Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is pretty close to Montevideo. Just up the River Plate about 100 miles. 15 million people reside here. If your career goals include becoming a professional pickpocket or mugger, this is where you should aspire to live. Their skills are flawless, and honed to perfection. They are the best. Hands down (or up… depending).
A fellow passenger’s Rolex was pried right off his wrist outside the Evita Museum. We saw the bruises. The attacker grabbed him around the neck in a choke hold, and when his arms went up in a reflexive gesture of protection, the watch was unclipped and liberated. The assailant ran to a waiting scooter, hopped on the back (a bad-ass Harley would have been more fitting) and sped off. The entire episode was over in 15 seconds. He was not seriously hurt, and he managed to stay on his feet. We heard about 6 stolen purses and several men whose wallets were emancipated from their back pockets. Many necks returned to the ship unadorned, and the ladies never felt a thing. These masterminds are soundless, sneaky, move like the wind, and travel in teams. They don’t need guns or knives. All they have to do is hang out at tourist attractions and select their oblivious marks.
Stealing is bad. But, trying to survive in a city that has suffered from over 2,000 percent inflation since the last major financial collapse makes people desperate. We know all about it, we were here when it happened. In late December 2001, we spent 3 days in Buenos Aires before heading to Antartica to hang out with the penguins. I remember thousands of people standing in line at the banks, which were padlocked shut. Customer’s accounts were frozen. Before we left, the country was on the verge of imploding financially, politically, and socially.
While we were peacefully floating around at the bottom of the world, President Fernando de la Rue resigned after 27 people died in food riots. One in four children was suffering from malnutrition in a country that is capable of feeding 10 times it’s population. The jobless rate was 25% and half the population was well below the poverty line. By the time we returned to Buenos Aires 3 weeks later, the country had chewed up and spit out 7 new presidents. A few days after we returned home, the government devalued the Peso, ending 10 years of parity with the US Dollar.
Argentina is well known as a country of political drama and military dictatorships. The distribution of wealth and resources is extremely skewed. It remains the property of around 200 close knit families known as the oligarchy. This distortion in “ownership” continues to stunt the country’s growth and political life.
The economy proceeds in great lurches and busts that are tied to the price of agricultural exports. Inflation in the 1980’s led to a collapse, followed by a boom in the 1990’s. The country has somewhat recovered from the last recession in 2001, but there are few signs that the recovery will be long lasting.
We took a city tour and had a candid guide who told us what life is like for him; a well educated, hard working, 38 year old living in the city. It is not a pretty picture. He says that inflation is currently at 40 percent, and a loaf of bread may get a new price several times throughout the day in a grocery store. It’s nearly impossible to save for the future. He cannot even dream of owning a home, like his parents. The banks require a 50% downpayment, and the interest rate on a mortgage is over 45 percent.
And get this. If you are one of the millions that live in wretched squalor, the Mafia may help out by becoming your “sponsor”. They will give you money for food, clothing, and a hillside shack in the local slum, and only ask for one thing in return. YOUR VOTE for THEIR candidate of choice. It is a corrupt, self perpetuating system with no end in sight.
I would seek asylum in Uruguay. Montevideo was pretty sweet.
Buenos Aires was originally founded in 1536, but the Spaniards sent to colonize the mouth of the River Plate were forced away by the indigenous people. A second, more successful attempt was made in 1580. In 1816, Argentina emancipated itself from the Spanish crown.
We drove past the infamous “Pink Palace”, where Madonna, playing the role of Evita in the movie of the same name, gave her final speech, and sang “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina…” The “real” Eva Perone never spoke from that balcony and the song is all Hollywood. She was from a poor family, and became a vaudeville entertainer. She met Juan Peron at a show and became his mistress. Later on, he married her, which was blasphemy, considering her lower class origins. She became a heroine of the working class and a champion of women’s rights. She was despised by the aristocracy. She was only 33 when she died of uterine cancer in 1953. Before her death, her behavior became so unpredictable (in her husband’s opinion), that he signed her up for a lobotomy, under the guise that it would “ease her pain”. Nice guy.
Eva’s body went missing for many years, and rumors of necrophilia circulated throughout the capital. When her body was finally recovered and brought back to Buenos Aires in the 1980’s, she was buried in the Recoleta Cemetery. This is one of the swankiest addresses in town, and the ancestors of the city’s aristocracy are buried here. Begun in 1822, this amazing necropolis is a crypt city of tall and elaborate tombs and mausoleums covering 4 city blocks. Eva’s body is 21 feet underground, so it won’t be easy to swipe again. She now rests surrounded by the very families who once despised her lower class origins.
Next, we headed to the La Boca barrio near the river, which came to life in the mid-1800’s, when Spanish and Italian dockworkers immigrated here. These poor men constructed their homes of corrugated iron, which remain today. They grabbed discarded paint cans from the docks and covered their dwellings with a mishmash of dazzling colors. When they ran out of one hue, they moved onto the next, resulted in a unique patchwork design. This painting tradition is kept alive today.
This part of town is well known for The Tango. In the beginning, the dance was usually performed by two males as they waited in line at the local bordello. Men needed to know how to dance to “attract the ladies”.
The dance is rooted in the musical traditions of the slaves, gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) and the immigrants. The music is described as being full of loneliness, despair, jealousy, homesickness, sexuality, sleazy latin machismo, passion and lust. When the Tango was outlawed in the city, dancers came to the “underground” clubs in La Boca. Rich or poor. It didn’t matter. The need to “strut their stuff” was unquenchable. The nightclubs get pretty steamy in Buenos Aires, but we didn’t get a chance to check them out.
Besides, I don’t think Queen Victoria would have approved.
Next stop, Punta Arenas, Chile. The southernmost city in the world.