Friday, 8 July 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Scratch

On a hot, late spring day in November 1966 in Buenos Aires, a serious attempt was made to abduct my eighteen year old sister as she made her way across town for extra maths lessons. 

She was in her final year at school and it looked as though she might flunk the subject, so my mother – at the time headmistress of a different school - arranged for twice weekly out of hours private tuition for her over a couple of months.  The teacher had been specially recommended to her, so the fact that the lady lived two bus rides away was just an extra inconvenience that had to be borne.

Our mother gave us frequent pep talks about how we should behave with strangers (no eye contact, not to engage in conversation, walk the other way, and so on) and behind her back we rolled our eyes to our friends about the possibility of every stranger on the planet being a rapist, a burglar or... eyes wide, voice lowered to a stage whisper ... somebody wanting to drag us into WHITE SLAVERY.  We hardly admitted even to ourselves that we did listen.

Mum herself had learned it at her mother’s knee.  Buenos Aires had a history of white slavery going back to the 1870s, when young women left an impoverished Europe in a desperate search for a better life, and as soon as they stepped off the boat at the port of Buenos Aires would be approached by seemingly kindly people who would offer them work and somewhere to stay.  It wasn’t long however before they realised that sex was the only commodity they could supply.  Faced with starvation these penniless women were forced to allow their services to be sold by pimps.  Many died of illness and disease, brought about by their lifestyle and the endemic poor hygiene.  A very few escaped.  It was known as white slavery, for these men kept the girls as slaves. 

The heyday of white slavery was at the turn of the 19th century, and was made famous first and notorious later by Albert Londres, a French investigative journalist (probably the first) and writer who travelled the world exposing abuse wherever he found it. 

Albert Londres

He visited Buenos Aires in the 1920s and homed in on prostitution in the port area, recounting it later in his book “The Road to Buenos Aires”.  His account uncovered a seedy underworld where not only were likely girls picked off the ships and led away into a life of prostitution, but also procuresses scoured the streets of the well to do, gaining the confidence of genteel young maidens before drugging them and dragging them back to the port to be handed over to the pimps.  For several generations afterwards, the title of his book became a euphemism taken to mean the road to prostitution or perdition.  (R W Holder, Dictionary of Euphemisms).

We would listen to this story over and over again in time to Mum’s wagging finger, and pretended not to be scared by it all.  She claimed that we could be injected with a drug in a public place by a stranger, and when we fainted someone would come forward claiming to be a relative, thank everyone for their assistance, bundle us into a taxi and we would never be seen again.

All of this could not have been further from my sister’s mind as she made her way to her maths lesson straight after school.  Even with two bus rides to negotiate, she would have arrived early, so she had got into the habit of stepping off her first bus in a busy suburb and whiling away the time for twenty minutes or so looking at shop windows as she ate the caramel-coated peanuts she had purchased from a street vendor who cooked them while you waited.  The suburb in question was Puente Saavedra, a seedy part of town, but this didn’t worry her because her journeys were in daylight and the area was always bustling with people.

On this particular afternoon she purchased her little cone of sweet peanuts still hot from the vendor’s pan, and ambled along the street, looking at the shop windows.  Presently she came to one with a recessed area where one could walk up to the shop’s entrance looking at the displays to left and right.  The shop was closed and she strolled slowly round munching her peanuts and looking at the tacky, brightly coloured lingerie with thoughts of not being seen dead in any of the items on display.

Suddenly she felt a sharp push from her right side and a simultaneous needle prick on her right wrist.  She was holding her school books in the crook of her left arm – satchels were definitely not cool for 18-year olds – while gripping the cone of peanuts, but her right arm had been hanging free by her side, and she had been using her right hand to help herself to peanuts every so often.

Startled, she pulled her hand away and as she did so felt something scratch her wrist.  She turned round to see who had done this to her and beheld a heavily obese woman wearing a very tight skirt and skimpy top, her hair swept up in a loose bun – a sort of careless chignon of the type which had been very fashionable in the early 1960s.  There was no shopping bag on her left arm, and at first my sister didn’t understand what could have scratched her. 

Then she saw something in the woman’s left hand which she was concealing in much the way that a schoolboy would when hiding a cigarette from his elders.  It was clearly something of that shape but very fine, and between thumb and forefinger she caught a glimpse of something gold, such as a small knob or a screw.

My mother’s warnings came back to her in a rush, and she began to feel weak and dizzy with fright.  She managed to pull herself together and walk back onto the sidewalk as she attempted to gather her scattered thoughts.  Where could she get help?  This was not the sort of area where shopkeepers could be relied upon to be friendly.  She stumbled on down the street telling herself that if she asked any locals for help she could be heading from the frying pan into the fire – they might all be in on it. 

And then she caught sight of the vendor who sold her the peanuts twice a week, and if for no other reason than because it was a familiar face, she asked him where the nearest chemist was.  He indicated a shop across the busy, multi-lane avenue, and with her knees still knocking, she waited for what seemed like a very long time until the traffic lights changed and she was able to cross.

The pharmacist was speaking to a customer when he caught sight of a pretty girl in a navy blue school uniform with long brown hair parted down the middle walking shakily towards his shop entrance and pushing open the door with her right shoulder.  She was breathing heavily and kept looking at her right wrist as though she had been terrified by something. 

When the customer had departed the old man spoke kindly to the girl, asking her if she was alright.  She explained briefly what had happened to her, and he saw that she was shaking so he sat her down in a little cubicle reserved for personal consultations, and brought out a magnifying glass.  After a careful examination of her wrist he reassured her that the skin had not been broken, merely scratched.  He disinfected it for her, told her she was fine and to be careful.

She had been concentrating on her conversation with the old pharmacist, so when she emerged from the chemist some ten minutes later her heart started to pound again when she saw that the large woman with the chignon had crossed the avenue and was standing there looking idly at the shop window with its dusty display of hot water bottles and toiletries with faded labels.

As my sister appeared so the woman turned on her heels and shuffled off.  Suddenly my sister’s head seemed to clear and she felt a surge of confidence.  She decided to follow the woman for a while, to get a good look at her, even from behind, in case she ever needed to identify her.  She observed every possible feature – her shape, height, gait, hairline at the nape of her wide neck, her ample hips and huge legs with thick ankles perched on high wedge heels – everything that she could take in to form a clear mental picture of her.  She knew it had been a dangerous strategy but was determined to do it.  She tells me that even now forty-five years later that image is still fixed clear in her mind. 

After a few minutes she had reached a corner and seeing that the traffic lights had turned in her favour, she quickly crossed the avenue again and made her way to the bus stop where she would be able to catch the bus to take her to her lesson.

Not surprisingly she arrived a few minutes late and the teacher remarked on it because she had always been punctual in the past.  She listened in shocked silence to the story the girl told her, and insisted that she tell her mother about it as soon as she got home.  This my sister was reluctant to do – the teacher hadn’t met our mother and couldn’t know what she was like when her blood was up.  She would be hysterical, she assured her, and in any case nothing had come of it.  But the older woman was having none of it and made her promise she would tell her.

She did so at the dinner table that night after the plates had been cleared away, and instantly regretted it.  On queue Mum threw a fit, to a degree which brought my father running from another part of the house wondering what all the commotion was about.

As headmistress of another school Mum had a friendly contact in the police force who helped on security issues, and she immediately telephoned him to tell him about it.  He asked to see my sister straight away, and so it was that she found herself at the local police station at 9 p.m. giving a detailed account of her experience.  Both the police officer and Mum admonished her for wandering about Puente Saavedra by herself, but it was recognised that something had to be done.

Thus for the next two weeks while Mum made the rounds of the other English private schools in the area giving talks about the incident in the hope of alerting other pupils about it, the police allocated my sister a bodyguard for the period.  He was a rough looking character, who briefed her on how he would behave, how far behind her he would be and what she should do if she needed his help.  After school he would follow her either straight home, or on her two bus rides to her lesson, where he would wait for her and shadow her on her return home.  He asked her to wander around Puente Saavedra for a while in the hope of luring the woman out or in case she recognised her, but our mother objected and only allowed it to be for five minutes.  My sister never saw her again, to her great relief.


It is shocking to observe that a similar situation to that described by Albert Londres in his Road to Buenos Aires has developed in Western Europe in the last couple of decades, where Eastern European women are lured to Britain to seek a better life, and their ignorance of the language and customs has made them easy meat for pimps who keep them as white slaves.  

It is now known under the simpler, truer term of forced prostitution, and there is another more important difference  - nowadays there are more people willing to investigate, make public the suffering of these women and do something about it.  It would however have been cold comfort for the subjects of Albert Londres' investigations and my 18 year old sister.


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's (digital) photo archive

Spot the difference in the Maldives!

Playing around with light and shadow in Photoshop.  The first is before, the second is after.  Do you think they should be left as they are, or if you think you can enhance them why not have a go?  On which side are you?



Joyful said...

That was a very close call for your sister and you told the story in a riveting way. My heart goes out to modern day slaves. It is a real shame that human beings can do such things to others.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Joyful. Man's inhumanity to woman, perhaps...

Lonicera said...

I clicked too soon - I meant to add that sadly there are too many examples, such as in this story, of women being the aggressors.

Joyful said...

Yes, you are so right. In some of the news stories I've watched of modern day slavery, women have been at the centre of the trafficking rings. Evil and love of money have no gender.

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