November 30, 2007

A day with the Crazies

Saturday I had the pleasure of being invited to partake in an extraordinary visit. I took some maté and bought cigarettes for the first time in four years. The maté was to help me get over the ill effects of cachaça and beer from the previous night; the cigarettes were not to be smoked but to be shared.

This is the story of how a paranoid Irishman enters the world of some of the whackiest stars of Argentine media. Hi, ho and off we go to Hospital Borda, better known by its radio station La Colifata, A Buenos Aires insane asylum.

The Argo-Yankee poet mate Paul Perry Perry had invited me along. He came with his younger brother, in from Philly. Neither the brother nor I had been here before so we listened attentively as Paul gave us the rundown. At least the brother had seen the Manu Chao video, I was completely in the dark. I questioned Paul on an exit strategy. He had casually regaled us with the story of how another unfortunate guest had once been stopped on his way out of hospital Borda. I listened appalled as Paul -- dead-pan -- told us both how he the poor unfortunate been been confused with an inmate and was detained by a strong-arm blow to the chest.

"Hey not you!"

Had security selected him on a whim? Who knows? Did he really think the guy was a loon? Were they just taking the mickey, or were they looking for a bribe?

Seemingly the poor chap did not exit until later, much later!

It was intent on avoiding such a fate and was appalled when security just waved into the loony bin, no pass, no papers, no exit visa? I could have been carrying an Uzi! Much more important: how are they going to know who to let out?

I told the brothers how back in 1988 I had become disorientated in the dark, alone in the snowy East Berlin. Looking for the exit at Checkpoint Charlie. Rather than wander aimlessly, I asked a group of road workers where it was.

They indicated back in the direction from which I had just come. I insisted that I had been looking there and there was no way through. They turned to each other with a smile and said: "I guess he's just going to have to stay with us then?" Then they fell around laughing at their own joke.

I must admit, I had been nearly a year in Germany by that time, and was not used to Germans with a sense of humour. I failed to appreciate the joke (perhaps because I was the joke). I was resolute not to find myself in the same situation again!

The asylum is in the southern part of Constitución, a barrio rarely visited by Porteños. This urban appendix is blocked off by the railway lines on one side and the medical institutions on the other.

There is no way out!

People are sent there in ambulances or police vehicles, and some, like us, just stroll in (with feigned confidence in my case). I prefer the guest category, few choose the alternative, except, I imagined, a few psychotic murderers who cop an insanity plea to avoid doing time in the notorious Buenos Aires prison system.

Even with my happy status of guest. I could not help thinking of what it would be like to be a patient. My brain blocked it out. Impalpable. The horror of finding oneself a ward of the Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires. It would be bad enough to find oneself categorised as ‘mad’ without being plunged into the ‘care’ of the city of Buenos Aires. This illegitimate child of past glory and economic collapse can’t even repair it’s own sidewalks.

Much of the Federal Capital's tax income is criminally misappropriated and another large wad lavished on schemes to upgrade the city parks for summertime concerts in the richer northern suburbs. The loony bin in is the south, a zone that the natives euphemistically describe as 'complicated'.

It isn't a priority.

I simply couldn't imagine being stuck inside, unable to buy my favorite local soft drink "Ser" at the local (high-security) liquor store! I had seen, first hand, the horrendous state of the facilities in the public hospitals. They operate against the odds, held together by volunteers and some of the best doctors on the planet. But only just! I couldn't imagine how it would be to be dependent on such a system for my very existence, my very sanity, to live within it.

Could this be another excellent argument for assisted suicide?

I had to admit though, I was intrigued to see what it was like inside!

Our arrangement was to meet in the southern city train station (like the barrio also called "Constitución"). I waited there drinking maté and Ser in a restaurant called "Brasil" where table manners are not high on the priorities list.

Brasil faces out onto bleak plaza of bus stops hemmed in by a concrete backdrop, an elevated freeway heading to the next city to the south called La Plata.

Outside on this concrete stage was an ant's nest of thousands of buses frenetically feeding this transport hub at 25 US dollar cents a passenger. The chaos suddenly struck me as very Latin American in the Peruvian sense of the word.

Those of you who never lived here might not get the reference negating South America. You see the posh residents of Buenos Aires (this least latina of South American capitals) prefer to believe that they inhabit the Paris of the South. For those who never leave the northern barrios this illusion is almost maintainable, if schizophrenic. They just stand with their back to the continent facing the Atlantic ignoring the fact that they're parallel to Africa, not Paris.

Constitución is no Paris! This fort-apache of train station is reminiscent of a by-gone age of better tableware. It was built by the British more than a century ago to haul cows from the fertile Pampa to feed their empire but the Euro-allusion ends there! Precious little out there resembles Paris except in the fiction of tourism marketing-speak.

The buses outside constitute a very Porteño circulatory system, pounding their noisy way through this rabbit-warren of a city traversing the myriad barrios of Buenos Aires. They are one of the few systems in this city that actually function. Each is numbered and colour-coded so that people can pick them out from a distance and stick out their paw. As I sipped I mulled the transport insanity before me, sucking diesel from their tanks like melted gobs of butter.

The boys arrive. Time to go.

Exit stage left. Time to leave the station famous for the regular event of passengers burning their own trains in frustration at excessive delays. One has to question the logic of this strategy :) Then again you probably think I’m joking.

We strolled back behind the station to a place that no-one goes, even on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We cruise a few blocks hyper-aware of our unfamiliar surroundings. Kids disappear into holes in walls jumping down to the tracks below.

My mate Paul stops us both at a junction: “We are entering the zone. From here on in everyone, but Everyone, is either an inmate or a guard.” And, as it turns out, most of the guards were once inmates too. It seems the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

I start to notice the glazed over eyes and the slouching gait of, well, everyone except us (and we were still outside). We bought some more beers and smokes, inhale the last few lung-fulls of the joint, smile at the guards, and we are waved on into Hospital José Tiburcia Borda.

[to be continued]

Posted by Tony Phillips at November 30, 2007 02:15 PM

Hey Tony,

I have visited German mental health institutions on two occasions to conduct interviews with some drug crazed techno producer kids who will never see the light of day again. If you serve prison time, you at least know when/that you will be out again, but with the hospitals, it depends on the doctors who have to declare you sane. Unfortunately for the two guys I visited, listening to techno music is insane enough for the doctors to keep them.

So much about Germany. At least here you can bribe your way out - even if it's just to buy fags.. then come back at night cos you have no other place to sleep. Or sumting.

Well, would be nice to see you by the way...

Would like to tell you some German joke... just to show you how funny we can be!

A German, a French and an Irish man go to the swimming pool...

(Rest to be told drinking mate with you - an Argentinean one, I don't have accents on my keyboard...)


Posted by: Kat at November 30, 2007 06:19 PM

Hi Tony, Me and my girlfriend planning to visit Borda and its radio La Colifata for a story, the following 2 weeks. We have contacted the radio but they mention that its impossible to take in photo cameras.

I was wondering if you by any chance have any contacts we can use to access the radio.


Posted by: Yeisi at August 12, 2009 07:35 PM