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Continental Drifter

The whirl of Buenos Aires

By ELLIOTT HESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


Editor's Note: Columnist Elliott Hester has sold most of his possessions, taken a year's leave of absence from his job as an airline flight attendant and is traveling around the world. Here is his first report.

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Like a race car screeching away from the pit at Indy, my taxi vacated the curb at Buenos Aires' Aeropuerto Internacional and rocketed toward the death-defying autopista. Though I tried, in ruptured Spanish, to make my driver aware I was not in a hurry to reach my hotel, he gunned the engine, shot between two cars attempting to converge on our lane, then broke left behind a bus belching black exhaust.

He continued courting and narrowly averting disaster, his head whipping ceaselessly from side to side, his brow creased, for about 40 minutes. After we shot onto an off-ramp and began to cruise through the metropolis, I managed to breathe again.

No thanks to the atmosphere, mind you. Although Buenos Aires literally means "Good Air," there is precious little of it on steamy summer days like the one on which I arrived. Thus I joined the 13-million or so residents who lived in a broth of heat, humidity and auto exhaust.

Still, Buenos Aires has a stately European charm. We drove along spacious avenues lined with ornate, 19th century buildings that reminded me of Paris and Madrid.

I half-expected to see hordes of people blocking the intersections, shouting for justice and banging pots and pans. Such political protests, or cacerolazos, occurred almost daily last year in protest of Argentina's worst economic disaster.

In December 2001, after the government slashed jobs, commandeered pensions and devalued the peso in a futile attempt at balancing an enormous foreign debt, protesters had taken to the streets. Dozens were injured, and at least 20 lost their lives. But during my monthlong stay at the end of 2002, the city seemed relatively calm.

The only reminders were long lines at the banks, where citizens waited patiently each day to trade pesos for dollars.

After stumbling from the taxi in the prestigious neighborhood of Belgrano, I checked into Caseron Porteno, an immaculate four-room guest house owned by Daniel and Cinthia. The couple told me they had met a few years earlier at a milonga (dance), tangoed all night, fell in love and later opened their guest house, which caters to foreign tango enthusiasts.

The property's centerpiece is a flowery courtyard, at the back of which lies an open-air dance studio where guests are given free tango lessons. I took one lesson with Cinthia. Having stepped on her feet repeatedly, I left the floor to the more-accomplished.

One of them was Gerda Milpacher, a pink-haired German dance producer who occupied the guest room next to mine. Gerda had come to audition tango dancers for "Latino Classics," which she described as an annual summer extravaganza in Berlin.

For two days I sat in the courtyard sipping tea and watching Gerda audition dozens of fine prospects. The female dancers wore high heels and sultry black skirts with the traditional split up one side. The men donned black suits and wore their hair slicked back.

Compelled by the rhythms of dramatic tango music, Johana Copes and Maximiliano Avila flung each other around the studio like exasperated lovers. They spun away, embraced, displayed a flurry of rapid between-the-leg kicks, then looked into each other's eyes as if life depended on their next move.

Gerda hired them.

A few nights later I met with Sandra Suppa. A friend of a friend, Sandra introduced me to another Argentine pastime: asado (barbecue).

With Sandra and 15 of her friends, I dined at Ramona, a noted steak house. In the mid 1990s when Madonna came to town to film Evita, she asked the owner to close the restaurant and accommodate her entourage for one night. The owner refused. At Ramona, regulars such as Sandra carry as much weight as music divas.

Argentines are dedicated carnivores and consume, per person, about 130 pounds of meat annually. We met the challenge, beginning with beef empanadas and progressing to chorizo (grilled sausage), cordero (lamb), chivito (goat) and ternera (veal).

Between sips of merlot from Mendoza, Argentina's wine region, we graduated to more exotic pieces such as rinones (kidneys) and morcilla (blood sausage), which has a sweet, gummy taste.

The bill for 17, including appetizers and drinks, came to $180 U.S.

The next afternoon we attended one of Argentina's prized sporting events, a soccer match between hated rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate. As Sandra and I approached the stadium, we joined about 50,000 excited fans, who were scrutinized by policemen on horses and in helicopters. Hundreds of officers were there with dogs, teargas launchers and shotguns, a testament to the violence that has marred nearly every meeting of these teams.

My heart was hammering as we entered the packed stadium. A sea of red- and white-clad River fans let out a deafening roar from across the field. Uniformly dressed in blue and gold, thousands of nearby Boca fans countered with an earsplitting "Boca! Boca! Boca!"

I took my seat, watched the players spill upon the field and fell in love with soccer.

Next stop: French Polynesia.

Readers can contact Elliott Hester at megoglobal@hotmail.com or visit www.elliotthester.com. For information on Caseron Porteno, visit www.caseronporteno.com; the address is Ciudad de la Paz 350, Capital Federal (C1426AGF) Buenos Aires, Argentina; e-mail to info@caseronporteno.com. More information on accommodations in the country is at www.bytargentina.com.

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