Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why I might be leaving Buenos Aires just in time

Buenos Aires has its charm. Though a lot of it has faded for me, for a while, there were enough things in the plus column to keep me here for more than four years. From the right vantage points, the city's tarnished glamour is still breathtaking, the fruit salad is to die for, and tango, wine and red meat make for a romantic -- if not necessarily heart healthy -- combination. People visit the city and will continue to do so because it's a highlight of South America, right up there with Brazil's twin attractions, Sao Paulo and Rio.

But that's not why so many people from the United States have been flocking here to live over the past few years. Yes, all of the above stuff is a draw for them, too, but for the most part, we moved here because it was cheap.

Was cheap -- emphasis on the past tense to accentuate the negative.

I remember going out to dinner with a friend during my first visit to BA in 2005 and spending the equivalent of US$20 on a whiscola, a shared bottle of wine, an appetizer and a main course. Though the exchange rate has improved (in the beginning US$1 equalled three pesos; now, it's four), you'd be lucky to get an entree and bottled water in any decent restaurant for under US$20. No wonder so many locals are wired to rip us off. The prices go up up up, but the salaries don't. I'm not sure how the honest survive.

The other night I went out with my friend Rob to a traditional BA cafe -- a charming little place by local standards, but the kind of semi-dump you wouldn't be caught dead in on any other continent. Rob ordered a Fernet and coke, and both of our jaws dropped to the floor when the waiter charged him 45 pesos. That's US$11 and change! For a foul-tasting local concoction (Fernet is a kind of unofficial national drink of Argentina) that I wouldn't spend half of that on in the states.

A few nights later, I ordered a whiscola at a bar where whiscolas used to cost around 15 pesos. When I handed the bartender a 50, I wasn't expecting to get 35 pesos back (you know, inflation), but I sure was expecting more than 17 in change. That's US$9 for a mixed drink made with cheap national whiskey that's almost guaranteed to give you a deadly hangover. Sometimes I think they'll continue to raise the price of everything until they no longer have to make change for a 100.

The inflation wouldn't be such a bummer if there were an increase in quality, or if service came with a smile now and then. But it's same old same old here in BA: a kiss on the cheek for all and a scowl if you dare to ask for help. You could buy a bottle of whiskey and Coca-Cola at the supermercado for less money and have enough for a month's worth of whiscolas while avoiding all that porteƱo attitude. I make it a rule never to drink at home, but if I were sticking around, I'd probably start. Melbourne may not be a bargain basement, but the quality standards are high, and service usually comes with a smile or at least a "Good day, mate." It makes spending 10 bucks on a beer less likely to induce groaning.

To be fair, some things are still pretty cheap in BA. You can rent a decent apartment for less than half of what you'd probably pay in any other major city. If you skip bars and restaurants and do all of your eating at home, you can get by on about 40 pesos a day. I recently even had my apartment painted for US$200. But if you're in the market for luxury items, or you want to go out, be prepared to pay dearly.

I think I read somewhere that the rate of inflation is expected to be 33 per cent in 2011. I'm terrible at economics, so I'm not sure what that means exactly, but it doesn't sound good. Looks like I picked the perfect time to leave a party that was kind of dying anyway.
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