Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

67. What I like about Argentina (Auckland, NZ)

I realize some of my posts have been a bit negative toward Argentina, but it really is a beautiful country. Using this blog to vent my frustrations helps me deal with it, as I generally don't complain too much about they system to my Argentine friends (apart from when they ask me).

The nature: the desert rock formations of Cafayate, the cactuses and hills of Jujuy, the imposing Andes, the lakes around Bariloche, the Glaciers around El Calafate, the pancake-flat pampas, and the European feel of BA, Argentina is a beautiful land. It only lacks quality beaches.

The language: to learn Spanish was the first reason I went there. Mainly because I'd always felt a little ignorant amongst my multi-lingual European friends. I love the Spanish language, and the Buenos Aires accent I like too. It's funny, the other day I was re-reading a beginner's guide to BA which I'd first read before I came, and it mentions lunfardo which is the early 20th century Argentine slang still in use today. It's funny how many of those words I now know and use, having learnt them off my friends, but I didn't realise they're lunfardo.

The people: passionate Latinos. Sexy brunette women. Mullets and monobrows on the men. Love it.

The gestures : I love the hand gestures they use when they speak. They're ingrained in me, so much so that I use them when I'm speaking English.

The customs: Some customs are strange, but most are sensible. The other weekend me and my girlfriend did our usual Sunday afternoon ritual of rising late, walking through the San Telmo Sunday Market down to Puerto Madero, and along the Costanera Sur, where we watched the families with children running around, found a spot in the sun, and drank mate from a thermos. This is my favourite part of BA on a Sunday, yet many expats complain Puerto Madero has no soul. That may be so on weekdays, I don't know, but on weekends it's a buzzing family affair with streetside parillas, artisan markets, lots of green spaces that are well looked after, a refreshing breeze off the river, and usually a live music act or two. Much like the Rosedal in Palermo. Anyway, we heard a group of people clapping a slow beat in unison for a couple of minutes. I assumed they were watching a street performer or something until Ruth pointed out they must have lost a kid in the crowd - and that the group clapping serves to alert strangers and the lost child where its parents are. That's a sensible custom I'd never seen before.

The food and drink: disproportionately cheap beer (US$0.70c for a litre bottle of beer in the supermarket), great steaks, and afternoons spent sipping mate (with sugar) are my favourites. The wine's supposed to be good too.

The highways: long, straight, in good condition, with little police enforcement. Southern autobahns. You just have to slow down every now and then to go through the tollbooths.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

66. Going home (temporarily) (Auckland, NZ)

Last Friday I finally submitted all the papers necessary to start my business. It took me 3 months to get everything organised, which was longer than even I expected. I was always pessimestic regarding the amount of time it would take as I knew how bureaucratic Argentina is, but 3 months was way too long.

As such, I've run out of money. And now they tell me I'll have to wait 30 working days for my application to be approved (IF everything's in order). 30 working days = six calendar weeks, which ties in with about when I was due to return from my friend Stu's wedding in New Zealand. Faced with six weeks of waiting I decided to change my flight and go back to NZ earlier, to try and find some work to save some money. Saving money was something I could never hope to do teaching English in BA.

TIP: I asked STB (the useless travel agent I used) to change the dates on my flight and they were going to charge me US$35 for EACH date change. So then I went to Aerolineas Argentinas' office and they changed the dates for me for free. I guess the flexibility to freely change your flight dates is one of the reasons flights over here are relatively more expensive - and another reason why if the flight you want is full, keep trying again the next day as passengers here always change their tickets.

So, here I am now in Auckland. I arrived at 5am this morning and had the misfortune to find my suitcaseonwheels did not arrive, so at the moment I have no clothes nor toothbrush, nor gifts for my family and friends. The airline says it should turn up in a few days, but if not they'll pay me even though I don't have travel insurance, which is reassuring.

In a few days I'll be settled and will start the jobhunt. Although my field is IT it would take too long for me to find work in that (since I'm only here two months) so I'll be looking for anything, bar work, labouring whatever.

Blog-wise, well it'll be a good time for reflection on the things I miss and the things I won't miss about living in Buenos Aires so I'll keep the posts coming. Already today I'm noticing how Auckland traffic isn't as hectic or noisy as BA. No one uses their horn here unlike horn-heavy BA. And for lunch I just enjoyed a chicken sandwich better than any I've had in the last year in Argentina. And how much more affordable computers and electronics are in NZ.

At my farewell drinks one of my Argentine friends, Pozzy, asked me a question he'd first asked me shortly after I arrived - what were the differences between Argentina and NZ. At the time I'd avoided the question by saying I hadn't been in Argentina long enough to form a true opinion. But this time I explained that I've noticed many differences between our two countries and I'm sad to say most of the differences are for the worse in Argentina. What was the worst thing, he asked me. My answer was the corruption. For example, in NZ I've never known anyone to even try bribe a cop, let alone actually bribe one. Paying a cop an instant fine is a daily occurance in BA (but only if you're caught doing something wrong). Bear in mind NZ is one of the most transparent countries in the world so I have been a little sheltered from corruption for most of my life. But the police in Argentina are no more corrupt than the majority of business owners or workers - after all, up to 50% of the population work en negro which means they pay no income taxes. Many businesses have two sets of books - one the real set and the other what they use to show the tax authorities. Widespread tax evasion, an everyman form of corruption (in my mind) is crippling, especially in a country with 40% of the population in poverty. I guess this high acceptance of corruption goes hand in hand with the high level of bureacracy here - much of the bureaucracy exists for the purpose of catching or preventing corruption.

Which lead me to explain to Pozzy my second grave difference between life here and life there - the bureacracy. I actually get really hot under the collar thinking back on the hoops I have had to jump through to get anything done, and even more so when I think about the losses in productivity on a national scale a bureaucratic nationhood creates. It took me 3 whole months to get my papers ready and present them (and not because I'm foreign, that's the norm for everyone). And now another six weeks of waiting. That's 4 and a half months of no business for me, no jobs for my would-be employees, no food on my employee's tables, no money in their local shopkeeper's pockets, which hurts everyone.
Additionally, doing all that paperwork was my fulltime job for 3 months - I could not have done the paperwork outside of normal working hours as many of the government deptarments I had to deal with had ridiculously short working hours - 9:30am until 12:30pm in one case. And the amount of number-taking, queue-waiting, and form-filling required meant each form would take half a day or more, as dozens or even hundreds of people every day were waiting doing the same pointless forms. If I was an employee no boss would give me half a day off every day to wait in line and fill out forms. If I was an average Pedro hoping to start up my own business I would have had to quit my job and live off my savings for 3 whole months just to push papers. I imagine that's a barrier for many would-be entrepreneurs to starting their own businesses. The system needs to recognise that small businesses are the driving engine of the economies of developed countries - not big corporations or state-owned enterprises, but small businesses. They need to do more to encourage and nurture small businesses and not hinder them with pointless form-filling in triplicate day after day.

Take the other day for example. When I signed up to pay taxes I stupidly said I would have an employee as I thought I would be started by February. February came and went and we still hadn't started so still no employee. I went into AFIP (the tax authorities) to get the non-existant employee dropped off our non-existant payroll. There was a form for this which I filled out, but then the man said I had to present Formulario 931. Where do I get that? He explained to me my accountant could generate it for me, or I could generate it myself if I downloaded the AFIP software from their webpage. OK. So I went to the internet cafe, downloaded the software, unzipped the file, ran the setup, installed a patch, and was ready to go. Since I'm a computer guy it wasn't too hard but I couldn't help thinking the average user wouldn't even have gotten past the first step, as the popup blocker would have blocked the window.

Then I entered the program and for the life of me couldn't find Formulario 931. Eventually I succumbed and called my accountant and asked her to prepare it for me, for which I knew she'd charge me. The next working day I went to her office and collected it, and she gave me a printout of the Formulario along with a floppy disk. The next step, she explained, was to present the floppy disk to a bank teller. What? Yes, she gave me a plastic floppy disk and told me to take it to the bank. After 15 mins in the queue the first bank I went to didn't accept the disk as they just don't. The next one I found accepted the disk, but when the teller inserted it in her PC the PC reported "disk error", as is wont to happen with about 60% of the floppy disks I've ever used. Another call to the accountant, and she said she'd prepare another disk for me the following day. Back again the next day, but at least this time I knew which bank to go in to. But this time the teller told me I had a "version error". My accountant had prepared the formulario using version 2600 of the AFIP's software, being the latest from the AFIP's page. But the banks were still running version 2500 of the software and wouldn't update their systems until the start of the next working month. Another call to the accountant, and the following day she had for me prepared the formulario but this time using the AFIP's web page. I then took that print out and presented it to the AFIP office, and with that presented I could present the other (hand written) formulario necessary to get the non-existant employee removed from my non-existant payroll. I have written this boring account to illustrate how tedious the system is, and how something which could be resolved with a 5 minute phone call takes 3 or 4 working days. And how almost everything in the public (and often the private) sector is that way. One exception: the other day I purchased car insurance for my vehicle and that was an efficient half hour process. But that's the only time here in the last year I've thought "wow, that was easy".

So why on earth am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through all this? Why don't I go back to my country and stop whinging? Well 1, for love. My girlfriend's Argentinian. And 2, for money - because things are cheaper I can start a business here whereas I would need a lot more capital to start one in NZ. But mainly, because I believe that Argentina is a land of opportunity. Every week I think of a new idea for a business which would work here. I'm not talking about brand new ideas, but simple things. Things that you have back home that don't exist in the Argentina. Or things that exist but are crappily done. A few months ago I thought, why isn't there an Argentine version of eBay? I started thinking about forming a business plan but stopped when I soon found one already existed - Mercado Libre. However, I'd never heard of the site and neither had my friends and I'd actually had to search to find it. Six months later and evidentally others thought there was room to enter the online auctions market, as two new similar sites have recently popped up, both with heavy TV advertising campains: Mas Opportunidades and DeRemate. Opportunity exists, but know what you're getting in to. I kind of did, but not well enough. And I still haven't even started business yet.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

65. Bureacracy bureacracy (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Well, it's three weeks since my last entry and I'm still in BA sorting out the papers for my business. Little progress has been made since the last entry which is really annoying. I haven't said too much about what I'm gonna be doing, just that it's something to do with tourism. I will say it's in the south of Argentina though - and now that we're in March I've unfortunately missed the January-February high season, thanks to all the paper shuffling I've had to do.

Gaby Roof - 01 - BA pano
Panorama of BA from Consitucion

My deadline for this trip was always my friend Stu's wedding in NZ in April 2006. That's a date I've had in my head since I came to South America, and was always going to be "my return". Obviously now that I'm setting up a business here I intend to come back to Argentina, so I'll only be in NZ for two weeks. I was planning to have my business started before I go back for the wedding but now I'm wondering if it's worth starting before I leave, so maybe I'll wait until I return to Argentina to start it.

Today is March 8 which is Dia de la Mujer or Woman's Day. Yes, as if Valentine's Day and Mother's Day and anniversaries aren't enough, there's also a Woman's Day (edit: and there's a girlfriend's Day too). I guess it's to make those women who aren't married or mothers feel included. I think I've already mentioned that the kids here get birthdays, Christmas, Reyes (Kings), and Dia del Niño (Kid's Day). Once again we blokes get the short straw as I doubt there's a Men's Day included. Still, given the amount of sexual harrasment women here have to put up with even on a day to day basis the least we can do is give them a few special days. Exhibit A:

Around BA - 12 - Gas pump girl
Pump girls at Esso. The pump boys don't have to wear hotpants.

Moving on, this red VW Gol (not a Golf) parks in the street outside my hotel every workday.

Around BA - 04 - Parking
Illegal parking, BA style

Look closely and you will notice two accessories: 1. a bottle sitting on his roof, and 2. a rag hanging out of his boot. These are both deliberately placed there by the owner - can you guess why?
Well, you can't legally park in the streets of San Telmo before 8pm. So both cars in the photo are parked illegally. Instead of giving you a ticket for illegally parking, the police will take a photo of your illegally parked car and mail it to you. The photo is taken from a special police van with a camera system built in. So the rag hanging out of the boot is to cover his licence plate. And it seems the cops are too lazy to get out of the van to actually note down his number plate or move the rag to the side for the photo. Or, perhaps there's only one cop in the special van and he'd need a helper to move the rag while he takes the photo... I can imagine all sorts of photo bloopers involving a solo cop with a timer on his camera who attempts to move the rag only for the photo to be taken too early, or, too late, or for him to forget to apply the handbrake, etc. Whatever, the rag works, since almost everyone who parks their car in the street during work hours has one.
And the bottle on the roof? That's means it's for sale.

BA Motos - 07 - Cop bike
Moto Guzzi cop bike

In the news here... the bank robbery of the century here has largely been solved, and one million of the estimated seven million dollar booty has been recovered. Even the method in how it was solved is perfect for the movie which will someday be made about the crime.
One of the robbers had a girlfriend, Liliana Fernández (30), who also took part in the robbery. After the crime he ditched her and left the country. So another of the robbers, Alberto de La Torre (52) started an affair with her, and intended to ditch his girlfriend and flee the country with Liliana. When Alberto's girlfriend (in her 50s) found out his intentions, she scornfully turned him in to the police, saying "he won't leave me for some kid". Now the other robber's identities are known and many have already been arrested, except for the infamous "Man in the Gray Suit" who led the robbers during the robbery, negotiated the release of hostages for pizzas (to buy time), and even led the robbers in singing "Happy Birthday" to one of the hostages whose birthday it was.

Here's something for architecture nerds:

Around BA - 07 - Twin Towers
BA's twin towers. I had a teaching gig at Prudential in one of them

Around BA - 08 - Building
Another futuristic design near Retiro

Around BA - 10 - Old and New
Modern apartments contrast with older ones in Plaza Congreso

Around BA - 11 - Pigeons
Pigeons swarm for corn in Plaza Congreso... gross

The other weekend on a lazy Saturday afternoon we did a free tour of the Buenos Aires City Government building. I thought we'd be doing a tour of La Casa Rosada (The Pink House) which is the equivalent of the White House here, but those tours are on weekdays. Still, the tour of the City Governement building was worth getting out of bed for at 4pm on Saturday afternoon.

La Prensa - 02 - Founding of BA
The permanent founding of Buenos Ayres by Juan de Garay in 1580