There is trouble in paradise. I have restrained myself from bitching about the endless small annoyances which crop up when travelling, well aware of just how lucky I am to be taking a second gap year, of sorts, and exploring a truly wonderful part of the world.
However, there are a few grievances I would now like to air:
Firstly, by what mysterious and magical means do Argentinian cash points work? I think they are racist. Yes, the Argentinians have racist cashpoints. They just don’t like foreigners, simple as that. I thought it was just me when at my tenth attempt to get out money I was once again told “Your card is not accepted at this machine” or the other classic, “This transaction cannot be carried out”. I knew the money was there, I had checked.
But I have now discovered all travellers who explore this country spend irritatingly large amounts of time pondering where and when they are next going to be able to get hold of cash.
This is complicated by the “blue market”, a polite term for the black market which operates openly all over the country and which even the travel guides urge you to use to avoid changing your own currency for pesos through your bank as the official Argentine government exchange rate woefully overvalues the peso in a determined attempt to ignore the massive ongoing inflation. The Argentinians themselves of course want American dollars or euros as a currency they can rely on to maintain its value for more than a week.
So you walk about with a load of dollars, brought before your trip as you cannot get hold of them once here, until you come across a dodgy looking man in the street shouting: “Cambio! Cambio!” There are many such men, they are not hard to find. If you look like a gringo, they will often find you.
You are usually led away to some equally dodgy looking counter or kiosko if you are lucky, or street corner if you are less lucky, where he or his business partners/accomplices will then buy your dollars or euros at a much – much – higher rate than what your bank or any official exchange house can offer.
It is important that you know what to look for in Argentinian bank notes to avoid being given fakes but really the whole affair is very easy.
The blue market is so widely accepted the national newspapers print its rate alongside that of the official one in their financial pages.
However, the “cambio” men like high denominations. They want 100 and 50 dollar notes and are often deeply uninterested in smaller offerings.
Had I known this before I left our economically straightforward isles I would have asked for all my dollars in hundreds. But I didn’t. You live and learn.
I had only 20 dollar notes and this was causing difficulties. No-one wanted my sad little twenties.
I was starting to panic a little, I had no pesos and was aware that my dollar stash even if I did succeed in changing some was running too low to last me another two weeks in this blessed but not cheap country. I survived through roundabout means such as paying on card for other people and getting their cash in return and completing complex internet transactions to pay hostels. My salvation finally came in the form of Santander, that wonderful – and European – bank which fed me cash that I grabbed at as greedily as a Labrador offered a succulent bone.
Sorted, I thought. My problems are over. But I had, once again underestimated the cost in this country of ridiculous taxes and inflation.
So today, once again, I found myself cashless.
Could I find a bank which would feed me money. Could I hell.
Anna, who had boarded the same bus to Salta, lent me some. A short term solution.
It transpired she too had been unable to withdraw any cash in many places.
The Argentinian girl with us seemed baffled. “They all work for me,” she said.
“Si, claro, porque vos estas de Argentina!”
We tried a few places. Nada.
After a day of doing stuff, and therefore spending stuff, while meandering around Salta and trying to ignore the insoluble problem that needed a solution, both of us were aware we could put it off no longer.
So imagine the relief when we discovered Salta also boasted a branch of Santander.
Beautiful and marvellous Santander. I could write odes to Santander.
It gave me money, it made me smile, it flattered me with its open willingness to accept my card.
I turned to see Anna looking less enamoured of Santander.
“I think the machine has eaten my card,” she said. The started laughing in some kind of desperate hope it was all a joke and Santander would return her card with wads of cash shortly. But it didn’t.
“No seriously, it has actually taken my card.”
We spoke to a security guard who told us to return between 8.30am and 1.30pm tomorrow when the bank staff would be there. Nice hours for those who can get them.
Unfortunately we were also booked to take a bus to the middle of nowhere in the mountains at about 7am tomorrow as an added complication.
We returned to the hostel in a slightly dazed state of disbelief where Anna phoned her bank and was able to discern the account had been mysteriously closed down.
Happily while I can withdraw money I can lend her some while her kind parents back in Germany transfer to me. Fingers crossed this all goes to plan. Nothing involving money is simple here.
So that is the first one – my other grievances will have to wait as I need to get some sleep after all the trials and tribulations of the day and last night’s bumpy bus journey. Buenas noches.