Friday, January 9, 2009

The Top Twelve Traveler Tidbits To Titillate and Tips To Tackle The Town Too - Buenos Aires

I had the opportunity to work with two organizations this week - Plan Techos and Voluntario Global. I have pictures and some video to share, but while I'm working on getting those up, I figure I would share some tips, observations and my favorite things about Buenos Aires. Here they are in no particular order:

The Top Twelve Traveler Tidbits To Titillate and Tips To Tackle The Town Too - Buenos Aires (I got a little carried away with the alliteration)

1. People from Buenos Aires (called porteños) in general are very kind, patient, and willing to walk you through the conversation in Spanish. Even if they know enough English to communicate with you, they will take the time to decipher your broken speech, correct you, and let you practice speaking el castellano. In fact, many are shy about speaking English, so they appreciate you trying to speak in Spanish.

I have had many spontaneous 10, 20 even 30 minute conversations in the street with porteños that began with me asking something simple. "What street is this?" "How much do these kiwis cost?" "Do you sell kiddie pools here? (pileta pelopincho)" "What kind of juice do you have?" "Do you know where I could buy a bandana?" (Always followed by a snicker - apparently bandanas and one of the words I was using to describe them 'pañuelo' or a handkerchief is something that is de moda or in fashion for women. Maybe I should just get a haircut...) After people hear me speak in Spanish they want to know where I'm from, and the conversation ensues.

My buddy PJ and I had a long conversation in front of a café with an old couple who lived next door to the place. The woman was 95 years old and her husband was 87. The conversation lasted at least 30 minutes, mainly because the old lady was bordering on senility. She told us at least 6 times that she lived next door to the café - and that she loved to swim. They were amazingly friendly people and in surprisingly good health (apart from the senility thing). I think I am going to start swimming.

2. The kiss greeting applies to guys too. A kiss to the cheek is standard for men, women, and children alike and is not limited to good friends. In San Miguel, a town I visited outside of the capital but still in the province of Buenos Aires, they do a kiss on each cheek. It can catch you off guard if you are not expecting it. I've been smooched more here in the last 2 weeks than I have in 23 years of growing up in the States.

3. Punctuality is inappropriate. Arriving on time can be inconvenient, even irritating, to Argentines unless it is a business meeting. Never show up early - it's rude. In fact, 30 to 45 minutes late is considered proper etiquette. As it was explained to me, the subte (metro) often closes with no explanation, bus routes have to change routes due to protests, and many other unpredictable incidents impede public transport. Over time, people just came to expect tardiness, and it became ingrained in the culture.

4. Buy a Guia "T" when you get here, then forget about using it for the first week - it's too complicated. The Guia "T" enumerates all the bus lines in Buenos Aires, details what streets they use on their routes, and provides maps divided into blocks that list what buses pass through each section. Since there are over 150 bus lines in Buenos Aires (owned by different companies), the Guia "T" is a very useful tool for figuring out your way around the city. The problem is that it is extremely comprehensive and requires some knowledge of the city to make sense. The subte (again, the metro) does not reach many parts of the city, so taking the bus (called a colectivo) is the most practical means of transportation. It is also cheap, though it recently went up from 90 cents (centavos) to 1.25 pesos. 1.25 peso is still only about $0.36 US.

5. Drivers are crazy. Cars have to compete with the colectivos, which drive like they are the only vehicles on the road, and all drivers pull out in front other vehicles if there is any space at all. Many intersections have no stop signs or stop lights, so cars approach assuming they can pass freely. They only slow down if they see another car coming. In city driving where buildings obstruct the driver's view until the last second, this makes for especially nerve-racking car rides. To make it even worse, stop signs are completely ignored in the intersections where they happen to be placed. I have stood at the corner of many intersections where collisions have been avoided by mere inches. Surprisingly I have yet witness one. I heard (merely hearsay, so don't quote me on this) that 30 people a day die in car accidents. In a city of 13 million, I actually would expect more considering the standard for driving.

6. Coins (monedas) are very useful here. The colectivos only accept coins, and since they are the most common form of transportation coins are essential for the day-to-day around-town tasks. When you buy something at a store or kiosk people always ask if you have the change so they don't have to give up their coins. At Coto, the supermarket down the street from me, cashiers ask if the coin change from the transaction can be donated. For example, if the total of the transaction is 3.33 pesos and you hand over 5 pesos, the cashier will ask if you want to donate 67 cents so only 1 peso is owed to you. I typically use my biggest bills for my purchases so I can break them up and stockpile my coins for transportation.

7. Pasta, empanadas, and carne. If you don't like any of these, you're out of luck in Buenos Aires. The city has a huge Italian influence, hence the prevalence of delicious pizza and pasta. Also, Argentina is world renowned for its beef, and you can't walk 2 blocks in the capital without passing a parrilla with an astonishing assortment of different cuts of meat. Being a vegetarian seems nearly impossible, though I have met 2 or 3 since arriving here.

I heard that Argentina has the highest rate of heart disease of any country, and I am starting to understand why after 2 weeks of nothing but pizza, empanadas, and huge hunks of grilled beef cut from every part of the animal, sausages, and all sorts other grilled bovine entrails (sorry, this must be torture for my vegetarian friends). I'm not much of a meat person myself, but it's hard not to love it when you're here.

A giant plate of sizzling Argentinian beef called a parrillada

Turn 6 guys loose on a parrillada...

...and the carne carnage is unstoppable.

My favorite part about it is that the entire plate of beef costs 90 pesos - about $26 US - split 6 ways. Unbelievable!

8. A volatile economy has shaped spending habits. A few Argentines have told to me that people in Argentina tend to spend money when they have it. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Argentina's economy experienced a severe crisis that caused people to rush to the banks, withdraw large sums of money, convert it into dollars and invest it outside of the country. The flight of capital (which exacerbated the already dire macroeconomic conditions) prompted the government to freeze bank withdrawals. In addition, the fixed 1-to-1 peso-dollar parity was abandoned causing the peso to float freely, consequentially losing nearly 80% of its value by the time it finally stabilized at around 4 pesos per dollar. In other words, a large number of Argentines were unable to access their own money and were told that their money was now worth less than a fourth of what it was before. The crisis hit the middle working class hardest. Poor people don't have enough money to have a bank account, and rich people can afford to lose a large chunk of money and still live comfortably. The middle class nearly vanished. Another Spanish word I just learned is la brecha, which means the gap between rich and poor. Apparently the crisis substantially increased this gap.

Even now that the economy is more or less on the mend, annual inflation is at 40%. As one Argentine explained to me, the economy is like a game to them. It's up, it's down, it's back up - with volatility like this, it's no wonder people here spend their money when they have it. If I lived here, made my money in pesos, and stored my money in a peso-denominated bank account, I would not let it sit there for long. Next year it may be worth half of what it is now. I would spend it on meat, wine and vacation - and that is about as Argentine as it gets.

Practically the entire city is on vacation right now. Signs like this one abound.
Closed for vacations
from December 24th 2008 until February 2nd 2009

Over a month of vacation!

9. Mate is a social drink. It is basically a bitter tea that everyone is fanatical about here. Everywhere I go, people hand me a little gourd with a metal straw filled with mate leaves and piping hot water. I don't love the taste of mate, but I thoroughly enjoy the social manner in which it is consumed. It is not something that people typically drink alone here. Instead, it is meant to be shared with friends and acquaintances. When drinking mate, finish the cup, then hand it back to the person who poured it for you. It will come back around - probably more than a few times. If you don't want anymore you say gracias when you hand it back.

10. The Tango is difficult to learn. Take private lessons at first. You can check out this guy Benny's experience learning Tango. I don't have any video of me trying to learn because private lessons are well beyond the budget. I did take a photo with a Tango dancer at the San Telmo market last Sunday though -
That is probably as far as I will get with the Tango.

11. It's perfectly acceptable to stare. It's almost impossible not to...

12. If you hear a beep when boarding the metro, the doors are closing with or without an Aussie in the way. Unfortunately my buddy Alex from the land down under had to demonstrate that for us. They close pretty forcefully, though not enough to maim you - just enough to give you a good scare. Board quickly.

There you have it; 12 tips and interesting tidbits about Buenos Aires. Hopefully it either proves useful for you or provides some entertainment. I'm off to Córdoba tonight on a 9-hour overnight bus. Overnight buses are a good way to save on lodging and take advantage of all the daylight you can. My first semi-cama (semi-bed) experience commences at 11:00 pm. See you in the morning.

1 comment:

  1. Hi JC,

    Found this entry really interesting and gave us the sense of being there ourselves! Glad you are doing well so far and are getting acclimated to the culture. Why is change so hard to come by?
    What type of work did you do with the volunteer organizations? Bet they were glad for your help!
    Be safe and learn lots!
    Reed and Shirley


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