Monday, September 11, 2006

World's End

Not so long ago, before the devaluation of the Argentine Peso, Buenos Aires was one of the world's most expensive cities to visit. It was left behind in the far corner of the world and most people confused the tango with the samba or the salsa anyway.

After the country's spectacular demise, a lot of foreigners have come and declared they have fallen in love with her, at first sight. Some are determined to keep their rose-tinted glasses firmly glued on, others have since discovered that the country is very much like her Casa Rosada (the White House equivalent), it is painted pink and well maintained at the front but rather shabby when you look from the sides and back. Nothing is more than skin deep.

While the country is recovering and the people have seemingly regained their cosmopolitan lifestyle, there are still goods and services which we had taken for granted in major capital cities around the world that are prohibitively expensive for the porteños (relative to their average salary).

Monopoly, in fixed-line telephony, divided between Telefonica (south) and Telecom (north) is one of the legacies of the Menem years when the President helped himself greedily to the privatisation pies. Another service which is surprisingly expensive and lacking in quality is Correo Argentino (Argentine Post).

Receiving a parcel in this country from well meaning family and friends is usually an ordeal. If the object is Fedexed, one has to go to the airport, almost an hour from the city, to pick it up. Otherwise, the likely pick up point is the Correo office in what I have dubbed the "Bermuda Triangle" of Retiro. First timers: don't try getting there by any other means than in a taxi.

Then depending on the mood of the officer handling your parcel, you may be taxed 50% of the value of the goods. The fine print being, "value deemed appropriate by the officer". A CD which you picked up at K-mart for US$10 may be deemed to worth over US$25; now imagine you had your family sent over your CD collection...

It is not unheard of that people abandon their parcels (having it sent back may cost you a bomb) upon hearing the price they have to pay to claim them.

The most ridiculous I had heard was a friend receiving a box of children's books for his three kids. Importing books for private use is supposedly tax-free. However, my friend was told to pay A$100 (US$33) for them. When he tried to argue that those were tax-free items, all he got was if he wanted the books, the price was such. He abandoned the books on principle and left a few words for the officer.

How about outward bound parcels? This is when Argentina ceases to be cheap. A friend in Singapore had asked me to post him a couple of coffee table books on Argentina. I gladly accepted the task and went around looking for the best hard covers on the country's beautiful and varied landscapes. Sending printed matters is usually quite reasonable so I was more than a little shocked when I heard the over A$300 (US$100) price tag. My friend told me to keep the books.

Maybe I had forgotten about the book incident or I was just excited to share a bit of this city with fellow food blogger, Bonnie. I put together a parcel of alfajores by Terrabusi (the equivalent of Tim Tams by Arnott's), a jar of La Salamandra's dulce de leche and some organic Yerba Mate to be on its way to Cambridge, UK.

First of all, the official Correo Argentino boxes were so oddly sized that unless I put the three items in a 5kg tea chest, there was no way of sending them out of this country. Had I done so, however, not only would there be a very high risk of the glass jar breaking in transit, I would have to fork out over US$40 for just sending the parcel.

With US$40, I could buy Bonnie a dozen jars of this caramel spread from the Spanish Deli at World's End on King's Road, in swanky Chelsea. Or maybe, half a dozen jars of the same La Salamandra's or Almacén del Sur from that amusement park of a department store, Harrods, a short ride up the road!

I was really gutted since I thought it would be a really nice way of introducing some Argentine flavour to my friend. However, thanks to the legacy of our corrupt politicians, she is better off buying the national culinary symbol from one of the most expensive stores in the world, across the ocean.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home