Politics and corruption go together like fish and chips, both served in newsprint. Nowhere is this more true than in Argentina, a country of haves and have-nots where the haves keep having and the have nots do not.
Buenos Aires is the political and corrupt capital of Argentina, a city saved by its aristocratic good looks and cultured upbringing. A seductive city that never sleeps, seldom bores and always captivates. It is a city of contrasts. It has all the elegance of the old world and all the hip grit, street art and graffiti of the new. It is a European city with latin passion. It has wide boulevards lined with trees and glorious belle epoque architecture where the haves spend their lives in splendid opulence
But it also has narrow cobbled alleyways lined with tiny crumbling homes where the many struggling artists live cheek by jowl with their fellow have nots. And these are the fortunate have nots. The less fortunate live truly desperate lives crammed into tiny brick cubes and tin shacks in areas tourists are not invited to see, or simply drive over, oblivious to the “have absolutely nothings” barely existing below
Back in the smarter areas of town, there are the dustily elegant tango bars, with their faded velvet curtains and ornate furniture filled with impeccably dressed men with slicked back hair, and elegant women in tight dresses and high heels with flowers in their hair.
This, you understand is a generalization. Not everyone who dances the tango looks like this. Once upon a time, perhaps they did, but not any more
Then there are the brew pubs, noisy and raucous, with their hard surfaces and uncomfortable bar stools, filled with the next generation of hipsters, spilling out onto the sidewalk with their boisterous enthusiasm, full of hope and optimism.
Argentinians are a people preoccupied with just three things; politics (read corruption), football, and the tango. Even our taxi driver (a woman) asked if we could tango and when we replied that we couldn’t, immediately told us of the best places to go for tango classes.
Their preoccupation with politics and corruption is understandable. In the 1890’s they were rated as the most prosperous country in the world and for the next couple of decades remained in the top five. Barely a hundred years later they find themselves again in the top five, but this time it is a very different list – that of the countries with the highest rate of inflation, where they join the likes of Venezuela and South Sudan. Argentina is struggling to stay financially relevant while coping with an inflation rate of over 40% .
Meanwhile the people get poorer because wages do not keep pace. A local guide tells how his family can no longer afford to shop at Carrefour, the local supermarket. A local doctor tells us how he works harder each year for less money.
Inflation is such a problem that it makes pricing expensive items in pesos almost impossible. Consequently houses and cars are priced and sold in dollars. We even found caviar priced in dollars on a restaurant menu when everything else was priced in pesos. (I just dropped that nugget into the conversation so that you know that we are only eating at the very best of places!) So, even more interestingly, these houses and cars must be paid for in dollars, in cash. Banks will not transfer funds. Our friends who bought a house here a few years ago had to meet the sellers at their bank. Their bank prepared the purchase amount in carefully counted packs of bills, (we are talking six figures ). Contracts were exchanged, the dollars were handed to the seller who carefully hid them about his person (don’t ask!) and nervously walked them to his bank down the road, trying to look as if he was out for a stroll. So in Argentina should you stop and comment on someone’s “big booty” it could take on a whole new meaning. If Kim Kardashian visited Buenos Aires she would be robbed the moment she stepped out on the street
Every corner in Buenos Aires has a newstand, every street a bookstore and every neighborhood a museum, which must make Argentinians among the most cultured, well read people of any country – prosperous or not.
They also love their dogs as witnessed by this shaggy piece of fluff resting on top of a jewelry counter in an antique store, giving me the evil eye just because I was rude enough to want to look at the items in the case he was reclining on
They may love their dogs. but they do not love cleaning up after them. They carry little poop bags, but it is just for show. If their dog decides to take a bathroom break the owner behaves as if the little fluffy thing next to him, or her, is nothing to do with them. Or, if the leash running between the owner and dog makes that seem rather unlikely, the owner suddenly becomes enthusiastically engaged with his phone and pretends not to notice while his dog makes a huge smelly deposit, giving the phrase “straining at the leash” a whole new meaning. There are two results to this behaviour: the owner gets to keep the poop bag for another day, a small but welcome economy, and your shoes get covered in s–t.
But negotiating the sidewalks is necessary. This is a city best enjoyed by merely meandering the beautiful streets, or better yet, sitting at a sidewalk cafe sipping a cappuccino and watching, just watching. It is my kind of place.
Even the people are a people of contrasts. There are those who look European and those who don’t. There are those with white skin and those with light brown. There are those who are elegant and poised, poured into designer clothes and out of expensive cars and and those who are young, hip and attached to a cell phone and a bicycle.
Marlene Dietrich once said that “The Latins are tender lovers. In Brazil they throw roses at you. In Argentina they throw themselves”. I have been to both countries but sadly not with the same results. However I have to say the Andean cheekbones and strong noses make me want to throw roses at them, or throw myself, which could result in serious injuries – for both them and me.
Perhaps it is fortunate that our stay in Buenos Aires has come to an end as it is time to board our Seabourn ship and sail away to Antarctica