My friend and dance partner recently told me about her father's job. He drives a taxi. He works 12 hours per day, six days a week. He takes a 3-day vacation every December to visit his mother in Uruguay. This has gone on for thirty years. She thinks he typically takes home about 50-60 pesos (about 17 dollars) in a day. Honestly, I think she is understating his earnings but the ballpark is certainly correct. He rents a small apartment and manages to feed himself and his wife.
His daughter, my friend, works for her aunt making women's clothes. She wants to be a fashion designer, but needs to save money for tuition. She lost her last job because the place, along with her computer, identification papers, and some books, went up in flames. She quit a quality control job before that because they wanted her to lie to clients. She is a bright woman.
Last Friday, she had an interview scheduled for a job as a secretary at a company that makes pipes. The job is 6 hours a day, 6 times a week. To get there, she would need to take 2 busses for more than two hours each way, but it pays about 1600 pesos per month which is more than she currently earns. She holds the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in management from a well-regarded engineering school.
So she left her house almost 3 hours before the interview. At the 2nd bus stop, a driver told her she should take the semi-express, so she waited. After an hour she gave up and re-scheduled the interview.
Over the weekend, she figured it just wasn't worth it. Considering bus fare and the huge waste of time (not to mention that spending that much time on a Buenos Aires bus is a sure way to damage the soul), it would better to keep looking for something closer.
This is part of life in Buenos Aires. There are thousand of restaurants. They have good atmosphere, good food, good coffee at low prices. But they sit in a near-vacant state. The waiters are bored. Most of the local population cannot afford to go out for a simple coffee and croissant. But it is part of the culture, and cultural rigidity is strong here. So they have their "merienda" at home.
The local tango dancers cannot afford to take private lessons - some good ones cost as little as 20 dollars* - because foreigners drive up the prices. On the other hand tango might not even exist here - certainly it would not be as robust - if it weren't for tango tourism.
The state of the restaurant industry is a portent. I believe this place is in transition. The recent economic troubles of the world have made the current economy, depressed as it is, unsustainable. Half or more of these restaurants will be closed 2 years out. What will these people do? I don't know, but I hope something.
I have heard some bad stories about people's experience with taxi drivers, but my experience has been universally positive. I take the bus more often now because I've finally figured out how to use the bus system to my advantage. But for my first 50 or so days here I took taxis often. They are super cheap. Energy is heavily subsidized here, and the drivers don't make much money. So, for example, to take a taxi to and from a milonga (a tango dance) and pay the admission typically costs about 7 or 8 dollars.
The drivers don't get tipped here. Some locals even berate tourists for rounding up a fare payment. But I have found that taxi drivers often tip me. Why? They don't want to, or can't, give coins as change. So if I owe 10.20 I'll give the guy 12 and he'll give me back the 2-peso note rather than make change. Sometimes restaurants tip me as well, and on one occasion I was tipped at the supermarket.
Every taxi driver I've met has been very nice. They know the city, and they give me an excellent opportunity to work on my Spanish. One guy, after hearing that I was learning Spanish, gave me a 10-minute lesson on what seemed like 100 or so vulgar words.
"Soy tu professor," He was very proud.
Another, at 2AM was sure I was going home to get some action. I didn't have the heart to point out that there was no woman next to me in his cab.
I've heard about relatives in New Jersey, the good and bad parts of town, the origins of the songs on the radio, and more than one solution for the swine flu.
The people of Buenos Aires, from what I know, are overwhelmingly nice Sometimes I feel sad about the economic conditions here, but then I feel bad about feeling sad. All the people I know here have lived through markedly better times**, yet they are either happy or they make it their business not to let on otherwise.
So I spend a few minutes now and then, feeling sad or bad, then I go back to my simple life and feel, well, pretty damn good.
*Some bad ones cost $100 or more.
**Some of the tango teachers are definitely making out pretty well, but the physical state of the city they live in is distant from that of their childhood.