When we told the taxi driver “Jardín Japonés,” he put the pedal to the metal and zoomed. Everyone knows the Japanese Garden in Bueños Aires, even in a city of a hundred parks. If we’d said “Belgian Square” or “Croatian Corner” it might be a different story, he might have crinkled his brow and shaken his head, but this is a real landmark. Once you see those bright red gates you don’t forget them. They are distinctive and alluring, suggesting that experience of exotic and calm awaits you if only you care to come hither.
Rain had been falling, so we expected to have the place to ourselves. In fact, the premises were full to bursting with people gathering to hear some ambassadors giving speeches to the accompaniment of Japanese easy-listening hits. A pleasant side effect of this big event, though, was that entry was free. The usual fee is 150 pesos, which is less than US$4 but I’d forgotten to bring enough cash with me for both the admission and the taxi ride. Already our expedition was propitious!
We passed through the magic gate and found ourselves in another, better world, pausing to read the big sign explaining how the place came to be. It was a pretty simple story: the Japanese Argentine Cultural Foundation secured a title to two hectares; the gardens were completed in 1967 and inaugurated by a State visit to Argentina by Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko.
What do you need to make a proper Japanese garden? Well, it turns out you need seven basic elements: water, rocks, bridges, gates, stone lanterns trees and fish. You also probably should be well versed in Japanese, geomancy, botany and steeped in several centuries of gardening tradition.
According to custom, the pond or ponds should be of an irregular shape and this one is. The Sakuteiki (Records of Garden Making), the earliest text published on such matters (in the 11th century), recommends arranging the water feature:
“It is a good omen to make the stream arrive from the east, to enter the garden, pass under the house, and then leave from the southeast. In this way, the water of the blue dragon will carry away all the bad spirits from the house toward the white tiger.”
Another approved practice is to have an island in the middle of the pond. This serves as a stand-in for Penglai-Mountain-Island, the home of the Eight Immortals of Daoist belief. The island may include a little waterfall, in which case the water should face the moon to reflect its light. The one here seemed to fit the bill.
Rock is the yang to water’s yin, and there were plenty of rocks here. Sakuteiki says that rock placement is the most important part of gardening and even claims that the rock has its own ideas about what it wants to do; it’s the gardener’s job to humor it– kowan ni shitagau is the term. John approves. He tells me that the Japanese understand rocks. Some stuck right up out of the pond, I have read this is to suggest a heron or a leaping carp. Others lie low, indicative more of earth or a pillow, though you aren’t supposed to sit on them. Mostly they blend into the landscape pretty well.
There is something lovely about a bridge: the symmetry of the arc and also of the reflection, plus the nice sense of elevation. In a Japanese garden, it is not only a way to keep your feet dry but also a symbol of the path to paradise and immortality. Some are wooden, aged and cure in the elements for that wabi-sabi flavor. Others are stone or covered in earth and moss. These ones are wood painted red, following Chinese tradition.
Here and there I saw great stone lanterns and wondered what they were for. It turns out these are ishidoro or dai-doro. Originally they were used as votive lights at Buddhist temples, with the flame representing the Buddha and the whole representing the body’s return to the elements after death. In the sixteenth century, about the time when tea-houses became popular, they were used more generally to decorate and light the gardens.
Garden Fences and Gates
The garden is definitely an enclosed space. I think it has a fence but if so it seems like a benign encirclement rather than a cage. Perhaps that’s because the fence is not visible or noticeable from inside the garden due to all the foliage. The gates, as mentioned, are striking and red. There is also a gate in the pond for some reason.
Just as John was going crazy about the rocks, I noticed a delicious smell. It was coming from a juniper tree that was not exactly bonsai but seemed stunted and twisted by the elements, though this must have been an artificial effect because it wasn’t exactly growing on a wind-blown cliff in Norway. Further on, there were various other trees, most of them helpfully labelled both in Spanish and in Japanese. We had all the usual customers: cherry, plum, peach and pine. There were also some Argentine natives and eucalyptus. There was a whole corridor of cherry trees that must make a confetti-strewn aisle in spring, an excellent opportunity for hanami — the festival devoted to viewing the transient beauty of blossom.
The very first Japanese chronicle Nihon Shoki includes the following remarkable news update: “The Emperor Keiko put a few carp into a pond, and rejoiced to see them morning and evening.” This was somewhere between 13 BCE and 130CE, which shows you how long this koi-pond business has been going on. There must have been limited entertainment options if he was that enthralled. The fish we saw were lumpish and dull. If John wiggled his hat they chugged their way over and opened their mouths. Then they shut their mouths. Then they went underwater for a second. Then they came back up and opened their mouths again. Once or twice I thought they gave him a stern look. If you ask me, Emperor Keiko, or Ootarashihikooshirowake no Sumeramikoto as his friends called him, might have hired some musicians or acrobats. If he delighted in these goons, I feel sorry for him.
So, to sum up: water, rocks, trees, a stone lantern, gate, fish. These are the basics. You might want a teahouse (you might not). I would also recommend a cat. This one looked very comfortable and blended in pretty well.
You never know when you’ll trip over a chunk of fine art here in Bueños Aires. Last week we were in the city center and, desperate for coffee, ended up in a mall named Galerías Pacifico. There, in the foodcourt, we found ourselves sitting under a kind of Social Realist Sistine Chapel.
Mind you, the Galerías Pacifico is not an ordinary mall. The building it inhabits was built in 1891 and was originally the BA headquarters of the Parisian department storeLe Bon Marché. Aristide Boucicaut, founder of the Paris store, was in favor of “a new kind of store that would thrill all the senses”, and something of that spirit remains. As soon as you step in the entrance, you are enveloped in a kind of Beaux-Arts wonderland with glass-vaulted arcades, Corinthian pillars and all kinds of architectural frippery. Incidentally, the building was modelled after Italy’s first shopping mall the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
In 1945, a big central dome on the first floor was built and the owners commissioned five of the best artists in the country to decorate its interior. Each artist would be responsible for one or two panels, but the whole would give the pleasing impression of unity thanks to a similar palette and universal themes such as ‘fraternity’, ‘generation’ and ‘humankind’s relationship to Nature’.
After munching away on the best almond croissant ever, I elbowed other tourists out of the way and got to work with the camera. Unfortunately, it was not very easy to get decent shots, but at least you’ll get a vague idea of the spectacle.
After our visit, I started wondering about the artists. They seemed like a nice bunch of fellows and good with the brush, so I decided to find out more…
Manuel Colmeiro (1901-1999)
Manuel Colmeiro was born in Chapa, Galicia, and came to Argentina at the age of twelve. He briefly studied at Belas Artes University but then left to form an artistic self-learning group with other painters and sculptors. In 1926 he returned to Galicia and two years later held an exhibition in Vigo, the biggest city in Galicia.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he was exiled to Argentina and remained there until 1948. During this period he mingled with other Galician exiles including artist Luis Seoane, writer Rafael Dieste and poet Rafael Alberti. In 1949, shortly after completing the mural in the Galerias Pacifico, Colmeiro moved to Paris and stayed there until 1989.
In the sixties he gained a lot of recognition, with exhibitions in London, Paris and Madrid. He spent the last ten years of his life in Galicia.
Lino Enea Spilimbergo (1896-1964)
Lino Enea Spilimbergo was born in Buenos Aires in 1896, the son of Italian immigrants. He took drawing lessons at an industrial school, then entered the National School of Fine Arts.
Winning a prize for a 1925 exhibition allowed him to travel to Europe, where he expanded his training in Germany, Italy and France. In Paris he studied with André Lhote, whose influence may be seen in a comparison of these two landscapes, the first by Spilimbergo, the second by Lhote.
Returning to Argentina in 1928, Spilimbergo soon became one of the country’s most celebrated painters and he received many prizes and put on an exhibition yearly for many years. He was a also a professor at the University of Fine Arts.
In 1933 he began his career as a muralist, collaborating with Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros and a few fellow Argentines on a big avant-garde project named “Ejercicio Plastico”, still considered a key moment in Latin American art. Owing to the tastes of the he mural was not created in a public space but in the basement of Natalio Botana, the wealthy editor of Diario Critica. For years, it was hidden and then forgotten–you can read about its interesting history in the article “The incredible story of the hidden mural of Siqueiros in Buenos Aires”.
Demetrio Urruchúa (1902-1978)
Urruchua was born in Pehuajo on the edge of the Pampas, 365km away from Buenos Aires. He was from a simple peasant family and had 21 siblings. His father was dictatorial and abusive, which instilled him from an early age with an unconditional love of freedom and contempt for established order, an attitude that is demonstrated in paintings like ‘El Pacto’ (below).
As a child he stepped on a large thorn, necessitating a trip to the capital for medical treatment. He stayed there for two years and his health was never the same afterwards, meaning he was unsuited to physical labor. He ended up staying with his sister in BA and going to school at a religious college, where his talent was soon recognized and encouraged.
His first exhibition was 1931 and after that he enjoyed an extensive career so that his works are now in several private collections and in galleries worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Galería Due Mondi de Arte Internacional de Roma and in the Museo Municipal in Montevideo. He became a well-known teacher and left a quote “You cannot teach how to feel”. He died in 1978.
Antonio Berni (1905-1981)
Antonio Berni’s father was an Italian immigrant from near the Swiss border and his mother was an Argentine of Italian descent. His father died in WWI, when Antonio was just 14, and the teen went to work as an apprentice at a stained-glass company. He also studied painting at the Rosario Catalá Center, where he was considered a child prodigy.
In 1925 the Jockey Club of Rosario awarded him with a scholarship to study in Europe, and he chose to go to Spain but eventually ended up in Paris, where a number of other Argentinian artists were also working. He gained a second scholarship and returned to Paris, where he became interested in surrealism. At the same time, he read enthusiastically about Marxism and revolutionary politics.
Returning to Argentina in 1939, he was shocked by the effects of unemployment, by poor working conditions and by the military coup d’état that ushered in the so-called Infamous Decade. He began using his art to speak out against social injustice and to speak on behalf of the underprivileged. Two of his most famous series deal with an underprivileged boy named Juanito, who exists in a filthy shantytown, and Ramona Montiel who shares Juanito’s origins but pulls herself up to a higher social level through prostitution.
During the 1976 coup, Berni fled to New York City and produced art observing the city through a slightly ironical lens. He died in 1981.
Juan Carlos Castagnino (1908-1972)
Juan Castagnino was born in the little town of Camet, near Mar del Plata. He studied in the School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires and studied under Lino Spilimbergo and Ramon Gomez Cornet.
By the end of the 1920s he’d become a member of the Communist Party and, though he painted a variety of subjects, his affiliation may be seen in much of his work. In 1939 he travelled to Paris and attended the atelier of Lhote, then travelled further and met George Braque, Fernand Leger, Pablo Picasso and others. In 1941 he returned to Argentina and worked toward a degree in Architecture.
He won a number of prizes and particular recognition for an illustrated version of Argentina’s national poem Martin Fierro. He died in 1972.
You can’t beat a good travel story. In your mind’s eye, you may be stubbing your toe on an armadillo and getting gangrene after a deadly snake bite but in reality you’re tucked up in bed just as snug as a bug in a rug. On the one hand you get the novelty and the thrill of horror and pity, but on the other hand you skip the boredom and discomfort of actual physical travel. What’s not to like?
It has come to my attention that some excellent travel writing by women has not received its due. So, it being International Women’s Day, here are eight great travel memoirs (that happen to be written by women).
“…I knew most people didn’t believe I could or would do what I had said. And that was the main factor that drove me onwards – that and the fact nobody made any effort to talk me out of it.”
Best Foot Forward: a 500-Mile Walk through France (2003)
One day a woman in her fifties with no experience of hiking suddenly decides to walk across France from La Rochelle to Lake Geneva. She contacts an internet stranger from Texas to come and care for her menagerie of horses, dogs, birds and cats, then sets off to make her dream come true. A large part of the charm of this book is Kelly’s descriptions of the things that go horribly wrong—her tent is inadequate, her feet get woefully blistered, she goes off-course because her maps are out of date. Then there are the moments of joy, when she has the best coffee of her life in a Michelin-star café, or when she has a glorious lie-down in a summery meadow. She describes the moment-by-moment slog of hiking in relatable, funny and matter-of-fact way that downplays the impressiveness of her quest. She includes plenty of detail about the people and places she meets on the way.
“The Kirghis, their steppes and mountains, are so indelibly engraved on my heart, that fifty years hence, should I live, every scene will be as vivid as at this moment; it will ever be a source of pleasure to look back on the happy days spent amongst them, and their wild but beautiful scenery.”
In the late 1830s, while still in her teens, Lucy Finley sets off from East London for Russia to work as a governess to the daughter of General Mikhail Nikolaevich Muravyev-Vilensky (aka the Hangman of Vilnius). Shortly afterwards, still in Russia she meets and marries Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Between 1948 and 1853 the pair travels through Siberia, to the Kazakh steppes to Irkutsk and the Chinese border and all the while she keeps a journal describing the wonders she sees on the way.
Her account, though Victorian, is direct, chatty and sympathetic. She focuses on the people the steppes, their habits and customs, and clearly feels a strong affinity for them, in spite of the bandits and rogues she meets on the way.
Soon after they set out on their first journey together in 1848, Lucy becomes pregnant but (probably thanks to Victorian mores) she doesn’t mention this until the actual birth, which she deals with apologetically thus:
But you are already asking what excuse I can make for [not writing] the two last weeks. Here I have a little family history to relate. You must understand that I was in expectation of a little stranger, whom I thought might arrive about the end of December or the beginning of January; expecting to return to civilisation, I had not thought of preparing anything for him, when, lo! and behold, on the 4th November, at twenty minutes past four P. M., he made his appearance. The young doctor here said he would not live more than seven days, but, thank Heaven, he is still alive and well. He is small, but very much improved since his birth. I shall let him get a little bigger before I describe him. He is to be called Alatau, as he was born at the foot of this mountain range; and his second name Tamchiboulac, this being a dropping-spring, close to which he was called into existence. The doctor says the premature birth was caused by excessive exercise on horseback.
Alatau thereafter accompanies his parents on horseback over thousands of miles for several years. Incidentally, Alatau became the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Territory of Hawaii. Also incidentally, Mr. Atkinson published his own account of these travels but left out any mention of Lucy or Alatau because his first wife was still alive and not down with bigamy.
“Months of travelling cheek-by-jowl in cars had instilled in me a new-found loathing of men’s legs, which, like air, seem constantly to expand to fill the space available. I’m amazed they’re not all buried in Y-shaped coffins.”
Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012)
As a child, Noo Saro-Wiwa grew up in Britain but (rather reluctantly) spent summers in Nigeria. After 1995, when her activist father Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged by the Abacha regime, she stopped visiting for a while. Having returned as an adult, she spends four months travelling throughout the whole country describing its diversity, its dysfunctions and delights through the eyes of someone who is not-quite-a-stranger.
I often asked myself, ‘What is distance?’ Then I heard my own answer, saying that distance is what I most desired in life—that is freedom. Freedom to be far, far away, like the air. At that moment, I realized I had slowly released myself from all the things I didn’t need that were binding me to my life. I then thought, ‘I can go to the most remote corners of the earth if that is where my heart wants to go. It was in that moment, that my freedom had finally arrived.’ (translated Manya Koetse)
In 1967, Sao Mao set off to study in Europe and the US and became fluent in Spanish and German. After her German fiancé died, she went to Spain and married a José María Quero (who had fallen in love with her on an earlier visit). She moved with him to the Spanish Sahara, where he was sent on military duty. While there, at a time when the Sahrawi Arabs were ramping up their demand for liberation from Spain, she sent dispatches about her life there to a Taiwanese newspaper. After the Moroccan-Spanish war, the couple moved the Canary Islands, where José died in a diving accident in 1979.
Sanmao’s The Story of the Sahara has been a bestseller in China since 1976. Almost as soon as it was published, the author gained a cult following thanks to her adventurous spirit and romantic life. At a time when few Chinese and Taiwanese women travelled independently, she had the courage to set off on her own. Of course, she was also extremely good looking, which may have added something to her rock-star appeal. Tragically, in 1991, she killed herself.
While still quite young, she nicknamed herself ‘Echo Chan’ after her favorite painting teacher, and it is testament to her popularity that so many Chinese girls now adopt ‘Echo’ as their own nicknames, admiring this author whose life was so full of tragedy, passion and adventure. To this day, her fans bring even flowers to José’s grave.
Incredibly, The Story of the Sahara has only now been translated into English and is due for release in November this year. Spanish speakers are more fortunate—it was published as Diarios de Sáhara (2016). If you read Chinese, you have probably read her already.
“My reality no longer has one face. I have stepped out of an enclosed reality into one that is larger, more diverse, and mobile…”
Unveiling India (1987) and Beyond the Courtyard: A Sequel to Unveiling India (2003)
Jung’s Unveiling India (1987) is a kind of travel diary based on interviews with women throughout the country. Beyond the Courtyard (2003) is a follow-up piece in which she interviews the next generation—the daughters of the very same women she spoke to in 1987. When Unveiling India first was published, it was especially noted for women’s accounts of being in purdah—where they must remain secluded and removed from the sight of men. Jung herself grew up in purdah and never married; she has indicated that more than a travelogue, it is an attempt to find herself in her subjects:
“In the macrocosm of a vast land I find the microcosm of my own experience repeated and reaffirmed….Coiled within the lives of these women I find myself transformed.” Quote taken from here.
Nancy Gardner Prince
“Tuesday, the 20th, we set sail; the storm was not over. The 22d the gale took us; we were dismasted, and to save sinking, sixty casks of molasses were stove in, and holes cut in the bulwarks to let it off. All the fowls, pigs, and fresh provisions were lost. We were carried seventy-five miles up the bay of Mexico.”
Nancy Prince had a remarkable life that involved travelling to Russia, the West Indies, New Orleans and learning several languages along the way. She was born in 1799 to Tobias Wornton (a freed slave) and a native American woman who served as a domestic servant in Nantucket. The event that sealed her travelling fate was marriage to one Nero Prince, founder of the Prince Hall Freemasons in Boston. Shortly after marrying him, they went to St. Petersburg, where he became footman to the czar and she opened a boarding home and made baby clothes. Unfortunately, her husband died while in the czar’s service and she returned to America via the West Indies.
She is a kindly soul and describes in moving terms of the banishment of prisoners to Siberia and of the plight of slaves she sees in the American South. At one point, anchored off New Orleans after her ship is wrecked, white people are allowed ashore whilst “we poor blacks were obliged to remain on that broken, wet vessel.” It is highly satisfactory to see her give some racist hecklers an irreproachably Christian tongue-lashing.
Fanny Bullock Workman
“I am not a light weight and am a slow climber. Still my powers of endurance on long days of climbing, and in weeks of continued cycle touring, have, for a number of years, been good.”
Born in 1859, Fanny was an avid mountaineer and cartographer travel writer and women’s-rights advocate. With her husband William Hunter Workman, she cycled thousands of miles around North Africa, Europe and Asia, finding time on the way to climb Mont Blanc, the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn (Fanny being the first woman to do so). At the end of their cycling trip, she and William stopped off in the Western Himalaya and Karakoram for a summer. Already keen climbers, they now attempted high-altitude climbing. In the next 14 years, they would return eight times, exploring and mapping several glaciers and reaching the top of Pinnacle Peak (23,000 feet) in 1906, a women’s altitude record that wouldn’t be broken for 28 years.
To be completely honest, her travel memoirs are a bit heavy-going for the general reader, partly (no doubt) because she always had one eye on the climbing community and science geeks. You won’t find any human-interest stories here, nothing about her finding her inner self by sleeping with a hot Sherpa (ala Eat, Pray, Love) or finding spirituality in a cup of yak butter. She missed her own daughter’s wedding to go climbing.
Note: as impressive as she was, she was also kind of a dickhead and racist AF. If you are put off by the word ‘coolie’ appearing twenty-five times per paragraph, do not read this.
“People said that I was a woman and I would get lost. I thought that was insulting. I was the kind of person that just went out and did whatever. The fact they didn’t like it was their problem.”
National Geographic has named Helen Thayer ‘One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century’ and yet she is virtually unknown even in her native New Zealand, let alone the wider world. In a phone interview last year, she said “The New Zealand press never expressed interest in my expeditions or my educational programmes. Perhaps it was because I was married and lived overseas.” This seems not only sad but almost incredible considering her resume: She was the first woman to walk solo across the Sahara from Morocco to the Nile, the first woman to trek solo to the North Pole, and the first to walk (with her husband, at the age of 63) 1,600 miles across the Gobi desert. She has also climbed some of the world’s highest peaks, lived among wolves and kayaked 2,200 miles of the Amazon River.
Thayer’s solo North Pole adventure is called Polar Dream: The First SoloExpedition by a Woman and her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole. She made this trip at the age of 50 without sponsorship, without sled dogs (she pulled the sled herself) and without stopping to resupply. As the title suggests, the trip was not done completely solo—she relied on her Charlie, for companionship and polar-bear scenting. The book is partly about their growing bond, which makes it an especially rewarding read for animal lovers.
Thayer is now in her eighties and lives in Washington State. Who knows what she’s planning next!
Then from the dawn it seem’d there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.
Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur Alfred Lord Tennyson
— But the war’s over – I objected; and I really thought it was, as did many in those months of truce, in a much broader sense than anyone dares to think today. – There’s always war, — Mordo Nahum memorably replied.
“The Truce” Primo Levi
Our friend Bruno Signorelli has gone, and it’s as if a mountain has vanished overnight: bewildering and belief-defying. I feel forlorn for all of us who knew him, but also sorry for those who can never meet him. It’s the same feeling I get when thinking about the extinction of the Seychelles parakeet or the burning of the Library of Alexandria, a conviction that the world has been deprived of something really wonderful.
Bruno was a genius. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything from Roman military history to Gothic architecture to British literature and he shared his gift with modesty and enthusiasm, in a spirit of such fellowship. His enthusiasm for the world, for films, books, history was wide-ranging and infectious and he was very entertaining when speaking or writing (he published dozens of articles and a book Tre Anni di Ferro on contemporary royal correspondence to do with the Siege of Turin). Only a couple of years ago, in his eighties, he gained a degree in Architecture. For many years he served as the President of the Piedmontese Society of Archeology and Fine Arts, a post he still held until this week. He read voraciously and shared comments on the latest Netflix series, art show or Trump shame with a historian’s perspective.
And history was not abstract. Like his fellow Piedmontese Primo Levi, Bruno witnessed the atrocities of the Second World War; as a young boy he saw his home town occupied by Nazi soldiers and collaborators extremely hostile to partisan-friendly villagers. Before the age of ten he’d seen harrowing scenes that would haunt him his whole life: his mother kneeling in the snow begging for her life at gunpoint, a neighbor savagely beaten and thrown in a truck–he was too scared to go and look at the ‘traitors’ hanged from telephone wires. Like Levi, he was serious about the responsibility of recording, remembering and punishing such crimes so that they would never again be repeated.
Maybe enduring all this at an early age was the secret to his amazing fortitude and obliviousness to objectively terrifying circumstances later in life. Possibly, like Mordo Nahun, he believed that there is always war. In any case, he was an exquisite soldier. After a serious health crisis last year, his family were on tenterhooks for hours as he struggled in the hospital, finally winning out. Shortly after opening his eyes he learned the doctor’s name and started chatting about history. The other patients in the ward were moaning and writhing, no doubt resenting this unearthly display of resilience. That was typical; when he had a knock, he got straight back up again. Physically he may have been a little weaker, but his will was like granite.
The great secrets of this strength, though, were his faith and love for his family. He was extremely proud of his children and grandchildren, quite rightly because they have all inherited more than a little bit of his charm and genius. We are thinking of them today. Addio Bruno, grazie di esistere.
On Sunday, Gabriel’s last day in Bueños Aires, we all decided to go on a little outing. I doubt he knew the risk he was running. Oh yes, he’d heard about our lurid travel tales, but they all happened in other time, another place. A miscalculation in the Alps last summer resulted in a needless two-hour vertical hike up and down a busy highway. A woman in Albania locked us in her house overnight, suspecting us of theft. Our trip to Montevideo last weekend turned into a kind of dental torture carnival. The list goes on, but you get the idea. Gabriel’s serene countenance, however, indicated full confidence in his ability to lead the expedition. After all, it was just a little outing in broad daylight in his home town, where he speaks the lingo. Yes, we would be walking around in the public domain, but fully under his supervision. What could possibly go wrong?
Our destination was the ward of San Telmo, a popular district near the CBD, known for its nice parks, good restaurants and sprawling open-air market. The taxi disgorged us onto Parque Lezama, the site where Conquistador Pedro de Mendoza is supposed to have landed in the first (failed) attempt to establish Bueños Aires in 1536. Ol’ Pedro arrived in the region on a mission to kill indigenous chiefs, grab the land and set up settler colonies especially around the River Plate. Unfortunately for him, he had a bad case of syphilis, which seems to have limited his activities and they had to have another go at settling the city later on.
It was a nice sunny morning, with lots of people out letting their dogs off-leash to frolic about on the grass. There were still a few late-sleeping homeless people on the benches and couples having a mid-morning picnic of coffee in thermoses and medialunas. Across the street we saw a church with pretty blue-and-white onion domes—the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holiest Trinidad. In the nineteenth century, Argentina accepted the second largest number of immigrants after the United States. Between 1881 and 1914 about 4.2 million people arrived, mostly from Europe (incidentally, Argentina has one of the largest Jewish populations in the Americas). Among these settlers were a few Greek, Slavonic, Lebanese and Syrian Orthodox believers. They gained Emperor Alexander II’s permission to construct an orthodox church and it opened in 1904.
“There’s a nice museum here, the National Historical Museum,” Gabriel said, pointing to a grand building at one corner of the park.
This building was a fancy mansion originally built for an American businessman named Charles Ridgely Horne. Horne was allied to the strongman Juan Manuel de Rosas, so he had to skeedaddle after Rosas’ downfall in 1853. He hurriedly sold his property to the wealthy landowner and general bigwig José Gregorio Lezama, by whose name the park is still known. The building is pretty grand for a dwelling, with a big front arcade, and seems to suit its current function of museum very well.
Propped up on the porch outside the entrance were a few oversized cardboard reproductions of historical Argentine figures with heads missing so you can take novelty photos. We entered the museum, whose door was guarded by a tall youth in a clean white shirt who greeted us formally and pointed to the cash register. Gabriel did all the preliminary arrangements and secured the tickets, which went for 50 pesos each (about US$1.25). When I showed the lady my camera with a question-mark face, she nodded but held up an admonishing finger, very serious:
Linguistic digression: ‘sin’ means ‘without’. If you want unbubbly water you ask for it ‘sin gas’. It is derived from the Latin ‘sine’ as are ‘sans’ in French, ‘senza’ in Italian and ‘sem’ in Portuguese. In short, I knew what the word meant and was totally clear about the protocol: before taking a picture, I had to turn the flash off.
So I turned my flash off and we launched ourselves into the museum proper.
First up there was a vast painting by Nicanor Blanes, a Uruguayan artist (1857-1895), entitled La conducción del cadáver de Lavalle en la quebrada de Humahuaca – Driving Lavalle’s Corpse by the Quebrada de Humahuaca (1889). This refers to the death of General Juan Lavalle (1797-1841). I was going to explain this episode, but honestly the whole Argentine history thing gives me a huge headache so just take my word for it, this was a dramatic event in the big nation-building bustle of the Southern Cone circa 1890. I liked the look of the painting—lots of gauchos, horses, ponchos—screeds of local color in short. So I took a photo.
Out of nowhere, a young woman appeared. Very pleasant, fresh-faced, kindly but firm.
“Por favor, Signora, sin flash.”
“Si, si!” I said to her, meaning to convey that I was well up with the play and knew all about the no-flash rule. She nodded and stepped back.
We sauntered into the next room. This was dripping with nice Conquistador-era iron work, paintings, helmets and what-not. I decided to get it all pixelized and, always remembering to press ‘no flash’, I started snapping away. Before each shot there was a little flicker of light, not technically a flash, but a glimmer. In the corner of my eye I saw the girl from the previous room walk in and confer gravely with her colleague assigned to this room. They were watching me closely. As I got busy in front of a 17th-century painting, they came over to me in a pair.
“Por favor, Signora, sin flash.”
“Si, si,” I said, with innocent eyes and showed the girl the camera setting. “Sin flash.”
“Ah,” she said doubtfully. They both stepped back again, but they clearly had me in their sights. I could see their feet twitch. The situation was making me feel sulky and perverse. My hackles were up. I’d pressed ‘no flash’ and therefore was technically at liberty to click at will. Let them take their beef up with the camera manufacturer! I took a picture of a sign and again the little glimmer flickered. Gabriel, possibly sensing my growing antagonism and the guards’ professional concern, made a tactful observation.
“The thing is, there is a flash when you take the photo, so that’s why…”
“Yes, I know, but it’s very small, it’s a pre-flash flash. Practically nothing! I’ve turned the switch off, see?”
We moved on into a small room. This time, three staff gathered to watch us, blocking our exit. They’d called for back up! I decided not to take any more photos. There wasn’t much of interest there anywhere, just an old piano and portraits of women in Jane-Austen wear with squashed little faces.
We sidled out of there and moved into a bigger room featuring some swords, epaulettes, and portraits of people who now have streets and plazas named after them: Rosas, Martin, Mitre… Then suddenly I saw an amazing gold contraption and had to get it. I raised the camera and clicked.
“Signora! Sin flash!” barked a little blonde woman who’d popped up at my elbow. Oh god. All right, I’ll put the damn thing away, I decided at last. She watched as I shoved it into my bag, making sure. Then her attention was caught by John, who had unwittingly stepped over a red line on the floor.
“Signore!” he jumped, realized his mistake, and moved back. But it was too late. The blonde lady and her partner, a tall guy, started stalking us. He saw a sign describing the War of the Triple Alliance and we all made a bee-line for it. This didn’t seem to be illegal in itself, but they followed us anyway. Who knew what we would do. John started to translate the sign in a clear voice that they clearly considered too loud but didn’t have a brief to condemn. Instead, they leaned forward, as if listening, watching for any illegal physical byplay.
Stuck by a tricky verb, John leaned back and put his hands on an adjacent stair rail.
“Signore!” boomed the man, excited, and made a motion with his hands for John to step away from the rail.
We moved along to the paintings on the wall, which depicted scenes from the war of the Triple Alliance—paintings done by Candido Lopez. John was busy quizzing Gabriel about the details when the blonde lady appeared again.
“Signore! La línea!”
“Oh boy, let’s get out of here!” John said and we all bustled out into the area in front of the museum, which had a bunch of Spanish cannons.
In order to cool down after this encounter, we headed to a well-known restaurant in the classic Buenos Aires style—one with white tablecloths and gentlemen waiters. John got good salmon, Gabriel got good steak and I got some delicious zapatillos rellenos con arroz. A zapatillo is a small green squash that looks a lot like a green tomato.
Post-prandial, we headed to look at the market. Gabriel patiently explained the following items of interest at our insistence.
A pulperia is where gauchos went to drink and saddle up.
Palito Ortega is an iconic Argentine singer who became Governor of Tucumán.
Llamitas are little llamas (Gabriel didn’t tell us that, we just figured it out).
The Eternaut is one of Argentina’s most famous comics.
On Friday John and I decided to go for a weekend trip to Montevideo, the capital city of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. Montevideo is only a three-hour boat trip from Bueños Aires so it seemed like a good thing to do while we’re here.
So, bright and early, we boarded the Francisco, a comfortable catamaran destined to ferry us across the River Plate. Strangely, there was no access to the outer decks and windows were all blacked out so it was very difficult to see the river. Instead, our gaze was drawn to television screens advertising a newly opened Trump tower at Punta del Este and some kind of New Age retreat starring an earnest big-eyebrowed woman named Isha.
Disembarking, we were fed into a waiting taxi line, only to realize (1) that we hadn’t brought any Uruguayan pesos and (2) there were no ATMs in sight. Luckily, the first driver we spoke to accepted Argentine pesos and we were soon tooling our way through town to our hotel.
It was an overcast day, not cold but grey and gloomy—the kind of weather guaranteed to take the sparkle out of any vista. Even allowing for this, though, the prospect was pretty dreary. The street near the port was lined with closed-up, abandoned and decrepit buildings, covered in graffiti and not good graffiti either. Of course, ports are rarely in posh neighborhoods but as we travelled towards the city centre, there was little change. The eye was drawn to blemishes: cracked paving stones, piles of dog- and human-do on the sidewalk, some skinny grilling chops over coals in the gutter outside what looked like a prostitution point, judging by the drunken pair a couple of metres downhill (and by the blonde creature who propositioned John later on in the same spot).
Arrived at the hotel, we checked in and found everything as it should be. It was around this time, however, that John felt the first twinge of his molar. This little mischief-maker had given him bad trouble a couple of weeks back, but a round of antibiotics had seemed to clear it up. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but in my experience teeth often like to air their grievances at the least convenient times. Easter and Christmas are great favorites, as are four-day weekends. John once had a particularly bad problem around Christmas in New Zealand, when almost all dentists have a 10-day break. And now this molar had decided to speak up just when we’d arrived in a new town on the weekend. But the twinge subsided and he thought he might have been imagining it anyway, so we set out to see the sights.
It was a short trip. In the few blocks around the hotel, including the big street called Avenida 18 de Julio, almost everything was closed. Burger King was not, so we went in there. As we sat sipping coffee we watched some excitement across the street at the big Rio Santander bank: four armed policemen were guarding the door, scanning the block, index fingers caressing triggers as if actively willing some lunatic to rush them. Because there was an armored vehicle outside, I presume they were transferring funds out of the bank. A line of about twenty weary Uruguayans waited patiently for the bank to be open for business again.
After finishing a ‘medialuna’ (croissant) and café con leche, we strolled a bit further along the street and saw a big poster above a cinema showing four figures, only one of which we recognized–Alfred Hitchcock. Further on was a large statue dedicated ‘to the Gaucho’. The legendary gaucho is a figure particularly important to Uruguayans and Argentines. In days of yore they were nomadic horsemen and outlaws admired for their courage and trickiness. Gabriel Uriarte recently gave us a copy of Argentina’s great epic poem “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” by José Hernández. We weren’t quite sure why the gaucho statue held a three-pronged stick–maybe we’ll find out on reading the poem.
As we pondered the pointy-stick mystery, John said his tooth was really hurting now and that he’d like to head back to the hotel immediately. Off we went, with a quick trip to a pharmacy for some anti-inflammatories. And it was back at the hotel room where poor John spent most of the weekend. He would not go to an emergency dentist, but resolved to wait until Monday, when he’d see a proper dentist. The reason for his hesitancy was not fear but prudence; in the aforementioned 10-day holiday in New Zealand, a novice dentist had given him a botched root canal that had come back to haunt him for years.
Leaving him in bed and agony, I callously set out again, determined to see something. Here are some of the items of interest:
On Sunday, when I wasn’t gadding about, I researched viable dentists. Finally, I settled on one on Bulevard España, which judging from the ad seemed to be one of those vast, gleaming medical complexes. There was a clean-cut young woman in scrubs on the website, and dental tools gleaming with antiseptic sparkle. Even better, it opened early, at eight.
The next morning, I dragged a pain-harrowed husband out of bed and into a taxi, looking forward to having everything fixed up in a jiffy. When the taxi dropped us off at the correct address, I sought the medical palace of my mind’s eye. Instead, there was just a poxy apartment building. A relatively respectable poxy apartment building, but certainly not a hospital-type building. We hovered outside the building, double checking the address, when a world-weary doorman came out to meet us.
Despite his suffering, John spoke suave Spanish and the man nodded yes, there were dentists here. Which one did he want to see? Dr. Russo? Said the doorman helpfully.
John and I exchanged a glance. On the one hand, this was weird, but on the other hand what we really needed was a dentist. We indicated that Dr. Russo would do. The doorman assured us that Dr. Russo was very good, very experienced, so we got into the lift and let him guide us up to the eighth floor. He got out and, with the gestures of an impresario, rang the dentist’s door. He spoke to someone for a moment and then gestured that we should go in.
As we stepped through the door, we met a character in scrubs who was unshaven and spoke very softly and slowly, as if in a dream. John explained what he needed in Spanish and the man gazed at him as if he were a magnificent sunset. John thought this meant he’d failed to get the message across.
“No, no, I understood,” the man said very slowly. “Very good. Wait here.”
“Shall we go away now?” I whispered.
John shook his head, resigned.
The waiting room was very dark. There was no electric light. Cardboard boxes stood piled up in the corner. A door slightly ajar revealed a cupboard-sized room that seemed to be an untidy repository of instruments. I picked up an issue of Hola and quickly put it down again out of nerves. The surgery door opened, letting in a bit of natural light and a middle-aged man emerged. A patient. He seemed calm. I hadn’t heard any screaming. The dentist beckoned John in and to sit down on the chair.
I had a bad feeling. I stood up and went in but it was a pretty small surgery so retreated and sat on a chair by the door, peering in.
The dentist interrogated John in that quiet, dreamy voice, and John explained the issue. I noticed that there were instruments on the table by the chair that didn’t look terribly clean. There wasn’t any assistant, and the dentist wasn’t wearing gloves or a mask. But what do you know, you’re not a dentist!
He inspected the area and said there wasn’t anything he could do because it wasn’t the tooth that was the problem—the infection was in the soft tissue. I heard him say “Bueños Aires” and guessed he was telling John to get it taken care of there. I felt greatly relieved and was already picking up my bag when I heard a drilling sound and froze in my tracks.
Quite suddenly, without any preliminaries, the dentist had decided to do pick up his electric saw and file away part of the molar. This was surprising, because he’d just spent three minutes saying that it wasn’t the uneven bite that was causing the pain.
John, as usual in a medical office, gave no outward sign of discomfort. However I noticed that his face had gone ashen. Sure enough, once we were safely away from the building, he informed me that it had hurt quite a bit having a tooth filed without any analgesic and that moreover he didn’t have a very high opinion of the “top-notch dentist” I’d sourced. There were some other heated words on the subject in the taxi back to the hotel.
The rest of the visit was pretty much an eager looking-forward to getting on the Fransisco and returning to dear, sweet, beloved, Bueños Aires.
I would like to end this account by drawing attention to the fate of the Charrúa, the indigenous people of Uruguay. They were seasonal nomads, used to shifting according to the weather or availability of food. When Europeans settled in the area, they lost their cattle and suffered from famine and persecution. In 1831, Bernabé Rivera organized a campaign known as La Campaña de Salsipuedes (the Get-Out-If-You-Can campaign) culminating in a massacre on April 11 1831 that led to the official extinction of the Charrúa. Four survivors were sent off to Paris and exhibited to the public. The display was not particularly successful and they all died in France. No reason. Just thought I’d mention it.
On Friday, seeing as we had our brilliant friend and Argentine native Gabriel Uriarte on hand as a docent, we headed along to the Remembrance and Human Rights Centre, a museum on Avenue Libertador devoted to the memory of victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983).
During the dictatorship, it belonged to the Escuola de Mecanico de la Armada (ESMA)—the naval mechanics’ school. This is a sprawling complex of buildings on 17-hectares of pretty ground: tidy lawns, flowering pink hibiscus and tall trees where parrots flit and squabble. The façade of the school building itself is grandly neoclassical, with tall half-columns and an official coat of arms in the gable. It all seems stiff and institutional but pleasant enough, in spite of grim concrete watchtowers, especially on a fine summer’s afternoon.
During the Dirty War, this pleasant spot was the site of a clandestine torture center. Although throughout Argentina about 30,000 people were secretly tortured in about 500 centres, ESMA is the most notorious. While unspeakable things were happening in the basement of the officer’s mess hall, the complex continued to be used as a military school. Officers and their families lived in nearby buildings, and had barbecues on nice days, and students even sat exams in the schoolhouse.
The National Reorganization Process (1976-1983)
In the 1970s, Operation Condor spread its fell wings all across South America; a US-backed campaign of political repression and state terror was waged right-wing dictatorships against civilian population. The idea was to eradicate Soviet and communist influences and ideas by silencing (killing) dissidents, which included leftists, union and peasant leaders, priests and nuns, intellectuals and suspected guerillas. Cooperative governments included Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, all of which received technical support and military aid from the US government.
In Argentina, May 1976, President Isabel Peròn was overthrown and a military junta installed in her government’s place. The leaders of the junta were Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramόn Agosti. They took the name of the National Reorganization Process, (Proceso de Reorganizaciόn Nacional), later known simply as el Proceso.
Admiral Massera, who many consider the mastermind of el Proceso, was in charge of the terrorist repression at ESMA. Gabriel’s father Claudio Uriarte wrote a book about him that is considered a masterpiece in Argentina, Amirante Cero: Biografía no autorizada de Emilio Eduardo Massera (1992) (Admiral Zero: Unauthorized Biography of Emilio Eduardo Massera) (unfortunately not yet available in English).
El Proceso was much grislier than the bureaucratic term makes it sound. In fact, it was so horrendous that even Henry Kissinger was nervous about its excesses. In this declassified memcon verbatim transcript from October 7, 1976, Kissinger urges Argentine foreign minister Admiral Guzzetti to hurry up and get rid of the opposition before human-rights types made a stink about the massive abuses occurring:
“Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed the better… The human rights problem is a growing one. Your Ambassador can apprise you. We want a stable situation.We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help.“
The junta’s favorite targets were young professionals, high school and college students, trade-union members and workers. Sixty students were arrested at Belgrano High School just for joining their school council. Victims were arrested summarily, often without being formally charged, taken to the nearest detention centre, tortured and kept hooded until it was time to die. Some prisoners died in mass shootings, others were thrown drugged and naked from planes over the Atlantic Ocean. Because a lot of the victims disappeared without a trace, they are now known as Los Desaparecidos – the Disappeared.
Walking through the city, it is impossible to miss the colorful plaques on the pavement that commemorate the sudden kidnapping of someone from that very spot.
In the main hall there were hundreds of photographs of survivors, plaques featuring testimony of torture, and artwork devoted to the victims. One excerpted statement from a survivor brought home the discomfort and pain experienced by so many:
“You were in the ‘hood’ without moving, without speaking, without knowing who threatened or hit you or how to defend yourself, without having the slightest idea of your situation and fate, without having interlocutors to ask. You could only be alone, breathe, feel around; once a day you were allowed to go to the bathroom (and, sometimes, clean yourself up) and sleep.”
An infamous aspect of el Proceso was the detention of pregnant prisoners until delivery, at which time the baby would be appropriated and given to a family with more tolerable political views. About 500 of these babies were born in the detention centre, their mothers handcuffed and hooded during labor, then murdered soon after. Most of the babies grew up without being aware of their real origin until well into adulthood. At least one child was adopted by a man involved in torturing and killing her biological parents.
Even during the dictatorship, two groups were especially vocal in wanting the truth to be revealed, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wanted to locate the dead bodies of their children, and the Abuelas or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wanted to find their living grandchildren. The Abuelas became a powerful force and, thanks to their work, a national genetic bank was established that would allow people to match DNA with surviving aunts and uncles. Mandatory testing is sometimes enforced. Some people don’t want to get it because they don’t want to be responsible for sending their adoptive parents to jail, in other cases the parents threaten their children. One particularly high-profile example of the anguish, disruption and reluctance to uncover the truth when it comes to stolen babies is evident in the story of the Clarìns heirs Marcela and Felipe, who were both adopted in 1976 but have not so far been identified as children of the disappeared. And if you want to watch a real tear-jerker of a documentary, watch this account of how families have coped with learning the truth.