Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

74. Down South (Bariloche, Argentina)

After seven months of shuffling papers, my business is finally ready to go. I'll let you in on it:
When travelling in the South of Argentina at the end of last year, I'd noticed a great shortage in the number of buses, such that in more than one place I had a three day wait to get an onward bus. Not only that, but in some places there wasn't a direct bus linking two tourist hot spots. To me that seemed like a good business opportunity, so I started trying to set up my own long distance bus company.

Unfortunately, buses are rather expensive and even a used one required more capital than I had. Rather than look for investors or partners I carried on, somewhat foolhardily, using what money I had to buy a used minivan (CM: not quite a battered Toyota Hiace, but almost). You've got to start somewhere, right?
Peugeot Boxer - 02 - Matt
Me and my Peugeot, when I bought it back in Februrary '06

The next step was to apply to the CNRT (National Transport Regulation Commision) to get my van habilitado (certified), to take passengers. Without a DNI (national ID number given to all Argentine citizens) I could not get it habilitado so I had to put the business in the name of my girlfriend. Still, they wanted me to provide a mountain of paperwork. Months were spent completing the necessary tramites (forms) with the tax department, notaries, accountants, 5 separate internal divisions of the CNRT, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Tourism and insurance companies. Finally, once all the paper was submitted I had a 30 working day wait, during which I returned to NZ for Stu's wedding (and worked a bit). I also managed to organise myself a work visa so I could get my own DNI (national ID number) to later put the business back in my name. I don't think I'll bother though, as that would be another six months of paperwork with the CNRT.

Originally, I had planned on taking tourists between two popular tourist towns in Patagonia, in the South of Argentina. I'd made it clear that that was what I was wanting to do with the agent at the CNRT who was helping me out. She was a star, very helpful and patient, something rare in governmental bureaucrats in any country. But it wasn't until all the paperwork was said and done that she explained that the habilitacion that I had applied for (interurban tourism) combined with the destinations I had in mind, meant that I could only offer "tours", and have to return to my starting point with the same load of passengers. For me, that was a bombshell as I was wanting to offer a one-way bus service and not a tour service. While a tour might sell well, I don't think it would be as in demand as the bus service I wanted to offer.

Dejected, but with almost all the work done, I decided to continue with a business. My business plan was in shreds so I'd have to wing it. I still had to do a few things on the van to finish the certification process - reflective stickers, a seat belt, and a tachograph, which acts like a plane's black box and records the velocity of the van over a 3 month period and records when I exceed 90km/h, the limit for passenger transportation. They're not cheap.

Finally, my girlfriend and I said goodbye to Buenos Aires, packed up all our things and headed south. Destination: Bariloche. It's not where I originally wanted to run my business, but having visited almost every major city and tourist destination in Argentina, Bariloche is my favourite of them all. And it seemed to offer a lot of daytrips for tourists so maybe I could find some work there.

argentina map route
The route from BA at the right to Bariloche at the left

Although we'd planned to do the trip in 2 days, there's 1600km between BA and Bariloche which is a lot of driving.

Road Trip - 02 - Matt Road
Attempting to re-create my award-winning Juan and the Road photo. Not even close

So we changed the plan to arrive in three days, but then at the last minute made a side trip to San Martin de los Andes, one of the most expensive ski resort towns in South America, and stayed a third night there. We headed up the mountain for a look at the ski resort, and it was severely lacking snow at the base. Still, it was high season and a lot of people had come a long way so they weren't letting a lack of snow stopping them from skiing.

Road Trip - 16 - Gondola
Gondolas for chairlifts - don't have those back home

Friends back home have asked why I bothered going to all the hassles of getting the right paperwork in a place as corrupt as Argentina. Well, the passenger transport industry is pretty heavily regulated. And the roads are filled with police checkpoints at the entrance to just about every town. Although most checkpoints will wave most cars through, of the dozens we went through between BA and Bariloche three actually stopped us and they were pretty thorough going through my paperwork. I friend of mine knows someone who was transporting people around without the right paperwork and the CNRT confiscated his van and fined him $29,000 pesos (almost US$10,000).

Road Trip - 05 - Control
Approaching a Police checkpoint

Road Trip - 03 - Matt Darwin
This one's for you Pete... Darwin, Río Negro, Argentina

From San Martin we headed to Villa La Angostura via the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lake Route), a 100km odd track of mostly dirt roads, which passes some of the best scenery of the region. Back in December I'd hired a car with a couple of Spaniards and we'd done the road trip through there on a sunny day. Now, in the middle of winter the road was a pot-holed, bumpy, muddy, slippery mess. Which was a shame, as I'd thought of taking tourists through here. But the road in its current state is so rough it would ruin my van, and it's so slippery there's a real chance of getting stuck. The trip was nevertheless scenic and there was snow, but with gray skies and gray lakes it was nowhere near as beautiful as on a sunny day.

Road Trip - 10 - San Martin Gaucho
Gaucho-chic in San Martin

Road Trip - 23 - Caballo nieve
Horses grazing in the snow along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos

Road Trip - 46 - Lawn on roof
Lawn on the roof

We arrived in Bariloche on Thursday, with the first challenge being to find a place to stay. Since we're in the middle of the four week long winter high season, all rental apartments are charging tourist rental prices per night and not per month. Yesterday the weekly classified magazine (ABC) came out with rental properties, and although I queued up to get hold of a copy as it came fresh off the presses at 4pm, all the landlords I tried to call already had their phones off the hook. Obviously I wasn't quick enough. So for now we're going to stay in our $50 peso per night (US$16) tourist rental apartment until the end of the high season, when the rent on it will drop to a more affordable $600 pesos (US$200) per month. That's cheaper than anything we'd find in Buenos Aires, since it's furnished, sin garantia, and includes electricity, gas, water and cable TV. It's pretty cheap for Bariloche too so we were quite lucky.

Being at around 41º latitude in the middle of winter (the same as Wellington, NZ), and located in the mountains at 770m, it's pretty cold here. Big surprise. The last couple of days have been constantly rainy and windy, with highs of around 5ºC. Having lived through many NZ winters I'm pretty used to endless days (or weeks) of rain, but my girlfriend is totally unprepared. It snowed last night and this morning my van was covered with a dusting of snow, as were the streets and roads. Although I think snow in the streets normally only happens a couple of times per year, as it usually only snows in the mountains.

Nieve calle
Snow outside our apartment and sunrise, at about 9:30am, leads to...

I'm so glad to finally be out of Buenos Aires. The constant senseless murders reported in the daily news were lately getting to me more than anything, as well as all the other complaints about the place I've made of late. The Police have arrested El Francotirador I wrote about in my last post, he turned out to be a serial random shooter, having shot at passing buses on early occasions. The crime in BA was something I ignored for a long time, and it's easy to forget about if you don't watch or read the news. Once I started paying attention I never got used to it. OK, murders happen in other countries I've lived in, but they always felt far from home. Another gang member shot? Big deal, I'm not a gang member so I don't need to worry about that happening to me. But in BA the reported crime is so random that I was starting to think it could happen to me or someone I care about. On the news tonight it was reported that in BA someone threw acid out of a high-rise apartment window, burning two random innocent passers-by, one a six year-old.

Still, my girlfriend misses Buenos Aires a lot, and for her it was a big sacrifice to come down here with me. But she seems to like Bariloche and says she could live here since it's a proper city, unlike some of the other ski resort towns we passed along the way that I really liked (San Martin) but she said she couldn't live in. She's a small town girl at heart and is drawn to the bright lights of the big city. She's still not used to the cold nor the constant rain though, and hasn't yet left our apartment by herself.

My next challenge is to get my professional driver's license. With the great business plan I started out with I was going to be able to employ drivers, but now since I'm winging it I'll start out driving it myself until I find something profitable.

Cerro Catedral - 02 - Skiers
...a bumper day on the mountain at Cerro Catedral

Any expats living in Bariloche? Email me if you want to.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

73. Losers (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Argentine fútbol song #5:
Volveremos, volveremos
Volveremos otra vez
Volveremos a ser campeones
Como en el ochenta y seis

We're gonna be we're gonna be
We're gonna be once again
We're gonna be champions
Just like in '86
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. As all of you would know by now, Argentina lost in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Bummer. Guys shook their heads in dismay. My girlfriend cried after the game. And in an amazing display of immaturity and bad sportsmanship, a group of Argentine players picked a fight with the victorious German team. OK, so one of the German players blew a kiss or something at an Argentine player during the penalty shootout but so what. I should mention FIFA suspended the German player and an Argentine player two matches after the incident.

So then Germany went on to face Italy in the semi-finals, and my how the Argentine public got behind Italy. 99% of the public wanted Italy to win, for mixed reasons. Some of the population have Italian heritage. Others identify with a shared "Latin" culture. I think most Argentines would justify their support of Italy with one of these two reasons, but really, more than they wanted to see Italy win, they wanted to see Germany lose. So when Germany lost there was a collective sigh of relief, "a consolation", as one TV pundit put it. At first I thought "what a bunch of sore losers", but later my friend Juan explained that Argentina and Germany have a long World Cup rivalry, and the fact that Germany have won 3 World Cups while Argentina only 2 means a lot here.

What else have I been up to? Another birthday came and went. And I've met a couple of other BA expat bloggers in real life. It's always interesting swapping opinions with others on the way of life here, even if we do usually share the same list of grumbles.

Buenos Aires is still the same... the bank a block and a half away from me got held up a couple of weeks ago. The internet cafe from where I am writing this post is directly opposite and in full view of the bank, and a couple of robbers took the internet cafe hostage to prevent the cops being called. I recognised the guy who works there when they interviewed him on the news.
On Thursday night I went and visited my friend Juan, and as we ate pizza the TV showed live coverage of a ride by shooting of sorts that had just happened about 15 blocks from us. Some guy in the street pulled out a rifle and shot 7 passers-by, killing one, before fleeing the scene on a bus. He's still at large, and newspapers next day screamed El Francotirador (The Sniper).

Update: last night one of the Chinese supermarkets in my barrio was robbed at gunpoint. The robbers killed a policeman and another customer. Crime against policeman here is all too common - they keep an annual toll of it, like we have for the road toll back home.

Good news for bargain hunters - as reported in other blogs and the media here, Buenos Aires is still one of the cheapest major cities in the world, coming 142nd out of 144 cities. I told Juan about this, and he said yeah, but in 2001 it was one of the most expensive (well, 23rd most expensive actually, just above Los Angeles). Back then, he went backpacking to the US and Canada in the days of the strong peso. He told me that back then, with the peso so strong everything was cheaper for Argentines. Flights were so affordable - you could fly to the US for $500 pesos - that when you went travelling there were Argentines everywhere. For him, things in the US were about the same price as in Argentina, whereas the Europeans and Australians he met along the way would be complaining about the prices of dinners etc. $500 pesos to go to the US - man, I've spent $350 pesos on minor things for my van in the last couple of days.

Reader's comment:
I remember walking into the local grocery stores and restaurants and for the first 6 months I would always use pleasantries that most civilized people use like "hello", "thank-you" and "good-bye". After 6 months of NO RESPONSES, scowling and downright hostility I have tired of it and the Portenos can take their city and stick it...
I know what you mean - I found it the same. Worst of all are the Chinese supermarkets or chinos as Argentines call them. Every day I shop at one of two chinos near where I live - and never, in a year and a half of shopping, have I got a hola or gracias from the Chinese staff. At least the Bolivian who runs the fruit and veg section of the same store will say gracias.

One thing I've never gotten used to is whenever you call a business or government department, all you'll get when they answer the phone is "Hola?". They won't even say the name of the business, department, their name, nothing. Just Hola. And if you ask who's speaking they'll get all defensive and ask who you are.

Now, back to the rudeness comment. I think English speakers tend to use more pleasantries than in Spanish. My girlfriend, a waitress, complained to me the other day about how foreigners always order with too many por favores (pleases). We'd say "Could you bring me a coffee, please" which has three pleasantries - the could, the please and the question. Whereas in Spanish un cafe, por favor (A coffee, please) or me trae un cafe? (Could you bring me a coffee?) would be adequately polite. Being overpolite tends to rub people the wrong way here - it's the same if you said "I would really appreciate it if you could be so kind as to bring me a coffee, please". You get the idea.
Intermediate Spanish for tourists, lesson 1: when you ask for the bill, don't say "la cuenta, por favor". Argentines normally say traeme la cuenta (bring me the check) or me cobras (charge me). Make it a question if you wanna be more polite, or add por favor, but not both.

Astute readers will have noticed I've added a little clock showing the local time in Argentina to the right side of the blog, above the weather. I also added some Google ads to the right side of the blog (just to see if they actually do pay out anything), and so far in two weeks or so they've earned me a whopping $6.60! That's like, 47 cents a day. Dude, sell-out. At this rate I might earn $100 by the next World Cup.

Say friend, (deep breath, sales pitch coming) if you out there use the links in the Ad section of my page (to the right) to download and install "Firefox with Google Toolbar" OR "Google's photo software" (aka. Picasa), both of which I use and recommend (really), and you haven't already installed them on your computer, they pay me ONE whole shiny dollar. So far no one has bothered (I know - Google tells me). Fellow bloggers, if you want to join the life on Easy Street like me, earning around 47 cents a day, use the link at the right to sign up (Generate revenue from your website. Google AdSense), go on. For that they pay me too (but only if you manage to earn $100 in your first 6 months - for which I estimate you'll need 60 readers a day). Gold.

Update: I just downloaded and installed Firefox on the PC in the internet cafe to see if I'd get that $1, and no, they'll pay me UP TO $1, depending on the user's location. If someone in Argentina installs Firefox they'll only give me 10 cents. Bah.