No Longer the Place of the Beautiful Air, But Definitely the Beautiful People!
Buenos Aires, a city of 14 million, literally means “the place of the beautiful air”. You could be excused if your first reaction may be to ask how for a city of that size, and believe me seemingly the same amount of cars, could that be possible and why hasn’t it been renamed. However, as surprising as it would seem, BA air is not that bad. In fact, it could be a lot worse, think Bangkok and the thick smog that greets you on leaving the airport. The prevailing south westerly wind blowing across the Atlantic from pristine Antarctica helps exceptionally. Not that the black stain so often permeating the walls, awnings or any other stationary structure in most cities isn’t present. Far from it, there’s barely a surface that doesn’t suffer from vehicle exhaust residue. In reality though, there is nothing a good stiff sea breeze can’t fix and other problems facing the Buenos Aires government far out weigh the little bit of air born petrochemical pollutants that is left.
During the 19th century BA was called the Paris of Latin America and in fact was so wealthy due to agriculture that a common saying in Europe was to be “as wealthy as an Argentine”, but for a select group, those days are long gone. Which brings me to the present, flying over greater Buenos Aires on my arrival it wasn’t hard to noticed an area of larger homes to the north of the city, each with their own swimming pool and well maintained garden. You can never truly be prepared for what you will find until you arrive in any untravelled destination but this was unexpected and lulled me into a false reality.
In contrast the trip from the airport had barely begun when the level of urban decay became apparent and my research was confirmed. Crumbling shells of buildings, some of much grander origin but most just poorly built and aged prematurely, packed like shipping containers for kilometre after kilometre. Some cities you travel to for the architecture, but that is definitely not Buenos Aires.
The past glory of BA is evident in unexpected moments, The Water Company Palace for incident was and still is a water pumping station and yet could easily double for the abode of royalty. However, for the most part, old and new alike, stand without any obvious attempt at preservation. A hodgepodge of era’s and styles, shapes and use, the built environment of Buenos Aires seems to have had no real control and developed in chaos.
Amongst all of the mayhem of downtown BA live at least three million residents, as well as visitors and innumerable undocumented migrants. Add to this mix another ten million plus who live in greater Buenos Aires, many of who commute daily into El Centro, and you have teeming mass of humanity, all struggling to survive. The actually population mix amongst the Portenos, the old term for a resident of Buenos Aires, is of course Spanish but almost equally Italian, many of whom came in the nineteenth century when agricultural work took off. This ethnic mix, along with some Germans, Eastern Europeans and English remained quite static until the late twentieth century when migrants from other central and South American countries, like Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela arrived in search of a better life . Such is the number of people crammed into central BA the two hundred and fifty thousand Chinese I have been told live in the city are barely noticeable.
….. and back to the beautiful homes I flew over, where space is abundant, children play in lovely gardens or in green manicured parks. Where there is no litter on the street, no black grime covering every surface, where residents go to sleep in peace without honking horns or screaming sirens or yelling from the street. These are gated communities with razor wire on walls surrounding the enclosure and security guards with guns. Where segregation from the wider population is practised in a very “Truman Show” esque reality.
While those in the “Countries” as the gated communities are called keep themselves separate from the wider population, living in a controlled environment, where life revolves in ordered security, for the rest of the population of Buenos Aires there is an order in the chaos. They expect the unexpected and are not ruffled by it when it comes. BA has a lot that could be better but the people for the most part are beautiful and happy. They have nothing but they laugh and sing, they welcome you and they have their music and oh how good it is!