So, after exploring the building a bit, and getting locked in the garage for about half an hour, we had a friend's sister (she is living in BA currently) over to pick up some mail from her family, and tell us about how a few things work, from a local perspective.
Then, we set out to get some basics. What an adventure! Keep reading below to find out about money exchange, subway cards and grocery stores....
The first thing our new friend confirmed was something we had already read about before our arrival: The Blue Market. The official rate at the government cambios (money exchange houses) is about 5 pesos for one US dollar. This makes Buenos Aires barely affordable for people like us.
In order to stretch one's budget, many people, including Argentinians themselves, trade USD on the "blue market" -- although this is technically illegal, it is so common that the blue rate is actually published daily!!!
Although many people -- friends, cab drivers, landlords, hotel concierges -- will trade or know of a place to trade dollars for pesos, the most common place to go is Florida Street, a pedestrian zone full of tourist traps and old historic buildings. The rate on the blue market is currently nearly twice what you get officially, so visiting this locale, if you are somewhat savvy, is well worth it.
Since we live pretty much on the green subway (sube) line, we decided to travel to 9 de Julio stop, then get out and walk.
Almost as soon at you approach the area, people are wandering the streets, calling out "Cambio, cambio". All you have to do is go with one of them. They lead you to some little office in a mall somewhere (often disguised as a travel agency or leather shop), then you do your business. It's a little like the Godfather -- some of the people who lead you to the trading place even have business cards, which they will hand out to you as you follow them. "Financial Advisor" and such. :)
It is advisable not to trade all your money at once, but rather, in small chunks -- about $200 USD at a time -- and with different traders, until you figure out what you are doing and how some of the scams work.
It is not uncommon for traders to give you false 100-peso notes. If you have two cute little monozygotic twins wearing matching blue jackets with you, however, some of these guys may take pity on you and show you the way.
One thing we learned is that you can tell a false bank note from a real one by feeling whether the printing at the top is raised, and by checking the water mark. You can also rub the ink. A common scam is for some money traders to offer a better rate, say 10 to 1, and give you 8 good bills with 2 fake ones slid in. So, check them all before you leave!
Another trap to watch out for is for cab drivers who exchange the good bill you give them for a fake one, then give you back the fake one, pointing out it is fake, and demanding another bill. So, if you are taking a cab and paying with a cien peso bill, keep track of the serial number in the upper right hand corner before you hand it to the driver.
A great spot to visit while there is Luxor Leather, at Florida St 835.
Next it was off to find a Sube card, a re-loadable card that you can use like a credit card, on the subway. How this all works is a little unclear to me still, but apparently if you are an Argentinian, you can get said card programmed to load a discounted rate when you swipe it.
We did not get such a deal, but it's still pretty cheap to use the subway, about 2.50 AR a ride, which -- even at the official exchange rate -- works out to about 50 cents. (Kids 3 and under are free.) And having the card is far more convenient than having to purchase tickets all the time.
You have to show your passport (or a photocopy thereof) when you go to get your card. We got ours at Oka, some sort of official office near 9 de Julio station, across from the tall obelisk, with a purple awning. (The street is HUGE!!! Hold hands and wait for a green light before crossing, lol!)
You can share a card, so we got two cards between the 4 of us, and loaded them each up with about 30 AR.
A Change in Plans
By now it was nearly 6 p.m., and we were starving. The kids had been playing along nicely (they had been particularly intrigued by our Florida Street experiences) but they, too, were nearly "done". I was exhausted from playing chief family communicator all day, which was a bit of a joke in itself, since my Spanish is only marginally better than Tats' and the boys' ZERO Spanish at this point!! And Tats had had nearly enough of the extremely limited flexibility that marks the reality of traveling with children.
So, in a moment of desperation, I succumbed to Mc Donalds, and bought the kiddies each some chicken nuggets, a salad and an orange juice. We also got fries to share, and I attempted to obtain a veggie wrap, which constituted a whole other drama, and one I am too tired to write about just now.
It became evident that we were not going to get all our errands done together before bedtime, so we decided to divide and conquer. Now that we had some local currency and also some subway cards, we had a little more freedom. So after "dinner", Tats went grocery shopping and the boys and I headed to Staples to pick up some larger items, which I had not wanted to cart along in the suitcases, for "school".
Staples a Little Disappointing
One thing I have always loved both as a teacher and even before then is shopping for office supplies. I love paper, chart paper, highlighters, all of it! And over my decade and a half of teaching, I have developed a very clear idea of what I "need" when setting up a classroom.
Let me tell you... Staples in Buenos Aires is not the same at in Toronto!!! :(
Where was the chart paper? The large bulletin boards? The white erase wall cling paper? The highlighter packs in a million colours?!!! Waaaaahhhhh!!!! (And boy, am I ever feeling vindicated now about bringing along some "basic" school items that people laughed mercilessly at me for!)
After haggling in pathetic and broken "Spanglish" to get 20% off a giant presentation board that had a nick in it (I was going to use it as a make-shift chart stand), we set off to find our way home on the subway, which was now jam-packed with people.
Nightime and Flowers
I had read that BA comes alive after dark, and now we could see this was true. Even our sleepy little "suburban" neighbourhood was bustling with people coming and going, and all the shops were open, even though it was already dark.
We stopped to pick up some cut flowers at a little stand outside the subway, then trudged home -- the boys leading the way -- to our apartment, where we arrived just in time to Skype with their dad before bedtime.
Tats and the groceries arrived about half an hour later.
We are officially settled in!