Monday, November 20, 2017

Hola, ¿I’m Juanito Cash? Accessing Argentine ATMs Again…

Just over two weeks ago, just before flying south to Buenos Aires, I visited the bank to withdraw US$2000 in large bills—fifties and hundreds. Other things being equal, I’d rather not carry that quantity of cash, but in Argentina it’s an issue of economic convenience, if not necessity. For longer than I care to remember, the manipulation of exchange rates by the country’s previous government required extra-official work-arounds to avoid punishing prices and inflation (which, in fairness, have not ceased under the current government).
What Argentine banks think of you...
The perils of stashing bags of cash aside, changing money here long required seeking informal currency change sites, known as cuevas (“caves”) rather than banks and their ATMs, where one could only obtain the disadvantageous official rate. Cuevas paid the so-called blue dollar rate which, at times, was nearly double that. They did not charge a commission, and did not require waiting in line at a bank or formal exchange house.

There were shorter lines and less bureaucracy at bank ATMs, such as the one at my corner bank in Palermo, but there was still a penalty for using them. Of course, my US home bank would charge a percentage for each transaction and, moreover, the Argentine bank would collect an even larger fee.
My neighborhood cueva was closed over the weekend.
Since arriving here, I’ve usually changed at my neighborhood cueva—there are fewer these days, but they’re still around—where a grumpy old man disappears into the depths of his office and returns with the pesos I need. Friday night, though, in the interest of thoroughness, I chose to use the ATM at the corner. After entering my PIN, I had to choose how much money I would withdraw, and chose “Other” because I wanted more than the A$2000 (about US$114) amount indicated on the display
The bank on the corner is just two doors away from our Palermo apartment.
It was not to be. When I entered the figure of A$3000 (about US$170), the machine rejected it. When I reduced the number to A$2500 (US$143), it did the same. When I capitulated to the original A$2000, it proceeded, but then informed me it would impose a charge of A$106.20 (US$6.08, or 5.31 percent).
Argentina's ATM fees are, arguably, punitive.
In Chile, I regularly withdraw amounts of Ch$200,000 (US$319 at today’s exchange rate), and in Uruguay I’ve withdrawn similar amounts in US dollars (which is not possible at Argentine or Chilean ATMs). There is, of course, a one-time charge for each withdrawal, but as a percentage of the total amount that’s relatively small. In Chile, for instance, the charges range from Ch$4000 to Ch$6000 (roughly two to three percent in the case of the withdrawal above).

In many ways, Argentina is more visitor-friendly than it was recent years, but the banks’ continued insistence on multiple transactions and high commissions is not. Note also that, despite legal requirements, many Argentine businesses (including restaurants) still evade their obligation to accept credit cards in payment for services. They will often accept payment in US cash, but often at a lesser rate.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Back at BA's Food Fair, the Feria Masticar

One part of the Feria Masticar is lectures and classes.
Last weekend – Friday afternoon, actually—I trekked across Palermo to the annual Feria Masticar, a showcase of food and drink that takes place in the fairground-style enclosure in the barrio of Colegiales. I had lunched in Colegiales just the day before, on Cantabrian cuisine in the Centro Montañes, but the Masticar is a more innovative and diverse event.
The Centro Montañés is the city's Cantabrian cultural center.
I’d never considered its etymology, but word masticar literally means “to chew.” In lunfardo slang, though, it can also mean to think or talk something over, rather like the English phrase “chewing the fat,” to use a gastronomic metaphor. The Feria’s a four-day event, and the lines to enter and eat can both get long on Saturday and Sunday, but it wasn’t bad when I arrived about half an hour after the 2 p.m. opening (one complaint: approaching from the south side, I had to walk around most of the sprawling enclosure to reach the single entrance, and do the same on departure to get back home).

Purchasing scrip for the food
300 pesos' worth of scrip
Some friends I’d spoken with showed little interest in the event, partly because of the 130-peso admission charge (about $7.50) just for the privilege of snacking on small plates. After paying, it became necessary to buy at least one booklet of scrip for 300 pesos (about US$17; the vendors supposedly do not accept cash, though I recall paying a small bill in pesos a few years back). This is something of a nuisance since, if you have any scrip left over, you need to stand in line for a cash refund on leaving). There are also stands of fresh and packaged produce, such as cheeses and jams.
Get your hard cider here!
I bought the minimum, but the first item that caught my eye was a free sample of hard draft cider at Sidra 1888. Though Argentine cider doesn’t enjoy the notoriety that wine does, it’s a great option on a hot summer’s day, and I’d definitely take a bottle home if I had someone to share it with these days (I can’t drink an entire bottle of fizzy alcohol on my own; for what it’s worth, I usually go for the cider at San Telmo’s Bar El Federal). The apples come from Patagonia’s upper Río Negro valley.
An oyster and prawn portion from Crizia.
Given that some of the city’s top restaurants have booths or trucks here, the Masticar provides the chance to sample them without spending a fortune. I’ve dined at Palermo Soho’s Crizia before, but I couldn’t resist their small combo of raw oysters and a Puerto Madryn prawn. It wasn’t exactly filling, but it was satisfying.
With a lot of pulp, the blueberry juice was filling.
Conscious of overspending—I didn’t want to buy another packet of scrip—I strolled the grounds in search of bargains and, though it wasn’t an especially hot day, I worked up a thirst that I satisfied with an organic blueberry juice from Purificare. Half a liter of this was pretty filling and, after a short breather, I strolled past the previously unknown (to me) Peugeot Lounge, where I spotted an irresistible pistachio flan with a dollop of dark chocolate. It wasn’t large either, but it was deliciously filling and also consumed the last of my scrip.
Peugeot Lounge, the source of pistachio flan


The flan itself...
On the way out, I realized I had overlooked the food truck from iLatina, a Colombian restaurant I’ve been meaning to try for years, but maybe after my wife arrives at month’s end we’ll look into it. Even then, I left satisfied with the Feria, and won’t hesitate to return in future years (this was my third Masticar, including 2012 and 2016).
iLatina's food truck at the Masticar

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Two Days to LA and BA

Last weekend was a travel marathon as, on Saturday morning, I left the Bay Area for Los Angeles in a rental car, en route to Buenos Aires. Obviously, I was not driving to Buenos Aires, but I was flying there Saturday night and the rental car gave me the opportunity to visit my 93-year-old uncle, at the historic Village Green in Baldwin Hills. As Veteran's Day approached, his World War II record sounded like  something out of Hollywood—shot down over France in late 1943, he first avoided German troops and then, with lots of help from the French Resistance, made it over the border into Switzerland.
My uncle's ground-floor apartment in the wooded Village Green complex is part of a national historic landmark.
I’ve seen the fake ID the Resistance fabricated for him but, unfortunately, he was unable to locate it on Saturday. He has a harelip, and that birth defect led the French forger to include “deaf-mute” in his description—something that fooled the Germans as the Resistance led him across France by car, train and on foot. If caught, he would have been executed as a spy.
Sarah Kaminsky wrote this biography of her Argentine-born forger father, Adolfo Kaminsky, but I've not yet read it.
It’s worth mentioning that one of the Resistance’s heroes was Argentine-born Adolfo Kaminsky, who forged thousands of documents—free of charge—to help Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis. After my uncle crossed the border, the neutral Swiss confined him to a ski resort where, one late spring morning, he awoke to unexpected shouts of celebration from his comrades. His first thought was that, “My birthday’s not that big a deal!” but it was June 6, 1944—the date of the Allies’ D-Day invasion. Only after the war ended, though, would the Swiss release him to US authorities.

After the meeting, I dropped my car off at LAX and had a few hours to kill before departing for Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez and Buenos Aires’s Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini. Fortunately, check-in and security went quickly, and I was pleased to learn that LATAM (ex-LAN) now had access to a convenient regular gate at LAX rather than a remote gate served by bus shuttle (I’m hoping, given LAX’s major renovation, this is a permanent change).
I'm disappointed that LATAM doesn't offer more typical Southern Cone wines like Argentine Torrontés (I wasn't in business or first class, though).
Though I was in coach, the seats on our Boeing 787-B were comfortable enough, though it also helped that there was an empty seat between me and an Argentine woman from Rosario.  I was also pleased that the USB power outlets were strong enough to charge my tablet—unlike my recent Hawaiian Airlines flight, where the outlets could only charge phones. My only quarrel with the service is that LATAM’s wine options includes only pretty generic Cabernet and Chardonnay, when they could serve more distinctive Southern Cone varietals such as Argentine Malbec and Torrontés, or Chilean Carménère.
Chilean Carménère would also be superior option to more standard wines.

I had a four-hour layover in Lima where, unfortunately, I simply couldn’t justify ordering a pisco sour at 8 a.m. Lima, unfortunately, still has WiFi issues—no more than half an hour of free connection, though our new cell contract gives me good and reasonably priced coverage on the phone (but not the tablet). Our plane to Buenos Aires was an older one, as the photo above shows, but four hours feels like a short hop to me on this route. Still, I didn’t reach our apartment until nearly 8 p.m. Sunday, after which I had a plate of spinach gnocchi at Bella Italia Café before collapsing into bed.
Our plane from Lima to Buenos Aires was old enough that it still had ashtrays.

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