Cocaine, murders, coffee, FARC, and Pablo Escobar. Say “Colombia”, and this is what comes to many people’s mind. Gauchos, Patagonia, tango, malbec, and Evita. These are the stereotypes of Argentina.
Two Latin American countries. Two very different images in the minds of the outside world. But what is the reality? Are these merely stereotypes?
• • •
It’s Tuesday night in Medellin, Colombia. I’m at a salsa bar called El Eslabon Prendido in the central part of Medellin. It’s a rough part of the city, but the best party in town on a Tuesday night. Sultry notes pour out of the jam-packed bar, along with many patrons sneaking a cigarette.
The street is a cornucopia of humanity. Well off foreigners share beers and cigarettes with their new Paisa friends. Meanwhile a street person peruses the crowd asking for “una moneda, por favour.” I’d give him a coin, were it not the fifth time this evening that he had asked for change.
Across the street, a different scene. A row of punks sit on the sidewalk only steps away from the entrance to the salsa bar. They have a bag of cocaine that they’re passing around with a small spoon to scoop it into their waiting nostrils. They are not trying to hide it, but in reality there is no one around to hide it from.
At the end of the street is a small park. At night it’s filled with vagrants and vendors, potheads and partiers, musicians and on this given evening, me. The park is a break from the sweaty hot confines of El Eslabon. Fresh air and people-watching over a beer bought from a vendor for the equivalent of $1. I’m safe in this park. It may have some unsavoury characters, but there’s safety in numbers. This park, however, is the outer limits of how far I will stray from El Eslabon after sundown.
• • •
Six months later, I’m in Argentina’s spectacular, aging capital of Buenos Aires. Once again it’s Tuesday night. This time tango is in order. I head for my favourite night of tango lessons, in a small bar that was formerly someone’s house. By the time I arrive the place is already full of eager students, and tango aficionados. I get in line and start practicing my steps.
“Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, pausa, pausa,” instructs the teacher.
We follow her lead. Each of us practicing the steps put before us. The music starts, and we pair up. I dream of gliding across the floor like the experts I will see later in the evening, but the reality is that this is my third lesson. I follow the instructions, wishing there was a key to unlock tango’s secrets.
The class goes on for just over an hour. I change from partner to partner, each time pressing my chest against hers, caressing the person I had met only minutes ago. There’s a reason why this dance is seen as one of the world’s sexiest and most intimate. For this same reason, however, it also makes it an awkward one to learn with complete strangers.
The class finishes, and everyone thanks the instructors. We start to carry on conversations with the various people we’ve met. A band starts to set up in the other end of the room. In about fifteen minutes they will start to play, and people much better than myself will take over the floor. For now, we busily consume our beers and interact with the diverse group of people.
Ten minutes later the band starts up. On this given night it’s a guitar trio providing the sultry sounds famous to Buenos Aires. The ballroom is packed with people. The audience has created a circle, sitting against the walls in order to make room for the dancers. One by one people get up to practice their moves, gliding gracefully across the floor. Jealousy rises from the back of my neck, bringing added heat to my face. Tango is a dance that is hard to fake; I sit resolutely, my back against the wall. My dance partner for the rest of the night goes by the name “cerveza.”
• • •
I’m eating dinner with a close Colombian friend of mine, Santiago. Santiago grew up in Medellin during the height of Pablo Escobar’s reign. “At one point Escobar had a price on the head of every police officer in the city,” Santiago tells me. “You kill a cop, Pablo gives you the equivalent of $800 USD, three months salary for an average Colombian.” This resulted in the murder of 800 police officers in one year in Medellin alone.
I ask Santiago many questions about the Escobar era. He, like almost all Colombians, have stories relating to the violence that was so ingrained in their country for many years. The most striking story he had took place the year after he graduated high school. There was an incident at one of Medellin’s most popular nightclubs where a local paramilitary group stormed the club and locked everyone inside. After separating the men from the women, they proceeded to execute every male in the club. A few of his classmates were present.
Santiago doesn’t like to stress these darker memories, however. His view is clearly set on the future of his country. He sees progress. He, like many other Colombians, are excited for the future. The government is working with the outside world. Recently Colombia signed two free trade agreements, one with the United States, and the other with Canada. Even the cab drivers proudly brought this point up without any prodding.
He likes to reference the significant increase in security within the country, and with that boost, a wave of investment from around the world. Under the previous President, Alviro Uribe, the government made great strides towards controlling its internal problems. With a strong army, Uribe eradicated rebel groups from the cities and major transportation routes. Highways, which just 10 years ago were very unsafe to travel on, now offer a more secure passage. Santiago explains to me that in the past, when a family wanted to visit their finca (vacation home,) they needed to hire armed escorts to get them there safely. Now those same families are travelling in luxury vehicles without any bodyguards.
• • •
“Enjoy Buenos Aires, and leave,” Juan tells me as I sit down in his impressive office. It’s an expansive view of Argentina’s capital. Juan is a Spaniard who was travelling through South America 30 years ago and, like many others, never left. Considering he’s been here so long, his comment confuses me.
“You’ve obviously enjoyed it enough to stay,” I note. “Why haven’t you taken your own advice?”
“I wish I would’ve stayed in Brazil,” Juan tells me. “But I arrived in Buenos Aires, fell in love, and the woman saved my life.”
I nod in acknowledgement. “A good woman will do that.”
“How are you doing?” he inquires. “You’ve been here a few weeks, what are your thoughts?”
“It’s a truly impressive city,” I say, casually. “I love the architecture, the parks, the parties, and the women. All of them are world-class.”
“Let me tell you something,” he says as he settles into his chair to espouse wisdom to the young adventurer in front of him. “Buenos Aires is like a beautiful woman who has hepatitis. She will tempt you with her beauty, but the reality is she’s decaying from the inside out.”
Certainly a strong analogy. We finish our coffees, and he asks me “how much are you exchanging today?”
“I have $700 today.” I tell him.
“OK. Wait here. I’ll let them know.” He turns to leave, then calls back “Today’s rate is 6.3,” and leaves the room.
One year ago Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, outlawed buying foreign currency. If I were to go to the bank I’d receive 4.7 pesos for each of my dollars, a discount of about 35%. Banning foreign exchange was intended to slow down the flow of pesos being swapped for hard currencies, mainly US Dollars. What this move has created, however, is an underground market for hard currencies. Any Argentine who doesn’t want to be exposed to what historically has been an inevitable collapse of their peso needs to access this black market exchange to get hard currency. On this day, I’m contributing to that black market.
• • •
I buzz the door, and Dana lets me in with a friendly “Hola, Brice! Como estas?” This greeting means I’m at my home away from home in Medellin, a hostel called The Wandering Paisa. I’ve made many friends at this guesthouse. Its proximity to my apartment, along with fun free events, great beer, and a great mix of locals and foreigners makes it one of my favourite places to pass my nights.
Tonight is karaoke night, a bi-weekly event that packs the hostel bar with more locals than guests. It’s an opportunity for locals to practice their English, foreigners to practice their Spanish, and wannabe rockers to practice their vocals. As with any karaoke, some of the wannabes are better than others.
I sit down next to Brent. Brent is one half of the Knowles brothers who own the hostel, and one of my good friends. The Wandering Paisa opened its doors to weary travellers about a year ago. At the time it was one of about thirty hostels in the city. Just five years ago there were only two.
“How you doing buddy?” I ask Brent over the latest pop song being sung.
“Doing well, Brice. Thanks,” comes the reply.
“How’s business?” I inquire, adding “Are you full tonight?”
“It’s high season right now. We’re near capacity tonight, and booked out for the weekend,” he states. “We need high season to be busy. This is what pays the bills for the rest of the year.”
“That’s good to hear, buddy,” I say, as I pour him some of my beer, and get up to mingle in the crowd.
I walk up to Andrew, a good Colombian friend of mine who grew up in Los Angeles. “How’s your stroke coming?” I ask, while chinking his beer mug.
“It hasn’t improved any since you saw me at the pool yesterday,” comes his snide reply.
“Maybe if we were at the pool half as much as we were at the bar we’d have a half-decent front stroke by now,” I jab. “So what is new then? If you haven’t improved your stroke, what have you been working on?” I ask.
“Brice, lots is going on. I’m really excited about this new group that I joined,” he tells me.
“Very cool. What is this new group, again?”
“I think I mentioned it to you the other day,” he says. “I’m meeting weekly with a group of entrepreneurs. It’s a bunch of locals and foreigners who brainstorm ideas on opportunities here in Medellin.”
“Ah yes, you had mentioned this to me. That’s very cool. I think there’s lots of money to be made here,” I tell him, but he already knows this. Each time we’re at the pool we discuss one idea or another that could work. “What do you think the new free trade agreement will bring for opportunities?”
“It’s going to be huge, buddy. The free trade agreement will bring many opportunities, and if you’re first on the ground, you’ll have the edge. It’s a good time to be investing here,” he says this, knowing quite well that we both are in agreeance on this point. We go back to drinking our beer. The next song on is by a local hero: Juanes. All of the locals start to belt out the chorus “Tengo la camisa negra, porque negra tengo el alma.”
• • •
I’m hurrying along, walking home through the heart of Buenos Aires. I had just crossed Plaza de Mayo, the most impressive plaza in the country, possibly the continent. To my right is the exquisite Casa Rosada, or Pink House. Surrounding the plaza are majestic buildings from a bygone era. This plaza would not be out of place in Rome, Madrid, or Barcelona. There’s no surprise that Porteños consider themselves more European than South American.
I am crossing the street to exit the Plaza when I see her. It’s Liz, a British girl I know from tango. I smile, and say “Hi! Good to see you. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing great! Thanks. I’m actually here looking for the protest, but it looks like it’s over,” she tells me. with a look of disappointment on her face.
“Oh, I didn’t know there was a protest today. What were they protesting this time?” I ask.
“Another anti-Cristina protest,” she says; as if it were a near daily occurrence “They have the next set of protests planned for December 7th” she adds.
“It’s like a national sport here in Argentina.”
“Ya, I find it really interesting. I really think that Argentina’s at a precipice right now.”
“I feel like that too.”
She continues, “did you know that Cristina is planning on putting a law in place that would censor the media from what they can say about her?”
“That’s wild! I did not know that” I state, while shaking my head. “This country’s really in a pressure cooker. Something’s going to happen. And soon.”
We continue to walk towards my apartment through the majestic streets that were built in an era when Argentina was one of the ten richest countries in the world. How things have changed. I’m running behind so we jump into a cab. The flag drops at 9.6 pesos. It was 8.5 last month. Like everything here, the price rises with the flip of every new page on the calendar.
• • •
Fast forward to the present. I’m still in Buenos Aires. I’ve spent eleven of the last fourteen months in South America. I’ve had the opportunity to watch two countries heading in opposite directions. The stereotypes of each country have on some level been confirmed, but much more has been learned along the way. It is rare to find an Argentine that is excited about the future of their country. The frustration is evident. Just today I was in line at the supermarket when President Cristina came on the radio. The man in front of me started shaking his head. From the people whom I’ve talked with, this essentially sums up the present feelings and thoughts of the direction of the future of Argentina. It’s an amazing place, and I hope this frustration drives positive change.
Colombia, on the other hand, is a country full of pride for their future. The current Colombia Travel slogan is “The only risk is wanting to stay.” After years of being suffocated by violence and civil war, they are ready to celebrate their future. The hope in Colombia is palpable. Colombians are celebrating the freedom that just a few short years ago was suffocated by one of the 20th century’s most violent civil wars. Is it a utopia? No. Do I feel it’s moving in the right direction? Yes. Which is, sadly, more than I can say about Argentina.
Note: Names and identities have been changed for reasons of privacy and security to the individuals involved.