Our Porteno friend Cecilia Pastore, who took this photo of me at the La Boca Stadium in 2007, is not able to visit us today, so Stephanie and I decide instead on an impromptu return visit to La Boca, an edgy, southern barrio of Buenos Aires.
When people say, “You should be careful going there”, I feel a sudden sense of bravado and the desire to venture into danger. La Boca is one of the more challenging and challenged barrios, bounded to the north by Constitucion and to the south by the Riachuelo river. Here poverty levels rise and fall with the changing value of the peso. Living in La Boca is a day-by-day affair. There are no cushions, no flexibility. Life is hand-to-mouth, and tourists present a worldly, camera festooned respite from poverty.
Nevertheless, we walk; via Av Regimieto de Patricios and Magallanes towards the La Boca basin. The last section past Plaza Matheu is testing. Thin tailed dogs roam the streets; the pavements rise in steps and disappear with a drop, I test the sharp blade of my pen knife against my palm. The cars and vans that line the street are as decrepit and tired as the buildings alongside. Shirtless, threadbare men peer from crumbling balconies. Here is none of the ‘Colourful Caminito’ of La Boca - simply the detritus of lost, wasted generation.
Ahead we see the ‘La Boca’ that will be familiar to tourists. It arrives suddenly, and with a brash, commercial steel. Tenements give way to shops, arcades and ‘pavement tango’. Waiters rush between shorts-and-cheesecloth-clad tourists, making placating sounds to secure a tip. The tango dancers, who have been here since dawn, seem exhausted, but keep dancing for the few pesos that tourists will drop into their hat. Stephanie and I look at each other with dismay. We knew it was like this, but the reality is more displeasing than our anticipation. We are in the wrong place. This is not a place for us. I feel like Garrison Keiller’s ‘Sanctified Bretheren’ family in ‘Lake Wobegone’ as they enter a worldly restaurant for the first and last time. Are we ‘the tourists’ who come to soak up an unauthentic pastiche?
We walk quickly through the throng of American, English, German Dutch and Japanese voices that grate against the strains of ‘La Cumparsita’ and ‘Choclo’. On the other side of the Caminito, we reach the docks. Since our last visit in 2015 they have been freshly fumigated, and the remaining polystyrene and plastic bottles are corralled within a circle of floats. Old buildings, formerly covered with thin rusting tin are being clad in newly painted corrugated steel to replicate the old. To our right, the paving stones have been coloured in gaudy ‘La Boca’ colours. To Stephanie I say, ‘’Don’t stand on the yellow ones”, to which her reaction without speaking is to do precisely that. We walk the length of the port on yellow until we arrive at the iconic ‘Puento Transbordado’ - the La Boca transporter bridge, fabricated in England and assembled in Argentina between 1906-12 by the British owned Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway.
‘We must see this, now it has been painted silver”, I say, and walk off towards the quayside. Stephanie follows reluctantly. I rest my arms against the quay wall and look out at the lattice of steel work that spans the basin. Below, the water is calm and deserted of craft. As we gaze an old woman approaches, looking concerned. “Don’t venture beyond here”, she warns in Castillano. “It is full of robbers and criminals”. We thank her, and return without further prompting to the no 152 collectivo which waits at the stop. Behind us in the shadows figures flit, as if laid in waiting for our arrival.
The bus driver smiles reassuringly. “Donde”, he asks? We say, “San Telmo” and press our SUBE card twice to the reader. It pips but once, and the card reader reveals a debit of 4.5 pesos. “Just say that your other card was robbed”, says the driver knowingly, and allows us both to board. We take our seats at the back of the bus as the collectivo rushes from barrio La Boca towards Parque Lezama and the civilisation of safe San Telmo.
Photo of La Boca by Cecilia Pastore