Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Last Weekend as a Tourist in Buenos Aires

The weekend of June 27th/28th was my last as a tourist in Buenos Aires. Although most of the people I knew in Argentina had already left to return home to the United States at this point, I was determined not to let it stop me from enjoying my last days in the city. My first stop on Saturday morning was the Botanic Gardens in Palermo. The gardens are free and open to the public, but they are honestly nothing too special unless you are just looking for a quiet escape from busy city life. One interesting thing of note is that there is a section of the park that includes cacti (see picture above). Who knew cacti could grow in a climate that is so cold in the winter and that gets substantial rainfall throughout the year? In addition to the plants, there were plenty of people in the gardens as well just relaxing on the benches reading books, writing in journals, or making love, but the most interesting thing to me was the numerous statutes throughout the park. Some are traditional and depict Greek and Roman gods or famous figures from Argentine history. Others, like the one pictured here at left, are, well, not so traditional...

My next stop was the US embassy. As I was walking down the street in the area where I knew the embassy to be, I saw a large, beautiful, grandiose building and knew that it had to be the US embassy. Except it wasn't. In fact, the US embassy was the gray structure a few buildings down the street with a huge gated fence around the entire perimeter (pictured at right). To tell you the truth, I was more than a little disappointed--especially considering the prideful letter I got from the embassy that I mentioned in my last post. In any event, I approached the guard house and proudly told the guard that I was a US citizen and wanted to visit my embassy...in English (after all, this was the US embassy). Apparently, he did not speak English though, and he went to get another employee who did. Obviously I could have spoken to him in Spanish, but I just assumed that I wouldn't have to at the US EMBASSY of all places! Oh well. "No" is the same word in both English and Spanish, and that is the response I got when I asked if I could enter. The embassy is only open during weekday business hours.

So on I proceeded to the Evita Perón museum. Evita was the husband of Juan Perón, former president of Argentina, yet she is remembered more fondly than he is today. Among her many accomplishments are the following: gaining the right to vote for women, establishing social welfare programs, improving education throughout the country, establishing orphanages and schools for abandoned and unwanted children, creating programs to help the elderly afford the shelter and medication they need, serving food as food pantries HERSELF, inspiring PRIDE in average Argentinians, and much, much more. It would not be an exaggeration to say that as of now, Evita is the most important figure in Argentina's history and is the equivalent of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the United States. The museum certainly emphasized all the positive aspects of Evita's life and career, and didn't really acknowledge the criticism of her that is expressed in the musical "Evita" that she may have been seeking publicity and didn't genuinely care about her work. Still, I am inclined to believe that these accusations are false, and there was something truly endearing about the way the museum presented her life and legacy. The musical "Evita," has in fact NEVER been shown in the country of Argentina--a testament to the people's love for their national hero. The most impressive part of the museum, to me, was a statute in the final room of the exhibit that everybody around me seemed to overlook. It is pictured at left. I learned, after talking with a guard at the museum (because this is not stated in the exhibit) that this is a statue that stood in an orphanage (which was later converted to the current museum) that Evita had established during her lifetime. Then, during the days of the military dictatorship (when everything associated with Perónism was expelled from the country), a groundskeeper at the orphanage took the statute and hid it away, risking potential jailing and even death should it be discovered. The statute and the memory of Evita meant that much to him! Then, when the military rule ended, he brought the statute back out, and it now rests in its original home--the orphange. The man had risked his life for a staute, but really it was a symbol of something far more important than metal and paint.

The final visit of the day, for me, was to the Japanese Gardens. Much like with the Botanical Gardens, there was not much to do here except take in the sights and sounds. Unlike the Botanical Gardens though, there were a LOT more people here, and with all the kids running around, there was not much peace or quiet.

Then, on Sunday, some friends of mine from Duke came down to visit from Santiago, Chile. They were there (and still are today) working on a Duke Engage project, but they decided to fly out to Buenos Aires for a long weekend, and I showed them around a little bit on Sunday. I took the A line subway (pictured immediately below) to get to their hostel, and that was an experience in and of itself! The cars were made of wood and the doors did not even open automatically. You actually had to physically pry them open yourself, and it was even possible to open the doors while the cars were in motion. Furthermore, the train had no speakers so when the doors were about to close, the driver of the train would actually have to blow a whistle to announce that the doors were about to close! It was a fun experience taking the train this one time on a peaceful Sunday morning, but I would hate to have to take it every day to work!

Then, after I met up with the group, the first site we visited was the National Congress pictured at the bottom of this post. There was not too much to see because we could not get in. There were, however, some political propoganda (pictured immediately below) in preparation for the national elections which were being held that day.

Then, we continued on to the San Telmo street market, which I had visited during my first weekend in Buenos Aires, so I ended my stay the same way as I started it. Read my brief first post about the market and checkout a picture of the market here: http://argentina-chris.blogspot.com/2009/05/white-has-nothing-on-pink.html. This time, though, I took advantage of the opportunity to purchase a number of souveniers and gifts that I had passed on the first time, and I'm pretty sure that my friends and family are now glad that I did!

After that weekend, I had one final week of work and classes in Buenos Aires before I was off on my trip to Mendoza and Chile! Please keep reading (and commenting) as I update my blog with posts concerning my trip and then a few final concluding posts about life in South America, more broadly...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Here's to You, Uncle Sam

About two days ago, I received a very interesting e-mail from the Charge d'Affaires of the US Embassy here in Buenos Aires. It was basically wishing me (and all Americans abroad in Argentina) a Happy Independence Day, but the tone was very...patriotic to say the least. Check it out. Note: you may have to CLICK this image to open it in a new window in order to be able to see what it says clearly.

In honor of the 4th of July, I have decided to make a list of things (because there would be far too many people to name here) that I have missed most about the United States and home during my time abroad:
  • Pancakes
  • Sleeping
  • Fireworks
  • Warm weather
  • Beaches
  • Choosing what I want to eat for dinner
  • Skim milk (and not the condensed form either)
  • Baseball
  • Wide sidewalks and streets
  • Having NOTHING to do on any given night
  • A nice gym to work out in as much as I want
  • HEALTHY foods
  • Efficient service in restaurants
  • The ability of restaurants to SPLIT a bill
  • SANE taxi drivers and sane drivers in general


Tonight, at 8:30, I will embark on the final part of my South American adventure. I start off with my friend, Colin, in a long-distance bus from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. We arrive at approximately 9 AM Sunday morning, and we will use the day to tour the city and perhaps visit a winery or two. Monday will also be spent in Mendoza, and we are hoping to do a little outdoor activity like a horseback ride, a hike, or potentially even whitewater rafting.

Then, on Tuesday morning, we will leave by bus to go to Santiago and arrive in the early afternoon. The ride through the Andes Mountains is supposed to be fantastic, and we have a first row seat on the upper level of the bus reserved so the views should be perfect. We will spend Tuesday afternoon touring the town of Santiago.

After Tuesday, the details of our trip become a little more uncertain. What we do know is that we will be visiting Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, and wine country. The dates are still up in the air, and we're not sure if there are some other places we might try to visit as well. I will try to post a couple of blog updates from the hostels where I'm at, but I can't make any guarantees!

"La Gripe" Grips the Nation

When I landed at the airport in Buenos Aires on May 23rd to begin my summer, I thought it very strange that all passengers were required to fill out forms related to symptoms that they were experiencing that could possibly be associated with the Swine Flu (or "La Gripe A" in Spanish). I thought it even more peculiar that when we got off of the plane, we had to pass a very short doctor inspection and pass through a body temperature machine before we could be admitted into the country. I even remember remarking to the man sitting next to me on the plane that I didn't understand the need for all these precautions considering the Swine Flu wasn't a major problem in Argentina. He concurred and pointed out that Dengue Fever is a much more serious problem and that it didn't seem like the government was doing anything about that.

Things have changed.

I'm not sure how important this news is in other parts of the world such as the United States, but the Swine Flu now affects nearly every aspect of one's life here in Argentina (particularly in the city of Buenos Aires where I am located). Now, as I write this, over 100,000 people in Argentina have been infected with the flu, and at least 2,000 have been confirmed to have the Swine Flu. 44 people had died of the flu as of July 3rd. The most startling thing? As of only ONE WEEK BEFORE July 3rd, the death toll was at 26, showing how the virus has truly metastasized in the population at large and is now growing exponentially.

As a result of all this chaos and comotion, the government has finally declared a national state of emergency, an action that President Kirchner was criticized for having not taken earlier. The Health Minister of Argentina, Graciela Ocaña, even resigned after her suggestion to declare a national state of emergency EARLIER was overruled by Kirchner. In any case, Argentina is in a national state of emergency right now. Here is what that means:
  • Health and screening measures at the airport have increased. I believe every person is now required to wear a mask when getting off of any international flight.
  • Many planes are now sprayed with disinfectant on the inside of the plane before people are allowed to get off.
  • Nearly all public facilities are closed.
  • Grade schools, middle schools, and high schools are closed.
  • Colleges and universities are closed.
  • Courts are closed.
  • Many shops are closed (some by order of local city governments and others by choice).
  • Many restaurants and cafes are closed (some by order of local city governments and others by choice).
  • Many sports centers and gyms are closed (some by order of local city governments and others by choice).
  • Many dance clubs and dance halls are closed (some by order of local city governments and others by choice).
Here are some ways in which the Swine Flu epidemic in Argentina has affected me, in particular:
  • I have received multiple e-mails from the US Embassy in Argentina warning me about the seriousness of the Swine Flu here and telling me about precautions to take to avoid catching it.
  • Our "welcome dinner" with the Road2Argentina Program was cancelled due to fears that having a collective event like that could spread the virus.
  • Many TOURIST ATTRACTIONS are now closed and inaccessible to visitors
  • The use of masks in everyday life is now PROLIFIC in Argentina. A sight such as the one in the picture above this post on the day of the national election is now not rare at all. It is not uncommon at all to see at least one or two people wearing a mask on every city block.
  • The government has really been trying to spread health information about how to prevent the Swine Flu. I didn't know that the subte entrances had boards that could display messages (because they normally never display anything), until I saw the following in the picture below this post.
  • I almost didn't believe this at first, but there are actually NOTICABLY FEWER PEOPLE walking around the downtown streets of the city and taking public transportation such as the subte. This has actually made it much easier to get around and to deal with the normally over-crowded streets and sidewalks and subte cars!
All things considered though, I suppose that the timing of my departure from Buenos Aires could not have been better. True, I will still be in Argentina when I make my way to Mendoza starting tonight, but the virus is not nearly as bad there as in the city of Capital Federal in the province of Buenos Aires. If I had stayed any longer in Buenos Aires, I likely could not have done many of the things I wanted to do anyway, what with the major tourist attractions being closed and the night life being drastically toned down. In the mean time, wish me "buena salud" in my final two days here!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Elections: "Una Farsa"

Sunday, June 28th was election day in Buenos Aires. Although President Kirchner will retain her position for another two years, national congressional representatives were running in an election that had major implications for the future of Argentina. Given the fact that I am receiving political science credit for my experience and considering my interest in decision science (including voting decisions), I decided that I would make the most of the opportunity presented to me.

So out I trudged into the frigid Buenos Aires air on an overcast day to interview voters. When I reached the polling place, a local primary school, I explored the area and found it to be more or less like US voting locations except that there were 3-4 levels of voting stations and each floor was packed with people trying to get to the voting rooms. I then proceeded outside to catch people as they made their way out of the voting area.

Surprisingly, I found it very difficult to approach people and ask them if they would mind talking to me about the election. I felt like one of an almost infinite number of peddlers in Argentina who approach walkers to try to get them to buy this or that or to spare a peso. The first person I asked rejected my invitation, but the second person turned into a jackpot. After asking her some questions about the election, I told her that I was a student of political science in the United States, and she told me that she was a political science professor here in Argentina. She brought her friend over, who was a retired political science professor. Together, the three of us began a great conversation about the election. To give you an idea of where this couple stood on the issues, the first words out of the gentleman's mouth when I asked him what he thought of the election, in general, was, "Es una farsa!" (It's a farce!)

After talking to the two of them for awhile outside of the polling place, they asked me if I would like to join the two of them for coffee at a cafe or if I had more interviews that I needed to do. Of course, they didn't they know that they were my first interviewees and that I probably should have gotten more of a diversity of perspectives, BUT the weather was so brisk, the two of them were so warm, and a good discussion about Argentina politics sounded perfect on national election day. I consented. And I am very glad I did. In addition to being treated to a great cup of coffee, galletitas (small cookies normally served with coffee) and a pastry, I had a great conversation with the two of them (entirely in Spanish). Among some of the things I learned from my discussion were the following:

  • Incapacitated people vote but it's really others voting for them like the heads of the mental wards (caudillism all over again)
  • Criminals/prisoners vote

  • Voting is obligatory (even for incapacitated people and criminals mentioned above)
  • Nobody knows how the votes are counted, especially in the countryside. Most likely, if there is any corruption, it is minimal and on an individual basis, but nobody can really be sure because there are not the same monitoring agencies as in the US.

  • Parties try to sway elections by giving out gifts and making promises.
  • There are currently five political parties in Argentina, which makes it hard for Congress or any one party to accomplish very much because there is never consensus.
  • Most Argentinians seem to have hope that things will improve, and the people have great faith in democracy and want to see its continued success.

The results of the elections were more or less as expected. President Christina Kirchner's party lost their power in congress. Furthermore, former President Néstor Kirchner lost his race for the LOWER house of Congress. That would be the equivalent of a former US president like George Bush running for a seat in the House of Representatives and losing. In the US, it would be extremely rare for a former president to run for a lower position, and even more rare for him to lose it. The main reason why Kirchner lost is that the country is fed up with both Néstor and Christina being in positions of power for so long (Christina was also a representative before being president at the same time as Néstor was president). Christina has also been heavily criticized for essentially allowing her husband to make all her decisions for her now that she is president. For better descriptions of the election results then I could possibly provide, look here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/argentinas-power-couple-devastated-by-blow-at-polls-1724468.html and here: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/06/29/argentina.elections/index.html

Finally, over the past month, I have been bombarded with political ads on billboards, in the subway, and on TV. I thought I would share some of the wealth with you in case you're interested in seeing what Argentine political propaganda looks like:

Las Tres Fronteras

The final stop of our trip to Iguazu was "Las Tres Fronteras" (the three borders). This is the spot where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay all meet at a point. In the picture above, three brances of rivers meet and divide the three countries. Each country has erected a statue on the site of the three borders and the three statutes all match each other. Additionally, the Argentina side of the border has the flags of the three countries flying proudly (see picture at right). Also, note, Argentina's flag is the highest!

After the stop at las tres fronteras, we were off to the airport at Iguazu for our flight back to Buenos Aires. The airport was literally the smallest one I had ever seen, with literally only two gates that serve the approximately 6 departures and 6 arrivals each day. Chris and I were flying Aerolineas Argentina so we were a little bit worried. We had heard horror stories about people spending evenings in Argentine airports as they awaited their ill-fated flights' departures. The airline is currently owned by the Argentine government (though it is in the process of being tranferred to private ownership), and it essentially has a monopoly on domestic air travel. Until two years ago, it was literally the only airline that flew domestically. Now LAN Chile has some limited services as well, but without any competitors, there is really no pressure on Aerlineas Argentina to provide decent service.

Our flight was supposed to board at about 4:45 PM, and at 4:55 PM, the plane still was not on the ground. Still, for some reason, we were told to get up and stand in line at the door to the jetway so up we went with our tickets, our bags, and our preocupations. The plane was still not at the gate! Where exactly were we going? As I was pondering these questions, I looked out the window and saw the plane land on the only runway at the airport. It taxied to the gate, we boarded, and then we enjoyed a relatively good flight to Buenos Aires that only arrived approximately a half hour late. The service on the plane was great. There were a whopping FIVE flight attendants for an MD-80 (most US airlines would have 3), and they served a snack and drink even though the flight was less than 2 hours long. Much of the flight was very rough due to poor weather conditions, but there was nothing Aerolineas Argentina could have done about that.

We landed at Jorge Newbury Airport in Buenos Aires, and I returned home for another week in the city...