Buenos Aires: Duality

Part I: The Airing of Grievances (A Festivus Miracle)

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‘Nah it’s ok guys remember we don’t believe in subtlety’

I failed. I attempted to reconcile my differences with the insanity of Buenos Aires, and I returned from Montevideo to discover that much to my surprise, I’m still yet to be convinced. I have to admit, this is also bad timing as I am currently on a plane to Santiago, Chile, watching Buenos Aires fade into the horizon for probably the last time ever. Last night, walking through the city at midnight while drunk on Fernet again, and realising I was about to leave the city, I confusingly felt both sad and happy at the same time. I’m fully aware this may come across as fairly insulting, so I apologise to any Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) who may be reading, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it; I was happy because I was leaving, and sad because I was happy. This is not how I envisaged the first stop of my trip ending – cutting Buenos Aires short so I can get out, and spending much of the time I had designated for the city taking refuge in a totally different country across the River Plate. Then again, as I’ve made clear before, it’s difficult to equate this sort of experience to the kind you’d get on, say, a five-day city break to Scandinavia. On circumnavigational journeys of this magnitude, I’ve realised that, as much as it may upset you, you have to take a bullet every once in a while, and that not every city is for everyone. You have to chop and change as you go, adding time in some places, removing some elsewhere. It’s an ugly side of travelling, but one that I think, in a way, feels more authentic. You don’t travel to be in permanent, stress-free paradise. You quit your job (or get made redundant, whoops), you give up your room and you say goodbye to your home country because you want something bigger than that. Not some soul-searching, faux-spiritual nonsense, but just… an experience. Something different. If you set out expecting only great moments with great food, great sights and great people, travelling is not for you.

However, on a similar note to my initial one, what arguably frustrates me more than my inability to appreciate Buenos Aires is the number of foreigners who bullshit themselves into believing the city is an unending masterpiece; God’s gift to urbanisation. Obviously I’m not being a total cynic, and I am fully aware that many people truly and genuinely love Buenos Aires, and really find their ‘spiritual home’ for lack of a less wanky term. There are people who wholeheartedly embrace its impressive bohemian arts scene, its gastronomic diversity, its intense energy and its weird hobos who ask you for a sip of your beer on the street. Then there are those infuriatingly naive people who praise literally every single thing about the city, as if it has no poverty, as if it has a perfect infrastructure, that it’s somehow ‘better’ than anywhere in Europe. On that note, I’m not saying it’s worse than anywhere in Europe, as it’s impossible to compare continents like that unless you’re an idiot, and on that subsequent note, I have actually had one person suggest that Buenos Aires is ‘better than anywhere in the Western World’ (what is it if it’s not Western?), and I’ve even heard people bother to rave about the flavour of the goddamn tap water, which is widely regarded as tasting like shit. What is interesting about these people, however, is that as soon as I mention to them that I’m not so sure I’m BA’s biggest fan, they’ll start to question their own love of it.

I’m not being a killjoy on purpose; it’s very easy to spot when someone is bullshitting about this kind of thing, simply for the fact that they gravely overcompensate for any doubts they have by going completely overboard with sycophancy. Even the most hardened, loyal, born-and-raised Buenos Aires residents I met were quick to complain about a myriad of aspects of the city, be they economical, administrative, infrastructural or otherwise. I feel like more travelers than meet the eye objectively know there are many great things about this city, but will not admit that subjectively there are other things that need improvement. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you cannot claim that Buenos Aires is a perfect utopia (if simply for the fact that no city is a perfect utopia), yet people do it anyway. I love London, but there are a million things I also dislike about it.

Which brings me to another point – you cannot compare Buenos Aires to London on a superficial level at all. Whenever I commented on the intensity of Buenos Aires to other travelers, they’d say ‘but you live in London! How can you complain about Buenos Aires?’. London is literally half a world away from Buenos Aires. If, in your eyes, two cities can be considered similar simply because their population is above ten million, you need to re-evaluate the way in which you absorb different cultures. Perhaps in terms of statistics, or in the way the pointless Human Development Index looks at it, the two cities may have more in common than I think, but from a subjective, personal viewpoint – literally the only way it is possible for me to experience both cities – they are totally, totally different. It has literally never been 40°C in London. London does not have choripan, London does not have two-litre bottles of beer for £1, London does not have the SuperClasico, London does not have neighbourhoods where locals have said ‘don’t go there because you will get mugged’, London does not have beautiful Spanish colonial-era architecture. And do you know what else? It might seem pretty damn obvious but London is not a Spanish-speaking city. As an Englishman, me turning up expecting that I could just swoop into their culture like a Tetris piece falling into place would indicate a more insulting level of disrespectful ignorance than suggesting that Buenos Aires is a challenging travel destination in the first place. Going from one big city to another doesn’t mean shit – no two great cities are the same – and it blows my mind that many people seem to think they are.

 

Part II: Screaming Midget

Now that’s over, I can finally comment on the what’s happened since I wrote the first part of this post. While that was one the plane, I now find myself in Santiago, having waited at the bus stop for two hours, during which my bus was half an hour late. In the complete chaos of San Borja Bus Terminal, it’s easy to get completely freaked out when your bus randomly doesn’t turn up on time. There are no departure boards, no staff to speak to, and – most infuriatingly – about 50 gates for buses to arrive at, and you have absolutely no idea which one yours will appear at. You have to be vigilant, you have to attempt to ask other people what’s going on, and most importantly, you have to be patient. I’ve since discovered that it’s horrible being patient.

We set off on the 7 hour bus journey north to La Serena about 3 minutes ago, but we’re currently stopped at a corner shop about 200 yards from the bus terminal, and all three drivers (three drivers?) have jumped out, and gone and bought beer.

Sitting on the plane earlier, my phone and laptop both died and I had time to reflect on the past couple of days, while a video played overhead of what I can only assume was some sort of Brazilian package holiday advert but involved people manically riding round a city in a golf cart looking like Jack Nicklaus on meth. The end of my time in Uruguay and my subsequent return to Buenos Aires was filled with some rather strange moments, and, of course, strange people. My ferry from Uruguay was delayed by four hours for seemingly no reason, so the crowd of waiting passengers at the ferry terminal in Colonia was getting agitated at both the delay and the lack of information about the delay. After an hour or so, the crowd started whistling, booing and hissing at intermittent intervals, at which point the Colonia Express staff obviously realised they needed to send in the big guns.

With his high-pitched shriek parting the crowd like the Red Sea, a 5ft tall bald man with a shirt, tie and microphone came bursting into the room in some sort of last-ditch attempt at crowd control. Within a few seconds of talking he realised his Madonna-esque head-mounted microphone was broken, and instead of trying to fix it or replace it, just started screaming everything he needed to say. Like an insane, shiny-headed troll in the corner, he (I think) told everyone in an increasingly hoarse voice that there was no more information yet. The crowd closed in on him, shouting in Spanish and waving their tickets, and I pushed to the front to ask if he spoke English. “YES!” he said, so I asked what was going on, and he responded by shouting YEEEES!. I gave up and sat back down until another staff member appeared. Due to the sheer number of boats leaving that afternoon, I started to worry I would miss mine, so I approached this other staff member with my boarding pass, and before I could even ask if she spoke English, she saw it and said something very pointedly (while also pointing at the waiting area) in Spanish. I again asked her if she spoke English, to which she just said a bunch more stuff in Spanish. I then attempted to ask her in Spanish if anyone spoke English, to which she yet again gave me a barrage of Spanish. Finally, I told her in very clear Spanish that didn’t understand – for the fourth time, another aggressive reply I didn’t understand, so I just totally lost my shit and very forcefully said Why are you doing this?! I don’t know what the f*** you’re saying!” at her. The response, predictably, was just more Spanish. I walked away.

A special shoutout for Weird Person of the Week goes to Bruno the taxi driver. After my ferry arrived at a port in Buenos Aires that A) I wasn’t expecting, and B) is under a motorway in a sketchy neighbourhood with no transport links or cash machines, I walked for twenty minutes with all my luggage to the gentrified Puerta del Madero, at which point I promptly collapsed into the first taxi to come my way. Enter Bruno; a large 30-something Porteno wearing a full Argentina kit (including shorts and socks). Usually when you get into a taxi in a foreign country and the driver speaks absolutely no English, your best bet is either to attempt to speak in their language, or to remain silent. Old Bruno here, however, was a man of gumption. He promptly got out his enormous Samsung Galaxy and opened the Google Translate app. He pressed the microphone button and spoke into it, asking me where I was going. I told him the corner of Avenida Rivadavia and Libertad. He said OK, then picked up the phone and said something into it. He handed it back to me, and a little computerised American voice said ‘Do you like football?’. I replied into the phone ‘Yes, I like it very much, and Carlos Tevez is my hero’. After a little robotic Spanish man’s voice translated it back to Bruno, he said ‘OH! Manchester United?!’. I said ‘No, West Ham United!’. He knew his stuff; ‘Ah that was Tevez’s first team in England, he helped save them from relegation’. Obviously at this point he hadn’t suddenly become proficient in English; he was still talking through the translator like we were aliens attempting to communicate in some cheap sci-fi film. I arranged a lift to the airport the next morning with him, as his rates were a lot lower than the airport shuttle companies, and we departed ways at my hostel. The following night, after stumbling home drunk, I got into bed for a reasonably early night, ready for a 7am wake-up call. Then, in the darkness, my phone vibrated. It was Bruno asking me when I wanted to be picked up. I had already told him 8am, so I told him again, at which point there was a long pause. He then accidentally sent me a kissing emoji, then apologised in Spanish and laughed, then I laughed to make it less awkward. I fell asleep, only to feel the buzz of my phone again about an hour later. It was Bruno again. I unlocked my phone to reveal that he had sent me a low-resolution photo of Carlos Tevez playing for West Ham. In the middle of the night.

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The next morning I climbed into Bruno’s taxi van, at which point I noticed he had upgraded his Argentina kit and was now wearing football boots too. I pointed at them and said ‘porque?’. He got out the old translator app and translated ‘Oh I’m sorry about these, I was playing football yesterday’. Does he not know how to undress for bed? Did he wear boots to sleep? As the questions compiled in my head, Bruno handed me the phone to start a conversation. I started talking about my travels. If you’ve ever used the audio translate function on Google Translate, then you’ll be familiar with its often erroneous output. We talked about my travels, at which point I inadvertently told him I was going to ‘Easter Island, Bench Polynesia and Jelly Bean Zealand’, and during a conversation about music Bruno accidentally told me that he ‘loves Lenny Kravitz but sometimes he has too many bananas’ at which point I quickly moved the conversation-by-proxy on for fear that perhaps that last statement wasn’t an accident.

Arriving at the hopeless Ezeiza Airport, I told Bruno I had no change, so he let me run inside to the cash machine. First one I come to? Empty. Second? Empty. Third? Same again. There’s an unusual thing that happens in Buenos Aires, and to an extent the rest of Argentina; inflation obviously causes a drop in the value of money, and the Argentinian economy is on its knees at the moment, running at a rate of 40% inflation per year. As a result, more people need more money to buy stuff, and the cash machines are refilled every day except weekends. Thus, Friday evenings see long queues for cash machines all over the city, as people get out enough to last them the weekend. I had arrived at the airport too early for any of the machines to have been refilled. I tried fifteen different machines. All empty. I left Bruno outside like a lemon, and once I finally got my hands on some cash (McDonald’s does cashback?), I ran outside, superfluous McMuffin in hand, for Bruno to tell me that we had overstayed the short-stay parking limit. Which was true; he wasn’t trying to con me, so I paid up, said goodbye to my strange taxi man, went back inside, checked in, and sulked with my McMuffin until my plane took off.

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A mixture of fear and shame

And finally, a shoutout to Ines, who was my partner-in-crime as we trawled the city looking for a piano for me to play. Sitting at lunch in a specialist cheese restaurant, drinking some of the worst wine to ever have graced my oesophagus, we decided that I should play piano. I don’t really know why, but as soon as the idea was put forward, I suddenly craved it, and we went on a mission to bars, cafes and tango clubs trying to find a piano they’d allow me to use. We then stumbled into a music shop around the corner from my hostel, at which point the guy hooked up a £5,000 electric piano and just… allowed me to sit there and play it. For a long time too. Obviously afterwards we had to give the spiel about how we’d think about it, like I was only pretending to look like a traveler and was secretly Mr Deeds about to piss £5k into the wind.

I’m currently still on this coach, somewhere north of Santiago and the scenery is very impressive. It’s like central Spain (think Spaghetti Westerns) but on steroids. The mountains are bigger, the landscape harsher and the sun more relentless. I just attempted to use the bathroom and I’m not entirely convinced you wouldn’t die if you stayed in there long enough – the door is almost impossible to open (including from the inside), it’s considerably hotter than a sauna, and is sat right on top of the engine, meaning I opened the door to – and I’m not joking – a thick cloud of exhaust smoke. In order to get as much circulation in so they don’t accidentally kill a passenger each journey, the staff had snapped part of the hinge of the bathroom window off to allow it to open further than originally designed, and wedged a full two-litre bottle of water between the glass and the frame, hanging out over the motorway. If that thing dislodges itself, someone behind us is either going to get a faceful of delicious bathroom water or a terrible brain injury.

They’ve just put on a Chilean dub of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a broken soundcard. Michelangelo sounds like he’s about to consume the souls of Raphael, Donatello and Leonardo. Only six hours to go now.

Gabe

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Buenos Aires: Mafia Children

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Better put anti-theft devices on this rare artisan beer. And charge £7 a bottle for it too!

Another day, another mini-heatwave. Yet again, another day walking around Buenos Aires was thwarted by this 38°C weather. Yes it’s not quite Kuwait and yes I know many of you in the Northern Hemisphere are probably headbutting your screens with jealousy, but it’s difficult. Travelling halfway round the world to attempt to explore a city that does its best to chew you up and spit you out is, in all honesty, disheartening. I never expect any city to bow down to my every whim, but Buenos Aires is a hostile customer. Before I go any further, I am not willing to sit here and list everything I don’t like about this city, but I will admit that Buenos Aires is not an easy ride.

I was on the Subte earlier (the Buenos Aires subway), falling asleep in my chair after a failed rendezvous with a friend, and a small kid got on. I’m not talking a kid in the colloquial, anyone-younger-than-me sense, no; I’m talking like… a 5-year old. Just… on the tube. On his own. Hopped up onto the seat next to all the commuters like a midget sitting at a bar, then proceeded to stand up, walk across the carriage, and take my subway ticket out of my hand. For the record; you don’t need a ticket to exit the system, only to get in, so I let him walk away with it, because what do I care? He stood at the doors waiting for the next stop, staring into the ticket’s soul with a smirk on his face like he couldn’t believe his luck. Like a man who’d struck gold in Alaska in the 19th Century. I don’t understand what he was going to do. Sell it? Use it? Give all his friends paper cuts?

Later that day, I had to return to the sweatbox depths of the Subte for another cross-town trip. I approached the ticket machine, put in my 5 pesos for a journey (which is literally about 20p), and the ticket that came out of the machine, somehow, had been ripped in half and sellotaped back together. A strange theme that runs across money, tickets and other paper-based pursuits in this country, the sellotape immediately peeled off (maybe the humidity/heat melted the adhesive?) and I found myself with two half-tickets for the price of one. The story goes nowhere from here as I simply got it replaced with a full ticket, but that Subte journey was plagued by doubts as to how that ticket ended up in the machine. Nobody wants a re-used ticket.

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El Congreso de la Nación Argentina

My Subte of thought was then interrupted by another small child entering the train. I was at the end of the carriage and he entered by the door right next to me. He stopped in front of me and extended his hand. Not palm-up like he wanted money, just kind of… lingering like a half-assed Nazi salute. I said ‘no gracias’ mostly because I had absolutely no idea what was going on and the day the proletariat manhandles me is the day I sell my antique rifle collection. He moved onto the next person, who immediately went for the gangster, five-part handshake this kid had been expecting from me. The next person was the same. And the next, and the next, and the next. This kid went all the way down the carriage fist-bumping, hi-fiving and practically thumb-wrestling every commuter on the train, like he was some sort of infant mafia drug lord who’d make their bloodline disappear if they didn’t oblige. I thought up this scenario simply because everyone was doing this handshake with him, but when he got to the far end of the train, he took it up a notch.

He turned round and slowly headed back toward me, arms open like Jesus on the cross, head tilted slightly to the left, palms facing upwards, and every person on the train handed him money. This wasn’t just begging; this was cult-of-personality shit, like little Gaucho over here was a faith healer who’d just made a blind man pretend to see again. He got to me, stuffed the wads of 10 peso notes into his pockets, turned, opened his hand, this time for money rather than a handshake, and I repeated, ‘no gracias’. Sorry kid, even those sorts of heroics can’t save you from my frugality.

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One of the original versions of Rodin’s The Thinker

Last night I got a pay packet from my work that had been sitting around in London for a month, so we went to a famous steak restaurant – La Brigada in Palermo – to get… well, steak. I mean, there’s not much more to say other than it was a damn good steak, and about the size of my head. Combine that with a £3 bottle of Malbec and you are laughing. Would totally recommend.

Also noteworthy was a free tour of the Argentine Congress building (Congreso de la Nación Argentina) which we were looking forward to until the tour started and we realised there would be no English spoken at all. They only did Spanish-language tours, so I had absolutely no idea what was going on or what I was looking at, but hey, who doesn’t love a free tour of a random building?

Gabe

Buenos Aires: Basterds Sin Gloria

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Some of that classic Argentine humour we’ve all come to know and love

I thought I had traveled before. I haven’t. It may seem fairly obvious to most people once the concepts are fully defined, but there is a vast difference between ‘traveling’ and ‘holidaying’. I assumed I had done both in my time, with endless poolside, villa-based, middle class Italian getaways juxtaposed with hostel-centric city breaks involving Australians pretending to throw me off the side of a bridge in Belgrade. Then I came here.

Without meaning to sound somewhat naive, there are two factors that make this feel different. The first is distance. City-jumping in Europe is easy – not only is almost every city on the continent a short hop from my home in London, but almost all of said cities are within a stone’s throw from each other. I once took a nine-hour train journey from Hungary to Serbia and it felt like the world was ending. Here in Argentina, you get travelling top trumps, where everyone feels the need to one-up each other about how far they’ve come, how long it took, and how many jousting matches against feudal lords they had to win to get here.

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A peaceful protest! Quick, get the water cannon!

The second – and much more noticeable – differing factor is time. If you stop in a city for a couple of days, you wake up early, you go to bed late, and you crush as much exhausting nonsense as you can into every waking moment. And you drink. A lot. However, knowing that not only do I have months and months left, but that those months will be spread across 15+ countries, it means I have to learn to pace myself. There are and will be days where you mustn’t drink, where you have to buy supermarket value gnocchi and attempt to cook it using a propane camping stove in a kitchen that looks like an unused set from Se7en.

As an example, in the past few days I’ve done very little other than avoiding going outside because of the heat, going outside and complaining about the heat, and drinking to stop feeling hot because of the heat. For instance, right now I’m sat under a giant aircon unit watching Archer (or rather I’m sat with people who are watching it as I cannot stand its painful, pretentious brand of ‘comedy’) rather than plumbing the depths of this gigantic city. I just cannot be bothered today. On a side note – a man screaming through a blaring megaphone outside our hostel has just startled everyone sat here. In keeping with the bustling political activity of this city, we assumed a protest had begun outside, but when we rushed to the hostel balcony we looked down to see it was just a guy selling melons.

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Aww thanks for the awesome $10 change with two strips of sellotape keeping it from turning to dust.

Anyway, the laziness of my trip doesn’t just stop here; last night we attempted to have a chilled night in, but instead inadvertently tested all our respective brain capacities by watching Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (hilariously called Basterds sin Gloria – ‘Basterds Without Glory’) on Argentinian Netflix, meaning we had a film mostly in German and French with English subtitles and Spanish subtitles at the same time. By the time Cristoph Waltz was having a swastika carved into his face I felt like I’d run a marathon.

I will admit, however, that I don’t know what tonight holds. That admission is made more prescient by the fact that I just went out and bought a £1 bottle of Malbec.

Gabe

Buenos Aires: Mi Nombre Es OK

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Eva Perón singing or Shakespeare eating a sausage roll?

Buenos Aires is not a normal city. Or at least it isn’t by any European standard of sanity. In the 72 hours I’ve been here, I’ve lost my luggage, seen a mass political protest, made a jailbreak from my hostel, almost been mugged, accidentally went to a waterpark, been elbowed in the face while moshing to improvised drumming, danced an Argentinian tango with a German stranger, attended a pingpong tournament, and of couse, gotten lost. More than once.

Where do I even start? I just got back from La Catedral, a tango club in the west of the city centre. Somehow – despite having barely ever even bobbed my head gently to a solid beat – I was persuaded to attend an Argentinian tango lesson with two people from my hostel. I was fairly convinced I would spend most of the time with my face on the floor, but instead it actually… went OK. I mean granted it was literally the simplest of simple routines, but trust me, when you’re paired up with a total stranger and you’re scared of crushing every metatarsal in their feet to dust with every faux-elegant lurch forward into dancefloor darkness, the famously gracious tango becomes more like trying to defuse a bomb with your hands tied behind your back. Also try climbing into your microwave and hitting the full baked potato reheat button and you’re still only about half as hot as it was in there.

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Bomba del Tiempo

OK so I should probably jump back to the beginning now. God it feels like a long time ago now, but my luggage was lost by the utterly incompetent fools at LAN – comfortably the worst airline I have ever flown on. Judging by the fact that they took 3 hours complete the seemingly very simple task of successfully getting people onto a plane at Santiago, I just knew some bullshit was afoot. I knew something was going to happen to my luggage. Lo and behold, 4 hours later I found myself standing at the baggage carousel like an evangelist waits for the Second Coming, eyeing up the slack-jawed bellend in the LAN uniform across the room that I knew I’d have to speak to in about 30 seconds to ask whether they’d predictably left my luggage in Santiago. Oh what a surprise; they had done.

So what next? I was forced to go to the hostel wearing the same clothes I had been for the previous eternity, and I arrived to a few surprises. First off, I had turned up at this hostel to work. And so had every other person in the hostel. This may seem like an exaggeration but I literally don’t think there was a single guest there. It was difficult to tell. Either way, I won’t go into too much detail but after one night I had pretty much comprehensively decided that this hostel was not for me. The next day, my baggage miraculously showed up, so I gathered my things, pretended I was changing rooms, and I bolted, never to return.One night in a hilarious padded-cell-style, bedsheetless one-star hotel later and I found myself at BA Stop Hostel, which is nothing short of excellent. The staff, atmosphere, guests and general feel of the place is fantastic – despite a fellow traveler going to get me Mexican food and failing because the restaurant was closed. I mean what do these people take me for?

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Not one of those bullshit cafés.

Getting around in Buenos Aires is an ordeal. It doesn’t matter how you do it, you will be diving in at the deep end. Take yesterday for example; with my gigantic suitcase I was stopped in the street by a man with an M&M inexplicably glued to the side of his face. He said something in Spanish, at which point I attempted to respond, but instead he got out a pair of socks. I assumed he was trying to sell them to me, but instead placed them next to my head and measured the difference. A few confused words were exchanged in our respective languages:

 

  • “What are you doing?”
  • “Nada. Where you from?”
  • “England.”
  • “AH your name is?”
  • “My name?”
  • “Si, in Spanish is ‘mi nombre es'”
  • “Ah, OK”
  • “Your name is OK?”
  • “No no my name is-“
  • “Nice to meet you OK.”

Shortly after this, Pedro (I asked his name after I gave up trying to convince him my name wasn’t a term of understanding) and another one of his little homeless friends tried to sell me some more socks, at which point I walked away, with Pedro’s little mate in close tow. And I’m talking literally less than an inch. He was brushing up against me as I walked up. Either he was looking for some action or he was attempting to get in my pockets. Or both. Luckily Pedro’s little mate was no match for my buttoned-up pockets. Pedro’s little mate goes home empty-handed this time.

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This man span around on his head later on.

That night I went to Bomba del Tiempo, a strange improvised drumming concert that apparently happens every Monday, but seemingly the whole city came out for it. After a few beers, a few more Fernets (look that disgusting shit up) and a mosh pit, I ended up in an afterparty. The drumming ensemble reconvened in a room about the size of a small bathroom and continued to play. Loud is not the word. Then in the adjacent room, a ping pong tournament was taking place, and I’ll say no more other than Argentinians take 2am drunk drumming-afterparty ping pong tournaments very, very seriously.

Onwards and upwards. More to follow soon.

Gabe