11.30am (local time)
We have arrived. This is Argentina. In South America.
Quite south in South America in fact.
Although, having said that, you could go a lot further, and still be in Argentina. Further south still lie vast tracts of pampas. Then tundra, volcanos and polar landscapes, mostly also in Argentina. It becomes clear Argentina is big. Big in a very big sort of way. There are huge waterfalls and tropical rain forests to the North, (and a very long boarders with somewhere called Brazil aparently). There are enormous glaciers to the south.
To the west lie endless swathes of of grassland, huge beef farms, cattle ranches and wine country, then deserts, indigenous villages, then the Andes, the longest and the second highest mountain chain on earth. Beyond the vast chain of mountains lies Chile. Then comes the pacific coast, the biggest ocean in earth, covering nearly half the world’s surface. Everywhere, in every direction, romance and adventure beckons.
I resolve not to leave the capital.
I bet you I can find a decent café with Wi-Fi soon.
The queue for passport control at Palestrina-Ministreo International airport Buenos Aires is rivaled only by the next queue: customs at Palestrina-Ministreo International airport. We zig-zag through the sheep pen, in deep slow motion. Twice.
After two hours the quagmire of bureauocracy is cleared. In the arrivals hall is an ATM machine, to access my first pile of unfamilar currency. Huge relief when the card works and the machine obligingly spits out the cash. There had been no contingency plan.
Outside the terminal, the air is a furnace. The wall of heat is extraordianry, a physical assault, it’s over forty in the shade. Argentina is not only a hot country in mid-summer, it is also experiencing the worst heat wave in years.
The taxi driver who appraoches me wants about 60 US for the centre, or the local peso equilivent. He is wearing a Boca Juniors football shirt. He looks like Diego Marradona.
We both mop the sweat from our brows as I try to negociate an affordable fare. He is not interested.
We settle on an intelligent compromise, where he finds somebody who can afford his services and I take my penny-pincing pale sweaty gringo ass elsewhere.
The ecconomy option beckons. This is a 45- minute ride on the aircoach to near Retiro, the gigantic central rail terminal in BA. Then a further 45 wait for the pre-paid connection, a local taxi-bus opperated by the same firm. It’s a 27-hour oddessy complete when the cab pulls up outside the apartment.
A friend of a friend, a Spanish musician, one magical man called Carlos, is kindly letting me stay in his lovely second home, on a bills-only deal for the next six weeks.
I don’t have keys yet. But Carlos’ has another friend and housesitter here called Nefta. And Nefta has kindly waited in for me, I hope. Communications have been awkward, conducted badly, in two languages and rather on the scanty side for my liking.
After travelling 27 hours, jet-lagged, with sweat pouring down my back, even the faintest possibility of standing outside with heavy bags in 40 degree heat and nowhere to go weighs heavily on the mind.
But Nefta answers the buzzer. He even lets me in. Relief is not the word.
My new house mate is clearly a nice guy. Not only that, but the apartment is well-designed, clean, stylish and modern. Things are looking up.
I shower and shave while Nefta goes out to check his e-mails. On his return I head out to eat and Nefta comes along to keep me company. He is a musician and has band practice in an hour. I learn he has just signed a deal which will allow an Argentine TV series the rights to some of his compositions. I tell him this is a sure route to fame and fortune.
Nefta heads off to his band practice. I jump into another taxi and head to Palermo Viejo, a fashionable district of the capital. Looking back, a day or three later, I have no idea why I do this instead of exploring the local area. But I do.
Palermo Viejo fully lives up to its repuatation. It is indeed very fashionable. Elegant low-rise buildings from the 19th and the most attractive bits of the 20th century line peaceful, leafy streets. Small bijou cafés and design outlets serve the attractive well-heeled citizens.
The only thing preventing full enjoyment, apart from jet lag, is the temperature. Even now in early evening, the heat and humidity are unspeakable. The torpor hangs over Buenos Aires like a heavy unwanted blanket. People mop their brow, crunch the sweat between their shoulders, fight the endless fight against dehydration. We wade through treacle. I progress barely two or three blocks at a time, stopping at every second café, spending a fortune on overpriced mineral water and frape lattes. As my guide book gently chides me, there is a widely-held misconception Buenos Aires is cheap. My guide book is right. Buenos Aires is not cheap. Prices in Palermo and Ricoletta resemble those in Paris or New York. Come to think of it, this district reminds me slightly of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
As darkness falls I find the place I have been seeking, a boutique hotel run by an Irish couple. The hotel is small but exquisite. It comes heartily recommended by several friends and acquaitances back home, who claim acquainatnce with the owers. Armed with these names I feel I have a letter of reference. I even have a hazy notion this might, potentially, become a sort of home from home during my stay. Dammit, the place is even called “Home”.
I spend another small fortune, risk my first alcoholic drink and chat to Canadian newly-weds on their honeymoon. The groom is gloomy, rather than groomy. He is preocccupied about the vast outlay from their recent nuptials. They held the event in Florida. This was partially to get away from the Canadian winter, but also to deter distant friends and cousins from swelling the catering bill. Sadly everyone was so enthusaitic about the idea of getting away from the Canadian winter half of Toronto arrived. The entire strategy badly backfired. The bills were astronomical.
I learn from our bartender the Irish hotel owners are finished for the day and gone, well, home. I leave them a a note, finsh my drink and do the same.
I reconvene with Nefta and meet his young German friend Selina.
Selina looks like a mix between a beautiful Bavarian farm girl and a beautiful young Valkyri, yet sweet and charming with it.
Two other friends of theirs join us, a young Argentine couple. They suggest we visit the casino. This on a ship in dry dock, in the newly rebuilt Puerto Medero District. It sounds interesting. Nor am I generally adverse to casinos. But I’ve been up for about 36 hours now and traveled about eight thousand miles through three countries, on two airplanes, three buses and two taxis. I am exhausted.
-I instantly agree to the casino.
Ther others sit downstairs with the riff-raff, with the young and giddy, playing roulette. However for a more experienced, suaver, older man, a sort of James Bond-type-character like myself, there is only one place on this ship. I join the air-conditioned poker tables upstairs and cash in just over hundred US dollars for a small stack of chips. It’s Texas Hold ‘em time.
Most of my fellow players are Argentine. The youngest one, seated to my right is a superb player, a shark, and- I guess- at least semi-professional, by which I mean he suplements his income or better. But none of them are fools. On my other side is a cherry Frenchman, also a decent player, although he calls a little too often. But there are no fish here. This spells danger.
The received wisdom is that, if you can’t spot the fish, you are the fish.
I relax, very slightly, when another Argentine opposite me gets cleaned out, sufferes two bad beats and finally leaves broke. The man who has done most of the damage is a cold Russian beside him, and diagonally oppsite me. The Russian has no grace. He doesn’t bother to say goodbye when the Argentine gets up to leave. I like and respect Russians, but this one annoys me. He acts tough and rude but then explains his reasons everytime he folds or loses a hand. He is keen to be recognised as a serious player. He is quietly desperate to avoid losing face. Like everyone here he is wary of the young professional.
I play smart-cautious, I even take a little bit of money off the young pro. It’s a negligible, meaningless dent on his stack, but useful and reassuring for me. It slightly eases me into the game. I still play tight. I am a rock, as the parlance goes. I fold early and often. I am probably playing just the wrong side of cautious in fact. My stack size scares nobody and after an hour or two they sense I will fold in the face of a big raise. The Russian in particular raises me off one pot when I have pocket pair 9s. Looking back much later afterwards I am annoyed with myself for not calling. When I fold he flips over one of his two pocket cards to show me a King. There is no matching King on the board, so I can only read this as a gesture of contempt.
Although I score a few small wins but I never get the monster hand to all-in and take down a serious pot. I take some more money off the Frenchman with a useful trip eights. I last three hours. Eventually, and inevitably, my luck runs out. I have to take a stand at some stage, before I just get bled down to zero with the blinds.
I’m holding a seven for the top end of a straight. Win or lose, now is the time. On their backs and I see my opponent has two clubs for the winning flush. My night is over. I say goodbye and shake a few hands. The Frenchman in particular is a good egg. The Russian doesn’t lift his head.
I rejoin my young friends below. Nefta and Selina have lost everything. The others, Eduardo and Laura have a few chips left to lose. I reflect roulette is a mug’s game. In poker the table just gets a rake. In Roulette the house always wins. If I ever see that Russian at a table again I’m going to break him.
We leave the others. Selina, Nefta and I scape together the thirty peso to take a cab back to San Telmo, or at least I do. They really have been cleaned out. Selina is essentially a student, of Graphic Design. She probably can’t afford nights at the Casino. She is now repenting at leisure, and in a foul mood, because the air conditioning in the salon has given her a shivering chill. We call back to the apartment to grab my wallet and I take them out for a consolation drink. I’ve been up the guts of forty hours now. We make for one of the late night café bars outside on the Square on Placa Dorrego. Sitting in her tiny cotton dress, flushed, tired and grumpy, Selina still looks adorable. Nefta flirts outrageously.
Do you like farms?- he asks.
She ponders, then- Yes, I like farms.
–Okay, okay, you win. He holds up his hands in mock surrender. We can live on the farm when we are married. I had hoped for Madrid, you know, but okay,okay… anything for you.
I like Nefta more and more. Both of them are fine young people in fact. The world is in good hands. Selina relaxs under the onslaught of charm and laughs. We all laugh. It is after 3 in the morning and finally the temperature is bearable. Tomorrow will be a different story.
In the end Selina declares she has to sleep and will take a bus home. Buenos Aires is enormous, a vast city, far bigger even than London. Buses run late here. Nefta sits passively looking at his beer. Possibly he can’t bear to see her go. I wave him to his feet and tell him to walk Selina to the bus. Our flat is the other direction to the bus stop, so I tell him I’ll wait for him here in Placa Dorrego. I do consider escourting them both, but the area feels safe. Besides, my young Spanish friend may wish to kiss his friend. I don’t wish to cramp his style.