Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Commuter trains in Buenos Aires - Downbound or upbound?

Unlike train lines serving the wealthy northern suburbs of Buenos Aires, the Sarmiento line to the west of La Capital is in a poor state.

The train to Zona Oeste, operated by TBA (Trenes de Buenos Aires) leaves from Once de Septiembre Station.

From the outside, characteristic British charm is clear in the design of the station building. Inside is more Argentine. Disorganized chaos and typically long queues at the ticket booths. The train used to run all the way across the Pampas to Mendoza in the west of the country. Now, 1 peso 35 cents buys a ticket to the end of the line, Moreno, a city just 100km from the capital.

There are four platforms, all with Moreno as its destination. Any trains waiting are usually already full. So many passengers choose to wait on packed platforms for the next arrival. The electronic doors open when it pulls in, and bedlam erupts as those trying to barge their way on for a seat push aside those getting off. Men are often seen climbing through a window to get on more quickly than the rest.

Ten or so minutes after departure time, the badly functioning electronic doors beep and then open and close several times, before the train pulls off.

El Sarmiento
(named after former President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento) stops in the neighbourhoods of Caballito, Flores, Floresta and Villa Luro. Crossing General Paz Avenue at Liniers, it leaves the city and enters the province of Buenos Aires.

From there, it bustles on down poorly maintained tracks, originally laid more than a century earlier. A broad gauge of 5ft 6in (1,676mm), and traffic running on the left illustrates British influence. Opposite the station in Haedo, British style terrace houses built for railway workers line the track.

Construction of the Argentine rail network took place primarily from 1870. The British financed the investment and by 1914 it had become the tenth largest system in the world. In 1948, then President Juan Perón nationalised the railway, and the Sarmiento line, formerly operated by British owned Buenos Aires Western Company, became one of six state owned companies managed by Ferrocarrilles Argentinos.

Privatisation during President Carlos Menem’s reforms in 1993, and then the economic crisis in 2001, has seen a great decline in the system. And despite President Nestor Kirchner’s commitment to the railway in 2003, it has never recovered.

Perón signing the nationalisation doc

Some areas have suffered more than others though, and difference in quality of the six commuter lines serving the capital city is noticeable. The Julio Roca line to the south and Sarmiento to the west are underfunded, and widely regarded as the worst. To the south and west of the city are also the city’s poorest suburbs.

The aisles in the train are nearly always full to the brim, even in the bicycle carriage, where dope smokers spread out to smoke their marijuana. Passengers will always offer a seat to someone carrying a small child though; a little piece of chivalry still prevalent in Argentina.

Throughout the journey salespeople enter the packed carriages to flog anything from chocolate, to screwdrivers, to fake CDs. There’s etiquette amongst them, and each respects the other as they take turns to shout their pitch. Raggedly dressed children whale in and out of the crowds. They leave religious cards with messages from Saints on passengers’ knees in the hope of exchanging them for milk and bread money.

Not everyone is so honest though. Stopped at stations, it is common to hear of thieves grabbing a mobile phone and jumping off the train as the electronic doors lock shut. Or petty criminals on platforms, reaching through open windows and stealing a lady’s handbag as the train pulls out.

At Merlo, three stops from the end of the line, half the passengers get off to make the connection to Lobus. They are bunched together as the turn-gates fail to cope. The rest go onto Moreno to complete the one and a quarter hour journey.

El Sarmiento
is an example of a privately run system in which consumers have no choice. Investment by TBA is low and despite constant protests by commuters, quality continues to decline. It is argued that residents in the richer suburbs to the north would simply not tolerate this kind of service, and for now they don’t have to.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Buying a house in Argentina. Is it really worth the risk?

A woman stands on the corner of Reconquista Street, waiting to cross Cordoba Avenue. It’s a busy afternoon in downtown Buenos Aires. A man next to her punches her squarely in the face. She falls down. A second man pulls out a gun. He tells the crowds to stay back while the first man grabs the lady’s handbag from her arm. Two motorbikes pull up alongside. The two men jump on and they speed off.

Buying a house in Argentina can be the biggest investment you ever make, or the day you lose it all. Why? An archaic system in which property transactions are made in cash. On three, you give me the deeds and I give you the money; one, two... three.

The purchase is in two parts. In the first, el boleto (a 20% deposit to start the process), the buyer chooses the location and hands over the cash when the seller arrives. The second stage, when the remaining 80% of the price is transferred, the seller chooses where. In both stages, someone arrives, or leaves, with a bag load of cash. The risk is worth it for most. Unless you’re like the unlucky lady with a handbag stashed full of 100 dollar bills, punched and robbed in the street.

Why the risk?

Stemming from an absolute lack of trust in the banks (post financial meltdown in 2001 when many Argentines lost all the savings they’d deposited); the deal is now done with as little banking involvement possible. Deposit and withdrawal charges totalling 1.2%, astronomical costs for electronic transactions, and charges of up to $US12 per month just to have a current account, means most of the population keep their savings in security boxes within the banks. Money out of the system; or black money as Argentines call it. The big day means transferring black money from one safety box to another. A theoretically safe process, assuming nobody knows you’re in the street with the cash.

Who knows?

At least three parties. The buyer, the seller, and the bank housing the security box. A word from one of them to a band of thieves, like those on the motorbikes who robbed the lady on Cordoba Avenue, and somebody’s cash is not completing the journey. More often than not bank workers are accused of involvement in the robberies, increasing the mistrust in the banking system. Even those who hire a security firm to escort them as they transport the cash are not safe; underpaid security men know you’ve hired them for a reason.

What to do?

Keep the location of the transaction secret until the last moment. Remain vigilant when taking the money from the bank. Perhaps start moving the money in small quantities before transaction day, (though keeping US$100,000 under your mattress is not safe either). But most importantly, trust no one, keep on your toes, and remember; the biggest investment of your life can in a split second, become the day you lose it all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Un Domingo Perfecto

Diciembre en la provincia de Buenos Aires. Verano, sol, cerveza, el torneo apertura. Toda la semana hemos laburado, esclavos de la plata, sudando sin parar. Hemos esperado este día, hemos esperado el fútbol, el asado, un descanso merecido con la familia y amigos. Y ya está el finde. Sacamos la remera, abrimos la Quilmes, y encendemos el fuego. Dale che, vamos.

A las nueve nos solemos levantar. Alguien va por las facturas. Otro calienta la pava. Nos sentamos a la mesa. Todos peleamos por la crema pastelera. Algunos contentos con las medialunas. El cebador pasa el mate y charlamos unas tonterías mientras que unos vemos la tele, y otros escuchan cumbia. Te toca a vos o me toca mí, nos preguntamos después de haber tomado unos mates.

Por el mediodía no nos aguantamos más. El sol es brillante y el jardín nos llama. Las mujeres siguen con el mate, compartiendo chismes y risas. Los hombres buscamos la cerveza. Alguien abre la botella de Quilmes con una cuchara, y nos ponemos en el sol para hablar del partido.

Luego de dos botellas estamos pensando en la carne. Hay dos bicis en la puerta. La carnicería está cerquita y es lindo día. Tranquilos en las bicis pedaleamos por los caminos del campo. En la carnicería pedimos tapa de asado, asado, matambre, chorizo, morcilla, y a veces, chinchulines. Ponemos todo en las canastas de las bicis, y vamos. Ya tenemos un hambre de la mierda.

De vuelta en el jardín, unos han arrancado con el vino tinto y soda, y otros siguen con la Quilmes. Llevamos la parrilla hasta el suelo, arriba de unos ladrillos. Unos cartones están encendidos con el carbón adentro. Preparamos la carne con sal y un poco de limón. Ya hace calor. Las remeras están quitadas, y los tragos bien fríos nos refrescan.

Mientras que las mujeres están en la cocina, hirviendo papas y preparando una ensalada, quizás una ensalada rusa con papas, los hombres nos encargamos del asado. La carne se cocina despacio, crepitando. El aire caliente se nota en su alrededor.

Una hora y media después, las mujeres desesperadas con hambre y afuera el perfume fuerte llega a las narices. Nos tienta y picamos un poco, bajandola con más cerveza. Pan, carne, y cerveza.

Pongan la mesa chicas, ya está. Cortamos la carne en pedazos y la entregamos. Están como locas observando la mejor carne pare elegir, la ensalada y las papas moviéndose entre ellas hasta los platos. Como costumbre, los hombres suelen comer levantados en el jardín. Usamos envases para abrir más Quilmes y escuchamos la música, que está fuerte.

Media hora después, las mujeres lavando los platos; sacamos las cartas para el truco. Puteamos un poco y suena como que estamos peleando, pero no, es todo amistoso. Hijo de puta grita el que pierde, otra vez el cuatro de copas, sos un boludo. Pero todo bien che, vamos hasta la tele. Dale Boca gritamos. Algunos se arrodillan y rezan. Dale Boca, dale dale Boca. Ojalá ganemos boludo, y sería un domingo perfecto.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Santa Rosa storm arrives punctually in Buenos Aires - Parks are abandoned as the little summer is gone

From 5th September 2009

The skies opened up over Buenos Aires early Monday morning soaking the Argentine capital, and ending a week of scorching temperatures and soaring humidity.

The phenomenon known as La Tormenta de Santa Rosa (the Saint Rosa storm), that legend says unveils its fury thirty days either side of Saint Rosa day on August 30th, arrived right on time and brought winter flooding back to Buenos Aires.

The high summertime temperatures, which reached a maximum of thirty three degrees centigrade on Sunday afternoon, had been a welcome relief from the cold and dreary August winter. During the weekend, parks all over Buenos Aires were filled by capital city residents, known as porteños, as they scrambled to enjoy the sunshine during El veranito de San Juan (the little Saint John summer).

But much to the disdain of those enjoying the outdoors for the first time since winter began, el veranito de San Juan had to end soon and the warm sunshine was finally washed away by the Saint Rosa storm early Monday morning, with untypically Argentine punctuality. For the first time in twenty years, the storm hit on August 30th, Saint Rosa day exactly.

Any storm two weeks earlier and, as in other years, newspapers and television would have typically reported the early showing of the Saint Rosa storm. This year however has left no need for media spin to fill newspaper pages, as thunder and lighting hit at around four in the morning. The downpour continued to cause havoc for commuter traffic until midday on Monday. And though the severe hailstorm predicted by weather forecasters failed to hit the city, the River Plate has now faced an onslaught of wind and rain for five days straight.

Umbrellas are up, and puddles are rife throughout the city streets, as porteños now look forward to September 21st and the beginning of spring, when like last week, they can again sit outside to enjoy their afternoon coffee.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Moving Day

I sit here this morning surrounded by boxes, suitcases and bags. The walls of my flat look tired and bare, with crumbling paint and the odd stain showing through. The worn out kitchen and out of date bathroom are as scrubby now as they have always been. I am not unhappy to be leaving.

During my two years living in Buenos Aires I have always been in this flat, and though it’s dark and dingy, and not in the greatest shape, it has served me well. Firstly, I got it at local rates in Argentine pesos, (vastly cheaper than the usual dollar prices most foreign people pay), and the location has been perfect. In the central neighbourhood known as Tribunales, one block from Corrientes Avenue and all its theatres and restaurants, and only ten blocks or so from my work. Easy enough for me to nip home for lunch, and no commuting underground on the packed subte for twenty minutes each morning and evening.

But its lack of space and light, and my neighbour’s bedroom window almost within arm’s reach of mine, has left me ready to move on. My bags are packed and the removal van is booked. No more hanging my wet towels in the kitchen window to dry, and no more lowering the blinds every time I want to change clothes.

My relationship with this place is nearly over and a bright new life elsewhere in the city, in trendy Palermo Viejo, awaits me with a sunny terrace and a sky view. I feel inspired, and I can see myself now, exercising my fingers as I start this new blog in my new place. The two years of Argentine stories itching to make it into type. Perhaps I’ll even sit outside on that balcony as I write.