Twilight envelopes the city, and gives birth to a new ecology
photo: enna morgan
”Sexy, alive and supremely confident, this beautiful city gets under your skin. Like Europe with a melancholic twist, Buenos Aires is unforgettable,” reads Sandra Bao’s article in the. Well, she is not lying, this bustling metropolis, better known as ‘The Paris of the Americas’ and dubbed an ‘alpha city,’ has earned all those pseudonyms. But like every other city, there are some of the not so dazzling truths that don’t exactly make the ”top 10 tweets” list, and many that, though recorded, do not make headline news.
Prior to moving to Buenos Aires, I was bedazzled by the tales of a rich, populous city, steeped in culture and drizzled with romance, theatre and dance. The home of the amorous Argentine tango, and the famous asado. I dreamt of dancing in the street until the early morning, hearing the sound of violins strumming late into the night, and decadent food beckoning from every street corner.
Though some of those images were somewhat realised (the food), the caricatured version and the reality of the untold stories left an impression that as Ms Bao stated, is unforgettable. My experiences in Buenos Aires will forever alter the way I view the country, other people’s reviews of the places they visit, and the word ”romantic.”
As you gingerly brush off the suitcase in preparation for your own fun escapades in this urban sprawl, here are some little-known, less talked-about realities that can help to ease you into the culture, and help to reduce the frequency of breaking out the inhaler.
It is all colour coded, really!
1. The Argentines are terribly colour conscious. They view the darker-complected people as either whores or thieves, and they treat them accordingly. And by darker complected people, I am not referring specifically to African Americans or Africans, I am speaking of……those who are not light-skinned; it is not a race issue, it is a skin-tone issue.
For instance, if you are dark-skinned and standing in line at a confeteria (or any other such place), by the time it is your turn to be served, the price of items would automatically increase right before your eyes. Some store owners (Chinese) would even refuse you service, and very often (most prevalent after midnight, and outside of the main city limits), the buses will not stop for you.
Additionally you would always find those who would want to make a point of letting you know exactly how they feel (especially if they happen to be feeling slightly inferior due to their lack of command of the English language). One such example occurred in one of my classrooms.
Among other subjects, I taught Business English, and thus worked in several premiere corporations (names deliberately withheld) around Capital Federal. One morning, in the middle of class, amongst a group of ”well-educated” professionals (department heads of a well-known international company), we were discussing Brazil’s economy.
Out of nowhere (that I could trace) one of the students elected to explain to me the difference between the Brazilians and the Argentines (let’s keep in mind that for the 18 months I had spent in Buenos Aires, there was never an Argentine who claimed roots from anywhere other than France or Italy. Let’s also keep in mind that the topic was centered on ”economy” and nothing anthropological or sociological in nature).
She explained that,
”The Argentines are better because their ancestors are from France and Italy, but the Brazilians, they are…..well……BLACK!”
Well, that certainly cleared up that mystery! I have been labouring under a gross misconception all this time. I have been thus culturally enlightened, and had to then make notes to myself to reconstruct my prior knowledge of the Brazilian genealogy.
Foolish me, I always had it in mind that being colonised by Portugal in 1500AD, then subsequently falling under the Iberian Crown, they would then be descendants of Spain and Portugal, but then what do I know!? I was only the dark-skinned Indian girl, after all, no doubt a thief or a whore!….Or, (Heavens forbid!) both!
The supermarket saga
For the first several months that I was there, I had noticed that I was repeatedly the recipient of very hostile stares (they make little effort to hide their distaste), and persistent searching of my bags whenever I enter into a supermarket.
On one occasion, after being in the store for about 8 minutes, I was hauled to the front of one of the Carrefour supermarkets by one of their employees (did not know who she was or why she wanted me to follow her, so I did), accused of stealing, and publicly searched.
After the search revealed nothing, the (frustrated) woman (plain clothes security) who made the accusation, admitted that although she had no concrete evidence of me stealing anything, she ‘’just wanted to check’’ (she had begun following me around the store from the time I had entered), and so finding nothing, she admonished me for being too long in the store. I was by that time in the store only about 15 – 20 minutes, ten of which was consumed in the search.
Many other such incidents followed until I decided to put a stop to it…..in my own signature style. No need for details, let’s just say that I established myself, in my immediate surroundings, as a force to (not) reckon with.
Before leaving this topic, I will add that I was one day discussing these phenomena with the laundromat fellow (light-skinned), who I then learned happened to have some dark-skinned relatives; turns out that they too have had to endure similar insults, albeit being native Argentines. He then explained that such discriminatory actions are normal within the Argentinian culture. I guess this acquired human habit of colour discrimination has no geographic boundaries.
Are they sexy or sex-starved?
2. No doubt the Argentines are indeed ”sexy,” as Ms Bao stated; however, experience has revealed that this trait it is not in a pleasingly seductive or sensual way, but instead, in a disgustingly carnal manner.
Around rush hour (mornings, 7 – 9am, lunchtime, and after work, 4 – 6pm), as is typical with every city that relies on the subway for public transportation, the trains are usually jam-packed. I dreaded the ride, not for the reason that I would be up close and personal with a vast array of beggars, tourists, and proletariats, but for the simple reason that this throng presented ample opportunity for the thus inclined men to get their jollies. You see, the train would be so congested that it would preclude any movement of any sort, even breathing would reach near impossible levels.
Very often you would find yourself either inhaling the carbon dioxide of your travel companion, whose nose was lodged half-an-inch in front of yours, and sometimes you could almost taste the remains of their breakfast. On many occasions, you may feel a solid and disturbing protrusion moving independently in the vicinity of your ass (yes, I said ass, deal with it!). And every move you make to re-adjust yourself to get away from it, would serve only to excite the ”protrusion” to literally jump with joy. Ugh!
This was such a nauseating experience that it brought me to a point of avoidance. I chose to walk home from Nueve de Julio, the junction where I would transfer from the B (red) train to the C (blue) line to get to my home. Although it was several blocks away, it was more enjoyable walking than enduring the invasion of the joysticks that would attack from various directions. But, alas, the odium was not limited to the subte.
On one occasion I was on the bus, which was horribly crowded. I was hugging a post since getting on, and being deep in thought, I was not quite aware that as the bus progressed along its journey, the crowd had thinned to the point of there being only a few of us left standing.
I became aware of something poking me in the rear, I then turned to discover that even though there was no longer a crowd that would necessitate close body contact, there was a short, unattractive man standing behind me, intent on satisfying his (obviously) unfulfilled lecherous urges.
Needless to say, with some well placed expletives used as adjectives, I suggested that he find another person to disgust, and expressed very clearly where he could graze his tallywacker in the future.
I did a lot more walking since that incident,…….and enjoyed it immensely.
But don’t let the libido effect scare you off, there are things to enjoy in this tropical, asado-loving, dulce de leche-filled cosmopolis.
There was actually a great benefit to being dark-skinned in Buenos Aires. All around me, both night and day, the light skinned teachers, and tourists were being robbed daily, but I wasn’t. I think that the rationale here was simple: Since the dark-skinned folks were considered thieves or prostitutes, then they would obviously not be worthy of a pickpocketer’s time and attention.
I could therefore walk the streets very late at night or early morning (which I did very often after a good salsa or tango), unperturbed. That meant much to me, since one of my primary reasons for being in BA was to learn AT (Argentine tango).
When the fair winds blow
3. After being in Buenos Aires for 18 months, I had to take a serious look at the perception of others, especially when it came to terms like “beautiful” and ”paradise,” terms often used to describe the Argentinian experience. I have seen the picturesque, colourful photos of San Telmo and La Boca, and have heard the hauntingly romantic stories that surround these places, but the reality is that right beside the beauty and the orgasmic culture, there is the Riachuelo, the stench of which hovers in the air, and causes you to catch your breath, like the sudden appearance of a whore in church.
Casually meandering through the city, with constructed walkways like a suburban city park, the Riachuelo ranks number 14 on the list of the 15 most toxic places in the world. And this chemically laden air, a combination of metallurgic, sewage, pesticides, and petroleum is inhaled daily by the 15+ million of inhabitants and visitors who are crammed into the city.
Interestingly ironic, the name of the city and province is Buenos Aires, which literally translates to ”good air,” or more accurately, ”fair winds,” but existentially, the city is a living, breathing contradiction. In addition to the atmospheric condition generated by the Riachuelo, the streets sport a constant layer of dog shit, evenly spread through the popular avenidas like peanut butter on hot toast. Now that leaves a lot to ruminate on (pun intended). Picture hot steaming streets, and equally hot, freshly made dog shit. Oh, yeah! You get the picture…..and it is not a pretty one.
My walk home in the evenings (which became increasingly frequent since I wanted to avoid the vulgarity on the train) was literally on a thin carpet of shit. Unlike the USA, there are no lease or pooper laws (maybe I am wrong, and there are, but they are certainly not observed) so the dog owners take their dogs out for a walk, and allow them to freely and copiously relieve themselves in the street.
By the end of the day, the faeces have been properly trampled and distributed by the thousands of pedestrians going hither and tither, and then it is smoothly smeared all over the street ……then tracked into their homes. Yuk!
9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world, spans 14 driving lanes. Eva Peron monument in background.
photo: enna morgan
I resided on Avenida Viamonte & Esmeralda, in the heart of Capital Federal (a few blocks from the famous Florida and Nueve de Julio), so the area was always as busy as a queen bee in mating season, with incessant tourists and resident activity. On a hot summer’s day, I would observe the tourists as they languidly enjoy their meal in the open air restaurants that line the sidewalk.
And when that good old Buenos Aires wind picked up, it picked up! I’m talking dust particles, and desiccated faeces that just a few hours ago was smeared thinly across the sidewalk are now flying around like confetti bursting out a birthday piñata. With the help of the scorching tropical sun, the shit is now nicely dried out and transformed into shit sprinkles. Yum!
Lounging insouciantly on my balcony, enjoying this view, I often wondered how many restaurant patrons ever stopped to consider that croutons and black pepper were not the only toppings they were enjoying in their salads!
No charge for the extra topping!
During my 18-month stay in the tango Mecca, needless to say, I rarely dined in restaurants, and I never dined outdoors. And due to the proximity of the Riachuelo to the city, I never ate fish, or any seafood.
Sunset over Humberto Primo
photo: enna morgan
The poor little rich city
4. I am not sure if the occurrences that I witnessed in Buenos Aires are reflective of the poverty level left in the wake of this erstwhile boomtown, but I will say that I have visited what are considered to be some very poor countries, and I have not seen anything close to the experiences I have had in Buenos Aires.
Household garbage in Buenos Aires is disposed of by setting it in bags and placing those in the street. Just after sundown, every night, families come out with carts and very often they would gather around a large collection of household or office garbage and proceed to spend the evening sitting around it as if it were a family picnic in a park. They would then open all the bags and extract anything they can sell, then place them separately in large garbage bags in their cart.
But even before the sorting takes place, they would gather up the discarded food they had found in the garbage bags and huddle together in a circle, and seated comfortably amidst the stench and piles of rubbish and dog shit, they would feast. No one was exempt, from the infants up to the elderly would partake in this nightly family event.
Families in filth, photo deliberately blurred to protect identity
photo: enna morgan
After the meal, they would then gather their ‘treasures,’ and move on to another area, to repeat the process, leaving in their wake, the thrashed and scattered rubbish, which, by 9pm, with the assistance of the wind and the incessant traffic, would be evenly distributed along these famous, prized, commonly exalted areas.
By midnight, the garbage collectors would drive around in their trucks and pick up the bags of garbage, after which, the hosers would come out (only in Capital Federal) and wash down the streets, leaving only the large, black, hideous cockroaches to run around, frantically scrambling to follow the scent of the food, of which they were so unceremoniously robbed.
What would Polo do? Would this become a poster shot? Avenida Florida, BA
photo: enna morgan
The next day, en route to work, I would walk along the crowded streets of Florida, where clamouring vendors line both sides like a bordered tapestry, and exhuberant tourists and ambitious workers mill around, oblivious to the filth and poverty that resides just below the surface, and the strange eco-system that thrives sub rosa, slipping in and out with the darkness, like a thief in the night.
And at lunchtime as I pick my way home through the crowded streets, I would smile as tourists and residents alike would brush past me in search of their choice destination, the outdoor café. They would jostle each other to get ahead, lured by the smell of the savoury empanada and images of a crunchy ensalada. And they would then proceed to bask in the glory of their South American ‘Shangri-La,’ which they would later digitally transform on Facebook into the envy of their friends and family back home.
At night, after I have made my way home without any extra baggage on my shoes, I would sit at my computer and skim the latest news and stories, that would litter the computer screen like the city’s waste densely punctuating the burgh. The raving reviews would pour in from various parts of the globe, published by the itinerant travellers, who had just returned home and were eager to share their wealth of good news about the ‘good air’ city.
The story content is always the same: the scintillating details of warm summer night in open-air cafés, with a guitar strumming softly above the chatter; decadent desserts soaked in dulce de leche, served by a dreamy, ‘Latin lover’ (you may have noticed that I did not touch on that subject this entire time; that was a deliberate omission; that’s a book all by itself) with the looks of Marcus Schenkenberg, the eyes of Ryan Gosling, the savoir faire of James Bond, and the mesmerising baritone of Josh Groban as he glides along the strings of Herb Alpert’s 50 guitars.
And as I read the description, I would have to look out my window to remind myself that the glossy, panoramic exotica, with the beautiful sceneries and glowing reviews that fill the pages on my computer screen are the same pictures of the scenes in the street just below me – the sexy swell of life, love, and laughter, and its faithful companion, the melancholic twist of woe, waste, and wanton.
A woman settles in for the treasure hunt, CBD, Buenos Aires
photo: enna morgan
A man tries to wrap up his collection as the garbage collectors do their job of pick up the scattered remnants
photo: enna morgan
This is a special addition to this post, included for the benefit of those who are having an allergic reaction, and seem to be of the view that I am the only person having these experiences, and that the situations described are isolated. Here are a few articles, which echo my sentiments and experiences; however, the authors were not as careful in choosing their words as I was in my post. Suffice it to say that when even Wikipedia talks about the racism in BA, you know I could not be making it up.
This list is not exhaustive. But really, need I go on?