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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Buenos Aires Beaches.

If you look at the map you will see that Buenos Aires is located at the shore of a small bay in the Atlantic Ocean. So, naturally you would expect nice beaches all around Buenos Aires, right? Wrong! What looks like a small bay is actually a big mouth of the river Rio de La Plata. The waters of the river are very muddy and absolutely unsuitable for any kind of swimming.

Notice the color of the water.

Sorry, no beaches in Buenos Aires!!!  The closest beach resort is probably Punta del Este in Uruguay, across the river where Rio de La Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean. The closest beach resort in Argentina is Mar del Plata at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It takes 4 to 5 hours by bus or train to get there or less than an hour by a plain. I didn't go to any of these two resorts and consequently I cannot offer any comments.


Did I mention where to stay in Buenos Aires? Of course you can use hotels, but if you come for a little longer, then this might be an expensive proposition. As an alternative I suggest exchanging your own home for one in Buenos Aires. Follow the link to browse Buenos Aires Home Exchange.

The other option is to do what I did, which is renting a furnished apartment. Here is the list of Buenos Aires Vacation Rentals.

Posted by J23
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Thursday, January 05, 2012
Subte Price Increase

Next week the cost of subway tickets (Subte) will be increased from 1.10 peso to 2.50 pesos. It is all over the news, and people seem not to be happy about that. Of course not, but it will still be dirt cheap. You cannot buy much for less then 10 pesos here. Newspapers cost about 4 pesos, one small piece of pizza 6-8 pesos, a cup of  tea or coffee, depending on the place 10 to 30 pesos, 500ml. of beer: 20 to over 30 pesos. Bills in the shops are usually rounded to the nearest quarter ( If the bill is 47.68 you will probably pay 47.75). The only place where 10 centavos have still been used was probably the subway, so I think that the 127% increase in the price of the tickets next week will hardly be noticed. The public transport will remain dirt cheap.

By the way, I recently figured out that if I took a city bus to the airport on my way back I would only pay 2 pesos (about 50 cents).  When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I took a taxi from the airport and payed 180 pesos (ouch !!!!!) However, it takes almost two hours to get to the airport by city bus, and I don't think that I want to do that. I will take a shuttle bus that costs 60 pesos (about $15) and cuts the travel time by more than 50% (it takes about 50 minutes instead of 2 hours).  Yes, I am extravagant sometimes... :-)

Posted by J23
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Wednesday, January 04, 2012
Casas de Cambio and Throwing Paper

Cristina Kirchner, who last October has been elected for the second term of presidency had a successful surgery today to remove her thyroid cancer. We wish her good luck and quick recovery...

Her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who was the President of Argentina from May 2003 until December 2007, when Cristina took over the presidency for the first time, died out of heart failure in October 2010.

One person can serve as a president for only two consecutive terms in Argentina, but that person may again be elected after a term away from power. It seems like the plan of Mr. and Ms. Kirchner was to keep the presidency in the family for a number of years, but the heavens seemed to have had a different plan for them as was evident by Mr. Kirchner's passing away over a year ago...

One of the challenges that Cristina faced at the onset of her presidency was high inflation. She was accused of misreporting the true inflation figures in order to make a false impression of handling the problem. Whether this is true or not, the fact is that for whatever reason the present policy is to keep a tight grip on the flow of funds. The direct affect of this policy on people like myself is that it is a big chore for anyone to exchange foreign currency. Once you go to “casa de cambio” to make an exchange, each time you have to present your passport and give the address where you stay. Each time the clerk types that information into the computer before making any exchange. As a result even the simples exchange operation takes 5 to 10 minutes to perform. That results in big line-ups at the exchange places. After going through that nonsense two or three times I decided to avoid that by exchanging my dollars on the black market where the operations are as efficient as they should be and exchanging a hundred dollar bill for pesos doesn't take more than 10 to 20 seconds.

This kind of government control will always result in failure. If the government-approved ways are inefficient the black market will always take over. I have seen that in the socialist Poland in the 80's when exchanging foreign currency (mainly American Dollars) legally was next to impossible but the business was just booming on the black market. And the same thing I am observing now in Argentina. As a result of such faulty policies the government looses as it is not able to control the flow of funds, tax the exchange businesses, etc.

During festivities Argentines like to throw in the air huge quantities of small pieces of paper. I am not sure if this custom is also practised in other South-American countries, maybe so, but I have observed it here. Sometimes you can see it at the stadiums at soccer matches. I have seen it on the TV report from Cristina Kirchner's inauguration to her second term of presidency earlier in December. Millions of small pieces (maybe a quarter or an eights of a standard page size) of white and blue paper (Argentine's national colours) were floating in the air from time to time. When I went to the Plaza de Mayo a few hour later, I could see the large amount of paper lying on the ground.

This custom is also performed at the end of each year at the last day of work of that year. This year that was Friday, December 30. The office workers cut all kind of paper into small pieces and throw them through the windows. This time the problem is much worse, as this is done not in one isolated area of festivities that is relatively easy to clean afterwards, but all over the city.  For this and next few days the streets are simply littered with paper pieces, some of them being very small pieces from paper shredders...

Streets after the last day of work in the year.

Posted by J23
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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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Sunday, January 02, 2011

"Pobre" means "poor" is Spanish.  Although I might have mentioned sometimes about some people living in less then desirable conditions, I did not really focus on that so far.  This is actually peculiar considering the fact that I came here to work with the children of poor families.  The interesting thing is that when the children come to the foundation here to have a meal and to play they are usually relatively well dressed and clean.  No one would ever suspect in what conditions they really live...

Yesterday and today I went for walk in parts of town where our children come from.  Unfortunately I did not take my camera with me to document what I have seen.  Actually I didn't have my camera for a reason.  I was warned that if I showed up with a camera in some of these places, it might be dangerous not only to my camera (it would be taken away) but also to me. 

When I came back today I took my camera and went once again to a place where I had seen an elderly lady sitting in front of her house (a shack, actually). I thought it would be a great picture.  Maybe it wouldn't be good enough for posting in The National Geographics but I hope that it would make some impression on the readers of this blog (assuming that anyone reads it -- if you do, please let me know and write a comment below).

However,  the lady did not let me take a picture of her.  I usually don't steal closeup shots of people, especially if they are living in poverty, without asking them for permission first -- I think that especially poor people might not want to be photographed because of their pride.  I don't know why the lady did not allow me to take the picture -- was it because of her pride, or for any other reason?  She was talking to me a lot and fast, and all I could understand was the she did not want the picture to be taken.  I offered her 50 cents that I had in my pocket but she wouldn't budge.  I know that 50 cents is not a big bribe but some people here work the whole week for only about $30, which makes about $6 a day...

This is the second time that I was refused by an older lady (!!)... :-)   Actually, I mean that I was refused  by an older lady to be photographed.  I didn't really ask for anything else... :-)  The same happened to me on Dec. 30 (or was it 31?)  when I walked around the better part of town taking pictures.  There was also an elderly lady standing in the doorway looking interesting (at least to my eyes).  She also refused to be photographed and went away...   An elderly man with a cat at his feet also did not want to be photographed at first but I did manage to convince him, just using my charm, rather then truing to bribe him.  He is one of the faces that I posted in my blog that day. Hint:  look for the cat at his feet!

So, I did not take any pictures of the really poor neighborhoods. What I can show, however, is a few pictures that were taken by Iza soon after my arrival here.  Iza and Jarek spent with us a few days here at the foundation.  They are two Polish mountain climbers who somehow found out about the foundation and paid us a visit for a few days before their return home. They arrived here a few hours before my arrival on Dec. 12, and after spending 4 or 5 days with us, went back to Poland. While they were here, a few of us went to visit a mother with two children.  For the security we went in the company of Rosa, an Ecuadorian lady who also volunteers for the foundation.  Iza had her camera with her and she took a few photographs of the area that we were visiting.  The area is called La Poza ("the well" in Spanish).  It is actually an area of buildings built on swamps.  Why these people live there?  Because it is a wasteland and it doesn't cost much to rent a space there.  Every penny (or 50 cents, for that matter) counts, if you make $30 a week, or if you have no job at all and live with two children...

This is the lady and the child that we visited

These are all her possessions
No bathroom, no running water (except when it rains, of course)

Here are her neighbors with a much bigger house. 
There might be 10 to 15 people living in it.

And another neighbor...

Closeup of the boy we visited

Another curious neighbor of his

This boy came out to show off his bicycle...

Posted byJ23
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Saturday, January 01, 2011
Ventanas was partying at 3 am when I went to bed, an it was still the same after 9am when I got up.  Nothing has changed until now, in the early afternoon.  Music is everywhere...

Shortly before midnight I took my camera and went out to record the welcoming of the New Year party.  Unfortunately I did not recharge the batteries and the camera refused to co-operate just after a few shots...   But I think that I covered the most of what there was to cover.  The few fires that I encountered were not as spectacular as I expected.  And I did not know where to go to see the more dramatic ones.

Thanks God this artistic creation wasn't destined for burning. 
It was still there half an hour later, when I came back although it was being dismantled.

I wasn't the only one driven by curiosity.  I noticed a family of six that seemed to be as much intrigued as myself.   Did you think that they wouldn't make it without a minivan?

These guys will be burned soon...

They are burning now.  I took the shot from farther away, as they were filled with firecrackers

And here is another poor soul.  I wonder who he/she was and why he/she deserved to be burned.

Of course, since I am making this post, it only means that I came back home in one piece and no-one raped me or took away my camera...   At least not yet.
Posted byJ23
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Friday, December 31, 2010

In one of my previous posts I included some pictures of paper heads.  I did find some of them well done and interesting.  They actually resembled some real faces and you could see that they were made by artists.  I was curious about their meaning.   It turns out that they are not being sold the whole year around but only in the period proceeding the  New Year.  I was surprised to learn that they will be burned tonight. 

The Ecuadorians say goodbye to the old year by burning some symbols of misfortune. They build dummies that represent a person, an event or activity that resulted in a negative impact on the community or someone's well-being.  This might be a politician, a judge, or other community leader (or maybe even a neighbor ?) whose actions you disapprove of. If this is a prominent figure then the appropriate head  can be bought and fixed at the top of a dummy to represent the person. Hence so many masks are being sold all over the country.  At the midnight the dummies are being burned.

I think that the above explained idea was the origin for all kinds of other figures and creatures being made and sold on the street for the purpose of burning.  It seems that nowadays people not only burn the bad figures from the past year, but also all kind of other well known figures from the movies, shows, etc. Therefore, today's burning lost, in my opinion, the significance of burning away the misfortunes of the past. It seems that it just became a very original way of greeting the New Year. Especially that also some fireworks are added into the burning figures and also competition are being held in some places for a most elaborate and most interesting structures to be burned.

I went to town today to take some more pictures.  They are without any particular order.  Just shots that I found interesting.  I hope that they give you a peak into the life in the Ecuadorian rural community.   I managed to take some picture of the figures that will be burned tonight.  I might go out before midnight to see the happening.  If I will be allowed to do that by my mates who are a little paranoid about the danger here.


Posted byJ23
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Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Some news from the morning paper (not that I read it myself – my Spanish skills are far below this level):
  1. A 33 years old Italian chef from Toronto met a lady from Guayaquil, Ecuador, over the internet. He came over this week to visit her. He was killed by the lady's former boyfriend a few hours after his arrival to Guayaquil.
  2. An overloaded bus with over 60 passengers fell down the cliff last week. 36 people dead. The latest news is that the driver NEVER HAD A DRIVER'S LICENCE (!!!!)
  3. A 24 year old woman found dead in her home. Shot in the head.

I am not sure if all the above is “newsworthy” but I do have the impression that someone's life doesn't count for much here. Maybe it it the same in “my world” and I just don't pay much attention to that. I never read the accidents/crime reports in Vancouver.

Yes, the streets ARE being cleaned here.  The writing on the garbage cart says that this is a municipal service.  By the way the city mayor, Carlos Carriel, didn't pass the opportunity to put also his own name on the cart. In fact the city's website is nothing but one big advertising campaign for Mr.  Carlos Carriel.  If you've got some power then you make sure to use it well to get more power...

Posted byJ23
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Monday, December 27, 2010

The name of the kid I mentioned yesterday is Genderson.  If he is not "adopted" yet, you can "adopt" him or any other child of the foundation by going to the page:

I wrote "adopt" in parenthesis because it is not a real adoption.  It is so called "adoption at a distance" which means that you can support the child by donating $34 a month or $408 a year to the foundation. The funds are used for providing the needy children with a one good meal a day, as well as for their  education and health care, if necessary. 

The English version of the foundation needs a lot of improvements but I am currently working on it and it will be updated hopefully soon.  The problem is that I don't have a direct access to the website and all the updates need to be sent to a person in Poland who is in charge of the website.

On Christmas Day I went for a walk around town and I came across a cemetery. It was an interesting experience for two reason. First of all the cemetery looks like I have never seen anywhere before. Some bodies are buried in the ground the way I am used to seeing, but most of them are buried over the ground in a special concrete receptacles built on the ground one over the other. They look in fact like miniature buildings and the whole cemetery reminds me of a miniature city. The other interesting thing that I observed that day was that some families came to the cemetery to share their dinner with the members of the family who passed away. So they were eating and drinking in front of the graves, celebrating Christmas Day together...

Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me that day, and I could not record that. For that reason the next day I went to the cemetery once again, but there were no “parties” there any more. Following are a few photographs that I took that day (yesterday).







Posted byJ23
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Sunday, December 26, 2010

No, I'm not a good blogger. Within over two weeks that I am here in Ecuador, I only managed to make two posts. OK, here is the third one...

So far there is no news about solving the murder of the Polish priest that I mentioned in my first post here. However people suspect that he was murdered because he tried to seek justice.

He was robbed some time in the past. Instead of just letting it go like most people do here he was seeking justice. He knew the people that robbed him and supposedly he tried to put the legal system to do its job. Unfortunately for him he wasn't a man of influence and neither had he any powerful friends. He received some threatening phone calls to just drop the case. Some of his friends told him to take it seriously and leave the town. He wouldn't... Officially there is still no news about the reason for the murder or who did it. His friends say that it was the natural outcome of his seeking justice.

I am constantly reminded whenever I go into town to be careful. Actually I was advised to never go alone anywhere. Ventanas is a small town in the middle of nowhere and a foreigner sticks here out like a sore thumb. I take the warnings with a grain of salt but I am careful when I walk the streets alone. I try to not take more than $10 with me when going out and hide my camera in the pocket. I also try to have my eyes on my back. So far I felt always safe and the people were always nice and friendly to me. In fact, since the foreigners are so rare here, I enjoy having some special attention from the people.

But when it comes to the crime, it is best to not have enemies here. Jasiu told me yesterday about a case of a lawyer that was killed just a few months ago. One day, after winning a case for his client about some land dispute he was having dinner at a restaurant. Two guys drove by on a motorcycle and shot him dead. Police did find them. It turned out that they were killers for hire from Colombia. They go $60 for the job! No, this is not a typo – it was SIXTY DOLLARS ONLY! In light of this it becomes clear why you don't want to have enemies here. At least not such enemies that have $60 at their disposal. Even for Ecuadorians this is not that much money. A monthly income of a teacher is about $400. Life is cheap here but death comes even cheaper!

I did some internet search. Here are some excerpts from the article “Ecuador police chase Internet-based killers for hirehttp://www.zeenews.com/news634557.html:

“Did your boss fire you and you want revenge? Do people refuse to pay money they owe and laugh at you?" read the ad of a hitman offering his services in the Guayaquil area.

The advertiser promises “discretion... 100 per cent efficiency, and we deliver pictures to the client” to confirm that the job was done. [...]

In Guayas province in 2009 there were 321 homicides and 1,032 assassinations, a toll that deputy Interior Minister Edwin Jarrin called "alarming."

Victims include a legislator's wife and a cousin of the head of the National Transportation Council, both shot by unknown gunmen.

Advertised prices range from 400 to 3,000 dollars, depending on whether the victim "has a lot of money, is an authority or is a regular person," Gagliardo said.

To finish this post with a more optimistic note, here is a picture of one of the many children I take care of.  His name is... sorry, don't remember - I am still learning them. Isn't the future of Ecuador just bright?

Posted byJ23
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Spanish name of the country “República del Ecuador“ literally translates to the “Republic of the Equator.”

Jasiu belongs to a Roman Catholic religious order “Society of the Divine Word” (Societas Verbi Divini) or “Divine Word Missionaries". The first two nights we spent in Quito being accommodated by the missionaries.

The elevation of Quito is close to 3 km. and as a result it is rather cold there. I was very disappointed by the fact that the temperature wasn't any higher there then that of Vancouver that I just left behind...

The second day of my stay, Saturday, December 11, we spent visiting interesting places of the capital. The historical center of Quito, along with Krakow, Poland, were the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in 1978.

We visited a few churches. One of them, The Church of the Society of Jesus, is decorated inside with an incredible amount of gold – it reminded me very much of the “Church of Santo Domingo” in Puebla, Mexico, with its “Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary”.

Of course, it is a must for any newcomer to Quito to visit the Equator Museum. At the equator eggs can be balanced upright on the head of a nail (see picture) , and the Coriolis effect can be observed -- water drains straight down the drain on the equator, while just a few feet south of the equator it drains in a counterclockwise direction, and clockwise just a few feet north of the equator. That is a very interesting phenomenon to observe.

At the same spot there is also a museum of very primitive tribes of the Amazonian people of Ecuador.

Posted by Jan
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Welcome to Ecuador. A Polish priest was brutally murdered last week...

After an uneventful, eleven-hours flight from Vancouver, with a stop-over in Houston, I arrived in the capital city of Ecuador late in the evening of Friday, Dec. 10.  At the small Quito airport I was greeted by father Jan who asked me to call him by his Polish nickname Jasiu. The Catholic Church sent him as a missionary to Ecuador fourteen years ago. About five years ago he established The St. Joseph Freinademetz SVD – Fu Shen Fu Foundation with the aim of helping needy children. The foundation is the reason of my being here. I came here to volunteer for a month.

To pick me up, Jasiu came from a little place called Ventanas, where I will be spending the next month. Soon after we took our seats in the Toyota he broke the news: a Franciscan priest from Poland got murdered recently. He was buried at the day of my arrival, December 10. It was a very brutal, execution style murder. The murderers broke into his apartment and waited for him while he had a Mass at his church. He was tortured, his fingers were broken, he had many wounds all over his body and his throat was cut. The blood was all over the apartment... Everyone is left guessing about the reason for the murder.  He lived in the city of Santo Domingo, over 100km away from Quito, on the way to Ventanas.

From the airport Jasiu took me to the house of the Polish consul, Tomek, where I met several other countrymen, who just came back from the funeral...

Robbery is not a big news in Ecuador. It is a common daily occurrence. First two years of his mission Jasiu spent in Guayaquil, a seaport and the country's biggest city. Within that period of time he was mugged seven times there. The problem is so wildly spread that the police hardly ever even investigates such cases. Supposedly you don't even have a case for the police if you were robbed for an amount lower then $700. But the case in Santo Domingo wasn't a robbery – it was an execution...

It seems that there are some interesting times ahead of me...

Posted byJan Koncewicz
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Thursday, October 04, 2007
Blankenese and “Planten un Blomen”

We spent most of my second day in Hamburg cycling to the places I haven’t seen before.   Very interesting was the bicycle route from Hamburg Altona underground station, along the north bank of the river Elbe, to very affluent suburbs called Blankenese. Historically it was a small fishing village going back as much as 1000 years. It has always been closely connected to the sea, through either fishing or later trading with sailing vessels.  Even to this day the area retained its old fishing village atmosphere from past times, with well preserved fishermen's cottages, perched precariously on the steep hillside overlooking the Elbe. Interestingly these houses belong now to the most prestigious addresses of the whole Germany.

The only proper way of seeing Blankenese is to walk it.  It is very hilly with plenty of steep climbs and valleys. There are very few roads and many houses can only be reached by climbing up or down countless steps to be found in the maze of small ways.  In fact the whole area towards the south of Blankenese and facing the Elbe is known as the “Treppenviertel” - the Steps Quarter!  Indeed it is very unusual sight compared to the most of the North German plains, and I felt like I was somewhere in Italy rather than in the suburbs of Hamburg.

The second highlight of the day was the visit to the park “Planten un Blomen”  (Plants and Flowers) located in a close proximity to Alster Lake.  It is an oasis of tranquility in the heart of the city, with old Botanical Gardens, tropical greenhouses, and one of Europe's largest Japanese Garden.  A small lake inside the park futures water games during the day and a colourful water-light show at night.

We arrived  at Planten un Blomen  on our way back from Blankenese, after loading our bikes onto a river boat, which took us close to the center of the city.  I was glad to experience the water-light-and-music show that starts at 10pm each night in the summer.  It is a great experience, absolutely not to be missed by any visitor to Hamburg.

Blankenese, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg Home Exchange


Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Hamburg on a Bicycle.

I’ve been to Hamburg many times before but it has never been my favorite German city.  If I had a choice I would rather spent the week in Munich instead of Hamburg.  I did not have the choice, as my friends live in Hamburg, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Hamburg does also have its charm.

Hamburg, GermanyFirst of all, bicycles are a very popular means of transportation in Germany, even in such large cities as Hamburg. At almost each street there is a paved way for exclusive use by the cyclists.  I learned that my friend Mark rides his bike each day almost 20km from home to work and the same distance back. That makes the total of about 40 km of cycling a day!  Surely that converts into his great fitness level, as well as into substantial saving on petrol which is rather expensive in Europe. 

Both of my hosts (Teresa and Mark) took vacation for the week of my visit so that they could devote their time to the enjoyment of my stay in Germany.  It had been decided behind my back, that we will be seeing Hamburg on bicycles.  They had several of them in their garage for me to choose from.  Hamburg is a large city, so it is difficult to get everywhere on bicycle.  However, the good thing is that except for rush hours, you can take your bicycle with you to the underground (subway) if you need to take it to a far away destination.  There is no additional cost for doing that.

Elbe, HamburgI did not ride a bicycle for many years, and cycling the streets of Hamburg was quite an interesting experience.  We had a very pleasant and long ride in the first afternoon after my arrival. We stopped for a snack in a Turkish bistro around Harburg Rathaus (Harburg is a suburb of Hamburg were my friends live) and continued to the center of Hamburg.  We were planning to circle the Alster See, a lake in the center of Hamburg that was created in 13th century by damming a tributary of the River Elbe. 

The lake, surrounded by parks and trees, is now an integral part of the cityscape and lends Hamburg its unique atmosphere.  In the 17th century the 18-hectare Binnenalster (Inner Alster) was separated from the 160 hectares Außenalster (Outer Alster) and is flanked by three promenades: the Ballindamm, Jungfernstieg and Neuer Jungfernstieg, with elegant shops and hotels.

Hamburg RathausAfter having a beer near Hamburg Rathaus (home of the City Council and Senate) we just started our tour around the Alster See when the rain came.  We were forced to abandon our farther cycling plans, and to seek shelter at one of the many restaurants.  Then we had a quick dash to the underground station and took a train back home.

I was tired in the evening and my butt was hurting but I did not have this kind of fun for a long time…

Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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