Travelling warps your sense of time, making recent experiences into distant memories. It’s hard to imagine a few days before arriving at the grand Buenos Aires we had the most interesting two days. Woken up at four am by some light drops of rain accompanied with thunder, and knowing we had to leave in a few hours, I prompted my tent mate to quickly pack up and fold the tent. No sooner had we finished, the heavens opened in a mighty roar of water. Unfortunately the rest of the group hadn’t been so intuitive, and were sprinting to the small bbq area under cover. This area soon turned into a pit station as volunteers ran into the early morning dark and pour to drag tents in for the semi dry pit crew to pounce on. Soaking wet but beaming with pride over our team performance, we begun our departure from Brasil. The immigration office was shed in patchy, fluorescent lights that flickered through metal grates. The concrete walls were browned by human contact, only the higher and roof remaining white. A green stripe of chipped paint and sections of concrete plastered and cracked added to the dismal scene. A large lady with a shiny green fly on her blonde head stared into the blue light of a computer in the windowless gloom. Next followed a long drive that ended at an eerie, forsaken water park. Pitching tents in the shadow of towering, concrete water slides as a pair of giggling twin girls watched us with mischievous eyes was spooky, especially considering we were somewhere along a long and lonely highway. A delicious meal cooked with the trucks camping equipment soothed all suspicions of starring in the next big horror film as we settled down for the night.
Next thing, we emerged from deserted roads and water parks to outrageous life. Buenos Aires, the enchanting mix of romantic Paris and modern New York, with Latin flare. Architecturally magnificent buildings towering over thriving streets, greenery and concrete blended into one. Cars conduct the constant chorus of the city, horns echoing above the buzz of machinery on worksites.
A cool breeze dances, drawing away any pollution that threatens to linger. Nestled in among clusters of buildings exist serene parks, the laughter of children creating a bubble of peace. Training wheels rattle over uneven paving, small children swirling careless around me as pigeons swoop overhead. Even though the sun shines brightly, the shade offered by a great, old tree is more refreshing than any air conditioner.
Next a flavoursome market emerges from the dense forest of buildings, its delicious scent filling the air. The fresh, earthy smell of produce overpowered by mouth watering spices, pastries, bread and hot treats. Music thunders from speakers, giving rhythm to the hum of human voices crowding around the small stalls. Across the road is the artisan market, bright and innovative objects alluring from their tables.
To ultimately contrast the brilliant life of the city, the large Rocleta cemetery looms behind high brick walls. Not even the obnoxious buzz of outside can penetrate the perpetual silence of the tombs frozen in time. Stepping silently along the endless rows of tombs, a loneliness grows as the tourist crowd all but disappears. My chest feels tight as I hold my breath, too scared to breath in the presence of more dead than living. Some tombs are lavishly decorated and upheld, green ferns growing beneath a crucified Christ behind marbled and glass doors. Others remain forgotten. A small tomb with broken glass waits mournfully, debris from a caved roof littering the dusty coffin beneath. Invasive plants hang silently in the darkness, a crude sign of life in a place so devoid of it. The wise hazel eyes of a lone cat follows me down a deserted row, its presence an eerie omen. A musty smell weighs heavily in the air, tombs dating back nearly two-hundred years. Concrete is stained with mould and time, the eyes and mouth of one figurehead pouring black tears of decay. Death is no equaliser here, lavish tombs dating as recent as 2015 shining among the derelict. Great pain is etched into walls, inscriptions paying homage to young and old. The lonely tomb of a seventeen year old girl freezes me in my path, a single photo of her resting on a dusty marble shelf. The framed turquoise and corals of a period nearly fifty years ago echoes flatly, vacant baby blue eyes fading into time’s embrace. The hauntingly dead cemetery in the tangle of a living city is unbelievable, a place for deep, eternal sleep frozen within a city of lively sleeplessness.
Withdrawing from the delicate world of the dead, I’m thrown back into the madness of BA. People flow in a determined race, wafting the smell of expensive perfume and cleanliness. Children totter along behind wealthy parents, decked from head to toe in the richest brands while others sit on cardboard by pregnant mothers, begging for spare change. The decadent Teatro Colon (Columbus Theatre) stands proudly, marble pillars and staircases praising the high, lavishly painted ceilings, stunning chandeliers and red velvet seats.
The La Boca district escapes this wealth, highlighting the true culture of the city. Seemingly like Brooklyn, the streets are foreboding and neglected. Dog mines litter the foot path, adding to the pungent smell of polluted back streets. This is the majority of the population in Buenos Aires, as much as the main street dwellers try to ignore it. Turning the corner, the bright streets of El Caminto allude to the romance and style of Tango, so easily lost in the headache of tourism. Unfortunately, I only experienced the passion of this magnificent cultural manifestation once during my time in BA. Nethertheless it was mesmerising, classy and sexy.
Leaving the luxurious city brought back the crippling reality of most of Argentina when we stopped at a petrol station. The sun’s rays ended a chilly night, illuminating a desolate truck stop. Dogs laid in the dewy grass, slinking around the concrete pillars.. A lopey patchy brown and white dog with gunky eyes nuzzled me, enjoying the rare show of affection. Every bone stuck out from his body, knobby ribs crying for food. Strange lumps clustered among his fur, behind his ears. Attempting to pull the parasite off elicited a yelp. Only forgiveness met my apologising as I resorted back to cuddles. A young black puppy bounded up to us, eyes even gunkier than the adults. A huge thumbnail sized tick hung from the loose skin on his neck that should’ve been supporting body mass. No sound was made when it came off, but I can only hope it was a relief. Not enough time to check for more, pain flooded my chest as the dogs nudged and followed me as I tried to make my departure. Some on the tour looked at me with pity, others with sympathy. They say it can’t be done, nothing I can do. But those skinny dogs at the petrol station could be saved. They need a medicated bath, to be rid of ticks and fleas. They need proper food, not scraps from passerbys. Everyday something new confronts me, the solutions chidingly out of my reach.
This trip is developing into something more challenging than I expected. In all honesty, I’ve fought the desire to desert the trip. Social groups have never been my forte, and being thrown into one of strangers for such a crowded and extended time has had its affects. I’m struggling, especially considering I have no escape. When things get rough I cannot retreat. I either fight or break – and it’s been the latter recently. I expected travel to confront me, but never like this. I can only hope this dark period can make me stronger, and not push me down further. The endless kilometres and hours on the truck allow my mind to run rampant, the uncomfortable nights in a tent eating away at me. There’s only so far one can recluse when stuck travelling, eating, and sleeping with a group. Yet despite my internal battles, I cannot deny the kindness of those around me. Some have now seen me at my breaking point, and also at my highs. The bond might not yet be one of friendship, but instead mutual respect as we journey and learn together. I’m slowly adjusting to the world I’ve thrown myself into, finding peace where I can.
The longing for home never ceases. Waking up disorientated in a dark tent offers me a few seconds to be in my bed at home before the reality of the hard ground and cool air around me kicks in. Time is cruel as I can no longer smell the scent of my Mum’s perfume on my pillow, or the familiar laundry powder that lingered on my clothes.
Everyone at home has been so supportive and I cannot imagine how I’d fare without the reassuring contact. Feeling so far from familiarity, it’s easy to forget the people you left.
It’s almost time to pull out my expensively warm double lined jacket and thermals, Patagonia on the maps. Hasta luego!