Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dancing in Argentina: Gaucho Vs. Tango

I've made it, Argentina, last country on my agenda and it's been worth the wait!

There are three Argentinian things I've been dreaming of for the past six months, and they are tango, steak, and wine.  I've tried the first two in my time here, (strangely, no wine yet... but soon,) and it's been everything I've ever dreamed of.

First of all, I made it over the Peruvian-Chilean border without much ado, and I spent three nights in the desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama.  I went on a desert tour of the Valley of the Moon (mad stuff, all clay and plaster and crystals and salt flats, like scenery right out of The Dark Crystal,) and then had salsa lessons and Pisco Sours with some lovely Dutch folks.  Salsa still is not and never will be my dance, and as we sat around a campfire I mentioned how excited I was to try to learn tango in Argentina.

An Ecuadorian girl we were sitting with had this to say: "I cannot watch tango.  It's passionate and intense, but it makes me want to cry when I see it.... tango is not a happy dance."  Which, of course, immediately made me more determined than ever to learn it.

From San Pedro I bussed it to Salta in the north of Argentina, where I went out to a peña, a Gaucho party, and watched traditional dancing from that region.  And it was just the funnest thing in the world!  There was this little guy in full cowboy attire, ("The chubby ones are always the best," our Argentine friend assured us,) who just threw himself into it, stomping and spinning and throwing himself in romantic desperation at his lady partner, who seemed pretty thrilled with herself indeed.

By the end they were smiling and sweaty (it was a warm night,) and there were cheers all around.

Contrast this with tango, which is everywhere in Buenos Aires: from what I've seen, it's this fantastic music that's fueled entirely by melodrama.  That is, the more anguish and ire you can convey, whether singing or dancing or playing the concertina, the better you are.  For buying a CD from a street band named Al Afronte, who play traditional tango numbers with a kind of darker, artier, modern twist, I was given free entry to a tango club.  There I got a preliminary lesson to how to dance it, (my partner gave me this piece of kindly advice: "Try not to fall over your feet,") and then sat in a corner the rest of the night and drank gin and tonics with the one other Gringo in the class, a French guy who was even awkwarder than me.  (It's a start!  I WILL master tango!  Maybe not on this trip, but someday...)  But at any rate, the singer had this boundless, tragic energy and he bellowed from the stage like his heart was cleft down the middle.  Everyone else in the club danced and danced in this eerie blue light, like ghosts, and they were still dancing when we left.

And later on, at an outdoor market in San Telmo when meeting with a leather-worker who had promised to make me a bracelet, I stumbled into another pair of dancers, hired by the fancy restaurant to dance in the plaza and attract tourists, who were absolute quintessential tango.  They were young and handsome and dressed in black and red, and they were the two angriest looking people I'd ever seen.  (To be fair, it was nearly 30 degrees out, and the guy was in a full length black suit and waistcoat, and they must have been out in the sun all morning.)  But man, could they dance!  It's impossible to even describe it - their movements were lithe and sinewy and threatening, like neither of them weighed anything at all.  You couldn't even follow the pattern their feet were following - it was like calligraphy, and they were beautiful like a pair of 1930s con artists, like wolves, and like if you got too close to them they'd tear your throat out without breaking stride.

It was absolutely mesmerizing, and I stood there and watched until they took a break to pass a hat around.  So I gave 10 pesos to the guy and he said to me, "Gracias," with this look of pure loathing, like he hated me and himself and his partner and the whole world and everything in it except for tango.  It was absolutely fantastic.  I have got to take proper lessons at some point in the future.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Arequipa and the End of Peru

The White City, they call it, and the name really fits.  In addition from all the old buildings being built and carved out of white sandstone, everything seems to have a sort of bleached look about it.  It's warm and sunny every day, (another one of those "eternal spring" cities which South America seems to have so many of,) with cool breezes billowing in and out of the streets, and it smells like flowers.  On the hazy horizon loom three snow-capped volcanoes like gargantuan apparitions: El Mista, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu.

Two days ago Lisa, Darragh, and Charlotte caught up with me from Cusco and they were all just as thrilled as I was by the perpetual sunshine.  After the standard self-guided walking tour of the Plaza de Armas and grand, chaotic marketplace where we ate lomo saltado, (a traditional Peruvian dish of stir-fried beef, onions, and tomatoes served with the omnipresent pile of white rice and chips,) Charlotte and I went on a visit to the Monasterio Santa Catalina.  Founded in 1579, Santa Catalina is still a working convent where nuns live, but the historic part is sectioned off as a museum for tourists.

I've gotten pretty lazy when it comes to visiting tourist sites lately, but Santa Catalina was definitely one of the best things I've seen in the past six months, up there with Machu Picchu.  It was a labyrinth of courtyards and grottos and shadowy alcoves and secret orange tree cloisters, and you had could go exploring through all the rooms and sub-rooms and peek behind doors and climb stone stairs that lead to nothing to your heart's content.  Everything was so well-preserved you could very easily imagine nuns of the 16th century sweeping down the cobblestoned corridors with their wimples billowing in the wind (whenever I imagine nuns, they always have wimples that are billowing,) or sitting in the parlor embroidering or grinding corn into meal.  (Everywhere we went we saw smoke-stained kitchens with grinding stones.)

And the best news of all is that I finally did it - everywhere I'd read online told me it was impossible, but I found authentic, high-quality, INSANELY INEXPENSIVE alpaca wool and I bought it!  Ten balls of a lovely purplish-red color, each 110 yards, for 50 soles which comes to about $16.  I found it in an alpaca shop full of fancy designer knits, none of which I could afford, and I had to reign myself in from buying all the wool they had.

And now, in about four hours, I'm going to catch a bus to Tacna, on the border between Peru and Chile.  From there, if all goes according to plan (which in South America rarely happens, but I'm hopeful,) I will take a colectivo across the border and into Arica, and then a bus to San Pedro, a small tourist oasis in the Atacama desert.  Two days there and then across the border again into Argentina!  The final country, the one I've been most excited about since even before I planned this trip, and I'm almost there - it's starting to hit home that my trip is coming to an end and I'll be headed back to the States in two months.  I'm not dreading this as much as I might, as I'll be visiting a bunch of friends in California and then headed to a wedding in February.  And, best of all, I won't be in Baltimore long.  Besides, I'm beginning to get really sick of Andean cheese, which is all they have here.  It somehow manages to be both bland and stinky at the same time, and is pretty much the worst stuff ever.  I will NOT be sorry to see the end of it....