Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Ho, Ho, Ho and a bottle of Malbec!

We’ve had a couple of steaming hot n’ humid days recently but even with three fans going full blast in the apartment, it’s still been pretty hot. I had a feast of turkey cooked in my honour last night (xmas eve), as the custom here is to celebrate the night before Christmas Day. This includes opening the presents after the countdown to midnight and as the clock strikes twelve, the skies light up with impromptu firework displays and the whole city echoes with mind numbingly loud bangers. This spectacle goes on for a couple of hours and then, at around 2.30am, people start heading to bars and clubs. I guess I must be starting to slow down and show my age, as at that hour, all I was fit for was my bed.

Seasons Greetings, Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to ALL!


Saturday, 22 December 2007

Can you spare some change?

There is an unusual custom here of paying bills in cash. e.g. You get a telephone, electricity or gas bill and you can go to a pharmacy to pay the bill in cash. You do have an option to call and pay by credit card or direct debit but there seems to be a big reluctance to do so.

Certain pharmacies and stores have a special section known as Pago Facil (Easy Pay) where you can go to the counter and pay your bill in cash. The strange thing is you often have to queue for considerable time to do this. It's as if the impatient porteno's distrust of financial establishments supercedes their reluctance to 'wait' and they just get on the long line and tolerate the wait. More bizarre is the fact that the Pago Facil is often short on change so unless you have close to exact change, you may have to go searching nearby shops willing to break a 100 peso bill.

The change problem is more widespread and has been around for a while (see BBC News link attached from 1 year ago - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6163238.stm). It's obvious there is a huge shortage of coins to go around so why not mint more? Generally the first thing you're asked when paying in a shop, supermarket etc is, do you have a smaller bill or more importantly do you have close to the exact small change. I was refused point blank at a shop recently for trying to buy a 50 cent item with a 5 pesos note.


Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Danger on the Roads

Above: Avenida 9 de Julio (20 lanes)

Buenos Aires has a mix of extra wide avenues and narrow cobblestone streets and a confusing one way system in many places. I used to think it was a figment of my imagination, that taxis seemed to veer across the street to try and run me over (extra points for a gringo n' all that) but others have also confirmed this to be the case. These are typically busy taxis since the available taxis curb crawl annoyingly slow as they try and pick up a fare.

Zig zag driving is par for the course for most porteños as they try and get a fraction ahead of the car in front so they can cut them off and hence gain one spot advancement in the traffic. It's almost comical as you watch the constant criss cross in the flow of traffic as porteños have debunked the theory that the quickest/shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Oh contraire! - It's actually more like a snake pattern.

Avenida 9 de Julio in the micro center lays claim to being the widest avenue in the world with twenty lanes and as a pedestrian you need to cross two sets of traffic lights just to get to the other side. The most interesting driving concept however is in the suburbs, where intersections have no traffic lights ('right of way' and 'stop' signs don't exist here). Thus ensues a perilous game of 'chicken'. Cars will literally brake then accellerate as they approach a blind intersection, seemingly hoping (praying), that if there is an oncoming car, it will back down and brake. Amazingly, this seems to work and I've yet to see a serious accident (touch wood).

Car theft is a big problem and steering wheel locks do big business, although there are some more novel approaches to car security as shown below.


Monday, 17 December 2007

Mar Del Plata

Mar Del Plata is the biggest resort on Argentina’s Atlantic coast (approx 5 hours south of Buenos Aires). We went for five days in what would be considered off season. Apparently in the height of summer it’s completed over crowded and best avoided but at this time of year it was quite pleasant and somewhat better than I expected.

There are several large beaches and the further out of town you head, the less crowded they become. The ‘in’ thing to do seems to be to rent your own little canopy and set up base camp on the beach. These private enclosures have access to café’s, clean toilets and showers and even sports activities (paddle ball = mini tennis, volley ball etc)

While we were in town they just happened to have the annual Reina del Mar (Queen of the Sea) beauty competition where we somehow managed to blag our way into the VIP section for a close up view of some of the local chica talent and mighty fine talent it was too! (purely from an artistic perspective of course!)


Monday, 10 December 2007

San Telmo

We visited the neighbourhood of San Telmo at the weekend. It's most famous for its 'touristy' market set in a plaza surrounded by cobblestone streets with restaurants, cafes and bars. As with most tourist destinations there plenty of old gypsy women and young kids trying to coerce you into giving them money. Some of them are very determined and a bit hard nosed and pester you even if you respond with a firm 'No'. One enterprising young lad claimed he needed just 20 pesos for his school and his target donation dropped in 5 peso decrements till just a 'moneda' (coin) was required as he reeled off his oft practiced speech. I'm not belittling the fact that some of these folks really need the money, but the approach is a little too much in your face and the philosophy is to drive you to the point of handing over somehthing just to get rid of them.

The market itself is interesting and has plenty to offer in the way of jewelry, trinkets and souveniers albeit overpriced. There were three cruise ships in town and there were people handing over dollars and pesos for trinkets like it was monopoly money, which considering the exchange rate it, I suppose pesos are like monopoly money.


Sunday, 9 December 2007

Back to B.A.

A wee 24 hour delay due to the snow and I headed back to Buenos Aires via Miami. It was a relatively ‘hitch’ free journey and I left at 4pm NY time and arrived as scheduled at 7am B.A. time. It was great to see New York again, albeit briefly. It was slightly strange to go from cold and snow to hot and humid since most of my previous experiences have usually been the other way round i.e. cold Xmas to the warmer climes of a vacation. This time it was heading for base camp Buenos Aires, which had 40 degree celcius for much of the previous week.

There is something strange and unfamiliar about seeing Christmas trees, Santa’s and advertisements plugging the holiday but people wearing shorts / tee-shirts, literally on the back of seeing snow in New York. It is a novelty however, to plan a trip to the beach resort of Mar Del Plata for a few days before the official Xmas holidays begin.

The big question right now is can we survive without air con in our apartment or will the experiences on the buses have acclimatised us to the extreme heat?


Sunday, 2 December 2007

New York, New York

Five days after the five week trip around Argentina, I headed to New York for a work opportunity to help subsidize my newly found life of leisure…hmm … working for leisure, isn´t that a oxymoron or something?

The work which was actually in New Jersey, involved disconnecting and removing computer servers at one data centre and reinstalling at another location. I clocked up 70 hours in the 5 days including an 18 hour day on Friday, which will buy a lot of beer vouchers back in B.A. even after the flight and shopping. While I was there, they turned on the Christmas lights in NY, including the tree at Rockefeller Centre and to cap things off, the first snow of the season arrived. It was great to catch up with some old friends but unfortunately I didn’t have time to catch up with everybody. As I write, the forecast is for more heavy snow and flights are being cancelled all over the north east, so fingers crossed I can get out on time.

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