For those you of you who were wondering, I made it safe and sound to Buenos Aires, and the last 5 days have been a wild ride!
I won’t lie - when I was taking the bus into town from the airport (after 17 hours of traveling and sleeping very little on the plane) I was a little scared.
There are some serious slums outside Buenos Aires, and as I was driving through them I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. This was really the third world - patchwork sheet metal roofs with a maze of electrical wires, random objects on fire, burned out cars and buildings, women breast feeding in the streets, and abundant stray dogs going through piles of trash.
It did NOT exactly look like the pictures on the internet. Every time the bus would stop, I remember thinking “please don’t let this be where we are getting out”.
But eventually, I started to get into the city and things started looking up. Huge glass skyscrapers, signs of civilization, etc.
I had chosen a hostel while waiting in the Houston airport for my connecting flight off http://www.hostelworld.com/ and I had a rough idea of where I was going, but not really.
The bus dropped me on an INCREDIBLY busy street where my hostel supposedly was. The street was so busy with people walking that if you stopped, you were likely to get run over. Actually, this picture doesn’t do it justice. It’s the kind of street where you could be walking with your friend side by side, and a second later lose them in the crowd because people are so close together.
I asked the bus driver (in broken Spanish) where the hostel was because I didn’t see it. He told me half a block down (media cuadra).
I got out, and the bus took off. Luckily, it was right where he said it was (I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t). I checked in and went to sleep.
The hostel is actually really cool and I’d recommend it. You can check out their youtube video here. The girl in the video was actually there to greet me when I got there. Pretty funny because I was just watching her YouTube video on the other side of the world a few hours prior. I told her she was world famous.
Figuring stuff out…
Now that I’ve had a few days to learn the city I’m starting to feel much better.
For the first few days I basically felt like a helpless child in the city. I had no phone, didn’t know how to go anywhere, was afraid of getting lost, didn’t know how to pay for anything, etc. And the city is freakin huge.
A couple memorable moments so far that have allowed me to feel like a complete idiot:
The elevators here have two manual doors that you have to open. If you are like me, you will probably either (1) open the door at the wrong time causing there to be a one foot drop when you get off the elevator or (2) exit the elevator and forget to close the door behind you (which prevents it from going to any other floor). Both of these cause people to laugh at your for being a silly American after you try explaining to them that you thought it would close itself. “Haha! Why would it close itself?” …like they’d never heard something so ridiculous.
I managed to get the entire bathroom wet while trying to figure out how to use a bidet. Enough said.
Lot’s of people at the Hostel spoke English so that was good, and I’ve already made about a dozen friends.
List of random stuff I’ve done over the last 5 days:
Went to a live Jazz club with some Brazilians
Drank some Mate tea and Argentine wine
Went to a Tango class (just watched)
Did a pub crawl with some ex-pats
Went to get ice cream with Argentine girl, still not sure if it was a date
Went to some trendy bars in Palermo (with a guy I met on the plane ride over and his girlfriend) and walked through the posh Recoleta
Figured out how to use an ATM in Spanish with an American debit card - this took a good hour. Also, realizing that the max you could withdraw was 300 pesos and that the error message I was seeing did not mean my my card was frozen. This required an interesting collect call to Chase in the U.S.
Got a SIM card (tarjeta) for my Blackberry and figured out how phone numbers work in BA. I also had to figure out how to recharge (recargá) my phone with minutes and check remaining minutes in Spanish.
Rode the subway, and bought a prepaid card with trips (viajes) on it, about $0.30 each
My Spanish has already improved dramatically over the last few days. It’s pretty funny when I try to talk to people - they usually look at me for a second with this blank expression like “what the hell did he just say…he must be messing with me or something….(awkward silence)….oh god….he’s not joking he actually talks like that…I should probably respond now but I forgot what he said”. Then they respond with something really fast I can’t understand, and I have to ask them to slow down :)
Food and Prices
Some things here are very cheap and the rumors are true. Other things are not really that cheap and I think people have overhyped this a bit (groceries for example, are about U.S. prices). The exchange rate is 3.6 Argentine pesos to 1 USD right now, but you don’t get 3 times as much for your money.
The prices are basically like New York City (very high), except in pesos. So for me coming from Houston where things are much cheaper than New York, the net is maybe a 20-50% savings for most items.
Here are some photos I took over the last few days to give you an idea:
This lunch cost 9 pesos (about $2.50 USD) and was a good deal. They call the meat ham Milonesa and it’s really good.
I got this lunch at a high end bookstore right smack in the middle of downtown. It was 29 pesos $8 for the sandwich, pastry, and coffee combined.
You can get pretty good street food (meat empañadas, hot dogs (panchos) for a little less than $1 US).
Glasses of nice Argentine wine (Malbec) at a pretty nice restaurant I went to were $3 US and the pizza was $5.
One thing I haven’t done yet is try the steak, which apparently is legendary and huge portions. These are about 20 pesos $5.50 US.
This pasta was my first meal in Buenos Aires and it was sort of weird. I forget how much I paid for it (was barely awake). They seem to like to put ham in everything here, even their pasta.
Renting an Apartment
Anyway, my latest journey has been to find a room to rent. I walked around Palermo (people told me this was a cool neighborhood) armed with only a map, and tried not to look like a tourist. I visited about 4 different places that I found on craigslist. The people were all cool and very nice but the neighborhood was all a bit run down. I was surprised because this was supposedly a “good” neighborhood in BA.
Maybe I’m just spoiled coming from the U.S. but I really was not impressed with Palermo. It definitely looked a bit ghetto in a bunch of parts, although around the squares (plazas) there were some cool bar areas. A very hippy culture as well with lots of dreadlocks and playing guitar on the streets. Fun, but not really my scene.
One house I walked to was in the middle of nowhere. It was night time so I was a little worried, but I will say that BA has been very safe for me so far. They have a TON of police officers patrolling, and even on these streets they have an officer stationed about every other block. He just stands on that block for the whole night. This was pretty reassuring to see, since you are basically within shouting distance (policia!!) at all times.
Anyway, the next neighborhood I went to was Recoleta. Everyone told me this was the best neighborhood in BA, and it definitely lived up to it’s reputation. It is much more like what I hoped BA to be. Posh shops, beautiful women, European architecture, etc.
So after some more calling on Craigslist, I finally found a room to rent in Recoleta. It is in an AWESOME old house that is huge and it’s in the best neighborhood. Private bathroom, balcony overlooking Recoleta, spacious room, fully furnished kitchen, etc. Free wifi, weekly maid, all utilities included. It’s $500 per month US.
The house is shared with other foreigners which is pretty cool. There are a couple Brazilians who speak very little English, an American guy doing a similar sort of web business thing (he was working on two laptops at the same time when I came in, so I have a feeling we’ll get along), and another girl from Poland. The house is huge. A private apartment probably would have been more like $2,000 per month in Recoleta, but that was too much for me plus I wanted to live with some cool people so I’d have a few friends in the city.
So anyway, that’s it for now. Tomorrow I’ll be moving into the apartment and I feel like I’ve finally started to figure this city out.
It’s definitely a bit rough around the edges and is a much bigger city than I’m used to living in (a poor man’s New York City is the best way to describe it). I definitely don’t want to overhype it like I think some people have online. It’s got some nice parts and I’m going to enjoy living here for a while, but you are still in the third world and it’s obvious at times.
I’ll keep you updated, so far this has been a great adventure in “breaking free”! Brian Armstrong