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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Gavin Esler's Argentina diary

Gavin Esler
Presenter, BBC Newsnight

Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires, city of Gavin Esler's dreams
I'm in Argentina for the first time, ever. Buenos Aires. I can't believe my luck.

Years ago, as the BBC's chief North America correspondent, I managed to travel everywhere from the upper Amazon and Brazil's border with Bolivia to Peru and Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.

Mostly it was to witness fairly horrible events, the invasion of Panama or terrorism in Lima.

I never made it to Argentina.

Now I have finally got to Buenos Aires two things strike me: this is a society which is full of Developing World charm and Developed World efficiency - but sometimes it works out the other way round.

For example, the water is clean, the food wonderful, the people, educated and intelligent and plugged in to the outside world.

And then today I saw three boys rooting around in the rubbish of a dumped skip, desperate to find anything of value, and a man clipped by a cyclist on the busy roads of central Buenos Aires turn round and punch the cyclist in the face. Hmmm.

Plugs

Complicated place this, Argentina, but with, among the educated middle classes, the clearest and loveliest Spanish accents I have ever heard.

Oh, yes, and one other thing. I always used to judge the standard of civilisation of a place by whether there were plugs in sinks and baths.

Every Communist country I ever visited never had plugs.

The downfall of Marxist-Leninism was speeded up by the wasted bathwater which leaked away, and all the toilet paper you used to have to jam in the plughole to stop the water leaking out.

Well, here in the two hotels I have so far used in Argentina, one had no sink or bath plugs, and the new rather lovely hotel that I am in now has only one plug which fits the sink but not the bath.

What can this mean for the politics of this most exciting continent? I am looking forward to finding out.

Oh, yes - and in case you were wondering, I am having showers, not baths.

DAY 2

Like most travellers I am a collector of strange signs, instructions and translations.

One of my favourites is from a national park in the western United States which warned of the danger of bears.

It said that all food had to be stored hanging more than 15 feet off the ground from the branches of a tree so that bears could not reach it.

Then the notice added helpfully: "This does not apply to food being eaten."

Well, that's a relief, that you don't have to sit 15 feet up a tree to eat your food.

Well, now here in Buenos Aires I have discovered a rival for the strangest notice ever. My hotel put it through the door last night, and it seems to be about a fire drill.

It reads:

"Dear Guest,

We would like to inform you that with the aim to improve our safety on Tuesday will be one of our annual evacuation simulacrum exercises. We'll invite you to participate in this practice near security professionals and internal personals. In the case that you want to contribute whit us on that simulacrum, please contact to the Reception Desk. For this reason, it is possible to spout delays in the service. We understand you will know because it is an exercise which objective searches to prevent possible sinisters and keeps traininged our personal for assist you above one of them efficiently. We hope count with your participation. We apologize for bothering you in any way."

DAY 3

Here's a strange thing.

Everywhere I ever visited in Latin America in the past - including Cuba - had cars built in the US. Ford Falcons were a particular favourite.

Now here in Argentina there are still a few old Falcons on the streets but most of the new cars are VWs, Seat, Fiat and Renault.

No General Motors or Chrysler, and very few Fords. The Europeans have pushed out the Americans in their own backyard.

One other style point.

I have been spending my time here with the New Generation of Argentine film directors. They are making the most wonderful movies and - like the French New Wave in the 1950s or the Chinese in the 90s - they will eventually be recognised all over the world.

Today I spent a few hours as an extra in a film directed by a new kid on the block, Ariel Winograd. He's 28, and filming "Cara de Queso" - Cheese Face.

The title is based on the abuse shouted at Ariel when he was a teenager by some local bullies.

The film is set in an extraordinary suburb of Buenos Aires called Canning. To get there you drive out past the airport and find what looks almost like a typical Third World scene - open fields, a few dismal shops.

And then suddenly there is a country club, plush golf course and series of the poshest gated communities I have ever seen.

The one where I had a walk-on part in Cheese Face is like something out of the English Home Counties: brick built, rich bungalows with thick green lawns, rose bushes and pampas grass.

You expect Terry and June or the families out of The Good Life, or some other English suburbanites to pop in for a cup of tea. Instead it's full of Spanish speaking kids.

I loved it.

DAY 4

Here in Buenos Aires I have never eaten so much meat in my life.

Good meat. Wonderful steaks. But such huge portions.

Yesterday in search of a quick and cheap lunch where I could sit at a table and write the script of a radio programme I am presenting from Argentina, I dropped in to a neighbourhood café. I wanted something light.

The waiter seemed a bit sniffy when I asked him what salads they could do. He persuaded me that the daily special was the thing to go for.

It cost 16 pesos, a main course, dessert of fruit salad, espresso coffee and bottled water. That's about five dollars, or three pounds - the same price for a full meal in a nice café as I pay in BBC television Centre for a damp and mushy canteen sandwich.

What's the special? Grilled pork, the waiter said. Okay.

When it came it was half a pig, served with half a lemon and a pile of fried potatoes. It was, I confess, delicious.

But there was enough pork on my plate to feed my entire family. I am happy to be a carnivore, but here in Argentina I just can't keep up with the locals.

At a barbecue down near the fashionable B.A. waterfront - a barbecue from which the profits went to the "carasucias" - literally the dirty faces, or the poor - they were grilling whole chickens.

Not chicken legs, or wings or things - whole chickens split open and slowly cooking on the hot charcoal.

Local people were helping themselves to a lunch of what looked like a chicken each, plus a little bit of lettuce and tomato, and a mug of beer.

And then there are the steaks. The Argentines like them well done. However you cook them, they are always huge and very tasty.

I suspect that the Atkins diet was invented here. It should perhaps really be called the Argentine diet. Whatever it is, you do not see many fat people here.

They look sleek and healthy. How can this be possible after eating so much meat every day?

DAY 5

A clue emerges about the svelte and beautiful people of Buenos Aires.

Sitting in another café - yes, I do some work occasionally, but the BA cafes are the best place to write and to watch people - I was watching a local Argentine TV news channel.

The sound was turned down, but I could follow what was going on from the straps of words moving across the screen.

Then came an advertising break which offered a diet guaranteed to make you slim. The miracle slimming ingredient seemed to be pills which fizzed when put into water and, at least according to the ad, the bubbles helped the fat melt away.

I am not sure whether bubbles really do shrink fat bellies. Perhaps I'll have a beer and see what happens.

DAY 6

Argentina's famous local drink, yerba mate, is an acquired taste.

It looks like dried grass.

That's because it is dried grass, of a special type which I was told was once used to help purify the not-so-clean water in the countryside.

Then people got a taste for it. I confess I like mate tea very much. The tea ritual is as follows.

You are offered a little round cup, often made from a dried gourd, sometimes decorated with silver or shiny metal, and a strange metal pipe which acts both as a straw and as a stirring spoon.

A pinch or two of dried leaves are put in the bottom and then it is topped up with boiling water, filled and re-filled until you decide you have had enough.

It's very bitter, which I suspect is why I find it so refreshing.

Or maybe it's just that after all the steaks that I have been eating it feels like a healthy de-tox.


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