Sunday, 9 November 2008

Friendliness and fear in a new town

This was not Stefan's first time in Argentina, and he had a friend he wanted to visit. For our first night in Buenos Aires, we headed to the Abasto shopping centre, where this friend, Jaime, worked. The Abasto shopping centre is a beautiful structure (on the outside, at least - inside, it's just like any other shopping centre I've ever visited) - it's an old market building. Stefan headed to Customer Services, where another charming young Argentinean girl made the necessary phone call. While Stefan waited, I headed off to see if I could find the earphones that I so desperately needed…

We waited for Jaime to finish his shift (the shops close in the Abasto centre at around 10pm), and I sat and marvelled at how everyone was still wide-awake and roaming around the shopping centre well past 10 o'clock. Stefan told me that it was the same even in small villages in Argentina: they stay up late in this country. Jaime turned up and we went for a quick coffee. He instantly extended a hand of friendship to me, showing a great interest in me and my life, London, and my future in Buenos Aires. He gave me his card and told me to come and find him whenever, and to keep in touch, and offered some words of caution about Buenos Aires. This wasn't the first time I'd been told to be careful in Buenos Aires. In my tired state, such cautions sounded to me like I was living in a crazy dangerous city.

Stefan and Jaime

"Keep your bag in front of you at all times," he told me. I've taken this advice ever since, and noticed that I'm not the only one in Buenos Aires who doesn't carry their rucksack as it was intended to be carried. It's common to see people walking down the street here with their backpack on their chest rather than their back. I know that in Spain, it wasn't unheard of for thieves to simply knife open a backpack and help themselves to the contents, so I'm not taking any chances in this town.

One thing that's grabbed my attention so far over here is the culture of weapons. In England, we have big problems in certain cities, and knife and gun crime is always being reported in the news. I'm going to be on the look-out for stories in the press here that echo what's going on in the poorer parts of South London, because things are rather different over here. I walked past a shop yesterday that had massive knives on display in the window. I doubt there are many restrictions on who can buy these (hey, it's Gaucho land! Knives are a cultural artefact…). There are gun shops galore. I walked past a news kiosk today and noticed that there was a magazine for sale called "Armas" ("Weapons"), which had pictures of guns adorning the front cover. It's a bit of a shock for someone who comes from a country where there's increasing pressure to try and get rid of weapons from daily life.

Anyway, enough talk about the nastier side of life. As a newcomer to a city that's incredibly different to my own city, some things are obviously going to be slightly unsettling. One thing seems clear to me so far, though: the government really is running this place into the ground. There's no way in hell I believe that a city like Buenos Aires should be in such a mess. Corruption and nepotism have destroyed what could be one of the richest countries in the world.

Jaime left me in no doubt, though: Argentina can boast of having a wonderfully friendly population (Jaime is actually from Chile, but he left when Pinochet was in charge there, and has lived in Argentina for so long that he's arguably more Argentinean than Chilean), and while there may be a few that are so desperate that they need to steal to get by, the majority of people here are probably very friendly and helpful. It was a shame that I couldn't go off with him and Stefan the next evening, to his house outside of the main city. I had to visit a flat instead.

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