Friday, March 28, 2008

Double, double toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble...
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth)

Chaos and turmoil reign in Argentina now and nobody knows just what wicked something may be coming next. Two weeks ago the government of Christina Fernandez Kirchner increased taxes on agricultural products (in simpler terms, *food*) to 44% of their value. Farmers throughout the country are refusing to ship their harvests and ranchers are withholding their livestock. Supporters of the rural rebellion have blockaded many major highways of the country, turning back the few trucks brave or foolhardy enough to try to deliver foodstuffs to Buenos Aires, the capital. Not only is the food supply cut off but the blockades create huge traffic jams along all the routes leading to Buenos Aires. As we say here, "¡Que quilombo! (what a mess)".

Within the city, protesters against the government have formed nightly parades of cacerolazos, people who march in the streets or public plazas banging pots and pans (cacerolas) to call attention to their grievances. It's the first time since the economic meltdown of 2000-2001 that this form of popular protest has been seen in the capital, so I'd say it's a good bet this is getting serious. Argentina, famed throughout the world of its cattle, finds its stores empty of beef and dairy products. Also dwindling in supply are wheat, bread, pasta, cooking oil, chicken, eggs, and many other basics.

Like most other people, I headed out to shop a couple of days ago, attempting to stock up on essentials before the stores are completely empty. I already knew I wouldn't find any beef but we mostly eat chicken anyway so I wasn't dismayed by the vacant display cases. Fortunately, by visiting two markets, I was able to secure a good supply of bread, milk, and other items so I think Luciano and I will do fine for at least a week before we start living on a more boring diet of pasta and rice or something similar. Hopefully the government and the farmers will start talking instead of yelling and reach some kind of accomodation soon.

I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of Argentine politics but clearly there are fundamental problems here. Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world in area and a vast amount of its land is ideal for ranching and farming. For many years, in the 1800's and early 1900's, it was the biggest beef producer as well as one of the world's top suppliers of grains and other agricultural products. With only 40 million people in a land one-third the size of the United States (and 14 million of those living in the capital), my guess is there is a lot of available terrain for increased agriculture. However, the news reports here have said that cattle production has decreased by 25% during the last 30 years. I find it hard to believe that Argentina isn't expanding its production, utilizing its natural resources better, and augmenting the public and private economies. There's so much potential in this amazing land but little promise of ever fulfilling it.

One of the most obvious reasons is the stultifying bureaucracy. Luciano and I often joke about how if we want to buy a new toothbrush or take a walk in a park, we'd better have our official ID's handy, several forms in triplicate and notarized, and a few days to repeatedly visit government offices to get the requisite permissions. It's not quite that bad but it's not a huge exaggeration either. For example, to buy a car in the US you walk into a dealer, plunk down your money, and within an hour you can be driving your new gas-guzzler home. Here, you plunk down your money, fill out reams of papers...and then wait 2 to 3 months to get your car. There's no temporary operating permit like we have in the States, the dealer has to send all of the paperwork to the government and after a couple of months of grinding its way through the system, a valid registration is issued and the buyer can finally have his/her vehicle. The same thing applies to private party sales of used vehicles so no matter what you buy, you'd best plan to wait a couple of months before you ever take possession of it.

Another example is the process of renting an apartment. One can't simply fill out an application, pay a couple of months equivalent of rent as a deposit, and move in. No, you have to submit a garantia. This is a legal document, similar to a lien, in which the owner of a property of equal or greater value than the apartment you want to rent promises his property as security against damages or failure to pay the rent. So, how many of you renters out there could find someone who would volunteer a lien against his home so you could rent an apartment? But wait, it gets better. It can't just be a friend, it has to be a close personal relative such as parent, child, brother or grandparent. Your field of choices just got narrower, right? We're still not done yet! The guaranteed property also has to be in the capital so your relative's home in another city or province won't be accepted. Now imagine that your parents and grandparents have already provided the garantia for your brothers, sisters, or cousins (it can only be used up to the value of the property being pledged). How will you ever rent your own place? Life for the poor and middle class here can be exhausting because it seems difficult to ever truly get ahead.

You can imagine how other procedures and requirements of business and daily life are comparable. With that in mind, it's not hard to understand why Argentina is mired in between slow growth and stagnation. Yet no one seems to want to change the system. I believe that until it does change, Argentina is going to remain stuck and never achieve what it should.

On a cheerier note, here are some snaps we took of guys during our time in Salta, Jujuy, and Cordoba. The quality often isn't great because we were trying to do it covertly, shooting on the spur of the moment from quite a distance away. But it should still give you an idea of how the lads of Argentina look. In my next post, I'll write about our time in Cordoba, with another slideshow.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Catching up with Cachi

My oh my, I've been slothful lately, neglecting the blog. It just seems like there's always something else that I need to be doing. Tonight I hope to get caught up at least to our excursion to Cachi (back in January!) as well as fill you in with a bit of current news.

Let's deal with the present first. A little over a week ago, Luciano and I moved from the apartment in Belgrano, where we had stayed for 6 months, to an apartment in the adjacent barrio of Coghlan. It's on the other side of Belgrano from our old apartment so it's really quite a change, I'm having to learn where all the routine things are like grocery stores, banks, restaurants, and so on.

It's much quieter here. Unlike the apartment on Libertador, this place is on a quiet residential street and it also doesn't face the street so there's little traffic noise. It doesn't have the awesome view we had before but I'm quite happy with the tradeoff. It's also a little smaller so it was a huge challenge to squeeze our ever accumulating pile of possessions into the new place but I've somehow gotten it all to fit. Of course, we promptly went out and added to the pile by buying a DVD player 3 days after we moved in (previously we just used our laptops to watch movies). It's a pretty good hike to the subway but again there's a tradeoff: it's only 1 block to the aboveground commuter train station which runs from downtown out to the suburbs well beyond the city limits.

We got lucky with this place. Our previous landlord wanted to raise the rent by several hundred pesos (an 18% increase) and I decided it was worth the pain of packing up and moving. After a lot of searching, we found this place for 20% *less* than we were paying in Belgrano. All in all, I think it was a successful venture! The landlady is ultra nice, lives in the building next door, and has furnished the apartment beautifully and completely, down to the smallest details.

Along with the apartment hunt, I've been working on renewing my resident visa since the latter part of January. Dealing with government, banks, and other officious types of institutions here is like stepping into a demented Kafka novel or Alice's Wonderland. Very little makes sense, most things are capricious, and one's patience and sanity are constantly imperiled.

In January, my Colombian friend John called Migraciones (Immigration) to find out exactly what I would need to renew the visa; he needed to renew his as well so he did the phone work for both of us. Ergo, there's no way there was a language problem because obviously Spanish is his native tongue.

Of course, when we arrived at Migraciones the following week, they informed me that I actually needed a financial document which I would have to get from the US company with whom I have investments. I had them write down exactly what was needed, specifically if it would need notarization or other special treament and was told no, just a simple paragraph on company letterhead would be perfect.

It was kind of a disaster getting the document, a comedy of errors back in the States. Ultimately I did receive it and promptly went to Migraciones again. Naturally, what I was told before was no longer the truth-of-the-day. The financial document has to be taken to the US consulate where a consular official will authenticate it and affix a seal. Again I had them write this down and they said the consulate knows all about it, they do this all the time, etc. Of course, when I phoned the consulate they said they have never done anything of that nature. Apparently "they do this all the time" really means that the Red Queen had another bout of insanity and the rules just changed hours before. The consulate told me someone else had come in for the first time with the same request that very day. For both of us, they're going to let us sign an affadavit in which we state that our own documents are genuine, the consular official will notarize that, and they say Migraciones probably will accept it, simply because it will have a consular stamp, not because of what it says (which really is absolutely nothing). Welcome to Wonderland.

So much for current events. I want to finish with our travel adventures in Salta so let's talk about driving los señores margaritas (driving Misters Daisy) to Cachi. We used the same tour company as on our trip to Humahuaca but we had a different guide/driver and one change in the passenger list. We had met Alfonso from Italy on our prior excursion, became friendly with him, and thus he joined us for our trip to Cachi. The other member of our tour was new to us, a nice young woman from Buenos Aires who was travelling for an extended period to get better acquainted with her own country.

Cachi is slightly south of Salta capital and definitely west, up into the Andes. As you can see in the slideshow, the route was similar to our prior tour, beginning in green fertile valleys and becoming higher and drier as we climbed into the mountains. We made various stops for photos and scenic views but not so much for visiting villages along the way as we had done previously. Ultimately we reached Cachi, whose name comes from the indigenous Cacán language and means silent stone. It's located at the western end of the Valles Calchaquíes (Calchaqui Valley), a group of interconnected valleys that run through Salta, Tucumán, and Catamarca provinces. Cachi lies at 7480 feet (2280 meters), at the foot of the Nevado de Cachi (Cachi Mountain) which soars up to 22, 047 feet (6720 meters). Its church dates from the 1600's and its Pío Pablo Díaz Archaeological Museum hosts thousands of antiquities dating as far back as 10,000 years.

After lunch in Cachi, we strolled through the town and of course browsed some of the local marketplaces and tourist traps. That's where I found the bizarre ceramic which I wrote about in an earlier post, complete with photo. I have it sitting in a place of honor in the new apartment, although Luciano keeps stuffing a (wrapped) piece of hard candy in the screaming woman's mouth, apparently believing a little sugar will help her with the birth pangs.

On the return leg, we visited Parque Nacional Los Cardones (Cactus National Park). Its 158,000 acres encompass several distinct zones of differing climate, terrain, fauna, and flora. Of course the flora includes the namesake cactus, cardón, a giant species which has very long spines that native peoples still use as knitting needles. The park shelters such exotic fauna as vicuña, similar to the llama, and puma, a type of mountain lion.

We left the Andes during the final part of our journey via the Quebrada de Escoipe (Ravine of Escoipe) and a stop at Piedra del Molino (Millstone), the highest point on the road at 10,984 feet (3384 meters). A huge millstone was found there long ago and nobody has any idea how it arrived at the summit nor why it was abandoned there. There is a small roadside chapel at the peak. From this vantage point you can look down over the beautiful Valle Encantado (Enchanted Valley) and with a bit of luck see majestic condors gliding through the sky.