And now for something completely different

TUCUMÁN, Argentina, 24/09/19

This blog is a ramble through some things I’ve observed during my first two weeks in the Andean NW of Argentina, during which time I’ve visited three cities (Jujuy, Salta and Tucumán) and several towns and villages. It’s not a comprehensive review!


My observations are inevitably coloured by having been in the (culturally indigenous, economically poor) high Andes (in Ecuador/Peru/Bolivia) for all of this year, and my beloved, diverse Colombia for half of last year. Someone arriving from Europe might notice the Latin American-ness of Argentina; I am inclined to notice its distinctness from its northern neighbours and perhaps especially its European-ness.


It is clear I am going to enjoy Argentina very much provided I can survive its roads and its notorious winds. Seems pointless to deny that both VeryQueer Hannah and Hedonist Hannah feel more comfortable here. And, because of the dire exchange rate, it’s not even that much more expensive for me than its northern neighbours (dorm beds for $5-10, lunch for $2-3, bottle of decent wine for $2-3, plateful of the world’s best steak for $5, etc).


At the time of writing $1 = 60 pesos = £0.85, with the peso expected to fall even lower after October’s Presidential election.


Cities


People - Sophisticated, confident and friendly, I agree with my friend Stuart that Argentines are somewhat reminiscent of Colombians. My Lonely Planet guidebook describes Argentines as ‘loquacious’ and I cannot disagree! Andean folk are nice too, but more reserved.


This NW corner of Argentina is still - racially and perhaps to a lesser extent ethnically - quite indigenous. But I still find myself doing double-takes when I see what I think are gringo foreigners but turn out to be Argentines.


At 1.65m I’m no longer taller than everybody. Some are even taller, lighter skinned and/or fairer haired and eyed than me. (Yes, obvs I understand the history.). I no longer stand out. I definitely won’t have ‘gringo’ shouted at me here, though I’m still called amigo or señor more often than not.


It’s also noticeable that I’m no longer the only one with a gender expression and/or personal style that doesn’t conform to a binary code. I don’t think I’ve seen a single skirt yet. And queers, strolling about in broad daylight, brazen as you like. Not loads, but more than the none I saw in E/P/B.


I expect to see far fewer indigenous people in the rest of the country, for the usual grim reason.


Culture - Though currently in the midst of an economic crisis it is clear ordinary Argentines have leisure time, at least some disposable income and the intention to enjoy these - not something one sees much evidence of in my last three countries. In fact, looking at all the people driving new cars, sitting in corner cafes and shopping, it’s hard to believe there’s a crisis at all.


Argentines eat out for the hell of it, and love camping and barbecuing. In the Andean countries people ‘eat out’ at lunchtime because they need to eat, not for the fun of it. Their food is consistently nice but it is carb-based sustenance rather than ‘cuisine’. They don’t go camping!


Something I’ve seen often in Argentina which I never, ever saw in E/P/B is women eating or drinking out in pairs or groups without any men, often without kids either. I pointed this out to one of my dates and she looked at me like I was slightly mad.


In the Andes if you eat out it is someone’s job to take your order and bring you your food and they do so efficiently, but there isn’t much of a sense of ‘service’. They don’t get or expect tips. I like that unfussiness, to be honest. Here there seems to be a bit more of a service culture. Even fairly basic places set their tables with cloths, cutlery etc, and have clean loos with loo paper and soap.


So far Argentine towns and cities remind me slightly of parts of France. Shabby chic, you might say. Some elegant buildings, kiosks, bakeries everywhere, dog shit.


In most of Latin America you tend to find all the barbers on one street, all the hardware stores on another, and so on. This seems not to be the case in Argentina.


‘Culture’ - I arrived in Jujuy during a free film festival. I regret I only saw one film, but it was a good and memorable Argentine one about a porteño (Buenos Aires) couple in their fifties who decide to consciously uncouple after their son leaves for university. Hilarious Tinder adventures ensue. To my surprise I understood almost all the dialogue, including a scene where the husband proves he can distinguish a Salta empanada from a Tucumán one while wearing a blindfold, to his wife’s amazement. I enjoyed the intention and mutual respect with which they go about their transition.


Design/ aesthetics - Things like accommodations, cafes and restaurants demonstrate attention to design/aesthetics compared with the Andean countries where this almost never seems to have been considered! There’s also more of a sense that you might want to sit for a while and therefore be comfortable!


Bookshops! Substantial, independent bookshops overflowing with amazing books. Saw a few bookshops in Ecuador but not of this quality. Today I went to one that had a prominent display of feminist/anti-stereotype books for kids.


Feminism - Argentine women are in a state of mobilisation in their fight for legal abortion vs. Catholic conservatives. Green is their colour and you see green feminist graffiti everywhere.


Countryside


Camping - Like in France, most small towns have something they call a municipal campsite, which trebles as a pool (in summer), campsite and communal barbecuing area. Some are quite functional and scruffy, others are leafy and well-appointed. Being ‘winter’ these are relatively but by no means completely deserted. For someone who usually free-camps, paying about £1 for nightly access to drinking water, a shower and power sockets feels like the Ritz! (Except that at the Ritz I imagine you don’t have to worry some four-legged local shit-machine will piss on your tent while you sleep.)


I confess I refused to pay at one municipal campsite because the toilets were locked even though there were at least three sets of people camping there. If you can employ someone to collect fees you can employ someone to unlock the loos! Most of the others I’ve camped at have been well-maintained. I suspect they’re municipally subsidised given how little they charge.


Fences and agriculture - One of the very first things I noticed in Argentina was fences. Further north animals are always herded on (presumably) common land, and agriculture is on such a tiny scale (family smallholdings) there’s no need for fences. Here in Argentina there is agriculture on a huge scale, involving employees and machinery.


Horses - So many horses!


Roads - I wrote about Argentine roads and driving here, but I’ll just add that they are even more varied than I first thought. I have encountered some two- and four-lane highways with paved shoulders, though I fear the norm is gravel shoulders. Other main roads aren’t paved at all. The shocking number of roadside shrines suggests little or no driver education and not a great deal of common sense behind the wheel. Is the concept of stopping distance not just common sense? I think it is. That said, it is the global norm (in my experience) for people to drive in tight convoys without thinking for themselves.


There are many roadside shrines draped with red flags, which apparently commemorate a sort of Robin Hood figure called Gaucho Gil. Oh, and they paint a large yellow star on the road where someone died. A sort of yellow splat, with the person’s name. And still they come round blind corners on mountain roads straddling the central line.


The other day, discussing possible routes into Tucumán I said ‘I don’t think it’s permitted to ride on the autopista?’ The answer: ‘No but there’s no control.’ And indeed, I saw families on motorbikes wearing no helmets, so I don’t think I need to worry too much about the largely invisible rozzers.


I remember thinking in Portugal that there must be at least one picnic table for each member of the population. I’ve never seen so many picnic areas! Argentina seems to be similarly well-endowed on the picnic area front, often with the addition of barbecues.


Continuing the theme of rest... siestas. EVERYTHING is closed from 1-5pm. Just when you really need a cold drink!


Dogs - Lots of these. Still totally free to run at cyclists, but on average more benign, presumably because more people make short local journeys on bikes. In towns pet dogs have the run of the streets, with owners taking no responsibility for them - or their doings - except (presumably) to feed them. There are street dogs too, the pet ones distinguishable by collars (why?) and other accessories. Also, quite a lot of obviously well-loved cats.


Language - I’m not struggling with Argentine Spanish as much as I feared. They pronounce y/ll as ‘sh’ which my ear hasn’t got used to yet. In addition they say ‘vos’ instead of ‘tú’, which has its own set of conjugations. However, since this is unique to Argentina I think I’ll stick to ‘normal’ Latin American forms. (In the US I didn’t start saying pants instead of trousers or y’all instead of everybody, y’all.) They also add a prefix ‘re’ (instead of ‘muy’) for ‘very’, which is unique. People don’t seem very mindful of how different their dialect is for outsiders.


Food and drink


Where to start? Water. You can drink tap water, and it’s easy to find public sources e.g. in parks. Also, kitchens and bathrooms have two taps, one of which dispenses HOT water!! And, sparkling water is widely available yum!


The Argentine diet is meat and bread-based, compared with the potato- and rice-based Andean diet and the maize- and rice-based Mexican/ Central American/ Colombian diet.


Sandwiches! Argentines eat a lot of sandwiches from street vendors/ kiosks. There are two kinds: filled baguettes and sarnies made from white sliced bread with the crusts cut off! The main fillings seem to be salami and cheese.


Empanadas (small pasties) are everywhere, filled with meat, chicken or cheese, and baked or occasionally fried. They’re almost always cooked to order and dangerously delicious.


Asado. Asado basically means ‘grilled’ (barbecued), and the grill itself is called a parrilla. Huge, quality cuts of steak are slow-cooked along with sausages, blood pudding and apparently other bits. If eating out at a parrillada it seems you normally just order ‘asado for X people’ and they bring you a hot plate with a selection of sizzling meat. Side dishes are extra. You might be surprised to know that while succulent and tender, the beef is cooked well beyond pinkness. I gather in some places you can get it rarer by showing a photo of how you’d like it!


I read that Argentines eat an average of 60kg of asado per annum. That’s my body weight. And if you’re buying meat for a barbecue you reckon on 500g per person.


Dulces - Bakeries and patisseries are everywhere in cities, like in continental Europe. Dulce de leche is in nearly everything. At one hostel the staff served it up for our breakfast from a 10kg tub!! Thanks to Italian migration there is a lot of good ice cream here too including some flavours I’ve never tried before such as peach, malbec and viagra flavours!! Sadly they were out of viagra flavour that day.


Mate - This is a social ritual unique to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Everywhere you see people carrying thermoses and the other paraphernalia required to pour hot (but not boiling) water into a gourd or cup filled almost to the top with bitter yerba (a shrub, of which Argentines consume 5kg each per annum). You then take it in turns to drink - through a straw with a filter on its bottom so you don’t get a mouthful of bits - the liquid from the bottom of the gourd/cup until the water runs out. For the first couple of rounds it’s incredibly bitter, but it becomes (to my mind) fairly pleasant after a while. I’ve been served mate twice so far and think I will observe the process a few more times before I (inevitably) succumb to buying my own mate and yerba! You can even get special two-part Tupperwares for your yerba and (if you take it) sugar.


Vino - Sigh. My alcohol consumption fell in E/P/B as there wasn’t usually anything terribly exciting to drink. I quite like a refreshing lager, but usually only one or two and not if the weather’s freezing! Here in Argentina there’s (relatively pricey) artisanal beer and incredibly cheap amazing wine mostly from Mendoza and Cafayate. Malbec (stress the second syllable) is the best known grape but many other kinds of wine are also made.) A decent bottle of young wine from a supermarket starts at about $2. Double that for something slightly older. Of course, more expensive reservas etc are available from wine shops.


Tinder - Almost all the women I’ve chatted to via Tinder have told me ‘Argentina is a very conservative country’. Perhaps for this reason they’re incredibly coy about what they’re looking for, which I find exasperating. To be fair I don’t think this coyness (or my exasperation about it) is unique to Argentina or even Latin America. I guess women everywhere are shamed for wanting/ enjoying sex, plus I suspect many women are actually secretly hoping to find a partner via this route and for some reason don’t want to say that either <facepalm>.


It’s quite a lot of work to sift through the many time-wasters, but I already have a sense Tinder is going to be worth the effort here in Argentina because there are a wide variety of people using it. Some people sure are baffling though, like the people who write they’re only looking for friendship but their profile picture is of their cleavage and doesn’t include their face. And the ones who have no words on their profile and when I ask why say ‘whatever you want to know just ask’, like it’s all my damn job.


Something interesting has happened twice and I can’t help but wonder if it will become a pattern here: feminists in their late 20s saying they are curious about sex with a woman, then later losing their nerve and saying they don’t enjoy sex with men but don’t know if they could enjoy it with a woman either. Of course such women could ultimately be straight, bi or lesbian or indeed asexual, but the key thing is that so far they’ve only had male lovers and they haven’t enjoyed the sex, to the point they’re wondering if something is wrong with them. How incredibly sad. While I find unreliability irritating, I hope that by being gracious about their uncertainty (as opposed to pushy and entitled) I at least support them in treating themselves consensually.


Some highlights so far


I nearly died on the road from the border down to the first city, Jujuy, but it was a delight to be off the altiplano and to feel I’d really arrived in Argentina. I thought I could smell jasmine everywhere, which turned out to be orange blossom lining the streets! Also many other lovely flowering trees/bushes in parks and gardens. Such a sucker for blossom, me.


I’m reading a book Tobi gave me for my birthday called Love 2.0, whose central idea is that ‘love’ is not an ongoing state but  fleeting moments of connection between people (including between strangers). Argentina seems destined to provide many such moments.


In an ice cream shop the woman who served me seemed unusually friendly. I remember thinking ‘I wonder if she’s on Tinder’, and sure enough we matched the next day! Unfortunately due to her work and study schedule we only had time for pizza and beer, but what pizza (with onions caramelised in malbec) and what beer (draft, smoked IPA)! I can’t remember the last time I met someone queer in that sort of way! A thoroughly delightful welcome to ‘dating’ in Argentina, plus she arranged for me to meet up with a really nice friend of hers in Salta.


Then in Salta I had a dinner date (my first asado - grilled meat) with a young, flame-haired Dutch cyclist - hope he won’t mind me describing him like that - who apparently found my blogs about the Peru Great Divide useful. I also had a delightful Tinder date with a young, slightly earnest local student who kindly agreed to enable me to have my first mate experience even though she doesn’t drink it herself. She borrowed her mum’s paraphernalia and I drank it in the lovely park at the top of the 30-year old cable car (surrounded by middle aged women doing the same) before we visited a small natural history museum and the famous museum where three preserved Inca children are displayed on rotation having been sacrificed on top of a mountain and recently exhumed. Like many people I have mixed feelings about the display of these children, yet couldn’t resist the urge to see them. We finished up at her local bar, which was entirely decked out in Simpsons murals!


Having descended to Salta I took a rickety bus (easier than feared) back up 2,000m to Cachi and rode down to Cafayate over three days. At times I regretted this decision as I’m a bit done with deserts now and the sand road was absolutely horrendous to cycle on, but on balance I’m glad I went through Cafayate, the country’s second wine region. There I went (twice!) to little no-frills parrilladas and ate utterly delicious, ridiculously cheap steak. I also had a more but not very expensive lunch in the poshest surroundings I’ve experienced for a while, the Manni winery. I have to say that being served a large measure of chilled tannat in an enormous glass while sitting under a tree in the winery garden was pretty damn blissful. Lunch was a stir-fry followed by something off-the-scale-delicious made of chocolate. Leaving Cafayate I had a brief tour and tasting at the very large Quara winery, whose wines folks in the UK might be able to get hold of.


Another reason I’m glad I went to Cafayate is that it enabled me to ride from 3,000m down to 400m in just a few hours, from cactus-filled desert down through llama pastures then beside the river in the lush Tafi valley and finally through hot, flat farmland to Tucumán. What a variety of ecosystems in such a small distance! No more Andes for me til I reach Patagonia early next year! (In Tafi I rolled up to a random hostel only to find it run by a very friendly dyke couple with six dogs and a llama. Again, just not something that would ever happen in E/P/B.)


Beside the autopista I stopped to buy a kilo of strawberries for £1 from the back of a clapped out ute. Chatting to the student vendor it turned out he went on a school exchange trip to England in 2012. That would never happen in Peru or Bolivia!


On my first night in Tucumán I strolled to the main square after dark and found an artisanal food and beer fayre. Tonight I went back again and four young men were playing a large marimba exquisitely to a gathered crowd. A possibly homeless chap with no teeth and an evident learning disability was transfixed and proceeded to lay his cheek on the marimba and then to offer pieces of what looked like cheese to the musicians while they were playing. They handled him with perfect gentleness and the crowd - though amused - also correctly judged that he was doing no harm and let him be.


Today I had my hair cut by a chap who likes Jodorowsky and Buddhism and makes experimental electronic music, which we talked about in a mixture of Spanish and English.


As I strolled around the square unnoticed I thought to myself: I haven’t felt this excited about a place since Colombia (and before that Mexico).


After a few days here in Tucumán I’ll head south to second city Córdoba where I hope to spend nearly three weeks doing some more work on my Spanish before slogging across the pampa to Buenos Aires in time for its huge Pride march on 2 November. For these reasons I don’t intend to update my blog again in the next month or so. Thanks for reading!