Transport: I’m not sure if the person who designed the Buenos Aires bus system is the same person organising Google’s search algorithms, but it would make sense. With the subway limited mostly to the city centre, the buses are a necessary evil in a city with nearly 20 million people in the wider metropolis. With over 200 lines, it’s a confusing mess where second-guessing where the bus will end up is required. The buses truly do work like bananas to use a Dublin phrase; they come in bunches. I waited 20 minutes for a number 140 yesterday. In that time five number 132s went by. The underground, meanwhile, smells mostly of urine, which I guess you could say adds to its character. The windows look like they are about to shatter to pieces, if they haven’t already, while no clocks display when the next train arrives. It comes when it comes. Transportation is also a risky business. Pickpockets target the crowded undergrounds – we are talking packt like sardines in a crushed tin box crowded – while the creaking transport system has had three major accidents in recent years. The most fatal resulted in 51 deaths at Once train station in February 2012. It may not be efficient, but it certainly is cheap. Up to 3.50 pesos for a journey is about 50 cent each trip. With a transport card, a bus ride costs 20 cent. At 3.50 pesos, a journey is a third of the price of a bottle of coke. Taking a journey on a subway on a Sunday also probably means you don’t have the pay. No one mans the gates, so people just go through. Some train journeys are free too. You could sit on a train for an hour and not have to pay a penny (or centavo as it is here) for the privilege.
Currency: You’ll truly appreciate the value of a stable currency like the dollar, the British pound or the euro (we hope) when you live in Argentina. It borders on comical. You cannot exceed a limit on taking out money per day, which is set at 1,000 pesos (about 160 euro), while the official currency exchange is different from the black market currency exchange. Pop your ATM card into a machine and you get 6.40 pesos for every euro, pop down calle Florida – a shopping street littered with people (illegally) asking for exchange of dollars or euros – and they’ll give you an exchange of around 8.50 pesos for your euro. Cash in hand is worth more than the (same) money in your bank account. Incidentally, both the “official” and black market are responsible. The black market sellers want stable currency, so offer more, but the state manipulates the currency rates in order to keep it lower. This leads to a situation where official businesses, like language schools or hostels, prefer payment in US dollars than pesos. And if you pay in pesos, you won’t pay the “official” rate, you’ll pay somewhere in between the “official” and black market rate. Confused? Thought so. Here in Argentina, they console themselves it could be worse. In Venezuela, the black market exchange to US dollars is around 20:1, the official about 5:1.
The rising peso also means the largest note – the 100 peso note – only has a value of about 16 euros. This means paying for large transaction – like paying rent – requires a serious wad of cash, which makes you feel, briefly, like Scarface’s Tony Montana. Also, there’s a distinct shortage of coins in the city. You’ll need them for the buses, as they only accept change, so guard them like the British guard the Falklands. Also, if you pay for something costing, say 29 pesos, and you hand 30 pesos over the counter, don’t presume you are getting a one peso coin back. And as for asking for change, remember the grotesque face the shopkeeper pulls when you do, it will mean you won’t make such a foolish mistake again. Cost of living: With the minimum wage at 2,875 pesos per month (423 euros), which would be half the amount of the equivalent in my home country Ireland, it’s astonishing Argentines manage to get by when food is on the whole more expensive than in Ireland, rent marginally less expensive, while wine and public transport the only things substantially cheaper. The equivalent of a loaf of bread sets you back around €3, with a bag of crisps €1.50, while an average McDonald’s meal costs 45 pesos (€7.50), while the average in Ireland would be €6.50. As for Iphones and fellow imported technological goods, most Argentines can forget them. They are the preserves of the rich and the thieves who steal them off tourists. A brand new Iphone would set you back almost €1,000 in Argentina, because of import restrictions imposed by the Government, but also the legacy of the default, which resulted in high inflation. Such luxuries normal in the West – like, eh, holidays – are a distant pipe dream for most living in Buenos Aires, even in their own country. One porteno (a person from the capital) recently said even though the country has an abundance of ski resorts, she’d never be able to afford a ski holiday even though she wanted to.
Men and women: Most unsuspecting young woman’s first impression of Buenos Aires will probably be framed by the catcalls and shouts of “linda” or “guapa” from, in the main, old men on the street. Women from Buenos Aires seem to take it more in their stride, instead choosing to say why men from northern Europe are so “timida” (shy). According to women I’ve talked to, men in nightclubs are very aggressive with those who aren’t with a boyfriend, while once in a relationship, don’t hold back confessing their undying love. It’s still the “done thing” for men to pay for the women in Argentina, which in Europe is less and less pronounced. Argentine women are in a word – gorgeous – but are known to be extremely difficult to approach. While not as bland, they’d give the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea a run for their money in terms of pickiness.
Language: I’m still a relative beginner to learning Spanish, but noticeable difference exist between Argentine Spanish and Spanish in other countries, which makes it actually quite a bit more fun to learn. Those from Buenos Aires are called portenos and say “aca” instead of “aquí” (meaning here), while words with double l’s are pronounced differently to name but two examples. Buenos Aires also has its own slang called lunfardo, which is a treat to listen to and learn, as most of the words are dirty or funny in meaning. “Che” meaning “hey you” or “boludo” meaning “man” or “dude”, can also have a more insulting meanings. Some greats are chamuyero (pronounced chah-moo-SHARE-o) meaning a smooth-talker/bullshitter and “tapu” meaning slut, instead of the more widely known “puta”.