David Fegan discovers the importance of experiencing a place through the people who live there.
This is Rosario:
In a touristic sense, it was a far cry from Buenos Aires and I couldn’t help feeling like I had just landed in the equivalent of a slow country town in Australia.
Even as the third most populous city in Argentina and the birthplace of football superstar Lionel Messi, it is unlikely that Rosario, located 300 km northwest of Buenos Aires, will be soaring to the top of any top 10 tourist destination lists in the near future. This is not to say that it isn’t a nice city — it is — but what was of distinction about Rosario to me was that it served as a good reminder that, when travelling, it is the people who are more important than the place. Only by understanding the people can you begin to understand and appreciate the place they inhabit.
In Buenos Aires city, my time was so vastly enriched by the local people I made friends with. They enabled me to scratch below the surface and begin to connect with the city and understand why things are the way they are. They also provided me with access to places and experiences I could never have hoped for otherwise. To put it simply, I had a way better time because of this.
The same lesson applied in Rosario, but was boldly underlined by the fact that, unlike Buenos Aires, I had no reason to visit this city other than to see a friend. As a resident of Rosario for about ten years, my friend said that, from a touristic perspective I probably wouldn’t have lost anything by not coming to Rosario. Yet, I still had a reason to go, I wanted to see my friend, and through this I learned that the experience you can have with the people, rather than whether or not the city is a top tier tourist destination, can turn an otherwise obscure stopover into a really worthwhile and educational experience.
Exploring an exotic new destination, littered with dazzling monuments, filled with foreign sounds, dripping in culture, endowed with hip bars and restaurants, lined by endless pristine beaches, or hemmed in by mountains and lakes of speechless beauty, is undoubtedly one of the best and most sought after experiences you can have in travel. It’s like taking an open eyed child into a toy store and saying, “We’re going to be here all day, amuse yourself.” But without direction, exploring a new city can be frustratingly superficial, and sometimes so touristic it seems contrived — do the locals really go to La Boca in Buenos Aires to take pictures of the ‘authentic’ tango dancers? However, when you know a local you are given a link to the other side of a place: the people. You then discover that the toys aren’t just for display on the shelves — you can take them down and play a while.
When I arrived at my friend’s apartment in Rosario I got to see how he lived, and compare and contrast it to what I knew in Australia. Two floors down I was introduced to my friend’s second cousin and his housemate, with whom I spent two hours in conversation, sharing mate, swapping stories of education, life, family, and travel. I also had the opportunity for the first time to sample the jokingly delivered “specialty of Rosario:” crackers with mustard.
This might sound trivial, but in truth these were all experiences I wouldn’t have had in a hostel, underneath a bar stool, or blacked out and asphyxiating in a shallow grave dug by a disgruntled husband. Therefore, it’s important to talk with the people who live in the place you are in, as they help you understand the giant world beyond your own backyard and allow you to discover new things. The best of my experiences in Rosario, however, were still to come.
I was informed that we could go to an excellent “underground” Peruvian restaurant for dinner. In between the second cousin’s apartment and leaving for the restaurant, my friend told me they were only going to speak to me in Spanish because I needed to learn. If I really couldn’t understand, he said, I could ask in English. I definitely needed this practice because in the proceeding weeks my conversations with Argentine friends had always defaulted back to English quite easily. Again, this was another benefit of being at ease with locals.
So the four of us got in the car and headed out to eat, with me not understanding much of the boisterous Friday evening chatter but enjoying being plunged into the deep end all the same. Pulling into an empty car park facing the dingy back fences of nondescript houses reminded me that this place really was “underground.”
“I never would have found this on my own,” I thought to myself.
In the car park, the second cousin knocked on the back door of one of the colourless walls, with me not quite knowing what to expect. He said he found out about the place through an ex-girlfriend and on this Friday night I was the lucky recipient of this local knowledge. Two minutes later we found ourselves in a tarpaulin tent in the back yard of a smiling Peruvian man, in which was set up six or so tables and chairs with kaleidoscopic Peruvian tablecloths, with a canteen kitchen at the back.
My friend told me the place is full on the weekends, but on this night the four of us had it all to ourselves. Again, local knowledge came into play as I asked my friend to recommend a dish for me, and the four of us ended up with absolutely mouthwatering results — fried chicken and fish, rice and a tangy side dish, and dipping sauces exploding with flavour. It was an awesome cultural dining experience, was dirt cheap, and we also got to chat with the owner and his sons.
The next day, I got to see more of Rosario through the eyes of my friend, who took me slacklining for the first time in the park by the river. In truth, we spent the whole weekend in the park with the local gang, slacklining, sharing mate and food, playing football, and just hanging out. It was great.
My friend showed me around the riverside in the evening, where kids were doing flips off the playground apparatuses and skateboarding.
My friend also made a point of showing me the touristic sites, just so “I knew,” but to be honest it the everyday experiences I had that were way more fun.
It was talking about life in Rosario with the second cousin and his housemate. It was eating crackers and mustard and laughing at the tiny rugby shorts they wore around the house. It was the explosion of flavours at the “underground” Peruvian restaurant and the knowledge I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of finding it on my own. It was falling off the slackline but feeling comfortable enough to try again because I was being encouraged and taught how to do it. It was sharing a moment by the river with Federico, one of the slackline teachers, while he explained the history of slacklining and the joy he got from sharing his passion with others. It was playing football in the park with whoever wanted to join in. It was sharing mate and being offered cake and food and always being made to feel welcomed. It was trying to converse with people, learning about their lives and what they thought about their country and their continent. It was the guy from the province of Entre Ríos telling me that Buenos Aires was a “yankee city” and the real Argentina was in Entre Ríos and other places off the typical tourist path. It was the sense of community. It was all of these things that showed me the essence of Rosario, and I will remember always remember this place through the people I met there.