“Es en Fuego” I said to the man sitting outside of his restaurant. He was splayed out in a plastic chair, enjoying his siesta and I was a wandering gringo, rudely interrupting.
“What?” He said in abrupt English. “Where do you want to go?”
I tried again. “La Fuego?”
He was losing his patience when Magda interrupted and took his hand.
“Mira” – look. And she led him to a view of an air conditioning unit burning merrily above his awning.
He looked once, twice and then ran inside, waving his arms. We looked at each other and shrugged and squinted at the flames licking up towards the sun. No amount of fire could make the afternoon any warmer. We started walking away when the restauranteur ran back out, phone in hand, speaking rapidly to someone, presumably about the imminent inflagration. He waved his free arm and yelled, “thank yooou!”
We waved back and stumbled out of the shade we’d sought into the blazing heat of Buenos Aires in January.
In comparison to Antarctica and Ushuaia, Buenos Aires was a relief for about ten minutes. It took about that much time before our clothes were soaked through with sweat and we were climbing into a black and yellow taxi that had aggressively jockeyed its way to the front of the taxi line.
The clean warm light of a surprisingly early evening bathed the western facades of Argentina’s biggest city. Everything seemed large. Towering trees lined wide boulevards. White Art Deco skyscrapers rose above the greenery and glowed against a dark blue sky. Our entrance was a blur of leafy cobbled streets, black wrought iron fencing, mansard roofs and frequently the bleak concrete monstrosities that the 70’s inflicted on so many of the world’s great metropolises.
Our hosts were a couple a bit younger than us, living in the Parque Centennial neighborhood. The couchsurfers were well traveled veterans of the community and welcomed us with the warmth and generosity that is always such a welcome introduction to a new city or town. They had a small one bedroom apartment but gave us a comfortable folding futon in the living area, next to a terrace that spanned the width of the building. The tall trees of the street easily reached and surpassed the third floor, filtering fresh warm evening air inside the open sliding glass door.
We introduced ourselves, drank maté, discussed Africa (everyone who has traveled much in Africa likes to find an excuse to discuss it) and like with so many of our CS hosts, felt welcome and at home.
Later they took us to an Argentinian dive bar called Roberto’s, where dust caked bottles sit untouched at the heights of the dark wooden shelves. Ceiling fans pushed the air around without cooling it. tall windows with wooden slat shutters gaped at the sidewalk, letting fresh air pour in and music pour out. It was open mic night and the tables were filled with hip young porteños – Buenos Aireans – searching for authenticity. Despite their (and our) presence, authenticity was at hand. First a lone guitar played a sad, haunting tango. Then a pair took the stage to sing a set of traditional porteño songs. The singer was someone who’d walked out of time. A ghost maybe. Black, slicked back hair, sharply dressed with a timeless unplaceable style, a silver chain nestled in thick black chest hair on display. When he sang he sang with his arms outstretched, turning his wrists and welcoming us in to wherever he came from. His eyes twinkled at the woman and invited the men to sing along. Many did, including the surly bartender who stepped out from behind the beaten old bar to join him in a duet.
It was the sort of evening you give up on having in a city like Buenos Aires, where the lush textures of peeling paint and crumbling stucco make you nostalgic for a time you haven’t lived in and a place you’ve never visited.
The heat never subsided. We learned to our dismay that BA is not a great walking city. It seemed like it would be: flat, well paved with lots of trees for shade. It was just so huge. We walked to the Palermo neighborhood, just a mile away from the couch surfers and were exhausted by the time we found a little cafe to cool off in. It was the beginning of the day.
We decided to take the buses, which are everywhere. We tried to figure out which bus went where, but would have been better off throwing a plate of spaghetti on the ground and using it as a map. The first bus we boarded (after finally getting one to stop for us) went in the proper direction for a while, turned in the opposite direction, turned again closer to city center, inexplicably circled a block, and finally spit us out near where we wanted to be.
Excited we’d figured out the system, or just tired of walking, we got on another and were promptly whisked off to the airport. We did not yet want to leave.
The following day we attempted to visited the tourist trap of La Boca, heeding warnings that the surrounding neighborhoods could be dangerous. We boarded the bus, neared La Boca and were suddenly carried across a river, away, Away. 20 minutes later two gringos could be seen trudging beneath the sun in a neighborhood unknown to anyone but those who were born there, trying to find their way back.
We only scratched the surface of this giant city. While we figured out too late that the subway is efficient and relatively cool, it didn’t knit the city together in the same way a bus can.
On our last night we went to a Tango parlour called La Catedral. It’s in the upper floors of a giant old building, the night sky leaking through cracks in the cavernous ceiling. Over the bar at the center of a spotlight’s attention hangs a large tattered anatomical heart. It’s the heart of Tango, Buenos Aires’ contribution to the pantheon of the worlds best dances.
We came to meet a friend of a friend, and watch a ‘milonga’. A milonga in tango terms is a mixer, partners switch partners, dancers of similar caliber find each other, dance, seem momentarily in love, then part ways. A record player whined a tango, the couples on the floor were beginners and it was fun to watch them attempting this complex dance together. Tango is very much alive here, and it was an inspiration to watch the next generation of porteños learning the craft.
The heat, which is what tango consists of, finally overwhelmed us. Large old fans oscillating impotently across the dance floor made the thick air no more bareable and we made our way out into the street to try once again to catch a bus home.
It never came.