Monday, March 02, 2015

The Argentina Travel Cheat Sheet

So I'm just back from the glorious country of Argentina. Yes Argentina, the home of tango, Malbec, football and steak, but also a land that is at it's heart so much more- a nation with a fierce identity and a tragic political history that reveals itself as a bittersweet triumph of the human virtues of greed, exploration and freedom.

As immortalized in his The Motorcycle Diaries, Che', Argentina's biggest gift to its neighbours, famously found his raison d'etre of helping others during his travel through the country. So here follows my little inspired attempt to help future travellers get the best out of this incredibly beautiful country. For if there's one destination that rewards travellers for rigorous pre-planning and having comprehensive updated knowledge, then this is it. So here are some tips, based on our experience, that are not readily available in guidebooks or online forums, but those that will greatly enhance your trip.
  1. Plan ahead. Seriously I cannot emphasise this enough. A few reasons why: a lot of experiences are only available on certain days of the week (such as Domingo markets); the most reliable tour operators get booked out quickly; and its imp to book domestic flights for the right times so as not to waste days, especially in Patagonia.
  2. Argentina is expensive. Very expensive in fact, especially if you do not follow the money tips below. Years of very high inflation have led to businesses increasing prices rapidly even in dollar terms, so take the guidebook prices with a heavy dose of chimichurri and do your own research directly via websites or your hotel. This will help avoid nasty surprises and you can choose the best places to eat accordingly.
  3. Carry lots of USD cash. Argentina is one country where the traditional money wisdom needs to be thrown out of the door. So leave the credit cards at home and carry USD enough for ALL your expenses, including hotel bills. This is because Argentina has two exchange rates, one the official rate (1 US$ = 8.75 AR$ (pesos)) and the other the unofficial rate, called the blue rate which can range anything from (1 US$ = 10 to 14 pesos). Businesses usually quote 3 rates: a) credit card rate, which is the amount in pesos you will pay if you elect credit card- this is the least economical as you will effectively be converting at the official rate. b) dollar efectivo: the rate you pay if you have USD cash, which will be a discount of 10-25% on the quoted price, and c) the cash rate in pesos, which will be the USD cash rate but converted into pesos at mostly the official rate, but sometimes even at the blue rate! So if you have dollars and convert it to pesos from time to time,  when shopping you can choose to pay either in dollars or pesos depending on the rate offered and get a lot of bargain savings. The country is generally safe, and every hotel has a safe box, so this is the best strategy. If you are too paranoid to do so, or have forgotten to get dollars, despair not. Use Azimo, a brilliant service that allows you to pay pounds/dollars from your UK bank account, and collect an equivalent amount of pesos (at a very good rate of 11.5) from an Argenper branch in town. I have used them and fully recommend their reliability, but with some warnings: a) its only in their fine print that they say that they don't work on weekends b) the Argenper branch near Recoleta is a bit out of the way; c) the branches are only open 11 am-1pm in some cases, d) there is no branch in Palermo, the most popular barrio for tourists and e) you need a passport with you, so don't combine that with a visit to risky La Boca! Hence I advise doing big sums at a time.
  4. Convert your USD cash into pesos NOT at unofficial cambio shops but at restaurants. This was a tip we learnt from experience. Some restaurants quote a rate of 14, so if your bill is AR14 they will ask you to pay AR14 or 1 USD. You can then give them a big, lets say 100USD, note and ask them for the change in pesos, which means they will effectively convert the balance into pesos at the high rate. And given they are reliable, you dont expose yourself to getting fake money, which is a problem at the unofficial shops. 
  5. Master a bit of Spanish. As with any country, it will enhance your experience, but especially in Patagonia it will be a life skill! Will also help to know the numbers when exchanging money- once (11), doce (12), trece (13), catorse (14). 
  6. But wait, Argentines have their own confusing version of Spanish. Hell, they even call it different, Castellano, which is the old formal name the Spanish used for Espanyol. So if you know a bit of the language, be prepared to not understand a word on your first day! It is simple to get around that though- they pronounce the ll as j and not as y (so a street, calle, is pronounced caje) and use vos instead of tu. And they say aqa instead of aqui to mean "here".
  7. Do not leave your shopping to the Ezeiza duty free shops. Like their money, Argentines have parallel official and unofficial economies. So whether it be limited edition Malbecs or their much beloved sweet treats, Dulce de leche or Alfajores, they are best bought locally based on street recommendations. The airport shops are super expensive. For wines find a local chino: shops so called because they are run by Chinese immigrants. 
  8. You can carry as much wine in your hand luggage as you want. Argentina does not have any liquid restrictions when leaving the country! Remember to check your country's allowance though- for the UK it is 4 litres per person (so that's about 5 bottles).
  9. It's a tipping culture. As every waiter will undoubtedly remind you! Standard is 10% so factor that into your budget.
  10. You can redeem the 21% VAT at the airport. When shopping locally, if there is a Global Blue sign and VAT is charged, ask for a receipt. Then arrive early at the airport and get the refund. Worth it only for big purchases.
  11. You can order half portions at restaurants, and you can share. Both are very common practices with locals (as is watering your wine to make it last longer!) so don't feel ashamed to do so- portions are generally generous.
  12. Argentines don't believe in breakfasts. The country likes to eat breakfast like a pauper and dinner like a king, so it is not common for hotels to provide hot substantial breakfasts. If your hotel doesn't provide one, the options outside will be very limited, as cafes open only at 11 am. So choose your hotel carefully if this is important to you!
  13. Don't assume the worst when it comes to food. Argentines are going through a massive vegan revolution, and not only in BsAs (Buenos Aires Verde is probably the best vegan restaurant we have been to in the world) but also in the other tourist regions, there are veg restaurants available.
  14. Keep yourself updated! This info is valid as of 3 March 2015, and things can change quite quickly, so please check that all of the above is still valid during your trip.

Buen suerte & un abrazo!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Is Gravity based on Homer's Odyssey?

I have a feeling the plot of the film Gravity is loosely based on Homer's Odyssey Chapters 5-8. (Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD) 

See here for a quick summary & analysis of The Odyssey.

Like the protagonist of the Greek poem, Sandra Bullock's character Dr. Ryan Stone is weak, full of self-doubts and wrought from past suffering, but is carried by the prowess of her mind, her intellect. George Clooney's character is very obviously God-like and resembles Athene, the goddess that helps Odyssey along the way (genders reversed!). Most of Odyssey's troubles happen on the dark sea, and the visual imagery of space in Gravity is as dark. Then there are the minor details- Odyssey's raft also broke down and to survive he had to first reach Skheria (cue: Chinese station) from where he took a bigger ship above.

But above all, the end scene is very symbolically similar to Odyssey's salvation as he finally swims ashore and collapses.

Ofcourse I could be totally wrong! In any case, beautiful movie.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Shilpa Saket Jain (14 Sep’78 to 28 Jul’11): A Tribute

“I’m veryyyy fine. How are you doing, Doctor?”

A week after my beloved sister Shilpa passed away, her strong words uttered haltingly but defiantly still proudly echo in our thoughts.

It was only two weeks ago, though it now seems ages. She was bed-ridden, and was in extreme pain and deep discomfort. But the final blow had been dealt to her only a few days back- she had lost her vision completely. The development had crushed my cowardly spirit - I couldn’t even imagine what it had done to her. A world without colour seems no world at all. So when asked the routine inquiry of how-you-doing by her doctor, we expected a sigh, a loss for words, or at best an “Ok” to save us the pain. We also braced ourselves for her tears, just in case. But yet another time in these last few months, she proved us wrong, reaching into her inner well of spirit and pulling out bucketfuls, just when we thought it had finally run dry.

It was a side of Shilpa didi that we had never really fully grasped. A post-mature entry into the world, she was a physically weak baby who took her own time to start growing. Her heels were to always remain her Achilles heels - her legs ached frequently. She also suffered often from medically unfathomable migraines. Her soft temperament reinforced the picture - she never raised her voice, never said much and always sacrificed her ego for peace. In a superficial age of visual impressions, she hardly seemed an icon of strength.

But beneath that exterior was a steely nerve determined to fight her frailties and rise above them. She was the glue that bound the family together with her understanding and her humour. She possessed an innate ability to handle everyone and to diffuse stress with her characteristic spare-none wit. I still fondly remember her first payslip - she gave the entire amount home, save a nice sum for me as pocket money. It was the same after marriage and into motherhood - she coolly picked up the added responsibilities and fulfilled them stoically.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, we as a family wondered: how would Shilpa didi deal with it? With immense courage, she answered in her own silent way, as she flew from Singapore to India on her own for treatment, despite her weakness. It was a difficult, long surgery the next day but she sailed through it without an emotional scar; Mummy and Maasi described her as amazingly peaceful and smiling afterwards. We were relieved - the worst was seemingly behind us and Shilpa didi had navigated it with the best of her resolve on display.

But God (does he exist? I’m not sure anymore) had other plans; worse was to follow. The aggressive cancer would continue to run amok, and despite ongoing treatment, within weeks it had evaded its persecutors and found refuge in the spinal fluid, its safe haven. Her death warrant had effectively been issued.

The terminal nature of her illness didn’t unfaze didi however, and over the next four months, as her condition stabilized and her mobility improved, she fought hard to resume normal life. We had been dreading about how to break the news of the terminal nature of her illness to her, but she found out on her own, and in a few days had picked herself up from the shock. She wanted to live, and she wanted to be that miracle that would be talked about for years later. Despite weakness, backbreaking injections and toxic drugs, she went alone to evaluate schools for her 2-year old son Ruhaan, prepared yummy food from cookbooks for her family and made plans for moving back to Singapore. Even during such a time of personal agony, she cared deeply for us and asked us all not to stress.

The end came peacefully and painlessly (Him at play?), albeit too fast for our liking. But we mercifully got enough time to spend by our didi’s side, engaging with her in merry conversation. She usually took care of the “merry” bit. When her friends visited, she ribbed them with jokes from college days and demanded a head massage from each of them. She interrogated the nurses about their love lives. And she spun stories out of thin air for Ruhaan.

Dear didi, you left us very early, but with tons of love, respect, admiration and inspiration. You blessed our lives with your caring, selflessness, loving and humour. Your indomitable spirit will always shine brightly in our hearts. Above all, you have taught us life’s two most important lessons - how to live, and how to die. We will always love you. And we promise that we will make Ruhaan a great man, just as you asked.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Seasons' Greetings to Ye All!

So, here's wishing you all discerning readers a Merry Xmas and a very happy, prosperous 2009!

For everyone, the new year brings with it memories and milestones, regrets and resolutions, and criticisms and change. The same for my blog too, so I thought I'd spruce it up a bit. So here are a few new features, the Labels Cloud on the top right, a new link list on The Popular blogs that I follow, and I've also added links to some great financial blogs/ sites that I regularly visit to get a handle on this crazy world! Do check them out and let me know your feedback...and of course, if you visit any great interesting, novel blogs, DO DO let me know! After all, isn't the festive season all about sharing?

And I've finally embraced the blogging-tech-geek-culture and familiarized myself with RSS feeds and the likes- high time I guess. I actually sat up last night and pored through reams of online research on effective blogging, and decided that, come 2009, I'm going to be more techy! So now you can, with 1 click of your mouse, subscribe to my blog FOR FREE! (Find it hilarious? Read somewhere that the "subscribe" word has monetary connotations to laymen and hence scares them away, so smart bloggers actually specify that!) . But if you are as bad as me and had to be explained how to know whether your internet connection is wireless or not, then worry not, you can subscribe to my blog via email and I'll send to your inbox my blogs!

Take care and see you soon :)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A SOP Story

The mention of those three letters still give me nightmares. Together, they represent the one nemesis common to every aspirant of higher education or employment- whatever it may be it that the young hopeful may be pursuing, an MBA, MS or a PhD, his/ her journey isn't complete without the final literary hurdle- the S.O.P aka Statement of Purpose.

It appears in different innocuous forms, some universities nonchalantly mentioning the 3 letters and thereby killing the faint-hearted, while others opt for the more subtle, creative approach, "Describe your life in sixty words", "How will doing a [insert degree] help you in your chosen career?" or worse, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Face it, there's no escaping it, you've been SOPed!

And you cringe, because, nothing makes makes you feel more purposeless in life than being asked pointedly about it. Its almost like an allegation of a crime, an unbearable burden of proof, "What do you mean, what's my purpose??? Are you out of your head? OF COURSE I HAVE A PURPOSE!! And I'm not going to @$%%" tell you about it!!!" Selling oneself already is a hard task for the young ego, but nothing hurts as much as when your individuality is threatened. Because a SOP does just that, with its unsaid pressure on you to show yourself as different- you know that you are, but just can't put it on paper.

My first encounter with a SOP was in my MS applications. Perhaps a bit carried away by someone committing the folly of asking ME to talk about MYSELF on an open canvas, I gave the right hand a free hand, waxed eloquent on everything imaginable about my life and even peppered the script with a liberal handful of my favourite grandiose words such as "quintessential" and "instrumental" (pity they didn't like my autobiography). And then I ran into it during applications for MBA school, wherein I hastily concocted a story around my favourite characters of Soft Skills, Business Acumen, Networking and Perspective (It turned out to be a suspense tale about a missing Point).

But if I thought I had seen the last of them, I was heavily mistaken, because a few months after joining, there was I, besaddled with yet another goddamn application form for summer internship, with the $$$$$ question staring at me, "Explain the reasons for your decisions in life". *!:@:{:!- I could see through the wolf's clothing- here was another SOP virus.

The stakes were a bit higher this time around, so I sat down seriously to mull over my life. The gaze was turned inwards and the mind was subjected to a 3rd-degree interrogation, but all to no avail. I grew cynical, for my genuine answer was that I had no clue, and that I wasn't sorry for it. What the heck, I was all of 21. Skill sets? I was aware of my strengths and weaknesses but honestly didn't know what my "skills" were. Maybe I was yet to build them? Decisions? I didn't have any career counselling priveleges and took up engineering simply because the brightest in my times took it up. Sad but true for 90% of people in my time. Future plans? I genuinely didn't believe in a 5-year plan for my career (and still don't) , and I liked my cluelessness about what I'd be in 5 years time- it displayed something called flexibility. Why should everyone conform to rationale? And why is there no place for chaos?

But I guess, when firms ask these questions, what they dig at is deeper than mere clarity of mind. Everyone knew these questions are always a fair bit of spin-doctoring, and yet they are the rules- so they are followed, irrespective of whether they agree with your morals or not. And so what actually is tested is your practicality and your EQ- are you level-headed enough to do what's asked of you, without getting cynical about it? In some ways, I find that synonymous with professionalism or corporate discipline- it's like politely leaving only after your boss does- he knows you are idle but can't leave because its only 6, and you know that he can see that too- but you both still duly play your parts. (Some of us are lucky to break that mould though!)

And thus the sense was imbibed into my revolting head, and I resolved to ridden myself of the vexing question, polling friends and seniors on "What is a cool purpose to have nowadays?" "Entrepreneurship!!", roaring came the answers back, from all quarters, and so I mixed the flavour of the season with a few toppings of fact (my dad is one), cut back on the flowery prose and explained to the firm, with a deep sense of pride, how honoured was I to be born into a Marwari business family, how my parents imbibed in me a strong sense of initiative, and how ambitiously I planned to grow my father's chemical engineering business after gaining a management skillset from my MBA followed by a few years of hands-on experience. Unfortunately, so did everyone else :)