A high-pitched cat call and all of a sudden I was knocked to the side as a fish-net stocking-clad, knock-out of a woman threw herself into Nick´s arms, fitting a top-hat onto his head along the way. She pursed her perfectly lipsticked mouth and situated Nick´s arms around her so that the two of them appeared to be in a perfect tango embrace. I snapped a picture and laughed.
An older, equally made-up woman took the top hat from Nick´s head and turned it upside down.
Welcome to la Boca...
Once the stomping grounds for Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires at the turn of the twentieth century, the area idealizes its Italian past, the locals making a lucrative business out of posing as the mafia dons and tango queens of yesteryear. The main strip of La Boca has made museums out of the old houses painted with the bright yellow, pink, green, blue, and red hues that are now considered show-case worthy but were once an embarassment, as the Italian immigrants were too poor to afford new paint and scraped by with any leftover color they could find, resulting in this ecclectic rainbow.
Below these preserved multi-colored houses stretches a cobblestone road, home to vendors selling mate cups, pashminas, kitchy Argentine trinkets, and grossly overpriced Argentina jerseys, the blue and white stripes going for 300 pesos a pop in this part of town. Amidst these wares and vendors are old men in three-piece suits crooning away to their acoustic beats, dancers tangoing with stoic expressions, and restaurant connoiseurs trying to con you into buying milanesa (breaded chicken patty) sandwiches for twenty pesos, when on the next block over they can be eaten for seven. Although it really is a must-see,it is all a little overwhelming--a tourist trap du jour.
After making sure--to our relief--that our dinero was still in our pockets, we walked to the water--the Rio de la Plata. La Boca means "the mouth" in Spanish, and the barrio is named this because of its portside location on the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. Overlooking the river, it was a beautiful sunny day and the water sparkled, but the view is humbling as it reminds you of what lies across the other side. Everyday, ferries chug across the rio to the suburbs that sprawl across the water. But these are not suburbs in the American sense--these are slums marked by poverty, built by those who can not afford to live within the city limits of Buenos Aires, due to a variety of factors, among them the peso crash of 2001 and the rampant inflation (30% in this year alone).
These suburban people ferry across the polluted waters of the Rio everyday to work in the barrios like La Boca. Outside of the main tourist strip of La Boca, the barrio is very poor. It is dangerous at night and every tourist guide warns you not to venture there after dark. This neighborhood speaks of a life fitted with challenges we can not imagine, and yet to those across the river, this neighborhood is filled with the promises and opportunities some can not imagine.
With this humbling reminder, Nick and I headed back to San Telmo to catch the subte back to Paula's. Along the walk we passed the Boca Junior's stadium, a gigantic structure painted in bright yellow and blue, the team's colors, fitting in perfectly with the homes of La Boca. Soccer is EVERYWHERE in Buenos Aires--school children dribble balls on their way home, still clad in their parochial uniforms; on Saturdays kids of all ages kick the ball in the street, dodging cars just in time; and every evening the parks are filled with impromptu games between teams of all age groups.
There are two major teams in Buenos Aires: Boca Juniors and River Plate (named after the Rio de la Plata). They are rivals, and before we arrived in Buenos Aires, we were told that our most important decision would be "our team." Wanting to know more about the teams, we learned that the Boca Juniors are the "working man's team" and River Plate is the more aristocratic team. Seeing the Boca Stadium was so interesting after learning these social facts, as this stadium sits in the middle of one of the poorest barrios, while the stadium for River Plate sits literally on the opposite side of the city, in a very upscale barrio called Belgrano.
As much as this may speak of inequalities that may be hard to swallow, it was wonderful to see the pride that the portenos de Boca have in their team. Walking down the slightly gritty streets, we saw families sitting outside their houses, grilling chorizo on the sidewalk and frying homemade tortillas, their dogs and cats and children running in-between them, the ladder all clad in Boca Jerseys and kicking around soccer balls. The next day in San Telmo, Nick and I laughed as vendors kept hand-held radios pinned to their ears, shouting the Boca play-by-plays to each other. One thing is for sure, the Boca J's definitely lend some buena ondas to the barrio!