Accordions, Trash Collectors and Secret
by Benjamin Dangl
Before leaving Cooperstown, NY my doctor gave me a vial
of preventative malaria pills, a pamphlet on crime and diseases to look out
for in South America and a solid pat on the back. On the plane to Buenos Aires
I skimmed through the pamphlet, and just before touching land came across
the following warning for Argentina: “While few people are injured a
large percentage of victims are threatened with weapons. Criminals do not
hesitate to use force when they encounter resistance. Bank robberies, which
often involve gunfire and armed invasions of restaurants, shops and residences,
Surprisingly, thugs did not jump me as soon I walked
into the airport. A warm summer breeze blew by and I changed into shorts and
sandals. The plan was to travel through Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Venezuela
writing articles for various publications and websites on political and social
issues for a few months - if masked bandits in the jungle didn’t kidnap
The night I arrived in Buenos Aires I walked around
the city streets and noticed something that hadn’t been as prevalent
on my last trip here in 2002; dozens of people, many of them accompanied by
young children, were searching through the garbage for recyclable materials.
The country’s recent economic crisis forced many people to do this work
in order to survive. I was told that about eight garbage bags full of recyclable
goods were worth roughly two US dollars. Many of the collectors worked into
the early hours of the morning, and some of the kids weren’t older than
four years old.
From Water Privatization to Landless Farmers
From Argentina, I headed to southern Brazil for the
World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF is an annual event which began five years
ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil. For the week-long event, left-leaning activists,
writers, intellectuals, representatives from social movements and non-governmental
organizations around the world, gathered to discuss and strategize around
the theme “Another World Is Possible.” This other world is meant
to be one without war, injustice, racism and economic inequality. Talks and
conferences went on throughout the week from everything from water privatization
in the Philippines to landless farmer movements in Brazil. This year, 200,000
The best part about the event was talking with like-minded
people from around the globe about the political and social situations in
their respective countries. It was inspiring to speak with people from alternative
media collectives in Canada, Indian union organizers from Bombay, and people
who offered classes to homeless children in Argentina.
Other interesting events at the forum included documentaries
on a variety of issues. About Baghdad (see www.aboutbaghdad.com) was done
by an Iraqi who left Iraq in the nineties and returned in 2003 to interview
people in Baghdad. In the documentary, Iraqi men and women discuss the horror
of the Saddam regime, the freedoms they lacked, and the torture and imprisonment
they endured. Yet few, if any those interviewed thought the US occupation
of the country was any improvement. One writer at a café in Baghdad
said something like the following about the country´s recent history:
"May I speak in metaphors? Well then, for years the Iraqi people were
in a theatre with no lights (under Saddam). They waited and waited for the
lights to come on. One day, the new boss arrives (the US) and turn the lights
on. Everyone is very happy, but they are still in the theatre. Then the new
boss burns the theatre down."
Another Iraqi woman in the documentary said about the
US occupation: "Iraqi´s know what they want, it´s their country.
How could Americans come here and know what´s good for Iraq?"
Accordions and Robberies in a Secret Country
In the capital of what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano
called "a secret country" the main plaza was suprisingly empty.
One ice cream seller in Montevideo seemed personally offended by the lack
of people. He yelled out, “Helado! Helado!” (“Ice Cream!
Ice Cream!”) to the empty sidewalks in an almost menacing tone.
Uruguay has a rapidly decreasing population. For economic
reasons, thousands of young people leave the country for Europe, Argentina
and the US each year. It has the largest number of people over age sixty per
capita in South America. So it was no surprise when I saw a government-sponsored
ad in the main plaza with a picture of a pregnant belly on it; the government
wants Uruguayans to multiply.
Down one sidewalk in the center of the city, a man played
an accordion. When I closed my eyes and listened to the music I tried to imagine
pirates, the moon, sailing ships. When I opened them I saw someone in a spider
man outfit, tourists and a man who looked as though he had been drunk since
accordion music was in fashion.
At a flea market where ivory-handled pistols, rusty
political buttons, curved swords, moldy pipes and ancient musical instruments
were sold, a Uruguayan man explained to me that in his city, people kill pigeons
with rocks and then cook them for food. Those same pigeons slept on the rooftops
of clothing stores that sold hundred dollar shirts to people in sunglasses
from another part of town.
Yerba mate, a caffienated tea people drink out of a
hollow gourd, is enormously popular in Montevideo. It has a metal straw that
comes out of the herbal mixture and is usually accompanied by a thermos full
of hot water. People walk up and down the street, drinking it all day long.
One person I spoke with said that recently, a Uruguayan man was arrested in
the US for drinking yerba mate; the police thought it was an illegal drug,
which it wasn’t. It made the news all over Uruguay, and when the man
was deported back home, he was on all the news and talk shows for months.
Carnival in Uruguay is a month long affair, the longest
in South America. It began while I was there, with brigades of dancers and
drummers from nieghborhoods across the capital. Plumes of feathers shook on
top of twirling dancers as drums pounded into the early morning. Some of the
groups were waving flags representing their nieghbohoods, others carried banners
from local businesses. As the party winded down, a young boy robbed an older
man right in front of graffiti that said, “Police: Prevention, Not Fines!”
Soon after, the Guns N’ Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle,”
played from a rooftop stereo as a the sun rose over this secret country.
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org.
Click here to read more
of his articles.
Click here to go home