We renew ourselves

Well, I arrived home safely the morning of Dec. 22 after two flights, one from Buenos Aires (B.A.) to Chicago O’Hare, and the other from Chicago O’Hare to LAX. However, my final day in Argentina was interesting and culturally educational as I am sure you’ll agree….

First, let me just say that portenos (inhabitants of B.A.) who live day to day with the traffic in B.A. don’t have a very good sense of how long transit in this city REALLY takes. I mean, they have the general notion that their traffic situation is bad (afterall, about a THIRD of the nation’s nearly 40 million people reside in B.A. alone), but when offering advice to foreign travelers, they tend not to emphasize this problem quite enough. So, when you ask your hotel how much time you need to get to the airport, hotel managers and the like will, invariably UNDERESTIMATE the time required. Do keep this in mind whenever you travel to or from Buenos Aires. If you do not, you will, most certainly completely miss your flights. Now, thankfully, I learned about this little underestimation bias early on in my trip. For instance, when I asked folks on the street for directions to various locations in Palermo, etc., their walking time estimations were off by over 25%. So, for instance, the porteno says it’s just 15 minutes from here to there, and in reality, it’s more like 20 minutes. This is typical. But hey, I can understand how this happens. I mean, portenos walk almost everywhere almost every day, so they, no doubt, get used to it. Time passes and they don’t really keep track, so their estimation accuracy is going to suffer at some point.

Interestingly, I did not observe the cultural “South American time” factor that usually slows things down in various countries on the continent — such as in Peru, where someone tells you they will meet you at 3 pm and they don’t show until 4 pm or so. No, for the most part, when portenos say they will be somewhere by 3 pm, they mean 3 pm from what I saw anyway. The only problem is that these rules of punctuality and efficiency don’t seem to apply to select businesses such as banks. So, please sit back and allow me to rant for a few moments on the WORST experience I’ve ever had waiting in line to change money at a bank….


There is a bank, Banco de la Nacion Argentina, located on Ave. Alvear in the Recoleta section of B.A.  If you place any value whatsoever on your TIME, do NOT go there to change US dollars to AR pesos. It looks like any ordinary bank from the outside, but once you walk through the doors you enter a time warp of sorts. Everything   s  l  o  w  s       d     o      w       n  .

On my last day in B.A., I needed a little cash for some souvenir shopping and getting to the airport, so I stopped at this bank. First, I approached a young woman to ask how I could change money there, “Quantos pesos por uno dolar, por favor?” (That’s about the extent of my polite “taxi-driver” Espanol.) She asked for my passport and entered all my info. into her computer. Then, holding onto my passport, she pushed a blank piece of paper toward me and asked me to write down my address (already listed right in my passport by the way) and phone number — like, this is a test to see if I remember my address and to determine whether the passport is really mine. Right. No problem. By now, I am all too familiar with the “strange foreigner under suspicion routine”. I write down all the info. for her. Then, she tells me to get in line, but not the left line which is moving right along. I have to get in the right line which is standing still and has not moved since I walked in the door. Right. We can see where this is going.

After standing in line for about 15 minutes, I have made a few basic observations: 1) The left line which is moving right along has no less than four windows for service; the right line in which I stand has just two windows and only one seems to have someone working there continuously. 2) One of the guys working at one of my line’s windows cannot be bothered with the usual task of moving clients through the line. Instead he is fiddling around with paperwork, talking with co-workers, and from time to time taking people farther back in my line ahead of the rest of us… for some unknown reason (his Spanish is too fast for me to understand). 3) Portenos sure do spend a lot of time meeting and greeting each other which slows the process of serving clients in this bank. I see them exchanging niceties and kissing each other on the cheeks and shaking hands and laughing, and every damn transaction takes at least 10 minutes because of this. 4) The bank allows dogs. There goes a woman walking out with her pooch… and now all the bank workers have to stop and bid her good day and pet the dog, etc. This wastes more time. 5) My line is still NOT moving.

I’ll cut to the chase, I blow 50 minutes waiting in line only to get to the counter and experience for myself the most obsessive-compulsive bank teller in the world. Old television skits performed by Tim Conway come to mind. (Suggestion to the bank’s human resources department — you might just want to administer an MMPI to potential bank tellers to screen for OCD in your applicant pool — obsessive-compulsive counting poses, shall we say, “challenges” in this position.) 

First, I will tell you that US$50 is a very modest amount of foreign currency to change at one time in Argentina. I had no problems doing this elsewhere on my trip previously. However, as I hand over my passport and five US$10 bills (which I selected precisely because I knew that larger bills sometimes arouse counterfeit suspicions), the teller examines each bill closely. He flips over each bill, smoothes it out, flips it again, smoothes it out, and places it on his counter. One of the bills has some sort of writing on it in ink and he immediately rejects it, shoving it back under the window toward me. I say, “uno momento, senor…,” and quickly whip out another crisp new US$10 bill to offer it for his inspection. He takes it, flips it, smoothes it, flips it again, and smoothes it again, and adds it to the pile. Apparently, flipping and smoothing requires a great deal of brain capacity, and counting cannot be performed at the same time. So, now the teller counts out the FIVE bills, laying each one down on the counter carefully. Then, he turns the small pile over again and… that’s right… counts them out again… just in case the number has changed in the past 5 minutes I’ve been standing there — like I’m some kind of illusionist. Finally, he enters the information into his computer (amazingly, he has no abacus). The rate is 3.12 pesos to the US dollar.  I get 156 pesos. Great. Let’s go, let’s go. Vamanos! And do you think he wastes any time whatsoever in counting out the 156 pesos for ME? No way, he quickly slaps the bills down on the counter and pushes them through the window. But now, it’s my turn to be picky. So, I examine a 100 peso bill and return it to him, requesting “dos cinquentas, por favor”, because I’ve learned that on the street almost no one will accept anything larger than a fifty. The teller gives me my two fifties for the one-hundred. I thank him politely (OK, perhaps just slightly sarcastically) and leave. Total time spent in this hell-hole: 55 minutos!

Walking down Alvear Ave., I tried to leave this miserable experience behind and I promised myself that I would verbally bash the Banco de la Nacion Argentina (on Alvear in Recoleta) on this blog site. I hope that I have done just that. I hope that other travelers will read this and learn from my experience and go to some other bank so they don’t waste as much time as I did. And yes, I could have given up and left the bank at any point along the way. I didn’t have to stay and wait it out to the bitter end. But you know, at some point, perhaps after you’ve been standing there for half an hour or so, it feels so surreal that you just can’t believe what’s happening and you are actually curious about how long the whole thing is really going to take, and just how ridiculous it’s going to be in the end. And then, it becomes a study of cultural phenomena. So, I guess I just couldn’t help but see it through to its dark conclusion. Besides, I didn’t know how much further I might have to walk to find another bank!

The rest of my final day in Argentina went well. I shopped. That always goes well for me. Upon reaching Florida Avenue, tourist- trap haven of Buenos Aires, I was a little mystified. The avenue appears to go on forever. I only made it through the first four or five blocks, in fact, before I found what I needed and headed back to my hotel on foot again by about 4 pm. I have to say that I impressed myself with my sense of direction. I was able to retrace my steps precisely through a number of winding streets and avenues, to make it back to my hotel by about 4:45 pm — in time to catch my taxi to the airport shuttle, Manuel Leon on Madero in downtown. This shuttle company is great. For just about AR$32 (pesos), or US$10, you are transported to the airport on a comfortable, air-conditioned bus. However, I was sweating it for a while as it took us a solid HOUR just to get out of central B.A.  This is where my earlier point about portenos’ time estimation advice becomes relevant again. I was told that for my flight at 8:50 pm, I should be at the airport by 6:50 pm. Therefore, I should leave my hotel by 5:50 pm. However, I chose to leave my hotel at 5 pm instead, and am I ever glad that I did because of the incredible traffic in B.A.  So, although I left 50 minutes earlier than advised, I still JUST made it to EZE (the international airport) at 6:50 pm… just in time to check in, go through customs, get all my tax free purchase receipts stamped, collect my tax refund (definitely worth it — I got US$75 back! — Did I mention that sale tax in Argentina is a whopping 21% ?!?!), and make it to my gate in time for my flight.

I hit just one small snag. I had about AR$50 (pesos) left and thought, well, why eat the bad exchange rate back in the U.S.? I may as well use these pesos, and you can’t leave Argentina without a good Argentine bottle of wine. So, I walked into the duty free shop and asked if they had any wine for about AR$50. They actually did — a nice red from Mendoza. Great, so I bought it. The sales woman just handed me a receipt and some guy from security magically appeared and took my wine with him to my departure gate. Apparently, you have to go through security a second time at your gate and only then can you present your receipt and get your duty free purchases just before you step foot on the plane. Man, can you say tight security?!

Fine, Ok. So, I go to my gate, open my carry-on and purse for examination yet again (I’d already done this once back at the x-ray area), and collect my bottle of wine as I enter the aircraft. Upon arriving in Chicago, I go through customs and recheck my large bag on to LAX. Then, I go through security, and what do you think happens? They confiscate my bottle of wine! I explain that it was purchased in the duty free shop in Argentina’s airport and how their security guard gave it to me just before I entered the aircraft, and how I have not been out of the airport since and am just making a connecting flight, and of course they can see that the bag’s duty-free seal is UNBROKEN! Do you think any of this made a difference? Nope. The security guard suggests I go back out and check my wine through in another bag. I look at them dubiously, “What bag?” They suggest I buy one in the airport (good marketing ploy on their part). Right. I think I’ll buy a bag that costs more than the wine to check this bottle of wine through to L.A. (she said sarcastically.) I then, point out that my flight leaves in just 20 minutes. Do they seriously think I can check in my bottle of wine and then make it back through security (which just took me 15 minutes the first time) in order to make my flight? The guy looks at his watch and mutters something doubtful. Finally, I tell them it’s not worth it. They take the wine. Easy come, easy go, I guess. I told the guys, “Merry Christmas. I hope you like good red wine.” But then, as if to rub it in, one of the guards tells me, “Oh, no, we can’t drink it. We have to just throw it away.” Oh, well, that’s nice. Thanks for that comforting bit of information.

As I walk toward my gate with another American I had met in the security line, we lament over the tragedy — not just the loss of my bottle of wine, but the loss of our basic travel freedoms… all because of 9/11… and how the world has changed… for the worse. Each time I travel I see a little more of this. It’s a sad reminder of reality I guess.

And so, I made a small Dionysian offering to the travel gods. I guess it was the least I could do. They kept me safe throughout my entire trip. And, of course, I am grateful for that.

My flight to LAX went smoothly. Met some nice folks on the flight who actually knew quite a lot about Antarctica and we had an interesting conversation about it. I tried to sleep a bit but was only partially successful. I kept dreaming about my voyage — feeling I was still on the ship, Polar Star, seeing the familiar faces of the crew and passengers.

In L.A., our landing was perfect — almost imperceptible really. And suddenly I was no longer “gone”, but home. It’s always a nice feeling and sometimes I even think that I, at least partly, travel in order to achieve that anticipation of home-coming. Knowing that I will soon see family and my two dear kitties, Africa and Tashi, always fills me with excitement.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the blogs I’ve posted along the way. I see them as a nice way of staying in touch with folks and they make me feel less out-there-on-my-own when I am far away. 

My expedition to Antarctica showed me another unique and fragile continent and ecosystem which I hope we can continue to sustain. At the end of it all, I have to say that I needed this trip, although I didn’t realize exactly how much in the beginning. All the exploring, photographing, and hiking we did in Antarctica was so stimulating and different from what I do in Pasadena day to day. This journey gave me new energy and now I think I can last another year or so before I go seeking this kind of adventure again. Polar Star Expeditions has a saying they print on the back of their parkas: “In the spirit of adventure we renew ourselves,”  and I do believe this. So, at this time, I want to wish you all wonderful adventures that renew you as well in 2008 and beyond.  

Explore posts in the same categories: Antarctica & Argentina, My Travels

2 Comments on “We renew ourselves”

  1. Richard Says:

    Hi Laurel.
    Changing foreign currency is always an adventure. I found that using a Visa card was the best way (if cash was not needed) because the exchange rate carries no fee. I will avoid the Bank in Buenos Aires, in fact, I avoid going in banks in Los Angeles also. Looks like you had a wonderful trip to Antartica, and saw lots of rare animals, which can not be duplicated. Welcome back home and give the kitties an extra hug for me.

  2. Ronald Says:

    dear Laurel,
    I enjoyed reading your blog! Travelling in South Amercia is always interesting. But it’s not only the landscape but also the people that makes it so different and sometimes unbelievable. Your banking experience was very funny to read – but remember Ecuador. When I wanted to change Travellers Cheques at Banco Guayaquil I was told that they do that only for their customers!!! It took me a loooot of patience to exchange the cheques at some other (private) place…

    Good to hear that you safely got back from Antactica. I’m looking forward to reading blogs of your next adventures again.
    Ronny and Priska

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