October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Buenos Aires is the sort of city that sometimes feels infinite. Parks and green spaces are relatively scarce, and concentrated in well-heeled neighbourhoods like Palermo. Because of this, it’s easy to end up feeling trapped in an endless landscape of concrete apartment blocks, cracked pavements and (all-too-frequent) dog shit.
This weekend and the last, however, I’ve spent mostly out of the centre, in places not only geographically distant, but also very different (and for very different reasons).
Last weekend, I took part in a project building emergency accomodation for residents of Buenos Aires’ villas (shanty-towns). My group went to Ezeiza, a town/suburb to the south of the centre, where Buenos Aires has its international airport.
The district we were building in, Santa Marta, has two or three paved roads. The rest are dirt tracks, which when we arrived had been turned into muddy bogs by rain. Some houses there are built of brick or breeze blocks, others are thrown together from old wood panels, plastic sheets and cement. Almost all have leaky corrugated iron roofs. There is plenty of green space, but the barrio is seemingly built on top of an old landfill. Each spadeful of earth we dug turned up new surprises, from CDs to sandals to, once, a sheep’s skull.
We were divided up so as to be seven to a house – the house being a 6m by 3m single room hut made from pre-fabricated wood panels and held up on wooden piles. However modest that might sound, in every case it’s an enormous improvement on what the person/family had beforehand.
I don’t want to get preachy. The charity – Un techo para mi país – does great work, and puts great emphasis on not making a present of anything – the recipients have to pay a part of the cost of the house, and most chip in with the construction where they can. Beyond the construction itself, the techo helps all sorts of community projects in areas like enterprise and education. For all that, and for all the good thinking that has evidently gone into it, I couldn’t help thinking that there was a certain air of superiority among the volunteers .
I immediately feel bad writing that, though. The people I spent the weekend with were wonderful: friendly, energetic, never taking things too seriously, but still seriously enough. It might just be the simple fact that we were people with a great deal of advantages suddenly placed alongside others who had very few or none. That is unsettling, and no amount of rhetoric about collaborative effort can get rid of that fundamental inequivalence.
That, then, was one of the weekends which allowed me to completely escape Buenos Aires (my Buenos Aires) mentally as well as physically. The other was, at face value, much more frivolous: a day trip to Tigre this Saturday.
Tigre is a town to the north of Buenos Aires, on the delta of the Paraná river. Within the delta, which is apparently the fifth largest in the world, there are countless islands and inlets, and the place has the feel of a countryside Venice – a rural colony with no roads, just rivers.
It is a world away from Santa Marta, really: the houses there are almost all fashionable weekend cabins with their own jetties, terraces and swimming pools. We (myself and two French friends from the faculty) spent a glorious five hours or so on boats and wandering around the islands, semi-guiltily peeking at the fancy gardens.
The things that most struck me (which I hastily noted down last night in order not to forget) were: the light, the noise of cicadas in the evening, the mud, the crisp lines of trees against the sky, and the absolute perfection of lying on a jetty in the sun, legs dangling above the water, gazing up through the branches of the trees.
It was the first time in the almost three months I’ve been here that I’d spent a day in what felt like countryside. And it confirmed what I’d been thinking for a while – I’m not nearly as much of a city boy as I thought.
The day had a coda in a very different tone. As we were walking to get the boat back to the town, we stopped to stroke a wandering cat and found ourselves in conversation with an old lady who lived the neighbouring house. We didn’t grasp everything she said, but it was soon clear that she was desperately lonely and just needed to talk to someone. She told us, amongst other things, about her childhood in Italy, about collecting chestnuts in the mountains, about the British soldier who promised to come back and marry her if he lived.
For a long time we stayed and talked. Long enough to almost miss the last boat, and to see just the hint of a smile.