Monday, 27 April 2009

The Importance of Wilderness

Bleary eyes open as a sleepy bus grinds to a halt. Peering between the cheap red curtains, a dark expanse of nothingness is revealed; dusty shrubs illuminated by a few hundred stars. Yet the door slides open, luggage is dropped onto tarmac, and a cheerful passenger trundles off into the distance. With no buildings in sight, eyes dart backwards and still spy nothing more than an empty road. Leaving the remaining passengers perlexed, she continues her steady walk. The bus pulls away, and a dozen hours later a Patagonian town will appear out of this unforgiving landscape.

And after a hundred hours of bus journeys, I sit at the end of the earth and contemplate the wilderness which lies in every direction. Here the power of an impatient car horn is lost against a new soundtrack - chunks of ice plummeting from a glacier wall, woodpeckers incessantly drilling in the trees, sea-lions smacking their weight against the shore.

A nice stroll in the park is replaced by a battle against the unforgiving winds, which playfully toss tourists to the ground. Those who press on face stinging snowfall and a labyrinth of tree roots clinging to the boggy ground. Some inevitably pack up their tents and head back up north, having finally realised the embarrassing fragility of the human self.

But for those who remain, a sense of awe is awakened in the visitors´mind. Against our human failings, nature thrives. Vivid red leaves paint the mountain side, preying birds soar, and we are left stumbling home to the fireside.

Watching us from between the clouds, the jagged peaks of Fitz Roy provide a faint menace, reminding us that no matter how many buses and guidebooks we bring to Patagonia, this is one place which has already been conquered.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Second Cities

Long gone are the days when European footprints marked out the city plans of South America. Today, the city imprints itself on the soles of ones feet, leaving an indestinguishable mark of a journey well trod.

In Buenos Aires this translates as an immovable black stain, as one fails to skip over the dusty holes and steaming dog shits which litter the city´s pavements. As the days go by, soles turn tar-black, absorbing a thick history which the blue skies and balconies escape.

Armed with a nail brush and foot file, for weeks I embarked on a daily battle against this phenomenon. But my feet resisted, and Buenos Aires stuck.

A few short hours from the capital, however, pink flesh began to reveal itself once again. I had found the second cities of Argentina. Whilst they cannot boast the infinite number of cultural centres and ageing cafes, my feet testified of kinder and slower-paced alternatives. Where feet darken and crack in the capital, do not forget that hard skin softens in the sands of Rosario and on the cobbles of Cordoba.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The Rainbow Colours of Blood

Blue birds dance across a childhood mural. Painted flowers creep up from the shiny wooden floorboards. A clutter of books lie waiting for chubby hands and inquisitive minds. But this is not a nursery, nor a bedroom, nor a bookshop. This is The Provincial Memory Commission and Archive, former Provincial Police Intelligence Department and torture centre.

The books sitting on the shelves are those banned during the Dirty War, for fear that children would develop an imagination and thoughts against the dictatorship. Today, a red beanbag invites escapism and fantasy galore.

A few meters away stand the scratched walls of dark cells, signed with desperation by the disappeared. Above wait interrogation cells, where barred windows halted last hopes.

Such a contrast between playful and pain seems cruel, in a world where the traces of genocide are displayed as a shocking reminder of Never Again. But whilst a tower of skulls in Cambodia and a mountain of plaits in Poland will scar the visitors’ memory, the horrors remain so inhuman as to stay dislocated from today’s reality.

And so behind the cobbled streets of Cordoba, a transformation in collective memory is taking place, where victims´ lives are brought within the walls where they were broken. Only then, it seems, can visitors face the cell walls with the understanding necessary to prevent repetition.

One room in ´D2´ detention centre is a picture of 70´s youth; stripy jackets hang from green curtains, a Vespa is parked carefully next to an acoustic guitar. But with each item comes a black and white photo, and stories from the smiling owners whose possessions could never be passed on.

Onwards, and through the dusty corridor seeps the smell of fresh paint; a white-washed room with Ikea-inspired chairs and a flatscreen TV hanging on the wall. And in this room of clean lines and familiar modernity the survivors speak of unspeakable sins. Thirty years on, atrocities once more creep into a familiar setting, and it is only this identification which truly means Never Again.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


On the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the airport departure lounge is filled with a cloud of melancholy, surrounding those whose time is regrettably up. A few miles away stand their counterparts, lacking such a self-induldgent time for reflection as they battle their way through Retiro station.

The grand old buildings which house the gateway to South America now cower in the shadows of thousands of suited porteƱos and tatty travellers. The English Tower still gazes a watchful eye over Retiro, but is now separated by a haphazard renovation barrier, leaving its ally to suffocate in the unbearable pollution.

Battling through the smog, the crowds are confronted with an endless supply of throwaway consumer items, with sunglasses desperately thrust under umbrellas. Only the insects pause for thought; flies dancing over empanadas piled on plastic crates, mosquitos searching for distracted victims.

But relief is not to be found inside, as the capital´s infamous queue for change transforms the train station into an inpenetrable maze. Acutely aware of the flow of precious coins, a beggar sits her sleepy child by the ticket office, clutching a polystyrene cup in misguided hope. Tensions rise below the earth, and police are forced to open the Subte barrier, freeing the masses.

A few meters away, the bus station hints at past prosperity, as moving walkways carry weary bodies inside. But still there are no empty seats for relief and reflection. They are already filled with the waiting, driven mad by inaudible annoucements and unavoidable dirt.

And so a sense of relief accompanies a Retiro departure from Buenos Aires. One which will prove invaluable, as it masks the memories of the capital with a lungful of smoke and a headful of hassle.

Retiro may be a blot on the city-scape, but without it, no-one would leave.