Villa Lugano as Metaphor

for GoNomad (alternative), March 2019

It was either youthful recklessness, insatiable curiosity, or lack of caffeine that kept me on the bus. I was staying at a hostel in San Telmo and, with nothing to do for the afternoon, had chosen a city bus at random without inquiring as to its destination, pressed to the window in my seat until the end of the route. I watched the dense city center spread out into the periphery, I watched the height of my surroundings tumble into modesty, I wondered if Buenos Aires ever really ends.

An hour or so later, I was standing helplessly under the mild winter sun in a dusty square, staring at ramshackle homes and crumbling concrete structures, catching my breath. The guy who robbed me on the main road hadn’t seemed particularly inclined to use his gun, but having it pointed at me so enthusiastically had been enough to convince me to give up my bag. In the moments that followed, the adrenaline in my veins hadn’t subsided – I remembered that I’d been carrying my medication with me, and I found myself following him into the maze of the slum. I’m not sure what compelled me to run after a man who had ostensibly been willing to shoot me - it may have been some misfiring sense of adventure, or perhaps the feeling that, here, so far from home, nothing is real, and the world is simply not to be negotiated in the same way.

He dropped some things from my bag as he ran. He never turned, he never stopped, only flinging assorted contents to the ground until I’d lost him, possibly calculating that if he got rid of what I wanted, I’d leave well enough alone. I didn’t. And then I was heaving the dust of that clearing, unsure whether to scream or cry, unsure what one does when this part happens. I approached two men on a stoop and asked how I might get back to the main road. “Where are you from?” they asked, bemused, their voices marked by strong porteño accents. “The United States,” I hazarded. They laughed.

Another man came to me in the square. He was riding a bicycle, or rather, he was on a bicycle - having, as he did, only one leg, it’s unlikely that riding the thing was in his repertoire. He skated along on his remaining foot. His brown hair was tangled, he had blue eyes, a sharp nose, dusty cheeks. Four dogs followed him and gathered eagerly around him when he stopped in front of me. He asked if I needed help. I explained myself to him as best I could, and he and the dogs spent the next 30 minutes with me, meandering the village, collecting what of my belongings had been jettisoned from my bag and lay strewn about the alleyways. My medication was among the wreckage. He promised to try to find the rest of my things. He showed me back to the main road and wished me luck. I never got a name.

After pleading my way onto a bus back into the city in spite of having lost the handful of pesos I’d had on me, I wondered who we become with distance. We become people who wander with abandon, we become people who chase after men with guns. Later in the week, I told a local friend what had happened. She burst into hysterics and demanded, “What the hell were you doing in Villa Lugano?” I couldn’t answer to her satisfaction. As I hadn’t known, Lugano, which lies to the far south of the city, is known for its villa miseria slum. But here in San Telmo, there was no dust, no visceral decay, the sun shone less brightly amid the dense cityscape and welcoming cobblestones.

One of many possible morals of this story might be said to be that it is ideal to know where one is going in faraway places, to know where is good and where is bad, to carry a bus map. This seems like a reasonable perspective, but I still find myself largely rejecting its premise. Really, tourism often becomes voyeurism at the threshold of poverty. To not know where you are might be a precarious luxury, but it is one to relish with caution, not to abandon.