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Saturday, 18 November, 2000, 15:53 GMT
Argentina's discreet way with sex
By Daniel Schweimler in Buenos Aires
Everything about the telo is discreet. I did not even know they existed until someone pointed them out to me... then I saw them on many street corners and dark side streets.
They do not advertise themselves. Their windows, if they have windows, are dark and their front doors always closed tight. Those that have car parks have them hidden round the back or underground.
Telos are often identified by the words "albergue transitorio" or "transit hostel", displayed discreetly by the door, and perhaps a dim red light.
They are not hotels, neither are they brothels. Some are cheap and somewhat seedy. Others are used by film stars and politicians and boast every luxury imaginable.
But telos have only one purpose...to provide a safe, comfortable place in which to have sex.
Macho men and virtuous virgins
Argentinians in general have a complicated attitude to sex.
There are few places where men strive to be more macho. Machismo is idolised in the culture of the virile gaucho or cowboy riding the pampas on his horse, or the well-dressed city slickers who are the subject of so many sad tango songs. That machismo is often measured by the number of sexual conquests a man can notch up...
Yet Argentine women are supposed to be as virtuous as their mothers, to emulate the Virgin Mary.
The great Argentine heroine, Eva Peron, is dubbed Santa Evita, or Saint Evita, by her supporters. But she is said by her enemies to have been a woman of loose morals who slept her way to the top.
That other great Argentine hero, the footballer Diego Maradona, has been heard, as he leaves restaurants in the early hours, extolling the virtues of his wife and children - while a prostitute hangs on each arm.
There are therefore many affairs....and where better to conduct them than in a telo. But people cheating on their spouses are not the only ones to frequent telos.
Open to all
Most young Argentines have their first, nervous sexual experiences there - usually some distance from their houses so the neighbours do not spot them entering or leaving. Most people do not leave home until they marry so the telo again provides a more private refuge than the local parks. These tend anyway to be littered with kissing couples at any time of the day or night.
They provide a secluded hideaway for gay lovers in a still homophobic society.
And telos are ideal for married couples who crave a little intimacy, away from boisterous children and perhaps a prying mother-in-law.
No-one ever admits to using telos...so I shall have to relate the experiences of a friend of mine.
He was visiting Buenos Aires with his Argentine wife and two small children. They squeezed into her parents' already overcrowded apartment but desperately needed some privacy to celebrate their wedding anniversary. With the grandparents willing to babysit, they said they would go out for a meal.
Conveniently a telo was situated on their way to the restaurant and with a quick glance over their shoulders to check no-one they knew was passing by, they darted through the front door. The receptionist was barely visible behind a smoky pane of glass.
"Would you like the twenty-five, the thirty or the forty dollar room?" he asked.
I, I mean my friend, was too embarrassed to ask what customers got for the extra money and went for the thirty dollar option. Cash only... no potentially incriminating credit cards.
Discretion at all costs
The room was clean and plush, the en suite shower had a window that looked out into the bedroom. The bed was large and the seats soft and furry.
A packet of condoms, bearing the telo's logo and extolling the virtues of safe sex, lie by the bed. There are mirrors everywhere and a television with an endless number of channels - many of them pornographic.
And, surprisingly, English football is showing - Leicester City versus Liverpool - a potentially dangerous option, guaranteed to dampen the ardour of even the most passionate relationship.
Special deals are offered for off-peak visits and, like any good hotel, guests are invited to fill in a customer survey form, suggesting any way to improve the service.
On the way out, a chance encounter with another departing couple. Sheepish grins but no eye contact.
Spoiling the fun
Many telos try to portray themselves as respectable. But by their very nature they will always carry with them an air of seediness and perhaps even danger. Or maybe that's just because I have an uptight, British attitude towards these kind of things.
Okay, I'll come clean, although you've probably already guessed by now, it was my wife and I who went to the telo, not our friends.
But when, in a moment of candour, we told the family where we'd been they merely shrugged and said: "Yes, we knew."
A shame, since the surreptitious sneaking about and the nervous planning were all part of the fun.
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