Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Best of Argentina

Sometimes it´s the serendipitous experiences that occur while traveling that are the sweetest. On our last full day in Buenos Aires Luis and I went to the outskirts of the city to explore a market that we had heard about. Our English friends Kate and Jane came along as well. We had heard that this market was less touristy than the one in the center and furthermore it was more of a weekly fair, with horses, live music and other interesting things. When we arrived at the market I was a little disappointed. It was smaller than I expected and there were no horses to be seen anywhere.

It turned out that we had been given some misinformation. The fair was at this time of year on Saturdays not Sundays and so there wasn’t too much to see. I did buy a couple souvenirs though, a couple of matte cups. They were available all over the city but marginally cheaper at this fair. Later Luis heard about a restaurant where there was live music so eventually we headed over to take a look.

The restaurant was a simple affair. The building was considerably longer than wide and so from the street there wasn’t much to see. We walked a fair ways towards the back of the restaurant where there was a small stage and the smell of smoky barbeque filled the air. Now it would have been funny to take Kate and Jane there if they were vegetarians, but they aren’t. They’re vegans.

I was leading the way to through the restaurant feeling quite guilty the whole way. In the back of the restaurant was a small courtyard with a big barbeque where a wide array of meats lay sizzling. This was obviously the sort of restaurant where it was more than the language barrier that kept them from understanding the word vegan. However this restaurant was, as I pointed out, the restaurant that I’ve been looking for my entire life.

We sat down and took a look at the menu. Mixed salad and french fries. They were the only two items on the menu that weren’t meat. Not the only two items that didn’t contain meat, the only two items that weren’t meat. Luis and I ordered the special mixed parrilla; it was, after all, our last day. Kate and Jane each ordered a salad and french fries; they didn’t have any french fries. Our waiter brought us out the regular parrilla by mistake. We clarified that we wanted the special parrilla, with the better cuts, and as our waiter went back to change the order Kate, wondering about the huge quantity of meat, asked Luis, “You told him that that it was just for two people right?”

“Oh yeah,” replied Luis. “That is just for two people.”

Now the beer and barbeque alone would have been enough to make it a memorable experience, but then the band came in and began to play. There were two guitarists, and a drummer. The music was loud and catchy, traditional folk songs. They were all talented musicians, but the drummer was more than that, he was also a talented showman. He had one big drum that he wore with a strap slung over his shoulder. With that one drum though he did more than keep time, hitting the edge of drum for varied sounds and adding flairs, using tables and beer bottles for added interest musically and aesthetically.

The restaurant was soon packed with people although we were the only tourists to be seen. The other patrons were all gauchos, Argentinian cowboys, and their families. Argentina is perhaps the manliest country that I’ve ever seen. There’s the amount of meat that’s consumed, and most of the men sport tough looking facial hair, Buffalo Bill moustaches and the like. They manage to button up at least the bottom two buttons on their shirts, any more might hide the hairiness of their chests. Of course the men kiss each other when they greet which is a little bit brokeback, but they get away with it. I would have died before admitting to them that the week before in Brazil I had a manicure.

It was perhaps the best live music that I’ve ever heard. Everyone was having a good time. One of the older guys caught the eye of a woman and they began to dance some of the traditional dances. The songs and dance steps long familiar and their smiles genuine, they weren’t dancing for the enjoyment of tourists. Both lacked the beauty of youth but there dance was the most authentic and I enjoyed watching them dance more than the other professionals we had already seen.

The music was so good that it couldn’t be ignored. The couple began to dance, everyone would cheer at the end of the songs. One man stood on his chair singing along and gesturing wildly.

I was pretty sure that we were the only tourists there, I was positive when later the drummer came to our table and asked us our names and where we were from. He later announced our presence over the microphone, welcoming us. Everyone smiled and waved. It felt good to be treated as guests, rather than money carrying tourists.

When we left the restaurant after several hours we were brought back up in front of everyone for a picture with the band. Everyone in the restaurant smiled and clapped for us and waved goodbye as we left. The rest of the day I replayed the music in my head and hours later I still felt as full as if I had just finished Thanksgiving dinner. It was truly one of the most memorable traveling experiences of my life.

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