ARGENTINA: BUENOS AIRES
I’m a confirmed city agoraphobe but certain metropolises have an undeniable allure and Buenos Aires just happens to be one of them. It has charm. Undeniable charm.
And the charm starts right in my chosen Buenos Aires abode. The Hotel Victoria is a rambling five story building, with 70 rooms, that has been a residential hotel for over 80 years. I’m not sure if it has gone up or down in the world during that time but currently it is jam packed with an eccentric collection of people from all over Latin America. A Colombian guy tells me he is here in Buenos Aires studying circus skills. He came to study economics, he goes on, but somehow he has ended up learning to juggle on a five metre high unicycle instead.*
IS THAT A BIKE LANE?
A lot of people get around Buenos Aires on bikes and there are over 150 kilometres of bikes lanes throughout the city, I am told.
BOOKSHOPS: THE GLORIOUS
I don’t know if this makes me odd or not but I’m a person who prefers to explore a city through its bookshops. Sydney, Sao Paulo, New York, Chicago, London, Prague, if you want to know, I can tell you where the best bookshops are.
In Buenos Aires, I am facilitated in this quest by the advice of Jodie, an Australian friend – who I first met in Mexico – who spent a decade or so living in various Latin America countries and is a fellow bibliophile. She emails me a list of bookshops that I must visit in Buenos Aires.
Cemeteries also feature high on my list of places to visit in getting to know a city and Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery doesn’t disappoint.
Outside the cemetery gates more histrionics of a different flavour.
Murals are another way to get a hint of the contents of a city’s soul.
A DOG’S LIFE
La Boca is a somewhat seedy wharf-side neighbourhood which I visit in search of another bookshop on my list.
A couple of blocks near the famous football stadium have been painted pleasing colours. The streets are cluttered with tawdry souvenir shops and overpriced eateries and populated by restaurant touts and bored tango dancers in fishnet stockings shivering in the cutting wind. Tourists are bused in to gawp and photograph while police stand around making sure there is no trouble.
And trouble isn’t so hard to find. When I wander outside this invisibly cordoned area in search of my bookshop, I am quickly accosted by two young men on a motor bike. The lad on the back of the bike dismounts, opens his jacket and shows me a gun, and then demands my backpack. My first instinct is not self-preservation.
The guy takes an uncertain step backwards as my insults become more vociferous and, as the would-be muggers realise that things aren’t going quite as simply they had hoped, the man jumps back on the motorbike and they flee. But I guess this story could have ended quite differently and I am lucky.
BOOKSHOPS: ARTISANAL AND ANARCHIST
Eloisa Cartonera**, which eventually, I locate, more or less unscathed, is an independent publishing collective, in La Boca, that produces handmade books from cardboard. The collective started in 2003 in the aftermath of Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis with a number of objectives that are probably best described by their own website.
Argentina’s dark past is on display in the city.
*I later meet with someone who cynically exclaims, “Typical Colombian! They are all children of narco-traffickers!”… I wonder.
**A cartonero is someone who makes their living collecting cardboard and other recyclable material off the street.