Buenos Aires: A City Like No Other
January 1, 1970
by Lizzie Askew
For anyone that wasn’t already aware (a lot I imagine), this year for me began with an epic 6 week backpacking trip around Argentina and Chile; something my partner (Spanish speaking, yay!) and I had been planning for some time the year before. With family links in both countries, and a gap between jobs, it seemed the only obvious way to pass the time. January 8th came around and we embarked on a journey that would add great photos to our Facebook profile. Oh, and, of course, make us amazing new friends; give us a changed view the world and memories that we’ll never forget.
Before we left, with our backpacks full to the brim and minds full of anticipation, mum gave me one last piece of advice. “Write a blog”, she said.
“It’ll be fun”, she said.
So here I am. At 4:03 in the morning, wide awake; ready to solve all the world’s mysteries. Writers block is no longer an excuse and only now can I set my thoughts straight. We are currently in Punta Alta, a small city about half an hour northeast from the main city of Bahia Blanca (more on that later). Outside, the street dogs bark in conversation while inside the fan whirs, hot sticky air swirling in circles around our concrete box.
12 days into the trip and I’m only just getting my head around this country. In Fabian’s words, it’s like the spoilt, but undisciplined child of the world. No one pays attention to the rules here. After only a few interesting conversations over mate with cousins, it has become a running joke that in most aspects of life here there is always an Argentinian ‘but’. There are lines on the road, BUT no one pays attention to them. Just as cars have indicators BUT no one turns them on. The nightclubs, ‘discos’, should close at 5:30am BUT… well they’ll keep the fiesta going until at least 6:30am. Coming from Australia where there are rules for EVERYTHING, it’s humorously liberating.
Almost everyone we spoke to before arriving here advised us to be careful, like we were heading to some unforgiving territory of an unknown tribe. And yes, of course we knew not to walk random streets at night, or pull a camera and a map out in the middle of a villas (note to self; double check the route you planned before you leave ‘home’ so as not to accidentally walk into the middle of one and have to quickly find your way out before the sun goes down). But so far, everyone has only been generous, welcoming and genuinely curious. One of the first we met was a taxi driver from Buenos Aires airport who declared to Fabian in Spanish that I was vegetarian, surely, because I was skinny and white. I vowed silently to prove him wrong over the next 6 weeks.
I have to admit, the first day in Buenos Aires was hard. We had landed at 10 in the morning after a long 12 hour flight to São Paulo and another 3 hour hop to Aeroparque in the middle of the city (very handy! It’s so close to the centre and only a short taxi ride to the best areas). Arriving tired, hot and stinking of airplane food and wine (yes I managed to spill all of my first Malbec onto my lap after the glass slipped off the tray table) we jumped in a taxi desperate for a shower and a horizontal sleep. Twenty minutes, and goodness knows how many near misses later, we arrived at our apartment. The driver had insisted he take us right to the front door even if it was a little over what we had in pesos (champion!). We were presented with the first challenge; with only an apartment number and a name we had to find our AirBnB. The building was a grand, European style block in the middle of the city centre, and inside had beautiful marble floors and those old fashioned lifts with two gated doors that I thought only existed still in movies. We took one of the elevators to the first block of flats in the building, and then climbed some stairs. No one home. Tried the second lot (this was a big building) and still no luck. With two backpacks each and patience running thin this was already too much of a process. But we got lucky third time round. We were greeted by Maria, our AirBnB host, who welcomed us with a big smile and brilliant English. She explained how to use the keys, where to find maps etc. before leaving us to settle in. Well, she left us eating her dust. Quite literally. Upon taking it all in, the studio room appeared almost exactly as the photos on the initial posting, but 10 years and 100s of guests on. The floor was covered dust and hair, stains on the two armchairs, spilt something on the kitchen surface and paint peeling off the bathroom walls into the plughole of the shower clogged with yet more hair. There were pieces of furniture missing, and cracks in the picture frames, half of someone’s yoghurt pot in the fridge and only one bed made with clean sheets. What a start! But first, food. Being in the centre of the city we certainly weren’t short of options, but the old “I don’t know what do you want to eat”, “I don’t know I asked you first” led us quickly into the nearest restaurant that offered air conditioning and beer. Milanesas (chicken/beef schnitzel), fries, bread and Quilmes; we were in carb heaven. Note: The bread, I soon learned, is an essential part of every Argentinian meal and at a restaurant will be served at your table whether you like it or not (Of course they charge for it too, but think of it as a service fee). It was a quiet meal. The jet lag was creeping over me; sitting heavy on my shoulders while my brain struggled to comprehend the big city sounds and the alien conversations nearby in ‘Catillan’. I was overwhelmed. This place was so different to anything I’d seen before and it had been so long that I’d dreamt of seeing it, I could barely catch my breath. The disappointment of our accommodation was haunting me too. When arriving in a new place after a long journey the last thing you want to worry about is what you might catch while taking a siesta. But then, we were here now, in one piece and with more adventures ahead, so why worry about the little things.
Fast forward 16 hours and we woke to Fabian’s birthday and the sound of car horns and passionate conversations of passers-by. After more food and a comfortable sleep I was now ready to embrace the city of Buenos Aires.
A few observations of Buenos Aires:
- There are police everywhere. Standing in pairs or groups on street corners and cruising the roads with blue flashing lights; it’s both comforting and daunting. Their presence keeps the days peaceful, at least from what I saw, and with so many tourists around at this time I guess it might be necessary.
- Shopping is not cheap (when you compare it to Australian dollars). Clothes, more specifically. Even with the January sales! Not that I was looking to buy anything in particular, but compared to Australia it’s really not worth spending your pesos at the mall. Instead, we used these places for air con and clean toilets in between site seeing.
- Dining out is great value for money! Well it can be if you find the right places. As long as you don’t fall into the obvious tourist traps (guilty! Once and never again) you can spend AUD$40 or less for a surplus of food and a bottle of beautiful Argentinian wine to share. Of course there are options either side of this cost, both of which we tried also. Two favourites include Des Nivel and La Brigada, both in the San Telmo area. P.s if you want a good coffee, check out the Palermo area!
- Dog clubs (?). Being a lover of animals, and especially dogs, I couldn’t help but notice large groups of them being led through the parks, sometimes more than ten at a time, all attached to the dog walkers belt by their leash. I’m pretty sure that’s what was going on. Dream job much?
- The electrical plug sockets are the same as Aus/NZ. VERY handy. No need for an adapter. I’m pretty sure they also fit European plugs so that’s another plus if you’re coming from, well, Europe. (But not the UK)
While doing some pre-travel research, I noticed that a lot of people compared the city to Paris, or European cities in general. And yes, I can see the architecture is similar, and perhaps the feeling of a ‘big city’, but you really can’t compare Buenos Aires to anything but itself. The food, the people, the way of life here is something so different to any I had experienced before, and it needs to be seen to be believed.