Welcome to Buenos Aires! It’s 80 degrees (Fahrenheit) when I get off the plane at 4:30 am. I didn’t sleep in my tiny coach class seats on the overnight flight and that makes me mildly delirious. Accordingly, I’m slightly confused when I go to change money. Normal people just use ATMs in the modern world and let computers calculate the exchange rate. But I’m a throwback to the early days of world travel and I have a continuing curiosity about the economics of currency exchange so I always use some cash.
I have to ask directions twice and follow a maze of corridors to reach the tiny little money exchange office hidden away in the dark recesses of the airport. I also have to show my passport and sign a form. I only change a hundred US bucks to start but am immediately surprised by the rate. The guy gives me 655 argentine pesos. That’s 6.55 to 1; how can that be right? I was in Argentina ten years ago and the rate was only 3 to 1. Maybe the guy made a mistake. Maybe I should change more than a hundred. If the rate is really that different, I’m going to live like a king on US currency here.
But alas, the reign of Patrick is not to be. The official exchange rate of 6.55 to 1 is indeed accurate. But the cost of goods and services has inflated to match the deflated currency value. Indeed, after two days walking around Buenos Aires, it seems apparent that the cost of traveling in Argentina (after adjusting for the various variables) is more or less the same as it was ten years ago. Actually, it might be a bit more expensive. Such is the nature of the universe, everything changes but also remains the same. I’ve been traveling on and off for twenty years or so (first trip 1992). Currency values go up and down, but the cost of the essentials seems to remain consistent with an underlying value. Government and bureaucratic costs go up and corporate bullshit luxury charges go up and local people get screwed by the fluctuating currency values, but the basics of food and shelter are always available for a fairly reasonable rate as long as you have one of the stable international currencies in your bank account (dollars, euros, pounds, yen and now Brazilian reals).
I recently read an Internet article about an English guy who traveled to every country in the world over three years and only spent 500 bucks a month. This probably seems unrealistic to many people but having been a cheap backpacker for many years, I’m not surprised at all. I usually spend closer to a grand a month but that’s because I like to sleep in my own room instead of dormitories and one of my favorite traveling pastimes involves sitting in cafes to watch the world and write in my journal. If only good coffee was not so expensive.
The other big traveling expenses are eating in restaurants and drinking alcohol. If you add it all up (your own room, decent transport, coffee, alcohol and restaurant food) the fully indulgent backpacker traveling experience can run you 1500 US dollars a month. I’m not much of a drinker these days and I limit my restaurant meals so I usually only spend about a grand. But, like I said, if you want to travel a long time and are willing to forgo some luxuries, it’s fairly easy to wander about and just look at things for 500 a month.
So here I am in Buenos Aires and it is one of my favorite cities on the planet earth, but it is very hard on my traveler’s budget. The coffee is world class and the nifty little cafes with street side tables just seem to be everywhere. And restaurants? You want restaurants? Buenos Aires has some of the best reasonably priced restaurants in the world. My first night in town I have an incredible steak with a side of potatoes and a couple of hand crafted beers while being entertained by a rather impressive live band. The total bill comes to 95 pesos which kind of seems like a lot until you divide by 6.5 pesos to the dollar. How much do you suppose such an evening would cost in New York?
One thing different in Buenos Aires from ten years ago is the invasion of global businesses. It kind of makes me want to scream. Starbucks is everywhere. Polluting paper cups and mediocre coffee right next door to great coffee with real washable mugs. Why would anyone choose the Starbucks option? Branding, advertising and brain wash media. The American corporate business model continues to fester and spread like a disease upon the body of local economies. Last year I saw it in Istanbul and this year I see it in Buenos Aires. McDonalds and KFC are bad enough. They have been fouling the planet with their presence for as long as I have been traveling. But now there is Starbucks and TGIFridays and a growing number of chain establishments next door to the parrillas. The pedestrian shopping area in the city center has all the big corporate monstrosities alongside the native Argentinian businesses. Will the trend of globalization ever be reversed?
My favorite thing about Buenos Aires is the Sunday feria (market) in the San Telmo barrio. If there is a better weekly event anywhere in the world, I haven’t seen it. They close off the main square and a kilometer or so of the street that is adjacent to it. There are literally hundreds of super amazing artists and crafts people selling their stuff on the street. There are mimes and puppeteers; magicians and fortune tellers. Every possible genre of street performance art seems to have a representative. The variety and talent of the musicians that play by the main square is truly impressive. The tango band is good but these two guys who play classical guitar just completely blow my mind. There are dozens of street musicians as well and like street musicians everywhere, their skill levels are inconsistent. But that’s the beauty of an event like this. You have a talent, here is an audience; show the world what you can do. They don’t seem to regulate alcohol consumption. People walk around with big bottles of beer on the street. But there doesn’t seem to be a problem with lots of out of control drunks. Marijuana is available. I smell it a few times and even take a couple hits off a joint with some Rastas. I decline to purchase any because I’m on an international bus the following day. There is some police presence on the street but not an oppressive one. Considering the number and variety of people, it’s truly amazing how smoothly the event seems to unfold.
I spend the day walking about listening to music, checking out the arts and crafts and sitting in the street side cafes watching the action. Back in the states, you hear a lot on the news about the ideology of free markets. The reality of the states is corporate controlled markets where you need a serious amount of capital just to participate. Events like this make me believe in real free markets. I’m not sure what the rules are or what sorts of permits you need to participate. But it certainly seems like anyone with something to sell has a chance to sell it. It kind of reminds me of the old Shakedown streets at grateful dead concerts in the past. Only it’s not just dirty hippies participating but a complete cross section of society.
The day comes to a climax shortly after dark. The booths and shops have closed down and all the radical non traditional people gather around a big drum circle in the street. There is beer drinking, pot smoking and even a small bonfire. Meanwhile, one block away, in the plaza, the more traditional and mature adults are dancing tango and drinking wine. I’m a middle path kind of guy so I go back and forth between the two gatherings. I sure do like a world where there is room for everyone to have a good time. Two thumbs way up for Sundays in San Telmo.
But I have only scratched the surface of Buenos Aires and I am heading to Paraguay tomorrow in search of a jungle adventure. I will be back here in a month to meet up with Ms. B.. No doubt many more good times and a few good stories will occur before I am done with Buenos Aires this year.