Thursday, February 06, 2020

The Argentine Musings of a Meandering Soul

One of Buenos Aires many parks and monuments
     (Note to reader. Take nothing here as historically accurate but solely observations and ad hoc discussions.)

     January 6, 2020 Lima, Peru, 11:45 AM
     Boarding and heading for Buenos Aires. The nine-hour flight from L.A. to Lima was growing tiresome, boring. I thought I’d never sleep. About 2:30 A.M. I dozed off. The next thing I knew, the cabin’s lights brightened, and the crew was serving breakfast.
     This is a smaller plane for the last leg of the flight. Next time I travel I must remember to reserve a seat at the back of the plane and board first, so I’ll have space overhead for my suitcase. Now, they’re making me check it in. I’m wary of parting with my suitcase. On past trips, when forced to check it in, it didn’t make it to the destination for two or three days, a needless inconvenience. I travel lightly.
     Upon arrival at the airport in Lima, I was desperate for a coffee. I had no Peruvian Soles. I handed the barista my credit card. He ran it and asked me to put in my PIN. It’s a credit card. There is no PIN, I explained. Well, it’s asking for one and without it, the card is useless.
     I’m annoyed, not with him with myself for not checking before I left. It’s my primary credit card, low interest and no international service charges, and I’ve still got 16 days in Argentina ahead of me. International service charges can add up, quickly. I do have another credit card, a spare, higher interest rate and international service charges. I pull out a U.S. twenty. He takes it and gives me a wad of soles in return. I will only be at the Lima airport until my flight leaves. What will I do with $18.00 worth of soles? Oh, the challenges of travel, and just when I thought I’d covered all bases.
     Buenos Aires, 6:40 PM The airport is busy. I have no Argentine pesos. The coordinator of our trip said not to worry. There are ATM’s everywhere, uggg, more needless service charges and not one ATM in sight.
     I see a line of people in front of a money exchange but no cashier. I ask and someone says it opens at 7. Fifteen minutes. My taxi is waiting. At 7, the driver comes in looking for me. I tell him my predicament. He laughs. “Nothing opens on time here. They probably won’t open until 7:30 or later.” He tells me he’ll take my U.S. dollars.
The wonder of trees
     In the car to my hotel, I notice how green everything is outside. He tells me the weather has been “lindo.”
     As we hit the outskirts of the city, I see white high-rise apartments everywhere, twenty-five, thirty stories, mildew stains down the sides. I don’t suppose anybody is going to climb up there to wash them. Immediately, I realize that’s how Argentina and many countries in the world deal with the housing crisis. In L.A., everybody still wants individual homes, with a plot of grass in the front and back. There’s no more room in L.A. Am I looking at the future?
     The driver and I talk. I ask about the economy. He tells me Argentina will never prosper. The people are too lazy. Wait! I want to make sure I understand. He confirms it. That’s right. Everybody is too lazy. The ones who work support the ones who don’t.
     I’m sure he is exaggerating. He says, “It’s Peronismo.”
     “But didn’t Peron leave office in the 1950s?”
     “No, he never left. Most of the governments after him were all Peronistas.”
     What disrespect, I think to myself, with a snicker. For sure, Argentinos are Spanish to the bone.
     Peronismo is a complicated, even contradictory, political system, if you can even call it a system. Some called him a fascist-dictator who supported Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito in WWII. They say he welcomed Nazi war criminals, the most famous Adolf Eichmann, who was captured on the outskirts of Buenos Aires by Israel’s Mossad.
     Others say he created social many social programs to help the workers and the poor. Christina Kirshner, the newly elected vice president, who was an ex-president, is a Peronist, as is the new president Alberto Fernandez, though nobody admits it.
     The driver tells me, “She will eat him alive.”
     After she left the presidency, Kirshner was tried for laundering money, mismanaging government funds, and all sorts of criminal enterprises. She claims government immunity.
     She has no worries. Political corruption trials in Argentina last forever. She won’t go to prison. “Nobody goes to jail in Argentina,” one reporter wrote. She claims she was a political hit by Macri, the former president. Now, she is vice-president. This is way too complicated for me.
     The pink elephant in the cab is Eva Peron, the Argentine political goddess, more myth than human. He doesn’t mention her name, even though, it is said, she influenced many of Peron’s social policies. Others say, not true. He used her to get his way with the unions, the poor, and the masses, who loved her. As long as she kept them distracted with her speeches outside the Casa Rosada, Peron and his cronies could enrich themselves however they wished.
With such beautiful parks, why work so hard?
     He drops me in front of a luxury 5-star hotel in the Recoleta neighborhood. I tell him I am traveling with a group of friends. We received a big discount. I want him to know if I were traveling alone, I wouldn't be in the lap of luxury.
     He says the taxi bill is 1,350 pesos, about $25.00, the exchange rate, roughly 55 pesos to one dollar. In a week it will climb to 60 to 1, except on the street, where shady characters with pouches full of cash will openly trade 75 pesos for a dollar. It is a fluctuating economy, hour by hour.
     The interest rate on an Argentine credit card is anywhere from forty to fifty percent. Needless to say, few Argentinos use credit cards. Dollars are welcome, even if the government denies it.
     I check in and go to my room. It’s like a suite. My friend, Brandon, the trip coordinator, and a Latin American archeology professor, has a lot of contacts, and since he brings groups almost every year, they give him unbelievable discounts.
     Darkness is falling. Outside a large picture window, I see what appears to be a city far below. Strange, I am barely on the ninth floor.
     My friends, mostly teachers and counselors, arrived yesterday, and, I’m sure are scattered about the city. The tree-lined streets around the hotel are crowded, many young people. There is a modern, indoor mall at the corner, surrounded by restaurants, even a Friday’s.
     Across the street is a park, more restaurants, and lights brightening the streets. So far, my stereotype of Argentinos holds true. No Indians. Everybody looks European. Then I see them, the ones with olive to dark skin. Where did they come from?
     The rumor is Argentina decimated every last Inca.
     It’s nearing 10:00 P.M. I return to the hotel restaurant for a meal. I know it will be expensive, but I’m tired and in no mood for gastronomic experiments. Few people are in the restaurant. I order a salmon dish. When it comes, it looks like a painting, perfectly shaped cuts of fish, scallops, vegetables, splashes of colored sauces and a basket of various types of bread. I dig in. It’s delicious. With a glass wine and tip, the price is $26, not bad, for an American, a disaster for a working-class Argentinian.
A normal day in La Boca
     As I make my way to the elevator, I run into the group of friends in the 5-star lobby. Truthfully, I am not at ease with the place. In the world of hotels, this doesn’t come close to the exquisite beauty or price of the hotels on embassy row. Personally, I prefer the more homey, boutique hotels. In the real world, this would be beyond my means.
     Am I an intellectual snob? I don’t think so, or a hospitality prude?
     As a university administrator, I stayed in some of the finest hotels in major U.S. cities. Somehow that didn’t bother me. It was expected, meetings with other administrators, heads of corporations, or government agencies. However, in academia, administrators and professors are two entirely different animals.
     I retired as a teacher. I think such luxury anathema to serious intellectual pursuit. I mean, O.K., I am on this trip partly for pleasure, but as an academic, I’ve never been able to travel for pleasure, alone.
The cemetery at Recoleta
     Teaching is a vocation not a career, and, as such, it is a burden. The workday never ends. Travel has always been a part of my job, intellectual inquiry, whether taking my own kids on a trip to the Sierras, busing it through small towns in Mexico, exploring villages in North Africa, or walking London’s streets, I’m always taking notes, sometimes mental, sometimes on a recorder, paper, or laptop.
     Everything I see or do, I associate with a class, a paper, or book. I am always making connections, whether social, political, artistic, or cultural. As a teacher, I incessantly pondered and questioned, as if Socrates took up residence on my shoulder.
     Like any skilled tradesperson, I can’t just dump a life’s habits simply because I retired?
     My colleagues and I are glad to see each other. With my arrival, everyone is accounted for. We make plans to meet the next morning. A van and guide will be waiting to take us around the city.
     January 7, 2020, 7:30 A.M.
     I open the drapes and look out the window. What I thought was a city is, in fact, a cemetery, and a rather large one, enormous mausoleums, like mini-temples and basilicas, everywhere. It gives me the creeps.
     I make my way downstairs. A van takes us through Buenos Aires, open, airy, and bright, wide boulevards and large parks. It’s cosmopolitan, like New York or Chicago, except for the trees, large leafy ones shading nearly every city street.
In La Boca, they built their homes with whatever they had
     The van takes us through the city’s oldest neighborhoods, first La Boca, a port barrio at the water’s edge, today, a hip, touristy, artist enclave, a colorful and motely style of homes, built with any conceivable type of material the builders could find, kind of like 1970s Venice, California. Tango dancers entice the tourists on stages outside the bars and cafes.
     In the late 1800s, Italians migrated to La Boca, by the thousands, a rough place back then, an Ellis Island of sorts, like New York’s lower eastside. The Italians changed the face of Argentina. From La Boca, they migrated to all the different provinces and regions. When blended with Castilian blood, the result was stunningly beautiful.
     Across the bay from La Boca is a shanty town no one but those who live there dare enter. “Don’t even think of going there,” our guide, Allison, tells us. “Even here, in Boca, keep your valuables close.”
     Sounds like port cities anywhere in the world.
     Allison is American who has lived in Argentina for ten years. She came here from New England to attend college—free! Wait, did I hear right, free! She confirms her answer. A university education in Argentina is free, even for foreigners. I’m skeptical.
     I tell her what my cab driver says about Argentina never fully prospering financially because the people are lazy. She doesn’t sound insulted. She agrees with the taxi driver, except, she tells us Argentinians are proud of their lax work ethic. “Life is about more than just work,” she says. “Sometimes a business will hang a sign with business hours that begin, ‘We open when we arrive.’” The siesta is alive and well in Argentina.
     From La Boca, we hop a city bus to San Telmo, an older Buenos Aires neighborhood, a place where dockworkers, tradesmen, and artisans lived, very European. Today, “Regentrifiers” (my word) are moving in to resurrect the place, which has fallen on hard times.
In Monserrat, Argentina's oldest bookstore 
     We walk to Monserrat, what some say is the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires, tracing its founding to the 1600s, and its Spanish colonization. We walk through old Spanish-styles homes, where the wealthy Spanish landowner once lived. One thing is clear, regardless of how many immigrants come, and no matter from where, the country’s Spanish foundation is intact, in language, religion, and culture.
     Regardless of their diverse heritage, Argentinos, at heart, are Spanish, even if they want the world to think of them French.
     Someone in our group asks Allison if it’s true that Argentina wiped out its Indian population. She doesn’t hesitate to confirm that fact; though, she tells us, today, many Argentines are not proud of it. In fact, one of the main perpetrators of the Indian genocide was General Julio Roca, once seen as a hero, but in modern times, viewed as a racist and embarrassment. Argentinos voted to remove him from its currency. Of course, history tends to change its view depending on who rules a country.
     9:00 P.M.
     Dinner in an upscale Argentine restaurant. I want to see how the people enjoy a night out. I find a place down the street from the hotel. It's an older building, a street corner, mostly older, sophisticated Portenos (people from Buenos Aires), in the 50 to 60 range, a few 40-somethings mixed in. They are the khaki pants, polo shirt crowd, distinguished professionals.
     I order chicken in mushroom sauce, cooked potatoes, and vegetables, a glass of wine, $16.00 total, not bad by U.S. standards, steep for Argentinos. The tables are covered in white cloth, silverware, wine and water glasses, all very Spanish. The wine from Mendoza is soothing. One glass is enough. By 10:00, the place is crowded. Some in Buenos Aires still enjoy the good life.

Next Bloga: The Road to Iguazu


Antonio SolisGomez said...

what a nice piece of writing daniel, very enjoyable

Daniel Cano said...

Gracias, Antonio. I surely kept an open mind.

JimWLA said...

Your writing makes me feel like I was there. One day I want to travel in Mexico and visit the proverty sections..