It’s unavoidable making comparisons to home when you’re somewhere else. It doesn’t matter if you’re just visiting a nearby city or spending months halfway around the world, you’re bound to notice how things aren’t quite the same as home.
That’s not to say that the differences are bad. Heck if we wanted the same, we wouldn’t leave home. Some of the differences take a little getting used to. Some are just plain funny and others leave you scratching your head wondering “how?” or “why?”
Since we arrived, I’ve been keeping a list of some of the things I’ve noticed that are different than what we’d see or experience in North America. As the list grew, I created categories that I’ll cover in the next few posts.
This first instalment covers some aspects of getting from point A to point B.
A visitor’s first experience once they leave the airport in Buenos Aires is the highway drive into the city. It is literally a blur. You might be inclined to think what stands between your driver and his month-long vacation is your 45-minute drive; something he insists make happen in under 20. Generally, drivers here don’t slow down much for anything – and certainly not for pedestrians. If it’s an uncontrolled intersection (and that’s all there is within the neighbourhoods), pedestrians beware. Thankfully, neighbourhood streets are only about two lanes wide and one direction, which gives pedestrians a fighting chance.
The flow of traffic here is very organic. The painted lines that I’ve come to know in North America as lane dividers are mere suggestions in Argentina. Here many drivers prefer to fully straddle the painted line and I don’t mean as part of some extended, 10 kilometre lane change. Others believe that if there are three marked “lanes,” than no doubt five cars can travel at breakneck speed side-by-each. Let’s assume the lines were were painted in English and the language barrier prevents them from understanding.
The upshot of the frenzy on the streets is that drivers are very attentive. I haven’t seen anyone texting behind the wheel. Small blessings. Another pleasant surprise: very little in the way of wild abandon horn honking – unless, of course, there’s gridlock at an intersection or someone stops unexpectedly, such as a taxi picking up or dropping off a fare.
I mentioned in a previous post the approach to parallel parking (bumper ‘taps’ – crunch forward, crunch back, repeat X 10). The same goes for getting your car out of a space.
For those of us who have bought a new car, we remember that terrible, sick feeling when ‘our baby’ got it’s first ding or scratch. There doesn’t seem to be that sort of angst here. The cars on the road aren’t that old, but I’ve yet to see one in mint condition. My conclusion: new cars are sold with factory-installed damage so there’s no heartbreak when the inevitable bumper-tap-parking-job occurs a nanosecond after you drive off the lot. What a relief!
I understand that motorcycles and scooters make it slightly easier to get around when traffic is tight. But the odds are never very good when something with two wheels meets something with four or more. The vast majority of riders have a helmet but it’s not always securely on their head. We’ve seen more than a few with the helmet pushed up so it perched back on their head or with their forearm through the helmet openings as though protecting their one elbow from peril. Curious, no? Unfortunately, we were on a bus that was T-boned by a motorcycle at full speed a few weeks ago. Although we don’t know the ultimate outcome for that poor guy, it’s a certainty that his Christmas and that of his family was not so merry.
Speaking of buses, they’re everywhere, they’re often, and they’re insanely cheap. The city has a great app that helps plot out your route, which sounds like a no-brainer back home, but it seems pretty advanced for here. You get to your stop, which is shared by several other routes. When you see your bus approaching, you signal the driver by holding your hand out. You tell the driver where you’re going and he/she will tell you a price and you scan your prepaid transit card – the same one used for the subway and commuter train. Yes, it’s that easy. Thanks to huge, (former) government subsidies, no fare has been more than the equivalent of CAD$0.35. Some buses have air conditioning and others don’t. It’s a crapshoot, but a cheap one. Similar to the subway, cheap goes hand-in-hand with crowded. I dare say that having been crammed like sardines in hot and humid buses and subways over the past many weeks, I’ve yet to encounter any passenger who needs a shower or more deodorant. By and large, the porteños are a very fresh smelling bunch.
Given our desire to further explore our adopted neighbourhood and beyond, we continue to pound the pavement each day. Except it’s not so much payment here as it is paving tiles. Sounds lovely – and it is, but with so many large trees (poor planning), it’s commonplace to find large stretches of sidewalks that are obstacle courses due to erupting tree roots, where tiles no longer lay flat. Some teeter-totter as you walk over them and if you’re lucky enough to do that when it has recently rained, you’re sure to experience an upshot of water into your pant leg that then runs down you leg into your shoe.
Sidewalk etiquette is another issue that continues to confound us. In all of our travels, one thing seems to be consistent, sidewalk flow mirrors road flow. What I mean by that is, if they drive on the left, they walk on the left (UK and parts of Asia: drive on right/walk on right). Not the case here: they drive on the right, but walk all over the sidewalk – come to think of it, similar to the weaving that happens on the road. We’ll be walking behind someone and go to pass them on the left side only to have them weave over then back, then over again.
Combine that with oncoming foot traffic. When someone is walking towards me, I keep to the right. Here they move closer to the left. I can hear you saying, “you’re the foreigner, why don’t you adjust to the way THEY use the sidewalk.” Why thank you readers, that would be a fine suggestion if they all kept to the left, but they like to keep it interesting. My not-so-statistically-sound study reveals that 70 per cent keep to the left, 20 per cent keep to the right and the remainder are weavers. It has created more than a few near-miss collisions.
All this to say that we’re not sure if we’re safer in the streets or on the sidewalks.
My next post will cover some of what I’ve observed when shopping here.