My last big night out in BA was far from orthodox. I should probably clarify. No night out in Buenos Aires is ever predictable or dull and this is a rule as opposed to an exception. It just doesn’t happen. But this particular night raised the bar a notch or two in terms of eventfulness. Amalia and I woke up the next day and like Dorothy following her adventures in Oz, wondered if we’d dreamt it all. But the indelible oil on my hands, under my fingernails and streaked down my legs which had stubbornly refused to shift when I showered on our return told a different story.
The evening started out innocuously however, mojitos, Jägermeister, banter and musica with friends on a roof top terraza. So far, so BA. We were on the list at Niceto for Zizek, a monthly club night showcasing the best of ZZK label’s roster, an eclectic mix of all things nu-cumbia and arguably one of the best nights out in BA. In the backroom Bully Bass was dishing up sick slabs of dubstep served as piping hot as the packed space he was playing out in. Amalia and I exchanged silly grins and dance moves for a while but the heat got the better of us and both we and the music segued effortlessly into the cool respite of the musical goings on of the main room.
I was pretty drunk by this stage and Amalia was tired, so we decided to cut our losses and head for home. Not before first having a last drink and bite to eat in the bar next door. 4am nachos, with guacamole and cheese were impossible to pass up. Suddenly, it started raining torrentially. We slowly drank our beers and finished up our food. In the 20 minutes we’d been sat down, Niceto Vega had transformed from main Palermo thoroughfare to a fast flowing river. The water level had now reached to headlight level of a car parked opposite, half its body submerged and swaying disconcertingly, as if any minute it was going to be consumed by the water and dragged away by the persuasive current. We saw people swimming by. It was if the apocalypse had come a year early.
Amalia was adamant about sitting it out but I had other ideas. I don’t know if it was the booze talking or a misguided intrepidity. The bar staff were frantically bailing out water at the entrance to avoid the place flooding completely, and we had to pick our way over them and some wooden barricading to make it to street level. We waded over to where the bikes were locked up on the opposite street corner, standing waist deep in fast flowing water. They had almost completely disappeared from view, bar one of the distinct brilliant blue handlebars from my bike which was partially sticking out and a few of the plastic flowers from my pannier struggling to lift their heads above the water.
Our best efforts at warding off thieves: various locks, all under water, interwoven and entangled, now seemed like an impossible task to undo – inebriated and with only our hands to guide us. But we managed, and pulled off quietly, our vintage velos’ idiosyncratic creaking and clanking silenced by their aquatic surroundings. We felt valiant and triumphant at not having abandoned our trusty steeds.
The journey back to las Cañitas proved to be an epic one. Amalia had already got a flat prior to the flooding so we knew getting home was going to be an onerous task. Yet what made matters worse was that my chain kept acting as a filter for foliage, leaves and debris and several times it slipped off. I had to perform emergency resuscitation, flipping it upside down and manipulating the oily chain links and teeth back into place.
The water receded as we neared the tracks, as we crossed over we saw that the streets were free of flood water, in fact, it seemed as if everyone here was oblivious to the chaos playing out only a few streets away. Girls dolled up without a hair out of place, boys looking impossibly dapper. By contrast, Amalia and I looked bedraggled with smeared eye make up, our hair dripping and our clothes sodden. But we didn’t care, bonding over this unique experience we were both living, sharing wry smiles every time we made eye contact.
We dodged fallen trees and loose paving stones, stopping to observe the surreality of seeing fish swimming by the curb, as two novice anglers stood tentatively with bucket and net waiting to pounce, their mouths watering at the prospect of an unexpected fish supper.
We arrived at Santa Fe avenue and felt buoyed by the fact that we’d made it onto the home straight. With the prospect of a hot shower and a warm bed almost within reach, our weariness turned to elation and a sense of pride, at not having ‘abandoned ship’ and stuck to our original, if somewhat irresponsible objective of getting our green ladies back in one piece. We parked them up on the balcony, a sorry looking pair, survivors of an extreme battle with the elements. Scalding hot showers caressed our tired weather beaten bodies and we crawled under the covers, the dawn ushering in a calm, bright sunny day, the storm had blown itself and been put to rest. We closed the blinds on the window and then not long after, the lids of our weary eyes.
image : we heart it
The day of the Critical Mass dawned grey and threatened rain. Buenos Aires has a micro climate, with annoyingly unpredictable weather patterns, so I knew that any decision making would be left until last minute. I badly wanted to start cycling again, and this was to be my first venture out on the streets of the city, yet on a bike I was unfamiliar with, I was taking the fair-weather cyclist stance. Buenos Aires is a mad bad city, where rules and conventions are flaunted at every light, cross section and turn, and that’s just on the traffic front. But as luck would have it, the soot black storm clouds and torrential rain dissipated and made way for the afternoon sun. I threw caution to the wind and embraced its warm early evening gusts to make my maiden voyage on my newly serviced vintage steed down Salta street to the meeting point, the obelisk on 9 de Julio Avenue.
Critical Mass started in BA two years ago, and a month ago the idea of a nocturnal event by the light of the full moon was trialled successfully. It doesn’t parade as a politically motivated venture and prides itself on not being represented by any one individual, rather as a body of like minded cyclists, involved in spontaneous gatherings which create social space via the bicycle. Originating in China for purely practical reasons, cyclists would negotiate busy cross-sections where there were no lights by pooling together and forming a ‘critical mass’ thereby crossing the road in relative safely.
As the minutes passed and more and more people arrived, the mounting sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable, not knowing exactly when we would pull off or where we were heading, destination very much unknown.
As the ring ring of expectant bells reached a crescendo, it was clear that the start of our adventure was imminent. We pulled off onto the main road encircling the obelisk, to the dissonant beeping and honking of the cars whose flow we’d interrupted, something we’d quickly become accustomed to during the two hour pedal around the city. There was a varied collection of bikes, ranging from vintage sit up and begs to fixed gear, with racers, mountain bikes and ‘playeras’, the ubiquitous beach cruisers, with high arching handlebars, and a counter pedal breaking mechanism. Some people had come on skateboards and there was even a jogger giving Forrest Gump a run for his money, who kept up with the mass throughout.
The silly grins and euphoria was infectious. As we turned onto the main strait of Leandro Alem Avenue my friend Mati Kalwill pulled up next to me on his folding Boardwalk bike, on the back of which he’d strapped his parents old JVC boombox and rigged it up to his iPhone, earning brownie points for both style and ingenuity. We weaved in and out between other cyclists, Of Montreal providing an ideal soundtrack.
The general feeling I got was one of invincibility, in spite of the fact that at one stage I was at the tail end of the group, with the aggressive cars and buses nipping at our mudguards, I still felt this sense of safety in numbers, and that together we were achieving something wonderful, seizing the streets and making them our own, albeit momentarily. There were seasoned participants of the mass who took it upon themselves to oversee the safety of the group, cycling up ahead to form a human barricade to halt the traffic on either side whenever the lights turned green.
We’d pass under bridges and whoop and shriek in a childlike regression. We’d wave at passersby, some who waved back, others who clapped and cheered with approval. Friendships were forged along the way, with animated conversations played out between boys and girls en route, a hotbed of flirtatious activity, with one smitten participant’s quest to track down a mysterious girl in a red cape played out on the Facebook page in the days to follow.
The crowning moment was when we peeled off onto the motorway, making a brief ballsy claim for both carriageways of the Libertador underpass, a steep incline which we tackled, to then to be rewarded as we doubled back on ourselves and made the most of the delicious steep drop to freewheel and howl wildly in unison.
The mass ran out of steam when it reached the Planetarium, it was clear that some were flagging from the evening’s exertions, although I got the impression many were game to continue pedaling well into the night. The lure of an impromptu full moon party was the deciding factor, with a guy selling ice cold beer from a cool box providing the much needed refreshment and tribal drumming the soundtrack into the early hours. For all that the mass had dispersed in physical terms, the energy it created continued to unite and lingered for hours and days after, many already counting the days until the next gathering, others waxing lyrical about the experience on blogs and social networking sites. I ended up going for late night pizza followed by a gentle ride home with Mati, his friend Flavio, the boombox and The Tallest Man on Earth for company through the deserted streets of Palermo, grinning like a cheshire cat as I played out in my head the magical experiences of the last couple of hours.
non official critical mass buenos aires website www.masacriticabuenosaires.com
non official critical mass buenos aires blog www.masacriticabsas.blogspot.com
non official buenos aires critical mass facebook fan page www.facebook.com/masacriticabsas
pedaleando buenos aires (masa critica) non-official facebook group
argentina fixed gear forum www.simplifijate.foroactivo.net