Arriving in Buenos Aires, burned-out after 14 hours at the mercy of the airlines, it would only follow that the first cabby I meet would be an enthusiastic and accomplished conversationalist, chatty but likable.


Relaxing South American rhythms at Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo

“You live in Western Colorado, heh? Do you know any Apaches?” he asked.

“Not too many,” I answered. “I’m bigger with the Utes and Navajo.”

“I like Apaches better. I like their war paint,” he said while he jutted in and out of traffic pointing out landmarks and beautiful women.

“What do you do for work?” he asked.

“I write,” I answered keeping it simple.

“How many books have you written?” he pursued, narrowly dodging an merging horse and wagon.

“Well…none up till now,” I said sheepishly.

At that point he took his eyes off the road for a moment and just looked at me like I had just arrived from Mars.

“A bad writer,” I continued.

He laughed and said he thought not.

Bario San Telmo and Chacabuco Street appeared as a Madonna song blasted on the radio. She once played Eva Peron in “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”. Many of the people here are still in shock. Some are still offended. I wonder if they’ll ever forgive our indiscretions.

“Here is your bohemian paradise,” continued the cab driver. “Be careful of the local grappa, dog poop on the street and inexperienced taxi drivers from the provinces who don’t know their way around the city.”


Crazy and colorful Caminito neighborhood in La Boca

After meeting my gracious hosts Andrea and Damien proprietors of Mi Casa en San Telmo, I go out for a walk. It’s been a year since I relied on my Spanish and searching for a bakery I got a little confused and mistakenly asked a passerby (in perfect Spanish, mind you) “May I borrow your toothbrush?” He stared and walked on. It will get better when I get some sleep.

Quickly noticing that the space between a raging collectivo bus and the sidewalk is proportionally the same as the space between my ears I tread carefully and begin digesting what I can of this lovely city of 13.5 million European souls.

At one point I give a cigar to a man who said he was running late for a doctor’s appointment. In a garage/concert hall an orchestra plays Glen Miller’s In the Mood. Down on Piedras I discover a charming tavern and buying a copy of La Nation, sit down for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Says here under obituaries that one Javier Marcue, of a well-to-do Palermo family is getting buried today. According to the report Marcue stepped off the curb without looking and was “run over by a cement truck on its way to Bario Barracas, leaving only bits of hair and part of his left ear on the pavement.” According to companions, now in mourning, his last words were: “Let’s just see if any of these wild portenos will stop for me while I’m straddling the crosswalk.”

Well written, albeit morbid, story. Here’s a piece on the Boca Juniors, the mega-popular football team from Boca that plays before some 85,000 rapid Argentine fans every Sunday. Here are some listings for dinner and tango lessons and expensive package trips to Punta del Este for Easter. I realize I don’t have the right shoes for such extravagant outings and turn the page.

Returning to my pension and a short siesta an evening at the theater emerges. Since it’s Tuesday night only about 30 of the city’s 50 productions are on. Should I see The Charge of the Camarones Ajo or settle for a twin bill of Rosita de La Plata followed by  M’ Hijo el Doctor? Maybe they’ll all feature a cameo or two by Pepino, the traditional character that made his way over here from Southern Italy in 1890.

Later, back at Mi Casa the first chivitos come off the grill at about midnight and the guests and innkeepers eat and talk till all hours. To the proud residents of this splendid city it is clear that Buenos Aires is the center of all civilization, indeed…the entire Universe. Anyone who cannot see this is written off, politely with a frown, as a poor, ignorant barbarian.

I fall asleep remembering a conversation about gauchos who, add sugar to their mate’ thermos water when no one is looking, so as not to surrender their machismo in the face of mere mortals.


Crossing the river in the early evening the ferry pulls up at the lovely town of Colonia, Uruguay. What a great place to write dirty poems and meaningless dialogue in cafes and watch the procession of the Southern Cross. Taking to the side streets I find that everything looks about normal –  kids at cyber cafes, beautiful grandmas and grandpas who look like they’ve lived here for 200 years, motorcycles for rent, big dogs kickin’ little dogs’ arses. Tethered horses watching.

I find a wobbly table and sit down to a meal of corvina, tomatoes, olives and beer. All the tables here are wobbly since it was against the law to have balanced tables during the U.S. supported dictatorship. Back during those dark years of the late Seventies and early Eighties the government here, as well as in Argentina, went about murdering countless innocent citizens accused of harboring leftist ideologies. The whole shooting match was sponsored by the protectors of democracy over at the CIA. I met one sweet lady whose mother spent 8 years in prison, not because she was a felon but rather because she was a Social Democrat. Everybody knows commies don’t mix with nice furniture, especially stable tables.

In Colonia, which was originally a haven for Portuguese smugglers and now is a UNESCO world heritage site, my hotel is in an agreeable neighborhood lined with Sycamore trees. Checking in to the Hostal de los Poetas am taken by the proprietor, Beatrice, an olive-skinned, dark-eyed beauty who gives me my room keys with a large, noisy bell on the end.

“Do you think I am a cat?” I ask her in Spanish. “Are you afraid I will prowl for birds?”

She laughs and says I look dangerous.

“Do you speak English?” she asks in Spanish.

“Not very well,” I answer.

“But you are a Norte,” she jousts.

“But not one of the brighter ones,” I respond.

“But one of the more handsome ones,” she smiles a pretty lie.

He: “Will you have a glass of wine with me.”

She: “Maybe, but I must work until nine.”

He: “The length of a lifetime for me.”

She: “Are you asking me for a date?”

He: “My Spanish is worse than my English.

She: “I accept.”

He: “Dios mio…I am a happy man.”

She: Meet my outside at nine.

He: You betcha!

She: You betcha?

He: I would walk through fire to meet you at nine.

She: And hungry alligators?

He: And hungry alligators.

Bella. Lovely people these Uruguayans, so gloriously human, so civilized. An accomplished musician, my companion filled me in on her country’s music scene. Jorge Drexler, Jamie Roos, Ruben Rada and the Argentinean great Teresa Parodi are her favorites. Overhearing our conversation the waiter suggested we might like to hear his favorite tango by Carlos Gardel. He would play it just as soon as he runs off some local ragamuffins attempting to charm a few pesos from his assembled diners.

After three days taking pictures, hitting tennis balls and sampling wine in Colonia I bought a bus ticket for Montevideo. But what have I learned?

First, like a desperate little man selling ice in the noonday sun, Colonia’s mellow days may be numbered. Already on the horizon are golf courses and trays of little sandwiches for the rich. They’re even talking about building a suspension bridge from Argentina.

Secondly, in my own defense, I have learned the proper response to “What do you do for work?” Now, when asked, I tell my grand inquisitor that I work in the security sector as a traveling fly killer for a chain of Nicaraguan truck stops and that we are considering an expansion into Uruguay and Brazil. That direct, if lengthy, response always sets them back for a while. If it fails to do the trick I simply tell them I’m Willie Nelson and they are far too polite to ask “Who’s he?”


When bad vegetarians die and go to hell they make a stopover in Montevideo. The city is teeming with meat. Parillas, pizza parlors and cafes featuring  steaks, ribs, Milanesas, chorizos, and empanadas of every kind are everywhere. Besides this carnivorous fare one can enjoy paella, lots of fish and mariscos till the cows come home. The breads are exceptional, the tomatoes delicious and the ice cream is arguably the best in the world. This is the spot for the best dulce de leche and the fruits and vegetables are seducing the senses on every corner.


Tranquil Punta del Diablo on the Uruguayan coast near Brazil

One early morning I could swear I saw the words mas comidas? scratched subliminally across the bright amethyst sky.

After the bustle of Buenos Aires, Montevideo is a small town of 1.5 million…kind of like the Gypsy Kings on Tulsa Time. Nothing (much) opens until 10 am and, after a serious afternoon siesta, reopens until about eleven. I wander down Avenida 18 de Julio, the main artery, I am all but trampled by a ragged, aging woman set on retrieving an aluminum can from the sidewalk. After she grabs the can she looks up and says, “Where are you from?”

I answer “Los Estados Unidos” and she stares. “Do you live near Graceland?”

“No. I live in Colorado.”

“Is that near Graceland?”

No, senora, it’s in the mountains. Graceland is in Tennessee.”

“Is your house near Graceland?”

“No ma’am. That’s a long way away…

“I want to go to Graceland,” she says and scurries away searching for more recyclables.

“Hell, maybe I do live near Graceland,” I say to myself.

My appetite encouraged by the stirring exchange, I sit myself down at an outdoor cafe near Plaza Independencia and order a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. A little girl stops at my table selling air fresheners.

“Le gusta strawberry, limon or tuti-fruiti?” she smiles.

“I choose the strawberry,” I say as the waiter approaches to take my order. I’ve always wanted my very own cassette of Uruguayan air freshener and now I have one. She takes the pesos, smiles again, and is off to hustle a tiny little grandmother sitting under her umbrella reading a copy of El Pais, the headline announcing James Brown’s (Senor Dinamito himself!) concert over the weekend. Commerce completed, I order a light lunch of calamari, salmon, tomatoes, roasted eggplant, bread and more wine.

When I’m done I walk at least a mile to Cuidad Vieja, El Mercado del Puerto and El Pero Que Fuma Bar, down on the riverfront. Why are all the good taverns always in the bad neighborhoods? Here at The Dog That Smokes there are more people behind the bar than in front of it and two Eastern European sailors are engaged in a heated video game much to the displeasure of the other customers.

“Buenas tardes…Como lo acaba?” (How’s it running?) asked a man from one of the tables. He proceeds to sit down at the bar and give me a running history of The Dog That Smokes, Murga music, futbal, women, world politics, gauchos, the city of Montevideo, the skies and the outer atmosphere. He’s a retired sailor who has been all over the world. I tell him I only understand parts of what he is saying. He smiles, raises his arms and his eyebrows in a questioning gesture and rattles on.

“Did you hear that the Pope has died?” he asks. Before I can answer he jokes that mathematically it is more likely for a Pope to die while I’m in town than for it to snow. Then he reminds me that it is proper etiquette to flirt with every woman I meet whether she is eight or eighty. “If you are a gentleman”…he adds.

Meanwhile over in Bario Nuevo Paris another toothless dog barks menacingly protecting a dirt street from dust, or perhaps another dog. Horse carts clop down the street. My friends are preparing for a Sunday asado where we will make music all afternoon long and into the evening. The best people in the world live in Nuevo Paris. I check my sport coat and flip-flops and prepare to throw the fat onto the fire, as they say.


Me gusto algunos ruidos:

El ruido de ninos

El ruido de amantes

El ruido de mi companero viajero

la luna del oro

cuando ella es llena.


To a practicing pagan it seemed fitting to spend Semana Santa at Punta del Diablo. “Hola!” said a young boy as I departed the bus, grabbing for my backpack. “Welcome to my town.” The young man named Hector helped me find a cabin and when I offered to pay him for his trouble he refused the money saying his mother would not be happy if he hustled tourists. His little sister was selling shells so I bought three instead.

There are no few Nortes here. You’re on your own. No past baggage leftover from five-star heroes or cruise boat power shoppers. And the beaches remind one of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Waves crashing on ancient boulders and novice sand. Sun bathers returning to their hammocks looking like swollen marshmallows thrown into hot oil. Hippie stalls selling everything from leather bracelets to linguini noodles.

The cabin next to mine has a sign on the door that says “therapy”. The other neighbors are two charming ladies who drink all my beer but cook me corn omelets for breakfast. Tonight it’s samba and tomorrow futbal: Uruguay vs Brazil.

I wake up on my last morning here to the sound of thunder and the crash of lightning. Soon I discover that all the neighborhood cats and dogs are hiding from the storm in my cabin, some under the bed, others in the bathroom. One cat is on my lap trembling every time the thunder rolls. She looks at me with that pathetic what’s for lunch? expression. Maybe I should shut the door or maybe not. I’ll make that decision by early afternoon or evening.

– Kevin Haley  


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