Thursday, July 30, 2009

Béisbol Hits Buenos Aires

In Argentina, fútbol (soccer) is the undisputed king of sports, despite shortcomings that include its apparent unwillingness to control organized hooligan gangs - in fact, team officials often collaborate with them. Argentine soccer’s most urgent concern, though, is meeting its payroll - unless clubs from the first division down get their act together, the players will not get paid, and the season that’s due to begin August 16th will not start.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t sporting alternatives. If soccer fails to start on time, Argentines will at least have the option of the upcoming béisbol season, when Buenos Aires’s Liga Metropolitana de Béisbol starts play in September. In truth, baseball is far from the phenomenon here that it is in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean - rather, it’s a recreational niche sport. Venezuela is the only South American country where baseball is more important than soccer; even in neighboring Colombia, which has also produced many major leaguers, baseball remains a distant second.

Eight teams comprise the league, which continues play through December, at Ezeiza’s Estadio Nacional de Béisbol, which has hosted the Panamerican Games, near the city’s international airport (former major leaguer Candy Maldonado, now an ESPN Spanish-language broadcaster, has offered baseball clinics to Argentine youth teams here under the auspices of the US embassy). The Liga Metropolitana is a wood bat league - no metal bats allowed.

Six of those teams are exclusively Argentine, while one is Cuban and the other, a recent creation, is the Shankees Baseball Club - composed mostly of US expats. In the past season, they finished second to the Cubans. Philadelphia-born Paul Perry, son of an Argentine mother, manages the team, which adapted its name from the Argentine pronunciation of the word yanqui (Yankee). He supplied the photo that appears here.

On my recent visit, I had hoped to be able to practice and/or play with the Shankees. Sadly, a day of inclement winter weather - following a string of mild, sunny winter days - eliminated that day’s workout. Still, I’ll be back in town in September and hope to see, and perhaps participate in, part of the Shankees’ season.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Global Warming, Local Cooling? Winter Hits Argentina

Whenever anyone asks me what the climate is like in Buenos Aires, I usually say it's like New York without the winter - it can get
damp and cool in June, July, and August, but it's rarely frigid. Snow is, usually, not even a once-in-a-lifetime event. Two years ago, though, it snowed in the city for the first time since 1918. Monday afternoon, when I flew out of the the international airport at Ezeiza it was balmy, but since then the weather has suddenly changed, with sub-freezing temperatures in the capital and snow in many other locations, even in southern Buenos Aires province. The Buenos Aires Herald has English-language coverage of the current storms, which includes a slide show from around the country.

Some parts of Argentina, of course, get snow every year - ski resorts such as San Carlos de Bariloche, San Martín de los Andes, and Villa la Angostura (pictured here, in a summer whiteout) depend on snowfall for their livelihood. As it happens, with concerns about swine flu and the state of the economy, there are some outstanding values on ski vacations, for those willing to take a statistically minimal risk.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sex & Food in Buenos Aires

Just before I left California on July 2, I received a phone call from a national magazine asking me to write a piece on “Authentic Buenos Aires.” While here, I’ve done some of the groundwork and am flying back home Monday, but will return in mid-September to research the article, which involves seeing “Baires” in the company of local experts on its sights, hotels, restaurants, nightlife and shopping.

What constitutes “authenticity,” of course, is a debatable subject, and one truly “authentic” institution that the article is unlikely to cover are the city’s albergues transitorios, the “love hotels” that rent rooms by the hour (or a bit longer). Colloquially known as telos (an inversion of the word “hotel”), these can range from truly squalid to surprisingly sophisticated, but are not just for clandestine affairs (South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his Argentine girlfriend would probably not have used one). Young couples in search of privacy may be their main market, but sometimes even married couples, who may want to get away from the kids in their small apartment, will use them.

Telos are usually inconspicuous and discreet (though the Barrio Norte telo shown in the photograph here at least wants to suggest something forbidden). Often they have no sign, or simply a plaque that says “hotel” (with no specific name) or “albergue transitorio” (which can confuse foreigners, as the word albergue can also mean a hostel). If you show up alone, with luggage, you’re likely to get bewildered stares from the check-in desk.

Other Southern Cone countries use different euphemisms. In Chile the most common terms are hotel parejero (couples’ hotel) and motel (especially outside the cities, but a motel can also be what North Americans would normally expect; usually the décor suggests which sort it is). My favorite euphemism is Uruguay’s hotel de alta rotatividad (“high turnover hotel”).

Telos are coming up in the world, though. A recent Buenos Aires phenomenon is the telo that offers gourmet food to enhance the couple’s experience. Those who just want to sample salacious food, without paying for a room, can try Palermo Soho’s self-described “aphrodisiac restaurant” Te Mataré Ramírez, which also offers sophisticated erotic (but not pornographic) entertainment.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Expensive is Buenos Aires?

Given the ups and downs of the Argentine economy, and its capital city, this is question whose answer requires periodic revision. The most recent answer comes from the Mercer consulting group, which last week ranked Buenos Aires as No. 112 of 143 cities worldwide for expat cost-of-living. In comparison with 2008, when Mercer ranked “Baires” 138th of 150 cities, it would seem that the city has gotten more expensive but, nevertheless, it falls in the lowest quartile of the cities surveyed. For purposes of comparison, Tokyo is the most expensive, New York City ranks eighth, San Francisco 34th, Washington DC 66th, and Johannesburg 143rd. Neighboring Chile’s capital city of Santiago ranks 128th but, with the Chilean peso’s recent rebound, I would expect the two cities may have reversed position.

What does this mean in practice? In reality, for instance, public transportation in Buenos Aires is preposterously cheap. The basic fare on Metrovías, the underground system popularly known as the Subte, is 1.10 pesos - about 29 US cents (compare that with New York City’s subway fare of US$2). The standard bus fare in Buenos Aires is 1.20 pesos, on a system that operates 24 hours a day. Cab fares cost US$1 for the first 200 meters, and only 10 US cents for each additional 200 meters.

Since the economic collapse of 2002, of course, prices have risen considerably. At that time, I thought nothing of inviting my several nephews out to dinner and picking up the tab. In 2009 that’s a lot harder but, nevertheless, today I enjoyed an exceptional three-course lunch, with a glass of wine, at Belgrano's Lotus Neo Thai (the city’s top Thai restaurant, and one of few places where it’s possible to get truly spicy food) for about US$12.

Still, for some things, you’ve got to pay. As shopping expert Patricia O’Shea, the Irish-Argentine co-owner of Hotel Home Buenos Aires, told me this morning, visitors who buy cheap goods such as bargain leather jackets may find their purchases will literally unravel. Quality goods, she says, will be not be cheap, but they will be cheaper than their overseas counterparts - and they’ll last a lifetime.

One recent development, though, threatens to make the country more expensive. Only a short time ago, when I went to the corner bank, the ATM told me it would charge me 11.46 pesos (about US$3.50) for my withdrawal of 300 pesos (the maximum allowable transaction, less than US$80). I rejected this withdrawal, from the Banelco system, and went to a nearby Link ATM that did not collect the charge. Still, banks tend to ape each other, and it wouldn’t surprise if this becomes universal. According to my contacts in Santiago, ATMs there have recently begun to impose a fee of 2000 Chilean pesos but, at least, ATM users can take out larger amounts of cash than in Argentina.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tango at the Tasso, and La Trastienda

It’s not for dancers - except when it hosts the occasional recorded music milonga - but San Telmo’s
Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso might be the consistently best place in Buenos Aires to hear live tango music. Seating only about 200 spectators at small tables, it’s an intimate venue where, last night, singer-actress Soledad Villamil debuted her new CD Soledad Villamil Canta (Soledad Villamil Sings) in front of a full house that was almost exclusively Argentines in the know. If you’re in search of authenticity at a reasonable price, the Tasso is the place to go - shows here cost a fraction of what more elaborate floor show venues like the Abasto district’s Esquina Carlos Gardel charge. There's a reasonably priced food menu, with Argentine standards such as beef, pasta, and pizza, and a bar.

Villamil, for her part, also sang some folkloric music, backed by a tight four-piece band that included a guitarist, bassist, bandoneonist, and percussionist. Meanwhile, for lovers of the bandoneón - the accordion-like squeezebox that’s the basis of much of tango’s wistful sound - today is the Día del Bandoneón, the anniversary of the birth of maestro Aníbal Troilo (1911-1975). In honor or Troilo (whose tomb at Chacarita cemetery is pictured here), the Monserrat club La Trastienda will showcase five of the instrument’s finest contemporary players in an early evening show tonight (La Trastienda, which hosts mainly rock acts, misleadingly claims to be part of nearby San Telmo). Villamil will also play again tonight at the Tasso.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Parque Pumalín - Saved by the Volcano

The 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén, about which I have written several blog entries, now turns out to have had positive as well as negative consequences. For years, environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins has been arguing that building a road through undeveloped parts of Tompkins’s Parque Pumalín, with attendant clear-cutting to allow for power lines from proposed hydroelectric dams in northern Chilean Patagonia, would be an environmental disaster. Now, it seems, the Chilean government concurs with Tompkins that a coastal route is preferable to an inland route through the heart of Tompkins’s properties (click on the map to see more detail).

That’s because Chilean authorities have decided that the new route, which will now involve two ferries, cannot pass as close to the volcano as it does now. As the town of Chaitén relocates to the northwest of its current site, it too will be beyond the volcano’s reach. Their reasoning may not be the same as Tompkins’s - the power lines are not likely to disappear from the proposal - but Pumalín should remain relatively untouched. On the other hand, the government’s move eliminates one of the objections to building the massive hydroelectric projects on the Río Baker and the Río Pascua, with all that energy to be shifted to power-hungry metropolitan Santiago. In all likelihood, this is not the end of the story of native forest conservation in northern Chilean Patagonia, but it's nevertheless a positive development.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Buenos Aires: Post-Election Fireworks?

From my doorstep in Oakland, it took a little more than 20 hours to arrive at Buenos Aires’s Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (pictured here, popularly known as Ezeiza), with changes of planes at Los Angeles and Lima, and another two hours to get through immigration, customs, and a shuttle to my doorstep in Palermo. It’s my first return visit since the new edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires came out in October, and I’m already starting to update, though I’ll do the bulk of the work early next year.

Meanwhile, Buenos Aires looks great in the warm winter sun - though the sun set around 6 p.m., the mild evening required only a light jacket. At the same time, though, there’s an apparent obsession with the H1N1 flu virus that has caused the Universidad de Buenos Aires to suspend classes and many government offices and schools to close up early for winter holidays, which would normally begin in a week or two. At both Lima and Ezeiza, many airport workers and passengers were wearing disposable surgical masks - according to a friend here, their price has shot up from 35 centavos to five pesos in recent days.

According to today’s Buenos Aires Herald, “Argentina has veered from one extreme of not allowing a swine flu epidemic to stand in the way of elections to total alarmism.” In reality, adds the Herald, we don’t know the truth between these extremes, and the result has been “thinning numbers in shopping malls, restaurants, entertainments and even workplaces.”

That doesn’t mean their won’t be anything happening, though, as two independence days take place this week - that of the United States on July 4 (today, with many events for the US expat community), and that of Argentina on July 9 (Thursday). Oddly, as I returned from dinner and headed to bed around 2 a.m. this morning, I briefly stepped out onto the balcony to the sound and sight of fireworks in the nearby Parque Tres de Febrero. An odd occurrence, even for a 24-hour city like Buenos Aires.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Summer in California, Winter in Buenos Aires

In general, the Southern Cone is a northern winter/southern summer destination because the seasons are reversed - with notable exceptions, as some people enjoy the endless winter at ski resorts such as Argentina's Las Leñas and Chile's Portillo, and the northern deserts of both countries are ideal for travel at this time of the year. The appeal of Buenos Aires, though, is independent of the seasons, and that's where I'm heading tomorrow for a couple weeks as I begin to update the most recent edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires. While I'm reluctant to give up two weeks of summer, especially as the Santa Rosa plums in my Oakland garden are ripening, check this space for the latest travel news from the Argentine capital, pictured here in the form of the Plaza del Congreso. Feel free to send along any questions.
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