I took a short day-trip out of the ritzy confines of Buenos Aires and headed to the barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos. (This is the area of Buenos Aires that all of the fresh beef comes from, so you can get the picture of the surrounding authentic atmosphere.) Every Sunday they have a gaucho festival, appropriately named “Feria de Mataderos”. It consists of a lot of street stalls with people selling silver, leather, or knitted apparel. However, the real draw is the gaucho dancing. Some of it is organized on the stage; however the really interesting part was the random people dancing in the street. It reminds me of line-dancing somewhat in that there are organized dances for each song, and if the couples know the dance they join in and dance, but if it’s a song they don’t know, they step off to the side and resume on the next song. Some of the old people were quite enthusiastic!
I “got out of the rush of the city” and headed out to Tigre, a small community on the edge of the Parana Delta. Not much going on there… The big adventure is a boat ride out into the delta. For some reason I was picturing the quaint Tahiti-esque stilted houses. Well, there are houses that are only accessible by boat; rather than having a driveway, you have a small dock outside of your house. But unfortunately most of the houses are ill-kept and in despite need of at least a paint job. By far the coolest thing I saw in the town was a boat named “Jack Bauer”, unfortunately I couldn’t get my camera out quickly enough to get a picture of my tv hero’s name plastered on the side of a boat.
The list of the normal touristy things to do in Buenos Aires include the obvious choices of Recoleta Cemetery (where Evita Peron is buried with the elaborate above ground mausoleums), the Evita Museum, a visit inside Casa Rosada (the Argentine version of the White House – and no it’s not pink because the president is a female), the Sunday San Telmo Market (a street market basically selling a bunch of crap with a few tango dancers performing for good measure), and my personal favorite, El Ateno (a theater converted to a bookstore where you can read in the private boxes!). Well, I did all of those, but as expected they weren’t all that interesting to me.
Much more interesting to me, and apparently to a lot of Argentines as well are politics and history. I went on three different organized tours of BA and all had a heavy dose of both subjects. Additionally, a random employee in the hostel I stayed at for the first few days kept apologizing for talking too much about his country’s history, but to my delight, he continued to discuss it anyway. But don’t worry, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version of the more interesting tidbits.
In the early 1900’s Argentina was a bustling economy because of the thriving cattle industry. The beef was being exported to Europe via trans-Atlantic ships. The ships had to be weighted down on their journey back to Buenos Aires, so they were filled with both immigrants and European building materials being imported to South America. This resulted in a huge influx of mostly Italians, which explains the delicious pizza, pasta, and of course gelato that can be found all over the city. This also clarifies why many of the buildings in Buenos Aires are very European looking.
In 1929, Argentina had the world’s fourth highest per capita GDP, but this ended with the onset of the Great Depression. Well, then came the Peron era, including the famous Evita (the same person represented in the musical of the same name starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas) . For many reasons the economy began to falter under the increased government spending, resulting in ruinous inflation and the peso losing about 70% of its value during his tenor. And then the once great city came under power of a military dictatorship in 1976. During this period known as the “Dirty War”, some 30,000 dissidents were “disappeared” (murdered and never seen again). Finally, with a failed military attempt to regain control of the Falkland Islands, the military power ended and a semi-democratic government took control in 1983.
Because of this very recent history of dictatorship, voting in Argentine elections is now mandatory. There is a supposed fine if you don’t. This results in an astonishingly high rate of 84% participation (for comparison’s sake, a mere 57% of the US voted in the 2008 presidential election). This helps to explain the huge numbers of protests against nearly all of the government policies (well, that and Kirchner- known as Queen Christina to some – is starting down a very dangerous path with many policies, in my opinion and probably a lot of Argentines as well). They want their voices or their pots and pans (see other BA post for explanation) to be heard.