Walking around central Buenos Aires is akin to a steeplechase with no clear winner. Pedestrians are almost always in a hurry and are forced to negotiate different kinds of obstacles. One of these obstacles is posed by the manteros, illegal vendors who stretch a rug –or manta– on the floor to display merchandise for sale. You must be careful not to trip, fall, and ruin said goods or be ready to face the consequences, usually in the form of a punch in the face or, if you’re lucky, a demand to pay for the ruined merchandise. As well as negotiating the mantas, the porteño -as anything and anyone related to the city of Buenos Aires is referred to- pedestrian must have special care to avoid stepping in dog poop, particularly in residential areas.
Other obstacles are the big recycle bins that take up half the pavement or the smaller trash bins that hang from light poles. Those bulky recycle bins don’t allow the pedestrian to step down the curb to avoid the manteros, especially in busy commercial neighbourhoods like Once. If it’s not a bin, then you must negotiate long snaking lines at bus stops. Or watch out for cars coming in and out of parking garages.
The size of the obstacle and the difficulty to walk around it are directly proportional to your haste. Also, crossing the street can sometimes become a harrowing experience in busy areas. However, don’t let this scare you. Buenos Aires is a fascinating city to explore, full of contrasts: she can be beautiful and ugly, modern and old, hectic and quiet, hedonistic and ascetic.
Allow us to join you on your journey around Buenos Aires, so we can see what you see. You are in no particular hurry and you seem to be enjoying your stroll. However, you must take multiple variables into account when crossing streets. It’s not as simple as walking from one side to the other. Are you crossing at the crosswalk? Do you have a green light? Even so, you must look out for cars turning the corner like your life depends on it. Let’s not even mention cyclists going at the speed of light down the cycle lane and who think traffic laws don’t apply to them. Every one of them will yell at you for daring to cross the street legally or for simply daring to exist at all.
Having navigated all the difficulties of this monumental game of snakes and ladders, you finally have some time to observe the scenes around you. People walk purposefully with a frown on their face. Their boss, their bank manager, the government official wait while the clock ticks away unmercifully. No one looks up. The impressive cupolas and the architectural features of the past –Art Deco, Neoclassical, Italianate- go sadly unnoticed. People are focused, rather, on not stepping on a loose tile and getting dirty rainwater all over their clothes. But you’re a conscientious flâneuse and look out for loose tiles too if it’s been raining.
However, and despite the obstacles, there is nothing you like more than letting the rhythmic rise and fall of your feet lead the way. And to observe and become part of the setting. You like to exchange brief words with the janitors hosing down the bit of pavement in front of their building while listening to tinny tango music from a portable radio. Or with the coffee vendor pushing his cart laden with thermos flasks and pastries, or with the disabled lottery ticket vendor or the young Senegalese man selling trinkets who greets you with a toothy grin.
You choose to walk down Corrientes Avenue to the Bajo, down towards the River Plate. You stop briefly to see the newly installed sculptures of beloved Argentinean TV characters which marked an era in Argentinean television. Tato Bores and his monologues filled with sharp insight into current affairs. Don Mateo, everyone’s favourite TV barber. You stop to browse books at one of the many bookstores that line Corrientes. You’re secretly hoping to find unexpected printed treasures at the second-hand bookstores the avenue is known for.
You’re feeling peckish, so you stop at one of the historic pizzerias of Buenos Aires, say Güerrín or Las Cuartetas, to eat a slice of fugazzeta, the traditional cheese and onion pizza with a single black olive per slice while standing at an old-fashioned counter overlooking the street. Eating a slice of pizza on the go is one of the customs inherited from Italian immigrants and long may it live.
You resume your march east towards the River Plate. You reach Puerto Madero, the converted dockland, and turn right towards the green oasis of the Costanera Sur nature preserve at the end of this old docks area. You sit in the shade and breathe in the smells of the water and of the appetizing grilled meats coming from nearby food stalls. The patrons’ laughter and conversation break the quiet in a pleasant, communal way. “¿Cómo te va en tu nuevo trabajo?” “Este domingo voy a ver a Boca.” “¿Cómo está tu mamá?” How’s your new job? I’ve got tickets to Sunday’s match, How’s your mum? Work, football, and family are foremost in most porteños’ minds.
After this brief stop, you carry on and decide to go north this time. You walk the whole length of Puerto Madero, past swanky bars, trendy restaurants, and luxury hotels. You stop to admire the historic Sarmiento Frigate and imagine her at full sail around the world. During your progress, you hear snatches of other people’s conversations and observe the tourists observe the locals while skaters zigzag among the pedestrians. You stop to admire the gleaming white Puente de la Mujer bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. And for the umpteenth time, you think to yourself “But it doesn’t look like a couple dancing the tango!” No matter how many times you’ve seen this bridge, you still can’t picture the curved metal structure as the dancers’ sensual embrace.
In the Plaza de Mayo, back in the political heart of Buenos Aires, you mingle with the countless pigeons which take flight suddenly when someone approaches, office workers eating a quick sandwich, motorcycle couriers resting in the shade, and people milling around. You look forward to the changing of the guard at the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, just to see the Grenadiers march across the plaza. The view conjures up memories of school celebrations of Argentina’s independence and tributes to General San Martin, the leader of the War of Independence and creator of the Grenadiers regiment. The cacophony of porteño traffic – cars, taxis and buses entangled in an infernal dance – brings you back to the here and now.
Tomorrow, you will brave the obstacles and walk the city you love so much.