Supercolas superlocas


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South America » Argentina
November 28th 2011
Published: December 4th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Far be it from me to make fun of the idiosyncrasies of another country's inhabitants - Heaven knows the British have enough of them. Having said that, eight weeks in Argentina have given us more than a few opportunities to witness some of the more bizarre aspects of life in this fascinatingly diverse place.

Just give me a minute to wedge my tongue firmly in my cheek before I carry on.

NO HAY MONEDAS

Ten years ago, Argentina was staring into an economic abyss perhaps not altogether dissimilar in some respects to the one some of our European neighbours face today. The nation was officially bankrupt, its currency in a mess, and ordinary Argentines woke up one day to find their bank accounts frozen. The nation may have clawed its way out of the quagmire since, but getting your hands on money can still - in a rather different way from the dark days of 2001 - pose considerable problems.

A few days - nay, a few hours - in Buenos Aires is enough to impress upon any visitor the importance of carefully, scrupulously, pathologically hoarding one's loose change. Imagine for a moment life in the UK without coins - picture handing over a fiver for a £1 newspaper. "Hmmm", says the newsagent, "I'm afraid I can't sell you the paper - I haven't got any change". Not something you'd expect every day. Well this is the situation every Argentine - porteños perhaps more than others, but every Argentina nonetheless - has to put up with every single day. Argentina has no coins. Not a problem, of course, if everyday transactions didn't require them - after all, we've happily survived in countries like Cambodia and Viet Nam without so much as seeing one in weeks - but here they do. The shortage of monedas is surely one of the biggest headaches encountered by any visitor here.

The reasons for the bizarre absence of monedas, despite the central bank's assurances that it mints plenty of them, are as mysterious as they are manifold, although theories abound. As I have found out on many an occasion, Argentine shopkeepers find the issue especially irritating - the issue of la escasez de monedas is a recurring topic of discussion. In Salta only a few weeks ago, one particularly irritated kiosk owner - to whom I had just handed over a 2 peso note (the smallest in circulation) for a one peso purchase - claimed that coins are smuggled over the border into Bolivia in their thousands to be turned into car parts and, oddly, washers. A standard brass washer, he explained, is pretty much the same size and thickness as a 10-centavo coin - said standard brass washer also costs more than 10-centavos. True? Who knows. Once we get to Bolivia I'll have to remember to check under basins to see if there's any truth to this particular theory.

More likely culprits than enterprising Bolivians are Argentina's city bus companies, particularly those in Buenos Aires. Countless porteños rely exclusively on buses - the metro system or subte not going to all that many useful places - in their day to day lives, and these buses accept only coins. That's hundreds of thousands - if note more - of pesos being fed into tickets machines every day. This wouldn't be a problem, of course, if the nice bus companies went to the bank every week or so to deposit their coins. But they don't - instead they sell them, for 10% or so more than their face value, to black-marketeers who mark them up again before selling them to desperate shopkeepers. "Need a one pound coin, mate? I'll only cost you £1.20". You couldn't make it up.

Such is the scale of this ridiculous problem that small shopkeepers in Buenos Aires are often said to refuse a sale if they have to surrender so much as a moneda in change, thwarting customers' clever attempts to extract even a measly 25-centavo coin from them. Many simply hand out change in sweets instead. One ploy, which we used ourselves on several occasions, involves purchasing metro tickets, priced at $1.10 each ($ being a peso - most Argentines agree their currency is useless but they still like to use the $ symbol anyway). Since we always bought our tickets in twos, a little brain work is required. Pay with a $10 note, and you'll get you $7.80 change as a $5 note, a $2 note and a pathetic 80 centavos in coins. Pay with a $5 note and you'll still only get a laughable 80 centavos in change. Hand over $4 as two $2 notes however, and you get a whopping $1.80 in coins. Yes, that's all of 27 pence in coins
Parallel Universe?Parallel Universe?Parallel Universe?

Nice try, Argentina...
to rejoice over. So desperate did we get in Buenos Aires (without monedas, of course, you are paralysed as you cannot take the bus anywhere, and nobody will just change a note into coins from the goodness of their heart) that we considered buying metro tickets we had no intention of using, just to get our hands on the precious coins. After several weeks of scrupulous saving we actually manage to accumulate over $20 worth of coins - that's over three pounds!!! - a fact we kept very quiet, for fear of being robbed of them. Even the banks don't help, forcing customers to wait in line for hours (in what customers might term a supercola, a super-queue) to change all of $20 (three pounds! I tell you...) into coins, something they apparently frequently refuse to do despite a legal obligation to do so. Shops all over the country, from Iguazú in the north to Patagonia in the south, display signs in their doors, on their tills, everywhere, exclaiming with a most upsetting pre-emptive aggression "NO HAY MONEDAS", as if to say "we don't have any, so don't even bother, buddy". It's nothing less than superloco. The money madness isn't limited to coins, either. A shortage of small denomination notes means that a hundred-peso note sometimes sends even large businesses (like supermarkets) into a panic. I've become used to the desperate plea of "No tenés nada más chico?" (a nice example of typically Argentine Spanish, on which more in a later serious of cultural observations) in shops, and have become as merciless as the Argentines, sadly shaking my head even when my wallet is bursting at the seams with two and five-peso notes, which I need to hold on to for those times when they are really needed. Oh, and paying with a credit card here is nigh on impossible - even large YPF petrol stations, the main national network, usually only accept payment in cash. Seriously, Argentina - if you really do fancy yourself as a first-world big-hitter, act like it!

HAY NAFTA?

The no hay problem extends far beyond such trifles as money. It can, on occasion, come as a surprise to go into a shop and find that it does actually sell what it claims to sell. For instance, we have driven into petrol stations only to find a large no hay nafta (nafta meaning petrol, as I've mentioned in an earlier entry) sign gaily festooning the pump. I have walked past Telefonica telephone kiosks with an unashamedly non-ironic no hay teléfonos sign plastered in the front. Bus ticket offices proudly declaring no hay boletos. You get the idea. It's perplexing and frankly rather annoying, as one does feel a bit silly driving into a petrol station forecourt tentatively asking the attendant if they've got any petrol.

INDUSTRIA ARGENTINA

Perhaps as a result of its economic woes, Argentina doesn't like to import things. At all. "Industria Argentina" is the proud mantra to be found printed on pretty much everything, from a carton of milk to a cheap saucepan to a toilet cistern. In an attempt to get its citizens to buy Argentine, the government simply makes imported goods expensive, ridiculously expensive. Seeing the exorbitant price tags on fancy Japanese flat-screen televisions really makes you realise how we have become used to cheap consumer goods in the UK...The problem is, Industria Argentina isn't exactly a guarantee of quality. In fact, it's quickly become a code between us for something substandard or a bit shabby! Posters to be seen around Argentine cities proclaim "Every imported product you buy is an Argentine job lost" - I can't quite picture that going down so well back at home.



PESKY NEIGHBOURS

I don't claim a deep knowledge of Argentina's diplomatic relations but it doesn't really seem to get on with any of its five neighbours - in a word, it's a bit of a tetchy kind of place. Brazil, with its exploding economy (whereas Argentina's seems to have spent much of the past few decades imploding) and fancy status as an "emerging power" can only be regarded with sullen jealousy. Bolivia and Paraguay, poor and rural, don't really count for very much as far as Argentina is concerned. As for Chile, well, Chile is nothing but trouble. Hogging all that lovely precious Pacific coastline and the valuable trade which goes with it, Chile is a right nuisance. The two countries have long been at loggerheads over the exact location of their border, and even today border crossings seem oddly militarised. Worst of all, Chile (or a volcanic fissure within its borders, but it's clearly still Chile's fault) has been seriously messing things up for Argentina for the past six months, spewing a seemingly never-ending cloud of volcanic ash across the border to smother some of Argentina's most popular attractions, the mountains and lakes surrounding the town of Bariloche (which happen to be on our itinerary), causing no end of misery to the farming and tourism industries - not to mention the disruption to air traffic, which was seriously affected as far away as Australia - in Argentina, but comparatively little in Chile itself. Typical.

The last of the five neighbours is little, unassuming Uruguay, land of crazed mate drinkers (a bit rich coming from Argentina, but it's true that Uruguayans drink ridiculous amounts of the stuff) and pretty much nothing but cows and a couple of flashy beach resorts where Buenos Aires citydwellers like to spend their summers and their pesos. Even Uruguay, though, has caused Argentina a fair bit of trouble recently. The nub of the problem are pulp mills located on the Uruguay River, which forms the border between the two countries, near the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos (yes, Fray Bentos - there used to be a big meat-processing plant there, the output of which must apparently have found its way into cheap tinned supermarket pies across the Atlantic). Argentina claims the mills are polluting the river, Uruguay maintains they don't. Argentina insists they do, Uruguay...you get the idea. So bad-tempered has this discussion become that a crucial border crossing bridging the river has, incredibly, been blockaded since 2006 by angry locals. The story hit the headlines again shortly after our arrival when Argentine newspapers incredulously reported that the Uruguayan government had at one point seriously prepared for armed conflict with its larger neighbour over the dispute. A rather amusing little cartoon we spotted in a national daily nicely illustrates Argentines' rather condescending view of Uruguayans. It's jokingly entitled "Uruguayan suicide bombers armed with explosive thermos flasks?" - a reference to the fact that seemingly every Uruguayan, something we can attest to, carries with him or her a thermos of hot water to make mate on the go. It suggests that Talibanes Yoruguas - Uruguayan Taliban, yoruguas being a supposedly friendly way of referring to uruguayos - were being prepared in their thousands to strike Argentine targets worldwide. Uruguayan warplanes were allegedly preparing, the "unconfirmed source" says, to bomb Punta del Este in retaliation for the blockade of the bridge. The joke being, of course, that Punta del Este isn't in Argentina at all, but in Uruguay - and populated in summer by tens of thousands of holiday-making Argentines. River-polluting uruguayos, ash-spewing chilenos, limelight-hogging brasileños, coin-stealing bolivianos - Argentines might ask themselves what they did to deserve such horrid neighbours. Still, I can think of worse...we've got France!

It wouldn't be possible to discuss Argentina's relationships with its neighbours without at least a passing reference to the dreaded question of the Islas Malvinas, the Falkland Islands. This is something most Argentines still take very seriously indeed. Almost every town, even to the smallest towns in the far north of the country, has a Calle Islas Malvinas and there are Malvinas Argentinas (Falklands for Argentina) hotels, museums and monuments everywhere. Maps of Argentina, on bus company websites or government logos for instance, pointedly included the small speck of the Falklands off the Patagonian coast. And most blatantly of all, maps of Argentina - including those issued by government bodies like the National Parks Office - labels the islands "Islas Malvinas (Arg.)". It's not for me to comment on, even less trivialise, the reasons or justifications for a conflict that proved deadly serious for both sides, but the shamelessness of it was on some level quite amusing - obviously internationl law doesn't have much clout in these matters. Why not relabel the map "Gran Bretaña (Arg.)"? The disagreement isn't going away any time soon, either. Recent reports that Prince William was going to be posted on the islands (combined with the knowledge that prospective drilling for oil seems to be going on) have had the papers hopping up and down in frustration and indignation. Fortunately for us though, despite the hundreds of Argentines we have met since our arrival, we haven't been put on the spot about the Malvinas. Phew.

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