Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires reality check

More of Buenos Aires looks like this than the upscale barrio where we are fortunate to live.

There are a multitude of ways to live anywhere, and in any city, obviously; different strokes for different folks multiplied virtually infinitely.

By far, most people are not able to choose where they live, trapped by accident in the place of their birth. I think this is regrettable, but I am not able to do anything about that. Never a day passes when I don’t feel stunned by my lucky life. I am not gloating about my good fortune, because most of it occurred out of my control — all accidents of birth.

Which is not to say that much of my life isn’t self-created, because it has been. In wilder days, I made many self-destructive and flagrantly dumb choices, but I survived and learned, and having survived to an experienced maturity, I have tried to make better, wiser choices; joined with the random, fortunate accident of my birth (place, adopted parents, race, nationality, circumstances …), I am one lucky man.

The long preamble is intended first to establish the impact of having choice regarding what follows, and second to make the point that what follows is particular, and what any reader comes away with after reading it will also be particular to that person’s individuality. This is how I see it, making no claims on or access to anyone’s else experience.

Just returning from almost a month away, I did not have the feeling of “coming home,” although this is where we live and where almost all our stuff is. Driving into the city from the airport, my first feeling — right after the utter relief of getting off the airplane we’d been on more than fourteen hours — was to realize that I do not like living in Buenos Aires, that it is essentially a bad place to live. I will be happy to move on when the time comes, and will probably miss nothing but the San Diego-like weather and the cafe society.

I am tired of the “developing world.” (I am not sure what separates the 3rd world from the developing world.) Buenos Aires is the crumbling capital of a developing world country, and I am tired of crumbling that shows little evidence of recovery. I readily admit that this attitude reflects my age and situation; I would probably not have noticed any of this in my Twenties. I am tired of the inexplicable inability of a city to deal with even the most simple impediments to living a comfortable and amiable life. I am not bothered by the larger problems of life in developing, 3rd world, countries: corrupt government (an essential feature of life in 3rd world), macro-economics, international politics, and all that. It is the small, petty, day-to-day details that compound and pile up to feel like one is carrying a rucksack filled with stones all day.

It is the incessant compounding of little problems that crush the spirit in cities like Buenos Aires; none in itself anything more than a petty annoyance, but when piled up one after another after another after another … a crushing burden of daily life.Typical example of a sidewalk in good repair

Sidewalks. There are probably not fifty yards of clean, stable, safe, passable sidewalk in the miles of them in this city. Actually, sidewalk is not the appropriate name for these areas; they are in function simply dog toilets. Sidewalks littered with dog turds is a petty and simple problem to fix: pick up after your dog. But few people do, thus, sidewalks are public dog toilets.

A by-product of using public places as toilets for animals is that people trying to clean a shit-free path to the entrance of their homes come out each morning and hose down the sidewalk, using what must be millions of gallons of water a day simply to clean the dog toilet. (Of course, since the world has such a vast abundance of potable water, what does it matter if millions of gallons of it goes for the purpose of cleaning dog toilets?)

Then, another by-product of washing the toilet-sidewalks every morning, is that the unsecured, uneven, sidewalk tiles begin to float over puddles of shit-water, and since all the sidewalk tiles are loose, walking along one offers a constant splash of shit-water over your shoes and pants legs.

This is not necessary and easy to fix. That it remains the case and is not fixed is a category example of what makes a 3rd world country.

Noise. All of the worst, most obnoxious, examples of ear-damaging noise in Buenos Aires comes from two sources, both easy to stop: roaring, unmuffled buses and the impotent, maddening cacophony of honking horns. Putting some sort of adequate muffler on buses would cut the horrendous noise pollution of this city by at least thirty percent. Dismantling all automotive horns would cut another thirty percent of all the noise pollution. The other thirty percent is mostly comprised of inevitable and natural noise. A seventy percent reduction of the grinding, debilitating level of noise would make this city nearly livable.

The macho, penis-envy honking of car horns is the classic example of 3rd world culture. “I may live in the backwater of the world, but by god, I can make a lot of noise if I want to.” Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it is not to get the attention of an inattentive or incautious driver, if so, a toot would serve the purpose. Horns here aren’t tooted or honked, they are blasted, blared out far beyond the necessary — the rare times it is necessary. Blaring car horns here are nothing more than expressions of anger, hatred, and frustration over the impotence of one’s life. Very 3rd world. Notice that the more advanced the culture, the less noise that society produces. The converse is also true.

These two things — crumbling urban infrastructure and noise pollution — are the essential components of daily life in Buenos Aires, and neither of them are necessary.

This post is the result of my morning walk to the cafe. (Away nearly a month, I have to relearn the survival skills for living in a city like this, that I had developed over the last two years.) During that walk, I stepped in a pile of fresh dog shit and had to stop at one of the usual mud puddles along the sidewalk and clean my shoes; then, hardly a block later, stepped on one of the disguised floating, just rinsed off, sidewalk toilet tiles, splashing toilet water over the top of the shoe I had just cleaned, as well as my sock and pants leg. And because I just spent the last few weeks in the 1st world — not once in those weeks did I hear a single car horn honk, nor have a passing bus drown out even loud conversation — I have to try to readjust to the reality of incessant, maddening, blaring of car horns.

Buenos Aires has been an experience, and experiences that don’t kill you are usually beneficial to the creative character of one’s life. But enough is enough. I will be ecstatic when the time comes to leave.

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12 replies »

  1. Preach on, brother Donigan. I felt more or less this way about Thailand.

    We’re going back for a trip in May. I hope I re-learn my survival skills before I get killed.

    • Having lived in foreign places for most of the last twenty-plus years, I have reached the conclusion that real ex-pats have the kind of personality or character that lends itself to extended living in foreign places. They are the ones who usually stay somewhere long enough that they stop being ex-pats and become immigrants. I do not have the ex-pat personality.

      There is a tacit but strong feeling I get in some places, the feeling that “yes, I could happily live here,”as opposed to the equally strong feeling that, “no, I would hate to live here.” There are many more places that fall into the latter group than the former.

      Interestingly, with a rare exception or two, these two opposing feelings turn out to be accurate immediately. That is, the feeling comes immediately and is later born out in experience.

      Yes, trust me, since you’ve been in the States quite a while now, you are definitely going to need to re-learn those old 3rd world survival skills. I’m thinking it’s going to take me at least a month before I can live here as comfortably as I did before this last month’s big dose of living in the 1st world.

      I’m just back from the market, one of the largest supermarkets in this area (it is called Jumbo), and couldn’t help but notice that there is more quality and variety and choice in a small town Safeway than in this WalMart sized place. Why is that?

      • I’m no expat, either.

        Funnily enough, when I’d been living in Thailand (as opposed to traveling there, which is wonderful) for about 2 months, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it wasn’t the long-term place for me. And yet it was to stay, so I stayed a little longer, then a little longer, then I met a girl … you know the story.

        I used to look around at the expats I knew – as insular a community as any junior high, in all the senses of the word – and think to myself, “Okay, which one of these guys do you want to be in 5 or 10 or 20 years?” The answer was invariably, “None of them.”

  2. Great read. Well worded and honest. We too will be leaving, as soon as possible. We’d love to have you for dinner before we’re all gone. We expect to be here at least the rest of the summer and possible (sigh) a bit longer.

    I imagine you come from a very cold climate. I imagine that because you liken the weather here to San Diego. I lived in SD for 25 years before moving here. We don’t have humidity there, and we don’t have mosquitoes. It is much colder here in the winter, partly because it’s damp and gets in your bones, and partly because the temperature is just lower. Only people from very cold places love the weather here. It’s one thing I’ve missed out on, being able to console myself that “at least the weather is nice”. As for the cafe culture, I believe you can export that. It is our choice in the states to run from place to place, appointment to appointment, never stopping to sit in the window of the cafe perhaps alone watching the people go by, perhaps with a friend conversing over a cookie about life and death and money and love. I lived the cafe culture at home, and don’t here, only because the noise and low quality of coffee, ok and the bad service, keep me from really enjoying it here. Still, it has been a hell of ride…

    • I’m sorry, Annie, but this ended up in a spam box for unknown reasons and I just came across it while doing some blog cleaning.

      Actually, the place I’ve lived longest in the US (almost all of the last 20 years have been outside the US) was in San Diego, well, Coronado, but that counts. When I refer to the weather here in comparison with San Diego, I am referring to the totality of San Diego County, not just beach weather. Mainly I mean that it doesn’t snow or get all that cold, and that it is often sunny; although maybe Atlanta or Houston would be better examples.

      I go to the same couple of cafes over and over, and have for more than a year; I tip well; I am treated quite wonderfully by the staff in those places. I only drink a small cortado, so the bad coffee doesn’t dominate the experience. I drink Starbucks at home. Mostly I go through a large bottle of sparkling water and have one medialuna. I usually stay for at least two hours, often three, occasionally four. I can’t think of any places I’m familiar with in the States where for the purchase of a cup of coffee and a bottle of water I can sit and work undisturbed for hours, certainly not without the on-going interruptions of “Will there be anything else?” “Would you like the check?” If those questions are ever asked, it is not a cafe culture.

      I have more of a European soul than an American soul, so those aspects of life here don’t bother me. It is the developing world nature of life here that wears me down.

      I think my reasons for being ready to go are less severe or striking than yours, but go we all will.

    • Thanks, Brad. But all in all I’d rather still be in Honolulu.

      I should put up a post about getting, or not getting, any work done. I’m continuing to try to understand this spell of doldrums, which is rare in a writing life spanning now almost forty years.

      Your inquiry may have prompted me to wonder more specifically.