I’ve been asked if my entry to the Bradt-Independent on Sunday travel writing competition is available to read anywhere. Well, it is now – see below!
If it hadn’t been for Senora Zapato, as I’ll call her, not knowing her real name, what happened to me a few days after I met her would have seemed even more bizarre. It was late afternoon with a sullen sky and I was drifting down Calle Peru, one of the shadowy, narrow streets in San Telmo. The heavy air was filled, as it is everywhere in the city’s oldest barrio, with the constant, coarse symphony of blaring bus horns. I was on my way home from Spanish school, hazily mulling over the impenetrable and daily growing jungle of subjunctive tenses in my mind, when an elderly but sprightly woman, dressed in a smartly-buttoned coat with a fox’s head peeping demurely over one shoulder, stopped me. It was Senora Zapato. I assumed she wanted to ask me for directions: it happens to me wherever I am, from London to sub-Saharan Africa. I feel pity for the dislocated strangers around the world who seek my help, because I have a limited sense of direction and am often lost myself. Hector, the doorman in my apartment block in Buenos Aires, joked that he was going to put an arrow on the wall pointing towards the front door, because I kept turning the wrong way when I came out of the lift.
Senora Zapato didn’t need to know where she was going. Instead, she said something to me in a civil yet urgent tone, undoubtedly polite but to me, still unfamiliar with the coasting cadences of the Argentinian language, inexplicable. When I continued to look blank – I was still listening out for a recognisable street or familiar place name on which to hang the hook of my groping Spanish – she began to gesticulate firmly at my shoelaces. They weren’t undone. They just somehow didn’t meet her standards of safe neatness and had too much waywardly trailing lace. I thanked her for her advice and went to move on, but she wanted to witness me tying my laces tighter, so like an obedient child I propped my feet one by one on a convenient doorstep and retied my trainers under her beady inspection. When they were finally done to her satisfaction, she gave me a big thumbs up, an endearing grin – mirrored cheekily by the fox – and swept on.
A curious but unique occurrence, you might think. Senora Zapato was a touch eccentric, you could conclude. Yet a couple of days later, having dropped off my washing at one of the many super-fast Chinese lavanderias, where your clothes are in, whirled, tumbled and out in a matter of hours, I overtook a young man on the pavement outside one of the equally numerous, but ploddingly connected, internet cafes. Eager to hook myself up to the IV line of gmail, I brushed past him impatiently and as I did so he inadvertently trod on the back of my trainer, which slipped off. I shoved it back on and shrugged off his effusive apologies. He carried on talking but my mind was already composing an email to my estate agent in London and I was barely listening. The guy was being very persistent about something and eventually I realised that part of his phone charm, a shiny blue ladybird, had somehow fallen off and become lodged in my shoe. He bent down, pumped his upturned palm in the air until I raised my leg slightly, then wriggled off my trainer and reclaimed the ladybird. Odd, but well, maybe it was his lucky phone charm.
Expecting him to straighten up I turned towards the welcoming doorway of the internet café, backlit by the blue-grey flares of a suite of computer screens. Like a salesman in a child’s shoe shop, ladybird man remained crouched on the ground, while he doggedly relaced my left shoe. Then, despite my bewildered protestations, he tapped my right foot, eased off the shoe, shook it interrogatively, tenderly replaced it and retied it securely with a firm double knot. I felt like a bemused modern-day Cinderella, in scruffy Skechers rather than glittering glass slippers. Both shoes now tightly and symmetrically laced, he stood up, said goodbye, and walked off. I stood, mute, my skimpy Spanish having fled in incredulity. I’d heard the warning tales of wily Portenos flinging ink on tourists as a distraction while they rob them and when I reclaimed my senses from the soles of my feet, I began to wonder if this was the latest scam. But my purse was in my bag, my watch was on my wrist, my laundry ticket was in my pocket and what’s more, I had the best-tied shoelaces in Buenos Aires. I shrugged my shoulders and nudged open the door of the internet café with my foot.