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Day 96 – The last bus

It’s time. The phrase “mixed emotions” comes to mind. I’ve spent the last three months having an amazing time, experiencing so many fascinating places and spending just a little while with great people from so many different backgrounds.

For this, I’m sad to be packing up my rucksack, as quickly as possible while Ben and Jag sleep into the afternoon. But, for the same reason, I have a deep feeling of satisfaction: I’ve achieved what I set out to do, and after three months travelling alone the thought of going home to everything that is familiar is comforting.

After squeezing, for the last time, my knackered running shoes into the top of my rucksack, I reflect on the ground covered since I touched down in Mexico City on February 12th.

me

Over 5500 miles on the ground and 2000 miles in the air; twenty long distance bus journeys (between seven and 18 hours); 40 hostels and hotels; three flights, three in-bus Jean-Claude Van Damme films and two bouts of travellers diarrhea. Oh, and 96 blogs.

I could have taken the taxi, but it seemed much more appropriate to take the bus to Ezeiza, the international airport 35k outside Buenos Aires. Nico helps me with my bags to the bus stop on Independencia. It’s 1.15pm and my flight leaves at 5.05pm. I’ve been told to leave two hours for the bus, as it’s a long, long journey. So when we find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam, at a junction where the lights have gone, for about half an hour, I start getting nervous. I consider jumping off the bus and flagging a taxi, but I’m stuck in some pretty rough-looking suburbs. The worst thing with these types of journeys is that you have no reference point to judge how you are getting on – except for the driver, who doesn’t take kindly to my repeated questions about how far it is to the airport.

But we get there about one hour 15 minutes before the flight. I get checked in straight away – it’s quiet, and most people have already gone through security – and do some last-minute shopping for presents.

I feel like I’m supposed to sign off this blog with some words of wisdom, distilled after three months “finding myself” while travelling across Central and South America. I found lots of things, none of which were actually me. What am I going to do when I go back? At this moment, I haven’t a clue, though one or two doors may be opening. Am I suddenly gripped by panic over not having a job? No.

And have I had a fantastic time, creating what seems like years of memories into what were after all only a few weeks. What do you think?…

Buenas noches y buena suerte x

Day 95 – La Boca

Don’t go there – it’s dangerous. That was the advice many people gave me about visiting La Boca, the rough neighbourhood that is home to Boca Juniors, Maradona’s old football club and supposedly the one with the most passionate fans.

I decided to listen to the woman running the hostel: make sure you go early in the day and keep your camera out of sight.

So I wandered about twenty minutes south, down Defensa, across a park with steps covered in colourful graffiti, and into the grittiest barrio in Buenos Aires.

Mindful of the wisdom of not looking too much like a clueless tourist, I tried to keep the stopping and looking at my map to a minimum. Which meant that I often had no idea where I was. My plan was to go to the Boca Juniors stadium, but as hemmed in among tight residential streets, its often hard to see.

Alarm bells started to ring as I walked passed a hospital. A man with one leg, being pushed in a wheelchair, tried to grab my shirt as I walked past. If the one-legged wheelchair-bound locals are having a go at me, how am I going to fair against the able-bodied locals?

Mural welcoming you to La Boca

I quickened my pace, caught a glimpse of a vibrant blue and yellow football stand, and turned up a corner in that direction. Sometimes the quickest way to football grounds can take you through the dodgiest areas. I suddenly became aware just how run down everything was in this street. Parked cars had no wheels. Old women were pushing shopping trolleys that appeared to be empty.

And then, across the street, I saw a commotion. Three men were being pinned against the wall by plain-clothed policemen. What, exactly, were they looking for? I zipped my jacket, which was hiding my camera, further up, and pressed on.

Soon enough, I was at the stadium. Apart from a haggard looking woman selling old Boca flags, there was no-one around. The season had finished at the weekend and Boca fans had little to celebrate.

Shop selling tops outside stadium

I made my way round to the front and saw a knot of Japanese tourists. This must be where the museum is. On the ground were a series of footprints in bronze casts, Hollywood style. I looked for Maradona’s. It was the only so worn out that you could not actually make out a footprint.

After a quick look around stadium, I checked out Boca merchandise shops across the road, on the hunt for a Maradona DVD. He’s a lunatic, but the best footballer I’ve ever seen and I wouldn’t be upset if Argentina win the World Cup. (I’m not English).

One corner away from the ground

From the stadium, I walked the few streets to the Caminito, a street that leads down to the water’s edge full of wooden houses painted in bright colours. By this point the light was starting to dim. I didn’t really fancy walking back, passed the hospital where by this time the one-legged crazy guy may have  found some equally bold mates. I caught the bus to downtown and bought a few DVDs, including one about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War, from the perspective of the home side.

Tonight’s my last night, and so I decided that, in the words of that bloody Black Eyed Peas song, it’s gonna be a good night. I got back to the hostel quite late and found Laura, the Frenchie, and Will, her young Ozzie beau, getting drunk on my behalf. “Miguelito!” they shouted.

I couldn’t bail out of my leaving party, although I was ready to collapse in bed and sleep for three days, so we went out. (Cue recollection of our taxi drivers dancing in their cars at the lights across four lanes on the way home…) Yup, it was a good night.

Day 94 – Sunday

Living the dream

Does calling a day by the, er, day mean I’m running out of themes? I’ve only got a couple of days left before flying home, and while I want to enjoy Buenos Aires to the full, I don’t really feel like I need to do anything much. Three months on the road have given me plenty of amazing experiences and memories.

But today really was a Sunday kinda day. Not just because it was actually Sunday, but because, well, I went for a stroll with Ben and Nico, to the nature reserve on the other side of the docks. Strolls are fine but should be reserved only for Sundays. I feel another day-by-pictures coming on…

Cranes remain along the old docks, now gentrified.

Folkoric dance going off

Across the reeds at the nature reserve

Day 93 – Tango

I tried tango, once, in Edinburgh. It looks amazing, seeing two able dancers with an electric connection. When I had a go, it didn’t look amazing. I went to a beginners class with my old flatmate, Laura, and we were standing all over each other’s feet. I thought it was a shame for her – she really wanted to dance but was as bad as me. Then she was chosen by the instructor to demonstrate a move and suddenly was transformed into a fluid, sensuous dancer.

I realised it was just me that wasn’t very good at tango.

But I had a burning desire to see some tango in its spiritual home. I spoke to a few people, tried to decipher a tango city map in German that the tourist office gave me, and identified a couple of hotspots where couples go to make dancefloor love.

One of the best, and oldest, is called Confiteria Ideal. Its tucked down a narrow street off Diagonal North, in the centre of town. I knew I was close as suddenly I was surrounded by tango shops. These are almost as interesting as the venues – full of elegant heels in bright red, green and purple, and more sequined dresses.

Tango dancers at Plaza Dorrego...get your change out.

I walked up the old wooden staircase at Ideal and watched a tango couple doing some moves for a professional photographer. They were probably posing for photographs sold to tourists around town. I took my own sneaky photo and headed on up to the dancefloor, where lots of middle aged couple were slowly spinning their way around to some very old crackly music.

A woman behind a counter told me I would have to pay 18 pesos to get in. I thought about it, and decided a quick peak from the other side of the counter was enough. I took a couple of photos and headed off.

Later I headed back to San Telmo and watched some tango dancers performer for tourists at an outdoor cafe in Plaza Dorrego. It was all beginning to look a bit one-dimensional.

“They are always drunk and that’s why the music is very sad, very tragic,” said Nico, later on. “This is why I don’t like tango.” It’s very much geared for tourists, although aficionados can certainly spend many an hour dancing to their heart’s content at a milonga, or dance.

I decided that, like Nico, tango didn’t really do very much for me. Too touristy, too dreary. Nothing to do with that failed beginner’s class with my old flatmate, obviously.

Day 92 – All Night Long…

What time is it? Three pm?? No way. Well, I’m not going to have much to write about today. Except for Nico’s amazing asado, up on the terrace. Boy does that boy know how to cook. Only the most amazing, fatty hunks of rib eye beef ever (not so keen on the black pudding mind, and the intestines were challenging, too).

Anyway, why am I getting up at 3pm?

As Bo-Selecta would say, Rewind! Last night! (she said). So, we’re at the table outside on the patio and the American guys, Marcos and Matt, have got the guitars out. You know, the usual traveller standards: Bob, Bob (Dylan, Marley), Simon and Garfunkel (possibly). There’s a good crowd of us, all up for a party.

Ben comes along and starts to up the Andian quota, with a few Scottish tunes on the quena, that beautiful indigenous flute. This becomes a bit of a joke as Ben tries to jam along with every song that gets played, usually in the wrong key.

San Telmo Collective giving it max

Then it’s my turn. The drugs don’t work. Yes, that Verve classic about cancer is just the ticket for a knees-up (it’s about the only song I can play).

The wine is starting to run out, along with the canon of tunes. And then a guy walks into the hostel, carrying a rucksack and guitar. Five minutes later, Leo, from Colombia, is at the table, serenading us with traditional Colombian guitar music and improvised lyrics about all the people sat around. He is hilarious, a trained singer and the complete showman.

The next day I would find out, bizarrely, that he is also a scarf vendor. He came into my dormitory, I assumed just to chat, only to pull out a selection of scarves – “20 pesos each, very nice.” I assume he is joking, laugh and slap his back. He gives me a puzzled look – he is serious.

Anyway, back to the night before. Before long, Leo’s strumming some salsa-infused tune, and we all take up the baton on percussion. The loose tiles on the table make a great rattly noise when hit with force, as I discover, while the forks and knives played by everyone else, along with the occasional off-beat clap, also sound great.

Within seconds we have our own samba rythme in full-swing.

Leo, singer...guitarist...scarf-seller

It’s about 1am and time to…go out. First stop is the Gibraltar bar, up the road on Peru. It’s a British style pub which, remarkably, is all the better for it. The room out the back, with a pool table, is our hang out.  It’s here that two old faces suddenly appear – Jimmy and Phil, the Australian dudes I went on the pampas tour with in Bolvia. Wow! Little did I know they were in Argentina, never mind Buenos Aires, never mind heading to the very same bar I was in.

Leo wants to go salsa-ing, and so we (Leo, Jag, Max and myself) head up town in a taxi to Azucar and shake our…you know, do the salsa thing. Well, we try. After an hour or so,  we give up and head round the block to Konex, a huge old warehouse which stages a huge samba party every Monday night. Tonight is just a big old house disco, and the Ozzie guys have already headed there.

It’s 20 pesos but the bouncer won’t let us in because the ticket office is closed. It’s 5am and all looks lost. One last throw of the dice – lies. “Acabamos de caminar una hora y media a venir aqui” I tell him with my best sad puppy face. (“We just walked an hour and a half to come here”) He looks at me and hesitates before waving us all in, for nothing.  Then we bump into a very drink Jimmy who puts an arm around my shoulder and thrusts a wad of paper slips into my pocket. He somehow managed to steal a bunch of free ticket vouchers, so now we’re on vodka and speed for the rest of the night, on the house.

The Banghra Boys

Two hours of mad dancing later, we get a taxi as far as the nearest all-night McDonalds, somehow aquiring a large straw sombrero, a pink top hat and deeleeboppers on the way. Various happy meals later, we start our walk home. It’s 8am and people are out and about heading to work.

In amongst the crowd are four grown men wearing silly hats, attemping to beat-box banghra-style. Booooyyyyzzzzzzzzz.

Day 91 – Recoleta

Ooh, fancy… (hands doing that frilly thing under chin). Recoleta is one of the posher parts of Buenos Aires, full of sophisticated ladies, many botoxed up to the brow, pulling labradoodles and other little muts on a chanel lead. Its where some of the best, and most expensive, bars and restaurants can be found.

Its also where the remains of the great of the good of society are laid to rest, in the mini-city of the dead that is El Cemetario de Recoleta.

And there is one grave that everyone who comes here wants to see – that of Eva Peron. But trying to find it, without a guide, in this maze of imposing granite shrines is easier said than done. I went there with Jag, from the hostel, and a German woman called Birgid who we met on the number 10 bus. (Yes, we managed to find some change for the bus. It’s not as bad as I thought, and was kinda hoping, it would be..)

Fuelled by a few empanadas in the nearby park, we began wandering around the streets – that’s what it looks like – of this fascinating cemetery. Writers, generals, political leaders, singers – they are all here. But unless you’re particular versed in Argentinian history, the names frankly meant nothing to me. Not that their graves, house-like with as much granite to withstand whatever may pass in the coming centuries, are unimpressive. Quite the opposite.

Looking along one of the avenues in the cemetery

After a half hour wander, inspecting the both lavish and sombre tributes – physical and written – to the great and the good and wondering whether their actual bodies were transfered to this above-ground graveyard upon death, we managed to find Evita’s tomb. This was after going down a number of blind alleys after other tourists who looked like they knew where they were going but didn’t have a clue.

Her grave itself is, in this place of grandeur, fairly modest. But the number of bronze plaques dedicated to this heroine of Argentinian society attests to her popular, well, popularity.

Day 90 – Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

During the years of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983, as many as 30,000 people were abducted by agents of the government. These “disappeared” – students, writers, and many ordinary civilians presumed to be dissidents – have yet to be acounted for, and are presumed dead.

For over 30 years, mothers of these unfortunate souls have campaigned to have their loved ones returned. Every Thursday, at 3pm, a group of these determined people march on the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace, to seek justice for their families.

One 'madre' on the march

They have been marching, week in week out, for decades now, and today they marched once again.

I made my way to the Plaza de Mayo, a twenty minute walk from San Telmo, to witness this sombre spectacle in the bright autumn sunshine.

About 40 people, mainly women but a few older men and younger supporters, steadfastly made their way around a fountain in the square, repeatedly calling for full crimes of the government to be exposed. Many of the women carried boards around their necks with pictures of their sons. Meanwhile, names of the dead were read out by a woman on a loud speaker. Joining them was a smaller knot of older people marching seperately round the fountain. I presumed these to be “abuelos”, or grandparents, of the disappeared.

Meanwhile, I joined a small group ofinterested tourists trying to get good shots of the protesters as they performed their weekly demonstration. Clearly used to the attention, they didn’t seem to mind out cameras snapping away. Publicity seems to be their main weapon in their fight against what they see as a continuing injustice.

Here’s a wiki link that explains the background to the movement. It’s a fascinating and moving story. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothers_of_the_Plaza_de_Mayo#Origins_of_the_movement