Just at the same time when we planned our first trip from Chile to Argentina I found that interesting Post from a Blogger called c.hileno. (His Blog is linked, click on the headline.)
Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mendoza
anywhere but Chile. As Santiago gels into wintry inversions, smog reaches government emergency levels despite the recent implementation of Transantiago, a failed transportation system whose one benefit might have been to reduce overall emissions (if they'd actually transferred some of the USD $12 million evaporated into 'preliminary studies' into making a system that worked, and didn't shoot up car sales, and if they had replaced all of the screaming cancer buses with newer, quieter, more fuel efficient vehicles rather than simply re-painting them ecological green and liar's white), as dogs bark, car alarms whistle and gunshots bang about at night, it makes sense to yearn for truly greener pastures.
Luckily, my particular brand of synesthesia has Chile inflamed and red, while Argentina is a cool and luscious green. My version makes dreaming make sense.
What also makes sense is the threat of deportation by expiring a 3-month maximum stay on a tourist visa. It's only renewable by crossing the border, but why not. (FYI, one time when the Andean border was snowed over making bus travel impossible I opted to pay the $100 fine. But you can only do that once. I actually tried to pay the fine again 3 months later but they sent me packing. I can't complain though; it's a periodic excuse to see that the grass really is greener on the other side).
So Argentina bound, whether on the trip from the Buenos Aires airport or from Mendoza city center to the mall called "Shopping," the view out the window reveals trees shaped roundly by their pruners and limitless swaths of lawn. Enough to send your heart careening down the elevator shaft if you were expecting panpipes and lamas on your Trip to South America.
But Argentina offers the intrigue and comfort of Culture -- something that Chile severely lacks. Any random kiosk in Mendoza, the Argentinean wine country town closest to Santiago, will sell you El País, a big Spanish paper, and immediately connect you to Europe. Chile's papers, on the other hand, are contaminated with unprofessional reporting of petty, predictable political bickering that usually never leaves Chile until it results in something disastrously newsworthy like Transantiago.
Chile lacks vision and grandness. I love Chilean music, it's evocative, unique and some of my favorite bands are Chilean. But there's something about the bigness of Soda Stereo, the U2 of South America that captured the imaginations of the Continent and me, that is distinctly Argentinean.
The Chileans and Argentineans share many cultural similarities. They both call hot girls "land mines" and I think elements of both cultures have had this European trip where they consider themselves whiter and more developed than the rest of Latin America. Which is true. But while Argentina offers the refined cuisine and hospitality comparable to France or Italy, Chile is a shell-shocked Belgrade.
When I walk into a cafe in Chile and the waitstaff stares at me like a deer caught in the headlights. In Argentina, I only need to think uncertainly about directions and immediately a local will ask me if I need help. They don't go as far as Italians by walking me to my destination, but it's nice enough.
Argentina's economy collapsed at the beginning of this decade, but its faded glory shows up in the form of prominently posted signs in workplaces informing employees of their rights. In a small town in Chile, I saw a waiter trip, fall and bruise her knee. The municipal workers dining at the table next to us asked her if she was okay, and encouraged her to ask her boss for a break and a visit to the doctor. The look of fear in her eyes, she shook her head whispering, "no...NO!" and quickly limped back to the kitchen with the empty plates she'd gathered from their table.
Argentina's dictatorship dwarfed Chile's in its number of casualties. At least 30,000 dead I think, maybe a lot more. Chile's coup killed about 3,000. But Pinochet inflicted cultural damage that lingers on. My understanding is that Argentina had a curfew for about a year. Compare that to almost 17 years of gunpoint curfew under Pinochet. A culture of repression. A local restaurant owner tells me that nightlife in Santiago before the coup was vibrant, active and it was safe to walk the streets at night. But nearly two-decades after Pinochet stepped down Santiago has not restored its culture. The streets are silent, dark and paradoxically dangerous.
Buenos Aires, on the other hand, is open. At 5am you can get a huge chicken-fried steak sandwich for 2 pesos (about USD $0.66). The people are loud, warm and fearless. They went through a dirty, dirty war, but they didn't have 17 years calculated torture and intimidation leaving a stagnant black hole in its wake. It's in Buenos Aires that you get the sense, by contrast, that Chileans sincerely hate themselves.
A single plate of soggy, flavorless chicken fried steak at a dirty alcoholic's den in Santiago is $7. An elegant steak house in Buenos Aires with finely dressed patrons and an all-you-can-eat ("tenedor libre") menu offers full service (except the salad bar), and gourmet dishes served on wooden plates, unlimited beef, veal, sausages, provolone melts, pastas, plus delicious Malbec wine from Mendoza, for two people, is 19 dollars.
Argentina is better, and cheaper. In Santiago and everywhere else I've checked the prices, you can't buy a shot of whiskey for less than 6, 7 bucks. In Buenos Aires, it's 2 bucks. Draught beer is much cheaper and there's much more variety.
If there were a single food Chile's national pride is based, it'd be the empanada, a calzone, hot-pocket thingy stuffed with ground beef, cheese or meat usually. The Chilean government stuffed it down Peruvians throats after conquering them in the North, in the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific.
But when it comes to empanadas, the Argentineans run circles around the Chileans. All the normal varieties, plus empanadas stuffed with humitas. (Humitas are are tamales without any stuffing. They're like Chile's second biggest gastronomic pride). But tamales are better. And, in the Argentinean countryside, you can get those too!
So it's fine that Argentina is superior to Chile in cuisine, culture and hospitality. It should be easy for anybody to recognize that. Its one possible drawback is a possible B-Side Europe kinda feel. An Argentinean friend told me he is much more stimulated by the history and culture of Spain than that of Argentina. But he's from Argentina. I think it's totally fascinating, and I know nothing about it yet, but want to learn -- from the gaucho culture to its writers, Ernesto Sabato, Borges, Cortázar.
Another possible drawback is that it's touched with a bit of dysfunctionality -- rainfall during my stay flood the metro and the mall. But at least the Buenos Aires subway (called Subté) is so much more colorful and fun than Santiago's. The Subté's train cars are slow, wooden and rickety and the station walls are tiled like Manhattan. Chile's metro works well (despite being overcrowded because of Transantiago) but it's aesthetically bereft and militaristic. Whatever you say about Pinochet, the trains certainly do run on time.
Tying Chile and Argentina together are the Andes. The route between Santiago and Mendoza (the easiest Visa run) is one of the most incredible stretches of land I've experienced in my life and probably one of my favorite. Other mountains don't get these colors of red and ochre as they shoot jagged, incredible spires toward the heavens. And suddenly lakes, glistening sapphire and evoking the touch of calm, cool air inside my lungs, introduce the yellow-green plains of Argentina. On the way back, patches of snow melted into September Spring as I listened to the piercing poetry of Bob Dillan and Johnny Cash's boastful, "c'mon I've everywhere, Man!"
Listen closely -- he mentions Argentina!
Lastly, if you're traveling to Argentina here are a couple good resources. Well, one down. The second Argentina blog is a more literary/historical/cultural look at Buenos Aires which I find really interesting.
... Blogger Matt said...
... A lot of your points about chile and argentina i wholeheartedly agree with. i lived there for nigh on three years and am now in valpo.
Argentina is Fun with a capital F and there's something cool to do at every turn. Buenos Aires is culturally the most stimulating city in latin america (but not as much as some would have you believe) and also a beautiful city.
Chile can be fun but you have to work at it and Chileans lack joie de vivre. They need to be forced to have fun whereas Argentines are all about the joda. Wednesday night is aferwork drinks night for example where all the city workers go and get pissed. Wednesday night for an organised piss up.
Argentines also know how to charm you. I have not once walked out of a shop in Chile with a smile on my face. Never. Ever. In Argentina i can count on the fingers on my hands the times ididn't. 'Buen dia, en que te puedo ayudar?' is the first thing you'll hear on walking into an argentine shop. You're lucky to get a grunt in a chilean shop.
Chileans just don't say please, thank you, excuse me or sorry. Someone asks you the time in Chile-'You got the time?'. In Argentina i was asked "Would you be so kind as to tell me the time?" on numerous ocassions.
But Chile does have advantages. Things here work. Nothing really works in Argentina and it starts to wear you down after a while. Every day life becomes a struggle. Corruption is endemic and all pervading in all walks of society from the green-grocer to the president. Argentine politicians are the worst in the world, argentines have to deal with a boom and bust economy which will likely never change, inflation is a constant issue. Chile just works better. But it's not as fun.
And it's all linked. Argentina keeps failing because of the people-all they want to do is have fun, live for the day, who cares about tomorrow, who cares about making long-term business when there is no tomorrow etc. It's what makes Argentines so damn charming and so much fun. But it's what makes the country not work.
Chile works because the people are more serious, think about tomorrow, think about the future, don't always try and make a quick buck. But Chileans are boring and frosty until you really get to know them, when they open up a lot. Chileans are harder to get to know but make better long term friends.
Now if you just mixed a Chilean's honesty and work ethic with an Argentine's joie de vivre and couldn't give a fuckness you'd end up with a pretty good country. Or Uruguay. Either would be quite cool.