South America | Argentina | Atlantic Coast and Inland | Buenos Aires – In the Streets of Buenos Aires
An alto sang the song that rings through the air – that much I know. The aria that fills the night on this vine covered balcony with ripening grapes hanging above my hotel room doorway is a soothing melody giving me respite before dancing to the rhythyms of a city life. There’s the tango, the football, and the business of making my Brazilian visa; language lessons, internet and gymnasio sessions, and touring the neighbourhoods, museums and theatres of Buenos Aires that wait for me requiring lots of fresh energy – that much I also know. Sometimes I think the wilderness and climbing rocky pathways is an adventure, but discovering this immense city has already given me that same sense of discovery – with the flavour of black diesel to contradict this city’s name which means ‘good airs’. This adventure is more complicated – more mind-bending in a different way. My thought processes regarding which directions to follow are complicated by the distractions of flashing lights, surging traffic, and busy pedestrians on their way to somewhere. I do not complacently ride my bicycle down the road. The awareness is circular and ever revolving. Parking my bike is a problem with every square foot of streetfrontage spoken for and zealously guarded. This city will be different than the rest of Argentina and how that is going to be discovered, I’m just beginning to know.
Recoletta is the name of a neighbourhood and of the city’s first cemetary. They call it a necropolis and its the current home of Evita Peron. The woman who sold me a little map at the entrance told me that not everyone cried for Evita. Not everyone loved her. You had to be a Peronista and the times seem to have been black and white. You either loved her or didn’t, so the song “Don’t cry for me Argentina” really only applies to half the country. Foreigners are quite interested in seeing her grave with loads of flowers stuffed behind the iron grill on the door, but for Argentinos, they spend a lot more time looking at the former presidents and military generals tombs with their glass doors. Through those doors, you might see a grand alter or several caskets along with a seat for a visitor to sit. Many are well kept, but there are more than a few with the roofs fallen in and obviously nobody interested in keeping up the grave. Some of them have a basement with a spiral staircase leading down to a somwhat ominous place where we will all end in some form or another.
My hotel here is an old place called the hotel Victoria. I don’t really recommend or unreccomend it because its cheap at 30 pesos a night and clean enough, but I’m a little put off that the hotel owners made me go and rent parking for my bicycle and won’t let me leave it in the very spacious courtyard or on the huge balcony outside my room. Its a bike, not a bomb! Anyway – there’s a gym across the road and my language school is just down the block. The neighbourhood is called San Telmo and houses loads of interesting theatres.
Its the other side of town from the Four Seasons Hotels where the band U2 is staying. I passed by on the way home from the cemetary and who shows up outside the very austentatious looking mansion to sign some autographs, but Bono. Yes I got a picture and no I didn’t get an autograph. And then a little further along on my way home, who do I see coming out of the presidential palace – yes Bono again. Yes I got another picture and no I didn’t get an autograph. I did get a ticket to the concert and although the River Plate Stadium is a bit of an old dump, the concert itself turned out to be alright, but not the pseudo spiritual experience I heard it might be.
In front of the Presidential Palace is the 25 de Mayo monument and every thursday for 26 years, the mothers of the disappeared walk around and remind the world that there are still many unanswered questions to the disappearances of their sons and daughters. I go and watch and witness. There’s not much to say. This is a well known tragedy. I don’t know what answers can be had for this. They walk clockwise around the monument and then towards the palace. I photograph them and buy some small things that they sell to help their organization.
Buenos Aires is a city of neighbourhoods. Besides Recoletta and San Telmo where I’m staying, there’s Boca which is home to not only the famous soccer team Bocca Juniors, but also Caliminto, a portside village with colourfully painted buildings and an artisan market. I visit just for a short while before riding around the immense wildlife refuge just meters from the heart of the city. Its a huge oasis from the fumes of the city and I don’t want to leave.
That night the rains come. They are heavy and cause some flooding in the city as well as elsewhere in South America. The old men sit and shake their heads at the TV in the cafe, chuckling at times at the pictures of the minor disaster. I’ve had to walk across my balcony barefoot to get downstairs in the morning as it was covered with almost three inches of water, taking a towel to dry my feet on the other side. The weather is fine for me today as I’m off to the gym and then some spanish lessons before gathering my passport from the Brazilian embassy. I call it a city day. The rain has also taken the stench of diesel out of the air and washed the dogshit from the sidewalks – a problem that was recently on the front page of the newspaper although it was something I already knew.
At around 12:30 a.m., I get ready for a city night. Most discoteques in Buenos Aires open at around 1 a.m. and stay open until dawn. Its the latin way. I walk about ten blocks to a dance club that used to be quite a good size church. They open a bit later than one to a crowd of around 100 people who don’t line up but wait patiently in various locations up and down the street. Included in my 12 peso entrance charge is a glass of champagne. Its decadence on a beer budget. As you can imagine, the conversion from church to club has not lost all of the ambience. There are massive pillars that stretch up to a balcony 20 meters above the dance floor. From there its at least another 20 meters to the ceiling. Illuminated glass bricks cover large sections of the floor and the room has a lot of deep plush burgundy curtains. Its modern with video screens and more. The music isn’t fantastic nor are the visuals but its enough. The crowd of nearly a thousand enjoys the moment and the entertainment that comes along. I’m up around noon the next day. It seems I’ve come to know how to live latin.
Later on Saturday I explore more of the artesan barrio of San Telmo before going out to the Gran Milonga de Buenos Aires. The Gran Milonga is a big street party that is part of the 8th Festival of Tango. Their slogan is “The Future of Tango is Buenos Aires” and if that’s true, there’s a very healthy future ahead. Thousands of people gather in a street that runs off the huge 9 de Julio boulevard adjacent to the Buenos Aires landmark ‘Obilesco’.
Tango is not just a dance. Its a music, a culture, a life. The young, the old, the beautiful, the fashionable and those dancing with feet as precise and light as feathers in oldstyle sneakers and jeans swirl and swoon in large circles carved out from the crowds who applaud with appreciation for the dance, the dancers, and the night. An orchestra and special guest players of the accordian, piano, violin and voice are amplified and televised for several blocks. There are bleachers placed at intersections and vendors sell bread stuffed with ham, cheese and vegetables. It starts at ‘more or less’ 9 p.m. and will go until 6 in the morning.
Just after midnight, there is a Gaucho interlude and the crowd eats it up. The orchestra is taking a break and the organizers play some of the music that is the folklore of Argentina – the music of the country and the cowboys. Its lively and hands clap-clap in rhythym to the music before the dancers arms and hands in the air twirl around each other like matadors. In one dance they have handkerchiefs or flags that they use to tease their partners. I don’t think you have to have studied or even be a good dancer to dance Gaucho, but here and there I see some fancy footwork. This much I know: the Gaucho culture is alive and well. Its spirited and popular – maybe more so than the tango. It doesn’t replace the tango as it even has a ‘Gaucho Tango’ of its own – but it is a part of the soul of Argentina.
Here in Buenos Aires, Sunday is the big market day when the main squares come to life. They are all themed a bit differently so while the culture of the tango is in San Telmo and Boca, textiles are in Ricoleta, the Gauchos are in Mataderos. Although the newspaper said that Matederos was on Saturday night, Jose who works behind the desk at my hotel insisted it was always Sunday. On Sunday, I did check out the San Telmo market again and it was greatly expanded from Saturday. I also took a 30 kilometer round trip by bicycle to the Mataderos market area. Now I know that Buenos Aires is an extremely flat city and that the newpaper was right. In summer, the market at Mataderos is on Saturday night.
Monday and Tuesday I’m back at the gym and my spanish lessons. I also went to the Museum of Immigration, a massive discoteca called the Museum and to the movie that won best song at the Academy awards. Since the composer is from Argentina, the news was on the front page. The movie here is called Secreto en la mo?tana instead of Brokeback Mountain. I didn’t know it was partly filmed in Canada and cast by my friend who passed away last year, Trish Robinson until they rolled the credits. The film is in all the theatres where they play movies from 1 in the afternoon until 4 in the morning, but you can also buy the DVD for $4 usd. On my bus to Buenos Aires, they were playing it on the TV’s but abruptly turned it off after the first time the main characters slept together. The guy responsible for playing the movies and serving the food came out and waved a bible at a couple of passengers. Then we watched people blow each other up for two hours. The two passengers wrote down the telephone number of the bus company as they waited for their luggage in Buenos Aires Omnibus terminal. What they planned to do, I don’t know and I’m off the topic a bit here. There are a lot of things I will never know about life and about the world. This much I do know: Some cities in the world are impossible to discover in a short time like Paris, London, Bangkok and Beijing. You can add Beunos Aires to that list. Aside from the diesel and dogshit, this is a city that is full of culture and life at every turn. And its another place in the world that should I have another life, I would most certainly like to live and be dancing in the streets.