A Fine Line Between Fantasy and Reality in San Antonio de Areco, Argentina

As we have gone around the world, we’ve tried to find local books and authors to read/listen to on the iPod. These have given us a little extra insight into the criminal past of Australia (The True Story of the Kelly Gang), the difficult legacy of colonialism in India (The Magic Seeds), the apartheid past of South Africa (Cry the Beloved Country). In Argentina we are excited to delve into the works of one of the world’s great authors, John Louis Borges. He is Argentina’s foremost author and the founding father of magical realism (think Big Fish). Though I haven’t read much Borges to date, I adore one of his successors, the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marques. His stories are like glimpses into a dream world where fantasy and reality intersect. When reading his novels and short stories, I always found it hard to understand where the South America portion ended and where the magical realism portion began. Having been on this continent only a few weeks, I am starting to see that looking for a line separating the continent from its magic is fruitless. There isn’t one.

The magic began in Buenos Aires and was reinforced on our day trip to Colonia, Uruguay, a sleepy, misty town where mystery hung heavy in the air. Our next stop was the small town of San Antonio de Areco, which proved the most magical to date. San Antonio was a mere two hours away from the big city but a world apart from its urban hustle. As we stepped off the bus onto the dusty streets, we could have been in any small town in Texas or New Mexico, the only difference here being the ghosts are gauchos not cowboys. The bus station was a 12 block walk from our estancia, a traditional cattle ranch where we would be staying to gain a view into the traditional gaucho lifestyle. When we called the estancia to get directions and ask for lunch recommendations, the voice on the other end informed us only two restaurants were currently open as it was siesta time. To get to the cheaper but equally delicious one, we would need to take a detour from our direct route across town.

As we turned right out of the bus station, a small dog was there to greet us. The kids immediately made friends with this dog whom they named Frankie Muniz (they’re big Malcolm in the Middle fans). He took the point and led us down the street. On our way we passed a number of dogs who approached Frankie, did the dog sniff test and let him and us pass. At one point we came across a German Shepherd and his mutt friend who were standing on their hind legs trying to turn the door handles of a delicatessen, which was closed for siesta. They were making a horrible racket as they banged against the metal door. In the end their lack of opposable thumbs prevented them from breaking in and getting a snack. It certainly was a bizarre scene as we were surrounded by canines with not a human in sight.
We continued making our way toward the river, to our restaurant where heaps of meat awaited us. All the while, Frankie walked ahead of us as if he was our personal guide. Every half block or so, he would turn and look at us as if to say, “Why are you checking your map? I know where I’m going.” Finding it hard to believe this little dog could really know our destination, we checked the map repeatedly. Each time Frankie was right. Within about 15 minutes we ambled up to the restaurant with Frankie in the lead.

Frankie was waiting for us an hour later when we exited La Costa. Now confident in his mystical canine powers, we followed. We had only gone one block when he turned into a small zoo. Zookeepers don’t usually like stray dogs running through their establishments, but the keepers here seemed to welcome Frankie as you would a tour guide. They ignored him and focused on us. Intrigued by the strange little place that occupied the equivalent of a large residential lot, we paid the $.66 entry fee and sprang for the $.33 bag of animal feed as well. Mac and Asher threw some of the food and some of our lunch to Frankie who promptly trotted off.

One noisy toucanA nice little Armadillo

The zoo was an interesting menagerie of birds and small creatures, most indigineous to Argentina. The kids enjoyed the armadillo, Anne liked the eagles and I found a noisy toucan to be rather entertaining. Soon I forced everyone to load their packs back up and head to the hotel. I wanted to get there before dark. We were surprised as we left that Frankie was nowhere to be seen. I guess he had done his part, collected his payment, and moved on. We had nothing to worry about though as within a block we picked up a new tour guide, a gray unkempt half afghan/ half …. who knows that the kids promptly named “Snoop Dog.” Snoop Dog didn’t lead us as much as play with us. When we arrived at our estancia, La Cinacina I had the family stand in front of the sign for a photo. As they lined up, Snoop Dog noticed what was happening and ran to get into the picture. He stood there until the pictures were done and then trotted ahead of us down the path to the buildings. As we walked with Snoop down the long dirt road, we noticed two big Weimaraners up ahead. They spotted Snoop, barked viciously, and raced toward him. They left us alone but bared their fangs and snapped at Snoop. Snoop stood his ground and was soon saved by the manager, Manuel, who saw the big dogs scaring the new guests from his office. I expected him to give Snoop the boot, either figuratively or literally, but instead of throwing something at the big mongrel, he ran up and gave Snoop a big hug.

Manuel calling off the dogsSnoop Dog posing with the family

“This is amazing,” he said. “I have been looking for this dog for weeks.” He proceeded to tell us that he had taken Snoop in a few weeks earlier. He felt a kinship with the scruffy, freespirited mutt, whom he called Chewy (as in Chewbaca), and whom Anne assured him would wear a beret if he were human. One day Manuel had said something about a bath, and Snoop had hit the road. Manuel was beside himself with joy. He expressed his excitement in rapid English, using words like “great omen” and “kismet.” For him, our arrival was a magical event–a smiling American family delivering his long lost canine soul brother to his doorstep. For us it was an enchanting beginning to a brief but wonderful stay. Manuel proved a consummate host. His gregarious nature and native level fluency in English endeared him to all of us. Even Asher was kicking him within minutes (her way of showing affection).

Manuel showed us to our rooms, which were, he assured us, the best in the estancia. Since the winter weather was cold and gray, the whitewashed walls and wooden furniture were made even cozier by log-filled fireplaces. While the rooms were homey, Manuel assured us the heart of the estancia was the gorgeous, glass enclosed common room, complete with couches, coffee table books, jazz music, a magnificent fireplace, a small kitchen, and all the drinks, cakes and fruit we wanted. (This was shades of Esbelli Evi in Turkey.)

The common room at La cinacinaWelcome drinks and food at CinacinaA mate lesson at Cinacina

Manuel escorted us to the common room where we sat together and talked about Argentina and the pampas. He taught us about yerba mate, the national herb-based drink, and its importance to Argentines. He demonstrated the ritual for drinking mate in all its intricate detail. We enjoyed the warmth of the common room, deep mugs of steaming hot chocolate, and Manuel’s generous hospitality. He pointed out the bikes that were at our disposal and explained we didn’t need to worry about locking them in San Antonio. Dax and McKane were the first to jump on the bikes, regardless of the fact that neither of them really knew how to ride. We purchased bikes for them when they were little, but neither ever took to riding, preferring skateboards or scooters instead. After all the bike-related accidents I had as a kid, I let them enjoy their preferred wheeled vehicles and didn’t worry about their lack of riding ability.

The boys started riding around on the grass and within a few minutes looked like experienced though slightly tentative riders. One of the adult bikes had a child seat for Asher and there was a small bike with training wheels for Kieran to ride. I pulled out the little bike, and Kieran tried to ride. The training wheels were loose and refused to stay level so he crashed a few times. He started to show some real signs of frustration as the bike was hard to peddle. I encouraged him to sit on the back of my bike. He refused. Asher had a nice seat behind Anne, though it lacked any kid of restraint, but all I had was a rack. Kieran claimed he would just run alongside the rest of us. I looked at his little legs in doubt but said “OK.” For the first 200 yards he did his best. He ran as fast as he could, but it was apparent this wouldn’t be a long term solution as we had a few kilometers to ride in and out of the town. I convinced him to climb up and stand on the rack over my back tire. He clambered up, threw his arms around my neck, and we were off. This ended up being the perfect solution. As we drove around the estancia looking at horses, geese, and the odd sheep, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only I had Kieran and not Katherine Ross on my bike. It felt like a dream as we rode and talked. For the next two days, everywhere we went Kieran stood behind me and asked me a stream of questions only a seven year old can ask. We occasionally followed one of the dog tour guides and frequently laughed as we heard one of the big brothers crash behind us.

Kieran on my back. He got much happier

In our 10+ months we have walked in the footsteps of history, gaped at nature’s greatest wonders, and witnessed the best and worst of the human spirit. It is here in Argentina that reality seems stretched to its limit and we often feel as if we’re walking through the pages of a novel or the frames of a film. This is all the more shocking after considering the number of places we’ve been which have served as movie sets–Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, James Bond sites in Vietnam and India, Crouching TIger, Hidden Dragon in China, Star Wars in Tunisia–and the locations of many of the novels we’ve read. I now understand it is no accident the magical realists came out of this continent. There is something mystical and dreamlike about it. We will continue to enjoy our time in this magical realm and relive it once more when we get home by reading more of its authors.

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9 thoughts on “A Fine Line Between Fantasy and Reality in San Antonio de Areco, Argentina

  1. I have been reading your blog since you appeared in Oprah and have been fascinated by your idea of traveling the world. I grew up in Mexico and now I am living in Houston, Texas. I recently got married and I hope I can enjoy a trip like yours with my own kids some day. Magical Realism is a genre very close to my heart since I grew up in Latin America where everything is a “sign”. If you enjoy Borges I also recommend reading Isabel Allende who is my favorite author (from Chile). Have a safe return home! -Ana

  2. Tom, thanks for this post! I am sure now it is something I want to do with Mike and the posse. This is the South America I was thinking about before I went to B.A. – almost other-worldly and definitely magical.

  3. Tom, thank you for an inspiring post. My wife and I have been reading your blog regularly, and hope to embark upon a similar trip when our girls are a little older. I applaud you and your family for having the courage to take time out and focus on family and the world around us! Very inspiring!

  4. Good post, but I think you must have been a bit tired when you wrote it. The greatest Argentine author was Jorge Luis Borges, not Anthony. You might have had in mind the English author Anthony Burgess and conflated the two in your fatigue or rush.

  5. Geoffe,

    Thanks for trying to cut me some slack. I am just a little bit dim these days. I did get the two authors first names mixed up. I really hated clockwork orange, so that is a big mess up. Hopefully I will be able to get back some clarity.


  6. Pingback: San Antonio de Areco - Gauchos, Pulperias, and Amazing Chocolate - Argentina’s Travel Guide

  7. Enjoyed your blog. We were there last winter and just loved this town. Would have liked to have spent more than 2 days there, so relaxing, friendly, interesting and fun riding bicycles on cobblestone streets. Ouch!

  8. What an amazing story. Do those dogs understand human thought? It’s almost scary the way they knew exactly where you were going. You’ve been added to my RSS feed and I’ll be vicariously travelling with you.

  9. Argentina is really a lovely land. The two years I spent there really gave me a different perspective on my own life and have strongly influenced me.

    I also enjoy the writings of Borges. His work has strongly influenced my own though I tend to drift into the more magical and less real.

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