Buenos Aires

If there is any other city that I “felt” closest to being in the Calcutta that I grew up – it would be Buenos Aires. A city that is ornate with past glory and grandeur but is a bit lost in today’s world. A city that symbolized modernity in its outlook, character and dereliction long before the rest of the world thought we were living in the modern age. I usually try reading about the place before I visit, usually some fiction. But this sudden trip did not give me much of a chance. I tried reading Borges once but it was a bit to digest his convoluted plots and storyline. So perhaps this time around, I will understand the literature better after visiting the place.

Buenos Aires is a walking city. The streets are full of action. It is filled with beautiful women and even men know how to dress well. Their is a certain classiness among people despite mass poverty and 40% inflation; where cash is still king, as credits cards are not accepted everywhere and ATMs are often drained out. There is a vibrant cafe culture, book stores in almost every block (and you can find a Sartre, Camus, Marx, Kant in a newspaper kiosk) and although I don’t understand Spanish, the limited exchanges I had with strangers were warm, welcoming, and refreshing. While walking in one of the side streets – I curiously asked a group of men what they were drinking.  It was Mate.  They poured me and said, “try it.” It was awkward to drink from the same cup (Mate), but they explained thats how it is.  You pour water into the leaves and then have to drink the entire pour, and then you pass it on to someone, who then gets a fresh pour. It is communal and social. For a moment I got a Zen-like shiver of human connectedness with a group of policemen (yes that group were plain dress off-duty policemen, which I only later found out). But you never know who you end up with, is what brings me out wandering in streets and by-lanes. Like my visits to Calcutta that ground me, people in Buenos Aires come across as enlightened, worldly and intellectual without a long tail of degrees or a wallet full of money. These values go beyond monetary pretension and indeed, there were times and places that exemplify that.

There is a joke about Argentines – more specifically, the Portenos, literally meaning the “Port People”, but a term used for the people of Buenos Aires by others. That they are originally Italians, who speak Spanish, but dress like the English and wish they were French. I think there might be some truth to that. I was told that every visitor needs to do three things – eat steak, dance Tango, and buy leather. I was able to do all three – thanks to some good suggestions offered by my local contact – Chim. Chim who is a Canadian and an alum of Drama Centre London, which has produced people like Colin Firth and many contemporary stalwarts. He left doing Shakespeare and now is a artisan shoemaker in Buenos Aires. He personally took me to the Recoleta cemetery, which I went with some reluctance. This place has a stature similar to the cemeteries in Paris. It was a fascinating experience as he explained the mix of faiths, especially the Masons, Judaism and Christianity as well as paganism. We had a long discussion on Eva Peron, the rise of today’s populism and even the current Pope. I left with more questions than answers.

It was an eyeopener to visit Pope Francis’ original church. Speaking to some of those who know him well, interestingly enough, I got an explanation of his openness, that I had heard but never knew why. “The credit goes to the previous arch Bishop, who mentored him as a Christ purist,” they said. The basic doctrine of love thy neighbor, tolerance and forgiveness. They showed me a set of pictures and newspapers cuttings of the Jewish center bombings in the 90s and the role the church played in solidarity with the Jews that would otherwise be unthinkable for the Catholics. There is also a painting of Madonna – where Mary is depicted as an ordinary “woman”, which is also unusual – as historic Catholic paintings mostly depicted women either as virgins or prostitutes. But hardly as ordinary women with needs, desires, and aspirations, interacting with the world.

I met Jerry and Lucia, a very nice couple; Jerry is Irish and Lucia is local, who are Tango teachers in the San Telmo area. They took me to a Milonga. It was a trip down the memory lane – with a room full of locals dancing and having a good time. The demographic was similar to going to a rock concert these days, heavily skewed to 55 and above; but a stolid reminder of a time when men behaved like gentlemen. In fact, there was this ~80 year old Toto, a legendary Tango dancer of the 70s, who still dances in an almost defunct style, which was designed to protect the woman from getting hurt from the accidental kicks from others in the dance floor. Communication between the man and the woman happens through the eyes. You glance at the woman and if she gives you a friendly glance back; you go and have a dance with her; if not, you “Tango on”. As they say, there are no mistakes in Tango and poetry. You just flow.

Jerry suggested that I should go to a particular Parilla (Argentine steakhouse), so I went. It was a no-frills place, except that in the lore you hear the long list of celebrities that they have served – from the Obamas to the Hollywood stars. Waiters are elderly and old-school and they act as advisers as much as servers. Customer is not the king here. There was an young American couple who were given a paternal reprimand for ordering too much. The waiter cut their order down by saying, “you can’t eat that much…just because you can (order) does not mean you should”

Cities like Buenos Aires make me feel alive. Make me a part of something larger. At will I can become a participant or just a bystander, like my last evening, after buying a pair of shoes –  I spent in the Davidoff lounge – sipping shots of espresso and watching people through the window. I felt like Baudelaire’sFlaneur“. And just as I came to appreciate Baudelaire through Buddhadeb Bosu, I felt closeness to Buenos Aires through my primal attachment of Calcutta.

Valparaiso and Santiago

In Ode to ValparaisoPablo Neruda writes about Valparaiso’s perennial chaos and ugliness, that stood through time and the thousands of ships that passed by for centuries. This port city with small colorful houses lining up the hills – looks as disorderly today as it has been for ages.  After the opening of the Panama canal in early 20th century – Valparaiso as a port, slipped away in its stature, and as the customary halt for ships going from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  But as Neruda says, the colorful houses and street art and a few functioning fulniculars remind us of the heydays gone by.  Charles Darwin in his diaries note several insects linked to this city during his voyage in the Beagle, which ultimately influenced his Origin of Species.  Today, the Chilean Naval HQ and the constant flow of students – ensure its perpetual relevance and youth.  I stopped by Valapariso on my way back from a visit to a power plant nearby.  Yes, I am fortunate to visit such places in a “day’s work”.  In the few hours I had – I tried to soak in this place as much as I possibly could.  As a former gateway to the south and to the new world, the port is still vibrant with lines of dock equipment and ships hemming the shoreline.

In this maiden visit to Latin America, I was politely corrected early on – that I should not use America as the byword for the US.  Deep rooted nationalistic sentiment is pervasive and people here, and rightfully so, will remind those not mindful enough, that “they” in the southern hemisphere are Americans too.  And indeed, there is character, culture, and diversity that is worth giving its dues.  It is more than just their shared love for life and football. Here in Chile it is of course – Colo colo vs. Universidad de Chile ( the club has nothing to do with the Uni any more) that runs the football fever and occupies people’s mindshare.  Santiago, compared to Valparaiso may lack in character – or perhaps the modern urban plague has hit hard to unify and harmonize the look and feel, such that parts of the manicured Las Condes and Providencia, resemble Polanco in Mexico City or even Gurgaon in India – gated communities and large multi apartment complexes punctuated by lovely villas.  Chile (and it shows in Santiago), is a developed and economically progressive place compared to most of Latam. The Chicago boys had a hand in it to set it up in the 70s, and even today the business community is very bullish about this place. It is a controversial topic no doubt but that’s a topic for another day.

The old city with its fish and vegetable markets still retain the dirt, smell, and the feel of the developing world – of chaos but also of freshness, where everything is still organic, and markets are synonymous to conversations and meeting platforms. The old city also has a plaza or a city square built in European style filled with locals, hawkers, and chess players.  The square is surrounded by a worn down old church and commercial buildings, such as the old stock exchange that are remnants from the Spanish colonial times. Many of these are being brought down to make way for new shopping malls and other outfits. Progress has its own ways to plough through history.

In my travels to such foreign lands, food is a big part of my exploration. Through food, I believe one can tell quite a bit about a society.  It was obvious, rather quickly, that there was nothing unique about traditional Chilean cuisine.  The ceviche is ubiquitous but it is mostly made in Peruvian style. Chile’s relations with its neighbors, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia have been strained in the past, and this is not just political — people are sentimental about it, although the more educated and worldly, express it with a grain of self-deprecating wit. But Chile unlike many other countries is not stuck in the past but is constantly re-inventing itself.  People do not mind being called a copycat of the US as long as it is symbolic of moving forward in prosperity.  Such pragmatism is noteworthy. With its market-based economy, it is in much better position compared to the once developed Argentina, or the corruption laden Brazil.  I know I digressed. So, finally, desperate to find local Chilean food, I ended up in Borago, which is rated in the world’s top 50 restaurants. (Not to rub it – but I guess Peru has three restaurants in the top 50). Chef Rodolfo Gunzman is creative and tried his best to bring indigenous ingredients – mostly local Chilean items that grew in the rocks to prepare several exotic courses bringing out flavors that are quite distinctive. Pictures are below:

In the recent years, Chilean wine has become quite popular. After France, Italy, and Spain, Chile ranks fourth in global exports. The topography with mountains along the coast and another range running along the Argentine border creates a microclimate that supports the reds of Maipu and the whites of Casablanca valley. I took the wine tasting tour as part of the standard city tour but it was deeply underwhelming compared to those in France, Tuscany or even the commercial Napa. But if one can get a private tour to a place like Concha y Toro, it can well be a very memorable experience.

In large cities, I try my best to go off the mainstream, to find the sub-cultures that reside in parallel worlds. I was happy to connect with a photographer who does freelance for BBC these days and was connected once to our common ground – the ICP in New York.  We went to some of parts of the rough Bohemian area, which has a bursting street art scene. Lots of paid commission along with the usual tagging and graffiti.

It was interesting to find that there are quite a few British expats here, including my photographer friend. Some say that it is the sea that brought them; others believe that given the animosity between Chile and Argentina – the Falklands dispute resulted in some friendly overtures. Clouts against a common enemy.  I ran into a small group of English expats – in Wonderland cafe in the Belavista area. Most of them worked for the BBC South American news service and knew my photographer friend. They were dressed in tropical coats and Panama hats, with tanned faces coated with days of sweat – an image out of the Raj brought to life.  Life for foreign correspondents is a feast or famine business and it was obvious that they were enjoying now, given that the wildfires that consumed the news have gone for a while. It is now time for afternoon tea in a languid, lazy Sunday — filled with hearty laughs with your lady friends.

My stay, in contrast, was a rather busy workweek, looking for a couple of days over the weekend to sneak out to Buenos Aires. It turned out to be very different city from Santiago. Will write about that soon. Meanwhile – here are the pictures from Santiago and Valparaiso.

Berlin – The Wild Side

The video of two members of the Berlinkidz gang slinging from a rope tied to the roof of a high rise building in Berlin has gone viral since it came out. In the twilight, when the lights of the Berlin sprawl create a mystical haze – these guys take just a few minutes to scribble a few characters that resemble an obscure South American ancient script.  We can see them standing up on the roof of a speeding U-Bahn – with arms stretched, crying the sound of victory, after spraying their mark on the trains.  Vandalism or art? That is the question.  Beating the sight of building owners, tenants, and the law enforcement, these kids would go to the extreme of danger to leave their “mark”.  Ego, adrenaline and the sheer excitement of the wild are the main factors driving them. This is a glimpse of the wild side of Berlin – the world that gets exposed to the mainstream through tagging, graffiti, and street art, and these days social media and youtube videos. For many this is considered as “breaking the law”, and a mere destruction of public space. But street artists would argue – that – so are the advertisements and the thousands of billboards across the city landscape. What is visual pollution and what is not – is a topic for another day.  But this side of Berlin has much to offer – raw and uncut. A pure expression of the human spirit.

Admittedly, this wild underground life of Berlin has toned down quite a bit in the last couple of years after a run of more than 20 years, since the Wall came down. So when the wall came down in 1990s, a large section of the central city area called Mitte opened up. During the Iron Curtain era, this was largely abandoned and fell in the no-man’s land within the eastern section. Being so close to the border with West Berlin – no one really developed it. So it was not surprising to find garbage and rubbish from WWII still remaining there. Broken jeeps, aircrafts, shells – not to mention the ruins from the war that were left intact. (Check out this book) . So people started making stuff out of it. Given that there was not much out there – the people who came to this area were mostly freaks and misfits. There was already the Kreuzberg area in the West that was thronged by those who wanted a safe haven to dodge the German military service (yes Berliners had an exception). A combination of all these factors gave rise to a subculture that brought out the “other” side. Cheap living supported by major gentrification push from the government, brought in people from everywhere – mostly artists who took to the streets as their theater. Today, many of them have gone to major commercial success. The Banksy effect is pervasive and Berlin has its fair share of commercially successful artists. Many street “purists” however, do not like them; and are not pleased with these commercial developments and would prefer to keep doing streets from the underground, away from material mainstream success, in stealth and incognito. Such folks breed anarchy at heart. And I admire them.

Now personally speaking, ensconced in the mainstream, this subculture was outside my radar until a few years back when a friend of mine in New York introduced me to Parkour and street art in the Bronx and Yorktown area. I will get into the connection between the two later but like second hand cigarette smoke I was still a bit removed from what really went on. Walking around Berlin with a former member of the 1Up gang was an eyeopener. My first lesson was to understand the distinction between tagging, graffiti and street art. Graffiti is an outline with fillings of color – almost always done to make a personal statement. It is meant for other gangs or groups – usually a statement of ego and vanity. As simple as – “mine is bigger than yours”. Tagging is a basic form of graffiti – mainly to demarcate territory. There is a hierarchy within the gangs that ought to be respected. 1Up was one of these gangs that has an elevated stature in Berlin that others rarely crossed. Tagging and graffiti also serve to contextualize the place. There are folks who keep tagging over and over again. Someone cleans it up just to get tagged again. Tags are also a mark of protest – one such was all over Mitte to make a statement against the commercialization of the area. Mitte today is so trendy and expensive that it is driving the poor artists away.  It has become a hip neighborhood now with art galleries and trendy coffee shops.

Street art, however has a very different purpose. It is mostly for the viewers consumption. I was told that the newer breed of artists that are coming in are treating the street as just a window into their virtual world of social media. So they use the street to just get noticed and then conversation on art and commercial terms continue via social media. This is driving some of the old school graffiti/sprayers to other locales as a path to commercial success. I am told opportunities are opening up in other places in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. I did see that in Budapest last year and in Chile and Buenos Aires earlier this year.

I walked around marveling at the details and learning the stories behind them.  Stories on the refugees migration, their ironical detention in the Tempelhof airport (which was used for the Berlin airlift), deceit, human rights, heartbreaks…they are all there. I was struck with the variety of materials that are used. The staple is the paint can. Usually a beginner starts with chrome and black paint learning to do outlines. They have to be clean, proportionate and obviously, have to be done quickly. It takes several months of watching, practicing outlines, and forms before they can give a test and join the group as an artist. Once they join, then go up the hierarchy. There are rules, and gangs have their own set of highly rigorous governance mechanisms. A group like 1Up! has about 100 members – with a large percentage of girls. (Approach them at your own peril; gangs are very protective of their girls, and there is no tolerance for sexism). Many artists use stencils. Multi-layered stencils are used directly when the artists want to keep the artwork for long. Others can do more complex work on stencils in the studio and paste the paper onto the wall. Of course, these wither, crumble and fade away sooner. The only thing apart from the materials that ensure longevity of the art work is the respect for the artist itself. The notion of transience and impermanence is central to the artist’s psyche. Whats pretty today will not be there tomorrow. Either will get overwritten or just gone and forgotten.

The most fascinating material I saw was the use of the fire extinguisher. It came to Berlin from the streets of Paris. Fire extinguishers are easily available – one just need to break and grab it from a public place. Fill it half with paint and the other with some medium – then pressurize it with compressed air at a gas station – and you are good to go. It holds a lot of paint – so one does not need to carry a ton of paint cans. There is a strict protocol not to leave any material behind at the site so with the extinguisher it helps keeping your paint gear light. It takes a lot of practice to master the use with the nozzle though, but it is very effective. Without mastery bad things can happen. Notice the scribble near the famous astronaut – it is one such disaster. Although the guy who blew it was quite senior, he was not experienced in the nozzle control. Following the rules of the gang – he was apparently demoted and had to suffer a reprimand course of training before he was allowed back.

The recent trend is to combine parkour and graffiti art. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it has resulted in many casualties and fatalities especially when trying to do the epitome of all public places – the trains. It is the ultimate thrill of action art. I always associated action art with someone like Jackson Pollock  but this is of course of a different league. No absinthe or LSD involved. Quite the contrary – the Berlinkidz don’t touch alcohol, dont smoke, or do drugs.  They are on a strict diet and exercise. Despite their dedication, the Berlinkidz are believed that they would either get hurt or end up in prison. Pushing the human boundaries to the limits of danger – both physical danger and danger from the authorities to make that personal statement is of course not everyone’s thing. One artist told me, “the street is a very humbling place. You need to learn the hard way and then get erased soon. We do not come from art schools, but we learn and express through this rough cruel way.” I found this to be quite a paradox. But then as with many things in life – I am too small to pass a judgment. I can see both sides to this quite vividly. It can be pursuit of an ego trip in a humbling way. The truth to me is to be able carry forward and bear these contradictions – co-existing with each other.

I learn a great deal from such excursions. Not the least of which is that beyond the apparent two dimensional view of what I see there is a third or even more dimensions that is not visible but it is there. At a minimum there is always a “story” behind these art pieces, which is not available to everyone. I am grateful that, even in a very limited way, I could get behind the visible and learn about some of these stories.

Note: Here is a collection of pictures – mostly taken with my iPhone and a few with my Leica M9.