Originally published March 23, 2015
The lights flashed to the deep, thumping beat. The crowd was entranced by the rhythmic blur of sticks, palms, and fists pounding furiously away at drums of all shapes and sizes.
La Bomba is a sort of Argentine Blueman Group, with less entertaining gimmicks, and more original art. They started as a small act, charging 5 pesos (about $ .50) admission to a handful of customers. Today they perform weekly for thousands of people, and while the price has risen (80 pesos today), the vibe remains unchanged.
I met up with a group from the ship—though it had only been two days since we left the boat, it was nice to see everyone again. In fact, a few of us had spent the day wandering around San Telmo, checking out the government palace (which is bright pink), as well as various antique markets. The show was really cool and the crowd was full of energy, cheering and clapping excitedly whenever a particularly favorite tune came on; I even saw a guy who looked like a young Brett Favre.
I love Buenos Aires. Walking down the warm streets, I felt as though I was back in Rome, or Spain. The architecture is pretty and the food is delicious. The city is massive—even moving about the popular neighborhoods takes time. I spent most of my time in San Telmo (a cheaper, youthful neighborhood), Recoleta (upscale, European feel) and Palermo (artsy / what I deemed to be the “Capitol Hill” of Buenos Aires).
One morning, I strolled over to the cemetery, famous for its exquisite architecture and lavish crypts. While I noticed some similarities, this cemetery was much more intimate than the one in Santiago. The narrow walkways did not allow cars, and although the backdrop consisted of modern apartment buildings and billboards, the copper statues and stone pillars (some hundreds of years old) seemed to transport visitors through history. I walked around, peering at the different plaques and busts, trying to imagine who some of these people once were. I even happened upon Eva Peron’s tombstone, a prominent figure in the advancement of women’s rights in Argentina.
On the way back I discovered what was to become my favorite sandwich place in Recoleta—I think I had a half dozen prosciutto and sun-dried tomato sandwiches by the time I left Argentina.
Being that I was in the same country as one of the “New Seven Natural Wonders of the World,” I decided that I had to travel all the way up to the Brazilian border to see Iguazu Falls. While the falls themselves are immaculate, the whole operation was unfortunately really touristy, and overly crowded. The best part of the day, however, was when I got away from the crowds and went underneath the falls in a boat. Everyone got totally soaked, which was awesome, but my favorite part was after the boat ride, when I simply sat peacefully on a quiet rock to peer out on the spectacular bit of nature in front of me.
I was told to be at the bus at 3:45pm, so I started wandering back around 3:00pm. Shortly thereafter, I peeked at the map to make sure I was headed in the right direction and glanced at my phone to check the time.
It read 4:15pm.
I clicked the phone off and back on.
I was baffled. I could have sworn it just said 3:00pm. It seemed impossible—maybe my phone froze or got water on it? I wasn’t sure what happened, but Apple was telling me that I was 30 minutes late for the bus. I hustled back to the entrance. I halfway decided that even if the bus were waiting for me that I would hop in a cab to avoid being yelled at by those who had been waiting for what had now been almost an hour.
I passed through the gates. No sign of the bus, so I hopped in a cab. Just as the driver started the engine, I asked for the time.
“3:40pm,” he said.
I showed him my phone.”Brazilian time,” he replied in Spanish. My phone, though always on airplane mode, had somehow added an hour (most likely on the boat when we passed within a few yards of the Brazilian riverbank). I apologized, hopped out of the cab, and returned to the entrance—turns out I was five minutes early.
When I returned to Buenos Aires I decided to stay the weekend, hoping that I could find a ticket to a soccer game. River Plate is perhaps the most successful Argentine soccer club, having won 36 league titles. They are also the rivals of the most prolific Argentine club, Boca Juniors.
After confirming with a few different sources, I determined that the best, safest way to attend a match is to go through a tour agency. The next thing I know I found myself tromping down the streets in a sea of red and white, the impromptu parade slowing, and then jumbling up behind the first of three security checkpoints.
Regarding safety, ‘away’ fans are currently not allowed to attend games to prevent clashes between different fan bases. Furthermore, security blockades are set up in a three-block radius around the stadium where ticket holders are patted down. I’m not quite sure who set up the zoning permits for the area, because for as much precaution the league takes, someone decided it was a good idea to put a firing range literally across the street from the stadium (a place where water is served only in cups as to prevent fans from using the bottles as projectiles). So after being searched, frisked, and scanned into the stadium, loud gunshots rang out as we climbed the worn concrete steps to our seats.
We arrived plenty early, but fortunately we were seated in the shade. I looked into the empty bowl of white and red seats, which would soon be filled as fans poured into the stadium. Just before kick-off, the rowdiest group of fans entered to the beat of drums, while, simultaneously, hundreds of banners of all sizes sprung up around the stadium.
Quilmes was a significant underdog, however, they came out swiftly against the bigger, stronger River Plate. Twice, River scored, and twice, Quilmes answered.
Four goals and plenty of action, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Argentine soccer. Though I secretly hoped I would be able to squeeze in a Boca Juniors game before I left the continent.
At first I was angry, as I watched the grey question mark blink on the otherwise blank screen. Then I was sad, as I may have lost most of my nearly completed Antarctica blog post. Then, I let go.
There was nothing I could do about my computer, as I sat on the bus headed to Mendoza, so I laid back and dozed off. I walked into my hostel, sweaty and tired, when I heard a familiar voice, “Sorry, people from Seattle aren’t allowed to check in here.”
I whirled around to find Ed and Kaylen (two of my friends from the ship) sitting at one of the breakfast tables. After my technological difficulties, it was an awesome surprise.
Being that it is too expensive and highly difficult to fix any sort of technology in Argentina, let alone an Apple product, I chose to wait until South Africa to investigate and instead, unplug and enjoy the moment.
Mendoza is much bigger than I imagined, yet it still has a small town vibe. I grabbed a public bus from the hostel to Norton Winery, one of the largest and highest-end ‘bodegas’ in the area. We were greeted by tall, heavy wooden doors and a group of friendly tourists, who were mostly from Texas. While it may come as a surprise to many, after an afternoon at Norton, I think I actually like wine now.
The next day we rented bikes and rode around to a few different wineries. While we started out as a small group from the hostel, we met two other groups of backpackers waiting for the bus, so we joined forces and Ed became the official, unofficial, tour guide.
I must admit that my favorite thing I did in Mendoza was go bowling, at the recommendation of my good friend Sean. Though it is located on the main street, it is pretty easy to miss as it is underground and not well marked. The bowling balls are smaller, and without holes, somewhat like a slightly bigger bocce ball. Nothing is automated, meaning that you keep your own score, use mirrors above the fault line, and wait for real people to run back and forth to setup the pins and roll the balls back down the alley to you. We went twice—it was that fun.
Ever since I first put Argentina on my itinerary I had hoped to attend a Boca Juniors soccer match, and on my last day on the continent, I got my chance.
Obtaining a ticket in the legendary La Bombonera is notoriously difficult, thus it didn’t come as much of a surprise when the only ticket I could get through an agency was a lower deck seat by itself. All I cared about was that I had a way in.
We made our way through the various security checkpoints and into Section L. The seats were better than I ever imagined. It was as though I was right on top of the field. As kickoff neared and the stands filled in, I was surrounded by a group of families—they all knew one another and had been sitting in the same seats for years; it reminded me of UW football games. They were so friendly while I told them about my trip and we talked about soccer. I am very pleased how far my Spanish has come in five months.
The rowdiest group of fans entered the stands behind the goal just a couple minutes before the game started, waving dozens of blue and yellow flags, banging on drums, leaning over the edge of the upper deck, and leading the entire stadium in a boisterous rendition of the team’s anthem. They asked me if football games were like this back home.
“Yes,” I replied, “but we only raise one flag.”
Every single one of the 40,000 people in attendance knew every word to every song and chant. A bobbing, humming sea of blue and yellow, anxiously waited behind glass walls and barbed wire—the field reminded me more of a high-security hockey rink, rather than a soccer pitch.
Boca had played against a team from Uruguay a few days ago, so they came out a bit conservative in an attempt to slow the game down. Though in hardly any time at all, they intercepted a pass and countered, played the ball into the middle, and scored.
The stadium went bananas.
The bobbing sea of blue and yellow had erupted into monstrous swell, and the hum of the anthem grew ever louder. My new Argentine friends tried to teach me all of the cheers and dances, as the entire stadium bounced in unison. Maybe I just caught River on a bad day, but I found the Boca fans to be much more energized, yet at the same time more respectful. They didn’t contest every single call. Nor did the incessantly badger the ref. Yet their energy level was unmatched. Unlike sports back home, hardly any of the fans left their seats at halftime.
Boca ended up winning 1-0. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, it was everything I wanted, and more. I would love to continue writing about soccer—something about the game and its storied culture fascinates me.
The next morning I grabbed dinner with Jared and a few other new friends just before heading to the airport. It hadn’t really dawned on me that I was about to say goodbye to Central/South America, a place I have called home since September.
As my cab flew down the freeway, the sky was engulfed in a sunset of pinks, oranges, and reds. The driver weaved in and out of traffic, taking full advantage of the narrow shoulder. And the smell of burning tires wafted through the open window. It was fitting, to say the least, as it reminded me very much of the drive into Granada, Nicaragua, nearly six months ago.
South Africa requires passengers to present “proof of onward travel,” which for someone such as myself who is backpacking without a definite plan can be slightly tricky. Just in case, I purchased a cheap bus ticket, so for all intents and purposes I was planning to bus from Johannesburg to Gabarone, Botswana on May 18th.
However, when I reached the Qatar Airways ticket counter I was informed that typically an international airline ticket is required. All of the horror stories I had read about on various travel blogs flashed through my mind. I explained my situation and stated that I had read online that a bus ticket would do.
The next thing I know I was escorted behind the ticket counter into a back office, boarding pass in hand, to print out my bus ticket in order to avoid any sort of complication at the South African border. There is no chance this would ever be allowed in the states. I thanked them for their hospitality and headed upstairs to security, where I recognized Mike and Rachel from my Norton winery tour.
The next thing I know I was sipping sparkling wine in the VIP lounge area, having entered as their guest [thank you both for your generosity!].
After a brief stop in São Paulo, Brazil, I met two nice guys from the Philippines who work on cargo ships—among other things, they told me stories of being chased in the Red Sea by pirates. I’ve learned that I enjoy speaking up and just asking people how their day is going because I never know whom I will meet. I wished those two a safe flight back home, and then caught my last connection to Cape Town.
As the wheels touched down on the runway, and I peered out on the surrounding landscape, it suddenly hit me—I made it to Africa.