Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Argentina - The Business Class of Hiking

Living in Alaska marks the time in my life in which I first learned to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. That being said, I'll be frank in acknowledging that there are components of hiking that I've come to dread; hauling gear and lots of extra clothing, and lots of water. For overnights, add to that tents, camping stoves, and sleeping bags. Number one dread: camping "food". Just the thought of it makes my stomach depressed. In my world, a best-case-scenario meal in the outdoors is usually comprised of a couple hard-boiled eggs, beef jerky or summer sausage, some pieces of cheese, and a couple of bottles of water. Consider the fact that this is fine dining compared to the nasty, dry, hardened putty-like Cliff bars and the five yogurt-covered pretzels typically consumed by my climbing partner Julie.

And then I went hiking in Argentina. It is a style hiking that previously lived only in my imagination. When Alaskans plan trips to Argentina, words like "Acongagua," "crevasses," "acclimation," and "Patagonia" usually enter the conversation, and involve the fitness level of a horse. I, on the other hand, true to my handle, plan the small-time attack. On this trip I am slated to meet up with my friends, Larah and Rocco, a married couple living in the NYC area, whom I had met when they lived in Alaska a few years earlier. Our objective is fairly undaunting: a pleasant hike with pretty views in the Andes. Upon repeated inquiry, we are reassured by numerous Argentinians that at the end of a four hour hike out of a town called El Bolson, there is a hostel with food and sleeping bags. I had heard rumors of these mythical log houses tucked in the Argentinian mountains, that fed you and kept you warm. Not knowing what to expect, all I could do is look forward to not hauling gear knowing that my iron stomach could take any quasi-edible gruel flung at me after a long day's hike, as has been the case so many times before in Alaska.

The three of us arrive in El Bolson, and from there, we take a taxi and are pretty much left for dead in the nearby town of Wharton, consisting of little more than a kiosk, a sign with the name of the town on it, and a taxi stand. It appears to be the central hub for neighboring farms. It also serves as something of an unmarked trailhead to our destination, El Cajon de Azul, the hostel tucked above and next to Rio Azul. We begin our trek, packs on our back light as feathers, some snacks and water to hold us over.

We walk through brush for at least an hour before we begin our descent into the river valley. After about an hour and a half, we reach Rio Azul, aquamarine and crystal clear like the Caribbean. And next to the river, I see what I never could have dreamed of: perched next to a log house was a chalkboard with the words "tiramisu" and other other tasty treats written on it.

Convinced it is a mirage, we venture on, only to be rudely awakened from dreamlike thoughts of delicate pastries at the sight of what looks like remnants of a bridge. A brief survey of the area tells me that there is no way around having to cross two sketchy bridges resembling something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Aged wooden planks, unevenly spaced, tenuously straddling rusty wire cables. We cross the bridges as they creek under our feet.
We make it across and then hike upwards.

And then hike downwards.

And then hike upwards.

We cross some beautiful shady forests, and along the banks of Rio Azul. I feel like a smurf on one of their journeys to some nether region filled with butterflies and streams. Then, low and behold, we reach the beach: "Las Playitas."

Las Playitas is comprised of a 10x10 ft basic log and stone cabin, equipped with a primitive brick bread oven and seventeen-year old microbrewer. Sitting on the bank of the river, he sells homemade bread, beer brewed with the river water, and also rents out tent space. Rocco and I decide to do what we do best, and enjoy an afternoon lager. Sitting on that warm bank along
the water, I conclude that this Argentino kid has already figured out the answer to life.

We trek on, passing by another hostel about an hour later. But determined to reach our destination at a reasonable hour, we trek on.

And on.

And on.

Soaking in the light sparkling from the crystaline water, I am relishing the phenomenon of hiking in a t-shirt in February, sans risk of hypothermia. In certain spots, I notice schools of fish, and not a single angler around.

After five hours of hiking, beer guzzling, and picture-taking, we reach El Cajon de Azul, sprawling through a sizeable chunk of land, surrounded and partitioned by a corral gate. There are sheep, and cats, and men on horses wearing spurs and berets, and old wool vests. There is a vegetable garden, and a massive meadow area reserved for tents. The log house is rustic and charming, tiled with slices of a wood log.

The proprietor is named Atilio. He is an elderly man in his sixties and hails from Buenos Aires, of Hungarian ancestry. The staff is comprised of his family and friends. There are babies, and women preparing food. We enter the log house and are greeted with a smile and an immediate offer of mate, a traditional Argentine tea. They assure us that there is room for us to sleep and sleeping bags for us to rent. They offer us slices of homemade pizza made in an antique wood-burning stove that also serves as as the furnace. They tell us that dinner will not be served until 9 and inform us that there are vegetarian options. They show us the running water and showers that Atilio has rigged up from Rio Azul water. I am amazed.

I remember the article I read about this place, and how Atilio has never refused a boarder, at one time housing over 200 campers on his property. At those times, he decreases his already modest prices, under the premise that the experience of the mountains is decreased with so many people. He has in the past refused to sell the El Cajon de Azul t-shirt to his tourists explaining that he does not like to "engage in that kind of commerce." (Source:

We sip mate and find a room for the three of us. I take a nap on one of the foam mattresses laying on the floor; Larah and Rocco wander. I get up an hour later, meet the various ranch critters with Larah, and the three of us read our books, sipping house wine and nibbling on cheese. We saunter into the log house as the sun sinks deeper into the horizon. Five other campers trickle in and out, mostly Argentinian. After playing a board game, dinner is served.

On our plates are generous helpings of lentils with Argentinian-style chorizo sausage slow-cooked with sauteed tomatoes and onions. The salad is huge, comprised of two types of organic lettuce grown on-site. The glasses of wine are bottomless.

Ending our night with wooden cups of mate, we stroll outside only to be stunned by the sparkling night sky. Shooting stars, the dippers, perfectly visible on a black slate without a single trace of light pollution.

We head out the next morning. After food, accommodations, sleeping bag, and Argentine wine, we each shell out about thirty-five dollars.

We want to continue on to the next hut and the next one. All told, there are about 11 huts in the area providing a similar level of provisions. But our itineraries compel us to head back. On our return, we reach the tiramisu bar by the river and knowing now that such dreams are real in this mystical place, we stop for a grilled Argentine sausage with chimichurri sauce, followed by a slice of tiramisu.
Beautiful mountains, rivers, fine dining and accommodations, I realize then that hiking in Alaska will never be the same again. As much as I love the Chugach mountains in the great state of Alaska, there is something to be said about business class hiking. Beer, wine, grilled sausages and tiramisu, washed down with piping hot cups of mate...why hike any other way?

Tango Buffet

Sure, we've all seen the cliche of it before in the movies, woman with a rose in her mouth, man in a suit, both entwined in one another's arms, exaggerated expressions of passion on their faces. But buzzing around in Buenos Aires gave me the chance to peek into the expansive and amorphous after-hours sub-culture called tango. With many meanings to many people, the single word tango in actuality describes a multitude of styles of song and dance. And, Buenos Aires, with all its nooks and crannies, offers the small time explorer plenty of opportunity to play tango voyeur.

My tango curiosity started with Cafe Tortoni, a low-cost viewing option in an up-scale cafe with lots of history, in the theatre district of Buenos Aires. Despite being tourist-driven, Tortoni satisfies the first layer of my curiosity. Reminiscient of another era, its baroque interiors once served as a home to many of Argentina's writers and intellectuals. Now it's all tourists, but it still feels like a piece of the past delivered on a silver platter.

Tortoni sits on the 42nd St. of Buenos Aires, amidst the city's grand theaters on a wide boulevard with traffic whizzing by. Its front room is huge and its eminence is magnified by gold leaf, mirrors, chandeliers and velvet chairs. Walls are bedecked with portraits and sketches of and by the famous artists who were once denizens of the place. The staff is dressed formally in black and white garb.

Tango seekers are led to a small back room, Parisian in feel. The stage is modest, about 25 feet wide, as is the room, and there are about 10 small cafe tables. A baby grand sits on stage. And the show--utterly entertaining, complete with live band comprised of piano, accordion, and stand-up bass and violin. The encee, equipped with pipes of an opera singer, narrates the different vignettes with dialogue and song. The performers, a couple, move in sync, a tightly choreographed duo, lively and attractive, dancing to the pulsing of the acoustic music with its Italian undertones. It is a touch on the cliched side, but I am entertained.

After this tango appetizer, I want more. Roberta, a Buenos Aires local and my acquaintance recommends I skip the even more touristy tango dinner show and instead, we head straight for the source--the Milonga.

Chinatown Milonga

Roberta takes me and two of my American friends to our first milonga, located in a plaza abutting Buenos Aires' Chinatown. Milongas are basically informal gatherings of tango junkies who congregate for one purpose and one purpose only: tango. There are occasionally lessons, but typically the scene is strictly for diehards and the moves are old-school. At the Chinatown milonga (my informal dubbing) there are approximately 50 people, all locals, who congregate at 8:00pm on weeknights to dance. They set themselves up on a large, elevated gazebo. Someone has thrown a cloth down for the ladies' handbags, and another has brought a boom box blaring scratchy old tango music from a time far past.

The crowd's demographic hails from all walks of life. A svelte young dancer in soft-soled dance shoes struts her stuff with an octegenarian whose age has little apparent affect on his dexterity and skill. A respectable middle-aged woman in stiletto heels and her stately husband move effotlesslly in sync. A swarthy latin neophyte eagerly completes each pass and turn with numerous women.

Similar to a cajun waltz, this group of strangers move as individual couples, each with their own levels of complexity in their moves, but in a circular path, within the confines of the gazebo. Each couple resembles a planet moving around the sun.

They dance until 11pm. Some return home to bed. Others stop home merely to change wardrobe in preparation for the next event.

Konex Milonga

Roberta has given us another gem of local knowledge: the Konex milonga. This milonga is hosted at the Konex Centro Culturale, which appears to be a former factory or industrial space. Similar to PS1 in New York City, it was at some point taken and converted into an art space. In Konex's case, little was done in terms of major renovations, other than clearing the space of all machinery.

But the transformation to an improvised ballroom is seamless. Cement columns are bedecked with facades giving them the appearance of decadence. Red curtains mark the stage area. An extensive network of lights create the mood of a grand social hall. Concrete floors serve perfectly as a dance floor. On one of the walls, movies are projected.

And then, out comes the band. Dressed in black button-up shirts, seven men well into their seventies come on stage, fashionably late at 2:30am. Four accordians, an upright bass, a piano, a violin, come together to produce high energy tango songs. They look like the Buena Vista Social Club.

The dancers are nothing less than fantastic. Dressed to the nines, these people treated this Wednesday as if it were Saturday night at the Ritz. Women in dresses and stilettos; men in button up shirts and ties.

And not a sole save myself was ignorant of the intricate moves, the aesthetic etiquette of tango.

Like many arts of tradition, the story of modern tango, as I later learn, is the story of revival. Brought in some primeval form to Buenos Aires by Italian immigrants in the late 1800's, cultural blending created a whole new Argentine tradition. At that time, tango was the habit of ne'er-do-wells such as itinerant sailors, prostitutes, and the like. As Italian customs found their various niches in Argentine culture, tango found a home in South American.

Like many of its geographic neighbors, Argentina has changed hand between numerous political idealogues. By the 1930's, the Great Depression and the fall of Argentine leader Hipolito Yrigoyen marked one of the first periods of decline for tango. Later it was revived as part of a nationalist campaign of the Peron regime, but again fell into obscurity with the Peron overthrow and following dictatorships, some of which considered it a threat to law and order as a relic of a degenerate past. In the wake of oppression was rock n' roll, further distracting many Argentines from their own rich past. Tango was banned and abandoned, by some estimates, for at least two to three generations. It now enjoys a second renaissance which began about 10 years ago, and in 2009 was declared a part of the "world's intangible heritage" by UNESCO.

And here, before me in 2010 at the Milonga Garufa, in this former factory, on the concrete floors, is a snapshot of tango's past and present. I listen to the power chops of four accordians and a violin, the splendor of a piano and the reverbrations of an upright bass, emanating from a stage populated by septegenarians who likely were young men when they first learned these tunes. And I see dancers, of all generations, moving in tandem to the beat of this once-abandoned drum.

From the market-oriented tango shows, to the casual neighborhood milonga, to the diehard milongas with first-rate musicians, Buenos Aires is a vast buffet for the tango voyeur such as myself. Here I must confess that I more of a musician and less of a dancer, yet still, I am a glutton in this feast of the senses, enjoying the strange rhythms and syncopations, appreciating the art of the physical moves, like watching a painting with its subjects coming to life. In a country like Argentina, which has suffered repeatedly in the past 100 years at the hands of despots, I am stunned by how vivid the culture is. The state of modern day tango serves as proof that traditions of art and music can prevail, despite a history of political idealogues and repression. Tango is a lesson in the power of art and community.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

For the Love of A Game


On my second day in Argentina, I meet up with my two friends Rocco and Larah, a married couple living in NYC traveling in Argentina at the same time I am. Despite not being a soccer fan, Larah and I accept Rocco's proposal to check out a match of one of the club teams of Buenos Aires. There are two major teams in the city, Boca Junior, former team of superstars Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, located in one of the poorer Italian neighborhoods. The second is Boca's upper class arch rivals who call themselves River Plate. There are no Boca games that week, so we opt for a lower key experience at the River Plate stadium. Little do we know to what we are committing.

In order to assuage Rocco from his concerns that the game would sell out, we go to the stadium at noon to pick up tickets for 8pm. We wander around the stadium and are directed by security to a lone vendor window flanked by security guards. In our broken Spanish, we ask for three tickets. His face contorts into a look of concern. "Look, are you here to see River Plate, or the visiting team from Rosales?" We confirm that tonight we are River Plate fans. "Then you need to go to the vendors on the other side of this stadium and buy tickets over there. Hurry!" He looks around furtively to see if anyone has seen us, and waves us towards the other side of the stadium.

We do as directed, finding 8-9 vendors at windows, chatting and chanting a song they will likely be singing tonight. There no guards near them. We purchase our tickets without incident and continue touristing it up before the game.

At 7pm, we return to the stadium, along with a massive pack of males of all ages. They are decked out in red and white soccer jerseys. In front of the entrance to the stadium, there are 15 swat team guards fully clad in riot gear. We pass through three gauntlets of security. Our bags are searched and we are frisked three times. No bottles, no alcohol, nothing that could be construed as a weapon if thrown.

Inside, on this ordinary Wednesday game day, the stadium is packed with red and white, at least 20,000 River Plate loyalists.

Way across the other side of the stadium, we see an isolated pack of a few thousand, quarantined in one small box, a buffer region of empty seats surrounding them. They are flanked with plexiglass barriers and security guards.

The stadium is constructed of old, cracked, concrete steps and wooden bleachers bolted to the cement. The exterior of the field is surrounded with more security and German Shephard dogs. Fans are separated from their players by a chain link and barbed wire fence. The bleachers are vibrating under the bouncing River Plate butts drumming and bouncing to the game chant they all know by heart.

I peer over at the vendors holding trays with small foam cups. They sell Coke, Sprite, beer! Rocco educates me that for crowd control purposes, at most soccer games in Latin America, South America, and Europe, alcohol cannot be sold and none can be brought in. Nothing is sold in bottles. These people, these bouncing, chanting, t-shirt waving people, they are sober.

I am impressed by the degree to which their fanfare perseveres through the sobriety. Unadulterated. The stadium is littered with gigantic, homemade signs bearing the names and numbers of the players, gerry-rigged with long lengths of webbing. There is homemade confetti being flung for about every possible play. And the fans are on their own: there are no professional cheer leaders, no brass band, no half-time show whatsoever, let alone one with Janet Jackson showing her nipple. They don't need Janet to get them going. Their eyes are glued intently on the game and the word "puta" is thrown around liberally during close plays. And these fans are not fair-weathered. They cheer when one of their dear players misses a goal. They cheer when one gets fouled. They cheer when the score is 0-0.

Rocco explains to us that unlike the Europeans players, the River Plate boys are quick, nimble, shorter passes, more plays. For the first time in his life, Rocco ignores Larah and has devoted his heart for this short period of time to the adult men running around on the grass. And true to soccer, the game ends with a score of 0-0.

We exit the seating area but are barricaded within the stadium exterior walls for at least 40 minutes. Only later do we realize we were corralled so that the visiting team fans could exit the stadium safely, again flanked by security. Like high profile figures in the FBI witness protection program, they are given separate transporation and are relocated to other parts of the city, security on either side of them, their true identities as Rosales fans unknown upon their dispersal throughout town.

Later in the week, Larah and I agree to humor Rocco and pay homage to the Boca Junior stadium. We take a cab to the smaller and poorer neighborhood of La Boca, the traditional ghetto of some of Buenos Aires' first Italian immigrants. We are on the water, near the dock and the ships. We get out, stroll around, have a bite to eat at one of the home-made pasta restaurants. We ask a cab driver for walking directions to the "Chocolate Box" (La Bombonera), as the stadium is so lovingly called. "Walk two blocks ahead, make a left, and there you will see the most beautiful stadium in the world," he explains, without a hint of irony in his voice.

Following his directions, we find a short, squat, blue and yellow thing. I once heard that the the team colors are blue and yellow because those were the only colors left on the boat from which the first members stole the stadium paint. Despite the international fame of its team, the Boca stadium is a fraction of the River Plate one, and not even a complete circle in shape. But the stadium is far better cared for than River Plate's. Even though it is concrete, it is almost shiny. Seats begin at grass level and there is crystal-clear plexi-glass separating players from fans. Inside and outside the stadium, Boca groupies are loitering, mouths agape, staring in awe at their surroundings. The air is reverent, austere. Little boys in flip flops are playing soccer outside on the sidewalk wearing their Maradona jerseys. There are footprints and handprints of the players on cement slabs outside. Bronze statues of Maradona are placed throughout. Boca Junior is more ghetto but clearly more loved.

I used to believe that a nation's cultural heritage is reflected mostly in the food and music. After the game and our pilgrimage to La Bombonera, I am obliged to add soccer to that list. Like movies during the Great Depression, soccer provides millions with respite from a hard day's work. The fan base is age-less, crossing class divide, and the hope, even for a losing team, is eternal. The superstars, many of whom were plucked from thatched shanties in the countryside, are as big as the Beatles and their stories comprise the fodder for dreams of so many little boys all over the Americas, rich and poor. And poor. A French historian of once said, "Culture is the sum of all forms of art, love, and of thought, which, in the course of centuries, have enabled man to be less enslaved." Goal.