Por favor, me llamo Guillermo

Buenos Aires – Argentina

I flew into Buenos Aires one year after my last visit more concerned than ever about speaking the lingo. I’ve worked hard at studying Spanish over the past year yet much to the frustration of my genuine Argentine teacher I am still unable to get a good grasp of it. I think knowing some is worse than knowing none at all as I know I have to exercise what I do know if I am to succeed. Armed with this acknowledgement I approached an empty border control and a kind looking border lady who took my passport and dealt with me in English from the beginning. Strangely, in my head, all the answers to her English questions were being generated in Spanish yet my mouth blurted out English as I grappled with all the usual questions faced at a port of entry. Never mind, confidence began to flow as I realised I could speak great Spanish albeit subconsciously and when responding to English. It was a good job because within hours I was unexpectantly (I figured I would get a day to warm into it) faced with the majority of the family. Thankfully, as with the first time I met them, they greeted me warmly and allowed me to mumble on in broken Spanish while encouraging me that I had actually improved on the year before. This I took as a victory. Confidence also brewed from the fact that I had learnt the art of kissing after watching a YouTube video. Indeed, you may be wondering why Rut, an Argentine born and bred, hasn’t taught me such things. Well, as with Spanish, she doesn’t really have the patience to teach me such things knowing that I’ll likely forget everything in an instant. However, with pandemic fears long gone I met all females with a confident fake kind of kiss on the cheek, and the men the same but with a trusty handshake thrown in during the build-up. Throw in ‘Hola, que tal’ with every encounter and I reckon I’ve got greetings in Argentina nailed. Next visit I’ll master the goodbye.  

I’m starting to believe that if we ignore the lack of Spanish language ability and complete lack of understanding of how the country works, you can basically assume me to be a local to Buenos Aires. This shouldn’t be a surprise as any foreigner who has spent more than 24 hours in Buenos Aires likes to think they are a local of what has suddenly become their favourite place to be, conveniently forgetting they are a tourist. There are benefits of being a tourist, the most obvious is cash. When I first arrived in 2012 I was excited to get 7.5 pesos to one pound on the black market as opposed to five pesos. My latest visit saw 560 pesos to one pound on the street. A vague, un-fact-checked statistic I calculated in my head is that a pint of beer in England would now cost £300 if the same level of inflation had been experienced. How real locals cope with no access to foreign exchange is beyond me. However, I have made one other great social stride forward as a local, mate. Mate, pronounced ‘matay’ is a terrible version of tea where the mug is filled with more yerba leaves than hot water and is drank through a metal straw. But never mind that. Drinking mate is very much a social thing, something that is shared, and it is because of this that I have embraced it in hope of acceptance. It appears to be working. I am offered less tea, and people look impressed when I’m happy to swig away on something that even they are surprised I find palatable. Even so, I have a long way to go, as do even the Argentineans if we are to catch up to the standards of the Uruguayans who appear to not leave the house without a flask of hot water and a cup yerba leaves. One standout action gives me the most confidence towards earning local status, one that I was so unbelievably proud of, yet went completely unnoticed. Last to board a bus, I automatically and instantly grabbed hold of something in the knowledge that as soon as my foot left the pavement the driver would slam the bus into gear and hit 60mph in less that two seconds. The only thing that could have made the moment greater was if I hadn’t had to rely on my girlfriend to sort the fare. 

I was treated to a couple of days in Tigre, a delta region just outside Buenos Aires which we had visited for the day last year and enjoyed greatly. Staying there for longer inspired a surprising amount to discuss. The first, and most pressing question I faced was where all the crap went. Being a delta, there is a lot of water that is extremely brown in colour which is hardly surprising considering most river systems are naturally brown and murky by the time they reach the sea. We were staying on one of the numerous islands, think Venice but greener, more natural, less people, yet with busy waterways full of boats, and a range of real estate ranging from burnt down to luxury. Almost everything is brought in and taken away on barges including water and beer. It was only really when I jumped into our canoe for an hour of paddle-based exploration that I became concerned that maybe dropping the kids off at the pool is much more literal in this region, more like launching kids down a fun slide and straight into the river. I don’t know. I don’t even know if it matters in a waterway that is so clearly tidal, but still, I refrained from a swim. 

The island we stayed on was rather beautiful and oh so peaceful although it was clear this is not always the case with a couple of restaurants and stores available. The restaurants closed on us the second night before we had chance to get out the door, but on the first night we timed it well (exactly the same time as the following night!?). Sitting out by the main river we were offered menus by a kind middle aged man who looked like he had just finished a hard day at a construction site. I simply assumed it was the owner’s husband just helping out, but no, I believe he was waiter, chef and all that night. We had a lovely dinner, but our host appeared each time with a hint of anxiousness and was amazed to see we had cleared our plates suggesting it was because we were hungry and not because of the quality. Seeing as we were the only two in the restaurant, if not the whole island, I reached the conclusion that his wife had gone out for the night telling him not to worry, no one would come to eat, and all that was needed was to keep the bar open for the local drunk. I do hope he kept his well-earned tip! The following day, after a bottle of afternoon Malbec I reached the conclusion to book a two-month tour to West Africa over Christmas after failing to obtain a job interview for a job I hadn’t even applied for. I had dilly-dallied over the Africa trip for quite a while but with life not instantly offering me the perfect job, I sulked and booked the trip to cheer me up. Leaving our island to head back to Buenos Aires, it was early morning with a chill in the air as the sun began to rise and although the noise from the boat shattered the peace, it was overwhelmingly confirmed to me that I had made the right decision, the current scene reminded me of my last jolly in West Africa and the knowledge of going back filled me with both excitement and calm. 

My final treat awarded to me by Rut was a daytrip to Uruguay. Terrifyingly this was on the day before my flight home, a storm was forecast, and memories of missing boats and flights in Madagascar plagued my mind. I assumed we were off to Montevideo but turns out we landed in Colonia del Sacramento after a one-hour ferry trip across the rio/estury de la plata. An old colonial town, delightful it was, and offered a wonderful break from the intensity of Buenos Aires. I love the city but I always feel a little guarded. Colonia del Sacramento is small, cosy and welcoming to soft country folk like myself. We hired bikes and sped along the coast for a few hours taking advantage of the sunny weather in anticipation of afternoon storms. They duly came, just after we settled in for lunch and a few litres of house wine. Luckily the weather cleared up for us to enjoy the rest of the afternoon exploring the old town and we entered the ferry terminal confident of departure. Within an hour we were walking sideways, buffeted by the wind as we boarded a ferry that wobbled like jelly next to the wharf. The sea wall protecting the harbour was being battered by waves as the sky turned black. Thankfully we departed, sick bags were handed out to those in need, and the ride improved as we neared Buenos Aires. The perfect week ended at one of our favourite little restaurants nestled in San Telmo, one of the main tourist districts, because at the end of the day that is what I am, and I’m happy to admit that until I can knock officials aside with my Argentine passport while screaming Spanglish at them.  

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