La Boca, Buenos Aires, how speaking Japanese saved me


Well I may have exaggerated a little. It was not exactly a life and death situation, but to me at the time, it did feel a little like one. Imagine my first day in South America, on a bus to a suburb with a dangerous reputation, only knowing a few basic words in Spanish, and realising the bus didn't take cash after the bus driver started driving off. I may be the one to blame for the lack of research I had done for this trip, but still, I was thinking, "Oh crap!"

Anyway, lets start at the beginning of the story.


I never really got excited for my South American trip, and therefore hadn't done as much research as I usually would. The enthusiasm that I had when I first booked it impulsively at the travel expo, had waned. Somehow it felt like I was leaving a life more exciting, especially after the Christmas celebrations with friends and family, and witnessing my one month old niece's day to day growth and development. Nevertheless the day has come, I packed my bags and headed to the airport, a little apprehensive for the lack of preparation, hoping that excitement would take over.

And excitement did take over, starting from my first encounter with South America at Brisbane Airport. As usual my "terrorist looks" got me pulled aside for explosives screening. The officer asked me where I was travelling to and started a pleasant conversation, it turned out she was originally from Brazil and gave me a few tips. Even a 4 hour layover in Sydney, or a 15 and a half hour flight to Buenos Aires on a plane with no seat-back screens for entertainment (which I often rely my sanity upon on long flights) could not douse the growing amber of excitement. The friendliness of the people in Buenos Aires, from the customs officer, to the taxi driver, to the night caretaker at the guest house, was apparent even if our conversations were conducted in a mix of broken English and Spanish. Even the cat 'Milonga' at the guest house was very welcoming and climbed onto my lap only after 5 minutes acquaintance. 

The cat 'Milonga'

After a night of tossing and turning from jet lag I was woken by my alarm at 10am as I didn't want to miss the guest house's breakfast. I was staying in Palermo about 10km from the city, my original plan for the day was to take the subte (subway) to the San Telmo sunday markets but unfortunately the subway line was closed for maintenance that day. I was unsure what to do when the bus to La Boca pulled up. I had read about La Boca and its colourful houses, and in that instant I bravely decided to hop on and go explore it instead. I tried to shove some cash in front of the bus driver but did not realise that this particular bus did not take cash (only a SUBE card). As I hesitated the bus driver started driving off. Yes, this was the "oh crap" moment.

As I was debating what to do, the couple who got on at the same time generously let me swipe their SUBE card instead. I heard them conversing in Japanese and we started talking. They were originally from Niigata in Japan and were studying Spanish in Buenos Aires for a few months. They did not speak much English, and I did not speak much Spanish, so Japanese was how we communicated. I didn't expect my 6 years of Japanese studies to be so handy in this part of the world - my teachers/tutors would have been pleased! The couple was going to see La Boca as well and we exchanged travel plans and ideas.


It's funny how you can plan your trip to death, to see all the best monuments and the quirky sides of a city, but it's these unexpected moments that you cherish the most. The generosity of strangers and their unexpected company turned my day from a potential disaster to one to remember. 


La Boca

La Boca (meaning the mouth in Spanish) is a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires at the mouth of the river where early settlers called home. They used tin sheets to build their houses and painted them in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours. One balcony stands three of Argentina's national heroes - Maradona, Evita, and Carlos Gardel (tango singer). Maradona is depicted wearing blue and yellow of his local team, the Boca Juniors, a famous and successful team whose stadium is located a few streets away. 


The main tourist street, El Caminito, was very lively on a Sunday afternoon. Many tourists and locals came out to visit the many restaurants, shops and to see the street performers. I had my first introduction of a parilla (mixed grill) for a relaxed lunch while watching tango dancers interpret the music with their measured steps, dramatic pivots and sensual wraps.


La Boca has a reputation of being a dangerous area. It is important to stay on the Caminito tourist street as once you venture outside, the harsh reality of the poverty and working class origins of the area becomes apparent. There had been reports of mugging at knife point as little as a block away from the main area. 

I felt perfectly safe on a Sunday, the Caminito tourist street and the public transport to and from it were crowded with people. I did go to La Boca again on a weekday with a tour group and the area was pretty much deserted apart from a few other tourists, with none of the atmosphere that I experienced on a Sunday afternoon. I would definitely suggest going on a weekend for the Boca experience.


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