Saturday, September 01, 2007

Scratching the Surface of San Telmo

Buenos Aires is a city where European cultural impulses throb with a South American heart beat. Each night I found myself basking in a pool of dusk in squares ruled by colonial elegance, sipping Quillmes beer, sucking on cigerettes and nattering over life's hum and haws in the night time company of young portenos (Buenos Aires locals).

The economic collapse and peso devaluation of 2001 has made Buenos Aires an increasingly popular destination for partying American students and it has even become a retail respite for bargain hunting backpackers. Foreign language capabilities and youthful exuberence take precedence in the resulting tourist industry, allowing high unemployment to be avoided.

Staying in the Hostel Inn on Humberto Primero, one of the party hostels brought on by this economic boom, meant that I was planted right in the heart of San Telmo.

The pressure cooker of a hostel nestles nicely beside the gorgeous Plaza Dorrego, surrounded by old time cafes with their omnipotent lomo completo (world famous Argentinian steak) and ice cream parlours exhibiting the best of Argentina's Italian heritage. The Plaza also plays host to antique fairs during the weekend and the daily handicraft sellers give a taste of the hippy sub culture that exists. Off the plaza there's an open indoor market, selling limited edition screen printed t-shirts and hip urban wear.

La Boca, the old dockers neighbourhood and centre of the Boca Juniors universe, is only about ten minutes walk from San Telmo. A tack filled, tourist warren called Caminito in this otherwise run down neighbourhood is the main attraction. It stands out like a sore thumb, a badly executed memory to the immigrant heritage of the city. The hastily constructed housing in the area led to the colourful mix-match housefronts and were all artificially restored in the fifities by the artist Quinquela Martin.

(Photo of a Tourist in La Boca)

This area is famed for flamboyant tango dancers busking on the sidewalks. Away from the maddening crowds, in a bar called La Tanguerra De Roberto near Plaza Almagro, tango is a whole different experience. It is less a regulated dance and more an outpouring of pent up blues. There's a harsh reality to life in contemporary Buenos Aires, so this "tango as blues" interpretation is understandable.

In the Zizek Club on Mercoles de Octubre, the urban consumer class dish out ten pesos to watch a DJ from the States dance P Diddy style, yelling 'I do it all hours like Austin Powers!'. Later, a band called Matimatike, sporting a sort of early millenium street wear with one tracksuit-bottom leg pulled up to avoid an imaginary bike chain, encourage the crowd as they spit fire over some simplistic beats.

Taking the Subte across the city from San Telmo to Palermo is a must. Scores of kids sell religious medallions and pour fast paced descriptions of the medallions’ inherant magic before gathering them up and hopping onto the next carriage. It becomes a lasting memory as you emerge from the underground into the globalised extravagance of Palermo.

There, the Recoleta cemetery graveyard, once the highest valued real estate in the city, is but a walk away. Decorative gothic angels and gargoyles haunt Evita's final resting place in this city, replete with miniture mansions as holding spots for the bones of the nation's elite.

Palermo also holds the MALBA (Museo De Arte Latin Americano de Buenos Aires), with its Costantini Collection collection documenting the whirlpool of artistic vanguardism Buenos Aires has always prided itself on. Ironically, the amazingly vibrant street art culture that is spreading like a virus through out the city today is being clamped down on by the government for the sake of tourism.

However it is stil possible to catch glimpses of multi-coloured visions of Hendrix, animated sprites, subverted street signs and thousands of stickered cartoons that sparkle like diamonds in the corner of your eye everywhere you walk.

Buenos Aires can be anything you want it to be; all surface and no feeling or a city where the best will only be found the more you scratch the facade.

This overly gushing travel piece was published in a recent edition of the Irish Backpacker Magazine, if I remmeber it right, its amazing how much they edited out. Something else from Buenos Aires will be popping up here soon too...

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