Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A gripe on the populous

In some ways, it would be fair to call could call Argentina a dirty place. This applies to the air pollution, the fact that nobody curbs their dogs, and most certainly the politics. After a busy and fun week in Chicago (post coming when I get around to it), we returned to Buenos Aires to find that the entire country was gripped with a fever of concern over the Influenza H1N1 (aka swine flu or gripe porcina). 80% of local news coverage is devoted to it, and suddenly major precautions are being taken. This was an abrupt change. When we left, there were a few mentions of the issue, but nobody was taking it very seriously.

I've been here long enough to say that Argentina is my home. As Josh eloquently put it, I'm living in Argentina, not just having a brief jaunt around the world. And as you can hopefully tell from the rest of this blog, I really love it here. But of course there are things I wish were different. The interesting thing is, nearly everything that's wrong with this country is evinced by this situation with swine flu.

Some of you may recall that over my first five months in town, I got sick six times. It was a steady practice of bedrest with a whole lot of nose blowing mixed in. I attributed it mainly to the probable slew of germs new to my immune system mixed with my attempts at living the Argentine lifestyle of staying out later than the moon and stars every weekend. While these were likely the main causes, other factors were likely culprits as well. The level of preventative hygiene, particularly surrounding food and drinks is completely different here. And by different, I mean lower. People regularly drink from the same glasses, or when sharing mate, the same straw. Same goes for food. For instance, I recently saw employees at Blockbuster sharing a half-kilo of ice cream and only using one spoon between the three of them. It's part of the charm. There's just no premium on cleanliness here. I can't count the number of times a waiter has put my fork on the table by holding the tines directly in their fingers. I'm not exactly Howie Mandel, but I have been accused of being a bit of a germ freak before. While these saliva-sharing habits gave me the willies a bit at first, I readily embraced the new culture and hoped for the best. And yes, I was sick six times early on, but I've been healthy since Christmas and haven't changed my habits.

So I was extremely curious about all the new behavior that greeted my return from Chicago. Before we were allowed to deplane, everyone had to don surgical masks and hand a form saying we had no symptoms to two young ladies wearing white labcoats. Then we were allowed to remove the masks.
Deemed clean enough.

While this was a rather cursory check that wouldn't stop anyone who wouldn't readily volunteer their condition anyway, when I got to the office later that day, I was surprised to see some major changes. Alcochol-based hand disenfectant had been dstributed to every room in the building. Signs were posted in the building instrucing people on how to wash their hands, and why it is so bloody important. Not only that, people were actually doing it a lot more than before. Some refused to shake hands or even greet in the normal kissing fashion. When someone on the streets would sneeze or cough, others would jump away as if they were spilling sulfuric acid before casting dirty looks at the person who was obviously trying to maliciously murder the whole country.
Employees anywhere and those without jobs should really be doing this kind of thing anyway.

But why such a sudden change? The conventional wisdom is that with an impending election, the government hid the real figures from the public regarding how many cases of swine flu had occurred. The original indications were that there had only been a handful of cases, but after the election they released the "real" numbers and suddenly there were 60 reported deaths. This conventional wisdom falls in line with others such as the government-published rate of inflation versus the figures presented by independent organizations. While inflation is one thing, this is a whole different level. How can the government in a country with a large population of people who live at very low income levels be so craven on such an important and dangerous issue? In the elections, the reigning party got beat pretty badly, so it either didn't work or people have become fed up with them.

But all of this leads to the more important question of whether they are still lying about the numbers now. Rumors abound, and there are wide opinions on every side of the issue. Some say "it's all a show, this is no big deal." But others are legitimately worried because they have connections to some who have gotten sick or died. Honestly, we really don't know what to believe. My opinion is that things are overstated, and some other news event will soon knock the swine flu off the front pages. But I know some very intelligent and educated folks who are taking every precaution and very nervous about the situation. I always washed my hands before eating and after riding on the colectivo, so other than making sure I get a morning orange juice more frequently I haven't changed my behavior or outlook very much. This too shall pass.

The sad thing about all of this is the reaction of the citizens. They should be outraged. Don't get me wrong, it's not like George Bush didn't pull this kind of crap all the time with the terrorist threat level, but even he and Cheney didn't intentionally go this far. The government put everyone living here in serious jeapoardy to score some political points. But when I ask about it, most of my friends and coworkers smile, shrug, and say "It's Argentina." They are resigned to put up with this kind of thing because they just assume that whoever would step in to replace the current leaders would do an equally terrible job. Nobody thinks the politics will improve no matter who's in charge. OK, so maybe there's no hope for the political future of Argentina (at least, nobody ever seems to have any), but will the hand-washing be a permanent change? And maybe restaurants can clean the silverware every now and again? After all, we pay just to sit down. This extranjero would really appreciate at least some good to come of this, and the overall improvement in health of a nation would be ideal. I'm not optimistic, but just in case I'm keeping my fingers crossed (and clean).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cariló's Way

Because I am so far behind on my postings in this space, this one is going to consist largely of photos and my usual silly captions. Not long after our trip to Villa General Belgrano, Belu and I took another writing sabbatical weekend to another peaceful and picturesque locale here in Argentina. This time, it was Cariló, an oceanfront community that has no paved roads and a lot of wealthy tourists. For this weekend, I suppose that included us. We drank mate, ate a ton, played on the beach (but not in the frigid water), failed to find a way to tune in to the Bulls' last playoff game, and I even got some writing done. I highly recommend Cariló, but only if you're staying in a nice, secluded place and don't hang out all day downtown to fight the crowds of self-important folks. Anyway, that's how we played it. The photograpic evidence:
Downtown Cariló in a more peaceful moment.

Breakfast delivered to the house every morning. Gooooood stuff.

Atop these tall trees, there were many, many birds nests with many, many little birdies. You could tell when the parents were away gathering food because the birdies were going berserk, tweeting their brains out. Not so different from a typical Argentine child at any moment during its existence.

I don't know what these birds were, but they were poking around in the ground for food. Maybe they needed to fill up before flying back to the noisy nests.

This snail is not here anymore, but he left us his old clothes as a gift.

Who knew mushrooms could grow in sand? By the way, this thing was huuuuuge.

With your pizza, you can get a Kokicola or Eleven-Up (I'm kidding - probably).

Belu at the front door to our place for the weekend. Muy lindo!

Abuela Goya makes some really good helado. Belu tries to magically get more from her.

...while I'm busy trying to make nice..

We, uhhh, got fondue twice. Once with meat/oil, and once with cheese. This is the cheese version. Belu is in charge of the long fork at the moment and will heretofore have an additional nickname --> The Fondue Master. (McRae, we ate this in your honor both times.)

I guarantee you that this dessert is bigger than it looks in this picture. By the way, we Uncle Frank'd it. For those who don't know (ok, nearly all of you), that means we didn't leave a single morsel, even though we knew of the negative health consequences.

They sell a LOT of sweets in this town. This is a chocolate store with loads of good stuff including rows and rows of chocolate huevos.

I'm smiling because I thankfully can't feel my feet anymore. The first 30 seconds were frighteningly painful.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How do you solve a problem like María?

Recently overshadowed by Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jackson, you may have heard that my new home country found itself in the American news recently, through no fault of its own. Well, no fault other than being home to oodles of beautiful women. (Upon first arriving, an American friend of mine was famous for saying "I fall in love every day" about his various walks about town.)

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford found himself madly in love with an Argentine gal. Hey, it happens. He was so enamored that he bolted from his office to hang out down here for five days without telling a soul where he was going. But you already know all of this. You also know that he called her his soulmate, but he was "trying to love his wife again." Yeah, that won't be used in the eventual divorce proceedings. You also probably know that in the sordid e-mails he sent to his South American flame, he quoted the bible. Yes, the holy one. And of course he was one of the holier than thou dudes who condemned Bill Clinton when he had his affair. And he's against gays getting married because allowing such a thing would trample the "sanctity" of the union. Blah blah hypocrisy blah.
Sanford covering an old Swaggart classic

But there are perhaps several things you don't know about this event because of course the MSM in the US hasn't bothered to really investigate anything. For instance, they continue to call Sanford's soul mate "Maria." Hardly anyone here goes by Maria. Half the women in the country are named María Middlename Lastname and every single one of them goes by their middle name. I have four Marias on my team at work, and none of them are called Maria. The New York Times keeps referring to her "Maria", but the woman was a freaking news reporter here and most of the photos we've seen show her using the middle name of Belén. (But hey, they won't call torture "torture" either, so why should we be surprised?) I realize this is a simple point and not a big deal, but it's also painfully obvious that they made a mistake. Unless Governor Sanford also called her "Maria" in which case he'd better take some time to get to know his soulmate a little better before jumping into a commitment that's going to cost him his professional career.
With the name printed plainly for all to see

More importantly, the story in the US surrounded only his tearful press conference, but who really bothered to find out what drew him to Argentina? I mean, that's a really long trip solely for a weekend of passion. This woman was probably a revelation to him, but why? Just because of her accent and lean physique? Was it because she was unlike any "Latina" he had met before? In all news reports, the word Argentina was emphasized for its weirdness. It is a weird place to go. In fact, considering the man was a family values republican it's the only thing that makes this story unique. (It's not like he was, say, soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom.) But what exactly made this Argentine woman so special to Governor Sanford? He risked his entire political future just to be with her. And how did he convince himself that this was OK? Did she tell him that all Argentine men cheat on their wives and girlfriends to persuade him that when in Rome he should do as the Romans do? That's what I'd like to know. We'll probably have to wait for the eventual tell-all book.

I've written several times here about Belu in this space, the Argentine woman whom I fell for. She's another Maria - another María Belén in fact. Turns out that Sanford's Belén lives just two blocks away from mine. Also like Belu, she speaks English and Portuguese and is studying Chinese. She's a former news broadcaster and a divorcee. Based on that limited information, she does sound interesting, doesn't she? Furthering the odd coincidences, the couple's favorite restaurant, Guido's Bar, is also the place where Belu and I had our first date, our favorite restaurant, and a place we visit twice a month. The owner, a friend of Belu's, was on the local news talking about how the Governor was in there eating all the time. There's a certain possibility that we sat at the next table during one of Sanford's jaunts. I owe Guido's a proper posting in its own right, but let's just say that the pasta they serve is as good a reason to hop on a plane for 10 hours as any.

I heard a group of English speakers in my neighborhood just a few days before Sanford's big cry. It stood out because you don't see tourists in this area too often, especially older ones. Perhaps that was the Governor on his way to a parilla or maybe walking back from a night at Guido's. Whoever they were, they weren't crying. They seemed awfully happy to be hanging out in Palermo Chico. I feel the same way all the time, especially when I'm with my "Maria". Plus, I never have to feel guilty about it. My family knows where I am.

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