Southern City

Today is late summer, though yesterday, it was barely spring.

Lightning shocks the sky into pure white light. Half-second silhouettes paint tree branches, blowing leaves, and scared dogs. Then darkness.

The thunder doesn’t wait for my counted seconds. The clouds crash together like two garbage can lids—my hands cover my ears and I crouch from the onslaught of rain.
Warm, wet sheets of rain soak me into total surrender. I stand up and accept the water—my shoes squish squash as I walk towards shelter.

“It rains every afternoon,” says a taxi driver, parked on the cobblestone street with his window rolled down just an inch. No, he does not want to give me a lift. I am too wet, he says, and he rolls up his window and goes back to reading his paper.

They are quite fussy about who they pick up in this city of “fine airs.” Five more empty cabs pass by, and all of their drivers shake their head at me. The rain grows stronger and I step under the only bit of shelter that is open—Freddo’s gelato shop. There’s one on every corner, it seems.

I surrender again, this time to a small, 20-peso chocolate cone filled with creamy Italian-style gelato. In less than a day I have feasted on hand-rolled pasta, melted provolone cheese, and blood red tenderloin as soft as cake.

One eats boldly in Buenos Aires, without flinching. The same goes for dancing or shopping or dressing or driving—whatever you do in B.A, do it boldly. Wear fuchsia if you want, slip on the highest heels you can find, devour a 3-pound steak and dance tango like it’s illegal. Don’t walk just one dog in the park—walk twelve at once.

The only thing I am not doing boldly is sightseeing. The rain has ended my cemetery visit, and everything I long to see is in a different neighborhood.

“How far?” I ask the drivers in their black and yellow bumblebee taxis. They won’t tell me—they only shake their heads. Distance is irrelevant here—and so is time. Twenty minutes or two hours, every moment in Buenos Aires lives in between another moment in the back seat of a cab (if you can get one).

Besides, Buenos Aires is not a city for sightseeing. No—Argentina’s capital is a city for doing: eat/drink/dance/go. In general, the people of the port (Porteños) ignore tourists like they ignore sleep.

When the rain is finished, the heat returns. In touristy La Boca, the tango dancers stand in costume and melting makeup—the woman with her false eyelashes, the man with slicked hair, dripping. They are bored and refuse to tango until some tourist hands them money to dance. Nobody pays and so they stand on the street, not dancing.

A hundred yards away though, right on the river docks, the children are dancing. There is no music and there are no spectators. Their movements are unrehearsed and unnamed—the children merely laugh and dance without reason. I can’t remember if I have ever seen children dancing for the hell of it.

Another cab driver agrees to transport me to San Telmo—past a man selling bundles of roses in newspaper, past the confetti of old architecture and into a land of sidewalks, hat shops, cafés, and balconies. I look up and see a figure posed in every window, leaning against the railing, looking down on the world below.

There are two cities in Buenos Aires: the rivers of traffic that flow between parks and neighborhoods, and then the upper realm—the rooftops and balconies and higher floors where people live.

To see this second city you must climb, and so I do. Through a doorway and up several spiral staircases, up and up, past tiled floors and courtyards until I am six or seven stories above the crumbling splendor of San Telmo. I see church steeples, concrete domes, a woman ironing a shirt through an open window across the street, and faraway, the chic mirrored towers of Puerto Madero.

Everything points to money. My final cab driver of the day points to the gigantic pink house in the square—la casa rosa—where the president lives.

“My taxes pay for each one of her new faces,” he mutters. The words are Spanish but the feeling is pure Italian: the up and down lilt of his political tirade, the way he shakes both hands, and the way he drives.

I arrived in this city yesterday and I leave tomorrow. I am just passing through, like a bird migrating south. I have been here before and I will come again. There is too much here to miss in my lifetime. Too much action.

In my head I am already plotting my return. Maybe towards the end of the summer, when it begins to get cool back home. By then, down here, it should be early spring.

A mural of Evita decorates the Ministry of Health in Buenos Aires (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)


  1. Abby
    March 8, 2012, 9:23 pm

    I am very jealous. I’ve been a couple of times and your descriptions make me want to be there,

  2. Charlie
    March 9, 2012, 5:45 pm

    Will arrive in BA Monday.

  3. AR
    Washington DC
    March 14, 2012, 2:22 pm

    Great Post

  4. Monica
    March 22, 2012, 11:57 pm

    Your poetic words make me want to travel. I’m quite sure that is what you intended to do. Enjoy your journeys enough for me too.

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