by Tim Dawe
I am in Argentina’s capital for a month, with time to explore. With a rented apartment I tell myself, unconvincingly, I am a temporary resident. Not for me the tourist choice (albeit an excellent one) of a city tour in a topless, double decker bus. Today’s plan is a visit to the famous barrio (neighbourhood) of La Boca on the cross-town number 152 bus. In Buenos Aires it’s the best 45¢ purchase, um, a tourist can make. It takes an hour.
I board the Boca bus on busy Av. Santa Fe and secure a window seat towards the back. Despite the unceasing traffic, there’s little hold-up along Buenos Aires’ wide, tree-lined city streets – mostly one-way.
We hurtle past the stand-out 68m white obelisk in the middle of Av. 9 de Julio. With twenty lanes, it’s the widest street in the world. You need a cut-lunch and water-bag to walk across – even the slip roads are three lanes. What would be a central median strip become two linear forests containing football-size parks, sculptured fountains, statutes, walkways and pigeons on benches…possibly with endemic animals and a micro climate. It’s a different perspective to cross a street and have lunch and a siesta before reaching the other side.
Towards the mighty River Plate we whiz past Retiro near its train station, around the grand, government buildings lining Plaza San Martín, a host of hotels, and enter historic Microcentro (CBD). Our driver expertly manoeuvres through winding, narrowing streets. A kaleidoscope of urban features flash past; it’s Times Square-like signage, iron balustrades, leafy parks, European-style apartments next to grandiose official buildings of column and stone, and nineteenth-century memorials to heroic men on horseback.
Some is faded glory and slightly shabby. Proud porteños, as residents here are known, refer to their city as the Paris of the South for its imposing architecture, its wide, gracious boulevards and its cosmopolitan café society. Buenos Aires’s French-inspired architecture radiates la belle époque of Paris yet, with its grid-like central streetscape, it suggests New York City.
On goes the bus, past the Casa Rosada, or pink house, official residence of the President, and under that balcony where Eva Peron addressed her adoring crowds. Former wharf warehouses of Puerto Madero, now ultra-chic apartments and trendy restaurants, fill my bus window as does this massive edifice, Libertador, architectural symbol of Argentina’s naval power.
But the interest is not only out the window. This is no busload of semi-comatose commuters. It pulses with passengers. Earnest city types vanish in a few blocks replaced by clumps of schoolchildren, then a surge of university students and increasing numbers of old folk going to the clinic. It’s a changing of the guard for each barrio we pass
And it’s also a mobile stage. Familiarity among the old folk ensures good-natured banter flows across the aisle. A joker faces us from the front with a polished quick-fire routine, acclaimed by all yet incomprehensible to me. No hat is passed around. One elderly gentleman with slicked down hair, oozing Latin machismo, takes fulsome umbrage as a pretty teenage girl offers him her seat.
Through San Telmo, a working class neighbourhood tending towards trendy, where the local is open at 2am and you can dance the tango until dawn. Finally, the bus terminus and my destination: La Boca (the mouth of the river), clinging to the seriously polluted Riachuelo River amid the rusting debris of a once-bustling port.
La Boca is now a husk of the gritty nineteenth-century community of immigrants whose work hard labour fuelled Argentina’s wealth from agricultural exports. It’s the place where tourists come to be photographed. It’s famous as the birthplace of the tango, its soccer club, Boca Juniors – and for their star/disgraced player, Diego ‘hand of God’ Maradona.
La Boca is the product of waves of economic refugees, mostly from Italy and Spain. They arrived in the 1880s seeking land. Instead they ended up as meat workers, wharf labourers and stevedores. They painted their corrugated iron cottages with any left-over ship’s paint, providing La Boca’s colourful signature of bright, incongruously painted houses.
Many immigrants were single men who sought out cafés and bordellos for female companionship. From this heady mix of machismo, longing and loneliness the tango was born. Early tango melodies reflected the feelings of these displaced men with themes ranging from neighbourhood rivalry, mateship, lust and female betrayal – and sorely-missed mothers.
From its vulgar roots, disdained by Argentina’s elite, the tango was first taken out of La Boca by young upper class rebels. Later it took superstars like Carlos Gardel to take the tango from its humble and raunchy origins to the international stage.
I find a restaurant near the harbour near a street-performer Maradona in national colours. After lunch I go for a long aimless walk through El Caminito, past the stadium, to back streets where houses are not gaudily painted.
La Boca is not typical of Buenos Aires any more than hats dangling with corks are typical Australian headwear. It represents the idea of Buenos Aires in history and values. And that is why it’s culturally significant. The real La Boca is still a shabby, working-class suburb with a polluted waterfront. The tourist La Boca is artificial and costly, overrun with coach-loads of foreign tourists, stray dogs and tango touts. But it’s vibrant and fun, and well worth a visit – and a wander.
For me, the best way to visit La Boca is aboard the number 152 bus, accompanying its eclectic passing parade of locals for a 45¢ “scenic tour” of charming and fascinating Buenos Aires.