I turned 23 the summer I worked in Buenos Aires. It was the first time I was exposed to living in a not-so-capitalist country with a heavy variety of regulations but less security for its citizens. I’d never encountered such a dichotomy. I’d been used to much more free-market economies from the Dominican Republic to Europe to New York and the adjustment was awkward. Although beautiful, diverse, and vibrant with culture, I was taken aback by the not-so-glamorous qualities of actually living and working in Buenos Aires. As a form of therapy, I took to writing about the things that shocked me about living in Buenos Aires.
This is the recollection of my culture shock and why I didn’t enjoy Buenos Aires as much as a tourist would, upon realizing the unromanticized qualities of actually living in this South American city, especially as a Latina of Afro-indigenous descent.
Environmental Problems in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires literally translates to “good air” in Spanish. This was ironic because the air quality in Buenos Aires gave me 3 upper respiratory infections in 2 months. The thick black clouds of smoke puffing out of automobiles and potholes, along with the constant stench of sulfur seeping into subways cars and the windows of my 12th-floor apartment, had me questioning if there was any enforcement of environmental policies in Buenos Aires. Luckily, however, pharmaceutical regulations were as lax as the environmental policies, so I was able to self-medicate myself back to health with medicine that would have been controlled through prescriptions in the U.S.
Argentina’s Rampant Inflation & Unreliable Currency
When I first arrived, I was greeted by the remis (taxis) half of which I was warned would drive me around the same block to run up the meter or take the slowest streets possible if they sensed I was a foreigner. So I put on my most neutral Spanish accent, and being Dominican, it took some effort. But alas, the Argentine accent is anything but neutral. So as I arrived at my destination, my driver asked where I was from. The age-old question that I can never answer simply. This time, I just settled for just Dominican and handed the driver some bills to which he grimaced, explaining he didn’t have enough change, and handed me back some hard candy as change.
The strange coin shortage is the least of inflation-infested Argentina’s problems. The menu prices in restaurants are constantly being crossed out and scribbled over with a higher price due to their volatile currency.
Today, most Argentinean grown adults are forced to live at home with their parents because their currency faces constant devaluation, causing landlords to charge in U.S. dollars. This doesn’t bode well when their salaries remain constant with a devaluing peso.
Buenos Aire’s High Cost of Living & Lack of Resources/Trade
Soon after arriving at my Couchsurfer‘s hospice, I was starving. Like a true gringa, I sought out the instant gratification of a hot meal. Upon walking for over an hour, searching for a hot meal in this neighborhood, I quickly learned that it was easier to buy simple ingredients and cook at home. Good restaurants were very expensive, even by American standards. But even buying things to cook at home was also tricky.
My entire life, I have been spoiled by supermarkets that offered an abundance and variety of food to buy. I have been accustomed to waltzing into a store and seeing an entire aisle with every type of everything. In Buenos Aires, the collections were much smaller and the “good stuff” had a high markup due to Argentina’s heavy importation taxes. The more affordable good stuff like cheese in the corner bodega-like stores, I was told to be wary of due to a local rumor that the corner stores shut down their refrigerators at night to save money. It was the first time in my life, that I was faced with this type of scarcity in a “developed” country. And it was quite the lesson for this Dominican-American, who majored in Global Political Economics, about living in a regulated-trade economy.
Before coming here, I ignorantly thought, I’m headed for South America, why pack much? I’ll be rich with my dollars and go shopping there! Silly 22-year-old! The inflation rates in a country crippled by pseudo-socialist policies and overbearing protectionist tax rates have actually led many Argentines to travel to the U.S.A to go shopping and still come back saving money despite spending so much on a visa, flight, and hotel!
And traveling within the country? Extremely difficult. Coming from a heavy capitalist society with more competition, I can take a $20 Megabus to Vermont or a $180 flight to the Caribbean, I was dumbfounded to find out it would cost $200 USD (a round-trip flight from New York to California) to take a bus to another city in Argentina! How do the locals afford anything? I wondered. As the Argentine winter (in July) grew harsh, I was forced to buy a winter coat. I couldn’t find a warm coat for under $200 dollars. In the U.S., I can go to TJ Maxx or Old Navy and buy a high-quality warm coat for $40. But due to their strict policies to discourage foreign importation, when I did find anything I would get at Target or Walmart, it was usually 5 times the price of what I would have normally paid! And I came with American currency privilege. How the heck do the locals afford a quality of life here?
What a harsh realization to notice the privilege I’ve grown up in, and how others lack access to buy quality resources. I ended up with what seemed like a mass manufactured cheaply made-in-China $20-looking-coat. But the coat cost me $125 and it ended up ripping on me a month later. This is neither sustainable nor ethical to the local people.
Basically, it felt like Buenos Aires had both all the bad things about socialism AND all the bad things about capitalism. Somehow they got the worst of both sides of the economic spectrum.
So I learned to live without the abundance of luxuries, most of which I realized I didn’t need. It was a new concept to me, but I appreciated the lesson on living a less consumerist-driven life. I stopped feeling the false sense of needing to buy things or go shopping. Coming back from Argentina, was the first time I traveled abroad and my bank account remained relatively the same. I didn’t eat out much, didn’t shop much, and I couldn’t travel around the country much.
Safety in Buenos Aires, Argentina
So after hopelessly dragging myself around the malls and shopping stores trying to find a coat, I witness a mugging by two men who then hopped on a motorcycle and trampled over an old lady as they violently drove off into the sunset. I left the Bronx for this? I thought, bitterly.
A few weeks earlier, my roommate’s friend was held at gunpoint in El Bario Norte which is supposed to be one of the safer neighborhoods. They took everything away from him on his way to the airport. When they asked that he hand over his passport, he pleaded with them and they responded with a bullet. For years, I was haunted by this story.
Usually, the benefit of a country with so many regulations, control, and protectionist policies is security from this type of crime. Some form of safety from heavily being controlled by the government. Like Cuba and Mynamar. But again, Buenos Aires seemed to have all the cons and none of the pros from this type of control.
However, this is not to say the same applies to the rest of the country. In fact, there are some communities of travelers who love backpacking Argentina.
Health Problems in Argentina: A Meat-Lover’s Destination
Maintaining a pescatarian diet in a country that hails red meat began to take a toll on my health. I take full responsibility for waltzing into a country that subsists on red meat. As a vegetarian, this was definitely my bad. I found the first few months difficult to find as many vegetarian options as I was afforded in other cities.
My first time buying spinach involved what seemed like a sketchy transaction with a corner store man who did not speak Spanish or English. I eventually found giant chain supermarkets, that offered more options even if they were more expensive. And a month later, I would find a small bodega-like store nearby with really cheap vegetables. It became my go-to place!
Fish simply just wasn’t easy to come by even though we were on a coast! I have lived, worked, and traveled to over two dozen countries from Santo Domingo to Morocco. All major meat-eating countries where I was fine as a pescovegetarian. I eat seafood, eggs, and cheese. But eventually, Argentina brought an end to my decade-long vegetarianism/pescetarianism.
What a privilege I’ve had to be blessed with so many options that I was able to be a vegetarian for so long. The ability to tailor your diet is a luxury – a lesson I will never forget.
Classism and Racism in Argentina
Now, this is an incredibly underrated issue in every Latin American country I have visited. At least in the U.S. and Canada, there is more awareness and shame of being racist and classist. But in Latin America, it is not chastised as much. Many I spoke to, denied being Latino or having any indigenous South American descent. Some would tell me I was Latino/Hispanic, but they were not because their great, great ancestors came from Italy or Germany. It was quite baffling to see this sort of shameless distaste for being South American by South Americans.
As in most parts of the world, I also noticed that race and class were strongly connected here too. White people are treated nicer and get better jobs, pay, and opportunities. And because I had darker features, I was labeled morocha in Argentina. That’s when I wondered, did so many Argentine women dye their hair blond and drown it in Keratin (a chemical application that straightens hair) to escape this morocha complex?
My Peruvian roommates recounted some of their traumatic experiences of being kicked out of cabs for being Peruvian, more than once. Discrimination against Peruvians, Bolivians, and Paraguayans apparently is not uncommon in Argentina. Not cool.
If you think I’m being overly negative, I’ll leave you with this last tidbit: there is a too common Argentine saying that refers to people as being black as an insult.
Many Argentines will deny racism and instead say “it’s about class, not race.” To those, I ask: If a rich white person and a rich black person apply for the same job in Buenos Aires with the exact same qualifications. Tell me, who will get hired?
Sexism and Machismo in Argentina: Beware the Street Harassment
The street harassment from men, even when I resembled a sickly zombie, was relentless. The sound men made to get my attention on the sidewalks, from their cars, out of windows, on the train, resembled the noise one makes to get a horse’s attention. I was expected to put my head down, look away, and keep walking as if it were not happening. If I accidentally made eye contact I was inviting them to say or do more. When I responded by declining their advances, they insulted me.
My French roommate politely asked them to leave her alone, and the man responded by shouting obscenities as he biked around us in circles.
One night, I went on a triple date in Buenos Aires (and no not with one of my street harassers). These guys did not hold back their intense sexual innuendos. I wondered, maybe the common portrayal in movies of American/European women traveling the world and feeling more liberated had fueled their aggression? Or maybe it was the cultural norm for men in Argentina? To charm us further, they blatantly expressed their disdain for the U.S. and continuously mocked American culture. After they finished bashing the U.S., they went on to tell us about their favorite foods, bands, TV shows, and movies: every single one of them was American.
Is it Me? Am I Being Negative or Realistic?
I wondered, is it me? Am I being overly negative? Perhaps it’s this frigid cold weather and the lack of sunshine for almost a year now. Doesn’t every country have problems like this in some way? No. Not in this combination which particularly threw me off. And it also wasn’t just me. There were members of my exchange program who had changed their flights to leave earlier out of disappointment.
This is not an attack on the Argentine people. There are lots of wonderful Argentine folks, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. Just because I’m pointing out qualities that shocked me so that others may not suffer through the same cultural shock does not mean I ignored the positive aspects of Buenos Aires: the delicious wines, the incredible Krakow bar my uncle’s friend worked in, the interesting architecture, the pretty markets, my discovery of Argentine brie cheese, yerba mate outside of Buenos Aires, the high levels of free education among the Argentine youth…
Also, note that I wasn’t in Buenos Aires lavishly spending money and only doing the tourist trail for a week. I was living and working here, and more immersed in the local way of living.
Maybe this was more than culture shock. Maybe it was a reality check to life outside of imperialistic capitalism and more racial diversity. But either way, I got a closer look at the realities of living in Buenos Aires, which I was not warned about in any of the romanticized travel guides.
I’d also like to note that I absolutely loved Mendoza and many other parts of Argentina outside of Buenos Aires… Iguazu Falls is also an incredible place to visit! I’m still incredibly grateful for my experience living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It opened my eyes and enriched my perspective of the world a little better, even if it stung. Buenos Aires exposed me to a different side of how the more developed (but still developing) world lives.
I will never forget the life lessons I learned in Buenos Aires. My work in international taxation propelled my career in the U.S.A. Since Argentina plays a key role in the global economy, especially in finance, I worked with coworkers throughout Latin America (including Buenos Aires) who I was able to better connect with thanks to having lived in Argentina.
Maybe one day, I will stop by to experience it without the culture shock… and in their summertime.