Coming to Buenos Aires?

DSCF2725 This post is for Psyche and all the other intrepid tango adventurers who are heading to Buenos Aires in the next few months.

Recently Psyche posted on her blog, Tango with Wings:

 

The trip to BsAs has suddenly gone from something coming up in the not too distant future to something which is almost upon me. I have so much to do. Eek.
I know there are many people in the tango blogosphere who’ve been, or even who live there now. Do you have any advice for an English girl on her first trip? Any dos or don’ts? Anything I might not expect but desperately need to know in order not to disgrace myself?

Well guys, as you all know I’m English and I came and I stayed and now it’s been nine months… I read lots of tango blogs and so I know that loads you have already been here and will have your top tips for the next adventurer leaving their own country and arriving in Buenos Aires. But what are mine? As I always say, I’ve only got my experience to inform me… so perhaps this stuff will help and perhaps it won’t. Some of it will only be relevant if you are planning on staying longer than a few weeks. Still, here goes for better or for worse, ten of my ‘learnings’:

  1. The things I wish I’d brought (more of) with me from the UK: Galaxy chocolate, Earl Grey tea bags, my favourite perfume, a good quality warm coat (if you are staying over winter), Body Shop lip gloss, Blistex lip cream, Jungle Formula Bite and Sting Relief (from Boots) – the only thing that helps me to forget my mosquito bites.
  2. The things I’m glad I bought with me from the UK: iPod and portable speaker, lap top, the smallest possible digital camera for unobtrusive photography (with spare rechargeable battery), my family and friends in a small photo album, Hubert (my beloved soft toy tiger) who calms me in painful moments, UK to two pin adapter, hair drier (when it’s humid my hair does not dry fast), my ‘business’ cards which I have handed out to people I have met (they have not forgotten me, and they have known how to stay in touch).
  3. On arrival, buy a cheap Argentine mobile phone (around $100 pesos) or a SIM card ($10 pesos) for your unblocked phone. If you are bringing your UK phone, get it unblocked in the UK because it costs around $150 pesos to get it done here. I use my mobile for texting Milonga arrangements: calling with it is too expensive. But with CTI Movil, I can buy $20 pesos worth of credit which is actually $28 pesos worth (a bonus is given!) and it will last me around a month. For phone calls home you can buy a phone card ‘Llamada directa’ for $10 pesos and talk to the UK from a land line here for over an hour, or you can use Skype for free of course.
  4. Get your Spanish up to speed as fast as you can. Find a private teacher and start speaking. (I took three private lessons of two hours each for a month. After that I learned fast on my own.) Between tangos the Argentines stand and chat for at least 30 seconds, maybe longer. From the start it would be good to be able to handle questions like, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘How long are you staying?’, ‘How long have you been here?’, ‘Where did you learn tango?’,’Do you have a boyfriend?’, ‘Can I have your phone number?’… etc. I felt so much more relaxed once I could enjoy these pauses in the dance flow, instead of wishing that the ground would open and swallow me up because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying…
  5. Get hold of the current Buenos Aires tango magazines: La Tangauta, La Milonga, B.A. Tango. These have all the Milonga and class listings, plus great articles to get you up to date fast with who’s who today in the Buenos Aires tango scene. The other thing that never leaves my bag is the Caseron Porteno Tango Map and Guide. This is published every two months and has many (not all) Milongas listed and marked on the map. Other vital locations such as tango shoe shops are also marked. Where can you find these treasures? In the Milongas (all are handed out free of charge), or if you bump into me, I always try to carry a spare tango map to pass on…
  6. Be unafraid of the cabaceo. It is beautiful. It gives choice and dignity to both the man and the woman. It works. It solves everything. In most places it is easy and normal to practice. But in some places it is more difficult eg. Canning when it is packed, La Viruta where it is darker. In these places people may approach the table much more directly, and may ask verbally. I guess you develop a sense of when it is appropriate to be invited to dance in different ways. In the beginning I danced with anyone who asked me, however they asked me! Now no. I use the cabaceo etiquettes when I can to choose, accept, reject. If someone approaches me directly I weigh up the situation: Is it someone I have danced with before? Is it someone I want to dance with? Is there a good reason why they are asking me face to face? Last week an Argentine approached me in La Ideal. He apologised for asking me directly but explained that he had been waiting for me to turn around for a long time. I had not noticed him sitting behind me because I was chatting with my friends. I accepted. He was a lovely dancer. I would have missed out if I’d said no. On the other hand there is a man who always approaches women foreigners at the table. I have danced with him once (back when I accepted any invitation) and it was terrible. I won’t put myself through that again, so I always refuse.
  7. Find your favourite Milongas and become a regular. This means that the host will get to know you and seat you well, you will know when it’s a good time to arrive and a good time to leave, you will get great service from the waitresses, you will (in time) have regular dance partners, you will know who you want to dance with and who to avoid, you will know if you have to take change into the toilets to get paper, you will know what coffee they do well and what food they serve, you will know that if you reserve a table for your visiting friends it will not be the worst in the room, you will know that it is safe to leave your bag under the table or whether you should check it into the cloakroom, you will know if and when they will have performances, live orchestras, dance the Chacarera, tropical tangas, swing tandas… you will feel at home.
  8. Create some kind of a routine (the routine kept me grounded in an unfamiliar sea of time) of classes, be they private classes or group classes. Group classes are one way to meet people if you know no-one, but I personally found them not too useful for improving my tango. If you don’t have a private teacher yet then one way to find one is to watch the performances at the Milongas, where eventually you will see someone dancing in a way that you love. This is how I found one of my teachers. Pace yourself with the classes. I have found that my body needs time to take in and process what it is taught. In the beginning I took my private lessons and some group classes but now I take three private lessons a week of one hour each and for me, it is enough. Consider taking folkloric classes as well as tango classes. There is something ‘oh so special’ about being able to dance the Chacarera with the Argentines. This for me is a moment when I feel ‘at home’ and proud to be living in Argentina.
  9. Stay till the end of the Milonga sometimes. Then you will know the whole cycle of the place, get under its skin, feel its heartbeat. You will see the crowd come and go. You will see who leaves. You will see who stays. You may get a chance to dance with those who might never have noticed you in the crush. People will see that you love tango, that you are making an effort, that you are there. Yes you will get tired, but there is always coffee, an empanada, a long sleep the next day…
  10. Relax and accept the roller coaster of the great adventure:

the nights that you want to remember forever; the nights that you wish never happened but that you put down to ‘experience’; the buzz of walking towards the curtained doors and the tango music; the exhaustion; the agony of feet that have danced for hours on stone floors; the excitement of stolen kisses in the street; the Argentines who don’t dance as well as you thought they would; the kicks from four inch heels on packed dance floors; the blissful Argentine tango embrace that wraps you in a warm duvet, makes you feel safe and treasured and leads you to paradise; the feeling that you are dancing in a ‘sardine can’; the days when you know you are the worst tango dancer on the planet; the lonely moments; the history and culture that soaks itself into your bones; the friends that come and go; the joy of hearing an Argentine sing his beloved tangos in your ear as you dance; the inexplicable feeling that you belong here; the pride and self belief that comes from knowing that you did it… you came here, you adventured, you LIVED! 

Some things I have not worried too much about. I have always changed my shoes at the table (discreetly of course). I have worn a small stylish ‘money belt’ around my waist when I have been alone at a Milonga and have had my camera on me… maybe my rather eccentric style can take it, but I haven’t actually felt that I have stood out too horrendously as a tourist.  Also, in La Viruta later in the night or when the dance floor has been packed and also in some other places, I have danced in ‘zapatillas’, practice shoes. In the end there comes a point where my feet just need a rest from 4 inch heels, and I give in. I know that others may not do some of these things, but for me I have not felt that I have broken any codes or offended anybody and I am a sensitive and thoughtful soul who does notice people’s reactions. The thing is that I have stopped worrying too much about whether I look like a tourist or not. The Argentines knew I was a tourist in the beginning anyway: I was a new face on their scene. Now they know I am not so much of a tourist because I have stuck around and they have seen my dancing improve. I’ve had great dances despite doing all these things. And maybe, I have on occasions, kept my valuables and my precious feet safe. On these matters, in the end, only you can decide.

And finally, here are a few things that are not related to tango, but start cropping up if you stay here for more than months. I’m going to mention them because I could have saved myself a bit of hassle and stress if I’d thought ahead:

  1. Bring vital paperwork with you. If you end up staying, buying property, wanting to apply for longer term visas you will need your documents: birth certificate/marriage certificate/divorce certificate/detailed proof of where your money has come from/bank statements. A DHL package takes up to a week and costs US$50 from here, £50 from the UK.
  2. The best and easiest way to get pesos is out of the cash point, so to avoid excessive charges, open an account with a UK bank that does not charge for foreign withdrawals. But be aware that you can only withdraw $300 pesos a time, in my case three times per day: $900 pesos in total per day. Of course this is fine for day to day living, but if you have to pay large rental deposits/rent up front/deposits on a purchase… then you need to plan your withdrawals in advance to make sure you have enough cash on the day. Argentina operates predominantly in cash.
  3. You can take out excellent medical insurance here that covers medical, dental and optical: check ups, tests, home visits, emergencies… everything. It can cover you while travelling in Argentina and abroad including in your home country. Repatriation, should it be required, would be to Argentina however. I am paying about $250 pesos per month for a fantastic service. I was paying about $200 pesos per month including tax, but recently all medical insurance here went up about 25% overnight… inflation.
  4. It was impossible for me to open a bank account here without a resident’s visa. Big money transfers had to be done through a foreign exchange bank at a charge of 2%. Western Union charges 3% I believe.
  5. Some things seem relatively expensive to me: and if you are staying long term maybe it’s worth being aware: travel (within Argentina and abroad), electronic goods including computers, broadband (once the initial offer period is over), apartment rental rates to foreigners who do not have the required guarantor (someone who owns property who is prepared to put the property up as a guarantee in the event that the rent is not paid).

And for now I reckon that’s about it! I’ve written far more than I expected to and a lot less than I could have. But it’s enough. I hope there is something in what I have said to ease the Buenos Aires tango and life journey a tiny bit. God knows that when I arrived here I knew nothing, and I had no-one. I hadn’t discovered the tango ‘blogosphere’ at that point. I just did it my way. At times it was joyful, and at times it was painful, but it was always ok. Today I am smiling.

DSCF2682

In the end, part of the point of adventure is the discovery and the self-discovery, and I know that every person who comes here will discover their own stuff, in their own time. I am still exploring, learning, growing and I don’t want to stop. So to all you tangueros and tangueras out there who have travelled here already, or live here now… I say, ‘Feel free to add to my lists!’ I will be delighted to learn from you. Meanwhile, while you guys are maybe thinking of heading this way, I’ve got my trip back to England coming up in one month’s time, and I’m very unsure how I will cope.  Mainly I think, by keeping my return ticket to Buenos Aires close to my heart, hugging my family a lot, and trying to live exactly how I have lived my dream since I arrived in Argentina – one day at a time. Wish me luck.

Happy adventuring Psyche. I am with you all the way!

UPDATE: I have added a lot more specific information in the comments section of this post, so make sure you read those too. SC

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20 Responses

  1. Good list, Sal, and for any Indian food freaks out there – several jars of Pataks balti or garam masala paste and a tube or two of chilli paste is a must for the severe curry withdrawal moments (the Argentines not being known for their love of spicey food!)
    Also, menthol crystals, which can be bought at ‘old fashioned’ chemists are fantastic when melted into warm water for ‘el gripe’ and a tiny amount disolved into any body cream and applied to post-milonga feet is absolute heaven (check for any reaction to menthol first, of course!)

  2. Sorry I did not meet you in BA. Your ideas are all good ones and sensible.

    I think a lot of women sit because they just don’t get that cabeceo. It is a beautiful thing. Also people are reluctant to ask you if they haven’t seen you dance, of course, and so being in a small group and dancing with someone you know right off. That gives the other potential partners the chance to see your stuff. Also I really agree that staying late is a good option for getting to dance with people who may have been too occupied earlier. Good ideas Sallycat!

  3. Anne, you have just reminded me that I haven’t eaten Indian food since I got here, or Thai… I am off to the Chinese quarter this weekend to see what ingredients I can find! And please tell me what ‘menthol crystals’ would be in Spanish. I am going to buy some of them too…

    Elizabeth, that is a really great point about dancing with someone you know to start with. It is absolutely right that once people have seen that you can dance, they are far more likely to cabaceo you. And I am sorry that I did not meet you too. Next time… I expect I will still be here!

    SC

  4. OK I decided I missed something out so here’s a bit more information about getting money out of the ATM.

    The Argentines are quite security concious around the ATM. You usually need to swipe your card in the outside door of the bank to get in to use the machines. There are no ATMs on the street as there are in England. If the place is large with several ATMs it is ok to go in and queue inside, but people stand well back if the machines are in use. If there is only one machine, then the Argentines queue outside on the street and enter one at a time. I try to use the ATM in daylight hours only, just to be on the safe side and I always put everything safely away before emerging onto the street again.

    The machines you want are labelled BANELCO. Most of these seem to work for me. When you put your card in the instructions come up in English, or you can select the language. To obtain small denomination notes I always select the ‘Other amount’ option and enter $90 or $190 pesos. This way if the ATM has the change, you can force it to give it out to you! I try to only get $100 peso notes if I know that I am going to need them. Nowhere likes you when you hand over $100 and expect change!
    Because the machines only allow the $300 peso limit, people often make several withdrawals at once which can be a bit time consuming, so sometimes you might have to queue for a while. But all in all I think the ATM is the fastest, most convenient and cheapest way to access your cash. SC

  5. Hi Sal

    Great advice girl! I was struck me when I was there was how great it was to to be able to speak a tiny bit of Spanish. Everyone is so friendly and wants to speak (even the old lady who chatted to me on the subway wasn’t put off when I clearly only understood a fraction of what she said). I didn’t know any dance-related words when I got there either, that would have been handy.

    One thing that really stood out for me was the friendly, open-heartedness of the Argentinians. It made it so easy to ask for help anywhere, that makes a difference.

    I can honestly say that BsAs was one of the most wonderful travel experiences of my life so far!

    lots of love and have a wonderful weekend dancing xxx

  6. Thank you so much! I really appreciate your taking the time to do this. I will be keeping that list close by for reference.

    Reading it sparked some other questions – if you can bear to give a little more advice, I’d really appreciate it!

    I have no idea how much things cost in BA. How much money am I likely to need on an average day? What should I expect to need for things like milonga fees, food, taxi, lessons?

    ‘Can I have your phone number’ – how on earth do you answer that without giving offense (especially in broken Spanish)?

    At the milongas, do you tip waiters and waitresses? If so, how much?

    Food is an issue for me; I get hypoglycemic very quickly (in which case I lose my ability to dance), and so eat very often. This is one of my biggest worries. Can you get food at the milongas? Is it ok to eat there? I’m assuming they won’t take kindly you to whipping out a cereal bar at the table – if all else fails is it feasible to retreat to the ladies to do so? Or are the queues prohibitive?

    Private lessons; Can you just approach someone directly? Are there different rules for the ‘bigshots’? Can you take lessons with more than one teacher at once or is that likely to offend people?

    The medical insurance sounds like a very good idea. Where do you get this?

    Thank you!

  7. Psyche, I have answers to all your questions. I have just typed them all in and before posting the comment, ‘Internet Explorer has encountered a problem and needs to close’ and I lost the lot! So there’s gonna be a little delay while I do it all again… but will get back to you, I promise.
    Besos, SC

  8. OK Psyche, here’s the low down…

    Budget (many prices vary across the city depending on the barrio):

    Milonga entrance $10 – $20 pesos; Milonga drinks: agua con gas $5, coca $5, coffee $5, alcohol I don’t drink so can’t advise; Restaurant: omelette and chips $20, best steak $25 (accompaniments extra), empanada $3, café con leche and 3 medialunas $8; Taxis start at $3.20 with medium distance trips $10-$15; Subway $0.70; Bus $0.80; Tango group classes $15 to $35; Tango private lessons $100-$150 per hour (perhaps more with more ‘famous’ names, perhaps less if you commit to regular/high frequency); Hairdresser: colour, cut, and dry $90; Vegetables and fruit from the Verduleria: fresh strawberries $3.5 half a kilo, prepared salad $3.50; laundry $8 for an average bag of clothes to be washed and dried.

    Tipping

    Taxis – don’t expect tips; Milonga waitresses – most you pay and tip a small amount $2 at the end of the evening; Milonga ‘taxi finders’ – tip a small amount, up to $2; Toilet attendents $0.50; Cafes and restaurants: small change, $2 or $5 on larger bills or more if the bill is for a large group of course.

    Food at Milongas

    Always have snacks available – empanadas of meat, chicken or ham and cheese at the very least. Some offer a far bigger menu including full meals. I usually have a cereal bar or chocolate in my bag for emergency energy boosts which I nibble discreetly. It is unacceptable to take your own drinks in to Milongas.

    Private tango lessons/teachers

    After you have seen an exhibition at a Milonga it is certainly feasible to approach the person directly, compliment them on their dancing and ask if they teach and for their contact details. I wouldn’t approach a dancer if I saw they were busy relaxing and chatting with their mates however as it might be a bit intrusive. The tango magazines have many teachers listed with contact details so it is easy to track a teacher down. I think if you have one main teacher it is acceptable to go to others for specific things such as: women’s technique, milonga, folkloric. I would discuss what I was doing openly with my teacher. In the beginning you may want to try out a few teachers to see who suits you best. I have found that it can be confusing to have too many teachers as all want you to do things slightly differently. Now I stick to one, but in the future I may branch out again.

    Awkward questions

    I have used several techniques to avoid giving my phone number: ‘I don’t have a phone.’, ‘Perhaps I’ll see you here another time.’, mentioning that I have a boyfriend early in the conversation (even when I didn’t have one), pretending that I haven’t understood – always smiling broadly.

    Avoiding awkward questions

    Only dance one tanda with someone. If you really like dancing with them, accept a second tanda later in the evening, but not consecutively with the first. If you only like dancing with them and are not interested in them as a potential date, or don’t know them well yet, leave it at two tandas. Once you know someone well/dance with them regularly then maybe things are more flexible. I will maybe dance three tandas with my regulars but they know I am only interested in dancing, so that’s the difference. Even then I try to avoid dancing consecutive tandas with anybody other than Carlos of course!

    A word on ‘el amor’ and tango:

    Things start to get more complicated once you have a tango boyfriend. If you go to the milonga with him and sit with him you are highly unlikely to get cabaceo-ed. Perhaps a friend who knows you both may come to the table, chat a bit, ask the man’s permission to dance with you (yep that is how it’s done here). Once you are in a tango relationship some negotiation will probably take place about how you are going to manage the Milonga situation, whether you will still go out separately or always together, whether you will sit together or separately, whether you will still dance with other people and what music is ‘yours’. It is possible at some Milongas to go together, sit together but for the man to get up and walk around, cabaceo other women leaving you at the table in theory free to cabaceo other men. At other more traditional Milongas this is less likely to be an option. In my experience here, tango and ‘el amor’ don’t make the easiest of bedfellows for anyone who is wanting to dance with many partners, unless of course your ‘love’ is of the same mind. In general I think it will be a journey of negotiation…

    Medical insurance

    Mine is with Medicus (one of the big companies here), arranged via an ExPat group to whom I paid an arrangement fee. There were three levels of cover available and the main difference between the levels was the choice of hospitals/doctors. The ExPat group was http://www.expat-connection.com/. I forgot to say that it also includes a 40% discount on all prescriptions.
    I believe that individual hospitals also offer schemes. It’s worth knowing too that if you don’t have medical insurance but want to see a doctor you can go to a private hospital and pay a one off fee: I paid $70 to see a doctor at the German Hospital. I have not attempted to use the free system so I can’t advise on that.

    Queues in the ladies loos

    Generally not long! You can often buy mints, cigarettes, hair accessories, even clothes while you wait… Some have makeup, perfume etc. that you can borrow if you are in need!

    Think that was everything you asked, but if you have more questions at any point please come back here and ask away. I’ll always do my best to help a fellow explorer!

    SC

  9. Sally, what can I say? You’re such a star. I can’t believe you typed all that up twice! Thank you so much.

    I’m so relieved about the food!

  10. This was so great. It makes me think about how much I love being an expat. Can’t wait to get back to Italy now… (but don’t worry, first it’s Buenos Aires in February, woohoo!)

  11. Psyche, one of the things I adore about the Argentines is that when you say thank you for something they immediately respond with one of: ‘De nada.’ ‘No, a vos.’ and it’s spoken with complete conviction and often a few more words…

    …so with Argentine sentiment I will get you in the way of things now with, ‘No, no, gracias a vos!’

    Tina, woohoo absolutely, woohoo!

  12. The 300 peso transaction limit doesn’t seem to apply to Mastercard. I was lucky that I had both Visa and Mastercard when they implemented the limit (in May from memory) but my friends got stung with multiple transaction fees whenever they wanted to take more than 300p out (for rent etc).
    Psyche – things might have changed since I left Argentina in September, but if you have a Mastercard it would be a good idea to take it with you.

  13. 🙂 good to know.
    thanks

  14. The $300 peso limit doesn’t apply to Maestro either. I was happily able to withdraw $2,000 in one transaction. I have no idea what my limit was, but I never seemed to reach it.

  15. Thanks guys for the extra information on ATM withdrawals. Maybe I am just unlucky than with my bank debit card which is VISA… but I know I have not been alone in my experience with withdrawal limits. I guess it’s perhaps best just to be prepared that there may be a limit, or that the limit might change while you are here. SC

  16. Yes, Sally I also used a Visa debit card and was limited to $300 peso withdrawal at a time. When I used it four times in one day, the bank cut the card off, so please space out the days you use the card. This was in October of this year.

  17. Thanks everyone for those visa warnings. My card is a visa, and I’d be in trouble without it, so I’d better be careful if there’s a risk of them cutting it off. I think (I hope) I’m going to be paying rent by standing order, so perhaps I’ll be able to manage.

    Re the ‘de nada’; I experienced this for the first time the other day with an Argentine friend of mine. The way he said ‘you’re welcome’ I really felt it was true, it was quite a remarkable thing, so lovely. If that’s the usual way of things then no wonder you love it there!

  18. hello!

    Could you please specifywhat are the uk banks that don’t charge you for doing withdrawals?

    thanks!

  19. Hi Raquel,
    Only know of one: Nationwide Building Society, Flex Account though there may be others. Hope that helps.
    SC

  20. thanks!
    just in case that helps, i’va found that also citibank offer this service.

    cheers!

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