Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

The whims of the Argentine government

October 29, 2011
I read the papers here most days because it's my job to report on Argentina. But even if it weren't, I probably still would. In the U.S., the federal government usually seems far removed and sluggish. Here it's imperative to follow what the Argentine government is up to.

There are only a few instances I can think of where I directly noticed policy changes from the U.S. federal government. I noticed when Obama changed the withholding rate on taxes early in his term, I noticed when the federal and Massachusetts health care reforms meant I could stay on my parents' health care plan until I was 26. I'm not saying that I'm not affected when the federal government stimulates the economy, or when it invests in public transit. Simply that there are a lot of layers between me and any individual government policy.

In Argentina, almost every day there's something we try to do that is made harder or easier by government policy changes. For example, the Argentine government intervenes in the currency markets all the time to keep the dollar-peso exchange rate steady. If it stopped, we would suddenly be paying a lot less (or a lot more) for the things we buy everyday. Normally I wouldn't think of buying a blender as something that has anything to do with the government. But they've been blocking imports (at least that's what an Argentine told us, I haven't confirmed it), which means blenders are more expensive and harder to get. Same with Harley Davidsons and books (and Porsches, but that one doesn't impact us very much). There's at least a 50 percent tariff on most imported goods, and sometimes 100 percent, which means I could probably sell my used Mac here for more than I paid for it new. The government also lets inflation continue at nearly 30 percent, which means prices keep going up, but it heavily subsidizes energy, so we pay only $0.30 to get anywhere in the city via public transit. And so on.

Why is it that government policy seems to matter day-to-day so much more here? My guess is twofold. One, it's a populist government (as to whether that's wonderful or despicable, it depends which Argentine you ask) and this was an election year. Two, power is incredibly centralized here and the checks on executive power incredibly weak. In her first term, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner nationalized the country's private pensions by decree. Imagine if when George Bush wanted to privatize Social Security, he simply waved his magic wand and did it. On the flip side, it was much easier for the Argentine government to start spending during the 2008 recession because no one had to sit around while Congress squabbled (and Argentina survived that recession better than a lot of developed economies).

Argentine policy is volatile, difficult to predict and decided by a small number of people. Not everyone thinks that's bad.

- Steph

La Peña

October 27, 2011
The other night, we went to dinner at a music bar La Peña del Colorado. The food wasn't great, but this girl had an amazing voice.


Our "picturesque" weekend in Colonia

October 22, 2011
Yesterday was Steph's birthday, so we decided to enjoy a weekend getaway - and renew our tourist visas - by taking the ferry across the Rio Plate to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. It's a UN World Heritage site, and was recommended by several people in BA. I had a cold this week, so we waited until Thursday night to book the tickets, by which time only the 6:30pm ferry from BA was available.

I imagined Colonia being something like Nantucket: the ferry, its smallness and oldness, the word "picturesque" being used to describe the town. And I imagined with a 6:30 ferry, we would at least catch the sunset.

Getting to the Colonia Express terminal was a trek: a subway, a bus, then a long walk through a residential neighborhood next to a highway underpass. We were advised to arrive an hour early and were half an hour earlier than that, with most of the passengers already there. We checked in and sat on a concrete slab for an hour. Then we went through passport control and customs, and had our passports stamped for an Argentina exit and Uruguay entrance at the same time. Then we entered a holding area leading to the ferry, and waited... for several more hours.

There was no food or drinks in the waiting area, nor on the ferry itself (except duty-free booze). Many passengers had their mate with them (the guidebook says the drink is even more popular in Uruguay than in Argentina). Amazingly, no one asked why the ferry was delayed or complained about being in a locked holding area. Eventually we boarded.

The ferry seats were like an airplane's, comfortable enough to nap with a pained neck afterward, and it was pitch black outside. A big tv played a silent nature show.

We arrived in Colonia into a large terminal building. Everyone on the boat seemed to be at baggage claim, or vanished, so there was no crowd of tourists to follow. (I guess only the Uruguains take the nighttime ferry in that direction.) There were exits on 4 sides of the building and no signs anywhere. We asked a guard the way to the centro and she pointed us out of the building.

Outside there were no cabs and still no signs. We figured out the way with my phone's compass and the guidebook map (the data connection being off to avoid roaming charges) and found our hostel.

For dinner we ordered a parillada completa at a nearby restaurant. That's a big assortment of grilled meat, and we decided to be adventurous. The intestines were pretty gross except with chimichurri sauce. The blood sausage was edible with the onion and pepper sauce. The chicken was dry and the beef steak and regular sausage were overdone. Oh well, it must be hard to grill all that simultaneously... fortunately the sangria was pretty good.

The hostel was fine, but we didn't sleep very well for whatever reason. Breakfast was white bread with jam and coffee. We checked out and went down to the barrio historico. We passed boats, old cars, grass, adobe houses. Groups of school kids were everywhere handing out some kind of missionary literature.

Colonia is very picturesque. But we discovered that when people describe a place primarily as picturesque, what they really mean is, it's boring. There's pretty much nothing to do in Colonia. I can see the appeal if you're a harried city executive with no time to relax, but our lives have been pretty tranquilo lately. We walked the whole acreage of the historic district 3 times by noon, and then had 8 hours to kill before the ferry back home.

We had lunch at The Drug Store, a restaurant recommended by the guidebook and an expat couple in BA. The menu had everything from hamburgers to sushi on the menu, which should have been a warning. I got fish, which was bony and bland. Steph's teppenyaki was too salty to eat. A couple started to play very nice guitar music in front of us, but the show barely lasted 20 minutes (long enough to be added to the bill), and they packed up.

The highlight of the day

The weather didn't help: it was 60F and cloudy except for 15 minutes of sun after breakfast. Between us we had decided, out of wishful thinking, to only bring one sweater. Sitting outside - how picturesque! - was made more difficult by crazy pigeons who kept charging at us, undoubtedly conditioned by tourists dropping crumbs.

So we went in search of a cafe to read our books. Most of the cafes were big touristy joints that were too big to be pleasant and had mediocre-looking food. We were thinking how lucky we were to have so many cafes in Palermo, when we found a place called Blanco y Negro, with a Jazz decor, and "artisanal" pastries. (Walking around Colonia, one learns from the shop signs that everyone is an artisan.)

Over several helpings of tea with milk and then some cheesecake that tasted more like ice cream cake, we killed time with good books. On one wall was a tv playing the local version of "Funniest Home Videos," this episode highlighting skull-crushing bicycle collisions. So we kept our heads down in our books. I read "The Ridiculous Race," an adventure tale of two guys racing each other in opposite directions around the world, being deliberately buffoonish but with the comedic self-awareness to make it all hilarious. Steph read "The Perfect Man" on the Kindle, reportedly also a good book.

At one point, a parade of horseback-riding men passed by the cafe, their skin all painted in gray and wearing loincloths, looking like some kind of zombie aboriginal mimes. We weren't sure what to make of them.

Now we're sitting in the terminal, it's 6pm and the ferry is scheduled to leave at 8, but at least it's warmer in here. (I'm drafting this post on my phone.) We had a pleasant enough 24 hours, but won't be coming back to Colonia anytime soon.

UPDATE: Alas, something eventful happened! The ferry on the way back was extremely choppy. I've never been seasick in my life, I thought I was immune to seasickness, and I was taking deep breaths for an hour to keep the tiny bit of chocolate I had eaten since lunch down. The stewardesses kept hanging out plastic bags, and many other passengers had it much worse.

Finally we got back to BsAs, caught a taxi home together with another couple in the neighborhood, and (stomachs now settled) had a huge spaghetti dinner.

- Ben

Learning Spanish with a flashcards app

October 18, 2011
I've been diversifying my professional skillset recently, branching out from the CMS/framework Drupal to  a new system called Node.js. I'll spare the readers of this blog the technical details - I covered them at length in a recent post on my tech blog.

But the first app I built shoots two birds with one stone: it's a Spanish flashcards app. You can play here. (Or if you're a coder, check out the tech post and the code on Github.)

- Ben

A motorcycle trip to Salta and Jujuy

October 17, 2011

That is northwest Argentina, 1500 kilometers from Buenos Aires.

And that is a Harley Davidson Street Glide, which we will be riding on our eight-day trip from Buenos Aires to the northwest.

We leave in mid-November.

- Steph

Riding Harleys and horses in San Antonio de Areco

October 10, 2011
“And the people who love me still ask me
When are you coming back to town
And I answer quite frankly
When they stop building roads”

- Alison Krauss, Gravity

Ever since I sold my Honda CB750 motorcycle in '09 (after putting 30,000 miles on it, including a long ride around the U.S.), I've wanted to get back on a bike. When we got to Argentina, with a long list of places to visit in the region, motorcycling was high on my list of modes of transportation. Steph had never been on a motorcycle before, but (being an adventurous gal) was happy to try it out.

Our research turned up a number of companies that rent motorcycles. Imported bikes carry hefty tariffs here (and Harley imports are currently frozen until 2012), so none of the options were cheap. I also didn't bring my helmet or gear, and all the companies wanted $50/day/person or more to rent them. Renting a Honda Transalp for a week in the mountains sounds awesome, but the prices were exorbitant. We also looked a little into the feasibility of importing a bike from the states, but it seems like a bureaucratic nightmare.

For one day, though, the rental cost was manageable. We found one company called GoodBike that rents Harleys and organizes day trips to ranches in San Antonio de Areco, a town not far from Buenos Aires in the Argentine Pampas. The Pampas are the "fertile lowlands" of the region, with a landscape similar to the Great Plains in the U.S., and an ancient gaucho (cowboy) culture. San Antonio de Areco, according to Rough Guide, is "the home of gaucho tradition," with a number of working historical estancias (ranches).

So yesterday, after several days of rain and with the clouds still looking ominous, we took a bus to a northern suburb of BsAs where GoodBike is based. I was imagining a shop on the side of an industrial road with a parking lot full of Harleys, and a group trip with a bunch of other bikers. Instead it was the house of the owner, Alberto, with three shiny Harleys in his garage: a Sportster, a Road King, and a Street Glide. (Similar to our sailing guide, it seems to be common here to monetize hobbies; Alberto is a lawyer but is hoping to turn this into his primary business.) His friend and our bilingual guide Daniel (whose parents moved to Los Angeles when he was a kid, but left because of the motorcycle gangs) was also there with his Sportster.

We fitted up with gear from Alberto's stash, jackets and gloves on top of the thermal and rain layers we brought from home. (The forecast was 60°F/15C with clouds and/or rain, so following the formula that highway riding reduces apparent temperature by 30°F, we erred on the side of warmth.) We were assigned the Road King, a beautiful 1600cc cruiser with a passenger backrest and hard saddlebags for extra gear. I had never ridden a Harley or an engine over 750cc before, and it had been a while since I rode anything, so I took the bike around the block first to get a feel for it. Like a bicycle, one never forgets how to ride!

Alberto, the organizer, and Daniel, the guide, on Sportsters; and us on a Road King

After riding 100km, we got to our destination, a ranch in San Antonio with a distinctly tourist feel.

A llama, pronounced "jama" here
A slow-roasting traditional asado
1 horsepower in 1st gear...
... 70 horsepower in 6th

After lunch, the gauchos put on a show:

Target practice

Grabbing a tiny red ribbon with a pin

Back at the garage, Alberto suggested I try the other bikes, too. So we took his Sportster and Street Glide each for a spin around the block. For pure riding, the Sportster is probably my favorite. The Road King and Street Glide are both built for comfortable cruising, but the Road King had some drawbacks: it's built for a bigger person, so my back hurt; the indicator lights are below the driver's field of vision, so I had to take my eyes off the road to see if my blinkers were on; and the windshield was huge and seemed like a potential problem in the rain. The Street Glide had the lights in front, lower seats, and a shorter windshield; it also had a stereo built in, which would be nice for the long, straight ride to the mountains. Its tradeoff was even more bulk and weight to maneuver at slow speeds, and a very sensitive clutch.

If the price is right and the bike's available, there's a good chance we'll rent the Street Glide for a longer trip. I'm having a friend ship my gear from the storage unit, too. You can't keep a biker off a bike for long!

The route home

Latin America's Oscar submissions

October 5, 2011
For anyone who likes foreign language movies, here are the trailers for Latin America's submissions for Best Foreign Language Film at the next Academy Awards.

Argentina: "Aballay, el hombre sin miedo” (Aballay, a man without fear)
Chile: "Violeta"

Brazil: “Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora É Outro" (Elite Squad: The Enemy Within)

Colombia: "Los colores de la montana" (The Colors of the Mountain)

Cuba: "Habanastation"

Mexico: "Miss Bala"

Peru: "Octubre" (October)

Uruguay: "La casa muda" (The Silent House)

Venezuela: "El rumor de las piedras" (The Rumble of the Stones)

If anyone recommends any of the above, let us know!

- Steph

Casa dulce casa

October 4, 2011
We finally have an Argentine home. Not that our last apartment wasn't nice, but it was only a temporary stop. We're very happy to have a place where we can decorate, unpack and make crafty things. Check it out:


Our homemade kitchen rack
The terrace and all the natural light
Our kitchen table, with separate work and eating stations
The washing machine
Our bedroom lights, which go on and off when you touch them
The location, near lots of restaurants and shops

The lack of a dishwasher
Our rag-like pillows

- Steph

Sailing on the Rio de la Plata

October 3, 2011
Puerto Norte, Buenos Aires
We finally had a chance to go sailing this weekend, with an expat group organized on Facebook. The original plan was for last week, but after we got to the docks at Puerto Norte, the captain informed us that the water level was too low, and the boat was stuck in the mud. (I asked our group organizer why, knowing the forecast, he couldn't have told her a few hours earlier, and was taught that in Argentina, people assume you won't trust them, so they wait to tell you everything in person, with visual proof.)

So there we were again this weekend for round 2. This time the water level was high enough to depart. (I had verified this earlier in the morning with a nautical forecast website, which also told me to expect 15 knot winds with 22 knot gusts.)

It was great to be out on the water - in this case, the Rio de la Plata, a massive river that feeds into the Atlantic ocean. (Contrary to the way it appears on a map, Buenos Aires is not actually on the ocean.) The captain was an older fellow who didn't speak any English, wasn't interested in teaching any Spanish sailing lingo, and ironically didn't seem to like having guests aboard, except when he was telling us about all the younger women he's dated. The winds were strong as forecasted, so he only raised half the jib and no mainsail, (a little lame).

Puerto Norte, where we sailed from, is in northern Buenos Aires, and seems to be where regular folks keep their boats. (The mud last week suggests that it could use some investment in dredging.) Puerto Madero is another port more central to the city, and is where the millionaires keep their boats, with a very small marina surrounded by luxury condos and an entrance fee just to walk into the yacht club.

I managed to learn a few words: A sail is a vela. Starboard (right) is estribor, I think; not sure about port (left). The sheets are escotas and the halyards are drizas. I learned that there are no boat clubs that will rent to strangers, because of the liability laws in Argentina (the boat owner is always responsible), and even if I bought a boat myself, I couldn't sail it without a license. Conveniently, he does sailing courses! Though if I were to take one, it wouldn't be with him - someone so uninterested in sharing knowledge without getting paid explicitly to do so would not make a good teacher, in my humble opinion. (Some English to bridge the language gap wouldn't hurt, either.)

He did share that it costs around 3000 pesos (USD$700) per month to dock and maintain a boat at Puerto Norte. Some napkin math suggests that he merely has to take out two or three groups for two hours each, one weekend a month, and he's covered all his expenses. Smart way to own a boat!

When I get a bicycle, hopefully in the next two weeks, I'll ride further north to another marina that seems to house smaller boats (judging from the catamarans and Lasers we passed in that direction). I'm hoping there's a way for me to take the helm up there.

Sailing Rio De La Plata Oct 1 2011

Another boat taking more advantage of the wind

- Ben

Arts and crafts for our new apartment

October 2, 2011
We moved into our new apartment a few days ago. We're still unpacking, and we've already made several trips to home-goods stores to acquire missing supplies.

One room where the apartment's design was lacking was the kitchen. It's enclosed by a big shelf unit, which separates the kitchen from the rest of the living room, gives the kitchen ample pantry space, adds a closet and bookshelf to the living room, and forms two bars/counters between the rooms. There's not much usable counter space for cooking, though, and with many cabinets but no drawers, there was no good space for storing utensils and kitchenware.

The solution provided by the landlords was two small drawers inside the cabinet under the sink. That was neither convenient nor pretty. So we were brainstorming alternatives. In Cambridge we had a similarly sized kitchen, and enhanced it with vertical storage: pots and pans on hooks from a shelf, knives and spices magnetically placed on the wall, etc. The trouble here was lack of wall space: the wall behind the counter is made of tiles, which is not easy to make holes through. The back of the bookshelf adjoining the stove was the perfect space, but the wood was not thick enough for screws. We also don't have a drill. What to do?

The setup we came up with evolved through several mental iterations. We wanted a bar on the back of the shelf to hang things on hooks. The bar and hooks we found at a nearby kitchen store. The bar couldn't screw into the wood, so I thought, maybe we could get thin wood beams to go vertically, screwed into the top of the unit with a 90° brace, and screw the ends of the bar into the beams. But we couldn't find wood in the local hardware stores. (We subsequently located a Home Depot-type superstore which sells lumber, for the future.) Anyway, if not wood, what else could hold up a bar? Argentina is renowned for its beef and leather... what about belts!?

Alas, after many puzzled retailers asking what we needed these random supplies for, we had everything we needed, and all within a 3-block radius of our apartment on a Saturday afternoon!

The funniest part resulted from Steph's eureka moment about how to secure the belt around the bar. Cord didn't look good. Transparent fishing line would be hard to tie. We were walking through an arts supply store and Steph suggested "those old-fashioned things used to fasten pieces of paper together... do they exist anymore?" Not knowing what it was called, I pantomimed the concept to a store clerk - dos papeles, hand covering hand, two fingers opening... and there it was, sitting on the shelf, a box filled with broches that we will never have further use for.

Here's how it came out:


During our shopping expedition, we also picked up foam poster boards at a crafts store, which we'll use  to hang photos. Stay tuned for that!

- Ben