1950s Archive

South American Journey


Originally Published February 1956

Argentina rolls South along the long, lean east coast of South America, right down to the butter-horn A shape of the Tierra del Fuego, blue with fury and wind and ice. It is as long as the United States is wide, is a third our size, has 18,056,000 citizens, and is made up of jungles, plains, mountains, lake country, and seacoast. The coast line from Rio to Buenos Aires is rough with snarling whitecaps and noisy with the guttural geek of sea birds; and thin wisps of steamer smoke signal on a warped horizon. Lamb's-wo'ol clouds drift steadily past in a nursery-blue sky.

Uncle Willie was back in the rear of our plane, drinking while wine with the stewardess, and I was reading a paperback volume of Ovid's Metamorphoses on the birth of Adonis.

“Rut the misbegotten child had grown within the wood, and was now seeking a way by which it might leave its mother and come forth. The pregnant tree swells in mid-trunk, the weight within straining on its mother. The birth-pangs cannot voice themselves, nor can Lucina be called upon in the words of one in travail. Still, like a woman in agony, the tree bends itself, groans oft, and is wet with falling tears. Pitying Lucina stood near the groaning branches, laid her hands on them, and uttered charms to aid the birth. Then the tree cracked open, the bark was rent asunder, and it gave forth its living burden, a wailing baby boy. The naiads hid him on soft leaves and anointed him with his mother's tears. Even Envy would praise his beauty for he looked like one of the naked loves portrayed on canvas.”

“It's a funny thing,” someone said in my ear. A large black man with an Oxford accent had moved into Uncle Willie's empty seat. He was smoking a Turkish cigarette, and I ought the strong odor of perique in the mixture.

“What is?'” I asked. He held out a battered silver cigarette case, and I took one of the Turkish horrors.

“Funny thing how people get snide on diamonds.”

I coughed “Do they?”

“Firbank, Rollo Lobengula Firbank, is my name; diamonds are my game.”

I mumbled my name, and he smiled at me and said, “Now you take Brazil. They put out a fair diamond. Mutter of fact, I've just bought our a whole pipe of diamonds from their main stream, but it's commercial stuff for industrial grinding and polishing. You don't get any jagers, the true blue you find in the Jagersfontein mine in the Orange River Colony.”

“I suppose not.” I said. “I was once at Kimberley.”

“Good River and Premier stones there, no color. But I like a Fancy; that's a stone that's lavender, pink, red-bronze. canary, opaque black. They come from the Golaonda part of India. Like this.”

He held under my nose some small tissue-paper puckers alive with stones of wonderful colors.

I lunched one. “Real?”

“Rollo Lobengula Firbank doesn't handle anything else. Ask anyone about me. I buy top stones and dabble in commercials. Now. this one's a beauty, wouldn't you say?”

I looked at a beautiful cerulean-blue stone. “Yes,” I said.

“You'd be done in if you bought it as a true blue. The culet, the point, has been touched up with an indelible pencil to get that color. Picked it up as a joke in Rio. You want a real diamond? Here's a yellow stone I can let you have for three hundred.”

I said, “My business manager back there doesn't let me buy anything. He thinks diamonds are vulgar.”

Mr Firbank scowled, sighed. and gave me another Turkisli. 'Great city, Buenos Aires. Stay at the Nogaro, a good hotel, and here's my card. Say Rollo L. F. sent you. Like ballet? I know a few of the girls at the Teatro Colon. Charming. Damp little Degas come to life. Alligator bags? Don't pay over twenty-five dollars. Say you know me at Franco Inglesa's big drugstore. He'll give you a good price on a bag or a vicuna scarf or a guanaco fur,” Firbank said.

“In a drugstore?” I asked, closing the Ovid.

“You bet, old chap.” He winked at me and got up as Uncle Willie came back and took over the seat.

Uncle Willie folded his copy of the Illustrated London News and shook his head. “Don't speak to strangers on planes, Stevie. What's he pushing?”


“Better keep your eye on your overcoat. I had a barman in the army like that boy. Educated fellow, too. Could imitate a cow being milked, perfectly. Forged my name perfectly to a bar chit.”

“We're here,” I said.

We got our bags through customs, left my paintings to be picked up, and got a cab to the Plaza Hotel on the Plaza San Martin.

“What about the Nogaro? The fellow said—”

Uncle Willie shook his head. “It's all right, bur the Plaza is the best. The Continental, Lancaster and City aren't bad either. But le: Uncle Willie pick the hotels. Hungry?”

I said I was, and we got to the hotel and were assigned to a good double room and went out fur lunch.

The impression most people get in Argentina is that they only eat steak there. Maybe tourists do, but the food is better than that. Empanada is a pastry turnover you cat with scolded fingers; and the taste of dried grapes, eggs, and olive is very good. So is chorizo, a zipped-up, spicy hot dog, and the familiar chicken and rice dish called paella, and a chicken dish called puchero de gallin a, cooked with squash and corn. Steak, of course, is all around you. the best being bife a caballo, a steak on horseback, a steak mounted by two fried eggs.

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