Monday, November 28, 2005


The origin of the term Yankee is blurry.

If anyone cares, some claim Yankee was a derogatory term the English slapped on the Dutch in the early
New England days. Another theory has it that the indigenous population pronounced “English”, as Yengis, and eventually Yankee stuck. Some claim it’s a variation of the French word anglais…

Whatever the origin, the use of the term Yankee (or yanqui as it’s spelt down here) is common place in Argentina and has one unmistakeable meaning: a US citizen.

Note: since Canadians are always confused with Americans, they often fall into the yanqui category. Since the term is not derogatory and I don’t have any serious reservations about being mistaken for an American, I have come to accept being mislabelled as a yanqui-argentino.

Most Argentines, myself included, generally enjoy the growing presence yanqui expats or at the very least get great laughs from mocking the stereotypical yanqui tourists. Many of the expats I’ve met down here are well-educated, cultured, and have embraced Argentine society with a passion I have never witnessed.

My opinion of the gringo community in Costa Rica was not so positive. During my year in Ticolandia, I quickly learned that San Jose is a giant casino and brothel for thousands of degenerate Americans, who flock from such cultural bastions as Tampa Bay and Key West, Florida.

Degenerates aside, most people visit Costa Rica for its natural beauty. The result is that the tiny paradise of biodiversity is overcrowded, overflowing with tourist traps, and the locals are left with an image of the American population which is not too encouraging.

While Argentina does have its natural paradises, most foreigners come for the cultural activities - which thanks to the latest economic crisis are available at bargain prices. Visitors are almost always pleasantly surprised by the passionate porteño way-of-life, the crazy nightlife, the huge cuts of steak and Italian delicacies, the fútbol fever, and the rich tradition in tango, music, literature, arts and cinema.

While there are countless tourist traps and sex tourism businesses, Buenos Aires is so large and offers so much more, that it is not in danger of becoming a 1950s Havanna or a modern day San José.

The expats I have met and befriended in the past few months provide some anecdotal evidence for this generalization.

In the social sector, I became good friends with the director of HelpArgentina, Lloyd Nimetz, as well as a various inspirational members of the team. The organization provides a fundraising bridge between the international donor community and the Argentine social sector.

Although it is a relatively new organization, they have undertaken the ambitious mission of connecting over 30 hardworking, yet often isolated and financially constrained nonprofits with the global philanthropic marketplace. By becoming part of HelpArgentina’s network, an NGO is certified as a transparent, efficient and ethical organization. This certification in turn leads to greater credibility and visibility in the international donor community.

This past month I attended their award ceremony titled Social Ambassadors 2005, Solidarity without Borders. I watched five people working overseas to help the Argentine social sector receive recognition for their work.

Picture: Here are members of the HelpArgentina staff after the award ceremony.

Two weeks later, HelpArgentina held their first annual International Solidarity Night. The event mobilized 1200 people to participate in 80 dinners in 24 cities, in 11 countries, in order to raise money for 26 different social organizations in Argentina.

My family, along with Lloyd, hosted a dinner to support Los Piletones neighbourhood council. My grandfather, who has been volunteering in the barrio for a few years now, has always pointed out that a huge obstacle to development is the lack of sustainable funding for vital infrastructure. He was pleasantly surprised by how such a young, expat-led organization, such as HelpArgentina, could demonstrate such a strong sense of international solidarity.

Picture: My family, along with Lloyd from HelpArgentina (standing far right) and Monico Ruejas from Los Pilotenos (sitting down, far left) at the International Solidarity Night.

My father, who lives in Toronto, also held a dinner for the same cause by inviting about 20 of his Argentine friends to a typical Argentine dinner at his house.

Buenos Aires’ social scene also has its share of yanqui movers and shakers. YesBA, aka Young Expatriates' Society of Buenos Aires, provides an online bulletin for expats to get together, find someone to practice their Spanish with, find roommates, etc. On the first Thursday of every month, YesBA holds a wine tasting/art gallery gathering for expats to mingle.

Through the blogosphere, I have kept up with several interesting expat journals.

Robert’s line of sight covers a broad array of topics, from a insightful post on the Cromañon tragedy to photos of the latest stencil graffiti. I had the chance to meet Robert and get to know his Urban Explorer walking tours first-hand when he took me on his Recoleta Cemetery tour. His knowledge of Buenos Aires history is impressive. I highly recommend him to anyone wanting to know more about Buenos Aires, particularly off-the-beaten-path.

A couple of more expat blogs which have caught my eye are: GoodAirs and Buenos Aires, City of Faded Elegance. At GoodAirs, Ian and Cintra cover a wide variety of contemporary issues from an inquisitive, and often humourous, journalistic point of view. At City of Faded Elegance, Jeff, a librarian by trade, always provides a thoughtful take on literary Argentina, as well as covering other themes.

Lastly - as I realize what time it is - I have Monday night soccer games with a group of American and European expats. The level of play is surprisingly competitive. Not quite as cut throat as playing with a bunch of Argentines, but at least the sportsmanship means that we can all enjoy post-game drinks and pizza without holding any game-time grudges…

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Boca vs. River

Despite their miserable season, River fans were dedicated to packing their stadium and draping it in red and white.

After years of listening to second-hand hype I was finally able to feel a superclásico with my own pores. The game was poorly played and ended in a miserable 0-0 tie. However, the unforgettable and at times terrifying entertainment was provided by the hardcore hinchas (fans) and the fear producing barra bravas (hooligans).

The night before the derby a friend of mine surprised me with an extra ticket. Only after dishing out 80 pesos (approx. US$26), did I find out how rare my ticket was. I would be going to the game under the most dodgy of circumstances: as one of the 4,500 visiting Boca fans in a stadium packed with 60,000-plus River fans.

In the days leading up to the match, tens of thousands of Boca fans spent hours lining up, fighting with one another and the police, for this scarce sum of seats. Essentially, landing one of these tickets was as impossible as crossing Avenida 9 de Julio in just one green light – a street which is dubbed as the ‘widest avenue in the world’, about 16 lanes wide, and takes about 3 to 5 minutes to cross.

Given the poor level of play on the field, by far the most exhilarating part of the match was entering the stadium. The security surrounding River Plate’s stadium gave one the feeling that a hated foreign leader was visiting (think Bush in Mar de Plata). Boca fans took a tightly barricaded path to the stadium, lined with riot geared police atop horses.

As I became engulfed by hundreds of Boca fans making their way to the first of three ticket check-points, I sensed an indescribable tension I have never felt before. The equation behind my uneasiness seemed to boil down to a combination of the following: an hincha’s unconditional love for his team + a few Quilmes beers + a joint or two + a possible criminal record + a life long disdain for the police + most importantly, an ingrained hatred for all that is River Plate = inevitable violent encounters.

Since River fans were pre-emptively kept a few blocks away from the Boca fans, the police were the only enemies within striking range. I witnessed several intoxicated fans insult, spit, throw rocks at the cops. Being the professional police service that it is, Buenos Aires’ finest responded in kind. Batons were wielded liberally, graphic insults were thrown right back, and horses were used to trample a few dozen people. At one point I got caught up in one of the mini-stampedes and got thrown against a tree. Luckily I escaped unharmed. As I peeled myself off the tree, my mind was filled with second thoughts about entering.

The turmoil then took a turn for the surreal. Several dilapidated buses, inexplicably escorted by police cruisers, arrived at the crowded check point, which then parted like the Red Sea. La 12, Boca’s barra brava, had arrived. The chaotic herd of fans suddenly displayed a sense of deference that is usually reserved for religious ceremonies, they chanted in unison, and patiently waited for the buses to pass the check-point.

La 12 was exempted from presenting tickets or stopping at any security posts. Once the buses entered, the mob’s impatience and belligerence resumed, and my awe of the entrance I had just witnessed was overtaken by the original sense of fear. I badly wanted to photograph the events, but taking out a digital camera seemed at tad risky.

The only sense of comfort I had was that I was going to the game with a die hard Boca fan who has attended countless River-Boca classics. On numerous occasions he repeated: “Keep your ticket in your pocket. Don’t make eye contact with anyone who looks drugged. And if someone bigger than you asks for your money, give it up, no questions asked. Don’t take out your camera till we're in. Most importantly, don’t lose your ticket.”

When we finally made it to the third and final check point at the stadium gates, I pulled out my ticket, expecting to pass it through the electronic turnstile. How naïve of me. No one was using the turnstiles. Tickets were to be handed over to high ranking barra brava men, including Rafa Di Zeo, the presumed Boca head honcho, who is still wanted to appear in court for inciting violence. Police and River Plate officials quietly watched the corruption carry itself out.

Exercising the god-like powers of a mobster, I watched El Rafa decide who got to enter the stadium and who didn’t. At one point, he pointed to a guy and said: “What have you done for Boca!? How come you didn’t come to Brazil? And now you want to get in??!!” The guy simply couldn’t protest. His unused ticket, like my recycled ticket, would probably end up in someone else’s hands.

After witnessing a few more incidents between crazed fans and the repression happy police, I was relieved to finally be inside the stadium. Once we squeezed our way to the very top row of Boca’s standing room only section, I realized that I was attending a soccer game and not trying to sneak into a prison.

Boca fans, about 5,000 of them, crammed into this standing-only section of the stadium and as usual, made their presence felt.

The level of play was so poor that it’s not worth commenting on. Early on people around me started displaying their disgust for first-place Boca’s laidback attitude in a game they were supposed to win against a struggling River. By half time everyone around me was convinced that a fix was on to end the game in a tie, appeasing the fans and keeping tensions to a minimum.

Indeed, the 0-0 result meant that everyone left the stadium in a strikingly different manner in which they entered it. People were quiet, non-violent, and disappointed that they dished out so much cash to watch a hyped up match end up in a scoreless draw.

I was happy enough to survive my first superclásico.