I loved that our group of 18 – 15 grad students, two professors, and their three children – took public transportation instead of traveling the city in private vans, as I have on other trips in Latin America. This was all part of being a traveler instead of a tourist, a distinction we discussed in our last class before leaving for Buenos Aires. Yes, it is much easier to travel in a van, and we did use them to get from Port Authority to JFK Airport in New York, from Ezeiza Airport to our hotel in Bs As and back, to and from the fútbol stadium at night, and once when we took a tour of the city with a professional guide. But otherwise, it was the subte and the colectivo, several times at rush hour.
This was not as thrilling for some other members of the group as it was for me, regardless of their populist politics. The subte at rush hour, while not quite as bad as what I’ve heard about Tokyo’s, is not a pleasant experience. Even in May, the late fall in Argentina, it was so stifling, I could’ve stripped to my underwear and still perspired like a glass of iced tea. One of the other students had a panic attack and began wheezing during one of our rush-hour trips; she opted for taxis and walking on later outings. We coaxed her back onto the subte during our last weekend – on Sundays, ridership is lower and one can find a seat and breathing room. Another classmate had her wallet stolen that weekend. (Without re-igniting the debate on TripAdvisor.com, in which another reader accused me of being a “typical liberal” and blaming the victim, I’ll simply say that I never understood why this student, who had lived in New York City, was carrying all of her valuables on the subway in a messenger bag with a flap that had no closure device – no buttons, snaps, zipper, Velcro, nothing.)
The colectivos (bondis, in porteño slang) were also standing-room-only most of the time, so that I learned to move to the back shortly after boarding. The rest of our group of 18 liked to cluster together in the middle of the bus; I was never sure whether they were afraid to leave each other or were enjoying conversations in English, but I figured I could talk with them at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and other occasions every day, and I wanted to see if I could use my Spanish and get a sense of what it would be like to live in the city – a question I’ve asked myself over and over the two times I’ve been in Argentina. I can’t say I was truly mingling with the natives, but there was an occasional amusing moment, as when one classmate had been chatting with a young porteño and another classmate asked me why I’d moved so far back in the bus. “¡Porque el bondi está lleno de – ” Suddenly, another brain glitch. For god’s sake, I’d only been studying español on and off for the last 34 years – why couldn’t I remember a word I’d known in high school?
“Gente,” the porteño said dryly, finishing my sentence for me. I thanked him, not sure whether I felt grateful or chastised.
At one point, our professor Max joked that the city administration had managed to be reelected by finally introducing a system of bus passes similar to the subte passes. Until recently, the buses took only coins, which were in short supply, causing people to hoard. When I visited in 2009, there was a shortage even of small bills such as the 2 peso, and I found cashiers even in touristy locations making annoyed faces when the smallest change I could give them was a 10-peso bill. In one antique shop in San Telmo, the clerk went through her own wallet to make change for me when I bought a few vintage postcards, and was apologetic about the situation. This past spring, a few of my classmates were shocked when a couple of ATMs ran out of bills, but I felt grateful that the cash flow situation had greatly improved in the previous two years. Apparently by 2011 the government had printed and minted more money.