Sunday, April 13, 2008


As a respite from the gloomy subject matter of my last post, here are some pictures of my big trip to Mar del Plata. I went with the company that arranged my enrollment in the university, so it  was a pretty big America party the whole time.

Saturday, April 12, 2008



The North American traveller visiting this Buenos Aires landmark will promptly realize that the Recoleta Cemetery is not so much a cemetery in the sense that we understand the word in our own Protestant Republic, but rather necropolis built according to the baroque tastes typical of the Catholic oligarchies of the south. Even more valuable than the real estate in Buenos Aires' Recoleta barrio - where the gente decente live in conformity with Baron Haussmann's  ideals of urban planning - is the right to be buried alongside the father's of the nation and their legion ne'erdowell offspring.  The names on the mausoleums read like the index of streets at the back of a city map. Mitre, Lavalle, Sarmiento and Pueyrredón all lie in Recoleta; their tombs maintained at public expense and largely ignored by the tourists who want to see Evita.  

The government of Argentina, although at times prone to fruitless expenses, cannot afford to maintain all of the tombs in Recoleta, and the vast majority are the responsibility of the surviving family. It is the unfortunate tendency of oligarchies, however, to shrink with the passage of time. As more of the nation's great families disappear, their mausoleums in Recoleta fall into utter disrepair. The directors of the cemetery, in a fine display of Christian charity, take it upon themselves to close the doors that fall open with padlocks or zip ties, but little more. It is a wonder that the place doesn't completely reek of putrefaction (more on this later), but this unstoppable decay somehow suits the aesthetic of Recoleta. It reflects the encroachment of bourgeois pragmatism into traditional feudal superstition (or perhaps the manifestation of a latent infection - Buenos Aires having been a smugglers port long before it became a viceregal capital).

But what of the families whose resources remain such that they are able to care for the final (or at least, current) resting place of their antecedents? The task falls to a special group of men, who ensure that the cobwebs are brushed out of the corners, the handles of the coffins stay shiny, the priceless Byzantine mosaics are intact, the stray cats don't shit all over the place, and the hundreds of other jobs that maintain the crypt as a symbol of the family's eternal prestige get done. Much as so many of the cemetery's residents were no doubt used to a complete complement of domestic servants in life, they are looked after in death for however long the family fortune lasts.  The families do not tend to pay these workers well, but somehow, I do not think that many visitors to Recoleta are offered the same special tour that it was my pleasure to enjoy today. 

I was wandering the cemetery today, you see, when I saw a very singular looking man emerge from one of the tombs. I was quite surprised to see someone coming out of a crypt, especially, to be perfectly frank, someone with such an indian aspect about him that I didn't imagine very many relatives were buried in Recoleta. He caught me looking at him, and made a face that suggested a certain displeasure at the fact. I decided to play dumb, and I asked him what was down there (obviously, the only answer is "a bunch of dead people").  He motioned over to a worker in blue coveralls, and then asked me if I wanted to find out for myself. I took another look at the man. He had gold jewelry, big shades, American jeans, and a big mustache. I had met the godfather of the crypt-keepers. He was very clearly relishing my hesitation in answering.

He took me aside - 
"Make sure you give a nice tip so this guy can get a sandwich. Nobody's responsible for what happens to you when you're down there."

Now, I know certain of my relatives have read this blog and charged me with a certain naïveté, that perhaps I've gotten myself into things better left alone. To them I say this: accepting this offer might have been the closest I'd ever get to meeting Nicolás Francomano, and I was not about to let the opportunity pass me by. 

The man in the blue overalls was a friendly enough sort, considering he spends most of his time with dead people and stray cats. He told me to follow him, because he wanted to show me a nice one. We walked down the alleys of the cemetery until we came to a white marble mausoleum. He unlocked the doors and motioned for me to follow him down into the first level of the crypt. There were sixteen coffins in all, in niches in the walls. 

Each coffin is lined with steel, my guide explained, with two valves that prevent the accumulation of gasses from causing an explosion. These valves have some sort of chemical filter, that neutralizes the odor of decomposition and by the time they no longer function, the body doesn't really smell that bad anyway. He also told me that as more and more members of the family die, they make room in the crypt by taking out some of the older ones and cremating them, or putting the bones in an ossuary. Thank god that he didn't take me to see the ossuary, located underneath the floor of the lowest level of the crypt. 

As my guide took me down into the bottom level, we had to light a candle to see. The bottom of the crypt is practically identical to the upper, but creepier because of the darkness. I hesitated on the last few steps down into the crypt. 

"Don't be a coward. They're not going to bite." 

He showed me a picture of Jesus at the back of the tomb, and explained to me that recently the painting had needed restoration. The family had had it flown to England to have the work done, and only recently returned it to it's place in the dark where only he would see it once a week. I felt sorry for the painter, but, fortunately, he's probably dead too. I asked him how often people from the family came to visit, and the answer was hardly ever.  Looking around at the marble floors and the paintings on the walls, it wasn't that hard to imagine that their house looks fairly similar, anyway. 

I was somewhat relieved when he offered to take me up to the chapel. Fascinating as the crypt may have been, I was ready to see sunshine. It was a wonderful feeling walking back up and out of the tomb, considering that a lot of people don't get to come back out once they go in. Since the place was designed for people of average height 200 years ago, the ceilings are a little low. My guide warned me not to bump my head and fall, because they'd put him in prison if I did. Naturally, I obliged his request. 

He showed me the chapel,  which was lovely, but which doesn't really stick in my memory, probably because it wasn't full of the deafening silence of hundreds of dead bodies slowly moldering for all eternity. 

I slipped the guy a 20 peso note, and high-tailed it back into the world of the living as fast as I could. I can go back and see Evita some other time. 

Friday, April 11, 2008


I've finally got around to having this pictures developed onto a CD. I took them on my trip to Salta before the start of this semester. 

I really wish you all could have seen what's in the left quarter of this picture. You wouldn't even believe it if I tried to describe it. It was so cool. The coolest thing I've ever seen, ever.
This is the boarding area for the cable car to the top of the mountain in the city of Salta, Cerro San Bernardo. Keep your eye on the married couple buying tickets.

Here they are again! A lovely French couple from the city of LeMans. They spoke neither English nor Spanish, and I relished this opportunity to be more cultured than a couple of snooty French people. Where do they get off, anyway?

Anyway, I was nice enough to them long enough for them to take my picture.

Do you see the cloud in this picture? That's how high up this cable car goes. I would have been terrified, but I saw a plaque that said the thing was made in Switzerland.

There it is, the city of Salta, Argentina. It's a nice town. The people are friendly, the streets are pretty convincingly paved (downtown), and they've got some beautiful colonial buildings (not pictured). The top of this mountain turned out to be kind of a bust, though. There were lots of bees, and some people selling the same Artesanal bric-a-brac available in tourist traps the length of the continent. Also, they had stopped making lunch by the time I got up there. I was starving. The lemonade was good, but a bee flew into it. 

Anyway, this is Stan, from Hong Kong. He was staying in my Hostel, and we decided to hit up the tour to the mystic city of Cachi. This tour was definitely the highlight of my trip to Salta. Stan and I were laughing it up in the back of the bus, because he's a pretty rad guy. He doesn't speak Spanish, he barely speaks English, and he decided to quit his job as an electrical engineer to travel all over South America doing landscape photography. 

This was our tour guide (Check out the super-official khaki outfit). Once these two old ladies stopped paying attention he started hitting on the two girls from Buenos Aires in the front. I took this picture right after he said, "The Black Widow is a small spider, but so dangerous." 

We'd stop every once and a while to hop out and take pictures. Some of the road was flooded out from the rains the night before, so every time I got out of the van alive I felt like I had accomplished something. This is another friend of mine from the Hostel.

Here's a little cemetery we passed on the way up the valley. 

That sign says "Put your batteries in me," which is a play on words in Spanish. It doesn't mean what you think it does. Also, when we were having coffee here the tour guide and I got to talking about studying German. When it turned out that we had both taken it in high school he said to me (not about the woman in the picture), "This chick has a totally nice ass." 

This is a FUCKING GAUCHO. This photograph is not staged. That's how much I keep it real. 

The road in the background is called "La Cuesta del Obispo." It was built by Indian slaves in order for an extremely fat Bishop to cross the hills and proselytize to the people on the other side. In addition to having to build the road, they had to carry the Bishop, who couldn't walk too far because of his gout.

Here's a monument to the simple faith of these decent country people. Painstakingly constructed on the top of this mountain. Note the clouds are actually lower than the chapel. Nobody lives up here. 

Anyway, we finally made it up the valley and into the high deserts of Salta. I bought a bottle of wine on the side of the road, guaranteed to have been stamped by genuine artesanal peasants. This is me with Argentina's national cactus, the Cardon. 

Cachi, principal street, noon. 


Thursday, April 3, 2008



More Falkland Islands Fun!

Residence GardenAmbassador's Residence
Answer: Because you get to live here.

Being the insensitive type that I am, I may have posted some things in this blog that shed a less than charitable light on Argentina's obsession with the Falklands. I'd like to point out that I wrote all those things before I got invited to spend a little time last night over at the British embassy here in Buenos Aires.

The tiny shred of decency left to me prevents me from describing the wild party we had on Argentina's big day of mourning, but I will say it was a good time had by all (except the riot police out front protecting the building). The house is beautiful, and apparently the most secure building in the entire country. I imagine that our embassy is more secure, or at least uglier, but the fact was recounted to me with such pride, that I'll simply have to agree.

I didn't really see any security guards, but walking through the house I was always nervous that some SAS types might jump out and mistake me for some kind of SPECTRE goon. The house is full of antiques and fine art, but what really jumped out at me were all the pictures of the Queen. I suppose I would have expected a little variety, but they were all pictures of the reigning monarch. There is one spot I noticed where I could see at least four pictures of  Her Majesty (three paintings and a coronation photograph). The picture that confronts you going up the main stairs of a slightly larger than life Queen Elizabeth II is particularly impressive.

ASIDE: How much of the Queen's time is taken up by having her portraits painted ad nauseam for all the embassies around the world? Judging by this place, it's probably a lot. It's good to stay busy.

When I got the invitation I couldn't say no. Not just because it was the most cruelly ironic way to have a good time, but because I'd finally have the chance to see up close something that I'd only read about in books: blue-blooded English people. It was certainly a good time, but things have come a long way from the Bertie Wooster days. 
Dramatization: Your correspondent enjoying a postprandial Turkish at the Embassy.
The girls certainly looked a bit thin, anyway. I think they must have been on some special diet. Maybe they'd all just been sick, as they seemed to be disappearing off to the bathroom and sniffling all night. Poor creatures; I wish them a speedy recovery.  

All the Englishmen I met there seemed interested in telling me all about their "Gap Year," some kind of rite of passage for the young and upwardly mobile over in their country. All of them seemed to be traveling straight across the southern half of the planet: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Fiji, New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, Goa, et cetera.  Sounds like a nice way to pass the time, but my life is enough of a Gap Year already, so I'll stay in Buenos Aires for now. 

Most of them seemed pretty surprised to discover that it was the worst day of the year to be English in Argentina, even though there was also a good splattering of Argentines at the party as well. To most of them, Buenos Aires was just one stop on their world party tours. The club going enthusiasts seemed to think that Buenos Aires is the best city in the world for that sort of thing, and a few had decided to extended their stays for a few weeks (just skip Patagonia or Bolivia). By and large, though, I didn't really get the impression from the ones who planned on staying  that they knew what the holiday was about. Having found the most English-friendly party in town, I doubt they cared too much.

I wish I could provide some profound insight about how this most sacrilegious of parties is a perfect demonstration of the way money and first world privilege insulate people from reality. Unfortunately, I was just as separated from reality by the ambassador's wet bar as I was by money, privilege or federal riot police, so the story will just have to wait. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Today as Argentine's celebrate Malvinas Argentinas day, I thought I'd like to share with you some fun facts about the reason everything in the country is closed today and about the cold political (mis)calculations that led up to Argentina deciding to exercise its claims to sovereignty over the islands.

Did you know?
  • That the Falkland Islands number one export is soul crushing boredom?                   Wildlife holidays in The Falkland Islands - Southern Elephant Seal by Will Wagstaff
  • That in only 90 hours you too could visit the Falklands from anywhere in the world (except Argentina)? 
  • That the the Falkland Islands are actually the secret island headquarters of the Legion of Doom? 
  • That the Falkland Islands are the most politically expedient place in Argentina?
The war for the Falklands was one of the largest blunders in history. The Junta thought that an easy victory in the largely undefended islands would distract the population from their gross incompetence and their atrocious human rights abuses. They failed to take into account that Baroness Thatcher had the same problems and bigger balls. 

It takes a man to wear pink. Happy Malvinas Argentinas Day!



"To the client: We inform you that for reasons beyond the control of this business, we find ourselves with a deficiency of meat products"

First off, allow me to wish all my readers a very happy Argentine Malvinas Islands day. In the grand tradition of politics in this country, yesterday President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner reaffirmed Argentina's inalienable sovereignty  over the tiny, sheep-rich islands just as she managed to send the country straight to hell with a 40 percent tax increase on soy exports. Although global prices for agrarian exports are at their highest level in years in years, La Presidenta's glorious leadership has resulted in a general strike across the farm industry. Gauchos are burning bails of hay on the highways at roadblocks every few miles to prevent any agrarian products from going anywhere, and millions of cows, pigs, sheep and chicken are enjoying a stay of execution. Instead of enjoying an enormous influx of foreign currency, the country is at a complete standstill. 

Why are these Gauchos enjoying an afternoon drive instead of killing me some steaks?
More pressing to me than the fate of the country, though, is that there is no meat anywhere. I don't want to say that I came here to eat steak, but I certainly didn't come here to not eat steak. Rather large numbers of the locals seem upset as well, and protests have taken place all over the city. Unfortunately, these protests have gone from extremely annoying to violent in a rather short span of time. It began with large middle class protests against the government that saw thousands taking to the street (or simply hanging out the windows) banging pots and pans. I was willing to endure this cacophonic outburst of popular sentiment as I thought that the nonstop clanking might encourage the government to reconsider is position.  The Peronists, however,  already know that they do not enjoy major support in the capital, and have decided to play to their base by not appearing weak in front of the effete citizens of Buenos Aires. Instead, Kirchner's government has brought in the nations number one rabble-rouser to create the appearance of grassroots support by whipping up a mob. Some of the counter demonstrations organized by Luis D'Elía (pictured below) have already erupted into brawls, largely ignored by the federal police.  

Mr. D'Elía supplies thoughtful commentary to representatives of the fourth estate.
To a crowd of thousands bused in from the slums and suburbs of the city, La Presidenta delivered an impassioned speech about how the nebulous and fascistic powers behind the current strike have conspired to undermine her government because they fear the mob (not Cristina's words) and because she is a woman. Then, in a masterstroke of political double or triplethink, she changed the topic from the present situation paralyzing the country to the 1976 military coup and then on to Argentina's specious claim to the windswept Falkland Islands.  
 La Presidenta opens the roads with ruthless efficiency. 
Allow me to attempt to enter the mind of her excellency: This strike is being perpetrated against me by fascists because I am a woman, these same fascists are responsible for the last coup, the fascists want to keep the country weak, the country needs the Falkland Islands, do not look at the man behind the curtain. That the 1976 coup just so happened to oust the other woman president to occupy the Pink House allows Cristina to distract the audience from the issue of the unjust tax increase and create sympathy for herself by portraying herself not only as the victim of sexism, but also by assuming the unassailable mantle of a martyr of the dictatorship.

Instead of focusing on the government's exorbitant tax hike on small farmers, the audience is left with the impression that Cristina - sanctified by the blood shed in the dirty war - is defending the country from the criminals of the oligarchy. That the claim to the Falklands was by and large manufactured by these same criminals (Nicolás Francomano himself, probably) when their own incompetence was becoming readily apparent matters little. Even though it was the fascists whom Kirchner decries that had the idea to invade the Falklands in the first place, the president seems content to manipulate the mob with the feverish sloganeering of irredentism rather than addressing the problems she has created. 

All things being equal, I suppose that this sort of political duplicity exists in every country of the world (except in Scandinavia), and that Argentina is still better off with Peronism's duplicity than Bolivarian Socialism's totalitarian inclinations. Maybe someday they will get the Falkland's back, but until then I'd like somebody to do something about the steak situation.