Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA – PART 3 ARGENTINA – SALTA TO CORDOBA

Argentina

Spoiler: Argentina is awesome.

Argentina is the eighth biggest country in the world and 41 million people live here. It is named after the Latin word for silver which is ‘Argentum’ but I would have named it after gold! It has a big media market with 150 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations and dozens of TV broadcasters, many of which are highly politicised.

It has produced more Nobel prize winners than any other South American country with an impressive five winners. Cesar Milstein (1984) and Bernardo Houssay (1947) won for Medicine, Luis Federico Lenoir (1970) for Chemistry and Adolfo Perez Esquivel (1980) and Carlos Saavedra Lamas (1936) for peace.

Lamas was the first Latin American winner in the 1930s and he helped to end the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia that was fought between 1932 and 1935 amongst other things. His gold medal was found in a pawn shop in 2014.

Bernardo Alberto Houssay was the first Latin American to win a Nobel prize for medicine for his work on how the pituitary hormone regulates the blood sugar of animals. Therefore paving the way for diabetes research.

He had to share his prize with two other scientists who had researched how glucose contributes to how we metabolise carbohydrates. Considering that he started studying pharmacy at the age of 14 and started medical school at 17, it seems odd that he would only gain half a Nobel prize laureate. 

Luis Federico Leloir similarly researched into carbohydrate metabolism as well as sugar nucleotides and renal hypertension. His research paved the way of understanding for galactosemia, a congenital disease which renders the carrier unable to digest this form of sugar.

When he received his prize he brushed it off with the comment: ‘This is not a very noteworthy deed, and we know hardly even a little’. They spent the $80,000 prize money on research which is pleasing. He also used to share his meat stew whilst in the laboratory. He is deservedly buried in the lovely Recoleta cemetery.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel was a human rights activist who co-founded the Service Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ) during Argentina’s Guerra Sucio (Dirty War – not to be confused with the Mexican Guerra Sucio).

This ‘Process of National Reorganisation’ (read: state terrorism) was the nine-year reign of anti-communist death squads. They who were responsible for the deaths of over 7,000 people from militants to Marxists, students, journalists and trade unionists. It is worth noting the US came up with the term ‘Dirty War’ and it is referred to as a State Terrorism Genocide within Argentina. 

Esquivel was also a supporter of indigenous rights, environmentalism, and anti-austerity. My kinda guy. He also criticised the US for their ‘inventions’ in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria, hinting at the whole heap of immorality which is alleged to have influenced these decisions. 

He was an artist who made sculptures dedicated to indigenous people, refugees, and Gandhi. Unsurprisingly, his prize money was donated to charity and he accepted it ‘in the name of the poorest and smallest of my brothers and sisters’. 

Cesar Milstein was the last Argentine to receive a Nobel prize and he studied antibodies and their diversity. While I can’t pretend to understand his research, his study that he did in collaboration with his wife Celia looked at ways to increase immunity through mutation.

He did not patent his momentous discovery as he didn’t believe in making money through his work, and he could have earned some serious dough from this. He said: ‘Science will only fulfil its promises when the benefits are equally shared by the really poor of the world’. He is absolutely right.

What the world needs now is more of this same standard to counteract the constant scourge of immorality, corruption, and outright lies in the world.

Argentina has been through a lot in terms of economic crises as well as a military dictatorship and the small matter of Islas Malvinas aka The Falklands.

Before we begin our journey from the top of this incredible country to the very bottom, let’s think about this history for a moment.

The Falklands or the Malvinas are a collection of 778 islands. It is remote, made up of rugged cliffs, sheep farms and penguins. The capital is called Stanley and the museum that resides there is dedicated to the birdlife and maritime exploration, and of course the infamous war.

Before the war, all that happened here was birds and boats. Is this the mecca for an economic boom, a place people want to live or somewhere that is interesting in any way? Not unless you’re a dedicated birdwatcher.

So why did my country, the UK, go to war with this barren, windswept place? Well, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought it would cheer us up to win something. And the sad fact is that it did.

Let’s move on to the thorny subject of the economy which has plagued Argentina hard, this is a country that simply cannot get out of its overdraft.

Argentina holds the dubious record for the largest ever sovereign debt default of more than 80 billion dollars. Yikes.

From 1998-2002 the economy crashed hard despite previous ‘miraculous’ success in the mid-90s of a 6.1% rise. Then four things happened, their commodities stopped rising, the dollar went up, capital went up and Brazil devalued. This series of unfortunate events meant that they struggled to respond to this recession and couldn’t be competitive enough in a global marketplace.

The Economist called it a ‘decline without parallel’ and surely they would know. They have certainly become an economic ‘cautionary tale’ and oft-studied in order to better understand such things by people cleverer than I.

The devaluation of the peso in 2002 did mean that there was more demand for their bargainous agricultural products. This boom was aided by government spending and the growth of the super economies of neighbour Brazil and China. This lasted 5 years and surged again in 2010. However, it didn’t last and the currency got stronger, inflation stayed high and the prices of commodities got lower which all conspired to halt economic growth.

In 2011, the government wanted to stop money going abroad and substantiate their purchases of US dollars. This, of course, watered the black market for the US dollar and it positively bloomed. This also affected the real-estate market which is usually conducted in dollars. In 2015 President Macri took away the limits on the amount of pesos that could be changed into foreign currency. On the black market, you can get pesos for 30% less than the official exchange rate. Overnight, the peso crashed by 30% bringing it in line with the original black market value although this rose slightly as a result of the policy.

The year before, in 2014, Argentina defaulted on its international debt for the second time. In 2015 the president let the peso crash, he allowed the peso to be sold for dollars and so imported goods went up. The situation, which has been serious enough that hospitals could not important medicines, is certainly something to watch and study as there are many lessons to be learnt. Fortune and Forbes are tentatively predicting an end to the recession and return of investors.

Argentina legalised same-sex marriage in 2010. It has the world’s second-highest rate of anorexia after Japan. One in 30 Argentines has had some form of cosmetic surgery. Psychiatry is a big business with 145 of them for every 10,000 people in Buenos Aires, they even have an area called ‘Ville Freud’ full of psychiatrist’s offices. Their Italian population is the second largest outside of Italy at 25 million people.

Buenos Aires, in particular, is the Paris of South America in that it loves a protest. Recent protests in the capital was a Tango demonstration against the rise in energy prices that threaten dance halls and a taxi driver protest against Uber, the world’s most controversial taxi app, which involved driving around with ‘Fuera Uber’ stickers on their cars. We saw many protests while we in Buenos Aires, incidentally one of the best cities in the world, I am excited for that, but we need to visit the rest of Argentina first.

Salta

After our nine-hour bus journey from the Atacama desert with some very slick border crossing action – I recommend this border crossing, many tourists use it – our first stop in Argentina was Salta. We only stayed two nights before moving on, while we were there we walked up Cerro San Bernardo and visited the park. It wasn’t quite as charming as other cities we visited in Argentina but it is a good jumping off point from Chile.

When we were in Salta we watched a Liv Tyler horror movie called The Strangers, it was really scary and it did nothing to help my anxiety. I love films, but when anxiety hits at the beginning of a big trip, it’s sometimes best to let your brain adjust before subjecting it to a horror film and letting it go into overdrive…

Cordoba

My first experience of Cordoba was walking to the hostel past two young people who had been wrestled to the floor and arrested. This fuelled my anxiety even though the arrest was probably for something innocuous like stealing. Cordoba is a nice city and boasts seven universities – higher education is free in Argentina. The only cost is a nominal registration fee equivalent to about 3 or 4 bottles of Quilmes beer.

It is Argentina’s ‘second city’ but to be honest I just wanted to get out of there as the big cities were scaring me. I was glad that I did as we went on two lovely day trips.

Jesus Maria

The first was to Jesus Maria, a Jesuit town. The Jesuits that lived there lost their funds to pirates in the waters off Brazil, so in order to keep their university going, they made their own wine which they sold in this very place.

We visited the Museo Jesuitico Nacional de Jesus Maria which is apparently a representation of the missions in the area. I just loved the tranquillity of the location so I was less interested in the artwork and the winemaking equipment. Steph and I sat by the lake and I thought about how I wanted to write a book.

Alta Gracia

The next day we visited Alta Gracia and apparently, Jesuits, Viceroy Santiago Liniers and Spanish composer Manuel de Falla all lived here.

But no-one gives a shit about them because this is Che-town. Che lived here with his family in the 1930s, as they believed the mountain air was good for his asthma. The house was called Villa Beatriz but is now the Museo Casa Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. The Museo tells stories of his childhood and early adulthood. There are lots of pictures of him looking really fit with really good hair.

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We wandered to buy some croissants and came across his old school, a girl from our hostel who we brought with us was a total Che fangirl after visiting Cuba and she was very excited.

Even though he is emblazoned on countless buildings, t-shirts, mugs et al he was ultimately a fighter. As a pacifist, this is not something I agree with, but I understand what he represents to many people. Especially the oppressed around the world.

Back to Cordoba

There was a bar downstairs in our hostel and we met a guy who was cycling from the Northernmost point of Canada to the Southernmost point of Argentina. Now you may be thinking of a motorcycle, but this guy was on a pushbike. He was 18 months into his journey and hoped to reach the end in 6 months. He’d lost a lot of weight and he’d had recurrent nosebleeds out to the altitude but what an achievement!

Of course, he wasn’t the only person to ever attempt such a feat, he made his own food and camped a lot of the time. He was glad of the chat after so much solitude and we were just always glad of a chat as we were still so new to South America we needed to know more. He hadn’t been robbed or hassled at any point, people just watched this pale, skinny American guy sail past. Perhaps there wasn’t so much to be anxious about after all.

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