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.

#2 – Ladies and Suffering
I arrived in Buenos Aires on the weekend of the annual pilgrimage to Luján. Every year, thousands of people set out from the city and walk the 50-odd kilometres to this small town, to pay their respects to a terracotta statue of the Virgin Mary. This statue – impassive and swaddled in blue robes – is widely believed to have miraculous powers. There’s an entertaining (and possibly apocryphal) story of how this came about. A man was crossing Argentina in a wagon; in the back there were two statues of the Virgin. When he reached Luján, the wagon got bogged down. He struggled with it for a while before hitting on the idea of moving one of the statues from the wagon. The wagon moved – praise Mary, it was a miracle! This acclamation obviously came from an excess of faith and a rather shaky understanding of physics, but it stuck – ever since, the statue has been revered as something special. It points to a certain credulity in religious life here (which informs the cult of Evita too.)

I cheated a little – I didn’t walk with the pilgrims but caught a bus to Luján the following day. The town is dominated by its Basilica – you can see its towers of pink sandstone from the highway long before Luján itself comes into view. The town was abuzz. Alighting from the bus, you walk down one of two long cloisters to a plaza, on the other side of which stands the church. The cloisters and plaza were full of small concessions selling every kind of religious ticky-tacky – icons, crucifixes, rosaries. Skirting them, I approached the Basilica.

Inside was a revelation – the place was in a state of chaos. Dogs trotted up and down the aisles; exhausted pilgrims slept in alcoves and under pews; priests took confessions in rows, sitting on plastic chairs. A large knot of the faithful stood at the centre, listening to a woman singing the liturgy off-key; above them, huge swathes of bunting in the Argentine colours were looped from the ceiling. I had never seen a church used simultaneously for so many purposes – or a church that seemed to belong so thoroughly to its congregation. There was none of the tip-toeing deference that I associate with churchgoing, but an easy occupation of the space that was in no way impious. Above it all sat the tiny Lady of Luján, the sole point of serenity.

Going outside, I passed a stall manned by a handsome young priest in white robes – with what looked like a ladle, he flung water in benediction out into the crowd. I walked down to the riverbank, and saw how devotion shaded into celebration – a theme park had sprung into life, with a carousel, a mechanical bull and rides with wonderful names like El Torpedo and Castillo del Terror. The smoke from dozens of grills mixed with dust in the warm air; children ran around with the heavy canes their elders had leaned on for their pilgrimage. A huge fleet of orange-and-white buses stood waiting to convey them back into the city. It was like the City-to-Surf run for religious purposes and then capped with the Royal Easter Show. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Back in Buenos Aires, I visited Our Lady of Pilar, a church built by the Spanish in the eighteenth century. It’s made out of brick and limestone, with the dazzling whiteness and the crude cool solidity that suggests. Inside, I was struck by how vivid – how personal – the expressions of the icons were. In Australian churches, the representation of Christ is pretty generalised – his piety expressed by a face lifted to heaven, his exhaustion on his way to the Cross by a stooped back. These postures express things by a sort of shorthand; rarely do they present their content with any sort of immediacy.

The figures in Our Lady of Pilar could not be more different. The suffering – and it was mostly suffering – was intensely felt and deeply individual. With their blanched skin, their haggard faces, their air of privacy as they turn from the viewer, they confront you with all the authority of lived experience. Their doll-like brittleness, too – their fragility – gave them a strange gravity. I found the same thing next door, at the Recoleta Cemetery – the faces of the sorrowing angels were startlingly real. It made me wonder how capable we Australians are of expressing anything transcendent or deeply painful. Where the Argentines observe and steadily record, we gloss over extremity with platitudes and ready-made images.

The Recoleta Cemetery is famous as the place that houses Eva Peron’s remains. They lie in a (relatively) modest crypt that bears her maiden name, Duarte. A line of bemused tourists file past, having expected something grander. I visited the Museo Evita in Palermo, curious to learn more about her. When a museum adopts “My life, my mission, my destiny,” as its slogan, it’s probably not out to give you a critical perspective, and so it was with the Museo – it’s a bit of a hagiography. (There are interesting glimpses of Eva the person, though – the way she employed the same gestures as an actress in films and then later on the balcony of the Casa Rosada.) It was curious then to see the way it belaboured the indignities visited on Eva Peron’s body after she died. A video went into the details of her mutilation – the severed finger, the broken nose, the slashed cheek, the tar on her feet – and I wondered why the Museo would so emphasise the humiliation of someone it so clearly reveres.

But then I thought back to the suffering faces of the icons at Our Lady of Pilar, and how an understanding of pain can become a fascination with it. The injuries done to Eva Peron not only confirm her outsider status (something that she proudly claimed), but raise her in holiness. She is worshipped here as surely as the Virgin of Luján.

#3 – Tango and Turistas
One of the wonderful things about Buenos Aires is that – though you’re welcome as a tourist to witness the life of the city – the porteños (the name given to locals) don’t really attempt to package or perform it. Partly this is the result of simple indifference – the porteños are famously proud – but it resulted in an experience where, though I was always aware of myself as a foreigner, I very rarely felt like a tourist.

That being said, I was determined to catch a tango show while I was in town, and I’d heard that the best was at Café Tortoni. Tortoni is a landmark, the city’s oldest café – a place panelled in dark timber with bevelled mirrors, leadlight ceilings and waiters in black tie. Downstairs there are nightly tango shows. One evening I repaired to the cellar, clutching my camera, prepared to embrace my inner turista. I was seated at a table with a family from Williamstown – Jacquie and Rod and their teenage son. Jacquie was avid, garrulous and clearly the family decision maker. She was also quite knowledgeable, and she chattered away about her holiday highlights while her son fiddled with their camera and her husband sat back, genial, with a beer.

The show was a perfect combination of dance and cheesy dinner theatre. Like jazz in New Orleans, tango had its beginnings in the brothels of Buenos Aires. The show made obvious the connection between the dance’s dynamics – the man advancing, the woman moving in concert but not quite acceding – and the negotiations between hookers and their clients. The female performers were vampish in black stockings, the males their boorish, slick-haired johns – it was pretty broad but it conveyed the music’s sexual charge (and cured me of the prejudice that tango’s the sort of bland-out music they play in suburban cafés). The band consisted of a double bass, accordion, viola, violin and piano; there was a singing waiter too who performed with a tea towel thrown casually over one shoulder. It was all hugely entertaining.

I was emboldened to try the tango myself, and so the following night I took myself to a gay milonga (Argentine dance hall) for a lesson. Up a flight of stairs on Calle Maipú there’s a room with battered white walls, a host of black-framed photographs and lamps turned down low in the corners. The instructor was a magnificent stallion of a man called Augusto. He was dressed entirely in red – red vest, red trousers, red shoes – with his hair tied up behind his head in a black ponytail. I was paired with a Frenchman named Patrice (he even wore a beret) – and, issuing instructions in Spanish, French and English, Augusto guided us through some basic steps. We took turns leading and following – a new sort of versatility – and every few minutes Augusto would stop us with corrections. I was not leaning forcefully enough into my partner; I was bobbing up and down like a cork at every step. Patrice was not a very enthusiastic partner, but at the end of an hour I felt that we had learned something.

Then the floor was opened to more experienced dancers, and sitting at a table I watched them for a couple of hours. Men danced with men, women with women – and it was clear that tango was not just a totem of “Buenos Aires” but a part of the routine life of the city. The nights start late in Buenos Aires – the class was not until ten o’clock – and as I sat past midnight in that shabby little hall the traditional music suddenly gave way to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”. It was one of the trip’s perfect moments.

On my last day in the city, I made my way to La Boca, a port district famous for its brightly painted housefronts. The working-class inhabitants used to borrow paint from visiting ships; now the area is an unlikely patchwork of pinks, yellows and greens. It was my one disappointing experience in Buenos Aires. I had been warned that the streets surrounding El Caminito (the main strip) were quite dangerous; sure enough, as I took a taxi through La Boca, the contrast in poverty to the rest of the city was quite marked. Once there, I was faced with the strange prospect of only three blocks down which it was safe to venture. The bright buildings were there, sure enough, but they now housed the tourist emporiums that are so blessedly absent from the rest of the city. The streets were crowded with stalls selling postcards and ponchos. Great herds of buses nosed in to the top of El Caminito, spilling forth their cargos of tourists. Dressed in a Spanish drag of red and black, male and female hustlers worked in pairs, trying to place a battered hat on the heads of passersby in the hope that they would stop to pose for photographs. Dancers did the tango outside a dozen mediocre restaurants. The place had no lived reality – it’s all false image, all cliché. What made it doubly unpleasant was that the experience is so tightly delimited – there’s no way to wander, no way to experience it on your own terms. There are just those three blocks – beyond that is the real waterfront, and that’s much too dangerous to see for yourself.

But that was very much the exception. There were times – stopping at the local confiteria for my breakfast medialunas (small, sweet croissants), sitting on my bed with a bottle of Malbec – when I felt like a porteño myself.