Sunday, July 12, 2009

La Boca

For my first few weeks in Buenos Aires I enrolled in a Spanish class at a place called Expanish. The students were a mix of laid-off bankers from the U.S. and Europe and global-soul type travellers from North America, Europe, and Australia. My teacher, Diego, is a local guy, a writer and father of two. He chain-smoked, hated to be in nature, and is a very bright guy overall. Outside of living in Madrid for about a year, he's only been outside of Greater Buenos Aires once, for a bus trip taken with his high school senior class. He knows a lot about Argentina, though not from experience, but he is encyclopedic in his knowledge of the city. A great deal of time was spent in these classes discussing things to do in the city. We were not only students of Spanish, but also visitors to a rich city.

La Boca is one of the primary tourist draws of Buenos Aires. More specifically, the caminito in the barrio known as La Boca. The barrio is also home to the famous football team, Boca Juniors. The caminito photographs well; you have seen it if you have ever looked through a tour guide on Buenos Aires. But the surroundings of the caminito are the streets of Buenos Aires with the reputation of being the worst for crime. The people here are poor; tourists with money come through regularly. A low cost way to make money is to buy a gun or a knife and take some of that tourist money.

I hear first-and-second hand accounts of being mugged in La Boca regularly. A guy had a gun pulled on him, then was stabbed, supposedly in the touristy section. Most of the foreigners I know from the tango scene have not been to La Boca, even if they have lived here for months or years. Locals don't seem to be inclined to go either.

Diego says it's not dangerous if you act smartly. Busses can drop you off and pick you up at the caminito and if you stay off the backstreets, no one will bother you. Those who would rob others don't waste their time with Argentines. So Diego told us they'll say something like "Que hora es?" (What time is it?) when a stranger walks by. If he responds "no tengo reloj" (I don't have a watch) they leave him alone. If he says something like "I don't know Spanish," they rob him.

About six weeks after Diego told us this, I decided to spend an afternoon at the caminito. The 168 bus, which comes right by my house, goes to La Boca. My friend said she knows where to get off, so off we went. 45 minutes later, I learned that the 168 is not one of the many busses that drops people at the caminito. So we disembarked, walked across a park and then arrived at the backstreets of La Boca. Moreover, we did not know exactly how to get to the caminito.

I've walked down streets, at all hours of night, that would give my mother a heart attack if she saw them. But they could not inspire in me the dread I felt in the light of day here. Strange looking people lined the street, sitting on stoops, drinking and smoking, wearing hoods that hid their faces. I saw a taxi and almost got in it to travel about 2 blocks. We moved a meter or 2 into the street, and sure enough, I heard it, "Que hora es?" I didn't respond.

2 blocks away we made it to the football stadium. There were more people here and kids kicking a ball around. The atmosphere felt marginally better, but we still weren't sure of our direction. My friend had been trying to learn English and she spoke to me in English. "No quiero hablar ingles aca," I said to her in a low voice.

7 or 8 more blocks and we made it safely to the caminito. I like it. Sure it is touristy, but they present themselves well. We sat outside with a Belgian beer and listened to a bandoneonista, not watching the third-rate tango dancers. The music had more appeal for me. Down the road, dancers danced the chacarera and zamba, which are 100 times more entertaining for me to watch. Tango, the dance, for me, is an art form to be felt; I still do not enjoy watching it. Wax figures of Eva Peron, Carlos Gardel, and others I don't recognize look over the street from high balconies. There is some nice artwork as well.

The tango dancers very overtly asked us for money, which highly offended my friend, who is from Buenos Aires. At first, they seemed to think we were obligated. After we told them that we are tango dancers, they left us alone. I think they knew that we could tell they weren't so good. Most tourists, I guess, are happy to pay obscene amounts and the dancers get used to this. It is probably quite lucrative.

As for me, I was content to overpay for the beer.

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