Ever since leaving England to go backpacking around the world, my girlfriend and I have been semi-seriously entertaining the notion that we might stumble across a corner of the globe magnificent enough to make us want to emigrate there permanently.
Seven weeks in to the journey, Buenos Aires has emerged as the first serious contender.
Gazing out the taxi window from the airport to our hotel in downtown Recoleta, I made instant comparisons with Paris; trees bowing over luxuriously wide boulevards, bustling café terraces and spindly balconies richly lined with well watered flowers.
Everything is built with opulence in mind. Whereas in many parts of South America the grand old colonial buildings were knocked down in an effort to break from the past, Buenos Aires has made a conscious effort to keep them in order. Throughout our five day stay in the city I saw perhaps only six or seven buildings that looked a bit shit – everything else complimented rather than competed with its surroundings.
The people of Buenos Aires walk with a certain grace and pride. There is a jarring discordance between their tendency towards smart casual and obsession with kitsch.
Wanky home design shops are more numerous than newsagents – clocks with neon lights in and ‘Chinese lucky cats’ seemed particularly in vogue during our visit. At the same time, proper shoes, jeans and tucked in shirts with the sleeves rolled up form 90% of wardrobes. As I thunder in to my early thirties, this juxtaposition of styles is one I can see myself embracing.
It’s possible I have found my spiritual food home in Buenos Aires too. Steak costs less than vegetables. Argentinean wine (there are no other nationalities of wine available for purchase here) is as good as the best I’ve had from anywhere else. Even the smallest of supermarkets stock at least thirty varieties of cheese. The coffee is strong. And the bread… oh god how I have missed good bread…
But here are three reasons why moving to Buenos Aires might not be such a good idea…
Reason One: Dirty Streets…
Dog ownership seems to be quite the status symbol in Buenos Aires. The more dogs you own, the better. The more manicured your dog, the higher your social standing. Professional dog walker is considered a legitimate career choice for many. This obsession with dogs comes at a huge cost.
There is dog shit everywhere.
It is estimated that 30 tons of excrement are coiled on to Buenos Aires streets every day. What looks like an empty pavement from a distance can turn out to be a labyrinth of canine crap on closer inspection. It poses an extra challenge when navigating the city in a wheelchair.
When accidents happen, able-bodied wanderers can simply scrape off the offending ordure from the bottom of their shoes with a twig or lollipop stick. When dog shit gets stuck on my wheelchair wheels, I usually don’t find out about it until I feel wet and warm faeces painting a perfect brown stripe along the inside of my forearm.
I don’t know what it is about Buenos Aires that makes it such a Mecca for mutt manure. All cities the world over contain dogs, but some are better at cleaning up after them. Perhaps the people here are just too posh to pick up poo.
On a semi-related note, since arriving in Argentina I have been shat on by pigeons twice.
Reason Two: Dirty Wars…
Think Argentina, think Falkland Islands, right? Or ‘Las Malvinas’ as they are known over here.
Three days before I was born the 1982 conflict between Argentina and the Her Majesty’s Armed Forces ended. I gather from Sean Bean narrated documentaries about the Harrier Jump Jet that it largely consisted of teenagers with guns being slaughtered by teenagers with bigger guns. That’s a fairly accurate description of pretty much all wars ever I suppose, and probably not something to be particularly proud of.
Nonetheless there is a huge temptation to waltz around this foreign land like Basil Fawlty. Wherever you go in Argentina there are reminders of the Falklands War. Every town or city we visit has billboards, statues, memorials and streets named after the place. Newspapers carry weather reports for the Falklands, which is odd considering that transport directly to Port Stanley from Argentina is banned – you have to first travel west in the opposite direction to Chile in order to get there.
Outside the state approved rhetoric though, it’s difficult to tell how much the average man on Buenos Aires’ streets gives a damn about the Falklands. Apart from a bit of arsey service in the main bus terminal ticket office, we were never been made to feel anything less than extremely welcome throughout our stay. Those we met that have previously visited our home country seem completely befuddled as to why we would ever want to leave.
Much like in Britain, I suspect the Falklands Islands in Argentina are largely a concern of the political elite. Rather than any genuine grievance, it’s a convenient distraction from the country’s terminally dire economic situation (more on that later) and an excuse to swing its diplomatic dick on the international stage.
The Falklands War does not bother me but the seven years leading up to it, and one year after it, does. From 1976 to 1983 Argentina was ruled by a particularly shitty right wing military junta. In what became known as ‘The Dirty War’, an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 citizens were ‘disappeared’ by the government – shot or thrown out of aeroplanes over the ocean.
A week after we left Buenos Aires my girlfriend and I visited a former police detention centre in neighbouring city Cordoba. In it, an estimated 20,000 people were blindfolded, tortured, raped, murdered or any combination of the aforementioned without any hope of legal redress.
Here are just some of their pictures…
It’s not so much that it’s difficult to see how the overwhelming majority of the people in these photos (mainly middle class university students, unionists, journalists and intellectuals) could have posed any sort of legitimate threat to the state that bothers me, it’s the fact that in the subsequent 1985 ‘Trial Of The Juntas’ all but a few of the top brass responsible went unpunished.
When in 1986 immunity to officers implicated in crimes against humanity was granted on the basis of “due obedience,” the matter was considered settled.
These days Argentina is a full blown democracy. The national mood is one of disbelief that The Dirty War could ever have happened. Lessons have been learnt but the majority of the perpetrators still walk the streets.
Arguably it’s not all that different to the British government pardoning former IRA members in the name of reconciliation, with the exception that those pardoned IRA members are not still in positions of influence and power.
The legacy of authoritarianism and impunity still runs strong in Argentina. People still get ‘disappeared’. Executions in police custody still happen at a rate of about one every two days. The good news for me and my girlfriend is that the target is no longer middle class thinkers, it’s young kids from poor neighbourhoods assumed to be thieves or potential thieves.
Still I can’t help thinking we’d be happier living in a city where no one gets ‘disappeared’ at all.
Reason Three: Dirty Money…
If my girlfriend and I were to relocate to Buenos Aires permanently then bringing our money with us would only make marginally more sense than using it as toilet paper. With inflation running at about 30% per year, at the time of writing the Peso is at a twenty year low against the US Dollar.
The story of the Argentinean economy is perhaps the most academically studied of all time. Argentina was the world’s tenth richest country per capita in 1913 but a century of chronically bad governance means it now languishes in 55th place (below Gabon, above Antigua).
Thankfully, since the last meltdown in 2002, Argentineans have learnt to be more self sufficient. The cost of things they produce on home soil maintains the pace of the ever devaluing currency whilst imports get ever more expensive.
In real terms, an excellent bottle of wine will set you back about £3 and a steak bigger than a dinner plate costs about £6. Cars, computers, televisions and wheelchair parts clock in at about four times the price you would expect to pay in the UK.
I tried to work out just how often my girlfriend and I buy cars vs steak and reckon we’d just about come out on top. Still, the situation is less than ideal.
The current government has brought in a series of eye watering measures to help stop the rot – Argentineans face an extra 20% tax whenever using their credit cards abroad being one, limiting the amount of foreign currency Argentineans can buy for savings and travel being another.
This skewed state of affairs has led to two exchange rates emerging, the official rate and the ‘blue rate’.
The blue rate is highly illegal of course, but completely tolerated. Back street bureau de changes (known as casa de cambios) will offer you around 30% more for your foreign currency than in a bank. Most shops and restaurants in Buenos Aires offer a discount of 10% to 20% when paying in Dollars, Euros and Real.
Keen to experience all that Buenos Aires has to offer, my girlfriend and I decided to change up some left over US Dollars in our wallets.
On Calle Florida, the main shopping street running through Buenos Aires city centre, there were literally (‘literally’ in the non-hyperbolic sense) dozens of men and women muttering ‘Cambio! Cambio!’ under their breath. Next to them stood police officers not caring.
We chose to put our faith in a woman in her early fifties on the basis that she had less tattoos than most of the others, and because women have less of a reputation for murder than men.
“I’m Mary,” said Mary. We said hello to Mary.
“I can offer you 11.4 Pesos for the Dollar, or 11.45 depending on how much you want to change,” Mary explained. It was a pretty good deal. The official rate was 7.8 Pesos to the Dollar.
Mary led us in to the back room of a travel agency and locked the door behind us. There we were greeted by a man with lots of tattoos.
I don’t quite remember what happened next but suffice to say we left the building with a shit load of Peso notes and without our Dollars.
“Do not do deals on the streets,” said Mary “it’s not safe.” She gave us her card and told us to give her a call if we ever need ‘anything’.
Over the next week we spent the notes and not a single one turned out to be fake. When the money ran out, we were hungry for more.
“Donde es the nearest ATM?” I asked the owner of a coffee shop in the suburb of Palermo.
“Oh god, you’re not getting money out of ATMs are you?” It turned out the coffee shop owner’s name was Allan and he was from Leamington Spa. “All the expats I know use online transfer systems.”
I tracked down some online expat communities and discovered not one person has so far been ripped off by Exchange4Free, an international money transfer company based in London. They were offering 17.7 Pesos to the Pound, in comparison to the official exchange rate of 13.17 Pesos to the Pound.
My girlfriend and I decided to risk £564 of our hard earned cash to buy 10,000 Pesos. On the official exchange rate it would have cost us £759. But our time in Buenos Aires had run out. We arranged to pick up the cash some 750 kilometres away in our next stop, the city of Mendoza, the heart of Argentinean wine country.
Again, we ended up in a shopping mall travel agency, but this time there were no locked doors – the walls were all glass allowing a crystal clear view of the illicit activities going on inside.
A smiley Chinese man sat behind the counter. We handed over our passport details and five minutes later he handed over bundle after bundle of cash.
We went back to the hostel to consider our ill gotten gains with a bottle of Malbec. The transactions felt shady and were no doubt helping to push the Argentinean economy in to further decline, but for the people here it seems to be their way of life.
Seven weeks in to our journey around the world, we have fallen in love with Buenos Aires. The jury is still out on Argentina.
By the way, if you want to know what 10,000 Argentinean Pesos looks like in cash, it’s this…