Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storming Across the Pampas


Around the world, the biggest news the past couple days has been the impact of Hurricane Sandy on North America. The surging tropical deluge that began in the western Caribbean and worked its way north, colliding with polar air over the eastern seaboard, has inundated large areas with tidal surges and river flooding, shut down essential services including hospitals and subways, and dislocated or confined millions of people. New York City, of course, has drawn the most attention, as the local infrastructure has been unable to deal with a storm of this magnitude.
By contrast, almost nobody outside South America has noted that Buenos Aires and its surrounding Pampas are also experiencing a series of ferocious storms. According to Montevideo-based Mercopress, a storm that shows no sign of relenting dropped 200 mm (eight inches) of rain in just two hours early yesterday morning, and has led to two deaths and the evacuation of 3,400 citizens in the capital  and Buenos Aires province.

South America’s relatively low international profile aside, its own climatic phenomena do not have the same notoriety as Caribbean hurricanes, and that’s partly a matter of physical geography. In the northern hemisphere, the South Equatorial Current flows northwest toward the Caribbean, where the atmosphere becomes saturated with humidity and forms the cataclysmic storms that hit the North American continent. In the southern hemisphere, though, the southward-flowing Brazil Current turns eastward into the open Atlantic rather than approaching the South American continent.

For that reason, Buenos Aires doesn’t get catastrophic single events like Sandy, but what I like to call the New York of South America does get big storms that can stress local resources, largely because of its own unique geography. The city and its low-lying Pampas have almost no relief, and the watercourses that cross them quickly flood the low lying terrain, as they did when I was in the Pampas city of San Antonio de Areco (pictured above) three Xmases ago.
In the city itself, most of these watercourses have been undergrounded since colonial times – you can get an idea of what’s been done in the past by visiting San Telmo’s Zanjón de Granados (pictured above). Still, though, the city’s infrastructure is still not prepared to handle heavy rainfall, as local officials recently admitted. In big storms the water can run knee deep along streets such as Palermo’s Avenida Juan B. Justo – the channeled Arroyo Maldonado that runs beneath it cannot absorb such quantities.

What’s lacking, in part, is the political will to solve, or at least mitigate, the problem. No single government may be to blame for a long-running problem but, at a time when the federal government is spending US$150 million per year to subsidize Fútbol para Todos (Soccer for Everyone) on public TV, one can certainly question current priorities.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Saturday: Reciprocity, Dólares, Uruguay


In writing recently about Argentina’s plan to collect its “reciprocity fee” for tourists online, I remarked that many details were not yet clear – particularly whether the measure might be applied to overland border crossings, where accountability issues might be serious. At a remote and thinly staffed crossings such as Mamuil Malal (pictured below), no one can guarantee that sums of money might not go astray.
To clarify, I contacted a friend in Argentina’s Los Angeles consulate, who responded that “ in the consulate we have the same information as you, for the moment it will be applied at Aeroparque and Ezeiza, and there’s nothing official (or extra-official) whether or not they are thinking about extending it.” What’s interesting in this regard is that the government’s diplomatic mission abroad appears to be no better informed than someone reading a random newspaper article on the Internet.

Acquiring Dólares
Over the past ten days, we’ve had a visit from two Argentine friends – a documentary filmmaker and a doctor – who just left this morning for their flight back to Buenos Aires. This was a vacation, during which Leo and Kari also rented a car to visit Napa, Yosemite, and Monterey in addition to San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

Their experience, though, is noteworthy in that they had to do it virtually without cash. Prior to departure, both applied to purchase dollars through Argentina’s AFIP bureaucracy, with mixed success: for ten days in the US, the Argentine tax agency allowed Leo to purchase US$260 and Kari absolutely nothing. They had to rely on credit cards for virtually everything and, had they lost the credit cards, they could have been in serious trouble.

The fact is that, for Argentines, purchasing dollars or any other foreign currency for travel beyond the country’s borders is an exercise in frustration. According to the regulations, even if permission is granted, they can only buy the currency of the destination country: in the case of Costa Rica, for instance, the only option would be colones, even though that country’s currency is hard to come by in Argentina.

For travel through most of the Americas, the dollar remains the preferred currency, and most travelers to Central America would carry them, but for Argentines that’s no longer an option. To demonstrate the difficulties involved, at least one sardonic webmaster has created a site where, on the face of it, they can purchase US dollars with the blessing of domestic trade secretary Guillermo Moreno at Comprate Dólares. To appreciate the task’s difficulty, note the amount you might wish to purchase and then attempt to click on “Continuar.”

In a similar vein, as Argentina and the rest of the world watch the approaching US presidential election, websurfers can learn about the imaginative tax plan of the opposition candidate. As with Comprate Dólares, though, the details are a bit elusive.

Uruguay’s Pro-Choice
Among Latin American countries, Uruguay has always been a maverick, with its liberal banking laws and militant secularism, among other progressive features. Even though nearly half of all Uruguayans are at least formally Roman Catholics, the state does not acknowledge religious holidays: instead of Semana Santa (Easter Week), for instance, Uruguay celebrates Semana de Turismo (Tourism Week), and instead of Navidad (Xmas), there’s Día de la Familia (Family Day).
Recently, Uruguay took the next big step in becoming the first Latin American country, other than Cuba, to permit therapeutic abortion, for any reason, during the first trimester of pregnancy. In most of the rest of the region, abortion is illegal under any circumstances, though there are occasional exceptions for rape and incest.

It will be interesting to see whether the new measure, which is to take effect in November, will encourage women to travel to Uruguay – Argentina’s laws, for instance, are far more restrictive, though in principle they do allow exceptions for rape and incest. Of course, any Argentine traveling to Uruguay would still face the dilemma of how to pay for things in a foreign currency – unless, of course, they can acquire the necessary guita through Comprate Dólares.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Public Phones to Perish


When I first visited Buenos Aires, in 1980, telecommunications were rudimentary at best – the single phone company, ENTel, was a Soviet-style state monopoly and trying to get a new line was a nightmare. Of two comparable apartments, one with a phone might sell for double the price of one without. ENTel would charge several hundred dollars simply for changing the billing name, and moving your number from one place to another was literally impossible. For those without a phone, making a long-distance call – especially overseas – involved endless lines at an inconveniently located ENTel office, plus preposterous prices.
That changed in the 1990s, when the foreign companies Telefónica and Telecom divided up Entel’s resources in an opaque privatization that’s still controversial. Nevertheless, it became easier to get a phone line, even though prices were magnitudes higher than in Chile, which underwent a similar process, and public telephones became far more numerous. Decentralized private locutorios (call centers) replaced ENTel offices, and public telephones became far more numerous. Phone cards were more convenient than coins (which often lost their value because of inflation) and tokens.

Then, of course, came the mobile phone revolution, and that’s still leading to change in the cityscape. Locutorios are fewer, but still abundant, and many of them are also Internet centers for those without their own desktop, tablet or smartphone. According to the city daily Clarín, though, public telephones are on the way out, or at least diminishing quickly: from a 2004 peak of 10,000 in the city center, there are now only about 2,000, and many of those are vandalized with graffiti. The idea is to reduce their numbers to one every 150 meters or so, and to retain them in key locations such as hospitals and bus terminals.

Meanwhile, for travelers who are wondering whether their own phones will work in Argentina or elsewhere, my friend Edward Hasbrouck is beginning a series on the topic in his own Practical Nomad blog.

App News: Argentina Travel Adventures is an Android!
Until now, my Argentina Travel Adventures app has only been available for the iPhone, iPad Touch, and iPad, as the upper-right advertisement indicates. A few days ago, though, ATA went live for Android-based phone and tablets. At only US$2.99, it’s a bargain for planning for your trip to Buenos Aires and beyond.

In related news, my Chile Travel Adventures app should be released soon on both iTunes and Android.

Tango by the River
As announced recently, there’s been a postponement of my digital slide lecture on Buenos Aires at Tango by the River in Sacramento, which will now take place Friday, October 26th, at 6 p.m. The date’s getting close, though – just a few days away.
Limited to a maximum of 50 people, the event will also include tango performances; admission costs $10 at the door, or $8 in advance. I have spoken here several times before, and we always sell out, so plan in advance. Signed copies of my Moon Handbooks on Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia will be available at discount prices.

Friday, October 19, 2012

"Reciprocity" Online? Argentina Makes Things Worse


In a couple weeks, I’m flying to Buenos Aires for a month and a half, and I’m looking forward to it – earlier this year, I was there only briefly and spent most of the time in bed with bronchitis. While searching for a flight – I was fortunate enough to have sufficient miles for a free one – I learned an important new fact about Argentina’s so-called “reciprocity fee,” the visa charge that’s really an opportunistic retaliation against countries that require Argentines to pay for a visa application.
This fee, which applies to Australian, Canadian and US citizens, is not inherently unfair, but anything that discourages foreigners from visiting the country is bad business. In effect, it takes money that a visitor is likely to spend in Argentina and diverts it directly to the government, which is not known for transparency in either raising or spending revenue.

The new twist is that, instead of paying the fee on arrival, visitors from these countries will now have to register and pay the fee online, in advance of traveling to Argentina. According to LAN Airlines’ web site, “The new system will work parallel to the regular collection service at Ezeiza Airport until December 28th, 2012, and at Jorge Newbery Airport [commonly known as “Aeroparque”] until October 31st, 2012. After the dates mentioned, the only method of collection would be online.” Visitors arriving without evidence of payment could be immediately deported.

This arbitrary measure could a major nuisance - Chile has had a similar requirement for decades, but arrivals at Santiago are still able to pay the fee on the spot. Travel agents are particularly annoyed – an Argentine friend in Southern California tells me that it undercuts them because “it doesn’t let the travel agent handle it directly for the client, because it’s a personal transaction.” The government’s own immigration page is pretty vague on details, but it will apparently require every visitor to create an account that he or she may only use once in a lifetime. That could put personal information at risk.

In a sense, this rule change mirrors the hoops through which Argentines themselves must jump in order to buy dollars or any other foreign currency to travel abroad. Fortunately, from my own point of view, I last paid my fee about two years ago, so I won’t have to deal with the issue until early 2020.

Without spending much more time on this, I will note that LAN’s description says the fee has risen to US$160, but I cannot find any confirmation of that on the government website. Until now, it’s been US$140 for US citizens, but less for Australians and Canadians because those governments require a lower fee for Argentine visa applicants.

App News: Argentina Travel Adventures is an Android!
Until now, my Argentina Travel Adventures app has only been available for the iPhone, iPad Touch, and iPad, as the upper-right advertisement indicates. A few days ago, though, ATA went live for Android-based phone and tablets. At only US$2.99, it’s a bargain for planning for your trip to Buenos Aires and beyond.

In related news, my Chile Travel Adventures app should be released soon on both iTunes and Android.

Tango by the River
As announced recently, there’s been a postponement of my digital slide lecture on Buenos Aires at Tango by the River in Sacramento, which will now take place Friday, October 26th, at 6 p.m. The date’s getting close, though – just a shade over two weeks.
Limited to a maximum of 50 people, the event will also include tango performances; admission costs $10 at the door, or $8 in advance. I have spoken here several times before, and we always sell out, so plan in advance. Signed copies of my Moon Handbooks on Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia will be available at discount prices.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Death of Disco? Tony Manero in Chile


In 1979, on my second visit to South America, there was a new word in the Spanish language. In Peru, I first encountered the verb travoltar, which meant to dance like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, an enormous hit around the continent. Personally, I always detested disco, but there’s no dismissing the cultural impact of that film about a working-class kid who turns into something else when he hits the dance floor.

The word itself, so far as I know, has disappeared from contemporary Spanish slang – like disco itself, it was a fad that flared out. It has its legacy, though, in films depicting the social, cultural and political milieu of the 1970s, as I learned after writing my recent post about Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s No, the film fictionalizing the successful campaign against dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988.
Larraín also directed the 2008 film Tony Manero, also submitted to the Academy Awards (it was not a finalist), which I recently viewed on streaming video. Set in 1978, at the height (or should we say nadir?) of disco, it’s a dark film that explores the dictatorship through the character of Raúl Peralta (ably portrayed by Alfredo Castro), a 52-year-old Travolta wannabe who’ll do just about anything to fulfill his fantasies.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t say anything more except that Tony Manero is an absorbing film, set in parts of Santiago that most tourists never see. With its gritty naturalism about Chilean society in the late 1970s, it is not a feel-good movie.

I will add, though, that I’m very much looking forward to seeing No when it reaches theatrical release in this country. Pablo Larraín, who was an infant during the Tony Manero era, is the son of Hernán Larraín, a conservative Senator from the Maule region for the Unión Democrática Independiente (UDI, Independent Democratic Union), the political party most closely associated with the Pinochet dictatorship. I expect some topics are taboo during Larraín family dinners, or that there are at least some uncomfortable silences.

App News: Argentina Travel Adventures is an Android!
Until now, my Argentina Travel Adventures app has only been available for the iPhone, iPad Touch, and iPad, as the upper-right advertisement indicates. A few days ago, though, ATA went live for Android-based phone and tablets. At only US$2.99, it’s a bargain for planning for your trip to Buenos Aires and beyond.

In related news, my Chile Travel Adventures app should be released soon on both iTunes and Android.

Tango by the River
As announced recently, there’s been a postponement of my digital slide lecture on Buenos Aires at Tango by the River in Sacramento, which will now take place Friday, October 26th, at 6 p.m. The date’s getting close, though – just a shade over two weeks.
Limited to a maximum of 50 people, the event will also include tango performances; admission costs $10 at the door, or $8 in advance. I have spoken here several times before, and we always sell out, so plan in advance. Signed copies of my Moon Handbooks on Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia will be available at discount prices.
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