On 10th April 1976 I was in Resistencia in northern Argentina, being held in a police station. I had decided to try to get from Iguassu up into the Andes in Bolivia for Easter, seeing Asuncion in Paraguay on the way. It would have been too slow and difficult to go directly across the Chaco, but there was obviously a risk involved in going back into Argentina in the wake of the coup at the end of March.
I took a bus from Asuncion to the River Paraguay, got the ferry across into Argentina and a bus to Formosa through flat watery countryside. In Formosa I changed buses and pulled into Resistencia in the late afternoon. I checked into a hotel at the bus station and went back downstairs and immediately got arrested. I was stopped by a man carrying one of those trays hanging from his neck selling lottery tickets or chewing gum, things of that sort. They were rounding up people who seemed to be not local, but one of those they rounded up was a popular local coach driver. The officer in charge appeared drunk. I was taken to the police station and held in a room with others. At first this included a young New Zealand couple I had met before; the woman was fairly distressed and I think they were soon allowed to go to a room on their own and I heard later that they had been released quickly. I was taken upstairs for questioning but I had nothing to hide. I was lucky that I had a book to read in my bag and I managed to get some sleep on the floor when I was given my turn of one of the communal sheets.
In the morning, a Sunday morning, we were taken across the plaza for finger-printing; we spent much of this time standing or sitting in a small alley but the atmosphere was not threatening. This was when I felt confident that nothing serious was afoot; the coach driver had waved at lots of his friends as were taken around town in our line and he just shrugged his shoulders and laughed and we all felt better. We were driven back to the police station on the back of a Willys after midday. In the afternoon I felt confident enough to write in my notebook:
Been with the police now for 22 hours. I'm writing with everyone around watching, making me slightly afraid that the self-styled bastard guarding us will take this book away and tear it up. But I have something of a need to write. There's about thirty people here, maybe half are around twenty and a couple are older and very responsive to any orders, "yes sir", certainly sir." Radio playing, football match earlier, now English music, maybe Rod Stewart.
The bastard is smallish, well dressed like many of the cops, smart trousers and blazer jacket, key chain of course, aged 32 he said, carries his list of names and worries that we are all present here. Moves between attempted jocularity and barking orders, he keeps us sweeping the floor, feet off the beds, he stood one guy in the corner for reading a discarded police paper, and two of the kids for looking at a photograph. The girls herded upstairs were made to wash the six or so sheets we have. The window from this room looks at the stairs, so when the girls come down everyone looks up their skirts, "Rico" they say. Two guys seem to live here. I don't know their exact status, cops surely, but they lie on the beds all the time. I've been suspicious of informers. It looks like we're heading for the second day, and my chances of making it somewhere interesting by Easter are receding. The people here are decent by and large, poor for the most part, most had their documents in order as far as I know.
I was let out after almost exactly twenty-four hours and I suspect that was the maximum I could be held for. I went back to the hotel and explained things to the landlady who had been concerned at my absence but was probably used to such goings on. I went out into town and had a large gin and tonic, sitting outside with relief, not wanting to be in any sort of room.
The next day I had to hang around waiting for a night bus across to Salta in the west, rather than trying to take a train from Corrientes across the river, which I thought might be more risky. In fact I got stopped three more times by the police before I left; one policeman recognised me and tried to shake my hand in some sort of apology. I spent much of the time in the huge square, reading and jotting this in my notebook, to make a contrast from the police station:
I'm in the town still, and in the great big plaza, where you can't see across to the other side, but can wander almost lost, without direction, amongst the palms and pea-trees and flowering bottle-brush trees. It's a well-planned park and it is taken care of, a bit, but much of the grass has given way to dusty chaos. I'm waiting for a student who said he'd like to talk but it looks like he won't show.
Plaza in Resistencia, 2006: Picture by Fernando Pacullo, CCIt's definitely Argentina this town. There's a flashy street called Tucuman but not too much of it, the style doesn't overwhelm. The streets around the plaza are not for much, offices, little usual cafes, shuttered shops. An old Mercedes bus drives around, and groups of old men sit in the dust, opposite rows of American taxis and beige buildings. There are gypsies in the square, in their colourful clothes and platform shoes and scarlet kerchiefs, whistling and shouting, half-begging. Shoeshine kids. A pair of young lovers, tight clothes almost bursting as they snatch a furtive kiss. But mostly just people, tired and grey, walking slowly, not doing much.
In the end I got off the bus before Salta at Guemes, where I went north via Oran to the border crossing into Bolivia at Bermejo. I thought it better to stick to the smaller towns and less travelled roads until I finally got out of Argentina.
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