Antipodes

In March 2009, I stood in the terraces of La Bombonera, a k a “The Chocolate Box,” in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is the home field of the Boca Juniors, one of the country’s most idolized teams. In the nearly vacant stadium, on my 50th birthday I hoisted a retired Copa Libertadores trophy.

The Copa is one of the most prestigious soccer tournaments encompassing Latin America.

Looking at the span which that particular piece of hardware had been bestowed, it had been raised by Pele and Diego Maradona, each a deity in short pants for his respective nation, Brazil and Argentina. Immodest of me as it was, I lifted that thing and preened as if I’d somehow contributed on the pitch towards its acquisition.

I wasn’t the only one there that sunny afternoon fantasizing. Plenty of aficionados, dyed-in-the-wool soccer fans, were in attendance summoning the echoes of past contests be they championship caliber or regularly scheduled Boca tilts.

The indulgent Porteña accompanying me looked on with pity and benevolence. She could’ve mocked me or rolled her eyes at my undeserved and unearned basking. But she understood the importance of futbol. Despite being a norteamericano, I at least displayed an appreciable measure of reverence for pursuits purists often believe holds no less meaning than life and death.

That demonstration hopefully also compensated for much of my lousy Spanish.

At 50, I saw no farther than the vacant arena, fellow wishful thinkers, the darling beside whom I’d celebrate entrance into my sixth decade. We would begin my next 10 years over dinner and drinks, then a thorough night of merriment at the Shamrock which would only end when dawn grayed the nighttime sky and we took the short stroll to my hotel on Avenida Callao.

Okay. Before going upstairs we’d nosh a few medialunas and slurp some beverages off the breakfast buffet.

Ten years ago, had a prescient someone informed me that in 2019 I’d have forsaken New York to reside in Las Vegas because my old career dissolved through my paymasters’ farcical ineptitude, coupled with the deaths of the remaining few souls I’d ever esteemed, who alive anchored me in Quarropas, I might’ve consulted actuarial charts for the latter but completely discounted the former. Business was so solid then it seemed only an interplanetary disaster might’ve been required to disrupt our moneymaking.

Who would’ve known the boobs I worked for could conjure cosmic chaos?

And death came. Therefore what need to remain? Memories can be carried along. Those flames can be relit elsewhere. Moreover, should I have remained back East all the advantages I previously enjoyed and prospered from were dust. Furthermore, I’d be burdened through recalling the earlier ease that had feathered my prior nest while an older me tried recreating the lost conditions.

Better to discover new rewards in a different place than futilely attempt reviving past aspects in a changed landscape that once served as home.

That’s clear today. Then in the Chocolate Box it would’ve been incomprehensible. Clear as the future could’ve been stated, I still wouldn’t have understood.

Throughout the first decade of the 21st century I visited Argentina thrice, Uruguay once. Along with Chile these nations make up the “cone” of South America.

Funny thing is Metropolitan New York attracted other South American immigrants. One met no shortage of Colombians, Brazilians, Bolivians, Ecuadorans, Chileans. Even Surinamese started calling the La Gran Manzana home. But never any Argentines or Uruguayans. Maybe they preferred Miami. Or maybe then they felt no need to leave home.

Why did I visit Argentina? Or what stoked my curiosity?

It wasn’t the “dirty war,” the strife that convulsed the nation between 1976-83. Nor was it Broken Wings, the 1985 Mr. Mister music video featuring the tango dancers. Given where this post started, wouldn’t it be prosaic to state my Argentine interest began with the 1978 World Cup Final? In it, host Argentina defeated the Netherlands to claim the ugliest, most sought after trophy ever.

Talk about love instilling blindness.

Instead, having entered my forties meant I’d shed many insecurities and worries. I could travel fearlessly because I began living confidently. After visiting the usual destinations, why not venture into places whose mention still tickled imagination?

To prepare not only did I purchase a travel guide and Spanish phrase book but also a tango instruction manual. The first two came in handy. The third eventually bore little relation to real life, though educational nonetheless.

My 2009 visit to Buenos Aires started in Montevideo across the River Plata in Uruguay. Throughout the years I’d met a good number of Argentines who’ve belittled their cross-river neighbor. Certainly most of the traffic goes one way and that from Uruguay into Argentina.

While Montevideo lacks Buenos Aires’ energy – or as Porteños might claim, a pulse – it’s a gentle big city. Plenty of bustle and little elbowing during the day; less frenetic though just as enjoyable amusements are provided by night. That said, surprising rural aspects intruded into the urban landscape. Donkey carts clopped and rattled along downtown streets. In neighborhoods just blocks away from the business center chickens roamed the asphalt.

Still, compact as Montevideo was relative to Buenos Aires more of it pleased the eye. Architecture harkened back to the colonial era. Sprinkled among that were remnants of Italianate modernism. In the accustomed rush to the new and shiny, older structures hadn’t been razed willy-nilly to make way for brutalist blocks or glass boxes. Instead the visitor’s prospective captured the graceful lines and curves of a big city that didn’t crush people between its white porticos and colonnades.

Say this for Montevideans, Uruguayans in general, they were less reticent around North Americans. Not that Argentines were stand-offish but with them initial contacts needing bridging and easing across before warmth flowed. Not so with their cross-river neighbors.

To Uruguayans maybe I seemed exotic. After all, few norteamericanos then roamed their country. Just keeping ears peeled revealed a paucity of Yanquis.

How often was I mistaken for a Brazilian in Montevideo? At a time when the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) nations poised to become an economic juggernaut, apparently a good number of Uruguayans read the writing on the wall and either learned or improved their Portuguese. So why not curry favor with one of the “new masters” and impress him?

At first these responses to my own attempted Spanish convinced me mine was so bad I’d stopped hearing it correctly. Only after resorting to English did the confusion end. By the way, whatever happened to that gusher of money from the BRIC bloc?

Perhaps this may be read as sacrilege by Argentines, but the beaches in Uruguay are more relaxing.

Beat it out of Buenos Aires for a weekend or holiday to the favored resorts of Pinamar or Mar del Plata and it’s the same promenade of fashionistas, stylistas, girlies and studs transposed upon sand. Whereas for the most part along the coast east of Montevideo the strands are comparatively vacant; little besides the visitor, a few others also seeking to monopolize this desolation, the restless South Atlantic, and an esse here and there who’s set up a shack on the beach to fry up some fish to serve with Pilsen cerveza.

Ten years ago, a ferry delivered me to Buenos Aires.

As the vessel plied the increasingly silt-brown Plata, constant breezes which stirred and had cooled Montevideo gradually stilled. By the time the ferry docked we’d debarked into the tropics. A front must’ve pushed down from the Amazon. It slopped an equatorial towel below the Tropic of Capricorn. Dripping air added to the misery of stifling temperatures.

Buenos Aires is not a place to be when summertime Gulf Coast conditions descend. Seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. I’d scheduled trips there when North American winters edge into spring and summer starts yielding to autumn there. Think of leaf-peeping in late-March into April instead of mid-September into October.

This arrival wouldn’t be greeted with fallen leaves crunching underfoot. This time any leaves that had fallen wouldn’t have fluttered to the ground but landed on pavement with big wet splats.

Ominous clouds which had started boiling above the city darkened what had been a hazy bright mid-afternoon. Preoccupied with having returned to Buenos Aires, who had time or care to check weather forecasts? The assumption was a thunderstorm would leave the streets drenched and the air more saturated with moisture.

Anyway by the looks of things the storm would blow through before the night’s diversions demanded my hip-deep involvement. Unfortunately the Oasis, a bar adjacent to the hotel, had closed. The denizens and barflies passing through or moored there, as well as its pleasant curvy waitresses, had made the Oasis an excellent elbow-bender. A sign on the door had been posted so long it was impossible to determine whether the saloon had lost its lease or failure to keep creasing the right palm with enough silver shuttered the establishment.

Four crispy cold Quilmes from the nook serving as the hotel bar after showering and shaving eased my sleep.

Four beers. Almost the same way I began my first trip to Argentina. Except a 10-hour flight from New York in 2004 left me bedraggled. The last thing I remember before the flight attendant rousing passengers awake for the descent was Caracas suddenly shimmering out of the black below through the porthole.

In 2004 I didn’t have a plan. Just eagerness.

After a nap lasting from late morning until evening tilted on the cusp of night, and waking completely revived, I hit the bricks.

For a weekday night, it sure seemed like a party weekend occurred. Cool and dry conditions fueled me. The raw number of olive-complexioned, lean, hip-swaying women stalking the sidewalks, each of whom attired in apparel intended to impress other women while testing the limits of caballeros’ control, all carelessly flashing flirty eyes and devouring smiles, stoked me, confirming that Buenos Aires was the right spot right at that moment.

Aside from all the partying, any inhibitions abandoned, devilment engaged, the advantages realized and taken, the ease of being a norteamericano whose affluence relative to most Argentines could influence them to the northerner’s benefit or the locals’ detriment, those escapades have been already told elsewhere. Aside from louche pleasures, these trips also managed some expansive interludes.

Four.

Three occurred beneath the Tropic of Capricorn. Oddly the third transpired in Quarropas among visitors to the cone or its citizens who’d been encountered there.

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