Monday, October 20, 2008

“The Grand Finale: Cordoba linda, Cordoba inolvidable” (Sun19Oct– Day 25)

Sitting in my wonderful hostel Casa Roja in Santiago Chile, I look back on the greatest long weekend of my trip so far...

(Where am I now: In seat number 12 (front row) on the top floor of a double bus from El Cruzero de Norte company, at Cordoba bus station, leaving for Chile) (What is the time now: 21:48 pm on Sun 19th Oct, What am I listening to: The Engine of the bus)

This will be probably the greatest post I’ve written yet, at least for me, since I want to start by saying, this has been the nicest part of my trip so far. These past 3 days have been truly magic.

Before I start though, an image I am seeing happening right before my eyes. I am sitting on the top floor, front window facing the entrance of the bus station. Hundreds of people on the platforms in front of me, few with bags but many more just here to say goodbye to their loved ones. I want to take a photo to show you but I feel it’s not appropriate. I was too engrossed into my typing to realize all this, until I raised my head to the sounds of sobbing coming from the side. An old lady, discretely holding her ticket to prevent me from seeing her is gently crying and waving to a group of 3 women on the platform. They seem to be 3 generations, her sister, daughter and granddaughter, the little girl in her mom’s arms smiling and waving to what is probably her grandma. After all, today is mother’s day in Argentina…

Makes me think sometimes that despite the unique opportunities I’ve had the past month to truly enter into Argentinean culture and life thanks to the people I’ve met and those that have hosted me, I still live in a different world, I am a passenger and that means I am just passing by. I think that for a minute I am feeling a bit lonely looking at the smiling girl waving goodbye from the platform in front of me. This sense of travelling alone does make you lonely sometimes. But that was also the purpose of this trip, be alone for a while (although never lonely…)

After this small detour, let’s get back to the main topic: Cordoba.

Cordoba of times gone by...
This name always had a very special connotation for me; it’s a magic exotic name that conjures memories of adolescence and romantic first encounters. It was my first contact with the Spanish language and Spanish culture. After all it is the place I travelled to see my first girlfriend, a girl that at that time was like me still in high school. I always wondered why there was another city with the same name on the other side of the Atlantic. I always wondered what it would be like. Does it have a Mosque, a river going through it, lovely architecture, famously good-looking women, wonderful nature around the city and nice food? I wanted to see for myself, this was a place not to be missed, whether Lonely Planet or people having already visited Argentina recommended it or not. This was my choice from the beginning.

Thus the detour. At the end, who flies from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, 2.5 hours from the border of Chile (his next destination) to backtrack more than 9 hours of a bus ride back into the center of this huge and wonderful country? I did. And I would do it again. Anytime. You see, par the mosque, Cordoba in Argentina has all of the above. It is magic. But it took more than me visiting it to make it like this. It also takes some good luck and proper circumstances to turn another Argentina destination to what currently is the best part of my sabbatical.

I arrived here on Thursday morning, without any hostel reservation but with a promise from a Couchsurfing acquaintance that I could stay at her place (Amparo is the girl I met in Buenos Aires, for those that want to read more, it’s the “Ticket to ride..” posting.)
She even came to pick me up from the bus stop – you have to understand this is one of the greatest luxuries for a backpacker travelling alone… We got to her place, I got a pair of keys for her apartment and some pointers on what to visit on this first cloudy day of my stay in Cordoba. “Alternatively you can rest a bit and we meet for lunch” she suggested as she had to go to the University. The truth is that after checking my emails, I felt like taking a nap. It was already almost 13:00 when I woke up and Ampi passed by the house to pick me up and take me for lunch. And this is how my Cordoba adventure begins.

Local girl vs. Lonely Planet: 1-0
You can’t really beat local knowledge when visiting a city. No matter the guide or website I have seen this happen again and again the past 3 weeks. The best things, the most interesting people and sights I saw were when I was with the people that have been living in the city. Whether this was Buenos Aires, Santa Fe or Cordoba now, it is so funny to actually go on a walk around the city with a local and then come back home and open your guidebook and realize you’ve seen the top 5 destinations in one day. But that’s not the real fun, the real fun is when you get to see the OTHER sites and this is what happened to me in Cordoba, similar to Buenos Aires.

The first lunch I had was in Alfonsina a rather laid back restaurant that Amparo suggested which was pleasant but nothing exceptional. It was on the LP guide and she did warn me that they’ve become quite commercial. I did eat "Choclo" though which was a sort of soup with corn, and you know me, I am all up for trying new things
I spent the better half of the afternoon in the University of Cordoba, attending a lecture (in Spanish) on studying in Europe and the late afternoon, having beers with new friends. Dinner, and grand finale for the long day, was pizza at Petrus (probably the best pizza I’ve had in a while – ok I still love Angelo pizza at Espresso in Geneva). Too tired to go on, we went home. I started contemplating on the alternative. Hostel, top side bed, lockers, common showers and searching for the closest supermarket to buy some provisions to cook a dinner or alternatively go to a place and have dinner alone… And my current option just seemed like the best in the world. It proved to be right.

Friday is for Lomitos and theater.
The best sandwich I’ve had so far in my trip (and I have had many) was in Beto’s in Cordoba. A “lomito” is a sandwich that contains “lomo” a thin piece of grilled beef and a whole world of other stuff (lettuce, tomato…even omelet if you are brave enough) to go with it. This was simply divine, wonderful, tasty, I wanted to take a photo but was too embarrassed (and I admit too hungry) to do it… If you like sandwiches and you believe that a sandwich can be a full meal to keep you going, get a “Lomito completo” at Beto’s in Cordoba.

Amparo works in the University of Cordoba and as a hooby she’s part of a theater group. They have put up a play called “De effecto Mefistόfeles” which is based on the Faust myth of the dude selling his soul to the devil. This is an amateur theatrical team, most participants study theater but they are researchers, hold part-time jobs, are ex call-center workers, whatever. I wanted to see this. I admit I am not very strong with theater, I have never been properly exposed to the art but I did see a challenge and the experience: a play in Spanish.

This was not what I expected simply because I expected very little and this was truly brilliant. I will try and explain what I mean in a simple few sentences. When you go to watch a play, you expect a story that has beginning and end and hopefully some meaning which either is explicit (in your face) or hidden, this way you can discuss a bit later the meaning, maybe analyze it. This play, that included simple choreography and two musicians complementing the play, was a statement on its own. Between the different scenes you actually had testimonials of real people on serious social issues that real people are facing in Argentina. So you had Amparo and a friend explaining the tough situation for scientific researchers whose efforts are not recognized nor compensated from the state as real work. You had a girl from a call center explaining the exploitation young people face in this business and you also had an ex-prostitute explaining the dire conditions they are facing against the police and how they are trying to organize themselves to secure better working conditions and ultimately get out of poverty.

Talk about a Friday night eye-opener for the casual & unaware backpacker. You see, these are the things that have made this trip so different for me. I am travelling alone but have been lucky enough to see so many aspects of Argentina life. I admit I’ve spent a significant amount the trip’s time in this country, partly by force since I couldn’t get a flight into Australia a bit earlier but I don’t regret it a bit. I don’t consider myself someone that knows the ins and outs of Argentina daily life but at least I have pretty good point of view of some aspects hidden to the average traveler. And this is what makes this trip worth it.

With Principe and Cenicienta (Prince and Cinderella), just like a fairy tale.
One of the biggest highlights of my Cordoba experience was the visit to an Estancia. Estancias are big parcels of land, like farms that usually belong to rich families that cultivate the land, breed horses etc. I had a chance to see all that outside Buenos Aires when Matias took me to visit a friend’s farm for one night. Cordoba was the second time. We arrived at Camino Real Estancia around 12 o’clock and the plan was pretty simple: you can spend as much time as you want on the grounds of a beautiful farm house that is also like a small hotel, have a truly gourmet lunch and great wine and if you want, go on a horse ride. Now that last point really appealed to the city boy-cum-global traveler.

Lunch was fantastic, the best probably I’ve had in Argentina, wine was divine and the grounds of the Estancia simply beautiful. I had to think of my friend Christoph who loves his food and wine – as he would say: “Man, you have to check this out!” Extremely content, I went outside, next to the swimming pool to catch some sun and a little siesta under a glorious bright blue sky, cool breeze making everything so enjoyable.
At 16:00 we were asked to go near the grounds where they keep the horses – horse riding! How many of you have done it? It is wonderful!
Amparo said: “It’s like a motorcycle but less dangerous”
“Yes I understand but my motorcycle has disk breaks and I am not 2 meters off the ground” I thought to myself.

After the initial fear of getting on the horse and trying to manage it, you simply let go. You stop worrying and start enjoying everything. The rhythmic sound of the hoofs on the soft ground and the gentle swaying left-right, the occasional “sneeze” of the horse but most of all the beautiful scenery. It’s truly a 4-sense experience: sound, smell, vision, and touch.

Our guide was an experienced horse rider, although only 22 years old, “Do you want to gallop?” he asked.
“No, I am shit scared” I thought.
“Yes of course!” she said and suddenly pushed forward the leather straps and gave Cinderella a gentle kick on the side.
Off she went, with Prince following behind and me trying to hold on for my life. Fantastic, for a moment I realized that I was doing what I saw in all those films I’ve watched in the past as a kid: Indian & cowboy films, war films, adventure films. It hurts if you don’t know how to properly sit on the horse when it is galloping but who cares? Ultimately the only thing you need to do is pull back and it stops (at least mine did!) As the horses slowed down, we approached a little stream that actually turns into a river in the summer months when the mountain ice melts. We crossed it, horses slowly feeling the ground below and me marveling at the beauty of the surroundings, unable to believe my luck on this part of the trip.

Big smile on my face, I caught myself whistling the theme from the “Magnificent 7” on the way back to the farm.

Tango, querido tango.
I hate tourist attractions. I don’t like the commercialization of local customs & traditions. Never ask me where you can go and break plates in a restaurant in Athens, I despise this type of entertainment although I respect the fact that it’s probably a decent way to make a living in countries where there is tourism. As long as it’s done in a quality way.

El Arrabal, is a famous restaurant in Cordoba that also has a live music & tango show. The fact that it is also on the Lonely Planet guide is an even bigger reason for me to avoid it. Amparo suggested we go and if I didn’t get a good “onda” (wave literally, vibe in Argentinean slang) we can leave. I reluctantly (typical second-guessing Kostas) agreed.

The place is wonderfully decorated, has extremely good food and very friendly staff that even ask you where you are from as you enter the place (if only I knew why…). The true highlight however is the Tango & music show. I had seen (enough, I felt) Tango on the streets of Buenos Aires to last me for my Argentina trip but by the end of the night I stood corrected. Two musicians on stage, one with a bandoneόn (the tango accordion) and one with a bass guitar made all the music you would need to hear, all of it beautiful. They were simply stunning. Apparently the bandoneόn player is very famous, a grey haired man with a thick moustache, filling the room with the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard from such an instrument. Two singers, one male one female, completed the musical show. The guy, extremely elegant, “typical Argentinean” Amparo said, with a white wide-collar shirt, pin stripe suit and the characteristic deep voice changed his facial expressions as the songs went on, hands, face, gestures, all parts of his body playing the same song. A truly entertaining couple!

The tango dancers were a different level all together. First of all they were extremely good looking (dark, tall guy, wonderful face/hair and body for the girl) and the 4 different sets of clothes they wore were truly amazing. Music, movement and clothes, all in perfect synch transferred you to an era I felt was long gone.
Did I tell you already I hate tourist attractions?

The finale comes when, during a song people are asked to “make noise” with spoons, plates, whatever, even the staff in the kitchen bashing pots and pans together. After a bottle of beautiful red, this seemed to me like one of the nicest nights I’ve had the past month. Then I see one of the singers holding little pieces of paper. He says: “Let’s see who we have here tonight…” We have people from Cuba! And the bandoneόn goes off playing the first part of Guantanamera, everybody singing out loud, we have people from Chile, people from Panama, people from Venezuela, everyone got their own little part of their home-country tune…

“Let’s cross the charco!” (Charco= ditch, a way Latin Americans call the Atlantic) the singer shouted. I started to imagine things. After a brief stop in Italy, the guy announces we have a Greek in the restaurant (and by now I knew the reason for the “where do you come from” question)…
And that’s when you get to hear a tango/bandoneόn version of Zorba the Greek, how touristy, how typical, how predictable, yet how truly amazing, me big smile on my face, clapping and whistling. You’re not impressed? You try playing the last rapid part of Zorba with an accordion and then we can re-discuss.

Grand finale, female singer asks people to join her in the last song, which regretfully I don’t know but Amparo of course does. As she shared with me, years of Tango record playing from your dad can have this effect, I guess. I point her out to the singer (just as a little revenge to the “Greek experience”), the singer comes close and Amparo with a big smile on her face and characteristic ease takes the mike and completes the last part of the song, customers, waiters and musicians clapping around…

Last night in Argentina, best night in Argentina. Adiόs Argentina, mi querida.



odevoted said...

You know better whether it was the best netry or not, i can surely say it was the most colourful and the most emotional.

Vaya con dios hermano

Κατερινα Εσσλιν said...

i really enjoyed reading this, it made me feel you are having the time you deserved. bravo kostaki. xxx.

George "Teriax" T. said...



asto ! 8a sta pw metaaa !