Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Desintation Unknown

Destination Unknown is the title of an Agatha Christie novel. The story's main character is a bereaved widow contemplating suicide in a Moroccan hotel. She's convinced by a British secret agent to forgo her bottle of sleeping pills and instead take on a dangerous assignment involving a leper research colony in the Atlas Mountains, lobotomized scientists, and a rich madman with a moneymaking scheme that makes Bernard Madoff's Ponzi haul look like chump change.

This gets me thinking (not about money, although a fraction of Madoff's former fortune would be nice) about the pleasure of an unknown destination and my own upcoming one just about a week from now. My girlfriend and I are flying down to Miami, and then it’s anyone’s guess where we’ll wind up, depending on the vagaries of holiday flights and our buddy passes.

The first possibility is Montevideo, Uruguay, recently singled out as one of the best Latin American cities to live in and ranked 76th out of 350 cities worldwide. Since it’s south of the equator, we’ll be arriving in summer where winds off the Rio de la Plata mitigate the season’s humidity and temperature and usually provide cool nights throughout the city’s charming waterfront barrios. Although it weathered a financial crisis less than a decade ago, the city has enough international bank headquarters to qualify its reputation as “the Switzerland of America.” I guess we won’t have to worry about finding an ATM so that we can sample the cash only cuisine and beachfront culture of the Rambla, the spectacular avenue that runs along the entire coastline of Montevideo and is the world’s longest esplanade.

A second destination is Buenos Aires, whose barrios are a bit more colorful (or maybe just more hyped) than Montevideo’s and which also lies on the Rio de la Plata, although it lacks unimpeded access to the water and feels more landlocked than Montevideo, according to visitors in the know. To those who still have the need to ask, “Where’s the Beef?,” the eighties catchphrase made famous by octogenarian Clara Pelter and now revived by Wendy’s as a retro weapon in the current burger wars, it’s right here in BA, served up at the city’s numerous parilla restaurants, which give Latin luster to the words “grass fed.”

The Pampas, like the Great Plains, conjures visions of rippling grasslands, historic ranches, and the Argentine version of the American cowboy, the gaucho. Traveling only 70 miles west of the city takes you to an estancia and back in time about 200 years to the romantic culture of ranch and horse, the traditional domain of the gaucho. These amazing horsemen once roamed Brazil and Uruguay as well as Argentina and like the American cowboy generated a whole genre of poetry, song, and dance celebrating their unique culture. While my girlfriend and I may not be ready to sit on a horse for days to experience a real cattle drive with a gaucho guide, we would be willing to sit around an evening campfire sipping a great Mendoza Cabernet and savoring asado along with a flaky empanada, the French croissant’s only serious rival.

Either destination will do, although if things don’t go well and bad weather or bad luck intervenes, we can always make do with Miami, a beachfront room at The Betsy, and a splurge dinner at FiFi’s, our new favorite seafood place where they will actually cook your own fresh catch for you. But why bother? The restaurant’s snapper, stone crab, and paella are out of this world. At the bar, we’ll savor a Modelo Especial or maybe a great Malbec. Then we'll toast these two great Latin American cities and celebrate the pleasure of an unknown destination – wherever and whatever it might be.