From January 2006 I am spending 9 months working on a voluntary art project for the Artcorps in Guatemala. I am working for Fundación Riecken, an NGO who are constructing libraries in Honduras and Guatemala. I will be artist-in-residence at libraries in Chiché and Zacualpa, in the Quiché region of Guatemala. I also plan to do a little travelling along the way...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Buenos Aires highlights

I was invited to a Celtic festival. After my close encounter with a bagpiping porteno on the shores of Lago Lacar in Patagonia, I was no stranger to the firmly upheld Scots traditions in these parts, and readied my limbs for a good dance at a ceilidgh. Did I underestimate the scale of the event! A full Celtic festival in a major theatre with several Celtic bands, a beautiful harpist who would make Enya weep and to top it all off, the South American Pipers’ Association (SAPA), a twenty piece piping band (plus dancing troop) all in full regalia; kilts, sporrens and all, playing all the favourites plus a few Argentine remixes to the bounds of the highland fling! I must admit, my eyes welled with emotion and pride at being a Scotswoman (I may easily have been the only one in the whole venue!). And how the Argentines loved it! We were then invited back to the house of one of the pipers who had a remarkable collection of malt whiskey and more Gaellic CDs than you could ever imagine, a selection of which is now in my possesion! Hurrah! More ironic it could not have been: me, a Scot lured to Buenos Aires by the intrigue of tango, whilst the Argentines are more interested in keeping alive the traditions of their immigrant roots, e.g. Celtic festivals. They almost outdo the Scots! The last I heard, the SAPA are currently at the annual Scottish piping convention, this year in Santiago, Chile, together with St Andrews Pipes and Drums (of the Lago Lacar piper), and the third Buenos Aires piping troop, plus several others from Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile, nine in all!

Attending a live concert by Fernandez Fierro, an "orquesta tipica". Usually "orquestas tipicas" signify old men bent over bandoneons who have been playing the same music for at least half a century. These guys are young, dreadlocked and totally laid back. When the curtain rose, to total silence, revealing a row of four bandoneon players seated in front of a six piece string section, the air tense with anticipation, then BOOM! Every shockingly dramatic, piercing jolt of the four bandoneons in unison felt like being stabbed in the heart. Not to mention the four violinists vibrating to dramatic crescendoes, all accompanied by a manic pianist and a totally loco singer, who appeared several times in outrageous attire; drag, wigs, skirt hitched up at the back…totalmente electrifying! I bought the DVD of them in concert so wait for the first London showing…

Being seated at a table, champagne in hand, around the gleaming, polished dancefloor of one of the ritziest milongas in town. Every table packed, rows of tangueros craning from behind, the bandoneon accelerates into action and the dancing begins. Some of the best tanguero couples in the world perform, the quality improving as the dancefloor changes glitzy shoes…all that passion, love, betrayal, fear, pride, envy that defines the dance suggested in the embrace, the expression, the pose…spinning, sexy, passionate, legs between legs, feet tripping, tapping, moving so fast as if in a blur…spellbinding! The audience mesmerised, stunned, applauding, applauding. Faces wide with frank appreciation have no words to describe their emotion. Slowly the dancefloor fills up. A tanguero raises his eyebrows at me from across the room. I incline my head, accepting his invitation to dance. He escorts me to the floor. I rest my temple against his brow, we unify as one and glide across the mirror polished surface. This is Salon Canning.

Palermo SoHo. The trendiest place in town. As dusk falls, I wander along tree-lined avenues, flitting past designer boutiques and ultra-modern café bars. The day has been an autumnal delight, unusually warm for this time of year (yes, climate change is here too). As the darkness intensifies, the welcoming light cast from evening businesses fills me with nostalgia for warmth on an approaching winter’s night, open fires, falling crimson leaves…I realise, for the first time in 16 months I am missing the coziness a cold climate can provoke. But only the coziness! Not the cold! I have successfully missed two British winters in a row, and now I am gliding effortlessly from summer to summer, and with a return flight booked to these parts just in time to catch the Argentine summer next year, I am happy. Cold: no gracias! Calor, por favor!

Cuban Buenos Aires. I met a fellow ceramicist, friend of a friend, who just so happened to be a keen salsera too. So she took me to her salsa club, with Cuban style salsa. Cubans poo-poo this! There is no Cuban style! There is only salsa and that is Cuban! However, outside of Cuba, we have invented "LA", "New York" and "Puerto Rico" styles, which are very different to our "Cuban style". This style of salsa is home to one of the most beautiful dances of all: "la rueda" (the wheel), where the dance takes place in a circle, the men passing the women around. It’s gorgeous to watch, and even better to be involved. That’s what we did in the classes. And all the leads were excellent (light years from my early experiences in Cardiff. Hmm, funny, that).

A last memorable moment:
Back in Palermo SoHo. Sitting on a roof terrace surrounded by foliage and milling trendies in the small hours of a summer's night. Very good, very cheap champagne on the table. Excellent funky music on the decks. Stars overhead. Laughing. Divine.

South American musing

Some facts:
The average time to eat dinner in Argentina is midnight. My friends, for example, with whom I stayed for the first two weeks, never dine before 1 AM, as Sergio doesn’t get home from work until 12.30.
There is no point turning up to a club before 3 AM, as it will be empty.
The meat is excellent. Even moi, less interested in meat after Guatemala than I was before, found myself lusting after succulent slabs of fresh grilled flesh, almost! The fish is excellent too. So is the pizza. And the pasta. And the ice cream. Let’s face it, the food is impressive. And as for the wine, it’s a well-kept secret that the best wine in South America is Argentine. After a year of eating frijoles, tortillas and "coffee" made from maize, wheat and rice in Guatemala, I found myself in gastronomy heaven the minute I landed in Argentina.
As a race, the Argentines are pretty good looking. The girls are thin. At least I didn’t feel like quite such a giant as I did in Guatemala, where the average height is well under 5 feet, but I was a trifle put out to find that I fitted size large clothes! Obesity is not a problem in these countries. Not yet.
Buenos Aires is no.1 in the world (on a par with NYC) for therapy. Everyone I met had undertaken therapy at some point. I conducted a survey hanging out at the beach with a group of about ten portenos. Not a single one had never had therapy.
Plastic surgery is pretty popular too.
It’s hard to beat the friendliness of the Argentines and the Uruguayans. Uruguay is an often-missed country on the South America list, because it is so small and overshadowed by its dominant neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. Which is what makes it such a special place, almost like a secret. Montevideo is the best kind of capital city – a manageable size, easy to get around, very laid back. It has 23 km of sea- or should I say river-front promenade meandering along the entire length of the city, with bathing beaches which start in the centre of Montevideo and get better the further east you go, right up to the Brazilian border.
Uruguay, I was surprised to learn, is the product of British meddling, who wanted to control trade around the River Plate.
During this trip, I have learnt a lot about the British Empire. While we Brits in present-day Britain have all but forgotten the glory days we once knew, our legacy is entrenched in the memory of colonised nations around the world. Often negatively, unfortunately. Some see us still as a colonising nation. Others lump us in with the US (thanks Tony). In Argentina there is the fervent memory of the Falklands war. Sadly for us, it is less unusual to be at war, and something that happened thousands of miles away 25 years ago under the rule of the iron lady is rather distant history. For Argentina, whose sole memory of war and of 1000 young inexperienced lives lost in Las Malvinas, it is a wound that still hurts. And many show it! Woe betide the English visitor.
Being Scottish comes in very handy when globe trotting.