Something a little more sober than usual today. Today and tomorrow mark the tenth anniversary of the marches and riots that took place all over Argentina in 2001 protesting against the effects of the economic crisis that had overtaken the country throughout the year. Photos from the events leading up to the riots and the events of the those 2 days are being displayed in Plaza de Congreso & Plaza de Mayo for the next week.
Explaining the causes of the crisis would take a much more economically-minded person than me, but it stemmed from the policy of the Menem government to peg the peso artificially to the dollar throughout the 90s. Known as the Uno a Uno, it was successful in its initial aim of controlling the hyperinflation of the late 1980s (when it hit 5,000%), but as the decade came to a close, Argentine exports became uncompetitive and the country entered a 3-year recession.
Throughout 2001 the crisis got worse with mass resignations from the cabinet and President de la Rúa losing all parliamentary support in the October elections. Added to this was the effect of the Corralito which limited bank withdrawals to stem the flood of money from the system, which was largely ineffective due to large institutional exceptions (and warnings being given to large companies) but hit the middle classes hard.
By this point Argentina was effectively in default on a $132bn international debt and on December 1st all bank accounts were frozen which paralysed the country and the protests began in earnest. A series of lootings in Buenos Aires province between the 16th and 19th December led the President to claim Peronist agitators were fuelling the violence and at 9pm on the 19th December 2001 he declared a state of emergency.
People began leaving their houses and a cacerolazo (banging saucepans with a wooden spoon) started as the people of Buenos Aires showed their unhappiness with the situation and converged on the Plaza de Mayo. On the 20th the protests continued as the police began cracking down violently on the protests and by the end of the day 26 people had been killed around the country, including 5 in the Plaza de Mayo. The situation was not helped by the resignation of the President the following day and his escape from the Casa Rosada by helicopter.
It’s a funny little place, Uruguay. It has a population of 3 million people in an area the size of Wales, England and Northern Ireland combined, half of which live in one city. I’m told people often get it confused with Paraguay, although I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of that. In fact I know very little about Uruguay, which is a little strange given that I’ve been there more than 10 times, usually on a Visa Run (a 70 mile daytrip by ferry to Colonia to renew my 90 tourist stamp). Needing to renew my visa again, this time I decided to do things a little more in depth and spent a couple of days in Montevideo and even took a side trip to Punta del Este.
Punta del Este (or simply Punta if you’re in the know) is famous for one thing – attracting hordes of rich and famous Argentinians every summer. From January until April the magazine stands in Buenos Aires are full of glossy covers showing the beautiful people at play across the river in Punta. Sort of like a high-class Benidorm, but with fewer Germans, it didn’t strike me as the sort of place I would like very much.
However, in the spirit of discovery, coupled with the realisation that there was no way I was going to be able to stretch out a 3rd day looking round Montevideo, I hopped on a bus and headed east to the sea.
As the bus rounded the corner at the top of the cliff overlooking the sweep of the bay and Punta del Este appeared in the distance, a row of skyscrapers several miles long, my heart sank. I had visions of crowds with sunburned shoulders walking down the street with plastic mugs of beer stumbling from amusement arcade to bar.
It just goes to show however, that you must always travel with an open mind, because I actually found myself very pleasantly surprised by Punta del Este. Firstly it was clean. As in spotless. Maybe it was simply ready for the long summer season to come but the streets were tidy and empty. Wandering away from the centre past some seriously fancy summer homes, there was not a soul around and the clear skies and sea breezes both helped to create a relaxed sense of well-being.
I can believe that in the middle of February when half of Buenos Aires is crammed onto the beach it becomes a much less attractive place, but I thoroughly enjoyed strolling around the half-empty streets. In a strange way it was like leaving South America for a few hours and visiting a fantasy land where everything is clean and bright and every day is a holiday.
A couple of years ago I had three months in Buenos Aires and I made a list of things that I needed to do in the time I had available to me. Some may still pending (Feria de Mataderos I’m looking at you), but today I managed to cross another off the list as we headed to the Argentinian Polo Open in Palermo.
I’ve never been to a polo match before. Where I come from Polo is played by future Kings and there isn’t much room for non-Royal types like myself. In Argentina however, whilst polo is without doubt a rich man’s sport (the Mercedes booths scattered all over give you a clue), anyone with 40 pesos is welcome to watch the proceedings at the polo grounds in Palermo.
Helped by years of pub quizzes I know the periods of play are called chukkas and that it is played on the largest pitch of any sport, but beyond that nobody in our group really knew what was going on. Picking it up as we went, the chukkas last 7 minutes and there’s 8 of them in a match. Given the size of the pitch it was pretty hard to really follow what was going on unless it happened in front of you, but what we could make out was very fast-moving and exciting.
The game finished with Estancia Grande scoring 5 times in the final chukka to come back from 14-16 down to win 19-17, but as most of the goals were scored at the other end, most of the excitement was lost on us.
Not many cities can rival Buenos Aires for public art in the streets. From huge graffiti murals to some of the most recognisable sculptures in the world, Buenos Aires really does have it all. One of the jewels in the public art crown, missed by many tourists, yet a stone’s throw from Recoleta Cemetery is the Floralis Generica.
Designed by Argentina architect Eduardo Catalano (famous for the Catalano House and the US Embassy in Buenos Aires – possibly the ugliest building in the city), the Floralis Generica was created in 2002 from stainless steel by aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
Catalano conceived it as a kinetic sculpture and the flower opens in the morning and closes at night when the central stamen emit an eerie blue glow. At least it’s supposed to. The mechanism has been broken for the last few months and the flower is forever open – and Lockheed Martin no longer operate in Argentina so there is apparently no way of fixing it.
I’ve met Ande a few times at the quiz and a few weeks ago she contacted me to see if I’d mind answering some questions for her Porteño Corner page. I didn’t mind in the slightest, and here are the answers.
Every so often you come across one of those little quirky things that serve very little practical purpose but are different enough to put a smile on your face and brighten the day up for an hour or two. One of those events too place last Saturday on the Avenida de Mayo in the centre of Buenos Aires, the 8th Annual Waiter’s Race.
The concept is very simple, waiters from all over Argentina race down the Avenida de Mayo, loop round the Plaza de Mayo and back up the Avenida, covering 1,600 metres carrying a tray with 2 bottles and a full glass.
That’s it, as simple as that. Obviously, you need to finish carrying what you started with, so dropping your drinks slows you down which means that the better waiter you are, the better your chances of winning – it’s not all about speed!
It’s one of the most recognisable sculptures in the world, and only 22 casts were made from the original mould. Of those, only one is in South America, sitting in Plaza de Congreso in front of the National Congress Building.
However, in a sad reflection of what happens here if it ain’t fenced off, Rodin’s Thinker recently got a new, temporary, colour.
I saw it on a tour a few weeks ago, snapped the above pic, and within 2 days it was scrubbed clean – impressively fast for this city where graffiti scrawled on the main Cathedral is often left for weeks on end. However, according to this article, in their haste to blast the pink off with water, the city Government may have caused irreversible damage to the sculpture and its original patination. Nice try…
Towards the end of the 19th Century, after a series of increasingly serious disease outbreaks (in 1871 Yellow Fever wiped out nearly 10% of the city’s inhabitants), it was decided to do something about the quality of the drinking water. Work began in 1887 on a central pumping station which when finished in 1894 turned out to be one of the most flamboyant architectural works in a city not known for its understated buildings. Officially named El Gran Depósito Ingeniero Guillermo Villanueva it soon became known by a much more fitting and stately name, El Palacio de Aguas Corrientes (The Palace of Running Water).
Palace may not be overstating things. It may well have contained 12 enormous tanks with a total capacity of 72 million litres of water, but it’s the exterior that truly grabs the attention. Decorated with 400,000 ceramic and glazed terracotta tiles made by Royal Doulton in England and sporting the coats of arms of the 14 (at the time) Argentinian provinces, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer effort put into a public utility building.
Whilst its water-pumping days may be over, it still houses the Buenos Aires Water Company’s offices as well as a small water works museum. It can be found on Avenida Córdoba, a couple of blocks from the Callao subte station on Line D.
Nice little film tracing the day of one of Buenos Aires’ famous Dog Walkers. Victor has been doing the job for the last 12 years and has been bitten three times and has lost 2 dogs (both turned up later!).