From Costa Rica and beyond

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Impressions of BA

One could easily feel adrift in a city like Buenos Aires. The anonymity that comes in a population center of over 10 million people attracts some and surely depresses others. For me, newly arrived, unable to understand the unique dialect spoken by the Porteños, and used to small town familiarity, Buenos Aires can seem cold and rather unfriendly. There are no nods of recognition and only rather rare passing smiles between strangers on the sidewalk or in the subway. But I knew all this coming in. It is no different from New York or Paris or any other major metropolis.

To keep me going and upbeat until I meet more people and/or begin to work a little, I am exploring, observing, and just being. My knowledge of Buenos Aires is very superficial and it will remain superficial when I return to the US. Three months are not enough time to get to know even rural communities in a meaningful way. Recently, I have taken a couple long walks with little more in mind than seeing what is around me, getting a bit of exercise, and enjoying the gradual slide into Autumn marked by yellowing trees and little clusters of dried leaves to kick through on the sidewalk.

A walk up the sidewalk (dodging dog doo) on the major street of Lacroze in my Chacarita neighborhood leads one past cafes, grocery stores, little kiosks, bakeries, fruit stands, clothing stores, pizza and empañada restaurants, and parillas. Everything one needs to get by. Parillas are a particularly Argentine institution. These restaurants serve up what Argentina is perhaps best known for - meat. Beef, chicken, pork, sausages including blood sausage - sometimes all of it served on a single heaping plate or on a mini-grill that is brought to your table... It's a wonder there aren't more fat Porteños. Maybe Dr. Atkins's diet was inspired here and not in the laboratory. My budget and taste keep me from indulging in such meaty hedonism, but a simple choripan or sausage sandwich for lunch (for less than two dollars) is becoming more than just an occasional treat for me.

The plethora of cafes reflect the Buenos Aires coffee culture. Elsewhere in Argentina, yerba matte, a type of green tea cultivated northwest of here since the 1700s, seems like essential fuel for Argentines. Indeed, gas stations and any place where Argentines are likely to stop have hot water spigots to fill the thermoses that are carried by seemingly everyone. In Buenos Aires, this tea culture is less obvious, although a quick look at a grocery store aisle packed with nothing but bags of tea shows that perhaps yerba is widely drank here too. Still, coffee is king here in BA. As one would expect in a city with European roots, espresso (called a cortado, and frequently served with a touch of milk) is perhaps most popular. Even as I write, I am sitting at a very special cafe (Museo Fotográfico Simik) across the street from my apartment. The windows, as is the norm here, are wide open to the sidewalk and the expectation (if not preference) is that coffee or beer sippers will sit there for hours while chatting with a friend, skimming a newspaper, or reading a novel (in my case, Richard Price's Lush Life). Starbucks is, of course, present here. I counted at least five during my walk down Avenida Corrientes yesterday. I don't believe, though, that it's putting much pressure on the competition.

(Note: Just now it sounded as if gunshots were being fired outside the cafe - at least four very loud pops. People are gawking and looking around for the perpetrator. I just asked an officer about it. Nothing but a backfiring motor!)

A number of groups of people have stood out for me in my comings and goings. The subway train is the site of some rather unique, but sad commerce. Young men can frequently be seen and heard selling random, small items on the train. The men will walk along and place the item in each seated person's lap. When they reach the far end of the car, they turn around and either pick up the cash for the item or the item itself if it isn´t wanted (which is usually the case). The men are not nuisances. They are a sad reminder of the poverty here. More tragic - I have recently seen a couple elderly men handing out religious trinkets using the same process. I was struck how these well-kempt men looked like they could have been businessmen or professionals of some sort not too long ago. These men and the dramatic dips in Argentina's economy in the last 30 plus years make Argentines especially mindful of the ephemeral nature and the dark sides of economic booms.

Almost every evening after the sun has set, the night streets of BA bustle with cartoneros - people who sift through the garbage and remove all the cardboard, which they then sell to companies that recycle paper fiber. Competing against each other for the greatest take, whole families of cartoneros hurriedly rip open garbage bags and throw the cardboard together into huge sacks that are then rolled away atop big two-wheel carts pulled usually by lanky, but muscular teenage boys or early 20 something men.

(For much more on Cartoneros, check out this documentary about them. It is very well done. Thanks go to the anonymous person who shared it with me!)

On a very different human note, there are over 250,000 Jews in BA. Buenos Aires, after New York, is home to more Jewish people than any city outside Israel. I am sure most Jewish people here are invisible, but it is not at all rare to see men wearing yarmulkas or to see either sex wearing traditional orthodox garb. I have yet to see if they are concentrated anywhere in the city. That's another thing to investigate.

The city does not quiet at night. Young people on noisy motorbikes are still cruising, garbage trucks are making their rounds, buses deliver riders all night long, and emergency vehicles can be heard any time of the day (although not more often than in any other big city). But for a bit of visual peace, just look up. This is an enormous city, but some stars are still visible. I can sit on the roof terrace and see Orion and the Southern Cross.

In general, I have been impressed with the air clarity here. Granted, it is not summer, but I still have not seen an ugly brown layer hanging overheard nor gotten headaches from too much ozone. Very few trucks belch out much smoke and people really do use buses and the subway. Maybe the air will get even clearer in the future. I think bicycling will grow here. The few enlightened young people and the poor who currently ride bikes have to put up with and look out for some fairly inconsiderate car drivers (I actually smacked the side of a car today that drove too close to me as I crossed a street - I don't know what got into me!). But there are already a few designated bike lanes here and this is a city without any hills. Bicyclist heaven!

Alas, another long entry. I hope you enjoyed it.


  1. This article reminds me of a multi-award winning documentary "Dias de Carton (Cardboard Days)" which is based on the life and work of the cardboard collectors of Buenos Aires City, the so called "cartoneros". "Cardboard Days" documentary is also a reflection on megalopolis, recycling, urban alternative life styles and economic inequity. Rising multiple issues of significant ecological, social, antrophological and etnographical importance, the film invites the spectator to an unforgettable trip into Latin America's deep hopes and desires, fights and politics, shadows and lights.

    To watch the documentary online visit:

  2. Coffee in Argentina has always been popular but not as much as the mate. It has to do with culture. The typical "gaucho" was the mate drinker and the European descendant likes coffee better. In the capital of Argentina, where I rented all the buenos aires apartments people are mostly descendants of Italians, so tghat is why Starbucks was so successful!