Sitting in a quiet ice cream parlour on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in the growing dark, with no internet access, imperfect Spanish and a long way from a bed, I wondered how I had arrived at this point.
Unusually for a visitor to South America, I chose to begin my adventure with Argentina and, more specifically, the neighbourhood of La Plata (the silver) to the south of Buenos Aires. I had planned to stay with my friend, Barbara, in Berisso which is close to La Plata. When I say friend, read: girl I met for one day in Amsterdam several months ago. This was my first exercise in letting go and accepting whatever help I could get.
I had successfully caught the two flights over from London whilst admiring the setting sun and plains of clouds that preempted my journey across the Andes mountains and the salt plains of Bolivia. During the flight, I attempted to talk Spanish with Enrique, the whiskery Argentinian man next to me. He was not remotely impressed with my vegetarianism and informed me that there was plenty of chorizo in Argentina. He did, however, devote his slightly frozen salad to my cause for which I was grateful. Very opinionated for a banker, he maintained that Argentinian wine is superior to Chilean and that the president is corrupt.
Once successfully through the extranjeros queue, I met Barbara and her step father, who had kindly offered to drive me back. After a swift visit to see her mother and two dogs, we came to her own charmingly ramshackle and arty home. With its draughty stained-glass windows, decorative television, wild garden and fluorescent pink fridge (that she confessed had been painted in the throes of heartbreak). Complete with the obligatory frenzied dog and contrasting lay docile cat, it provided the perfect introduction to Argentinian life.
I wanted to explore La Plata and Barbara had to work, so we agreed on a meeting place for that evening. In La Plata, nobody gives their address. The area was planned as a diamond shape before it was built so locals simply describe where to go. Once I had that figured out, I was soon bumping along cobbled streets on the back of Barbara’s motorbike past rundown houses, dogs and shouted Spanish conversations. I had never before been on a motorbike and wondered whether this was strictly covered by my insurance. It was definitely the stylish way to travel, however.
I enjoyed exploring La Plata and especially the cathedral, although attempting to buy food in the tiny supermerkado in Berisso was a challenge. La Plata is a university town and full of arty young students and political graffiti slogans such as ‘no queremos mas capitalismo’. That has only sprung up in the last five years or so, according to Barbara. I can imagine that before that, it would have been a very pretty town with its orange tree lined avenues and squares.
The advantage of staying with locals is that it is easier to gain a real insight into the culture of the city. Barbara played me South American music, let me drink tap water and explained the differences between Argentinian and Spanish pronunciations. I was told off for moving ruining her mate, the national caffeinated infusion of Argentina. Apparently, it is bad luck to move the bombilla, or metal straw, in the guampa gourd as if it were a spoon! I was also invited to take part in a circle of feminine energy at her friend’s house.
In order to get there, I had to take several buses across town. Barbara had joked that I was like Bambi in the middle of the forest, and I certainly felt that way attempting to catch rattling, speeding buses with what I’m increasingly realising is a flimsy grasp of Spanish. I did easily find the street but struggled to locate Barbara’s tatoo shop. I walked around and asked for directions at a shop (which turned out to be two doors away) to no avail. And so, eventually, I ended up sitting in the ice cream parlour, eating a lemon ice cream to avoid the enclosing panic.
I had just decided that I would have to ask all the shopkeepers for directions and, if that failed, search for an open Internet cafe, when the staff of the ice cream parlour took pity on me and gave me the code to the wifi. By talking to them, I learned that they were friends of Barbara’s colleague and was able to get directions to the shop. I was so intensely relieved at this fortunate serendipity that I think I agreed to go dancing with them and went on to greatly enjoy the feminine circle.
The idea of the circle was to listen to and support each other in the attempt to encourage each other to make their dreams come true. Despite the presence of foreign strangers, everybody was incredibly welcoming and emotionally forthcoming in the circle. It seems fitting that as I attempt to realise mi sueno dificil of travel, I discover many others doing the same.