03 September 2011

The Best of Buenos Aires

Congress building
After 99 posts and three-plus years of chronicling our adventures from the Paris of the South, Now in Buenos Aires comes to a close. We leave with a tribute to our adopted city of selected photos we took from our first visit in June 2006 to our departure in August 2011.

The subjects range from the barrios around us to the art and architecture that pervade them to the public "discussions" of issues to the every day rituals of life. Please enjoy.

1. Favorite neighborhoods

Monuments in the cemetery
Linda at Palermo's Plaza Italia
Recoletathe neighborhood in which we lived, derives its name from the famous cemetery in its midst, five blocks up the street from our apartment. MORE PHOTOS HERE.

Palermo, a sprawling series of urban villages, is well known for its parks. MORE HERE.

Puerto Madero, recently renovated, still retains the flavor of the old port despite the growing number of high rises. MORE.

   Puente de la Mujer in Puerto Madero

Kurt at the entrance to Chinatown
Tango en San Telmo
Chinatown is technically a part of Belgrano, but the 4-square block neighborhood has its own distinctive flavor.

The Chinese supermarkets there stock an incredible variety of items, including home-made US-style oatmeal raisin cookies.

San Telmo, the oldest part of Buenos Aires, is famous for its Sunday antique and flea market. But the open-air tango performance was always our favorite feature.

Palacio de Aguas Corrientes

2. Art & Architecture
Incredible attention to detail for us defines the glory of Buenos Aires. One example: the Palacio de Aguas Corrientes, built and assembled in England and then taken apart, each piece numbered, and shipped to Buenos Aires for reassembling. MORE EXAMPLES HERE.

Sidewalk memorial to victims
of the Dirty War
3. Public Comment
Porteños are not reticent about making their opinions known. Graffiti is everywhere, protest marches are common, and memorials to famous citizens, fallen comrades, and inspirational heroes abound.  MORE.

4. Daily Scenes
A few snapshots from la vida cotidiana below and HERE.

Chau chau besos.

Young bandonista in San Telmo

26 August 2011

Chau Chau Besos

Sunny, of Las Hormiguitas,
waves goodbye
High "V's" with Rocky from Los Pinos

This iconic porteño phrase, usually uttered so lightly, took on a new depth of sentimentality as our time in Buenos Aires - la Reina del Plata - came to a close.

Goodbye with kisses to our lovely apartment, our favorite shops and restaurants, our daily routines, our special occasions, and most of all to our friends.

We leave with lots of warm memories and their smiling faces captured here.

Our favorite neighbors from our small apartment building:
1. Lola and Tati, on the quinto piso, along with their pets Munia Muniaa (a Jack Russell Terrier) and Viktor Samuel (the resident ferret in hiding);
2. Tavo (short for Gustavo) on the tercer piso, right above us; and
3. Fatima, on the primer piso, right below.

4. Linda with our good friend Eduardo in his wine store and . . .
5. Stella, his wife, with us.
6. Giselle, another worker ant from “our” laundry.
7. Erica, our waitress from Pan y Teatro.
8. Isabel, our favorite banker in the world, at dinner in our apartment.
9. Kurt with Eduardo B., who drove us many many times to and from the airport.
10 & 11 Gabe and his colleague Juan, from Bull’s Gym, affectionately referred to as Little Cats A & B.
12. Kurt with Maria Jose, our neighbor across the street, with Lolo, our pretend dog (her real dog).
13. Antonio and Irma from the produce stand four doors down the street from our apartment.
14. Leo, owner of the clothing store next to the wine shop on Arenales.
15. Kurt with Sissi, the apartment’s new owner, and her mother, who lives four blocks up Azcuenaga.

22 August 2011

Last Morsels

The fish platter is served
Four days before leaving Buenos Aires, we headed down to the Microcenter to pay Universal Cargo the moving charges (cash only and in US dollars). On the way, naturally, we stopped at Palacio Español, right off Avenida 9 de Julio. We started off with the complimentary glass of champagne, then enjoyed a half-bottle of white wine and an abundant platter of mixed grilled fish and grilled vegetables accurately suggested for sharing. Sabroso! But just being at the palacio is always a great experience.

Just the right mood at Pan y Teatro
The next evening we went further afield, to Boedo and a small unassuming restaurant where we celebrated those very important occasions. Pan y Teatro is a jewel of a place almost hidden away on the intersection of a quiet residential street and a dead-end lane. The restaurant features the wines and foods of Mendoza; their artichoke salads, eggplant parmesan, stuffed red peppers, homemade breads, everything is fresh and fantastic. For this special occasion, Kurt stuck to his favorite eggplant parmesan, while Linda had the cazuela de conejo (rabbit), paired with the sensational Tannat Malbec produced by Familia Perulán.

Tango musicians
We had thought of making Pan y Teatro the venue for our last evening in Buenos Aires, but decided to move it up in the calendar for two important reasons: (1) the supply of rabbit from Mendoza dwindles as the week goes on and (2) the tango trio performs only on Friday and Saturday nights. And they are not to be missed! The group is composed of a pianist, a singer, and a bandoneon player, shown left to right in the photo. At 88 years old, the bandonista is the oldest of the group and has been playing for more than 70 years, including with famed nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla in the 1940s. He told us he attributed his longevity and musical stamina to never having smoked and limiting his consumption of alcohol to wine only. Before we left, Linda purchased one of his model bandoneons that were displayed on the piano. A fitting recuerdo of a magical place.

Los Pinos 
Los Pinos was the venue for our last dinner in Buenos Aires. Located three blocks up from our apartment, where Azcuenaga intersects with French, Los Pinos is a quintessential neighborhood cafe: porteño comfort food (pasta, milenesas, y bifes) and basic red wines (nothing fancy). It is one of the first places we ate at on our initial trip to BA in June 2006. In the years that followed, the waiters came to know our favorite dishes and how we liked our bifes cooked (jugoso, not al punto, as is more customary among the Argentines). Linda in particular will miss their espinaca al la crema. And the tall tales by "Rocky" of his romantic exploits.

The last meal in Argentina
It was cold and overcast on Monday, Aug. 15, our last day in BA.  Definitely not ideal conditions for lunch at Croque Madame. So we opted instead for another Spanish restaurant, Oviedo, also a short walk away on Beruti and Ecuador. We shared a nice green salad with palmitos, veal with vegetables, and a delicious bottle of Tomero malbec, Argentina's signature wine. The proper way to bid farewell to our adopted city.

14 August 2011

Packing Up & Winding Down

Although we knew our apartment was precious, we had thought that it would take a few months to sell. Instead, we had a contract in only a few weeks. On our return from the scouting expedition in Panamá, we were immediately faced with the task of organizing "the stuff": what was staying in the apartment, what was being shipped back by Universal Cargo (who managed our shipment into Argentina), what was being schlepped by us onto the airplane, and what was being disposed of through sales, exchanges, and outright gifting. (Our best exchange was with our friend Eduardo the wine merchant, who traded us 6 bottles of the award-winning Temple Agrario 2007 Malbec Roble produced by the Bodega de la Facultad Ciencias Agrarias in Mendoza for a portable photo printer, paper, USB cord, and extra ink cartridges.)

Fortunately, each move we have undertaken since selling the "homestead" in Austin in 2005 has been easier than the one before. We've made a lot of progress in being able to detach emotion from physical possession. Memories are easy to cart; boxes of stuff aren't and their carting requires some expenditure of cash. This time we sold just about everything with the apartment but we still have photo albums, books, clothes, a few family antiques, etc., that added up to 64 boxes/items to be hauled north to Texas. Most of these items will stay there and we'll start from scratch again in Panamá.

Just a few items . . .
In the meantime, we've been jumping through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops that go with the process of  moving internationally. Things like having a copy of our flight itinerary from Buenos Aires to the US "legalized" by a notary for submission to Argentine customs. Also our marriage certificate and the translation of it into Spanish. (More fun details in the list at left.)

Our "patrimonio personal" wrapped to go
The packing crew from Universal Cargo arrived Monday, Aug. 8, to pack up our stuff since custom regulations prohibited us from doing the packing ourselves. A few weeks previously, the UC contractor had stopped by to take photos of and information on certain art being shipped in order to secure the necessary export permits from the Cultural Ministry. Permits were needed for anything that might be considered "patrimonio nacíonal," including the painting Kurt's mom had copied of John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo. The boxes containing each permitted object were marked with a large photo of the relevant item.

Linda at the check-off
Javier, Gerardo, Kurt, Nestor, and driver
Unfortunately, we had failed to consider that a small oil done by favorite son Joey for a mother's day gift when he was about 8 also might qualify for national designation, as well as a sketch book of Kurt's from the 1970s. And then there was the issue of Linda's small collection of fossils from our old backyard in Austin. After several phone calls to the UC head office, the collective decision was for us to carry them all back on the plane. Thank goodness our frequent flyer status provides an ample baggage allowance.

The next day we scooted around the corner to our bank to close out our savings, checking, and credit card accounts. We started out in the upstairs office of the premier client section and then made our way downstairs and back up again as we progressed through the various items and actions required: multiple firmas y aclaraciónes del titular principal, the ritual of cutting the debit cards cut into two and then taping the pieces to an official form, etc. We had not considered the need to turn in all unused checks (and since we had never used any they were all there), but Linda quickly retrieved them from the apartment. These were then counted, their numbers posted on yet another official form, the actual checks officially mangled with one fell swoop of the official scissors, and the pieces formally affixed to the now quite impressive pile of account-closing papers. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed in the bank. Pity.

The whole ceremony took almost two hours, with the last 20 minutes devoted to a simmering discussion between Linda and one Julieta Bonocore, the new premier account manager, about 34 pesos that was due us from the checking account. Other clients waiting to be attended were attracted to the debate, which boiled down to whether a credit of 165 pesos was adequate to compensate for an erroneous service charge of 199 pesos. Linda insisted that a mis-debit of 199 pesos required offset with a credit of 199 pesos. (Head-nodding in the crowd.) Perhaps the bank had overcredited the account before, thus justifying the lower amount, suggested the manager. (Head-shaking from the observers.) Perhaps you can show me where that presumed overcredit occurred in the history of this account that you have displayed on your computer screen, countered Linda. At this point, it was the principle of the thing, not the value. In the end, Linda got her pesos. An unfortunate goodbye to an institution where we had previously enjoyed excellent customer service.
Julian y Lore

Later that evening, we headed to one of our old-time favorite restaurants, Don Battaglia on Scalabrini Ortiz (esquina con Castillo), which offers a unique salad bar with everything from plain lettuce to tabouli and Ensalada Belén (an Armenian dish we first encountered here). Accompanying us were Lore, our Mexican "daughter" for whom we are "los padres gringos" and her novio Julian. The day ended on a happy note.

19 July 2011

Panamá Bound

"Alluring" view from our apartment-to-be
Our wonderful two weeks at Las Sirenas were bookended by stays in la cuidad de Panamá, first in Casco Viejo (the old sector) and last in Bella Vista, one of the central downtown neighborhoods. In both of our city sojourns, Kurt and Linda were fairly preoccupied with real estate excursions and decisions. On July 4, right before we left Panamá, we put down a deposit on an apartment, but not where we had originally envisioned buying our new home.

We had realized fairly quickly that Casco Viejo, despite its considerable charm (photos here), was not in our destiny, at least not in the foreseeable future. We enjoyed staying there, in a comfortable apartment with two bedrooms and very nice laundry facilities, and we certainly patronized as many of the area's outstanding restaurants as we could. But the absence of certain amenities - specifically a grocery store - was a hurdle we just could not get around given our vow to remain carless.

And the prices for renovated/reconstructed apartments seemed a bit high, especially since most of the places we looked at lacked some basic elements of architectural/engineering/interior design QA/QC.

  • Example 1: Why is the washer/dryer unit in the middle of the kitchen and why is it white when the other appliances are stainless steel? 
  • Example 2: Why are there 2 bathrooms on the ground floor but nowhere else in a 3-story apartment?
  • Example 3: Why are the doors and shutters in this apartment dark wood in the colonial style and the built-in closets and kitchen and bathroom cabinets blonde pine in the Scandinavian style?
We could go on. . . .

We also reviewed a couple of listings in the "Zone," the former U.S. managed territory, and while the views in some cases were great, accessibility to basic services was again an issue. Finally, we decided to look at some of the new high-rises which have changed the face of the city. On a nice, cooler overcast day we made a long walk from the Casco up the new Cinta Costera that runs along the Bay of Panamá, all the way to Punta Paitilla, through that neighborhood and then back towards the center of town and Bella Vista.

Sunrise downtown
Then we went to the beach for two weeks and thought about things. And while we doing that, we received a very good offer on our apartment in Buenos Aires, so things started to jell.

Nightime downtown
 On our return to the city, we stayed downtown so we could get a better feel for that area. In between eating Lebanese and Greek food, we zoomed in on a building close to completion with a name we prefer to pronounce Argentine style: a-zhur-ee at the Park. (Where do they come up with these monikers?) It's right across Avenida Balboa and the Cinta Costera from the bay, overlooking a rare neighborhood park with a baseball diamond for Little Leaguers, a playground for little kids and a basketball court for big ones, plus lots of trees and grass for dog-walkers (a hobby we hope to resume in the near future).

Zooming in on the causeway and beyond
Our apartment is #33B . . . yep, on the 33rd floor (40 was just a bit too high), with 2 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, a laundry room, a small study, and a nice living/dining combo that spreads from the open kitchen to the 25 square-meter terraza that stretches the length of the apartment, offering great views of the Bay, the entrance to the Canal and the ships waiting there, Amador Causeway and the islands to which it leads, and Taboga Island in the distance.

Plus we get to share the amenities of the common areas: pool, gym, game room, raquetball court, social area, event hall, etc. And best of all, just 1 block away, an excellent grocery store complete with a nice wine cellar stocked with some fine Chilean and Argentine wines at prices well below those charged in Argentina (go figure). We're supposed to move in early 2012. Stay tuned.

10 July 2011

Las Sirenas de Santa Clara

Paradise in Santa Clara, Panamá
Our long-planned home-exchange for a house on the beach in Panamá was a complete bust. Our erstwhile "partners" neglected to inform us until the day before our arrival that the beach cottage they had promised us for two weeks was having an entire second floor added and was thus incapable of housing anyone. Oops.

Such discourtesy, however, turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for us; destiny then took us past Gorgona, the site of the debacle, about 20 miles further west along the Pacific Coast to Santa Clara and a paradise called Las Sirenas.

Las Sirenas is a two-level compound of casitas for beach vacations: five up on the top of the hill overlooking the Pacific and six more in duplex style on the beach.

Casita 3 on the right
We - Kurt, Linda, and favorite daughter Belén - spent most of those two weeks in June in Casita #3, a palace on the hill with two bedrooms and two baths and two hammocks hanging from the porch columns. And a private parilla in front of that and a large bohio some meters more toward the edge of the hill which is a great place to lie back and marvel at the stars on those perfect clear nights. Also good for lounging on those perfect cloudy nights. More photos of the complex and our casita here.

Belén & Sirenacat
Every casita in Las Sirenas is patronized by a group of some four to five resident cats, all related and all usually ready to eat, although some are friendlier than others. During our stay at Las Sirenas, Belén finished the final edits of her new book and wrote an article for Al Jazeera. Among other things.

Kurt with new hat from El Valle

Kurt and Linda were left to their own devices: besides the usual beach/sea activities, they made several visits to El Valle de Antón, a little mountain village about a 40-minute drive from Santa Clara. The town has a very pleasant central mercado with artesanias and fresh produce, where Kurt acquired his authentic Panamanian hat and where we had a chance to hear Marcelo playing his home-made violin.

Jesús Segundo
Marcelo & violin
El Valle also is the starting point for several hiking tours into the mountains.

One morning we ventured along the trail leading past the Piedra Pintada, the most important of whose pictographs were interpreted for us by Jesús Segundo, who miraculously appeared as soon as we stopped in front of the stone. His pointing palo was waiting for us all. After paying Jesús Segundo the modest $1 fee he required, we followed the trail on up the mountainside past several waterfalls and pools set within a lush tropical background (photos here).

Then we made our way carefully back down for lunch at a nice cafe just across the main street from the public library. As we did on all our other visits to the cafe, we watched the stready stream of bikes going up and down the street, most with one rider on the seat and another on the frame. When it rained, which was fairly common, most people steered with one hand while holding an umbrella with the other.

Don Tenorio
Our last day in Santa Clara featured a tour of nearby Farallón, a small beach village bombed by the U.S. in December 1989 as part of the invasion of Panamá. Don Tenorio, who has worked at Las Sirenas for the last 38 years and who survived the raid, showed us what remained of the beach house owned by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, target of the invasion but absent during that bombing run.

Ready for the grill
Don T. also lead us to the local fish market, where we paid $22 USD for eight lobster tails and eight jumbo shrimp that Kurt grilled for the farewell feast that evening. Photos of the excursion here.

Early the next morning, before heading back to the city of Panamá,  we walked down our beach to watch the fishing nets being pulled in from the shore. Photos here. We left as the sea gulls and pelicans did battle for the spoils. Impressive, as is obvious from the photo below that Kurt took at great peril to himself and Linda's camera.

Feeding frenzy
If you're thinking of a Las Sirenas vacation - and who wouldn't be? - go soon. The complex has been sold to developers and the destruction unfortunately will start in 2013.

Click here for more photos of beautiful Playa Santa Clara and one of its sirenas.

04 June 2011

Adventures in Colombia

¡Las chicas en Colombia!
In mid-April, Linda met up with Belén for 3 weeks of travel through Colombia. From Bucaramanga to San Gil to Barichara in the north central highlands of Santander, then further north to the Caribbean coast, to Cartagena and Taganga, we traveled up and down and through lots of mountains, some of them verdant, others more like deserts. We traveled via plane, bus, minivan, taxi, boat, and three-wheeled mototaxi (see photo to right), and on foot. We:

  • saw all sorts of animals, birds and other flying things, reptiles, fish, and many canine Bounder look-alikes, all of them muy simpáticos;
  • communed with nature in various forms, starting at San Gil's gorgeous Parque El Gallineral along the banks of the Rio Fonce (photos here);
  • ate lots of good food, including vast helpings of arepas, patacones, and arroz con coco as well as fruits with names for which there is no English translation, various forms of beef, and lots of seafood;
  • learned that neither hot water nor a bathroom ceiling are necessary for showering in a warm climate; and
  • made the most amazing friends.
Here are some of our tales.

En route to Barichara
A few days into our trip, we decided to hike from San Gil to Barichara, appropriately called the "pueblo mas lindo del pais." (More photos of the forced march here; ) The countryside was gorgeous, changing from one microclimate to another over a distance of about 20 kilometers.

Cesare & Sonia in their open-air kitchen

Hours and hours later, we were getting pretty gorgeous ourselves, despite repeated applications of sunscreen.We were still 2 kms outside of Barichara, with plenty of sunshine left, when Belén suggested "autostop." No sooner had we stuck out our thumbs than a Jeep Cherokee screeched to a stop, and we were waved in the back seat. Our saviors were Cesare (originally from Italy) and Sonia (from Colombia), who not only drove us on a quick tour of Barichara but then invited us to the wonderful house they are building right outside the pueblito as a retreat from the urban life in Miami and Bogotá. (More photos of the house here.) At their kind invitation, we returned the next day as guests for paella, one of Cesare's specialties. Fortunately, Linda had some good wine from Argentina to bring to the feast.

We wound up staying three more nights beyond Cesare and Sonia's departure, exploring Barichara, which is indeed one of the most charming villages we have ever been in. Photos here. We also took another - mercifully shorter - hike to the nearby pueblo of Guane, "only" 9 kilometers away on the old Camino Real. Photos here. Linda kept thinking of Werner Herzog's 1972 classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Señor, our little-while dog
While in Barichara, we also met more new friends. Certainly the most cuddly was Señor, our name for a friendly soul who followed us home from the cafe where we had shared our lunch with him on our last full day in Barichara. Alicia, the caretaker of Sonia's house, told us that Señor actually belonged to a nearby family who did not treat him well. We tried to make up for his prior bad experiences with humans. Señor stayed the night with us, guarding our bedroom from any potential intruders, and then went running with Belén the next morning. We tried to convince him to stay with Alicia when our moto-taxi came to deliver us and our luggage to the bus stand, but Señor insisted on accompanying us. He even waited with us til the bus was ready to leave, then kept up with it as long as he could. A good good dog and we were sad to leave him behind. More photos of him here.

Detail of master bath in
Gabriel's house
Sonia had arranged for our accommodations in Cartagena. While "bed and breakfast" would be the technically correct descriptor for our lodging, the phrase can't begin to convey the atmosphere of Calle de las Palmas 31. Photos of the house here. For example, the 10 bathrooms in the house we stayed for two nights are artistic installations that also happen to be extremely serviceable. All were designed by our host Gabriel, the uncle of an old school chum of Sonia, who some 20 years ago had begun the long process of rebuilding and combining two colonial mansions in Getsemaní, one of oldest parts of the city. He had certainly done an exquisite job.

A fruit lover's paradise
Despite the brevity of our stay in Cartagena, we managed to see a lot of the old town and, thanks to a mid-afternoon downpour that kept us from leaving, all of the old headquarters of the Inquisition in Cartagena. The museum to those 200+ years there is complete with examples of mechanisms of torture (many of which, such as waterboarding, unfortunately are still in use today in too many places) along with the wording of various spells and incantations. (Linda is considering naming her next dog "Fulano de Tal.") Photos here. We also had some of the best seafood ever at Donde Socorro, a small restaurant recommended by Gabriel.

Joanna & her tarot cards
Next stop: Taganga, a small beach pueblo a few hours via bus east of Cartagena, where the seafood feasts continued and swimming became a top priority for Belén, the quintessential pisces mermaid. Photos here. We also had the good fortune (and we mean that literally) to meet Joanna, a traveling artisan and seer originally from the north of Chile. Sadly, her mother had been killed by Pinochet's forces when Joanna was an infant; she was raised by her grandmother, a woman well respected for her psychic abilities. On the grandmother's death, Joanna said, birds of all types surrounded the house during the wake. We soon learned first-hand that Joanna has a similar connection with nature at various different levels. That's all we can say. . . .

Cartagena iguana