Yo Hablo Espanol en Beunos Aires, just a little :)

Trip Start Feb 07, 2006
Trip End Aug 07, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Make sure to check out Andrea's Travel Blog for more stories and photos of our trip!

A city you just have to love

We had heard an enormous amount of hype about Beunos Aires, or BA as it's called. So much so that we thought it would be impossible to love the place with such high expectations.

We had heard promises of deliciously juicy Argentinean steaks selling for less than $5 USD. Tales of the world´s best red wines for less than $3 USD a bottle. Friendly locals, not (yet) tainted by the large amounts of tourists which other big cities received.

One guide book described BA as ¨Prague before everyone knew about Prague¨.

With that, we thought it would be impossible for BA to live up to its rep.

Gladly, we were wrong!


We arrived by boat from neighboring Uruguay late at night and realized we had no local currency to take a bus or taxi with. It was too late to get any cash at the terminal so we walked our heavy load of packs a kilometer away to our hostel.

At night BA seemed pretty quiet, at first at least. We were staying in the business center of the city which, like most other big cities, shut down at night. The wide streets, the widest I'd ever seen seemed eerily empty.

The hostel we had arranged to stay in was the only one we could find. The U2, Oasis and Rolling Stones concerts which all had taken place in a few weeks had brought in swarms of tourists and all of the accommodations were booked up! We were glad to have called the night before. A 3 hour jaunt around town looking for an available bed was not something we were looking forward to.

Thanks to our reservation, 2 beds in a 7 bed dorm awaited us at the V&S hostel. We parked ourselves and stayed there for several nights.

The hostel was very comfortable and actually had real, 8 inch thick mattresses, which was a first for us on this trip.

The next morning at breakfast, Andrea scanned the room to find me as she walked back from the toaster with her food. Having just gone from blonde to bald, Andrea couldn't recognize me amongst the other backpackers.

San Telmo - Tango in the streets

For our first tourist destination we targeted the weekend fair in San Telmo, a neighborhood known for its artsy feel. We spent the afternoon walking down the barrio's main street where tango dancers spun around with intense gazes for the tourists in the blazing sun and bizarrely dressed locals posed for the camera, and for some peso's as well of course.

In some cases, the intricately dressed posers actually were worth a picture, like the old man elegantly dressed in early 1900's garb hold a cup of mate ( a local tea ), but others were just bizarre. Like the old lady sucking on a kazoo and playing kids-sized drums dressed in strangely colored clothes and tooting away.

Andrea stopped for a pic and the lady quickly covered her face with a paddle which had the words "Put money in the bucket for a picture".


Mounds of local crafts and antiques filled the tables in the main square but we just looked, took a few pictures and wandered back home.

The beer fest

I couldn't resist. This weekend's beer festival was in its second day and after we rallied a few other backpackers we headed off. Although expensive, the hall where the festival was held was jammed packed with locals quaffing locally brewed pints of cerveza (beer).

Argentinean bands wailed their tunes in Spanish and we struck up some conversations, in English unfortunately, with the all too friendly locals.

As you would expect, we did find some tasty brew and ended up chatting with the bass player of a local band who judging from his stories was enjoying the band-life ( and the groupies! ) . We chatted for a long time, snapped a few group shots and promised to meet a few weeks later at a pub where they where playing.

A la casa

We had grown quite fond of our little hostel in central BA. We'd met a lot of new friends and wondered if we should simply stay at the cheaper hostel rather than moving to our home stay which we had arranged through the school.

We finally decided to move to Beatriz's home, at least for a week, this was a decision we wouldn't regret! Beatriz, an older and very friendly Argentinean woman greeted us and showed us to our room where we would stay for 2 weeks. Beatriz didn't speak much English, which help us practice our Spanish during our stay, which was after all the whole idea.

Her home was very central, 2 blocks from la Casa Rosada, the pink house. The pink house is a government building which is painted light pink. Some say that it is pink because it was painted with bovine blood back in the day. The building is also where Evita, a national hero which Madonna played in, you guessed it, the movie Evita, gave a famous speech from.

Our room fronted a busy downtown street but despite needing ear plugs, it was nice to have our own little place for a while without 5 other packers sleeping next to you.

A Japanese tango pianist was also staying at Beatriz's home. During our stay she would practice for hours as she got ready to make her 3rd Tango music CD.

The real treat at Beatriz's was the food! Beatriz used to be a caterer and delighted us with tasty local dished every night.

The truth was that we decided to stay because the food was so good!

Spanish classes

My Spanish was horrible before we started, but 2 weeks in Spanish class would fix that! We registered with CEDIC, a local Spanish school, when we were in Canada. The school was very central and from what we could tell, seemed pretty good.

Learning Spanish in BA required a little extra work as locals spoke they're own dialect of Spanish which we would need to make sure that we didn't take along with us to other countries!

Thankfully, knowing French was a big bonus and I stumbled my way through Spanish by adding the occasional "o" to the end of French words when I didn't know the Spanish version. Surprisingly, it mostly worked!

The first week was mostly a learning Spanish week. When we weren't in class, we were studying or planning our flights for our trip down south the Patagonia. After just one week, my Spanish had improved dramatically. Andrea's was already a Spanish star and now, with a little refresher, she was doing great too!

"Ohh, I figured out why I was getting weird looks at the bus terminal" Andrea realized after having learned a few knew Spanish words.

It turns out than a month before, in Paraguay, Andrea wasn't getting the response she wanted from the attended at the bus terminal. Apparently rather than asking for a one way ticket, she had been asking for grapes.

We had a chuckle imagining how strange it must have been to have two foreigners ask a clerk at a bus station for a ticket and repeating over and over:

"No, only grapes! I only want grapes!".

We had a good laugh and were happy to know a little more Spanish.

Palermo - Parques in the burbs

On our first weekend after a long week of intense Spanish training we headed out to visit Palermo, a wealthy suburb north of the city with large parks and open grassy areas.

We took the subway north and walked to the parks. The area reminded me of back home. Clean, apartment lined streets with large trees shading the side walks.

"We would live right there" Andrea wished out loud spotting a nice apartment overlooking the park.

From what we had seen so far, BA certainly seemed like a place we could live in.

The sun was already low in the sky when we arrived so we rented bikes and toured the park where it was packed with families walking, roller bladding, and picnicking.

We stopped for a little ice cream for a while and spotted green parrots flying from tree to tree as a swan groomed itself in the pond which the parquet encircled.


Not all that glitters is gold

"Falso" the wine vendor told us returning our 10 peso note.

"Falso? Really?!?" we couldn't believe it.

The man returned our fake 10 peso bill and we examined it closely.

It was a color photocopy!

We weren't sure where it came from, change from dinner at a restaurant or perhaps change from a taxi? After a little more thought we even wondered if the clever salesmen took our 10 behind the counter, as he did, and swapped our real one for their fake.
We'd never know.

After figuring out how to tell which bills are real and which were fake, we tucked the 10'er away and schemed of ways to get rid of our newly found fake.

From now on we would check our change closely!

The world's most expensive laptop

As I leaned over and unplugged our laptop which was squeezed into the little available table space at the internet café I heard a loud crash. I glanced over my shoulder and saw my laptop, on the ground. For a fleeting few seconds of hope, I thought that maybe it was ok, but when I looked a little closer, I saw that the screen was completely cracked and that the laptop was unuseable.

That's how it all started, over a month ago in Paraguay when our laptop took it's nasty tumble.

Since then, we'd been trying to find a new one. We looked in Paraguay, Brazil and in BA but the prices here were way too expensive and of course all of the software was in Spanish.

To make it easy ( or so we thought ), we arranged to have a laptop shipped from Canada.

When it arrived in BA via FedEx, we knew we had made a grave mistake.

Judith, the Spanish school's administrator, was the first to break the news to me.

When she handed me the FedEx waybill, I cracked a big smile.

"Finally!" I was relieved. The laptop had finally arrived.

"No, it's not quite here" Judith went on to explain.

Judith made a few calls to the numbers which were on the photocopy which came with the FedEx waybill.

Apparently, the package was stuck in customs. Because the value was over 1k USD, FedEx couldn't deliver it and could only leave it with customs. It was now up to me to go to the distant international airport, to the shipping section, and work out how exactly to get the package out.

Not speaking enough Spanish to pull it off on my own, Judith arranged to have a driver which the school used often to pick me up the next day. Judith explain the whole situation to Gorge, the driver, and he would help as best as he could.

Another problem was that, because laptop was new, I was warned that customs may want to charge me 50% of the value of the laptop!!! A whopping $1500 USD!!!

Even though it seemed bleek, a sliver of hope that I could explain that it wasn´t for resale existed and I hoped that things would work out.

High hopes at the customs office

The next day Gorge picked me up and quizzed me in Spanish to get all of the info he could to help.

Luckily, Gorge had a friend who worked for an importing broker, at the airport. His name was Christian and would prove to be very helpful. We set off to talk to him, as soon as we arrived.

Christian was a big guy who obviously spent a lot of time in the gym. He'd worked for the importing firm for 20 years and knew everyone at the airport customs. Contacts, I would later learn, are the most important thing when dealing with the red tape which customs was wound up in. Christian was always buzzing with nervous energy and rarely put him mobile phone down.

His intentions were good and I was happy to have him help but, clearly, his lack patience for my beginner Spanish was obvious.

"You must learn Castallano!" Christian snapped shortly after meeting me before zipping off in another direction through the maze of offices and wharehouses which made up the Beunos Aires imports department.

The first day was spent gathering information. What needed to be paid, to whom, where was the package, and most importantly, was the contents of the box new.

This came up over and over by just about everyone we met.

"Es neuva?" everyone would ask. Grimacing as if they'd seen something horrific when I indicated that it was.

"If it's old , no problem, if it's new, big problem"

I tried to explain that I wasn't importing the laptop for resale but Christian repeated over and over that the custom officials didn't care.

"They open box, if it's new, you pay, if it's old, it's ok"

There was no discussion, that's just how it was.

Or was it...

I followed Christian out of the official's office where we had just sat for a few minutes and my situation was explained.

"800" Christian told me

800? For what? Deciphering the situation was not an easy thing to do but after 30 minutes of trying, I understood what was going on. Christian's hand gesture of money going into a pocket clued me in.

The official was going to turn a blind eye to the new equipment in the box and to process it as old ( which shouldn´t have costed me anything ), if we gave him, not customs, but him personally, $800 USD personally!

Not only that but they wouldn't even release the package so that I could send it back to Canada without paying!


Of course, no one could help now. FedEx washed their hands of the problem and the Canadian embassy couldn't help either.

By the end of the first day I was furious and exhausted, just being with Christian for 30 minutes was enough to drain me as we zipped left and right. The offices and building were buzzing with other brokers and officials all walking hurriedly and shouting into mobile phones occasionally stopping to peck Christian on the check ( a customary Argentinean greeting ) and quickly exchanging a smattering of Spanish which had yet to be added to my vocab.

I was not happy, the already expensive laptop, which was shipped from Canada now would cost us an extra $800 USD ( At best! )

The deal goes down

The second day, we arrived back at the customs office with the hopes of actually getting the laptop. We knew the scoop now and I had spoken to our CEO at TravelPod, who agreed that we had to pay the bribe. With $800 USD in hand, I was ready to get our package from the clutches of the customs office.

There was still a sliver of hope that the custom official, the one who determined whether the package was new or old would open the box and see that it wasn't for resale but seeing as the personal who determine that was also the one asking for a bribe, I could hardly see any chance that he would give us the package without some kind of bribery.

It all started with getting the box from storage. Christian handled the whole deal for me and ran around getting people to get packages and sign forms. Through our trials of the day it seemed to everyone was asking for bribes, most of which we were able to not pay thanks to Christian's connections.

The customs official inspected the opened box, and made a few jokes in Spanish that I couldn't understand.

"Es neuvo" he called out to Christian, waving the workers to close the box and to seal it.

Neuvo, to me meant that I would have to pay the $800 USD to get the box, there was no getting off easy, but before we got to that, a bit of paper work was needed.

First paying the fees for them to store the box for 2 days, then this form and that one. One challenge still remained. For the official to claim that the items where old and of a personal nature, the FedEx declaration form needed to be changed.

Christian asked me for 200 pesos and tried to explain the situation as we quickly walked over to the FedEx office at the airport.

We were standing outside the FedEx office, I would later find out, because there were no camera's outside.

At first, the FedEx rep wouldn't budge. There was no way he would change the form without a fax from Canada he explained passionately.

Christian argued fiercely with the man but he wouldn't change it.

Then Christian and Mr. FedEx disappeared into the office for 2 minutes and when they reemerged, with a changed form which was ready for me to sign.

At first I thought the man was pretty nice and finally gave in but as we walked back to the customs official's office with the newly adjusted form Christian explained that a quick handshake which contained 200 pesos was what actually helped the process.

Christian would always use the same expression to show me that what was going on wasn't quite legit by taking his finger and pulling down the skin under his eye as if to say "nobody sees this".

Back at the gray office of the customs official, a new stack of forms emerged.

The forms indicated that all of my goods were used and that the value was a mere $300 USD, not $3000. I signed them and Christian quickly walked me over to the warehouse toilette.

"Rapido" Christian told me pointing out that there were no camera's in the washroom.

I slid 2400 pesos into his hand and he counted it. There I was in the BA airport washroom, handing over an $800 bribe. It just didn´t get any dodgier than that.

Once paid, he went off yet again back to the customs office where behind closed doors, the pesos went into a different person´s pocket.

After 3 days of back and forth and tons of confusing bribes and red tape, I finally had my package. A big yellow "Verificado" sticker was stuck to it's top.

It was finally over.

In all, the laptop ended up cost over $4000 CDN, thank God that job was reimbursing me for it!

Mobile Phones while traveling

To be honest I wasn't 100% sure how exactly I would be using my mobile phone while I traveled. Telestial, our partner here at TravelPod equipped me with a few goodies including a new mobile phone which works here in South America and several SIMS which provide your with a phone local numbers.

Until now, I'd had little luck making it work. It is after all a complex process. First you need a phone which works locally and that isn't "locked", I had this.

Then you need a local SIM to have activate a local number for your phone, lastly, you need to buy time on your card which is available just about anywhere in any country.

In BA, I managed to get my phone to work and I have to admit, it came in extremely handy. Not only was having a camera on your phone very handy while traveling for those unexpected photo-ops, but having a mobile phone did wonders for our social life too by letting us contact other hard to reach, nomadic, travelers to meet up with little planning and effort.

I wasn't the only one with a mobile, many travelers had them and by exchanging numbers, we were able to call each other, last minute, to organize get togethers.

Without a mobile, we wouldn't have been able to do this. I'd overheard a few other backpackers complain that by using email only, by the time you check your email for a reply to see if people would come to meet you, it was too late making it difficult to meet up. The mobile was great for us. I can very much see the mobile as an essential tool for backpackers in the coming years. It's cheap, common and extremely handy.

The trick is to know how to set it up. I had know idea. Telestial helped sort out the details of which phone and cards we needed.

I was skeptical at first but after our stint in BA, I was glad we had our mobile phone.

Asado con mi amigos

We had been trying to meet up with Martin, a fellow TravelPodder who is Argentinean and lives in BA for a while. After a few missed attempts, we jumped at Martin's invitation to attend a BBQ, known as a parilla or an asado with him and several other friends and backpackers.

Around 6pm, Martin called my mobile.

"Luc, you should know that although we are meeting at 8-9pm, we won't eat until at least 10pm, it is our custom here." Martin warned.

We were always baffled by the time which people ate here. Dinner was at 9pm. Bed time typically passed 1am. Partying was a whole other matter all together. Clubs closed at 8am in BA! A typical night out consisted of drinks at 10-11pm, and then going to a club around 1-2am.

Back home, we would be headed home and to bed by then. It took a while to adjust but we eventually learned to snack in the afternoon and to sleep in on weekend as much as possible.

We thanked Martin for the heads-up and grabbed a snack before headed off to the BBQ.

The large home where the asado was, was about 45 minutes from the center and was owned by a friendly lady in her 30s who let couch surfers stay for as long as they wanted.

Backpackers could show up and stay a few nights, all for free! That night we all pitched in to buy the meat and Martin's friend tended to the asado. The BBQ, one which any red blooded carnavor would appreciate, was a large brick structure on the far side of the small courtyard. The main opening held the large grill where coals are laid under to slowly grill the meat. Large levers allowed the cook to lower the entire grill closer to the coals as they cooled. Next to the grill a fire burned where coals could prepare for their transfer over below the grill to cook the meat.

On the grill strange meats such as intestines, blood sausage and kidney grilled. We'd already tried those in Tigre a few days back and weren't big fans of the organs. Luckly, monstrous ribs and other various cuts of beefs also seared on the grill.

15 of us, mostly travelers staying in the home, sat, drank and ate at midnight when the meat was ready ending until 3am.

"Ohh common stay a little longer" Martin and some others pleaded.

We had our last day of school the next day at 9am and were always baffled at just how late the locals stayed up until here! We just couldn't stay out any longer without completely missing our last day of Spanish classes so we called a cab and headed home.
Hablo Espaniol... kind of

We wrapped up our last day of Spanish on Friday morning. After our late night at the asado with Martin and his friends, we hardly were in any shape to attend our 9am Spanish class. Our late slumber worried a few people at our Spanish school who promptly called to wake us up and to make sure we were coming. Having not paid our bill for the Spanish classes we wondered if the school thought we were skipping on the bill!

Tired and baffled by how the locals managed to stay up so late, we slogged our way to the school for a last 2 hours of classes before saying our final "chau" and getting ready for our dinner date with friend's we'd met in Rio.

Tonight we would feast on Argentina's finest meats at a restaurant called "Siga la vaca"... en Ingles: "follow the cow".

For $12USD, an all you can eat BBQ of all assortments of Argentina's best meats and a bottle of wine ( Each! ) awaited, the best deal around and a great way to end our Spanish classes.

Buenos Aires Nightlife

Using the word "Nightlife" to describe going out at night in BA isn't really accurate, after all, the clubs don't start until 2am! Morning life would probably be more accurate!

We had wanted to go out at least one night. We'd heard of the BA nightlife being wild and that clubs closed at 8am. Seeing as how back home we were in bed by 10:30pm, staying awake would be a challenge but this would be our night to try to live it up like the locals.

The evening started with a 17.5 oz steak. I didn't even know I could eat that much, the steak was nearly the size of my head! We chatted with out friends from Oz, Holland and Denmark and killed time until we headed to the clubs. We knew they started late so we arrived at "Mint" at 1:30am.

When we got there, they were just opening up! The cash register hadn't even plugged in yet and we were the only ones around.

We couldn't believe that even though it was almost 2am, no one had arrived yet.

At 2:30, locals started to arrive but it wasn't until 4am that it really was hoping. We had some drinks, danced a little to the neon light shows and by 5am, as the party had finally reached it's peak, we couldn't stay awake any longer and headed home.

Leaving BA

After a few weeks in BA, it was time to move on, so we went to Mendoza for a few days to sample some of the world´s best wines.
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