In the trains of Buenos Aires, you can’t ignore life

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I am in the end of a train car where there is almost always space to sit on the floor underneath the wide, scratched windows. I imagine the shoes that have been here, smeared with sidewalk dog shit, muddy boots and wet bike tires, all the filth of a city underfoot, filing in and out of this car. But the floor means no standing on tired legs or sweating in thin air or jostling with other humid bodies for the long ride.

Today, a corner of the floor is occupied by a young man who wears a couple of thin sweaters and a red and white scarf wrapped several times around his neck–the style of a wanderer. A well taken care of back pack sits at his feet while he cradles a charango, a traditional Argentine guitar made from the shell of an armadillo. His long white fingers pluck randomly at the 12-stringed instrument, while an older man in blue uniform sits upon the bench against the wall of the compartment making silly noises to accompany the spurts of melody. The player’s dark eyes flit up to the man and back to his fingers, they chat sporadically over the soundtrack he creates, over the lurching of the train.

Perhaps his work day is done, perhaps he has been playing the train like the others, who do it for money. Although they are never usually this calm, never this well-dressed. He is nothing like that short, dark-skinned man with a long black ponytail who plays traditional folk songs on his guitarra criolla, with a mini amplifier duck-taped to his belt.

But sometimes the people who walk up and down the trains do not have music to offer. Sometimes they are blind, sometimes they tell us that they are incurably sick or disabled. Yet no matter how helpless they are, they always have something to offer—they do not ask for free money. Even though they have done this 50 times a day for weeks or months or even years, their sharp, raspy, purposeful voices rise up with a story over the hum of giddy students or gossiping middle-aged ladies or the slumbering uniformed city worker who opens an eye for a half second at this constant familiar droning sound.

One car at a time, they put on a performance. There is a wiry teenage boy, firm in his stance and gestures, dramatic, theatrical, a one man act. He sounds like a young politician running for office as he decries the lapses in the nation’s system in caring for those children in poverty who are undernourished, surrounded by drugs and violence. They live in those slums that the locals point at from their car on the highway, shaking their heads in astonishment at how rapidly and jaggedly the haphazard boxes of brick and wooden planks are spreading from their various spots across this giant city, like a disease that has no known cure.

There are those who cannot speak so loudly and charismatically, they are the ones who no one would pay attention to. Instead of a performance, they put a small, flimsy piece of paper in your hand, detailing their pains and fear, a tragic index card-sized biography. They are the young dirty-haired girl or the old woman who actually has no voice left. The paper has passed through so many of our hands, like money, a desperate or hopeful currency. Do you pinch it with thumb and forefinger by a humid corner, or hold it flat in your sweaty palm, staring at the simple, photo-copied words, trying not to breathe too hard so the paper won’t flutter to the dirty ground?

And when the men come selling stuffed homemade breads or alfajor cookies or incense sticks or socks, there’s a feeling of relief—you can ignore them easily. You don’t have to pretend that you can’t hear their speech with your headphones plugged in and music turned up, you don’t have to shake your head several times firmly as they touch your hand or look up to you with cracked lips and bare feet, you don’t have to wonder how to tell them that you gave them money yesterday. It’s just business as usual. 

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