Buenos Aires, Argentina 2002: Churrasco, Tango and Devaluation

 

Argentina April 2002 023 (2)I love this country.  It’s a piece of Europe stuck on the tip of South America, at least proud Argentinians like to think it is. This was my third time there. Last trip I was able to spend three weeks touring much of the country. I drank the wonderful wines in the province of Mendoza. I tasted the terrific Torontes wine of Salta. I breathed the fresh air of Bariloche. I finished my tour by ascending the Andes to the west. I passed Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America and traveled by bus, boat and train down the other side of the Andes to Chile. This trip I would focus on the delights of Buenos Aries. I wanted to taste the cuisine of the churrascarias, a South American style rotisserie that owes its origins to the fireside roasts of the gaúchos of southern Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Also, last trip I failed to take in a tango show. This time I would be sure to see one. Generally, I just wanted to enjoy the European ambience of this sophisticated city.Argentina April 2002 018

Carlos, a good friend and colleague originally from Salta, Argentina, recommended the Hotel Dora in the old part of the city.  The charming, historic hotel was perfect. Many attractions were within walking distance.

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First order of business was food. Off to one of my favorite restaurants, La Estancia at 941 Calle Lavalle. I ordered my usual bife de lomo. Juicy and tender as usual, but the real surprise came when they brought the bill. The whole meal including wine came to just over four dollars. The Argentinian peso gone through a major devaluation a few weeks earlier. Devaluations are wonderful for travelers, and I have enjoyed several of them. But you can’t help feeling sorry for the locals whose standard of living just took a major hit. I remember in Bali in 1989 when the Indonesian rupiah lost 80% of its value. A clerk in the Matahari department store told me that her monthly salary was now the equivalent of US$14 and she and her mother had to try to live on that.

As I walked around the streets of the charming European-style city, I saw many more signs of the damage the devaluation was doing. On the bank buildings many angry and even obscene signs had been plastered. Graffiti had been sprayed on doorways, buildings, walkways and streets. The president and his minister of finance were being called many interesting names which cannot be repeated. The basic problem was that the peso had been worth one US dollar. Overnight, the government decreed that it was now worth only 25 cents. A vast amount of savings and purchasing power been wiped out instantly. Of course they blamed the crisis on the International Monetary Fund and American banks instead of their own mismanagement. Argentina has a long history of financial crises dating back to the days of Juan and Eva Peron. As intelligent and sophisticated as they are, Argentinians seem to have a taste for populist politicians who promise the moon and and end up breaking the bank…literally.  Now I could see the results in the streets of the capital.

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Normally I avoid crowds and demonstrations when I travel. On one occasion, I rounded a corner downtown and ran right into a group of protesters banging pots and pans outside of a government office. They were obviously trying to make as much noise as possible. When one older woman saw me she came over to speak with me. In my marginal Spanish, I learned that she had retired from a university where she had worked as a lab technician for 25 years. The government had hit her twice. Early in the economic crisis they had slashed her pension in an austerity move. Now the devaluation had delivered the second blow. Even for a hardened old business professor it was difficult not to be sympathetic. I did wonder to myself, however, if she and her colleagues had voted for the populist politicians who had done this to them. Had they contributed to their own financial demise?

Although the financial crisis had taken some of the shine off of my Buenos Aires visit, I was determined to enjoy the remaining time. I toured the many beautiful parks including La Recoleta, an upscale neighborhood with the cemetery containing Evita Peron’s tomb. I saw the famous balcony at the Casa Rosada presidential palace where Juan and Evita would address the masses ala the movie starring Madonna. I visited La Boca, the colorful working class area with its brightly painted shacks which are reminder of the district’s early immigrant days. Indeed, more than 30% of Argentinians trace their heritage to Italy. This is where the tango had its roots.

Speaking of the tango, because of the devaluation, I was able to get excellent seats for the dinner show at the Esquina Carlos Gardel Tango show. I am sure there are many venues to witness the Tango while in Buenos Aires, but this one is outstanding. The theater is named after the famous French/Argentinian singer, Carlos Gardel who is considered one of the founders of the tango. Have a look at their website for a delightful sample.

Esquina Carlos Gardel Tango Show website

June 1977 – Haiti and the Citadelle Laferrière

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This is where Gen. Christophe would march his troops over the side to their death.

Haiti was the first truly exotic destination I experienced in nearly forty years of travel. Armed with Eastern Airlines air passes, my father and I spent twenty one days island hopping through the Caribbean. We hit Costa Rica, the Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Martinique and the most memorable of all, Haiti.  This past summer, while sorting through and digitizing the thousands of slides I had collected over the years, I discovered some of these early photos and they brought back a flood of memories. While the quality of the photography leaves something to be desired, the photos offer a glimpse of an adventure that set the hook on my lifelong travel addiction.

The history of Haiti is sad and violent. That sadness and violence continues even today. Brought in as slaves to work the plantations and inspired by the French Revolution of 1791, the natives managed to kill all of the French and take over the island for themselves in the early 1800s. One of the first rulers was Gen. Henri Christophe. He himself was an ex-slave and in 1811 he declared himself king. Throughout his bloody reign, he remained paranoid that the French would return and take the island back. As a precaution, he built a fortress on top of a remote mountain where he could see a French invasion coming.  Having a commanding view of northern Haiti, it could only be reached on horseback climbing steep narrow trails.

My father and I drove to the remote mountain in a rental car that I had booked in the capital of Port-au-Prince. When we got to the base of the mountain, we rented small tropical horses and began the climb. As we finally made it to the top,  I saw a number of ruined buildings and a large flat platform made of stone. Our guide took me out to the edge of the platform. I’m sure I uttered a loud audible gulp as I looked down. My toes were only a few inches from the edge of the platform and it was a several thousand foot drop below. There were no guardrails. OSHA would never approve. The guide told us the story of how Christophe would impress his visitors by marching his troops to the edge and wouldn’t say halt until the first few rows fell to their death. It was a spectacular view but standing on the edge looking down thousands of feet, one couldn’t help but think of the violent history of this place.

Haiti has been plagued by a long series of brutal dictators like Christophe. At the time we were there, Papa Doc Duvalier and his crazy son, baby Doc, were in charge. Baby Doc used to race his Ferrari on the airport runway while airliners full of tourists had to circle and wait to land.  I remember walking by their palace in Port-au-Prince. Papa Doc had placed a large sign across the palace grounds reading “President a Vie” – President for life. Papa Doc kept an iron-fisted grip on the island through his dreaded secret police, the Ton Ton Macoute. As a joke, the locals started calling my father and me, Papa Gene and Baby Gene.

We were two divorced guys on holiday. We loved the attention of the locals gave us. One particular young fellow, Jean Pierre Cearc, became our local concierge and general go-getter. If we needed a delicious bottle of Barbancourt rum, he was there. Hearing that my father was now single, he set out to find him a new bride. He introduced Papa Gene to the lovely Clarice, a chubby but rather charming maid who worked for a family living nearby.  It wasn’t a match made in heaven but my father was very amused by it and enjoyed meeting her.

While interacting with the locals was a very pleasant experience, we found that the island was a culinary and visual feast. We loved the French influenced cuisine. One could get a fantastic meal in an upscale restaurant in Petionville for a bargain price. What I enjoyed even more was the famous colorful primitive art on display throughout the country.  A visit to the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince was a visual feast. I bought several paintings and statues that are still decorating my home to this day.PICT0258

While exploring the south end of the island, we visited the town of Jamel. I noticed an art gallery and decided to check it out. The proprietor turned out to be a famous poet and art critic, Selden Rodman. I chatted with him for some time and bought his latest book, The Miracle of Haitian Art. Apparently he liked to escape the pressures of the New York art world by taking up residence in Haiti for extended periods of time. He was well known as one of the foremost authorities on Haitian art. He wanted to know if I played tennis. He said that they had a loading dock there that made a pretty good tennis court. Since my father and I needed to get back to the capital, I passed on the offer  A few years later when I was having lunch with a couple of art instructors from my college, they were very impressed that I had met such a major luminary from the art world. What did I know? I was a business major.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selden_Rodman

I believe it is still possible to visit The Citadel and Haiti in general. However, as everyone knows, they have experienced a great many disasters in recent years including a major earthquake and are still going through a recovery. One would be well advised to check very carefully before traveling there. Having said that, it’s well worth a visit if you can manage it and the tourism dollars would be greatly appreciated

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citadelle_Laferri%C3%A8re