by Jacqueline Dowling
I’m a bit stuck for a fresh topic this month. My brain seems to have become bogged down in hot cotton-wool. Actually, it’s the latter which suggested the following scribble, from a place which is so hot and humid in summer, that the same brain assumes a few more layers of cotton-wool and bandage. Before it gets any worse, and atrophies altogether – here are my thoughts.
Buenos Aires in late December is hot, very hot and humid. Something to do with high rainfall and being barely above sea level: the highest elevation reportedly only 25m. Why we choose to plunge into this cauldron is anyone’s guess: but we do, and discover an incredible blend of brilliance, music, passion and elegance.
There’s a frenetic energy about this city. From its upbeat Microcentro shopping avenues, the cacophony of careering, furiously hooting black and yellow taxis and quieter old-time cafés where a cup of coffee lasts all day while the world’s woes are sorted : to the faded elegance of San Telmo’s decaying architecture and eclectic antique shops. Narrow streets winding down to the vivid rough and tumble of La Boca.
We head off to explore its flamboyant Caminito.
And hail a passing cab.
‘Caminito por favor seňor.’
‘Donde está casa – where you house?’ Our cabbie turns in his seat, fixing us with an eagle eye. Dark brooding aquiline features, beetle-browed. Boca Juniors cap covers greasy hair.
‘Afrique do sud.’ We offer.
‘Johannesburg, Cape Town – Futbol 2010 – Bafana Bafana?’ getting a bit desperate now. Still no response, then, suddenly his face lights up:
‘Ah si, entiendo. Nelson Mandelll-la place! So, why you white face?’
Heat radiates from cobbles. Between roots of a massively trunked old tree, a man sprawls totally relaxed, hat over eyes, scuffed leather sandals at ten-to-two, a cigarette burning slowly down nicotined fingers.
We subside into the coffee scented Cafe Bar Aperativo where beer arrives in iced glasses with a plate of excellent spicy beef pies, empanadas. Languid fans sway through air thick with the seductive aromas of cognac and cooking. Walls, rough textured, embrace scrubbed wooden tables, wrought iron chairs and sepia posters of tango heroes, poets and musicians.
At a corner table, two men in shiny suits sit pondering their next chess move: hats pushed to the backs of heads, shirts unbuttoned. Smoke from their abandoned cigars drifts and rags across the ceiling. It’s that time of day when saturated air settles, exhausted. When body clocks wind down.
Adriana, a local artist, invites us through her studio home to a narrow courtyard where troughs and tubs of brilliant geraniums line balconies and wooden stairways. A black cat, squinting slit-eyed, suns itself on a blue roof. A corrugated canyon of colour and texture rises up on all sides, bursting into the brilliance of day.
This is the heart of Caminito, where artists thrive and which, despite its proximity to the fetid sludgy Riachuelo waterway, is a place of vivid colour, music and dance. No longer a wasteland of wood and iron shanties, rat-infested and disease ridden. An area of rusting rails, long grass and weeds: a railway terminus from which it takes its name.
Today’s eccentric diversity of hectically coloured buildings originated with the custom of using leftover paint brought home by sailors on leave. And this custom has prevailed, giving the area its unique magnetism and upbeat tempo.
It’s quiet here, peaceful. A torpid somnolence pervades. Air feels warm, wrapped-up and cottonwoolly. We crowd into a tiny kitchen overflowing with tropical plants, to share in the drinking of yerba maté., bitter and sharp like holly pesto. Made in a gourd with hot water poured over the chopped yerba leaves , the frothy liquid is sipped through a silver straw, and etiquette demands that the gourd passes clockwise, is refilled and drunk dry each time. Which is what we do.
Back on the cobbled street, a cadence of notes from a bandoneon – haunting, soulful, shivers on the air, hovers and explodes into a virtuoso performance of flashing fingers and passionate tango rhythm. Dancers swirl across our path, preening and peacock proud. We follow them into a wine and tango bar where a colossal leering resin Gaucho caricature props up the counter, one of the many larger than life sculptures to be found in the area.
Tanguistas glide between tables, strappy dresses, Fedoras aslant. Haughty, sensual, the tango emerged from the bordellos of Buenos Aires in the 1880s. Lonely men dancing with each other while waiting their turn: strutting, erotic machismo – the fight for possession of a woman.
Piazzas and streets around Caminito are alive with tango music, living mimes and art of every description. Bas reliefs line walls: buskers, working artists and fortune tellers spill onto the cobbles among stunning photographic dance studies, water colours, acrylics and brilliantly coloured montages. The air is full of sound.
We sit on a low wall beside the waterway’s rusting hulks: sultry bandoneon music drifts from open doorways. Into the aching heat the ripple of a tentative guitar, played in shadow, softly – whispers, and is still.
A taxi draws up beside us. We climb in, state our destination. The driver turns in his seat. ‘Donde?’
We are on our way. Again.