The Two Faces of Buenos Aires

I would describe Buenos Aires in the same way that you might describe an unalluring woman that you are trying to set your friend up with: She’s got a great personality. I’m not saying that Buenos Aires is ugly—there are parts that are quite attractive. However, the charm of the city doesn’t come so much from its exterior as it does from its vibe.

The apartment that we rented here is right outside of Plaza Dorrego in the district of San Telmo—a happening place. Every day the plaza is full of people frequenting the many outdoor cafes and buying trinkets from the numerous vendors stationed around the square. At night, especially as the weekend nears, the plaza fills with musicians and tango dancers and crowds taking in the spectacle. Several times we have gone out to the plaza to have dinner under the stars and sip sangria while we are entertained by a flamenco show or a blues performance.

In this place we are constantly surrounded by music, but it’s always just in the background so that you hear it almost unconsciously and forget it’s there. There is a musician who lives in the building whose jam sessions with other musicians provide delightful dinner music, although most of the time it is a solitary piano. He or she practices several hours a day and the music drifts through the halls of the apartment building, soft and subtle. The tango music and flamenco guitar in the square floats all the way into the bedroom of the apartment with just enough volume to be heard, but not to keep us awake until 3 in the morning when it finally starts winding down.

On our third day in the city, there was a parade of probably 100 or so different drumming groups. The main street in front of the plaza was closed and the drummers and their entourages of flag bearers, dancers, and performers made their way leisurely down the street while throngs of eager onlookers packed the sidewalks. It was a scorching hot day, but everyone in the procession was dressed up in costumes from the capes and hats on the drummers to the sometimes very scantily clad dancers with elaborate beaded costumes, their cleavage threatening to breach the flimsy stitching. There were some dancers in the procession who were simply going through the motions of a choreographed dance. They smiled prettily and danced decorously. But most people danced as though they must. There was no choreography and no self-consciousness. The drums told them to dance, and they did. People from the crowd joined in the parade, no one caring, no one saying “you can’t do that.”

It reminded me of the couple of months that I took an Afro-Brazilian dance class. The teacher was from Brazil and she was terrifying. I can’t really blame her for being tough—I can imagine what it would feel like for her to watch her beloved dance traditions be butchered by uncoordinated white people. She would scream at us as we did our across the floor exercises, “Monkeys! Dance like you are monkeys! Not people!” Terrified, we tried our best to get back to our roots.

That being said, once you get outside of the little neighborhoods and into the city center, you see Buenos Aires in a whole new light. There are about 12 million people that live here, and sometimes they are all trying to walk down the same sidewalk. The hundreds of buses that stream down the streets constantly belch exhaust into your face as you squeeze between the masses rushing to catch them. The use of the horn is quite common with drivers, not so much as an angry reproach, but a warning that they are coming. Pedestrians tend to play lunatic games of chicken with the oncoming cars and I have no doubt that the drivers would plow right over someone in their path. In other words, parts of the city can be quite trying and exhausting not to mention dangerous. Which brings me to my cautionary tale…

Once upon a time there was a girl who was a fairly well-seasoned traveler. She was scrupulous with her belongings to almost the point of obsession. Because of her vigilance in these matters, she had never had anything stolen. One day while walking down the street in an extremely crowded area, the girl did something uncharacteristic. She took her hand off of her bag that was hanging by her side. It must have only been a few seconds, but when the girl put her hand back on her bag, she noticed that it was open and her camera was gone. Luckily, the pickpocket did not take the two wallets and two passports that were underneath the camera in the same bag. But the girl was still pretty pissed off. The end.

I think that you can deduce the moral of the story which is not, by the way, “Do not travel to South America.” Sadly, this could happen anywhere.

Fortunately, outside of the neighborhoods, there are sanctuaries that allow you to escape from the frenetic surroundings. There are numerous parks that are smack in the middle of the city that serve as a place to have lunch, to take a stroll, or to sit under the trees and read.

Another haven from the noise of the city is the ecological reserve that is just a short walk away from the apartment. The Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve has miles of walking trails and is positioned between the city and the river. Walking through the reserve you can, and probably will encounter 50 different species of bird, several varieties of butterfly, tegu lizards (sometimes massive ones) sunning themselves, and nutria nibbling on the foliage. Some of the more unpleasant things that you might encounter are the billions of ants that cover every square foot of the reserve, the mosquitoes who don’t stick to regular mosquito working hours, and the very hairy, very sweaty men with nothing but tiny shorts on slathering themselves in oil and working on their tans. Yikes. Hirsute, shiny men aside, this is a place where the city almost disappears and if you don’t look to the west at the gigantic skyscrapers being erected, you would swear you were in a completely different place.

If I was going to toss aside much of my happiness in this life in exchange for the vague promise of the afterlife, I would only consider it if the afterlife looked like El Ateneo bookstore. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the way that a bookstore should be. I mean I do love a good comfortable used bookstore with the piles of books and the cats and the blissful smell of old books, but El Ateneo is a temple built to pay homage to the humble book that gives so much and asks so little in return. The bookstore is a former theatre with bookshelves taking the place of orchestra seating, a cafe on the stage, and reading areas in the box seats. Even though they don’t have a large selection of English language books, it is worth it to go here and just…be.

Buenos Aires may have its tranquil parts and its frenzied parts, but I would like to take a moment to discuss some of the city’s slightly unpleasant, yet ubiquitous traits. The first is that the city is constantly dripping. Walking down the street on even the driest of days you will be sprinkled by random drips as they fall from who-knows-where. The buildings drip. The trees drip. You will even get the occasional drip from absolutely nowhere while standing in a completely open area. These drops are mysterious, and I think I prefer that they remain so.

As you walk down the street dodging drips, you will no doubt almost kill yourself tripping over a loose stone in the sidewalk. I’m not sure if it’s shoddy workmanship or perhaps a trick that is designed to punish the uninitiated, but about every 10 yards you will invariably step on a stone that looks as if it is firmly anchored to the ground, but is decidedly not. This shifting stone will either cause you to trip, flinging you into an unsuspecting passerby, or it will squirt your foot with dirty water that has apparently come from one of the nearby dripping buildings.

Even if you are lucky enough to evade the drips and wobbly sidewalks, you may be unfortunate enough to put your sandaled foot into one of the mountainous piles of dog poo that litter the walkways. It doesn’t seem that the campaign to clean up after your dog(s) has become de rigueur in this part of the world yet. Observe the dog walker walking 10 dogs at once careening through the crowded streets narrowly avoiding cars. Do you think he’s going to stop when one of them makes a doo doo?

If you are looking down trying to avoid stray fecal matter, you will no doubt miss the extraordinary displays of public affection that appear to be completely acceptable everywhere. You can’t walk through a park, pass by a bus stop, or peek into a cafe without seeing couples devouring each other. And it’s not just the young, impetuous couples either. I could probably do without the sight of grandma and grandpa furiously making out on the grass.

I spoke in my post on Toulon about the French desire for correct change and their unwillingness to make it. Here they are unwilling to make change, but only because they don’t ever have it. There is a genuine shortage of change in Buenos Aires. There simply is not enough in circulation. Every time I use cash I feel terrible since the person has to go through an elaborate process of scouring other registers and even other customers for change. Coming from a country where I recently dumped almost $300 in change into a Coinstar machine, I’m having a hard time adjusting to this. I’ve taken to hoarding my change for the times when it really counts.

All in all, Buenos Aires has some flaws, but it also a lot of charm and style. It boils down to the fact that we’re pretty content here. We finally get a chance to set down roots, if only for a couple of months. We can take it easy and spend entire days just reading if we want. (We’re already on our second Amazon shipment). The language learning is slow (as my language posts have suggested), but we’ll keep struggling through it. Soon we’ll buy a new camera and life (and the posts) will continue as normal.

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