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Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Good reasons to visit Buenos Aires

Before I get to today's topic, let me say what just happened a few minutes ago. As I was coming back from my walk/exercising in the nearby park I was asked by an Argentine how to get to the law faculty of the university. That is not all, because I was actually able to tell him where it is and how to get there (!!!!!!) WOW!!!! I can almost feel like a porteño (a resident of Buenos Aires).

Good reasons to visit Buenos Aires?

  1. THE WEATHER. I don't know how it is for the rest of the year but if you live in Europe or North America then December/January is the perfect period to come here. The latitude of Buenos Aires is about 34 degrees South. That is similar like Sidney, Australia, and Cape Town, South Africa. The respective cities in the Northern hemisphere are Los Angeles (34 degrees to the North), Athens (almost 36 degrees North) and Osaka, Japan (34 North). The daily temperature most of the time is close to 30 degrees apart for a few cloudy days when it was a little colder.

  2. THE PEOPLE. I find Argentines very polite and friendly. In fact the are so polite that one might get an impression that they want to be friends with you. Whenever I asked for a way or anything else, I was always treated with utmost respect and friendliness. In fact a good percentage of them speak some English and they are happy to use it once they notice that your Spanish is in the need of a lot of improvement.

  3. PIZZA TO DIE FOR. I don't usually buy pizza at home, but one day I was passing an establishment with a lot of people inside. I went in to discover that this was a pizza place where you can either order a pizza to take it out or eat at a table inside (it has a big restaurant-like room with tables). Intrigued by the popularity I ordered one big pizza Napolitana con Roquefort. Sine I don't usually eat pizza, I had no idea what I am ordering, except that the name Napolitana sounded good to me, and I new that I like Roquefort cheese. I brought it home, made a salad and started my dinner. I COULD NOT BELIEVE HOW GOOD IT WAS! It was just melting in my mouth. OK, the place is called El Cuartito, La Buena Pizza, and the address is Calle Talcahuano 937. If you are here, you must have it! It is about 3 blocks away from Teatro Colon, or the Palace of Justice (Palacio de Justicia).

  4. WINE. They have a great selection of wines and the prices are about 50% lower then in Canada.

  5. CHEESE. I am buying great Roquefort and other cheeses at a place nearby, and like wine, at about half the price of what I would pay in Vancouver.

  6. ARCHITECTURE. I hope to post some pictures soon. I took a lot of them. At the beginning of 20th century Argentina belonged to the richest countries of the world.  The Argentines had great ambitions to transform Buenos Aires architecturally to rival Europe.  However, some are of the opinion that Buenos Aires was at that time more like Dubai is today --  the city had the wealth to pay for the massive rebuilding but it lacked the know-how and had to import talent, labour, and materials from Europe... Nonetheless, what was build then remains until now and it is pleasing to the eye (at least to my eye)

  7. PARKS. There are many parks in the city. Some of them contain countless statues and sculptures. In fact all kinds of various monuments, and statues are posted all over the city. I plan to devote one of the future posts to show some of them.

  8. DO NOT COME HERE TO STUDY SPANISH.  Without going too much into detail, the pronunciation here is strange, and they use "Vos"  instead of "Tu" (singular "you") which conjugates the verbs differently -- a form that is hardly anywhere else used outside of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile.

Posted by J23
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Monday, December 26, 2011
If you have ever been to Mexico City you couldn't possibly have missed the traffic congestion. I didn't travel extensively and it would be false on my part to make any statements concerning the whole world but out of all the cities that I have seen in my life the traffic congestion of Mexico City can only be compared to the one of New York City. If you try to get anywhere by car during the rush hours you are simply stuck there for hours... I've heard that London has similar problems but I haven't experienced that personally – most likely because I have never tried to use a car in London (why would I venture into the roads where everyone is driving on the wrong [left] side?). Especially that London has a very well developed public transportation system.

As far as I recall from my visits to Mexico City, I think that the administration is trying to cope with the traffic congestion problem by introducing a bylaw that limits the cars to only those having even numbers on their registration plates every other day. That means, if your number is even then you can drive in the city on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, etc. I am not sure how it works exactly, but I seem to remember someone telling me something to that effect.

Based on my observation, I think that Buenos Aires does not have such a problem with traffic congestion as Mexico City, New York City, or London. I don't know the reason for that – maybe they have a good road system (they do in the area where I live), or maybe they also somehow legislated the problem if they had one. What I have noticed, however, and what I liked a lot, is that they have a network of bicycle stations all over the city where you can get a bike and ride it FOR FREE. I was happy when I found such a station for the first time. I thought I would be able to rent a bike and ride the streets which would greatly expand the range of places that I could visit in a day. My interest rose after I learned that the service is free. Unfortunately I was soon told that this service is only available to the citizens of Buenos Aires. If you are a permanent resident of the city, then you can register for the service, get you identification number (PIN), which you then provide at each bike station whenever you want to use a bicycle.

The system seems to be well developed, but it does not seem to be very popular. I did not have seen many people using the bicycle. They are just standing there waiting to gain some popularity. Buenos Aires is nothing like Amsterdam where you see thousand of bikes on each street and a great lot of them parked at the train station. Very close to where I live is a street called Calle Montevideo. A part of the road here has been separated for bicycles only, but I hardly ever see any cyclists actually using it.

PS.  I've just noticed that some idiot posted some spam in the comments.  I have removed the spam, but I don't want to be doing that each day so I am disabling the comments, sorry.

Posted byJ23
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Friday, December 16, 2011
Bits and Pieces

If I wrote in one of my previous posts that I could probably blend with the Buenos Aires population, it definitely was not relevant today. Walking in shorts and a T-shirt I was sticking out like a sore thumb. For the last few days we got showers here, and although previous days remain warm as usual (about 25 to 30 degrees Celsius) the temperature dropped today to below 20 degrees, and of course everybody was dressed much warmer. I wasn't cold but I definitely stood out of the crowd. Besides, in my opinion, Argentines, like other men in South America, generally do not wear shorts. So, if you are walking the streets in shorts here, then you are almost certainly a tourist.

I was asked to not write about shopping and prices, but I have to, sorry. Why? Because I am not getting any free lunch here!!! Whenever I went to Latin America before, I was saving on living expenses. The cost of living in Mexico or Ecuador (the two Latin-American countries that I visited so far) is far below the one of Canada. That is not the case here. Apart from the relatively low cost of the apartment rental, the rest of it is not cheep at all, and in some cases the prices are higher then in Vancouver. It should be noted, though, that apart from the location, my apartment is not that great, and I wouldn't pay much more for it anywhere else in the world. As for the cost of food, the prices are comparable to the ones in Vancouver.

On my walk today, I came across something called Sushi Bar. To my amazement, nobody had any sushi, just standard sandwiches, etc. I looked at the menu and I could not find any sushi or sashimi. Only after an extensive examination of the menu I finally came across a small section of Sushi, Maki, and Sashimi items. Surprise, surprise, the prices where about double the ones in Vancouver! But then again, I have already read somewhere before that supposedly Vancouver is one of the best (if not the best) cities in the world for the variety of international cuisine and low cost of dining out...

One thing that is definitely cheep here is the public transport.  I haven't used any buses yet but the subway, which by the way is called "Subte" (short for "subterráneo" which means  "underground") only cost 1.10 peso a ride,  which is about 25 cents.  I think that the price for a city bus ride is the same.  This is definitely very heavily subsidized service!

If you read anywhere about Buenos Aires you will probably sooner or later come across a statement that the city has a very European feel to it and that the architecture is often “French inspired”. I don't remember much of my visit to Paris but I have to indeed agree with that statement. I generally recognize only two architectural styles:

  1. the one that I like

  2. the one that I do not care about

and so far I have seen a lot of buildings here that fit the first category.

When it comes to similarities between Buenos Aires and Paris, then apart from the architecture there is one more thing that strikes me as worth mentioning. I remember that when I went out in Paris for a walk on Christmas Day I had to pay a lot of attention to where I put my feet so as not to step into.... A DOG SHIT! That's right, Parisians do not pick up after their dogs (or at least they did not do that over 10 years ago) and you have to really watch your step if you decide to stroll the streets when the city cleaners have their day off. The same applies to Buenos Aires.

I mentioned before about some “poor people” picking through the garbage on the street. In the meantime I learned a little more. These people a called “cartoneros” (cardboar collectors) and they are actually organized groups that decided to make sorting of garbage their way of living. They remove recyclables (paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, etc) and turn them into the source of their income. After some past unsuccessful recycling programs, the City of Buenos Aires seems to depend on cartoneros to take care of the recycling while leaving this group of self-employed informal workers out of taxation.

It seems that most of the garbage that people put away onto the streets (the black bags) is recyclable goods. This cartonero opens each black bag of garbage, takes out all recyclables and sorts them into three different big grey bags of paper, cartons, and plastic.

A cartonero delivering his daily harvest to the recycling depot.

Posted byJ23
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Monday, December 12, 2011
Cementerio de la Recoleta - Evita's resting place

La Recoleta Cemetery (Cementerio de la Recoleta) is the resting place of many Argentine presidents, writers, artists, intellectuals, and other prominent Argentine figures. Laid out in sections like city blocks, the cemetery contains many elaborate mausoleums, decorated with statues, in a wide variety of architectural styles. It is an impressive site and definitely worth visiting. Rather then describing it I just include a number of photographs that I took a few days ago.

Entrance to the cemetery

The most visited place at the cemetery is of course the resting place of Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, known to the world as Evita. Born at the province as an illegitimate child of a wealthy businessman, at the age of 15 she moved to Buenos Aires dreaming of becoming an actress. She achieved some success mostly due to her beauty. In 1944 she met Colonel Juan Peron, a quickly rising figure in the government. After their marriage in 1945 Evita was instrumental in her husband's presidential campaign. Es the first lady she established Eva Peron Foundation that directed funds to programs benefiting hospitals, schools, senior centres, and other charitable undertakings. She helped to raise wages for union workers and to get the right to vote for women. She died of cancer in 1952, at the age of 33. Because of her impoverished background and the lack of formal education Evita was not accepted by the high society but she was, and still is, loved by the most of the nation and although July 26 it is not an official government holiday, the anniversary of Eva Peron's death is marked by Argentines every year. Out of all places that I saw at the cemetery, only Evita's tomb was adorned by flowers as you can see at the picture below.

The cemetery exit

Posted by J23
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Saturday, December 10, 2011
De donde es usted? Que pais?

Where are you from? Which country? -- I am often asked these questions. Being both Polish and Canadian citizen I answer these questions depending on the situation, although in most cases I say that I am Canadian.

When I was planning my trip to Buenos Aires, I checked the visa requirements. Canadians and Americans do not need visa to enter Argentina but they need to pay an entry fee. If I remember correctly the fee for Canadians is $75. However the citizens of European countries, including Poland, can enter Argentina for the period of up to 3 months without visa, and they do not need to pay any fee. So I decided to enter Argentina as 'un Polaco' to save the $75 entry fee that I would have to pay as 'un Canadiense'.

Since I live in Vancouver I feel Canadian first of all and in most cases I say that I am Canadian. However, I think that Canadians and Americans are often perceived as rich people. To avoid such misconception sometimes I say that I am Polish to avoid being perceived as a wealthy person. Such situation occurred two days ago when I went to see the famous Recoleta Cemetery, the resting place of many of the wealthiest and most important Argentine historical figures. There was a man standing at the entrance to the cemetery who immediately approached me with the question “De donde es usted?” He made the impression of an aggressive sales person so to shake him quickly off I answered “soy de Polonia” (I'm from Poland), to which he immediately cried: Polaco! Lato! Boniek! -- I couldn't help bursting in laugh...

Argentines must indeed be big soccer funs to remember these names. Lato and Boniek were two famous soccer players at the time when Poland was among the best soccer teams of the world. In 1974 at the soccer world cup in Germany Lato was the top player of the games scoring 7 goals. By the way Poland beat then Argentina in the first match 3 to 2 with Lato scoring 2 goals.  At the last mach for the third place of the championship, Lato scored one goal enabling Poland to beat Brazil 1 to 0. The championship was won by the host country (Germany) who in a dramatic final match beat Netherlands 2 to 1.  I remember all that vividly because that was the first soccer world cup that I watched. (I was only 13 then). I believe that Lato is now the president of the Polish Soccer Association. Argentines won the world cup at the next championship in 1978 in Argentina beating the Netherlands in the final match 3 to 1.

Boniek scored the most goals for Polish team at the championship in Spain in 1982 when Poland got third place again after Italy and Germany.  I believe that Lato was also a part of this team.

I planned to write about the Recoleta Cemetery today, but the history of soccer championship from over 30 years ago took too much time and space, so I will continue at the next post...

To keep with the topic of nationalities, I will just add that I find that it is possible to blend with Argentines as, unlike in the other Latin-American countries, many of the Argentines are Caucasian and they look like most Europeans, or North-Americans. Of course, there are other ways of recognizing a tourist (a particular way of dressing or behaviour) but this is secondary, so in my opinion, if you really want to, you can pretend to be an Argentine, as long as you don't have to speak of course... :-)

In the news: Cristina Kirchner was sworn-in today to a second four-year term as the president of the country. She is just having a speech on TV now. I think that the festivities take place at Plaza de Mayo, which is a walking distance away from where I stay. I think I will go there soon to check it out. It seems to be 'una fiesta grande'...

Posted by J23
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Thursday, December 08, 2011
Los Barrios de Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires comprises of 48 'barrios' or districts. Before renting my apartment I asked some people about the best neighbourhoods of the city. I was told that Recoleta is the place to be. Following this advice I rented a place in Recoleta...

I wrote in my previous post that I have seen some signs of opulence in my neighbourhood. Well, that was my comment after the first few hours around here. Now, after one-week-stay, I got to know this area pretty well. It is indeed a very wealthy neighbourhood. Most of the buildings here (if not all of them) have a doorman, and some look 'muy rico' (rich). Some remind me of the buildings at the Fifth Avenue in New York City. About five blocks away is the Alvear Palace Hotel which is probably the most elegant hotel in Buenos Aires.

Alvear Palace Hotel

There is a number of boutiques around here with low inventories but high prices. Today, on the way from Recoleta Cemetery (more about it in the next post) I stepped into Polo Ralph Lauren shop located in a nice mansion. It is actually a small shop with a limited offer but with a large number os sales force and a doorman (who needs that shit!) I made a quick round checking the prices doing my best to stay ahead of the 'helpful' sales people . There was one nice shirt that I would buy if not for the price. It cost over 800 pesos, or about $200. Two years ago I bought a very similar shirt in Mexico for less then $20 (as far as I remember) except that it was without the Polo Ralph Lauren logo on it. Come on, I don't need that bull-shit doorman, just don't ask me to pay $200 for something that  cost you $5 and you added the bull-shit logo to it! I wonder how many empty-headed, vain people fall for that crap... There must be some, or otherwise the business would close. I need to point out that in addition to 5 or 7 people of the staff I was the only 'client' there. But one sucker an hour probably makes more than it is needed to run such a rip off place. I had a number of Polo shirts in my life and I never paid more than $30 or $40 for them, but there was NOTHING at this shop that would cost less than $100.

Looking for slippers I also dropped into the Recoleta Mall. Again, each floor houses just a few shops with limited inventories. One shop carried something close to what I was looking for. The problem was that the label cried for 380 pesos (over $80) while I have exactly the same shoes in Vancouver, which I know are made in China, and which cost about $20 in Vancouver. RIP OFF seems to be the name of the game in RECOLETA.

Two days ago I walked about 4 to 5 km one way to a neighbourhood called Palermo. I like walking, and this is practically the only exercise that I have here so I take the opportunity to walk whenever I can. This way I can experience much more of the city while at the same time soaking up the sun. Palermo is a bigger district and I specifically went to see Palermo Soho. According to my tourist guide Palermo Soho is a bohemian part of the district of Palermo. I didn't experience much of the bohemian ambiance as it only comes alive at night, with a lot of young people supposedly gathering, singing, celebrating (smoking pot? -- don't know, haven't seen it, it was only about 6pm when I was there). In spite of the name, the area reminds me more of the Commercial Street neighbourhood in Vancouver, rather than the Soho of London.

Palermo Soho

Rich and Poor

The garbage is each day put out on the street in front of the buildings. I have seen a few instances of poor people going through that garbage and taking all the valuable stuff out before it gets picked up by the city cleaners. On the other hand, as I was walking back home just an hour ago, I came across a big bag full of fresh French baguettes (probably up to 20kg) that was thrown away by someone. Was that a local restaurant, or just a stupid, rich fuck who couldn't use this stuff up at his birthday party? I guess I will never know that, I just hope that one of the poor folks will come across this bag...

Feel free to comment on the blog, it is possible now.  However, I will disable the commenting at the end of my trip in January.  Sadly, this is necessary so as not to allow spammers put up their nonsense here as it happened before...

Posted by J23
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Thursday, December 01, 2011
Vancouver to Buenos Aires

According to my itinerary the total length of my trip from Vancouver via Seattle and Houston to Buenos Aires was supposed to be 17 hours, the last leg of it from Houston to BA being about 9 hours. However, there must have been some mistake in the itinerary as the flight from Houston to Buenos Aires was actually a little over 10 hours. That's the longest flight I took so far! My annual flights from Vancouver to Europe are always about one hour shorter.

The time difference is 5 hours, which is big enough to make me feel tired and sleep depraved. Actually, although to my understanding this trip was mainly due South, I did not sleep much more over the night then about 3 hours.

The good trend that I noticed on this trip is that most airports (at least the North American ones) now provide free internet WiFi spots. First time I noticed a sign advertising that at the Vancouver airport. Then, out of curiosity, I also checked that in Seattle – good news, it also worked! It was also possible in Houston although there I had to download first some “Boingo Wireless” (or something similar) software to make it work. This all is a great news for me as I find waiting at the airports a very unpleasant part of any trip. Now, I was able to check and answer my email messages, and the time passed fast.

According to my agreement with Marita, the lady who is renting the apartment for me, someone was supposed to meet me at the airport to help me get to the city. She specifically asked me to not go on my own but to wait for a person who would be standing there with my name written on a piece of paper. When I arrived at the Ezeiza Airport there were indeed about 30 people standing, holding all kind of names but I was out of luck finding my name among them. So after about 15 minutes of waiting I decided to call her. I was curious if I can also get wireless access on my computer and call Marita on Skype, but I was out of luck. There is no such service here. So I had to use my charm and ask a local guy with a mobile phone to call Marita and ask her what to do. I was told that no-one will come and I have to take the taxi on my own. I did that, paying 180 Pesos for about a 40 minutes ride. That amounts to about US$45 which I find a little extravagant. Had I known in advance that no-one would wait for me, I would search an option to take a shuttle bus. I travel light, so it wouldn't be difficult for me, and according to the information that I just checked it would only cost me about $10.

One thing that I found confusing is that they also use the dollar sign ($) for Pesos. (Actually they do the same in Mexico). Since American Dollars are very popular here, I was not sure if the prices that I found in the guide to Buenos Aires that I bought in Vancouver actually mean Pesos or US Dollars. Now, after walking the streets and checking some prices, I think that they indeed refer to Pesos.

The apartment that I am renting at the rate of US $900 a month is rather cheap for Vancouver standards. However it is also a very basic one. It is a studio and it practically contains nothing but a bed and a table with a sofa to sit on (+ an old TV, ironing board and iron, radio, and other basic necessities). But the important thing is that the bed is good -- very comfortable and large, probably king size, or at least queen. There is no real kitchen but a tiny kitchenette. But again, not being a chef and not planning to cook any big meals, this is just enough for me. The internet is not wireless, but it works, although I might have to buy a better connecting cable because the one that is in the apartment must have gotten some rough treatment by some previous tenants and tends to slip out of the socket, because someone tore off the little things that hold the cable inside the computer. But it works if you position the computer properly so for now at least as I am able to post this message...

One thing to remember when coming here is that the electricity here is 220V, 50 Hz so it is good idea to make sure that your laptop, mobile phone charger, hair dryer, and/or any other appliances will work here. Actually they usually do nowadays but the problem is with the sockets in the wall. Wherever you travel, each country seem to have their own idea about designing their own sockets (damn it!). North America has one kind, Europe another, UK must of course be different then anybody else and they also have their own design. In Argentina they have yet another one. I knew about it, but did not want to bother with that until coming here. I thought that I would have to go look for a converter for me to be able to use my chargers, but luckily this apartment being a rental already has the convertors plugged into the wall.

The one problem with renting a furnished apartment in Buenos Aires is that everyone is trying to charge you arm and leg for a security deposit. There is nothing in this apartment that could be damaged for more than a $100 but they tried to charge me US $700 damage deposit (!!!!). Eventually, after some negotiation, Marita agreed to charge me only US $500 but I still think that it is a large overkill...

As for location, I cannot say yet, as I only was out for about an hour looking for groceries. I did find a good shop within a walking distance (less then a kilometre away).  Otherwise, Recollect (the area where I am), is supposed to be the most affluent area of BA. Indeed, when I had a short walk around a few blocks to get a feel of the area I did spot some signs of opulence at a few spots.

More when I actually see something here...

Posted by J23
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