Sunday, November 25, 2012

Weekend in Montevideo

Yesterday I took one of my rare South American bus trips – usually I have my own car but in Buenos Aires, I don’t need it and, when I cross the river to Uruguay, I’m dependent on public transportation here. That’s why, at mid-morning yesterday, I boarded a COT coach from Colonia to Montevideo. After three-hour trip and a short taxi ride from the Terminal TresCruces, I left my gear in the hotel and set out for the Ciudad Vieja, the colonial core that’s become the city’s top attraction, even if there’s not much truly colonial remains except for the narrow streets and sycamore-shaded plazas.
Unexpectedly, as I walked along downtown’s Avenida 18 de Julio, I found the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo open – every other time I’ve been here it’s been closed. This time, though, there was a special exhibit on painter Juan Carlos Martínez Zorrilla, about whom I knew nothing, and I found the canvases by Carlos Páez Vilaró and his brother Jorge Páez Vilaró (pictured above) more interesting. It’s an interesting space, though, and worth a look for anybody who’s in town.
Proceeding down 18 de Julio, I crossed Plaza Independencia and entered Sarandí, a narrow pedestrian mall fills with a Sunday crafts and flea market that also occupies most of the nearby Plaza Matriz. I was hungry, though, and headed toward the Mercado del Puerto, the picturesque home to a gaggle of grill restaurants where Uruguayans and tourists scarf down artery-hardening quantities of beef and other meats, plus the occasional fish dish, in lively surroundings.
On this particular Saturday, there was live music as a local samba band drummed its way through the market in what, on the face of it, looked like a tourist trap promotion but, before long, Uruguayan diners were up and spontaneously dancing to the drums, trombones, and rectangular chapas – improvised from bottle caps, the chapa appears to be a functional equivalent of the tambourine. Oddly, as I watched, they were playing a version of “Cielito Lindo.”
Unlike most diners at the Mercado, I decided to forgo red meat and went for a sweet-and-sour chicken that was more on the sweet side. Afterwards, walking slowly back to the hotel I stumbled upon yet another art event, the recently inaugurated Bienal de Montevideo, taking place at several sites in the Ciudad Vieja – Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone’s “Campo de Color” (pictured above) was a cluster of colored and conically piled spices on the floor of former Iglesia San Francisco, a church with no priest or congregation that’s to be redeveloped as a cultural center; Falcone’s exhibit had both visual and olfactory appeal. The venue is interesting in its own right - Uruguay must lead the world in secularization, as not even Xmas is an official holiday; here, it’s Día de la Familia, “Family Day.”
Most of the Bienal exhibits, though, were in the Ciudad Vieja headquarters of the Banco de la República, a landmark structure that I had never entered before. The building’s central atrium, with its gilded teller windows on both sides of the floor, made a magnificent site for a diversity of creative pieces.
Sunday was a little more relaxed, as so many thing are closed in town. I did manage to have one of the best meals I’ve ever enjoyed in Uruguay, a seared tuna with sesame at the 62 Bar in the Pocitos neighborhood (pictured above). I also took a look at the new My Suites hotel in Pocitos, a wine-themed boutique whose every floor is dedicated to a different Uruguayan winery. Unfortunately, public tastings take place every night except Sunday, so I won’t get to appreciate it fully this time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Turkey-Free Weekend: Wine & Cheese in Uruguay

More often than not, I’m away from my California home during the so-called “holiday season,” when turkey is on the table and packages accumulate beneath a wilting conifer on so many living room floors, and I’m OK with that. While many if not most people in the United States are enjoying a four-day mini-holiday, I’m spending the same weekend working my way through hotels, restaurants, bars, museums and other services in the Uruguayan cities of Colonia del Sacramento (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Montevideo.
Eventually, most of this material will end up in the next edition of Moon Buenos Aires, which isn’t quite due for an update yet, but it will also see the light of day in a separate Argentina project on which I am working at the moment. The fact that I’m working, though, doesn’t mean it can’t be relaxing and rewarding, as it was last night when I attended a small wine tasting at La Vinería de Colonia (pictured above).
I’ve visited quite a few Uruguayan wineries, most of them in the vicinity of Montevideo, and several times on this blog I’ve spoken of the country’s underrated wines. Bodega Bernardi is the only one easy-to-visit winery in the vicinity of Colonia, but La Vinería stocks a diversity of Uruguayan and imported wines, with daily afternoon and evening tastings in typical quarters in the colonial Barrio Histórico. I arrived too late for the afternoon tasting but, around 7 p.m., I got there just in time to join the evening event with a couple from Los Angeles on the secluded patio.
The festivities started with an unusual choice: Bodega Marichal’s blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (pictured above) isn’t a rosé, but its unusual copper color really stands out. I’m personally not a Chardonnay lover, but I found it interesting for a one-time sample that others might find appealing as an aperitif. As I finished that glass, co-owner Carolina Rosberg brought a platter of cold cuts, fruit and cheeses – Colonia is part of an important dairy zone – to complement my following glass of Deicas Pinot Noir which, as she pointed out, is more acidic than comparable Argentine wines because the climate and terroir are so different here.
The evening’s final sample was a dark red Tannat from Bodega El Legado, a tiny winery near Carmelo that produces only 2,000 bottles per annum on less than a hectare of vines. Accompanying it were two succulent lamb empanadas and, by the time I finished those, I decided I had consumed enough wine and food to forgo any possible Thanksgiving dinner. I spent a little more time walking the Barrio Histórico’s cobbled streets before returning to my hotel and sleeping soundly through the night.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chewing Well: BA's Feria Masticar

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an error-prone account of the Buenos Aires food scene – are they skimping on proofreaders and fact-checkers? - stressing the contributions of Gastronomía Argentina Jóven (GAJO), a movement of young Argentine chefs. Coincidentally, even as they corrected some of the mistakes, GAJO played a major role in the Feria Masticar, a foodie festival whose motto is “Comer rico hace bien” (Eating well is good for you).
At the events space known as El Dorrego, in the barrio of Colegiales on the edge of Palermo, the Feria – whose name comes from the Spanish word meaning “to chew” - started on Friday and ended Sunday. I tried to go Saturday afternoon but, with entry lines stretching longer than two blocks, I gave up and returned on Sunday morning, when the lines were shorter. The idea of sampling modestly priced small plates from chefs such as Martín Molteni (from Pura Tierra, one of my favorite restaurants here), Germán Martitegui (of Tegui, below at right), the GAJO group and others was a tempting one.
In practice, it didn’t work out quite so well. For one thing, the crowds made it uncomfortable, for me at least; for another, almost none of the stands accepted cash – rather, you had to buy at least 50 pesos’ worth of the Feria’s coupons, which were non-returnable.  Most plates were in the 20 to 35 peso range and, uncertain how much I might want to spend and eat, I simply refrained. For me, that took the spontaneity out of the event.
It’s understandable that, in the midst of such crowds, it was much simpler to manage a scrip-based system than wads of cash. As it happened, the only thing I ate was a delicious dark chocolate cookie with hazelnuts from the Compañía de Chocolates, which was accepting cash.
That said, I found many admirable things at the Feria. There was an abundance of quality produce and products on display, and the Ciudad de Buenos Aires even had a public stand where visitors could check their weight and blood pressure, and speak with a nutritionist. Still, at this event, the message only reached a fraction of the local middle class, and will probably never reach the urban and rural poor whose meat and starch diet contribute to obesity, diabetes and other ailments.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Spelunking for Money: "Caves" of Buenos Aires

In the mid-1980s, when Argentine currency was truly volatile and inflation raged at figures up to 50 percent per month, my wife and I lived in a tiny Buenos Aires apartment where, on a student budget, we had to make our money stretch as far as it could. Then, as now, Argentine businesses and individuals responded to their own deteriorating currency by purchasing US dollars – which we were fortunate enough to have – on the black market.
At the time, this involved entering dark downtown offices where, in vaguely unsavory surroundings, we would exchange US cash and travelers’ checks (the latter at a rather less advantageous rate). Before the administration of President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) established a fixed one-to-one exchange rate that brought several years’ stability, legal exchange houses were far more bureaucratic and, from our point of view, highly disadvantageous. The ATM had yet to appear, and so-called cuevas (caves) were the only alternative. I don’t recall now how we made the initial contact with a cueva, but it always made me slightly uncomfortable, even though we never experienced any unpleasantness.

Today, because of the Argentine government’s cepo cambiario (currency clamp), it’s back to the future. Despite efforts to plug the dike and monopolize the foreign exchange market, in order to pay its international debts – a strategy that’s had some short-term success but is unlikely to endure – there is once again a thriving black market in Argentine currency. And it’s not so surreptitious as I thought it might be before this trip.

Earlier this week, running short of local cash, I contacted a friend with connections in the commodities market – where a shortage of foreign currency is making business difficult. He made a couple phone calls and gave me a name and address, after which I took a bus toward the downtown financial district. Disembarking, I walked down the Lavalle pedestrian mall to the sound of several arbolitos – currency hawkers known as “little trees” because they’re planted on the sidewalk, trying to draw tourists or others into nearby cuevas. On occasion, the government has cracked down on this, but none of the arbolitos I saw looked particularly worried.

I had an appointment, though, and after showing my California driver’s license to the gatekeepers at a high-rise building, I took the elevator to an upper floor office, knocked on the door, identified myself, and took a seat in comfortable but by no means luxurious quarters. There, I handed over US$600 and, in return, received an envelope with 3,822 pesos; the rate of 6.37 per dollar (as opposed the official rate of roughly 4.8 per dollar) meant that my money was worth about a third more than an ATM exchange or credit card charge would be.

I will acknowledge, in closing, that selling my dollars on the open market was technically illegal and, at the risk of hypocrisy, I will not suggest that readers should follow my example. In a difficult economic environment, though, Argentines have been doing this for decades, and the phenomenon is not likely to go away any time soon. I rarely stay in hotels here, but my contacts tell me that concierges now regularly purchase dollars or euros from their guests and then turn them over, at a smaller profit, in nearby cuevas.

There appears to be one quasi-legal alternative of which a friend has informed me, called Xoom: “It's kind of the hottest thing for expats and frequent travelers right now. Thirty countries, you use it sort of like a cross between Paypal and Western Union, but it's got low fees and they give you whatever the local black market rate is for cash transfers.” There’s one convenient office in the Retiro neighborhood, a couple dozen in Buenos Aires province including Mar del Plata, and others in Chubut (Trelew), Córdoba, Corrientes, Mendoza, Salta and Rosario.

Of course, there’s an opportunity cost involved in this. Other things being equal, I’d sooner make a withdrawal at the ATM that’s two doors from our Palermo apartment building, rather than make a special trip downtown. Unfortunately, though, these sorts of market distortions don’t seem likely to go away any time soon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Afro Uruguay: Aspiring to the Screen

Some months ago, on this blog, I reviewed the novel Perla by Carolina de Robertis, an Oakland neighbor whom I’ve not yet met in person. Her “Dirty War” fiction, set in Argentina, is a valuable read, as is her translation of Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case, but she’s just brought another intriguing project to my attention: early next year, thanks partly to a Fulbright fellowship, she and her wife Pamela Harris will be relocating to Montevideo, Uruguay, to produce a documentary film called Afro Uruguay: Forward Together, about that country’s underappreciated black community.
I’ve written peripherally about this topic myself, primarily touching on Uruguay’s Carnaval celebrations and Montevideo’s outstanding Museo del Carnaval that helps put them into context – especially for visitors who don’t have the good fortune to visit at that time of the year. I don’t pretend to have any specialist knowledge, but it’s probably fair to say that the Afro-Uruguayan heritage of candombe music and dance recalls Buenos Aires’s Afro-Argentine traditions before they were swamped by the massive European immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the memorable phrase of historian George Reid Andrews, the Argentine capital’s black population was “forgotten, but not gone.”
Producing a documentary is a challenging and expensive proposition, so De Robertis and Harris are seeking additional funding of US$15,000 through a Kickstarter campaign for tax-deductible pledges. With 22 days to go, they have obtained pledges of roughly US$2,000. Pledges as small at US$1 are welcome and, with the prestige of Fulbright behind it, this project has a quality pedigree. I will be submitting my own modest pledge to support this investigation of the Southern Cone’s cultural diversity, and I encourage my readers to do so as well.
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