MATE' Y TANGO
By Kevin Haley
Springtime along the Rio de La
Arriving in Buenos Aires, burned-out after 14 hours at the mercy of
the airlines, it would only follow that the first cabby I meet would be an
enthusiastic and accomplished conversationalist, chatty but
"You live in Western Colorado,
heh? Do you know any Apaches?" he asked.
"Not too many," I
answered. "I'm bigger with the Utes and Navajo."
like Apaches better. I like their war paint," he said while he jutted in and
out of traffic pointing out landmarks and beautiful women. "What do you do for
work?" he asked.
"I write," I answered keeping it simple.
many books have you written?" he pursued, narrowly dodging a merging horse and
"Well... none up till now," I said
At that point he took his eyes off the road for a moment
and just looked at me like I had just arrived from Mars.
writer," I continued.
He laughed and said he thought not.
San Telmo and Chacabuco Street appeared as a Madonna song blasted on the radio.
She once played Eva Peron in "Don't Cry for Me Argentina". Many of the people
here are still in shock. Some are still offended. I wonder if they'll ever
forgive our indiscretions. "
Here is your bohemian paradise," continued
the cab driver. "Be careful of the local grappa, dog poop on the street and
inexperienced taxi drivers from the provinces who don't know their way around
After meeting my gracious hosts Andrea and Damien
proprietors of Mi Casa en San Telmo, I go out for a walk. It's been a year
since I relied on my Spanish and searching for a bakery I got a little confused
and mistakenly asked a passerby (in perfect Spanish, mind you) "May I borrow
your toothbrush?" He stared and walked on. It will get better when I get some
Quickly noticing that the space between a raging collectivo bus
and the sidewalk is proportionally the same as the space between my ears I
tread carefully and begin digesting what I can of this lovely city of 13.5
million European souls.
At one point I give a cigar to a man who said
he was running late for a doctor's appointment. In a garage/concert hall an
orchestra plays Glen Miller's In the Mood. Down on Piedras I discover a
charming tavern and buying a copy of La Nation, sit down for a glass of
Says here under obituaries that one Javier Marcue,
of a well-to-do Palermo family is getting buried today. According to the report
Marcue stepped off the curb without looking and was "run over by a cement truck
on its way to Bario Barracas, leaving only bits of hair and part of his left
ear on the pavement." According to companions, now in mourning, his last words
were: "Let's just see if any of these wild portenos will stop for me while I'm
straddling the crosswalk."
Not much about George Bush in the paper
today although it's clear they love him here just as we do at home. Here's a
piece on the Boca Juniors, the mega-popular football team from Boca that plays
before some 85,000 rapid Argentine fans every Sunday. Here are some listings
for dinner and tango lessons and expensive package trips to Punta del Este for
Easter. I realize I don't have the right shoes for such extravagant outings and
turn the page.
Returning to my pension and a short siesta an evening
at the theater emerges. It's Tuesday night and only about 40 of the city's 50
productions are on. Should I see The Charge of the Camarones Ajo or settle for
a twin bill of Rosita de La Plata followed by M' Hijo el Doctor? Maybe they'll
all feature a cameo or two by Pepino, the traditional character that made his
way over here from Southern Italy in 1890.
Later, back at Mi Casa the
first chivitos come off the grill at about midnight and the guests and
innkeepers eat and talk till all hours. To the proud residents of this splendid
city it is clear that Buenos Aires is the center of all civilization,
indeed...the entire Universe. Anyone who cannot see this is written off,
politely with a frown, as a poor, ignorant barbarian.
I fall asleep
remembering a conversation about gauchos who, add sugar to their mate' thermos
water when no one is looking, so as not to surrender their machismo in the face
of mere mortals.
"Do you think I am a cat?" I ask
her in Spanish.
"Are you afraid I will prowl for birds?"
She laughs and
says I look dangerous.
"Do you speak English?" she asks in Spanish.
"Not very well," answer.
"But you are a Norte," she jousts.
not one of the brighter ones," I respond.
"But one of the more handsome
ones," she smiles a pretty lie.
He: "Will you have a glass of wine with
She: "Maybe, but I must work until nine."
He: "The length of a
lifetime for me."
She: "Are you asking me for a date?"
He: "My Spanish
is worse than my English.
She: "I accept."
He: "Dios mio...I am a happy
She: Meet me outside at nine.
He: You betcha!
He: I would walk through fire to meet you at nine.
He: And hungry alligators.
Bella. Lovely people
these Uruguayans, so gloriously human, so civilized. An accomplished musician,
my companion filled me in on her country's Catombe music scene. Jamie Roos,
Ruben Rada and the Argentinean great Teresa Parodi are her favorites.
Overhearing our conversation the waiter suggested we might like to hear his
favorite tango by Carlos Gardel. He would play it just as soon as he runs off
some local ragamuffins attempting to charm a few pesos from his assembled
After three days taking pictures, hitting tennis balls and
sampling wine in Colonia I bought a bus ticket for Montevideo. But what have I
First, like a desperate little man selling ice in the noonday
sun, Colonia's mellow days may be numbered. Already on the horizon are golf
courses and trays of little sandwiches for the rich. They're even talking about
building a suspension bridge from Argentina.
Secondly, in my own
defense, I have learned the proper response to "What do you do for work?" Now,
when asked, I tell my grand inquisitor that I work in the security sector as a
traveling fly killer for a chain of Nicaraguan truck stops and that we are
considering an expansion into Uruguay and Brazil. That direct, if lengthy,
response always sets them back for a while. If it fails to do the trick I
simply tell them I'm Willie Nelson and they are far too polite to ask "Who's
When bad vegetarians die and go to hell
they make a stopover in Montevideo. The city is teeming with meat. Parillas,
pizza parlors and cafes featuring steaks, ribs, Milanesas, chorizos, and
empanadas of every kind are everywhere. Besides this carnivorous fare one can
enjoy paella, lots of fish and mariscos till the cows come home. The breads are
exceptional, the tomatoes delicious and the ice cream is arguably the best in
the world. This is the spot for the best dulce de leche in the world and the
fruits and vegetables are seducing the senses on every corner.
early morning I could swear I saw the words mas comidas? scratched subliminally
across the bright amethyst sky.
After the bustle of Buenos Aires,
Montevideo is a small town of just over one million...kind of like the Gypsy
Kings on Tulsa Time. Nothing (much) opens until 10 am and, after a serious
afternoon siesta, reopens until about eleven. I wander down Avenida 18 de
Julio, the main artery, I am all but trampled by a ragged, aging woman set on
retrieving an aluminum can from the sidewalk. After she grabs the can she looks
up and says, "Where are you from?"
I answer, "Los Estados Unidos," and
"Do you live near Graceland?"
"No. I live in Colorado."
"Is that near Graceland?"
No, señora, it's in the mountains.
Graceland is in Tennessee."
"Is your house near Graceland?"
That's a long way away... "
"I want to go to Graceland," she says and
scurries away searching for more recyclables.
"Hell, maybe I do live near
Graceland," I say to myself.
My appetite encouraged by the stirring
exchange, I sit myself down at an outdoor cafe near Plaza Independencia and
order a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. A little girl stops at my table selling air
"Le gusta strawberry, limon or tuti-fruiti?" she smiles.
"I choose the strawberry," I say as the waiter approaches to take my
order. I've always wanted my very own cassette of Uruguayan air freshener and
now I have one. She takes the pesos, smiles again, and is off to hustle a tiny
little grandmother sitting under her umbrella reading a copy of El Pais, the
headline announcing James Brown's (Senor Dinamito himself!) concert over the
weekend. Commerce completed, I order a light lunch of calamari, salmon,
tomatoes, roasted eggplant, bread and more wine.
When I'm done I walk
at least a mile to Cuidad Vieja, El Mercado del Puerto and El Pero Que Fuma
Bar, down on the riverfront. Why are all the good taverns always in the bad
neighborhoods? Here at The Dog That Smokes there are more people behind the bar
than in front of it and two Eastern European sailors are engaged in a heated
video game much to the displeasure of the other customers.
tardes...Como lo acaba?" (How's it running?) asked a man from one of the
tables. He proceeds to sit down at the bar and give me a running history of The
Dog That Smokes, Murga music, futbal, women, world politics, gauchos, the city
of Montevideo, the skies and the outer atmosphere. He's a retired sailor who
has been all over the world. I tell him I only understand parts of what he is
saying. He smiles, raises his arms and his eyebrows in a questioning gesture
and rattles on.
"Did you hear that the Pope has died?" he asks. Before
I can answer he says that mathematically it is more likely for a Pope to die
while I'm in town than for it to snow. Then he reminds me that it is proper
etiquette to flirt with every woman I meet whether she is eight or eighty. "If
you are a gentleman"...he adds.
Meanwhile over in Bario Nuevo Paris
another toothless dog barks menacingly protecting a dirt street from dust, or
perhaps another dog. Horse carts clop down the street. Cristina and Ken are
preparing for a Sunday asado where we will make music all afternoon long and
into the evening. The best people in the world live in Nuevo Paris. I check my
sport coat and flip-flops and prepare to throw the fat onto the fire, as they
Me gusta algunos ruidos:
El ruido de ninos
El ruido de mi companero viajero
la luna del oro
ella es llena.
practicing pagan it seemed fitting to spend Semana Santa at Punta del Diablo.
"Hola!" said a young boy as I departed the bus, grabbing for my backpack.
"Welcome to my town." The young man named Hector helped me find a cabin and
when I offered to pay him for his trouble he refused the money saying his
mother would not be happy if he hustled tourists. His little sister was selling
shells so I bought three instead.
There are no few Nortes here. You're
on your own. No past baggage leftover from five-star heroes or cruise boat
power shoppers. And the beaches remind one of Southern Thailand and Panama.
Waves crashing on ancient boulders and novice sand, sun bathers returning to
their hammocks looking like swollen marshmallows thrown into hot oil, hippie
stalls selling everything from leather bracelets to linguini noodles.
The cabin next to mine has a sign on the door that says "therapy". The
other neighbors are two charming ladies who cook me corn omelets breakfast and
drink all my beer. Tonight it's samba and tomorrow futbal: Uruguay vs Brazil.
I wake up on my last morning here to the sound of thunder and the crash
of lightning. Soon I discover that all the neighborhood cats and dogs are
hiding from the storm in my cabin, some under the bed, others in the bathroom.
One cat is on my lap trembling every time the thunder rolls. She looks at me
with that pathetic what's for lunch? expression. Maybe I should shut the door
or maybe not. I'll make that decision by early afternoon or evening.