Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Sunday, August 27, 2006

76. Why can't we be friends? (Bariloche, Argentina)

The inhabitants of the largest city in any country often seem to get a bad rap throughout the rest of that country. Often those who live in the largest city have more disposable income, more expensive cars and houses, and more entertainment options (international concerts, theatres etc), which gives them a superiority complex over their small town cousins. They may also have more hectic lifestyles, live with more pollution, and more stress. Obviously, these factors make those who live in the largest city different from those in the rest of that country. In NZ, for example, the term JAFA (just another f'in Aucklander) is used with disdain when referring to those from Auckland, the largest city. I guess it's much the same in other countries (Sydney, New York, Madrid, Paris).

The biggest divide between a major city and the rest of the country that I've seen is in Buenos Aires. To start with, porteños, as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are called, have little regard for the rest of the country - many of them think of Argentina as consisting of Buenos Aires + places to take a holiday. It's often said that BsAs has the highest number of plastic surgeons and the highest number of psychiatrists per capita in the world. I have my doubts that that statistic is still true, but it does offer a hint at the porteño psyche. Throughout the rest of Argentina (and this view has spread to other countries in South America) porteños are thought of as being proud, arrogant, rude and neurotic. A well-known joke goes "How does a porteño commit suicide? -He climbs to the top of his ego and jumps off.

Around Bariloche - 08 - View from apartment pano
From our apartment. On windless days the lake becomes a mirror

This South American view of porteños may contrast with what the typical expat encounters. Just about every expat blog I've read has said that Argentineans are fun and really friendly. Of course this depends on the circumstances - as in most large cities you're unlikely to make a new friend by random chance - say in the street or a bar, or even your neighbours in the same building. People here are super-wary of strangers, more so than anywhere I've lived. But, if introduced to someone through mutual friends obviously that person will make your acquaintance. Everything normal so far.

However, making the leap from an acquaintance to a friend, I found, was difficult. I made a fair few acquaintances through Argentines that I knew before I came to BA and then through my girlfriend, and while we'd have a great time hanging together with our mutual friends, they'd usually not turn up to a party of mine if it was on my turf - I'd only see these people on our mutual friends' turf. It took me a long time, and a few no-shows to realise that these people probably never will turn up so eventually I stopped inviting them, but we stayed acquaintances.

Around Bariloche - 07 - View from apartment night
From our apartment again, at night

Another anomaly I found with my friends here, not my acquaintances, was they were very lazy when it came to returning calls or meeting on time. If we were gonna meet at 10 that would mean to expect them any time between 10:30 and 11:30. Sometimes they wouldn't even turn up at all! Calls to cellphones and text messages would simply go unanswered. This sort of behaviour I find unacceptable, and quite immature. Especially the keeping people waiting. But it wasn't only happening to me - I'd see my girlfriend's friends doing the same crap with her. So I let it slide. Other expats have told me the same happens to them, that their Argentine friends are notoriously unreliable.

Anyone who's tried to do business here will point out that in the business world it's often the same. Appointments are often not kept without even a courtesy phone call. Employees don't turn up for work and they won't even call in to lie that they're sick. They'll just switch the mobile off and stay in bed. The concept of time = money doesn't seem to have sunken in here, especially if it's your time they're wasting.

A report I read yesterday conducted by online address book company plaxo said that Argentines have more contacts in their plaxo address books on average than any other country, with an average of 479. I've spoken about friendship with a couple of Argentines I know, and they both told me that they have a lot of acquaintances. But they also tell me they have few friends.

Anyway. Although I had a lot of friends and acquaintances after my first two months in BA, by the time I left BA the number of Argentine friends I had left I could count on one hand. I'm not saying it's like that for every expat that comes here, but that was how it was for me. I'm hoping that the behaviour I saw was only a porteño trait, and that I'll have more luck with friends here in Bariloche. Although since this is a tourist town, with lots of comers and goers, I kind of doubt it. Maybe I would have had more luck if I took up a social hobby, like tango...

Here in Bariloche life's carrying on slowly. The weather's been great for the last 2 weeks, sunny days, no snow, and even warm (24°C one day last week!). A preview of springtime. I'm happy with the change of weather, although the skiiers and snowboarders aren't, as the snow is melting.

Cerro Catedral - 04 - Ruth mate
Ruth with mate-listo on the mountain

A tradition here in Argentina is that to celebrate the end of their final year of high school, the entire class takes a class trip to Bariloche, between August and December. So the town continues to be full of kids travelling in packs of up to 50, clapping in unison and singing football songs, dressed in identical (sponsored) jackets. It's a bit like schoolies week in Surfer's Paradise, Australia, only here it's spread out over a few months.

Around Bariloche - 05 - Kids banner
Kids on their year-end trip posing in front of the lake

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

75. Tough times (Bariloche, Argentina)

Well it's been three weeks since my last post, and since then I've been pretty busy, but unfortunately not in a good way. I'd love to be able to write saying things are going great here but so far they haven't been.

Firstly, my girlfriend hates it here. Being from the north of Argentina she's not made for the cold, and locals tell me this winter's been harsher than normal, with more snow (and rain) than usual. And since we came in the middle of the short winter high season, she'd already missed opportunities to pick up restaurant work, as places generally hire just before the season starts.

Secondly, the habilitacion (certification) I got on my van, i.e. the paperwork that took me six months to get, which covers the entire region of Patagonia, apparently doesn't cover here, so I have to do yet more paperwork. The certification I got in Buenos Aires is over and above the certification here, and the national authorities here in Bariloche tell me that yes, I can work. But then when I go and ask the local authorities they say no, that I have to also apply for their local certification. OK, screw what the local authorities say, I'll work anyway. But all the tourism agencies I spoke to told me the same thing, that if I want to work with them I have to apply for the local certification. So if the tourism agencies aren't sending me tourists I won't be able to work anyway. The local certification is basically a way of keeping outsiders from coming in and stealing all their business.
So I thought about trying to work with hostels directly, thus bypassing the tourism agencies, but backpackers are generally a tightfisted bunch and the money to be made is with tourism agencies. As part of getting the local certification I'll also need to sign up to pay local taxes every month. More taxes = less profit.

Thirdly, the weather again. When it's constantly snowing and raining, roads close. Hence, I can't work. And the cold is playing havoc with my van - lots of little things keep breaking, which is adding up to lots of downtime and lots of bills. Also, there's very few indoor garages around here so I have to park it outside in the street where it's at the mercy of the elements. More bills = less profit.
Camioneta con hielo
At the mercy: stalactites form

Fourthly, Bariloche is actually in the middle of a national park, and some law states that any excursion needs to have a qualified guide. To become a guide you need to do a 2 and a half year course here in Bariloche. Most of the drivers here have done this, so they're driver/guides. Since I haven't, I'll need to have a guide to go with me when I do tours. The guide gets about a third of the fee the agency pays me for the excursion, and I'll get two thirds. Hiring a guide = less profit.

Finally, depreciation. I'm losing money every month on my van, and the clock is ticking against it, as you can't certify a vehicle that's older than ten years for tourism. Which means every month it's getting harder to sell as well.

So with all this against me I decided screw you guys, I'm going home. Back to NZ. I'd sell the van and get back most of my initial investment, apart from all the fees I had to pay getting the paperwork done. Six months of time wasted doing paperwork, all for nothing. Dammit, I was pissed off.

So my girlfriend and I packed up the van again and prepared for the long drive back to BA. The last thing we had to do was buy some of Bariloche's famous chocolates to take with us. As we drove around downtown looking for a car park, through bustling Bariloche with it's crowds of happy tourists on a sunny morning, I felt really sad to be giving up and going back to dreadful BA having come so far. We hadn't even been skiing or done anything wintery.

So, we picked up the latest ABC, the free local classifieds, and found another apartment. We're gonna get the local certification on the van, depending on just how complicated the process is. Applications open in September so we have 2 weeks to get the paperwork prepared. After that it'll be another month of waiting for the application to be processed. I'm so sick of this country's neverending bureaucracy and I'm still at breaking point, so much so that if there's any hitch whatsoever (and let's face it, there probably will be) me voy a la mierda (I'll be outta here). At the moment I'm not sure if it's even be a viable business. My original business plan in the far south certainly was, but since I can't do that I'm here wondering if it's gonna be worth it.

I returned to BA a couple of weeks ago by bus (21 hours), but only for one night. I arrived the day after a massive freak hailstorm had hit, with golfball sized hail. I wished I'd seen that! I'd returned to pick up my DNI. The DNI is like a small passport with a photo and an ID number that all Argentines have to have (and carry with them), and is every privacy advocate's nightmare. Almost every daily transaction one does needs a DNI number - anything to do with governments, banks, even joining Blockbuster video. Most of the time I'd get away with it by giving my passport number, but the lack of my own DNI meant I couldn't put my business in my name. Finally I'd have my own!
My gringo DNI (NB. I've photoshopped a couple of the numbers out)

However, getting a DNI was a bureaucratic process I was loathe to tackle myself, so I actually paid an immigration consultant to help me with my work visa and the paperwork for my DNI. Carmen was pretty cheap and it was worth paying her fee to know that it would get done. Her webpage is still under construction, but she speaks excellent English and responds to emails promptly. It was lucky I had her help, as the Argentine consulate in Wellington later stuffed up my work visa application big time. They were supposed to fingerprint me and give me a sealed envelope containing my application and prints to take with me when I entered Argentina, but they didn't, which caused problems with my DNI application.
Road Trip - 47 - Lago mirror
The view from on the bus, just outside Bariloche

I got my professional driver's license the other day. In the land of bureaucracy it took me a week to get the paperwork for my driver's license in order, which included getting fingerprinted by the cops (to check for prior convictions), and getting my balls handled by a doctor (as part of a full medical). Then the driving test itself was laughable how easy it was - a 5 minute first gear circuit along a dusty potholed road away from traffic. And just like that I'm certified to have the lives of up to 15 passengers in my hands! No questions on the road rules, nothing. No wonder there's so many bus crashes here. As goodairs mentions, La Nación recently reported that in 2005, 25% of roadway accidents in Argentina involved a professional driver as compared to 1-2% in the "First World".

Google reports that I've now earned a whopping $15 from this blog in six weeks. A couple of you have been so kind as to click the Firefox links, but I don't get paid my ten cents until you actually install it and run it for the first time - and only if you haven't already got Firefox installed. Bit of a scam really...