Thriving on the unexpected in Argentina
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Thriving on the unexpected in Argentina

When I travel I thrive on the unexpected. The fresh stimulus of new places and people is one thing, but I want more. I want to be astonished. Sure enough, ten thousand feet up in the Andes and we hit a roadblock of policemen.

Our plans had to change. We had to wait for the procession to pass. It was in a mountainous outpost called Leon, a Gaucho community celebrating their historic victory over the Spanish and this was their annual parade.

There was no ‘Chinese-Olympics’ precision as the soldiers, preened in their uniforms, marched amusingly out-of-step, past dignitaries who applauded downwards from their dais, too self-important to notice their refreshments being refilled. Then amidst a gang of hardened gauchos on horseback, strode this tiny boy. No more than five surely. The ladies were on side-saddle, but surprising us all was this youth’s composure, astride a horse fit for an adult, giddying up his animal with an assurance utterly belying his age. Behind him, a girl of much the same age, serene and composed on top of her steed. Wonderful!

Argentina is a hybrid of nature and population. On the one hand there are Pampas, the peaks of Patagonia, the Iguazu Falls and the Andes. Then there is the European influx and the Incan descendants.

Nowhere more than in the capital is Argentina a baffling mix of European immigrants and indigenous tribes. I love Buenos Aires. It is a proper fully-fledged city: glamorous, sophisticated, troubled and yet honest.

The Italians are the predominant European immigrants. They wanted political freedom and, above all, land. The city enjoyed a belle époque between 1880 and 1930, with wealth pouring in at its height in the 1910s from England, keen to get after the quality of Argentina’s beef. Recolleta is a district with Parisian overtones, as harmonicas are squeezed to entertain those who sit, stretch and watch the world go by.

I did my own lazing, strolling around the Recolleta cemetery is like reading a Who’s Who of the city, laid in rows of family plots. Démodé now but previously it was all about ostentation with competitive displays of masonry and sculptures. Here is the somewhat modest resting place for the nation’s most famous daughter Eva Peron.

Peronism still lurks in the country’s economic psyche. Chloe, an international economics student, had her own theory for the protectionist monetary policy that is crippling the country, with inflation currently at 30%. “Argentina doesn’t really consider herself sufficiently South American to deal with her neighbours”, she explained. “It prefers to hark back to, yearn for even, her European roots. So this immigrant race is dismissive of Peru and Bolivia and has a friendly rivalry with Brazil and Chile”.

I got a ride to one of the two rival football clubs, La Boca Junior football club, where famously Diego Maradona started while Lionel Messi, from nearby Rosario, was turned down for being too small despite attempts by his father to inject him with growth treatments. With no seats allocated for the opposition’s fans, the partisanship is deafening.

My ears were better suited to the Tango evening I attended, but not my eyes. Dramatic but empty, lacking narrative and with some strange back kicks it is a man’s dance with the lady playing second fiddle as the movement of her legs obeys his masterful hand directions. Playful perhaps but all gesture and baroque with nothing convincing or compelling. Brutal, sexy at best but never sensual or romantic. Jerky, ungraceful and sharp. It needs Tennessee Williams to exploit its steamy potential.

Time to cool down in the mountains. I flew to Salta and stayed at Finca Valentina, 1400 metres above sea level and owned by the charismatic ex-Milanese banker Fabrizio, who attracts many top celebrities including the Prada family. I finally learnt the distinction between Haciendas, farms devoted to livestock and Fincas, those concerned with crops. He was keen to get me, with his company Socompa, on horseback or at least bird watching. But I wanted to see the locals.

So I checked out a peña. Here was the authentic scene I had been searching for. It’s where the entire community seems to gather. The ‘fifi’, the fashion-conscious man, gets the chance ‘afilar’, to chat with his sweetheart, eating in a restaurant awash with faded ochre walls, as mothers feed their babies well past midnight, and different singers give it their all to the Flamenco rhythmic clapping of the appreciative diners.

I took a bus trip up from Salta higher into the Andes at their broadest point. I was back with nature and of course the ever-present llama. With horses, sheep, oxen and goats introduced only at the time of the colonising Spaniards, the llama was vital and its ancestor the Guanaco, the tallest of the llama species was very adaptable, performing both at sea level and 4000 metres altitude.

Reaching a further twenty feet upwards are fabulous cacti in Los Cardones National Park. Twice my height, and I’m six foot three, they nonetheless only grow at two centimetres per year. As for the sandstone rocks, as in tree dating, their eldest layers are at the bottom unless it has been ‘flipped’ and the strata show a pattern resembling tiramisu.
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