El Ombú

The Ombú Outside the La Biela Café in Buenos Aires’s Plaza Francia

One of the most spectacular trees to be encountered in Argentina is the Ombú. The one in the above picture is in front of my favorite Buenos Aires café, La Biela, where Jorge Luis Borges frequently dined with Adolfo Bioy-Casares. Also, it reminds me of the tree described by W. H. Hudson in his first story in Tales of the Pampas (1916):

IN ALL THIS DISTRICT, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

They say that sorrow and at last ruin comes upon the house on whose roof the shadow of the ombú tree falls; and on that house which now is not, the shadow of this tree came every summer day when the sun was low. They say, too, that those who sit much in the ombú shade become crazed. Perhaps, sir, the bone of my skull is thicker than in most men, since I have been accustomed to sit here all my life, and though now an old man I have not yet lost my reason. It is true that evil fortune came to the old house in the end; but into every door sorrow must enter—sorrow and death that comes to all men; and every house must fall at last.

But my memories of this Ombú are all happy ones. I have eaten at the café there twice, both times having excellent meals. The first time was with Martine in 2011. In 2015, I met with my friend David Benesty there. Below is a picture of David sitting between Borges and Bioy-Casares at what was once their favorite table:

Jore Luis Borges, David Benesty, and Adolfo Bioy-Casares


I would love to go to La Biela again and have a cool bottle of Imperial beer on a hot Buenos Aires afternoon.

 

I’m Not Finished with Argentina!

The South Atlantic Near Ushuaia

The South Atlantic Near Ushuaia

Even while I am planning my Ecuador trip, I am hinking of returning to Argentina. It is almost like another home to me, after three visits. This time, I am interested in traveling down RN 3 along the South Atlantic from Buenos Aires all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia (in Argentina) and Punta Arenas (in Chile). That is slightly over 3,000 kilometers. I may even fly to Puerto Williams in Chile, the absolute southernmost inhabited town in the world. Then I would fly back to Buenos Aires.

Along the way there would be the following stops:

  • Bahia Blanca with its famous Museo del Puerto de Ingeniero White.
  • The twin cities of Carmen de Patagones and Viedma, separated by the Rio Negro.
  • Puerto Madryn, which I visited with Martine in 2011 and perhaps some of the Welsh colonies around Trelew and Gaiman.
  • Comodoro Rivadavia, the industrial port from which Argentina launched the 1982 Falklands (Malvinas) war.
  • Puerto Deseado, visited by Magellan and Charles Darwin, called by naturalist Francisco Perito Moreno “the most picturesque place on the eastern Patagonian coast.”
  • Puerto San Julian, where both Magellan and Sir Francis Drake suppressed mutinies by executing the ringleaders.
  • Rio Gallegos, a key southern transportation hub and an old wool and petroleum shipment center. From here I can go to Punta Arenas (Chile) and see the Torres del Paine and the Fitzroy Massif. And from there, I could fly to Puerto Williams (a bit pricey, but comes with great bragging rights).
  • Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, where I’ve been twice and which I love. I’ll even stay at the same place, the Posada del Fin del Mundo owned by my friend Ana Bermudez.
The South Atlantic Is Not for Swimmers

The South Atlantic Is Not for Swimmers

Now that I’ve come to understand the long distance buses in Argentina, I know I’ll be able to travel in comfort and at a relatively low price. The longest stretches would be between Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia and between Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca.

Except for Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn, and Ushuaia, most of the above cities are off the tourist route. I could live with that.

Serendipity: The Ombú

Ombú Tree in Recoleta, Buenos Aires

Ombú Tree in Recoleta, Buenos Aires

I first grew curious about the Ombú trees of the Pampas when I read W. H. Hudson’s Tales of the Pampas. Following is the beginning of his short story entitled “The Ombú”:

IN ALL THIS DISTRICT, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

They say that sorrow and at last ruin comes upon the house on whose roof the shadow of the ombú tree falls; and on that house which now is not, the shadow of this tree came every summer day when the sun was low. They say, too, that those who sit much in the ombú shade become crazed. Perhaps, sir, the bone of my skull is thicker than in most men, since I have been accustomed to sit here all my life, and though now an old man I have not yet lost my reason. It is true that evil fortune came to the old house in the end; but into every door sorrow must enter—sorrow and death that comes to all men; and every house must fall at last.

Do you hear the mangangá, the carpenter bee, in the foliage over our heads? Look at him, like a ball of shining gold among the green leaves, suspended in one place, humming loudly! Ah, sefior, the years that are gone, the people that have lived and died, speak to me thus audibly when I am sitting here by myself. These are memories; but there are other things that come back to us from the past; I mean ghosts. Sometimes, at midnight, the whole tree, from its great roots to its topmost leaves, is seen from a distance shining like white fire. What is that fire, seen of so many, which does not scorch the leaves? And, sometimes, when a traveller lies down here to sleep the siesta, he hears sounds of footsteps coming and going, and noises of dogs and fowls, and of children shouting and laughing, and voices of people talking; but when he starts up and listens, the sounds grow faint, and seem at last to pass away into the tree with a low murmur as of wind among the leaves.

As a small boy, from the time when I was able, at the age of about six years, to climb on to a pony and ride, I knew this tree. It was then what it is now; five men with their arms stretched to their utmost length could hardly encircle it. And the house stood there, where you see a bed of nettles—a long, low house, built of bricks, when there were few brick houses in this district, with a thatched roof.

The ombú in the photograph stands in front of La Biela, an old café that Jorge Luis Borges and his friend and collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares used to frequent. It is on Plaza Francia not far from the entrance to Recoleta Cemetery.

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A City I Love

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo

In front of Retiro Train Station, a serious attempt was made to pick my pockets at a time I was carrying several thousand dollars in cash. A couple came up behind me and squirted me with a mixture of steak sauce and mustard while “helpfully” attempting to clean me off with paper towels (which they just happened to have in their hands) and steering me to a nearby bathroom where their accomplices would finish the job. But I was on to that dodge, so I took a sharp right and stopped a cab.

While walking the streets, I had to be careful not to trip on the array of broken sidewalk tiles. (This particularly bothered Martine in 2011.)

Subways, trains, and buses are so crowded that it can take your breath away. One day I took a ride on Subte A to the end of the line at San Pedrito and back in hopes of riding the old subway cars, which supposedly are stuill in use. The cars were all new, and standing room only.

So why do I love Buenos Aires?

There is something about the city’s faded splendor that reminds one of Europe again and again. I think there was a conscious attempt to imitate Paris and Madrid back when Argentina was riding high as the main supplier of canned meat to both sides in the First World War. But then hard times came, but the splendor still shone through—not everywhere, but sometimes in surprising places. The Galeria Pacifico on Calle Florida is probably one of the most gorgeous indoor shopping centers anywhere.

There are dozens of old cafés, many dating back to the late 1800s—places where you can get a good meal, attentive service, and sit and read a book or newspaper without being rousted out. Places like La Biela in Recoleta, and La Puerto Rico and the Palacio Español in Monserrat. These places are usually crowded with older men, and I felt that I fit right in.

I don’t know how many more times I can walk the streets of this fabled old city, but I hope the gods allow me the chance to return at least once or twice.

 

 

 

Within a Stone’s Throw

Buenos Aires’s Recoleta Cemetery

Buenos Aires’s Recoleta Cemetery

As I have written on earlier occasions, Recoleta Cemetery is one of the major tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. I have visited it during my two previous trips to Argentina, in 2006 and 2011. And now, I will be staying in a hotel within sight of the tombs on Avenida Azcuénaga. It is possible that the blue-green building in the left background could be on Azcuénaga, but I’m not sure.

One of the nice things about staying in the Recoleta area is that it is full of classical old café/restaurants such as La Biela, El Sanjuanino, El Rincón, La Cocina, La Barra, and the Rodi-Bar—places that have been around for a hundred years or more and become national treasures.

On Saturdays, the Plaza Francia in front of the cemetery is the site of a craft fair  that features leather goods; items made with rhodochrosite, a magnesium carbonate mineral that is the national precious stone of Argentina; and yummy snacks. Nearby is La Biela, under the shade of a giant old ombú tree, where one can enjoy a cold Imperial beer and a light lunch.

I will be leaving a week from Tuesday, and as the time gets closer, I am looking forward to the trip more and more.

 

 

The Man from La Boca

He Was the Painter of the Port of Buenos Aires

He Was the Painter of the Port of Buenos Aires

Benito Quinquela Martín (1890-1977) is a painter not widely known in the art world of New York, London, or Paris. In Argentina, his work is a different story altogether. Martín was known primarily for painting port scenes around La Boca, which, for most of his life, was the port of Buenos Aires. Today, La Boca is primarily known for cheap souvenir shops and dancers who assume tango positions for pesos for the tourists. Near the tour buses at Caminito, however, sits the Escuela Pedro de Mendoza, which happens to contain the Museo de Bellas Artes Benito Quinquela Martín dedicated to his work.

Boca is not the nicest part of the port city, and it is no longer the port, which has been moved east. The polluted Riachuelo, also known as the Matanza, flows past the museum and the brightly colored buildings decorated with leftover marine paints and inspired by Quinquela Martín’s port views.

Unloading Cargo at La Boca

Unloading Cargo at La Boca

Aside from the tourist ghetto around Caminito and the nearby Boca Juniors football stadium known as the Bombonera, or candy box, Boca is a rough neighborhood from which tourists do not stray far. A century ago, however, it was the port of entry for thousands of Italian, Spanish, and other European immigrants who came to South America looking for a better life. And many of them found it. During the First World War, most soldiers on both sides were fed with canned beef from Argentina and Uruguay; and silent movies like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino showed the lives of Argentinian millionaires.

Another Port Scene from Martín

Another Port Scene from Martín

Today, Benito Quinquela Martín is considered to be one of the greatest Argentinian painters of the Twentieth Century; and his work in found in museums throughout Buenos Aires.

 

Cartoneros and the Tren Blanco

The Recyclers Come Out at Night ...

The Recyclers Come Out at Night …

There are always two sides to the coin. The other day, I wrote a post about Buenos Aires that perhaps gilded the lily overmuch. I have to keep reminding myself that one can easily love someone, something, or someplace that is far from perfect. Take Los Angeles, for example, from which my cousin Peggy from Cleveland fled because, as she said, she couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. (I don’t think she tried very hard.)  Many of my friends from other parts of the country do not hold Southern California in high regard, especially if they haven’t given the place a chance to work its way into their bones, the way it has with me.

So back to Buenos Aires. As with many huge cities, there is a lot of poverty lurking behind the picturesque façades. In Argentina, these usually take the form of what are sardonically called villas miserias (“misery villas”) due to the habit of calling the areas surrounding the urban core with names beginning with Villa, such as Villa Lugano, Villa Lynch, Villa Crespo, and the spectacularly awful Villa 31 (see below) adjoining the posh neighborhood of Retiro. This used to be the docks area for the Port of Buenos Aires, before they moved east.

Villa 31 with the Microcentro in the Background

Villa 31 with the Microcentro in the Background

After dark, the streets of Buenos Aires fill up with cartoneros, whole families with large carts who go through the garbage for cardboard and other recyclable items for which they can earn a few pesos. After the economic crisis of 2001, the government wisely has begun to recognize them and even facilitated their scavenging by creating the tren blanco, or “white train,” to bring them from the villas miserias, where they live, to the center of the city. These trains consist of old rolling stock with the seats removed (to allow for carts to loaded) and sometimes even without lighting.

Aboard the Tren Blanco

Aboard the Tren Blanco

I have seen the cartoneros at work the few times I wondered the streets of the city at night. For the most part, they are diligent and friendly as they go about their work; but there were stories at the Posada del Sol youth hostel about backpacks and wallets that were stolen. Fortunately, I escaped being mugged.

Again, there are parts of Los Angeles about which I would say the same thing. Except here, there is a higher chance of violence and rape accompanying the mugging.