Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tucumán: A Day in the Life (2)

Last night the party (about 25 people, most of them descendants of the same family, the rest related to them by marriage or other connections) got started about 11 pm. Everyone had contributed about 10 pesos each ($8.30), and with that we had plenty of wine, sandwiches (the very thin kind like the English finger sandwiches) empanadas (chicken and meat pies that are hand-sized), and cake. We all sat outside, in the backyard of the house, and the weather was perfect. The music started at 1 am, with a guitarist accompanied by a cousin playing the drum on a stereo speaker that was lying around idle. As is typical in the northern part of Argentina, a few of the men pulled out their green plastic bags of coca leaves sometime after midnight and started to chew away. One person remarked to me that this was "a gift from Evo Morales," meaning the coca leaves come from Bolivia, which borders Argentina on the north, not too far away. Coca leaves, for the uninitiated, do not induce hallucinations, high blood pressure or addiction, but something more akin to the rush you get from drinking a few cups of tea or coffee.

The music was mostly traditional folklore and sambas. It's passionate and dramatic, with most of the songs about loves lost, feelings hurt, and poetic commentaries on life. My favorite is "Sapo Cancionero," which translates as the Singing Frog. The refrain goes something like this: "Singing frog, you sing your song because the moon has given up its life for the stars. Life is cold if we don't live it without an illusion." Guests almost always joined in the singing, and many songs were accompanied by dancing from the guests. Some people left around 3 am, but the hard core stayed until a little after 5 am. We got to bed just before 6 am.

Then the phone rang at 10:45 am. The front desk wanted to let us know that some friends were waiting for us in the cafe downstairs for breakfast. That was when we remembered, to my great regret, that the day before I had agreed to meet with them at 10 am to discuss their financial situation. 30 minutes later, after a quick shower, we were having coffee and fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice with them and explaining why their portfolio had lost money in the past year.

A little after noon, I remembered that we had to go to the travel agency to get a refund for the ticket from Buenos Aires to Tucumán that I hadn't used because the flight listed on the itinerary they gave me didn't exist, and I had to buy a ticket on another airline at the last minute. We made our excuses, and hustled off to the agency which was about six blocks away. Unfortunately, we fell victim to siesta hours, as we arrived at the agency just after they had closed at 12:30 pm. But I'm leaving out the first half of this mini-story, since we had been at the same agency the day before, getting some bus tickets to go to Cordoba, and had asked about getting a refund for the ticket only to be told that we had to go to the airline's office in order to do that. In the surreal reality of South America, we were of course told by the airline agent 30 minutes later that in order to get a refund we had to go to the agency that issued the ticket. And by then it was too late to do that since the city had closed for siesta.

Somewhat frustrated, since we only had Monday to clear this up (Tuesday is a K-holiday, which means it was created by President Kirschner to endear himself to those who benefit from holidays and those who are anti-establishment like him and his wife, who is the current president), we went back to the hotel and shortly thereafter (about 1 pm) departed for the home of a long-lost cousin of my wife's who had invited us to their traditional Saturday afternoon lunch. In order to get there, we were supposed to take a taxi and meet another friend in the northern part of town (the very upscale and beautiful Yerba Buena neighborhood), and she would then take us to the cousin's house, since she was a good friend of one of their friends and was also invited (and—importantly—she knew where they lived, which was an area devoid of street signs). The taxi ride to Yerba Buena took about 30 minutes to go 6 miles (rush hour), but only cost $5 (18 pesos), which led me to tip the driver $1.50, which flummoxed him because he couldn't understand why I didn't want change for the 20 peso note I gave him. Our friend then retraced about half the route we had just covered, since she wanted to pick up her daughter at her home, but when we got there we discovered—after a cell-phone call—that her daughter had made other plans for getting to the lunch.

By 3 pm we had finished a delicious lunch, and in the course of post-prandial conversation we discovered that we knew several friends of theirs and they knew some relatives of ours. I was then picked up by 3 friends at 4 pm, while my wife, her sister, and her good friend stayed behind to round out the afternoon with conversation. Us guys drove up to the hotel at San Javier, which sits atop the first wave of the Andes mountains that rise above Tucumán. In the grand tradition of Argentine males, we sat on the patio of the hotel which overlooks the city and spent two hours over beer, coffee, coca leaves and cigarettes "fixing the world." Which means trying to figure out what the heck was going on and where one should put his money.

Quite a few hours passed between our discussion on the mountain and getting back to the hotel, and most of that was due to my very good friend getting a panicked call from his wife, who reported that a few of their kids, plus a few of their friends' kids, plus their respective boy- and girl-friends—14 all together—had been robbed while having a picnic 30 minutes outside of town. After much anxiety, calls to the local police, and a frantic dash to the picnic site, we learned that the only casualty was some pocket change and a lot of nerves on the part of the parents.

By the time I got back to the hotel about 9:30 pm, my wife was just leaving to see her best friend sing at a nearby restaurant. In fact, she was planning to first walk around a bit with her sister, then have dinner at the restaurant at 11 pm, then listen to her friend who was scheduled to sing at midnight. So instead of her walking around, we decided to go the hotel bar and have a drink. A few minutes later, we were joined by one of my wife's many cousins, who just happened to be walking by.

I was not going to hear the singing, since I can't appreciate music and the restaurant was said to be very loud, so they took off and I went to the hotel restaurant around 11 pm for some dinner, which consisted of a very nice salad, some delicious Sorrentinos (round raviolis stuffed with cheese and ham), and a nice bottle of wine from Mendoza (half of which is now in the mini-bar for tomorrow). Including tip, it cost all of $20. I should add that the hotel, the Tucumán Center Hotel, is in the center of town and is considered to be one of the two best places to stay. We have a very nicely-appointed suite which, including taxes, will cost us less than $150 a night.

Following my dinner, I came back to the room and enjoyed recording a summary of this day's events for all the world to see.


Paul said...

Sounds like you are having quite a time down there, Scott!

Brian H said...

Alright, we need pics.