September 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

This time last week, I was on the other side of the Andes. I made a 4 day trip to Chile to see some friends from Cambridge and enjoy the ‘Fiestas Patrias’, independence celebrations centred around the 18th of September. As far as I could make out, Chileans seem to celebrate the event either with a barbecue at home with family and friends, or by heading to one of the enormous events called fondas in public parks. The couple we went to in Santiago had live music, cueca (a traditional Chilean dance), horses, and enormous quantities of food and drink. Some fairly unusual drinks at that, of which the most intriguing, and most deadly, was terremoto, a combination of wine made from discarded grapes, grenadine and pineapple ice cream.

By far the best part of the fondas, though, we found in the Parque O’Higgins on the 18th itself. This park, named after the liberator Bernardo O’Higgins, has an enormous military parade ground which on the 18th has a much better use: kite-flying. On that day, it was sunny, there was just the right amount of wind, and watching the hundreds of paper squares floating against the backdrop of the Andes was magical. We got stuck in ourselves, as well – though we discovered it’s not as easy as it looks. After (comparatively) shelling out for a slightly fancier model, we were off the ground, notwithstanding constant tangles with our neighbours.

We lost one of our patriotic kites as a result – the string was cut and it glided off to another part of the park, to make some kid’s day. A kite runner would have come in handy at that point. In fact, there are apparently clubs in Chile that organise kite duels à la Khaled Hosseini, with glass string and all. It must be thrilling – I can’t think how many years it had been since I’d flown a kite, but I realise now how much fun I’d been missing out on.

The other highlight of the trip was a day spent in Valparaíso – something I’d been meaning to do for a few years (probably ever since I saw The Motorcycle Diaries). This city, the major port of Chile, is simultaneously rather rough and grubby and very beautiful – it is a jumble of coloured houses and 100 year old funiculars spread across hills above the Pacific. There’s a great maritime museum, but most of all, it’s a photographer’s paradise, and allowed me to take some further (tentative) steps in working out how to use my new camera.

Strangely enough, Chile reminded me a great deal more of Peru than of Argentina, despite the fact that it’s much closer to the latter in terms of wealth and development. It may have been something to do with the accent, the slang, or the food. In any case, it had the pleasing effect of making going back to Buenos Aires feel even more like coming home.



A confession

September 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Walking down the Avenida de Mayo at 10 o’clock last night, and every five minutes passing children rummaging through rubbish at the side of the road, I did wonder whether my two-hour class in film aesthetics had been the most useful thing to do with my evening.

Dancing in the Cathedral

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’d thought of writing a post about what tango means today in Buenos Aires – whether it was just a half-dead tradition kept on a ventilator for the tourists, or something more vibrant. I’m not going to go into any sort of detailed discussion, though, because a) I don’t know nearly enough to make it worthwhile, and b) Wikipedia is always close at hand.

So I’ve gone for a bit of story-telling instead, which should hopefully shed some light on tango too. Last night, some friends from my house asked me whether I wanted to go to a milonga (a gathering in a café or bar where people listen and dance to tango). This wasn’t a difficult decision to make, and I ended up trumping  their offer by saying I’d go a bit earlier to the place for a dance class and meet them when they got there.

The venue, La catedral, is a warehouse in the district of Almagro which rests, like half of the city, under a web of coloured graffiti. It deserves its name, though. Going inside felt like stepping into a temple to tango, in an alternate dimension. Behind the rusted metal door to the street, I encountered a fat bearded man squeezed behind a shabby table. I asked about the 9 o’clock class; I was just in time.

“The nine o’clock class starts at ten.”  Unforgiving looks from both the man and the cat curled on a half-collapsed sofa in the corner. Fine, I could come back in an hour.

“Or you could take a ticket now and wait upstairs.” Not a question, this. It all seems a bit obvious in retrospect – of course the class would be an hour late, of course I’d have to take a ticket and wait, like you have to for everything else here. I went to buy a magazine to read, paid my 20 pesos, and went upstairs.

The portal to the other dimension must have been just before the first floor. Once through, I found myself in a colossal dance hall with a wooden floor and an enormous vaulted wooden ceiling. On the walls, next to pipes and wires, hung guitars, paintings, bicycle wheels, photographs (I spotted Che, of course). Above the dancefloor, an improvised metal candelabra housed multicoloured bulbs.

I sat down near the bar, changed chair for one that seemed less likely to collapse, and ordered a coffee. There wasn’t enough light at my table (barrel) to read by, but luckily enough my coffee came with a candle. I remember thinking that people must have ruined their eyes in the past. I was just thinking about how the ceiling and its beams reminded me of a Cambridge college dining hall when I noticed that in my copy of Newsweek Argentina there was an article by Lord Eatwell, the President of my college at Cambridge. Strange coincidences, in this dimension.

The tango class was not exactly a success – it took me far too long to work out that my legs are about 50% longer than anyone else’s – but afterwards I found my friends from the house, and we sat drinking wine and watching the dance. It’s wonderfully intimate, and watching couples of all ages enjoy the music and each other’s movements seemed really heart-warming (or maybe that was the wine). A bit later there was a live orquesta típica and singer on the stage, which was piled with layers of boxes, and topped with a enormous poster of the inescapable Carlos Gardel.

There were a fair few tourists there, but plenty of porteños too (and not, I think, just men investigating foreign talent). I decided, at about 2am and with the help of the wine, that tango is in a sense for tourists, that not all young people like it, but that it is clearly a whole lot more than that. Between the music, the lyrics to the songs, and the dance, all of which are constantly changing, there is an entire culture.

Where Am I?

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