Sunday, August 24, 2003

Don't Cry for me...I'm back from Argentina

It’s no wonder that they call Buenos Aires the “Paris of the South.” It’s clear that at some point, someone decided that they would go to Europe, copy the ideas of avenues, cafes, parks, the way buildings look and just import it wholesale to South America.

What this has done has created a unique oasis of beauty within an otherwise fairly typical South American experience (having only been to Peru, but extrapolating from what I’ve seen there and heard about others.) That may not be 100% accurate as Argentina has historically lived at a higher standard than its neighbors, but there is a divide between B.A. and its inhabitants (known as ‘Portenos’) and the 2/3rds of Argentineans who don’t live there. Buenos Aires, however, is the center of EVERYTHING. Business, politics, culture…you name it. It is the center of gravity for the entire country and arguably for the entire southern region of the continent.

What you have then are wide avenues, shopping districts, museums, and government buildings that belong in the great capitals of the world.

The citizens of the polis possess a wonderful sense of fashion and dress quite well. There is a sense of flair and style, as exemplified by the national dance of Argentina, the Tango (which we unfortunately did not get to see in person).

The center of Buenos Aires is the Plaza de Mayo. Buenos Aires smeans ‘good air’ for the fact that the patron saint of the city (can’t remember right now) is the patron saint of sailors and because of the strong winds that helped sailors come up the Rio de la Plata. The River is 42 miles wide and separates Argentina from Uruguay (a former province of Argentina) and originally was thought to be the sought-after passage to the Pacific because it looks like an ocean.

The Plaza de Mayo is marked by a large, pink building at one end, which serves as the office of the President. It’s a unique hue and according to our guide, in 1810 when the country received its independence from Spain, led by one San Martin. At that time, the country wasn’t so wealthy and they didn’t have any paint, so they used cow’s blood as the basis for the paint…hence the pink hue.

But, as the saying goes, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ During our trip (this was everyone in my immediate family-8 in total, except for my lovely, 6 months pregnant wife), we read a number of books and articles about our host country, most notably an essay by Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul entitled “The Return of Eva Peron” (yes, we did visit her grave at the Recoleta cemetery) which essentially puts forth the notion that Argentina is a country that is perpetually ‘on the cusp.’

Blessed with rich, fertile soil, natural resources, a well educated population (almost 100% ofo which are descendants of European immigrants—the Indians were exterminated), and a huge amount of land (from top to bottom the country extends 3000 miles), Argentina has just not been able to get its act together. Every few years, it seems that the country is thrown into upheaval. Corruption continues to be theh single biggest barrier to effective, true, and sustained growth and its existence has come to be accepted with a shrug of resignation. That, plus as our travel agent, Fernando, in Salta said: ‘most people here are just lazy.” Admittedly, we didn’t see that, but the siesta (not so much in B.A., but in other places), does create for a strange work life.

So, what you have behind the beautiful facades of the European city is a country that followed a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality, lived on credit for too long, and now is finally having to pay the piper.

The recent economic turbulence in 2001, where the Peso was devalued (it had been equal to the dollar in value) has had serious impact on the population, especially for the bulk of people whose savings were in dollars. For the tourist, it’s a blessing. At an exchange rate of almost 3 to 1, your purchasing power is tremendous.

A few examples. The 8 of us went out for a steak dinner (there are a large number of Kosher restaurants in B.A., with 300k Jews) that easily would have been $400 or more in NYC, cost us only $80, with tip and wine. Plus, the Argentinian reputation for fine beef held its own.

Our hotels, nothing fancy, but nothing grimy, were about $30 per room. We had an English-speaking guide for a full day for $30. One other sign of the relative poverty was the large propensity of Locutoro’s, or telephone calling centers. It gave me the impression that many people no longer could afford phone service at their homes. The benefit for me was that I was always in a position to call Tamar, for about 5 cents a minute, roughly.

You get the picture. In fact, I compared notes with a friend who had taken her family of 6 to Disneyworld for 10 days and, including airfare, it was more cost-effective for 8 of us to go to Argentina for the same amount of time (in fact, some stayed as long as 14 days). The good thing for the Argentines is that, as an economy, they are benefiting from tourists, seeing their importance, and in the words of one guide, ‘at least things have stopped getting worse, even if they aren’t getting better.”

The primary impetus for our trip was the fact that two of my sisters-in-law, known as the dynamic duo (they’re twins) had gone on a young adult’s solidarity mission to aid the poverty-stricken members of Argentina’s Jewish community. We spent our first Sabbath in Buenos Aires with them before heading to the northwestern part of the country.

Argentina, unlike the US, was settled from west to east. The Spaniards, in search of gold, had all but ignored Argentina (which if you know your periodic table of elements is named for silver—which there was quite limited, if at all), gone around the tip of the continent to Peru in search of the elusive El Dorado. As their wars against the Incas progressed and they expanded their efforts, they moved into the heart of Argentina back across the Andes.

Our first stop was Salta, where the first thing you notice is the architecture is more Spanish colonial than the Parisian of B.A. The second thing you notice is that the Caucasian faces have been replaced by more Indian and mestizo. Lastly, you start hearing of the rivalry between Portenos (generalized as snobby and aristocratic) and the rest of the population.

A number of Argentines told us that this part of the country is the ‘authentic’ one. This is the land of estancias (ranches), gauchos (cowboys), although not a huge number, and beautiful mountains full of color (Pumamarca is known for its 7 color hills with deep purples, reds, and browns). It is also the land of legends, such as the Omahuaca (crying heads) Indians, who were lulled into a false peace by a woman who was ostensibly sent as an emissary from another tribe. After a good night of drinking and partying, the crying heads became the dead heads (not the rock band kind), as the other tribes’ warriors descended upon them and slew them in their sleep.

The small towns are characterized by a small square with some stores (selling the same type of merchandise) and handicrafts made by Indians at extremely low prices. Also, the open air markets for produce in less than fully hygienic stalls.

One thing I did notice is that despite the relative poverty and economic hardship, this was not a country of aggressive solicitation, nor was it a country where we felt consistently like we were being taken advantage of. Undoubtedly, there were times we got the special ‘tourist price,” but frankly, this was probably more from our travel agents than anyone else (though they did do a fantastic job in helping us with the logistics of moving eight people around).

Argentina is not really a country full of destinations, at least in the traditional tourist sense. Walking Buenos Aires is fun, of course, and Iguazu Falls in the northeast along the border with Brazil, which we visited after a 2-day, 20 hour cross country drive in a big Mercedes van, is without a doubt one of nature’s beautiful creations (more on that later), but for the most part, this is a country you visit to clear your mind and get into some wide open spaces. The one time in trip where we really felt like we were in the depths of South America was at Iguazu. It was a rainforest environment (the Argentines did a wonderful job with the national park there) and you really got the sense of isolation. Plus, we had the opportunity to see some crocodiles and exotic butterflies among other wildlife.

There is a unique Argentine history to study, full of colorful personalities like Eva Peron and horrific events, like the Dirty War of the late 1970’s, but the question of what defines Argentine culture and national identity is one that eluded us and many of the Argentines we asked. We were aided in these conversations by our two Spanish speakers (my brother, Barak, and father.)

In fact, driving across the country from northwest to northeast, you are struck by a few things. One, the amount of wide open spaces with no people. Second, the generally good infrastructure (except for one road of about 200 miles which has been ignored according to our driver by the provincial government for reasons that are unclear, but probably involve graft, politics or both). Third, the police checkpoints.

There are a lot of resources in the country devoted to internally monitoring the flow of people. While we had no problems at all and saw no corruption take place, it was interesting to wonder for what they were looking. Drugs from Bolivia is one answer, but frankly we’re not sure. It’s just a drain on the flow of commerce. Imagine if every 100 miles or so, you had to tell a policeman where you were going and where you were coming from.

As with any trip that is composed of 8 people who are related, there are bound to be moments of tension, but as far as Epstein family trips have gone in the past, this one was one of the more sedate. By now, we’re a relatively smooth operating machine—thanks in large part to the 5 Motorola Talk-Abouts which my dad brought and which enhanced efficiency tremendously. The family bonding, the shared memories, the laughter, and the good natured kidding that comes from this type of prolonged exposure to each other is what makes the trip a central element of our family’s identity.

Argentina 2003 was no different.

Thanks for reading.