January 21, 2013

Our doves...

I thought the birds of Buenos Aires would be more colourful than they so far appear. I imagined there would be large and brightly coloured birds similar to those I saw on the east coast of Australia, but that has not been the case. The birds we've seen are dull of colour and for the most part small. Unlike cities in Canada, there are no crows, and unlike Dawson City, there are absolutely no ravens. Considering the collection of  garbage that forms each day at intersections, that is a good thing.

We are visited each morning, and again in the early evening, but some dove-like birds. Their calls first thing at sunrise greet the day. They are often together and highly affectionate.

Hmmm. What's all this then?

January 20, 2013

What we know so far

After three months in Dawson City, Yukon, Buenos Aires is something else again! We have gone from a community of 1400 to a mega-city of, by some estimates, 14 millions. The temperature when we left Dawson was minus 48.

Most days here in BA, the humidex is over 40. After just over two weeks in this amazing city some observations have formed. They will, I suspect, change over almost three months here, but for now here are some of the things we know so far, about  Buenos Aires:

1. Traffic is hectic and driving lanes do not necessarily mean anything. When approaching an uncontrolled intersection, the larger vehicle often has the right of way. Or the driver who honks first. Or, let's both speed up and see what happens. Sometimes these rules apply to controlled intersections too.

2. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Nor rights of any kind. It can be difficult to cross a busy street with cars going by you, around you and almost through you. Never, ever hesitate. Keep walking. Close your eyes if you have to, and keep walking. Later, much later, I will be offering courses in Transcendental Panic for anyone planning to walk across busy BA streets.

3. Argentina has the worst rate of traffic related accidents and fatalities of any nation in South America.

4. There is a minimum of horn honking. It is usually a gentle warning of sorts; hardly ever in anger. In fact, in spite of the heat and the general confusion on the roads, anger is seldom seen. There is a certain civility to the whole thing which is quite refreshing compared to Metro Vancouver where "rage" is common place. This in a urban area with seven times the population of Vancouver.

5. Banks exist to take money. They do not exist to exchange currencies, nor to convert large bank notes into smaller bills. Unless you happen to be their customer and then, they might, possibly, for a fee, consider being of assistance.

6. Meat is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. It is also of high quality. While there are rumours of vegetarians existing in Argentina, and the possibility of vegetarian restaurants is expressed from time to time, neither appear visible in any form.

7. People are friendly, though reserved. Except in retail establishments where they delight in ignoring customers. Until you express a keen desire to actually, possibly, make a purchase. Then, consideration of assistance will be granted, and sometimes with a smile.

8. Cafes are everywhere and offer good service, and except in key "tourist" locations, excellent value. It is extremely pleasant to eat outside, either at a restaurant or on our balcony, every day. And we have the nicest balcony in Palermo.

9. People eat late. Lunches are often taken after 1:00 or 2:00. Many restaurants will close between 5:00 and 8:00 pm with most diners appearing after 9:00. If this sounds civilized, it's because it is. These rules apply to our balcony as well.

10. Except for patrons of Starbucks, and the company does have a few stores here, no one wanders around with a paper cup of coffee in their hands. In fact, in Buenos Aires, coffee is meant to be enjoyed while seated at a cafe. And never in a paper cup.

11. Garbage from homes, businesses and apartments gets piled up in large green bags at intersections where it is picked up later in the night. This can be unsettling if you are seated at an outdoor cafe in view of the garbage. Some parts of BA do have large bins at corners where the garbage can be deposited, but most neighbourhoods do not.

12. Before the garbage trucks come, cartoneros appear to sort through the garbage for items of value. As recycling is not organised to any great degree, these citizens, often working in families, come to the same areas each night to open the garbage and seek out bottles, cardboard and whatever else might be of value. This too can be unsettling.

13. Sidewalks are in disrepair throughout all of BA. To say the footpath is uneven would be the grandest understatement. Sidewalks are a mine field of various holes, dog poop, piles of dirt and torn up tiles. If I have this much trouble what does a person in a wheel chair face? Or a blind person?

14. Mosquitoes flourish here, especially after a heavy summer rain.

15. Low-flush toilets do not conserve water.

January 18, 2013

Buying postage stamps in Buenos Aires

Postage stamps. I know it sounds like something from the last century, but some people still send letters and post cards. Stamps are relatively easy to get in Canada. You walk into any one of various convenience stores, and a good many drug stores, and after standing in line for a while you have your postage stamps.

Here, in Argentina, the bureaucracy of the postal system is a bit more entrenched. I went into a variety of convenience type stores, often called kioskos, without success. It became apparent that a trip to the Post Office would be required. Finding a Post Office, a Correo,  took a bit of effort as they aren't as plentiful as farmacias or kioskos.


Having found a correo you enter and take a number. And you wait. For quite a while actually. There are many customer service stations, and only a few staff. This is beginning to sound familiar. Keep waiting.

Finally your number is displayed and you can make your way to the counter. This is where all your powers of speaking Spanish come into play. It helps to have your envelope or post card addressed to assist in the ultimate pointing that will be necessary. Having as many fingers as you need stamps is also helpful at this moment, though not entirely necessary. Yeah, right.

And finally. That wasn't so bad. Only took 45 minutes. Now if I just write small enough...

And as a footnote: the post cards never did make it to Canada or Australia. Maybe in 17 years.

Photos by Jeem. Copyright 2013 by Jim Murray.

Cementerio de la Recoleta

On a nice hot day in BA, when the temperature is 31 and the humidex rating is 40, what better thing could there be to do, but visit a cemetery!

But first, how about a song and dance with the first clown we can find....

The origins of Recoleta Cemetery go back to monks arriving in this part of Buenos Aires in the 1700s. At that time, this area was on the outskirts of the city. The order disbanded in the 1800s and the convent garden was turned into BA's first cemetery.
On its 5.5 hectares there are over 4700 vaults, all above ground. Almost 100 of these have been declared National Historical Monuments and are cared for by the state. Some have fallen into disrepair.
The cemetery is arranged in city blocks. With all that concrete and marble, and not many trees, it is a hot, humid place indeed.
The place is full of the rich and famous and mainly powerful. There are many presidents and generals. Eva Peron is here in the family vault. It is largely unassuming among its neighbours and it took a while to find the thing.


Amidst the 4700+ permanent residents of the cemetery, there are also 80 scrawny cats roaming the place. They are strays and apparently fed by women who visit on a regular basis. They don't always show themselves but here we find two resting in the all to infrequent shade. That would be the cats, not the women.

January 16, 2013

A beautiful bookstore ~ El Ateneo Gran Splendid

Along busy avenida de Santa Fe in Barrio Norte is a large, Indigo-Chapters type bookstore called El Ateneo Gran Splendid. This is a beautiful store.

Originally built as a theatre named Teatro Gran Splendid in 1919, the building was leased to a major business conglomerate in 2000. When renovations were completed it became the flagship store for El Ateneo.

The store now boasts over one million visitors each year, and it's easy to see why, at least from the beauty of the place. In 2008 The Guardian named it the second best bookstore in the world and that sealed its fate as a destination.

As for being a great bookstore I cannot say. While various guide books and travel videos on the web suggest a significant English language section of books, the reality is a selection of mass market titles that would make any bookseller from Canada cringe. The display of books is only just routine, though the setting cries out for slightly more somehow. On the selling floor there aren't all that many chairs for customers to relax and review their purchases, though there is a mediocre cafe on the former stage where you can relax with a cafe, or a glass of wine.

Customer service appears to be lacking, as seems the case throughout much of the retail trade in Buenos Aires. Store staff are often indifferent towards customers at best, and sometimes blissfully ignorant of them altogether. What a difference from another magnificent bookstore, Munro Books in Victoria, Canada, where the setting is great and the service is exceptional.

All that being said, El Ateneo Gran Splendid is worth the visit for the visual feast alone.