When I informed my friends and my family of my decision to go alone to Latin America, and exactly to Argentina, I was deluged with a stream of recommendations. In the public imagination, Latin America is a magic but dangerous continent, tarnished by crime news pages that have to do with narco-trafficking, recent dictatorships, and widespread criminality. I do not want absolutely to deny that the American continent does not have these problems, but generalizations have always annoyed me very much.
Tagging an entire continent for its most well-known problems is a common, but harmful, mistake.
I fell in love with Latin America thanks to its literature. It was 1997 when I read my first novel drawing it from the huge Latin-American literary heritage: “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez. A novel that was short, brutal, in stops and starts bloodthirsty, but soaked with a sunny atmosphere of white houses in the afternoon, tropical heat and human passions, which had bewitched me by then. From that moment it was a short step, and in a few years I read a great deal of other novels written by Latin-American authors, carving out an imaginary world and feeling stronger and stronger the lure of an unknown land, that – as also Valentina tells – I wander why kept on calling.
I chose Argentina because, as my first solo travel in a so remote continent, I felt it easier. The fact that we decide to travel alone does not imply automatically that we are brave women without any fears: a long travel through an unknown Country frightened even me – I cannot deny it. However, at the same time I was very motivated and happy to have taken the most difficult decision: to buy the ticket!
I had almost a month of time and decided to organize the minimum indispensable things. The original idea was to do a voluntary work experience with an association of Buenos Aires, thanks to which I would also have an accommodation. So, I was preparing myself to a slow travel of immersion into the local culture.
I arrived at Buenos Aires, with a direct flight from Barcelona, at 4 o’clock in the morning and nobody of the association with which I was in contact for my voluntary project was waiting for me. I arrived at a kind of hostel where the other “volunteers” lived; these were mainly girls of about 18 years in their gap year before starting college in the United States. We can say that it was not an easy arrival: within 24 hours I had understood that my considerations were wrong, and that, yes, voluntary projects did exist, but the attention reserved to them was not at all the one I expected. A first disappointment that, however, had not made me lose heart: I was in Buenos Aires; I had a metropolis to explore and three weeks to fill. I would have made do with a plan B, which obviously did not exist yet.
During the night, I decided to leave the pseudo-voluntary project and the morning after I dived into a bar in Avenida de Mayo; while eating a medialuna, the typical croissant of the Argentinean breakfast, I looked for a new accommodation. So it was that in a few hours I was moving to Gina’s house, a porteña lady with a beautiful flat in the Recoleta neighbourhood, very close to the homonymous and famous monumental cemetery. From that flat in Avenida General Las Heras my explorations started: I wanted to live Buenos Aires as a local girl, with neither hurry nor predetermined itineraries.
To have an idea of the city, I started with a Free Walking Tour, one of those free tours that allow you to know a city guided by a local person, by paying a final offer. It is an excellent way to get a local point of view on the city, but also to know new people, maybe solo travellers like us. After the first smattering on the history of Buenos Aires, I kept on exploring with more ease.
The metropolis, in its daily chaotic roaring, opened unlimited possibilities to me, but it also intimidated me a bit.
It was very easy to find oneself at a few steps from a disreputable neighbourhood, for this reason my conduct has always been: “follow your instinct and keep a low profile”, a more than sufficient principle to put yourself in a porteña’s shoes and avoid potentially dangerous situations for a girl who is travelling alone. My knowledge of Spanish, of course, was an advantageous plus, which allowed me to catch taxis and bargain the price, by showing off a self-confidence that avoided me stumbling upon price rises for tourists.
The cornerstones of my tour of Buenos Aires were the hours spent inside the bookshop Ateneo Grand Splendid, rated as one of the most beautiful in the world (and I assure you, it is!) and the visit to the former ESMA, Memory Museum, which was the seat of the detention and torture centre for dissidents to the regime during the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. The latter, in particular, was one of those days full of silences and confused thoughts; one of those days that according to me enshrines the meaning of travelling alone. I could not share live those moments of questions and considerations with anyone, wandering aimlessly among the tree-lined avenues of that theatre of secrets and tortures. I preferred to share them later, without haste, after having had the time to absorb what I had seen and listened to.
After 9 very intense days, I decided that it was time for a naturalistic break. Following the advice of some guys met in an art gallery, I caught a train and I went to Rio Tigre shores, the river running along the province of Buenos Aires. The homonymous village is a fluvial village, whose main activity is tourism, but the most interesting part is represented by the dozen of houses overlooking the river and only reachable by water. A ferry-boat provides the service of urban transport and allows the inhabitants to arrive directly at the pier in front of the door of their house: I have lived in one of those houses for about a week. The Argentinean-Dutch couple, who owned the house, had set aside for me a room overlooking the wood, with a big bookshelf at my disposal. I adored staying on the pier reading, swinging in the hammock suspended between the trees or catching the ferry-boat to go to the village.
The contrast with the reality I had experienced in Buenos Aires was clear. Here on the river Tigre there was no trace of social inequalities, noise or exhaust smoke pollution. It was a world suspended in the nature and in the puffing of steamboats. An idyllic break at a few steps from the porteño roaring.
The regional train, which had brought me back to Buenos Aires, represented the slow return to metropolitan reality: as we approached the city, the number of sellers on the train increased (popcorns, snacks of any kind and tooth-brushes were available) and the melting-pot of its passengers grew. The favela just next to the Retiro train station, my terminal, was the final confirmation of it.
Over these two weeks spent in the area of Buenos Aires, travelling alone in Latin America was not a burden. I had the chance to share days with other solo travellers or porteños met in a museum; and each time that the city tired me and made me feel alone, I could always go back to Gina’s house and relax by reading a book or writing on my travel journal.