It’s hard to explain just how shocking culture shock can be, but Buenos Aires is the un-Cairo. Argentina is full of booze, pork, visible skin, and the people dance in the street until very, very early in the morning. Cairo has tea, koshery, long robes, and they get up at 5:15 am to pray. Perhaps we should have traveled to a cultural halfway house to decompress first.
Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that I had the chance to experience Egyptian (and Muslim) culture. It is another world, and I have a much fuller understanding of how a great many people live their lives. On the other hand, booze, pork, skin, and dancing (all in moderation of course) have their charms as well.
But first, I would like to tell you about the massive Turkish Airways business lounge in Istanbul. Here’s the hideous itinerary we endured to get from Cairo to Buenos Aires – Cairo, Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires – all in one go. Oh, and our flight to Istanbul left Cairo at 3:55 am and arrived here at 11 pm the following day. Human beings shouldn’t do this, but it was all made better by the 30,000 square foot Disneyland business lounge in Istanbul. In addition to all the good stuff like showers and an open bar that you find in most international lounges (but almost never in the US), this place has a pool table and a golf simulator. There are private relaxation rooms with beds in them. You can get a panini grilled to order. There’s a barista and an omelet station. There’s foosball. There’s a movie theater! It’s like a cruise ship at the airport. I recommend flying through Istanbul on a Star Alliance flight just to stop over in this crazy wonderful place.
Why on earth are we in Argentina? Thanks for asking. We’re here because it seemed like a good enough warm weather convergence point to meet up with our daughter and my mother. As you may recall, we kissed our daughter Maggie on the head and sent her off to college this fall and we couldn’t wait to see her again. And my mother is game for just about anything. And thus I am joined by three generations of the women in my life. Hijinks shall ensue.
Buenos Aires was also high on Janine’s list, so Buenos Aires it is. Besides, what’s a world tour without a little South American flair? After five weeks in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, we were ready for a decent steak and some good red wine. Does that make us bad people?
When we eventually arrived the culture shock slapped us in the face and kept hitting. In the cab on the way from the airport, I noticed a woman walking alone, at midnight, with bare shoulders, and I flinched. In our hip little neighborhood of Palermo Viejo, there are bars every few feet, and they’re open until the wee hours of the morning. People wear as little as they can get away with, which is saying a lot (or a little). Taxis are everywhere, they’re cheap, and you don’t have to bullyrag the cabdriver into using the meter. Nobody stares at you. Toto, we’re not in Cairo anymore.
One thing that wasn’t obvious when we arrived is that there are two conversion rates for foreign currency – the official rate and the unofficial, so-called “blue market” rate. If you get Argentine pesos from an ATM or use your credit card, you’ll be charged the official rate of about 8.5 pesos to the dollar. If you have US greenbacks, you can get anywhere from 11 to 13 pesos to the dollar. Why is this? Apparently, Argentinians are not allowed to buy dollars. Since the government regularly devalues its currency and inflation runs at about 25% a year, people buy dollars as a hedge anyway. Thus, a foreigner carrying US dollars is quite popular. At one restaurant, even our waiter asked us if we had any dollars to sell, but we had already sold them to the woman who manages our apartment. It doesn’t sound like the greatest way to run a railroad, if you ask me. If you run out of greenbacks, there is a service called Xoom that will allow you to send a money order at blue market rates to Argentina. How on earth is this? Beats the heck outta me.
Next time – “closed door” restaurants, our day with a professional polo player, and an evening of Latin jazz.