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Jon Cardinelli

Tour Tales – Argentina

At a braai At a braai

JON CARDINELLI reflects on the past week's near-death experiences, conversations with rugby royalty, and a braai to end all braais.

Juan Pablo doesn't know where he's going. He's not watching the road, but craning his head out of the taxi window, desperately trying to catch the attention of any porteño he can.

Thanks to Juan Pablo, we're already an hour late for a Springbok training session. During that time, we've visited every sports club in San Isidro, a suburb on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

In his enthusiasm, Juan Pablo has run at least half a dozen red lights. On more than one occasion he has cut off the driver alongside us so that both cars have screeched to a halt. He's done this so he can ask the other driver for directions.

Apparently it's just another day in Buenos Aires. South African taxis have nothing on these locos.

'Retorno!' we plead in bad Spanish. Twenty minutes now remain in the Boks' training session, and Juan Pablo doesn't know where he's going. We may as well turn around and go back to our hotel. 'Retorno, Juan Pablo! Retorno!'

If he has heard our demands, he gives no sign. He's determined to see this through, to find the San Isidro Rugby Club. My colleague Craig Ray turns white as Juan Pablo swerves to avoid a head-on collision ... and then abruptly stops in the middle of the road again.

Juan Pablo abandons the car. He launches himself at a couple of construction workers standing on the sidewalk. They converse in Spanish for a moment, and ... success! Juan Pablo has the directions to San Isidro! He breaks into an impromptu dance of joy, and then proceeds to honour our saviours with mock gestures of worship. How can one be angry? Craig, myself, as well as the two locals share a chuckle. As crazy as Juan Pablo is, he is one determined man.

We arrive at the field just in time to see most of the Boks leaving it. Bryan Habana is already done for the day and is racing some of the local kids who have come down to watch the Boks on what is a public holiday. Captain Jean de Villiers is signing autographs. When De Villiers is done, he walks past us, and taps at his wrist.

'This is not very professional,' he smirks, 'not good enough by the South African media.'

That was Monday, and having spent the better part of four days in the Argentinian capital, I can confirm that Juan Pablo is at the conservative end of the Buenos Aires cab-driver spectrum.

The pick of the rest was an elderly and near-sighted gentleman who one of my colleagues dubbed 'Heidi's Dad'. It was thanks to Heidi's Dad that we had another white-knuckle experience, as he saw fit to take the wrong highway turnoff and head straight into oncoming traffic. His reaction? A raucous laugh, as if he'd just been told a bawdy joke. A quick swing of the wheel, and we were on our way again.

We arrived at our destination with a new appreciation for life itself. We were late for our first Argentine asado (braai), and our host, veteran journalist Frankie Deges wasn't impressed that we'd kept his illustrious guests waiting.

Nevertheless, thus began the rolling maul of meat. Argentina has a passion for meat that one could go so far as to call religious, and thus we were hammered  from the moment we arrived with sausages, steaks, pork, and chicken. There was a bowl of salad on the table, but I suspect it was just a token gesture. Nobody seemed to pay it much notice.

'Are you boys following me?' said a voice from the head of the table. We had met Graham Henry at the airport a couple of days before and by coincidence here he was at Casa Deges, a forkful of steak in one paw, a glass of Malbec in the other.

To his right sat Marcelo Loffreda, the coach who led the Pumas to a third-place finish at the 2007 World Cup. Seated further down the table was Argentinian referee Francisco Pastrana, a bubbly character who boasted an impressive Afrikaans vocabulary as well as a few South African catchphrases. Having said that, I can't say I had heard 'Like a Cheetah!' prior to that evening.

'Sir Graham ...' began one of my colleagues in conversation with the 2011 World Cup-winning coach. Henry didn't let him finish .

'Nah, mate, there aren't any sirs here. It's Graham, or Ted! Got it? Good. Now, you may continue.'

Each day in Buenos Aires would start with a routine breakfast of empanadas and a couple of brick-shaped croissants mortared with the ubiquitous dulce de leche (caramel). Then you had to brace yourself for the manic walk down town. Talk about human traffic.

I had read that Buenos Aires has a population of 15 million, and could well believe it when I walked down Avenida de Julio for the first time, past the Obelisco, and on to the Bok hotel. Sidewalks are perpetually crowded with bustling porteños, while the street could pass for a multi-lane F1 track.

Rugby is not the No 1 sport in Argentina and yet the local people and media went all out to embrace the Boks during their stay in the country. Habana was fortunate to eventually escape the press conference on Wednesday, such was the interest in the iconic winger. And yes, one of the locals did ask him if he planned to race a cheetah again.

'Maybe a giraffe, just to mix things up?' he quipped.

After Buenos Aires, Mendoza is very much a change of pace. On my first stroll down to the Plaza Indepencia, I happened upon some sort of ceremony honouring the local police. The music, singing, and dancing was clearly having an effect on other passers-by, and nobody seemed to mind the handing out of red wine at 11 in the morning.

Later on Friday, the travelling media was invited to an asado to end all asados. We thought we were well prepared, having been to Casa Deges earlier in the week. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Baskets of meat were passed down the table, with some interesting additions to the usual fare (the intestine was surprisingly tasty, although Rapport writer Marco Botha disagreed). The officials at Union de Rugby de Cuyo ensured that the wine kept flowing, and while I can recommend the Mendoza blends, I'm not sure if I will be drinking any more Frente any time soon. That stuff makes Jägermeister seem like a cold shot of water on a hot day.

It was after that hearty meal that the strapping braaimaster, Marcos, was brought before us. Bob Skinstad took this opportunity to say a few words of thanks on the South Africans' behalf. The gesture moved Marcos to tears. Clearly braaing is a serious business in these parts.

It was then that the locals asked that we sing our national anthem. Judging by the number of iPads and camera phones that were pointed as us during our rendition of 'Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika', it may very well already be on the internet. One Argentinian thereafter demanded that we sing 'Shosholoza' and led by the Independent's Vata Ngobeni, the Saffas didn't disappoint.

Only 24,000 people were at the Estadio Malvinas on Saturday to watch the Pumas tackle the Boks. It was a much tighter affair than most, including myself, had anticipated.

After the game  I wondered if the explosions of glitter and fireworks were for the Bok victory or for a plucky Pumas team that had come so close to an upset. If one had to go by the reaction of the crowd and the grinning local journalists at the post-match conference, I would say it was for the latter. After losing 73-13 the previous week, Argentina certainly restored some pride with a determined showing in Mendoza.

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