Embracing the Differences

My introduction to Buenos Aires was a forty minute taxi ride from the airport to my apartment, and in those forty minutes I saw my life flash before my eyes on at least three different occasions. The lanes on the highway seem to be a suggestion, as my taxi driver swerved between them, barely checking his blindspots and rarely using a blinker as more than afterthought when veering left or right. As I sat in the backseat, overheated and overtired, I seriously questioned what I had gotten myself into. What was I doing in a country where driving is an extreme sport?

The driving was just the tip of the iceberg of differences between the United States and Argentina. Upon arriving in a foreign country, it’s easy to get swept up in the mannerisms, practices and cultural oddities that are different from life back home. You notice that the ketchup is sweeter or the milk is in bags, not plastic jugs. That laundry goes out on the balcony to dry and liquid body wash is a rare find, bar soap will have to suffice. While all of these examples are miniscule and mundane, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the little things when you’re looking for something familiar to ground yourself in a new country.

One of the largest adjustments I’ve had to make in Buenos Aires has been the public transportation. I went into my semester thinking that public transportation was going to be relatively simple to navigate; I’ve used public buses, metros, and trains before, no big deal. Little did I know that, much like driving, the buses here march to the beat of their own drum, and this beat is not very synchronized. Buses, referred to as colectivos by porteños, don’t show up on time, don’t show up at all, completely blow by a stop if the bus is too full, or mysteriously and abruptly change routes without informing the normal clientele that the colectivo will no longer be making its usual stops. On top of the intricacies of getting on a colectivo in the first place, as a passenger you are responsible for knowing exactly where your stop is without any aid from a route map or a nice little electronic voice announcing what stop you’re approaching. My encounters with colectivos have been few and far between: I am a master at getting hopelessly lost without colectivos complicating things.

If colectivos are out of the picture, at least for now, I am left zipping around on the subte, Buenos Aires’ metro. A metro is a metro, regardless of where you are in the world. The city kindly provides maps of the routes, the stops are even announced on the subte for the convenience of the passengers. What possibly could go wrong then? The answer lies in the process of getting on the subte. If you like to play tetris, I highly recommend taking the subte during rush hour. Porteños pack into the cars with incredible precision and indifference to the fact that they’re spooning a stranger in a hot, rocking vehicle. The first time I tried to take the subte alone, it took me four different trains before I successfully got into one because. If getting on is an ordeal, so too is getting off. With one hand clutching whatever bag you have to guard against pickpockets, parting the sea of people to reach the doors is an experience in and of itself. If you’re lucky, the person in front of you will be getting off and they can do the dirty work of making openings where there isn’t room for them. If you’re not lucky, brace yourself for lots of jostling and frantic “excuse me’s” as you race against the swiftly closing doors of the car.

A second adjustment worth noting has been the general rhythm of life in Buenos Aires. On average, things just take longer here. At restaurants, sometimes you don’t get a menu for twenty minutes after sitting down. If you’re in a rush, ask for the check at least ten minutes before you want it, otherwise you will be late for wherever it is you’re going. The aforementioned battles with public transportation require at least an hour extra hour when budgeting time to accommodate for potential mishaps or directional errors. Getting to class, going to get coffee, or meeting a friend in the park requires meticulous planning: which part of the park, is there a cafe closer to the subte station or colectivo stop? Even credit card machines at stores take longer. Not only is it the moving around in the city or getting served at restaurants, but the day just starts and ends later here. As someone who values her sleep more than most things, the late nights/early mornings have not only been a major adjustment but have entirely wrecked any semblance of a healthy sleep schedule. More notable than my sleep schedule is the patience that I am slowly but surely learning from being in a city where people really do take time to enjoy their day and their surroundings.

It’s okay for the commute to class to take an hour, it’s okay that you have to stay a couple extra minutes in that cute cafe you found in your neighborhood, because it means that you’re learning how to live like a native. The little differences that may initially be irritating because of their strangeness or seeming arbitrariness are what, when accepted as part of everyday life, slowly start to change a country from a foreign place to a familiar one.