When a tourist board staff member tells you something is too touristy, you should probably listen. But there was some contradictory testimony, as well. Yes, Nacho of the Argentina Tourist Board said to give the La Boca area of Buenos Aires a pass, but Sebas of the Buenos Aires Tourist Board said I just needed to get beyond the touristy part and into the real neighborhood.

I had seen supporting evidence for both positions. La Boca is predictably depicted on postcards as a place where costumed couples tango on the street in front of brightly painted buildings, but several guidebooks also swear its the soul of the city.

In the end, I decided to listen to Sebas. As I stepped out of the taxi in La Boca, however, what I saw gave credence to Nachos POV. I caught an eyeful of too touristy: A string of souvenir shops, restaurants, tango shows and bars, all with shiny and colorful old time facades. A few were fronted by hawkers dressed as famous tango stars.

Despite on-and-off rain and ominous skies, the area was crowded. I snapped a photo of a large mural of the neighborhoods famous soccer club, La Boca Juniors, but otherwise, there was little of interest to me. Within 10 minutes, Id reached the end of the tourist area.

Heeding Sebas advice, I walked on, and turned left on Olavarria, a street whose buildings wore only faded colors. No one was tangoing on the streets -- it seemed, in fact, profoundly static. As if to underscore that point, on the sidewalk in front of one shop, someone had arranged a perfect still life from old radios, a treadle sewing machine and a safe.

I crossed the street to the shop and stepped in. It was a junk shop; small motors, lead pipes, spools of wire and rusting tools were piled willy-nilly on shelves. A framed poster on a wall simply showed a sign on a pole: Dream Street.

A man who looked to be in his 50s sat on the floor repairing a radio. He nodded to me, and a tall, fit man in his 30s approached. Bienvenido, he said.

In broken Spanish -- broken entirely by me -- we exchanged some basic information. He was from Uruguay originally, his name was William and he loved Frank Sinatra.

Suddenly, it began to rain hard. The older man stood up, a woman appeared from behind a curtained doorway, and they, with William, hurried out of the shop to bring the still life on the sidewalk inside. I joined them, carrying a radio, helping with the sewing machine and safe.

William and the woman left through the curtained doorway, and the older man motioned for me to join him at a table that held bottles of Coke and wine and a plate piled with thin, crustless sandwiches. He poured two glasses of wine, added Coke to one of them and asked if I wanted Coke in mine. I declined. Its better this way, he warned.

We talked for about 30 minutes. He and his family lived behind the curtained doorway; he showed me photos of his grandchildren, and his eyes welled with tears as he talked about their mother, who had died.

It stopped raining, and I asked him to pose for a photo outside the shop. As I looked through the viewfinder, I noticed the name above the door: Pulgas y Cucarachas. Fleas and Cockroaches.

Back inside the shop, he asked about the details of my family, looked at the photos in my wallet, then reached up to get a very small doll, knitted in the bright colors of La Boca Juniors. He handed it to me for my daughter.

I offered to pay, but he waved a hand. Just promise to send a postcard, he said.

Ive been home two weeks now and havent sent one yet. The ones Ive seen look artificial, the equivalent of the passionate but posed tango dancers in front of colorful buildings. Im holding out for something that will appeal to his sense of irony, something in the spirit of Pulgas y Cucarachas.

Im sure Ill find it. Im guessing that not all postcard photographers are like those whose work I saw in Buenos Aires, who set out to capture the soul of a city but stopped 10 minutes shy of finding it.


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