Sunday, March 19, 2006

It's Not a Rule, It's More Like a Guideline

Argentines are considered by other Hispanics to be somewhat arrogant. They have a lot to be proud of, with a long history and a rich culture. However, they do demonstrate a disdain for common rules. I witnessed an example of this in the Buenos Aires Zoo, where a man calmly fed pieces of his sandwich to a toucan in a cage, right next to a sign posted on the cage that clearly stated, “Do Not Feed The Animals.” My friend Norberto shrugged and said, “Welcome to Argentina.”

Nowhere is this casual arrogance more obvious than on the roadways. The daily commute is a competitive sport in Argentina, and there is no thrill ride available in any amusement park that can equal the sphincter-clenching terror of a cab ride to the mall.

Lane markings are largely ignored, treated as mere decorations. Stop signs are beneath contempt. In fact, it seems that the vast majority of intersections in Buenos Aires are uncontrolled, possessing neither stop signs nor traffic lights. Busses, trucks, cabs and private vehicles charge into them with apparent disregard for cross-traffic. Parking lanes are used as driving lanes whenever there is a stretch of 5 or more empty parking spaces.

Remarkably, there seem to be few accidents, so it can’t be pure anarchy. I can only attribute this to an informal, unwritten rule structure to which Argentine drivers adhere. For example, if two vehicles are attempting to occupy the same lane, the one who honks his horn first wins. If neither honks, they simply occupy the same lane, mere inches from one another at 50 or 60 miles an hour.

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, full of breathtaking European architecture. But throughout the city, wires are strung willy-nilly from building to building, as though everybody is stealing cable TV from each other.


Argentines, according to Norberto, pay their taxes in an amount corresponding to their belief in the stability of their government. In other words, they seldom pay anything close to the amount they actually owe, which in turn makes the government less stable, which means they pay even less the following year.

On the other hand, the Argentine people are remarkably civilized, lining up in orderly fashion at bus stops, even though bus stops are unmarked in any way. These mysterious locations must be passed on from father to son, mother to daughter.

Restaurant dining is considered serious business, the food is expertly prepared and the waiters are highly professional. However, Argentine diners simply ignore “No Fumare” signs, lighting up cigarettes wherever they damn well please.

Graffiti is just as much of a problem in Argentina as it is in any large city, but it’s almost all political. Because political parties are organized, Argentine graffiti is painted by professional sign-painters. They do a very nice job, considering the fact that they’re defacing private property. The graffiti is like a metaphor for the Argentines themselves: Elegant, professional, but in your face whether you like it or not.

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