They say history is written by the victors. Precisely what this means for Argentina’s heritage continues to remain unclear because, two hundred years in, political consensus and a single narrative on most anything can be elusive.
The debate over the whats, hows and whys of Argentine history and politics rages across street corners and news channels on a daily basis — just look at the furore generated by last year’s bicentennial celebrations, for example — while us immigrants and tourists often miss out on the increasingly complicated discourse and stick to whichever version it was we heard first.
But there are ways out of our self-imposed echo chamber.
One of the latest escape routes can be found here in Buenos Aires. It comes in the form of a new non-profit, start up tourism-for-the-masses project created by Venezuelan BA resident Nicolas Hidalgo-Frigo and co.
Perfect Mix Walking Tours aims to inject a more cerebral approach to the classic walking tour format that for thousands of new arrivals to Buenos Aires City has become the preferred method for soaking up one’s first batch of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, dances, factoids and frustrations of a stay in Argentina’s world-famous capital.
Despite their ubiquity, walking tours here are still in their infancy as a full-blown pillar of the tourist industry and the possibilities for evolution and variations on the theme are tangible — Hidalgo-Frigo’s an International Relations post-grad and has a fierce belief in what he calls “critical thinking” on the part of tourists and guides alike when it comes to getting to know a place from scratch.
The theory? You’ll have a more fulfilling time here if you can glimpse beneath the surface layers of the golden afternoon haze and architectural wonder of the City to discover not only how things got to be like they are, but why too.
“I’m not going to talk at you so much,” a bilingual Hidalgo-Frigo states at the inception of each tour, to a ripple of interest and/or fear depending on those who’ve signed up for the 4.30pm start time at the foot of the May Revolution obelisk — “the oldest national monument in Argentina,” apparently.
By the end, though, any trepidation of participating in this more give-and-take tour format seems to have disappeared.
Vibrant discussions on sweeping historical themes, politics and economics have come and gone and our guide’s input has been less school teacher than debate chair: quipping occasional doses of information at apropos moments, like when he informs our small group that one in three Argentines live in poverty and that this number rises to 48 percent for everyone under 14 years of age, just at the precise moment we are marvelling at the nouveau riche Puerto Madero neighbourhood’s glistening sky scrapers.
As a non-profit start-up with very limited resources, Perfect Mix Walking Tours certainly has its work cut out.
It’s not just jostling for position among scores of other independent walking tour operators who ply the streets of microcentro each week.
Under new Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, an acolyte of President Mauricio Macri, BA City Government have launched a massive Walking Tour program that employs a host of expert local guides and covers almost every neighborhood in the city.
However, as I discovered while reporting on this new City project for the Buenos Aires Herald last June, the program has faced serious problems attracting the sort of numbers to justify such a sweeping scope.
Can a tiny non-profit start-up compete?
Today’s group numbers just four in total including the present author, and clearly Hidalgo-Frigo hopes this average can be pushed up as the season progresses. Perfect Mix charges a Radiohead-In-Rainbows-style ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ format and all profits after salaries are reinvested back into the program itself.
Back on the tour, the group’s widening smiles suggest our guide’s efforts have not been in vain.
We have traversed back from the affluent waterfront and returned to the square, stopping briefly at the Kirchner Cultural Center (CCK) on our way — the heart of darkness or a beacon of enlightenment, depending on where one stands in the current polarized political climate in Argentina.
“This division seems just like back home, just like all over Europe and the US,” offers a lofty German guy to vocal approval and much rueful nodding of heads from the rest of us.
Other topics floated during the two-hour discussion include the essential Federalist-Unitarian struggle for power in Argentine history, the merits of Gaucho culture and, most interesting of all, the labyrinth topic of Peronism.
“I don’t know, they don’t know, we don’t know because nobody can really agree on a definition,” Hidalgo-Frigo begins as we examine the million dollar question of what Peronism — the most important political force in modern Argentine history — really is, under the Juan Domingo’s grinning bronze glare.
This being a discussion rather than a history lesson, everyone offers their own two cents worth on what they have heard and what others have told them and we end up with a complex, muddy picture of Peronism’s vices and virtues that’s likely not too far away from the multifarious truth.
We began in the heady afternoon sunshine, but the murky clouds of an approaching thunderstorm are gathering as we come full circle, heading back up the hill and onto Plaza de Mayo again.
I do not think Perfect Mix have bent the pathetic fallacy to their will in order to help with the project’s flare for dynamic discussion, but the opening statements and questions offered by Hidalgo-Frigo on Argentina’s darkest chapter — the 1976-1983 military dictatorship — have somehow been timed to narrative perfection as the sky darkens.
Like before, we trade knowledge and understanding on how such events came to pass, their parallels in our own countries of origin and how such horrors were finally overcome, as our guide encourages us to look down at the headscarves whose owners heralded the beginning of the end for military rule and the eventual return of imperfect democracy.
“You really can’t find this kind of tourism anywhere” a beaming Hamburg resident, who is heading home soon after a three-week vacation in Argentina, tells me as the small crowd finally disperses and Nikolas also scoots off for a well-earned chillax.
No walk with Perfect Mix is the same, but for its creator and architect, introspection and planning can be combined with some downtime before the next debate is launched. It all starts again tomorrow.
Perfect Mix Walking Tours run tours every day and you don’t need to sign up. Just head to the Belgrano Statue in front of the Casa Rosada on Mondays, Tuesdays or Sundays, or check out the new Recoleta tour from outside Recoleta Cemetery on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tours start at 11.30 and 16.30 respectively. For more info head here.