There are three culprits that impede a traveler from walking the streets of Buenos Aires in a brisk, yet casually cool, manner. Crap, cabs, and construction.
“You have to look at the ground,” my sister-in-law tells me in Spanish. Her tone is firm and I immediately feel nine-years-old.
“All porteños watch the ground when they walk,” she says.
A porteño (meaning someone from the port) is a nickname reserved for those born and raised in Buenos Aires. I am not a porteño, and thus – I step in dog poop. In fact, I slip! in dog poop. Flailing clumsily – as if in a banana peel, slap-stick comedy sketch – and nearly wipe-out in front of an audience of sophisticated, alfresco diners who are, surely, all porteños.
“How can I look at the ground when I’m talking to you?” I ask her, as if the two acts are impossible to achieve simultaneously.
“Figure it out,” she says with a smirk.
“They didn’t mention that in your travel books,” my husband says, flicking his head in the direction of the aforementioned poop. Annoyed and embarrassed, I scrape the sole of my shoe against the edge of the sidewalk like an angry bull.
“What kind of country allows dog poop in the streets, anyway?” I ask.
“Argentina,” my husband says flatly. He gives me a look that says: Okay, okay. You stepped in poop. Let’s get a move on.
No cars in sight, I step off the curb to cross the street but am yanked back onto the sidewalk by my husband. “Espera,” he says. “Wait. Watch for the cabs coming around the corner. They don’t stop for pedestrians here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, they don’t stop. They’ll hit you.”
“Good to know.”
I lean forward to get a better look at the corner and any oncoming traffic. A cab makes a sharp turn and gives a curt honk.Again, I lean forward, then arch back as another cab whips around the corner. My upper body swings back and forth like this several times and I feel ready to hop into a round of double-dutch jump rope. As we wait on the corner my mother-in-law leans into me and says: “Hold your purse. Thieves ride by on motorcycles and snatch your bag. They’ll drag you with them if they have to.”
“Come on,” I say incredulously.
She tucks her chin and raises an eyebrow. “Cómo que no?” she says. “You don’t think so, eh?”
We continue our walk down Avenida Santa Fe, a main shopping area in the popular neighborhood of Palermo. We pass dozens of storefront windows displaying every variety of women’s leather sandals: green, purple, orange, strappy, studded, high-heeled. My mother-in-law and I stop to point-out which pairs we like best. My husband and sister-in-law wait patiently on the curb while thick crowds of shoppers pass by. I notice immediately that no one in the crowd appears to be looking at the ground or guarding their purse.
Leaving the apartment this morning I had a vision of myself walking the tree-lined streets of Buenos Aires in a flouncy summer dress, hand-in-hand with my handsome beau, strangers’ heads turning to look at us, “What an attractive couple,” they would say in hushed tones. But here I am, clutching my purse to my chest, hunched-over like an old lady, peering at the ground for sneaky turds, tentatively peeking around the corner for flying cabs. My I’m-a-savvy-cosmopolitan-gal confidence having fully vanished, I feel like Bambi learning to walk on his scrawny fawn legs.
On the next block, and the block after, and the block after that we encounter sidewalk construction. Loose tiles, cracked tiles, missing tiles, ditches, mounds of dirt, piles of rocks, workers hoisting heavy pipes and carrying stacks of bricks across their chests. There are no warning signs, no bright orange cones, no taped-off areas.
“I know, I know,” I say before any of them can instruct me on how to maneuver the terrain, “I’m looking. I’m looking!
Cara Brunello is learning to walk and talk like a porteña, and is proud to report that it’s been weeks since she last stepped in dog poop.