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Of Art & Religion: More Buenos Aires

Our last few weeks in Buenos Aires we dug a little deeper into the culture of the city. We witnessed art whose origins arise from the grit and struggle of the streets, and we took part in a religious experience with 50,000 other Argentinians.

Of Art:

The tango is an art form that represents the history and the struggle of BA’s immigrant population. It was born in the late 1800’s in the bars and bordellos of the working class neighborhoods of La Boca and San Telmo. Once considered a vulgar dance frowned upon by the elites, the tango mixes machismo, passion and longing. It is a complicated dance, taken quite seriously here and very much a part of the fabric of this city. There is almost a fighting edge to it, with a hidden code of conduct best not attempted by beginners (or gringos).

There are a few different ways to experience tango in Buenos Aires. Take a class at a milonga (dance hall) in the hours before they start, then stay and watch the scene unfold with the locals. The milongas are all over the city, in all kinds of venues from cultural centers to hip warehouse spaces with DJs. Most have classes beforehand that start around 11 pm and go until the light of the early morning arrives. Another way is to attend a tango/dinner show (quite expensive), watching professional dancers put on an elaborate show at one of the fancy hotels or clubs in town.

We took a tango class at the Argentine Tango Foundation (Fundación Tango Argentino), as part of our new role as Ambassadors for an organization called We will be helping to enhance and promote community- based organizations through auditing, storytelling, and photography as we make our way through South America. We are super excited to be part of this effort. If you have any interest in supporting social causes through culturally immersive, impactful activities while you travel, is a great place to connect to local organizations.

Fundación Tango Argentino is a nonprofit organization whose social objectives include improving the lives of children living on the street using the teaching of tango dance as a method of social and economic integration. Tour revenue (classes are only $6) enables the Foundation to provide free workshops and activities to children, adults, and people with disabilities.

We got to our class and were the only gringos, and probably the only ones who had never even tried the tango. Our instructor made us feel very welcome though, and we stepped and turned our way around the floor for over an hour and half. It was eye opening how difficult the dance is, and how many moves it incorporates. People will take tango lessons for years and years, trying to master perfection that can’t ever be fully realized. We thoroughly enjoyed our class, and left feeling a little tired and extremely humbled.

we tried...I mean, we really tried.

The locals don't mess around. They dance in heels.

check out the hours for our tango class's milonga show...'til 3:30 in the morning!

After our class we headed out to see real tango at a milonga at La Catedral in the Almagro neigborhood. It is one of those warehouse-hipster-venues and when we arrived at 10:30, students were on the dance floor taking lessons. By 11:30 a few people had started to dance and we enjoyed the scene over a few drinks, not daring to step on the dance floor ourselves. By midnight a few more people had arrived, but it was still pretty empty. By 12:30, we were starting to fade. We knew we couldn't make it all the way until 2:00 in the morning when this place would finally get busy, staying open until 4:00 or 5:00 am. So we called it a night.

The hours people keep in Argentina is just mind boggling. Every morning on the weekends in our apartment, we could hear people heading home, singing and laughing at around 6:30 & 7:00 in the morning after a 'night' out. In the camper, our life starts when the sun comes up and ends when it goes down. There was just no way we were going to be able to do Buenos Aires' crazy hours.

Oh well, we got a taste…and happily went to bed as the city was dancing.

The urban art scene in Buenos Aires can appear and disappear in a matter of hours. Buenos Aires has become a top destination for international street artists with the likes of Roa (Belgium), Blu (Italy), Aryz (Spain), Jef Aerosol (France), Ron English (USA), Stinkfish (Colombia) and Fintan Magee (Australia) visiting the city recently to paint murals.

BA's urban art is best experienced on a bike. We went out again with our Biking Buenos Aires guide Marcello, on a graffiti tour to see some of the well known street art in BA. We peddled out to the gritty, industrial neighborhoods of La Boca and Barracas - and the art was truly remarkable.

Helmets were required this time because of the streets, and since we forgot to bring our own...we wore these little geeky bonnet type things.

La Boca. Materials and paint were used from what was left over at the ship yards to build houses.

In Buenos Aires, graffiti is tolerated and street art is valued - and both are more socially acceptable here. Many, if not most of the buildings in BA are tagged or have some kind of graffiti on them. Some neighborhoods have less than others, but all have some sort of tagging.

Across the street from our apartment

Art.This was the building next door to our apartment

There are very few restrictions on street art here, compared to other world class cities. There’s no need to obtain authorization from the local authority to change the appearance of a building—all you need is the consent of the property owner. If the artist doesn’t have permission, but leaves his or her “signature”, it's also not illegal. Building owners will often pay artists to paint their houses, and local businesses regularly commission artists to decorate their shop fronts and metal shutters. A mural by a well-known international street artist can cost a few thousand dollars depending on the complexity of the artwork and size of the wall.

Many owners have a special relationship with artists and are open to having their houses painted. This woman came home while we were looking at the mural of her building. She seemed to pose in her door way next to her portrait and those of her family.

This mural is part of a larger one that spans 3 city blocks.

One of our first stops in La Boca taught us about a horrible time in Argentina’s history. Most of us are familiar with the financial crisis that occurred here back in 2001, but the country’s history is forever scarred by the brutal dictatorship that ruled here not that long ago.

Argentina’s military generals staged a coup on 24 March, 1976, toppling President Isabel Martinez de Peron’s administration. Up to 30,000 people are believed to have been killed or "disappeared" during this military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 – a period of state brutality known as the "Dirty War". With cold-blooded efficiency, the country's new rulers began rounding up suspected left-wing guerrillas and human rights sympathizers, and sending them to torture camps in Buenos Aires before killing them. This all went on until 1983...unbelievable.

During the military dictatorship, the Plaza de Mayo group, composed mainly of mothers whose children had been taken by the military, openly defied the junta by conducting weekly protests in the main Government square, the Plaza de Mayo. So that the country never forgets, the mothers still come and protests are still held every Thursday in the square.

The grandmothers are pictured here on this mural, showing their strength. In the right hand corner the words, "never forget, never forgive" are stencilled on the wall.

This brutal regime conducted notorious "death flights" – the practice of drugging prisoners and dropping them from aircraft over the Rio de la Plata and Atlantic Ocean. Once in flight, they were injected with a sedative by an Argentine Navy doctor before being shoved to their deaths. Over 4,000 people were reportedly killed this way. In 2012 many newspapers, including this article in the UK Independent, detailed the trial of 68 defendants – ex-armed forces pilots and police, who faced 800 charges of kidnap, torture and murder.

This graffiti mural in La Boca depicts the horror of the death flights. It was a haunting piece of art, and it stayed with me for days:

History, political struggles, and natural disasters are depicted on buildings all throughout the city. The street art reflects both the beauty and the struggles of its people.

On the lighter side, well-known painter Marino Santa Maria has created more than half a dozen colorful portraits of tango legend Carlos Gardel around the city:

This was one of the most impressive we saw that day. This painting is done with spray paint, using multiple colors and multiple stencils. Amazing.

International street-art festivals such as Meeting of Styles, held twice now in Buenos Aires, have helped put the city on the map with foreign artists joining forces with homegrown talent. Argentine street artist Martin Ron created this hyper-realistic sea turtle exploding out of a pipe from a factory wall at Meeting of Styles in 2012. The design features an old man accompanied by his dog with the turtle representing his imagination and memories from his life flashing through his mind. It took Ron four days to paint using brushes and latex paint and has become one of the most iconic murals in the city:

We spent the whole afternoon cycling around looking at giant murals by various artists with equally interesting stories. It was really a fantastic day.

Of Religion:

Argentina may be considered a Catholic country, but the real religion here is fútbol (soccer, to all you Americans) and its God is fútbol legend Diego Maradrona. For a country that produced both Lionel Messi and Maradrona, this game is the most important aspect of Argentine culture and life in Buenos Aires. There are two major teams in BA, Boca Jr. and River Plate, and when they play each other it is called a superclásico.

To say it is a religion here is no joke. The Iglesia Maradoniana (literally Maradonian Church ) was created by fans of the retired Maradrona, who they believe to be the best player of all time. The church was founded on October 30, 1998 (Maradona's 38th birthday) in the city of Rosario, Argentina. There is another Maradona Church in La Boca, where Maradona played for the Boca Jr. team. Supporters of the Maradonian Church are supposedly all over the world. The famous football player is not just seen as a national symbol, but really rabid fans say he is the son of God - which seems a little nutty considering his drug problems and the fact that he basically cheated in the "Hand of God" 1986 world cup match against England.

Maradona Graffiti in La Boca

We experienced this religion first hand by attending a River Plate game. The River Plate stadium is newer, and by all reports, more civilized than the Boca Jr. stadium. Before the game we were warned not wear the Boca Jr. colors (yellow and blue) or the colors of the opposing team (whose name & colors I can’t remember…and really, who cares) for fear we might get beat up. We were told they do not allow fans of the opposing team into the stadium and we certainly didn’t see any. There is fenced-in seating area topped with barbed wire that I think used to house the opposing team’s fans but now just seems like the cheap seats for the ultra River Plate hooligans.

We went through 3 security checks, and even extra security (men and women separate) because the previous game had resulted in some kind of fight or riot (we weren't sure which). Sufficiently searched, with my chap stick confiscated (chap stick??), we made out way to our seats. These games sell out every single time the teams play (Boca Jr. tickets don’t go on sale at all, you have to buy from one of the “members”) and tickets are hard to come by. The tickets we finally secured last minute had us sitting all the way up in the very last row. Like, so last row we were sitting up against the very top of the wall of the stadium.

The noise was at times deafening and one end of the stadium had fans on their feet singing and jumping up and down the entire time. The stadium shook when fans chanted, stomped, and sang in unison. The energy was palpable.

There are no replays, no half time shows, and rarely does the jumbo screen show more than just the action in real time. No alcohol is served, and there are few vendors selling anything to provide distractions. You are there to watch the match. Period. Just like in church. The game ended in a 1-1 tie, and once the game was over the stadium seemed to empty out in a matter of minutes, with everyone making their way home after their Sunday pilgrimage. It was a local religious experience to be sure.

After a month in BA, we grew to like this city and found it very livable. I am so happy we spent an extended period of time “living” here. I got it out of my system. We also throughly enjoyed our time out of the rig, but after almost 6 weeks we are ready to hit the road again.

We have whales and penguins to see -- and the end of the world is calling.

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