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February 21, 2011

Buenos Aires: the good, the bad and the ugly

“Che, dedonde sos?” – asks the average porteƱo when meeting a foreigner. The people of Buenos Aires are open minded, friendly, humorous, and speak such a Spanish, that you will probably need an extra dictionary to catch all what they say. They still believe in the power of fernet and pizza, but lost their belief in their politicians long time ago. The city is soaked up with the presence of tango: in the downtown every corner features a ballroom or school of tango, frequented by the old, the young, the locals or the tourists. The quality of the tango lessons varies: some of them will teach you eye-candy tricks right away, some of them will make you learn the basic walking for hours and hours. To be honest I already forgot all the flashy tricks, but I still remember the basics, so depending on your skills, you might choose one or the other. Most dance schools turn into a ballroom at the end of the lessons, where you can freely try your freshly obtained skills.

The etiquette of the ballroom tango (milonga) deserves a chapter of its own. Lets take a look at a typical ritual: The guests are seated at tables around the dance floor, women cannot ask men for dancing, all they can do is watch. Once established eye-contact with a man, even from the other side of the room, the man will approach the woman and asks her if she dances. It is very impolite to turn down this request, so the woman will accept it, and the freshly formed couple hits the dance floor. Each tango song starts with a little bit of crescendo, and until the violins kick in really hard, the couple have a few seconds to get to know each other. Once dancing, they don’t talk any more, the body does the talking. During the next three or four song the couple dances together, until there is a pause when they return to their seats, and it starts all over again, with new couples forming in the next section.

Probably one of the most mind-boggling thing in Buenos Aires is the public transportation, especially the bus system. First of all, the buses are equipped with a coin-operated ticket vending machine: the driver enters your destination, the machine indicates the amount, you feed the machine with the indicated amount, you get your ticket. This would work brilliantly in any other place, but Buenos Aires has a serious shortage on coins, and hell no, the machines will not accept anything else. This leads to a number of interesting situations: when you notice already onboard that you don’t have enough coins, you can tell the driver, who will trick somehow the machine, that will first spit out your coins so that you can throw them in again. Also happened to us that the driver himself gave us some coins to throw in. When you know you don’t have coins, and still waiting for the bus, you would think you could get change for your notes in any kiosk, hell no. Try to pay with a 2 peso note for a 50 centimo lollipop, most merchants will turn you down immediately. The shortage is so serious, that on the central train station there are coin selling machines, and hundreds of people queuing in front of them to get those damned little pieces of metal.
The other bad thing about the bus system is that it’s chaotic. All lines are operated by different companies, and even though there is a website to list all lines, you have no chance to get a map of the lines or to get directions from point A to B. The best you can do is ask someone or invest in a “Guia T”. Guia T AKA the transportation guide is a small booklet which is supposed to help you to get from point A to B. It is edited in such a way, that it will tell you which bus to take, but it will not tell you where the bus stop is, only locates the bus stop in the segment of a map with 4-5 parallel and perpendicular streets. Now lets say you found the right street, it is still a challenge to find the bus stop, as some of them are not indicated at all, and of course you cannot hail down a bus at any place.

Buenos Aires has many faces and can leave many impressions, Certainly it has ugly parts, like the heap of trash piled up on the corner of all the streets of downtown and the homeless children playing or sleeping amongst them, or the once important Molino building right next to the parliament that is now home of the homeless. Sadly enough these impressions damage the charm of the city and make me feel it is NOT the most European city of South America.


  1. After staying there for one month and half, now I would like to live there for a while...You might have liked it more if you have spent more time there when it was not too HOT.

  2. Yeah it is DEFINITELY NOT A EUROPEAN CITY in South America. They try really hard, but come up short. Sewage is a major issue in Argentina, where more than half of all homes don't have sewage. I've seen kids in Cordoba crapping in the street. I asked an Argentine friend whether or not that was custom here and he blamed the sewage systems. You should really point that out because my friend's home didn't have a working toilet and I found that to be the most shocking thing. They just dug a ditch in the dirt outside and that's where I crapped for about two weeks before my father came from California to rescue me from that hell-hole. I did visit Buenos Aires before Cordoba. It was 1000 times better, although I hear, even in the capital it's actually fairly common. Somebody taking a crap in broad daylight on the street is not something you should expect to see in Europe.