Friday, December 17, 2010

Robbed of everything at gunpoint

Now that I'm safely back in England, I can tell you the truth about my trip. I experienced genuine Argentine culture first-hand - hearty barbecues; wide-open horsey spaces; passionate football support; and violent robbery at the wrong end of some of the two million unlicensed guns the country can boast.

Yes indeed. On Sunday 31 October, I was attacked by a gang of gunmen, tied up naked on a hostel floor, and robbed of everything I had. It was not one of the more enjoyable Hallowe'ens I've had.

I was staying in a hostel in Rosario. There were only three other people in the hostel that evening: two guests and a guy on reception. At half past ten or so, I was woken up by a man hitting me on the head. Not violently - more like a peevish interwar Latin master boxing the ears of a boy who had forgotten his prep. I protested until I realised, staring foggily at him without my glasses, that he was hitting me with a gun.

Though I couldn't quite understand what he was shouting - my phrasebook unaccountably didn't have a 'Armed raids and hostage situations' chapter - the gist was clear, and involved me taking to the floor, face down and naked, to join two other hostellers who had their hands tied behind their back.

One of the gang tied my hands behind my back - I thought with handcuffs, but it turned out it was coat-hanger wire. Another pointed a gun at the reception guy and demanded the keys to the safe and the security lockers. With us on the floor, two gunmen hoovered up everything in the hostel and lobbed it to their accomplices standing outside by the getaway van: rucksacks, cash takings, clothes, contents of all safes and lockers and cupboards, even - rather bizarrely - the beers in the hostel fridge.

It took about seven or eight minutes. Eventually they left, and the four of us unwired our hands and assessed our situation. We were left with nothing except the clothes we stood up in. Except that I'd been stark bollock naked and face down on the floor.

In fact, in the chaos of clothes left in our dorm and deemed valueless, my T-shirt and jeans remained. Luckily for me, my credit cards, passport and cash happened to be in my jeans; the thieves were both ruthless and incompetent. Everything else though was gone. Clothes, shoes, waterproofs, hiking boots, swimming stuff. Camera, laptop, watch, toiletries, Swiss Army Knife, nail scissors. Spanish books and dictionaries, work, documents, contracts. The rucksack itself. My underpants.

What sort of weirdo takes beer out of the fridge, and underpants?

It was a vile experience, made worse by the total lack of interest shown by the police. Unknown to us, a fifth person was in the hostel while the raid was taking place, an Argentinian guy who hid under a bed in a remote dorm and called the police on his mobile. All he got was the Rosario Police answering machine: If you wish to report an armed robbery in progress, press 4. For theft of underwear, press 5. If you're delivering the pizza we ordered, please hold.

When the police eventually did come, they made no effort to investigate and took no statements from most of us. They had, grudgingly, to be persuaded to make lists of our stolen property for insurance purposes, taking half a day to do so. The document I got from them is virtually useless, an illegible dot-matrix photocopy cursorily summarising the detailed list of articles I tried to give them. (And missing out the underpant larceny entirely.)

Their attitude was clear. Gun crime? So? This is Argentina, what's the big deal? Happens all the time.

The loss of all my belongings made the following months quite a challenge. Without Spanish books or dictionaries (and no, worthwhile replacements are not available in provincial Argentina) I couldn't develop my Spanish. Without my laptop, bus journeys changed from being an opportunity to work and write up into deadly boring six-hour purgatories. The very guidebook I was updating had gone too. I struggled by for the next six weeks on the bare minimum - two sets of clothes, a toothbrush, and a pen and pad, essentially - but it was no fun.

Obviously, I couldn't tell family (they'd have worried) or friends (they'd have told family). It didn't seem right for a Facebook status update either:
OMG just got robbed at GUNPOINT!!! : ( wtf?? even took my underpants lol!!

Now, to put it in context, I only met a couple of dozen people in my time there who'd been robbed of personal possessions at the point of a gun. So the chances of you being attacked by evil men with firearms are very, very small. Only one in three, say.

So let me stress that Argentina is a wonderful country full of vibrant and friendly people, and I can thoroughly recommend going there. Except for Buenos Aires, which is too dangerous, and the bits outside Buenos Aires, which are too dangerous.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Maté: Argentina to a T

I had my first maté today. It's a herb tea, very Argentinian, and very popular. It's an essential part of any picnic, or sit-down in a city square or rural park.

It's drunk through a metal tube from something that looks like an ashtray full of cooking herbs. You keep topping it up with water from your flask and sipping away. I wondered why street stalls were so keen on advertising 'agua caliente' - 'hot water' - on 35-degree early summer days. Well, it's so you can refill your maté.

The effect of the bitter-tasting brew is said to be mildly stimulating, like a good strong coffee.

The effect on me was not unlike sucking water through a layer of pondweed, cigarette butts and woodshed floor.

But I don't know how to say that in Spanish. I only know how to say 'está bien'. Which is just as well.

Anyway, I've left Buenos Aires behind, and after three very unpleasant days in Rosario, I'm gradually working my way up through the east side towards Iguazu.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pax vobiscum: A super hostel in Buenos Aires

After nearly two weeks in Buenos Aires, I'm moving out to start updating the regions. One of the pleasures of BsAs is the hostels: there are dozens and dozens of them, and the competition means you get a lot of facilities for your peso. Free internet and wifi, fresh sheets and bed made for you every morning, breakfast, 24 hour access and private lockers come as standard.

I stayed a week at the Pax Hostel, at Salta 990. Run by an Australian woman, Kaylee, and her bloke Nico (although he's apparently up in Iguazu running the Stop Hostel), it's a fine example of a really good little place to stay that gives you loads of well thought-out extras.

For instance, the bottom bunks have privacy curtains round - a boon not just for me, inside, but I suspect for everyone else in the dorm, who probably don't want to see the contents.

There's also free bike hire - I had a lovely half-day clanking round the ecological reserve and the parks of Recoleta - and a fine breakfast that includes fresh squeeze-it-yourself orange juice.

And even free international phone calls, much to your mum's delight. Though, to judge by this young lady, her mum's phone conversation was less than riveting - she was emailing a friend during the call...

All this for just 40 pesos (less than six quid) a night. I can thoroughly recommend Pax. It's well situated, really good value, and in addition to the extras, the staff are very friendly and helpful (hi to David). I hope my mum hasn't good to used to me calling so often...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Taking leave of one's census

Argentina was shut today. It was Census Day, and everybody must have been at home filling in forms, because the shops were all shuttered and the roads were almost empty.

Which was a problem for those of us who hadn't realised, and who depend on shops to buy food from. The hostel did breakfast, but lunch was a challenge. Eventually I found a man selling hot dogs from a stand near Retiro, the main bus and train station.

Dinner was even more of a problem. The 24-hour pharmacy was open, but had its sandwich cabinet closed off with bin bags; is there a law preventing tourists from eating? Is this the Argie equivalent of a state-imposed Ramadan? At least you get dates and tea at dusk in Morocco.

Eventually I found a man selling hot dogs, rather furtively - frankfurtively, presumably - from a shop a few blocks from the hostel.

I don't know what the census position is on people who die on the day of the count. As happened, of course, to Nestor Kirchner, former PM, and husband of the current PM.

The news dominated the telly all day. The channels must have been delighted; with everyone indoors grappling with the form-filling, what else would there have been to cover?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hotel name that's a load of...

I know better than to snigger at the various references to 'Colon' you get in South America: Teatro Colon, Paseo Colon and so on. It's nothing to do with bowels, but the non-Latinised form of Columbus, the man to blame for all this.

But what the explanation is of the name of this hotel just round the corner from my hostel - Faecys - I don't know. Its muddy brown colour scheme doesn't help.

At least I now know that a Cementario isn't full of cement, but dead bodies, and a Ferreteria is a shop selling iron things, not ferrets.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

You know when you've been tangoed (2)

Caminito is the place to come for tango kitsch.

The tiny alley, in one of the dodgiest and poorest areas of Buenos Aires, was tarted up with a few pots of paint some decades ago and reinvented itself as a tourist postcard.

Each weekend, the pavement cafes and restaurants ring to the sounds of tango performed live, often by an old boy with a wavering baritone.

Lavishly-fishnetted young Latin ladies with rakish trilbies try to persuade passers-by to eat here or have their photo taken there with your head poking through one of those painted headless boards - for a few pesos, of course.

Models of Diego Maradona are everywhere. The lying, drug-taking, tax-evading, cheating football genius is one of Boca's most famous sons.

Here's an effigy of him on the balcony of the Havanna cafe in Caminito, doing what he's most famous to English fans for: handling the ball.

The restaurants have live tango dancing, and sometimes the diners join in, such as this lady. Not me, of course: dancing's not my thing. I was more interested in the disused Transporter Bridge just up the docks road.

And I had a bus to catch back. It's only a few blocks north back to San Telmo, the cobbly artisan district, but everyone warns you in dark tones NOT to walk, even by day - Boca is evidently a place of cutpurses and brigands. Well, the tango has always had that edge of danger...

Friday, October 22, 2010

Laying down routes: Cycling in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is just about recommendable as a place to cycle now. Lots of things militate against cycling - the one-way system, San Telmo's cobbled streets, the pampas-sized eight-lane urban expressways - but now a system of separated cycle tracks is in place, with more being added. It's pretty skeletal, but it just about enables you to do some pleasant half-day trundles.

For instance, you can cycle round the back of Puetro Madero, the shiny new docklands skyscraper district, on the riverside path. There are picnic tables and pleasant places for lunch. Here you can hear the strange jungle-bird tweeting of squeaky free hostel loan bikes like the one I was riding.

It feels like it should be the seaside, but of course this is a river, and so the water doesn't taste of salt. It tastes of cadmium and lead and mercury.

Back in the city, there's a very nice trip up the track on Libertador a mile or two to the big gardens of Palermo. It's all rather reminiscent of Hyde Park, with skaters and pleasure boats on the lake.

It wasn't the only thing that reminded me of London. Taxis here evidently pay as much respect to bike facilities. When I saw this I felt like crying. Not because of the driver's attitude, but because it made me homesick.