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How to adjust to study abroad in Buenos Aires
By: Marcelo Rinesi (justin) 2013.10.04



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Buenos Aires seems to have something for everyone, the fulfillment of every particular desire. For me it was its superb (and free) college system, which lured me out of my native (and much quieter) city of Corrientes in the north of Argentina. For my roommates–many of them from Europe or the States–it was often its complex nightlife, the physical beauty of the city itself, and the almost infinite opportunities it offers for political and social involvement. It's not the city most typical of Latin America, but for the young and adventurous, it is the city to go to.

But Buenos Aires also seems to have a particular danger for each person; it is so different in so many ways from every other city in the world that sooner or later it catches you by surprise. It happened to almost every roommate of mine, never in a tragic way, but also always quite unpleasantly. And that's a shame, because Buenos Aires is a city that is hard not to enjoy–as long as you know the rules of engagement.

They aren't complicated, really. You just have to mind the potential dangers: kidnappers, robbers, bankers, the university political system, the political system outside universities, the workers, the police and the people on the streets. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? I've been living in Buenos Aires for two years, and I have yet to be bored.

Let's begin with the oddest thing of all, politics inside the universities. Most public universities in Argentina are like self–contained political universes. Think of Sliders, that TV show where the protagonists would jump between parallel universes, landing in Earths with bizarre histories and customs. In most public universities in Argentina, communism is, by far, the mainstream political discourse. The United States is the Evil Empire, the IMF is its Death Star, and Cuba is the country to be allied with (interestingly, this was going on even before Bush Jr. assumed the U.S. presidency). The historical figure most revered by Argentine youth is Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Fidel Castro's right hand during the Cuban revolution. So my Rule of Engagement No. 1 is: If you happen to like capitalism, find Fidel Castro kind of creepy, or simply approve in general terms of the way the Cold War ended, try to avoid public statements to that effect. That said, some of the leading scientists and thinkers of the world majored in public universities like the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), so don't knock them too hard. You can learn most of the things you'd learn at MIT, and for a quite negligible fraction of that school's fees (i.e., zero).

Although most of your fellow students advocating for the forceful overthrow of the government, the taking of factories, and other "revolutionary" activities would rather get a date/finish college/get a job, there are a few who are in college because of politics, not the other way around. It's usually easy to spot them: They are thirty–something years old yet still taking sophomore–level courses. Those guys are fascinating and fun to talk with, but careful how you act around them: they may hold an impromptu sit–in at your apartment or dorm room.

Outside universities, the political spectrum looks a little bit more like a real spectrum, but still quite homogeneous for some issues–including the "overthrow the government" and "the U.S. is evil" stuff. Of course, the same goes for three–quarters of the world, most of Europe and perhaps half of the U.S. itself, so you already know the Rule of Engagement No. 2: Don't go "I'm Americano, get out of my way" to any angry, resentful mob. It could get ugly.

And by the way, always watch the news for bizarre governmental measures, political manifestations, and union strikes. Otherwise, you might end up waiting two hours for a bus line that–I should have known–is on strike. Keeping up to date is, of course, a good idea in general. You are in Buenos Aires to learn, aren't you?

As a bit of good news, the police forces in Buenos Aires consists of mostly overworked, underpaid fellows accustomed to getting killed. Not many of them participated in the state–sponsored kidnappings and tortures of the seventies, and it's unlikely you'll run into one of those old–school cops. As a rule, avoid policemen when they are dressed in riot gear and you should be fine. That is Rule of Engagement No. 3.

The newest and trickiest danger on the streets of Buenos Aires: the people. As a side effect of a quite severe economic, political, and social crisis, Buenos Aires might very well be the world leader in the frequency and ubiquity of (mostly) peaceful public meetings. If you enjoy taking to the streets and making yourself heard (and who doesn't?), you just can't beat Buenos Aires. But you have to distinguish between the two different types of manifestations:

People blocking the road. They are called "piqueteros" and are a relatively new phenomenon. Very interesting from a sociopolitical point of view, but from the point of view of safety, kind of tricky. They generally only bother people who are trying to cross the blockade, and will probably welcome you if you join them. Just remember that what they are doing is technically illegal. They are sort of popular nowadays, but now and then there are incidents, and sometimes people get hurt. My rule No. 4 is: Block the road, if block the road you must, but the guys with the anti–riot guns have the right of way. And if your fellow piqueteros look like they would be comfortable with guns and clubs, they probably are. Get the hell out of there.

People marching on the street. You will probably want to join one of the almost daily marches against one thing or another. The problem is that sometimes marches turn into violent clashes with the police, property destruction, and plain "let's get into the Congress and burn stuff" fun. How do you know which are the safe ones? Well, you don't, because marches usually mix people from leftist parties, piqueteros, students, "asambleas barriales" (neighborhood assemblies), unions, and plain old people. Of those groups, the only safe one is the "plain old people" group. Seek out the middle–aged fellows (often banging cooking pans) without signs, banners, or–I can't stress this enough–throwable stuff like bottles. At some moment during the march, you will notice that these people will start to drift out of the zone. Take your cue and leave with them; chances are that ten or twenty minutes later, the banners will get more prevalent, the attitudes more aggressive, and the stuff airborne. And thus "try not to be there when it happens" becomes my fifth tip.

Then there are the dangers you are used to: kidnappers, robbers and bankers. One general rule seems to be that banks can do pretty much anything they want to, so don't keep lots of money in a local bank account. On the other hand, don't carry much cash with you, either, or stash it under your bed. Don't get paranoid, but this happens a lot: You might be walking down the street, snappily dressed, humming "I'm in the money! I'm in the money!" when bam! Next thing you know, you are in a villa (slum), all tied up, and your roommate is hearing an estimate of how much, exactly, your life is worth. Good protective measures are to dress less snappily and to stop humming that annoying song. More generally, try not to look as if you have a big, fat wad of genuine United States dollars stashed back in your room. This is somewhat of a drag, as–according to foreigners I've talked to and my own limited experience–Buenos Aires has one of the highest "concentrations of people you'd like to hit on" per square mile in the world. And keep in mind that "big, fat" is a relative term: people are being kidnapped for less than $500. So, Rule of Engagement No.6: dress cheap, live long.

The same thing goes for protection against robbers, besides the obvious advice: Try to avoid grim, dangerous–looking corners, alleys, villas and people. For the purpose of staying safe, consider train stations and soccer stadiums as generally grim and dangerous–looking. (I'm not saying you can't take a train or go see a soccer match. Thousands of people do it every day, yet hardly half a dozen of them are robbed, stabbed and/or shot.) If you do get robbed at gunpoint–I'm speaking from personal experience here–rule No.7 is to make a point of forgetting any martial arts or Steven Segal movies you might know. Criminals here kill cops for reputation; they won't think twice about shooting you.

That's it. There is a lot of other stuff to be told about staying safe in Buenos Aires, but I hope this gives you a head start on the business. And besides, it doesn't change the fact that Buenos Aires is one of the most exciting, diverse, vibrant (and cheap, did I mention cheap?) cities in the world. You just have to survive long enough to enjoy it. Photo by Timo Arnali

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