Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hanging Out with the Porteños

Residents of Buenos Aires are called porteños, a nickname I believe which refers to this port city on the huge estuary of the Rio de la Plata. I spent my first full day here yesterday, strolling in the morning all over the barrio of Palermo which is where I´m living, and then in the afternoon attending the first session of our language study at the new and very modern Universidad de Belgano.

When the Spanish arrived here in 1536 they named the south bank of the estuary Puerto Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Aire, or Holy Mary of the good air. But the air for me has been full of fog, drizzle and rain so far, though I´m told the weather is changing and sun is not far off. It´s winter here but I´ve not been cold, and I packed for a typical winter in Santa Cruz. I`ve been reading Jonathan C. Brown´s "A Brief History of Argentina" and have been struck by the resemblance to the history of California. Both were settled by Spaniards against the will of the local indigenous people, but it seems the Indians here lasted longer despite imported germs and fought fiercely before being absorbed into the European culture. Both were fringe settlements and grew slowly, dependant on the silver trade from Potosi in Argentina and, later, gold from the Sierra in California. Each colony developed a landed aristocracy which raised cattle primarily for the hides. But here the comparison ends. Argentina, a third the size of the U.S. and long full of promise, has suffered from corrupt and militaristic governments and an unstable economy. Nevertheless, with a current growth rate of 8 per cent and booming tourism, prosperity may be just around the corner.

The apartment in which I´m staying, with the Señoras Ofelia and Sylvia, is on the noisy Avenida Santa Fe in Palermo, a large and rambling neighborhood. I walked around most of it yesterday, include Palermo Viajo (subdivided into Hollywood and Soho) and Las Cañitas where I had lunch at Novecento, a corner restaurant. There were cobble-stoned streets and modern shops and stores selling clothes, jewelry and all the accoutrements of modern life which tourists love to accumlate. All of these areas are more populated in the late evening when porteños love to eat and play, I´m told until 6 ot 7 in the morning. As an early riser, I expect to miss the wilder aspects of life in Buenos Aires.

My Lonely Planet guides are full of juicy information about this part of the world. Since the economic meltdown of 2001 when Argentina defaulted on its debt, the largest such event in history, over 50 per cent of the people fall below the poverty line. Of the country´s population of 40 million, a third live in Greater Buenos Aires)about 3 million in the central city. Argentina has the highest number of psychiatrists and plastic surgeons for the population in the world.

I've noticed that people here kiss each other, upon greeting and leaving, on the right cheeks. Everyone, men and women. And everyone seems to smoke, and love dogs. Dog walking is a major career choice. I saw a man with a dozen dogs yesterday walking with them down the sidewalk. I´m sure that if they all chose to chase cats at the same time, he would be helpless.

Today I´m off to San Telmo, La Boca and points north with Lorraine and Toni from our Cabrillo group. With any luck, the sun will come out of the clouds.

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