Monday, May 13, 2002

Buenos Aires vs. Rio De Janeiro


Howdy people!
This is a long one. Delete now if you can't bare it...

Buenos Aires...
It is described as the Paris of South America, and I can certainly understand why. This city is truly beautiful. Dan and I took our taxi ride to the San Telmo district with oohs and ahhs as we passed numerous green parks and finely detailed buildings from the 1800's. Our stay was a mere 4 full days, with plans to return, so we didn't worry ourselves with trying to see every tourist site/monument/cathedral. Instead, we took our time meandering through the many distinct neighborhoods, people watching, stopping in bars/cafes for cerveza, window shopping (leather bags and shoes to die for!), and running the occasional annoying errand in preparation for Brazil.

We were staying in a cramped, but funky little hostel, sharing bunkbeds with 2 Scandinavian partiers. They usually got home around 3 or 4 in the morning (if they got home at all), but Dan and I had them beat. When you stop being the tourist who has to get up early to tick off all the Lonely Planet must-see sights, you start living like a true Argentine. This means that you sleep in, at least until 10AM, but sometimes noon, and then party all night. This is a nocturnal culture. Dan and I ate dinner around 10, and then began our night of drinking or dancing. We keyed in on a local ex-pat bar, Gibralter, that became our starting point for a night on the town. We met many interesting characters here - Andy, an actor from London, who was performing with an English theater group in South America, and had about 6 months lined up in Argentina, with sidetrips to Uruguay and Chile. Tom, our Belgium bartender, who had been living in BA for half a year, after an incredible adventure in Northern Argentina. He had always wanted to ride a horse, and ended up hooking up with some caballeros who were traveling around the North. He decided to join them, and bought 2 horses, adopted a dog, and turned into a nomadic cowboy/gaucho, camping in the pampas and plains for 3 months. Character number 3 was William, a middle-aged South African, who spoke english, africaans, swahili, flemish, xhosa (a crazy clicking lingo), spanish, etc.. He had come to BA for a short holiday and decided to screw coming home. He was building furniture, teaching english, and loving life. We also met a very nice Argentine woman, named Muriel, who invited us to attend an installation art show at her work, where we met many young clubsters and alternative locals.

I completely understand why people would want to live here. This town is on fire, with an over abundance of things to do and see. The people are beautiful, predominantly well-educated, the city is full of life and culture, great weather, delicious food, and a thriving arts scene. Saying all this, the country is going through one of the largest economical crisis' in its' history. The middle class is disappearing, the poor are suffering, and the rich are eating ice-cream and walking their dogs in the Recoleta. This is an insane juxtaposition.

On May 1st, May Day, the daily anti-bank, anti-government protests were intensified. Near the Congress building, marchers from different barrios were participating in a massive rally, burning wood, waving posters and banners, shouting and chanting angry slogans, and banging on drums, walls, trash cans, you name it. I was overwhelmed with the passion and choked up. The scene was almost too painful to watch. There was something about seeing a well-dressed man in his 50's, methodically pounding his palm against a metal wall, that made my eyes smart. What can these people do? They must feel so powerless and futile, with no control over their own hard earned money. Money that they had saved over a life time of work, and now was worth one third of its' original value. This was a strolling day. We passed the protests and ended up in the wealthy Beverly Hills part of town, to see women in Gucci, families laughing in elegant outdoor cafes, and a crafts fair full of holidaymakers. Yes, the world goes on...what a trip.

At night, the young still play. We danced with the best of them til' 5 in the morning at the Big One, a warehouse club with a laser and fire show, techno/trance beats, and sexy gay and straight Argentines shaking their asses and soaring on Ecstasy, escaping the mania of their economic plight. On another night, Lola and Gato, the couple we had met in Trevelin, picked us up for a drinking night in Palermo Viejo, an arty, bohemian neighborhood full of restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques. They shared some interesting facts about pre-married life in Argentina. Most young people will live with their parents until they get married. Obviously, this doesn't give a couple much privacy. Thus, the abundance of 'motels', which can be rented by the hour, or even more interesting, parking stalls for your car, which are surrounded by trees, and attended by a man or woman who you can buy drinks or snacks from, all through the night. This is similar to a drive-in movie experience, but without the film, and more of a focus on the necking.

Craving local music, we were satiated by discovering Juana Molina, a new Argentine performer with a honey voice. Dan was entranced by her concert. Her music sounded a little like Stereolab, Space Holiday, Solex and Edie Brickell. She's heading out on a U.S./Japan tour -keep your eyes peeled.

In addition to our long walks and cultural forays, we spent 2 afternoons with my Abuelita (grandmother), and her husband, Alberto. Neither of them speak a lick of english, but we managed to entertain each other with photo albums, listening to tango/latin music, and being shown Alberto's vast and valuable watch collection, all over an afternoon tea.
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Rio de Janeiro....
Wow, we are in Brazil! On 2 hours of sleep, we were greeted at the airport, by our good friends, Jimbo and Sasha. Excited to be in a new place, our first objective was to hit the beach. Wow! Jimbo had his video camera out, trying to get as many butt shots of the Brazilian beauties, and Dan was eager to point him in the right direction (which was everywhere!). The body beautiful reigns supreme in this country. The men are lean and pumped, exercising on the beach, before tackling the surf, or joining in on a game of soccer/volleyball. The women are proud and free, tanning or strutting their brown bodies down the promenade. Yikes! - my bikini is big! Sasha and I were quickly on an itty bitty bikini hunt, and the truth is that smaller is better. The bigger the fabric on your bum, the bigger your butt appears. I'm not donning a g-string, but the famous brazilian cut is much more flattering, and makes me feel like less of a gringo. I had to get a special brazilian wax in order to wear these bottoms - a story that can be saved for another time.

Sasha set us all up, and booked an inexpensive hotel on the edge of Ipanema, right on the Arpoador beach. The weather is divine. Back in flip-flops and tank tops, wearing little clothes in the balmy nights, and sipping very dangerous capirhinas (a local lime, sugar and cane alcohol drink), we are having a true vacation. On the first day, I got silly drunk on ONE Capirhina, and ended up puking in a sidewalk trashcan - an embarrassing fact.

The adventures of Rio... It is a fact that there are dangers lurking everywhere, thieves ready to relieve you of your valuables. Knock on wood, but we have been alright thus far. On the beach, we did have a shady guy try to dip his hands into the pockets of Dan's shorts, and I caught a little street brat trying to unzip Sasha's backpack, but all in all - not too bad. We bring the bare necessities out on the road, and walking in a group seems to keep us safe.

Day 2 and we attended a soccer game at the largest stadium in the world. This was my first pro show, and I loved it. Flamenco vs. Fluminense, two rival Rio teams. The turn-out wasn't as spectacular as we hoped, because these teams are doing lousy country-wide, but the energy was still red hot. We were on the Flamenco red and black side, the winners!, and the crowd around us went wild with their chanting, drumming, singing, flag waving, booty dancing, and feet stamping. The Brazilian energy and sense of celebration has been apparent everywhere.

Sasha and I went on an amazing favela tour, while the boys went on a surfing excursion. Favela is the name that is given to a neighborhood that is illegally occupied by the poor of Rio. We visited the largest, Rosinha, which has a population of over 150,000 people, all contained in 1 square kilometer! These communities have tapped into the general electricity, and have rain water tanks on their roofs for their water supply. Until recently, they lacked a sewage system before the government stepped up to its duty to the people. For the most part they live free in these shanty towns of brick, aluminum, wood and cement. This is the only way these people can survive with shelter, because the average income is about $100 to $150 US dollars a month. The favelas are 'governed' by the drug traffickers. These wealthy drug lords assist their barrio by helping the sick, providing protection, in exchange for the peoples tolerance of the cocaine and crack trafficking, or the hiding of criminals from the police. Strangely enough, this system works well for all involved. The majority of the people of the favela are not users of drugs themselves, and merely suffer from poverty, not drug addiction. They have created a tight little network of commerce, and neighborly help with bartering of services. I had expected to sense more sadness, and even be depressed by our tour, but instead, I sensed a liveliness and joy? for life. Our guide was quick to explain that poverty does not equal misery in Brazil. These peoples culture is rooted in a joie de vivre(sp?), with music and laughter heard in the most shady of alleys. There is a growing state of improvement for these people - their quality of life has been improved by the good works of various non-profit groups, who have introduced free internet cafes, with computer training, and schools for young latch-key children. The government has recognized land ownership of some of the favelas, and now without the fear of being kicked out of their makeshift homes, the people are improving their apartments with fortifying bricks, flowering balconies, and new coats of paint.

On another day, we convinced the boyz to take a guided tour through Santa Theresa, up to the Christ Redemptor, and through the Tijuca Rain forest. Santa Theresa was once the neighborhood of the wealthy (a couple hundred years ago), but was deserted in favor of Copacabana and Ipanema). These beautiful mansions remained derelict until the artists, musicians, and bohemians of Rio started to snatch them up. The neighborhood is now being restored and has a thriving night scene of bars and live music. From there, we proceeded to the most touristy peak with the awesome, gigantic Christ Redemptor statue, built in the 20's-30's. This is the symbol of Rio, an almost smiling Christ with his arms reaching out by his sides, welcoming people to the beautiful lush bays of Rio De Janeiro. He appears to be protecting the people of his city, reminding the devout to behave themselves, or to be enveloping all, the holy and the sinners. It is up to personal interpretation. What surprised me the most about Rio, was how beautiful the locale is. I obviously had not done my homework, because I had no idea that Rio was situated in an Atlantic, tropical rainforest. The beaches were the most beautiful that I have ever seen in a city, with greeny-blue, clear waters, lapping up against powder white sands. The shore and its high-rises, are minutes from lush jungle, and rounded peaks, like the Sugar Loaf, jutting out of the land. The Tijuca rainforest was filled with bromeliads, ferns and tropical trees, housing monkeys, blue butterflies, and communities of raccoon-like mammals.

We never made it to a disco, but our nightlife was full. We ate terrific meals of traditional Brazilian food - grilled meats, goat and boar!, chicken with palmitos, beans and rice, garlicky greens, manioc, arab fritters and fresh juices of guava, pineapple, mango, coconut, ascerola and acai. Afterwards, we drank cervejas (Brahma, Skol, Antarctica) and cocktails in charming outdoor bars, listening to live music in Lapa or Ipanema. Our one night in Copacabana showed us the seedier side. The busiest cafe on the street, the Help bar, and the one we chose to sit in, turned out to be THE hooker pick-up place. We were surrounded by black, white and brown ladies (or transsexuals) in stilettos, miniskirts, low riding tight pants, and cleavage baring tops. Prostitution is legal in Brazil, pimping is not. Sasha and I thought it was fascinating to watch these ladies of the night, but Dan and Jimbo felt a tad bit uncomfortable. They were getting all the attention, with women staring them down, licking their lips, and flashing nipples, all in an effort to entice the mighty dollar. Most Brazilian women dress very sexy, so we were all finding it difficult to differentiate the working girls from the regular gals. - on the beach, it was impossible. The Brazilian beach is the equalizer, a place where the poor and rich can share a beer, or a soccer game without class awareness.

Toward the end of our week, we decided to rent a car and explore more of Rio state. We drove 3 hours to Buzios, a beautiful resort area in the north. Buzios is actually 3 separate villages on a small peninsula with about 21 beaches. Each beach is different, either secluded coves with tranquil waters, or long strips of surfing waves, some lined with bars, others with upscale boutiques. We explored many, even accidentally hiking to a nudist beach, which we promptly left. The highlight of our nights out was the accidental discovery of a 'hidden' bar - Taka Taka Ta (named after the sound skeletons make when having sex). A crusty old pirate runs the bar, and decides on a whim whether he will open the doors or not. We walked by his small establishment at the precise moment that he decided to let people in. "Quickly, quickly!" - We were shuffled into a crazy cavern decorated with photos, signed napkins hanging from the ceiling and walls, candle shrines, a motorcycle and guard dog in the corner, mirrors, fruit and rows and rows of alcohol bottles. (If you have seen Beautiful Mind - this place looks like the shed). There were never more than 10 people in the bar, and yet the energy could barely be contained. We stayed for 4 hours, dancing to an eclectic mix of music, cheering beers to strangers, dancing with half naked kooks, and drinking fiery concoctions. Our host was a madman, shouting phrases like, "Everybody will die!", and rolling spliffs. We had a blast.

Overall, we have had much time for relaxation. Sasha and I have been laying on the beach napping and tanning. Dan and Jimbo have been surfing in the waves. We are enjoying the brazilian way of life, and the friendly, happy people that we have met.

We send our love and warm wishes,
Sarah and Dan,

PS - Finally, the photos of Argentina are on their way!!!! http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/bue and http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/rio

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