A cold evening: walking in this strange amber light towards the theatre in San José’s main square. Everything seems to happen in slow motion here. Even the dogs are pensioners, shuffling arthritically down the pavement; they make some effort to accompany you on your way before giving up and slumping to the ground.
I want to find a reason for being here, other than the fact of having being invited, but draw a blank. This is what continuous travel does after ten days or so: each new displacement presents a minor ontological crisis – nothing serious, just the sense of being nowhere in particular, a feeling which is precisely so: we could be almost anywhere, provided it was a so-called backwater – market towns in Wales and Catalunya come to mind; places that might, under other circumstances, or to other people, feel like home. And I remember a town like this in rural Colombia, driving past two dogs glued together by their rear parts, yet facing in opposite directions, an eight legged Janus. One of the dogs turned its head to follow me down the road, eyes laden with infinite sorrow, pleading: please help me come unstuck, or even: take me with you, help me get the hell out of this place.
Later, inside the theatre, the lights fail, the sound system packs up, and for a full three minutes we are left in silence, in the dark. Only then do I feel comfortable; only then do I feel as though I’ve arrived.
Antonin, sure enough, there are no more masterpieces. / But your hands trembled as you said it, / and behind every curtain there is always, as you / knew, a rustling.
So, we were just on Santa Fe (the main thoroughfare connecting Palermo to the centre of Buenos Aires) trying to hail a taxi, when these young people, on the way back from a night out – or rather, still on a night out – at 7.15 in the morning, approached Pedro and me as we unsuspectingly pulled our suitcases towards the road. Pedro, informing them he was Mexican, proved of little interest, but they engaged me enthusiastically in alcohol-infused conversation on a range of interesting topics, and at full volume: my favourite Argentine food (I went for medialunas rather than raw steak, obviously to their disapproval); my favourite Argentine beverage (theirs was Fernet with coke, which I have never tried and almost certainly never will); and lastly, with considerable ardour, my opinion on the political status of the Falkland Islands or Malvinas (in the opinion of their most vocal spokesperson, there was no doubt on this issue, although I expressed scepticism, recalling – though not mentioning – something that Borges said about two bald men fighting over a comb). When pressed on the issue of whether the Malvinas were Argentine on a purely geographical basis, I suggested that the islands should probably belong to Antarctica. These kids can’t have been much more than eighteen; they weren’t anywhere near being born when the Falklands war was on; why is this even an issue?
In order to get from Buenos Aires to Uruguay, you take the ferry to Colonia del Sacramento. I’ve done this before, en route to Montevideo, but today we are going to the town of San José de Mayo, where there is a Book Fair and Poetry Festival, and where we will be presenting, as a part of the festival’s opening ceremonies, and for the third time on this whistle-stop tour, following our events in Buenos Aires and Valdivia, The Other Tiger, with readings by a range of poets included in the book, from Uruguay and Colombia, as well as those from Argentina and Mexico who have been on tour with me over the past week.
The weather is frightful, though obviously not as bad as in parts of the Caribbean. From my seat on the ferry I watch a grey sea against a slowly unfurling grey sky.
It seems timeless, and perhaps it is. I don’t know. I watch Carlos taking a film of the grey sea and the grey sky and ask him what he is doing, and he tells me he is making a film of the sea, so I do the same as I can’t think what else to do. Perhaps if you put the video on loop you might achieve lasting wisdom, though I doubt it. Once we hit terra firma we pile into a mini bus and, as the rain hammers down, we pass green fields and scattered woods.
I curl up in the back with my hood over my head and listen to music. At one point I look up and wonder if the driver is watching me, or watching out – but it seems like a David Lynch moment, or is it a Hitchcock moment, and although I cannot remember making the decision to take a photo, one appears on my iPhone.
After a very long wait for lunch – everything in Uruguay, I am reminded, takes place very slowly, which can be nice sometimes, but not when you are hungry – the food finally arrives, and almost immediately a piece of meat, a piece of meat from a famous Uruguayan asado, goes down the wrong way, and I know at once that I am in trouble. I go to the bathroom, try to rack my brains for a memory of what to do, to find an auto-cure for this thing that won’t go down, but all I can think of is the Heimlich manoeuvre. And I know, without considering it for very long, that of all the people in the dining room, of whom I know around ten personally, Andy is the one to ask, so I do. And he does know, although he didn’t know he knew, and hadn’t done it before. And so I breathe again, my brush with mortality over almost as quickly as it began. What a way to begin a poetry festival.
Here, in case you find yourself in a similar position, with a chunk of Uruguayan beef, or something equivalent, choking your airways, are the instructions on doing it yourself.
Performing the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself
- Make a fist and place the thumb side of your fist against your abdomen, below the ribcage, and just above the navel.
- Grasp your fist with your other hand and press into your abdomen with a quick, upward pressure.
- Repeat until object is expelled.
Alternatively, you can lean over a fixed horizontal object, such as a table edge, chair, or railing and press your abdomen against the edge to produce a quick, upward pressure. Repeat until the object is expelled. Like this fellow in the grey pullover:
After lunch I return to my hotel room, ring home to let my loved ones know that I survived, even though they didn’t know I might not, and then watch the rain through my window, and in the distance there is the almost continuous sound of thunder.
I began drinking mate six years ago, on my first trip to Argentina, and liked it immediately, even though many find it rather bitter. The picture, Mate, in which the woman drinks from the gourd while two gauchos look on admiringly, is by Juan Manuel Blanes, taken with a flash (unfortunately visible in the centre of the picture) from a book of prints of his works in the library of the National Museum of Visual Arts (Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales) in Montevideo, where last Thursday I spent a couple of hours researching Blanes’ work, with the kind assistance of two librarians, after hearing about him from Diego Vidart during a lunch of pizza and warm chickpea bread.
Blanes is the most influential Uruguayan painter, and to a large extent, the creator of the myth of Uruguayan national identity. In fact he deserves a post of his own, and one day he may get one. He did many paintings of rather glamourized gauchos, frequently drinking their national beverage, lassoing horses et cetera (the word lasso is from the Spanish ‘lazo’, a knot, bow or loop). In Uruguay everyone drinks mate, all of the time. In Argentina and Brazil it is also popular, but the Uruguayans are nuts about it. Everywhere they go they carry a flask and a gourd, and a mobile phone. They wear dark glasses too, when the sun is out, which is most of the time. This site tells you all you need to know about drinking mate, especially its many health benefits (it is, among other things, a powerful antioxidant) but the site is, I would venture, somewhat partisan.
All I know is that it tastes like supercharged green tea, delivers a healthy-feeling kick, keeps me alert, and takes the edge off my appetite, so must be good for dieting, and might eventually relieve some of the circumference of the Blanco belly. Plus it is somehow very comforting, sucking on a silver straw.