Friday, January 06, 2012

Labyrinths: Buenos Aires

Laid out in a grid, the streets of San Telmo should have been easy to navigate, but the perfectly symmetrical arrangement meant all intersections looked roughly the same. All corners were right-angled. Inside the maze, it was hard to remember what direction was North or West. The streets were named after countries in the Americas, and so we wandered all over the map, in Peru, Bolivia and Estados Unidos. In which state was the old-styled parilla we liked at which we had dinner one night? What was its name? On our last afternoon in Buenos Aires we stumbled on La Poesia Cafe.

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Friday afternoon milonga at the Confiteria Ideal. The mazy footwork of tango crossed the palatial dance hall. After a set of songs, the dancing couples separated and returned to their own tables. The women sat along one wall like a gallery of yellowing portrait photographs. The men hardly touched their beer. A short elderly woman threaded her way through the small tables to ask me to dance. I shook my head and smiled hard so that she would not be offended by the rejection. She slunk back to her seat. I was terribly sorry to let her down. I could not look at her again.

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We searched for the resting place of Eva Peron at La Recoleta. She was buried in the Duarte family vault.

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Alejandro Xul Solar (Oscar Agustin Alejandro Schulz Solari, 1887-1963) is one of the most singular representatives of the vanguard in Latin America. In 1912 he went to Europe where he stayed until 1924, living in Italy and in Germany and making frequent trips to London and Paris.


At his return he participated actively in the esthetic renovation proposed by the editorial group of the Martin Fierro journal (1924-1927).


Fried of Jorge Luis Borges, he illustrated several of his books and collaborated in various of his editorial enterprises such as the Revista Multicolor de los Sábados y Destiempo.


With a vast culture, his interests took him to the study of Astrology, Kabbalah, I Ching Philosophy, religions and beliefs of the Ancient East, of India, and the Pre-Columbian world, besides Theosophy, Anthroposophy, among many other branches of knowledge.


He remained busy as well with the creation of two artificial languages, the "neocriolle" and the "panlengua", and the "pan-chess"' he proposed a modification of the musical notation and the piano keyboard, and conceived the idea of a puppet theatre for grown ups, among many other things.

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So many Caucasian-looking porteños. Blond hair, skin. Where are the Indians?

Back in New York City, I made the observation to a school colleague who asked about my vacation. My colleague, who teaches history, explained that the European immigrants killed the Indians off to clear the pampas for cattle-rearing. Charles Darwin wrote about a Spanish governor putting out the eyes of an Indian with his thumbs.

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The Rochester Concept Hotel, where we stayed, did not have a gym. To get to the gym, you have to go around the block to the Rochester Classic Hotel. To change hotel rooms, you have to pay US$30.00 more for each night. The leg of our bed flew out one night. We changed hotels. The new room was bigger, it has a bath, but we lost our private balcony. Gym, bath and balcony, which of these would you refuse to give up?

A hotel is a labyrinth with a room key.

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We were used to seeing old Chinese women rummage the trash for recyclable bottles and cans on the streets of New York City. In Buenos Aires boys did the same, looking for paper, sitting on the sidewalks amidst the spilling garbage.

Downtown Buenos Aires celebrated New Year's Eve by throwing confetti, made from shredded office documents, down the streets. A holiday from work created work for others. Somebody had to pick the bits of paper up. Send in the boys, now grown into ashy men hanging off the municipal dump trucks.

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In the painting Manifestación by Antonio Berni, the demonstrators pushing towards you look in every direction. You are relieved to find a pair of eyes looking at you, as if to say this is the way out.

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They walked through the train cars and left whatever they were selling on the thighs of the seated commuters: lottery ticket, pocket guide book, page of stickers. Then they re-treaded their steps and retrieved their wares. It was a kind of contact, closer than a pious plea or a strumming guitar.

Our longest train journey was our trip to Tigre, a town built on the Paraná Delta. The way to explore the web of rivers and streams is by boat. But the vintage mahogany commuter launches will not ferry you up and down every waterway; they ply a route. They have found a gold thread and they hold to it. They have rendered the labyrinth navigable.

"Tigre" means jaguars, which used to roam the area. Perhaps they still do.

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