Tag Archives: Villa Miseria

A visit to the islands and ‘mal del sauce’

20 Sep

No sooner had I finished writing yesterday’s blog, than I walked into the hotel dining room (earlier than usual, as I had planned an excursion) and the first person I see is Coetzee himself, sitting in the corner with his back to the wall, dressed in jeans and one of those flak-jacket things, reading the newspaper.

I immediately felt as though I had intruded (which in a sense I just had, by writing about him) although there were two or three other early risers taking breakfast. I sat down a couple of tables away and observed him,  discreetly, like a spy. He licked his finger, delicately, cat-like, and slowly turned the page of his paper. I resisted the temptation to go over and tell him that the Springboks were jammy bastards beating us by just one point last week. In fact I behaved with decorum, as though he were not there.

And this morning I am off to Uruguay for a couple of days.

The high spots of my stay in Buenos Aires? I would go for the concert/interview in the Ateneo bookshop last Friday given by the singer Barbie Martinéz, accompanied by (although this hardly does her playing justice) Paula Shocrón.

Between songs, Barbie was interviewed by Jorge Fondebrider with his inimitable mix of wit and candour. I recorded a couple of their songs, but the sound quality really does not do them justice, so I would recommend instead that you listen to their CDs. Barbie has only one so far, Swing, and a second forthcoming. Paula Shocrón has several CDs out; solo, with a trio and with a big band.

The other most enjoyable event was a trip up the Paraná delta yesterday on a river boat. This web of riverways and estuaries is the graveyard of centuries’ worth of shipwrecks and abandoned dreams. As late as the 1870s it was the haunt of pirates, many of them women. Setting out from Tigre, the trip took around three hours and we passed dozens of islands, the ones nearer Tigre were quite densely populated, but further out, and across the Paraná itself, the island homes became more and more eccentric and isolated. It was like entering a lost and enchanted world, and I would like to find out more about it. Inés Garland’s novel Piedra, papel o tijera might be a good place to start. The island people are almost entirely dependent on the delivery of goods by boat, and the children go to an island school. They have a reputation for a kind of wistful lethargy, a condition known locally as ‘Mal del sauce’ or ‘weeping willow sickness’ (willows are abundant along the riverbanks). It is the kind of condition that afflicts a person who spends too many hours gazing at the slow passage of water.

River Boat

Island homes with dog

Green and yellow barge

Crossing the Paraná river

Red island home

River dog

Finally my visit to the Villa Miseria at Barrancas 21/24 (see post of 14th September) made a lasting, if very different impression on me. So much so that I wrote a poem about it, in a kind of Spanglish, which I read at the Bitácora, the closing forum of the festival on Sunday evening, before Coetzee’s reading.

Those who have read The Vagabond’s Breakfast will know that my last visit to Buenos Aires was rather fraught, to say the least. It was wonderful to spend some time in good company and find out more about this fabulous city, and I am grateful to my hosts, especially Jorge Fondebrider, Pablo Braun, Inés Garland and Jorge Aulicino for providing the opportunity to replace earlier memories with ones of an altogether more helpful and agreeable kind.





Villa Miseria

14 Sep

Barracas 21/24


In immaculate contrast to yesterday’s trip to the rarefied air of Villa Ocampo, today I visited a slum (or a Villa Miseria) to the south of the city in the barrio of Barracas 21/24. It is an area without running water or electricity, and with only the most basic provision of what we in the UK would consider to be essential social amenities. I went as a guest of Pablo Braun, a co-founder with Paz Ochoteco of Fundación Temas.

This organization, with Paz at the helm, attempts to provide at least some encouragement to the children and young adults of the barrio, help in the provision of schooling, a kitchen with free meals, and a boxing club. The idea for the boxing club was inspired by the work of the sociologist Loïc Wacquant who wrote about a similar club in Chicago (and no doubt influenced the makers of the HBO series The Wire). As Pablo explained to me on the drive back into town, Wacqaunt argued that the discipline of boxing, within a defined context where the rules were clear, channeled a good deal of the natural aggression of deprived and ghettoized kids, and provided a focus away from the easy distractions of drugs and crime.

There is very little infant schooling for the children here because the facilities do not exist. Forty per cent of the children in this barrio receive no pre-junior education, and a half of them never reach secondary school.

I didn’t want to take pictures inside the boxing club but the images from the nearby streets give some idea of the kind of place it is. The Riachuelo that flows – no, flow is not the word for the sluggish progress of this viscous and putrid effluvia towards the River Plate and the sea – is supposedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere. Upstream, a leather factory producing luxury goods spews out contaminant chemicals. A railway line runs between the shacks.


Rio Riachuelo . . .

. . . and its contents

Dwellings backing onto the river Riachuelo

Diego Maradona grew up in a place like this, so you can appreciate why the people love him. He is one of theirs.

And in the tiny office of Fundación Temas beside the gym where the boys and girls were boxing – up to a half of the members of the club are girls – was a poster of Che Guevara: the only time I have seen this poster in a place where it makes any sense.

When they asked the kids in this barrio where they would like to go one day, or what they would be interested to find out about, they replied ‘Buenos Aires’. They do not consider themselves a part of the city to which they allegedly belong: it is a foreign world to them and most of the kids have never been there, even though it is only a few miles away.

I have promised to write something for the festival about my impressions of Barracas 21/24 but will find it very hard. Apart from the fact that such places exist – itself a crime against humanity – I have difficulty comprehending the extent of the poverty and deprivation in a place like this, and the effect it must have on a young person as he or she grows up and sees no way out other than through crime or drugs. Western Europe and North America have a problem of obesity among the children of the socially disadvantaged. Here they are lucky to get enough to eat. But strangely the two things – hunger and the excessive consumption of fats and sugars – are not so far removed from one another. Paz tells me that problems of obesity are already on the rise among the poor. Unhappily, capitalism knows this, and the multinational food corporations and outlets such as McDonalds only profit from it.