 weeks. No - we were not going to twiddle thumbs in BA for 14 days, spending precious money to keep ourselves alive, for a 3-day visit to Uruguay. I could have sworn that the consulate website said that application was only a 3-day process, but the counter staff said that that couldn't be possible, adding "maybe for diplomatic visas, 3 days." Right. I don't think the Singapore immigration authorities take 3 days to issue a foreign diplomat a visa, nor 14 days to issue tourist visas. I certainly hope that's not the case.

Visa-less, we headed back to the hostel, giving Eva Peron's famous grave in the Recoleta cemetery a miss. Not that she's not an interesting figure. I just prefer the people we meet on this trip to be alive.

During our stay in BA, we visited Palermo, which was recommended by Lonely Planet to be a very aesthetic and classy part of town, dotted with quaint shops and cafes. We were surprised to find that, just like in the microcenter, while the building facades were beautifully detailed with fancy door frames and iron-grille balconies, the general upkeep of the neighbourhood was poor. There were potholes in the road, and mud-caked pavements with cracked and missing tiles. It was as if all the care and pride went into keeping the privately-owned buildings nice, but no one cared about anything that wasn't part of their property. We weren't impressed - it's like someone having a beautifully made-up face but looking scruffy neck-down. In short, a half-hearted effort.

Typical building facade in upscale Palermo

Drama school, Palermo

While walking around Palermo, we couldn't keep our eyes off the pavement - for piles of dog shit. Poop in every possible consistency between diarrhea and sun-baked was everywhere - even more than in the microcentre. And yet we didn't see a single stray dog running around the uppity neighbourhood.

Then along came a dog-walker. A professional dog-walker. With 5 to 7 dogs tethered to his hand - poodle, retriever, alsatian, husky, etc. Ahhh, so the residents here can afford to own purebreds and pay someone to walk their pets everyday. But since these dog-walkers don't own the mutts, they don't bother picking up after them. That's just nasty.

We came across some beautiful parks in Palermo. I was just thinking how nice it would be to have a picnic on the grass until I spotted a dog-walker lounging under a large tree, with his furry charges looped around nearby trees. The dogs were walking themselves round and round their individual posts, undoubtedly pooping in their own backyard. And guess who picks up after them? No one!

Other than that, we found Palermo totally boring. Yet another dead lead given by yet another over-enthusiastic romanticizing guidebook writer.

I spy with my little eye, someone slacking on the job

Whatever the draw of Buenos Aires is, I think we might have missed it somehow. Or maybe I just don't enjoy being in large cities. A Korean couple whom we traveled with intermittently spent 10 days in BA and loved it. In fact, they went back for more of BA after visiting Iguazu Falls. But then, they enjoyed visiting museums and attending music performances in Bogota, Quito, Lima and Santiago, and are currently in New York for a month. Truly city-lovers. But whatever experiences tourists are looking to find in BA, to term Buenos Aires 'Europe', is stretching expectations a little too far.

Before I left for this trip, my boss asked if I would return to Singapore at the end of my year off from work. She said I would never know where I might end up wanting to stay forever, and quoted Buenos Aires as an example. Well now I can safely report that no, I won't be setting up home in BA!

(Well, not BA, but maybe Bariloche... lakes, chocolate, gelato. Mmmmm.)

Another really valid (according to Dan) for not moving to BA - there is NO Kentucky Fried Chicken in the whole of Argentina. Not a single outlet. The hostel staff laughed when we asked them where the nearest KFC was. There wasn't even fried chicken easily available in BA. To quote the staff, "Finding fried chicken here is like, crazy, man!"


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