A Travellerspoint blog

Argentina

Bueno Day in Buenos Aires

Sunny and warm greeting in Argentina

sunny 75 °F

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As I stepped out of the car ar John Glenn Airport in Columbus, a cold, wintry rain sent its icy tentacles down my neck. Remind me never to confidently sneer that we are done with Winter. Ever. However, when I landed in Buenos Aires 15 hours later, I discovered where the sun had been hiding since teasing us with a mild winter early. Setting out from my hotel in Centro district, the warm sun bathed refreshed me with its golden light. I had slept more than I expected on the plane last night, but was still a little groggy. The brilliant blue, cloudless sky helped wake me up, too.
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I ducked inside the Teatro Colon, but decided to save touring its lavish interior for a day when it wasn't so gorgeous out. Instead, I worked my way steadily downtown, drawn downhill towards the waterfront. The Obelisk was a quick photo stop, then a short walk later, I arrived at Plaza Mayor. This is Centro's main square, and a festival was in full swing with a choir serenading a bustling crowd and teams of traditionally garbed dancer performing. I watched a few teams perform, then circled the area, taking pictures of its historic buildings gleaming in the sunlight.

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I was disappointed I couldn't visit the Casa Rosata -- the centuries old Presidential Palace. This pastel pink building is where the President works, where Evita Peron addressed adoring crowds from the balcony, and where Madonna belted out her rendition of Argentina's famous First Lady. The tours were booked solid for the week, unfortunately. I compensated by taking a leisurely circuit of the classical, columned National Cathedral. Gold and stained glass shone in the afternoon sunlight. One interesting touch were the two Grenadiers in 1800s, Napoleonic-style uniforms guarding the tomb of one of Argentina's beloved generals. Drawn swords and martial attire usually aren't found in Catholic Churches!
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Nest up was the Casa Rosata Musuem. There are lots of pictures of Plaza Mayor through the years, as well as Presidential relics through the years. Everything was in Spanish, but it seemed to do a relatively honest job of portraying Argentina's less-than-democratic past as it was. The displays were not thrilling, but it was a fee museum, and a change of pace from walking around downtown. The funniest part was what the ladies working there were most enthusiastic about -- a bizarre, nude mural in a small building constructed inside the museum for it. Apparently it is the first mural ever painted in the country. We had to put cloth boots on over our shoes and then entered a small antechamber where the enthusiastic tour guide rambled on in Spanish for more than 20 minutes about it. She knew I did not speak Spanish, but I had to sit there and endure her lecture for me and the dozen other people. I fought doIng off several times, then chuckled when I thought, "It took the dude less time to paint it than it is for her to explain it!" Once permitted in the mural room, I shook my head and left with a few minutes. Sorry, I am not a fan of modern nude art with distorted female body parts overwhelming a painting. I'd rather look at street graffiti than this overrated crap...ha,ha!
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From there, I worked my way down to the seaside. There us a bird sanctuary on an island protecting the waterfront. The shore facing the city looks more like a marsh than a coastal scene, and egrets and parrots flapped above or in its waters. I sat, drank a cold soft drink, and caught up on some email and Facebook, enjoying the feels of the 70+ degree heat and the sun warming my back. On the way back, I stopped by and explored an 1890s era frigate docked along the waterfront. It was cool to see that transition period from sailpower to electric and steam. Then, it was back to my hotel. It had been a good first day. Dinner a bit later was an amazing finish, too - incredible Italian food, with great bread and olive oil beforehand. I had followed my typical plan after an over-night, overseas flight. Do outdoor stuff. Minimize or cut out any museum visits. And Argentina had cooperated, giving me sunny, blue skies and warm weather to welcome me.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 18:31 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Feeling Like an Antique After Shopping Day

Exploring the San Telmo Market

sunny 78 °F

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All the guidebooks recommended visiting the Sunday Antique Market in San Telmo, a gentrified neighborhood with interesting architecture and quaint cobblestoned streets. Since this was the only Sunday of my visit, it was off to San Telmo via Buenos Aires' "Subte", or metro. The subway was easy to navigate, and stacked up well against other world metro systems I've taken (except for Singapore, which is almost obsessive-compulsive about its cleanliness and comfort). A half-mile walk from the metro station led to the main drag of San Telmo, Defensa, which was bustling with crowds in the late morning sun.
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Some vendors had their wares set up on various sizes and shapes of tables, while others on blankets on the ground. The variety of items for sale ran the gamut from clothing, antiques, pottery, music, books, and interesting gifts. My favorite were the two vendors I saw that had taken various coins from around the world and converted them to interesting pendants. They cut out the background of the coin, leaving the face, animal, or whatever the raised surface was inside the ring of the coin's rim. I would have bought one but I rarely wear jewelry. The crowds grew steadily as morning turned to noon and then afternoon.
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One break from shopping was the National History Museum. It focused mostly on the colonial past, but had some displays on the various aspects indigenous cultures of Argentina. All signs and placards were in Spanish and there was no English language literature to go with it. On the positive side, the museum was free because it was National Culture Day, I overhearid another visitor say. There were various weapons and uniforms used by soldiers and leaders. There was even another grenadier uniformed in 19th century costume with drawn sword guarding a display. All in all, though, the museum was unsatisfying for this history buff. Perhaps if I'd been able to read the signs and descriptions I would have enjoyed it more.
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There were two more interesting sounding museums in the area, so I dove back into the surging crowd shopping at the market. The tables filled with wares ran for nearly a dozen city blocks. Off to the side, covered markets and indoor antique markets tempted shoppers off the main drag. The array of things offered for sale was bewildering. A WW I gas mask? Figureheads from wooden sailing vessels? More weapons and knives and odds and ends than you would think possible crammed table after table.
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Despite backtracking twice, I could not find the second museum, and the third ended up being closed. After hours of walking on irregular cobble stones, my feet were aching. I could feels myself tottering a bit as I walked, and I began to feel like one of the antiques lining the store windows behind the market tables. A cold drink and a place to stretch out my legs sounded too good. I decided to stop at a cafe on the way back to the Subte, but on the route I chose everything was shuttered and closed, it being Sunday. It wasn't until I returned to the neighborhood of my hotel that I finally found one open. By then, I was exhausted, and as it turned out, done for the day. It was nearly 4 pm when I collapsed on the bed of my hotel room. An hour-plus nap was obviously in order, as I was out shortly after I took off my shoes. I woke up later and had an awesome pizza dinner, but Sunday -- shopping day in Buenos Aires-- turned out to be a relatively light one as far as sightseeing went.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 17:22 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Admiring the Houses of the Dead

Wandering the La Recoleta Cemetery

sunny 77 °F

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I had read that the La Recoleta Cemetery was an atmospheric place to wander on your visit to Buenos Aires, so that was the destination for Day 3. Another short subway ride and a nice walk led to its gates. Even though there were a few tour buses parked outside, the vastness of the cemetery swallows up visitors. It seems most groups make a beeline for the family tomb of Evita Peron, so I set off in the opposite direction. There is no way to check out every single tomb, so I would wander the aisles making my way through each area, hoping to spot the most interesting ones.
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The mausoleums that the Argentine families have constructed here range from simple to massive and elaborate. Some are done in a Graeco-Roman style, others in 18th or 19th century fashion. Statues of angels, soldiers, and the deceased look out serenely over the packed rows. One even showed a naked Classical Greek man wrestling a female centaur. I would be VERY interested to hear the story behind that symbolism! Some statues feature family members somberly mourning the departed. Others have beautiful stained glass windows that burst into color in the bright sunlight.
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The really cool part of exploring La Recoleta Cemetery is the sheer variety of mausoleums. You thread your way through row after row, investigating spires, statues, or the tops of tombs that caught your eye. There are more than 6,000 of them, and many contain Argentina's formerly rich and famous. Hundreds have been declared historic monuments. It reminded me a lot of a cemetery I visited in Ukraine, Lychakivske, in Lviv. However, that one had more of an outdoor feel. With all the stone and marble and paved walkways, this had a very "city" feel to it.
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After more than two hours of prowling the cemetery, my feet and back had enough. It was time for a break, and the brewpub just outside the entrance sounded perfect. I learned later that evening from an Argentine friend, Florencia, that microbreweries are becoming quite the craze of late. Refreshed, I headed out again to check out a church that overlooked the cemetery. The Basilica del Pilar was first built in the 1700s, and you can tour its whitewashed interior. Gregoria's chant wafted through the stone interior, and numerous signs explained the relics and artifacts along the walls. Disappointingly, there was no place to get a good picture of its tiled belltower, which I'd seen while touring the cemetery.
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A final stop was the 66-foot tall aluminum Floralis Generica. It is a giant flower whose petals used to open and close every day. Now, apparently , it is stuck in the open position. Its brightly reflective surface brought to mind Chicago's "bean." It was another gorgeous, sunny day, and the sun shone off its metal surface. As it was heading on to late afternoon, it was time to go back before rush hour jammed the subway cars. Once in my hotel room, I downloaded my pictures onto my iPad, picked out my favorites, then took a quick nap.
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I ended the evening meeting Florencia and her husband. They were great hosts, and we swapped travel stories and they told me more about life in Argentina. Both are well travelled, and Florencia has lived in the U.S. and even Syria, years ago. We'd met years ago through an online travel forum, Travelpunk, but had never met in person before. She'd been ribbing me for years about not visiting Argentina. I had a great time chatting with her and Pablo. I think getting to know locals on a visit to a new country provides a new depth and dimension to learning about a place. It was great to get to know both them and Argentina more.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 09:15 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Art Taking the High Road, and Low Road

Teatro Colon and La Bocca

overcast 74 °F

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The day I arrived, I'd made a short stop at Buenos Aires' world famous Teatro Colon. Known throughout the world for its acoustics and gorgeous interior, I planned to come back for one of their English language tours. The overcast morning was starting to show signs of sun when I arrived in time for the 11 am tour. There were about two dozen people in the group, and everyone was polite and well mannered. Out tour guide was a young, Argentine lady who was charming and honest. She talked about the problems they had building the theater, its mishmash of styles, and how it's acoustics were poor when it opened. She kept us moving without being demanding, and politely ignored it when we wandered a bit off to rake photos.
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The theater was built in the late 1800s in a mix of Italian and French styles. The statues, gold leaf paint, columns, and other classical decoration were stunning. The glass windows with their colorful, floral decorations were beautiful. Our guide pointed out the columns decorated with stucco to look like marble and the parts that were genuine marble. She explained the purpose of each of the chambers, and brought to life what attending the theater as a social event would be like back then.
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When we moved into the theater itself, she pointed out each area and level of balcony, and explained what its purpose was back then and now. It was interesting to hear about how each social class had their own area, and how in some levels men were even segregated from women because the seating was too close together. She pointed out the Presidential box, as well as that of the mayor. My favorite story was about the secret area at the top of the ceiling, next to the great bronze lamp fixture. There was a tiny area where musicians or other performers could hide to create special effects like thunder coming from above, or angels or birds singing. The acoustics were indeed perfect -- it was voted #1 in the world awhile back -- as she barely had to raise her voice and all of us could hear clearly.
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I was glad I visited, and it was worth the $16 or so that I paid. The guide also told us about practices that people can buy tickets for, if they can't afford the actual performances. I probably won't do that, but others may be interested. I have to admit that I'm not a fan of either the symphony, theater plays, and definitely NOT opera! Still, it is a beautiful building and deserves its acclaim.
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Next was a subway ride to the stop closest to the La Bocca (which was still almost a mile from the part of the neighborhood I was heading). I probably should have taken a taxi, but I figured I would see more walking. As it turned out, I took a taxi back, but for different reasons! La Bocca is where many European -- especially Italian -- immigrants first settled. Bocca means mouth, which stands for the river mouth where many of the port facilities were located.
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The homes in La Bocca are garishly painted in a wide variety of colors. The story is that they used the paint from ships, thus the non-matching colors. They also moved several families into the sprawling mansions that had been abandoned by the wealthy during the yellow fever epidemic. Nowadays, many of these century-old buildings have been haphazardly repaired with corrugated steel, wood, or whatever materials were on hand. They are still brightly colored. What's more, murals and carvings decorate the walls depicting families, ordinary people, tango dancers, and more. These are brought into 3-D by larger than life statues of Argentinians such as Pope Francis, soccer star Maradonna, and caricatures of everyday life in La Bocca along the streets or projecting from facades of buildings.
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It is a bit touristy, of course. You can tell that by the touts trying to talk you into their cafe (with musical performance or tango dancing). Also, every other building appears to be a souvenir shop or gift store. It is a colorful visit, though. I stopped to photograph buildings repeatedly, and enjoyed the artistic effort taken by the residents to make their surroundings beautiful. I saw more than one house being spruced up with a fresh coat of paint. Of course, the residents are no longer limited to the paint they can scrounge from incoming ships. They use the full pallet -- so I saw lavender walls, bright green, yellows, and more.
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After lunch, I took taxi back because of the demonstration going on downtown (where my subway route would have to pass through). On the walk to La Bocca from the subway, I'd seen hundreds of demonstrators carrying signs and chanting slogans marching down one of the main thoroughfares. At lunch, I saw television coverage showing thousands packing the Plaza Mayor, where I'd done my sightseeing on Saturday when I arrived. That explained why all the subway cars had been packed going towards downtown! I never did find out what the demonstration was about. Maybe I'll ask Florencia when we meet later this week.
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It had been good, art-filled day. The first part had been high brow art, and the second definitely low brow. Both had been beautiful, though, in their own way.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 14:56 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

The Past Lives on in Tigre Delta

Boat cruise along the Rio de la Plate's Delta

semi-overcast 71 °F

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So if you think you are going on a nature excursion when you sign up for the Tigre Delta boat tour, you might be disappointed. Now instead, if you go simply to see some interesting sights, and a slice then of life worlds apart from downtown Buenos Aires, you will likely enjoy your time. You see almost no wildlife -- at least nonhuman species. However, you see quite a few counterculture types that have kicked back along the delta and carved out a relaxed, interesting lifestyle.
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Whatever you do, though, do NOT sign up for this as an official, guided tour. Make all the arrangements on your own. Show up anytime at the Retiro Train Station in B.A., and buy your return ticket to Tigre (a comfortable hour away) for less than $2. Trains leave every 15 minutes or so. Then select your boat company by walking down to the waterfront -- or visiting the Tourist Information Office just past McDonalds, like I did. Sooooo much cheaper, and more accurately priced. Some tour companies will say they will pick you up at your hotel and you'll end up with half of your time spent in minivans picking up other guests from other hotels scattered throughout the city. Trust me. You can handle doing this one on your own.
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I booked the two hour tour rather than the one hour version simply because this was the main reason I was in town. Plus, the catamarans had an open upper deck rather than a sealed, one deck with no opening windows that I saw in other boats. I spent my entire time on the upper deck, feeling the nice breeze and experiencing it all first hand, rather than in air conditioning behind a window.
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The first part of the cruise is interesting because you see how dilapidated so much of this riverfront can be. There were numerous rusting ship frames and half-sunken vessels lining the waterways out of town. There is money here in Tigre, yes, but it is not evenly distributed. There are obviously poor people, or those who are living hand-to-mouth to get by. And there are wealthy, too, with their immaculate houses along the water, with pools, private beach, elevated dock, and more. In essence, this two hour cruise is a contrast in socio-economic groups that have chosen to congregate in the delta. I saw pieced-together wrecks like something out of a Mad Max movie, and I saw gorgeous, weekend getaways for the super-elite.
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Most of the two dozen or so passengers rode on the upper deck, too, enjoying the fresh air, as well. That included the Argentine couple with the newborn and toddler who took turns shrieking throughout our cruise. But hey, anybody who decides to take their child on a hot, two hour ride that they obviously are too young to enjoy has that right! Forget the kids -- it is all about you! So, as you sit there, smoking, the cigarette fumes bathing your children's faces, no one will think the worse of you. Not even me.
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About an hour and a half into the cruise, I saw my first rain drops of the trip. It never broke out into the thunderstorms that were predicted, but it drizzled steadily for the last half hour. Once the cruise ended, I took that as a cue to hit up the Naval museum while the weather was not cooperating. Compared to the other, relatively tiny, historical museums I'd visit in Argentina, this one was positively sprawling. The beginning part had lots of large models of various ships from human naval history. It continued by focusing on Argentine history, and its navy. There were interesting exhibits on the Falklands War (or Malvinas, as Argentinians call the islands) with Great Britain.
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For me, the coolest part were both the models and the actual weapons and vehicles. Not only did they have a massive collection of anti-aircraft guns, they had torpedoes, machine guns, and even actual aircraft from naval aviation history. Many of these were exhibited outside in the garden annex. While walking around them, I heard the sound of a jeep being revved next door at a garage. Looking at the undercarriage I could see underneath the exhibits, I wondered aloud if it was a U.S.Army "Willey" keep. Sure enough, it was! It was cool to see this living relic of WW II in person. The same was true for all of the other exhibits in the museum. In fact, it was an interesting day overall -- whether seeing relics of the past or how people lived today in the delta of the Rio de la Plata. Just don't pay someone else to take you -- remember to do this one on your own!
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Posted by world_wide_mike 19:38 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Many Movements on a Moving Day

Day of Remembrance demonstration a lesson in Argentine politics

sunny 78 °F

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I woke up today with no planned sights to see. I had not done much research before arriving here, true. However, it was also because I'd pretty much gone through the list of things I wanted to see. Stepping out onto the street, I was amazed to see it empty. On weekdays, the street outside my centrally located hotel was usually bustling. Then, I remembered that Florencia had said Friday was a national holiday. Those last museums I was thinking of visiting to fill my day would likely be closed. Now what, I thought?
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I began with a stroll down Calle Florida, Buenos Aires' pedestrian street, heading downtown. Nearly every store was closed, so it was not the lively experience it probably is most often. On one corner, I passed up a group of about a dozen people with identically colored shirts who had banners furled on the ground next to them. Some were tapping away on drums and they seemed excited. Was there to be another demonstration, today? As I neared Plaza de Mayo, it became obvious the answer was yes. I passed more and more groups, many larger. And the sound of drumming intensified as I got closer to the central square.
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Once I turned onto Avenida de Mayo, it became obvious this would be a big event. Banners and posters were strung everywhere. Food vendors were grilling up piles of sausages and other meat in preparation for hungry crowds. Even souvenir sellers were staking out a patch of sidewalk with a blanket, spreading their wares. Granted, some had a political theme, with tshirts proclaiming, "Yo No lol VOTE" or other obviously political sayings. Some were printed withthe features of the famous guerrilla, Che Guerva.
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My normal instinct when traveling abroad is to avoid political demonstrations like the plague. You never know when they may get out of hand, invite a heavy-handed government response, or if a crowd will decide to vent their fury on a handy representative of American foreign or economic policy. However, a couple things made me feel this was safe. Number one, they'd had a big demonstration a couple days ago and it was peaceful, with no violent government response. Second, the sheer number of vendors set up to service (and make money off of) the crowds. When the sausage seller feels safe enough to set up his grill and fry up a mountain of meat, then my guess is lawlessness is not about to break out.
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More groups began to arrive, stopping and lining up about three blocks away from the plaza. They raised their banners high, and began to drum, blow on brass instruments, sing, dance, and have a great time. Each new group that arrived had matching tshirts and a recognizable color theme. I could translate some of their banners. I saw the group demonstrating for more rights for gay and transgender people in purple. There was a communist faction in red, holding aloft images of Che or the hammer and sickle. Most groups demanded justice for the political prisoners of the past. The riot of colors each noisily cheering their cause was amazing.
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I noticed another thing -- there appeared to be no ill will between these various groups. They appeared united in one thing: letting their voices be heard. Hugs were more present than any signs of disagreement. No group jockeyed for position to displace another. It was great to see each group in their colors, and try to translate their signs so I could decipher their political message, while watching them entertain themselves by dancing and singing. Police were scattered here and there and seemed to be only observing. There were no dark looks or officers in riot gear. Everyone seemed agreed on this "Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice" (as it was officially called) taking place peacefully. In the center of the plaza, a stage was set up blaring rock music in Spanish. All of the government buildings were placarded with their posters, and the air was festive -- not angry.
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I bought an Argentine flag pin for my world map back home from one vendor. I succumbed to the wonderful aroma of the sausage grillers, and enjoyed some excellent street food. And then I threw myself into observing and photographing this example of South American democracy in action. As I watched the ordinary citizens in their groups enjoy themselves, hug each other, and coexist alongside other political factions, I couldn't help but compare this experience to U.S. democracy. Here, there are a myriad of groups, parties, and movements. Back home, we have two main political parties who become more divided by the day. When we have a demonstration, riot police show up to keep the counter-demonstrators separate. Epithets are hurled, violence breaks out, and there are signs only of disunity. All of my life I have felt fortunate to live in a country without the Parliamentarian factionalism. You see nations struggle to put together coalition governments, only to watch them crumble at the first crisis. As our two-party system in the U.S. becomes more and more polarized, and conservatives and liberals find little common ground, are we truly lucky to have this system?
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Today was a day to wonder "what if?" What if we lived in a country not dominated by only two parties? What if we had a Christian Democrat party, a Liberal-Socialist party, a stronger Green Party, more organized and less angry Libretarians? What if these parties had to get along to govern -- to form a majority -- instead of our minority party obstructionism? Food for thought. I have often said that the best thing that could happen to America is to get rid of ALL political parties, that way, people -- especially our elected officials -- vote their conscience rather than what their party tells them to do. As I strolled along the snaking columns of demonstrators, photographing each colorful new group and wondering where they fit into the political spectrum, I heartily enjoyed this experience of witnessing Argentina's democracy in action. This was far better and showed me more of the soul of the people than an art or history museum could ever have.
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The final group I witnessed was a fitting climax to the afternoon. They were all women dressed in purple, from very young to very old. They carried brooms and were called, I believe, the Mothers of May. What immediately struck you was the towering mannequin of an elderly lady, and smaller (but still more than man-sized) figure of a young man. They were enthusiastically dancing in circles around and in front of the mother figure. As they danced, they swept the ground furiously with their brooms. The joy on their faces was evident. When their song ended, they formed a circle around the mother. The women and girls faced outward, tapped their chest twice and repeated a phrase in Spanish. They locked eyes with the crowd, staring into ours intently, repeating the phrase. Even though I could not understand what they were saying, I could tell it was an emotional moment.
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Later, I asked someone, and they explained that the group represents those mothers who lost husbands or sons to the political prisons. They were demanding the return of their loved ones from police custody, and justice for those lost. It was the most powerful moment of a moving day. I plan to ask Florencia and Pablo more about this tomorrow, on my last day. Although I had awoken that morning unsure what I would do on my final, full day in Buenos Aires, I felt thankful for having glimpsed this side of life in Argentina.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 15:35 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

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