Argentina certainly ain’t the cheap place it used to be … well it was expensive, then cheap, and now, well it’s certainly not the place to get your bargains! Argentina has had a tumultuous last ten or fifteen years, but I do not even want to get into the politics. The last time Alex and I had been to Buenos Aires (apart from overnight a few weeks back) was in 2000 on our way back ‘home’ when Alex had decided to come and live with me in Australia. We were arriving early on Monday morning and would be leaving the following Saturday. I know, not a lot of time, but we were here on a mission – to catch up with three sets of very, very dear friends.
Market in San Telmo.
The flight from Quito to Buenos Aires (BA) was rather uneventful, in that all went well and we arrived safely. Leaving Ecuador always has me reflecting on my time there, Alex’s time there and life in general, and it’s always hard. I have, over the years, come to terms with the fact that I will always straddle the two continents in which I live and visit frequently. It’s just the way it is! We arrived in BA early on Monday morning, and we now knew exactly how to get to Charo’s house in the beautiful and historic San Telmo … fork out $40.00 for a taxi. Too expensive? The only option, unless of course you want to spend two and a half hours on a bus (instead of half an hour in a taxi) with copious lugguge. Not an option.
Charito & Ombi in BA.
Although it was just after 9.00am when we arrived, Charo (very dear friend number 1!) was at work. We had already organised with her to get the key from the porter of the building when we arrived. We were both knackered and so we took ourselves upstairs and had a rest … well, a few hours of sleep. Charo only works half days so that afternoon was a very lazy one; shooting the breeze and talking about times gone by. How did we know Charo? I met Charo in 1999 in Colonia Suiza (Uriguay) when I was backpacking through South America. She was there with her late husband, Piero, a gem of a man. I was sitting at the table of the gorgeous hostel we were staying in and writing furiously. Not sure how it happened, but I soon started chatting to Charo, or Charito as we fondly call her, and we realised that we had a lot in common, including that we could both speak the same three languages; English, Italian and Spanish (although how well I could actually speak Spanish only a couple of months into my South American sojourn remains debatable). Before I knew it, I had met Piero (who had migrated to Argentina from Naples many years ago) and we started to talk in all three languages … about everything and anything. As the saying goes, the rest is history! From that day on I kept in touch with both Piero and Charo, and Alex was able to meet them both as we passed through BA in August 2000 on our way back to Melbourne. Soooooo many good memories!
Musicians in Parque Lezama.
Alex and I both felt tired on that first day in Buenos Aires, so we took it really easy. San Telmo is the oldest barrio, or neighbourhood, in BA. Set around Plaza Dorrego, it’s a gorgeous place and characterised by its colonial buildings, cafes, tango parlours and antique shops. Its cobblestone streets make it all the more atmospheric; lots of artists and artisans and great for people watching (a renowned favourite pastime of mine). Charo and I also walked through the very picturesque Parque Lezama (Lezama Park). Again, a great experiment in people-watching; we saw everything from skate boarders to artists to guitar players to homeless people. I want to add here that the economic situation in Argentina is dire at the moment and that there is thus a huge problem with homeless people.
L to R: Gaby, Nico, Alex, Gonzy, Flopy & Faby.
Mid-week we would be going out to visit my friend Fabiana (very dear friend number 2!) and her family who live about 40 kilometres from the city centre. I met Faby when I was backpacking in Europe when I was twenty-something (only a few years ago!). We travelled through parts of Europe together and had a blast! We have remained friends ever since!
As with all of my Argentine friends, the last time I saw Faby was in 2000, when we also met her husband Gabriel (Gaby) and son Nicolas (Nico). At the time they were living in Palermo, in the centre of BA. Since then they have added Gonzalo (Gonzy) and Florencia (Flopy) to their brood. What a wonderful family! They live on a spacious property in the country, which we easily accessed by bus. Faby came to pick us up from the bus stop with her youngest, Flopy, and it was as though no time had passed. We only stayed an afternoon and a night but we really made the most of it. We went to the local park with the kids, played outside, had afternoon snacks in their backyard, had a great dinner with the family, and Faby and I reminisced about old times. Just not long enough! Before we knew it, the next morning we were back on the bus making our way to BA.
L to R: Brenda, Julian, Charo, Julia, Ombi & Nico.
That night Charo organised an impromptu dinner at her place with some of her nieces and nephews, Julia, Juliana and Brenda. It was great … everyone simply rocked up with some food and started cooking. I felt right at home! We ate, chatted and chilled out, but like all good things the night came to an end all too quickly!
Tango in La Boca.
As Alex and I love walking and exploring we still managed to do a bit of that, including Puerto Madero (like a Southbank meets Docklands) and La Boca, a colourful neighbourhood which has its roots in the settlement of Italian immigrants. It’s not the safest neighbourhood in BA (I was mugged there in 1999 … but I chased my muggers and got most of my things back! As you do!) and I could not believe how over-touristy and commercial it had become. It was OTT and streaming with tourist buses, as people crowded the streets to get a glimpse of the colourful houses and couples dancing tango. It’s also known to soccer-mad fans as the home to the Boca Juniors, one of the world’s best known soccer clubs.
Un besote para mi Diego!
Along with Charo, we also caught up with Diego (very dear friend number 3!) and had a great coffee at El Gato Negro. I had I met Argentine Diego when we were both living in Quito in 1999–2000. My fondest memories of Diego are of us dancing together (many, many times!) Again, it was like no time had ever passed, as we talked about, well, what we had been doing for the last ten years or so! We organised to go out for dinner, along with his partner Federico (whom I’d not met before) on Friday night.
With Caro & Luis at Cafe Oui Oui.
Time was simply going too quickly, and I still had to catch up with Carolina (very dear friend number 4!) I also met Carolina on my European backpacking trip, but not at the same time as I met Fabiana (they actually met each other through me in 2000). Hope I have not confused you. Luckily we got to meet up a couple of times as well as meeting her lovely and kind-spirited partner, Luis. Again, not enough time! Caro took us to a gorgeous cafe called Oui Oui in a neighbourhood called Palermo Hollywood, and yes, the coffee as well as the company was excellent. We both had tears in our eyes as we said goodbye. This is the thing that I like least about travelling. Having said that, when I think about the calibre of some of the people I have met on my travels, I feel very lucky. It’s not quantity, but quality.
L to R: Alex, Diego & Fede.
I could feel this trip quickly coming to an end and before we knew it we were catching up with Diego and his partner Federico on the Friday night. We had a relaxed night chatting but we were accutely aware that tomorrow it would be all over red rover! Federico and Diego live in a fantastic little place in San Telmo, overlooking all the action. I loved it!
Having a coffee with Roberto, Gladys & Charo.
Ah, last but not least, I want to mention Charo’s parents, Roberto and Gladys. They live in the same apartment as Charo in San Telmo, so we saw them frequently in our week there. What wonderful people. They made us laugh and kept us entertained and Gladys, you are a great cook! Roberto had us keeling over with some of his expressions and anecdotes. Highly intelligent and not backwards in coming forwards. Both in their 80s … I want to be like them when I grow up!
Saturday morning had arrived. We went out with Charito to do some last minute shopping; we bought some alfajores (sweet biscuits filled with caramelised milk – there are a number of variations) and dulce de leche (caramelised milk), which in my opinion is the pinnacle of culinary utopia. Bags packed, we said our goodbyes to Charo, Gladys, Roberto and Nico (Charo’s nephew who was also living in the house). I would miss them all.
Yep, I had to bin it!
The ride to the airport on a Saturday morning with minimal traffic hardly took any time at all. All went smoothly, and we made it through all the filters with our newly purchased goods … until … just before we boarded the plane. For some unknown reason they have an extra check point at the airport in BA. What, we could not take on our 500 gram jar of dulce de leche (sweetened caramelised milk)! It was over the maximum allowance (50 grams max, I think). I am going to say it as it is … I was spewing! Could I … perhaps, open it up, and smear it into a few zip lock bags? No!!! I could eat it, right? Yes!!! Sigh! I ripped it open and had a few mouthfuls before ditching it. I mean how many spoonfuls of caramelised milk can one have in a single hit? I think I made it to three! Yeh, I suppose worse things really could happen in life! Can you tell that I REALLY love dulce de leche?
The flight back home was tranquil, but this time I did not sleep much as we were flying early afternoon and would be arriving in Melbourne at 9.30pm. As it worked out we got into Sydney a little later, which meant that we missed our connecting flight to Melbourne. No biggie, we just caught the next available flight and got in to Melbourne at 10.30pm. We had already cleared customs in Sydney, so we were ready to go when we landed in Melbourne! Dad’s taxi service was there to pick us up, as always. Thanks Dad.
Dad dropped us off and we went straight to bed. We were exhausted! Poor Alex had to go to work the next day!
View from Charo’s apartment window in san Telmo.
Dedication: To my wonderful Argentine friends whom I have come to know and love: Charito, Piero (not with us physically but always in our hearts), Gladys, Roberto, Carolina, Fabiana and Diego. Thank you for your love and friendship – you all mean the world to us and occupy a very special place in our hearts.
Dedicacion: Para mis amigos argentinos maravillosos, quien he podido conocer y amar: Charito, Piero (no esta con nosotros fisicamente pero siempre esta en nuestros corazones), Gladys, Roberto, Carolina, Fabiana y Diego. Gracias a todos ustedes por su amor y amistad – cada uno de ustedes es muy importante para nosotros y ocupan un lugar muy especial en nuestros corazones.
We had so much fun in the ‘full house’ we stayed in for three and a half weeks in Ecuador. We laughed, we cried, we shared and I fell more in love with my new little niece, Isabella, by the day. I love all my nieces and nephews equally, but it was the first time we ‘met’ Isabella (as opposed to goo and gaa at her over skype). Whilst it made me happy to see that little bundle of joy giggling and smiling at me, I was also accutely aware that it would end soon enough, and that I would have to revert back to watching her grow over Face Book and skype. How things have changed! (Geez, now I sound like my mother). I love Ecuador and I love my family there.
Ombi and Axel.
What didn’t we do whilst we were there? Apart from lots of socialising, eating and doing things such as visiting the dentist (way cheaper than back at home) we spent lots of quality time just hanging out. On our second weekend in Ecuador, all of Alex’s family on his mum’s side was invited to go to Ibarra to a party that Humberto (Alex’s mum’s first cousin) and his wife would be hosting. The idea was that various groups would go in several cars or vans and meet up there. We would be going with Tio (uncle) Gustavo and his family in his van. We were supposed to get picked up early Saturday morning … did you hear that ….’early’ … well, early for Ecuador was around 10.00am. Not bad I thought! And off we went, van chockers!
The Middle of the World.
Ah, the beauty of my second home never ceases to amaze me. After getting through the (normal) and ridiculous amount of inner city traffic, we started to weave in and around the mountains, which is what you need to do to get anywhere in a mountainous country. The visuals are always breathtaking and rarely disappointing! We would pass through the ‘middle of the world’ as well as the famous Otavalo market, but not before a pit-stop in Cayambe, which is renowned for its queso de hoja y biscochos (cheese wrapped in leaves and crumbly, savoury biscuits). Trust me, they are delish! We finally made it to Otavalo, and all the memories came
Freshly made bizcochos, Cayambe.
flooding back. I was transported to 1999 and my travels around South America, of which I have a multitude of poignant memories. I first came here as a ‘gringa’ (foreigner) and now some twelve years later, here I was with my Ecuadorian family. I was now on the other side of the fence, a defector!? Who would have thought all those years ago that Ecuador would become such a huge part of my life. Amidst the hustle and bustle, I pondered and absorbed … life, hey!
An Otavalena selling her wares.
I love Otavalo, I really do. Boasting one of the best handicrafts and textile markets in the world, its bright and colourful goods and people hold a very special place in my heart. Although goods are sold every day the market days are officially Wednesdays and Saturdays, especially Saturdays, where the central Plaza de Ponchos fills up with people from all over the world haggling for a bargain. It’s mostly all good-natured though, and the vendors will usually give you a rebaja (discount), unless your request is totally unreasonable. Over the years I have come to know what things are worth, and so I am able to get a reasonable price pretty much off the bat. Age and
Otavalena food vendor.
maturity, however, have also also taught me that that last dollar means far more to the vendor than the buyer, so whilst an ‘amicable haggle’ is fun, I am always very aware that that last dollar means far more to the vendor than the buyer. We all had fun and bought lots of bits and bobs.
The family at Humberto & Karina’s house, Ibarra.
Time to move on, but not before a brief stop to the Peguche Waterfalls only a couple of kilometres from Otavalo . We made it to Ibarra by just after 6.00pm, where we were warmly greeted by Humberto and his wife Karina. What ensued was a night of feasting and merriment. We ate, we drank, we danced, and … drank and ate and danced some more! I was even given a special vegetarian plate. I was particularly exhausted, but even between power-naps on the couch, I was up and dancing. There was a massive congregation and the partying went on until the wee hours of the morning; I am sure that I did not get to bed before 4.00am. Humberto’s house is quite large, and we slept wherever we could find a bed or a spot … somehow, we all found a spot! In the morning we were all treated to a cooked breakfast. We had all been treated like royalty. And like all good things our fun came to an end, and we had to all go back home. Needless to say that Sunday night was a very early night.
Alex’s Uncle Gustavo and Auntie Marcia have a beach house on the coast in Rio Verde, and we were invited to go. Again, it would be a family affair with quite a number of us going up. Unfortunately Alex’s sister, Karen, and husband, Christian, could not go as they had to work, but Alex and I went with Rocio (Alex’s mum), sister Angie and niece and nephew Denisse and Axel. We took an overnight bus and were greeted in the early hours of the morning by Alex’s uncle Gustavo. What a great place! It was like something out of the movies. Gustavo had built it himself out of timber. It had that really relaxed and isolated feel about it. Despite my many trips to Ecuador over the past ten years, it was the first time I had ever been here. And yet again (as often
Outside the beach house, buying some fish from the locals.
happens in Ecuador) I fell in love with the place! We all put in some money which went towards having three home cooked meals a day. Fabiola was a local and our ‘master chef’ … I had patacones (fried green plantains) coming out of my ears by the end of our five day stay there, but … I was not complaining. I love patacones and always ensure that I get as many into me as I can in Ecuador, as plantains are not that easy to find in Australia.
Five days of sleeping, eating, going to the beach, going to various watering holes, sunbaking and going for runs along the beach. Ah, this is the life! What I loved most about Rio Verde was how unassuming it was; rather than a bustling tourist metropolis, it was a quiet and local backwater. This is MY kind of tourism.
L to R: Dad Hugo and Alex with brothers Piero & Rodrigo.
With Daniel and Dani and baby Felipe.
Time was going by way, way too quickly. We managed to see Alex’s dad, Hugo, a couple of times, but unfortunately he was busy working interstate a lot of the time. We also caught up with his brother Rodrigo, his grandad, Papa Jacinto, and a number of other family members on his dad’s side. Time is NEVER our best friend in Ecuador, and it’s hard to pack it all in in such a short amount of time. We gave it our best though. Even catching up with many of our friends proved impossible, but we did have a night out with our very dear friends, Edison (Eddy) and Belen, finding out that they are pregnant with their first child. Eddy used to work with Alex when I met him all those years ago and we have all remained very good friends since. Eddy and Belen, you hold a very special place in our hearts! (Eddy y Belen ocupen un espacio muy especial en nuestros corazones!) We also caught up with Dani, her beautiful mum Martha, her partner Daniel and their gorgeous little boy Felipe.
With Mel and Dan ‘on top of’ The Basilica.
We also caught up with our friends Mel and Dan who are backpacking through South and Central America. I used to work with Mel and Dan is her value-for-money-partner (we love you Dan!) It just so happened that they would be in Ecuador at the same time we would be and we managed to spend a entire day with them. We had so much fun, being led by Alex, our personal Ecuadorian tour guide. Even I got to do things that I had never done before! We met in the historical centre of Quito, and took it from there. It’s always fun and exciting when you get to meet up with friends in a totally different country.
Crossin’ the plank; The Basilica, Quito.
Our morning started with some decent coffee (Ecuador has gotten much better at this over the years) and lots of chit-chat about the highlights of their journey. In my case, as I was doing that exact trip when I met Alex some 12 years ago, there was also a lot of reminiscing. We visited (I for the first time) La Compania Church, which was physically spectacular, but it was the Basilica that I thought was most impressive … for a number of reasons. In Australia we’d probably say, “Only half built mate!” Its construction began in 1926, and it was clearly never finished. The highlight is the basilica’s towers, some of which I had the nerve to climb and others not. To get to the towers however you need to actually cross a rickety wooden plank inside the main roof and THEN climb steep stairs and ladders to the top (with nothing on either side except for some thin metal rails and fresh air). Hmmmmm! You can also climb the spiral staircase and three sets of ladders into and above the clock tower. I was so not going to do that! So, whilst Dan, Mel and Alex climbed, I stayed on the ‘lower rungs’ and made some new friends, whom also had no intention of going any higher. I believe the views were arresting! I will simply have to take their word for it!
“La gente es una puta …solo jode “
Meanwhile, back at base camp (ground level that is) we saw a man sitting down in the grounds of the Basilica with a sign saying, ‘La gente es una puta – solo jode’, which loosely translates to ‘People are arseholes – all they do is bust chops’. Very interesting. We went up and had a chat to him. Whilst it appeared that he was indeed a little senile, there was a method to his madness and he made some very poignant comments. I questioned him about his sign and he kept repeating that people did not care about each other or treat each other with respect anymore and that their only focus seemed to be around themselves, material wealth and money. He was not too off the mark. He was also a painter and gave us a self-portrait (Mel and Dan we are looking after this for you until you get back). As we all waved and said goodbye, I could not help thinking who was really mad, him or the ‘others’?
Itchimbia, with Mel, Dan, Axel & Angie (Alex’s sister).
Our day finished off with a spectacular night at Cafe Mosaico in Itchimbia. We went with a whole bunch of Alex’s family and Mel and Dan came too. The food was great, but the views even better. Itchimbia is very close to the historical centre of Quito and as it sits up on a hill the views are amazing. The view at night with all of the lights over the old town was very pretty, and a good time was had by all. What more can you ask for, good food, good company and great views! We had had a fantastic day and we were glad that we had been able to show Mel and Dan a part of ‘our’ world! Looking forward to reminiscing about this when you are back in Melbourne guys!
With Byron’s kids, L to R: Dylan, Amy & Mishell.
We also managed to catch up with our special friends Byron and Alexa, who live out in Sangolqui, about 20 kilometres from Quito’s old or historical town. Many of you may recall that when Alex and I had our fair-trade import business that they were our first suppliers. They have their own wholesale business called Ushina Jewelers, but also have a beautiful gallery, Ari Gallery, in the Plaza San Francisco, in Quito’s historical centre. As always, a night at their place in the countryside not only provides a tranquil getaway from the buzz of the city, but Alexa always cooks up a storm (her home made aji di mani, or chilli sauce with peanuts is to die for!) We spent the night chatting away to them and also spent some time with their three children Mishell, Amy and Dylan, who are delightful. Clearly a night was nowhere near enough, but no time ever is.
Catching up with Carola.
Fortunately, we also caught up with Carola, our Ecuadorian friend who stayed with us when she came to Australia a few months back. We had lunch and a couple of hours together … not long enough, but better than nothing. We know that we have made a lifelong friend in you Carola!
Our time in Ecuador was clearly coming to an end, and I am never a good one for endings. Alex’s mum and sister would be flying back to New York on the Saturday, the day before us, so Friday night at Karen’s house was FULL, FULL house with all the relatives coming to say goodbye. Alex and I both went to the airport the next day. Life certainly can be interesting – whilst I have the honour of living with my soul mate and the love of my life on ‘the other side of the world’, I have fleeting moments of sadness as I realise that Alex is unable to spend more time with the rest of his family that he so dearly loves.
Christian cooking up a storm!
Next day was our turn; we would be leaving later on Sunday night. Karen and Christian cooked up a parillada or BBQ and also some yummy vegetarian food. Everyone was in a sombre mood as we knew that sooner, rather than later, we would all be saying goodbye. I felt particularly sad. My gorgeous nephew, Thomas, had grown so much since I last met him as a baby more than two years ago and as I watched tiny Isabella gurgle and giggle I wondered when I would see her again, and how much of her growing up I would miss. My nephew Axel was now 14, and no longer the little two and half year old I met 12 years ago. It was a very emotional day. Boly and Lily (Christian’s parents) and Jonathan and Naty (Chris’ brother and girlfriend) also came over to say goodbye. Tick, tick, tick … so did Carola and her husband Jorge (first time we met him and what a great guy). Alex’s Dad and Rodrigo were there also.
The time had arrived and we had to go to the airport. Hugs and tears all around. My last goodbye was to little six month Isabella, who I gave one more hug and kiss to before I left. She was too little to understand the bond I had formed with her in only a few weeks and how much I would miss her! The person I had least trouble saying goodbye to was Denisse, as we had just submitted (after days and days of work!) the paperwork for her to study in Australia for six months to the Australian Embassy in Chile (there isn’t one in Ecuador). We would hopefully soon have a little piece of Ecuador with us in Australia!
Before we knew it, we were on the plane flying to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where we would spend the last week of our holidays. I closed my eyes, and sighed deeply … when you gain something you lose something, and when you lose something you gain something!
Denisse and Axel.
Dedication: To my nieces and nephews in Ecuador, Denisse, Axel, Thomas and Isabella. Although you live far away you occupy a very special place in my heart and I love you all very much. Distance is no barrier to the great love and pride I have for all of you. I want you to know that you can always count on me – your auntie, La Gringa Loca.
PS And Angie, my beautiful American sister-in-law, who isn’t so little anymore … love you too precious!
Dedicacion: Para mis sobrinos en Ecuador, Denisse, Axel, Thomas y Isabella. Aunque viven tan lejos ocupan un espacio muy especial en mi corazon y les amo montones. La distancia no es una barrera para el gran amor y orgullo que tengo para cada uno de ustedes. Quiero que sepan que siempre pueden contar conmigo – tu tia, La Gringa Loca.
PD Y Angie, mi cunada americana linda, que ya no es tan pequena … te amo tambien preciosa!