Thursday, April 23, 2015

Buenos Aires Eruption Interruption

We were supposed to be in Europe this weekend, attending the Leuven beer festival, but as the time drew near, we decided there was just no way to get to Belgium and back during our allotted time frame.  (You may recall our mantra from other trips - "When traveling stand-by, you can choose where to go, or you can choose when to go, but you cannot choose both.") As retirees, Tony and I are pretty flexible, but we often travel with folks who are still gainfully employed and cannot just take as much time as sometimes needed to get home from a destination.  Such was the case this time. Our friends, Amanda and Chet could only take two days off so we had to make it a long weekend.  Since Europe was looking pretty doubtful, we started considering other options.  Buenos Aires, Argentina looked great out of Atlanta on Wednesday night and the return flight on Sunday night looked decent as well.

We had just been to Buenos Aires a month before so we had a few pesos left, but we knew our friend Pat had some as well, so on our way to the airport, we swung by to buy her pesos so we would have enough for the taxi ride from the airport. Anyone watching might have thought we were buying drugs since we picked her up on one corner near her home, exchanged the funds and then dropped her off on the next corner.

Amanda and Chet were coming from Tampa. They got bumped off of one flight, then Amanda got on the next flight but not Chet, and finally Chet got on the last flight that would connect with the Buenos Aires flight.  Whew!

We met Amanda in the Sky Club and while we were catching up, we noticed that they had started clearing stand-bys on the Buenos Aires flight so Amanda and I went to the gate and got boarding passes for the 4 of us.  It is unusual for them to clear more than an hour out, but I guess they knew everyone would get on. It was kind of nice knowing that we already had a seat. We were able to return to the Sky Club for another glass of wine before meeting Chet at the gate. His flight arrived late so he had to hurry to F concourse.

The flight was enjoyable (as business class usually is). We slept well and since there is only a 1 hour time change, we did not experience any jet lag so we could hit the ground running!  We went to the blue & white taxi stand in the airport and were surprised to be able to use American cash to pay the $46 fare to our hotel. The taxi ride was very adventurous. Apparently lane markings in Argentina are merely a suggestion. There were lots of traffic jams to sit through so it took us about an hour to the hotel.

We had booked the Maitre Hotel Boutique on in the same area where we had stayed a month before.  We went straight to the hotel and checked in.   In retrospect, this was a mistake since we were charged an extra day for the early check-in. Communication was a bit of a problem, so they may have told us when we checked in but we did not understand so we didn't argue.

Our connecting rooms were vastly different in size. Our room barely had enough space to get around the bed and had no closet. The bathroom was a nice size though.  Chet and Amanda's room was big enough to have a closet, desk and sitting area.

We asked the desk clerk (Florencia) if she could have someone exchange money for us on the blue market. She was happy to oblige and said to come back in an hour. We set out to explore a bit. Tony wanted to get some diet cokes for the room and I wanted to get a bottle of water. After our shopping, we went to Campo Bravo for some lunch. We had provoleta and choripan, favorites from our last trip.

On the way back to the hotel, we encountered a dog walker walking 26 dogs!  We marveled at how he was able to control so many dogs.

After lunch, we decided to go to the shopping street, Florida. We bought round trip Subte tickets for all of us for around $4. We walked to Palermo stop and caught the green line to Catedral. Florida street turned out to be a zoo, surprisingly busy for a Thursday afternoon. We decided to walk to the Tango Bridge.

We stopped for a beverage at the Kraken Bar.

Since we were already on that side of town, we decided to go to La Boca. After our less-than-pleasant walk the last trip, we happily caught a cab this time. The area was bustling and just as colorful as we remembered (it was a month before, after all!).

We did a little window shopping and then stopped for beer and empanadas at Bar Quinguela.

We walked around some more and watched some tango dancers performing at one of the restaurants.

We stopped for another beer at Bar La Perla near the edge of town where we had lunch on the last trip. At 6PM, we watched as the streets emptied of performers and booths and restaurants began putting away tables. We decided we needed to head back to our side of town.  We caught a cab to the Subte. The traffic was bad! It must have been rush hour! The taxi fare to the Subte was 70 pesos, cheap by our standards, but expensive by Argentina standards.

We got on the blue line and took it to Diagonal Norte to connect with the green line. There was a performer on the train complete with microphone and amplifier!  He was actually pretty good. There are also beggars and salesmen on the train. The salesmen will put their product in your lap and then come back before the next station to collect the money or take back the product. This time, the product was bobby pins for 10 pesos.

We got off at the Ministro Carranza station this time and decided it was a much closer and more pleasant walk than the Palermo station.  We returned to the hotel to freshen up and then set out in search of dinner. Eduardo, at the front desk, recommended Novecento but we decided to try Parrilla El Primo.  Amanda, Chet and I ordered the Bife Lomo (Tenderloin) and it was excellent. Tony ordered ribs and they were a bit tough. We had some wonderful Argentinean wine with our meal.

We made friends with the couple at the next table, Sol and her husband (whose name I can't remember). They have a studio apartment for rent in the area.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed some wine and snacks on the patio before turning in for the night.

Friday morning we woke late. Tony and I went down to the lobby for breakfast and discovered that the news was reporting that a volcano had erupted in Chile.

Our first thought was that this would impact flights and we would have trouble getting home. I wanted to roll the dice and stay, but Amanda and Chet needed to get back to work, so they decided to try to get home immediately. The Buenos Aires flights had already been cancelled for the next few days since the ash cloud from the volcano was headed right into the flight path. To make things worse, the internet at the hotel was acting up and we couldn't get responses to our queries.

We decided to walk around and find a place with reliable wi-fi so we could make a decision about what to do. Our walk took us to Almacen.

With the help of our friend David (back at home in Atlanta), we found Amanda and Chet a route home through Sao Paulo, Brazil. David was kind enough to share some frequent flyer miles with them to make the route more affordable. He was unable to book the tickets online, so poor David had to sit on hold for a long time to speak to an agent. He finally got them seats on the 4:15PM flight. They didn't want to waste the time off, so they also changed their connection out of Atlanta to go to Key West instead of Tampa.

We decided we had time for lunch at La Fabrica del Taco before Amanda and Chet packed up and headed for the airport.

We had nachos, tacos & beers and then hurried back to the hotel. Amanda was able to get Eduardo (at the hotel desk) to print boarding passes on the Delta leg of their trip so they could show onward travel which would qualify them to transit Brazil without a visa. Eduardo called them a cab and they were gone. Tony and I decided to have a short siesta.

Less than an hour later, our siesta was interrupted by a call from Amanda saying that they had missed the 1 hour cut-off to check in for the flight. Hmmm... Maybe we didn't have time for those tacos after all. The next flight would get them to Sao Paulo with only a 25 minute connection time.  She wanted to know if we thought they should risk it. I was about to say no, but Tony said yes, so they decided to try it.

Since it was late in the afternoon already, we decided to stay in the area of the hotel, so we walked around and stopped at El Club de la Milanesa, a place we had not been before.  We played a couple of card games while we did some people watching and enjoyed a beer.

Happy Hour in Argentina starts at 6PM, so we picked Mona, which had half price drinks and free wi-fi. Over drinks, we decided maybe we too, should get the heck out of dodge before the volcano impacted our ability to get home. We found frequent flyer seats on the 3:50PM flight from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo the next day and tried to book them online, but like David, we were unable to complete the transaction so we had to spend time on hold to get an agent to book the tickets for us.  Once we finished this little detail, we decided to have some dinner.

We found Las Cholas on the same street as our hotel that looked cute. The menu was all in Spanish. Tony ordered a choripan but I was more adventurous and ordered something else. I knew that it was chicken because I understood the word for chicken in Spanish but I wasn't sure how it was prepared or what one of the side dishes was. I think it was a grilled pounded chicken thigh that was grilled and the side turned out to be mashed pumpkin.

We ordered a carafe of the house wine and it came in a pitcher shaped like a penguin. It reminded us of the chicken pitcher we had in Bermuda which we had nicknamed the "Yacking Chicken" because it poured the wine from its mouth and looked like it was vomiting wine. We called this pitcher the "Yacking Penguin".

While we were dining, we were watching to see if Chet and Amanda's flight was on time. They landed on time and ran to the gate for the Atlanta flight and were boarded with seconds to spare!  Whew!

We went back to the hotel and told Florencia that we would check out in the morning. She was talking to a young man that she introduced as her brother, Geraldo.

We got a good night's sleep. I took the first shower and after waiting almost 5 minutes decided there was no hot water so I started to take a cold (well, luke-cold) shower. I should have been more patient because the water got hot soon after that.

We went down for breakfast. Eduardo was at the desk. We told him we were checking out a day early and to please prepare the bill. He showed us the amount in pesos, but we didn't have nearly enough. He said we could pay in US Dollars at the blue market exchange rate. We had enough, but somewhere while getting the money from all of our hiding places, we misplaced a $100 bill. I'm sure we will find it, but this left us without enough cash for the bill. We ended up paying $380 USD and putting 1170 pesos on our credit card.

I wanted Eduardo to print our boarding cards for the Sao Paulo to Atlanta leg so we could show proof of transit without visa, but I could never get an email to go through to him so we decided just having them on our phones would be sufficient.

We decided to walk to the airport and chose a circuitous route that would take us past the polo fields, through a park and along the water.

On the way, we found El Palacio de la Papa Frita (the palace of french fry)!  They had the most interesting fries we'd ever seen! They look like little pillows!

We finished our walk and got to the airport with 20 minutes to spare before the 1 hour check-in deadline. When we got to the counter, that is when things started to go south. The agent refused to check us in since we could not show positive space tickets from Sao Paulo to Atlanta. We argued that we had done the same thing 3 weeks prior and our friends had done it the night before. We showed them the availaility screen which showed over 30 seats available on the connecting flight but they refused. Finally Tony demanded to see a supervisor. The supervisor came to the desk with an English translator and we were able to convince them to check us in for the flight. We promised that the next time we do this, we WILL have a Brazilian visa!  I'd like to go to Brazil anyway!

Before we left Buenos Aires, we enlisted the help of our friend David to get us listed and checked in for the flight from Sao Paulo to Detroit as a contingency. When we landed in Sao Paulo, the first Atlanta flight had started to look more promising so we hurried to that gate. An agent was just leaving the desk so we sat down to wait for the next agent to show up. Tony looked at the schedule for the first Atlanta flight and discovered that it had left 2 hours early!  This sent me into a panic because I decided there must have been a development with the volcano and all of the flights might be leaving early.  "Let's run!", I shouted and we took off for the Detroit gate. Sure enough, it was also leaving 2 hours early. So was the New York flight! As we huffed up to the gate, the agents somehow recognized that we were non-revs, probably by the desperate look in our eyes.  They took our passports and gave us boarding passes to Detroit.  We barely had enough time before take off to communicate with our friend David, who helped us get our connection changed to an earlier departure out of Detroit.

As we waited to taxi out, the pilot explained that the volcanic ash was expected to be in Sao Paulo in 2 hours and they do not fly in volcanic ash so that was the reason for the early departure. I was amazed that they could get in touch with all of the passengers and everyone was able to get to the airport early. I don't know if they tried to contact the non-revs, but just in case, I will be sure to have my cell phone number in my passenger record from now on!

We got into Detroit in time to make a very early connection, getting us back home by 9:30AM Sunday morning.

We may have over-reacted to the threat of the volcano, but better safe than sorry!  We can always go back!

It was another good, albeit short, trip!

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