One Saturday I had the pleasure of being invited to partake in an extraordinary visit. I took some maté and bought cigarettes for the first time in four years. The maté was to help me get over the ill effects of cachaça and beer from the previous night; the cigarettes were not to be smoked but to be shared.
This is the story of how a paranoid Irishman enters the world of some of the whackiest stars of Argentine media. Hi, ho and off we go to Hospital Borda, better known by its radio station La Colifata, A Buenos Aires insane asylum.
The Argo-Yankee poet mate Paul Perry Perry had invited me along. He came with his younger brother, in from Philly. Neither the brother nor I had been here before so we listened attentively as Paul gave us the rundown. At least the brother had seen the Manu Chao video, I was completely in the dark. I questioned Paul on an exit strategy. He had casually regaled us with the story of how another unfortunate guest had once been stopped on his way out of hospital Borda. I listened appalled as Paul — dead-pan — told us both how he the poor unfortunate been been confused with an inmate and was detained by a strong-arm blow to the chest.
“Hey not you!”
Had security selected him on a whim? Who knows? Did he really think the guy was a loon? Were they just taking the mickey, or were they looking for a bribe?
Seemingly the poor chap did not exit until later, much later!
It was intent on avoiding such a fate and was appalled when security just waved into the loony bin, no pass, no papers, no exit visa? I could have been carrying an Uzi! Much more important: how are they going to know who to let out?
I told the brothers how back in 1988 I had become disorientated in the dark, alone in the snowy East Berlin. Looking for the exit at Checkpoint Charlie. Rather than wander aimlessly, I asked a group of road workers where it was.
They indicated back in the direction from which I had just come. I insisted that I had been looking there and there was no way through. They turned to each other with a smile and said: “I guess he’s just going to have to stay with us then?” Then they fell around laughing at their own joke.
I must admit, I had been nearly a year in Germany by that time, and was not used to Germans with a sense of humour. I failed to appreciate the joke (perhaps because I was the joke). I was resolute not to find myself in the same situation again!
The asylum is in the southern part of Constitución, a barrio rarely visited by Porteños. This urban appendix is blocked off by the railway lines on one side and the medical institutions on the other.
There is no way out!
People are sent there in ambulances or police vehicles, and some, like us, just stroll in (with feigned confidence in my case). I prefer the guest category, few choose the alternative, except, I imagined, a few psychotic murderers who cop an insanity plea to avoid doing time in the notorious Buenos Aires prison system.
Even with my happy status of guest. I could not help thinking of what it would be like to be a patient. My brain blocked it out. Impalpable. The horror of finding oneself a ward of the Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires. It would be bad enough to find oneself categorised as ‘mad’ without being plunged into the ‘care’ of the city of Buenos Aires. This illegitimate child of past glory and economic collapse can’t even repair it’s own sidewalks.
Much of the Federal Capital’s tax income is criminally misappropriated and another large wad lavished on schemes to upgrade the city parks for summertime concerts in the richer northern suburbs. The loony bin in is the south, a zone that the natives euphemistically describe as ‘complicated’.
It isn’t a priority.
I simply couldn’t imagine being stuck inside, unable to buy my favorite local soft drink “Ser” at the local (high-security) liquor store! I had seen, first hand, the horrendous state of the facilities in the public hospitals. They operate against the odds, held together by volunteers and some of the best doctors on the planet. But only just! I couldn’t imagine how it would be to be dependent on such a system for my very existence, my very sanity, to live within it.
Could this be another excellent argument for assisted suicide?
I had to admit though, I was intrigued to see what it was like inside!
Our arrangement was to meet in the southern city train station (like the barrio also called “Constitución”). I waited there drinking maté and Ser in a restaurant called “Brasil” where table manners are not high on the priorities list.
Brasil faces out onto bleak plaza of bus stops hemmed in by a concrete backdrop, an elevated freeway heading to the next city to the south called La Plata.
Outside on this concrete stage was an ant’s nest of thousands of buses frenetically feeding this transport hub at 25 US dollar cents a passenger. The chaos suddenly struck me as very Latin American in the Peruvian sense of the word.
Those of you who never lived here might not get the reference negating South America. You see the posh residents of Buenos Aires (this least latina of South American capitals) prefer to believe that they inhabit the Paris of the South. For those who never leave the northern barrios this illusion is almost maintainable, if schizophrenic. They just stand with their back to the continent facing the Atlantic ignoring the fact that they’re parallel to Africa, not Paris.
Constitución is no Paris! This fort-apache of train station is reminiscent of a by-gone age of better tableware. It was built by the British more than a century ago to haul cows from the fertile Pampa to feed their empire but the Euro-allusion ends there! Precious little out there resembles Paris except in the fiction of tourism marketing-speak.
The buses outside constitute a very Porteño circulatory system, pounding their noisy way through this rabbit-warren of a city traversing the myriad barrios of Buenos Aires. They are one of the few systems in this city that actually function. Each is numbered and colour-coded so that people can pick them out from a distance and stick out their paw. As I sipped I mulled the transport insanity before me, sucking diesel from their tanks like melted gobs of butter.
The boys arrive. Time to go.
Exit stage left. Time to leave the station famous for the regular event of passengers burning their own trains in frustration at excessive delays. One has to question the logic of this strategy 🙂 Then again you probably think I’m joking.
We strolled back behind the station to a place that no-one goes, even on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We cruise a few blocks hyper-aware of our unfamiliar surroundings. Kids disappear into holes in walls jumping down to the tracks below.
My mate Paul stops us both at a junction: “We are entering the zone. From here on in everyone, but Everyone, is either an inmate or a guard.” And, as it turns out, most of the guards were once inmates too. It seems the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
I start to notice the glazed over eyes and the slouching gait of, well, everyone except us (and we were still outside). We bought some more beers and smokes, inhale the last few lung-fulls of the joint, smile at the guards, and we are waved on into Hospital José Tiburcia Borda.
(to be continued (with my economist head screwed back on again…)
Inside hospital Borda
It was a sunny Saturday in the walled compound of a turn of the twentieth-century unusual gated-community, the puzzle factory: hospital Borda. The buildings all look rather similar and so I stuck close to Paul as we went in. The streets in Borda are named after doctors (which seemed logical) but no one was handing out maps. There are no cars, hence no traffic, so the leafy avenues form wide green walkways, very peak oil! We shuffle by the first few buildings and the whole place seemed much less frenetic than life outside, eerily quiet.
There seemed to be some sounds ahead so we ambled along toward it.
It was the last Saturday of the month; Party time in Borda. I thought this rather fine stroke of luck. In retrospect, it probably had more to do with Paul’s excellent timing. A Borda party, I was quick to learn, is a participatory affair. Full contact! Indeed that is the idea. The locals, it seems, enjoy the diversion from the routine. Don’t we all? Some impressive recovery statistics have also shown that they benefit greatly from the interaction they have with each other, with the artists, with the people who help out with the radio station, and even with the guests like me. The party is an extension of what is a collaborative song / dance / art-therapy thing.
I’m not very good at this!
As we turned the corner we noticed a small, populated square. There was a PA system and a few chairs, all arranged in a semi-circle. I began to think I should have brought a hat. The sun had begun to get hotter as the afternoon matured. I sidled over to a tree for some shade trying not to step on the plants and hid behind my sunglasses. A sign in the nearby tree read, don’t steal the plants!
Participatory art is not like going to a show where you are passively entertained, there are no walls here. The audience is the show and there is less security than a burning man night on acid. This is the event and you are part of it. Everyone can partake, and indeed are free, and in a few cases encouraged, to lead the show down their own artistic corridor. There were some interesting detours, many entirely without musical talent. The party is light on planning and heavy on anarchy.
It is like an Irish country night-club at four in the morning. Been hoarding our medicine for a week have we? Time to whacking back a week’s worth of valium in one go and wash it down with a couple of smuggled-in beers. Even if your smile reveals fifteen years of not-quite-remembering to brush your teeth. No matter! The microphone can be yours! No one complains if you’re a few octaves out of tune and that the verses of the song don’t quite seem to progress.
I shall come back to the teeth thing later.
I had sucked down most of my maté so I decided to economise in an effort to eek it out — typical white boy — but this was not to be. Maté for those of you who do not live in Argentina is a reflection of the best of the Argentine society, the love of sharing.
Sharing is something that we, who are brought up in the more barbarous Western World, are taught to avoid, for two practical reasons. The main reason is that it has been our job for many centuries to build those empire things. You know the game: the boats, the weapons, the armour and the wars. We are taught to compete: rugby, polo, boxing, fencing, whatever. The point being that when it comes down to the empire-fighting-conquest thing, we should be better at it. Our lance will strike first and we get to stay on our horse and partake of a fair maiden or two. With luck, and a lot of practice, our fighting career may last a few weeks before an equally competitive barbarian slams an ax into our helmet.
To put it simply the sharing thing is not encouraged, they call it winner-take-all and we are trained to like it that way. Sharing is a little namby-pamby, a little, well, gay? It all goes against the grain of the rape-and-pillage thing, the nation building, bringing democracy to the Middle East, and all that.
You know the story.
Shortly before being slaughtered by the Euro-types and slightly after 1492 the original populations of this southern cone, having recently had the questionable fortune of being “discovered”, taught their white visitors the sharing thing and, it seems, it caught on in certain aspects. Unfortunately the conquistador-types were not the greatest studiers many mitching off from the sharing tutorial for more of the rape-and-pillage thing. To this day the whiter population of this sub continent score lowest of any continent in terms of social sharing GINI coefficients to those economists out there, but I digress…
Ah, some of you say. Wait that was the Iberians! We didn’t have an Empire! We Irish were the empire, which is true to an extent. However if we are to judge from Irish GINI coefficients we must have learned to share from our neigbours to the East.
Sharing is the antithesis of competition. In Latin American societies it is associated with a beautiful concept called abundance. “La abundancia” in Spanish. I suppose the plains Indians never imagined that those millions of hectares that they called home would progress to factory farms of soybeans for Chinese pig feed or that they would have to be removed to make it happen. To those sharing barbarians the Argentine Pampa seemed so enormous, I guess they couldn’t ever imagine running out of anything?
If the love of sharing is the most civilized aspect of the Argentine and indeed all Latin American societies (especially among the less white). This is particularly the case when it comes to partaking of liquids, and absolutely the case when it comes to maté!
By the way I said there were two reasons we Euro-types were not known for sharing. The second was the pox! Over the ages we Euros have been smitten by a cacophony of poxes, some of which can be rather damaging to the complexion. The Spaniards too brought one weapon with them that made them all but invincible. They might never have defeated the Nahuatl, nor the Inca, if it were not for smallpox.
I remember (another life) being driven by my friend Brendan across Black Heath, an entirely dull park in London. I was thoroughly shocked to as he filled me in on the history. Seems it was called Black, after the Black Death (one of our more fun poxes), and Heath? Well lets just say it was found to be inadvisable to build houses atop mass graves of rotting dead people.
Thanks for that image Brendan!
A Drug-Rich Environment
In Borda there are all kinds of stupefacients to be had but the natural high of maté is also very much appreciated. The ritual goes as follows: Take the flask and fill the gourd with water pouring it over the herb inside. Hand gourd to those with whom you wish to share so they can suck said green liquid through the straw-like tube called a ‘bombilla’. Then repeat, passing it to the next person in the round, who will in turn suck it dry, pass it back, and so on…
In the loony bin this can present its complications…
Supply and Demand
OK! I am supposed to be completing a Masters degree in Economics so let’s frame the maté issues in terms of supply and demand and see how it goes.
Stick with me on this. I promise not to resort to equations or simplistic diagrams with crisscrossing curvy lines.
Demand in a loony bin is almost infinite; the only thing that is not in short supply is time. Everyone has time for you and even more so if you happen to have brought something to share with them. This could be a song, a conversation, a smile, a dance or a juggling trick. Instant popularity (of the rock-star variety) are reserved for women, people with cigarettes, real rock stars like Manu Chao who turned up later, and to a slightly lesser degree, people with maté!
I brought maté.
Supply is, on the other hand… Well let’s just say that is much less than infinite. The only items that some of the inmates have in an excess supply are certain legal drugs. In the extreme case (and worthy of mention) are the slower lurching types which can be found all over Borda.
These guys move intentionally, in slow motion and in relatively straight lines, stopping every now and again to catch their breath, in extreme confusion, or because they have bumped into a tree. Otherwise they move with great purpose and admirable concentration but are in no great hurry.
It isn’t yet mealtime.
I can only postulate that they have some special access to the medical cabinet? Like extras from a Thriller video, but with better hinges, they are generally short on conversation and have very little interest in the party. You have to keep an eye out! Much like Buenos Aires buses, these guys resent swerving to avoid you, and have an inherent lack of maneuverability.
Back to the Party
The first thing I noticed about the party was that there seemed to be about as many visitors as locals. The locals are fairly easy to pick out, even if they are are on the light dose.
You can tell them by their clothes.
Don’t get me wrong! This is a civilized country. We are not talking the Guantanamesque orange-hoodie brigade or keystone-cop-type inmates of the striped variety. Everybody gets to wear whatever he may have in his wardrobe. Having avoided visiting the bedrooms, I realise I am making an assumption here. What is evident though, is that for some, it has been a few decades since their last Saturday jaunt to the department store. If you ever visit bring a spare T-shirt.
The visitors, on the other hand, are an eclectic bunch of merry makers. I marveled at the fancy cameras and began to realize that this was somewhat of a media fest. Those that were non-media, non-locals (and non-me) seemed to be mostly professional entertainers.
Excellent, sounds like my kind of party!
I began to see what Paul had meant when he mentioned that Borda was a good place to meet beautiful women (when I first entered the facility I thought he was making a sardonic reference to our hosts with questionable oral hygiene.) Imagine the scene. Here we all are, lots of cameras and people with time on their hands. It is a hot day and some silly Irishman comes in with a fancy maté setup and a packet of Marlboro sticking out of his shirt pocket. The only thing that could possibly have made me more popular would have been a vagina.
But back to the supply thing.
Here I am with maybe six refills worth of water in my flask and a line of inmates more than six deep. This is what we economists call a crisis, which leaves me wandering around with a dry maté gourd and many disappointed inmates. What was on my mind was that Paul assured me that most of my maté buddies used to have teeth back then when they were committed.
Images of Black Heath and dental appointments.
Worse still it is really hot, I have nothing else to drink, and to cap it all, I had met a charming New Zealander called Kate who likes maté. It’s hot, I’m thirsty, she’s hot, shes thirsty, there’s dancing and some questionable dental hygiene about.
I developed the on-the-fly/on-the-sly Borda bombilla sterilization technique (the bombilla was the straw thing recently removed from the brown gums of the inmates with the charming smiles).
Kate too proves resourceful and ties a spare blouse around my bald-and-more-than-slightly-red head so I don’t stroke.
And to cap it all, even here, there is “la abundancia!” As it turns out that the locals have an almost infinite supply of hot water and maté herb and they too like to share!
All’s well that ends well.
I must go back some day!