Today we had a very light breakfast at the B&B, as is the style in Argentina. After a morning of trying to catch up on email and blogging, we made ourselves ready and ventured out onto the streets, departing around 11:30AM. The weather was stunning, mid 70s temperature (24C), clear blue skies, white puffy clouds, and light breezes. I had a small amount of ARS, maybe 60 pesos or so, enough for a short cab ride one-way. So I prepared myself with some US dollars, some $20 and some $100 bills. We set out to look for a place to convert our dollars to pesos, having learned from the internet and some locals that there are professional places that operate dolarblue rates, and also some others in the neighborhood. A cab ride to the central place, Calle Florida, would just about use all my ARS, so we decided to walk around and look for a place in the barrio, called Palermo. Advice was to find a small grocery, usually run by Asians, to get dolarblue rates. Being Sunday, the entire city seemed to be shut down. Almost all businesses closed. If you come here, you will find Buenos Aires should have another name, Ciudad en Domingo Cerrado. (City closed on Sunday).
Still there were a handful of small grocers and convenience shops open, and many were staffed by Asians. I was looking for a place that looked to be run by family rather than employees, but none of them stood out. Finally we found one guy, and talked a while in broken Spanglish. When he finally understood, he told us firmly, "Venda, no cambio." (I am a merchant, not a money-changer!) We quickly took our leave, as there is a whole city available with others we could offend. One local guy in a fruit stand told us there could be a place across the street from the Supermercado Disco, a larger grocery that was, in fact, open on Sunday. There was one tiny market open, but not really across from Disco, but there was a large city-style newsstand directly across. The place was busy, and we waited until only the proprietor and one friend/customer remained. Neither spoke English, so we tried the Spanish again, with K taking the lead and/or feeding me words. The man understood, but said the place to go was Calle Florida.
At this point I was really frustrated. Tired, hungry, and with a pocket chock full of theoretical purchasing power that was instead useless. We had tried a couple of restaurants, and neither would take US cash. Lots of places do, but all of those seemed to be en Domingo cerrado (closed on Sunday). I decided to burn the pesos and make my way to Calle Florida, so we asked them to show us on the map. Neither the proprietor or the other lady seemed to be able to do so, preferring to point in a Northeasterly direction. I happened to know it was way too far to walk, so I kept trying to get them to show it on the map. By this time there was a short line of customers, so the man had to attend to business. One well-dressed woman, who was there to buy her Sunday newspaper, had observed the proceedings and asked, "Would it help if someone spoke English?" I replied, "Yes indeed, can you speak English?" "I certainly hope so, " she replied. "I am an English instructor here locally."
As it turns out she lived just around the corner with her husband, who is an engineer for a large firm based in Chicago. She said her husband might be willing to change some money for us, but only at the official rate. I said if he could do $20 that would enable us to buy lunch, and we would be grateful. She led us to the building, a stunning new highrise in Palermo Soho, and went upstairs while we waited in the shade of the sidewalk. She soon reappeared with her husband, and we went through security inside the courtyard and took our seats to discuss business. The man (we never got anybody's names) explained to us slowly in Spanish about the official rate and the dolarblue rates, which he said ranged from 5 to 8 ARS for $1US. While we knew this, it was good to hear in Spanish and from a local. He then told us we could get near 8 if we went to Calle Florida, but that he would do it for us at 7:1. I was shocked, and asked him to repeat. They called their daughter down and she brought a calculator and indeed it was 7:1. I asked if he wanted to do more than US$20. He asked how much and I suggested $100. He seemed quite happy about this, so I said maybe it could be $200. For this he had to consult with his wife, and they agreed, and it was clearly the most they were comfortable with. So I produced two $100 bills (these command a premium in Argentina over smaller denominations) and held them up to the sun so he could see the mylar strip inside. He counted out 1,400 ARS in hundreds back, and I quickly checked the watermarks on them while we both laughed about our "trust but verify" business arrangement. Business concluded, we parted ways, with the couple recommending a restaurant across the street. It was excellent, and since I was now wealthy, we stayed there a couple hours and enjoyed an enormous salad, lasagne, ravioli, a decent Malbec, some cold water, and espresso. It was pretty reasonable, costing about US$22.70 total with tip. Damn, it's nice to be wealthy!
A couple of days later my friend Sebastián told me the common term in Argentina for one of these dolarblue money changers is "arbolito" (little tree). This term made further communications along these lines much simpler and easier. Even so, my "cave man" approach got the job done, eventually.
We walked back to the B&B taking a different route, allowing us to see different businesses that were all closed. An afternoon nap and some relaxation prepared us for the evening ahead.