Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Sarmiento Line

On numerous occasions since my arrival I have had to take the Sarmiento train line which crosses the part of the city from Once district to Moreno. It is a slow and crowded trip but the view from the carriages of the old grey diesel provides an unforgettable insight in to life of present day Buenos Aires.

A return journey costs 1 peso ( 30 euro cents ) which is paid at vending machines or of course at ticket booths where in addition to iron railings, the vendor is also hidden behind a non-transparent protective screen. Such security measures therefore mean that you must stoop to echo your voice through the money tray below in the hope that your mysterious counterpart might understand your distorted muffles.

Like everywhere in Buenos Aires, the wide old platforms are usually graced by a bullet-proof vested police officer who looks on indifferently as men and women jostle to read the latest football headlines at the numerous newsstands. After a few minutes, it quickly becomes obvious that the most bought newspaper here is the centrist Clarin, while the football read of choice is Ole. Meanwhile, dotted between these crowded news kiosks are the popular food stands selling Panchos (hot dogs) as well as the more traditional Argentine Empanadas and Alfajores. These establishments do excellent business as in Buenos Aires it is common practice to snack on the streets as you go about your daily business.

The eagerly awaited trains are reliable and frequent but fail to win any points for comfort, cleanliness or even safety. I watch on in disbelief as every few hundred meters the eight carriage locomotive rapidly approaches the "non-barrier" level crossings while daring motorists and pedestrians alike cross in the immediate path of the horn hooting engine. Friends have also pointed out a camera mounted above the cabin which is sadly used by the rail company to differentiate between a fall and deliberate jump so as to protect themselves from the recent plethora of family legal suits.

Along the same journey the landscape is devoid of billboards whose presence would be a simple and relieving indicator of a strong consumer economy. Instead, in their place we see graffiti that insists on escorting the train continuously from one station to the next. However unlike the new "Dr. Hoffman" style graffiti art movement in Madrid which utilizes stencils and limits itself to one colour per work, the graffiti in Buenos Aires remains an untidy scrawl with little artistic thought and much political message. The typical sprayed slogans here make reference to the current economic crisis and past injustices with words such as, "Hunger is a crime", "Where are the 185 disappeared" and "Shoot Menem". It quickly struck me that this obscure contrast is in itself the perfect example of the difference in environments and worries of the young Spaniard who rebels and the young Argentine who despairs. It also accurately reflects how the once upon a time Paris of the South now lags behind Europe in all facets of culture....even graffiti.

Cars and buses race along side the train tracks while the passenger enjoys a very much unobstructed view of the neighbourhoods where shops and houses face out on to the tracks from the opposite side of the street. I have spotted amongst the hundreds of boarded up shop fronts; a Saint Ciaran´s primary school, a huge Isrealite cemetary, an signpost for Admiral William Brown Avenue, a forgotten political campaign poster for a deputy Murphy as well two impressive soccer stadiums belonging to second division Ferrocarril Este as well as that of the league current champions, Velez Sarsfields.

Nonetheless despite such curious observations you cannot for one minute ignore the sheer poverty of a huge part of the population. From the comfort of your train seat if not looking out upon poor souls struggling to keep warm by winter camp fires, you are passing hut upon hut, made with whatever material imaginable, in areas that you doubt the government are even aware exist. While you witness such misfortune you feel an incredible despair and incredulity for an economy whose Peso as recent as 2001 was for a time successfully pegged on parity with the US dollar . I once read the headlines of a Clarin being read by another passenger which spoke of a forecasted unemployment rate of 12% in July 2006...but I quickly recalled that one hour´s paid labour a week is considered "employment" for the purposes of such fudged South American statistics. While you sit and absorb all of this you suddenly and inexplicably feel embarrassed for being from a European nation as wealthy as Ireland.

Dragging your attention back to the interiors of the silent and crammed train you manage to smile once again at the pure politeness of the people. I do not have a bad word to say about the manners of my fellow Irishmen but I must say that the respect and warmth that the Argentines show towards each other is incredible. My personal experience of the locals has been of a people who are forever attentive and inaggressive to those around them. Furthermore I have never before seen the ease with which strangers can engage in jovial conversation on a regular basis. It is also a task in itself to reach the doors of any carriage in time but you can lie rest assured that the squeeze will be done with a smile and an apology.

Given the hardship that many are facing, they have had to find some very original ways to make a living. As a result, at no stage throughout the train journey will your carriage ever be without a vendor of some sort. Thus far I have seen for sale; sweets, cake, gossip magazines, pen knives, stickers, chocolates, gloves, scarves, pirate cd´s and Barney teddy bears. I suspect that there exists a code between these sellers as at no one time will any two attempt to operate in the same coach. Instead they slowly move from carriage to carriage with one entering as the other exits. The sales pitch that they introduce themselves with is entertaining, polite and not very loud. It certainly seems to work well as I watch pesos change hands on a frequent basis and am glad to say that they definitely finish the day with enough money to bring home to their families. Buskers are also a common occurrence but while they don´t manage to get people to part with their pennies as easily, they invariably win an applause at the end of any performance of merit.

And so finally my dirty smoke belching train arrives at my stop and I make a dash for the turnstiles in a bid to beat the jam caused by those coming from the front carriage devoted solely to the commuting cyclists.

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