Friday, June 17, 2005

Barrio Piletones - Considered to be one of the slums with the best living conditions in Buenos Aires.

Piletones children waiting to be picked up from daycare

Live-in Maid

I just got back from an excellent Argentine movie called Cama adentro; the loose translation is Live-In Maid.

The storyline is very straightforward. An upper-middle class woman and her live-in maid of thirty years are confronted by the harsh reality of Argentina’s recent economic crisis. The divorcee is out of money and cannot pay her maid for six months.

A very structured servant-master bond is shaken. The wealthy woman undergoes profound humiliation because of her loss of status. The working class woman is frustrated as she continues to work without pay. Once the maid leaves to find employment elsewhere, the dependence of her former employer is so great that she cannot do anything for herself. A very routine relationship becomes altered and these women suddenly become very aware of one another’s social positions.

The brilliance of the movie is that class consciousness is presented in a very subtle yet real manner. The acting is superb. Countless scenes are conducted through faint facial expressions and convincing body language. Regardless of one’s ideological inclinations, one is left feeling sympathy for both women. Nor does the movie try to instil a naïve message of hope. It has neither a ‘happy’ nor a ‘sad’ ending.

The movie left me with a personal snapshot of the paradox that exists in a profoundly unequal society like Argentina’s. This contradiction was ignored by most until the crisis peaked in 2001. Now that half the population lives in poverty, and around 10% continue to live like the rich of Manhattan, the juxtaposition is jolting.

About a five minute drive west from my house is Recoleta; an upper class neighbourhood that looks like it belongs in Paris. Twenty minutes to the south is Villa Soldati; a slum that from the outside is indistinguishable from a Brazilian favela or a Venezuelan barrio. The above pictures are from a recent trip to Barrio Piletones in Soldati.

The live-in maid has long epitomized the stark division between the exclusive world of the wealthy and an enormous passive underclass. This divide extends well into the middle class. While the elite have live-in servants, the middle class typically have someone come to their house once, if not several times, a week.

Families that could never afford such a luxury in North America or in Europe, are confronted with a mass of unemployed people who can’t exercise their labour rights.

If affordable, hiring a maid in Latin America is as ingrained as speaking Spanish. I don’t think I know of any upper or middle class families without one. My uncle has had Mari as his, and his mother’s, maid for practically his entire life.

After almost six months, I sometimes forget that I never grew up with this master-servant relationship in Canada. Mari now knows quite a bit about my life, as I often work from home and we occasionally chat. I’m curious to know more about her family, where she lives, what she thinks about her work, and her relationship with her employers (my family). She has a great sense of humour, and we make each other laugh a lot.

But I find that there is something about our relationship that inhibits me from being too friendly. A part of me is afraid of coming across as disingenuous. Perhaps another part of me is ashamed. Here I am in a poorer country enjoying a comfort that I couldn’t have, or want, in Canada. How does one go about reconciling such behaviour?

I am also less independent with Mari around. As I become more reliant upon her, I feel hypocritical for criticizing an upper class that I consider to be too lazy, and too consumed with consuming.

Monday, June 06, 2005

My new roommate Mia. Posted by Hello

Dog-Eat-Dog World

About a week ago, my uncle decided to adopt his girlfriend’s Rottweiler. I normally wouldn’t think much about such a move, but given that I am living with him in his small apartment, the news startled me. Alright, it scared me.

With this beast breathing down my neck, I turned to my most trusted fountain of information: Google. Sure enough there were countless stories of children’s heads getting chewed off. Many more told the sad tale of mauled owners who, without any warning whatsoever, were betrayed by their ‘best friend’. Many North American municipalities have banned the breed.

To calm my nerves I decided to find more ‘objective’ sources. I found some pages that were incredibly defensive regarding the bad press the breed has received; they blame the violent incidents on irresponsible ownership. This was somewhat comforting considering I knew the owner well. She's had no problems raising the mother and the daughter (the one living with me) for the past few years. No attacks reported.

Most ‘neutral’ websites recognize that despite some positive attributes, the animal also has a predisposition to aggression: “The Rottweiler is calm, trainable, courageous, and devoted to their owner and family. They have a reliable temperament. Protective, he will defend his family fiercely. These are strong fighters that seem immune to pain. Serious, steady and confident. Firm and careful training is essential for this breed, otherwise you may end up with a very powerful and overly aggressive dog.”

These words weren’t exactly comforting. The words ‘immune to pain’ are still etched in my head.

On the second day I told my uncle that I probably wouldn’t be able to overcome my fear. I told him that he should try to return the dog as soon as possible.

However, considering how attached he already was, the fact that she sleeps in his bed everynight, and that she is very calm and loveable, I decided I had no choice but to befriend the pooch.

It’s been eight days since and I’ve become considerably comfortable. At first it was tough to hide my fear. But I soon adapted. Since I work from home, and the Rottie hates being alone, she is always at my side. She follows me into the kitchen, to the bathroom door, and back to my desk. I’ve never witnessed such a level of devotion. The dog is also extremely well behaved. At times her loyalty is overbearing. As is her foul odour. My fear is slowly being overtaken by a sense of irritation.

Given this story, it’s fairly obvious that I’ve never lived with a dog. I always wanted one as a child. But as I grew older I saw them more as a burden than as a companion. The poop-and-scooping, the daily walks, the shedding, the smell, the barking and the poop-and-scooping were problems that I could do without.

It’s fitting that I now live in Buenos Aires - a haven for canines. I am constantly astonished by the amount of dogs in this city, particularly my neighbourhood. I’ve begun to ask myself, given all the burdens, why is this such a dog crazed culture?

The simple answer is that dogs play an important role in what is a very social society. Dogs undoubtedly provide companionship and security for people of all ages. They also serve as yet another leisure option for people who care a lot about their free time. The city’s infinite number of parks are constantly crowded by people making small talk while strolling with their canines.

Another important factor is that porteños are better able to deal with the dog-related burdens because of a culture that makes dog ownership a cakewalk.

Dog walkers, who handle well over ten leashes at a time, are quite affordable for the middle and upper classes. The other day I saw a walker chained to 19 dogs. I asked myself what would happen if these dogs suddenly decided to start running.

Another important factor is that poop-and-scooping is not enforced. The consequence: sidewalks become battlefields littered with fecal landmines. Every time I leave the apartment I have to make a conscious effort to avoid shits of all shapes and sizes. Going for a jog in my neighbourhood becomes a sloppy steeple chase.

Apparently there is a bylaw requiring owners to own up to this mess, but given the lawless nature of this society, it is hardly enforced.

Why the lack of enforcement?

Firstly, most people are apathetic about the problem. Some avoid personal responsibility, by saying they are in no way obligated to touch their dog’s crap, especially when no one else does. Others simply deflect the issue entirely, saying that there are far greater problems in Buenos Aires to even start caring about the state of the sidewalks.

This fatalistic attitude is precisely what needs to be overturned if this society wants to change for the better. I tell people that in my humble opinion it is the small, incremental steps that can eventually have a snow ball effect for initiating social change.

By tackling simple problems like dog shit, littering, scarce seat belt use, wreckless driving, Argentines can begin to develop a sense of personal responsibility and accomplishment.

Once confidence and optimism begin to take hold, Argentine society will be able to begin tackling more serious problems, particularly its ingrained corruption, through a shared sense of social responsibility.

In other words, without scooping shit from sidewalks this society will likely continue to promote pieces of poop to power.