Saturday, March 31, 2007


I know what you´re thinking ; I can see it in your eyes. You´re thinking, when the hell is Paddington going to get his pseudo-Marxist shit together and give us the eagerly-awaited fourth installment in his series on Capital? A fair question - I know your lives must be sparse without it. Well, the answer is : not for a while. In my defence, I am still reading Marx, only the book is not Capital but The Paris Commune. In Spanish. So far, I have learned the words for "crook", "embezzlement", "treacherous" and "that monstrous dwarf" (his description of Adolphe Thiers, the provisional President of France after the suppression of the Commune).

Mainly though, my amazing Spanish skills have been lately employed in learning lunfardo, the slang of Buenos Aires. Like most forms of slang (cf. especially polari), lunfardo is a linguistic code, invented by people to evade capture from the authorities. Its rise is synonymous with tango, another phenomenon which began in the less reputable barrios of the city, and which has now achieved a rather more "official" cultural status.

The etymologies of many lunfardo words demonstrate the cultural diversity of BA´s immigrant population at the beginning of the twentieth century. Words derive from Italian ("cuore" = heart), from English ("sangwich"), from Arabic ("arrabal" = ghetto, and "arraballero" is a person from the slums), from Quechuan ("pucho" = cigarette) etc etc. But lunfardo is far more ingenious than simply taking words from other languages. People from different countries would exchange words and spin metaphors from them, so that "fungi" (Italian for mushroom) means hat in lunfardo, and "cana" (French for cane) is policeman, because early twentieth century cops all carried them. Castellano words are used metaphorically too : "campana" (the word for bell) describes the guy who would watch out for the police while a crime was being committed ; "marron" (brown) means anus ; "palmado" (deriving from the Spanish for palm-leaves) means sick or dying ; and "vento" (castellano for wind) is the lunfardo word (or rather, a lunfardo words - there are many others) for money, because it flies out of your hands as quickly as it flies in.

While the majority of countries in South America are Spanish-speaking, there is considerable variation in accent, grammar and vocabulary, and each major city will have its own unique slang. But none that I have come across compare with the inventiveness of vesre, another component of lunfardo, which works in a similar way to backslang. Vesre (itself a vesre word for "reves") means swapping syllables, so that "noche (the Spanish for night) becomes "cheno", "macho" becomes "choma", "hotel" becomes "telo" (which specifically signifies a pay-by-the-hour motel, much in demand by horny porteños - and gringos - in search of a couple of hours of twilit passion). And, most ingeniously or ridiculously, depending on your point of view, "cafe con leche" becomes "feca con chele".

And, inevitably, things get even more convoluted the deeper we get into the criminal underworld. Originally, a pimp went by the lunfardo word "cafichio". But, when the authorities decoded the word and discovered the prevalence of pimps, they outlawed the profession under Statute 840. After the Statute, a pimp became known as an "ocho cuarenta", and when that phrase got roused, the term changed again to "nueve menos veinte" (nine-minus-twenty, or 840 expressed on the clock). My research has not stretched to interviewing pimps as to what they call themselves today, but no doubt the lingo is still changing as necessity demands.

This is the great thing about lunfardo - it is alive, well and as fluid as ever. Despite being some of the most beautiful and elegant people on earth, porteños (from pimps to grandmothers) have mouths like sewers. "Pinche" is traditionally the castellano word for fucking (the punctuation word, not the action), but you´re more likely to hear Argentinians today throw the English word "fucking" liberally into their questions and exhortations.

My plan is to move to BA in 2008, and no doubt, in trying to use lunfardo in my everyday life, I will sound like a foreigner trying to use cockney rhyming slang. This could, of course, have unexpected results. Porteños often use the word "" instead of "muy" for very, and there is a story of an enthusiastic North American lunfardo student going to a restaurant wanting a big plate of chicken. When the waiter asked him for his order, the American asked for a "ré pollo, por favor". He was surprised, twenty minutes later, when a huge plate of cabbage was delivered to his table.

Friday, March 23, 2007


I´m a month or so late to commemorate the 13th anniversary of Bill Hicks´s death, but since he wasn´t much of a fan of idol-worship, let´s just not get too hot and bothered about dates. Here he is on the golden arches :

Open a McDonald´s in Moscow and everyone´s backslapping each other. It´s depressing to me. "Oh, it´ll help the economy. McDonald´s, it´ll supply forty-five new jobs there in Moscow." Yeah, twenty dentists and twenty heart specialists. It´s shit. Don´t eat it.

And, in response to Minifig´s post on drug scare-stories, here´s Bill on drugs in the media :

You never see positive drugs stories on the news, do ya? Isn´t that weird? Cos most of the experiences I´ve had on drugs, were rrreal fucking positive. You know what I mean? Always that same LSD story ; you´ve all seen it. "Young man on acid, thought he could fly, jumped out of a building. What a tragedy." What a dick, fuck him! He´s an idiot. If he thought he could fly, why didn´t he take off from the ground first? Check it out. You don´t see ducks lining up to catch elevators to fly south. They fly from the ground, you moron. Quit ruining it for everybody. He´s a moron, he´s dead - good. We lost a moron - fucking celebrate. Boy, I just felt the world get lighter, we lost a moron. I don´t mean to sound cold or cruel or vicious, but I am, so that´s the way it comes out.

How about a positive LSD story? Wouldn´t that be newsworthy, just for once? To base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstitions ... and lies? I think it would be newsworthy :

"Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we´re the imagination of ourselves. Here´s Tom with the weather..."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


A guy I met the other day was walking in Southern Patagonia, when he became concerned about a pain on the side of his toe. Being in the middle of nowhere, there were no hospitals nearby, so he visited the local Tourist Information Centre to find out where he might get medical attention. There was one lady on reception, and he explained his problem to her.

"Don`t worry," she said. "We have a medical centre here. Come with me."

It turned out that the lady on reception was also the doctor. She examined his foot, confirmed that it was a veruca, and dealt with it on the spot.

"Thank you very much," said the man. "How much do I owe you?"

"Oh, nothing," she replied.

"But that`s incredible," he said. "In the UK, I would have had to wait for four hours in casualty. You did it in fifteen minutes."

"Ah yes," replied the doctor. "Welcome to third world medicine."

Friday, March 16, 2007


There are very few countries in the world where George Bush is popular. Nigeria is one, apparently. But he sure as hell ain´t popular in his own country, in his biggest ally´s country (the UK), in the rest of Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East (no-brainer) or (probably) in Outer Mongolia (Outer Mongolian readers can correct me on this if they know otherwise).

But if the Middle East had a football match with Latin America to test which continent hated him most, it´d probably be a high-scoring draw. The man is deeply unpopular here - ubiquitous graffiti tells its own story : "FUERA BUSH", "BUSH ASESINO" etc etc. In a recent survey about the US´s foreign policy, Argentinians were the most hostile respondents in the world.

There have been a number of reports on Bush´s visit, the huge protests his visit has provoked, and the reasons why he is viewed here with such searing animosity. They do the job of explaining it better than I could, so click here and here. And in case you`re not a regular reader, type words like "Latin America", "Bolivia", "Argentinia" etc into the search engine up the top for more HL articles.

Meanwhile, some pictures of the protests (and an SB cartoon at the end)...





Friday, March 09, 2007


Each fortnight, Private Eye prints a "Scenes You Seldom See" cartoon. Some of them are quite amusing, though you would struggle to put the one above into this category.

Anyway, here are three Scenes You Seldom See While Travelling In South America :

1. Hello, my name is Maureen. I have a round-the-world air ticket. So far I have been to the Ukraine, Namibia, Azerbaijan and Mongolia ...... No, I have never even set foot in India, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand or Fiji.

2. Hello, my name is Terry and I have a regional accent.

3. Hello, my name is Tom and I´m gay.

Number 3 is not just unusual - it is positively non-existent.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Given that Baudrillard died the other day, I thought I would write a brief post about cybersex. What is cybersex exactly? It is a form of mutual masturbation (or even just titillation) between two people who are, at that moment, not in bodily contact with each other, and who way well be thousands of miles apart. The form of communication is instant messaging, and there is almost always a small delay involved. The form varies, but usually the participants will know what the other looks like, for they will have exchanged photos. There is always the chance that the photo you receive will be a fake, but since both are eager to enter into, to believe, the fantasy, this should not present a problem.

Sometimes the photos will be of the person clothed, sometimes scantily clothed, sometimes not clothed at all. In this aspect, cybersex is an inherently generous affair - it absolutely respects the objet petit a, in that the other person´s looks really do not matter. If you have a cybersex partner who you find sexy, great. But if not, since the whole thing is about fantasy anyway, you would not be disrespectful to think of, or look at, someone else entirely.

Webcams may also feature, so that one or both participants can see each other´s sexual acts in real time ; here, often the participants will be two couples, voyeurs, poseurs, neurotics, exhibitionists, toy-addicts, toe-fetishists, scatters (well, sorry, but it´s true) etc etc.

Cybersex has not and will not replace sex qua sex, for it is itself another form of sex. (By the way, does anybody else get thoroughly pissed off when people say - ah, only penetration is sex, a blow-job isn´t sex, a hand-job isn´t sex, licking someone out isn´t sex - well, why the hell not??) People have regular cyber-partners, or cyber-fuck-buddies. This defines the phenomenon of hyper-reality, or the simulacrum, as well as anything. A profound (for we are forbidden from describing it in any other terms) human experience has been replicated by two people sitting at two computer-screens talking dirty to each other. Cybersex is truly, to quote Baudrillard, "the desert of the real." The unnavigable, non-symbolisable, non-articulable Real has been opened.

The advantages of contact-sex - let´s call it that, though it seems akin to comparing wrestling with snooker - over cybersex are obvious. Kinda. So what are they?

Before we answer that, let´s recall Barthes´ analysis of Parisian strip-joints : that the girl has an erotic impact upon the male viewer up until she is naked, whereupon the viewer experiences a terrible let-down (no, that´s not a pun - behave). Real, fleshy nudity can take the promise of sexuality and deflate it cruelly.

And, speaking of which, let´s recall the debate Andrew and I had recently about the promise of sex being always-already in the future. And being a space for pure narcissism (for what else is there?).

And let´s recall "Contract" by the Gang of Four :

The same again
Another disagreement
You dreamed of scenes
Like you read of in magazines
A new romance
Invented in the bedroom

Is this really the way it is
Or a contract in our mutual interest?
Is this really the way it is
Or a contract in our mutual interest?

Another disappointment
We couldn't perform
In the way the others wanted
These social dreams
Put in practice in the bedroom
Is this so private
Our struggle in the bedroom

So the fact that cybersex doesn´t allow for bodily contact, often doesn´t allow you to see your partner naked (or indeed see them at all), and the fact that it is, when it comes down to it, mutual masturbation, shouldn´t be necessarily negative factors.

So all those obvious advantages of actual sex - like I said, what are they?

Monday, March 05, 2007


In his first speech to the United Nations as President of Bolivia, Evo Morales did something a little different : he brought along a prop. Holding up a leaf of coca in front of the delegation of heads of state, Morales was making the point that coca is not a drug. One of its derivatives - cocaine - may be a narcotic which is the cause and effect of all sorts of miseries in the world, but coca itself is not harmful.

Why did Evo feel the need to make this point? Because ever since 1950, when a North American banker called Howard Fonda studied the effects of coca and asserted that it causes mental retardation and is the main cause of poverty in Latin America, it has been the policy of the United Nations to eradicate coca altogether.

It is believed that Andean people have been chewing coca for 4,500 years. There is archaeological evidence that the Valdivian peoples practised acullico (the chewing of the leaf) as far back as 2100 BC, and fossilised leaves have been found in Peru dating from 1900 BC. Living and working 3-4km above sea-level presents difficulties - I can attest that walking up the steep hills of La Paz is bloody knackering, and I´m just a layabout traveller. So if you´re a farmer or a tin-miner working long hours, doing back-breaking work, in the thin air of the altiplano, you may need something to make life a little easier. Today, as ever, around 90% of men and 80% of women in the Andes chew coca. Acullico entails stripping the leaf from the vein, then lightly chewing the leaf with a little ash - this releases the nutrients and an alkaline substance called llycta into the mouth which produces a feeling of increased awareness, an anaesthetisation to pain to hardship, and a light tingling in the mouth. The process, as Sdenka Silva (the brains behind La Paz´s excellent Coca Museum) points out, is comparable to Westerners drinking coffee.

But there are other reasons why Andean people chew coca. Just as people in the West go for a drink to chill out, chat with friends or celebrate good news (or commiserate bad news?), coca is used as a social lubricant. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a traditional symbol of Andean culture and spirituality. In her museum guidebook, Silva writes :

In Andean culture, Mamacoca (the coca leaf) is the divine connection, the intercessor between God and the rest. Coca invites the soul to extend and strengthen the bonds of affinity and of reciprocation. When seeking acceptance into a community or family, coca opens the door to increased confidence (in the bearer) and courage and acts as a symbol of "bearing good intentions".

Some Western analysts think they know better. They say that coca is harmful to health, or that it is a social menace. But a study in 1997 by the Bolivian Institute for High Altitude Biology found that chewing coca does not inhibit the intake of essential nutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) and contains nutritional value in itself, enabling the user to work for longer, helping him / her to absorb more oxygen (pretty damn important when you´re 4km above sea level), lowering the risk of thrombosis, and helping to regulate insulin levels.

The real social menace is not to be found in coca, or in the Bolivian consumption thereof, but in the voracious appetite in the West for one of its derivatives : cocaine. The United States contains 5% of the world´s population, and yet 50% of the world´s cocaine is consumed there. This is why the US has, for decades, been at pains to eradicate coca production as part of its ongoing War on Drugs.

The path from coca to cocaine (and, of course, Coca-Cola) is a tortuous one. Andeans had been aware of the anaesthetic value of coca long before Western scientists discovered the medicinal properties of cocaine. But in the last quarter of the 19th century, German physicians began the widespread use of cocaine in their practice. And, famously, Sigmund Freud published a paper, Uber Coca, which described its stimulant properties.

Synthetic cocaine - Procaine - was discovered in 1905, and was found to be a more effective and less dangerous version of the drug. The anaesthetic properties of cocaine were lauded long before the drug was demonised. But then again, coca itself has enjoyed a mixed reputation. When the Spanish arrived in South America and observed the natives chewing the leaves, the practice was denounced as throughly blasphemous : an impediment to Christian conversion. Vespucio described its users as "horrid ; they chewed their cud like beasts, cheeks full of green herb" in 1504, and a few decades later the council of clergymen in Lima condemned coca, saying it was like the Talisman of the devil. But these early colonists had missed something : if the natives (who were by now enslaved) chewed coca, they could work for their masters for longer without collapsing from exhaustion. This was especially the case in the mines of Potosi, which in the 16th century was as big a city as Paris or London. As soon as the Spanish realised that coca was a tool for the further exploitation of slaves, they changed their tune, permitting its use and taxing it. "With this," notes Sdenka Silva, "the Spanish effectively transformed Mamcoca, an Andean symbol, tradition and cultural axis, into money and a means of trade, which persist today."

Until 1914, use of synthetic cocaine was legal, and accompained by the usual advertisements promising glamour, sexual magnetism, wellbeing - well, you know the drill with such things. The prohibition of the drug in 1914 only seemed to fuel the spread of recreational cocaine. By the 1950s, the US government had a social problem on its hands. And since a myriad therapeutic techniques for cocaine addiction have had, at best, only mixed results, a War on Drugs was launched, and continues to this day.

The way the war - another crusade against a noun - works is this. The US gives Bolivia (and other Andean countries) money in the form of credit, in exchange for which it must eradicate coca. Poorly paid Bolivian police try to enforce the Geneva Law, but circumstances work against them. There has been a recent upsurge in the production of coca (a probable consequence, it must be said, of Evo´s presidency) - one man told me the other day that coca is being grown at the expense of crops and livestock which, if true, is especially worrying given the floods in the east of Bolivia, which have destroyed large sections of this year´s harvest.

But it is not just the growers - most of whom have only relocated to coca-growing areas in the hope of a better life - who influence the cocaine trade. As Silva writes, "between the seizure of illegal drugs and the imprisonment of illegal drug users exist legal enterprises involved in the drug trade - banks that "clean" dirty (drug) money and raw chemical manufacturers that provide the material to produce cocaine. Without these industries, most of which operate in the developed world, the illegal drug would not be possible."

In other words, the problem exists outside Bolivia. It is only since coca was turned from a traditional symbol into a commodity that a worldwide drug problem was created. Bolivian police can do their best (with a severe lack of resources) to crack down on the production on coca for narcotic use, but if the processing chemicals find their way to Bolivia without going through international airports, there is really very little they can do. The onus must be on the rest of the world to clamp down on their societys´ rampant appetite for cocaine ; and the UN must be persuaded to rescind their demand for coca qua coca to be eradicated.

For more, see here and here (the latter an interview with Evo conducted soon after his inauguration, in which he gives his views on the coca leaf).