Green silver

June 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

While the Eurozone is consumed by worry and gloom over the fate of its own currency, Buenos Aires’ middle class is expending a lot of energy protesting about someone else’s.

The protagonists of the ‘cacerolazos’ (pot-banging protests) of the last two weeks haven’t shown much concern about the strength of the Argentine peso – none of them really takes it seriously. What bother them are the ever-increasing barriers between them and their beloved greenbacks.

Since November of last year, the Argentine government has made it pretty difficult (now virtually impossible) to buy US dollars at the ‘official rate of around 4.5 pesos, set by the central bank. Why is this such a big deal? Well, because many Argentines, including the president and virtually every member of her cabinet, reckon the North American currency is a safer bet for their savings than the peso.

What’s more, many high-value transactions (like the sale of real estate) are always carried out in dollars, and in cash. (Just to make things clear, there is legislation currently in Congress which will likely change this, and the president’s declared her intention to switch her three million dollars of savings to pesos).

And why the restrictions? There hasn’t been any official explanation, but they’re generally seen as an attempt to stem the flight of capital from the country, which reached the hundreds of billions of dollars in 2011.

I have to admit that I continue to be somewhat bemused by all of this. The way Argentina works really has little to do with what us we citizens of the Old World are used to, despite the endless comparisons with Europe. One thing that stands out, though, is just how different people’s relationship with money is.

That last statement probably sounds so general as to be meaningless. So here are couple of examples: in Buenos Aires you can buy a toaster worth 28€ in 12 monthly payments, or a 38€ iron in six. Spending is made to seem as attractive, and cost-free, as possible. Saving is not the order of the day (week/month/year).

When people do save, it tends to be in their ‘colchón’ (mattress), a word which sometimes has its literal meaning, and sometimes functions as a metonym for any number of household objects. There’s a story about a woman who kept thousands of dollars in a flowerpot on her balcony, and many others about people hiding safes behind plug sockets, under floorboards or buried in the garden.

It would be hard to blame the Argentines for their preference for hard currency. After all, the 2001 economic crisis gave them good reason to distrust the banks.

It’s just striking that all this goes on in a country named after a mythical source of of silver, lusted after by the Spanish conquistadors. With money such a visible and polemical element of daily life, Argentina lives up to its etymology.



Words for everyone

May 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Buenos Aires is a city where words don’t stay in books or magazines. Slogans are graffitied on every street, from the Cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo to the back alleys of Constitución. Most are to do with football (‘Con River no se jode’, ‘San Telmo es de Boca’) or politics (‘Néstor vive’, ‘Basta de perseguir a Quebracho’). 

The defining line between the two is not particularly clear. In fact, after nearly ten months living here I’m still amazed by how quickly politics (and, inevitably, the president) become a part of almost any discussion. 

The latent presence of politics is so strong that some words or phrases are, for me at least, irretrievably associated with an idea or a person. One example would be the phrase ‘para todos’ (for everyone), which after a succession of government programmes (fútbol para todos, carne para todos) always makes me expect a new state initiative. After football and meat, what will be next? A quick Google search tells me that ‘fish for everyone’ is already in existence. 

This sort of political penetration reaches even more basic levels of language. I’ve never conducted this experiment, but I’d be willing to bet that if you asked an average Argentine the question: ‘Quién es “él”?’ (Who is ‘he’?), the answer would come quite easily: Néstor Kirchner. I’ve written here before about how President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner effectively invokes the memory of her dead husband without naming him, turning him into a powerful symbol for the successes of his (and her) administration. The comments on that post also show, incidentally, how complex politics in Argentina is.

Still, what I want to get at is the high level of consciousness here of the complex links between politics and language. I wonder whether an analysis like this one of the ‘philosophy of language’ of a political leader would make it into the opinion pages of a leading UK newspaper. 

I suspect that, at heart, this is nothing new. The novel I’m reading at the moment, Sobre héroes y tumbas by Ernesto Sábato, shows how the politics and history of identity can become tied up in language here.

But the linked article, by Beatriz Sarlo, makes an important point: the refusal of the president to admit questions in press conferences, along with the fact that almost no one else from her government speaks publicly, suggests a controlling attitude to discourse. 

An environment where the president’s is practically the only voice – and where all major announcements are transmitted simultaneously on all TV channels – allows the creation of a powerful political narrative. ‘Debate’ is not recognised by the government – as Sarlo says, ‘every contradiction becomes an attack, and every attack becomes personal’. Opposition media commentators are often dismissed as puppets of their evil corporate bosses. 

This is canny strategy, for sure.  But I’m not convinced that it guarantees the best solutions to Argentina’s problems.

What I’ve been up to…

May 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a partial excuse for another big gap, here’s a link to some work I’ve been doing at Paréntesis, the opinion page at

There are a few articles of mine in the same vein there too. But I’ll do a proper blog-type thing soon, I hope…I’ve even had the slightly crazy idea of doing a podcast. Watch this space…

‘The hunt for a strange animal in a remote land’: looking for Chatwin’s Patagonia

March 13, 2012 § Leave a comment


It went with me all the way to Ushuaia, squeezed into a corner of my rucksack. The bookish bit of my brain wouldn’t let me go without it.

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is renowned as a Bible for travellers heading to the southern reaches of the South American continent. As a piece of ‘travel writing’, it has a near unequalled reputation.

Why the inverted commas above? The simple answer is that this is no straightforward description of places visited. The space of Chatwin’s Patagonia is not that of the geographical region in 1975 (still less in 2012). As the critic Nicholas Shakespeare puts it, ‘[Chatwin’s] structure was that of a journey constantly, interrupted, zigzagging among texts and through time’. In Patagonia‘s 97 tiny chapters recount not only the author’s wanderings, but also those of Butch Cassidy, ill-fated seafarer Charley Milward, anarchist Simón Radowitzky and the mad French ‘King of Patagonia’.

So any traveller heading south from Buenos Aires clutching a paperback, hoping to find ‘Chatwin’s Patagonia’, is bound to be disappointed. It doesn’t, and never has existed, beyond the page. It is a literary space.

And yet seeking out similarities is irresistible. Irresistible and, in 2012, rather frustrating. Patagonia is still the huge expanse of Argentina and Chile lying south of the Río Colorado. That much has not changed since the seventies. But it is rare to ‘travel’ here as Chatwin did, hopping on and off lorries, walking for days, relying on the kindness of others. Possible, no doubt, but rare. There is an established tourist circuit, which I roughly followed from north to south, shadowing the Andes (it was a holiday, after all).

So from the start, I knew I would not see the Atlantic coast, the old Welsh colonies of Gaimán and Trelew or the industrial towns of Río Gallegos and Puerto San Julián. In fact, most of what I saw finds no mention in Chatwin’s book: the beautiful lakes around Bariloche, the stunning Fitz Roy mountain range, the Perito Moreno glacier.

There are two main reasons for this: firstly, Chatwin was clearly more interested in people and stories than in natural wonders. And secondly, there was no notion of Patagonian tourism back then, no infrastructure to support that sort of ‘adventure travel’ – trekking, climbing, wildlife-watching.

In spite of that, there were moments when I felt closer to the Patagonia Chatwin experienced. Almost all of these occurred in two places: in the vast expanse of plains between Bariloche and El Chaltén, and in Tierra del Fuego.

Heading south from Bariloche by road, you find yourself on the ‘Ruta 40’, the highway which runs almost the entire length of Argentina, paralleling the Andes. About half of the distance I covered to get to El Chaltén was on gravel, though work is clearly well underway to pave these sections. For now, though, travel is slow, and it takes nearly 24 hours to cover the 1,400 kilometres between Bariloche and El Chaltén.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say there is nothing on the way but immense expanses of grassland and constant shadow of mountains on the western horizon. That, and herds of guanaco (like wild llamas) and flocks of ñandú (something like rhea). In two days of travel the bus passed, I think, seven villages. 

One of them, Bajo Caracoles, Chatwin passed through as well, calling it ‘a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading all directions apparently to nowhere’. It is still the same, a few houses clustered around a petrol station, and to the south there is nothing for four hours.

The journey was, I will admit, quite dull. There is not much to see or do in this barren vastness. Even the land seems to shrink, at sunset, before the coloured dome of the sky, uncovered here as in few other places. I thought of Nicholas Shakespeare’s phrase in his introduction to Chatwin’s work:

In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier, sometimes fatally.

This is one part of the Earth where humans are of little importance, still. On the second day I saw a skeleton of a sheep by the roadside, intact and clean. No human hand had interfered in that process.

My most direct contact with Chatwin’s path was also perhaps the best example of how much things have changed. Having reached Ushuaia, the city on the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego (which Chatwin left ‘as if from an unwanted tomb’), I went to visit the nearby Estancia Harberton.

This former sheep farm, named after a village in Devon, was founded by the Englishman Thomas Bridges, another of Chatwin’s ‘characters’ and the first non-native inhabitant of Tierra del Fuego. Chatwin passed through because he wanted to walk the track from Harberton to Viamonte, another estancia further to the north.

The track is described in a book called Uttermost Part of the Earth by Thomas Bridges’ son, Lucas, which describes his childhood on Tierra del Fuego. So Chatwin, too, was on a literary pilgrimage.

But where he found a quiet English farmhouse, I found a museum-like tourist attraction, complete with bilingual guides. I caught a glimpse of Thomas Goodall, son of Clarita, whom Chatwin met. He has no farm left to run, though: 3 months of snow in 1996 wiped out most of Harberton’s sheep and cows.

Expanding tourism and infrastructure makes it hard at times to relate to Chatwin’s journey, which he described as as much ‘a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on…restlessness and exile’ as a trip to Patagonia in 1975. The unusual people and stories which populate his landscape are harder to find now, amongst the growing crowds.

Yet there are some constants, some towns still more or less forgotten for now.  There is the natural world, unchanged: the barren scrubland, the fearsome winds, the condors and armadillos and ñandú. There is, above all, the knowledge that you are so far south, so far from ‘normal’ human spheres. Chatwin places emphasis on the thought that Patagonia is farthest humans walked to from their origins, and it is the thought that counts. It is in thought, set loose in the emptiness, that his ‘strange animal’, his Patagonia, exists. 

The city in summer

January 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

A sheepish and groggy hello to the new year as my blog finally shakes off its post-new year hangover and returns to the world… to find me back in Buenos Aires.

I’d meant to write a post before I went home for Christmas about what I made of the place after five months. That didn’t happen, so then I intended to write about how I remembered it from England. That didn’t happen either, so here’s a little mumbling on what strikes me about being back.

I still can’t quite get my head around January as a summer month. And we’re not talking an English ‘summer’ here, either – these are sticky days of 35 degrees, when half the city has fled to one of Buenos Aires province’s heaving Atlantic coast resorts.

As a taxi driver memorably put it to me the other day: ‘Se van todos, pero se quedan los pelotudos’ (Everyone leaves, but the dickheads stay). I can’t remember if this was the same taxista who explained to me  how the world was run by a network of secret societies led by the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. But in any case, the standard of porteño taxi conversations remains high. These were worthy successors to last year’s Lady Gaga fanatic with a tattoo of Madonna.

(Incidentally, a quick bit of googling tells me the the CFR – RIIA conspiracy is, of course, run by the Illuminati and/or the Knights Templar. Dan Brown should get in on this, and pay me royalties.)

Anyway, Buenos Aires in summer is hot, muggy and empty. Us pelotudos who stick around survive either by locating the nearest pelopincho (paddling pool on someone’s terrace), or by cowering indoors with the fans turned up to full.

The city government has decided to give us poor souls some relief by setting up ‘Buenos Aires playa’, a supposed city beach in a park by the river. In essence, it’s a park with a large sandbox with some deckchairs in it. But I won’t complain too much – I had a lovely afternoon there on Sunday with some new friends, a guitar and some Beatles sing-alongs (this is standard practice here).

In just under two weeks, I’m heading to Patagonia with a friend. Until then, I’ll be doing more searching for work or work experience, and whiling the time away with newly-discovered, ridiculous Argentine comedy videos.

Buying up/selling out

December 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have almost reached the northernmost point of my trip. This afternoon I’ll head from Tilcara, a town in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, to Iruya, a smaller village 50km off the main road to Bolivia. I have no idea what it will be like, but have heard a constant stream of positive comments about the natural beauty, the people, and the condors.

I was excited about coming to this part of Argentina because I saw it as a sort of return to the South America I knew in 2009, when I lived for three months in Pisac, a Andean town near Cusco in Peru.

It has felt like a return, in many ways. There are the same breathtaking mountainous landscapes (though here with more sand and cacti), the same abundance of maize, the same stalls arts and crafts.

And there is, of course, the same dependence on tourism. Tilcara, where I am now, resembles Pisac not just in its location and architecture but also in its ever-growing concentration of hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

It’s common for the independent traveller to lament the vile influence of globalisation, the eruption of Coca Cola signs on every street corner, the drowning of local culture beneath waves of dreadlocked, baggy-trousered travellers. It’s common because there’s a good point behind it, but I can’t help thinking that as a viewpoint it’s a bit simplistic.

The arts and crafts, I think, provide an alternative answer. The thought came to me from an experience in Salta, the biggest city in these parts, which was a repeat of one I had in Arequipa, Peru, two years ago.

In both cities there are museums which showcase the remains of Inca children sacrificed at the peaks of some of the Andes’ highest mountains (In Salta, the MAAM, in Arequipa, the Museo de Santuarios Andinos).

The cold and dryness have kept the human remains in astoundingly good condition. We’re not used to thinking of the world of the past in the same terms as that of the present, so any experience which makes us do so tends to send shivers down the spine. These photos from early 20th century Russia do the same, for me.

As well as the ‘mummies’, what most struck me about these museums (then as now) were the fabrics and jewels left with them. Not just their perfect preservation, but also how astoundingly similar, when not identifical, they were to the stuff you can pick up in any Andean town square.

It’s not totally ingenuous, I hope, to think that horrible ‘Western’ tourism plays some part in maintaining this incredible cultural continuity, even if in an ‘artificial’ way.  If it brings money to keep museums going (as one example of economic benefit), then that’s no bad thing.And though the flow of globalisation may be horribly imbalanced, it is not entirely one-way. Some Andean goods find their way to Europe, the US, etc. as a result – so there is a presence, if not an influence, in that direction.

I won’t subscribe to a rather Panglossian phrase I’ve learnt while in Argentina: ‘no hay mal que por bien no venga’. But I will persist in thinking that the terrifying flux of the world deals in ‘bien’ as well as ‘mal’.

Sun and stone

December 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m writing from the town of Cafayate, on the southern edge of Salta province. A small but stately cluster of buildings around a central square, it sits in a broad valley surrounded by vineyards. This is Argentina’s second most important wine producing area, and I have been taking full advantage of the possibilities to visit the bodegas and, obviously, sample some of their produce.

Being back among mountains, and free of humidity, is wonderful. Today I set off up a rocky valled full of cacti in search of some apparently beautiful waterfalls. My guide book had suggested it was a straightforward, if fairly lengthy walk…and failed to mention that to get to the waterfall(s) – I only saw one – there’s plenty of scrambling and leaping from stones to cross the river.

Luckily enough, I ran into a group of German girls (also exchange students from Buenos Aires) and a guide, which made things a lot easier. And it was certainly worth the effort to reach the waterfall, take a dip in the pool, and enjoy views like this:


(not my photo  – I’m being too lazy to deal with the ‘hassle’ of uploading from an Internet café, sorry. I’ll get my act together soon!)

I came here yesterday (Friday) from Tucumán, with an overnight stop in the tiny mountain town of Tafí del Valle. The hostel I had booked there, called the ‘Nomade’, had appropriately enuough upped sticks and moved to the other end of town from the address indicated on the website. Once I found it, though, I had a brilliantly relaxed evening watching trashy American movies and chatting over dinner with the couple who run the place and two builders from across the road.

I’m going to permit myself a horribly general observation here: Argentines love to talk. Silence is not one of my great virtues either, so this suits me just fine. It’s never just chat about the weather, either: people will nearly always get stuck in with politics, culture and the economy on the smallest or grandest scale.

Another related (and probably unfair) general observation, then: lightheartedness is not a common national trait. My friends and I had already drunkenly arrived at this conclusion in Córdoba, and I still think there’s some merit to it

Much has been written about Argentina being a nostalgic, backward-looking, melancholic nation. Two examples of this sort of view are on my Christmas wish list – V.S. Naipaul’s The Return of Eva Perón and Miranda France’s Bad Times in Buenos Aires. I’ll let you know what I think.

The city of Tucumán itself (San Miguel de Tucumán) only managed to keep hold of me for half a day on Thursday. There are some interesting things to see, such as the house where Argentine independence was first declared. Sadly, though, the historical monuments and the like are fairly drowned out by the grimey roar of what is another large Argentine city – see my whinings about Córdoba below.

My main memory is of oppressive heat, and of the strangeness of walking through a market selling tinsel and Santa Claus hats in shorts and sweating.

I’m off to the city of Salta itself tomorrow – traveller capital of the northwest, if not of Argentina.

P.S. To attempt to make the title relevant – I passed through a little town yesterday that claimed to have 360 days of sun a year. My British insides churned with jealousy.