When I started my new challenge with GreenBuilding4All, I decided to fly to Latin America. Why? I don’t really know, I always have had a feeling for this unknown part of the world. South America is huge, I had to focus on a country to start. First temptation was Brazil. But I didn’t speak a word of Portuguese (still don’t). So I headed to another tempting country: Argentina. All feedbacks from friends where highly positive. So I booked my ticket to Buenos Aires. I spent 4 months before moving to Montevideo, Uruguay. 4 months full of surprises, different from my expectations.
Argentina offical image Vs Reality
Recent events brought Argentina under the spotlights and highlighted countries big dysfunctions. However, the government persistently states that Argentina is doing well and everything is all right. Truth if it is not. The inflation for 2014 almost reached 40% while the official peso rate weakened 23 percent in 2014.
I use “official peso” as there are 2 rates in Argentina:
- The official rate (set by the government) which is almost constant, whatever happens;
- The blue rate, fluctuating (i.e.: closer to the reality).
When I first bought pesos in late October 2014, the official rate was set at 1 euro = 10 pesos, the blue at 1 euro = 17.5 pesos. In February 2015, the official didn’t change, but the blue went down to 1 euro = 12 pesos. In only 4 months. Of course, blue rate isn’t legal. But it is “tolerated”. You will find foreign exchange counters all around Buenos Aires and many websites with daily updates on official and blue rates.
Argentina is becoming a highly protectionist country, its government passed many “protectionists laws”. Importations and exportations are heavily taxed. All household equipments (TV, washing-machines, etc.), computers, cell phones are very expensive and outdated. If you plan a trip to the US or Europe, many friends will ask you to buy them a cell phone, computer, tablet… Side-effect, many Argentinean industries suffer from these laws, as higher taxes particularly affect export-oriented industries.
Argentina’s history and scars
Landing there and talking with South Americans, I discovered that my historical knowledge was limited. In France, we are taught about Africa, North America, a part of Asia, but South America is quite out of the scope.
Argentina had a massive immigration from southern Europe. Mostly from Italy and Spain. Many Argentineans have a double passport and the Italian influence is very strong. This influence is strongly felt in the food with many pizzas or pastas, but also in Argentineans behavior. They speak loud and with their hands (for almost everything). Apart from the language, you can feel Italy in Buenos Aires sometimes.
Argentina also had dark years, especially during the dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. 30 000 people disappeared, 15 000 where shot to death, more than 500 babies disappeared, 1 500 000 people went into exile. At this time, Argentina population was only 30 million. Scars of this period are still visible. Every Thursday afternoon, since 1976, mothers of disappeared babies, gather at “Plaza de Mayo”. They keep looking for their children or grandchildren. In 2014, the founder of the “Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo” found her grandchild, 36 years after!
Dictatorship only ended 32 years ago. An evening, heading to a restaurant, I met a taxi driver, maybe 55 years old. He started to speak in French and we kept talking. I was curious about his story. He used to live in Lille (France) for 2 years, unfortunately for terrible reasons. He was arrested during the dictatorship, incarcerated and tortured. While he was questioned, guards would torture him using a plier over his hand. He still and always will have these scars. He was lucky enough to escape and to take refuge at the Mexican embassy. The Embassy managed to fly him to Mexico. Then he went to Europe, mostly in Spain and a few years in France. He came back to Argentina more than 20 years later. I was impressed by his tranquility and by his overwhelming feeling “I have been lucky”. He is the kind of person that make you think twice before complaining and help you understanding how lucky you are.
Buenos Aires aka the “Paris of South America”
Honestly, I don’t get it. Of course, some buildings have the same Haussmann architecture, but the city, its urbanization, atmosphere, is totally different. One-way streets and a squared town planning reminded more of the US. To me, Buenos Aires is a mix between North America and Europe, “South Americanized”.
I enjoyed Buenos Aires, I guess like most people do. But don’t expect a shock from the city itself. Expect it from the people, the country and the Argentinean lifestyle that are full of surprises. Buenos Aires has been a great human experience with this quick immersion in Argentinean culture.
Some personal interesting experiences
Argentineans drive badly. 3 lanes can turn into 4, turn signals are indicative, drivers can stay on any lane, overtake from the right, drive 1 meter behind the previous car… But my favorite is that they turn totally crazy while they are driving. They scream in the car, honk all the time and insult each other for almost nothing. But they do it “smartly”. They insult while the other is at “voice distance” but far enough so the driver can’t get out of the car. No comment.
Still on the road. Argentineans don’t wait at the toll road. When 4 or 5 cars are lining up to pay the toll, everybody starts honking. And it works! Barriers are opened and cars pass through. For free.
Argentina is famous for its meat, and the way they cook it. When in France we make a good barbeque with charcoal, Argentineans do an “asado”, with charcoal or wood. They prepare embers on a side and then spread them to form a very thin layer. The cooking is very slow and the meat is tender, delicious. An asado is not only a barbeque, it’s a moment with a succession of different meats, with of course bottles of Malbec.
Buenos Aires has a good bus network. However, their frequency is a bit random and sometimes they just don’t stop to pick you up. When the bus is crowded, that’s irritating but understandable. But sometimes, the bus just doesn’t stop, for no reason. Great.
As I spent Christmas in Buenos Aires, my family sent me a parcel. I didn’t know it could take up to 5 hours to collect a parcel. First step, I received a notification in my mail box stating “we passed but nobody was there. Please visit the nearest post office”. I was at home, all day long. Nobody rang the bell. So I walked to the post office, 15 minutes away from home. I gave them the note and they gave me back another one explaining that I received a parcel coming from abroad so I had to pick it up at the “international center”, 45 minutes away from home. I took the first bus and headed there. There was a big line up, maybe 60 persons before me. That wasn’t all. Once I entered the building, I waited to be attended. I had to pay the equivalent of 4 euros (administrative fee) and received another note, with a number. First line up to the code reception, 90 minutes. But that wasn’t all. I had to wait in a waiting room with maybe 100+ persons before my number popped in on the screen. I entered in another room where someone walked me to a desk:
– Me: Yes.
– Employee: You know I have to open and check this parcel?
– Me: No. That’s personal, don’t open it.
– Employee: So I can’t deliver it to you, it will be destroyed.
– Me: Ah ok…
Last stage, 90 minutes. And guess what? It wasn’t even my parents’ parcel, just a letter from my insurance… I came back 4 days later to pick up my Christmas parcel.
It’s now 3 weeks I moved to Montevideo. As Uruguayans say, it’s much more tranquilo and relax here. I will probably post something about Uruguay in the coming weeks.
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