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26 Sept – 17 Oct 2013. Miles of art and craft stalls in the park near our apartment. This man makes little boxes from orange peel. Seriously. As best I could understand from him he turns the peel inside out, shapes it over a mold into a round box and lets it dry. When they are dried he engraves patterns with a small electric tool. Astonished by his ingenuity and creativity. Who ever would have thought of making decorative boxes from orange peel? They smell lovely!

Near Recoleta Cemetery

The city from the Reserva Ecologica, a large wetlands area and park down by the river. Lovely Sunday walk.

We saw a lot of dog walkers in our part of BA. There are a lot of dog walkers in cities all over the world. I wouldn’t have even thought to mention dog walkers. Until I saw this:

I’ve tried to count. He has at least twelve dogs, maybe as many as fifteen, all walking obediently along like little soldiers. We were told that if ever the dogs make a fuss, just one look from the dog walker is enough to make them all stand to attention. Alpha dog indeed!

We initially wanted “Sube” cards because Don had discovered that apart from taking a taxi, the local bus was the only way to get to the Feria de Mataderos, about an hour away in the suburbs. Every Sunday Gaucho culture is celebrated. Many people come in from the surrounding countryside bringing their animals, crafts, music and dancing.

Through the haze of parilla (BBQ) smoke we wandered from the street to a park, the edge of the fair: a clown making balloon toys for children, some very well dressed llamas, a singer, families out for the day, some very small horses elaborately saddled, crowds and a craft market.

Walking further and further past the many craft market stalls we came to an open area in front of a high out-door stage. Our timing was perfect. The dancers were about to begin. We couldn’t believe our luck. We had arrived at exactly the time that there was to be a performance of traditional Gaucho folk dancing by a professional group.

And when they finished the band started up and all the people watching started dancing in the square, traditional folk dancing, waving their scarves, holding their hands high above their shoulders, clicking their fingers and weaving in and out from each other. A street party.

Later, in a different area we followed music and found the same thing indoors. Another afternoon tea social, only this time instead of folk dancing it was tango dancing. I love this. I love that the people of Argentina go dancing in the afternoon – at a milonga to tango, or to dance the zamba at the Sunday fair. I love that it’s such an accepted and ordinary thing for them to do. Can you imagine American or English or Australian men doing such a thing? I can’t. To be fair, some Englishmen become Morris dancers. But here in BA it’s just ordinary folk. Out dancing in the afternoon. For fun.

The couple on the left walked very quickly through the crowd leaving no time for me to get a shot from the front. They were exquisitely dressed in the most elegant and high quality of traditional Gaucho outfits, the woman wearing pants as well as the man. I don’t think they were from any kind of performance group. I think they just dress that way, in their Sunday best, for the fair.

There was food everywhere, at street stalls and in restaurants, most of it parilla. It was too smoky to eat indoors so we sat at an outside table eating barbecued chicken, and caught a glimpse of these two women also having lunch.

Tigre is about an hour or so north of BA by train and sits on the edge of the delta of the Parana River. The delta is 14 thousand square kilometers. It’s bigger than some entire countries. Most of the delta is forested wetlands and a haven for birds. Not being early birds we didn’t get there in time to see many of them though we did see an egret or two. We spent a day there exploring by boat the many channels where people live, where streets are rivers, and where everyone travels by boat. Children learn from very young how to handle a boat. I asked our guide how old he was when he first went out alone in a boat. About six, he replied. To watch him now it’s obvious that he and the boat and the river are one. There’s no thinking what to do, just automatic movement steering safely past other river traffic, up and down the maze of channels, known like the back of his hand.

La Boca is the most colourful, and perhaps the most authentic barrio of BA. By all accounts it may be the most dangerous. Also some grumpy tourist had written on Tripadvisor that it’s very touristy and there’s only one short street to visit anyway. For these reasons we almost decided to not go there. What a mistake that would have been. Honestly if we avoided all the places that are described on the Internet as dangerous we’d never go anywhere. In the airport at Iguazu we got talking with a couple about BA being dangerous, and the woman affirmed with great authority that it is. How does she know this? Is it personal experience or is she just parroting what she’s been told? I don’t believe BA is any more dangerous than any other big city, and like most big cities some areas are safer than others. And like most big cities you have to pay attention. Anyway we’d caught the local bus almost as far as La Boca to get our ferry tickets for Uruguay, and the area was a bit seedy but we managed to get there and back without being mugged. Then we discovered we could get the hop-on-hop-off tourist bus to La Boca, a choice that seemed completely safe.

La Boca is the neighbourhood of the old docks and shipyards, and housing for the predominantly Italian workers, next to the river. Their houses were built of cast-off ship building materials such as wood and corrugated iron, and painted in many colours with the left over bits of paint from the ships. It became a tradition, and started to attract tourists, and now many houses are brightly painted in a multitude of colours.

Although the neighbourhood has become a tourist destination, it is still a working-class rough neighbourhood and it’s true one shouldn’t wander too far from the central area. In our usual fashion we started to explore and were getting a block or two away from the main tourist streets when a local woman walking the same way waved a finger in the direction we were going – a signal that was a very clear indication to not go any further that way. So we turned back. I read just now while writing this piece that three American tourists had wandered too far into the barrio and had been held up at knifepoint in broad daylight. I guess that woman was our guardian angel that day.

So what did we see? Well it was just delightful, and there were quite a few streets we could safely wander around in, completely charmed by the colourful buildings. La Boca has more charm and character than all the rest of BA put together no matter how touristy it is. The main street, Caminita, is indeed very touristy, and lined on either side by many restaurants vying for business, each with it’s own resident couple of either tango or Gaucho dancers. But the buildings – how could anyone miss, or resist, them? And in the streets around Caminita are ordinary houses, obviously not done up for the tourists at all.

I don’t know if she’s a tango dancer or if she just knows how to strike a pose, but she has created a job for herself enticing the tourist gentlemen into tango poses while the wife takes a photo. Good for her. Don was happy to oblige. As was I.

At the end of the street we came upon this crocheted tree. What wonderful creativity. What a joy to see. Someone had a very original idea. I know! I’m going to wrap that tree in crocheted wheels! And created beauty for all to see. We were captivated immediately. Look Don! The tree is covered in crochet! What  wonder and joy we both felt at such a sight. Examining it from all sides and then discovering another next to it. So clever and original. In a bare space, at the end of the street, by the wide concrete pedestrian boulevard around the water: a crochet wrapped tree! Such joy and beauty. We were smiling all over our faces.

Finally I must mention ice cream. There’s a large Italian immigrant population in Buenos Aries. As a result ice cream shops abound. Best ice cream since we were in Italy. Our favourite place was called Cadore. It was also a bonus that it was quite a long way from where we were staying so we got some exercise in the process. Best English translation of flavours? Tiramisu is called “Cream with drunken biscuits”. How could you possibly resist?

Next post: The liquid thunder of Las Cataratas del Iguazu – makes Niagra look like a drizzle.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.