Once upon a time in Mar del Plata

Trip Start Jul 15, 2010
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Flag of Argentina  , Central Argentina,
Monday, July 18, 2011

I am still not entirely sure how I went from sitting in my flat in Buenos Aires chatting on Facebook with no plans for the weekend to, 24 hours later, carrying a pantomime outfit, complete with a big spongy fake bosom, into a theatre in Mar del Plata…but therein lies something of the magic of Argentina.

Everyone I meet here seems to do interesting things on the side.  People I know “run a micro-business that makes and sells cupcakes”, “have a photography exhibition coming up”, “sing in a death metal band called Nave Astra”, “present a weekly radio show called Radio Kapow”, “have written and directed a play called 'I am not a Horse'. 

I don't know why it is, but people back home in the UK just don't seem to mention doing this sort of stuff.  Whether it's easier to be interesting in Argentina, I don't know.  People seem to work pretty long hours in their day jobs here, although, as one local said to me, it might be that people have the energy to do these things in the evenings and at weekends because they are so incredibly lazy in their day jobs.  I don’t know if this is true and, given that I am too lazy at the moment even to have a day job, I am not sure I am in a position to comment.  But many is the time that I have felt like the most boring person in Argentina, completely unable to sex up the jobs I have had back home. 

So anyway, back to chatting on Facebook last Friday, and I asked Sebastián what he was doing that evening, and he said he was travelling to Mar del Plata to watch a friend, Pedro, in a show.

– “Do you want to come with me, Levi?” 

– “Okay”

We went on an overnight bus (6 hours and roughly 300 pesos/U$D70/£45 for a return trip from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata...unusually for Argentinian inter-city bus travel, we didn’t get food or drink on these bus trips, so remember to take what you need).  It still amazes me that in Argentina you can spend 6 hours on a bus only to find you are still in the same province, so big is this country.

Anyway, there was I was on Saturday morning, walking into the Mar del Plata theatre, carrying my hefty bosom  – as well as carrying the pantomime outfit (*boom boom*).  Pedro´s show, called “Cuenta Cuentos Cuento Vivo” (“The Storyteller Story Live”), was part of a winter children’s festival called “A Desaburrir el Invierno” (“Let’s Make Winter less Boring”) at the Teatro Auditorium, Mar del Plata.  Having gotten out of the way the slightly odd experience of asking for two adult tickets for the show (“Just two adults?  No children?”), the show itself was great. 

Pedro, who I hadn’t quite clicked with when I first met him in a nightclub in Buenos Aires, as I had been slightly unnerved by the severed Barbie-doll head that he had tucked under his baseball cap, seemed to transform into this quite amazing pantomime co-host with a curly moustache.  He, along with a friend of his, got children up on stage and encouraged them to tell fairy stories to the audience. 

I was amazed at how participative the whole thing was.  My micro-managing instincts told me that the last thing you should do is get a child on stage and say, “Do you know a fairly story - any story?  Go on, tell us the story from start to finish,” but it worked brilliantly, and it wasn’t long before everyone, including some of the parents and grandparents, were straining their arms in the air to take part. 

One of the recurring lines in the show was “Okay, everyone, how does a fairy story begin?” and all the children (along with me, as I built up my confidence to join in) would shout back, “Había una vez…” (“Once upon a time…”). 

I really identified with one young boy sitting just behind me, who was clearly a little frustrated because, for him, this line didn’t go far enough.  Every time, he would shout back, “Había una vez, en un lugar muy lejano, hace mucho tiempo…” (“Once upon a time, far, far away, a long time ago…”).  Every time I heard him shout this, I felt he was cursed to a life of moving to London to become Policy Director for a charity, because a call centre frankly isn't going to cut it for someone as obsessive as he, and because frankly he is far too nerdy to do wild, crazy things in his spare time

So what is Mar del Plata like?  It is where Argentineans, for whom the economy still makes it very expensive to travel abroad, head for their summer hols.  Mar del Plata is like stepping back in time to Brighton or Clacton-on-Sea in the UK, circa 1980.  The place is all about the canvas beach huts that appear on the beach in the summer and the ice-cream and the seafood and the tacky souvenirs.  We went to one video games arcade where all of the machines were from the early Atari and Sega period.  I opted to play Ms. Pacman, and I was very good at it. 

Pedro's house, where we stayed, is in a neighbourhood outside the city centre that did scare me a little.  As well as a lot of stray dogs around the city, there was a stray horse walking around, which I didn't really understand.  As we approached the estate we were staying in, police stopped our taxi and told us to get out and put our hands on the boot so they could search us.  I don’t know what they were looking for, maybe guns…although they seemed to have enough guns of their own without needing to take ours.  The centre of Mar del Plata is all very different…it’s all very safe and touristy. 

I was under the impression that, during my time in Argentina and Uruguay, I had already squeezed as much fun out of seals as the law allows, but it turns out I was wrong.  In the port of Mar del Plata (a 15-minute bus journey from the centre), seals somehow – I have no idea how – make it up onto the harbour and lie around, grunting occasionally if people get too close.  My personal highlight was seeing a petrol station, quite a way away from the water, with a couple of seals lying outside the door.

From the port, we went on a boat-trip, which was worth the 40 pesos (U$D9.50/£6) for the view it gave us of the coastline, but its promise to show us a “sea-lion colony” didn’t amount to much.  Frankly, seeing petrol station sea-lions is far more fun than floating past their colony.

Do go to Mar del Plata.  It has a very different feel from many other cities in Argentina.  Instead of a grid structure and colonial squares and buildings, Mar del Plata has modern hotels and seals.  I hear it is a nightmare in the summer, when it is packed with people and very difficult to find a hotel room, but, if you're not so fussed about sunbathing, as the kid’s theatre festival makes clear, it’s also a great place to make winter less boring.   

Thanks for a great weekend, Sebastián and Pedro.  If I could, I would take you back in time and across the ocean to Clacton-on-Sea to repay you, but I can't.  Perhaps a trip to a multiplex in Lakeside, Thurrock would suffice.  We could see something in 3D.  Trust me, you don’t need a fake bosom to live life on the edge in England.
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