THE IMMATERIAL GIRL OF TANGO TOWN by John Borthwick

 

A traveller looks back on Buenos Aires, 1996

In Recoleta, they often die as they have lived — much like Oscar Wilde said of himself — beyond their means. Buenos Aires’ most prestigious suburb, Recoleta, has its own exclusive necropolis where row upon bankrupting row of marble vaults accommodates the dusty repose of the city’s elite. Lowering the tone by octaves (according to some) is the tomb of Eva Peron, the infamous “Evita” who, although lauded in life by Argentina’s poor, is surrounded in death by the rich who loathed her then and reputedly still do.

 

Buenos Aires is a bright city of melancholia set to a dance-step. A tango town of delicious decrepitude, of wealth now blown but for the nostalgia and crumbling mansions. This was the home of Jorge Luis Borges, jackbooted generals, Nazis on the lam, the Mothers of the Disappeared and footballer Diego Maradona. And now, for seven weeks, it is hosting Madonna who’s here to channel Evita in the bio-musical of her life.

 

 

Eva Duarte Peron, the second wife of Argentine President General Juan Peron, died at age 33 in 1952. She divides Argentineans in death as she did in life: some think of her as a near-saintly friend to the poor while others consider her little more than a social-climbing tart. Heroine or whore? Who could be better cast in this deified-demonised contradiction than the artist formerly known as Ms Ciccone, who’d made a career of tweaking the horns of a similar dilemma — starlet as faux harlot?

 

And there I was with a hotel room overlooking hers. The brush with fame was wasted on me. As a photographer, I make a lousy paparazzo. Stalking soi-disant celebrities through a 500 mm lens would bore me witless. I was there to find a city of coffee and glory, debt and plazas — not for celeb sniffing. Had I wanted the latter, the rather more talented Robert Duvall was also in town, shooting the movie Eichmann. His Hollywood production crew was delighted that Madonna was drawing all the rubberneckers.

 

Benign fate delivered me a sixth-floor room in the Park Hyatt hotel. My windows looked straight down onto the hotel’s exclusive annex known as La Mansion. This restored, turn-of-the-century millionaire’s pile is a Louis XIII-like confection of marble, oak and chandeliers. The likes of Keith Richards and media magnate, the late Kerry Packer, used to stay there, and now it was Madonna’s turn. She occupied the entire top floor of the opulent three-storey Mansion in a suite costing $6,000 a night.

 

 

From my considerably cheaper room, I could look down on her bodyguards — blokes built like brick outhouses with bow ties — patrolling the gardens of La Mansion. Their main task was to repel sorties of gleeful, chanting, Argentinean teenyboppers. On Madonna’s top floor, the louvered French windows that opened onto a patio were sometimes left alluringly ajar, their gauzy curtains flicking in the evening breeze. Soft lighting glowed within the suite. Yes, I confess, I peeked. No — in three days I didn’t once glimpse the Immaterial Girl. However, late one night I saw someone stepping onto the balcony to drink in the night air. I strained for a better look. Was it her? Nah. Whoever it was looked closer to Kerry or Keef than Madonna.

 

There’s more to Buenos Aires than starlets, juntas and a steamy dance-step. This city of Belle Époque elegance and vast boulevards (its Avenue Ninth of July, 16 lanes wide, is the world’s widest city street) is like no other Latin capital, from the candy-coloured houses at Caminita to the centre’s grandiose edifices. The coffee is excellent, as are the coffee shops such as the famous Cafe Tortoni, founded in 1858 and once patronised by writers like Borges, Lorca and Pirandello. The 19th and early 20th century wealth — generated by the export of pampas beef, mutton and wheat — that created this New World melding of Paris, Rome and New York must have been astounding.

 

 

The steaks are as large as your place mat. The taxis are metered and the public buses are good, but the walking is even better. Which is what I did, letting the city’s vast, flat blocks crowd me with their memories. But, a sunlit city with the grumps, I thought at times. Porteños, the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, are said to be famously unhappy and to have two addictions, coffee and psychoanalysis. What’s the problem, I muse. A century ago, this was the eighth-richest country in the world. Its patrimony was then squandered by a string of venal generals and feckless politicians — sometimes one and the same person. Many of the capital’s sumptuous old buildings are now in pleading need of maintenance but, for a dilettante blow-in who is walking its streets, the flaking patina of their history rubs off, almost literally, on one’s elbows.

 

The first Spanish settlement here was established in 1536 on the banks of the Rio de La Plata — a name so much lovelier in Spanish than its lumpenprole English rendition, River Plate. The British attempted a takeover in 1807 and were booted straight back out, while the Spanish colonial masters received their own marching orders a few years later. By the turn of the 20th century, this was the largest city in Latin America, with massive immigration adding German, Welsh, Basque, Irish, Italian and English blood to that of the earlier Amerindians and Spaniards.

 

In the harbour suburb of Boca (where Maradona started his football career at Boca Juniors club) one old street has been reborn as a walk-through art galley. Closer to an alley than an avenue, Caminita is more notable for its buildings — multi-storeyed structures made of corrugated iron and painted like Rubik’s Cubes — than for its art. These days the latter is mostly kitsch imagery of zoot-suited dandies with pomaded hair and bedroom — if not bathroom — eyes, intensely entangoed, loin to loin, with slinky dames in slit skirts.

 

 

Nearby, in San Telmo district, the plazas, cobbled streets and outdoor cafes seems so European that this could be Italy in the 1950s or Franco’s Spain. One writer noted that ‘BA doesn’t look like Europe, it looks like a postcard of Europe.’ Downtown, the grand 1908 opera house, Theatre Colon, seems like it just drifted down a canal from Venice and ran aground in central BA. There’s no such whimsy attached to La Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace, from whose balcony Generalissimo Peron and his Eva once stirred the crowds with jingoist speeches. European echoes aside, BA remains unmistakably itself, with radio tangos trotting softly in the background and the walls splashed with a reprise of the perennial mantra, ‘Yankee Go Home.’ Today they shout, ‘Viva Evita! Fuera Madonna!’ — ‘Long live Evita! Get out Madonna!’

 

And then there are the Porteños. Almost 40 percent of Argentina’s 44 million people live in greater Buenos Aires. Beyond the grand edifices and touristic tango clubs, it is the Porteños who make the place real, give it its edge. ‘Personality’ here means the triumph of both substance and style: everywhere I see people with (for want of a more precise term) a defiant individualism, plus a glint in the eye. Blame (or thank) the coffee or the neuroses? Who cares? In all, a people greater than the sum of their clothing labels.

 

At an outdoor cafe in Recoleta on a crowded, sunny Sunday afternoon I catch a glimpse of who-gives-a-damn pleasure that is at once intensely private and public — the kind of thing you’d never see in other, more self-conscious capitals. A well-groomed, sixtyish woman wearing shorts sits with her bicycle propped nearby. A bottle of mineral water and a coffee half-consumed are on her table. Her tanned midriff is bare and her sneakered feet are up on a chair. A partly smoked cigarette lingers in one hand, and her eyes are closed in semi-ecstasy as the Buenos Aires sun pours down like benediction.

 

 

©2018 JOHN BORTHWICK

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CHILE’S CHANGES by Glenn A. Baker

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I had taken much of my understanding of the origins of the Chilean nation from Inez of My Soul, the gripping and expansive novel by Isabel Allende, niece of the tragic president Salvador Allende, but within hours of arriving and on more than a few occasions thereafter I was offered an alternative, and apparently rather popular, scenario. It goes along the lines of: God made Chile last and, perhaps a little tired, gathered together leftover parts and molded them together in a sliver, a final piece for the mosaic.

As an explanation for incredible and even affronting diversity, I suppose it’s as good as anything else going because this country truly is diverse. Yes, it is long but then so is Japan and not a lot changes between top and bottom there. However, fly into Santiago, change planes and, in less than two hours, you can land in the driest-on-earth Atacama Desert, with all its stark, barren splendour. Take a domestic flight south, though, and in slightly less than an hour you are in the Chilean Lakes district, feeling that you’re moving through Wales or Ireland or even Switzerland – a lush, green, sometimes alpine environment.

Both are absolutely Chilean, both are peopled by citizens of considerable casual charm who stand apart from the assertive Argentinians and the boisterous Brazilians who make their way there in large numbers but you do find yourself wondering why you haven’t had to get your passport stamped moving from one to the other. Were you to continue down the sliver to Punta Arenas, one of the gateways to Antarctica, the sense of overwhelming change would be even more greatly enhanced.

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The sombre stature of the Atacama is apparent from arrival at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, dramatically sited beneath towering walls of red rock in the Catarpe Valley near the adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama. Well, it was once a village. Now it is a crossroads tourist town with traders, cantinas, museums, churches, tour operators and currency counters. There is an undeniable Wild West tone about it all that almost has you mentally conjuring up banditos in Zapata moustaches and sombreros with cartridge belts across their chests riding into town firing six guns and whooping war cries. Though if they did come, it would probably be to open their laptops and avail themselves of the free wi-fi in the town square or to enjoy the weekend rock concert that was taking place the day I dropped by. There is, however, an outpost not too far away, with a church perched upon a hill, that looks so absolutely evocative that it was used in the James Bond film The Quantum of Solace (though it was passed off as being in Bolivia, to the chagrin of the few locals).

The plush Alto Atacama has an eerie emptiness during daylight hours, as most of its guests are out participating in one of the almost three dozen excursions, which span the high, dry realm and take in lakes, streams, salt flats, mountains, gorges, dunes, passes, villages, gardens, cordilleras, caves and ancient shepherd’s paths. Some are accessible by bicycle, horseback and foot but mostly it’s a case of loading into air-conditioned (and, more importantly, heated) vans and heading thirty minutes to Moon Valley or two hours to the Altoandina Lagoons or the Tatio Geysers, which gurgle, splutter and spurt almost four and a half thousand metres above sea level, enticing busloads of backpackers to disrobe and dip. Wise heads at the hotel will keep such delights from you for two or three days, to allow you to acclimatise and even when you have got your mountain lungs to some extent, you’ll still find it prudent to ration yourself to relatively slow steps.

Llamas graze, flamingos fly and sharp eyes may spot vicunas, suris, viscachas and foxes. In the direction of the airport at Calama is the miniscule village Chiu-Chiu, with a history dating back to around 3000 BC. And it is at the airport that you will inevitably find yourself, returning to Santiago, a pleasing, vibrant city that has come on in leaps and bounds since the scars of coup and conflict could be discerned as mortar and bullet shell holes in the walls of public buildings. Today, a statue of the overthrown Allende stands in the city centre, with no memento to the dictator Pinochet. There is imposing open air art and inventive architecture, some striking fashion and some fetching bohemian barios, one of which, Bellavista at the foot of San Cristobal Hill near Pablo Neruda’s beloved La Chascona, houses the luxury 15-suite boutique hotel, The Aubrey, a restored 1920s Spanish Colonial Mission mansion with a terraced bell tower. The hotel is managed by a genial fellow from Wangaratta, Victoria, who does not seem to have lost his Australian accent.

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In high season, there are flights directly into Pucon down in the lakes district and roughly level with the Argentinian resort of Bariloche but, even if you have to fly into Temuco and be transferred for an hour or so around the shores of Lake Villarrica, past cheese factories, contented herds, farms, forests and a panorama line of snow-capped crests, the soothing nature of it all enriches every kilometre. While still wondering just how the Atacama could have slipped away so swiftly, you are taking part in another acclimatisation.

The well-travelled and well-heeled have been coming here for decades, seeing it as one of the pearls of the southern hemisphere. When you arrive at the famed clean-lines and sleek Hotel Antumalal you bring to mind the lines with which has long been touted in prestige guides: “Built in the 1950s as an ultra-modern lakeside resort, its Bauhaus-influenced architect Jorge Elton was inspired by a terraced 13 acre park that surrounds it”. And, indeed, the lobby does combine tree-slab tables, shaggy fur rugs, primary colour cushions and views, views to have you rubbing your eyes. In the 22 rooms are wood panels, fireplaces and wide windows, all the better to bring the vastness of Lake Villarrica right to you.

In the foyer is a fascinating wall of photographs, including some of guests who’ve made their way to the property over the years and made themselves very much at home – actors Jimmy Stewart and Emma Thompson, first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, assorted scientists and academics, assorted European nobility and a young and beaming Queen Elizabeth II, with Duke. The proprietor, engaging Rony Pollack, daughter of the Czech immigrant whose dream the hotel was, tells a beguiling tale of being a young teen when Regina descended with her bossy courtiers and ladies-in-waiting and of being placed in the front seat of the royal vehicle for a journey to a barbecue, forbidden to initiate conversation but expected to navigate and becoming a tad flustered when it became apparent that they were lost, if momentarily.

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Just down the hill is the town of Pucon, sort of a Chilean take on Jackson Hole, replete with chocolate shops, restaurants, a beach, design emporiums, waterfront accommodation and an intriguing flower shop where every stem and petal is in fact carved out of wood, sort of like large pencil shavings. Thronged when ski season is in full-flight, it maintains a presence and energy all year around, standing as one of the principal drawcards of Chilean tourism.

There is a nearby Mapuche reserve where local cuisine can be sampled and a Mapuche museum tells a tale of a self-contained world before the Spanish came. Within easy reach of Pucon and the Antumalal is the base of the softly-smoking and very much active Villarrica volcano, which doubles as a ski lift station. Slightly further away but well worth the expedition, past wooded rapids, lake towns, handicraft factories and chalets, is the Termas Geometricas hot springs. Here some 17 slate-lined pools have been artfully constructed along the path of a mountain stream just below a waterfall. While the stream is expectedly icy, the pools are filled with steaming water that arrives beside it, coming out of holes in the mountain side that descend to a magma chamber some 14 kilometres below, deep in the bowels of the earth. Splashing about in a pool of pure 40 degree water while snowflakes floated down upon me was as fine a way as I have ever passed a morning.

A good guide is the key to deriving the most from this lush, green land and, for one afternoon I had the best, in Rony Pollack, who is known to one and very much all; sort of an unofficial mayor. She ranged across the landscape to just near the Argentinian border, taking myself and three animated Brazilians who find themselves in residence at the Antumalal each year inside churches and pastry shops, to a high farm where wool is fabulously fashioned, through rarely visited villages and atop precipices with commanding and inspiring views. This is the world her father came to and brought to the attention of thousands with discernment and a desire for sumptuous serenity and she and her late husband continued to make accessible. Inside the Antumalal is a level of cosy comfort and warmth, of the human variety, that sets it apart from most resorts and spas and, as I found, entices back those who discover it.

Glenn flew to Chile with Lan Chile.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker.

Cusco’s Monasterio: The Sin Of Wanderlust? by John Borthwick

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In Cusco, the ancient Inca masonry is so supple you’d swear the stones were woven. The ten-, twelve-, fifteen-sided blocks fit together as though diced from plasticine. For good reason this improbably-finessed granite is known as “pillow masonry”. Keyed together, the massive, irregular blocks made formidable ramparts that have endured the upheavals of Andean time – earthquake, invasion and revolution.

The Spanish Conquistadors, who stomped uninvited into Cusco in 1533, built their own grandiose temples and palaces atop these invincible footings, having first demolished the existing Inca equivalents. The resulting architecture is a tale of two histories – Inca from the knees down, and Spanish to the crown.

The Seminary of San Antonio Abad was founded in 1595 on the site of an Inca palace. Today it is the five-star Hotel Monasterio, listed on the Peruvian National Heritage register. Step across its threshold – beneath the historic escutcheon of no less than Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain – and you brush against centuries when these colonnades shaded piety and intrigue, cruelty and riches. As you wander below ceilings marzipanned by centuries of whitewash, portraits of remittance men grandees and their collaborative friararchy gaze down from adumbral portraits to interrogate your presence.

Undaunted, indeed, relaxed by a quick, strictly medicinal snort on the oxygen cylinder in the hotel lobby and a belt of coca tea from the adjacent urn – it’s the 3325-metre altitude, y’know – you proceed through garden courtyards and flag-stoned corridors towards the Monasterio’s piece de resistance, its baroque chapel. Not so much a private chapel as a pocket basilica, its altar is an orgy of gold glittering by pale candlelight.

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More portraits by the brilliant, anonymous Incan painters of the Cusquena School look down within the chapel. In one major painting (as a local author put it), “… celestial hosts gaze down on lurid infernos … a demon even dares to appear before Christ, whispering sulphurous advice into the ear of a Jesuit who is advocating the closure of this very seminary.”

An air-conditioned guestroom and cable television, plus fine ceviche and crème caramel in the restaurant (once the priests’ refectory) remind you that you haven’t died and gone to the 17th century but remain alive in a 123-room hotel. Still, somewhere beneath your feet –according to legend – is a subterranean passage that obligingly ran from this all-male seminary to the adjacent convent of Nazarene nuns. Sacred vows of chastity, as with those of poverty, were much observed in the breach. You can take coffee beneath a 300-year-old cedar in the inner quadrangle that has witnessed the building’s serial incarnations, as a seminary, a Royal Pontifical University and, from 1965, a hotel.

Taking a breather from all this cloistered pomp, you step out into Cusco and its nearby centre, Plaza de Armas. The seminarians and horny friars of San Antonio are long gone, but Cusco is still a university town. Its cobble-stoned streets are awash with students and raggle-taggle backpackers. The internet cafes, pizzerias and music clubs of Tecsecocha Street are pumping behind colonial portals that were already old when Captain Cook was still finding his sea-legs.

By night, the Plaza de Armas, flanked by World Heritage cathedrals and dished in an Andean valley of lights and stars, is almost other-worldly. High on the rim of the valley above the town, an illuminated white statue of Christ is caught like a brilliant bird in flight. All of which seems rich stuff until you step out even further beyond the town centre. The soft geometries of that Incaic “pillow masonry” reach monumental scale at the giant fortresses of Sacsayhuaman and, even further away, at Ollantaytambo.

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The best is yet to come. Leaving Cusco on an early morning train you travel the narrow cleavage of the Urabamba River valley. Your destination is, of course, Machu Picchu. Its stones remain in almost perfect condition some 500 years after they were abandoned. The Incas often built with a sense of drama. In the case of Machu Picchu, high on its Andean spine, they made a city that resembles an altar of stone amid a temple of mountains. Or, as poet Pablo Neruda saw it, “a city raised like a chalice”.

Back at the Monasterio, an Inca harpist in the lobby maintains the transcendent theme. A few steps away is that chapel which makes this perhaps the only hotel in the world where you might seek in-house forgiveness for – should it be deemed one – the sin of your perpetual wanderlust.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.