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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.

“No hotel food,” said Uncle Willie. This was almost a rule with him. “We'll try La Cabaña.” He called a cab and gave an address. “Calle Entre Rios 431.”

“You've been here a lot before,” I said.

“An old man gets around. His relations don't want him. His blood and kin hide him in corners, so he travels.”

When Uncle Willie feels sorry for himself I always take out my wallet (well, almost always). I said, “How much do you need?”

He took fifty dollars and began to talk of jewels. “You want to buy real stuff, I'll get you a cat's-eye. Or a tiger-eye.”

I smiled. “That's only quartz or something.”

Uncle Willie bit his lower lip, tightened the ends of his waxed mustache, and left me to pay off the cab at the restaurant. We had a fine almuerzo, as they call lunch, starting with cold cuts and a salad, fiambres con ensalada, followed by a perfect vermicelli soup, flavored with dill, and a fish in sauce. Then we had a carbonada a la criolla, a stew of beef and peaches and pears. Uncle Willie ate well and I tried to keep up: it was good food. We drank our first yerba maté, the native tea. It's sucked up through a silver straw. I never became fond of it, and neither did Uncle Willie.

“The hell with it,” he said, “Waiter, the wine list. We'll try the local Bianchi Cabernet, some Casa de Piedra, and Fond de Cave.”

“All of them?” I asked.

“Have to. Two out of three native wines aren't good enough to bathe a dog in.”

In the end we gave up on the native still wines and ordered local champagne at forty pesos a bottle. A peso is worth about three Cents, but Uncle Willie got more on the black market.

After lunch we went back to the hotel, and the local press drank our brandy and interviewed me. The recent trouble in the country was evident There were some burned-out buildings in the center of town; some churches had been damaged, and armed, helmeted troops patrolled certain streets. The press wanted to know how we had taken their ‘little troubles.’ I said I hadn't read much about it, which was true, as I hadn't seen an American newspaper in seven weeks. They invited me to visit some interesting low dives with them. I said sure, someday.

I was tired so I took a nap. Uncle Willie, a game one and a live wire, went off with the press to explain what a fine artist I was.

I was dreaming, in poor Spanish, that I was younger and wiser and richer, and with a girl who has been dead twenty years now, when the telephone rang and I came awake, staring at the gold stars in the ceiling and at the red drapes in the wide window moving in the wind. I picked up the telephone. A brisk voice, wood-smoked, from the sound of it, said in fair English, “ 'Ello? Lolita, what you call Mollie, Valez calling. You hup?”

“I'm hup—I mean up.”

“Valez Gallery, that is me. I show your pictures. I picks you up. Twenty minutes American style on the spot, what you call on the dot. Hokay?”

I said hokay, hung up, took a shower, and put on my Beverly Hills sport jacket and my Las Vegas tie.

Mollie Valez turned out to be dark, handsome, and very brisk. She had studied American business methods in books and English with phonograph records, and I liked her. She was plump and alive on her two-and-a-half-inch heels. She took my arm. cooed, and then said briskly. “You look like an artist. You got hair, teeth; hell, we sell lots of pictures. I get car.”

Mollie drove a small, low Italian car as if it were a bronc, and we plunged across the beautiful city, whizzing past a Iot of marble buildings and great lumps of bad public statuary, all the ladies nude and well-chested, all the men generals and mounted on bronze horses that looked as if they had once pulled beer wagons. Mollie's gallery was modern, small, and well lit.

“Chic, baby, no? Very much chic and avant-garde. I hang Picasso, Rowlandson, Guys, Dufy (the good brother), and now I hang you.”

I said this called for a drink and I was buying. We went to the Bidou Bar, where the local artists and the talented bums and the writers and the music lovers hang out. I ordered Scotch, then native wine, then a local brandy. We sat and kicked art and life around in Spanish, English, movie American, and broken French. The next three days, before my show opened, were fun. I got to know the city from the viewpoint of the native creative artist, who is just as much the enigma in Buenos Aires as he is any place else. I grew very fond of Mollie and heard the sad and wonderful story of her career as an art dealer. She lived her life on high heels, in smoky bodegons—the little corner joints—and in the confiterias—the smart and fashionable teashops.

I went often to the Banco de la Nacion to cash checks to keep my end up. I got to know everything one is supposed to know in Argentina. I got us guest cards in the English Club, and avoided the Auto Club and the Y.M.C.A., at Reconquista 439. I cabled my American gallery to ship more paintings, and Uncle Willie won 3,000 pesos at the pari-mutuels at San Isidro track on a horse named Knockneed Pablo the Three. And we all got drunk at a fashionable wedding.

By that time I had gotten to know the Argentines and to understand them some. They are a proud, handsome people, many of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, hot-tempered, touchy about their honor, quick to take a hurt, but true friends, well-mannered, and loyal to their convictions. They are less given to naive mottos than we are, not as fully betrayed to materialism, and not as insistent in their demands for comforts and gadgets. They are very Latin in their approach to life, very South American in their belief that the center of the world's future is in their continent.

The wedding we attended united the Cervera Torres-Caicedo Semenovnag (three hundred years ago they had come to Argentina) and the de Eslava Sori-ano-Fuertes Tamayo y Moris. The Mori ranch house, fifty miles from the city, was the site of the wedding. The ranch hands were busy beyond the lawn barbecuing whole steers for the poorer guests, and big trucks full of ice were still moving wedding delicacies into the big white rambling house with its red rile roof and its great paved courtyard.

Mollie had driven me and Uncle Willie to the wedding. The guests passed us in Paris couturier fashions, and we heard fragments of Spanish—“Como lo pasa?” “Que de Dios a vos goce” and some voices from Brazil. Uncle Willie bowed left and right.

“What wonderful people!” he exclaimed. “They do these things in a big way. American weddings have become dull and catered, something out of Amy Vanderbilt instead of God and family.”

Big tables had been set up in the yellow-stoned courtyard, with (lowers and vines placed around them in big pots. A small band in close-fitting trousers played “EI Conejo,” and servants in black and red moved like excited ballet dancers among the guests, taking plates and offering trays and glasses with the grace of cardinals blessing close friends.

The bride was a tiny, dark girl with small, sharp teeth and the flashing eyes of a pretty, alert animal of prey. The tall thin bridegroom's half-glazed eyes moved only from his plate to the face of the Bishop, speaking to him of the dignity of the family and the wedded state. The members of the two families leaned forward with great decorum and fed themselves slowly with jeweled fingers, nodding to each other as if they were meeting over a flag of truce, while their diamonds blinked their full value in the light. We three sat halfway down a long table, between the upper civil servants and the lower rank of diplomats from first-rank countries.

Mollie sighed and said, “This is a wedding that stick to the ribs. You know, hey, you married when it done in style, no?”

Uncle Willie nodded. “Poor bridegroom. Fuese por laua y volvio trasquilada—he looks like he went to get wool and got shorn.”

Mollie choked on a full wine glass and fell, laughing, into the orchids decorating our table. We ate porpoise steaks served with pineapple, and sea squid stuffed with rice, shrimp, peppers, and shallots; then we had meat from the pit barbecues and molé of goose sautéed with peppers, almonds, and cloves. For guests who only nibbled, there were empanadas de vigilia, those pastry turnovers filled in this case with fish and oysters, and a pastry like pizza called fugazza, covered with cheese, tomatoes, and anchovies. Then came guavas in rum sauce and melon an vin rosé, so I knew the wedding dinner was coming to a climax.

The wedding cake was brought in by four Gauchos; they staggered under it. It was white and gold and pink, and on top a sugar-candy baby held up a red heart from which fell other babies, all blowing tiny silver horns; candied fruits. scrolls of whipped cream, and great dollops of sugared forms ran wild across it. Someone handed the tiny bride a sword from a crusader's war. and she plunged it deep into the cake, as if seeking its heart. The groom turned pale and wiped his face, and the bride hacked away at the take's interior. We all cheered and the band played on.

A section of the cake was set before me, with two liny babies swimming in the whipped cream, and I tasted it. It was a baba à l'anisette. At that moment fireworks went off, and the bride led the groom in victory into the house, and the new wine was passed around. The Bishop said, “In beato omnia beata.”

Mollie cheered and said, “Ho boy!”

I thought I heard a cry from the groom, but it was only a hound dog coining out of the house with a bone in his mouth. Mollie said, “We better start back to town. Big storm coming.”

A large black man was sitting in her small Italian car as we came up to it. It was Rollo Lobengula Firbank, the diamond man I had met on the plane.

“I beg pardon, but I was hoping you folks could give me a lift back to B. A.,” he said. “The companion I came with is too drunk to move for a few days.”

We drove back to town at a fast pace. Mollie singing about un pobre venadito. “I'm a poor little deer who lives in the mountains. As I'm not so gentle, I don't go down to drink by day. By night little by little I'm in your arms, my love.”

“Watch the road,” said Uncle Willie stiffly.

I turned to Rollo; we were tightly wedged into the back of the tiny car. “How's the diamond business?”

“Poorly, thank you, poorly. I had hoped at the wedding to sell a few good stones, but everyone was having too good a time to look at my samples. Never sell diamonds to a drunk. Bad business.”

“Don't you worry about your own safety carrying all those valuable stones?”

“Oh, they don't belong to me. I get them on consignment and they're insured. If I were murdered for them, my family would get ten thousand pounds.”

“That's an impressive sum.”

“I'm a Zulu, you know. My great grandfather was the famous Lobengula, the last of the Zulu kings. My great grandmother was an Arab slave girl. I have the blood of Islam and of kings in me. I am very drunk.”

“You seem fine to me,” I said.

“I am an exile, a black Matabele man who used to weigh three hundred and ten pounds, but I've lost two stone six in the last year. Business is poorly. I take jobs as a valet or a dog breeder. Or have I told you that?” He fell asleep, blowing and snoring.

A storm broke, and the car had no top amd we rode in the great rain, heads up, breathing in the thunder and watching the livid chalk marks of lightning cross each other far off. I felt the fresh wildness of this world, this great pampas, and I remembered Gramp reading to me when I was a child a book called The Purple Land by a writer named Hudson, and it was all about the wild life in Argentina a hundred years ago, with much knife-throwing and maté-drinking and the killing of wild cattle. For a moment, as we rushed through the night, the fantasy became reality, and reality was a book held by an old man, some of whose features I was now carrying in v far place by the side of a descendant of a Bechuanaland Zulu king, and I could not figure our, with the Wind playing music in my head, the what and where of it all. All I could be sure of was that I had a new sense of the odd play of nature, and I saw the dark face of the bride, with her sharp little teeth, preparing like the lady spider to devour and to replenish the race.