February 28, 2013

Bike lanes in BA

Buenos Aires, or Buenos Aires Ciudad to set it apart from the even larger metropolitan area, is very much an urban city. Citizens walk a great deal. They take taxis and transit. And in a continuing effort to "green" itself, the City is encouraging portenos to become bike riders too.

There are 28 bike stations located throughout the City, with more on the way. Here a citizen can register and take out a bike, for an hour or so, for free. Repairs are made on the spot by highly trained professionals. Well, maybe not highly trained, but professional, with yellow tees. And helpful.

Dedicated bike lanes are being built throughout the City. Some co-exist along wide pedestrian walkways, others are found along streets, and some are being built with barriers to traffic. None of this has prevented motorbike riders from using them, which probably defeats the purpose, and the intended safety value.

At present there are 100 km of dedicated bike lanes in BA, with another 100 km in the planning stage. In the City of Richmond, Canada, a city of only 200 000, there are over 60 km of dedicated on- and off-street bike lanes. There are however, no bike lanes in Dawson City.

February 27, 2013

Ben Affleck's Argo ~ A pack of lies

To start, Argo is not a particularly good movie, though fans of the thriller genre might find it enjoyable. It is typical Hollywood fare with all the usual bits and pieces needed to keep an audience in their seats: action, conflict, international intrigue, funny old guys and even a separated-from-his-son hero. It all works out in the end, including the son and his dad.

After a good beginning, brilliantly gritty both visually and emotionally, though not completely honest in its depiction, that shows the taking of the US Embassy in Iran on November 4, 1979, the film descends into a highly predictable and slightly boring yarn. That's okay; it's only a movie after all. The problem is that director Ben Affleck purports to be telling a story based on truth; real events that actually happened. He doesn't.

The movie suggests the six Americans who fled their embassy (while another fifty-two were taken hostage) were turned away by officials of New Zealand and the UK before being granted refuge in the Canadian Ambassador's residence. This is false. New Zealand and British officials offered support and comfort to the Americans before a decision was taken that Canada offered the best hope for safety. 

In the movie, all six are shown, stuck in an almost captivity-like setting at the Ambassador's residence. In fact, only two stayed at Pat and Ken Taylor's official residence, with the other four at the home of Zena and John Sheardown, the embassy's First Secretary. And unlike the portrayal in the film, they could move around quite freely, inside and outside the houses.

Affleck presents the view that the American Central Intelligence Agency, and its true-life agent Tony Mendez, concocted the scheme of giving the six Americans film-making credentials, and this is largely true, though the figure played by Alan Arkin is a complete falsehood. Affleck suggests that our hero, Mendez, personally created the Canadian passports for the six, and that the CIA provided the plane tickets for their return home. This is all nonsense. Canada issued and delivered the passports, through a secret Order in Council (we don't  normally issue false passports for foreigners hiding out in our diplomats' homes). All documentation, including Canadian credit cards, business cards, IDs, and the all important exist visas, was provided by Canada. Coaching in how to speak Canadian, was also provided. Taylor and Sheardown played significant roles throughout the entire process. Sheardown isn't acknowledged in the film, and for some reason Ken Taylor is seldom seen without a tumbler of whisky in his hand. 

The movie would have us believe our Ambassador was anxious to close the embassy (too difficult a place for dumb and frightened Canadians apparently) and actually leave the six Americans to fend on their own! At no time was anything like that even remotely contemplated, not by Taylor nor by External Affairs in Ottawa. 

The movie's thrilling closing scenes at the airport, are all fabrications. The tension created by Affleck as the American group proceeds through three checkpoints, never occurred. In fact, Mendez has written that going through the airport was "as smooth as silk." This was because Canadian diplomats did actual dry-runs simulating what they thought might happen when they sent the Americans.

The idiotic and ridiculous car chase of a large jetliner down a runway, never happened. Maybe in Mission Impossible things like that happen, but not here, not then. 

American movie makers and the CIA are both masters of dissembling. In this case, what was once known as  the Canadian Caper,  is now being introduced to a new generation as Argo, an example of the brilliance of the CIA and the power and generosity of America's film industry. Canadians, and the others who helped the six Americans, should be outraged by Affleck's pack of lies. The truth is a much better story.

February 25, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man wins! ~ The Oscars Report

We watched the Academy Awards show last night. In Argentina it is not carried by one of the major channels, but by the cable channel TNTla (a Latin American version of the American TNT). We were able to watch it in English by switching the sound on the television to SAP.

Our long night began at 10:30pm with the opening monologue (Argentina is five hours ahead of Vancouver). As usual, the show was pretty much the usual; possibly even worse than usual. Attempts to get the all important younger demographic always seem to flounder, and this year's show was no exception. They aren't watching anyway, except perhaps to Adele's segment.

Irritatingly, the Americans have rewritten history yet again, this time with the telling of the Iranian hostage-taking incident, the Canadian Caper, and sealed that deal with last night's Best Picture win for Argo. In today's early reports, Ken Taylor, one of the true heroes of the story, says he is happy the film's director, Ben Affleck, mentioned Canada in his acceptance speech. Well, yeah, he did, along with nineteen other things all in the same half-breath, including Iran for some reason. The story is an amazing one, and Argo doesn't tell it honestly. See what former President Jimmy Carter says of the movie here:  Carter on Argo CNN

On a warm and fuzzy note, Searching for Sugar Man, the highly enjoyable South African documentary about finding that country's pop music idol from the early seventies, won as Best Documentary Feature. The film tells a great story; it's fun and entertaining.

You can view my earlier post about the movie, and the movie trailer, at
The Murray Chronicles - Sugarman

February 22, 2013

Plaza Lavalle

Walking through Buenos Aires is a feast for the eyes. The architecture is often French or Italian and the city is rich in design.

One place of interest for me is the Plaza Lavalle in the downtown core. Off one of the grandest of avenues, Avenida 9 de Julio, this green space is surrounded by magnificence, power and beauty, and an oasis of calm.

Here we find one of the five best opera houses in the world: Teatro Colon. Ranked with La Scala and Paris Opera, Teatro Colon is of Italian design with conception and construction beginning in 1889.

The Palacio de Justicia (the Supreme Court) is a French design with construction beginning in 1904, and finally concluding in 1942.

El Mirado Massue, below, dates from 1903 and is considered a wonderful example of art nouveau porteno.

The beauty of the city's oldest synagogue is here as well, centre of the largest Jewish population in Latin America. It was built in 1897.

This is a wonderful city in which to walk. The cultural richness and the beauty of the plazas and grand avenues flows into narrow streets, never seeing the full sun yet full of shops and cars and people.

While taking photos of the Synagogue I was approached by a member of Policia Federal. Gently, but firmly, he asked me to refrain from taking photos of the temple. He explained that with recent events around investigating the terrible attacks on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 (29 killed) and the community centre in 1994 (85 killed), both in Buenos Aires, the police will be vigilant and maintain security around various sites. The current issue, now before the Senate, is creation a committee with Iran to investigate the bombings. It has been covered widely in the media, and has, unfortunately, increased  anti-semitism among the usual suspects.

February 21, 2013

La pagina financiera ~ The Financial Page

Argentina's financial state is interesting. As in other countries, the exchange rates for various currencies are posted in the media every day; there is an official rate for Argentinian pesos and the US dollar, and other currencies line up along that standard. But in Argentina there exists, in the open, an illegal rate as well, and that rate is posted in the media as well.

When we arrived at the beginning of January the official rate was just under five pesos to the American dollar. Today, that rate is just over five pesos. The black market rate when we arrived was about six pesos to the dollar; today it is around 7.5 pesos, and climbing. 

Because of the restrictions the Federal Government puts on currency transactions, it is difficult for Argentinians to exchange their pesos for dollars. Therefore the rate they are actually willing to pay is greater than the official rate. Hence the illegal black market rate. Quite simply, Argentinians fear for their currency and have greater faith in that of the US. For some of us, that faith is probably misplaced, but given the inflationary pressures at work in this country, Argentinians, at least those who can do so, seek to protect their savings. Inflation is, according to the government,  currently 11.1 per cent. Most independent economists believe a truer rate of inflation to be closer to 25 per cent and rising. Some economists are estimating an annual rate nearer 30 per cent. The government recently implemented, through talks with various business groups, a short term version of price and wage controls.

How does any of this impact a traveller? Well, in our case it doesn't make much difference. Unless you are willing to travel with a large amount of American dollars and then exchange them illegally on a street corner, you are more likely to use credit cards, or withdraw money from an ATM. You will be charged a fee by the Argentinian bank, and probably by your own bank at home, but it is convenient and safe. And legal. 

It is important to note that Argentine banks will not exchange foreign currency for pesos to non-account holding foreigners. They are happy to do so electronically via their ATMs, and charge about four Canadian dollars for each withdrawal (I am guessing part of that is a federal tax of some kind).

There is talk in the media about the official exchange rate increasing to six pesos by year-end, but by then the real rate, the illegal black market rate that most people will pay, could be closer to nine or ten pesos. There is also speculation that Axel Kicillof, Deputy Finance Minister and economic advisor to the President, would like to introduce multiple rates of exchange, depending on the transaction: for tourists, for travel abroad, for exporters, etc. That sounds complicated, but it might work. With mid-term elections set for October no one thinks any new measures will be in place before then. 

It is also rumoured that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner would like to alter the Constitution to allow her to run for a third term. In spite of her extremely high popularity in the last election, an amendment to the Constitution will be met with considerable protest, to put it mildly. Argentinos are anxious to see stability in their currency and growth in the economy and there is increasing and wide-spread dissatisfaction with the President's government.
One of the drivers of inflation has been the rate by which the Federal Government has been printing money. Last year the money supply grew by more that 35 per cent, and there is likely to be further spending leading up the election. Public spending isn't a bad thing and it has helped employment rates and produced private spending spin-offs too. The unemployment rate, officially, is under seven per cent, and there are massive works projects, public and private, throughout the city.

Argentina's economy is somewhat closed to foreign companies. There is strong preference for things of Argentine origin. You won't see many apples from Australia or oranges from Florida for example. Nor will you see the shelves of the supermarket filled with brand name over-the-counter medications. Here there are many small farmacias providing all the usual medicines and remedies, often in generic formulations, and offering advice, at low prices. You won't likely see many wines from other countries either; we like our own wines thank you very much. There seems to be an element of protectionism at work in this country.

Direct foreign investment in Argentina is quite low. Last year in Canada and Australia, for example, foreign firms invested 47.2 and 48.5 billions of dollars respectively. In this country investment was only 11.0 billions. Neighbouring Chile saw a DFI of 26.4 billions of dollars last year. Not that foreign investment is necessary if you can raise the funds within your country, and small, resource rich countries like Canada and Australia, apparently cannot. But would Argentina's economy be better off with more investment from outside the country? Recently the giant mining transnational from Brasil,Vale, withdrew its proposal to invest almost 6 billions of US dollars in a project. The company claims problems with the exchange system, while the Federal Government says they would not concede to Vale's demands for tax concessions. 

So what to make of it all? There will be some interesting times ahead, that much is certain. Food on the table, at reasonable prices, is important. Keeping educated young people at home in Argentina is important too, as is welcoming new entrepreneurs into the economy, and protecting the savings of all citizens. As important as is the economy to the Argentine people, so too is the democracy they have created. The strength of that democracy, and the institutions entrusted to protect it, will be critical. 

February 20, 2013

El Obelisco de Buenos Aires ~ The Obelisk

The Obelisk of Buenos Aires is one of the iconic landmarks of the city. Not to be confused with the smaller obelisk located in Plaza de Mayo, this one is 67.5 metres in height and located at one of the world's most impressive intersections: avenidas Corrientes and 9 de Julio.

It was designed by Argentinian-born architect of German immigrants, Alberto Prebisch and constructed by the German engineering company, Siemens, to commemorate the 4th Centenary of the founding of the city. 
Below, two views,  in different directions, of Avenida 9 de Julio from the Obelisk, and one looking towards the Obelisk.

LAN Flight 4027

We were scheduled to return home to BA on Saturday afternoon last. It was to be a short two hour flight, and then, another hair-raising taxi back to the apartment.

We arrived at the airport in good time and boarded the LAN Airbus for flight 4027 with about one hundred sixty others, mainly foreigners. The region had been plagued with weather during our brief stay, which  seemed the norm for the tropical summer. Huge, dark thunderstorm clouds surrounded the airport, just as we experienced when visiting the falls.

Upon take-off we immediately ran into turbulence. That can be expected especially in the heat of a rain forest, and normally I expect things to settle as the plane reaches its cruising altitude above the weather. On this day the turbulence became much worse and it was obvious we were flying into quite a storm cell.

The captain addressed us, calmly, once or twice about the turbulence and to advise us stay in our seats. No one needed much encouragement. About fifteen or twenty minutes into the flight, and still not out of the turbulence, the captain came on again to advise, again fairly calmly, that we were returning to Iguazu immediately. Ice had caused a crack in the cockpit's windshield. He apologised as we banked steeply for a bumpy return to the airport.

Cracks in cockpit windshields are not terribly common, though they do happen apparently. It doesn't take much imagination to think about what might occur at ten or twelve thousand metres, so we were grateful for the safety-first position of our pilot and his honesty in reporting to his passengers.

What happened on the ground in the airport was less attractive, as the LAN agents had difficulty coping with the situation. What we needed was direct and open communication about what might happen with rescheduling our flight. Instead there was general confusion and an inability to communicate much of anything. Effort was made to get some connecting passengers on flights out of Iguazu, but for most of us, it was a long afternoon that turned into an evening, in a small airport, waiting and waiting. The line-ups never seemed to end and never provided any answers. Sherry and I retreated to the restaurant upstairs, partly to get away from some of our fellow passengers. It's amazing how quickly people can move from being grateful for being safe and alive, to being frustrated and angry about an unfortunate, but truly unpredictable situation.

Finally, almost five hours after our flight returned to the airport we were told we would be taken to a hotel for the night, provided with a meal, and returned to the airport the next day for our flight to Buenos Aires.

Twenty-four hours after we were originally scheduled to return to BA, we arrived, this time with only minor turbulence in the air. The taxi ride home was, as expected, full of twists and turns, going through stop lights, and weaving around cars and pedestrians both. But we arrived, safe and sound, and grateful.


Our friend, John Harris, recently sent me this wonderful example of chutzpah:

Chutzpah is a word that means having gall...brazen nerve...effrontery...sheer guts...plus arrogance. It's Yiddish and no other word, and no other language, does it justice. 

A little old lady sold pretzels on a street corner for a dollar each.  Every day a young man would leave his office building at lunch time and as he passed the pretzel stand, he would leave her a dollar, but never take a pretzel. 

This offering went on for more than three years. The two of them never spoke. 

One day as the young man passed the old lady's stand and left his dollar as usual, the pretzel lady spoke to him for the first time in over three years. 

Without blinking an eye she said:
"They're a dollar and a quarter now."


February 19, 2013

Iguazu ~ Boutique Hotel de la Fonte

We flew to Iguazu for a few days last week to view the spectacular Cataratas del Iguazu. It's a two hour flight from Buenos Aires and the two cities, one on the Argentinian side of the river, the other in Brasil, are filled with tourists from around the world.

We stayed at a small, somewhat rustic hotel called Boutique Hotel de la Fonte. A French name, with an Italian chef, and a decidedly Argentinian flavour, the hotel has only ten rooms.

The rooms are actually small cabins surrounded by a tropical garden of flowers, trees and much falling fruit. This is not the Sheraton; the water pressure is low and it would take hours to fill the room's hot tub. Our room fixtures were old and not everything worked, and it was all quite charming in an old-world kind of way. We heard the sounds of dogs and birds and even marching bands preparing for Carnival, but little else from the city. In truth, the constant drumming from the marching, at one in the morning, was a wee bit annoying.

Owners, Matteo and Simona, have created a wonderful retreat where serving the guest is a first priority. When we arrived in the afternoon we asked if there was something we might be able to have for lunch, rather than going out. With the restaurant only open after 7:30pm we knew it might be difficult, but within a few minutes a beautiful vegetarian pizza and glasses of wine were served to our patio.

Matteo Lagostena is a first rate chef and he provides a delicious alternative to the Sheratons of Iguazu, using local and fresh produce, fish and meat. It is truly amazing, and all quite inexpensive. The wine list is sparse, but that is in keeping with the needs-some-work nature of the place.

Hugo, the friendly parakeet, commands attention at the hotel, hanging out during the day near reception. He is happy to perch on your shoulder and share pieces of fruit with you. And that cough of his? Don't worry. It's only an avian flu.

Visit the hotel's website at
Boutique Hotel de la Fonte

February 18, 2013

Iguazu ~ The Falls

The Cataratas del Iguazu are one of those wonders of the world we are supposed to see, and it didn't fail to impress, though at times you wish all the people, and the fast food would disappear.

Located in the north-east corner of Argentina, the name comes from the the Guarani people, and means big water. The Guarani have lived in this area for over one thousand years, displacing the original hunter-gatherers who arrived perhaps as many as ten thousand years ago.

The falls were discovered by Europeans in 1541, with the Guarani then displaced by Spanish and Portuguese. The Guarani continue to have a presence in the region.

The cataratas are part of a national parks system that protects the environment on both sides of the river, in Brasil and Argentina. The Argentine park is 550 square kilometres in size and was established in 1934. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Weather is a factor when visiting the falls. In minutes the weather can change, and certainly did while we were there: from bright sun, to clouds, to a torrential downpour and back to sun again. One never gets dry in this environment with summer temperatures nearly always above 35 and humidity of 80 to 100. 

The Iguazu rain forest is part of the Amazonas, but does not receive as much precipitation, nor does it have the same abundance of species. Still, there are jaguar, ocelot, tapir, coati, caiman and a multitude of butterflies, birds and snakes all the same. Most of the jungle's life forms come out after the sun sets (the Park closes at 6pm) though we did get to see a variety of creatures, some, but not the one on the right, wearing Tilley hats.

We joined a river rafting group, with Pipo as our guide. Torrential rain ensued, just after we came upon a croc.

Not having enough of that persistent jungle-water smell on our clothes, hair and bodies, we then took another boat into the falls themselves where water crashed down on us from over 80 metres above.

The Devil's Throat, or Garganta del Diablo, is 82 metres high, 150 m wide and 700 m long.  For comparison, the Niagara Falls are 50 m high.

It was great fun, though the clothes never dried, and the camera was knocked out of commission midway through the day.

And what better way to relax on the way back to our lovely hotel, than to take a taxi flying along a roadway clearly marked 60 km/h, at an impressive 125! There is a stretch along the highway where speed bumps are employed to slow the traffic. Speed bumps on a highway!  No problem.

And storm clouds on the horizon. But that's another story.

Photos by Jeem. Copyright 2013 by Jim Murray.