ARGENTINA: A tale of two cities

“Pollo, pollo, pollo!!” The war-cry scrapes through the abrasive winter air. Before the words have finished reverberating off the faded white-wash of the alley’s crumbling bricks, three kids hurtle past kicking up gravelly grey dust with their heels.

Yesterday, I danced tango in a glittering studio in the heart of Palermo. I sank my teeth into the bloody velvet of a steak in San Telmo whilst swilling a ruby-red Malbec. Now, less than an hour away from the geometric simplicity of the old world cobbled streets, dignified plazas and elegant boutiques and cafes of Buenos Aires, I find myself in a different world.

Here in La Union, the streets are unpaved. Rusting cars snooze by deserted roadsides, thick with dust. A solitary chicken gingerly extends its scrawny neck around the corner and peers from side to side. Judging it safe, it wonkily struts out, oblivious to the whirlwind closing in on its tail.

‘Pollo!’ The chicken squeals and somersaults in a flap of feathers before tumbling away through the dirt. But the children have frozen mid-chase, the chicken now forgotten. From beneath thick spider lashes, curious eyes watch me suspiciously.

I awkwardly mouth my only Spanish word – ‘Hola.’ Their faces crumble in disbelief, tiny frames shuddering in spasms of breathy chuckles. Then suddenly, they’ve got me – little hands clamped tightly onto my fingers, scarf, jeans. More hands appear from nowhere as we spill inside the community centre.

In the sparse room, a hub of chattering energy and unintelligible chaos, two plastic tables are spread with colouring sheets and maths problems. The kids release their grip and run at the table, artfully selecting a kaleidoscope of pens and wads of paper then dispersing into their corners.

Ana nestles into her pink quilted jacket, tongue touching her nose as she colours expertly between the lines. Pedro prefers maths and counts out his arithmetic, hypnotised by my abacus fingers. ‘Dos, dos,’ he murmurs, ‘cuatro!’ Juan is absorbed in a private daydream. A giant amongst the others, yet more innocently childlike, he strokes the sheets of paper haphazardly, felt pen clutched by puffy fingers. The translucent pink of his blistered eyelids grows heavier until his head nods forward as he dozes in his chair.

Not interested in paper or pens, Maria just wants to skip. She pulls me outside and jumps faster and faster through the loops of the whirring rope. She misses a beat and trips, hitting the gravelly ground. A vibrant splash of blood stains her knee and moistens her eyes. I dab, comfort, coax. As the smile returns to her face, a familiar squawk screeches from behind as the skipping rope surreptitiously slithers past me. I spin round just as Pedro aims a perfect lasso in the prodigal chicken’s direction. It dodges and the rope thuds to the ground, but they are off again.

As cocktail shakers rattle like maracas to greet happy hour over in Palermo, the kids surge homewards in a cloud of dust, feathers in the lead.

Stinky Suitcase volunteered with LIFE Argentina (www.lifeargentina.org), a non-profit organisation that provides recreational, social and educational activities to children in impoverished areas of Buenos Aires and the surrounds.

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