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Accordions, Trash Collectors and Secret Countries

by Benjamin Dangl

2/2/05

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, are common.”

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 me first…

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 people attended.

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.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano