An Unconventional Dia de San Valentin

23 February 2008

Mike Kielty arrives alone in Buenos Aires on Valentine’s Day and gets swept off his feet

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I stood in the main Plaza of the city, with a rucksack on my back, a guidebook in my hand and not a clue where to go. It was Valentine’s Day. Love was in the air. All around me there seemed to be beautiful people dancing, embracing and kissing in the effusive manner that only impassioned Latinos can. Yet here was I, the very picture of the pale English traveller, alone in Buenos Aires. “Un beso, chico?”, “A kiss, my boy?” An elderly street vendor asked me encouragingly. It didn’t make me feel any better.

I had awoken that morning on a bus heading north to the Argentinean capital to find a welcome view outside the window.

After weeks in remote Patagonia, I was ready for a little civilization and an array of glassy skyscrapers and American-style advertisement hoardings greeted me to “BA” in style.

I had just one day before my flight home to London and was looking forward to having one last chance to immerse myself in the life of a foreign city. I have been lucky enough to traipse around enough of these in my time, but I still struggle to find an answer when other travellers discuss their respective ways of discovering the “soul” of a place. Where does one even start? “Wandering aimlessly” was E.M. Forster’s advice to travellers during his own adventures in Egypt. My own method of exploration certainly involved wandering, but in the case of BA, I did not have the time or inclination to be aimless, especially not with these amorous locals all around.

The heart of the town, “El Microcentro”, is focussed around two major streets, the Avenidas del Mayo and 9 de Julio, two noisy thoroughfares full of screaming traffic and over-occupied businessmen flaunting their expensive mobiles. When added to the romantic goings-on in the Plaza, this was enough to send any lone backpacker crazy. It felt like there was only one option. Walk. Anywhere. Right away.

I wandered south for what must have been an hour or so, past the cobbled streets, old antique shops and run-down bohemian dwellings of the San Telmo district and beyond, into the poorer suburbs of the city. Gone were the finely wrought skyscrapers and the clean-swept streets. Several cheeky kids shouted out to me as I passed by. “Wrong way, gringo!” I carried on regardless. The thought of having to face those snogging city-slickers would have pressed me on had hell stood in the way.

Eventually I reached the city’s original port, the famous neighbourhood of La Boca. As I passed into the district, the grey concrete of the suburban towers gave way to small terraces built from the steel plate of the old docks and brightly painted in vivid blues, reds and greens. Clothes lines covered with sheets blotted out the overcast skies and life-size effigies of bohemian musicians protruded from the balconies. Despite there being a distinct chill in the air, tango dancers filled the streets. An old street-sign covered with graffiti declared this to be “El Caminito”, the “Little Walk”. It was probably only 200 metres or so, but I was entranced, and popped my head into every little street-side bar, every tiny shop selling food, trinkets and jewellery.

I stopped to take a photo of one especially flamboyant pair of tango dancers, upon which the lady stopped abruptly and looked me aggressively in the eye. I thought she might want some recompense for my rudeness and was clumsily fiddling in my pockets as she forcefully took me in her arms. Having set her companion’s hat at a suitably rakish angle on my head, she started leading me in a flowing dance up the street. She was fast, cool and assured. I was trying not to trip over. We were a bizarre duo, but the beeping car horns and cheers from the shopping crowds suggested that we at least kept the locals entertained.

After travelling across South America, I knew now that just by looking carefully at the mundane things that people used everyday, you could learn something about the unique qualities of a place. Drinks are one example. For Argentineans, El Mate, a herbal tea, is the undoubted beverage of choice. Needing a rest to recover from my tango exploits, I found a set of friendly local lads who were sitting around a table crammed with the thermos, pots and pipes required to brew the drink. They were happy to welcome “El bailarin ingles”, “the English dancer” (I’ve been called some things in my time…) to their group, and I sat back to watch the rituals that surround the mate commence.

The drink dates back to the earliest of the gaucho cowboys that still roam the country’s interior, and each of my companions drank it with obvious respect for tradition. Finally, the pot reached me. I sucked cautiously through the pipe and, hit by the spicy taste, coughed it up rudely. The whole street, as well as my friends, fell about in laughter. It was only later that my hosts revealed that this particular faux pas apparently marks a depressingly bad education!

I left early the following morning, just as the street vendors in “El Microcentro” were discarding the last unsold roses and leftover greeting cards. The love fest was over for another year. It struck me that many of the travellers I had met over my trip would have loved that flamboyant celebration of fl owers, kisses and every other romantic cliche you could think of.

My Dia de San Valentin in BA had been a little unconventional, but equally satisfying. It had proved to me that probably the best way to gain insight into a place was simply to be myself and to treat its people with an open mind, at least when they weren’t fi ring Cupid’s arrow a little too ostentatiously. That way, I could learn a little about their way of life whilst still having some fun. That is, after all, why most of us go on holiday.