I exited the subway system back onto the sunny streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had just travelled from the quiet neighbourhood of San Telmo to bustling Retiro where I was catching a bus out of the city. With temperatures in the thirties, I couldn't wait to escape the heat by heading south down the Atlantic coast.
I was walking through the street vendors that line the way to the bus station when a spray of liquid hit me from behind. The strong smelling purple substance coated my hair. At first I thought it was from a nearby fruit stand. But then I remembered a warning about the pick pocketing distractions that I might encounter in South America. I quickly realized I was in the middle of one of them. It goes something like this:
Step One: A liquid is thrown at you.
Step Two: A "good samaritan" offers to help wipe it off.
Step Three: You're relieved of your possessions while you're standing still.
With that realization I took off zig zagging through the crowds. I suddenly felt very visible and vulnerable. I was carrying a large pack on my back with a day bag zipped to it and a third bag on my chest containing my photography equipment. I turned behind me, but saw no pursuers. I felt a bit foolish; maybe it was just spray from a juice stand?
But then a woman touched my arm. She was holding a tissue and pointing at my head. They had caught up to me. I was almost to the bus station. I cut back and forth through the crowd turning around every half dozen steps until I was inside.
Once inside I splashed water over my head in the bathroom still wearing all my packs. In the mirror I could see the purple liquid was not only in my hair, but all down my pack and on my jeans. My suspicions were confirmed. My day pack was hanging off my main back, with just a bit of the zipper holding it on. As a solo backpacker I was an easy target.
More annoyed than anything else, I boarded my bus and settled into my wide comfortable seat on the second level, still smelling of that purple liquid. We rounded the back of the station and it was then that I first saw Villa 31, an enormous shantytown with a population of nearly 30,000. Until now it had been obscured by the infrastructure of the train and bus station. I was oblivious to the extreme poverty adjacent to a posh and prosperous part of the city. As I would later learn, many residents of Villa 31 struggle to survive and this poverty is the source of the pick pocket attempt I experienced.
A month after I left Buenos Aires I was back in the city after touring rural Patagonia. My bus was unable to reach the station in Retiro. Residents of Villa 31 had shut down the entrance, protesting the disconnection of power into the villa from the main lines. After being let off the bus on the side of the road at rush hour I jumped into a cab and sped away to my hotel in the posh neighbourhood of Palermo.
That night I watched a massive thunderstorm roll across the city through the wrap around windows of my suite. I heard yelling from the street below. I saw that it was not drunken revelers dancing in the rain, but residents of the shanty huts beside the hotel. They were fighting to keep the torrential rain out of their homes. Using only five gallon buckets and brooms, they cheered each time they succeed in dropping the water level.
Earlier that day I had strolled the neighbourhood shopping for jewelry and other gifts, but again, these homes were invisible from the street level, as were the people that lived in them.