Monday, July 30, 2007

Cuba update from the New York Times

Thought I'd share this interesting article my dad sent me from the NY Times re: the political situation in Cuba with the balance of power between Raúl and Fidel.

Enyoy, all you Cubafanaticos like me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

BOTNIA, Alfonsín and more

This has been a busy week. I saw a paper mill, I went to Uruguay, I met another former President of Argentina, and visited a former clandestine detention center. I will write about the detention center, la ESMA, in a separate post.

On Wednesday, we went to the Río Uruguay (the river that forms a border between Argentina and Uruguay) to look at the giant paper mill that is being completed there on the Uruguayan side of the river. The mill was built by a Finnish company, Botnia, and was the subject of massive protests on the Argentine side of the river, both from the local community of Gualeguaychú and from the provincial government of Entre Rios and even the Argentine national government. Despite all the protests, which included road blockages and several massive demonstrations, the World Bank funded the project and now there is a huge mill in the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos. For some background info on all of this, see:

We started on the Argentine side, in the town of Gualeguaychú, and spoke to people at the local NGO who had opposed the mill since its inception. Since we have been studying NGO advocacy strategies, it was very interesting to hear these people's perspective on the situation and their ideas about how to proceed now that the mill has been funded and built. Their posture was, simply, that they opposed the mill and the global system that allowed the mill to come into existence, and they refused to negotiate with anyone in that system. Okay, fine, we law students thought when we heard this, but the mill's there. It's going to open in a month or so and is already pumping crazy, cancer-causing chemicals into the river. As an organization opposing this, wouldn't it be useful to think of a legal strategy to gain some ground against Botnia so that they have to make some concessions about using better environmental technologies in the mill?

It's a complicated problem, to be sure, but it seems to me that there are some fairly strong legal arguments that environmental NGOs and the Argentine government could pursue now. For example, Uruguay and Argentina have a bilateral treaty that says that each country must consult the other before taking any action that would negatively affect the Uruguay River. If Uruguay failed to follow procedure and consult the Argentine government before contracting with Botnia, then the mill is in violation of an international treaty and there must be some legal remedies available. But the people at the NGO we talked to seemed pretty stuck on the position that they were anti-"the system." Well, aren't we all. But realistically, you have to work within that system to get anything done, whether you approve of the system itself or not. Morally opposing the idea of socially irresponsible international project finance isn't going to make those practices disappear, but you can work within a legal framework to either give those companies incentives to change or else punish them for not meeting their legal obligations.

After we spoke with the NGO people, we drove to the road block, where we encountered some locals who control what traffic goes through to the bridge. I didn't really understand how the block worked, to be honest, but our professor spoke to the people -- I guess he told them we opposed the mill? -- and they let us through. We drove over the bridge spanning the river and got our first sight of the paper mill on the other side of the bank. The Botnia mill itself is a pretty awful sight. It's a massive, sprawling complex perched on the bank of an otherwise beautiful river (which is situated in an area that used to be devoted mainly to tourism, incidentally). There were clouds of smoke billowing out from a tall chimney, non-stop. Next to the mill were huge piles of wood, waiting to be turned into woodchips. The man who accompanied us over the bridge told us as we stared out over the brown water at the complex that now there is dioxin in the river, since it's a by-product of the mill's processes. Dioxin. The same stuff that ate away the face of that Ukranian politician who was poisoned. In the water. This is not good.

We drove across to Fray Bentos, Uruguay. After a long customs process which involved us walking back and forth a few feet between several desks in an otherwise empty customs office, we took a remis (shady taxi van) into the town and talked to some people on the street. The first person we approached was a lady on a blue moped who, it turns out, happened to work at the mill. She was highly enthusiastic about the papelera (paper mill) and explained that the reason the Argentines opposed it was because they were jealous that Botnia chose to build in Uruguay instead of in Argentina. In other words, the Argentines are just sore that they are missing out on the industry and the job creation and all the talk about contamination and disease is just propaganda. Well, we thought, maybe this lady is just exceptional because she works in the mill. But no. The next few people we talked to all said pretty much the same thing: they were happy about the mill because it will create jobs for Uruguayans and they don't think the contamination is a real threat.

After our mini-field research session, we got back into our van and took a spin around the town, because I wanted to see the Barrio Finlandés (the neighborhood where all the Finnish employees of Botnia live). It was a little, isolated neighborhood of brand-new, pre-fab houses with green lawns and barbecue pits out back. It's weird thinking about Finnish people being in Uruguay. Anyway. Interesting day and a lot to think about.

Now, onto Alfonsín. Raúl Alfonsín was the first democratic president of Argentina after the military dictatorship. Before he became President he was a human rights activist and it was under his administration that the trials of the military leaders began. All good, but he also passed two really controversial laws (which were recently struck down by the Supreme Court) that slowed the trials of the military leaders. The reason for this was because Alfonsín was under a lot of pressure from military and right-wing factions to roll back the trials. Hm.

So, Alf (as I will refer to him for the rest of this post out of sheer laziness) invited us to his apartment to chat with him on Thursday afternoon. He's 80 years old and reminded me of a kindly grandpa. He talked about his grandkids and told us little anecdotes about his trips to the U.S. Cute. We did get to ask him some human rights questions and overall the meeting was interesting. More warm and fuzzy than anything else, since afterwards he showed us pictures of himself with various political figures and let us see his library, and he called all the girls querida. style="font-style:italic;"> Aw, Alf. It was fun meeting him. Pretty f-ing cool that I got to meet two former Presidents of this country in less than three months. Go Harvard.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

God doesn't want us to go to Uruguay

This week's edition of our continuing saga of attempting to take the ferry to Colonia: we didn't miss the boat, but we chose not to go to the port, because when we woke up it was raining, gray and horrible here, and the weather report for Colonia said it was 50 degrees with showers. Gwoss. So, Ariella spent a good while on the phone this morning with a semi-idiotic Buquebus employee attempting to change our tickets to next weekend until it was eventually revealed that we never had tickets to begin with since there was a problem with processing the credit card. Awesome. I am interpreting this second failure to go to Uruguay as a clear sign that it was not meant to be. Yet something tells me we're going to keep trying.

Now we're sitting in Freddo, the chic ice cream/coffee shop in our neighborhood that has big couches, mood lighting, and low fat milk. Ré-Americano, ¿no? Anyway it's shaping up to be one of those habitual Buenos Aires lazy Sundays where I do pretty much nothing besides put caffeine and food into my body and read. Here is a picture of me drinking a cafe con leche today:

Notice how the picture's in black and white? That's because I'm SO bohemian, pictures with color just make me sick.

Umm okay, back to reading an article in the New York Times about juvenile sex offenders. The plan for the rest of the day is to sit around, read, and then Ariella and I are going to go see "La Vie en Rose," a French movie about some French lady or something. It's supposed to be good. It's either that or Ratatouille, and I am trying to be more erudite in my film choices, although Ratatouille did get an absolutely glowing review in the NYT a few weeks ago. I swear!

To be honest, though, seeing kids' movies in Spanish can sort of suck all the fun out of things. Take, for example, last week when John and I decided to dress up as Harry and Hermoine and go to the premiere of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix. Not only were we the only ones with wands in the theater, but the movie was terribly complex and I was completely lost, although that might have been a function of the 2 glasses of wine I had before putting on my Gryffyndor scarf. Maybe I shouldn't be publicizing this on the internet. Hmmm. ANYWAY, the point is, now I have to re-see it in English, sober, and probably re-read the book.

The picture above is what it would look like if Harry and Hermoine went to the prom together. And were 24 years old. And slightly drunk.

Well, I think it's safe to say I've said too much. Back to my reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Salta 'n Pepa

July 9 (this past Monday) was Argentine Independence Day. Feliz 9 de Julio, guys. I had the day off work, as did everyone else in Argentina, and one of my friends from Harvard, Rozanne, and I decided to take advantage of the long weekend and go to Salta, in the north. Salta is relatively near Argentina’s borders with Chile and Bolivia, and is characterized by deserts with cacti and brightly colored mountains. There are also rivers and dikes and other bodies of water, so it’s got a little bit of everything going on.

On Friday, we took the 2.5 hour flight from Buenos Aires into the city of Salta, which, in comparison to Buenos, seems very quaint and provincial, but apparently is considered “the big city” in the region. It is a city -- it has ice cream shops, banks, internet cafés and several grand, beautiful churches – but it’s certainly no Buenos Aires. Duh. Not surprisingly, the pace of life is a lot slower and things are a bit more worn down – the cars, the houses, the roads, the buses, the plazas, the restaurants – it made Buenos look shiny and new. Although during the day the plazas and shopping streets are full of people – young parents schlepping babies, teenagers in un-tucked school uniforms, old people out for a stroll – at night the streets are deserted. It’s quite disconcerting, actually – come sunset the streets fall dark and silent and even the cars seem to disappear. Thank God Rozanne had her pepper spray! Always prepared, that one.

We stayed at a hostel called Los Cardones, on one of the main drags in Salta. The hostel was cute, simple and quiet (except for its unfortunate location next to an Anglican Church in which, judging by the hymns that woke me up each day, all of the parishioners were both moved by the Holy Spirit AND tone-deaf). The only problem with the hostel was that to get from one’s room to the communal bathroom, one had to walk outside, down an open-air corridor. This would be fine if the hostel were located, you know, somewhere warm. But Salta is cold as balls (pardon my French) at night and going to the bathroom was torture for a cold-hating girl like yours, truly. Life improved significantly once Rozanne and I scored a space heater for our room, because up to that point, we had basically been camping indoors. Brrrrr. Anyway, it felt good to be back in the hostelling world – I missed it so! I met some dudes from Northern Ireland who ended up banging on our door and window for about 30 minutes at 6 am after they came back borrados from a night out at the bars, but I almost enjoyed it because it reminded me of my life of hostelling with rowdy kids last spring. You take the good with the bad at hostels, you know?

Anyway, our main activities for the weekend consisted of eating la comida salteña, going to the boliches on Balcarce street (the one street with a lively nightlife in Salta), horseback riding in the country, taking a bus to a nearby town, and freezing our butts off. To be fair, Friday and Saturday were lovely and warm, but Sunday and Monday were bitterly cold – it all made sense on Monday when we flew back into Buenos and it was snowing in the city for the first time in 89 years. Um, that’s what we call a cold snap.

Saturday was a great day because we went horseback riding in Chacuana, a pueblo about 45 minutes or so from Salta. Our guide was named Miguel and he was a real gaucho – he had the belt and the boots and everything, but the real reason I knew he was legit was because he chewed tobacco and smoked at the same time. That’s hardcore. The highlight for me was galloping (galopando) like a pro. The lowlight was when a bunch of creepy snarling dogs came out of nowhere and started barking and jumping at my horse. Apparently I have some sort of stray-dog radar that only works in South America, because the perros sin dueño always want to bite me on this continent. Freakin’ perros. After a few hours of riding, we came back to the ranch house and had tea and biscuits and dulce de leche. Nice. Later that night, after a bit of rest, we went to dinner at a restaurant with an Argentine reggae band (surprisingly good -- they got the stamp of approval from Rozanne, a real, live Jamaican, so there ya go) and then out to the boliches (also surprisingly good!).

Sunday was a cold day and we woke up too late to go to Purmamarca, which we had been planning on visiting, because it turns out it’s 4 hours away by bus. It looked a lot closer on the map. Since it was too cold to rent bikes and ride around, we took the bus to San Lorenzo, a small town about 30 minutes outside of Salta that has a little market with arts and crafts, a touristy restaurant overlooking the little river, and a big, fancy hotel that looks like a castle. We ate lunch and then walked around the market, where I bought some alpaca gloves (much needed).

Monday was our last day and it was another cold one. As I mentioned, when we got back to Buenos it was snowing and our plane was redirected to the international airport, Ezeiza, and the night ended up turning into a huge quilombo (chaotic, crazy mess). LONG story short, we landed at 5:30 PM and I didn’t get back to my house until 10:15 because the airport was holding all of our luggage captive in the wrong terminal, they wouldn’t give us clearance to reclaim our bags, it was hard to get a cab because of the snow, the cab got lost, etc., etc., etc. Quilombo, punto. But, hey, I got home, and all's well that ends well, right? Right.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th

Today is Friday, July 13. Spoooooky.

The last Friday the 13th I remember clearly was Friday, August 13, 2004. Why do I remember that date? Well, it was Fidel Castro's 78th birthday, I was in Havana, and Hurricane Charley hit the island. You do the math. Friday the 13th + Fidel's cumple + scary hurricane = OMEN.

I still haven't worked out what it means but I think it has to do with God hating communism.

Today has been a relatively unspooky day, actually. I woke up, went to the lavanderia to pick up my clothes, ate brekky, took the subte to work (trying to avoid being coughed on by gross people with colds), arrived at work, drank some mate, ordered lunch, and here I am. No curses or black cats or natural disasters so far, and if some super weird weather phenomenon occurred, like, for example, snow in Buenos Aires, I don't think anyone would blink an eyeball.

Hope I'm not jinxing myself right now. Hi Fidel.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bufandas, etc.

This is an email I wrote home last week. There is some overlap with previous posts. Apologies.

This email, which will recount things I have done/experienced since my last email, will be in bullet format because I am in a bullet-y kind of mood. Okay. Here we go.

-I have started drinking mate. Upside: it tastes good and makes my heart beat really fast. Downside: I burnt my lips and they turned black and green. Really, small price to pay for a drink that has 30% more caffeine than coffee, am I right? Or am I right?

-I took a tango class! It was at the community center in my barrio. First, they teach you how to walk, which I was really good at (not to brag), and then they quickly progress into like, dancing and spinning and kicking and stuff. I lasted an hour and 15 minutes and then took off when the class was sufficiently over my cabeza.

- Emily came and visited. Here are things we did: 1) went boot/shoe/elastic-waisted-genie-pant shopping, 2) listened to Uruguayan music, 3) ate Freddo ice cream (word to the wise: don't order mint, it tastes like Listerine/booze), 4) went to my gym and got in a minor altercation with the mean lady behind the desk, 5) bought bufandas, 6) ate steak, 7) drank coke out of glass bottles, 8) took a tango class (see above), 9) attended "French night" at some French bar for like 5 seconds , 10) ate surprisingly tasty Thai food, 11) watched The Office, 12) took the colectivo, 13) did laundry, 14) attended "after work drinks" at Opera Bay.

This last point deserves a bit of explanation. "After work drinks" in Buenos Aires is actually code for "go clubbing on Wednesday." Opera Bay is a big boliche (club) in Puerto Madero, the exterior of which is roughly modeled after the Sydney Opera House, with 4 different dance floors each playing a different type of music -- sounds awesome, right? Yes. So, on Wednesdays, for "after work drinks," you have to be either wearing a suit or female to be let in -- no exceptions. The plus side of Opera Bay is that on one of the dance floors they play fun 80s music -- Thriller! -- but the downside is that you have to wade through a sea of potential date rapists to be able to dance to it. I am not making light of date rape here, I just don't know how else to classify the legions of mulleted, suit-wearing, leering Argentine businessman that attend these events. It's not that they're just creepy and aggressive -- it's that they don't take NO for an answer. The slogan "NO SIGNIFICA NO" apparently never reached Argentina, I've learned. If a girl is walking by, these men grab whatever body part is within reach for them -- arm, butt, stomach, shoulder, back -- and if she says "no me toques," (don't touch me) they interpret that as "please, continue to touch me, rat-tailed stranger who I have never talked to." The last straw for me was when a dude threw his sweater over my head. It's like... why? Just... why? ANYWAY, despite the overabundance of creepiness, we still managed to dance and have a blast. Thank goodness for my sharp little elbows!

- I went to a concert the other night -- it was a Brazilian band called +2, I think. The reason I say "I think" is because each one of their CD's is attributed to a different artist. Let me explain -- in the band there are 3 dudes, Moreno, Kassin, and Domenico, and the band has put out 3 CDs, one by Domenico+2, one by Kassin+2, and one by Moreno+2, each titled something different. Confused? Me too. I guess it doesn't matter what the band is called, but they were great. The music is sort of a combo of traditional bossa nova/samba and experimental, almost electronic music. One of the guys, Moreno, is the son of Caetano Veloso, the famous Brazilian musician, who is also coming to Buenos this summer, incidentally. The concert was fun and got me more enthused about going to Sao Paulo at the end of the summer. Basically, good music and the prospect of eating large quantities of mandioca frita are my main motivating factors.

- Ariella and I attended experimental theater! See my blog. Sorry, don't feel like re-explaining "theater of the blind." If you're too lazy to go to the blog, just use your imagination. Theater + blind.

- I met former President Menem and the President of the Supreme Court of Argentina. Also see blog.

- OH, way more exciting than Menem -- I hung out with Men in Trees/Dumb and Dumberer again but he has since left the country. Coincidentally, I started watching Men in Trees on the WB Channel down here -- EXCELLENT show. I recommend it highly.

Hmmm I can't think of too many other things to report on. Same ol, same ol. I went to some parties, went to work, ate tartas, drank mate, burnt my lips. The usual. Well, email me back soon and let me know you care, (you). <-- very personal message.


Christmas in July

It's snowing. First time in the city of Buenos Aires since 1918. The portenos are freaking out (with joy). I obviously am not.

I hate snow, I hate the cold, and I hate getting frostbite in South America. Again.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Cheap Argentine knockoffs

I have seen a lot of Argentine carbon copies of other people, walking around Buenos, probably each blissfully unaware that he or she is actually an Argentine clone of another person/fictional character. Here are some of the more notable ones I’ve seen:

Argentine Randy Quaid
Argentine my uncle Rich
Argentine Claire Calzonetti
Argentine Jim Halpert
Argentine Sanjaya in 30 years
Argentine K-Fed
Argentine Vincent D’Onofrio
Argentine Ron Weasley
Argentine Eminem
Argentine Michael Ian Black

Claire pointed out that these are called "bizarro" people, like from a bizarro world. That reminds me that there's a bar near my apartment here called Mundo Bizarro. Coincidence? I think not.

Mate: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The other day at work, I learned how to make mate from my coworker, Luciana. This is how you do it:

1. Heat (but not boil) water in a kettle
2. Put yerba (herb) in the mate pot thingy
3. Put bombilla (metal straw) into the yerba
4. Add a bit of sugar near the base of the bombilla if you don’t like your mate bitter
5. Add water, pouring near the straw (thus leaving some of the yerba on the top dry)
6. Enyoy.

Notes: Add more hot water from thermos when level gets low. You know the mate is bad when the yerba starts to float.

Once I found out how to make it, I quickly devolved into a mate fiend, and learned that mate has the added bonus of being loaded with caffeine so it keeps one chipper/wired at work. Awesome.

As I was sipping away at my mate on Friday, another coworker, Gerrardo, explained to me that in Argentina, mate is a social thing – the fun of it is in sharing with your friends. I smiled at him blankly and took another sip. In retrospect, I wonder if he wanted some. Whatever. My mate, my rules. Maybe I’d fit in better in Uruguay, because there, according to Gerrardo, mate is more of an individual thing, where people carry around their own thermoses and sip at their bombillas all day long, non-stop. Today on the subte, incidentally, I saw a guy with a thermos, refilling his mate and drinking it while sending text messages on his phone. Damn Uruguayans.

Note that the title of this entry references the “ugly” part of mate. Leave it to me to find an ugly side of a beautiful cultural ritual, right? Okay, by way of background, I have to tell you: I have this weird metal allergy where I get rashes from necklaces, earrings, rings, even the rivets on my jeans. That’s right, I’m allergic to my own jeans. If you think that stops me from wearing them, you’re wrong -- you gotta suffer for beauty. Anyway, apparently I am allergic to metal straws, too. I learned this the hard way today when, after my second mate, one of my coworkers gave me a strange look and said, “tenés la boca negra.” Slightly concerned that I might have contracted the plague, I went to the mirror to check out my mouth, and sure enough, my lips were blackish-greenish. Um, ew? I had a weird allergic reaction to the bombilla, apparently, and my lips turned black where it had touched them.

I guess this means I need to cut back my consumption of mate. But maybe not. Black lips can be cool. Just ask the Goths.