Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Amazing Race 20, Episode 2

Cafayate (Argentina) - Salta (Argentina) - Buenos Aires (Argentina)

[photo by Ruth Radetsky]

This week on The Amazing Race 20 in northwest Argentina, the teams were sent off into the hills to gather firewood or construct a solar stove (in either case to boil water for mate, one presumes). That’s not what most tourists would choose to do on an excursion from Cafayate, but it did give the racers a chance to admire the high desert scenery that draws foreigners and Argentines alike to the area.

As a destination for tourists, Northwest Argentina — especially the Humahuaca Valley a few hours bus ride further north — might be compared to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the USA. It’s best known for the beauty of the canyons and mountains, and as one of the few parts of the country where the arts and cultures of indigenous peoples have survived. One of my favorite hostelries from my last trip around the world — a bit pricey, but impeccably designed and managed, and well worth the price — was the Quinta La Paceña “posada” (inn) in the hamlet of Tilcara along the main road north.

Unlike in many other Latin American countries where most of the population is of indigenous or mestizo ancestry, most Argentines are of mainly or entirely European ancestry, with the largest proportion descended from 19th and early 20th-century immigrants. [See this correction from Wayne Bernhardson regarding DNA evidence suggesting a greater degree of indigenous blood than most Argentines who consider themselves “European” would typically acknowledge.] But that’s different in northwest Argentina as in parts of the southwestern USA. Almost all the people the racers met this week appeared to be of indigenous heritage.

The racers passed it by, but the most significant pre-Colombian archaeological site in Argentina is at Quilmes (shown in the photo at the top of this article), at the edge of the alluvial escarpment off the road between Salta and Cafayate. The ruins of Quilmes are most often visited as a day trip (you can rent a car, hire a taxi, or go with a group tour) from Cafayate.

Ironically, Quilmes is best known to Argentines and foreigners alike as the name of the country’s largest-volume beer brand — essentially the Argentine counterpart of something like Budweiser — and/or as the name of the suburb of Buenos Aires where the brewery is based. The local soccer team there, Quilmes A.C., is known as “El Cervecero” (The Brewers), like Milwaukee’s baseball team. But confusingly, for many years Quilmes beer sponsored and put its name across the jerseys of a different, better known, soccer club, Boca Juniors. The racers were greeted at the end of this week’s episode by an impersonator of Boca’s most famous player, Diego Maradona, although the Maradona impersonator was wearing the jersey of Argentina’s national team (“La Selección”), rather than a Boca jersey.

Last week I mentioned the potentially greater reliability of Argentine long-distance buses as compared with Argentine trains. So what happened next? The racers were told to take the bus back to Buenos Aires, and one group was delayed when a window in their bus blew out.

Long-distance buses to and from the rest of Argentina all arrive and depart from the enormous central bus terminal at Retiro in Buenos Aires. Indeed, most destination signs and timetables say simply “Retiro” — you have to know that Buenos Aires is implied. “Retiro” denotes a complex that extends for several blocks, however. It can be a considerable walk, especially if you have luggage, between the “Subte” (subway) station, the three side-by-side train stations, and the bus station. The Retiro “barrio” (neighborhood) also includes a large “villa miseria” (shantytown) along and and between the railroad tracks and on some of the abandoned rail yards on one side of the highway, and the Buquebus terminal (for fast ferries to Uruguay) and the Museum of Immigration (Argentina’s counterpart of the Ellis Island museum, not well known or highlighted in most tourist guides but well worth a detour) across the roads. See this map from Wayne Bernhardson’s Moon Handbooks for details. It’s not mentioned on tickets or in timetables, but the train to Tucumán I discussed last week leaves from the Mitre station at the southernmost end of the station complex.

Argentina’s railroads were originally built by separate private companies — mostly British-financed and equipped — including the Mitre, Belgrano, and San Martín lines at Retiro. After a period of nationalization and integration, they have once again (as in the UK, ironically) been broken up and privatized. The various commuter, suburban, and regional trains are mostly operated by separate companies from the remaining long-distance services. But if you are interested in the causes — not yet known — of last week’s commuter-train crash at Once station, Wayne Bernhardson has a report in his blog on the initial finger-pointing.

The racers took taxis to their next clue at the stockyards in Mataderos, almost at the city limits and the circumferential expressway in the direction of the international airport in Ezeiza. A wise choice: No Subte line gets near Mataderos, or serves most of the blue-collar outer barrios of the south and southwest side of the city, nor will this be corrected in the ongoing extension of the Subte system. It could easily take you two hours by bus across town from Retiro to Mataderos.

Despite, or perhaps in part because of, its relative inaccessibility, Mataderos is well worth a visit, especially if you haven’t been to any other working-class and little-touristed parts of the city, or if you won’t have chance on your visit to Argentina to get out of the city and experience rural life and culture in the provinces.

You wouldn’t know it from the photos on TV of the racers at the weekday cattle auctions (which aren’t open to the public), but the plaza in front of the auction-house, where they picked up their clue, is the site of one of Bs. As. most colorful and “authentic” local street fairs on most weekends. Check the schedule, which varies seasonally. The Feria de Mataderos is a folksy celebration of the rural agrarian center of Argentine identity, featuring artisans like mate carvers and decorators:

folk musicians:

and food stands:

[photo by Ruth Radetsky]

It’s a diverse crowd, but everyone is drinking mate, of course, even the urban punks:

And everyone, even those who might not fit the “conventional” standards of beauty that are so venerated by upper-class Argentines (male and female alike) is dancing in the streets:

The team of racers eliminated this week for not being able to count cattle quickly enough in the “Where’s the Beef?” challenge were a couple of Barnum & Bailey circus clowns. Perhaps they could find a place in the neighborhood Res O No Res (Beef or No Beef) comedia dell’arte troupe, which performs political street theater at the Feria that has common roots with the San Franciscco Mime Troupe and the Occupy movement. (Just as the Argentine popular Assembleas of 2001-2002 anticipated today’s Occupy assemblies.)

Because of the stockyards, Mataderos (literally, “Slaughterhouses”) is also known as “Nueva Chicago”, a name that dates to the days when, as one recent historical comparison by a Harvard professor put it, “In the early 1900s, the two cities [Buenos Aires and Chicago] dominated meat-packing in the Americas” and had much else in common. (The main difference at the time was that Buenos Aires focused more on beef, while Chicago was, “Hog butcher to the world”.)

Like the area around the former Chicago stockyards on the southwest side of that city, Mataderos and the neighboring southwestern barrios of Bs. As. remain proudly blue-collar. Hinchas (fans) of the century-old local team, the eponymous C.A. Nueva Chicago, have the worst reputation for hooliganism in Argentine soccer. As with the Chicago Bulls, who draw their name from the city’s stockyards and slaughterhouses, the Nueva Chicago team is nicknamed “El Torito” (The Bull), and their cheerleaders are “Las Toritas” (“Toreritas”). In 2007, when I was last in Argentina, Nueva Chicago’s stadium was closed, they were forbidden to play any home games for a year, and they were eventually “relegated” (demoted) from the first to the third division as punishment for incidents after a match earlier that year, when some spectators stormed the field, stripped visiting players to their underwear before they could flee the field, attacked their own players for having lost the match, and fought with fans of the victorious visiting team both inside and outside the stadium. One Nueva Chicago fan was killed in the melee.

In general, though, their fanaticism — while intense — is more like that of Southside Chicago White Sox fans or Oakland Raider fans than anything like the worst British soccer hooligans. [Wayne Bernhardson begs to disagree.] Feel free to wander around in Mataderos, at least in the daytime, as long as you have an Argentine check your clothes to make sure you haven’t inadvertently dressed in the colors of Nueva Chicago’s current rivals. (C.A.N.C.’s own colors are black and green.)

Next week the race moves on to a very different part of South America. Stay tuned!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 26 February 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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