Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bienvenidos a Buenos Aires

I started my internship with Expanish on Thursday. I´m part of a marketing team of five - a few portenos, a Brit that looks like Kurt Cobain and an intern from Texas. At the moment I'm learning online marketing (search engine optimization, link sharing, etc. - a lot of ins and outs, lot of what have-yous) which is half of my job. The other half is writing assignments for their website and newsletter. It's a small, very personal company of about 20 employees. Everyone there is nice and my boss could be a part-time model.

On Friday I was downtown early for an interview and stayed through for the internship. I was done work about 6 and started back to the hostel. At the subway station I was ushered through the turnstiles before I could reach for my wallet to pay, and for the next two hours learned an important lesson - there is no such thing as a free ride in Buenos Aires. The platform was busier than usual and the TV screens were playing a message on loop with a red background. The message warned how the media would interpret this strike, but assured it was UTA, the workers union, who were being treated unjustly. In the 40 minutes I waited two trains passed, both impossibly full, and when the doors opened they were sieged by a mob until it was unclear who the unlucky ones were - the people who made it on the train or the ones left on the platform. I didn't need to be anywhere that badly.

I went back up to the streets to catch a bus and saw 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world, gridlocked. I had heard of the public political activism of Argentines before arriving here. Cacerolazos (cacerolo meaning "stew pot") are protests where groups of people take to the streets with pots and pans. They were commonplace after the Dirty War in 76 and most recently during the economic crisis of 2001. Today they are a popular expression of public frusteration. Andy witnessed several demonstrations a few weeks back when the president, Cristina Kirchner, performed the daylight robbery of private pension funds in Argentina by nationalizing close to 25 billion dollars worth. Friday was my first.

I found out the next day that this particular protest was in response to a recent study estimating that 8 children die each day in Argentina due to malnutrition. Easily 500 people had set up a picket line across 16 lanes of traffic at rush hour on a Friday. I was starting to understand that I wasn't getting back to the hostel anytime soon. I was also becoming increasingly aware of being a foriegner at a decidedly Argentine demonstration concerning an issue about which I had no ties or knowledge. I decided to spectate from the cafe behind me instead, ordered a pint of their cheapest, and held a personal protest of the protest. When my glass was empty and the crowd slowly continued their march toward Congress, I made my way to the bus stop. With both forms of public transportation crippled by a strike and a protest respectively, it took me close to 3 hours to go 5 miles. Welcome to Buenos Aires.

When I got back to the hostel I learned that Andy and Mike had found free tickets to a Los Fabulosos Cadillacs concert which was starting in an hour, so I essentially turned right back around. A Scottish guy working at the hostel has a Colombian girlfriend who had the tickets, so we met up with her friends and went to the show. I had bought their new cd a few weeks back and really like their ska-ish sound (ska is very alive here). They're one of the more popular Argentinian bands and filled out this River soccer stadium nicely with about 70,000 people. We were in the nosebleeds but it was fun and the girls were good company. The night never ended and we saw the sun rise.

Andy is off to Bariloche on Monday (tomorrow) and won't be returning until the day before our flight back to the States. In his honor we met up with some good friends for a dinner at their place on Saturday night(here that means show up at 11, eat by 12 and be at the bar by 1). Josh and Julia are good cooks and had some Aussie friends in town. After a drink at a bar near their place we we went to a party with some of their Colombian friends they know through a frisbee league. They were a lot of fun, and even with the language barrier and their cultural advantage of being able to salsa with all the girls, everyone had a good time. They ordered beer from a nearby delivery service two times throughout the night and we saw the sun rise again. When we got back to the hostel, the owner, Murray, was up with with a few of the hostel goers having some bottles, so as not to be rude we had a couple ourselves. He's an Irish guy who moved here about 10 years ago to open up the hostel with a friend. He was quite inebriated himself and kept laughing and saying "happy days, happy days" in his 'tik Irish accint.' Then I beat Andy in pool so he picked up the tab.

Sorry for not having any pictures to post right now, but Andy should have plenty from Patagonia - I'm insanenly jealous. Hope everyone is well, and thanks for reading if you made it this far.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"I don't want to wait...

... for our lives to be over, I want to know right now what will it be." Sadly this is our last night in Recoleta, we have the ceremonial passing of the keys with our landlord tomorrow afternoon and then are off to Gecko Hostel in Palermo for the next 2 weeks. Our friend lived there for a couple months and had good things to say. He's off to Bolivia now to train pumas or something, but we've met a few people staying at Gecko through him and it should be a fun scene.

This part of town has done us right, but it's not big enough for men of our ambitions - plus it's extortionately expensive and we're broke. We'll post some pictures and thoughts on the new digs by the weekend. Hope all is well back home during this most wonderful time of the year.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

the world's most annoying economic crisis

This is an article a friend sent to me about the coin situation in this city. It is in no way an exaggeration - Andy has been paid back in candy instead of centavos, and we know an Argentine women who is actually in the business of selling bars monedas (1 peso coin) for more than they are worth in paper money. It's ridiculous, you can only pay in centavos on the bus so every transaction feels like a stand off between you and the cashier - who's getting the coins.

It was no surprise that the cab driver tried to rip us off. We're in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after all, and we'd made the rookie error of requesting a vague destination instead of giving a precise address—naturally he interpreted this as a license to take us from LaBoca to the Plaza de Mayo by way of southern Nicaragua. What we hadn't expected was the predicament the driver found himself in when it came time to pay. The fare had come to 14 pesos and 6 centavos. I offered a 20-peso note (worth about $6.70), and he handed back 50 centavos,suggesting that I was going to be shorted 44 centavos. Then he realized that continuing on this course would require him to give me two 2-peso notes and a 1-peso coin. He sighed dramatically and gave me three 2-peso notes instead. Factoring in the 50 centavos he had already handed over, this effectively reduced the fare to 13.50 pesos,which, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, is actually more than14.50 pesos.
Welcome to the world's strangest economic crisis. Argentina in general—and Buenos Aires in particular—is presently in the grip of a moneda, or coin, shortage. Everywhere you look, there are signs reading, "NO HAY MONEDAS." As a result, vendors here are more likely to decline to sell you something than to cough up any of their increasingly precious coins in change. I've tried to buy a 2-peso candy bar with a 5-peso note only to be refused, suggesting that the 2-peso sale is worth less to the vendor than the 1-peso coin he would be forced to give me in change. When my wife went to buy a 10-trip subway pass, which retails for 9 pesos, she offered a 20-peso note and received 12 pesos in bills as change. This is commonplace—a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. It's taken for granted that the peso coin is more valuable than the 2-peso note.
No one can say what's causing this absurd situation. The government accuses Argentines of hoarding coins, which is true, at least to some extent. When even the most insignificant purchase requires the same order of planning and precision as a long-range missile strike, you can hardly blame people for keeping a jar of monedas safe at home. The people, in turn, fault the government for not minting enough coins. Infact, the nation's central bank has produced a record number of monedas this year, and the problem has gotten even worse. Everyone blames the bus companies, whose buses accept only monedas. (BuenosAires' 140-plus bus routes are run by a number of separate, privatecompanies.) These companies, exploiting a loophole in the law, runside businesses that will exchange clients' bills for monedas for a 3percent service fee. This is legal, but the business community also routinely complains of being forced into the clutches of a thriving moneda black market—run by the local mob, or the bus companies, or both—in which coins sell for a premium of between 5 percent and 10 percent. The bus companies steadfastly deny any involvement in this racket, but their claims were undercut by the discovery of a hoard of13 million coins, amounting to 5 million pesos, in one company's warehouse this October.