I woke up feeling like it was just any other post-Viruta lazy afternoon but the sight of my suitcases, which I had moved to the centre of the living room, reminded me that I had to pack sooner or later. I was leaving the next morning. Half-heartedly I started throwing a few clothes in the suitcase to make myself feel better that I was doing something. Soon thereafter I gave up and decided to do it once and for all when I returned from El Beso in the morning. The taxi wouldn’t come until 8am anyways. An all nighter was rightly due.
My friend came to pick me up in his car for a tour of some typical places in Buenos Aires he insisted I couldn’t leave without seeing. We went to La Boca, Caminito and San Telmo and definitely had some fun taking pictures, some of which I’m including here.
There’s so little of day-time, non-tango Buenos Aires that I ended up seeing in the end so we were cramming a lot of in a relatively short amount of time. Nevertheless, I came away with a very distinctive taste of what the city is all about. We drove to La Boca from Recoleta, then parked the car right outside Caminito and walked all over the place. I was getting the inside scoop on many of the things that I saw there but it was a complete sensory overload so I don’t remember much now of what he said.
We went around searching for little souvenirs, but most importantly, a good mate so I would properly learn how to make it at home and sip it during the day, while reflecting and enjoying my surroundings, ideally listening to tango music. Maybe it would be a most welcome break in the office as I tried to remind myself of the things that made me happy when everyone else around me is worrying and demanding things from me.
I still am not used to the taste of it and every time I have made it, it’s turned out quite bitter. I’m told it all has to do with the temperature of the water, which cannot be boiling. There’s a whole art to it which I’m slowly discovering as I ask many people about the ‘secret’. My friend was an expert, having taken mate all his life. He helped me choose a beautiful wooden one, as well as a steel bombilla with a little tango couple decoration in it. I smiled as the lady at the shop wrapped it up. It’s the little things that matter. The most important thing I had to do when I got home was to ‘cure’ it so the wood wouldn’t transfer bad odours to the infusion. I joked to my friend that becoming a regular mate drinker would complete my transformation into a true porteña, now that I had gotten down the tone of speech, colloquialisms and bad words, and knew how to behave myself at milongas.
After Caminito, we were off to San Telmo. A very hot day had left us with parched lips so we entered the historic Bar Brittanico, where I had previously been for the celebrity dancer photoshoot in day 18, and ordered something to drink. In that setting we chatted about the world of tango in Buenos Aires and how famous locals related to adoring tourists that came from all parts of the world to learn from them.
I was surprised to discover that a few tango celebrities did not act like deities only when they travelled around the world to festivals but also here in Buenos Aires, where competition was plenty. Outside on the street, it was quite likely that nobody had even heard of them because the tango community in Buenos Aires is tiny compared to the general population, and quite fragmented given the vast array of options for milongas, teachers and styles. Inside in the ‘popular’ milongas, they acted as if the world revolved around them. I wanted to get an insider’s view of that scene, despite people telling me to stay away because it wasn’t the ‘real’ tango or it wasn’t worth it. The reality is that as foreigners we pay big money to subsidize these stars’ lifestyle by bringing them out to our countries for festivals and workshops or going to Buenos Aires ourselves and paying a premium for classes. These are the people we spend hours watching on YouTube, delighting in their performances and trying to steal a move here and there. This is as real as it gets, in a certain sense. What happens when you become the object of their short-lived attention? What happens when you get the great privilege to show up at a milonga and sit at the very table of the people that you have been admiring for so long, and even dance with them? It feels great. For a short while, until you realise that they’re using the dance to seduce you and that that’s all there is to it. You’re there because you’re attractive in some form and you’ll continue to be there until you sleep with one of them or don’t sleep with anyone at all. Either way, you’ll be tossed away like an old sock because you have served your purpose or you have revealed yourself to be useless. You’re not special. Next week you’ll be gone and there’ll be another tourist happy to play the eager puppy dog role until she gets kicked out as well.
I willingly played that game as far as I could to see all this for myself, simply because I could. I heard stories, probed with questions and talked to women who had been burnt. I knew better than to repeat their mistakes but I was still amazed at the lack of respect with which certain ‘stars’ treated them. Then I realised why they kept doing it. They weren’t used to being rejected. Nobody put them in their place and brought their feathers down. And if someone did dare to do it, they’d ignore them and turn to a multitude of other adoring and acquiescing women who’d put up with their behaviour and provide positive reinforcement, in the false hope that this relationship would assist them with their tango in some form. I waited until the end before slamming the door shut in some people’s faces then observed the reactions. Anger. Frustration. Dismissal. The natural consequences of my ungrateful rebellion. Luckily I took it as a social experiment and didn’t care. I can’t imagine how disappointed those other girls must have felt to have believed something that wasn’t true. Next time I returned to Buenos Aires, I wouldn’t even be tempted. I would be able to say ‘been here, done that’, without actually doing anything, which was quite a feat. I discovered that there were other professionals who were great at what they did, humble, and didn’t approach you with ulterior motives. Just a few rotten apples couldn’t spoil the basket. The myths, however, were dissolved. There were no ‘Gods’. There were just people.
Our serious conversations came to and end when I spotted an artisanal ice cream shop across the street. I still hadn’t had an ice cream here so throwing my healthy eating out of the window in the name of enjoyment, I went and got myself a huge chocolate and vanilla ice cream cup which I consumed leisurely in the park nearby.
Off we went to Plaza Dorrego where they had an outdoor milonga called Milonga del Indio, with tourists gathered around filming or taking pictures. The pista was essentially a few layers of plastic taped to the ground, whose edges had by then started to peel off. I had my stinky old tango shoes in my bag because I had hoped to go to La Glorieta later in the evening. I didn’t know where to leave my bag so I just put it across my body, and with my shoes on I ventured on the pista with my friend for a little tango fun out in the open. A beautiful Lucio Demare tanda was playing. Despite two kilos on my side, a nonexistent floor with and sweat dripping down my shirt because of the high temperature and the close bodily contact, it was one of the most enjoyable dances I’ve had in Buenos Aires. We tried to leave after that first song but it was as if a magnet kept us glued on the spot. The song they were playing was ‘El baile de los domingos’, appropriately chosen ‘The dance of the Sundays’. And when they started playing ‘Igual que un bandoneon’, I was definitely happy I had stayed until the end of the tanda. It was so perfect in its imperfection. It was because both my friend and I were in love with what we heard and that beautiful dance called tango. There is no other way for me to explain it.
I got a gift from my friend for my departure at the San Telmo markets. A little wooden placard that says ‘No habra ninguna igual’, the title of a famous song by Ricardo Tanturi. Among all the placards that a little, hunched 78-year old woman was selling this was the one that caught my eye as being clearly related to tango but not so cliché as the other ones that said ‘Argentina’ or ‘Buenos Aires’. She asked if I knew what that meant and I told her it was a song by Tanturi with Alberto Castillo singing it. She was floored that I knew that because she didn’t expect someone so young to have even basic tango knowledge. She said to me that she had so many tango stories from when she was young and that she never got to tell them. When she was three years old Castillo would take her up on stage and she’d tell people that he was her boyfriend because she had a crush on him. I wish I had discovered her earlier. I would have loved to hear about the rest of her stories and I asked her if she used email. It was a long shot. She clearly didn’t. Maybe she’ll still be there in San Telmo waiting for me with a smile on her face.
As my friend drove me home, we played tango in the car, Miguel Caló to be precise. I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful this city was and I felt heartbroken that I was going to leave it behind. I wanted to take a little piece of it with me so I took a little video with my camera to remind me of that beautiful sunset in the only city that I fell in love at first sight to the sounds of the music that touched my heart.
There was something here that I had found in no other place, and I had seen many: London, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai, Oslo, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Istanbul…I didn’t even remember all the places I had been to but I knew that none had made me feel like I had in Buenos Aires. It had passion. Excitement. Drama. Liveliness. Soul. History. Problems. And it had tango.
I knew I was coming back, but I didn’t know whether it was going to be for another vacation or to live for a while. I daydreamed for a little about having my own place and a dog, a job during the day and doing tango at night. But I knew I couldn’t ignore the practicalities of any such decision. Life here is difficult. There’s corruption, poor infrastructure, inefficiencies in how things are generally run, starting with one hour waiting lines at the supermarket, and a very weak currency, which would wipe out any possibility to save. Any Argentinean I spoke to looked at me as if I was crazy when I mentioned the desire to come live here for a while. We all want to get out, they said, and you’re thinking of coming here. I was, and I still haven’t given up on the idea. But I need to do it in a way that is smart and won’t annul years of hard work behind me. Coming here to become a tango professional would be pretty much financial suicide and I didn’t even think of it but I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who do move here for that reason and then realise how hard it is. There’s simply too much competition here and it’s impossible to live off tango if you’re not famous.
Before heading off to El Beso, I had to say goodbye to someone. That meeting caused me to be significantly delayed as we ended up having dinner together. The energy shifted completely from the afternoon. Now it was heavy, almost suffocating. I waited until we finished eating then I said I had to go. As we parted, his final words were: ‘See, you shouldn’t have worried. In the end, we didn’t sleep together.’ It was clear to me I wasn’t unfinished business. I was simply a woman who had disappointed and whom needed to be treated with distant politeness now, and eventually as a friend later. I was excited to leave that story behind me and smiled to myself as the cab left for El Beso, for the best night of the week. Sunday. I had to wait outside for 20 minutes until a few people left. It was packed like I had never seen before. The only chair that was available as one in the back corner but as I walked to it, I eyed all my regulars and invitations just poured in. I barely made it to my seat after each tanda because someone else would ask me. It was as if they all knew I was leaving and wanted to take advantage of that last opportunity. I danced with abandon, forgetting if people were watching or if my feet looked good. I just had fun. The highlight of my night was dancing with the handsome disk jockey, who apparently had all the women lusting for him. I can understand why. A great dancer with great taste in music who also happens to be good looking is a winning recipe. Towards the end, around 4am, he played Caló, which I danced with my teacher Pedro. I’ll always cherish the memories from that night. The energy and the buzz was palpable. I was in my element, happy and carefree. Sundays at El Beso, just like Saturdays at Sunderland never disappointed me.
I left around 4:30am and came back to the apartment to face the ugly sight of half packed suitcases. I didn’t feel like packing, perhaps because the thought that I had to leave all that in only a few hours really hurt. I moved half-heartedly around the apartment. All of a sudden, the exhaustion that had been so alien to during this entire time seized my body. I barely managed to close the suitcases and later collapsed on the cab. As I was waiting at the airport, I remember to buy two packs of Rosamonte mate, a little jar of artisanal dulce de leche from Patagonia and a Jorgito alfajor, which felt like it was the best alfajor I had had in Argentina yet. I entered an internet booth to chat with whomever was online and as I was talking to my mother, I burst crying. I didn’t feel like I had anything waiting for me back in Sydney. I had felt more human warmth here in only one month than in three years over there. I’d go back and people would probably wonder what I had actually learned. My feet still looked ugly. My boleos were still timid and poorly controlled. The upper floors of the house hadn’t been painted and all the work had happened underground. I wasn’t even certain that anyone could even tell if I felt differently when they would dance with me. I didn’t care about their expectations. I knew it had been an amazing journey and that the real change had happened internally in my deeper knowledge of the dance, deeper experience but most importantly deeper love for it. It wasn’t going to show but I knew it was there.
On the plane, I remembered that I couldn’t bring dulce de leche from Argentina into Australia, even if it was in alfajores. The flight assistant thought I was crazy as he saw me ate four of them during the course of my 15-hour flight. They were not Jorgito but and they were covered in chocolate but they still tasted good. And so I left it all behind but deep down I felt that my heart was full and my life was good. I had given myself the best gift ever and the challenge was to continue with that generosity now that Buenos Aires was miles and miles away.