Wrapping it up

Trip Start Oct 05, 2005
Trip End Apr 06, 2006

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Friday, January 6, 2006

The week after Christmas was hot and humid, virtually unbearable in the city. I was invited to go and stay at Grace's cousin Alex's holiday apartment in Pinamar, a beach town 6 hours away from Buenos Aires. Alex is a 54-year-old divorcee with five daughters. I really wasn't sure what to expect when I got there, but had hoped I could hang out with his 18-year-old daughter and her boyfriend, and get to know two of his other daughters, who were 9 and 12.

On arrival, after bringing the girls back from the beach and showering, Alex drove me round to show me Pinamar. It was quite late and dark at this point and somehow we got "lost" and ended up driving round some really deserted roads. It made me nervous. When we pulled up at the beach and he got out, I wondered what he was intending to do, so I made it clear that I wanted to go back, and thankfully we did, but it wasn't a good start and put me on my guard.

The next day he woke me up early and we drove for an hour to his friend's estancia to ride his horses, the primary reason for my visiting. Alex had worked on the farm when he was younger and knew both the horses and the gauchos well, and I presumed he also knew his way around the land, but again we started getting "lost". It was just the two of us who rode out (something I hadn't anticipated) and it was awkward. I hated feeling like this, or being made to feel like this. It could have been such an enjoyable day with the right person. I kept telling myself that I might be wrong and that the whole thing was totally innocent, but you can't help your instincts can you? We had lunch back at the estancia, where he told me all about his troubles with his ex-wife, then we went for a walk to see the Shetland ponies that had populated the fields, so cute with their mohican hair-dos. Alex spent a good half hour trying to catch one. Why? I don't know. But I didn't hide my boredom and was glad to leave. When we got back I said I had to go into town to check me emails, really just wanting to get away and have some time to myself, but he insisted on coming with me. I resorted to rudeness, and left him to do some shopping on my own.

In hindsight (oh, that pointless thing) it was obvious what was going on. His eldest daughter barely spoke to me the whole time, and when she did she was rude (classic sign of a threatened child), and the youngest daughter stuck to me like glue (as if I were her new mother). It just hadn't occured to me that this 54-year-old guy would fancy me, and, more to the point, that he might think he stood half a chance. I was told later that this is not uncommon in Argentina. Men and women are not friends, so me accepting his invitation was a clear sign of interest.

Back in BA, reeling from the awfulness of Pinamar, I got back into my hostel/going out routine, culminating in a big new year's eve celebration that started at the hostel with tacos and tequila slammers and ended in the friend of a friend's apartment block in San Telmo. One of the guys living downstairs was a DJ and had set up his decks in the couryard and was projecting 70's black street movies onto a sheet on the wall. The party didn't really get going until at least 3am, when the courtyard filled with people drinking champagne and dancing to bangra. There was also a party going on in the street outside, with a live band, so I took Lisa, one of the girls from the hostel, with me and we danced with all these drunken homeless guys to David Bowie's "Let's Dance" until a guy in a toga fell into the singer, knocking him to the ground, and people started letting fireworks off into the sky. It was all complete carnage but a really unforgettable night. Lisa and I walked home at 7am, just as the sun was coming up and turning the buildings bright orange.

Through writing an article on BA for a magazine in London I had managed to procure two VIP tickets to watch tango at the Esquina Carlos Gardel, a famous tango theatre in town. So Emily and I dolled ourselves up and left hostel life behind for an evening, had lots of good food and champagne and watched some of the most amazing tango I had seen yet. You can't say you have been to Buenos Aires until you have seen professional tango.

My last day in BA was spent on a volunteer project, with an organisation called LIFE Argentina (www.flickr.com/photos/jennypix/sets/1588215) in one of the shantytowns, or villas miserias, called La Ferrere on the outskirts of the city. It took a couple of hours to get there as I had to get the metro, then a bus, then a mini-bus, then we had to hire a guy in a big old car to drive us the last couple of miles down a sandy track to the farthest reaches of the city.

It was a shock to the system to say the least. The houses were made of tin, wood and bricks and there were a few horses tied up staring at pathetic-looking carrots that had withered in the sun. The one stream that ran through the town was clogged with plastic bags and rubbish and the roads were precariously littered with broken glass. Our job was to play football with the kids. We took our place on the grassy pitch in the centre, and waited. Soon, surly figures began to appear from open doorways. We only had three footballs - the kids have been known to run off with them - so I took one and began playing with one of the little boys, who was walking round barefoot, away from the older ones. He was so shy at first, then when he came out of his shell and was curled up in my lap playing with my sunglasses, I realised he was swearing like a trooper, cussing one of the other boy's mothers. He was only four. One of the older boys, who I was told was stoned, jumped on the horse that was minding its own business in the corner. It pained me to watch. After he was finished I went up to it to calm it down, and they all shouted that I should leave him alone because he bites. But I carried on petting him nonetheless. He was as quiet as a mouse. Biting was no doubt his only defence against the boys who threw stones and jumped on him.

According to July 2004 estimates, there are about 640 "precarious neighborhoods" in suburban Buenos Aires, comprising 690,000 residents and 111,000 households. The population of the villas miserias doubled during the 1990s, reaching about 120,000 as of 2005. The goal of LIFE is to provide these kids with positive role models, and they work with a family who lives in the village to help coordinate this. I only wished I could have stayed there longer. I had fallen in love with the little boy, and on our way back to the car this old lady invited us into her house to see her Christmas display, an incredibly kitsch arrangement of shells, lights, tinsel and nativity figurines that took up half of her room, walls and all. I felt I had witnessed a side to Buenos Aires that few people get to see, and it made me love it all the more.

I went round to say goodbye to Grace, who had a new student living with her, and caught a cab to the airport, listening to Juanes and crying my eyes out. I was looking forward to seeing my sister in New York, but it was a bitter/sweet thing. Leaving BA went against nearly every bone in my body. Why does travelling sometimes seem like a constant stream of goodbyes?
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