Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Argentinean love-hate affair

The growling sounds of my stomach woke me up at around three in the afternoon. Only bodily functions allow me to figure out how late it is, for morning's sunshine did not make it into the room today. Fanny left already, choosing to take a load off me. In my drunken state, I broke the window's 1950's wooden blinds shut last night. And after 12 hours of sleep, the pain in my back and neck makes it hard to look around for clothing, let alone putting it on. I check my wallet. Empty, as expected. Fanny took the five-finger tip for services rendered. She probably thought her performance deserved it. I would not know.

Wearing a previously sweaty t-shirt, I slowly drag myself to the tiny living room of the dampened, dusty apartment facing Florida street, the heart of one of Buenos Aires' microcentros. It is a busy downtown satellite full of hustlers, beggars and fast-walking business people that won't be caught dead making eye contact with anyone. The apartment's thick windows also blocked most of the sound coming from the street. Now at the living room, I can hear the multitude of conversations of the passerby converge in one unintelligible murmur.

That's when I start to reminisce on the events of the past week. Sober now, they hit me harder than usual. It is a testament of how much I miss the emotional numbness that comes from inebriation. The sounds of the street dissipate as my internal clock/GPS system gives me time and space coordinates. I see Argentina, now that I am awake, as a country of multiple contrasts - true, even if a cliché. The first one being its soul, different from other countries I have been to. Many say Uruguayans are very similar, but you only need to spend a few hours in each to realize just how unique these guys truly are. That is, however, not always a positive trait. Also, to the unsuspecting eye, it can often be an unbearable one.

Obsessed with breaking my weekly distance running record, I put on my sneakers and hit the asphalt almost every day, hungover or not. I ran even when it rained. I ran even in areas that were not meant to be run on. The Palermo neighborhood, Recoleta, Corrientes, Plaza the Mayo, the outskirts… all those saw me pass by dodging cars, pedestrians and bicycles. Many a cab driver yelled at me. I smiled and just kept running. Policemen treated to fine me when I went for a run inside the beautiful Japanese Garden. I also fell on my ass, stubbornly running in the rain and slipping on a metal structure on the street. This fall would eventually translate into a back injury from helping an old lady in the street get up after tripping on a loose sidewalk. No good deed goes unpunished...

As I lied in bed with my busted back, the radio played some news. The Korean community has dominated the corner store (bodega) industry for many years. The Chinese in the country got no choice but to target another sector - the medium-sized supermarket. They got involved in a controversy for allegedly shutting down electric power in their stores at night to save money and continue to be able to offer their products at rock-bottom prices. The yang balance to the yin of savings turned out to be several cases of intoxication for consumption of rotten dairy products. People were furious. Their anger had found an easily identifiable  target - the Chinese . Openly racist remarks and public requests for deportation found fertile ground in the dairy crisis. In the end, we dislike those different from us. Any excuse is good to justify action against them. Perhaps I am anomalous in disliking my own, just as much as others. Equal opportunity hater right here.

I saw a baby born 3 months early grasp for air, turn blue and be resuscitated by his mother.Twice. And it wasn't the first time this happened. The miracle of life experienced over and over again, with the caveat of uncertainty surrounding its occurrence. What if it didn't work next time? How many times do we, adults, cheat death without even knowing it?

Coming back from this, and still not completely recovered, I got invited to a special party where patrons are expected to sing. A Karaoke, you may say? Not quite. Old tango singers get together once a month at a restaurant turned private party. After paying honors to president Cristina Kirschner, one of the worst political leaders of Latin America's 21st century, each went onstage to sing with the most beautiful, emotional voice. I was eventually bullied into doing the same, with the expected disastrous results, or so I learned the day after. Another benefit of wine, the illusion of a loving, accepting audience.

Argentina ended on a high note, at the theater. This form of art remains a highly attended tradition in Buenos Aires. I went to see a play about Homero Manzi and his friend Anibal "Gordo" Troilo. Plays and movies abundantly cover the years of repression the country went through under a military regime. This was no exception. It was a testament of people that have gone through several otherwise humbling experiences, yet kept their head high at all times, their perceived arrogance a protective mechanism to help them endure tragedy. It is through tango that this intimate pain is expressed, ironically another important source of Argentinean pride.

I took the flight back home that evening. It had been an eye-opening experience, one which begged to be repeated. Sadly, and fortunately, it would never occur again the same way.

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