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

2012: The year in photos

December 31, 2011
We want to introduce a new feature on our blog, "A photo a day."

We're borrowing the idea from our friend Daria, whose photo-a-day blog from the past year in Buenos Aires you should definitely check out.

We might backdate the photos sometimes, but we'll try to capture each day with one photo (and one photo  only). You can follow all the photo-a-day posts here.

To start off, here's our photo of the day from Jan. 1, 2012.

- Steph and Ben

Keeping our plants alive while we're away

December 20, 2011
We've had mixed luck growing plants on our terrace, mostly because we don't water them often enough. At the moment we have fairly healthy basil and mint plants growing, though, and since we'll be back in the Boston area for Christmas, I decided to build a self-watering system.

The basic idea came to me while eating lunch somewhere, and I sketched it on a piece of paper:

It's a very primitive, gravity-driven drip irrigation system. Water would drip on the plants from holes in a hose, connected to a jug, which would be filled occasionally from the faucet as well as from the rain (in the tub at the top).

The concept went through several iterations. I took out the rain catcher for the first build, and went to our local ferreteria with a translated list of supplies: a hose (manguera), jug (bidon), and duct tape (cinta adhesiva). Despite failing to communicate the purpose (una sistema de irrigaciĆ³n por gotea para mi terraza - the seller had no idea what I was talking about), I got everything on the list.

The first attempt involved the small planters that we already had. There were three problems: 1) I hadn't gotten a hose clamp (I had wanted a hose plug which they didn't have and forgot about clamps), so it was hard to seal the end. 2) I couldn't keep the hose positioned over the tiny planters, especially if the wind blew them around. 3) the hole I made in the jug to plug in the hose (via a connector) was leaking.

Failed first attempt
I sourced some sealant glue which so far seems to be waterproof, a hose clamp, a single wide planter, and more soil. This is the second attempt, now constructed:

The bucket is to catch a leak in the plug. The hose loops around under the soil, where it's poked with holes. The wildcard will be whether the holes in the buried hose are big enough to allow water to flow through (there needs to be some suction or the water won't move), but not big enough to drown the plants too quickly. We'll see when we return!

- Ben

Understanding the scams and tax shelters in the expat real estate market

December 17, 2011
We had a dispute with our landlord recently, related to the dollar exchange restrictions imposed in November. The restrictions are aimed, among other things, at fighting a tax haven that has now become apparent to us.

To rent property here as a local, you need a guarantia, like a co-signer on the lease. Leases under those terms can be for two years, and the landlord - who otherwise has to deal with tenant-friendly eviction rules (which prevent homelessness at the expense of property owners) - has some protection.

Tourists and expats visiting here don't have a local guarantia or the wherewithal to navigate the local realtor system, so they go to a special market aimed at foreigners, with prominent websites to attract clients before they arrive, and local offices/agents who work as brokers with the landlords. That's the demand side of the market.

The supply side is fueled by the promise of easy cash dollars: a landlord could charge rent at a dollar rate, avoiding the peso's high inflation. Short-term visitors (who probably pay higher rates than locals to begin with) often pay in cash dollars that they've brought on the plane (as we did when we first arrived). The owner can then hold this cash in a safe, as a rainy-day fund for another peso crash (the currency being historically unstable) or simply wait for the exchange rate to rise. Most importantly, with the tenants living mostly off the Argentine grid, it's extremely easy to hide this income from taxes.

The new dollar restrictions are trying to fight this phenomenon. They're partly backfiring - dollars are still escaping the country, depleting the strategic reserves - but most people seem to credit the good intentions. The effect is, it's impossible for foreigners to buy dollars at the banks. They're available at the shady casas de cambio, but at rates much higher than the official rate. (Even the legal casas de cambio are able to raise the rates, because the alternative for locals evading taxes is the even higher black market.)

The dispute we had - resolved for the time being - is caused by the fact that our landlord, for his own reasons, literally hoards cash dollars, so he's having to buy them on the black market, and is losing money from the restrictions, a loss which he's trying to pass onto us. We're not having it, though - and our primary leverage is simply the fact that what he's doing is illegal, and we know it, and neither he (nor the realtor, who isn't directly involved in the scheme but knows full well how it works) doesn't want the government to know it.

Some of our expat friends here are having the same problem. I'm guessing our realtor is having this problem with many of their landlords, as are their competitors in the market. They're all probably wondering if their business model - offsetting the risk of short-term leases with the advantage of cash dollars - will still make sense at the new rules sink in.

- Ben

A day at the MALBA

December 4, 2011

We spent one of our recent Saturday afternoons at the Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art (known as the MALBA). The museum starts in 1910 with modernism and moves chronologically through constructivism, surrealism, kinetic art and contemporary art.

Tarsil do Amaral, 1928

The collection isn't very large, but it's nicely laid out and includes works from some well-known artists including Diego Rivera. And we had fun photographing the architecture.

We also had fun photographing ourselves.

- Steph

Jacarandas in bloom

A post for my mother, who loves flowers and the color purple.

- Steph