Dancing in the streets, gaucho style
A barrio on the outskirts of Buenos Aires comes wonderfully alive on Sundays
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.
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.
A gaucho and his dance partner at the Feria de Mataderos