Rain arrived on Sunday, creating perfect conditions for a long run. I particularly wanted to see the Parque Natural y Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, a huge wetlands park on the northeast edge of the city. The attraction of going there would be that I’d be able to see the River Plata, which I still haven’t seen after three weeks. So, after mucho coffee, I laced up and hit the road.
The first thing note were two people-shaped black plastic bags in a doorway near the Hard Rock Café. They might be sleeping, I thought. After all, it was raining and plastic is waterproof. On the other hand, they might not be sleeping. This was a troubling idea but they were both lying in rather an unnatural position, very straight and still; it didn’t seem comfortable. A police car was parked nearby and a cop in a bullet-proof vest was sauntering in the general direction of the two figures. She seemed quite relaxed, almost day-dreamy, and I decided she was just letting them sleep in a bit before asking them to move on. Yes, that must be it.
I turned onto Avenue del Libertador and made for the area of Retiro. There were many other people sleeping on the street, not covered with black plastic. Some of them lay on old mattresses which I suppose they acquired from where they’d been dumped by large public waste bins. Closer to the Microcenter, near Plaza San Martin, there were more women and children, even families occupying these outdoor mattresses. As I went to put money beside a sleeping young mother with three children, she instantly popped up and took the bill in a motion that suggested the constant alertness of the constantly desperate.
On Saturday we’d met a local for lunch at La Biela, a popular old café near Recoleta cemetery. Handing money to the eighth or ninth beggar who came by our table, he told us that homelessness in the city has recently increased.
“There are more homeless people now, for sure, just in this year. That’s something I know from my own eyes, looking around. Last year was very bad for our economy. The bubble burst.”
As soon as I crossed the bridge and came to the edge of the park, I felt the humidity increase. It was suddenly like jogging in a sauna. I couldn’t see any entrance to the park, just a long walkway. To the left of the walkway, over a wall, was a big lagoon, and on the walkway itself were numerous foodcarts selling hamburguesas, hot dogs and soft drinks. In the lagoon you could see the prolific birdlife: ducks, coots, grebes, swallows, parrots, herons. There was even some red-crested bird belting out a melodic number from the top of a tree. A little further along there was also a parade of Argentine sports heroes moulded in bronze: racing car driver Juan Manuel Fangio, swimmer Jose Meolans and hockey player Luciana Aymar. Lionel Messi had been removed, except for bits of his feet.
I kept looking for the park entrance without luck. I saw a few gates with signs showing park hours—according to them, the park should be open on Sundays. But the gates were all padlocked shut. This put the kibosh on my planned route. It was a blow but, considering the humidity, not altogether an unwelcome one. With a mixture of disappointment and relief, I turned away from the park and followed a road that would take me south.
The first thing I saw after crossing the road was the Museo De La Cárcova, a house devoted to the work of the realist artist Ernesto De La Cárcova (1866-1927). It was closed. I then passed several large parillas (steak houses), a giant casino beside which was a port for cruise ships and a vehicular entrance to the port. Even though I was running quite near the port, the only glimpse I got of the water was this, a view that John describes as ‘Stygian’.
Eventually I ended up outside Hospital Dr Cosme Argerica. It was here that I noticed that the buildings were suddenly much older and more decrepit than the ones in the CBD. The people seemed to walk differently. A woman who heard my footsteps behind her flinched and looked back, fearing the worst. A shopkeeper stood smoking in her doorway looking at me darkly, Neapolitan-tough. As a tourist holding a camera in one hand and a map in the other, I started to feel a little conspicuous. Glancing with feigned insouciance at my map, I noticed that I was now in La Boca, an area that our local friend had said was relatively more dangerous for non-locals.
“If someone speaks to you, they are testing you, checking to see how much you understand, feeling out your street smarts, deciding if you are prey. I used to work with two English guys in a rough area of town and they got mugged maybe five times each.”
Remembering his words, I made double sure of my directions and proceeded to tiptoe away, back towards the central area. This took me through Parque Lezama, a nice green space with bizarre plants and a giant 1930s monument to the conquistador who ‘founded Buenos Aires’, one Pedro de Mendoza.
Through sheer dumb luck, the street I chose to take me back to the center was Difensa; on that very day that that one street was hosting a huge artisanal fair. It stretched about eight blocks and was crowded with tourists, empanda touts, blind beggars and bargain-hunters. The attendees were all walking at browsing pace so I decided to adjust, reasoning that my long run was supposed to be relatively slow. OK, maybe not sedated-snail slow, but the point stands. Popular articles at this fair included knitted cartoon characters, rhodochrysite jewelry and leather items.
Emerging from the crush, I resumed my jog and ended up in the big Plaza de Mayo right outside the pink Parliament buildings, the Casa Rosada. Jogging around with only a vague notion of where to go next, I then found myself standing under an enormous white obelisk and proceeded trotting along the Avenue 9 de Julio. This was sprinkled with more sleeping homeless people. One of these was surrounded by an attractive pack of dogs curled up against one another, and I wondered if he was one of the many dog walkers you see in the city leading a group of ten or eleven dogs by the leash and having to stop every five steps while one of the number decides to pee.
By this time I was sweating buckets and eager for a drink and a shower so headed home. I decided that, though the run may not have been the nature safari I’d wanted, it was still pretty interesting and a memorable quick tour through a fair chunk of the city.