Friday, 5 February 2010

The View from Down Here

A paradox about setting down experience in a diary or a blog is that during periods filled with events worth noting, you don’t have a lot of leisure to record what you are doing and seeing. Instead of constructing a carefully worked-out argument, here are just a few thoughts I’ve had during my first month in Buenos Aires.

Weather: I expected warm temperatures but nothing prepared me for the hottest January the city has experienced in the past half century. I made up my mind not to be bothered by it and have mostly managed. The light is strong and white, a danger to anyone not using sunblock. Since arriving I’ve seen that the concentration of skin melanin has intensified enough to make it possible for me to go out in relative safety. Buenos Aires is situated on the 34th Parallel South, equivalents in the Northern Hemisphere including Rabat, Morocco, and Los Angeles, U.S.A. I arrived less than a month after the Southern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. But of course other factors besides distance from the Equator and the seasons shape climate. Other spots on this parallel are hotter and still others colder. I was curious to have proved or disproved the old claim that water spinning down a drain in the Southern Hemisphere makes a counter-clockwise vortex as opposed to the Northern Hemisphere’s clockwise counterpart. More than half the time it seems to do so, though sometimes changing direction during the process. Again, other factors can affect what happens.

I also wanted to see the constellations down here, the most famous of these, the Southern Cross. That one, I definitely have seen, but others have been harder to locate because of competing urban nighttime illumination, as well as my unfamiliarity with the connect-the-dot patterns. Staring upward at the rearranged light sources, I imagined I could intuit sensations the early European explorers must have felt once they left behind the familiar zodiac and the fixed beacon of the North Star. What had always in the Northern Hemisphere seemed permanent simply dipped out of sight below the horizon, an event that can only have been deeply unsettling. I speculate, too, that our brains have some low-level grasp of the magnetic fields circling the planet. Anyway, on arriving here, I found that my usually infallible sense of direction deserted me. I have had to memorize where north is; I no longer sense the direction unconsciously. (A situation not helped by the reversal of north-south representation on some of the maps I’ve seen here.) North, when I locate it, no longer feels “up” to me; it feels “down.” Make of that what you will.

When I’ve visited Latin countries in the past, I’ve always been struck by the great social weight of Catholicism, a palpable force in the unfolding of each day and each year. In Mexico, bells ringing at the moment of consecration in the mass begin early in the day and conclude late. In Buenos Aires I haven’t, during the past month, heard a single bell. In the neighborhood where I am staying, I’ve come across only one church. The Church here doesn’t seem to have the overwhelming influence experienced elsewhere. It is taken more lightly. Just possibly there is (aside from historical forces particular to Argentina) a geographical/seasonal explanation for the prevailing secularism. The Catholic church calendar was devised in the Northern Hemisphere. In the depths of winter darkness a Holy Child appears, bringing light, his Epiphany revealed at the moment when the sun begins to climb on the horizon and days begin to lengthen again. There follows a long series of months (accompanied in earlier centuries by a shortage of food) that just somehow have to be slogged through, a time when discipline is urged on all the congregants. And then the dramatic finale in which the god is slain and green returns to the earth, along with spring flowers. After several months of heavenly weather and a bright sun ascending to its zenith in the sky, the season turns again and autumnal thoughts of darkness and eventual death return, as the cycle begins anew. All right: but down here, the cycle is reversed. Christmas falls in high summer, when you don’t need the birth of new light in order to continue to hope. Then Lent stretches through a couple of warm, abundant months until Eastertide, which arrives with autumn cold and the withering of foliage. Psychologically, these seasonal changes clash with the archetypal patterns established in the traditional calendar, the inevitable result being that its impact is much weakened. This strikes me as so apparent I’m surprised no one ever seems to have discussed it. I experienced the whole question in epitomized form one day shortly after arrival. In a public square they still hadn’t taken down a big artificial Christmas tree. A fake evergreen with golden tinsel decoration, it was absolutely broiling in the bright sunlight and looked as out of place as a Lapland reindeer in the Mojave desert.

I’ve begun with general geographic and climate considerations and will go one from here to talk about Argentinian history and culture, with a special focus on the “Ciudad Autónoma,” the capital of Buenos Aires.  Stay tuned.


  1. My experience five years ago was similar. We were there over Christmas and it was surreal seeing giant posters of Santa Claus on Florida street as shoppers in shorts and sunglasses passed by. There was virtually no sense of anything Christian, much less Catholic.
    As an amateur astronomer, I was also fascinated with the stars. We traveled to San Carlos De Bariloche and Califate in the south. The Southern Cross was dazzling; but so were Orion in reverse and other recognizable constellations. Of course I was also eager to see the Magellanic Clouds, the galaxies orbiting the Milky Way.
    Fortunately, we did not have the heat. It was blissfully cool with temps in the 70s and cobalt blue skies. A thunderstorm or two cleared the air. The parks, gardens, and lively cafes were a joy.