April 26, 2006

Into the heart of Chaos



Some of you have been polite enough to ask about the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and how things are going? Well, I’ve put pen to paper while eating dinner this evening so here it is, edited and transcribed into electronic form. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

The UBA is like a giant sponge sucking hopeful students into its enormous decaying edifices. Through these buildings I scramble, rat-like, trying to make sense of the chaos surrounded by a fifth of a million others, who don’t quite look as confused as I feel.

Confused? How about reeling with extreme culture shock, the more than average elasticity of my world-weary brain, stretched to breaking point. I wonder to myself whether I look quite as confused as I am, or am I old enough to have learned how to hide it?

The major barrier for me is still the language especially spoken in loud corridors in Porteño slang. On top of this there are the not insignificant factors: change of city and country, the vastness of the university, being back in academia after a break of two decades, changing subjects totally, oh, and did I mention the chaos?

So what’s it like then? Well let me describe an average class like today’s Macroeconomia II.

First there is the small matter of finding the class. I arrive a tad late, and cross-reference the class number with the lecturer “Fanelli” and look in the Aula (hall) column to find the number 14. Off I go wandering through this enormous building looking for the room, a map in hand. Given that it is already 19:05, I’m in a huge rush. I get lost twice then career down what looks to be a dead end only to find three rooms that could be 12, 13 and 14, but my one is empty.

A young “Che” look-alike is hanging around outside alone, without so much as a mobile phone to fiddle with. One suspects that if there were and long grass within a mile of here he would have picked one and stuck it in his teeth. I verify that the empty room is in fact 14, many UBA rooms do not have names or numbers. “Yes, he says but there’s no-one here”, all right he qualifies for a masters in the bleeding obvious, “I vaguely remember seeing people here at 19:00 earlier in the term, but the class must have been moved”. Better, but still unhelpful.

“OK”, I ask “Where might I find out which aulas have been changed to what?” He replies that I should pass down another dark corridor, up some marble stairs to the left, then right, to the fictional student orientation room. There is a sign for this mythical spot, just no room, or maybe I’m even more completely inept than I thought. I search in vain, finally giving up, and almost run back out into the patio to my friends the CECE.

The CECE is a student group; the only people in the UBA that seem to produce intelligible documents describing basics like; well like a map of the economics buildings, a list of the classes, the names of the lecturers, and when and in which aulas they are supposed to be -- (even if the latter information seems a tad out of date).

The CECE guys (for they are mostly guys) are always hanging out at their large table waiting for something to happen and talking to lost, but amicable young girls who stop to talk with them. I did the same when I was an undergraduate in the student’s union in the 1980’s even if we were not quite the political power of the CECE. I ask about the aula change and am indicated to a board on a wall just two corridors away containing a huge list of about a thousand economics classes. I amble over, knowing I’m already late at this stage, and cross-reference (Fanelli/codigo 238/ Tuesday/Friday/Saturday at 19:00 hours) to find a blotch of liquid paper, and something that looks like a three. Aha! I think. I know where aula three is! So I double back, checking my map while walking, and pass in front of the CECE guys for the fourth time in fifteen minutes heading for the far side of the block.

Encouragingly enough, there are a lot of people outside what I think is room three. Quickly confirming the number with a “Che” look-alike, I enter and ask again, to verify that this is a Fanelli class. I'm answered by an amicable nod and a vague smile. I sit and wait near the door so as not to be caught out like last night where I found myself trapped in a tax class after yet another change of aula.

I sit and wait for Fanelli then panic that I’m too far back and won’t be able to hear him, (if he ever turns up) so I move forward three bench spaces to a free spot near the window, wondering if there might have been another strike. Then Fanelli does turn up, and I soon realize that he likes to wander up and down the aisle while lecturing, so I needn’t have moved. What I had, in fact done, was to drown out his voice by sitting right beside the main street where large buses like to accelerate to overtake each other, their 9000RPM diesel engines deafening the 26-cent passengers inside and anyone outside within a half mile.

Fanelli begins by chatting inaudibly to some studious types up front while I shuffle in vain trying to move away from the screaming bus window. After five minutes he launches in incredibly rapid Spanish into advanced macroeconomics, interspersed with some radical politics. He wanders back to the board and proceeds to draw Greek formulae with chalk, slightly out of range of my eyesight in the barely lit gloom.

After two hours of this, compressed, of necessity, into 70 minutes of genius-speak at double-rap-pitch and partially smothered by a full beard, I realize I’m not the only one glazing over. Few are ballsy enough to slow Fanelli down with a question, and they’ve been to the previous eight lectures which I had missed. I would be ready to tear out my hair but that’s not advisable for bald men. No, I just sit back suppressing the natural urge to panic, cleverly avoiding the glazed over look of the genius as he marches, his eyes flitting around, looking in vain for sparks of understanding as to just what the hell he’s talking about.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the tax course.

Posted by Tony Phillips at 03:25 AM | Comments (3)

April 12, 2006


Hi up there,

Alquilando! Rented!

Yes I've finally relocated from my hostel and am now officially a resident of Barrio Norte (or north section) --known to real-estate agents by the name of it's old Franciscan church: Recoleta. The Franciscans set up shop about seven blocks from here in what was then a field near the nascent village of Buenos Aires. The priests had been uprooted from their jungle home of Ascuncion, (lucky them!), now the capital city of Paraguay. They had been sent to Buenos Aires to get things started. Being priests they did the sacrament thing, and ended up populating (if that is the right word), what was to become one of the most famous cemeteries in the southern hemisphere. the indians and slaves buried by the monks and priests have long since been dug up and replaced by some of Argentine's greatest heroes and villains alike.

I now have a six-month rental on a "Racionalista" building on Callao Avenue built in the 1950's. The place is an enormous two bedroom and I really don't know what to do with all the space, so I've been unpacking and trying to spread myself around a bit. If you know Buenos Aires I'm on the block between Juncal and Las Heras. It is quite quiet here on the 6th. floor as I have rented a 'contrafrente' or rear-facing, semi-piso (half-floor) flat, with the uninviting name of 'B'. Behind me is Rodriguez Peña street, a very fancy supermarket (with the unlikely name of Disco), and a pretty little fountain. People are very posh round here so, come the revolution, I'm moving back to the hostel.

Last night I bought some wine to celebrate my first night in my new home but to my horror, my new flat lacked a corkscrew. The poor girls in the shop nearly lost it when I swung by to buy one, so I could enjoy my glass of "El Portillo, 2004, Tempranillo" with dinner. I left one girl severely disabled by a giggling fit when I mispronounced sacarcorchos as 'sacarconchas'. Sacar is the verb to extract, so I had begun the word correctly, but when I looked up in concha my 'Practico' dictionary from Spain, it turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with cork. Instead, it seems, I had used Latin American slang for a rather ugly word (used with unfortunate regularity in Dublin), but known in the United-States-of-Prudisnesss by the risque euphemism "The 'C' word".

Oh well! We live and learn :)

As I strolled out to check out my new neighborhood today, (my first day) -- all seemed very smart, very upper middle class and distinctly well healed. I bought some towels and visited the Pueyrredon art school on my block when I spotted a lovely confectionary and bakery store built at least a half century ago. I was quite excited for a moment as I perused the window but I did feel a little stupid as I almost tripped over the body of a dead man lying right there in front of the window. Details were scarce as to why a fully grown, but relatively young man, a professional painter if I am to judge by his white paint-stained trousers, had just up-and-died on the sidewalk on my block. Someone mentioned cardiac arrest (verified with a member of staff a week later). The cops didn't look like they wanted to answer any questions from no gringo, so I stopped by the paint shop a half block away, they knew about the incident but hadn't seen him either. I guess I shall never know who he was. The police had emptied his pockets and located some form of ID so I guess his family will come by and give him a Christian burial but who is to know, maybe he's a stranger in town like me?

Posted by Tony Phillips at 12:03 AM | Comments (8)

April 05, 2006


Hi up there,

Well it is good news and bad news (with some good news tacked on to the bad news too). The good news is that I am fairly certain that I shall sign for my apartment rental in Recoleta on Friday at 11:00AM local time, which means I move in on Monday alone so if you are thinking of visiting this is the time to do it before I get room-mates. I have given all of my UBA paperwork and the offices are going through the motions and there have been no major upsets to date but no news either. My Spanish is improving quite nicely and I've re-written the Web site at http://projectallende.org/ to better represent what's going on with me now, to promote the book I'm trying to write: "Drive Américas", and to encompass this little blog from Buenos Aires -- my steadfast attempt to torture you all with my little whims from the Southern Hemisphere.

All right! Enough of the good news, now for "Otorrinolaringológica".

"Otorrinolaringológica" was yesterday's little trial. Yet another introduction to yet another Latin American health system. One nasty side effect of staying in the tango hostel, (no I'm not the longest-term resident yet), is the extraordinary variations in temperature combined with the lack of A/C means that as autumn comes on, and the leaves turn yellow here in Palermo Soho. The temperature has been fluctuating from 30 degrees centigrade to just 10 in a single day.

So there are all these Europeans passing through from the northern Winter, and there's lots of drinking, carousing (not to mention a few other matters) and what happens? Of course! A plague of flu, what else? So after three days of trying to deal with this on my own I could hardly swallow and I decided that the ear-ache warranted a visit to the doctor so off I went yesterday morning.

But wait! This is a pretty large city to find a doctor in. There are millions of doctors in Buenos Aires and hundreds of hospitals so how to find an ear, nose and throat specialist? Where does one begin without health insurance or even a clue how the system works? And what, for that matter is ear nose and throat in Spainsh, (ahh you guessed it).

So because I'm a guy and i don't like to ask for things I began with the Internet which lead to the wonderful word "otorrinolaringología (nf), estudio de las enfermedades del oído, la nariz y la garganta (pop)". An otorrino is a 'ear, nose and throat' specialist ("oído, la nariz y la garganta" in Spanish). So having wasted a lot of time finding out what I wanted to find I asked the young guys who work here at the hostel where I should go and they sent me to "Hospital Fernandez" because it is local and it has both private and public care.

Off in a taxi I go! Sure I like to see how socialism works from the inside but I hate to queue when I'm sick so; at first I tried to find the private section, then I gave up and joined the line at midday having been rejected by emergency.

This line turned out to be the overspill line for those seeking specialist appointments without a reservation. It forms around lunchtime after the ticket system closes at 11:00AM. I'd missed the ticket system which would have allowed me to stop out for breakfast, come back and wait for my number. So I stood there sweating in the hallway trying no to feel sorry for myself and chatted with the ladies around me. One had broken their leg while falling off a bus, another had a grotesquely swollen chin from being hit (by what I was delicate enough not to ask, for once). She was kind of hard to understand with the bandage anyway (nearly as difficult as am I).

So after an hour, when the ticket appointments finished and the waiting area emptied, our line began to move and I got to the window where I had first made an enquiry about my sore throat. The smart lady behind the counter gave me a piece of paper. She remembered the gringo with the rasping voice, and she instantly gave me an appointment with the ear, nose and throat specialist: Dra. Beatriz in ten minutes time!

I was chuffed! I was fully prepared to have to return later in the week. The doctor saw me after a half hour, apologizing for the delay which she put down to all of the countrypeople coming in for care. She listened to my pathetic Spanish explanations of what I thought was wrong then she delivered her diagnosis and explained that the sinusitis was the first thing to fix then we'll tackle the base cause in the sinuses themselves after fixing the infection that was causing the sore throat.

Why hasn't this happened anywhere in the last ten years? Maybe finally I can get treated for my sinus problems which have plagued me for a while. I went back to the window and set up my appointment for two weeks out and went to get my antibiotics and antihistamines. It had been a good day and I rewarded myself with a fabulous three-course lunch seated beside a group of cheerful doctors.

For those of you in the US who are plagued by a broken health system and double charges for everything you might be interested that the whole things cost.

A$6(Taxi to hospital),
A$20(Prescription filled for both Claritin and Amoxycillin generics)
and A$15 for lunch and tip.

Total USD$14.00

Gracias, Buenos Aires and Hospital Fernandez!

Posted by Tony Phillips at 10:23 PM | Comments (6)

April 02, 2006

2 Weeks and all is well

Hi up there, Tony here in Buenos Aires,

I'm in Buenos Aires now about two weeks. In general it has been fun but the hunting for housing thing has been getting me down a bit. As usual the easy way of getting things done proved to be the most expensive.

By getting off the internet and onto the street I started to get better offers in terms of value rentals. Finally by waiting till the end of the month, and calling people who had placed advertisements saturday edition of the Buenos Aires national paper "La Nacion" I finally started to get some real value and found myself looking at a giant 110 m2 luxurious apartments for about the cost of a cheap studio in San Francisco.

The apartment rental market here is an active one with a huge influx of foreigners in the city and a lot of Argentines realizing that foreigners will pay Western prices for short-term lets. The market has thus split into a foreign and a local market which work out at about 2.5X for the foreigners! I soon realized that I wasn't capable of getting an Argentine deal but I didn't want to get raped as a tourist so I found myself between markets which is an uncomfortable place to be when you face the prospect of rapidly becoming homeless.

For a concrete example, let's say you spot an apartment in Buenos Aires advertised in the window of a real estate agent for AR$800 per month. This is an average-to-high price for a place which is about 40 m2 with one bedroom and a living room and a small kitchen, assuming a really nice area like Palermo Soho or Recoleta. So you walk in and express interest in renting it for 6 months and the price changes to U$S500 (about AR$1550) and they throw in a few basic items of furniture for your short-term let and they'll pay your 30 peso gas and electricity bill to boot.

The other side of the equation is the legal difficulties that landlords are required to go through in order to evict non-paying tenants (good thing too). These two factors combined with a dearth of local knowledge and has meant that the Argentine rental market, at Argentine rates, is in most cases only available to Argentines and then only those with a "garantia".

A "garantia" is a property bond on property in Argentina but sometimes it is much more specific. Sometimes the property has to be in the province of Buenos Aires or even, for the badly burned and extremely paranoid, in the Autonomous city of Buenos itself and owned only by the renter or a family member.

This leads to the ridiculous situation that even locals can only rent if they or their family have property nearby which is quite sane in the paradoxical realities of living in Buenos Aires. The situation resembles the reality of borrowing money from a bank where the bank-manager is less likely to offer you credit if you really need it (as you own nothing to secure their risk).

Anyway, moaning aside, I have two rental offers on paper awaiting approval both for big flats that I'll have to share and both in nice areas for between $700 and $850 USD which is a tad expensive but they are very high-end places. This process has improved my Spanish and my geography of the Metropolis and, with that, I now have the confidence to call strangers on the phone and deal with fairly complex topics in Spanish.

I stand in a very privileged place when compared to immigrants coming here with soft currency and no savings. I read a story about a Bolivian woman who was enticed to Buenos Aires by a local radio advertisement pushing jobs in a Buenos Aires clothing factory. For less than a peso an hour you get to sleep for free in the factory on cardboard boxes between shifts and your kid can sleep with you. An article appeared in yesterday's newspaper detailing her dilemmas because the factory was destroyed by fire which brought it to public attention. The factory was near the chinatown area of Flores, maybe a half hour walk from where I have been searching for apartments.

As I make huge changes like I have been doing recently I move into a mental space where I am more and more alone. This doesn't worry me as I have learned never to be driven by fear and to trust my instincts (which still tell me that I'm on an appropriate track) in as much as I get time to recognize them.

To suggest that I'm the only one doing something radical like this is foolish, self-centered, and just plain wrong On the other hand the fact is that those who choose paths that differ so radically in terms of direction, location and mental space from most of the people that they know means they have to chart waters that requires deep self-reliance and self-confidence. Maintaining that level of cajones can be a tad tiring! I think I'm pushing myself a little hard but the schedule I've created for myself does not really allow me the luxury of taking things at a slower pace. So far I've made a few things happen:

-- Im registered with the UBA as a spanish student in the language laboratories for the princely sum of about 120 euros for three months professional education :)

-- I got here and for 30 euros and a few air miles, a relic of that strange corporate past of mine in late nineties.

-- My Spanish is getting usable which makes me happy. I'm improving a lot confidence-wise and beginning to come to grips with the exigencies of life in Spanish.

-- I've finally got together all of the paperwork for applying to university and have given them most of this. The office is working hard to get me a place and Im fairly positive about my being able to get a place. Anything could happen. It is now a matter of paperwork and availability and some studying on my part. It will take some doing but it is within reach I think. To those of you who helped me with getting together all of the paperwork for university I thank you from the bottom of my satchel!

-- I'm starting to acclimatize to the weather. It is still pretty hot here and quite stifling in the underground (SUBTE, in BA).

-- I've reconnected with some of my old friends & acquaintances from the city and met a few new ones, I even have a few party invites :)

-- I'm on track to begin a second course probably on the seventh of April (next week).

-- I have a bunch of leads on accommodation and have two offers in for rentals, this process has been a massive drain on my resources but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I'm quite excited to be able to have an address for the first time in about thirty months.

-- I have a cellphone which is getting used more and more Local 15 6452-3894, international +54 9 11 6452-3894 . It sort of works.

At the moment Im Im staying at a backpackers hostel, which is fine if a little reminiscent of a past that, while fun and good company, I shall be pleased to leave behind me for a while. I am ready to swap a back-packer space for a real bed and a kitchen.

Onward and upward!

Posted by Tony Phillips at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

April 01, 2006

Arriving & Paddy's Day

Hi up there, Tony here in Buenos Aires,

OK wait a minute! It must be said, up front, that there are a couple of you on this list of emails that understand that the north-up, south-down view of the planet is quite arbitrary. There may also be some of you that have read that every now and again the earth's magnetic field flips almost instantly and with no regularity at all from North it South, or vise versa. This has happened hundreds of times of the eons of time that this planet has been spinning in space. Maybe tomorrow magnetic north to flip back to the geographical south? When that happens all magnetic 'N' lines will point toward an empty spot in antarctica instead of the arctic? But who cares will the maps flip over, probably not!

That said people still look down on the south, a logical result of the mercator projection, the IMF, and the placement of geographic north on top of the page (so to speak). Maps can be misleading presentations.

Just a few weeks ago I began my journey, another crazy trip to bring on a new phase, a new segment in the life of, except this isn't a story, this is me! One minute I'm hanging with my mates in Dublin, then next I'm hangin' with my bro's in San Francisco then suddenly -- for the procedure of air travel is a violent one -- I find myself flipped upside down and as close to Dublin as I am to San Francisco as I am to Cape Town, South Africa.

This spherical planet is a twisted concept.

For the last three years I have looked forward to Springtime and the loveliness that that entails (yes even in the topsy turvy world climate that we have burned for ourselves) and then what happens? Well, it's Autumn! That's what happens, and I'm back in early Autumn, the Summer anything but behind me. Missed it again, bad timing, I suppose?

No it is not just the summer-winter issue, the upside-down, right-way-up thing nor the driving on the right thing but the language and the cultural issues that are such a head f***, if you'll pardon my Spanish. How much more so these cultural changes than any geographical ones?

And, for that matter: How fun is that?

Don't get me wrong I miss my friends and the banter we do be after havin' but, Wow! This place is a smorgasbord: very latin, very south, very Spanish, very Italian, quite indigenous, somewhat tropical, very urban, and very, very hot. But wait it's Autumn again and so then rain has come to cool us down again. Autumn 2005, again Autumn 2005, and again Autumn 2006. Three into two doesn't go but that assumes a unity that represents 'one' year as measure in four distinct consecutive seasons and that simply is not the case.

So what's been happenin' you might ask? Well I had a couple o' things to do and do them I have been endeavoring. First I had to get here: Thank you United Airlines a wholly worker-owned corporation which divests itself of the need to pay it's employees a fair pension while still keeping it's air miles program alive. $37.00 and a couple of days of discomfort and that was done.

What next?

Well dammit it was Paddy's Day and in the world of the green ex-pat that means a little more than it does on the Isle of Green so it was off to Calle Resistencia, the downtown zone of Irish bars that keeps lubricates the throats of those who call for 'Buy' and 'Sell' the Buenos Aires stock market. The excruciating hangover was well deserved!


Well time to get my Spanish on and my apartment on, my phone on, my Masters-in-International-Relations on... And all that while living with a bunch o' drunks and coke fiends in the Euro-trash world that is the urban South American Hostel scene. Somewhat of a tall order and not easy on the liver!

Ok did I get it all done yet, of course I didn't! But I have started.

Heres my phone number: + 54 9 11 6452-3894, no address yet, same email, I'm registered and have begun Espanol para Estranjeros at the UBA (University of Buenos Aires) and I have an inbox full of expensive offers to share or rent apartments in this complex metropolis (I hope so anyway), the wireless is out in my fun little cafe here. Oh and I have a meeting about the masters Wednesday at 11:30AM so wish me luck!

The UBA is a bit of a kick! It makes absolutely no sense and yet is focused, as far as I can tell, on exactly what is has been designed to be; a cheap institute for quality education. It's extraordinarily beautiful Art Deco buildings are collapsing and rotting around student and teacher alike, as we study in our chairs built for children, but the staircase is still made of marble and the bannisters of brass.

So what next? Search me I'm just buffeting with the wind, but I would be so much happier if I could find a flat, and find one I will, quite soon too if the God's for insane forty-year-olds are on my side.

To those of you that have helped me on my way which is almost all of you I thank you from the bottom of warm and sweaty coronary, to the rest of you ...

Saludos y Suerte tambien!

Posted by Tony Phillips at 08:38 PM | Comments (0)