On weekends, Alex and Vicky, my landladies, take me on walks through Barracas and San Telmo. They have known these Buenos Aires neighborhoods all their lives; they point out old buildings they’ve inhabited and the places where grand old cafés once stood. They are sisters. They’ve each been exiled twice, the first time to Europe for political reasons, the second to Mexico for economic ones. Each time, they returned because things were improving in Argentina, and they wanted to be a part of the change. They’ve rented their spare room to dozens of foreigners over the years, English teachers and language students like me.
Today, we visit the San Telmo market, where produce is piled high and stray dogs sniff and mill around. Beggars cower in corners and women sell clothes on racks and corn on the cob. Here are boxes and boxes of faded postcards from the twenties and warped records to sort through. Here are brooches with fake diamonds and rubies, and ribbon, once white, now faded to golden. Boxes of old shoes that cost more than a new pair in the city center because of how carefully they were crafted years ago, how soft the leather has become. From old record players music spins over us. Old women sell antique plates printed with gold.
Here, time could roll back a hundred years and you wouldn’t know. No cell phones cry out. The salesmen wear berets, smoke pipes, and glance over their papers at me as I run my fingers along beaten silver bracelets and pewter spoons. Everything is covered in a thin layer of dust.
Outside, the market runs on up and down the street, encompassing a dozen blocks. Here are the artisans, their bracelets of hemp and waxed thread set out on plywood tables or velvet blankets. Their necklaces, they explain, are accented with stones and shells collected from Nicaragua and Panama, Colombia and Peru, all the far-flung places these artisans have seen. They drag on their cigarettes, their eyes soft.
And then we turn the corner and here is a crowd, huddled tightly around something we cannot see. An old tango recording plays, the even strum of a guitar and over that, a fiddle’s mournful melody. The crowd gives way a little, loosening its grasp, and now I can see that it’s street tango. An old man, one of the two dancers, is smiling like he’s never been so happy as right now. His eyes are closed as he guides a woman around in circles. They have so little space to dance. The woman wears a tasseled red silk dress and heavy makeup.
She bends her knee just so, lifts her leg and then, precisely to the low thrum of a cello, sets it down.
The old man is somewhere far away, perhaps in heaven. But the woman—bright orange hair, white roots visible at the crown—is right here with us, her eyes open wide, her movements fresh and bell-clear.
Now others are taking their places on the sidewalk dance floor. High heels click, and men move rapturously. Buenos Aires-style tango is so intimate: thigh against thigh and hand in hand, mouths whispering words into ears. I can’t look away. The women scrape their toes along the ground and stroke their legs up their partners’ calves. A woman in jeans moves her hips just a little, making way for her partner’s step forward. A man in dark glasses tips his head back. The breathless crowd sways. Alex puts her hand on my arm, but when I look, her eyes are closed.
Oh, the way the dancers listen, hearing each note with their bodies, their movements unbound and deliberate both. The violins are caresses, and the cello’s aching chords are a soak for the bones. What dark magic Buenos Aires holds: what markets, what sidewalks, and what stories, beautiful and bloody both. What inhabitants: a sidestepping old man and his red-haired companion; a group of artisans playing their guitars; two sisters, twice-exiled, who never fell out of love with Buenos Aires.
Kate McCahill lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Her writing has been published in The Lowestoft Chronicle, The Literary Bohemian, Numero Cinq, and in the Best Travel Writing and Best Women's Travel Writing anthologies by Travelers' Tales. Her first book, a memoir about traveling through Latin America, is forthcoming. Learn more at www.katemccahill.com.