Argentina – Part 3

March 2006: La Plata

By JJ Jonker  

It was easy to navigate La Plata on foot using a map from the hotel, as the town is laid out in a square grid of streets and avenues – all numbered – with a few diagonals that run from corner to corner. Wherever the diagonals cross (every 6 streets/aves) there is a roundabout or park with vandalised sculptures and monuments. 

All streets are one-ways, except for the tree-lined main arteries (every 6) with NO traffic signs. Everybody yields (or is supposed to) to the right. So you only slow down through the intersection, check and go. This slows down all traffic to around 40km/h. Unless your mode of transport happens to be the double cab bakkie of the Police Airwing, in which case you don’t slow down. Everyone else must maar look out on your behalf. 

At the top of the town (6 streets up from our hotel), there is a park with a zoo, and we walked up there around 10 am. The surrounding streets are popular for jogging, and a number of people partaking in a road race passed us. The park is well laid out, and appears to be from a more opulent era, with maintenance now sorely lacking. There is an impressive sports complex, including a stadium with a well-maintained pitch. But the buildings are dilapidated, ticket windows shuttered, gates chained up, dry 6-lane looks-like half-olympic size swimming pool, filled in public pool in the park, dirty dam, abandoned/non-operative rental paddle boats, missing plaques and statues, general vandalism, graffiti and even an observatory, which has been closed down.   


The zoo itself has quite a variety of animals, mostly one of each, but we saw lions, tiger, black bear, empty jaguar cage, giraffe, Indian elephant, two monstrous white rhinos (never seen such huge ones before, not even at home), their equivalent of springbok, eland and silver jackals, emus, a wallaby, llama, flamingos, macaws, buzzards, marmoset monkeys and a werfbobbejaan [baboon]. Rubber trees squeeze palm trees to stay upright – reminding one of the trees growing through Inca temple ruins. 

The zoo buildings also are pretty much in need of maintenance. Paving is broken due to tree roots, windows smashed and boarded up, the toilet facilities have no lights, seats or paper, with general upkeep lacking everywhere. 

At lunchtime, a restaurant opens on the pavement outside the zoo. It is literally a take-away restaurant – they take the restaurant away at the end of the day, until next Sunday. 

We unfortunately did not know that this was going to happen, as the pavement was empty when we entered the zoo, and had by that time already consumed a terrible mini-pizza at a kiosk inside the zoo. But the smell was divine, exactly like boerewors. Also just about any cut of meat you can think of, hanging in pieces the size you normally see in a butchery, which is then cut up as per order prior to cooking. Lots of families have lunch here, making a happy noise. 

Police presence is very evident – wearing day-glow orange bibs – patrolling the streets against car-theft. We witnessed a local being arrested right opposite the side-walk restaurant. The perpetrator did not want to come quietly, and the policeman was sitting on top of him, unable to let go to get the hand-cuffs on. It took 3 more officers (one a lady) to get him handcuffed and on his feet, and still he tried to head-butt them. The original arresting officer, once he dusted himself and got his breath back, was physically chased away by the lady officer. She probably correctly understood that he was now going to bliksem [stuff up] the skelm [offender] that gave him so much trouble. He probably did later, when there weren’t so many witnesses around. 

The highest point in town is marked by a traffic island in the middle of the park area with a – as per usual – vandalised, graffiti’d monument. I commented that the moment I see this behaviour at home, I’m leaving. 


The vandalism came about due to the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001, when people fearing the worst began withdrawing large sums of money from their bank accounts, turning pesos into dollars and sending it abroad, causing a run on the banks. The government then enacted a set of measures effectively freezing all bank accounts for twelve months, allowing for only minor sums of cash to be withdrawn. 

Because of this allowance limit and the serious problems it caused in certain cases, many Argentines became enraged and took to the streets of important cities, engaging in a form of popular protest – banging pots and pans. These protests occurred especially in 2001 and 2002. At first the cacerolazos were simply noisy demonstrations, but soon they included property destruction, often directed at banks, foreign privatized companies, and especially big American and European companies. Many businesses installed metal barriers because windows and glass facades were being broken and even fires being ignited at their doors. 

The president declared a state of emergency, but this only worsened the situation, culminating in the violent protest of 20 and 21 December 2001 in Plaza de Mayo, where demonstrators clashed with the police, ending with several dead, precipitating the fall of the government. 

In 2002 the peso, which was linked to the US dollar in a 1:1 ratio at the time, was fixed at a 1.4 peso/dollar rate by the banks. In the open market however, within a matter of days the exchange rate worsened to 4 pesos/dollar. 

So practically overnight, the middle class became poor, further fuelling the anger, leading to the trashing of buildings and other public property. In La Plata, there certainly is not much more that could be damaged, so thorough have they been. Some marble statues have only the feet remaining on the base. Bronze sculptures have fingers smashed off, and even Evita’s granite plinth on which her bronze bust is mounted, has been broken. 


The economy has since improved significantly, with the Argentinean Peso trading at ARS2.8/USD during our visit (2006), but not yet to the point where there is money available for the rehabilitation of this damage. 

This lag of replacing luxuries is also evident in how old cars are kept going, where they normally would have already been on the scrap heap. 

Every country has something unique that differentiates it from another in terms of the senses, e.g. the flavours, textures etc. 

 In the case of Argentina, inasmuch as one can form judgement of a country over a single visit of three weeks, it would be the visual appeal – that is: It has a colour. 




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