Dancing in the streets, gau­cho style

A bar­rio on the out­skirts of Buenos Aires comes won­der­fully alive on Sun­days

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MAR­IAN MCGUIN­NESS

WITH so much his­tory and beauty in Buenos Aires, it might seem odd that I’m in a taxi head­ing to the west­ern fringe of the city.

I’m leav­ing the beaten tourist path of the Ar­gen­tine cap­i­tal for the bar­rio of Mataderos, for­mer home to the kilo­me­tres of abat­toirs where cat­tle heads used to hang around the neigh­bour­hood like wash­ing on clothes­lines. Some stockyards are still worked by the gau­chos, but come Sun­day, the cow­boys cel­e­brate their cul­ture at the Fe­ria de Mataderos.

‘‘It’s the real peo­ple who come here,’’ says my cab driver, who locks the doors when­ever he slows down at an in­ter­sec­tion.

‘‘It’s not cre­ated for the tourists. Peo­ple come to meet, to dance, to talk about the good and the bad things.’’

Af­ter 30 min­utes of pin­balling through the traf­fic along a geo­graphic cross-sec­tion of the city, I’m aban­doned on a street cor­ner. It’s as if I’ve stum­bled on to a timewarp movie set where the wide av­enues are ar­caded by limegreen tipa trees fil­i­greed against the ocean of sky.

The build­ings and cor­rals are white­washed or painted in the bright­est pink. My chatty driver has al­ready en­light­ened me to the use of ox blood in colour­ing the walls of the slaugh­ter­houses.

The same method cre­ated the rosy hue of the 19th-cen­tury pres­i­den­tial palace, the Casa Rosada of Peron fame.

It’s only mid-morn­ing and Mataderos is in full swing. The gau­chos, portenos ( lo­cals) and mi­grant work­ers from neigh­bour­ing Bo­livia, Uruguay and Paraguay have come to the cross­roads of Avenida de los Cor­rales and Avenida Lisan­dro de la Torre, to the square of the Re­sero where the bronze statue of a gau­cho on his horse watches over the fes­tiv­i­ties.

The na­tional an­them is played, the blue and white Ar­gen­tine flag is raised above a makeshift stage and hun­dreds of peo­ple leave what they are do­ing to sing with gusto. In the cen­tre of the cob­bled square the mu­sic starts up for the zamba, the na­tional dance.

The young, old, hand­some and homely cir­cle each other like pairs of wild birds in courtship. With arms raised, they flir­ta­tiously wave white hand­ker­chiefs while whirling around each other, but never touch­ing.

Ev­ery­one joins in up and down the street; many are dressed in tra­di­tional cos­tumes, oth­ers in ev­ery­day clothes. Then the men break into rhyth­mi­cal tap-dancing in their gau­cho boots and ev­ery- one cheers. The old­est gau­cho — 82-year-old Rodolfo, with a face as leath­ery as a sad­dle — is dressed in full re­galia. He is revered like a god as peo­ple stop and while he dances.

Mean­while, as I’m chat­ting to a ro­man­tic dancing cou­ple, Ruben and Beatrice, a gau­cho ap­proaches me. He ad­dresses me in pas­sion­ate Span­ish and my new friends laugh as they tell me I’ve just been pro­posed to.

I set off to wan­der the four blocks lined with more than 300 ar­ti­sans’ stalls sell­ing leather, sil­ver jew­ellery and just about any­thing you can imag­ine that could be made from a cow’s hoof.

Three barefoot kids clip-clop past on their stocky horse. An­other horse fol­lows; rid­ing bare­back is a small dog.

salute him

A man leads a llama dressed in what is ap­par­ently the lat­est llama fash­ion of rib­bons and beads. It checks me out with its dou­ble eye­lashes and rolls its fleshy lips. There must be a lot of lo­cal wine flow­ing as I’m tapped on the shoul­der by a man who ges­tures to his heart and lets me know that his casa is only a few blocks away.

Alas for him, it’s my stom­ach and not my heart that calls, and I head off to suss out the smoky par­ril­las where gi­ant forks of sausages siz­zle on hot grills, and myr­iad stalls sell­ing em­panadas, ta­males and hu­mi­tas.

At 3pm the crowd moves to line the Avenida Lisan­dro de la Torre for the Car­rera de Sor­tija, or the Race of the Ring. Gau­chos of all ages ride at break­neck speed down the sand-cov­ered street. Such is their skill that while stand­ing in their stir­rups at full pelt, they aim small wooden lances at a tiny ring sus­pended from an over­head frame. The win­ner holds the ring aloft to the cheer­ing crowd as he searches for a beau­ti­ful senorita to of­fer it to.

But my story ends where it be­gan. As I sit in the back of the taxi re­turn­ing to the city cen­tre, I en­ter­tain the cab­bie with my tale of Mataderos.

In­stead of lock­ing the doors at an in­ter­sec­tion, he stops, calls a flower seller over to the win­dow and buys a beau­ti­ful posy of jas­mine. And presents it to me. Ole.

PHOTOLIBRARY

A gau­cho and his dance part­ner at the Fe­ria de Mataderos

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