Monday, August 24, 2009

Two Worlds

The alarm went off at 5:15 am, and after showering and dressing, I hit the dark, cold street to catch the 24 to the Plaza de Mayo. Keeping my eyes tight on the road for landmarks, it was harder in pitch black and with fatigue always there. Off the bus and down to the Registro de las Personas at 25 de mayo 155, I thought I would be getting to the DNI registration office early. After all, it was about 6 am, and they didn't even open until 9:30. But to my dismay, the line wrapped around the block, down the street, and to the other side of the building on both sides. A random guy showed me the end of the line and then offered to let me cut him up at the front for some money. I wasn't interested.

Still pitch black, the cold of the winter was biting at me, but I stood still in line behind everyone else, and turning around I realized that maybe 100 more people were suddenly behind me. We all stood still and quiet, next to homeless people sleeping on dirty mattresses, their old blankets covering everything but their matted hair. Standing there I realized that we were all going to be like this for 3 more hours, and it seemed so futile. But I had to be there, I had to get my papers in order so I could legally live here. I had the right, after all, and I didn't want to have to jump the border to Uruguay every 3 months.

For some reason when I'm awfully tired and doing nothing but standing around, I get these deep thoughts, and of course I'm never in a position to write any of them down at the time, so I just keep thinking and thinking. Two worlds emerged before me in that line. People have always told me that Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires, is very "European." Yet I've also heard that this country is still basically considered "developing." In the center of this enormous metropolis, it was clear that there was huge influence from other cultures, yet I got the feeling that we were still very much in a developing country.

Just traveling through a place you hardly see these kinds of things, especially if you stick to the neighborhoods heavily trafficked by other tourists. But few travelers find themselves in a line waiting to get an national ID card. The process was a bit ridiculous, spliced in with what I have come to expect out of Latin America. Coming here has always been a dream of mine, and somewhere in that dream I half expected the streets to be paved in gold. The other half was simply filled with wonder and uncertainty. The truth is, these streets are not paved with gold, and the sidewalks are just as broken and filled with dog shit as the other cities I've seen.

The line jumped up rapidly and for the next 10 minutes we went from stalemate to advance, back and forth. By now I could see the sunrise down by Puerto Madero, painting an image that comes out only in winter months, and as the light hit the streets and buildings, the character of the city suddenly changed. It wasn't over the top, but the city took on a new look. Turning the corner, the buildings looked somehow taller and prouder . The skyscrapers not so much an eyesore, but an addition. This city is different than the others, I thought to myself.

In the line of people I would hear an accent and know they weren't Argentinian. Like me, they were trying to get papers to be legalized to live here. Yet would we ever fit in? The fact that my mother was from Buenos Aires would maybe help me fit in better with others. But a Peruvian's Spanish would no doubt be better than mine. Even with the citizenship, we might all be as welcomed as the people sleeping against the building. I'll never really fit in anywhere, partly as a result of my own lineage. Just 100 years ago everyone on both sides of my family was living in Europe. Eventually some went to Argentina and some went to the U.S. Before that they were Polish. But they weren't really Polish either because they were Jewish, and so they weren't considered real citizens there, just like their ancestors probably weren't considered real citizens wherever they were hundreds of years before that.

And now, after my family has only been in the U.S. for a generation or two, I arrived in a new land like an immigrant and tried to fit in. Tried, but maybe not quite doing it. Suddenly the line jumped and two men appeared, telling us that they were already full for the day and we had to come back on October 15th. No one really wanted to take the time to explain it slowly for me, and being totally confounded, I left for another office, getting sent back to 25 de mayo, only to be booted again. I'll need to try my luck again on October 15th.

I don't want it to sound like I'm disappointed with what I'm seeing so far. But I'm taking it all in and thinking about it deeply. This is not a city lined with gold, but it's far from the developing nations I've seen. Coming from a spending 11 months in a country that falls distinctly in the category of developing, this nation is harder to define. Maybe it's still defining itself. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that I am still in South America, and not in Europe. I have a view of some high rises from my apartment roof, looking into the distance as the city gets more expensive. It's a slightly obstructed, hazy view. I wonder how mine will change in these coming weeks and months.

Above: A different view of Buenos Aires

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