[In 2002, I was back working in Houston, but I was still sent to South America, occasionally. But, this particular post has to do with a private trip we made first to Peru where my wife’s family lives. It was a convenient place to let the the two young sons visit their aunt, uncle and grandmother while the wife and I sneaked off to Argentina for a week. the prices I quote seem ridiculously cheap and not all of that is inflation from then to now – as explained in the text. I was writing “Ten Things You Should Know When Visiting (Blank)” articles, in those days and I just hit a big vein of them in a long-untouched directory copied faithfully from computer to computer over the years.
I can’t find any pictures of this particular trip and I think we were in a video camera phase at that time. We still have the videotapes somewhere, but we never look at them. Someday we will transfer those to digital media and look at the young strangers who took that trip so long ago. Meanwhile I have scarfed a couple of “file photos” just to break up the text. I have put in a few modern remarks which are set off from the 16-year-ago prose with brackets [like this].
Ten Thing You Should Know When Visiting Buenos Aires
- The streets and freeways are quite clean, which is unusual in this part of the world. As in many cities there are “recyclers” who comb the garbage for anything of residual value but, astoundingly, they clean up after themselves with brooms and extra garbage bags. This is probably because the Argentinos like to think of themselves as displaced Europeans. I myself have higher ambitions than to be a European. [With no offence to my European friends intended – this was before I met y’all 😉 ]. The hotel even has European bathroom fixtures, complete with bidet. Do you know anyone who actually uses a bidet?…’cause I don’t.
- The streets are about a bus and two cabs wide and that’s what one usually finds in the width of the street. That is, except for Avenida Nueve de Julio [Ninth of July Avenue] which is the widest in the world, they say.* The sidewalks are about three feet wide – barely enough room for two to pass without stepping into the street. And ye had best not, if ye want keep yerself in one piece, ’cause the buses zoom by, with inches to spare, at ridiculous speeds.
*[That’s it in the picture above. If you see 10 pictures of Buenos Aires at random, five of those have this street in them]
- The buses themselves are 80 cents (of a Peso) and the machines you drop your coins into actually make change. Best to get a seat if you can’t reach the grab bars, ’cause these vehicles spend most of their time in robust acceleration followed by vigorous braking. For variety there are sudden lurches to the left and right. I never found a bus schedule but the hotel staff, store clerks and food servers are most helpful in this subject, as many of them probably depend on busses. There is a Metro (a subway, I mean to say), but I didn’t manage to see any of it.
- As usual, no one is marching in the street, screaming anti-American threats. The anti-American mindset exists mostly in the imagination of the press (that includes the US media), some perpetual malcontents who manage to get a lot of face time on TV and a few asinine dictators who would be universally hated in their own country if they could not whip up an anti-American frenzy as a diversion. I won’t mention names but two of them rhyme with Bastro and Busien. If you’re still worried about it, pretend to be from New Zealand. Most folks don’t even know where the heck that is. If you meet an actual Kiwi, you may have some explaining to do.
- The best bet for changing money is the ATM’s with several networks. They’re called “multicajeros” (mool tea kah hair ose…accent on hair). Look for the symbol of your particular network. You get the latest exchange rate and they are to be found in banks with armed guards standing politely about, the better not to worry about muggers. I never have any trouble with muggers, but I am six foot three and probably weigh twice what you do. There are lots of armed guards in Latin American countries and they are, generally speaking, polite because they have a strong sense of self-confidence. It has to do with the Uzi and the flack jacket. It pays to be just as polite to them.
- Prices are (by law, apparently) quoted in Pesos. The symbol for Pesos is “$”. You might have thought that was for dollars. Apparently it began with a really skinny “P” over a regular uppercase “S”. When, rarely, prices are quoted in US Dollars, a “U” is added before the “$” and an extra “$” is appended. Like this: U$$ Prices are, to say the least, astounding just now (July 2002). Some examples of ridiculously affordable purchases: Lunch for two in a rather pleasant sidewalk cafe consisting of steak and side dish with beer and dessert: $20 (remember – that’s U$$ 5.63). High quality leather jacket: $400 (about U$$ 113). Tango show, dinner and drinks for two in a really plush dinner theater: $220 ( U$$ 62). I got a hand-out for a burger joint that priced the bacon double cheesburger with fries and a drink at less than one US dollar. I was too busy at really plush dinner theaters and rather pleasant sidewalk cafes to actually eat there.
- One thing you never make fun of in Argentina is the Tango. Don’t worry – I didn’t learn this by painful experience, but rather by simple observation. The Tango started about a hundred years ago as a saloon dance and has evolved into a refined art form that is most highly regarded. There are “Tango Shows” in elegant theatres where the dancers on stage perform energetic, kick intensive maneuvers that would quickly start a fist-fight on any pubic dance floor. Instead of the original one guy with a guitar, there is an orchestra with a string section, a piano and two accordions.
[I remember this fountain, which we saw on a bus tour. That must be the Capitol Dome behind it. Another bus tour took us to a Dude Ranch where Gauchos did horse-riding tricks and there was a period house with clothes and furniture of the Early 20th Century. It was there I met the only black man in Argentina (a tourist from Nigeria, it turns out). He asked me to take a picture of him with one of the hats in the exhibit. When he put it on, the “spittin’ image” of Nat King Cole looked back at me. It was quite a vivid impression, like having seen a ghost. You can tell, because I remember it to this day in 2018. The picture below is the real Nat, of course. That man could sing circles around most vocalists of today. He was also and accomplished piano and banjo player. If you can find it on Netflix or at the Redbox, watch the movie “Cat Ballou”]
- Another thing (or rather, person) you don’t make fun of is Eva Peron. A First Lady of renown in the fifties, she has achieved a status of near-sainthood. If you can get through a day in Buenos Aires and not see a picture of Evita, then either you were not paying attention and are in serious danger of being hit by the busses I mentioned, or you don’t know what Eva Peron looked like.
- There are several pedestrian streets referred to as peatonales (Pea at tone Al ess…accent on Al). These are of course lined with “retail opportunities”. Evidently there is a long tradition of “barkers” (I don’t have a Spanish equivalent for that) who stand at strategic spots and talk up their establishment and hand out…well…hand-outs. There are also people who want to “talk” to you for just a minute (I’m not sure what they’re up to and I don’t want to find out). And, of course, the depressingly common occurrence of street beggars.
- Don’t call home from the hotel, because they are not participating in the “ridiculously affordable” phenomenon – not on phone calls, anyway. There are telecom shops called “Locutorios” (Low coo tore ee ohs…accent on tore) where you are assigned a phone booth with a chair (they want you to be comfortable). Rates are usually posted on the front door and are reasonable. You make all the calls you like, your accumulating charges appear on a digital readout and in the end you pay at the counter.
Buenos Aires is in the midst of a short window of opportunity for affordable travel. Argentina was well-known as an expensive place before and I expect it will return to that status when the economy recovers. I reckon I’ll check the news for the latest country to declare bankruptcy before I plan my next vacation.