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Portenos for a Week November 2002

Portenos for a Week   November 2002

Marcy’s Birthday Surprise to Buenos Aires, Argentina


The beginnings of this story began long before her birthday in the middle of November.  And it would be less than chivalrous to disclose which birthday this was, so I’ll just begin with the moment I was just thinking about different things to do for her birthday.  A message came across the Internet to my desk about great deals in Buenos Aires.  Marcy loves to travel as much as I do and neither of us had ever been to Argentina.  I checked out the value of the dollar against their currency.  Argentina was in the midst of an inflationary period that was disastrous to the Argentineans.  If I toured there with Marcy we’d introduce the more stable dollar into the economy and get some great deals too.  After all, the only thing Marcy likes better than travel is shopping and Buenos Aires is being described as a shopper’s paradise.  Other cities I considered were Lisbon in Portugal, Berlin in Germany, Dublin, Ireland, and Jerusalem.  These are wonderful cities but when I looked closely at what the dollar could get Buenos Aires was clearly the best bargain for us.  When considering weather conditions at the time we’d travel, around the middle of November, Buenos Aires was the easy winner.  The cost of a flight and distance in miles and time were all too close to be important determinants.


Over a month before her actual birth date I began to put the pieces together.  I talked with Marcy’s very close friend Karen, who said she thought Marcy would prefer to be with her friends instead.  I thought about that, but bought the tickets an hour after she and I spoke.  I shopped the Internet to find a great hotel at a good price.  The brutal devaluation of the Argentine Peso meant that many businesses offered prices in US Dollars, not Pesos.  In February of 2002 the Argentine Peso was equivalent to one US dollar.  Black market traders had the peso valued less and the government decided to allow the Argentine Peso to float freely.  Instead of stabilizing as they had hoped, the value sunk further and further until now, the Peso can be easily traded at a rate of 3.54 Peso to one dollar.   There are other countries that have made their currency, which had long history of losing value as a simple part of life. 


At the time I started locking everything in was about two weeks after we spent a weeklong retreat at a Mexican winery just east of Ensenada in Baja California.

I bought two roundtrip tickets for $420 each.  I booked a five star hotel The Claridge for $90 per night.  There are several neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.  This was not in the super deluxe part


At these prices I thought, it isn’t too much more expensive than if I arranged a weekend in San Francisco.  At the time the cheapest flight to San Francisco from Los Angeles or Burbank Airport was $125 each round trip.  Then a five star hotel would cost $190 per night by my Internet search.  So over a five day period that means the cost are almost equal, however the flight to San Francisco would be much less than the seventeen hours we’ll spend in the air.


Now that I had bought the tickets and made the reservations the next part was to keep the secret.  I only told Natalie, a co-worker and close friend, Karen, her close friend, Sue & Steve my brother and sister-in-law, and Ross, her brother.  Even with them, I held back until ten days before we were to fly.   I realized that hearing a secret is not a gift; it is a burden for those that hold them.  Karen, I feared, was the weak link, because she is very close with Marcy.  I needed to tell her because I needed someone to pack clothes for Marcy, so I had to rely the most on her.  Above all else Marcy and Karen have a profound loyalty to each other.   I also called David Wood at the insurance office in which she worked.  Although she is a senior vice president of a national insurance corporation and could leave when she wanted, I thought her boss should know too.  I told him only the briefest of details. 


November 14, 2002 Thursday.  Marcy drove to the office ten miles away leaving the house, as usual at 6 a.m.   At 7:30 a.m. Karen came over and I told her to pack what she thinks should be packed for Marcy.  I had no clue what she needed.   Karen filled a suitcase with whatever she thought Marcy wanted.


At 8 a.m. I left the house and arrived at Marcy’s office a few minutes later.  I went to the third floor and asked the receptionist to give Marcy an envelope containing her passport and two round-trip tickets to Buenos Aires leaving in two and a half hours.  The receptionist was to let her know I am waiting for her in the lobby.


I could hear a lot of commotion going on, and then Marcy showed up looking surprised, amazed, and confused.  Several people who were told of my plan now as it was revealed crowded around Marcy with big smiles and laughter.  We had a couple of hours to get to LAX about thirty minutes away.


We parked and walked into the Tom Bradley International Terminal headed to Lan Chile Airline.  During all of this Marcy talked in superlatives of her surprise and wanted to know the entire story about how I was able to put it all together.

I rented a small luggage cart for two dollars to get our luggage into the terminal and to park in a nearby parking lot costs ten dollars a day.  I left Marcy with the luggage in the terminal while I went to park the car.


I met Marcy and we walked to the Lan Chile check-in line.  Marcy couldn’t resist telling the ticket agent the story of how she arrived here today.  The ticket agent loved the story.  Because of heightened security in place because of a terrorist attack a few months ago that destroyed the Trade Towers in New York City.  I was called to the counter to identify our luggage just as other passengers before me had to do.  While I did that Marcy found the bathroom before we were to board.  The plane took off on schedule then landed in Lima, Peru to have some passengers leave and others board.  We stayed seated.  In a few minutes we were airborne for another hour and this time we had to deplane in Santiago de Chile.  After an hour we caught the connecting flight to Buenos Aires and went through Customs.  The practice of waving some people forward or having people just walk into the middle of a line was common.  And unpleasant for us because we followed what we thought, were the rules.  We were not moving because of the jostling and jockeying.  I grabbed Marcy’s hand and pulled her forward with the luggage.  The wait took over an hour to move past Customs and have our passport stamped.   After passing that point we found our luggage on the carousel and had to exit past another Customs official but this line only cost a tolerable ten minutes.


Now that we were finished with the airport process we walked outside and saw a driver sent by the hotel holding a sign that read Mr. & Mrs. Mike Richards.  Carlos introduced himself to us and picked up both bags.  They were already on a cart so his job was easier.  We stepped outside the building and felt the warm Sun and balmy breeze.  Carlos put the luggage in a Ford Escort and we sat in the new car.  Because it was Marcy’s birthday I had requested a limousine and paid for one.


November 15, 2002   Buenos Aires   When we arrived at the hotel it was 2 p.m.   The traffic in the afternoon hours was already quite animated.  We checked into a pleasant looking hotel and were assigned a pleasant room, not large by any stretch of the imagination, but pleasant and clean.  Because I felt the size was too small for our comfort, I asked for a different room and they complied.  The new room had a clear view of the city from the window.   All television was in Spanish and no CNN.  I walked around the hotel while Marcy changed so we could go out and look around outside the hotel.  There was a restaurant in the hotel that was fairly busy at 2p.m. when many are closed. 


I talked with the English-speaking concierge who said they could arrange a wonderful bus tour that would pick us up in a few minutes if we wanted to go it would cost forty dollars each.  I paid the money.  And, in just a few minutes, a bus with twenty English-speaking tourist already on board, stopped in front of our hotel and beckoned us to board.   We sat towards the rear of an old bus on a lumpy seat that straddled one of the rear wheels.  We could feel almost every bump.  The poor air-conditioning added to our displeasure.  But, to the driver’s credit, we never were actually tossed out of our seat when the tires met a bump or pocket in the roadway.   We anxiously awaited the next stop so we could stand up, get off the bus, and look around at the distinctly different neighborhoods.


We drove by many important sites throughout the city.  It would have been useful to have a travel guide with us because the noise over the antiquated speaker system in the bus crackled and the tones mixed with city noises from the street.


Throughout the world tour groups are generally directed into shops and toward services that have ‘arrangements’ with the tour guide or his company.   This tour was no different.  Tee shirts had the word “Argentina” written on it in indelible pen.  There were small trinkets imported from Korea or China being sold as memoirs.  Everything from plastic combs to wooden bowls was hawked to the tourists.  Some vendors would follow our bus and be out in front ready to sell their wares.  When we were on our own we would find some authentic items, but it was difficult to escape the ‘protective’ control of our bus guide, even for a few moments.


The tour finished after four hours.  We had a good idea of where we wanted to stay and focus our time.  After all, this was a gift to Marcy and she loves to shop so right here in the Microcentro which has Calle Florida a great street for shopping.  It isn’t as fancy as the Recoleto district but Marcy likes to shop at Nordstrom-style shops. 


After we walked around the hotel a bit we chose the hotel restaurant to have a small meal.  Argentina is a great city for beefeaters so we both ordered steak.  That is what this city restaurant food consistently scores its highest marks.  Accompanying the steak was papas frittes (French fries), and a very small green salad.  We bought a bottle of Argentine wine, a Malbec.  Malbec is very popular throughout Argentina and it is a black, mellow grape variety originally grown in the Loire Valley in France.


For dessert we were served a thick whipped cream loaded with fresh berries and covered with a brittle layer of caramelized sugar.  The food and meals are a particularly great bargain in Buenos Aires.


It was nighttime so we walked back to the hotel just a short distance away.  Marcy checked her medicines and realized that she was missing some medication she needed.  She called her doctor back in Los Angeles but she couldn’t reach him.  The pharmacies here close soon so it was important that I act quickly.  I had Marcy write down clearly what she needed on a piece of paper, I put a twenty-dollar bill with it and handed it to the pharmacist.  He nodded, disappeared in back then came out with a small brown bottle that he handed to me.  Marcy gave a sigh of relief to have the medicine in her hand.



November 16, 2002   


I opened my eyes at 5 a.m. local time, that’s like 1 a.m. back in Los Angeles.  The Sun is already bright and warm.  It crept into our room around the opaque drapes and lit the floor and cast stripes on the walls.  Marcy is still sound asleep.  She’ll need her energy today because this is our shopping day.  Today is her birthday.  Hanging on the door was the morning newspaper.  Sadly, I couldn’t read it because it was in Spanish.  I could make out some details but not many.


When Marcy was ready we ate a light breakfast then walked a block to Calle Florida to be there when the shops begin to open.  Since today is Saturday most stores will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.  She remarked that she likes these shops better than the fancy ones in Recoleta because those shops have stores in Beverly Hills and she could see them any time.  These hundred or so shops, along Calle Florida, are Buenos Aires specialties.  Items she bought were several cashmere sweaters, expensive children’s’ clothing, and special leather products like carpincho made from the large rodent only found around this region.  We bought four leather jackets for $600.


Marcy filled two large shopping bags and was just starting up.  I took the two bags back to the hotel while she continued to shop.  So far I bought a carpincho jacket too, but nothing else.  I did want to buy a poncho, a bolo like the gauchos use to bring down cattle.  They have used the bolo for over two hundred years.  There are articles created by fine silver craftsmen like a special cup and spoon for tea, or knives.  I was interested in going to San Telmo district where street vendors set up cardtables and put their wares on it, some genuine antiques can be found mixed in with the useless and valueless articles.


I had a few moments to relax at the hotel before heading back to meet Marcy.  I stopped at an Internet café where the going rate for DSL service was a Peso for thirty minutes of use, so that translates to about sixty cents for an hour on the computer. 


We went back to the hotel to rest up.  Hours later, we dressed for dinner and caught a cab.  The custom here is to eat late at night, usually around 10 p.m.  We were seated quickly next to a young couple with a small two-year-old girl and her older sister.  The girl was obviously sick with a wet cough spewing sputum in all directions from mouth and nose.  She was uncomfortable and began to sob quietly at first, but that got no attention from either of the parents.   The volume was ratcheting up gradually by the little girl.  After twenty minutes the situation was intolerable for us and we asked to move away from them.  The girl’s sister watched her sibling with intense interest while sucking her thumb.  Even at a distance and imbibing three glasses of red Malbec was not enough to drown out the child’s cries.  I enjoyed a delicious steak, two inches thick and very large in circumference served with the ubiquitous fries. They would spice it up with a dose of paprika to spice the potatoes.


Buenos Aires was more like part of Spain than of South America.  There were few people who ‘looked Hispanic.’ I was told that those who do look Hispanic generally hold lower prestigious jobs than those than look ‘European.’  Down the social chain, I was told, are the Indians who hold the lowest jobs like garbage collector, street sweeper, or beggars.  The character of Buenos Aries reminded me, in a pleasant way, of Chicago.  


In the southern hemisphere weather seasons are the opposite of those in the northern hemisphere.  November is a great month because warm temperatures are usually expected.  Today, the temperature is up into the 80s.  The humidity has been quite high too, especially when we visited the Recoleta.


November 17, 2002        We enjoyed a light breakfast in the hotel. Today we hope to visit the famous street market of San Telmo after we go through the Recoleto.  In San Telmo we expect to see tango demonstrations in several of the restaurants and bars.   The hotel called a taxi for us that pulled up in five minutes.  They warned us to not use any taxi service, just this one because some of them will cheat tourists.  I disregarded their words of caution because I expect they just wanted us to use the services of a certain company.  Once in the cab the driver cruised past several demonstrations.  The people were not happy.  The angry demonstrators were protesting the free-fall of the Peso, causing thousands of them to lose the ability to survive economically. Some of the demonstrators have been calling for the Communist Party to come in and take over the government.


The cab driver stopped at the edge of a broad walkway leading into the Recoleta Cemetery where Eve Peron is buried.  There were many famous Argentineans buried here and the statuary is impressive. She was a prostitute who married the Presidente and became popular with the people.  She was the second wife of Juan Peron.   He married her after he left his wife for her then, on her deathbed promised that she’d be buried in that cemetery because the wealthy had rejected her in life.  Several of the monuments were two stories tall.  People spared little expense to memorialize the departed.  There was no grass or open areas, only narrow “streets” that criss-crossed like a well-planned necropolis.


After exiting the cemetery the street was lined with vendors who used a wooden box to hold their crafts.  They had items for sale like earrings, amulets, and charms.  There were fortune-tellers, palm-readers, antique sellers and faux antique sellers.  Each of these merchants elbowed their way to a section of curbside space and struggled to defend each millimeter of space.  Police diligently patrolled this area because disputes would often break out with the winner being some other fellow just waiting for the police to force combatants both to vacate this space. 


We continued our walk through the Recoleta.  Fancy stores were closed because today is Sunday.  We felt like a walk and just window-shop.  Unlike other areas of town we didn’t find the sideway endangered with loose tiles or dog poo.  As soon as I waived my finger in the air a cab pulled up for us.  As long as it looked like a regular cab with a name and phone number painted on the side I felt that was good enough to consider it legitimate.  He drove us to the Design Center where there would be fashionable goods to buy. 


Although I read that there was a large Jewish community in Buenos Aires we saw no Jewish communities other than one synagogue as we drove along the freeway.  We did follow one man who was wearing a yarmulke into the Design Center.  Here we did find modern and high fashion home furnishings.  I liked a lamp that I saw.  Despite the fact that the lamp stood four feet tall and was wired for 220 volts, I bought it.  There wasn’t a way to disassemble the lamp for shipping but the clean style and the oiled skin used for the shade begged me to complete the purchase.  I examined the lamp again to see how I could either ship it or bring it back on the flight.  I called the airline and was told that I’d have to pay a special charge of $120 to bring that home.  I called DHL a delivery service that ships around the world.  They wanted $180 US.  I’ll have to solve this problem later.


We walked out to have lunch at Cabana Las Lilas, a very popular restaurant.  It wasn’t fancy, but enjoyable just the same.  Marcy had spaghetti bolognaise; it was unremarkable.  I had four small beef empanadas and I finished whatever Marcy left on her plate.  For dessert we had Dolce de Leche that is a popular flavor like a caramelized syrup ribbons through a soft vanilla ice cream, and served in a wide glass dish.


Marcy decided that there were so many wonderful things here she had to buy something.  Ultimately she settled on a box of candles.  Candles.  “Marcy,” I said, “Why do you need to buy heavy candles here?”  “Because these candles can’t be found in America.  These are really unique!”   And she bought twenty pounds of candles that had colorful leaves in the wax.  DHL wanted $70 to ship the candles.

We could pack the candles, but the lamp was too big.


We brought our items back to the hotel and tried to cool down.  It was 85 F and high humidity at 7 p.m.  Marcy loved those candles. 


The streets were filled with strolling people.  Remember, this is mid-week at 10:30 p.m.  I know that this may not sound so unusual but for me, living in Los Angeles, to my eyes it was.


We needed to pack for our journey home tomorrow and the flight of over forty-three hundred miles home.  We were hungry after a busy day with much walking.  We decided to eat early at Cabana Las Lillas.  It was a pleasant leisurely dinner with a bottle of Malbec to accompany the steaks.



November 18, 2002     


We woke late.  Although the Sun shows itself early at this latitude, the heavy curtains struggle to hold back the light.  The stores were expected to open at 9 a.m. today and Marcy prayed for ninety minutes of heavy-duty shopping time.  She woke and dressed as quickly as a fireman.  She knew this opportunity wouldn’t be repeated soon so she had to act expeditiously She had an hour of shopping time to use and she enjoyed every minute of it.


The taxi driver loaded our luggage and we gently twisted the floor lamp to fit, crossways into the cab of the car.  All of the other purchases, including the candles fit nicely into our luggage that intentional was larger than what we needed to come here.


At the airport I was prepared to cut the lamp in half then get a new rod when we are in Los Angeles.  The stewardess said that the lamp can go simply as luggage at no additional charge, if I would carry the lampshade as though it were a hat.  That done we had just to wait a number of hours till we were home after a three hour stop-over in Santiago de Chile. 


Reflections of Buenos Aires


The Argentineans, especially the Portenos as people of Buenos Aires call themselves, are a hospitable people.  Life is much like it would be in Western Europe except for the declining Peso.  The people are fashion conscious and they are race conscious.  Don’t expect to lose weight while you are here.

They have wonderful food, delicious wines beyond Malbec, and a colorful history.  I think almost anyone from North America would certainly feel at home here.  Anti-American sentiment is on the rise and is a factor someone should consider before independent travel to BA.