I had a feeling (through the vomiting and the waves) that I would lose my heart to Buenos Aires before I arrived... and sure enough it doesn't take long. From the first night and seeing the cavalcade of Bugsy Malone cars from the 30s. Wandering around the streets the Paris of South America comes up again. The cobblestoned streets of san telmo, the great green feathery trees that line the parks with huge rose blooms, and all the beautiful art nouveau cafes “the cafes notables.”
This city is ridiculously romantic. Even the homeless come on to the buses and try and sell their poetry to make money. There are second hand book shops on every corner and then of course there is the tango.
Plaintive songs of loneliness and heartbreak, and a dance of despair, passion and sexual longing. The sadness seems to seep into the cobblestones. You can see it in the portraits, the lost souls with sad drawn faces, bodies clinging to each other.
Its market day in San Telmo every sunday. The main street - Defensa – leading down to the main tree lined square is crammed with traders sellling alpaca jumpers, little mate pots and spoons, freshly squeezed orange juice and empanadas. A guitarist is playing “Ave Maria.” Without realising it a huge fat tear rolls down my cheek...and i think...
“this is the kind of city that could make you feel sad for something you never even knew you lost. "
I finally get down to the main square. Navigating crowds of tourists on three hours sleep and a rolling hangover is horrendous.
I have already started to crave vegetables and fruit from three weeks travelling in Brazil but having landed in Argentina. Now I realise that breakfast (and in fact lunch and dinner time too ) is dominated by a creation that can only have been invented by lucifer himself - dulce de leche, a thick caramel made out of condensed milk that comes neat for spreading on bread for breakfast, on the flan mixto (the local dessert (crème caramel with whipped cream and ddl) or with ice cream for good measure. An alternative traditional Porteno breakfast is soft white cheese, bread and dulce de leche with a coffee. Alternaively you can get a media luna - a slightly smaller than european sized sweet croissant often served in a group
of three to accompany a coffee.
My stomach expands accommodatingly .
I have decided to try Couchsurfing - a site where like minded travellers hook up and are able to stay on locals' sofas for free in the spirit of cultural
exhange. I post up a general message on the Buenos aires
“noticeboard” informing the city of my imminent arrival. I decide to take a responsible attitude and just approach hosts who are women in their thirties. Unfortunately all good intentions go out of the window when I see the sudden influx of messages from the hot young men of Buenos Aires suggesting we meet up for a drink.
I have emails from: Jorges a rugbyplayer; Damian a retail entrepreneur; Fabian – a tango teacher; Leandro – photographer; Nicolas - a lawyer and Martin whose profile picture shows him in leathers and an open necked shirt astride a motor bike. Average age – 25. I officially LOVE couchsurfing.
However for my first experience I really don't want the pressure of rocking up to some guy's place who I fancy to kip on their couch. I mean...that would be weird - right? So – I choose someone I don't fancy, who has references and recommendations from friends and seems interesting - he works for a camera company but pursues photography as a hobby in his spare time and has a thing for Germany...
Mattias lives on Corrientes – one of the main thoroughfares in B.A in a barrio called Villa Crespo. He's a dark skinned slightly lpaunchy Porteno with a shaved head, goatee beard and the trade mark dark circles under his eyes. Thanks to some very late nights I am flagging and his flat is freezing. We eye each other uncomfortably and I think – oh god – I hope he doesn't murder me in my sleep.
He asks if i'd like to listen to some music and proceeds to introduce me to Jose Carraldo – a folk singer with a large beard and gravelly plaintive voice – the Argentinian Johnny Cash! He plays the most beautiful and haunting song by this singer – Razon (reason) A lonesome tune of the gauchos (the cowboys from the plains.) Then he introduces me to Piazolla -a revered and very famous composer celebrated for for taking traditional tango music and reinventing with modern jazz riffs.
And then he cooks me dinner – a piece of steak (what else!) with a grated carrot and spanish potatoes (cubed with onions) it's delicious. My stomach does cartwheels of joy at the sight of some vegetables. I'm now thinking I may marry him.
Having been momentarily side tracked by all the pretty that has crawled out the woodwork to woo me in this city I seem to have overlooked the real beauty of Couchsurfing – the opportunity to have exactly this kind of experience. Sitting in a local's flat, eating an authentic home cooked meal, sharing wine and stories of our own culture, art and politics of our home.
We talk about the riots in London (a recurring question to me on my travels) and how I managed to end up getting a rickshaw through the centre on the night in question. About Christina Fernandez and her husbad – their monopoly on the country, how they make popular decisions to get votes from the poor such as free football one for kids but don't use the money to improve the biggies such as healthcare and wages. That football has become the new opium of the masses – used to control the poor and un educated.
And we talk about the country's gory recent history. Sitting in a park watching business men filling up the cafes at lunch time for coffee and cake (a strangely male pastime here) its easy to forget that this civilised and ever so European city is actually part of a third world country with a horrific recent past. Some 10 - 30,000 men, women and children are said to have "disappeared" under the bloody regimes of the military dictatorships that have governed Argentina from the 60s through to the 80s. To this day the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo - bereaved mothers and grandmothers of their "disappeared" children protest in white head scarves with the names of their child embroidered onto it. Still once a week they gather in Plaza de Mayo square to protest and serve as a constant reminder to the goverment of their missing children, their brutal crimes.