Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 45, January 14, 2003

Socialists and Social Unrest, Full Moon Fools, Mountain Anxiety


PHOTOS in the Buenos Aires Gallery:





Left With Lefties

When you’ve been in the land with no people for a while, flying into
Buenos Aires is quite exciting. It’s a megacity – absolutely huge – and from the air you could be flying into London, though I suspect I only made this connection because both use those vomit orange sodium street lamps. Interestingly, hideous though these look compared to ordinary white lights, astonomers are very keen on them. Apparently, they only bugger up their observations in a very narrow part of the visible spectrum. Down on the ground and BA looks more like Paris – wide, tree lined boulevades and elegant six or seven story appartment buildings. No other city in South America is anything like this (well, none I’ve been to) and BA’s much ballyhooed claim to be a European, rather than Latin capital is one with some legitimacy.

We arrived at night and I was sitting with the bags in a café while Jane looked for hotels, the usual division of labour as my standards for accomodation are noticeably lower than hers. On the table next to me were a pair of Sweddes in the mid twenties: she was tall and blonde, while he was gingerish with a goatee and lightweight glasses that looked like they might be made out of titanium or something. Hearing that I was English, they started chatting to me. It turned out that they were here for the World Social Forum, which was naking place somehwere in
Brazil. I had a fair idea what this was, but sometimes it’s fun to play dumb, so I asked him to explain. “Well” he said with a look of supercillious disdain on his face, ‘It is like the World Economic forum but it addresses social issues.” Idly I wondered if any delegate to the World Economic Forum had ever been asked a similar question and replied: “Well, it’s sort of like the world social forum...”

“Oh” I said, “so looking at social injustice, economic exploitation, the gap between rich and poor, that sort of thing.” His girlfriend replied that, yes, that was pretty much it. He then went on to say in a voice rich with condescension: ‘It will be a gathering of left wing intellectuals. Naomi Klein will be speaking – perhaps you have heard of her.’ Oh, dear, as they say, there’s no snob like a socialist. I replied that of course I had, that she wrote ‘No Logo.’” Wasn’t it one of the most brilliant books I’d ever read he asked? A little tired of him, I said, no, not really, adding that while her underlying point wasn’t necessarily a bad one, the whole thing was a bit, well, simplistic, single issue and sort of smacked of student union politics. Of course, I was quoting cravenly from an Economist editorial, but he wasn’t to know that and got a little huffy, especially when I asked him about a couple of rather more intellectually rigourous lefties he didn’t recognise.

But we got over this sticky point and moved on to the place they were staying, just round the corner, where he said, you could get a dorm bed for 15 pesos per person. At this point Jane bounced saying “You’ll never guess what – you can get a four star hotel for $30 a night. How cool is that?” He looked at her rather haughtily and asked if that was the kind of place we always stayed. Jane looked a bit embarassed and said “Of course not, but, you know, it’s good to know – sometimes the difference isn’t that huge.” She then asked our proudly hairshirted chum how much he was paying.

He replied loftily that they were paying 15 pesos apiece for a dorm beds, adding how great their hostel was. Jane replied, “Well you really should look at hotels. For five pesos (under a pound) more, you can get a room with private bathroom and cable.” The blonde’s jaw hit the floor and he looked so unbelievably pissed off – at us, that is, not his hostel. There is, after all, nothing an old school socialist hates to hear more than that all his noble, worthy suffering is completly without a point. I felt a bit sorry for her, being stuck with this neo-calvinist arse. Still, she was in her mid twenties and a good looking girl: she had plenty of time to ditch him, find herself a hunky merchant banker and realise that money can buy quite a lot of happiness.

City Slackers

Actually we had come to
Buenos Aires at the worst possible time. BA follows a Spanish model – that is in the midsummer months more or less everything shuts down. So, on the cultural front, we tried three art museums before deciding we’d made enough of an effort and gave up. Besides the temperatures were hitting 40 degrees, the humidity was hovering around 70 and we really couldn’t be arsed to do anything apart from slouch around in cafes drinking fizzy water and sipping those little coffees that the Argies do so well.

This was actually no bad thing as hanging out is the best thing to do in cities anyway. I mean, if you went to London and went to the Tower and the Tate and the Globe and Covent Garden and all that stuff, well, you would have seen a lot, but you would have experienced very little of the city itself. The other reason is that BA has one of the finest collections of 1920s style restaurants cum cafes in the world. Encouragingly the ministry of culture has set out to preserve these and the city appears not to have attracted the attentions of Starbucks yet, meaning coffee remains both affordable and drinkable.

On our first evening we went to some recently refurbished warehouses by the river that had been turned into restuarants, offices and yuppie duplexes, presumably back when
Argentina had yuppies. Anyway, it was classy, cheap (ish) and...and utterly average. It was a bit like a Conran restaurant in the UK, four months after its opened: you know that although it looks good, the food is pretty mediocre and deep down, no one gives a shit. So, thereafter, we started eating in the old school eateries. And what a revelation these were. For about a tenth of the price we had the kind of unpretentious but absolutely excellent food that used to the hallmark of french bistros. Nothing clever or fused - not a piece of Thai Green polenta in sight - just the kind of supremely tasty grub that good restaurant reviewers tend to get their knickers in a twist over. These are the sort of places where a dozen serrano hams hang from the ceiling, the wine bottles are displayed in pyramids and the waiters have the best moustaches this side of Bagdhad.

Speaking of which, in Latin America and for that matter Latin Europe, you also notice that you have a very different relationship with your waiter. None of this “The customer is king bollocks” (the kind of thing I used to write about with such ersatz enthusiam for business magazines), just a sort of mutual respect. I think that this is because being a waiter is seen as a perfectly dignified and acceptable way to earn a living in these parts. As, of course, it should be. You also notice that jobs don’t split into great and bad. Nobody here is particularly impressed that you work in the media; the difference between a TV producer and a mechanic isn’t what it would be at home; and if you said you were something of a whizz in the financial sector, well, in Argentina these days, you might be throttled. The reason for this relative egalitarianism soon becomes apparent though. People here – like people in Spain and Italy – work to live. Your job does not define who you are and nobody’s impressed if you work until 12 every night. In fact, they’d probably think you were an idiot. Whenever I see the rather more cogenial work – life balance that Latins seem to strike, I am reminded of an American who I met for a business breakfast once, at the rather brisk hour of 6:45. When he asked me how I was, I told him that, to be honest, it was a little early for me. He laughed and told me with barely containable self satisfaction, that he’d already been to the gym and squeezed in a pre-breakfast meeting. What a dick.

Shopping and stropping

Buenos Aires’s other great attraction is shopping. Back when there was peso parity with the dollar it was a terrific place to shop and now that everything is a third the price it is at home this is triply true. Though Ave Florida, the main shopping drag, is actually one of the places where the economic crisis is at its most visible. Not only is every bank (including many UK and US high street names daubed with graffiti and fortified like a garrison, but it is also the scene of an ongoing battle between a street hawkers and local businesses. The former set up camp in pedestrianised Florida a month ago, filling the centre of this fairly elegant walkway with makeshift stalls. Naturally they aren’t allowed to do this, but preventing someone from earning a living is difficult with the economic situation as it is. Meanwhile, the store owners hate these guys, saying that it is like turning Bond Street look like Camden Market, which is true. All of which makes shopping on
Florida a little more exciting than usual. Not only do you get the usual shoppers, you also plenty of noisy protestors and riot police who spend most of their time lounging around in slightly camp, tight fitting uniforms. Disappointingly no actual riots. Still, on the plus side, several shopkeepers did ask ask us how the death of Lady Di affected us perosnally. Which was sweet of them.
On to geek culture and one interesting cultural thing I have noticed in BA – and nowhere elese – is that, for a couple of extra pesos an hour, one can get a "private booth" in an internet cafe. Given the net’s most popular us, this is a sensible development. Here at least, those who cannot afford broadband erotica in their living rooms are nonethless afforded a measure of privacy as they poke around the web's grubbier corners. As a firm believer in egalitarianism, I can only assume that this represents the democratisation of internet porn with dignity. It is to be applauded.

Full Moon Compunction

Pleasant though Buenos Aires is, I was glad to leave it – the heat was so bad, I almost went mad in a trainer shop – and head back to Mendoza. Actually the latter is equally hot, but smaller and, with its urban forest of trees, it is a rather nicer place to be when the mercury hits 35C. I guess it must be tourist season in Mendoza because the first three hotels were tried were full. We ever tried a traveller place where Jane was blanked when she said ‘Hola’ to a sulky looking Eurochick (hey c’mon aren’t we all part of the great community of travellers?) Here we couldn’t help but notice they were offering “Full Moon Kayaking.” And why not? It is, of course, a central tennet of the traveller faith that if something is good under normal circumastances, it must be doubly good by the light of the full moon. Seriously though, how f--king stupid can you get? There are many things which are better done with a full moon: convenience store hold ups, making love to that special lady, drinking fine wine and abusing certain drugs. But paddling a stupid undersized canoe down a river full of rocks?? Still, there were almost a dozen names on the list.

Alas this particular mecca for lunar frolicks was full but we found a nice hotel a few doors down, which probably didn’t serve bonkers banana pancakes, but was full of Latin businessmen who, quite unlike South American travellers, have impeccable manners and are interested in people other than themselves.

Moutain Anxiety

The other reason we came back to Mendoza is to climb Mt Aconcagua (6964m), the highest peak in the Andes (and also the Western Hemisphere). It seemed like such a cool idea a month ago; now it is rather nearer and more terrifying. Still, with any lucky I'll be down in a couple of weeks; otherwise it'll be 40 years until my miraculously preserved corpse pops out of the bottom of a glacier.

More info on http://www.aconcagua.org