Monday, 11 August 2014

Madrid! - posted from Bennekom, the Netherlands

Home already for a week, after six months of traveling. It still feels a little strange. Writing this in English is all of a sudden awkward as well: my brain has switched back to Dutch. One thing hasn't changed: I'm still behind with my blog posts: so this (long!) one will cover the last week: Madrid, reminiscing and reflecting on the trip and being back will have to wait for the next post.

 So, Madrid. It's been about six years since I've last been here. INTA hosted me for my engineering internship for about 3 months. During the first month my home was in Torrejon de Ardoz, a small town just outside of Madrid, near INTA. The last two months I lived in the city center: Calle de Collegiata: about a stone's throw from Plaza Major. I had a great time in Madrid, so the visit was mainly scheduled to dip into the Madrilenian life again and visit some old friends. The rental company of my flat at the time had a policy to let old renters stay in their vacant rooms for short term stays for free, but when I looked them up they did not appear to exist anymore. As I had seen the touristic sites already when I lived here I opted to stay with couchsurf hosts as much as possible, meeting new people and also giving me an opportunity to keep speaking Spanish.
Juan Carlos was my tutor when I was doing my internship: he's still working for INTA, but in a different department nowadays. He was glad to welcome me for a visit to his home, which we planned for the weekend, since he was working during the week. With me arriving on Thursday afternoon and flying out on wednesday I opted to put two different couchsurfing hosts on either side of the weekend. First up: Isilwen. I was pretty amazed that she would host me: she would arrive back from a holiday on the beaches of Spain on Thursday night, and would fly out to Istanbul on Sunday. With me arriving early on Thursday from a long and jet lagged flight, and also feeling awkward about not letting my host have time to 'come home' after her travel I opted to book a hostel for the first night. Later my host let me know she would be hosting another surfer as well, so we kept in touch on Whatsapp: if they'd be heading into town for a beer I'd be glad to join in, especially with my body being wide awake at night due to the jet lag.

During the day I got installed in the hostel and met with my room mates. One of them was an Algerian PhD student studying Aerodynamics. What a coincidence, my course of study as well! This gave a small glimpse into the Algerian level of education: the guy was doing a promotion that his professor knew nothing about (that was a mechanical guy) and in the third year of his promotion he was still struggling to get to grips with some of the terms of the Navier-Stokes equation. He had designed a wing and calculated it's force characteristics and internal strains. Still quite impressive considering the means he had at his disposal.
During the afternoon a Swiss 18 year old couple joined us: they had just finished high school and had been interrailing Europe for 2,5 months already of a 3 month trip. They had a lot of nice stories to share and I could explain them about round the world travel: a nice one for them after they finish college :-). After this short social interval I dropped my laundry bag at the hostel's laundry service and went to my old neighborhood around 'Tirso de Molina' on foot from the hostel in 'Tribunal'.

Overall feeling: absolutely nothing has changed in Madrid! The only difference I could discern was that there's two or three streets that have been made car-free, and they paved the 'Callao' area. For the rest it was still the same: the terrible summer heat, the 'water spray' arconditioning on terraces, Cien Montaditos, the hookers near Gran Via, the living statues and punters at Sol, the Corte Ingles, Museo de Jamon, Patatas Bravas, the boats in Retiro: wonderful! I didn't bring my camera on this first day, so sadly no pictures yet. After a small bite and a beer I went back to the hostel to get a Siesta: I was knackered after a 12 hour flight and a short night in Lima before.
After Siesta I went back into town for a small bite and a beer (great tradition in Madrid). When I came back to the hostel I was confronted with the 'smartphone generation' once again. At 22:00 at night, in the middle of summer in the center of Madrid there were some 10 youngsters sitting on couches glued to smartphones. Madrileñans all over are outside at this time of day: finally the relentless heat is gone and you can go out for a beer and dinner with friends! I asked the people in the hostel to come out for a beer, but all kind of vague excuses resulted in me leaving them there and going out for a beer myself. Great to see that also here nothing has changed: people are outside sitting on the squares drinking cold beers sold by Chinese people with rolling carts full of ice and beer. I enjoyed the pleasant warmth at this time of day, the boisterous atmosphere of the square and my cold beer, and returned to the hostel about an hour later to get some sleep. I had told Isilwen to keep me up to date on her progress: she would be in Madrid by 02:00. We had some misunderstandings about her address: on the couchsurfing site it was depicted as Atocha: or walking distance from where I was, but in reality she lives at the end of the metro line somewhere west of Madrid. I wouldn't be able to join them for a beer at her home because I could not get back to the hostel then. However, at 03:00, after a couple of hours of sleep, I got a message that she had arrived and that they would be drinking a beer in the city center: near Sol: great! I got dressed and headed into town, what a proper Madrilenan should also be doing at such an hour.

Of course Murphy was also active, so instead of heading for the right bar, I ended up at the wrong bar. When I realized my mistake I smuggled my bear outside and into the proper bar where we had agreed to meet up. I was now quite late, so Isil and Arnaud were already gone... I opted to empty my beer and slowly head home. Serendipity hit and I bumped into the crowd on the street: the party was four people now: Arnaud had also brought another couchsurfing host: a Frenchman living in Madrid. Both are musicians: Arnaud had been traveling South America for six months hitchhiking with his guitar. We had a great night getting to know eachother and I ended up back in the hostel at around 06:00.

Because I had to check out at the hostel I had to get up at 10:30 already. I noticed a message from Isil that they had gone to sleep at around 09:30 and that I'd be welcome at around 14:30. This meant a lazy and hungover afternoon on the hostel couch after checking out from the room. The hostel had done my laundry as well, with one small bummer: I had stored my useless mifi device in a sock, and had forgotten all about it... you can guess what has happened. It did not survive it's trip in the laundry machine, so the T-mobile curse has followed it to the end.
The trip to Isil's place is uneventful: navigating Madrilenan metro is a breeze. A helpful local points me the right way at the station and I can drop my backpack at Isil's apartment. A great little place full of fantasy and dancing memorabilia (she's a dance teacher and role player). Arnaud was still sleeping and I was in a half coma too due to the long night, so the afternoon was slow.
Isil had a friend visiting soon though and she was cooking us lunch. We woke Arnaud up for this and we had a nice chat with this interesting dude over dinner. After that it was into town again: drinks and tapas on a terrace, with Isil's niece and fiancee who would join us later. They were there to bring Isil here marriage invitation: the couple would get married in about a month so we had some fun sharing bachelor party stories and discussing their honeymoon plans. In the middle of things we dropped Arnaud at the bus station for his night bus to Barcelona. Being properly Spanish the couple joined us afterwards for a bar trip into Lavapies.
Parking in Madrid at this hour was an interesting afair. Isil gained our respect by driving like a man beforehand, but this time it was a little more 'interesting'. She was parking in a very small spot, using the 'bump means stop' method (a Dutch saying, of which I know no proper English translation). This meant about 10 back and forths to slowly inch our way into the spot. When we got out we could see that the rear bumper had pressed the grille of the car behind us out of place, so we had to move forward a little bit. When that was done it became clear that the bumpers were touching both in front and at the back....of course Isil was proud of her achievement :-S.

Next destination: coffee! I was falling apart due to lack of sleep at around 01:00am. Another friend of Isil is a Lavapies local and could point us in the right direction: first a nice coffee place, then we picked up his girlfriend who had just finished work (at 02:00am), then a Mexican bar (Mezcal...) and afterwards a artisan beer bar. This last bar was actually supposed be closed, but this being Madrid, we were welcomed in, with the shutters being closed behind us. At daybreak we stopped for a midnight snack at a kebab place, and at about 07:00am we ended up crashing at this friend's place.
One little snag: at 09:00 the car would have to be either moved or paid. This wasn't too pleasant but we managed without tickets, or without further notice from the other parked cars (who were gone by then). The rest of the day is a haze: sleeping long, breakfast of liquor soked pancakes (Isil's friend Jorge is a chef, with a satanical turn, giving us liquor again). Jorge also had some great stories to share over breakfast: we talked about his food and drink adventures in Galicia and inspected his terrible hawaiian shirt, which would win the 'worst hawaiian shirt competition' at another party that night. By the end of the afternoon we headed back to Isil's apartment: I took it easy, Isil visited her parents for dinner, we met up with other friends of hers, but this time I went to bed early: Juan Carlos would be picking me up early next day.
At 10:00 the next morning Juan Carlos and his girlfriend Rebecca picked me up with their car. First destination: a walk/picnic breakfast near one of the outside of madrid palaces: El Pardo. The walks were nice, but the area was not as beautiful as we had expected, so we opted to have lunch at home, and pick their dog up for some more fun hiking further outside of Madrid. During the walk we did have time to catch up on things: there had been a restructuring at INTA and a lot of the people that used to work at the windtunnel department were gone now. Juan Carlos was now working on drones: specifically a target drone which I had seen in the windtunnel some six years earlier. His girlfriend is a freelance graphic designer. Fun fact: they met online: Rebecca was blogging about films and JC became a follower of the blog. Their dog is a funny type: I forgot the name of the race, but it is a local race from the area where JC is from: Almería. Since it was bloody hot and we all like the outdoors we opted for some destinations with water: quite outside of Madrid though: near Guadalajara and the sierras.

First up 'lagunas de puebla de Beleña'. These lagunes are known for their bird life, but when we arrived there they turned up to be empty (summer). The walk was nice though and we had our little picnic in a bird watching house (the dog joined in on the grapes). The bird watching hut had some infographics on the local wildlife and the variation of the water level during the seasons. We were quite sweaty after just a 20 min hike in the sweltering heat, so with swimming in a river as the activity at the next stop we were really looking forward to it. Although we were worried that with the water level being so low we might be disappointed.
The drive to the place made me feel like driving in the US again: lots of small roads going mostly through beautiful hilly landscapes with red earth, although there were a lot more villages here than in the US.

On the way we got stopped by a very serious looking Spanish police officer: she pointed us to stop in a side dirt road where here colleague was waiting. This was looking like some kind of crazy scheme in the middle of nowhere, but after checking our papers the serious looks disappeared and we were free to drive on (very strange, apparently just a regular check up?). When we finally arrived at our destination the water level in the river got us quite worried (just very, very dry rocks), with one puddle of algy water behind a low concrete dam down a 30m ravine. After some hiking up river this didn't change much, but people coming back with towels on their shoulders assured us that the swimming was nice and water was to be found. The hike continued past a lot of human waste on the sides of the path (apparently there are no toilets near the water hole and people here do not clean up after themselves). In the end however we were rewarded with a great sight: a small waterhole with about 20 people chilling, drinking, swimming and smoking weed (and combinations thereoff).

Ofcourse we also took a dip, and although the water is cold at first, it was actually very nice after a little while. The little canyon we were in was nice and cool as well due to the shade and the water, so it was a very pleasant little place to relax and eat and drink the rest of our supplies. We didn't join in with the (drunk) rock jumping locals. Some sampling of the depth came up with some 2-2,5m, so not something you want to jump into from 4m's up!
By the time we headed back to the car the sun was already nearing the horizon, shedding some beautiful light on the 'pueblas negras' or black villages. These are called black because of the use of the local stones to build and roof them. There's some better examples in this region, but I'm glad we got to see some small examples in the small town of Valdesotos.
To get back to Madrid (or just outside of Madrid: Ajalvir), we took the 'short' route, which led us through a lot of hairpins through an uninhabited area. This wasn't bad at all: we got great views of the sierras during sunset, of Spanish pueblos and of a partially burnt village. Very much like roadtripping in the US, just in a different landscape: lots of fun and beautiful scenery.

Electric lines to be photoshopped

We decided to for a simple dinner at home in Ajalvir (Rebecca has lots of food allergies), but we were lacking one ingredient: bread. Where do you get that in the middle of nowhere? At a local restaurant ofcourse! Rebecca was a little hesitant (she just needed to use the restroom of the restaurant actually), but we pressed on, and she came back with bread: woohoo! Once again my camera focused on the wrong thing, but well... mission accomplished!

We had a nice dinner at their home in Ajalvir, with home grown herbs included (Rebecca has all her balconies covered in herbs which taste great!), the evening went away quickly. We concluded with walking the dog, and even outside of Madrid the streets are filled with people late at night. A chat with the neighbors and then quickly off to bed: JC will have to go to work early tomorrow morning, and since I made a chaos of unpacking my bag to get my swimming trunks I need some time to repack and then catch the bus back to the center.

The next day the bus drops me off at metro station Barajas, the small village just in between the two airport terminals. This is perfect because my next couchsurf host is also located on this metro line. Aleksandra actually lives just 2 minutes away from the metro station of 'Columbia'. I didn't learn about this until after the request had been accepted, but this is actually perfect for flying back home too: just 20mins to the airport with the metro station just around the corner. We talked a bit on facebook to arrange my visit, and since I was early she just hands me the keys to her almost empty apartment (a shared place, with rooms of 2 other people that just went back home to South America) and heads off to a visit she has to make. She left me her laptop to use, so I used this time to post the previous blog post. Afterwards it's siesta time because I'm still way too short on sleep.
When Aleksandra is back we talk a little bit about Madrid and life, and once the topic of dinner comes up I tell her the story about not being able to find the 100 montaditos that I wanted. She actually knows the one I'm talking about, and there's also one around the corner too, where we head for dinner (or well, lunch with this Spanish timing).

Up next was a visit to El Retiro, or the best park of Madrid. A tradition during my internship was to go here and eat a melon with friends during the weekend, so we did the same. After that we went into town again to eat Patatas Bravas at a place near Sol where a Spanish local once showed me the 'best bravas of Madrid'. They were still tasting good, and the atmosphere of the street and surrounding area was still the same (badly singing street singer included). With not many touristic attractions on the list, we make a plan to go swimming tomorrow (the heat was still killing), but this changes quickly as Aleksandra has to go and fix a lot of stuff for her landlords (she is moving out in two days and is the last occupant of the flat, so she has to show a lot of stuff for inspection). I take the opportunity to walk another bit of Madrid, and once again notice that almost nothing has changed.

At night we go out for dinner with friends of Aleksandra's at 'El Tigre' a Sidreria with three branches near Tribunal. Aleksandra tells me as if it's the best thing in Madrid since sliced bread, so I can't believe I've never heard of it... Jolanda, you've got some explaining to do about being my Madrid guide six years ago... Anyway the attraction of the place is that a large jug of beer plus a plate chock full of great food sets you back just €6,-. We arrive at just the right time too, about 30 minutes later the place is as full as it's plates, with what looks like a young college crowd: great rowdy atmosphere once again!

Sorry for the timing of this one ladies... ;-)

The evening with Aleksandra and her friends is great fun, we are enjoying ourselves and laughing ourselves silly over stupid language mistakes and our different customs in all kinds of matters. After some help I can remember one stupidity: in Madrid you have the famous 'museo de jamon' branch of restaurants. They're filled from top to bottom with great tasting Spanish hams, of which they sell all kinds of servings. Aleksandra was explaining what she would like to do in Amsterdam: go to the Museo de Jamon.... I ofcourse did not understand anything of this: the Museo de Jamon is in Madrid... if you know how to pronounce Spanish you'll understand that the J is pronounced as the dutch G... what she was saying, but what I misheard, is that she wanted to go the the Museo de van Gogh... which in dutch is the 'van Gogh Museum' (we were talking Spanish of course). Anyway, you should've been there to understand ;-). We dedicated it with a little memorial:

We ended the evening with another outside beer on the tribunal plaza. This time I could show the girls something that for me was very typically Madrid, but which they had not experienced after living there for more than half a year! We didn't party hard until sunrise this time, but still it is a short night until my flight home the next morning. Finnair takes me from Madrid to Helsinki to Amsterdam. The stop in Helsinki was so short that I couldn't even make a proper picture of something Finnish... well, you guessed it, I'm back in the Netherlands now. More on post-travel reflections, blues, etc. in a next post.

For now, I leave you with picasa links:
140727 Outside of Madrid with JC and Rebecca
1407     Various impressions of Madrid

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Until next time South America - Posted from Madrid, Spain

As some of you already know: instead of heading to Chili to do an internship, I'm almost home now. With family circumstances being as they are I opted to head back instead of being isolated and without communication on the other side of the planet. This also means that instead of traveling through Chili and Peru I only visited Lima. This blog post will show some final South America impressions, Madrid will be covered in a final post from home.

Let's start off with activities in the last week in Argentina: of course the final of the world cup. This would turn into a traditional Argentinian barbecue (Asado), with a load of Aureliano's friends coming in to watch the match on our projector. The asado of course featured great meat, cooked on our luxurious rooftop terrace.

Across the street, the exact same thing was happening on another rooftop terrace. Of course we finished eating before the match started. This was on a sunday: the San Telmo's antiques market day on our street's day. Just as with other Argentinian matches you could see the busy street turn into a deserted place in about 15 minutes, with people only coming out during the interval to get a smoke and a chat.

The match itself was exciting to watch, but with a very sad outcome for our Argentinian friends:

I spent most of the week afterwards in bed with a nasty cold.. I got out to get a few shots of things typically Buenos Aires, which I will leave you to check out in the Picasa link at the end of this post. However, some things I did not capture, and I hope to cover here in plain text (in random order):

You know you are in Buenos Aires when .... are standing in line at the post office, spending two hours to buy 3 stamps one day and two more hours another day when you need to send a package. see people on the streets carrying thermos under their arms and stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to top up their mattés. see side walk flower stalls open 24h a day, with the owner sitting right in the middle of the shop watching his little portable tv at 4am in the morning. see lines in front of barred down kiosks at 3am in the morning, with people trading with the shopkeeper via a DVD sized hole. sit in the metro and someone starts placing packets of paper towels on your lap (or packets of gum, or flash lights, or childrens playcards), doing the same thing to all the people on the wagon, only to return later to pick it up again when you show you don't want to buy anything. see a centro cultural in just about every street you walk through. hear people shouting 'cambio! cambio!' on the streets. step into a bus at 04am in the morning and it is packed with people get into a metro and after traveling in one direction for two hours you still haven't reached the end of the line.

Changing my flight from Buenos Aires to Lima from an overland trip to a flight was supposed to be a breeze: just call American Airlines (AA) and pay the change fee. However, due to Argentina's insane taxes it was looking like I should pay about 3 times the change fee in taxes. Paying in pesos to save 30% would also not be an option: Argentina charges 40% tax on flights paid in pesos... it was looking pretty bleak until after some 5 daily calls with AA I finally got the same superstar operator on the line that had booked my ticket in the first place (after all the calls with them I probably know all the first names of the people working there by now). She helped me tremendously: waiving the change fee because of the ridiculous taxes, and also fixing her colleagues' mistake (pricing the flight in dollars, while my credit card is in euro's). After a reprice in euro's the amount all of a sudden wasn't that ridiculous anymore (about the same as the change fee) so in the end it all worked out fine. With the exception that at this moment I've got 5 reservations on my credit card for this amount, instead of just one.

The flight was a morning flight, and with traffic and warnings about lines at immigration and customs that meant getting up at 04:30 to take a cab to the airport. This all worked fine (of course the streets were full of people at 04:30am). There was little traffic, now being a 'one world ruby' I could skip to priority check in, and customs and immigration offered no delays too. This meant I ended up at the gate about 2,5 hours early in an airport that does not offer free wifi... I wasted time by reading and drinking...

The flight itself was uneventful (sadly no sights of the Andes, except for a few peaks above the clouds near the landing). The taxi had trouble getting to the hostel because the roads were closed in Miraflores (the neighbourhood also known as 'gringo central'). The roads were closed because of the 'Corso Wong' a parade that is part of the celebrations for the month of the fatherland. Well, this meant that after getting set up at the hostel I would have to go explore this of course.

The Wong family runs one of the biggest supermarket chains in Lima, and as such the Chinese traditions were present in the parade. For the rest it's a celebration of local services and culture with folk dancers, school, fire brigade and police groups all giving 'acte de presence'. A funny thing is that all along the 5km route were supermarket employees, spaced in between 5m intervals... loads of 'em!
After seeing the start of the parade I went down to the coast to explore two of the other tourist must see sites of Lima's Miraflores area: the Larcomar shopping mall and parque del amor. 

Pq de amor is close to the final loop of the parade route, and also close to my hostel, so I walked up to parque Kennedy to get something to eat and have a look at the parade again.

It was already busy when the parade hadn't even started, but when it ended you could get a sense of what a big event this apparently is for the people here:

After a drink at the hostel I got to bed, as the following day would consist of proper sightseeing. Impressions below.

First up: a tour of Huaca pucllana, a pre-inca pyramid structure, wedged in between the city's buildings. I opted for the Spanish tour which left some 2 mins after I arrived and I must say I was pretty happy to be able to follow about 80% of it :-). Not much is known about the people that built this structure, but the structure is probably dedicated to 'mother sea' which, if you could remove the present day high-rise buildings you could see from the top of the pyramid. Human sacrifices were used in its construction and were probably also part of the rituals. Only half of it is uncovered at the time and it is estimated that it will take another 15 years to completely uncover it. 

Next up was the city center itself. Here you can see a lot of impressive buildings left from the days that this was the center of Spain's conquest of the Southern Americas. Some of them I also explored from the inside: the archbishop's palace (full of riches), the cathedral and the crypts of the Franciscan convent (the latter: not that interesting, save your crypt visit for Rome). 

Pizarro's grave

The office that managed the conversion of South America to the 'One true faith'

At night I went out with some people I met at the hostel bar, so the next days were kinda slow. I visited a few more tourist sites, amongst which the 'circuito del agua' a popular destination for families, but apparently also for the teenagers. A water labyrinth switching on and off is guaranteed fun for anyone young.

While this city had got me worried about it's safety when originally booking my round the world trip it felt a lot safer than Buenos Aires. Ofcourse I only spent time in the safe tourist areas. But apparently crooks just don't go there with the sheer amount of police that is around (and each shop has an armed guard in front of it too). Another thing that surprised me is the quality of the food. Although you're eating strange stuff it tastes really, really good:

Chicken organs, beef, maize and potatoes in various forms... still don't know what the green paste is... all tasted good though!

Ceviche: raw fish in lemon and pepper, with assorted other seafood accompanying it. Tasted incredibly well!

The three days I had in Lima flew by, and with that it's time to say goodbye to South America, and to give you the Picasa links to these picture sets. Enjoy, and let's see if you get the next stories from me in person or from the blog.

Picasa links:

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Buenos Aires impressions - posted from Buenos Aires, Argentina

It's been quite a while already without posts. However, the four weeks of Spanish lessons have run out and with the world cup also getting near its conclusion I've got a little more time on my hands. This means that I've managed to upload the pictures of previous outings and also to write a little about the associated adventures.

The first two weeks of class are already a long time ago, but these consisted of getting to know my roommates, classmates and teachers and the way around our Buenos Aires neighborhood (barrio): San Telmo.

Housemates and classmates, from left to right:
Nick (UK), me, Aureliano (ARG), Maud (FR), Marianne (CHI), Lucinda (IRL, class), Felix (CH, class) and Denise (USA).

Spanish class finished after four weeks:
Nancy (teacher), Lucinda, me in transparent shirt :-S and Alejandro (director and teacher during first days)

It was a fun time with lots of eating out, but also a tiring time: after four hours of Spanish your brain is really really tired. This meant that most afternoons were spent having lunch and a siesta afterwards. The nights were sometime spent having dinner at Argentinian times (22:00-00:00), but especially in the first weeks my body would already scream for food around 18:00. With me being old and feeling tired I have not explored the night life the way and Argentinian would (until 05:00). I had a little more energy during the last two weeks of class: my brain was getting used to the Spanish and the daily rhytm here, but I also caught a cold, reducing the amount of energy I had available to spend. I went on a few touristic outings, so let's start with those.

First up: the Recoleta cemetery: the labyrinth of mausoleums where famous and wealthy Porteños have been buried for decades. Evita is also buried here, but I never managed to find her grave (it is not marked as hers, and is not as impressive as some of the others). The place is quite impressive to walk through, and the contrast with the high rise residential housing surrounding it is at times stark. Entrance is free, so it is normally littered with tourists, but because it is such a maze you regularly find yourself turning corners without bumping into other tourists, able to admire the beauty or decay of the various graves.

Just across the street from my house you find 'El Zanjon'. This is a restored 18th century building, one of the few in Buenos aires, offering views of the various stages of its history. Like most houses in the San Telmo area it started its life as the residence of a wealthy family. Various rich people built their mansions in this area during the 18th century. A peculiarity is that they tunneled over a river while doing so: due to pollution and decay they weren't big fans of the stench of it: hence you can now walk through the tunnel where the river(s) used to run. Sadly the museum does not let you take pictures there, to ensure that people will actually come and see it themselves. 
During an outbreak of disease (TBC if I remember correctly) the rich people left the area to live in a part of the city which was still healthy. The various mansions were soon taken over and reorganized as tenements: housing families of up to 10 people in rooms which used to serve other functions. All without proper sanitation and shared use of one kitchen, so you could imagine the kind of atmosphere and stench that would be present in such a house. In various parts of the building the details of the old life are made visible by exposing old walls, tiles and recesses for floors.
At the end of the 20th century the building stood abandoned for several decades until a wealthy businessman acquired it to start a restaurant. While discovering the various original details in the building and the tunnels underneath he decided to to restore it instead and give it a double function: museum and venue available for rent for events. It is now beautifully restored and modernized. A guide shows you around the building while telling the tale of its history. Quite entertaining and fun to walk around in, although not as mind blowing as some of the online reviews would lead you to believe.

Pz de Mayo and Casa Rosada are the center of Argentina's government: the case rosada (literally pink house) is Argentina's equivalent of the White house and provides quarter for the President. The square in front of it is the scene of al lot of protests against the goverment, the financial crisis and whatever else is wrong in Argentina, so it is permanently guarded by police, and has riot fences right across it. During one of the firsts nights I was here there was a small band of people protesting something there by throwing fireworks at people, playing loud music and speeches and waving a big flag around while a folklore performance was taking place next door. See pictures on Picasa.

Puerto Madura is the old renovated harbour front. The old harbour that was here before stood derelict for years, as the retreating shoreline had left its ports inaccessible. Business moved elsewhere and the area deteriorated. In recent years the goverment has spent millions to renovate the area, which leaves it now as one filled with skyscrapers, gleaming glass structures and a Calatrava bridge. Quite a contrast to other parts of Buenos Aires, especially San Telmo. The wide avenues between the skyscrapers, as well as the nice boulevards next to the water are great places to stroll through in the winter sun.

Behind Puerto Madura lies an area which was once to be reclaimed on the sea, but this project was abandoned, leaving it to become an ecological reserve (much like the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands). What remains is a great green area to walk through: away from the noise and pollution of Buenos Aires' traffic. A small walk even gets you to the seaside, where lots of Argentinians enjoy the sight. Besides this you also find a lot of birdlife here, for instance the Caracara you see depicted above. It had caught something and allowed me to get quite close to it: very cool!

A few quick impressions of my own area: San Telmo, and then especially the type and state of the buildings and the grafitti. Grafitti is legal here, resulting in some great works of art on some of the building (perhaps more pictures will follow in a later post). The history of a lot of the buildings is similar to that of El Zanjon, but not all are restored or maintained as well, this leads to a lot of contrast between beautiful old buildings, ruins and rusty and gritty concrete newcomers. 
Walking on the streets each day makes you encounter a lot of telltale San Telmo things: holes in the pavement, sometimes covered up with trash or planks. Dogs are ever present too: from the dog walkers trying to walk 8 dogs at the same time, to stray dogs running through traffic, but mainly as piles or smears of dog shit on the sidewalk... 
The holes in the paving show a lack of maintenance which seems present in more things: I've regularly encountered streams of water coming out of walls or out of the sidewalk itself, trickling down into the sewer: it seems that water connections are broken in a lot of places. We even went without water here for one day: apparently the wind was blowing so hard down the valley that the water level in the river dropped 4 feet: preventing the water intake stations from getting water. 

During my time here the world cup has also been a regular presence: with 8 nationalities to choose from, someone's team always seemed to be playing: a good excuse to visit our regular watering hole 'Gibraltar', the British pub around the corner of the school, and two blocks from our house. We watched a lot of matches there, but also in various other bars in the area, and I watched two of the dutch games in the only Dutch bar of Buenos Aires: 'van Koning'. Some impressions below:

Chile - Brazil in Gibraltar, with Chilean housemate

Netherlands - Mexico in van Koning

 Celebrations outside after winning against Mexico

Argentina - Switzerland in los Talentos

Yesterday I went to van Koning again, to watch the semifinals of Holland versus Argentina. Sadly this did not end the way it was supposed to :-(. The only thing on the plus side: we could join the Argentinians in their parties on the street and in the bus... and in front of the dutch bar, where the local people were quick to run to after the penalty series. 

Argentinians trying to make fun of the Dutch losing the semifinal
(Also see the videolink furher down the page)

Crowds out on the street in front of Messi's face on the City council's building

Celebrations around the obelisk

And for the people that haven't had enough yet (I have): celebrations on the streets and in the bus:


And if you havent had enough yet here are two more:

Me and my American room mate watched the match together and took the bus to the obelisk. Afterwards we walked back to San Telmo. She was pretty tired though, so we stopped for coffee and something sweet. I ordered a brownie, and got something that was quite different from a brownie... making this a good moment to discuss Argentinian food:

The so called 'brownie'

First of all the make-up of this brownie: the bottom layer is what we would normally call a brownie: a rich chocolate cake, however, on top of that is 1 cm of  'Dulce de leche' (I'll come back to what that is), a layer of chocolate mousse, another layer of Dulce de leche and then a layer of sugared cream/eggwhite about the same thickness as the whole pie itself. A number of the Argentinians food loves come together in this pie, so let's zoom in. 
Dulce de leche is sweetened milk heated until it becomes like caramel. It is one of the staple sweets in South America and you find it in a lot of places (as a sandwich topping, as icecream flavors, in filled croissants, on cookies and in cakes and other sweets). It is often a part of the Argentinian tea time, which consists of tea or coffee and something sweet at around 17:00-18:00. Medialunas (sugar coated croissants) with or without filling (jam or dulce de leche) are one of the sweets that normally accompany this.
Except for sweet, the pie was also pretty creamy/greasy (loads of butter in the brownie itself, and cream in the whipped cream). This you see in almost all of the food you order here. Most dishes are floating in fat (from fries that leave a puddle of grease on your plate, to steaks or even salads, when you empty your plate you will find a little grease puddle on the bottom of it). Pizza's have turned into a special kind of grease holder here:

The regular pizza already lacks in resemblance to the Italian pizza (the amount of cheese on top of the pizza is about the same thickness as the crust and flows across your plate when the pizza is delivered hot). However you can even get 'filled pizza', with the crust formed as a sort of saucer to hold in all the cheese. This comes acompanied with a slice of an omelet-like maize cake. 
The problematic thing with all this food is that it actually tastes great, making me gain all the kg's that I previously lost quite quickly :-(. So these last days I try to make salads a lot more, exercise and eat out less... the only thing still on the list is another great Argentinian steak!

I'll try to reflect on some other peculiarities in a next post, for now this one is already more than long enough. Let me finish with the picasa link to a whole bunch of pictures: 
(tip: zoom out on the mini-map displaying the pictures locations across the city in satellite mode: you'll get an idea of just how small a section of Buenos Aires I've seen in the last month)