Buenos Aires has its problems: obviously a big one is poverty, manifested clearly in things like the street children you see regularly on the subte (underground), the cartoneros (rubbish pickers) rummaging through the city’s waste after dark, and the shanty towns (villas miserias) that are home to more than 150,000 of the urban poor.Taking a taxi to the glisteningly new domestic air terminal of Jorge Newberry, you drive right through one, and there are 21 such ‘temporary’ settlements in the federal district of Buenos Aires. The airport itself serves as a tourist attraction of sorts: when I returned from my trip to Iguazu Falls on a balmy November evening, lines of familes, couples and students, all drinking the ubiquitous mate, were pressed up against the railings or perched on bollards watching flights take off and land.
There’s also the prevalence of petty crime (which I witnessed at first hand: see my previous post On the mean streets of Buenos Aires), not to mention the appalling level of national debt (I’m sure someone more economically knowledgeable than me could add something here: Tony?). On a more mundane level, there’s the chronic shortage of change. Due to the lack of coins, especially one peso coins, in circulation, everyone holds on desperately to the monedas (coins) they do have, making them even harder to get hold of. Theories about the cause of the shortage circulate more easily than the coins themselves: the latest I heard this morning is that the Argentinian mafia have got hold of them and are selling them to the Brazilian mafia who melt them down for the copper content, which is worth more than the face value of the coins. On the day I arrived in Buenos Aires, the staff at the lovely Hotel Gurda Tango pressed two one-peso coins into my hand so I could take the colectivo (urban bus) as though they were offering me the crown jewels. The buses only accept coins: if you don’t have them, you can’t travel, period. I naively asked if you couldn’t go to a bank and exchange say a 10 or 20 peso note for a useful collection of coins: apparently you could, but the banks’ erratic opening hours and patience-sapping queues meant you probably wouldn’t.
There is a general sense here that politics is irredeemably corrupt and that the economy is unstable, precarious and geared towards the advantage of a privileged few, leaving the vast majority of people to fend for themselves. A taxi driver remarked sorrowfully to me that as a result of this, Argentinians have no real sense of national pride or identity, they are focused only on their own survival and advancement and have no interest in working together for the good of the country, perhaps because they perceive it to be a pointless, unachievable goal. This rather depressing view was also expressed by Paul Theroux´s publisher in Buenos Aires in the 1970s: ‘Éveryone works well separately, but we cannot work with one another. I don’t know why this is so, but we just cannot work together as a team.’ (taken from The Old Patagonia Express).
Yet even some of these seemingly intractable issues occasionally have their brighter side. While lingering over an excellent coffee in El e Bar in Palermo, I flicked through a Hello-style Argentinian magazine and read the inspiring story of Juan Ramon Nunez, a former cartonero from the notorious slum Ciudad Oculta (so-called because the government built a wall to hide it) who founded a soup kitchen and radio station in his neighbourhood and who recently won the Entrepreneur of the Year title awarded by Youth Business International in London. And at a bus stop recently, I saw a man with a coin holder like the old fashioned bus conductors used to have, offering passengers the opportunity to change their notes for coins, the passport to the colectivo.
One of the things which ultimately endeared the place to me, despite an initially cool response on my part, was the fact that Buenos Aires is indisputably the city of tango. I did pluck up the courage to take a class myself once (sorry guys, no photos!) and it’s safe to say it wasn’t a great success. I have a fairly limited sense of co-ordination when it comes to dance, and though the teachers were expert, patient and encouraging, in all honesty I couldn’t wait for the class to be over. And I’m sure my partner (who floundered over the 8 basic steps almost as much as me, with the added pressure of having to lead) felt the same! But walking down Calle Florida, the BA equivalent of London’s Oxford Street, or Avenida de Mayo, home to the famous Café Tortini and the specialist but frankly quite dull Tango Museum, trails of dramatic tango music float from shop doorways, so that eventually the jagged, sometimes almost sinister, melodies, seem to insinuate themselves under your skin.
On Sunday evenings in Plaza Dorrego, just blocks from my apartment, after the weekend antiques market has packed up and left, an outdoor milonga (a sort of night club of tango) takes place. Speakers are set up, a compere grabs a mic and accomplished dancers display their finesse in this dark, compellingly sensual dance. The performance alternates with free-for-all sessions, where the girls gather round the fringes of the dance area and the men invite them to dance, traditionally with an inclination of the head. On a typical Sunday evening a highly mixed range of abilities can be seen strutting their stuff, with some of the more expert being the dapper old men in suits who invite all the best-looking chicas to partner them and who have clearly been trotting out tango for years.
And while unashamedly put on for the tourists, I was also enchanted by the fact that you can sit at a pavement café and watch professional dancers effortlessly go through their tango moves. I was less impressed by the farrago that often follows each display, when the dancers pose with customers for photos: pale, paunchy Americans grinning as the female dancer wraps a lithe fish-netted leg around them, their wives coquettish as the male tanguero hoists them onto a black-trousered thigh.
Tango classes and milongas are advertised on fly posters everywhere, you definitely get the sense that this city takes its tango seriously. It can also be relatively relaxed though, as at the unmissable La Catedral, described as an underground tango club, where on Tuesday nights from 11pm there is often a live band and always hours of varied tango music, with casually-dressed couples gliding around the dance floor. The atmosphere is one of warehouse chic and the décor is a cross between East Berlin and student accommodation, with industrial light fittings and posters of Che Guevara.
It took me a while to peel myself away from tango town, which had begun to feel like home. In fact it took me several attempts: I went on a short trip to Uruguay, came back, flew to Iguazu, came back again and even changed my outbound ticket so I could soak up the atmosphere just a little longer and make a final memorable trip to La Catedral. I finally made that outbound bus journey (a mere 21 hours) and I’m now in Patagonia but I sincerely hope it will be hasta luego Buenos Aires rather than adios.
If you liked this, you might be interested in some of my other posts on Buenos Aires …
- Kissing, late nights and rubbish – some of my impressions on cultural customs in Buenos Aires
- Spanglish – practicing Spanish in the city
- Desperately seeking gauchos – my less than successful search for real life cowboys
- On the mean streets of Buenos Aires – the edgier side of travelling
- Death of La Negra – Mercedes Sosa dies
- How to tie your shoelaces in Buenos Aires – an odd one, you have to read it yourself!