Monday, November 27, 2006

Frontier Living

Okay, so Argentina is not the Third World, but sometimes it gets pretty close. Especially the farther you get from Grand Buenos Aires. Each kilometer takes you miles and years away from the 21st Century.

You could call this frontier living. Not exactly Little House on the Pampa, even though we do have gauchos and horses roaming about.

But I have to give up a major illusion. I cannot recreate the First World here in my little corner of South America.

It has finally dawned on me that what has frustrated me most over the last couple years is this: attempting to continue to live “modernly” where the infrastructure just doesn’t permit it.

Looks can be deceiving. There are cars, telephones, cell phones, televisions, airplanes, electricity and indoor plumbing, and why, two years ago the first shopping centers materialized in the nearby metropolis of Rosario, offering all the First World wonders of Nike, Gap, and Sony.

Even so, how rare it is for my car, telephone, and bathroom plumbing to be in working order at the same time! Is that too much too ask?

Underneath a thin veneer of progress is a tradition of lentitude and entropy, proportionally stronger with each kilometer further from Capital Federal. This is where Europe met South America. . . and the relationship takes its twists and turns.

Case in point: Telecom, the Italian-based communications company that pretends to offer us telephone service, wavers in its explanations for the phone outages that have plagued us since June, leaving me without a convenient connection to my family and clients in North America. They blame copper thieves and at times our house wiring. But one day a Telecom employee let it slip that the major culprit is the failure-prone antique equipment at the central station. Can it be that those Italians feel no pressure to modernize stuff in a country that earned fame for being the world’s biggest debt defaulter?

And so we can continue to thank Telecom for call-free meals at home, averaging a week’s outage per month. Instead of comfortably using my home office, I’ve been forced to take up residence in phone booths at gas stations and “locutories.” (And in the meanwhile I can’t figure out why my neighbors aren’t rioting in the streets over this! They just pull out their cell phones, as does Roberto to keep up with his strawberry buyers.)

The near worst-case scenario—no car, no phone--does happen on occasion. Then I call a remis (near cousin to taxi) to pick me up and drive me the 15 to 20 minutes into town to the best “locutorio"—a business with phone cabins and PC booths. On lucky days, I can buy a phone card that will let me make a half hour or hour call without interruptions at a rate only double what I pay on my home phone. On unlucky days, I dial direct and pay the buying equivalent of US$1 a minute! (Yes, I do stock up on these cards when they are available!). On really unlucky days even that connection breaks up or breaks off. Sigh.

On the bright side, there are some compensations for frontier living! In between client calls, I mosey over to the best ice cream shoppe in the whole country for some great gelato or an espresso with a scoop of good Italian ice cream!

While waiting for the interior of the country to catch up to Buenos Aires, which may someday catch up to Rome or New York, we might benefit from tuning our TV sets to the Retro channel, where we could profit from some good tips from daily reruns of The Little House on the Prairie. Some frontier values never die!

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