Tales from Abroad: Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is a city of highs and lows. One night you are having the time of your life, dancing at an amazing nightclub and enjoying all the luxuries youth has to offer (free entry and drinks included). The next day you are walking down a street while scanning through pictures on your new DSLR camera when suddenly a man comes from behind, pulls a knife out on you at 4:30 p.m. in broad daylight, and demands that you give him your camera.

I took a wrong turn. I made a mistake. I didn’t know.

The whole thing was pretty silly, actually. The man was not very intimidating at all. He was about the same age and weight as I am – muy flaco (skinny). His knife was small and rusted. Imagining his thought process before he decided to take action is very simple. There I was, being cool and American and carefree with my DSLR around my neck, wearing a really cute T-shirt I’d just ordered online, prancing around one of the most dangerous barrios in Buenos Aires, La Boca. La Boca visitors are advised to walk along only two sites, El Caminito and the Boca Juniors’ soccer stadium — one step away from these tourist sites and you’re in danger. So, one wrong step and I was an easy target. El ladrón_ (the thief) knew this. I knew this. To him, I was carrying four months worth of rent on my neck — or maybe even a ticket out of poverty.

How could I have been so dumb?

When I finally realized the situation I was in, I gave a classic scream, but the scream didn’t feel sincere. It was as if I were screaming just because that’s what I had seen people do in the movies. I tried to snatch back my camera but to no avail. El ladrón ran off, and (because it is what one does in the movies) I ran after him. But then... I stopped. I realized I was not in a movie and that the situation I was in was a result of my own actions. I had known La Boca was a dangerous place, but in my defense, I didn’t think the area looked very dangerous. Sure, there were garbage and dilapidated buildings around me, but that’s what many parts of the city look like!

So, picture this: Me standing in the middle of the street watching the thief disappear into the concrete maze while yelling for help that never came. Such a tourist’s tale.

After the incident, I went to El Caminito to see the famous, colorful conventillos, which were boarding houses for poor families in the early twentieth-century. I had remembered seeing these houses so enchantingly displayed in photos prior to arriving. But as I sat on a bench staring at the conventillos (a moment I had looked forward to for months), I hated Argentina. I was not mad at el ladrón but mad at a country, a country that would allow its people to live in such terrible circumstances; mad because of the pollution around the city; mad at the deep disparities in income and wealth in Argentina, in the U.S., in the world.

To put myself at ease with my experience with el ladrón, I forced myself to believe that he sold my camera and bought his family a decent meal that night or paid February’s rent on time, or maybe even ordered a cute shirt online.

I remained frozen on the bench in front of the conventillos. I couldn’t move. I spent 20 minutes connecting the dots between my life and the life of my thief.

Buenos Aires is an amazing, wild city. There are so many opportunities available: beautiful restaurants, people, shopping, dancing, and laughing; there is fun! But with the glamour of any city — especially a Latin American city — comes high poverty and crime. This is no revelation. But as students studying abroad, our definition of street savvy may not translate directly to other countries’ definitions of the term.

I have a special place in my heart for Buenos Aires. My experience with el ladrón was a roadblock and not a small one. But once I made Argentine friends and sang karaoke every Wednesday with my Argentine family, I felt really good and really confident, stomping the streets of “Baires.” I didn’t want to leave. How can I explain the smell of alfajores or the feeling of dancing at a nightclub at 7 a.m? How can I describe the hundreds of faces I passed everyday? I can’t.

Studying abroad is a roller coaster, and at the end of the day you just have to roll with it. You are not in the U.S. anymore, baby. But seriously, if you get caught in such an unlovely situation while abroad, just talk about it and seek guidance from the people around you, and it will all work out. Gracias a la vida, che!