I'm crying for you here, Evita

There’s something about the proverbial tourist trap that just gets my goat.

Is it the Disneyfication of a place that was at least once kind of authentic? Is it the touts that accost you every second step pressuring you to eat at their restaurant, or trying to start fake conversations (usually beginning with the word “friend”) just to get you to stop so they can make the hard sell? What about the prices, 50% higher than anywhere else in the city, and the food, 50% worse?

What’s not to love?

“El Caminito” in the Bs.As. ‘hood of La Boca fully meets all these requirements for tourist trapdom and I had pretty much decided to give this block of candy-colored houses a wide berth. But, as my time here comes to a close (I don’t want to talk about it!), I fell victim to the marketing. This little street is in all the tourism material, was the main pic for the Smithsonian magazine cover story on the city, etc., etc. (Slide show below.)

Street scene

The funny thing is, this tourist sinkhole is located right in the middle of a neighborhood that is considered fairly dangerous, La Boca. The name refers to the mouth of the Riachuelo river, a stinking cesspool of a waterway that gives the area its distinctive, disagreeable smell. (Although yesterday, a brisk breeze drove the most noxious fumes on their way.)

Back in the day, that day being the 19th century, is was the entry point for immigrants and goods to the city. Many new arrivals set up shop here and built houses with corrugated zinc.

They didn’t have money for paint, the story goes, so asked arriving ships to give them any leftovers. That’s why the dwellings were painted this crazy quilt of colors.

Back to the danger: most guides and several websites from travelers recommend not venturing down to the neighborhood after dark, nor straying away even during the day from the candy-colored street packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, and sprinkled with cops and couples dancing tango and posing for pictures in exchange for some cash.

Who does this?

I was concerned, emptying out my wallet before I went, dressing down, making sure my camera was safely hidden away, getting ready for the knife-wielding thugs surely lurking behind every bright pastel corner.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. The place was so chock-full of Bermuda-wearing paleskins like me (well, minus the attire), that only the most criminal would have dared. OK, I’m sure it’s happened. I just stayed aware and was not bothered by anyone but the touts.

I’m not quite sure what the attraction is. It’s so fake and out of touch with anything actually happening in Buenos Aires (save the very cool contemporary arts center next door).

The food is pricey, the stuff for sale schlocky, the houses…kinda pretty, but you’re done in ten minutes. But then, people were actually paying to have their photographs taken behind those painted wooden boards with openings that you stick your head through. So what do I know?

The Real World

The surrounding, more monochromatic neighborhood looked much more interesting. There is some cool mish-mashy architecture, the stadium for the Boca Juniors soccer team that is the local religious shrine, hole-in-the-wall restaurants grilling their beloved meat out on the street, and all in all a different side of Bs. As., far removed from my leafy, upscale Palermo neighborhood.

But as I still had vague thoughts of gangs of rampaging hoodies in my head, I didn’t get too far off the beaten track. Probably a wise move in the end; I’ve still got my camera.


Local graffiti

Our paths cross several mornings a week as I walk up Borges Street toward the subway, dodging the errant streams of water as people hose down their sidewalks, resisting the call of the bakery’s  mountain of sugary croissants, and sighing – again – about that once-beautiful neoclassical corner house that’s made the sad transition from faded elegance to just junky and shabby.

The man is kind of short with a belly, sports a thick mop of jet-black hair and exudes an amazing sense of calm even though he’s the critical nexus of an impossible system of movement and instinct that seems preprogrammed for chaos.

He’s the dog walker. And he’s got nine charges on leashes most mornings, the smallest being a German shepherd.

It’s a strange but common sight in this city of dog lovers, where you can get anything delivered, from a latte to your laundry, from empanadas and ice cream to your weekly grocery shopping. For those busy porteños (Buenos Aires residents) with a little extra cash, why not hire out the walking chores?

I like this particular moving human-canine mass; it retains a kind of stately flow despite the thundering buses, uneven sidewalks and enough dog shit laying around to drive any pooch to distraction. Better than the mini-herds of smaller dogs you see occasionally, yapping and nipping and just making life miserable for everyone concerned.

Palermo pads

The dog walkers are just one of the more colorful aspects of life here in Palermo Soho, my neighborhood in la Capital Federal, where I’ve been for about three weeks. Friends had recommended the area as a desirable place to be, and turns out Lady Luck was on my side when I rented an apartment over the Internet.

It’s quite the place to be these days, full of cafés and leafy oaks, parks and squares and a wonderful mish-mash of architectural styles, from the aforementioned neoclassical beauties to modern, minimalist high-rises (luckily not too many, yet) and everything in between. There are even a couple of half-timbered houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Bavaria.

The neighborhood’s gotten the Soho designation because it’s become quite hip and trendy, and expensive for Argentines. The big Palermo neighborhood has been further subdivided into Old Palermo, Little Palermo and, most oddly, Palermo Hollywood, since there are a bunch of television studios there.

My area has fewer Klieg lights and more hip clothing boutiques, staffed by impossibly beautiful Argentines who must have either just stepped out of a Greek sculptor’s studio, Pygmalion style, or are just killing time until they’re scooped up by some telenovela producer. I step out of these places happy with my wardrobe addition, but wanting to put a bag over my head.

Adding to the city's decibel level

Luckily, the hipster epicenter is several blocks away. Right around my apartment, it’s a bit more down to earth and every-day. There’s the supermarket around the corner run by Asian immigrants (they’re ALL run by Asians with a grasp on Spanish that seems worse than mine), where I can buy my sweet but deadly-to-the-waistline dulce de leche.

There are the fresh vegetable stands on every block, where you can get a bag full of greens for a song. There’s the gym next door where Argentines work off all that beef and cheese that make up their diet. And there’s the laundry where I take all my dirty clothes and drop them off with the kind old woman who continually takes delight in the strangeness of my name. I pick them up later that day, washed and folded, all for about three euros.

It’s  pretty certain that one of the city’s most famous sons, writer Jorge Luis Borges, would find it somewhat odd that the area has become so chic. He spent his childhood in a house just around the corner from me, on the street that now bears his name. (It’s now a hair salon with a plaque.) But back in his day, Palermo was a semi-rural area on the outskirts of town, frequented by gauchos and knife-carrying thugs who liked to drink and fight in the local bars.

Literatura...that's a real slog for me to get through

Just down the street at the next corner is where Borges, in his poem “Buenos Aires,” set the “mythical foundation” of the city. Well, today at the intersection there’s a hamburger place where I got some disgustingly greasy French fries the other day, a designer furniture shop and an ultra-hip bar that’s all flat metal planes.  But at least on one corner there’s still the “Almacén el Preferido,” a pink building that dates from the 19th century.

Borges wrote about the sometimes nefarious goings-on in the place and the atmosphere of potential violence that fascinated him.

Yesterday I peered in the window. Not a sign of a glaring gaucho on his fifth whisky or the glittering flash of deadly metal. Instead, an amorous couple stared into each other’s eyes and two tourists, outfitted with fanny packs and Crocs, dug into a big hunk of Argentine beef.

At least the food part of this particular Buenos Aires scene is eternal.