Wednesday, July 22, 2009


A few weeks ago, my friend Matt sent me an article that NY Times published about a neighborhood in Bs. As. called Barracas. The article claimed that Barracas is a bohemian and up-and-coming neighborhood that has been attracting a lot of attention and artists due to an abundance of warehouse-converted loft spaces along with a street called Pasaje Lanin.

After reading the article, I decided to check out the barrio with my friend Jake, who was leaving Bs. As. and need to squeeze in some exploring. I also didn't want to go alone since many travel books and articles claim that Barracas is not the safest area.

To convince Jake to come along, I told him a "little" lie. I told him that Barracas has a big Sunday market where he can get some last-minute souvenirs. When we got to the neighborhood I confessed that the mentioned market was actually a bird market which ended at 2 pm. We arrived at our destination around 3....

When we got off the train, it was obvious why the barrio is considered dangerous. The train station is located in a desolate area right next to the freeway and warehouses and we would have to walk 9 blocks with no people in sight to get to Pasaje Lanin. In order to avoid any unwanted adventures, we decided to take a longer route and make a loop through the neighborhood rather than the "scenic" warehouse stroll which would have been much faster. We also wanted to get a feel for the barrio.

The walk through sleepy Barracas on Sunday afternoon was very mellow and charming, but I wouldn't say the neighborhood was bohemian or up-and-coming as the NY Times article claimed. It seemed like any standard working or middle-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. However, the history of Barracas will tell you that it was nothing like it is today.

The name Barracas comes from the word barraca, which refers to a temporary construction of houses using rudimentary materials. Throughout most of the 19th century, the neighbourhood was home to some of the wealthiest families of the city and housing many of the city's most famous stores. The yellow fever epidemic which broke out in late 1860's forced the rich families along with the middle class to relocate to the north of the city, leaving the neighborhood to become the working-class area which remains today.

Although many of the wealthy Argentine families retained properties in Barracas during much the 20th century, they were used as rental units. Immigrants, especially Italian and Polish, started to settle in the barrio to work in the factories for which the area was beginning to be known for. Factories dominated the economy of the barrio and were an important source of employment. After 1980, the factories of Barracas began to close and today many have been converted into loft spaces of varying prices and qualities.

One of the attractions in Barracas, which is hard to miss, is Iglesia Santa Felicitas. But this beautiful church has a sad story. It is dedicated to Felicitas Guerrero who was considered one of the most beautiful women in Republic of Argentina.

Born in 1846 into a wealthy family, at the age of 16 Felicitas married Martin de Alzaga who was 35 years her senior. Although her family was against the marriage, they didn't interfere because the suitor was wealthy and owned a lot of land. The marriage produced a son--Feliz Alzaga--who died in 1869 at the age of 6 due to yellow fever. The following year, Felicitas's husband died, leaving her with all his possession. At 26, Felicitas was beautiful and wealthy, attracting many suitors.

Felicitas's tragic death came by the hand of a possessive lover--Enrique Ocampo. Enrique, being jealous of hwe affair with Samuel Saenz Valiente, shot her in the head on January 29, 1872 and later shot himself. Felicitas died on January 30 and was berried in the famous Recoletta Cemetery.

The Guerrero family, shocked by the death of their daughter, built a church in her memory in the same place where she was shot. Felicitas's death and the construction of the church produced many legends.

One legend states that if you leave a handkerchief on the gate of St. Felicitas overnight, in the morning you'll find it wet with Felicitas's tears.

Some people that live in the area also claim that on the morning of January 30, they see a weeping figure of a woman dressed in white wandering around the church.

My favorite legend has turned into a local tradition. Over the years, women have been coming to the Igleasia Santa Felicitas on January 30th to tie a ribbon on the gate. Doing so will help them find their true love. A different version states that women tie ribbons to the bars of the doors and windows of their houses to attract the ghost. According to the legend, if a woman who is in love holds on really tightly to the bars that have been slightly touched by the ghost, she will keep her loved one. And if the woman is single and doesn't have a love interest in her life, she find one and fall in love.

On that warm winter day, the church was beautiful and majestic. We stood outside the gate and marveled at the architecture, but unfortunately we didn't get a chance to go inside because the church was closed. So we decided to find Pasaje Lanin ( luckily we didn't encounter any problems walking there) since that was the main reason for coming to Barracas.

Pasaje Lanin is only two blocks long and has been getting a lot of attention due to a local artist named Marino Santa Maria. His studio, which is in the same house he was born in, is also on that street (Lanin 33).

Santa Maria has been transforming the neighborhood since 1998 by painting all the houses in different colors. As the colors faded with time, he decided to apply colorful mosaic to the buildings using a technique called trencadis (also called pique assiette). This same technique, which is created from broken tile shards, has also been widely used by a famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

When Marino started transforming the street, it caused a lot of conflict, not because the neighbors were mad, but because they were fighting over whose house would be decorated next.

Santa Maria's project is even sponsored by UNESCO's Ministry of Culture and Education (I actually applied for a position in this dept....) and this "open air museum" has been credited with bringing attention and attracting people to the barrio that is not listed on many tourist maps. Pasaje Lanin now also hosts an open-air weekend arts festival July through December.

We slowly strolled through the colorful and lively street taking a million pictures as the residents stared at us. No house was the same color nor had the same mosaic design. All the houses had their own personalities and erupting colors which made the building fronts seem three-dimensional.

I really enjoyed my time in Barracas and learning about it's history and art. Would I consider this an up and coming neighborhood? Probably not. Would I go back to check out the art festival? Absolutely!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Saving Diana's Passion

My roommate Diana loves loves loves passion fruit. Since many fruits and vegetables are imported into Buenos Aries, many exotic items--such as passion fruit--may be a pricey treat.

The first time she bought passion fruit, we were at a market in San Telmo. If you've ever bought passion fruit, you'll know that from the outside, it looks like a old and rotten yellow mango or apple. But when you cut it in half you'll see the hidden edible treasure that looks a bit slimy and has a very pungent smell. So when Diana brought her home treasure (2 passion fruits) she cut it in half and we marveled at it passed it back and forth as we tasted it. We ate one of the fruit and she put the second one in the fridge.
Twice a week, we have a cleaning lady--Becci--that comes to do all the household cleaning chores. Often times she goes through the fridge and the fruit bowl that sits on the counter and throws away all the spoiled-looking items. Since passion fruit looks spoiled, when Becci came across it, what did she do? She threw it away!

Later that evening I was sitting in the kitchen playing on my laptop when Diana came home and headed straight for the fridge. She opened it, searched for something for a while and then started staring at me.

"What," I said, "Why are you staring at me?"
"Did you eat my passion fruit?" she asked, "Cuz if you did, it's not a problem, we'll work something out."
"No, why would I eat your passion fruit?" I responded as I started laughing, "Clearly it's not mine so why would I touch it?"
"Well, it's not here," she said, "Do you think Mike could have eaten it?"
"I doubt it, none of us have ever eaten each other's food without asking."

And then we both looked at each other as our eyes opened wide and simultaneously said, "BECCI!"

"I bet you she thought it was spoiled fruit and threw it away," I said.
"Nooooooooooooooo!!! I really wanted to eat it tonight! Do you think it's in the garbage?" asked Diana.
"Uhm, I wouldn't dig in there if I were you," I responded.

Diana spend the whole evening sulking and cussing out Becci under her breath, but as time went on, she healed from the incident.
A month later, Diana was planning a get together at the house and wanted to make some drinks with fresh passion fruit. She managed to find them at the corner Bolivian fruit/vegetable stand. She used some of the fruit for the drinks and left 2 for herself.

Forgetting about her previous loss, she placed her passion fruit in the fruit bowl to be consumed later in the week. Once gain, Becci came over to clean the house and once again threw away the expensive and delicious passion fruit.

When I came home from school that day, for some strange reason the first thing that popped into my head were the passion fruit. I immediately rushed into the kitchen and looked for them, only to find them gone. I even tried looking in the garbage can, but it was too late. Becci had already taken out the garbage. I couldn't help but laugh about the situation.

I didn't know how break the news to Diana or how she would handle the pain and the loss..... again.....

I turned on my computer, and saw that Diana was on Google IM so I decided to tell her right away about what happened.

Me--I have really bad news for you
Diana--What happened, is it really bad? Are you talking seriously?
Me--I don't know how to tell you this cuz it might make you really upset
Me--Becci threw away your passion fruit.... again! Yes!
Me--Ha ha, I came home from school and as soon as I got into the kitchen I thought about the passion fruit, and it was gone.
Me--Nope, it's gone
Diana-- :'(
me--Sorry, but this shit is hilarious, I can just imagine you at work right now...
Diana--hahaha, i will kill that bitch
Me--I'm glad you are being so optimistic!

Once again, time passed and healed Diana's pain and losses. She forgot, forgave and moved on.

This Sunday we decided to take a walk to one of my favorite destinations--Barrio Chino (China Town). We both wanted to buy some food and spices that we weren't able to find at local grocery stores. Since the weather was descent, we decided to take a 2 hour stroll which proved to be very painful and long since the both of us were functioning on about 4-5 hours of sleep. In the supermarket, Diana got some goodies for the house and also managed to find some passion fruit. We came home, unloaded our groceries and once again, Diana placed her passion fruit in the fruit bowl.

On Monday morning, Diana went to work and I was woken up by the door bell. It was Becci who came to clean the house on a Monday instead of her regularly scheduled Tuesday. I let her in, while I was half a sleep, and went to make my coffee. Once I was in a functional state, I turned on my computer to check my email and started chatting with Diana online. When I told her that Becci was at the house, Diana got alarmed and wrote:

Diana--Oh no! Can you please ask not to get rid of my passion fruit? I didn't hide them...
Me--How do you say "do not throw away" in Spanish?
Me--Ok, I'll tell her
Me--Ok ok, I'll hide them in my room, just remind me to give them to you when you come home, I don't want to forget about them and then find moldy shit in my room!
Diana--OK, I will.
Me--This shit is funny. I can't believe how much panic these passion fruit are causing us!

I ran into the kitchen, grabbed the passion fruit and hid them in my purse that was hanging in my room! When Diana came home, I handed over the protected treasure. Finally, a happy ending!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Colonia del Sacramento

I can't believe I've been living in Buenos Aires for 3 months. It seems like I arrived just yesterday not being able to mutter a single word in Spanish or walk down a street without a map.

Since I hit the 3 months mark and I'm living in Buenos Aires on a tourist visa, I needed to leave the country and re-enter in order to remain in Argentina for 3 more months. Uruguay is the closest country and is a destination for many non-Argentinians living in Bs As wanting to extend their tourist visa. Catching a 1 hour speed boat to Colonia del Sacramento solves all the legal problems if you want to live in Buenos Aires over 3 months.

I didn't know what to expect from the trip nor was I super excited about going, I just knew I needed to go to Colonia and stamp my passport. My roommate Mike went to Colonia about a month ago for the same reason, and spent the majority of the day reading a book in a coffee shop because it was too cold. My friend Jake with whom I went to Colonia, has visited the city a few years ago and wasn't too keen on going back. So based on Mike's and Jake's low levels of excitement, I felt neutral about my trip, but in the end was pleasantly surprised. Just to give you a brief history: Colonia del Sacramento is the oldest town in Uruguay and is known for it's historic quarter which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For years Colonia was a smuggling port, evading the strict trade measures imposed in the Americas by the Spanish. Although it was initially founded and colonized by Portugal in 1680, Colonia, through the centuries, has changed hands many times between the Portuguese and the Spanish. Even Brazil controlled it for a short while, until the new country of Uruguay declared independence in 1825. Jake and I arrived in Colonia at 11 and had an entire day to explore. We didn't have anything planed other than wondering around, checking out local attractions and renting bikes to explore the city further.

I found Colonia to be extremely charming and quaint. Wandering through the cobble-stoned and curving streets of the Barrio Historico, it's easy to notice architectural similarities of old Lisbon. The tree-lined streets were stacked with colorful houses along with Colonia's trademark yellow lamps, as well as antique cars. The town was very mellow and sleepy. People went on with their business at a slow pace while sipping on their mate. Jake and I walked around town, snapped a million picutes, poped into a few building and churches, climbed a light house to check out the 360 view and occasionally stopped for coffee and snacks. For the second part of the day we wanted to rent bicycles and ride them to the beach and then to either a bull-fighting ring or a winery that we discovered at the tourist/information office. We decided to figure out our plan of action over lunch. I didn't know anything about Uruguayan cuisine and blindly ordered a traditional sandwich called Chivito. How was my sandwich? Well... uhm.... it was finger-lickin-good. The best sandwich I've had and, in my opinion, a best cure for a hangover. No, I didn't have a hangover at the time, but I imagined that if I did have one, the magic cure for it would be a Chivito.

The hot sandwich consists of thin and tender slice of churraso (grilled beef) topped with bacon, cheese, egg, lettuce, tomatoes and a mayonnaise spread with olives. Wash that down with a cold beer.... or two, and you are in heaven. After eating our Chivitos and splitting a liter of local beer, Jake and I were in no mood to ride bikes. We needed a plan since it was going to get dark in a few hours and we wanted to maximize our activities in Colonia. Jake had a brilliant plan, he approached a taxi driver and worked out a deal where the taxi would drive us to all out of the way places we wanted to see, places such as the beach, the bull-fighting ring and the winery.

The taxi driver--Sergio Ortiz--was very chipper and happy to have us in the cab. As he was driving us around, he provided us with the history of Uruguay and Colonia as well as the elections that were going to take place on Sunday. When I asked him who he was going to vote for and why, his decision-making process between the two presidential candidates was simple. One candidate was a lawyer while the other was a doctor. According to Sergio Ortiz, a lawyer is a crook while a doctor saves lives, so there you have it.

Our last destination was the Bernardi Winery located a few miles outside Colonia. The winery was founded at the end of the 19th century and in 2000 it has opened doors to tourism, offering guided tours, tastings and a point for sale of it's products. The winery has remained in the Bernardi family for 4 generations and is known for its artisan productions of wines and highly praised line of varietal grappas. When we arrived at the winery, we stood outside a huge cement building that looked abandoned, but as soon as we stepped inside, we were warmly greeted by Anna, a Bernardi descendant. She took up on a tour of the winery and explained to us the process of making their wines and grappas. After the tour we got down to the tasting. I liked the wine, but my favorite part was tasting 4 varieties of grappa. I think I had a little buzz going after tasting all the products. Unfortunately, I'm not a big drinker so I didn't buy anything. Jake, however left the winery with 2 bottles of wine (at US$4 a bottle) and a bottle of their best grappa (US$6). I think he'll be stocked for a while. Sergio Ortiz was waiting for us outside the winery and took us back to Colonia. We only had about an hour left prior to departure so we spent it walking around some more. As we headed to the boat, I made the best purchase ever. This is something that I've been missing since I arrived in Bs As and not having this item made my life miserable. What did I buy? A BATHROBE!

I forgot to pack a bathrobe in California so not having one has been a pain. I usually wake up, make my coffee and take a shower. Because I didn't have a bathrobe, after the shower I was forced to put my pajamas back on. The whole process annoyed me so my Colonia purchase made me happy indeed.

Jake also made a purchase which made him extremely happy--a scarf. He spend the rest of our time in Colonia and on the boat trying to figure out how to wear and tie it. Quite comical.

All in all, the trip was great. I highly recommend it as a one day trip to anybody visiting Buenos Aires.