Travel article: Argentina

(February 2008)

Buenos Aries

I had thought Argentina was
a modern country, and some of it is. But those expecting the Europe of the
Southern hemisphere will be disappointed. Some of Argentina seems trapped in
the past.

Buenos Aries is not a city in which you would go jogging at night. The
footpaths and gutters are frequently broken, especially around any manhole
covers. In the early hours of the morning the ‘cartoneros’ are still in the
street: people who go from place to place scavenging through rubbish to find
recyclables. They sell their cardboard boxes and water bottles at a train
station near the city.

Near my hotel, in Florida Avenue, an upmarket shopping street, a legless beggar
lies on a blanket, while people toss the occasional coin at him. I see no water
bottle, and cannot work out how he could get to a bathroom during the day. You
can walk south along the street to Recoleta. Shops have roll-down window
shutters, and lots of security guards, but they are not armed like they are in
America. Guys are selling statues in the street, and one guitar player is doing
‘Sultans of Swing.’ A young woman called Victoria Vatory in a red, tattered,
old ball gown is being a human statue: I came out this way before and she’s
been here three hours

Other people have their carpets on the street (to mark out “their” area) and
are selling the same kinds of painting, jewellery and souvenirs you’d see on
the St Kilda foreshore in Melbourne.

Near the end of Florida Avenue there is the Recoleta Art and craft market, open
from 11 to 6 pm, with stalls arranged in a circular pattern around a park.
Vendors sell clothing, drinks, leather goods, and paintings. Some have
pre-painted boards showing some famous military person, with a hole where you
can insert your head and have your photo taken with your fancy uniform and medals.
There are dozens upon dozens of artists selling paintings of tango dancers.
Some artists have pre-painted paintings with a blank space on the canvas for
your face. In ten minutes they can paint you into the picture. While I can’t
recognise them, the figures all look like figures from the past. Everybody wants
to be somebody famous, but the figures all look alike .

Next to the Market is the Recoleta cemetery, filled with gigantic mausoleums
where the rich, the famous, the military and the politically powerful were
interred. Inside one mausoleum I can see through the curtain to some empty
shelves: ready no doubt for the next family member. The cemetery has an
abundance of stray cats. For a cemetery it has lots of trees and broad avenues.
I notice some trolleys that appear to be for transporting coffins. Outside
Evita Peron’s tomb there are fresh flowers. It has a bronze coloured front and
the name Duarte on the front. The tour guides shout at people to hurry up and
go around the tomb, because other tour groups are waiting to get their turn.
Why are people still laying flowers at the tomb of a woman who has been dead
for over 50 years?

After having my fill of dead people, I go outside and make my way past the
buskers and the street stalls. On the other side of the park is a small
restaurant: it strikes me as very European compared to Peru. I order an
omelette which comes with a can of “gentleman” brand olive oil, and nearby see
an old British red telephone box: the sort that doctor who used to travel in. I
pay for my omelette, coffee and croissants with US dollars, they exchanged at
the rate of 3:1.

Defensa Avenue is the main street of San Telmo, the artists’ district.
Street vendors sell their art, tango dancers – some quite elderly – perform for
tips. Defensa Avenue runs from Lezama Park to the Presidential palace in
Montserrat. Antique stores sell newspapers editions from various historical
events: man on the moon, the assassination of Kennedy, and of course, showing
President Peron’s body lying in state. They charge about 15 pesos (about 5$
Australian.) Peron’s photo lies alongside posters of the Beatles, and several
copies of a book called “Mia Lucia,” which I suddenly realise is Hitler’s Mein
Kampf. The items seem odd bedfellows.

Outside again a street performer in a purple-pink shirt pretends to stick a
spoon up his nose. He shows posters of himself performing feats of strength
under hypnosis and “mentalismo”. But he takes too long with the preliminaries,
and the crowd drifts away.

A foot painter with a hand deformity paints streetscapes, with a sign asking for
donations to pay for his painting materials. The street is very graffiti free,
compared to Peru.

Fidel Castro, a dead revolutionary, makes a lot of appearances in the posters
of street artist, followed by the Simpsons walking across Abbey Road, and

There is a lot of men’s clothing on Florida Avenue, the going rate looks like $85 a suit,
and the quality doesn’t look too bad.

Musicians nearby play classical guitar and Indian flutes, with a Bolivian flag
behind them.

At the Presidential Palace (The Rosa House), I can se the balcony from which Eva
Peron addressed the adoring multitudes. Near the palace is a police armoured
vehicle with two gun barrels on top. The police lounge around and smoke, and
behind them is another armoured van, and behind that a police jeep. I ask if
the cannon on the top of the vehicles are for bullets. No: the policeman gestures that they are water cannons. The water is blue, he explains, pointing to my jeans, his blue pen, and his blue eyes. With a lot of gestures he explains that if a demonstrator has blue die on them, they get arrested. He uses the universal symbol of two wrists being pressed together with an imitation “chink chink” sound. I get the picture.

But there seems no danger of a protest crowd here. Everybody is too busy doing demonstrations of the tango, or painting pictures of dead generals. I walk away, still feeling like I’m in a city trapped in the past.


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