Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Three Perils of Argentina

a decade ago, with my Cub Scout training not yet forgotten, I was a prepared traveler.  Before backpacking through Italy, I took a year of Italian, seven of Latin, and could easily differentiate between composers and pastas, Pu- and fettuccini.  However, as I’ve approached thirty, my preparations have dilapidated in direct proportion to my hairline.  Where once I spent weeks poring over Lonely Planet and crafting every aspect of my trip, now I think of a place from a musical, buy a plane ticket, and hope it all works out.

Which brings me to Argentina.

As I boarded the plane to Buenos Aires, my understanding of Argentine history was as follows: indigenous people (Incans?) lived there until conquistadors did their thing; said thing included churches, tango huts, and the Ezeiza International Airport; eventually, Patti LuPone was elected first lady, which really pissed off Mandy Patinkin, until she was replaced by Madonna in a midterm election.  There’s also steak.

Clearly, this history is incomplete—Elaine Page predated Patti LuPone—but I figured I would learn more along the way.  And learn I did, though my education covered a topic far more pernicious than history:

The Three Perils of Argentina.

The First Peril: Crime

As our plane landed, my elderly seatmate smiled and asked if it was my first time in Argentina.  Bashful, I said it was, expecting her to offer a hostel recommendation or maybe even invite me to dinner.  Instead, she growled, “Watch your wallet” and waddled off.

Minor crime is, it turns out, a major issue in Argentina.  During her year in Buenos Aires, my friend Chris has had her purse stolen three times, and her boyfriend Lucas, a lifelong Porteño (which means “Buenos Airean” without sounding Third Reich), was recently pick-pocketed outside her apartment.  Wherever I went, Lucas reminded me to cling to my possessions.  When I brought out my camera to photograph the not-Washington Monument in Nueve de Julio, he tut-tutted.  When I tried to enter the Retiro Bus Station with my backpack on my back, he couldn’t decide whether to tackle me or have a heart attack.  By two days into the trip, he had frightened me so thoroughly that I stored my wallet in my front pocket and my passport down my underpants.  (Sorry, Customs.)

But pickpocketing has a clear motivation.  In Argentina, everyone is desperate for coins and small bills (monedas).  Even major stores have a difficult time making change and expect you to pay the exact amount.  If you’re a peso or two over, they insist on paying you the difference in hard candies.  As a first-world parallel, consider walking into Starbucks and offering a $5 bill for a $4 latte, whereupon the cashier yells at you and flings a caramel at your head.

In some areas of Buenos Aires, crime extends beyond mere pickpocketry.  For example, La Boca.  La Boca is a neighborhood to which my mother might apply euphemisms like “urban” or “not yet gentrified.”  Lonely Planet is far more mum on the subject.  In fact, it refuses to give you street names, labeling the map only with “Area considered unsafe for tourists.”  Presumably “If you die, it’s your own damn fault” wouldn’t fit.

Chris and her roommates Lily and Heather live in San Telmo, which borders La Boca.  Accordingly, their apartment has an intricate series of locks and an attack cat who, as of press time, had just lost its testicles so may be less prone to attack.  The locks themselves are medieval, something you’d use to lock Rapunzel in a tower, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Each key is an objet d’art—imagine a Troll doll that’s been steamrolled and bronzed—and the locks are gaping slits in the door, perpendicular to the ground and in a perpetual grimace.  In short, they’re awesome.  Or at least they appear to be.  But if you insert the key upside-down, the lock jams, and you can’t remove the key or unlock the door until a passing locksmith hears your cries.

I am pleased to report that my time in Argentina involved neither locksmith nor grand theft larceny.  I even crept through La Boca to get to the ferry terminal, and I survived to blog the tale.

The ferry, however, presented a peril all its own.

Choose wisely.

Guarding our possessions in front of the Casa Rosada.

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