Taking time out recently took me from my desk in Sussex to Luxembourg and Germany, places I’ve lived and worked in and still visit often. But from Frankfurt I flew to the Southern Hemisphere where the northern sun was high in the sky and summer time was in full swing.
My travels took me from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia and Patagonia in Argentina, then on to the legendary and notorious Cape Horn, Falkland Islands, and Montevideo in Uruguay to the very end of the world … the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent, the frozen continent, the loneliest continent … Antarctica.
I followed in the illustrious footsteps of explorers like Magellan, Valdés, Columbus, Darwin, Shackleton and many other pioneering spirits ... albeit in a somewhat more sedate and far less intrepid fashion. Along the way, whilst drinking in the breath-taking views, delighting in the wildlife at rest and play, and marvelling at unfamiliar cultures, I also took the opportunity to explore language, admittedly on a superficial level, and how it has been influenced over time by different communities and trends.
There are more than 700 native languages currently spoken in South America. Linguistic and cultural diversity is a reflection of its modern society. The great wave of European migration to Argentina took place in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, mostly from Italy and Spain, introducing yet more rich cultural diversity into an already brimming melting pot.
First stop: Buenos Aires (or BA as I often heard it called) literally means “Fair Winds” or “Good Airs”. It was not long before I termed it “Good Airs and graces” for I found it to be a fabulous city full of friendly people. It is so called because of the pleasant winds and breezes which blow through it, keeping it pollution-free, no mean feat when it has the greatest number of traffic lanes in the world: I counted 18 across the Avenida 9 de Julio alone! With glorious green parks full of parakeets, art pieces and monuments, grand boulevards flanked either side by stunning architecture, and a theme park about the life of Jesus, the city was a real delight.
I took the bus, hopping on and off at regular intervals. Stopping at the Parque de la Memoria, one of the city's sites of memory, I was left speechless by the thousands of names engraved on the walls. Names of the disappeared, those who fell victim to Argentina's brutal dictatorship of 1976-1983. Its proximity to the river and military airport is significant since it marks the spot where those poor souls met their end. The military airport was used for "flights of death" during which the victims were thrown from the planes into the river.
The park remembers students, workers, men and women, including the unborn (as shown in the image below; “embarazada” meaning pregnant), ordinary people who had a social vision at odds with that of the ruling elites and military dictatorships. The memorial acts as the nation's promise to rebuild a democracy and safeguard universal human rights. It is a place of peace and contemplation. I took time to walk the site. It was heartening to see couples and families resting in the shade of the trees by the shore. It has perhaps become a place of sanctuary too.
I visited another memorial – Monumento a los caidos en Malvinas - the memorial to those who had fallen during the Falklands conflict of 1982. It is a beautifully kept site with guards on duty standing in tribute to their fellow countrymen. I concluded it was no coincidence that it stands directly opposite the Torre Monumental, formerly Torre de los Ingleses (the Tower of the English), which was a gift from the local British community in 1909 to commemorate the centenary of the May revolution. It was also not surprising to see “nuestras Malvinas” referred to on some official signs as well as graffiti. However, as a British tourist I only experienced friendliness. When the subject arose, I was surprised to hear people say to me “the Falklands, no problem”. No doubt the reality is much more complex.
Taking the “subte”, or underground, I sped to La Recoleta cemetery, so-called after the Recollect monks on whose gardens the cemetery was built. It is a veritable labyrinth of stunning Art Deco monuments looming over the dead resting in their marble crypts. Strolling around the narrow lanes in the sunshine, the towering angelic sculptures provided shade and respite from the heat of the day but finding oneself locked in after closing time might prove to be somewhat unsettling for like any cemetery, ghost stories abound. La Recoleta's most famous resident is Eva Perón. There's no doubt Argentina still cries for her. Two immense steel portraits cover the north and south facades of the city’s Ministry of Health building and illuminate the Avenido 9 de Julio at night. “Evita” was quite simply the “abanderada de los descamisados”, the standard-bearer of the shirtless ones, and an absolute powerhouse for female suffrage. Her tomb is heavily fortified for fear of her remains being stolen.
No one can spend a night in Buenos Aires without a tango experience! It reflects the very fabric of modern Argentine society, portrayed as an authentic national product. It is ever popular, involving dance, music, poetry, song, narrative, gesture and drama and is simply mesmerising to behold. The tango partnership, with its clearly defined roles of leader and follower, are perhaps stereotypical but the dance ritual continues to capture the imagination and entice the audience into a world of romance and sexual promise. I went to the Teatro Astor Piazzolla in the Mirador Guemes Gallery, with its gorgeous art nouveau decor, and was spellbound and captivated by the intricate movements and poise of the dancers, the milonguero and milonguita, and transported into a world of tango fantasía.
If I had to tango to truly experience Argentina then equally, I couldn’t pass up an authentic Argentinian steak either! La Estancia on Lavalle was a triumph. It was a tourist restaurant but no less charming for that. I had the T-bone, the bife de costilla con lomo, the biggest steak I'd ever seen and the most succulent I’ve ever tasted along with bottles of refreshing Quilmes Cristal, the locally brewed beer.
I joined a local tour group. Our guide, Vera, was a rather ancient lady, full of banter and not remotely afraid to reprimand any tourist in her party. She took us to the Tigre Delta, just 25 kilometres north of the city where she had spent her weekends and holidays as a child. Her father, an immigrant from Spain had longed for a rural life after leaving his beloved homeland for the hubbub of Buenos Aires in search of work in the 1920s. Vera's tales of taking the over-crowded train from the bustling city to the delta, with its lean-to shacks and “clean muddy” waters into which she would dive and play (quite unlike the “dirty muddy” waters of the city) recalled a very different time and place to the swanky marinas and mansions which dot the delta today.
The Tigre Delta region - so-called because of the big cats which used to roam the area - comprises over 5,000 islands and is one of the few deltas in the world that does not lead into open waters. It empties instead into the Rio de la Plata which at its widest is 200 kilometres across and separates Argentina and Uruguay.
We hopped aboard a catamaran to catch a glimpse of life in this maritime suburb and gaze at those fishing and bathing outside their colourful stilted dwellings with their speedboats and kayaks moored alongside - there are no roads and thus no cars at all on the islands. The local inhabitants - born and bred here - refer to the “mainland” as the “continente”. These idyllic, tranquil, picturesque islands, the lagoons, channels and pretty gardens really do seem a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. And even the rusted steamers and abandoned sailing vessels which dot the principal channel lend a certain charm to this delightful place.
Next stop: Tierra del Fuego [Land of Fire!]