This morning I headed out to explore the barrio Retiro, another neighborhood abutting Microcentro, where I am staying. I passed by (another) protest in front of the University of Buenos Aires, gilded shopping centers, sidewalk cafes, and then went into the Retiro train station to have a look around. I love train stations.
With only a vague idea of which direction I was going, I followed a major road a short way to where it was no longer major. The road was suddenly unpaved, and the buildings now had numbers painted on by hand. There were dogs lying in the doorways, and the types of looks I was getting had changed from mostly indifference to curiosity. Instead of being another buzzing member of the glamorous hive of downtown, I was now walking slowly through a static town-within-a-town.
This part of town had a completely distinct personality. It was protected and segregated by highway overpasses, rusting train containers, abandoned tracks, and swaths of dusty roads. The residences ranged from cardboard lean-tos to brick cubes stacked two high, adorned with narrow, steel, spiral stairs. I wove my way through the lanes of houses. There were tons of people out, cooking, chatting, and of course staring at me. The past two days here, I've felt like I could be anywhere. But this morning I felt like I was somewhere new. I was incredibly happy.
I have been carrying my espresso-machine-sized camera haphazardly in a large canvas tote bag. Although my padded camera bag would be much better for it, I feel like it attracts a lot of attention. You know how in New York you can tell who the tourists are because they're wearing the backpacks on their stomachs and strangling their handbags while walking down Park Avenue? Well, here everyone does that. I've never really been the nervous type about my belongings--mostly since I'm more likely to damage them than anyone else--but here I've already been told to put my camera away twice. I am trying to be good about taking it out quickly to compose photos and then stashing it back. I desperately wanted to shoot photos while in this neighborhood, but instead I wandered blithely through. Although there was an appropriate amount of activity to make it feel safe, there was also an element of stillness that alerts a cautionary sense in me. It's like approaching a dog that is bounding around wagging its tail versus a dog that is just staring at you with its head sort of bent down.
It wasn't until that I emerged on the other end that I took my camera back out. Then I came across the entrance to a more decrepit-looking collection of homes. I couldn't tell how big it was because it was level, unlike the maze of two-story buildings I'd come through. I got even more excited because I am a hugely privileged dork fascinated by poor people and old-school urban development. Cogniscent of the cluster of police cars sitting in a clearing just there, I took out my camera and snapped a quick photo, then stood for a moment assessing the best way into this second village.
Promptly a policeman approached me and told me to leave, telling me it was very dangerous. I wondered whether he would prevent me from entering the encampment. If I were to walk through with my camera concealed, was it a sure thing that I'd be robbed? It was the middle of the day. I've been told I'm quite risk tolerant, and I briefly thought of just ignoring him and plunging in. On the other hand, I didn't want to be stupid. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and if I were to get my camera jacked on my third day here, well, I would definitely see exactly where that line was. I followed his directions to get back to the preapproved areas of town, the whole time plotting a return without any belongings except my keys.