September 21, 2014
Jonathan Evans, tour guideSaturday, February 8, 2014
For The Herald
From: Dorset, England
Lives in: Barrio Norte
Profession: Tour guide at Buenos Aires Local Tours/quizmaster
Education: French and Italian degree, Leicester University
Reading: Infinite Jest
Last film seen: Her
Gadget: Guía T
A decision to leave behind a career in IT and a life in efficient Switzerland saw Brit Jonathan Evans travel around South America. That was four years ago. Living in Barrio Norte, he has since set up a free walking tour for visitors, is attempting to visit and document all the Bares Notables in the city and runs the Buenos Aires pub quiz.
It took the monotony of a beautiful train ride around Lake Geneva, essentially the Swiss commuter belt, for Brit Jonathan Evans to realize he didn’t want to be an IT consultant for the next 25 years. That, plus a recent divorce, led him to a two-week holiday and eventually a permanent move to Buenos Aires a year later, what he calls “the easiest decision I ever made.”
Jonathan says: “The first time I came to Argentina was on holiday in October 2007 and the day I left was the day Cristina (Fernández de Kirchner) got elected — I remember seeing the happy faces on the TV screen when I left. I was here for two weeks, during which I stayed in the hostel for the first time ever. At the time, I was living in Geneva and worked as an IT consultant and I’d been there for five years and was between jobs. When I got back, I was already fed up with IT and office life so I sold everything and bought a backpack. That was November 2008.
Moment of clarity
“It was the easiest decision I ever made. I was sitting on a train every day, going along the banks of lovely Lake Geneva, but the thing is that I was going to work. And I had a moment of clarity, professionally and personally, that I didn’t want to be doing that in 25 years’ time. And once the decision was made, it was very easy. I’d split up my wife as well and my family was aware that I wasn’t up for staying. As I’d just come back from Argentina, it felt like a place I could explore from and came back to.
“I travelled around South America for about 18 months and met Laura, my Colombian girlfriend, quite early on in a hostel in El Bolsón and we went travelling together. After about 18 months, the cash flow needed to be topped up and so we decided it was best for us both to be in BA for work reasons; that was in 2010. In fact it’s our five-year anniversary tomorrow.”
Given that he needed to start make a living, all Jonathan really knew at that point was that he needed an about-turn and didn’t want to work in IT again. But a plan came together on his way back from the airport.
He says: “I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got back to BA from Bogotá but coming into the city I thought that a tour catching colectivos would be different. The idea was to leave IT and all that behind and after six months of being away I knew I would never going to go back to IT or Switzerland. It all stemmed from a Skype call with my parents and I showed them the Guía T. I remember the look on their faces about this clever but complex system, and they were quite entertained by it.”
Keep it local
“I had a crappy office job for a bit then started Buenos Aires Local Tours in 2010. There was no investment apart from a few Google ads — I didn’t have to buy bikes or set up in a location. It basically had two elements: it’s the type of tour I’d like to have taken on my first day in Buenos Aires, and doing it free meant I wasn’t setting any expectations for anybody. From a business point of view, it took some of the risk out of it and I was more comfortable doing it that way.”
Despite the bright idea of offering a free, localized walking and public transport tour of Buenos Aires six days a week with the idea of earning from tips, things didn’t immediately go as planned.
“For the first week I sat in Plaza Italia and no one came. Then a guy called Pete from Hawaii turned up — and I was in business. He gave me 25 pesos, which was certainly worth a lot more then than it is now. As I was a consultant and not some IT geek normally locked in basement, I was used to being with people plus I like meeting them — just as I like the sound of my own voice! In these three years I’ve done over 650 tours and shown around 2,500 people. Given that I take buses every day, the 29 is my favourite and it’s getting to the point that I recognize some of the drivers. The last time I got one particular guy I got on with 24 tourists — you should have seen his face when I asked for 25 tickets at 2.50 pesos each...
“One current Trip Advisor review is complimentary and says I showed them the balcony from where Evita sang to her people... well, obviously they weren’t listening to me! I show people round rather than march them about with an umbrella. I don’t think of this as a sightseeing city though the must-see is Recoleta cemetery. And the rest of it is getting around and pointing people in the right direction. You can leave Buenos Aires not having see nCaminito and you haven’t missed a great deal, although one frequent question from visitors is ‘where can we see tango in the street?’ And of course it’s in La Boca and that ticks a box. But I see tours who have come straight from the cruise ships — they are marched past Evita’s tomb snapping photos as they walk — they don’t even have time to stop.”
Spending a lot of time pacing Buenos Aires’ paved and cobbled streets, Jonathan knows the capital very well and one place that is unfamiliar to many, not just tourists, is Abasto. “I really like Abasto, and I’m the only tour guide who takes people there. I like the tango history, the Carlos Gardel house and murals, and even the shopping centre never fails to impress. Your average tourist would never go, and I’ve even taken Argentines who’ve lived here for 20 years and never been. Gardel is a massive name — it’s like going to Memphis and not seeing Elvis’ house.”
Jonathan has lived in the same apartment for four years, and calls Barrio Norte home. “It’s not the most atmospheric place and I miss the fact that there aren’t many decent bars or restaurants within walking distance. But I can get anywhere, from San Telmo to Belgrano in 20 minutes. It’s central. Sometimes I’d like to live somewhere more neighbourhoody but I’ve lived in the same place for four years.”
When he’s not guiding visitors around the city, one of Jonathan’s pet projects is visiting all of Buenos Aires’ Bares Notables. “I document each one and do a little write-up and take a photo. Since I started 18 months ago, five of them have shut down — and I still have about 16 to visit. London City closed a few months ago and although the Richmond wasn’t on the list, that’s also gone.
“What is Buenos Aires? A bar or café is the heart of society and so this project takes me to different parts of town I don’t normally go to, to somewhere more local. A few weeks ago, I drove to La Paternal, Villa Devoto and Villa Luro with a friend, and as soon as you talk to a waiter in one of those neighbourhoods, well, they don’t shut up! Take the waiter at Florida Garden, for example — he’s worked there for 42 years. The Café de García in Devoto has a signed Maradona shirt on the wall — most of them have Gardel pictures but that’s the only one with a Maradona shirt. It’s a good exercise, to see part of town I don’t normally see.”
His other regular projects keeps homesick Brits happy, as he runs the monthly Buenos Aires pub quiz at La Cigale bar in Microcentro.
“That came about as I was volunteering for a project in Barracas and it was a one-off, money-raising event for them. La Cigale lent me their premises and the owner Sebas suggested I do another one the following month, and it’s just carried on from there. The quiz started even before I started doing the tour! One of my favourite questions is ‘which is the first neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, alphabetically speaking?’ — it always stumps people.”