Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Subte Stuff

So I am deep into my Spanish classes at the University of Buenos Aires. UBA is supposed to be the best place for Spanish, although I have my doubts. I try not to let the fact that the buildings look like the have been standing since pre-Weimar Germany (and survived that whole war thing) bother me too much, but when you have to practically go outside to go to the bathroom you kinda go hmmm.

Everyday I take the subway, called the Subte, to the microcentro. The Subte is more DC than New York with lousy hours and only a couple of lines. The upside is that when they are out of change they let you ride for free. Another fabulous thing is that they have Wi-Fi, although I can’t imagine most of the people who are riding the Subte are the kind with Wi-Fi enabled devices (although I do have one and I ride the Subte). And last but not least, I’m not sure that pulling your wireless device out on the Subte is always the best decision, as I once saw a snatching.

A friend told me the other day that Buenos Aires was the first city in South America to have a subway. Turns out it is not only the first in South America, but the first in the southern hemisphere and in the Spanish speaking world as it was built in 1913. Impressive.

I love my Subte ride to catch a glimpse of people living their lives in the city. There are stunning men in crisp shirts, looking preppy and pressed. There are beautiful women who are impossibly thin, fully made up or making themselves up as we barrel underneath Avenida Santa Fe towards downtown.

The mornings are usually cramped and hot; halfway through my ride there is usually sweat dripping from me and/or my fellow passengers. I prefer the afternoon, when the commuters are ensconced in their downtown offices and the common people are out on the prowl. The usual suspects include a blind man who regularly begs on the Green Line, his grizzled face and voice to match calling out, “Por favor, ayudarme, cinco centavos, por favor,” the tap-tap of his cane serving as the beat for his melancholy song.

Another feature of the Subte are the people hocking their wares. In South America vendors are generally more aggressive than in the North, the ones on the Subte place their selection of Guias (city guides, like London A to Z) or hairbands right on your lap to entice you.

There’s entertainment of a more traditional sense too -jugglers, actors, musicians, and singers. I was serenaded for part of my ride home the other day by a wistful tango, played on an accordion by a white haired man. Beautiful.

Sometimes what you see isn’t beautiful. Many of the people standing up and asking for some change on the Subte are children or poor men and women dragging their children from car to car, hoping for the kindness of strangers. It’s not a common sight in North America and when I first saw it, I couldn’t decide what bothered me more- the children being schlepping around alol day or that their parents are doing it in front of them. I guess if you have to survive, you do what you have to do.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Monetary Policy in Buenos Aires

In Argentina, a coin is called a moneda. And they are critically important for the everyday commerce of normal people like you and me. Especially if you want to take the bus, since they are the only form of payment accepted. Since the subte closes at 10:30pm (which would be the equivalent of the subway closing at 8 pm in the states) the bus is often a requirement for getting home from dinner sometime after midnight.

But there is a moneda shortage… everywhere there are signs reminding you there are no monedas, that you should share monedas and that if you don’t have them you may not be able to buy things. I have my own moneda policy; if asked, I will give them up unless I know I need them.

It’s not even just monedas, frankly. The money thing here generally is filled with suspicion (as it is in Bolivia and Peru as well), most smaller shops refusing to change a 100 pesos note (about $28). If you are lucky to find someone to break your cien nota, they will scrutinize that thing more than the first boy their daughter brings home. That’s if they even have change at all. And I am not going to even get into the counterfeiting thing….

But yesterday, I saw the true insanity of the monetary policy of Buenos Aires.

After my Spanish class, I had about an hour until I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch and pool time. It was another sweltering day, nearly 90 by noon and I was down in the microcentro, meaning the temperature was probably closer to 100. I decided to relieve myself of the stickiness and ducked into a chainlike coffee shop to enjoy some AC, grab a cup of coffee and do my Spanish homework. I ordered a short macchiato at 5.25 pesos and pull a 100 pesos note out of my wallet. The woman behind the counter is already shaking her head. No, I cannot buy my coffee with a hundred. But I only have a hundred, I respond. She proceeds to ask her colleagues at the three other cash registers if they have any change.

You can guess the response – simultaneous head shaking, horizontally.

No. Ugh.

The insanity is that I saw the woman right in front of me pay with a 50-peso note and the counter was mobbed with at least a dozen people all clamoring to pay for their lunches. This is what I can never understand.

Then, she asks the manager. The manager looks me up and down and asks do you have 25 cents. Ah yes, monedas. With monedas you can get anything you want.

And with 25 centavos, I was able to get my 95 pesos and my coffee.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What’s Inauguration Day Like Everywhere Else in the World?

Just a quick one on this… yesterday was the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, a very historic occasion due to a wide variety of circumstances. I watched on CNN en Español and even heard about one or two gathering where ex-pats could watch with their own. I decided not to go, fighting a cold brought to me from the states by a friend.

It was just another day here; I went to my Spanish class where those who weren’t American didn’t even realize what was happening. Even an American in my class was like, “I’m going to the gym” when I asked him if he would be enjoying the festivities. On the other hand, I learned from Facebook that my American friends everywhere (including overseas) were all watching and telling us about it. This of course, could be because so may of my friends on FB are people I met through working in Washington.

Their sentiments were pretty similar. Everyone had chills, everyone was thrilled, everyone was beyond words, crying, etc. Me, I was amazed to see America from the outside, to see how much we needed yesterday. That’s when I realized that yesterday was for us, the pomp and circumstance, the patriotism and nationalism in our language and custom. It was a moment where we could almost believe that our hope was more than just an illusion. Our hope was alive and real on a 20 something degree day in modern Rome, the sun coming out just moments before President Obama took his oath, warming us all for a moment, even those of us sitting 5000 miles away on a 80 degree day.

As happy as I was to see yesterday, I remain cautiously skeptical about the time ahead for America. Things will be tough, probably tougher than many of us have ever known. I know we are strong, but I only hope we have the patience and wisdom as a nation to understand that getting out of this won’t be easy. Or that the man we elected is as mortal as you and me and will get up every day and do all he can do as a mortal– try.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Agressive Man Update

I wrote briefly about my experience as a woman here in BA, mostly laughing and a little shocked at the behavior of the men in the club a couple of weeks ago. Well, I have an aggressive man update…

I go to the gym most days near my house. It’s a nice enough place and after a month of going there, I feel pretty comfortable in my surroundings and doing my thing. My thing often is a little different than the thing of others. I am pretty into the gym and my gym in DC was a reflection of that. As my DC readers know, Results the Gym in Dupont Circle is for two things – getting laid (if you are gay) and hardcore workouts. So for me, I’ll take option two.

Anyway my gym here is decidedly more straight, more age diverse, etc. I welcome this mix overall; it is one of the things I enjoy most about leaving the gay ghetto I loved so much.

The one thing that seems to be the same is the social component. At Results they are looking for a date, here maybe they are just looking to avoid exercising – they don’t seem to be working out so hard. Many of the women are caked in full makeup, sometimes even dripping in jewelry while I am dripping in sweat.

It doesn’t matter. I do my own thing; listening to my Ipod, wearing my crappy Adidas shorts, enjoying my little world sans my precious baubles. Occasionally I get stares, but I have learned to ignore them.

The other day, however, things got a bit more aggressive. I went to do some lunges, taking the 6 kg (about 12 lbs) weights from the weight rack. As I am looking in the mirror and doing my lunges, I become aware of a pair of eyes on me. The eyes are attached to a 40ish guy with a slight paunch, who has turned to watch me do my lunges with a lusty look in his eye. I am a little embarrassed (remember my long history with the gay gym), but finish my set. He then comes up to me and asks to borrow my weights and tries to engage me in a conversation. Not a problem, I respond, giving him the weights and going back into Madonna-land on my Ipod. He then proceeds to do curls right in front of me, like a peacock showing me his feathers.

I was not impressed with the colors, I was creeped out.

I took the weights back, finished my lunges, and went to the other part of the gym to stretch. My advice on aggressive pickups in the gym: always wear an Ipod. That's of course, if you are lucky enough to have one.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Move Over Starbucks

On every damn corner in the urban northeastern US there is Starbucks. We can’t live without Starbucks in North America. Here in BA there are two Starbucks that I know of (although I just saw one that looked like it might open soon on Corrientes the other day), but I have yet to actually go into one and buy anything.

Instead the Argentines and now me are obsessed with helado or ice cream. On every corner there is heladeria, ranging from grungy places where a pockmarked teenager is stuffing your dulce de leche ice cream into a tiny cone to places where a grown man in a neatly pressed uniform is handing you a cuarto (quarter kilo, about a pint) in packaging that was designed by Dior.

Seriously. Welcome to a taste of third world luxury a la ice cream. What my glam heladeria and Starbucks share is a touch of lux - for all. Call it democratic in the crudest sense of the word. Nearly everyone can afford ice cream – even if you just buy it once a month- and nearly everyone can afford Starbucks with the same conditions. For some, it can be a daily or thrice weekly occurrence, for others it can be a splurge after a job well done or a report card of good grades.

Now I realize that 15 pesos /5 bucks is a lot of money for some people, am not going to discount that reality. But my point is that for that kind of money, you are able to buy an experience whether it's hipster coffee or glamorous ice cream. Even if you have the tiniest bit of disposable income you have to treat yourself, right?

Fortunately for the Argentines they seem to have a better metabolism than me, so they can treat themselves a little more often.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Choices – Part One, Time vs. Money

A long time ago, I went to dinner with an Austrian friend. When the waiter came by our table, my friend ordered an entrée that came with a salad. “What type of dressing do you want with that?” he asked her. “I have a choice?” she responded. “Yes,” he said and proceeded to rattle off a litany of options longer than David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. She was overwhelmed. She quickly chose a vinaigrette, shooed the waiter away, and said to me, “All of these choices, it’s too much!”

It was just salad dressing, but it was a telling comment. Even a fellow first worlder was overwhelmed by the number of choices we have in North America. Today, these unlimited options are starting to spread around the world when it comes things, but not necessarily when it comes to how we live.

In contrast, when traveling through LatAm in the winter I met a woman in Peru named Victoria. Victoria was educated; she was a teacher in a small village and we met on a collectivo (bus). She was a small woman, with graying hair pulled back into a bun, her real age a mystery as she heavily wore her years. When I told her I was traveling around and learning Spanish, she marveled at the luxury of being able to do something like that and how much it must cost. “Well, my life had gotten too hectic, ” I told her, “I had no time and needed a break.” She replied, “We have plenty of time, just no money.”

The choice between time and money - welcome to my old life. Choice is at the heart of being a first world white girl and everyday I am reminded about how many I have and that I live my life so differently because of them. And in case I ever forget, I just remember Victoria.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Another View of the Third World

First off, let me apologize for the slack. Holiday time, whether with snow or the beach is celebrated all over the globe and I took my appropriate liberties. But I headed to an even more third world lite locale – Cape Town, South Africa.

Maybe it’s all that Anglo – English speaking, right hand driving (which I managed to do) that makes it less third world than Buenos Aires. No matter. I enjoyed 10 days in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, replete with mountains and sea and of course, amazing people.

My friend who lives in Cape Town (when he is not out traipsing round the world) introduced me to two of his dearest friends who opened up their incredible home to us during my stay. One half of the duo is an art dealer and we checked out his gallery down on the waterfront. When we walked into the relaxed, informal space I was immediately drawn to a large painting called Where Will the Wind Blow This Time by Ricky Dyaloyi, a young South African painter. The canvas, wider than my own wingspan, was of a large crowd ready to listen while the stage stood empty except for a microphone and a loudspeaker. A blue sky, with puffs of clouds crowded about half the space of the painting, leaving you to wonder exactly what it was that all these people were crowded around to hear.

Because of my history, I immediately viewed it as a political piece, a crowd waiting to hear from a political figure. But maybe those people were already listening… there’s another element that I had not considered which my host spoke of, spirituality.

The concept of spirituality is very different in the third world that in the first. For the most part, first worlders will go to their houses of worship on the weekends (Friday, Saturday or Sunday, depending on your persuasion), pray to your deity as you see fit and eat brunch. There are occasional dips into the alternative pool – maybe a wiccan has come your way or a little Native American while enjoying a weekend out west.

But in the third world, it’s a bit different. Sure, there’s church and structure and lunch for many. But there is also religion based on spirits, on heritage, on history, on things that may not add up neatly when you think about it rationally. And they are powerful, maybe more powerful precisely because you cannot explain them.