Monday, July 21, 2008

¿Dónde están los ladrónes?

JUPITER, Fla. -- We made it! Will and I arrived safely back in Miami this morning, but not without the usual drama. Well, this time, we had a bit more than the usual drama. I'd give it a 7 on the 1-to-10 fiasco spectrum scale.

We checked out of the luxury apartment this morning so the owner could clean it for guests arriving that night. We left our bags with the friendly doorman downstairs, who put them in a secure room awaiting our return that evening for our redeye flight.

I hesitated a moment, wondering what I should do with my iPod and cellphone. I usually take them with me rather than check them. But, an acquaintance had just regaled us with the story of a brazen purse-snatching on the streets of Buenos Aires. Our alternative, putting the iPod and phone in Will's backpack for the duration of a crowded subway ride, seemed even less secure. So, in a fit of bad judgment, I left them in a case at the bottom of my backpack, solidly buried under a copy of 100 Years of Solitude, my glasses, sunglasses, accounting workbook, two reporter's notebooks, three possibly pirated CDs, two purses made of antique weavings (one full of silver jewelery), a guide to the La Paz Coca Museum, and the July issue of Latin American Vogue.

This did not deter the thief.

We returned from a leisurely lunch with Andrew and hopped in a cab for the international airport, where I discovered the absence of my cellphone and iPod in a backpack that had been rifled through. The culprit did not appear interested in Garcia Marquez, jewelery or my credit cards (which saved me the headache of canceling them).

But worse, I could not find my camera with the previous two days' photos on it. I had asked Will for it at lunch, and he said he had seen it in my bag that morning before we checked it. So we assumed that's where my camera was, and we used his camera the rest of the day. The moment of discovery at the airport improved from 'disastrous theft of irreplaceable proportions' to 'merely irritating and expensive' when Will found my camera in his bag, where it had been all along. Whew! Our photos of Uruguay returned from oblivion. Don't know what we would have done without those.

And really, both my old phone and iPod both would need replacing soon anyway. Thank goodness for planned obsolescence. It took the sting out of the incident, as did Will's amusement at the image of a thief listening to my eclectic and lowbrow iPod playlists somewhere ... including, oddly enough, Shakira's ¿Dónde están los ladrónes?, about the theft of her luggage, and song lyrics, in the Bogotá airport.

So, it could have been a lot worse.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

One more Country

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina- We went on a day trip to Colonia, Uruguay on Saturday. We could say we did this because the old colonial city and beach port, vacation spot for Argentinians and Uruguayans alike, is extremely beautiful, which it is. But, truth be told, we both wanted to get one more stamp on our passports. Although it is a tourist haven, this piece of land, which requires a boat trip across the Rio de La Plata, is surrounded by water on three sides -- giving it the feel of a small quaint island. Highlights included cobblestone streets, Uruguay's oldest church and the ruins of a convent. The history of the small town is interesting, as it was originally founded by the Portuguese and then later taken over by the Spanish. This rich heritage can seen in the restored buildings and old museums, which made our stroll through the streets well worth our time.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Our Best Day in Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES -- As our 11-week trip drew to a close, Will grew nostalgic and decided to plan a special evening out on the town. He wouldn´t tell me any of the details, just said to clear Thursday night (as if we had other urgent business to attend to here). I could get no details out of him, so I eventually stopped asking, and instead took the opportunity to buy purple leather boots, as I had no nice going-out shoes. But then I saw some shiny purple flats and bought those too, and wore them instead.
These were the trivial details I had on my mind. Obviously, I had no idea what was coming.
I thought I´d figure out where we were headed once Will told the taxi driver, but he slyly had written down the address on a piece of paper, and he simply handed it to the driver without saying a word.
We ended up in the tony Puerto Madero section of town, a refurbished waterfront, in front of Cabaña Las Lilas -- the best restaurant in the city. Prices skyrocketed when New York Times writer R.W. Apple declared it one of the world´s best restaurants.
What a perfect way to end our trip, I thought.
We sat dockside and ordered two medallions de lomo, mine with butternut squash puree and Will´s with walnut mashed potato, and a bottle of Malbec. Oh, and a provoletta to start off with. Which I probably wouldn´t have ordered had I known they would set out a platter of appetizers for free -- carpaccio, pate, mini mozzarella balls and tomato, in addition to the woman wandering around with an enormous basket of hot bread.
Still, not too much I thought, as I prepared to dig into my steak. I had ordered medium rare as usual, and it came with a little smiling plastic cow that said ´´Estoy jugoso.¨ We saved those for kitsch appeal.
Then the waiter rushed back, apologizing profusely. ´´We only brought you a half portion!´ he said. ´´I¨m so sorry!¨
I had no opportunity to protest. The next thing I knew, he was back with another steak. I had no choice but to eat two steaks.
I have never felt so full in my life. I wanted to go home immediately. But Will persuaded me to split the Chocolate Nemesis cake (I couldn´t resist the name). Then he persuaded me to go for a walk ... in weather suddenly turned blustery ... down the canal to the lovely suspension ´´Bridge of Woman,¨ so named because Puerto Madero´s streets are all named after famous Argentine women. At least I can vomit in the water, I thought, if it comes to that.
I easily could have refused all these suggestions. But I would have ruined a plan weeks in the making, unbeknownst to me.
When we got to the bridge, Will, nostalgic again, started talking about what a great trip this had been, and how much he loved me, etc., until he was interrupted by a woman trying to sell us two of the ugliest flowers I have ever seen. They were wilty and pink, and each came with an even uglier gold-glitter-dusted fake flower. She wanted 5 pesos. Will gave her 20 to go away.
The next thing I knew, he was dropping to one knee.
¨Will you marry me?¨ he asked.
He was holding something shiny in his left hand, in a box, and it was not the ugly glitter flowers.
´´What?´´ I asked. I was shocked. Then, ¨Yes, yes, of course I will!´´
He had somehow managed to hide this plan and piece of jewelery from me though we had spent 24 hours a day together for the past 3 months. And now, standing on a windy bridge over the water, I was about to drop a shiny, shiny ring into the Buenos Aires canal.
¨I don´t want a ring!¨ I said, trying to give it back. ¨I lose things!¨ But he convinced me it would be ok, and I put it on -- a purple amethyst, thank goodness, because he knows exactly how I feel about conflict diamonds.
I am still in shock. But I think we can all agree this was our best day in Buenos Aires, our best day in South America and our best day ever. We are looking forward to many, many more days together in the years to come.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Top 10 Reasons We Love Buenos Aires

1. Abundance of purple leather boots in equally abundant women´s shoe stores.
2. Watching a parade of dog walkers each try to handle a dozen Labrador and English sheepdog-sized canines every morning.
3. Despite weakening dollar, exchange rate still 3 to 1 with the peso.
4. Belle Epoqe-era theater´s new owner turned it into a cathedral-like bookstore.
5. Abundance of other used and new bookstores.
6. Clean and pleasant tree-filled plazas.
7. Four-hour lunches.
8. Four-hour dinners starting at 9 pm.
9. Quirky and affordable Sunday antique fair.
10. Espresso, ice cream, pasta, steak, red wine.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pasta or Steak?

BUENOS AIRES -- Our biggest daily dilemma in this culinary wonderland: Do we eat pasta tonight, or steak?

Known equally for its cattle and Italian cuisine, Argentina has a wealth of restaurants to choose from. We have the luxury of a seasoned food tour guide in Andrew, who has narrowed down the best restaurants for us in more than a year in Buenos Aires. We took a complicating factor out of the dining equation by deciding to have wine every night, usually a local Malbec. No dilemma there. -- Meghan

Las Criticas de Will

Restauran Don Julio
Guatemala 469, Buenos Aires
This cozy little restaurant in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires was our first stop. With cow-hide tablecloths, vintage brick walls and crowded with locals, this establishment was a magnificent way to begin our culinary journey. We started off ordering a special cheese dish, called provoletta, grilled and sprinkled with oregano. It was very tasty, but reminded me a lot of cheesy bread from Domino's. Then it was on to the main course, bife de lomo, the finest cut of beef known to the world. It came out properly cooked (well done) and was very tender. But by far the highlight of the night was my introduction to chimichurri, a spicy sauce made up of garlic, parsley and a secret ingredient known only to Argentinians. It's on the table to complement the meat, but dipping your bread in this tasty connoction is the best thing since Sonny's Barbecue. I pledge here to search out into this large city to find the best chimichurri sauce.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Luxury at Hostel Prices

BUENOS AIRES -- We have not prioritized comfort as we tried to stretch our lodgings budget across three months.

In Sucre, we went without heat or hot water (though few places even had that option). In Salta, we got colds from the mildew in our hostel. In Tucumán, the malfunctioning toilet in our room dated back to 1972 (older than both of us). That´s what happens when you spend between $15 and $30 a night. And still, this looks much better when you consider what you might find for $30 a night in the U.S.

In Buenos Aires, the hotel gods rewarded us for our sacrifice.

Thanks again to a brilliant idea from Andrew, we decided to rent an apartment for a week. Our last-minute search yielded an incredible deal -- for about $30 a night, we have a brand-new studio apartment in the exclusive Recoleta neighborhood. It comes with a balcony, cable TV, access to a rooftop pool, basketball courts, stainless-steel appliances and a helpful doorman. We walk a block and a half to the subway, and get out four stops later for dinner in the trendy Palermo neighborhood (at Don Julio: steaks, a bottle of Malbec and grilled cheese -- like the sandwich but without the bread) Or, four stops in the other direction, we can visit the Plaza de Mayo and salmon-pink Casa Rosada government offices downtown. We can walk to the fashionable cemetery where Evita is buried.

Today, we took the bus to San Telmo, center of the tango world, for the weekly antiques fair. The cost of restaurant meals, real estate and just about everything has climbed since Argentina´s economic meltdown several years ago, but remains well below U.S. prices. Hence, this was the first antiques fair I´ve visited where I could actually afford to shop. Somehow, we will try to get the green 1940s-era glass soda dispenser home without breaking it ...