Un Poquito de Todo (Argentina)

The Totally Random

Let’s kick off this post with random observations I’ve had while in Argentina.

  • People here love to clap. Put a few Argentinians together in a group and they will find something to applaud.
  • I appreciate being somewhere air conditioning is used to a normal level and not to turn indoors into winter. I’m glad I don’t have to drag a sweater and fingerless gloves around all summer.
  • The country as a whole is environmentally conscious. The indigenous educate visitors about the importance of water and forests to their communities, there’s far less litter than I’ve seen in other Latin American countries and some US states, and many shops in Buenos Aires don’t even have plastic bags you can buy – it’s a reusable bag or nothing. Many to-go orders I got were wrapped in heavy paper or cardboard, rather than single-use plastic.
  • There are two food-by-the-pound places in my neighborhood and I love them. These are places where business people grab a quick lunch. They have a salad bar, Argentinian food, Chinese food, pastries, all kinds of stuff. You fill up a plate and they weigh it. Everything costs the same. A hearty meal costs about $2 Blue, so I would get 4-5 meals here per week. Between that and going out and take out, I cooked maybe 5 meals my entire 8 weeks here, which is great since I hate cooking.
  • Buenos Aires itself is fairly clean as well, but it is a big city and you can expect to be smacked in the face by all manner of unpleasant smells as you walk around.
  • Buenos Aires is a city of books, runners, and dogs. Seems perfect for me, right?
  • Look both ways when crossing the street at all times! Traffic direction changes depending on the time of day. You can cross four lanes of traffic going one way, come to a concrete median, but then find traffic is still going the same way on the other side. I almost got hit by a car twice in my first week because of this.
  • Expect to hear American music everywhere. It’s fun when I’m on one of my evening runs and a bootcamp in the park starts blasting CCR’s Fortunate Son.
  • Ambulances don’t use their sirens. I’ve seen plenty ripping down the street with their lights on, but never with sirens.
  • Dogs are chill here. They mostly keep to their own and know the rules. I’ve seen a ton of dogs off leash in Buenos Aires around really busy intersections and they don’t run off. In the mornings, professional dog walkers will have 12-15 dogs and it’s all pretty calm. Even when they get them to the middle of a park and take the leashes off, the dogs don’t run off. And most dogs – with the big exception of Patagonian dogs – have no interest in being pet by strangers. They seem to ignore everyone.
  • This is a country of horses. From polo to racing to gauchos, horses are an integral part of the culture.

Politics

Given the mess that the economy is, you can expect politics to be a hot topic. I’m obviously no fan of the Perons and I declined to visit the Evita Peron museum. Most people I talked to are not Peronistas either, but there’s also a large number of anti-Macristas (Macri being Argentina’s first democratically elected non-Radical or Peronist president since 1916). Probably people here are frustrated with their government no matter who’s in charge, and I don’t blame them. Since this is not my country and I’m not terrible well informed, I mostly avoided political discussions and only listened when they were happening around me (the invasion of Ukraine aside (for which I did go join the protest at the Russian embassy for a bit)).

That’s not to say I’m not interested. The Argentine politics that really intrigue me are the relationship of the government to the indigenous communities. Starting way back with the Jesuit Missions to modern day conflicts, there is a lot to learn about in this country. For example the guides at San Ignacio Miní seemed to have a neutral-leaning-toward-favorable opinion about the Jesuits that came over in the 1600s and subjugated the native Guaranís. I’m not sure if this attitude is connected to the low level of underlying (and sometimes overt) racism I picked up on that European Argentines have toward native groups. I heard a lot of negative comments about the Mapuche in Patagonia. Again, I don’t know enough about the relationships to have an opinion. A Google search turns up a lot of information about the Mapuche conflicts in Chile, but not so much in Argentina, though there clearly has been a lot of recent violence.

I’m also interested in the status of the Falkland Islands, known locally as the Malvinas. I’m theoretically on the side of any country/group of people getting their land back, though I appreciate that it’s not that simple. People who live in places like the Malvinas through simple ancestry are not to blame for the past but would be caught in the middle, suddenly forced to move, possibly have their homes and livelihoods stripped away, or transition to new citizenship.

In January 2013, Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, said that the islands had been forcibly stripped from Argentina in “a blatant exercise of 19th Century colonialism.” In response, Mr Cameron has since said that Britain would go to war again over the Falklands if necessary and relations between the two countries are at their lowest since 1982.

Seriously? A war? At least Cameron isn’t in power anymore. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and starting a war is absolutely not the answer, as we are seeing in Ukraine right now.

And finally, what trip to Argentina could be complete without a visit to Alta Gracia where Ernesto (Che) Guevara grew up? While I don’t agree with all his politics, I have a ton of respect for him as a person. There are very few other examples in the world of people who cared as much about the poor and tried to better their quality of life. He wasn’t a Stalin or a Kim Jong-il, sitting up in a high tower eating caviar and drinking campaign while the people they claimed to be helping died standing in bread lines. Che was in the trenches, giving medical assistance and teaching the illiterate to read while waging warfare against meddlesome imperialist nations (ahem, United States) and he got assassinated for it. Touring his childhood home and reading his correspondence and seeing his typewriter, the famous motorcycle, and all his photos gives you a real sense of how great his passion for justice and equality and a dignified life was.

People in Buenos Aires

We all know about the connection of the Nazis to Argentina, although there was a long history of Germans living here before that, like in this village. But still, I didn’t expect Buenos Aires to be so…white. I keep telling people that the Palermo neighborhood is a lot like Williamsburg or Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, except it’s not because it’s really, really white. But it’s not just skin tone. It’s people’s style of dress. Every 6 out of 10 people I see, I think, okay, that person has to be an American living here. But then I get closer and they are speaking perfect Buenos Aires Spanish, which is no small feat. This has been really disorienting.

The big, obvious caveat here is that I’ve been living in an upscale neighborhood. Argentina is very welcoming to foreigners, and I’ve met plenty of people from Venezuela and Colombia and other South American countries. But there are so many people here of Italian or Spanish or French background as first or second generation. On the expat forums I belong to, everyone says it’s no problem to overstay your tourist visa. No one cares. You pay a little fine when you leave and that’s that.

People are also insanely fit. On my typical five-mile evening run through the parks, I would pass no fewer than 25 separate bootcamps with anywhere from 3 to 50 participants. There’s also a bakery on every block and Argentinians take their merienda (snack time) very seriously, so they have to work out after eating all that dulce de leche croissants and alfajores. Everyone is slender and if you are overweight, I imagine you feel a bit out of place here. Further, according to a Guardian article from 15 years ago, 1 in 30 Argentinians had some kind of cosmetic surgery. I’m sure that ratio is much higher in Buenos Aires. There are a lot of attractive people here. The gluttony of choice I had on Bumble – phew, I need a cold shower. But like any big international city, you can find all kinds of people here, and not everyone is looks-obsessed.

But…the really big downside. People in Buenos Aires are rude. Sometimes more on the neutral/brusque side, but even tour guides, it seemed, didn’t really care if their guests had a good time. They were all only going through the motions. And everything I wrote about how Ecuadorians don’t share sidewalk space is amplified by 10 here. People never look before stepping out onto a sidewalk and do not give a shit if you run right into them because you physically cannot stop that fast, if they are four abreast taking up the whole sidewalk and you are coming from the opposite direction they might step over half a foot to make room, they won’t pull in their dog or move closer to it if the leash is extended across the entire sidewalk, they will deliberately switch to the side of sidewalk you are on and stay there for no reason and force you to move, there are bikes on the walking path and walkers in the bike paths for no reason, and there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to what side of the sidewalk you should be on. It’s a total crap shoot. I have truly never spent so much time around a culture of such wildly inconsiderate people.

That’s obviously a massive generalization but all I’m saying is that compared to other countries, I don’t find people here very friendly or warm. Primarily I say that based on my experiences with people in Buenos Aires, but I felt mostly the same in Iguazu. Of course, I have spoken to plenty of nice people and I have to say that Córdoba is the great exception. People in that province are not only some of the friendliest in Argentina, but friendliest in the world. I don’t know what’s in the air, but man, people who live there are so welcoming and helpful. So who knows? Maybe Buenos Aires attitudes are normal for big city people. I haven’t been a city person for so long that it’s hard for me to remember. Three days from now, I’ll be in Manhattan for a month and I’ll find out how the experience compares, especially running in Central Park.

Mate

Finally, you can’t talk about Argentina without talking about mate (pronounced mah-tay). Mate is a national obsession. Everywhere you go, you see people holding a mate (the cup) and often a large thermos of hot water too. People walking down sidewalks, people sitting on tourist buses, even people walking around looking at viewpoints at 14,200 feet. The mate is as much an appendage as a smartphone is. In tourist areas, shops advertise that they have hot water for sale, in case your thermos ran out. There’s a National Institute of Yerba Mate, and every third Bumble profile mentioned mate.

  • What makes a relationship great? Drinking mate.
  • We’ll get along if… You enjoy drinking mate.
  • The world would be a better place with… More mate.
  • Favorite quality in a person? Likes drinking mate.
  • A non-negotiable? Must like mate.
  • My most useless skill? Drinking lots of mate.
  • Two truths and a lie? I used to be a tennis pro, I’ve been to Antarctica, I don’t like mate.

Super fun fact: Mate is such an integral part of the culture that you can bring water through security at the airports here. Seriously – I’ve done it. Because Argentines need their thermoses of hot water for mate.
Mate is meant to be shared. There’s a deep cultural ritual sharing of mate around with everyone drinking it from the same metal straw. Apparently, tour guides used to include it as part of any excursion. Fortunately, COVID has put an end to that. While I didn’t get into this craze, I did buy one as a gift for my nephew since there’s nothing more symbolic of Argentina.

So, Would I Live Here?

Aside from the fact that life here starts too late in the day, if there’s one thing I learned about myself during my eight weeks in Buenos Aires, it’s that I’m firmly a nature person now. I wither away without regular exposure to it. I want to live in a city with strong culture and an international airport, but I need easy access to mountains and trees and dirt and wind howling through 100+ miles of desolation.

Buenos Aires isn’t close enough to the parts of Argentina that speak to me. It’s a shame because it is a great city, the rudeness and general chaos aside. It’s very international, there’s amazing food, there’s always something going on, it’s easy (even as a single 42 year old) to get plugged into life and communities here through WhatsApp groups, Meetup groups, and Facebook groups, and most importantly, this is a city of readers. I love it. In parks, city squares, solo in cafés – people are reading everywhere you look. Buenos Aires is the bookstore capital of the world.

And what about somewhere like Salta or Córdoba? Maybe. Those are large cities too (with 600,000 and 1.5 million residents, respectively) with a lot going on and easy access to the mountains and all kinds of adventure. It’s appealing, but still, the Argentine economy is a non-starter for me. I couldn’t move somewhere with so much instability.

So no, I’m not considering moving here permanently, but I would love to come back and spend many more months exploring the wilderness.

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