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South American Trilogy: Part 3a

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

By Paul Mitchnick:

Eva Peron, Buenos Aires - Photo by Michaelin McDermott

Read Part 1 & Part 2 of Paul's South American journey!

It was sad to leave Estancia Don Joaquín—this magical place of beautiful horses and interesting people. The bus ride back to Buenos Aires was a little easier somehow. The rhythm more familiar. The bumps less jarring. There is something invigorating about watching the sunrise over a new moving vista. A kind of discovery.

Sometime in the early morning, we arrived in Buenos Aires. Our Airbnb was in the downtown section of San Telmo, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, dating back to the seventeenth century. Running water and electricity in the nineteenth century made it "the" place to live. Most of the structures are 300 years old and European. An 1871 yellow fever epidemic made the rich flee, but in 2015 San Telmo was "on the way back"—some houses restored, some not, and everywhere, lots of edgy graffiti. A taxi took us to what the driver thought (and we thought) was our address. Well, it was close, and we were tired.

Here were two forlorn people with luggage standing in the middle of the street at 7 a.m., one looking north, the other looking south. A man approached and, in perfect English, asked where we were from: Canada, Toronto.

Halfway Back, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

A gentle smile broke across his face, as he had spent time in Ottawa as a youth. He walked us the two blocks to where we were actually staying, down narrow cobblestone streets amongst older houses and the occasional newer build. We came to a beautiful old four-story house where an airy, elaborate iron gate greeted us: no one was getting in unless they were supposed to. Someone buzzed us in. We did the paperwork.

The narrow iron staircase became our next challenge. Too constricted for us and our suitcases unless we held them in front and at 90 degrees to their normal carrying angle. Move the suitcase, and the body followed, a bit like Fred and Ethel trying to negotiate the curves. Every time we bumped the staircase with our suitcase, it would bounce back and stop us. We don’t pick places to stay with narrow hallways and narrow staircases on purpose, but it does happen a lot.

Home Sweet Air B&B . . . The Terrace, San Telmo Photo by Paul Mitchnick

The penthouse apartment was colourful and large. Done in flower-power yellows, bell- bottoms topped by a belt with a big peace sign would not have seemed out of place. A kitchen, a bedroom, a living room, an air conditioner, an enormous, jetted tub and, and, and a terrace! A terrace with a view, a dining table, some chairs, and a great breeze to tame the ferocious afternoon heat. It was common to see parked cars on the street with their hoods up so the heat had somewhere to go.

Michaelin’s research indicated there was a gray market for American cash. In Argentina, you can’t buy a house unless you have cash because you can’t get a mortgage. The wild fluctuations made it impossible to predict value from one day to the next. Using a credit card here was wrong, very wrong. Charges each way ate your money faster than Donald Trump changes lawyers.

Today Argentina’s inflation is 92.7%. In 2015, inflation stood around 90% a year. Our American cash would get us at least 20% more in a "gray" exchange. After breakfast, I took to carefully folding a number of $100 U.S. bills—width first and length second so they would fit in my money belt, meticulously overlapping one another in the belt’s zipper so I wouldn’t have a bulge in my belt if robbed. I mean anyone who might rob us would know what a money belt looked like; however, one does the best one can. So, with the name of a maybe reputable place to do business, we took our cashed-up selves downtown.

Fully Back, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

A long, pleasant walk through an older section of the city in the San Nicolas barrio gave us lots of colonial architecture to enjoy: large private residences, some grand historic government buildings, important offices, and more graffiti. We walked though the Buenos Aires Metro Cathedral, dating back to 1791. Inside was the length of a football field.

We continued down a promenade and were approached by lots of locals looking to exchange for U.S. dollars. No, gracias. No, thank you. No, gracias. No, thank you. No back streets for us.

Our destination was a travel agency. Half a flight of stairs took us down into the well air-conditioned office. About one third of it was devoted to money exchange. And there was a long line. Much like a single teller at a bank, a woman glanced at you mostly with boredom and gave you the exchange rate. You gave her U.S. cash that was mechanically counted faster than you possibly could see. A drawer opened. In that drawer were rows and rows and rows of tightly rolled bundles of 1,000 peso notes. Seventeen rolls for every hundred-dollar bill. Lots of rolls and a receipt were handed over in exchange for my cash. I counted three rolls, and everything was fine. You are not going to stay in business so conspicuously if you cheat people.

Near Plaza LaValle, St. Nicolas - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Every day after a leisurely breakfast on our terrace, we would head out. There was a vague plan that involved a map and lots of walking, walking, walking. The opera house, Teatro Colón, was sadly out of season but had tours every day, and that was first on our list. Our route took us along a main boulevard: Avenida 9 de Julio. The boulevard is fourteen lanes wide and home to many impressive sculptures. We passed by interesting shops that tempted me to buy something I didn’t need, but not quite. A physical memory of any trip is important to me, a gentle reminder not necessarily of a time but a feeling.

Teatro Colón, St. Nicolas - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

The opera house, constructed in 1908 with four different architects and builders, was quite its own story and a very elegant space. A combination of both Italian and French styles, it lays claim to the best acoustics for opera and second-best acoustics for music in the world. A nice test in a hall is to clap your hands; if it sounds lovely, chances are the music will sound fabulous.

Teatro Colón, St. Nicolas - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Of course, we went into the concert hall and found graceful box seats going up five levels with finishing details that are beautiful and proportionally correct. One of the tourists shyly sang opera. He will never sound better.

Of equal elegance were the walkways through the building. Twenty-foot ceilings adorned with pillars and arched doorways, arched stain-glass windows, all lit by huge and delicate chandeliers. The rooms were done in gentle pastels, noting opulence and charm.

Seat Marker, Teatro Colón - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Before leaving, we sought postcards of the Teatro to mail to friends, but in the selfie age, there were only a few ancient, dog-eared, and sun-faded cards from which to choose. We bought them anyway.

Afterward, while sipping coffee at a café, we watched a large 1960’s drama being shot nearby. Lots of period-costumed extras and period cars. The time between setups was long as people reset, and the period cars re-staged, crew moving around. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, film/video production is the same. Body language is everything. It was quite easy to tell who were the producers, who was the director, who was the cinematographer, who did costumes and makeup, who did continuity, and who were all the assistant directors. Body language. Someone who had to be the camera operator walked over to the director and producers with a shrugging gait that said, "Well that was pretty good, but so-and-so has to hit their mark, the car could have been earlier, and we need etc., etc., etc. on the next take." Universal cameraperson posture.

Coffee and sweets ingested, film curiosity sated, Michaelin and I walked through a large, lovely park, Plaza Lavalle, in a very nice neighbourhood on our way to the Art Gallery.

We heard yelling and turned to see two women baiting each other. One, with hair like a barren wheat field, had four dogs on a leash and a cigarette fixed to her upper lip. The other, a well-turned-out woman, was yelling at the other for no apparent reason that we could discern. The dogs were agitated, moving back and forth, tugging, frenetic. The straw woman yelled back. The well-turned-out one pulled out a can of mace and went carefully but aggressively after the straw woman. She started spraying, at a distance; regardless, she was still spraying mace at another human being. That was the climax, and it kind of de-escalated after that. They continued yelling as they parted.

Not something we witness often. It requires a certain edge to be that close to those emotions and keep mace in your purse, a knife in your pocket, a gun in your jacket, or indignation in your demeanour.

Graffiti, Bueno Aires - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

That stayed our topic of conversation all the way to the Art Gallery. What was the real story behind all that? Was the straw lady a dog walker or a dog owner? And how many women do we know that carry mace?

The Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (the MALBA) is in a very smart building in Palermo—an even smarter area of the city. As members of the Art Gallery of Ontario, we often get free admission to galleries in different parts of the world; like being in a pretty cool club. This particular club had a nice patio, and it was way past lunch after our big walk. We got menus and waited. And waited. A large group of very wealthy Argentinians grabbed the next table to us about fifteen minutes later. We continued to wait for service. We continued to wait as the Argentinians were eating their lunch. Michaelin and I were invisible. Eventually our order was taken. Eventually.

The big show at the gallery focused on Argentinian Antonio Berni. Producing an extraordinary volume of work, he lived between 1905 and 1981. His earliest training was in stained glass before becoming a painter. Some of his later paintings involved using metal in a way that paid tribute to stained-glass conceptualizing.

Antonio Berni, MALBA - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Berni’s initial landscapes didn’t sit well with his conscience. The rapidly changing environment in Buenos Aires during industrialization wreaked havoc on the poor and unemployed and gnawed at his soul.

He eventually chose to show the poverty in Buenos Aires. His work contained a strong social narrative. Berni created a brother and sister series of paintings, Juanito and Ramona, that chronicled their lives growing up in poverty in Buenos Aires. His work reflects social conditions that continue to exist in Argentina today. The invisible class. The work is visceral, edgy, touching, and humane—all at the same time. Of course, there was a book of the show. I didn’t buy it because it was just another heavy thing to carry around. Instead, I carried regret. You buy books like this on holiday never knowing whether you will look at them again. But truthfully, if you only look at them only once, it is worth it. My reward for finishing this article will be to get myself a copy of at least one of his books.

Antonio Berni, MALBA - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

My other reward at the MALBA was seeing Fernando Botero’s paintings, always a favourite of mine. Those chubby, delicate individuals somehow reveal an extra dose of humanity and fragility, a truth in their physiques. While we lived in Vancouver, there was an exhibit of his sculptures we often visited.

Botero Figures Looking for Their Painting, MALBA - Photo by Michaelin McDermott

On our way back to our Airbnb, we witnessed preparations for the San Telmo neighbourhood version of the Easter Parade. A long, wide boulevard had been cordoned off. On the other side of the gaily coloured barricades, on the feeder streets, were lots of marching bands with costumed dancers representing different neighbourhoods and different groups; the afternoon’s entertainment was getting ready. Who doesn’t love this? Local people having fun and showing off. We are huge fans of heartfelt. Maybe not the spit, polish, and gloss of a Santa Claus parade but something a little more genuine. If you lived here, chances are your sister-in-law or cousin would be in the parade. Heart, energy, spirit, and joy trump gloss and show every time.

Show Time, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Red and White, San Telmo - Photo by Michaelin McDermott

As the late afternoon sun started to dip, we lined up behind the barricades to watch. We were immediately sprayed with aerosol cans of what seemed like whipped cream. Kids with shit-eating grins a mile wide were running around spraying anyone and everyone, including Michaelin, who was sprayed head to toe. Gales of laughter followed any successful spraying, and there was a lot of laughter. The foam kind of dissolved, and then you were ripe for another dousing.

Gotcha, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

As evening fell, we sampled some street food: delicious pork (we think) empanadas followed by sweet pastries along with a little jet-fuel caffeine to keep us going for a little longer. The music continued way past our bedtime, and we slept with the din of different bands a few blocks away, performing well into the morning.

All Night Long, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Stay tuned for South American Trilogy: Part 3b!


Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan, and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar-winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL, the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things, and when I have my still camera, opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them, I am not sure."

Instagram: @pmmitchnick

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