Thursday, March 24, 2022

Pedaling the Pampas

The Plusmar bus line crosses the Pampas from Retiro to Olavarría.

After I spent a week adapting to a five-hour time change and recovering from the hangover of perhaps the most miserable flight of my life, my wife arrived in Buenos Aires and, after a couple more days, we took the bus to her hometown of Olavarría for the first family reunion since the pandemic struck. Leaving our Palermo apartment early, we caught a 7 a.m. bus that, in the morning rush hour, took more than two hours just to get beyond the city limits. After that, it was another four hours across the interminably flat Pampas in comfortable conditions—many of Argentina’s long-distance buses have seating comparable to business class on an airplane.

The Olavarría terminal early in the morning.

Rodolfo tends his rabbits at the chacra.

After María Laura’s sister Estela picked us up at the Olavarría terminal, most of that day and the next consisted of lunches and extended family dinners with her and her brother Rodolfo, at whose house we stayed. On the Friday, though, we rose early and, after a quick breakfast, we climbed aboard borrowed bicycles for a ride to Rodolfo’s countryside chacra, where he raises rabbits, chickens (and eggs), sheep, and even a few pigs. It’s about 12 miles (20 km) outside town but, despite the endlessly flat terrain, the ride proved more strenuous than I anticipated.

There were few landmarks along the route, but this roadhouse on the paved highway was one.

Estela and María Laura at the gate to the chacra.

Accustomed to the hills of the Oakland and Berkeley, which can be steeply challenging, I expected this ride to be a breeze—and in a sense it was, as gusty headwinds slowed our progress over the bumpy sand and gravel backroads (mostly used by farm traffic). Because of those conditions, my average speed was probably lower than most of my usual rides, which usually include downhill segments that allow for coasting at higher speeds. Only one short segment was along a paved highway, where we used the firm grassy shoulder to avoid speeding trucks and SUVs.

Our route from Olavarría to El Aromo and back

In the end, our route covered 21.96 miles (35.3 km), according to the Strava app that I use for cycling. What startled me a bit is that the Health app on my phone recorded this as the equivalent of walking 20.3 miles (32.7 km), which is one indicator of the fatigue levels we all felt on returning to town and the calm waters of the Arroyo Tapalqué, part of a pleasant greenbelt just outside Rodolfo’s front door. After dismounting, though, it was siesta time.

The ride ended at Rodolfo's house in town, alongside the Arroyo Tapalqué greenbelt.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Is Purgatory Real? SFO to DFW to EZE on American Airlines

I’m not Catholic—in fact, I’m an atheist—but after completing my first flight in two years, I think I finally understand the concept of Purgatory. Early Sunday morning I started the initial leg of an odyssey that took me from San Francisco to Dallas Fort Worth to Buenos Aires and, except at the very beginning and the very end, it was a disagreeable experience that I felt might never end.

First the good—after my wife dropped me off at SFO, the counter attendant who did my check-in was a simpático Uruguayan who did his best to promote his homeland, though it’s unlikely I’ll cross the Río de la Plata to Montevideo or any other port in the Banda Oriental on this trip. After checking my vaccination card and PCR test (no more than 72 hours prior to departure for Argentina), he also snagged me aisle seats for both legs of the journey (In theory I still prefer window seats to enjoy the landscape from 35,000 feet, but my prolonged recovery from last year’s ankle surgery has made ease of access more important than it used to be).

Things quickly deteriorated from there and that, of course, meant security theater from the so-called “Department of Homeland Security.” On my body scan, they saw things they didn’t like—one of which was a money belt that included the US cash I was carrying to Argentina because the official exchange rate is so disadvantageous. That was fairly easy to explain, but they also detected a “suspicious” elastic knee support I was wearing because of recent soreness and, even worse, a support sock apparently set off their metal detectors (I’ve been wearing one ever since my surgery, and it contains trace amounts of copper). In both cases I rolled up my trousers to invite a direct inspection, but the individual who detained me felt obliged to call in a superior who eventually authorized me to continue.

SFO to DFW left on time from Gate B23.

At DFW, prominent signs didn't necessarily mean compliance.

Gathering my belongings and putting my shoes back on, I proceeded to the gate and, surprise of surprises, the flight to DFW (Dallas Fort Worth) left on time and even arrived a few minutes early, with no anti-masker incidents on board. Immediately I noticed, though, that in COVID-friendly Texas many people were disregarding CDC masking regulations despite numerous posted signs. At SFO, mask compliance appeared to be 100 percent, while at DFW I would estimate that some 30 percent were ignoring the regulations in one way or another. The worst case that I observed was a 60-something porteño loudmouth on his phone at a charging station; when I gently suggested he should use his mask, he went ballistic.

The loudest scofflaw was an Argentine shouting into his cell phone.

DFW recently made No. 8 on a list of the country’s ten-worst airports. That’s partly because of frequent delays and, indeed, our departure for Buenos Aires was more than two hours after the scheduled time. It got worse, though, as the gritón mentioned above was just one seat away and, for most of the flight, couldn’t be bothered to wear his mask. He was not the only one, though, and even some of the flight attendants couldn’t be bothered on a plane that was nearly full. There was also one of the worst shrieking toddlers ever to keep me from even attempting to sleep.

AA 997 left more than two hours late from Gate D36.

I passed on both dinner and breakfast—life’s too short to dine on airplane food, and I eaten had a decent prosciutto sandwich while waiting for takeoff. I did sample a glass of a Pinot Grigio on board (American has been one of the last airlines to resume alcoholic beverage service), but it was almost undrinkable. My only regret is that I hadn’t realized that my video screen included a window-seat view camera which, though not so good as an actual window seat, at least provides a rough view of the landscapes below.

Unfortunately, I only discovered the window-seat camera view shortly before we landed in Buenos Aires.

Immigration was fairly quick and efficient at Ezeiza.

Once we deplaned on Monday morning, things got better. Immigration lines weren’t long, and the official who processed me asked only to see my declaración jurada (affidavit) for evidence of vaccination and other info (it’s obligatory to fill out the declaration 48 hours prior to departure for Argentina). I quickly showed him the PDF on my phone, and then he put the first stamp in my brand-new passport. I then went to the office of Transfer Express for a cab, for which I had to pay the official exchange rate via credit card because I fell just short of enough Argentine pesos acquired at the so-called “blue rate” on my last visit.

A glass partition separated me from my Venezuelan driver, but didn't inhibit conversation.

Traffic into town wasn’t bad, and my cabbie was an agreeable Venezuelan with whom I could talk baseball—a pleasant coda to perhaps the worst flight I’ve ever endured—despite the glass partition that now minimizes driver-passenger contact in the pandemic world. At home in our Palermo apartment, after a refreshing nap to make up for lost sleep, I enjoyed a plate of spinach gnocchi at Bella Italia Café, just down the block, before retiring for the night.

I ended the day with a plate of spinach gnocchi at Bella Italia.

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