Monday, 10 October 2016

Argentine peso vs sterling: who’s laughing now?

In less than a year sterling has become one of the worst performing currencies against the dollar, falling behind even the Argentine peso. I’m no economist by any means, but as a Brit living in Argentina, it’s fascinating to see the disturbing parallels between two distinctly different economies – even if it’s just purely perception.

When we went back to England in July, immediately after Brexit, there was much talk about the state of the economy but nothing much had changed. Sterling had of course fallen against the dollar, but it was still worth something. Moreover, pound notes looked like quality – large, emblematic of a seemingly prosperous country and a currency to be handled with pride.
On the contrary, the Argentine peso looks and feels it worth – dare I say it, like Monopoly money. Similar to the pages of an antiquated book, the notes pretty much crumble as soon as you touch them (although the former is significantly valuable while the latter is, well, monopoly fare). Secondly, you’re often lucky if you can actually get the notes, even though Argentina is still predominantly a cash economy. On countless occasions, we’ve tried to withdraw money from the ATMs only to find out they have run out of cash.

40% inflation
That’s just from the outside. In Argentina, inflation is expected to be about 40-42% this year. Although monthly inflation has calmed down in the second half, overall prices for everything – from consumer goods to utility bills – have increased. Argentine media continues to portray how expensive fruit, veg and meat are becoming (yawn). I tried to keep track of prices in the supermarkets, but I’ve now run out of drawer space for all my receipts.

When we arrived in Buenos Aires more than 18 months ago, my husband and I joked that we’d just spend all our pesos during our time here. There wouldn’t be much point bringing any of the currency home, expect maybe to be used as roll-ups, but then we don’t smoke. Although we had an inkling before we came out, we soon realised that anything we would want to buy - like clothes, or electronics – are at least 50% more than in the UK, and of inferior quality. 

So, even though we’re earning far less than we were in the UK – down from two decent salaries to one and a sixteenth - we're somehow saving more than ever before. Partly this is because there is nothing we want to buy. Another reason is that we've been lucky enough to have visitors come out last year. That was at a time when the previous government had maintained currency controls on the peso, so we able to give our friends and families pesos in exchange for dollars or sterling.

However, as sterling now seems to heading towards a steady decline our pesos appear to be far more valuable - having gone from 20 pesos to the pound before Brexit to about 18 pesos now. Almost a year ago, no one wanted Argentine pesos, except my uncle who’s into collecting different currencies (I still haven’t found a non-tatty note for him). Now, with retailers warning the UK government of Brexit consumer price rises, maybe I need to take handle my pesos with better care, she says smugly.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Aerolineas Argentina: Stranded by surprise strike action

Old reputations die hard

Argentina’s national state-run airline has always been a bit of a joke. Aerolíneas has more workers than passengers, receives an enormous injection of state money to keep it afloat and is plagued by strike action. Just today, the company cancelled six flights affecting 1,600 passengers as pilots continue to strike over pay.

My experience happened last week. I thought we'd done pretty well having having come away from our travels with Aerolíneas pretty unscathed. We tried to book as many of our internal flights with LAN, now LATAM, which seems to be the only other competitor to Aerolíneas in Argentina. However, we finally succumbed to Aerolíneas when my husband and I went to Bariloche last December. We even got a free alfajor (although I disagree about the HuffPost's verdict on the merits of this biscuit). 

Therefore, I was nonplussed when we decided to fly with Aerolíneas last week to Cordoba. The flights were cheap and were almost the same cost as a nine-hour bus journey from Buenos Aires to Cordoba. Lesson number one: there’s always a price to pay for seemingly cheap flights.

When we arrived at Cordoba airport, we had barely gotten off the flight to find the luggage had pretty much been put out and collected. Event number one: our large rucksack had failed to make it on the flight with us. We were on an internal 1hr15 minute-flight with no stopovers… come’on. The guy at the reclaims desk was very friendly and said the rucksack would be with us the next morning… bear in mind we were talking about a Sunday in Argentina.

I take it back, it arrived all the way from Cordoba airport to the B&B where we were staying at in Alta Gracia. Minus my face cream though. It was only Boots Time Delay and it had been on offer, but these things are hard to come by in Argentina.

The rest of the trip was fine and lovely, with no further flights involved until we went back to BA. Event number two: we were due to fly back on the Friday around lunchtime. Luckily we turned on the TV before breakfast and heard that several domestic and international flights by Aerolíneas and sister company Austral had been cancelled. Heck :(

My husband had received an email at 10pm the night before about the cancellation. Well, thanks. Lesson number two: check, check and check your emails, especially if you’re flying with Aerolíneas the next day. Helpfully, the email contained no information except a number to call – to no avail. I used up all my credit trying to get through to customer services.

The scene at the airport was pretty chaotic. There was no information on any of the boards, simply a person at the information desk who kindly told us that our flight had been cancelled. Great. 

I wouldn’t have minded so much if there had been a process as to how to get on the next flight rather than just saying the flight had been cancelled. No, instead there were various queues forming all over the place; no one knew where to go; who to speak to – it was pretty much a free for all.

I didn’t really want to have to pull the pregnancy card, but I also wanted to get back home. Here we were thinking we’d have to wait in the airport for a few hours and board a plane later that evening. The earliest flight would be Sunday, the woman at the counter told us. Unbelievable.

Ironically, Aerolíneas’s in-flight magazine had claimed that factors such as punctuality rates had improved. Moreover, Isela Costantini, the airline’s new CEO, expects the company to be profitable within four years’time. Hah, I think the pilots need to fly the planes first.

I know it’s not her fault and she also called the strike “madness”. However, as long as unions take such action on a whim, Aerolíneas will remain one big joke that no one is laughing at.          

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Flags + generals + religion = public holidays in Argentina

The period between September to late December always feels like such a slog in England. The days are shortening, the weather is becoming grimmer and there are no bank holidays to look forward to, not until Christmas at the earliest.

Move to the other side of the world, however - specifically Argentina - and it’s a different story. All you need to do is find a General, make a claim for him to be recognised and before long, you’ve got yourself a bank holiday. We have just enjoyed an extra-long weekend, celebrating a General called Martín Miguel de Güemes on Friday 17 June, followed by Day of the Flag (Día de la Bandera) yesterday, Monday 20 June.
Like most people living here, I was delighted with the additional day off this weekend. However, for many it’s more than just a day off, as the origins and traditions have a deeper cultural or social meaning. 

Just the other day, my husband and I were talking about this with a Canadian friend, who mentioned that Canada Day was coming up shortly. This is a case in point, particularly as we come from a country where we don’t even know why bank holidays are called bank holidays, let alone know the reason why we celebrate them (apart from the religious ones).

Güemes day

About a month ago (unbeknown to me at the time), the press reported that the senate were advancing plans to make 17 June a national holiday. Then, a little over a week ago, the government authorised that 17 June would be a new public holiday this year. 

Well done, Güemes. Several Argentines have never heard of him, but who cares if it means a holiday, right? In a nutshell, Güemes was a military man who hailed from the province of Salta. He helped to fight off the Spanish in the north of the country during the war of independence and also led the so-called Gaucho war. 

The 17 June initiative was largely backed by Kirchnerismo, which said that Güemes should be held in the same regard as other heroes of the independence. Some MPs from other parties, however, have questioned the initiative, asking if any workdays would be left if the country commemorated all its military heroes..?

Day of the Flag

Day of the Flag, on 20 June, commemorates the death of another military figure, Manuel Belgrano, who played a key part in the revolution for independence against Spain. He was a member of the country’s first government and led an expedition to Paraguay, during which he created the Argentine flag, on 27 February 1812.

Congress approved this public holiday in 1938.

New world vs old world?

I’m all in favour of having a day off, if and when deserved, yet what strikes me about the public holidays here is just how much they promote nationalism.

I’m not criticising nationalism in itself, as it can give citizens a sense of unity and identity. I, myself, don’t love everything about Britain, but I’m proud to be British. It also seems to be more of a new world rather an old world phenomenon, as one can argue precisely that the military needed nationalism to create new nations and a unified destiny.

However, that was back in the early 1800s. Does nationalism still serve the same purpose? Of course, people should be able to celebrate a country’s achievements. On the other hand, nationalism has to be balanced. Excessive nationalism, as far as I understand it, never seems to end well.

As my husband said, we certainly would not have a day off to celebrate the actions of General Douglas Haig, the commander of British Forces on the Western Front for most of the First World War. A successful General (in the end) perhaps, but when someone is associated with such loss of life, should public holidays be named after them? Perhaps our view on war and statehood is somewhat different.

Recent events closer to my home - Brexit and the sad and shocking death last week of MP Jo Cox - have shown what happens if nationalism is left untampered. It can not only divide and devastate communities, but also blinker us from the values that we stand for. That is what we should remember, perhaps, whether it be a day off or not.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Big country little car: Day-by-day road trip in Salta

NOA, the northwest of Argentina, is one region that Argentines rave about. The area comprises six states - most notably Salta, Jujuy and Tucuman – where the Wild West sits among Andean peaks and pristine vineyards. 

We went at the beginning of May, when the weather is usually cool, but pleasant enough to sit outside. With so much to explore, but with so little time, we narrowed our trip down to the provinces of Salta and Jujuy. The people, the food and the dramatically changing landscape - the range and richness of its colours and its sheer immensity - will leave you in awe. Hand on heart, I'm enamoured with NOA and already want to explore more of the less-visited provinces.
Driving along Ruta 40
We pre-booked our accommodation, which is particularly advisable in the summer months (winter in the southern hemisphere) as places can get booked up. We also reserved a hire car from Avis (there are several car-hire companies, but decided to go with a well-known one after a slight mishap in Cordoba) and had arranged to pick it from the town of Salta.

Day 1 – Salta la Linda

From Buenos Aires, we flew into Salta city, also known as Salta la Linda (Salta the Fair), because of its impressive historic buildings and a buzzy atmosphere set among breath-taking scenery.

The city of Salta was ok. It’s colourful, vibrant and perfectly pleasant to stroll around for a day or two. It's also a good base for seeing the rest of the province if you don't want to move around too much. Unfortunately, not only did we arrive on a Sunday, but also on International Workers’ Day. Clearly, this meant very little was open, not even the cathedral. Nonetheless, the weather was perfect. It was 18 degrees, the blue skies were spotless and the sun was shimmering brightly. There wasn’t much to do, but we ambled around the main plaza and admired the colonial buildings, particularly the stunning red and yellow-adorned Neoclassical Iglesia San Francisco.
Iglesia San Francisco

Accommodation*: We stayed a night at Carpe Diem, a lovely little B&B with great attention to detail. It has stacks of DVDs that you can take back to your room as each room had a computer; fantastic and varied breakfast with very generous portions.

Day 2 – Salta to Cachi; 155km (~3 hours)

Our road trip begins! Any visions I had of cruising along RN-40 (also known as Ruta 40 or La Querenta), Argentina's longest road, in a stylish convertible mustang were quickly dashed as we collected our ordinary-looking Chevrolet Classic

From Salta we headed towards the cute little village of Cachi in the Valle Calchaquíes, a series of picturesque highland valleys where the sun shines almost all year round. We took RN-68 towards the south of the province, and joined the provincial RP-33 at El Carril. We even picked up a couple of hitchhikers.   

Lush green vegetation soon gave way to arid burnt orange and red earth. We climbed the zig-zaggy mountain road, known as Cuesta del Obispo, which provided stunning views of the Sierra del Obispo, including velvet green valleys, deep ravines and numerous birds of prey. Just before arriving at Cachi we went past mile after mile of cardones, large cactuses, as we zoomed through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones. I have never seen so many, such huge and phallic cactuses up close.

View from Cuesta del Obispo
While Cachi really is no more than a village, it’s a nice spot to watch the world go by. One of the highlights was visiting a cemetery, a kilometre out of town, at dusk as colourful artificial flowers littered over graves and tombstones glistened ethereally in the hazy sunlight.

Eating/drinking: Oliver Café Wine Bar - a great little venue serving good coffee, food (although we didn’t eat here) and excellent selection of regional wines.

Cemetery in Cachi
Accommodation: One night at Hostería Villa Cardón – a cute little guesthouse with very friendly staff offering a good breakfast. It was just a shame there was no proper heating in the room and the water was tepid (it was cold).
Day 3 – Cachi to Cafayate; 157km (4 hours with lots of stopping along the way)

We were back on the legendary RN40. While in some places it was no more than a narrow dirt track, the views alongside the mountainsides were simply spectacular. This was certainly a day for taking your time and appreciating the scenery.
On our way out of Cachi, we caught several glimpses of crimson red chilli drying along the roadside. Red was a dominant theme, with red sandstone cliffs providing the backdrop to jagged, arrowhead-like rock formations, followed by structures that could have belonged to Mount Rushmore. We knew we were soon approaching Cafayate as extensive vineyards came into view.

Although the town of Cafayate is not amazing, the vineyards and wineries were a real treat. I’m by no means a wine connoisseur, but these vineyards, at around 1700m, are some of the highest in the world. Malbec and Cabernet is grown here, but the region tends to specialise in the local grape torrontés, allegedly a grape for all seasons, to produce a delicate, floral white wine.
Llama joins us for lunch at El Esteco
There are many bodegas to choose from, but we were starving so we stopped at the first bodega we came across. As luck would have it, we had arrived at Bodega El Esteco, a luxurious wine hotel and winery. This is what holidays are about: good, reasonably priced food and scrumptious wine served in a well-kept grounds. To top it off, a couple of llamas even decided to join us for lunch (not as part of the meal). My only complaint was that the wine tasting was a bit sparse as you had to pay by the glass just to try the wine.

Accommodation: Casa Árbol - a hostel with private rooms but shared bathrooms; friendly staff and great value. 

In such an immense country, blessed with incredible landscape, I only hope the photos have done it justice. The roadtrip's not over yet though, so please join me for the second part in Jujuy province. Coming soon!

* Please note that this is only the accommodation we stayed in and subject to our opinions.