“I’m smart enough to know when to be Yankee, and when to be Canadian, eh!” So said the bleach-blonde bombshell in her seventies; fixing the bat winged, 50’s spectacles with one hand, fixing the wad of foreign notes stashed in her bra with the other... It’s the eccentrics that give the best advice, though you often fail to realise it at the time. It was this pearl that came to mind whilst crossing the Paraguayan border into Argentina recently, as we, two British travellers, passed beneath the banners reading “MALVINAS!”; the islands better known to the English as the Falklands...
Though we might miss the odd headline from time to time; despite the fact that we may not know a single song in the UK top ten; regardless of being completely unaware of (further, completely uninterested in...) Nikki Minaj other than by name, we generally have a reasonable idea of what’s happening in the world as we navigate our way around it. The current dispute between our government in the UK and that of the Argentinean administration had not escaped us. Didn’t even surprise us: another potential oil-agenda war, shocker ?! And it didn’t change our plans. It was our
guess that this “dispute” was another one for the politicians and not the people, and our estimation was spot on, though we did feel a little unnerved upon arrival, deciding to “be Australian” instead if anyone should ask, just to be on the safe side.
For our first stop in Argentina we were starting as we meant to go on, the big one; Buenos Aires. A world famous city considered utterly glamorous and infamously attractive to tourists for its great food, beautiful wines, colourful neighbourhoods and not least, it’s tantalising tango! However, we arrived to find the city a ghost town. It was a Sunday and as we walked towards the “Tango district” of San Telmo, just a short walk from our hostel, in search of food and other sustenance we saw no more than five people in total. Walking through the deserted streets we were hungry and ready to settle for any restaurant that was serving. We passed a corrugated metal door which opened up to a warehouse and was showing signs of life. We ventured further. Within we found an antiques market selling furs, faded movie posters and aging laces; a hoarders heaven for someone such as
I, Hoarder Extraordinaire! Much restraint was practised, and much to Chris’ relief we left empty handed, pesos intact.
We exited the market onto a different street and found before us all the people of Buenos Aires. This is where they had been hiding. The cobble stones around Plaza Dorrego were hidden beneath a multitude of tourist- and local-feet alike. Sellers presented an array of wares on blankets set atop pavements, including but not limited to hand knitted woolly hats made to resemble various animals (not always an exact likeness), hand carved leather belts and handmade necklaces bearing pendants of semiprecious stones. There were two Jack Sparrow impersonators. One man occupied a corner kicking a cardboard box whilst making the sound of a screaming cat. (Not surprisingly, he didn’t receive much amorous attention.) Another gentleman wearing clothes stiffened in a way to suggest he was extremely windswept intermittently froze in caricature poses, his mother obviously failed to forewarn him that he’ll stick that way should the wind change...
We walked up and down for some time, suppressing our previously ferocious hungers with too-sweet Argentine pastries. Recalling a wonderful night in Rio recently we joined the crowd surrounding a drum
circle in full force, the band stepping from side to side to the beat as they struck at their percussion instrument of choice. The crowd swayed with them, and clapped, and bounced heads, and wobbled fatty bits. A young guy in head-to-toe canary yellow joined the circle and shook it like Beyonce (for the sake of reference, does Nikki Minaj shake it?). A middle aged couple looking quite the part danced together flamenco style. A teenage girl in purposely ripped clothes threw her body about maniacally, she might have been fitting but we assumed it was what they call “contemporary” dance. We clapped, we swayed, we tapped, we shook it just a tiny little bit then we put money in the hat and went to put food in out bellies.
In an understated, atmospheric-without-being-pretentious restaurant named ‘El Desnivel’ Chris finally got the steak he had been dreaming of. Four thick slices of medium rare beef drizzled in a mustard dressing and partially hidden beneath a mountain of “papas” (thinly sliced, roast potatoes). He bore the smile of a man who knew that now he could die happily (though here’s hoping he won’t any time soon). He wore
that grin for four nights as we refused to eat-in for the sake of our budget in a city so renowned for its fine dining. Our full stomachs required a casual stroll to make room for the bottle of red we had promised ourselves, which we all too soon found in charming “Plaze Dorrego Cafe.”
Bottle emptied and vision ever so slightly blared, we stepped out of the cafe to the sound of music; vintage love songs, a Spanish Edith Piaf, if only we could put a name to the voice. We followed the music to find coloured spotlights shining down upon an open air dance floor. Couples young and old. Elderly gentlemen, still handsome in three piece suits, white hair combed and parted, chivalrously approaching young women, them waiting to be requested, asking them to be their partner for the next dance, and the girls accepting cordially. Cheek to cheek, eyes closed. Shiny red shoes, high heels, taken out of the box only once a week for this purpose, put away again until next week. We watched ‘til the very end, and we loved it. It was one of the best nights of our entire trip, one of
the best nights of our lives...
We returned to San Telmo the following day for more of the same (Oh, what we would give for one more Sunday in BA!) to find the streets sadly empty in comparison to the previous evening, though the rest of the city was now bustling. Eventually we made it to the famous graveyard in Recoleta where national heroine Evita Peron (#Don’t cry for me Argentina) can be found these days, if you pay 10 pesos for a map that is... The sprawling graveyard hosts extravagant mausoleums for the most elite of Buenos Aires’ deceased and no expense is spared; recreations of iconic buildings are reconstructed in all their glory, albeit scaled down, for the sake of peaceful rest in ultimate luxury. Cherubs look down upon them; life size, cast iron soldiers protect them; the Son of God himself accompanies them embodied in stained glass or mosaic, depending on the fashion at the time of death. Intermittently we would come across a crypt in a state of disrepair, the coffin visible beneath shards of glass from a collapsed skylight and a veil of silvery cobwebs. Long-ago placed and now parched, bleached and brittle roses
hung stiffly from long-since opened locks and bolts. It was an eerie yet interesting visit.
Outside the graveyard we sat on a bench outside the 1732 church ‘Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Pilar’ looking out on the city. We were thrilled to see the ‘paseaperros’ (professional dog walkers) we had heard of previously; a human body entwined in six or seven dog leads attached to canines big and small, fat and thin, scruffy and groomed. How did they land a gig like that?! Upon our return to England I’ll be sure to upload my C.V. on Monster: Amy Foster, LLB Hons: Barking Mad Professional Dog Walker, at your service...
And let’s hope I’m hired sooner rather than later, because though I hate to admit it, we’re starting to look rather shabby these days. I own two pair of shoes; hiking boots and flip flops. Said flip flops are my most prized possession for their supreme comfort. They cost me a single dollar from the Russian market in Phnom Penh (I had to replace the original pair after coming home from meditation at the local temple in someone else’s shoes...). Anyway, they’re splitting down the middle and have been
since Nepal when I fell over dropping a pair of kayaks. Smooth, I know. I’ve looked into the cost of Havaianas, the South American sandal-préfère and they’re more than 15 times the price of my well loved and well worn pair; “it’s all relative.” Otherwise, all of my t-shirts have been stitched at the seams and I’m convinced that everything in my backpack stinks in some way or another. Ultimately I spent a whopping 30 GBP on a new wardrobe and felt guilty for the following week thinking how far that amount of money goes in a South East Asian country or in India, and how that is more than most people’s monthly wage. I don’t mean to be “holier than thou”, but it’s hard to adjust...
So, feeling fancy in my new garb we took the bus to the working class neighbourhood of “La Boca”, a big tourist attraction in Buenos Aires, its name literally meaning “the Mouth” due to its location on the docks. Historically La Boca was where the working class and dock workers came for cheap thrills and a good time. Now, the brightly painted streets attract and cater to the tourist dollar and the
Cobwebs & Rust
working classes still living in the surrounding areas would probably not be able to afford a can of Coke, never mind a wild night out.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine how things used to be here, and that’s the allure. As with many of the places we have visited and loved thus far in South America, Buenos Aires generally is a creative and dynamic place and the people seem to just produce art in some way or other, to spew it as though they don’t even have to think about it. It’s hard to explain, but you know it when you see it- it goes beyond graffiti and street performances; an intangible concept almost, that the Latin American culture exudes. And I love it.
But I must admit, on the whole I was underwhelmed by La Boca, and had expected so much from it. It’s the first place since leaving Asia that we have been harassed in the street by touts. More than that, we felt the atmosphere in those beautiful cobblestone streets were manufactured and unconvincing. To explain further, competing restaurants lure its customers with tango performances that basically last the duration of the day and as
you can imagine, the performers often lack enthusiasm and subsequently the show lacks the lustre an audience desires. It was worlds away from the passion and genuine pleasure we saw in the very same dance on our first night in San Telmo. The motions were empty, vacant of emotion, and for anyone other than the too-easily-pleased, it was as obviously generic as the women on the street in their fishnets posing for photographs with tourists, those women who had probably never had a dance lesson in their lives.
Regardless of the minor disappointment we felt with regards to La Boca, Buenos Aires was everything we had imagined it to be. For me personally, the only thing that could have improved our stay there would have been Chris agreeing to take dance classes with me, but with his two left feet, combined with a lack of flair and panache that border on the embarrassing, it was probably for all for the best. As we know, it takes two to tango...
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