Buenos Aires, Argentina – April 2017

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Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

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Nine South and Central American countries under our belts, twice previously in beautiful Buenos Aires with barely a single, shifty, sideways glance from anyone with nefarious purpose in their heart, and here we are (jet-lagged but on familiar terra firma) for barely 3 hours, in search of sustenance when someone tries to relieve us of our most prized possessions 😦

It wouldn’t be so bad but with all the dodgy and “exotic” parts of the continent I have wandered into entirely alone and vulnerable in search of photo ops whilst the neatly suited breadwinner diligently slaved in various conference rooms and this idiot thinks it’s a good idea to try to scam us together!

So, for anyone visiting our beloved BA anytime soon you might like to google the “pigeon poop scam”. Apparently, it’s a popular tried and tested method of lifting the possessions of unsuspecting tourists without confrontation (which is at least a bonus, I suppose).

So read on, digest and imagine: there you are strolling hand in hand through a park or along one of BA’s numerous long tree-lined avenues, autumnal leaves scattered at your feet, minding your own touristy business and suddenly you are crapped on from (what you assume is) a great height by something large and feathered with an especially loose bowel.

You turn and look upwards (naturally) in search of the culprit but are faced instead, a few feet behind you, with a well-dressed middle-aged man with a friendly smile, a grin and a gallic-style shrug who points up into the trees. You dig a couple of wet wipes out of your rucksack to try to mop it up as it drips down your hair, back and legs (largely in vain because this thing has deposited almost the entire contents of a porta-loo on you). The friendly, smiling local rushes over with a tissue and starts to dab at you (which is a touch intrusive, if I’m honest). He’s gabbling away in español and seems to be concerned about the state of your clothes. Then he tells you it’s not safe to stand there on the roadside whilst you try to clean up so it would be a good idea to put your camera (still hanging safely at this point around your neck where – in my case at least – it has lived for almost it’s entire life) into your companion’s rucksack.

As the treacherous plot unfolded at breakneck speed I fleetingly considered this suggestion in between dabbing at Geoff’s back. I thought it would be a good idea so I stuffed it into his rucksack and quickly zipped it up whilst the man still ran rings around us dabbing ineffectively, pouring water out of a bottle and stuffing the tissue under our noses whilst pulling a face at the repulsive smelling green “poo”.

In case you think we should have been running by now let me assure you the nice man was really very convincing. He would step back every few seconds and smile concernedly again… then he would return with another tissue and paw at us a bit more… all within a few feet of a bus stop filled with onlookers entertained (presumably) by the poo-drenched tourists.

Somewhere between the weird smell of the poo (more salad vinaigrette than digested and processed berries) and the constant fawning over Geoff’s sweater (he’d totally lost interest in me since I’d obligingly put my camera into the rucksack he was imminently planning on stealing), our hackles rose. Coincidentally, at that moment he tried to wrench the rucksack off Geoff’s back. Luckily, Geoff wasn’t to be relieved of our possessions without at least a half-hearted struggle and, just as he had appeared out of nowhere, the evil villain slunk back under the trees and disappeared into the shadows leaving us wandering onwards… and wondering what on earth had just happened.

Not another 20 feet down the road another man leapt out of the shadows and appeared at our sides. He very nearly got a large nuclear-sized flea in his ear but he managed to explain, just in time before we decked him, that he was from Brazil and that we were very lucky that we hadn’t lost the lot – as he himself had only just done – having fallen victim to the “pigeon poop scam”!

It transpires that the “bird poo” is a noxious smelling homemade mustard-based liquid which is surreptitiously squirted onto innocent green-looking tourists by well-dressed credible-looking thieves who, in most cases manage to convince the unsuspecting victim to remove their backpack/rucksack/handbag/camera in order to better clean up their ruined clothes.

I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I would take off my bag or camera, put it down at my feet or abandon it on a bench whilst I faffed around distractedly cleaning up my trousers. One might as well just hand it over to the evil villain without bothering with even a minor struggle and say “It’s all yours amigo – I don’t need that passport I just used at the bureau de change to exchange $$… or the $ itself come to that… and I certainly don’t need the camera… off you trot… quick as you can!”

It transpires that this modus operandi is, however, so common that it’s now happening all over the city many times a day. I sympathize with the victims. The criminals are really very accomplished at it. It has been reported that well-dressed couples in Puerto Madero (probably the most expensive trendy dot com area of the city) have also pulled the same stunt. So beware travelers! It also takes a significant amount of scrubbing to get the horrible stinky stuff out of your clothes 😉

He wouldn’t have known, of course, that I would have chased him across the 6 lanes of traffic to hell and back to rescue my camera before battering him liberally with it around the torso, but I’m glad I didn’t have to 😉

2 days later we were in a taxi passing the same park waiting in stationary traffic for the lights to change on the busy main road and there he was again lurking about in the shadows popping out and eyeing-up various passers-by. Presumably he was making calculated guesses as to whether the contents of their bags looked worthy of the investment of both his fake poo and his criminal time and effort.

Unbelievable!

Anyway, now I’ve got that off my chest the rest of the long easter weekend was considerably more excellent 🙂

No trip to BA would be worth taking without at least a couple of visits to South America’s best coffee shop – Full City Coffee House in trendy Palermo Soho. This is our absolute favorite part of the city – filled with street cafes, excellent lunch destinations (such as Ninina Bakery and the french cafe Cocu Boulangerie), ornate refurbished 18th and 19th century historic buildings and posh designer shops. I have absolutely no interest in the vendibles of the stores themselves but only in the highly individual architectural designs of the buildings and the commissioned works of art adorning them. Additionally, of course, Soho is well-known for glamorous people-watching.

Obviously, I blend in seamlessly here with the trendy porteños (natives of BA) dressed in my ever trusty spangly denim shorts and grubby Nike trainers. My travel wardrobe (restricted considerably in quantity due to the unfairly imposed limitation upon me of one small carry-on bag) is designed for comfort and long distance walking rather than wowing anyone with my style or integrating in any way with the elegantly attired locals as they totter about between Agostina Bianchi and Casa Cavia 😉

But, best of all, of course, is the ever changing street art in Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood (although we were pleased to revisit some resilient old favorites which are standing the test of time).

Whilst wandering out of the gloriously pretentious neighborhood of Palermo Soho into the more grungy Palermo Hollywood neighborhood we discovered the mildly diverting Mercado de las Pulgas (a flea market of renown). We were delighted to discover that it is the place to go if you need a donkey’s head, a filthy old broken sink or a really bad oil painting of a tiger 😉 On a less flippant note, I believe it is actually THE place to go to rummage for antiques and old furniture – allegedly even more authentic than San Telmo. Deciding against trying to squeeze the donkey’s head into our hand luggage, we continued en route to some even more renowned street art at the bus station – a highly salubrious area quite literally knee-deep in doggy poo (both fossilized and aromatically fresh).

The rest of the long weekend (before Geoff had to head to a week of meetings in the office) passed in a flurry of cabs whisking us back and forth between various select destination areas of the city.

Colorful La Boca is a former shipyard barrio at the mouth of the river. The original ship workers (settlers from Genoa, Italy) built their houses from cast-off materials such as corrugated iron and planks of wood. It is still a tough, fiercely working class and distinctly grimy neighborhood albeit also the most touristy part of the city attracting the masses with its cheap bars, craft market and the famous Caminito. Caminito was created in the 1960’s by a local artist who painted the walls of the then abandoned street and made a makeshift stage for impromptu performances. It became a popular haven for artists with its cobblestone streets and colorful buildings. Frankly, it’s about the last place on earth we’d normally want to spend much time but it is just too kaleidoscopically vibrant for the artist in me to resist it 😉

Luckily, in the midst of all the chaos, tango dancers, tacky t-shirt shops and overcrowding, there is an oasis of tranquility – Fundacion Proa (a contemporary art museum with a library and coffee shop). So, we reclined on the comfortable rooftop sofas in the sun watching the activity below us, sipping Earl Grey tea and sampling the irresistible coconut dulce de leche slices 🙂

In upmarket Recoleta we went in search of the remaining Parisian-style chateaux and petits hôtels. This neighborhood is most famous (aside from its grand architecture resplendent with marble staircases, intricate ironwork balconies and huge gilded chandeliers) for its cemetery where Argentinians go to pay their respects at the graveside of revered Eva Perón. Slightly morbid in concept for one who plans to simply have her ashes returned to the earth – or preferably deposited at a remote beauty spot on some exotic far-flung beach (precise location still to be determined), it is still appealing for the architectural variety of the mausoleums – Art Deco, Baroque, Neo-Gothic and so on. Some are still very well loved and maintained and others have fallen into tragically neglected disrepair… which is partly why I prefer the option of wafting ephemerally along a beach in the breeze until I’ve completely disappeared into the atmosphere 😉

San Telmo is one of our old favorite neighborhoods – quaint and quirky – named after the patron saint of seafarers and originally settled in the 17th century by Spanish and Italian dockworkers and brick-makers. It has passed through various stages of evolution from attracting more monied residents who built fabulous mansions to an influx of European settlers from Ireland, Poland, Russia etc. after the wealthy all hotfooted it out to safer parts of the city following a yellow fever epidemic in 1871. Now it is a popular residential and tourist enclave with a bohemian, trendy, artistic, student vibe, famous for its decaying grandeur and street art. You can sip yerba maté (a thoroughly repulsive and entirely undrinkable herbal tea) with the locals, or preferably a glass of vino, under the shade of the trees in beautiful, leafy Plaza Dorrego watching the tango dancers and hawkers. We love it 🙂

Cobblestone streets, great cafes and bars, plazas, gorgeous crumbling buildings, family-owned bakeries and a central covered produce-cum-flea market resplendent with an elaborate wrought-iron and glass atrium in the heart of which is one of BA’s most renowned coffee shops – Coffee Town. Here you can savour their various delights whilst contemplating the purchase of a battered 3-legged antique chair, a yellowing Che Guevara poster or an ancient shoe last. I’ll admit their pain au chocolat and almond croissants are also worthy of serious contemplation 🙂

Every Sunday, Calle Defensa and Plaza Dorrego (the original site of the authentic Feria de San Telmo) are transformed into an open air antiques and crafts market selling items of both dubious quality alongside antique jewelry, crystal glassware, old telephones, dusty old fur coats and brass pots. It’s a spectacle to behold and we never miss it when we are here during the weekend 🙂

Monserrat lies next to San Telmo – notable for many sights including the dusty old historic bookshop Libreria de Avila. It is the oldest bookstore in the city dating from the 18th century… which is probably about the time anyone last tidied up or flitted a duster around it 😉

Plaza San Martin in Retiro was decorative as ever. In spring the jacarandas are in bloom and the terraces are carpeted with purple flowers. At this time of year, autumn in the southern hemisphere, the palo borracho trees still have the remnants of their huge pink summer flowers before winter starts.

During Geoff’s working week I retraced old steps – turning different corners, milling aimlessly and walking haphazardly for miles across the city trying to burn off the medialunas (half-moon shaped croissants) smeared with dulce de leche which I savored daily for breakfast. The usual suspects included destinations such as the Plaza de Mayo at one end of which looms Casa Rosada (the Pink House) – the presidential palace where Evita made her speeches and which subsequently became iconic as the setting for “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”, the signature song of the musical “Evita”; the 1908 Italianate style Teatro Colón, reputedly one of the world’s best opera houses; Avenida de Mayo lined with Parisian style buildings running from Casa Rosada all the way to Plaza Congreso; the Palacio del Congreso, the seat of the legislative branch of the government, a Greco-Roman style building with Parisian Beaux Arts influences; the Avenida de 9 Julio with its centerpiece attraction the gleemingly white Obelisco; pedestrianized Calle Florida filled with flower vendors, newspaper vendors, shoe shines and lottery ticket vendors all noisily trying to vie for ones attention; and, of course, it wouldn’t be South America without the odd protest march or two flanked by heavily protected riot police!

We spent the long Easter weekend in a boutique hotel in San Telmo; so as to be as close as possible to the action on Plaza Dorrego and to one of our favorite French restaurants – Petanque – with chocolate lava cake so memorable we had to return twice 😉

Then we moved to Puerto Madero for the working week. Puerto Madero with its centerpiece rotating footbridge “Puente de la Mujer” rose from industrial wasteland along the Rio de la Plata to cutting edge glitzy skyscrapers in a decade. Some porteños and tourists may complain that they find it bland compared to the more authentic character of the older parts of the city but, the fact remains, that it is the only part of the city where I didn’t have to continuously watch what I stepped in with every footfall. Clearly, the young professionals who reside here require a certain level of street cleanliness which cannot be sniffed at 😉

If I’ve missed anywhere out… apologies… it’s a huge city!

Over the course of our current visit we had a sense of a slight slip into decline in some areas with more scruffy graffiti (fundamentally distinct from street art, of course) which must be extremely frustrating for building owners. Whilst it makes for more interesting atmospheric photos for tourists (like me!), it must be depressing to live amongst it all.

We didn’t analyze it at any great length over our various coffee and croissant stops at Full City, as the golden autumnal leaves fluttered past us in the breeze at our sidewalk table, but we did briefly wonder if the doggy poo situation around the city had worsened since this time last year. The economic situation in Argentina is nowhere near as dire as, say, in Venezuela, but with prices having increased here by around 40% since last April and salaries increasing at a rate of 30% a year (clearly not enough to keep up with inflation!), something has to give. I guess road maintenance and general street cleaning is taking somewhat of a back seat in the overall economic climate.

All of that aside we adore the city for its amazing variety of architecture, fabulous French food and crazy markets… and, of course, I probably don’t need to say that Geoff loves it for its impressive selection of Argentinian wines! 😉

BA is still one of our favorite ” little pieces of Europe” in Latin America – and this visit gloriously illuminated in soft autumnal color with picture perfect blue skies 🙂

Difficult though it was to tear ourselves away, we left the city behind us for our last weekend in the southern hemisphere and hopped aboard the ferry for a short one hour ride to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay… blog to follow… 🙂

 

 

 

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