Steak, Wine, and Bus #93
(July 12 - August 8, 1998)

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First, a short description about Buenos Aires from the Fodor's web site:

"Buenos Aires is a sprawling megalopolis that rises from the Río Plata and stretches more than 194 square kilometers (75 square miles) to the surrounding pampas, the fertile Argentine plains.  Block after block of tidy, high-rise apartment buildings interspersed with 19th-century houses continue as far as the eye can see. Dozens of suburban neighborhoods, each with its own particular character and well groomed parks, surround the downtown area. Unlike most South American cities, whose architectural styles reveal a strong Spanish colonial influence, Buenos Aires looks more like Paris, with wide boulevards lined with palatial mansions. Flowers are sold at colorful corner kiosks, the smell of freshly baked bread fills the air around well stocked bakeries, and cafés appear on every block."

We have been here for a little over a week.  Our team for this eight week trip is made up of Merle Stuchell, Pam Pearce, Carol Rogers, Andrew Beyer, and myself.  It is easy to see that BA is, indeed, a sprawling megalopolis.  In most cities that we have visited, we were able to walk to where we wanted to go, but it seems that we need to take taxi or subway to save some steps and spend more time in the area we wish to see.  There are many buildings that do have a European look about them, especially a Parisian look.  I am particularly impressed with the amount of 'green' space in this city.  On the way in from the airport, and everyday on the way to the IBM site in Martinez, we see many parks.  I have come to love the parks in the cities that I have visited, especially in the warm weather months when there are musicians and other types of entertainers doing their thing.  It is winter here now, albeit not as cold as northeastern winters.  The temperature range now is about 40-60.  The weather was gorgeous as we arrived in BA on July 12.

The people are very nice and very friendly except, of course, the 'mustard people' (but I was told that even they were polite and nice....classy thieves, I guess).  The women (Linda and Diane) find the men to be handsome and we, Merle and I, find the women to be very pretty (and some just downright beautiful).  Although Argentina is a Spanish speaking country, English is prevalent (in varying degrees) and communicating is not a very big problem except, of course, on bus #93 (more on that a little later).  Our contact here,
Eugenio (who worked with our team on an audit in Paris in 1996), explained that BA is much more cosmopolitan that other South American countries because people from many European countries came to Argentina early in the  20th century to settle.  Eugenio's last name is Piotrowski and his heritage is both Polish and Spanish.  So it is not uncommon to see many Argentineans who do not have what one might consider a distinct Latin look, but a mix of Latin and European.

I was told that the beef in Argentina is marvelous, and that is absolutely a true statement.  The Argentinean red wine is also marvelous and we were told that 80% of the wine produced in Argentina is consumed here.  Our first experience with a steak house, Las Nazarenas, was excellent from start to finish, and the prices didn't seem exorbitant to us.  We all had great cuts of steak ranging from 8 ounces to a pound, along with salad, veggies, wine, and it came to about $32 a person.  The exchange rate is 1 for 1 so $1 equals 1 peso and American dollars are accepted at most places.  After that first dinner, the waiter brought over a liquor and poured a glass for everyone (complimentary, and he even gave us a refill).  It was something called Legui, a licor fino, and it was great and went down easy after such a delicious meal.  We have eaten three times at this restaurant, including the other evening when another member of our team arrived.  This time it ended up around $29 a person for lots of food and some wine.  The waiter opened up a bottle of champagne for our table (and some of us had the Lugui again).

We don't have cars here and I wondered why not.  I learned after our ride in from the airport, and watching the local drivers, and on our daily 30 minute taxi ride to Martinez, why we don't have cars here.  It's crazy on the roads.  These drivers are masters at 'give and take'.  It could be downright scary to be in these taxis, but I noticed that the cars aren't all dented up and the drivers seemed to know what they are doing (WE HOPE).  It's even funny sometimes.  The roads are all marked with solid or dotted white lines, but the drivers seem to love STRADDLING the lines (maybe to have an edge to go either left or right once they decide?).  One morning on the way to work, we were on a 2 lane stretch of highway and there was a bus in the right lane next to us and we were in the left lane.  Well, sort of.  I guess we were half in the right lane and half in the left lane.  All of a sudden, a car passed us on the left.  This 2 lane road became a 3 lane road for a few seconds.  We looked at each other and could only laugh.  Actually, we have gotten a chuckle almost every day by some of the moves these drivers make.

Now you may think that the following little tidbit is all fiction, but trust me, this REALLY did happen to us the other night.  The six of us went to dinner and took one of the city buses the 10-12 blocks or so to the area in which the restaurant was located.  There are some 25, or so, bus companies in BA, and I don't think there are any two buses alike.  One may appear to be like a converted school bus, some a bit more modern, and even a few that could be called modern.  There are hundreds of buses roaming this city.  We were told to take bus 93 and we waited for it to arrive.  One must flag down the buses here as one does a taxi since there may be 5, or more, different bus lines stopping at a stop.  The driver has no idea if any of the people waiting at the stop want his bus.  So if you don't flag down the bus, it just zips on past.

So here we are waiting for the bus.  It seemed like it was a long time coming as we saw several #152s, several #67s, etc.  We finally spot #93 on an upcoming bus and it is PACKED with rush hour riders.  I guess we should have known we were in for an adventure when the bus driver threw open the doors about 20 feet from the stop as he screeched to a halt.  I'm sure, as we soon found out, that we were holding him up as the six of us wondered if we could all fit in the bus.  Turns out we all got in, albeit one of our crew was down on the steps.  Off he goes and, at each stop, he throws open the door about 20 feet before getting to the next stop and he doesn't slow down much.  It was like 'get on or off while in motion or you're out of luck'.  What a scream.  ;-)  But that is NOT the real story here.  The adventure actually happened on the way back to the hotel, a distance of about 8-9 blocks after we had walked a bit.

We got to a bus stop on the main street, Avenida Libertador, and waited for a #93 bus to arrive.  At about 9:20pm (remember this time), one of those old converted school buses pulls up and we get on quickly.  We knew that we had better tell the bus driver where we wanted to get off or he'd just drive past it.  So someone said we were going to the Sheraton Hotel.  He stops on the far corner from the hotel, but seems to indicate, via sign language (and Spanish that none of us understood), that we should wait and he would be turning around and drop us off on the other side of the street near the hotel.  NOW the adventure begins. 

This was a young driver with long curly hair (and he kept 'flipping' it up) who was just short of a maniac behind the wheel.  These buses were standard shifts and he made the engine scream for mercy with every acceleration from a bus stop.  He kept going and going and going, further and further from the hotel.  Like, when are you going to turn around man?  It wasn't very crowded on the streets and the driver decides that racing other buses up and down the streets and around corners would be sort of interesting and fun, so he turns the streets into a 'stock bus' track.  ;-)  It is now approaching 10pm and we are STILL on the bus going God knows where.  The streets turn darker and darker and the neighborhood doesn't exactly look like one would ever want to get off the bus.  All along the way people are getting OFF the bus and NOBODY is getting on.  Finally, we are the ONLY six people on the bus and wondering just what this guy is doing.  Maybe he's taking us to some deserted place to meet up with his buddies and spritz us with mustard?  At 10:10pm we arrive at the end of a VERY dark and dirty street and see lots of other bus #93s.  We have arrived at the 'bus barn' and the driver looks at us and says words in Spanish and does some hand gestures like 'why are you people still on my bus?'. 

I know this probably sounds like fiction, but this is a true story.  Merle and I went out to talk to some of the other guys in the bus barn to see if anyone could tell us what was going on.  No luck.  We didn't have a clue.  It took about 15 minutes to finally figure out that this guy will, indeed, turn the bus around and head back, but only AFTER he has his break, which turned out to be 35 minutes.  We think the deal is that the faster these guys finish their route, the longer the break they have before having to do it again.  So at 10:46pm we start off again (he showed me his schedule card that showed when he was to leave the bus barn again to start his route).  A half hour later, as he approaches the Sheraton, he points to it and says 'Sheraton Sheraton', as though WE were the ones that were lost.  But we think he realized he screwed up because he said to Merle, as he got off the bus, something like 'excuse me'.

That evening was going to be an early night, but ended up being one of the late ones.  But what an adventure.  I have had more excitement in 1 1/2 weeks in BA than I ever had in the almost four years I was in Audit the first time from 1993-1997.  I do have some of the bus trip on video and it should make some fun watching sometime in the future.  What a night.

This past weekend, the six of us booked a package to Montevideo, Uruguay via the Buquebus (a fast ferry).  It was 2 1/2 hours across to Uruguay.  "Nick-named America's Switzerland, the small, independent country of Uruguay is known for the sense of personal and
financial security shared by its people. In fact, Montevideo is ranked among Latin American capitals with the lowest crime rate."

The trip was ok and we happened to arrive on their Constitution Day holiday.  So we saw part of a parade and then took a city tour.  My impression was certainly not that positive.  Maybe it was a fluke because of the holiday, but the city was pretty dirty, almost filthy, with garbage all over the place, even on the main drag.  Having been born and raised for my first nine years in NYC, it reminded me of some parts of NYC.  I've been to Switzerland several times and whoever nick-named Montevideo as 'America's Switzerland' had a lot of  nerve or (or else was blind).  ;-)  No comparison.  We saw a lot of poverty as we toured the city on the bus.  Lots of slum like areas.

One of the interesting things we saw were lots of people carrying some type of cup around, and some people had hot water thermoses.  In the cup was a metal straw type contraption with a spoon like bottom.  It was actually a filter.  We found out that what they were drinking was a type of tea.  They call it mate (ma-tay) and the stuff they put in the holder is yerba.  I got to try it on Monday when we got back to work as our contact here does mate.  It was weird to see so many people walking around with these mate holders with the metal straw.  If you did that in the states, the cops would probably stop you and check out the contents of the cup.  :-)

Merle's wife leaves tomorrow night so Diane will be on her own for the final two weeks here.  She and Linda have been doing lots of walking and day excursions.  No specific plans for the weekend, but we are doing a tango show tonight. 

Until next time.

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