Friday, December 31, 2010

Argentine wine - a world of discovery

It is probably fair to say that when thinking of wine from South America, Chile is the first country which comes to mind. Along with South Africa, Australia and California, it has been a prominent figure on the new world shelves of supermarkets back in Europe for many years; while wine coming from neighbouring Argentina has not really featured. 

Actually Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer and with over 1,500 vineyards, is a wine guzzling country of epic proportions.

Wine production here started when the Spanish colonizers brought vines with them from Spain during the sixteenth century. Early experiments planting in Atlantic coastal regions near Buenos Aires were not successful, but in the dry, desert like Andean areas of the country, the grapes fared superbly.

The first commercial vineyard is recorded in Santiago del Estero in 1557. But it wasn’t until the completion of the Argentine rail network in 1885, when transportation to Buenos Aires became easier, that the wine industry truly started to grow; helped along throughout the nineteenth century by Italian, French and Spanish winemakers who fleeing the phylloxera epidemic that was wreaking havoc in the vineyards of their home countries, brought expertise to Argentine wine production.

It has to be said though, that despite all the European knowledge and the excellent climatic conditions, historically winemakers in Argentina were far more focused on quantity as opposed to quality.

Local taste buds were for a long time well accustomed to watery tabletop crap that was necked back merely as a means to wash down the kilos of beef that each Argentine devoured. That meant that 90% of Argentine wine was considered too poor to export, was more often than not mixed with soda water and drunk here; and hence did not gain international fame.

That is most definitely no longer the case and Argentine wine is now widely regarded as well, rather bloody tasty.

Nothing but Argentine wine here
During the 1990s as local demand for low quality wines declined, winemakers sought to improve their product, and to export. They made the most of the 1:1 peso-dollar exchange rate to purchase top quality equipment from abroad and set about sowing new plants and altering their production processes to end up with quality products.

With the 2001 economic crisis and the devaluation of the peso, new and improved Argentine wine exploded onto the international market (especially in the US and Canada, Argentina’s two main export markets) and figures have been rising steadily ever since.

In 2007, 27% of wine production here was destined for export, reaching a total of $US482.3 million. While during the first nine months of 2010 exports increased by 17.4% compared with the same period in 2009, according to data from Caucasia Wine Thinking.

The wine producing region in Argentina spreads down the side of the Andes from some of the world’s highest vineyards in the northern province of Salta, through San Juan, La Rioja, the renowned Mendoza, and all the way to Patagonia.

The country produces a variety of wines but is definitely most famous for its Malbec.

Hailing from Bordeaux, France, this grape was brought to Argentina in the 1800s on the instruction of then provincial governor Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Here the Malbec grapes tend to grow in small tight clusters considered great for wine, and unlike in France, are irrigated with pure mountain water (well away from the sea), flourishing in ideal conditions in regions which enjoy over 300 days of sunshine per year. Often spending time in quality French or American oak, Malbec is well-known for its intensely deep colour, excellent nose, and unique and fruity taste. It is without doubt the wine of choice in Argentina.

Visiting and experiencing wine here for the first time can be a daunting experience. You will be confronted with wine lists sporting Malbecs, Merlots, Cabs, Bonardas, Syrahs, Tempranillos (and that’s just the reds) from bodegas (vineyards) you have probably never heard of. Making informed decisions can be difficult. Of course a wine tour in Mendoza is a typical tourist excursion where you will visit vineyards and soak up the whole process, but if you’ve just touched down in Buenos Aires and could use a little instruction before you hit the restaurants, then a great option is to do a wine tasting in the city.

Excellent presentation at Anuva Wines
Anuva Wines runs tastings out of the charming and stylish Rendez-Vous Hotel in the trendy Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. In small groups of two to eight people, their intimate, professional and very appetizing tasting is a super introduction to the glories of Argentine wine.

You will sit at a modishly decorated table while their host talks you through the five wines you will taste. A couple of whites to start and then three magnificent reds. All matched with perfectly chosen snacks to help bring out the intense flavours. Maybe a Torrontés with some peach sorbet, a Bonarda with salami and cheese, a Syrah with a meaty Argentine empanada and of course a marvellous Malbec, which always goes magnificently with some dark chocalate. With wine flowing freely, you will not only waddle out with a smile on your face, but after the great conversation and superb instruction, you'll have an improved knowledge about Argentine wine and culture. 

But for those of you who won't be visiting here anytime soon, don't fret. With exports to North America already doing well, and exports to Europe on the rise, there should be plenty of opportunity to sample some of the magnificent wine that is being produced here. 

Next time you're after a tipple for an evening in, ignore Chile and ask your local store about a bottle of Argentine Malbec, surely you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feliz Navidad

Buenos Aires is not the most festive place at Christmas. Of course the superfluous requirement of more than one layer of clothing, the excessive daylight and the missing sight of your own breath as you hit the streets shopping with a frozen nose and Nan-knitted scarf, make it all very hard to get into the Christmas mood if you’re used to a wintry December.

But even without the cold dark evenings wrapped up around the fire, it is just not Christmassy here; at least not in the commercial sense.

No giving and receiving of Christmas cards, no advent calendars for the kids as they eagerly count down the days until the twenty-fifth; shopping centres can hardly be called ‘decorated’ and the sound of Christmas songs echoing from brightly lit shops with Rudolf or Santa in the window is pretty much absent.

The city’s Obelisk may well be kind of Christmassied-up with some sort of tree next to it, but the truth is that a walk around the streets of Buenos Aires does not give any hint that Papa Noel is on his way.

Not that there is any real reason for the children to get that excited about the old guy with the beard. The Coca-Cola Christmas complete with a flying Santa shoving himself down chimneys is not really given much credence here, so leaving out a stocking, a mince pie and a carrot for the reindeers is not really the done thing. 

In Argentina, like in many other countries, the real Christmas celebration takes place on the night of the twenty-fourth. Youngsters won’t be up at the break of dawn to see what was left under the tree because they will be wide awake at midnight on Christmas Eve exchanging gifts, as fireworks and the popping of cider bottles start off the party. It's all largely reminiscent of New Year's Eve.

In general, it is really a time for families to get together, to reminisce, relax and eat. Typical Christmas food includes asado (barbeque), oven roasted chicken, salads and ice-cream.

But with December temperatures in Buenos Aires usually hitting the mid thirties, the most important Christmas ingredients of all are without doubt a shady corner and an ice-cold beverage. And if you’re lucky, a bob around in the swimming pool.

Merry Christmas, on what is really the morning after the night before.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dog Walking - The Profession

It's a pretty great sight to see a dozen or so dogs rambling down a busy avenue together, tugging on the leads that connect them to the lone dog-walker whose job it is to manage them for a couple of hours out of the city flats they each call home.

And the sight is an extremely common one on the streets of Buenos Aires, where professional dog walking is rather big business.

Every morning as the sun rises, eager beaver dog-walkers buzz the flats of their dog owning clients, gather up the canines and trek around the city streets, dodging in and out of the thousands of porteños on their way to work, as they hop between plazas and parks to give the pets some daily exercise.

Buenos Aires is a flat-living tower-block jam-packed city, and so dogs rarely enjoy the luxury of their own garden or outdoor space where they can bury a bone and dump at will. If their owners work all day then it’s hours on end cooped up between four walls, where they’ll no doubt leave their mark; or outings out with a professional joined to a lead with a handful of buddies.

Officially there are over 110 dog-walkers registered with the authorities in Capital Federal, though hundreds more work in black. It is nearly impossible to not commit some sort of illegal act while doing this work, say the walkers; so to avoid the inevitable fines, some feel it's better off not registering.

Registered or not, dog-walking is a tough and physical job, and one that takes great strength and fitness. Anyone who has walked one dog will know the force some of even the smallest breeds can have; so just imagine a group of them as they pull you along and tussle to cock a leg at the bottom of a lamppost.

However, according to the pros, it's far easier to manage more than it is less.

The Law states a lone dog-walker can walk a maximum of eight dogs at a time. But with an estimated one million dogs in the city (not including street dogs), demand is high, and many choose to take out more. It is occasionally possible to see the odd athletic chappy, or chapette, with over twenty dogs attached to the lead. That takes some doing.

Ilda walked my own dog for 2 years
Ilda, who has been running her own dog-walking business for thirteen years, would do nothing else. ‘The exercise and being with dogs that I love is a perfect way to spend every day,’ she says. 'It gives me the freedom to be my own boss. And well, unlike people; dogs don't let you down.'

The job has its down sides though. The city of Buenos Aires does not provide doggy bins on its streets, and more and more plazas are being closed to animals as local residents complain about constant barking.

Not to mention summer temperatures of up to 40°C and just-out-of-the shower-like humidity.

But whatever the situation, dogs always need exercise; and depending on the neighbourhood, dog-walkers can earn anywhere between $US30 - $US50 per month per dog. If they’re taking out say, twelve in the morning, then twelve in the afternoon, and maybe the odd one in the evening; then it can soon become a not too shabby way to make a living.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ireland - Remember Argentina

As Ireland faces the consequences of its economical difficulties and the harsh demands expected to come from its lenders, perhaps it should remember the case of Argentina.

When it faced financial ruin in 2001, it pulled out its middle finger and told the supposed saving grace known by the three famous letters I, M, and F (whose negligence had been one of the causes of Argentina’s problems in the first place), to pretty much stick it with the ridiculous austerity measures it tried to force on the country. Argentina spent the next five years enjoying an average growth in GDP of 8.5%.

For those who can’t recall the details of Argentina’s absolute meltdown in 2001, the somewhat basic history is this.

The Eighties and Nineties

After a return to democracy in 1983, the Argentine government of Alfonsín borrowed huge amounts of money. When the country struggled to repay the loans, confidence in the new currency, the Austral, was lost and inflation went through the roof. In July 1989 it was 200% alone, reaching a total of 5000% for the year.

To cope with the hyperinflation, Argentines would spend nearly every cent of their pay-check the same day they received it. If not, their hard earned cash would be worth nearly nothing by the next day as shop prices literally went up by the hour.

Desperate measures were necessary and in 1990, with a new government and mandate, the Argentine peso was restored, and so started the notorious experiment with convertibility. One Argentine peso was fixed as equal to one US dollar, and any citizen was able to exchange any amount of pesos to dollars as they pleased.   

Argentines smiled.

Get your pay-check in pesos, change it to dollars, stick it somewhere safe, travel abroad and feel rich all of a sudden. Everything in neighbouring Brazil for example was now dirt cheap with dollars in your hands, and Argentines could not only afford cheap imports, but were able to take out low interest loans in US dollars.  

On the surface, life was rosy in the nineties. But behind the scenes problems were bubbling away.

Inflation was soon back. And with prices for many consumer goods now lower in the USA, the famous expression ‘dame dos’, (give me two), took hold as Argentines marvelled at the cheaper shop prices abroad.

Cheap imports meant money was pouring out of the country, while dollar prices in Argentina meant the economy could not compete with other developing nations and so the export market crumbled. The country still had massive debts and South America’s old friend, the IMF, recklessly continued lending to Argentina, postponing payment dates and allowing the problem to brew.

The fund also put in place structural adjustment programmes so severe that they only served to lower GDP by 10%, and in 1999 Argentina entered recession. With corruption rife, huge unemployment and economic deflation, it all came crashing down with the 2001 crisis.

The Crisis

As investors lost faith in the country, money started flowing out across the borders. Suspicious and fearful of yet more financial problems, there was a run on the banks as Argentines withdrew their savings and also sent it abroad. The government reacted by freezing all bank accounts for twelve months; an act that became known as the corralito.

With mass protests and an economy spiralling out of control, a state of emergency was declared. Argentina defaulted on $95bn of debt and by 2002 the convertibility experiment was finally called off.

Argentines rushed to the banks in attempts to get out any pesos they had, and exchange them before the devaluation, but the banks literally closed their doors as they were left cashless.

Almost overnight, the national currency was devalued from one peso for a dollar, to four pesos for a dollar. 

Furthermore, the economy ministry declared that any dollars in bank accounts would be converted to pesos at the new rate of 4:1, and so the entire life savings of hundreds of thousands of Argentines pretty much disappeared.

The initial consequence was disastrous. Riots and looting ensued, and when half the entire population fell below the poverty line, unemployed and broke; a barter economy was born with second hand clothes exchanged for basic services, and home-baked bread for meat. It was even common to see those with nothing to trade eating from the rubbish bins outside McDonalds.

The situation was dire and the IMF saw the opportunity to enforce further neo-liberal policies and austerity cuts. As with the current situation in Europe, many suggested their policy of making the workers pay for a mess they had nothing to do with, was entirely politically motivated.

But in 2003, with newly elected president Nestor Kirchner, Argentina grew a pair. They refused any further help from the IMF, paid off the debt and told the un-elected and foreign monetary advisors to get the hell out of the country. Argentina would be governed by Argentina, and with some shrewd policies, the economy recovered.

Turning your back on the ECB in Europe and going it alone would not be so easy for Ireland. In Argentina it seemed to work, but despite its recent economic success; with the IMF constantly making bogus economic projections, combined with the old problems of corruption and inflation, the longevity of Argentina's prosperous situation is forever in doubt.

There's a general consensus here that a crisis hits the country every ten years. 2011 will tell.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mamma mia, che bella l'Argentina - Gnocchi per tutti

They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you have a thing for gnocchis (spelt ñoquis in Argentina), then at the end of each month, this is the country for you. That’s because the 29th of every month in Argentina is traditionally Ñoquis day.

Italian cuisine was first brought to Argentina when Italians began migrating here en masse in the nineteenth century.

The original influx of immigrants was made up principally of northern Italians who came to Argentina once it had won its independence from Spain in 1810. By the time cholera epidemics hit Italy in the 1830s, then again in the fifties, sixties and eighties, hundreds of thousands of Italians were choosing Argentina as a place to make their new home. During the first decade of the twentieth century alone, the Italian diaspora saw over 700,000 flood into the country to escape economic hardship in Italy.  

And they didn’t only come with their hand gestures and their language, which managed to infiltrate the Spanish spoken in Argentina to such an extent that the intonation here is almost as musical as Italian and sets Argentine Spanish notably apart from other accents; but like all decent people from countries with exceptional cuisine, they came with their food.

Local taste buds were titillated with pasta, pizza, ice-cream, breaded meats known as milanesas, and ñoquis; all of which quickly became part of the local Argentine diet. Italy's alcoholic beverages too, like Fernet Branca and Cinzano, remain very popular.
Though the Italian food here has no doubt lost some of its original authenticity (Argentine pizza is thick based for example and more like a calzone), with sixty percent of all Argentines descending from those Italian families who brought it with them; the love for Italian cooking it seems, is in the blood.

And the 29th day of each month is the day for ñoquis.

It is not really clear how the tradition came about. Some suggest that the poverty in which the newly arrived Italians found themselves, left them so broke by the end of each month that the cheap, yet filling lumps of potato and flour were a sound economical option.

Others argue that it has to do with a young doctor called Pantaleón who legend has it left his home in Asia in the 8th century and performed miracles in northern Italy after converting to Christianity. The legend says that while on a pilgrimage, Pantaleón blessed a farmer who had shared what little food he had, and promised that the next year’s harvest would be plentiful. Which it was. When Pantaleón was canonized a patron Saint of Venice on the 29th of July, the farmers honoured him by eating ñoquis, a dish that represented the poor.    

Whatever the origins, the custom became tradition in Argentina, and though nowadays it is becoming less fashionable, ñoquis were no doubt still served up in homes all throughout the country yesterday; and usually with a handful of peso notes beneath the plate for luck.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The French and the British versus Argentina

Juan Manuel de Rosas

Monday was a new national holiday in Argentina, El Día de la Soberanía - The day of National sovereignty.

It commemorates the Battle of Vuelta de Obligado which took place on November 20th, 1845 when the Argentine Confederation went up against a mighty Anglo-French fleet of eleven warships on the shores of the Paraná River.

Juan Manuel de Rosas, who appears on the Argentine twenty peso banknote, was Governor of Buenos Aires province from 1829 to 1832, and again from 1835 to 1852. During his second reign he managed to really tick off the Brits and the French, who both had interests in the region, when he upped national tariffs in an attempt to protect national industry. When he then went and tried to include both Uruguay and Paraguay in the confederation, the Anglo-French alliance panicked. They did not want to be paying even close to a fair price for exploiting the region’s resources, and had no intention of playing by the rules.

The development of steam powered sailing in the early nineteenth century enabled the British and French to sail straight up the River Plate estuary and on into the inland regions of Argentina, bypassing customs in Buenos Aires. In doing so, the Europeans dodged Rosas’ taxes and hence, reaped the rewards of flogging what they gathered at cheaper prices than their competitors.

Juan Manuel Rosas thought this ever so slightly unfair, and closed the Paraná River to foreign vessels. When the British and French governments decided to ignore his authority, the battle was on.

With their eleven state of the art warships, three of which, HMS Gorgon, HMS Firebrand and the Fulton were steamers, the Anglo-French Fleet sailed up the Paraná River until they came across an Argentine line of 3 vessels and 21 barges blocking their way. The Argentines had also set up four batteries with thirty canons on the shores, and so by the 20th of November conflict was inevitable.

Canon fire and rocket discharges got things going, but the military force of the Anglo-French, which had perhaps 418 canons, was just too much. The French Fulton broke through the barricade and accosted twenty-one of the Argentine canons. With 150 dead soldiers and as many as 400 injured, the local forces were defeated and the Europeans were able to sail on.

Their victory was short-lived however as the foreigners suffered further attacks on the Paraná River. And by the following year, despite the economic incentives of tax evasion, the British and French deemed it impossible to sail Argentine rivers without Argentine permission.

The 20th of November has been observed as the Day of National Sovereignty since 1974, and became a national holiday this year. It rained but was a nice day off nonetheless.  

The reverse of 20peso note commemorates the Battle

Friday, November 19, 2010

El Superclásico y el fútbol argentino

Up in the near vertical stands of La Bombonera to welcome Boca Juniors onto the field

According to the Observer newspaper it's one of the fifty must do sporting things before you die, while the Sun newspaper calls it 'the most intensive sporting event in the world'. It's the derby of all footballing derbies. Boca Juniors versus River Plate - El Superclásico.

Let's face it, footy is massive in Argentina, and the day of el Superclásico is huge beyond all things huge; it has to be written about. Clásico means derby in Spanish, and in Buenos Aires it is used to describe a match between any of the five Grandes, Independiente, San Lorenzo, Racing Club, Boca Juniors and River Plate. With an estimated 70% of the population supporting either Boca or River, when these two giants meet the super ís added for well, self explanatory reasons.

Whether you like football or not, witnessing the way Argentine fans behave inside stadiums is a uniquely South American experience and one that aides in the understanding of society here in general.

Fans of San Lorenzo
The overwhelming noise, explosions, fireworks, paper throwing, beating drums, blaring trumpets and chants could easily describe any one of the city's several daily protests when marchers block streets to make as much racket as possible. (All be it rather musical and sometimes quite pleasant on the ear racket).

Because in Argentina, loudness is loud. Whether you're stuck in traffic or taking part in a typical Argentine debate, (where everyone tends to speak at the same time), it's the loudest of the loud who wins. Up in the stands, where you actually still stand and don't have to mess around with a seat, it is no different. Fans will even scream loudly when their team concedes a goal in an attempt to out-sing their opponents and save face.

As noisy as the adjective loud is though, the word just doesn't cut it when describing the stadium experience, especially when it comes to el Superclásico. The first match was in 1908 and the fixture has been one full of spine-tingling, no holds barred, decibelic explosive entertainment on the more than 300 occasions they have met since. Boca's home stadium La Bombonera even physically vibrates when packed to the brim.

The chanting and drumming is conducted by the clubs' barras bravas. These are the hardcore groups of fans, who in Europe are often banned from stadiums due to their violent and hooliganistic reputations. In Argentina however, (get ready for your jaw to drop) these fans (hooligans) are not only part of the clubs, they are financed by them.

Boca's famed barra brava La 12
Argentine football clubs are non-profit making organisations whose members democratically elect presidents to run them. The president needs support and so does the club, and it is the barras bravas who can provide that. In return they are issued tickets, their travel expenses to stadiums are taken care of, they play a role in new signings and they even receive a percentage of the revenue from players sold. These guys have access, and that means power.

When it came to the World Cup this year, the top barras bravas travelled on the same plane as Diego Maradona and the national squad. Back in 2006 in Germany, it is even rumoured that the leaders of River Plate's barra brava known as Los Borrachos del Tablón  (The drunks from the Plank) stayed in the house of Martin Demichellis, an Argentine defender who plays for Bayern Munich in Germany.   

This Tuesday though they were back in River's stadium, La Monumental, for el Superclásico and received their usual welcome as they marched into the stands rallied on as always by the rest of the stadium singing 'Here comes the drunks of the plank'.

Both River and Boca were formed in the working class neighbourhood of La Boca in the first few years of the twentieth century. River then moved to the affluent northern neighbourhood of Núñez in 1923 where they adopted the nickname Los Millonarios (The Millionaires).

Boca fans however, refer to their rivals as gallinas (chickens), while River's guys use the insult bosteros (manure collectors) to describe Boca supporters, in reference to the stinky River Chuelo in the neighbourhood of La Boca.

Nowadays, the clubs go head to head once per national championship. The season is divided into two and the championships are known as torneos. La Apertura (the opener) lasts from August until December, and La Clausura (the closer) from February to June. Both River and Boca had miserable and somewhat embarrassing starts to this year's Apertura and neither has a chance of finishing top. In fact, with the torneo only lasting 19 games, it's more likely Argentina will go veggie than see one of them crowned champion.

But el Superclásico is el Superclásicio and the league postions meant little as the stupendous importance of the match got the fans riled up and raving to go, as desperate as always to defeat their rival. It was River's fans who went hell-crazy this time with their beloved team defeating a lacklustre Boca one goal to nil to take home the bragging rights of the all important head to head known simply in Argentina as el Superclásico.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

McCartney rocks Buenos Aires

The old boy can still get down. And he can do it two nights running. Not something that can be said for every 68 year old man.

Paul McCartney and his band flew into Buenos Aires last Monday from neighbouring Brazil, where he’d played to 66,000 fans in Porto Alegre, some of whom are rumoured to have queued for a week to get in.

After hanging out with some cows and other farm animals for a couple of days in the Buenos Aires countryside, Paul strutted onto the stage on Wednesday evening. It had been seventeen years since the most Beatle-ish ex Beatle last performed in Argentina, and the River Plate stadium was jam-packed to the brim and overflowing with McCartney mania.

Generally the music that Argentines most love to strut their stuff to is Cumbia. Originating in Colombia's Caribbean region, the sound is salsa-ish with African style drums, guitars and keyboards stimulating the hips of listeners, who dance rhythmically like only Latinos can, leaving an Englishman to feel like a deaf and constipated robot while he's teased with comments like 'Hey Ingles, you look like you're doing the dishes while stamping on cockroaches. Lube up your hips boy.'
But whether they are swinging one another round and moving their limbs in impossibly musical ways, or tapping their feet to the greats like Queen or Europe, Argentines love music and most of the country has a finely tuned appreciative ear for British rock.

McCartney feels that.
‘I love South American audiences,’ he said ‘I always think I have Latin blood because I connect so strongly with their love of music, and their love of rhythm and their love of melody.”

He would certainly have enjoyed the boost to his bank balance. Tickets in Argentina were the most expensive on the current tour, ($US100- $US1500) and after selling out within hours of being on sale, Paul rolled up his socks, sucked on a few orange slices, and agreed to get back out there the following night for an equally sold out concert.

And according to reports, oh what a concert it was.

45,000 screaming fans jumped, shouted and sang along in Argentine accents to their favourite Beatles and Wings tunes. McCartney joked with them wearing the number ten of Maradona and proclaiming, ‘I am Diego,’ while wowing them with all the classics, from Something, in tribute to George Harrison to Let it Be and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band.  

According to reports, the band was flawless, while McCartney was his energetic, charismatic and Scouse self. His Spanish wasn't half bad either.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Malnutrition in Misiones

“Ours is a poor province with endemic poverty,” the Governor of the northeastern province of Misiones in Argentina, Maurice Closs highlighted as he announced that so far this year 206 children have died of malnutrition in his province.

Misiones, which borders Brazil and Paraguay, is home to one million people. Its main source of revenue comes from agriculture and tourism, and despite federal subsidies to combat poverty, it appears that far too many are finding the task of feeding their children an impossible one.

The subsidised Zero Hunger project (Hambre cero), was set up to detect and assist malnourished and underweight children. It distributes baskets of basic foods to the poor, and Governor Closs says it has helped 130,000 children. It has not however been able to solve the problem with estimates suggesting there are still 6000 cases of malnutrition.

Quite alarming really considering Argentina has a GDP per capita more or less equal to that of the EU’s Latvia.

San Ignacio Ruins
Misiones' history is one of toing and throwing between nations. European settlers originally arrived there and joined the indigenous Guarani population in the 17th century when Jesuit missionaries began constructing villages throughout the area. The remains of which, like the impressive San Ignacio Ruins, contribute to the tourist income the region enjoys.

But with the Guarini in Paraguay laying claim to the land, Misiones didn’t officially became a province of Argentina until 1876 when Paraguay, who had invaded nine years earlier, was defeated by the allied forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in what is known as the War of the Triple Alliance.

Historians still debate the real causes of the dispute, which saw tiny Paraguay declare war on mighty Brazil, but the result was devastating for the former, wiping out between 60-90% of its entire population. Misiones however, now a real part of Argentina, began to prosper as more European immigrants, principally Ukrainian and Polish farmers, flocked to the area to take up the occupation of harvesting yerba mate, the plant from which Argentina’s national hot drink comes.  

The Iguazú Falls are 2.5km long
The yerba mate plant is still the province’s most important agricultural source, as the area’s rainy and sub tropical climate makes crop farming difficult.

But despite the abundance of the yerba, the Jesuit ruins and Iguazú (the UNESCO World Heritage site and arguably the world’s most spectacular waterfalls), Misiones is still struggling economically.

In the 1990s, 33 out of every 1000 children died from malnutrition, and though Governor Closs points to the success of the Zero Hunger project in reducing that figure to its current 12.9 per thousand, Misiones’ economic output is still 40% below the national average, and with 329 child deaths in 2009 and the 206 so far this year, things need to improve for the province’s young and poor families.                         

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Last Wednesday

The eeriest of eerie days pretty well sums up Wednesday the twenty-seventh of October 2010 in Argentina. 

The city streets of Buenos Aires were deathly empty, as they were in the whole country as absolutely everything except essential services was closed while questioners hit the doorsteps of each and every house and flat, and whatever other place counts as a dwelling, for the once a decade national census.

It was weird. The entire nation from the Bolivian border to Tierra del Fuego, and in fact Antarctica which 230 Argentines presently call home, was forced to remain at home all day until each was asked questions considered to be of national interest.

How many people live in your household? Can they read and write? Do you have a computer? Can everyone in your household see? Can they hear? Do you have a fridge? Do you flush your toilet after every visit? (Okay, the last one may be made up).

The census was carried out by Indec, the country’s national statistic office. The very same institution constantly accused of bowing to the Kirchner government and publishing ever so slightly unrealistic inflation figures. (In 2009 they said inflation was 7.7%, while the private sector suggested prices went up by around 30%.).

The objective of the census was to learn about the main characteristics of Argentine households, and the social and economic demographics of its citizens.

And just as it was getting underway........

Nestor Kirchner dies

The morning news flashed across television screens announcing the sudden death of a former president.

And it wasn’t just any ex-president who had gone and died, it was only the one who still had all the power behind the scenes of his wife’s incumbent government, former President Nestor Kirchner; dead of a heart attack aged just sixty years old.

Stuck at home waiting for the national census meant the country was left glued to their television sets, stunned by the shocking news.

The head of the Kirchner dynasty had been ill on and off since he left office to make way for his wife in 2007, even undergoing emergency surgery in September this year for a blocked coronary artery; a procedure which left him away from work and the thrones of power for a whole two days. But neither the country nor his family was aware his death was imminent.

Kirchner, who hailed from Rio Gallegos in Patagonia, was governor of the oil and gas rich Santa Cruz province before becoming Head of State in 2003.

‘From here they will take me out dead,’ he said to a friend in La Casa Rosada (The Government House) after assuming the presidency.

He came to power after a turbulent time in Argentine economic and political history. President de la Rúa was helicoptered out of office after the complete and chaotic collapse of the economy at the end of 2001, and then the country saw in the New Year in style with three presidents in one week. Two lasting three days each while President Adolfo Rodriguez Saá threw in the towel after a solid run of eight entire days in the job.   

'Nestor lives on in us. Be Strong Cristina' - Posters covering the streets

When he took over seventeen months later, Kirchner, who would always have the support of the workers, the unions and the big industries around Buenos Aires, brought a little stability back to the famously unstable nation. The tough economic policies he imposed are widely heralded as saving the country’s economy after its total meltdown in the 2001 crisis when it defaulted on a world record $95bn of debt, and his role one that has been compared to that of Franklin D Roosevelt in the Great Depression of the United States.

President Lula of Brazil, who arrived in Buenos Aires with other Latin American leaders to join the thousands who came singing in the streets at Nestor’s funeral, said ‘He was able to pull Argentina out of the pit it was in.’

He was renowned for his obsession to control the media and was rumoured to receive half hourly updates of every comment any reporter or journalist made, dishing out prizes and punishments as he saw fit.

And he frequently employed the old divide to reign trick, using all the resources of the state to create internal battles to weaken and divide his adversary whenever a sector resisted or rebelled against his policies.  

Perhaps the constant accusation of authoritarianism which followed him around like a banker follows a quick buck, was not entirely unjust. But some say that when he ruled like a one-man show, you had to see him as the child of his country. His powerful political rhetoric and dramatic speeches rallied plenty of popular support, and certainly scared off the IMF which backed down when Kirchner refused to give into its post crisis demands.

Nestor passing the presidential throne to his wife
When he stepped aside for his wife in 2007, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, it was clear the couple was planning to bend the rules of the presidential term limits. Cristina would not run in the 2011 elections in which her hubby was expected to take back over and Nestor would have handed the presidential 
baton back to Señora Kirchner in 2015.  

That eerie and eventful Wednesday last has changed all that, and the now freshly counted country waits to see what will happen next.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Go and stuff yourself silly in Montevideo

When writing about Argentina, one can not very well ignore its little old neighbour just over the River Plate. La República Oriental del Uruguay is, of course, a tiny little country wedged rather tightly between two mighty siblings, Argentina and Brazil. The whole country is smaller than the Province of Buenos Aires and has a population of three million. (Buenos Aires alone has ten mil). 

There is no doubt that Uruguay is a beautiful country. The historical charm of World Heritage town, Colonia, the beaches and glamour of Punta del Este, and even the quaint little Carmelo up the delta with its sleepy 1950s U.S appeal.

But what is the point of the place some might ask? It’s so teeny and insignificant. Should it even be its own country?

These are things many porteños joke about this side of the river, often referring to Uruguay as the twenty-fourth province of their own country. Some say it is a place where nothing seems to happen. Where people do little but wander around, hot water flask in one hand, and maté in the other (which they often manage to do while riding a scooter). Its capital is devastatingly and deathly boring and the only good thing the country does is banking. Get anal about time and that soiling rep as the Switzerland of South America comes a calling.  

La Rambla in Montevideo
Now I like Uruguay, but I must confess that when it comes to Montevideo; boring, dull, dreary, sad, lifeless and lacklustre are all words that have wearily left my lips as even talking about the place almost always sent me nodding off into the deepest of deep sleeps.

And then a friend came around claiming that it was an excellent place, and he would prove it. Excellent? Was he bloody kidding?

A zip over the River Plate to Colonia and then off on a bus ride through the countryside. The journey is actually, particularly pretty. Even the dated hamlets the road cuts through are not so shabby. Ignore the palm trees and you might think you were riding through Oxfordshire.

Two hours later and the skyline of Montevideo pops up on the horizon. Well, one skyscraper pops up; the rest of city is still well down below four stories. This is the first reminder that to enjoy this city, one must resist the ever present temptation to compare it to its big brother Buenos Aires.

It’s a little grey and run down, and the atmosphere is sombre, like that of a family returning from holiday. But the city faces the river to take full advantage of the sandy shores and the people are friendly and relaxed. This is not a metropolis and that is important to understand. It is a small city which offers simple pleasures. An early evening coffee in the run down yet charming old town, or perhaps join the locals for a whisky sat at the bar.

Now this I like. Uruguay, unlike Argentina, is a whisky drinking nation. Real Scotch actually from Scotland flows into glasses of Montevideños as they relax and chat with the barmen and waiting staff. Yes chat. The staff is always chatty and friendly and polite, and all in an unrushed, non-neurotic sort of a way. Life is like that in Montevideo. The city may look more like Anne Widdencombe than Marilyn Monroe, but the lifestyle is a refreshingly low geared contrast to the F1 paced Buenos Aires.

El Chivito Canadiense
And then there is the food. The city may well feel like a stingy portion of urbanity but the food, well there is nothing low-key about that. 

Let that late evening peckish urge guide you to a Chivito Canadiense. A mother of a sandwich, filled with beef, bacon, ham, fried egg, olives, peppers, cheese, and well I’m sure I forget the rest of the fatty ingredients, but the end result is a greasy smile and an unbuckled belt.

But save room. In Montevideo, always, always save room. 

You do not want to, and I repeat in words which I wish could shout it out, arrive at El Mercado del Puerto with anything other than the emptiest of hungry hollow rumbling ready bellies.

This place is what meat is about. A giant space down by the port filled with bars where since 1885, parrilleros have been cutting up every imaginable chunk of an animal and hurling it all onto wood fuelled grills surrounded on all four sides by ravishing meat loving customers. Saturday lunchtime is loud, it’s hectic, and the aroma of sizzling treats fills the air as you shovel it down and only wish you had unlimited space.  

My weekend was excellent and my stomach was fuller than that of a fat kid chomping on chomp bars all day long. And while some might argue that Uruguay’s very minuteness hinders the shaping of a true and inspiring national identity, I would now suggest that a visit to its capital is a sure way to understand its true uniqueness. 

At least you will have one almighty whisky lubricated meat-feast of a feed while you’re there.  

Monday, October 18, 2010

Argentina is a chaotic and impoverished nation

2010 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, once a candidate for the Presidency of his home country, had some rather harsh words to say about Argentina when he gave an interview to the Perfil newspaper back in 2009.

Speaking with the Argentine daily’s journalist, Ceferino Reato, Vargas Llosa said that ‘Argentina had turned from being a prosperous nation into an underdeveloped, chaotic and impoverished country.’

He praised Argentina for being one of the first countries to eradicate illiteracy, and for having created an education system which was once an example to the world. But went on to say that ‘he always gets confused when he’s asked about Argentina. It’s an indecipherable country. A country that was democratic when three quarters of Europe was not, and one of the world’s most prosperous societies when Latin America was a continent suffering from severe hunger and backwardness.’

Presidents Cristina and Nestor Kirchner
He was also very critical of Peronism and the leadership-marriage of Peronistas President Cristina Kirchner and husband, former president Nestor Kirchner. ‘How can it be that a couple like the Kirchners are governing the country?’ he asked.

Vargas Llosa answered himself with the frankest of frankness. ‘Was there some dramatic war? Was Argentina invaded? No. It’s just that for half a century the Argentines have made the worst choices and continue doing so regardless of experience. And that is Peronism. Peronsim is to choose badly, and to persevere with the mistake despite the catastrophe after catastrophe that has summed up the modern history of Argentina.’

Juan Perón was the democratically elected President of Argentina from 1946 until 1955 when he was deposed by a coup. After years of Argentine instability he returned from exile in Spain to be re-elected for the third time in 1973, and his third wife Isabel Perón took over the presidency for two years after his death in 1974. After the ensuing years in which even the word Peronsim was banned, the Peronist party returned to power in 1989 and the Kirchners have been presidents since 2003.

But when Vargas Llosa asked himself why Argentina, with its cultured people and natural resources is not a country of the first world, his answer was once again blatantly bloody frank, ‘because the Argentines have not wanted it. They have wanted to be poor. Argentina has to recognise that nobody has made them that way. They have done it.’

So despite the Nobel Prize winner’s fond memories of his first visit to Argentina when he marvelled at the country’s cultural level and middle classness in a society where there were no poor people in the Latin American sense of the word; his opinion has certainly changed, and is one that is probably shared by the vast majority of the educated and extremely anti Peronist class in modern day Argentina.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pirates Forever

Captain Jack Sparrow is not someone one might typically associate with the Royal Navy, but in the eyes of the Argentine president, they are one and the same as Argentina condemns English military exercises and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner accuses the British Royal Navy of being pirates.

‘We reject and demand the suspension of all war activities,’ said CFK, who has demanded that the British Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Shan Morgan meet with the Argentine Chancellor, after the Servicio de Hidrografía Naval argentino received communication from British forces about a project to realise missile tests from the Falkland Islands.

‘Serious. Very serious,’ the President wrote during a tempestuous twitter tirade, ‘Royal Navy, colonial occupying force of the Las Islas Malvinas announces military exercise with missiles on the east coast of Isla Soledad.’

And she went on.

‘It is gravely unjust to test missiles from what a UN resolution accepts is disputed territory.’

And on.

‘Typical nineteenth century colonialism. Anachronistic use of force, violating international law. They don’t care. Clear example of double standards.

Sunday's Headlines
Of course, Argentine history tells us that politicians tend to rattle on about Las Malvinas at carefully chosen moments, (more often than not when there are economic problems or popularity issues) but CFK has long vouched to fight for the islands, which for the general populous here, are absolutely and undoubtedly Argentine. Hey, the local maps of the country with their bracketed ARG next to the islands’ Latin American name say so, the school teachers teach so, and neighbourhoods like Malvinas Argentinas proclaim so. Why would anyone think otherwise?

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez twittered CFK to give his support. ‘All of the Bolivarian solidarity for you and the beloved Argentine people. Down with colonialism. The Islands are Argentine,’ he wrote.

While a British response to CFK’s outlandish outburst came from a Embassy spokesman in Buenos Aires who spoke to La Nacion newspaper to say, ‘we are a little taken aback because these tests are routine and are carried out every six months. They’ve been happening for twenty-eight years.’

La Nacion also wrote that in an earlier incident last Thursday, according to the British tabloid, The Sun, 'there was a floating stand off when an Argentine warship confronted a Port Stanley vessel, the FV Venturerer, 3.5 miles inside Falklands' waters to falsely accuse it of illegal fishing.'   

The Falklands have caused a tad more fuss than usual as of late, since the UK gave the go ahead for private companies to drill there. Initial tests suggesting there could be around £3 billion ($4.5 billion) of oil in the region.  

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ye Olde Beer House

Got no bricks, no wood, no sandstone deposits lying around the corner! Then smear salty snacks on your tongue and tilt that head back. A few million bottles of beer later and you may just have what you need.  

Quilmes, a city just south of the capital, is the home of Argentina’s best-loved beer, aptly named Quilmes. And it is there that local man Tito Ingenieri has been building his house for the past nineteen years, out of empty beer and wine bottles.

What he has ended up with is quite frankly his own little bottle-topia of a palace, which is not only a house but also a storm forecaster.  

Fortunately for Tito’s health, he hasn’t had to drink the hop and grape filled contents of the six million bottles which have gone into the construction, (I feel a little tipsy just writing about it), but has relied on the ever swelling beer bellies of his neighbours, while also collecting discarded bottles from the streets.

And finding discarded one litre beer bottles in Argentina is no mean feat in itself.

When I was first sent by friends four years ago to pick up beer at the local Chinese supermarket, I took the four empties they gave me, dumped them in the rubbish bin, and then spent ten minutes as the cashier tried to explain why I had to pay more than the displayed price. I forked out the extra and she gave me a ticket. Had the Chinese cashier ripped me off because I was foreigner, I asked my friends. What did you do with the empties they replied. I chucked them away. At which point they proceeded to roll around in hysterics like I was some sort of crazy person.

In Argentina nearly all one litre beer bottles are recycled by returning the empties (known as envases) and exchanging them for filled ones. Finish your bottle, take it the shop, leave it in the crate, and don’t pay the $2.09 extra that they charge for a new bottle. A pretty environmentally friendly practise really. Though it can be slightly irritating when you can’t nip into the supermarket on your way home to pick up a cold one, without first making a detour up to your flat for an empty.

Tito, however, has mainly used the non-returnable variety and in doing so has made a valid contribution to environmental good practice. And though his house might not be everyone’s cup of tea and may attract the odd drunk who comes to lick the bottles, it is certainly an original piece of design and one Tito is proud of.

Who says alcohol is bad. It has certainly aided his creation.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

You'd have to be crazy to not have a shrink

In a 2005 survey, it was found that Argentina had a mind-boggling 121.2 psychologists per 100,000 inhabitants. That’s one psychologist for every 700 citizens.

This staggeringly high shrink per capita ratio was by far the world’s highest, knocking Denmark into second place with 85 per 100,000 Danes, while the USA, in ninth place, had 31.1 psychologists to cater for the psychological issues of each 100,000 of its citizens.

And the number here continues to rise.

As of 2008, there were 145 psychologists per 100,000 Argentines. While in the city of Buenos Aires the number reached quite out of your mind proportions; a whopping 789 shrinks for every 100,000 porteños, according to a report by Modesto Alonso and Paula Gago.

That’s really teasing poor old Guatemala and Egypt, who rank last with only ten shrinks per one million of their inhabitants.

Psychotherapy was first really introduced to Argentina in the 1940s with the arrival of some rather prominent Jewish psychoanalysts from Austria and Germany. It soon became a dominant element of the culture and by the late 1970s, the last military junta to rule the country began to blame psychologists for the country’s ‘negativity and navel-gazing.’

Military dictatorship cranking out control may have resulted in the disappearance of some better known psychologists but it did not put the brakes on the profession’s expansion and the number of shrinks catering for the psycho-babble needs of the people, rose and rose from 5,500 in 1974 to 37,000 in 1998, and has now arrived at over 57,000.

In modern day Argentina, mental health is covered by nearly all social welfare services, and going to sit down, or lie down, or stand up and walk around in circles with your shrink is as normal as hitting the gym, or going to the doctor when you feel under the weather. There may be as many psychology clinics on a typical block as there are kiosks selling sweet, alternative therapy-chocolate covered alfajores.

Why the obsession?

Although there have been no anthropological or sociological studies to identify why the interest in psychology is so paramount in Argentina, some experts suggest it is due to a society frustrated by an ever present failure to meet expectations, and a mentality dominated by the idea of the next economic/political crisis.

While others maintain that is has nothing to with a neurosis about the country’s problems, but more a simple interest amongst Argentines to know themselves better in an ever increasingly challenging world.

But for whatever reason, be it for a ball-swelling boss, or a I’m stuck in I wanna rub my temples with sandpaper relationship, Argentines do take comfort in chatting it through with one of the country’s thousands of mental health pros, and tend to have no qualms about talking openly about their shrink visiting escapades.

So, while in other less psychoanalytically developed societies, people may think of you as a little loco to have a shrink, in Argentina the only real stigma attached to it all, is if you don’t have one.