A long overdue blog:
Buenos Aires, August 8th
My friend Mariano from the excellent Vi Luz y Entre hostel has agreed to take me on a mission to one of the Buenos Aires slums. We want to meet a local priest who has set up a successful community project supporting the local kids. We haven’t been able to get in contact with the priest so we are just going to stroll into the slum and hope we can track him down. It isn’t without risk.
We park the car up at a supermarket a few hundred yards from the slum, leave most of our valuables in the car and walk into the shanty town. This isn’t particularly clever but it is a calculated risk. If it starts to feel too dangerous, hopefully we can backtrack.
Mariano has done his homework and we manage to find the small chapel and community centre without too much trouble. It is mid-afternoon and we don’t seem to have attracted too much unwanted attention.
The priest won’t be around until after dark and one of the workers from the community centre is scolding us for our foolishness. He says that walking in here without members of the local community with us is dangerous and foolhardy. He tells me I can take a couple of photos but then we need to leave promptly because they cannot guarantee our safety. We have ten minutes. If we stay twenty, we could get problems. Mariano swaps phone numbers, I capture a couple of images of the slum sports pitch project and the community centre, and we make tracks back to the car, watching our backs along the way.
I am very disappointed to not meet the priest and get full details of the slum project to share with you. In the evening, however, I do get the opportunity to witness first hand a very special project in Buenos Aires. Started just a couple of years ago, the project is both simple and effective:
Meeting at 8pm each evening at a designated spot in downtown Buenos Aires, volunteers meet, split up into around a dozen groups, and follow a designated walking route, meeting the homeless of the Argentine capital. The project is coordinated by the good people of Red Solidaria. During the winter months they give out blankets, cups of hot soup, provisions such as shampoo, but most importantly perhaps, they show a genuine sense of caring, concern and love towards the people they meet on the street. I have to say the experience is totally humbling and gives me a new insight into the plight of the homeless. The volunteers I accompany seem to possess more individual empathy than a dozen people put together. They are lovely human beings who give up each Monday evening to help improve the lives of others. Gorgeous Gi (who is in the band Profuga de Agua) is fortunately fluent in English and helps me to communicate with my other new friends over the course of the three hours we spend together as well as with those we meet during the evening, less fortunate than us.
The nights are cold in Buenos Aires during the winter and there are plenty out on the streets struggling to keep warm. We meet a couple with two young kids, a group of teenage boys, a large group of individuals with drug and alcohol problems, an extended family living in temporary tents, a former top lawyer who sleeps in a door way, a lady who sifts through rubbish every night so she has enough to pay for her daughter to go to school. The stories of how they all got here are all so different. You understand that short moments and seemingly unimportant decisions end up shaping the whole of your life in ways in which you could never imagine.
I will bring you detailed information about this project at a later date but I think it is important to realise that this project can be adapted to any city or town that has a homeless issue, of which most do. Get together with a couple of friends and set out to try and help and get to know the homeless one night. If you feel you have gained anything positive from this experience, then try to go back a week or two weeks later and maybe encourage others to join you. Before you know it you will have made a massive positive change to the lives of others and I am sure you will feel fantastic in yourself for having done it.
You can read more about Red Solidaria by following this link. Most internet browsers now offer language translation options, so although the site is in Spanish, you will be able to instantly translate it into English through Google Chrome, for example.
You can also read more about the other organisations that More Than a Game likes and supports by following the link to our 'Projects we like' page.
Photos (c) Justin Walley & morethanagame.info 2011
Uruguay 3 Paraguay 0
Images from the 2011 Copa America final in Buenos Aires:
(c) Justin Walley & morethanagame.info 2011
The atmosphere; the stadium; the football were all superb for the Copa America final.
I thought Uruguay played the best football of the tournament in the first half. Luis Suarez was simply world class, the defence rock solid, and the midfield dominant and unforgiving in the tackle, almost like a cultured version of the famous Leeds United side of the 1970s.
Uruguay sat back after the break and let the Paraguayans come at them, and it took a brilliant save from their excellent young keeper, Fernando Muslera, to stop Paraguay from getting back in the game.
It was fitting, perhaps, that the inspirational Diego Forlan should score Uruguay's third at the death, beating arguably the player of the tournament, Justo Villar, in the Paraguayan net to send the tens of thousands of travelling Uruguayan fans into raptures.
Arrived in northern Patagonia about 4 hours ago after a 1,400-kilometre bus journey from Buenos Aires that took 20 hours.
I managed to leave the River Plate stadium just after the final whistle on Sunday evening, jog 10 blocks down the road with my rucksack and catch the Boca-bound bus with a bunch of Paraguayans. Fortunately for me the bus was Retiro bound and I got to the bus station just in time for my overnight bus to Puerto Madryn, Patagonia.
Time for a quick rewind of the last few days:
Thursday, July 21
Colonia, Uruguay - Montevideo, Uruguay
It's a 3-hour journey from Colonia to the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. The view is a little uninspiring; kind of East Anglia with ranches and exotic trees. I keep trying to tell myself I am in South America, not Europe.
But Montevideo is a different story. From the minute I reach the Uruguayan capital it gives me a buzz. The city is like a miniature, more accessible version of Buenos Aires; more exotic and with a small twist of Havana. The city centre is full of 1950s style eateries, collapsing art deco buildings, monument-lined plazas with palm trees popping out of the shadows. But it definitely isn't palm tree weather. After sharing a taxi earlier with an Aussie lad we agree to meet up later in Montevideo Old Town. One of the Aussie girls from his hostel that joins us has her bag snatched and stolen by some blokes with knives despite her being with three friends at the time. It happens just as they step outside the front door of the hostel. Montevideo is very cool but it also has an edge. There is also a big buzz of expectation here ahead of the Copa America final on Sunday.
Friday, July 22
I explore much of downtown and Old Montevideo. This place goes straight into my top ten cities list. It is very cool; very real; and decidedly dodgy around the edges. Highlights include the Old World port market - a time trap port warehouse full of mini restaurants - and surely one of the world's most genuinely cool buildings, in the main square. The local streets have so much character and life that I end up spending hours here.
As it starts to get dark the police are out on the streets in numbers, patrolling every other street corner. They even bring a pack of sniffer dogs onto the streets. When the dog barks, chances are the punter has drugs on them and promptly gets surrounded by five or six police.
Some top lads from Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia serve me up dinner, but they are probably the most cosmopolitan non-Uruguayan fixture in the city aside from the Brasilians who are here in decent numbers on weekend trips from Rio and Sao Paolo.
And somehow Aussie Dan and I, and his two Aussie room mates, end up at a Brasilian night at a local club. A legend of the Brasilian music scene is in town playing. The boy has genuine class; a black Bruce Forsyth with the voice and Brasilian rhythm. It is a top night out but the walk home isn't without an element of fear.
Saturday, 23rd July
Montevideo - Colonia - Buenos Aires
I have gone almost a whole month without a bad hangover. Having got in at around 5 or 6, I have to check out at 10 and get on my way. It is fair to say I feel bloody awful. But I do get myself together in time to make my bus back to Colonia for the ferry back to Argentina.
Half of Uruguay seem to be queuing up at Colonia Ferry Terminal for the boats to Buenos Aires.
Back at Buenos Aires the world's crappest hostel have really surpassed themselves this time by cancelling my reservation. No matter that I made it 2 months ago, they decided to cancel it at 3pm because I wasn't there and 'lots of Uruguayans wanted beds'.
Ten phone calls later to other hostels and they are all full. By now it is 10pm.
Finally, one hostel has a bed an I'm en route in a taxi only for the 300-year-old driver to get lost and fail to find it. You've got to laugh.
We drive back to the crap hostel and get the correct address. It is probably midnight before I get sorted, but the new hostel - Vi Luz Y Entre - is everything Che Lagarto is not. Instead of 19 people in a room, it is 5. It is cosy, warm, friendly, informative and isn't full of 12-year-old backpackers. The owners want it to be a home from home, and that is certainly what it is. I wish I had been staying here when I first cam to Buenos Aires in June.
I am not getting any response from Danish Nick, who has my press pass. Without it I have zero chance of getting a ticket to the Copa final. I fear he is out clubbing in Buenos Aires and I am going to struggle to track him down. He is a lovely lad but you don't give your press pass to a 25-year-old clubber knowing he will still have it on the Saturday night before the cup final.
Sunday, 24 July
I am up very early trying to contact Danish Nick but...nada.
Over the past couple of days I have accepted the idea that I am most likely not going to get into the final but I am not going to give up just yet.
It is 10am when I first get an SMS from Nick. "Get a taxi to mine. I can't get to the press centre." I am guessing he's just got home.
A taxi ride to another new part of Buenos Aires and I manage to track down Nick's rented apartment. "Sorry Justin, I only got home at 9."
Fair play to the lad. Rucksack at the ready, I get myself to the press centre and on the first press bus of the day to the River Plate stadium. Now I'm here I will be gutted if I don't get in.
I explain how I was in Uruguay and couldn't make it back in time to apply in person.
"Sorry but you are not on the list. You can watch on the TVs in the press centre."
Fair enough. Hundreds of journalists aren't getting in for this match. The demand for final tickets is just too high. And God, do I look like a mess with my rucksack and without a shower in 48 hours.
And as I start thinking "at least I tried", my friend from the Argentine FA tells his colleague to please give one of the remaining tickets to the "gentleman from England", and I am in!
What a result. I am inside the River Plate stadium for the 2011 Copa America final between Uruguay and Paraguay.
It is 9am on the morning before the Copa final. I haven't got a ticket for the final and Danish Nick, who had my press pass while I was in Uruguay, isn't responding to emails and calls. It looks like I am going to struggle to get in today. Half of Uruguay were on the ferries from Colonia to Buenos Aires last night and black market ticket prices are, rather predictably, going through the roof.
Just to make matters more complicated, my bus to Patagonia leaves at 8pm, meaning that I need to take my rucksack with me to the Monumental Stadium.
On my third cup of coffee before I set off. It is going to be an interesting day...
My hostel nightmare reached new levels of sillyness last night. A huge rain storm engulfed Buenos Aires and the 19-bed dorm suddenly sprung a leak in the roof. I woke up at 4am to find water pouring onto my bed.
German Andy is kindly going to put me up for the night in his mate's Buenos Aires apartment. Meanwhile, we are off to tonight's semi final between Uruguay and Peru at La Plata soon.
Imagine London on a mid-November monday morning with it barely light, howling a gale, freezing cold and bucketing down with rain and you have the scene when my bus arrives back in Buenos Aires today after a 10-hour journey from Cordoba.
Rebooking into the Buenos Aires hostel I am greeted by the sight of a dorm that quite literally resembles a refugee camp. There are 18 characters wrapped in what look like horse blankets, to protect them from the cold - steam filling the air from their collective snoaring - and to make matters even more surreal a bunch of Israeli soldiers are amongst their number, chattering away. I hope they don't start randomly shooting people dead for no reason.
I climb up onto my top bunk and drag the sheets and horse blanket up over my head. I could throw myself to my death off the top bunk and end all this but perhaps that is a bit extreme.
Feeling a bit better for my kip I take the Buenos Aires metro two lines and make my way to the press centre. I've still got my stolen cash disaster fresh in my mind as I turn the corner to the press centre and suddenly get a blow in the private parts. A huge Great Dane dog has jumped up at me and knocked me to the street. It never rains but it pours as they say. Hope the weather and my fortunes improve soon.
After around 30 hours of planes, buses, cars and airport terminals finally, finally the welcoming sight of the River Plate and the skyline of Buenos Aires appear.
I feel absolutely cream crackered by the time I get through customs at Jorge Newbury International and decide to make life easier for myself by taking a 'transfer express' to my hostel. This is a glorified taxi service organised by the airport for tired and clueless individuals who don't feel in any fit state to take two or three different buses to their final destination.
My driver is smartly dressed in what appears to be his own version of a uniform and drives me past the Art Deco style Costanera Norte pier, explaining what he can about the sights we pass in English and Spanish.
The slums adjacent to the railway track look rough, tough and must be a terribly difficult place to live. The rest of the Buenos Aires I see from my window is far more welcoming. I like to make quick, initial comparisons of new places while the initial sights and sounds are fresh. To me, Buenos Aires has something of Valencia and Belgrade about it. You have probably never heard the Belgrade comparison before for the Argentine capital, but the mix of the garish brand new and the crumbling Old World, together with the smartly dressed and decidedly middle-class city folk going about their business on the streets of Recoleta and Retiro, are more than a little reminiscent of the Serbian capital...with a Spanish twist, of course.
Once in the hostel all I feel like doing is sleeping and chilling in the bar with a cafe con leche or two. The real Argentine adventure will begin tomorrow when I'm not wandering around like a zombie...
Copa America 2011
A blog from the 2011 Copa America and road trip around Argentina.