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The best of times and the worst of times

My blog posts are going to be a bit delayed, due to the fact that I do not have the most reliable wireless internet connection here. For now, here is a story I wrote down after my first few weeks in Buenos Aires.

My first night out:

I got scammed. I shared a cab with friends and was the last in the group to be dropped off. I was to pay for the ride, and my friends would reimburse me for their shares the next day. I handed the driver a 50 peso bill, and he said something in Spanish that I didn’t understand, some reason he couldn’t accept large bills. I knew about the shortage of monedas (coins) in the city, and that many businesses don’t accept large bills because they can’t make change. I told myself, “ah, that must be it,” even though I felt unsure of the situation. I wasn’t confident enough to ask him for an explanation, so I took my bill back when he handed it to me. Or so I thought. In my flustered confusion, I didn’t realize he had swapped my bill with a counterfeit. A very good counterfeit. In the dark cab, I couldn’t even tell it was fake. So I paid him in small bills instead and realized the next morning the 50 peso note he gave me was fake. I was so furious, not at the taxista, or even at how corruption prevails in this city, but at myself. For not being alert enough, and for not speaking up. I felt so cheated, and upset that my accent and lack of Spanish fluency allows people to have an easier time taking advantage of me.

My second or third night out:

In Buenos Aires, we never hail taxis from the street. To do so is to risk getting into an unsafe, “fake” taxi, and being robbed. So we always call a cab company and request a taxi to pick us up. Much safer.

We called the company my friend’s host mom (Julieta) uses, but kept having troubles with the cell phone, and didn’t see the cab anywhere, though the company assured us it was there with all the other cabs in the plaza. Eventually our assigned driver sought us out on foot, that’s how badly we kept crossing paths. We explained the mix-up to him, and he was understanding. A friendly old man with a thick sweater and a deep laugh. Once we were on our way home, he said, “Hmmm, you sound American, so I don’t understand why the call was under the name Julieta…” We laughed and explained. “Ah, I see,” he said. “Because I was starting to think…if you guys were Julieta, that must make me Romeo, since we kept missing each other, crossing paths.” We spent the cab ride home talking about Romeo and Juliet, the tragedies of love, and Shakespeare.   

Many porteños have a great affinity for reading – Buenos Aires is a highly literary/literate city. However, it is also a city with a very high crime rate. Because of this, a perpetual state of vigilance is a simple reality for people living here. You do what you have to – carry your bookbag on the front of your body, never the back. Know which sections of the city to never walk through at night. Keep your hands in your pockets at all times. Never enter or exit your apartment building if there is somebody near the door. And so on. I find living like this to be exhausting. And yet, just when I feel the most disheartened, somebody pleasantly surprises me. The majority of porteños react very kindly to my North American accent. They ask me questions about my life in the United States and about what I’m doing in Buenos Aires, and they praise me for attempting to learn Spanish. Many have helped me through all sorts of negotiations, from purchasing a cell phone plan to choosing the best type of bread on the menu for the sandwich I’m ordering.

For every taxista who will rob you and use the language barrier to take advantage of you, there’s another who will discuss Shakespearean tragedies with you and compliment you on how well you speak Spanish. Living in Buenos Aires, I’m learning to take the good with the bad, and to navigate a city in which barred windows and graffiti are juxtaposed seamlessly with bookshops and literary cafes.

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