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FIRST (AND LAST) TANGO IN BUENOS AIRES: Travels in Latin America


Displayed poem by Jorge Luis Borges - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

One of several Borges poems displayed, with illustrative photos, in the window of Borges Cultural Center. See a translation of this poem.

Jorge Luis Borges has long been one of my favorite authors. His metaphysical short stories thrilled me in college. I was looking forward to visiting some centre dedicated to Borges in Buenos Aires, a city he loved and lived in his whole life.

There’s a childhood home of his with a plaque in the Palermo district. That was all I could find, at first. Further searching revealed the existence of a Borges Cultural Center only half a mile (about a kilometre) from my hotel. My second morning in the city, I headed there after breakfast.

The Center turned out to be connected to a vast, ornate old building that’s now an upscale shopping mall. The Borges name is really commemorative: most of the content doesn’t involve the late author. The Center includes a photo gallery, several rooms of paintings and an auditorium.

Advertisement for tango show - First (and last) tango in Buenos AiresI was happy to see posters referring to nightly tango performances! I bought a ticket, and after an hour or so of exploring the galleries, went on with the rest of my day while looking forward to my 7:30 p.m. return.

Postcard price prohibition


I had intended to send postcards from various southern locations to many people, but Mexico and Uruguay had already slipped by without my doing so. Leaving the Borges Center, I passed a news kiosk and stopped to ask about postcards.

The proprietor shook his head, pointed and said something incomprehensible. After asking at several other kiosks, I hit on an attendant who spoke English. “Two blocks to the kiosk on the Florida walkway,” he said.

News kiosk - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

A Buenos Aires news kiosk.

I made my way there, bought six assorted postcards, and walked a block back to a Correos sign I’d passed. I remembered from my stamp-collecting days that this means Postage.

Directed to the small stamp room near the entrance of the post office, I took a seat and told the lady there what I wanted. I was shocked to hear her reply, “How many do you want? It’s 295 pesos per postcard.”

“Thank you, never mind!” I said with a forced smile. Three American dollars per postcard was too much to even process! Mentally beginning to pare down my list of recipients, I rose from my chair and left the building.

Back to Palermo


Scenes from Palermo district - First (and last) tango in Buenos AiresI wanted to visit an art museum more satisfying to my taste than the Museum of Modern Art had been. The MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires), in the Palermo district, appeared promising.

I went back underground to the subway, navigating the system with the help of the user card Carlos had given me.

Underground subway system - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

The Buenos Aires underground on a busy evening.

The underground was a bit less crowded than the night before. I came out on a busy Palermo corner, saw a McDonald’s across the street, and decided to get a snack while plotting my walk to the museum and checking on Carlos’ plans for the day.

I had a burger and Coke and used Wi-Fi to find a good route to the museum. Carlos texted that he was still in town and would be over soon.

To pass the time until he came, I went outside and serenaded the street crowd with my harmonica. Carlos showed up with a big smile as I was ending “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.” We walked a pleasant mile to the museum.

MALBA museum - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

Museo de Artes Latinomericano de Buenos Aires

The MALBA


Four pieces of art at MALBA museum - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

Top left: Unknown painting about “The Country and the Outskirts.” Top right: “Manifestacion” by Antonio Berni (1934). Bottom left: “Tres figuras en marcha” (“Three people walking”) by Hector Poleo (1943). Bottom right: “El Dia Ilustrisimo” (“The Illustrious Day”) by Jorge de la Vega (1965).

I discovered some magnificent paintings at the MALBA. The exhibits, like those of the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires, were heavily thematic, but I found the themes of the main exhibit here quite evocative!

One of the sub-themes, for example, was the relationship between the growing urban centres of Latin America and the rural areas which had once dominated the continent.

Description of an exhibit at MALBA - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

A well-written description of the contents of one of the MALBA galleries. Other themes included such topics as “negritude,” indigenism,” “migrations” and “politicization.”

Finally: Tango!


Tango scene - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

A tango scene resembling the one at Borges Center.

At 7 p.m., I made my way back to Borges Cultural Center for the tango performance. Sitting in the auditorium, waiting for the show to begin, I tried to imagine how the “dangerous” atmosphere of a smoky tango bar could be reproduced in this modern, distinctly safe theatre.

Finally, the curtain went up to reveal … a smoky and perfectly rakish-looking bar, onstage! It featured a quartet of musicians: accordion, violin, keyboard and bass.

The dancers were good! The costumes and staging were wonderful! I was thoroughly entertained for the next hour and 20 minutes—all because my love for Jorge Luis Borges had induced me to visit a cultural centre that bore his name.

On to La Plata


For the next four days, I had a hotel reservation in La Plata, a large Argentine city around an hour southeast of Buenos Aires. Many of the Argentinian Meher Baba devotees live there, for reasons that are partly explicable and partly mysterious.

Carlos, concerned about my finding the right bus, had offered to return to Buenos Aires yet again and accompany me to his hometown. I assured my friend I would get there safely and—after writing down, word for word, his directions in Spanish to give to the taxi driver—meet him at the La Plata bus station.

People catching bus to La Plata - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

The bus to La Plata, loading in a somewhat “downscale” neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

An hour or so in limbo


The ride to La Plata was strange. Passing through the city was interesting. However, once the bus got on the freeway and headed toward the outskirts and the country beyond, I felt like I was in a nowhere land. This led to a poem:

Picture out window on bus to La Plata - First (and last) tango in Buenos Aires

The drab landscape on a grey day, taken through a dirty bus window at 60 mph (about 97 kph).

On the Buenos Aires to La Plata Bus

Out the window I can see
the Argentine countryside,
but it might as well be
Ohio or Indiana.

Even much of Buenos Aires itself
has a whiff of New York City.

Now, the barrio of San Telmo,
where I walked two days ago
and photographed street art—
where Carlos said the tango
was born—that
was Argentina!

And with its blue and orange and red
buildings, Oaxaca, where I was
last week, was Mexico!
Much of Mexico City
was, too.

So many places are not really
anywhere, until
in the way that a stomping
Flamenco foot says Espana,
someone, something, someplace says:

“I am here!
This is my rhythm,
These are my colours!”

Give your life to have rhythm
and colours, to be a syncopated
stomping foot and clapping hands,

or anything that is truly
your signature—

to be HERE!

Read about the author’s previous days spent in Buenos Aires by visiting AN AMERICAN IN BUENOS AIRES: Travels in Latin America [Part 5]»


image 10: Wikimedia Commons; image 16: Wikimedia Commons; all other images: Max Reif



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