We arrived safely in Buenos Aires on Friday 2 September to Hostel Carlos Gardel in San Telmo. Our room was a tiny double with a door to the balcony and a little electric heater to make it cosier. But for all the warmth the little heater chuffed out, the balcony would blow in a much icier breeze. One thing you should know about winter in Buenos Aires is that it is bloody freezing. Ollie, who is never cold, laughed at my whimpering and weak attempts to warm myself, until he started shivering himself. We were arrogant in our expectations: surely Argentine winter must be like a British summer. We were so wrong.
On the first evening, we decided to get a feel for San Telmo, the district I chose as our base, providing much amusement for Ollie as it is described as “edgy” in his guidebook (I’m really edgy you see…). We had been warned that San Telmo wasn’t the safest area in BA but we felt quite comfortable until we left the enclosed little side streets and wandered onto exposed Avenida de Mayo, the widest road in the world, where you are left to fend for yourself. Another thing you should know about Argentina: there are protests almost every day. In addition, Argentines don’t do things by half. In the middle of the widest road in the whole world (because if you’re going to be build a huge road, it might as well be the biggest), we happened to walk right into the middle of a massive demonstration. We still don’t know exactly what the protest was about but it was the first of many, albeit the largest, that we saw throughout our time in the capital. I don’t think Ollie has ever squeezed my hand so tightly as we walked through hordes of shouting people. It was the moment of realisation: we are on the other side of the world and we are alone. And it also didn’t help that neither of our bank cards were working (we very quickly realised this was because we both were typing in the wrong pin codes…).
We soon discovered another aspect of Argentine culture: everything is late. If you are reading this and know me half well, I’m sure you are raising your eyebrows, smirking, thinking how well I must fit in to a culture of lateness. And, as true as that is, I was still shocked! British Asian me, who has dinner at 10pm in England, was bemused by the nocturnality of it all. The night owl flavour of the city should have been perfect for me, except for the fact that I was severely jet lagged.
In the end, our first evening consisted of marching against crowds, panicking about our bank cards, dodging low-lying protest banners and, eventually, concluded with me falling asleep in a restaurant with spaghetti half way to my mouth. It was so early we were also the only people there. For the first time in years, I fell asleep before 10pm. Ollie would like to take this moment to interject that me falling asleep became a theme of the trip…
The next day, our first full day in Buenos Aires, we unwittingly wandered towards La Boca, a district that we were warned off by hostel staff with a big ‘X’ on our map. This warning was repeated by an elderly man who randomly came over to chat to us, giving us some essential tips for avoiding theft. It served me well throughout the rest of my travels so I will share it with you: when sat at a restaurant or a bar or a cafe, never hang your bag off the back of the chair, always keep it in your lap. And if you are draping your coat across the back of your chair, make sure the pockets are empty. I heeded this advice for the entire three months of travel and was safe from theft, whereas I did meet people who had their possessions stolen in this way so it was useful advice! We were also stopped on our journey to the no-go land by a lady who invited us to some Christian events. As expected, Ollie’s Spanish was excellent and mine was not. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t practice.
Ollie once again demonstrated his superior Spanish skills in the Museo Histórico Nacional where he had to translate much of the information for me with much complaining on his part. The museum taught us about Argentine history and the development of a national character, which we found really interesting as it focused on both the development of gaucho culture and the changes that European colonisation brought (anyone who knows me is aware of my interest in anything to do with colonialism). Unfortunately, our time in the museum was cut short as we wanted to catch a free walking tour, which, in an annoying but typical turn of events, we ended up missing anyway because of a far too leisurely lunch.