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I had trouble striking up conversation with the portenos (locals) in Buenos Aires, their withering glances and patronising stares were not inviting. And when a stroll along Florida Street left me without my wallet I felt even less inclined to chat.

Despite all of this there was something I liked about Buenos Aires. I had been recommended a restaurant named Desniveles by a friendly Australian on my bus, it turned out to be the best steak I had ever tasted. The place was packed and its plastic tablecloths and penguin wine carafes gave it great character (unlike the portenos). I spent much of my time in the city strolling around various areas and sitting in the shade hiding from the relentless 35 degree heat. La Boca with its colourful houses and tango dancing charmed me and I enjoyed the boutiques of Palmero. Nothing as literary as Paul Theroux’s week with Jorge Borges, but I did visit his family home and duly admire the plaque on the wall there.

I also paid a visit to the police station to report my various thefts and get a crime number. This proved to be more entertaining than all my sightseeing put together.
A fleshy policeman ushered me into the ancient station and bade me to sit, promising he would be able to help. He proceeded to smoke a cigarette while sitting at an empty desk, wondering if this was the idle officer’s way of helping me I took in my surroundings. It felt as though I had returned to the seventies, the paint was peeling from the walls and old black and white photos of former policeman hung wonkily. An ancient chandelier dangled precariously by a single wire as water dripped onto it from a leaking pipe in the ceiling. The smoking policeman watched the drips form a puddle and sighed before looking over at his colleague who was diligently typing into what looked like an IBM computer. I waited…. A member of what looked like the ymca came in and gave the smoker his lunch, he was wearing his police uniform with tight style and copious amounts of hair gel, much kissing and greeting occurred, a cultural embrace between men that I was still getting used to. I was beckoned over to the IBM and we discovered an issue: my bag had been stolen in a state outside of Buenos Aires police jurisdiction. Both police disappeared into the office of the jefe (boss). Then the stunningly handsome jefe appeared from the office and put his arm around me: “Let me tell you a little secret….your bag wasn’t stolen on the border, it was stolen here.” He waggled his perfectly shaped eyebrows at me and nodded. “Great..thanks a lot” I managed to stutter while staring into his beautiful eyes; it felt like I was in some sort of South American soap opera. Much back slapping and kissing between the policeman occurred again as they agreed on the dates and times of the crime and the IBM typer got to work. Everyone was happy and I stumbled out of the station in a daze with my crime statement wondering if I had just played a bit part in a camp musical or was about to see Ashton Kutcher shout ‘you’ve been punk’d.’

My next plan was to organise one of the last legs of my trip; how to get to Patagonia. Paul Theroux took the Lagos del Sur to Ingeniero Jacobacci before taking La Trochita (The Old Patagonian Express). So I went in search of a train ticket.
The Tren Patagonico office was where I met Hector Cassano the last train expert in Argentina and saviour of La Trochita. His stories of political persecution had me rooted to my seat…more about that to come…and I discovered (again) that the only way to get a train ticket in Argentina was to book three months in advance. It seemed despite Buenos Aires European aspirations its reality was still firmly rooted in South America.

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The Expresso Sur to Villazon

The Expresso Sur to Villazon

How I longed to be able to board the train in La Paz and three days later arrive in Buenos Aires. Despite the delays Paul Theroux arrived in Argentina’s capital unscathed. I felt rather like I had undergone some sort of emotional and physical challenge and to add insult to injury I was robbed a second time on my first day in the city.

After a bumpy seven hour bus ride on my way out of Bolivia, on unsealed roads through some of the most desolate landscapes I had seen in my life, I thankfully boarded the Expresso Sur bound for the Argentinean border. Sadly the train was not a sleeper but it boasted reclining seats and blankets. I tucked myself in and fell fast asleep, the clickity clack of the train on the rails rocking me into a deep slumber. I awoke feeling refreshed and headed straight to the dinning car where I was served a good breakfast of coffee and eggs. The landscape had changed, it was greener yet still mountainous. It filled me with hope, the dry riverbeds and barren vistas of south Bolivia had started to depress me, I longed for a paved road, a clean bathroom and a tasty snack. The pretty cacti that speckled the ground had started to look more hydrated and it felt as though this lusher landscape was leading me to better things. This was sadly something of a delusion.

The border was the usual melee of queues and chaos. The gringos were being stamped out of Bolivia ahead of the natives and their wads of paper. The Argentinean side was not as speedy, I spent some while trying to work out why a gringo tourist was wearing rubber gloves and searching luggage, until I realised he was Argentinean, I was filled with a sense of relief… I was no longer going to stand out, I would blend in with the locals for the first time in months. This excitement was sadly somewhat premature, at the bus station in La Quiaca I stood out enough to have my bag swiped from the office of a bus operator. I had placed it on a table for no more than two minutes before it disappeared. The only people in the office had been myself and the bus company employees. Trying to contain my anger I attempted to bribe, beg and cry for the return of my bag but all to no avail: “It must have been the Peruvians, they are thief’s.” was the only answer I could wrestle out of the employees. This was one of several frustrations I was to suffer in Argentina, I think the look of the country had lulled me into a false sense of security, the city streets reminded me of an older Spain or Portugal and the chino wearing men and glossy women looked like they had stepped out of an eighties European fashion magazine. But despite a shiny exterior the inner workings of Argentina seemed to have a lot of catching up to do and according to the papers things were moving back not forwards.

From the border, minus my bag, luckily my passport had been in my pocket, I wearily took an eight-hour bus ride to the pretty town of Salta. Arriving late and with only a morning to spare I strolled around the main plaza, marvelling at its impressive pink cathedral and ate breakfast in a café, all the while feeling like I had been transported magically back to Europe.

I was soon reminded I was in South America when I tried to organise taking the train from Tucuman to Buenos Aries.
“The train is booked until March.”
“March…?” I spluttered back incredulously. “But I’ve only just arrived in Argentina and could not find a way to book the train online.”
“We are sorry the train is very popular in Argentina, but it only runs twice a week.”
Frustrated with both myself and the rail company I tried every trick in the book to get onto the train, I flashed my press pass, talked about The Times, my blog and all to no avail.
I left, resigned to yet another long bus ride. A mere 22 hours to Buenos Aires.
With a heavy heart I boarded the 12.30 Andesmar bus. We stopped to change buses half an hour our of the city and I marvelled at a man in the petrol station, he was eating a huge steak, it must have been the size of a chess board. No salad, no chips, no drink even. Just a huge steak. Well this was Argentina after all.

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