Buenos Aires is a city best seen at night. It is like a grand old theatre. When the sun goes down it looks fabulous, ornate, gilded and carefully lit. The chandeliers sparkle in the auditorium and the stage lights play on the beautiful people who put on a great show until the curtain comes down at dawn.
Then the sun comes up and in daylight the city still looks grand, but older. Now you can see there are problems. The chandeliers need cleaning, the walls painting and the cracks filling. And chaos is waiting in the wings.
Without question this is a beautiful, fun and vibrant city, but it is a city in trouble. Corruption is rampant, openly acknowledged and laughed about. We are staying in a neighborhood called Recoleta, which is one of the more desirable areas. It is a beautiful safe neighborhood, with trendy new apartment blocks and magnificent old buildings, many of which are desperately in need of care. It is a well to do area full of sleek young people who have worked hard and achieved much.
But the truly wealthy live a few miles to the north where beautifully laid out roads are lined with incredible mansions, most occupied, if we are to believe the rumours, by the truly powerful and truly corrupt. A few miles in the other direction lie huge swathes of almost uninhabitable homes, where people live in squalor with only a few sheets of rusted corrugated metal to separate them from the elements. Eva Peron cared about them, but it seems few others do. Good jobs, power and corruption will never come to their aid.
The inflation rate is over 25% this year, but the government claims it is under 10%. Restaurants no longer post prices on their websites as they change so quickly. A few years ago Buenos Aires was seen as an inexpensive city, but now restaurant prices are on a par with the States. Bus prices which admittedly are very inexpensive and heavily subsidised went up 50% overnight. And nothing runs quite as it should.
Bus passes which you can buy at the corner shop and allow you to travel everywhere at a discount suddenly disappear, the store owner unsure when the next delivery will be. The Hop On, Hop Off Bus which advertises that you can get on at any stop and pay on board, has run out of tickets and the conductor refuses to let us on. We have to walk a mile to the nearest tourist office where they still have some tickets available.
Argentina has a history of huge political and financial upheavals. It has been twelve years since the last one and it appears that the next one might be just around the corner. The current unease started eighteen months ago when the government tried to cut its ties to the American dollar.
Prior to that property transactions were conducted in American dollars. But suddenly the government decreed the dollar was no longer valid, and all purchases and sales had to be conducted in pesos. It is no longer possible to have a bank account in dollars. If individuals had any savings they kept them in dollars. Now your savings must be in pesos, but these are decreasing in value by 25% a year. Properties stopped selling because the value of the property went down all the time with the decline of the pesos. Dollars are still the only safe bet, but the only way to keep them is under the mattress.
As a direct result of this there is a thriving black market in dollars. If you buy pesos legally you get five to the dollar (right now). On the black market you get $7.50.
We have been approached by a retired Argentinian Ambassador (a friend of a friend) and asked to bring US dollars to his house and he will sell us pesos at the black market rate. This is the only way for him to accumulate dollars for his travels. We gladly accept the offer as first of all, we will get a great exchange rate and secondly we will visit an Ambassador in his home. We are delighted when he invites us for drinks.
He asks us to arrive some time between 5 and 6pm, which presents a dilemma. We wish to behave correctly as this is an Ambassador after all, but what time exactly does that mean we should arrive. After some discussion we settle on 5.40 and ring his doorbell. Dressing for drinks with an Ambassador is also a dilemma. We are told it is very informal and casual but are totally surprised when the Ambassador himself opens the door in wrinkled khakis that appear to be a size too big, a light brown and stained T shirt, socks on his feet and a rather feathery hairdo that hasn’t seen a comb for a very long time. We have been told that he is sixty eight, but if he is then he has lived a hell of a life.
He invites us in where we meet his partner who has been discreetly waiting out of sight. He too is a surprise. A very handsome young Asian man who appears to be wearing exactly the same pants as the Ambassador. They must have been two for one on the sale rack. They appear too large for the Ambassador but are almost ridiculous on this young man. We are introduced to him as Henry, which I am fairly sure was not the name he was born with.
We are ushered into a huge room that stretches the entire length of the house with a living area at one end and a kitchen and dining area at the other. There are antiques from all over the world on every surface and expensive looking paintings on the wall. The place feels more like a gallery than a home.
We have been walking the city all day and are desperate for a drink. In broken English, the young man asks us what we would like. I am about to reply “something with bubbles” when he explains that the choice is water or Jasmine tea. The fabulosity meter, which has been desperate to make an appearance and was sure that this was going to be the occasion, groans with disappointment and goes into retirement.
At this point I am ready to make the financial transaction and leave, but we have to spend a rather dry two hours before the Ambassador feels it appropriate to mention the distasteful subject of money.
During that time we learn that over the years he has been posted to various embassies throughout the world, and has always managed to acquire a young man from each country to keep him company while he was there. This arrangement had to be an entirely secret one. He had to lead two completely separate lives. In one life his success was dependent on his gentle powers of persuasion, and in the other it was dependent on his genital powers of persuasion. I suspect neither would have been very successful if he wasn’t able to use the title of Ambassador.
His last appointment was in the Far East and as he explains, “ it was there that I found an Asian pearl to bring home”. I am not sure how Henry feels being described in that way, especially as it sounds as if the Ambassador had shucked many oysters before selecting this particular pearl .
With only water to wash them down, the ambassadors’ stories leave a slightly unpleasant taste in our mouths. We are both happy to leave and anxious to find a nice restaurant with a fine selection of wine.
We think the evening can only get better, but little do we know………..