The best way to get to know Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES BUS: The best seat in town.
Michael Mucci

BUENOS AIRES BUS: The best seat in town.

'My soul is in the streets of Buenos Aires, not the greedy streets jostling with crowds and traffic, but the neighbourhood streets, where nothing is happening" - Jorge Luis Borges, Las Calles.

Buenos Aires is a city of protests. On any given day, there is a street somewhere swamped with protesters who close subways, blocks streets and cut the bridges. Despite this, the one constant is the buses that circle every street and avenue of greater Buenos Aires.

They descend on the city each morning in a procession of colours and numbers like carnival floats.

The way many people see Buenos Aires is through the window of a bus. This is the local way, not on an open-top double decker with a multilingual commentary. This costs less than $1, irrespective of where you are going.

I came to Buenos Aires as a stranger - a boy with a suitcase in his hand and the prospect of romance. The way I got to know the city was on the buses. If I had to take someone on a particular bus to experience the place I have lived on and off for three years, it would be the "veintidos", the 22.

As Borges, Buenos Aires' most revered writer, said of the city: "Buenos Aires, I go journeying in your streets, without time or reason." And with this aimlessness, people see the city through his lens.

Retiro is the most obvious juxtaposition I know in the city, and the place where the journey begins. On the left of the Avenida del Libertador are hotels, parks and men walking manicured dogs.

This is the Europe within Buenos Aires that everyone speaks of. The neo-Gothic apartment buildings point inwards, away from what lies across the multi-lane road - Villa 31, a slum with almost 30,000 people living in the brick and wood shanty that stretches over the train tracks and into the vast pockets under the freeway.

This is not a scar, it is part of the fabric of the city and Borges lived near Retiro for many years.

At a cafe while I wait for the bus, I see a woman invite a child from the villa to her table to share sandwiches. His shoes are tied with stretched plastic bags and they talk of life on either side of the road.

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People line up on the edge of the enormous station with coins in hand. This is the first lesson you learn. Every bus has a coin machine. You tell the driver the value of your fare and put the coins in to the machine.

"Uno sesenta y cinco," I tell the man with black sideburns and a crumpled white shirt. I take a window seat up the back of the near-empty bus.

There is something exciting about boarding a bus without knowing exactly where you will end up. I swivel to watch the names of the streets I don't know as we pull through the north of Buenos Aires. Jacarandas line the streets and cover the paths with purple carpets from their fallen flowers.

We grind past the Torre Monumental, the paladin clock tower that was a tribute to the English until 1982 and the Guerra de las Malvinas (Falklands War).

There is a monument to the fallen soldiers here and, despite the referendum by the citizens of the Falklands, many portenos still believe that the land of the Malvinas is rightfully theirs.

A man with slicked hair and a Blackberry gives up his seat for a woman and her smock-wearing children on the way to school. An old lady with her shopping in Coto bags balances along the front rails, while lip-studded teenagers drift into the back seats.

The bus turns on to Avenida Leandro N. Alem, the splayed artery that takes us alongside the towering apartments that seem like cliffs preventing us from entering the city proper. This is the business district. Glinting commercial offices sit beside the classic buildings of Argentina's golden era in the 20th century.

My favourite building is the post office, although this is no modest affair. It sits on a 12,500-square-metre block and the 60-metre-high building is decorated with arches and statues and marble.

It was seen as so opulent that Juan Peron and his wife, Eva, moved their offices here after 1946. It is only a fleeting glimpse, but it always reminds me of the grandeur that is possible here. I have never entered the building, and I prefer to keep it that way to maintain the mystery of what might be going on inside.

There are slivers of sun behind the Obelisco de Buenos Aires in the distance as the bus continues to fill. A lady with tight jeans and one earphone in her ear sits next to me as we wind around the trees of Parque Colon and the pink palace, Casa Rosada, that flanks the Plaza de Mayo.

Now it is full of pigeons and tourists, although it has seen the best and the worst of the city in the past, with celebrations after Argentina's World Cup win in 1986 and continued protests by the mothers of the 30,000 people who disappeared in the "Dirty War".

The bus passes the Catedral de Buenos Aires, where the flames flicker outside in the alcoves even during the day. Until recently, this was the home parish of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who is now better known as Pope Francis.

There are people standing now who stumble when we turn. The windows fog with breath and I feel San Telmo before I see it. The streets are cobbled and we bump along Avenida Defensa past Irish pubs and trapitos on the streets, men with rags who "watch over" people's cars while they shop at the antique stores. Plaza Dorrego is bustling with musicians, craft sellers and tourists. I hear the rising sound of Astor Piazzolla's haunting tango through the window and see the black swish of two cloaked dancers on the corner.

Borges once said, "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library", and from the windows we see Calle Mexico and the former national library that Borges directed - his own inner-city utopia.

Our bus is a tin stuffed with sardines now, but as we stop at the lights further down, I see the trees shading people who walk along the winding paths of Parque Lezama.

I once lived on the corner here and I would see the world go by from my window. Everyone lived so close that you would know what time 6A had his shower, that 5B had a new boyfriend and the marital problems of the people on the seventh floor.

I have become intoxicated with this place. The passion the people have for Buenos Aires is visceral, yet also everywhere you look as we travel the cobbled streets of Borges' city.

On the corner of the park, people sit with tubs of ice-cream and I see the iron balconies and white shutters on Avenida Caseros, where Che Guevara set off on his adventure in the film The Motorcycle Diaries. The smell of coffee from the open windows of 100-year-old cafe El Hipopotamo greets us before we continue to Barracas, the beginning of the working-class suburbs.

We hear the high rhythmic drum beat of the candombe groups in the park and turn into Montes de Oca as it begins to roll into the grey of afternoon. There is graffiti on the walls and the houses seem empty.

Boys riding a horse-drawn cart filled with recyclables linger on the side of the road and we rise up to the bridge, Puente Pueyrredon, and over a kink in the waters of the Riachuelo, which looks like a sheet of bubbling green glass from up here.

There are no protests today, only families and children rushing out of school in their white smocks and on to the corners.

This part of the city isn't beautiful. The predominant colour is grey, although this image endures with me. Buenos Aires is a palimpsest city. Layer after layer is different, depending on where you are sitting.

Travel writer Bruce Chatwin once said, "The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory", and it is still the case.

We pass Italian delicatessens, where old men sip espresso and grapa on the pavements, Hungarian scout clubs, Japanese restaurants and Jewish schools, all layered within the streets of suburbia.

We pass the towers where my mother-in-law lives and later in the town of Wilde, the squat, white house of her brother. We go here every Sunday, without fail, for a barbecue. It is a tradition that binds families all over the city.

The shadows of the afternoon begin to fall in columns across the road. Buenos Aires is a vertical city and darkness descends quickly on the streets that are fenced in by the apartments. People get off the 22 in all directions, although I stay on until the end. Hours have passed from my seat by the window.

The aimlessness of Borges seeps into you on the buses. Buenos Aires is full of contradictions and acne, although to me it's like the real love you have for someone, once you have seen them without make-up and in a bad mood.

I nod to the driver as I skip on to the streets in the southern suburb of Quilmes and he acknowledges me only for a moment, but it is enough.

Ben Stubbs is a lecturer in journalism and writing at the University of South Australia. He has travelled to and written about more than 50 countries, though Argentina remains his favourite.

 - SMH


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