Thursday, June 25, 2009

Where the Countryside Runs City Hall

Lately, I've spent weekends in the countryside surrounding Buenos Aires getting to know gauchos, horses, polo instructors, and smaller towns and cities. I am writing about them at the moment and wanted to share with you. Highlights of the trips include:
1) A mini Notre Dame just outside BA in a town that is like the 50s movie "Carousel" with a bit of Europe and Mexico blended together.
2) English gardens with fountains and pools and groves of bamboo in the middle of the Argentine Pampas
3) Main Street in Carmelo straight out of an old Western with vintage bikes and cars and row boats
4) The Four Seasons Resort outdoor shower
5) Gaucho songs on guitar sung by Oscar the Gaucho at El Ombu estancia in San Antonio de Areco
6) A bitter chocolate shake in San Antonio de Areco
7) The ferry from BA to Colonia
8) Driving dirt roads in the Uruguayan countryside
9) Steak in Uribelarrea, the town where Coppola filmed his latest
10) Horseback riding through the enchanted forest at Bella Vista, the country home of Felicitas Guerrero, legendary 19th century belle of BA who met a tragic end

While researching the towns and ranches and polo fields, I happened to have a class on the history of Argentina. I read about the generals and presidents while I got to see a couple of their country homes. And I got a real sense of what a role the agricultural elite play here. With GDP supported by meat and grain mostly, the people I met who breed cattle and horses are some of the few with access to capital. It's a strange nation where the countryside is more powerful than the city centers.

I went to Iguazu for the weekend with a friend from Seoul and we got wet and wild with some raucous Argentine grandmas on a boat ride. We stayed in a hostel and waddled home after dinner on across the Brazilian border. The falls are powerful. The animals were hiding and nature was somber under all the concrete and steel of the park. We had fun in the heavy rains on the sole dirt trail, road the color of red clay with the occasional Tucan overhead.

Iguazu was the polar opposite of the weekends spent with polo lessons and uniformed servants in country manors. Late night bus rides after school to shuttered ranch/villas with underground tunnels and watch towers from colonial days. Every estate had its story and its organic vegetable garden and cattle and horses. Some were more famous than others, some more rustic, some aging and some with a shiny makeover. They're all going in the guidebook on polo and ranches near Buenos Aires.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The other side of the peso

It took me two years but I'm finally finding out the other side of the story here in Buenos Aires. There's always another side, right? The sour to the sweet and the explanations as to, "But why is it like that?"

I've spent the past 6 weeks traveling weekends as a contributing writer for Perfect Places in Argentina and Uruguay. And I've spent week nights for the past 2 months at the Universita di Bologna satellite campus in Buenos Aires. Where I'm studying International Affairs with an emphasis in European Union - Mercosur relations. I plan to write my thesis on the effect of mobile foreign labor on the local market, currently and historically.

Historically was added when I found out the reason the University of Bologna, Italy has a campus in Buenos Aires is because of that particular phenomenon - mobile foreign labor. Italians used to do in Argentina what people from Puebla, Mexico do in NYC, for example. Leave their home to do their time (10 years is the going period), work for low wages, save their money, then go home and buy property. Thereby changing their economic class (and collectively their country's) in a way their own country didn't afford them. There's enough Italy left here in Buenos Aires that it made sense for Europe's oldest university to set up a place for Italian citizens-by-heredity to study and then have an extended stay in their family's motherland. Mobile labor left its legacy.

As I learn about Latin American history and specifically the history of the Argentine economy, I learn the things that have been left unsaid. Like in any myth, there are characters that have been left out and facts have been omitted or changed. There is a lot unsaid that exposes flaws but also goes a long way to explain the paradoxes of life in Buenos Aires. More importantly for me personally, I realize I'm only just getting past the mirage. They put up a lovely front but below it there's a lot of stank like anywhere else. And children rifling through the garbage seems to be only the beginning. But since this isn't the receptacle for any trashing of the place I've come to love, I'll leave it at this list of recently discovered facts:

1. The military dictatorship that disappeared tens of thousands is not to be defended in any way. But I find it important to have learned that they took power after years of leftist terrorism that included its own disappearances and tortures, plus bombings, kidnappings for ransom, and public executions. Much of the country had supported far left guerrillas who amassed over $150 million from robbing the government through massive violence. It's in fact strange I have never heard any back story. Might have to do with the next.

2. People lie here. A lot. It is considered preferable to lie than to say something that isn't gooey sweet. I don't think it's even considered lying if it's nicer than the truth. Women expect men to cheat and lie. A lot.

3. There's no real middle class so people with any purchasing power are like the upper class somewhere else. And spending time with them you note that friendship is a business, no one trusts anyone, and they're very uninteresting people for the most part. Except for the self-made, of course, but that's only the landed elite who have scraped something together to keep their land, some kind of entrepreneurial something which makes them actual middle class with purchasing power. There are not many of those and they spend much of their time outside of Argentina in places like Brazil, North America and Europe. The children of the former are in my graduate program, unfortunately. With the exception of a few lawyers and professionals, they are wasted space and the general feeling is B-level 1950s Swiss boarding school. I'm obviously out of my element there, aside from being the only non Latin person, I usually feel like the only person from the present.

4. (This one I knew but it doesn't cease to amaze). There is no such thing as capitalism here because no one trusts Argentine money. They believe in owned objects, they believe in jobs but for them time isn't money and giving a customer change is more trouble than making the sale. It's just the way it is.

5. It's feudalism because this country never had land reform. It never experienced industrialization. There were no natives left to fight for their stake in the country. They were nomadic to begin with and they were driven out or killed by 1880. There were never peasants, only haciendas. Then when agriculture became big business the land was easy enough to work with few workers (cattle ranching) or with laborers who were immigrants from Europe who maintained their European citizenship (again, I defer to the students in my program who all have Italian citizenship passed down from their great grandparents). So other than the few wealthy landowners, no one had a claim to land, unlike in countries all over the world that transitioned from feudalism to capitalism. Argentines didn't.

6. This place is a chaotic story of what happens when a country doesn't follow the rules that everyone else does - economically, politically. Brazil is prospering today because it has industry. Argentina doesn't. It is the land of anarchists and mafia strongmen, and Basques, and Nazis and Jews alike, and charismatic personalities. It has the strongest unions on the planet and no economic or political foundation and it likely will continue to rely on food exports with prices that continue to decline every year.

People get along remarkably well, that is still the hallmark of my fascination with this place. But I am no longer its greatest fan. I see Argentina's flaws and they make me like the US that much more. It's important to see both sides.