... and land of a thousand Maradonas
26.02.2010 - 05.03.2010 24 °C
We’d heard a lot of good things about BA from well-travelled friends back home, particularly that it’s the sort of place you’d want to live. We’d have to agree, seeing as it manages to blend some of the best elements of some of our favourite cities in the world. The charm of BA is more in its distinct barrios (neighbourhoods) rather than any particular grand centrepiece. With Spanish lessons booked each morning, we enjoyed afternoons of getting to know each one. The mix of styles is almost perfect: in swanky Recoleta you could be in the most chic Parisian suburb. San Telmo’s Sunday markets reminded us of hungover wanderings around Borough. And the sprawling parks are reminiscent of Sydney. So all in all, a pretty pleasurable place for this Euro-loving Aussie-Brit combo.
Caminito is one of the most celebrated barrios, similar to the most bohemian hood of Rio, although without the constant fear of getting stabbed. Which is nice. Actually the stab factor is apparently not insignificant, as long as you stick to a few defined streets and don’t wander off track. OK then! It’s set in the disused port area, but over the years have attracted artists and other boho types who have given the area it’s distinct colourful houses and street art markets. We liked it so much that we ended up buying a couple of lovely paintings of the area, and even got a lesson (in Spanish!) from the artist himself about how to frame and hang the pictures when we get home. We will try to remember all that we can – although not actually having a home, or knowing where in the world we are going to live next, does present an additional challenge here...
And captured in art
What seems to bind together BA’s disparate ‘burbs is a national hero, a great leader who touched the hearts of the Argentines, and whose image is synonymous with this nation the world over. We visited the grave of Evita, and the balcony where she made her famous speech (not sang a cheesy Andrew Lloyd Webber song, as Stu amusingly thought). But it seems she’s nothing compared to legend that is Diego Maradona.
The guy is everywhere in BA! His chubby face stares at you from postcards, t-shirts and giant posters in every shop window. Better still, a large proportion of Argentine men seem to be kindly modelling his various hairstyles through the years. It’s like being back in the Australian outback sometimes: the mullet is king here.
We enjoyed a particularly excellent meal of Malbec and pizza (the big Italian influence here is also much appreciated by both of us...) one night , marred only by the enormous framed photograph of the mano del dios (hand of god) incident staring me in the face. How rude! But despite being a Brit, this constant adulation has made me kind of like the guy now. And when you are reminded of the Falklands War on a daily basis – the daily protests in the main square, the eternal flame at the war memorial, and the veterans begging for money (they don’t seem to have a social care system here) – it’s probably best to let that other infamous England-Argentina moment slide.
It's him again!
Football really does bring people together in South America, and it’s making me very excited about being here for the world cup. No matter where you are or how little you have, people seem to prioritise access to world class games. From our hostel balcony in Rio, looking down over the endless favelas, the night of the local cup final was electric, with cheers and chants echoing through the hills. The families over the road may not have been able to afford glass in their windows, but they made damn sure that they had a satellite dish that picked up the major sports channels. And even the subway system in BA shows matches on the platforms, so you don’t have to miss a second.
Football has also allowed us to bond with the locals in the least touristy of places – we enjoyed a fantastic tenedor libre (free fork – all you can eat!) lunch in a cheap workers’ caff in BA, which was showing a live Premiership match. And was funny how, being so far away from home (sorry Dad, you should probably look away now...) it made us feel quite proud of our adopted barrio back home to see the local Arsenal boys at work.
The other national obsession that brings BA together is tango. No not the orange fizzy drink, the other type. I’m quite a fan of Latin music and dance, and tango was always my least favourite, but seeing it performed with such passion and grace by BA street buskers has upped my interest a lot. I even managed to get an impromptu lesson from one particularly dapper old chap in a full suit, complete with bowler hat, who was happily dancing away just with his cigar until he spotted our curious glances. He was surrounded by laminated newspaper cuttings about himself, covering many decades and countries, and we got the impression he’d been quite a well-known dancer back in his day. We felt a bit sad that he now had to make ends meet by busking, but he seemed to genuinely love dancing so much (even just with the cigar!) that he didn’t want to stop. And he probably made a fair few bob too. He was really interested to know where we were from, and despite my reservations about revealing my nationality, he excitedly told us that he had worked for Tesco – small world! Hilariously, his chirpy little face was picked to represent the face of their Columbian (well, it’s sort of close) coffee brand. You really do meet some random people when travelling!
Teacher and student no. 1
But the lessons we’d actually come for were Spanish language, rather than dancing with ex-coffee models. We’d booked in 12 hours of classes to improve on the linguistic skills we’d been cobbling together in tired evenings after work over the last few years in London. And it’s certainly a lot easier when you’re surrounded by the language every day. And unemployed. Our tutor, Gabriella, was fantastic and managed to get us to grips with the basics of past and present tense in just a few days. This has improved our conversational skills no end, as we are now able to discuss more than what we are doing right now. Which is generally pretty obvious. It has also meant that Stu can now chat away for hours in two languages. I have yet to decide if this is a good thing.
Teacher and student no. 2
Gabi also kindly invited us to a concert with some of her friends and another student, Simon. Tiempo del Bomba is basically a big group of percussionists who play freestyle, and their Monday night sessions at the arts centre has become something of a local institution. We really appreciated Gabi showing us some of the genuine local culture, although Stu and I did make the daft Western error of eating at English Person Time, sensibly before the concert, rather than enjoying the amazing food at the local restaurant we went to afterwards, at the more Latino-friendly dinner time of midnight. Still a great night though.
As well as the language, Gabi also kindly tutored us through another Argentine cultural essential: mate (pronounced mat-tay). This is basically a herbal tea that everyone is obsessed with in Argentina (and more so in Uruguay apparently), involving what looks like some illegal drug paraphernalia, and habitually is more like smoking than drinking. It has to be drunk out of a little carved wooden cup, sucked up through a silver straw. The cup only holds enough liquid for a couple of slurps, so needs to be continually topped up with hot water. It sounds like the sort of drink you could only be bothered to set up at home, but no: whether on the way to work or hiking through a national park, Argies will carry the full kit with them, including bags of herbs, one or two thermos flasks of hot water, and the funny cup and straw, so they are never more than a few minutes away from a slurpy fix. Luckily there are also takeaway carts dotted around the city just in case of some mate-related emergency. I am very grateful to Gabi for the mate initiation. Firstly because this an honour, as the ritual comes from a native tradition where the cup is passed around by the host, with guests drinking from the same straw as a sign of friendship (don’t worry, we refrained from getting out the alcohol gel). Secondly, because it tastes like shit. And you don’t want to be pulling your shit-face in front of some kindly stranger offering you a cup of friendship. So thanks again to Gabi for the excellent Spanish classes, for sharing some special Argentine experiences with us, and for capturing our first mate-faces!
First taste of mate...
... and typical after-effects
Sarah and Stu (currently resting his very tired legs after 7 days hiking in a row!)