Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Postcard from La Boca

laboca10.jpgThere's a bust of Admiral William Brown, the Irishman who founded the Argentine Navy, in the La Boca area of Buenos Aires. It overlooks a harbour which, thanks to generations of corruption and a waste disposal mafia, is now reckoned to be the most polluted body of water in South America.

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Behind Brown's memorial is the Caminito, a triangle of streets famous for its bright colours and tango cafes. Individuals selling paintings with tango and local architectural themes vie with street tango performers for the attention of any visitors. The colours are from when the section was renovated as an artists' centre under the direction of one Quinquela Martin.

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The Caminito is busy with daytime tourists, and there's a strong police presence. The policemen are very polite and helpful, though I was told that this is a fairly latter-times phenomenon. "They've had training in being people-friendly," I was told. "They weren't always like that."

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But the police aren't there after dark. Nor are the tourists. La Boca is off-limits then to all but locals. They effectively govern themselves, independent of the city authority. In every way. The paintings, for instance, are all individual, but no outsider can get into the business, which is an integral part of the local independent economy.

Where once other citizens could wander freely and enjoy the cafes and their famous music in the evenings, they can't do that any more. "When I was young it was the place to come," says Alicia, a city native. "Since the eighties, not any more. It's unsafe at night. I miss it." Then wistfully, but without any real hope, "maybe someday we'll be able to come down here again?"

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Coming down in the comfort of the coach we had passed the famous 'Boca Juniors' soccer stadium where, amongst others, Maradonna learned his trade. Under its looming presence a homeless man lived in one of its streetside indentations, complete with a full metal bed and his worldly good stacked under it.

As the dark began arriving, we headed back to our bus. Presumably those new-friendly policemen were also leaving.

Admiral Brown stayed, his expression unchanging even in the stink of the harbour over which he watches for eternity.

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