December 25, 2004

Christmas in Tango-Land

Press HERE to see a slideshow from December in BA.

Christmas Eve Puzzle
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At the Grill
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Today is Christmas Day. It is hard to think of it as Christmas time. I would say that the near perfect weather here does not at all bring Christmas to mind. The carols in the stores seem out of place. Appropriately, I guess it is more like Christmas today, than any day so far. We woke up to 60 degree weather with rain. We have bought and sent no gifts. Betty says that it is the first Christmas in 30 years that she could do absolutely nothing. No stress from the huge volume of mail for her this year. I mentioned before that this is a land of beef. Chicken can be found even an occasional small turkey. The pork is all Italian style. By that I mean that the hams and most of the bacon is not smoked. I have not been able to find a traditional northern European ham with the bone and skin. There is low-grade boiled ham, and better smoked ham, which is more or less the quality of average ham in the stores back home. I will keep looking, because it is bound to be here someplace. I only mention this because I wanted our usual Christmas diner of baked ham with Betty's plum glaze and with cheese potatoes served on the side. We are going to try to do the cheese potatoes, but there will be a problem - here they do not know what sour cream is. So, we will experiment a bit. Instead of the ham, I will be grilling steaks. Now the good beef is out of this world. A couple of weeks back, we bought the most expensive beef we could. It was a large piece of tenderloin weighing about two-and-one-half pounds. It cost a mere $7 and it tasted better than any beef that I had eaten in years and maybe ever. Today we will have rib eye steaks. We will be drinking a good Malbec. We found one that costs $3.50 that tastes as good as any $30 bottle of wine back home. It is a 2001 reserve produced by Tittarelli. Unfortunately they don't export this vintage to the USA. Luckily enough, we bought more than a dozen bottles of it.

Traditionally, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve. Families gather together for a light cold meal with wine and beer. Then at midnight, there begins hours of fireworks. They seemed to roar continuously throughout the city with explosions of light and sound all around our house and in every neighborhood and every city in the country. Our Christmas Eve consisted of our friends Javier and Guillermina coming over for lunch. We chatted and munched on a salad and sandwiches and watermelon all afternoon. In the evening we started jigsaw puzzle. It was just 500 pieces, so we had it done by the early afternoon today.
Later today we will try to call Birgitta and Dain and maybe some more folks back home.

Influence of the Tango in San Telmo
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Every since we got here a month ago, we have clearly noted the influence of the Tango. We found a great radio station, La 2X4 Tango - 92.7 FM. Press the en vivo button at their website, and you can listen to it too. Whether you go to a tourist spot or just a neighborhood gathering you are likely to see the Tango and other traditional dances. Often a couple will setup a boom-box and just dance. They dance for tips and they dance to promote a show and they dance to get you to sit down and have a drink of some food. If you are lucky you hear the music live, which happens from time to time. There is a tourist market on Sundays in San Telmo; here you will find the Tango. In La Boca, a working class neighborhood with some tourist about, has several cafes along the river where you can find live music and dancers and a good meal. We went there to visit a museum and enjoyed a local musician playing and singing the Tango while two young couples entertained us with the dance.

In La Boca
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Colorful Boca
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La Boca's Port
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Boca
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Art Abounds in La Boca
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Crossroads in La Boca
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Music and Libations in Boca
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Tango Musician
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Dancing the Tango
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From the Museum in La Boca
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Street Dancing in Matadores

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On Sunday - the 12th - we visited a market on the southeast side of the city with nary a tourist in site. The neighborhood is called Mataderos, named after the stockyard and slaughterhouse that ran there years ago. There was some good live music and traditional dancing. Those dancing were not pros, just neighborhood folk having a good time. We also bought some used silverware and a nice cutting board.
We visited a social club when we first got here, that had Tango dancing all night long - with a show too about one in the morning. Lately I have returned to the dance club where I first learned to Tango, on Armenia street. It is called La Viruta Tango. Betty came with me one night. She is a hard one to get out. She took the first lesson and did just fine. I hope to get her back again. The first lesson is a bit intimidating, especially for women and for non-Spanish speakers. Still she did just fine. I will keep on going and learning, two or three days a week until I get it or I get bored. The latter is not likely, I love the music and I love the dance. There are some great photos taken at the club on the web.

We still do not have a houseful of furniture. We did find a great place to buy used pieces. It's an auction house for the ordinary folks in the city. I guess that there are several in the city. They sell everything from tools to every sort of household item, including furniture and appliances, to computers and electronic gear. Nothing is all that great, but it is all good enough. They begin with items that will sell for $2 to $5 dollars, and end with items costing as much as $300. We got a six-piece bedroom set for $270 that included a bed, two bedside cabinets, a dresser, a mirror, and small set of drawers that will hang under the mirror. We will be going back to get some living room furniture and a small bed for the guest room.

We have gotten out a bit. I have been looking into aero clubs and eventually I will join one.
Last Sunday, we drove some 40 miles to Luján. It is said to be the site of some miracle. Or it might be famous for the Virgin of Luján, a small - 2 feet high - terracotta figure of the Immaculate that came to Argentina in 1630. For whatever reason, thousands of pilgrims come here every year. A large and beautiful cathedral houses the figure and is the epicenter for the tourist and hundreds of vendors selling religious item. Near to the cathedral is a river. Along the river are amusement rides and pony rides, and boat rides, on of which we took. People come to the river's edge to enjoy the ample number of picnic grounds on Sunday afternoons. After a couple of hours here, we drove a bit further out in the country to a little village called Carlos Keen. We stopped to have a very late lunch or early diner. We ate grilled meats at a restaurant that were clearly the remains or leftovers of that day's luncheon menu. We thought the food was awful. We also drank a bottle of wine, and found that to be quite good. The ambiance was countryside rustic and very comfortable, except for all the fricking flies! There seems to be swarms of them in this farm land. The countryside here reminds me a lot of the Midwest, with big farms and rich farm fields.

Luján Cathedral
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Inside the Cathedral
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Father and Son in Luján
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Children on the Boat
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Relaxing Along the River
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Family Fun
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Fishing
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Paddle Boats
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Other than get a few pieces of furniture, we have not done much to the house. I put in a few tomato plants and some herbs. I tried to start some pepper plants, but nothing has come of them yet. We still need to paint the house. Our discussion of the color scheme continues. But it seems to be coming together.

Finally, I wanted to mention that Guille completed her undergraduate thesis and defended it at the university. With this and a few more courses she will have a degree. The degree will be more than the equivalent of Bachelor's degree, and it seems to me to be at a Master's level even though it might not be recognized that way in the US. She is a botanist and is looking forward to a PHD program in graduate school. I went to her thesis presentation, and the party they threw that night. We met a number of Javier and Guille's friends.

Guille at Celebration Party
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Bed and Side Pieces
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Dresser, TV, and Painting
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Garden Tomatoes and More
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Posted by bill at 11:24 PM | Comments (6)

December 09, 2004

Getting Around BA and Argentina

The city of Buenos Aires is compact and has more than three million people. There is another seven million in the surrounding suburbs. The city is a federal district, while the suburbs are in one of Argentina's two dozen states, and it is also called Buenos Aires. It is one of the largest states and has 13 million people, seven of whom live next to the city of Buenos Aires. The city is compact; I mean that is about a 9-by-9 mile square, totaling less than 80 square miles. To get the size in to perspective this is not much more than the 59 square miles of Minneapolis. Being small, it is easy to get around. It could be an ideal city for bike travel. There are hundreds of bus lines, several train lines, six subway lines, and thousands of taxis. Costs for all the public transportation are cheap, for example the subway costs about 25 US or 70 centavos. The taxis are also an excellent bargain. You can go almost anywhere in the city for less than $5. We have heard that sometimes there are taxis that are not really taxis, but a platform for a bandit. If this be true, we have seen none of it. If these stories scare you, there is an easy solution to overcoming the fear. You simply use a radio dispatched taxi. There is also a taxi like service called a remis. Remis store fronts abound. There you can also get a car ride to wherever you need. If you are going to just visit or live in Buenos Aires, a car is hardly necessary. If one must have a car, they can be easily rented. Airport rentals are the highest at abut $40 per day. Away from the airport, a rental can be arraigned for $220 a week or less. We ended up doing both. We had an Avis airport rental for four days and national Argentinean rental for a week.

Driving in Buenos Aires can be extremely harrowing. You must always be totally alert. There is a tendency to add lanes where they do not exist. No one can stay in their lane, especially in the curves. Taxis are always trolling slowly in the far right lanes that are also loaded with busses. In general, it is illegal to make left turns on two way streets at semiphores. Luckily most streets are one way; unluckily they are not all regular in alternating direction. True most are in alternating direction, but many are not. I get disgusted with the discourteousness of the drivers. They act as though they must fight for position. When you are standing still in rush hour traffic, this seems a bit ridiculous. No one stops for stop signs. Pedestrians are fair game for the automobile. At night it really gets hairy, especially on the main avenues near the center. Most cars and taxis drive without lights on at night, so walking or driving can be life-threatening. I prefer the taxis at that hour. During the day you only have all the big trucks lumbering through the city to deal with. In some way I wish I did not have a car, because once you have it - you must use it. In other ways it will be a necessity, because Argentina is a big country. Trains don't exist out side the metropolitan area. That only leaves air transportation, if you do not have a car. I will try to get info on air fares to various cities from Buenos Aires in a later posting.

My 1997 Corsa
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We spent almost a week looking for a car, and I should have taken another week. Buying a car here is a chore.
We found that cars in our preferred price range ($2000 to $3000) are nearly impossible to find. If low priced used cars exit here, then they are not in the car lots. There are cars a notch up above this proffered range starting at about $4000 (or 12000 pesos). Problem is that we did not budget for the higher range. After the first couple of days of searching, we ended up reevaluating our original plans, and started looking for a car in the $5000 to $5600 range. After a full week of search, on Saturday, we returned to several places to test cars and make offers. I should have bought the Polo, but after driving it, I decided not to buy. In hindsight that would be a mistake. We tested an Escort, but they would not take offer. Essentially they are in a take it or leave it world. Without some negotiation, especially given the high prices here, I could not adjust to their methods here. In the long run, I am sure that this will cost me plenty. Still I feel that used cars should always be sold through the give and take of the market. Not so here. Finally, more out of exhaustion than good sense, I made a deal on a 97 Corsa with 48,000 miles for $5500 with a private individual. We closed the next Monday, the 29th of November - just a little more than one week ago. I made all kind of mistakes in this purchase; I only hope that it doesn't cost me too much in the long run. The biggest problem was that the seller (not the owner) put out several lies that I did not catch. Well, I did not check the car out well enough either. I should have at least caught the minor inconsistencies. I have had some immediate problems that are pointing to major wiring problems. For example the horn did not work. The internal contacts for the horn seemed old beyond their seven years. I had all that fixed and again the horn is not working today. Yesterday, the power window for the driver's side failed to operate. It came back on after some driving. I remember the problems that I had with my Passat before I had a major operation on the wiring. Poor design can lead to corroded wires and leads, but I would not expect such corrosion in a climate such as here. I lost a nut that caused the front bumper to sag. The one good thing that I have learned is that repairs are really cheap here. I won't spell out the other problems with the car. One thing that really pisses me off is that I cannot get hold of the seller. He must have caller ID. I need get him to show me how to punch in the radio code. But he wouldn't talk to me, until I came round to his house. It makes me wonder what else he has to hide. I hope that the bad karma that Juan Batista has created will come around to haunt him.
As Javier told me to begin with, "Buy from a car lot." I should have done that. At least, there you can go back to ask them what gives.

I am sure that there are many reasons to explain why less expensive cars are hard to find. Perhaps there is a great demand for used cars. Maybe they are so poorly made that they don't last very long - creating shortages of older cars. Or just maybe it is the insanely difficult and expensive car registration process. The minimum cost is about $75, but due to all the paper work hassles, many pay someone else to handle the transfer registration. Car lots often change $200 for the service. Another problem is fear of not getting a good title from a private individual. All this adds up to a very strange market place for autos.

Next time I will talk about the neighborhoods of the city and how they work.

Posted by bill at 09:54 PM | Comments (0)

December 05, 2004

Mi Casa

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I am going to change the format of this BLOG for a while. Until now, it has been more or less a daily log. I am going to try to organize the writing by topic. Today I will write about our house and another day I will write about buying a car and other transportation issues. If you want me to write about something specifically, just drop me a line at bill@sundstrom.us.

The Kitchen and Washroom
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As I mentioned in my last entry, we were able to rent a house in the Ville del Parque neighborhood. This is clean, safe, working class neighborhood south of the Palermo Viejo neighborhood. The front of the house is about six feet from the street. There is a bit of traffic on the street, but not enough to be annoying. As you face the front of the house and moving from right to left, there is a small garage, the front door and the living room windows. The garage just barely holds the 97 Corsa that we bought. The front door has three keys. As in most large cities, they seem to be a bit overly security conscious here. And as I have seen so often, there is a lack of trust among people and institutions. Thus most doors have at least two locks. Behind the door is a four-by-twelve foot hallway with a large archway on the right that is open to the garage. Once through the next door, you have entered a small foyer about eight-by- fifteen feet. The first door on the left opens to a small living room with a wood floor. All the walls in the house are plaster on masonry. The living room is about twelve-by-twelve feet. Since it is on the first floor, it has the typical steel security shade. It is a nice room, but it will be a long time before we fill it with furniture. In fact all the rooms are going to be pretty devoid of furniture, unless we find some freebees or stone-cold cheap pieces.
In any case the next door on the left is a small bedroom that is about eight-by-ten feet. You know that it is a bedroom because of the wall of built-in closet and shelf space. And the last door on the left is our bedroom. Once again the built-in wardrobe is a dead give away that it is a bedroom. Thank goodness that it has a ceiling fan. One of the two doors to the bathroom is can be found in this room. The other door is out on the rear porch.

Stairs of the Skinny People
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Back to the foyer, the only door on the right is to a tiny eight-by-eight atrium that mainly functions as a ventilation shaft and a plant room. It is open to the sky, so plants get sunlight and rain.
The doorway to the back of the house passes through to the kitchen and dining area. A stove and a fridge came with the house, so everything is pretty functional. There is ample cupboard space for us. There is a small washroom just beyond the kitchen.
There is one more room that is above the garage. A narrow, two-foot wide, stairway takes you to a small but very bright and functional bedroom or office. If you take right just before you enter this room, you come to an even narrower stairway - no more than eighteen inches - which leads you to the terrace. There is a storage room up there and old washing sink and a large open area. We are not likely to ever use this space. In reality the house is much more that we needed.
We have only gotten a few piece of furniture: a mattress, a dining room set and a television. We hope to get a couple of futon couch-beds for our expected visitors. The other thing we will do soon is add some color to the totally white interior.

The Dining Area
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Outside, a patio and small garden area behind the house. The lot and the house are about 24-feet wide. Thus the backyard is about 24-by-30 feet. As you look out the back door the right half of the yard is patio and the left half is something of a garden. We put in some tomatoes today, and will hope of the best. There is an orange tree there, some awful grass, a palm tree and some vines climbing the adjacent wall.

One of the nice things about the house is the quincho, or the little cook house or party room at the back of the property. It is quite large, maybe 24-by-15 feet. There is a bar and a sink, and best all a traditional charcoal fired parrilla or asador. If we had friends like in the states, we could throw a heck of a good party. I guess one of our goals will have to be to get to know enough people to have a hell-of-a-good fiesta before we leave.

We hope to make good use of the space in February, when some family may come to visit. When it is 30 below zero back in the states, this will be a great place to be living. Eat your heart out!

Back Yard and Quincho
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Posted by bill at 08:48 AM | Comments (0)