I owe my love affair with Latin America to two of Argentina's favourite sons, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Diego Maradona. As he conveyed in his Motorcycle Diaries - the subject of a recent film - El Che (a term of endearment like mate
or buddy in Argentine slang) chucked in his sheltered existence as a student at Buenos Aires university and set off to explore the reality of the continent beyond, an experience that would in time deepen his understanding of its geographical beauty and tortured humanity.
I was privileged as a student of Latin American studies in the 1970s to read up on El Che's life as part of a wonderfully inspiring course that took in the vast continent from all perspectives. Later, when I worked in Buenos Aires, I discovered the political, sociological, and religious phenomenon that was Maradona, the greatest footballer of all time. I got to know - as his biographer - how it was that Maradona's rags-to-riches story, roguish behaviour, genius on the football pitch, and fall into a drug-induced nightmare, made him not just a hugely popular Argentinian but also, for long periods, Buenos Aires's most celebrated exile. Maradona's favourite club may have always been the Argentinian capital's Boca Juniors, but he has spent much of his life seeking exit routes from the city he was born in, struggling with the demons he carries within him. It was in his country villa outside Buenos Aires, that "Diego" - as he is popularly known - once famously shot at some prying journalists with an air rifle.
As a journalist living in Buenos Aires, I quickly came to feel that urgent need to escape "somewhere from the skyscrapers, the traffic blocks, the sirens of police cars and ambulances, the heroic statues on horseback", as Graham Greene defined the city in The Honorary Consul. My Latin American adventure began with the need to discover what lay beyond the claustrophobic urbanity and unashamed commercialism of downtown Buenos Aires, with its money changers, cafés, shops and meat restaurants populated by conspicuous and indulgent consumers - a sort of southern hemisphere New York, with similarly imitative touches here and there of Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. "Whatever you do," Jacobo Timerman, a torture victim of the military regime which ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, told me before I set off on my first trip to the continent of El Che and El Diego, "don't start writing about Florida Street - that's not South America."
I used to walk down Florida Street on my way to my newspaper's office and I still check it out when I return to BA. It was the first street in Buenos Aires to be paved and made pedestrian; legend has it that this was only done so that the wealthy could avoid getting muddy feet when it rained. These days it has lost all sense of nobility. There are shops aplenty, travel agencies and, like an oasis, the Confiteria Richmond. This 87-year-old tearoom is where Eduardo Plarr, the doctor in The Honorary Consul, sat with his mother. Self-centred porteños (as BA residents are known) and powdered rich grannies hang out there still. Florida Street quickly wears me down with its pretensions. It strikes me that it apes the developed world, while turning its back, with cynical abandon, on the rest of its own continent.
Very different are the poorer suburbs of Buenos Aires. Researching Maradona's roots took me to Villa Fiorito, a shanty town of improvised huts and open sewers where the young El Diego spent his childhood learning to play football in the dust when not earning a few pesos as a street urchin.
My onward journey of discovery takes me by car beyond the suburbs, southwest along the RN5, the highway which cuts across the great swathe of grassland called the pampa. If any town initially along the route will always give me reason to pause and reflect it is Lujan, where the local basilica is Argentina's most important religious site. Forty miles from the centre of Buenos Aires, this is Lourdes Argentine-style. Its Virgin has a cult following, not least among Argentina's footballers and soldiers. During the Falklands War, which caught me as a journalist living in Buenos Aires, Argentine air force pilots offered her in thanks giving bits of RAF jets they had shot down.
Luckily you can drive for miles well beyond Lujan, much as El Che did on his motorbike back in 1952, without encountering a human being, let alone a member of the Argentine military. Travelling overnight you can forget that the province of Buenos Aires's most outstanding feature - all 307,000 square kilometres - is its unremitting flatness. After the glaring neons of Buenos Aires, the pampa under a starlit night is truly blessed. I drive marvelling at the sheer multiplicity of shooting stars and the benevolent companionship of an ivory moon.
Dawn comes in a red glow shrouded in mist and flocks of white birds rising into the sky in celebration. The sun rises to reveal cattle grazing across the flat plains, some so distant as to pockmark the landscape like fields of black cotton. Daytime along the early stages of this route has me joined by long-distance buses (where passengers sleep at night) and other car drivers are mostly porteños staring straight ahead, as if hypnotised by the thought of getting as quickly as possible to their country estate or seaside apartment.
Then the road gets emptier but for the gauchos rounding up their cattle or the occasional wandering tramp. The fertile land gives way to a land that, when the wind blows in summer, is covered in swirling clouds of dust and uprooted thistles which roll across like giant crabs. Vultures pick on armadillos.
This trip of mine takes me to San Martin de los Andes, arguably the most beautiful of all Patagonian towns, with its clear mountain streams and wooden lodges. It is set in a sheltered valley and surrounded by steep slopes of native cypress and pine. When El Che arrived here on his 500cc Norton, he was tempted to settle in this spot for ever. Yet something within him kept him going, across to Chile, and up towards Peru and beyond. The same happened to me, as if our shared destiny were never to be sedentary, but to travel. Buenos Aires was a beginning.
Jimmy Burns's latest book, 'When Beckham went to Spain: Power, Politics and Real Madrid', is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin at £16.99. Further information on his writings on Latin America can be found on www.jimmy-burns.comReuse content