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Posted by Tim on Jul 10, 2007
They Have a Song For That

The cabdriver is in high spirits, all ruddy-cheeked smiles and noisy bursts of throaty, staccato laughter. He's telling some sort of a long, complicated story as he swerves wildly from lane to lane, cutting past other cars with a practiced ease. Our round-the-world-trip began less than a week ago, though, so all I'm able to make out is his repeated use of the word futból. His manic gesticulations do lead me to believe his tale involves one hell of a fistfight.

Jessica and I are squeezed into the back seat of the cab with our new friends Paul and Caroline, who days earlier had invited us to come with them on this cultural pilgrimage to the heart and soul of the Argentinean identity: a football game. (That's "soccer" for those of you playing along at home in the US.)

In the front seat, Stuart the Indomitable Scotsman hangs on every word of the cabbie's epic tale. In a few short weeks' time, Stuart will be named "the greatest tourist ever" by a bar-full of craggy old Patagonian drunkards. This I offer as evidence of the man's ridiculous charisma, with which he seems to charm every person he meets. Like our mad cabdriver.

We screech to an abrupt halt at a red light, the first such light our driver has yet to stop at by my reckoning. In the lane next to us, a dilapidated old pickup filled with tattooed malcontents pulls up, and their burly driver fixes our cabbie with an icy stare. The cabdriver leans over to Stuart and mutters something to him.

Stuart raises an eyebrow, and turns to the four of us sitting behind him.

"He says that they're going to kill all of us."


Then the traffic light changes, and we're off again.

I take a moment to remind myself that Stuart speaks not a single word of Spanish. God only knows what the cabbie actually said.

I can't help but be enthralled by the sitcom developing in the front seat of our cab. A charming Scottish backpacker who speaks no Spanish, and a cranky Argentinean cabbie who speaks no English. And somehow the two of them have become the best of friends, and are carrying on long, involved conversations even though neither of them can understand the other. I've never seen anything so entertaining, so endearing.

My sitcom is canceled when we arrive at the outer reaches of the football stadium, clasp a crumpled wad of pesos into the cabbie's had, and admire for the last time his prized River Plate necktie. The cabbie encourages Stuart (via Jessica, who actually does speak Spanish) to take off his splashy wristwatch before heading over to the gates, lest he become a target to pickpockets and other troublemakers. Then vanishes in a choking cloud of exhaust fumes, his machine-gun laugh echoing behind him.

Back at our hostel, we could have dropped 60 pesos each on tickets to this game, and been ferried here in an air-conditioned bus filled with other backpackers. We'd have been ushered in through a different entrance gate, and sat in a different section of the stadium. But where would the fun in that be? Besides, the tickets Paul and Caroline picked up for the five of us (at the actual ticket window itself) were only 10 pesos each. That savings of 50 pesos translates into almost $16 back in the US. Here, it translates into twelve or so bottles of surprisingly good vino. (Wine is deliriously cheap here.)

We work our way through the maze of parked cars that cover the field surrounding the stadium, pausing to buy a few San Lorenzo flags on the way: we want to make damn sure we identify ourselves as rooting for the home team. The line spreads into a seething crowd at the gates, and we find ourselves drawn and pressed into a sea of people, awash with the stink of sweat and cerveza. Everyone is chanting and cheering, and the game hasn't even started yet. It's an amazing feeling.

The security guard at the gate eyes us suspiciously, and snatches away our newly-purchased flags. He tears them off their little plastic posts, which he drops into an encouragingly large pile of sticks, truncheons, and (I imagine) semi-automatic weapons. The flags he gives back.

I've never been to a football game before (of the "soccer" variety, that is), and in fact don't understand a lot of the nuance of the game, so Paul takes me under his wing and tutors me. He also teaches me about a song called "Who's That Lying on the Runway?" which is, well, pretty offensive to Manchester United fans. In turn, I regale him with tales of how gentlemanly, well-behaved and civil the fans of my beloved Philadelphia are.

Anyway, what's happening on the field isn't really important. What's important is the crazed mob that that behaves as if this rather unexciting game (which will go on to end in a 0-0 tie) is the most exciting spectacle to which they've ever borne witness. They're screaming and chanting and singing... Oh, the singing. They have a song for everything. Think someone on the other team is faking an injury to buy time? There's a song for that. One of the players arrested last night in a prostitution sting? There's a song for that. There's five minutes left in a scoreless game against a divisional rival from Chile in the first round of the 46th annual Liberators Cup?

Yup, song for that, too.

Not that I understand any of the songs, mind you. But my rather limited Spanish does serve me well at one point.

Even trying as I am to follow the game, I don't know what started it. Suddenly, everyone is incensed at something that someone's done on the field. I don't need to know the specifics, though: the fact that the wall of a man standing next to me is shrieking puta at the top of his lungs is all I needed to encourage me to join with riotous catcalls of pendejo.

I came to South America knowing only two things in Spanish: how to ask for the bathroom, and how to swear. Today, the latter earns me a moderately toothless smile from a moderately scary-looking football fan. Good stuff.

When the game whimpers to a close, we join the mob streaming out of the stadium and into the darkened streets. We're far from downtown Buenos Aires, in some sort of warehouse district. Moreover, we don't have the slightest idea of what kind of neighborhood this is. But we're on top of the world.

In the end, no harm befalls us. We eventually manage to flag down a cab, and quickly discover that the driver is so wired he could probably use crystal meth as a sedative. My mind unclicks, and I move one step from reality as part of some defense mechanism. His insane driving starts to feel like a video game, and I start cheering him on. This gets me elbowed by both Caroline and Jessica, who fear for their lives.

We get back to the hostel in a third the time it took us to get out to the stadium. From there, it's off to the magnificent Yugi's, where a pizza the size of an overzealous coffee table costs less than a dollar. After that, the bars beckon us.

All in all, a good night.

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July 11, 2007 at 8:10pm
I'm very jealous! It's one of my life's goals to see River Plate play Boca Juniors. The next goal is to survive seeing the match.

In the U.S., I think the closest match to the kind of supporters you find in footballing nations is the Portland Timbers. ( http://home.comcast.net/%7Ekurtds2/2.html )

missy (&d&e&m)
July 12, 2007 at 10:39am
i understood puta but i had to look up pendejo, (and boy, wikipedia has everything!)which made me laugh at the literal translation :)
July 13, 2007 at 4:33am
"pendejo: idiot. note In Mex. Spanish it is rather strong. You can't use that word on TV." (from the "alternative dictionaries";)

It is great to read new stuff from you :D
By the way, that guy DID say that he was going to kill you all.

July 25, 2007 at 1:37pm
*LMFAO* Something tells me I'm going to be very embarresed at looking up pendejo to find out what it means. Oh well life is full of discoveries even if they are a tad schocking. :)

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