Falling in love with Buenos Aires: the beginning





I am definitely not in India anymore. First purchase in Buenos Aires: 4″ leather platforms heels. If 65 year old lecturers, 14 year old girls and new mothers pushing strollers can wear them, why not? My skin no longer carries a thick layer of dirt and sweat, I can run my fingers through my hair for the first time in 5 weeks, my lungs fill with fresh, clean air at the 200 acre park 10 blocks from home, and despite a few sleepless nights, the city’s energy keeps me wide awake. Buenos Aires has got to be the sexiest city in existence; it’s not only the beautiful women radiating with confidence, or the young couples canoodling on sidewalk cafes as if they have all the time in the world… it’s also the large population of rollerbladers clad in sport bras and booty shorts, the burning incense on every corner, the intimate mate-drinking circles of friends, the besos exchanged during hellos, the sounds of jazz bands oozing out of bars every few blocks…

We arrived March 9th to our hotel– the same hotel hosting a massive tattoo convention, pretty hilarious to see when you’re deliriously tired after 30 hours in the air. Day One got us on public transportation, took us on a 3 hour double-decker bus tour of the city, and left us at an international food festival at Plaza de Mayo! Weekends here translate to artisan fairs on every corner. A shopaholic’s playground. We hit the biggest one right off: Feria de San Telmo. San Telmo is an awesome neighborhood of spruced up, boldly painted homes of belle-epoque architecture; after the yellow fever and cholera epidemics, immigrants turned abandoned mansions into makeshift homes, giving the area a certain working class charm. The famous Sunday fair was bustling with antiques, street performers and tango dancers, handmade jewelry galore, leather goods, vintage sunglasses, mate gourds, Mendoza wine and other artisan crafts.

Sunday I also moved in with my host mum, Maria. Maria’s from the mountains of Patagonia and works as an artist here (paper mache bowls, painted furniture and leather handbags) and wears really cool handmade copper jewelry. Her two older children are artists/musicians traveling the world, but her 16 year old son Ivan lives with us. Maria’s English is perfect; my conversations with Ivan succeed only when we use French. We live in Palermo Soho– a young, upperclass neighborhood where the traditional low houses have been adapted into a myriad of funky bars, restaurants, bohemian boutiques, bike shops, bookstores and art galleries. My IHP roommate Laura and I share a colorful bedroom and balcony in our fifth floor apartment, and getting our own keys to come and go as we please has granted us limitless freedom and independence! A few more reasons this location is prime:

1. I live across the street from Dain Usina Cultural- a quasi art gallery, giant beautiful bookstore, and cafe that gives you dense delicious chocolates with every drink order and has a secret roof terrace filled with plush white couches.

2. Palermo is a neighborhood of parks filled with magnolias, pines, and willows, designed by a French architect and allegedly inspired by London’s Hyde Park and Paris’s Bois de Boulogn. I live 10 blocks from the Parque Tres de Febrero, a paradise of trees, lakes, walking trails, ducks, rose and botanical gardens and running paths.

3. My sandals have been revived! Thanks to Maria and Jose, who own a tiny sewing shop next door. Jose has fixed my sandals and backpack, and Maria resewed a dress for me. Granted, they speak no English and I no Spanish. Our exchanges reminded me of a time in Fes buying pottery and negotiating a price by passing a sheet of paper in silence back and forth naming different amounts. Jose and I do this to decide on prices, draw little diagrams and understand times.

4. I am about 7 blocks from SUMA– the mental health nonprofit where classes and lectures are held. Speaking of walking, Buenos Aires is on a grid system and I’ve mastered walking/subway navigation. Hard to believe, I know. The bus system greatly confuses me, which leaves me to walk everywhere, often 2-3 miles haha but I refuse to open the bus map. Mom, it’s like Paris- remember how well our refusal to use public transportation ended?

Academics: Our first few lectures focused on Argentina’s health system and epidemiological priorities (dengue fever, TB, whooping cough, and chronic diseases). In a country of 40 million where 93% of the population lives in urban areas, it’s not too shocking that there are a whole lotta Italian, Spanish and Eastern European immigrants. I’ll spare you the details of the health system structure and governance, but one reality worth noting is that Argentina suffers from too many doctors. Ideally, there is 1 doctor per 500 people. In Argentina, there is 1 per 70, and very few work in the public sector or in rural areas. This simultaneous excess of doctors and exclusion of patients is one of the country’s most pressing problems, in part stemming from medical school being free of cost.

Case studies in Argentina happen one day per week; Karen, Niv, Sidney, Christina and I meet with Barbara and she takes us around the city to talk to people involved in traditional/alternative medicine! Barbara’s getting her PhD right now and has lived a fascinating life; vegetarian from birth, a meditation and kung fu aficionado, and has taken only 1 pill in her life (an anti-inflammatory). She described to us magical mushroom and milk concoctions, kefir, and kombucha…and how in Venezuelan hospitals patients rest in hammocks under their beds. In contrast to India, one must earn an MD before studying homeopathy…we all interviewed her father, Dr. Javier Burga Montoya, in his ritzy, mod, giant office in Recoleta. He’s superman. Looking back, the notes I wrote down during our interview are pretty entertaining…

After a car accident–>raw foods diet–>fasted in the mountains–>”I AM ALIVE” epiphany

Diagnosed with TB–>travelled to the mountains–>drank the juice of 25 lemons a day, washed himself with mud, practiced natural healing for 15 days–>cured

Had multiple sclerosis at age 35–>traveled to the Amazon to eat some crazy rare plants that give you a high fever–>no more multiple sclerosis!

Mantra: “food, herbs and homeopathy”; heal through fever and fasting

Wakes up at 5am to study the Medline database, runs an hour a day, practices yoga, meditation and kung fu, currently writing 2 books in addition to seeing patients in two offices in Buenos Aires

See why he’s superman?

Our first site visit as a group was to ESMA: Escuela de la Armada, a former military training school that is now one of Argentina’s biggest clandestine detention centers. During the dictatorship from 1976-1983, military officers committed countless crimes against humanity like illegal detention, torture and murder of leftists and human rights activists– anyone who threatened the system. Over 5,000 detainees were held here, and we read testimonies, saw torture rooms, learned about death flights when detainees were thrown from planes into Rio de la Plata, and the hundreds of babies born to detained mothers who were given away to military families– all contributing to the over 30,000 disappeared during the “Dirty War.”

After visiting ESMA, a social scientist from the University of BA discussed Argentina’s history with us, from the liberalism of the early 1900s to the rise of Peronism, neoliberalist policies of Menen, economic crisis of 2001 when 56% of the population fell under the poverty line, and current democratically-elected female president Cristina Kirchner. Watching Memoria del Saqueu, a documentary highlighting the political and social consequences of Menen’s privatization of national companies and the eventual collapse of the economy (actually super engaging, I really recommend it!), helped clarify a lot, but it took an impromptu 2 hour lecture by Carolina to understand Peronism. Connecting all this back to health is the best part– like the nutritional impact of Peron’s favor of increased agricultural output over industrialization and the resulting decrease in beef and grain output; or the impact of Menen’s privatization of YPF, Argentina’s largest oil company worth $200 billion, which left thousands unemployed and neglected– imagine the physical and mental health implications; or the privatization of a gas extraction company that in turn contaminated the ground water of native Indian land; and Yacreya Dam in the 90s whose mismanagement and creation displaced 40,000 people and produced a perfect breeding ground for waterborne diseases like dengue and malaria. It can all be traced back to corrupt politicians whose only loyalty is to their own privilege.

We’ve also spoken with professionals from the Ministry of Health about health and migration in Argentina and the sociodemographic aspects of bordering versus overseas countries sending people here, like urbanization and feminisation. More recently, a panel of speakers (a public health consultant to African countries, a WHO researcher and a super cute old lady who was so nervous to use her English and I just wanted to hug her the whole time) met with us to talk about health as a human right, privatized versus public care, civil societies and the concept of naturalization. Another guest speaker, an older woman and nutritionist with the MOH, enlightened us (questionably) about eating disorders and the high level of chronic malnutrition here. “Patagonia” is a great example– it translates to “big foot” and because of chronic malnutrition and over 500 years of hunger, people have lost 1.7 inches in height! She talked about the politics of nutrition—how meat is cheap because the government subsidizes the cost for farmers and for poor people, essentially using taxes as a tool to direct consumption.

Speaking of meat… quick chat about the food. I expected to fill my tummy with steaks and empanadas, but turns out Maria is quite the vegetarian chef! Leah, you’d love these meals. There’s always a giant bowl of fresh arugula to throw handfuls on top of the main dish, whether it’s beans and carrot pie, gnocchi, ravioli, or quiche, and compote fruit for dessert. The pears here are UNREAL. Also, breakfasts are nonexistent. Eggs in the morning? Unheard of!

A few of us explored Recoleta Cemetery: This above-ground “city of the dead” was created in 1882 as the city’s first public burial ground and contains 4800 tombs of Argentina’s richest and most famous (including the notorious Eva Peron). Walking through the maze of narrow passageways lined with crumbling marble and decorative tombs was absolutely beautiful; you could spend all day admiring the stained glass windows and etched poetry.

Al Alteneo: A glorious theater converted into a bookstore! With a beautiful, antique-style cafe where old men with glasses sip cortados while reading and listening to the live pianist. We couldn’t afford anything but wanted the cafe experience.. so the four of us split a lemonade :)

Cultural adjustments: There is dog poop all over the sidewalks. Guess it beats the human waste often on the sidewalks in India… I’m also too in love with the dog walkers (macho tattoo-covered men) walking up to 15 (!!!) dogs to care. Why am I stared at when I run in the park? Would I blend in more if I wore a tube top and booty shorts like the 60 year-old women passing me? Or are my lime green mid-calf LLBean socks drawing attention? And why do all ACs in this city drip on sidewalks? Meaning on pedestrians. Meaning on me. I thought someone poured a bucket of water on me the last time I walked home!