Bright Lights, Big City

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

We have been in Buenos Aires for three days and are having a wonderful time. The weather is warm and we have been strolling the streets at night in shirt sleeves (Those of us from the bay area don't get to do that in SF at any time of the year.) BA is a lively cosmopolitan city with some interesting architecture, wide tree-lined boulevards, great restaurants and festive nightlife.

One mistake the locals make, however, is to frequently refer to the city as the Paris of South America. I will admit that there are a few boulevards where if you squint your eyes you can pretend that it looks like Paris. But it would be Paris without the art, the history, the Seine, the Eiffel tower, the food or the wine. (I said the restaurants here were good, but they are not that good.) On the plus side for BA, we haven't met any Parisians here.

We have found BA far more cosmopolitan than Santiago. When we asked a Santiago yuppie for a restaurant recommendation he excitedly told us that Applebee's had just expanded to Santiago. Hooters was also advertising their upcoming opening. There is no need for either chain to cross the border to BA.

There seems to be a certain anxiety in the air here that was not present in Chile. (There is actually a local English language paper in BA, so we get a little bit of local hard news.) While the country has been pretty democratic since 1983, the fifty prior years saw a dizzying array of coups, counter-coups, assassinations and exiles. When Juan Peron came back from exile in 1974 to assume the presidency he actually named his 4th wife to be vice-president. (Evita, his second wife, was long dead and, therefore, inelegible.) When Juan went to his great reward shortly thereafter, his ill prepared wife assumed leadership with predictable consequences. She was ousted by a military junta within 2 years. The junta lasted until they dragged the country into the Falkland Islands war. (I suspect that military juntas that can't manage the military will usually lose popularity.)

The 2002 crisis was precipitated by linking the Peso 1 for 1 with the US dollar. Many promises were made that the two would always be convertible. Argentina then borrowed a great many dollars because the dollar interest rates were pretty low. Unfortunately for Argentina, most of these borrowers expected to be repaid in dollars and the country ran out of foreign exchange. They went through 3 presidents in about a month before deciding to default on their debt and challenging bondholders to collect. Unfortunately for bondholders (primarily European individual investors), Argentina had picked a fight they could win.

The local economy has rebounded from the depths of the 2002 crisis. GDP growth has exceeded 8% for the past three years. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been accomplished with some pretty loose monetary policy, inflation is picking up (12% last year) and unemployment still hovers around 13%. I suspect there will be more clouds on the horizon at some point soon. (While I write this, Kia is doing her best to support the economy by significantly increasing the size of her wardrobe. I am not sure how she plans to fit this in the jeep. Maybe we'll get rid of those unnecessary items like spare parts and tools?) I would much rather visit BA than Santiago, but I would rather invest in Chile than Argentina.

One very troubling piece of local culture can be found right on the 100-peso note. In the late 19th century, Argentines of European heritage decided to settle most of the rural parts of the country to raise sheep and cows. The native population, however, was not consulted on this decision and continued to consider the land to be their prime hunting ground. Furthermore, sheep and cows proved to be easier to hunt than guanacos and other native species. The farmers did not appreciate this behavior and asked the government to mediate the dispute. The army, not surprisingly, came down on the side of the farmers and decided the only solution was to wipe the natives from the face of the earth. This genocide was known as the Campaign of the Desert. (It helps to pick your fights against enemies that utilize inferior technology, in this case from the stone age. This lesson would be forgotten 100 years later in the Falkland Islands war.)

So far, this sounds pretty similar to our treatment of native americans. (One might quibble that we offered them some inferior reservation before we took their land and picked a fight. I don't think this makes our behavior a whole lot better.) The difference, however, is that most Americans today feel profoundly sorry about this period in our history and have allowed their descendants to cover the land with giant casinos. This, of course, is a low cost strategy to assuage our guilt. On the other hand, Argentina does not seem to feel any guilt. (Is this because there are not any survivors?) On the back of Argentina's 100-peso note is a commemoration of the Campaign of the Desert.


We went to a tango show last night. It was quite fun, but tango these days appears to be primarily an exhibition for tourists. We have not seen any places that natives go to tango with each other. My sense is it is similar to how New Yorkers feel about the Statue of Liberty. It is a good way to get visitors out of your hair for the day but no self respecting local has ever actually visited.

Argentina is crazy about sports. Every bar, gym or restaurant has a TV tuned to a soccer or rugby game. It is never on CNN or a financial channel. (Have I spent too long in NY and Silicon Valley?) Did you remember that Argentina won the gold medal in basketball in the last Olympics? They do.

That being said, we never saw a TV tuned to the winter Olympics. There was no advertising, no discussion and no mention of the event. I was surprised by this until I saw the final medal count. There were no medals won by any South American country.

The day before we arrived in BA we spent the night in the small town of Azul. We happened to catch their carnaval parade. It was lots of fun. Traveling in the sticks can be quite inexpensive. Three meals (including wine and steak for dinner) and a hotel came to the grand total of $38. It was not that we were purposely looking for bargains, that was the cost of the best we could find. BA, however, is a big stepup in price.

Kia's parents did not end up getting here due to a last minute change in plans. We missed their company but are making plans to hook up in Bolivia.

Tomorrow we put the Jeep on a ferry to Uruguay. This will be our first visit to Uruguay and we are looking forward to seeing virgin territory.
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