On the mean streets of Buenos Aires

When you sit in a café here, usually within a few minutes an itinerant peddler will edge in and sidle round the tables, leaving a small item or trinket on each – a pen, a plastic game of the sort you might win in a Christmas cracker, a packet of sweets crammed with artificial colours and flavours, the internationally ubiquitous briefcase of watches. They tend to deposit their wares off-handedly, almost stealthily, and then circulate back in the hope that someone will buy. The same thing happens on the subte (the underground: efficient, clean, hard to believe it was the first in Latin America and is older than the metros in  both Paris and Moscow). These roaming salespeople are sometimes annoying, often heart rending, especially if they’re children. You have to steel your soul or else before long you’ll have enough useless junk to set up in business yourself. Perhaps surprisingly, locals do buy: just the other day I saw a guy dip into his wallet and pay 10 pesos (just less than 2 pounds), for a clip-on reading light – great impulse buy between stops on the daily commute!

I always feel a flush of guilt as the unwanted objects land on my table and a stab of sympathy as I imagine what the circumstances of their seller might be.  But I have more than enough stuff with me already so I usually refuse.  I just couldn’t resist Pedro though. He was wearing a black and white checked shirt and had a round face like a chipmunk, topped by a bald crown. He handed round snall books (librettos) of poems, made from paper torn from a school notebook, the type with squares ruled on, tied together with narrow velvet ribbons in different colours. Mine was pale blue (the colour they call celeste here, which I think is just delightful). Pedro is a patient in a local psychiatric hospital and had written the poems himself. He had an open face and a modest manner, and the fact that he was selling poetry struck me as enterprising as well as romantic (in the Wordsworthian sense). It appealed to my literary tendencies, so I bought one, to Pedro’s obvious delight. His poems were touching, and I translated them into English as a way of practicing my Spanish. I wanted to put a sample or two here, but a few hoodlums in La Boca put paid to that by stealing my day bag, complete with contents, including Pedro´s sweet little libretto.

It was my last day at school, and my last day at the comedor (informal community centre) where I’d been volunteering. Outside the tourist zone, where the police have a heavy presence among the  brightly coloured camionetas (wooden houses initially constructed by Italian immigrants constructed with whatever materials were to hand and in a mix whatever colours were available), the barrio of La Boca is a notoriously dodgy area. I’d been going in and out of there on my own for a month with no problems at all, so I’d probably got a little too relaxed. On that final Friday, class had gone uncharacteristically well, and Anne, the American teacher who’d  been working on the same programme, and I were feeling almost proud as we handed over the reins to Chris, a young Korean American who’d be taking over from us. We were in high spirits and to mark the occasion, we shared a quick beer in the pizzeria opposite the community centre before standing at the bus stop outside.

Before we knew what was happening we were being jostled by a group of young men in their late teens/early 20s. At first it all seemed a bit of a joke, but any sense of fun quickly faded as we realised these guys meant business and were intent on stealing mine and Anne´s bags.  I held on to the straps of my backpack as long as I could, being dragged a little way down the street away from the other two. Fortunately for me, this meant I didn´t actually see the gun being drawn and pressed to Chris´s neck while Anne was relieved of her bag (a brightly patterned roomy number she´d bought in Vietnam, where she´s spent many years teaching). My guy got bored of struggling with me in a bizarre tug-of-war over my bag and made a threatening lunge forward. He grabbed me by the throat and at this point I gave in and he sped off.

There were lots of bystanders but nobody did anything: after all, robbery is a common occurrence in La Boca, and not just of tourists  – a companero of the centre had been mugged just outside a few weeks before and as we waited in the police station later for our so-called crime reports, a young porteno looking distressed came in to report his own attack. Unluckily for him, the street where the theft had occurred wasn’t covered by that particular police station so he had to go elsewhere. Before long news had got back to our friends at the community centre and various people were milling around, concerned, but rather ineffectual. Roxanna, the volunteer coordinator, suggested that if I couldn’t get back in to my apartment I could sleep at the volunteer centre and she’d lend me a dress to wear for the Halloween party the next day. Missing the party wasn’t uppermost in my mind at that point, I must say, but I’m sure she meant well. Ricardo, an aspiring poet and politically active member of the adult classes, assured us that the police were corrupt and would do nothing, and another comedor member, Pedro, said that it was only to be expected and anyway, these guys didn’t have any other way of earning money. Despite his slightly annoying assessment of the situation, Pedro did later on show up at the police station to provide us with moral support and Roxanna with a running commentary of proceedings on his mobile: he had a good heart.

Chris, not surprisingly after his close encounter with the gun, was in deep shock, and Anne was vacillating between wanting to run after the hoodlums and slumping into short faints against the window of the pizzeria. I managed to get her and Chris inside and spotted a policeman. Our luck was in, I thought, as he said he would be over to help. Then I saw him walk out to his van with a stack of pizza boxes, open the side door, slide them in, calmly walk round to the driver’s door and move off. Apparently, as Pedro informed me later, the police not only turn a blind eye to theft in the area  but are actively involved in it by receiving a cut from the thieves in exchange for doing nothing.

I’d asked the restaurant owner to call the police and when a second officer appeared and started propping up the pizza bar I persuaded him he needed to take us in his squad car to the police station. He was very reluctant and insisted it was close enough for us to walk, but I wasn’t about to let another one get away – I needed a crime report for my insurance claim and also needed to get back to my apartment soon to have any chance of getting back in: my keys were in the bag and Hector, the doorman at my building, would finish at 8pm for the weekend. I was due to catch a boat to Colonia in Uruguay first thing Sunday morning, which added an extra layer of complication: I couldn’t just hole up at a friend’s, I needed to get my stuff.

Eventually the policeman let us all pile into his care and we spent a frustrating hour at the police station, pleading for the whole tiresome process to be got through quickly so we could try to get home. But the policeman had more pressing things to do, like texting his girlfriend and selling documents to ‘customers’ who arrived after us (with no money to bribe him ourselves, we were a less urgent priority), so it was about five to eight when we finally left. Poor Chris was traumatised by his experience but at least he still had his wallet, so we got a taxi into town, the others dropping me at my door at about 8.15. I loitered at the gate, until the kindly Alfonse and his wife – I’d never met them before – turned up, let me into the building, called Hector, gave me a spare key to the front entrance and, perhaps surprisingly, a brief tour of the apartment they were having renovated on the ground floor as a rental property. Very kind of them, and without their help I don’t know how I would’ve managed. Hector said he would meet me at the apartment block at midnight to see if he had a spare set of keys (as it turned out, he didn’t, but he drove me to my landlady’s house, we woke her up and to my great relief  she produced some keys) and as I had my bus fare in coins still clutched in my hand, I was able to take the subte and still make my 9pm drinks date with my friend Esther.

I was safe, it could’ve been much worse, and my heart was warmed by the genuinely kind help I’d received. But I’d lost my camera with all my pictures, my language lesson books, and some of my credit cards: this was definitely a Friday afternoon I could do without repeating.

I’ve since bought a replacement camera and have been out taking pics: if anyone would like to take a look you can see them at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/lizgooster/BuenosAires?authkey=Gv1sRgCIq6hLHNrJToUQ&feat=directlink

http://picasaweb.google.com/lizgooster/Uruguay?authkey=Gv1sRgCLOL9_6S9-qFrAE&feat=directlink

http://picasaweb.google.com/lizgooster/Iguazu?authkey=Gv1sRgCKbwofu_793r6wE&feat=directlink

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4 thoughts on “On the mean streets of Buenos Aires

  1. My sentiments exactly. Friday 13th was it?! You did well to hang on in there and I hope your other friends are alright after the ordeal.

    …and there I was joking with Priya recently that you were clearly having such a good time that you’d forgotten to tell us about it. You take care.

    D

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