The Ghosts of La Recoleta


She came to us after Mass.

We had watched the people leaving the church, the men pulling on gloves, the women buttoning coats against the chill June air. Older women, dressed in black, tightening their headscarves. Always a good opportunity for some money, using all that guilt, that longing for a better world, that recognition that there might be a God. So we pulled the thin blanket tighter, sat upright on the newspaper, stared into their faces, held out our hands.

Most people looked away, embarrassed by our youth, repulsed by our smell perhaps. Wishing we were invisible. But some looked, even if only to shake their heads. Perhaps to wonder why we were there, who our parents were and where they might be. A few gave money, coins we grasped in our dirty chipped-nailed fingers, slid into pockets, saved for later. Then the woman came.

She stood for a moment, deciding. Searched our faces, considered walking away, dismissing the thought, the belief, the commitment. But she had already decided really. The choice had been made, while she stood before the icon, while she lit the candle, while she allowed herself, for one brief second, to truly seek her God’s face. So she leaned towards me, worried that she might be seen, asked if I was the eldest. Did we sleep here at night? Did we have no shelter now it was winter?

I indicated that I was in charge, suspicious of her motives, nodded slowly, not wanting to commit, ready to deny it in a whisper. For shelter, I glanced upwards, at the high concrete overhang. Not that it was much shelter. When it rained, the water would find a way through, run in rivulets along the broken paving slabs, often soaking the newspaper we lay on for warmth.

Sometimes we used one of the abandoned theatres opposite a faded villa, the weathered gargoyles scowling at us as we pushed through a gap in the boarded up door. But it was always full of empty bottles. It was safer on the street. The cold was less of a threat than the drunken adults who lurked in the shadows of forgotten buildings.

When she told me to come, it was so faint, I barely heard her. The muttered address, the specific time, all whispered in a hurry. Hopeful perhaps that I would mishear, arrive too late or in the wrong place. That she could absolve her conscience by having tried whilst failing to deliver.

I thought about it all day. We sorted through the litter bins in Plaza San Martin, hopeful a wasteful tourist may have thrown away food. Or a bereaved relative, come to find a name on the wall of names, losing their appetite, throwing away their lunch. We watched the fat birds perched on the statues and wished we were them, could fly over the city, up to the sun.

When I told the others, sitting on the steps, looking back at the old clock tower, they wanted to go, to try our luck. What did we have to lose? There might be some food involved. So we went.

It wasn’t far. We left our blankets folded in their place, pushed back against the shop front. So we could come back later, our shelter would be reserved. If it rained, dry space would be hard to find.

We stayed on the main road, away from the broken roofed station, past the memorials and the park. It wasn’t an area we frequented, too full of tourists for the police to turn a blind eye. Too many rich people with carefully made up faces and stomachs full from the parilla. We followed the road, the black and yellow taxis speeding past, the occasional lorry slogging through the city from the pampas, stacked high with produce to sell.

We waited outside, loitering under the giant gum tree, its branches spread as wide as its height. We were early, not wanting to miss something that might be good. Or might not. But we could run if we needed to, back to the anonymity of the disused tracks.

We watched customers leaving the French cafe, the taxis waiting for fares in the little square, the stall holders packing up their wares. When the square was empty, only the pigeons left to find stray crumbs, she came. Hurrying across the faded grass, anxiety in every limb, every glance. She stood at a distance, checked we were unobserved, beckoned us over, turned and hastened back inside. We followed.

Afterwards, we could never be sure why we had. Why had we trusted her, risked walking through the arched entrance, let her pull the gates closed behind us, turn the key in the lock? Let her lead us past the map that guided visitors, through the wide doorway, onto the pathway beyond. Hidden by high stone walls, unseen.

We stood there. Five of us. Ragged and hungry and alone. No one to miss us. No one to care. No one to even notice.

We stood amongst the dead. On every side, the stone booths of the rich and famous protected their remains. Pointed roofed cathedrals, statues of angels, marble shelters. I knew this place. I knew the bereaved visited and the curious. People came to see the statues, the monuments, the plaques. They sought dead relatives, famous writers, the final resting place of Evita.

Beyond the perimeter, reaching towards the sky were the windows of tall buildings, like many eyes watching. An old man approached, as ancient as the tombs, stared at us, smiled a toothless smile, nodded at the woman. She turned to me, all business. Confident now we were unwatched, no possible witnesses.

“You came. Good. I wasn’t sure if you would. I must leave soon, I cannot be late home. But this is Juan. He works here, cleaning the graves. You can stay, it will be sheltered. There are blankets – and food, I can bring more each day, I will leave it somewhere in the evenings, when I lock up to go home. You can use the public washrooms, for water, but you must leave them clean. There must be no sign of you. You must be invisible,” she spoke in a rush, a rehearsed speech.

She paused. Not wanting to say it but knowing that she must.

“You can stay, but… in the daytime, when the cemetery is open, you must be hidden. Juan will show you, there is a place, below ground, where one of the coffins was stored. You can sleep, in the day, when there are people.

“At night,” she continued,”when the gates are locked, you will be free. You can run and play and be safe.”

She stopped, unsure now. Her eyes on my face, seeking reassurance, needing to know that this was better. That to have shelter and food and safety was better than the streets. But I didn’t know.

True, it would be easier to care for the little ones, good to escape the weather, the hunger, the predators. And it wasn’t the dark that scared me. Or the restricted movement in the day.

I looked into her eyes, saw kindness and concern. Knew she wanted to help.

“But,” I whispered, “but, what about the ghosts?”

She knelt then, placed two warm hands on my shoulders, peered straight into my eyes.

“You don’t need to worry about them,” she said. “You are the ghosts now.”

And so it was.

Juan led us to some rusted iron gates, unlocked the chain and they creaked open. He told us that this was a good shelter to choose, there was a cat who slept there, who would keep the mice away. We filed inside, over dead leaves that had blown inside, down steep stone steps to the tiny cavern below. There was a shelf – cleaned now, stacked with blankets, and I wondered briefly where Juan had moved the remains to, which coffin was now in the wrong vault.

Then I busied myself with blankets, helping to settle the little ones, to stop them eating all the food we had been left. Juan showed us how to loop the chain back through the gates, so they would look secure, so none of the visitors would attempt to disturb us.

We lived in the cemetery. We ate the food she left for us each evening, we slept on dry blankets in the safe shelter below the ground. Sometimes we would hear Juan, he often swept near our vault when there were tourists, a careful guard, covering any noise we might make, ever watchful.

But best of all, when it was dark, we would run and laugh and play. The high buildings outside added their lights to the stars, watched as we pretended to dance the tango in the city of the dead. We learned how to be children again.

Sometimes, when it is very dark, people walking past La Recoleta, fancy that they hear voices from within the high walls. The sound of laughter carries on the wind, and they hurry away, telling themselves they are imagining things, that the dead don’t giggle. Which is right. Dead people do not laugh nor dance nor play. But we do. We are the ghosts of La Recoleta.

xxxxxxxxx

Thank you for reading.

anneethompson.com

IMG_4193

 

xxxx

Another day in Argentina : Letter to a Sister


Went to La Recoleta. This is mainly a large cemetery, which is not a place I would usually visit but it featured in all the guide books and was recommended by our taxi driver. We walked there from the hotel. Passed a few people sleeping in the street, whole families in some cases, which is never a comfortable experience. The only other place that I have passed homeless children is Mumbai.

Found La Recoleta, in the middle of a park with market stalls. Was glad the family weren’t with me to complain about me liking spooky places and not being ‘normal’. I thought of you – you would’ve have spent hours taking photographs at strange angles with clever close-ups. I just snapped a few pictures, none of which really captured the atmosphere.

The cemetery is huge, like a small village of monuments and booths. Some had steps leading down, littered with soiled bags, empty bottles, coated in dust and cobwebs. Some had coffins stacked in view of the doorway covered in white lace cloths. Some coffins were crumbling, threatening to spill their contents, others were pristine, polished oak with shiny fixtures. The booths were white marble, grey granite, weathered stone and black steel gates. There were lots of statues and angels and domes. A little like miniature cathedrals, with the dead being worshipped rather than God.

It was a little incongruous, after passing families of homeless people. I am a tourist here, I don’t know what help is available, but at a glance it looked as if the dead have better shelter than the poor.

We saw the tomb where Evita is buried, and several other dignitaries, then we left.

IMG_4192 IMG_4191 IMG_4188

Went to La Biela, a traditional coffee house just outside the cemetery, opposite a giant ancient gum tree. It had a motor racing theme due to being a favourite spot in the 1950’s for drivers and fans. There was memorabilia on the walls and spanners carved into the chair backs. It had a lovely traditional Argentinian feel, we could’ve stayed there for hours.

We drank coffee sprinkled with cinnamon, which tasted almost of oregano and ate ‘alfajores’, which were shortbread biscuits filled with dolce leche. The cafe was empty when we arrived at 9:30 and was full by 10am – lots of well maintained elderly Argentinians and young tourists. You would have liked it there.

IMG_4202 IMG_0132

Ate a very late lunch in a parilla (name for a steak restaurant.) Walked from hotel heading south, along narrow streets littered with blankets reserving sites for the homeless, dog mess and broken pavements. The houses on either side were a muddle of faded villas with gargoyles and balconies and modern apartment blocks. We passed a burnt out theatre, a derelict mansion and tiny newsagents. It felt real, interesting and full of life. Buenos Aires is growing on me – perhaps you need more than a day here before you notice it properly.

IMG_4219

Arrived at Chiquilin in Calle Sarmento. Peered in window and it looked clean, so went in and sat in a corner table, under oil paintings and bottles of wine on shelves below the low ceiling. Ate more steak than the whole family would normally eat at home. All the restaurants here have an abundance of waiters dressed in black and white, most of whom seem to either speak English or understand my very bad Spanish.

Walked back to hotel. Exhausted but pleased with the day. Tomorrow we might go to Uruguay – I’ll let you know what it’s like.

Take care,
Love, Anne x

IMG_4227The Opera House

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_4226

 

Probably not the best place to post letters.

The city seemed full of derelict post boxes!

 

 

 

 

 

P1090523 Tango dancing in the street.

 

 

 

 

IMG_4166 IMG_4307

 

 

xxxxxxxxxxx

Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, why not sign up to follow my blog?

IMG_4276

Letter to a Sister : Buenos Aires


As we flew into Buenos Aires, the horizon was red with dawn. A beautiful end to a 14 hour flight.

I was slightly worried going through immigration as I had been given a form to complete on the plane (at 2am). I managed the name and address bits but when it started asking about the make and series of my mobile, I gave up – ‘iPhone, very old’, was the best I could manage. Husband assured me that we only needed one per household and he had done one. No one ever asked for it anyway, so was an unnecessary worry.

On the way to the hotel, we passed a demonstration. They had blocked two lanes of the road (the roads here are really wide) and they had banners (which were in Spanish, so I couldn’t read them.) People had just abandoned their cars in the road and gone to join them. Our driver said this happens a lot.

The hotel, Park Tower, is right next to The English Tower. Our taxi driver said this was because it was a gift from the English. The guidebook said it was because it looks like Big Ben. It doesn’t.

Opposite is the war memorial for the Falklands War (interesting choice of position.) The politics are complicated, the fact that so many young men died is heartbreaking, whatever your nationality.

We looked around Galerias Pacifico, which used to be an art gallery but is now a shopping mall. The walls were beautifully decorated. The shops were just shops, so didn’t spend long in there.

We ate empanachas for supper. They are like mini fried pasties. Go well with beer.

IMG_4113 IMG_4112 English Clock and war memorial.

 

 

 

 

IMG_4122

The night wasn’t terrible and I want to keep to UK time as it’s such a short trip. We ordered room service coffee at 4am. The coffee here is very dark, the milk tastes like evaporated milk, so you don’t want much. The room service menu has a separate price list. I’m guessing this is because inflation is currently 25%, so it saves them reprinting the whole menu every time prices go up. It was quite a challenge to get Argentinian currency before we came, and no one will buy it back from us when we go home. Most places accept credit cards or US dollars.

We walked to Casa Rosada, where Evita made her impassioned speeches from the balcony. I can’t tell you how much it was enhanced by Husband singing all the Lloyd Webber songs in my ear, very loudly and slightly off-key. The palace is pink – according to the guide book this is because it’s painted in cow’s blood. I wish I hadn’t known that, think I will stop reading guide book and make up my own reasons for things.

Crossed several major roads (multi-lane roads are a feature of Argentina. They do have lights to help you cross though.) Saw a bridge which is meant to resemble Tango dancers. Husband suggested we could strike a Tango pose and take selfies. We didn’t.

Walked along a river. Even in quite expensive areas, there are people sleeping rough under blankets. They didn’t ask for money, they were just bundled up under shop awnings. Sad.

We got a taxi to La Boca region. We were told in the hotel that it wasn’t safe for us to wander around, but there was one street, Caminito, which was full of tourists. We saw lots of painted houses, cafes with Tango dancers and singers, lots of street art. It was nice and interesting, though not very ‘real’.

I bought a cushion cover for my collection and a fridge magnet for Mum (I’m sure she’ll be delighted, you can never have too many fridge magnets and this one has a bottle opener attached.)

We got a taxi back to the hotel. We were told to only take taxis that had writing on the doors. If they had writing on both front and back doors, it means they’re owned by a company, so they are the best ones. They have a light at the front which tells you when they’re free. There are loads of taxis, so it was easy.

Went back and showered. The hotel’s bathroom products are called ‘Wine and Beauty’. They smell of wine. It’s not unpleasant, but I do feel a bit like I’ve washed my hair in a bottle of Chardonnay. It reminds me of when, as a teenager, I used to rinse my hair in vinegar because someone told me it would give me ginger highlights, and when it rained I smelt like a chip shop.

Went to bed at 6:30 (10:30 UK time.) Husband has muttered about my time plan very little. I will write again tomorrow and let you know what else we see.

Take care,
Love, Anne x

IMG_4134 IMG_4139 Casa Rosada

 

 

 

IMG_4159 Tango bridge

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_4175 IMG_4170 La Boca

IMG_4205 A ‘good’ taxi, with writing on both doors.

 

 

 

 

 

You can read my sister’s letter at :

http://ruthdalyauthor.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/reasons-for-having-messy-house-letters.html

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, why not sign up to follow my blog?

anneethompson.com

IMG_4153

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx