by Curtis Bauer
There are no tampons in Argentina. Haven’t been for months. This morning, the Buenos Aires grocer says there are no green grapes. He doesn’t say why. Doesn’t say when there will be green grapes. “What else?” he asks. “Kiwis,” I say. “Eight.” In situations like this I’ve learned that economy is required, exactitude; and I’m not offended that he doesn’t add the “…do you want” to his question, or that he offers “50 pesos a kilo” after I ask for the kiwis and he smiles at my widened eyes when he tells me the price. He’s probably seen I only have 130 pesos in my hand and he’s already bagged four kilos of oranges, three kilos of black potatoes, two tomatoes, a head of lettuce, and a few peaches. “Only four,” I say. 119 pesos total.
It’s not that I don’t have the money—I’ve already bought two newspapers (23 pesos) and had coffee and toast at the corner café (45 pesos)—or that the exchange rate isn’t great—I’ve finally figured out how to work around the official rate (8.75 for $1 today) and found someone to give me an exchange just below the blue, which is the official name for the black market, with a rate of 13.25; I just changed $1,000 at 11.50, and now there’s a stack of cash on my desk.
No, I have cash, and a credit card, but so often here I can’t find what I’m looking for. Or, if I do find it, I can’t buy it. Yet, despite the scarcity nationwide, I find services I don’t expect, like free Internet. In December, just as summer was starting and the Argentines were setting out on their vacations and I was on the road through Patagonia, more than a few gas stations along Route 3 had no water for the toilets, or for coffee or maté. More than a few gas stations had no gas, and cars waited in lines for the YPF trucks to arrive. Others, with gas and water and plenty of service staff to fill up the car, clean the windows, and check the tire pressure, refused to accept a credit card: “There’s no signal here,” an attendant might say, while in the coffee shop across the street “Free Wi-Fi” was printed neatly across every window.
Perhaps most strange, stranger than the lack of decaf coffee, or all the loose or missing sidewalk tiles throughout Buenos Aires, is the scarcity of tampons across a country that has a higher population of women than men. The international media has noticed this scarcity: “Argentina faces tampon shortage as defiance of debts causes import trouble” in The Guardian; “Argentina: What the tampon rumpus says about the troubled country” in Reuters. But this news has hardly been mentioned at all in Argentina, except maybe in an article or two in the papers, but when you go to the shops and ask, “Do you have any tampons?” the attendants shrug or simply say, No hay, economizing, not looking up from their work. From Puerto Madryn to Puerto Deseado, San Martín de los Andes to Mendoza, Rosario to Buenos Aires, no hay tampones.
Today, La Nación has a two-page spread on power outages across Buenos Aires. Today, I have my AC on, and there are people at the far end of the neighborhood who will have electricity for only two hours, their last full day of current-filled wiring, functioning AC, lights, refrigerators, computers, cellphones charging: December 18, 2014. Others have had no power at all for the last three days. Yet, here I am, sitting in the semi-cool air, wondering how there can be a shortage of tampons in a country like this, at once both modern and lagging behind. I can read news on the Internet about mothers in Uruguay who have been imprisoned for the crimes of their children—not the fathers, grant you, but the mothers—in a society where four of every ten households are headed by a woman, and try to imagine if some kind of scarcity has created that law. El País says there’s no scarcity in Valdebebas, Spain where 4,000 streetlights illuminate the streets and sidewalks for the 6,000 inhabitants, but the writer doesn’t consider the scarcity of darkness there. And the articles across all the papers I’ve read don’t talk about what complexities of scarcity cause mask-wearing ISIS soldiers to jackhammer and maul apart 3,000 years of history or throw homosexuals to their deaths from high buildings.
I have enough money to live in a neighborhood in this city where power is consistent, money enough to take a trip to Uruguay so my partner can stock up on tampons if she wants, enough money to buy those black potatoes and kiwis if, and when, I want them. There is scarcity here, and at first I was stuck on the physical objects one can’t find or can’t buy. But what’s behind the scarcity of an object? No green grapes because the vineyards can acquire a larger profit-making wine to export north? No gas in the south because the infrastructure is so poor that the transportation system can’t keep up with deliveries? No tampons because someone didn’t plan well? Perhaps, but not completely.
The Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte noted recently that the poor education inside a society is directly connected to a paucity of cultural opportunities within that society. But what does he mean by education? Education isn’t just knowledge of how to read and write. It is knowing, among so many other things, how to formulate opinions and defend those opinions, how to think of the well-being of others and live a life of action to secure that well-being, how to interact with different people in different places and accept that you’re not always right. Ted Cruz holds degrees from Harvard and Princeton, yes, but there’s something missing in his education; he suffers from a scarcity of empathy, of respect, of a knowledge that leads him to embrace difference. From this distance, looking back at education in the U.S. and in other countries where I’ve lived before, and as a consequence, also thinking about those societies, overt deficiencies are present, much like those I find so disorienting about this place.
Although I can buy cheap green grapes and kiwis in the U.S. and Europe any time I want, and the supermarket shelves must right now be overflowing with tampon boxes in stores across the northern hemisphere, one can see scarcity up there, too. I’ll take a leap—but then again, here I am, a man writing about searching for tampons in the southern hemisphere. What if the shortage of tampons were also related to education? How else can it be possible that a society could allow the shelves of its stores to empty of this modern-day necessity? And since I’m jumping, why don’t tampon sales, imports and exports, tampon fabrication and distribution have a place in schools of business, government, and theology? Maybe then men will stop making decisions that impair the lives and simple decisions of women. Maybe then this scarcity won’t be something else we shrug our shoulders at as we go on through another day.
Curtis Bauer is the author of two poetry collections, most recently The Real Cause for Your Absence (C&R Press, 2013). He is also a translator of poetry and prose from the Spanish; his publications include the full-length poetry collections Eros Is More, by Juan Antonio González Iglesias (Alice James Books, 2014) and From Behind What Landscape, by Luis Muñoz (Vaso Roto Ediciones, 2015). He is the publisher and editor of Q Avenue Press Chapbooks and the Spanish Translations Editor for From the Fishouse. He teaches Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 1 • November 2015
IMAGE HEADER CREDIT: Curtis Bauer