It is fair to say that I have experienced many highs and lows in Argentina. In many ways it is a very special, unique place but it is also a hugely frustrating country to travel in.
Firstly, there are the queues: petrol queues, bank queues, ticket queues, bakery queues, queues of people queuing to see what other people are queuing for. Standing around waiting to get something done or to go somewhere seems to be an inescapable part of life in every town and city I have so far visited in Argentina. OK, I understand that on certain days government workers get paid and people begin to line up around the block, but why the omnipresent lines for ATM machines? Why, oh why? And kilometre-long queues at petrol stations in a country that has so many resources…
And don’t get me started about breakfast: a month’s worth of sugar in one breakfast sitting. The standard breakfast is a cup of coffee and a very, very sweet croissant called a medialuna, but it is also common place to be given a huge chocolate biscuit coated in icing sugar that must be the equivalent of having 20 spoons of sugar. This is followed by a selection of sickly sweet biscuits and marmalade; so much marmalade that Argentines must be the world’s number one consumers of the stuff. After this trip I don’t care if I never see marmalade again. I might even get marmalade rage if I see the stuff in my local supermarket at home.
But reading this you may conclude that the good people of this country haven’t got much clue with food. On the contrary, Argentina is a definite contender for the home of the world’s finest pizza; there are pizzerias here that have been knocking out the tastiest pizza you have ever tasted for 60 or 70 years. I am sure the Italians would even have a thing or two to learn from the Argentines when it comes to pizza and many of their pasta dishes. Argentina is also the undisputed world champion of quality steaks, has some of the finest red wine you’re ever likely to taste, and does ice cream in more flavours and with more quality than anywhere else I have ever come across. But I am a vegetarian and soon the constant diet of custard creams, muzzzarella pizza (yes, it is spelt that way) and marmalade is going to get the better of me. You see the Argentines do wine, meat, pizza, sweet biscuits and ice cream like nobody else but, if you want to consume anything particularly different from the above you can almost certainly forget it. I tried in vain to find a tin of beans – any kind of beans – in the local supermarket yesterday. A few days ago watching one of the Copa America matches in a ‘cheap’ local restaurant French fries, a chopped up tomato and a few miserly lettuce leaves cost me nearly 8 euros but I also enjoyed a very pleasant bottle of Mendoza Malbec for 4 euros. I just don't get it.
Then there are the mobile phone sims that allow you to sms and ring abroad but don’t allow somebody to directly reply unless they put in a weird selection of additional numbers; long distance buses that are 2-3 times more expensive than their European counterparts but affordable public transport prices that you will only likely find in Asia and some parts of the former Soviet Union.
I must speak highly of the local people. OK, they are calm and well-mannered people who turn into maddened psychos when they step inside a football stadium, but I guess they are not the only nationality like that in the world. I have met some lovely, thoughtful and very well mannered individuals here. Northern Europeans who get frustrated by certain southern European behavioural traits won't find those same annoyances here in this southern European style country at the bottom of the world. Most Argentines I have met seem very genuine and ‘unaffected’ and yet they are one of the most consumer product obsessed nations I have come across in a long time.
Argentina has more resources than most countries could ever dream of in a continent-sized country but is plagued by huge wealth disparities despite a population of just 40 million. In many ways you think that Argentina could be as rich and sorted as Norway today and I guess it was until the great depression of 1929. Since then the ruling elite and the extremely corrupt have creamed off all the wealth. And yet, the people still believe, still want to believe, in the cult of personality of their political leaders despite the cold, hard lessons of the past. Argentina is a country where many of the people are trying their hardest to fight their way back into the middle classes after being wiped out by the economic collapse of 2001. Inflation must be running at 25%. Another crash - collapse - could be just around the corner.But I guess that applies to the world in general at the moment. In this regard, I think there are many lessons and warning signs for visiting observors to draw upon. Argentina feels like Europe but in many economic senses it is a nightmare vision of what Europe is becoming, with its citizens no longer able to trust their banks or politicians and its middle class being eroded at a remarkable pace. Corruption, nepotism, corruption. The banks are stealing our money; our quality of life is being eroded, piece by piece.
I won't go on any longer just now...
Copa America 2011
A blog from the 2011 Copa America and road trip around Argentina.