Chapter One: Arrival in Buenos Aires
Wednesday, February 3
A rainswept, thunderous night enveloped Buenos Aires, as the plane made its descent. Passengers were goggle-eyed as the overhead monitors showed a cockpit vision of white lightning ripping through the thick rain clouds. Seemingly circling and checking for gaps for a safe drop, we waited. Descending through the storm was pretty scary stuff. However, we were soon safely onto the tarmac of Ezeiza International Airport.
The pouring rain of a South American summer’s steamy night greeted me. Despite a lack of proper sleep, I easily negotiated the entry formalities. Beyond passport control and the stamp for a 90-day stay, I collected my luggage and headed for the next tasks, following my Lonely Planet tips to the letter. To exchange some dollars for pesos, I found a Banco de La Nacion and then located the city taxi booth. I still had my body warmer on underneath my micro fleece and I felt uncomfortably hot. Paying upfront at the booth for a pick-up, I waited no more than five minutes before the driver ambled over, following the desk lady’s signal, and out into the night we went.
My Lonely Planet phrase book would become very useful over the coming weeks but, right now, spontaneous Spanish chatter was nigh on impossible. After tipping a young lad who helped me carry my bag to the car, the dark Buenos Aires atmosphere hit me for the first time as the taxi ride began. Thoughts and focus were on the road ahead. The streets were torrents of water. Barrio districts in the south of the town looked a distinct mess. Shopfront canopies sheltered groups of locals. The driver was locked in dual concentration: the splashing rain on the windscreen and the turmoil of a live football match on the radio. Boca Juniors were playing a mid-week game at home. But after 36 hours without sleep, I needed a bed. After paying the driver 55 pesos for the 35 km ride, I scrambled out into the rain and dashed into the Hostelling International Hostel Suites (Palermo), in the Charcas neighbourhood.
I introduced myself at the desk and was quickly made to feel at ease, downing a ‘7-Up’ to wet my dry mouth. I spoke in English for a few minutes with a young receptionist from Boca. Her boys were winning the football match. On arrival she briefly thought I was someone else then chuckled on realising I was from far away. The receptionists were friendly and inquisitive. After some form-filling, I was allocated a bottom bed for 35 pesos a night in a six-bed dormitory. The hostel seemed full but had a subdued atmosphere. A couple of Irish lads were contemplating a night out in the Palermo district. After a few introductions, I literally dropped onto my bed and nestled underneath the thin top sheet for a deep rest. It was finally ‘Nos da’ to the waking hours after a few Buenas noches.
Yes, I had felt tense on arrival – there was a whole new world around me – but hearing my own heartbeat under the sheet confirmed I was still alive and, within this moment, completely safe. Lone travel would induce a strong sense of my own mortality over the months ahead.
Thursday, February 4
The hostel’s free map was quite useful as I familiarised myself with the surrounding blocks of streets and established my east and west bearings. Dressed in shorts and T-shirt, I began walking through Palermo in the hot morning – such a huge contrast with home. I entered the Museo Evita, dedicated to the life of Eva Peron, but decided to return later as the sunshine tempted me onto Avenida del Libertado. I became hopelessly lost on the main Biblioteca’s (library) numerous floors, and then I somehow lost my Maes D pen, a prize I’d won at a Welsh Learners’ Eisteddfod for a song I’d performed in a competition back in 2008. I later enquired at the counter only to be met with confused looks, so I headed off, stirred into a necessity to concentrate more.
I eventually found the incredible Cementario de la Recoleta. The walled cemetery occupies a space in Buenos Aires’ most affluent district. The huge statues, monuments and marble mausoleums house Argentina’s late and great, powerful and wealthy. As I walked along the many narrow avenues, I soon came close to Eva “Evita” Peron’s tomb. Throngs of people surrounded this significant place of rest. I waited as the crowds eventually dispersed. Fresh flowers constantly adorn the Duerta family mausoleum in which Evita’s remains are kept. Words on a bronze plaque pay a loving tribute to a lady whose rise from an impoverished background to become First Lady of Argentina still inspires to this day.
Next, I made my way onto the city’s longest street, Santa Fe, with its modern glass-fronted high rises. I suddenly saw huge billows of black smoke pouring out of a large building. Fire engines’ screaming sirens scattered the street. It was a dramatic scene and one that alarmed and unsettled me. The acrid smell of burning filled my nostrils and you could see by the gasps and shocked expressions on the faces of the folk gathered nearby that it was serious. It was best just to move on. I later called home to tell Mam of my safe arrival. She sounded so pleased and relieved to hear from me. Argentina shared a sister network with Orange, so I texted my brother and sister as well.
After so much walking, I remember my leather sandals had rubbed nasty little cuts into my feet. I checked out some recommended eateries, but in a town where the evening meal doesn’t really start until about 11pm, I had a fair wait. So, buying a Budweiser for 12 pesos (six pesos to the pound), I sat at a vacant street-side table contemplating for the first time. Despite feeling like a lost soul, thoughts of home were brief; there was so much to look ahead to and so many choices to make.
I eventually chose the Restaurant de Don Julio for my first proper taste of Argentina. Guided by the friendly waiter, I readily agreed to take a balcony seat. Eating alone never seemed to bother me; it afforded me a strange kind of ringside view. The balcony above this busy restaurant couldn’t have been bettered as it presented a warm scene of lovers and friends joining up for a late evening meal. Pablo Viero looked after me that evening and recommended the bife chorizo steak with a large glass of RD 2008. The steak covered the whole plate. I took some sauces and bread and later enjoyed a large plate of fruits. I may have cut a lonely figure in this impressive parrilla, but I quickly noticed others in a similar, singular state. A gentleman with his back to everything looked like a lost diplomat or an errant journalist. But in the friendly atmosphere and with the wine loosening my tongue, I struck up conversations with the waiting-on staff. Enquiring where I came from, Pablo immediately placed a bottle of wine onto the table, grasped my hand and reassured me of the cherished place the Welsh hold in the hearts of many Argentines. It was a sentiment to be repeated over the coming weeks throughout Argentina. Talk about making me feel at home!
Friday, February 5
The dormitory became hot and stuffy overnight. The hostel had lots to offer though and I was up at 8am for a three-hour Spanish lesson with Anna from Chubut, Patagonia. A really enjoyable engagement followed, but after two intense hours, I flaked out. Perhaps it was a little expensive, but arguably it was well worth $50. We kept going until 11am, searing through the basics and seeing what stuck. To make it relevant, we talked about our backgrounds, families and work. I also took away some vital notes and advice.
Humidity levels fluctuated sharply in Buenos Aires as the relentless heat rolled on and on. Temperatures had rarely dropped below 35 Celsius since my arrival and rain seemed likely. And soon it came – a deluge to make a rainy day in North Wales seem like a fine drizzle! But unlike the skies, a summer outlook remained on the faces of the people around me. A lunchtime stroll up the Avenida Florida coincided with even heavier rain so I hopped on the Subte underground back to Palermo for four pesos as a huge thunderstorm growled overhead.
My first couple of nights of light sleep meant that I retired early after emailing home. Some interesting people were staying in the hostel. All had different plans and ideas, some in clustered groups, others alone. Deborah from South Africa was over for a month and about to head south for a voyage to Antarctica, a lifetime’s ambition, which was really exciting and so positive. It was a young Friday night and I longed for my guitar to feed my thoughts into.
Saturday, February 6
A live double bill of sporting action dragged my thoughts back home. Liverpool were playing Everton in the English Football Premier League and Wales were about to kick-off the Six-Nations Rugby campaign against England. Checking the time difference (we were four hours behind the UK), I made my way along Palermo’s streets and found an Irish pub with Fox Sports showing the Merseyside derby. Watching the spectacle of a cold, mist-shrouded Liverpool was strange indeed. Liverpool’s narrow victory was followed by a typical tussle between the Welsh and English.
I decided to watch the 80 minutes of rugby in the hostel, joined by my Irish room-mates. I remember I sang along to the Welsh anthem, but it made no difference as England won quite convincingly! There must have been an average age of 24 in this hostel, I’d guess, of 70 occupants, who came and went over the days. The vast majority seemed to be seasoned travellers. Ben from South Africa, for example, had spent a year in South America. He showed me his digital camera pictures of his visit to the Salar de Uyuni salt plains of southern Bolivia. The importance of being attentive cannot be overstated on a travelling trip, and Ben had some interesting tips to offer, such as haggling for bus tickets or market produce.
Breakfasts were becoming hectic in the hostel. Not having a watch didn’t help. So the Defensa market on Sunday was the ideal place to search for a replacement. Buenos Aires seemed to be experiencing a late summer’s melancholy, which was especially noticeable when I enjoyed a peaceful interlude in the sun-drenched Palermo Rose Garden. From the depths of a Welsh winter to fluttering butterflies hovering in the cool shade of the warm, dense bushes – what sharper contrast could there be? It was an ideal time to test out my Olympus camera and take some early evening shots.
After another brief stroll, which took me past the heavily fortified American Embassy, I enjoyed a large mozzarella pizza in one of the many outlets on Santa Fe. Live football was showing on the television and it gripped everyone’s attention. I bagged my unfinished pizza, remembering to order the smallest in future. I’d already noticed a lot of homeless people on the streets in wealthy Palermo. Making my way back to the hostel, I passed a desperate-looking young man who was shouting and pleading through an intercom. He was in rags and in an unkempt state. On offering him my remaining pizza, his face immediately transformed. It wasn’t much; I had only been sharing what I couldn’t finish, I reflected, as I made my way to the hostel, unsure of the exact street. I took a short cut and found myself quickly handing over a few pesos when approached by some aggressive characters in a newsagent’s. They were brazen enough to do this in quite a busy shop so I wondered how safe the vicinity was. I sensed a tight situation and didn’t stick around. It dented my confidence a little.
Sunday, February 7
The late-morning monsoon cleared the streets. Taking the Subte to Catedral, I came across a busker who kindly offered me a go on his Spanish guitar after I’d dropped a few coins into his case. It was lovely old guitar, quite heavy with a resonant tone. I just played a few chords which echoed vibrantly in the underground chamber. The gentleman smiled and shook my hand.
Out and above, the old colonial architecture of Calle Defensa greeted me. The dark, brooding streets formed part of the legendary tango-dancing district of San Telmo. It must have been difficult for market street traders to earn a living in such wet weather. I picked up a watch for 40 pesos then headed back from Defensa to prepare for the River Plate Stadium match. I’d earlier taken up the hostel’s package tour offer. It was quite expensive, seeing as the match was being played barely two kilometres from where I was staying. But it was an opportunity to meet fellow travellers and share a special occasion. My senses hadn’t been too sharp so far, so I’d tended to avoid most fellow travellers for the first few days; I only seemed to have enough vigilance for my own actions. But I was gradually growing in confidence and guile.
It was a clear and balmy evening. After leaving our bus at the entrance to the huge River Plate Stadium (where the 1978 World Cup Final took place), I noticed some of our group lagging behind and I told the guide so in case we lost them amidst the lively crowds building up around the ground. A Manchester couple were happy to share some small talk as we stopped at a leafy park for a drink and I chatted to Ben from Gothenburg for a good half hour. Ben was sitting in a different part of the stadium. There was a fantastically noisy atmosphere inside the ground. Despite the 0-0 scoreline, there was much to grab my attention. I felt the lead-up to the game, and indeed the match itself, had greater vibrancy compared to a British game. The drums and trumpets of the home crowd’s band played continually, only taking a deserved half-time break. Their entrance from the tunnel before the game excited the crowd as much as when the players came onto the field.
But in a quiet moment during the game, from our high, almost city-view vantage point, I felt an eerie sensation when I noticed the stadium’s perimeter fences for possibly the first time since I had been at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in Sheffield, Northern England way back in 1989.
A subdued final whistle reflected the scoreline and only then did the atmosphere turn a little darker. Despite some great individual performances from the home team River Plate, the visitors Rosario had posed a counter-attacking threat. Nico, a great guide, admitted this and generously talked through the game’s points with me. Guided tours are all very well, and many factors determine the overall effect of an experience, but I feel there needs to be independence in travel and a sense of free will.
Monday, February 8
I decided to leave bustling Buenos Aires. Taking the packed Subte from Plaza Italia and changing tube for Retiro early in the morning, I soon realised what a brave move this was. Countless scare stories about bag slashing and pickpocketing kept me on my toes. I was a mix of eagerness and caution.
Getting to Retiro was a major mission, carrying all my luggage among people who were packed together on this Monday morning just before 10am. An elderly commuter told me to take it slowly when departing the carriage. Well, I could hardly rely on others to make way, and with a permisso and disculpe, I arrived in Retiro without a pre-booked ticket. Crowds of people smothered the terminal floors. Checking the various kiosks, I found Andesmar, an established bus company, with direct tickets down to Puerto Madryn in the Chubut province. I had to show my passport and pay 250 pesos for the 28-hour trip. The rest of the day was spent people watching and listening in the station.
The bus wasn’t due to depart until 7pm so I was early, but it felt right to be escaping mid-summer Buenos Aires. Despite its tempting beauty I needed space and time to get to grips with new environments. It would hopefully lead to a deeper learning of Argentine ways, helped by cheaper prices. While my heart remained at home, my head was slowly coming to terms with South America. Watching the people and trying out my Spanish at various times, I fed on snacks and also used a telephone booth to call Mam.
The bus meandered for almost two hours through south-western Buenos Aires. I felt the distance as I gazed at the high-rise blocks and shanties of Quilmes. A sprawling metro had the lowering sun glinting in its windows. I took a semi cama seat, the cheapest option, but still luxurious and with enough space to stretch out my legs. Not knowing the protocol on Argentine buses, I quickly realised that people weren’t taking their allocated seats, but with my limited language skills I couldn’t find out why. So I sunk into comfort as night descended on the opening countryside.