Looks Can Be Deceiving?

As I’ve written many times before – Argentina is the land of upside-down. Argentina definitively sits in South America, but many Argentines would bite your head off for calling them South Americans, roman catholicism reins strong, yet sex and drugs and nightclubs are far more visible, and robberies happen even in the busiest, friendliest of streets.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Economists are crying stagflation even as quotidian signs point to a robust economy. Restaurants consistently have hour plus waits, starbuckses bustle (even despite their signature cups, which were blocked from entering the country), stores buzz, and from my balcony I can see (and hear) at least 7 new buildings in construction.

Perhaps Argentines are just trying to get the most for their pesos, which are rapidly losing their value. New estimates by Di Tella University put inflation at 35% and import restrictions have pushed the values of certain goods to unreasonable levels. For instance, I recently went to a department store to buy home supplies for my new apartment. I wheeled my cart up to the front and was about to pay when I realized that the plastic trashcan I was about to commit to was stamped with a $380 peso price tag – about $85 USD using the official rate.

I have to wonder what the on-the ground situation will look like in a few months or a year. I can’t believe I’m the only one who can’t justify spending more than $30 on a trash can – though as I said, nothing makes sense here.

 

Thinking the Unthinkable: Uruguay To Sell Pot?

Recently I travelled to Montevideo to cover the government’s plan to regulate and sell marijuana. While I’m fascinated by drug policy on its own, the most interesting part about writing this particular article was to see how many sources in the international media had warped the story. After reading articles to the effect of “the law will definitely pass, as Mujica has a majority in the Congress” and “the bill will soon be put to a vote” you can imagine my surprise when I turned up for my first interview to be told – there’s no law, there’s not even a bill. In reality there was only a 20 page government document on with one line stating that the government intended to think about legalizing marijuana, but that it would require a legal project.

Read more here.

I was not a great fan of Montevideo city as a city, though I’d like to go back and explore it more fully.  I only saw Ciudad Vieja and Downtown – which would be like coming  to Buenos Aires and judging the entire city on Monserrat and Microcentro. I do love how the Uruguayans utilized the ocean, and it makes me wonder why the blokes who planned Buenos Aires didn’t do the same. Instead we have the Costanera, which is known mainly for its posh nightclubs and  decidedly un-posh choripan stands.

Hola, again.

As I’ve started writing more for publications, I’ve had less time and material to feed this blog. I hope to start updating it more again, if even with photos or small, frivolous posts that I wouldn’t be able to publish elsewhere.

In the past month I started freelancing for the Economist. Until I re-read the anti-bribery guidelines this morning, I was under the impression I could’t claim authorship on either of the pieces I wrote, but I was wrong – so here are the links:

A piece on Argentina’s previously expropriated enterprises and how they’re doing. Hint: it’s not well.

A piece on Argentina’s parallel exchange market and its boom in light of draconian currency controls.

You Learn

Stumbled on this Borges poem this morning. Admittedly, I’m usually not the biggest poetry fan, but this is completely unpretentious and spot on. Enjoy!

“You Learn.
You Learn

After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,

And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,

And you learn to build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…

That you really are strong

And you really do have worth…

And you learn and learn…

With every good-bye you learn.”
Jorge Luis Borges

Finalmente!

Both articles that I was working on for the past few months finally went live this week.

I give you an article about the drug situation in Argentina published in Foreign Policy and an article about BA’s kick-ass female entrepreneurs published in the Argentina Independent.

 

 

The Headlines Say it All

Yesterday’s announcement that Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, would nationalize YPF set off a global frenzy, sparking comparisons to Chavez and inspiring concern about the direction of Argentina. I found it particularly interesting to look at the headlines of the top Argentine papers, which predictably fall along policy lines.

Cronista – “The Government announced the expropriation of 51% of YPF and seized the oil company.”

Ambito Financiero – “Cristina seized YPF and announced the expropriation of 51% of shares.”

Tiempo Argentino – “YPF returns to being Argentine”

La Nacion – “They will expropriate 51% of YPF and Spain threatens reprisals.”

Clarin – “Crisitina expropriated YPF: It is already run by De Vido and Kicillof”

Pagina 12: “YPF Returns”

 

Bet you can guess which papers are pro-government and which are against. A monkey could.

Neither subset of headline is factually inaccurate – as Cristina’s groupies suggest YPF was national before it was privatized in 1993, and as the X-tina Haters assert, she did seize the company from Repsol, a Spanish company which has condemned the seizure. The differences are just a matter of perspective – which seems to become increasingly polarized in Argentina every day.

Take a Hike

If you want to feel good about your physical fitness, I do not suggest you go trekking with a former champion rower and a former Navy SEAL. Going into the trip I was confident, perhaps hubristic, about my level of preparedness. I run 4-6 times a week and periodically attend my friend Max’s awesome Cross-Fit style classes in the park.  However when it came to keeping up with George and Gene, I was a goner. I even pulled a butt muscle in the process of trying (awkward, I know).

Because of timing constraints, we opted to squeeze the 4-night, 5-day W circuit into 3-nights and 3.5 days, starting with the Torres and ending with the Grey Glacier.

After bussing from Puerto Natales to the park entrance, we set off at midday, laden with trail mix, water and high hopes. As we had been warned, many sections of the hike to the Torres were aggressively steep, and we quickly found ourselves shedding layers and stopping frequently to refuel. We played 20 questions (I stumped ‘em all with Hermes) and sang as we tramped up mountain faces, through dense forests, and over precarious suspension bridges.   Three hours later we arrived at the last climb – a formidable jumble of rocks from behind which peaked the Torres. Invigorated by the view, we all but ran to the top and were awed to find a turquoise lake upon summiting. We proceeded to walk around the lake, scrutinizing it from every angle (including upside down which looked pretty damn cool) until a park ranger told us we had to descend otherwise we would be caught hiking in the dark. Since we didn’t have flashlights, we figured disobeying him wouldn’t be particularly wise and began to head down.

Total distance hiked: 18 km.

 

Sheddin' Layers (and dignity)

 

Once safely at base camp, which we reached shortly before nightfall, we fooled around with my camera, snapping photos of the stars and moon, and then inserting ourselves in the fun. Opening up the shutter speed to its maximum (30 seconds ), and positioning my camera on a chair, propped up to proper height by Gene’s spicy peanuts (which came to be affectionately known as my camera’s P-factor),  I played conductor as the boys traced letters with their flashlights. First we tried “FUN”. As you can tell in the photos, it  didn’t quite work out as we’d hoped thanks to George’s hyper-bright headlamp which registered as a giant period instead of an N. We were ultimately successful with TDP (Torres del Paine, for my slower readers).

 

Family Portrait

Day two was easier on the legs – much of the hike from Torres to Cuernos was flat – but we had weather and length to contend with. The 13 kilometers of leg one were straightforward  but boasted fantastic views. The majority of the hike followed a path cut into the side of the Cuernos’ overlooking a huge, yes, teal lake. The Cuernos, another famous mountain formation in Torres Del Paine Park, are starkly different from the Torres, if equally as stunning. They are stouter but taper into sharp, teeth-like ridges and are multiple shades of gray as opposed to yellow like the Torres.

After a lunch of the oddest tuna sandwiches I ever did taste (read tuna, hearts of palm, canned mushrooms, and of course a healthy dousing of mayo) we pushed onwards to the French Valley. As we ascended, a blanket of fog rolled over us and began pelting us with small balls of hail. Now, I’m aware that hailstorms can cause some major damage, but being that my main nickname is Halestorm (though now Jaly, Cometa and Ast-er-oid-deh, are close 2nds), I get an undeniable sense of satisfaction when they occur. The winds gusted so forcefully that my trusty team had to catch me a few time lest I blow to my demise.

Total Distance Hiked: 26 km

Day three was the easiest by far, which was good since the weather was abominable. We retraced our steps from Cuernos to the mouth of the French Valley, but instead of ascending anew, continued on to Paine Grande – the area worst hit by the December forest fires. With the charred trees serving as a constant reminder of destruction, the hike was far less scenic than our previous ones and verged on depressing. The rain and wind, which roared at 80 – 90 km/h, didn’t help and though Team R.C. kept its spirits high throughout the entire ordeal, we were relieved to arrive at Paine Grande where we spent the rest of the afternoon drying out, reading, and napping in front of the one, meek fire.

Total Distance hiked: 14 km

Our final day, we had grand plans to rise before dawn and watch the sunrise over the Grey Glacier – what a nice way to end the trip it would be! In praxis, things shook out a little differently. We arose at 6:30 am, unanimously exclaimed “Wow. It’s really…dark. Really dark,” and promptly went back to bed until the sun began to rise at 8 am. While we kicked ourselves at first, we witnessed a remarkable sunrise which we realized we wouldn’t have been able to see from the glacier. The saturated pink color of the clouds pulled all of the Paine Grande campers and refugio-residents out of their sleeping bags and out to the lakefront where we jointly ooed, awed and snapped photos.

When the sun had fully ascended, we began quickly tramping towards the Grey Glacier. We knew we had to catch the boat which departed at 12:30 pm, and that the hike to the lowest Mirador was estimated to be at least 2 hours. Not being the worrying types, we pressed onwards and gave ourselves a “drop dead time” (Gene’s military jargon at its finest) of 10:30. After coursing through more burnout, passing an iceberg dotted lake named after ducks (though we didn’t see any), we arrived at Glaciar Grey – a formidable sight not done justice by photos. Surprisingly given our relatively smooth, element-free trek, the wind buffeted the Mirador, making photo ops rather nerve-wracking.

Burn Damage

More Burnout

And thus ended our whirlwind, fun-packed, laughter-filled Torres del Paine adventure.

Though my fitness confidence and my gluteus medius* may have taken a beating those four days, I can’t imagine having done it with any other team. Thinking back on it already makes me nostalgic, and I suspect that the memories of our antics and the images of the scenery we saw will be seared in my mind for a long time to come, along with an ardent desire to finally find that damn Milodon.

* After a 3.5 minute appointment, the doctor proclaimed that my hip tenderness was caused by a pulled glute and prescribed me not tylenol, not advil, not even rest, but OXYCONTIN.

 

 

 

 

 

SCL —-> PUQ —–> PNT (The Lead Up to Torres Del Paine)

Chile is by many accounts a beacon of functioning democracy in South America. It boasts strong institutions, good infrastructure, a healthy economy and low crime rates – that is to say: it works.

But given my recent experience in Santiago International Airport, I’m wondering if all of the impressive development that Chile has undergone over the past few decades has led Chilenos to forget how to let their hair down a little.

Let me explain. I have just arrived back from a fun-packed, adventure-filled, two-pronged journey to Patagonia. During the first stage I trekked in Torres del Paine with George and Oscar, two friends from Yale and a third new friend, Gene (aka. Gene Gene Mak Mak) who lived with George in San Francisco. During the second, I made my way from Southern Chile to San Martin de Los Andes, a quaint little hamlet just over the Argentine border in northern Patagonia, where I met a group of friends from Buenos Aires.

The trip, which ended spectacularly, began tumultuously. Although I’ll readily admit I’m mostly to blame for my initial, Chile helped!

I arrived in the Santiago airport two Thursday mornings ago, two hours late due to flight delays and eager to hit the city. George, who had taken a slightly earlier flight to Santiago, and I were passing through the Chilean capital for only a few hours in order to pick up Oscar and Gene – our third and fourth trekking buddies. We only had about 12 hours to explore before catching a 1:35 am (GULP) flight to Punta Arenas, where we would sleep on the airport floor for a few hours before boarding a bus to Puerto Natales, the jumping off point for Torres Del Paine national park.

When my flight doors opened, I all but ran to the immigrations booth where they alerted me I had to pay a reciprocal fee to enter the country. This is pretty standard practice in South America and would have been fine if the fiscal fairy hadn’t cast a spell which caused me to leave my credit and debit cards at home in my nightstand.

Did they accept personal checks? I asked with pleading eyes to a negative response.

I tried to get a hold of George, who had taken an earlier flight, but he had already collected his baggage and couldn’t come back through to the customs area.

My level of alarm rose from orange alert to burnt orange alert.

Luckily there were quite a few more americans in line to pay the fee and I dutifully asked each of them if they would be willing to pay for me with their credit cards and I’d write them a check. Many of them were living in Argentina where banks wont cash checks made out in dollars and thus declined. Even the frat boy exchange students in Santiago for Lolapallooza shot me “how could you be so dumb” looks.

Burnt orange alert gave way to red alert.

Finally my savior came in the form of an adorable couple – Ezekiel from Buenos Aires and Melissa, originally from Vermont but living in Buenos Aires – who were also in town for the music festival. Unlike my frat pals the pair clearly belonged to the more appreciative class of concert goers actually interested in listening to the music rather than getting “as fucked up as we did in MenBROza, man!” Ezekiel paid my fee with a credit card and we made our way to the exit so that George, who had not been so idiotic to forget all of his cards enchanted by evil fairies, could recompense him.

But the Chilean travel gods would not make it so easy.

As soon as my bright yellow, NBA-player-height backpack rolled through the customs scanner, an agent with a painfully tight ponytail summoned me to step aside. She riffled through my top pocket and fished out a sealed ziplock with sealed, i repeat, SEALED bags of almonds, rasins, and peanuts.

“Why did you not declare these?” she said accusatorily, removing the almonds and raisins from the Ziploc and waving them in one hand as she wagged her finger with the other.

I glanced at Ezekiel and Melissa who were patiently waiting by the customs exit.

“Uh, I didn’t know I had to. But you can have them. I just really have to go.”

“Why didn’t you read the declaration form.”

“I’m sorry you’re right, I should have, but I just really have to leave now. Take the nuts, I can buy more.” By this point my eyes were welling up with tears of frustration.

“No,” she said with apparent satisfaction. “You have to come with me to the office and make a statement. The peanuts are fine because they’re salted, but the almonds and raisins are a danger.”

A small laugh escaped me. “A danger?”

Senora Tight-Tail didn’t share my amusement, apparently. “Yes. Come with me.”

I explained what had happened to Ezekiel and Melissa, appologized profusely and told them to go on and find George. Meanwhile the customs agent led me to a small, windowless room where she sat me down next to a man who had forgotten to declare a banana. The entire scene felt a bit like a twisted jail holding pen – “What are you in for?” I asked the french woman waiting behind me. “Orange,” she answered in a quavering voice.  ”They took my husband in first, but it was mine. They wont believe me!”

After 30 minutes of paperwork and finger twiddling I was released with a citation for attempting to smuggle .2 KG of Raisins and .255 KG of Almonds into the Republic of Chile plus a copy of my written statement that a friendlier customs agent had helped me to fabricate:

“I believed that with the material being sealed and in a ziploc that I would not have problems with entrance, it was an error on my part and without bad intentions. I’m sorry.”

I thanked the agent for at least making my spanish sound good, grabbed my bags of peanuts (why they were allowed and almonds not, I still don’t know though I’ve heard Chile has tolerance problems) and ran to meet George.

The Culprit

Melissa and Ezekiel, aka. my Godsends, had waited around to shuttle into the city with us where we met Oscar and Gene, George’s former roommate in San Fransisco and a former Navy Seal. (He has a current life too, or at least so he claims.)

Oscar, who has been living in Santiago for the past year, led us to a neighborhood sandwich shop where we ravenously devoured the plates set in front of us. Apparently Sandwiches are beloved in Chile – chicken, beef, turkey, ham – sandwiches of all types and but always formbidably sized and accompanied by heaping globs of mayo the size of nimbus clouds.

We spent the next couple hours making final trip preparations (which for me meant napping on Oscars bed, and for the boys meant splashing around in the pool connected to Oscars building) until re-emerging for a stroll and dinner. Though I only saw Providencia and a small area of downtown called Bella Vista, I liked Santiago. The architecture was less pleasing to me than the faux-euro buildings and boulevards in Buenos Aires, but I’m a sucker for cities nestled in between mountain ranges.

At 11:30 pm it was time to head back to SCL again for our 1:35 AM flight to Punta Arenas. In our eagerness to get to Puerto Natales as early as possible, we’d booked the earliest flight. Seems logical, no? Perhaps it would be except for buses don’t start running from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales until 8 am, so we spent 3.5 lovely hours splayed out on the tile floor in the Punta Arenas airport trying to sleep. I dozed off here and there, but between the snoring of friends who shall remain anonymous (ahem, GENE MAK) and creepy soundtrack music blaring from the loudspeaker all morning, let’s just say I didn’t make it to REM.

I had heard that the drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales left a lot to be desired but when we finally boarded the bus at 8, I was completely content to stare out the window for 3 hours. We drove past rolling fields that were turned a stunning gold by the rising sun, small mountains, and deep blue lakes. I counted 9 rainbows and about 100 times that many sheep, often dyed pink or blue to indicate their owner.

The town of Puerto Natales itself fascinated me a great deal. The city was initially settled by European immigrants – a mix of British, Welsh, Germans, Croats, and Spanish – before the thriving sheep industry lured Chileans to move in as well. While the sheep and fishing industries are still important parts of the economy, modern day Puerto Natales survives off of tourism. That said, the town does not feel inauthentic. For every souvenir shop and hippy-vegetarian coffee shop, there are toy stores, lingerie shops and appliance warehouses – not exactly normal tourist swag (or maybe I’m travelling wrong…) Every afternoon boys and girls in school uniforms swarm the streets, which are overrun by stray dogs and street vendors selling dried fish and octupus. The most of the houses are one-story blocks, constructed from corrugated steel and painted bright colors which make for a beautiful contrast with the tawny grass they sit in.

The city lies on an expansive turquoise lake – the “Sound of Last Hope” – so named because it was one 1570 explorer’s last hope of locating the Strait of Magellan. The water stretches all the way to Torres del Paine, our final destination. I found it hard to wrap my head around what it must have been like to stumble on such a stunning landscape, which would demand the awe of even the most desperate, dejected crew.

After listening to an informational talk on Torres del Paine at our hostel in which the speaker insisted we eat every hour or else we’d die and yelled at me for asking him to repeat one of the distances between campsites (maybe he hadn’t eaten that hour?), we scoured the streets in search of gear. Between us we bought about 15 kg of dried fruit and nuts (looking at almonds made me a little squeamish but due to their high protein content I forced myself to be brave), a pair of hiking boots, and a fanny pack (purchased to have easy access to my camera but I’m told they’re very de mode in Santiago, so 10 points for me).

Bank runs also became a fun game. In an even more comedic turn, George had lost his ATM card to a ravenous machine in Buenos Aires (the machines fully swallow them here instead of just asking you to swipe them) and Gene’s ATM card was rejected by Chilean machines. Oscar was the last bank-member standing and for the entirety of the trip we relied on him for cash withdrawals. Unfortunately, given our situation, not a lot of places took credit cards and thus we needed to take out a considerable amount of cash – more than Oscars card would allow at one time. When we were able to extract money from the machines it felt like a grand victory, like we had won the lottery or a huge slots jackpot. We hugged and laughed and danced and then, much to our chagrin, realized it was our money not new winnings.

Since this is already a monster post, I’ll stop here for now and write a post on Torres del Paine, and then finally San Martin de Los Andes as soon as I can. Also I like suspense.

Dear Argentine Press Offices: Porque Mientes?

Remember when I said I would write more when the pieces I was working on were published? Well – two of them are still in the pipeline and have been for almost a month so I realize it’s not really a good excuse anymore.

I’ve learned a ton, or un monton, as they say, by writing these articles –  both factually and about journalistic procedure in Argentina. Both articles should come out this week as I’m headed out of the country Thursday, and so I’ll leave you in suspense about the facts, but expand a little on what I gathered about the process.

One article necessitated that I seek out interviews from government offices – a task I assumed would be difficult, but figured would be patently difficult instead of insidiously difficult. On several occasions that I called press divisions of Ministry X and Secretariat Y, and was told, much to my surprise that”Si si, por supuesto” the judge/minister/secretary would grant me an interview. Just call back tomorrow, or next week, they told me. I naively fell for their trickery, remarking in my head at how easy it was! how wrong i’d been! only to feel doubly stupid when I called back in the allotted time to be told that the said judge/minister/secretary didn’t actually give interviews. ever. period. the end.

I’m not sure if press officers like to initiate cub reporters, or if they lie out of compassion to avoid disappointing us, but whatever the reason I wish they wouldn’t.

There is far less freedom of information in Argentina than in the United States, and according to a friend who works in the Argentine congress, government officials are unlikely to grant interviews to anyone before they know their political agenda.

Personal connections are paramount and short time frames problematic, especially without personal connections.

Although not specific to Argentina, another interesting question was how much to talk about pieces before they’re published. Especially when writing more investigative pieces, I was always led to believe you should be tightlipped about your projects. But some of the best sources I was connected with came from one-off comments about what I was writing about. I suppose the trick is saying enough so that people feel comfortable they know what they’re getting their contacts into, but not revealing so much that you give the whole story away. With particularly sensitive pieces of first-hand, unique reportage I think silence is still the best policy, but with more informational surveys, a little crowd sourcing can go a longgggg way.

I’m headed out of the country for 2 weeks on Thursday, and don’t expect to have much access to internet. Hopefully I’ll get another chance to write before then, but until I get these pieces locked and loaded it’s hard to say.

 

 

 

Tragedy in Once

I spent the better part of this afternoon at Once’s train station, where a devastating rush hour crash killed 49 people and wounded over 600 others. By the time I arrived on the scene at around 3:30 P.M., it was impossible to tell if rescue operations were still in process as the police had curtained off the area of impact. On the other side of the partition, a large crowd simmered, booing and chanting “Assassino!” and “Hijo de Puta!” When I asked an observer at whom the criticisms were directed, he answered “everyone: Macri (the Mayor of Buenos Aires), politicians in general, and big business.”  At one point, leftist congressman Vilma Repoll appeared on the scene and the crowd hushed, apparently satisfied by his promises. They were seemingly not as convinced by railway delegate, Ruben Sobrero, whom they heckled and jostled.

Outside the train station, emergency forces had stopped traffic on five blocks of Pueyrredon Avenue, where street vendors looking to capitalize on the increased pedestrian traffic shouted promotions of their wares. Without recognition of irony, a few vendors clustered near the stations entrance to sell plastic transit card protectors, even as ambulances continued to scream away from the building.

I’ve been having issues uploading my video and photos from the scene but will post them as soon as I’m successful.