I held too tightly to my stained cloth bag, containing only a notebook and alternate pair of eyeglasses. At five-foot-six, I towered over most of the people with whom I moved shoulder to shoulder. Marc was a giant over six feet.
Oscar was right. The stalls looked exactly like those at Retiro, where I'd seen sequined thongs, cheap watches, and useless tchotchkes. Young men moved around laden with armloads of big shopping bags for sale. Food vendors punctuated the halls of stuff, selling sausage rolls, flatbreads, sugary sodas, panchos and super panchos, pizza, and empanadas.
Everything for sale, even the jeans in designer cuts and styles, was clearly industrial, assembly-line produced, indifferent to craft, totally character-less. Music blasted every few feet, none of it as appealing as in the music shops in Buenos Aires. Apparently whole caches of pirated CDs and DVDS have been confiscated over the years. The selling booths were encrusted with their product, be it running shoes, socks, glasses, watches, heaps of padded bras in every color and design, bathing suits, kids clothes. There was a ton of workout togs in that drapey nouveaux "genie" style. We spotted Pumas, only $20. I'd have liked a pair, but would not let down my guard to try them on.
I was just getting over the shell-game scam when a pert little woman touched my back and said, "Tenes una mancha en tu camisa." (You have stain on your shirt.) I knew the trick too well. From some unseen source, liquid is squirted at you. The harmless-looking, smiling woman appears and says, here let me clean the pigeon shit or whatever off you. Her partner in crime checks your pockets. Again, I instantly lost my cool and shoved her away with plenty of expletives. Fock you! Why pick on me? I support fair trade and I've been vocal against global trade that hurts poor … oh hell. They grinned goon-like and melted into the crowd.
Scammers on the Loose
Marc suggested we enter a huge hangar-sized warehouse with benign looking merchants waiting for customers. Crowds pushed in on us and as we went deeper and saw more padded and plunge bras than I've ever seen in one place. I hugged my tight chest and felt claustrophobic. We passed woman after woman, breast fully exposed, feeding babies as they went about work, selling or shopping.
After one long hour, I was glad when Marc agreed to head back over the bridge. As we exited the hangar, I breathed deeper. I noticed that behind the warehouses were rows of buses dropping off people filing into the ant lines. People who couldn't afford even the shopping malls were coming here from the provinces and from Uruguay and Paraguay to stock up.
As we approached the bridge crossing, I heard the woman next to me say something. I wanted to feel friendly, to stop feeling grumpy and anxious, to connect with someone here. I smiled and said Que tal? How are you? But again, came the stains-on-your-shirt scam from the first woman. The second one, her head just reaching my chest level, felt for my zipper on my lower right leg. I had wisely stuffed my zipper tabs inside. I pushed her away with more fury than needed, cussing my head off. No one looked interested in my outburst and I concluded, unlike in the city where the local people have always looked out for me, I had only a fifty-fifty chance of getting help from this dead-eyed crowd.
The second bridge was not a bridge, but railroad ties of an old track set as far as a foot apart in places. There was no handrail, only dead air over a deadfall to dead water. I was still trembling with anger when the next attempt (averaging one every fifteen minutes) at scamming hit. This time, big splats of water fell from the blue sky onto my sunglasses. I started windmilling my arms, scrambling, breathing heavily, grabbing people who were suddenly kind and helped me, coaxing and cajoling, as they were in the same predicament and could fall into the acidic river if I got really crazy. I watched so many women with infants crossing this death trap and wondered how could they?
It took a long wait for the one city bus that would get us out of the area. It deposited us at Punta Noria, a bus depot, where we had to transfer to another bus. While we waited, I saw one of the many shrines to Gauchito Gil, an Argentine folk saint said to have been a Robin Hood to the poor. Kind of like La Salada itself, I thought. Gauchito Gil was hung from a tree and executed in 1878 and his veneration grows.
"Do you smell something rotten?" I kept asking Marc. "Is it on the breeze or me?" The last squirts of water I concluded had been ladled right from the river. After they hit me, a putrid odor as of decaying, maggot-ridden animal flesh consumed me. "It's the asado," Marc said. The char-broiled meats cooking on barbecues? No way. This was the reek of effluence of the dead river's slurry of offal, animal waste, human waste. Even on the buses, even an hour later when I entered my high-rise pad, that rotten putrid stinking smell of decaying capitalism was in my nostrils. The irony was not lost. I'd been christened in the midst of viral consumerism by a poisoned river.
As I entered my apartment, I told the porter where I was coming from. "Tell me no!" He was incredulous. "I know, I know, very dangerous," I said.
"That stuff there is for a certain class of people," he said. He called La Salada a subterranean world, as if it were some hermetically sealed phenomenon and we in this pretty barrio had no connection to it. I knew otherwise, that the rotten nest was our underbelly, our lust for stuff, our metastasized consumerism.
No matter how long I stood in my shower and scrubbed down, I would never erase that smell from my sense memory. And I can't tell you which bothers me more— the effluvia in river or the sterile junk not yet there.
Camille Cusumano is the author of several cookbooks, one novel, and has written for many publications, including Islands, Country Living, VIA Magazine, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. She has edited anthologies on France, Italy, Mexico, and Greece. Her most recent book is Tango, an Argentine Love Story . She lives between San Francisco and Buenos Aires.
A Dialog of Echoes in Uruguay by Darrin DuFord
Missing in Patagonia by Camille Cusumano
An Unexpected World Record Holder in Rio by Bruce Northam
Subdued by Street Vendors by Darrin DuFord
Other South America travel stories from the archives
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