When I left New Zealand, I donated old clothes to the Salvation Army, threw away toiletries, and gifted my oil pastels and blue plastic bucket to my boyfriend. One item that did make it into my suitcase was a bright green cloth grocery bag. Available for $1.50 at most major supermarkets in New Zealand, the bag shamelessly implores you to “help us create a better environment”. Girl scout cookies I can resist, but I never could deny the exigency in the eyes of the clip-art raindrop.
In Buenos Aires supermarkets, produce is weighed before you reach the cash register. Shoppers place fruits and vegetables into plastic bags and present them to a store employee, who affixes them with a price sticker. The first time I went produce shopping after returning to Argentina, I selected my items, set them on the counter, and tried to explain in rusty Spanish that I didn’t want plastic bags. The man behind the scale stared at me as if I were a talking orange cat.
“Because of the environment” I explained, brandishing my hideous, slightly self-righteous tote bag.
“Ah. Ok,” he smiled after a brief pause, “estás haciendo ecología.”
“Yes, exactly, I’m doing ecology.” After a few minutes of brainstorming, he agreed to weigh and sticker each item individually. I walked out of the store with a clear conscience, albeit slightly self-conscious.
Unfortunately, the bags aren’t the only thing here made of plastic. I recently invented a game called “spot the boob job.” It’s easy – you just look for a tiny woman with a disproportionately large chest and no bra. Ironically, women who get implants no longer want to appear as though they are wearing a corset, and so are requesting natural-looking fake breasts. The result is girls with the body of an adolescent and the chest of a senior citizen.
In Buenos Aires, there is overwhelming pressure to conform to an ideal image of beauty. According to a CNN article, an estimated 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife. OSDE, a leading health insurance provider, covers the entire cost of aesthetic plastic surgery if you hold their plan 410 or higher. The concept of healthy is totally distorted. A popular brand of yogurt, known for promoting regularity, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to eat their yogurt because of its slimming effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if it contains a mild laxative.
The moral of the story is that it’s not easy being green in Buenos Aires, and the struggle extends beyond being a vegetarian in a carnivorous country. Buenos Aires is a city obsessed with physical appearance but utterly negligent of the physical environment. The other day, I encountered a group of young Argentines on the terrace, drinking mate, rubbing tanning oil on their skin, and flicking their cigarettes into the pool.
I’m no sociologist or psychotherapist, but I speculate that this combination of personal vanity and environmental apathy stems from a lack of control. Inflation and corruption are rampant, university classes are cancelled due to protests, public transportation is interrupted by strikes, and noise and air pollution are palpable. I can hardly blame porteños for preferring to invest in their looks rather than their city. Their bodies are one thing they can still take ownership and pride in. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to care for a city that doesn’t take care of them. Still, even if individuals can’t fix the broken sidewalks, would it hurt them to clean up after their dogs?
When I moved to Buenos Aires over four years ago, I didn’t care about or notice these things. Instead, I was enthralled by the city’s sense of urgency, arrogance, and glamour. But live in New Zealand (and date someone doing a master’s thesis on water conservation) long enough, and you start sprouting your own lentils and growing your own herbs. I used to make fun of people for shopping at Whole Foods. Now, I say things like, “I’ll just carry my tofu and flaxseed. Why do I need a bag when I have two hands?”
Leading a healthy and natural life in Buenos Aires is not impossible. There are vegetarian restaurants and organic cafes, gorgeous yoga studios, meditative breathing courses, and lovely parks and plazas. However, even if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and create a micro-community, fighting against the zeitgeist is like driving the wrong way on 9 de Julio.
Obviously, there are many things I adore about Buenos Aires; I wouldn’t have made a pilgrimage back here otherwise. Unfortunately, the pervasive culture is not one of them. If you move to a new city or country where neither you nor the native residents hold you to the local standards, you can observe your surroundings without being personally impacted by them. But if you and the local culture take each other on, as was my case in Buenos Aires, the prevailing atmosphere directly affects you, making it harder to accept.
Luckily, as a traveler, I have the freedom to move on if the lifestyle doesn’t suit. As of now, I am a voluntary and temporary guest in Buenos Aires. For the short time I’m here, I can overlook the city’s shortcomings and focus on the great things it has to offer.
On my next visit to the supermarket, the staff member in charge of the produce section informed me that plastic bags were an obligatory store policy.
“Why?” I challenged.
“To prevent theft. We seal your bags so you don’t take more items between here and the register.” I considered proposing another solution – to weigh fruits and vegetables at checkout, but that would result in slower lines, and put him out of work.
“If it’s one item, fine,” he continued, “but if you’ve got multiple items, like your bananas, I have to bag them.”
“But it’s one bunch of bananas,” I argued. “I can’t possibly add another banana to the bunch.”
“Look,” he said, agitated and annoyed, “I’m just trying to do my job.”
I realized then that he didn’t make the rules, nor was he in a position to challenge or break them. Neither of us can change this city; but unlike him, I have the luxury of leaving in a few weeks for a place where the grass (and the people) are greener.
“Ok. Bag them,” I conceded. At that moment, his job seemed more important than my convictions.