Next time you hear someone cry out “Che!” while you’re walking down the street in Argentina, no, you don’t need to start looking around for the guy you’ve seen on all of those t-shirts and posters in your college dorm. Che Guevara has not returned from the dead, and you can probably just ignore it, unless, of course, that cry is directed towards you.
See, “che” doesn’t only refer to the famous 20th-century Argentine revolutionary, and in Argentina, that association is made very rarely. Instead, “che” is used informally much in the same way native English speakers use “dude”, or ‘hey”, as an attention-grabber. Especially among friends or family, the phrase can refer to someone specifically or rhetorically, so while you don’t need to excitedly whip your head around looking for the real Che, make sure nobody is talking to you either before ignoring the call.
While the origins of the word to the Argentine culture (as well as neighboring Uruguay, where it is also very popular) is unclear—linguists often argue whether it stems from an indigenous language to the region or whether it was brought along with northern Italian immigrants—that it is hugely popular in Argentina today is not.
Obviously these people don’t agree with the “Meat is Murder” artist!
While Argentina has traffic rules like everywhere else, your first time behind the wheel in Buenos Aires can be quite an adventure. Given the extensive bus system (see how to ride here), you don’t really need to drive in the city, although driving can be among the best ways to get outside of BA and explore some of the vast countryside. But since you’re likely to have to traverse greater Buenos Aires at some point, it’s best to know how the game is played!
Here’s a few tips that will keep you (and hopefully your vehicle) in one piece:
1. He Who Honks First…has Right of Way
Yes, while there are traffic signals here, that doesn’t mean everybody obeys them. More often than not, cars will honk to announce their approach into an intersection, and are likely to take that honk as having earned right of way. So be careful!
2. Don’t Turn Left
From main roads anyway, left turns are not typically permitted here. This is not always followed (as you may have guessed from Tip #1), but unless it’s specifically stated that you can turn left, you probably aren’t supposed to. Circle the block!
3. Get Ready for Tolls
Many of the main highways, especially around Buenos Aires, are privately owned. As such, you’ll probably have to pay a toll to ride.
4. Check Your Suspension
Not that you will really able to do much about this, but given Argentina’s tenuous financial state, road maintenance is not among the top priorities these days. You’re likely to hit a pothole, or three, so just keep your eyes on the road and don’t expect smooth sailing!
5. Don’t Leave Anything Visible
This should be common sense for most people in cities around the world, but if you park your car and leave anything that can even be perceived to have value in plain view, don’t expect it to be there when you return!
6. Wear Your Seat Belt!
In case you haven’t picked up anything else from Tips #1, #2 and #4, you’re not likely to have the smoothest Sunday drive you’ve ever had here. So be smart!
7. Enjoy the Adventure!
So you finally made it to Buenos Aires, and you want to fit in among us, huh? While you may have brushed up on your wine tasting, cuts of beef and a few Spanish phrases, what you really need to learn is what mate is, and how to drink it!
See, while we definitely produce plenty of wine, this is what we really drink on a daily basis. I guess you can say it’s like tea, since it’s made from Yerba Mate tree leaves. But we like to think of it as something special, and our very own (although of course one may debate that its origins stem from Paraguay or Uruguay as well, but we’ll never agree to such nonsense).
A little bit of mate in your everyday diet will wake you up, lessen your appetite a bit (which is a good thing considering the copious amounts of red meat cheaply available here), and the doctors even say it is good for your blood pressure, immune system and pretty much every other part of your body.
Ready to join us?
Seven Dont’s of Drinking Mate
1. Don’t be Selfish: Sure, we all crave our mate in a pinch when we’re looking for some energy to get moving. But mate is really about sharing time with those we love to be around. We may even argue that the health benefits of some healthy camaraderie and conversation are just as real as whatever those doctors say mate helps with.
2. Don’t be Polite: Kidding, of course! But really, while your inclination may be to thank the server upon receiving your fill, in our culture, saying “gracias” means that you will be having your last pour of the session. So make sure you don’t thank the server until you’re ready to check out.
3. Don’t Touch the Straw: As you can see in the picture, mate is served with a straw-like device called a bombilla. Since the server is responsible for the flavor of the mate and will deliver it to the best of his or her ability, you may be offending someone by messing with it.
4. Don’t Ask for Sugar: While some parts of South America serve their mate with sugar (“dulce”), you probably don’t want to ask unless it’s offered. If you find the mate bitter at first, it will become a bit more mild as it is passed around. Hang in there.
5. Don’t be Reckless: You should be able to feel how hot the gourd is before you drink it. Just make sure to be cautious at first, as it may be scorching hot. Drink with caution!
6. Don’t Jump Right In: If you want to become a real mate drinker and buy your own gourd, don’t drink from it immediately. The first time you use yours, fill it will yerba leaves and pour in hot water. Leave it for a day, then rinse it out and you should be good to go.
7. Don’t Clean It with Soap: And for goodness’ sake, never use soap to clean your gourd! You’ll forever ruin the flavor. Unless you plan on spitting up all over it (which you shouldn’t), just rinse after each use and have another round!
Someone once told me that the buses (colectivos) of Buenos Aires are like old men in a bar—loud, smoky and rough around the edges, but dependable—they always show up, usually in no time at all.
My first experience—Bus 152 from Palermo across town to La Boca—couldn’t have lived up to my expectation any more.
Despite that lack of a centrally-managed bus system, this is the transportation method of choice for hundreds of thousands of portenos every day. Why? Because the (lack of a) system works. Just don’t expect your every day modern conveniences, like air conditioning, a seat, or, oh, for the bus to actually come to a complete stop before you exit.
Yes, the experience can be harrowing to the newbie, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you catch on.
How to Ride
Here’s a few tips to make your acclamation easier:
- Map Your Course: Unless you’ve got a good local friend to explain it to you, you’ll likely need your Guia T to figure out the best way to get to where you’re going (because you’ll likely have several choices). More on this later!
- Know Where Your Bus Stops: This seems easy enough by recognizing the path your line takes, but not all bus lines serve each bus stop.
- Know Where Your Bus Goes: No, I’m not stating the obvious. Some bus lines in Buenos Aires have multiple routings—meaning the 24 can go one of three different ways. There is a little diagram of the routing on the front of the bus, so make sure you give it a glance or ask if in doubt!
- Flag Him Down: While there will likely be a queue of people at your stop, they may not all be waiting for the same bus as you, and the driver isn’t going to stop just because he sees people there. Make sure you wave when you see yours coming, and even then…
- Have a Short Memory: Life throws us all rejections sometimes. The best thing we can do is to forget about them and move on. The same applies to waiting for a bus in Buenos Aires. Just because the customer wants to get on the bus doesn’t mean the driver is going to stop—this is the Wild West of public buses! If it happens to you, fret not—there’s likely another bus coming soon.
- State Your Destination (or Fare, if you Know): Fares in BA are set by distance. Without a transit card (“Sube Card”), it’s likely going to cost you two pesos. Anyway, once you state where you’re going, the driver programs that into the machine where you…
- Pay Your Fare: Don’t come with bills—these machines only accept coins.
- Keep Your Ticket: As the fares do vary, it is possible that there will be someone checking tickets to make sure riders are paying the right fare. Given that fares don’t vary too much, it isn’t likely, but it does happen!
- Don’t Take the Priority Seating: Yes, people here actually abide (for the most part) by the sign that specifies priority seating for the elderly or pregnant. Don’t be that guy, or girl, unless you are that guy, or girl!
- Try Not to Fall Down!: As you may have inferred from Instruction #5, drivers here aren’t typically interested in being customer-friendly. In fact, some companies pay commissions based on passengers carried (yes, there are several different companies operating the 100-plus bus lines in BA), so these drivers are interested in speed above all! You may want to hang on tight, and when it’s time to exit…you may have to jump out while the bus is at a slow roll!
Hopefully that will help you the first time you cover the expanse of Buenos Aires…and don’t forget to enjoy the ride!
There is a joke in Argentina—New Yorkers are proud while Argentinians are humble. This is because while New Yorkers are always looking up, presumably at the buildings surrounding them, Argentinians are always looking down. Why?
Pardon my crassness, but no discussion of Argentina can be complete without bringing the dog poop that is firmly entrenched as sidewalk decor all over the capital, as well as Argentina’s other cities. So, if you want to be Porteño for a day, it’s okay to dream big, but keep your head down! I don’t post this to be, umm, foul…just conveying a fact of daily life in the streets (and sidewalks) of this canine-friendly place.
See some of the different styles below…I just wonder, are these pups the culprits?
“So Small Could Fool You…”
And last, but certainly not least (disgusting), the “Already on My Floor at Home…”