Friday, 14 September 2007

Trip to La Boca

09 Apr 2007

It is now time to tell you about some of the people I have met since arriving here in Buenos Aires.

My very first meeting was with my landlady, Cecilia. She was waiting patiently at the apartment for my late arrival from the airport just over two weeks ago. She speaks very good English, having lived in the USA for a short time, but having spoken English at home since the age of 10. She is a professional photographer and runs a photographic gallery in Palermo, one of the fashionable districts of Buenos Aires. The gallery is very elegant, in an old property just off the main square in Palermo Soho. The gallery is on the first floor, ascending by a turned marble staircase and arriving in a mahogany panelled room with an astonishingly high ceiling: just right for displaying the framed photographs which she sells. It is also her home, giving onto an apartment overlooking the busy street. All around are expensive shops and restaurants, with street traders occupying the square, selling clothes and jewellery. Cecilia is small, young, intelligent and beautiful, exactly what you want in a landlady!

My initial contact with Cecilia was through Norm. Norm is from Belfast and he has taken a three year career break from banking. Having rented out his home in Belfast, he has travelled to BsAs twice, the first occasion for two months and this time for 5 to 6 months. He lives just beyond Palermo in an area called Colegiales. Norm is tall and good looking, obviously northern European with blond hair and a fair complexion, drawing lots of attention from passing girls. He has that Irish charm, especially with women! He has proved to be a good friend, generous with his time and humour and always available to give advice when I ask for it. Through him I was able to make my first two really important investments: a local mobile phone and an umbrella.


Cecilia invited me to accompany her on a photo shoot in La Boca, preparing for her next book of photographs. This is the area on the outskirts of the city centre where they paint the tin-sheet clad houses in bright gaudy colours. We went by bus, looked briefly at the two blocks which the tourists visit. Here, around the riverside, the buildings have become almost like a film set, designed for tourists with shops and cafes, some of which play tango or have tango dancers show during meals. But we paused there momentarily before we set off into the unvisited centre of the district to take photos. It is incredibly poor. Sailors and their families arriving from overseas in the late 19th century set up homes in rooms round a shared courtyard. Each family would have a room. The houses are clad in either ship-lap board or corrugated iron. The painting is much less vibrant than in the tourist areas, sometimes dark green, grey or rust coloured, or mostly peeling and decrepit. They still live in these conditions, although you can see that they have a television flashing from the windows. But the rooms are desperately sparse, maybe a sofa, a chair and table and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Some have separate bedrooms, and some are divided by loose curtains on high rails to provide a sleeping area. Outsiders are not welcomed in the area and no tourists venture there. Cecilia walked slowly, taking lots of pictures for a book which she is preparing on the area. We saw so much because it was just turning dark when she started, and then night drew in. Because she fits in so well and moves with confidence we were not disturbed or really noticed to any degree. I stood along side her to shield the camera, giving me a fabulous opportunity to take in the surroundings: the scene, the smells, the sounds of voices and the many dogs and cats that roam the district, the light from windows where shutters were partly drawn, torn and worn curtains fluttering out in the gentle breeze. So it proved to be a unique experience which I would not have had but for her work there. When the last drop of charge faded from her camera battery, we went for the bus.

Buses are everywhere in BsAs. There is the remnants of a train system which is so unreliable no one uses it. The main station is huge, built by British engineers in the 19th century and now almost defunct. There is also a subway or underground, although this comprises four lines which radiate from the city centre but do not link beyond that. So that leaves buses and taxis. The radio taxis appear everywhere and are cheap to hire, an average journey across town being about 10 pesos (£1.40) for a 10 minute journey. The buses are collected from the 1950s it seems. the clatter around making an enormous amount of noise and fumes. Inside they all appear different, the 29 from La Bocca having etched glass and mirrors around the drivers cab, and the windscreen topped with a fancy blind, almost like a boudoir. It costs 80c: less than 20 pence. The drivers drive as fast as they are able, they aim for a gap and barge through, with only the taxis for competition. But it would take a brave taxi driver to take one on. These are the Goliaths of the street, and hoop their horns with a variety of imperious tones, some hissing, some like the whistle you would make if you were wanting attention....which they generally get. If that fails, they blast their horns and everyone scatters.

So, now I hope the city is coming alive for you as it is for me. The reassurance of some good friends and the city bustle which never stops.
My next blog will be more about dancing.

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