Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Some observations after spending two months in Buenos Aires:

Take it with a grain of salt of course that these are my observations and no great scientific research and my data is solely collected through conversations and what I see from my own perspective.

Last week I felt horrible. I think I had a sinus infection and after eight days of a stuffed up head, head ache and strange pains it finally dawned on me, with the help of others, that I could go to the farmacy here and buy antibiotics over the counter. In fact my amoxicillan cost me $5 USD, about what my co-pay cost was when I was working and had a GOOD insurance plan. The farmacist instructed me how to use it and asked what I needed it for and sent me on my way. Doesn't this make sense?

In Argentina they have a public health system, and although this system is flawed, it seems better than what we have in the United States. There are three tiers of service here: 1) the public hospitals and clinics where any one can be seen for free, including me. 2) An insurance system sort of like what we know for workers, where your employer pays for something allowing you to have more "exclusive" service, but you can still use the public system if you want. 3) A private insurance plan where you can pay for as much and whatever you want if you have the money, but you can still also use the public system. So really this is a lot like our system, the people who can, pay for better. The difference is that they don't have millions of uninsured people going without any access to health care at all.

Although the big public hospital in Buenos Aires looks like an abandoned, haunted insane asylum from the outside, I have been assured by a few friends who are medical students that you can get the best care there. It seems the quality of the public clinics is more due to whomever is managing them and the state funds than any lack of care. In fact, one friend told me that if my sinus problem persists I should come in for an x-ray. It seems that you may have to wait a few hours to get into the doctor but when your doctor doesn't have to worry about insurance coverage they can spend the time and money needed to thorougly examine you, up to giving you an x-ray for your sinuses. Honestly, even after I waited four months to get an appointment at my doctor's office in the States with insurance, I still had to sit in the waiting room on average an hour, but the difference is I only got fifteen or less rushed minutes with my doctor... and an x-ray, are you kidding?

The only thing I have heard so far that I don't agree with, but maybe I am just a prude, is that Argentina even covers cosmetic surgery with a six month wait. It doesn't have to be for a medical reason, the State will pay for your botox.

All this is making us realize more and more that the travel insurance plan we bought before leaving the country was probably a waste. Most countries we are going to have socialized medicine, or at least if we had to pay out of pocket we wouldn't be paying the kind of costs we would in the States (like for my antibiotics). And if we ever did need to use that emergency evacuation piece of our plan, we would be screwed because we would be back at home, in the hospital with no coverage at all.

A long time ago I wrote a blog entry about the economy in Argentina as I saw it. Well, being in a gigantic city like Buenos Aires, we can see the harsh reality of an economic crisis even more. On one hand we see lots of people going out, there is a huge cafe culture and they are alway full. Lots of people eating out and walking downtown and dressing well. On the other hand we see tons of people, many of them right out our front door, collecting paper, cardboard and bottles to turn in for money. Every night in the little plaza across the street from our building, up to 15 people gather to sift through the garabage and carefully save every piece of paper. We see lots of people squating in abandoned building and families living in rundown hotel rooms. We see a lot of children working alone all day on the subway line and asking for food at night.

In the middle class there is a lot of tension. A lot of disappointment and bitterness about the IMF. Many students here also work full time, so as our friend Cristian pointed out, he will have been working for ten years full time in a career he doesn't like so he can get his degree and work in something he does. If you have a job you make sure you don't lose it and you worry about losing it all the time. Someone told me one story about a store that was hiring girls to work for a "trial day" without pay, so they would work twelve hours as hard as they could and then the store would let them go, hire another girl for nothing the next day and so on and so on.

Among the lower class and the unemployed we see or read about protesting every day. These protest groups are called "Piqueteros", an umbrella name for many different groups and politics representing the poor who protest in the streets by the hundreds, sometimes thousands. They blocade bridges and roads. They carry sticks and pipes for protection because some of them have been murdered during police agression. They get a ton of press and are one of the president's biggest challenges.

We are trying to learn more about the Piqueteros, but most working people we meet don't have any real information to give us beyond showing their disapproval. We have been reading lots of articles and are going to see a documentary next weekend on two Piqueteros who were killed by the police during a bridge blocade. Last night we met a guy who works in a day center and kitchen for homeless kids, so we are hoping to visit sometime this month.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Today Argentinians are celebrating Friends' Day. I know it sounds like a Halmark holiday, and maybe it is, but folks here figure that if mothers, fathers, and siblings get their day, why not friends. To celebrate, our friends Cecilia and Christian have invited us out to a resteraunt for our first taste of Korean food since leaving our little casita not far from Oaklands' Koreatown. The resteraunt comes highly recomended by one of Cecilias' Korean-born friends, who is also joining us, so we have high hopes.

We've shared many meals (and many bottles of wine) with Cecilia and Christian and by inviting us into their fold they have both made our time here in Buenos Aires immeasurably better. Also on the friends front, Raegan and I have been spending a lot of time (mosly late into the night) with Maria Fernandez (or Mafi), a film student from Bogota. She, too, has added a lot to our Buenos Aires experience. Thanks to her we went to our first house party since leaving the US. The night was epic.... we met lots of hip and artsy Argentinians, got invited to what was to be our second party since leaving the US, and after all that fun we left at about 4am to hit the clubs. No, that is not unusual. To put things into perspective: when we were invited to the second party we were instructed to arrive at 2:30 or 3, but we chose to arrive fashionably late at 3:30. I love this town.

What else have we been up to? Last week we had a visitor, Kam from London (who we met in Bolivia), and he was more than impressed with the late nights and Buenos Aires in general.... oh, and us too I should hope. With him we explored many of the touristy spots we hadn't yet visited. We walked around the number one tourist destination in Buenos Aires, the cemetary in Recoletta. Recoletta is one of the wealthiest and most fashionable locales in the city, and the cemetary is a city within. The cemetary holds the tombs of the richest and most famous Argentinians. Each tomb is grand and ornate and many are addorned with statues leading many to call the cemetary "a city of angels." We payed our respects at Evita Perons' tomb, but not that of her husband, the former president, who wasn't deemed worthy (by whomevever decides who gets to RIP in the exclusive cemetary).

We also further explored the neighborhood of Palermo. Specifically, we walked the tree-lined streets of (the sub-neighborhoods of) Palermo Soho and Palermo Viejo, as we had already visited Palermo Hollywood. Kam was on a mission to come home to London with something fashionable and he had little trouble finding something suitable in Soho. Each block of this neighborhood (and there are many blocks) is full of interior design outlets, independant fashion houses, chic bars, and resteraunts. In a week when Kam returns, he´ll surely dazzle his friends with his green, furry coat that can only be described as avant-garde.

We saw Farenheit 9/11 on opening day, and I was interviewed by the local news upon my exit. I think I was cut out though because I didn't understand the reporters follow-up. Just when I was starting to feel good about my spanish, too. Oh well.

When Kam took off for Rio for the last week of his trip and Raegan began her winter vacation from work, we took the opportunity to take a "vacation" in Uruguay. As many of you (shockingly) do not know, Uruguay is a small country wedged between Argentina and Brazil and they have the coolest South American curency (so far). We took a 3 hour ferry across the Mar de la Plata (an enourmous inlet) from Buenos Aires to Colonia. Colonia was once a portugese smuggling port and the town is beautifully preserved. Besides being taken by its beauty, we were really shocked by how small it was and how nice everyone was. I suppose we've gotten used to the big city. Although the porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) are the nicest residents of any big city we've encountered, there is no doubt some hustle and bustle to the lifestyle here. There are, after all, more porteños than New Yorkers. (Uruguayans, too for that matter).

Perhaps due to our "vacation" mentality, we busted the budget a little and rented a car for three days and we took full advantage of the unlimited milage (or km-age). This decision allowed us to see a lot more of Urugay than we would have by bus, and also to learn about the (very different) relationship Uruguayans have with their roadways. For a mostly rural country the roads in Uruguay are very well kept, marked and signed. But I'm not exactly sure why they bothered putting down lines seperating the lanes -- they don't seem to matter much to the average driver. The same applies to speed limits. Some drivers choose to mosey along at half the posted limit while others blast by at twice the limit. In the country-side the highways are utilized by horse-drawn carts, scooters, and farmers taking a stroll after a long days work and in the cities the wide medians are used as soccer fields by kids after a long day at school. They're more than roads, they're meeting places as well.

From Colonia we visited the small towns that make up Colonia Suiza, an area settled by people from the German, Swiss, and Austrian alps. We stopped in a small shop and sampled cheeses cut from huge rounds. We bought a half-pound hunk or our favorite for a little less than a buck. From there to Motevideo, the capital, where we visited the famous market. The market was bustling. We did as the locals did and had some grilled meat (at one of the dozens of stands) and had a medio-medio-- half still white wine, half sparkling -- and then a whisky. From this experience we realized that Uruguayans like their drink much more than porteños. Porteños sip their drink so that they can last until dawn. The Uruguyans too make it 'til dawn, but a little differently. We did neither. We were too busy seeking our next supply of Kleenex for Raegan.

The next day we cruized the coast of the Mar de la Plata, stoping to eat our cheese with some salame on the beach, to the international resort of Punta del Este. It´s a very nice city in a beautiful setting, but couldn't have been more dead as this is the lowest of the low season. After a little cruizing and collecting seashells on the beaches in the area, we headed back. We stopped on the way for a great seafood lunch on the waters edge. Although they have the same access to the Atlantic as the Uruguayans, the Argentinians do not take advantage. When we tell an Argentinian of our travels in Chile and their cuisine, they almost always remark that the Chileans eat "mucho pescado", or lots of seafood. They just don't like it. As wonderful as the food is here, porteños do not stray too far from red meat and ravioli. This fact made our meal all the better.

Despite the differences, our time in Uruguay did not help us fall out of love with Buenos Aires. Far from it. We are really excited to have more time in this great city. (But I have to admitt that seeing the beach helped us imagine how nice a warm Brazilian beach will be in a few months).

Today marks our 6 month aniversary of being on the road. Raise a toast to us.

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Friday, July 02, 2004

Well I have to admit that I am not gonna blaze this page full of exciting new news. Raegan and I have been in Buenos Aires for a while now and our crazy traveling life is transforming into a crazy domestic one. Rest assured, we have not fallen out of love with this city -- far from it. But our pace has surely slowed since we've arrived (save a few long nights). My main reason for writing is to alert you to the new photos on our page.

What to add? Some impressions:
-- The Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) love their dogs. Often, in nicer neighborhoods you can see professional dog walkers with 5,10,15 dogs. In our neighborhood little old ladies walk their little yappy dogs alone. The result is the same: the sidewalks are like minefields. I've more than once heard beautiful, mild-manered porteños yell (in spanish) "crap of the devil." Luckily, I (but not Raegan) have been spared so far. I'm knocking, I'm knocking!
-- In the frozen section of your market you can by a product called a "barf burger"
-- Another thing that wouldn't fly in the states is the fashionable mens' store "Flamers"
-- Raegan ate beef intestine (and knew what she was doing).

Well it's about 8 o'clock and time to start thinking about dinner and our nite on the town. It's a new day in South America.

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