Sophie Morris: Thousands who come in search of a hero

Buenos Aires Notebook: If there's anything the Argentinians love more than their morning maté tea, it might be a massive public gathering

There's nothing unusual about tailbacks and traffic jams around the Argentinian capital on the first weekend of the new year. Instead of rushing to the January sales, porteños, as people from the city are known, pack up their cars and head for the country to relax with Granny and Grandpa, or seek a patch of breezy coastline to take the sting out of the city's oppressive heat: it's the holiday season and no one wants to spend it cooped up in a megalopolis of 13 million people.

There was another reason for the gridlock this weekend: the start of the Dakar Rally, a 9,000km, two-week car race around Argentina and Chile, which was relocated from Africa to South America last year because of fears of terrorist attacks en route through the Mauritanian desert.

Terrorism aside, the Dakar remains one of the world's most dangerous adventures. More than 50 competitors have perished undertaking the Herculean challenge, and that's not counting the supporters. One young Argentinian fan, who had jumped the safety barriers to get closer to the action, has already died this year.

If there's anything the Argentinians love more than their morning maté tea, it might be a massive public gathering. Whether it's to complain about agricultural taxes or yet another botched investigation into the perpetrators of last century's grim Dirty War, they vote with their feet. Enthusiasm for the Dakar is so great that 800,000 supporters lined the streets of Buenos Aires on Saturday morning to wave off the 361 competitors.

Another theory is that the Argentinians love a hero. They have so many to commemorate that consecutive parts of the same street are often named after different military and revolutionary bigshots. The Dakar Rally produces bona fide swashbuckling heroes, of the intrepid, indomitable mould that football and tango struggle to provide with equal ardour these days.

Smarter than the average pest

Those of us left in the city have vicious mosquitos to deal with. The porteño mosquito is quite unlike any variety I've come across before: so tiny I haven't caught even one in flagrante delicto; so stealthy that they pounce without that tell-tale high-pitched warning whine. Paranoia over dengue fever is running high in the city after an unexpected outbreak last summer. I'm not surprised: these beasts are smarter than anything you'll find in Avatar.

No party without Cristina

With the dawn of 2010 comes Argentina's bicentenary. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose approval rating is at a shamefully low 15 per cent in the capital, returns to work after her Christmas break today. That should get the party started.

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