Monday, June 8, 2009

BTO: Southern exposure

Business Times - 06 Jun 2009

Southern exposure

From the chunks of meat on the tables to the tanned hunks on the beaches, the South American cities of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro will soon overwhelm your senses and captivate your heart. By Joyce Koh

MEAT. You've heard of making pilgrimages to Japan just to savour the sheer variety of fresh seafood, but when it comes to hot red-blooded flesh on the bone or without, you head to South America - home of the churrascaria or just a good piece of marbled steak.

First stop: Buenos Aires

Those who visit tend to rave about the sizzling tangos, and the elegant tree-lined boulevards. But more often than not, it's the steaks that put a sparkle in their eyes and superlatives in their speech.

From smart restaurants to noisy diners across the city, Buenos Aires is the ultimate haven for carnivores, who can satisfy their meat cravings from dusk to dawn.

For them, a 600gm piece of grass-fed, hormone-free steak is no big deal. Done to your preference, the knife slides through as if you were cutting butter. Even better, all that bovine goodness costs just $10. Oh, and $5 more for a bottle of tasty Malbec.

But maybe the local diet is the way it is because of the sheer energy needed to keep up with this electrifying city's pace. For one thing, the locals eat dinner after 10pm and its nightlife starts thumping only after 2am. Argentina's capital is experiencing a rejuvenation of sorts with new boutiques and restaurants popping up everywhere, and more expats and tourists pouring in, especially after everything got cheaper following the devaluation of the peso in 2002.

At a chic corner cafe in Palermo Soho - a hip neighbourhood of cafes and shops - tourists wax lyrical about the value for money the city offers. One American expat sharing our table lets on about how his quality of life here has become so much better; over dinner, Jane, a German tourist, raves about how skydiving costs half the amount it would in Europe.

Besides its famed steaks, the city offers other treats. Its broad cobblestoned streets are ideal for strolling, even if you sometimes have to scamper across its wide avenues. Avenue 9 de Julio, for example, is said to be the widest street in the world with 12 lanes measuring a total of 110 metres, and it takes two or three traffic lights to cross it.

Riding the subway, which still uses the same cars that operated in the 1920s, reawakens the wonder of early public transport. The train conductor blows the whistle, the doors clap shut in unison, the carriage resembles a polite tea salon, and off you go, the wind whizzing past your ears.

Emerging into the sunlight, you have your pick of neighbourhoods to explore. Palermo exudes a cool vibe with its enticing array of food and shopping treats. Recoleta is expensive and elegant, housing its famous cemetery, of which it has been said, 'it is cheaper to live extravagantly all your life, than to be buried in Recoleta'. Built in 1822, the cemetery houses more than 6,000 mausoleums of the wealthy and famous, including Eva Peron, former first lady of Argentina.

Over at the other end of the city, San Telmo bustles with music in the air, antique owners hawking their wares and both young and old strutting in the park to the insistent beat of the tango.

Tango. It invokes all the intensity and passion of the country and its history. And like its people, the tango feels slightly melancholic, exuding a languid nonchalance even as its dancers mesmerise you with their deft, explosive footwork. Watching it almost feels like being a voyeur in an intimate affair, its music so aptly described by one writer as the 'all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts'.

How different it is from the all-inclusive, frenetic pulse of the samba, the music that is the heartbeat of Brazil. Sitting on top of Argentina, the country sprawls across half of South America and shares its bounty with all - music lovers, sun-worshippers, nature lovers and lovers, period - who flock to partake of its riches.

Next stop: Rio de Janeiro

No doubt this Brazilian city is forever associated with the girl from Ipanema. But that unfairly excludes the golden boys of the city's famous beaches. Their meticulously toned and tanned bodies, squeezed into man-kinis (the male equivalent of the bikini), are on display everywhere. These fine male specimens are constantly at work in their playgrounds of sand and surf - kicking a football or volleyball while the machismo oozes out from every pore of their bodies. It is, perhaps, a meat market of a different sort.

Beyond its beautiful people, Rio is blessed with a breathtaking natural landscape, cocooned by soaring mountains and lapped by the Atlantic Ocean. The iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, gazes down upon a city of seven million people who appear to have been born with an infectious joie de vivre.

The happiness in the air pushes you to do things you normally wouldn't - like hike up a mountain, smile at inane things like poodles with flowers in their hair, and challenge crashing waves three times as tall as you.

When night falls, samba fills the air, revellers flock the streets and vendors hawk tequila shots with a bottle of Jose Cuervo in one hand and a metal tray of plastic cups and sliced limes in the other. Of course, the party scene does not mask the poverty that is all around you, and Rio is not a safe haven by any measure. But you get the feeling that this is a city that knows how to have fun, and you want to revel in it for as long as it lasts.

Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro present two very different faces of South America. But there is so much more to explore in this amazing continent. From Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall in Venezuela in the north, to the southernmost city of Ushuaia in the Argentinian province of Tierra del Fuego, South America just keeps whetting your appetite for more.

One quickly understands why travellers feel compelled to stay on for years to explore the continent's villages, cities and countries, or trek through its mountains, forests and rivers. In South America, the adventure never ends.

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