The long road, past oases and toward Patagonia

Duron Claudio passes a cup of hot mate, or herbal tea, to a friend visiting their roadside gomeria. Juan Loty (right) watches. The men are taking a break on a slow, sunny morning.
Duron Claudio passes a cup of hot mate, or herbal tea, to a friend visiting their roadside gomeria. Juan Loty (right) watches. The men are taking a break on a slow, sunny morning. (Archive photo)
Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / March 10, 2002

LOMAS de ZAMORA, Argentina - Thirty minutes after the jet completed its arc from Miami to Ezeiza International Airport, we pulled into the gentle flow of late-morning traffic.

We were a sort of rolling United Nations: Gabriel Dvoskin, an Argentine, drove the four-door Honda, with his Portuguese girlfriend, an Italian wanderer, and me, two old friends, along for the ride. Soon, a Polish radio journalist would squeeze in, and we would motor south, then west on a thousand-mile roadtrip among the people living the economic crisis.

But first, as rain pounded down then quit, Gabriel navigated the quiet streets of a middle-class section of this city, a dense suburb south of Buenos Aires, to his parents' house and their long, narrow yard.

At one end of the yard, closer to the house, stood two trees. Between the trees hung a hammock. After showering and talking and laughing, I lay in the hammock with a belly stretched by six kinds of grilled beef.

One of two dogs, an old German shepherd, barked. I looked up past the green leaves that showed their tops in the wind. Toward the sun, the blue sky turned white.

The clear plastic bottle kicked and tripped and cried across the iron bars.

A young man in jeans and a shiny black jacket squeezed the bottle with both hands and raked it up and down the fence.

Behind the man, in a circle of worn brick where the aging mothers of the disappeared still gather every Thursday, a newer weekly protest, the Friday evening cacerolazo, named for clanging pots and pans, simmered.

A woman pounded a skillet lid with a wooden spoon. A young guy punished a can, which once held creamy, smooth dulce de leche, with an umbrella handle.

There were quiet conversations and hugs of greeting. There were angry chants. "Que se vayan todos!" "Everyone get out!"

For the next few hours, they would march, following the main streets from the west and south and north to the plaza in front of Casa Rosada, where Evita Peron addressed the masses and today the revolving-door government guards its seat.

The crowd of khaki and golf shirts, skirts and sweaters, was calm, but relentless. "Que se vayan todos!"

One arriving swarm would hoist an inflatable orange penis, at least 30 feet long; a symbol, perhaps, of what they would like to do to the leaders, or of what the leaders did to them.

For five minutes, then 10, the man, Andres Serante, raked his plastic bottle and stared at the line of police with their shields and helmets and clubs and at the pink stone balconies beyond.

Andres, 29, makes his living as a computer specialist for MasterCard. When the government decided that the peso, after a decade of trying, was not as strong as the dollar, Andres's bank account, like so many others, got smaller. Fifty-thousand dollars became $30,000. Trading in the streets and in banks, when they did open, would drop that further.

"We have arrived at a point where everything is lost, so we should start again," Andres said.

"But we should not start again with these people" - his plastic bottle pointed to the government offices - "they are the same, always the same. And that is the problem."

Andres's words yielded to the din of aluminum and copper and stainless steel. It was a primal kind of energy noise, bouncing off buildings and trees and paper in the gutters. Above this, one person's beat - a fast, even clang, clang, clang, or a deep, tired, whoomp, whoomp, whoomp - would rise for a moment, unannounced and quickly eclipsed, to set the cadence. Around midnight, the cadence faltered. By 2 a.m., the plaza was empty.

A few blocks away, near an intersection of two streets named for presidents, a dozen or so cartoneros stood by a side door to BankBoston's historic local office. The building has an engraved front door two stories high and lights, on the top floors, that shine gold in the night. In a country where roughly one in three people lives in poverty, the cartoneros are the most visible, foraying from the capital's "city of misery" shanty-towns in search of used cardboard and paper, tradable for a few cents per pound. The cartoneros, men and women and children, waited for the bank to pour out the night's refuse.

Something full of water - a plastic bottle, a balloon - fell from above, just missing one man as it splattered on the street.

. . .

The coals of an Argentine asado are best when the red center is fighting and crackling for life, spitting back dripping fat, kicking beneath a coat of ash.

The coals are set in a thin layer, perhaps a coal or two thick, under a grill covered with chorizo, blood sausage, sweetbreads, and ribs, with and without the bone.

On the second day, I woke after noon and wandered across the long yard to the quincho, a low building of brick and wood and sliding glass doors, where I found Victor Dvoskin, Gabriel's father and our host.

Victor sliced stout links of blood sausage and set them on the grill. He spread hot coals beneath.

"Better skip your breakfast," he said with a laugh.

Victor, 56, began tasting the art of the asado as a student, when he supported the Peronistas' struggle to bring their man back to the country, and power, and later, when he worked against the military regime that flew opponents over the wide sweep of the Rio de la Plata and pushed them out. Victor refined the timing of dripping fat and even heat as new, democratic leaders tied the weaker peso to the dollar, then corrupted their big plans to sell off the country's assets.

"Being of my generation, I have seen five crises, more," Victor told me. "This is the worst."

I asked why.

"Now people don't believe in anything," he said.

Victor opened a bottle of Malbec, grown in the foothills of the Andes, and poured the rich, dark wine.

. . .

The red and white banners whipped and the north stands rocked as the player in the red and white jersey watched the ball he had kicked come to rest in the back of the net.

On this Sunday, the stadium was more empty than full, more an echoing chamber of chipped bleachers and faded advertisements that spoke of earlier, grander days, like the national team's World Cup in 1978.

This was the first game of the season, so only the River Plate faithful turned out to sit beneath jets circling into the riverfront airport and watch their heroes play a team from the provinces.

Above it all, in a box of sweat and banter that measured 6 feet by 6 feet, Victor Hugo Morales, the best-known voice in South American futbol, tracked every pass and trap and trip with hurried words.

Morales's voice had also chased Maradona and the ball across the field in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England; his gasping "genio," "genio," "genio" had the nation wondering until the euphoric "ta ta ta, ta ta ta. . . . "GOOOOOOL!!!!"

"Diego Armando Maradona," Morales had cried. "Thank you, God, for futbol, for Maradona, for these tears."

Morales pointed to the resting River Plate stands.

"Look, for these people, now, every day is a loss. This afternoon, all they have is River," he said. "The only chance they have for good today is if River brings them good. If not, if River loses, 100 percent is lost."

A colleague was tapping Morales's shoulder, pushing a headset toward him. The players were already back on the field. Morales turned and drew a breath.

. . .

Twenty-two miles south of Buenos Aires, the first horse hung its head and grazed. At 34 miles, the first gaucho, on another horse, chased a cow.

A few miles past, beyond the abandoned, stately pulperia where the gauchos used to quench their thirst, in among the grid of paved streets of central Lobos, population 16,000, Dora Ciccarelli sat in her pressed white blouse and soft skirt and waited.

Earlier in the day, Alessandro Gori, the Italian who rode next to me in the Honda's back seat, had called Dora and explained that, as a favor to a friend in Italy, he was carrying $730 that he would deliver to her. The friend, Dora's relative, wanted to help Dora who, like so many Italian immigrants and their descendants, calls Argentina home.

Dora rose and smiled. There were handshakes and kisses on the cheek and then Dora turned and led the way through the wooden doors to a round dining table and cold soda and Quilmes beer. The apartment, with tile floors and wood-paneled walls, was cool and private. High ceilings gave the place a certain dignity.

There was genuine, but awkward talk about Argentina and Italy and then about how Dora earns a pension of 200 pesos a month. That would stretch thinner when inflation, already lurking, gained speed.

An unseen radio in the kitchen broadcast a slow, tinny tango. Alessandro pulled close to Dora and slipped the money into her hands.

. . .

The Hotel "El Aromo" has nine rooms, and they are hot and stuffy and set close enough to the road that those inside can hear the truck engines cough and catch and the Ford Falcons whistle by on Ruta Nacional 22.

Outside the hotel, a few minutes before the orange sun dropped behind the dry earth stretching west, a young man on horseback, leading another harnessed horse along the dirt shoulder of the highway, ducked to pass beneath a neon sign.

People in this oasis 400 miles from the capital cling to one thing, like the bicycle tire the boy carried as he walked the highway, or the long piece of pipe a man had lashed to the roof of a battered Renault.

Two men took turns showering in a stall in the back of the gas station, while the other kept an eye on their tractor-trailer. They climbed into the cab and turned left into the dark.

Across the dust and cracked concrete lot, a traveler strolled past three long strands of garlic and in among the camp stoves, black hats, caramel candies, and cold cheese empanadas.

Just beyond, a man with a dog leaned against a tall eucalyptus tree in a ditch by the road, and settled for sleep.

Early the next morning, behind "El Aromo," Duron Claudio and Juan Loty lingered in the back of a gomeria, one of the many tire shops along this country's rough roads. The wall above them, painted blue, then white, held a collection of wrenches and hubcaps and posters of naked women selling car parts. A green parrot sitting on the railing kept quiet. Duron handed a cup of mate, an herbal tea, to a third man.

The sun was climbing. There would be customers.

. . .

The road shot past the children splashing in the shallows of the Rio Colorado and on into the scrub and sage and dust.

Four hundred miles ahead sat the fresh mountain lake resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, itself a kind of beginning, a launch into deeper Patagonia. The shoreline is crowded with wooden chalets and places with names like Hotel Edelweiss and Bungalows Gstaad. The town is full of stories, like that of Erich Priebke, the Nazi officer who fled the old continent to run a delicatessen on a hillside above the clear lake.

But here, at a dry bend in the emptiness between the capital and the resort, white smoke choked the earth. Red flames leaped from the edges. The fire, it seemed, had sprung from the ground. Wind whipped beneath the vacuum of open sky. A man sat in a red truck and watched.

Eighty miles farther, beneath a tree with broad limbs, Amalia Benavies arranged boxes of apples and pears and plums and grapes. Amalia owns 90 acres of farmland in this long valley tucked between one dusty plain and the next. She says that the valley's soil, when watered, will grow "anything you throw on the ground."

Amalia, in her shorts and tank top and died blonde hair, explained that the local hospital lacked medicine, that the poor had few social services to count on, and that the public school probably could not afford to open this fall.

For Amalia, 50, things were bound to get worse. The peso had lost half its value. Maybe, she said, she could sell more of her fruit on the foreign market, competing, finally, with the Chilean farmers. But she still would have to pay in dollars for insecticides and other supplies.

"For so many years, we had a chance to protest, but we didn't," she said. "The elderly people didn't do it. Now only the young people do it. We should have started before."

A customer who had entered as Amalia spoke softened her words.

"We're doing OK here," he said.

Amalia talked about the truckers who pass with reports from up north, in the rural stretches closer to the border with Bolivia and Paraguay. Life, Amalia agreed, is harder up there.

. . .

Gabriel was at the wheel in the noontime sun. He searched the radio dial as we sped along the Rio Limay, with its soft banks and thickets of green trees. The road, after climbing and falling, had straightened again.

The hillside to our right fell away, uncovering the east end of Nahuel Huapi Lake. The dial stopped on 89.1 FM Bariloche, and the car filled with the pumping, funky beat of a popular remake of "La Vie en Rose."

We rolled the windows all the way down, and cool air gushed in.

Gabriel slowed to 30 miles per hour and we were singing, all of us, toward the town on the south shore, toward the restaurants with their grilled trout and crisp white wines, toward the rocks by the lake, which are perfect for sitting and smoking Cuban cigars amid the quiet that could be anywhere, but is in Argentina. And Gabriel was dancing in his seat.

Tom Haines can be reached by e-mail at

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