I spent six months, from August 2016 through January 2017 sleeping in the same bunk bed in a hostel called Puerto Limon in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many have asked why I went, what I learned, and what it has been like to return to the U.S. My experience was not that of a typical tourist or backpacker. I went to Argentina with purpose; I wanted an immersion experience with tourists from all over the world and I wanted to write about what I learned. I traveled to learn about travelers. I went with my backpack and my camera case. Nothing else. No suitcases. I interviewed, wrote, and was published. You can read some of it on this blog and some published articles on this website at www.johnbechtelwriter.com/articles/. I have material for many other articles which I have no doubt will be published in due time. I met travelers from 42 countries and collected over 150 of their email addresses. Some of us have become good friends. As I contact many more of them who think I forgot them, I am sure more friendships will blossom. In no particular order, and in compressed form, here are some observations and comparisons from my trip. Others may not agree.
There seems to be a vegetable and fruit stand on every corner in Buenos Aires. Most of the proprietors are men and women from Bolivia.
Peanut butter is hard to find. Really good feta cheese is almost impossible to find. Handkerchiefs were scarce, and Argentine T-shirts didn’t last through very many washings. The proprietor of the local butcher shop could do amazing things with his meat cleaver and a raw chicken. Once he cut his hand while preparing my order. You can walk around the same block twenty times and see an establishment that you missed all the other times. When they close up, they all look the same. Most of the locals I met did not speak any English, or just a word or two. About like my Spanish. Bothering to learn their first name and remembering it always lit up their faces with a smile.
Never order “American food” in Buenos Aires. Things like pizza, hamburgers, and certainly not a Long Island Iced Tea. You may not recognize what comes to your table. They have their own fast food, which, if you give it a chance, is just as good but different. Like choripán, which means a sausage sandwich.
It originated in Argentina but has spread to contiguous countries like Chile and Brazil. The secret ingredient is chimichurri. Use the usual condiments with caution; they often have an extremely high salt content. I have wondered what a choripán would taste like with a good horseradish-based mustard.
Protest marches seem to be a national pastime. Argentines have become spoiled and lazy because of decades of caretaker governments. They think it is an outrage to have to pay for their own tickets to the soccer games. Like everywhere else, they tend to get the government they deserve because they haven’t figured out that choices can have long term consequences, often quite unexpected ones, and that fixing mistakes can be a difficult and painful process. It is harder to lose weight than to gain it.
There is no mail delivery in Argentina that I know of, and corruption at all levels is rampant. If you haven’t heard my hearing aid story, you can read about it elsewhere on this blog under the title of The Other Argentina. Almost ten million people from outside Buenos Aires come into the city to work. You can imagine the subway during rush hour.
No matter how full the car is, there is always room for ten more. You don’t have to worry about having something to hold onto to remain stable; there is no room for the slightest movement. It helps to suck your breath in. It is much easier to get around on the subway than it is on the bus, because the bus stops are not recognizable unless you have been there before. The bus drivers have no interest in helping you make the right choice.
Tango is a national mania, and you don’t have to pay to see really good dancers. There are many places in the city where they dance outdoors, like at Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo.
ATM machines are often out of cash. Down on Florida (avenue) the black market in money exchange operates in plain sight, and most of the time you will get more for an American dollar than you would at an ATM machine or from an official government exchange office. Go with a Spanish-speaking friend the first time to get the hang of it. If you reach agreement, the street hawker will take you some obscure place nearby, usually a well-hidden cubicle inside a building where the cash will be dispensed. All hawkers are not equal. Talk to several to find the best deal.
Electronics and ordering steaks
If you plan to spend some time in Argentina, take spares to any electronic peripherals like ear buds and power cords with you; anything electronic costs three to four times as much as it does in the States because of exorbitant import tariffs. Except plug adapters, which are cheap. If you want a steak rare, you want welte, and medium rare is angusto. Most of the time the kitchen will overcook just past what you asked for, so if it is important to you, under order. I don’t know how to say well done in Spanish because I don’t eat steak well done.
San Telmo’s incredible antique treasures
The famous street fair on Defensa in San Telmo is crowded and noisy, and the real show is behind the quiet store fronts of all the antique dealers. This is the second largest permanent antique community in the world. Every store is a mini Smithsonian. The treasures are unbelievable.
As far as I know, the doctors here are well trained and respected. They have kept the caring part in their Health care. Health care is inexpensive or free. If you need a hospital in Buenos Aires, go to the German Hospital Aleman.
The business climate
Things tend to be poorly maintained by businesses because of their dismal economic outlook. They are so accustomed to disappointment and unexpected government interference, they see little or no point investing in their tomorrows. They are much more inclined to take what they can get today and run with it; they know the promise of tomorrow often fails to materialize. Customer satisfaction is often not considered important.
The best ice cream in the world
Some of the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten is called maracuya, after the fruit of the same name. The fruit is about the size of an orange, and if it is ripe, the rind is wrinkled, and the vendor will often shake it, holding it up to his ear, to see if anything rattles inside. When you slice it open, the rind is the entire fruit with the exception of a few small seeds in the center in a jelly-like substance. If you eat the seeds, you will never forget the flavor. Ever. The ice cream is made from the seeds.
What did I learn about people? People everywhere in the world steal. Use common sense and take normal precautions. Be aware. Pay attention to your environment. Wrap your camera cord around your wrist before you raise your arm to aim. Know at all times where your important stuff is. This can be a problem if you are ADHD.
Smart phones, dumb people
In both Argentina and the U.S. everyone is fixated on their cell phones. About the only time and place where you can separate someone from their cell phone in Argentina is on the dance floor, because it is too crowded and dark to see or hear. Of course, the same is true of ordinary conversation attempted under such circumstances. Once I saw a young man riding a bicycle in heavy industrial traffic, with neither hand on the handlebars, one hand on his smart phone and the other texting. Smart phone. Dumb kid.
Why you should pack two can openers
There is good and bad service in both countries. The U.S. is obviously a massive consumer market where literally everything imaginable is easily available or can be ordered online and delivered to your door front. Not in Argentina. I saw travelers trying repeatedly to open a can of tuna fish with a butcher knife. Take two good can openers with you in your suitcase; one for yourself, and the other as a valuable gift if you make a good friend. They will never forget you.
Living (and traveling) with purpose
Because I stayed in a hostel and not in local homes, I learned more about travelers than I did about local Argentines. Among the travelers, I learned that few live with real purpose or ambition, other than the usual: mate, play, and (sometimes) keep a job that may or may not really interest them. Most of these people were well-educated westerners, but they still seemed to be living their life as if they were looking for a lost ball in tall grass. At best, they had a negative goal; they had found something to rebel against (usually some form of politics) rather than positive pursuit and achievement of personal goals. Many had given up on their passions or had yet to discover one that was not hormonal. With very few exceptions they were very nice people, polite, and easy to engage in conversation. The most notable exception to all of the above was the Venezuelans, who had fled to Argentina from their home country. They were so thrilled to have escaped they were filled with purpose and ambition to build a new life. Sometimes it is hard to appreciate what we have until we have lost it.
Why I’m going back
I am returning to Buenos Aires in three weeks. My hearing aid was returned by Buenos Aires Customs to Florida, where I will pick it up before I get on the plane. Fed Ex charged me $133.19 for return shipping. As far as I am concerned they are part of the corruption. This time I plan to stay in private homes, where I will work or contribute in whatever way desired, and I will learn Spanish and really get in touch with the Argentine way of life. Why? Because everywhere in the world, people are the same in some basic ways. They want to be left alone to live their lives with their family and friends, and trade with others as they choose. As a travel writer, I prefer to plumb the depths rather than skim the surface of a culture.
I am curious. I have to know. This is why I travel, and this is why I write.
If this speaks to you, please enter your email in the small white space at the top right corner of this blog’s first page. The first rule of engagement with a kindred spirit is to connect. I have opened the door and invited you in. Please join me, live it, breathe it, engage emotionally, above the level of your smart phone, and let’s see where this journey goes. Enter comments, Participate. Tell me your opinions and experiences. Be heard. I’m interested and I listen. Be more than a mute observer at the banquet of life. Why? Because life is short and without meaningful connections it’s lonely out there.