La Boca. San Telmo. Microcentro. Recoleta.
The neighborhoods whistled past me as Marcello crammed more sights into six hours than my jet-lagged and exhausted body was equipped to withstand. I soldiered on, determined to shake the culture shock by immersing myself in it.
Into the taxi and then out on to the Caminito, a series of pedestrian streets in La Boca girded by buildings in primary colors as if a giant painter’s palette had crashed onto the neighborhood in a beautiful accident. There was daylight, so it was safe to wander past the sizzling curbside asados and trinket vendors. Touts hustled to get us seated at their cafés where contrived Tango shows were ongoing.
The waning sunlight sent us off to San Telmo where the cobbled streets, profuse graffiti, and barred storefronts creates an atmosphere of foreboding. While it’s true that my friends witnessed a machete attack thwarted by a handgun (gun always beats knife) in Plaza Dorrego the previous week, the neighborhood has a homey essence. We hoofed it through beautiful blocks, life’s wear and tear visible in the crumbling and overgrown facades, to the presidential palace.
From the presidential palace we entered the Microcentro, a place that could have existed in any big city. Money does something to blur culture, to dull its critical imperfections. Wide streets and narrow pedestrian walkways crossed each other in the presence of swanky resto bars and ubiquitous convenience stores. Everyone walked with purpose and their goods clamped tightly to their sides. As a cool breeze blew through the streets, vendors sold wares along the sidewalks hoping to catch some trickle-down pesos.
Another taxi and we stood before the walls of the Recoleta Cemetery. I don’t understand the point of being dead in a gated community, but this city of mausoleums was striking in its grandeur. Tightly-packed and lavishly-designed stone houses were filled with the remains, in one form or another, of the city’s wealthier inhabitants. A horde of cats caught the final sun rays of the day as they languished on marble plinths and small patches of grass. A woman fed a phalanx of curiously plump cats.
With each successive neighborhood, I could sense us climbing up through the economic strata. Buenos Aires is an enormous city, but this blitz made me curious to know if the average porteño’s day-to-day life was confined to a much smaller region. The neighborhoods flickered past me like the photos in a family picture album. It was not enough to understand the innumerable buried stories and complicated social relationships, but it was plenty to pique my interest and wonder.