South America 2012-2013: Córdoba, Argentina

My friend José is waiting for me at the bus terminal, the perfect welcome, especially since he and his wife are the biggest reasons for me to pass through Córdoba again. This was always meant to be a stop en route to reuniting with more friends to the north in Salta. In minutes we are trying to stuff my monster backpack into the backseat as I'm reminded that many car trunks are given over to natural gas tanks in the most of the country's cities. With nafta at roughly 7 pesos/liter and natural gas as 2 pesos/liter, the math is easy for the 1000 peso engine conversion to be acceptable. A flick of a switch puts the car back into gas mode at any time.

It's only some dozens blocks from the terminal to the apartment of J and M, my abode-to-be for a Friday and Sunday night each. The idea is to head to the nearby Sierras for the weekend, purportedly to watch/assist a cousin who is doing a swimming competition. Then we'll spend Saturday night at a cabaña of J's father. Sounds like a plan to me, and the interim of driving about town to a few of J&M's work sites (as architects) while catching a pizza, then later drinks in a cluster of patio bars in downtown Córdoba, sounds even better.

In the morning we begin our driving odyssey of two days, first to one place to get a kayak, then to the lake for the race (a clusterfart of 900! swimmers), then back to dump the kayak, then to the cabin, then to the..., etc. All this is done at breakneck speed as befits Argentine custom, where all opportunities to pass on the road are taken avail of - be there a no-passing section or no. I'm not sure if I'm lucky or not, but my having a suddenly-ill stomach helps take my mind off of the hair-raising driving. Such is how such things go. I waste no time in blaming the local water as the likely culprit: I'm no longer in the high Andes, I know. Looks like I'm back to bottled water or, better yet, reusing my CamelBak bladder with a succession of purifiying tablets to obviate the waste of plastic.

Race aside, what comes next is a pleasant mix of the best in Argentine customs: we drink yerba mate and more mate courtesy of cousin Alex's girlfriend Pamela, then all focus is on the night's asado, as always. Then there's Fernet, too, this being Córdoba and all. Yes, although the "medicinal" Fernet-cola (only Coca-Cola is acceptable) combination and ensuing swilling phenomenon has passed to all of Argentina, much like pastisse imbibing is now found partout in France, this area's the acknowledged start and heart of the passion for this originally Italian drink. Once again I'm reminded that it HAS to be Fernet Branca, too. Unspeakable horrors must be assumed if putting anything else in one's gullet.

But the mental space is really only about the asado. To this religious experience I offer my twist, as in Bariloche, of making some fruit-veggie skewers. Again I'm taken up on the offer, too, if a bit less dubiously here as had been the case in the final Bariloche asado. To that end I've soon got a crew of four lovely rafaelinas (turns out that almost all of this group is originally from the town of Rafaela to the east) stabbing away at the mountain of chopped fruit and veggies that I assiduously cut into appropriate squares and cubes.

But that's merely a curiosity, one to be fortunately (and ultimately) approved of in a matter of hours. The real deal is the meat, and a conversation about meat cuts, cooking meat, where to get meat, and so on lasts for hours. This is not uncommon in Argentina. ("Carne" (meat) is actually *assumed* to mean beef in Argentina.) I add my two cents where appropriate, however, when asked about American barbeque. I give the well-deserved poor word for the general state of things (hotdogs and hamburgers quickly made over charcoal, p-please!) in the U.S., but I also quite rightly give a massive thumbs-up to proper southern, smoked 'Q. All ears have perked up to the marvels of smoking and sauces.

Such is the endlessly debatable (apparently!) subject for a goodly potion of our evening, taken seriously at hand as we continue to pass around the jug of Fernet-cola in about the same manner as the cup of mate earlier in the day. I have no idea who's doing the mixes, or even when (it keeps magically appearing!), but it's a fact that it's never a weak concoction in the constant re-loadings as the hours go by. The girls keep up with the boys, too, I can't help noting. In any event, it's some time after the folklorica music and singing that I begin to lose consciousness, more a victim of a missed siesta than the accumulation of this potent brew. It has COCA-COLA (I repeat, never Pepsi!) in it, after all!

So blows by a weekend in the Sierras, Cordoba's getaway. We hit the complex's pool and the adjacent river, at one point also later walk through the nearby touristy "German" town of Villa Belgrano. Although less German-looking than my current hometown of Leavenworth (Washington), it is nevertheless larger and actually has real German roots. These stem from a group of survivors from the battleship Graf Spee, who the Argentine government perhaps wisely forced far in-country and away from prying eyes. The town name came after objections from the local populace to a more German moniker chosen by the remnant crew. Yes, some Nazis came here as well after the war, and so too did the Nazi-hunters, but basically all one hears these days is Spanish. Moreover, the storefronts are mostly filled with the most Argentine of tourist souvenirs beyond the odd chocolate shoppe and trappings of German beer. You can have your Cordobes alfajor, wurst, milanesa and schnitzel, then swish it all down with a mate followed by a Paulaner. Why not?

We also do the most of Sierra things in heading to one of the rivers, I forget the name of which one it is. (I'm told that the main ones just go by numbers to the locals, El Primero, El Segundo, El Tercero, etc.) What they all share on a hot Cordoba weekend is being littered with a zillion people, each perched on a rock jutting between these shallow movements of water. Indeed, the rocks abound almost to the exact same extent as the number of people found on them, stretching in ubiquity as far as the eye can see from any bridge crossing. The reason is simple (outside of the big city's proximity): In contrast to the rivers and lakes in the Lake District (or further south in Patagonia), one actually CAN laze in these bodies of waters with a smile - and for a goodly while. So it makes perfect sense why half of Córdoba decamps for the Sierras every weekend of summer, often spending one or two weeks at a time in them. Every one of these hill towns, meanwhile, is merely a higher concentration of cabins than the ones that litter the hills in every direction.

To THAT end, M's father is a local real estate agent and developer, while J's father is an architect. Talk about a perfect mix for my friends, already making a healthy career of architecture in the region. They thus constantly find themselves tailoring trips to the Sierras with business to accompany the pleasure. Not a bad racket for a foreseeable lifetime to have such connections! And, beyond already enjoying their agreeable company, this extends to me in the short term.

Anyway, finally comes the time to head back to the city, my stomach and head admittedly a bit exhausted. Again J tears through the roads on four wheels as I'm further explained the general lay of these lands: The Sierras lie to the south, west, and north of Cordoba, separated further into the smaller Sierras Chicas and Sierras Grandes hill/mountain chains. All are dotted with towns and curvy roads. This is good news, if mostly because I figure that conversation is the way to keep my mind off of an impending death in a head-on collision. It's rather impossible to speak up about tailgating at high speed when simultaneously being so generously hosted (and J&M truly are awesome in this respect, enhancing an already-known Argentine quality).

Noticing the same makes of cars over and again, meanwhile, prompts me to ask and J to further explain how a lot of car manufacturing is done in the area for Fiat, Peugeot, and VW. There's even parts manufacturing for Chevy and Ford. Apparently employees generally can buy four cars a year at a 20% discount, making for a healthy market of cars that keeps turning over and over down the line into the hands of friends and relatives for a more modest (or non-existent) discount from the sticker price. Not a bad racket to keep things local.

Back in town, I meet yet more family members - it's ALWAYS about family in Argentina - as we head to the Sunday ritual of dinner at J's parents (much like a Sierras stop at the parents of Mariana, there's always an assumed meal or two). Then I decamp for a hostel to give J&M's tiny apartment a break. In Babilonia Hostel, conventiently located both by their apartment and the center of town, I find the usual rotation of reggae and Argentine rock on non-stop play as I retreat from the beating sun of the city. Found, too, are the usual group of Israelis getting stoned in the morning as I instead contemplate all of the places within the maze-like structure where I can read, play music, write, and essentially not MOVE. Four days of constant motion, two with a dicey stomach, have taken their toll.

A Perfect Spy, meanwhile, has been finished and finds itself looking for a new owner from the vantage point of the hostel's shelf. I rank it as one of LeCarre's best, and I've now read quite a few. So it goes: I'm a sucker for quality prose, such being his stock in trade far more to me than any fascination in the spy trade. I quickly move on to and through a Graham Greene book, Travels With My Aunt, a departure from his usual, more serious fare, while picking up a Llosa Vargas tome from the hostel's shelf in the process (Pantaleon y las Visitadoras). Yes, it's getting time to begin reading only local-ish books in Spanish. This is especially true with eBooks only exploding in number to make hostel book collections all that much the poorer as the result. Fortunately the Latin world is still far behind on that curve.

From my new Babilonia-n redoubt I now gratefully slow things down considerably, drastically changing my form of inertia toward the sedentary. I've got a dozen jazz tunes to memorize, I've decided, plus the heat is just about unbearable for most of the daylight hours as it nears 100 with high humidity. I'm told that Cordoba enjoys months of such misery, potentially from November to April. As such, morning rains proffer welcome breaks, but those take a stacking of days to be realized here and there. Has a Seattlite come to begging for rain? Indeed.

In my walks about town, I use the main canal - the Cañada, a stream that has been completely channeled for its passage through the city - as a landmark. It takes no time to realize that the downtown area has plenty of old, colonial buildings to enjoy as forms of stately, classical architecture. The Cabildo and a number of cathedrals and Jesuit cloisters naturally stand out. Of course, too, there is a monster statue to San Martin in the requisite San Martin Plaza - to which I'm immediately scoping out where I might dare play the horn. The large pedestrian zone, nicely canopied almost throughout to filter the sun considerably, strikes me as one possibly bold option. Who knows? Meanwhile, I keep up the hunt for interesting grafiti or murals beyond the nice ones at the hostel (seen above).

As to further wanderings, I admit that I'm curious why there seems to be a plethora of ladies undergarment stores not so far from the bus station off the main drag San Juan. Each store sports more than a few large poster advertisements of scantily clad - if sun-faded - women on every available surface. Something for the missus - or the mistress - for the man on the go? Perhaps, or maybe there is something more intriguing inside. I leave the question open, only merely curious about the few that have children in them, fortunately innocent-enough looking pictures with no overt allusions to sex.

One nice event to break things up during my C-town time is a Noche de los Museos, something that more cities seem to be adopting to promote culture. The down side of the free admittance night to the museums (until 2 a.m. - this IS Argentina!), of course, is that the rest of the planet is in on the secret as well. Thus I only successfully take in the small city museum, an exhibit of stunning macro photos of flowers interspersed with landscapes of the Pampas, and a series of rooms devoted to Argentine industrial design that is temporarily attached to the city museum in the Cabildo. As for the bigger museums, I give up by just glancing at the long lines. I'll happily prefer to pay in the coming days, also when I won't be competing for viewing space with the mobs.

Vastly more enjoyable is the scene about the streets on this fine night. Families are out strolling with their little kids toward midnight, for instance, something all too rare back in the overly "civilized" U.S. Life is a-live everywhere, from the choripan (chorizo=sausage, pan=bread) stands to the hundreds practicing calisthenics, to the joggers in the park Parque Sarmiento zipping by in the wee hours. Many of the more impressive buildings are lit up with colored lights as well to mix the garish with the hopeful in a pleasant sense. The Sagrado Corazon church, reminiscent of it Gaudi counterpart in Barcelona, stands out of these.

Meanwhile, for some reason there is yet ANOTHER friendly "Clasico" on the bar televisions facing the streets. I, too, am all for the free entertainment that plays to a gathering crowd on the sidewalks who haven't gotten around to grabbing a beer or a seat. This time Boca Juniors beats River Plate on penalty kicks, a bit of revenge after handily losing to the same side a couple of weeks ago 3-0. Go figure, but the interest is awfully great for what are essentially summer exhibitions before the real thing in a few weeks.

In the hostel, the invasion of Israelis smoking ever more heaping amounts of pot increases as another pile of travelers in full hippie regalia invades. The cliche is beyond old, of Israelis letting loose after their obligatory (3-year) military service to travel in groups whilst getting stoned in large numbers and culminating in Carnival in Brazil - but it's still as true as ever. This is what the perspective of 15 years traveling in South America gets me. Woo.

Hoo!: On one day I decide to give busking a try. Of course it takes a bit to scope out the good spots, but I figure that the Cabildo - with its arches and location off of the main square - is worth a go. I make some change in not too much time, a nice thing, then find myself unwillingly befriending a drunk who tries to hum a song in the most confounding-to-make-out manner possible. I repeatedly try to cock an ear to catch what the hell he's humming, but... eventually I just play something fast (A Night In Tunisia) and he's both immensely and immediately satisfied, even leaving a second tip. That's the dubious highlight of the outing, however: Between the surprising lack of acoustics, plus a number of tiny biting ants which seem to be finding their way into my shorts on several occasions, then finally (terminally!) some jugglers who decide to set up a performance (and attract a crowd) by yelling and smacking foam bats together, I call it a day on this first busk.

In lieu of getting rich quick, I happily tromp about the downtown and museum areas again taking night pictures. Even without a night of free museum admittances, the masses are walking the streets late into the evening again, all over both downtown and the nearby Parque Sarmiento. There's actually probably even more of them about, a people now freed from the responsibility of cramming themselves into museums for free, no doubt. Strolling about, meanwhile, I continually scope out other possible places to play the trumpet before again heading back to the hostel quite late. As a violent thunderstorm eventually erupts to break the heat again beautifully (about time!), I muse on how safe it is to walk in the downtown area well after hours. I find that this speaks especially well of Cordoba.

On a side note, I DO finally get into the main fine arts museum, albeit for all of 10 pesos ($2) instead of for free. This entails merely rolling through the elegant building at breakneck speed. Mostly in vain I try to find something of interest, a typical problem I have with museums and their sterility. (Is there a surrealist or pop art museum ANYwhere in the world outside of the Dalí museums in Spain and St. Petersburg, Florida?) Museo Ferrerya's cubist art doesn't hold me, needless to say, nor does much of said style found ANYwhere outside of the lone example of Picasso's Guernica. Ditto for the ubiquitous traditional portraits and landscapes available. (There IS air conditioning, however...)

One room, though, is devoted to one artist's conception of the Dirty War that Argentina suffered from 1976-1983. This is the museum's (temporary) gem. Graphic examples of rape (of women), kidnapping (of children to give to military families for secret adoptions), and murder (of men and women both) make the case clear. These graphically add to the random testimonies of the same events one finds throughout the country these days (like the above photos found on some pillars of the nearby Paseo de Buen Pastor museum and complex). After so many amnesties and officially ignoring the subject for so long outside of lip service, it's about time to give the victims their due. There's also a local museum to their memory in a former torture complex downtown I'll check out when the museum reopens in February.

As for Museo Ferrerya Evita, I'm also interested in how such a grandiose museum still finds it necessary to use the name Evita in its title - even through its building refurbishment and grand opening took place as recently as 2007. Not so curious, however - if only in ONE sense - is how cowhides are used for the surface of all the museum's furniture AND the railings and ceilings of the staircases. Yeah, that's weird... and they're also worn out in all the expected places. (Seriously, cowhides on top of rail handlings? Did ANYone think that could last?) But cows do equal Argentina, I'll give 'em that!

Searching the town for good coffee, meanwhile - and once again Havanna is the best and almost only bet - leads me to catching up on the news in the country. The short of it is that another currency crisis is coming, just you wait. Since my arrival, the "blue dollar" (the black market apparently is getting a makeover to the other color of bruising) exchange rate has gone from 6.5-1 to 7-1 to 7.5-1 and now 8-1 in just a couple months. The official rate is still just under 5-1, the only rate you can get from banks and ATMs. This is foreshadowing, in any event, if not necessarily news yet. I've been holding numerous questions with any and all Argentines I know or get to know about the upcoming crisis to gauge both opinions and reactions.

For my part, I'm practically already decided that my next trip down this way should be post-crisis. Hopefully that'll make up in some part for my missing out on the last BIG one, in 2001, which came after three trips in three successive years during the ridiculous Minister Cavallo-pegged-rate of 1-1. Then came the Great Default, which I see happening again in some form or another. Hopefully in a much more modest fashion of correction instead of tumult. I debate a shortly-upcoming jaunt to Uruguay's beaches, where I could coincidentally pull out some greenbacks in Montevideo. (ATMs in Latin America will typically dispense dollars, although this is no longer true in Argentina.) Such thinking will last for about a week or two.

The very entertaining Travels With My Aunt makes way for V.S. Naipaul's Guerrillas, meanwhile, as my book pile is finally approaching the fighting weight of three. My back will thank me, I'm all too aware, even as I keep a steady cache of coffee available. (I even recently reloaded with Cafe Soroa at Bariloche's Cafeteria Barco.) Priorities are never to be disregarded.

One such focus, for example, lies in avoiding the crazy heat I'm experiencing for almost my entire stay in Cordoba - for which a few thunderstorms are very, very welcome. One outbreak of heavenly violence is particularly impressive, however, when the sky takes to dispensing hail like a machine-gun onto the greater citizenry of Córdoba below. We all run for cover as many hailballs come in at an impressive 4-5 cm in diameter, splatting with such violence that their ricochets shoot several meters into the air. At the outset, I find myself thinking that the marble-sized first salvos are impressive, even picking up a few. Shortly thereafter, though, I don't dare step out. Holy crap! Some folks even take to using garbage can lids for protection in mad dashes from the shelter of one doorway to another. I later ask about this phenomenon, learning that it is a regular occurrence in the summer months, perhaps happening at such a level several times a year. All cars are wisely moved under cover in a flurry activity when the outbreaks of ice happen.

Continuing my stay in Córdoba, I find myself distinctly enjoying the advantage of having no agenda. For example, I feel particularly free to look about half-heartedly to find an Argentine flag jersey (no dice). For this I discover that the old practice of a single-item market street (there is an entire block of bike shops) still exists outside of Viet Nam. I also cheerily test out the latest cafe suggestions of Jose and his father (these being the Bona Fide coffee shop chain and Caffe Le Mirage, both still a step down from Havanna in my pecking order), or perusing sheet music for tangos. This latter search sees me running about practically all of the pedestrian mall - to only realize that I don't know what titles in tango-land I'm looking for. I vow to do so some rudimentary research via my iTunes library before purchasing.

I try another busk, too, one that's pretty much a financial bust in the walkway around the corner from the Cabildo's arches (where I last set up camp). On the plus side, there are no biting ants, plus it's a better place to sit with better acoustics as well. The downside... well, really there isn't any since the money is hardly that expected at this point. But I DO suffer a woman who offers me a sip of her coke (I pass), then hands her camera to a passerby for a number of photos. She then plops right down next to me tightly before settling in with her arm clasped around my shoulder while I continue playing the song I'm in the middle of. She then makes a show of getting out her purse, even fishing something out... before deciding against throwing something in the case. I'd be most interested in knowing what the hell her precise thought process is before she gets to "Aw, fuck 'im!" Anyway, her son is a trumpet player as well, she's tells me - to which I just wonder what this experience is telling her...

Meanwhile, with the blue dollar at about 8.0 or so, I decide to be a bad person and cash in my more serviceable dollar bills. Am I aiding a bunch of rich bastards with cash to hide the dirty secrets of potentially ill-gotten money (probably by heredity from misdeeds of land ownership eons ago more than anything else)... or am I just obtaining what is a more fair rate for a economy that is being micromanaged? For example, why has the president's wealth been compounded by more than a factor of ten within only several years? I don't know, but I decide to use a friend of a friend to avoid the joys of doing an exchange on the street. I slither into a business found in the most central mall; There I'm given a rate of 7.2. (My understanding is that the rate of 8.0 only really applies to those taking more chances and exchanging more money.) In any event, I'm happy to not have to worry about being passed phony bills or suffering any sleight of hand in a dodgy, unregulated exchange... for now.

Continuing with my haphazard tourism, and remembering the delicious A/C afforded by the fine arts museum Ferrerya, I decide to check out its larger counterpart almost across the street - Museo Caraffa. Like the other Museo, it too faces the plaza with a massive Christmas tree and presents that seems a bit overdue in the first week of February. But surely I'll be inspired by this fashionable-looking museum, right? Well... how about that A/C, again? Yesssss. Indeed, the place is much bigger, and it even sports a rather avant garde design, but outside of a room with geometric paintings that simultaneously make me dizzy and think of M.C. Escher, I'm underwhelmed. Did I mention how clean the bathrooms were, and that they have toilet paper? With A/C? To be fair, I suppose that this shouldn't show poorly for Córdoba or Argentina, merely my own predilections for art that I can recognize with appreciable skill on some level seemingly above that of a drunk third-grader.

One thing that goes famously well, now as expected, is another asado courtesy of family José. For said occasion we load up some more natural gas into J&M's hard-workin' VW (all exiting the car while doing so as required by law, something I find just slightly unnerving), miraculously put on our seatbelts (yes, this IS the new and improved Argentina), then head out to the family's cabin in Los Aromos. Off we go to another of the Sierra's tighter conglomerations of cabins found beyond Alta Gracia and about an hour from town. Luckily it's also on the river, and with the asado grill fired up this is an Argentina to be had by many and all. So the Argentines would certainly say. To our menu, slightly different offerings come in the form of some sugar-glazed pork (easily a thumbs-up) and tripes (which I learn both can be eaten with the fat scraped off or not AND are tasty). More to my general thinking, there's none of the dreaded morcilla (blood sausage) that I now refuse like religion.

The family grows in number on this occasion, too: I now meet J's younger sister, Mili (Milagros), the spitting image of her older one (Eugenia), while still insisting that brother Tomas is a lost Roman soldier... or the offspring of one. No one's specifically yes or no to that, but it's taken in good humor. Thank god for red wine, the other asado staple! I also meet Aunt Patricia, a monja (nun) who's high up in the churchy ranks. She's come with her friend and the two are generally good at yukking it up - and appear minus the flying nun's habit. They both strike me as open-minded when the conversation brushes both booze and religion, something I'm always curious about in these nominally arch-Catholic countries.

Then again, and perhaps more importantly, the father suggests that I have yet another asado to come - featuring goat as the main entree. That'll takes a couple hours, he says, but he insists that he has the right device to the job. Apparently THAT comes in the form of a cruz (cross), enabling a grill position which he rather emphatically demonstrates by spreading his arms out widely and hanging his tongue out. Well... I'm sure it will be good. In papa asador (grillmaster) we trust. Especially in Argentina.

And then that's about it for Cordoba for the present. I weigh a last busk enough times too many that it doesn't happen; J&M meet for a night of the Pulgas market, which is much like El Bolson's famous artisanal market but a LOT bigger, minus the walking beers on draft but with many outdoor bars and restaurants to cool heels when the shopping gets old. But perhaps the most telling thing is that I'm making a few stops at the local Salta restaurant for empanadas, tamales, and humitas in my last days in Cordoba. Apparently someone needs to get his ass up to Salta.
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