Pegamequemegusta may not have reached the pally, personality cult status that surrounds so many wage-earning journos, their egos fanned ever higher by droves of drooling geeks no matter how trite, inane or downright shoddy their output may occasionally be. Still, for the good of posterity and our musty-smelling, wife-beating biographers, we feel obliged to add a bitter biographical note to flesh out the context that is the shoe to today’s podiatric post.
Unlike our usual updates, today we find ourselves doing something we swore we would never do: having a coffee just so we can use the wi-fi in a small, third-rate, private university in the arse of nowhere. The arse is too kind a description for this place, really: pegamequemegusta squirms out its days in Mar del Plata, an Argentinian Tenby. It’s a nice place and while we miss Buenos Aires occasionally, we revel in the lack of traffic, pollution, gringos and being a two-minute walk from the ocean.
Today, however, we travelled 200km up the coast to a smaller version of Mar del Plata, to the ominously named Mar de Ajó – literally, Garlic Sea. If that image doesn’t shake you out of your habitual torpor, nothing will. To us, it suggests an eerily green, smelly, nauseous, swirling scene of utter befuddlement and confusion, of the kind that possesses Fabio Capello each time he comes face to face with Emile Heskey.
We came to supervise an English exam, an exam we had spent several hours preparing over the previous few days, an exam that was a second chance for the one girl who had been shockingly dumb enough to fail the initial mid-term (which was Yankee sandwich filling generous). The long trip up had meant we missed the most of Chile’s brave but inevitably futile last stand against Dunga’s giant fist. Pegamequemegusta got agitated and repeatedly indulged the nicotine monster that dwells within. Brazil 3-0 Chile reverberated around the echo-y faculty.
Finally a student appeared. Pegamequemegusta did its best Howard Webb impression, trying to look authoritative yet matey: “What’s the, er, story? Have you seen Soledad?” we wheezed cretinously (though at least we still have our hair). “What are you talking about? Sure she left the course weeks ago.” Ah, Soledad, ‘that which is alone’, the irony.
Learning’s succour is put out faster than a flatulent cat in a one-bedroom apartment, however. To be upstaged by a halfwit who can’t hack a Tourism Degree in a private university is a new low. A minor setback, we bravely tried to convince ourselves. Yet we nevertheless picked our steps carefully lest we trod on any rakes on our way to this insufferable den of collegedom. Four hours to go, we kept repeating. Four hours, carajo, til the van brings us back.
What to do? What to do? We set out in the evening twilight to see if our apocalyptic presentiments regarding the Garlic Sea were true. We marched seaward down the diagonal avenue eyeing the local yokels with our the big-city snobbery people from Bray must feel when they visit Greystones. There were the usual motorised adolescents cruising around the deserted wintertime streets, the offspring of many a refugee from Baires who, just like so many Paddies over the last 15 years, thought they could become mini-capitalists and make a living by renting out an apartment for a few months a year. The gamble didn’t work here either, however, and the future isn’t so much smiling as it is baring its teeth.
We pass by a book shop, curious to know what it is that the Garlic Sea people read. Will there be shelves of tomes analysing praising the Gods that invented mouthwash? Will there be an extensive philosophy section devoted purely to overwhelming ontological questions such as ‘Why am I here?’? Well it’s clear that the people of the Garlic Sea do have a taste for mystery as a streetside rack of Agatha Christie novels galloped into our field of vision. Next to impose itself on our tear-filled eyes was a truly befuddling pancake: the most prominent shelves in the bookshop, those designed to catch the eye of any passer-by who’s not looking at the street, were entirely filled with works concerning the breeding habits of frogs!
Pegamequemegusta was thrown into a reverie of reveries. What on earth is going on in this town? Suddenly the entire aspect of what we had considered a mere failed economic experiment had changed. After all, frogs are not a delicacy in this part of the world and we have so far failed to think of any reasons as to what other use they could be put to.
Indeed, there are signs that not everyone in Mar de Ajó is enamoured of the critters: some impromptu research led us to the website of a band from the Garlic Sea named the ‘Frog Kickers’; while scouring many a page on frog breeding has only confirmed our suspicions that those interested in these matters are at least as creepy as football geeks: this page constitutes a veritable mausoleum of loved but, inescapably, late frogs who passed on due to unknown diseases. It features the phrase ‘rainbow bridge’ with alarming regularity. A fascinating insight comes in the form of the large Scientology ad at the top of the page, however – alas, while we’re sure we’d fail their personality test, it is positively vertiginous to think that their operations go so deep as to have a stake in frog-breeding in the Garlic Sea.
All this tumult sees us turn away from the sea front and its shells of once-bold architectural enterprises with forlorn ‘For Rent – Ring Uncle Leo’ signs in search of a drink. Three hours to go. “How’s the frog business these days at the Garlic Sea?” we inquire of an old man at the bar, but he is unwilling or unable to provide us with a satisfactory response. (There may well be an unholy frog mafia keeping this down for infernal reasons known only to themselves). He does oblige us with a chilling tale that could have taken place in North Haverbrook. “Aye, pibe, this was once a thriving town. The peso and the dollar went down the street arm in arm like a couple of smitten schoolboys. There was work, happiness and Uncle Leo played the banjo everyday at this very bar at four o’clock just for the hell of it. Aye, those were the days!”
Before we could move seats, however, he begins to talk some sense: “Did ye see th’ hulking shell out near the main road as you entered the Garlic Sea, pibe? I thought not. Thine eyes have been rotted away by that faggoty little laptop you’re carrying. You’ve lost all sense of the world, pibe. Despierte el alma dormida! There’s a stadium there that was built for 30,000 people. Back in the days of Menem it rose out of the sand, a monument to our bright future, a monument to a future without work, without the need to produce anything, just sit back and watch the rent fill our mattresses.
“And to while away our evenings we would go to see our new football teams, our new basketball teams, in our state of the art stadium. Aye pibe, ’twas beautiful. The Menemental, we called it. Everyday i’d take my boys out to see it rise higher and higher into the heavens. We marvelled as the huge ramps were finished, proof that besides being enterprising folk the people of the Garlic Sea also cared about the immobile among us. As high as a an African Leaping Toad soared the stands, and verily but they were only matched by our own expectations.
“The night the stadium was to open, pibe, my heart was bouncing, throbbing like a belching fighting frog in mating season. We dined on pizza and champagne and marched off like so many soldiers of destiny to the inaugural concert. Although the Frog Kickers’ rather scandalous performance angered some, everyone agreed it was a great first night at the Menemental. It was with great regret that we left the beautiful stadium at the end of the night, festooned as it was with our dreams.
“Over the next few days, che, the Garlic Sea was awash with the sound of happy croaking as we collected our rents with a smile from the wretched porteños seeking solace from their metropolitan mindfuck. We joyously advised them to leave the rat race and come down to the seaside to regain some of the dignity they had forsaken with every beep of the car horn over the years. Plus, they could leave behind those rotten sporting institutions they’d poured so much of their lives into in the capital and start afresh with a new franchise, a new team in a new home.
“Of course everyone was eager to know what and when the next function would be at the Menemental. Days passed as we bought each other mobile phones, argued about the taxes on properties and began to lobby for better roads so we could drive our new cars around to places that used to look down on us. Aye, pibe, we shut a fair mouth or two then! We invested heavily in art to show how off our sophistication, and dignitaries visited from overseas to gather information for speeches on how Mar de Ajó was the way forward, a blueprint for all struggling communities worldwide. Our smiles were kaleidoscopic flashes of chameleonic brilliance. Indeed, such was our radiance it seemed that we were all bipedal Cuban Tree Frog – not for being an invasive species and a nuisance to humans, but rather because our skins revealed how hot we felt.
“No further dates were announced at the Menemental, however. No more acts were said to be coming, and the stars that had initially pledged to come join our fledgling foot and basketball teams soon went silent on the matter. Summer passed us by and our tenants left to go back to their insufferable lives in the big city and in the countryside, their slavery, as old Sepp would say, producing beef, soya and other things destined for their sad, medieval ‘markets’. We dug in for the unforgiving winter looking forward to rebirth in the Spring. Things had surely started too late that year. Once word got round again about our seaside paradise people would come back and this time they would stay. With a little investment to give us momentum, the Garlic Sea would surely take off and make us into a long-term power.”
The enthusiasm for and faith in the Garlic Sea was not felt elsewhere, however, and the Menemental never opened again, as the old man indicated earlier. He had plenty more to say but the insults soon began to outweigh his poetic outburst. An intriguing character, he struck us [several times] as a scraggly, rakish Maradona but with a wispier beard.
Nevertheless, the old fellow showed no sign of letting us continue on our way, no doubt eager to stay on the heels of a gringo quick to order refills and slow to tell him where to go. Hanging off our arm, he insisted we walk a few blocks to where there was a sight that would cheer our heart midst so much misery.
The wind was slicing down the diagonal avenue and making it difficult to find firm footing with our crutches, but the old man seemed happy enough lost in his frog-related reveries. “A frog can sing a piercing song, catch flies with its tongue and provide food for your table,” he told us, before adding, “Frog butlers! Think of it!” We haven’t slept since.
Our cold, cold heart has been warmed ever slightly since, however, by what he showed us. A few blocks from the bar there arose out of the dead streets a considerable ruin, ten metres high it stood in the darkness: the hulking hull of a ship that had run aground in the Garlic Sea 130 years ago. Most of the wreckage was still out at sea but somehow a huge section of the bow lay propped up in a little square.
“Aye, pibe, this here frigate, desolate and forlorn, a sight of death and decay, of nature’s cruelty and history’s neglect, and yet the only thing that comes close to imparting a sense of this town’s journey, its disgrace but there still being some bare bones on which to really build something for the future.” Moved, we stared deeply into his eyes and told him to stop trying to pick our pocket.
As we turned away, it now being the hour to take the van back home, he cackled, wheezing, sneezed and wiped his nose on his sleeve in a catharsis far too physical for my gentle soul: “You’re a nonce, pibe! You’ll go back to your fancy dan lifestyle in Mardel and forget all about our town. Sure you probably want this ship melted down and resculpted in some kind of frog shape! But i’ll tell you something, che, do you know where this hull was forged?” No, señor. “Pibe, ’twas in Bremen – and the Great Toad knows ’twill not be the last German ship to go under in Argentine waters!”
Had he spent all afternoon with us just to make this cheap joke? Is that what all this was leading to? We felt let down dear handsome reader, at least as much as both of you do now. But tomorrow (or later today) we’ll have a tasty Carlitos Tevez interview for you, so don’t despair.