For one year the Dutch Anna van Haastrecht lived in Santiago del Estero, Argentina. She tells about remarkable things that happened during her stay, like a visit to the best butcher in town.
My host brother Pablo screams to me over the creaking noise of the engine of his car, twisting the steering wheel from right to left, cutting off honking buses. I’m gonna die, I think, I’m gonna die. “When did you get your driving license?” I ask raising my voice, hoping to disguise the tremble in my throat for the fear about my probable soon death. He laughs and makes a hard turn to the left and I put my both hands on the dashboard. “Three years ago! I am an éxcellent driver!”
A haze of old houses and shops passes by when we drive from our barrio in the north to the city centre of Santiago del Estero. We drive to the best butcher in town for our Argentinean barbeque tonight. The entire family, neighbourhood and some friends will be there; the women cramped and gossiping in our kitchen while the men drink and prepare the meat.
When Pablo turns into another street he slows down a bit, his football shirt tight around his greasy body and a cigarette between his lips. I relax. I’m not gonna die.
Outside the city passes by. In the north of Argentina, between fields of nothing, this little city lies next to Rio Dulce, two hours from the nearest big city Tucuman. Santiago is run-down and poor, with the old glory of a city that once used to be important.
In 1553 the Spanish Fransisco de Aguirre founded the city Santiago del Estero del Nuevo Maestrazgo, nicknamed The Mother Of Cities. Aguirre filled the city with Spanish colonial architecture and let the Quechua Indians, the most southern family of the Incas, live among the Spanish army families.
Nowadays the Santiageños are still a mix between the Quechua and the Spanish settlers. Most of them still speak the old language and honour their rituals. The descendants from the Spanish settlers have a slightly different accent then the rest of Argentina. The double ‘r’ is for example pronounced as ‘sj’.
While the old language is still present in everyday life, the colonial buildings faded away by time and bad local governments. The city remains one most of the impoverished in Argentina.
With a loud thump and with my head almost against the dashboard, Pablo parks the car. Houses are crooked in this part of town, doors ajar, wooden planks in front of the windows and the wind plays with some paper bags. At the end of the street some children run after a dog, but this part of the road is deserted. Even though little drips of sweat roll down my spine, I shiver.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” I ask Pablo. He smiles, gets out of the car and opens my door.
“Don’t worry hermanita, little sister,” he says with a soothing voice, “Butcher Don Gordo can be an imitating men and he can be very aggressive, but I’m here, so don’t worry.”
I try to swallow, but can’t. Should I come along or just wait in the car? I decide not to ask and show my big brother how tough I am.
We walk to one of the open doors and I hear the faint waves of a radio and the knocking sound of metal on wood. It’s shady inside and my eyes have to get used to the darkness. Slowly I see shapes in the dark. Cow and pig carcasses hung from the ceiling, their skin and some vital organs gone, spinning slowly on a big hook, dripping on the tile floor and making little puddles of blood and fat. I inhale iron, sour and something I can’t define. The smell makes my stomach twist and I put my hand on my mouth and nose. I don’t want to anger an aggressive butcher by throwing up over his dead income.
In the middle of the dead animals a wooden table stands, with parts of a cow spread on it. Behind the table a massive man cuts deep into a piece of meat, metal on wood. He wears a white apron spattered with fresh and dried blood, green shorts and flip-flops. Full of amazement I see how the puddles of fat and blood are concentrated around his toes.
“Don Gordo!” Pablo yells.
He stops with his knife in the middle of the movement, dangling in the air. Black eyes, an enormous moustache, but a glean shaven chin. He wears a white cap backwards, with the word ‘asesino’ on it. I swallow. If I didn’t die in the traffic today then it would be here, how sure am I these carcasses are cows? And not human?
Don Gordo puts down his knife with a slam, walks up to me and leans over me.
“So!” he yells, too close to my ear. “You must be the new one!”
I nod and turn my eyes to the ground. Without any warning the butcher starts to laugh, roaring and holding his shaking belly while tears of laughter appear in the corner of his eyes. Pablo joins and I’m standing in between those to men, no idea what just happened. Don Gordo put his arms around me and closes me in a warm hug, kissing my both cheeks.
“Don’t worry darling,” he says while betting his eyes with his bloody apron, “we always tell the new ones in town I’m extremely scary! And it works every time!”
He hugs me once more and goes back to his table, still sniggering.
“Don Gordo is the nicest men in town, hermanita,” Pablo says. When Don Gordo turns around and strips a piece of the cow behind him, Pablo whispers quickly in my ear, “And he’s gay”.
“You don’t have to whisper that.” Don Gordo says, holding a dark red liver in his right hand while tuning back to us.
Pablo looks at him uncomfortable, a hint of red on his cheeks. While Don Gordo start to cut the liver in symmetrical strips he says: “The family you live with chicka, is a good one. I never had to explain my situation to your host mama.”
“Your situation?” I ask, forgetting that my natural curiosity is seen as rudeness in Argentina. Pablo and Don Gordo exchange a glance I can’t define. Don Gordo puts down his knife and tells me that homosexuality doesn’t ‘exist’ in Santiago del Estero.
“We are a very conservative community, and most of the people see it as a death sin. Oh, don’t worry!” he adds when he sees my scared face, “they won’t kill me or anything. They just ignore me or discriminate against me”.
Don Gordo tells me also that he is married. “She has a relationship with a married men and got tired of all the people asking why she wasn’t married. She knows I’m gay, so we helped each other out. But still a lot of people know.”
He goes back cutting his meat and then wraps the pieces in some newspapers. He left me stunned and suddenly I understand why this part of the street was empty.
Night falls when Pablo and I drive back home. The scent of liver dominates the car and we listen silently to the radio. When we turn into Calle Grande I see some boys standing on the corner of the street. They only wear shorts and whistle at my brother while wetting their lips. We say nothing but we both know: when Don Gordo is done working with his meat, he will probably stop his car for some of these boys.
* Dit reisartikel werd geschreven voor het vak Travel Writing, Southampton Solent University, 2011