There is a story in the brothels of Buenos Aires...
I've been in Argentina for the last couple of weeks. I asked an Argentinian girl in Buenos Aires to tell me something about her country. She replied instantly, "We are good at everything." Except humility, perhaps...as well as economic management, political stability, andaccepting military defeat. To explain:
- in 2002 Argentina's economy crashed and the Argentinian peso lost 70% of it's value almost overnight, turning it from the most expensive country in Latin America into a budget traveller's paradise, but makinga lot of Argentinians suddenly poor
- after the economic crisis Argentina had five presidents in as many weeks
- Argentina invaded the UK-owned Falkland Islands in 1982, but were soon kicked out again by the British military. However a big billboard greets arrivals at the Brazil/Argentina border boldlyproclaiming "The Falklands are Argentinian"
Buenos Aires is a city I liked instantly. Strangely, I felt quite at home, and it was only after a few days that I realised this is because it is quite similar to Melbourne, Australia, where I lived for 10 years, with its wide tree-lined boulevards, lots of grand old buildings from the 1800's, a thriving cafe culture, a number of interesting and varied neighbourhoods, and a pervading sense of style. Like in Melbourne, I always had a nagging feeling that my clothes were not quite fashionable enough.
One thing Buenos Aires has that Melbourne doesn't (or anywhere else for that matter) is the tango. This style of dance originated in the waiting rooms of brothels frequented by immigrants in what was once Buenos Aires' port. Nowadays it is performed in cabarets and cafes for tourists, on popular streets on the weekends, and in milongas, which are regular events where tango dancers come to hone their skills. I learnt some tango steps a few years ago and I was looking forward to seeing it in its home. However what I saw in Buenos was nothing like what I learnt. What I knew as tango was rigid, precise, and danced to a strict tempo, like it was designed by the Swiss military. What I saw in Buenos Aires was emotional, sensual, always with a sense of sad longing. Partners danced while caressing in a passionate embrace, as if they
never wanted to let go of each other again. For me it was like thinking all my life that "food" meant "McDonalds", then discovering Italian cuisine was how good food could be.
I visited a tango milonga one night, which took place upstairs in a dusty old community theatre. 20-year-old girls in slinky black dresses and high heels danced with 70-year-old men who dressed as if in an earlier age, in dapper brown suits with matching hats. I was there with another traveller, both of us in jeans and t-shirts, so we discreetly went to a back table where we still had a good view of the dance floor. A man on one side of the room would stand up at the same time as a woman on the other side, to meet on the dance floor and do their stuff. I could never quite work out how they had agreed to dance together without speaking first. Either they have ESP or a milonga has unwritten rules about body language that are used to request a dance.
At 8:30pm on July 26, 1952 an event happened that shook the world - the death at age 33 from cancer of Eva Peron, aka Evita of "Don't Cry for me, Argentina" fame. Well, according to the Evita Museum it shook the world. I took Spanish lessons for a week in Buenos Aires and my Spanish teacher offered to take me to the Evita Musuem after class one day. It wasn't exactly high on the list of what I wanted to do in the city, but I took up her offer. Evita was a movie star who married the president of Argentina, and later tried to become vice-president. Today there are many things in Argentina named after Evita, including streets, schools, hospitals, and even a small city. A popular tourist destination is Evita's tomb in the city cemetery.
The Evita Museum was more a propagandistic shrine than a museum, portraying Evita as somewhere between Mahatma Ghandi and Jesus Christ. My teacher was telling me some saucy facts about Evita not mentioned in the musuem's displays. A guard heard one of those stories and told my teacher to stop, saying that all that was needed to know was written on the walls. At this point I saw a display of that legendary Argentinian temper, as my teacher spent the rest of the afternoon ranting that "since 1982 we are not a dictatorship. He can't tell me not to say things. I am so mad with him. I am so mad."
Argentinians are truly creatures of the night. Restaurants become busy after 11pm, bars and night clubs kick off at 1am or 2am, and people only head home as the sun rises. On arriving late in a town one Saturday night, I went to a restaurant at midnight to find whole families there, including young children happily running around. I can't work out when people get their sleep, because shops open early in the morning and close late at night. Whenever I told my Spanish teacher I was tired, she would chastise me with a Spanish phrase that translates as "in Buenos Aires there is no sleep."