Buenos Aires in 1889 – a city on horseback

How shall I describe the metropolis of the Argentine, with its one-storied, flat-roofed houses, each with grated windows and centre patio? Some of the poorer inhabitants raise fowls on the roof, which gives the house a barnyard appearance, while the iron-barred windows below strongly suggest a prison. Strange yet attractive dwellings they are, lime-washed in various colors, the favorite shades seeming to be pink and bottle green. Fires are not used except for cooking purposes, and the little smoke they give out is quickly dispersed by the breezes from the sixty-mile-wide river on which the city stands.

The Buenos Ayres of 1889 was a strange place, with its long, narrow streets, its peculiar stores and many-tongued inhabitants. There is the dark-skinned policeman at the corner of each block sitting silently on his horse, or galloping down the cobbled street at the sound of some revolver, which generally tells of a life gone out.

Both postmen and telegraph boys deliver on horseback, but such is the lax custom that everything will do to-morrow. That fatal word is the first the stranger learns — mañana.

This Modern Athens, as the Argentines love to term their city, has a beautiful climate. For perhaps three hundred days out of every year there is a sky above as blue as was ever seen in Naples.

The natives eat only twice a day—at 10.30 a.m., and at 7 p.m.—the common edibles costing but little. I could write much of Buenos Ayres, with its carnicerias, where a leg of mutton may be bought for 20 cts., or a brace of turkeys for 40 cts.; its almacenes, where one may buy a pound of sugar or a yard of cotton, a measure of charcoal (coal is there unknown) or a large sombrero, a package of tobacco (leaves over two feet long) or a pair of white hemp-soled shoes for your feet—all at the same counter. The customer may further obtain a bottle of wine or a bottle of beer (the latter costing four times the price of the former) from the same assistant, who sells at different prices to different customers.

There the value of money is constantly changing, and almost every day prices vary.

Coming again on to the street you hear the deafening noises of the cow horns blown by the streetcar drivers, or the pescador shrilly inviting housekeepers to buy the repulsive-looking red fish, carried over his shoulder, slung on a thick bamboo. Perhaps you meet a beggar on horseback (for there wishes are horses, and beggars do ride), who piteously whines for help.

You meet the water-seller passing down the street with his barrel cart, drawn by three or four horses with tinkling bells, dispensing water to customers at five cents a pail. The poorer classes have no other means of procuring this precious liquid. The water is kept in a corner of the house in large sun-baked jars. A peculiarity of these pots is that they are not made to stand alone, but have to be held up by something.

At early morning and evening the milkman goes his rounds on horseback. The milk he carries in six long, narrow cans, like inverted sugar-loaves, three on each side of his raw-hide saddle, he himself being perched between them on a sheepskin. In some cans he carries pure cream, which the jolting of his horse soon converts into butter. This he lifts out with his hands to any who care to buy. After the addition of a little salt, and the subtraction of a little buttermilk, this manteca is excellent. After serving you he will again mount his horse, but not until his hands have been well wiped on its tail, which almost touches the ground. The other cans of the lechero contain a mixture known to him alone. I never analyzed it, but have remarked a chalky substance in the bottom of my glass. He does not profess to sell pure milk; that you can buy, but, of course, at a higher price, from the pure milk seller.

In the cool of the afternoon he will bring round his cows, with bells on their necks and calves dragging behind. The calves are tied to the mothers’ tails, and wear a muzzle. At a sh-h from the sidewalk he stops them, and, stooping down, fills your pitcher according to your money. The cows, through being born and bred to a life in the streets, are generally miserable-looking beasts. Strange to add, the one milkman shoes his cows and the other leaves his horse unshod. It is not customary in this country for man’s noble friend to wear more than his own natural hoof.

A visit to the blacksmith is entertaining. The smith, by means of a short lasso, deftly trips up the animal, and, with its legs securely lashed, the cow must lie on its back while he shoes its upturned hoofs.

Many and varied are the scenes. One is struck by the number of horses, seven and eight often being yoked to one cart, which even then they sometimes find difficult to draw.

G. Whitfield Ray, Through Five Republics on Horseback

Original language: English

Time of action: 19 century (year 1889) CE

Reliability: Direct witness

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