It’s 6am and LAN Airlines Flight #461 from Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires is turbulently scaling the Andes Mountains. As the sun rises and illuminates their peaks
, long shadows are cast through the snow. Sat next to the plane wing, I’m frustrated by my view being cut in half, especially when I see an ethereal haze over a Santiago suburb.
On the first morning, I travel on the underground from Acoyte towards Avenida 9 de Julio, a wide stretch of tarmac completed in 1980, named in honour of Argentina’s Independence Day. The promise of sunshine through the shutters this morning was merely a tease; it’s grey and Buenos Aires’ vibrant colours have become – for now – de-saturated.
My first experience of Argentine cuisine isn’t what I expected. I stop at a nearby restaurant; all I’ve had for breakfast is a couple of biscuits and I’m not really in the mood to attempt any Spanish. But there’s no choice:
“Hablas inglés?” I ask the waiter.
It’s a firm “no”.
As it is early on in my trip to Latin America, I’m not expecting mi castellano to be particularly persuasive.
“Err…para una persona, por favor?”
I sense they can tell I’m foreign, if only for the Top Ten Buenos Aires guidebook in my hand. The waiter reluctantly points to a table and briskly walks into the kitchen. Someone else hovers a menu in front of my face. I find that, once the Spanish gets going, they’re a little less short tempered. Maybe it’s clicked that I’m here for the pasta and not the Falklands.
I wander further downtown. It’s raining as I reach a grand marble monument near to el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The rain starts to get heavier as I stand alone at the top of the monument’s platform, feeling exposed as I gaze down four lanes of approaching traffic, neatly dividing around the island I am stood upon. This area of the city feels worn down; Recoleta’s pavements are cracked and crumbling into the road. I see a dead bird lying with its feet up towards the sky. I pick up a bottle of Coca-Cola, fascinated by its green label. It’s Coca-Cola Life.
Looking at a map, the city’s grid system of roads appears repetitive. However, having walked for an hour along one road, I recognise that each block has its own character. As I scan the cityscape’s aching window frames and rumbling traffic for a photo opportunity, my eye is caught by graffiti reading “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” on a disused bus stop. It’s hard not to come across some form of scrawled political sentiment in this area of the city, especially relating to British ownership of the Falkland Islands.
Approaching two homeless men making some abandoned rubbish their new living room, I’m hesitant to reveal my lens for fear of disturbing them. One sifts through a rusted bin whilst the other sits back and reads through a newspaper. I’m shielded by a line of traffic and the dusty red soil pillowing into the air, but my naivety is cut short by the winding down of a car window:
“Hey! Put away your camera!”
Further along, I find a man bleeding heavily from his forehead. He’s alone, sitting in a shaky doorframe and nervously squeezing a bottle of fizzy liquid. It’s eerily quiet as I stop at the foot of a mountain of used household objects opposite him. I move to take a photo, but quickly recoil at my own voyeurism. It doesn’t seem right. However, I remind myself that – to the man – I’m probably just another passerby. Before I can dwell on this any further, a skinny, pale dog emerges from under an abandoned drawer to gauntly stare me off down the street.
I am determined to return to the apartment as soon as possible. The sky has turned a darker shade of grey and street lamps illuminate the city’s polluted mist. I’ve fallen into a pessimistic state of mind over Argentina’s situation. It’s not hard after what I’ve just witnessed. There’s something revolting about the sight of ordinary men and women working through the dust and smog whilst advertising billboards tower overhead. With a multinational brand logo beaming onto every other street, I find myself quick to overlook the real attractions of Buenos Aires.
I probably shouldn’t have bought that bottle of Coca-Cola.
After a late start, I walk towards the art galleries again, following a quiet main road.
Something brown and wet has just landed on the neck of my coat. I reach behind my head…that smell. I keep walking, looking for a supermarket or pharmacy to buy some water and some tissues. Two young women are looking over – maybe the stain is worse than I thought?
I say hello, they smile and have already sensed that I’m foreign.
“Engla- Inglaterra”, I respond. They draw attention to something on my coat.
“Oh yeah, I think I’ve got something on me”.
They point upwards – there’s a tree. Yes, it must be something from a bird, clearly.
One of the women, grinning, pulls a pack of tissues from her purse. For some reason, I find myself walking along with them momentarily, turning back on my original direction of travel. I place the camera bag that was across my shoulder at my feet and we’re laughing away as one lady holds up my coat and cleans it. It seems that, like me, they are in quite a hurry to carry on walking. I thank them as I am handed back my coat.
As I turn away, something isn’t right. I don’t have everything.
I stare at the bare concrete tile upon which I was cleaned.
I run back. They’re climbing into a rusting, gold city car with blacked-out windows. I grab hold of the right rear door, opening it to scream: “GIVE IT BACK.” The driver pulls away at speed, clipping my hand in the hinge of the car door handle.
“That way, look – that way!” gesticulates one man on the pavement.
I pursue them for a couple of hundred yards down the side of the road. They’re stopping for the lights. Maybe it’s all been one big misunderstanding. It’s perfectly possible…
Nope – they’ve lurched right round the corner of the crossroads. They’ve disappeared. Out of breath, I hammer my fists against a shop’s shutters that respond with a satisfying clank. How could I be so stupid?
Nearby, a suit shop owner generously offers: a bag for my stinking coat; his bathroom; a mug of water and directions to the Buenos Aires’ tourist police.
A typical avenue in Buenos Aires
The Tourist Police office is a bit like how a Hollywood film would depict Soviet Russia; it’s bleak, lit by a single strip of cold white neon. A sweaty, stocky bulk of a man tells me I need to report the incident to a nearby police station. He reassuringly instructs that I should lie about where the theft happened so that I don’t have to walk as far to report the incident. “Err…” I glance down at the chest hair gushing out between the V-neck of his thin, grey police uniform. “Actually, sorry, I would rather do this…properly, if that’s okay with you?”
I’m escorted to the station by a talkative English-speaking officer. I can feel parts of my brain beginning to relax and, after an hour’s wait, I submit my report. The biggest frustration is that I’m stuck with my phone camera unless I can get my cameras replaced. It’ll have to be an #instaholiday until then.
On the underground