Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shalom - The Jewish community in Buenos Aires

Today is Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, and the vibrant Jewish community in Buenos Aires will be eating fruit to mark the season that sees the earliest blooming trees enter a new fruit bearing cycle in the Land of Israel.

With around 250,000 Jews living in Buenos Aires, Argentina has by far the largest Jewish population in all of Latin America. Internationally, La Comunidad or La Colectividad, as it is known here, is of similar proportions to that of Russia, making it the sixth largest in the world, behind Israel, USA, France, Canada and the UK.

Jews began arriving in Argentina after it gained independence from the Spanish Empire in 1810 but it was towards the end of the nineteenth century that the numbers reached a high point when they were encouraged to migrate here by Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch and President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.

Sarmiento ruled Argentina from 1868 to 1874 and embarked on a policy to increase immigration to Argentina; while de Hirsch was a Jewish-German businessman who spent generously on the promotion of Jewish emigration and colonization. His idea was to bring Jews to Argentina to work as independent agriculturalists. Original settlements, made up principally of Jewish immigrants from France, and later Russia when pogroms there forced many Jews to flee the country, were formed in Buenos Aires and the neighbouring provinces of Entre Ríos and Santa Fe. By 1920 the population reached 150,000.

The twentieth century however was a strange and sometimes difficult time for the Argentine Jewish community. There were anti-Semitic attacks in the twenties when more Russian Jews arrived following the Russian revolution, and then came the presidency of Juan Perón.

Sinagoga de la Congregación Israelita Argentina - The country's oldest
Though Perón was sympathetic to the Jewish cause, signed agreements with Israel during its first few years as a nation state and changed laws in Argentina to allow Jews to hold office (something they’d previously been barred from doing); he was also inspired by his admiration for nationalist governments to make Argentina a safe haven for Nazis fleeing post-war Europe; while introducing strict Catholic education to the country’s schools. After Perón, the late seventies and early eighties were especially tough for La Colectividad when Argentina’s military dictatorship targeted Jews, killing an estimated 2000.

Despite the country’s return to democracy in 1983 and the introduction of new anti-racism laws, the Argentine Jewish community suffered further anti-Semitism in the 1990s. La Tablada Jewish cemetery was desecrated and there were two terrorist attacks in which a total of 115 people died, with over five hundred more injured. The first took place in March 1992 with the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires; and the second in July 1994 when the Jewish Community Centre (AMIA) was the target of a detonated van bomb. Though both cases officially remain unsolved, in 2006 Argentine authorities formally accused Iran of hiring Hezbollah militia to carry out the bombings after local suspects (including members of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police) were found not guilty in 2004.

Nowadays, reports of anti-Semitism are infrequent and although there has been a decline in the Jewish population, with many Jews emigrating to Israel, the vibrant community enjoys a strong presence, notably in neighbourhoods like Abasto, Balvanera, Villa Crespo and Once, where seeing Jews dressed in traditional Jewish clothing coming and going from the city’s 50 Orthodox and 21 Conservative Synagogues is more than a familiar sight.

Kosher grub in Abasto Shopping
The majority of Jews here are Ashkenazi (85%) while 15% are Sefardí; the whole Jewish community speaks Spanish (it is not so common to hear Yiddish or Ladino - also known as Judaeo-Spanish) and is fully infiltrated in Argentine society. The textile industry is particularly dominated by Jews, and a walk around the streets of Once (pronounced On-zay) will have you pass literally hundreds of Jewish owned wholesale and retail outlets selling well priced clothing, cloths and fabrics. 

And on top of their involvement in politics and business there are many Argentine Jews who are prominent figures in the media here. Adrián Suar for example is a powerful television and cinema producer and current programme director of Canal 13 (the channel responsible for Bailando por un sueño), while Cecilia Roth, one of Spanish film director Pedro Almódovar's favourite actresses, is the daughter of a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant. Jewish education thrives too and more than 60% of Jewish children here study at one of the country's seventy or so Jewish educational institutions.

So, although there is no official time off like for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when national law grants Jews two days holiday, today is Tu B’Shevat and Argentina's 250,000 or so Jews will celebrate the New Year for Trees in Israel together with the rest of the international Jewish community.   

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Riding the bus in Buenos Aires - One big coin-trick

A classic colectivo by Chevrolet
Prepay travel cards like London’s Oyster Card are still not really in full swing in Buenos Aires. The Monedero Card was introduced a few years back as a way to travel on the city’s underground (SUBTE), but so far the vast majority of the buses which trudge around the streets will still only accept coins for tickets.

That is set to change with the launch of the new Sube (Get on) card which will ensure that all buses offer an alternative to using coins to ‘get on’.

The system is being designed and implemented by Siemens Argentina on behalf of the transport ministry of the national government. It will enable train, underground and bus users to just jump on and swipe. But it’s not without its enemies.

The bus companies have pulled out all the stops to block the implementation of the system. 

  1. The system will be transparent with takings automatically and centrally recorded by El Banco de La Nación Argentina.
  2. The bus companies will lose control of the black market trade in coins that it is claimed they reign over.
Buses in Argentina are known as colectivos and their history in Buenos Aires is a bright and colourful one.During the early years of the twentieth century, the two million inhabitants of Argentina's capital were already used to seeing cars on the streets and by 1913 were riding Latin America’s first underground railway, Linea A which runs below Avenida de Mayo. 

Taxis too were whizzing around but in the 1920s a new form of transport blossomed. Those who couldn’t afford the taxi tariffs could ‘collectively’ pull together and ride what aptly came to be known as colectivos.

Early colectivos in the 1920s
The first colectivos were small buses made from the chassis of cars and vans. As their prominence grew, they began to run pre-defined routes at lower prices than the city’s trams and ‘real’ buses. Each line was operated by different entrepreneurs and to make themselves more visible, the colectivos were painted with bright and dazzling colours. They soon became the main form of transport.

By the 1950s models by Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet became the standard colectivos and continued to be so until the early 1990s when they were finally replaced by modern bus-looking vehicles. (Though many of the traditional ones still operate in locations outside of the Capital).

One thing that never changed however, is that each number colectivo is run by individual private companies. There are close to one hundred different companies operating in Buenos Aires and though the prices of tickets (boletos) are set and subsidised by the state, making travel cheap for the consumer, the companies are profit-making businesses; and they can conduct themselves as honestly or dishonestly as they choose.

In 1995 as a means to prevent robberies on the buses and to leave the driver to concentrate exclusively on driving, coin-only ticket machines were introduced on colectivos. This means that the only way to pay for your ticket on a Buenos Aires bus is with loose change. The machines were successful in reducing the number of driver robberies (though the occasional driver does still lose a finger as desperate thieves attempt to force him to open the machine he has no access to), but as commuters hoard coins to ensure they always have the change to board their bus, the city is consistently hit with coin shortages and a black market flourishes. It is argued that bus companies take advantage of this opportunity, purposefully withholding coins in an effort to widen city shortages. They then sell the coins back into the market at more than their face value; adding a little something extra to their income.

The bus companies deny this of course and point to the fact that they often provide ticket sellers at popular stops, from whom tickets can be purchased with banknotes.

But for bus travellers throughout Buenos Aires, coins are a most valuable commodity. Whether you're holding on to the shrapnel you've got, making purchases planned on how many coins you'll get as change, queuing for hours at a bank or buying eight 1peso coins with a ten peso banknote on the dark market; getting the coins to travel can be a constant struggle and the coin-only ticket machines mean it's the bus companies who have what you need. Demand is high and they control the supply. 

Today's colourful 152 runs from Olivos to Boca
With the new Sube card potentially eliminating the necessity for coins altogether, it is understandable why they seem to be so against it. This time though, it appears the city's politicians have shunned business and sided with the consumers; and the Sube card will make their everyday travel a whole lot simpler. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tranquillity jamquillity -Turn up the volume, whatever the hour

Swans in the lakes of Palermo's parks
It’s a weekend in the countryside, a supposed break away from the ear-splitting craziness that is the city of Buenos Aires. The telly is blaring with its daily round of embarrassingly childish celebrity arguments, music is being pumped out on the stereo, there is drumming out in the plaza, and as if that wasn’t enough, the people sitting with you are having a conversation in that typically out-shout each other Argentine fashion. If you do hear the odd bird chirp in between it all, count yourself lucky.

Of course there are some tranquil spots to be found in and around Buenos Aires, but out and about with family and friends, loudness is often the choice of many.

At my own weekend spot two hours west of the city in the countryside near Moreno, it can sometimes be hard to hear yourself think, let alone speak, scratch, swallow or sigh. The stereo especially just doesn't seem to know a reasonable volume. Though at least the cumbia music is rhythmic enough to keep your knee bouncing, and the plug can be pulled if ears really need a rest.

Back in the city, there is no choice and there is no escape.

A recent study here has supported World Health Organisation findings that Buenos Aires is the noisiest, loudest most deafening city in South America.

One of downtown's daily and noisy protests
Construction racket, loud music, old beaten-up buses racing around bumpy streets, the daily marches where protesters bang drums and let off fire crackers at will, the exceptionally heavy traffic on chock-a-block avenues and a national obsession with horn honking (and it is an obsession – when traffic is at an absolute standstill, leaning on your horn achieves nothing other than piercing the ears of passers-by; and you only need ask poll-booth workers on the city’s motorways what it’s like when they’re pressured into lifting the barrier for free by angry horn thumping drivers looking to take advantage of the one minute maximum wait rule).  

It all combines to regularly push city noise levels above double the WHO recommended limits for your health.

Studies suggest that excessive noise can lead to serious problems. Stress, lack of sleep, annoyance and speech intelligibility are all possible symptoms of the barrage on your ears. And Buenos Aires ranks as the fourth loudest city in the world behind New York, Tokyo and Nagasaki, but do people here care?

Probably not.

Because in a weird way the loudness of Buenos Aires is part of its charm. There is always activity here, noisy, lively activity; and quite frankly that is just exciting. It’s not only a city that barely sleeps, but is one jacked up on energy supplements keeping it active and raring to go at all hours.

Getting caught up in the crowds at 11pm as you queue for a table outside one of the city's restaurants for dinner. Hitting the cinema for a late night 1am movie; or necking a few beers at a bar as you wait for the nightclubs to open at two in the morning where you can dance till the sun comes up.

Whatever the time, whatever the day, whatever the event; the city will be loud and buzzing with people from all generations. Yes, all generations, not just the effervescent youngsters but the elderly too. There's no 9pm bedtime with a cup of Horlicks for them as they'll be out and about until the early hours like every other porteño (all be it wired up with hearing aids after years of the fully charged onslaught of rock concert proportions).

Because the noisy energy of this city energizes all its residents. It can cost you some peace and quiet now and again and tweak the odd nerve from time to time, but when it comes down to it, tranquillity jamquillity can be shouted out at the top of your lungs, because real city living calls for the noisiest of loudness and Buenos Aires is truly a city in every sense of the word.