Cashed Out in Buenos Aires

An enlightened despot when your pockets are full; a wrathful monarch when you’re insolvent

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In Argentina, cash is king. An enlightened despot when your pockets are full, and a wrathful monarch when you’re insolvent. Amid a frantic departure from Buenos Aires, I learned this lesson the hard way.

I was in Argentina to visit my girlfriend. We met in Brooklyn, where she’d moved for a job. She worked as an au pair for a family with an infant. The company she was hired through sponsored her visa. We had been dating for almost a year when the family moved to California, and thus she chose not to renew her contract. Rather than help her find a new placement, the company dropped her. She lost her visa and had to move back to Argentina.

Despite the bad circumstance that forced her to move home, we decided to make the most of the trip. I was excited to visit my girlfriend and her family and learn about her home country. We toured Argentina, rounding out our trip in Buenos Aires.

I learned a lot about the history and absorbed a lot of the culture. Buenos Aires is a very European-style city, heavily influenced by waves of Italian, Spanish, and French immigrants. The architecture is a blend of modernism and Baroque, with terraced balconies and grand arches. Argentines see themselves as heirs to a sophisticated and refined culture and carry themselves highly, even if they’re watching a futbol game.

However, for all their pride, one of the things that struck me most was the impact of the economy on the country. Many of my girlfriends’ friends told me it was very hard to find a good job in Argentina, even with a degree. This is in part what drove my girlfriend to find a job as an au pair. She could make more money taking care of someone’s children in New York than she could at an entry-level job in Argentina, even send remittances home to her family.

Many of the economic misfortunes in Argentina stem from poor management. Due to defaulting on the national debt, Argentina has a cash-based economy that’s been prone to inflation. The dangers of a de facto cash-only society came crashing into my trip as I prepared to fly home.

Not one to chance flights, I was packed and ready by midnight — even though my plane didn’t board ’til 5 a.m. Plenty of time, or so it seemed.

I sat on the stoop with my girlfriend. The air was tight with emotion. The long-distance dating had strained our relationship. Our time together in Buenos Aires and Rosario had been domestic bliss, only to be cut short. Her work visa to come back to the States had been denied. This was the last we’d see each other for some time.

We shared a cigarette, reminiscing on the romance of Buenos Aires while we waited for my cab. We had scheduled the taxi pick-up for 12:30.

Taxi cab composed of Argentinian pesos

The night was quiet. A summer breeze kissed the streets of the Palermo district. I checked the time. Five minutes to. We clung to one another in an anxious embrace. And then . . . the ride didn’t show.

Ten minutes late, 15, 20 — by 1 a.m. I accepted the taxi wasn’t coming. I swallowed my irritation, not wanting to stir the air with bad vibes. It’s not that I was surprised the cab had failed to materialize. Of Argentina’s many charms, reliable service was not one.

Still, the issue remained that this cab company took debit, as it was all I had for payment. Argentinian pesos can’t be traded at American banks, so I budgeted out my cash to the day.

My girlfriend tried calling. No answer. I was vexed. In my many years of travel, I’ve only ever missed one flight. It still haunts me. I had wanted to pay for the taxi ahead of time, to avoid this trouble. American sensibilities trained me to put faith in the sacrament of transaction; if money is exchanged, the business will be fulfilled. My girlfriend was less confident. Experience told her not to pay ’til the goods were delivered.

Whether the ride would have arrived was an argument for another day. At the moment we each had rides to catch — her bus, my plane — and it was clear the taxi wasn’t coming. I lugged our bags as she led us to the nearby main street. We set up on the curb, as she started flagging down drivers.

Within minutes, the first taxi pulled up. My girlfriend ran up and asked in Spanish if they took cards. He didn’t. He drove off, and almost instantly another taxi pulled up. Same story. Over the next 45 minutes, the process was repeated with more than two dozen cabs. No one took cards, just cold hard cash.

CASH ONLY IN SPANISH

Aeropuerto Internacional Ezeiza was on the outskirts of the city, more than an hour’s drive away. Public transport wasn’t a feasible option, plus Uber and its American competitors are illegal in Argentina. The local app alternatives proved unreliable.

Stress set in. My girlfriend had to leave, too. Her bus was scheduled for a three a.m. departure from the Retiro terminal. By a small stroke of luck, we caught a driver who was sympathetic to my plight and spoke a little English. I tossed my backpack in the trunk and kissed my girlfriend goodbye. A rushed farewell clipped the romance of our goodbye.

We parted as our taxis raced off in different directions. My driver agreed to take me to an ATM. When I arrived in Argentina, I brought 500 dollars American, in cash. The thought was to avoid pulling from my debit account and escape the fees. Now that circumstance had forced my hand, the interest charge seemed a small price to pay to make my flight.

We pulled up on the first bank, and I jumped out. Throwing open the glass door, I punched my PIN into the machine. Navigating the screens with my limited Spanish, I marked my money for withdrawal. I was notified of an outrageous peso surcharge (equivalent to more than eight bucks American, not to mention what my home bank would slap me with). Desperate, I hit accept. I waited to hear the whir of bills being dispersed when, to my horror, the display flashed “error.”

Hindsight is 20/20. Earlier in my trip, I’d had issues with my debit card, despite flagging it for travel. One night in Rosario, I didn’t have enough cash on me (traveler’s wisdom is to not keep it all on hand, so some of it was stashed with my backpack) to pay for our drinks. Instead I opted for la tarjeta. The waitress needed my ID to run it, which seemed odd, though my girlfriend explained it was due to the high number of thefts and fraud.

It bounced. Confused, I asked her to run it again. I’d notified my bank and there was money in the account, so there was no reason it shouldn’t work. On the third try, it went through, and we left the bar a little embarrassed.

Third time’s the charm, right? I jumped over to the next machine to try twice more. No dice. I returned to the taxi in a heat. I turned to the driver, “let’s try another.” Obliging, he zoomed down the street to the next bank. Experience made me skeptical, but I had hope.

Changing money had been a process, to say the least. The first attempt was rebuffed because I didn’t have my passport on hand, a necessary ID to exchange officially. The second go-around, we got a lotted ticket and sat down in the crowded lobby. I looked up at the television blinking through a series of numbers. Up next: 527. I looked down at my ticket — 546.

clock about to strike 3, composed of Argentinian cash

Almost two hours later, we stepped up to the teller. A digital sign listed the rates: 17.4 pesos to the U.S. dollar and the buy/sell spread favored the seller. I doled out the cash to the counter who counted on the counter. Each bill she scrutinized like a scientist gazing through a microscope.

When she finished, she ran one pile through a machine counter but gave several bills back. She told us the bank couldn’t accept them because they were ‘damaged.’ I examined the 20s. In fairness, one was worse for wear and I could reason why they wouldn’t accept it, but the others were near crisp. This one had the tiniest rip, and that one a slight smudge, but still good cash. Frustrated, we left with the mix of currencies.

I’d read in my research about las cuevas de oro. The gold caves — illegal money exchanges, usually run out of jewelry shops or similar establishments where lots of cash wasn’t unusual. Spawned by the erratic history of inflation in Argentina, these cuevas offered a black market for the dólar blue, money at a much better rate than the government pegged peso. As a currency, the peso floats now, but still I figured a cueva might be worth looking into to swap the rest of my dollars. But my girlfriend opposed anything of questionable legality.

The money we changed carried us through most of the trip, but it became necessary to get the rejected bills flipped. Without a cueva, our options ranged from an independent exchange (mostly set up in malls) or the British-owned supermarket. The grocery store had a good rate, but you could only use dollars if you bought groceries. At the mall, we waited in line for an hour, only to find that the money kiosk didn’t accept 20-dollar bills.

Frustrated, our savior came by way of soccer. We were visiting La Bombenera stadium, in La Boca district of Buenos Aires. We passed by a tourist trap, which happened to buy western currency. Of course, with a catch.

The rate was much worse, only about 15 pesos to the dollar. For a moment I fumed, raging against getting had — like a traveling chump! But my girlfriend reminded me that in the grand scheme of things, it was just a few bucks. On principle, I still hated it, but I grudgingly accepted.

As my taxi dashed through the late night streets of Buenos Aires, I lamented that I would pay any bad rate or ATM fee, just to snag some cash. As we pulled up, the driver parked out front while I rushed in.

I stepped in and had to step around a sleeping family. A woman and three kids were bunched up under a blanket on a bed of cardboard. The sight startled me. There were homeless in Buenos Aires (as any city), but it hadn’t seemed so severe up to that point. Hit with this conflict of third-world poverty, I did something disgraceful. I took a picture.

Holding up cell phone to take a photo

The phone shutter ticked, and the woman cried out “No foto!” Caught off guard that she was awake, I quickened to the ATM. I got the familiar error and didn’t even bother to try another. I hurried out.

Riding out to the third bank, my ears reddened with shame. I reflected on the moment. It brought to the forefront of my consciousness how privileged I was. For all my complaints, the fact that I had been born to a society wealthy enough, a nation that provided people in my position the financial opportunity, to travel to another country and bemoan the minor inconveniences of money — I had been ungrateful. Whatever the circumstance that brought a woman and her children to huddle on a bank floor at three a.m., it was worse than my troubles. I deleted the photo.

The economic history of Argentina is a story of tragedy. In the first decade of the 20th century, Argentina was among the ten richest countries in the world. In terms of income, richer than even the empire of Japan. European immigrants flooded into Buenos Aires in waves comparable to New York, eager for the promise of new world opportunity. But a thriving market sponsored by agrarian exports was devastated by a century of political instability and economic mismanagement.

Argentina was rocked by the Great Depression, but unlike its northern counterpart, it was unable to recover in the post-war period. The country fluctuated between democratic leadership and military dictatorships, with six coup d’états between 1930 and 1976. During his administration, President Perón implemented protectionist policies that scared off foreign investors and discouraged free market practices. To secure his rule, he compensated against inflation by offering populist sentiments that appealed to social ends, rather than financial reform. This legacy of political patronage continued long after his reign.

Amidst harsh human rights abuses, the last military junta was chased out in 1983. This exit was forerun by a failure to properly steward the economy. But even under democratic traditions, Argentina struggled. Political impotence reached its peak in 2001 when the nation went through five presidents in two weeks, a crisis that began when President de la Rúa stepped down from office after devaluing the peso.

In the same decade, Argentina defaulted on its debt twice, further inflaming the economic woes. The current administration, led by President Macri, has initiated a series of reforms to amend the broken system. Among them: balancing the budget, investing in public works, and pushing a free market agenda.

Despite recent midterm victories to strengthen Macri’s mandate, change will be an uphill battle. These reforms include austerity measures that cut back on social programs. As such, this economic restructuring remains deeply unpopular among segments of the country.

Streetlights blinked past the taxi window and the clock ticked. Less than two hours until boarding, and I was still scrambling to find some cash. A sense of cynical fatalism set in. So be it, I would miss my plane.

I leaned forward, “Che, what’s your name? Que nombre?”

“Jorge, sir.” He replied in crisp English.

“Jorge,” I said, offering a handshake. “Nice to meet you. Thanks for this — driving me around. It’s a pain, I know. But I appreciate it. Really.”

Jorge shook and smiled, “Of course, sir.”

This third bank didn’t have a pullover lane. The road was empty, but the thought of a solo taxi idling outside a bank at this hour seemed a bad sight, so I asked Jorge to circle around the block. I got out onto the curb, and Jorge took off around the corner. Out of sight. As I climbed the stairs, I realized my backpack was still in the trunk.

What if Jorge didn’t come back? I couldn’t fault him for thinking this was a goose chase. All said, my junk could make a pretty penny on the black market — books, clothes, but mostly, my laptop. What was to stop Jorge from taking off? What did he owe this burnt-out Yankee, broke, in the hush of night, stranded on the street? There was nothing I could do about it now.

The lock buzzed, and I swung the glass door open. This room was like all the others: small, blandly colored, equipped with three ATMs. I swiped my debit card and went through the motions. I wasn’t sure how much to take out, so I aimed high just to be sure. I accepted the fees, the yada-yadas in Spanish, half-conscious about what they said.

Then, electricity struck my ears. A rotor whirred to life, the sound of shuffling money inside. I held my breath. I didn’t let it out ’til all the cash had been dispensed.

I felt like a casino jack who just hit it big. I grabbed my winnings and ducked out the door as if someone would take it from me. As I clambered down the stairs, Jorge appeared with the engine running. I dove into the backseat of my getaway car, and told Jorge “we hit the jackpot.” He grinned, and we punched it for the airport.

Five a.m. boarding call. Little over an hour left to make it to the terminal and past security. The taxi gunned through Buenos Aires and shot down the highway. It was a gamble as to whether or not we’d make it. Having earlier resigned my fate, I found myself oddly calm. All I could trust was that Jorge’s wheels would deliver me in time.

We made small talk, as I peppered him with questions about his life. Jorge was 29 and loved his wife of ten years. No kids, not yet, but maybe one day. Not a fan of the local cumbia music, he preferred jazz. In college, Jorge studied engineering, but upon graduating, there were no jobs to be found. He took to driving cabs for a steady paycheck.

As we neared the airport, I was anxious. The freeway was double-taxed, and the meter had rolled up pretty high. It’d been running all night. I was struck with the fear that I didn’t have enough cash to pay. I resolved this final crisis in my mind — I would find a way to make sure I paid Jorge in full, even if it meant missing my plane.

Airplane made of Argentinian cash

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. With 25 minutes to go, we pulled into the departure terminal. Jorge jumped out to grab my bag. I sat for a moment, sorting my money. I came around to the back of the car where Jorge waited by the open trunk.

As he handed me my bag, I handed him the cash. As I lifted the bulk onto my back, he sorted the money. Confused, he looked at me.

“Sir, you gave too much.”

“No, It’s yours. It’s a tip.” It wasn’t a crazy amount, but it was something. And I wanted him to have it. He tried to give it back.

I shook my head “Jorge, please. Call it an American tradition, or whatever. You deserve it, seriously. You really saved me tonight. Please. Keep it.”

Bashfully, he stuck it in his pocket. We shook hands and said farewell.

“Have a nice flight, sir!” He called out.

I called back as I edged toward the entrance, “Thanks. Drive safe. Take care.”

After a night cashed out, for all the worries, I felt grateful.

I got to my gate as boarding began. Hazy, I performed the airport rituals, and soon the plane took off across the dawning sky. As we gained altitude, I looked down on Buenos Aires. The city glowed in the morning light. As Argentina slipped away below me, I thought to myself, what a beautiful country. •

All images created by Isabella Akhtarshenas

T.K. Mills is a writer who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He runs the art column for OpenLetr, and is a regular contributor to the street art magazine, Sold Mag. T.K. has also been published in The Vignette ReviewGlobal Street ArtLiterate Sunday, and The American Dissident, among others. His story, “Nicotine Traces”, was selected for the Summer ’16 anthology of Catalogue. To read more by T.K. Mills, check out his portfolio, visit tkmills.com.

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Comments

  • After making Buenos Aires my home since moving from NYC in 2005, I got a healthy remembrance dose of the willies just reading this. My stories are the same but different and all revolve around the getting of appropriate cash at inappropriate times, and I certainly hope they never recur! Thanks for a good synopsis of the events.

    • Hey Peter,

      Glad you enjoyed the story! Argentina is both a beautiful and maddening country. Happy I could bring back some memories for you. Cheers!

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