Tuesday, 25 November 2008


Coming out of the airport, the heat hits you; not a serious disabling heat, but it's warm and the humidity encloses you. The girls in the taxi office, the young guy who takes me to the waiting taxi, friendly and busy. The driver gives a 'bon dia' and is off into the airport whirlpool of traffic. Pale violet jacaranda blossom. Then we're on the motorway into town. Landscape like southern Spain. Trucks pulled off the road into the shelter of a tree: it is 1.30 pm after all. I don't try to talk with the driver: I've been travelling 28 hours and anyway, my Spanish isn't up to it. American pop on the radio 'Listen to the song of the city: it's speaking your native language' -- good news.

Then a brick shanty town, but by no means a slum, individually-built houses piled together, no higher than two floors, immediately like India, could be Delhi outskirts. High-rise housing blocks on the other side: the city begins. Soon the motorway reaches downtown and branches like a tree in different directions. I remember the city maps and know where we are. We enter a wide boulevard: 'Nueve de Julio?' I ask. 'Si, Nueve de Julio'. City traffic. Soon we pull into a maze of narrow straight streets, high buildings, an orchestra of horns from near-gridlocked traffic. A tough, bleak cityscape; nowhere in Spain would be this busy and developed, and so well-used and run-down. And nowhere in India, which it otherwise resembles, would be lacking in noticeable 'shrines'. Temples, obviously, but I'm thinking of the little reminders everywhere, images in the taxis, string tied round a tree, a few marks of pigment on a stone, little prints stuck on walls, signs that, like the physicist's wormholes, are portals to alternate, imaginative, magic worlds, and instructive too. None of that here. Then, caught up in a jam the driver reaches over and switches to a tape, and suddenly there's a gentle, warm sound, something familiar, but quiet as if far away, Cumparasita from the Orquestra Escuelo de Tango, followed by several tracks of De Angelis, what relief from gridlock! Recognising that music was a moment of arrival: in a taxi in Buenos Aires with Cumparasita playing. Struck me later the driver could be a milonguero, no energy to spare on needless conversation, apparently well-groomed, and yawning profusely on the motorway. But then it was a hot afternoon.

Some hours later, after getting the flat sorted, and solving the riddle of the local cashpoints I finally sit down to a pizza and a glass of wine, and watch the city go by. It's a hardworking, slightly desperate place, a tough urban environment if ever, but everyone I've met seems good-hearted. It's hard to think that this is the city of Borges, for instance, but then he didn't live downtown, and when you see the bookstores on Corrientes it begins to fit. A city that was one of the wealthiest in the world before the 30s depression, and you still see it in the architecture. The city of Los Desaparecidos, of years of terror that anyone over 40 must remember well. The city that has survived the economic catastrophe of 2002. & of course the city of the music called tango that developed from a mix of musical traditions (immigrants came from everywhere), and of the dance that evolved with it. Glimpses of Buenos Aires.

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