Sunday, May 2, 2010

Feria de los Mataderos

Buenos Aires is a very large city. The capital district comprises 29 districts, with nearly 13 million people living here. Thus far, I have spent my time mostly in the six districts that form the downtown and immediate surrounding area, but today I ventured further afield, to the district of Mataderos.

This is the last stop before crossing out of the city into the more rural areas that will eventually lead to the Pampas, the cattle ranches of the grassland plains, where Argentina's famous beef is raised. "Mataderos" means slaughterhouse, and this traditionally was the neighbourhood where cattle would be brought for sale and slaughter, with the surrounding apartments and flats housing the workers from the slaughterhouses. This is not a prosperous neighourhood, but it is working and proud and quite traditional, and it celebrates the "real Argentina" every Sunday during the fall and winter with a fair.

Because of its location, it is not nearly as tourist-oriented as the more easily accessible Sunday fairs, like San Telmo, although to be sure there were a number of tourists here (although most seemed to be from nearby regions or countries, speaking Spanish. I didn't hear anyone speaking English all afternoon). Getting here is a bit of a challenge. I took the subway to the very end, and then hired a car to take me another 12-15 minutes through some desperate looking areas to the fair grounds, formally named the National Market of the Hacienda, which is in reality an open stadium that might be used for soccer or rugby the other six days a week.

In hiring the remise, as the car service is called, I was assigned to a very nice young man named Sebastian, who spoke exactly no English. Either the local tobacco smells suspiciously like pot, or Sebastian enjoys his weed (particularly in his car), but in any event, he drove me very carefully to the fair grounds and explained quite adamantly that I should never cross Eva Peron Avenue, which was the main route to the fair grounds. It was quickly apparent why - on one side of the street, corner stores, supermarkets, clothing outlets, a Mercedes dealership - on the other side, the ravaged remains of buildings that looked like they had been through a war. The contrast was beyond striking. It might explain why no one at my hotel had themselves ever been to Mataderos, and all cautioned me to be careful and watch my camera.

Sebastian brought me right up to the main gate and explained to me what I would find depending on which direction I turned - the restaurant/grill zone, entertainment, lots and lots of arts and crafts stalls, and over here, the horses. Through my now-patented routine of hand signals and limited Spanish, he agreed to come back at 5:30 and pick me up to take me back to the subway station. I had the afternoon to myself. Or as much to myself as one can have with 10 or 12 thousand other folks out enjoying the rest of the Worker's Day weekend (May 1).


This is part of one block - it goes on for several blocks in each direction, with the central square hosting the musical activities. Over the course of the afternoon, a number of excellent bands and musicians played any number of what seemed to be well-known folk songs, such that large segments of the crowd were singing along, clapping their hands to add percussion, and even dancing in the street. Part of the Feria's appeal is the number of local people it draws with roots in the outlying regions, who come to the fair dressed in traditional garb:


These two were married, and along with another couple, seemed to be leading the street dancing. Between bands, we struck up a conversation, and they seemed fascinated that a Canadian would come to their fair. I guess it doesn't happen very often. But it didn't matter if you came dressed in jeans and T-shirts, like the young folk did, or in the more traditional clothes, watching everyone move with precision was amazing, like seeing a room full of Victorians waltzing at a ball, dozens of couples moving in sync crossing the floor in uniform direction.

A big part of the Feria is the traditional gaucho competitions, where horsemen (and one woman) undertake games of skill. My favorite involves galloping at full speed towards a small stand roughly eight feet tall, from whose crossbar hangs about a foot of rope and at the very bottom of the rope, a pin with a loop of metal, about the size of a key chain ring. The gaucho holds a silver wand out in front of him at arm's length, and must get the wand through the loop while standing in the stirrups of the galloping horse. It is impressive to watch. These fellows were waiting their turn:


The central square is ringed with parillas (charcoal grills) and food stalls. I was mesmerized watching the empanada assembly line at one, and here they are making tortillas for a very hungry crowd. The folks on the right, in the aprons, are rolling out and punching out the tortillas - they then go to the lady in the foreground, who is in charge of frying them up, and then they make their way up to the front of the stall for sale:


As with any fair, there is something for everyone, and some quirky place-specific stuff as well. Personally, I've never been to a fair where people brought their pet ponies, instead of their dogs, and this fellow every outfitted his pony in the traditional garb of the estancia horses. Perhaps the pony fantasizes about what he will be when he grows up?


I have to confess that I cannot tell the difference between an alpaca and a llama, and because of that, I'm not exactly sure what this is:


His keeper however, was parading him through the crowds, stopping to let small kids pose for their dads (it was always the dads with the cameras) on its back. It was quite cooperative, given the heat and the crowd, and I ran into him several times throughout the day at various places on the fair grounds.

It's a shame more tourists don't know about the fair. It isn't marketed to tourists, but maybe that's a good thing. Those of us who happen to find it can enjoy a glimpse of a more traditional Argentine life, among actual Argentines, instead of being treated to a more polished theme park "experience" that would no doubt be priced out of reach for the average local worker. As it was, I had no problems with the crowd, no one even looked at my camera, and I had a delightful afternoon browsing stalls and eating from food stands and having simple conversations with folks who were kind of excited someone from away took the time and had the interest to come to their fair.


Judy said...

It's a llama. And, that little girl soooo wants to take the pony home!

Karen said...

Yeah, I love the look on her face!

How do you know it's a llama? They look similar to alpacas, I think.

Judy said...

Nope, it's an alpaca. they have more fur up round their faces. I always get that mixed up.