Buenos Aires’ regional airport sits at the heart of the city along the river, and the city has clearly outgrown it.  As my flight from Mendoza taxis to the terminal I can see that all gates are occupied and planes are double-parked on the tarmac in a line three hundred yards out,  where busses ferry passengers back and forth.  My flight arrives late, buffeted by some of the strongest updrafts I’ve experienced in a lifetime of flying, but my remise driver is waiting patiently in baggage claim.

We pass into the city on an elevated highway within eyesight of the trendy neighborhoods I walked a week earlier. On either side of the highway is a shantytown, a secret Buenos Aires that many foreign visitors may never see.  These are not cardboard cartons, but crude brick-and-mortar buildings rising up as high as three stories.  Pirated electricity runs through lines draped among them and on the highest floors residents sit in this warm, humid evening on cheap lawn chairs in “wifebeater” shirts at eye level, watching us pass.  I have seen this many times in Mexico, but it is my first sighting in Argentina.  My driver explains that these are second and third generation squatters whom successions of socialist governments have been reluctant to evict.

It’s nearly 11PM by the time the remise turns off the Avenida 9 de Julio beyond the obelisk and begins winding through the side streets toward my B&B.  We pass the graffiti walls and shuttered windows of the Montserrat neighborhood and cross Calle Chile into San Telmo.  Block by block shops and cafés appear ablaze with light and young people walk the sidewalks or cluster in doorways to share talk and laughs and smokes.

Nostre Bayes hotel San Telmo, Buenos Aires

The Noster Bayes Hotel is a classic.  Floors probably laid before my father’s birth lead from the lobby up steep, narrow stairs between tiled walls.  The night clerk, indistinguishable from many I have just seen outside on the street, checks me in.  Our conversation shifts quickly from my bad Spanish to English, hers well-spoken with an accent I can’t quite place.  As we decide when to schedule my next day’s remise to the international airport she calculates the transit time out loud, “cinq, six, sept, huit…”Vous etes francaise?” I ask.  “Swiss,” she replies.  I’m not surprised; I’ve met world citizens like her throughout my time in Argentina.

She leads me up the stairs to my room as I trail behind boosting my large bag up one step at a time and feeling a bit like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein.  “There is no lift,” she says out of some need to state the obvious.  The staircase and hallway at the top look into an open-sky atrium, and below is a small patio predictably hidden from the street in the old Spanish style.  High, narrow-paneled double doors lead offf the hall opposite the atrium, glass panels above them tilted open for air to circulate.  She turns the heavy key in an old lock and opens one of the door panels.  I wrestle the big bag through the narrow space as she fumbles for the light switch in the dark within.  The air inside is still, hot and humid.  “The air conditioning?” I ask.  She flips a switch and the ceiling fan begins to spin.  High on the wall above an air conditioning unit sits dark and mute.  I turn to ask her about it, but she is already gone.  It recalls a similar incident in Mendoza, and in both cases the lost-in-translation comedy works out well in the end .

Nostre Bayes hotel, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

The room is not much wider than it is tall.  The floor is finished wood plank and a giant armoire serves as a closet.  The spartan furnishings are a combination of ultra-modern and kitsch.  Each is themed fo a famous Argentinian and on this night I’ve drawn Buenos Aires Formula One race care driver Juan Manuel Fangio.  It takes three tries to get the wi-fi connection to stick.  “It is better on the lower floors,” the clerk tells me upon check-in, “but sometimes it goes out in bad weather.”  I’m thinking that the storm I’ve just flown through should arrive here in a few hours.  I check email and transcribe some handwritten notes made on the plane before preparing to turn in.  I encounter my first Argentine bathroom without a bidet, but the old commode here has been ingeniously retrofitted with a chrome arm tucked inside of the bowl and attached to a lever outside that swings the arm and its small shower head into the center of the bowl.  I wonder for the umpteenth time – but not for very long – what European women know that American women don’t… or vice-versa.  Then I turn in.

At 9AM on my last day in Argentina any expectation that the neighborhood will be sleeping off its late night partying is quickly disproved as I forego the B&B fare to walk the neighborhood in search of a café con leche and the perfect atmosphere in which to nurse it.  There is no lack of choice and I settle on the Café Roli, located at a busy neighborhood street corner on Calle Peru.  I pick a windowside table where I can watch the comings and goings and settle in.

Roli is another of the city’s endless classics.  The place can’t possibly seat more than 50 or 60 people.  Real wood tables and chairs are neatly arranged on a marble tile floor. At one end sits the requisite granite counter service bar covered with trays of fresh medialuna pastries.  Behind it on mirror-backed shelves is a fully stocked bar.  The patrons match the eclectic mix of the people on the street walking briskly to the Subte, catching one of the frequent standing-room-only busses or on rare occasion catching a taxi.  There is a young couple in jeans, pullover shirts and tattoos looking much like those out on the streets only a few hours before.  There is an obviously retired old gentleman engaged in a morning ritual of reading the newspaper front page to back.  There are workers dressed for the office.  The waiter looks remarkably like my Italian grandfather when he was still in his white-haired prime.  He wears a crisply pressed, short sleeve shirt and a black pin-striped apron is tied at the waist. I can’t resist logging on to the wi-fi; no telling what I’ll find when I again attempt it back at the B&B.

I spend what remains of my day walking the neighborhood bistros, bookstores, markets, and antique shops.  The thing that strikes me most as I people-watch is that this is a vibrant organic community, home to a full spectrum of sub-cultures that co-exist in the same space from dawn to closing in a sort of time-share framed by centuries of architectural history.

I’ve read that the true measure of a travel destination is its half-life:  the number of days it takes for its luminescence to lose half of its radiance.  Another measure of its power, I think, is whether or not we deem it worthy of a second visit.  An accident of my itinerary has afforded me the opportunity to return for one day to my choice of the many B.A. neighborhoods visited a week earlier.

I picked San Telmo.

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