Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Buenos Aires

Nov 11, 2007 Buenos Aires, Argentina

Arriving in Buenos Aires after a ten hour flight from Cape Town, we disembarked, passed through immigration and found our luggage with no problems. A short taxi ride brought us into the city itself, a city dotted with old colonial buildings between modern steel and glass high rises, wide streets, wonderful old trees, large green parks where people walk dogs or push baby strollers. A far cry from South Africa.

We had picked a backpackers hostel on the internet, one with pictures of nice rooms. However, the reality was far from the pictures. True, we had a private bathroom and a TV mounted high up on the wall. Also, a refrigerator placed high up on a ledge. But the bed had seen better days sometime in the middle of the last century.

We ventured out in search of food. A real paradise for us. Cheese shops filled with many choices. Sausages of every type. Gourmet smells from every restaurant and café (at least three on every block.) The streets, the shops, the old buildings, people walking; everything reminded us of European cities, Madrid, Paris, Florence, or maybe even Barcelona.

Because of the bed, we quickly went in search of a new place. A taxi ride is a good way to see different parts of the city. We soon found a small studio apartment in a very central and rich part of the city. A few blocks away is the Plaza San Martin, a large square surrounded by flowering Jacaranda trees and containing a large statuary group in the center, topped by an equestrian statue of General Jose de San Martin, revered as the liberator of Argentina. By Wednesday we had moved and began exploring the neighborhood. On every corner, flower stands burst with color and sweet fragrance. Many professional dog walkers with up to 20 dogs on connecting leashes walk swiftly by. A couple of blocks from our apartment are a Supermarket, many shops, more cafes and restaurants and several shopping malls. We began to stock our refrigerator.

Our apartment is on Arenales, a tree-lined street filled with 10 and 12 story apartment buildings and upscale shops selling everything from lingerie to fancy furniture. One block away is Avenida Santa Fe, one of the city’s main shopping streets
Two blocks away is the city’s main thoroughfare, the Avenida 9 Julio, probably the widest street in the world. There are 11 lanes of traffic in each direction, 22 in all, broken into sections by tree lined strips. It takes at least 2 traffic light changes to cross this behemoth of an avenue, and if you’re too slow, you can wait for three. Both sides are lined with tallish buildings dating from the 19th and 20th centuries and containing both offices and posh apartments, very reminiscent of New York’s 5th Ave. or the Champs Elysee in Paris, the street level is lined with all kinds of shops. Avenida 9 Julio runs for about 2 miles from the waterfront area to the edge of the downtown section known as Microcentro. At one point, where it crosses the Avenida Corrientes, Buenos Aires’ answer to Broadway, there’s a large plaza containing a 250 ft. tall obelisk built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Buenos Aires and the spot where the first Argentine flag was hoisted on Independence Day in 1816.

At the Plaza San Martin is the beginning of La Florida, a mile long pedestrian street lined with high-end shops and many shopping malls. One of Argentines specialties is leather goods and almost every shop carries purses, coats and accessories in many colors and patterns of leather. The street is so crowded that just walking becomes an exercise in avoidance. It is also home to the largest Mac Donald’s we’ve ever seen anywhere.

The famous Cementario de Recoleta is also within walking distance (good exercise for old travelers). Outside of the cemetery the streets are lined with outdoor cafes, Tango demonstrations, vendors, a craft market on the weekends and lots of people sitting, eating and enjoying the outdoors. An old Ficus tree over 200 years old spreads it limbs and leaves providing shade under its 200 foot diameter. Benches around the trunk of the tree are filled with couples of every age enjoying the sights, the music and the food that abounds. Certainly not the average cemetery.

Here many of Argentina’s leaders and elite over the centuries (The ones who no longer matter) are buried. Inside the cemetery walls there are mausoleums of every type and size, built of marble, granite, stones or bricks. Many have statues in front, others on domed tops, usually of angels. I especially like the ones with the skylights on top. More light for the dead? Some have glass fronts so visitors can see the caskets. It is a city of and for the dead. We wove our way down the narrow streets looking for Eva Peron’s resting place. Finally we spotted a crowd and found the mausoleum belonging to the family Duarte. Every day crowds come to take pictures and pay homage to the woman many call Saint Evita.

Sunday we rode the metro to an old part of Buenos Aires, the San Telmo section. Here, in the Plaza Dorrego, the large Sunday open air antiques market draws thousands of browsers. We passed antique stalls selling glass ware, bad oil paintings, earrings and jewelry, ancient victrolas, toy soldiers, purses and lots of knitted shawls. The funniest sight is all the stall owners dressed as angels, belly dancers, butterflies, Romans in togas, anything you can think of. The strangest thing was that they are also antiques. There wasn’t a person under 55 dressed in costume. These folks are out here every Sunday and have probably been doing this for many years, not really caring whether they sell any of their wares or not and having loads of fun. We stopped and watched more tango demonstrations, listened to a musical group doing Latin music, visited an old cathedral and enjoyed the afternoon.

So far we are really enjoying Buenos Aires, maybe more so because after living in Asia and Africa for almost 4 years, we appreciate it. Another thing we like is the size of people and the clothes for sale. Especially the underwear. In Asia the people are about the size of an American 10 year old child. Ted bought some XXXL underwear which turned out to be too small even for me! All the bras are padded in countries where the weather is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 40+ Celsius. Do they think breasts are like yeast and flour; they’ll rise with more heat? In India clothes are very cheap but they all look like they came from an import place. Okay for me but Ted didn’t want to look like a 65 + year old hippie. Bras were very cheap, about $1.25 U.S. And they look like it. In Africa there wasn’t much choice. Sure, in the used clothes markets in Tanzania but who wants to wear used underwear? So finally we’re back with choices of size, color, lace and brands. Thank heaven; we’re about out of underwear, though Ted says that it’s a long time since he’s seen so many women he’d like to see without underwear.

Buenos Aires has a “Pink House” (Casa Rosada) where the President lives during his term of office. This is where the Peron’s used to address the crowds from an upstairs window. Today, the park in front of the House is filled with strolling people and pigeons. A vendor sells pigeon food and buyers are treated to hundreds of pigeons which will sit on their arms or head to reach the food.

In another part of the city we found the Mercado de Pulgas (flea market), a real treat. A city block filled with different vendors selling everything from estate or garage sales. Wonderful old items along with pure junk. Some great buys. Shops filled with chandeliers, old furniture, old costume jewelry, silver, glass, mirrors, and a thousand other great finds.

Yesterday we visited the Plaza Congreso, the Argentine legislature, built on the model of the US Capitol in Washington, sporting a huge dome and rotunda. Unlike the capitol, however, the building is adorned with large numbers of European style sculptures including a gigantic victory driving a chariot on the front portico roof. The Plaza across the street has a huge fountain with fantastic horses’ ala the fountain in the main square in Salzburg, Austria, which stands in front of a large monument to Argentine independence. It’s definitely one of the world’s greatest city squares, ranking right up there with anything anywhere else in the world.

We’ve traveled on the subway and the busses. One subway line, Lina A has very old cars with wooden seats and doors that are manually opened. It’s like stepping back in time about 100 years. We’ve walked miles through old and new neighborhoods. It certainly is an interesting city. And we haven’t even left Buenos Aires yet!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Problems in Africa

Disillusion, Poverty and Corruption in Africa

People in Africa for the most part are friendly and helpful. Strangers will offer help to confused tourists. There are always stories of robberies, muggings, etc. in Africa just like anywhere in the world. Tourists in Africa, like in any tourist location, are seen only as WALLETS. But for the most part, Africans are an easy people to be with.

For the last month we were totally immersed in the stupid, corrupt, venal, fraudulent, and totally incomprehensible mess which calls itself official Africa. Granted, our experience was limited to only 3 countries, but the stories we heard from the dozens of other travelers we met proved that this is truly a continental situation with the possible exception of South Africa.

In political speeches, on the TV and in the newspapers the general answer for all problems is “the money has been allocated.” Years go by and nothing is done but “the money has been allocated.” Who has the money, where has it gone? We have seen projects where millions of dollars have been allocated years before and not a single cent been spent.

It seems that the African birth control methods are brutal; war, rape, murder, refugee camps, disease, female mutilation, stone age medicine, ignorance and slow starvation. And yet, the population continues to grow!

In Moshi, as we had in Mombasa and Lamu, we met lots of people who had paid large amounts of money to one organization or another for the privilege of spending a few weeks engaged in various charitable activities, such as working in orphanages. From talking with these people, we were further strengthened in our opinion that the money they pay goes directly into the pockets of the organizers and their political cronies, and none of it ever finds its way to the orphans or the other disadvantaged people it’s supposed to help.

From the Nuns in Lusaka we learned of more African horror stories. The worst is that of any pharmaceuticals sent to them through governmental agencies for use in their hospitals, 90% get diverted to the black market. One of the nuns has been working in Africa since 1948 and she told us that the people were far better off in 1948 than they are now. Their birth rate almost equaled the death rate. They had room for their cattle, farms, and a way of life. Then people came to help. The dream of better sanitation, better medicine, better education, a better life. Little of which has actually happened. Modern Africa has been a total disaster for most of its people.

Today most Africans get one meal a day. They send their children to school (if a school is near), hungry. Schools aren’t free. Tuition is too expensive for most, as well as the required uniforms, books and shoes. There are no school busses, children walk up to five miles, both ways to attend. Lots of parents simply can’t afford to send their kids to school. So what’s the Kenyan government’s solution? They threaten to put any parents who don’t send their kids to school in jail. That’s a big help! What happens to the children when their parents are in prison? Never mind offering some kind of subsidies; that might take money out of the politician’s pockets.

The peace corps workers we met are pissed (discreetly, of course) at their own Catholic Church, which has decreed that no condoms may be passed out in Catholic hospitals, in spite of the huge AIDS problem afflicting Africa.

From the Peace Corp workers we got another earful of horror stories. They are working at a farming village which 7 years ago was persuaded by the Zambian government controlled coffee cartel to give up their subsistence agriculture and grow coffee. To this end they were given government loans. Coffee takes about 3 years to start yielding an appreciable crop and for the last four years they have had pretty good harvests. Problem is, they have yet to be paid one red Kwacha (Zambian money). The cartel tells them that the crops have been sold but that they haven’t yet figured out how to allocate the money. Uh huh. Of course, the banks are now threatening to foreclose on the farms. The cartel will be able to get the land, the plantations will be theirs, and the farmers will be shit out of luck. Of course, they will probably be able to get jobs working for the cartel at the typical minimum wage of less than nothing. This is not an unusual story. Africa is the most corrupt place we’ve ever been. Everyone is aware that Nigeria is the scam capitol of the world, but the rest of the continent is right up there with them.

In spite of pleas by Bono and the rest of the misguided do-gooders in the West, no money should ever be given to any African government; it never gets to where it’s supposed to go, ending up instead in numbered bank accounts in Switzerland.

We also think that the extreme prevalence of fraud is one of the main reasons that the banks are so reluctant to give out money. Our bank in Nairobi which issued us a Visa ATM card automatically blocks any use of it in Africa outside of Kenya. After we informed them we were out of the country they unblocked it which didn’t much matter since money we’d had wired there had been missing for 2 months and the account was empty anyway. (The money was finally tracked down, but that’s another story.)

A further problem confronting Africa is the general apathy of the populace and their inability to adapt to new ideas. According to the Peace Corps couple, they have been trying to get the villagers to eat a more nutritious diet and getting nowhere. Large swatches of the population do not and never have eaten eggs, a valuable source of protein. They’ve had no luck in introducing eggs to the village. Likewise with fresh vegetables. They have planted lettuce and tomatoes and the people want to know the best way to cook them. They cannot be induced to eat them raw. Their staple food is cabbage which they cook until it’s translucent and totally without nutritional value.

This couple arrived in Africa with high hopes. They now figure if they accomplish 10% of what they set out to do they will have been successful.

Another problem, of course, is HIV AIDS which is decimating the population of adults and leaving millions of orphans to languish in barely adequate orphanages with less than adequate amounts of food, in spite of the billions in aid pouring in from everywhere. The problem is that most of the money goes through government agencies: see above.

Compounding the problem is that just about every woman you see over the age of 15 is carrying a baby slung over her shoulder. Most of them don’t have husbands, which is not as bad a situation as that might seem, because most African men are totally worthless anyway, sitting around all day drinking and gossiping, or else visiting prostitutes and spreading even more HIV infections. Everyone we’ve spoken to in the aid industry has made the same comment. Only give money to women; never to the men. We don’t know why this is so, but it is the sad truth.

Of course, the atmosphere of corruption extends beyond the Africans themselves. We met a large group of British kids who’ve paid more than $6000 apiece for a month long tour in Africa from a British travel agency. They are living in tents and cooking their own food, mostly rice and cabbage. The aim of the group is to teach the university kids how to travel. Give me a break. We’re definitely in the wrong business.

Then there are the missionaries, again mostly kids who come for two, three or four weeks. In a continent that is 99.9% religious, the idea of sending missionaries to “bring the word of God to the heathens” is both insulting to the Africans and a condemnation of the churches (mostly from the U.S.) that send them. As one African woman on the train said, “The missionaries descend on us like a plague of locusts every year.”

(There are some truly wonderful people that come to Africa and do help. Students that dedicate six months or more to work in villages and schools. Nurses and doctors that come and work in hospitals, sometimes for a life-time.)

One group has paid for the privilege of working in orphanages, but most of their time has been spent learning how to repair diesel engines, as they explained: because the vehicles they use to visit the orphanages break down a lot. They have a month in Africa and are hoping to visit orphanages for at least a week. Where do you suppose the money they paid for this “privilege” goes? Name any damned Evangelical Church you can think of and you’ll have your answer.

We met a young American couple who, along with 30 others, have paid almost $4000 to work with the underprivileged for a month. They didn’t know where their money went, but the husband was working with a group of teenagers in jail and managed to provide them with new mattresses and mosquito nets. Did that come out of the $4000? Hell no. They got donations from people on the street.

We figured that 30 people a month paying $4000 apiece amounts to something over $1,000,000 a year. Where the hell does that go? And there are many many groups running the same scams, playing on the heartfelt desires of people to do something to help people who are less fortunate than they.

Humans always preach “acceptance” to the oppressed. They use their various religions to justify “status quo.” Today, the African churches are playing the same role, which only enables the general apathy with which the average person goes through life. When most Africans can’t even afford to buy a cheap bicycle, this is totally unconscionable. Signs on buses and walls proclaim “Man is born to suffer.” The churches ought to be preaching change!! Bishop Tutu is definitely a minority of one.

The young mining engineering student we met offered further confirmation of the general corruption. Most of the mining companies in the “Copper Belt” of Zambia are being run by either white former South Africans and Rhodesians, or Canadians. In order to suck the greatest profit out of the mines, they run their machinery into the ground, paying little attention to day to day maintenance. That this is seemingly a self defeating situation doesn’t seem to make any difference. And, of course, the African workers who do most of the hard labor are paid next to nothing. The same is true of the diamond mining, the silver mining, and the tin mining sectors. The vast natural wealth of Africa is finding its way into Swiss bank accounts and the people are starving. It’s disgusting! And the international community, despite mea culpas all over the place, is generally turning a blind eye, needing the African votes for whatever ridiculous nonsense is happening in the totally worthless UN General Assembly or Security Council.

Don’t even get us started on Darfur, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

The real theft in Africa is definitely of an “official” nature. Or, as in the case of the porter who carried my suitcase aboard the ferry to Zanzibar, opportunistic taking advantage of dumb tourists who aren’t familiar with the money. I was happily lugging my own stuff when I realized that I had to climb up 3 flights through heavy crowds so I finally relinquished the bag to the guy who’d been bugging me ever since we arrived at the dock. At the same time, his buddy grabbed a bag that Maria was carrying and they brought us up to the top, open air deck. When we were settled, I asked him what he wanted and was told, with a perfectly straight face, that 20,000 shillings each would be good. That’s more than $15. I laughed and gave them 5000 for both, somewhere in the vicinity of $1.50 each, which was the proper rate, or even a bit more. I realize that they are only trying to make a living in a shitty economy and I might have paid yet more if they hadn’t tried to cheat me.

That, of course, brings us to another of Africa’s great scams. The wildlife parks. The average daily fee for the parks is about $50 and visitors must be out by 6:00 pm. Camping fees outside of the parks are anywhere from $10 to $20 for a tent per day. Most of the money for the management of these game parks is supplied by some of the larger zoos around the world as well as international organizations like the WWF. In the Serengeti for example, 200,000 visitors a year x $50 equals $10 million. The animals are free, the animal food is free. There are only a few park rangers. The roads are unpaved. There are two toilets at the gate and they are pretty bad.

In South Africa where the cost of living is greater, the parks charge $10 and a visitor can stay for many days. The facilities are great, camp grounds, lodges, etc. with all the conveniences.

So exactly where do the millions of dollars in park fees actually go? We doubt that it goes anywhere but into the pockets of African politicians, but we’ll do a little research just to be fair. Stay tuned.