Mataderos

Mataderos

Buenos Aires packs so many punches it’s difficult to know where to start. But an hour on the No 63 bus scorching rubber through the endless streets to the south-western suburb of Mataderos is as good as any. And I do mean scorching rubber. Bus travel here is akin to your average roller coaster without the ups and downs but with all the thrills. There are lots and lots of buses in this city, all liveried according to the company running them. The 63 is a relatively conservative blue and white; there are other routes sporting more dashing colour combos. Whatever the paint job, the drivers believe, to a man (and the gender is relevant), they are behind the wheel of a McLaren (or should that be a Mercedes these days?).

Back to Mataderos – slaughterhouse and meat-packing HQ of the capital, on Sundays, this district comes alive with music, dancing, horse riding and all things Argentinian. A street market too, modest beside the more famous market in San Telmo – once upon a time bohemian and alternative, now just cheap and touristy – the market in Mataderos majors on traditional food, drink and craft mainly leather and textile and yes, a smattering of fake Nike, pirate CDs and bling. But the focus is undoubtedly the music. They call it ‘folklorico’, that classic Latino guitar music that makes you want to clap your hands and stamp your feet and you just know they’re singing about ‘lurv’!

The musicians are on a stage high above the street and below them it’s all about the dancing. Not the tango here, no, this is the old stuff, the traditional dancing of the gaucho and his wench, Argentina’s answer to the Dashing White Sergeant and the Gay Gordons. A hankie or small scarf is the basic kit you need as these get waved about quite frequently but in a wonderfully joyful, elegant way. This is a real delight to watch. Not a spectacle put on for the tourists; most of the people here are Argentinian and they are taking part.

A lot of eating is done all day long, which somehow makes sense of the dancing when you think about it – working up appetite to eat; working off what you’ve eaten. Vast parrillas (barbecues) laden with cuts of meat, sausage, chorizo and the like; the scent of charred flesh infuses the air. The concession to vegetarians is something called humita. Basically this is sweetcorn cooked to within an inch of its life so that it forms a kind of dull mustardy-brown puddingy-paste that is then wrapped in the leaves of the cob together with some cheese making a little parcel that has the virtue of being both corny and cheesy – haha! I had had humita before, and it was memorable but not really in a good way. That was on last year’s trip to the north of the country where not eating meat is considered a form of deviancy and discouraged by offering this weird corn concoction as the only alternative. Last year’s introduction to humita was not the gastronomic high point of the trip, no indeed. But I am happy to report that this year’s Mataderos humita was a joy, full of flavour and the colour of bright yellow corn eased back to a gentle gold. So humita and me – we’re back on track.

The horsy bit happens on a street just south of the dancing. This display is the Corrida de sortija, a test of equestrian skill originating in medieval tournaments in Spain. I’m not sure if nowadays it’s considered to be a game, a sport, a virility test or a form of attempted suicide, but it’s a gaucho tradition and one of those bizarre forms of human activity that would have the extra-terrestrials scratching their heads. Sawdust is spread along the middle of the street to mark out the ‘corrida’ or ‘run’ and a frame stands across it about 300 metres from the start, a kind of super-sized goalpost. Basically the corrida de sortija involves having to spear a small ring (the sortija) that’s hung from the crossbar of these oversized goalposts. The spearing has to be done while galloping full pelt and standing up on your stirrups. Well, obviously – how else would you do it? There’s a long preamble of strutting about on horseback practising in a fairly macho sort of way, the horses’ tails trimmed short and thick, all the better to flick about theatrically. But also, charmingly, one of the gauchos took children for a ride up and down the run on his magnificent chestnut steed. By the way all the horses were male – it was easy to check!

Eventually the competition begins, quite exciting at the start as the proximity of all that horseflesh, the noise of hooves on asphalt barely muted by the sawdust, the flourish of riders out to impress, the amazing acceleration to a gallop, the crowd willing the rider to succeed, all this can get you quite carried away. Before long, though, you realise that the odds of spearing that tiny little ring are pretty long and unless you’re right under the goalposts or have the eyesight of an eagle you won’t see it anyway!

Yee-ha! There you have it – all in a Sunday afternoon in Mataderos.