Acassuso – A charming gentleman by the name of Alberto has been offering up a tour that he calls “The Real Buenos Aires” for some months now. The basic premise is to take one or a couple of tourists to see something that’s completely off the beaten path. He meets them at the Retiro train station towards the end of rush hour, after suggesting that they arrive via bus or subway, getting a taste for “commuting” in Buenos Aires. He then takes them on the commuter train up to this northern suburb where he lives. The small group then awaits the arrival of the cartonero train, which I’ll talk about in a moment (which in his initial offer he unfortunately chose the word “spectacle” to refer to, prompting a bit of online flaming). After watching the train pass by, he then takes the group to a local restaurant where he guarantees they’ll be the only tourists, and then arranges for a remis (hire car) to take them back into town.
Putting aside the various conversations about whether or not taking a look at a group of the city’s poor doing their best to eke out a living is the “real” view of the city, the trip certainly at least does get the average tourist out of the usual pathways. I don’t consider myself the average tourist when I travel as I spend most of my time walking and taking public transit anyway. I was the same at home. But I decided to take Alberto up on his offer and join he and two women from Canada on the “tour.” We met up at Retiro station, bought our tickets to the suburbs for 70 centavos apiece, and got in line for the train. I can’t answer for the average tourist, but taking public transit at rush hour doesn’t seem to me to be a way to really get a sense of living here. Then again, it really wasn’t rush hour, it was quarter to 7 by this point. We all got seats, only a few others were standing.
The train headed north along the edge of the city and passes out into the suburbs. The most interesting part of the trip was a quick glimpse of the president’s mansion. After half an hour, we arrived at Acassusso, a relatively affluent residential community with a small commercial strip along the railroad tracks. There were a few cartaneros waiting for the train, as there had been at each station on the line. A few minutes behind us, that train arrived, they loaded their stuff on, and continued on (we watched discretely from the opposite side of the tracks, no snapping of pictures and making it into a spectacle). Gritty part of tour over. A drive to dinner at a fairly upscale family-style steakhouse, then back by hired car to the city. And, interesting in some ways as it was, that’s sort of where the whole “real BA” tour falls a little flat. We watched the train from “the safe side,” i.e., the opposite side of the station, we were driven around in a private car, we ate dinner in privilege that the cartoneros will never know, and we returned via hired car.
It would be hard for me to do justice in a limited space to a discussion of the cartoneros. This link will give you a little essay (with some exageration, for example, claiming that the train only operates in the night when the average Argentine never sees either it or the cartoneros – it actually operates throughout the day and night, roughly every 4 hours, and it’s quite visible, and cartoneros are seen everywhere) and some photos of the situation if you care to see. I had visions that were something out of a bad film, but it all seemed, at least last night, pretty orderly, with no overcrowding on the train – each of the half dozen cars only seemed to have half a dozen people in it – perhaps at other times of day or night it’s a worse scenario.
Here’s the nutshell version as I understand it. A few years ago, the government here passed a recycling law, but, like many things here, they didn’t have the money to fund the program. So they left it to private industry to figure it all out. Initially the recycling companies were fairly unsuccessful, but when the economy collapsed in 2001, unemployment rose dramatically. Enter the cartoneros. Essentially a group of people, often entire families, that scavenge through the trash of the residents of the various cities and pull out the recyclables, primarily paper and cardboard. They then have to get this stuff to the companies that will buy it from that, at 20 centavos per kilo according to a recent news article. The companies then use the material and make a huge profit, something that the article went on to deplore. There was some discussion of the average cartonero only earning 250 pesos a month, which would imply that they each average bringing in just over 1-ton of cardboard and paper each month. The article indicated a payout of some 79 million pesos a year to cartoneros and a profit of 400 and some million pesos a year to the companies. If those figures are right, it would mean there are over 26,000 cartoneros out there (not just Buenos Aires, but all the suburbs and such as well). The figures are probably off – even in the exaggerated photo article that I linked above, an interview with one cartonero talks about making 150 pesos a week, though that included selling other things found in the trash, so who knows?
Enter the train, solicited for by the average citizens who were tired of having cartoneros pile onto the commuter trains with loads of garbage. A stripped-down train, no windows, no heat, no air conditioning, no seats, no lights, nothing, just space for piles of garbage and the people who are transporting it; provided by the government at no cost to the cartoneros. The trip is to somewhere about an hour outside of town where they sell their “goods” and then return. (There are also some cartoneros who have wagons pulled by a horse, and I gather they take a road to the same place.) It’s an honest if extraordinarily difficult way to make a bare living, though there are some other things provided, like public health care, and a volunteer-staffed nursery center to watch after the cartoneros’ children while they ride the train out and back.
The food part? We had dinner at, as I said, an upscale family-style steakhouse, La Porteña, at Fondo de la Legua 280, in the neighboring suburb of Martinez. Salad bar with some nice selections – a really good cauliflower salad with green and black olives and anchovies… Some interesting appetizers – this is the first time I’ve seen chorizo de pollo, the typical mildly spicy chorizo sausages made from chicken rather than pork, and made at the restaurant; and a provoletta liquida – I’ve mentioned provoletta before, the thick, grilled, rounds of provolone that are served throughout the land here, this version instead cooked in a dish with olive oil and herbs, so more of a melted cheese plate. I like the grilled better, but this was quite good as well.
Alberto is friends with the owner and staff, so we got up and milled about a bit, chatting with them, especially at the parrilla, or grill station. We got to see and select our steaks if we wanted. They were delivered in short order to the table along with the ubuiquitous platter of french fries. We even squeezed in a little dessert, I opted for a special of the day which was fantastically good… I’ll try to reproduce the name here… bavarois de mandarina con salsa de naranja, pralines de nueces y almendras or, a tangerine bavarois (cream based gelatin dessert) with orange sauce and walnut-almond brittle. All told, dinner for four ran just over 140 pesos, or more than half the monthly income of one of the cartoneros…
And that’s the story of my trip to the suburbs.