In the late nineties, I lived for a couple of years in Buenos Aires. The time remains a bonus in my life because, like most people, I would probably have stopped only briefly in the city before moving on to the more publicised wonders of Argentina. I would have missed the rich melting-pot that is El Capitol.
Buenos Aires prides itself on its European ambience. Its architectural grandeur and café culture have led to it being known as the ‘Paris of the South’. However, the insouciance of the French capital has failed to translate across the Atlantic. In every Buenos Aires barrio, there are myriad cafes, gyms, restaurants, nightclubs and shopping-centre extravaganzas. All are are packed with bodies well into the night. The Buenos Aires resident lives at a frenzied pace—shopping, eating out, exercising, or meeting friends at parties or asados (barbeques). There is much swapping of besos—always two, one for each cheek. The population does not waste time on sleep. Portenos live large, with an enthusiasm that exhilarates even as it exhausts the newly-arrived.
Ironically, my first experience of the Argentine psyche came before I even touched the country’s soil. I was on the national airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, flying from Auckland to Buenos Aires. This is the longest flight in the world over continuous ocean, and it swings very close to the South Pole. On a clear day, it is not uncommon to see icebergs far below.
I had the good fortune to be in business class, and had spent the flight intrigued by the antics of the woman seated in front of me. Extremely well-dressed, she had been given very special attention by the plane stewards. Quite a few of them had taken the opportunity during the flight to plop into the empty seat beside her and chat animatedly. Of course, it would be months before my Spanish would be good enough to understand even a fraction of what they were saying. As the plane readied for landing, the passengers began righting their seats and packing away their Walkmans and newspapers. A burst of Spanish came over the loudspeaker and the woman in front of me shouted “bravo” repeatedly. The staff beamed at her. She must be keen to get off, I thought.
The plane descended rapidly—a little too much so, I thought—but I relaxed as the runway appeared under my window. The landing gear came down and I prepared mentally for the bump of the wheels on the runway. I was startled when, seconds from touching the ground, the thrusters roared, and the plane went up again at speed. I gripped my armrest tightly as I felt my stomach falling away.
The plane tilted crazily, then began rocking from side to side. The angle was so extreme that one moment I was looking directly down at the city passing below, and the next there was nothing but sky. The woman in front of me roared something in Spanish that I interpreted as “we are all going to die”. The plane lurched drunkenly over the Rio de la Plate and possibily the wing-tips got wet. Buenos Aires tilted up and down. My stomach began heading north. This was it, I thought. The end.
The runway approached again. This time we bumped and stayed down. I wilted in my seat as everyone around me erupted into wild cheering and clapping. The woman in front stood and took a bow as the plane slowly taxied to the terminal.
The cabin began to empty, people pushing past. As the steward helped me with my things in the overhead locker, I shakily asked him “What was that about? Was there some kind of problem with the landing gear?” He gave a snort of laughter and explained in beautifully accented English that it was the pilot’s final flight before retiring, and that it was an Aerolineas custom to do a flyover of the city ‘waving’ goodbye. He gestured to the woman who had been sitting in front of me and who was now shrugging herself into a mink coat. “This is his wife. She came to celebrate with him.”
I went on to many other adventures in Argentina: riding with gauchos, getting a drenching at the great falls at Iguacu, and hiking the treacherous glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park. However, nothing, before or since, has raised my blood pressure as high as that Aerolineas pilot did.