In October 2017, I took a break from my contracting job in Afghanistan and spent two weeks traveling Argentina. Written below are my observations from that time (part of which were originally scribblings in a notebook I kept), as well as facts I've learned since then about Argentina and South America in general. Though half of the essay is about literature, this piece is mainly my second-go at travel writing. Seeing as how my first travel piece was an inside look at the political situation in Erdogan's Turkey (published in Areo Magazine and at Wrath-Bearing Tree), I'm hoping this second attempt at travel writing will be a little more personal and self-reflective. Enjoy!
There is nothing which quite so painfully emphasizes the difference between being alive and being dead than a bustling shopping mall sitting directly across the street from a giant cemetery. But perhaps the contrast only exists in the mind of a white Western man after coming up in a culture steeped in nearly three centuries of naturalist Enlightenment thought. Because for the residents in Buenos Aires (and, frankly, the rest of South and Central America) the barrier between this world and a world of the shadows has never been a concrete wall, but more like a curtain which the winds of mystery occasionally blow open so that both sides may interact. Altars are built for the dead, prayers are said to them, and festivals are held in their honor and with their attendance in mind. While fellow non-believers may see such activities as pointless, I beg to differ. These cultural rituals and perceptions provide amazing catharsis, and are uniquely powerful ways of keeping passed loved ones alive... if only in our hearts.
As I sit eating lunch in the outside patio of the mall, a morbid thought crosses my mind: how many of the mall-goers I'm looking at here in the City of the Living will find themselves— suddenly and without warning— residents of the City of the Dead merely feet away before the month ends? How many before the end of my vacation? I watch as a balding middle-aged dad attempts to corral his laughing fleeing toddler (who is— quite adorably— wearing heart-shaped sunglasses). I see a woman, about my age, waiting alone at a table diagonal from me looking around for what I assume is a late friend or date. Then there is the teenage boy who zips behind me, in front of me, and around me on his skateboard. All three of these people, and everyone else, wear the expectation of tomorrow on their careless faces. And why wouldn't they? Across the street in the City of the Dead, I would feel it a wise bet to assume that most who currently reside there were made to do so very much against their will, and that only a few had the luxury of fully preparing themselves before check-in. The end comes upon most unexpectedly.
La Recoleta cemetery is not only open to the public, it's one of Buenos Aires' primary tourist attractions. And walking through it a half hour later, I'm surprised at how not-creepy the City of the Dead actually is. It turns out that people can be pretty damn creative when it comes to designing the monuments by which they'll be remembered until the end of the world. One mausoleum of a young 19th century soldier is a statue of himself in uniform, drawing his sword while two attractive women lay longingly at his feet and the archangel Gabriel hovers over him signaling approval. Amusing delusions of grandeur such as this are nothing short of charming, yet also in a sense comically sad when one realizes that— at the end of the day, despite our perceptions of self— "Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
As I continue to wander through the cemetery I suddenly hear Beck's "Devil's Haircut" break the silence, and I duck quickly behind the tomb of Napoleon's illegitimate granddaughter and wait patiently. As the sound of the ringtone grows closer and almost passes me, I jump out in front of Isabel, who drops her phone and— in a moment of instinct— slaps me hard across the face before beginning to laugh. "You are out of your mind!" she shouts as she pinches my cheek and hugs me.
I had met Isabel the day before in Cumaná on Rodríguez Peña (renowned for bringing cuisine from the Argentinian countryside to the capital), and when I told her I was in Buenos Aires on vacation, she kindly offered to show me the sights over the course of the next few days before I boarded my next flight to Puerto Iguazú. That was... under one condition.
"Tourists always compare Argentinian culture to European culture," she told me during that lunch, "If I am to show you around the capital, see it for what it is. Not as 'like Europe'."
I grinned before nodding in agreement, "Yeah I'm starting to pick up on that cliché. I've read a few online travel guides which have called Buenos Aires the 'Paris of South America'."
The frustration flashed across her face instantly as she puffed on her cigarette and looked at me for a moment without saying anything. "We are our own people," came the final reply, "And have you ever been to Paris?"
Having agreed to meet at the cemetery, Isabel takes me to see the tomb of Eva Perón (First Lady of Argentina) and then the tomb of the poet José Hernández, before telling me the story of a young woman named Rufina Cambaceres who— in 1902— fell into a coma and was buried alive in Recoleta. A cemetery worker at the time heard what sounded like screaming coming from the grave, but initially dismissed it as a fluke of imagination. Later, upon investigation, the coffin was opened and the inquirers discovered scratch marks on the inside and the face of the deceased young woman frozen in panic.
"Is this more of an urban legend?" I ask.
"It's hard to say what about the story is true and what isn't. A rumor is that her boyfriend was sleeping with his own mother. Which, if you need a reason to go into a coma, that would be it."
Despite my agreement with Isabel's protestation that Argentina is not Europe, and that travel writers should cease comparing it to Europe, the Spanish spoken by Argentinians does contain traces of Italy and Spain. For example, they say "Ciao" instead of "Adiós" and use "y" instead of "il". This version of Spanish— known as Rioplatense— is not spoken anywhere else in South America save for a few small areas in Uruguay. It is also hard to deny the French Colonial influence on Argentinian architecture (Though it is also worth noting that French Colonial architecture is all over South and Central America and the Caribbean, not just Argentina. Buildings in Old Havana show a lot of French Colonial influence, as do the buildings of Willemstad in Curaçao, as do the buildings in Guiana.)
Over the course of the next three days, Isabel would show me the rainbow colored houses of La Boca, the tango dancers on Caminito, the national congress building at Avenida de Mayo, and would force me to drink hot yerba mate from a calabash gourd. One aspect of modern life in Argentina that caught me off-guard, in a pleasant way, was how much many younger Argentinians love 90s alternative (to the point where I heard that type of music more than I did the newest hits). Bands from my childhood and teenage years like Cake, Incubus, No Doubt, and Oasis could be heard blaring out of the apartments, the cars passing by, the coffee shops, and the trendy clothing stores; my visit also happened to coincide with the arrival of U2's Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary tour. On the evening of their concert, as Isabel and I sat at the base of our own tree near the Estadio Unico De La Plata, we could faintly hear the distant echoing "weeee-hoo!" of "Elevation". I thought then, in that moment of contentment, how neat it would be to travel back in time to visit my 16-year-old self and reveal to that unsure and insecure boy how everything turned out just fine. How adventures were had, how lessons complex and simple were learned, and how life— tale told by an idiot though it might be— was (and is) still worth living.
Because I fear I've already fallen into that irritating trap which plagues the typical post-vacation blog, where one lists "amazing exciting experiences" that are really only exciting to oneself, it's a priority now for me to move beyond the sights, music, good company, and dining, and tell you that what I truly relished in as a stranger in this strange land were the unseen philosophical currents flowing through— and shaping— Argentine society. The general personality trait I came to find among the people was passionate, histrionic even, yet refined. They were traditional in what they desired for their future: family, stability, a continual sense of wonder to get them through the mundanities of life, yet revolutionary when it came to what they expected of their government and the world. They carried a cosmopolitan temperament which somehow coexisted with a sense of national pride rather than competed with it. And speaking of senses, the ascent of technology and modernity over the decades had not come at the expense of the Argentinians' shared sense of history, identity, values, and community. Younger generations had managed to keep their cultural myths intact, while at the same time becoming more secular and less superstitious than the generations before them. I must also add that the Argentinians— young and old, rich and poor— were not zombies entranced by the glare of tiny screens, unable to pry their eyes and thumbs away for longer than two minutes, but instead were fully present in the moment as they ate their meals, made their commutes, went to their cinemas and nightclubs, and smoked on the balconies of their flats. It was a level of presence I had forgotten I had once known. A presence I haven't seen in my own people since I was a boy.
Doubt hit me at first.
Perhaps, I thought, I am projecting all of these intricate qualities I know America lacks (and wish it still had) onto a civilization and people I actually know very little about; romanticizing the foreign out of disillusionment with the invisible, near-unmeasurable, yet painfully obvious decline of my own country. But the more I looked and observed and interacted, the more convinced I became that what I was seeing was real. A spirit of unrest then sat at the back of my mind as I thought about this society which seemed to harmonize so gracefully that which was paradoxical: How long will it all last? How long before consumerism wipes this all away?
When it comes to travel, I would be lying if I pretended that the destinations I chose weren't motivated— at least in part— by "enthusiastic pessimism": the urge to see certain places based on the belief that said places will change into something unrecognizable in the very near future. No, this isn't a phobia. Or if it is, at least it's not as bad as Turophobia (the fear of cheese) or Anatidaephobia (fear of being watched by a villainous duck). But regardless, it's hard not to notice how multinational corporations radically transform and eventually erase the societies which allow them in. "There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West," as the character Arthur Jensen loudly proclaims in the 1976 movie Network, "There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today... the world is a college of corporations." 42 years later we can add Amazon, Google, and Facebook to the mix, but the effect is the same: the tearing down of real culture, and the erection of cheap imitations of the real culture that's geared toward wealthy tourists. Better to make the exotic safe for consumption than leave the traveler to the mercy of unexpected thrills, risks, and unsupervised, non-simulated, authentic encounters. With a McDonalds and a Starbucks on the street corners of every city worldwide, a point will inevitably be reached where— save for a few select cultural markers— a visit to Paris will be no different than a visit to New York, which in turn will be no different than a visit to Tokyo and so on. To be clear, I don't believe this is a conscious conspiracy being committed by large businesses. Capitalism is a force that is insatiably hungry and incapable of perceiving anything beyond immediate demand. But the endgame will still, tragically, be a world emptied of its cultures yet full of carefully-crafted "cultural experiences". Hence, the reason for enthusiastic pessimism powering travel to places that are still largely untouched by the giant octopus of global capital.
To the credit of the South American left, in Argentina and the neighboring countries, the threat posed to the distinctive characteristics of Latin cultures by the forces of globalization and neoliberalism was more than marginally disrupted by a political period known as the "Pink Tide". The Pink Tide was a response to the mass-privatization and large influx of foreign corporations into South America which began shortly after the fall of rightwing dictatorships from the 1970s and 80s. Dictatorships, it should be said, which had been installed by foreign corporations in the first place looking to strip the continent of its natural resources. While not a perfect political revolution (newly-elected leftwing governments relied mostly on oil exports for revenue and were plagued, in my opinion, by Cuban revolution-glamorization), the Pink Tide governments of Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru brought significant social and economic reforms: drug laws were liberalized in an effort to undermine criminal enterprises which had sprang up as a result of high black market demand in the US; the civil rights of vulnerable indigenous South American populations were finally recognized; historical sites were marked and protected; massive investment increases in public services like housing, healthcare, and transportation were approved; and growth was measured by production rather than speculation. In short, conditions were improved by governments which chose to invest in the people who had given them power through grassroots effort. With the exception, that is, of Venezuela. The so-called "land of grace" became (and still is) the Pink Tide's only tragic legacy... and a real world play-by-play of Animal Farm. The elites were overthrown, "servants of the people" were put in power, and then those "servants of the people"— chief of which were Chavez and now Maduro— concluded that they were more equal than others, which has led to the current unrest we're seeing in the country today. By and large though, when looking at the effect the Pink Tide had on the South American continent, the democratic populist leftism of the past decade was a welcome defiance of an otherwise unobstructed neoliberal globalist vision. The million-dollar-question is whether or not the economic and social reforms which began during the Pink Tide are there to stay. And if not, what will also become of the cultural characteristics these reforms were in many ways meant to preserve? How long will it all last?
A little-known deception which came to light among American rum connoisseurs in 2016 was that Bacardi's Havana Club doesn't come from Cuba at all, but is actually made in Puerto Rico. The real Havana Club, which is partially owned by the Cuban government, can't be sold in the United States because of the embargo. Not surprisingly, the few American rummies who had been privy to this bitter truth before the story got out were always irritated at the unavailability of the genuine Havana Club, and at the impostor sold in its stead, because the Havana Club from Havana tastes sweeter, is light on burn, and— unlike its imitator— is made with sugar cane (which is key to the original Cuban recipe). I was fortunate, then, when Isabel and a few of her friends brought a bottle of the brand's Siete Años to the table on my hotel balcony overlooking the streets of Palermo. The five of us drank the bottle fairly quickly as the sun lowered and turned the sky orange and pink. I was set to leave in the morning, bound for the Argentine/Brazilian border, and one-by-one Isabel's friends left to let me rest. When it was just her and I, she handed me a box that had been with her the whole evening.
"What is this?"
"Open it and find out!"
I lifted off the top and saw eight books lying inside.
"Our culture's writers," she said, "Our voices. Marquez, Galeano, Llosa, Borges."
"God, thank you... I didn't think there were any English bookstores in Buenos Aires. I went to the Grand Splendid but all their stuff was Spanish."
"Still a beautiful building, no?"
"Will you read these books?"
She shot me a skeptical look.
"I'm not bullshitting you, I will!"
And I did. Over the next five months I immersed myself in Isabel's books, driven by a desire to absorb as much as I could about a culture I had always been curious about and had come to fall in love with. I read the Latin authors as I explored the jungles, waterfalls, and old missions along the Argentine/Brazilian border. I read them while I backpacked Romania a few weeks after that. I read them when I went back to Afghanistan, as the temperature dropped and the snow began to cover the surrounding mountains. And finally, I read them when I returned home to the United States after being away sixteen months.
You can learn a lot about a culture by its storytelling. How it tells a story and what stories it chooses to tell. Much of the literary movement in South America known as the "Latin Boom" coincided with the toppling of democratically-elected governments and installation of corporate-backed dictatorships. Amidst this rise of chaos and tyranny, a new generation of writers sought to capture the moods, the lifestyles, and the paradoxes within their respective countries like a snapshot of a moment they weren't sure how long would last. And while I do not know exactly why the greatest creativity often springs during times of immense suffering, there could be no doubt that the fictions, histories, and biographies that came from these writers during this period conveyed a vivaciousness and sensuality that acted not in defiance, but rather in recognition, of the fact that life is fleeting and often very harsh. Thus, in a land where the contradictory is often complimentary, it should not be a surprise that writers and filmmakers from the continent would create a genre all their own called "magical realism": a storytelling approach that fused together, in a wondrous way, supernatural elements with the natural world (and did so as a way of emphasizing the real, not as a way of obscuring or distracting from it).
In the case of Marquez, Galeano, Llosa, and Borges, these writers write in what I call "thought streams". That is, the way in which they narrate a story flows constantly in an almost musical manner, and their paragraphs follow the same fast and continuous rhythm as the one in which human beings think. Our thoughts don't have punctuation marks. Our thoughts flow without end and run together and into each other and rush hurriedly forward, and to mimic this chaos in writing is where the beauty of the "big four" Latin writers truly lies.
A few examples of this are cited below:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years Of Solitude
Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl
Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths
Eduardo Galeano's Book Of Embraces
Yet while a lot of non-Latin readers in the United States (including yours truly) are just now discovering the enchanting fictional and non-fictional worlds created and described by the "big four", some quick research into the modern Latin literary world reveals that South and Central American authors are attempting to move out from under the "Latin Boom's" shadow and begin their own movements and styles. Several writers have already succeeded in this, including well-known names like Andres Neuman, Patricio Pron, Samanta Schweblin, and Isabel Allende (the latter of whom is at the top of my to-read list).
But to borrow from Alexander Pope, the names Marquez, Galeano, Borges, and Llosa will be etched in stone inside the Temple of Fame, not in ice. Their literary legacies will stand the test of time, if not for the actual beauty and value of their work, then for the simple reason that they were among the first voices of a continent that has for many centuries been largely— and tragically— unheard.