Not Even for Ready Money

Buenos Aires has the ‘perfect amount of chaos’ according to our guidebook. It’s an odd idea, but I understand it. I suppose Singapore, by contrast, though its rulers couldn’t in a million years appreciate the concept, has a very imperfect amount of chaos – none at all. I prefer a little scruffiness, and the feeling that I’m not a disappointment to the city I’m visiting, and I like the sense that things might change in uncertain ways. I like a smidgeon of trivial civil disobedience, too. There’s also a perfect amount of graffiti for a city, which, again, is a little more than none at all. Order and complacency are death to the human spirit and order should be striven for but never attained.

Buenos Aires is an impressive, scruffy, lively, city, and if you’ve been to those Latin American cities where chaos dominates (I’ve been to Mexico City, Caracas, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself in a slightly improved Spain (Argentine gastronomy doesn’t involve tapas). And until yesterday morning, I was blissfully unaware of anything that might spoil the party, such as the much talked about economic ills, or their causes.

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Argentina has suffered serial military dictatorship, and serial financial crises, the one, perhaps, the cause of the other, and vice versa. The country has defaulted twice on its international debts in the last decade or two. It’s hard to understand why the country shouldn’t in fact be spectacularly prosperous, given its natural resources, but on yesterday’s evidence I’d say that there’s much too much regulation and far too many vested interests, and whether these are the interests of landowners, the military or the unions, all of them are stifling progress. The country celebrates 200 years of independence this July, but I doubt there’s been a decade of political consensus in all that time.

In view of the recent financial crisis, we were told by our travel agent to travel to Argentina with wads of dollars, but this advice turned out to be out of date. The Argentinian peso has floated freely since December, so you no longer need to change your dollars on the black market to make the fun affordable. Actually, no one wants your dollars anymore, except the hotel receptionist at an outrageous rate, and some rather dubious creatures who lurk in tourist hotspots. Most people would rather take pesos. That, of course, would be all very well were it possible to get hold of some. One of the biggest problems in Argentina is that the banking system isn’t fit for purpose, at least not fit for the purposes of the tourist.

ATMs don’t usually work. My success rate with a Visa debit card issued by a reputable UK bank (well, RBS) has been about one in ten. The pesos we got on Sunday were running out by Monday morning, and with everyone back at work, every ATM in the city was mobbed, and most of them were empty of cash (who knows why!). I tried dozens of them. Easy, you might think, just to change some of those dollars into cash at a bank or exchange office, except that banks are allowed only to carry out exchange transactions for their customers, and exchange offices, such as tourists use, are few and far between.

After three hours of punching numbers into ATMs, without success, and advised by a pleasant cashier at a branch of Citibank, we took a taxi ride to the city centre, to an official ‘casa cambia’, where, without passports, we were still unable to obtain any pesos (they must see your passport to determine that you are foreign and haven’t exceeded the permitted 90-day period during which you may exchange foeign cash for pesos). And then, miraculously, at a branch of HSBC an ATM finally coughed up some ready money.

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It all took three hours, so it was afternoon before we could do anything rewarding. Perhaps Argentina is one of those countries where the population wastes half its time dealing with entirely unnecessary problems, as in Eastern Europe before the Wall came down. We visited MALBA, the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires, a beautiful building and a mercifully small but delightful collection.

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