Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Buenos Aires: Over-run by the furry masses

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A dog walker - paseaperro - heads to the park with her charges. Photo / Jill Worrall
A dog walker - paseaperro - heads to the park with her charges. Photo / Jill Worrall

The bald, short hotel receptionist in Buenos Aires was having a bad day, or if he wasn't he was certainly determined to make sure all his guests did.

"You'll have to wait," he barked at me. As my only sin at this point was simply to be standing some distance along the desk from where he was dealing with two other guests I felt slightly aggrieved. When he did finally deign to process my booking it was no better. "Sign here," he ordered, with a heavy sigh. They were the only words he spoke to me during the check-in process. "Can I have a street map please?" I asked. He gestured impatiently at a rack down the other end of the desk.

When I ventured downstairs an hour later to get an internet code he barked at me to see the bellboy, hadn't I listened earlier? My usual relatively high tolerance level snapped. "Are you rude to all your guests or is there something particular about me that's annoying you? Being a women, a tourist, being a New Zealander and having a better rugby team?" The lobby instantly hushed. He looked surprised, I was vaguely amazed - usually anything even resembling a witty rejoinder only occurs to me an hour after such confrontations.

We ignored each other for the rest of my stay. But I vowed not to let him colour my first impressions of Argentina's capital, walked out the door of the hotel in Recoleta and almost immediately stood in a pile of dog turds of prodigious proportions. I hope the receptionist was not looking.

Cleaned up and now heading vaguely in the direction of Recoleta's famous cemetery, I began to realise that standing in dog pooh is something of an occupational hazard for pedestrians here. Recoleta is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city and dogs seem to be just as an essential accessory as the uniformed concierges, marble-floored lobbies and the chandeliers.

Apparently there are more than half a million dogs in the city, the majority apartment dwellers like their owners. So, even though there is in theory a law requiring dog owners to pick up doggy-do, it only needs a small percentage of these not to bother to create a minefield for unwary walkers.

That evening I met some of the dogs out on their daily promenade - bichon frise and highland terriers, the odd arthritic labrador, always in the company of the elderly - women with immaculately coiffured hair and beautiful shoes, white-haired gentlemen with cravats and silver-topped canes. They tottered down the pavements in a waft of dog urine and old money.

I lingered near the entrances to the plushest of the apartments and watched doormen polishing the mirror-like floors to an even greater shine, garage attendants parking Mercedes and BWSs in the basement parking lots, women shopping in boutiques that carried a stock of about six dresses and and a small but artfully arranged array of pashminas.

But I couldn't help wondering, where were the rest of the dogs, and in particular the big ones capable of fouling the streets in such impressive manner?

Next morning I got my answer. Standing waiting for the lights to change I was suddenly submerged in a canine sea - there was a golden retriever, a boxer, a border collie, and in a kind of second tier an excited jumble of smaller breeds somewhere underneath. And all of them attached by a carabiner worth of an Everest expedition to a young man who in turn was attached to his iPod and earpieces. I counted 15 dogs, not an easy thing to do when the pack was travelling like an amorphous furry mass.

I'd just seen my first paseaperro or paseadores de perros, one of Buenos Aires' legions of dogwalkers. Every day paseaperro do their rounds, picking up their charges from their clients' apartments (there' supposed to limit their pack to eight but some dog walkers somehow manage to control up to 24 dogs although the most I saw was about 18) and take them to nearby parks.

There's usually a morning and afternoon shift, with the dogs staying out for about four or five hours. Dog walkers usually only work Mondays to Friday and apparently Buenos Aires dogs hate weekends as a result.

Even while negotiating the morning commuter traffic both on the roads and the pavements the tail-waving, tongue rolling dog circuses seem well-controlled. I watched a wave of dogs flow around a corner, almost into the path of a man and his toddler son. The dog walker raised his hand in a stop gesture, gave one command and all 15 or so halted instantly. When father and son went to go one way around the canine wall, and the dog walker went to go the same way, he once again stopped them in a second while everyone sorted themselves out.

When they reach the park some of the dogs are then allowed to roam free for a few hours, others play in special doggy playgrounds until it's time to go home. The paseaperro, meanwhile, get together like nannies in Hyde Park. I met the dog walkers again in the evening, following them through Recoleta as they would unclip a pooch one at a time, secure the rest to a railing while they disappeared inside.

The dogs, left unsupervised, were surprisingly well behaved. Some would stand, slightly anxiously for their walkers' return, others simply flopped on the pavement and dozed. My lasting memory of Buenos Aires dogs however was of a golden cocker spaniel which, while waiting for his turn to be taken home, sat on the fringe of his doggy friends and howled disconsolately.

- NZ Herald

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