For anyone walking down Florida or Lavalle street in Buenos Aires. Apart from the nonsensical building works that necessitated the gutting of the pedestrian roads, leaving a thin suffocating obstacle course for people to walk down, the most noticeable thing is the sound of ‘cambio, cambio, cambio, dollares, dollares, euros, cambio, cambio’. The sound is usually high-pitched, thin and nasal, and comes out in a pleasingly melodic spurt, like retarded birdsong.
An Argentine once told me that these people are called ‘arbolitos’, which I thought was a rather fitting description. Like little trees they are usually short, and they almost never move. You can walk to the exact same corner you passed three months earlier and find exactly the same bald man wearing exactly the same long jacket, the one clearly inspired by British gangster films.
Changing money on the black market is always going to make you feel nervous. You are doing something which is technically illegal. But if you’re a tourist are you’re only going to be in Argentina for a short time then you simply have to exchange dollars; if you don’t then you’ll lose a lot of money. At the time of writing the official rate is 5.53 AR to $1 US. And the so-called ‘blue dollar’ – what you get on the black market – is 8.56 AR to $1 US. When I exchanged money for my parents back in March the difference was even greater (official: 5.05 AR / blue: 9.45).
Keeping in mind all the tips I’d learned in my youth from books written by ex-SAS soldiers (if you think you’re being followed pretend to do your shoes laces and have a look around, or walk twice around the same block, or disappear into a large crowd, etc.), I stepped onto Florida street with my money belt stuffed down my trousers and nothing else. Every few steps I’d check over my shoulder, and when I walked past a policeman I’d suddenly become nonchalance personified, sometimes even catching his eye as if to say ‘Hey, I’m just a tourist walking around Centro, nothing suspicious here’.
I passed around six money-changers, waiting for the perfect spot (near an indoor shopping centre where I knew there’d be a higher chance of there being a professional-seeming blue light to check if the notes are real) but found myself asking the ‘tasa de cambio’ (exchange rate) from a the first woman money-changer I’d come across, naively thinking that a woman would be less likely to rob me than a man (well, it’s statistically true). We agreed on a rate after the following round of hard bargaining:
Me: Tengo dolares. Qué es la tasa de cambio?
Her: Ocho punto seis.
Me: Bueno, vamos.
She led me to a newspaper kiosko, like a green box in the middle of the street. She shouted to a man inside the kiosko and pushed me in. This wasn’t a professional-seeming shop safe in the basement of an indoor shopping centre. Bugger. I looked out to the street and tried to express my alarm to the man now fingering large wads of 100 peso notes so that he might calm me with some soothing words. Alas, he didn’t care. Out came a calculator and he did the sum and then showed me the result. Unfortunately he’d typed in 8.5 instead of 8.6 and so I encouraged him to do the sum again. He apologised, laughing it off as if it was a silly mistake and not something he did every single time, and then I checked the sum myself.
Once I had the pesos in my hand I spent an age checking the notes, trying to remember what someone had told me about fake notes: they’re smaller? they’re made out of normal paper? instead of Roca they have Thatcher’s face on them? The numbers on the corner of one note went horizontally rather vertically – this must be fake. But then another note was the same, and another. I asked him about it and he reassured me by saying that he’s not going to rip me off because then I’d never come back. Hmm, a good argument, and after thanking him I left, taking a circuitous route back to the Catedral Subte stop which included doing my shoe laces twice and walking in a circle once. No-one followed me.
Two weeks later I returned to the same woman and found that the rate had jumped to 9.45 pesos for a dollar. Without bothering to bargain (again) I followed her to the green newspaper kiosk and greeted my old friend. That time I didn’t check every note, and I walked straight to the Subte stop without pretending to do up my laces.