An Authentic Tango Experience While Tackling the Language Barrier

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

When I announced my plans to travel to Argentina I knew immediately that there were several friends I absolutely had to get in touch with.  One was Kellen, a friend who had spent 3 months the previous summer in Buenos Aires as part of a fantastic study abroad program. He had honed his Spanish, danced up a storm, and met a bunch of amazing people.

When I told him about my plans I was immediately greeted by a giant smile which quickly transitioned into a list of places to see, foods to eat and friends that I needed to meet.  One of those friends was Kellen’s Argentine tango instructor and good friend, Rodrigo.

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

New Friends

Kellen quickly connected Rodrigo and me on Facebook and we began to chat.  The one catch?  English wasn’t one of the languages he spoke and…well…my Spanish could be called a lot of things but fluent is definitely not one of them. Not to despair though, where there’s a will there is always a way.  Before long we’d friended each other on Facebook and using my very basic Spanish and Google translate we were able to get acquainted and chat away.

By the time I arrived in Buenos Aires I had a list of tips, places to see, and suggestions from Rodrigo which were a huge help.  The real fun started during my third and final time in Buenos Aires when our schedules finally aligned.  We set a time and place to meet. As it worked out it was about a 10 minute walk from my hostel, located in the heart of the Palermo district.

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous. Here I was standing on a street corner in a fairly quiet part of Buenos Airies at 11pm waiting to meet someone I’d only seen photos of on Facebook. I didn’t have a phone, didn’t know for a fact if I was in the right spot or not, and wasn’t sure how well we’d be able to communicate given the absence of Google Translate.  Over the previous two weeks I’d spent in Argentina a lot of my Spanish had come back to me, but would it be enough?

As an odd assortment of people walked by I’m sure I left a few feeling uneasy as I tried to make inquisitive eye contact while making that haphazard “is it you?” face. Eventually Rodrigo arrived and with a warm smile introduced himself. We said hello and chatted with each other breaking through the initial awkwardness that makes communicating hard.  As we (or perhaps more I) started to relax we began walking and he told me that it was too early to Tango yet (yep, 11pm is the Argentine equivalent of 6pm elsewhere!) but he had a few friends he wanted me to meet.

A five minute walk brought us to an apartment where I was introduced to several of his friends: A group of several Argentinians and an Israeli exchange student. We quickly got acquainted and made our way to the rooftop terrace where they had a table and set of chairs. The evening air was warm and delightful.  It was also still fairly light out as it was the heart of Argentina’s summer.

They had ordered pizza and picked up several liters of soda and beer. As it turned out the evening was a bit of a post New Years Celebration among friends. A celebration I felt very blessed to be included in.

As the meal and conversation transitioned from eating, we prepared for a bit of dancing. The table was moved to the side, the ipod switched to Tango music, and the performances and lessons were on!

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

The Dances

Despite my background in Ballroom and focus in Latin dance, Argentine Tango has always eluded me.  Which is to say that even the basic was something that I had previously only seen, but never danced. The beat, the rhythm, the flow, it was all new and I quickly found myself more than a little confused.   Luckily under the guidance of Rodrigo, and several of his patient friends, I learned the basic box and at least started to get a feel for the dance while only periodically mangling the poor girl’s toes.

Once sufficiently satisfied that I’d gotten the basics down to Argentine Tango and sensing my background in slightly more fast paced/constantly paced dances they introduced me to the Milonga.  This dance, which shares the same name as many of the city’s tango venues, is a faster, constant version of the tango. Wikipedia explains the Milgona as, “Milonga,(in 2/4 time) has a strongly accented beat, and sometimes an underlying “habanera” rhythm. Dancers avoid pausing, and often introduce double time steps (incorrectly called syncopation and more appropriately called traspies) into their walks and turns. Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than some danced in other varieties of tango. Some tango instructors say that tango steps should not be used in milonga and that milonga has its own special rhythm and steps, which are quite different from tango.”

While the beat was easier to relate to for me, I have to admit that the speed and execution left me more than a little baffled and confused.  Still, it was a fantastic introduction to a dance which was both passionate, engaging, and exciting as well as being an entirely new dance for me.

To my surprise we finished the lessons out with a third and far more traditional dance, the chacarera (I believe).  The dance was a zero contact partner dance which resembled a traditional waltz or Victorian era dance.  A fun line dance of sorts, it consisted of a number of turns, pauses, a bit of tap dancing, and then a final salute which left both partners near embrace without touching.  While I initially thought it was just a fun cultural dance they were sharing with me, later I’d learned that it was actively used and danced in the Milongas.

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

The Milonga

As 3:30AM quickly approached Rodrigo and I said our goodbyes and our thank yous before setting off into the night.  I assumed that we were probably done with the evening, but quickly realized that it had just started. As we made our way back out to the street he explained that the good tango clubs in the area were just getting going. Before long we arrived at one such venue, located in the spacious basement/bar area of a large building.  The area was packed with a ring of small tables lining a large rectangular dance floor.  My guide quickly chatted with one of the local waiters, who he obviously knew, and found us a seat.

Before long we were joined by two German girls we had bumped into on the walk over and had been introduced to by one of Rodrigo’s friends who had decided to call it a night.  The girls were in Argentina learning Tango and quickly took the dance floor where Rodrigo launched them into a series of fantastic routines. His tango was skillful and an absolute delight to watch.

As the night went on the venue would play a series of 5 songs back to back before some sort of old rock jam would blast on as a sign to rotate or take a break.  Then every 10th song or so they would play an Chacarera or two, which were equally fun to watch!  Though possessed of a flimsy understanding of the bare basics for both, I have to admit that I opted to sit, relax and watch the dancers without ever joining them.  Perhaps after a chance to practice a bit more, and to force the basics of Argentine tango into my memory, I’ll be up for the challenge.

By 5:30AM I could barely keep my eyes open and the wear and tear on my body from the previous week’s travels and New Years festivities came crashing down upon me.  I bid the girls goodnight, thanked Rodrigo for one of the most delightful evenings I’d had in Argentina, and began my walk home.

He was a truly wonderful host and one who patiently put up with my dreadful Spanish and bad jokes while sharing his culture, music and dance with me.  My first night at an Argentine Milonga will always stand out as one of my favorite dance experiences and easily one of my fondest memories from Buenos Aires.

**The photos in this post are of  Rodrigo and his dance partners used with permission from his facebook. Impressive ehh?

Inspired to learn a bit of Tango or at least listen to some?  Browse Amazon’s digital Tango Music library.

Unlocking Ushuaia’s Secrets – The Portal to Tierra del Fuego

A Rainstorm - Ushuaia, Argentina

The first few days of my Argentina trip had been spent exploring Buenos Aires, socializing, dealing with jet lag and adjusting to the reality that I was back on the road.   For me, it was the southern city of Ushuaia where I mentally perceived my Argentinian adventure as truly beginning. I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew that the city was the departure base for the majority of the Antarctica tours, it was home to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and  it was my best shot at seeing penguins. Beyond that, I’d heard mixed things. Chief among them was that the town and region were disappointing; that I shouldn’t set aside much time for the area, and my time would be better spent elsewhere.

Downtown Ushuaia - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After exploring Ushuaia, El Chalten, and El Calafate, I can definitely tell where and why people might think the above about Ushuaia.  Based on my experiences, I found Ushuaia worth the stop…with a caveat that your level of enjoyment while in Ushuaia seems to depend on where in your trip you see it.  The city of Ushuaia is a launchpad destination.  It is a city nestled between majestic, snow-capped mountains situated alongside the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame. With a booming population and nearly 60,000 residents, the city is one of the largest in the region.  Yet, despite that, the tourist section of the city stands alone, nestled along the port and on the side of the mountains, it feels more like a town of 5,000.

Ushuaia Harbor - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The flight south is fairly unremarkable, until that is, you go to land in the city.  Located in the midst of the channel on a long, flat peninsula the airport is surrounded by large mountain ranges which still cling to snowy cloaks even in the midst of the Argentinian summer. As our plane drifted, dropped, and jumped through the clouds on a turbulent approach, I was awestruck by the view out the window.  We weren’t just making a typical approach, we were flying through a large valley and surrounded by/flying over snow-covered mountains.  It was spectacular and left me grinning as my mind immediately imagined that famous snow/ramp scene from the James Bond movies.  What also struck me was the minute or two which it lasted. Usually landings happen so quickly that you don’t really get anything more than a quick view of the surrounding area. That wasn’t the case with Ushuaia which was a true delight.

Ushuaia Harbor - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The airport is new, modern, and in excellent shape.  Fairly small, it’s built for cold weather and as such offers a lot of amenities that many smaller airports might gloss over.  There is a cost, however, as both Ushuaia and El Calafate airports are managed by “London Supply” and charge an exit tax for the use of the airport which is NOT covered in your ticket price. The tax is around $8 USD.

Ushuaia Bay - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After a quick 7 minute cab ride (around 23 pesos) I found myself at the front door of the Freestyle Hostel.  The hostel had a nice layout, clean/modern facilities, and a great location just north of the docks. The staff was friendly, helpful and playful once they decided they liked you but tended to be a bit abrasive and sarcastic on first blush.  My room offered a great view out over the harbor, was warm despite the cold weather, and fairly comfortable.

The Local Pub in Ushuaia - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Before long I’d settled in, snagged a hearty nap, and was set to explore.  Based on a recommendation and drink coupon from the hostel, I headed down (quite literally) the street to the Dublin Pub. A great little pub, it serves as the premier watering hole for travelers in Ushuaia. The place was packed, served a mixture of beers, and was limited to two local options on tap…Red or Black.  Both of which were delightful.

Shortly thereafter, I connected with a twitter contact who I’d recently learned was also traveling through Ushuaia.  Brendan authors the blog Brendan’s Adventures and has been on the road for over a year.  A full time travel blogger he’s done a wonderful job executing a dream that most only talk about. Definitely take a minute to check out his blog and to look him up on twitter at @Brendanvanson.

We chatted travel, adventures, antics, women, and business projects off and on over the remainder of my stay in Ushuaia. Brendan has a wealth of travel experiences and wonderful insights into travel, people, and the ancillary benefits and challenges of being on the road.

Perhaps the most comical of our adventures was an attempt to shoot the lunar eclipse on the evening of my second day.  Both eager for the chance to snap what we hoped would be incredible photos of a rare lunar eclipse over the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia, we camped out in the Dublin Pub until 3:30AM when it closed keeping a careful eye on the night sky and watching for the moon.  We’d researched the eclipse and found a mixture of data which suggested that it would be visible from our vantage point sometime in the early morning.  Unfortunately, it was also right around the time of the summer solstice which made for the shortest nights of the year.

As 3:30 morphed into 4AM and the sun began to rise we let out a collective harrumph, warmed our hands, and admitted defeat.   As it turned out the combination of a mere 3 hours of darkness and large mountain range in the way meant that the Moon never showed its pale face.  Was it ever visible?  It’s hard to know, but as far as we could tel, day won out over night totally obscuring any chance of seeing the moon.

City Streets - Ushuaia, Argentina

The final adventure of note within the city of Ushuaia itself was culinary.  After a wonderful day spent exploring the Tierra del Fuego National Park, I re-connected with three of the people I’d met on the bus/during the hike.  Starved from a long day’s exhaustion and a tiny lunch we opted to try one of the city’s all you can eat buffets. They boasted a wealth of meat options with a large in-house grill as well as a wide variety of other seafood and delicious morsels.

Dinner on the Grill - Ushuaia, Argentina

After comparing prices and window shopping we eventually settled on an Asian influenced buffet that sported a hearty grill accompanied by a mixture of seafood and a light sushi bar.

Dinner Cooking - Ushuaia, Argentina

A vegetarian’s nightmare, the restaurant was a carnivore’s paradise. The meat was all beautifully cooked and awash in flavor.  Predominantly consisting of lamb and beef,  I set to sampling as many of the different options as possible.

Mixed Meats - Ushuaia, Argentina

Each trip back to the grill brought with it a hearty grin from the cook as I worked my way through normal steaks, grilled intestines, sausage, blood sausage and even rack of juicy lamb ribs that melted in my mouth.

Dinner - Ushuaia, Argentina

With a nod towards ‘healthy’ eating, I also balanced things with several trips to the normal buffet bar where I loaded down my plate with beets, green beans, calamari rings, sliced tongue, clams, fried octopus and baby mussels.

Stuffed and served up with a hearty side of solid conversation as the guys told me about their recent Antarctica trip, we eventually surrendered to our food comas before calling it night. To this day even thinking about the meal makes my mouth water and my feet yearn for a return.

Words of Warning

So, here’s the scoop.  If you start your trip through Southern Chile and Argentina in Ushuaia, you’ll probably love the place and enjoy the experience. It’s a decent city to start with and offers solid hostels, a beautiful national park, fun penguin excursions and medium-sized mountains all set to a pretty harbor with gorgeous sunsets. However, if you’ve already done Southern Chile, seen the glaciers and mountains in El Calafate and/or El Chalten and found penguins somewhere along your way, you’ll risk disappointment.

It’s also worth noting that a visit to Ushuaia guarantees exposure to amazing photos and stories from Antarctica which will no doubt trigger an intense desire to make the trip.  I know that for my part what started as a passing pre-trip desire has now blossomed into a post-trip obsession!

Please note that this post breaks with my typical chronological format and focuses exclusively on my time spent in the city of Ushuaia.  I spent my first complete day in Tierra del Fuego on a penguin tour and my second exploring the Tierra del Fuego national park.  Stay tuned for future posts covering both day trips in detail.

Dublin Part III

Still slightly drowsy, we rubbed sleep from our eyes and made our way downstairs. Tossed a few hamburger-like patties in the microwave for breakfast and said our good-mornings.

After recharging cameras, writing a few blog posts, and socializing for a bit David and I met up with three English girls – two of whom we’d met briefly the evening before. After chatting for a while the five of us set off to meander through the city…we made our way down across Temple Bar, past vibrantly colored pubs and wound towards Trinity College and it’s gorgeous campus, situated in the very heart of Dublin. Passing through the huge outer doors/compound walls, the campus opened up before us with large greens, beautiful trees and historic buildings. Pausing periodically for pictures we wound our way through the campus before striking out and heading north towards the bronze statue of Molly Malone – famous fishmonger by day and immortalized lady of the night. You’ll find her name affectionately referenced in a number of Irish songs and as the namesake of a similar number of Irish pubs.

We paused with Molly to take a quick photo, while Lizzie leaned in for a quick squeeze, before cutting across to the Dublin tourist center. The center, like a number of other buildings in the Isles, is in an old converted cathedral. Large, spacious and beautiful, the interior is jam-packed with booths, fliers, and tourist gear.

From the tourist center we found a small bridge across the Lithie River and down along O’Connell Street. Pausing so our English companions could grab a cup of tea, we braved intermittent raindrops and soon found ourselves wandering through a slightly more rugged section of the city. The industrial feel quickly gave way to office buildings and a beautiful river walk. We spotted a 3-masted schooner tied up about a quarter of a mile down the river.

We wound down past a rather powerful monument commemorating the potato famine with gaunt, holocaust-esque bronze figures, before getting a good look at the ship from a narrow walking bridge that crossed the river.

Tired and footsore we climbed up the opposite side of the river-walk and back across Temple bar. Pausing to pick up cooking supplies for dinner at a small market, we found our way home and set to the task of a nap and preparing dinner.

By the time we set to cooking dinner, things were bustling. As we all piled into the kitchen, ducking and dodging each other we made new friends, shared food and stories. Eventually, eyes glazing over with full stomachs we settled in for another round of Kaste Gris. With the Danes laughing along joyfully we butchered the pronunciation, took our turns throwing the small pig-like dice, shouting, hollering and applauding good rolls.

As the evening progressed, we rounded up a good group of Brits, Danes, Austrians and a few others and then set off to the Porter House. There we listened to live music until close, before heading across the street to the Turks Head – a small club/bar which was offering Salsa. A few dances later, they called it a night, leaving us to start our own dance party – congo line included – in the bar/nightclub part of the venue. Eager for new surroundings, we migrated back to the Czech Bar shortly thereafter where we continued to dance, drink, and mingle well into the evening.

Not to be outdone by the previous evening, by the time we finally returned to the hostel, we quickly settled into the common room where Rasmus played a few songs as we sang and wound down.

Two New Salsa Videos

Howdy all! As a quick sidetrack from my Spain blogs this post includes two freshly recorded videos from this past weekend. What of? Why social Salsa dancing of course!

While each Salsa club is completely different the following videos were recorded at Paragon Dance Studio’s Sunday Night Salsa Function in Tempe, Arizona which trades the conventional restaurant/night club backdrop for plenty of space and a top notch dance floor. Make sure to select the HQ option when viewing both videos & remember – I love your questions! Have one? Post it in a comment response to this post and I’ll get back to you promptly!

Elektra & I Dancing:

Debbie & I Dancing:

Don’t forget you can now sign in to comment/share this post seamlessly using your Facebook account through Facebook Connect!

Granada Part III – Hostels, Cities and Adventures

Groggy, but feeling thoroughly refreshed, I awoke to the rustle of bags as two new arrivals settled into their bunks.  Glad to be awake I hopped out of bed, wobbled a bit and then stepped through the door from my hostel room onto the rooftop terrace (above).  There, I inhaled the crisp Spanish air, looked out over the rooftops and reveled in wonder at the amazing adventure I was living.

After a quick glance in the mirror and grimace at my nap hair, I tossed on my cap and made my way down to the entry hall. There I quickly fell into conversation with a number of fellow travelers, checked my e-mail and then decided to duck out for dinner.  Following the front desk’s recommendation, I quickly found my way to a small tapas bar where I picked up a beer and free side of tapas.  In most places in Granada the tapas itself is free, so long as you order a drink, unfortunately, it’s also random….still free is…well…free!  With my appetite wet I polished off my Alhambra beer and stepped around the corner to the local Kebab King.  There I discussed the days events with a Palestinian immigrant fluent in at least 3 languages. Before long I was off and wandering once again, this time with a steaming chicken kebab in hand.

Through the streets, up small narrow stairways and into the heart of the Albayzin I wound eager to explore and discover the city’s hidden secrets. Never quite lost, but often quite turned around, I quickly found myself in the heart of the old city.

As night rolled in I slowly made my way back to the hostel, unloaded my day pack and found my way to the hostel bar. There I bumped into my tour guide from that morning and he quickly introduced me to several of the other regulars. Two girls living in Granada (from Australia/New Zealand) and an English gentleman. All were in their late 20s/early 30s.  We all sat in the tiny, cramped hostel bar, surrounded by walls covered in chalk graffiti left by travelers.  Some of the words scrawled across the walls were quotes, others well wishes and yet others…just downright odd and obviously left after a few drinks.   We drank wine, smoked hookah and exchanged stories. Before long I was privy to all of the recent goings on and had my fair share of insights into the local drama.

As other travelers drifted in the group slowly grew in size.  I quickly got to know Andreas – a traveling Swede who was working at the hostel during an extended stay in Granada. The wine, sangria and Alhambra beer was flowing freely when 9 o’clock rolled around.  One of the other people staying (and working) at the hostel announced the beginning of the free tapas tour and before I knew it, I was swept up with the crowd and into the night.

We toured two tapas bars sampling sliced pieces of Spanish ham on small crackers, Spanish meatballs and various other delicious eats before eventually winding our way down through the city and finishing the tour at a flavorful reggae bar.   The reggae bar was a delightfully odd place. The entrance was little more than a door off the street that dumped you into a small entrance room no bigger than most master bathrooms in the states. As I entered I found myself standing at the small bar.  Immediately in front of the door there was just enough space for 2 or 3 people front to back, which allowed us to stand at the bar 2 deep as we ordered while leaving a small path to the long sloping hallway that ran some 20 feet down and into what must have been an old cellar.

The ceiling in the hallway was arched and just short enough that I didn’t feel comfortable walking completely upright.  As I shuffled along, slightly bowed, I quickly spilled out into a second, slightly larger room where I was greeted by an odd mishmash of sights.  Along one side of the whitewashed cellar was a small bench piled with drinks and stacked coats.  The room itself had a cement floor with a DJ at one end on a slightly raised platform and a small partition at the other end which led to two lock-less bathrooms.  Smoke of all varieties hung heavily in the air and the music boomed down upon us.   Our group of 10 or so unloaded our jackets and quickly set to dancing, drinking and bonding as only travelers can.

An hour or two slipped by before we decided to strike out once more.  Eager to find a flamenco bar we wound up into the Albayzin and eventually found our way to Granada’s famous cave residences & bars.  Though most were closed we eventually found a tiny place carved into the side of the mountain.  With whitewashed walls and ceilings the place had old photos of flamenco players and random women on the walls. The bathroom was outside and more of an outhouse than a proper toilet. Inside the small 2-room bar served everything out of bottles/cans and only had whatever stock they could fit behind the small bar – it was a hoot.   We worked our way to the back and in the smaller of the two rooms crowded together as a series of incredibly flavorful musicians sat and passionately played flamenco.  While I can’t say I was overly fond of the musicianship the passion and setting was an absolute kick…I’ll let you see for yourselves:

As the bar ran out of beer and I grew antsy several of us set off back into the Albayzin eager to see to the Alhambra at night. 3AM had already come and gone.  The views out from the Albayzin and the hill it rests upon are spectacular, as are the winding streets cloaked in shadow and gently lit by the soft yellow glow of aged streetlights.  The Alhambra at night is an incredible sight.  Back lit by the twinkling lights of the city, the Alhambra is lit by a combination of green and yellow lights.

After resting and taking in the sights and gentle sounds of the city as it slept we wound our way back, down through the dew kissed streets and back to our hostel where as quietly as possible I crawled into my bunk bed and began snoring away contentedly.  It was 4:45AM.