Postcards from Buenos Aires
#1 – Differences Large and Small
One of the pleasures of this trip has been in realising that in some respects life differs very little from place to place. Before leaving for Buenos Aires I hadn’t travelled much, and I had the vague sense that overseas even the grass and the flags in the pavement were different, imbued with some exciting foreign energy. But you don’t pass through a magical portal when you board a plane, and the streets of Buenos Aires were at least as familiar as strange. It’s cured me of a superstition, and an unconscious sense of inferiority about my own country.
That being said, there are some major differences between Australia and Argentina. The first is the inventiveness with which many Argentines make a living. This is the result of poverty, but it plays out with great exuberance. The first time I took the subway, a man placed a silver bracelet in my lap and then walked on without saying a word. He made his way through the carriage, repeating the gesture with every passenger. It was only when he returned that I realised he’d left it with me in the hopes that I would buy it. I witnessed similar scenes on trains and buses – the vendors hocking things as various as knives, religious icons and shortbread biscuits. People create intermediate jobs for themselves, too – hailing taxis for you in the street or (less usefully) handing you a sheet of tissue as you walk into the bathroom – and stride out into the intersections at red lights to perform as clowns and jugglers.
There is also a horde of gleaners that descend on the city every night. The rubbish in Buenos Aires is just dumped out in the street – everywhere in the gutters there are heaps of black garbage bags – and as it begins to get dark, whole families begin to pick through the refuse. The more prosperous of these have trucks on which to load their finds; more typical are hand-pulled carts or shopping trolleys. It’s the same ingenuity that inspires the vendors and clowns, but a little further down the social scale – a father and his children, picking methodically through trash in the gathering dusk.
There’s a casualness to life here, too – a lack of fuss, a readiness to make the most of whatever’s close to hand. One of the first things I noticed on the bus in from the airport was that people used the roadside verges as park space – people jogged and held picnics right beside the highway. Sometimes the lack of fuss shades into disregard – and expresses the relative poverty here. Squares of pavement are broken and never replaced, so that walking down the street is a constant low-level obstacle course. Landmarks like El Molino – a café opposite Congress that used to be the meeting place of the nation’s politicians – stand in ruins. Buenos Aires peaked at roughly the same time as Melbourne – the late nineteenth century – and like Melbourne, the money that poured in (and the optimism it inspired) resulted in some beautiful public architecture. Since then, you feel, this graciousness has been slowly going to seed – and subjected to Buenos Aires’ big-city pressures, its relentless pace and smog. (Most monuments are fenced off and/or given a constant police guard – those that aren’t are quickly defaced.) Indeed, in its grot and its rude, jostling energy, Buenos Aires also reminded me of Sydney – a sort of dream fusion of my two home cities.
There are pretty dramatic contrasts within the country as well. One day late in my stay, wanting a break from the bustle, I took the train to a place called Tigre. About an hour north of the city, it’s the gateway to a series of islands and narrow waterways. You step onto a launch and wait while people load the low, flat roof with boxes of groceries. In the brown river schools of weird fish drift by, their mouths open wide as if attached to the surface of the water. As you set out, there’s a combination of luxury and dilapidation that’s very Buenos Aires – the banks are lined with the city’s exclusive rowing clubs, but also with the rusted hulks of old ships. As the launch negotiates the winding channels, the city begins to seem very remote – channels open on more channels, and it’s very easy to imagine getting lost there. There’s also a hallucinatory lushness. Most of the colours I saw in Argentina I saw had a parched quality, from the cocoa-brown of the Andes I glimpsed from the plane to the pale blue of the flag; here there were a crazy profusion of greens, with brightly-painted houses peeking out from the trees.
Most of the islands were inhabited – each with its own private jetty, each only accessible by water. Buenos Aires is a dense and somewhat defensive city – block after block of apartment buildings, most of them barred or shuttered – the wealthy insulating themselves against the rough life of the streets. Here was that impulse taken a step further – luxurious expanses of lawn and beautiful homes, completely cut off from the rest of the world. There was even a (presumably historic) house completely encased in a rectangle of glass – it reminded me weirdly of the glass church that Oscar attempts to float up the river in ‘Oscar and Lucinda’. I was struck by the sheer impracticality of living here; absolutely everything has to be shipped in. Isolation has its difficulties as well as its benefits.
It was also very beautiful. I stepped off the launch onto one of the Tres Bocas (“three mice”), three small islands yoked together by makeshift bridges. There’s a single long path that loops past a series of houses – the landscape a mixture of tropical lushness and privet hedges, the houses facing each other across a narrow brown channel. A series of dogs did sentry duty, each one accompanying me through its territory before passing me on to the next. The place’s somnolence and its deep greens and browns cast a spell on me, and I began to understand that I had only scratched the surface of this country’s beauty and variety.