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Open Features: Caminito Por Favor

Jacqueline Dowling takes us to hot and humid Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires in late December is hot, very hot and humid. Something to do with high
rainfall and being barely above sea level: the highest elevation reportedly only 25m.

Why we choose to plunge into this cauldron is anyone's guess: but we do, and discover an
incredible blend of brilliance, music, passion and elegance.
There's a frenetic energy about this city. From its upbeat Microcentro shopping
avenues, the cacophony of careering, furiously hooting black and yellow taxis and quieter oldtime
cafés where a cup of coffee lasts all day while the world's woes are sorted : to the faded
elegance of San Telmo's decaying architecture and eclectic antique shops. Narrow streets
winding down to the vivid rough and tumble of La Boca.

We head off to explore its flamboyant Caminito.
And hail a passing cab.

'Caminito por favor seňor.'

'Donde está casa – where you house?' Our cabbie turns in his seat, fixing us with an
eagle eye. Dark brooding aquiline features, beetle-browed. Boca Juniors cap covers greasy
hair.

'Afrique do sud.' We offer.

Silence.

'Johannesburg, Cape Town – Futbol 2010 – Bafana Bafana?' getting a bit desperate
now. Still no response, then, suddenly his face lights up:
'Ah si, entiendo. Nelson Mandelll-la place! So, why you white face?'

We're away.

Heat radiates from cobbles. Between roots of a massively trunked old tree, a man
sprawls totally relaxed, hat over eyes, scuffed leather sandals at ten-to-two, a cigarette
burning slowly down nicotined fingers.

We subside into the coffee scented Cafe Bar Aperativo where beer arrives in iced
glasses with a plate of excellent spicy beef pies, Empanadas. Languid fans sway through air
thick with the seductive aromas of cognac and cooking. Walls, rough textured, embrace
scrubbed wooden tables, wrought iron chairs and sepia posters of tango heroes, poets and musicians.

At a corner table, two men in shiny suits sit pondering their next chess move: hats
pushed to the backs of heads, shirts unbuttoned. Smoke from their abandoned cigars drifts
and rags across the ceiling. It's that time of day when saturated air settles, exhausted.

When body clocks wind down.

Adriana, a local artist, invites us through her studio home to a narrow courtyard where
troughs and tubs of brilliant geraniums line balconies and wooden stairways. A black cat,
squinting slit-eyed, suns itself on a blue roof. A corrugated canyon of colour and texture rises
up on all sides, bursting into the brilliance of day.

This is the heart of Caminito, where artists live and work and which, despite its
proximity to the fetid sludgy Riachuelo waterway, is a place of vivid colour, music and dance.

No longer a wasteland of wood and iron shanties, rat-infested and disease ridden. An area
of rusting rails, long grass and weeds: a railway terminus from which it takes its name.
Today's eccentric diversity of hectically coloured buildings originated with the custom of using
leftover paint brought home by sailors on leave. And this custom has prevailed, giving the
area its unique magnetism and upbeat tempo.

It's quiet here, peaceful. A torpid somnolence pervades. Air feels warm, wrapped-up
and cottonwoolly. We crowd into a tiny kitchen overflowing with tropical plants, to share in
the drinking of yerba maté., bitter and sharp like holly pesto. Made in a gourd with hot water
poured over the chopped yerba leaves , the frothy liquid is sipped through a silver straw, and
etiquette demands that the gourd passes clockwise, is refilled and drunk dry each time.

Which is what we do.

Back on the cobbled street, a cadence of notes from a bandoneon – haunting, soulful,
shivers on the air, hovers and explodes into a virtuoso performance of flashing fingers and
passionate tango rhythm. Dancers swirl across our path, preening and peacock proud. We
follow them into a wine and tango bar where a colossal leering resin Gaucho caricature props
up the counter, one of the many larger than life sculptures to be found in the area.

Tanguistas glide between tables, strappy dresses, Fedoras aslant. Haughty, sensual,
the tango emerged from the bordellos of Buenos Aires in the 1880s. Lonely men dancing
with each other while waiting their turn: strutting, erotic machismo – the fight for possession of
a woman.

Piazzas and streets around Caminito are alive with tango music, Living Mimes and art of
every description. Bas reliefs line walls: buskers, working artists and fortune tellers spill onto
the cobbles among stunning photographic dance studies, water colours, acrylics and brilliantly
coloured montages. The air is full of sound.

We sit on a low wall beside the waterway's rusting hulks: sultry bandoneon music drifts
from open doorways. Into the aching heat the ripple of a tentative guitar, played in shadow,
softly – whispers, and is still.

A taxi draws up beside us. We climb in, state our destination. The driver turns in his
seat. 'Donde?'

We are on our way, again.

©
Jacqueline Dowling 2013

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