I’D BEEN LIVING IN BUENOS AIRES for nearly 13 years when I woke up one morning and realised I didn’t really know half the city. So I decided to take all 141 bus routes from start to finish.
I’m doing this in non-sequential order in a desperate bid to mimic Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch for my funny-if-you-like-that-kind-of-thing non-fiction book Colectivaizeishon.
I’ve taken 54 buses [known locally as “colectivos”] from start to finish in two and a half months and am making foolhardy claims that I’ll be finished by April 2012. My Spanish-language column about my travels in La Razón and the corresponding English versions on my blog have been a big hit, even landing me a TV appearance.
Some highlights from Colectivaizeishon:
We’re going down Avenida Belgrano, crossing the Avenida 9 de Julio, when I realise that this is the reason why I wanted to undertake this behemoth project in the first place, because I love Buenos Aires in the spring and the summer. It was at this exact spot that I fell in love with Buenos Aires on my second day in the city in 1997.
I was on a bus with another guy from the hostel, we looked to our left as we crossed the 9 de Julio and gasped “Wow, it’s so big!” I can’t remember if we were talking about the avenue or the Obelisk, I think it was the Obelisk.
You could leap to an interpretation here that I’ve spent thirteen years of my life in one city because of a phallic obsession. So what? Shakira came to Buenos Aires for the drippy son of a presidential failure, Antonito de la Rúa. There are worse reasons.
The bus driver has the face of a thousand journeys. He looks like he hasn’t slept for a week and when he does manage to drop off, his wife injects fluid into the bags under his eyes so that they swell up, making him look older than her. It takes us twenty-five minutes to cover the eleven blocks from Esmeralda and Avenida de Mayo to Esmeralda and Santa Fe, so I amuse myself by recalling the first Argentine joke I ever learnt:
Q: How do you turn stones into emerald?
A: By crossing Rivadavia.
For full enjoyment of this joke, you need to know that the street called Piedras (stones) turns into Esmeralda (emerald) after it crosses Avenida Rivadavia, but if you laughed without knowing the full background to the joke then full credit to you and your postmodernist worldview.
On the Costanera Norte are various famous stands selling choripanes.
This is pretty much all the street food Buenos Aires has managed to come up with in its exalted 400 year history, so people make the most of it. Buenos Aires’ food bloggers, many of them American (because you know how Americans like eating), blog a lot about these places, and according to them the best choripán stand in the city is Cocacolero, opposite the city airport on the Costanera.
Now, I know there’s a difference between a good choripán and a choripán that leaves you in hospital, but I really don’t get how much difference there can be between one edible one and another edible one. If you said that such-and-such a stand was manned by Hotel Faena chefs using only Kobe beef flown in from Japan and with organic chimichurri sauce served on a brioche, then fine, write up your choripán Top Ten for La Nación.
All I see is a sausage sandwich. And a sausage sandwich, I hasten to add, with no bacon.
Some primary school children get on the bus in their little white lab coats. These are standard school uniform in Argentina, because they’re cheap and, at the same time, aspirational.
In my first year in Buenos Aires, it was always a cause of minor amusement to see these little people in their little white lab coats, since in England and most other sensible countries the only people who get to where such garments are scientists and their ilk.
How I marvelled that here was a country so developed that by the age of six, these gifted children had already qualified as biochemists and astrophysicists and were on their way to the lab to fuse atoms and snootily dismiss Pluto’s planet status.
I spend five minutes at the end of Caminito in La Boca deliberating over whether I’m chicken-shit enough to take a taxi the five blocks to the bus stop. I decide I’m more tight-fisted than I am chicken-shit and start to walk down Aráoz de Lamadrid.
I see what appears to be an old local of La Boca and walk behind him, so that any ne’er-do-wells think I’m a local too, but the old man walks so slowly that he stops and lets me pass, fearing that I’m going to mug him.
If you could see what I look like! I usually do my best to look like a shanty town dweller when I go out on the buses, which doesn’t imply a great deal of effort on my part, but today I’m carrying my fancy Converse manbag and a red and white striped t-shirt last seen in the “Where’s Waldo?” series.
While in the books it’s quite tricky to find Waldo, I look like the Waldo from the book for slow-minded children, where Waldo is the only person in the scene and his t-shirt more eye-catching than ever.
The 62 goes up the four street-vendor-covered blocks of Avenida Pueyrredón between Corrientes and Rivadavia.
I read somewhere that Once is the bit of Buenos Aires most akin to New York — the only truly cosmopolitan barrio — with its Peruvians, Africans, Koreans, Jews and a handful of frightened tourists who didn’t know what they were getting themselves in for with that rental contract.
On Pueyrredón you see a whole cross-section of this immigration selling everything ever to have come out of the proud Chinese trinket industry: flip-flops and cell phone accessories and sunglasses without UV protection and whistling kettles and tupperware containers and rings and posters from the Cars movie franchise and lipsticks and socks and belts and something I wrote in my notebook but can’t read my own writing and fake copies of Disney games and miniature skateboards with Barbie’s face on them and mirrors and crucifixes and shoes and handbags and baseball caps and footballs and garlic and so-called “bijouterie”, a French word used in Argentina to mean “cheap plastic jewellery”, all part of Once’s cosmopolitan charm.
I think the barrio we’re travelling through is Villa Devoto, because it’s so anonymous that it looks like nowhere in particular, which is in fact Villa Devoto’s most distinguishing feature. I check in the map book. It is indeed Villa Devoto, the barrio where middle-class porteños go to die when they can no longer stand the thrill of seeing so much beautiful architecture.
As there is nothing to write about outside the bus, I’m forced to examine the urban fauna within it. A man sits down in the seat in front of me. He’s about forty and has long, curly greying hair in a classic Bryanmay-esque style. I like this in Buenos Aires’ men — their obliviousness to the fact that after the age of thirty-two, long hair is no longer an option, least of all when it is accompanied by notably incipient alopecia.
And yet, this man is clear evidence that in this city you can look like the unlikely lovechild of Isaac Newton and George Costanza and still have an attractive girlfriend. If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many average-looking foreign men with stunning Argentine women on their arms, there’s your answer.
Belgrano is one of those barrios where you rarely hear people say “my barrio” with the kind of exaggerated pride you find in the locals of, say, Villa Crespo or La Boca. Living in Belgrano is like having sex when you’re married, it’s functional and safe and you don’t have to put much thought into it.
But I like Belgrano. I like how, unlike Palermo, there are hardware shops and fishmongers instead of chi-chi shoe shops and restaurants twisting semantics to push up their prices. It’s true that the only time I entered a hardware shop in the last three years was to buy rawlplugs so that my father-in-law would do a 400-mile roundtrip to put up some shelves, but I do find their presence comforting.
And I like the fact that it isn’t a cool barrio, so you only have to make the slightest effort in order to become the coolest person on your street. A natty hat, perhaps, or a pair of coloured socks.
And most of all, I like how I have the same birthday as Manuel de Belgrano, after whom my barrio (feel that pride!) is named.
Here’s a story I love telling because it makes me look important: During the Falklands War, the Belgrano was sunk on May 2, and on May 4, the HMS Sheffield was sunk in retaliation. I was born in Sheffield, but live in Belgrano. I studied Spanish at the University of Sheffield, and taught English at the University of Belgrano, where I told this hilarious anecdote to my students.
None of them laughed.
It was their first day of classes, and they didn’t speak English. If I die in Belgrano on June 16 like Manuel de Belgrano did, I hope one of the mourners will say, “Ah, fancy that.”