Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Foto Ruta, Not Your Everyday City Tour, Or: Why Buenos Aires Just Might Be the Best City in the World

Perched over an abandoned Ford Falcon on a side street in Villa Crespa, I shoot a close-up photo of the drifts of dried Tipo tree blossoms that have fallen onto the car’s cracked windshield. I’m trying to remember the rules of composition, colour, form and texture that Foto Ruta’s short workshop covered before my group set out for a Buenos Aires photo tour unlike any other.

BA’s rich and troubled history, incredible restaurant and nightlight scene and stunning architecture has created an ambiance that rivals that of New York, Madrid or Paris. A taxi driver told me that Porteños are Italians who speak Spanish and live like the French. The city an undeniable flair, but it can also be challenging to get to know. As with other fantastic metropolises, the best barrios lie outside the tourist track and can’t easily be distinguished by visitors. Stick to the guide books and you’ll find yourself in Micro Centro, staring up at the Obalisco, or traipsing the narrow cobblestone streets of La Boca. Though they may be necessary elements, they don’t give a sense of how and where most Porteños live their lives.

Enter Foto-Ruta, operated by ex-pats Jocelyn Mandrake and Becky Hayes. This afternoon tour provides a superb guiding force, sharing the best places for parilla, the best street for leather goods and the most interesting places to photograph the city’s fabulous graffiti art. Billed as an “urban photo experience” for both Porteños and travellers alike, Foto-Ruta is a low-fi tour for anyone with a camera and an eye for metaphor.

The tour itself operates like a treasure hunt. The photo I take of the Ford Falcon becomes our group’s response to Foto Ruta’s first of ten ‘clues,’ which serve as prompts for images we are to create during our two hour trek around the neighbourhood. Clues such as “Zen and the art of cocktails” and “Mi casa NO es su casa” are deliberately vague, giving the participants greater latitude for artistic response.

Thanks to Foto-Ruta’s clues, things I first loved about this charmed city—the cobblestone streets, bouganvilla draping a wall, the leafy interiors of courtyards—faded into the background, and smaller things took on a new shine. In an attempt to interpret each clue, the twisted roots of a palm caught my eye (All tied up); the open butterfly shape of a streetside barbeque’d chorizo (It has wings); or the brilliant rust and yellow paint of a garage door (Sugar and spice). “It can be hard to wander the streets here and take shots that haven’t already been done a million times,” said Mandryk from her ultra-modern apartment in the relaxed barrio of Belgrano. “By providing clues, we hope people will look at the city with a new eye. And by encouraging participants to work in groups, there’s a lot of support if you need to take time for a shot.”

Later, back in the café, we sip wine and nibble while going through each group’s selected images. The result? A sheaf of photos that people back home will actually want to look at. We all agreed that the day’s work is more beautiful than most of our shots taken so far, in San Telmo’s sprawling market or the Casa Rosada. We’d slowed down, we’d had time to really see where we were; it was an instantaneous and magical way of participating in the minutia of this often forgotten but thriving corner of the world.

Together Mandryk and Hayes are putting BA on the map; their company has only been in operation for two months and already it’s received press from the Guardian and the New York Times. Participation costs $100 pesos (about $25 US) and includes the lesson, tour and wine during the photo show. Mandryk also holds small group multi-day photo tours through her adjacent company, Fuera Foto, including five day all-inclusive tours of both Buenos Aires and Habana, Cuba. For more information, visit or

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Confiteria Ideal

Dos medialunas y un cortado.

Tres medilunas con queso y jamon y un cortado.

A cortado is a wonderful, short expresso with just a dollop of foamy milk dropped on top. A media luna is a thin, wispy looking croissant, covered at times in a sheer of sugar, at others, bare and buttery. The one this morning, or what I am currently calling morning after coming home at 5:45am last night and sleeping until almost noon, is crispy and perfect, from Mamma Rosa's cafe and wine and ham shop on the fringes of Palermo. It's 27 degrees out in the shade. I've never seen so many beautiful people in one place in my life.

I also haven't had so much caffeinated coffee since Cuba. Perhaps that explains the events of yesterday, which seemed to keep unrolling around me in a strange dance.

The photography session with the Prince of Pakistan and his family took place before the lunch they served us, at the residence for the Ambassador, in an old colonial building near Puerto Madero. The sounds of car horns and traffic faded into the background as Jocelyn and I were taken upstairs in an old, cage elevator and introduced to the Prince's parents and brother. The floors are covered in Persian rugs and the walls with the ambassador's art, strong, direct women gazing out of each painting, surrounded by colour. She was dressed in a sari of salmon silk and gold thread, and the sons posed with practiced smiles as I held the light reflector and Jocelyn directed them and shot. I had walked there from the outskirts of Recoleta, winding through the leafy, narrow streets and pausing every half hour for more coffee. After the photo shoot we had a four course lunch of traditional Pakistani food, served while the father discussed poetry and the sons told us about their international finance jobs. They teased one another. They were lovely. Choukri to the family for their generosity.

On the walk back to Plaza Mayo, we passed Confiteria Ideal and dropped in to ask the prices for tango classes. On a whim, I left Jocelyn in the square--her meetings with a co-worker begin at 8pm every week and last until midnight, when they go to dinner--and walked back for a lesson. The ceiling of Confiteria is carved wood filigree. Marble stairs lead to the second floor dance hall. Giant fans mounted on posts loom down from the plaster walls between antique mirrors. The space has been a traditional tango gathering spot since 1912.

Travelling at 36 is so much better than at 21. I will do anything. I will show up to a class sin pareja and not feel lonely or shy. I thought I would end up practicing alone, but at the last minute, an Argentine from Patagonia, a geologist with a one night layover in the city, showed up and took me through first the class, then the entire evening of milonga, until 1am. It was only in the last hour that he revealed himself as one of four teachers of tango in his hometown. When he goes back, he's putting on the town's tango festival. Suffice to say I was in good hands.

I watched while we talked about Patagonia and the oil and gas industry in the country. Picture one hundred Renes and Hildas (my gorgeous Argentine tango teachers at home); picture two things becoming one and gliding around the floor, some with constant flarings of heels, some with barely perceptible turns. Men in their eighties. Women with bellies, their breasts pressed against the man's chest, their heads turned to the side and their faces simultaneously nostalgic, bored, impassioned and intense with concentration. Men in suits with spats. Women with heels three inches high. I knew I wasn't supposed to be grinning when the geologist could coax me onto the floor, but I couldn't help myself. Argentina. Outside, the city darkened and people began thinking about taking a nap before a midnight dinner. The room was stifling with heat; the Oswaldo the geologist dripped; the fat dancer, who had so much grace when on the floor, fanned himself; the Australian couple who had taken their first lesson that evening watched from their table, the woman longingly, the man with slight panic. Poor men who are learning. So much depends on them knowing the moves. Though our teacher said the most helpful thing that I have heard thus far; tango is improvisation and style, not steps--he purposefully taught us six beats of an eight beat move so that it could be finished as one liked, with a front ocho, with a traditional close, with a molineta; como quieres.

I am a terrible dancer, but I left feeling as if I had been wrung out and filled again with amber. My friend Garth--from Canada--appeared at midnight and after the dancing ended Garth and I found a bar on Avenida de Mayo that was still open and talked about poetry until the sun rose. Minutes before we sat down, two men high on meth tried to mug me. I pushed his hands from my throat and we continued walking to the bar. It didn't even arouse a feeling of panic. The paradoxes of the city seem just like the ones I have learned to live with and love in Mexico City, in Sevilla, in Bangkok, in Barcelona or New York. I am glad, and realize I am lucky, however, to still have my computer (which I was carrying at the time) on which to write all of this.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Seis Cortados

Warm, smoky, humid wind in LA, as I changed planes at LAX, and a bar staff at the airport who joked in Spanish as they changed shift. Then the long, sardine flight across the equator to first Lima, then Buenos Aires, city of Jacarundas in high bloom, traffic, curly haired taxi drivers and lovely Jocelyn and her fabulous apartment in the heart of Belgrano, a leafy neighbourhood near the centre of the city.

For a scant two weeks, I am here to drink as much red wine in brown bars as I can, tag along in Jocelyn's vida cotidiana (on Tuesday I will act as her assistant while she photographs the Ambassador of Pakistan's family (her son is a prince with two palaces), and hopefully complete a final edit of the Garry Oak book for New Star Press. Days of half work, half play.

In the meantime, the light is perfect, the temperature is a perfect 22 degrees at 7pm and I have memories of the first Argentine I saw in the airport who walked past me as I exited the security gates; he was carrying six shots of expresso in tiny dixie cups for his friends--cortados. Then there was also the sand and snow hills of the Andes and their drifts of cascading colour, the small lights of Mexican towns far below and the lovely American Customs man (who would have thought those words would go together) who let me through with four giant bottles of sunscreen in my carry-on as gifts for Jocelyn. When the city wakes again, we're going grocery shopping for ingredients for my first asada and for wine. It's nice to leap into someone else's life. It's nice to feel mine moving and find such friendliness already on the other side of the world.

Image courtesy of vtveen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


My lovely, lovely dog, swimming this August in the clear depths of Ross Lake, near Cat Island.