Paris, Peron and Ponchos

Not a day passes by without some activity planned in this European city of Buenos Aires (more on that in a moment). Arriving by ferry, the city skyline appeared on the horizon. What awaited us, we were unsure. Coming from Brazil, we thought the city would be the same. Boy were we wrong. Everywhere our eye would turn, it would seem we had landed ourselves in Paris. And we weren’t wrong!

Shortly after arriving we booked a free walking tour (we always do them in every city we go to, they’re informative and provide some context to where we are and what we would see). Our tour guide, Lolli, told us that the city was once the 6th biggest economy in the world. Crazy to think, especially since the inflation is at a whopping 49%! Damn cheap for us, but eish! Not good for the locals. Some of which holding down 2 jobs just to cope. Argentina has had a fascinating economic and political history, predominantly in agricultural exports. The country, rich with farming land, produced (and produces) cattle, horses, goats, sheep and a flurry of other dairy related products. As such, the the economy boomed in the early 20th century.

Prior to the boom, the Spaniards arrived and laid claim to the land. Why? Well, because their fish loving cousins claimed Brazil, of course. Acting like spoilt brats, the Spaniards said “we want some land too, unfair”! They thought Argentina would produce untold amounts of gold, silver, diamonds and every other exotic stone one could lay their hands on. Well, that was one big nope. Instead, they found the local tribes shrugging their shoulders. For some reason I see this dialogue ensuing:

Santiago the Spaniard: Oi, you, where’s the gold?

Ingrid the indigenous: HUH?

Santiago: Si, gold, the stuff that is bright, looks good on teeth, and boots, and other things…

Ingrid the inca: A rock?

Santiago: Yes, a rock…

Ingrid: You’re looking for a rock?

Santiago: Yes…

Ingrid: But, it’s a rock… comes out ground like other rock.

Santiago: Just give us.

Ingrid: We don’t have!

Santiago: Agh, I can’t even deal right now.

And so, they slaughtered all of the locals and brought over some Spaniards from Spain. Then the immigrants went about pillaging and removing any trace of the 35 tribes (although, more than 56% of the population have at least one indigenous ancestor in one parental lineage, so there was a bit of cross pollination going on. Cheeky). Then the new “Criollo” – the population that descended from Spain –  said “we don’t want to have a spanish ruler anymore”, and the Argentine war of independence ensued. Spain, thinking all they would be losing would be a bit of dirt, said “fair enough, have the place”. And so the war of independence came to an end in 1818. The new Argentina set about establishing a constitution and declared themselves a republic. Free democratic reign allowed some industries to flourish, which gave way to the Argentinian golden period between 1880 and 1930. During this period, the rulers thought the best way represent opulence was to copy the french because, after all, the french were the richest of the rich, the cultured of the cultured, the bougie of the bourgeois. The skyline gradually transformed to represent neoclassical architecture. Dramatic columns, domed roofs and antiquity seem to pop up every which way you look. Quite strangely, we’ve noticed that the average Porteno – a local Buenos Aires resident – seems even to take on some characteristics of the French – arrogant know it alls. And they’re proud of this to say the least, ask any local.

As we continued our tour, we learnt more about the years which followed the global recession. Countries were no longer importing as feverishly as before, which hit the Argentine economy particularly badly. Then, as what seems to always happens throughout history, the military stepped in and said, we need to protect our national interests, protect our people, close off our borders, and not trade with anyone else. Shut it all down. And so 18 years of military rule took its course, shrinking the economy and destabilizing libertarian values.

Enter Juan Domingo Peron. Wiley, cunning and always deceiving, his presidency and policies are an enigma. He proclaimed there needed to be a balance between communism and capitalism, a third political ideology that promoted freedom of industrialization but through government intervention. No one knows what he really actually stood for. Some would say he was for the people, while others say he was for the the elites. He took control of the media houses, restricted liberal ideas and even rewrote the constitution to allow him to be re-elected 3 times. Seems quite Animal Farm, doesn’t it. His wife, Eva Peron – who was famed for being the voice of the people – set up schools, hospitals, orphanages and taught people to read and write. To this day people argue until they’re blue in the face about Peronism and what it meant for the country. Some say it was a good thing, as it brought about economic justice, while others say it’s only lead Argentina into a more confused state than before. Since the fall of Peron there has been a total of three other candidates who align themselves to Peronism. Some being more brutal than others, such as the rule during the dirty war, which resulted in 30 000 “activists” missing. The whole story requires a masters in political science just to uncover the basics of who Peron was. In anycase, it hasn’t left the country in a very good state. Today, the right leaning government restricts export, while promoting imports, while printing money to keep the economy ‘thriving’. Here’s a few graphs explaining the current situation.

Anyway, enough with the political history lesson. The days that followed saw us exploring the San Telmo market. The oldest barrio of Buenos Aires, the market plays host to artisanal cafes, tango parlors and various antique stores. As we went on a Sunday, we were treated to a tango show. The technical skill was magical to watch, as the endless rhythm of dancers, who passionately stare into each others souls, forgetting the surrounding gasps and awe. We happily clicked away, enchanted by the energy these dancers seemed to provide. Tango has a somewhat strange history, much of which relating to the europeans that were fleeing a sad life back home. The dance then is a metaphor for what was left behind, but soon evolved into the very symbol of the city. There has been some weird stories and rumours of gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) who would do the dance as a peacock maneuver (kinda like the twerking of the 19th century) to impress a would be maiden of the night. But these stories aren’t verified, as far as I can find.

Next up, we trotted off to San Antonio de Areco, the national capital of the long standing cowboy tradition. Arriving, we were met with what could have been a scene straight out of a Spaghetti Western. Stores were closed, dogs moped about, and a tumbleweed made its way slowly across the intersection, not bothering to stop at the red light. Cue the good the bad and the ugly theme song. Total badasses, we saddled up our backpacks and made our way to the saloon aka our Airbnb. San Antonio has a rich history of gauchos, who have always been outlaws and pay-for-money gun slingers. These rugged men shunned city living in pursuit of a more simpler life on Argentina’s sprawling pampas (large plains spanning acres upon acres of treeless lands). Historically, these dudes were crackshot horse riders gallantly galloping into battle against the Spaniards. I guess you could liken them to modern terrorist groups – as they would go about setting up ambushes and taking their enemy by surprise. Once the war came to an end they helped wealthy estancias (farm) owners. Largely described as nomads, they would live off the land, travelling from estate to estate. Unfortunately, as industrialisation took lion’s share of the economy, it brought with it the decline in their nomadic culture. We got to sample an aspect of gaucho life – a traditional gaucho asado (BBQ). Beef, beef and more beef. The guy who invited us, Nicolas, came from a long line of horse breeders and horse veterinarians. However, he decided to go against the fold, declaring he wasn’t good with school. Instead, he decided to make his own beer, runs a hostel and stockpiles weed to survive. The modern day nomad? He blared Bob Marley stir it up, as we trundled down the road in his beat up 1975 Renault, his father’s farm in the rear view mirror.

Buenos Aires has been a surprise for the both of us, never thinking we would find ourselves so surrounded by Europeans. The city has welcomed us with open arms, showing off its efficient subway networks, friendly (yet full of themselves) inhabitants and sunny weather. The rest of our journey saw us meandering through Recoleta cemetery (5.5 acre area consisting of over 4000 vaults each containing at least 3 generations of people – which have to stay in the family’s name – making sure to renovate and maintain the upkeep of the vaults, as well as paying property tax!), rocking out at Lollapalooza music festival, and soaking up the rich history of Boca and Palermo. It’s been welcoming experience and we’re now rested enough to hit the vistas of Patagonia!!


One thought on “Paris, Peron and Ponchos

  1. Right on the money Ben. Your ramblings of BA brought back our own memories of our recent visit. Once again compliments to you for the way you tell your story.


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