Strange but True Cultural Preference in the Southern Cone

They have really thick window shades to block the sun when you go to bed / wake up in the morning.

As someone who prefers a very dark bedroom when sleeping, I loved this about Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. When I stayed at people’s homes, they all had (at times fancy) window shades that kept the bedroom unusually dark.

Always fascinating how these cultural preferences evolve…

Getting Robbed in Buenos Aires

It’s a numbers game: you spend enough time in poorer countries where petty crime is common, and it’s going to happen to you. No matter how vigilant you are, there’s only so much you can do against determined criminals.

Granted, what happened to me today could have been stopped had I been a bit more on guard and scrupulous, so I don’t mean to write off my own failings as a statistical inevitability. Still, this is the context in which I’m viewing the incident, if only to make myself feel better (and because it’s true).

I arrived at the Buenos Aires bus station after a really long bus ride. A 28 hour bus ride. It wasn’t supposed to be that long, but various delays, border control issues, and a malfunctioning bus turned it into an adventure. I don’t mind long bus or plane rides as I can get through a bunch of reading, and this trip was no different. But still, I emerged out of the bus exhausted, dehydrated, and needing to go to the bathroom. So I was more vulnerable at the outset. I walked down into the taxi area to take a taxi to the apartment where I would spend my final night in South America.

At the taxi area where I waited there were few taxis coming, and many of us waiting. A couple cabs came and the others got in them, but after those there were none in sight.

So I walked into the next area of taxis, where more were stopping. One gentleman came up and asked if I needed a taxi. I said yes. So he stood out in the street to try to hail me one. Then another driver who was already parked came over and asked if I needed a cab. At first I was unsure – why was he just parked there? Why wouldn’t he drive up and pick up all the other waiting passengers? His cab looked legit, except that it didn’t have a phone number on the top. But some cabs have the number, some don’t. I said yes and followed him to the car.

The guy who was supposed to hail me one followed me to the car, offered to put my bags in the car, but I declined, knowing he would want a tip if I let him. He still asked for a tip, and I said no.

The driver asked where I was going and I gave him the neighborhood and cross streets. He acknowledged the cross streets and started driving. He was older (in his 60’s or 70’s) and friendly. Not too friendly – not enough to cause suspicion – but friendly. He noted how beautiful a day it was. He made small talk.

Then he asked if the route he was going to take worked for me. I said it was fine. Again, it put me at ease – he made sure I was OK with the route.

We arrived at the intersection where I said to drop me off. The meter, which worked and ran the whole time, said 23 pesos. I gave him a 20 peso bill and a 10 peso bill. He looked at the 20 peso bill and said (in Spanish of course – the whole thing has been in Spanish) that it was no good. It was fraudulent. That I had to go to the bank and change it.

If I didn’t know anything, I would have resisted this explanation and insisted that he take it. But I had heard that ATMs in Argentina sometimes spit out fraudulent bills and that taxi drivers sometimes do not accept bad bills. So it struck me as plausible, even though I’m not able to distinguish good from bad bills.

So I showed him a different 20, he said no good. Then a different 10. No good. All in a friendly voice. At this point cars were honking at us to move so we crossed the street. I showed him more bills. All were bad he said, except for the one 20. Cars honking again – we had to move.

The moves proved physically a bit disorienting.

At this point I began wondering what would happen if he didn’t think any of my pesos were legit. Would I just leave the cab and not pay? Give him the pesos, real or fake, and then leave? Would he force me to go to an ATM and get new pesos?

I then showed him my three 100 peso bills and asked if any of them were ok. He looked at them. No, no, no.

Then he moved quickly. He looked again at the bills, handed me a 2, then a 10, asked for the 20, etc, explaining that some of the bills were legit but not all. It all happened quickly. He then handed me folded bills again and stuffed them in my hand and said “this will be ok.” As I began to open the bills to see what he gave me back, he said urgently, “Watch your bills! A child will try to steal them! Watch your money!”

He then reached over and opened the taxi door. Now I was getting concerned. If someone were trying to steal my money, why would he be opening the door to let them? I clutched my bags (I had all my luggage).

He then said more urgently, watch your cash, watch your cash, be careful, right now be careful, ushering me out the door. I took one look at the folded bills, the 20 was on top, and the 10 underneath it. I clutched my bags. At this point I figured something strange was going on, but due to the language barrier, physical disorientation, lack of free hands with my luggage, and cars honking around us, I didn’t have the frame of mind to go through each of the bills he returned to me. I was more concerned that he might try to drive off with my bags, or that the child he pointed to (the non-existent child) was about to steal my wallet. I got out of the cab, looking around suspiciously, grabbing my bags, and he drove off.

At the apartment I went through my bills. He had stolen several hundred pesos, replacing the 100s with 2’s.

Could have been worse. It could have been violent. Could have stolen my passport or computer or other luggage. But still, this hurts, gives me a sour taste about Buenos Aires, and makes me all the more distrustful of third world taxi drivers.

Cordoba, Argentina

Cordoba

Cordoba is Argentina's second largest city. We arrived on a Sunday morning and it was dead. A ghost town. No one out. I think this is b/c Argentina's a catholic country so more stuff is closed on Sundays, and because they go out so hard on Saturday nights that people don't really get up until late afternoon on Sundays.

There's nothing "to see" in Cordoba but that doesn't mean it's not a pleasant place to pass a few days.

It feels more Argentinean than Buenos Aires — fewer English speakers, more darker skinned/indigenous people, less cosmopolitan overall.

Highlights from Cordoba: going for a run on cobble stone streets, eating dinner at a super local place where an old woman told us the menu orally in Spanish, resting in the lobby of the Sheraton after walking around for several hours aimlessly.

Drinking Mate in Argentina

When in Argentina, be an Argentinean. And that means drink mate, the classic local tea that they drink like I drink 2% milk at home. Locals carry around a thermos of hot water and re-fill their tea throughout the day. Here I am, drinking mate:

Argentina_bencamera 019

Iguazu Falls

IguazuFalls

They are one of South America’s top attractions and they sit at the border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

It’s a 1.5 hour flight from Buenos Aires, which I made with my hosts and Steve. You can also take a 19 hour bus ride.

The water falls put Niagra to shame. They are huge in every way – the total area is wide, the water rushes fast, and the fall / drop is very deep. In some parts you can’t see the water hit the bottom due to depth and mist that ricochets up from the falls.

Due to fog and rain we were not able to take the moonlight-walk tour in the evening. The benefit of the cancelled tour was an extra-leisurely buffet dinner at the national park where we talked and laughed and met a New York film editor who was also trekking through Iguazu.

The town outside the park is small but cute. We ate at the same restaurant for three meals. The restaurant plays interesting jazz/Latin covers of 80’s and 90’s American music. I had mate for the first time – the popular Argentinean tea that you fill and re-fill with a canteen of hot water.

Price Discrimination

So far I’ve been charged 10 pesos, 4.5 pesos, and 3 pesos at various locations in Argentina for the same size and brand water bottle. Not the price swing you’d expect for a generic.

Oh, to be a (white! rich! gringo!) tourist in South America….

Business in Argentina Gets Done in Cash…No, Really, Cash

You can’t get a loan.

Want to buy a house in Argentina? All cash, baby. All cash. 100% equity.

Want to do a commercial real estate deal for a million pesos? Bring a briefcase full of US Dollars. That’s right. A briefcase full of cash.

No joke. This is not a movie. This is business in Buenos Aires in 2009.

It’s easy to bash the banking / financial system in the U.S., especially after the last 12 months, but a few days talking to business people in Argentina reminds me we have much to be grateful for.

Buenos Aires

some quick musings and blow-by-blow, higher level thoughts to come later:

It’s a city with a lot of hype and very high expectations. I can’t say I was disappointed, which then says a lot. It does indeed have a European feel (architecture-wise especially), it seems livable and walkable, the people are friendly, there’s a nice water element, food excellent, etc. The people are attractive but not especially attractive. (Seriously – people talk about the women like they’re goddesses– not really.)

The nightlife is perhaps BA’s most noteworthy feature. Steve and I didn’t see it all but we did go out one night and got a sense. Here’s the deal: it goes on LATE. The clubs, bars, set-up is all the same as anywhere (with a few exceptions – you pay for drinks at a cash register, get a ticket, then go to the bartender). The main difference is how late it all starts and how long it goes till. Most nights you eat dinner around 9 or 10 PM. On weekends, you then might pre-game at around midnight, and get to a club at around 1:30 AM or 2:00 AM. If you show up at a club before 1:30 AM, no cover charge. You’ll stay till about 6 or 7 AM. Insanity. (Got offered cocaine in the club. first time. they must target tall white gringos. I was deeply honored.)

I spent at least 8-9 hours just walking around the city. It lends itself well to just wandering around – there aren’t any big attractions to see, at least in my view. No must-see museum or monument or market or square. There are a bunch of mid-level attractions.

The first day Nate and I walked around, checked out a flea market, ate a traditional sausage sandwich, took a bus, saw the widest street in the world, checked out Puerto Madero and the Pink House (where the prez works – like the White House). Second day I met a book/blog reader, walked around some more, met an old friend at a coffee shop, and enjoyed terrific winter weather (which is like SF weather in the summer). Some of the hoods feel like NYC SoHo.

 

Third day Steve arrived, and we….did more walking. laid out in a park. Korean food for lunch, pasta for lunch (even though we thought it was going to be a steakhouse), then the club.

Next day a blog reader showed Steve and I around. Walked through famous graveyard – some unbelievably ornate tombstones and the like. Lot of laughing and good conversation. One take away: poor countries face a really difficult brain drain. Their smartest young people want to leave!

Met an American ex-pat – got good run down on what ex pat life is like, biz environment, etc. Most ex pats come for low cost of living and nightlife, it seems.

Steak for breakfast, steak for lunch, steak for dinner. It’s good. i can’t tell good steak from bad but i’m sure it’s above average.

Swine Flu Mania in Argentina

Talk of swine flu has died down in the U.S., but in Argentina (where it's winter) it's all the rage and more. Exiting the plane in Buenos Aires we each had to wear a mask and then go through a health screening. Schools have been closed for a month. New restrictions have been enacted — no children shopping alone in malls alone, a seat between each person at movie theaters.

To date, 50 people have died of swine flu in Argentina.

Every year, 10,000 people die of seasonal flu in the U.S.