Buenos Aires from a Distance

It’s not easy to catch up on travelogues. You always manage to travel faster than you can write. If the mind races and the legs walk, then the hand can only carry the pen in such a slow drag, like the sack on the shoulders. I thought I could do it in the 20-hr bus ride from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, but despite the massiveness of the bus, its weight was just not enough to counteract the little bumps and pebbles on the roads.

Cities are devilish yet delicious. They suck away your spirit, or rather, they drown your spirit in a sweet concoction of putrid smell, confusing sounds and uncoordinated sights. Your little grey cells are hit by constant light taps, repeatedly, in such paltriness, that they refuse to be affected in a stoic defiance. So one can only write about the city in a romantic manner, like Baudelaire, as a dandy, with the sensibility of a voyeur. In that highly ordered narrative made meaningful by a distance, it can only represent the mind’s imagination of a city.

Cities are devilish yet delicious. They suck away your spirit, or rather, they drown your spirit in a sweet concoction of putrid smell, confusing sounds and uncoordinated sights.

Maybe the real BsAs started with moving to the new hostel. It actually took me back to Montserrat, to the junction on Mexico where I had sensed the smell of decay and crime. But first impression can’t always be accurate, and the hostel itself, once I got into it, was completely fine. The girl at the reception was great. She told me her name was Mercedez, like the car. Carefree and absolutely friendly, she made pancakes (flip) at breakfast. Later I also noticed that she loved her mate. Two girls arrived on the same day and then we made a picnic plan as the weather was beckoning.

We were a tad bit too optimistic about picnicking in S America. For a start, we had to find a bus card. In theory we could use cash, but then that would be double the price of using a card, and we would need enough 1-peso coins to feed into the slot. The trouble is, nobody used coins anymore. The day being 1 May almost nothing was open around the city. We were counting on the kiosks opened by Chinese, because as a known fact, Chinese never take holidays. But we were wrong. Either the penetration of the Chinese mercenary army failed in that area, or that the S American moral forces won. It took us a good 20 mins of asking around to have finally obtained a travel card, which cost 30 pesos to buy and 1 peso to top up every time outside the metro stations.

Luckily, there was an internet/video rental shop that was open. Then came the task to catch a bus. The first bus stopped, let the first two passengers in, and closed its door on us, with two more people in the queue in front. We thought we did something obscenely wrong, but the ladies in front assured us that bus taking in BsAs was all a test of luck against the driver’s mood.

About another 20 mins later, we finally found ourselves on a half empty Route 60 bus headed towards Plaza Italia. On the way we saw a socialist demonstration, with banners and flags and drums and music and what not of a demonstration, except it was lacking the frenzy one would expect. I was amazed to see how the populist narrative is still gripping the imagination of a generation, or even few generations. But later on I was told that it had nothing to do with the ideological traction, but like any self-respecting socialist regime, a system necessitated elitism that lured people in with the promise of power and privileges.

But if geographical mobility is the definition of modernity, then certainly the gypsies are the most modern group.

We got off somewhere close to the cemetery. Having been there the two days before, I led the way. Thays had no interest in the cemetery, for she had a bucket list to tick off, including obtaining a certificate for attending a tango class. It annoys me a lot when people have to base their own experience on other people’s recommendation – as if they do not know what to feel and think. “20 places you must see before you die” – what if I don’t see them all? Will I be dragged to each one of them on my deathbed, forced to be awed and excited as the compiler of the list felt when he made it at 25? What is the homogenisation of personal experience about? An anxiety to prove to be part of modernity’s geographical mobility? But if geographical mobility is the definition of modernity, then certainly the gypsies are the most modern group. Or is it the need for an experiential common ground? But for what? For proof of existence? So it’s that the limited and carefully selected common knowledge becomes the basis for an individual’s existential claim.

Not far from the gate where the city for the dead was closed off, there were lively street performers, souvenir stalls, painters selling pictures of recognisable tourist experiences presented in portable and visible forms. Our aim however, was to find food, so we marched on to where most of the stalls were. Not many of them sold food though, with a majority of them selling various forms of handicrafts. I ran for a hotdog booth. They do good hotdogs in BsAs, with several sausages to choose from, and plentiful of veggies if you ask really nicely. Leslie, being French, went for some cheese and salami, as well as a banana. Thays thought her Brazilian reals too precious to be wasted on food, so she chose to starve while glumly suffering from fatigue.

They do good hotdogs in Buenos Aires, with several sausages to choose from, and plentiful of veggies if you ask really nicely.

The point of a picnic was, obviously, to bathe in the sun while lazily lying on the lawn. So when we saw a slope full of people stretched out in all sorts of positions, we found a spot, and sat down. There was some sort of performance about to happen, which later turned out to be a duet stand-up comedy with a shreakish voice hidden behind a puppet throwing sarcastic comments at unsuspecting tourists nearby, mostly Brazilians. But some Jap (or Chinese?) became their victims, too. Apparently the show was quite funny, but I couldn’t tell, so I just excused myself and went to look for some water. The small excursion took me to the poshest part of town, where in a stretch of about 3 blocks there wasn’t a single supermarket. Luckily, I found a tobacconist, who also happened to sell some of the most amazing ‘artisan alfajores’ in town. Thays had a sweet tooth and swore would go back for some more once she had the money.

We sat there for some more time, then decided to head towards the book fair – ‘the largest in South America’ according to the advertisement. Me being an avid walker, naturally proposed to walk. Poor Thays though, had to drag her feet across Microcentrale of BsAs, for almost two hours, without any sightseeing attractions. Finally we arrived at the zoo, which to foreign eyes was quite surreal, though not as much so as what I saw outside of Parque Urbano in Santa Cruz. But the same vein ran through theme parks, the same caterpillar rides, bonbon, and plenty of sound and fury.

On the next block, we saw a most incredible human sight in the whole of this trip: a queue of what must have been four kilometers long that looped around the block. At first we gasped, then reasoned that it must be the queue for the toilets. But then when we approached the tickets office we saw that these people were actually lining up for the tickets. If any sense of awe can be evoked by sheer magnitude this is it. We stood there for a good twenty minutes and admired the spectacle, while venerating the Argentineans for being book lovers. Out of disbelief, Leslie went up to interview one of the people in the queue and was met with equal disbelief that anyone would doubt the attractiveness of the event.

That night, I updated my Facebook status.

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