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Two things struck me as a first time visitor – from a Southern country – to Buenos Aires.

One, is the sheer beauty and modernity of the city. Whether you view it from the air or at ground level, Buenos Aires takes your breath away, as a most aesthetically laid-out, grandly-envisioned, and culturally-rich capital of a self-conscious nation. You would not be far off the mark if you decided that it must be the most beautiful, modern, and uniquely European metropolitan city, anywhere in the non-European/non-Western world.

The other striking thing is that it is an exclusively white city; in this respect, it is different from other countries in Latin America like Brazil and Peru. In Brazil, you encounter all skin colours and racial types, whether in Rio de Janeiro or elsewhere. Peru has a less diverse racial mix; but indigenous Indians are conspicuous by their brightly-coloured traditional dress even in the capital city of Lima, and even more visibly present in the regions. It is plausible to believe that, in these countries, darker skinned people look, and are, relatively more disadvantaged vis-à-vis lighter skinned, fairer haired people. But they do exist. Their complete absence from Buenos Aires is notable.

Proud as they are about their city and country, my hosts were more than willing to introduce me to both the bright and dark sides of Argentina. This piece is about the positive picture.

Bicentenary celebrations on 9 de Julio Avenue, Buenos Aires, May 25, 2010 ( Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images - Boston Globe, May 26, 2010)

Teatro Colon

Driving from one place to another in Buenos Aires one regularly touches base with the broadest and grandest of avenues that run right through the city. These avenues (one of them, the 9 de Julio Avenue, is reportedly the broadest in the world) are intermittently adorned with impressive national monuments, memorials, and 19th. century classical European-style palaces and public buildings (e.g., Congreso de la Nacion, Teatro Colon, the University faculties of engineering and law, the National Library). The most famous is the Avenida del Mayo: the venue for all protest marches and, even today, the scene where the “Mothers of the Disappeared’ stage their once-weekly silent march,demanding to know the fate of their loved ones who disappeared during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983.

Much of the beauty of the city comes from the landscaping. There are trees everywhere – lining the roads and filling the public gardens and parks, and displaying a diversity that makes them look like what we, in India, associate only with ‘botanical gardens’. When I was visiting it was autumn, and the tall old dark-limbed maple trees had created pale golden arches high above the streets lending a glow to the cityscape below. Pedestrians can walk safely and comfortably on clean, nicely-paved sidewalks, with waste-sorting bins positioned every few hundred yards, and cleaners sweeping and emptying bins virtually round the clock.

Row upon row of over-a-century-old gracious European-style city mansions lead off from these tree-lined roads. There is also a growing number of somewhat jarringly flashy, tall and prosperous-looking apartment blocks with ultra-modern appointments and security systems. New areas along the canal are also being developed with massive luxury apartment complexes.

Public art installations are ubiquitous, notably the emblematic stainless steel flower (20 meters high) whose petals are electrically tuned to open and close in tandem with the sun’s rays, symbolizing “The Hope of Being Reborn Every Single Day”. I visited a forested and user-friendly waterfront running along the sea-like river, the Rio de la Plate by whose banks Buenos Aires is situated; there is a scientifically nurtured botanical garden here that walkers and exercise groups frequent.

A fashionably refurbished canal front, lined with elegant and busy restaurants, leave the gourmand spoilt for choice. Indeed food, drink and socialising would seem to figure high in the city’s preoccupations, as evidenced in the profusion of restaurants, bars and sidewalk cafes everywhere, filled with people in animated conversation. When after two excellent courses – at a formal sit-down dinner in an Italian restaurant – I sent back my enormous third course untouched (because I thought I would burst if I ate even a morsel more), the waiter was apparently upbraided by his supervisor. When this was reported back to me, I had to explain at length to the maitre d’hotel and the waiter that the fault was entirely mine! Such is the abundance where food is concerned.

My visit to the Museum of Latin American Art (MALBA), in stunning contemporary design with very imaginatively conceived display interiors, an amazing permanent collection of avant garde art from across the Latin American region, and  educative mode of the display, was for me the highlight of the city. The fact that the museum was created by a private philanthropist, that the endowment accommodates a flexible cultural agenda that includes world cinema, discussions etc., and its affordable entry fees for locals, speak of the place of the arts in the public cultural landscape.

Buenos Aires’ rich offerings of a variety of art museums, theatres and cultural centres that are venues for classical and contemporary cultural expressions, go a long way to making it the lively metropolis that it is. Added to this are the busy bookshops everywhere – people of all ages sitting on park benches reading, is a common sight -, revealing a city with a strong literary bias. The most unforgettable bookshop is the El Ateneo, an exquisitely restored former opera house-turned-cinema hall-turned-bookshop, whose plush interior has been retained to look like an opera house. In place of rows of seats, the semi-circular curves of the first and second balconies and the special boxes – while still gloriously lit up like a theatre – are beautifully lined with books. Its domed ceiling is a soaring wonder, covered with paintings that look down upon a central auditorium filled with tastefully displayed books arranged by subject.
I found whole shelves dedicated to Rushdie and Tagore; books on yoga (BKS Iyengar and others), Buddhism, Ramana Maharishi, Osho…Only, every single book is in Spanish. What you have under one roof is ‘the world’ in Spanish – Spanish writers from across Latin America, and world literature in Spanish translation… Canvases adorn the walls everywhere, the floors are luxuriously carpeted, and comfortable sofas in alcoves are determinedly colonized by readers blissfully lost in their piles of books. In other secluded corners, seated on the carpet in the midst of bookshelves, are earnest students in muted discussion….

El Ateneo Bookstore

The huge stage, with its heavy crimson velvet drapes intact, has been converted into an attractive (and appropriately quiet) restaurant. Its period furniture and hovering white-gloved waiters complete the picture of elegance. As you savour your food, you can run your eyes along the curved walls, where hang huge scroll portraits of great world literary figures, carrying the titles of their most famous works and brief biographical paragraphs. There is even a basement that sells music, DVDs, games, bookmarks and what have you. The imaginativeness of it all, the ambience, the footfall… left me in no doubt that Argentinians take their literary interests seriously. Somehow, looking at El Ateneo, the prospect of a film theatre in Bollywood-crazy India being converted into a vibrant bookshop just seemed beyond the realm of imagination!

Above all, what impressed me as an ordinary visitor to Buenos Aires were the signages. For an Indian visitor it is a culture shock to find, everywhere, the names of roads and streets and public buildings clearly displayed, every building logically numbered, and the numbers themselves clearly visible even at night. And, within public buildings, the signs for public services and utilities prominently, unambiguously and aesthetically displayed, making these spaces infinitely painless to navigate even for a non-Spanish speaking person. And the public toilets everywhere! Sigh! They were like gifts from the gods: clean and dry wash basin counters swabbed by the attendant on duty after every use, the toilet cubicles themselves always in impeccable condition, user-friendly toilet seat liners always in supply…If clean and freely accessible toilets – particularly for women and children – are a sign of a modern, civilised city, then Buenos Aires tops the list of candidates. All this in a country that may have once been one of the richest in the world, but is today part of the ‘Global South’ (whichever way you want to define it: ‘newly developing’? ‘emerging economies’? ‘newly industrialising’? ‘north in the south’?). What is significant is that the infrastructure and services continue to be maintained to a high standard even today.

Much of Buenos Aires was developed in the late 19th. and early 20th. centuries, by an adventurous elite coming from Italian and Spanish stock. Systematically annihilating the native Indian population, while consciously modeling itself and its flagship city after Paris of that time, this elite acquired the wealth to back this vision by exploiting the rich natural resources of the country. During this period of ‘nation and city building’ (and all the way until the Depression of the 1930s), Argentina was one of the five richest countries in the world, the leading European country outside of Europe, and the most coveted destination for poor migrants from Italy and Spain looking for a better life.

After the 1930s, things began to change. Argentina steadily became economically unstable and politically volatile, plunged into repeated dictatorships and military rule, by fascist generals who sympathized with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and sheltered Nazi war criminals, even while they permitted immigration by European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The latest abrogation of civil liberties was as recent as the 7 year-long military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983.

Today, Argentina is struggling to restore its economy and strengthen its civilian democracy in an environment where the military is still powerful, and the oppressors of the recent past continue to be socially and politically influential. It is trying to come to terms with its bloody and brooding history – particularly the privileging of the military and genocide of indigenous peoples – , reassessing its unilinear European-orientation, building bridges with other Latin American countries, and beginning to reach out to fellow ‘southern’ countries of Asia and Africa, as evident in the ‘south-south dialogue’ in the social sciences that took me there. As always, in all these initiatives in democracy,  it is the universities (students and teachers) and intellectuals in general who are at the forefront ( particularly in the matter of opening up to dialogue with the non-European world, both within and without), along with the working class, and movements of disempowered peoples.  Just as they were in offering resistance to dictatorships and military rule.

National Indigenous March that arrived at the Plaza de Mayo for the Bicentenary celebrations in Buenos Aires after marching 2000 miles across the country, calling for a multicultural state that respects the rights of the native peoples (Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images- in the Boston Globe, May 26, 2010)

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If there is a single image of Buenos Aires before you actually get there, that would seem to overshadow everything else about the city, it is tango. “Don’t miss going for a tango show when you are in Buenos Aires”, urged my son, who had been there before, “They also teach you to tango, so you can enjoy the fun”. A friend of his who had also been there sighed about the “drop-dead gorgeous women” of that city, and told me how jealous he felt that it was I who was going and not he! Both the young men went into a trance when talking about their memorable time there – the liveliness of the city, its friendly people, the active night life….

Permanently in sneakers and trousers due to still-healing fractures to my feet, I couldn’t imagine myself tangoing in Buenos Aires.  Particularly, since the image of tango (or what is generically known as ‘Latin American Dance’ outside of Latin America) that I had was inseparable from the image of seductive and nubile women in impossibly high heels and unbelievably minute dresses, effortlessly executing impossibly difficult dance steps! But I knew that I wasn’t going to miss watching a tango show for anything in the world.

When I actually got to Buenos Aires, I realized that signaturing the city with tango (and fun) alone – or gorgeous women – was doing it injustice. Of course, the friendly people with their cosmopolitan outlook and pride in their city, whose standards of hospitality could give Arabs and Indians a run for their money, make one feel like a very specially invited guest. And of course, there are olive-skinned beauties whichever way you look. And of course, it is the tango capital of the world, no doubt about that. On my very first evening in Buenos Aires, I met a very senior American academic from New York who told me that she was spending the last four months of her sabbatical year there – the city she said she feels happiest in – learning tango and Spanish! There is tango everywhere – for straights and queers; in open-air plazas; in restaurants in the old district of La Boca, where tango shows are offered as an add-on; everyday tango nights in traditional tango restaurants (‘tangerias’) to which locals flock, the interiors embellished with old fashioned wrought iron work, beveled glass and mirrors, and large dance floors; tango seminars, networks, workshops, magazines and maps, and online communities; tango classes for visiting tourists…the options are endless.

Tango show at San Telmo

The public squares and gardens come vibrantly alive in the evenings, and during weekends craft shops and flea markets sprout, in sudden but orderly rows, all along these green spaces. At several squares and plazas, particularly in the old quarters of San Telmo and La Boca (the former genteel and bohemian, the latter colourful, working class, and  along the docks) – both now tourist hubs, music strikes up and tango performances have audiences sitting around watching graceful dancers display their formidable skills, with the hat being passed around at the end of the show for contributions.

Street art in La Boca

Street in La Boca

On my first night there, I was taken out by my local hosts to a tangeria. When we – a group of seven women with different coloured skins – settled ourselves in at our table, it was around 10.30 p.m., and there was just a handful of couples dancing to recorded music. A couple of single middle aged men in tuxedos, and two single women (in dance attire) – both also on the wrong side of middle age – completed the number. Two of the women in our group – one of them our host, and the other, the visiting American academic, both mad about tango – were also appropriately dressed for dancing. There followed a nuanced drama in which the two single men needed to be attracted to try out the single women as partners. Apparently, a woman needs to be a good dancer for a man to want to dance with her. But she needs a chance to show off her skills! Well, both the women in our group received invitations to dance…And so did the other two singles…The American colleague tells me that, surprisingly for a dance form that is supposed to be all about gender and seduction, tango is actually a liberating social space, particularly for a single woman. You can visit any tango bar as a single woman – in Argentina or in the U.S. – and all that you need to carry you forward through the evening is your desire to dance, and willingness to wait it out until you get a chance to display your skills…

By 12.30 the large hall was full of people. As if on cue, a silver haired man in a tuxedo and a deep baritone stepped to the head of the room, a younger man with an instrument that looked like an accordion materialized, and soon live music was flowing out fast and furious, and most people were on the floor dancing, while the rest of us in our group sat and passed wise judgements on the skills of the dancers. Suddenly, the space on the dance floor cleared, and a very young and handsome couple, in the trademark dark-striped suit and black charmingly provocative tango dress, respectively, stepped into the centre, and for the next hour or so we were treated to the most fantastic and fast paced dancing skills that we had hoped to see. When we left, tired and jet lagged, the evening of dancing had just begun for the citizens of Buenos Aires. In the days that I was in the city, I was to encounter tango at several places, including open air dancing in squares, and dancing sponsored by restaurants in La Boca, the original quay-side scene where tango was invented, by the women of the bordellos into whose arms the poor Italian and Spanish immigrants arriving by boat in the ‘new land of opportunity’ flocked…

The last thing I did before I left Buenos Aires was to take my first and only very enjoyable  tango lesson in the tango studio of my hotel, from a lovely and kind instructor who taught me some basic steps with some twists and turns and a few milonga steps, and kept saying “very good, very good” to my clumsy attempts in my sneakers, and made me feel nice!

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Cataratas del Iguazu

A telegram in Paul Reps’ book Zen Telegrams goes: “Moth caressing my cheek… could be you…” .

I felt the exquisite tenderness of this metaphor for the first time last week at the Iguazu Falls (Cataratas del Iguazu in Spanish) in Argentina. As I paused on the catwalk over the mighty cataratas to consult my map of the Falls, even as the golden waters – the earth in the region is a deep red, which might be the source of the golden-red colour of the waters – roared on either side of me in their rush to plunge over the hillside into a steep drop, a lemon yellow butterfly came and rested on my hand, tentatively at first, then stayed on to explore… caress… ever so gently… While I held my beath not daring to move, it continued to sit fearlessly, as if lost in thought. For a few seconds it looked this way and that, nibbled a little again, and then flew away slowly over the waters.

At that  moment I experienced an epiphany.  It is not that the butterfly mistook my brown hand for a flower;  what attracted it was probably the green colour of the flier in my hand.  The butterfly must have thought that it was an extension of the dense tropical forest all around us. But for me, that little mistaken landing powerfully epitomized the unity of opposites that only nature has the imagination to sustain: everywhere in Iguazu, fragile, silent, and luminously beautiful butterflies fly convivially over one of the most massive, thunderous and powerful waterfalls in the world.

Walking on golden waters

'Walking on waters'

If the encounter with the yellow butterfly remains one of my frozen-in-time memories of the Falls, another was the sight of two black-and-orange chameleons doing a silent courtship dance on a tree trunk at the edge of one of Iguazu’s 275 massive waterfalls. I was just finishing the upper circuit of the Falls where, after you climb up steps and the ramps that take you to the top of the Falls, you get to literally stand on top of the water (as in the picture above), and feel it rushing out from one side of you, rush under your feet and down the steep precipice on the other side. I was on a rocky island at the end of one section of the Falls, and on either side of the island water was crashing down with a fearsome roar, relentlessly flattening clumps of tall bright green grass that grew bravely on the rocks below – they tried repeatedly to stand up only to be bludgeoned back every time – and throwing up a fine spray of mist that clouded my glasses. Bushy trees were growing tenaciously out of the rocks at all angles, their trunks and leaves moist from the spray.  Butterflies were delicately flitting about their foliage, just out of reach of the water. A giant half rainbow was positioned over the spray mist, caused by the sun shining through the water. It was in the midst of this glorious spectacle that, on one of the trees that was growing inches away from the handrail of the catwalk,  the chameleons were locked in embrace: oblivious to either the drama of the waters or the movement of visitors on the viewing bridge… completely lost in their own world, taking their own time while speaking a language universal in its meaning.

A third unforgettable moment was when I decided to do the lower circuit, using the steep route that I had avoided the day before. This consisted of steps and ramps that descended down to the base of the Falls right down to the river and then gradually rose above the river, climbing along the forested hillside to afford panoramic views of the Falls from a distance. Ramps drenched in spray connected walkers from one waterfall to the other, making the experience of nature as participatory as one could possibly imagine. Each time you crossed one of those ramps, you stood exposed, since there was only a handrail to separate you from the cascading water. Even as I made one such crossing at the bottom of one of the big Falls and felt the spray shower over me, the sun came out and shone on the spray and there were a myriad rainbows before my eyes. It was absolutely magical.

Rainbow over the falls

And of course, once you move back from being touched directly by the falling spray, and walk up though the forest to view the Falls from a distance, you have the butterflies for company : butterflies of every conceivable colour and design – neon blue and purple, lime green and black, bright yellow, orange and black, yellow and white, polka dots, zig-zag patterns…the varieties are endless. And everywhere you look, you encounter virgin sub-tropical forest, protected by national parks on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides: giant trees of bewildering variety (in Latin America even familiar tropical trees seem to have larger-than-life leaves); creepers spreading wildly forming ropes and canopies making the forest look like a movie set straight out of Tarzan or Anaconda; orchids, lilies, begonias, palms, bamboos, ferns, bromeliads; and rich wildlife of tapirs, giant ant eaters, howler monkeys, jaguars and pumas, of which only the ant eaters are ubiquitous, playful and friendly, following tourists around to pick up ice creams, sandwiches and chips…

The Iguazu Falls consist of 275 individual cascades, along a rim that is 2.7 km long, created by a volcanic eruption that left open a crack in the interleaved layers of sandstone and basalt. The highest section of the falls – at the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) – drops 270 feet (around 82 meters) into the Iguazu river, the force of the cascade creating a pillar of mist that rises between 30 meters (98 feet) an 150 meters (492 feet) into the sky. The volcanic fault has created several rocky islands that break up the falls into discrete cascades (hence 275) , but when the flow is at its peak, many of these individual falls coalesce.

Far bigger than Niagara (more than twice as wide, with a much greater volume of water) and higher, the Iguazu are second only to the Victoria Falls in South Africa, which is the largest curtain of water in the world, as well as the highest, creating mist that rises 300 meters (984 feet) above the ground). But the Victoria Falls, being a single waterfall is too immense to directly experience.

What makes Iguazu at Argentina  the most beautiful and spectacular falls in the world (it can also be viewed from the Brazilian side, but more as a panorama and not in this participatory way) is that it affords a more direct experience, due to several factors:  its discrete nature (each of the individual Falls can be viewed up close), its tropical forest setting which, too, can be experienced while visiting the Falls, better views from the ramps and walkways that take the visitor right into, above and below the Falls, and at one point – the Devil’s Throat -, the feeling of being in the midst of three walls of water cascading down the U shape of the gorge. One can also take a boat ride on the Iguazu river right up to the base of the Falls.  On the days that I was there, access to the Devil’s Throat had been closed to the public: the heavy rains in Brazil during the preceding fortnight had caused the water levels to rise so dramatically that the catwalks over the Devil’s Throat were submerged ;  the increase in the volume of water in the Falls at the Devil’s Throat  was evident in the fact that the visibility of that section of the Falls, from a distance, was shrouded by a tall pillar of mist that rose to join the clouds…

Apart from the thrilling experience of coming up close to the powerful waters and the tropical forest,  Iguazu gives the visitor the grand feeling of being on a river that is born in one country (Brazil),  has travelled 1200 kms receiving water from many sources along the way, and empties itself into a canyon in another country (Argentina).   Although over two thirds of the Falls are within Agentina, Iguazu is positioned at the confluence of three countries of Latin America –  Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – and is a part of the folklore of all three.   As the Guarani Indian language (from which it takes its name) describes it, it is indeed the “Great Waters”.

anteater

lone flower blooming on the hillside

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