“How long have you been traveling for?” is a common question on the road. It nearly joins “Where are you from?” in frequency. The answers vary greatly. Some have spent three years on the road, with short breaks to recharge the bank account. Others are at the beginning of what seems to be a long journey. Some do not know when or where they will go.
I just passed one week living from my 20lbs backpack. The airline allowed me a stop-over (spend a few days in a city where you have a flight connection) and I didn’t say no. That led to three nights in Mexico City. The first day was full of remembering Spanish as I wandered the streets, subway, and buses. The second day I joined forces with two Swiss to take on the enormous Archaeological Museum. In between learning about the history of Mexico, the Maya and Aztec, we discussed politics and what we thought of each other’s countries.
The following morning I went to Mexico City airport to find my flight to Buenos Aires was delayed three hours. Luckily, a bit of Travel Hacking had placed me in first class, and therefore complimentary VIP lounge service. I found the AeroMexico lounge and enjoyed free food, drinks and WiFi. When the flight finally left, I was stopped at the gate with a demanding question: “Have you paid your US$160 reciprocity fee for entering Argentina?”
I had not. Not out of forgetfulness or lack of prior knowledge though. I was hoping to take advantage of my recent entry into the ranks of the dual citizened. A bit of research had revealed that Germans do not need to pay the same reciprocity fee as Americans, so I was hoping to enter Argentina as a German. When the gate attendant heard this full story, she quickly smiled, wrote down the number of my German passport, and ushered me ahead to my seat at 1A.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fully reclining seats and cuisine of international first class travel. After confirming there was no mistake – my entire trip from Portland to Mexico City to Buenos Aires had indeed cost less than US$100 (lounges included) – I was able to relax and enjoy the nine hour flight to a continent I had never visited: South America.
Arriving in Buenos Aires at 1am I was the second person off the plane, but the first to pass through customs since I had not checked any baggage – my backpack fits on the plane. At the airport exit the taxi stands started hollering at me, a result of being the first out of the airport. A taxi ride led me to the apartment where I would spend the next five nights in Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires has a special power to entrance visitors with its charm. I heard someone say they think they lived here in a previous life. With many parts of the city intentionally modelled after Paris, there are semblances of Europe. Behind this charming façade hides the frustrations of a South American city filled with corruption, inflation, and economical plodding. As of writing, inflation increases about 30% every year, making the idea of saving impossible. People are largely paid under the table.
The government prevents the legal purchase of foreign currencies and fixes a artificial exchange rate. If you use an ATM or Credit Card in Argentina, you will get 8.5 pesos to the US dollar. The result is the “blue” rate. Technically illegal, but overlooked and never enforced. At 12.8 pesos to the dollar this street rate makes everything in Argentina much cheaper.Unfortunately, since it’s illegal the whole process can be quite sketchy. One street, Calle Florida, is filled with people yelling “cambio cambio”, who then take you into unmarked offices to change your money. This is not always the most comfortable or pleasant experience, but if it saves you 40% you can’t not do it.
One hundred years ago Argentina was one of the five richest countries in the world. It is easy to find the sentiment in Argentinians that they could or should be doing better as a country. They are a highly educated people, with a deep appreciation for learning. Walking around, it’s easy to forget that a dictator was in power some thirty years ago. But if you start talking about the country’s issues, you won’t be able to ignore it.
It is this combination that makes Buenos Aires feel unique. Beautiful architecture, grand avenues, gorgeous parks, corruption, economic dalliance, insecurity. As much as it sometimes looks like Europe, you are definitely in Latin America. Tango fits right in with this city: sexy and charming, but rooted in melancholy.
After six days in Buenos Aires I am heading down south in Patagonia. It is high season, as everyone (myself included) tries to explore the end of the world before winter arrives.
In fact, I’m writing this on a Aerolineas Argentinas flight down south to the city of El Calafate in Patagonia. The plane is nice, modern, clean. It is definitely better than most domestic US flights. They served me a cookie and a sandwich. The sandwich’s bread was a bleached white, crusts removed, wrapped in a clean factory sealed plastic baggie and as squishy as a sponge. I honestly thought the sandwich was a sponge or cloth to wipe my face with, until the man sitting next to me started to take a bite out of it. I was quick to follow suit and didn’t explore the sandwiches function as a wash cloth.
Even the little things are often so new and different when traveling. These small novelties stimulate the awareness. Each new thing tingling our human experience. When we are so often surrounded my newness, our awareness is sharper, fully activated. It is this keen awareness that makes travel travel. I am drawn to presence as I experience each new moment. As I took one of a Mexico City’s small unofficial vans and tried to get off at the right stop I felt alert. My first day walking around downtown Buenos Aires I felt loneliness. Cooking and then enjoying a cozy 11pm dinner with new friends I felt connected with and optimistic about the world. Laying down together in a Buenos Aires park in perfectly pleasant summer weather under a tree, wondering which memories, which places, which people will stay, and which will float away to be forgotten I felt quite simply alive.
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