Buenos Aires, July 30, 2003: We are back from a week in Uruguay, tanned, rested, and ready to resume reporting on tango and tourism in Greater Buenos Aires and suburbs… and this report is about a very, very far suburb:
“Where is Everybody?”
Uruguay, Friday, July 18: We arrived Friday evening on the Buquebus hydrofoil boat from BsAs, and the contrast with the 24-hour raucous party and automobile demolition derby that is Buenos Aires was immediately apparent. The streets of central Montevideo seemed practically deserted. There were almost no cars, and almost no pedestrians. We saw the same beautiful old buildings BsAs has, but no one was around. We were shuttled to a big hotel on the main plaza that was almost empty. They advertise Montevideo as the safest city in the world, and it may be true. A career in street crime must be difficult when there is no one to rob. Also the few people we did see were old, and the 60-70 year old demographic is not heavily populated with armed robbers.
After an unsuccessful search for a Friday night milonga, and dinner in an empty parrilla, we called it a night. The next day was sunny and breezy and we strolled the city, sin rumbo fijo. I saw some soldiers in the main plaza wearing ceremonial Granadero uniforms, the colorful dress cavalry uniforms of the old days. I decided to use Alejandra's camera to take a picture of them in their tall hats, guarding a huge statue of a general on a horse with a pigeon on his head. When I got closer, they snapped to attention, and watched me out of the corners of their eyes while I took the shot. Then, when I turned and left, they resumed chatting and looking around the plaza like any group of teenage boys hanging out and looking for girls. Which they were. This relaxed attitude seemed to be everywhere, in sharp contrast to the edgy nervousness of Buenos Aires. We walked along the sea wall and watched the commercial shipping come and go. On this quiet Saturday in the old central part of town, reasonably affluent Montevideo had the appearance of an economic backwater that has been isolated under the thumb of some eccentric dictator. Along the waterfront there are broad avenues with almost no traffic. Occasionally a smoking 55 Chevy or ancient Fiat or Renault would come putt-putting by with the occupants peering curiously out of the side windows at the world drifting slowly by. The residents are very friendly, but despite constantly sucking on mate gourds, which should wake them up, they have a dreamy, almost addled, “no worries” attitude. This is a real change from the energetic Porteños, but it's rather nice. Later in the day we rolled leisurely down their main street (18 de Julio) on a city bus, while the relaxed driver listened to opera, and carefully stopped mid-block to pick up little old ladies. He sipped mate and chatted to us about wanting to be in BsAs, where the action was. A similar ride in BsAs on colectivo 12 (el doce) is a Mr. Toad's wild ride, threading the needle between taxis and trucks, with pedestrians diving for cover. A friend of mine was almost killed when a hurrying bus driver clamped the rear door shut on his foot before he could step down. He was dragged down the street, watching the rear wheel rolling inches from his head, until the screams of the passengers finally stopped the driver. But Montevideo is so safe and tranquil that I even saw bicycles parked around town without locks on them.
If tango is alive and well in BsAs, it is, well... alive in Montevideo . The schedule says there are a lot of milongas, but they were hard to find. Nothing Friday, and on Saturday the advertised location was closed and dark with no explanation. We finally found something, a special twice a month event in a fantastic spot called Mercado de la Abundancia. Here is a tip. If you are tired of being far down the food chain in the BsAs milongas, go across the river. You will shine. You will be a veritable “fulgor” of tango! This may have been the birthplace of tango, but if tango ever was here, it grew up and took the Buquebus to BsAs.
The location was great, an old market that took up almost an entire city block, with a high old ornate metal roof with skylights. Four parrillas smoked away inside, but the roof was so high that the air remained clear. There was a big crowd, made up mostly of people who came to eat at the restaurants and watch the dancing. It was a fun spot with nice people, but I'm afraid I've become a bit of a tango snob, because I have to say that the music and the dancing were not very good. The first music played seemed to be by the well-known orchestras, but it was hard to recognize. They had the right orchestras, but they seemed to have picked versions recorded for a concert, rather than for dancing. I kept asking Alejandra if she had ever heard this music before, and she hadn't. Finally she resorted to an old habit I had picked up in the U.S. She went up and had a talk with the DJ. He said he knew it wasn't much, but he couldn't change it. The people who ran the market furnished it, and it was a continuous tape. Finally the tape ended, and he took control of the music, but it really wasn't a lot better. It was a random mix of everything, and I realized how much I had come to rely on and appreciate the pro DJs of BsAs. There were no cortinas to separate the tandas, and the music had no flow or continuity. A vals followed a milonga, then Calo, then maybe De Caro, or performance style Pugliese followed by another milonga. We found ourselves getting up and sitting back down like a second string tackle being shuttled in and out of a football game. It really made me appreciate and understand the purpose of well-organized tandas separated by cortinas. It was almost impossible to find a rhythm. We were forced to check out the start of a song, and then maybe make our way back to the table, only to jump up again minutes later when something we liked came on. And, there was another problem. The navigation was horrendous. I haven't danced in crowds for a week or so, and I began to wonder if it was my fault. So I tried a test. I moved over to the right very near the tables and inched along doing my best “baldosa” dancing. I stayed almost in one spot, arms in tight, doing close giros and short rock steps. Almost immediately the guy in front of me took a big back step into us. Then we were brushed from behind by a couple dancing with an open, elbows out, leg throwing style. A minute later we were almost hit by someone drifting out from the middle of the floor. I was almost expecting the table to dance over and kick us before the music ended. I asked Alejandra if she was okay, and we gave up. We tried dancing later in one of the aisles that led into the dining tables of the parrilla, but some guy followed us in, and began throwing elbows and legs with his partner. Maybe it's the empty streets. Porteños are used to charging around heavy traffic in cars and buses, always inches from disaster. These people may not be used to it. Crowds fluster them, and they don't have the skills to move in close quarters.
I don't mean to say the people are rude. Just the opposite. They are very nice, but they just don't seem to get tango. We talked to a woman next to us and she said, “We are not like Porteños. We are very shy. Dancing is hard for us.” Maybe this was the answer. These people might be too nice to dance tango! They don't seem comfortable with it, but they did a lot better when a candombe group danced into the place, drums banging away. The crowd seemed to shed its inhibitions and acquire a sudden grace. Candombe is said to one of the predecessors of milonga and tango, but it's hard to see the connection. It is a very loose African Cuban type of thing that, to me, has little resemblance to tango.
On Sunday we took a long walk along the rambla, the walkway that follows the beaches in the east part of the city, and then tried our luck with another milonga in a restaurant called Don Trigo that night. It was held in the small back room of the restaurant, in Pocitos, an affluent part of town. I sat by the floor nursing a destornillador (for which I have acquired quite a taste lately) and tried to play the role of the objective reporter. Let's see: small wooden floor, six to eight couples dancing, disco ball spinning with lights. The dancers all seemed to be beginners, but they were trying very hard to follow the music in their awkward beginners' way. Again the music, and we talked to the DJ, Daniel. A very nice man, but he said that in Montevideo they only like slow tangos like Calo, or Pugliese. The faster music of BsAs doesn't suit them. But he was very nice, and hunted up some Tanturi just for us.
Maybe it was the drink, but I began feel bad about reporting on them. These people weren't trying to perform for anyone. They were very sincere people, trying to follow the music, with none of the self-satisfied smugness (sorry I have to say it) that sometimes seems apparent in milongas of the U.S. And I felt like I was spying on them for other people. Is it possible I could say something that could actually hurt someone, or maybe damage a club or a milonga down here? I am looking over my shoulder and second-guessing, and that's not a good thing... in writing, or in tango dancing.
Afterwards we went to eat in a nice parrilla, and I told them I needed a table away from smoke. The waiters all ran around searching for the best spot for me, and when two people near us lit cigarettes, the waiter talked to them, and they immediately put them out and apologized. I know I've teased them a bit about being the laid back country cousins of the Porteños, but the people of Uruguay are the nicest people I've ever seen. Why the tango scene is so weak, I have no idea. In BsAs you have hundreds of milongas and thousands and thousands of dancers. It's surprising that a city of four million people just across the water from Buenos Aires , with such strong connections to the roots of tango seems to have only about 20 couples dancing a few times a month.
We are off to Colonia to relax for a few days, and then back to BsAs.
(A note from my editor, Alejandra. She says: 1. It should be made clear that the pigeon on the head of General Artigas in Plaza Independencia was a wild one that landed there, and was not part of the statue, and that: 2. The incident I described where Ed got his foot caught in the door of the bus was an isolated one, and was maybe even his fault, and should in no way be taken as a slur on the clean, safe, and reliable municipal bus service of Buenos Aires, nor on any of its dedicated employees.)