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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Buenos Aires: First Impressions from Irene

Photo: Irene in front of the Casa Rosada (Pink House), which is where the president of Argentina works

As I entered the city of Buenos Aires for the first time there were two things I immediately noticed: traffic and trash. These things make the city very different from most US cities.

As my fellow travelers and I quickly discovered, crossing the street is a matter of life and death, and you often have to "play Frogger" with the cars, especially if you're crossing a road with two-way traffic. Luckily most of the roads here are one-way only, and there are several pedestrian streets on which you will only be bothered by the occasional moped. Interestingly enough, however, the city of Buenos Aires is still much more pedestrian friendly than most US cities. There are plenty of sidewalks and crosswalks, and there are other people walking everywhere, so you always have the protection of the masses when crossing a street. And when it comes down to it, the cars here will not actually hit you. I have already had several brushes with death while crossing the streets here, but the cars have always stopped and given me room to pass, even if I was the one "breaking the law" and even if they were angry about doing it. I put "breaking the law" in quotes here, because traffic laws seem very lax here. Stop signs are nonexistent; at many intersections cars just slowly nose their way forward until they can see if someone else is coming or not. And while there are lanes painted on the streets, no one stays in them, and mopeds are even known to drive up onto the sidewalk in order to pass some glut of cars that is in their way.

Another noticeable aspect of the city is the trash that is everywhere. In the US we have a mentality that it is almost morally reprehensible to litter, and that if you have some trash in your hand you have to hold onto it until you find a trash can where you can dispose of it properly. That mentality does not exist here. People drop trash onto the sidewalk, into the gutters, out their car windows, into the subte tracks, and the trash is anywhere and everywhere. In addition, people do not clean up after their dogs, probably because the owners are not usually the ones walking the dogs; a dog walker is. So the city is very dirty, and you constantly have to watch your step. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the garbage collectors will occasionally go on strike (This happened once while we were visiting), and the uncollected bags of trash will simply lie around for days on end until they begin work again. Buenos Aires does not really have a recycling program in the way a US citizen would think of it, but they do have very poor men and women who root through the trash for recyclable goods that they can sell for money. This is a very sad sight to see, but is an appropriate image of the economic plight of the city combined with this other waste collection problem.

As I spent more time in the city, I quickly realized that traffic and trash were not the only distinguishing characteristics of Buenos Aires.

The city is very busy and runs around the clock. If you want to buy a bag of milk (Yes, they sell milk in bags here) at 4am, you can do that. And the interesting thing is, you probably won't be the only person doing that. I don't know if this is the case in big US cities like New York, but I know that this is a huge contrast to a city like Dallas. In Dallas proper, almost everything will be closed by 10pm, and in Richardson, where UTD is located, most businesses are closed by 8pm, if not earlier. I love the late-night rhythm of Buenos Aires. The people here tend to stay up very late -- talking, dancing, clubbing, buying bags of milk, working -- and then sleep in late as well. It seems that most jobs do not expect their employees at 8am sharp as in the US. In addition, if you do go out late to party, the scene won't get very exciting until at earliest 2am. This is hard for us US citizens, who are used to heading home from the clubs at 3am or 4am, while here they are just getting started at that time.

In addition, the public transportation system here is very good, better than any public transportation I've experienced in the US. Marissa and I ride the subte (subway) to school every day, which is a crazy experience. In the mornings, the subtes are jam-packed with people trying to get to work. When I say jam-packed, I mean more jam-packed than anything someone from the US could imagine. Standing on the subte during rush hour, your body will be touching the bodies of at least five other people. With so many people around you, you cannot tell if the guy behind you is feeling you up, trying to pick your pocket, or simply touching you unintentionally. I feel like the subte is a living organism. It arrives at the platform, and everyone presses their bodies together toward the opening doors. Then once you make it through the doors you are swallowed by the subte, and your body is not your own anymore. You have no control over where in the car you will end up, because you cannot move; the crowd moves you. However, despite the highly cramped conditions, the subte will get you where you want to go. The city of Buenos Aires is HUGE, but the subte covers a good chunk of it, and what you can't reach via subte you can reach via colectivo (bus). Colectivos are just like buses in the US, except they go faster and farther, and there are hundreds in the city of Buenos Aires, so there is always one to get you where you need to go. The don't run on a schedule; you just wait at the stop until one comes, but you usually don't have to wait more than 15 minutes, unlike in Dallas, where I have spent more than an hour waiting for the bus I needed to arrive. You do have to be careful not to miss your stop, especially if you are not familiar with the city. When in doubt, take a taxi. I disagree with the advice we were given and think it is perfectly OK to hail a taxi from the street, so long as you know what to look for to make sure the cab is safe. All you have to do is tell the driver the address, and he will know exactly where to take you, and it will probably only cost about 24 peses (6 USD).

The city of Buenos Aires, as well as the nation of Argentina, is definitely in a severe economic situation right now. Many people are without work, and the people you see on the subtes or walking in the streets look very somber. Everyone wears dark colors, and one of the primary ways foreigners stand out is by the bright clothes that they wear. The peso is worth much less than the dollar, and the public has not gained back the morale it lost during the economic crisis of 2001. It is depressing to see a country that was once so great in such a slump. Even the architecture manifests this situation. Grand old European-style buildings are crumbling throughout the city; it is as if the people don't care about preserving these architectural masterpieces, or don't have the money to do so, or both. I wish I could have seen Argentina in its initial days of splendor around the turn of the century, when it was one of the top economic powers in the world, but instead I am viewing the product of decades of coups, dictatorships, human rights abuses, and corruption. It is an important lesson for all nations, including the US, about the impact that bad government can have on an economic superpower.