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Carolyn Swindell tells how she learned that small things really do matter in Buenos Aires. It was originally published in The Kindness of Strangers.

Decent underwear – it’s important.

There’s nothing like humping your life around on your back for months and having the freedom to go wherever you want, but some days the shine of the traveller’s life is not so obvious. You want to see some familiar faces and have just one transaction be straightforward. Generally these moods pass quickly, but sometimes when your spirits have been eroded by the unparalleled joys of world travel, you just need a clean pair of knickers and a good cup of tea. And since you can’t always rely on getting a proper cup of tea, decent underwear is critical.

I anticipated this when packing; I had ample practical but attractive underwear to see me safely on my travels. I sacrificed valuable backpack space to include five pairs of white cotton briefs – not saucy man-killers, but not too shabby if there ever was call for an inspection. They were comfortable without being nanna knickers: the quintessential backpacker underpants.

These knickers served me well through countless handwashes in hostel basins and overnight dryings on improvised clotheslines. They didn’t ride up when I walked or pinch when I sat for hours on trains. Yes, they served me well. But all good things must come to an end.

I arrived in Buenos Aires and, after months of frugality on the road, decided to treat myself to an actual hotel: a four-star room of my own, with a bath no less, and all a mere spitting distance from where my well-thumbed Lonely Planet told me the action would be. No need for my sleeping bag here; I had a real bed, topped with a mountain of pillows. But all that was to be enjoyed later.

I showered, and savoured the novelty of unpacking the entire contents of my backpack, even hanging some clothes up. Then, feeling refreshed, I strode out to face the world.

Before I went to Argentina, I knew a lot about Buenos Aires, all my knowledge gained from watching Madonna sashay about in 'Evita'. I knew that a young Eva Duarte had found the capital terribly exciting when she arrived from the country, and I knew that all the men of the city were very sexy and could tango from the day they could walk.

Still feeling wealthy and self-indulgent, I jumped into a taxi and hesitantly rattled off ‘Feria de San Telmo, por favor.’ I was pleased when the cabbie appeared to know what I was talking about.

Immediately after congratulating myself for completing this great linguistic feat, I was filled with self-doubt. What if Feria de San Telmo actually meant ‘shallow grave’ or something similar instead of the intended flea markets in the suburb of San Telmo? I began urgently riffling through my guidebook, trying to establish if we were headed in the right direction. All I achieved was to make myself feel carsick, because a few minutes later we pulled up about a block from Feria de San Telmo.

Colourful market on a sunny day
Feria De San Pedro Telmo market has more than just stalls ©gvictoria/Shutterstock

The market was full of antiques and knick-knacks. Local artists displayed their paintings and sculptures, many of which were really quite good despite being so obviously pitched at the tourists. After a little wandering, I elbowed my way to the front of a crowd that had assembled to watch a tango extravaganza. I ended up watching the spectacle for what seemed like hours, admiring the grace of the moves and the sheer sensuality of the dance. I thought my attraction to men in trilby hats had ended when Wham! broke up in the 1980s. Apparently not.
 
Still, the longer I watched, the less I saw the men. The troupe was made up of four men and one woman who danced with each of them in turn. She was amazing; you would never see anyone like her at home.

If you looked closely, you’d notice that her black dress was probably twenty years old – a worn satin in a style that hadn’t been fashionable for a long time. It was not so black any more either and the fabric was wearing slightly thin in places. But you wouldn’t look closely. You’d never notice that the dress looked tired, you’d be too wrapped up in the dance. You’d throw this dress out if you found it in the back of your wardrobe – a ruffled reminder of styles you had loved as a kid that now made you cringe – and yet, watching her move so sensually in the arms of her partner, you’d covet this dress for all it represented.

The black satin was taut against her slightly large bottom and the dress was split almost to her hip, revealing one shapely, toned leg. Not toned from hours at the gym, not toned like an athlete’s, toned like that of a woman who danced the tango late into every evening.

I longed for legs like hers. I could not imagine a shape more womanly.

The show ended and the dancers moved around the circle collecting money from the assembled crowd. I threw some US dollars into the proffered trilby. It would have been more if she had passed by. I was no longer so interested in the tango of the men, now I wanted to master the dance myself, to be as much of a woman as she was.

The crowd dispersed and the dancers moved together, smoking cigarettes and chatting casually.

To those of us who aren’t good at much of anything, people who are very good at something seem entirely at ease with others who are good at the same thing. The dancers seemed just as purposeful in their movements as they smoked their cigarettes and changed their shoes as they did while dancing.

This was very intimidating, but I longed to speak to her – to  find out, with my almost non-existent Spanish, how long she’d  been dancing the tango, and whether there was any hope for someone like me who had only today discovered the tango that  beat wildly within me.

I steeled myself. This was like approaching the cool gang at high school and addressing one of them in front of all of the others. I refused to let this flashback to my teenage years stop me; I desperately wanted to talk tango turkey with the satin-clad dancer.

Two tango dancers pose together in front of a faded blue wall.
"All dreams I had of dancing the tango were lost" ©Irene Sekulic/500px

I was merely centimetres away from her when something caught my eye. I turned and looked in the window of the shop next to me. Or rather, I looked at the window. What I saw horrified me.

I saw me. And far from being the sensuous temptress I now fancied myself as, I saw myself as others would have seen me, as my mother would have seen me. My hair was pulled back into a ponytail; well, some was, the rest hung limply or stuck out at angles usually associated with electrocution in cartoons. I smoothed my hair as I self-consciously examined myself in the window. My T-shirt was misshapen and stained, my jeans weren’t clean. Even my Dunlop Volleys had lost some of their appeal.

All dreams I had of dancing the tango were lost as I focussed on my appearance. I couldn’t talk to the dancers now. More than a decade after high school had finished, on a totally different continent, I could still find a cool gang to make myself feel inadequate.

My shoulders slumped and I walked away along the wide streets leading back to Microcentro. Buenos Aires is the perfect city for a walker and ordinarily I loved a walk. But this one was torturous.

Everywhere I looked I saw beautiful young Argentinean couples walking arm in arm. He was always incredibly handsome. Always. Every man in Buenos Aires seemed to look like Antonio Banderas. And what united the young women was their confidence. It seeped out of every pore; it sreamed woman and every Antonio lapped it up. Bottoms of various sizes were squeezed into tight Capri pants and miniskirts. These women rolled their hips as they walked like Gina Lollabridgida in their high heels.

And they all had VPLs. The Visible Panty Line was everywhere.

Ordinarily this would make me feel better. I would feel superior somehow because I never have a VPL. I would tell myself that I am too classy for that. Today, though, it just made me feel worse. I felt androgynous, as though I had thrown away my gender when I picked up my backpack.

Lost in thought, I missed the turn-off for my hotel and found myself in Boulevard Florida. The joint was jumping. It was after nine o’clock and things were just starting to warm up. All around me more young Argentinean couples were enjoying each other’s company.

I looked at myself in the window of another shop. Still shocking. As I examined my reflection, though, there was a transformation in what I saw. It was like one of those Magic Eye pictures where you look at something long enough to see something altogether different. I started to see a different me.

Beyond my reflection was a dress. It wasn’t much – a simple black dress with a V neck – but I knew I would carry it, and it would carry me, through the rest of my travels. I raced in, grabbed the dress off the rack and made for the changing rooms, striding purposefully through the enormous shop and holding the dress high.

Ladies’ changing rooms are like McDonald’s – when you enter one, you could be anywhere on the planet; they are all exactly the same. I pulled the dress over my head and faced the mirror. It was great.

The music in the shop was truly terrible, a fact they tried to mask by playing it far too loud. I was keen to get out as soon as I could hand my credit card over, so I pulled the dress off quickly. The annoying pop song had actually made its way into my brain and I was singing along with the chorus as I reached down to pick up my jeans from the floor.

I stood in the changing room, holding my jeans, and studied my reflection. Again I didn’t like what I saw.

I hadn’t put on much weight; I looked pretty good despite not having been to the gym in months. Walking all day will do that. So it wasn’t that. It was my underwear. My trusty traveller’s knickers were no longer white, they were grey. The appeal they’d had when I bought them, the multipurpose practicality and attractiveness, was gone; now they were simply practical. If I was honest, they were pretty much on their last legs in the practicality stakes too – the elastic was shot.

It was time to farewell my quintessential backpacker underwear and invest in some new, untested brands. Risky, but necessary.

Emerging from the changing room I was again assaulted by pop torture. Evidently there was wave upon wave of this appalling music lying in wait for me, so I needed to find the underwear and get out of there as fast as I could.

A sales assistant approached me and spoke rapidly in Spanish. She was very fashionably dressed but looked to be older than my mother. I wondered how she could stand to work with that music; it would drive me insane, let alone my mother.

"No hablo español," I mumbled with an apologetic shrug.

She smiled at me and pointed to the dress. ‘You buy?’ she asked.

"Si," I said, trying to work out how to tell her I wanted to look around first. I pointed at myself and circled my finger like I was stirring a cup of tea with it.

"Si, si," she smiled. She grabbed the dress and pointed to a cash register at the front of the shop. Then she pointed at herself and said ‘Carolina.’

Black dresses arranged on clothes rack
A simple black dress could be the change she needed © Portra/Getty Images

I smiled. "Si. Gracias, Carolina." Apart from the brief exchange with the taxi driver, she was the first person I had spoken to all day and I felt like I had made a new friend. I almost wished she would come shopping with me.

All the colours of the rainbow were represented in the lingerie section, as well as many colours not seen anywhere in nature. There were patterns and prints and many tiny, tiny knickers with matching bras. The Argentineans seemed to take the term ‘brief’ literally; it was almost not worth wearing these knickers, there was so little to them. I began to wonder if the extreme bikini wax might have been named after the wrong South American country.

Two songs later I finally found something suitable, hidden right at the back. No wonder the Argentinean girls all had VPLs – it was nearly impossible to buy anything that would seem to fit an even slightly rounded bottom. I grabbed three pairs of suitable white cotton underpants of the kind I favoured and headed back to Carolina at the front of the store.

Carolina greeted me like an old friend and chattered away in Spanish, perhaps thinking I had somehow mastered the Spanish language while in the lingerie department. She folded the dress and wrapped it in tissue paper and then reached across for the underpants.

She picked them up and examined them, distaste clear on her face. She pointed at the underpants and then at me, obviously questioning whether they were for me. I nodded.

Carolina shook her head and put the underpants down. "No." 

"Si," I said. Carolina shook her head again, this time more emphatically. "No."

I nodded my head, also more emphatically. "Si." Then I added "Gracias" in the hope it would end this interaction that was rapidly changing my view of my new friend Carolina.

Carolina threw the underpants down on the counter in disgust and folded her arms across her chest. ‘No,’ this time with even more vehemence. She clearly did not wish for me to buy these underpants.

I began to get cross. I may not be as glamourous as the Argentinean girls, but I had money and could use it however I pleased. And right now, buying those underpants was how I bloody well pleased. I pulled my credit card out of my wallet and slid it across the counter with the underpants.

"Si," I said firmly through clenched teeth, wishing I knew how to ask to speak to the manager in Spanish.

Carolina handed me my credit card and motioned for me to wait. If I hadn’t wanted the black dress so much, I would have taken the opportunity to run away, but I waited. I tried to catch the eye of another sales assistant to see if I could escape the clutches of crazy Carolina. No one paid any attention to me. I knew that they worked on commission, so once Carolina had told me her name, none of the others would bother; I was Carolina’s baby now.

She bustled back a moment or two later, still chattering madly at me in Spanish. She handed me the smallest pair of underpants I have ever seen, nodding with satisfaction.

"Better for you,’" she said, smiling broadly and nodding.

It was hard for me not to laugh. I was amused at how little there was to these knickers; they were light years from my practical-but-attractives. But I was also kind of annoyed that Carolina was so clearly trying to work her commission by pressuring me into buying much more expensive underwear than I needed.

She must have thought I was stupid. I looked at Carolina and she was smiling and nodding. I picked up the underpants and tried to be polite and look as though I was seriously considering her ridiculous suggestion.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the price. They were much cheaper than the ones I had selected for myself. I looked at Carolina and she was still smiling broadly.

"No, gracias," I said, sliding the tiny knickers across the counter and putting my practical-but-attractives back on top of the folded dress. I smiled as nicely as I could, feeling a little bad that I had misjudged her.

"Better for you," she said again and pushed them back across the counter at me.

"No, gracias," I said again, this time more firmly, and handed her the pile with my black dress and practical-but-attractives.

Carolina crossed her arms and shook her head, violently this time.

A standoff.

A long pause.

Eventually Carolina exhaled sharply and said, "Okay." I thought I had won.

"Together," she said, motioning for me to follow her.

For the next fifteen minutes, Carolina and I wandered around the lingerie section, trying to reach a compromise. Carolina was determined I would buy some of the Argentinean skimpy knickers and I was determined to buy something as close to my old trusty travel knickers as I could find.

Compromise was reached by millimetres. Eventually we found a pair we were both happy with. Carolina smiled at me with victory in her eyes before grabbing three pairs and rushing back to the register.

I pulled my credit card out again and finally the transaction was complete. As Carolina handed me the bag containing my purchases, she once again surprised me.

She pointed at me. "You beautiful girl; don’t forgot." 

The English was flawed but the sentiment was obvious, and I was genuinely speechless.

As I walked away I realised what she’d done. Carolina had gone out of her way and done herself out of some commission just to put the tango back into a strange girl’s step. That day, thanks to her stubbornness, I switched from practical-but-attractive to pure tango, and not just in my underwear. I’ve never switched back, either.

That evening, I walked along Boulevard Florida, no VPL but a lot of Argentinean confidence in my rolling hips. The Eva Duarte within was back.

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