Just a few pics from the past few days.
Month: April 2023
It’s hard to get cash during an economic crisis
I’ve been using credit cards for most things since arriving in Argentina, foreign credit cards offer the best possible exchange rate but cash is still useful for a lot of things. The crisis here is accelerating quickly however and getting cash it getting tough. When I arrived here 10 days ago I sold US cash for Argentinian pesos at 390:1, the rate today is 470:1, it’s on the news here pretty constantly and people are stressed. I went to a street fare today, lots of interesting crafts and baking and also about 1/3rd of the booths were by companies offering services to help citizens get their money out of the country or sell their real estate or emigration services.
I can’t get pesos from an ATM as the exchange rate at banks in Argentina is now less than half of the actual exchange rate. I also cannot use the back alley black market money changers as I am out of US cash.
The only option left for cash is a Western Union, I can transfer cash from my bank to WU and then withdraw it here in pesos at the black market rate. Unfortunately the money crisis here has made that easier said than done. There are dozens and dozens of Western Union locations but most don’t have cash currently. I picked up a rumour that Western Union’s main branch is still doing regular cash transfers so I headed there this morning. Apparently the rest of the city heard the same rumour. The branch is huge, probably holds over 100 people inside. There was about 200 additional people in line outside when I showed up. After 90 minutes in line I was within 5 people of the door when they announced they were out of cash for the day. I’ll have to try again first thing Monday morning.
Adventures in Argentinian health care
I still have stitches in both eyes from corneal transplants a few years back. I knew there was a pretty good chance a stitch would break and need to be removed at least once this trip. If it happens, according to my surgeon back in Vancouver:
“No! You cannot ‘just ignore it until you get home’ you will need to take care of it immediately”.
So, it’s immediately.
It’s easy to tell when a stitch has popped, your vision gets worse and it feels like a grain of sand is in your eye.
As far as I could figure out Argentina has both free and pay health care. The pay hospitals, for unknown reasons, are called either Italian Hospitals, or German Hospitals, or Swiss Hospitals. I’ve been walking past a Swiss Hospital on my way to and from the subway since I arrived so I went there at 8am today.
My Spanish has certainly improved while traveling but my increased knowledge of ordering food and cocktails is less help here than expected.
After some Google Translate I am shuffled through several areas until I’m at a desk attempting to explain. A woman in the waiting room calls out, in perfect American English “Do you want me to translate?” There’s a God after all. She translated, in amazing Spanish. The administration person, shook her head, she translated more, the administration person shook her head more. This hospital has no eye care facility, the admin person handed me a piece of paper with an address and my translator shrugged friendly.
I hopped on the subway and rode four stops to the area closest to the address I was given and started looking, around the corner I found a much larger “Swiss Hospital” and went inside. A few security guards pointed me in the right direction and I went back out into the street and a few doors down to the eye care centre. Security here directed me to the 1st floor, who directed me to the 3rd floor, who directed me to the 10th floor.
A few more minutes with Google Translate and $30 later I was admitted to a waiting room. After about 15 minutes a doctor popped her head out and called “Deanne Berhain?”, apparently Deanne left already so I went in instead.
The doctor’s English was better than my Spanish, but not much. We leaned heavily on Google again and I managed to explain things. She examined the eye, froze things and started digging. Eventually she explained she could see the thread but couldn’t grab it, she said the loose stitch pulled back under the cornea and it might be fine now. I headed home with a sore eye, instructions to go back if it happens again and lots of eye drops.
Total wait once I made it to the right place: 15 minutes.
Total cost to me: $30 Canadian
Dragged my butt out of bed
Still feeling this cold but managed to drag myself out of bed to get some food and see a bit more of the city.
I was stuck in bed for days in Bogota with some mystery illness, I’d felt amazing since then but on Saturday night I got knocked down again by a cold and have been in bed since.
I’m sure it’s just a cold and will be gone in another day or two, unfortunately last night I fell asleep with the patio door open and I woke up around midnight completely covered in mosquito bites.
Buenos Aires sits firmly in the risk zone for Dengue Fever, which you get from mosquito bites. The disease was believed eradicated in the late 1950s here but 20 years ago it reappeared, aided by climate change. In the past year 30,000 cases have been documented, leading to 40 deaths.
I put bug spray on, closed the doors and went back to bed Dengue vaccines are not widespread and were not a part of the course of shots I had before this trip. If infected symptoms take about a week to show (joint pain, fever, migraine, nosebleeds and bleeding gums) so I guess now I get to wait.
And go buy more mosquito spray.
Buenos Aires Subte (Subway)
I don’t know if anything does Christmas morning stomach butterflies to me as much as getting the chance to see a new subway. It’s been 4 years, 11 months and 8 days since I had the chance to explore a new subway system, that was Baku in Azerbaijan and feels like lifetimes ago.
BUENOS AIRES SUBTE SYSTEM MAP
WHY IS THE BUENOS AIRES SUBTE INTERESTING?
- The Buenos Aires Metro was one of the first subway systems in the world (1913).
- The Buenos Aires Metro was the first subway in the southern hemisphere.
- The Buenos Aires Metro was the first subway in the Spanish speaking world.
- The Buenos Aires Metro is still the busiest in the southern hemisphere (pre-COVID).
- The Buenos Aires Metro features a hodge-podge of trains, with some built locally, some in Brazil, and Spain, and Brazil, and Japan, and China, and Belgium, and France.
- The Buenos Aires Metro was modelled partially on the NYC Subway, it’s easy to see this in the platforms, walkways and staircases.
- The buenos Aires Metro’s original trains, the 1913 wooden ones known as “The Witches”, remained in service for a century, being retired in 2013.
The thing I noticed, after first noticing how similar the designs are to the NYC subway, was how calm the system is. The subway still features drivers on all trains and all lines and the drivers bring their trains gently into station and depart again nearly silently. The Alstom trains are basically silent inside and ride incredibly smoothly as well, the Chinese trains are somewhat rougher, with some squeak and groan, but still not much.
Even during rush hour the system and its riders seem to me unusually placid, especially after recently enduring the craze of Mexico City’s subway or the Transmillenio in Bogota. I had always heard that the Buenos Aires subway was undersized for a city of 12,000,000 and in desperate need of expansion, which conflicts with what I have experienced so far. As it turns out, for economic reasons, Buenos Aires, and especially the transit system, has not yet recovered from COVID.
In the past 12 months the system has carried a ridership of around 75 million people, the normal pre-COVID, ridership was nearly 400 million annually. This would explain my experiencing the subway here as gentle and easy. I’m guessing it was a much more harrowing rush hour commute before COVID, but I’m really enjoying its sleepy charms currently.
Like the NYC subway the current need for updates and maintenance is clear, it feels like a charmingly neglected system, just like New York’s. Lighting is dim, wayfinding is poorly thought out and signage is lacking or in some cases just wrong. For example, my main line is Line D, in one station every single sign tells you different variations on “This way for Line D North”, and I need Line D South. After 20 minutes of bafflement I figured out the only way to reach Line D South is by following about a dozen signs that all say only “This way for Line D North” until eventually, at the far end of the last platform, there is a dark staircase down and one small sign “This way for Line D South. There is no possible way for a first-timer to figure this out without a lot of trial and error.
This all only adds to the charm for me though. I’ll be working remotely from Buenos Aires and likely won’t have time to fully explore the system, not to mention the above ground rail system that forms the other half of transit here, but so far I am loving it.
Wrong building, right everything
In Buenos Aires, finally. Walked and walked and walked yesterday and today, the city is gigantic, 15,000,000 people and just too much to take in so far.
First step, an art gallery.
Soooo… I thought this was an art gallery, I climbed the steps and the doors were unlocked, so I went in. Turns out the art gallery is across the street. So what was this building? No idea. I found myself in some sort of gigantic, empty, dark, seemingly abandoned sort of governmentish building and decided to explore. I wandered through ten floors of…. something. Empty hallways, empty offices and meeting rooms. Classrooms too, I think. It was extremely odd. I saw 3-4 people total, they seemed like they belonged so I acted the same. It was an adventure.
Here is a gallery of photos of the very strange and endless series of empty halls and rooms, I still have no idea what this was but exploring it was really kind of exhilarating.
A crash course in Argentinian economics
All I knew about Argentina’s economy before arriving was that despite once being one of the most powerful in the world; it was now in bad shape with an inflation rate over 100% annually, there is now a black market currency exchange (because the government refuses to admit how much trouble Argentina is in), and that a famous economist once said “there are four types of economies: the developed, the underdeveloped, Japan, and Argentina.” I have no idea what he meant but I think I might be starting to learn.
The surest sign a government is not telling the truth about its economy is when a black market currency exchange pops up. In 2002 the peso and the Canadian dollar were on par. Now the “official” exchange rate here is $1 Canadian = $160 pesos while the black market rate (here known as the blue rate) is $1 Canadian = $303 pesos.
I know a lot of purchases here use the blue rate by default but I wasn’t sure which would be which. I decided to make a small ATM withdrawal and check the rate. I found an ATM at the bus station but it wasn’t working “fuera de servicio”, so I walked to the cabin I’m staying at to check in and then headed out to try another ATM. The next two I found were both out of money, hmmmm something is afoot.
I decided ATMs might not work anyway and asked a couple people who they pointed me to Western Union, I know WU is a common way for foreigners to get cash in Argentina as they get the blue rate there so I walked to the only WU in town, they were also out of cash. Apparently they only give cash from 3pm daily and basically run out right away each day.
(NOTE: A couple days later I was walking past the same Western Union around 1pm and saw four American backpackers waiting for it to open, I warned them it won’t open until 3pm and won’t have much money to give anyway. I suggested the guy who changed my money. The head backpacker said thanks but no thanks, as they will get a better rate at the WU. Yes……… you will wait two more hours…. on the sidewalk…… to withdraw a maximum of $30 US in pesos…. at a rate of 400:1. When you could just walk two blocks right now and change as much money as you want at 393:1. Because apparently that extra 1.75% exchange rate is really worth it?! *eyeroll*)
I finally found a working ATM at a gas station and withdrew 1000 pesos as a test (about $6 Canadian). The machine worked and gave me a single 1000 peso bill. I checked my account and saw that this 1000 pesos had cost me about $16 Canadian, rather than the $6 it should have even at the terrible official exchange rate. So, yeah, ATMs are out of the question.
As I walked away from the ATM a guy standing in a doorway asked “cambio?” (change). I stepped into his porch and we agreed on a rate within about 3% of the current blue rate. I gave him $200 and he counted out a massive stack of bills, rolled them up and handed them to me secured with a rubber band. Very reminiscent of Uzbekistan where the best rate is the “taxi rate”, available only from cab drivers.
The blue rate is so cemented here now that as of December any purchases made in Argentina with a foreign credit card must use the blue rate rather than the official government rate. This was forced by VISA/Mastercard as the government’s refusal to face the situation was destroying the tourism industry here and credit card usage.
An odd border crossing
Packed up and headed to the Brazil/Argentina border this morning. Took a bus as far as I could and then walked the rest of the way to Brazilian customs. The line here was long and barely moving, eventually after about an hour I made my way to the front and found the reason the line was moving so slow was that the Brazilian customs officer was the most cheerful and chatty border person in history.
We talked a bit, he had a fascinating presence, seeming both extremely capable and in charge and also having just the greatest time. He asked me if everyone I met in Brazil was nice to me and if I would come back to Brazil again, we chatted more and he stamped my passport. Then he actually came around the barrier and shook my hand. Really unusual start to a border crossing.
I walked across the border and to a building on the Argentina side marked “Pedestrian/Peatonal/Pedestre”, I walked in and assumed I was in the wrong place as there was no one around. I stepped back out the way I came and saw the hundreds of cars waiting to drive across both sides and looked for where I should actually go. A woman called out in Spanish from the room I was just in so I went back. I handed her my passport, she handed it back and pointed me down a long, dark hallway. I walked down, around a corner and down another hall, zero people around. At the end of the hall was a metal detector and luggage scanner so I waited beside them. After a few minutes of standing around and occasionally calling out “Hola?” I shrugged, walked through the metal detector and out into Argentina. So, am I here legally and officially? No idea. But hey, Argentina!