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<p>Photo by Nick Olle</p>

Photo by Nick Olle

Buenos Aires Taxi

Another Way Of Doing Things

The Global Mail’s Latin America correspondent is very much in love with his "schizophrenic" adopted home, Buenos Aires, which he finds fuelled in equal parts by pride (the meat! the culture! the football!) and shame over the endemic corruption.

In less than three decades Argentina has lost a war, returned to democracy from military dictatorship, suffered hyperinflation and recession.

Even the relative good times - now, for instance - are tainted by the foreboding that hot on the heels of boom comes bust. It's our lot, many say. The Argentine condition.

Little wonder there are more psychologists here per capita than in any other nation. On a national level there's one shrink for every 650 people, according to the leading newspaper La Nacion, and the overwhelming majority are in its capital city. Buenos Aires even has a (unofficial) neighbourhood named after Sigmund Freud, a part of the enormous suburb of Palermo dubbed Villa Freud.

“I was taken in by the clichés — “the Paris of the South,” the beautiful people, the Latin passion.”

I arrived seven years ago during one of the good times. I didn't speak a word of Spanish but my dollars stacked up nicely against the newly devalued peso. Just three years earlier the peso was still pegged to the US dollar, a policy that had helped Argentina during the hyperinflation of the 1990s but ultimately took control of monetary policy out of the government's hands. GDP plummeted, unemployment soared, people rioted.

It was Eduardo Duhalde - who famously became the fifth of five Agentinian presidents in a two-week period in January 2002 - who ended the peso's "convertibility" and set the country on the road to recovery. The late Néstor Kirchner was in charge when I hit town, and things were looking up. The devalued peso made Argentine exports competitive and the world was hungry for soy, which Argentina has in abundance.

When I first came to Buenos Aires I was taken in by the clichés - "the Paris of the South," the beautiful people, the Latin passion. It was a long-standing curiosity about the region that brought me here, and I felt vindicated by my early impressions. I'd quickly learned enough Spanish to understand that the taxi drivers were proud of their city. In broken English they'd talk of the beautiful, Parisian buildings; the world's best meat; beautiful chicas; the city's 500-plus theatres; and, invariably, Diego Maradona. All sources of pride.

But for all their pride, Buenos Aires's porteños are also possessed of a strong self-loathing. Maligned in the rest of South America as Latinos who think themselves European, they blame themselves for their corrupt politicians. They take their lot upon themselves, with a chorus of, 'We voted for them, they are a reflection of us.'

The Euro-envy is understandable. The vast majority of the population is of Spanish or Italian background. There is ingrained racism against indigenous South Americans, especially from neighbouring Paraguay and Bolivia. There are large Paraguayan and Bolivian communities in the city's slums, known as villas. After a fatal crash in 2007, the tabloid television news channel Crónica reported in bold text the death of "two people and one Bolivian".

If taxi drivers are the barometer of public opinion in any given city, my beloved Buenos Aires is schizophrenic. Over the years I've seen and heard it all from the city's tacheros.

There are tens of thousands of them and chat is what sustains them during their 12-hour shifts. From light banter to scathing vitriol, sometimes just moments apart, I find this unofficial think-tank oddly endearing.

Politics is usually the trigger.

I've had thoroughly rewarding political conversations that continued long after the meter stopped. I've also been ejected for offending the cabbie's political leanings, though I maintain the latter was a case of guilt by association.

It was mid 2008 and I was sharing a taxi with a friend. We were discussing the bitter row over the government's planned tax hike on farm exports. The driver weighed in and minutes later we were on the street, nowhere near either of our homes. My friend had struck a nerve with his passionate pro-farmers stance, arguing that the government didn't help farmers in times of drought so it was unreasonable to cash in when soy prices were at a premium. The dispute and subsequent farmers' strikes divided the nation and quite literally emptied supermarket shelves. The pro-government driver was so disgusted with "our" attitude he wouldn't accept his fare.

At that time, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who'd swept into power a year earlier promising to continue the work of her popular husband and predecessor, Nestor, saw her approval rating plummet to below 30 per cent due to the famer dispute.

Nestor had presided over much of the post-crisis economic recovery, and people admired his human-rights record. He overturned amnesties that protected military leaders from facing trial for abuses during the last dictatorship. Many of these leaders are now in prison and trials are ongoing.

Fast-forward to October last year and Cristina was re-elected in a landslide thanks to strong economic growth based on heavy government spending and high commodity prices. Fickle lot, the Argentines. They didn't seem to mind the news that the Kirchners's family fortune had increased 700 per cent since Nestor took office in 2003 (official figures from the anti-corruption office: "The part they know about," according to one of my Argentinian friends).

Making money, though, is an official pastime. The other week, I had to go to the international airport to collect a package sent to me from The Global Mail headquarters in Sydney - it had been plucked from the UPS delivery line and detained in customs. It was a phone, and the customs officers charged me its retail value in import tax. All part of the new protectionist measures aimed at stimulating local production, I'm told. According to the independent monitor group Global Trade Alert, Argentina is second only to Russia as the world's most protectionist nation.

I was at customs for several hours. Sitting, fidgeting and sporadically shuffling along the paper trail of offices one, two and three, I found it immensely frustrating. Three different offices for one simple procedure? Really?

Porteños , on the other hand, are extremely patient when it comes to tramites (bureaucratic procedures) like this. They know the drill and come prepared. Thermoses of hot water for their maté, games for the kids, plenty of chat.

“Australia and Argentina boast much the same natural wealth and, for a long time, shared a similar economic trajectory.”

A tachero might lose his or her cool if another motorist costs him 10 seconds on the road, but she or he will wait in resignation the necessary hours to connect the gas to his house. You take the good with the bad; it's the Argentine condition.

With my phone as company, I hailed a taxi home from the airport. The driver's name was Pablo; they're all talkers, and I make a point of asking names.

We were discussing politics when Pablo interrupted as we passed a set of traffic lights. "You won't believe what I saw this morning," he said. "Right here there was a cab with a sticker saying 'We taxi drivers are with Cristina,' another cab pulled up alongside and the drivers started talking. I thought they knew each other, but then I realised the second driver was abusing the first for generalising about the opinion of all taxi drivers. I thought he was going to kick his ass, and he would have been right to!"

SINCE I'M Australian, I've been roped into playing cricket. About 20 years out of practice, I play a handful of games a season in an almost exclusively expat team - mostly Brits, Kiwis and Aussies - called Barbarians. The wonderful ground at Hurlingham - yes, we're still in Argentina - is the closest thing you'll find to an English country club outside of the UK. "If only we were conquered by Britain instead of the bloody Spanish," an Argentine player once said to me in the Queen's English.

I'm often reminded that Australia and Argentina boast much the same natural wealth and, for a long time, shared a similar economic trajectory. In the first decades of the 20th century Argentina outgrew Australia and rated as one of the world's richest nations. Argentines attribute the nation's fall from grace to their perennial Achilles heel, corruption. I wonder if they teach this stuff in schools.

There's a wonderful Spanish verb, aprovechar. Literally it means "to take advantage". Those who do it best are called, even lauded, as vivos. They come in all shapes and sizes and in all professions, including the police.

My friend Al, a happy-go-lucky Brit-Argentine, used to drive a beaten up, though much-loved, sky-blue Kombi. One day a random inspection revealed he was driving without the necessary registration papers. After explaining the prescribed fine, the incredulous policeman - incredulous that no bribe had been forthcoming - gently suggested there was "another way we can deal with this". He explained, courteously, that the way Al ought to pass over the money was to fold it up under his driver's licence.

Corruption is endemic in Argentina. There is always "another way" to do things. Whenever I return to Australia I'm always struck by the differences. It starts at the airport. If my baggage exceeds the allowed weight, in Argentina a wink and a smile gets my luggage on the plane. On arrival in Australia, I've got an OH&S situation on my hands, lest someone hurt their back handling my suitcase.

I'm not sure which I prefer, but I'm happy to have a bit of both.

2 comments on this story
by Zorzal

Great article. I lived in BsAs 2005-2007, and your description is spot on.

February 6, 2012 @ 10:27am
by gaucho dreamer

I moved to Argentina at the end of 2001 (just before the economic crash) and stayed until 2006. I am now back for a second thrashing. I read your article with interest and could identify with much of what you wrote. I especially liked and comment about the luggage at the airport check-in.... so very true.

February 10, 2012 @ 9:15am
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