I have so many friends and relatives to stay with in Buenos Aires that there’s no need to sleep outside. But sometimes all that socialising is a bit too much for me, especially coming from my more relaxed lifestyle in England where I have plenty of time and space to myself. My relatives warned me that Buenos Aires is very dangerous by night so I shouldn’t sleep outside.
One day I went to an area called Bernal, where my grandfather grew up, to use the library there. Since the 90’s the government stopped funding it but it has continued as a charity, only just scraping by each year. It has a spacious reading room with free wireless internet.
When it closed I discovered that they leave the wireless router on all night and I could sit in the square opposite and still get a good signal. Later I continued working in a gelaterie that also has wifi. Such was my concentration that I didn’t watch the time and discovered that gelateries in Buenos Aires don’t seem to have any closing time on a Saturday night. It was now 01:00, far too late to turn up at my elderly granny’s house, and nobody else was expecting me.
No worries, I thought, I’ve got my bivvy bag with me, I’ll have a scout around for a place to sleep; it would be great to see if I can get away with it in Buenos Aires.
The area seemed quite civilised, with lots of people sitting at tables outside bars and cafés enjoying the warm summer evening, and well-groomed couples strolling by. I was nervous after all the warnings from the locals but I was further reassured by a police station, so I found a good place to make my bed opposite.
I climbed over the railings and lifted my bike over to lock it inside. It was a medical centre which I assumed would be closed on a Sunday morning, so I rolled out my bivvy bag and mat behind a bush. It was dark, a few people strolled past but no one noticed me. It was warm enough to do without the bivvy bag but I got inside because of the mosquitoes, and covered my face completely with my black shirt, through which I was able to breathe without difficulty.
I slept extremely well and nobody disturbed me. Nobody that is, until 09:00 when I received a smart kick in the stomach. In a flash I pulled the shirt off my face and looked at the heavy boot, then looked up at it’s owner, one of two very stern looking police officers.
“Wake up!” he said. “Come on!”
“Oh, good morning…” I rubbed my eyes.
“I said get up! Put your hands on the wall.”
“Whah… what did I do?” I asked, as he patted my pockets for weapons.
“You’re trespassing. Put your hands behind your back.” He handcuffed me.
“I’m… I’m sorry officer… I was only sleeping…”
“Sleeping eh? Come with us, you’ll get plenty of sleep where we’re going…”
He pushed me around like a criminal towards the police station across the road. I felt a bit of adrenaline, because I knew that the police can get up to all sorts in Argentina, and as I walked away from my bike, bed and the rest of my stuff I accepted that I might not see them again. But I wasn’t really scared, I didn’t think the police would have any reason to hurt a rough sleeper.
At the police station I was ordered to take my belt and laces off, I think this is mandatory in case a prisoner decides to hang himself. But my belt was part of the trousers I bought it with, so I said “it doesn’t come off.” “Yes it does,” said the stern policeman, as he cut it in half with a knife and threw it on the floor.
A young policewoman came in with some note paper . She asked:
“What was he doing there? Has he stolen anything?”
“Not as far as we’re aware,” replied the officer who had arrested me, emptying the contents of my backpack onto the table. My vitamin pills fell out. “Are you taking drugs?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “They’re multivitamin pills.
“Hmmm…” said the policewoman, and proceeded to interview me. “Name. Date of Birth. Address… tell me your address?!”
I explained that I was a piano tuner from London but that I was visiting my granny in Argentina and I had only climbed over the railings to get a good night’s sleep.
“What? Then why on Earth did you decide to trespass opposite a police station?”
“Well,” I replied, “I felt more secure there. You know, with all the crime in the area, I felt reassured that you guys were just opposite.”
“More secure, eh? Come with us, now you’re going to feel really secure.” They pushed me out to a yard and into a big cage, locking it with a key and two padlocks. “See you in a couple of hours,” they said, and disappeared back into their offices.
This’ll be one for the blog, I thought, as I was finally able to grin and chuckle away to myself. Oh well, I’ve lost the few possessions I have in this world, but when I get out I’ll just walk to a friend’s house and start over. At least I had had the sense to stash my passport and some cash at my granny’s house.
I can appreciate that my story must have been difficult to believe for the Argentine police. A piano tuner from England, who speaks perfect Spanish with a Buenos Aires accent, and is visiting his granny who lives down the road, but has climbed into a private property to get some sleep! I can also appreciate the rough treatment, with so many armed criminals running riot and breaking into properties left right and centre, they need to show every suspect who’s boss.
While I was locked in the cage the police had found my smartphone and were browsing through the photographs I had taken, both in England and Argentina. They also had my Argentine national ID which shows that I was born in the UK. This was enough to convince them. The station chief and the policewoman came out to smoke, and practise English with me.
They came out several times for a break and some casual conversation, and soon upgraded my prison status by giving me a chair to sit on. Apart from that it was just a concrete floor outdoors, enclosed by one of two green cages, and a wall on one side with a door to the indoors cells that looked like dungeons. I was glad they had kept me outdoors. There was a drain in between the two cages so that one could pee out the side of the cage. There were no other prisoners. When they left me alone I took advantage of all the different angles of the iron bars to do some exercise and I got a full body workout.
“Are you bored?” asked the young policewoman when she came back.
“No,” I said, “I’ve never been bored in my life. I’ve got plenty to think about.”
“Never been bored eh? Well then, young trespassing piano tuner, tell me more about your interesting life…”
I did my best to charm her. After several hours of intermittent conversation, the sun grew hot and she let me out.
“We’re not going to record any crime,” she said. Check all your stuff, nothing’s missing, it’s all there. You just need to sign here, and here.”
I checked, and not one peso was missing. Everything was just as I had left it, including my bike, because they had found the key in my wallet and bought it to the station.
“Thank you,” I said, “I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
“No, it’s nothing,” she replied with a shy smile, “can I… can I have your number?”
She took my details, and we arranged to meet for a date.
All in all I’m pleased with the experience. I’ve learned that trespassing is taken more seriously in this country, but that not all police are as bad as they’re made out to be. My mistake was to oversleep – somebody unlocked the gate at 09:00 and got a shock when they saw my big black figure lying on the ground, so naturally they went across the road to the police station. In England the chill usually wakes me up early, but it’s so warm here that I carried on sleeping as if I was snug in a big bed with loads of thick blankets. Had I set an alarm for 08:00 I would have left without a trace and none of this would have happened.