Until two weeks ago I had never been to South America. I told a friend this before I left. He said “What?” and I said “yes, it’s true”.
“You’re going to love it”, he said. “I mean you are South America”.
I trust my friend, and supposed that he meant Argentina was my spirit home. I’m Australian. But the possibility that my heart was South American was not out of the question. I readied myself for the warm weather and packed clothes to serve me in any situation that might eventuate: a day by the pool, an afternoon wandering through markets, an expensive dinner, camping at the foot of the Andes, or a night out learning tango with my love.
A small man - a Petiso - as they say in Argentina, met me at the airport. Until then he, and the few Latino friends I’d made while travelling, shaped my blurry pictures of the continent. From their personalities I gathered Argentina would be: emotional, passionate, full of short people, warm and loving. I guessed it was a place for living in the moment. My limited knowledge of the country’s current economic strife also seemed to suggest this. I imagined a hot-headed place where you could flout the law within reason. Where people bring new iphones from the US to sell at a premium and make back the cost of their flights. A place with loose immigration policies, allowing transplants to stay forever if they renew their tourist visas quarterly in Uruguay, and get paid cash-in-hand or surreptitiously through paypal. With a predilection for beautiful women above all else, immortalised in the Argentine love affair with Evita and the current President Cristina’s regular shopping trips to Paris, New York and London. Not forgetting her fiercely denied, but obvious, penchant for botox.
I imagined Argentina to be a bit of a circus. A place of constant scandal - because the country enjoyed creating them. Where no one really wanted everything to run properly, because that would mean having to follow the rules. An inviting, yet sweaty place. Full of sex, sometime-love, and heartbreak.
I arrived at 5am on Thursday morning and didn't feel very much at home at all. My lack of Spanish was limiting, and I realized that my Petiso, beloved though he was, might need to be my shepherd at all times. Unable to communicate, I was relegated to being meek against my will. Speaking less - for once - I would watch more.
In 12 days I went from Buenos Aires - Córdoba - Mendoza and back to Buenos Aires. It was quick and dirty. There were some domestic flights involved. It’s just a taster, I consoled myself; preferring slow travel, camping and journeys unfettered by bookings.
And it went like this:
Buenos Aires smelt like meat and wine and money. And, faintly, of sex. We went out for dinner, the Petiso and I, to Las Pizarras, and ate beef medallions and confit duck before making ourselves a little sick on Tiramisu. We were seated at 11:30pm and didn’t leave the restaurant before 2am. We sipped a Malbec-Pinot Noir blend called Ji Ji Ji, a limited edition wine made by a famous Argentinian band as a once off, and named after their hit song. Our waitress slipped us a complimentary port as we massacred the dessert like children and debated where to go out dancing.
Someone mentioned Rose Bar to us, 3 blocks right and then 3 blocks right again from Las Pizarras. In line at the club, a man counted out hundreds and then thousands of peso notes with nonchalance. A pretty girl clawed at his arm. His eyes darted involuntarily, and she was agitated because she couldn’t stop them. The club was huge. You never could have guessed how big from outside. Everybody grinded one another with purpose, hungry for sex, even though the beautiful, angry women turned their noses up, refusing to admit it. I bopped along to a mix of commercial house music and Latino anthems, oafish and useless: a typical gringa. A group of 6 horny men, bursting with the absence of a woman in their arms, imitated me kissing my Petiso (he is 163cm, I 175cm). I stuck my middle finger up at them, he made the universal gesture for ‘small penis’. I laughed, we danced. We could have been 15 or 45 in that club, but right then we were 26.
Córdoba smelt sweet. The way cheap red wine mixed with Coke makes your teeth fuzzy in the morning. For breakfast we ate thick alfajores, dipped in white chocolate, dribbling dulce de leche from their middles. Hungover Sunday felt like being a student, wasting all your parent’s money on booze and eating only watery polenta with tomato sauce to keep full. I walked through the university buildings and pretended it was me at school. Felt the heat push on my skin from the stone walls and walkways; old, but not that old. European remnants of a Spain long gone. I met the Petiso’s family and was bamboozled by everything they said. We had an asado together. I loved the goat ribs but felt sick when I tried a sliver of the cow’s thyroid gland, pierced by a toothpick. It tasted like you always knew hormones would taste, even before trying them. The blood sausage was also too rich. After sampling the city's nightlife and meeting the family we went to the mountains near Carlos Paz and dipped our feet in the lake, feasting on jamon crudo straight from the packet like dogs. I cooked the Petiso’s friends dinner and no one spoke English to me. I sat on the sidelines mostly, vowing to take Spanish lessons, while jotting notes and pulling a pissed off face.
We got the bus to Mendoza, wine country, my friend. There is less Europe and more farm on the outskirts between the big cities. Tiny shacks have corrugated iron roofs and sometimes kids ogle at cars as they go by on the street, a rarity. The bus ride was long. Every now and then we pulled into a bus station, lost and gained some passengers, and continued on. I was getting hungry. There was no ‘real food’ so I ate more ice cream and alfajores, pouting like an annoying New Yorker missing her sustainable vegan sushi. When we pulled into Mendoza I was ready to get off the bus. I Milled in the aisle like all the jerks on every plane you ever take. Caged for long enough.
Mendoza smells like shadows. The fresh scent of sap when you crush a plucked leaf in your palm. Like cherries and dark chocolate and lychee and citrus and all those things you wait to be told wine smells like, before you can genuinely recognise it yourself. We stayed in a small room at the bottom of the garden, covered in ivy and looking out over a dry pool and a dead fountain. There was a communal sitting room in the B&B, but everyone kept to themselves mostly, and stole miniature packets of dulce de leche from the breakfast provided. Each day we took the bus 40 minutes out of the city to Maipu and rented bikes to tour the wineries, hiding off a bleak middle road. The winery staff indulged us, proven novices, when we paid them pesos to show us around. They left out the bottles of wine while we tasted, so we could pour more if we wanted to. A group of school kids stared out us in the wine museum, before zooming in on me to practice their halting English. A beautiful transvestite, with shapely legs, served us at a 'beer garden' which was really just a house with a couple of kegs under the kitchen bench. She made good pizza when we ordered it. We drank olive oil at a small farm that also served the best Empanadas we’d had anywhere, we guessed. The pastry cracked just right when you bit on it, the brownest parts giving way right on time so the goldest morsel could shine through.
We cheated and flew back to Buenos Aires two nights before I had to leave. We were still full of wine, so full that when our reserves dropped we got bad headaches. So it was best to keep drinking slowly, with dedication. “It’s very cheap”, I said, justifying it. “When I got back to New York, I’ll be paying at least $12 a glass. $12? I mean can you believe it?” The Petiso nodded. I knew he wouldn’t let me drink alone.
It was Sunday when we arrived, and we went to the San Telmo market. It ran for at least 6 blocks. People sold all kinds of ridiculous and wonderful things there and I sampled a variety of foods that will shorten my lifespan: Choripan (a butterflied Chorizo sausage in bread with Chimichurri sauce), honey strawberries covered in popcorn and then honey pears covered in popcorn, fresh churros with dulce de leche and bread stuffed with tomato and mozzarella. I also had a Quilmes, the local beer, to finish.
San Telmo is old and run down, but still works. It’s a vintage find, you’d say, if it were a dress. And you’d buy it. A lot of it is made for tourists - but I’m done with snubbing my nose at that just because. The cobblestone streets will always be enchanting, no matter how many stiletto heels they chew up and spit out each day. The European awnings are painted in every colour, some new, others shedding paint like skin. Gargoyles guard particularly imposing buildings. All in all it’s a nice place to get lost.